What a person typically looks for from a personal trainer when they seek one out is typically different from what they look for from a yoga teacher. Just so the usual image of that a trainer looks and acts like tends to be different. Less so today, when there is so much overlap, with trainers starting to teach yoga, and yoga teachers offering individualized services that are more westernized than they used to be. If I talk about my personal trainer to my friend they may visualize someone with low body fat, lots of visable muscles, and a generally forceful and no nonsense personality. It used to be I would add 'male' to that list, but I think that is a truth and a stereotype that is becoming less and less common. If I talk about my yoga teacher I suspect they will visualize someone (usually a female) with leggings, and flowing scarves, and dangly earrings, with a crystal or a silver 'om' (always silver of course) who is very calm or very effusive, but MUCH more emotive than the trainer.
Of course, the reality is that there are a lot of differet types of people in both fields. It is also true that how good one is at what one does is not in direct relationship to looking like what someone else sees as 'typical' for that job. And it is true some people go out of their way to adopt a stereotypical look in order to do better in their career. Not all good trainers have huge biceps; not all good yoga teachers wear their 'om's on their sleeves.
The other thing I find interesting is what is similar in how a good trainer and a good yoga instructor engage with a new student. If a new student/client enters the door the first thing the teacher/trainer wants is understanding and connection. The trainer generally will have the advantage of a first meeting that will specifically elicit specific information. The teacher, unless they are also an owner of a single business who has the opportunity to interview each new student, will tend to get it more slowly. But what we both need to know is basically the same:
We want to get to know the person before us within their multidimensional truth.
We want to help them set goals both long and short term for where they want to go.
Where have they been?
What are their previous exercise habits? (that is often apparent when I watch someone in class) What injuries have they had? (sometimes you can tell that as well, if it is not too long ago) How much experience with exercise or yoga have they had? As a yoga teacher I am interested in riding the lines of stretch and movement, and I believe understanding what has brought you to where you are can help you move past it. Not that I have any interest in doing therapy with my students. That is outside of my scope of practice. But as they learn to be present they do it with themselves.... “I was injured here and even though it is healed I hold it tight as I fear the possibility of pain”, or “I do not easily breath through my entire breath because I have been hurt by being called 'fat' and learned to hold in that energy without even thinking about it'. It is not that we want to relive old experiences, it is that we want to find the places we have closed and create a path that is safe to open them. The trainer wants to find a way to allow the client to shift habits to allow change and growth. Again, it is not by walking through the past, but by understanding it.
Who are they now?
What are their current health habits (smoking, diet, but also social engagement within a healthful or unhealthful community, .... a big predictor of ease of establishing new habits). Both the trainer and the instructor will be interested in the student/client's current level of ability, as well as their liabilities. This tells us how we can best communicate (I will explain something in two different ways in the same class if I know I have a PT there working beside someone relatively new). And it also tells us where on the path we should start.
The trainer has the ability to begin with a series of tests to understand the baseline. This can be very helpful, particularly if the trainer starts with tests for form and alignment before they do tests for strength and flexibility and cardiorespiratory endurance. When I first worked in gyms we often went straight to testing number of pushups, or sit ups. Today I think many trainers understand the value of assessing form and mobility before the push up thing. The yoga teacher is not typically set up to do such testing, but rest assured we are watching as you move to try to understand, and to try to help you see where you are not as a sign of weakness, but as an understanding of where you are beginning. This new beginning happens every time we step on the mat.
Where do they want to go?
In yoga we pretty much start every class by stopping to be present to that question. Every class, like every day is a new opportunity. Like the trainer goals are important, though we may not be as organized in setting long and short term ones. However, if I know someone wants to work toward ski season, or wants to release the stress of too much snow shovelling my practice with them will shift toward these goals. The work the trainer does in helping the client set such goals is absolutely as important as teaching him or her to lift a dumbell.
The principles we use in working with a new student are quite similar:
Understand the client/student
Set goals and tailor the practice toword those goals
Begin where the student/client is (generally and specifically)
Start simple and work from there (get the form first before making the weight greater, the number of joints increased, or the pose more complex, warm up before working more intensely or deeper)
Balance the work: front and back of body, opposing actions or muscle groups, work not to the point of collapse or muscle damage, but work enough for progress and growth, rest enough for the body (or mind or spirit) to heal and regain homeostasis and be ready to come to the mat (or the gym) again.
Most people who have enough resources to eat out from time to time have gone to a restaurant where the complexity and display of the food is more pronounced than its ability to nourish (or sometimes its flavor). This is a cultural dichotomy: simple comfort food, and food as art. My favorite meal is a cup of assam, an orange, some almonds, and a piece of bread. But I also enjoy paella and cassoulet. I just know I've been served food where breading and gravy and garnish is hiding a base that is dry and tasteless. I think this duality plays out in a lot of different places. Think about going to the spa to have a beauty treatment....
The thing is, complexity is not the opposite of good: complexity is the oppostie of simplicity. But if complexity is achieved without each part being well done, and without the parts being arranged well in relationship to eachother. One dancer kicking out of step is quite noticable in a line of 20. And at the spa you may get 20 different preperations and treatments, each of which have different benefits. However, if you have not done the simple daily care of staying hydrated, moisturizing, and cleaning off the daily grime the effects of these extras will be lessened.
I think people tend to try for complexity for a variety of reasons. For one thing if you are selling a product or service you need to stand out. And if you are advertising and using a visual the more eye popping the image the more attention you will command. Also, there is what the Buddhists call 'monkey mind'. People tend to get bored. It is true the other side of that dichotomy is that we crave the familiar …. I can remember after being in Rome for almost a week my husband going in search of a familiar American style dinner. But again, if one is trying to get people to try something you are offering it is easier to get them in the door with something really different.
This plays out in the world of fitness and yoga as well. Gyms will try to get people in the door with the newest, hottest thing. And the more that thing plays to the edges the more it can stand out. It was true decades ago in aerobic dance. I blogged about this a while ago. I found a cache of old tapes and looked at the beats per minute. It was particularly true with step. There was a speed at which it was done, but over time those beats started to edge up.... because people wanted to be continued to be stimulated, and because teachers also wanted to be stimulated, as well as to stand out. The choreography as well got so complex that a lot of people couldn't follow it.
There are a few themes at play here: The pull between simple and complex, the pull between what is known and comfortable and what is new and exciting, and the need to have a strong base before you build complexity.
Part of what has me thinking about this is a brief conversation I had with a woman in line to buy lunch when I recently attended the annual convention of fitness professionals in Anaheim. (That was, by the way, an experience I would recommend to any fitness professional who can afford to go. I certainly cannot do so regularly, and generally prefer to spend my training funds on yoga, but it is worth doing. Almost all of the presenters I had represented the absolute best the industry has to offer.) We were chatting and she told me she did yoga, so I asked about it, as I am always interested in what other people are doing. She told me about a 'new' form she was planning to 'launch' and start to offer training to other teachers. In her description she used the word 'cute'.
Here is the thing. There are lots of ways to understand and practice yoga. Its adaptability and fluidity is one of the things that keeps it fresh and interesting. But (and this is a big but) are you building your creative interpretation on a depth of understanding of the basic bedrock of the practice? And are you building your interpretation in order to be able to get notice and sell it? Does your interpretation offer something that will enhance health benefits, or self understanding? As with that plate of dinner placed in front of you at the restaurant.... if the ingredients are not top notch, and if the chef is not a master at putting them together you can end up with something flashy but not much else. Remember that simple is not necessarily inelegant, and lack of quality can be hidden under the gilding. (Or as my mom used to say when I first learned to bake a cake.... frosting can hide a lot of sins).
I am not against complexity in any of the physical disciplines I practice. We are back to Aristotle here (all my students groan). It is not that simplicity is your savior and complexity the enemy. They complement eachother.
How does this play out in our daily yoga practice?
The first principle is to start by knowing what we want and need. If the postures are (as I've said before) tools to open and explore the multidimensional self, we need to figure out what sort of tools are likely to be helpful. Sometimes there are specific things: I am tight in my hamstrings because I run, I had a shoulder injury and my PT wanted me to do yoga to help with range of motion. Sometimes they are more general: I am very anxious and want to learn some self calming techniques, I exercise a lot and want general flexibility. Specific areas of interest will lead you to add specific postures and sequences into the mix. And specific injuries or conditions will lead you to put aside some tools. A fancy expensive treadmill is sometimes very helpful, but not for everyone in every case. (And when you are figuring out what tools you need always look for advice first from those who will not profit from upselling you).
The second principle is to start simple and work to complex. When I create or adapt or explore a vinyasa I begin with a base and add layers. I am always hopeful that each student will get the base before exploring the adaptations, and that each student will add only those adaptations that are safe and helpful to them, and move into the layers only so far and only when it is safe and helpful to them.
The third principle is that just because a posture can get into more and more complex variations it doesn't mean that you need to do them all. Complexity for the sake of complexity is about ego and not about progress. The photo of the slim and well muscled model oiled and half naked balancing on their hands with their toes on their forehead may get your attention but the truth of yoga is in its principles and the daily practice and not in pretty pictures of difficult postures. The day may come when you find yourself lifing into parsva bakasana.... or not. Self understanding, self compassion, and love, understanding and compassion that flow outward, improved health, range of motion, strength, fluidity, balance, mental focus and clarity are not equivalent to fancy postures. The line of practice of yoga can lead to those places but it is not those places. If your practice leads there that is fine. Or not.
The final principle is one I have blogged about a lot, because it is really central. The physical dimension is only one aspect of the self. If the benefits of yoga are to extend toward our whole self its practice must open into more than the physical postures. If you are going to engage in complex and difficult vinyasas and postures that practice should not be undertaken at the expense of, or before exploring the mental, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, creative, social/communal self.
The exact number of asanas recognized in yoga is not universally recognized. This is partly because there are lots of variations on certain basic postures, and a there is always the question of where you draw the line of recognizing small shifts as individual postures. Those small shifts can make enormous differences in how moving through and holding the posture effects the body, but it is possible to draw the line so fine that it becomes impossible to speak about the postures efficiently. And I always feel (as I've blogged about before) that the spaces between the postures, and the way we ride those spaces are as important as the places we choose to name.
Different styles and different schools of yoga give pride of place to different asanas and different sequences of asanas and different ways of moving between those asanas. As well asanas shift in their popularity over time. Lotus (padmanasana) was at one time one of the most recognized yoga postures; one people would think of if they thought of yoga. It is not widely practiced these days. Downward facing dog (adho mukta svanasana) is one of the most recognized yoga poses today. It is central to the practice of vinyasa yoga as we receive it through the lineage of Sri. K Patthabi Jois. Part of what makes it so common is its simplicity. The simplest postures tend to be those that ride the lines of stretch/energy most directly. They form the bases from which variations can spring: Mountain pose (Tadasana), Corpse pose (Shavasana), Tree (Vriksasana), Easy Seated posture (Supasana), Cobra (Bhujangasana) and a few others. We could argue about which to include here, but these are some.
There is a cooking magazine called Cooks Illustrated. It differs from a cook book, or recipe site, because it although it does give recipes and amounts, it also talks about how they thought out the issue of how to use the ingredients and the processes to create certain effects. I would like to share some of my thoughts on down dog, but I hope you will use it more like those Cooks Illustrated articles. Remember (as I say ad nauseum) that the postures are tools. Think about what you want to do and why, and then find the best tool for that use, and adapt how you use it to get closer to what you want.
Downward Facing Dog
Typically when one breaks down a posture there are certain things one talks about.
Contraindications: i.e. Why someone should not do it.
There are usually a few absolute contraindications, as for instance late stage pregnancy is not a good time for a posture like this. Some wrist and arm injuries can make it problematic, as can rotator cuff injury. Any condition where you do not want the head lower than the chest. My general rule is to use the golden triangle: speak to your doctor or medical provider, listen to your own body without ego and judgement, but with compassion and self understanding, and ask your yoga instructor for feedback. These 3 parts each offer a different perspective and together they help us to find our path. The medical provider understands the specifics of your health conditions, the yoga instructor understands the intricacies of the postures and the ways their effects, and you live in your own body and can feel from within.
Benefits: i.e. Why someone should do it.
One sees a lot of lists of benefits from postures. I think it is really helpful to have a mix of an open mind and a bit of scepticism. I always like to see the research.... does some site say there is a benefit because they saw it on a bunch of other sites? Are they referencing medical guidelines (like the ACOG guidelines for exercise and pregnancy) that are based on a large quantity of generally well designed research? Not everything is going to have research, and research gives general answers that may not be the same for everyone.... so I think we look for the middle ground. If it isn't contraindicated and it doesn't hurt try it out and see how it feels. Enter slowly enough to avoid getting into a place that is harmful.
Generally speaking down dog has the capacity to stretch the back of the legs and the chest and shoulders. It can also be strengthening to the body as a whole. It works very well with other poses in a vinyasa to create fluidity of movement. It gives a deeper stretch to the lower legs than a lot of other postures. And it can, with a few adaptations, form a base for a lot of other stretching and strengthening movements.
Preperation: i.e. How to get into it
I am not going to give you a step by step guide for entering the pose, or a long list of postures to do before you tackle dog. If you have done much yoga you have already done so, and if you haven't you will do better to start with an actual class with a teacher, or if this is absolutely not available to you (and if you are physically cleared to try yoga) to see if you can find a safe and appropriate DVD. In any case there are a lot of postural explanations on the internet to be googled, with nice photos or drawings better than what I can explain with words.
Alignment:i.e. How to Be in it
These are some of the general things I focus on when I have people in my class tackle dog.
In down dog there is an acute angle between the foot and the shin. The tighter the hamstrings or calf muscles the harder this is to achieve. So people will often enter compensations: heels hanging in the air, hands moving toward the feet so that the angle becomes closer to a right angle, back rounding, knees bending. I think the heels need to be rooted. If they are left hanging in the air the legs will maintain a high level of tension as they protect themselves from being over stretched. This will get in the way of the muscle relaxation that will help the area to stretch, and will make it harder to get the mind and body to the place by the end of class where true relaxation and meditation can occur. My preference is to put something under the heels so that they can stretch and the body can release into the pose AND where the pressure can be taken off the upper body and back so they can release their tension. I prefer a rolled mat to a block. The problem with the block is the edge can push into the plantar fascia, which I think is not desirable. Also the rolled mat gives a bit, so it allows for transfer of force between the floor and the leg. I do sometimes use the wall. In other words I position the mat with the short end touching the wall, and walk the heel back to touch the wall as far up the wall from the floor as each person needs to keep the upper body in aligned position. This is also a great position to do tail on the dog, and to walk up the wall into standing split (or as close to it as is comfortable).
I would rather see someone put the pad under the heel than let the heel dangle. I would also rather them do that then bend the knees. The knees are the second place we need to focus. To see what I mean here we need to think about the musculoskeletal anatomy of the back of the leg. The achilles tendon attaches to the heel. Out of the achilles tendon run two muscles. The gastrocnemicus attaches above the knee, and the soleus attaches below. So when the foot is planted and the lower leg moves forward the achilles tendon stretches. If the knee is straight the muscle above the knee stretches, and if it is bent the other stretches. So when I hold dog I will often release one knee at a time for a few breaths to work into both of these areas. And then I will bend both knees very slightly, and press down a bit on the heels to move into that lower muscle by releasing the other. However, if the knees are always bent the hamstrings, which are attached below the knee will not be as fully engaged.
Does that mean one should always be pushing to straighten the legs? No. If there is pain in the low back, or the knees, or anywhere, or if there is an injury or a recent surgery, or a knee replacement... well, there are a lot of reasons why someone would not fully extend. How does each person judge? Go back to strong triangle.
The hip is the fulcrum of the posture. The tilt of the hip helps to keep the spine long, and the legs aligned. But I tend to cue the pelvic tilt from the low back and belly. They work together. I have blogged elsewhere about the bandhas, and mulha bandha in particular, so I will suggest you read that if you are not sure of how to engage that. I think it is essential to avoiding strain on the low back, as well as to keep form. One of my favorite cues here is to imagine one is wearing Max's wolf suit from Where the Wild Things Are, and then to imagine lifting the tail high. I also like to suggest imagining bringing the navel to the thigh. The more rounded the upper and mid back are the less acute the angle between the legs and the core. Lifting the seat and allowing natural lumbar curve will allow opening in the legs, as well as a stable base to stretch the back and shoulders.
I would also suggest the value of a side lift or twist here. If this posture is taken as only involving the frontal plane (a 2 dimensional movement) it will effect less well those muscles that act on a rotational or side moving plane. Here is an example of what I mean. Come into down dog. Lift one leg into tail on the dog. This is movement in one plane. Draw the right knee toward the chest and then lengthen the leg up into tail on the dog. This is still all movement in one plane, but by pushing in your pushing out is often deeper, and the range of motion around that hip joint is fuller. Now with the leg lifted externally rotate the femur of the leg in the air. As you do that the whole body tips sideways. Inner thigh muscles stretch, (and if you bend the knee the gracilis gets an even deeper stretch), the psoas stretch deepens, and above the hips the obliques become more involved. Now, as you hold this slightly lift the elbow and look under the arm. This really helps to engage the rmid back and open the chest. I find that tail on the dog and then coming back to dog makes dog deeper.
This same opening of the chest by external rotation of the humerus can be done in down dog by a slight movement of the hands. I will cue to imagine the shape between the hands as a rectangle or square, and to imagine you want to make a triangle, or heart. It really is only a few degrees of internal rotation of the hand and a lift of the elbow, that then opens into the arm pit, and into that space we lift the rib cage.
Clearly not everyone will be comfortable creating a straight line from hand to tailbone. In fact I think I've blogged a few times about how much more shoulder tightness and upper back rounding I've seen in the last 10 or 15 years. I actually for some years have included daily opening work for my own shoulders: we all spend too much time in front of key boards and I think some work to balance this is essential (see my blogs on desk and travel yoga). If the shoulders are so tight that the angle at the wrist is not wide enough it may be preferable to do dolphin, or do dog on the wall, or to stay away from dog and do shoulder openers that do not involve putting the weight on the hands. At the very least it will be important to shorten the time holding the posture. This is another one of those golden triangle moments.... each person making some decisions about what works best for them. We definitely want to work toward at least a right angle at the wrist, and preferably past a right angle in the opposite direction to the ankles. I've tried various pads for tight wrists and have not been fully satisfied with any. The best I like is a 2 inch gel ball under the palm. The problem is that if the wrist is not open enough I think it is usually because the shoulders are tight, and it may be better to stay off the wrist and use other shoulder openers until that problem is addressed.
I especially like strengthening postures taken out of dog, such as dolphin, or dolphin with one leg extended. And I like to do a yoga push up from dolphin, bringing the breast bone toward the knuckles and back. I really like those sorts of movements that explore range of motion around a joint, while building strength further along the chain. In this strength and flexibility work together.
Every posture can be pulled apart in this way. It is kind of like disection in that it gives us a better idea of how things hang together. But the best way to explore dog, or any posture is to approach it as a living organism.... find how it opens into the breath, and how the breath opens into it.... do it in conjunction with other postures, and explore those sequences.
A bicep curl is a movement where a muscle called the biceps brachii shortens to pull the forearm up into flexion.
This is something that gets done a lot in fitness. We break down specific movements of specific muscles to work and 'sculpt' them either to look or to function in particular ways. But just as you can break apart a poem to discuss the meanings of particular words or phrases, but the meaning is more to be found and understood in putting it back together and reading it as a whole, so too we understand the ways the body moves when we step back and see it as a whole, and as a whole in context.
The way the body moves is not chaotic. Movement has both coherence and context. It is complex, and intricate, but it does follow the same rules of the physical universe as everything else. I think this is some of what Einstein meant when he said that he did not think that God plays dice with the universe. This is also why science works, how we are able to have language, and why philosophers have been able for thousands of years to look around them and attempt to organize their understanding of people and the world with concepts like 'synthetic a priori'. Science is a tool for understanding the world and ourselves, and math is the language of that tool, and philosophy, at its best is about finding connections within this web of knowledge and expressing those connections. Yoga is a physical discipline, but one that seeks not just to create complex physical movement, but to be self aware of the dimensions of that movement, both spiritual and scientific.
When we enter a posture in yoga we are either stretching or contracting a series of muscles. Generally each muscle has an origin and an insertion on a bone. When I contract that biceps brachii it shortens and pulls the lower arm up, but that only works if the other part of the lever is attached at the shoulder. And the shoulder is not floating in space... it is also attached to the ribs and spine, and the ribs and spine to the hips and legs, and the legs balanced on the feet, and the feet standing on the earth. I have blogged about balance, and how balance work presupposes that we exist within a multidimensional space time frame of reference.... that we balance not just each part of the self against other parts of the self, but the self in relationship to the world around it (and gravity is one of the biggest actors in this relationsip).
I blogged recently about the fascia and the web of connective tissue that envelopes the body, and helps to support the body. Bones and muscles create joints where distinct movements occur. Joints work with eachother to create complex movement patterns. Connective tissue binds together the whole to create a tensile integrity to the system, and the whole works in balance with the world around it.
Any movement, however simple, has a relationship to the whole body, and the whole body has a relationship to the earth, to gravity, and to the other forces that relate to the physical world. Running, for example propels one forward by the relationship of the forces and energy as we push into the ground.
If I stand in tall mountain, bring my hands together, and move my arms sideways into moon, my hip tends to move naturally to the other side. If it did not I would loose balance and fall over.
The production of human movement is both functional and elegant. I see people all the time laugh at or judge themselves in yoga class. They feel and describe themselves as awkward. Yet, what I see is beautiful and profound, even where someone is exploring new territory, or working with a movement pattern that is new.... think how complex are the forces and mechanics in play. Neurons fire, messages are sent through a neuromuscular junction, sensory organs within the connective tissues are stimulated, fibers within the extracellular matrix realign, one or more muscles contract in relationship with eachother to produce a very specific movement, other muscles contract to stabalize the movement desired, the whole system adjusts itself to the effects of the force of gravity, the diaphragm contracts, breath rushes in, oxygen crosses the barrier of the alvioli in the lungs and rides a red blood cell, like a person white water rafting, through the heart and down to the working muscles, finally joining with stored energy from the food we take in (yet another complex and beautiful aspect of human function), energy bonds are broken, and energy released that allows the arm to lift, within the joints themselves smooth linings allow the bones to move with fluidity rather than grinding..... How can the movement we often take in our yoga from prayer posture into tall mountain, and into moon not be anything other than beautiful and profound, and elegant?
At the beginning of class I often invite people to put their stress and anxieties into an imaginary backpack and to store it in the back of the class. It is not just stress and anxiety that we need to put away, but also that self critical voice that so much of our culture has fostered in us. If we can step back from the personal and look at the way that the personal interconnects with and participates within an intricate web of being and time, of matter and energy, of forces, and structure and all of it breathing and pulsating, and all of it intertwined we can come back to the personal and see it in a new way. Rather than describing ourselves as tight, or dumpy, or whatever term of surface level critique we are want to use, we can look beneath to the absolute joy and beauty of the movement, and the way that it connects us to the entirety of what is.
“The entire objective world is merely the primitive, as yet unconscious, poetry of the spirit.” Schleiermacher
If you were hunting or gathering in the forest a couple of thousand years ago you would need to adopt a practice of taking great care of the plants that were poisenous, and the animals that considered you as a potential meal. While a bear or a lion is unlikely to jump on you from behind the bakery counter there are plenty of traps and poisens. The same self protective way of being is helpful when you food shop today.
In our society there are those that grow food and raise animals for food. Then there are those that process and package and sell that food. And there are the consumers. But that middle tier also includes a lot of people who are hired to figure out how best to show the wares. Some of the ways this is done are honest, some simply are incomplete (why tell people what won't make them buy the product), some are mildly misleading, and some are quite unethical. Bottom line is that you need to do more than just buy what is pretty, or believe everything you are told.
Before You Shop
Figure out what is important to you: Controlling hypertension? Weight control? Supporting sustainable farming practices? Not eating animals that have been treated inhumanely? Buying local? Eating as healthfully as possible on a tight budget? I know people who avoid red meat because it has a huge carbon footprint and they are deeply concerned about world hunger. I know people who try to buy organic because they are concerned about pesticide run off in the water. I know people who are vegan because they cannot support the treatment of animals in the current system. Your choices should reflect both your practical economic conditions and your values.
As a yoga teacher I will ask you to direct your compassion inward and outward. You cannot solve all the world's problems. You are unlikely in this world without huge resources to be able to eat perfectly healthfully. But, to borrow a quote, just because you cannot do everything do not fail to do what you can. Be compassionate to yourself. If you end up at Subway or Wendy's no beating yourself up.... just keep trying to live your values.
Do some research. Once you know your main areas of concern you can more easily figure out what you need to know to shop your needs and values. If you are doing research online the best rule of thumb is before you read and trust a site ask what the agenda is of the people who are providing the information. If they are selling something, or promoting an industry they may still tell the truth (or part of it) but it is really good to double check with sites that have no profit motive. In terms of basic food information I like some of the USDA sites www.choosemyplate.gov for example. And of course www.consumerreports.org , If you can work back to original research and data it is always better.
Some Practical Ideas
I've read that it is better to choose a cart over a hand basket if you want to avoid highly processed, higher fat items, as there seems to be some association with buying more of those if you take a hand basket.
Read Ingredients. I do not one hundred percent do the... over a certain number of ingredients don't buy it, but I do compare my choices and consider that whatever I am buying is going into my and my children's bodies.
Don't Read the Big Print. A lot of stuff on labels falls into that slightly misleading or incomplete category. 'Natural'? They think that word will make you buy it as most people want to be healthier and natural sounds healthy. The government does not regulate the use or meaning of that word. Turn the package over and actually read the nutrition information and the ingredients.
If you can shop with a friend do so, but try to choose the friend who is not an oreo junkie. I've seen a lot of studies that suggest having a circle supportive of your health goals is one of the best predictors of success there is. And it is less tedious.
If you have the time to do so try to do menus for the week, and/or a regular shopping list. Sometimes you do have to think on your feet. If avocados are on sale it might be a night for omlettes with salsa and avocado, rather than baked chicken. But it can be helpful to know what you want in advance..... every time you have to make a quick trip to get a bottle of rice vinegar or butter you are more likely to fall to the lure of the unhealthy packaged stuff. I print off recipes and leave them on my desk in a pile for the week. I can carry them with me to the store, and quickly access them on the next day , or scan tomorrows to see if I can do some quick prep the night before.
Remember that as a general rule the profit is MUCH higher the more packaging, so they are really going to want to sell you those things. However the store wanting to sell you something doesn't mean you need to buy it.
Organic is good, but not all organics are equal. When I was young you didn't have highly processed organic products... you went to the local co op, and the people selling it were selling it not to make a huge profit, but because they believed in it. I shopped at GLUT co op in Maryland, and I do so miss that place. These days organic means bigger profits, and a lot of people on the bandwagon are looking for the closest they can sail to the wind and still get that label. So find one of those ubiquitous lists of which fruits and vegetables make the most sense to buy organic and focus on those if you need to be careful of budget. Read about the different agencies who certify organic and learn which are the most trustworthy. And remember that a highly processed and packaged product is still not great for the environment, very expensive, and likely pretty caloric by weight. If you have the time try baking some cookies.
Don't shop on an empty stomach (duh)
Don't shop when exhausted (if at all possible, and I know neither 8 or 9 is always possible)
Beyond the Market
I would suggest looking into CSA packages, and local co ops, and Farmer's markets. These can be good sources to get specific items.
And while most of us are not going to be able to do the Little House on the Prarie thing, we can all try to do more food production ourselves. As a yoga practitioner I find the making of food to be a spiritual and meditative process. When I make bread I love to smell the yeast, and to feel the dough beneath my hands. I love the smell as it bakes, and I love to share it with my family and friends. Baking is one of the simplest ways to take back from big business some of our own nourishment. But there are lots of things to try, and so much to learn about ourselves in doing so. We can grow herbs, or vegetables, we can pot jam, or make yoghurt, or make pickles (I've done all of those at one time or another). I have friends who keep bees and get their own honey, or tap their trees and make maple syrup. I have friends who keep chickens for eggs. What we learn when we learn to turn a seed into a plant, and a plant into a salad is one of the deepest and most valuable things we will learn. What we gain when we share food made with our own hands is a human connection more fundimental than any facebook meme you can post. And when such things are eaten fresh the sensory pleasure will be beyond anything any of the prepackaged varieties can offer.
Every once in a while in yoga class I will find myself saying “And there we are back to Aristotle.” When I say that it doesn't mean that I want to reference Aristotle's entire philosophical work, or even his entire ethics, but that I think yoga plays out his contention that the good is to be found in a balanced state between lack and excess. To give a really oversimplified example: self starvation is bad, and gluttony is bad, but healthy eating is good. This concept that Aristotle talks about in the discussion of virtue and human behavior is also a vital concept to understand in how the living form generally, and the human form specifically functions.
In exercise science we talk about homeostasis. Almost every system or structure within the human body is balanced against others. Think about what I just wrote recently about the tensile integrity of the connective tissues and how the muscles and bones create balance against gravity. (http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/massage-fascia-yoga-and-foam-rollers-yes-they-really-do-connect ) Think about the flight or fight responses and how the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems balance eachother. In yoga we work to create balance between these systems. (http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/stress-reduction-and-meditation-in-the-practice-of-yoga ) The same balance works out within the physiology of energy intake and use. Think about how the catacholamines and insulin balance eachother in the use of fat.
I could teach someone the names of some of the major balance postures of yoga, and how to align them, and even how to teach how to get into and hold the poses within a few hours. But the major point here is that that person would not then really be teaching yoga because what you are learning when you stand on one foot in yoga is about a lot more than just being able to stand on one leg, or even stand on one let and pull the other one up behind you while artfully sticking the other one in front of you. (Yes, the picture on my facebook yoga page has me in that exact posture). Balance is about physically standing on one leg in the same way that cooking is about being able to cut an onion into small neat pieces.
As a yoga teacher I am not going to make dietary plans for my students. I am not a trained nutritionist. But yoga does have a lot to say about the context of food within our lives. Yoga has a lot to say about how we are mindful about how, and when, and what we choose to eat.... and about why those choices are made. I wrote about this in the context of the question of vegetarianism ( blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/so-what-does-vegetarianism-have-to-do-with-yoga )
But there is something else that is even more important than the idea of balance. The basic principle that drives yoga is ahimsa. You can understand this as non violence. I prefer to think of it as compassion, or kindness. A person can be non violent, but still cold and uncaring.... and I think more truly yoga only works because it acnowledges and seeks to fan the flame in each of us and collectively to see the value in all life. Another thing I say a lot is that truth and compassion are the two balanced guiding lights to our process on the mat. We seek to find our truth, but to accept it with kindness and understanding, and not judgement and anger.
Yoga has a lot to offer to anyone who wants to eat more mindfully, or more healthfully, or even to fight unhealthful levels of weight gain. But it is not in how many calories are burned by doing the postures as fast as possible. (This is not to say that there may not be good to be had in playing with how quickly postures are done, just that if you are doing it to burn calories you might be better to go out on your bike).
One of the common themes of yoga is balance (physical, mental, spiritual). One of the common themes of my teaching when I am thinking about our connection downward to the earth, and the way we lift upward with control is the strong triangle. Shavasana is one of the major postures chosen for rest because it requires little muscular tension to maintain. Cat position may be hard if one's knees are compromised, but try lifting one limb and you can feel how you begin to tighten to hold the position. Lift two and this is more difficult. Headstand is one of the best examples of how a triangle creates a very stable base for a lift that would normally be difficult for most of us to hold.
I think that idea of strong triangle is very useful when thinking about our relationship to food. The old fitness model was calories in/calories out, or diet/exercise. I think that model is like taking a headstand and trying to lift one arm, or taking a 3 legged stool and cutting off one leg. It makes it rather difficult to maintain balance.
If one exercises a lot, but never thinks about what one is eating that is like a one legged stool. The same is if one takes a great care measuring and carefully counting calories, or even considering what kind of calories one takes in, but never puts down the remote and gets off the couch. But what I am saying is what fitness people have been saying for as long as I have been doing fitness. What we need is the third leg.
In my beginner mindfulness workshops I talk about the multidimensionality of the human existence. We all exist within many dimensions, and each dimension can be explored in many ways: If I exercise I am exploring my physical dimension. I can do that by taking a run (my cardiorespiratory capacity), or by lifting weights (my dimension of strength), by doing ballroom dance (aspects of grace, gross motor skills, balance, and so on). I can explore my creative dimension by making pottery, or playing the piano, or choreographing a dance, or writing a story. But they blend in to each other...it is more like a rug than like a bowl of glass marbles. Dancing can be physical and creative and intellectual all at once.
The third leg is the mind piece. It includes our mental, emotional, and social dimensions and those practices and habits that work toward health and balance in those dimensions. The most common expression in yoga is meditation, but that is only one of the tools in our box. Here is a concrete example: I am going to eat with some (fictional) family members with whom I have a stressful relationship. I face a table full of prepackaged food full of trans fat, empty calories, food coloring, and lots of alcohol,with people who simply push all my buttons. It is possible to count calories, or avoid food additives. It is possible to go earlier in the day and walk or run. But how do we strengthen ourselves mentally end emotionally to weather difficult times, to find our reserve of will power? How do we build social circles of people who support and encourage us in health,wellness and happiness?
The third leg is not yoga. Yoga is a discipline that, when done in a traditional fashion, encompasses an interest in what, why, and how we eat, as well as how we move our body. But, of course it is more than that. We call it a mind/body discipline. Think about what that means. In the practice of yoga we find a way to sit at the center of our many dimensions and balance them. We embrace a way of being in the world rooted in compassion and kindness to self and others. Exercise becomes part of our journey, and not a punishment for excess. Food becomes a joyful expression of kinship with our world and our community, and not a continued source of shame.
My plan in the next few weeks to do a whole series of blogs that will follow this topic (assuming I do not get distracted, or think there is something more important that needs to be said). I would be very happy if you wanted to share any of these with anyone you think might have interest, but I would love it if you do that if you send on the whole series, as my suspicion is that they will make more sense in sequence. If you are local and would like to work privately with me, or attend my classes, or ask questions you can comment on this blog, or go to my yoga facebook page.
And to all my students I echo what I often say after our classes: I wish you peace and joy in equal measure tomorrow, and next week, and next year.
The light in me greets the light in you
While I'm not sure that I will be able to give you anything as good as last year's holiday/end of year 'zombie twinkie' blog ( http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/the-requisite-holiday-survival-guide-because-of-course-we-will-be-running-from-hordes-of-zombie-twinkies ) I found a couple of handout s(while I was doing some end of year cleaning) that I had written almost 20 years ago, and I thought they still stand pretty well. (Except for some outdated technology references, and I think though I am less fit than 20 years ago I probably care more about kindness than muscles)
Today I am going to share my 'Ten Tips to Reduce Stress and Anxiety'. Next time I might offer the '5 Obsticles to Exercise, and How to Get Around Them'. Please keep in mind that not every tip is for every person. One or two on this list speak clearly to me, while others do not. As with my advice on yoga, and fitness... remember that we are all unique. Learn to look at yourself with kindness and truth, and take what you need and what calls to you from whatever sources you find.
Get enough Sleep
While you can go without a full night's sleep occasionally, regular lack of sleep can make one irritable, affect concentration, and cause you to ingest more caffeine and gain more weight. If you try to put your work down and let yourself have even an extra half hour or hour's sleep you may find that it is easier to get up a few minutes earlier for breakfast, and not have to rush to work, swearing at backed up traffic the whole way to work.
If you put some food in your stomach in the morning you will be less tempted by the jelly donuts and snack machines. Sugar is a strong physical stressor. Try some actual food in the morning, rather than just sugar and caffeine. (Note from my current self. I love strong tea with sugar in the morning, but I do feel much better when I have my Irish oatmeal, or a scrambled egg with some avocado.) Whole grains, lean protein, fresh fruit, yoghurt (read the label as some yoghurt has a ton of additives and sugar), beans, and smoothies are all good breakfast options.
Decrease Caffeine Intake
You wake up tired and dragged out: you have coffee. You drink a coke or two while working, hav ea chocolate bar for lunch, more coffee when the afternoon dumps hit... Our caffeine intake can add up quickly. It can add to dehydration, jangle our nerves, and make us more anxious. In large doses it can exacerbate heart arrhythmias. One study suggests that a third of anxiety ailments may be relieved by cutting out caffeine intake. One word of warning though: don't go cold turkey. You can have withdrawal symptoms, such as excruciating headaches. Gently tapering down intake is usually best. (Note from my current self: I knew someone who decided to go cold turkey on her honeymoon. It did not go well). In this as in all things, moderation is key. Caffeine can definitely be an ergogenic aid, and it does not bother everyone. But if you are overstressed and / or anxious this is something to consider.
The human stress response was originally adapted to physical stress. If a giant animal races from the bushes, mouth open, toward you, it is good to have a body which can immediately run up a tree, or grab a large stick to defend itself. Today our bodies have much the same physical response to mental stress (aggravating bosses, aggravating employees, aggravating customers, aggravating clients, aggravating traffic, etc....) as we used to need for instant battle. This is the “fight or flight” response. Physical exercise helps to restore the body's homeostasis by using what the hormonal and nervous systems have dumped in the body during stressful episodes. Aerobic exercise especially has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, as well as to increase a feeling of well being.
Reduce the Noise Level
If you have noisy appliances or office machinery, try to find a place away from the noise where you can go for a few minutes, just to let the head and ears rest. Such noise can increase stress levels, and make it harder to concentrate, which can also increase stress levels. Also try turning off the TV, Radio, (note from current self.... and I pod and all the myriad new ways we have to produce constant sound these days) just for a short time each day. Music can soothe us, and decrease stress levels, but again, balance is key. Sometimes one needs to turn it down, turn it off, and reset.
Meditate (or for beginners you can try the 1 minute vacation)
(Note from current self: research on the benefits of meditation has been ongoing, and only continues to point out the many benefits to reduction of stress. It is encouraging to me that while I clearly felt that for the audience I had for the original handout I couldn't talk as directly about meditation, today it is very mainstream) Here are instructions for the 1 minute vacation: Lean back in your chair, close your eyes, focusing only on feeling the breath, inhale as you slowly count to five, exhale as you slowly count to five, then open your eyes. Try to let the breath begin in the belly, rather than in the ribs, as though you have an empty sack just behind the navel which you are filling with air. This takes about 10 seconds (about the same amount of time as to swear internally at someone in the express line with twenty items, or to sharpen a pencil); 6 times a day is one minute
Look at a tree. Touch its bark. Smell the soil in which things grow. Look up at the clouds moving across the sky. Listen to the sounds of the birds, and see if you can recognize the different calls of different birds. Give yourself a few moments to connect with the larger world in which we live. Time moves in a different way for a redwood than for a corporation. You don't have to give up the latter to appreciate the serenity of the former.
Cut back on Alcohol
Drugs, such as alcochol, do not cure stress or take away what is causing it. What they can do is temporarily relieve stress symptoms, but can themselves stress the body, and may for some be habit forming. We are back to the 'moderation in all things' again. The occasional wine with dinner, or drink out with friends (unless one has an addictive personality or is going to be driving) is not an issue, and may carry some benefits. But if you find yourself regularly needing rather than wanting a drink, frequently drinking too much, blacking out after drinking... you would do well to talk to your doctor or other health care provider, as there may be serious health consequences beyone simply a raised stress level.
Learn to Say No
Are you superman/woman” Do you help everbody with everything? Do you stay up till midnight baking ten dozen cookies for a school project and get up at dawn to drive the car pool, before helping one coworker edit his manuscript, and another to polish her resume, while our own work piles up and comes home with you at night? Do you worry that people will not continue to like you if you turn down even one request? Sometimes not being able to say no can make you resent the people asking. People naturally support each other and turn to each other for support. And if someone is only going to interact you for what you can do for them you need to ask yourself whether this is a connection that was worth buying at that price? It is important ot recognize that it is great to help others as much as you can, but tha tsometimes it is ok to let someone else help them too. Sometimes it is even ok for you to ask for help. And if you are on a deadline for a big project it is good to be able to say “I can't do it this time, I'm too swamped.” Which leads us to:
Learn to Ask for Help
Sometimes this just means giving up being superman/woman enough to ask someone to help you with a big job. Sometimes it means, if things seem like they are just too much, considering seeing a doctor or other health provider. Please remember that compassion is not true compassion that does not reach inward as well as outward. Please treat yourself with kindness. Please remember that despite the despicable things some do, for most people compassion is at the human center. And when it moves beyond simple stress and normal anxiety it becomes so much more vital to ask. Admitting to depression, anxiety, and other conditions can be difficult. Some find it mortifying to ask for help, or to admit to oneself that one is not completely in control. But truly it is not more moral or praiseworthy to suffer needlessly in silence for something which is a human condition, and medically treatable.
I hope you all find yourselves in a place of health, hope, and kindness shining in and out as we reach the end of the year, and prepare for a new one. Namaste.
If you have never done yoga (an increasingly smaller set of people these days than when I was young) you might perceive yoga as doing stretches and head stands, and then sitting with your legs crossed. Once you start to do yoga you begin to realize that: 1. The postures, and categories of posture are extremely varied, 2. The postures build strength, alignment, balance, and all sorts of other dimensions of physical capacity than just flexibility, and 3. The postures that you see if you do a google image search, or buy a book, or get an ap of yoga postures are only a part of what is done on the mat. Bandhas, breathing techniques, the use of the gaze, sensory discipline.... there are a lot of other things going on during a typical practice. For the last year and a half or so I've been blogging I've tried to give my perspective on some of these parts of our practice.
Most people, even if they have not done yoga know that yoga tends to end by sitting or lying quietly in Shavasana or some similar quiet resting posture. (I have blogged elsewhere about Shavasana, and its importance both practical and philosophical as a part of one's yoga practice. http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/shavasana-and-meditation )
I think it is important to remember that while the time in Shavasana seems simple and straightforward, it is as complex, and in many ways deeper than the (typically) longer asana based part of the practice. Some of the tools in our box to deepen into this part of the practice are ancient, and some are quite modern. In my practice I embrace both categories. I want to use whatever tool I have that seems best suited to my need, or the needs of my student. Candles, meditation bowls, gongs, scent, incense, lighting, chanting, music can all be used. Readings can help direct the mind, just as the bends and twists help direct the muscles and connective tissues. Using mental imagery is a very powerful tool.
As we move into Thanksgiving week I would like to offer you something I find helpful to use when I come into my post asana place, especially if I feel the need or wish to help open that part of myself that is less analytic, and more emotive (or in a more yogic sense, to open my heart center).
So once you have taken what time you need to stretch, and strengthen, and flow, and braid together your breath and movement and thought, come to your mat, or your cushion, or your chair. Get comfortable. The point isn't to get into lotus because it looks cool, but to help your body to rest, so you do not have to be so focused on tightness, or discomfort. Take a few moments to notice and slow and deepen your breath. I usually suggest allowing the exhale to be slightly longer than the inhale, and to open gently into the edges of the breath.
Namaste. This is greeting, blessing, and farewell. The divine in me reaches to the divine in you... The light in me greets the light in you. This word is where we begin. Imagine you are looking at yourself in a mirror. You can see your skin, your hair.... all your outward appearance. You can see the lift of the chest as you breathe.
Now imagine shutting your eyes and feeling the breath. Imagine slipping down, under the skin, through muscle, and bone, and connective tissue, and organ... as though you were drifting toward sleep, drifting slowly into a quiet, peaceful darkness.
Notice, tiny at first, but growing steadily a flickering light. A candle, like a light in the window welcoming you home. Notice how the flame flickers with your breath (your prana, or life force). Remember that the breath is the thread that links the mind and body. Sometimes our light feels dim and low, sometimes crackling merrily as though we had fed it with pine cones, and sometimes warm and steady.... Wherever it is honor it, and observe it without judgement. Feel its warmth and light within you.
Now imagine opening your eyes to look outward. You can imagine you are in any place that holds special meaning to you: under the giant redwood trees in Muir woods, in the beautiful marble halls of some great museum, in an old, slightly shabby entirely comfortable family cabin by a lake... Notice the sounds... running water, laughter... the scents.... the dust of old books, the pungency of wet earth... the colors. Notice how the inner light leaps up, not just to the inherent beauty of that place, but to its memories and connections for you.
Now imagine someone (or several someones) who is dearest to you of all those you know. Again there is no judgement. For some this will be family of one's blood, for others family of choice, for others it may even include animal companions. Allow yourself to feel how much your light leaps up to meet them.
Look carefully at their outward manifestations. Can you see beneath their surface appearance to the light within? Can you move to look at yourself through their eyes? How would this person or these people look at you? Can you feel how their light leaps up to meet yours? Can you see yourself as capable of being loved, and trusted, and can you reach out to love and trust?
This, I think is the meaning of Namaste....
“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Albert Schweitzer
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving