Wednesday, December 10, 2008


"A broad margin of leisure is as beautiful in a man's life as in a book. Haste makes waste, no less in life than in housekeeping. Keep the time, observe the hours of the universe, not of the cars."  Henry David Thoreau

Some insidious examples of society promoting invasive inescapable "multitasking" - in my gym not only do they have music playing constantly, but they even have speakers in the toilets - god forbid should you have a quiet moment in which to....think.  On the treadmill, they have a screen which allows you to watch television and listen to you ipod whilst running. Has silence become illegal? Another surreptitious and irritating example is the television screens that have popped up in the subways - even if you can avoid looking at them (and considering  there's little else to look at it's almost impossible to focus your gaze elsewhere) you can't avoid hearing them. (Thanks to Mara for reminding me of this latter example.)

Brazil is the only country which has clicked and banned bill board advertising! (  I have no way in which to avoid being visually provoked by enormous colored boards promoting mobile telephones, usually (at least here in Italy) with nudity except by wearing blinkers. 

Can advertising posters and supermarket background music be considered as "multitasking" activities? I think so. You can only, according to Buddhist philosophy, take in information through one sense at a time, therefore we are constantly "flitting" extremely quickly from seeing, to hearing, tasting, listening ect. SO if you are eating your dinner in front of the tv, chances are you are not really  tasting what you are eating but simply watching the screen. Then you switch and to tasting your hamburger, but not taking in the visual stimulus. One always "wins" over the other.   So looking at bare breasted women on bill boards trying to sell me cell phones on my way to the  studio forces me to switch my attention away from something a little more worthwhile. Which could (and should) simply be my walk to work. 

Can you  multitask in the yoga room? Yes. I think mentally starting a film in your head whilst holding a yoga position is a form of multitasking. Let me put this question to you:  

Have you ever found yourself reading a book, getting to the bottom of the page and then realizing that you haven't actually absorbed a word of what you have read as you were thinking about something else entirely? Well, the same thing happens on the yoga mat. You are so wrapped up in your thoughts that you are not really paying attention to what you are doing and feeling.  I'm not suggesting that one should stop thinking whilst doing yoga (impossible - as someone once said about meditation and thoughts:  "if someone should point a gun to my head and say "STOP THINKING!!!!" I wouldn't be able to do so, so why should it be easy for me whilst sitting on a mediation cushion?!"). What I do suggest is that whilst doing yoga try to reduce this cognitive multitasking to a minimum:  as thoughts come in, one could  try to gently redirect ones attention to what one is doing and feeling, preferably using your breathing a point of reference, as a tool. You may have to re-direct thoughts, and re-focus on your breathing a 150 times during a position, and that is fine, the important thing is to remember to do it, and to do so without self-critizing. Congratulate yourself on remembering to bring your mind back to "here and now" rather than punishing yourself for having been distracted. 

And no, I do not use music  during yoga practice!

“Simplify, Simplify, Simplify”– Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


"Too many times we confuse motion with progress." Albert Einstein

"When you are chopping a carrot, just chop a bloody carrot!!"  Said my meditation instrutor  indicating my homework to be attempted up until our next visit. Ok perhaps he didn't say "bloody" (actually he definitely didn't say "bloody" as he was talking in  Italian - but THAT was the message).

Sounds easy? Well you try it. How many times are we doing something but thinking of the next thing on the list which we can't wait to cross off? Or rather  - how many times do you do something whilst thinking about the job at hand? If you are like me, worryingly rarely. I'm usualy worrying about what I'm going to make for dinner tomorrow, and whether Nina has wet her knickers AGAIN (potty training at the moment).  

“The past is a history, the future is a mystery, and the present is a gift. Thats why its called a present.”

- The Great Oogway (Kung Fu Panda)

What's wrong with forward thinking? With planning? Well..."forward thinking" means "The future". Surely "living" is about what's going on "now". If you are constantly projecting yourself forward ultimately you are pushing the Fast Forward button of life. And translated that means you are propelling yourself to towards your grave. It seems a bit of a shame to me. Living means what you are doing now. Not tomorrow or yesterday.

What are some of the biggest obstacles to Living Now? Well to name but a few ....ipods, the radio, mobile phones, Facebook,  Myspace, Twitter, television, books ect.....and how we use them. Ie. together. Facebook on it's own can be an  incredible distraction to living the present moment, but if we're uploading our photos whilst chatting on the phone we're really not doing ourselves any favors. We are not killing two birds with one stone, we are creating distance from ourselves. And on a physiological level we are suffering for it. Mutitasking produces stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin, so if you are a constant habitual multitasker you are more likely than not, to be  living under a constant  state of stress. 

If multitasking  is your own personal  pathology remember that living also means resting, and relaxing. 

Mutitasking. What a blight. 

I was once lucky enough to have worked  for a great company called "Ubiquity". According to the dictionary "ubiquity" means "the state or capacity to be everywhere at the same time". I presume the name was chosen as it seemed to represent some sort of modern utopia to which everyone should head for. To me it represents a nightmare.  I don't want to be "everywhere at the same time" I want to be HERE, thank you very much. Preferably doing nothing (if it hasn't been made illegal yet.)

"People forget how fast you did a job - but they remember how well you did it." Howard Newton 

Doing is not living, FEELING is living. 

A recipe of Facebook combined with text messaging whilst listening to the ipod has nothing to do with feeling/living  but everything to do with escaping. What are we so sacred of? Ourselves? But that's the best thing we have got.

When we're on our deathbeds what are you going to say?  " know in my hay day I could text, read and do the lotus position  at the same time". Well hey. Pat on the back. Or "when I was really diligent I had 315 friends on Facebook.!" Well, you know what? that's no indication of a social life. On the contrary I'd say it's an indication that you need to get one. 

Is mutitasking counter productive?

Yes. Although we are physically able to do two or more things at once it doesn't mean doing them well. Imagine a stream, then imagine dividing it into separate smaller ones. Dividing this body of water  up into forks means  that each time the stream is separated and redirected, it loses its volume and strength. And exactly the same can be said for your attention and concentration. (this has been proved scientifically ). So giving something your "undivided attention" means giving it you all. On the contrary, multitasking means doing a lot of things at much less that you maximum capacity. So the outcome, the the quality of what you are doing is obviously going to suffer for it. Would it not be better to just do one thing at a time and do it well?! 

I have heard the figure 650 billion dollars being bantered about, as being the annual cost to the American economy due to the pitfalls of multitasking.  Personally I couldn't give a damn about the tax payers money, I'm more worried about the tax payers state of mind, and if we're talking 650 billion as a financial loss,  I wonder what the psychological losses incurred amount to.

B. Alan Wallace quotes a tibetan doctor  in his wonderful book "The Attention Revolution" who states " From the perspective of Tibetan medicine, you (people in the west) are all suffering from nervous disorders. But given how ill you are, you are coping remarkably well!"

Part two next week........

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The new Lotus Pocus yoga studio - pictures

Ok - rather  than a proper "post", this is blatently  just a photo opportunity to introduce the Lotus Pocus studio to those who haven't yet come to see it for themselves.  Last week two good friends Arianna and Marzia (two wonderful photographers  and founders of "Inside s.a.s" if you ever need any professional photos taken!) came to take some pics for me - so here they are!

The practice space

Inside the changing room
A corner of the upstairs room

Thursday, October 23, 2008

"Happyness" and Anger

Recently  someone complained that my posts were too long, too professional, too "distant" and far too English! Although I can't do much about the latter, I thought I'd give this shorter more personal account to satisfy the more capitious amoungst us. 

I read a wonderful article in the New York Times called "The social animal" by David Brooks. Talking about the fact that people are "socially embedded creatures" he states:  "Neuroscientists have shown that we have permeable minds - When we watch someone doing something, we re-create their mental processes in our own brains as if we were performing that action ourselves, and it is through this process of deep imitation that we learn to empathize, and share culture." 

Well...this explains a lot of things. Like why it is that half way through the film "In pursuit of happyness" ("la ricerca dell Felicit√†" here in Italy)  I had to turn it off.  Why as a child I could never tolerate Lassie and how come I cry (literally - but with happiness) every time someone wins a gold medal in the Olympics no matter what nationality the winner happens to be. It's because I experience, I live what I see. We live what we see. And the 

pain that WIll Smith was very dexterously dealing with, was simply too close to the bone - simply too REAL for me to be able to enjoy. I didn't want to live what he was living through. SO I turned it off much to the disappointment/annoyance of Valerio (hubby). 

What implications does this have with anger? 

When I am desperately trying to get the kids dressed in the morning to go to school,  I try and squeeze them into my own personal living  rhythm and pace (which rightly so they resist). WHich at 08.45 in the morning is always too fast. Melitta immediately picks up on my need for velocity. Usually by slowing down. I usually have one response to this: 

I get cross. So what happens? Well....according to   to the neuroscientists above here mentioned, Melitta sees I am frustrated, she re-creates my mental state in her own mind and lives what I am going through. Sharp intake of breath. What is worse is that if she sees I do this every time I am under pressure she lives this experience and therefore REACTING (rather than acting) in this way under those circumstances  becomes a normal habit for her too.  Terrifying.

So what is the solution? 

Not getting cross is simply NOT  one (unless one is willing to go and hide away in a cave in the mountains - but personally I prefer Milan). Although I believe that every one has the ability to change I also believe that being cross and angry is not going to go away. The trick is not to "suffocate" this intense negative emotion but to DEAL with it.

Road map

This is my personal "road map" on what to do during the  "PLEASE get your socks ON!!!"  moments:  (ok - in theory at least) : 

I notice I get cross   (and this is the key - try to get a little time in between the anger and the reaction to the anger, and simply by noting what's going on  you are automatically allowing  yourself a little bit of mental space, in which you can choose how to "move")

I breathe slower

I lower my tone of voice

I speak more slowly

I make eye contact

Automatically this has an effect on your nervous system. Simply by slowing your breathing down your body feels more relaxed. (And then maybe Melitta - for example -  picking up on this   will feel too more relaxed too. Or at least NOT  like she wants to bang her head against a brick wall :-)  

A quick yogic tangent

In yoga, we are doing a position of balance, just before we fall our breathing becomes short and shallow. At that moment if you can remember to do the opposite - slow everything down, usually you can regain your balance as your nervous system receives the message that you are in fact quite relaxed, so there's no need to move (put rather "bluntly"). Of course the opposite is also true. If you breath shallowly your nervous system thinks it's time to MOVE. To DO something.

I like the idea of Melitta and Nina  learning the habit to,  in times of stress, simply breathe (slower) and wait.  And there's only one way she's going to do that - and that is by watching the adults around her doing the same. Gulp. Seeing it's difficult for ME I don't presume it's going to be simple for her either. But has to start. 

I here used the example of my daughter - but of course it could be anyone-  boss, your wife, husband, colleague. Whoever it is you usually get angry at  try as an experiment, to at least appear calm - so as not to "contaminate" the person you are talking to. You never know perhaps appearing to be calm will actually have the effect of making you feel calm. Stomping around huffing and puffing definitely  won't. 

To make it short:  slow down, breathe, wait, act.  It's not difficult to do, it's just difficult to remember. 

It's worth a try.

All the best.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Strength - getting down to the bare bones

The crane position

When discussing the merits of yoga what comes to mind is an increase in flexibility and concentration, sense of balance and interior calm, but rarely do you hear about the increase and importance of strength in yoga. Strength seems relegated to the supposedly sweaty depths of the weights room of a gym rather than the calming realms of the yoga studio. Which is a shame. Strength should and does play an integral part of yoga for many reasons; muscles are what keep the scaffolding of your bones in place, so it's worth keeping them strong. But apart from this, allowing your body to be put under physical pressure, to withstand weight does wonders for your skeleton - for your bones.

I've heard anecdotal evidence that one of the first human space trips ever undertaken had the russian astronaughts being carried out of the space ship - not due to some kind of hero's welcome but because their bone density had decreased to such an extent that walking may have caused bones to simply crumble and disintegrate. Although this is a nice story I've found little to back it up - but it does illustrate the concept nicely which is this;

Bones need weight (and pressure) to retain their density.

What happens to bones in a weight-less pressure-less atmosphere?

Weightless and Pressure-less atmosphere can be translated into “micro gravity” which is what astronaughts find themselves in up in space. The effects to the skeleton are devastating. Consider that here on earth we lose from between 1 – 2% of bone mass every ten years , whereas up in space that amount is lost every month. What does this mean? Well, it's bad news for those wanting to travel to Mars! the biggest obstacle to getting someone to the red planet is not financial nor technical but physiological; the bones of the astronaught would not withstand the journey. His or her skeleton would disintegrate before getting there.

So, for those of us back on earth what losing bone density adds up to is;


This is a bone-weakening disease that effects 75 million people through out Europe, USA and Japan. With age bones become so fragile that it takes a simple fall or knock to cause

a devastating fracture due to the decrease in mineral bone mass. 1 woman in 4 suffers from oseoporosis, but don't think men are exempt; 1 in 10 men suffer too. It's frightening to think that half of all women over 50 suffer from fractures due to this disease. Often called the “silent thief” , it surreptitiously does it's damage unseen and you don't actually realize until it's too late, until a bone has been broken.

Bones need stimulation and pressure to combat the loss in bone density. What happens when bones are not put under pressure? Basically they lose their ability to absorb nutrients. Technically it's a process called "bone resorption" which in layman's terms means that calcium is leaked from the bone into the blood stream. The bones without weight find themselves literally starved of the nutrients they need. However using weight and putting your body under physical pressure stimulates the vibrations of muscles against bones which in turn increases the bone absorption of nutrients fundamental to skeletal health.

If bones are not being "fed" and therefore "restored" they start to suffer.

I am not suggesting that all you need is yoga to combat oseperosis! What I am suggesting is that by carrying out and holding certain asana (yoga positions) one can stimulate bone growth. And the more you do that, the less fragile your bones will be, especially if combined with a calcium rich diet (be careful! fizzy

drinks block calcium absorption in bones, so if you take a calcium tablet with a swig of coke it's pretty pointless), exposure to sunlight (vitamin D) to name but a few.

The wheel pose

So this is good news for the weights room! And of course for those doing yoga - but only if one includes asana which work on strength in your practice, which is what I have found as an instructor, most women hate! What a shame considering it is women who benefit the most.

A little controversially in the yoga world perhaps, I am an advocate for weight training – this plus yoga is a great recipe for, amongst other things, healthy bones.

Another yogic food for thought as regards osteoporosis: the elderly who suffer the most from this disease break bones usually due to a fall of some kind. Why do they fall? Because they lose their balance. (seems obvious huh?) . If one does yoga regularly, including positions of balance in their daily (I'm a positive thinker) practice, there will be an improvement in ones sense of balance, meaning less risk of falling, which if you suffer from osteoporosis (and even if you don't) can only be a good thing. Even a the simple yet incredibly effective tree (vriksha-asana) position done regularly will increase your sense of balance. Try it.

Strength promoting asana include;

Crane pose (Bakasana)

Peacock pose (Mayurasana)

The plank pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

The wheel pose (chakra-asana)

The tree pose (balance rather than strength)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Low back pain - Limbering up the lumbar spine

I've just spent three wonderful weeks in Sicily staying with another two families near Siracusa. One of the wonderful things about my "work" is that a even during the holidays yoga plays a part. Often when those around me hear that I am a yoga instructor, they are curious and even "brave" enough to experiment in this practice perhaps never before approached. This is because most people have some sort of ailment they'd like to get the better of. And Roberto is no exception. One of the family members on this southern holiday he arrived from Milan in considerable discomfort from quite severe lower back pain.

Roberto has suffered from lower back pain for about ten years. This all started in Venezuela where he went for an unfortunate ride on a motorboat which was going a little too fast and driven a little over enthusiastically for a time period which was simply too long for his back to handle. The boat which was constantly hitting the surface of the water caused vibrations to the spine which translated into micro traumas of which he is still paying for today. His intervertebral disks (the cartilaginous shock absorbers of the spine that provide a “cushion” between the vertebrae whilst holding them together) in his lumbar spine have been literally "squashed" and bulge out slightly causing him great discomfort, and the passing of time has not helped the situation.

Where and what is the lumbar spine
The lumbar spine consists of five vertebra and which make up the third and lowest (inward) curve of the back (the inward curves of the spine are called "lordosis"). Your ribs are attached to your thoracic spine, below which begins the lumbar spine - If you draw an imaginary straight line from your navel back through your body towards your spine it would correspond with part of the lumbar region. Unless your navel is particularly high!

If you consider that with age and the force of gravity your spine is being constantly "weighed" down and shortened (in fact if you think about it those of 30 years of age tend to be taller than they are at 60 - people do shrink with age as their spine succumbs to years of literally being put under pressure. Unless you do yoga of course!). So ten years down the line it is not surprising that Robert's back problems have not been resolved but have steadily worsened.

So due perhaps to the holiday atmosphere but more so the constant pain he decided to dabble with yoga.

Roberto (like most in Milan) is a busy man and I didn't want to neither take up a lot of his time (I didn't want to put him off basically!) nor overwhelm him on his first yoga experience, so I decided to give him four simple yoga positions to try each morning. A simple daily ten minute yoga "program" to get him hopefully on the right track to a pain free if not healthy back.

If there are any of you at home who suffer from something similar I invite you to give this sequence (ideal for beginners but just as useful for those more "advanced") a little try. I would be very interested in and grateful for any feedback.

So here it is:
1) Firstly a lengthening of the lumbar spine is advisable. I opted for something passive and pleasurable. Lying on the yoga mat, tummy up, legs bent at the knee, slip a rolled up towel under the lower half of your lumbar spine. This causes the pelvis to tilt slightly encouraging the natural lowest inward curve of your spine to flatten against the floor. This means the intervetrabral disks which have been squashed (in Roberto's case), are relieved by being given a little more room.

I recommend for those trying this at home that you remain in this position for as long as you have time for and for as long as you feel comfortable. And it should be comfortable!

2) Now the knees are pulled to the chest, and rest comfortably in the crook of your elbow. If you can grab hold of your wrist great, if not any part of your hand will do. If this position should cause the chin to come up and head to tilt back (as in Roberto's case) it is necessary to tuck a cushion under the head in order to keep the chin down and therefore the cervical spine (your neck) in the correct position.

3) The feet are then raised to the ceiling (this for many guys, especially those - including women - who are relatively inflexible, may be sightly challenging). The hands should clasp the inner edge of the foot. The knees are in line with the ankles. If your knees resist this aperture, no problem but don't be tempted to widen the gap between your ankles if this means losing the alignment with your knees. Your chin should be tucked in and down slightly , so use a cushion under your head if necessary ("Alla Roberto").

4) Sitting up now (depending just how much your back causes you pain, you might find rolling on to one side and pushing yourself up with your hands compromises your back less. The same goes for pregnant women practicing yoga and getting up from the floor).
Bring your legs forward out in front of you into a diamond/kite shape (knees out to the side and feet together.) The further away your feet are from you the more challenging this asana will be, and the more your spine will be lengthened. Bring your hands passively resting on to your feet and your elbows outside the line of your tibia. Allow your head to fall down ward passively and with every out breath feel the force of gravity pulling your back and head toward the floor (but DON'T bob up and down! Simply allow your body to fall down a millimeter more and stay there until the next out breath when you may feel the desire to lower even further. If you feel the need to bring yourself up with every in breath it means your pushing yourself too far.)

Another good thing to do would be a twist. Lying on your back, soles of your feet against the floor, wide apart from each other yet tucked in quite close to your buttocks, allow both knees to come down to your left and turn your head to the right. Your arms are spread out either side of you, in line with your shoulders. You will have one leg resting on top of the other. Remain in this position as long as you like, allowing the knees to fall downward with every out breath. When you wish to change, gently pull the knee of the top leg up towards the ceiling and allow the lower leg to passively follow. Re-align your feet and then repeat bringing both knees down to the opposite side.

I would dedicate ten to fifteen minutes to this sequence, and suggest that it is practiced upon waking, although it will at any time of day, bring relief. The best results come with patience and constant practice over a long period of time. Am I asking too much?!

I'm hoping that Roberto will have the self discipline and time needed to try it out for at least a couple of months after which I'll "invite" him back to share his feedback with you (but only if it's positive! ;-) .