Category Archives: Life at large

Yoga Challenge Day 22

Some days, you really don’t know what you’re going to come up against until it’s right in your face.

I didn’t feel any soreness from yesterday’s strength workout, so I decided to be bold and do a 60-minute slow flow class instead of a restorative or Yin practice. Halfway in, my IT band was screaming. A few minutes after that, my shoulder was freezing up and my head felt like it was ready to burst. I felt so frustrated I was ready to throw down the towel. All sorts of aches and pains came up during the class, but it felt as if it was my mind I was fighting the most.

Part of me (a really big part) wanted to yell “f* this”, and call it a night. But some tiny part I didn’t even know I had in me was assuring me that it’s okay if I’m out of breath and can’t do the vinyasa – “just go into Child” – and that it’s okay if I can’t do Boat – “just close your eyes and breathe”. When I practice alone, I do that anyway (it’s a conscious decision), but it’s not the same in led classes where someone else is calling the shots. That voice didn’t feel like it was coming from inside me (I was the one who wanted to quit, after all), and getting to the end of the class felt unconscious. By the time we went into Shavasana, my headache was gone and my body felt “settled”.

It’s not as if I had a religious experience or anything. But, in retrospect, I understand that this was a piece of me that I simply haven’t really bothered to get to know. Food for thought…

That Elusive Mindfulness…

If you’ve ever been in a Yoga class or Zen meditation workshop, the idea of mindfulness may have come up. Practicing mindfulness on the mat is easy, but how does one go about it “in real life”, and why is it even worth it?

To begin with, what exactly is mindfulness? Well, to me (and my notion of it may be completely different from yours), it’s a portion of awareness, laced with a dose of compassion, and topped with a splash of non-attachment. Awareness is probably the most important aspect of mindfulness, but without compassion and non-attachment, it’s not terribly useful. We need non-attachment so that the thoughts, desires, etc. that we become aware of, e.g. during meditation, do not produce an intense emotional reaction. But we also need compassion to do deeper, to understand and accept the reasons behind these thoughts and desires.

How does mindfulness translates in everyday life situations? Well, the most striking example I can think of is the way we feed ourselves. Do you multitask (i.e. work, watch TV, read, etc.) while eating? How about mechanically taking a bite here and there while cooking? Have you tried doing nothing during mealtimes but eat? You may find that the flavors become more intense and enjoyable – or that your food is so unpalatable that you need something to distract you into eating it. In addition, you may find you become full on much less quantity than you thought you needed. Try out mindful eating when you’re having a solo meal and see how it affects you.

Another area where we could benefit from practicing mindfulness is exercise. I bet many of you follow a set fitness plan. How often does following that plan override the state your body is in? How often have you pushed yourself when you should have pulled back? Being mindful means that you listen to your body. How are you feeling today? Are you recuperated enough from your last workout? Did you skimp on your warmup even though your body feels like it needs more prep? You’ll need to be careful, however, to avoid stagnating in your comfort zone. This is where non-attachment proves its worth in that it allows you to separate needs from desires: e.g. do you really feel you’re not strong/flexible enough try out a new exercise or is fear holding you back?

In Paleo, there’s the wonderful notion of play that allows us to practice mindfulness in conjunction to our fitness plans. One way of doing that would be to structure just a handful of workouts a week and label the rest of them “Play Days”. What is your body telling you to do on those days? If you have energy to burn, why not go dancing? If you’re feeling wiped out, why not try some self-massage, foam rolling, or restorative yoga?

The most difficult settings to practice mindfulness in are probably social ones. You need to be mindful not only of your own state of mind and position in a situation but also take into account the people around you. In essence, it’s about not being reactive. How often have you found yourself getting worked up during an argument? Have you paused to consider why you’re getting so upset? What about what the person you’re with is feeling and why? I won’t kid you, it’s damn hard jumping off the emotional train once it has left the station, but it’s doable and it gets easier to maintain an open (and, ideally, unattached) mind with practice. That’s why we practice mindfulness on the controlled environment of the mat.

So, is it worth it? I dunno, you tell me. I know that every minute I spend being mindful on the mat makes me more mindful off it, but this is a highly personal matter. And I doubt that I’ll ever be able to be mindful 100 per cent of the time, but I don’t really want to anyway. So, do you think it’s worth it for YOU? What changes does it bring to YOUR life?

Paleo and Yoga: How do they connect?

What do you think of when you hear the word “Paleo”? If you’re a stranger to the lifestyle, a stereotype or two might come to mind: hunter, violent, eating raw meat… What about “Yoga”? Perhaps something along the lines of Lululemon’s Shit Yogis Say ad pops to your head? How representative of your attitude and lifestyle is any of that? Not much, I’d wager. So, let’s take a deeper look.

Why go Paleo at all? Maybe you have an autoimmune condition that you’ve heard Paleo can help with. Maybe you haven’t been diagnosed with anything in particular and don’t experience any striking symptoms (after all, you’re supposed to feel like crap half the time, right?), but decide to give it a go because you’ve heard it can help you feel and perform better. Anybody out there on Paleo to lose weight? 😉 Or maybe you’ve a locavore using Paleo to take your nutrition to the next level.

Whatever your reason for going Paleo may be, I think the common denominator is balance. I’m not talking only about balance within our bodies – although health and body comp are all good – but about balance with our environment as well. There’s a lot of talk in Paleo circles about sustainability and I think this kind of awareness is crucial to ensuring a future worth living. In addition, Paleo promotes psychological balance through the concept of play. When was the last time you played?

Balance is also what Paleo has in common with Yoga. Yoga emphasizes balance in the body and mind, and to some extent balance with your environment. If you’re thinking of yogi-pretzels and wondering how contorting yourself like that can promote balance, bear with me: you adapt your Yoga practice to your specific needs and goals, just as you would tweak Paleo – it’s never cookie-cutter.

I’d like to make one thing clear at this point, though: Yoga is not a workout system. It can be used as such, but it’s incomplete. Yoga can help you build cardiovascular and muscular endurance (through flow sequences), flexibility in your muscles and joints (the average chair-bound individual has no reason to worry about becoming overflexible), some muscular strength (how many people do you know that can do arm balances off the bat?), and even hone your sense of balance, coordination and proprioception, It will not help you build explosive strength or other anaerobic skills – although it will probably help your body deal better with the stress of building said skills. So, what is Yoga really about?

Well, the whole point of Yoga is to prepare you physically, energetically (I’ll come back to that), and mentally for meditation. Depending on your approach, you might start your session with a flow, such as Sun Salutations, move on to standing poses, slow down with floor poses, and settle down in Shavasana before sitting in meditation. Notice that you start by moving the body and then progressively slow down to the point of stillness. All the while, your breath follows the activity of the body, and since you need to keep your breathing under control, your mind (ideally) is engaged with that task instead of your to-do list. Ultimately, this helps us deal with stress, but also serves as a kind of self-therapy session (I’ve briefly touched upon it in this post), thus promoting psychological and emotional balance. In short, Yoga helps us connect with ourselves and become more aware, which is then reflected in our relationship with our environment, including our social circle.

I mentioned how Yoga prepares us energetically for meditation. This is the physical kind of balance that Yoga provides by stretching, compressing, and twisting the body in order to activate specific pressure points. It’s the same principle used in acupuncture: our life force (qi or prana) runs along pathways in our bodies (meridians or nadi) and is controlled by energy centers along the spine (dantian or chakra), but sometimes it becomes stuck and we need to intervene to help it flow smoothly again. If you’ve never done acupuncture, I know this may sound woo-woo, but thankfully, you don’t have to believe it to benefit from it. Just go ahead with your practice, making sure you focus on the breath, and spend a few minutes just sitting quietly after you’re done (it’s a great way to reduce stress after all :)).

So, far from being mutually exclusive, Paleo and Yoga actually share similar goals and, I believe, complement each other nicely. If you’re into one or the other, how about doing a Paleo-Yoga combo 30-day challenge?