Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Book Report: enLIGHTened

As the summer starts drawing to a close and the reopening of Karma Kids starts peeking around the corner, I've been craving a slight change in reading material.  It's been a fabulous summer for reading - I've read many of my old Stephen King favorites, a few new King gems, Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho (which...good LORD), John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath....lots of great fiction.

However, fall means the beginning of a busy semester of work and getting back into the full swing of things as a yoga teacher as well as a student.  My summer of 30 Day Challenges and Bikram were great, but I wasn't spending my summer reading the Yoga Sutras or the Bhagavad Gita or anything.  I felt I needed something more yoga-esque to help get my head in the game.  I also wanted something a little lighter than King, Steinbeck, and Ellis for the train ride to Boston last week!

Appropriately enough, the first book on my random list of yoga-esque books was enLIGHTened:  How I Lost 40 Pounds with a Yoga Mat, Fresh Pineapples, and a Beagle Pointer by Jessica Berger Gross.  I've been wanting to read this book for awhile.  Jessica Berger Gross also writes the Enlightened Motherhood blog for Yoga Journal.com, and her simple, clear writing style is often a huge help and inspiration to me when I'm feeling like I need to turn a blog entry into a novel.

Gross uses the yogic yamas and niyamas (kind of the yogi's 10 Commandments) to illustrate different steps in her weight-loss and "enlightenment" journey.  She doesn't pretend to be a perfect, superhuman, all knowing all meditating yogi, but her life was dramatically changed by yoga and she doesn't shy away from the lessons she learned from it.  One thing I liked about this book is that the philosophy of yoga is treated as the utmost important thing - important over the yoga poses themselves (the asana practice).  The asana serves the philosophy.

I think because I knew a lot of these yogic principles and factoids and Sanskrit terms, I felt this book was a lot more about weight loss than I was expecting.  Yes, obviously, it's right there in the subtitle - the story is "How I lost 40 Pounds."  But after doing so much reading from different places about everything in moderation, it was occasionally jarring to read some of the food philosophies she adheres to.  The most notable is the chapter on fasting/cleansing, and we all know my opinion on that.  I personally don't think it's safe and would never advocate it, but she has the right to her opinion and I realize that people do it all the time without serious incident.  It was interesting to read such a detailed account from someone with a different perspective on it.

Although I'm not on a weight loss journey right now, per se, I have lost a lot of weight and changed my body over the years.  My fitness level and size when I was 19 and 20, for instance, were lightyears behind where I am now.  I do absolutely credit yoga for helping me make better choices and for inspiring me to educate myself about my own health and eating habits.  It was really moving to read someone else's journey with it, and it helped me reacquaint myself with the importance of eating mindfully.  Even though I'm at a healthy size and weight, I do still hold onto some unhealthy habits that have been with me since a kid.  The way this book links a lot of basic yogic principles - truth, purity/cleanliness, and moderation - and links them to the everyday decisions you make in the kitchen, the restaurant, or on any single street in NYC with endless access to all kinds of food, was very thought-provoking and, at times, profound.

She also touches on vegetarianism as a way of exploring ahimsa, or non-violence.  That's a very common interpretation for yogi vegetarians and/or vegans, and I like that she didn't apologize for her views.  She didn't judge meat-eaters, but she makes a compelling case for cutting out (or at least down on) meat consumption.

I'd recommend this book for either a seasoned yogi or even a total yoga newbie - anyone who would be interested in an Eat, Pray, Love-esqe memoir about weight loss and spiritual gain.  It's funny, touching, insightful, and given that I devoured the whole thing in a 4 hour train ride, it's good light reading.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Breathing: The Best Tool in Your Toolbox

Good gloomy Saturday morning!  I'm sitting here in peaceful, tranquil (for the moment) Boxford, Massachusetts.  Marc and I are visiting his family and our visit has just been extended by two days to make way for angry Irene!  I hope our home and our city is safe, but it surely is nice to be surrounded by green, peace, and quiet for a few extra days.

Simple post today - I just wanted to write about something a new (to me) yoga instructor said last week.  I went down to Bikram Park Slope with my wonderful cousin, who is doing a 30-Day Bikram Challenge.  This woman, Robin, was so inspirational, fun, and funny.  She even left us little vegan blueberry muffins on our mats after class!  One of the best Bikram classes I have ever attended, hands down.

She does a lot of talking in the 90 minutes, as do most Bikram teachers.  The dialogue (or monologue, technically) is partly there to keep you engaged in the present so your mind doesn't get a chance to ask you what on earth you're doing in such a hot, disgusting room.  I could have listened to her talk for another 90 minutes, easy.

She said something that I know I've heard before, but in such a way that it resonated with something different in me.  Isn't it so amazing - and often a little annoying, she said, that the cure to most of our emotional distress at any given moment, is right here within us?  All we have to do is adjust our breath.  It's infuriatingly simple and often sounds trite, but it's the truth.  She gave us a mini homework assignment (or would have if we were capable of writing) to notice how often you hear someone tell someone else to breathe.  Whether that person is angry, upset, perhaps worried that a hurricane will damage their apartment or city...the first thing you will tell them is to take a breath.

Beyond that, notice your own breath when you get in those states.  When I cry my breath is shallow, short, and very jerky.  When I'm trying not to cry I hold it a lot.  It's very hard to have long, slow, full breath when you're angry or sad - your body physiologically just can't really support both states at the same time.

So go ahead, notice it.  We're going to need something fun to do if the power goes out!  Take slow, deep breaths, whatever comes, and you can weather this and any other storm with your own internal strength.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Last Days of Summer

August is winding down, and with it - summer.  We've still got a good 12 days left, and I intend to make good use of them.  Still...the unseasonable cool and wet weather we've had these past couple of weeks in New York are hammering home the reality that soon it'll be autumn.  The Back to School commercials are already dominating the airwaves, so it must be real!

We're encroaching on a time of year that always feels a lot like New Year's to me.  I don't think I've ever been able to release myself from the New School Year conditioning, and somehow the way my life and jobs and moving to and from new cities always seems to center around Fall Semester, Spring Semester, and Summer.  I never seem to have a big transition smack in the middle of March or November, it's always May and August/September.  I wonder how much of that is conscious and how much unconscious!

This is yet another way in which Karma Kids is a perfect job for me.  We slowed down in the summer and will pick back up again in September, schedules packed and rarin' to go.  Today, after I substitute a class at an Upper East Side school for a fellow teacher, I'm finished with teaching for at least two weeks.  It's really strange and hard to believe, and hammering home this time of transition, reflection, and recharging more than ever.

Coming into the last few months of 2011, I'm trying to stay committed to my number one goal for the year which was to have a daily meditation practice.  I've had times of practicing every day and I've tried a lot of different practices, but I still feel like I haven't really dug in deep with one particular practice.  Swami Satchidananda, founder of Integral Yoga Institute (where I do my fabulous Thai Yoga Massage trainings) has been so widely quoted on this subject that I can scarcely find an actual quote, so I'll just paraphrase.  He says you cannot find water by digging many shallow holes - the only way is to dig one deep hole.  Essentially, finding enlightenment, peace, whatever you're meditating for is not going to happen if you're doing something different every week.

I mostly agree with that, but I think the only way you know which technique really works best for you is to try the variety.  I'm not so sure I'm out of the experimentation phase - or if I ever should be, at least not completely.

These are the things I have time to think about when I'm not working all the time.  Not a bad problem to have, granted, but it's hard enough to find the time every day to sit and meditate without spending the entire time wondering if you're making the best use of this time you're giving yourself.

I've decided this time I'm just going to sit each and every day and meditate and try to be as consistent as possible.  I'll let you know how it all turns out.

In the meantime - get outside!  Go to the beach!  Go anywhere and enjoy this beautiful weather.  (And bring an umbrella)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Athleta takes New York!

The California based clothing company Athleta has been quite generous to me and this tiny old blog.  They invited me last year to an event called Wake Up, Athleta along with other NYC yoga/running/active lifestyle bloggers.  Aside from a free outfit, free yoga class, and free delicious breakfast, I left having gotten to know a little bit more about this very cool clothing company.

Luckily for me, they were kind enough to include me to the press opening celebrating their first two New York retail stores.  (Me?  Press?  I know.)  They have one Upper West Side store (where the event was held) on 216 Columbus Ave, a stone's throw away from the 1-2-3 trains, and next week they'll open their Upper East Side location at 1517 3rd Avenue near the 4-5-6.

The store itself is really beautifully laid out with all of their different sections flowing together - running, yoga, and what they call their "To-Fro" selection of street clothes (even non-sports bras and underwear!)  Although their prices are comparable to lululemon (i.e....kinda pricey, especially on a humble yoga teacher's budget) their design aesthetic is a little different.  They're much more pattern-y (lots of flower inspiration) where lulu is usually all about solid colors.  They have a similar bright, saturated color palette, however. 

I'd say the main difference between Athleta and lululemon is where they've chosen to expand.  (By the way, I'm only constantly comparing to lulu because I feel like that's what most New York yogis have to compare it to)  Lululemon has been expanding into offering a lot of men's clothing in the last few years, whereas Athleta is all about the ladies.  Athleta has really expanded in the "To-Fro" or everyday clothing items like dresses, jeans, pants, casual tops, sweaters, and underwear.  Athleta also offers products designed by other companies more than lulu does, I think - a lot of California based companies that design jewelry (something else that makes Athleta unique) and other accessories.

My absolute favorite thing about Athleta, which I think sets them apart from a great deal of the major yoga/running clothing stores out there, is that they offer a lot of organic cotton clothing for pretty much the same price as their non-organic clothing.  If you do some searching you may be able to find an organic cotton sweater somewhere in a lulu or lucy store, but you do have to dig.  I stumbled upon plenty of items in Athleta, and it made my hippie heart smile.

Some other great features of the store:  they offer free hemming, they have a great return policy, and there are cool little computer stands that offer in-store access to their website to order if they are out of your size - or to order Petite sizes.  As a petite myself, I was a little annoyed they weren't available in-store, but given that they offer free hemming and that they literally just opened, I can cut some slack.  Also - free shipping when you order in-store.

My own loot that day consisted of a great organic cotton dress which I sadly couldn't find on the website - I think it was an in-store exclusive.  Their extensive dress collection online can be viewed here, however.  I also got something that was kind of different for me - I've seen this type of style from other brands and never thought I could pull it off, but my curiosity and the organic material pushed me to try them.  Organic cotton brahma leggings with a skirt sewed on - I got the Olive color (Asphalt is pictured below).  They seem particularly perfect for teaching adult classes or for going from a day of yoga to an evening consisting of non-yoga people who wear real clothes for their jobs.

Finally, I got a running hat, something I've been meaning to get forever.  This was another in-store exclusive because it wasn't designed by Athleta - it's the Barrier Lite Run Cap by Pearl Izumi in bright yellow.  I finally had a chance to properly try it out yesterday and it's awesome!  Lightweight and breathable, so my scalp doesn't become a sweaty mess, and the sun barrier is fantastic for protecting your skin.

All in all...a very successful trip.  Now I'm off to get pretty and slip into my new dress for dinner and a show!  Hope everyone is having an equally fabulous weekend.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Bikram Diaries, Part 3: Consistency vs. Variety

Good Friday morning!  Today I just wanted to touch a little bit on something that I tend to think a lot about when it comes to my own personal yoga practice - consistency vs. variety.  Is it more beneficial to do the same sequence every single day and measure out your improvements or simple changes day-to-day in that way, or is it better to change it up for your mind and body?

As a primarily Vinyasa practitioner, I'm a big fan of the variety.  I like coming to class not knowing what awaits me, and I love when it happens to be either exactly what I want or exactly what I need.  (Often the two are not necessarily the same thing)  Variety is also how you learn new things - crazy new arm balances, new mudras for meditation, or even just a new variation on a standard pose.  I've been taught trikonasana so many different ways by different teachers.  It all winds up looking like essentially the same pose, but there are different ideas about the position of the hips, whether the hand should be on the inside or outside of the front leg if it's touching the floor, where the gaze should be, how revolved the upper body is or isn't toward the ceiling...Tiny little changes always challenge the way I think a pose should be and teach that there's no Yoga Police ready to charge in and tell you you're teaching it wrong.

I also appreciate the variety because, as almost every fitness expert will tell you, switching up your routine is key for avoiding a plateau in weight loss (if that's your goal) and keeping your routine the same every day will eventually cause it to lose its effectiveness.  Also, doing the exact same thing every day could potentially cause harmful wear and tear or overuse of certain joints.

All of that being said - there are pros to keeping a consistent routine.  If we're just talking about a simple, on-your-own home practice, it's a beautiful way to keep a solid, grounded anchor for yourself throughout your sure to be hectic, ever-changing life.  It's a way to come back, check in with yourself, and find some comfort in the reliable consistency.

As for practices like Bikram (and Ashtanga, and any other school that advocates a set sequence), the instructors claim the same benefit as well as the benefit of being able to see immediately your progress - or plateaus, for that matter.  There's certainly something rewarding about working towards a pose for ages and then one day just slipping into the full expression of it.

The mental aspect of consistency vs. variety is a little less easy to define, I think.  For you, personally, would your mind wander more doing the same thing day in and day out, or would that actually help you to keep a steadier focus?  It's a little bit of both for me.  I find in a Vinyasa class, I've got to keep my mind in the room because I have no idea what's going to be thrown at me - and maybe this teacher is going to ask for my hips to be parallel instead of angled in trikonasana, so I better pay attention.

In Bikram, however, they often say "Don't think, just do."  (My teachers have, anyway)  They don't mean don't use your intellect or listen to your body, they just mean don't let your mind chatter get in the way and distract you.  There's a strange focus that comes from not having to think about what comes next.  You know you're in the room, you know what you're in for, you know exactly the 26 poses coming your way - you just have to focus on doing them as best you can.  I've experienced classes these last 3 weeks where that's really worked for me and kept me super present and engaged in what I'm doing, and also days where my mind has wandered far, far away to try to escape from the hot little "torture chamber" (Bikram's words, not mine!)

Thinking about this debate always brings me to my beautiful best friend, Kendra Cox.  We met in college and I always admired what a dedicated runner and cyclist she was.  She was super athletic and never struck me as the type who would be into yoga (although heaven knew her tight muscles could use it!)


Kendra and I tackling Toe Stand 
 Since college, and since life has taken us both in unpredictable directions, she discovered Bikram yoga.  Kendra would be perfectly happy to live her entire life in 100-degree temperatures, so I figured it was a match made in yoga heaven.  However, she emailed me one day absolutely bored to tears with the sequence and wanted to know when the heck they were going to get to crow and Chaturanga.  The athlete in her, while probably drawn to a lot of the hardcore aspects of Bikram, needed more challenge and strength.  I recommended she find a heated vinyasa class to marry her two loves of heat and vareity.  She discovered Baptiste Power Yoga and has never looked back.  (I'm sorry to say I've never taken a Baptiste class...gotta put that on my list!)

Something she said that also always struck me as funny, that I kind of disagree with her on, is that she found it absurd for people to tell their Bikram teacher, "That was a great class," when it was just the same thing every time.  Despite the physical asana being the same, I think finding a good teacher (and a "great class") in Bikram is even more important than in Vinyasa.  Because you're doing the same poses over and over, the challenge to the Bikram teacher is unique.  There will be different qualities that keep students coming back to your classes - a high of motivation, positivity, and humor are three things that will keep me faithfully returning.

I've found my few teachers I love at Bikram Yoga NYC, as I mentioned, and I accidentally discovered another yesterday - a new-to-NYC teacher auditioning to work at the studio.  A little more variety was forced upon me as I tried to cling to the consistency of the teachers I feel safe with, and surprise surprise - I loved it.