Yoga to Cure Illness

Okay, that subject line might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I am starting to actually believe that yoga can cure or at least relieve some mundane illnesses (read: colds, maybe flus), and not just by reducing stress. Not to diminish the importance of stress-reduction, but I think there is more going on here.

Here is my anecdotal evidence:

Item One: Last year I felt myself starting to get sick. It felt like it was going to be a doozy of a cold/flu. I did not want to get sick. I spent the night I started feeling ill doing a long, slow yin practice. In the morning I felt fine.

Item Two: Last week I was definitely getting sick. I had definite cold symptoms, and some nausea mixed in. Unfortunately, I also had a full week of teaching yoga, including THREE classes the day after these symptoms took hold, so there was no time to recuperate. Surprisingly, after each yoga class that day, I started to feel better and better, until I was left with nothing but a sniffly nose to deal with over the next few days.

Not the strongest evidence, I know, and the only information I can find online about the link between yoga and healing sickness is not exactly the reliable, scientific variety of information.

So, stress-reduction aside, what is it about yoga that can heal sickness?

Here’s my theory:

You know how when you get sick, one of the symptoms is usually sore, tight muscles? What if that soreness is a result of built-up toxins that are making you sick? What if stretching releases those toxins? What if that release is coupled with reduced stress and increased oxygen flow to your body through deep breathing? Couldn’t that make your body better able to fight off those nasty germs?

I am planning on researching this further, and will report back any reliable findings I come across. In the meantime, I suggest some yoga the next time you feel sick!

I am a Light

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a big fan of Sarah Slean – her music is magical and each album manages to connect with me wherever I’m at in life. Not only that, but judging from her personality on stage, I feel like we could be great friends! (Okay, that might be the fan girl in me coming out.)

Her latest albume, Land/Sea is just as wonderful as any other. It’s a double album, the first being more upbeat, pop-type tracks, the second being full of sweeping orchestras and epic sensibilities. Both are gloriously Slean.

I noticed when listening to the album, especially the Land portion, that Ms. Slean has somehow managed to make a perfect album to reflect my philosophy towards yoga! My favourite yogic track? “I am a Light”. You can listen to a sample of the song here, and check out these awesome, life-affirming, love-sharing lyrics:

All are deserving of
this love so great great great
it’s inexhaustible
so give it all away

And don’t ask anymore
what is my way way way?
You are a miracle
so let it play play play

I am a light
I am a light
a light a light a light

There is no hurry now
I take it slow-ow-ow
I don’t need anything
I am the one I love

But it’s hilarious
’cause all the while-ile-ile
all I can dream about
is how to make you smile

I am a light
I am a light
I am a light

The source of everything
Is in our eye-eye-eyes
I see th good in yours
seeing the good in mine

I am a light
I am a light
a light a light a light

Passport to Prana

Looking for an affordable way to practice yoga? I am a big fan of the Passport to Prana.

How it works: you buy a card for $30 and it gives you one free class at every participating studio. Check the website first to make sure your city has a decent number of participating studios, but pretty much every major city in North America seems to have this going now.

The upside: you get to experience a variety of yoga studios and teachers which can help expand your knowledge and practice in a major way, and is especially helpful if you want to try a few studios before committing to a membership somewhere. Price barriers to practicing yoga are almost completely removed.

The downside: you can’t return to the same studio more than once on the card, which means that every time you go, you’ll have that “newcomer” feeling, and if you find a studio you really like you are left to choose between sticking with them or getting the most out of your card and visiting other studios.

Yoga: How Much is Enough?

Last week I had a student ask me if he was doing “enough” yoga. That’s a really difficult question to answer, and the only real answer I could give is that it depends.

There is no measuring stick for yoga. You can’t fill up your yoga-bottle and then be done. You could keep doing yoga until you run out of minutes in the day, and even then it could not be “enough”. Or it could be too much – it’s all too possible to OD on yoga.

If you’re asking this question of yourself or an instructor, the next question you should be asking, however, is why you’re doing yoga in the first place: what are you trying to get out of it? Spiritual enlightenment? Strength? Physical or emotional healing? A moment of peace in your day?

The follow-up question to this is to ask yourself how important the goal is to you, or how driven you are to get there. If you’re looking for a general improvement to your mental and physical well-being, you won’t necessarily need to practice as often (or as intensely) as someone who wants to drastically increase their strength or who is intentionally seeking enlightenment.

As a rule, the more time you invest into something, the better you will get at it. So regardless of your goal, it boils more or less down to doing yoga as often as you can realistically fit it into your schedule. Knowing what your end-goal is and how important it is to you, however, will help you be more intentional about how you do this: is it essential to do at least an hour of practice every morning or can you fit 20 minutes in here and there? Do you need an instructor guiding you in your practice, or will you get where you need to go with a solid home practice? On days where you just don’t have time, will you push yourself to do it anyways, or give yourself a break? It all depends on what you want in the end.

This student, for example, started practicing yoga so that he could add some variety into his overall physical exercise routine. For him then, taking one class a week probably is “enough”.

What is enough for you?

The Beauty of Alignment

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up trying to go as deep into pose as possible. Whether it’s a personal need to push ourselves, or a bit of a competitive need to show everyone in the class how good we are, sometimes we sacrifice alignment for depth.

I’ve always been a bit of an alignment-stickler. Even as a young girl taking ballet lessons, I would always make sure to keep my hips square and my back as long and straight as possible in every stretch. Not to say I was better than the other girls – I was definitely one of the least flexible in the class (part of why I took up yoga in the first place) – but I always figured that if I was going to do it, I should do it right. Sure, I might get further in a stretch if I let my hips fall out of alignment, but where would that get me in the long run? I would eventually need to get those hips back into place and then I would be back at square one.

The problem is, I was always a little embarrassed about my stickling, because it made me look even less flexible than I was. While the other girls were hunching their backs until they got their foreheads on the ground, I was barely at a 45-degree angle. What I didn’t realize, is how beautiful any body is when it’s in perfect alignment.

As I teach, I see it again and again: someone will throw themselves into a pose. They might get further into the pose, get their leg really high, or their head on the floor, but their ribs and hips are all off-kilter, their shoulder is being pulled all the way around their back, or their lower back is crunched over. They look, well, crooked.

What is far more arresting to watch is a person who keeps their body in alignment, in a variety of poses. From standing in tadasana to Full Lord of the Dancer Pose, the most important thing is keeping yourself properly aligned.

Get Out of Town

This weekend I went with my family to Whistler for a mini-holiday. It was fantastic! I haven’t been to Whistler (in summer or winter) for at least 10 years, and I can’t believe how much that place has grown – for better and for worse – into a full-blown tourist destination.

It got me thinking about the mini-holidays we take in life. We love them! A chance to relax and get away from whatever is stressing us out, without the full-blown commitment or the disruption to your regular schedule of a “big” holiday. Of course, you can’t go on holiday forever, and while a laptop-free weekend of lounging by a pool and strolling through the mountains was wonderful, I know I would go nuts if I was so carefree all the time.

That’s the beauty of a holiday – the fact that it’s temporary. As much as we loathe to go home and will tell everyone when we’re back that we “could have stayed there forever”, we really couldn’t have.

What we can do, however, is bring the holiday spirit into our every day lives. In fact, I like to think of my yoga practice as a mini-holiday. I have two favourite ways to do this: one method is to simply focus on the poses that make me feel great. I don’t push myself, I don’t do core work, and I don’t force myself to do those poses that are still a challenge for me. Instead I luxuriate in my favourites, relaxing into them, and just enjoy every second of my practice. Invariably, this ends up being something in between yin and restorative.

The second method I have is almost a stark opposite. I’ll push myself to the limits, jump right into the core work, and test the boundaries of those poses I just can’t master. By the end I’m sweaty, exhausted, and let me tell you, on those days savasana is about the sweetest vacation a person could ever ask for.

Of course, yoga is just one of the many ways to work a vacation into your daily life. You could read a guilty pleasure novel on the bus, lay in the sunshine, or take 10 minutes to do nothing but eat a delicious cookie.

What’s your mini-holiday?

Ten Tips for Yoga First Timers

I just came across this great post of (you guessed it) ten tips for newbies to the yoga world. I whole-heartedly endorse them all! Read it in its original context on the Boston Magazine site here.

Being a beginner at anything can be exhilarating and terrifying, intimidating as well as inspiring. First-time experiences spawn new hobbies, loves, and habits; however, they also send us scurrying back to the safety of routine if we’re overwhelmed by the new endeavor.

Yoga classes overwhelm people all the time. Lack of preparation, unrealistic expectations, and the occasional wave of nausea because no one told you to forgo the nachos before class can all throw your foray into yogic bliss off course, which is why I’m here to help.

  1. Know before you go. Is the class heated? How long is it? Can you rent a mat onsite, or do you need to bring your own? You don’t need to play 20 questions with the studio manager on the phone before your first visit, but you do need to have a vague idea of what you’re getting into. Studios and styles of yoga vary greatly. Some rules of the road are only learned through experience, but there are plenty of ways to inform yourself in advance. Keep reading, for example.
  2. Hydrate. Most unpleasant first-time yoga experiences and plenty subsequent unpleasant yoga experiences result from lack of preparation, particularly as it relates to nutrition. If you’re venturing into a heated class, this point is especially important: drink lots of water. Similarly, watch what you eat. Yoga aids digestion; however, it can’t do so if it has to compete with a latte, a burrito, two Red Bulls, and an afternoon vending machine raid. Eat lightly and healthfully, and don’t forget to bring a bottle of water.
  3. Skip the mayhem; arrive early. A common foible among beginners is to arrive just on time or, even, a little late. This isn’t a restaurant opening, people. Get there early so you can acquaint yourself with your surroundings and, perhaps, the teacher. The goal here is to beat the rush, so that the studio’s staff can spend enough time helping you get situated before being overrun by throngs of yogi veterans.
  4. Back row is best. As previously stated, it’s not a swanky restaurant opening, nor is it a Celtics game. The front row is no place for first-timers. The back row is much better, as you’ll get the gist of what to do by watching those around you (please note: this should not be confused with looking around the room or ogling others, see #8).
  5. Dress the part. Skip the slinky tank tops, booty shorts, and baggy mesh anything. Yoga poses demand a lot from your body and attire. You’ll be up, down, upside-down, and backwards. Make sure your clothes can comply.
  6. Guys, this is important … Doff your hats. Sox cap, fedora, beanie: it doesn’t matter what it is, take it off. It’s impractical and, frankly, embarrassing for all involved. Don’t ask questions; just trust me here.
  7. Shhhh. Some things are sacred. You don’t gab in church or chatter during your buddy’s backswing. Similarly, don’t talk in yoga class. Yoga is the experience of reconnecting to yourself. If you want to catch up with a pal, it’s better for everyone if the two of you did so over lunch at Stephanie’s.
  8. Keep your eyes on the prize. As a beginner, glimpsing around the room is somewhat necessary because you don’t know the lingo yet. However, looking around for interesting outfits, dating prospects, or a distraction from what is meant to be a meditative practice is counter-productive.
  9. Experience gratitude. You can practice yoga for the rest of your life, so there’s no need to conquer it all on the first try. Instead of fretting if you fumble with poses, be grateful that you have a healthy body that allows you to try new things, express yourself, and unwind.
  10. Rest. Deep, meaningful rest is one of the greatest gifts that yoga practice gives us. Savor this from the start.

The Yoga of Showing Up

Confession time: I have been busy lately. So busy, in fact, that I thought I was still posting this on a Monday when it is, in fact, Tuesday. Yes, I have officially lost track of time and missed my self-imposed deadline while thinking I was maintaining it.

In light of living in the kind of busyness that throws tracking what day of the week it is out of my brain’s window in favour of tracking where I should be next, you may not be surprised that I haven’t been keeping up with my yoga practice like I should be. Not even “should” – I haven’t been keeping up with my yoga practice like I want to be.

Just like it’s so easy for politicians to cut funding to the arts when the economy gets rough, it’s so easy to let your yoga practice be the first thing that slips when life gets busy. No matter how much we talk about how essential it is to a balanced life, at the end of the day it just seems a little expendable, doesn’t it? When you weigh and measure all the things demanding a piece of your 24 hour day, sometimes preparing for the board meeting, going to work on time, writing that paper, or going to back-to-back-to-back rehearsals take the priority.

While I’m not about to advocate skipping work to do your yoga practice, I am about to advocate for shifting your expectation of what your yoga practice really is so that you can fit it in. You know the saying “50% of life is just showing up”? Well, let’s bring that to our yoga mats – and then, of course, find ways to take it off our yoga mats.

My instructor in yoga teacher training once told us that if we feel like we don’t have time for our daily yoga practice, we should simply do the following: roll out our yoga mat, stand at the end of it in tadasana, and then roll that sucker right back up and put it away. There. We’ve done our yoga for the day.

The truth of the matter is that once you get into tadasana, you’re probably going to feel silly about just putting your mat away and maybe you’ll stretch forward into uttanasana. Then you might step back into a lunge and lift your arm into a twist. Then you’ll need to do the other side to be even, and so it will go until you’ve followed your body through whatever it needs for a yoga practice that day. Suddenly, you’ve found the time for yoga that you didn’t know you had!

The most difficult part, usually, is getting over that initial hump of forcing yourself to show up. Once you get there, you’ll find it’s easy (or easier than you think) to make the space you need for a quick practice. You may wind up finding a whole hour of time, or only 5-10 minutes for some invigorating flow. Even if you don’t find any extra time and you actually just stand in tadasana for 30 seconds, you have officially shown up and taken a moment out of your day that is 100% for you, and that’s what matters the most.

This afternoon on CBC they were discussing just this concept – the topic was willpower and the speaker was talking about how we imagine a lot of activities (especially the “shoulds” like working out or cleaning) to be a lot harder than they actually are. We psych ourselves up for inordinate amounts of time avoiding something and telling ourselves how much work it will be. However, once we actually get there and do it, research has shown again and again that the task usually isn’t really that hard. In fact, it’s often even enjoyable. The hardest part is showing up.

Yoga Recommended Reading List

This week I thought I’d share some yoga-related readings that I have come across through my teacher training and from my kula:

Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar
The Bhaghavad Gita – the Penguin Classics edition is a great version for a newbie
Yin Sights by Bernie Clark
The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice by TKV Desikachar
Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda
Yoga for Arthritis by Loren Fishman
Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff
Yoga Mat Companion by Ray Long

You notice that I didn’t link each book to its Amazon page as is the norm on blog posts about books. That’s because Amazon may not be the best place to find the book! I recommend you check out first, as books are incredibly cheap there (I got Light on Yoga for $8 including shipping when it’s normally $25 in stores), but very slow with delivery. After that, check your local used book stores and your favourite online and in-person book sellers.