The other day I had to visit a doctor because I have been experiencing pain in
my hip. When I told the doctor that I practice yoga he said "Yoga? What, like,
stretching?" I was surprised that a
doctor of medicine, with all his years of education, had such limited knowledge
of the yoga practice. I quickly put
myself in check, like a good yogini, and decided not to judge him for it. Instead I reminded myself that many people
don't have personal experience with yoga. It is a common misconception that yoga is simply stretching and that
flexibility is a requirement. I can't
tell you how many times I have heard someone say "I can't do yoga. I'm not
flexible." Not true. If you can breathe you can do yoga.
mind, I am a personal trainer as well as a yoga teacher, so I work with a
number of clients who prefer to sweat it out in the gym instead of on the yoga
mat. There are many ways to climb a mountain,
right? I support any attempt to better one’s
self…but I will take this opportunity to share some info and express my love of
yoga hoping that others will give it a try and love it too.
There are many ways to define and practice yoga, so I will try not to write a dissertation. I will give you a simple, strait forward description
of what yoga is to me. If you want a
more in depth explanation I would suggest learning about the 8 limbs of yoga
The term “yoga”
means to yoke, to join, or to unify, as in creating a union between body and
mind. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras refer to
yoga as “the stilling of the waves of the mind. “ And the Bava Gita calls yoga
“skillfulness in action.” To me, yoga is
a way to keep my body and mind healthy and happy.
Asanas (postures) keep the body strong and healthy. There are thousands of
asanas that work every part of the body, inside and out. They strengthen muscles and joints, detoxify,
and align. They keep internal organs,
glands, and the entire nervous system in tip-top shape. Posture is improved. Endurance is improved. Longevity is
increased. Another perk—yoga increases
flexibility as it tones the muscles, so the result is a long lean look, free of
bulk. That is part of why I love the
practice. I would be lying if I said keeping a lean, sculpted body was not part
of why I practice yoga, but knowing that it keeps my insides working properly
adds to my sense of well being.
Pranayama (breath) keeps the body cleansed and revitalized. Add pranayama deep breathing techniques to
your asanas and you will be able to stay focused, alert, and stress free. There are breathing techniques used
specifically to cool, warm, energize, relax, and purify the body. Creating awareness of the breath also
connects you to the present moment. If
you are thinking about your breath you are not living in the past or the
future. You tap into the here and now. The best part is that you can breathe
deeply on or off the mat. You will often
hear me take a deep breath when I am running late, and it really does help, I
Meditation and positive thinking create a sense of happiness
and inner peace. This is the aspect of yoga
which often gets overlooked. The western
way of thinking sends us into the yoga studio with goals that relate to the
physical body. We practice the asanas to
stay in shape. We breathe because we are
told too, but without creating a mind-body connection you don’t get the full benefit
of the yoga practice. It’s like memorizing the words of a poem, but not knowing
the poem’s meaning. Once you make the
mind body connection it you can tap into a deeper understanding of compassion,
love, and ultimate enlightenment. To learn
more about the benefits of meditation check my previous blog post, Meditation for Beginners.
Meditation for Beginners: Break the Rules!
If you are new to meditation or maybe just tempted to try it for the first time
you may find this post particularly helpful. Meditation can be a challenge when you are
just starting out (it was for me), but the benefits are significant. I think everyone should meditate! So, to help you over the initial frustration
that often accompanies meditation I will share with you what I have learned. I
found that by breaking some of the “rules” (I am using the term “rules” very loosely. They are really more like suggestions.) I was
able to reap the benefits of meditation without being a yogi master or a Buddhist
monk. Keep in mind these tips are drawn
from my own experience. They may not fit the mold of proper meditation technique,
but they have helped me find a deeper understanding of mindfulness and the
pursuit of enlightenment.
First, what is meditation and what are the benefits? Webster defines meditating as “engaging in contemplation or reflection.” So, it seems to be a misconception
that you need to clear the mind completely during meditation. It is more about training the mind to focus
on one thought in order to gain greater insight, awareness, and self control. That one thought can be a word, image, sound, breath,
idea, or feeling. Over time this
practice can enrich and better your life in all areas- career, relationships,
health, fitness, diet, mood, and overall well being.
Research as shown these to be some of the physical and mental benefits of
diminish PMS symptoms
Better concentration and focus
Detachment from life's irritations and from pain
due to increased levels of serotonin
communication between brain hemispheres
Lower blood pressure
Helps aid in
Less oxygen consumption
Calming of the central nervous system
clip about the effects of meditation on the brain. It’s really interesting, and will make you
want to give it a try too! This is only
part 1 of 6…
As you start
your journey into your own mind, here are some nontraditional ideas that I can
offer up. I like to do what feels good, and this way of thinking has been
helpful to me. (Not that I am some sort
of rebel for taking this approach. I
doubt many hard-core “meditators”
would dramatically disapprove…)Take what works
for you, and leave the rest.
Rule: Find a quiet spot, free from distractions.
say: Meditate anywhere.
While peace and quiet would be ideal, it is not always realistic and can make
us feel limited in when or where we can meditate. For most people finding a quiet time in the
day is next to impossible. Even in our
own homes we are kept company by our roommates, our kids, and/or our
significant others. It is not uncommon to be constrained by sounds of
traffic, neighbors, TVs, radios, etc. For some of us, waiting for a quiet
moment means we will never have a chance to practice our meditation. That's why
I started doing it anywhere and everywhere. Try it sitting on the subway,
lounging in the park, or perched at your work desk. These can be great
opportunities to close your eyes and dive within. Yoga class is also a perfect time
to meditate. I treat my entire yoga practice as one long moving meditation by
focusing solely on my breath and letting all scattered thoughts float away.
Walking meditation is another widely practiced form that you can do at anytime.
Just focus on taking one step and then another. You may be surprised how easily
outside distractions can melt away when you give it a try. It's better than
waiting for a quiet moment that may never come, right?
Start on the floor or pillow in a
comfortable seated position.
say: Sit however you want.
The idea here is that you are sitting upright
comfortably in order to relax and take deep full breaths, but beginners often
find sitting on the floor without any back support very uncomfortable. If you are straining to sit tall, and your
back is aching, and your legs are falling asleep you are most likely going to
have a hard time focusing your mind. Aren't thoughts about your dinner plans and
work issues enough to distract you
without adding aches and pains to the list? I suggest sitting in any position that
is comfortable for you. Opt for a cozy chair or couch, a park bench, or a spot
on the floor next to a wall. As long as
you can sit up tall to make room for the breath to enter the body you are in
the clear. Keep in mind that your core
strength will improve over time if you practice sitting tall, and when you are
ready and able the spot on the floor will still be there waiting for you.
Take deep breaths in and out through the nose.
say: Breathe however you want.
If you are
not accustomed to it, it can feel unnatural and forced to take exaggerated breaths
solely through the nose. The important thing
to remember is that you should be breathing and relaxed. If you find it hard to keep a natural rhythm going,
throw all the frame work out the window and just breathe. Do what feels right to you. In time you will find that your breath will
slow and grow deeper as your body and mind settles. It does it automatically, so try not to
stress about it. The nasal breathing
will come with practice as well. The
purpose of breathing this way is to warm and filter the air through the nose,
and if you are aware of that objective it may help in the process.
Rule: Clear the mind.
say: Accept the fact that your mind will wander.
Thoughts will come and go, so don’t get frustrated or beat yourself up over it.
It takes years of practice to focus the mind for an extended period of time.
The important part of meditation, especially for beginners, is to acknowledge
interruptions and then refocus the mind on whatever you have chosen for your focal
point. Even if the mind wanders a
hundred times bring it back a hundred times. Maybe next time you give it a go it will only
wander 99 times. Also, start by choosing
a focal point that really resonates with you, like your favorite flower, word,
or person. It is easier to stay focused
on something you like and can relate to. I made the mistake of choosing a Sanskrit chant
when beginning to meditate for the first time, and it felt so foreign to me
that I could not stay present. Pick
something close to your heart and it may help to open your mind.
If you are
interested in learning more about meditation techniques in a formal setting here
are some well reviewed places in NYC that you can go to take class:
hope this was helpful. Let me know if I can answer any questions or provide any
other tips or guidance.
The very first time I had the opportunity to experience hot yoga, or Bikram yoga, I absolutely hated it. I believe the phrase I used to describe it to friends was "a hell where they make you do yoga." The postures didn't feel right to me. They felt strange to my body, a body that was accustomed to the free flowing nature of the vinyasa practice. The breathing was odd and silly. My back hurt. My mouth was dry. I was forced to stare at myself in a mirror while wearing nothing but shorts and a sports bra. The teacher seemed like a drill Sargent, not a yoga instructor. He did not allow us to wipe the sweat from our faces or take a sip of water until a specified moment in class. We could not fidget or fix our clothes. And on top of all of this there was the heat...the unbearable heat... the heat ranging from 105 to 110 degrees was by far the hardest part. Lightheadedness, dizziness, and oh yes, even feeling like you are about to vomit are the inevitable vices when practicing in the heat. (I have to admit that my first hot class was atypical in that it was part of my yoga teacher training, and we spent close to 2 and 1/2 hours in the heat instead of the regular 90 minutes. Most people may not have the same nightmarish experience.)
After class I was truly surprised at how challenging the traditional hot practice was. Being a fitness trainer and yoga instructor I pride myself in being tough, strong, and adaptable, but here I was feeling weak and defeated. This class did not seem like yoga to me. At least not the yoga I knew and loved. In my power vinyasa classes I indeed felt challenged, but the fact that I was able to move and breathe at my own pace made it easier. Also, in vinyasa I was in a judgment free zone, free from mirrors where I could pick apart my physique and bring awareness to my flaws. Plus, in my vinyasa practice the heat naturally rises, as it would in any room full of moving, breathing bodies. You still sweat with vinyasa, but you don't leave the room feeling like you need to chug a gallon of water.
I wanted to know more. Why would people want to practice yoga in this way? What were the benefits of subjecting your body to the extreme heat? What were the dangers? And more importantly, was it worth my going back?
I started doing my own research. Here is what I found out:
In terms of benefits there are actually a few things that hot yoga can offer that other forms of yoga can't (Please note--Any yoga practice can offer these benefits, but hot yoga can do quickly and to a greater degree.) Here is a list:
Detoxification - The excessive sweating cleanses the body by releasing toxins that build up over time.
Calorie burn-The average calorie burn for an hour of hot yoga is approximately 630, compared to the average of 445 calories per hour in a vinyasa class.
Increased flexibility-The heat makes muscles more pliable. I will use the silly puddy example-- if you put silly puddy in the fridge it will get hard and break when bent. Warm silly puddy will stretch easily. Muscles and connective tissue like the heat and will respond accordingly.
Weight loss-Hot yoga promotes faster weight loss. This is not only because of the number of calories burned, but also because of the amount of water weight you lose due to sweat. (Keep in mind-- it is just water weight though...It can be put back on just as easily as it came off.)
Great stuff, right?
Here are some of the dangers I have found as well:
Overstretching of muscles and ligaments-Because the tissues become more pliable in the heat there is a danger of pushing the body passed it's biological limit without realizing it. Major damage can be done to the joints if you are not careful and attentive to what your body is telling you. That is why Bikram's practice is often not recommended for beginners.
Dehydration-Because of all of the water loss during a hot yoga class it is very important to hydrate before and after you practice. Dehydration can lead to dizziness, headaches, nausea, increased heart rate, and increased respiration.
These are some pretty serious dangers, but with mindfulness one can navigate around them.
So... although my first experience did not go well, I did make it back to hot yoga. In fact, I have made an effort to integrate the hot practice into my weekly routine. I could never leave my beloved vinyasa behind, but I find the hot to be a nice addition to my regimen. I find the challenge exciting, and I look at it as a mental challenge even more so than a physical challenge. Self discipline is an important part of any yoga practice, and Bikram's style definitely promotes self discipline. I hate that I can't wipe the sweat from my face! But maybe that is exactly what I need... Joseph Campbell said: "Where you stumble, there lies your treasure."
Give it a try and decide for yourself. Use caution doing so, and you may discover something new and interesting.