Have you never been mellow?

As a yoga teacher, I’ve encountered my share of inelastic body parts. ‘Oh, no, my body doesn’t go that way,’ people say. Hamstrings are tight; hips are stuck. The tin man would feel willowy. There’s inelastic minds, too. ‘Yoga is for double-jointed circus people,’ a skeptical student once advised. He added, ‘Not single-jointed desk jockeys like me.’ Well. I suppose it depends on the desk jockey.

Here’s the thing. In 1975, Olivia Newton John posed an important question. Have you never been mellow?

Whether your restriction is physical or emotional, you got to get mellow before change happens. You got to shoo the tension out of you– like the Pied Piper relocated rats (or children, who can also be very stressful and dirty)– so the space left can get healthy again.

Sometimes, unfortunately, yoga misses the boat on relaxation. Despite all the talk about letting go and breathing deep, I’ve experienced more than a few classes that leave me as wound up as a circus person assigned to a desk job. My energy increases until it’s almost atmospheric. I roll up my mat feeling like I’ve layered magma on top of jet fuel over candy. I’m about to ignite and it’s going to be sticky. And that’s when I know: I did a Type-A practice on a Type-A day. I have so much Type-A going on that nothing less than controlling the world will do. Which is a condition that no one else in the world should have to bear. After all, the world is for sharing.

Which leads me to a suggestion for all of us. To ingratiate myself with the yoga superfans out there, I concede that yoga, properly contemplated and mindfully performed, can do no wrong. But part of the problem these days is the lack of contemplation and mindful performance. So how about this? What if we all got a little mellow about our practice and slowed it down? What if we modified it on Type-A days so our magma doesn’t blow a gasket? Or even acknowledged that we’ve been having Type-A days for years and we could stand a few weeks of restorative poses to find the ground beneath us. Try some forward bends with long, extended exhales. Try a practice without a single standing pose. Gasp. This is where the elastic mind comes in. It withstands the settling of the sand. And the clarity that follows.

I base my practice and my teaching on building sustainable strength and movement by releasing tension. I teach Slow Yoga so my students can actually connect to their breath, and then feel the difference in movement when the body moves from a place of calm. From here, I think we find our true integrity. It is not just becoming upright, but doing so in a way that will endure whatever decent, right and awesome act we pursue.

It’s not a new idea. Massage therapists have known for a while that clients on the table gain range of motion when they settle into their relaxation response. I occasionally have massage clients who complain of shoulder stiffness, climb on the table, breathe a few times, and can’t remember which side hurts. And other yoga teachers and researchers are finding that increasing flexibility requires a nervous system that’s prepared to allow a change in the movement patterns it’s come to rely on. There’s a growing chorus of folks out there preaching the mellow. May we all bless St. ONJ for her early prescription.

We find our calm, and clarity follows. We find clarity and gain our strength. It is built from a flexible foundation that allows for all of our dynamics. This, like a good earthquake retrofit, will keep us from falling apart when we shake ourselves up. It keeps us from stacking rigidity on rigidity, stress upon stress, magma over jet fuel.

So sing with me: Have you never been mellow? Give it a try and see just how elastic you can be as a strong, calm person.

 

What is your body telling you?

A conversation with a client over the weekend, followed by a spill off the sidewalk, has me thinking about the funny ways our bodies call for change. And the anxious rebellion our mind wages to ignore the call: ‘I have no time for this.’ ‘I don’t slow down.’ ‘I can handle it.’ We are our own worst insurgents. Eventually, if we ignore our bodies long enough, we’ll be at war… with depression, or disease, or that intransigent grandmaster of fate– death, itself.

Contrary to popular belief, it is no great weakness to acknowledge that the rat race isn’t for humans. (It isn’t for rats, either, a sad fact proven again and again by scientists who put rats into stressful situations and then watch them crap out.)

But what to do, what to do? In justifying her reluctance to save herself, my client ducked into a blackhole of excuses– schedule, family expectations, future anxiety, paralyzing fear– before she said, ‘I mean, it’s amazing I’m even here for this massage.’ Which, I assured her, is a huge accomplishment. And a great step. And something that sends a telegram to her body that says, ‘I hear you, you wondrous strapping beast.’ It’s like that kindness you get from a stranger that reminds you that we’re all capable of loving and being loved.

It’s also the case, however, that the kindness of strangers might exceed the favor we show ourselves when we spiral into that black hole. My client, fortunately, had someone push her into her massage. Literally, with two hands. The thing is, the psychological stress that spins us– that some of us would say sustains us– is a relatively new phenomenon when you consider the time it took our animal kingdom to get around to crowning us. Old school homo sapiens might have suffered physical crises– running from predators, overcoming famine or bacterial infection– but their helplessness didn’t present the same sort of absurdities as comes with a showdown with your insurer or the DMV or the IRS. Fifty thousand years ago, no one was zooming at 80mph when someone decided to cut them off before slamming on the brakes. No one was ingratiating themselves to a grumpy customer so a middle manager in Houston would approve a paltry bonus. The bank didn’t even exist to call a loan on our cave sweet cave. Despite our apparent freedoms, our orbits expand and contract at the whim of forces beyond us. If we let them.

These stressors are not only ubiquitous– in the air as surely as particulate matter and dandelion kites– they’re insidious. They challenge our hearts, our nerves, our lungs, our adrenals and our tummies– the whole of our physiology.  Under stress, our bodies careen to their edge, get taut like wire. Maybe they fray; maybe they snap. And while old school stressors– predators and drought– eventually tired or ended, new school stress doesn’t seem to tire. It keeps pinching our shoulders like that crappy alcoholic uncle. Which means our bodies never find a quiet moment to activate their magical mechanics of restoration and repair.

Enter our big, evolving brains. The smarts that come up with dumb ideas like for-profit health care can be put to use devising ways to see beyond for-profit health care. Or the inequities of the tax code. Or the sour relationship you have with your neighbor. Our big brains, with a little work and a lot of detachment, can help our bodies find ease. So offer yourself time to relax– a massage or a series of Slow Yoga classes is a good way to start. An evening walk away from a screen is great. A day spent in shade at the park. A morning reading poetry. Plant a garden, deep breathe, hold someone’s hand.

You have more control than you might think, and your control is pretty absolute. This is your life to manage. Act appropriately.

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Relax and restore

On Sundays, choose to rest. Notice that I’m reminding you of your choice in the matter?

Here’s what happens when we rest: the body grows calm and the mind becomes quiet; the mind becomes quiet and the heart begins to speak. I’m not trying to get woo-woo on you here, but I am suggesting that the heart has a vote in the way you live your life. Which means you might occasionally give it a chance to weigh in on things. Maybe it wants to hear from an old friend. Maybe it wants a garden. What is your heart telling you? How good would it feel to follow its wisdom?

What else happens when you let yourself relax? Usually, pain decreases. This is because relaxation and pain are conflicting states. Daniel Rockers, psychologist and director of the Pain Clinic at my alma mater, UC Davis, says ‘relaxation and pain… don’t usually co-exist.  Good centering or balancing mechanisms … can help lower tension.’  Want to find a good centering or balancing mechanism? How about a hammock? Or an hour of Slow Yoga? Or a massage?

Even easier: mindful breathing for ten minutes.  You’ve probably felt the panic that comes when you hold your breath for any length of time. That’s your body’s alarm going berserk because it’s not sure what you’re up to. That alarm is the same that rings when you’re frightened, stressed or anxious. Long, controlled, easy breathing pulled deep into your abdomen turns off the alarm, soothing the body and the mind, leaving you calm and relaxed. Ta-da!

So take a moment today and relax. If anyone asks you what you’re up to, tell them you’re investigating a balancing mechanism. This will make you seem like a very productive inventor who is discovering the next big thing. Which, in fact, you are.