Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Quote: Attention

"To perceive the truth, there must be a focusing of attention. This does not mean turning away from distraction. There is no such thing as distraction, because life is a movement and has to be understood as a total process."


Monday, January 25, 2010

It's Monday: You Look Like You Could Use A Mudra!

Plenty of experiences make us feel off balance and ungrounded, as if the rug is pulled out from under us or we're on a nonstop treadmill scrambling to keep it together, with varying levels of success. Working too much, sleeping too little, eating too much or too little; losing someone or something of value; gaining never-ending responsibilities-- there's no shortage of daily stressors, running the gamut in degree of intensity, to make us feel fried, frayed, and fatigued.

Each of us exhibits symptoms of feeling stressed or stretched beyond our limits differently. Some people get anxious, angry, forgetful, flighty, or all of the above. Ironically, when I am stretched beyond my limits, I literally lose my physical sense of center and become a klutz of perilous proportions. (Remember how I head-butted the overhead luggage bin on the Acela train last week? Prime example). Sure, it's entertaining for those around me (who doesn't love a good slip-on-a-banana-peel moment?), but I'm one unexpected telephone pole or oncoming truck away from serious injury.

Getting back to center can be easy or challenging, depending how far-gone you are. And, in truth, it's best to catch yourself from spiraling into uber crazed territory sooner than later. Hence, this is why we practice yoga and meditation . . .

As I've mentioned here before, mudras are an effective way to set a specific intention for a meditation practice, which brings me to bhu mudra (shown above), a very grounding, earthy mudra that is said to help practitioners find trust, grounding, and a sense of feeling rooted. It's important to note that not all stress manifests itself in a manner lacking solid ground. Depression, for example, can be very heavy, in which case you might want to try a more uplifting mudra. However, the type of tension to which I am referring today is an airier kind, a feeling of being unstable, unsteady, flying around like a whirling dervish for too much activity, stimulation, travel, responsibility, etc.

This mudra is the perfect antidote. I have been practicing it more regularly since learning it at an Ayurveda workshop at Kripalu last month, taught by Jennifer Reis. It's incredibly simple to try: Make "peace" signs with each of your hands, then root the tips of your pointer and middle fingers on each hand into the earth. You will immediately feel a sensation of "plugging" into the ground.

Close your eyes, sit still and breath deeply. As you do so, imagine your first chakra, residing at the tip of your tailbone, connecting to the floor beneath you. A mantra that inspires grounding can also help. Reis recommends saying to yourself or out loud, "I am grounded. I am connected."

Good luck getting grounded, yogis! If you have other mudras, asanas, or personal tricks that help you feel centered, please share.

[Photo taken in the yoga studio space, suspended above the beach and amidst the trees, at Jade, and eco hotel in Tulum, Mexico].

Friday, January 22, 2010

Friday, I'm in Love: Acro Yoga!

Gather round, friends. I have a confession . . .

The truth is: I'm a curmudgeon. Yup, it's true. For all the bright, bubbly blogging goodness shared here on OmGal.com, I still wrestle with plenty of your garden variety grumpiness on a daily basis. I simply choose not to subject you to it. (Do you really want to hear me whine about my parking tickets, personal relationship gaffes, recent bout of food poisoning, or the time last week when I nearly knocked myself unconscious on the Acela train after head-butting the overhead luggage bin? I'm thinking: probably not.). The goal of OmGal.com is to provide an online atmosphere filled with yoga and wellness inspiration and information. With that said, I take issue with yogis who put on airs that life is always perfect, filled with rainbows and doves and the implication that if you do not feel this way, well, then, you must not be a yogi. I'm sure you take issue with this too, so if you ever feel like this site is a oui bit too saccharin, feel free to call me on it.

Yoga enhances our lives, but it doesn't make us superhuman. The most yogic thing any of us can do in a given moment, on or off our mats, is to be authentic . . . Which brings me back to my original point: authentically speaking, I can be a chilly, reclusive, cranky, pain in the ass sometimes.

I'd like to blame the above on my New Englander heritage or our chilly winter weather at present. (Of course I'm a recluse; it's 4 degrees outside! Who wants to be social?), but that's no excuse. Just because the weather is frosty doesn't mean my attitude needs to follow suit.
Thankfully, I recently discovered a portal of yoga bliss that I want to share. It is Friday, I'm in Love after all, the semi-regular installment of people, places, or products that make me feel warm and fuzzy.

You heard right. This week's feature is an activity that managed to melt even my frigid New England soul. It's called Acro Yoga, a newly created blend of yoga and acrobatics, practiced with a partner, wherein students experience sensations of support, strength, and, yes, having the ability to fly.

Initially, I was skeptical of this style of practice, despite the fact that one of its most visible teachers is close personal friend Bonnie Argo (pictured above with fellow teacher Kadri Kurgun). Part of me is a recluse, remember? Therefore, I felt wary of sharing my yoga practice with someone else. Next, from what I had seen and heard, Acro seemed a bit too warm and fuzzy for me, a little too close for comfort, with all that hand-holding and possible sweat-dripping on each other. Finally, as an admitted yoga purist, I wondered if this yoga hybrid contained enough yoga for my taste.

Then, this cranky curmudgeon became a convert . . .

Class began and ended with some simple Vinyasa sequences to warm up and cool down, while the bulk of the class was comprised of movements ranging in difficulty and performed by two or more people. Disclaimer: my positive experience was definitely influenced by the fact that I was paired with my friend and former professional soccer playing goddess, Kate, of Lululemon (read: one strong chic who oozes inspiration). Together, we explored moves like the one above, despite both feeling at times scared, stretched, and skeptical. Yet, with gentle prodding and plenty of spotting by Bonnie and her team of Acro aces, we both experienced the joy of trying something new, exceeding expectations of ourselves and others, and discovering holy moly, we're pretty strong!

After class, I practically skipped home, down the icy sidewalks of Boylston Street, into another prematurely dark and frigid New England night, feeling warm and fuzzy all over. It seems that just as Boston was experiencing a cold snap, I snapped right out of my frosty ways.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Reader Query: Starting a Running Program

Dear Om Gal:

I recently (as in 2 minutes ago) allowed myself to be coaxed into doing a triathlon relay. It is in memory of a dear friend and incredible clinician who did Olympic distance ones and recently passed away about a month ago. I am going to participate in the run.

The truth is, I don't run. Not even a little bit unless someone is chasing me. Could you please give me some suggestions on how to start? It seems obvious. Place foot left, right, left right and repeat. But I want to do it without injury (i.e. making a total a$$ out of myself).

Thanks a million.


-I'm not into Tris but I'll try.

Dear Not into Tris But You'll Try:

Congratulations on committing to an athletic endeavor that will honor the memory of a friend and make you stronger in more ways than you realize now.

In truth, becoming a runner is as simple as you say: place foot left, right, left, right and repeat. However, simple is not synonymous with easy. Without knowing your time frame or distance, I can’t be too specific about a recommended training program. However, here are 5 essential tips to help make your journey to the starting line easier and ensure that you are ready for race day when it arrives.

Get the right shoes. Different shoes perform better at different distances, on different terrain, and in conjunction with different body types, so before you kick your training program into high gear, make sure your gear can fall in step with your goals. Many running stores are staffed with veritable human encyclopedias of the latest gear. Marathon Sports in my hometown of Boston epitomizes this service, where its team can analyze your gait, assess your needs, and recommend the right shoes to carry you to the finish. Runner's World magazine also publishes a thorough overview of the best sneakers on the market each year.

Start slow. My guess is that you are likely racing at the Sprint or Olympic triathlon distance, in which the running legs clock in at 3 or 6 miles respectively. Either way, you’ll need to begin by running one mile. As long as you start slow (bearing in mind that you can walk if needed), this should be relatively painless. From there, you’ll slowly increase your mileage over several weeks. Your pace is unimportant, just keep putting left foot in front of right, right in front of left, and repeating.

Go steady. Over time, your pace will naturally increase (and your need to walk will decline), provided you steadily and consistently stick to a schedule. There’s no need to overdo it, but schedule a few days of running each week and adhere to them no matter what. Crappy weather, crappy day at work, crappy night’s sleep: No excuses. Maintain the training schedule as best you can.

Cross-train to stay healthy. Of course you shouldn't stick to a running program if you are injured or ill. Instead, opt for cross-training activities such as yoga or swimming to let your body recover. Furthermore, you’ll be less prone to injury if you cross-train from the start. Most importantly, cross-training combats boredom, a pesky obstacle to any workout program.

Remember: not all miles are created equal. Sometimes, you cruise. Sometimes, you crawl. Sometimes, your miles are highly efficient masterpieces of graceful movement. Sometimes, you slog along, counting the minutes until you can check another training run off your list. Love it or hate it: this is the nature of running. Don’t despair when you have an off day. Don’t rest on your laurels after totally crushing it. Not all miles are created equal. Some are easy; some are hard. All are part of the journey, each one preparing you for your race in its own way.

Best of luck to you. May you have a healthy, happy, and inspiring run. And, on behalf of all the runners out there, welcome to the tribe, my friend.

Om shanti,


Monday, January 18, 2010

"Hey Baby, Nice Bandhas"

If you've been around the yoga block your fair share, you probably have an understanding of bandhas (the physical sensation of "locking" certain areas of the body to support asana practice) that ranges anywhere from vague to rock solid. Most likely, you're accustomed to hearing yoga teachers reference uddiyana-bandha when encouraging you to engage your core muscles by drawing your abdomen in and slightly up. However, you might be curious about other bandhas, their significance to the practice of yoga, and how to use them effectively.

To this end, here's a quick look at the most common bandhas, their meanings, and how they can enhance your practice.

Uddiyana-bandha- translates to mean "upward lock" and is easily accessed by pulling the lower abdomen inward and slightly upward. Think of yourself trying to zip up a pair of super skinny jeans; that's the action that occurs in your belly. While the word bandha often translates to mean "lock" or "constriction," it's important that we don't hold our breath or create tension in the body when engaging the bandhas. Think of your abdomen as being active but not overly tense, the muscles drawing in to support your spine, but you're not sucking in your gut or flexing your six-pack like a bodybuilder. Remember, you're doing yoga poses, not posing for your P90X "after" photo, Schwarzenegger style.

Today, it's not uncommon for yoga classes to include some version of "abs" within a more traditional sequence; however, rest assured, if you never did another crunch in your life, but you always engaged uddiyana-bandha while practicing yoga (and you practiced frequently), you would still have a super strong core. Promise.

In addition to building strength in your stomach and support for your spine, uddiyana-bandha also has energetic benefits. The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga (one of my go-to yoga resources) explains the concept of bandhas as "local stoppages of the flow of psychosomatic energy (prana)." I would add to that point that in addition to stopping energy from flowing, you are also channeling it in a given direction. For example, the key element is jumping from bakasana (crow pose) to chatarunga (low push up) is the drawing in of your belly. This "upward lock" is what allows you to jump up and out of the posture in one, streamlined motion.

Uddiyana-bandha is crucial to maintaining arm balances and inversions, protecting the spine in back bends, standing postures, and twists, and, yes, even looking slimmer and taller in a swimsuit.

Mula-bandha- If you've ever practiced a kegel or held the urge to pee on a long road trip with no rest-stop in sight, then you're already acquainted with mula-bandha, the sensation of drawing your "root lock" or pelvic floor in and up. Mula-bandha is most important in seated postures, where there might be a tendency to let all your weight sink into the floor. Being relaxed in seated postures is great, but the poses should remain energized and active. Jivamukti co-founder David Life once explained this feeling in an article for Yoga Journal by saying that mula-bandha makes the body "less earth-bound and more mobile."

Mula-bandha, given its resemblance to a kegel, might also control urinary incontinence, prepare for childbirth, and improve sex. Not usually a bad thing . . . Just saying.

Jalandhara-Bandha- Named for the ancient yogi Jalandhari, who is credited with initiating two kings into the tradition of yoga before his renunciation of the world, this bandha is used less often than the others. When practiced correctly, it serves to lengthen and protect the back of the neck. It also localizes the breath in the torso and lungs rather than the throat.

Accessing this bandha in shoulder stand is a helpful way to keep the cervical spine safe. Also, I encourage my students to use jalandhara-bandha while preparing to enter poses such as matyasana (fish pose) and ustrasana (camel), before dropping the head all the back. By initially drawing the chin in and upward, jalandhara-bandha creates awareness and mindfulness before the extreme movement of letting your head hang all the way backward.

Go ahead, yogis; get your bandhas in gear! As always, please feel free to post additional insights, questions, or experiences in the comments section.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Quote: Individuality

"Writers are taught to 'write what you know about.' The same advice applies to the quest for the power of the soul: be good at what you're good at. Many of us spend time and energy trying to be something that we are not. But this is a move against the soul, because individuality rises out of the soul as water rises out of the depths of the earth. We are who we are because of a special mix that makes up our soul."

-Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore

I love this quote. Don't you?

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Mudra for Your Monday

Meditation is hard. If you meditate regularly, you can attest to this fact. If you don't, you're probably even more aware of how challenging it can be to get started. In theory, the idea seems simple enough: Sit still, close your eyes, and breathe. Yet, in practice, it's a daunting face-off between you and your hectic schedule, the phone ringing, your itchy nose, the pins and needles in your feet from sitting cross-legged, and on and on . . .

There are several tools to help you connect to a meditation practice that works for you. Your breath (prana) and your gaze (drishti) are the two most obvious that come to mind; however, your hands can help too. By using your hands to form a mudra or seal, you set a tone for your meditation session and anchor your attention to a physical experience. Different mudras symbolize different meanings, evoke different feelings, and direct your focus in a slightly different way.

The above mudra is called padma mudra and is among one of my current favorites. Padma translates to mean lotus flower, and you'll notice that the position of the hands mimics a blossoming flower. To try it: Connect your thumbs to one another and your pinkies to each other as well; with the outer edges of your hands sealed together, splay the rest of your fingers outward. Now, hold the opening of your hands above your heart and below your chin.

This mudra is meant to heal and uplift the heart. Physically your hands are positioned just above your heart chakra, and their intention is to draw the energy of the heart upward and outward. As you perform this mudra, close your eyes, breathe easily, and feel your heart warming and opening.

[Credit: Shirt designed by mvbprintmaker.com].

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Quote: Generosity

"The universe is exceedingly generous. When a farmer sows one seed, a plant comes forth that produces thousands of seeds. If you desire abundance, be like the farmer and first give up something. Whatever you receive, keep a portion for yourself and share a portion with others. By establishing yourself in the flow of generosity, whatever you give will come back manyfold."

-Swami Kripalu

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Reader Query: Healthy Restaurant Recommendations in Boston

Do you have any restaurant recommendations in the area for a healthy but festive meal to celebrate an upcoming birthday?

Do I ever! I'm assuming the area to which you're referring is my area, Boston? I've logged the most culinary miles here and would recommend the following eateries for healthy and festive cuisine. (But, if you're ever in NYC, you must try Dirt Candy; wouldn't you agree, Dish Gal?).

Grezzo: This exclusively vegan, raw, upscale restaurant in Boston's North End serves uber flavorful, intricate, and healthy dishes (never cooked above 112 degrees), which means your organically-inclined pals will be in their glory; however, a menu filled with conventional items in quotation marks, signaling raw reinterpretations of "pepperoni" pizza and "lasagna," might elicit a few eye-rolls from your carnivorous co-ed brother who really just wants some pepperoni pizza or lasagna (hold the quotation marks, please). The dining room is also small, so this spot is best suited for an intimate group of selective eaters who will surely oooo and aaahhh over the artful preparation of food that's filled with life force.

Tangierino: This Charlestown gem just might be my standout dining experience of 2009. A Moroccan restaurant with a robust menu, Bedouin tent vibe; strolling belly dancers on the weekends; and an unforgettable 7 vegetable couscous dish, this exotic eatery scores high on the celebration scale. It's perfect for toasting a birthday or other special occasion, particularly if you call in advance and book one of the canopied seating areas.

Myers + Chang: If you roll with foodies, hipsters, South End denizens, indie types, or all of the above, Myers + Chang is your hot spot of choice. It's low on pretense and high on fabulous fun, not to mention wake-up-your-taste-buds flavor. I had a soup there more than a year ago that I still have dreams about. No really, I DREAM about it. It's worth noting that Myers + Chang is not inherently healthy, but you can make healthy choices there (including vegetarian and nut-free if needed). The menu's small-plate approach also keeps portion sizes in check, provided you don't over-order.

Oleana: Two yoga teachers went out to dinner this summer . . . One yoga teacher was celebrating a milestone birthday (that's me). The other yoga teacher knew just where to go. The vegetarian tasting menu for two at Oleana in Cambridge, on the patio, was the recipe for my perfect birthday celebration. Please feel free to replicate-- except the patio, of course. Far too chilly for that. Otherwise, go ahead; steal my birthday dinner; I won't tell!

East Coast Grill: For pescetarian pals, East Coast Grill is a hip choice with plenty of healthy options and a cool, low-key vibe. Just be sure not to show up unawares on Hell Night, a spicy food throwdown that attracts droves of chilly Bostonians who eat blazing hot chilies et al to heat up on a cold winter's night.

Kashmir: Among the most vegetarian-friendly cuisines is Indian food, and Kashmir, located on Newbury Street, is the real deal, along with its sister restaurants throughout the city, including Diva in Somerville's Davis Square. Save room for dessert though; the mango ice cream is divine.

Kaze Shabu: Chinatown offers several of my favorite healthy cuisines, such as sushi, Thai, and many more. If your friends are the casual, DIY types, invite them to simmer their own soups at a shabu-style restaurant. Kaze is my personal favorite, complete with tabletop induction burners so that you can mix your own veggies, protein, noodles, and spices in the broth of your choice. It adds a fun, interactive energy to the meal . . . or maybe that's the sake?

Happy Birthday!
-Om Gal

Photos above: (clockwise from top left) "Salmon" at Grezzo, Me at Dirt Candy in NYC, an artful salad at Dirt Candy featuring crystallized grapefruit "pops," raw brownie sundae at Grezzo.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Quote: Courage

Don't be too timid or squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better."

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friday, January 1, 2010

10 Healthy Things to Do in 2010

1). New Year; new asana. If you want to broaden your understanding of yoga, try a new style this year. If you're a dedicated ashtangi, drop into a Restorative, Yin, or Kripalu class. Worship at the sweaty throne of Bikram? Refine your alignment in Iyengar. Love the fast pace of Baptiste or Vinyasa? Experiment with longer holds in Forrest yoga, greater emphasis on philosophy with Jivamukti, or heart-centered intention in Anusara. The purpose of practicing yoga is to evoke balance in our lives, thus it's important to inspire balance by including some variety in our practice.

2). Less reality TV; more reality. Look, I don't want to be a downer, but too much TV over-stimulates your brain (especially before bed), fattens your ass, saps your creativity, and erodes the personal, one-on-one relationships with real people that matter in your life. This year, watch the shows that inspire and entertain you, but cool it with the incessant background noise, relentless channel surfing, and late-night brain drain.

3). Forgive someone. Speaking of real people . . . They make mistakes. Big ones. Hurtful ones. Unforgivable ones. Forgive them anyway. Besides being the compassionate thing to do, it's crucial to your health. The anger we feel toward others, if allowed to fester, pollutes our thoughts, and as the Buddha once explained, "All that we are is a result of what we have thought."

4). Make this your mantra: Eat whole foods. You can eat at the grocery chain Whole Foods too, if you like, but that's not what I mean here. Whole foods are characterized by being as close to their natural, original states as possible. Skip the latest diets, swearing off carbs, and counting calories. Eat real food; think about where it came from; know how it got to your plate. Savor each bite. Eating mindfully will change your life and your body. Promise.

5). Get thee to Goodwill. Most of us have too much stuff. Get rid of what you don't need; give it to someone who does. It's a wonderful way to create space, physically and psychologically.

6). Turn your world upside down. If you only do one yoga pose all year, make it an inversion. If you're familiar with uttanasa, viparita karani, shoulder stand, and downward dog (your head is below your heart in all of these poses, directing fresh blood to your brain), perhaps set an intention to learn more advanced poses such as headstand, forearm stand, or handstand. These potent postures provide immediate shifts in perspective and are among the most effective asanas you can perform.

7). Get acquainted with karma. Making resolutions to be a better person in the coming year are nice, but they don't mean squat until you take action. The word karma actually translates to mean "action." To that end, good actions beget good actions and negative ones do the opposite. If this is the year you plan to take action in your community, help others in need, or volunteer for a cause in which you believe, quit talking about it. Find your focus, and take action.

8). Skip town. Taking a mental holiday need not be expensive or time-consuming, but it's important to get a change of scenery on occasion. Maybe you spend a weekend in the mountains, drive to the beach for a day, or simply take a walk in a different part of town. Experiencing new places and people keeps us young.

9). Write it down. No matter what your goals are, you are more likely to achieve them if you write them down. Trying to lose weight? Keep a food diary. Need to get your personal finances in order? Write down everything on which you spend money over the course of a month, then strategize where you can make improvements. Hoping to cultivate a better relationship with someone special? Send them a hand-written, heartfelt note. Writing things down allows us to see the truth in black and white, and that is the most powerful step toward change.

10). Meditate. It always helps. It never hurts. It costs nothing. It improves everything.

Happy New Year!