Mindful awareness

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.