April 2006

It seems like a travesty to admit that you don’t like ol’ Down Dog. It’s practically synonymous with yoga. It’s practically an institution. It’s one of the most recognized poses anywhere. But Heather came clean in her comment to my last entry, and I’m proud of her – it’s tough to admit you’re not a fan of the pose. And it’s an issue because some teachers love the pose so much they leave you in it until you feel like your shoulders are about weld together. I couldn’t STAND the pose when I started doing yoga. It felt unnatural, useless and downright uncomfortable. Here’s some reasons why:

It’s an inversion – that’s why yoga teachers love it, because inversions are good for you and it’s more accessible than a headstand. But that’s also why it feels so unnatural and uncomfortable. When do you ever hold half your body weight like that in your arms, shoulders and back? You need to build up strength. It looks easy but it’s a very active pose because you’re always working against gravity to pull your spine long. To help get the feel of the pose try a Half Dog and drop your knees to the floor so you can focus on what’s going on from your hips up. When you’re stronger and want to build up strength try Ana Forrest’s Turbo Dog – bend your elbows so they drop a little toward the floor – woohoo!
You feel all the tightness in the back of your body - the first Dog of the yoga session is the hardest when your’re not warmed up yet. But just bend your knees a bit, or alot. This takes the tension off your back-body and lightens the load for your arms. If your teacher has left you in the pose while she recites the Sutras, go to Half Dog.
It puts alot of pressure on your wrists - focus in on where you’re holding the weight in your hands. You want to feel the weight in your fingers, thumbs and throughout your palms. You don’t want it all jammed into your poor little wrists. If you have a problem with carpal tunnel or another “wrist-onitis” issue, try rolling up a hand towel and placing your wrists on it. I understand that elevating them can help, give it a try.
It’s a complicated pose - At a yoga conference once I went to two back-to-back sessions where the instructor demonstrated the shoulder action in Down Dog exactly opposite to how the other instructor did. What’s a yogi to do? My position is that shoulder blades are pressed down the back to make the shoulder joints strong and secure. Then spaciousness is introduced by pulling out of the shoulder joints (no settling toward the floor) and stretching the spine long – you’re literally reaching your tailbone up and back, away from your fingertips. Spaciousness is also brought across your back by curling the outer edges of arm pits down toward the floor. Play with it in Half Dog so you can focus without getting tired. But also try the instructions you run across in class or other materials and experience it for yourself until you find techniques you’re comfortable with.

It’s worth working Downward Dog because it has plenty of benefits for body and mind. We always laugh in my Power Yoga class because once we’re warm and have done some challenging standing poses, Down Dog feels as good as Savasana. Who’da thought :-)

Also, when any pose feels really uncomfortable or painful, mention it to your teacher . Every body is different and when you need personalized attention, just ask. You may not be the only person who’s having challenges and if you are, so what, you deserve to find a way to be more comfortable in the pose. Thanks for your question Heather and Happy “Dogging”.

Here is my current favourite, it flows so nice. It’s perfect to finish off a vigorous standing pose flow. I always make sure that the flow includes a lunge, it helps people find Pigeon less intense. Hold each pose for at least 3 breaths, ideally longer.

– From Downward Facing Dog - raise your right leg straight up to the ceiling and then bend the knee and bring it forward to the mat for Pigeon Pose. Relax down on your forearms for a few breaths. Rocking your hips feels yummy too.

– Then bring your weight over to your right hip so that you can swing your left leg around for Head-To-Knee pose, folding over your left leg. You can also add a twist here, opening your torso to the right with your right arm overhead, stretch your torso long.

– Then bend the left leg and stack the outer edge of your right foot on your thigh. Modify the bend in your left leg so you can find the right amount of stretch in the right hip. Let your knee fall open, this is more about easing your foot toward your torso.

– Then bring your right foot to the other side of the left leg for a Seated Twist.

Head back into Plank, Cobra and Downward Facing Dog to do the other side.

An article recently in the New Yorker reviewed a couple of books on happiness. It turns out that we’re hard-wired to see the bad in life over the good. Quoting from a book called The Happiness Hypothesis: “Responses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger, and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunities and pleasures.” To seriously paraphrase it, the fearful cautious cave dude had a better survival rate. Life for him*was* nasty, brutish and short as Hobbes described it. And we’re more likely to be his descendents than the happy-go-lucky cave dude who wasn’t concerned about going hungry or being eaten by a lion. And it does appear to be hard-wired – “This is a matter of how our brains are wired: most sense data pass through the amygdala, which helps control our fight-or-flight response, before being processed by other parts of our cerebral cortex. This is one of the reasons that human beings make heavy weather of being happy. We have been hardwired to emphasize the negative.”

We also have a happiness ‘set point’. A study found that whether people won the lottery, or became a paraplegic, they were back to their happiness set point in a year. The only variable here was poverty. So if our happiness levels are less dependent on outside forces than we often think – it means they’re alot more within our control. Does this mean I can’t blame the shit happening around me, I have to take more responsibility for my own happiness? How exactly do I do that? Well here are two ways and there are probably more:

Do what you love (or at least like):

The article said that a study found that people were more content when they were experiencing what Csikzentmihalyi called “flow”. That’s the state you’re in when you’re totally immersed in a task that you enjoy doing. It’s just challenging enough to keep your attention, but it’s not outside the realm of your abilities. A good yoga session is the perfect example of this. If I can stop focusing on the thinking (lord knows the thoughts still happen) and get immersed in the feeling of the poses, I can contentedly flow like a river.

Do what you do more mindfully:

I think another good strategy is to become more conscious of the life you have. This is where your yoga training comes in handy. If we can calmly experience what’s really happening, we sneak by the flight/fight tendency and really appreciate what’s going on. Neale Donald Walsch describes something called the Stopping Meditation that involves appeciating the smaller detail of your life at various times during the day. I think any kind of ‘sit and breath’ time is beneficial. Being more mindful keeps you from skimming over the details of your life to focus on what’s missing, what’s ‘wrong’ or what’s unfinished.

It helps you notice what might make you happy when you take the time to appreciate it.

I’m on the Wild Rose D-Tox program again. I used to do it regularly but it’s my first time in 3 years so it kinda feels like the first time. It comes with a pretty restrictive food menu. You stop eating all the bad or potentially bad stuff for the 12 days you’re on it. But I like it, it’s a good detox because of the food program. It makes me feel like a million bucks so I can only imagine what it’s doing to my insides. It makes me aware of all the eating and drinking habits I have that I really should consider ditching or at least keeping in check. But it’s tough because I can’t just easily do hippie food you know? I’m too much of a foodie to think that brown rice and tofu for almost 2 weeks is any fun.

It seems like at some point at the beginning of the program when I’m still feeling sluggish and surly I have the epiphany that I CAN’T EAT ANYING ON THIS STUPID PROGRAM and I’m convinced the 12 days are going to feel like 12 months. But the sluggish feeling passes and once my head clears in 2-3 days of it I can get creative about the food thing. To save you some of the same angst, here are a few things that have worked for me:

Plan and Commiserate - If you can find a friend to do the program with, the support is amazing. Others in your life may not want to hear about your bowel movements, but someone else who’s on the program will actually find this interesting because they’re dying to discuss their own too. Also plan what you’re going to eat and face facts – you’re going to need to do some cooking. Having options on hand will keep the donuts from calling to you by name.
Breakfast – I like hot cereal but when oatmeal resembels Lepages glue more than something edible it’s tough. Large flake oats help. Also Bob’s Red Mill has a non-wheat multigrain cereal that’s a great alternative. I throw in some chopped up dried plums (I don’t call them prunes, that’s gross) or chopped fresh fruit and a sprinkle of cinammon. Fill over the level of the mixture with hot water, nuke for a minute. Stir and add more water so it’s a little more watery than what you’ll want and nuke again for 30-60 seconds. Let it sit for a bit to cool and then dig in.
Plan snacks - if you spend your workday away from your own fridge you need snacks. Rice cakes and almond butter seem to the faves. I also found some Scottish oat cakes that are made from just oats and a little oil, they’re yummy with nut butter. Apples also work as a nut butter delivery system. I also found apple butter that is made from just apples, I dunno if this is technically too sugary because it’s so reduced, but I’ve had a swipe when i’ve really wanted something sweet. A bag of almonds, fresh fruit, containers of natural apple sauce with cinnamon sprinkles are all handy when your healthy lunch didn’t stick to your ribs the way MacDonalds does. My favourite evening snack if I’m still hungry is a bag of natural microwave popcorn, drizzled with butter that’s been melted with a squeezed garlic clove and a pinch of celtic sea salt in it.
Check the health food section - I found that organic or healthy brand soups and broths often don’t have all the yeast, sugar etc. of regular stuff and so they fit into the food program. It’s nice to be able to tuck into some veggie chili when you’re hungry and need something quick. It’s also handy to have some broth to add to your brown rice or stirfry for extra flavour. Lentil soup can be a good one here too – consider add-ons like veggies, extra cumin or curry.
Oven Timer - If you work all day and have an oven that will come on at a pre-set time make use of it! Make baked potatoes that you can top with butter and green onions or roast a bunch of veggies like sweet potatoes, carrots and beets with salt, pepper and a coating of oil. It makes them really sweet – make lots for leftovers the next day.
Spark up the Barby - as my Aussie sis-in-law would say. OK you’ll need to forgo the bbq sauce, but fish slow simmered in foil with butter and chives? Sweet potatoes in foil with butter? (Notice a pattern on the butter thing? Yeah, I’m happy that’s on the menu). Also, fresh beets? New baby carrots? Those little purple potatoes? Who says detoxing is hell, I’m in food heaven!
Herbal Teas - if you don’t drink these normally, stock up on good quality teas in fun flavours. There aren’t alot of drink options on this diet, so you’ll be happy to have something warm to sip on a cool a.m. or long evening.
Consider buying the Wild Rose cookbook - it’s not expensive ($13 CDN) and it has additional info about the detox itself. Going through the recipes made me go – oh yeah, i guess I can eat that. For example, classic Cesear salad dressing with anchovies and all? Wouldn’t have occured to me.

Hope this helps you get through your 12 days of fun. While eating monotonous hippie food for 2 weeks may be an option, tastier options will be more likely to get folded into your regular eating when you finish the program. Then you can eat healthier long-term and your next detox will be even easier. Happy Cleansing!

I was watching someone grimace in a Prayer Twist last night and I suggested that maybe she didn’t need to hook her elbow *over* her thigh, maybe touching the inside of her thigh was enough, or putting a hand on the floor so the twist wasn’t so intense.

So often we’re told that giving 110% is a really good thing. It shows we’re committed and tough and happy. It proves we’re happy to overextend ourselves for the ’cause’ whatever it is. But in yoga that’s not the case. I tell classes that they should look at giving a solid 85% effort. It’s important to leave a little space to be comfortable and hang out. It’s about making an effort without efforting and straining. It’s about feeling sensation without overwhelming yourself with discomfort. It’s about finding the sweet spot in every pose. And finding the sweet spot requires an attitude of accepting ourselves and our body in this moment. It might be different tomorrow, sure. It might be “better” and it might not. It simply doesn’t matter.

It reminds me of something I read in Pema Chodron’s little pocket book called Awakening Loving-Kindness

The innocent mistake that keeps us in our own …shutdownness is that we are never encouraged to see clearly what is, with gentleness. Instead, there’s a kind of basic misunderstanding that we should try to be better than we already are, that we should try to improve ourselves, that we should try to get away from painful things, and that if we could just learn how to get away from the painful things, then we would be happy. That is the innocent, naive misunderstanding that we all share, which keeps us unhappy.

Researchers have been finding proof of the validity of gut feelings. They call it the “Belly Brain” – a complex network of nerves that has it’s own intelligence. In yoga it’s generally referred to as our intuitive third chakra, but you say potato….

It does my heart good to see scientists studying and finding proof of the mind/body connection. So often it seems in science if they can’t poke at it, it doesn’t exist. While anyone who has done 30 minutes of yoga has experienced the connection first-hand.

Anyways, rant over, here are a couple of articles:

1. “There is a lot more to gut feelings than was previously believed”

2. “We are seeing that the gut is a very sensitive organ, so even if you are in another room, my gut can sense when you see a particularly evocative image and respond emotionally. Therefore, your state can actually influence my state.”

So you know that trend in fitness these days where you build your core strength by making balance more of a challenge? You stand on one of these or one of these and then do stuff and your body has to use all those core muscles just to keep you vertical? It made me wonder – how can I bring this kind of excitement to the yoga mat?

So here’s what I’ve been playing with. Roll up a couple inches of the end of your yoga mat 2 or 3 times and put your foot on it. Stand on the roll so it’s under the arch, along the width of the foot.

Then try these:

– a Modified Big Toe Pose - lift your right knee so that the thigh is parallel to the floor, keep your back straight, shoulders relaxed. Hold for 3 breaths. Then using your right hand, guide the knee out to the right side finding an inner thigh stretch. Stay for 3 breaths. Then slowly guide the knee to the left side (change hands) and if your balance is steady enough add one or both of the following. Open your right arm straight, up and back for a twist, and look in that direction. Hold for 3. Bring everything back to center and straighten your right leg in the air, lift it high for a breath before lowering it back to the mat. Make sure to work any tension out of your standing foot or leg before changing sides.
– Airplane Pose – it’s Warrior 3 except with arms stretching back alongside hips, palms down, to make it easier for balance.
– Back Extensions – Then place your knees on the roll in a Tabletop or ‘all fours’ position. Keeping your left hand and right knee on the mat, extend your left leg straight behind you and your right arm straight ahead of you, so your ‘raised’ parts are all in one long line with your torso. Try to keep your hip bones even and focus on stretching your body long rather than lifting your leg/arm up. Hold for 3-5 breaths. Option – also try inhaling your leg/arm up, exhaling them down slowly and repeat.

These poses are challenging enough, but if you’re balance is strong rolling the mat can bring the edge just a little closer on days when you want to shake things up.

It’s spring and I’m eating healthier in advance of doing a detox (there’ll be more on that you can bet). So I’m giving my new microwave rice cooker a good work out. And I. Am. In. Love. The Pampered Chef folks are the kind who want to gather in your living room Tupperware-style, but I just bought one from a co-worker armed with a catalogue. For those in the US it’s here and for the Canucks, it’s here.

I’d heard alot of good things about the rice cooker and although no one really got into the details I figured more options for cooking rice is a good thing right? And I know there’s lots of if-you-want-to-eat-healthy-you-should-avoid-the-microwave people out there, but that’s a level of hard-core healthiness I may not reach in this life time. If you’re there, I’m impressed. I’d starve without my ‘nuker’.

Back to the rice cooker – it’s a kinda simple but well-designed gizmo that cooks the rice just right. There’s never any boil-overs or hard sticky hockey pucks at the bottom of the pot. It’s also super easy to clean and you can just throw it in the fridge with leftovers if you’re in a rush. I was afraid I wouldn’t know what instructions to follow, but most rice packages seem to include microwave instructions now.

So, last night I was in a pre-yoga class rush. I threw in basmati rice and water, added some seasoning, grated a carrot, threw in other veggies and put the cooker in the microwave for 17 minutes. While it cooked I cut up some pre-cooked meat and cilantro. When the rice finished cooking I stirred in the other stuff and let it steam for 5 while I set the table. Voila – yummy dinner in 20 minutes *with* leftovers. Who wouldn’t be in love?

Did you know that your adductors, that run along the inside of your thighs are actually a group of muscles? No wonder they’re tough to stretch. Adductors work to stabilize the hips and boy have mine been tight, thanks to alot of Airplane poses in last week’s yoga classes. I managed to loosen them up over the weekend and here are the poses I used:

– The Wide Leg Forward Bend Add-on – Point your right toe out a bit, bend your right knee and keep your butt back like you’re trying to keep your knee stacked over your ankle. Look for the juicy stretch in your left thigh.
– Corilee’s Knee Opener – Lie on your back and relax your left leg straight on the floor. Grab your right big toe with your first two fingers (like you’ve got your fingers on a gun trigger – it’s a squirt gun, this is yoga). Your arm is against the inside of your leg. Your knee should be at a 90 degree angle and keep your foot flexed, this intensifies the stretch. Then use your arm to press your bent leg to the right, towards the floor until you find the stretch. Try to relax your leg and let gravity do the work while you breath into the stretch.
Half Happy Baby – Happy Baby offers a good adductor stretch if you do it one leg at a time. Keep your arm on the inside of your leg (not like it’s pictured here). So with your left leg relaxed straight on the floor, grab onto your right foot, fingers on the outside of your foot. Keep your knee at a right angle and out to the right side of your torso. Pull your knee very gently toward the floor, finding the hip stretch.
Frog Pose - When you’re ready to pull out all the stops, do this version of Frog Pose. Spread your knees apart as far as they’ll comfortably go, supporting yourself on your elbows. Keep your tail tucked and then play with pressing your hips back. Go easy, this one’s intense. I think this is the one that Baron Baptiste suggests you stay in for 25 breaths :-) Good luck.

I found that giving the muscles a good rub before stretching helped the poses accomplish more. So did a hot epsom salt bath. So did a good schmear of Tiger Balm . Thank god for loose happy hips.

There are plenty of yoga styles but there are exponentially more yoga teaching styles. I’ve been perusing podcasts on iTunes again and found Amy Jin Schmelzer who does Power Yoga with Amy. She’s recorded while teaching an hour-long moderate level class.

Amy is a talker. Like a New York kinda talker. And it’s not necessarily about the yoga pose you’re doing but about life and yoga and all kinds of good stuff. She admits herself that she gets talking so much that she forgets what’s up next. So it just depends what kind of yoga class you like. I found I just relaxed into the pose and listened. Thanks to the talking it’s not a super fast paced class, which makes it easier when you’re following via audio-only. But it warmed me up good because she works through alot of Sun Salutations, probably a good 1/2 hour.

Amy is funny and doesn’t take herself too seriously and yet doesn’t take the yoga lightly either. I’ll definitely ‘go’ to her class again.

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