Yoga brings ego, Meditation brings pain.

Just this month alone, several senior long term meditators that I know have to undergone surgery due to musculoskeletal issues. It turns out, there are plenty of others who have been suffering quite significant pain related issue from long term meditation practice.

For years, I have been advocating the practice of Yoga and Meditation for its amazing mental, emotional, physical and spiritual benefits. Anyone who has practiced Yoga and Meditation for a while can enumerate a list of benefits but that is not my focus in this write-up.

My focus is practical and it zeroes in on what science tells us about the working of the mind and body. I mean no disrespect to the Buddhist tradition or to the spiritual Gurus that embrace the big picture.

My observation on this two groups of practitioners from Yoga body works and meditators and their long term destiny has prompted me to change my own routine so as to handle these 2 practices with much greater care and I hope you benefit too.

Meditation without Yoga is painful

I see meditators in greater risk of sitting disease comparing to long hours’ office workers. Both are equally people who spend a huge amount of their waking hours sitting, each sits to serve different purpose.

Just last week, I had my usual Catalist session with a group of office workers and usually we would end the session with a sitting mindfulness practice. What really caught my attention was the fact that 2 participants having the same reaction to sitting. Both of them responded having numbness on one leg while sitting.

Then I asked “so, what did you do when you experience the numbness” and the first one answered “I made some movement so that it wouldn’t increase the intensity of numbness” and the other answered “I stayed with numbness, it failed to disturb my sitting practice”.

It kept me curious for a while and I asked “Have you been practicing meditation regularly” and he said “yes, how do you know?”.   

Is the language familiar? As a long term meditator, we are not exposed to vulnerability of stress-worsened condition such as hypertension or depression. Scientifically, for common people, our brain’s executive center, located behind the forehead in our prefrontal cortex gives us a unique ability to anticipate the future and guard against danger but have its downside disadvantage of worrying about it as well as thinking about the past and regret. Meditators are trained to have a mind undisturbed by such mental process.

In meditation, we use our mind to direct attention to the body. For example, a common way to begin meditation, we can rest attention in our breathing. And after some times, the body responds, our heart rate begins to change, our breath becomes calmer and even our facial expression releases its mighty grip.

If we sit long enough, even our perception of physical form can change, the body felt sense can change. Perhaps our head feels like they are in space, our limbs feel like they are a great distance away from us or we feel them disappearing, certain parts feel bigger than usual.

Through this mind attention focus, we can distort our perception of the physical body, the boundary of our body can blur as we sit in meditation.

In a very popular meditation technique known to many as Goenka method, we are taught over 10 days, 8 hours sitting a day to systematically scan the body sensations from head to toe repeatedly and you only focus on bare bodily sensations. The session would include several one hour of sitting where the students are not allowed to make a single voluntary movement and only movement generated from breath are allowed.

These immobile sessions usually produce a level of pain many term it as unbearable and in many such practice, practitioners would continue to scan through the body and respond shortly afterward that pain dissolved into pure sensation that doesn’t contain “disturbing” element anymore.

The practice certainly blurs the intense signal from the body for a while during the practice, the moment they come out from meditation, the edges of the body are reconstructed again and the pain will appear more vividly during non-practice session which then, can be a real pain issue.

In intensive meditation practice, we can train to stimulate the nervous system and send altered perception to the brain to cope with pain, but we cannot escape from the real working of gravity against the body. Your pain is the proof that gravity is operating whether you believe or not.

There is the reason why Patanjali who 2000 years ago compiled Yoga Sutra and listed leaning to sit with ease and comfort as one of the essential paths a Yogi must develop.

Anything can happen in meditation, you see images, you feel certain feelings, sensations. If the feeling is pain, numbness or even non-obvious feeling arises, there may be confusion concerning what and why causes it. If there is no logical scientific understanding for that experience, your meditation practice may affect the clarity of experience. Many practitioners that are ignoring obvious body signals actually run the risk of compressing sciatic nerve, herniated disc, degeneration of disc, even raptured disc and nerve damage due to prolonged compression of nerves.

Their risk is greater because they could tolerate the symptoms while the regular office desk warriors would actually move their body to other position to space out the compressed nerve.

Meditation should not be an activity where you cushion your slump posture from one hour to the next ignoring your spinal alignment while ferociously influence your mind that your body doesn’t exist and the excruciating pain down your leg is not real.

It comes as no surprise that someone once said “Sitting meditation is a criminal activity”.

However, having said that, on the other end, Yoga Without Meditation is fitness without wisdom.

Assuming we are talking about the right group of Yoga practitioners that are not running the risk of sustaining Yoga injuries.

Yoga practitioners know about the energetic connection between the physical tension and gravity. They understand how tension trapped in the distorted shape of the spine need to be released. They know that balance and stability in the seat are maximised when the body weight passes through the vertebrae in its optimum as close to gravity line as possible.

I often say, but it bears repeating, that Yoga is not meditation.

Just like regular Yoga practice gives you better physical fitness, meditation will enhance mental fitness to some degree. Scientists claim that meditation thickens the brain’s prefrontal cortex which shrinking the amygdala, the trigger for our freeze-fight-flight response.

Meditation, even for beginner meditator will shift our brain’s set point for emotions into a more positive range.

The inner upgrade that is made available for meditators seldom benefit Yoga practitioners. In posture practice, after the high on the mat goes, you are still the same schmuck you were before. You are still stuck in your monkey drama running through your head, your mother in law is still as irritating as ever, you still hate most people on this Earth except your daughter, you still couldn’t pay your bills.

Against the common beliefs, Yoga practitioners haven’t really learned how to meditate because their own Yoga Teachers simply don’t meditate or do not have proper knowledge on meditation practice, even they self-proclaimed they do.

Well, it is always nice to hear when any teacher teaches you that you are in meditation when you are doing your Yoga postures. It’s a common misunderstanding and if both posture and meditation equal to the same thing, then most teachers that can perform Yoga better than you must therefore be happier than you.

But this is far from the truth, they could be more depressed or insecure than you are in actual fact.

 Meditation is another profound teaching which need to be guided by a qualified instructor who has many years of going inward in mind from a deep inner exploration. Life is too short to be a master of both.

In seeking a form that unites these two worlds, I found a workable blend. CATalist two major works, BodySolution (inspired by CAT) and MindSolution (inspired by MBCT) could not be further apart, but each in their own way, seriously and thoroughly, approaches the problem of body-mind tension.

What I am suggesting is an approach in working with ourselves that includes the whole person having a body and mind. I have had my struggle for decades in my own Yoga and Meditation practice and my struggle has helped me more clearly understand what I do and what I think is important.

Be it as it may, to me, the benefits of Yoga and Meditation practice unquestionably outweigh the risks. The discipline if balanced does more good than harm. If you are stranded in pain or stress despite regular practice, you know you are not alone.

You got “kut lat” or not?

My mother in law has never stopped offering her grandson, my son extra dose of her important beliefs and life perspectives every time she caught a chance. She always makes time to remind Zen to eat more, drink more and sleep enough. Occasionally, she would say to him, you must be hardworking “Kut lat” in hokkien. It was not the best piece of golden advice but got me into play of words mood.

In hokkien, “Kut” means bone and “lat” means strength, if literally translated is bone strength. Amazingly, buried in this simple word is our Hokkien ancestor’s wisdom to see the relation between hardworking attitude and bony strength. That seems obvious to me that it takes someone to have bony strength to reflect a hardworking personality.

Yesterday, I had a beautiful and fun filled evening thanks to a school play by group of 14-year-old. I have to confess up front that I am a bit of posture freak and therefore cannot help but to scan every frame that entered the stage.

Posturally, “Growing older” seems to start as young as puberty, the sunken chests, permanently raised shoulders, divided head and spine outlook, stand sloping on one leg beings are everywhere.

People rarely do enough to maintain good posture. On hindsight I must have a terrible posture too. Since I was in high school at least, and probably for even longer than that. We have a serious problem. Our image of who we are, what is our innate potential and what we can do is profoundly diminished. We have all seen it, the loss of our “kut lat”. Yet we underestimate its damage.

How can science and medicine, which protect us from diseases and virus infection, working towards expanding our lifespan to 80-odd years, but fail to protect us from simple body stiffness, aches, pain and musculoskeletal disability. Why do we assume and accept that as child grows, the body will start its “wear and tear” decaying effect?

My generation is widely condemned as lazy by the generation above us. Whatever the reason, it seems that elder folk are largely in agreement: young people are simply not “kut lat”. Our ability to be hardworking is closely related to posture—the way we move our bodies affects our own moods and habits.

 

It is difficult to change our attitude with our mind. If you can change the chemical balance in your body using balancing different muscles group, you can actually change your attitude quickly. When we are stressed we react and we release chemical in our body which reflected in our posture habits. And those chemical affect our brain, our capacity and ability to perform.

I used to work with the smartest people with PHD, master degree and so forth. But when they are stressed, they become lazy and stupid more or less like anyone else.

To zeroize or reduce stress strategy most people talk about is akin to prevent usage of your fully charged phone and hence render its existence redundant. What we need is a technique to apply stress to create body resiliency so that stress does not leave an impact in the body? One way is to change the chemical balance in the body so that our “kut lat” will regain its momentum. So it will bring you to straight position and the pressure is equalising up around you like structural strength in aeroplane.

The founder of Critical Alignment Yoga/Therapy, Gert Van Leeuwen has found 4 steps to work with the body so that you can reduce the impact of stress on your “kut lat”. 1) Relaxation 2) Mobilisation 3) Coordination 4) Strength.

Anatomically, we need to bring the body weight in the center of intervertebral disc so that there won’t be any compression of nerve here and there that cause pain. We need to change the bone memory from closeness to openness where openness will still operate without you thinking about it. Your spine is fit to do its job in a reflex. The four steps aimed to bring you into the spinal alignment where there is no stress or tension stored in the body. Just like posture of little child before stress enters and ruins our “kut lat”.

I hope by now you have a little idea of how your child’s “kut lat” is important for total wellbeing of a human being. If your child continues to lose focus, being branded “bo kut lat” (not hardworking), easily give up, one big reason would probably be the lack of “kut lat” to drive the living force to continue life with passion and enthusiasm.

The great change to introduce posture education in school need to happen. Do you agree?

This chapter of life called Happiness

There are many, many things that are difficult in life, but one thing that is most difficult for me is the “unknown time boom” especially when it happened on the first day of your long planned holiday for just the three of us by the sea sand and sun. When everyone was on the lookout for best snookering spot I went hunting desperately for doctor in the remote island in the east coast for possible relief of acute pain that was radiating around my left inner ear and spreading to my face.

And after 3 days, pain ear turned into clogged ear and it’s beyond annoying because I was basically hearing underwater all the time. Most annoying thing is having to listen to my own amplified voice, breathing sound and muffled the sound of other people talking so I often didn’t hear what other people were saying to me. For weeks, sound of vacuum cleaner was there on 24/7 with occasional thumping sound.

This has been driving me crazy for weeks, I jumped on the internet all the time and tried almost all possible remedies, from oral antibiotics, 4 times a day nasal wash, nasal spray, blowing closed nostrils, trigger yawning, jumping, inverting, oiling inhale, prayers etc, but just was not helping and I did not feel like I am going to grow out of it. In my mind “The day when my ear clears, I would be the happiest person alive”.

Life still needs me to stay sane. Well, I don’t like doctor shopping and I have decided to just allowing my body to heal itself and nurturing it with good, healthy food and exercise but after a month of blocked ear, I am beginning to think there could be more to it especially triggered by my sis who suggested it may be due to some imbalances in my life.

I jumped on Mr Google again and searched for ‘emotion for blocked ear” and I found “there is a resistance to listening to what is going on around you”. I was quick to jump on it and called a friend whom I shared embarrassing and heart breaking stories not too long ago, a friend who had been keeping a distance. I thought we may communicate our hard feelings and conflict properly. The friend refused with “Please give me a break”. Blocked ears may seem annoying but little I realised, to some people, I am annoying.

So, where does that leave my ear? I am not sure; it was still blocked after a month. Perhaps I just have to let go of trying to fix everything and just allow it to be. Perhaps if my ear wants to be blocked, I should just let it and live in harmony with it.

Reflecting on my blocked ear journey, from fighting in extreme desperation for a cure to stage of giving up and freezing in blank spot towards finally letting go of every strategy or tools I always had, reminded me of many of my CAT students. For years of seeing many of my students living with body pain for decades before they came to know CAT, I started to be humbled by their strength to live life as normal as can be as a role of someone’s parent, sibling, colleague, friend, love ones. I completely understand now when some back pain victims responded on the thick roll exercise by saying “I have had worse; this pain is nothing to me”.

Is a blocked ear such a big deal then? No, I guess not. At some point, I think I could live with it and embrace the inconvenience while remembering many others with far greater inconveniences are finding reasons to smile, I decided to remember the wise old saying of “Life is perfect when you see the beauty in imperfection.”

I was more at ease thereafter and actually, listening to my own breath and voice may be seem quite refreshing too. I was more in term with the possibility of never be able to experience joy without blocked ear anymore, just like some people having pain on 24/7, it will be blocked, with no light at the end of the tunnel.

Just then, a week ago, a blessed friend of mine offered a 10-minute ear massage which was so painful but “I have had worse” and finally bingo, it got sorted out.  Right after the massage, even though I still felt my ear was blocked the resonance was much improved so I knew things were changing. Now, I am already “the happiest person alive”.

Todate, in my life there are disappointment, relationship crisis, bad things happen, good things turned bad, but I can sit around and moan and whinge about it, or I can really help myself and others by remembering the joy of not having ear block again.

So, when things unexpectedly happened, I still go for my evening jog, listening to my singing child, catch a cup of coffee, a guard by the mall smiled at me sweetly, I smile back. Suddenly, remembering this chapter of life, I feel happy.

 

The Love-Hate Relationship

We have a love-hate relationship with our bodies. And therefore, same goes to anything else in the world.

Having a body is both blessed and troubled state of affair. We know it’s decaying, on the way back to ground yet there is some part in this possession that is worth celebrating. We love this body, at least intellectually apart from our bulky tights, sagging breasts, fleshy tummy and short legs, but when are the times we get genuinely interested in the way it’s showing up right now?

My first Yoga Teacher used to teach “Look at the good”. It means, only dwell in good feelings and sensations at any given moment when attention has to be paid to the body. Years later, another wise teacher brought up a question to myself “when things become uncomfortable, do you hastily move to around to get into more pleasurable position? Do you freeze and numb out? Or “Do you tell yourself that pain is not going to stop you?”

The love-hate relationship with the body will manifest as often as it appears in life situation. There is some part of your body you favour like the superhuman strength you have in the arm, the six packs you are dying to preserve and your new straightened spine. On the other hand, your body changes will stare right at you, day by day, year by year, as you get stronger or weaker, get sick or heal, get injured and gradually get old.

And interestingly, for me, it takes four decades in my life to realise that through all these changes in life, whatever strategies you are using to deal with the bodies are likely to be at play in your life as well.

Life at work plays the same game. It’s an inevitable love-hate relationship with your work, “I like my work but my boss sucks”, “I hate my job but I need the money”, “I hate everyone in office but I need the job” etc. For many decades, the mainstream trend of Self-Esteem training, Personality Development, Self-Improvement, Motivation seminars have not changed the troubled workplace to a large sustainable extend.

Self-esteem training concerns itself with getting better, fixing oneself that produces results in one feeling better about oneself but it does not necessary lead to new actions or improved performance.

In order to fix the love-hate relationship at work, you need to fix the love-hate relationship you have with your body. When we learn through our bodies in an environment like in the CATalist program, over time we reap the benefits of changing the way of interacting with ourselves which lead to interacting positively with others. When we learn how to transform and change in the body, our ability to coordinate with others is increasing and we become more capable of shaping a future that takes care of our personal and professional concerns.

There has never been a time more urgent than now (seeing from the fact of rising pain bodies, rising stress and depression), when all the best technology has failed, to bring human value alive at work by cultivating the practices that sustain our biological wisdom. All around us we hear the call for concern in the declining quality at workplace, the moment has come, the choice is ours to place leaning in the context of returning value of humanity to the workforce.

Is Sitting your new sinful activity?

 

Zen has recently got his mind glued to a lyric of this song
 
“You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas
I am strong when I am on your shoulders
You raise me up to more than I can be”
 
If I got the lyric changed to
 
“You raise me up, so I can sit on a chair,
You raise me up to walk on stable ground,
I am strong when I stand on my feet,
You raise me up to be as normal as I can be”,
 
I know the “Oh my God” reaction. No one wants a “No big deal” way of life.
 
Critical Alignment Therapy (CAT) 中定疗愈瑜珈has given me the great gift of indulgences into helping people to sit, bend, walk, stand, squat and run in a pain-free way we did as young children. It may not be a “wow” ability. Throughout all my CAT years, I have worked with many truly miserable CAT students who have to manage their pains and I am amazed how many people blame their issues on the workplaces which require them to sit for long hours and hence many develop the fear of sitting.
 
 
It is not unusual to hear confession that people become uncontrollably upset and guilty if they have to sit. This obsession impinges on many people’s life hugely and restricts what people want to do. A few that I met resigned from the job that requires long sitting even though they truly love the nature of their jobs.
 
In reading the recent CNN highlight on this issue, it is clear that there is a direct relationship between time spent sitting and the risk of early death. That supports the need to be fearful even more.
 
I feel the urge to write this for people everywhere that need reassurance that sitting is ok, but who really don’t believe that it is ok. Of course, most people whose works involve long hours of sitting are familiar with the various aches, pains and outright bodily discomfort involved in sitting for a long time. They are convinced that their jobs are there to kill and they need an exit plan.
 
It is worth repeating that your body is designed and programmed to perform daily live activities easily. Regardless of what happened in your life, the memory of pain-free “bodily center” is still within you and pain is a way the body communicates with you that you are moving further away from this center. And if you are not communicating back, it just needs to shout at you louder which means moving from pain to numbness.
 
Take a look around our lifestyles in this fast-paced culture and what you will see that many people are living lives that are far from our bodily centers. Many desk warriors slouching on the foam padded seat with whole world glued in the computer screen thinking about whole new lists of things to settle. Our muscles have tightened up from the stress of living this way and don’t move that naturally anymore even when we exercise.
 
The truth is, whatever you don’t use, you end up losing them. When the bones, muscles and joints are not put to good stimulation, they gradually lose their function.
 
Sitting is not a problem. Young children are usually able to sit on the floor with their favourite toys without a problem although they do not have highly-developed muscular strength. Sitting longer for young children can stimulate the postural muscles. Originally, the body should be able to maintain a seat for a longer period of time just like children can sit for a long time without building up any tension. So, do not blame the job that requires long sitting periods. It is how we behave towards that line of stress and strain and how off we are from our bodily center that causes pain.
Bodily center is the starting place because without it there can be very little genuine movement. Center is the basic bodily presence and it is on this presence that the other bodily states are built. Pain and discomfort will manifest as a warning when you are drifted off the center.
Keep in mind that although I am describing bodily forms and practices, they represent states of being that are applicable to all aspects of our life. The experience of center in the body, for example, can through practice be passed into our intellectual, emotional and social life. Which I will elaborate in another write-up.
 
Bodily center can take place (in the language of Critical Alignment), when the body learn to go through phases of Relaxation, Movement, Coordination and Strength where various parts of the body are in proper relationship with each other starting from the home base of the head on top of the spine.
 
The concept of center is not a new one and in fact, many experts in this field can talk about it in great anatomical details but very few people understand it as an experience. The idea of center and the experience of center are two different things. Most people take an intellectual understanding of center and then try to act in a certain way, like overextend the lower back, rolling the shoulder back, sucking the belly inward and tensed up the body in order to look and feel straight. From this, attitude is shaped within the musculature and soon we will see another bodily hazard in this person.
 
To center is to experience our body in a total way and can be developed through the practice of Critical Alignment way and that’s the first chapter in our Journey Within CATalist program.


Is Sitting your new sinful activity?

Zen has recently got his mind glued to a lyric of this song
 
“You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas
I am strong when I am on your shoulders
You raise me up to more than I can be”
 
If I got the lyric changed to
 
“You raise me up, so I can sit on a chair,
You raise me up to walk on stable ground,
I am strong when I stand on my feet,
You raise me up to be as normal as I can be”,
 
I know the “Oh my God” reaction. No one wants a “No big deal” way of life.
 
Critical Alignment Therapy (CAT) 中定疗愈瑜珈has given me the great gift of indulgences into helping people to sit, bend, walk, stand, squat and run in a pain-free way we did as young children. It may not be a “wow” ability. Throughout all my CAT years, I have worked with many truly miserable CAT students who have to manage their pains and I am amazed how many people blame their issues on the workplaces which require them to sit for long hours and hence many develop the fear of sitting.
 
It is not unusual to hear confession that people become uncontrollably upset and guilty if they have to sit. This obsession impinges on many people’s life hugely and restricts what people want to do. A few that I met resigned from the job that requires long sitting even though they truly love the nature of their jobs.
 
In reading the recent CNN highlight on this issue, it is clear that there is a direct relationship between time spent sitting and the risk of early death. That supports the need to be fearful even more.
I feel the urge to write this for people everywhere that need reassurance that sitting is ok, but who really don’t believe that it is ok. Of course, most people whose works involve long hours of sitting are familiar with the various aches, pains and outright bodily discomfort involved in sitting for a long time. They are convinced that their jobs are there to kill and they need an exit plan.
It is worth repeating that your body is designed and programmed to perform daily live activities easily. Regardless of what happened in your life, the memory of pain-free “bodily center” is still within you and pain is a way the body communicates with you that you are moving further away from this center. And if you are not communicating back, it just needs to shout at you louder which means moving from pain to numbness.
Take a look around our lifestyles in this fast-paced culture and what you will see that many people are living lives that are far from our bodily centers. Many desk warriors slouching on the foam padded seat with whole world glued in the computer screen thinking about whole new lists of things to settle. Our muscles have tightened up from the stress of living this way and don’t move that naturally anymore even when we exercise.
 
The truth is, whatever you don’t use, you end up losing them. When the bones, muscles and joints are not put to good stimulation, they gradually lose their function.
 
Sitting is not a problem. Young children are usually able to sit on the floor with their favourite toys without a problem although they do not have highly-developed muscular strength. Sitting longer for young children can stimulate the postural muscles. Originally, the body should be able to maintain a seat for a longer period of time just like children can sit for a long time without building up any tension. So, do not blame the job that requires long sitting periods. It is how we behave towards that line of stress and strain and how off we are from our bodily center that causes pain.
Bodily center is the starting place because without it there can be very little genuine movement. Center is the basic bodily presence and it is on this presence that the other bodily states are built. Pain and discomfort will manifest as a warning when you are drifted off the center.
 
Keep in mind that although I am describing bodily forms and practices, they represent states of being that are applicable to all aspects of our life. The experience of center in the body, for example, can through practice be passed into our intellectual, emotional and social life. Which I will elaborate in another write-up.
 
Bodily center can take place (in the language of Critical Alignment), when the body learn to go through phases of Relaxation, Movement, Coordination and Strength where various parts of the body are in proper relationship with each other starting from the home base of the head on top of the spine.
 
The concept of center is not a new one and in fact, many experts in this field can talk about it in great anatomical details but very few people understand it as an experience. The idea of center and the experience of center are two different things. Most people take an intellectual understanding of center and then try to act in a certain way, like overextend the lower back, rolling the shoulder back, sucking the belly inward and tensed up the body in order to look and feel straight. From this, attitude is shaped within the musculature and soon we will see another bodily hazard in this person.
 
To center is to experience our body in a total way and can be developed through the practice of Critical Alignment way and that’s the first chapter in our Journey Within CATalist program.