Author Archives: Dawn D.

Building a Yoga Home Practice

Yoga can be beneficial even if one were to attend a single class per week. However, it produces the best results when performed on a daily basis. Not everyone can afford a class that often, though, so practicing at home becomes a necessity. Moreover, doing Yoga on your own allows you the freedom to follow your own pace and explore your body (and mind) in different ways than you would in a class setting.

Judith Lasater wrote an article for Yoga Journal on building one’s home practice, and I think it’s an excellent resource for anyone interested in the matter, but I’d like to build on some of the points mentioned there and add a few of my own.

When planning your Yoga sessions, start from a general perspective and then move to the specifics. What I mean by that is that you should first plan a macro-cycle of sessions that is in itself balanced. This macro-cycle should contain several practices that may be performed in the space of a week, 10 days, a fortnight, etc. Sure, you could do nothing but balanced, self-contained sessions, but sometimes it helps to focus on a single group of muscles (e.g. hips, core) or poses at a time (e.g. backbends, twists). You just need to make sure that overall, you work through all pose/muscle groups during your macro-cycle.

A longer (month-long) macro-cycle may also include days when you need to perform special yoga sequences. For instance, perhaps you go a little batty when the moon is full and you need to schedule a session to counterbalance those feelings, or even provide you with a contained environment where you can explore them; women may have a favorite soothing practice that helps with menstrual cramps or PMS; a restorative session every week or so to recharge your batteries would also not go amiss.

I would like to take this opportunity to add that your body would probably thank you if you were to incorporate Yin Yoga to your macro-cycle. Since it’s my favorite style, I may be biased, but you don’t really have anything to lose by replacing a couple of traditional (Yang) Yoga sessions per week with Yin Yoga. The two styles really do balance each other out, with Yang focusing on muscular strength and flexibility, and Yin on connective tissue suppleness and general mobility. Due to its quiet, meditative nature, it can also double as restorative Yoga (although they are definitely NOT one and the same).

So, once you’ve scheduled when you’ll be doing what, it’s time to plan your micro-cycles, i.e. the sequences themselves. You’ll need to take into account several factors: 1) your ability, 2) available time, space, and tools, 3) any weaknesses you want to focus on.

Your ability will often be dependent on what you’ve been taught at class, since several poses are best learned with a teacher; it’d be best you don’t try, for instance, to learn headstand without supervision. Slowly build a “menu” of poses you can do, which you can then mix and match into a private session.

Where can you practice at home? Do you have a room you can use, or are you confined to a hallway? Consider how that space will affect your practice, and select poses accordingly. I’m assuming you already own the essentials (a mat, a belt, and a couple of blocks), but if you plan to focus on a style that requires additional props, e.g. bolsters, you may need to get those tools (buy ready-made or improvise), or skip poses that need them altogether. Also, when can you practice? An early-morning practice may be best for dynamic flows to energize the body and mind, while sequences that will help you wind down may be more appropriate for a late-evening session, so choose wisely. Additionally, how much time do you have available?

In direct relation to that last question, I’d like to point out that there are two elements that should form part of every one of your home sessions: breath work and corpse pose. Doing breath work at the beginning of your practice helps focus the mind to what you’re about to do – think of it as a mental switch of sorts. Beginners may simply sit for a few minutes counting the breath, while more advanced yogis may do specific pranayama. Follow with the core part of your practice (the asanas), then finish in Corpse – consider it a “consolidating” pose that will help your body assimilate the benefits of your Yoga practice. Even if you only have 10 minutes to spare for Yoga, do 2-3 minutes of breath work in the beginning and stay 2-3 minutes in Corpse at the end; even though this will cut your time for asanas down to only 4-6 minutes, I strongly believe it is worth it.

Ideally, you should also allow time for meditation at the end of your practice, but I realize that is not always possible. Still, you may find that on a particularly hectic day, when you’re tempted to skip Yoga altogether, spending 5-10 minutes in meditation may be enough to center you and help you through the tough spots.

Finally, assess your physical weaknesses and work on them. If you sit in a chair all day, it would be best to include in your sessions poses that target the hamstrings, lower back, and hip flexors. Do you have old injuries to deal with? Don’t shy away from working on restoring range of motion (best to have a teacher or specialist help with your specific needs). Are you working your way to an advanced pose? Ask your teacher to help you assess your limitations and address them through simpler poses (e.g. you may decide to practice shoulderstand and down-dog to build core and wrist strength in preparation for handstand).

One last thing: although scheduling is a great tool to help you on your path, you may need to cut a planned session short (or, conversely, draw it out) or ditch it altogether for one reason or another; be prepared to be fluid in your programming. Alternatively, if you find that planned sessions don’t suit you (perhaps you are highly attuned to your body and manage to find balance when left on your own), why not try out a free-form, intuitive approach and see how it works for you? Either way, I wish you well on your journey.

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The Degeneration of the Paleo Movement…?!?

Well, I should probably be more specific and clarify that I’m referring not to the Paleo movement itself, which is booming, but to the Paleo market. Over the last few months I’ve noticed several products, especially books, that sell under a Paleo tag when in fact they tend to distort the very core of the Paleo concept. So, I’ll be taking a critical look at some categories of products that have been cropping up.

 

Paleo Baking

That’s an oxymoron if I ever heard one. However, since we’re not actually trying to live as cavemen, I guess there’s some leeway we can play with. Paleo baking should come with a huge Buyer Beware warning as, more often than not, the ingredients used are best avoided. There are two things to look out for here: the “flour” and the sweetener used.

The two kinds of “flour” used most often in Paleo baking recipes are nut flour and coconut flour.
The latter is the more benign choice, though anything you bake with it will have a distinctive coconut-y flavor – it’s up to you whether you like it or not. As for nut flour, you might think that since nuts are allowed in a Paleo diet, why not grind them and use the flour? Nuts are rich in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, and for that reason we should avoid eating them in large quantities, such as what would be needed to make baked goods. Nowadays, we can buy nuts in bags, already shelled, and tend to munch on them mindlessly, but if, in order to eat e.g. walnuts, you had to harvest them straight from the tree and then crack the shells, I doubt you’d have more than a handful at a time. I only bake once or twice a month or so, but prefer gluten-free flour (not Paleo, I know) over nut flour for savory bakes, and coconut flour for sweet bakes.

The issue with sweeteners is actually pretty simple, but I’m constantly amazed at how convoluted it tends to get. To keep it simple, the only sweetener that is truly Paleo is raw honey. The same caveat as nuts applies here as well: consume only as much as you would if you had to harvest it yourself, climbing trees with angry bees attacking you ;p Think of honey as liquid gold, and use it sparingly. The one alternative I’m willing to consider is Stevia, and I do mean the actual plant, not chemically processed extract or little white tabs that come in a box. Of course, this would only be applicable in recipes that use water, which you would sweeten with the leaves prior to mixing with the rest of the ingredients. Even so, it’s a valid option.

 

Paleo Desserts

I’m amazed by the amount of recipes out there for Paleo desserts.Some of them are legit, while others don’t even come close. What I dislike about the plethora of Paleo dessert cookbooks is that they create the false impression that eating dessert on a regular basis is perfectly acceptable, when in fact it should be considered a treat to indulge in no more than once or twice per week. For example, say you get a book with 100 recipes; it should take you 2-3 years to taste every single one of them!

My idea of dessert revolves around either fruit or high-quality dark chocolate. When I prepare dessert for myself, I’ll just grab a piece of fruit or melt a chunk of chocolate over a handful of nuts, and that’s it. When I want to serve dessert to my family, I never prepare fruit platters, though, since people tend to overeat. Instead, I’ll opt for something like poached pears with chocolate fudge or baked apples with a little nut streusel. I avoid adding any sweetener (everything I wrote in the previous section still applies) as the sugars in fruit caramelize as they cook and provide enough sweetness, while the dark chocolate already contains some sugar.

Use your imagination and play around with spices and combination, or follow a recipe. In the end, however, be reasonable as to how often you eat dessert.

 

Food Makeovers

Often, the food we eat comes with its very own emotional baggage. If we’ve associated a certain dish with happy memories, we want to eat it again to relive those euphoric feelings. Although the concept has been widely conventionalized, I find that comfort foods are highly personal, simply because each individual has unique experiences tied to certain dishes.

For example, two or three times a year, my family makes manti (mahn-TEE), tiny meat-filled dumplings, served in thin tomato soup, topped with tzatziki sauce (full-fat strained yogurt with crushed garlic) and sprinkled with sumac spice. It’s a time for the whole family to get together, and I’m willing to forgo my Paleo eating for a day and simply enjoy the experience. I know I could try making the recipe with gluten-free flour, but decide not to bother since it’s only a couple of times a year anyway, and my body can handle it thanks to eating Paleo all the rest of the time.

While doing the Whole30 challenge, food makeovers were out of the question. I was eating Paleo-only meals, without being allowed to make Paleo versions of my favorite or most often consumed dishes. The point was to free my mind of mindless attachment to certain foods, and it worked for the most part. Post-challenge, the goal is to eat clean 95% of the time in order to fortify the body so that it can deal with that 5% deviation. It really gives a new meaning to the phrase “special occasion”.

Junk food, though, is a completely different monster. If you’re used to buying your food ready-to-eat, then chances are you’re addicted. David Kessler made a great point about the addictive nature of processed foods due to the addition of fat, sugar, and salt a few years back – click here to see an interview (it starts at around the 12-minute mark). The fact is that your homemade makeovers will never match the taste you’re used to, and ultimately your addicted brain will rebel. The solution is to eschew any dish you’re possibly addicted to, and use completely new flavors to stimulate your taste buds. Once you’ve been “clean” for a while, you may start thinking about making Paleo versions of formerly-addictive dishes. It’s a risky experiment; you may find that consuming Paleoified dishes is not that pleasurable after all and simply shrug them off, or you may get a hankering for the “real thing”.

 

In conclusion, I find that Paleo writers and bloggers trying to carve a slice out of the Paleo “pie” have been giving too much emphasis in the above categories when they should instead be trying to help people wean themselves off such foods. True, there is a time and place for makeover dishes, desserts, and bakes, but their part in a Paleo diet is too small to justify the time/effort put into creating the amount of recipes one can track down both on the Web and in bookstores.

Paleo Weight Loss

Being a chubby child that turned into an overweight adolescent who then grew up into an obese adult, I’ve been struggling with my appearance from early on. It wasn’t until I found Paleo that slimming down became truly effortless. So I’d like to take a few moments to point out how Paleo can help with weight loss. [A short recap: going Paleo means eating animal protein, vegetables, tubers (such as yams), gourds (e.g. pumpkin), and fruit, while avoiding grains, legumes (i.e. beans), and dairy.]

 

Managing Hunger
First of all, forget about counting calories, carbs, points, etc. Obsessing about staying within predefined numerical limits puts you under unnecessary psychological stress that could ultimately hinder weight loss. Instead, you should follow the signals your body sends you, and eat to satisfy your hunger. In fact, when eating Paleo, you’ll be feeling positively stuffed most of the time.

The reason for this is that a Paleo diet contains a good amount of protein (though not as much as people tend to think) and lots of fat, both of which are highly satiating, making it practically impossible to overeat. Think of it this way: how soon would you be hungry after eating a bowl of pasta? What about after eating steak? I don’t know about you, but I could scarf down a couple of bowls of pasta and still feel ravenous two hours later. A good Paleo meal will keep me going for at least five hours – on average, I tend to get by with two full meals, and sometimes a snack, every day.

So, you’ll be naturally eating less, without really trying to do so, and you won’t be feeling hungry, which is a pretty nifty bonus imho.

 

Going Low-Carb?
A lot of people have the misconception that Paleo is low-carb. In truth, it’s lower carb than a conventional diet due to the exclusion of grains, but the point of eating Paleo is not minimizing carb consumption. In fact, your Paleo eating plan could be as high or as low in carbs as you need it to be.

For weight loss specifically, it is better to limit carbs (see Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat), and, unless you’re packing your plate with potatoes or wolfing down scores of fruit every chance you get, you’ll be able to do that without having to worry about it. What worked best for me was having a piece of fruit with my breakfast and/or a fist-sized portion of starchy carbs with my lunch, while adding some nuts here and there.

Ultimately, there’s no real need to keep track of carb grams or anything like that. Just be aware of what is on your plate and keep things reasonable, e.g. consuming no more than two fist-sized portions of fruit per day, or not eating fruit and starchy veggies/tubers during the same meal.

 

What About Exercise?
I feel that Mark Sisson has summarized a Paleo approach to exercise and fitness in the best possible way, so check his article here for an overview.

Personally, I favor a cycling weight loss model, going through a muscle-building phase, a weight loss phase, and a “reset” phase, staying in each for 4-6 weeks. Both being obese and losing weight are highly stressful on the body, and I feel that cyclic programming is the healthiest, though not the fastest, way to produce results.

During the muscle building phase, you do just that: build muscle. Don’t expect to lose much, if any, weight during this phase. The goal is to strength train intensely and stimulate your muscles into building new fibers; this will facilitate weight loss during the next phase. Two important factors that will determine your success are rest and food. You need to allow your body adequate rest between training sessions, and make sure to provide it with enough nutrients, especially protein, to act as building blocks.

When you enter the weight loss phase, you need to drop strength training and focus on light exercise, such as walking and yoga. At this time, you want to keep your hunger under control without completely immobilizing the body, so try to avoid strenuous activities (no power-walking or hot yoga!). You’ll be naturally eating less, and thus losing fat and some muscle mass – the latter is hopefully offset by the muscle gains made during the previous phase and the light stimulus provided by yoga during this one.

Finally, the reset phase is when you establish a new balance point for your body. Do maybe one or two strength training sessions, go for a jog, take a vinyasa yoga class, maybe even do an interval training session, all while eating to satisfy your hunger. Notice what happens to your body. You should be neither losing nor gaining weight, and you should be feeling energetic instead of tired – modify your exercise intensity, sleep, and food intake, especially starches, accordingly. For example, if you’re feeling like roadkill, are you getting enough sleep (8 to 9 hours)? Are you eating enough starches? Are you simply exercising too much or too hard? Use this phase to honestly evaluate your habits and find what you need to do to be in a balanced state.

 
There is a lot more information out there about losing weight on a Paleo eating plan, including the nuts and bolts of why things happen as they do (you know, the nerdy stuff), but what I’ve described above is what worked like a charm for me, making my life – and weight loss – much easier.

Yoga Challenge Week 4 Wrap-Up

This particular journey is almost over, and I must admit I’ve learned a lot during the past four weeks.

Firstly, it gave me the chance to explore what I want (and what I don’t want) to do with this blog. Reporting my progress in this challenge on a daily basis kept me motivated and accountable, but that wasn’t always what I wanted to write about. Now that the challenge is almost over, I hope I’ll be able to focus more on specific issues that catch my fancy. It may lead to posting less often, but I believe the content will ultimately be more meaningful.

Secondly, I managed to get a feel for how my body responds to muscular stimuli. So far, I’ve figured out that two strength workouts per week are all my body can handle at this point; that my muscles are practically begging for a combination of foam-rolling, trigger point therapy, and restorative yoga after hard workouts; that I can cut back my Yin Yoga practice to a couple of times per week and still reap all the benefits; that I enjoy conventional/Yang Yoga just as much as I do Yin Yoga.

Where do I go from here? Well, one thing I’d like to incorporate to my fitness routine – and I’m pretty liberal with that label – is cardio. I don’t really care about burning calories or increasing my VO2max (even though my cardiovascular conditioning is abysmal), but I do feel the need to move my body more often through walking, cycling, dancing, even more vigorous flow Yoga practices – not to mention that with Spring right around the corner, I think I’ll enjoy getting outside and basking in the sunshine.

PS. For my practice today I followed Ken Nelson’s Yin Yoga CD. I’d go as far as to call it “hardcore” Yin since this 75-minute practice goes through only four poses and still manages to target all the body parts I’m used to dealing with in Yin Yoga. A nice feature is that in each of the four pose tracks instructions for alternative poses are given – e.g. you may choose to do Butterfly, Dragonfly (Straddle) or Frog – so that, ultimately, the practitioner has nine poses to choose from and can vary the sequence based on ability or needs. Nine poses may seem too few, but remember that, variations notwithstanding, Yin Yoga revolves around a mere two dozen poses.

Compared to Erin Fleming’s Yin Yoga CD, I can’t say I like one more that the other. Erin’s class goes through more poses, and puts more emphasis on forward folds, while Ken’s class is more balanced and involves longer holds. Both teachers are pleasant to listen to and the background music in both CDs is mild. Each class is taught in a distinct way, but both are equally good. In the end, if I want to do a led Yin Yoga class, I’ll pick between the two based on the mood of the moment.

108-Breath Mandala Yoga Sequence

This is a sequence I’ve created on my own, though I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who’s thought about it – after all, there’s no such thing as an original idea 😉
It’s a short sequence, rather meditative in nature, inspired by the malas used in meditation, made of 108 beads (109 if you want to be finicky).
Here’s how I practice it: I string together 12 poses, and stay in each pose for 9 breaths (12*9=108). I use the first inhale to move into each pose and the last (ninth) exhale to move out of it. Once the mandala is finished, I repeat on the other side if I’ve used any unilateral poses.
The sequence is highly customizable. You can pick any poses you like, provided you can comfortably stay in each pose for the allotted time (struggling with a pose is not very conducive towards staying in a meditative state), and it takes you no more than one full breath to flow from one pose to the next.
The reason I came up with this sequence is that I wanted to combine yoga and meditation in a seamless package, instead of practicing one after the other. I usually meditate at the end of my asana practice, but don’t always have the time to do so, even though I consider meditation one of the more important aspects of yoga. In addition, I’ve long gravitated towards the more “physical” styles of meditation (ecstatic dance, t’ai chi), so I thought to try something similar with yoga.
Of course, asana practice is already meditative, or at least it should be. However, we often lose focus when practicing. If the pose is easy, the mind may wander; if it’s challenging, the mind may ramble as the body struggles. I find that counting the breath keeps the mental chatter to a minimum, and helps me stay in the moment. This is, in essence, a moving meditation.
One thing I really like about this technique is that one mandala takes about 5 minutes to complete, or 10′ if I need to do two mandalas to cover both sides, and I could probably keep repeating for half an hour, while it would have been near impossible to sit in meditation for that long.
Here’s an example sequence (focus on feeling grounded while still reaching up and out – a feeling of spreading your wings, if you will):
– Mountain
– Chair
– Tree
– Warrior I
– Pyramid
– Triangle
– Side Angle
– Warrior II
– Exalted Warrior
– Down Dog
– Cobra
– Child’s Pose
(Repeat on the other side.)
As you can see, I picked some of the most basic poses, opting for simplicity. Still, don’t hesitate to use advanced poses if they’re within your abilities and you believe they’d enhance your meditation.
Some variations to consider:
1) You can make the mandala even more meditative by staying longer in fewer poses, or turn it into a sweatier flow practice by staying in more poses for fewer breaths. Just make sure you spend an equal number of breaths in every pose and that the mandala lasts 108 breaths.
2) The primary focus is always on the breath, but you could create a mantra to repeat (either in your head or out loud) each time you enter a pose or even focus on a feeling you wish to explore. This could set a theme for your meditation, and you might choose specific poses that support that theme or seek out elements in poses that could provide a different point of view (exploring stability in balance poses, for instance, or compassion through the protectiveness of forward bends).
Would appreciate your feedback and suggestions.

Yoga Challenge Days 26-27

I spent yesterday doing housework, and although I count that as a workout, I don’t find it an exciting enough subject to blog about.
As for today, after several days of rain (we don’t really get a lot of those), the sun finally decided to put in an appearance, so a walk around the neighborhood for some much-needed vitamin D was in order.
I was still a bit sore from my strength training earlier in the week, especially in the glutes and adductors, but a few minutes spent foam rolling helped. I also put together a quick Yin Yoga sequence to loosen up those same areas:
– 15′ in Straddle (left, right, middle, 5 minutes each)
– 5′ per side in Square, followed by Windshield Wipers
– 5′ in Caterpillar
Finish with a few minutes in Reclined Twists and then Shavasana.

Yoga Challenge Day 25

Today’s workout was purely restorative. I felt pretty whipped and had to take out the big guns (hint: tennis balls!) to get my muscles to loosen up.

I started out with a few rounds of Moon Salutations to get the blood pumping but still keep things relaxed. It’s a really great practice that focuses on side-to-side movement, complementing nicely the back-and-forth movement of Sun Salutations.

I continued with foam rolling, focusing particularly on the adductors – I did side lunges for the first time yesterday, and, believe me, I felt it.

Finally, I had to resort to trigger point therapy, aka tennis ball massage! I was first introduced to this technique in Mark Verstegen’s Core Performance for Women, and was surprised at how effective it is. However, the sensations it produces are so intense as to be near intolerable. So, it’s not a tool I use all that often. When I do, I follow a track from Shiva Rea’s Drops of Nectar CD that offers massage instructions for the glutes and T-spine; I find her soothing voice helps me bear the ordeal long enough to achieve tension release. For those of you interested in the technique, I managed to locate a video describing the process for those exact points: