Monthly Archives: November 2012

A Health Care System that Works

“The only thing that sells these days is yoga and yogurt.”  This is the newest saying in the real estate world.  While businesses struggle to stay afloat, yoga’s popularity has grown greater than ever.  In 2011, 20 million Americans practiced yoga, five times the number of people in 2001.

Why yoga?  The majority of people who do yoga go for stress reduction.  With the strain of the economy, stress levels are high: according to the American Psychology Association (APA), 75% of Americans report money as the most significant source of stress in their lives.  And 94% of Americans believe that stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses.  Is yoga a legitimate way to reduce stress…could it help treat diseases?  Could yoga be a viable alternative to modern medicine?

These questions led me to a yoga retreat  for the first time.  It was there, at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, in the rolling hills of the Berkshires in western Massachusettes, that I met Gary Kraftow, who had answers to these questions.  Gary established the American Viniyoga Institute, which provides the only Masers program in the country for teachers of yoga therapy, using yoga to treat physical and mental illnesses, such as COPD, fibromyalgia, traumatic brain injury, and depression.

Gary is a bit of a guru in the yoga world, or in today’s yogic terms, a “yoga rockstar”.  Yet he is in no way a typical yogi, with that easy smile and open nature.  In the yoga therapy course I took with him, Gary commanded his students to get into postures with a no-nonsense authority; he even cursed.  But Gary was brilliant.  He knew all a man could know on the topics of anatomy, psychology, physiology, and, of course, yoga.

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Gary taught us breathing techniques, deemphasizing posture and flow.  He described the respiratory system as the only system in our body that we can consciously control.  Through breath, we can intervene and shift the Autonomic Nervous System, which triggers the Fight-Flight reaction that is central to mental illnesses like anxiety and depression.  Breath is the link between our conscious mind and the inner workings of our body.  By breathing, we can gain control over our mind and emotions.

J. Brown takes these ideas to another level.  A student of Mark Whitten, J. Brown, who owns a yoga studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, taught the second yoga course I took at Kripalu.  He believes that breath-centered yoga can be used for allpeople to deal with the stresses of modern life.  Contrary to the roughness of Gary Kraftow, “Jay”, as he asked us to call him, approached each student individually, asked us about our lives, and then opened up about his own life, describing how he changed from a power yoga instructor to a more personal, therapeutic yoga teacher.  He described how yoga, dating back to as early as 3000 BC, was originally centered on meditation; western society changed it into a form of exercise.  He also stresses an individualized practice where people do yoga at home and cultivate mindfulness.  Advanced yoga, according to Jay, isn’t doing head and shoulder stands, it’s having the mental strength to choose not to do a pose if it doesn’t feel right.

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The advancements made in western medicine have saved lives and are truly remarkable.  Gary Kraftow made it clear that yoga therapists serve as adjunct therapists to other practitioners.  But do we rely too much on medicine and doctors rather than trying to fix ourselves?  J. Brown read us an email from a student of his with lupus and crones disease, saying how she visited hospitals for years before finding something that worked for her: yoga.  In our pill popping society where a doctor’s word is never questioned, have we neglected to take our health into our own hands?

So next time you’re feeling stressed out about work, get into down dog.  If you’re feeling blue that the economy will never recover, pull out a mat and do some half spinal twists, or maybe you’re in the mood for frog.  Your mind racing at all the things you have to do?  Kick it in child’s pose for a while.  Feeling back pain?  Hold off on the Excedrin and do some cat-cow.  

Yoga: now there’s a health care system we can all follow.

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The Hurricane

a short story

Hurricane Sandy was the largest storm New Yorkers had ever seen.  Mandatory evacuation was issued in Lower Manhattan, Red Hook, Jamaica Bay, Queens, and parts of Long Island.  Schools were closed, subways shut down.   In a public announcement, Mayor Bloomberg advised the citizens of New York to “read a good book, watch a movie, talk with your family – do anything as long as you stay indoors.” 

David Lichtenberg did no such thing.

David moved to Brooklyn eight days before the hurricane hit New York.  David owned a bed, a chair, and had bought a few candles in case the power went out.  That was all he owned, besides a stack of green pens, a lined notebook, and the Globe Illustrated Complete Works of William Shakespeare.  He came to Brooklyn to be a writer.

David had been living in Connecticut at his childhood home.  He lived and worked with his parents at the age of twenty-five and was going insane.  His father started a successful law firm and David worked for him as dutifully as a son could, receiving a decent paycheck, and hating every minute of it.  David’s friends envied the opportunity he had to take over the firm but David wanted none of it.  So he stopped working with his father, insisted on financial independence, and was confident he’d find a good job in New York.  The only problem was that it was the time of the Great Recession, and so six months later, he had no job, and was dipping into his Bar Mitzvah funds to pay for an apartment where the heat didn’t work.

Since moving to Brooklyn, David hadn’t written a single word.

David’s mother insisted that he stay with his family during the hurricane. Why didn’t I?  David thought, gazing out his window at a tree’s branches swinging wildly, its leaves blowing in the breeze, its trunk alone standing firm.  At least I wouldn’t be alone.  He had no girlfriend, not even a roommate.  He knew no one in Brooklyn – no one, really.  Yet he had jumped on this seventh floor walkup in South Slope immediately, even handed over the security deposit, first and last month’s rent upfront.

Regardless of the hurricane, David had a job interview later that afternoon on Skype.  It was for an entry-level position at an Upper East Side law firm, which he took in a moment of exasperation, even though he didn’t want the job.  But what David was more concerned about was that it was already 3:00, just before the storm was to hit its stride, and he didn’t have any aluminum foil.  He would need it to cook his spaghetti in the oven; he didn’t have a microwave, and besides, this was the way he liked it.  So he put on the rain jacket with its hood that wouldn’t stay on his head, and stepped outside.  As soon as he did, he knew where he was going.

With trees that could topple to the ground with the whim of the wind (it was reported later that the first fatality of the storm was a man whose house was crushed by a tree), anyone who journeyed to Prospect Park was asking for trouble.  And so, David went.

Shielding his eyes from debris, David took videos of the storm with his iPhone: the American flag flapping in the rain, empty swings rocking back and forth, leaves in the air engaged in a circular dance.  The wind whipped against his cheeks.  And for the first time all day, David felt great!  Sure, he was alone, but he was on an adventure.  While his family sat in front of the television with blankets and popcorn, here he was, outside in the middle of the hurricane, on the streets of Brooklyn.

A twig suddenly snapped and flew into David’s eye.  He tried to wink it out as he reached the entrance of the park.  Great.  What’s next – a tree on my head?  He walked inside.  There were people there: two guys throwing around a football, and a woman documenting the scene with a digital camera.  This made David feel more secure until he remembered that it meant nothing at all.  New York is filled with crazies.  He laughed aloud as he plodded through a stack of leaves that blocked the path to the Long Meadow.  Is that what I’ve become?  Crazy?  I could just imagine what my father would say: “We told David to come home during the storm but he wouldn’t listen.  Then he not only goes outside, but he goes straight to a park.  Next, I receive a call from the NYPD that my only son was struck by lightning!  And, of course, as a result of all this, he misses a job interview!”

David let the exhilaration of wind blow back his hood and the rain hit his face.  Through squinted eyes, he took in the view of the meadow.  Somehow, despite the whirring of the gale in his ears, and the luminous gray clouds moving overhead, David felt relaxed…though he wasn’t sure why.  He found a bench and just sat, looking out at the meadow as his jeans got damper and the sky became grayer.

After a few minutes, David left the park, his thoughts as foggy as the clouds.  Why did I move to Brooklyn?  Why did I make things more difficult for myself?  Why did I insist on facing the hurricane alone, without the company of my family?  And what could I possibly write about all this?

Just as these questions entered David’s head, the tempest grew angry.  Leaves from a nearby tree spun toward him, a plastic bag wrapped itself around his feet, and the gale blasted into him, lifting his body into the air.

David turned his back to the wind.  He pulled the hood over his face and planted his feet firmly on the ground.  The storm took its course as he stood, completely still, the gale blowing past him.  It was then that he realized why he was in Brooklyn.

David kicked off his sneakers as he entered his apartment.  He tossed his dripping rain jacket on the floor and sat in the chair.  He picked up a green pen, placed the lined notebook on his lap, and wrote.

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