Monthly Archives: November 2012

We Are Not Limited to Carrot Sticks

As soon as I received my copy of Kris Carr’s new book CrazySexy Kitchen, I devoured it. It is so full of scrumptious sounding and looking recipes that it re-ignited my passion for eating healthy and with the holidays coming up that can be especially challenging. While a crudite sounds quite lovely, it pales compared to the mounds of cheese and sugar lurking at every table.

Ever since last Thanksgiving when I brought my own pre made vegan dinner from Whole Foods, it became somewhat public that I don’t eat what the crowd does at my family parties. I was out of the closet and the questions kept rolling, along with the laughter about what appeared to be a sad little Thanksgiving dinner not fit for a bird. Like most who follow the standard American diet, it is almost inconceivable to eat a plant strong diet. As I said before, I didn’t grow up this way. It wasn’t nurture that did this to me. My father, a meat, potato and Cheeze-It lover, will have you know he had no hand in this lunacy.

So keeping with this diet is not something that comes easy. I have to prepare and think ahead and make sure that I have something I want to eat at whatever function I’m attending, which means bringing it with me. I also have to be willing to make allowances every now and then and accept that it is okay for me to have fish once in a while or to enjoy a piece of cheese when I simply can’t resist. It’s not all or nothing with me. Deprivation leads to binging.

Still, I try to stay on the wagon. We talk a lot in yoga about dukha, which is translated as pain, discontentment, suffering. However you translate the sanskrit, it’s bad and it leaves us feeling bad. One of my favorite sutras is sutra 2.16: Heyam dukham anagatam, which is often translated to mean: the pain that has yet to come can be avoided. While this holds much heavier significance in other realms, it can also be applied to what we eat. Remember how uncomfortable it is to leave a holiday party after mindlessly consuming and imbibing. Ugh. My belly and head hurt just thinking about it. And that pain can certainly be avoided.

Thankfully, my heroine came to the rescue with such recipes as faux nog, pumpkin bisque, maple candied pecans, edamame dumplings, walnut falafel, wild mushroom croquettes, chile rellenos, cauliflower risotto and countless dressings and desserts. My mission from now until the parties start rolling is to find just a few of these concoctions that my domestically challenged self can whip up and surprise people with just how tasty healthy can be. We are not limited to carrot sticks. We can replace holiday favorites with new ones that taste just as delicious and satisfying but leave us feeling light, so we can still practice in the morning. Avoid that dukha.

Slow It Down

Countless times, students have said to me that they “can’t believe” how much any particular pose hurts when you “do it right.” Indeed.

In this world of power and vinyasa yoga classes, alignment was dropped by the wayside and somewhat forgotten. To defend all teachers, how can you teach alignment when your students expect you to move so quickly through the practice? You can’t. So, if we want alignment to be a cornerstone of practice, we have to slow things down and many people don’t like the idea of moving slowly — myself included. It’s fun to flow through a fast-paced class and it can get the vrittis out. The downside: if this is all we do, we will very likely begin to suffer from repetitive stress injuries to the shoulders, low-back, hips or knees.

Anyone who has taken even one of my classes knows that my emphasis in class is always alignment first. Now many people may say that every tradition of yoga has it’s own alignment principles. While that is true, I think it is fair to say that the Iyengar system has a clear advantage in its alignment theory based simply on its longevity. Many of these other traditions haven’t existed for even half the time of Iyengar yoga. If you delve deeply into the reason for Iyengar’s alignment, it is all very anatomical. It has nothing to do with opening the heart or releasing the chakras. It is all based on the anatomy of the body and keeping it safe so that we can practice for the rest of our lives.

So moving slowly has its place. We are so used to flying through life that we can often get uncomfortable mentally just holding a pose and being still for more than five to eight breaths. Holding poses forces people to be in their own mind — without distractions — and, frankly, I don’t know anyone who looks forward to that experience. But it is in this stillness that we can learn to pay better attention and learn about ourselves in the process. This ability to pay attention, often called eka grata which means one-pointed focus, allows us to be fully absorbed in our practice. If we focus on the little actions or details within each pose, rather than just the gross movements, we can not only stay safe and receive more benefits in each pose, but we also have a better chance of finding pratyahara, sense withdrawal, instead of making a to-do list or thinking about what we will have for dinner.

I might add that aside from being mentally challenging holding poses is actually physically hard as well. If you’re not sure about that, try holding any standing pose for two minutes. You’ll build a completely different kind of strength than taking 50 vinyasas.

What often comes after the shock of how hard poses are when done correctly is the lament about the necessity of using props. I really don’t understand the aversion to props. I know sometimes they can be cumbersome and can disrupt the flow if you need to grab a strap or block. Still, if you want to make forward progress in your practice, you simply have to be aligned. Otherwise, all your efforts won’t move you forward. It’s like math. You cannot do calculus until you’ve mastered algebra. In order to open and strengthen the body most effectively, we have to be aligned. It’s harder. It takes more time. It’s not as fun. But it works.

Watch Your Thoughts

Five years ago, I had posted on my bathroom mirror this famous quote from the Upanishads:

Watch your thoughts, they become your words;
Watch your words, they become your actions;
Watch your actions, they become habit;
Watch your habits, they become your character;
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

My sister swiftly came out of the bathroom and said, “How the heck do you watch your thoughts?” One answer is through a meditation practice.

I’m definitely in my infancy when it comes to meditating. When I was in high school I dappled with it, but my expectation back then was that I would sit quietly, inhaling and exhaling the word OM or AUM, and expect that I would feel as if I were levitating and see bright lights and have such clarity at the end of each session. I thought I would be completely renewed. I think the word I used most often was “enlightened” — how obnoxious. I didn’t realize that I was not, in fact, Siddhartha. Frustrated that I would never become Buddha and reach nirvana from sitting cross-legged for a few minutes a day in between the many highs and lows of high school, I quit.

Years later, I’ve learned a lot more about meditating and how it is approached by normal people, who have jobs, kids, and live in the fast-paced real world.

In the meantime, though, between high school and now, I put meditation to rest. It simply wasn’t for me, I said. I didn’t need to meditate because my practice was my mediation. During a good practice, when I was able to completely tune into my breath and fully absorb myself in the moment, I was meditating. I could block out externals — the music, the heavy breather next to me, the show-off in front of me, the bumbling beginner. It was just me and my mat. I had found intermittent glimpses of pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga where the senses are withdrawn. Clearly, if the asana practice was this great, I didn’t need to meditate.

Not only did I assert that my asana was my mediation but I also found every excuse I could. I was way too busy. I was pregnant, again. I have three kids to look after: when will I ever find a few minutes of quiet. When I do have down time, I need to do the laundry. I deserve to sit quietly with a glass of wine instead. I came up with everything. Besides, how is meditating in silence for five or ten minutes any different from resting in savasana for five minutes.

Yet, my teacher kept urging me to meditate. She never expounded on its virtues or judged me for not doing so, she’d just ask with curiosity if I had started to meditate as if she knew that some day it would be a regular practice for me. So, since I do almost everything she tells me to do, I finally decided to make a concerted effort toward a regular meditation practice. After all, I teach many yoga classes a week, that’s a lot of savannas that I’m just sitting through, doing nothing but daydreaming and examining my pedicure. Why not put that time to good use and sit up straight and tall, close my eyes and breath?

I know if you have a well established meditation practice you may think that this is not the “right” way to meditate and that five minutes is barely enough time to drop into any significant meditative state. I am quite sure you are right and know way more than me. At the same time, I can feel the effects of this practice, even when I end up just daydreaming with my eyes closed. Taking just five minutes, to block out all external distractions and focus on my breath and slow things down has had a dramatic effect. To draw a parallel, as a yoga teacher, I would rather someone try a few poses each day than to never bother to try because she can’t do it as much as I would like her to practice. She can open her hips more by doing a few hip-opener poses a day than sitting on the couch watching television. So, a little is better than nothing and over time maybe both me and the part-time yogi will practice more and more.

What’s interesting is that even when it’s less than satisfactory, even when my mind has not slowed down one bit and I think it’s a big waste of time, later in the day I still notice I can give myself some space between what I am thinking and how I react to it. I can observe my thoughts much more accurately and much more quickly and ask myself, “now why am I getting so upset about this?” before I react. Not all the time, of course, but more often than when I wasn’t meditating regularly. It has given me the ability to not jump to so many conclusions about what other people are doing or thinking. It has given me more clarity, not in the moment of mediation, but the lingering effects.

Try it. Commit to just five minutes. Find a comfortable place to sit up tall, set a timer and make sure it’s started before you close eyes. Then, just watch your thoughts.

In Stages

So, remember all that talk in the last blog about how food is medicine? Well, here comes this blog’s Debbie Downer: cosmetics and beauty products are toxic. I laugh as I write this because I know how ridiculous and definitive it sounds, but honestly it is the truth. You might ask, where does the insanity end? A few years ago, my former self probably would have thought my present self is a paranoid lunatic and/or a boring walking yoga stereotype. Now, it’s just how it is. It’s really hard to separate the mindfulness I practice on my mat with other aspects of my life.

We are all so concerned with how our heart is functioning or our lungs or really any organ, as long as it’s located inside the body. For some reason, we all seem to forget that our skin is the largest organ. And we’ve been smothering it with toxins since the day we were born. These chemicals seep into the rest of our bodies through our pores. Would you eat some of the ingredients found in cosmetics? Men, don’t throw your hands up and think this doesn’t apply to you. It’s not just lipstick or mascara or body lotion. It’s also shaving cream, body wash, soaps, shampoos.

I was also laughing as I wrote that inflammatory sentence about this stuff being toxic because I remember feeling completely overwhelmed with the “how-the-(expletive)-do-I-change-this?” thought. I wasn’t about to go make-up free and stop washing my hair and actually look like a real hippie — apparently, that is where I draw the line. After doing a little research on goodguide.com and learnvest.com, I realized I needed to make some changes, at least one. So I started slowly over the last year and a half and one by one I let go of my old trusty beauty products and made friends with new ones. Once again, my hero, Whole Foods, came to the rescue. Their Whole Living section of the store, which I used to blaze past thinking that Whole Foods should stick to foods, has become my new favorite place to be. It was a miracle. It’s all right there! Make-up, skin care, hair care, lotions, the list goes on.

I’ve noticed that the very ingredients that high-end beauty products boast of in their age-defying recipes are on the shelves of Whole Foods in their pure, unadulterated form, which means they’re more powerful. Forget the moisturizers that say they include vitamin C or Argan oil. Just buy vitamin C or vitamin E or Argan oil or whatever it is you need, and for way less money. They package these marvels in a cosmetic-friendly way. You don’t have to buy the vitamin E capsules and cut them open. If you’re the type who needs to pay a high price to be sure that you are getting the best of the best, they have super expensive products too, like Dr. Hauschka, which I now stare at longingly. Suki is not only on the higher-end, but it’s also local. (I’m sure I’ll get to the virtues of local in a later blog but for now I’ll just assume you all know how important that is.)

If you’re looking for some suggestions I like the Alba brand for haircare and body wash. Suki for facial cleansing and toning. It smells so good you’ll want to eat it. I use pure Argan Oil these days for moisturizer. Yes, I use oil on my face! That sounds cuckoo, but the very helpful lady at Whole Foods informed me that stripping our face of oils is what actually makes them more oily. (Duh.) I use the MineralFusion brand for make-up — not to be confused with BareMinerals, that would be toxic. There are so many brands to browse. It could actually be fun. Maybe just commit to trying out one new product.

I still haven’t experimented with all-natural deodorant or toothpaste, for obvious reasons. But I think I’ll try them out soon. Every time I deodorize I now wonder what toxins I am spreading on an exposed epidermis right near lymph nodes. Think about it. Still, what seemed daunting and impossible a year and half ago is now almost entirely possible. Like Desikachar says: in stages the impossible becomes possible. And there goes Yoga, infiltrating my life again.

(To learn how toxic the products you use are check out goodguide.com. It has an easy 0 -10 rating system on almost all products out there. You can also learn more about this at learnvest.com)