Friday, April 30, 2010

Quote: Andy Warhol

"They say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself."

-Andy Warhol

Monday, April 26, 2010

Reader Query: Yoga for Weight Loss After Injury

Hi Rebecca,
I got your email through the blog . . . Keep up the good work, girl.

I’ve got a question about my health: About eight months ago, I had a fall from the swimming pool knocking my spine against the edge, causing a minor slipped disc (affecting 2 vertebrae) – I’m feeling much better now with less pain. However, I’ve put on weight like mad, too, because of lack of physical activity. How good would it be for me to engage in yoga? Just thought I’d ask your opinion. Thanks!

Best Regards,

Hi Nadi:

Thank you so much for reading the blog and seeking my thoughts on recovering from your spinal injury along with staving off weight gain. Yoga can support both these endeavors; however, the answer is less obvious than you might think.

Students often seek my input when trying to lose weight, and I happily oblige if there's excess weight to lose. My style of teaching is known for being vigorous and, by extension, an effective means of weight management, muscle toning, and more. An admitted fitness addict and lifelong athlete, I'll be the first to share a killer abdominal sequence around swimsuit season or illustrate how arm balance postures can be a fun substitute for lifting weights. Simply put, the asana practice is a topnotch resource for battling the bulge.

However, yoga is comprised of several other facets beyond asana (the actual yoga poses we practice), and I would argue that many of these endeavors are powerful tools for reshaping both your physical and/or energetic body. They include seven other "limbs" on the yoga path as stated in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras: yamas (one's attitude toward the world), niyamas (attitude toward self), pranayama (breathwork), prathayara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dyana (meditation), and samadhi (enlightenment). In other words, poses done blithely for the purpose of a slim waist or nice booty deprive us of yoga's most potent benefits, chief among these, Patanjali claimed, is cultivating the ability to "still the fluctuations of the mind."

While exercise is paramount to weight loss, and many styles of yoga are great forms of exercise, I believe that the psychological resources yoga provides are even more formidable tools for achieving a healthy weight and positive body image. Consider my personal situation, for example (one that I have not mentioned here before). I have been exceedingly active my entire life, beginning with swim teams as a little tadpole tyke through a stint in Division I athletics in college. I have a tall frame (5' 9") and am preternaturally muscular. I was always bigger and weighed more than most of my female peers growing up, so I exercised like a fantatic and was very limiting with my diet for most of my life. Despite this vigilance, I never felt thin. Fit, yes. Thin? No. According to some standards, I was overweight. After college, I started doing more yoga and gradually lost about 20 lbs.- ironically- without realizing it. I don't attribute this purely to the physical practice of yoga. Yoga became my predominant form of exercise, and, yes, it burns calories, but it wasn't more vigorous than the level of activity to which I was accustomed.

From the outside, it appeared that going to yoga class more often reshaped my figure. This isn't altogether false, but it isn't the whole truth either. Downward dog was not slimming my thighs nor garudasana sculpting my arms in some magical new way. Instead, I was gradually seeing and treating my body with greater compassion (characterized by ahimsa, one of the yamas). Yoga helped me to stop focusing on my weight and start making better, more mindful choices about nutrition (my diet actually became more inclusive rather than restrictive), sleep, and lifestyle. And, at the risk of sounding like a total flake, I was "talking" to my body differently. Instead of looking in the mirror and fixating on how my body didn't look, Why don't you fit into these jeans, you big-field-hockey-butt! I started noticing all it could accomplish, Holy crap, I'm strong! I can break up fights [I was a teacher in an inner city school system at the time] or even heave a vending machine off the ground when a snack gets stuck. Non-violence and vending machines: that is to say I was focusing on the important things . . .

While your spine heals, I encourage you to honor your body as it recovers, rather than judge its appearance. Acknowledge how it avoided what could have been a grave injury. Accept that it may have held onto added weight to protect you for a time. And, understand that our bodies are ever-changing. Now that you are better, you're free to experiment with all kinds of fun and liberating styles of movement, including, yes, yoga.

Truthfully, a vigorous vinyasa style of practice will shed weight quickest; however, I would recommend that you start more gently and let the proverbial scales fall where they may. Focus, instead, on the non-physical "limbs" of the practice mentioned here, such as meditation and pranayama, which teach a deep inward listening and the invaluable skill of being present.

I believe that our bodies know what to do when they need to do it: when to eat, how much, when to exercise, when to rest, when to moderate, and when to indulge. The power of yoga allows us to tap into this instinctual knowledge and reveal our best selves to the world, regardless of the size of our jeans.

Love and "light,"
Om Gal

Friday, April 23, 2010

Friday, I'm in Love: Definition of Success

"If I have been of service, if I have glimpsed more of the nature and essence of ultimate good, if I am inspired to reach wider horizons of thought and action, if I am at peace with myself, it has been a successful day."

-Alex Noble

Thursday, April 22, 2010

I Heart The Earth

Happy Earth Day, om guys and gals! There are plenty of ways to celebrate Mother Nature today, such as cutting the lights, recycling your kombucha bottles (wine bottles, old iPods, sneakers, etc.), donating to an eco-friendly cause, or planting a tree, to name a few. Honoring holidays in meaningful and unique ways is an important part of life, whether the holidays are large or small, official or not, somber or silly.

To kick things off, I thought it might be fun to give mad props to the Earth by sharing something you love about it. Post a comment, as specific or general as you like, that captures your respect for the air, sea, or land. I'll start with a few of my own random musings. . .

  • I started running longer distances while in college in Virginia and I will never forget this one tree, far off campus, each fall. It was as though its leaves caught fire; the colors were so vibrant. I still recall how this tree could take my breath away as I ran by.
  • I stare at the ocean and can just about make peace with all my problems, if only for a moment.
  • I flip for farm stands and the completely different taste of food when it's grown locally, responsibly, and without chemicals.
  • I love to hike with friends, sometimes without speaking. Instead, we just walk together, in quiet, listening to nature and smelling the intoxicatingly fresh mountain air.
  • I would always rather walk than drive.
  • I love that Om Mama has been composting at home for decades.

Now, it's your turn! Oh, how we heart the Earth (and its day). Let us count the ways . . .

Photos: (clockwise from right) Kripalu, winter 2009; a beach in Truro, MA; overlooking the Adirondacks, and St. Francis of Assisi in my Mom's garden.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

2010 is 30% Complete . . . Time to Revisit Your Goals

2010 is 30% complete, which means it's a great time to re-evaluate, recommit, or re-energize your goals. The following Ten Healthy Things To Do in 2010 might be a helpful place to start. The original post appeared here and contains additional photos. How are you faring so far with the goals you set earlier this year? What are the major challenges? Tell us about your triumphs. Add your own inspiring suggestions to the top 10 list below.

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.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Ab-solutely Psyched It's Friday?

Strengthen your core with this yoga-inspired abdominal exercise. Having a strong center protects your spine and supports arm balances and other yoga poses . . . and makes a swimsuit more flattering (just saying). Be sure to pull your abdomen down toward the mat the entire time. Your head and shoulders stay grounded as well.

If you have any history of back injury or are just starting out, please be sure to modify. This is advanced abdominal work and should be done slowly at first. Start with 3-5 repetitions and work up to 10-12.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hey Marathoners (of Life & Running): This is Your Pose

Today marks the one-week countdown to the 2010 Boston Marathon and the one-year anniversary of the scariest week of my marathon virgin life. I managed to survive the 7 days leading up to my first marathon last year and the grueling 26.2 mile race that followed, thanks in large part to my friends and fellow runners, discovering that Klondike bars make great recovery food, and viparita karani. For runners leading up to the race and following it, this restorative yoga pose is essential.

It's also essential for anyone else who spends a lot of time on his/her feet. Whether it's a long night behind the line for a chef, a jam-packed day at the salon for a hair stylist, a lengthy surgery for a medical staff, or the adventures of chasing and looking after small children, each of us experience our own "marathons" on a day-to-day basis. We run around, without much rest. We stand for hours on end. Our backs hurt; our legs ache; our feet swell. Our minds dart. Our heart rates elevate.

One antidote for real or metaphorical marathons, busy schedules, racing minds, and even high heels is the following pose, often referenced on and demonstrated, here, in video for the first time.

Enjoy. Rest up. Keep running.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Hanging Out in Lululemon

The Lululemon store in Boston's Prudential Center recently did some redecorating, revealing posters that feature its latest selection of ambassadors, including yours truly. Here I am hamming it up with my photo upon seeing it for the first time this week. The ambassador shot shows me in a variation of ardha chandrasana on Commonwealth Avenue and was photographed by my friend, long-time fellow yogi, and standout New York based photographer Jonathan Pozniak. It was the hottest day of the year (a sweltering afternoon in mid August) but a fun and creative experience-- especially the part when I had to use my creativity to find ways of changing my wardrobe in public without getting arrested. (Some of the behind the scenes moments).

If you want to hang out with me (just a little poster humor there), come take a free class next Sunday at the Boston store. It's an abbreviated version of my specialty Yoga for Runners workshop in honor of next week's Boston Marathon. For runners, yogis, and runner/yogis, it will be a fun, free, inspiring way to spend Sunday morning. Plus, we'll send our positive intentions to all the runners readying for Boston's storied 26.2 mile race the following day.

If you miss next week's class, you can still swing by the store to point and laugh at my poster; it will be up for the coming year.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Mastering Yoga for Golfers

This week marks the annual opening of the most storied golf tournament in the world, the Masters, with yesterday's practice round kicking off the high profile, high stakes festivities. Winners of the Masters immediately join the estimable ranks of golf lore’s finest. It’s the most coveted win in the sport, with the most coveted prize—the green jacket, not to mention a hefty winner's purse.

For one golfer, the stakes are higher than usual this year, as the 2010 tournament marks a return to the game for Tiger Woods, the world's most famous (and now infamous) golfer. In case you missed it, Woods took a break from golf for about 4 seconds, largely during the off season, to tend to the personal and public fallout following his recent sex scandal.

Since breaking the story, my blogging brethren have covered and commented on these events ad infinitum, along with sports analysts, members of the media, and just about anyone with a Twitter account (#TigerWoods was among the top ten trending topics in 2009, and the scandal didn’t even break until late November of last year). I’ll leave the commentary to those who are more qualified, more snarky, and/or more invested.

I don’t want to talk about Tiger Woods.

However, in honor of the Masters this week, I do want to talk about golf—specifically, how yoga can help golfers of any level, from amateur to elite, improve their game. Upon the request of a pro golfer pal, I’ve developed a yoga program to meet the unique needs of golfers. The objectives of the program are captured by a simple acronym that I created called F.O.R.E., as in the command a golfer might yell upon hitting into another group of players. If we ever hit the links together, you will surely hear this one on occasion . . .

F.O.R.E. stands for Focus, Openness, Rotation, and Efficiency, representing the four key elements of a yoga practice that supports and enhances one’s golf game. Below, you’ll find an example of each element of my program and how to master it on your own.

Focus: Any golfer knows that vision is paramount to success on the course. From lining up a putt to aligning your eyes properly before, during, and after your swing, your eyes are a powerful way of gathering information, adjusting biomechanics, and focusing energy. Yoga is no different. The Sanskrit word drishti refers to the focus and power of one’s gaze. To practice this concept, try keeping your eyes open during meditation. Set them on a steady point on the floor; let them be soft and relaxed, and see how your brain responds to having a visual anchor. Add the uninterrupted flow of your breath, and you'll immediately feel your nervous system become steady and energy level sustainable. Next, apply this principle to the ball during play.

Openness: Golfers, like most athletes, seek yoga as a way to improve flexibility. For golfers, key areas of the body to open, stretch, and expand include the hamstrings, hips, lower back, shoulders, neck, chest, and hands. To get you started, here's a great series for the hips, using a foam roller, a helpful and cost effective piece of equipment for athletes.

Rotation: Creating space and strength in the torso is essential for golfers who rely heavily on their ability to rotate through their golf swing seamlessly. Tightness and imbalance in the body translate into a choppy swing, and a choppy swing translates into crappy golf. A seated twist (shown above and explained here) is a very easy movement and an important posture for golfers. For added strength in your core, check out the following abdominal exercise (video).

Efficiency: The most essential element of yoga and golf is the same. Meditation. In its most distilled form, meditation is the skill of being aware in the present moment. When we are present, we are always more effective, as golfers, yogis, and people. Golf is a fickle game—even maddening at times; the best golfers know this and accept it. They train their minds to adapt to obstacles (physical or metaphysical), thereby becoming more aware and efficient in a given moment. It’s widely understood that you cannot excel off the next tee if you are still focused on the frustration of being in a bunker on the previous hole. Here's one of my favorite meditations, geared toward soothing nerves, creating a feeling of trust, and developing a sense of grounding. Yogis and golfers, both, meditate to find greater peace and efficiency on their course.

Whether you're watching the Augusta action on TV this week or hitting the links this season, happy golfing, om guys and gals!

Friday, April 2, 2010

"Sometimes" You Find a Great Poem for Spring


Sometimes things don't go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail.
Sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.
A people sometimes will step back from war,
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best intentions do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed frozen; may it happen for you.

*Italics and bold emphasis are my own. Photo: A shot from my mom's garden, spring/early summer 2009.