Owning Space in Our Practices

It’s mine, all mine!

 

In the past week or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about space and how we occupy space. For example, to me, what it means to “advance” in someone’s practice is that she is gaining a greater sense of the way her body moves and the space she takes up. I think that generally, we Westerners understand that we have muscles in our arms and legs, and our abs, if we have a six-pack (which is unnecessary), but we don’t have much sense of how our torso moves, at least until we hurt our backs.

I think that we, especially we women, are socialized to be small. We tend to stand and walk with our shoulders and chests collapsed inward, making ourselves smaller, less noticeable. I believe it’s a root chakra issue in our patriarchal society. Women are taught not to feel that we’re entitled to occupy spaces, literal and figurative, in our own society. I draw a lot of corollaries to this point–I think that uptalk, where declarative statements from women and girls still end in question marks, and the way we so often begin sentences with an apology for speaking, “I’m sorry, I was just thinking that if we approached the issue this way…” And, if you’re *horrors* a woman of some size, it’s all the worse. I think that large women take the most condemnation because we implicitly have the nerve to not be insignificant. We are irritatingly too big to ignore sometimes. How dare we. These issues, of course, are a few of the many core tenets of feminism and body love, and others do them far better justice than do I.

This all is not to say that the world doesn’t make men feel small. It certainly can, though likely in somewhat different ways, and that isn’t fun or good either.

And so, for the love of all that is holy, the yoga practice should be a physical and temporal space where we can be big. All of us. Even if we’re big in the rest of our lives. I don’t care. Roll out your mat and see how long of a stance you can hold. How does it feel in your feet? Your legs?

As a teacher, I talk a lot in my classes about what the torso or the spine is doing in every pose we do, because the pose is in the torso. Your legs and arms are there, sure, but I’m willing to argue that in yoga the limbs are working as props, assisting us to do the work of the practice in the muscles and tissues of the torso.

The sticky yoga mats that we use are a somewhat recent invention, and the article I read months ago (and now cannot find to save my life –EDIT: here it is!! Thank you, yogaoneblog!) points out that the ability to grip the mat easily with our feet changes the work of many postures, making them more about flexibility with a sticky mat, where traditionally without a mat, the posture was equally a test of strength. I also think about our yoga mats as demarcations of space. This division of my space on the floor from your space on the floor (and in the air above the floor–we roll out our mats and each have our rectangular tube of space that we own) is in some ways limiting, but I find it more freeing. My mat is an invitation to reach longer or higher, to be bigger, to use all the space I have.

As a student, lying in savasana, I’ve been invited to soften, relax, broaden (usually through the forehead). In my classes, I’ve taken to inviting my students to allow their bellies to soften, to relax, to spread. In this quantum of spacetime, where you are on your mat for these fleeting moments, you get the whole thing. Take it all up.

Meditation is Wonderful, and I Struggle With It Anyway

YogaDork posted a great piece about a meditation study, which shows that practicing meditation for only a few months produces noticeable changes in the gray (grey?) matter of the brain. I’ve read before that meditation can change your gene expression for the healthier, but I don’t know that the two are related, since I’m under the impression (perhaps incorrectly) that gene expression is a more long term process than the 8-week timeframe of the meditation program these folks did. So, seriously, if you were waiting for another, more conclusive study to tell you you should start a meditation program, here it is!

If you don’t know where to start or what to do, my favorite book about it is Pema Chodron’s Meditation: How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind, and my favorite guided meditations are from my friend, Suzanne Stephens–her CD is fabulous.

I, of course, have fallen off the meditating wagon *again,* and am yet again resolving to hop back on. I’m not always very good at taking my own advice, and I especially have trouble with things that are, frankly, kind of boring and without short-term payoffs. (The short term payoffs are why I like doing laundry–minimal effort but a nice pile of newly-clean things when I’m done.)

Some people have apps they really like that help with incorporating these sorts of practices into their weeks, but I have a Windows phone, and the app selection remains pretty sparse. Everything else about the phone, though, is great. Overall, I’m a fan. So I’m thinking I’ll try adding my meditation practice to my MapMyRide tracking. I find it especially helpful to plot out bike rides before I do them, so I have some sense of what I’m committing to before I do it, but maybe it can help me track other things too? (Not food, though. I’ve tried that in the past and found the whole experience to be just crazymaking.)

Circling back to recent discussions of gentleness and non-judging, I think it’s a mistake to beat ourselves up over not meditating (or doing yoga, or exercising as much as me meant to, or whatever). There’s a reason why we didn’t do it–likely because the setup was faulty. We didn’t put rewards in place or prioritize the time or do something else structural to make conditions favorable for the practice. Tracking my meditation would be a change in my reward structure–I like looking at a screen that pats me on the back for meditating for two hours a week (or whatever).

Are you a meditator? Do you want to be? What practices or resources have you found helpful in your journey?

 

 

Cheaper and Tastier to Make Than to Buy: Hummus

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It’s hummus, guys. It’s not very photogenic stuff. Good, though!

My husband is a hummus expert and purist and does not hold truck with subpar chickpea products.

I generally make the hummus we eat at home. And as a non-meat-eater, I eat a lot of hummus. It is the go-to thing everyone serves vegetarians and vegans. Sometimes I wonder if being vegetarian and just really loving hummus aren’t maybe just different sides of the same coin.

Speaking of really loving hummus, when you buy it at the store, it comes in those little 6 or 8-oz tubs, for like $4, and it’s often made with canola or soybean oil. A total processed food racket. ::heaves sigh::

So. Time to stop messing around and start making your own hummus. Here’s how (you will need a food processor, Vitamix, or similar):

Not Messing Around Hummus

  • 1 can chickpeas*
  • 1-2 cloves garlic
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • scant 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/2-1 tsp. ground cumin**
  • 1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. tahini (sesame seed butter. available in most grocery stores and health food stores.)
  • 1-3 tbsp. water

Peel the garlic and throw it in the food processor first. Pulse a couple of times to chop. Then drain and rinse the chickpeas and throw them into the food processor, along with the oil, tahini, lemon juice, cumin, and salt. Blitz the daylights out of it, and then taste and adjust the seasonings or lemon juice as you like. If you want to make it smoother and a little looser, blitz again and add water, a tablespoon at a time, until you have the desired consistency. Store in the fridge for up to a week.

*The flavor will be even better if you start with dry chickpeas, soak them overnight and cook till tender, either in a slow cooker for ~8 hours or on the stove. One can contains 1 1/2 cups of cooked chickpeas. Freeze any chickpeas you don’t use and pull them out later for another batch of hummus, or whatever you’d like.

**Cumin is traditional, but I like to add whatever spices speak to me at the time. My current favorite mix is to skip the cumin and add 1/2 tsp each of red pepper flakes, ground coriander, turmeric, and smoked paprika. Experiment as much as you’d like, but the original recipe is great too!

Late to the Resolution-Commitment-Intention Party

Wall, legs. Legs, wall.

Is it too late to make a resolution? Or set an intention for 2015? One of my favorite teachers, Anna Guest-Jelley of Curvy Yoga, picks a word to guide her every year. Now that we’ve gotten started on 2015, I’ve finally settled on my word–gentleness. I want to be gentle with myself this year, which is the same thing phrased as an intention or resolution.

I realized that I’ve made Gentleness a heading in my last several posts. I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the past few weeks, and I’ve decided to double down on being gentle and see what I can learn by going more deeply down this rabbit hole.

Gentleness and Fatigue

As a person with multiple sclerosis, fatigue is a part of my life. It’s more prominent in the winter, when it joins forces with seasonal affectiveness for a one-two punch of not having enough energy for life. Pushing through fatigue doesn’t work. It just makes it worse. Fatigue is like quicksand in this way. Also sometimes it feels like what I imagine quicksand might be like too. Pretending fatigue isn’t there and isn’t a thing is a great way to make it a bigger and more difficult thing to ignore, so I’m working on prioritizing. Which items on my to-do list can I get to today? Can I make space to rest? Is there a way to build rest into my day? Is there a relaxing way to do anything I need to do? Asking these questions helps me.

The other lovely thing for fatigue is yoga. When I don’t have any energy, it’s hard to face a very physical practice, so I try to start with Legs-Up-The-Wall, and then just do anything that feels good afterward. Or nothing. No judgment here. Sometimes a yoga practice that peaks at downward-facing dog and slows down from there is just the most delicious thing I could do. And sometimes the rest of my practice is a few easy poses lying on my back.

Gentleness and Judgment

I think that for most of us, judgment and expectations are just pervasive. I think that we internalize a lot of it from the culture around us, and the phrase that springs to mind is from Star Wars–judgment, like the Force, “surrounds us, and penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.” I think these expectations are kind of a societal glue that we use to demarcate separations between “us” and “them,” in many ways. This could be good or bad. Like the Force, hurr.

At this point, though, I’m working on being gentle with myself in the face of expectations. Fatigue sometimes limits how much I can accomplish in a give day or week, and I am trying to get better at being OK with this. I can’t fix it. Sometimes another cup of coffee will buy me another completed task, but sometimes there’s nothing in the world that would help. The judgments I’ve internalized say that I’m a failure for not getting those other five things done, or being behind on this or that project. A gentler way would be to say, it’s OK. I will do what I can tomorrow, and then the next day.

 

What are you working on for 2015? How are your resolutions or intentions coming? Are they going the way you expected, or have they morphed into something new?

Soup Weather

WP_20150112_004We moved to Albuquerque last June, and are just now finding out exactly how poorly insulated our apartment is. The windows are beautiful, but our heating bills have gone through the roof this winter. It hasn’t even been very cold!

So we lowered the temperature in the apartment a few degrees, hoping the next bill will be better. Practically, this means I’m cold. I wear sweatshirts and fuzzy socks inside.

Today, I made this soup for lunch, trying to incorporate everything I could think of that would make me feel warmer. Honestly, it’s working better than I would have thought.

Simple Warming Noodle Soup

Serves 2

1 small onion

1 carrot

2 big ribs of celery

half an 8-oz pkg mushrooms

5 small cloves of garlic

juice of half a lemon

salt & pepper

1 qt broth, any kind you like

noodles–I had leftover egg noodles from the other day, but use whatever you’ve got

warming additions:

1 tbsp minced fresh ginger

1/2 tsp turmeric

1/2 tsp smoked paprika

1/2  tsp  red pepper flakes

 

Chop onions, celery, carrot, and mushrooms, garlic, and ginger, if using, and throw in a medium pot. Add broth, a little at a time, enough to keep the veggies from sticking as they cook. When veggies are soft, add spices, then rest of broth. Raise heat to boil, then serve over noodles. Be warm.

Injury Prevention in Yoga

DEC_0453There has been a lot of talk n the yogaverse in the past year or so about yoga injuries. I think all this is good. You can certainly injure yourself practicing yoga. But then, yoga is also a modality and a practice that we look to for healing, often to help with healing injuries we’ve acquired elsewhere in our lives. And yoga is wonderful for that–for healing and nourishing us physically and emotionally.

There is a lot of detailed information on this subject–preventing injury in yoga–and I found it difficult to synthesize into a few items to strive for or to keep in mind in my practice and teaching. This is not, by any stretch, an exhaustive analysis of yoga injury prevention and all the emotional dimensions thereof, but there are two themes I return to over and over in my own thinking and my teaching.

Intentional Movement–No Rushing

This is where yoga overlaps with dance for me. The difference between a dancer’s movement and the somehow-less-dancey movement of those of us who try to replicate the dance, is all about intentional movement and moving from the core. In our yoga practice, we can do this by cultivating strength and awareness in our bellies and using that power center to move our bodies between postures, and to hold us up. Also, to practice moving with intention, slow. down. Use your muscles to draw your limbs up and down. As a teacher, I practice using words like “draw” or “lift,” rather than “sweep.” For me, “sweep” isn’t a muscle-driven action, it’s a marginally more graceful flinging or tossing. It is not a focus on the act of moving, and when we fling our limbs, or worse, our body weight, around our mat, I believe we risk injury.

So don’t hurry through your practice. Take your time. If you don’t have much time, set a timer and commit to being present in your body and on your mat for a few poses, rather that rushing through more poses faster and compromising your presence, intention, and muscle control.

This intentional movement practice has the added benefits of keeping our attention on our movement and our breath, building the mind-body connection we seek through yoga, and keeping our worldly cares and worries out. If we rush through our practice without paying much attention to our movement, we can spend the whole time keeping our minds out of our bodies and on our worries. Honestly, if you really need to get some exercise and space out while you do it, go for a walk. Or hop on an elliptical or a treadmill. Repetitive aerobic exercise is great for pondering. Yoga just isn’t the place for it.

Gentleness and Standing Up For Yourself

I believe that yoga practice should be a no pain-no pain endeavor. I emphatically denounce theories of yoga that hold that there is enlightenment or some sort of yogic goal to be reached by pushing through discomfort or pain.

I tell my students in class to aim for about 70% of the maximum physical effort they could expend in the poses, and to back off from any painful sensations. If you want to work harder, work on tuning in more with yourself. Can you feel more length in your spine? Can you find a bit of tension somewhere and release it? Work on cultivating ease and presence. There is nothing to gain by stretching the crap out of your hamstrings in an effort to touch your toes. Your toes don’t care.

Rather than pushing through discomfort, I encourage students to find the beginnings of discomfort–the feeling that they’re working around the edge of their comfort zone, and hang out there. Sit in the discomfort. Don’t try to change it, just observe it and allow it to be what it is. This is how we tune into our bodies and learn about ourselves. This is the yoga.

Be gentle with your body, and if someone suggests to you that you should push through to get deeper into the pose, my advice is to stand up for yourself by being where you are, not where anyone else suggests you ought to be. It’s your body. You know it best.

For More Information and Further Yoga Nerdery

I love this post of J Brown’s about the mind-body connection and yoga.

Jenni Rawlings is an expert on yoga alignment and wrote this great post on using the deep core–the transverse abdominus–in yoga.

Matthew Remski is an expert on yoga and ayurveda, and wrote a series of detailed, very well-researched and insightful posts that talk a lot about injury in yoga, What Are We Actually Doing In Asana?, which I’ve followed with great interest, and learned much from.

 

 

 

I was on TV!!

So, I was on TV the week after Thanksgiving, in a segment where I was graciously allowed to natter on about body positive yoga for three whole minutes! It took me till the other day to get my paws on the DVD and get it slapped up on youtube, but here it is, finally!

 

The TV spot was really cool. Everyone at the TV station was really nice and helpful and happy to do a few takes when I lost my train of thought. The studio was fun too–one side was set up as a living room, with a couch and a coffee table and stuff, and then in the middle there were the cameras. On the other side of the cameras was a kitchen set, presumably for cooking segments, so the cameras could stay in the middle and just turn around to film the living room or the kitchen.

The TV spot was a lot of fun to film, and thanks to the internet, now I can keep it forever!

 

The Real Yoga Revolution

I think the real yoga revolution is a quiet one. Literally. The athletic yoga classes–power, vinyasa, hot, etc.–are certainly calming and can feel wonderful if you have the energy for them.

What’s sticking in my mind, though, is something my teacher, Bernie, said in a Restorative Yoga training last spring, that practicing restorative yoga is revolutionary. It was incongruous, to say that this act of doing so little can rise to that much significance. The more I think about it, though, the more right I think Bernie is.

The quieter flavors of yoga–gentle, yin, restorative, and a few others–are revolutionary practices. I think that the yoga we have here in the West has been largely westernized–filtered through our collective fixations with exercise, burning calories, and being thin and beautiful. These slower practices burn very few calories, and are often only a little more active than a nap.

I’m so inclined to follow up here with a “but! look at all the amazing benefits you can reap from these things!” because that’s how my head goes. I’m not going to list the benefits of restorative yoga here. Or yin. Or gentle yoga. You can google them as easily as I can.

These practices are revolutionary because taking the time out of our day or week for ourselves, to rest, is just not done. It’s weird. What are we doing? Shouldn’t we be getting stuff done?

My bathroom isn’t clean. The laundry is piling up. I have a dozen calls to return and a pile of paperwork to slog through…

Quiet yoga doesn’t care. Quiet yoga won’t check anything off your list. By prioritizing this quiet and rest, we take the position that we don’t need to Do All The Things to be worthwhile. It’s OK for us to not do anything sometimes. Practicing quiet yoga says that we are more than a collection of accomplishments. We don’t lose value as people if we choose to do less. Maybe to relax on Monday evenings.

Quiet yoga says, what would happen if we stepped off the hamster wheel and only got back on when we felt like it? What would that be like?

Easy Seasonal Self-Care: Winter

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Just because this pomegranate is in season does not mean I have to like it.

We hear a lot about the importance of taking care of ourselves, and honestly, I think this is a good thing. I think that as Americans we value external accomplishments too highly and value the simple, quiet, nourishing things too little.

Personally, I’ve found a couple of challenges with the common self-care recommendations that make them a very high bar for me to clear–self-care can be expensive, but it can also be boring. Either of these is a problem.

Additionally, I am a firm believer that our needs for nourishment intellectually, emotionally, and physically fluctuate with the seasons. In the summer, we have a lot of energy and in the winter we have less. We crave different foods during different times of the year, and other patterns may change too, with our work or sleep or other activities.

So, I’ve put together a few of the items I’m working on in my own self-care for the winter, which are all cheap, fun, and feel sooooooo good:

Sugar-Oil Scrub

A friend of mine told me about this ten years ago, and I still see people spending money on little pots of this stuff from fancy stores. Wherever you live, your skin is likely drier in the winter than the summer. To return moisture to your skin, make a batch of this scrub and rub your whole body with it before you bathe or shower, as often as necessary. Skip your head and delicate undercarriage, but try to get everywhere else you can reach.

To assemble: Pour 1/3-1/2 cup of regular old granulated sugar into a mug, then pour a few tablespoons of cooking oil over it and stir with a fork until the mixture reaches a gloppy or pasty consistency. Any oil you cook with is OK for this–food-grade oil is certainly high enough quality to apply topically. I like extra-virgin olive oil, but coconut oil is nice too. Take it to the bathroom and scrub away. Bathe or shower as normal with soap to remove the excess oil. Enjoy your fabulous soft, exfoliated skin.

Movement

Our exercise habits often change in the winter–less outdoor walking, jogging, hiking, cycling, and more indoor exercise. Are you getting at least two sessions of exercise into your week? Do you like what you’re doing? Is it serving you? Take a few minutes and poke around online–look for some new ways you can work exercise into your week. Maybe try something new. I’m making a point of taking more Zumba classes now that it’s cold. The loud music and challenging dancing is the perfect warming energy for me this time of year. What’s your favorite winter exercise?

Winter Salads

I know. It’s soup season. And casseroles and carbs. But it’s also January, and the produce we love is almost all out of season. I follow a mainly plant-based diet, and winter can be a tough time for herbivores. So here are my two go-to salads this time of year, highlighting veggies we can all find all winter (a food processor with slicing and shredding blades take both of these from annoying to easy):

Vinegar Cole Slawthis one on Serious Eats is the best coleslaw I’ve ever had in my life and renewed my faith in cabbage, but this simpler one from Racheal Ray is the one I do more often at home.

Carrot Salad— I don’t have a go-to recipe for this, so here’s a rough one of what I do:

  • 1-2 lbs carrots, peeled and shredded
  • 1 big or 2 small apples, chopped
  • 1 can crushed pineapple or pineapple tidbits in juice
  • couple handfuls of raisins/craisins/dried currants
  • chopped toasted nuts, any variety
  • extra virgin olive oil and cider/sherry/balsamic vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste

Dump your carrots, apples, nuts, and raisins into a big mixing bowl. Drain the juice from the can of pineapple into a measuring cup, and dump the pineapple pieces in the bowl. In the mixing bowl, add ~ 1-2 tablespoons each of oil and vinegar and whisk to combine. Dump dressing over salad and fold it all together, adding a little salt and pepper to taste.

Gentleness

Maybe the best thing we can do for ourselves is to be gentle and forgiving. It’s OK to have less energy in the winter, and to want to sleep more. It’s even OK to put on a little extra insulation around the middle. We are humans, and the rhythms of our bodies cycle with the world around us. This is a feature, not a bug.

How are you going to nourish yourself this winter?

 

8 Tips to Reach Your Yoga Goals in 2015

So, 2015 is here. The parties are over and everyone seems to have a lot of energy and determination to devote to all the new wonderful projects we’ve got planned for the year.

Is yoga part of your goals? Incorporating yoga into your life can be a rewarding part of resolutions to get healthier, improve fitness, reduce stress, combat fatigue, and/or cultivate space and ease in your hectic life.

As a lifelong flakey person, I’ve learned that the difference between the good habits I keep and the lofty goals that never make it to habitude is that the habits are things that I’ve made easy and convenient. The goals that are merely inexpensive, fun, and good for me don’t make the cut. Convenience is absolutely imperative.

So, you noble new yoga practitioner, how do you make your yoga practice something you stick with?

  1. Find a nearby class–look for yoga studios, but also health clubs, community centers and churches. Tons of fabulous yoga teachers make arrangements with churches and community centers, so definitely look for those too. You want to find a place that is close to your home, office, or somewhere else you have to be frequently, like your kid’s school. If it’s a pain to get to, you won’t go.
  2. Skip the Groupons and find a class you can afford at the regular price. I say skip the Groupons because those deals you buy are temporary. We’re talking about longterm habits, and finding a place and a teacher that you love, are affordable for you and easy for you to get to, are more important than getting the first 10 classes for $4 apiece.
  3. Try several teachers and classes out. Yoga comes in many different styles and levels of…athleticism. So do yoga teachers. Look for a class with a description that sounds like a good fit for your goals–a sweaty power yoga class late in the evening will probably not help you wind down and get a good night’s rest! Also, if you try a class out and the teacher doesn’t explain things in a way that makes sense to you, try another teacher or class. I can speak from experience that even if the class doesn’t sound like a great fit for you, if the teacher is wonderful, you may love it anyway. Personally, I have no great love of hot yoga, but there was one teacher in a studio by my previous office who I just loved, no matter the temperature.
  4. Be intentional about the trappings. Wear comfortable clothes you can move in without all your bits tumbling out. There is no compelling reason to pay $100 for them. Find something that works for you. Sweats, leggings, and pajamas are all ok.
  5. Get a mat you like. I wrote a post a few months ago about what to look for in yoga mats. Most places have loaner mats you can borrow or rent, which is cool, but you’ll be happier long term if you get your own. The loaner ones are generally either the cheapest the studio could find or the ones students leave behind and never claim. Try your class with the loaner mats once or twice and then buy your own, keeping in mind whether the floor feels hard (look for one with more cushioning), whether you felt like you were sliding around (look for more traction), and how much you’ll have to lug the mat around to work, walking to the studio, etc. (look for less heavy).
  6. Use the props. They’re there to help. Tons of yogis, both beginners and experienced, avoid props because they want the class to be more challenging or they think they should be able to wrangle their bodies into the “full expression” of poses on their own. This is the ego talking. When you set up your mat, grab a block or two and a strap. Every time. You won’t always use them, but your practice will benefit if you experiment with them. Props will help you do poses without sacrificing alignment, and good alignment is the difference between poses that are effective and poses that are not effective. You will make more progress faster in your practice and you will feel more vibrant after your class if you are more strict and deliberate with your alignment. It’s worth noting, also, that you can use props to make poses more difficult too. They don’t always make things easier–just different.
  7. Be gentle with yourself. Physically and emotionally. Yoga is not easy, and it does not get easier if you do it longer. There are always more difficult things to work on. Ten years ago, I used to practice along with “Inhale,” a yoga show on the Oxygen channel with Steve Ross, who became one of my favorite teachers. Steve would say (there were a lot of reruns, so I heard all his monologues over and over) that your practice is perfect because you’re doing it. Success in yoga is about showing up, in your class and for yourself. In your practice, look for an attitude of exploration, not pushing hard. If you’re in an active class, by all means make an effort and do some work, but yoga is not the place to push your body to its limits. Being gentle with yourself emotionally means not comparing your pose to the person’s next to you. Yours is perfect because it’s yours. Theirs is perfect too. If you’re exhausted and skip a class, you haven’t failed at yoga. Being gentle with yourself means going back. Practice again.

Congratulations on deciding to do new healthy things for yourself in 2015. You’re awesome. You’ve got this.