Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Where Stress-Shopping Meets Stress-Busting

I have a lot I want to say right now about the naturopathic regime I started a couple of weeks ago (on the heels of learning about my hormone panel results), but I feel I need to work my topics in the "right order". I sense it's best to start with this post, wherein I discuss a modality I'm using, in addition to supplementation, to manage headaches, by first managing the hair-trigger, hormonal fluctuations of late-stage perimenopause.

That modality, no surprise, is yoga. Specifically it's Iyengar yoga, which happens to be the kind I am certified to teach and with which I resonate most, though it's certainly not the only kind I've practiced. While usually I'm happy to speak about yoga "in general" - after all, there's an argument to be made that all yoga roads lead to the same place - in this instance the specific method is germane.

Sure, all yogas may lead to the same place but they get there very differently. One style of yoga may be more efficient than another in accomplishing a specific aim. Iyengar yoga is known for a variety of efficiencies, produced by:
  • Approaching practice in such a way that the body is highly supported (when and as necessary) to achieve long-holdings of well-structured poses
  • Approaching practice with an awareness of and attention to the role of hormones in supporting all bodily functions. 
Undoubtedly, it's impossible for me to describe the breadth of the Iyengar philosophy in a blog post. One approaches it from many vantage points, depending on the desired aim (note: I don't mean "goal").

But at this time, in this instance, I am using the Iyengar method specifically to support and maintain reproductive endocrine function. In order to do this I need to consider certain things in my practice, perhaps none more important than holding certain poses for a LONG time (which is where supported versions come in). Ten minutes is fairly standard, fwiw. Moreover, the poses one holds for a long time are the ones that stimulate, tone and support particular glands. These poses are generally the back bends and inversions, though forward bends play an important role too.

One must also practice very regularly to experience the gains on the endocrine system. I now practice an hour a day, 5 days a week. Some days I do an entirely supported practice. Other days I do a combo of active, standing work interspersed with inversions and forward bends. It depends on where I'm at in my cycle and how my body feels when I begin.

The advantage I have is 25 years of yoga experience behind me. It means that, even as I am bringing a focus to my practice that has not been there for a long time, my body already understands the poses. I know how to support them a) abstractly and b) specifically for myself. I have the props, the space, the knowledge. I'm not starting from scratch. I'm reconnecting with poses as long-time friends. (OK, in truth, some of them are frenemies.)

But enough about me, how does this correlate with shopping? Well...

Though I'm rarely satisfied by books on yoga - there are so many mediocre ones around - I've come by 2 recently that have been extremely useful to me. One is pretty new and the other is an oldie but goodie.

Proviso: It's unlikely, in truth, that either will be of exceptional use unless you are a) very familiar with the Iyengar approach, b) a yoga teacher, c) a serious student, or d) someone who just loves reading about these things.

Book 1:

Yoga Sequencing by Mark Stephens (about whom I know nothing, fyi)
This book is excellent. Full stop. It's marketed to teachers but it includes a wide variety of practices (well-illustrated by thumbnail photos) - some of which are geared towards women in various "womanly" life-stages. The beauty of this book, other than the fact that it is well-written and well-designed, is that it provides 65 practices (not specifically "Iyengar" in approach) that are fantastically sequenced! For those of you who don't do much yoga, you may not know that the sequence of a class is pivotal to the overall physical, mental and psychospiritual aim.  You know those classes that transform your life? Those are a result of great sequencing.

Sequencing is an art and science - it takes more than just experience of yoga and teaching to understand the complexities involved. Every class is its own organism, as is every practice. If you're a new teacher, or one who wants a potentially new perspective, definitely buy this book.

What really appeals to me is that it sequences the range of poses that are optimal for regular practice - those which are modifiable for practitioners of different levels (though it doesn't talk at all about how to modify or how to do the poses.) Sure, lots of books show lots of crazy-advanced poses (and this one shows a few), but the majority of the practices are within the realm of the householder yogi(ni), which makes it a great book for an experienced yoga-doer who wants to improve in his or her home practice.

One other thing: It's ridiculously under-priced. Seriously, it should cost twice the amount it does - maybe even more. So it's a deal. And Toronto peeps: You can borrow it from the library as an e-book. No joke.

Book 2:

Yoga and the Wisdom of Menopause by Suza Francina
This book has been around for a long time. I first read it when it came out and promptly forgot about it. Funny how relevance plays a role.

To disclose: It's got a crunchy-granola element. It's also got a lot of good info about Iyengar practice and endocrine balance (more than most other books) but if wise-woman spirit stuff irritates you, you're going to have to tune it out. Intriguingly from my perspective, it interviews a variety of Iyengar teachers about their experience of menopause in light of long-standing practice. Over the years, I've met many of them and/or know quite a lot about them because they were at the height of their careers when I was early in my yoga days. The teacher interviews interest me now because I seem to have become a very long-time student. :-)

Its real plus is in giving some well-articulated info about how the specific poses influence the glands to promote hormone health. It also has an interesting chapter about using yoga in recovery from breast cancer.

It's weakness, IMO, is in the practices it illustrates. It's true, that the most useful poses for hormone-stabilizing are specific and not outrageously diverse. But really, this book includes 10 poses that it rehashes over a dozen practices for a dozen different things. I think Ms. Francina could have been more imaginative on that account. Mind you, if you don't know those poses - explained in the supported Iyengar fashion - this is as good a place as any to learn more about them.

I'll finish with one more anecdote about my first teacher from many years ago:

She was extremely true to the method, one of the elements of which was "special practice" for women with their periods. Not to delve too much - and I know philosophy has softened over the years - but many schools of yoga posit that women with their periods should not do inversions (for a variety of reasons - some more scientifically supportable than others). Some go a step further in the belief that menstruating women are best to do a specific practice full of - wait for it - supported back bends and forward bends. This is to support endocrine function and to allow for quietness in practice at a time when some women have very little energy.

Mind you, other women do have energy. For example, me at the age of 18 and 20 and 25 etc. I could get with special practice (sort of, sometimes), though I often envied the people being active in their active class. What almost threw me over the edge, however, was the fact that I was often further moderated, by my teacher, who believed that I wasn't using props adequately to "soften" the poses. (Note: Softness is a complex concept in yoga, but you don't need to be familiar with it to appreciate the story.) We clashed over this on a few occasions. Neither of us was the shrinking type.

What I finally just realized - this week, after years and years - is that my teacher was teaching me from the vantage point of one going through extensive hormonal transition - a woman who (as I now truly understand) was highly invested in poses and supported variations to stabilize hormones - perhaps even to the point that she projected her investment onto others. The huge irony is that, just now - after years of being vaguely irritated by certain poses because of this - I am SO advantaged by that teaching. My body somehow remembers everything I was taught (technique I rarely used in my own yoga - because it wasn't the right season). And finally, after so much time, it makes perfect sense.

Now that's yoga, I'm happy to relate.


  1. 25 yrs of yoga experience ???


    Here's to good health!!

    1. It sounds more fancy that it turns out to be in practice :-) Here's to good health, indeed!

  2. Isn't it great when you find out that something you learned long ago, no matter arcane it felt at the time, illuminates the problem at hand?

  3. Such an interesting post, K!! Last night I was lamenting that my yoga practice has really suffered since last year's back injury as PT and pilates have taken over the time I once devoted to yoga. :-(

    1. Thanks T! I think that PT and pilates are the fitness of choice, sometimes, but they do eat into the yoga time. And, I find, nothing is like yoga but yoga. Hope you are able to get back into regular practice soon. In the meanwhile, good for you for being good to your body with other therapies. There's only so much time in the day.