Saturday, March 31, 2012

Yoga Conference 2012 - III

Ironically, I actually ended up missing the first two hours of the session on Willpower because I got the start time mixed up... I'm blaming it on a right brain take-over, since the day before I'd attended the Asana/Pranayama/Meditation followed by the Laughter Yoga workshop.

After I spent a few minutes beating myself up for my stupidity, I decided to have a good laugh and drop the matter. Fortunately for me, I arrived during break and there was a spot right up next to the stage.

I was there for Kelly McGonigal's workshop based on her book, The Willpower Instinct.

Also fortunately, there was very little asana.  I hadn't realized how much of a workout I'd gotten the day before and my shoulders were a bit stiff from all the planks and down-dogs.

There is definitely a lot of material to ponder.  Dr. McGonigal teaches a course at Stanford based on the subject and her publisher has been getting the book a lot of airplay recently.  After leading the conference class she ran across the street to do a CBC interview.

Who hasn't heard of the Fight and Flight response by now?  It paralyzes the long-term reasoning capacity of the pre-frontal cortex to deal with immediate threats.  It also floods the body with a deadly chemical cocktail. While a great defense for dealing with tigers in the jungle, it is not meant for daily activation. Instead we need to cultivate a different reaction to our modern day stressors.  Let's call it the 'Pause and Plan Response', when heart rate and breath rate are synchronized and a physical state is created where you are alert and prepared for action. One of the best ways to create the state is to synchronize breath with movement:  walking meditation, slow flow.

Other take-aways:

  • Whatever you do, don't think about the white polar bear!  Trying to 'block' thoughts is a self-defeating strategy. 
  • "Surfing the urge" of a craving is a more successful strategy than trying to avoid the craving in the first place:  notice, accept the craving, breathe and give your body the chance to pause and plan, broaden your attention and look for the action that will help you achieve your goal.
  • Beating yourself up for giving into temptation seems to cause escalation of the problematic behaviour (studies of addiction & compulsive disorders show after wallowing in self-hate the subjects then end up seeking comfort in the very substance or behaviour at the root of the problem... otherwise known as the "what the hell effect").
  • Inference of goal preference or 'goal-switching'... if the main thing motivating self-control is the desire to be "good", when told they are doing well or feeling "good" about themselves, people will "give in" to their self-defeating behaviour... permission is granted to go against the bigger goal for the temporary reward of the thing or object being denied.
  • Respond to setbacks with self-compassion.
  • It's a given by now that trying to shame yourself or others into good behaviour totally backfires. But at the same time, we should stop chasing self-esteem and learn self-compassion.
  • Self-compassion is not to be confused with self-indulgence or lower standards.
  • Keeping a self-compassion journal for only 7 consecutive nights improved overall happiness scores even six months later.
McGonigal spoke about small interventions with big outcomes to the Googleplex earlier this year: 

Friday, March 30, 2012

Yoga Conference 2012 - II

I wasn't sure what to expect when I signed up for Laughter Yoga.

Kids laugh hundreds of times a day.  As much as four hundred times a day, according to some research.  Adults, typically, about 11-15 times (and that is usually laughing at someone or something, or one of the polite social titters).

I didn't keep count, but I did spend a full two hours coaxing laughs through play and mugging.  At times it reminded me of my high school theatre arts classes, other times it reminded me of pure play as a kid in my backyard.

You don't have to wait for laughter to find you.  You can find the laughter.

A drummer helped set the pace.  The teacher, Salimah Kassim-Lakha, didn't explain 'why' it was important, but I felt the sound take me out of my isolated space into the shared commons.  The rhythm helped put me in the present.  Having someone there 'live' vs. a tape created room for some interplay and improvisation.

Laughter is a present moment experience... Just laughing for the sake of laughing.  Fake it till you make it.  Why not?  The body actually has a hard time differentiating between real and fake laughter, scientifically speaking (respiration and heartbeat accelerate, immune responses increase).  Physical benefits are well-documented.

The time spent was deeply cathartic. I slipped over into tears at a few points (the last time I cried must have been years ago).  At another point,  I was all laughed out and just sat back and enjoyed the laughter of others.  When their peals ebbed, mine rose again.  It was as if we were filling the space around and above us.

I realize this is a little 'out there' for some people, but it was truly a wonderful feeling and a great endorphin high.  The next day, when I walked onto the show floor,  Salimah was giving a demo in the garden space.  Guess what?  The laughter was contagious.  I walked by her later in the afternoon and said hello - we both just burst out laughing.

Yoga Conference 2012 - I

Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman are taking questions from students at the workshop.

"Something you said years ago has stayed with me ever since.  It was 'lift your heart and drop your shoulders'."

"Are you sure it was me?" Rodney asked.

"Yes, I tell it to my students all the time."

Colleen paused and said, "Rod would never have said that. It is not a correct instruction."

I could feel the embarrassment of the student-teacher standing beside me.  She back-tracked a bit and then said she understood it was an oversimplification but the instruction seemed to work for her when she was teaching backbends because her classes were generally 2/3 full of beginners who did not speak English.  At this point I was starting to be concerned for her students!  Rodney and Colleen went on to explore and demonstrate how dropping the shoulders jammed the upper back and should be avoided.

"I will often skip savasana in my home practise," someone else admitted.

After congratulating the person on their honesty, Rodney counseled that it would be far better to cut a different pose.  Always end a practise, no matter how long, with savasana, because it helps to restore balance to the body and nervous system.  How did he put it?  It was the 'honey'.

The workshop was a six hour class in Asana, Pranayama and Meditation.

Colleen and Rodney mentioned Iyengar more than a few times.  They have been deeply influenced by his teachings, and Yee's biography notes his studies "have roots in the Iyengar Tradition."He doesn't go so far as to say he teaches the Iyengar method, though.  Although the emphasis on alignment is the same, in his classes there is a lot of emphasis on when and where to breathe during vinyasa flow. Generally, the only time I've heard an Iyengar instructor guide about when to inhale/exhale is during twists; the method is to find the correct posture with the understanding the breath will follow.

Rodney Yee gave a beautific demo of a sun salutation.  It wasn't the technique but the bliss of being present in the joy of each movement. Forward bend followed by back bend, the full pleasure of a morning yawn and stretch extended to each and every fibre of the body.

"It is not about range of motion.  There are many young people here in the room  but I tell you there will come a day when your range of motion will not increase anymore.  In fact, it will decrease."  I looked at the gray in his hair.  He continued, "It is about inquiry.  Don't take the pose so far that you are rigid and block the breath and flow of energy.  Don't pull back so far that the energy collapses.  Find the balance in the breath and in the body."

Yee and Saidman are currently on a mission to integrate yoga into the healthcare system. Several hospitals in New York are part of the program and the participation rate is spreading.   I can see how yoga and meditation would be a powerful tool,  benefiting the sick with its restorative powers, and providing some comfort to the dying.  Healthcare workers themselves could de-stress and focus using the techniques.  Very interesting concept.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book-clubbing on the brain

My two book clubs, unbeknownst to each other, picked complementary titles on the theme of memory, identity and the brain.

BPYC book club chose Before I Go to Sleep, a work of fiction and suspense about a woman who suffers from amnesia so severe she wakes every morning with a blank slate.  To help herself heal and progress, she keeps a journal.  On the first page she writes, "Don't trust Ted"... who happens to be her husband and caretaker.  We read her journal as the stories and the days unfold.  Interesting premise.  Great suspense!  And optioned by none other than Ridley Scott.  The story was deeply flawed in many places, but a fun romp that led to a great discussion.  Are we our memories?  When we lose our memories, do we lose our identity?

My 'other' book club, the Book Babes selection, was discussed a few weeks later.  My Stroke of Insight is the memoir of a neuroanatomist who suffers a stroke that ultimately leads to her enlightenment.  37 at the time of the incident, she loses language, speech, and motor control.  Love and patience fully return her to health after eight years, but she never regains her workaholic, left-brain-driven self.

The prose in the book is very uneven, (where was her editor?) but listening to her story,  Bolte Taylor is riveting.   This Ted Talk went viral in 2008 and led in part to her appearance on Oprah's Soul Series. That same year she was named by Time as one of their top 100, most influential people. 

The morning the neuroanatomist loses touch with her left hemisphere, the right brain dominates, linking her to the 'present' moment, strengthening the connection to life force.  Obviously, not all strokes bring enlightenment, but this particular stroke attacked a certain area of her brain and brought an entirely new perspective.

I first heard Jill Bolte Taylor interviewed by Mary Hynes in this edition of Tapestry.

"Our right human hemisphere is all about this present moment. It's all about "right here, right now." Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information, in the form of energy, streams in simultaneouslythrough all of our sensory systems and then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like, what this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like. I am an energy-being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere. We are energy-beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family." (Jill Bolte Taylor, Ted Talk, 2008)

Hallucination?  Delusion?  Perception is reality.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Russian Romantics

TSO held an open rehearsal of it's Russian Romantics programme, with guest cellist Joshua Roman.

I'd hoped to hear what conductor Nathan Brock was saying to the musicians to tweak their performance, but unfortunately, my ears couldn't pick up the vocal direction.

There were frequent stops and starts, and lots of questions from the first violinist.

Here's some trivia I learned about Glinka's Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila: the composer attended a wedding dinner at the Russian court, and from up in the balcony, the clatter he heard from knives, forks and plates left such an impression he imitated them in the prelude to Ruslan.

Unfortunately I can't find Nathan Brock playing any of the Russian Romantics, but here he is playing Bach, with  high words of praise from legendary cellist, YoYoMa:

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Means of Communication

My Lapham's Quarterly arrived a few weeks ago, Means of Communication.

These collections are wonderful, with entries bite-sized but provocative enough to leave me thinking.  Juxtaposing thinkers through millennia, across cultures and alternating between text and visuals it feeds the soul.

Many of this month's selections can be accessed online, which is a good thing, because I seem to have mislaid this hard copy  more than a few times in my travels.  It's popped up again, and I'm thankful.  

Some of my favourites from this edition's pages:

The History of Life Written Across Her Face,
Margot Humphrey, 1991

Methinks the human  method of expression by sound  of tongue is very elementary and  ought to be substituted for  some ingenious invention   which should be able to  give vent to at least six coherent sentences at once
- Virginia Wolf,  1899

Plus, advice on setting type in Venice (1514);  Body Language; selections of poetry from ancient Babylon; notes made in the margins of medieval texts by bored monks and beautiful images

White Noise, by Graham Dean, 2007

I love the concept so much I'm now a subscriber.  You can also order back issues on themes including Food, Eros, Family and Lines of Work.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Why I read

“What an astonishing thing a book is. A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called "leaves") imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic.”
― Carl Sagan

okay, so maybe books don't grow on trees anymore, but the rest still holds true.....

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Maritime Radio Course

I'm the proud recipient of the Restricted Operator's Certificate (Maritime).  
Hotel uniform romeo romeo alpha yankee!

50+ attendees over three Wednesday nights, with some long-established boaters in the seats.

Although I've absorbed quite a bit after many years on the water, it is always good to have additional info and context. Besides, I've heard there is a crackdown on the lake to make sure anyone who operates a radio is properly licensed.  Cynics may say it is a cash grab, but there are, unfortunately, plenty examples of inappropriate radio use.  

Coming out into the unseasonably warm night, the sky was full of stars!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Tommy Thompson Park

Sunday we pedaled all the way down the Leslie Street spit.

Crowded!  Tykes on bikes, roller-bladers, photographers, joggers... everyone was out enjoying the sun and warm weather.

We spotted some loons and pintail ducks along the way to the lighthouse point, and then sat looking out at the dazzle on the lake.

April 29th is launch weekend.  So close and yet so far away!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Your Hidden Superpower

Spring forward

bee hiding in the snowdrops

It felt great to be working out in the garden today, clearing away the dead debris to make it easier to see the green poking through the earth.  Four bags, full!  Lots of green on its way.  I was able to work outside without a coat, it was so warm.

The clocks got turned ahead, hopefully the extra exercise will help get my body in sync with the change in time.  I'm looking forward to more daylight hours.

Friday, March 9, 2012

What makes it great?

Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678
The Spring and Summer concertos of Vivaldi's Four Seasons were deconstructed to the delight of our eyes and ears at the TSO tonight.

Conductor and NPR music personality Rob Kapilow spent the first hour breaking down the music and explaining 'what makes it great'.  The musical themes, textures, layers and techniques.  After intermission it was spring and summer full on, and I listened to this classic with new appreciation.

Springtime is upon us. 
The birds celebrate her return with festive song,
and murmuring streams are softly caressed by the breezes.
Thunderstorms, those heralds of Spring, roar, casting their dark mantle over heaven,

Then they die away to silence, and the birds take up their charming songs once more.
- Spring Sonnet, from Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Allegro

Solo violinist Jennifer Koh was truly amazing to watch.  The speed of her bowing at some points almost blurred to invisible.  Such control, and yet sometimes it seemed the violin might float away from her and become a separate creature...

Both spring and summer concertos featured birds and birdsong.  Turtledoves, finches, warblers.  The shepherd's barking dog.  Wind in the trees.  Water in the stream.  Ahhhhhh... I can't wait for warmer weather!

The strings are my favourites, and these concertos are the perfect showcase.  A harpsichord was centre stage.  That particular instrument takes me back to the first concert I ever saw, when my grandfather brought me to the symphony as a kid.  It was a wonderful night out.  Just me and him, which was a rarity indeed.  That's probably why I love classical music so much to this day.

Kapilow talked about the music, but also made profound references to the gnostic gospels and quoted Goethe to underscore the importance of living in the moment and savouring the joy and power that surround us everyday. The magic, too, of how bringing all these musicians together can produce so much more than solo efforts.

Taking in the good

Hour long lecture to Google staff
"There's an expression in neuroscience: Neurons that fire together wire together. This means that new patterns of thought can actually change the physiology of our brains.  So while we can't ignore the bad news, we can train our brains to become more alert to good information.   When you notice a positive detail in yourself or someone else, or your environment, try savouring it for at least ten seconds. Most of these observations will be as simple as "the sun is shining" or "this coffee tastes good", but do this a handful of times each day and you'll feel an emotional shift."
-Rick Hanson, Phd, neuropsychologist and co-author of Buddha's Brain.

  1. Look for positive facts, and let them become positive experiences
  2. Savour the positive experience, sustain it for 10-20-30 seconds. Feel it in your body and emotions.    Intensify it.
  3. Sense and intend that the positive experience is soaking into your brain and body - registering deeply into emotional memory.

We can deliberately use the mind, over time, to change the brain for the better:

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Full Worm Moon - March

Our family of robins is back, building a nest in the fir tree out front, dipping their beaks into puddles in the driveway, and pulling worms out from the softening earth.

Clearly, the Worm Moon was named by people who did as much ground watching as sky watching.  March is when daytime temperatures rise to the point where the snow thaws and the ground begins to open up to possibilities – one of which is earthworms....If you are an American robin, the possibility of earthworms is a powerful incentive to travel.The Field Notebook 

In a few weeks I may stop marveling at the beauty of this 'common' thrush, but for now it is the most exotic bird on the block!

click here  for a You Tube tour of the full details in this John Audubon print

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Wind, the Sun and the Moon

The moon is waxing and approaching full, and I am on the hunt for moon poems at the Poetry Foundation.

The Wind, the Sun and the Moon

For weeks the wind has been talking to us,
Swearing, imploring, singing like a person.
Not a person, more the noise of a being might make
Searching for a body and a name. The sun
In its polished aurora rises late, then dazzles
Our eyes and days, pacing a bronze horizon
To a mauve bed in the sea. Light kindles the hills,
Though in the long shadow or Moelfre, winter
Won't unshackle the dead house by the marsh.
Putting these words on paper after sunset
Alters the length and asperity of night.
By the fire, when the wind pauses, little is said.
Every phrase we unfold stands upright. Outside,
The visible cold, the therapy of moonlight.
Anne Stevenson, "The Wind, the Sun, and the Moon" from Poems 1955-2005. Copyright © 2005 by Anne Stevenson. Reprinted with the permission of Bloodaxe Books Ltd.
Source: Poems 1955-2005 (Bloodaxe Books, 2005)
Simultaneous Contrasts: Sun and Moon (detail): Robert Delaunay, 1912-1913;  (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Birding Paradise

For my hiking and birding kindred spirits:

Ontario Nature digital magazine Spring 2012 has a feature article about Best In Birding.  "No need to head to exotic locales. Ontario’s landscapes offer a birding paradise right in our own backyard."

Lots of info about places in the GTA, including my beloved Bluffers Park.

A weekend jaunt to Pelee Island would be fun, too - I could combine two interests - birding and wine-tasting!

This spring or summer I'd like to check out Cootes Paradise in Hamilton. Alex told me about the waterfall there a few years back and I've been meaning to visit ever since.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Saturday Morning

It's been months since we've been to St. Lawrence market, and I've been needing to replenish my store of honey, so Rob and I headed over this morning.

Honey World is great, they let you taste before you buy, and I sampled 20 different jars before I settled on three different tastes.  Miele de Tilleul (linden honey) from France, a beautiful light amber colour; Pure New Zealand Honey (wildflower blossoms), caramel coloured; and Arbutus honey from Spain, almost as dark as molasses.  All have such unique flavours, thanks to the nectar sources of the busy bees.  I can almost hear the bees buzzing.  I wonder if they sound the same in different countries around the world?  By the way... I had to check.... buzz is the same word in English and French, but zumbido in Spanish.  Maybe those Spanish bees buzz a different tune.

While eating a breakfast burrito at Carnicero's, Eddy Shack popped by in a cowboy hat to say hello to the staff. After he left, Rob fired up his tablet and showed me some You Tube footage of "the Entertainer", back in the day.  The former Maple Leaf is around 75 now, when I do the math, but he sure doesn't look it.

In the farmers' market, I tasted some fresh water buffalo cheese that had been rolled in herbs de Provence (savoury, basil, thyme, fennel and lavendar).  The milk comes from a farm near London, Ontario and the cheese is made somewhere close to Toronto.  So, so good.  I will have to figure out how to build a meal around it this coming week.  Maybe a nice, simple salad drizzled with a dressing made with kafir and honey.

I almost made it out of the market without stopping at Alex Farm Products, but I couldn't walk by.  I thought I would try some French Burgundy cheese, Epoisses, and then sampled some Fleasur D'Aunis.  Once I had a nibble, the two found their way into my basket.

Mexican ingredients were inspiring Rob, and he picked up mole sauce, salsa, guacamole, and black beans for a delicious lunch. Some other treasures for our kitchen cupboards were Kusmi tea; coffee from Sumatra; black organic quinoa; and fresh Old Montreal Style bagels.

On the way back to the car, stepping outside, we were almost blown away by the wind storm.  On the radio, the news was filled with stories about the power outages, with thousands of people in Ontario being knocked off the grid.  In Toronto, the King streetcar had been thrown out of business for a couple hours.

We stopped by the Waterworks on our way home to check out the waves, which with whitecaps, looked to be at least 3 meters high. The sky was clouded over, but occasionally the sun would slice its way through and cast ribbons of dazzling light on the surface of the lake.  Breath taking!  But I'm glad I'm not out on a boat in this water.

Rob grabbed these shots using his tablet.