The Yoga Diary – January

About a year ago, I was resting in savasana (“corpse pose,” or final resting position) at the end of a yoga class, and without anticipation, a flood of thoughts drifted in and out of my mind…thoughts that were inspiring to my life in that moment, or were just introspective and meaningful to me. Unfortunately, these ruminating moments would often escape me as swiftly and as unexpectedly as they arrived in my mind. I began to bring a journal in my car with me when I attended other teacher’s yoga classes this year so I could write down some of these thoughts that came to me while they were still new. Although I cannot capture every fleeting one that drifts to me during the practice, I am able to at least reflect on some. So, for fun, I thought I’d periodically share a few of these entries with you. I call these musings (which are at times silly) my “Yoga diary.”

Entry #1, January 2013 – Shifting my perspective

Have you ever misread a person based on what you have become accustomed to in your own life, and enjoyed that moment of transformation when your perspective changes? That is what happened to me today when I attended a yoga class.

All day, I had been looking forward to my evening yoga. The chill of western New York’s winter makes my joints stiff, and a heated vinyasa yoga class often feels as healing for me as a burst of warm sunshine.  As I excitedly arrived to class, I laid out my mat and descended my back upon my bolster, peacefully awaiting an inspiring and invigorating practice. I’ve been to this teacher’s class before, and I’ve always left feeling uplifted. A moment later, however, I was abruptly distracted by the person who placed her mat next to mine. An attractive young woman whipped her mat opened and flung it on the floor with a thud. She proceeded to plop down on it, and then began to madly type on her Iphone in what appeared to be a heated and overwrought text discussion. The chomping of her gum sounded like clamps grinding inside of my ears.

Well, we all have our peeves.  Some people get annoyed by loud groans or overtly expressive yogis, or exponentially heavy breathing. These things have never bothered me in class or otherwise. But, chomp loudly on a piece of gum, or chew incessantly on food with a gaping open mouth, or go for an hour madly sniffling the uncontrollable flow of mucus as it dangles from un-blown nostrils, and my yogic disposition quickly goes awry. Whether I’m on a flight, in a yoga class, or next to someone in a meeting, these peeves can challenge me. So, as you can imagine, having this woman park her mat about three inches from mine while engaging in these activities brought an abrupt halt to my previously blissful pre-yoga state I was entering. I reminded myself of what I learned from a Buddhist monk once, who suggested I try meditating in the middle of a busy parking lot to challenge my concentration. That, he said, would make me truly centered. Alas, this reasoning rarely works for me in real life, especially if I try to self-impose it in a preachy way.

Class began with the teacher instructing us the settle into child’s pose (balasana) and release our hips while focusing on our breath. I half followed her instructions as I irritably listened to the semi-rhythmic incisors of my neighbor, wondering how she will keep her gum in her mouth when she is flipped upside-down in a standing splits pose…would she still try to chew it? I wondered. Perhaps she would give it a rest for a while and wedge it behind her molars or under her tongue? Hmmm…I started to think of the potential options she could choose from to keep her gum in her mouth.  Meanwhile, as these “unyogic” thoughts plagued my mind, she quickly exited her balasana for a moment to reply to a text mid-pose.

As we proceeded through the practice, however, a shift occurred. We began to flow through our sun salutations, and I noticed that she was quite lost in the practice. She frequently looked over at me, imitating my movements. I glanced at her from the corner of my left eye, and she smiled at me. “I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m glad I’m next to someone who does. I’ve been wanting to try yoga for a long time, and I’m finally at a class!” she exclaimed. At that same moment, the teacher stated “our actions and feeling in life will be guided by our thoughts and perceptions, so make the choice to shift your perceptions to those that make you feel good.”  I suddenly saw this young woman in a different light. She had never tried yoga before. Instead of seeing an annoying, gum-chomping, ignorant girl, I suddenly saw someone who is just conditioned to the use of modern technology and external distractions as most of us are in our outside lives. Having never previously practiced yoga, there was not any reason for her to act otherwise in class. Her intentions were not even slightly malicious. I found myself wondering if some of those who are new to yoga come to class and see these experienced yogis lifting their legs over their shoulders with ease, or launching effortlessly into parsva bakasana (side crow pose), and feel too intimidated to ever walk into a class again. Most of us are conditioned to a paradigm of constant distractions in our daily lives…texts, e-mails, social media, etc.  Becoming disengaged from this, even for an hour, can seem almost foreign to someone who has never been introduced to the concept.

As I switched to a place of compassion, I thought instead of how great it was for her to just be there. It changed the entire experience for me in class. I remembered how much yoga transformed my life years ago, and how unaware I was in the beginning of the yoga concept of Dharana, which means (in short) to cultivate inner awareness, and how often I still don’t practice this outside of (or in the case of today, even inside of) the yoga room. I was able to laugh at the situation, and at how my reaction and judgments were just as affecting to my practice as the gum chomping and texting may have been to hers. But I was even more struck by how profound a smile and a friendly face is. It can literally transform everything about a person, making our initial judgments of someone change entirely. This concept is far from new to me, but being reminded to stay aware of it still felt new in that moment.

My practice that day had turned into one of the best yoga classes I have attended in weeks. I felt revived after this experience, noticing how simple and powerful shifting our own thoughts can be. I then trailed off into a blissful savasana before reenacting my senses.

Reflecting on past years: My Previous Travels

 

As we begin 2013, I have found my spirit creeping into a melancholy place.  Amongst many things, I realize that it has been almost seven months since I’ve traveled overseas.  Perhaps I should attribute my gypsy spirit to my Hungarian ancestry. – Or, maybe the frosty guise of the earth in Western New York’s wintry spell, exposed beneath a lid of bleak grey sky, has led me to a despondent state. Winter is a time of hibernation and rest, which gives way for self-reflection and contemplation. This is a subtle gift of sorts.  If approached with perspicacity, it can open one to growth in previously unforeseeable ways, as the chill of winter inevitably transforms into the newness of spring.

Gratefulness has always been a powerful concept for me.  My emotions have never been shielded beneath a very thick barrier. When feelings are present, be it anger, hurt, joy, or any number of fleeting thoughts, my eyes will almost immediately disclose them, and my urge is to express them, even though I often cannot, nor, perhaps, should I.  Gratefulness is what grounds me most during these moments. It reminds me that the simple joys of being alive, such as my health, my loyal and beautiful friends, and the experiences I’ve been bestowed with in my life are gifts. Gratefulness takes my focus away from my yearnings, my perception of life’s losses and what is lacking, and shifts my awareness to a place of abundance and contentment. This may only last a few moments. I may need to remind myself to revisit this place often, but every moment of peace creates a glimpse of a potential opportunity, so, I frequent there whenever I can.

In celebration of the New Year, I have unearthed some of my old photos from my previous travels, which I share here with you.  Indeed, I have had some amazing life experiences, and there are bound to be many, many more to come. Perhaps next time, I will even see you somewhere along my journey.

2004 – I traveled to Lhasa, Tibet, Chengdu, China, and Qing Chen Shan, China. This trip was planned through Rebecca Kali, a Qigong Master and owner of the Dao of Well-Being. I will never forget the magical Tibetan landscape, or the smiling faces of the people. Although eight years ago feels like a lifetime, almost, I recall these moments as if I was just there. Rebecca creates the opportunity for people to visit this exotic, and not often traveled to place. For more information about Rebecca’s amazing journeys, visit her website at: www.dao-of-well-being.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2006 – During this year, I took a group of Massage students and graduates from FLCC’s Therapeutic massage program to Hangzhou, China to study TuiNa massage in a hospital environment. We also traveled to Beijing to visit the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, and we spent a couple of days in the majestic Yellow Mountains (Huang Shan).  I traveled to these same locations in 2005 with one of my then graduate professors, Darlene Easton, and a group of her Acupuncture students from New York Chiropractic College. Most of these photos are from the 2006 trip that I took with my massage students and graduates:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2011-2012 – Of course, I’ve shared many photos of my visit to perhaps my favorite destination of all: Thailand. One place I visited last June that I did not mention, however, is a beautiful resort northwest of Chiang Mai in a town named Maerwin. The name of this destination spa is Panviman Chiang Mai Resort, and it is absolutely breathtaking. I traveled here with the group of FLCC graduates who were in Thailand with me in 2012. The owner/administrator of the SVG Thai Massage Training Center, Parawat Poungpiam, designed this breathtaking resort. If you have the amazing opportunity to visit Thailand, I highly recommend taking the trip north to experience this place. For more information, visit the website at www.panviman.com.

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Brains, Memory, and Aging

As I progress through each year of my life, I become increasingly more curious about the impact aging and my lifestyle has on my health. There are an array of theories that exist about healthy lifestyle and prevention of mental deterioration, many of which conflict with one another. We may be told to live a stress-free lifestyle by getting sufficient hours of sleep each night to live a long and healthy life. Then again, another source may say to keep the mind continually active, get plenty of exercises, and remain adequately active to remain spry and youthful. So, then, this question is…which of these theories are correct?

In a recent workshop I attended titled Memory, Aging, and Sleep, presenter Dr. Beverly White shared extensive evidence that a combination of all of the above theories are necessary, to some varying degree. Sufficient sleep, stress management, exercise, and even having a little stress in our lives can all have positive impact.

How could this be? Well, let’s begin with a very brief study of the human brain.

The Human Brain

Our brains are comprised of three basic smaller “brains.”  These include the following areas:

  • The “Archaic Brain” – The Basal Ganglia

The Basal Ganglia are actually a cluster of structures that rule the functioning of our instinctual behavior, such as defending territory and staying safe. In reptiles like snakes and lizards, this is the primary area of the brain that is developed. Human pathologies related to dysfunction of this area of the brain include Parkinson’s disease, Attention Deficit Disorder, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It is located in the center of the brain.

  •  The “Old Brain” – The Limbic System

The Limbic system is sometimes referred to as the “subconscious brain.” The word limbic means “edge” or “the border,” meaning that this structure is what forms the inner border of the cortex. Structures included in the limbic system are the Hippocampus (which is larger in females), and the Amygdala (which is larger in males). Several important functioning occurs in this area of the brain, including memory formation, emotions such as fear and anger, mood changes, attention processing, and spatial memory and navigation.  Control of the endocrine system also occurs here, which is responsible for controlling temperature, sexual arousal, and our sleep/wake cycle. Other mammals that share development of this area of the brain with us include cats and dogs.

  • The “New Brain” – The Cortex

The Cortex exceeds in complexity over any machine we have ever built. This area is referred to as the conscious brain, and is located in the outer portion of the cerebrum. It is the part of our minds that formulate complex thoughts, higher cognition, abstract thought, comprehension of language and social behavior. Humans are unique in the development of this area of the brain. The cortex is so large that it would not be able fit through the birth canal if un-winded. Luckily for us females of the species, the body developed with great wisdom and kindly folded the cortex several times so it is almost crumpled in appearance to make for easier birthing.

 

Aging

So, now that we’ve explored the basic components of the brain, let’s discuss some factors that impact our brains and the aging process.

Aging is inevitable. No amount of plastic surgery will prevent our inside organs from eventually getting older. Anatomical research gives us a grim outlook on aging. The reality is that our brains begin to shrink at age twenty, and cerebral blood flow is gradually reduced by about 15-20% as a result. A more positive factor, however, is that our lifestyle plays into about 70% of how long and healthy of a life we live. Genetics only play about 30%. This means that as adults, we have control over much of how we experience this inescapable transition. There are certain lifestyle choices that Dr. White referred to in her lecture as being “brain busters,” meaning that they can have a negative impact on how rapidly we age. These busters include the following:

  • Alcoholism
  • Chronic depression
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Heart surgery
  • Hypertension
  • Sleep apnea
  • Chronic stress

Physical fitness for healthy gums

Yes, exercise actually plays a part in the health of our gums.

Another primary cause of brain aging, more specifically related to memory and the deterioration of the hippocampus, is periodontal disease, which can dramatically increase our risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. So, the next time the dentist harps relentlessly about sticking that waxy string between your teeth twice a day, it may be best to take it to heart. A new study (conducted by the British Dental Health Association in 2011) looked at more than 4,200 individuals and found that those with fewer of their own teeth were at increased risk of memory loss and/or early stage Alzheimer’s disease.

Interestingly, though, there is also a direct connection between obesity and periodontal disease, according to a 2011 study conducted by the British Dental Health Association. This is a serious epidemic in America, where obesity has risen from approximately 14% of the population nationwide, to 69% of the American population today!  For this reason, regular physical activity is pertinent in memory health, especially as we age. Muscle burns four times the calories fat does. However, it is determined that only about 1/3 of Americans regularly exercise, which may account for the whopping 69% statistic.

Although these statistics may seem disheartening, research shows that it is also never too late to begin a more active lifestyle. A study Dr. White presented showed that a group of people aged 90 and over started mild muscular strength training and physical exercise, and each one’s health improved by 180% after a month of exercise. Another encouraging fact is that it need not take a considerable amount of time. About thirty minutes of cardiovascular fitness per day can have a significant impact.

Choosing a fitness activity you love is pertinent for self-motivation. I recall about twelve years ago, a friend of mine who loved running encouraged me to try it with her a few times a week. Every morning that I prepared run with her it seemed like a wretched chore, not to mention that my knees were beginning to feel like they were constructed with cracked cement. I dreaded getting out of bed the mornings I knew I was going to run. The reality is that I hate running, no matter what time of the year it is or where the activity is located. My friend, on the other hand, found running to feel like therapy. She said it helped alleviate stress, free her mind, and even solve inevitable life problems and decisions for her. Later that same year, I began to explore my yoga practice more deeply. A recent trend that was just breaking in America at the time was hot vinyasa style yoga, which includes flowing yoga asanas (postures) in a heated room, and sometimes includes strong yoga pose holds that help to build strength. There is also a component of yoga that emphasizes breathing, on focusing the mind, and on letting go. I found this practice to be powerfully therapeutic. I treasured my yoga practice so much that I made it as much of a life priority as going to work or eating lunch every day. It became a lifelong practice for me that I actively both practice and teach today.

Mental Exercise

Our bodies cannot do it alone. Another primary factor in preventing mental deterioration is to keep the mind exploring. This begins with mental exercise. There is substantial evidence that shows that if we don’t continue to learn new information throughout our lives, that our declarative memory (explicit memory that demands making a conscious effort to recall) will deteriorate much more rapidly. Learning new skills such as a foreign language, playing a musical instrument, or dabbling in creating visual arts can keep the mind active and young. Reading and writing can also utilize some of the same areas of the brain that help to keep our minds young. As with physical exercise, the key again is to choose something you love, or at least have a significant interest in. Motivation is always necessary first.

Can depression interfere?

…Absolutely, it can. Our levels of some of the key chemicals in our brains may be low if we experience chronic depression. This can include norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. Deficiency in any of these chemicals, over long-term, may put us at a higher risk of developing dementia. Since this is an inevitable emotion that everyone experiences at some point in his or her life, however, we will all at some point need to find ways to cope with experiencing some degree of depression. Depression can decrease our motivation for both physical and mental exercise. However, this perspective can be turned around as well. Mental and physical exercise also can help to prevent long-term depression, and has been shown to be a catalyst for snapping us out of depressive episodes as well, even if its for short-term periods of times. So, whereas being depressed may decrease our motivation, forcing ourselves, even when not motivated, to partake in an activity may be just what we humans need. Perhaps it may take a friend’s encouragement by stopping by for a walk (preferably in the sunshine for vitamin D, which also helps alleviate depression), or just to talk and be supportive. In fact, this segues nicely into the next key factor in preventing aging…

You’re not alone

We have over seven billion people that exist on the planet, and no matter how unique you fancy yourself to be, from a number so large, there are bound to be some of those people that are similar to you in some way that you connect with. We are not here alone, and with good reason. A Harvard study of adult development has shown that lonely people are 50% more likely to develop dementia and/or die younger. Staying connected to others is pertinent in our lives. In fact, studies of the brain show that we are hardwired to seek companionship. This need not mean that one has hundreds of friends, either. We are all distinctive beings, and some people may prefer more alone time and a smaller circle. Having even a couple of reliable friends and a close partner may be all some need. Just as it is important to learn new skills and develop new interests to keep the mind active, though, it is also important to remain open throughout our lives to the possibility of new friendships. We may outlive our partners, or even our close childhood friends. Circumstances in our lives may cause us to move to new locations, or changes we do not anticipate with current partners or old friends may occur. We can form new friendships at age ninety-five if are minds are aware and we still have the ability to connect. It has been shown that the brain shrinks more slowly when we have healthy human relationships with others. It is one of the most primary keys to both our mental and physical longevity. Physical touch, likewise, should not be discounted. Sexual connection has numerous health benefits, as does non-sexual touch. Massage Therapy and even hugging can help us to sleep better and keep our memories healthy.

In the not so distant future, I will explore the topic of love and our brains, and just what a significant role it plays in our overall well-being.

Oh…but perhaps I almost forgot to mention the most important ingredient of all for a youthful mind. Nonsense. Yes…pure silliness. Those cheesy expressions you may find written on plaques and greeting cards everywhere that say to “laugh often,” or state laughter as being the “best medicine” mean what they say. Laughter reduces stress, protects the nervous system, boosts immune function, and activates the frontal lobe of the brain. So, I will end here with a quote from the infamously clever Dr. Seuss, who still remains one of my favorite authors today:

“I like nonsense. It wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living. It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.”

 

 

 

Welcome to my re-built blog: amy-warcup.com

Welcome to my blog, amy-warcup.com.

During the autumn and winter of 2011, I had the great pleasure of spending ten weeks in lovely Thailand as part of a sabbatical from my position as Assistant Professor at Finger Lakes Community College in Canandaigua, NY. I also returned to Thailand for a second trip during May and June of 2012, this time accompanied by a group of my former students. During this time, I was actively blogging on a site with the domain amywarcup.com. It is with great misfortune that the site was unexpectedly terminated after eleven months.  Here, I have rebuilt my blog to my new domain, and I am re-posting most of my previous writings and photos.

During this transition, however, I have discovered a couple of my posts, as well as some of my photos have been lost. One is my departure writing before my first flight to Thailand, and the other is my first post upon arrival to the fascinating and chaotic capital city, Bangkok. Despite my lost work, however, it is my hope that my journey still narrates a tale of my adventures to this captivating, beautiful, and unique country.

In the near future, I will be exploring the affects of sleep on memory and the aging process, after attending a recent seminar in Rochester, New York. Please come back and visit often!

Namaste,

Amy

In Their Own Words: Chelsey, Kate, and Emily

*This post was originally published on August 4th, 2012

Upon our return home, I asked the travelers if they would like to share some of their reflections of their experiences in Thailand. The following are commentaries from Chelsey, Kate, and Emily.

Chelsey:

My fondest memories are hard to say. Honestly, every moment of the trip was so positive and memorable. I’ll fondly remember the sense of adventure and lack of planning required of me to have an amazing day there.

The biggest challenge was saying good-bye! I thought it was rather easy to be there. Also, finding that there is a limitation to the degree of spicy-ness I can handle.

I will remember most the power of a smile, putting others first and not sweating the small stuff.

There didn’t seem to be a whole slew of rules and regulations there, but the Thai people didn’t live in chaotic, crime ridden streets from what I could see. The perfect metaphor of their culture is the traffic and driving there! There seemed to not be any rules or heavy law enforcement, and yet there were few accidents. They always seemed to be conscious of others, regardless of the seemingly dangerous traffic, from a New Yorker’s view.  It had reiterated my belief that in order to have a safer, more orderly culture we as people must take it upon ourselves to be law abiding citizens and respect others out of principal instead of force. We should not expect the government, religions and laws to force us to be good people.

Kate:

My fondest memories of visiting Thailand were eating the delicious food we made under the supervision of our wonderful teacher, Thurian, dancing until 3am in Bangkok, and  enjoying days spent with our teachers, Rose and Paul, during our Thai Massage classes. I also remember fondly spending time with the gentle and beautiful rescued elephants at the Elephant Nature Park, having the honor of experiencing a day with Mr. PP and Nuy at the magnificent Panviman Resort Spa, and looking out at the Bangkok city lights on top of a 7 floor building with my friend Tay.

 

My Biggest challenges were traveling for 26 hours, and working hard for my two Thai Massage exams after being sick and missing two full days of classes.

 

I remember most the watermelon and cantaloupe smoothies, which were so delicious! I recall the peacefulness, friendliness and positive attitudes of the Thai people, and the amazing markets every night, …the hot weather!

How did Thailand changed me/my worldview?

I appreciate other cultures and what they have to offer even more so than before. Overall I have returned feeling centered and balanced. I am more patient with myself, others and my thoughts. I am humbled, while caring less for material objects and more for the relationships I share.

 

Emily:

Humans, on an individual level, have always captured my interests… from the science and mysteries behind every little cell and how they all function, to the personalities, the mind, the soul, the emotions, the energy vibrations and the “I” of each human being. Now, placing all of these important yet complex parts that create a single individual alongside of other human individuals overwhelms me with interest. This interest, with the beautiful individuals and absolutely amazing relationships between them, is where my fondest memories have stemmed from while living in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Before this trip, I really had not known any of my companions very well. But as one of my professors,  Dr. Miller, once told me, “The best way to get to know someone is by traveling across the country with them.” Being that this trip was not just across the country but on the other side of the world, I made some of the strongest connections that I have ever made throughout my life thus far. I got to know so much more about the group, which instantly created a bond. For example, I found out that the avid baseball player, Adam, loves orchestral performances and theatre. Although, being across the world and rooming with someone brings even closer bonds, to the point when walking in on my roommate dancing to Latino music in just her Sublime t-shirt and underwear didn’t take me by surprise.

We were a diverse group, all having different backgrounds, some of us raised in the city and others in the smallest of towns. We all had different expectations, goals and reasons for why we were really attending this trip. But all of us, aside from Amy, shared one common situation: traveling to Thailand for the very first time. This is where I not only experienced great memories, but also my biggest challenges.

At the beginning of the trip we attempted to stay together as a group while we roamed the streets and markets of Bangkok and took luxury Mercedes vans to tourist attractions outside of the city of Chiang Mai. As the days were sluggishly sinking into memories, we slowly began to distinguish interests and what we each wanted to do while we were not in class. While shopping at the markets, I would become antsy if I was with another person. I could not seem to stick with a person or group because I always had my mind set on two things, finding the stand with the freshest fruit shakes and a stand that sold ukuleles. I always told whomever I was with that I was going to run ahead to explore the stands and that they could find me when they heard the sweet sounds of a ukulele. But the markets were busy and in the back of my mind I knew that I wasn’t going to see my partner(s) for the rest of the night. Though not admitting it, I was excited by this.

Soon, there came a point in the trip when I was very frustrated with others and their interests or lack of interests. I was becoming uneasy with the fact that I hadn’t felt like I was really experiencing the culture of the Land of Smiles. I realized that I was creating a scapegoat on the others for my uneasiness. I knew this was wrong. I stepped back and just realized again why I love humans; because of our individualities and how we all are complex, different and wonderful in our own ways. I knew I could not hold in such frustration nor can I put it on anyone else. So one night, I left the hotel by myself and just walked, without a map, without a plan, without many baht and with an empty stomach. This night, this walk away from the frustrations and fears that were holding me back, turned into the most significant night I experienced on this trip.

 

I walked on main streets and side streets and streets that weren’t streets to find some food. I found plenty of food but I kept searching for something more. I finally encountered a fruit shake stand and a charcoal grill with meat cooking. It was late, there were a handful of people that looked my age, and without hesitation I stopped I smiled and said, “tao rai kaa” and pointed to the grill. They didn’t understand. I wasn’t speaking confidently because I couldn’t remember if what I said meant, “How much?” After some more gesticulating and vocal attempts, another man my age came out, got by with some English and I finally understood that the meat being grilled wasn’t for sale, but I was more than welcome to sit down and eat with them. The moment I sat down and purchased a shake and took a bite of the unknown slab of meat, from these unknown people, sitting on the side of an unknown street, allowed me to digest the fact that I had overcome my personal fear of the unknown. From then on the night became a charade of getting to know each other, with cheers and extreme enthusiasm about taking turns on Youtube playing an array of music. This is the night I have remembered the most.

 

I made a handful of friends and memories that night and we continued to make plans to spend more time together during the weekend. The person explaining these plans is named Faq. “Like frequently asked questions,” he would say. Faq spoke English better than I did. He is majoring in tourism and hotel management at Chiang Mai University and has started his own school for teaching English to the Thai people. Faq told me that we would meet in the same spot on Friday night at 9pm. This moment became the first of the few precious moments I received from Faq. I asked him how we will get there, by taxi or by motorbike, and if there would be extra room if I wanted to bring a friend from my group? Faq simply responded along the lines of not to worry, Friday is when we will know. What he said was so simplistic and profound to me. It made me aware of the fact that the smallest things in the future that I am concerned about do not really matter. At this point, I realized that in my life I have a conditioned response to make sure everything is to be understood or clear. I realized that my western ways kept me from feeling the now… be-ing in the now. It happened two more times where I have shown concern or held on and both times, while talking to Faq, he would casually speak words that really helped me experience how wonderful it is to be aware yet detached and truly live in the moment. During these moments I felt like the crown of my head opened and all of the distractions, thoughts, worries and fears from anything and everything in my mind floated away, and everything that I perceived became vivid and outstanding. From then on, my view of the world has changed.

 

“So when you want to become something more than you are, different from what you are, or higher than where you think you are, all that means is that you haven’t discovered where you are, and you are under the illusion that there is somewhere else that you ought to be besides here.”

In Light of Coming Home: Post-Thailand Blues and my Remedies

*This post was originally published on July 16th, 2012 on amywarcup.com

After twenty-six nights, 55 hours of flights and layovers (collectively), about twenty Thai foot massages, and at least fifteen Khao Sois, it hit me….a condition rarely spoken about in depth, but one that is very real: Post-Travel Depression (PTD). Yes, it really does have a formal medical name. I’ve traveled many times in my life to dozens of cities and towns (although I have so many more to explore), but none have left me feeling quite the nostalgia that Chiang Mai has.  Perhaps I should call my condition Post-Thailand Depression.  I could even still call it PTD, although I must admit that this abbreviation insinuates, when spoken aloud, a far more morbid image of disease than simply feeling the blues after an exhilarating world travel experience.

As I awoke my first morning in my bed at home, I wondered for a moment where my mango, dragon fruit and papaya fruit bowl was, realizing that the best solution in that moment was to drive to my local Wegman’s grocery store to make this tropical breakfast myself.  As each piece of mango lavishly delighted my palate, I thought in my self-pity how I was just sitting at my simple glass kitchen table in my relatively uneventful hometown of Rochester, New York.  Gone were the twenty blocks of market stands selling jasmine flowers for offerings, or  hill tribe purses, or obscene t-shirts diagraming Bangkok’s “Ping-Pong show” with the grossly misspelled word “poossee” written beneath it.  All of those fleeting conversations with bizarre strangers, such as the woman from Castile who replaced her hair with peacock feathers, or the ragged charlatan who “owns ten successful software businesses worldwide,” but needed  thirty baht for a taxi because  he forgot his wallet in his guest house…all of those encounters were gone. No more were the dozens of smiling Thai eyes that greeted me daily with an exuberant “tuk-tuk, madame?” …And where were the street vendors selling Pad Thai and fruit shakes? Why couldn’t I walk out my door and walk up the street for a six-dollar massage and pedicure? Why, when I went to the grocery store, wasn’t everyone smiling back at me and saying hello when I looked into their eyes, smiled, and nodded? Rather, people either looked away, or glared briefly with a look that may have said “I don’t know you, you freak.”

Well, perhaps my interpretation was in part because of my 102 (F) degree fever, my jet-lag, and the aggravating charley-horse I had in my left leg. These conditions do not typically invite the most optimistic view of understanding human behavior. Another realization I came upon was that although old friends provide the comforts of familiarity, they did not experience the metamorphosis that had recently occurred in my life. “You’ve just had this amazing life opportunity,” they may say. “What do you have to be depressed about?”  Well, what some may not understand is that the sadness that follows such an amazing life happening does not translate to a lack of gratefulness. Certainly, I have felt gratitude beyond measure after visiting Thailand. Never before have I been so aware of the favorable circumstances in my life that have allowed me such freedom to take this journey.  Nonetheless, the feelings of letting go, of even some mind remorse, remained. So, to cope, I experimented with techniques in my life that helped relieve my post-travel melancholy, and these were some things that helped me move through my blues:

  1. Write it down:  One of the assignments I required of my students during our recent travels was to keep a dated daily journal. My limitations in the assignment were few. I did not care so much how long each entry was written, or how personal they chose to be in sharing; only that they took time to ponder on what they were absorbing in their experiences and that they write it down. The primary purpose of the assignment was not for me or their grades, but rather, for them, so that they have a documentation of their memoirs that they may refer to in the future, or perhaps stumble upon twenty years from now to re-live their experiences. What I realized, however, was that I forgot to do the same for myself. Oh, sure…I often took notes for blog post ideas, or wrote down details of the history of certain temples so I could share this knowledge with the college administration upon my return, but I was not writing my personal experiences. I did not give myself a place to reflect on how I felt as I lived these moments from day to day. – But, writing after returning, I decided, was still not too late. So, I pulled out a blank journal my sister had given me as a gift a couple of years ago, and started writing. Taking what I was feeling out of my mind and onto paper created a tremendous feeling of relief within me. It was almost as if I had taken my heavy backpack off forever to run free of the burden. I could see my experiences from a third-person perspective without fear of judgments or over-analyzing my emotions. They were just there, and nobody else needed to see them but me.  – But, they were mine…my life and reality; something I may choose to reflect upon one day as I reminisce of my past. Thoughts and emotions are powerful, but they are also fleeting from moment to moment. Writing them down is like taking a photograph of a personal experience that is harbored in the mind.

  1. Find the Culture at Home:  This option may vary depending on where one lives, of course. Discovering aspect of Thai culture may be easier to discover in New York City or San Francisco than in Lost Creek, West Virginia. Still, even in my relatively smaller city of Rochester, New York, there are some Thai restaurants, places that practice Buddhism (although not Theravada, typically), and there is a little shop up the street from me that is owned by a Thai woman who sells imported goods and jewelry from Thailand. There was great comfort in knowing that I could drive less than ten miles to eat a spicy green curry, or order mango with coconut milk and sticky rice to bring home. Sure, it isn’t the same as walking out the door and finding a mango fruit stand outside of my guesthouse. I knew eventually I’d need to curtail this addiction if I wanted to save money for future travels, but the comfort of eating Thai food those first few days made my cultural transition much smoother. A nice, chilled bottle of Singha didn’t hurt, either. So…what to do if you live in a town that is even smaller and may not have Thai restaurants? I suggest taking a recipe book and trying your hand at making some of these delicious meals yourself. It may be time consuming at first, but once you know a recipe, it will be significantly faster and easier.  This needn’t be just for Thailand withdrawal, either. Every culture has something unique that may be recreated at home.

Talk to Strangers: Of course, some discretion should always be used with this suggestion. After all, Mom and Rick Springfield didn’t grill this advice into our heads without reason. One aspect of traveling that really has struck me, however, is the realization of just how many more strangers I do talk to when I’m not at home. This is especially true when I’ve traveled solo. There is often less fear, somehow. Nobody knows me, the chances of us having some awkward mutual acquaintance, or the risk that the person may have heard of some unsubstantiated gossip about me is almost non-existent. Still, I thought, why is it that we don’t take risks and talk to new people more often? This is especially true for those who live in northeastern United States, like I do. In light of this thought, I strolled up a quaint city street in Rochester one balmy summer afternoon, intending to take food “to go” from one of my favorite sushi restaurants. Instead, however, I decided to dine at a table alone, as I unabashedly did so many times in Chiang Mai.  A nearby woman and I struck up a most engaging conversation about cultural differences, spiritual perspectives, and career changes. On the day that followed, I visited a local gardening shop to purchase day lilies, and talked to a woman about the therapeutic aspects of planting and working with the earth. Perhaps these conversations weren’t quite the same as the ones I had with the fifty year old New Zealander who once lived with aborigine tribes and motor biked across Europe and Asia, but they were still meaningful. They were also conversations I may have never had on an ordinary day if I had not been in my post-Thailand state of withdrawal.

 

  1. Talk to New People About the Experience:  This coincides well with the previous suggestion. I am not insinuating that we shouldn’t talk to our friends about our travels. It is a given that we will share with them, especially the more personal stories. Giving presentations, however, and engaging in discussions with new people that are interested in world travel and culture may give way for a more captive and engaged audience, because they are there to learn about your experience. It also allows you, as the traveler, the opportunity to re-live the journey. When I returned from Thailand last fall, I gave a presentation at FLCC, the community college where I teach. The event was open to the community as well as the college body. A group of retired women came together for a “ladies afternoon” to hear my presentation, since they all shared an interest in travel and culture. They were attentive during the presentation, and afterward asked me several intelligent and thoughtful questions about cultural barriers and differences in world perspectives as a result of varying belief systems. There are only a miniscule number of things that engage my intellect more than these discussions. I realized that sharing with others about our travels is not really just about telling others of our personal experiences. It is an opportunity to seek connection with others and understand the world beyond the confines of our cultural limitations.
  2. Break Away From a Routine..Even Just a Little: When I was in Thailand, I experienced something new daily, even when I had a full-day scheduled of Thai massage training. It may have just been walking down a new Soi (small road) in the morning, or eating a strange piece of cake that looked like a dish sponge and tasted like roses, or trying on a pair of Thai style pants that tie differently than anything I’ve ever worn in America. All of these little novelties stimulate the mind and the senses with the excitement of newness. Coming home to a mundane and familiar routine can be difficult afterward. Even tiny changes, however, can bring back just a trace moving away from feeling as if in a rut. Typically, most mornings, I immediately pour myself a cup of coffee and take a shower. Some mornings, I may do a short yoga practice. I decided to change this routine one morning by taking a walk instead (well…I did still drink my coffee first), and then drove to a local park to meditate in nature for a short bit. Instead of going to my usual yoga classes, I decided to try a few new ones with unfamiliar teachers. I’ve been exploring the possibilities of starting a new hobby. One that has particularly piqued my interest recently is learning how to do Ariel silk dancing. Perhaps one of the Cirque de So Leil dancers can teach me this art.

Ask almost anybody who has traveled extensively. In most cases, unless it was a particularly unpleasant experience, they will tell you that coming home was a bit challenging. Many may speak of having had some degree of PTD. In time, however, we assimilate to our homes again. Humans have an amazing ability of resiliency and adaptability if we are open to change, but bringing back pieces of the culture with us, and integrating it into our lives, make the transitions much easier. It can also create positive changes in who we are and how we choose to lives our daily lives, forever.

Meet the Travelers Part VI: Kate Star

*This post was originally published on June 23rd, 2012 on amywarcup.com

“I didn’t have any expectations in my mind. I just knew, when I decided to sign up for the trip to Thailand that I was just going. It couldn’t have been any better.”

These reflective words were spoken by Kate Star, a precocious twenty-three year old graduate from FLCC’s 2010 class in the Therapeutic Massage and Integrated Health Care Program.

We have just landed in the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City for a six hour layover before departing for Rochester. Sights, sounds, and smells of Thailand still linger inside of our minds and senses as we slowly assimilate back to American culture.  It was then that Kate Star and I finally had a chance to converse about the trip, and why she decided to join our group to visit the Land of Smiles.

Kate was not a complete novice to Thai massage before studying the healing art in Thailand. Back in 2009, Kate participated in a Thai massage workshop that was offered at an American Massage Therapy Association conference. “I love the connection that a practitioner has with a client during a Shiatsu or Thai massage session better than most Western massage. I feel the flow of the work. It’s not like the client is just lying there. I feel like I’m working on the person and the client’s body in an entirely different way.”

While in the massage program, Shiatsu was Kate’s favorite subject because she enjoyed the eastern theory that the modality is based upon, feeling that the theory is more than just a concept, but something she and others can incorporate into their entire lives.  Her passion for Daoism and Chinese Medicine theory was key in her decision to advance her studies in Chinese Medicine. After graduating from the massage program, Kate continued her education for four trimesters at the Finger Lakes School of Acupuncture in pursuit of a Master’s of Science degree in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Kate is currently taking time off from her studies, but she plans to finish her degree to become a holistic practitioner of Chinese medicine that includes Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture, Daoist and eastern theory, and takes into account the health of the entire person.  She also intends to incorporate Thai massage and eastern bodywork into her practice.

Kate is not a stranger to foreign travel. During her young 23 years, she has visited Germany, Holland, France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Peurto Rico, and Jamaica. “I’ve always liked traveling, and I am fascinated with learning about different cultures,” Kate shared. Thailand was Kate’s first visit to Asia, however, and her impression of the Thai culture left her excited to return to the Southeast Asian haven soon. “I had to experience Thailand to realize that this is something I want to do. I plan to practice Thai massage a lot when I go home, and eventually go back to the SVG Training center to take levels III and IV in the program.”

In addition to her interest in the bodywork, Kate also a great passion for learning foreign languages.  She is currently interested in studying Thai and Chinese languages. In fact, Kate is seriously considering living in Thailand for a year to teach English at the Chiang Mai University.

Perhaps Kate’s greatest reason for feeling so inspired to return to Thailand is because of the Thai people themselves. When I asked Kate what her favorite aspect of visiting Thailand was, she stated “being part of the SVG family was really special. As I went through the program, I felt really at peace and at home. It was very comforting there.” She was also struck by the respectfulness of the Thai people, and how safe she felt during her stay in general. “The culture is very considerate of others. Also, if things go wrong, the Thai people just have a way with dealing with it, knowing that it will all turn out okay. They also devote themselves to their accomplishments one hundred percent, but without the pressure of “expectations” from anyone.” Kate made several new Thai friends during her three and a half week visit, even including during her short stay in Bangkok. That, from Kate’s perspective, was the best part of the trip – experiencing the Thai people for who they truly are.

Aside from her love for health, eastern theory, and foreign langauges, Kate also enjoys spending time with her family where she grew up in Prattsburg, New York, a town located right outside of Naples in the Finger Lakes region. During her family time, she may be found sitting around a campfire with her parents and siblings singing, camping, and experiencing nature. She has also been a dancer for several years, and has performed several styles of dance including modern, jazz, African, hip-hop, and tap. Her parents are also skilled swing dancers, and this talent is prevalent in Kate’s family. Kate and her sister both love to swing dance. She herself used to be in a swing dance troupe.

Kate describes herself as being a go-getter. When she sets out to accomplish a goal, she is unafraid to pursue it, and will usually not allow any barriers to stand in her way. After spending almost a month traveling with the multi-talented Ms. Star, I agree whole-heartedly with this description. Considering this, it is only a matter of time before Kate is back on that twenty-six hour flight to return to her beloved Land of Smiles to share her own smile and talents with the Thai people who have brought her so much joy on this journey.

Our Final Day at SVG Training Center

*This post was originally published on June 15th, 2012 on amywarcup.com

It has been nearly twenty days since we have arrived in Thailand, and today we have approached the final day of Thai massage training at the SVG Shivagakormarpaj Thai Massage Training Center. The students have completed about one hundred eighty minutes worth of Thai massage training. The written and practical examination will occur in less than three hours. Everyone has worked so diligently…studying late into the evening hours last night and quizzing one another this morning. I haven’t any doubts that each of them will go home as skilled and compassionate Thai massage practitioners. Training at the school has been intense. I surmise that some are starting to feel prepared to go home soon.

Despite the depth and commitment required in the training, however, I also gather that many aspects of being at the school will be missed….our morning Wai Khru (Buddhist chant and prayer), the delicious home-cooked vegetarian meals, teacher Rose’s wit and detail in her meticulous Thai massage instruction, and the unabridged kindness of the school owner, Mr. PP, his administrative assistant Nuy, his wife who made or meals each day, our charming teaching assistant, Paul, and the resident dogs, Bambi and Brownie, who make the school feel like a home. It is my hope that these will be the parts of being here that each of us, in some variation, take home. Although we may not always have Thailand accessible to us, the memories we carry from our experiences become such a momentous part of who we are. They have the influence to shape and contribute to our sense of self, our worldview, and to our interaction and treatment of others. Someone can rob us of our material possessions, people, animals, and inanimate objects may come and go from our lives, but nobody can take away our knowledge, our memories, and our life experiences.

*For more information about the SVG Thai Massage Training Center, visit theeir website at www.thaimassagetrainingcenter.com

 

Elephant Nature Park

*This post was originally published on June 13th on amywarcup.com

There are certain activities one must never miss out on when visiting Thailand. These include shopping at the night markets, getting inexpensive and skilled Thai massages and spa treatments, visiting the ornate and exotic Buddhist temples, and of course, seeing elephants.

Several options are offered in Chiang Mai to spend time with these magnificent creatures, which have long been considered a symbol for good fortune in Thailand, dating back many years to ancient Siam. Dramatic shows of elephants drawing art with their trunks, performing circus tricks, and throwing and catching balls exist. Hundreds of organizations offer elephant rides through the jungle or even in the cities. There are secrets, however, to the traditions that are performed by villagers and mahouts (meaning elephant owners/trainers) that are not made public to most tourists, or even to many Thai people.

It has been a long tradition in many villages for mahouts and elephant trainers to partake in an elephant torture tradition called “The Breaking of the Spirit.”   True to its name, this “ritual” is usually inflicted on baby and young elephants, where they are tortured for days and sometimes even weeks as a means to domesticate these naturally wild animals. Young elephants are commonly forced in confined pens made of wood that are too small for the animal to fit. Once locked in the pen, the elephant is chained and beaten for several consecutive days with large objects and sharp instruments that often stab and severely wound them. Sometimes their feet, eyes and ears are violently punctured, while several of the villagers gang up at once to scream at and beat the helpless baby elephants. Young boys in the villages are often initiated to participate as well, being raised in an environment where this is a regular occurrence. Historically, most of these elephants were later either used as logging workers or for entertainment for tourists. Since logging has been banned in Thailand in 1989, however, most are used in tourism. This brutal ritual of beatings is very common amongst many rural villages in all geographic locations Thailand. Many domesticated elephants that were once used for logging have also been abandoned, leaving them starving, homeless, and unable to adjust to surviving in nature.

There is an option to visiting elephant circus shows and taking rides, however that does not support elephant abuse; the Elephant Nature Park. The Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is a rescue and rehabilitation center for abused, abandoned, and rescued elephants. The park is located about forty-two miles north of Chiang Mai, providing a scenic, natural, and safe environment for the elephants.  Each elephant at the park has its own personal mahout that is trained to love and care for it humanely.

ENP was established in 1990 by a woman named Sangduen Chailert, nicknamed “Lek.” Lek was born in a remote hill tribe community in the mountains of Northern Thailand. Her grandfather, who was a tribal man, taught her much about the wonders of nature, including elephants. While growing up, her family cared for an elephant and she developed a close bond with the animal. Living in the tribal north of Thailand, she was also exposed to some of the harsh realities of how some other people mistreated their elephants. Lek Chailert made it her life’s mission to care for abused and abandoned elephants.

Most of the elephants at ENP were rescued from areas deep in the jungle. At the park, each elephant’s story is offered so visitors can learn about the elephants who reside there…stories of forced drug addiction by owners to make elephants work around the clock, or some who has survived weeks of starvation alone in the jungle, or of baby elephants that were forcibly separated from their mothers too early. Seeing these elephants roam freely in this northern river valley, however, and appearing so vibrant and healthy, is profoundly uplifting.

Visitors can come to the park for a full day, a week, or several weeks to volunteer at the park and contribute to the elephant’s caretaking. Longer-term volunteers can also learn about elephant conservation projects, herbal medicine, and become a full-time caretaker for an elephant.

Our group came to the park for a day. Our guide, Andy, introduced us to several elephants, and we had the opportunity to feed them, hug them, and later in the afternoon, cool off in the river to bathe them. Currently, the park has 35 elephants that dwell in it as their residence. We also viewed a documentary about the park’s history and some of the realities that many of the elephants survived prior to living at ENP.

Additionally, the ENP also serves as a rescue site for stray dogs and other animals, such as goats. Dozens of friendly rescued dogs meander around the park in search of a starch on the head or table scraps after lunch. For animal lovers, visiting the ENP is a must while visiting Chiang Mai. Clearly, as you can see, we are a group of fervent animal lovers.

 

Thai Massage Training at SGV Training Center

*This post was originally published on June 11th, 2012 on amywarcup.com

As of last Friday, the students are fifty percent through completing their Thai massage training. Time is passing so quickly during our three and a half weeks here in Thailand, and last week, this time was well spent. In just three days they were taught fifty-two step to comprise a 90-minute routine in traditional Thai massage. These steps they learned consist of pressure point and energy line work, deep stretching, and massage, all in the supine or face-up position.

In my very first post on this blog, I included a brief description of Traditional Thai massage. To revisit this topic, in short, Thai massage (or nuad paan boran) is a traditional healing modality that has origins dating back more than 900 years ago, although the modality as it is practiced today is fairly new. Its roots stem from Theravada Buddhism, and the art was originally practiced by monks in Buddhist temples. A session typically will consist of acupressure, energy line (sen) work along the arms, legs, back, chest, and head, and deep, yoga asana type stretches.  The client remains fully clothed, and sessions are given on a futon mat on the floor. Affects from a session may include a greater sense of balance and body awareness, increased flexibility, openness, and deep relaxation. Some techniques, when applied, may energize the receiver as well.

The energetic effect of a session, however, is the primary benefit of a Thai massage session. Theoretically, Thai massage is based on a belief system that the body consists of a network of 72,000 energy channels that connect to every part of the body, including the internal organs as well as the more superficial parts of the body, such as the skin and muscles. When there is pain, discomfort, or weakness in the body, it is viewed as being an imbalance in this intricate network of energy lines. Thais refer to these energy lines as Sen lines. When a therapist is giving a session to a client, the focus should be guided by the connection the giver feels to this energetic network in the body, rather than just on the physiological aspects of the person. By working energetically with the client, the physical issues in the body will naturally become more balanced and resolved, since from this viewpoint, the body is not separate from the energetic aspects of the person.

Another key principle of Thai massage, and perhaps the most important one, is the concept of Metta.  Metta is a term that derived from the Pali-canon texts, meaning loving-kindness, friendliness, and benevolence for others. In the Thai tradition, a session cannot be truly considered meaningful and healing without this intention. A session should always begin with either a prayer or intention prior to beginning the body work, and at the end, a giver should give also thank the client for allowing the therapist to have the honor to work with him or her.

After the first three days of training in the 90-minute supine Thai massage routine, the students had a practice day, followed by the testing day on Friday. The exam included both a written and a hands-on component. During the hands-on exam, everyone was required to give the full 90-minute session without using their notes. They also each gave sessions to Thai people who worked at the school, including teachers and administrators. Bree gave her session to the school owner, Mr. PP (Parowat), and Adam gave his session to a real Leusi, which is is a Thai spiritual person who often lives as a hermit in nature. Although most of them seemed nervous, everyone passed their exams…with straight A’s. Memorizing so many steps in such a short period of time may sound intensive, and it is. I’ve completed this task to learn Thai massage myself more than once, but the end result is that I came home afterward knowing how to give a 90-minute Thai massage in my massage practice. The same will be the case for the six who came to Thailand with me to study this affective and relaxing healing art. Perhaps you may consider booking your sessions with them now. They will undoubtedly have full schedules.