Monday, October 28, 2013

The Ridiculous and the Sublime

"Revelation... Transformation... Authentic Self... Higher Self... Access... Capacity"

By themselves, the words above seem harmless, or even uplifting. And yet, I cringe each time I hear a yoga teacher use them. What I call New Age Speak has become a pet peeve of mine.

I was at a yoga retreat several years back, studying in an idyllic setting with a celebrity yoga teacher. I was completely distracted by what she was teaching because she was using all these New Age buzzwords (and other words that I am almost positive she had made up). I became irritated because I couldn't understand why would she use these words, when there are others that are far more easily understood and less trendy. Was she was trying to compensate for feeling insecure? Did she want us all to know how much philosophy and psychology she had studied? Does she really talk this way in her everyday life?

I'm sure that some people do speak this way in everyday conversations. However, when we are trying to appeal to everyone and anyone, it's important - in my opinion - that we chose language that goes down easily.

From the Ridiculous...

I gave a stress management talk for a human resources summit once, and I asked them to stand up and do some yogic breathing. As I was talking them through an aligned standing posture, I mentioned the word "buttocks". A few nervous giggles broke out, and pretty soon the entire room of over 100 was laughing. I was so used to using anatomical terms that I forgot to change my language for the layperson. Years later, I still remember that lesson.

Last night, I watched a yoga documentary that included interviews with several of modern yoga teachers who are globally recognized. These teachers were asked to explain different aspects of the yoga practice and why it was so powerful. Some of them articulated the complex concepts with clarity and everyday language. Some of them used so many of these buzzwords that I became distracted again. I had to rewind the video several times, and by the end of the documentary, I was very annoyed.

So, here's my rant:

New Age speak does not make your ideas more available; in fact, it can distance you from your audience. If you are going to use an unusual term, explain it; don't assume people know what you mean. There are always easier ways to explain whatever concept you are trying to get across. And,

if you don't know the concept well enough to phrase it in a simple way, then maybe you shouldn't be talking about it.

...To the Sublime

By contrast, when I am with a teacher who does have a clear grasp of the concept as well as the ability to express it in a way the audience will understand, those concepts sink in and take hold more easily for me. In those cases, I feel all the understanding was already there, hidden inside a locked case, but I just needed the right words to open the lock. Comprehension floods in and takes root. Those are the concepts that I can then easily express, without the need for fancy, flowery, superfluous New Age speak.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Immunity Community, a Yogic Perspective

Last week, I received a flu shot and was reminded of just how amazing my body is.

As I felt the effects of the virus moving through my body, I reflected on what was happening inside, a similar practice that I ask people with cancer to do every day. My body scan took me on a tour of my immune system, a vast network that recruits participants from every other system.

The Concept of the Immune System

What is the immune system? Can I point to its physical location, like I would point to my respiratory system, or my skeletal system? The answer is no, because my immune response is a holistic one. If I take a look at my experience with my flu shot, I catch a glimpse into this holistic system, a complex Rube Goldberg-like series of chain reactions.

Act I: Enter the Pathogen

I'm not a fan of getting poked with needles, so the first response that I experienced was my nervous system's stress response. As soon as the nurse walked into the exam room with the prepared needle, my breathing sped up and my heart beat faster, triggered by my desire to get away from what my mind perceived as a threat. I used my senses - eyes and ears - to discern this potential threat.

If I had been given the spray version of the flu shot, my nose and respiratory system would have been next to be triggered. Instead, I received the shot in my arm. My nervous system, skin, muscles, fascia, blood and lymph vessels were affected immediately by this breach in my defenses. Within 20 minutes, I could feel my body's effects to receiving the foreign pathogen as my upper arm, the deltoid muscle, grew sore. By that evening, mild soreness had spread to several joints, and my skin felt mildly tender.

Act II: Community Response

The flu virus was delivered into my system via the blood circulating through my muscles and the rest of my body. Running parallel to the circulatory system is the lymphatic system, a network that looks like a fishing net with masses at the larger intersections, called lymph nodes.  A high concentration of lymph nodes are located at my neck, armpit, chest, groin and abdomen. My lymphatic system acts like an intelligent garbage-collection service for my body: it slowly drains through my body, allowing the blood cells to attack potential threats, which they then identify and store the information about for later protection. Like a very well-connected agent at the airport security checkpoint, my lymphatic system will inform the rest of my lymph nodes about a threat - in this case, the flu virus - so that when it appears on the scene again and tries to drain through another node, my body can disarm it before it does any damage. The limitations to the incredible lymphatic system are that it has no pump to drain the lymph fluid through my body, and the fluid only moves in one direction: from the periphery in towards my abdomen.

I can support this lymphatic network several ways. By practicing diaphragmatic breathing, I massage my thoracic duct, a large gland that runs through my respiratory diaphragm and "escorts" the lymph fluid out of my body. I can also move my body and practice isometric exercises or massage my skin to encourages lymph drainage, because the cycling of muscles contracting and relaxing, or the movement of blood through the vessels that are close to the lymphatic vessels will promote lymph movement. Passively opening my joints, using gravity and my body position and reducing tension also supports lymph drainage.

Act III: The Yoga Ally

I awoke the day after my flu shot feeling uncomfortable, a mild headache brewing, and a sense that the systems we not running efficiently. Still in bed, I began a supportive routine, one that I teach my students with cancer so that they can also support their immune response.

Bridge Pose

    Windshield Wipers
  1. Neck circulation: I gently massage my neck, from ears to collarbones, then slowly shaking the head no, then slowly nodding the head yes.
  2. Armpit circulation: I gently massage the skin in and around my armpits, then from my elbows towards my chest, followed by shoulder circles and bridge pose, to stimulate the lymph vessels in my armpits and chest.
  3. Upper body twisting: keeping my knees bent and pointing upward, I twist my torso towards one arm, then the other.
  4. Knees to chest: closing/opening my hip joints by pushing my knees into my chest, then away, followed by circling my knees around my hips. 
  5. Ankles/knees/hips: imitating a frog swimming in water, I circle my ankles and hips,
    Banana Pose
    as well as bend my knees; after, I straighten my legs and focus on flexing and pointing my feet.
  6. Lower body twisting: with my knees bent and feet wide apart, I keep my torso still and drop my knees from one side then the other (slow windshield wipers).
  7. Side bends: I come into the banana pose by straightening my legs and moving them to one side with my arm extended overhead.
  8. Resting butterfly: Bringing the bottoms of my feet together and opening my bent knees out to the side, I open my arms as well, so that both my armpits and my "legpits" are being stretched.
    Resting Butterfly (with props)
  9. Seated breathing: I focus on expanding my ribs in all directions as I inhale (diaphragm moves down), then narrowing my ribs inward (diaphragm moves up).
  10. Meditation: with each breath, I focus on what my body is doing to manage this pathogen. I notice all my systems that have rallied to take care of it, and breathe out a sense of gratitude for all that my body does.
    Breathing, Meditation

This sequence is constantly evolving and growing, and it has been greatly influenced by many teachers, students and research, including: Tias and Surya Little of Prajna Yoga, Cheri Clampett and Arturo Peal of Therapeutic Yoga, Tari Prinster of Y4C, the Lymphoedema Support Group.


  • Share my blog with others, and invite them to sign up. This is one of the best ways I have to get news out to you all!
  • Dec 8 1:30-4:00: Winter Wellness, a Gentle Yoga Workshop for Your Health, at Willow Glen Yoga. See the Events page for more info. This is Lorien's last workshop of the year, and will feature LIVE music!
  • Remember, if you can't make it to class, you can always pop in my DVD, Healing Yoga for Wellness, available online at and, and in stores at Breathe Los Gatos, Pacific Healing Arts, Cancer CAREpoint resource center, East West Bookshop and Kaiser Mind-Body-Wellness center.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Naming Our (Cancer) Fears

“I don’t like that word,” she told me, handing me back a flyer for my upcoming yoga workshop. 
The flyer read Yoga for Cancer Survivors in big, bold letters.
“What word,” I asked. “… Cancer?”
“No,” she said, “survivor. What does that even mean? I didn’t survive cancer, I live with my cancer. Every day.”

Petra Lentz-Snow, practicing
in Death Valley
She is not alone. Many people are put off by the term survivor. Some don’t feel it applies to them until they are free of cancer, some feel it’s too heroic a term, especially compared to the countless loved ones who struggled and did not survive, and some identify more as a survivor of cancer treatment survivor than of their disease. The word cancer has many emotions tied to it, and so does the term survivor.

Some people view their cancer journey as a minor detour, while others see it as a life-changing turning point. One of my students continued to leave her hair very short, even after her chemotherapy was done and her hair had come back in. When I asked her why, she replied that she wanted a daily reminder to never return to her unbalanced way of life, which she believes attributed to her cancer diagnosis. She wanted a visual that would keep her perspective broad and her heart open, which is what her diagnosis did for her. Her cancer journey was a learning experience for her.

For those of us who live a life with goal-oriented action in mind, always striving for the next summit, perhaps at the expense of our health or emotional balance, a cancer diagnosis can be a turning point, and an opportunity to explore other ways to be in our world. 

I think the biggest reason why the word survivor prickles people is that it implies that the person is completely done with their cancer journey. To survive cancer means, in our minds at least, to be rid of it for good. Unfortunately, cancer doesn't always agree to stay gone. But to dwell on the idea that it may return affects our health and, ironically, our ability to keep it at bay.

So what name do we use?

In medical language, living with cancer refers to the time period between diagnosis and treatment, living though cancer refers to the treatment time period, and living beyond cancer refers to the time after treatment. 

“Do you think that a cancer diagnosis is inevitable, that we are all at risk?” A friend texted me one day. She was on a daunting cancer journey that quickly metastasized, and she was told that, even with treatment, her life would be cut short by cancer. If you look at the statistics predicting how many of us will receive a diagnosis, it is tempting to believe we will all have cancer at some point, and it’s also tempting to feel hopeless about it. I knew what she was really asking, so I answered that question instead: “I believe that we can live with cancer.” 

I want all my loved ones to do everything they can to tip the scales against cancer and in their own favor, including living without fear. But if we are to live with cancer and without fear, we must understand this disease and understand our own fears around it. When I told my friend that I believe we can live with cancer, I wasn’t meaning the medical term. I meant that we can learn to have a partnership with our cancer cells, through knowledge, acceptance and presence. We can recognize and defend against this disease’s opportunistic quality, we can accept life’s challenges and joys with equanimity and we can build stronger, deeper ties to our bodies, breath, mind and emotions, sinking into our present moment again and again.

“I see the partnership,” she replied. 

Last Thursday, she left this world. Without fear.

Monday, October 7, 2013

An Unlikely Ashtangi

"You have to take this class. It's incredible, and the teacher is such a gift."

Mary had been singing the same song to me for months now. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought, resisting the idea that I could even survive the class, let alone enjoy it. She was speaking about the Mysore class, which meets each weekday morning - early in the morning.

"Whatever it is that you think it is, it's not. Just come and try it."

I trusted Mary's opinion. She had been taking classes with me for years. She knew many of my teachers, and she has been on the yoga path for long enough to be able to discern quality in a practice as well as the teacher delivering that practice. But...

The time slot just didn't work for me...
I didn't move that well that early in the morning (my home practice ideally started closer to 9 am)...
My chronic neck pain might flare with all that weight bearing on my arms...
... The list went on and on.

And then one day, all those barriers fell away.

To be honest, the catalyst was me stepping on the scale and seeing that my weight had gone up significantly. I hadn't been doing anything really physical because of my pain, and the numbers reflected a more couch potato lifestyle that I was heading towards. I committed to making a change, and then the universe removed the obstacles:

The time slot grew wider; "come any time, Monday through Thursday between 6:00-8:45 am to do your practice at your own pace."

My home practice was no longer working; when school started, my daughter and husband began getting up earlier, and my son's work schedule kept him home most mornings. Trying to fit in an hour - or even 30 minutes - while my family went about their morning routines became too difficult.

I came to a point with my chronic pain that I wasn't willing to limit myself anymore. Through trial and error, I learned the poses that made things go from uncomfortable to unbearable, and I started a conversation with the teacher, Erika Abrahamian, about what I could do. I wrote to her that, because of my limitations, "my practice is a little messy." She replied,

"Modifications are fine... We all practice messily."

And with that, I stepped into the Mysore room 2 months ago, and haven't left.

It surprised me that I lasted a week. Then a month. But there is something so embracing in the Mysore room, like I've come home. I've always loved libraries; they have been my sanctuary - my temple, even - for years. The hush that some people find oppressive, I find soothing. I feel that in the Mysore room. Conversations are only as loud as necessary. The sounds are limited to breathing, stepping, falling, stretching, doors opening, laughter and the occasional "yesss" from Erika that always makes me smile, even if it's not directed towards me.

That's the thing with Mysore: you feel connected

I cheer on Matece's handstand drop, or Jennifer's drop back, or Tony's silent jump through, just as much as I cheer on my own twist in revolved side angle pose (with my back knee down and my hands just resting on my thigh, not pressing, because I want to twist from my torso strength, not my arms).

I think of this practice as the first layer of soil at the top of the Grand Canyon, and I am slowly - every so slowly - making my way down to the canyon floor.

For those of you curious, or maybe doubtful about your own ability to take on this practice, let me paint you a picture of what my practice looks like:

It is slow. Super slow. I could easily spend 3 hours, because I luxuriate in each breath and I'm careful with each transition.
I don't practice all of the sequence of poses called the Primary Series, even if I could remember which pose to do next. I keep my breaths the same as those doing all the poses, but I skip or modify what I consider risky for my situation.
The 2-chair headstand setup
I use a lot of props. Erika began teasing me about the chairs, blankets and blocks that I use to construct my inversion "forts" as a way to keep the weight off my neck.
I meditate at the end of my practice. Apparently, this became a "thing" in the Mysore room, and now more people are concluding their practice with some time in a seated meditation. Who knew this limited, slow poke yogini could influence that kind of wonderful-ness?

I've had some good days, where I did more than one Chaturanga (a low push up). I've had some frustrating days, when my back or my neck rebelled against the practice completely. I keep going. I know these are not the best and worst days that I will have in this practice. Last week, I tried to skip going to the Mysore room and doing a portion of the practice at home instead, because my pain was intense and kept me awake most of the night. The very next day, I returned to the Mysore room; my home practice wasn't enough for me, and not just because of the limited poses. There is something so compelling about going through your practice, but doing it together with others.

There is an energy in the Mysore room that keeps you going, pulling you along when you're flagging. 

Sometimes I space out and look around... okay, a lot of times I space out and look around. There are some really athletic yogis in the room, some who do the entire series - with all the gymnastic transitions that are available, and it's beautiful to watch. There are yoga studio owners (plural) who show up each week. There are yoga teachers - lots of teachers, from multiple studios. There are folks who have been practicing these sequences for years. There are some who have just started, like me. There are people in their twenties and some that might be 3 times that, but I would never guess their true age. Dedication, intention and grace has a youthful effect.

I know I had to come to this practice under certain circumstances. I'm so happy that I did. I can feel changes in me, week by week. They are slow, and it's only when I step back and gain some perspective that I really notice. I feel the same way in the Grand Canyon, by the way! Maybe next month I'll explore the next layer...


  • Share my blog with others, and invite them to sign up. This is one of the best ways I have to get news out to you all!
  • Dec 8 1:30-4:00: Winter Wellness, a Gentle Yoga Workshop for Your Health, at Willow Glen Yoga. See the Events page for more info.
  • Remember, if you can't make it to class, you can always pop in my DVD, Healing Yoga for Wellness, available online at and, and in stores at Breathe Los Gatos, Pacific Healing Arts, Cancer CAREpoint resource center, East West Bookshop and Kaiser Mind-Body-Wellness center.