Mindful awareness

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Surrender Experienced as Ease

I remind myself as I head into a few months of heavy travel of my ongoing lesson of learning to surrender. I’m a planner with every idea of how I expect my travel to be and my life to unfold. I expect airlines to transport me on schedule and on time so I can catch connecting flights. I expect menu items in foreign countries to be served the way I interpreted the menu. Of course none of these things happens often. More often than not travel goes awry and my plans get turned upside down. But travel is trivial. I’ve been fortunate to have only a couple of big life crises, way fewer than some people I know. Any of these events offer lessons to surrender.

I cannot control everything and there are times that I need to let go of my expectation. One day I’ll remember that it is my response to the event that causes me more suffering than the event itself. My pattern is to struggle against the disappointing event and to make it right. I argue to make the other person see my perspective and change course. I argue with the airline ticket agent even though he has no authority to find another plane. But because I have no control over these circumstances my only real course of action is to surrender. Only after I finally surrender my struggle do I finally find ease and peace. The outcome might not be what I wanted but in the end what will happen will happen. I may as long go with it and accept the outcome.

I find hip openers to be a great way to work with surrender on my mat and I hope that practice there helps me to surrender to life circumstances out of my control. Of course my dear yoga students practiced lots of hip openers last week because that is what was on my mind. For most people eka pada rajakapotasana (pigeon pose) is an excellent example of surrendering into the pose. In this deep hip opener people often tense the muscles around the hip and pelvis rather than relaxing them. In fighting against the pose they feel the challenge of the hip external rotation opposing hip internal rotators that are tight from sitting much of the day. People often feel themselves further opposing the pose by tensing through the jaw, lips, shoulders, and other muscles nowhere near the hips. This week we practiced exhaling away that tension. We tried to stay with the pose by surrendering into it, feeling length in the hip muscles and ease with the result. If that is an easy lesson then try it in double pigeon pose (knee to ankle pose)!

Perhaps posting this blog will help me to surrender to travel snafus. Who knows how well I’ll implement my own recommendations to stay present and find ease by surrendering to the circumstances. I know I will try. May each of you find ease and peace as you let go and surrender to the challenges the holiday season brings.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Facts about the Common Cold

Winter on its way so marketing for various cold remedies is beginning to proliferate. Many products claim to prevent or cure the common cold and still more claim to reduce the length of time one might experience cold symptoms. It’s time to consider what the common cold is and what one can to do about it.

The common cold is caused by viruses, most frequently by rhinoviruses. Viruses are microbes composed of nucleic acid and protein.  Unlike most microbes, viruses replicate only in their host’s cells. The virus is transmitted from one infected person to the other by contact with mucous membranes. No one ever has caught a common cold by being exposed to the elements. Going skating without hats and gloves and getting wet feet traipsing through snow will not cause someone to get a cold. The virus infects a new host when it comes in contact with that person through the nose and mouth. We catch a cold by being in close contact with someone with a cold or with items (like door knobs) handled by someone with a cold.

Because a virus is not a bacterium, antibiotics and antibacterial agents do not kill viruses. Hand sanitizers will not kill viruses that cause the common cold. The best way to wash one’s hands to reduce the spread of the infection is with soap and water. Some vaccinations and antiviral drugs have been developed to kill some viruses (for instance herpes and hepatitis) but these agents are specific to certain viruses. None has yet been developed to cure common colds, in part because so many different viruses can cause the common cold and the viruses vary from one year to the next.

No remedy on the market has been shown to cure the common cold. None has been shown to reduce the length of time one has a cold once infected with the virus. No remedy has been shown to reduce likelihood of showing symptoms of the virus once infected. Products marketed for these purposes are no more effective than placebo. Their claims are not valid any more than a placebo effect.

The best way to reduce cold symptoms is to rest and take pain killers (aspirin or ibuprofen) to feel better. Reducing swollen mucous membranes by using saline sprays, drinking hot liquids, and taking hot baths will help to reduce congestion. Menthol lozenges and honey will help to soothe a scratchy throat.

The best way to protect oneself from getting a cold in the first place is to wash hands frequently with soap and water (antibacterial hand sanitizer will reduce bacterial transmission, not viral) and to keep one’s hands away from the face. General good health achieved by eating a balanced diet, reducing stress and exercising, will help support the immune system. Overloading on vitamin pills has not been shown to reduce risk of getting a cold. At best taking too many units of vitamins will just make one’s urine extra expensive (vitamins such as B complex and C are excreted through the urine). At worst, some vitamins are stored in the body and can lead to vitamin toxicity when taken in doses higher than recommended (vitamins A, D, E and K).

Of course not all symptoms are indicative of the cold. Although a cough, sore throat, sneezing and stuffy nose are common symptoms of a cold, it is unlikely that fever and chills are related to the common cold. These are more likely flu symptoms. Some antiviral agents and vaccinations are available for certain strains of the flu. Making an appointment with a physician is unnecessary for the common cold, however, you might consider making an appointment if you suspect you have bronchitis, sinusitis, an ear infection or pneumonia. These ailments are caused by bacterial infections that would respond to antibiotics. Generally you will want to seek medical attention if your symptoms worsen or don’t get any better after a week or so, if a fever won’t break, if you experience shortness of breath, or if your face is painful around the sinuses.

The common cold is annoying and it would be fantastic if there were a cure. But the best we can do is stay healthy, keep our germs to ourselves, and rest and stay home if we have a cold. Good luck for a healthy cold season!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sneaky Absolutely Do Not Eat Non-Food

Three categories of things (I won’t call them foods) found in grocery stores and restaurants posing as food are not food and have no role in any diet. The first of these categories of things can be tricky and difficult to spot. They can end up in your processed food without your realizing it unless you are diligent and know what to look for.
I’m speaking of trans fats. Trans fats are mostly manufactured. Small amounts do occur naturally in some animal products (meat and dairy), but the vast majority occurs in processed foods. Trans fats are created when liquid vegetable oils (such as safflower and sunflower) are processed by hydrogenation into solid fats (margarine and shortening). This means that food companies add hydrogen to the liquid oil. Food manufacturers prefer adding hydrogen to liquid oil to extend shelf life of their products. They are useful in fast food chains because trans fats withstand higher heating temperatures used in fryers.

Most types of fats occur naturally and are required for a healthy diet. The FDA recommends up to 30% of one’s calories be composed of fats (although other nutritional sources recommend smaller percentages, as little as 15%, of fats). But not all fats are the same. Monounsaturated fats are healthiest for one’s heart. They can be found in olive, canola, sunflower, safflower, avocado, almond, peanut, corn, sesame, rice bran, and soybean oils. Saturated fats are not as heart healthy and are found in animal products. The oils that provide saturated fats include coconut and palm oils.

Sunflower oil in its natural liquid form represents the healthier oil option. It’s when it is hydrogenated that it is trouble. The research is unequivocal: trans fats are not good for your health. Although as a monounsaturated fat, sunflower oil can reduce your risk for heart disease, once it is hydrogenated into trans fat it increases coronary artery disease. Trans fats increase the risk for heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Trans fats increase LDL (bad cholesterol) and reduce HDL (the good kind). They are even less healthy than saturated fats which increase LDL but don’t have a negative effect on HDL.

Current guidelines recommend limiting trans fats to less than 1% of one’s daily caloric intake (about 2 grams in a 2000 calorie diet). Unfortunately, a product can legally be labeled as having no trans fat if the product contains up to 0.5 gram of trans fat per serving. That means that even a cautious consumer may end up with trans fats in her diet. Eating four of such labeled products can result in one eating 2 grams of trans fat without realizing it.

So how does a health-minded consumer select foods that are unlikely to have trans fats? I recommend two methods of evaluating food for trans fats. First, know the kinds of foods that are likely to contain trans fats. They are likely in fried foods, baked goods, cookies, crackers, stick margarines, chips, and microwave popcorn. Avoiding processed foods such as these will limit the amount of trans fats in your diet. If you do want to consume a product from this list then look beyond the nutrition label. Remember that the nutrition label needs to list the percentage of trans fat but it could contain half a gram and still say 0% on the label. I recommend reading the ingredient list instead. Avoid products that list partially hydrogenated anything. Avoid products that list shortening in their ingredient list. In restaurants, avoid fried foods and pastries, pie crusts and biscuits. Opt for natural food sources rather than processed foods. Prepare meals and desserts in your own kitchen where you can control the contents. Just avoid trans fats completely to care for your health.

Oh, and the other two non-foods posing as foods in grocery stores and restaurants are easier to identify and to eliminate. They are: processed meats (anything cured, smoked, deli meats, jerky, hot dogs, sausages, etc) and sodas (full sugar and diet alike).

Monday, October 31, 2011

Take Nothing too Seriously

What better day than Halloween to remember to make time for play? We often get caught up with all the responsibilities we have with our many roles at home and work. Even on the yoga mat we tend to be serious as we are mindfully moving body with the breath. But we aren’t going to solve the world’s problems by holding a difficult pose for 10 breaths. The best we can do is to be present as we attempt every pose we practice. We need to laugh and be silly when it doesn’t quite turn out as we expected. So this week we are finding more playfulness in our practice. It’s difficult to move from ardha chandrasana (half moon pose) to parivrtta ardha chandrasana (revolved half moon pose) and back again. It’s easy to fall out and it’s ok to laugh when we do! There is no reason to get upset about losing balance during the difficult transition. In today’s classes I’ve invited students to try to let the breath lead them through the transitions, but to be playful when they fall out.

Playfulness may also help us explore new expressions of poses we haven’t tried before. We may be more likely to try to grab our toe in vasisthasana (side plank pose) if we approach it with more silliness. A silly attitude gives us permission to not get it “right” whereas when we approach the pose with complete seriousness we may not even try to get into a pose. We have no way of knowing if we can even do the more advanced pose unless we take the risk and give it a try. Sometimes a little silliness helps lighten our mood and just give it a try.

If yoga isn’t about silliness, it is about the process without regard to the outcome. Vrschikasana (scorpion pose) is a difficult inversion. It isn’t a pose anyone will get into and hold the first time she tries. Approaching it with all seriousness might inhibit us to try the pose in the first place whereas accepting the practice as a process releases us to let go of the outcome and have fun trying.

I’ve used today’s yoga classes as examples, but anyone can substitute this week’s life challenges in place of parivritta ardha chandrasana, vasisthasana, or vrschikasana. The only way to develop personally and professionally is to try something new, slightly scary perhaps. And to take that first step often means letting go of expected outcome and just be playful!

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Living with Intention

Having been an academic forever, autumn is to me what New Year’s is to most people I know. Autumn is my time to reassess where I’ve been and where I’m going. With that comes reflection on what is my personal mission statement. I consider three values that I want to exude in my thoughts, words, and actions.

The yoga mat is a good place to consider intention. I invited students to set an intention for their practice and to find it there in every asana (pose) during the class. Then throughout the entire practice, I kept prompting them to return to their intention. The intention could be any value meaningful to them, perhaps strength, flexibility, balance, patience, acceptance, compassion, presence, generosity, awareness, mindfulness, the list is limitless.

Identifying the intention is often easy. The difficulty comes when we try to live that intention. It’s hard enough to remember to return to it during a 75-minute yoga class; remembering to live it each moment off the mat seems especially difficult.

Take one of my intentions, for instance: compassion. Sounds like a lovely intention to live by and I’d like to think that I do. But I’m human and from time to time I find myself forgetting to live as the compassionate being I aspire to be. On my mat it might be the day that I feel especially tired and worn out. I don’t feel up to par yet I push myself on my mat. On these days a slower practice of restorative poses or more folds and twists might be in order. But forgetting to have compassion for my body I push through a demanding practice of standing balances, arm balances, and inversions. Then I think – oh, yeah, I’m supposed to be emanating compassion. That probably should start with compassion for myself. Forgetting my intention to be compassionate can show up during any practice as boredom in a relatively easy pose like bhujangasana (cobra pose) or as ambition in a deeper pose such as urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose).

I find even more opportunities and challenges to live as the compassionate being I aspire to be when I’m off the mat. That seemingly stupid and inconsiderate motorist driving in the bicycle lane deserves the compassion I intend to convey. But I forget. I’m not mindful of my intent and I resort to my automatic reactions emanating from my anger.( You can guess what those words and actions are; I don’t think I need to be explicit here!) Some days it takes me hours to reflect on my emotions. Other days my practice serves me and I am more aware that the words, thoughts, and actions I had in immediate response to the driver are not representing the way I intend to live. I am able to imagine the driver being distracted by illness or tragedy or just being late for an appointment. I become more aware of the driver’s need for love, acceptance, and respect just as any person desires. I become mindful of all the other perspectives that may contribute to the driver’s actions. I find the opportunity to thank the driver for helping me to live my intention.

Living with intention requires mindfulness and it isn’t easy. But it is rewarding and certainly worth returning to each and every moment.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Few Absolutes

True confession – I, the vegan of nearly 30 years, ate a marshmallow the other night. I didn’t plan to. I’d thought I’d just eat a graham cracker as my treat when everyone else ate s’mores. But I actually ate a marshmallow inside the graham cracker for the first time in decades. Marshmallows have more sugar and corn syrup than anything I ever eat, and gelatin which I “never” eat. It tasted ok; it tasted like nostalgia for childhood. It isn’t something I’ll do again for decades, but it was a fun evening and the marshmallow was part of the fun. Following up on my last blog, my choice wasn’t too much or too little, it was just right for the time.

Few food choices should be absolute. Most people know how they should eat but when they eat without being mindful of their choices their diets don’t reflect what they know. A little extra sugar at a party is fine as long as one makes the choice to eat that cake and ice cream mindfully, enjoying each bite, because it isn’t a daily indulgence. Less healthy options can be part of a healthy lifestyle and treats should be included in one’s diet as special, not regular food items.

Healthy diets need balance and moderation. It isn’t accurate to classify foods as either “good” or “bad” with two exceptions. No person should ever consume trans fats or processed meats. The former is indisputably related to heart disease and the latter to cancers of the pancreas, stomach, colon, breast and prostate. Those are two absolutes that should undeniably be avoided. But other food products are not as absolute, certainly not the way fad diets suggest. (Tobacco products are a third absolute as they are irrefutably related to oral and lung cancers and heart disease but it they aren’t food products.)

If it were easy to select healthy foods to maintain a healthy diet, then diet programs and products wouldn’t be a billion-dollar business. Still, informed consumers can make choices and will know to be skeptical about any diet plan that relies completely on absolutes. A program that requires “only” eating their packaged foods is as much a red flag as a program that requires completely cutting out an entire food group such as carbohydrates or eating only raw foods.

A diet that cuts out carbohydrates cannot be sustained so these dieters regain the weight they may have lost when they begin the program. Carbohydrates do not make people fat, in fact, they are necessary for a healthy diet. People gain weight by eating too many calories. People that are overweight tend to eat more carbohydrate calories than are necessary mostly because they are prominent in prepared foods and chain and fast food restaurants because they are inexpensive and easy to produce. Carbs are not bad! They just need to be eaten in moderation as a part of a balanced diet.

Non-fat diets are a fallacy. It is impossible to completely cut fats. Nor should one want to. Fats are necessary to metabolize vitamins. In fact, vitamins in tomatoes are unavailable without added fat. Although trans fats are not good choices, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in the forms of canola and olive oils, nuts, and fish are healthy and even reduce risk for cardio vascular disease. Saturated fats in the form of beef and dairy are no more caloric than the healthier fat options but are less healthful and increase cardiovascular risk so should be eaten more sparingly.  

Raw diets are not all good! Many vegetables need to be cooked for the nutrients to be available to humans. Broccoli, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage are among the vegetables that offer little nutrition when eaten raw. Raw diets aren’t necessarily all bad, but the diets need to be considered part of an overall nutritious diet, including healthy foods that are cooked to make them nutritious.

With few exceptions, foods aren’t all good or all bad. Most are just right and even less healthful options can be part of a healthy diet when eaten sparingly as treats. Consider a few of your indulgences and plan on fitting them into a healthy lifestyle without remorse.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Moving Beyond Duality

Goldilocks knew that things could be too hot or too cold but that something in the middle is just right! What was just right gave her a sense of contentment and comfort. Smart woman, that Goldilocks! Life is stressful in the extremes. People are quick to classify an experience, person, or thing as either good or bad. Either we like it or we dislike it. But really there is so much possibility in between the extremes. Yoga has taught me to find the gray zone of experiences and to acknowledge that things change. This awareness has given me more equanimity as I proceed through the day.

For instance, I reflect on things that I didn’t used to like. I didn’t like adho mukha svanasana (down dog pose) for the first several years that I practiced yoga and now I appreciate the feeling of expansion it gives me through my legs, trunk, and arms. Bakasana (crow pose) had been really difficult 20 years ago but now I find it and its variations easy. It is incredulous to me that I used to think I hated asparagus (thanks to the 1960’s canned variety served at our home) but now it is among my very favorite vegetables. None of these things changed, per se. Each of these things was always something in the middle – not hard, easy, likable or dislikable. What has changed is my perspective and my realization that everything is really on a continuum and always just right at some point in time.

I contemplate about what is a hard pose or an easy pose exactly? Isn’t it all relative to another pose? After working with ardha chandrasana (half moon pose) most students are relieved to return to parsvakonasana (side angle pose) although they had just struggled with that one before the balance pose! We often work with bakasana then parivrtta bakasana (revolved crow pose) and when we return to bakasana without the twist it seems just right - easier than it had before to everyone in the room.

I keep the studio temperature at 73-75 degrees for class. Is that hot or is that cold? Some students are a little chilled (as am I) when we begin class in a centering pose. But although the external temperature doesn’t change, most people are sweating after 30 minutes of standing poses. So was 74 degrees hot or cold? Can it be a temperature along a continuum that is just right to accommodate the practice?

I’ve invited students to find that just right state – not really tense and struggling but not really limp and disengaged – during our asana practice and to find that just right state of mind off the mat. Something along a continuum – not too extreme – seems just right and much easier to endure. Hopefully they will experience the same contentment and comfort that Goldilocks found when she found something not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Try it for Yourself

Apparently, Buddha had said “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense." I find equanimity when I remember to apply that philosophy to much of what I do. I try to avoid rumor mills by returning to this quote and know that there are multiple sides to every story and I need to rely on my own experiences with the people involved to come to my own conclusions. I try to empower myself by trying to do something difficult, regardless of who told me that I won’t be able to. I won’t know unless I try.
Buddha was right; everything is one’s own individual experience. Then it occurred to me that as a yoga teacher I say something and the roomful of people do as I say (if only my three cats would do the same, but that’s another story…). So this week we have worked more on students not just taking my word for it. We have worked on them trying different expressions of poses for them to make their own reality of the alignment principles I keep repeating in each class, every week. For instance, I always tell students to use blocks to find parsvakonasana (side angle pose) and ardha chandrasana (half moon pose). Most of the students believe me that using the block will help them maintain the length in the spine that makes the poses open their hips and hearts. Most of them believe me that by using a block rather than resting their elbows on their knees in parsvakonasana will help them retain knee alignment and reduce risk for injuring ligaments on the inside of the knee. But this week they tried it for themselves. After experiencing these poses with the blocks they tried to touch the ground without the blocks. Some of the students can maintain the pose without props but the students that can’t noticed the difference in their breath and body when they collapsed without a block.

Urdhva mukha svanasana (upward facing dog) is another pose we broke down more. I always tell the class to keep their gaze straight forward and most of them do. But some students come from other classes and lift their gazes up to the ceiling. So this week we tried both. The students learned for themselves that when they look up they don’t lengthen their spines as they thought they would. In fact, they collapse in their shoulders and upper chests and fall out of the pose. We also compared two versions of urdhva hastasana (hands up in the air pose) this week. I tell students to keep their palms separated, shoulders turned out so that their pinkies are nearer to each other. But some students come from other classes and put their palms together overhead. So we worked with both expressions and again students recognized that their shoulder blades come off their backs and they scrunch up their necks when they bring their hands together. So they didn’t have to just take my word for it. The students tried it for themselves and noticed the length in the spine and depth of the breath they get when they retain good alignment principles.

The yoga mat gives us so many opportunities to make life our own individual experience. The breath will tell us if we are doing the right thing. Sometimes holding the backs of the legs and bending the knees in navasana (boat pose) is the only way to keep a steady breath and truly spread the collar bones as the pose is meant to be practiced. But we won’t know for ourselves until we turn inward, check in with the breath, and find our own truth. Sometimes we do need to drop into balasana (child’s pose) to settle in before continuing through a vinyasa. We can’t wait for someone else to suggest we use a strap or a block, we need to always be present to our needs at the time and do what’s right. That is the only way we are sure to be true to ourselves, give up struggle, and reduce risk of injury.

The equanimity we feel when our breath smoothly moves from inhale to exhale in a rhythmic cycle tells us that we are doing the right thing. We will find the breath become shallow and staccato-like when we try taking a challenging pose without a prop as much as when we consider engaging in gossip or lies. Again, yoga practice on the mat can guide our lives off the mat.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


We are presented with choices every moment, some of which are better for our bodies than others. Although we can sometimes be overwhelmed by the number of options available to us, we always are in control of the choices we make when we eat something and when we select activities to fill our free time.

Some people choose to diet but I suggest they decide instead for the non-diet method of maintaining and losing weight. This means making choices all day long but it is a lifestyle choice that offers many options to feel satiated rather than denied food. People that maintain a healthy weight simply select the healthier foods each day. The choice is to reach for a candy bar or melon slices and berries when energy is low mid-day. People that use a healthy lifestyle approach to eating don’t alternatively gain and lose weight the way dieters do. They don’t migrate to the newest fad diet, reading about rules for the diet of the month. Instead they eat a lot of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Choices are numerous for snacking when the snacks are nutritious!

People that maintain a healthy weight over their lifetime choose a leafy salad as a side rather than fries when they dine out. Fried food is the food choice most associated with weight gain. Potato chips, sugary drinks including sodas and juices, red and processed meats, desserts, and refined grains are other food selections that are likely to lead to weight gain. Healthier options, particularly fruits and vegetables, can replace these less healthy options and reduce the chance of unwanted weight gain. A green leafy salad is an alternative side to French fries that offers more vitamins and less risk for weight gain. Vegetables dipped in hummus and plain stove-popped popcorn are alternatives to potato chips for a healthy crispier snack. Yogurt and nuts are healthy sources of protein and fats and consuming these foods is related to less lifetime weight gain.  If people do choose to eat red meat, they will want to choose to eat it less often and select lean meats, completely eliminating processed meats.

Counting calories and omitting selected foods based on fad diets has been found to be less effective in maintaining a healthy weight throughout life than eating healthier foods. Other healthy lifestyles correlated to maintaining a healthy weight are sleeping 6-8 hours a night, reducing television viewing, choosing wine if one is going to drink alcohol (although other alcohol is correlated to weight gain), and exercise (the more one exercises, the less weight one gains).

People have limited free time, but often choose to spend it in front of televisions. Healthier choices are to take a walk or a bicycle ride after dinner. Schedules are packed with obligations leaving little time to exercise. However, anyone can choose to use the stairs rather than an elevator when they enter a building. People often spend more time waiting for a parking spot to open up near the store entrance than the time it takes to make the healthier choice of parking further away and walking to the entrance.

It isn’t easy to maintain a healthy weight over one’s lifetime. But it is possible by making daily choices. Everyone is more in control of their choices than they realize. In fact, it is easier to control and maintain a healthy-choice lifestyle than to maintain fad diets. It is more liberating to know it is healthy to eat any of the colorful fruits and vegetables in the produce section than to think I need to limit myself to items on a fad diet list. And better, I get to choose.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Many Sides of Backbending

This week my students and I have practiced backbends. Lots and lots of backbends. We included warm up versions of bhujangasana (cobra pose) and salabasana (locust pose), practiced many repetitions of urdhva mukha svanasana (upward facing dog pose), and went deeper into dhanurasana (bow pose). We practiced the backbends one would expect in this group including ustrasana (camel pose), setu bandhasana (bridge pose), and urdhva danurasana (wheel pose).

Why work on so many backbends? In yoga philosophy, the asana (poses) practice is only part of yoga. If there is an objective to the physical practice it is basically to make the world a better place one person at a time. We practice to awaken our consciousness to the unity of all beings. Part of this awareness includes compassion and gratitude. According to yoga philosophy, the anahata chakra (heart center) lies beneath the sternum (breastbone). By practicing backbends, the yogi awakens and becomes aware of this center, allowing compassion and gratitude to flow.

Yoga practice does have physical benefits as well as the philosophical benefits. In addition to all the backbends we worked on poses to strengthen the abdominal muscles like plank, forearm plank, and chaturanga dandasana (low plank pose). We practiced poses intended to stretch the chest and shoulders like gomukhasana (cow face) arms and garudasana (eagle) arms. I included these stretches in the classes to support the backbends with the objective of countering the rounded postures of daily life.

Most of us sit at desks and computers or drive much of the day. Hours of these sitting activities contribute to a rounded upper back with tight muscles around the chest and front of the shoulders. The other side, the upper back muscles, becomes long and weak. Practicing backbends helps to correct hours of sitting by stretching the front of the body and strengthening the back of the body.

Our backbend practice this week can help to prevent repetitive strain injuries by stretching what is tight and strengthening what is weak. But we spend many hours in poor postures and it will take more than a weekly yoga class to reverse the tight chest and shoulders and weak upper back. It helps to take stretch breaks each hour with gomukhasana (cow face) or garudasana (eagle) arms.  We need to be aware of posture all day long in addition to participating a yoga asana practice or gym resistance training and stretching regimen. We can help to correct rounded postures by being mindful throughout the day of drawing the scapula (shoulder blades) onto the back and opening the clavicles (collar bones). Along these lines we can consider almost any pose or posture as a backbend. Even in navasana (boat pose) the correct alignment is to draw the shoulder blades onto the back and to lift the sternum up toward the ceiling. Adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog pose) also is done with a slight backbend with the sternum reaching through the upper arms. Most yoga asanas support good posture by shining the sternum forward rather than collapsing the trunk thus rounding the spine. 

Any of these poses can help to stretch and strengthen as well as to feel compassion and gratitude. Practicing so many backbends this week has certainly awakened my now slightly sore upper back muscles. It also has made me think more about how grateful I am for the students that come to my classes to share their practice with me and to all the people that read my blog posts. Thank you to all of you!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Benefits of Yoga

I have seen many of the popular press articles and some of the research articles (most are not very well controlled – unfortunately the studies are for the most part too poorly designed to make confident conclusions) espousing the benefits of yoga practice. Every body system, including endocrine, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal is supposed to be positively affected by yoga in some way. Perhaps they are.

Exercise certainly will positively affect every body system. Many well-designed studies have removed doubt that the higher intensity the exercise the more one will benefit (up to a point that is not likely to be sustained by anyone but a few elite athletes). Unfortunately, few articles that claim health benefits of yoga compare asana practice (poses linked with breathing) to traditional exercise so no one can say for certain if yoga is as good as or more or less effective than a workout that includes cardiovascular exercise and resistance training. There also are many styles of yoga practice, some more likely than others to benefit all body systems. Of all the classes available on any one day in any city, most will not be as beneficial as a gym workout for any body system because of the difference in workload intensity.

I personally look to the gym where I maintain an elevated heart rate during cardio exercise and lift my maximum weight during resistance training (see previous blog posts) for physiologic benefits of physical activity. It is the mindfulness part of yoga practice that keeps me coming back to my mat. Turning inward to time by breath with body movement keeps me present the entire time I practice. Anytime my mind wanders off to the huge list of things I need to do or issues I need to resolve, I come back to my breath and alignment to maintain my mindful yoga practice. My poses are deeper when I’m aware and my experience is more awake and alive.  I finish my practice feeling like I’ve been to a spa or had a nap in a way that other physical activity doesn’t offer. My mind is still after a yoga practice and I feel ready to tackle the to-do list and unresolved issues with new clarity and vigor.

 My awareness practice on the mat also helps me to return to the present moment during my experiences off the mat. I have learned to tune into the present by being aware of each breath and of the sensations of each moment.  I have come to appreciate the difference between gulping tea without awareness and presence and drinking with attention to the aroma, taste, and sight of the drink. I stay with each sensation to take advantage of each moment, particularly when I am enjoying an experience. Why get a fabulous massage when I’m busy mentally running down my to-do list?! Why indulge in a decadent dessert unless I’m enjoying each bite with all my senses?!

 I’ll rely on my gym workout to benefit me physiologically. It is the awareness and mindfulness I learn from my yoga practice that I see as the valuable benefit of yoga.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Balancing Diets

There is certainly room for treats and sweets in a balanced diet. It just requires strength to keep the balance from tipping in a direction that is both unhealthy and likely to lead to weight gain. Eating a balanced diet is similar to parsva bakasana (side crow pose) variation in that way. Yoga students tend to think the pose is all about strength when in fact it is more about maintaining a precarious balance.

 There is a role for desserts in a balanced diet as long as they are eaten in moderation and planned carefully as a component of the entire days’ calorie intake. I enjoy nice wines and friends of mine serve fantastic wine. I know that when I plan to dine at their home in the evening I will need to balance my anticipated extra caloric intake through a careful meal plan for the rest of the day. Another friend bakes incredible desserts and I enjoy her vegan fruit pies. But I have trouble deciding between the choices when she invites me to dinner parties. So I plan for the dessert as I eat my other meals for the day then eat a very small portion of two different pies. These are realistic strategies to plan for sweets. It is neither realistic nor balanced to never eat desserts or fine wine at all.

Treats need to be considered special, not eaten with each meal. The problem with calling a food “good” (vegetables) or “bad” (desserts) is that we lose sight of a balanced lifestyle based on moderation. Once a dieter deprives herself of a certain type of food that she has labeled “bad”, she finds she craves it even more. The strength to resist is less important than a balanced plan. She will be more likely to over indulge on the forbidden food and spiral into a diet that is further from her goal. A meal plan that includes less healthy options as part of one’s lifestyle is more likely to be sustained than dieting that excludes any one type of food.

It has become more difficult to be mindful of portion size because food manufacturers have increased the packages of familiar treats. Coca Cola had been bottled as 6-ounce servings in the 1950’s. That is a moderate portion of a sweet treat. A single 6-ounce serving every now and then as Coke products were consumed in the 1950’s would not be a diet catastrophe. The problem now is that people consume 28-ounce bottles even several times a day. That is when a reasonable indulgence becomes catastrophic for a healthy lifestyle.

Tiny bite-sized candy bars can be a solution to curb a sweet tooth as long as we eat only two or three of them and put the rest of the bag in an inconvenient location (maybe in a box in the garage for the serious Snickers fan). To take time to enjoy the sweet makes it more satisfying than mindlessly polishing off the huge theatre-sized bar that will unbalance any meal plan.

Candy bars do not happen to tempt me; I’m more of a crunchy/salty type. So I don’t often purchase corn chips. If I do, I grab a handful and put the bag back in the pantry before I start to mindlessly plow through more chips than I needed. Another solution to control portion size is to purchase single-serving bags of chips.

We cannot sustain a diet that has drastically cut sweets, fats and salts without eventually feeling hungry and deprived, leading to later gauging. However, a diet high in sweets, fats and salts will lead to unwanted weight gain and potentially unhealthy insulin and lipid protein profiles. We each need to find balance by developing strategies that work for ourselves to reduce unnecessary calories (a number greater than the calories we burn in a day) without feeling deprived. It is a balance of consuming fewer calories from treats while enjoying each small portion.

Today I’ve enjoyed my lunch salad without rice crackers. I’m saving my sweet calories for some Ben and Jerry’s Berried Treasure sorbet. And when I do eat it on this hot evening I will take out only a couple of spoonfuls and enjoy each taste. Perhaps I need a little strength to resist eating the whole pint, but it’s really all about balance.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


Freedom has been the lesson I keep returning to this week, (not coincidentally) timed with the country’s celebration of its freedom from a relationship that did not work to the advantage of the colonies nor the English. I have explored many ways to deepen the feeling of freedom, or moksha (liberation), on the mat that have followed me off the mat.
Some students requested that we work on hip openers for our Independence Day practice. We worked to soften through the hips and pelvis to find a sense of ease in several asanas (poses), including gomukhasana (cow face pose) and in many lunges and standing poses including parivrtta trikonasana (revolved triangle pose). We worked toward eka hasta bhujasana (elephant trunk pose) and astavakrasana (eight-angle pose). But these two are not easy poses. Many students did not get into them and some of the students that did were unable to hold the poses for five breaths. This is where we are presented with the opportunity to free ourselves from our egos. Difficult poses like these offer important lessons to let go of the ego that tells us we need to “nail” each pose and let us explore the pose and experience it as our bodies offers it at this point in time. We are free to develop our practice and our attention as we challenge ourselves – where is the opportunity to develop if we never practice a pose we find difficult? 

Many yoga students are challenged by hip openers like these. Others find these poses easier and need to explore freeing their egos in other poses such as shoulder openers like garudasana (eagle pose) and arm balances such as bakasana (crow pose). Whatever our challenge pose is at the moment, it will challenge us emotionally and mentally as much as it will challenge us physically. The challenging pose will become easier if we surrender into it and soften our resistance, using our breath to move into it, rather than pushing, expecting, trying and doing.

So where have I applied these lessons to my life off the mat? As a chronic perfectionist, I’ve been working on freedom from finding perfection in myself, others, and events. It is not easy for me to let go of my ego that I wrap in perfectionism. But I am more aware of softening expectations, looking for the best possible outcome perhaps, but finding something natural and generally ok about imperfection. I’ve been lengthening my breath and releasing resistance to what is and accepting it with a free and open mind. Just as every asana isn’t going to be perfect, nor will every action off the mat. If I accept freedom to experience fluctuation on my mat then I need to soften and release perfectionism off my mat.  

We find more opportunities to liberate ourselves by releasing habitual thoughts and actions. Habits by definition are the easy way to function and lead to our reaching for a less healthy food option or automatically finding the negative in someone or something. It requires more mindfulness to interrupt a habitual pattern by reaching for a peach rather than a chocolate bar when we feel stress. It is hard work, but that is where the opportunity to develop ourselves comes from. True freedom comes from controlling and interrupting patterns and habits that don’t serve us. The founders of our country declared independence from patterns that didn’t serve the colonies. The freedoms they sought did not come easy but were rewarding, liberating, and enduring much as the benefits of our yoga practice can be for us. If we could only surrender and let go of our ego then we can be free.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Many Meanings of Flexibility

People frequently comment on my flexibility. Often they refer to the way that my body can move and bend. Other times they refer to my attitude in accommodating unexpected obstacles and requests. I’ve found that life teaches each of us to be flexible. Often there is nothing else we can do but accommodate. Sometimes it is the weather, other times it is a business (especially an airline), and other times it is a significant other or colleague but each day we are required to veer off our planned course of action and be flexible and open to something else.

How willing I am to be flexible depends a lot on how committed I am to my original plan. But willing or not, I’ve got to budge. I believe that my yoga practice has helped me to be flexible – in both senses of the term. As I get on my mat and bend my body, opening hips, shoulders and hamstrings, I explore my flexibility both physically and mentally. I try to be open minded to what the asana (pose) will feel like during that particular practice. The same asana looks different from one day to the next. Even within the same day, my morning hanumanasana (monkey pose, or splits) and titibhasana (firefly) poses are never as deep as they are in the evening. But yoga practice teaches me to stay with the practice and accept the pose as it is at the time, regardless of the outcome.

Deciding to use yoga props is an example of using a flexible attitude to improve a flexible body. I might use a block one day although I didn’t use one the day before. Although the block itself accommodates physical flexibility, it takes flexibility of attitude to use a prop to experience the asana without ego interfering. For instance, it is easy to lapse into full-blown ego protection during a practice by telling myself “I can get into a full split without using a block so I won’t use one today”. But yoga has taught me that the practice of staying in the moment, using my breath to transition between and to stay in poses is what is important. Coming into an expression of any pose beyond what my body is willing to provide at that time has potential of straining a muscle or ligament, causing an injury. Repeatedly coming into an asana incorrectly or holding it with poor alignment because I haven’t prepared my body for the pose might make me prone to a painful and limiting tendonitis. None of these injuries is worth forcing a deeper expression of a pose than is available at the time. So it serves me well to be flexible in accepting the pose as it is available during that practice without expecting a certain expression of that pose.

Yoga practice requires that I stay with the process, without attachment to the outcome. This practice is important for proper alignment, awareness, and injury prevention on the mat and it also serves me well when life requires me to be flexible in attitude when I’m off the mat.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What's the Juice?

I am old enough to remember juice fads coming and going a couple of times. The practice of promoting juicing as a healthy diet has waxed and waned and is back in again. I have no idea why the practice keeps coming back. I suppose there are always companies trying to sell kitchen appliances and packaged foods to stoke the interest.

There are so many reasons to forego juice and eat the fresh vegetables and fruit that make the juice. Juice is a concentrated form of the fruit or vegetable. That means that for every ounce of juice one consumes more fructose while foregoing vitamins, minerals, and fiber that the fruit and vegetables provide. For example, a glass of orange juice has the number of calories and amount of sugar of three oranges yet has a higher glycemic index and less fiber than the orange. On every basis for eating nutritious foods, the whole food is healthier than the juice.

Juicing extracts the liquid component of the food, creating a calorie-rich form of the food. At the same time, juicing discards the pulp, or fiber, that the food offers. That fiber is an important component of a healthy diet. It also helps to feel satiated. One is likely to be hungrier after drinking a glass of juice than a piece of fruit or vegetable that has one third the calories!

Eating the whole food is particularly recommended for people motivated to reduce daily caloric intake to lose weight. Our minds are our biggest foes and allies in the quest to maintain a healthy weight. We can trick ourselves into thinking we had a larger meal by taking more time to chew and consume a meal. Biting, chewing, and even seeing the food in front of us helps us to think we had a meal. All of this benefit is lost in drinking calories as a juiced version of the fruit or vegetable.

A general rule of thumb for healthy eating is to eat all one’s calories, drinking none. The micronutrients packaged as whole food is always a healthier form than processing the food. Not buying into the juicing fad is better for your diet, your wallet, and counter space – I’d rather fill my limited counter space with fresh flowers and a fruit bowl than a juicer!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Yoga as Exploration

Yoga practice is much more than stretching and strengthening the body. If practiced with a sense of wonder and inquiry, yoga asanas (poses) can also help stretch and strengthen one’s mind and attitude. Expanding our sense of who we are requires a curiosity that can be cultivated on the mat and can stimulate our personal growth off the mat.

There is no one way to practice yoga. It is easy to discover different ways to move and reflect with so many types of yoga styles. I learned how to sequence asanas from one to the next by practicing ashtanga. I learned patience in staying in asanas by practicing Iyengar’s method. I learned how to be creative and playful by practicing vinyasa. I learned to be still by practicing restorative poses. No one of these styles serves me every day. I switch between the styles and use lessons from each at any given time – both on and off my mat.

Even within the same style, every instructor brings his or her own biases and backgrounds into a class and each studio offers different interpretations on what is yoga. The atmosphere can be more or less friendly and the music more or less soothing. Scents and colors of different studios also either draw me to or away from them. Sometimes I need more quiet. Those are the days I practice restorative poses and cancel my social engagements. Sometimes I need to challenge myself to extend past what I always do. That is when I seek out a different instructor or learn a new variation of a familiar asana.

I’ve challenged students to explore and discover something new in their practice. What happens if you stay in the pose a little longer; can it change the way the pose feels in the hips or the way your mind reacts? What happens if you change your gaze; does it feel different or provide a different perspective? What if you use a block or strap; does it change the expression of the asana? What if I change my verbal prompt; does it change your understanding of the pose? My intention is for students to learn more about their bodies, attitudes, and yoga practice. I invite them to continue this sense of discovery when they leave the studio and enter the real world.

Curiosity to learn more about our body’s movements and our mind’s attitudes helps us to do something slightly different. In our practice that might mean trying a new asana, teacher, or studio. Off the mat it might mean striking up a conversation with a stranger, entering a new vocation, seeing an issue from a different perspective, or trying a new ethnic cuisine. Curiosity supports our exploration that leads to new discovery. There is no such thing as success or failure in exploring something new and discovering something different about ourselves. Expanding our bodies and minds through exploration brings growth and that can only be a good thing.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Sweet Life

I’m encouraged that most people I know are trying to make healthy food choices for themselves and their families. But as I’ve pointed out in previous blogs, because the food industry is motivated to sell products, even people with the best intentions can be misinformed. One clear example is with added sweeteners. I’ve heard friends say that they select agave nectar, honey, or stevia rather than table sugar because these are “natural and healthy” alternatives. I’d prefer that they make choices based on preferred taste after learning more about these products.

Food can be naturally sweet or it can be sweetened by either “natural” or “artificial” additives. Sugars, particularly glucose, fructose and sucrose (table sugar - composed of half glucose and half fructose), are the compounds that sweeten foods. Cells function using glucose as energy and we get this source through foods. As with any food, moderation is always important and our bodies work hard to moderate glucose levels by producing insulin. Table sugar has become victimized as processed and high caloric. Sugar grows naturally as cane and the final product is processed and contains approximately 16 calories per teaspoon. Both people with diabetes and people trying to reduce their weight are advised to limit refined table sugar. But which alternative to select is not quite as simple as it might seem.

Artificial sweeteners (such as Aspartame – Equal and NutraSweet and Saccharin – SugarTwin and Sweet'N Low) are synthetic compounds that neither add calories to the diet nor increase blood glucose levels , so they might be healthier options to table sugar for people with diabetes. Although these sweeteners are without calories, there is evidence that people that consume a lot of artificial sweeteners in the form of diet soda and other processed foods still gain weight. The reason for weight gain is still unclear, but it may be because people are encouraged to increase calorie count in other forms to balance the “calorie savings” from diet soft drinks. Artificial sweeteners are common in processed foods that don’t contain nutritional benefits, so overall calorie count is usually higher in people that select this form of sugar substitute.

Another benefit of artificial sweeteners is that they do not cause dental cavities. Furthermore, there is no scientific evidence that any artificial sweetener approved by the FDA causes serious health problems, including cancer. They are synthetic compounds but without health risk.

That leads us to people convinced that “natural” sweeteners are better for them. Unfortunately, most of these “natural” sweeteners are highly processed. Stevia is often used as a natural substitute to the artificial sweeteners because it, too, has no calories and does not increase blood glucose level. However, stevia is a highly processed product originally from a plant (just as table sugar is a processed plant product). So although stevia has no calories, it cannot be considered “natural”. The FDA has approved stevia moderate doses but still with reservations. It is not recommended for women who are pregnant or breast feeding and should be limited to no more than two servings per day.

“Natural” sweeteners that are promoted as healthier sugar substitutes are often more processed and refined than expected (except raw honey which is in fact not processed). Furthermore, these compounds are not very different from sucrose (table sugar). These include date sugar, grape juice concentrate, honey, maple sugar and syrup, molasses, and agave nectar. Food manufacturers are not dishonest when they report that their foods contain added “natural” sugar. But consumers should not be misled by the term “natural”. The methods to process agave nectar are similar to creating high-fructose corn syrup and the outcome is a product with the same proportion (approximately 70%) of fructose as HFCS. These additives offer no nutrient or health benefit beyond table sugar. They are nutritionally similar, are broken down into glucose and fructose in the body, raise blood glucose level, and contribute to dental cavities. Natural sweeteners contribute to caloric intake at the same rate as refined table sugar. People with diabetes and people trying to lose weight will not benefit from these sugar substitutions. This is true of agave nectar. This especially popular sugar substitute does cause blood sugar spikes.

These natural sweeteners are safe on their own but selecting them rather than sugar provides no health benefit. People may actually increase their sugar and caloric intake by mistakenly adding these products to their diets thinking they are healthy choices. As with any added sugar, natural sweeteners such as honey and agave nectar can contribute to weight gain, tooth decay, and poor nutrition. (I’m not certain how to classify Sucralose (Splenda). It is a no-calorie, artificial product but it is derived from the naturally-occurring sucrose.)

In summary, there is nothing wrong with the choice to not use refined sugar. However, choosing a substitute needs to be considered with a lot of thought. “Natural” does not mean better. Diabetics are better off selecting artificial sweeteners to any natural ones. Selecting agave nectar might be a preference for taste but is no less refined, natural, or calorie free than refined table sugar. Stivia has no calories but cannot be considered natural.

The best choices are always whole foods. Berries, mangos, and other fruits offer plenty of natural flavor and can be selected as sweet snacks. Unlike any added sweetener, these whole foods add nutrients to the diet. Processed foods, even those marketed as diet or natural, will add calories without the same nutrition that whole foods offer. A product marketed as “natural” or “organic” isn’t necessarily healthy. Added sugar is added sugar, of any kind. Why not avoid sugars, processed foods, cakes and cookies except to celebrate a special occasion.

Life already is sweet – as demonstrated by the strawberries in the farmers markets this week – without additives.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Comfort Balanced with Effort

Yoga practice is based on philosophy outlined in the Yoga Sutras, organized as poetic verses written in the 2nd century CE. Only a few of the 196 verses refer to the physical practice of asanas (poses) even though most Americans consider that the poses define the practice. Sutra number 2.46 does refer specifically to asanas, and even this message extends beyond the mat into our lives in the real world. This sutra has been translated to mean “It is essential that the posture be steady and comfortable”.  Any pose, then, should be performed in a manner that is challenging, yet relaxed in some way.

A pose as simple as sukhasana (easy sitting pose) has components of comfort and effort. One doesn’t sit rigidly in this pose as they begin a sequence or transition and rest between poses. There is more ease and comfort than rigidity. At the same time, the pose isn’t slouchy. The spine is erect and the spine is energized. The person in this pose is awake and alert.

The same duality applies to physically challenging poses such as natarajasana (dancer pose). This pose requires the person stand on one foot while holding the other leg behind the back with one arm and pressing into a bow shape with the back. This is challenging for balance, flexibility, and strength but it is also challenging to find comfort amidst all the effort. So many muscles must generate force to practice this pose. But many other muscles do not need to work. The jaw doesn’t need to lock and the teeth don’t need to clench. It is actually easier to balance if the toes don’t claw. Pulling the leg up too strongly will hike the pelvis and change the pose. So with all the effort of the pose, there will still be some ease and comfort.

This delicate balance between being alert yet relaxed occurs in our daily lives just as it does in asanas. We need to stay alert when we drive (and not use a phone – even with a hands-free device but I’ll save that lecture for another time) but we also need to have a certain amount of ease so that we can respond to unexpected obstacles and change course quickly if necessary. It requires some effort and control to chop vegetables yet there too, we need some ease as we do; we don’t use every arm muscle to dice a carrot. This balance extends to our relationships where we learn how much we need to give and how much to take in each one just as we learn which “battles to choose” with employees, spouses, and children.

More and more I find my life off my mat reflecting my yoga practice. I look to balance effort with comfort. I remind myself to back off when I push hard or to push when someone is taking advantage of me. This is just how a beautiful life should be lived: steady, comfortably, and in balance.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Protein Facts

Proteins are important to a healthy diet but most people eat more protein than is recommended and often choose less healthy sources of protein. Personally I have chosen to eat a vegan diet for nearly 30 years. It makes me feel great and I create a smaller carbon footprint, contributing to my own health and the health of the environment. But I do not try to influence everyone else to become vegan. I would like to get people to stop making two assumptions, though, to help them select their own proteins more wisely. First people tend to ask “How do you get enough protein in your diet?” and the second assumption is invariably “So you must eat a lot of tofu.” Whether you choose to eat a plant-based diet or to eat animal proteins, you might want to learn a little more about recommended protein intake.
Every cell in the body is made of proteins that are constantly being broken down and replaced. Amino acids gleaned from dietary proteins are the source of our cellular protein. Proteins are absolutely necessary parts of the diet, however the “average American diet” tends to include twice the recommended dietary allowance for protein. Anyone in America eating a healthy diet from a variety of foods will get enough protein without having to supplement or pay special attention to what he eats. The best diet includes a variety of wholesome foods rather than focusing on any one type of nutrient. The right amount of protein depends on one’s weight, but the guideline is to keep a diet in which 10-30% of the calories come from protein. More specifically, recommended dietary allowance is 0.80 grams of protein a day for every kilogram of body weight. That means that a diet for a 150-pound adult should include 54 grams of protein a day.
Yes, protein does come from tofu but also from many other sources. A vegan diet like mine gets most of the protein from nuts, seeds, beans, and peas. Grains (particularly quinoa), fruits and vegetables (particularly spinach and broccoli) contain protein, but not as much as the other sources and cannot be the sole source of protein. People that eat animal proteins get them from dairy, fish, poultry, and red meat. One cup of cooked beans has 6 grams of protein, raw almonds have 30 grams, asparagus and broccoli have 7 grams, spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes have 5 grams. A cup of milk has 8 grams of protein and an 8-oz container of yogurt has 11 grams. A 3-oz portion of meat contains about 21 grams of protein.
People are not very likely to experience serious health issues if they eat more than 0.80 grams of protein per kilogram of weight a day. The problem is that animal sources of protein tend to be higher in calories and saturated fat (associated with cholesterol) than plant-based foods. So the person that eats more than the recommended dietary allowance of protein each day is most at risk of experiencing the health risks associated with too many calories and saturated fats (heart disease, diabetes, some types of cancers, etc). By association, cutting back on animal-based proteins is a fairly easy dietary change can result in desired weight loss. (People with kidney disease need to reduce protein intake to help the kidneys function properly, but I refer here to people without kidney disease.)
Americans have become used to including meat and dairy at each meal now that food production has reduced the cost of animals as a food source. Including meat as a complement to plants for the evening meal rather than meat as the primary focus of the meal will have the effect of weight loss. Consider lean beef or chicken stir fried with fresh vegetables over a bed of brown rice rather than a larger-than-recommended portion of steak or chicken with a small portion of string beans and mashed potatoes. Replacing sausage at breakfast with an egg white omelet tossed with mushrooms and tomatoes will still provide animal-based protein but with fewer unwanted calories. Other ways to select healthier proteins include using black or pinto beans rather than or as a supplement to less hamburger meat in chili and sauces, selecting low-fat dairy products, choosing lean meats, and using egg whites without the yolks.
So, in answer to the questions I always get when someone learns my diet excludes animal products: I get plenty of protein using beans and nuts as my primary source. And although an ounce of tofu offers about 20 grams of protein, I probably eat it once or twice a month.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Grateful for Backbends

A student requested that we work on backbends this week. She has tended to neglect those poses in her yoga practice out of concern out of not doing them correctly. I’m glad that she was aware enough to know that backbends done without correct alignment could create pain. The worst part is that experiencing injury in a pose or in any exercise might make anyone hesitant to continue a yoga practice or exercise routine.

So we worked on loads of backbends, from eka pada rajakapotasana (one leg king pigeon pose from low lunge) and bhujangasana (cobra pose) to urdhva mukha svanasana (upward facing dog pose) and ustrasasna (camel pose). We practiced many variations of salambhasana (locust pose) and both dhanurasana (bow pose) and urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose).

The safety precaution we took in each of the poses is to generate length through the spine even before lifting into the back bend. Imagining the crown of the head reaching forward and the toes reaching backward helps to energize the muscles through the back and strengthen the space between the vertebral bodies, giving a foundation from which to bend. The back bend should truly be from the entire spine, not just the lumbar portion of the spine (low back).

We also worked to stretch the hips and shoulders before going into deeper backbends. These joints need to be flexible even more than the spine does to achieve a pain free backbend. Students also are surprised at how much leg strength is needed in a backbend. So we worked on strengthening the quadriceps muscles (front of the thigh) because these need to contract to find deeper expressions of dhanurasana, urdhva dhanurasana, and ustrasana. Injuries are more likely to happen if people take backbends without preparing the shoulders, hips, and quadriceps.

The intention we set throughout the practice was to experience gratitude. Moving into backbends opens our hearts up to the sky, a great way to breathe gratitude into the heart center. However deep our pose was on the mat during that class, our bodies were working hard to coordinate flexibility in the front of the hips and shoulders, strength in the front of the thighs and strength in the muscles along the spine to create the expression of the pose we found at that moment. Our bodies are amazing and always give us so much for which to be grateful. Even in days we are ill or injured, even when seasonal allergies are acting up, for the most part we need to find gratitude for all our bodies do for us.