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the yoga diet

yellerMany yogis are obsessed with their diets. It stands to reason. We are pressured to look a certain way, and the majority of food on offer is not only fattening and unhealthy, but not really even food. There is a multi-billion dollar industry that banks on telling us how to eat for health, though that is usually a marketing euphemism for thin. So, figuring out what is actually good for you can be difficult.

We are neurotic about what we eat. This is why I don’t have much to say about yoga and diet. Eat what you want. If you really pay attention to what that is, after a few chocolate croissants you will likely discover that you want food. Real food. Michael Pollan has a number of rules around this idea (indeed, a whole book). Those of most interest to me are (paraphrased):

  1. Don’t eat food your great grandparents wouldn’t recognize. My addendum: unless it’s from a different culture.
  2. Don’t eat food products with more than five ingredients.
  3. Don’t eat foods with ingredients you cannot pronounce.
  4. Eat as simply and locally as possible.

That’s it. That’s all you need. “But what about the traditional yogic diet?” you cry! Yes, it’s vegetarian, with dairy. There are all sorts of ideas about tamasic and rajasic foods, and people become quite obsessed. I know. I’ve been there. Garlic and onions? Stimulating! Bad. Coconut? Unfolds love and compassion! (I just learned that now.) Good. Meat? Violent! Very bad. Mung beans? Cleansing and light. Very very good.

While it’s important to be aware of what you eat, and what makes you feel good and bad, it’s a problem when people are overly preoccupied with what should and shouldn’t be eaten. It is not healthy. It is not social. The desire to control what is eaten seems like an unconscious attempt to control life itself, or at least have control over something. There is also a desire to nurture, or reject nurturance, through the foods we eat (or don’t). Sweet, rich foods can be soothing. It can be difficult to understand what we really need and when. (For excellent books on eating, emotions, and intimacy, read Geneen Roth.)

This is where the yoga comes in. When you pay attention to your body, if only during your yoga class a few times a week, you begin to learn how you feel. And once you begin to connect to how you feel, you understand when you are hungry, and even what you really need to eat. Protein. Salad. Pork chops. Whatever. You might notice that you want chocolate to avoid a feeling you have. Even if you still eat the chocolate, you know what you’re doing. You might notice that a few blocks of chocolate do better than a few bars. A few bites of ice cream instead of a few cones. You know that feeling gross for a day is not worth a gallon of comfort now. Your body tells you, not your control freak ego. The more you get to know your body, the less you think about food. This was my experience. And that yoga has its own way of nurturing.

Yes, I’ve tried all sorts of food crazes. I studied nutrition. I was a vegetarian for four years. I had so little energy I thought there was something wrong with me. While a vegetarian diet is unquestionably best for our furry friends and best for the planet, I discovered I need to eat meat a few times a month. (Did you know the Dalai Lama eats meat?) My iron levels demand it. I also do well with protein and fat. If I eat too much carbohydrate, I feel heavy and sleepy. That’s my body. I have a vegetarian friend who can eat salad and beans and be full of energy. I can’t. But that’s what works for me. Bodies vary greatly in what they need. Maybe it’s ethnic, maybe it’s genetic. It’s probably many factors that don’t really need to be teased out.

Svadhyaya, or self study, is a major part of yoga practice. It is not obsessive, compulsive or product oriented. It is largely quiet and observational. If you practice and pay attention you can tune in to how you feel and tune out all the idiotic food trends (is any community more susceptible than ours? I’m sorry, a seed will not save you). When this happens, food can be fun and an anxiety-free joy.

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how often should I practice yoga?

Why not everyday? Because yoga is not my life, you say? Oh. Okay then. The answer varies.

Yoga? But I’m Not Flexible (Beginners)

When I first practiced yoga, it was very sporadic. Probably not even once a week. Are there any benefits to practicing once in awhile? Yes. Most people feel good during or after yoga, if not both. This goodness can help a person decide to do more yoga. Long term benefits to sporadic practice? Probably not.

Some types of yoga, like ashtanga, require practice at least four days a week, beginners included. But if you are totally new to yoga, your ashtanga practice will only be about 20 minutes long. Practicing sporadically will only frustrate you. In fact, any highly vigorous (or heated) yoga done sporadically is going to leave you sore (or nauseous) and wondering if it’s right for you.

NewYork_2010-12-29_CellSnaps_094If you are still at the dappling stage, I recommend a basics class in a gentler style. You can find this in classes called or studios that offer, for example, Integral Yoga, Kripalu Yoga, Sivananda Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Gentle Yoga, Hatha Yoga, and Viniyoga. There’s less chance of strain or injury, and it will give you the taste and foundation you need to do more. It is an untruth that yoga is for flexible people. It increases strength and flexibility, but that’s not the point.

An aside: when you meet a yoga teacher in a non-yogic situation, please do not announce your inflexibility to him. I mean, think about that for a moment. Really. (Up next, an essay about what not to say to yoga teachers in social settings.)

I Like Yoga, But I’m Really Busy (Advanced Beginners)

Okay, then once a week. But keep with a basic style, or Iyengar. I have students who practice only once a week, and while there is some minor progress in their asana, they are almost starting from square one each week. Twice a week is better. I do see marked improvements in my undergrads, who meet twice as week over a semester. Also, they are spring chickens and their bodies are quick to learn. My older students, even mid-20s, make less progress at that frequency.

Should I Be Doing Headstand Soon? When Can I do Headstand? (Intermediate)

To see real, long term benefits of yoga, I find you need to practice 3 times a week, minimum. It’s difficult to meet your body and notice what is going on if you practice less often. Practice does not have to be a 90-minute class. It can be 15 minutes of practice at home or in an office. A few sequences are posted here. These are meant to supplement classes, not replace your teacher. Yoga is best learned directly from a teacher, not videos, books, blogs, or podcasts. They can help supplement your practice until you’re ready to practice on your own without them (which is about now, at the intermediate level). If you practice three times a week, you will start to notice a difference in your body, your yoga, and hopefully your mind. And get over headstand. It doesn’t matter.

NewYork_2011-05-30_YogaAnastasia_012Yoga Dilettante! (Intermediate-Advanced)

You practice 5-7 days a week. No less. Please understand that advanced yoga is not back flips or contortions. It could be 60 minutes of ardha padmasana. This frequency is open to any level, though beginners should be cautioned against an over-zealousness that leads to burnout. If you practice this often, you will progress. You will also suffer ego trips and spiritual materialism, but that’s part of the practice. Notice and cut it out. No one’s style of yoga is the best style of yoga, and because you’ve dedicated over ten hours a week to your mat doesn’t mean you’re a better yogi than someone who’s never seen a mat. Nor are you superior because you don’t go in for an impressive asana practice but sure like to meditate.

Committing to something like an ashtanga practice is a major time commitment, but with that practice “all is coming,” as K. Patabhi Jois liked to say. The one thing that truly amazes me about ashtanga is what dedication and commitment can bring. This is true of any practice. Have fun.

 

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yoga habits

yoga etiquette 201

Miss MannersYoga Etiquette 101 covers the basics of getting to the mat. This will get you through class and out the door. Keep in mind that it’s not the end of the world if you transgress once in awhile. It happens to everyone. But do avoid making these things a habit.

Try Not to Be Territorial About Your Space
This is difficult for most of us, myself included. While I am not attached to a particular space in a class, I do really like to be very close to the radiator and away from drafts. I also really dislike having things in my face, e.g. blankets, blocks, feet. I watch myself want to freak out when someone puts them at the front of my mat. It is, however, bad form to think you own 12 square feet of the studio, and to declare to others in the locker room that the class was ruined for you because some unknowing soul practiced in your space. It is also bad form to shoot that person anger beams throughout the class. Like the subway etiquette artist said, “It’s crazy this even needs to be mentioned.” It is unattractive to make faces when someone puts his mat down closer than you’d like. If you arrive on time but there’s no space left, ask the teacher where you should go. If he points out a space, those around it will be less salty about moving for you.

Avoid Setting Your Mat On Top of Someone Else
That said, don’t plunk down on top of someone else, or put your props in their space. When you set up, imagine how you’d feel if you were in the nearby spaces, and set up accordingly. And, please, please, please do not put your socks within five feet of anyone else. Gross.

Once Class Has Begun, Don’t Leave Unless It’s Incredibly Important
This means don’t leave to text, take a call, use the restroom, or because things are too hard. If you have to go, you have to go. But do you? This is for all the same reasons you wouldn’t want to come late (see last article).

Don’t Make Strange Noises
There is occasionally a student who feels the need to make lots of noise. It is wildly annoying. Don’t sigh dramatically or repeatedly unless the instructor has suggested it. Or breathe like a turbo engine. I took a led ashtanga class near a guy who was taking such bizarre, convulsive breaths that I feared he was ill. He was not. The ummm’ers and ahhhh’ers are irritating to everyone. It seems more like a bid for attention than something that occurs spontaneously. Please. Knock it off.

“While doing postures, as a general rule keep the airway wide open, breathe only through the nose, and breathe smoothly, evenly, and quietly. Never hold the breath at the glottis or make noise as you breathe except as required or suggested by specific practices.” – David Coulter, Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, 2010, page 17. See also pages 68-80.

If you use ujayii, learn it from an experienced teacher (ie someone with more than a 200hr training). Ujayii should be smooth and quiet so that you use effort to hear it yourself.

Ujjayi breath is characterized by a sound that results from closing the vocal cords a tiny bit while continuing to keep the tongue quiet and the lips softly closed. The breath makes a smooth, aspirate sound both as you inhale and as you exhale. It sounds almost as if you were whispering the word ah with your lips closed. As we know, whispering can be intimate. When you are close to someone, you don’t shout, and the ujjayi breath has the same intimate quality, as if you were whispering to your beloved. Listen for that sound and strengthen the breath, directing it with intention to be smooth, easy, and even. It is not simply a matter of letting the breath come and go in whatever pattern it happens to take, correct ujjayi breathing depends on a non-forced effort that, like a metronome, keeps the pace and tone of the breath consistent.

—Richard Freeman. The Art of Vinyasa: Awakening Body and Mind through the Practice of Ashtanga Yoga, 2016.

Or, as a senior teacher likes to say, “This is not a birthing class.”

Respect the Teacher
Ann Pizer explains it well: “When you enter a yoga class, you sign on to respect the teacher for the next hour and a half. You may discover halfway through the class that you don’t care for this teacher, style, or hour of the day. But you still should continue with the class, follow the teacher’s instructions, take your Savasana, and chalk it up to experience.”

Keep Variations Reasonable
In her take on Yoga Etiquette, Farnoosh Brock says: “Respecting your yoga teacher comes in many forms. The easiest one is following the poses or a modified version of them. I would not say this if I had not witnessed it many times. Do not do your own series in the middle of a guided class if you are bored or uninterested in the current pose. Finish the class and choose another teacher but during the class, respect the teacher enough to follow instructions and do so with an open mind.”

We have all felt trapped in a class at one time or another, and we have all needed to modify a pose or a sequence. There is an occasional student who wants to show everyone how much she knows by doing her own thing at her own pace. Not only does it disrupt the class and confuse other students, it generates a fair amount of eye rolling from others. I do have some advanced students who will practice in the back, and add a scorpion or split at an appropriate time. But these are students I know and have relationships with, and I am sure they know what they’re doing. If you aren’t sure about if your variations will be disruptive, ask the teacher.

Don’t Leave Early
It is disturbing for the same reasons as arriving late and coming and going, especially in savasana when people are trying to relax.

Don’t Ogle or Hit On Other Students or the Teacher
In the name of research, I just read a number of hideous pieces on how to hit on someone in your yoga class. Ugh. It is nice to imagine a space free from cell phones and pickups lines, but perhaps I am naive. I had a student disappear for awhile only to return and tell me that her boyfriend wouldn’t let her take class because he didn’t want guys looking at her bum. Who knew?

I guess the New York Times (the end of that article is particularly alarming) and The Inappropriate Yoga Guy (above). Miss Wingman has a whole essay on how to pick up women at yoga. Among other pointers: “Don’t be too good at it. If we wanted to date a guy who was Gumby-flexible or could hold a difficult pose indefinitely, we’d date a principal dancer in the New York City Ballet. There’s a difference between being open-minded enough to try yoga, and chipping away at your masculinity. Walk that line at your own risk.” Seriously? Who knew that flexibility was emasculating? Right Bruce Lee? Putin? Baryshnikov?

While a fan of romance, I am against hitting on someone in class, especially if you just want sex. That said, if you develop a crush, see where it goes over time and perhaps strike up a conversation leaving the studio. Use your intuition. If that someone is the teacher, just don’t do it. If why isn’t obvious, I’ll need to write another essay. Instead, use your crush as motivation to practice. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable or just hit on someone at random. If you aren’t sure what that means or are enamored of a number of men or women in class, again, don’t do it. It’s sleazy. Most people are looking for respite in their yoga class, not a date. If someone hits on you and you feel uncomfortable, talk to the teacher. Don’t let them ruin your experience or take your favorite class from you. It’s not right.

Be Neat and Patient When Putting Props Away At All Times
Fold blankets and mats properly, stack blocks neatly, and don’t cut in the line waiting to do so. In fact, keep the things near your mat during class to a minimum. You don’t need your cell phone next to you. If you take your specs off, put them on a block so no one steps on them.

Locker Room Etiquette
Do not lock yourself into the sole bathroom for ten minutes to change when there is a line. Change in the changing area and keep the bathroom free for others. Do not take lengthy showers, especially when others are waiting. If you use the last of something (soap, towels, etc), tell the management. Don’t use your phone here either, if it’s a yoga studio. No one showering after class wants to hear about your mother’s health issues or your dinner plans. Take it outside.

Again, a once in awhile transgression is not an issue. Bad habits are. Yoga classes and schools vary in etiquette, so get a feel for yours and if unsure, ask someone!

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yoga etiquette 101

Like most subcultures, yoga has an unspoken etiquette. When it is spoken, or posted on signs in studios, it’s often ignored. Who reads signs when they could read a flirtatious text on their phone? Probably the person trying to get by, annoyed that someone is blocking the hallway, texting, totally unawares. But she already knows that phones, by now, should be off.

In some ways yoga etiquette is obvious and commonsensical, but perhaps not so to the newcomer. And perhaps not in a world where someone is driven to design subway etiquette signs. In the beginning of the semester, I find myself frequently explaining matters of yoga etiquette. I remind myself that these behavioral codes may not be obvious to everyone, especially in a gym.

Because my teaching manner is very direct, I’m sure I startle students who expect a yoga teacher to be nice at all times. Yoga is not about nice, or about love and light. (Yes, love is part of the equation. But we could also call it emptiness. Emptiness and dark. That’s for another day.) In fact, yoga is etymologically related to “yoke,” with all its implications.

As a yoga teacher, I am responsible for creating a space for students, and I am a bit of a mama bear about this space. Most find I am incredibly nice, when these codes of conduct are not transgressed. Some guidance:

Arrive On Time or Early
When someone comes into a yoga class late, it disturbs the class while he comes in, put his stuff down, gets props, and finds a space—if there is a space. If not, everyone has to rearrange. He literally disrupts a mood in the room, and no one appreciates it. It is difficult to settle into a class when people are sending beams of anger.

Choose an Appropriate Level Class
If you are totally new to yoga, start with something for beginners. If you aren’t sure, call and ask questions. When you take a class because it fits in your schedule rather than because it is appropriate for your level, you run the risk of confusion, injury, and general unpleasantness. A teacher cannot water down a intermediate class because one student can’t follow, nor can he break the flow of class to teach you what the other students have already learned. It’s also annoying to everyone if you just do your own thing, either because you can’t do what’s being taught, or you’ve deemed it too easy for you. (There is a difference between modifying poses to your needs and creating your own little sequence. More on this in the next post.)

Sign in
How you pay for class and sign in varies greatly by studio. Before you set down your mat and settle in, make sure you are properly signed up. If you aren’t sure what the process is, ask someone. Don’t assume you can take a class if you aren’t signed up for that class. It puts the teacher in the uncomfortable position of telling you no, especially because, unless it’s her studio, she doesn’t make the rules.

subETIQu
Art by Jay Shells

Turn off Gadgets
I suppose it was inevitable, but last year it happened. I had a student text in class. She was in setu bhanda. I was flabbergasted. My eyes got big and wide and I shook my head at her. When she didn’t stop I added, “That is not appropriate.” Yoga is about awareness. Awareness requires discipline, and separating yourself from your phone for an hour is one place to start. If this doesn’t interest you, try spinning. At the very least, have respect for others. The yoga studio is one of the last spaces left where we are free from soul-crushing electronic disquiet. If you cannot be away from your phone for the duration of the class, don’t go. Don’t use your phone in the changing room or lobby, either. This is the policy at most studios as it’s disturbing to those around you.

Cleanliness is Next to
Hygiene is such a big part of Hindu culture (from which yoga comes) that there are myriad rituals around it. Cleanliness is a big deal, and as well it should be. Did you know that you are meant to shower before, not after, yoga? My friend, Angela, explains this in her own memo on yoga etiquette: Arriving. It’s important that you, your clothes, and your mat be clean. There’s nothing wrong with sweating in class and the smell that may come with it. It is the stale odors that are objectionable.

Leave Your Shoes Outside
Take your shoes off and leave them outside the studio, or wherever you see shoes stored. Even if the class is in a space not exclusively designated for yoga, note what others are doing with their shoes and follow suit. Why? Because they are so filthy (especially in NYC) that there are symbolic rituals around them.

Wear Clothes
Cover up. You’d be surprised what can pop out in an up dog or revealed in down dog. In fact, try them in the dressing room before you buy. Pants that seem opaque in the delicate lighting of your home may well not be in the gaudy florescence of a gym. This is not a judgment about your sexual availability, nor is there judgment if your velcro fly rips open in a down dog assist and your pants come off in my hands (happened). It is simply about keeping distractions to a minimum. I prefer guys keep their shirts on. Women do. That said, your comfort is important. For more info on what to wear, try: yoga :: what to wear? and what to wear for yoga.

Pipe Down
When you enter the studio, please quiet down. This means don’t bang the blocks, whap the mat down, or yell across the room to a friend. It also means begin to draw your awareness in. Notice the light, the sounds, the temperature, your mood, your energy level, your breath. Give your full attention to yourself, by which I don’t mean getting your space before that new guy does (see next post). Begin this transition when you take your shoes off, and stay with it until the end of class. Not only is it impossible to do this if you are chatting with a friend, but it is impossible for those around you, as well. Even if you aren’t interested in yoga, please be respectful of those who are. Don’t chit chat until class ends.

Out of respect for your eyes and time, I’ll cover the second half in the next post on Wednesday.

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yoga mats: the good, the bad, and the crumbly

The yoga mat. It is very good to have your own if you practice yoga regularly. You can contract some pretty gross stuff from communal mats. What kind of mat you want will largely depend on your yoga. If you practice a few times a week and don’t mind PVCs, a cheap mat from Gaiam or anywhere will do the trick. Expect it to be slippery until you break it in. My teacher recently gave me the best advice ever on breaking in a mat: “Don’t cut your toenails for awhile. Then they’ll chip into the mat and it will have more traction.” Amazing. I usually just tell people to machine wash it and air dry. This is an upside to the cheap mats—but don’t try it with a fancy mat. Anything but the cheap, common mat will probably not survive a machine wash.

If you practice more seriously, or don’t want a PVC mat, there are better, but more expensive options. If you practice ashtanga, you will shred a cheap mat in a week, and the little mat bubbles will stick all over you. There are two solutions to this. The first is a towel (or mysore rug), most popular in Ashtanga and Bikram, which heavy sweaters will need anyway. You use the mat for standing poses, then unfurl the towel over it for the rest. I really don’t know one brand from another, as I don’t sweat that much and don’t use one. The next solution is a good mat. Ashtangis pretty much swear by Manduka because they don’t shred, and their PRO mats are guaranteed for life. Take note: the Manduka eKO®  collection are not. I bought one, expecting it to preform like my PROlite. Instead it shredded in just a few uses. It was also much more grippy—too grippy for my taste.

leaf bug on mat

It took me no less than 25 emails with their customer service to convince them that a $76 yoga mat should not shred after a few uses, even if it was natural tree rubber. They finally sent me a PROLite to replace it for a $12 shipping fee. Their rep was helpful, if a times a bit absurd, suggesting that a wipe down with apple cider vinegar would stop the shredding and offering to send a “slightly used mat” to replace it (see “gross stuff” above). This was, I acknowledge, after they ran out of the sale mats they’d originally offered because Hurricane Sandy delayed my reply. I am sure they found me equally absurd.

So, yes, I recommend the PRO/PROlite mats. The PROs are extremely cushy and durable, but heavy. Not for walking about town, but great for home, studio, or I suppose, people with cars. They are cushier than the PROlite, which I’ve read some people find hard. I don’t. I also don’t find them slippery, after a break in. I heard a teacher explain that mats are slippery when dry, but stick when you’re sweaty.

I don’t find that to be the case, but maybe for some. While they are expensive, they last forever. They are made of “an eco-certified PVC material and manufactured emissions free” (their site). It’s quite awesome to have a mat you’ve spent thousands of hours on. If you get a cheaper mat and have to buy a new one every week, month, or year, that’s much more expensive than getting a good one to begin with, and harder on the planet. While I don’t adore my manduka mat, I can’t really imagine getting that excited about a mat. It’s a good mat, and it doesn’t fall apart or shed into my hair or clothes. I got mine on sale at Gilt, so they were more like $55 than $85.

Another recommended mat, less expensive but less durable, is the eco-friendly Jade Yoga Mat. They have more traction than Manduka PROs and are made of PVC-free biodegradable tree rubber. I have a few students who like them, but I’m not sure how they’d hold up to an ashtanga practice. I see them shred within a year. They are super-grippy and you can catch on it if your jump-throughs don’t clear. Judging from web reviews, they are popular with vinyasa practitioners. I recommend them for people concerned about slippage who are not ashtangis. I’m also told this hugger mugger is cheap, not-slippery, and good.

Mats to avoid? Anything made out of jute (a word that comes from Bangla: “name of a plant fiber used in making coarse fabrics and paper, and the plant which produces it, 1746, from Bengali jhuto, ultimately from Sanskrit juta-s “twisted hair, matted hair”*) I got one on amazon years ago and it was a disaster from the get go, shedding its juteness all over me, the studio, and the practitioners after me. It is also hard and sand papery, and literally cut my feet open. There are blood stains on that mat. I’ve had similar issues with the super-thin travel mats, made by assorted companies. They are way too thin to practice on unless you’re on carpet or grass, and that’s not ideal anyway. I suppose better than nothing, and I still travel with mine, had for $12 on amazon. Buy a cheap one though, because the pricey travel mats are no better.

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yoga :: what to wear?

part 2 of 2. See also part 1: “preferably something opaque” endures all trends

Because my shala is closed on the weekend, yesterday I took a led power class. This class is such a circus, and so different from quiet morning Mysore, that I take it almost to test my ability to focus. You know, kind of like how the aging Gandhi told young girls to sleep and bathe naked with him to test his purity. I enjoy every minute.

photo sexy yoga wear
Victoria’s Secret, high on the sweatshop list, breaks out with NEW! Yoga & Sexxxy Lounge. Hey, darling! You’re losing your shorts.

It’s been two years since I wrote a bit on what to wear for yoga and it’s time I updated, as my views have changed on a matter or two. The basic tenet to (please) wear something opaque still stands. So does: “You need nothing special to do yoga.” That said, some togs will serve you better than others. Especially if they are clean. You must launder your clothing. You are sweating. Yes, I am talking to you, undergrads. Maybe you have developed a tolerance for your personal odor, but we have not. Please. Wash your yoga wear.

There is just so much stuff. Everywhere. Especially after sales blitz December. It is overwhelming. So, to reiterate, you need nothing special to do yoga. If you are thinking that a cute new top will get you into headstand, stop. If that line made you want to run and check the Gilt sales in case there’s something great you might miss, get a hold of yourself. Take a breath and keep reading. Better yet, go practice in whatever you are wearing now. If it’s a t-shirt, you will find it bags around your head. So next time choose a snug-but-not-tight tank top. That’s my choice. They are fairly easy to find, but I’ll mention some stores in a moment.

gaiam2
Gaiam has some nice yoga stuff, and good intentions.

Pants are more troublesome. Years back Old Navy made a boot leg pant that I loved. They phased it out in 2005 or so, and I had to search for something else. I had to switch to capris, because they took over the market and it was hard to find anything else. It seems that yoga clothing manufacturers are as desperate for your money as the rest as the garment industry, because styles of yoga pants cycle. If you like leggings and slightly flared capris (flatters who?) are in vogue, too bad. This is why when I find a pant I like, I tend to buy five pairs in black, so I don’t have to go through the search again for a few years. If you really think you need the current style in the current brand of yoga wear to practice, you are missing the point.

I’ve been told by men that shorts are a concern. Last time, Rod said: “A good rule of thumb, especially for blokes, is to imagine that at some point you could be upside down in the clothes that you put on: how much will be revealed/concealed when this is the case?” I recently saw another student reiterate this concern in a shoulderstand comment on the faceboek.

Fibers. I used to prefer cotton, as weird blends smell more when you sweat. Then I read about how toxic and pesticide ridden most cotton is and I changed my mind. While it’s easy to buy from Old Navy because they’re cheap and convenient, it’s not so easy to think about the small child working in a sweatshop sewing your pants together. Though it’s easy to be cynical and toss off responsibility because basically everything you buy in today’s world is exploiting someone, in the end, it does matter. Check out The Story of Stuff for how all the unused junk in your storage space affects communities near and far (and what you can do about it).

When Gaiam learned of this being printed on their mats by CafePress, they pulled them immediately. Really, truly bizarre.
?????

Brands like Gaiam, Manduka, Patagonia, and Prana are smaller businesses that try to do something valuable for the planet we inhabit. Do they? To some extent, yes. When insanely distasteful slogans (Who wants to do yoga on a mat celebrating someone’s death? I’m so confused) were being printed on Gaiam mats by CafePress, Gaiam removed them immediately. “The Footprint Chronicles” at Patagonia examine their “life and habits as a company. The goal is to use transparency about our supply chain to help us reduce our adverse social and environmental impacts – and on an industrial scale.” One of my students works there, and she loves it. Prana is committed to sustainability and partners with some good organizations to that end. I’ll cover Manduka soon in a yoga stuff post. I do get my nice yoga stuff from Gilt when they offer these companies’ wares.

Yeah, it’s hard to know if “sustainability” and “community” claims are sincere or just marketing gimmicks in the brave new world of conscious capitalism. It’s simply gross when Whole Foods CEO states that global warming is “not necessarily bad” while promoting his new book: Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business. Ugh. (For an endlessly amusing look at commercial yoga culture, check out The Babarazzi.)

Walking home from that yoga class yesterday, I overheard two women talking as they passed by on Greenwich Avenue. One said to the other, “We could go drunk shopping,” in a dull monotone, as if there’s nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon in New York City. Did you even know this was a thing? Let’s get a collective grip. The bottom line is, how much is enough? Do you really need it? Figure that out, and buy appropriately. Then make a list of things you love to do aside from buying stuff, maybe things you wish you had more time to do. The next time you find yourself shopping to distract yourself or ease your pain, instead do something from that list. This seems simplistic, but it’s harder than it sounds. There will be some resistance, guaranteed. But it will feel really good. Especially if it’s some yoga. 🙂

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favorites practice at home yoga habits yoga practice

yoga at home for the holidays

Last week I was commiserating with a student who’d missed class about how difficult it is to establish a home practice. It took me about two years of consistent classes to really get into practice on my own. Establishing a daily home practice took not only dedication, but concentration. It’s much easier to make yourself go to a class than to maintain focus amidst the endless distractions of your home. But once you’ve got it going, it’s really harder just to do yoga once in awhile when you can’t make class because it’s not habit and you have so many (pitiful) reasons not to do it.

It took a little trickery to get me started. If I thought of the whole 1.5 hour series, I wouldn’t do it. I was too hungry or tired or pressed for time. So I told myself I’d do one pose (which was usually the lazyman’s legs up the wall. It’s the best pose ever. We need, most of us, to be lazier), then I could relax. After the one pose, I was relaxed, and liking it, so I did one more. This went on through the whole series, often ending in seated mediation two hours later. No way? Believe me, it will happen.

Whether you are looking to keep the hamstrings happy until you get back to class next week, or you’re trying to establish or motivate a personal practice, a few minutes of yoga a day are enough to shift things into habit. As Ethan likes to say about meditation, “You wouldn’t skip brushing your teeth for a few days, then brush for an hour on the weekend, would you?” And so it is with yoga.

So here’s a 10-minute home practice that my Iyengar teacher Genny Kapuler gave me as a daily minimum of sorts years ago. Tomorrow or Friday I’ll post another that is more Ashtanga influenced.

So go get your mat (though you don’t really need one) and do some yoga.

Don’t even think of skipping savasana.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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asana favorites slider yoga habits yoga practice

to practice or not to practice: ladies’ holiday

menstruThere are as many takes on yoga asana practice during menstruation as there are euphemisms for it. Ladies’ holiday, your moon (not to be confused with the moon), ladies’ days, your flow, the curse, crimson tide, the rag, that time of the month, and, refreshingly, your period, are a few you’ll hear in wider yoga discourse.

The official line in Ashtanga is not to practice at all during your “moon.” Iyengar discourages twists, inversions, deep backbends and binds, and suggests specific practices based on what you’ve got going on (e.g. heavy cramps, bloating, no period at all). You can find these in Geeta Iyengar’s Yoga, A Gem for Women. Many schools advise not to invert, while others say listen to your body and figure out what’s best for you. I’ve heard Cyndi Lee of Om Yoga advise that women should invert, because it’s only a patriarchal edict that tells women they can’t. Honestly, I see the logic in all of it.

Don’t practice at all? This is the Ashtanga way, as K. Pattabhi Jois told women not to practice during their periods, and for traditionalists, what Jois says, goes. Yes, it’s easy to forget that is Yoga is a tradition developed by and for men. In India, women write books with lengthy introductions to convince readers that yoga is something women can and should do (e.g. Yoga, A Gem for Women). It’s hard to imagine in the female-majority yoga rooms of the west, but yoga is not historically a women’s endeavor.

I didn’t even have to add “yoga” to the “tampax” image search.  Of course she’s wearing white pants. And yes, it really says, “Who would have thought a tampon could get me to that Zen place?” Nothing like a mixed metaphor for ragtime practice.

While not practicing might sound silly to you, understand that Ashtanga is an intense practice that demands mula bandha, which is quite difficult to do during menstruation. I find it’s quite hard to pull up and in when I’m a bit swollen and tender. Do I practice? Usually, yes, but it depends on how I feel. There are some days a year I wake up and say, “No way will that feel okay right now,” and I go back to bed. But often (like last week), I feel great when I’m able to move and stretch my body, which actually seems to tighten and lock up in the days before, but relaxes again when my period starts. I like to practice.

To invert of not to invert? This debate has been going on for quite some time, and it seems to have three camps. The first: Traditionalists who believe that inverting interferes with apana, the downward flow of energy in the body. It is advanced in a retro-ditz-delicate-flower piece by Kathryn Budig on elephant journal. “I officially mark myself as senseless during the preceding days as the first few of the actual holiday. When you can normally find me working flips in a handstand till I can’t see straight, this time of the month it’s more common to find me propped up on the couch, my handy Jane Austen novel du jour next to me, and an artillery of spoons ready to attack a fresh mint and chocolate chip gelato.” Senseless, eh? Hmmm. What exactly is a Jane Austen du jour? Doesn’t she only have 5 or so novels? And Ms Budig reads one every day? How many spoons does one need to “attack” fresh gelato? I prefer to let it warm and soften a bit, so that it glides from bowl to spoon to mouth. In fact, I like to lounge about reading and eating chocolate every day of the month. I certainly don’t limit it to that time.

classygalBudig goes on to say that she believes not practicing on her period is a form of respect. For what? Her teacher? The moon? Patriarchy? Jane Austen? While she doesn’t like the suggestion that “blood will get stuck” if you invert (I’ve never heard it put quite that way before), she does argue that, “logistically speaking if something is trying to get out, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to turn it upside down. Or twist it. Or strain it. Or do anything more than supine postures, snuggling a bolster, light walks and all those bites of chocolate.” Well, logistically, if something is trying to “get out,” it makes a lot of sense to twist it, no? If you wanted fluid out of something soft, you’d twist, right?

This careless argument doesn’t do much to convince me to lie around during my period. And many are turned off by the red-tenting of women around the time of our periods. This second camp is well-covered in this Go With the Flow article on Jezebel. The medical risk of inverting involves retrograde menstruation, which some argue causes endometriosis. While most doctors say this myth has been debunked, Kathleen Lea Summers, MD, PhD, argues that as of 2011, “Retrograde menstruation remains the prevailing scientific hypothesis for what causes endometriosis. It’s complicated, and other factors play a part—things like genetics, epigenetics, immune function, environmental toxins, etc.”

Wow! Crazytown ad from the 1950s.
Wow! Crazytown “feminine” ad from the 1950s.

“For sure women who have more frequent periods, those that bleed heavier, and those that have a blockage to normal flow through the vagina are the most likely to develop endometriosis. That indicates the amount of backward flow is important in development. While there are no studies looking specifically at whether or not women who practice inversions during their periods are more likely to develop endometriosis, prudence is wise. Anyone with a personal or family history of endometriosis should never do inversions while on their period. Other women need to be careful too, especially during the days of heaviest flow. If they choose to invert during menses, then time in the posture should be limited to 30 seconds.”

That said, there are doctors, including Mary P. Schatz, M.D., who state that inverting won’t cause endometriosis, but it can cause vascular congestion (heavy bleeding). I’ve talked with a number of teachers and students who have found this to be the case. We are of the third camp—try it out for yourself and see how you feel. I inverted when I started years ago, but on several occasions got really intense cramps afterward. I’d never heard anyone else complain of this until a commenter on the elephantjournal article said the same thing. I also tend to bleed more. Further, I just really don’t feel like spending ten minutes upside down when my belly is heavy. So, while once is a blue moon (sorry), I will feel up to inverting, I usually don’t.

Wow! Crazytown "Outsmart Mother Nature" ad from 21C
Wow! Crazytown “Outsmart Mother Nature” ad from 21C.

Bodies are all extremely different, from person to person, but also from cycle to cycle. The only way to know what’s best for you is to pay attention. I find I’m often (but not always) extra stiff before my period starts. Some months I don’t even expect it (meaning no PMS) and other months, I do. Sometimes I feel tired and heavy, sometimes I’m energetic. I notice, and behave accordingly. The reason the Budig piece grates? It advances the notion that women are “senseless” and unable to work during their “moon.” In once sentence she tells her students, “Notice what is happening in your body and mind before you race past it to where you think you should be.” Then she races past everyone to tell us how we feel and where we should be—on the couch with bon bons. “Same goes for ladies’ holiday. Don’t ignore it by trying to keep life the way it is everyday.  Stop, acknowledge, observe, respect and rest. Honestly ladies, we’ve earned it. Period.”

We’ve earned it? What does that even mean?

An old friend, Lena Kim, MD and Assistant Professor of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at UCSF, advised: “There is no evidence that yoga and/or inverted positions are harmful during menstruation. If anything, exercise in general decreases menstrual cramps.” If you have personal concerns about irregularities, definitely seek out the advice of your doctor.

Do consider how you feel when you practice and invert every day of the month, and make your decisions from there. Yes, oddly, there is a huge social and political lens that will color how we look at this, instead of just feeling our bodies. It’s kind of weird, really. Having experienced everything from light, unnoticeable periods to some extremely intense cycles, my only advice is to pay attention to your body and do what feels right. You’ll know what that is in the moment.

Soon I’ll give some ideas as to what asana and pranayama help me at the more difficult times. They aren’t what I expected, but the doctor was right!

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favorites the yoga consumer yoga habits yoga practice

what to wear for yoga

Preferably something opaque. Where to get it?

I just happened upon this “audio yoga mat.” I admit it could be useful if you travel a lot and can carry it around. But, I mean, really.

You do not need fancy anythings to do yoga. You need you. A mat can help, yes, and so will comfortable clothes. Tanks are better than T’s because T’s will fall over your head in inversions. Tucking in the T is not sexy (unless it is in at the moment. Hopefully that trend will pass swiftly), and will still bag around your head.

I admit a strong aversion to spending $100 for yoga pants. I also admit that since old navy changed their yoga pant style (oh, maybe four years ago now) and added the very unfortunate diamond crotch, I’m stuck with a very old and faded yoga pant wardrobe. I do not have the patience to try all the fancy pants for a replacement. I tried an athleta (since bought out by the Gap) pant and a gaiam pant (both about $70), and I hate them both. I want my old navy standard back. I’ve switched to their capris, but the diamond thing is still an issue. Who decided that was a good idea? It started in the pricey pant industry and trickled down. Unacceptable. I once saw a woman who actually had a diamond patch crotch in a different color than the rest of the pants. I thought that her pants had ripped, revealing bright unders. Good grief. We might as well be in 19th century tennis dresses.

Nice tank tops are on offer at gaiam for both guys and gals. I prefer cotton, as sporty, absorbent fabrics quickly smell bad. Gaiam duds are usually organic and possibly fair-trade. And their models aren’t underage and looking to seduce you, throwing you into despair about the underfed, sexual slavery, and child pornography (to say nothing of body image as it relates to mental and sexual happiness) while you’re simply trying to do some pant shopping. (american apparel.)

As for mats, I have three (teaching purposes). Two I bought at TJ Maxx. The oldest is a thick lilac “Everlast for Women” (haha) mat about six years ago. The little round things are coming off, sticking to my clothes and shedding all over the floor. I’m attached to this mat, but it’s time to let it go. The other Maxx mat was about $13, has a pretty design on it, and comes in lots of pretty colors. You see it around. I will most likely get another to replace the shedders. The third was a fancy, eco-friendly, apple green jute mat I bought from Amazon, which shed its juteness all over me since day one. It is coarse, unpleasant, and expensive. (More about yoga mats and reviews here. I currently recommend manduka, expensive but guaranteed for life.)

No doubt there are some gorgeous yoga clothes out there. But I find the fancier I get the more likely a breast will pop out in updog, or my unders will peak out in child’s pose, or the laundromat will destroy them after two washes. I do wear different clothes to teach and to practice, as astanga sweat and the requisite after-launder is hard on the togs. (Please, please, wash your yoga clothes. Regularly. They smell worse than you think.)

Einstein had five identical suits, so that he didn’t have to think about what he put on every day. At least, that’s what my father (who was often called his doppelganger) liked to say. And, of course, Thoreau said, “Distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes.”

Both had much to say about dressing:

If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies…. It would be a sad situation if the wrapper were better than the meat wrapped inside it.  ~Albert Einstein

It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes.  ~Henry David Thoreau

If you’ve any good thoughts on what to wear and where to get it, by all means, share.

>>>

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art & yoga yoga habits

the yoga of sylvester graham

Jessica’s fantastic comment a few posts back reminded me of my undergrad thesis on health reform. Sylvester Graham was an activist of the 1800s. He had many interesting beliefs (and followers, like Ralph Emerson and Upton Sinclair), some of which parallel those of yogis. He was generally severe, believing that such things as cold cereal and flannel clothing worn against the skin (specifically undergarments) excited the body and should be avoided. However, he was a great advocate of dance. He believed that  it was preferable that people meet to sing and dance rather than to eat and drink, lest “They should endure a miserable existence in moping melancholy, for want of proper exercise and relaxation….If I could have my wish, the Violin…should be played in every family in the civilized world” and that were singing and dancing practiced in theological seminaries, literary groups, and scientific circles, then “immense benefits…would result for society at large.” Exactly! He goes on:

The salutary influence of animating music, connected with exercise, is very great; in fact, it may almost be said to be medicinal, for it actually has the most healthful effect on all the vital functions of the body; and hence, dancing, when properly regulated, is one of the most salutary kinds of social enjoyment ever practised in civic life, and every enlightened philanthropist must regret to see it give place to any other kind of amusement. The religious prejudice against dancing is altogether ill founded; for it is entirely certain that this kind of social enjoyment is more favorable to good health, sound morality, and true religion than perhaps any other known in society.

—Graham, Sylvester. Lectures on the science of human life. New York: Fowler & Wells, 1858, p.39.

Perhaps I’m a bit off topic here, but I love to see the parallels between yoga and other health practices in American culture, historical or otherwise. Soon, a shift from art and yoga to a post on Namaste नमस्ते. What it means and why we say it.

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