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.