Yoga and Body Image – Part 1

*** I wrote this short article to start a conversation about yoga and its effects on body image. This is simply an introduction to the topic.  There will be more! When I muster the courage, I will share my own journey through body image issues with you. 🙂 Stay tuned, yogis!***

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The beginning of the year is a time for setting new goals and making significant changes. Getting fit and losing weight are probably the most common New Year’s resolutions. Being surrounded by media images of seemingly perfect bodies makes a lot of us feel inadequate, and we feel the need to improve our appearance in some way. Why then, do we fail to sustain this healthy lifestyle that we embark on with much enthusiasm every January? It’s because we set our goals from a place of lack, insecurity, and negativity. When most of us look in the mirror, we are discouraged by what we perceive as physical imperfections. We feel we need to look a certain way in order to be happy and confident. Instead of focusing on moving towards true health and wellness, we pay attention to only the most superficial aspects of ourselves.

What we must do, if we truly want lasting change, is to come from a place of self-care and compassion. This is where a yoga practice can become the perfect complement to your exercise regimen and nutrition plan. Yoga is healing to a lot of people with body image issues because your internal experience is more important than your outward appearance when you’re on your mat. When practicing, you are encouraged to attend to your body’s real needs instead of forcing yourself to look good doing poses that might not be right for you. Every pose is done with the intention of being kind to your body instead of rejecting it or wishing for it to be different. A consistent and skillful yoga practice teaches us to truly love ourselves, no matter what we look like.

There’s another reason yoga is helpful when dealing with physical insecurities. It is a very welcoming and inclusive practice. Your age, looks, race, background, and experience level do not matter. Yoga is not exclusive to certain body types; even though social media might give off that impression. The reality is there are many styles of yoga to accommodate anyone who is willing to try it. Even in a group yoga class, there are ways to modify the poses to suit individual needs.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to look better. It becomes a problem when we prioritize appearance at the expense of our physical health and emotional well-being. Only when we are acting out of true love and acceptance of ourselves can we make sustainable changes in our lifestyle that are actually beneficial for our health in the long run. Yoga will provide you with the tools you need to care for yourself while working towards your goals.

Note: I wrote this article for the Front Door Fitness website where it was first published. FDF is a wonderful personal training company in Kansas City; and I am proud to be part of the team. Check out the FDF blog for more free articles on fitness, nutrition, and healthy living.

Real vs Fake Yoga? How to Tell the Difference

I was talking with an acquaintance recently and she was saying that she preferred “studio yoga” over “gym yoga.” My interpretation is that she thinks the gym version is somehow inferior or it’s not the real thing. I understand where this preconceived notion comes from. Some people imagine yoga in a gym setting means an instructor barking cues at sweaty and stressed out participants. It’s not exactly the serene and graceful picture you often have of yoga.

So, what is real yoga? Is there even such a thing? Or are they all the same, wherever and however you practice it? There is always some new and emerging yoga trend: acro yoga, standup paddleboard yoga, dog yoga, and yes – beer yoga! Surely, we need to draw the line and decide that some of these so-called styles shouldn’t be attaching  the word yoga to their names, right? How can you tell which class is truly yoga and which one is just marketing hype?

I think it all boils down to the essence of yoga. Before we get into that, let’s look at two important words that will help us in our assessment – distill vs. dilute. To distill means “to extract the essential meaning or most important aspects of.” A distilled version of something is very powerful because it contains the pure essence or most important elements. Essential oils, for example, are very potent! This brings us to our next word – dilute – which means “to make (something) weaker in force, content, or value by modifying it or adding other elements to it.” For most essential oils to be usable, we often need to add other ingredients to it. The essence is still there but the potency is greatly reduced. It’s a slightly “watered down” version of the original. You might need to use more of it to get the same effect.

How does this relate to yoga? When looking at a yoga offering, we need to look beyond its outer packaging and investigate what’s inside. Is the essence of yoga present? I frequent yoga teacher online groups on Facebook and other sites. Every now and then someone will see a post about a yoga workshop and immediately condemn it as “not yoga,” without bothering to know what it really is, as if they are the arbiter of what’s real and what’s not. (Side note: In almost any gathering of yoga teachers, you will find the kindest and most compassionate souls but also the most most judgmental and yogier-than-thou individuals! Sorry, just calling it as I see it.). It’s good to be discerning about yoga but we should find out more about what we aim to critique, instead of harshly dismissing it just because it doesn’t look like what we want it to look like. I’ve seen people look their noses down on 45-minute office yoga because they don’t think it’s “authentic.” Is real yoga 2 hours long and can only be found in incense-burning studios? Is it only taught by turban-wearing teachers dressed in all white? Is it not real if there is some sort of physical fitness involved?

For me, the essence of yoga is not about the length of time you practice or the venue of the class. It’s not about viewing physical exercise as an inferior activity. It’s not about looking like a hippie or having an Indian guru. Based on my own experience, when distilled to its purest form, yoga is the practice of training and refining our attention. Yoga is about uniting body, mind, and spirit. Yoga is being fully present as much as possible. Yoga is about being compassionate to others and oneself. Yoga teaches us to honor the present moment and to be grateful for whatever it brings. I’m sure you have your own definition of what yoga means to you, based on your own practice.

When someone says to me that the power yoga offered at their gym is not “real” yoga because it’s just exercise (as if exercise is somehow a bad thing), I would ask them to try it first before they judge. What if in that power yoga class, you experience being fully present in your body? What if after yoga at the office, you gain more clarity and focus? What if after your fun acroyoga practice, you come home and treat your family better? What if all you did today was pause and take five conscious breaths, and you were able to respond to a difficult conversation with more kindness? If you know how to distill the essence of yoga, you can take that essence with you wherever you go and infuse it into whatever you’re doing. Whether it’s yoga in an ashram or in your office cubicle, you have the ability to make it an authentic experience.

What about yoga that’s been diluted, yoga that’s mixed with something else? I’ve seen yoga fused with dance, hiking, martial arts, etc. For me, as long as the essence is there, it’s still yoga. Just like with essential oils mixed with other substances, you still get the benefits when you use it. The first yoga class I ever took was at a gym. There was loud music playing outside and it was very physically challenging; but I fell in love with it because it taught me how to slow down and truly observe my breath and the sensations in my body. The class was “packaged” or “branded” as a fitness class but in it I experienced the essence of yoga. However, I do think there are yoga styles and brands out there that take it too far. They dilute or water it down so much that it becomes unrecognizable and the essence is lost.  This is where we need to exercise critical thinking and be clear on what we value about yoga. I’ve been seeing ads for beer yoga and wine yoga making the rounds on social media. My first impulse, to be honest, is to write it off as marketing gimmicks. However, I should take my own advice (haha) and try it first before judging.  (I love both yoga AND wine; but I’m not sure that’s a great combo.) I’ll let you know if I do try it. 🙂

In the end, the difference between what we label as real and fake yoga, lies not in the outer packaging but in the actual contents. Real yoga exists wherever we are able to experience its essence, no matter what external form it takes.

Why I Teach Yoga: My Mission Statement

The first thing you see on the home page of my website is my mission statement. In one sentence, I tried to capture 3 things:

  • Intention – why I teach yoga
  • Method – how I achieve my intention
  • Benefit – what I want my students to experience

“My mission is to help students nurture their body, mind, and spirit by clearly and compassionately guiding them through a yoga practice that is skillful, intelligent, and enjoyable.” 

It took a lot of time and effort to come up with this! I had to reflect on the last six years of teaching and distill all my experience into one statement that can clearly express who I am as a yoga teacher. My style is not for everyone. I needed to define my yoga offering so students can decide if I am the right teacher for them or not. More importantly, this was an exercise in self-knowledge and self-evaluation. I needed the clarity for myself. I had to put into words why I teach yoga in the first place and how I intend to share this practice to benefit others.

So, let’s break it down:

Intention – “…to help students nurture their body, mind, and spirit…”

I teach yoga because I want others to experience the gift that my yoga practice has given me – SELF-CARE. In a previous article, I wrote about how yoga taught me the importance of self-care and made me see my tendencies towards over-giving and self-neglect. “You can’t pour from an empty cup,” has been a helpful reminder to me that I need to take care of myself first before I can serve others. My yoga practice is my way of filling up that cup so I have something of value to offer others. This self-nourishment is what I want for my students when they’re on their yoga mat.

Method“…by clearly and compassionately guiding them…”

Being a clear and compassionate guide means expressing myself in a way that makes students feel safe, confident and accepted. I do my best to give precise instructions and effective cues. In my classes, all levels are welcome and I provide many options for poses to allow students to work at their own pace. I encourage people to let go of competitiveness and harsh judgment as they breathe and move mindfully. There is no need to force ourselves into shapes that are not right for us. In yoga, we cultivate kindness to ourselves and honesty about what we need in the moment.

Benefit – “…a yoga practice that is skillful, intelligent, and enjoyable…”

Most people come to yoga to take a break from mental activity but the practice can also be a place of learning and discovery. I want my students to master skills that will enable them to practice for a long time while staying free of pain and injury. I also want them to learn beneficial techniques for relaxation and stress relief.  Intelligent exploration in yoga means having a practice that is not only physically sound but is also conducive to emotional and psychological growth. Most of all, I want my students to have fun! I want them to look forward to their time on their mat. Your yoga can be a way of expressing creativity and playfulness. Enjoying your practice is also about being comfortable in your own skin and being grateful for everything your body is able to do.

This is my mission. If you teach yoga or any other mind-body discipline, I highly recommend writing down your mission statement. This exercise will give you clear direction as you navigate life as a teacher in a constantly shifting yoga landscape. The words in my statement might change as my own personal life evolves, but one thing will stay the same – I will continue to share the wonderful practice of yoga with as many people as possible for as long as I can.

 

 

Mother’s Day Musings

It’s my first Mother’s Day today.  I don’t have much to say except that I’m so GRATEFUL. I’m grateful that I was raised by a wonderful Mom who showed me what it means to love unconditionally. My three brothers and I are so lucky to have her. I’m also thankful for my mother in law.  Not only is she a great mom, she’s also a super fun grandma!

Most of all, I’m filled with gratitude for our ridiculously adorable 4-month old baby boy. Dave and I went through so much to have him. We struggled for years to conceive, suffered through several miscarriages, and endured a ton of fertility treatments. I would gladly go through it again. It was all worth it. Now we have this little bundle of joy and we love him more than we could’ve ever imagined was possible. Kieran, I’m so blessed to be your Mom.

Happy Mother’s Day to all you mommies out there. 🙂

Why I Don’t Make YOGA FOR WEIGHT LOSS Videos: The Truth about Yoga and Weight Loss

In this vlog, I share my opinion on Yoga and Weight Loss. Can yoga help you lose weight? Does yoga make you burn fat? The answer is a bit complicated. I share with you my expert resources (check books, authors, and videos below) so you can have the information you need to make your own decisions. I talk about why I personally do not make “Yoga for Weight Loss” or “Fat Burning Yoga Workout” videos and my yoga teaching philosophy.

Expert Resources:

Dr. Mark Hyman
YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/ultrawellness
Book: Eat Fat Get Thin

Gary Taubes
Book: Why We Get Fat

Netflix Documentary:
Fed Up

Other Resources:
The works of Michael Pollan
The 100 Diet by Jorge Cruise

How Yoga Taught Me the Importance of Self Care

“You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.”

It sounds simple enough. It’s like what the flight attendant says while waiting for the plane to take off: In case of an emergency, put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others. In daily life and intimate relationships however, this is easier said than done. If you’re like me and you have the “Giver” or “Helper” personality, then you probably put the needs of others before your own. Your default mode in most situations is to ask yourself, “What do I need to do for them?” and not “What do I need to do for me?”

I was in denial when two very close and extremely insightful friends pointed out to me that I was a TYPE 2 or Giver/Helper on the Enneagram (a personality typing system I will talk about in another post). Here’s an overview of the type from The Enneagram Institute website: “Twos are empathetic, sincere, and warm-hearted. They are friendly, generous, and self-sacrificing, but can also be sentimental, flattering, and people-pleasing. They are well-meaning and driven to be close to others, but can slip into doing things for others in order to be needed. They typically have problems with possessiveness and with acknowledging their own needs.” Yikes. It was hard for my ego to accept the truth behind these statements. When reading about a certain type makes you emotionally uncomfortable and brings up a lot of resistance, then you know there’s something there you need to investigate.

And investigate I did. I started noticing my pattern of “overgiving” to my family and to whomever I was currently involved with. There was a time in my life when I was the main breadwinner of the family and I played that role very seriously. I would give and sacrifice to the point of exhaustion and depletion; then somewhere down the line I would explode in anger and reveal my true feelings. My constant helping and giving, which perpetuated my self-image as a good person, almost always led to resentment. This was how I behaved in intimate relationships too. I wanted to be seen as “the good one” and my boyfriend as the one who is taking advantage of my niceness and therefore needs to change. In my social circle, I was “everybody’s friend” who was always there for them. I enjoyed being liked and I was good at morphing myself into what I thought other people needed me to be. Even in my career as a performer and teacher, these tendencies were present. It didn’t matter what I wanted or needed. It didn’t matter what was authentic for me. I was able to present myself to the world in a way that won me the approval I didn’t realize I was always angling for. Being honest with myself and others about what I really thought, felt, and needed was low on my priorities.

Something obviously needed to change. There was too much drama in my relationships. I had financial problems because I didn’t know how to say no to my family and how to manage my money well. My acting and voice-over career was going well but I felt depleted by almost every job and professional interaction because I wasn’t being authentic. I realized I had no problems with giving but I had issues with receiving. I knew I had to start taking care of myself. I had to learn how to be vulnerable, how to admit weakness, and how to ask for help.

Enter yoga. Along with the personal growth work I did (self-study of the enneagram and psychology in general) and lifestyle changes I made (quit smoking, better diet, and exercise), starting a yoga practice was a major factor in my transformation. With regular practice, I started to learn how to be truly in the present moment. We need to be present enough to notice our habitual thoughts, emotional patterns, and reactive tendencies. What I realized was I was always outer-directed and rarely inner-directed. 

This realization had profound effects on my work and relationships. As an actress, I was always performing and I was used to being watched, judged, and critiqued. I was my own worst critic, of course. On my yoga mat however, it was the complete opposite. For the first time, I wasn’t performing or competing. I didn’t need to achieve the pose. I didn’t need to accomplish anything. My time on the mat was for me and me alone. It was time to slow down and tune in to what I truly needed in the moment. Did I need to push and try? Did I need to hold a pose? Did I need to steady my breath? Or did I need to rest and drop into child’s pose? There was absolutely no need to impress anyone. It was such a relief to really listen to myself for the first time and honor my own needs. It was such a relief I found myself crying in yoga class! I can’t count how many times I’ve cried on my mat. I didn’t cry from physical pain (that would not be good!) but mostly from the relief that comes with surrendering. I surrendered and set aside my expectations, my tendency to please others, and my desire to control outcomes. Before then, I didnt realize the extent of my self-neglect. I’ve ignored my own wants and needs for so long it took a while for me to find out how to take care of myself. These changes spilled over into my personal life as I transitioned out of toxic relationships. Slowly, I spent more time and energy reflecting on my authentic needs and desires. I became less preoccuppied with what I think I need to do for other people or how to gain their approval. Yoga was a well that replenished me and enabled me to give more authentically and to receive more graciously.

Like everyone else, I’m a work in progress. I’m married to a wonderful guy who still needs to remind me to look after myself. As a yoga teacher, I know I need to take my own advice! I’ve been through stages where I was teaching so much yoga (15-18 classes a week) that I began to resent it and I started neglecting my own practice.  Year 2017 is going to be particularly challenging with our first baby coming (I’m 37 weeks pregnant as I write this!) and the need for self-care is more important than ever. As a mom, I know I will be tempted to focus all my attention on my family and not attend to my own needs. That’s why I’m glad my yoga mat is always waiting for me. It’s there when I need to unplug and unwind. It’s there when I need some quiet time. It’s there when I want to have some fun! Most importantly, it’s there when I need to nurture myself. It is my hope that you find what you need on your mat as well.