Lots of us work very sedentary office jobs. It’s pretty standard these days: arrive early in the morning, turn on the computer and stare at it for about eight hours, then drive home. Yes! Finally, we can do some yoga (or other exercise, preferably outdoors) to reverse the long day of sitting. Lots of us don’t do that, though. For various reasons we don’t make time for exercise. We may not get outside for fresh air after a long day in the office. Instead of going out for a bike ride or a hike, we make dinner and turn on the TV, only to sit on our butts for a few more hours before going to bed. We feel so much better (physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually) when we move! Luckily, it’s easier than we sometimes think. We don’t need to get to the gym every day in order to be in good health. We can find many excuses to move throughout the day. We can even take quick yoga breaks at work!
Yoga asana practice is not only the 60- or 90-minute class you encounter at a studio. It is most effective as an every day pursuit, even if it’s only a few minutes at a time. It’s great to dedicate an hour or two to a full practice, but yoga can be incorporated into your day any day, no excuses. Here are a few great stretches to try throughout the day. Have fun with it, be creative, and share! Others can benefit as well — and then they won’t be wondering what the heck you are doing if they see you sitting there with your arms over your head.
Seated Twist. Sitting with both feet firmly on the ground, place your left hand on the outside of your right knee. The right hand can rest beside you on the armrest or seat of the chair. Inhale and lift your spine while relaxing your shoulders down your back. Exhale and turn to the right, looking over your right shoulder. Breathe, and with each inhale feel yourself lifting through the spine from the tailbone to the crown of your head. With each exhale twist a bit deeper (these can be micro-movements). Let the breath create space between your ribs, between your vertebrae. Feel the inhale expand your lungs completely. Let the exhale release any tension. Come back to center when you are ready. Switch sides and repeat.
Eagle Arms. Again with both feet planted firmly on the ground, inhale and feel the spine lifting. Exhale and feel the tailbone drop down. Lift both arms in front of you, with elbows bent, hands facing one another (like you’re about to clap). Now bring the right elbow on top of the left, and snake your right hand around so palms connect (wrists are crossed). Next, lift your arms upward while simultaneously relaxing the shoulders. Breathe into your upper back. This feels great! After a few breaths, release the arms down to the original position and repeat on the opposite side (left arm over right).
Seated Pigeon. Here’s a seated version of the great hip opener, pigeon. Start out as in the previous poses, feet planted. Then, lift the right leg with the knee bent, bringing the ankle to rest on the left knee. If you look down, you’ll see a triangle between your legs. Flex the lifted foot. Inhale and feel the spine rise, exhale and fold forward over your right leg. Just let the arms hang in front of you. After a few breaths return to the original seated position and switch sides.
Tadasana – Uttanasana. Begin in Tadasana, Mountain Pose, by standing up straight, feet hip-width distance apart, shoulders rolled back, palms facing out in front of you. Your chin is level with the floor; imagine your head balancing effortlessly at the top of your spine. Release the jaw, relax the eyes, gaze softly at a point in front of you. [Rather than staring sharply, which could increase tension, this soft gaze (dristi) allows you to be steady and balanced while also relaxed.] Pull the belly in and lengthen the tailbone toward the floor. Breathe. Feel for any tension and see if you can release it with the breath.
From Tadasana, move into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). On an exhale, hinge at the hips (not at the waist) and fold forward, bending the knees as deeply as necessary to let the entire upper body drape over the lower body. The lower body is doing all the work in this pose. The upper body effortlessly cascades over the lower body. You can imagine it as a waterfall’s downward flow if imagery works for you. Either be still in this forward bend or sway gently from side to side. You can grab a hold of opposite elbows with opposite hands. You can gently shake the head as if you’re saying “yes” and “no.” When ready, come back up into Tadasana with a long spine. Bring your palms to your shins and, extending the spine tailbone to crown, slowly come up on an inhale. Keep the hands connected to the legs to increase body awareness/connection. You can repeat these two poses a few times, running the hands down the backs of the legs as you come into Uttanasana.
Tree (Vrksasana). Tree is a great pose for balance and focus. It strengthens the entire body, particularly the core. Start by standing in Tadasana. Next, bending the right knee, bring the right foot to rest on the inside of the left leg. It can press against the leg anywhere from ankle to inner thigh, except for the knee. Place your hands on your hips, or in prayer pose at your heart center. Breathe deeply and set your dristi (softly focus on a point in front of you). When you feel balanced, you can lift your arms up and outward like the branches of a tree. You can even play around with lifting your gaze or closing your eyes! Come back to center after a few breaths and change sides.
There you have it, a few poses to get started. I’ll write about more in the future. I’d love to hear your suggestions as well!
Some final thoughts if you do work in an office…
Get up as often as you can at work, even if it’s just to quickly stretch every half-hour or so. Walk over to talk with someone rather than emailing, take the mail to the mailbox, take a lunch walk outside (whether it’s for five or 50 minutes). Some offices have the “eat lunch at your desk” culture. You don’t need to fall into that! By making your health a priority, you will be a more productive and happier employee. Don’t worry about the eat at your desk culture. Set boundaries, do what you need to do for you, and you will be more focused and set a great example for your co-workers. In my experience working for a few different companies with this culture, no one has ever questioned my lunch break. I’ve been happy and employers have been pleased with my work. I’ve seen lots of other people exhausted and ornery by 2:00 pm (usually before then, actually) because they feel they cannot take a break. It’s up to you to look out for yourself, and it’s so important to do so! If you’re in this type of culture and feel you can’t take a break, I’d encourage you to try some of these poses to help with the stress on your body and mind. Try taking a lunch break and see what happens. I can almost guarantee it will be your increased productivity and happiness, not anything punitive! We all deserve a break.
I, like many yoga practitioners and teachers, am a bit disheartened by the commercialization of yoga. So much of what yoga is really about gets drowned out by the media telling us how we should look and act. Yoga is an individual pursuit for a higher consciousness/health. What you wear, what yoga mat you use, and how much money you spend on props and other tools aren’t necessarily related in any way. That being said, sometimes having a comfortable and flattering outfit enables us to more easily get to class. Owning a yoga mat or a meditation cushion is great motivation for a home practice. The following are some of my favorite yoga products, which I’ve discovered over the years. I hope they will be as helpful to you as they have been to me!
The Jade yoga mat is by far my favorite that I’ve tried. I first purchased one years ago when I was practicing mostly hot yoga. I was sliding all over my other mats, even the ones they rented out at the studio. (Who wants to use one of those germ-infested things anyway?!) The Jade mat is great — my hands and feet feel very stable and supported. It does not get slippery, even when completely drenched. It holds up after much wear and tear. It is easy to clean and comes in attractive colors. You can also purchase an extra-long one if you’d like (just be aware of the extra room it may take up in a class).
These are my favorite yoga blocks. They are strong and stable yet they provide a bit of flexibility, making them comfortable to place under your head or behind your back as you relax into a pose.
These blocks provide a bit more stability but I find them a little uncomfortable to place under my back in Bridge pose, for example. They are great for Ardha Chandrasana or other poses where you are just trying to stabilize your hand(s).
Prana yoga tops are very comfortable and come in beautiful colors and styles. They provide plenty of flexibility while maintaining good coverage where you need it most. This is a link to a women’s top because I specifically own this; however, I’m sure their men’s clothing is also excellent quality.
It’s great to have your own meditation cushion and spot in your home where you meditate (whether it be for five minutes or an hour) daily around the same time. Just having the cushion in your spot and seeing it every day will help to establish a daily ritual. Not only that, but it is so soft and comfortable, allowing you to relax deeply as you focus on your breath.
I hope this list helps you if you are looking for some great yoga products to enhance your practice! I’d love to hear about your own favorites, as well.
What we eat can be a touchy subject. We are so careful, counting calories, following the latest fad diets, trying to do the right things for our bodies, and suffering because of it. We deprive ourselves, and then we overindulge and end up feeling like crap. Food is a major way in which we nourish ourselves, emotionally and physically. Yoga helps bring awareness to what we eat, and tunes us in to what our bodies really need. It allows us to learn how to be moderate and it encourages healthy lifestyle choices. Food should be celebrated and there are lots of very healthy foods that just happen to be delicious as well!
I struggled for years to eat healthfully. In high school I spent hours in front of the TV snacking on processed junk. Luckily, my mother cooked healthy meals and I was very active. I guess this somewhat saved me from completely succumbing to my Snickers ice cream bar and Doritos habits! I was never very overweight, but I never felt too good either. After high school, I tried to improve how my body looked (based on what I thought was expected of me). I exercised excessively at times and I ate lunches that consisted solely of raw, plain veggies, leaving me less than satisfied and my nutrient needs unfulfilled. I was always sore, often tired, and probably too thin. Through developing my yoga practice, I’ve come to cherish my body and try to take care of it in whatever ways I can. I have learned how to listen to my body. I give it rest when it needs rest, exercise of varying levels of intensity depending on the day, and always, perhaps most importantly, creative, healthy meals. What we eat is so important and it affects so much — how we look, how we feel, how we behave… I’m passionate about finding and creating healthy recipes that are also delicious! This blog post will discuss the part yoga plays in all of this, and explore ways to incorporate healthy eating into our daily lives.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, yoga can help us create a healthier relationship with food. It can contribute to losing weight and maintaining a healthy body and body image. There are conflicting opinions on the weight loss aspect — some say yoga is not a good weight loss tool. However, I believe it helps in a few ways. First, active styles of yoga like ashtanga and vinyasa (particularly heated power yoga) can be quite strenuous and aerobic. Practicing these styles of yoga absolutely burns calories and can contribute to weight loss. Also, living a yogic lifestyle (including pranayama, meditation, practicing self-restraint, non-violence, compassion, etc.) brings you more in touch with yourself and others. Aside from the practice of asanas (physical postures), yoga can help us embrace other healthy lifestyle practices, thereby ensuring our bodies are in top form. It grows your self-love and desire to take care of yourself. This naturally leads to eating healthy foods in moderation, sometimes allowing us to shed extra pounds.
I don’t want to focus on weight loss per se; I mentioned it because it is a goal for many of us, and the US culture in particular is one of over-indulgence and instant gratification. This has led to a health and obesity epidemic. At the same time, we are inundated with messages that we must lose weight and be a perfect size in order to get respect. Yoga can help us be at peace with who we are, inside and out. To find our own unique “perfect size” without judgment or criticism. Eating can and should be a joy. It’s a ritual to be celebrated. There are so many awesome, healthy, delicious foods out there — after years of research I am still learning new things all the time! I’m amazed at the foods I’ve never even heard of until now, and excited to discover more. Learning how to eat healthfully in a way that truly satisfies us, while not criticizing ourselves for how we look or whether we are perfect in our habits every minute, is well worth the endeavor.
Here are some ideas for incorporating healthy eating into our daily lives. As always, a daily yoga practice also supports other healthy lifestyle habits!
* Start your day with warm water and the juice of 1/2 a lemon (but know this can cause tooth decay — use a straw and/or rinse your mouth afterwards, and don’t brush for at least 30 minutes to ensure enamel safety)
* Drink the GGS (glowing green smoothie) before eating anything else. I definitely notice a difference in my energy level throughout the day when I do this! It doesn’t have to be all the time; it can be just for a “cleanse” or just weekdays … whatever works for you! When you do drink the GGS, though, you’ll be getting more greens into your diet than many people get in a week in one easy drink! Pretty cool.
* Buy a Vitamix! It’s an investment but well worth it! I make my own nut milks, sauces, smoothies, hummus, soups, ice cream, salsas, and the list goes on and on and on. I’ve discovered so many new foods and how easy it is to make your own items you would usually purchase healthier and cheaper. I use it every single day.
* Check out some of the many amazing healthy food blogs! They are so inspiring, full of good information, recipes, and links to other great sites. There are far too many to list, but here are some of my favorites: Oh She Glows, Deliciously Ella, Detoxinista, Food Babe, Green Kitchen Stories, Minimalist Baker, Mind Body Green
* Eat whole foods
* Create a rainbow on your plate
* Incorporate one new healthy meal and/or dessert per week. This is so easy to do with the wealth of information and recipes available online. It keeps it interesting and fun! It’s a great activity to share with others, too.
* Practice mindful eating
* Eat when you are hungry and don’t eat when you’re not (eating small meals/grazing throughout the day may work better for you than eating three bigger meals at breakfast, lunch, and dinner)
* Allow yourself to “indulge” once in a while! If you feel you’re depriving yourself, it isn’t really healthy. If we drown in guilt and shame every time we “cheat,” it is damaging and takes all the fun out of eating! Let yourself have treats; don’t call it “cheating.” It’s OK to indulge sometimes. Everything in moderation.
So many people want to eat healthy but aren’t sure where to start. There’s so much (conflicting) information out there it can be overwhelming. Really, though, it’s not that difficult. It can take time and patience, but the learning process is fun! Enjoy it. Every body is different, so you need to experiment to find out what works for you. I personally eat a plant-based vegetarian diet including eggs (and occasional dairy). I think everyone has different needs, though. I have seen a great improvement in my health by eating mostly whole foods and making as much of my own stuff as possible (i.e., not eating processed foods). I greatly limit dairy as it is congesting and difficult to digest. I know, I hated hearing this at first and totally resisted it, but it’s true. I can feel and see the difference, and don’t really miss it (shocking because I’ve always absolutely loved cheese, ice cream, and yogurt). There are so many alternatives (vegan sour cream is my latest exciting discovery!). At the same time, if I’m at a Mexican restaurant and I want an empanada with cheese, I’m not beating myself up over that! I enjoy it and then continue with something healthier the next day. I truly believe that the guilt and self-criticism we sometimes display after eating something less than healthy is just as (or more) toxic to our bodies as the food itself. Food is love!
What about you? Do you have other ideas? Recipes? Please share!
I had a very cool, meditative day of silence recently, and I wanted to share my experience with you in the hopes that you may try it for yourself one day! It was a beautiful gift.
It was sort of my version of a short, silent meditation retreat, without the rigidity of sitting cross-legged for hours alternating with walking meditation, as many silent retreats include. There is a purpose to that structure, but a day of silence can be done at any time in any place, on your own, for free. I did this with a partner, which I think made the experience even richer, but you could do this by yourself as well.
My significant other had said months ago that one day he’d like to have an entire day of silence. Togetherness, but in silence. The only way we would communicate would be with our eyes and gestures — no spoken words, no writing. Of course, I was intrigued.
He thought a day at the beach would be perfect for this meditation. So we planned it to be during our vacation to Costa Rica. We were lucky enough to be able to have this day on a beautiful beach when we had no other responsibilities. It could be done anywhere, however. If you can plan it on a day off from work when you can relax in nature, even better.
We talked during breakfast, but after that it was silence until sundown. We were in Mal Pais, Costa Rica, a chill surf town on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. We drove north along a very bumpy dirt road until we reached Playa Manzanillo, a remote beach we were able to drive right onto (a first for both of us). No other humans were there.
The entire day I felt truly immersed in the beauty of nature, noticing the tiniest details. I collected small, colorful shells and created “art” in the sand. I noticed all the tiny pink, red, blue, and white smooth stones dispersed throughout the sand. I felt the warm sun on my skin and the salt water supporting me as I floated on my back. We communicated with our eyes, with our smiles. No words were necessary. His body language was clear. Time stood still. I went for a walk on my own down the beach, reveling in the soft breeze. I felt blessed and at peace. I felt completely relaxed and free, childlike, playing in the sand. I saw things from a different, more appreciative perspective. I really paid attention, without even trying, to all the little details that make this world beautiful.
We slipped up a couple of times, in the most random ways — he mentioned on the road back that there was “a lot of traffic today” and I translated a sign I thought was funny (he doesn’t speak any Spanish). Otherwise, though, silence prevailed and our day was peaceful bliss. Once the sun went down, I was almost inclined to continue the silence! He said he couldn’t wait to talk to me again. So it enabled us to appreciate each other in a different way, to be in tune with nature, and to miss each other in a sense. We are making this a tradition!
If you have any similar ideas or do try this, I’d love to hear about your experience! Please feel free to comment!
Yoga is a way to restore our lost wholeness, our integrity as complete human beings, by unifying the personality around a center that is silent, unbounded, spacious, and joyful.
The techniques of yoga are methods of purifying the nervous system so that it can reflect a greater degree of consciousness and our lives can become an increasingly positive force in the world.
If these techniques are correctly practiced, the whole nervous system is revitalized – the body enjoys better health and more energy, the rested mind is freed from the burden of past experience, and perception is restored to its primal freshness. Thought and activity become coherent and integrated, life becomes richer and more fulfilling.
Yoga is not a religion. Its techniques, however, will gradually lead you to the direct experience of those truths on which religion rests. Yoga is a catalyst that allows us to grow in whichever direction is natural and life supporting.
Yoga is a lifestyle, not just a workout. It is physical, emotional, and mental training to evolve into your best self. When people undertake a yoga practice, they often become healthier in ways they never expected. One of those ways for me was developing a healthier relationship with food. Whether you are trying to establish and maintain a healthy weight or just be at peace with your body as it is, yoga can help.
Our culture is so body-obsessed, focused on celebrities with perfect (or not so perfect) physical attributes. We probably all know celebrities’ “perfection” isn’t even real, though the critical messages can still be difficult to hear. Young girls in particular receive constant messages that can distort their body image. I saw it in myself and so many others; I see it in the 9-year-old girl in my life. Sometimes this distorted self-image leads to eating disorders and health problems. Yoga can help. It cultivates a loving relationship with oneself (and therefore one’s body and what is put into it). It leads to moment-to-moment awareness, allowing us to really enjoy food (and other pleasures) without judgment.
As a young woman I briefly struggled with disordered eating. I binged, I starved; I gained weight and then lost it. I never felt satisfied. I obsessed over food and my “imperfect” body. I was focused solely on being thin and definitely not getting the nutrients I needed. I would not be surprised if this led to my hypothyroidism and not menstruating for a full year and a half. Not to mention the emotional damage from being so obsessed and self-critical. It was a nasty cycle! I never even spoke to another person about it until very recently. I was ashamed and I’m pretty sure no one in my life would have guessed I was doing this to myself. So many people have trouble with body image and eating disorders, though. Whether it’s seemingly innocuous self-denigration in the form of humor or full-blown bulimia or anorexia, many of us have a troubled relationship with food and our bodies from time to time. This is why I’m sharing my experience now. I am so grateful that yoga helped put things in perspective for me. I hope that others struggling with eating disorders or body dysmorphic disorder will discover all that yoga can offer!
Getting into the yoga habit, creating a daily home practice (supplemented by occasional classes) helped me appreciate my body. I realized how strong it could be, how flexible. I learned to cherish the body I had, to treat it kindly. I learned that some of the things I had been telling myself were simply untrue! (I am actually flexible enough to do a wheel pose. I am strong enough to have made it through 200-hour yoga teacher training. I am disciplined enough to maintain a healthy diet, and actually really enjoy it!) I rediscovered the joy of cooking and eating and learned to listen to my body’s cravings more intelligently. Yoga led me to this healthier mindset in many ways. Centering myself during practice and tuning in to my body’s needs overflowed off the mat. Now in daily life I notice I am more mindful. I’ve come to really enjoy eating without any guilt. I tend to eat very healthy because a whole foods plant-based diet is what makes me feel and perform my best. But I definitely enjoy the occasional piece of cake or pizza without guilt! And I am passionate about finding and creating ridiculously delicious recipes that are healthy, too. So cooking and eating are a joy and not a source of stress anymore. Yoga and meditation allow me to be more “in the moment” — and only when you are truly in the moment can you fully enjoy it!
The discipline of the yoga practice centers me. I know it is always there to support me and that I will always feel better when I step off the yoga mat. Even if it is just a gentle movement meditation, my body knows what it needs. When I honor my body’s needs, I find I am most content, balanced, and serene. Yoga brings me inward. Focusing on my breath and an intention, even in a class surrounded by many others I gaze internally and learn about myself. In a challenging pose I come directly into the moment. I am truly experiencing life as it is, NOW. The present is the only time we can act, and yoga helps us to really be present. In a challenging or even a more relaxed pose I find balance and feel the nuances of muscles I hadn’t realized were there! Yoga makes me much more aware of my physical, mental, and emotional fluctuations. Therefore, I am more aware of the foods that support my health and those that deplete it. I know that over- or under-eating is self-defeating both physically and emotionally. I have learned to be moderate and enjoy great health without depriving myself of anything.
Looking back, I understand why I struggled. I had been (and am still) receiving many messages about “beauty.” Some were from the media, some from immediate family members or peers at school. These messages led to the belief that I wasn’t good enough. I scrutinized my face, my body. Was I ugly? Was I too fat? Too skinny? I fluctuated from feeling totally confident to completely self-conscious. It is much easier now to maintain a positive self-image. My eating and exercise habits are consistent and healthy, and I know how to take better care of myself. And yuck. No one likes to be around anyone who is so self-obsessed! You can’t enjoy life that way and no one spending time with you wants to hear it! Including yourself! Ego, please, stay in check. Life is to be enjoyed! There’s no need to make it difficult for ourselves.
So put away your mirror! Throw away your scale! Focus on what makes you happy. Get to know your body intimately and begin to see the effects that various foods have on it. Enjoy discovering fun new cuisines. Take care of yourself and be your own biggest fan. Notice when you tell yourself you aren’t good enough. You are perfect as you are! Remember that. And every day, do yoga. Meditate. Even if you practice just one pose. Even if you sit for just one minute of silence. As you get to know yourself better, over time, peeling back the layers of your perception you will find a beautiful self underneath. And you will understand how to nourish that self, body, mind, and spirit. Yoga can help!
Before beginning, you may want to set a timer so that you can easily drop into a meditative state without concern for time. Practice this meditation as long as you like, maybe 10-20 minutes. (If you’re new to meditation, even a minute or two is a great start! Practice consistently and increase the time at your own pace.) Choose a location where you won’t be disturbed. Having a dedicated meditation spot helps, though meditation and mindfulness can be practiced anywhere.
To begin, come into a comfortable seated position. You may lie down if necessary. Close your eyes. Lengthen the spine from the tailbone up to the crown of the head. Relax the muscles around the spine. Roll the shoulders back and down. Hands can rest face up or down on your thighs. Release tension in the jaw, the forehead, the eyes. Breathe in deeply through the nose, a smooth, gentle breath. Exhale also through the nose (if your sinuses are blocked, just breathe through the mouth). Continuing long, smooth breaths, scan the body from head to toe and try to release any tension you find. Focus on your breath. Come into the present moment, releasing thoughts of past or future. When thoughts arise, notice, and let them pass. Bring your left hand to your heart and your right hand to your belly. Begin circling both hands slowly, in a clockwise direction. The hand at the heart awakens the heart energy; the hand at the belly is grounding and soothing. This connection to yourself brings peace and has a nurturing quality. Continue circling gently and comfortably at your own pace. Focus on the smooth breath. Imagine if you can the sun shining brightly from the center of your chest. Imagine the sun warming your entire body and shining out from your heart. Hold this visualization as long as you can without straining. Hopefully it’s quite effortless, and it might bring a natural smile to your face. Let this joyous feeling fill your entire body. Focus on the warm sun and connecting with your body and your essence. What is truly important. Let go of thoughts, worries, and judgments if they arise. Notice them, and let them pass. Just focus on the warm heart energy awakening. If your arms get tired you can rest one or both of them palms up or down on your thighs. Continue focusing on the breath and the warm heart sun. This is a great meditation anytime, but particularly when you’re feeling tired, drained, sad, menstruating, or experiencing PMS. Hope you enjoy it!
“Most types of exercise are competitive. Yoga, although noncompetitive, is nevertheless challenging. The challenge is to one’s own willpower. It is a competition between one’s self and one’s body” (B.K.S. Iyengar).*
Yoga is not a competitive sport. OK, some may argue that yes, it is – there are yoga championships. And absolutely we can be inspired by people among us who have honed their practice with hard work and dedication. However, at its core, yoga is about union of the body, mind and spirit. It’s about discovering one’s Self. It’s about learning to be aware of one’s own pace and being true to that. It’s about personal evolution.
I’ve found that there’s an atmosphere of competition at some yoga studios. It tends to be in heated power yoga classes. Maybe competition is inevitable for such an active style. It draws a certain clientele. Many people go mainly for the physical benefits – the workout. And truthfully, so do I. The heat and constant flow of poses stoke the internal fire. The instructors encourage you to push through discomfort and challenge yourself (and unfortunately some don’t remind you that child’s pose is always an option). You feel and see results, fast. But I believe that unchecked, the competitive urge that sometimes arises can cause problems.
I find the heat sometimes fires me up mentally and emotionally, as well as physically (i.e., over-stimulates pitta dosha). Don’t get me wrong, I love it! The endorphin rush (I think that’s what it is … almost euphoric, a clearer seeing, a natural high) when I emerge from class is unique to that style. I seem to gain strength more quickly and challenge myself to a new level. It’s good for my growth. But I’ve sensed a lot of competition, sometimes to the practitioners’ detriment. It’s concerning. Years ago I pushed to keep up with everyone else and also had a tendency to compete. I felt an adrenaline rush and at the same time was struggling. That same adrenaline rush has transformed into me sometimes getting irritated, and other times just being concerned that people competing will get hurt or encourage novices to “muscle through” like I did in the beginning. No matter how much I practice, I will always be learning. The irritation I feel may be telling me something deeper is going on inside my mind … but I’m happy to at least be aware of it.
Competition is part of heated power yoga, whether it should be or not. Maybe it’s a personality thing; maybe it’s the pitta stimulation I mentioned. Whatever it is, I think it’s something for both practitioners and teachers of this style to be aware of. There’s not a lot of elaboration in the verbal cues of many all-levels classes. The pace is fast. New practitioners often follow classmates and sometimes push themselves unnecessarily or simply do the poses wrong. And how would they know unless they learned otherwise elsewhere? Other experienced practitioners seem to show off, deviating from the teacher’s cues and performing extremely advanced poses in their underwear .** There’s a strong focus on the physical body, which can make less experienced or “out of shape” yogis feel uncomfortable or threatened. So there’s an air of competition and pushing yourself, which may be tied to the style but can be used productively if harnessed. One should only challenge or compete with oneself in yoga. And it begins with learning the poses with care, and being true to your current ability (which can change day to day). It begins with compassion and awareness.
A good place to start is learning how to correctly perform a vinyasa. This mini-sequence (chaturanga dandasana – upward dog – downward dog) is repeated throughout a heated power yoga class. Many times I’ve seen people flopping down onto their bellies when cued to chaturanga. Rather than even attempting to hover in chaturanga (low plank/low pushup), they do a half-assed flat back position then quickly crunch down onto the floor. As they collapse, I can almost hear their bones crying. And they may think they’re just keeping up, doing it right; but they aren’t gaining any strength this way and could easily hurt themselves. A great way to get used to chaturanga is to first bend the knees in your pushup position. Start in modified plank pose, *** keeping the wrists directly under the shoulders, shoulders away from the ears, belly tight, crown of head lengthening (spine long). Coming down slowly, with the elbows right next to the ribs, you begin to build strength. Keeping the knees bent, maintain the push up for increasing amounts of time. Practice this outside of class to master it. Soon you will be able to straighten the legs, press back through the heels, and maintain chaturanga, getting the full benefits of the pose.
I also always see mistakes in upward dog, creating the potential for injury. People tend to come into it quickly, often out of a weak chaturanga, with shoulders hunched up by the ears. The shoulders should be away from the ears, rolling down the back. Arms are straight, wrists below shoulders and elbows. Hands are firm, palms completely pressing into the mat. Neck is long, spine is long, the jaw releases, the tops of the feet press against the floor. The rest of the legs are suspended in air, the belly and chest get a nice stretch, and the heart opens. Rather than coming into upward dog without being comfortable with all these cues, beginners should start with cobra, a more basic backbend. As you build abdominal and back strength, you create a strong foundation for upward dog. Perhaps teachers should always cue it, since more advanced practitioners will know to do upward dog if they’re ready. It’s not difficult to cue both. Performing the vinyasa wrong over time can cause serious back and shoulder problems. Here’s a detailed article about correctly performing upward dog and chaturanga.
Downward dog is probably the most recognizable yoga pose. It utilizes all the major muscle groups of the body and increases strength and flexibility, among many other benefits. We usually come right into downward dog with straight legs, but try improving your pose by keeping the knees bent. Start on hands and knees, hands slightly forward of shoulders, hips directly over ankles. Palms and fingers press into the mat with middle fingers pointing forward. Turn your toes under and lift your tailbone toward the sky, keeping the knees bent. Lengthen the spine, the head hanging naturally between the upper arms, neck long. Maintaining the bent knees, press the tailbone up, pull the belly in, and press the hands into the floor while lengthening the spine. Imagine the inner arms lifting, the shoulder blades widening and drawing toward the tailbone. Getting comfortable with this modification makes the main actions of the pose more apparent. When you are ready to straighten your legs, you can more easily maintain the lift of the tailbone. If you ever feel your alignment waning, try bending your knees to get it back and then re-straighten your legs. When you do straighten your legs, don’t lock the knees or force your heels down to the floor. Once you have the feeling of the pose in your body, and you become familiar with the alignment, you will be able to easily come into downward dog during a vinyasa.
Of course I would never say something to the newbies whose shoulders are hunched in upward dog – that would be rude. Unless I’m leading my own class, I keep to myself. But I worry that these people will hurt themselves. And they may not receive the true benefits of the practice. Also, I understand and admire advanced practitioners’ efforts, but I wonder if a little more compassion for the beginner who may be nervous and looking to them for guidance might help everyone? Perhaps practicing the more advanced poses when warmed up and at an appropriate time (i.e., not before class begins or during savasana) or at home would be beneficial for us all.
Whether flying up into advanced poses while others are just walking in, or muscling through the practice at a pace inappropriate to our experience or flexibility, we run the risk of serious injury – not to mention we aren’t really “getting it.” It’s not about showing off, competing, or pushing ourselves beyond our limits. Plus, we’re annoying our fellow yogis. How can one relax when a neighbor repeatedly crashes out of headstand or handstand during everyone else’s savasana? I admit, maybe the same pitta force driving the competition is what causes me to look at others when I should be focusing on my own practice! I write it here with love, though, and a true concern for new practitioners and maintaining the art of yoga.
If you’ve practiced this style, did you feel this way? Any thoughts on how to improve this trend (or whether that’s even necessary)? I’d love to hear others’ opinions. Thank you for reading!
* B.K.S. Iyengar, Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health (Google eBook), Penguin, January 16, 2014 – Health & Fitness – 432 pages
** Photograph from youaretalkingtoomuch.com
*** Photograph from YogaOutlet.com
Ayurveda is an ancient Indian natural health system, often referred to as Yoga’s sister science. It involves various daily practices and dietary guidelines, according to an individual’s constitution, to achieve and maintain one’s ultimate health and well being. In future posts I may delve deeper into ayurvedic principles, but for today I am offering a few simple practices that can benefit everyone. Particularly in the winter it can be tough to maintain health. You can incorporate these easy practices into your life today and I guarantee you will notice the difference!
1. Tongue scraping: Tongue scraping, practiced first thing in the morning, helps remove bacteria, fungi, debris, and dead cells from your tongue. It clears out toxins that can lead to health problems and bad breath. The film that accumulates on your tongue is a good indicator of your overall health. Brushing the tongue is good, but it doesn’t achieve nearly the same results. You can purchase a tongue scraper designed specifically for this purpose, or simply use a spoon. You may be shocked at what you see!
2. Dry brushing: Dry brushing your skin every day before showering exfoliates the skin, enhances circulation, and moves lymph fluid throughout your body. It is said to enhance the immune system and even reduce the appearance of cellulite. The skin is our largest organ and is responsible for much of our body’s detoxification. Dry brushing helps this process, and it just feels good! Hanging a dry brush by your shower is a good reminder to do this daily. You may want to start more slowly, a few times a week, while your skin adjusts to this new routine. Don’t brush too hard. Start from the ankles and work your way up in a gentle, circular motion. Remember to moisturize (see #3, below) after your shower (or directly after brushing if you are dry brushing without showering).
3. Abhyanga (oil massage): A daily self-massage with oil greatly enhances well being. It moisturizes the skin, lubricates the joints, and encourages circulation. Depending on the oils you use, it can warm you up or cool you down. Emotionally, taking care of yourself this way cultivates self-love. Ayurveda sometimes recommends abhyanga 10-15 minutes before a shower (you let the oil absorb and then wash it off). I usually do this after showering, though; this just works better for me. I always want to moisturize after a shower, and oil is more effective than lotion. Sesame oil is a good choice. I also really enjoy the warm, comforting scent of almond oil or coconut oil. Simply massaging the oil into your skin over the entire body is fine. If you have a little time, though, try the following:
Using both hands, massage down then up each leg about 8 times (applying half the pressure on the way back up) then in a circular motion at the joints (ankles, knees, hips, 8 times in one direction, then 8 the other). Do the same for each arm (circles at wrists, elbows, shoulders). Basically, you are massaging in the natural shape of the muscles. Then do your behind (both cheeks at once is fine, circle in both directions), your torso (big circles in one direction then the other), your lower back, side body (fingers slide between the ribs, one side at a time), shoulders, and upper back as best you can. It is so worth taking the time to do this!
Be well, and be happy!