New to Yoga? Top 5 Things You Should Know

Hands on assists are key for beginners

Hands on assists are key for beginners

1) The wellness and health benefits of yoga (physical, mental and more) will probably trump anything else you’ve ever done.  You can not only expect to be stronger and more  flexible, but sleep better, stress less and fight bad bugs better with your yoga-strong immunity.

2) Your success in performing the physical postures/exercises is determined more by your unique body and bone shapes, and ranges of motion facilitated by those shapes.  For instance, if you have a narrow pelvis, aspiring to do the splits is a bad idea!   45 degrees of extension in your spine on a good day?  Then Wheel Pose may not be for you.  It’s not a big deal–there are tons of poses that WILL suit you.

3) All yoga instructors are not created equally, nor are they interchangeable,  as some mass marketeers of yoga would like you to think.  Would you pick a hair stylist based on who’s closest? OK, for some of you, yes, — but, hair grows back!  Hurt your rotator cuff and the recovery time will be longer than getting over a bad hair cut. Read teacher bios carefully and look for instructors w/ at least 5 years teaching experience, though 10 preferred.  Also, figure out how long they did yoga before they decided to teach it.  Did they think because they were a naturally flexible dancer or gymnast that they were magically endowed to teach a deeply inwardly-focused mental practice?  Watch out — they might not understand how less fit bodies work, nor have command of anything beyond the physical postures.  Ideally, find a teacher who trained in an immersion program (lived yoga 24-7).  The Yoga Alliance certification used to carry weight, but one could argue it is less meaningful nowadays.

4) Treat your yoga like a doctor’s appointment and try not to miss class early on.   The practice of yoga can be overwhelming at first with lots of moving parts — how to perform the postures, breathing exercises, meditation techniques.  The biggest hurdle I find when new students miss a class is more memory-related than anything else.  They forget all the coaching I gave them one-on-one, how I came over and guided them into poses in those first classes.  Then, they miss a week and “poof!” — I have to go back and redo everything. This can get a little tedious for the other students.  So, don’t be self-conscious about showing up and not knowing anything, but don’t let down the rest of the class by not taking your commitment seriously. Most of you wouldn’t cancel a doctor appointment due to less-than-perfect weather or a social engagement, then why cancel your Wellness Appointment?  Plan on disappointing people in the short-run with your new-found commitment to yoga–better than disappointing yourself in the long-run.  Look in the mirror and pretend telling someone demanding your time, “I’m sorry, I have an appointment.”  Deliver this line a in hushed tone with a serious face and I promise, they won’t ask!

5) Give it 3 months before you evaluate and avoid The Classic Beginner Mistake.   Authentic yoga practiced as “relaxed exertion” is the epitome of the Japanese concept of “kaizen,” or slow, barely noticeable, continuous  improvement over time.  Subtle, sure, but yet it’s a big part of how Japan industrialized itself into a superpower after WWII!  Once you start coming to yoga 1-3 times per week, your body, mind, mood, outlook –everything launches on a slow trajectory of change.  While some people notice early on, for most, it sneaks up on them–maybe one day lifting a bag of groceries you suddenly realize your new-found upper body strength.  Then, at a party, you’re the only adult limber enough to sit on the floor!  So what’s The Classic Beginner Mistake?  Thinking that you’re not really getting that much out of yoga and dropping it for a couple of weeks.  Before you know it, you’re the one who needs to sit in the chair and you realize how much you’ve lost!  Excuses in hand, you come groveling in to class (see number 4).  Yes, of course, we’ll take you back…and try not to judge.

 

 

Hot Yoga : Hot or Not?

Hot Yoga

Hot Yoga : Hot or Not?

Hot yoga is a major trend  in which participants practice in a hot room, often 90-100+ degrees.  Mass marketers of yoga love the “passive heating” approach of hot yoga, as  it gives the perception of flexibility and a deeper workout in a shorter period of time.  More classes per day = more revenue.

Great for your muscles, but what about your joints? Extreme heat, while making muscles temporarily more flexible, makes the tensile strength of connective tissue and  joints weaker.  Injuries arise because your “heat goggles” make you feel so bendy, that your judgement  may be off.  So, just like yo-yo dieting isn’t the answer,  YHD says “no” to yo-yo climating–don’t we already get enough of that here in Minnesota?

Yoga HotDish classes will warm your body and make you flexible, but keeping with yoga philosophy the heat comes from within, building slowly through pranayama breathing techniques and a slow crescendo of ever-intensifying asana/poses. Yoga takes time, and you can’t just crank the furnace to force to body into submission.   Finally, hot yoga  is contra-indicated for numerous conditions, from heart and respiratory issues to being over weight or sleep deprived.  Yoga is a lifelong practice when done in moderation.  Making it faster, hotter and watered down is the American Way, no doubt, but do be careful!

YHD classes begin with a restorative poses, done on bolsters to gently coax the body to open, undoing all that tension from sitting, driving, repetitive motion exercise, etc.  From there,  intense Yin stretches  are actually safer when the body is cool and the connective tissue stronger.  Long hold times in Yin poses ensure the muscles stretch slowly; however, most studios just can’t afford the extra class time.   The “self”  heating process then escalates with pranayama or breathing exercises. Most fitness yoga glosses over these, as learning them can be difficult and take time. That said, once mastered,  every breath you take becomes a core-warming abdominal exercise. Advanced yogis continue pranayama throughout practice.  After 90 minutes, you’ll be slow-roasted to perfection –not zapped in a microwave!

Dr Terrell: “Women 40+ Need Yoga!”

This post is brought to you by  our own Yoga HotDisher, Top Doc,  and now,  Minnesota Monthly CoverGirl,  Dr. Carrie Ann  Terrell, MD, University of Minnesota (UMN). Thanks Carrie for contributing to our blog!

DrT

The evidence for yoga improving various health problems is deep and varied.  I recommend the website nccam.nih.gov for an overview of the benefits of yoga as presented by the National Institutes of Health.  The evidence is solid as is my experience.

My most common patient scenario presents with a litany of concerns that reads something like this:

  • Fatigue, low energy, difficulty completing the umpteen tasks before her
  • Low libido
  • Inability to focus, memory loss, distractedness
  • Mood swings, irritability
  • Weight gain, digestive problems
  • Dissatisfaction with life

These women are 40-60 years old, often partnered with a significant other of varying participation in the relationship/housework/child rearing/care taking/cooking/shopping, have busy/successful/demanding careers, are the primary caretaker of the house/parent(s)/children/pets, and have unwieldy expectations for what they “should” be doing to take care of themselves.

These patients are essentially working every hour of their lives.  If and when they sleep it is erratic and interrupted and they wake without having rested. Or they “rest” while watching TV, iPading, gaming, texting, Facebooking. These activities are not restful, rejuvenating, nor replenishing. As if this isn’t enough they are also constantly talking to/bombarding themselves with negative or expectant commentary that translates as “not enough or not good enough.” In fact, the incessant loop of streaming thought these women live with is exhausting.

These women often come in seeking a magical hormonal cure.  They read that estrogen or bioidentical hormones or compounded hormones will resolve all of their issues; that their issues must be related to menopause or perimenopause. Now, I’m not underestimating menopause. Estrogen deficiency causes hot flashes.  Hot flashes can disrupt thought, the work day, the physical body. When hot flashes occur at night, sleeplessness results and irritability, mood swings, memory problems can follow suit. However, in many many cases, estrogen deficiency is not the problem. These women need a break, a time out, a mini-retreat, a respite.

Many women have found their solution. Some have found it in running, others in meditating. However, for many the potential solutions are untenable, unreachable, or add to the never-ending list of shoulds. Or, the options are so overwhelming women cannot begin to decide what to do or how to perform self care.

For me, this is where yoga comes in. When taught well, with attention to the philosophy and teachings, Yoga provides peace, quiet and a chance to observe ourselves.  Some know yoga to be an exercise; a physical activity leading to fitness, improved health, increased heart rate, etc etc. The secret is that asana practice (the poses are called asana) is solely meant to allow us to sit comfortably enough,quietly enough to see and feel clearly. Undoubtedly, the physical practice feels good. “Doing” yoga feels good, but, what feels even better is being able to look at my thoughts and see, ‘huh, those are my thoughts. I am not my thoughts.” Or, “look, this awful thing happened to me or someone said this awful thing to me and gee, I don’t have to be affected by that. I can still be me.” Or, “This pose sucks. I hate this pose. My muscles are shaking. This is dumb. I’m way too important for this pose. Why did I come? I have better things to do.” Which over time can become, “This pose sucks. I hate this pose. I’ve gotten through this pose before. I am stronger. My resilience is better.”

After 14 years of practicing yoga I can honestly say it makes me a better person. I build better relationships. I think more clearly. I know my limitations and know what I need to care for my self. I can separate myself from my wrongdoings, my suffering, my awards, my rewards, my family and my thoughts. With this ability I am able to set my work and personal goals in alignment with my deepest beliefs. I am able to achieve lifelong goals and hold positions of leadership with a sense of love and responsibility. I get to choose how I will react to incoming stimuli (if at all) and I can readily access a place of peace and serenity within myself.

CorePower Comes to Santa Barbara, Coke Machines on Mt. Fuji

fuji-vending-machine

Coke machines atop Mt. Fuji.  A go-cart park on the Great Wall of China.  And now: CorePower enters the indie yoga environment of Santa Barbara.  Maybe it was bound to happen. The Santa Barbara crowd put up a good fight. Word on the mat is, when some local yogis got wind CorePower was looking to buy the beloved Santa Barbara Yoga Center, they bought it first.   Of course, that can only go on for so long.  CorePower was finally successful and recently opened its Santa Barbara location.

In my talks with local yogis, instructors and business owners, I’m not sure they know what’s hit them.  I’ve noticed that class sizes are down– some by a third.   What is conspicuously missing:  the younger students, the 20-somethings (and no, it wasn’t Spring Break).   Perhaps they want to be able to buy their Lululemon where they yoga, then check their outfits in the mirror during class.  I wonder… if I had never experienced yoga in Asia, had a pierced belly button on my 20-something body, maybe I’d think CorePower was slick and sexy too?

So you lose a few college kids, so what?  The problem is, you also start to lose control of the media messaging.  With their huge budget, CorePower starts to redefine what yoga is.  They start to slowly change the criteria for what constitutes “yoga”  and what makes a “yoga teacher.”  The 20-somethings become 30-somethings and think that a 60 minute class with music so loud you can’t hear your breath is “normal.”  That said, there is no doubt many students are in superb shape, able to  perform  advanced postures–and postures are the essence of “Hatha” yoga. Advanced breathing and meditation is really the realm of “Raja” yoga.   The chaotic environment of these studios full of mirrors and ringing with new age music isn’t conducive to these deeper practices.  What concerns me is that these students may not develop an appreciation for the more meditative side of yoga and trying to “sell” it in the marketplace of ideas is difficult for the independents.

I’ve found that many CP at Fitness Yoga  students  don’t realize the importance of yoga nidra, as they only get a few  minutes of before the next class starts snapping yoga mats and moving into the space. Students may feel like they’ve “gone deep” in the near 100-degree heat, but  is it just a short cut to turn the room over faster?  All that heat, while helpful to stretch muscle,  isn’t great for the joints; and,  besides,  the heat is supposed to come from within via pranayama breathing, for which there’s little  time in a typical 60 minute class.

In spite of the mass marketeering,  the CP price tag is pretty steep ($13-20/class for 2-3 times/week), when you consider the brevity of both  the classes and typical teachers’  training. There are some groups in Minneapolis and St. Paul who do use a large/short class model with affordability in mind.  When you pay $12 for a drop-in, you expect part-timers or teachers-in-training.  CorePower, while charging top-dollar, has many teachers of under 5 years’ experience who probably can’t make enough to quit their day-jobs.

So where does the money go?  Management, marketing, advertising, interiors, inventory.  The deeper practices of yoga drop off while yoga merchandising takes off.  If you’re on FB, check out the CorePower posts–not a lot of thought leadership, but sure a lot of shop leadership.  Sure, some of the better teachers will break out and break away.  This doesn’t trouble the organization–there’s a whole new crop every few  weeks to take their places.  They’re all taught the same sequences and “cues” or scripts, so teachers become interchangeable.

Of course, many of  independent teachers won’t want to speak ill of a competitor.  Many of them got into yoga to avoid “Corporate Power” and don’t spend their time thinking about market positioning.    Nor does CorePower need to take on traditional yoga –it’s just easier to drown it out,  to  eclipse it  with “mass and flash.”    Seasoned teachers may even underestimate how enticing a convenience-oriented “fast food” yoga is to the up and coming… at first. There were probably cooks and grill masters a plenty who wondered, “How could a place like McDonald’s ever catch on?”

Sure,  we’ve all hit the drive-thru in a pinch.  I  still feel the need to “sneak” my kids some fiber and veggies when we get home–usually a shot of carrot juice alleviates my guilt.  No doubt, they’ll make fun of me when I’m long gone for the roar of my juicer.   Similarly, when I pick up a one-hour fitness yoga class at the gym, or  a place like CP because it’s my only option, I feel like I have to go home and stretch, meditate and breathe–for real.  CorePowers, LifeTimes and the fitness yoga style they perpetuate are here to stay in our convenience-oriented society, that’s for sure.  At the end of the day, it’s a great workout. The thing with yoga though, it’s all about the work-in so don’t forget the veggies!

Women Over 40 Need Yoga!

This post is brought to you by  our own Yoga HotDisher, Top Doc,  and now,  Minnesota Monthly CoverGirl,  Dr. Carrie Ann  Terrell, MD, University of Minnesota (UMN). Thanks Carrie for contributing to our blog!

DrT

The evidence for yoga improving various health problems is deep and varied.  I recommend the website nccam.nih.gov for an overview of the benefits of yoga as presented by the National Institutes of Health.  The evidence is solid as is my experience.

My most common patient scenario presents with a litany of concerns that reads something like this:

  • Fatigue, low energy, difficulty completing the umpteen tasks before her
  • Low libido
  • Inability to focus, memory loss, distractedness
  • Mood swings, irritability
  • Weight gain, digestive problems
  • Dissatisfaction with life

These women are 40-60 years old, often partnered with a significant other of varying participation in the relationship/housework/child rearing/care taking/cooking/shopping, have busy/successful/demanding careers, are the primary caretaker of the house/parent(s)/children/pets, and have unwieldy expectations for what they “should” be doing to take care of themselves.

These patients are essentially working every hour of their lives.  If and when they sleep it is erratic and interrupted and they wake without having rested. Or they “rest” while watching TV, iPading, gaming, texting, Facebooking. These activities are not restful, rejuvenating, nor replenishing. As if this isn’t enough they are also constantly talking to/bombarding themselves with negative or expectant commentary that translates as “not enough or not good enough.” In fact, the incessant loop of streaming thought these women live with is exhausting.

These women often come in seeking a magical hormonal cure.  They read that estrogen or bioidentical hormones or compounded hormones will resolve all of their issues; that their issues must be related to menopause or perimenopause. Now, I’m not underestimating menopause. Estrogen deficiency causes hot flashes.  Hot flashes can disrupt thought, the work day, the physical body. When hot flashes occur at night, sleeplessness results and irritability, mood swings, memory problems can follow suit. However, in many many cases, estrogen deficiency is not the problem. These women need a break, a time out, a mini-retreat, a respite.

Many women have found their solution. Some have found it in running, others in meditating. However, for many the potential solutions are untenable, unreachable, or add to the never-ending list of shoulds. Or, the options are so overwhelming women cannot begin to decide what to do or how to perform self care.

For me, this is where yoga comes in. When taught well, with attention to the philosophy and teachings, Yoga provides peace, quiet and a chance to observe ourselves.  Some know yoga to be an exercise; a physical activity leading to fitness, improved health, increased heart rate, etc etc. The secret is that asana practice (the poses are called asana) is solely meant to allow us to sit comfortably enough,quietly enough to see and feel clearly. Undoubtedly, the physical practice feels good. “Doing” yoga feels good, but, what feels even better is being able to look at my thoughts and see, ‘huh, those are my thoughts. I am not my thoughts.” Or, “look, this awful thing happened to me or someone said this awful thing to me and gee, I don’t have to be affected by that. I can still be me.” Or, “This pose sucks. I hate this pose. My muscles are shaking. This is dumb. I’m way too important for this pose. Why did I come? I have better things to do.” Which over time can become, “This pose sucks. I hate this pose. I’ve gotten through this pose before. I am stronger. My resilience is better.”

After 14 years of practicing yoga I can honestly say it makes me a better person. I build better relationships. I think more clearly. I know my limitations and know what I need to care for my self. I can separate myself from my wrongdoings, my suffering, my awards, my rewards, my family and my thoughts. With this ability I am able to set my work and personal goals in alignment with my deepest beliefs. I am able to achieve lifelong goals and hold positions of leadership with a sense of love and responsibility. I get to choose how I will react to incoming stimuli (if at all) and I can readily access a place of peace and serenity within myself.

Resolve to reclaim your health in 2014 and prepare to disappoint!

Ah the Resolution Ritual… T’is the season for journaling, promising, and pep-talking.  For many, the resolutions are the usual suspects: exercise more, eat healthier, or, in my case, get organized!  I can’t tell you how to best file your paperwork or stock your fridge for easy cleaning; but, I can tell you  how to carve out space to be successful in regard to your health and wellness, a.k.a. get your backside to yoga in 2014.  It’s pretty straightforward.   To borrow the phrase of a former First Lady, “Just say ‘no,’”  to which I’ll add “to Other People’s Urgency (OPU).”

After teaching yoga for over a decade and seeing the difference between those that “succeed”  (read: come to class regularly and reap the benefits) and the yoga drop-outs, I may have some insight to offer.  The ones that come to class, well… they come to class. Basically, they treat it like a doctor’s appointment.  And why shouldn’t they?   The  health benefits of  a moderate yoga meditation practice will keep you away from the doctor’s office; this isn’t hype , it’s fact.  Less lower back pain, improved mood, boosted immune system (10,000 participant- study showing yogis create more antibodies to a flu vaccine  faster), better sleep, less arthritis and joint pain, better cognitive function — the list goes on and on.

So, why wouldn’t you be just as serious about showing up to yoga on the prevention end as you would about showing up to the doctor’s office after the fact?   Think about what a doctor’s appointment costs you in terms of co-pays (if you’re lucky), out-of-pocket if you have a huge deductible. Add in driving time, missed work,  waiting and waiting and waiting around in close quarters with all those sick people…

What if you started treating yoga like a doctor’s appointment and even told people wanting your time during class that you had  “an appointment”?   Say it with a slightly hushed, serious tone that implies some sort of  life threatening situation.   Here’s the thing: friends, family, bosses, co-workers and society at large respect (doctor’s) appointments.  No one is going to ask you to skip a doctor’s appointment to babysit or make a deadline at work.  A doctor’s appointment… it makes people afraid to ask, “What for?” lest they invite some unbearably awkward health issue into the light.

On the other hand, when you say you have “yoga” here’s what happens: in spite of the reams of research and all the lip service paid to wellness by employers, insurance companies, etc., chances are, the person inquiring will deem whatever they need you for as  More Important Than Yoga.  This I can only chalk up to the general ignorance of the uninitiated.  It’s the same sort of ignorance yoga instructors everywhere struggle with– newbies looking at their i-gadgets in class, people walking by (or even through) class who don’t know enough to lower their voices–probably figuring the music just went out during Zumba– and surely whatever  they’re  discussing trumps silence. I am here to tell you from the from the leading edge of wellness  that society still considers noise and multitasking (including jumping up and down and calling it progress) far more important than anything involving silence, stillness and introspection.

Given that yoga is still very counter-culture in many areas and among many subsets of the population, if you want to succeed at yoga and have a healthier and fitter ’14, then you’ll have to be both committed and crafty.  You’ll also have to be willing to disappoint those close to you in the short run, so you don’t disappoint yourself  in the long run.  The ability to ascertain between your own urgency and other people’s urgency will be useful.   Before you drop everything to miss class and  “put out a fire” ask yourself some questions:  “Is it really my fire to put out?  Does it really have to be put out during class? What happens if I don’t respond? –this last question was driven home for me  by my former boss as key to running a successful small office with limited resources.  You simply have to get used to not doing everything everyone asks of you.

Now, shall we practice a bit to make sure you don’t choke under the pressure?  Look in the mirror and practice saying “No, I’m sorry, I have an important appointment then” –sell it with the expression of a seasoned news anchor.  A slightly furrowed brow helps and again, the hushed tone. Maybe even look over your shoulder and move in a little closer, implying an air of confidentiality.  Good luck and see you at your next appointment!  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yoga Sutras 101: what are The Sutras and is yoga a religion?

here and now

The Yoga Sutras are considered the  basis for Classical Yoga as we know it today and were written down some 2000 years ago by an author cited as Patanjali.

There is much controversy as to the author’s (or authors’) identity and even the date of the manuscript, so for convenience, we’ll go for Patanjali, 2000 years.

What is generally agreed is that the author was not the founder of yoga; but, rather a scholarly consolidator and codifier and recorder of an existing oral tradition.

The Sutras were not meant to be a comprehensive ‘how-to” guide; instead,  think of them as “Clff’s Notes”  based on teachings that passed for generations from Guru to student.

Each sentence is an aphorism, concise and loaded with meaning. They begin simply enough, “Now, the study of Yoga,” but  even the word “Now”  means more than you might think. Many a swami has lectured on the Sutras without making it past the definition of “Now”!

The Yoga Sutras provide a framework of “limbs”  which are like rungs on a ladder (hierarchical view) or spokes in a wheel (holistic view),  for realizing one’s true identity and a state of being known as “samadhi.”  It’s very similar to Buddhism and important to remember that before the Buddha became a Buddha, he was a Yogi!  Samadhi maybe be described as the  absence of suffering and not contingent upon the material world.  The good news: you have already practiced several of these limbs in class including Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara and maybe even Dharana.  More about the individual limbs later in class.

Some refer to yoga as a science,  a wellness technology,  or a practical philosophy for every day living– especially in dealing with the suffering of life.  Yes, the Sutras make reference to God, but in modern times, it has been divorced from the Hindu religion, especially here in America. Of course, some Hindus take offence to this and assert that without the devotion to a (Hindu) deity, there is no yoga.  In most of the world however,  today’s Sutra interpretations refer to a “small g”  god — that inclusive  “Oprah” god that may be of any denomination, life force or the divinity within.

I see yoga as a total wellness system and the Sutras as a road-map on how to achieve the healthiest version of oneself–mentally, physically, spiritually.  It can be an “enhancer” if you’re already religious, creating time and space in your life for deeper prayer and contemplation.  If you’re atheist or agnostic, it can bring you tremendous peace without asking you to overtly believe in anything.

Yoga is first and foremost experiential–you experience your own truth.  That said, it is not moral relativism.  The “Yamas” and “Niyamas” are sometimes called the “10 Commandments of Yoga” and are pretty clear about what is and is not acceptable behavior.  That said, the reasoning behind them may be somewhat obtuse from a Christian perspective.  It’s not really morality for godly approval, but rather morality for the sake of reducing the drama in your life, enabling greater ease in meditation.  For instance, don’t steal because you’ll live in constant fear of getting caught which will be a distraction to your yoga practice.  The Yoga Sutras don’t put forth the highly personalized relationship with God and Jesus found in Christianity and thus, many Christians feel it’s not a hindrance to their religion. If anything, Christian yogis report the ability to meditate, or concentrate for prolong periods, is helpful in prayer and the study of scripture.

We will be exploring the Yoga Sutras in future newsletters and posts.  You will have a chance to participate in a Yoga Sutras Workshop to delve deeper into the Sutras if you wish–probably sometime in Feb/Mar when we’re all dealing w/ a little climate-induced suffering.  So stay tuned and stay tuned in!

Hot Yoga : Hot or Not?

Hot Yoga

Hot Yoga : Hot or Not?

Hot yoga is a major trend  in which participants practice in a hot room, often 90-100+ degrees.  Mass marketers of yoga love the “passive heating” approach of hot yoga, as  it gives the perception of flexibility and a deeper workout in a shorter period of time.  More classes per day = more revenue.

Great for your muscles, but what about your joints? Extreme heat, while making muscles temporarily more flexible, makes the tensile strength of connective tissue and  joints weaker.  Injuries arise because your “heat goggles” make you feel so bendy, that your judgement  may be off.  So, just like yo-yo dieting isn’t the answer,  YHD says “no” to yo-yo climating–don’t we already get enough of that here in Minnesota?

Yoga HotDish classes will warm your body and make you flexible, but keeping with yoga philosophy. Yoga takes time, and you can’t just crank the furnace to force to body into submission! Also,  hot yoga  is contra-indicated for numerous conditions, from heart and respiratory issues to being over weight or sleep deprived, YHD is a more accessible form of yoga.

YHD classes begin with a restorative poses, done on bolsters to gently coax the body to open, undoing all that tension from sitting, driving, repetitive motion exercise, etc.  From there,  intense Yin stretches  are actually safer when the body is cool and the connective tissue stronger.  Long hold times in Yin poses ensure the muscles stretch slowly; however, most studios just can’t afford the extra class time.   The “self”  heating process then escalates with pranayama or breathing exercises. Most fitness yoga glosses over these, as learning them can be difficult and take time. That said, once mastered,  every breath you take becomes a core-warming abdominal exercise. Advanced yogis continue pranayama throughout practice.  After 90 minutes, you’ll be slow-roasted to perfection –not zapped in a microwave!

Dharma: “The Great Work Of Your Life”

Cope-CoverSmallThis book could be the What Color is Your Parachute? for a new generation. It’s inspirational for anyone of any age going through a period of transition–maybe you’re finding out your parachute has a few holes in it?  But, what does a book on finding one’s true calling have to do with yoga?

Stephen Cope’s The Great Work of Your Life looks to the 2000 year-old yoga text, The Bhagavad Gita, an allegory about the path to dharma (true calling in simple terms), told through a dialogue between the Warrior Arjuna and his divine mentor, Krishna.  Arjuna is riding  “shotgun” (ok, “archer?”)  in the  chariot, piloted by the diving Krishna who is extolling advice over the course of an epic battle.  Cope shows us how Arjuna’s military career and moral dilemmas aren’t so different from our own or from luminaries like Walt Whitman, Susan B Anthony and even Beethoven.  We learn that Krishna’s advice is timeless and relevant to all of us looking for fulfillment in the modern world.  BTW, the “The Gita” is probably one of the most accessible yogic texts and has influenced people like Ghandi and Martin Luther King.

Warning: this is not a story about how you can “be anything you want to be.”  In fact, the word dharma “refers to the peculiar and idiosyncratic qualities of each being.”  It’s not about doing anything you “set your mind to.”  Cope explains what Krishna might say:
Yes, our inner possibilities are fantastic beyond imagining. But no, these         possibilities are not nearly as subject ot our ego’s manipulation as we might     like to think.  Actually, you can only expect a fulfilling life if you dedicate             yourself to finding out who you are. To finding the ineffable, idiosyncratic             seeds of possibility already planted inside. There is some surrender required.

As you may know, Stephen Cope was the driving force behind transforming Kripalu, where I did my teacher training, from a dysfunctional Ashram into the world’s largest Yoga Health and Wellness center.  He now heads the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living (IEL).  The IEL sponsors the largest and most influential team of yoga researchers in the West and has   a team of Harvard Medical School faculty and research assistants who are studying the effects of yoga on a wide spectrum of human functioning—from mental and physical health to the development of extraordinary states of consciousness.

If you have any interest in living extraordinarily yourself or are tasked with the job of helping others to do so (parent/teachers/mentors) on any level, give Cope’s book a read! If nothing else, you learn some obscure facts about the lives of fascinating people. For instance, did you know Walt Whitman credited the Civil War with “saving him” and Jane Goodall got her start with observing chickens?


Protein smoothies a great recipe for greater work/life balance

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What should I eat before yoga?” I am often asked this vexing question by new students. As a classical yogi, I feel compelled to advise students doing a morning practice to do so on an empty stomach, so they get the full benefits of digestion offered by the poses without discomfort. However, as a 6-footer with blood pressure on the low side and a metabolism on the high side, I myself don’t fare well sans food.The middle path: protein shakes and smoothies. You get all your nutrients without skipping a meal, and most importantly, you give your digestive tract a much-needed reprieve.  Think about it:  is stuffing ourselves full of carbs, gluten, and meats three times per day really a good longevity strategy? No wonder 40% of Americans are constipated while obesity and diabetes are on a sharp rise.

Maybe you’ve already figured it out.  You’ve read The China Study, eliminated meat and gluten from your diet, and get all your food from plants. Or, maybe you’re an  “Intermittent Faster.”  There has been much in the news (Frontline with Michael Mosley)  about the benefit of fasting one or two days per week.  For many of us though, these just aren’t sustainable options.In my case, missing meals makes me cranky and lightheaded –not good qualities in a Mom or a yoga teacher. Additionally, I would be delighted to consume a “100% plant-based diet” as recommended in the China Study, if I had all the meals prepped for me as was the case at Kripalu.Protein shakes and smoothies however, are where I can embrace the idea of a “digestive rest”  and being a “part-time vegan.”  Yes, sometimes I do fast for a day (often after a holiday weekend) and only consume a couple of protein shakes. But my usual m.o. is the liquid breakfast.  This makes particular sense if you eat late, have heavier meals, are married to Jose Gourmet.As I’m on breakfast detail, my family has been doing shakes and smoothies for years.  Here are some tips if you’re just getting started:
  1. Get a good vegan protein powder. This means non-dairy (lactose gunks things up, just like gluten), no added real sugars, no fake sugars (worse). Yes, Arbonne has an outstanding option, which I sell to support my own habit.
  2. Get a good blender. I hope to be the proud recipient of a “ninja” with the 3 blades for my next birthday.
  3. Easy on the fruits–sugar is sugar.
  4. Consider greening it up w/ kale, avocado (loads of fiber and b-12).
  5. If you mess it up, half a banana fixes almost anything–the trade off sugar
  6. Mix fresh and frozen.  In my freezer you will find blueberries and mangos, almost always. Squeeze an orange to add liquid that’s not processed juice.
  7. Use a PLAIN probiotic yogurt if you decide a little dairy is ok for you –just know vanilla flavor adds sugar. I buy mine at Costco, cheapest in town. BTW, if you like vanilla, just add the extract.
  8. Use coconut milk to keep juice to a minimum. I buy mine at Trader Joe’s in a 1/2 gallon milk carton.
  9. Fill the blender about 1/2 up w/ fruits and veg: then a cup of yogurt (remember it’s still dairy, and you don’t want to overdo it), then add the coconut milk and a splash of fresh squeezed juice if desired.
  10. Have a vegan protein powder that’s tasty and easy enough to consume on-the-go, w/o bells and whistles, because there will be times when you don’t have time for a major production in the kitchen.
  11. GET THE BLENDER IN THE DISHWASHER ASAP, SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO CLEAN IT BY HAND THE NEXT MORNING–if this is the only tip you remember, I think I can say I’ve done a public service here!
Perhaps you have heard me say in class that yoga is about “relaxed exertion,” that is, exercising without tripping the nervous system wires and setting off the “fight or flight” response.  Instead, we want the antithesis of “fight or flight” known as “rest and digest.” Grab a protein shake or smoothie before class and you’ll be all set.  Remember, if you’re stomach rumbles, it’s OK, show-off!