Friday, December 7, 2012

A Skinny Girl Weighs in on Weight and Body Image

Here's are couple simple questions to see if you have a healthy attitude toward weight and body image:

You see a thin, athletic girl running down the road. You think, a) Doesn't she know she's thin enough already, give her a doughnut. b) Wow, I wish I were her, but I'll never be. c) Good for her, she's got goals that aren't just about weight and she's working hard toward them.  

You notice an overweight woman in your yoga class who happens to be very flexible. You think a) Honey, it'll take a lot more than yoga to lose that weight. b) Wow, she's really brave to be here doing poses like that. I don't think I'd have the guts to show up if I looked like that. c) Good for her, she's obviously not going to let body image stand in the way of good health. She's working with the body she has in a positive way.

OK, so if you didn't answer "c" to both questions you may, like so many people, have some negativity toward weight and body image.

The above statements are all generalizations that I've heard as a yoga teacher about weight and body image. I've also noticed a lot of interesting posts on Facebook lately relating to weight and fitness. Some are meant to inspire and some are obviously backlash against society's portrayal of beauty. Some are healthy and others are downright scary.

For instance, one post shows a rhino running on a treadmill with a poster of a unicorn next to it. The rhino appears to be trying to run herself into the shape of a unicorn, something she can never be. Another shows Marilyn Monroe with her dimensions list on it, noting that she was not a size 0. Unfortunately, it's not the famous photo of her lifting weights.

For the record I've never been overweight and I'm genetically predisposed to being naturally thin. I wear size 0.Yep, I'm that skinny girl that everyone hates.

I'm also that skinny girl that everyone judges. If I run down the street, it's assumed I'm trying to make myself thinner than I am. If I eat a salad, it's assumed I'm anorexic. I'm not exaggerating here in the least. These are all true things that have been said to me. Just as overweight people are judged when they eat dessert and take the elevator, thin people are judged when they don't.

What I'm trying to say here is that we are all in this together. No matter what your size you will never land in that imaginary land called "Accepted by Everyone." You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. Let go of size and focus on health and well being for a change.

Let's get this straight once and for all; fitness and exercise are not about weight-loss. If that were the case, I'd never bother to get off the couch because I wouldn't have to. Weight-loss can be a bi-product of exercise, a side effect if you will.

Sometimes it's not. In my case I gain weight and finally have hips from running. Some people find that though they exercise till they're blue in the face, the scale doesn't budge. There's a joke that goes, "I spent a whole month at the gym but all I lost was a month." But it doesn't mean that exercise didn't do them any good. Too many people refuse to make an effort to exercise because they claim they don't care about being skinny, as if that were the only benefit of exercise.

Pick a disease, any disease, from cancer to mental health and I'll bet you that exercise can either help prevent it or lessen it's effects. Exercise makes you feel good both mentally and physically. When I finish a run I feel like I can take on any challenge. I feel calm and centered in myself. When I practice yoga I feel I'm offsetting the muscle tightening effects of running. I slow down and care for my body in a more gentle way with yoga. 

Exercise, especially yoga, can help with body image issues too. Yoga teaches you how to work with your body and not against it. It teaches you to love and care for it and give it the respect it deserves. It shows you that though you might not be a particular size, you are still capable of moving well and have physical and mental strength.

As a yoga instructor, I've seen plenty of heavy people who are much more flexible than their lighter counterparts and stronger too. It's fun to watch a heavy person hold plank while a thinner person struggles beside them. I've also seen fragile looking people accomplish challenging poses with ease and grace. It just goes to show that the "package" or body type doesn't dictate the capability of the student.

Exercise takes guts. It takes a willingness to get comfortable being uncomfortable. It also takes a certain amount of self acceptance to say, "This is the body I've been given and I'm going to take care of it, not force it into a shape it was never intended to be." It takes dedication and commitment to your whole well-being, not just your butt and gut. Accept your body but don't neglect it just because it's not the body you want. 

And while we're at it, let's stop judging each other and ourselves. Let's get rid of this culture of us vs. them, athletic vs. curvy or whatever you want to call it. We all need support and kindness from each other and ourselves if we are truly going to be a healthy society.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Stinky Yoga Thursdays and A Few Other Things

I just noticed the date of my last post and saw that it's definitely been a while since I've updated this blog. Purely unintentional I assure you. I've had many great blog ideas and thoughts but they were all swept away by the demands of my day to day schedule and one trip to Germany.

Yes, even yoga teachers get too busy to update their blogs. If you picture my life as all green tea and long, relaxing afternoons of yoga practice, I'm going to have to burst that bubble for you. My husband found himself in hot water the last time he made fun of my work by saying, "What do you mean busy? All you do all day is stretch and breathe?"

I'm afraid that as long as people have stress, desk jobs and small children, I will be busy. Not that it's a bad thing mind you. I love when people walk in stressed, aching and grumpy and leave feeling relaxed and refreshed. I love that I get to be a part of their healing process. However, it means this blog might get neglected from time to time. Sorry blog!

So since I'm here and I have a lot I want to share, I'm going to use this entry as a boilerplate to update you on some interesting things around the studio lately.

Recently, a friend of mine asked me if I was familiar with barre workouts. Nope, I hadn't heard of them. She suggested I Google it and search YouTube for some examples. I did and realized that it was very yogaesque and in fact I had been incorporating many of the exercises into my classes already.

These past few years I've been adding more and more movement to my yoga in an effort to warm up the body at the beginning of class and also strengthen different muscle groups in new ways. The Iyengar style can be a bit challenging for the body since often it launches into the "big work" right from the get-go. I find a little movement can help ready the muscles and make the poses easier. Adapt or die as they say.

What I also found appealing about barre work is that it focuses on core and hip strength, two things that we tend to lack as a society. In general, most people have overly tight hip flexors and weak glute muscles. Combined with a weak core, it can reek all kinds of havoc on the lower back.

So I've decided to give it a go. On Wednesday at 6 PM, I'm offering a yoga-barre fusion class using chairs and the built in ledge around the studio wall as a barre. If you have issues with either your hips or you lower back or just want a little more of a workout with your yoga, come check it out. The worst that can happen is you hate it, right?

Speaking of lower backs, I've been given the opportunity to be a presenter at the Northwest Yoga Conference this February at the Lynnwood Convention Center. On February 10 at noon, I'll be leading a workshop on yoga for lower back care. Come learn how to prevent and help alleviate lower back issues through yoga. It's been suggested that just about everyone will at some point experience lower back pain during their life, so everyone could use this workshop.If you decide to attend the conference, please use me as a reference. I really appreciate it.

I realize that was a bit of shameless self-promotion, but I've been told that if I don't promote myself, no one else will.

Since I'm shamelessly promoting myself now, I wanted to let you know about another class I've added to the schedule or rather, got talked into teaching. (I'm a big pushover, I know.) On Thursdays at 9:30 AM, I'm offering a new yoga class for those who like their yoga in the morning. It's an all-levels-welcome class with the understanding that it's OK to come to class sweaty from your pre-yoga jog, elliptical workout, etc.

Many of those who requested the class mentioned that they like the idea of being able to get their cardio in before class. I said that I'm fine with that as long as everyone is all right with me coming to class post-run as well since Thursdays are one of my scheduled running days. Perhaps we will have to call this one "Stinky Yoga."

So whether I see you at Stinky Yoga Thursdays, at Barre Yoga Fusion or the Northwest Yoga Conference, I do hope to see you soon. I'm always here if you need me unless I'm in Germany or other places far flung of course. And hopefully, I will be able to do a better job of updating this blog from now on.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Trending now: Yoga

I must admit that when I receive an email from a potential student who says they've never done yoga before I'm a bit skeptical. Really? How did you manage that?

It seems yoga is everywhere these days. From iPhone apps to yoga pants as the latest must-have fashion attire for teens, yoga is almost unavoidable. Even the Huffington Post and the New York Times have special sections dedicated to all things yoga.

Now, if that weren't enough, I read recently that J.C. Penny's is going to begin offering yoga classes in some of their stores. Obviously, it's with the intent of luring in shoppers. Other yoga specific retailers, like Lululemon, have already made use of this idea. For Lululemon and its like it makes sense, but J.C. Penny's? I'm not so sure.

Yet, the presence of such classes and the fact that you can buy a yoga mat at the grocery store, shows that yoga has moved out the realm of counter-cultural hippie practice, to a high-end, celebrity-inspired craze, and now yoga for the masses.

As a person that tends to shun fads and pop-culture to the point of I won't do something because everyone else is, I wonder how long yoga can maintain this level of popularity before it fizzles out? Maybe when Walmart starts offering classes too we'll have our answer.

More importantly, what is the benefit of yoga as a fad? I suppose it gets people to try it who might not otherwise do so. When something is as popular as yoga it is much more accessible than when it is esoteric.

For those of you old enough, remember when the first cell phones came out? If you saw someone use one you assumed they were either very rich or very important. As one comedian joked, "Who are you going to call on that thing? The president?" Now everyone has a cell phone and it's no big deal. The same could be said of yoga. The mystique has been pealed back and we realize it's not so scary after all.

Still, it worries me a bit that yoga is so trendy because its quality can begin to be eroded by the rush to capitalize on its popularity. With so many yoga class options available it's necessary to use discernment to choose a class that is right for you.

Not all yoga is the same and not all yoga is good yoga. I've taken free classes that have taught me things that I've incorporated into my own teaching and paid lots of money for others that have made me cringe with disbelief. It takes a good deal of experience and knowledge to avoid potential injuries and frustrations that can come from practicing yoga improperly.

I'm not one of those yoga-purists who complains that the westernization of yoga has corrupted it. In fact, I think westernization of yoga has been good for it to a certain extent. As I said before, yoga is now much more accessible and available to the public than it was even when I first started 15 years ago. And this modernization has moved yoga away from some of the more overtly religious components of it and back to a more health and wellness focus that everyone can benefit from.

Another benefit of westernization is that there is a greater level of expertise among teachers now. When I first started teaching ten years ago, very little was required in the way of training. If you had even a small amount of training you were set. Now, most places require a minimum of 200 hours of training just to teach basic yoga classes and 500 hours for more advanced or specialized classes.

However, this training requirement has been shifted from total hours allowed from multiple schools and sources to 200 hours from just one school. This means less freedom for teachers to explore various training courses at different schools and instead commit their time (and money) to just one. I've noticed this also seems to mean fewer shorter courses for continuing education in favor of these longer complete courses.

Obviously there are pros and cons to both.

I myself am a piecemeal-teacher in that my trainings are from different schools and even from different two different styles. While the hours total up, under the new system they don't count. (Although, since I've been teaching this long I'm grandfathered in.)

As I've evolved as a teacher over these past ten years, my understanding of what it takes to teach yoga has changed. I feel I've benefited from taking trainings from many different teachers and studios rather than just one. It's given me a broader perspective of what yoga is and how it should be practiced. Besides, the training doesn't necessarily make the teacher, it just creates a foundation.

I can honestly say when I taught my first class, I didn't really know what I was doing. But over time, I gained wisdom that can only come from experience. No amount of training can really prepare you for your first class when your students look expectantly on you to guide them safely through their practice.Only putting that training into practice over and over will do that.

Just as it's important for teachers to be properly trained, it's important for students to choose their yoga wisely. When you find the class or classes that work best for you, you'll do more than just jump on the bandwagon, you'll buck the trend and stick with it.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Phone-y Yoga

The web has been atwitter this past week with a story of a yoga teacher fired from her post at Facebook over a dirty look she gave a student for texting during class. Not just texting during class, but texting in the middle of a challenging pose. (Sounds like a new pose is in the works, Half Moon Text?)

As a fellow instructor who also teaches yoga classes as part of workplace wellness programs, I can certainly identify with the instructor's plight. After all, it is our job to keep students safe during class and help them stay focused. Not to mention, no instructor wants to feel ignored while teaching. It's probably the most insulting thing you can do to an instructor.

I actually have had nightmares where I'm trying to teach and the class decides to disregard me and do their own thing.

What's probably the most shocking isn't that the student was texting in class but that the teacher was fired for scowling at the student. Who hasn't been in class when someone's phone has rang or seen another student leave class to take a call or text? We accept it as part of our culture now. For better or worse, cell phones are here to stay.

The real question is how to we navigate such a world full of ever increasing distractions. We come to yoga to take a break from the rat race. Yet, as soon was we arrive we worry we might have missed something and grow anxious to get back to the real world.

I often joke with students who come frantically racing through the door that it seems a shame to have to rush to go relax. Isn't there something ironic about that? Hurry up to slow down. And when we try, we can't do it.

I could go on a nice, long tirade about how technology is ruining our inner peace and blah, blah, blah. But it's all been said before. Plenty has been written and preached about mindfulness and boundaries.We know the problem. Most stressed out people are acutely aware that they are stressed out. They know they need to relax. And, dang it, they are trying!

That's just it, they are trying. Relaxation becomes one more item on the list of things that need to get done. Finish the project, respond to those emails, pick-up the kids, eat your fruits and veggies, relax and breathe. A world drowning in stress doesn't need anymore empty platitudes about remembering to breathe.

Maybe it's time to admit that yoga in our hurried and harried world has become more of a band-aid, and not the panacea for the fear and striving eating away at our souls. Maybe we need something more? Something divine perhaps?

Let me just say this: As a person who has battled anxiety for many years, even to the point of deciding to quit a high stress job and teach yoga, yoga helped, but didn't make the problem go away. No amount of breathing, positive thinking or self-help was able to fix the brokenness in me. It wasn't until I tumbled head-first into the waiting arms of divine grace that I was able to find a lasting peace. A peace that transcends all understanding because I know now that I matter. I am loved.

Even if my students don't listen to me and text in class. Though you still might get a dirty look if you do.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Working with pain: a natural part of the healing process

Physical pain is an inevitable part of life. As my husband likes to say, "Pain lets you know you're still alive." More than that, pain lets you know how you've been living. You can have pain from both overuse and under-use of your body. Either way, pain is usually a good indicator that something is amiss in your body.

Yoga students often ask me what they should do when the feel pain during a particular pose and what it means. There's a variety of answers to this question. The main thing is to determine whether the pain is just discomfort or potentially damaging to the body.

Usually, discomfort comes in the form of strain or an achy feeling in the muscles that are being stretched or strengthened in a pose. This kind of pain is normal and signals that you are at the "edge" of the pose. Translation: you shouldn't push any farther in the pose because you are hitting your body's boundary.

Sharp pain, shooting pain or the feeling that something is about to tear is damaging pain. If you feel this kind of pain you should stop right away and come out of the pose. It could mean that you are misaligned or you aren't ready for the pose. Often a simple adjustment or modification is needed to make the pose safe and accessible for you.

But what if you are dealing with an injury as often is the case with many yoga students? Unfortunately, there's no rule of thumb for healing. Everyone heals at their own pace and depending on the type of injury and some injuries can become chronic. Joints and bones take longer than soft tissue because of the lack of blood flow to these areas.

In most cases, when an injury first happens it's best to rest it for a few days at least and then see how it feels. Depending on the severity, a little bit of rest might be all that's needed. However, there will come a time when you will want (and need) to gradually easy back into activity again. You will need to regain your range of motion and strength in your injured body part, all of which yoga offers which makes it a good starting point.

Pain will be a part of the healing process. Learning to work with it is essential. The fear of pain is often what holds us back. Just as in a healthy yoga practice you will experience discomfort and have to decide if it's time to keep going or stop, you will face the same decision with an injured yoga practice. The sooner you make peace with pain and accept it, the easier it will be to decide if your pain is helping you heal or hurting you more.

This isn't license to ignore pain and do it anyway. That's even more counterproductive as leaving an injury alone too long. Getting better involves a healthy balance between pain tolerance and pain avoidance.

As I write this, I'm recovering from a bout of bursitis in my knee from running. I've rested and done yoga poses to help strengthen my knee for almost three weeks now. It seems to be working but today it was time to run again, albeit slowly and not as far. Yes, it hurt some, but it was manageable. I could walk without limping afterward which is a good sign that I didn't overdo it. I knew that to run without pain was expecting too much as was expecting to run my usually speed and distance. This was probably the hardest part of starting again.

And so it goes with yoga. There will come a time to push a bit more to help the recover process along but don't expect it to be pretty. Your downward dog might not look like it did pre-injury. It most likely won't feel that way either. The point is to try and see how it goes. Give yourself permission to stop if you need to and go slowly. Lose those expectations and just see where you're at. Then you can decide to go for more or if it's still too early and you need to modify or need more rest.

But try...

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

New York City Yoga

A week ago, I had my first taste of yoga in New York City. Not that we don't have some wonderful yoga studios here on the west coast, especially in the Seattle area, but New York is after all New York. They have just about everything there including what I imagine will be a hot new trend: anti-gravity yoga.

Move over Hot Yoga, you are about to be displaced by yoga practiced three feet off the floor in what are known as "hammocks." Hammocks are actually large pieces of soft but sturdy fabric that are suspended from the ceiling. They are wide enough to lay completely flat in Savasana, but compact enough to allow students to hang upside down in cobbler's pose.

While the poses aren't much more physically challenging than in a normal yoga class, they are more mentally challenging. Anti-gravity yoga is an excellent way to confront any fears of being trapped or heights. At the end of the class I commented to the instructor that it was definitely an exercise in trusting yourself. She agreed and said, "It's not that you can't physically do the poses, it's that you have to get past any mental blocks toward them."

In case your wondering, no, I don't plan on introducing anti-gravity yoga in my studio anytime soon. It would cost too much to reinforce the ceiling and yoga practiced on the floor has enough challenges to last a lifetime.

Besides anti-gravity yoga, I had an opportunity to take a traditional Iyengar class at the Iyengar Institute of New York. It had been a long time since I had attended such a class just as a student and not as a teacher at a training. While the instructor was great and very knowledgeable, I walked out of class feeling a bit disillusioned. Was that it? Just structure and correct positioning?

At the same studio where I took the anti-gravity class, (Om Factory) I also took a Vinyasana class and found it more to my liking. In fact, the instructor's method was more like mine. Her focus was not just on doing the poses correctly but on enjoying yoga.

This experience left me wondering if I could still call myself an Iyengar teacher? While I loved the style when I first started practicing, now I find it almost too ridged and devoid of joy. I've heard it said that the Iyengar style is much like tuning your instrument but never playing it. I'm beginning to believe it's true.

I'm thankful to the Iyengar style for teaching me the correct body alignment in the poses and the use of props to make the poses more accessible. If you are going to work with your body to change its shape and tone it's essential to do it correctly.

That said, alignment isn't everything. Putting it altogether and making not just a practice but an art is the true beauty of yoga. Yoga is about balance and harmony of the mind and body. To be so focused an alignment that everything else is pushed aside is to miss out on that beauty.

Conversely, to whip through the poses, quickly and haphazardly, is dangerous and can be stressful. Yoga wasn't meant to be a cardio-exercise. Run, walk, swim or ride a bike for aerobic exercise. Yoga should be done slower and more deliberately than what is necessary for a good cardio workout.

I suppose I should have seen my departure from Iygengar coming a while ago when I stared gravitating to Anusara and therapeutic yoga classes. Anusara was developed out of the Iyengar style but has more flow and heart to it. There's still precision in the poses and the use of props, but to me it feels like it all comes together better in Anusara.

So where does this leave me as an instructor? What style do I teach? I'm not sure I've decided that yet, but for now it's a blend of Iyengar, Anusara, therapeutic yoga, pilates and anything else I've picked up along the way. Almost ten years of teaching yoga has taught me that I don't have to dedicated to one particular style. Sometimes it's better to glean the best from all styles, embracing the philosophy of, "If it works, use it. If not, throw it out."

I guess I'm not as "Type A" as I used to be.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Drawing from the Science of Yoga

You may have heard by now of a book causing a stir in the yoga world called The Science of Yoga by William Broad. I thought it might be a good idea to give it read and decide for myself whether it had merit or not. Far from arousing my objections, the book actually made me feel justified in several of my practices as a yoga teacher. (See me patting myself on the back here.)

For instance, Broad writes about the hidden stroke danger of some poses, especially shoulderstand and headstand. While I admit I wasn't aware of this danger before, I had given up practicing shoulderstand a few years ago because it kept giving me headaches afterwords. Besides it creates extreme neck flexion and the backs of our necks are already overstretched from things like driving and computer work. It never seemed to me like a good idea to add to it through yoga.

I do believe, however, that shoulderstand does have many benefits for the body such as lowering blood pressure and heart rate. A few years ago I was shown a simple alternative that just about everybody can do safely. It involves placing a block up under the hips and then elevating the legs. It's much easier to get into and it comes with the added benefit of helping to balance the sacrum.

As for headstand, I still practice it because I enjoy it. But I don't hold it quiet as long as is usually recommended in Iyengar classes where 10 minutes is expected at the advanced levels. In fact, I'm a little worried about being able to keep up in some of the classes I wish to take at an Iyengar studio in New York during my trip there in May. I guess I'll have to practice what I preach and let go of expectations. (And maybe not mention that I'm a yoga teacher.)

The book also pointed out (to many people's dismay) that there's isn't much evidence that yoga is cardio-exercise. I've never thought that it should be. I think today we are too focused on multitasking and getting as much done in as little time as possible. We want to make something that is great for strengthening the body, especially the core, and for creating healthy flexibility, and make it into aerobic exercise so we can have a fitness trifecta. I think this is part of the reason fast paced styles of yoga have emerged promising it all.

For me, the faster the class moves the less relaxing it is. It's also challenging to make sure that you are properly aligned in the poses which can lead to injury. If I want cardio benefits I'll go run. I fell in love with yoga because it slowed me down and helped me learn to unwind.

Some may argue that Billows-breath and Shining Skull breath can create cardio benefits such as increase lung capacity.  It's possible but I find the dizziness and nervousness that accompany these rapid styles of breathing to do more harm than good. Broad sites a few cases of students who actually collapsed a lung as a result. He also mentions that instead of increasing your oxygen levels what you are actually doing is decreasing your carbon dioxide levels which can result in dizziness and even blackouts. The bottom line here is you are still going to need to do some form of aerobic exercise such as walking, swimming, cycling etc. in addition to yoga for complete physical fitness.

I'm writing all this not to show what a great yoga teacher I am and how my teaching aligns with science, rather the importance of following your instincts and listening to your body. The way that I practice and teach, the things I do or avoid, are mostly because they either benefited or bothered me in some way.

I couldn't have told you until I read the book that strokes were associated with shoulderstand, or that rapid breathing depletes your carbon dioxide levels. All I knew was they didn't feel good to me and so I stopped practicing them.

No matter how many benefits are associated with a particular exercise, even yoga, it's a mute point if your body objects. Chances are there's a good reason something doesn't feel good. Don't ignore that.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

What's with all the women doing yoga?

I've always found being female challenging and sometimes unappealing. I think there's something inherently wrong with our culture's view of women.

No I'm not using my yoga blog for some sort of political, feminist rant about how women are oppressed and blah blah. If you'll bear with me while I go off topic for a moment, I'll get back to yoga in a bit. (OK, deep breath, and relax. It's not what you think.)

International Women's Day (today, March 8), recent political events and a book I'm reading called "Captivating" by John and Stasi Eldridge have my mind churning about the meaning of femininity and how it seems that society's understanding of it is limited to put it lightly. In fact, my understanding of it has been all wrong since I was a little girl.

At an early age I rejected dresses, dolls and pink in favor of sandboxes, tree-forts and anything blue. I can't say that I truly understood the dynamics of gender then, but to me it seemed girls got the short end of the stick. Saddle me with the responsibility of a child/doll at age four, pretend clean the house and wear clothes that restrict certain kinds of movement? I don't think so! Let me outside, NOW!

Yet as I grew older the idea of the power woman who ran corporations and ate men for lunch didn't seem right either. This "us versus them" mentality among some women was also off-putting to me. Some of my best friends growing up were guys and I never felt uncomfortable in the company of men or oppressed by them.

I don't think either of these two views is accurate, in fact they are extreme. As a women I don't want to be relegated to the kitchen and motherhood, nor do I want to claw my way up a corporate ladder just to prove that I can. I think like most women I looking for a more balanced, harmonious approach to being a woman in this world.

Enter yoga.

Many articles have been written about the popularity of yoga among women. Women seem to flock to yoga despite that it was originally created by men for men. Why is that?

Yoga's ability to create balance between strength and flexibility and it's centering qualities seem made for women living in a society of imbalances. There's an innate harmony between power and surrender in yoga, effort and ease, activity and rest. These are qualities specific to women as well. We can be strong and beautiful, warriors and princesses. It's when we choose one side over the other that we end up out of whack and frustrated.

Physically, yoga helps create long, lean muscles, not bulky ones, but muscles still the same. These are the kind favored among women. We don't really want to look like He-man but we do want to have muscles, noticeable ones. Yet we don't want to sacrifice flexibility for them. We want to be strong but graceful.

We also want an exercise method that let's us honor and accept our bodies. Too much of what women are  told about their bodies is that they are somehow inadequate and need to be fixed. Yoga says, "You're OK just as you are." Yoga works for the body type you have rather than suggesting that your body type needs to change.

Mentally, yoga helps slow the worried, hurried female mind. Unfortunately, we women tend to be worriers and we tend to be overburden with all of life's demands. We tend also to have stress from both work and home to contend with. An hour's break filled with relaxation is heavenly for the women trying to straddle both aspects of her nature.

All this is not to say that men don't value the same things or can't benefit from yoga in the same way. More and more men are realizing that yoga isn't just for chicks. In that way yoga creates harmony not just in ourselves but among each other. Men and women can practice together and share interesting insights into each others worlds. We realize that the genders are both different and the same in many ways and that's OK. 

And since yoga fosters a non-competitive atmosphere, us verse them attitudes are more easily dropped. We don't have to feel threatened by each other as men and women. Nor do women have feel threatened by each either. We see that we all have struggles and challenges no matter our gender, size or shape.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The art of listening to your body

Anyone who has been to one of my classes lately has probably seen the bandages on my feet and heard the tale of woe... blisters. It's getting to the point where it's almost embarrassing to talk about now as I'm sure everyone is sick of hearing about it. For weeks I've suffered from these annoying things and it's all because I committed myself to training for a half marathon in April.

Today as I look outside at the pouring rain, I'm actually thankful for it. It's less tempting to run on feet that need healing time when the weather isn't gorgeous as it has been this past week. It can rain for the next two weeks for all I care, because that's about how long it's going to take to heal.

Yet there's a bigger lesson here I realize than just learning to back off of my running when my feet hurt. How often have I said in class "Listen to your body, honor its boundaries"? More importantly, what does it mean to listen to your body? What are body boundaries? These are the questions every yoga student has to answer at some point if they wish to have an effective practice.

The boundaries of your body aren't just the things you can and can't do. Too often students look at a pose and without even trying it say, "Oh, I don't think I'll ever be able to do that." The fact is we don't know what our boundaries are until we bump up against them. (The operative word here is bump, not slam through them.)

In my case, I didn't know that I would get severe blisters from running until I pushed my mileage past 10k. It doesn't mean that I plan to drop out of the race because of them. But it does mean that I need to take time to heal and then take more precautions in the future. 

In yoga practice, it often means using props to get into challenging poses and coming out of a pose when it hurts or your body begins to shake with fatigue. This is the art of listening to your body. It means paying attention, being present. You especially don't want to be thinking about your grocery list when you attempt something difficult. 

Boundaries aren't always permanent either. Little by little you can extend the boundaries of your body. If you can't touch your toes in a forward bend, use a strap to make up the distance instead struggling to reach. After some time and practice you'll notice that you are getting closer to reaching your toes. However, if you ignore those pain signals and try to compete with the person next you who can touch their toes, you are liable to tear a hamstring. 

It's been said that trauma is the disease of the inability to be present and that those suffering from traumatic events are often outside there bodies. They view their bodies as the enemy and so withdraw from them. Often they are so disconnected from their bodies that they aren't even fully aware when they are moving their bodies. Yoga helps create that awareness because it asks you to tune into your body specifically and feel the sensations of your body in the poses.

People suffering from anxiety also view their bodies as the enemy and tend to be hyper-vigilant toward any uncomfortable sensations. Yoga teaches us to endure things that are uncomfortable and gives us the ability to tell the difference between discomfort and the actual potential for injury. For instance, triangle pose might be uncomfortable for the hamstrings but with a block and some deep breathing it can be endured. Without the block and the breath it can be dangerous. This is how boundaries are honored.

Living in a body with boundaries, and we all have boundaries, is a dance of balance. It's pushing forward and pulling back, working and resting, engaging and releasing. Listening is asking if your body can do more but respecting a response of "no." Listen to your body as you would a friend and your body will become your friend. This is the body you've been given in this life so you might as well make the best of it and enjoy it while you have it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"The Way" a new yoga class on Thursdays

 It's estimated that yoga is about 5,000 years old. Walking and running notwithstanding, that makes yoga one of the oldest if not the oldest form of exercise.

Certainly over those 5,000 years yoga's popularity has waxed and waned. Right now it's probably at one of it's all time highs.

What makes yoga so enduring, as opposed to say disco-aerobics, is it's adaptability. As David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper write in Overcoming Trauma through Yoga, "We can modify the yoga to suit our needs and still call it yoga because the practice has survived by being so expansive and adaptable. In fact, it could be argued that our emphasis on yoga as a practice of self-inquiry and self-care above all may actually be closer to the intentions of the first practitioners than are some other modern interpretations." 

In other words, yoga may have initially been developed as way to care for and help heal the body and the mind together, not as a religious practice as some contend. Though Buddhist and Hindus may claim yoga as part of their belief systems, yoga belongs to none. It's free to any and all that would make use of it's healing benefits.Yoga as a practice can be adapted to fit any belief system and does not necessarily promote one religion over another.

This is why as a follower of Jesus Christ I am introducing a Christ-centered yoga class on Thursday evenings at 6 pm here at the studio. It's open to anyone who would like to come explore Jesus' teachings together with yoga. The class is titled "The Way" in reference to the name that the first Christians called Christianity. As Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life."

My intent for this class is to focus on bringing the healing power of Jesus through yoga especially to those suffering from stress, trauma and anxiety. These are issues that I too have dealt with and would like to share some of the things I've learned and practiced as both a Christian and a yoga teacher.

I suppose the question that might naturally follow is whether that means all my classes will have a more spiritual slant. While I've never hidden my beliefs, I am sensitive to the fact that no one wants to be "evangelized" or preached at if they aren't open to it in the first place. Most of the time it does more harm than good. For that reason I've always maintained a secular approach to my classes and that's how they will stay. I want everyone of every background to feel comfortable in my classes not just those who agree with me.

However, for a long time I've wanted to share how I've integrated my faith into my own yoga practice to help me overcome the anxiety disorder I've suffered from. It's something God has placed on my heart and I feel he's asking me to do. I've also been asked by a counselor friend if I would teach such a class. She told me that there's a need for more Christ-centered yoga classes that specifically address anxiety and trauma.

While I taught a similar class several years ago at my church, teaching The Way feels like I'm stepping outside my comfort zone a bit. For one, when it comes to anxiety I've often felt like the blind leading the blind and that because I wasn't fully healed maybe I wasn't fully qualified to teach others how to manage anxiety.

 This past year though I finally received the miracle I'd been praying for. Essentially since I was a child I've battled the demons of anxiety in their various forms. While it wasn't exactly the healing that I wanted, the way I wanted, God was faithful and provided me with enough relief that I can run again.

Yes, the reason I didn't run for nine years was that I was phobic of the possibility of suddenly dropping dead while out on a jog. It sounds silly but the fear grew to the point that sometimes even hiking would set off my panic alarm. Now, I'm training for a half marathon in April. If that's not a miracle I don't know what is.

Another reason this class pushes the boundaries of my comfort zone is that religion and spirituality are sensitive topics that often draw strong opinions. As I mentioned, I taught a similar class at my church and it caused a stir. Some people unfortunately misinterpreted my intentions and thought I was trying to bring "new age" spiritualism into the church. In conversations with other Christians I often find myself feeling wary of mentioning that I'm a yoga teacher for fear that they might write me off as one of those "liberal Christians."

Yet part of my healing has come from learning who I am in God and to be myself. That means worrying less about what others think and more about what God thinks. I'm also learning that part of my faith is to honor my body as the temple of the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 6:12-17) This means caring for the body in a healthy which I believe yoga promotes. My yoga practice can then be an act of worship to God just as much as going to church or reading the Bible.

"For God has not give us a spirit of fear but a spirit of power, love and of sound mind." 2 Timothy 1:7