Thursday, December 27, 2012

To all of you currently reading my blog (hi, mom!) thank you from the bottom of my heart. Writing and illustrating this each week is a time consuming process so it means a lot to me that so many people find my little labor of love worth the time it takes to read it. I know your time is valuable, so thank you. I made a card for you all with a little donation in your honor. Have a happy, safe and healthy holiday season! 

And in plain text so you can read it: Women, 51% of the world’s population, are notorious community builders. With a tide this big we can lift nations. 
Women for Women gives women of war-torn countries the tools to become Leaders in their communities, and in turn, their nations. And who wouldn’t benefit from a better South Sudan, Afghanistan, Kosovo, or Iraq? 
A donation has been made in your honor to Women for Women International. Happy Holidays!

Women for Women International supports women in the war-torn regions of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Kosovo, Nigeria, and Iraq with financial and emotional aid, job-skills training, rights education and small business assistance (including micro-loans) so they can rebuild their lives.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Holiday Guide to Meeting Parents: Ice Breakers

The holiday season is here and many of you will be meeting your significant others' parents for the first time. Under horrifying conditions. Not only are you confronted with impressing these people but you must do so in pressure-cooker circumstances. I would like to offer you hope. The hope of the season, a story The Boy's parents love to tell guests over dinner because humiliation is best shared over new potatoes and rump-roast.

The first time I met The Boy's parents was in a pressure-cooker akin to that of the holiday season -- a wedding three states away. This meant that the first time EVER meeting his parents would be over a three-day period after a multi-hour plane flight in an area unbeknownst to me. To make the roast extra crispy, there would be no method of escape. No car, no yoga studio (honestly, I didn't do yoga back then, but I had a healthy addiction to lifting weights* and there was no gym either).

The Parents were to meet The Boy and I at 8:30am. We would then proceed to a meet-n-greet breakfast on our way to the airport. It is important to note that even in the best of circumstances I am not a morning person. I have what I call a "problem with inertia" (Inertia being the tendency of an object at rest to stay at rest and an object in motion to stay in motion). Changing states of consciousness takes me hours of slow, intense, mental pain. At 8:30am, appearing to have the mental capacity of a sozzled sloth was going to take an Herculean effort.

I don't deal with social stress well. I drink. Heavily. Hand me a crisis where lives hang in the balance and I will navigate a colony to safer shores. Hand me a situation where I may have to deal with long awkward silence and I hide in the corner with a bottle of red. So, the night prior to our meeting, in a fit of the jitters, I got it all out of my system...or into my system, depending on how you look at it. This served only to thicken the usual morning-haze.

That morning, my bladder rudely woke me up and I begrudgingly obliged, throwing my legs off the bed and pulling on the closest piece of clothing on the floor, a button-down dress shirt. I might have gotten one or two buttons done, probably mismatched by at least a button or two, so that one side of the collar was pulling down and the other was slung over my shoulder somewhere. I can't say I cared much. I shuffled to the bathroom. The shower sounds coming from it told me The Boy was blocking my pee-space. UGH. I would have to plod downstairs. 

I cracked my eyeballs open as much as I could, which didn't help much because I didn't have my coke-bottle-sized contacts in. I slowly navigated the stairs to the first-floor bathroom.

Something registered on the edge of my periphery. I ignored it, opting to deal with all sensory input after coffee. I turned the corner to the bathroom, opened the door and noted there was something blocking the toilet.

Small amounts of information began the arduous journey through the mud into my brain. The first piece of information to pick-axe it's way to my awareness was that this, "something" was a man. I wondered why a robber was peeing in The Boy's toilet.

The second piece of information to arrive sputtering from the hole it had burrowed to my brain was, "if this was a robber I would run." I was too tired to run so something else must be going on.

Finally, the clincher broke through the porridge announcing in a booming voice, "This is The Boy's father! He is peeing!" on a side-note it stated, "The periphery vision on the way into the bathroom was The Boy's mother, waving from the kitchen table." 

My hand was still resting on the door-handle when the toilet blocker said, "Hello!" in a sunny morning-person voice. An echo of the same exclamation came from the kitchen table behind me. I wanted to dart upstairs quickly, but I was stuck in one of those dreams where you are trying to run really fast and it feels like your legs are caught in quicksand. My body turned, I clutched the opening to the dress-shirt a little tighter together, mumbled something of a greeting and shuffled back upstairs. 

As in those dreams, my brain was running far quicker than my body and the inner panic turned me into a rare mute.** Once upstairs, I stepped into the shower with The Boy and managed to blurt out, "I met your parents." I was unaware that the phrase held none of the horror of the meeting. The Boy replied, "Good!" I replied that it was not and continued to stare at the shower head, water running down my body, unable to leave the cleansing water like that famous scene from The Crying Game.

After some time, The Boy came back upstairs to get my caboose moving. We were starting to run late, despite the fact that his parents had arrived early. We ate breakfast, rode the plane, went to pre-wedding festivities. It wasn't until The Boy and I were alone again, late that evening, that I was able to impart the horror of that morning's first greeting. His jaw dropped. He no longer wondered why I had been blushing for 12 hours straight.

Take solace in my tale, weary travelers. It is unlikely that your first mumbled greeting to your father-in-law will be uttered while staring bleary-eyed at his privates, with his wife looking on from behind. Both possibly catching glimpses of your own nether-regions through their son's hastily fastened shirt. Even less likely is that you will then be unable to escape their knowing gaze for the following 72 hours.

If you do, however, happen to find yourself in that situation, I am sorry to report that seven years later it will still haunt you. You have my sympathy.

* Due to a lifelong Napoleon complex. The Boy refers to it as my, "She-Ra Complex."

** Job matching says you should work within your skill-set. If anyone knows of a job where non-stop banter is required please let me know. Drivel quality must not be of import. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Cunning Plan

My hips are opening. My teachers say so. What this evidently means is that my triangle hurts like the ruddy dickens. It didn't hurt before my hips started to open. In fact, triangle and I were buds. Maybe not besties, but if triangle was moving, I would totally show up to move the couch in exchange for pizza and beers.

That happens periodically. In exactly this order:
  1. I hate a pose.
  2. I struggle with the pose.
  3. I get angry in the pose.
  4. I figure out what I am doing wrong. A sudden light is shown on the pose and I feel as if a miracle has happened. Jesus-rays* shine down on me while I am in that pose, despite the fact that I am in an enclosed building. There may be angels singing. I imagine I see a tear of joy falling from my teacher's eye.
  5. I get confidence up. I believe I have nailed the pose.
  6. A week later I discover a muscle not contracted. Or a light-space where there should be none. Or a joint out of line.
  7. Repeat steps 1-7

For this recent struggle with triangle, my hips were rolling, so I wasn't stretching some inner bit somewhere. So, now, I learn to be calm in that pose. It's the hardest part of step 3, and I won't usually get to step 4 until I do.

But not this time. This time I am taking a shortcut. Instead of being calm, I have a cunning plan, a plan so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a fox.**

Instead of taking weeks, months, years, to open my hips, I should have a baby. Yup. Hip opening in 3-24 hours (if you discount the 9 months of gestation). I have gotten one of my teachers to agree to adopt the child once my hips are opened.

Oh, get your panties un-bunched! I won't forget to be grateful to the little guy; I figure a "thank-you for the triangle" card once a year should do it.

Now, off to discuss my plan with The Boy! I am sure he will be thrilled!

*Those directional lights coming from the clouds that show up most prevelantly in Christian inspirational artwork.

**If you know where this quote is from, we must meet for lunch. We may be long-lost besties. If you do not know where this is from, look it up, watch some videos. You are welcome.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Talk to Aunt Ethel

I was published! In print! What follows is an earlier draft of the article I wrote for the November edition of Yoga Chicago.

I lie in savasana concentrating on my breath. Inhale…one…two…two bottles of milk. I have to get whole-milk for making yogurt and almond-milk for making green juice…I mean…three.

As I attempt again to ignore my grocery list, I start wondering, what the heck am I doing this for? Am I really getting any calmer? And if so, what good is calm really going to do me? I have heard over and over that breathing will help me deal with stress at the Department of Motor Vehicles but am I really spending this much time per week preparing myself for the DMV? I make mental note to examine my teachers' claims that breathing will allow me to restrain myself when the DMV teller informs me that I am missing one item and I will have to go to the end of the line once I get back with it, and get back to breathing…five…six…exhale….

Weeks later I find myself up to my neck in yoga articles, books and scientific journals, which, I suppose is not overly impressive, considering I am sitting in lotus.

I have stumbled across findings that not only verify that I will be less likely to assault DMV tellers because of yoga, but also promise that yoga will boost my decision-making capabilities and self-control. For simplicity, rather than defining self-control as, “the ability to resist abusing DMV tellers,” let's define it as, “the ability to postpone gratification and control emotional responses.”

Yoga's key to self-control and decision-making, not surprisingly, is the breathing and meditation focus. These centuries-old practices allow us to do something amazing, to control our hearts. Controlling your heart-rate sounds like a really neat, although prop-intensive,  party trick (Hold my stethoscope and listen to this!) — possibly one on par with throwing your leg over your head in om pose — but it's way more than that. People who have a wider heart-rate variation (HRV) range have more self-control, including emotional, and better decision-making skills.1 HRV is the range of acceleration and deceleration your heart is capable of. In other words, when you get a fright, how much does your heart-rate speed up and when you calm back down, how low can it go?

You want a wide-range HRV because it is an excellent indicator of mental health; much like cholesterol levels indicate the health of your body. In a longitudinal study, babies were monitored at 9 months, then again three years later, using three methods of behavior prediction: parental opinion, standardized tests (including the Beyley Scales of Infant Development) and HRV. The most accurate indicator of which babies would develop social withdrawal, depression or aggression issues was not the standardized tests, not even parental opinion. It was HRV.1 Babies with greater HRV were less likely to develop those social adjustment issues. Many such tests have established that a low HRV can be linked to higher occurrences of anger, hostility, stress and anxiety.2 

Although personal HRV is an innate quality, it is not completely fixed. Experience can change HRV. For instance, trauma can suppress the heart’s responses; victims of child abuse have smaller-range HRV later in life.3 Nor is HRV completely without conscious controls.

Our body, the fantastic tangle of tissue and tendons that it is, communicates with itself via nerves, like a massive rat’s-nest of telephone line. We can harness these to alter our HRV, thus gaining self-control, (the ability to postpone gratification and control emotional responses) and coveted decision-making skills.

The telephone wires we are most interested in, the physical communication system between your heart, lungs and brain, is the vagal nerve cluster. The vagal nerve starts in your brain-stem, where it plays a key role in decision-making, then wraps around numerous organs, most significantly, the lungs and heart.

The vagal nerve is part of the automatic nervous system. The automatic nervous system is composed of sympathetic nerves (which control the fight or flight response and gears the body up for work) and the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the body down.4 Since the vagal nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, its stimulation will slow down your heart and lungs.*

Yoga can stimulate the vagal nerve cluster by using the parts of it that we do have control over, our breath and higher brain functions (via meditation), to talk to the parts we have limited communication with, the heart. It’s like telling Aunt Ethel (your brain and lungs) about the new puppy we adopted. The news will get back to Aunt Sally (your heart) because Ethel is a gossip, the message just might be a bit convoluted; the puppy might be a pug instead of a husky. So we keep talking to Ethel hoping that eventually the message gets back clearer (this is the importance of practice we will discuss in a minute).

No matter what flavor of yoga you have chosen, meditation and breathing techniques are both central principals. Even the red-headed left-handed stepchild of yoga**, Bikram yoga, is in on the action. When my Bikram teacher, Liz Olson, notices students have removed focus from their breath and are holding it during postures, (often full-locust or floor-bow) she makes the distinction between ‘practicing yoga’ and ‘using yoga poses for exercise’; she announces to her class, “If you aren’t breathing you’re not doing yoga. You’re just doing funny poses in a hot room.”

Yogic breathing techniques also change the speed at which you metabolize carbon dioxide, slowing your body down or speeding it up, depending on which technique you are using.5 And, research shows meditation is key to controlling heart-rate.1

Don’t forget though, it’s not the calm itself that makes for a self-controlled, sound-decision maker; it’s the ability to adjust. Embrace the annoyances in your yoga and everyday life. Distractions in meditation during yoga are simply upping the skill-level of your meditation practice; like reaching the next level in Super Mario Brothers. If the person in front of you is talking or there is a police siren blaring into your home-studio, relax; you have just gained the opportunity to level-up. It’s the same type of self-control increase you would need had someone taken cookies out of the office break-room and put them on your desk. The temptation may be harder to avoid, but the practice is invaluable. You have increased the weight of your mental dumb-bells.

Like any other training, practice makes perfect; keep telling your metaphorical Aunt Ethel that you got a HUSKY. H-U-S-K-Y. Not pug. Husky. Regular yoga and/or meditation will result in better ability to stimulate the vagal nerve cluster, giving you greater control of your heart-rate, resulting in greater control of self, including the ability to pause momentarily, which turns out to be the key factor in better decision-making.2 The knee-bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the hip-bone…!

To throw a cherry on top of all that yoga-goodness, this stuff is especially important now because our society has ramped up its response-time expectations. Today we, and those around us, expect quick responses; there has been a dramatic decrease in our expected response-time. Mail takes seconds, not minutes, to arrive. We don’t have to plan a visit to the reference library to check a statistic (Thank you, NPR-online for helping me write this article). In fact, the DMV may be the only thing that hasn’t sped up.

Without daily practice, we get worse at being patient (which is a form of self-control), just as we would with any other learned skill. This makes it important to consciously re-insert patience training into our daily lives, just as it was done automatically a few years ago.

So, laying in savasana, I get back to talking to aunt Ethel. It’s frustrating. We end up on tangents like groceries, work and how a disturbingly increasing number of my friends are having children. Still, I know the conversation is important so we keep it up. Exhale…three...four...five.

*A bizarre example of how these systems work in tandem and the critical part the vagal nerve plays in communication between your organs is panic-peeing. The same function of this all-important vagal nerve that slows your heart-rate can also make you pee your pants when you are super-scared.

The parasympathetic and sympathetic nerves work in tandem all the time, like having one foot on the gas and one on the brake all the time. When a spider larger than your cat lands on your shoulder, the sympathetic system kicks your heart and lungs into high-gear, preparing you for battle with the spider. Your vagal nerve quickly counters by putting its, “wait, let’s think about this,” brake on its organs (the heart, lungs and bladder). Sometimes, in it’s hastiness, the vagal nerve over-does it on the bladder, causing it to relax completely. That’s how you piddle your pants.

** I would like to note that there is nothing wrong with being red-headed, left-handed or a step-child; nor is there anything wrong with being a Bikram yogi.

1 Partnoy, Frank. Interview by Diane Rehm. " Frank Partnoy: "Wait: The Art and Scien." Diane Rehm Show. Host Diane Rehm. NPR. WAMU, Washington, DC, 10 July 2012. Web. 10 Aug. 2012.

2  Partnoy, Frank. Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. New York: Public Affairs™, A Member of the Perseus Books Gro, 2012. 6. Print.

3  Partnoy, Frank. Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. New York: Public Affairs™, A Member of the Perseus Books Gro, 2012. 12. Print.

4  Blakemore, Colin, and Sheila Jennett, eds. The Oxford Companion to the Body. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. N. pag. Web. 14 Aug. 2012.

5  Broad, William. Interview by John Dankosky. "The Science Of Yoga: The Risks And The R." Science Friday. National Public Radio. Feb. 2012. Web. 24 Aug. 2012. .