Challenge Leads to Change

Seated in the yoga studio on a beautiful evening about to teach class, I gaze at the yoga students gathered in front of me and think, “What on Earth are they doing here?”  I mean, there are so many ways these folks could be spending their evening—going out for a scrumptious meal, sipping wine on the lanai with a loved one, or dropping into a cushy couch to watch a favorite sports team.  The list is long.

But forgoing all that, these individuals drove to yoga class to be challenged on all levels of their being.  Frankly, yoga is tough.  No, not because we manage to twist ourselves into pretzel shapes, although at times students do accomplish some rather unusual feats.  If practiced correctly, yoga is tough because it requires self-observation, patience, honesty, and plain, old-fashioned hard work.  Yoga, as I see it, is all about process as opposed to product. And the process is meant to be challenging.

Whether an exercise or posture primary requires stretching, strength, balance or concentration, serious students seek to go as far as they safely can.  Shunning complacency, they work to their “personal edge.”  Do you realize what this means?  On the physical level, it suggests that regardless of your prowess, you always have further to go.  You can open more, or hold longer, or move to variations that deliver a whole new set of challenges.  Furthermore, to work to your edge, you must carefully observe your process.  I can’t remind students often enough, “Don’t worry so much about the outward, physical form.  Pay attention to what’s going on inside.”

Only you can gauge if you are giving a posture your all.  Only you can discover your fear, laziness, egocentricity, competitiveness or other limiting factors. And with self-knowledge, transcendence begins.  Taking yoga to the edge is not easy; nothing that results in personal growth is easy.  Kudos to all yoga students everywhere who return to the mat year after year to meet the challenge.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins (Vegan)

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins (Vegan)

I’ve brought these muffins to studio events in the past and recently offered some after yoga class.  They are always well received.  I was asked to share the recipe–so here it is.  Enjoy and marvel in the fact that you don’t need to use eggs or dairy to create yummy baked goods.

Psyllium husk powder (Find in health food store) mixed with water*

2 cups sugar

1 can (16 oz) pumpkin

1 ½ cups canola oil

3 cups flour (whole wheat pastry flour, or half whole wheat and half unbleached)

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups (12 oz) vegan semisweet chocolate chips (I often use Ghirardelli semi-sweet chips)

*Prepare the psyllium and water mixture approximately a minute before combining with other wet ingredients.  If it sits too long it will become too thick.  Use ¾ cup of water combined with psyllium husk powder.  Start by adding just ½ teaspoon of the powder to the water, mix very well and let sit for a minute or so; you want the consistency of egg whites after it thickens.  If too runny add a tiny bit of the powder at a time until you reach the desired consistency.

If using psyllium husk powder for another recipe, 3 Tablespoons of water plus enough powder to thicken equals one egg.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line muffin pans (standard sized) with paper liners.  In a large mixing bowl, beat psyllium mixture, sugar, pumpkin and oil until smooth.  Combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and salt: add dry ingredients to wet ones and mix well until all ingredients are moistened.  Fold in chocolate chips.  Fill muffin cups to almost full.  Bake 16-20 minutes or until muffins test done (toothpick inserted in muffin center comes out clean).  Cool in pan at least 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack.  Makes 18-24 standard size muffins.

The Gift of Relaxation

It’s common knowledge that proper diet and exercise are essential components of healthy living.  Equally important to wellness, but often neglected, is the type of relaxation taught in yoga. While plopping down in front of the TV or curling up with a novel are relatively relaxing activities, what I’m referring to is complete relaxation of the body and mind.

Why do yoga students exit class with serene faces, looking like they’re walking on air? They’ve given themselves the gift of deep relaxation in the posture called savasana (shah-VAHS-ahna).  Translated from the Sanskrit, savasana is corpse pose.  In savasana, we surrender the body to the earth and experience stillness.   We take the body into the rest and repair mode.

While experiencing deep relaxation at the end of yoga class is especially wonderful, you can also enter this beneficial state at home whenever you have a small amount of time and a quiet space.

Lie down in a comfortable, quiet spot, preferably on the floor.  Use a mat or folded blanket for padding.  Make sure you will not be disturbed for at least fifteen minutes.  Turn off the phone ringer!  Your clothing should be loose and comfortable, and your feet bare.  Dress warmly or have a blanket handy.

Stretch out on your back, separating your feet about two feet apart.  Allow your hands to rest on the floor, palms upward. Align your head with your spine.  The posture is symmetrical.  Remain still with your eyes closed.  Breathe gently and rhythmically through your nose.

Spend the remainder of your time in savasana giving your body commands to relax.  Bring all your awareness to your feet, and say internally, “Feet relax.”  Move systematically and slowly up the body.  Say, “Legs relax, hips relax, lower back relax,” and so on.  Pause after each command to experience your body.

You can be as specific as you like while taking this journey.  You might include the internal organs.  Definitely attend to each part of the face.  Finally, say, “Mind relax.  My mind is relaxed.”

In the relaxed state, follow the ebb and flow of your breath.

There’s nowhere to go.  There’s nothing to do.  Just relax.  You deserve this.

Detox?

Sometimes my yoga students ask me for advice on “detoxing.”  They might feel lethargic, headachy, congested, moody, or inexplicably out of sorts.

My first thought is, “Before you worry about getting rid of accumulated toxins, stop sucking in new ones.”  Daily, we are exposed to so many toxins.  While this is not particularly pleasant to think about, taking a few moments to assess harmful chemicals in your environment may inspire you to take steps to eliminate or reduce them.

Diet is an obvious source of substances that negatively affect your health.  Have you become complacent about your diet, sliding into the habit of making food choices based solely on convenience or taste?  If you are serious about achieving or maintaining excellent health, it’s imperative that you eat real food—not heavily processed, chemically laden pseudo food.

Read package labels.  In general, the shorter the list of ingredients, the better.  For optimum health, purchase fresh, preferably organic, foods which have no ingredient LIST (such as oatmeal, blueberries, spinach, walnuts and black beans).  And think about what you drink.  Sodas, especially those with artificial sweeteners, have no place in the healthy person’s diet. Nor do so called sports or energy drinks.

An often forgotten source of toxins is indoor air.  Whether you are remodeling and filling your home with new paint, carpet, and other off-gassing materials, are cleaning with a plethora of noxious household cleaners or are spritzing pesticides in your space, your indoor environment can be hazardous to your health.

Forget about your old favorite products, and substitute safe ones which are readily available.  Realize that many cleaning tasks can be accomplished with simple and cheap white vinegar or baking soda.

Do you know that most air fresheners, whether sprayed or plugged in, are actually air poisoners?  Ditto for most scented candles. Try forgoing fancy, flowery cover-ups and eliminate the source of odor.  Or use high quality, natural incense, real essential oils, or candles scented with them.  Another alternative:  simmer cinnamon sticks and cloves in water on the stove, and use houseplants as air purifiers.  One of the best things you can do is spend more time outdoors where, in general, air is cleaner.

Lastly, stop and think about the substances you slather on your body. Between waking and walking out the door, many people use body washes, shampoos, deodorants, powders, moisturizers, sunscreens, hair spray, makeup, toothpaste, mouth wash, artificial fragrances and insect repellent, dowsing their permeable skin with over a hundred potentially harmful chemicals.  Much of this is making it into your body!

Read labels and take time to research questionable ingredients.  The internet is a great source for such information.   I love the Environmental Working Group website and specifically their cosmetics database: http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/

The key to  healthy lifestyle changes is mindfulness.  Start examining the products that you and your family come in contact with.  Stop the “toxing” today.

Yoga to Banish Depression

If you are one of millions of Americans who suffer from mild depression, my advice is to get up and get moving.  Physical activity of any variety—walking, biking, dancing, even raking leaves—can lift that cloud that hangs over you.  You might also try yoga which is especially helpful in alleviating mild depression.  Besides offering a wide variety of physical exercises, yoga includes breath-work that is energizing and centering.

Furthermore, yoga’s underlying philosophy stresses that all people are worthy and wonderful by their very nature.  Everyone is successful at yoga.  When under the auspices of a true yoga teacher, you will discover that every effort in yoga and every achievement, no matter how small, imparts self-esteem, motivation, and the dissolution of feelings of helplessness.

Two types of yoga postures are particularly useful when you are in the throes of depression:  poses that open the front body such as the back-bending “Cobra,” and those that are powerful and challenging such as the “Warrior.”

Try the warrior and notice how you feel afterwards.  To begin, stand with your feet three to four feet apart.  Extend your arms out to the sides at shoulder height and open your chest.  Feel wide and strong.  Next, turn your right heel in and right toes out so your foot points to the right and aligns with your left instep.  Inhale deeply, and as you exhale, bend your right knee and lunge.  Bring your knee directly over your ankle.  Keep your torso vertical as opposed to pushing the head and chest to the right.  Your left leg remains straight.

Now, turn your head and focus on the fingertips of your right hand.  As you maintain a soft but steady gaze, take five long breaths through your nose.  Come out of the lunge and rest your arms.  Repeat the Warrior to the left.  While holding the posture you might internally repeat an affirmation such as, “I’m strong and able to meet all challenges that come my way.”

After completing the warrior, step your feet together, stand tall, and take a moment to notice precisely how you feel.  Now smile—you’ve taken one step toward becoming a stronger, happier you.

Analoma Viloma Brings Balance

Our breathing is inextricably linked to our physical and mental states.  When you are anxious, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow.  When you’re focused, your breathing is slow and subtle.  When shocked, you may respond with a gasp and hold your breath.

Yoga teaches that just as our breath is affected by how we feel, how we feel is affected by our breath.   Hence, special breathing exercises are a large part of yoga practice.  According to yogic wisdom, breathing predominately through the left nostril produces quite different effects than breathing through the right.

Take a moment to assess your breathing.  With closed eyes, breathe naturally through your nose. Can you determine if your breathing is primarily through the right nostril or left?  You might like to check again at different times of the day.

The major traditions (or styles) of yoga include an alternate nostril breathing exercise because this practice brings about a sense of balance or equilibrium.  And in our hectic, overstressed world, who wouldn’t benefit from that?

Let’s go over some basics.  Do not attempt alternate nostril breathing if you are congested. Practice this exercise when you are in a relatively neutral mood.  If you are very excited, angry or upset, simple deep breathing is more appropriate.

In preparation for your breath work, minimize distractions in your environment. Always practice while seated with the spine erect, shoulders back and down, head lifted and face relaxed.  Either sit cross-legged on the floor or sit in a chair with both feet planted on the floor.

Bring your right hand up in front of your face, palm facing in.  You will use the thumb and ring finger of this hand to alternately close the nostrils.  The index and middle fingers can either tuck down into the palm or point upward.  Keep the breathing relaxed and rhythmic.  In this beginner’s variation, the inhalation, retention and exhalation will each be four counts.

Now, close off the right nostril with the thumb and inhale through the left.   Gently close both nostrils (use thumb and ring finger) and retain the breath. Lastly, open the right nostril by lifting the thumb and exhale.  Remember the count is 4/4/4.  Continuing, inhale through the right nostril, hold, and exhale through the left.  This completes one round.

You can start with a few rounds daily and work up to ten rounds in a sitting.  If at any time during your practice, you feel physically or mentally stressed, rest and try again later.   If you make alternate nostril breathing a daily habit, expect to feel better on many levels.  This practice may seem simple, but it can be profound.

.

Back Pain Basics

Most Americans will suffer with back pain at some point in their lives.  For some the pain is minor and short lived; for others it is debilitating and chronic.  Theories about back pain are numerous even within the established medical community, let alone the burgeoning world of alternative medicine. Despite the wonders of modern science, the root cause of a back problem is difficult to pinpoint in most cases, and a sufferer may get conflicting diagnoses.

The treatments that are recommended to alleviate the pain often cannot guarantee relief, and they may be invasive and involve substantial risks.  For obvious reasons, relying on pain medications is also risky.  In the case of my own back problems, which began in my teens, I chose to forgo recommended disk surgery and have never regretted that decision.

While I do experience pain in the lower back and sacrum occasionally, most of the time the pain is kept in check with holistic practices.  By learning from my own body, working with other pain sufferers, and studying many approaches, I’ve come to believe that there are four keys to regaining or maintaining a healthy, pain-free back:  manage stress and think positively, maintain a healthy weight, practice good posture, and stretch and strengthen your body.

Let me put it another way.  If you are overweight, over-stressed and very sedentary, for instance hunched over your desk all day, you are definitely setting yourself up for back problems. But if you take responsibility for your body and your lifestyle, you won’t eventually be seeking out a doctor to save you.

I think that the emerging, rather controversial, concept that emotions play a large role in chronic pain conditions is worth looking into.  For more information on the theory, I recommend the book Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connectionby John E. Sarno.

And I can’t help but suggest a gentle yoga practice to anyone with back problems because yoga encompasses positive thinking, proper postural alignment and a comprehensive approach to strengthening and stretching.  I stress “gentle” here:  a strong, aggressive yoga style may exacerbate your troubles.

Also understand that yoga will not provide a quick fix.  As I stated earlier, you must take responsibility for your lifestyle, and this means dedicating yourself to making real and lasting changes.  We like to believe that there is a fast, easy way to deal with our problems, but usually that’s not the case.  Transforming your body and your life will take place gradually, one day at a time—one healthy decision at a time, starting now.

Yoga and Nonviolence

“There’s a spider over here,” a student at the yoga studio announced, pointing to a black splotch on the wall.  Another student, who’s new to the studio, moved rapidly with a raised arm in the direction of the little creature.  “No!”  I blurted out as I raced across the room to save the spider.  “No killing in here.”

I encouraged the jumpy spider to take refuge in my hands to be taken outside. I’m sure some people think I’m going overboard with my practice of “ahimsa,” non-harming, which is a rudimentary practice for serious yogis.

I will go as far as to insist that a paying customer not smash a few fire ants that have wandered in, and will suggest that the student just move her mat to a different area of the room.  Or I might allow a room of students to remain in a yoga posture for a couple minutes while I work to catch a cricket.  Call me a freak, but as far as I’m concerned, if you choose to adopt a set of moral principles, you must live by them without compromise as much as possible.  Any breech should be taken seriously.

The yogic code of nonviolence goes far beyond “Thou shalt not kill.”  If you embrace ahimsa, you attempt to never knowingly and willingly do harm to any being in thought, word or deed.  This means that even violent thoughts and hurtful talk are avoided.  Why vow to live by such a strict code of conduct?  Is it due to a fear that if you transgress the code you will go, in my young stepson’s words, “down there”?

No.   I think the desire to live by ahimsa arises as one taps into his or her innate compassion.  Or, at least, the choice to live to this high standard of ethics is motivated by a belief that “what goes around comes around.”   In yoga, this is referred to as the law of karma.  Violence begets violence.  But realize that positive acts also boomerang, so peace begets peace.

Imagine what it would be like to be in a space that for eight years has rarely housed any harmful thoughts, words or deeds.  I know exactly what it is like.  Peace just hangs in the air and fills you when you reside in the space.  Many of my students have expressed that they’re surprised to feel amazingly peaceful when they enter the yoga studio.  I’m not surprised.  I believe we have all cultivated this peace over time.

You can cultivate peace, too.  By practicing non-harming, you can create your own sacred space, your own little piece of heaven.  If only everyone would.

Maintain Your Youth with Yoga

Do you want to maintain or regain your youth?  Then maintain a healthy, flexible spine.

Those who consistently practice yoga generally feel young, look young and act young.  Frankly, years spent basking in the glorious sun will eventually show up on the skin, but other telltale signs of age may be avoidable.  The stiffness, slow and restricted movement and hunched posture that seniors often display are not as inevitable as often assumed. I have yoga students in their sixties who are more flexible and vibrant than many students under thirty—including some children.

What’s really important is that people at all stages of life keep moving, and especially keep moving the spine. Granted, many people stretch nowadays.  Smart personal trainers and gym assistants have convinced exercisers that stretching is beneficial before and after workouts.  But at the gym I attend, I primarily see people stretching hamstrings, calves, quadriceps, and maybe shoulders.

In yoga, emphasis is placed on stretches that contribute to the suppleness of the spine.  Yoga includes four different types of movements for the spine that help one maintain youth and vigor:  forward bends, backward bends, lateral bends, and twists.  Learning yoga postures or other exercises to limber up your spine is a great idea because in our relatively sedentary culture, our daily movements are limited.

Here’s an easy variation of a yoga twist that you can do every day:  a veritable youth tonic.

Sit your hips in the middle of a firm chair seat– a dining room or desk chair usually works.   Plant both feet on the floor and sit up tall, creating length in your spine.  Now breathe in deeply, and as you exhale, twist your torso to the right.

Gently lever yourself into a deeper twist by pressing your left hand against your outer right thigh.  Taking hold of the chair back with your right hand is another way to spiral further.  Never force the stretch—just ease into it.  Keep your shoulders relaxed down and parallel to the floor.  Hold the stretch for several breaths, and then slowly come out of the pose and repeat to the opposite side.

Have you ever seen a healthy, graceful, youthful “senior” frolicking with a grandchild or great grandchild?  I hope to be one of those one day, and I hope you will be one too.  Limber up your spine!

Karma Yoga

“It’s all about you!” is an advertising slogan that seems to pop up often these days.  Messages such as this are obviously targeting individuals who actually believe “It’s all about me.”  This type of thinking is now prevalent and acceptable, but I ask, is it conducive to a happy, meaningful life?

I definitely recommend that people take good care of themselves physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.  If they do not, they run the risk of getting so depleted or even ill that they cease to be productive and are scarcely available to give attention, help or love to others.  A nice metaphor for this is found in the preflight safety instructions you are given on a plane:  Put your oxygen mask on before assisting others.

But frankly, while I know a few people who are almost always giving to others and not replenishing themselves, I’d say this does not describe the majority of people in our culture.  We have become a culture of individuals so engrossed in ourselves and the pursuit of ease, comfort and pleasures, that we accept self-centeredness as the norm.   “Be selfish and indulge yourself,” advertisers command.  And we obey.

But with all our pampering and primping, travelling, spa-ing, and delegating or shirking of responsibilities, do you think we’re one iota happier than our harder working, giving, serving, sacrificing counterparts in other places or times in history?  I’m no sociologist, just an interested observer, but I contend we are not happier.  Look around.  Just one indicator of our sad state is the rampant use of both prescription and illicit drugs.

The great teachers and texts of yoga have made clear the folly of a life lived only for self-gratification.  Yoga advocates selfless service to others as the means to overcoming egotistical tendencies.  We can only experience true happiness and peace when we come to understand our true nature and our true purpose in life.  To perform actions without any expectation of reward, not even praise, allows our inner goodness to flourish.  Whether it’s getting involved with an adult literacy program, helping with a highway litter cleanup, or just assisting a friend with a difficult task, try engaging in some selfless service.

Feel your heart expand and your mental burdens lighten as you affirm, “It’s not all about me: it’s about all of us.”

« Previous Page« Previous entries « Previous Page · Next Page » Next entries »Next Page »

Still Lake Yoga • 365 Citrus Tower Blvd., Suite 100 • Clermont, Florida 34711 • (352) 978-8356 • tracey@stilllakeyoga.com