Sunday, December 21, 2014

Four Months of Yoga

In four months of Yoga, I have made progress. If Yoga is a journey, then I have assuredly begun, though I have a long way to go. Okay, let’s start with what I couldn’t do before, but can do now.

I could not do a full or even half lotus. When I put a foot on top of either thigh, the knee stuck way up in the air. Now I do a passable half lotus and can get the right knee to the floor if I work at it. The left side has a few inches to go.

I could not do a full squat and now can. I could not kneel and put my full weight on my heels, and I sort of can now. I can’t quite get my full weight there, my knees protest a little too much. There’s a position in which you start kneeling, but your torso is straight, then you put your hands behind you on your heels and arch your back, looking at the ceiling. Couldn’t do it before, but can do it now. In fact, I can even do the next more difficult version of that in which my hands are palm down behind my feet.

With my knees locked, I could only get the palms of my hands within four inches of the floor, but I can put them flat now, and with my hands behind my ankles, I can pull my nose to my knees. Sitting, I can bring the toes of my foot to my nose. That's a gain of about six inches, the goal is to bring them to your ears.

Sitting crosslegged, I can bend forward and put my elbows and forearms on the floor. Before, I could barely sit up straight, let alone lean forward while sitting crosslegged.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not magic. It’s not easy, and it’s not quick. I’ve been practicing Yoga (that sounds pretentious), doing Yoga for forty minutes to an hour almost every day. But the best thing isn’t the increased flexibility, though that’s certainly important. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all spiritual, either, though as with my nearly daily cardio workouts, there is a certain energy that Yoga brings to my day, a relaxment, an easiness. 

No, the most important thing that Yoga has done, or is doing for me, is that it is helping me finally, after about 35 years, deal with my back problems. No, not deal with them, but, and perhaps I’m overoptimistic, but fix them. Full confession: I was once given a series of exercises that might have fixed my back problems, but I didn’t stick with it. And I think that perhaps that’s because, at least for me, there’s a difference between exercising and Yoga, which makes it easier to stick with.

So, short version, though I haven’t had a recurrence for fifteen years, I have had, and still have something stiff and sore, tight, and angry in my lower back, left side. It was muscle spasms, not spine problems I was told by the doctor and physical therapist fifteen years ago. The original injury, or strain, was never really treated, so I compensated for it by putting less weight on that side when I sat, walked, lived. And those muscles got weaker and weaker over time. Consequently, they could get strained more easily and the cycle continued. The PT taught me some exercise to strengthen those muscles, and I did them just enough that the back and stomach muscles got strong enough to keep a recurrence at bay. Yoga does some of the same things those exercises did, but it is a much more balanced program of stretching and strengthening, and of course it is strengthening and stretching my entire body, not just my lower back. 

I believe, that is I hope, that if I keep it up, eventually the final knot will be relaxed, the muscles will become completely healed and strong at long last, and unless I do something stupid, as I did thirty-five years ago when I picked up one end of a 24 foot long 12”x12” oak barn beam, probably the 20th I’d helped move that day, and tore something, I will live out my life without a sore back. Oh, and I’m for the first time in my life learning to sit up straight. I can’t stand to sit in the Lazy Boy or slouch for long anymore. If only my mother could see me now. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Gratefulbeing!

Being thankful implies there is someone or something to be thankful to--as in a higher power, a supernatural being. And when people begin to think in that manner, it implies that that hypothetical being has been especially favorable to them by providing these things, perhaps to them rather than someone else (perhaps to their family, their co-religionists, their country).
However, I see a slight, but significant difference in being grateful. I can be grateful for what I have because of my good luck or my hard work, the vagaries of the natural lottery--being born in the time and place and to the family that I was with a gene code that gives me certain advantages and presents certain challenges. And I am. Grateful. I have a wonderful life. And I am grateful that you are my friend and are willing to read this and click like. For what it's worth. Happy Gratefulbeing. Eat turkey (or tofu). Watch football. Read a book. Hug your family and friends.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Electorate Lacks Critical Thinking Skills

In recent elections, why have so many voted for candidates who support policies they say they oppose or that are harmful to their economic interests?

Why vote for politicians who seek to dismantle public education, are against raising the minimum wage, pass tax cuts to further increase the wealth gap, and who want to continue to allow corporations and billionaires to flood the political system with money when generally you disagree with those policies? Polling shows that even many who disagree with their policies chose the Republican party in this election.

Benefits from Social Security Insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, subsidies for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Unemployment Insurance, Workman’s Compensation, SNAP (food stamps) are designed to keep working people and those unable to work out of poverty.  What does it mean when even people who are receiving these benefits vote for a party that seeks to dismantle or undermine these programs?

I believe it’s because many simply reject facts regardless of scientific and historical evidence in favor of voting based on their mood, feelings, or beliefs. They do this at least partly because many lack a skill that educators call “critical thinking,” an essential backbone of a competent education, and an area of emphasis in the Common Core State Standards. Republicans have now turned against this challenging set of educational principles, which was developed by the states in a non-partisan process. I wonder if they are concerned they might work.

When George W. Bush, with help from liberal lion Ted Kennedy, passed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, many saw it as an attack on public education. NCLB required annual testing that would not only label schools in which the majority of students were not reaching annual benchmarks in reading and math as failing, but would give parents the option of sending their children to another school, often a charter school run by a private company. Kennedy had apparently signed on because he hoped that after identifying struggling schools, which he knew would mostly be in poor neighborhoods, the law made provisions to provide large influxes of money to the school to implement change. Naturally, the law was never fully funded by the Republicans. Regardless, even a large amount of money rarely turns around a school serving a population of students who are growing up in poverty in only a year or two.

The most laughable (or more accurately, tear-inducing) part of the law was the goal it established that declared that ALL students must reach mastery in Reading and Math by 2014. The only reason that most all schools have not been labeled failures is that the Obama administration has allowed states to apply for waivers from the most onerous provisions of the law.

Critical thinking is the highest goal of education. It can’t be taught in one lesson or in one year. You can find short definitions and full-length books on the topic. In a word, it is rationality: the ability to weigh evidence objectively, to identify and distance the emotional triggers and beliefs that may cloud one’s thinking, so that one can analyze the validity of “facts” and assemble a theory or argument.

Americans often wonder how masses of people in other parts of the world can be convinced to support dictatorial governments or follow religious leaders who exhort them to hatred of others and rejection of freedom and Democracy. The answer is simple: a powerful combination of control of the media, religious belief, and weak or religiously based education systems and systems of law which do not operate on the basis of critical thinking, but on pre-determined belief systems, whether they are economic, secular, or religious.

In recent years America’s radio and TV airways have increasingly been filled with intelligent right wing personalities who craft seemingly rational arguments based on faulty premises and suspect “facts”. They almost always wrap their propaganda in expressions of religious belief, patriotic fervor, and fear that the opposition is trying to destroy the American way of life, nostalgically bringing to mind an America of small towns, picket fences, and….for many, segregated schools.

The Republican strategy seems to include weakening education, instilling fear of an increasingly diverse society in their low and middle income white male base, and allowing the rich to spend limitless money on elections in order to maintain power and win elections.

If I were President Obama, I would challenge the nation to embark on a simple mission. Congress should come together to pass an education law to repeal and replace No Child Left Behind and its patchwork waiver system. The Common Core has become a punching bag, so start over. Call the new law, or some major part of it “FACTS: For All, Critical Thinking Skills.” From pre-school to free adult classes in libraries and community centers, make rational discussions and analysis a national pastime. We could start by studying the campaign ads from this season.

Paul Epstein is a retired teacher, a musician, and writer who lives in Charleston, WV. He blogs at

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Be Part of the Solution

I recently attended the 25th anniversary of the first environmental conference sponsored by what later became the West Virginia Environmental Council, or WVEC.

It was simultaneously inspiring and disappointing. Inspiring because I was among long-time movers and shakers in the environmental movement in WV like Norm Steenstra, Cindy Rank, Vivian Stockman, Jim Kotcon, Bill Price, and Wendy Radcliff, who  spoke about issues they were working on and passionate about. Disappointing because I was one of only about fifty people in attendance.

One reason this was my first time attending a WVEC conference is that I’ve never considered myself an “environmentalist” or an “activist” on environmental issues.  However, I went because I have come to realize that due to the scope of problems facing our state and our world, all of us must, to some degree, become environmental activists.

The precipitating event for me was the January 9, 2014 Freedom Industries chemical spill which poisoned the water supply of 300,000 people in nine counties of West Virginia including the state capital, Charleston, where I live. I call it Aquageddon. If you experienced it, you haven’t forgotten it. Even if you didn’t, you likely remember the extensive national news coverage of the chemical, “crude MCHM”, about which little was known.  After only a few days, state officials and the Center for Disease Control declared the chemical was present in small enough amounts not to be a health risk.  But even a month or more later, the affected public continued to be highly suspicious of water that had the telltale odor of licorice, which the chemical emits. Questions about what level of exposure might result in long term health risks remain unanswered, and almost a year later there are still people in the affected areas who refuse to drink the tap water.

Prior to Aquageddon, I considered myself a supporter of environmental issues. Given a choice, I always voted for candidates who were more likely to support environmental protection, and on occasion I attended fund raisers, made contributions to environmental organizations, and attended rallies.

In the wake of Aquageddon, I attended rallies and led the singing of “This Land is Your Land,” with new lyrics I’d written about the water crisis and mountain top removal (MTR) mining. I attended public meetings and went to E-Day at the legislature to lobby for the tank storage bill, a bill that passed by a unanimous vote of the WV House and Senate. UNANIMOUS! How often does that happen?

I wondered if this would be a “come to Jesus moment” heralding the beginning of a new day for recognition of environmental catastrophes that have been occurring for decades in West Virginia due to MTR and other lightly regulated industries: poisoned water supplies, flattened mountains, buried streams,  increased cancer rates and other negative health impacts on communities near mountain removal coal mines? Would the legislature take another look at the effects on our water supply and communities caused by “Fracking” in order to decide whether stricter regulations are needed? Would they begin to question the actual cost of burning carbon fuels when damage to roads, water, air, health, tourism, and communities is factored in?

Or was this the Legislature’s version of “giving the Devil his due” in which they would have to be seen doing something because so many rich and powerful people in the state were affected by Aquageddon, but could ignore the by and large rural communities affected by MTR and Fracking. Surprise, surprise, it turns out it’s the latter.

I am not a scientist, don’t like to attend meetings, and don’t want to spend my time walking the halls of the Legislature. But I want to make sure that the environmental heroes who are working to protect us continue to have the resources they need to organize meetings and rallies, to study the impacts that fracking and MTR are having, to take water, soil, and air samples.  Before WVEC was formed, activists from groups working on local issues from all around the state descended on legislators in uncoordinated and overlapping ways. WVEC was formed so the environmental community could speak with a unified voice, sharing information with legislators so they are hearing the facts about the impacts of a lack of sensible regulation on West Virginians. Without WVEC and other environmental organizations, legislators only hear what the industry lobbyists have to say about how laws and regulations might impact their bottom lines.

To help support this critical work, I started a project called AWARE: Artists Working in Alliance to Restore the Environment. AWARE’s mission is primarily to raise funds for environmental organizations in West Virginia, especially WVEC and its member groups, which include the GreenbrierRiver Watershed Association, Ohio Valley Environmental Council, Sierra Club ofWest Virginia,  WV Citizen Action Group, WV Highlands Conservancy, and the WV Rivers Coalition, I hope you will think about what you’re willing to do to help protect our environment, and if it doesn’t include activism, at least make a donation to one or more of these organizations or another like them, or to AWARE, which will distribute the money among them.

Monday, October 13, 2014

My Yoga Baseline

Let’s be clear. I ain’t skinny. At 5’8”, 185 pounds, all the charts say I’m overweight. And, though I’ve got a fair amount of muscle from years of bike riding and cutting and hauling firewood in my younger days, and though I lost 25 pounds (well, 30, but got 5 back, read back over the last year of posts to read about losing the weight), I’m carrying at least 30 pounds of extra fat around the middle. At 62 years old, it’s unlikely I’m going to become a yogi, a person who is proficient in yoga. And by proficient, I guess in my mind, I would have to be able to do a full lotus and maybe some other complicated, twisty poses.

Of course, by some definitions, a Yogi is simply someone “on the journey,” which reminds me very much of psychotherapy, Zen Buddhism, or nearly any “discipline.” At any rate, let me tell you some of the things I can’t do, so that, if over time I can do them, we can agree that Yoga has had an effect on my body. The possible mental/spiritual benefits I may report on, but I don’t know how I can objectively report a baseline short of asking people to write down their impressions of my personality now and some time in the future to see if it’s changed.

I cannot do a full or even a half lotus. In those poses you start cross-legged, bring one foot on top of the other thigh for half lotus and the other foot on top for full. Your knees should be touching or almost touching the floor. When I bring either foot on top of my thigh my knee sticks almost straight up in the air. And with one foot on a thigh the other won’t come anywhere near the other.

I cannot hang one arm behind my head, put the other behind my waist, and grasp hands, in fact my arms stay at least 6 inches apart (I’ll have my wife measure the gap before my next post).

I cannot do a full squat where my butt touches the back of my calves. I can almost get there, but my knees or thigh muscles protest. Same thing when I’m kneeling: can't sit on my heels.

I can touch my toes, hold my ankles, but can’t put my put my hands flat on the floor with my knees locked. I’ve got about 4 inches to go. I can’t come near folding my body in half and putting my head on the floor when I’m sitting on my butt no matter where my legs are. When doing “the clam” I get the closest. That’s where your legs are out in front of you with the soles of your feet together, you hold your feet and pull yourself forward and drop your head. Honestly, I can’t begin to do it. Maybe I’ll have Rita take a picture.

There are a million other things I probably can’t do or do right, but these are some of the important ones. So I have a long way to go. If you read my post last week, you know that one of the issues I have is a history of back pain. I’ve been pushing myself pretty hard this week, practicing yoga at least an hour each day using “Priscilla’s Yoga Stretches” a series of 15 minute programs which shows on WVPBS-2 in the Charleston, WV and online at She runs through her lessons pretty fast, so I take at least 30 minutes to complete a fifteen program because I’ll pause it to spend more time doing what I can do to approximate what she’d doing and maintaining and stretch more deeply into my facsimile of the pose.

In the course of my stretching, I have had cause to well remember back problems which plagued me between the ages of 25 and 45. I’ve come to realize that I never fully healed, or perhaps more accurately never fully strengthened myself after those episodes of severe back spasms and pain. And that is one of the reasons I am so tight.

The physical therapist who worked with me taught me that it was not really through stretching that I would heal my back, but through strengthening exercises. She taught me some, but after the pain receded I stopped doing them. The bike riding I do works some of those muscles as do a couple of the machines I use sometimes at the YWCA Nautilus, but I have to confess that actually strengthening my back and stomach muscles more than has been needed to keep pain at bay has not been something I’ve felt motivated to do…until now.

As I do the yoga stretches I feel the old ball of tightness down in my lower back on the left side and know that is what is keeping that left knee high in the air when I attempt half lotus and what is stopping me from bending far at the waist.

So, while I say I’ve been practicing yoga an hour or so a day, I’ve also been spending additional time as I sit and watch TV or even use the computer working those back and stomach muscles, stretching this way and that, tensing my “core”, even getting down on the floor sometimes to work on something. And as I walk around the house or take a walk outside, I’m trying to keep my stomach and lower back muscles tightened, which results in what I think of as the Denzel Washington walk (or the George W. Bush walk, but I really don’t want to compare myself to him)—a military walk: stomach in, back straight, butt tucked.

Okay, enough about me. How about posting your story about your back or your experience with back pain, yoga, or exercise? 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Yoga: How Far Can I Go?

Does anyone get through life without back pain? 50% of Americans experience back pain each year! My back problems are probably relatively small. Sometime in my twenties I strained it pretty badly. Since I was living in poverty at the time, it took me awhile to see a doctor, and when I did, I took the meds he prescribed, stayed off my feet as much as I could for thirty days, did some of the exercises and got over it…more or less. Apparently what I actually did was to start favoring one side of my body that didn’t hurt as much, and over the next fifteen years I had a couple recurrences, for which I sought help from a chiropractor.

That provided relief, but finally, at the age of forty-two I went down. Literally. On the floor of my classroom. During the pledge of allegiance. I’d been taking increasingly higher doses of ibuprofen for a few weeks, going to a chiropractor for the past week, and had been squatting to try to stretch out the spasmed muscles of my lower back, and on that morning they said, “No more.” I curled up in fetal position, motioned for one of the fifth graders to bring me pencil and paper, and wrote a note to the school secretary to call an ambulance. Another teacher came, took the students to the playground, and I was carried out on a stretcher. With a month of sick days, the help of codeine, valium, and a fantastic physical therapist, I learned how to start strengthening the muscles of my lower back and abdomen, especially on the side that had become weak from my efforts to protect myself from pain. Luckily, my problems were with muscles, not discs.

Fast forward to age 62 and retirement. I have had no relapses since then. I’ve maintained my physical condition through bike riding and using the Nautilus machines at the YWCA a couple times a week.

But I would never claim to be limber. I am flexible…to a point. Which, I guess is true of everyone. Over the last five years or so, I’ve dabbled a bit with Yoga. I participated in a couple sessions at a resort and found out what it was – basically stretching and breathing mindfully, and I bought a DVD by Lilia of PBS fame and have used that off and on for the past couple years. But Lilia was a bit too easy on me – she didn’t push me to go farther than what I was already able to do, and consequently, I made little progress.

I recently attended a Yoga class while in New York City from a young man who showed me a bit more about what a true practitioner of yoga does. Of course, I knew that people who “practice Yoga” do amazing things, turning themselves into human pretzels, but I have never pictured myself attempting that.

Now I’m not so sure. Or, at any rate, now I’m open to stretching my body…pushing my body to stretch to new limits.

When I returned home I started with another PBS yoga program, this one called Priscilla’s Yoga Stretches, which airs on our secondary PBS channel (Suddenlink channel 5 from 6:30-7:00 am….I use the DVR). Priscilla does things that are far beyond my capability, but she says that if you keep trying, you will make progress.

When I say I’m not limber, I mean I can’t even squat comfortably. I can barely sit cross-legged, let alone do a half lotus (one foot on the other thigh) where the knees rest on the floor as Priscilla does. I can’t hang one hand behind my head and bring the other one up from below to clasp hands…not even close. So if I’m going to make real progress with Hatha Yoga, I realize I’m going to have to stretch some muscles and ligaments to “open my hips” and “open my shoulders”.  

Many people reject Yoga without trying it because of its exotic name or because they believe it is a religion. Many practitioners report benefits that have some of the earmarks of religious claims: connecting the mind and body, opening up of energy centers (chakras), and such. While I’m not seeking benefits greater than a more limber and presumably longer lasting body, I am open to the possibility that restoring my body, and most importantly, my spine, to a healthier, straighter, more limber and resilient condition while breathing in ways that lull my mind into a hypnotic or meditative state might over time improve my mood or even result in what are sometimes called transcendental experiences.

As I did with my weight as I changed my diet and dropped thirty pounds (of which I have now gained back several) over the past year, I may report my progress in this space from time to time. If I open any chakras (or learn what they are), I’ll let you know, too.