Inspiration, Personal, Yoga, Yoga Practice

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.

Yoga, Yoga Practice, Yoga Q & A, Yoga Tips

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! 🙂

 

Inspiration, Personal, Yoga, Yoga Practice, Yoga Q & A

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.

Yoga, Yoga Practice, Yoga Tips

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.

Yoga, Yoga Practice, Yoga Tips

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.

Legs-Up-the-Wall

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.

Supported-Childs-Pose

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.

Savasana-or-Corpse-Pose

 

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.

Inspiration, Yoga, Yoga Practice, Yoga Q & A

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. 🙂

Yoga, Yoga Practice

Do Yoga and Fitness Go Together?

If your regimen consists of strength training and cardio workouts, should you add yoga to the mix? How does a yoga practice enhance your fitness routine?

Yoga has gained popularity over the last few decades for good reason. Its many benefits include stress relief, pain reduction, improved flexibility and better balance. A regular yoga practice can also help you in your fitness journey in several ways.

YOGA PROVIDES VARIETY TO YOUR EXERCISE ROUTINE.

Adding 1 to 2 yoga classes each week will challenge your body and brain in different ways. Learning new poses and sequences will keep your workouts fresh and interesting.

YOGA REMINDS YOU TO BE GRATEFUL FOR YOUR BODY

Being self-motivated and competitive may serve you well when your intention is to get fit. These traits enable you to stay on track and accomplish your goals. However, there are times when you need to slow down and simply enjoy the process. Let your yoga mat be the one place in your life when you are not competing with anyone – not even with yourself! Take the time to breathe. Be thankful for all the progress you’ve made and for the amazing things your body is able to do. You are more likely to stick with your fitness regimen if you are coming from a place of self-care instead of frustration and dissatisfaction with your body. It’s possible to have a positive attitude and be happy in your own skin right now, while at the same time work hard to improve your body and your athletic abilities.

YOGA HELPS INCREASE SELF-AWARENESS AND MINDFULNESS IN DAILY LIFE.

An intelligent yoga practice trains your attention. Over time, you become more attuned to the sensations in your body and more attentive to your own thoughts and emotions without judging them or wishing to escape from them. Becoming more self-aware will help you be more in tune with your body’s needs when it comes to exercise, nutrition and rest. When you are truly present, you are more mindful of what you put into your body and you are able to make better decisions regarding your own health and well-being.

There are many other long term effects of a consistent yoga practice. These are just some of the ways that yoga can complement your workouts. The key is to find a qualified teacher in the yoga style that best suits you. Keep an open mind and try a few classes online or at a local studio. You might just be surprised at the benefits you experience after a great yoga session.

 ***I wrote this article for the Front Door Fitness website and it was first published there a few months ago. FDF is a fantastic personal training company in the Kansas City area and I am proud to be part of their team. Check out the FDF blog for more articles on fitness and nutrition from my other colleagues.
Yoga, Yoga 101, Yoga Practice

The Four Styles of Yoga

What are the different styles of yoga and how do you know which one is right for you? Over the years, I’ve practiced and dabbled in various types and “brands” of yoga. Some are more traditional and lineage-based (e.g. Ashtanga, Iyengar, Viniyoga) while others are newer creations of master teachers and yoga celebrities (e.g. Baptiste’s Power Yoga, Sadie Nardini’s Core Strength Vinyasa, Bikram Yoga, Jivamukti Yoga). Every now and then, I will read about some trending yoga combo such as: Doga (dog yoga), Broga (yoga for bros?), and now that recreational marijuana is legal in some states – even Pot Yoga!

The dizzying array of yoga offerings in modern culture is enough to make a beginner either just give up or simply walk into any random class and hope it works out. Here, I’ll talk about just FOUR of the most common styles you will encounter in yoga studios or online videos. This list will give you an idea of the differences between the styles and help you decide which one might best suit your needs.

HATHA YOGA

Hatha is a general term that refers to the PHYSICAL practice of yoga. It’s different from the other aspects of yoga such as meditation and yoga philosophy. Hatha Yoga refers to the physical discipline – the practice of “asanas” or yoga postures. 

Sometimes in yoga studios and online yoga classes you’ll see “Hatha Yoga” as one of the styles. The word can also be used to describe either gentle yoga or a more static yoga practice where poses are held longer (there is no “flowing” movement unlike in Vinyasa).

Who is it for? Hatha style classes can be very beneficial for you if you’re just starting out with your yoga practice. Because poses are held for a long time, students learn proper alignment. There’s enough time spent in the pose for the student to feel subtle sensations in the body. A Hatha class may also include challenging yoga poses but you still come in and out of the pose slowly.

VINYASA YOGA or VINYASA FLOW YOGA

Vinyasa is a SANSKRIT term that has several meanings. The word Vinyasa is loosely translated as “to place in a special way.” In the context of modern yoga and yoga studio classes, Vinyasa refers to the flowing style of yoga practice. In a Vinyasa class, we coordinate breath with movement and we link the poses together to create a flowing sequence that is almost like a dance. Vinyasa is also the term used to describe a specific sequence of poses which are: plank to low plank/chaturanga to upward facing dog to downward facing dog. It’s sometimes referred to as a transition sequence.

Who is it for? Vinyasa is appropriate for those who have some yoga experience and for strong beginners with no major injuries. The style flows from pose to pose so you don’t always have enough time to learn alignment details. You’ll benefit most if you already have a basic understanding of common yoga poses.

Vinyasa has a wonderful dance-like quality and can be a great physical workout. In most classes – you will work up a sweat, generate heat with the ujjayi breathing and dynamic movement, and get your heart rate up. You can increase strength and improve flexibility with consistent practice. It also enhances your concentration and mental focus as you connect the breath with the movement and as you work to transition gracefully in and out of poses.

YIN YOGA or DEEP STRETCH YOGA

I’m sure you’re familiar with the Taoist concepts of “yin and yang.” These are opposite and complementary principles. Yang is the masculine or active energy and Yin is

the feminine or passive counterpart. This is an oversimplification, of course, and there is more to these concepts than can be explained here.

In a Yin class, you’re passive in the sense that you’re on the floor the whole time. You do seated and supine poses (supported by props when necessary) and you hold these for much longer than you would in a Vinyasa class (usually 3-5 minutes). In Yin, we gently and safely stretch the connective tissue that surrounds the joints. When we moderately “stress” or stretch the connective tissue by holding a yin pose for a long time, the body will respond by making it longer and stronger.

If you’re looking at someone in a yin pose, they might look like they’re not doing much. However, yin poses can feel intense. There will be some strong sensations and possibly discomfort (not sharp pain – we never want that in any practice!). The intention is to gradually improve flexibility and mobility. All levels of yoga students can benefit from a yin yoga practice. The meditative quality of  yin can also help with relaxation and tension relief.

RESTORATIVE YOGA

Restorative Yoga is a great antidote to chronic stress. In a class, you might just do a few poses (5 or 6) and you hold these poses for at least 5 minutes. Some supine poses are held even longer, up to 10 minutes. These long holds allow the body to gradually release into the pose and relax deeply and completely.

The body is supported by props. The various props are there to adapt the pose to fit the student’s body so long holds are possible. There is hardly any movement in the pose and this style requires much less effort than Yin Yoga. There is some passive stretching that happens as you stay in the pose for long periods of time but actively stretching is not the intention.

Restorative yoga can be a healing practice. It allows you to slow down and quiet down. It is an opportunity to alleviate adrenal fatigue that results from not giving the body enough time to rest and restore itself. It can be challenging and uncomfortable for the mind that is not used to stillness and silence. This is all part of the discipline of this style.

All levels of yoga students can benefit from this practice. It can also be used when one is recovering from injury, struggling with personal issues, or chronically fatigued.

Which style is right for you?

In the first few months or years of your yoga practice, it’s natural to be drawn to the style that is compatible with your personality. If you’re a goal-oriented and self-motivated type A individual, you may find challenging and sweaty Vinyasa classes appealing. You enjoy the constant movement, the intensity of the poses, and the upbeat music (with some teachers). If you’re more introverted or inner-directed, you may prefer the silence and stillness of Yin and Restorative. You appreciate the quiet approach, minimal stimulation, and less activity of the more passive practices.

This is all well and good. However, remember that yoga is also about bringing balance into our lives. I suggest you explore the practices that don’t initially appeal to you. Get out of your comfort zone and try the class that’s unfamiliar. Cultivate the opposite of your habitual patterns and tendencies. Yoga is about facing the discomfort and finding ease within that discomfort. And believe me, you will be mentally and emotionally uncomfortable whenever you try something new. The go-getter types might be bored and frustrated with just “sitting around doing nothing” in Yin or Restorative. The passive types might resist pushing themselves physically in strong flow classes. This is all part of the process as we continue exploring yoga and deepening our practice. You will probably always gravitate to the classes that are most familiar and comfortable for you;  but it is worth exploring the other styles to bring balance into your practice.

Yoga, Yoga Practice, Yoga Q & A, Yoga Tips

Yoga Injuries and How to Avoid Them

In this Q and A episode, Dilge Aydin asks, “Is there any way to get hurt doing yoga? If so, how should we make sure that we are doing it right?” I share my thoughts on yoga injuries, body awareness, ego-driven practice, competitiveness, use of mirrors in yoga, and more.