A balancing act

With a title like that, you probably thought this article was going to be on balancing poses. Sorry to disappoint, but this is actually going to be on balancing life. Hopefully you’re still interested!

How life feels right now, except I wish I could get into Mayurasana 😉

So, it’s been a few months since I moved to NYC, and I am now relatively settled into a routine. Work is going well, teaching at the shelter and living with the boyfriend too, and I am enjoying what the city has to offer in terms of art and events.

Yet I find it difficult to practice as much as I would like. Or rather, the way that I would like? Kind of both. It’s not like I stopped practicing, I still do – but less than before, and always self-practice. While I did probably not do enough of it while living in Utrecht, I feel like doing solely self-practice is making me stagnate a bit. While I rarely have the issue of “what should I do now?” which I often think of as the “entry barrier” to self-practice, I feel like I’m not exploring as far as I did in a class / teacher training setting. I guess I miss the teacher’s push to go deeper. I wish I were already at a stage where self-practice is sufficient to “unlock” new aspects of poses, but it simply doesn’t seem to be the case. So self-practice sort of “maintains” my level of yoga, but I’m not managing to go further. And I’m not talking physically, as I can feel that my handstands for exemple have progressed – I can more easily balance now than six months ago, but more at an understanding-of-the-pose level.

This is an issue as I fully intend to keep on deepening my yoga practice as well as my teaching. I initially planned to take my intermediate Junior I exam next year, but this feels premature at this point. For one, the style of teaching in the US is actually quite different from the Netherlands, which I find quite weird considering of all the rules we have to follow. Not that it is better or worse, simply a different way to present things, use props, or talk about certain movements. This might also be due to the fact that English is first language here versus in the Netherlands and even for myself (though teaching in French is always a bit weird for me as I very rarely do it!).

Turning the Mind Upside-Down | Through the Peacock's Eyes

Pincha Mayurasana, one of the balancing poses on the Junior I syllabus

Anyhow, I already mentioned that it is difficult for me to get to the Institute here in New York, because of very unpractical class times for working people added to a very impractical commute from work. It is quite frustrating to know that great teaching is happening so close, yet I cannot benefit from it.

Added to this is the difficulty to take holidays or days off as a scientist. Officially, I am not entitled to any days off this year. Unofficially, my supervisor is nice enough to have let me take a day here and there, and even a week in October. But clearly, I cannot take a day off every other week to go to a yoga workshop, or half a week to go to the IYNAUS convention. Let’s not even think about taking a month off to go to Pune… when I already have issues planning a trip to Europe to see my family.

Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute - India - Pune

So  finding a life-work balance is proving difficult. I’m not ready to become a full-time yoga teacher yet, if ever. As much as I like teaching, I also genuinely enjoy my research and I hope it will result in a drug which will save lives within a few years. And even if I did quit my job (which, reasonably, I anyways cannot do for visa reasons, but assuming I could get a different visa), I would like to spend more time doing animal rights activism and possibly finding a job in science policy. I could see how this would fit more easily with a yoga schedule though. Then again, in a few years I will likely want to raise a child, which will also take time. So is it possible to have it all? Am I too involved with my “day job”? If you truly want to teach yoga and walk forward on the yogic path, is there no other way but to become a full-time yoga teacher?

I think of Mr. Iyengar and the path he took away from the “traditional” yogis, as a house owner (grihasthin) and not a renunciate (sannyasin). At the time, being a yoga teacher was most certainly weird, and a very risky career choice… Yet it enabled him to spend hours and hours mastering the craft, and he not only mastered it, but spread it all around the world so far that nowadays everyone knows about yoga. He knew it was his calling, and he answered to it, leading him to create an amazing community and recording an incredible depth of knowledge. While I feel truly grateful for my situation as well as everything I have achieved so far, I can’t help but wonder: what do you do when you have more than one calling? Is it a case of “jack of all trades, master of none”? Or is it simply one of our time’s illness, and my inability to truly get to the essence of yoga, “stilling of the waves of the mind” (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali I-2)?

Internet Marketing Jack of All Trades and Master of ...

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. How do you manage your practice / teaching and your regular job + family life? Were there times when it was more difficult? What tips and tricks helped you to find your balance? What made you want to teach full-time?

 

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Moving on

Sorry I’ve been pretty quiet here recently. But that’s for a good reason: I finally moved to NYC! New country, new apartment, new job, and lots of things to take care of. There is still some furniture waiting to be assembled, but most of the paperwork has been take care of.

What still hasn’t been taken care of however, it my yoga practice and teaching. I bought a 20-class pass at the New York Iyengar Institute, and I’ve been exactly… once. When I bought the class package. I gotta say, even though it is not very far from work, it’s still a good 20′ walking (no subway), which with changing means I would need to leave work 30′ before class. And since I don’t really want to go for a class that’s less than Level 3, the timings simply don’t work. I mean, two level 4 classes are 12:15-2:15PM and the third one is 5:15-7:15pm. I can’t really leave work at 11:45 and come back at 2:45PM (and if I did, I would probably be very stressed out when coming back!), nor can I leave at 16:45! I thought I would be able to go to Level 3s, but it’s the same: leaving at 5PM is too early and arriving after 10AM doesn’t really cut it either. It might be ok if I do that once every two weeks? I’ll see. Anyhow, the last class that I could manage to go to is the Saturday 4PM, but my weekends so far have been busy settling down in the apartment and prepping the rest of the week. Anyhow, if the only time I can go is during the weekend, I’d rather go for workshops, so I’m kinda regretting getting the 20-class card. I feel a bit frustrated to be so close to great teachers and not manage to go to class…

Meanwhile, there’s a yoga studio less than 10′ away from the apartment, and they do offer Iyengar classes! So I’m planning on visiting, since it’s way cheaper and more convenient (also time-wise: Saturday 12:30PM and Monday 7:45PM). But obviously the level might not be the same, so I’ll have to see if it really does bring me something. If not, it might also be an option for teaching, as I am still looking for opportunities. I have applied to teach at the BRC (I am mainly trying to volunteer / teach for free because of my visa) but they have so many applications the next volunteer orientation is mid-March, so I have to wait to see what comes out of it. Another option is the gym in my work building, which has a studio. They already offer yoga classes, so I want to try one out tomorrow, and see what I think of it – but in any case their schedule is far from full so I should hopefully be able to teach some kind of free class there. Just got to figure out the details. This would really be ideal, as I’d like to teach twice a week, and I already have a 50′ commute to work, so I’d rather not add to it.

Anyhow, I’m sure this is gonna be resolved soon, and I’ll keep you updated on what turns out to happen. Meanwhile, I have a lot of space to practice in my new apartment, so I’m enjoying a renewed interest in self-practice: see below!

So I’m a doctor now

This year has been a year of graduations. After getting my Introductory certificate, last week I finally concluded five years of graduate school by (successfully) defending my thesis and officially becoming a PhD.

I genuinely enjoyed the day, as I wasn’t too stressed before the defense (maybe all this yoga was paying off?!) and I found most questions interesting.  My PI’s laudatio was great, and both the reception and the party were amazing. It was very emotional to see all of my friends and family together to celebrate my achievement.

And now what, you ask? Well, I’m in Utrecht for two more months, working as a postdoctoral researcher in the group I did my PhD in, before I move on to a new adventure in NYC next February. Exciting times!

Mix ‘n match of yoga-related thoughts

This is gonna be a messy post. It’s a sum of small things I’ve been thinking about or realized recently, which are not “big” enough to deserve a post on their own. So, randomly, here it goes (in French I would say I’m jumping from the rooster to the donkey :p).

The Iyengar teacher training is made to train teachers who will be householders. I realized this as I was thinking about the intensive, ashram-type of teacher training while talking to a friend of mine who went to an ashram to visit his friend who was taking an intensive teacher training. He was amazed at the discipline of getting up at 5AM for chanting, then asana, then meditation, lunch, asana, meditation. I caught myself thinking “I wish I was free to spend a 100% of my time to yoga like that”. It sounded… easy. To be in complete immersion, no job to juggle, grocery shopping, commute… I hope I get to do this once, it sounds amazing! But it does make sense to me that after a teacher training like this, most graduates, who are not Sannyasi, struggle in getting back to a regular life and find the inspiration to keep on teaching and practicing, away from that ordered and recluse haven. On the other end, the Iyengar teacher training, lasting usually three years, enables trainees to get a taste of what their life will be as teachers, training regularly on the weekends, keeping all their obligations, going to classes during the week, assisting and teaching alongside their life and daily practice.

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The 4 theoretical life stages (sages or wisemen skip grihastha or householder and Vanaprastha or retired)

I’m very confused when people tell me I’m “good” at yoga, because it doesn’t mean much to me. I usually answer by “well, I’m very flexible but I need to work hard to balance that flexibility with strength”, since I assume they are talking about the physical practice (never had anyone tell me “wow, your meditation practice is so advanced”!). Since I’ve told my boyfriend that Savasana is considered the most difficult pose, he regularly makes jokes about having spent one hour on the most difficult yoga pose during his nap. But I find that yoga, as following the definition of “cessation of the fluctuation of the mind”, is way easier to attain through physical poses. Guruji said “When I was young, I played. Now I stay.”. Already in my few years of practice, I can see how easy it is to not think when I’m flowing. However, I find that staying in the pose makes me go so much deeper. When I’m flowing, I’m relying on my body to instinctively make the shapes and move. When I stay, I have to engage my brain to be aware of what my body is doing. I have to spread my mind all through the whole of my body, so that I stop thinking because my thoughts are everywhere, and nowhere at the same time. See what you can make of that!

In relation to which, backbends have stopped being energetically stimulating for me. They have become quietening in the same way that I thought only Sirsasana, headstand, could be. Not sure yet why that is, but I’m guessing something not breaking in the spine which would help my breathing soften.

Recently, I was in a rut. A yoga rut. It was hard to find the energy and time to go to class, and travelling a lot meant also a difficult self-practice. I felt a bit stuck, but I didn’t fret too much, since it happened to me before. Just gotta keep on practicing, it’s a good lesson on being detached of the outcome. Progress, whatever it means, is never a straight slope. But now it feels like I am learning and discovering things again.  This morning, I did a handstand jumping with two legs at the same time in the middle of the room for the first time. I was terrified, but somehow I managed to get over my fear and I did it, and I remembered I should really trust my arms, cause they’re strong and they won’t let me down. It was slightly exhilarating to feel myself compacted and balancing over my hands with my knees bent, a very light feeling.

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What scared me to death but I still did this morning (I think this is Kathryn Budig?)

Now that I’m at the end of this article, I actually do see a common thread, and it’s yoga sutra I.14 स तु दीर्घकालनैरन्तर्यसत्कारासेवितो दृढभूमिः sa tu dirghakala nairantarya satkara asevitah drdhabhumih: “Yoga is successful when practiced with devotion, uninterrupted, over a long period of time.”

I wish you all a long, fulfilling, uninterrupted yoga practice!

This is your brain on music

Disclaimer: long article ahead. Brace yourselves!

To be honest, I’m quite surprised that this book is a bestseller. Not because I didn’t like it, since it would be unlikely that I would spend time on writing an article about it if that were the case. While I do regret that negative data is often not published in scientific journals, I do understand the reticence about spending time to write about something that didn’t work out – even if that would probably prevent other people to spend their time doing the exact same non-working thing because they didn’t know it had already been done and didn’t work.

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While I really enjoyed reading the book, I’m surprised it is a bestseller because I found it quite hard to read. For someone like me, a huge music lover and avid scientist, the difficult part was my total absence of training in music theory. I cannot read the solfege really well, and I never learned to play an instrument. So while the scientific part was easy for me to understand and I found it fascinating, the music theory part was a lot to ingest and I found a new respect for musicians and especially composers. Not that I ever thought that being a composer was easy, but there is a preconception about music school students that they do not really work much; and I found that the music theory concepts are pretty heavy to handle, and require quite a bit of understanding of physics.

It may have been because I’ve been very busy recently, and getting to bed late and already tired, it was a tough read. I had to let go of it for a while and read something lighter because I found myself re-reading the same pages again, realizing I didn’t understand what I had read. Luckily (!) I’ve had to go to the synchrotron twice this month, which meant a lot of traveling, and thus a lot of time to read and write.

While I may say I’m writing a summary for you, the truth is I’m writing it for myself; hoping that it will help me remember the concepts and ideas that I genuinely enjoyed reading and found stimulating.

The first chapter is about defining what music is, and it’s where it was difficult for me to go on. Music theory, erk :/ Plus, while I do believe that I have a fairly extensive knowledge of music for a non-professional, but I lacked some references – or rather, it’s hard for me to make the link between an artist or a song name to the actual song. I often try to tell my friends about a particular song by humming the rhythm because I am unable to remember the name of the artist or the title of song; and let’s not even count the number of times I looked up a song via the hardly complete lyrics I remembered. However, the analogies Daniel Levitin uses do help, and I plan to read that chapter again in the coming months/years, because this is probably the closest I’ll ever be to learn anything about pitches, octaves and the rest.

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Well, this still looks a lot like Mandarin to me. I don’t speak Mandarin.

The second chapter is about foot tapping, and even though there was still a lot of jargon, that definitely spoke more to me. I just recently told a colleague who laughed at my moving/dancing around the lab “if it’s got rhythm, it’s impossible for me not to move!”. Which, by the way, is one of the reasons I genuinely enjoy working in the weekend when I decide to: on top of most equipment being free to use immediately, I can just put the music as loud as I want and dance my way around the lab.

The next chapter, “ Music and the mind machine”, has less to do with music and more to do with the brain. One might think I would’ve been highly interested in that chapter, but I already knew the whole content of it so it wasn’t very exciting to read about how our mind can easily trick us for the 100th time. But I guess for non-neuroscientists musicians, this is what chapter 1 felt for me.

Chapters 4 and 5 are about anticipation and classification of music. I don’t think I learned much exciting stuff from these chapters, but it was still a good read. Furthermore, I was interested in the points that were made about non-trained musicians and trained musicians (this will come back later).

Chapter 6 is when it started being really interesting for me. Entitled “After Dessert, Crick Was Still Four Seats Away from Me”, this chapter links music, emotion and the reptilian brain. I do believe that at the deepest level, we enjoy music because of how it makes us feel. Who hasn’t felt that gut-wrenching feeling, when a song resonates with you? True artists can make you go through so many emotions in one song, you could say they are actually playing with emotions, not music. Levitin makes the point that music is so powerful because one of the brain region that activates when we listen to music is the cerebellum, one of the oldest (evolutionary speaking) part of the brain, which is already present in reptiles (thus the reptilian brain). The cerebellum is in charge of tracking timing and movement (since walking, for example, is rhythmic). It also happens to have very important connections to the emotional centers of the brain; it then makes sense that music would be able, through these connections, to awaken strong feelings while we listen to it.

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This chapter also convinced me to put Crick’s book What Mad Pursuit on my to-read list. Yes, Crick, from Watson & Crick, the Nobel Prizes of the DNA structure discovery. I’ve had many a discussion about what a shame it is that academics become so highly specialized that they lose the big picture, and with it lose any interest/excitement in the wonders of Nature – only thinking about the next grant, the next funding, the next paper.

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All through my studies, my choice has been to limit myself the least possible (I ended up studying science because I figured it would be easier to read novels and philosophy on the side than learn about differential equations or Fourier transforms on my own). That’s one of the advantages (and also a disadvantage in certain instances) of the French system, and especially Grandes Ecoles: you can keep on being a generalist until you pretty much decide on your PhD. The drawback is, I didn’t have many choices open if I wanted to deepen my knowledge of a particular topic – which led me to do it on my free time, not especially a bad thing, but since the schooling time is already pretty heavy, my to-do/to-read list became very long during my studies, and I’m only catching up now. I chose protein crystallography for my PhD because it was at the corner of physics, chemistry and biology, notwithstanding computer science nowadays (which wasn’t the case when Dorothy Hodgkin, every female crystallographer’s role model, solved the insulin structure).

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Now isn’t that insulin hexamer beautiful?

But I’m getting away from the topic at hand here, which is (my) brain on music.

The next chapter of the book dissects what it is exactly, that makes a musician a good musician. I’m especially interested in that topic because I can’t play any instrument. I however genuinely enjoy singing and dancing, and while I’m certainly not at any professional level, I guess I’m tolerable enough that my colleagues can still work while I’m singing along to the radio. My forte is dancing though, it just comes very naturally to me.

If you’ve never heard the rule of the 10000 hours needed to become an expert, well now is the time. It’s not the first time I had heard about it, being a Malcolm Gladwell fan, but I was surprised that Levitin almost dismissed any innate source of talent (but his book was published before the 10000 hours started being put under scrutiny). He also mentions that thanks to the use of chunking you can adapt and learn faster (since I read A mind for numbers not long ago it was a good reminder).

The main message: music and memory are highly intertwined. And this is also something that comes up in the following chapter.

Now we’re almost at the end of the book, and the previous to last chapter is about music taste. Why do we like the music we like? Well, we obviously get some priming, starting already from when we are in our mother’s womb. Then the whole culture surrounding us growing up has an influence, and especially who we choose to hang out with during our teenage years, since music has this bonding and social component. Furthermore, the capacity to form new neural connections during adolescence is really high and starts decreasing quickly afterwards. This indicates that if you haven’t been exposed to a certain type of activity or music genre, even briefly, it will be much harder for you to learn a new skill or appreciate a different type of music later in life. This is due to the fact that during development, there is a certain amount of time dedicated to the formation of new connections, and after that time has elapsed, pruning, i.e. consolidation of useful connections and discard of unused ones, starts.

I couldn’t possibly write an entire article about music without at least ONE song by my favorite artist of all times. It’s very interesting for me that Florence + the Machine resonated so well with me, because it’s pretty much the only band I discovered myself and neither my family or friends really like her. While it’s expected I would like her music since it’s indie pop-rock, which I do generally appreciate as a genre, nothing explains why her songs have such a strong, physical and emotional toll on me (even if it’s a strong female lead, as one of my friends likes to point out I like).

Anyhow it’s probably to late for me to become really good at playing an instrument because I’m over twenty, and most of my neuronal patterns are already being consolidated. Plus, since I also have really big issues with anything like painting or sculpting, I cannot say I have been primed for eye-hand coordination. Still, one day I will learn how to play the cello – after all, you don’t only learn things to be the best, right? Furthermore, I’d like to think that I like change and learning new things more than the average, so hopefully I keep my brain very plastic :p (Levitin does mention that there are individual differences).

In the final chapter, entitled The Music Instinct, Levitin explores why music might be an evolutionary advantage. One of the interesting points is that music could have emerged before speech, which is something I had never really thought about. While a lot of this chapter’s content is hypothetical, the main idea is that music, and dance (since it is a cultural construction to separate both as they are so intimately linked) have had an important role in courtship, through its power to remain ingrained for long times in our brains and the feelings and emotions it can stir. Indeed, who has never had a song stuck into their brain? I often keep a new song I like on repeat  until the next one, and I can easily get obsessed with a song if I recall it and cannot listen to it.

Spoiler alert: this is how the book (and this article) ends:

“As a tool for activation of specific thoughts, music is not as good as language. As a tool for arousing feelings and emotions, music is better than language. The combination of the two -as best exemplified in a love song- is the best courtship display of all.”

A world of questions

I really enjoy teaching, whether it is yoga or science. I find it very rewarding to explain something and see the student’s face lighten up with understanding.

I have to say I am very lucky, in the sense that the students I have chose to be there: they want to learn.

But what students often don’t realize, is that I also enjoy teaching because it enables me to deepen my own knowledge. I like the stimulation of having to explain something in a different way so that they understand. I don’t dread their questions: I love them!

When I’m teaching yoga, it often happens that someone asks a question about something I have not especially thought about before. This is especially true when I teach people with a body very different from mine. I am, after all, the standard yoga journal picture of a relatively slim, flexible blond woman. There are some things that I do without thinking about, or take for granted.

I like to say that when I started practicing yoga, I was completely out of shape, and it is true – I was unable to do a side plank! However, with ten+ years of dance under my belt, even as a dilettante, flexibility came back fairly fast. It has other challenges: flexibility without the strength to stabilize it can be dangerous. I’m always surprised at how people admire my flexibility but do not realize how much of my practice actually is spent on strengthening and not overextending.

I used to complain quite a bit about how unflexible my hips are. It is the one part of my body that is not flexible at all, and I’ve been struggling with hip openers since day 1, more so since I started practicing Iyengar yoga and realized how their inflexibility was affecting many poses, and that my knees were going to pay the price soon if I didn’t back off for a while. I am happy to say that it is getting better; I can now practice padmasana for a while without feeling like someone is going to rip my hips away from my torso.

Nowadays, I am actually grateful that my hips are/were this tight. It has made me more compassionate, and it has unabled me to understand what my stiff student go through in other poses. Had I never had stiff hips, I would never understand why some people feel crazy pain with leg stretches. But I do, because I felt the same with hip stretches. It was unlikely I would hurt myself/break my hip by sitting in half padmasana because the pain (in the hip, not the knee) was too intense for me to go over my edge (whereas I have hurt myself by overstretching because I didn’t feel anything until it was already too late).

The other day, I was teaching Urdhva Dhanurasana, and one of my students asked “what’s next? lifting one leg up?” after I showed how to get into the pose in three steps. I took it as an incentive to teach that a pose is never finished. So I demonstrated again, this time talking through all the steps I was going through once “in” the pose, which went around something like “I turn my thighs in, walk in, ground my feet, readjust the thighs, activate my buttocks to bring the hips higher, calm my breath, bring my shoulders in line with my hands, walk in again, check everything again”. I really liked showing that there is more than just getting “in” the pose.

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Drawing from French Iyengar yogi Fanny from fnyogi.com

Recently, a student asked me something about a pose I had not thought about previously. I can’t remember what it was about now, except it was about weight repartition. I said “I don’t know, give me a minute” and proceeded to get into the pose and focuse on the weight repartition. I loved the exploration. The answer came easily to me; I had never thought about it before, but I thought it was great he brought it up, because it brought my awareness somewhere it had not been previously.

I’m teaching my students how to get in touch with their body, and they’re teaching me how to be a better practitioner and teacher. It’s a two way street, and I love the stimulation!

NB: for ease of use, in this article yoga is interchangeable with asana practice.