Thursday, December 29, 2011

No Dairy January!

It's that gloriously lazy-yet-still-sort-of-stressful week between Christmas and New Year's!  We're all recovering from our holiday hangovers, food comas, and, in some cases, jet lag or family stress.  I always say this ought to be a national week off - who's focused on work this week?  We're coming off the high of Christmas (or the holiday of your choice!) and gearing up for one last big bash of the season before becoming virtuous resolution makers.

As I've said (probably a million times), I love New Year's.  I love the countdown, the resolutions, journaling my heart out reflecting on the past year and looking forward, and of course, eating black eyed peas for dinner on New Year's Day for good luck.  (Each pea you eat equals a good day in the coming year so say my southern forefathers-and-mothers!)

I haven't sat down and sussed out exactly what all my resolutions are going to be yet.  Inspired by The Happiness Project, I've actually been much more actively engaged in my month-to-month goals and resolutions than ever, but an entire year's worth?  I haven't quite touched that yet.

However, there is one particular resolution I'm going to follow for the month of January 2012.  Much like my gluten free journey of last March (which I'm starting to think I could have done a better job with...), I'm entering the world of abstaining from a food group - this time one of my favorites.

I'm doing a Dairy Free January!

Why on earth would I do this when cheese is one of my all-time favorite foods, and an ingredient in most of my other favorites?  I think it all started when my dear vegan friend Laura introduced me to Kris Carr.  Carr wrote Crazy, Sexy, Diet, detailing the diet and lifestyle that has naturally kept her cancer-free for nine years, and Laura has been sharing tidbits and wisdom with me.  (And thanks to Marc, I got my very own copy for Christmas!  Thank you, love!)

I haven't read the whole thing yet, but I remember very clearly reading a couple of her essays on dairy and its links to asthma, allergies, and eczema - three afflictions I've suffered from my whole life.

This really struck a chord in me.  I had an allergy test done on me when I was 12 and the triple threat of those conditions was getting to be too much to bear.  I tested positive for nearly all 35 allergens they injected into me (that was a fun day), including a whole host of foods - Wheat, Corn, Milk, Eggs, Chicken - seriously, you name it, and I am at least mildly allergic to it.

Mild being a key word - I never, ever changed my diet to accommodate my afflicted body.  Not once.  In fairness, I was 12, a monstrously picky eater and my mom had enough of a hard time finding anything I'd be willing to eat, let alone putting me on a super restrictive diet.  I'd probably have just starved out of protest.  Or run away to a cheese-and-buttery-popcorn factory (if such a magical place exists...).

So we turned to what most people turn to - drugs.  Expensive prescription drugs.  Also allergy shots and an operation on my poor swollen nasal passageway and deviated septum so that I could breathe like a normal person.

The asthma, allergies, and eczema have all ebbed and flowed in intensity, but all three have always been a part of my life.  I've accepted their permanence as my unlucky, sickly lot in life, especially as, with the help of modern medicine, it is manageable.  It honestly never occurred to me to change my diet.  If the subject of food allergies comes up, I'll rattle off the list of things I'm allergic to by rote, without really thinking about what I'm saying.  I think I figured that as long as it wasn't deadly (my airways won't close if I eat a strawberry or a peanut, for example) that I'd live with the eczema, the constant mild headache - take your pick.


As I wrote in my gluten-free entry, I've always been big on not depriving myself.  I eat healthfully, but I always stayed far away from any kind of diet or any food rule which stated something was 100% off limits.  Since that time, though, I've continued to read about food, watch documentaries about the food industry and the importance of a whole foods, plant-based diet, and I made the decision earlier this year to avoid meat that isn't either organic, pastured, or local (with the big exception being when I'm being served by my or Marc's family).  The latter element hasn't always been consistent or perfect, but I've done far better than my carnivorous self could have imagined.

Once I got the idea to do this, I wanted to make sure I wasn't going to be depriving my body of anything essential that I'd need to supplement.  As opposed to meat, which despite all its faults does at least provide our bodies with the essential Vitamin B12, I've come to learn that dairy is thoroughly useless when it comes to our health.  The Dairy Industry has spent a fortune convincing us that if you don't drink milk/eat cheese/eat yogurt, you will become calcium deficient and need osteoporosis.  Meanwhile, spinach, broccoli, kale, sesame seeds, almonds, and countless other plants, seeds, and nuts provide us with plenty of calcium that's lower in calories, higher in other nutrients, and more easily absorbed by the body.


So as I embark on this experiment, I know my bones will be just fine.  I've already worked on replacing the milk I use at home with SoDelicious Coconut Milk, and it's worked out great with cereal and occasional baking.  The hardest part of this?  CHEESE!  I've yet to taste a vegan cheese that I find even mildly appealing, let alone delicious, so I might just abstain altogether from that creamy goodness for the month.  Vegan friends, please share your recommendations!

I'm just interested to see the effect this has on my body and my health.  Laura and other vegan friends have said they can absolutely see a difference in their skin and their weight when they have cheese in their diet (the real stuff, that is) versus when they're virtuously vegan.  

It's only 31 days, and if my skin and health benefit, it'll be worth it down the line.  I can't picture myself bidding farewell to my beloved cheese for good, but I can at least prioritize my health above it, and keep it as a spare, special treat.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Queen of Asanas

I've been taking a lot more yoga classes for myself this month than usual.  It's kind of funny, considering I've felt so busy and pressed for time, yet without even trying I've been fitting classes into my schedule.  I'm sure it's my subconscious taking over and protecting my health and sanity in the midst of birthday/holiday madness.

Last Wednesday, Marc and I took a class with one of our all-time favorite teachers with whom we hardly ever get to practice anymore.  Toward the end of the (wonderful) class, she taught what has become one of my least favorite poses: salamba sarvangasana, or supported shoulderstand.

I hardly ever practice this pose anymore.  It feels scary being upside down in that funky way, I have major neck paranoia, the alignment-OCD yoga teacher in me is frustrated that I'm never sure if the positioning of my legs and pelvis and curve of my spine are exactly right, and I often have funky back pain a few minutes after I come down.

Someone remind me why is this called the Queen of Asanas again?

Normally if a teacher starts guiding the class into shoulderstand, I take the restorative variation by placing a block under my sacrum and extending my legs long into the air.  I get a super gentle inversion and a head start on final relaxation - win-win.  However, between my teacher from last Wednesday and another of my favorite teachers (who has her own issues with the pose, and therefore hardly ever teaches it) who taught it in class this weekend, I've decided the Queen merits a second look.

The funny thing is, I really want to like shoulderstand.  It seems like an especially appropriate pose for this time of year.  Despite all the flurry of activity and celebration in the air with all the millions of holidays coinciding at once, this is the darkest time of year, and therefore the time in which our bodies most want to go inward and rest.  (for more on that, here's a great Yoga Journal article on how winter is the most "yin" time of year)  Shoulderstand is the least effortful and involved of all the inversions, except for legs up the wall.  It takes some strength and body knowledge, but it doesn't take the courage, abdominal strength, and sometimes years of practice that it takes to master head, hand, or forearm stand.  It's both active and restorative at once.

The first place I turn whenever I want to dig deeper into any pose is, of course,  Yoga Journal.  They have excellent in-depth asana columns as well as quick looks at any pose.  Reading and studying more about shoulderstand can be helpful, but it's really no substitute for one-on-one attention with a trusted teacher when it comes to conquering a pose you have issues with.

If you've never done shoulderstand before, ask a teacher the next time you go to a yoga class if she or he will devote some time to it in class.  It usually comes toward the end, when you're completely warm and are starting to work your way toward savasana.  Some teachers are big advocates of only teaching supported shoulderstand, using blankets under the shoulders for extra protection of the neck, while others teach without.  If you have a particularly protruding/bony spine like me, I'd definitely recommend some blankets.  Notice not just the physical sensations you experience, but the emotional ones.  This pose can soothe and ease anxiety, but it can also very easily bring it up.  This can change with how often you practice the pose and how you're feeling going into it.

I'm going to continue my own exploration through talking with my teachers, reading through my anatomy books, and reading all the handy dandy Yoga Journal columns on the subject.  As important as it is to me as a teacher and a student to educate myself about this pose and hopefully get comfortable with it, ahimsa is still the first rule in my yoga practice book.  As I'd advise any of my own students - if it hurts, don't do it.  I might discover that this practice just isn't good for my body (not to mention my dinosaur spine).  I have no problem letting go of that, and neither should you - the restorative version of shoulderstand or any pose that doesn't agree with you is always there waiting for us!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Stressful Storytelling

I was without a book for whatever reason on the train a week or so ago, and so I was perusing the New York Times and Huffington Post on my iPhone.  I came across this article:  10 Ways to Reduce Stress.  Most every newspaper and magazine has this kind of story nearly every week or month, but I always like reading them to see if there's any new or unique advice.

Reading this article struck me as kind of funny because I do almost all of those things on a daily basis (with the exception of getting a massage, but yesterday's 27th birthday was a fantastic excuse to splurge).  I agree that they are stress relievers  but it got me thinking that if you do something every day, does it lose its ability to reduce your stress?  After all, just because I meditate and journal every day and do my best to get 8 hours of sleep doesn't protect me from feeling stressed out.  I'm still alive, after all.

This time of year, right now, is probably the most stressful in general.  I blogged about it last month, and boy am I in the thick of it right now.  A lot of it is positive stuff - it's Birthday Week for Marc and I, there are lots of fun holiday parties to go to where I get to hang out with fellow yoga teachers I don't get to socialize with much or good friends I don't see as often as I'd like.  On top of all of that, Karma Kids Yoga has opened its second studio this week (Peace In - for teens and grown-ups!  Check it out)! and as you can imagine, a lot of work is going into getting the place up and running and ship-shape for our clients and teachers.  Throw in finalizing Christmas Cards and you've got a perfect recipe for a typical crazy December week.

What I've started to notice, however, is that a vast majority of the stress that I experience and the stressful thoughts that I think and emotions that I feel, occur 100% inside my head during a situation that is in no way stressful at all.  Praying fervently that my class attendance is higher than it has been or envisioning a confrontation or trying to anticipate how many hours of sleep I'll be able to achieve is something that, as a worrier, is truly second nature to me.  I tell stories in my head.  I want to say that I can't help it, because I'm sure I can exact a measure of control over it, but it is a huge struggle.  I catch myself doing it all the time.  I like to plan things out to the nth degree, which involves a lot of anticipation, which then leads to my brain creating a mind-movie of what might happen, usually being sure to include the worst case scenario before the best.

What's the simplest solution here?  STAY. PRESENT.  Practice letting go, trust that the chips will fall however they're supposed to and that when they do, you will be ready in that moment with whatever the best response may be.  That takes a lot of faith in yourself, and it's a lot easier said than done.  Talking to Marc about it, he threw another of my favorite pieces of advice / my life motto at me:  "The purpose of life is to enjoy every moment."  So instead of just thinking about staying present, think about enjoying it.  Even if it seems like an impossible situation to enjoy and you just want it to be January already (or better yet, May!), find something to enjoy about it.  Even if all you can think of is that you're still breathing.  The enjoying gives you something to do with this moment instead of thinking, "Okay, I'm present.  Now what?"

Another piece of advice from Marc that I usually get when I come to him stressed out or upset is an oldie and a goodie:  This too shall pass.  All the bad, all the good, all the stressful, all the peaceful - it's only temporary.  In yoga, we work to create an inner equanimity to help us stay steady throughout the ups and downs of life.  It's the practical, every day purpose of the practice.

So figure out which of those 10 Ways to Reduce Stress can serve you, enjoy every lovely, stressful, fun, emotional, fleeting moment of this holiday season, and be comforted by the fact that everything passes.

Monday, December 5, 2011

"With self-discipline, most anything is possible." - Theodore Roosevelt

For the last several years, I've kept my journal on my computer.  Each year gets its own word document and special name.  The first was 2007, which is entitled 2007- Take One.  I assumed I'd have a lapse of journaling, and then come back a little later for what would probably be Take Two.  To my pleasant surprise, I wound up sticking faithfully to that "journal," and subsequently each year has had its own little name.  As the years have gone by, I've put more thought and intention behind the name - almost like declaring a theme for the year.

The title for 2011 has been Discipline.  Looking back on the previous years' New Years Resolutions, I noticed the same things kept coming up over and over.  Although I knew I had made some progress and forward motion, it seemed like I needed to tap into that well of self discipline I knew I had inside me to really make some lasting positive changes in my life.  Overall, I'd say my Year of Discipline has been a success.  It's been a long and winding road with more than a few detours, like any year is, but in the end I'd say I lived up to the title.

With my 27th birthday coming next week (yay!) and New Year's right around the corner from that, I'm starting to get into my New Year reflect-y mood already.  I'm a big New Year's nerd, as I'm sure I've written about before and as if on cue, the yoga books I'm reading have started talking about discipline.

Judith Hanson Lasater's Living Your Yoga has been on my Must Read list for over a year.  I'm finally reading it (thanks for loaning me your copy, Laura Frye!) and her mini-essay on discipline was incredibly eye opening.  She writes of how discipline, to her, used to mean pushing herself and accomplishing neverending to-do lists, which sounds all too familiar to me.

Over time, she says, "I have learned that discipline is less to do with accomplishment and more to do with intention and with commitment."  It's in taking a longer term look at things rather than just the short term - the day's list of to-do's and accomplishments.  For some people, whether they're super Type A or super laid back, "discipline" is a dirty word, like the obnoxious angel on your shoulder reminding you of the things that you should be doing or shouldn't be doing or could be doing better.

Despite how it can intimidate me, I've always had a positive association with the word discipline.  I think this comes from being a ballerina as a young girl (I danced until 14, when my feet rebelled violently against dancing in pointe shoes).  I was in awe of the older girls who would dance with injuries and sickness, at the girls who seemed to subsist on salads.  To me, that was something to be looked up to and emulated.  I wanted to be as mentally strong as those girls, and I think that, although my sense of self discipline luckily hasn't pushed me to do anything unhealthy (nor has it made me perfect by any means), that desire has served me well academically, with my career, and overall in my life.  By the same token, I can be the source of a lot of my own stress.  It can be hard for me to let something go, or to properly prioritize, or not stress that there are going to be dishes in the sink for one night because of my own internal sense of order and discipline.

However, it's just as mentally unhealthy to over idealize or idolize the concept of discipline as it is to avoid it like the plague.  Without a healthy respect for discipline, how can we grow?  As adults, no one holds our hands and tells us what we need to do or be - our fate is completely up to us.  A negative attitude toward discipline leads to personal chaos.

Lasater's shift from accomplishment toward intention really resonated with me and made me think about my number one resolution in this Year of Discipline, which was to practice yoga every single day.  I mainly meant a seated mediation practice, but journaling, asana practice - as long as it was me sitting with an honest intention to practice, I'd say it counts.  I had off-and-on success with this resolution until late August of this year where I've finally found some consistency.

I think this passage below, my favorite of her Discipline essay, helps clearly illustrate the importance of intention behind discipline.

Practice is not about what you get, it is about what you give.  Whether you are driven or resistant, the medicine is the same - do what is truly possible with unwavering commitment to giving yourself to the moment.  Without this intention, practice becomes another task to be completed and loses its ability to transform.  And transformation, or freedom, is the reason for all discipline.

One more thing I'd love to share with you, blogverse, is a blog from Kris Carr's fantastic site, CrazySexyLife.com.  She has guest bloggers post about all aspects of health - mental, physical, emotional, financial, you name it.  I'll be writing more about Kris Carr in the coming weeks or months - she's a really phenomenal woman whose books I'm just now starting to devour.

The entry I'd like to share is called Sweat with Love by Erin Strutland.  She is a former dancer and writes here about the darker side of discipline I alluded to earlier and more importantly, how to change your thinking and reframe your perspective into something more positive.  It's a must read for Type A yogis, runners, dancers, or other enthusiastic exercisers.



I'm not sure what my focus is going to be for 2012 yet, but I do know that while my previous way of looking at discipline has served me, it can also stress and guilt me.  Moving forward, I'm definitely going to take a different view on what it means to live a disciplined life.  As we tell the kids at Karma Kids - it's a yoga practice, not a yoga perfect.  The same principle applies to life, discipline, and living every day with intention.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Little Yogis and Yoginis

Happy December, Internets!  November was fast, furious, and absolutely wonderful.  I'm so happy to be back in New York after a whirlwind week of traveling home to see my fabulous family.  The food was rich and decadent, the weather in Florida was wonderful, and the family got a last minute treat - my cousin Missy brought two of her three beautiful children to come visit us the day after Thanksgiving!

Her twin girls, Ashleigh and Kaitlyn, are five (turning six in January!  I can't believe it) and I haven't seen them since they were in diapers.   A lot has changed in those few years - significantly, I discovered my absolute love, joy, and passion for playing with children!  So needless to say, spending a day with those funny, fabulous girls was a major highlight of the trip.
Me with Ashleigh - a broken arm doesn't stop this girl from anything!
They requested Ballet Music...the best I could do was Fly Like a Butterfly!
Super Ashleigh!
With my big sister Megan...Ashleigh and her broken arm are much more like her; Kaitlyn zonking out is much more like me!


It's so funny to me that I spend about 85% of my yoga life with children, and yet I hardly ever talk about them on my blog.  I think it's partly because I'm utilizing this blog to tackle Big Questions, yogic philosophy, or just my own personal interests week to week.  I think when I sit down to brainstorm or write my blog, I don't always make the connection between barking like a dog in downdog and going on yoga adventures to Samadhi.  (Samadhi = the 8th limb in the 8 Limb Path of Yoga.  Enlightenment, Higher Consciousness, Bliss...different definitions from different people, but you get the idea)

But it's exactly that silliness, spontaneity, and complete and utter presence that children possess and inspire in us that does move us toward that path of enlightened bliss.  Babies are the most effortlessly present humans on the planet.  Toddlers and kids too, although the older you get the more of that presence you tend to lose with each passing year.  Kids and babies experience each emotion to its absolute maximum, and then the next minute can transition to a completely different mood.  Watch a child go from a full fledged temper tantrum to laughing hysterically - it's exhilarating to see such a complete lack of inhibitions.  (Unless it's your kid and you're in a supermarket, I'd imagine) 

In my kids yoga classes, though, it's not like we discuss how magically present they are, and we certainly don't sit in silence and meditate.  It's through how I relate to them and through my observation of their joy and uninhibited taking-in of every moment that I learn from them in our yoga classes.  From the incredibly generous and effortless compassion of the six year old in my Queens class who spontaneously made up a song for the three year old yesterday to the toddler on Tuesday who preferred to give his mommy a foot rub rather than receive one himself, I'm learning loving kindness and compassion on a huge scale every day from children.

In my first (adult) yoga class post-Thanksgiving, the teacher made illusions throughout class of bringing a sense of childlike play to the practice.  Instead of just teaching urdhva hastasana using straightforward alignment, she encouraged us to really reach for the ceiling, just like kids genuinely try to actually touch it as if they could.  In our yogic squat, she told us to think of sitting like a frog.  Well, I've been teaching kids so much that I forgot grownups didn't think of the pose as frog squat already!  I could see from some of the reactions around the room, though, that not everyone was used to thinking in silly terms during a hardcore vinyasa practice.  Our teacher was trying to remind us not to take ourselves and the practice so seriously, and I smiled to myself and gave a little prayer of thanks to my job for reminding me of that every single day.