Wednesday, March 31, 2010

How to Do Side Crow

If you enjoyed yesterday's video demonstrating how to fly like a crow, you'll probably enjoy the next incarnation of the pose, which is side crow or parsva bakasana. Here's how to do it . . .

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

How to Do Crow Pose

Spring is for the birds-- from chipper robins to bold blue jays to sprightly sparrows. Each heralds the arrival of the season of growth in its own way. Even the iconic marshmallow Peep, a different kind of bird altogether, signals spring.

For yogis, a certain bird, too, often signals a new season of growth in one's practice. Crow pose (also known as crane or bakasana in Sanskrit) is typically the first arm balance that students learn as they begin to advance their practice. The following brief videos that I recently created in collaboration with FiVi.com will help you take the leap and learn to fly, or finesse your current soaring skills.

The Benefits of Arm Balances

video

A Step-by-Step Video on How to Do Crow Pose

video

Come back tomorrow for Side Crow!

Experienced yogis: please feel free to add your own tips and hints for exploring arm balances.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Reasons Not To Do Yoga

If I didn't do yoga, I would have a lot more closet space.

This realization came to me over the weekend, as I migrated my apartment from one corner of Boston to another, with staggering amounts of yoga gear in tow. One might assume that yoga clothes are fairly portable, light, and unobtrusive, which is true . . . to a point. I exceeded that point many moons ago, and, now, I have enough Lycra to outfit a small army-- albeit a stylish, non-violent one.

And, this is after I thoroughly purged my wardrobe, donating bags and boxes (and more bags and boxes) of gently worn tanks, tees, jackets, and Groove pants* to Goodwill, good pals, and Om Mama, who loves my hand-me-ups, as she calls them. Nevertheless, there I sat on Sunday, on the floor of my new closet, in my new apartment, utterly perplexed at how anyone fits an entire wardrobe within these confines. Embarrassingly, my excess of athletic apparel did not occur to me initially. Athletic wear is pragmatic, I thought. You can't do yoga in jeans. Trust me I've tried. (No, really, I forgot yoga pants once and did a hot yoga class in the jeans I was wearing. Not recommend).

Then, it dawned on me; half my closet is reserved for clothes created for sweating, thereby prompting the realization that if I didn't exercise, I'd have a heck of a lot more room for "real" clothes, acceptable for, say, wearing to dinner or the theater. Think of the possibilities! I could curate a swanky shoe collection or buy lots of fedoras. One can never have too many fedoras.




I'd also have more room in my schedule if I didn't exercise, with all those blocks of time made available after wrestling them free from 90-minute yoga classes, 7-mile runs along the Charles River, hours spent at Equinox taking group fitness classes with elaborate routines to make me look like some gangly, uncoordinated, Steve Urkel in spandex . . . Consider what I could accomplish with actual spare time! I'd pen a novel, dedicate more energy to philanthropy, improve my knitting skills, or maybe just eat lots of pancakes on leisurely Sunday mornings sans the urge to bolt out the door for yoga class.

No sooner had I entertained this little daydream of vast amounts of closet space and free time (and pancakes), when I settled upon the following reality:

If I didn't do yoga, I'd be a miserable, crazy wretch. Without an outlet for stress or steady source of healthy endorphins, I'm sure I'd fill my new found closet space and spare time with less productive substitutes. Admittedly, I could stand to streamline my material possessions (most of us could). This action represents a type of yoga practice, itself. Aparigraha, one of the yamas of the eight-limbed yogic path, encourages yogis to examine attachments to worldly goods, not to hoard wealth, and to neutralize desires to acquire wealth.

I simply wouldn't be who I am without yoga and physical exercise, and I think there are worse things than being a yoga clotheshorse. Plus, you wouldn't want to read an entire blog dedicated to fedoras and pancakes, would you?

Photo: Sadly, that's not my dog. It's my pal and fellow yoga teacher Chanel Luck's. It is my fedora.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Yoga Helps Runners Stay Injury Free This Spring

With tomorrow marking the official start of spring* (who doesn't love spring!), many active types are feeling an additional springiness in their step. Yesterday, the Northeast experienced temperatures in the mid 60s, providing near perfect conditions for an array of outdoor activities, including running. For novice runners, this weather offers added motivation to get outdoors and greet the season with fresh air in your lungs and newly thawed ground beneath your feet.

For serious runners, this weekend kicks racing season into high gear with the L.A. Marathon and NYC half marathon, among many others. Here in Boston, the countdown to Marathon Monday has officially begun, with runners taking to the streets to squeeze in their final long training runs before April 19. (Though I won't be out there this time, I'm running with you in spirit!). Fundraising season, too, is in high gear, with many runners opting to raise money for local and national charities such as the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge Running Team, a cancer-fighting behemoth that has raised more than 30 million dollars in the past two decades. The team's coach, Jack Fultz and champion of the 1976 Boston Marathon, is an OmGal.com reader, who even dropped in on a yoga workshop of mine last year to prep yogi/runners for race day and talk about the psychological parallels between racing and yoga. He's Om Gal's go-to resource for running tips and insight, like his knee-preserving, calorie-scorching, running-simulating indoor running workout (one of my favorites), shown here.

Speaking of workouts, whether you are a recreational runner, Marathon Mama, or elite athlete, yoga is a perfect complement to your training. It helps keep you healthy and free of injury as you prepare to lace up your sneakers this spring, for a casual jog after a long winter hibernation or the culmination of months of arduous training. The video below, shot at Stil Studio in Dedham, MA before my Yoga for Runners Workshop last month, by Nabil Aidoud of FiVi.com, includes a few of my thoughts on how yoga can keep athletes fleet of foot this spring and beyond. [File under: Friday, I'm in Love with Spring!].

video


*In addition to being the first day of spring, tomorrow also marks Official Om Bro Day, as my "baby" brother turns 27. Happy birthday, Reece!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Friday, I'm in Love: Fresh Air


I love fresh air. I love inhaling it, and exhaling it. I like it at the beach, laced with salty mist, and in the mountains, cut with the scent of pine. I like it whooshing through my ponytail on a morning run or lightly clanging the shades against an open window as I drift off to sleep.

It seems like the simplest of pleasures-- a huge, deep breath of unfussy air. It's accessible, easy, and best of all, free . . . Or is it?
What if you live in the inner city, without the means to retreat to areas without pollution, noise, traffic, or even violence? This is a reality for many children and adults.
In my mid-20s, I worked in an inner city community as an English teacher/academic coordinator for a nonprofit program at the now defunct Dorchester High School, a Boston Public School serving at-risk youth until it was disbanded in 2004 in favor of a different education model and administrative structure, known as the Dorchester Education Complex.

I loved my students and was fortunate enough to spend time with them outside the classroom through individual tutoring sessions, small group work, and, best of all, extra-curricular trips like Red Sox games, an outdoor adventure course, a whale watch, and even a day trip to Cape Cod, where I grew up. It was in these moments, out in the open air, with little asphalt, traffic, or public transportation in sight, that I remembered that my students were, in fact, still kids. Suffice to say, my students (ranging in age from 15 to 18) were mature, sometimes too mature. They'd seen a lot. Been through a lot. Overcome a lot.

I admired this about them, but it also saddened me that their maturity often came at the price of a fully experienced childhood. Long before childhood obesity was declared an epidemic, my students were often painfully aware that they did not have access to safe playgrounds for socializing, basketball courts for pick-up hoops, and sidewalks for double-dutch, hopscotch, and the like.

If we want to do something about childhood obesity, kids need to experience the freedom of playing outdoors. If we want our children and teens to enjoy being children and teens rather than world-weary young adults, we need to foster opportunities for them to relish simple pleasures like fresh air, shoeless afternoons, star-filled skies free of light pollution or smog, and space enough to run fast, jump high, lounge happily, or slow down to feel nature's pace.

I love fresh air, and I also love the Fresh Air Fund, a nonprofit organization that has provided inner city youth with summer vacation experiences through host families and special Fund camps since the late 1800s. I first learned about the program as a lifeguard on Cape Cod during college when this program would bring kids to the Cape's beaches for an afternoon or more. Not long ago, I received an email to OmGal.com (rebecca@omgal.com) requesting support from the New York City based nonprofit. The organization had no idea I grew up in a beach community where some of its programs take place or previously worked with at-risk youth in Boston. They knew only that my readers have an altruistic bent-- a karmic drive that inspires many of you to reach out and help others when possible.

If you'd like to support the summer vacation of an inner city youth through the Fresh Air Fund, you can donate here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Issues Weighing on a Yogi's Mind

From my earliest days as a yoga teacher in health clubs in the early aughts, I became accustom to fielding questions from students after class. Typically, they went something like this:

Why does this hurt when I do that?

Why do I sweat so much?

Why can't I do wheel?

What does namaste mean?

Why are my handstrings so tight?

Is it OK to do yoga if I have my period?

How do I practice yoga on my own, at home?

Why do I hate half pigeon?

I came to enjoy and anticipate these questions and many others. I loved how eager my students were to learn and the feeling of sharing helpful hints to make their practices more pleasant and productive. If I didn't know an answer, I researched it so that I could offer better information in class the following week or the next time someone asked.

Then, the oddest thing happened. A very simple question stumped me.

What do you eat? The question came from an earnest 20-something female student.


Huh. Did she mean for breakfast? I wracked my brain . . . A massive smoothie and a granola bar en route to class I recalled. After my marathon teaching stint that morning (two classes in two different locations with a 40-minute walk in between), I planned to meet a pal for a Thai lunch on Newbury Street, where we'd share my all-time-fav fresh rolls, and I would likely order a bowl of tofu, vegetables, and noodles the size of my head. Is that what she meant? Did I get the answer right . . . What do I win?

I searched the woman's face for some hint of information. What. Do. I. Eat. Why was this so perplexing? And, why is it interesting to her? Then it hit me: she probably wants to become a vegetarian! I talked about ahimsa in class today, and she's curious about how to put that guiding yogic principle into practice as it relates to her diet. I was thrilled to help, albeit a tad sheepish. Predominantly vegetarian since the age of 9, I'd recently wandered into exceedingly pescetarian territory. I worried the vegetarian police might be lurking and not wanting to mislead, I copped:


Um, well, I'm mostly vegetarian, but lately I've been eating dairy and even some fish . . . energetically that seems to work better for my body. Ultimately, I think people need to make mindful choices that work best for themselves . . .

I trailed off upon noticing the boredom that swept over my student's face. This was not the response she was seeking.

No, I mean, what kind of diet are you on, she clarified. Admittedly, I bristled at the word. Diet? I don't know, the eat-when-you're-hungry diet?

It was the age of Atkins, and I wanted as much distance from that sort of harebrained, extremist nutritional nonsense as possible. (Sure, eat a bacon double cheeseburger sans the bun, but don't have a piece of fresh melon because there's too much sugar or carbs or whatever? WTF!). Having only recently graduated from college in the debutante filled south and previously boarding school in New England, pressure-filled environments where eating issues among impressionable women can run rampant, I knew all too well the sensitivity of situations wherein one woman (intentionally or unintentionally) pedals her eating habits, insecurities, or beliefs upon others. I can't remember precisely how I answered my student's hunger for dietary advice, but hopefully, it included something like this:

Yoga helps us appreciate our bodies as being vehicles of the spirit. We learn to practice compassion toward our bodies and feel present within our own skin. It's certainly possible to lose weight by doing yoga, through the exertion of asana practice but more likely by making mindful lifestyle choices, including what to eat and when. If we're present in our bodies, tuned into our emotions, and thinking clearly with the help of yoga and meditation, then suddenly, eating a pint of Chunky Monkey ice cream after a bad day doesn't make much sense. It doesn't make your boss more bearable, absolve your parking tickets, or fix your relationships, does it? That's not a diet, merely awareness.


But more than likely I cracked an awkward joke and recommended lots of vegetables. Some eight years after grappling with a student who hoped to learn the magic bullet of weight loss through a yoga lifestyle, I still feel uneasy when I hear students and teachers promoting and evangelizing specific diets, nutrition regimens, detoxes, cleanses, fasts, and so on. It's not that I don't think they can be done safely and have myriad benefits, it's just that I worry about the intentions behind anything so rigid or absolute as not eating whole categories of foods, permanently swearing off meals cooked above a certain temperature, or subsisting on liquids for multiple days. Instead, I prefer the simple advice of the likes of Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Or, my mom, "Don't eat just because you're bored." Or, my own initial instincts, "Eat when you're hungry." What do you think?


Have you experienced any of these feelings in conjunction with your yoga practice? Have you ever worried that students or teachers around you were being motivated by unhealthy intentions? Do you think yoga studios and/or teachers should attempt to influence students' eating habits? Please share your thoughts by commenting. As always, I am grateful for your willingness to share.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Kicking Asanas & Taking Names: Forward Bends


We like to kick asanas and take names around here, and by that, I mean we like to kick it in our favorite asanas and then share the names of those yoga poses via posts by yours truly and comments by you, the best readers in the blogosphere. It's true; the Academy voted on it and the award was accepted on your behalf at an earlier ceremony hosted by Cameron Diaz . . . Congratulations!

Being Monday and all, I thought I'd highlight forward bends, as this class of poses is especially soothing for frayed nerves and settling to a distracted mind, which occasionally arise in response to the first day of the week. According to the classic yoga text, Yoga: The Iyengar Way by Silva, Mira, and Shyam Mehta, seated forward bends are credited with "removing fatigue, refreshing the brain, and soothing the nerves. They regularize blood pressure . . . aid recovery from illness . . . and promote healthy sleep."

Some of my favorite forward bends include the above Upavista Konasana and Pascimottanasana. Please add your own!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Reader Query: A Yogi Gal Who Wants to Groove to the Music

Hi Rebecca,

I met you after the [focus group] last Sunday*. . . I really enjoyed your class and I especially liked that you played music as we went through a few series of sun salutations. I have never practiced to music, and I would like to incorporate that element into my home practice. I can't remember what music you played but thought it fit the asanas very nicely. What type of music do you suggest listening to while practicing? What music do you like to listen to when practicing?

Namaste,
Erica


Hi Erica:

I am so happy you enjoyed the tunes! I don't use music all the time when I teach, and you'll notice that even when I do, it's only for a song here or there, rather than a consistent soundtrack throughout class. In general, it's important for students to experience external and internal quiet during practice, to listen to their breathing and tune into themselves instead. However, the right song combined with a great sequence can be complete bliss. And music during a home practice is a wonderful way to add a dose of inspiration to ordinary surroundings. If my memory serves me correctly I played one song each from the following three artists in that class: Matisyahu, Reema Datta, and Cat Power, each soulful in his/her own way.

The song I played during sun salutations was One Day by Matisyahu, which experienced a recent boost in popularity due to its association with the Olympic Games. It's a really uplifting song and fits the energy of sun salutations well. That, and the energy of, say, stomping a McTwist a la Shaun White, but we mere mortals will just have to settle for the accessibility of sun salutations, I guess. [Insert sigh].

Reema Datta's album would be a great addition to your home practice, as the kirtan vibe matches an asana practice well. My friend and CEO of YogaEarth, Dan Cook, turned me on to Datta, and I've been incorporating her music into the latter half of classes or sivasana a lot lately. [Disclosure: I am on the advisory board for YogaEarth].

I was a bit late to the Cat Power craze, but she's among my favorite artists right now. I have a feeling I must have played Lost Someone when the class was doing floor work. She rocks, pure and simple.

You might enjoy and gather more suggestions from a few other OmGal.com posts related to the topic of music, here:

Hey Yoga Teacher, Play That Funky Music

Am I Still a Yogi If I Listen to Gangster Rap?

Happy grooving.
-Om Gal

*On Sunday, February 28, I taught a special class in conjunction with a focus group of experienced yogis for a company researching innovative yoga products.