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I am a black hole, or The Weirder Side of Yoga

I started doing yoga about eighteen months ago. Partly this was to build some upper-body strength and flexibility to counterbalance my “hard” muscles (and mind!) from cycling and martial arts. Partly it was to see if I could learn to relax and unwind a bit.

Try it! You'll like it! (But put on some clothes first...)

And partly it was to get the people at my gym to stop bugging me to try yoga. :)

As most of my readers know, I have been pleasantly surprised to find that yoga has helped to quiet some of the noisier, more bothersome bits related to having Asperger’s: I often feel a bit more “connected” to people (the way Temple Grandin does after using her “squeeze machine“); I am much more coordinated and less jerky when I move; and I have also made some new friends.

Admittedly, there are still a lot of things that I can’t do — in the “physical impossibilities”, for example, there is a technique called “binding” which (as far as I can see) involves dislocating both your shoulders, wrapping your arms around your body while you have your head between your ankles, and then standing up on one leg (looking like a forkful of spaghetti).

It’s the “mental impossibilities,” however, which are more frustrating for me. As I said in my “Aspergian’s Guide to Yoga” post, quite a lot of what goes on in a yoga class is like what goes on in a church or synagogue or other house of worship: if you don’t understand or agree with it, you must still keep your beak shut and be respectful of the people who do. (Unless, of course, you want to be forced into a “bind” and marched out the door on one leg with your elbows wrapped around your pelvis.)

La la la... I can't hear you. I'm a fish.

So, for instance, when the teacher makes a wish at the end of class for “all beings” to have peace and happiness (an impossibility), I focus instead on one animal and imagine it living happily. Much more do-able.

And when he or she says something nonsensical like “come to your breath” or “keep breathing”, I simply tune out and cheerfully think about being a busy little Cleaner Wrasse swimming around my coral reef and looking for a blenny to attend to.

Mostly this is easy for me: after all, tuning out mindless chatter is something most of us — Aspergian and NT alike — have been doing for years. Think of all those high school classes on, say, the history of the Canadian parliamentary system, that went swirling down the toilet while you daydreamed about the nice girl across the street or drew Kilroys in your notebook.

Sir John A. McKilroy, first Prime Minister of Canada.

But the challenge is when I’m asked to DO something nonsensical and actively participate in what looks to me like mass delusion. In the case of more challenging physical moves, like “binding” or the splits, there’s no shame (or offense to the teacher and other students) if you can’t actually do the move. And as long as I’m quiet and respectful while others are thinking about peace and love for all beings, no one will get their panties in a knot.

But there’s one exercise that makes me want to stand up and scream, and that is a thing called “Gathering the Chi.” Here, one must sit or kneel facing the teacher, and make huge sweeping arm movements while “gathering the energy of the Universe and redistributing it down your spine.”

Not only does it make me think of that old hymn, “Bringing in the Sheaves” (seriously, I nearly typed “Chi” there) but anyone with even the most rudimentary acquaintance with physics and astronomy will know that an object that is “gathering the energy of the Universe” to itself is probably best described as a supernova, not a skinny chick in Lululemon pants.

Now THAT's what I call "gathering the Chi"!

I admit I’m stumped on this one: the Supernova Arm Wave is only 5 minutes out of any given 75-minute class, but all my hard-won coping techniques are failing me utterly here. I’ve stayed away from the class a few times when I feel like I’m already on my last nerve, but that seems to be “cutting off my nose to spite my face,” since the rest of the class is really good.

Similarly, sitting stock-still while 15 others wave their arms and sigh blissfully around me is also out of the question because my aim is to blend in, not stand out.

And thinking of something else while I do the Arm Wave isn’t working either because once my “This is stupid and illogical” circuits are activated, they trip the “Scowl and roll my eyes” sequence, and it’s pretty much over for me.

When I was in elementary school, there was a kid named Donny whose parents were Jehovah Witnesses. They didn’t “believe” in the Lord’s prayer or singing the national anthem every morning, so each time we all stood to do that, Donny would quietly excuse himself and go stand in the hallway till we were done.

Perhaps this is where my yogic future lies, then — not so much the knocking on doors and handing out copies of The Watchtower to people at bus stations, but mucking in with my classmates where I can, and excusing myself to stand in the “unbelievers’ section” when necessary.

(This, of course, leads me to wonder two things: 1) whether I would eventually have company in the hallway [probably], and 2) whether it’s bad Karma to check my iPhone while I wait [ditto].)

I am, as always, open to suggestions. Anyone??

Yoga for Aspergians: Put your feet on the wall!

There’s something about being upside down that’s very calming for people with Asperger’s.

Yeah, baby!

When I was a kid I used to lie on my bed, on my back, with my head hanging slightly down, and look at the ceiling. I had a room with a very interesting antique light fixture and dormer windows, meaning that the moonscape of my ceiling was unlike any other, and it fascinated (and calmed) me.

Ditto hanging by my knees from a tree branch or the crossbar of a swing set.

I once had a physiotherapist put me in an “inversion frame,” where I hung upside down by my ankles (with the aid of special hooked boots). It relaxes the spine and reverses the effects of gravity. One day she ran to get the phone and forgot about me. When she returned half an hour later I was sound asleep; this has led to more than one joke about me being part bat. (Or maybe that’s “batty.” Never mind.)

Batsperger Syndrome.

Anyway, my point is that for some of us, upside-down-ness can be a way to cool out a nervous system that’s all Asperger-ed out, for lack of a better word. Yoga teachers, tellingly, save the “inversion” poses for the end of their classes because they’re so relaxing.

I have no idea how it works — you’d have to ask a yoga teacher or a physiotherapist about that — but I know that, for me at least, it does. Apparently it’s also good for varicose veins, so if you suffer from those as well, this is your lucky day!

So here’s how you do it.

1. Pick a bare spot on the wall — you don’t want to be kicking that painting of Aunt Euphemia (or do you?) or accidentally unplugging your stereo.

2. Take your shoes off — bare or sock feet are best unless you enjoy scrubbing your paintwork.

3. Sit on the floor sideways to the wall, with your hip (the side of your bum) and your shoulder touching the wall.

4. Now, lean a bit back and sideways and swing your feet up onto the wall.

5. Lie back and put your arms a bit out to the sides.

Perrrrrrrrrrfect.

Voila! You’re there. Squirm around and adjust a bit till you’re comfy. Your legs don’t have to be straight; in fact, it’s better if they’re a bit relaxed. The point here isn’t “form” so much as “purpose.”

If you like, put on some music or a radio station you like, or even an audio-book. Or just silence; it’s up to you what works.

I generally try this as a last resort when I just can’t calm down and typically I’ll think “Oh, I’ll just do this for a minute or so” and end up chilling there for about 10.

Have fun!

An Aspergian’s Guide to Yoga

There is some anecdotal evidence that yoga is quite helpful for people with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. Since I started taking yoga classes last year, I have noticed a lot of changes and improvements in myself, some related to AS and some not. In general, I am more flexible and coordinated. As far as AS goes, I have noticed that my frustration tolerance is greatly improved, my eye contact is better, and I have fewer meltdowns.
This is enough to keep me going back, and it may be a reason for you to try it for yourself!
So, here is a brief (and by no means exhaustive) guide to Yoga for Aspergians.

Benefits:

  • improved flexibility and coordination
  • better focus and concentration through learning to follow instructions
  • better balance and body awareness, e.g., left side, right side, hand and foot placement etc.
  • improved frustration tolerance = fewer meltdowns, more patience with others and self
  • feelings of sociability and being “part of something,” through being in a group, even if not interacting directly with others in the class
  • calmness, reduction of “fidgety-ness”
  • reduction of aggression and impulsiveness

Triangle pose -- you'd be surprised how easy this is!

General, Getting Started:

  • Check out a few different yoga studios and gyms before you decide to join one. Take a friend or someone you trust along with you, if a second opinion is helpful.
  • Staff at most studios will be very happy to show you their facilities and let you have a look around. I recommend this step, as it helps avoid surprises and unfamiliarity.
  • Staff will also explain the different styles of classes available and help you select which one(s) are best suited for you. For example, Ashtanga is fast-moving and athletic, whereas Yin classes are very slow and quiet.
  • Many studios (including mine) offer a special “introductory price” – for example, unlimited classes for a week for $20. This is ideal, because you can spend the week checking out all the different styles of yoga and the different teachers to see which suits you best.

Clothing and equipment:

  • You’ll need a pair of shorts or yoga pants, and a short-sleeved or sleeveless top that is fairly form-fitting: you want something that will stay put as you move around. Ask at the yoga studio if they sell appropriate clothes; sports stores, or even Winners, are other good places to buy these things.
  • Cut the tags out first and wash each item before you go to your first class. Wear your new outfit around your home a bit first so that you’re used to the feel of it – you do not want any itchy or floppy surprises in class!
  • A water bottle is a good idea. I use a plastic “squirty” bottle for biking so that I don’t have to unscrew a lid in class.
  • In cooler weather, you’ll need a shirt or jacket to wear over your yoga gear as you arrive and leave.

Hygiene:

  • Make sure you are wearing clean clothes and have had a shower and brushed your teeth.
  • Avoid wearing perfume, cologne, body spray, or strong-scented grooming products. Students are very close together in a yoga class and nobody wants to smell anyone else, good or bad.

Non-negotiable conventions (to borrow a phrase from Big Bang Theory):

  • You must be quiet and respectful in a yoga class, and listen to what the teacher is instructing you to do. Laughing, talking during class, or engaging in obvious “stims” are not OK.
  • Some people are very serious about yoga. Even though this may not be the case for you, act the way you would in a church, synagogue, or other house of worship, and be respectful of the teacher and the other students.
  • If you must leave the classroom to go to the bathroom, or to take a “breather” if you’re overwhelmed, do so quietly, without disturbing other students. Be very quiet when you return, and simply catch up to what the other students are doing. There’s no need to ask the teacher for permission to leave.

Before class starts:

  • Avoid eating for an hour or two before class. It’s best to have an empty stomach when you work out.
  • Make sure to use the toilet before class.
  • Plan to arrive about 15 minutes early. This gives you time to change (if needed), find a spot in the class, and get yourself oriented and ready. Most students sit quietly on their mats, facing the front of the room, and some lie down and close their eyes. Do what feels best for you.
  • If you haven’t met the teacher before, you may want to go introduce yourself to her/him. If they’re a regular instructor, they’ll know you’re new and they may ask you some questions about any injuries etc. that you may have.
  • If you don’t like being touched, now is the time to politely inform the teacher that you’d prefer not to be “adjusted.” Yoga teachers often “adjust” students gently during a class to help them do a posture more correctly; if you don’t want that, that’s perfectly OK. Just let the teacher know beforehand.

During class:

  • When everyone is assembled, the teacher will close the door, go to the front of the room, introduce him- or herself, and the class will begin.
  • If certain pieces of equipment (blocks, belts etc) are necessary, the teacher will either hand them out or have students go get their own.
  • Follow along at your own pace: don’t expect to be perfect (or a disaster!) your first time out. Do your best. Everyone is a bit nervous and uncertain the first time. This feeling will pass.
  • You may feel self-conscious at first, but this will soon fade as you begin to focus on the postures. Remember, no one is really looking at you or judging you – they’re all too busy trying to do the postures themselves! You will see people who are fatter, thinner, flexible, not very flexible, younger, older – everyone (including you) is just there to do their best.
  • If you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be doing, have a look at the teacher, who will be demonstrating the pose. Also, discreetly look at the other students (don’t stare) and try to imitate what they’re doing.
  • If you really can’t do a posture, don’t panic. Do your best imitation of what the others are doing (without hurting yourself) or politely get the teacher’s attention and ask for help.
  • The teacher may walk around the class looking at each student and doing “adjustments,” or changing the music in the CD player. If you’ve indicated that you don’t wish to be touched, don’t be nervous: he or she will pass you by, although they may walk near you to get to someone else.
  • In some postures, the teacher will ask students to close their eyes. If you don’t like doing that, don’t. I almost never do. Instead, I focus on the lights or the ceiling fans, or one of the fixtures on the walls. Yoga studios have lots of things to stare at if you’re bored or overwhelmed.
  • There will be music (chanting, Indian music etc.) playing softly for most classes. This may be distracting or “weird” at first, but over time you will become used to it. If it really bugs you, try focusing on something else – for instance, if you are musical, try focusing on the beat or the chord changes. Otherwise, think of something you enjoy (I think of animals or numbers).
  • You may be asked to sit or lie in one position for long periods of time (up to 5 minutes), and this means you may get bored or find your mind wandering. I try to prevent this by looking up at the lights or thinking about numbers, or imagining that I’m looking down through a video camera at my feet walking on a railway bed. Do whatever works to keep yourself still and quiet – you will get better at it.

Toward the end of class:

  • The teacher will begin to wind things down toward the end of class; the moves in a fast “Ashtanga” class, for example, will become slower and more relaxed.
  • The class will end with students lying on their backs in “corpse pose,” or Savasana (pronounced “sha-VOSS-ana”). The teacher will turn the lights down (or off, if there are candles) and usually turn the music off as well. Students lie on their backs in a kind of a “star” pose, with arms away from the body and legs parted. You will do this for about five minutes. Again, if you feel restless, focus on a certain spot on the ceiling, or a ceiling fan, if they have them, or think of your feet moving on a railway bed. Whatever it takes.
  • At the end of the allotted time, the teacher will softly ring a little bell (they use three single “dings” at our studio) to signal that it’s time to end. Even though it’s quiet, this may surprise you a bit the first time it happens.
  • Students are then asked to stretch out (after lying still for so long), roll to one side, and then sit up cross-legged facing the front of the room.
  • Everyone places their hands together in front of their hearts, and the teacher may say a few “words of wisdom.” This looks and sounds a bit like a prayer. If praying/religion are not your thing, sit with your hands together anyway and think of something else. Myself, I think of an animal or insect I particularly like, and imagine cupping it in my hands. While the teacher is talking, I think some friendly thoughts towards the animal — today I thought of a horse I liked very much when I was in my 20s.
  • At the end of the teacher’s “words of wisdom” he or she will say Namaste (NOMMA-stay) and bow toward the floor. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, stay respectfully quiet and continue with your own thoughts. I sit quietly and then open my hands and place them briefly palms-up on the floor as if I am “releasing” the animal I’ve been thinking about.

After class:

  • After “Namaste,” class is over. The teacher will thank everyone for coming, then get up and go turn the lights back up a bit.
  • Students will begin to tidy up their mat areas; this means returning any equipment (blocks, belts, bolsters etc) to where it came from and usually spraying the mat down with a nice-smelling disinfectant the studio usually supplies. Watch what other people are doing and follow suit.
  • If you have a specific comment or question for the teacher (and many students do), this is the time to line up and speak to him or her. Otherwise, a polite “Thank you!” as you head out the door is appropriate. If it’s your first class, the teacher may also “check in” with you and ask you how you liked the class. Keep your feedback brief and polite.

Miscellaneous:

  • To tell or not to tell? You may want to tell the staff you have Asperger’s Syndrome, or you may wish to keep that private. Or you may wish to wait till later, until you know the teacher(s), before you give that information. It’s entirely up to you.
    • Pro: It can be very helpful for the staff to know that you have AS – it may help them to understand what’s going on if you find yourself having trouble and getting frustrated. Many yoga teachers are very aware of “special needs” and “alternate therapies” and disabilities, and will be happy to know your situation. I told one of my teachers, who happens to work with special-needs kids, and now she will often come over to my mat during class to help me relax a bit more.
    • Con: If you don’t like people having private information about you, or you’re worried about being treated like you’re “special” or being made fun of, you may want to keep your information to yourself. Some people are simply very private, and that’s fine.
  • Dealing with problems in class:
    • Pee-yew! Somebody stinks! You’ll know before class starts if someone’s perfume (or whatever) is too smelly for you to tolerate. Pick a spot far from that person if you can. If the perfume (or whatever) is too overwhelming, you may need to decide not to attend that class – this is disappointing, but simply pick up your belongings and leave discreetly. The staff will want to know what happened, though, and you can politely tell them what the issue is so that it can be dealt with. Most yoga studios have policies about perfume, so they may simply need to send out a reminder about it.
    • Toots, burps, snores, and gurgles: Every so often, someone farts in a yoga class, or their stomach rumbles. It happens – people are twisting and lurching around, and sometimes the inevitable happens. It can be very hard not to laugh, though: my remedy is to press my lips together and look at the floor, or think of something very serious, like math. Same for when someone falls asleep during Savasana and begins to snore: ignore it and think of something else. Who knows – it may happen to you!
    • Bad Asperger Day: If you are having a “bad Asperger day,” you may want to let the teacher know beforehand if you don’t want to be touched or adjusted today, or (if the teacher knows you have AS), that you are struggling a bit and may need to step out. Sometimes just telling someone is a big help. Also, I have found, to my utter astonishment, that I can go into class feeling really awful — and the bad mood will fade away in about 10 minutes as my body starts relaxing. Conversely, I have also had to quietly step out for a few minutes to rest somewhere quiet and “glue my feathers back on,” as Daffy Duck would say.  Every day is different, and every class is different; with time and patience, you will figure out what works for you.

That’s all for now. Feel free to email me with any specific questions you have, or to let me know how things are going. Happy yoga-ing!

Other yoga-related material on this blog:

Yoga is My Squeeze Machine

Yoga/Squeeze Machine Update

There really is a "frog pose"!

Yoga / Squeeze machine update

Well, I’m pleased (and pretty surprised) to say that the “yoga effect” is still with me. (Sometimes I wonder if this is what junkies feel like, seeking out a specific good feeling!)  All kidding aside, though, I’ve noticed that I am much calmer and less easily rattled since starting my “experiment.” Traffic (my biggest challenge, as a commuter) doesn’t drive me nearly as crazy, and my brain feels a bit less “noisy” and hyperactive now.

The effect comes and goes in waves, strongest right after a class and diminishing the next day, but it is unmistakeably there: a classic case of “the brain that changes itself,” I think.

And this week, I took the bull by the horns and went back for another class with the Other Teacher. Thankfully, it was just fine.

(One good thing about Asperger’s is it gives you a persistence that other people find astonishing. I was determined to overcome my terrible phobia of spiders, for example, and over the last several years I have managed to dial it back from about a 15 out of 10 to about a 5 or a 6, depending on the size of the arachnid involved. Not that a yoga teacher is in any way like a spider, mind you!)

How is a yoga teacher like a spider? Discuss.

Anyway, this persistence has served me well in this case: I am very motivated to continue with yoga, and that means trying out all the teachers, rather than just sticking to the one. Otherwise I wouldn’t have as many classes to choose from, and my experiment would be skewed because I wouldn’t know how much of the effect was simply due to the teacher.

So, once I had made up my mind to learn from Teacher Number Two, everything went much better: I even made jokes in her class (and she laughed — bonus!) and maybe she noticed me cringing in her spin class a few times because the music there is less loud now.

Either that or my hypersensitivity to noise is being reduced in this “experiment” as well. A friend of mine said it would be interesting to do an FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) of my brain as I continue this process; I agree. Alas, the four titanium screws in my right knee have ruled this out; my devotion to science ends at having shards of metal shooting out of my leg!

There are a couple more teachers I haven’t tried out yet, so I will give them a whirl as well. I have a sneaking feeling I know what the results will be, already.

That’s all for now.

 

Yoga is my Squeeze Machine

Many years ago, when I first started reading Temple Grandin’s books, I was fascinated by her “squeeze machine,” which she modelled on a cattle chute she first saw as a teenager at her aunt’s ranch. Like many people on the autism spectrum, Temple longed for human touch but couldn’t bear it. Instead, as a child she used to lie under the sofa cushions and ask people to sit on them, which provided the “deep pressure” that calms so many people with autism. And as a teenager, after observing how cattle calmed down in the squeeze chute, she built her own “home version” of this contraption, which she used (and still uses) to calm herself down.

In the BBC documentary about her life, called The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow, Temple demonstrates how the machine works. It really is extraordinary; she climbs into it, operates the levers so that the sides press in and squeeze her firmly, and in a matter of several minutes you can see her relaxing and hear her voice slow down and become deeper.

(If you’re interested, the documentary is available on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46ycu3JFRrA.)

She explains this feeling in her book Animals in Translation: “My squeeze machine… gave me feelings of kindness and gentleness towards other people – social feelings. It also made my dreams nicer. … I think the squeeze machine probably also helped me have more empathy….”

People have often asked me whether I would like something like this; my answer is “absolutely not” because I don’t like the feeling of being confined.

But last week, I accidentally stumbled upon my own version of the “squeeze machine”: yoga.

For almost a year now I have been taking spin classes and I decided I also needed to work on stretching and using some different muscles. I was very nervous to try yoga, as I’m quite self-conscious, and I also had a bad experience once in a yoga studio where the teacher kept touching and “adjusting” me without warning me or asking my permission.

So I talked to one of the instructors beforehand and asked whether I’d be comfortable in this class, which was geared more towards athletes and cyclists. They had asked me months ago whether I wanted to try yoga and the answer has always been a flat “no” so I think they were very surprised! Anyway, the instructor, Lea, was very helpful with my (nervous!) questions, and I agreed to give it a try.

We did a 40-minute spin class first to warm up our muscles and then moved into the yoga studio, where we began some gentle stretching exercises. I was very nervous at first but after a few minutes I calmed down and (to my surprise) began to enjoy the experience. The lights were kept low (a bonus for me since I hate overhead lighting) and Lea happens to be very good at explaining each move (also a bonus for me, since I am rather uncoordinated sometimes and have trouble figuring out where my body is in space!).

And suddenly, about ten minutes into it, I felt something “shift” in me, like a gear changing. My exact thought at the time was “wow, all the aggression has just drained out of me.” One of the hallmarks of Asperger Syndrome is anxiety, which often manifests itself as anger, irritability or aggression.  And suddenly that disappeared, which for a normal person would probably feel like someone suddenly shutting off a really loud television show.

The calm feeling continued through the rest of the class. Afterward I went and thanked Lea for keeping an eye on me, and was surprised that my voice seemed slower and calmer, and I had less trouble making eye contact than I usually do. And on the drive home I was astonished to discover a strange feeling of being “connected” to the people in the cars and on the sidewalks around me.

When I woke up the next morning, the feeling was still there – I was amazed. I have taken Ativan (an anti-anxiety drug) from time to time, to help me sleep, and it felt like I had taken a dose of that; absolutely nothing bothered me. Even on my drive in to work, through the “rush hour hell” of Toronto, I was calm and happy. I almost laughed at myself.

It has long been known that deep pressure and firm touch are preferable to people on the spectrum — light touch activates the  undesirable “flight response”.  Now researchers are also looking more closely the use of yoga to help people with autism and Asperger’s. They suspect that it activates the opiate and dopamine receptors in the brain, which are thought to play a part not only in pleasurable sensations but in empathy and social behaviour.

There’s also evidence that yoga helps people on the spectrum to focus their attention and become more aware of where their bodies are in space, and thus more coordinated. Personally, I’m a rather clumsy person and not often aware of where my arms and legs are at any given moment (they’re usually knocking things over, dropping things or tripping over themselves), and yoga helped me “feel” where the outlying parts of my body were, and focus on balance and stillness. For a while I felt almost graceful, which is not my usual state of mind!

For comparison’s sake, I went to a class last night with a teacher I don’t like as much (the music in her “spin” portion of the class is way too loud, and she always looks unhappy or angry to me — although I confess that facial expressions are not my forte!). Anyway, I didn’t like this class as much as last week’s; there was too much “yoga jargon” for my liking (I don’t know the names of the poses or how to do complicated things like a Sun Salutation) and I got very frustrated. But I know that it’s rude to leave in the middle of the class so I reluctantly stayed, and as soon as we switched to some poses that were familiar to me from last week, I felt the relaxation start again a little bit. However, there was not that “aggression release” that I felt last week, and I think that was because I didn’t trust the teacher & was not able to relax fully and pay attention to what I was doing.

So my two lessons are this:

1) yoga is VERY good for some people (like me) with Asperger’s because it helps with coordination, balance, calmness and feelings of kindness & empathy; and

2) much depends on the teacher. Pick one that you like and trust, and this should help you relax and concentrate on what you’re supposed to be doing.

I will be going back to another class tomorrow night, and hopefully more after that. I will keep you posted on my findings.