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!

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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.

Only the result counts

That is how my parents, especially my father raised me. They didn’t care how I did it (notwithstanding cheating, of course), but I had to bring home good grades.

Recently, many of my friends have appeared surprised that I still want to do a postdoc once my PhD is finished. And honestly, if I would do a list of pluses and minuses, the minus list would probably be longer.

A lot of people get discouraged by the academic world towards the end of their PhD, and indeed the “publish or perish” spirit is well present in academia. Many very good scientists fail to publish, and luck plays a good part in getting publishable results. Of course, when you start a PhD project, you have a clear idea of the direction it should go, and what type of results you’re going to get. Sadly, most projects don’t go as planned. In my case, while I do have results, and hopefully enough to at least publish one or two articles, I am far from having achieved the type of data I aimed for when I started. Still, what I have keeps me going; but I have seen what failing to get data does to people, and it’s not pretty.

Many of my friends wonder how I manage to do a PhD and a yoga teacher training (and let’s not start about maintaining a blog :p). It’s not easy. I practice everyday, teach twice a week and assist once, notwithstanding the teacher training weekends. Thursdays are especially tough on me, when I get to self practice at the studio at 7am, then to work from 9am to 6pm only to end the day teaching yoga until 8pm. I have very little free time. On the other hand, I like being productive, and I love yoga – so I really don’t consider practicing or teaching as a chore. But it is physically tiring, and I have my constitution to thank for always having been overly energetic (I also get that from my dad).

Doing a postdoc if you don’t intend to stay in academia (i.e. if you’re not aiming for the grail that a tenured position is) is usually seen as a bad idea. You get paid less than in the industry for more hours, less career prospects and a more difficult integration in the industrial world than directly after graduating. And of course, there is a fierce competition for any tenured position, which depending on the lab you’re in, may result into a really poor work environment.

While I would like to stay in academia, it is not my grail. Either it will happen or it won’t, but I don’t believe that working 80 hours or more a week is what is going to make a difference. If you’re not already aware of it, overwork actually decreases overall productivity; two good articles on the topic:
– The Relationship Between Hours Worked and Productivity

– 10 huge productivity lessons I learned working 90-hour weeks last month

I’ll go through a couple of points that the author from the previous article makes and to which I can relate, and I’ll start with #4 to #6: planning and scheduling less time to do something than you think you should be doing. My life is very, very organised and my routine very oiled. Since I cannot miss my yoga sessions, it means that I have to be finished with my lab work 30 minutes before it starts, no exceptions (ok, I am somewhat flexible and can skip if it is really necessary. But I cannot skip every week.). I honestly think this makes me a better worker.

Previously this year, I went to work a month in an US lab. Everyone was working crazy hours, as I had been told would be the case. But they’re not productive. One hour here, one hour there… But actual, productive work? Didn’t see much of it. And it’s not that people are not actually feeling like they’re not working; they’re truly giving it their best – it just seemed very inefficient to me. And peer pressure is very hard to resist. It was slightly easier for me to refuse to come in the weekends or finish at midnight because I was visiting; but everyone thought I was very brave for leaving at 6:30pm to get to my yoga class, even though I’d been there since 9am and was definitely on browsing through the internet.

Since I was a teenager, I’ve always been fascinated by the US. I can’t even remember how it started, though it may have been because I watched way to much Buffy The Vampire Slayer. In any case, living there has been my dream for years. When I started studying science, going to MIT became my dream. Not so much for the prestige, though I’m not denying that it is part of it, but because after reading so many articles about it, it sounds like a highly stimulating environment.

It’s very possible I would be disappointed by going there, it has happened before when I moved to Montpellier to the second best ranked chemistry Grande Ecole. Also there, I was very excited to be in a stimulating learning environment, with like-minded, passionate people. Boy was I wrong. My first year was awful, even with the amazing weather and semi-perfect quality of life Montpellier can offer. Most of my colleagues were only interested in going out and getting drunk, had gotten there because it was their highest ranked school but had no interest in chemistry whatsoever, and had very swollen heads. It was definitely a brutal cold shower, but I recovered.

I think the main reason I want to go to MIT for a postdoc is because I don’t want to give up before trying. I want that experience. It will be what it will be, bad or good, but I won’t live with the “what if…” regret. Of course, there is a possibility I won’t even get a position there. But I won’t give up by not applying. If I do my best and don’t get in, then so be it.

If I do get in, will I be able to resist peer pressure and continue my yogic journey on the side? I can’t be certain, but I am pretty sure I will. Since I am fairly detached from the outcome of becoming a professor (and I think that doing a postdoc at MIT is unlikely to be a negative point on your CV, even for the industry), I believe I will be able to resist peer pressure and just do my thing, be productive while doing intensive yoga (cf #10). Because if I fail in Science, I don’t believe it is going to be because I worked 50 hours instead of 80. I want to do my best while keeping a balance, and if that is not enough to succeed, then I won’t.

Because in the end, what I want is to be happy. And yoga has contributed to my happiness in the years since I started to such an extent that I don’t think I will ever give it up. My practice will likely transform and evolve while I grow older, but it will still be there, stimulating my personal growth.

It’s been a bit tricky to realize, but the only result that really counts, in life, is happiness. And for me, happiness is linked to growth. Which is why scientific research and yoga are so complementary, and I’m not ready to give up on any of them just yet.