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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Yoga is not relaxing

A couple of weeks ago, I joined the Asana Junkies practice group with one of my favorite yoga teachers and writers, Christina Sell.  Every week, Christina gives us a new sequence, and hosts a webinar to discuss our experience with practicing that sequence and provides an open forum for discussion.

Dudes, these sequences are hard. 

Like, really hard.

Not because they involve crazy advanced poses, but because they challenge your stamina and willpower by asking you to hold postures for a really long-ass time.  Just to give you an idea, the first week's sequence started out with a 5-minute headstand, four 1-minute handstands, and there are ten backbends.  Ten.  Five urdhva dhanurasanas and five dwi pada viparitta dandasanas, one minute each.

Urdhva Dhanurasana

dwi pada viparitta dhandasana
( I'm working it with bent legs similar to Urdhva. 
None of this straight legs nonsense)

While attempting to practice this sequence, I learned a number of things:
  • What I think is one minute, is actually about 20 seconds
  • The above statement is especially true in pavritta trikonasana
  • I cannot do four 1-minute handstands in a row
  • But, I can rock a 5 minute headstand
  • Pinca Mayurasana is still really, really hard
Most importantly, though, I learned what happens when you push through the point when you would normally give up.  And then you push through it again.  And again.  And over and over for 2 hours.  The thing is, if you stay in the pose long enough there's sometimes this moment of transformation, like breaking through a wall, and you discover a whole new depth to a pose you thought you already knew.

In a related story, I feel like there's this myth that doing yoga is basically stretching while listening to relaxing music and feeling blissed out.  I know this misconception exists, because while leaving class I have occasionally heard gripes such as "Um, that was NOT relaxing"  - the implication being that hey, I thought yoga was all peaceful but that was REALLY HARD and I kind of just wanted to do tree pose and you made me do all of this difficult shit and now I am PISSED.

I'm not sure how this myth got started exactly, because on what planet is this supposed to be relaxing:

Sure, BKS Iyengar...sure.

I think it might have something to do with the numerous articles asserting that yoga is some miracle cure that will magically relieve stress and anxiety, quiet your mind, and focus your energy.

[quick aside - for the next couple of paragraphs I'm going to use the word "Yoga" when what I really mean is Asana.  I think when most people think of Yoga, they think of Asana practice and I realize the two are not interchangable but that's how we're going to roll for a few minutes]

Yoga does do these things - not because it is inherently relaxing, but because it is inherently stressful.  Balancing upside down on your head is not relaxing.  Twisting into a pretzel is not relaxing.  The mental benefits are derived from working to stay calm and centered while in these difficult positions. 

Think about it.  It doesn't make sense to think that we could learn to manage stress by staying relaxed in a comfortable situation. In order to grow in our capacity to stay grounded in stressful situations, we have to practice...staying grounded in stressful situations.

I recently came across this Psychology Today article, which explains how we form new neural pathways by re-training our brain.  The fight or flight response is somewhat innate, but it can be changed by the repeated action of a new response.  Learning to breathe deeply and quiet your mind while sitting on your couch watching The Bachelor is very different than learning to breathe deeply and quiet your mind while you are twisted into a pretzel and hovering over the floor.

A few weeks ago, I heard a story on NPR about the different ways in which Asian and U.S. cultures approach the experience of struggle and challenge.  In the U.S., we see struggle as a sign of low intelligence, and assume that being smart means you will "get it" right away.  In Asian cultures, struggling is seen as a sign of mental fortitutde.
"In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it's just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle."
When my husband comes home after a day of work with yet another story of a student who didn't hand in his or her work because they "couldn't do it," my immediate reaction is usually "bah, kids these days don't understand responsibility, no work ethic blah blah blah..."

But what if what we're seeing isn't laziness or lack of accountability, but instead the natural result of a culture that has stopped teaching our children that it's OK to struggle?  That writes people off if they do not immediately grasp a concept or produce a deliverable the right way?  I've seen this happen both at school and at work, and it is so unfortunate, because the people who have to work the hardest to get where they need to be, often end up being just as good if not better than those who 'get it' right away. 

Not to generalize (ok, that was a lie I am totally generalizing), but we are a nation that looks for easy fixes to our problems.  Exercise that doesn't make you tired, diets where you can eat whatever you want, and I think it's given us the impression that nothing should be hard and if it is, you're just not good at it or you're doing it wrong.

Just to bring everything full circle, yoga can teach us how to struggle skillfully.  It puts us in a place that is not comfortable, and then challenges us to work through that feeling.  By repeating this process, we can literally re-wire our brain to respond differently under stress.

Yes, you can absolutely go to a very meditative place while practicing asana - I can and often do. But the path to getting to that place is not always smooth, and you can't expect to get there every single time. Sometimes you feel blissful, and sometimes you are yelling expliatives at Elena Brower during a Yogaglo webcast while she makes you hold ardha chandrasana for a thousand years. Such is life.

Yoga is not not a magical cure-all. Just like any effort that fosters growth and transformation, it is not easy.  It's not supposed to be easy. The poses are just poses - if you want yoga to change your life, you have to do the work.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Work is ridiculous

So, I've started re-watching the X-Files with Ben.  Just to give you some context, I was mildly obsessed with the X-Files in middle and high school.  And by 'mildly obsessed' I mean I put X's on all of the file cabinets in my parents' home office, and made my parents take us to Roswell New Mexico as part of a family vacation.  So, that was a thing that happened.

Anyway, this has led me to the amazing and slightly insane world of X-Files Tumblrs, which has in turn led me to this:


And also this:

I'd forgotten how much I love that show.  Moving on...

So work.  Occasionally when you work for a company that is literally the size of a small country, you realize that nobody really knows what anyone else is doing, or even what they themselves are doing.  When you encounter this in the normal course of doing your job, it sometimes makes you want to sink into a hole of infinite despair from which you will never emerge.

The following story is based on true events - and by based on, I mean they actually are true events.  To avoid discussing the exact nature of the project, I have changed the names of people involved to the names of my pets, and made the entire thing an analogy about pie.  It will still make sense, I promise.  Maybe.

For reasons of...a story that is too long and boring to be repeated in this blog, I recently offered my assistance to another team's project.  Basically they needed some extra manpower, their project is related to my area of expertise and I decided to be helpful.  Let's call this project "Pies."  Essentially, I am documenting how all of the pies are made -ingredients, baking temperature, process, etc, so we can prioritize them for baking.  If I realize a pie is terrible and/or expensive to make, or no one likes it, then we de-prioritize the pie.  If the pie is pretty good, then I will thoroughly document the 'recipe' for said pie(shockingly, this documentation does not already exist...I know...).

Guiding me in my efforts is a spreadsheet made about one year ago, by someone who is no longer with the organization.  It lists the name of the pie, a couple of generic facts about the pie, and the approximate number of people who eat that pie on a yearly basis.

Most of the time, this is not an issue.  I can usually track down at least one person involved in the makiing of the pie in question, that person helps me track down everyone else, and after a few hours of conversation we are good to go.  Sometimes the pie is very complex and we run into difficulties, but basically everyone is on the same page and knows what everyone else is talking about.


Last week I began working on...let's call it the Pumpkin Pie...and this is what happened.

I wrote to a colleague, let's call her 'Maggie', whose name had been given to me in conjunction with the Pumpkin Pie.  At first she was confused and thought I was talking about a different pumpkin pie.  I tried to describe the pie using the vague descriptors I had been given, and finally she said "Oh, sure the Pumpkin Pie!  Now I know what you're talking about.  You'll want to talk to Sidney and Mini."

So I set up a call with Sidney and Mini, feeling like I was on the right track. 


Here's how that conversation went:
Me: So, I need to learn how the Pumpkin Pie is made, and Maggie gave me your names in connection with the pie.
Sidney: ...what is the pumpkin pie?
Me: is a pie...made of pumpkin.  It's um, roundish, and it has a crust...
Mini: What kind of crust?  Whole wheat or white?
Sidney: Do you know what the ingredients are?  Is there cinnamon, or nutmeg?
Me: I have no idea.  That's why I set up this call, I was hoping you could tell me.
Mini: Is this the pecan pumpkin pie, or the pumpkin cream cheese pie?
Me:...there's more than one kind?

We went on like this for almost 30 minutes before I realized I was going to have to go back to Maggie for more information.  So, I emailed her again.

"Hey Maggie," I said.  "I met with Sidney and Mini regarding the Pumpkin Pie, and they need more context.  Do you know what kind of crust is used?  Does the name 'Pumpkin Pie' encompass all pies made from pumpkin, or does it refer to a specific type?"

I was very careful to repeat Sidney and Mini's questions verbatim, because sometimes if I try to paraphrase without really understanding what I'm talking about, I end up asking a question that makes no sense. 

Two days go by, no response from Maggie.  So I email her again, just to follow up on my previous note.

Another day goes by.  Finally, I get an IM from my colleague Sierra, who sits near Maggie.

"Maggie does not understand your question."

I actually facepalmed.

I did follow back up with Maggie, only to find out that when she said "Now I know what you're talking about," she did not, in fact, have any idea what I was talking about.  Basically, we are all working on the Pumpkin Pie because it ended up on a spreadsheet 12 months ago, and was somehow prioritized despite the fact that nobody knows what it actually is.  We soon realized that the Pumpkin Pie does not actually exist.

What even....I can't.  I just cannot.

Anywhoo - in my continuing efforts to bite off way more than I can chew, I decided to join both Christina Sell's Asana Junkies Practice club, and also a book club on Goodreads that's reading Proust's In Search of Lost Time in its entirety.  Obviously I am not going to give up my other books, or my other yoga classes, so 2013 should prove to be an interesting year.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Holiday Recap Part 1!

Happy 2013 everyone!  Right now, I'm curled up on my couch with a cupcake, my dog and some cheesy TV shows while Ben is out with co-workers and I have a rare night to myself.  I guess I have a lot to catch up on, since apparently I haven't blogged in over a month...oops...

Without further we go!

A few weeks ago, we have our first snowfall of the season and it was a doozy - at least a foot and a half of white stuff covering the ground, keeping the riff raff off the streets.  Well, most of the riff raff at least.  Ben and I decided to take Sidney out for a walk in the middle of the blizzard, and Sidney in the snow is always entertaining.  Observe:

Pleaz for 2 run??

Rabbit ears :)


The weekend of the 15th, my parents and I flew to Chicago to visit my sister as she finished up her first semester of grad school!  We had three days of fun galavanting about the city, and I even got to see a few old friends.  I met up with my friend Katie and some of her Chicago friends for dinner at Owen and Engine, where I had a scotch and the greatest hamburger of my life.

Afterwards, we went to see The Hobbit starring my fave Martin Freeman!  Unfortunately, the movie didn't quite live up to my *extremely* high expectations.  I won't go into too much detail because I have an entire blog post planned on the subject, but for now I'll just say that even though I love Martin Freeman, and I love LOTR, The Hobbit had some serious flaws.  But it was still enjoyable and we had a great time!

Dinner after arriving in the city

Chicago Christmas Market!

Also Christmas Market

Dinner with the fam at the Walnut Room

Owen and Engine - where I had dinner with Katie and some of her Chicago friends.
HIGHLY recommended.
Obviously I ordered a scotch.
The Hobbit!  Yay Martin Freeman

My absolute favorite part of the holidays is the arrival of out of town friends!  My friend Ellen flew home from Stanford for Christmas and we got to spend some quality time catching up and watching Harry Potter movies.  We also attended a fun party at Tessa's parents' house - last year my camera erased all of my pics from Tessa's party, forcing me to recreate them using stick figures, but this year I have actual photos!
Julianna, me and El - slightly blurry

Also, this happened
Delicious treats

friendly friends

Lovely cookies from Patisserie 46

Yay friends

Well, I'll leave it there for now and hopefully do some more catching up in a couple of days.  Hope you all had a wonderful holiday(s)!

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