Nature Hates a Vacuum

Nature hates a vacuum. This was the very first lesson I remember learning in my physical sciences class as a kid, and that lesson has stuck with me ever since. In fact, I see this lesson being demonstrated over and over again all around me.

 

Whether it is water filling a hole in the ground, blowing up a balloon and letting it go to fly around or the weather, nature always seeks a balance. Water rushes around and levels itself off. High and low pressure systems move across the globe either pushing out existing weather, or pulling it in. Nature just “knows” that seeking equilibrium keeps the world moving smoothly.

Image courtesy of seeker9.com

Image courtesy of seeker9.com

 

Nature likes balance and we are a product of nature. When we chase after some new fad or some extreme fast/instant change, we can throw ourselves out of balance. And when we are out of balance with ourselves, we are out of balance with nature and everyone around us.

 

Today’s example for this post centers on chasing fads. Whether it’s the next super food, the next ab ripping 5 second work out or how to get the perfect mate, there’s so much being thrown at us in a truncated form that it is easy to be taken out of context. And that is where we run the risk of getting thrown out of balance; when things are taken out of context or with incomplete information. Ironically, this is the norm in today’s information overloaded world.

 

 

 

 

 

Nature seeks balance; even in nature too much of a good thing is bad. Trees convert carbon dioxide to oxygen.  That’s good. More trees produce more oxygen. That also sounds good. But too many trees eventually lead to forestation that is too dense to support healthy trees. This results in weak trees that spend more energy fighting for survival, nutrients and resources than they do converting CO2 to O2.

Image courtesy of Mikenorton; Rainforest canopy at the Forestry

Image courtesy of Mikenorton; Rainforest canopy at the Forestry

 

The same is true with humans. We’re like the forest. For us to prosper and grow, we need to maintain a healthy balance within so that we don’t end up clogging our energy and limiting our own growth. An excessive desire to acquire or achieve something (money, sex, my personal favorite, “enlightenment”) will eventually lead to a path of cutting out opportunities for true growth in favor of the focused, exclusive pursuit material or ego based desires. This can include cutting out our support networks of friends and family.

 

 

 

 

 

This isn’t to say that desires or goals are bad, they certainly aren’t. It’s focusing on them in such a narrowed fashion to the exclusion of everything else that becomes potentially unbalancing. I’m not talking about the type of drive where someone pushes through the naysayers to accomplish something fantastic or a life’s dream. What I am talking about is the chasing of the latest sparkly thing. Kale is a super food. Now every meal I eat has kale in it. Now the super food is coconut oil so every meal must have coconut oil in it and all the kale gets pitched out.

Image courtesy of creoleindc.typepad.com.

Image courtesy of creoleindc.typepad.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For me, the key to balance (and therefore a bit of harmony) is moderation, acceptance and the occasional splurge. I think of it like this;

 

Image courtesy of NASA

Image courtesy of NASA

I am standing in the middle of a massive tornado with everything flying around me at break neck speed. If I move toward any of those things flying around me (people, food, pleasure, desires, etc.) I risk getting pulled into the twister where I get tossed and whirled around until it spits me out. Staying centered doesn’t mean staying in one spot. The winds are dynamic and ever changing, as are the forces and desires in our lives. To stay centered sometimes means having to move off center in one direction to avoid getting pulled too far in another. You know, to balance things out.

 

 

 

 

 

Realizing that, and accepting it without judgment, is one of the most difficult lessons I’m learning. This is also where, from my observations/experience, people tend to go awry. Sometimes the seeking of balance and only balance keeps someone rooted where they are, and when the “winds of change” sweep in, they get swept away.

 

The opposite also happens quite often. In trying to always remain centered, there is so much “motion” and adjustment that there is never any time allowed for settling. I tried this approach, and it really didn’t work for me. In fact, that was a period of time where I was most out of balance with myself, those around me and the world at large. I was so busy trying to be all “Zen” and balanced, I missed the whole point of harmony and balance.

 

How you find balance is a whole world of self-discovery, self-observation (compassionately), and a lot of trial and error. For me, the journey hasn’t always been easy, but it’s been very worthwhile. I believe that when in balance with yourself, you can be in balance with others and the universe.

Image courtesy of David Flowers

Image courtesy of David Flowers

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Essential Tips for Beginning Yoga Students

Yoga can be intimidating. Walk in to a class filled with bendy, twisty, super in shape people with designer clothes, personalized mats and a language of their own. Throw in the Sanskrit, chanting and occasional harmonium and it can feel like walking into an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Image courtesy of wisdomquarterly.blogspot.com.

Image courtesy of wisdomquarterly.blogspot.com.

 

My first few yoga classes were unsettling to say the least. Incense, strange musical instruments (the harmonium), lots of Sanskrit chanting and a little bit of over-sharing were what met me. But with some encouragement, I kept going back and today, I’m comfortable in that environment, chanting, Sanskrit over-sharing and all, even if I don’t always participate.

 

I thought about what might have made my entrance into this world a little less traumatizing, and I’ve written a brief Beginner’s Guide to Yoga to (hopefully) help others with the transition. I’ve broken this down into three sections; Entering the class, During the class and Leaving the class.

 

 

Entering the class

  1. The Yoga teacher will be friendly; genuinely friendly, it isn’t a mugging or a con.
  2. The funny smell tickling your nose is incense, it’s supposed to calm your energy; it still makes me sneeze.
  3. The front of the room is for the people who want to be seen typically; beginners are better off moving to the sides; it’s a great vantage point and the whole class won’t be looking at your butt.

    Image courtesy of NazarethCollege    / Flickr.

    Image courtesy of NazarethCollege / Flickr.

  4. Grab props (blocks and a blanket especially) if available, and if the teacher recommends anything else, grab that too; props are your friend.
  5. Introduce yourself to anyone who isn’t meditating or face down in some odd looking stretch. This is a community environment (most of the time).
  6. Don’t take it personally if someone you try to strike up a conversation with ignores you; Namaste!

 

 

 

 

During the class

  1. Don’t compare yourself to others in the class – some of them have been going for years, and looking around to see who is better is just going to distract from the purpose of yoga, being in the present.

    Image courtesy of shootingafly.blogspot.com.

    Image courtesy of shootingafly.blogspot.com.

  2. Be kind to yourself – yoga can be challenging, both physically and emotionally, accepting that every day is different and working to your best for that day is the best thing you can accomplish.
  3. Leave the outside world outside the door – for whatever time there is in class, forget the outside world and connect with yourself.
  4. Don’t worry about the sanskrit or the chanting – whether you choose to learn the sanskrit or develop/have an interest in chanting, neither is required for yoga.
  5. Yoga (unless otherwise stated in the class description) isn’t religiously affiliated. It promotes good, nice, friendly things (except for that person that ignored you in #6 above); you are not required to shave your head, get an Om tattoo or anything else that doesn’t feel comfortable.
  6. Be prepared to sweat. Yoga is hard work and uses muscles most beginners either forgot or didn’t know they had in the first place.

 

After the class

  1. Give yourself a minute before jumping up and running out. The first few classes can be very tough, and a good savasana can make you loopy in the head.
  2. Talk a moment and talk to the instructor; especially if the class felt comfortable to you. Learn to tell what makes a good class for you so you can find others like it. It’s also good to occasionally experience classes you don’t feel so good about so you know what to avoid.
  3. Ask questions about the teacher, the studio and other classes. Especially if you liked the class and the feel of the studio.
  4. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Water is your friend, especially if it’s a hot yoga class.
  5. Be ready to be a little sore later.
  6. Don’t take it too seriously – yoga is about personal growth and improvement. The most authentic and wisest people are also the funniest in my opinion. Laugh at yourself, laugh for no reason, laugh when you fall and laugh when you soar. Like Om, laughter is a universal sound. You don’t believe me; try not laughing when a baby starts giggling uncontrollably.

 

Yoga is different from other forms of exercise in many ways. It also has a number of similarities. My best recommendation is to go in with an open mind, ignore whatever is just too weird at the moment, be kind to yourself during the class and have fun. Worst case, someone looks at you like you are a barbarian because you eat meat. Best case, you find a new fun way to build your mind, body and spirit and quite possibly, make a new friend.

By MIT-Libraries [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Flickr

By MIT-Libraries [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fear of the unknown is a terrible reason not to do something. Not liking it after you’ve tried it is perfectly fine; you tried it. I have yet to find a yoga studio that kidnaps innocents out of the classes for brainwashing and robe fittings; at least they don’t do it on the first day. So try it out. You might just like it.

Yoga Postures for Men; Chatarunga

When I first started yoga I did a lot of Vinyasa flow type yoga. Inevitably there is a series where I start in Down Dog and move through Plank – Chatarunga – Up Dog back to Down Dog. It wasn’t until I went through my yoga teacher training that I began to understand that Chatarunga was an actual posture separate from Up Dog.

 

In taking the time to break down the posture, I came to understand why it is often rushed through in most yoga classes; it’s a challenging posture. By challenging, I mean mentally as well as physically.

 

The first thing to understand is that Chatarunga is not a push-up. I love push-ups, but the physical alignment is a little different and the tempo and breathing are (typically) different. This change in tempo (much slower in theory) and the precision of the posture can increase the resistance to this posture.

 

Yoga (1 of 6)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first step is to start in a good plank. Shoulders over the wrist, long back, extending through the crown of the head and the heels in opposite directions and engage the abs.

 

Yoga (2 of 6)

 

 

 

 

 

 

You want to avoid moving straight down like a push up or “dropping” down as I have been queued on multiple occasions.  You also want to avoid any drooping or mountain butt posture.

 

Yoga (6 of 6)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Instead shift your body forward so the shoulders move slightly past the palms.

 

Yoga (4 of 6)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coordinating your breath, exhale and slowly lower your body toward the ground. Stop lowering when your triceps become parallel to the ground (avoid the chest bump on the mat).

 

Yoga (5 of 6)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inhale and slow push back up to plank or push back to downward dog.

 

Yoga (2 of 6)

 

 

 

 

 

Slowing this posture down and recognizing it as a posture of its own is the first step to discovering a fantastically challenging, dynamic and versatile pose. As you play with this asana, you’ll find it fits into a great many places in a flow and the challenges it offers and the work it does to help the body and mind make it irresistible.

 

If you would like to share your experiences, I encourage you to leave comments here.

 

 

Why Might Yoga Be Good for Men?

Article after article in magazines and papers (and blogs) too numerous to count have tout the virtues and benefits of yoga.  And they are indeed correct about all those benefits.  But I wanted to boil it down a bit and just focus on some of the benefits for men specifically.

 

Flexibility

cartoonbigguyyoga

I have found that most men at least start yoga because they do other sports and want to improve their flexibility.  The great part about using yoga to increase flexibility is that it is done while building strength and muscular endurance.  So not only are you limbering up, you are also adding a strength building workout into your routine.

 

Cross-training

Bench_press

While not generally a cardio workout, yoga is a fantastic muscle builder.  In less flow based practices where the asana (postures) are held for a period of time, the strength building potential is through the roof.  Isometric exercises have well documented benefits as a low impact strength builder.  These are great for recovery from injuries, recovery day workouts and strength building when you can’t get work in a weight lifting session.

 

 

New muscle groups

stretching

Yoga is designed to help us move within the full range of our body’s motion.  What does that mean?  Modern society has contrived to put us all in boxes (cubicles, train seats, car seats, plane seats and so many more) which limit our motion.  Having a steady yoga practice gives us the space to come out of those boxes and find all sorts of new muscles and ways of moving our bodies that can be both infinitely painful and glorious at the same time.

 

 

Core, core, core

from thebodymen.blogspot.com

from thebodymen.blogspot.com

The center piece of muscle groups and whole body health, the core, is strengthened, stretched and toned in essentially every yoga posture.  Aside from the benefits of a stronger core for health and fitness, let’s face it, no one minds having a toned stomach.  Yes, it’s a tad shallow, but that makes it no less true for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I do have one more *possible* benefit for men to take up yoga.  Our significant others (S.O.).  If you aren’t into yoga and your S.O. is, then taking a class now and again with them is a nice set of points to bank and a great way to bond.  I emphasized the ‘possible’ above because this is predicated on you actually wanting to spend time with them.

by racheldragonfly

by racheldragonfly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yoga is something that can be done almost anywhere at almost any time.  You just need a little space.  I encourage you to take a handful of your favorite postures and play with them in ways and places that are not “normal” for your practice (think Warrior 2 in a server room or Tree in your office while you are on a conference call).  And if you don’t have a practice (yet), take a few classes, pick a few postures that you enjoy and play with them.

yogaserverroom

Men, Yoga and Props

messy yogaWhen I first started yoga, props were one of the things that frustrated me the most.  Like many men (and I am sure no shortage of women as well), I viewed props as some sort of crutch or sign that I wasn’t good/strong/flexible enough to do a posture on my own.  In fact, it wasn’t until I started my yoga teacher training that I realized that props were not my enemy, were not a sign of weakness, but a tool to help move me into a better yoga experience.

I bring this up because this morning I was moving through some postures on my own.  Out of habit now, I pull out a couple of blocks and keep them close at hand.  And as I was moving through my series, I noticed how and when I used the blocks, and the difference in sensations between when I did and didn’t use them.

What I noticed was that when I didn’t use props, I wasn’t able to be present in the yoga experience.  I struggled with physical alignment and/or pain, emotional tension around how I was doing and why I couldn’t do it better and mental stress over my physical and emotional distractions.  This led me to a less balanced practice.

As I began to get comfortable with props and introduced them into my own practice and later started using them in group classes, I noticed that my movement and comfort into and out of postures was much better.  As my physical discomfort diminished, my emotional and mental stress decreased and I was more open to the benefits of yoga.

What I have come to understand is that props are helpful.  And with all things, different teachers have different strengths when teaching.  Some are masters of the verbal queue, others offer the best assists and yes, some are amazing at offering prop options; both for the physical alignment benefits and also in a way that puts students at ease enough to reach for the prop.

But not everyone is strong in that area.  So it is up to us, the students, to be comfortable with our own use of props.  Use of the props is a tool to help us overcome a variety of challenges.

These challenges can range from proportional issues (I have T-Rex arms – that is my arms are shorter than my body, so that when I sit with my arms fully extended, my hands will just touch the floor), to injuries (I have had a shoulder dislocated 3 times; I have a great grasp on one side for Gomukhasana, but on the other side, I am a full block apart) to being new to a posture.  Props are a great way to adjust alignment for new or challenging postures.

The options are ours as the student.  Take and use the props.  It isn’t a sign of weakness or shortcoming, but a sign of knowing oneself and being present in your practice.  I have short arms; some postures don’t work for me without a block.  Nothing is ever going to change that, as I am done growing.  If props aren’t offered, feel in your own body what isn’t working, grab the most likely prop and use it.  If it isn’t ideal or needs a tweak, the teacher will offer an assist.

The underlying lesson is that we all need help in some form from time to time.  Whether it is with a prop in a yoga class or elsewhere in our lives, it is not weakness to accept help, but strength.neat yoga