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.

How Do I Get My Partner To Do Yoga With Me?

Note: The entire video has captions/subtitles so you can watch it without sound if you need to. It’s only 5 1/2 minutes 🙂

The question for today’s Yoga Q & A is:

“How do I get my partner/loved one/significant other to practice yoga with me?”

When you fell in love with yoga and became consistent in your practice, you probably felt so good and noticed positive changes in your life. It’s natural for us to want the people we care about to experience the same benefits we’ve received from yoga. Here, I share my thoughts on the most effective way to encourage those around us to start practicing or at least begin exploring the idea of practicing. Also, what do you do when you finally get what you want? If you’re successful in getting your loved to go to yoga class with you, I have an important tip for you! 🙂

 

Benefits of Yoga at the Workplace

Note: This is an article I wrote for Front Door Fitness this week. I teach yoga for the company and help out with marketing and social media management. If you work in a corporate setting and would like to integrate a wellness program in your office, this is a good post for you to read! This photo was taken at Barkley – an advertising agency in downtown Kansas City – where I teach a 45-minute lunchtime yoga class every week. 🙂

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In January 2017, TIME magazine published “Yoga Is Officially Sweeping the Workplace,” an article on the growing popularity of office yoga. The article mentions how employees benefit from mindfulness-based activities like yoga and meditation.

I’ve been teaching yoga in corporate settings for a few years now and have seen firsthand how even a short, 45-minute yoga practice affects office workers in a positive way. Here are a few of the benefits I’ve witnessed among corporate employees who attend office yoga classes regularly.

Physical Benefits: Improved Posture and Flexibility

Most office workers spend long hours sitting and hunched over their desks. Moving and stretching the body mindfully in a well-designed yoga routine helps employees manage aches and pains caused by stress, physical tension, and bad posture. They learn proper spinal alignment and basic stretches to relieve stiffness and tightness caused by sitting all day. My students feel better and stand taller as they walk back to their cubicles after our session.

Mental and Emotional Benefits: Relaxation and Positive Mood

The corporate world can be extremely stressful to employees. They need a break from the demands of their work. Yoga, with its emphasis on slowing down and deep breathing, helps improve mood and reduce burnout. After our yoga practice, workers go back to their cubicle happier and more relaxed. Most of them have also expressed that yoga in the office is one of their favorite things about working for their company!

Workplace Benefits: Increased Focus and Productivity

Good employers know how to encourage excellence while keeping work satisfaction high. Yoga’s effects on workers’ focus and productivity are immediate! Right after class, my students emerge refreshed and they say they’re ready to face the rest of the day. They feel rejuvenated and more able to accomplish challenging tasks.

Front Door Fitness is proud to offer yoga and other group classes to various companies and organizations. We have seen with our own eyes the significant impact of workplace fitness and wellness. As a yoga teacher, providing yoga in the workplace and improving employees’ lives is truly fulfilling work for me.

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.

Do I have to be VEGETARIAN or VEGAN to practice YOGA?

Is there a proper diet for yoga students and teachers? Are yogis supposed to be vegetarians or vegans? Is it OK to consume meat and dairy products?

This is probably one of the most controversial and divisive topics in the yoga world. On one end of the spectrum, there are yoga practitioners who insist that you must be vegan if you are to call yourself a true yogi.  The other camp believes that it is not necessary to avoid animal products when you practice yoga.

In another blog post and Q & A video, I will share with you my own journey through different ways of eating. For now, I will dive into some yoga philosophy and its different interpretations when it comes to a so-called “yogic diet.” (Note: Scroll below to watch my 6-minute Q & A video on this topic.)

In yoga, there is an ethical principle called AHIMSA. It is a Sanskrit term that is often translated as non-violence or non-harming. In his book The Path of the Yoga Sutras, author and Sanskrit teacher Nicolai Bachman writes, Ahimsa, which is the first of the five yamas, is the ethical practice of nonhurtfulness toward others and ourselves. It involves abstaining from intentionally inflicting pain on or killing other creatures in thought, word, or deed…..Ahimsa also implies an attitude that strives to reduce harm.”

Vegans and vegetarians often cite ahimsa as the basis for their commitment to refrain from eating meat or using any animal-derived products. They believe that we must not kill or harm ALL creatures – both human and animal. Jivamukti Yoga, a style/brand of yoga founded by David Life and Sharon Gannon in New York, promotes veganism to its students. Teachers of this style often include discussion of the vegan lifestyle in their asana classes. Many yogis from different traditions also make changes in their diet as they deepen their practice and explore yoga philosophy. Others feel that a vegetarian or vegan diet actually supports their physical practice and optimizes its benefits.

On the other hand, other yogis do not agree that one must abstain from meat in order to practice yoga. They do not think a vegetarian/vegan diet and lifestyle is right for everyone. Some people do not thrive when they adopt this way of eating. For these yogis, insisting on a vegan diet at the expense of your own health is not ahimsa either because you are harming yourself. True, we must do our best to reduce the harm caused by our actions; but we must also nurture ourselves and do what is right for our well-being.

This is a rather complex issue because it involves the intersection of many areas – health and nutrition, yoga philosophy and ethics, environmental impact of food production, animal rights vs. personal choice and freedom, etc. What I hope to accomplish with this post is to start a conversation about yoga and diet. I have gone through many radical changes in lifestyle and way of eating. I have changed my mind about certain things, after thorough research and investigation of the different perspectives. In the next posts and videos, I will be sharing my personal journey and how I’ve arrived at my current eating plan.

What do you think, yogis? What diet do you follow? Does your yoga practice affect your lifestyle choices?

 

 

 

 

How Yoga Keeps You Happy and Healthy while Traveling

For most people, summertime often involves a lot of travel and outdoor activities. It’s easy to neglect our fitness routine and healthy diet when we are visiting new places. The practice of yoga can help us maintain good habits while traveling and it can even enhance our enjoyment of our vacation.

How does yoga do this?

Yoga is a mind-body discipline that improves our physical, mental and emotional well-being. The physical postures develop our strength, flexibility and balance. Breathing and meditation techniques aid in relaxation and stress relief. An intelligent yoga practice keeps us calm, focused and emotionally balanced even in unfamiliar or difficult situations.

On a practical level, the strength and flexibility you gain from yoga makes the physical aspect of traveling much easier. You can carry your own luggage at airports, take long walking tours in museums and historical sites, and participate in physically demanding activities. Yoga teaches you how to move and stretch your body properly so you can combat the negative effects of long hours of sitting in cars or airplanes.

Unexpected events are sure to happen when we go on holiday. Delayed flights, language barriers, and unfamiliar surroundings all contribute to the stress of traveling. In yoga, we develop skills that help us deal with challenges and disappointments. You know how to take a break and breathe deeply for a few moments so you can calm down and respond to the situation with more clarity. Your yoga practice also helps you get into a more relaxed state so you can sleep better and make good food choices.

Most of all, yoga teaches us how to be present and how to be grateful. Before the vacation, we spend a lot of time and energy anticipating the trip. When we’re actually on the trip, however, we’re too busy either taking pictures or thinking of home to fully appreciate what’s happening in the here and now. Yoga gives us the gift of presence and gratitude so we can fully immerse ourselves in the experience of traveling.

These are some of the wonderful benefits of yoga. Taking the time to practice, even for just a few minutes, can make a big difference in keeping us happy and healthy during our summer vacation.

 

Note: I wrote this article for the Front Door Fitness website where it was first published.

Beginner Yoga Tips: How to Survive your First Yoga Class

Curious about yoga but intimidated to try a class? You’re not alone. Online articles and images sometimes create the wrong impression that yoga is only for young people who are fit and flexible. Rest assured that yoga is for everybody – EVERY BODY. There is a right style, class, and teacher for everyone. I’ve been teaching for 6 years and I’ve seen a lot of brand new yoga students in my classes. Here are my suggestions to help beginners have the best experience possible. Read on for my tips on surviving (and enjoying!) your first yoga class.

  •  Do your research. Visit the websites of yoga studios in your area and read the class descriptions. It’s okay to call the studio to ask which classes they recommend for you. If possible, go to a class that is designed specifically for beginners. This way, you can learn the poses in a non-intimidating way. Feel free to ask the teacher questions before or after class. It is their job to help you and make sure you practice safely and effectively.
  • Don’t hide in the back! I often see new students sheepishly make their way to the farthest corners of the room, as if that makes them invisible. Hey, we won’t bite. 🙂 It’s much better to position yourself where you can see and hear the teacher clearly. You’re paying for the class so you might as well get the most out of it. When you buy movie tickets, you want to get the best seats, right? I understand beginners often feel self-conscious and try to be as inconspicuous as possible by placing their mats in the back row. Believe me, other students are too busy with their own practice to spy on you. 🙂
  •  Arrive early. Don’t underestimate the importance of having an extra 10-15 minutes to settle into a new place. If it’s your first time at the studio, they will need you to fill out some forms and perhaps give you a short tour or orientation. This will help you feel more comfortable in the space and give you an opportunity to ask questions and relax before class starts.
  • Come prepared. Wear comfortable clothing you can move and stretch in. Yoga is done barefoot so don’t worry about shoes. Bring your own yoga mat, towel, and water. If you’re not sure what items you need, call the studio ahead of time to find out if they rent or sell yoga items. I am of the opinion that your yoga mat can make or break your first yoga class experience! Please do your research on the types of mats out there. Choose a mat with good traction to help prevent or minimize slipping in poses. If you’re like me and you tend to sweat a lot, a yoga towel might be necessary even if your mat has good grip. You can check out my reviews of some yoga mats and towels if you need more information. Trust me, knowing these seemingly unimportant details will save you from unnecessary suffering. 🙂
  • Have a BEGINNER’S MIND – This is my most important tip. Be open to learning. Be okay with making mistakes. You need a positive attitude and a sense of adventure as you step into your first yoga class. A sense of humor helps too! Remember that you are not there to perform, achieve, or compete. You’re there to discover the practice and nurture yourself.

Sometimes, no matter how prepared you are, things don’t work out. Maybe you stumble into an advanced power yoga class and are unable to keep up. Perhaps the teacher’s style or the class vibe simply doesn’t resonate with you. I encourage you to continue trying other classes and instructors until you find a good fit. This is all part of the process. Eventually you will have a yoga community of teachers and fellow students who will support you in your journey.

How to Relieve Stress and Relax Deeply

We live in a time when frenetic activity is the norm. We jump out of bed and immediately check our phone, take a shower while mentally running through our to-do list, and rush through our day to get things done. Some of us do physically demanding work, while others have jobs that are mentally and emotionally draining. We rarely take the time to rest, enjoy a meal or connect with loved ones. At the end of the day, we’re exhausted but unable to relax and get a good night’s sleep.

This way of living can negatively impact our health in a myriad of ways. Chronic stress is associated with heart disease, digestive problems, anxiety, depression, weight gain and many other issues. Now more than ever, it’s important to be proactive in managing stress and preventing disease. Integrating a regular yoga practice into our daily life can help us move towards true relaxation of the body and the mind.

Restorative Yoga is a unique yoga style designed to aid us in dealing with the stresses of modern life. “We work very hard in our lives, and while we may sleep, we rarely take time to relax. Restorative yoga poses help us learn to rest deeply and completely,” says Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., PT, world-renowned yoga master and author of Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times. In a restorative yoga class, all poses are fully supported using various props to encourage deep relaxation. Poses are held for a few minutes to still the body and the mind. The emphasis is not on achieving the pose but on being comfortable and allowing yourself to surrender.

Here are 3 Restorative Yoga Poses you can do for stress relief. Use a timer and hold each pose for 3-5 minutes. If you don’t have a yoga bolster, use a stack of blankets. Find some wall space for support. Set up in a quiet room with a comfortable temperature where you will be undisturbed during your practice. Make sure you unplug all your devices and eliminate distractions. While you’re in the pose, focus your wandering mind by paying attention to your breathing. To help you calm down, lengthen your exhales more and soften your face. Keep your eyes closed and use an eye pillow or small towel over your eyes.

 

1) Legs Up the Wall Pose

Lie on your side and move your hips towards the wall. When your hips touch the wall, bring your legs up. If your hamstrings feel too tight simply bend your knees a little bit. Experiment with placing a blanket or stack of blankets under your hips to test which version feels better.

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2) Supported Child’s Pose

From an all-fours position, place your bolster (or stack of blankets) in front of you between your knees. Sit your hips back towards your feet then rest your belly, chest and face on your bolster. Add more blankets if you need more height. Notice your hips, knees and ankles. Relax your arms on the floor. If it’s more comfortable for you, rest one cheek on your bolster then switch sides halfway through the pose.

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3) Corpse Pose or Savasana

This is the most important and sometimes most difficult yoga pose. Lie on your back with your feet more than hip distance apart, arms relaxed by your sides and palms facing up. If you feel discomfort in your lower back, slide your bolster under your knees to bring your lower back closer to the mat. Keep your forehead slightly higher than your chin by sliding a pillow or blanket under your head if needed. Relax your tongue and let it fall away from the roof of your mouth. Let go of controlling the breath and allow it to flow naturally. Feel every part of your body softening and melting into your mat. Be as still as possible.

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As with any skill we learn, relaxation takes practice. We all start out with tense bodies and chattering minds. That’s okay! Be patient with yourself and be consistent in your yoga practice. Soon you will reap the benefits of restorative yoga and you will know how to truly nourish your body, mind and spirit.

 

*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.

Am I too Old for Yoga?

In today’s Q and A video, we talk about age and physical limitations. Can one be too old to start a yoga practice? Is there yoga for people with physical disabilities or injuries? I share with you 3 inspiring stories:

  • Tao Porchon-Lynch – one of the oldest living yoga teachers in the world
  • Matthew Sanford  – a yoga teacher who is paralyzed from the chest down
  • Dan Nevins – a veteran who lost both his legs in Iraq

 

For more of my VLOGS and Q&A videos, visit my YouTube channel. 🙂

Debunking 3 Common Yoga Myths

“I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible!” is like saying, “I can’t drink water because I’m not hydrated!” As a yoga teacher, I’ve heard this excuse many times from people hesitant to try the practice. It’s time to shed light on three of the most common misconceptions about yoga and debunk those yoga myths.

Yoga Myth #1: I have to be an acrobat/gymnast/contortionist to do yoga.                

Magazine covers and social media are rife with images of bendy yogis in fancy poses. Let me assure you that this is not what happens in a regular yoga class. You are there to move and stretch your body safely. Your instructor will help you adapt yoga poses to suit your needs and will not force you into shapes that are not suitable for your physique and level of experience. If you are a beginner, start with basic or gentle classes to learn the foundational poses.      

Yoga Myth #2: Yoga is boring. You just sit around doing nothing.  

Not all yoga classes have the same intensity level. Restorative and Yin yoga are more passive practices. Certain yoga styles like Ashtanga and Power Vinyasa, to name a couple, are physically challenging. In these classes, you will work up a sweat and increase your heart rate as you flow through a sequence of poses at a moderate to fast pace. I’ve had new students say after practice that the class was much harder than they thought it would be! A well-rounded yoga flow practice improves your strength, flexibility, balance and mental focus.

Yoga Myth #3: Yoga is a religion.  

I’ve been asked about the spiritual component of yoga by students who are worried that the practice might be in conflict with their faith. Every yoga teacher will have a different approach when it comes to this. A few classes will delve into spirituality and yogic texts, others will emphasize the mind-body connection, and some will focus mostly on the physical aspect. Some yoga styles incorporate chanting and yoga philosophy in their teachings. The good news is you will not be forced to do anything you are not comfortable with. The yoga classes I teach are filled with students who have different beliefs, backgrounds, and religious affiliations. You are free to absorb what you like about the practice and set aside what doesn’t serve you at the moment.

The important thing is to do your research. Talk to yoga teachers about the style they teach. Ask other yoga students about their experience. Read the descriptions of yoga classes at gyms or studios. Take classes from different instructors to find a good fit. With some trial and error, plus a sense of adventure, you will eventually discover the teachers and classes that are just right for you.

 

*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.