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How to Start Meditating

November 2, 2012

If you’ve ever tried to sit in meditation, you know how the mind continues to churn despite the body being at rest. You may think, “I am meditating. Now what I am I having for dinner? Where did I put those socks? What should I wear tomorrow.” And on and on. This is the natural pattern of the brain: multitasking.

We multitask without even trying. It is the way our brain is trained to juggle all of the stimuli that come in at once in our modern lives. The Internet search, the TV show, the cell phone conversation, the crying children, the work that is still undone, the dinner in the oven. These things all come in at once, and we think we can handle them all at once. Unfortunately, studies show we can’t:

Multitasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time. Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors. {via Brain Rules}

Scientists estimate it takes the brain fifteen seconds to switch from one task to another. We are actually, then, less productive when we do more than one thing at a time. To become more productive – and ideally less stressed – we need to learn to calm the mind and focus on just one thing. If that sounds easy to you, you’ve never tried it!

Thankfully, teachers who have come before us have learned and passed on some techniques to help. These simple techniques make focus easier.

  1. Mantra – Repetition of a word or phrase can help the mind stay focused. Mantra does not have to be something like “Om,” though it is common. Repetition can be a phrase such as, “I Am,” or “I love you.” As long as the word is repeated continuously without a lapse in focus, the act is one of meditation. At first, you may need to repeat a mantra aloud to help. Eventually, it is best to repeat it in the mind.
  2. Fixed gaze – Yogis often gaze into a small flame while meditating. The dancing fire of a candle wick can help aid the focus.
  3. Counting – Simple as that. Count the breath in and out without ceasing.
  4. Guided meditation – Perhaps the best way to learn is with a guide. Trying a recorded CD will help you focus on the speaker’s voice. Julie Rader offers a CD and also several free online meditations:

The single most important thing for a beginner is repetition! The body is replacing an old pattern (multiminding) with a new pattern (single mindedness). The more often you practice the better, and it is best to practice the same meditation over and over until it becomes much easier. In fact, if you work the methods often in the beginning, you may find yourself able to meditate without the use of aids like Mantra in the future.

The goal of all yoga – and meditation is yoga – is to reach a place of liberation from the thought patterns that make us unhappy. While you are trapped in these patterns, exercises like asana (yoga poses) can help you find that happy place for an hour or so. Once you learn to meditate, you can find that happy place without the physical movement.

If you are truly interested in learning to meditate, Julie Rader will be hosting a “Learn to Meditate” workshop at The Green Yogi on November 10. Sign up here!


Yoga to Combat Osteoporosis

March 21, 2012


Two very surprising and seemingly mutually exclusive facts exist in the United States regarding bond health: one, we drink the third largest amount of milk in the entire world(1); two, we have the highest incidence of osteoporosis in the entire world(2). Did you grow up learning that milk was the key to growing strong bones? Was your doctor wrong?

Not necessarily. It is a long-held and proven fact that milk proteins help with bone growth. This is no mystery as milk comes from mammalian mothers who use it to grow their young at shockingly fast rates. The question of whether “milk does a body good,” though, starts to get a little fuzzier when it involves drinking the milk of another species of mammal. 

In his book, The Vegetarian Guide to Diet and Salad, Dr. Norman Walker explains it this way:

Cow’s milk is vastly more coarse than mother’s milk, and it contains 300% more casein than does mother’s milk.  Cow’s milk is intended to double the weight of the calf in 6 to 8 weeks, whereas a child’s body requires 6 to 7 months to double its weight.  Cow’s milk builds up the body structure of a calk to attain a weight of 1,000 to 2,000 lbs. at maturity.  We have yet failed to find a man or woman whose ambition is the attainment of even 250 or 300 lbs. in weight!

I’m not one to tell you whether or not to drink milk. It seems that some milk, especially at a young age, can be beneficial to bone development. However, the question that is more important is, “What ELSE should I be doing?” As seen in the US example, milk alone won’t make your bones strong. 

To start, you can live a more active lifestyle. In an article on bone mass, Yoga Journal quotes Krisna Raman, M.D., author of A Matter of Health, explaining yoga increases bone growth and “improves the absorption of calcium from the intestine and promotes its deposition on the bones.”

In that same article, the author continues to say:

“According to physician and yoga expert Mary Schatz, M.D., yoga can stimulate the bones to retain calcium, provided the body gets enough calcium in the first place. It does this through weight-bearing poses (like arm balances, inversions, and standing poses) that affect the whole spine, arms, shoulders, elbows, legs, knees, ankles, and feet, while encouraging full range of motion. B.K.S. Iyengar, master of yoga’s therapeutic applications, explains the benefits of yoga by means of what he calls its “squeezing and soaking” actions. He contends that through the process of squeezing out the old, stale blood or lymphatic fluids and soaking the area with fresh, oxygenated blood or fluids, yoga helps the body to utilize the nutrients it needs.”

The weight-bearing poses of yoga are designed to align and build the skeleton. In his book, The Key Muscles of Yoga, Ray Long presents beautiful illustrations showing how the bones are stressed and, resultantly, rebuilt in many yoga poses. This book is a great tool for any yoga teacher taking a therapeutic approach (and really for any yoga teacher in general! It is a key text book in the Mukti Yoga School Teacher Training Program.).

The issue of keeping bones healthy and strong without relying solely on milk is critical in the modern diet as more of us lean toward a vegetarian or vegan tendency. While milk is drank heavily in India – the world’s leader in milk consumption – where vegetarianism is prominent, the Hindu vegetarian diet is decidedly not vegan. In the US, leading health trends advocate a highly alkalizing diet where mucus forming foods, such as all dairy products, are avoided if not cut out entirely.

While I don’t advocate any one diet (3), I do feel it is important to rely on more than just diet to keep the body healthy and strong. After all, scientists change their opinion regularly on which foods are best for the body. One thing that has never changed, though, is the simple fact that exercise is good for you. And if you take it even further back, for an estimated 5,000 years, yogis have known asana does the most good for the human body. 

Yoga, it does your bones good!

(1) Business Week’s statistics on milk consumption:

India 45 million
European Union 33.6 million
United States 28.2 million
China 16 million
Russia 12.2 million

(2) from Business Week, “An estimated 10 million Americans have osteoporosis, as well as another 18 million who have low bone mass, or osteopenia, which may eventually lead to osteoporosis if not treated.”

(3) My teacher, Swami Satyananda, is famous for saying the diet you consume should depend on the type of yoga you do.

Yoga for Fertility, Pregnancy and Motherhood

March 19, 2012

Wendy J Yoga

There is something in the water … or coconut water … lately with the Mukti Yoga School teachers. Three of us took the exciting journey into motherhood in 2011. Two have delivered, and now I’m the last one awaiting that big day! Coincidentally or not, we all conceived boys. I don’t think the boy part has anything to do with yoga, but the pregnancy may. New studies show moderate exercise (specifically  yoga) can help increase fertility.

In an article on yoga and fertility from My Yoga Online, Liliana Galvis says, “Yoga is known to be a therapeutic exercise, aiming for balance between the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of a person. Anyone who practices yoga regularly knows the benefits it can bring to all these levels. Yoga aims to strengthen where weak, balance when ungrounded, and increasing flexibility where stiff and tense. The breathing, rhythmic movement and increased awareness creates unity where there was once fragmented. Asana can be applied therapeutically to specific parts of the body, including the glands, the digestive organs, the brain, and the uterus. Asana can effect the circulatory system, increasing the flow of blood to areas where oxygenation and nutrition are needed as well as better waste disposal. Organs that become sluggish from a lack of daily care, or from disease, genetics and just wear and tear can be attended to. Yoga is also an exercise for the inside as well as the outside.”

Linda Baffa YogaThis last part is the one that speaks to me most. By using yoga to balance the body’s natural rhythm – including ovulation and menstruation – a woman may become more fertile.

On a similar note, WebMD says it’s not vigorous exercise that does a woman’s body good when trying to conceive. In their article on the topic, the website states, “Moderate physical activity was found to benefit women of all body types in a new study examining the impact of exercise on fertility, while intense exercise appeared to increase the time to conception for normal weight, but not overweight, women. Normal-weight women in the study who said they exercised vigorously five or more hours a week were 42% less likely to get pregnant in any given month than women who did not exercise at all.”

So the doctors are saying to exercise lightly and come into tune with your body’s rhythms. As women continue to have babies at older ages, fertility is an issue more of us face. By learning to care for our bodies we can – ideally – increase our chance of conception.

Of course, there are nuanced elements of this as well. Ancient yogis believe specific poses were excellent for fertility, such as vajrasana. Many of my students have expressed their belief that learning to accept their bodies fully and let go of control has helped them get pregnant. Fertility is no exact science, but I can say one thing for sure: it seems yoga has made the Mukti staff very fertile! Congratulations to Wendy and Linda on the birth of their babies, Luca and Jones, and we’re much looking forward to adding a third baby boy to the fold this summer!

Not only is yoga potentially good for fertility, it has been shown to make the labor process easier. Yoga loosens fascia – connective tissue – creating a more flexible body. Certain poses, such as the yogi squat malasana, may also be used as birthing positions. Yoga during pregnancy can help alleviate some of the typical aches and pains such as sciatica and lower back pain. Mukti’s resident Doula, Chelsea Welch, explains, “Your experience of being pregnant and giving birth will involve great physical and emotional changes, and knowing how to use and adapt yoga techniques to breathe, move, and relax during this time will help you to lay deep foundations for decades of mothering.”

Bottom line: whether you are trying to get pregnant, are pregnant or just had a baby, yoga can’t do you wrong!

{Wendy has posted a prenatal class to YouTube for you to try.}

{Chelsea is offering a Mommy & Me class at The Green Yogi in Manhattan Beach this March.}

Mind-Body-Video Games?

September 14, 2011

My husband, who is in the video game industry, will be happy to hear about this new release from Deepak Chopra. Not another Seven Spiritual Laws book but, in a surprising announcement, a video game to enhance the mind-body connection.

Chopra has long been an advocate of using inner awareness to heal the soul and, ideally, the world. In an interview with CNN about his most recent endeavor, Chopra says, “I wanted to explore how you can use games to not only have a good time, but to increase that experience of flow and actually maximize your physical and mental capacity.”

The game will come out in November for the Nintendo Wii and Xbox 360. It will be titled Leela, the sanskrit word for “Play.” You can watch the trailer below. I’m pretty excited, how about you? Would you buy it?


10 Tips for Yoga on the Beach

August 29, 2011

If you take your practice to my FAVORITE studio … the beach … try these tips to stay safe and enjoy yourself:

  1. Bring a towel or blanket, not a mat. Your mat will not stay in place! It’s best to take a large towel or blanket so you don’t have to worry about whether you creep off center.
  2. Wear sunscreen and sunglasses. Find some sunglasses that can stay on comfortably when you’re moving between poses and upside down.
  3. Ditch your iPod. Use the sounds of the ocean as your background. Allow the rolling of the waves to remind you of your own rolling breath. The yogi breath, ujjayi breath, is often called the oceanic breath!
  4. Protect your wrists by avoiding too many poses on your hands. My video below describes some simple tips for keeping your wrists safe on the beach.
  5. Avoid too much flow. It is hard to keep your towel even and sand out of your clothes (or eyes) if you’re moving quickly. Aim for more grounding poses and not too many vinyasas.
  6. Use balancing poses. The sand will challenge the fast twitch muscles in your ankles and legs. If you can balance on the sand, you can balance anywhere!
  7. Try inverting. The sand is the most forgiving place to fall over. It can help you conquer your fears of flipping upside down, and you may just find yourself venturing into headstand next time you’re in the studio!
  8. Make room for meditation. If you have a hard time meditating indoors, you may find the fresh beach air helps you remain still and calm without feeling stifled. Leave time for a mid-length (5 or 10 minute) meditation before savasana.
  9. Bring a jacket or blanket. If you live in California, like I do, you will need a blanket for savasana even in the midst of summer. If you are in a warmer climate, you may be able to skip this step.
  10. Hydrate! The beach is actually a dehydrating place to practice due to the exposure to sun, wind and dry air. Always bring a water or coconut water with you to immediately hydrate after your practice.

Teaching Yoga Inversions

August 19, 2011

Inverting is the word used for any position where the head is below the heart. Most of us think of headstand, handstand or one of these more advanced asanas when we hear “inversions,” but there are a number of approachable inversions that can (and should!) be taught to an all levels class or a beginner. Here are some tips and ideas for teaching inversions in a beginner class:

  • Explain the benefits of inverting. Many students will look at these poses and think, “Eh, not for me!” Tell them why these poses are important. Benefits include:
    – Improved circulation
    – Improved cardiovascular function
    – Draining stagnant blood and fluid from the legs
    – Improved gland function
    – Reduction of headache pain
    – Reduction of back pain
    – Anti-aging
  • Let your students know there are a number of modifications and kramas (steps) in each inversion. They can find the position that is right for them on any given day. For example, when teaching headstand, offer clown pose (pictured below) as an option. When teaching pincha mayurasana, offer dolphin pose as an option. Use the wall when available, and make use of props.
  • Clown Pose
  • I find it helpful to demonstrate or have another yogi demonstrate an inversion before offering it to the class. Showing them how easy it really is to get into the pose can make them more comfortable trying it out.
You may also introduce inversions in a restorative way to help get your yogis comfortable being upside down. I love this cheat sheet of inversions you can try even in a yin class:
Yoga Inversions

Yoga for Cycling

August 5, 2011

Yoga for CyclingI am thrilled to be working with the US Pro Cycling team today. As a lifelong athlete and sports fanatic, I love witnessing other athletes discover the power of yoga to tap into their greatest potential. Yoga works on two levels for an athlete: first, it helps restore and balance the body by undoing the damage of repetitive motion inherent in any sport; second, it helps an athlete tap into “the zone” mentally.

Today, as I work with the cycling team, we’ll primarily focus on the first issue. Cycling is a highly repetitive motion. Think about it – the entire time you are on the bike, your body is in one position, with your knees bent, hips repeatedly flexing to pull the pedals up and push them down.

Here, “flexing” describes the action of shortening a muscle or joint angle. This image shows the primary muscles involved, most notably the psoas and the iliacus (commonly known as the hip flexor).

Hip MusclesWhen you cycle, these muscles are constantly in a “flexed” position. They are never “extended,” meaning they never stretch the opposite direction for more than 90 degrees. What do you think happens to a muscle that is always flexed and never extended?

It shortens. In cyclists, “tight” hips is a common problem. In fact, the motion can lead to tendonitis of the hip or even a stress fracture.We’ll work on stretching out the muscles of the hip to undo the damage of repetitive motion. Here are some of my favorite hip stretches in yoga:

Lizard Pose

Lizard Pose - Hold 3-5 minutes

Dragon Pose

Dragon Pose - Hold for 3-5 minutes

It is also a good idea for a cyclist to stretch the quads with a pose like vajrasana, gluteus minimus (upper butt/outer hip) with pigeon or gomukasana, and lower abdominals with bridge or wheel pose. In each pose, the cyclist is re-lengthening the muscles that have been shortened by repetitive motion.

Another great tip is for the cyclist to choose exercises that extend the hips on days off. For example, running or using an elliptical machine would not be a good choice since they also flex the hip. I’m partial of course, but I would recommend a yoga class on off days for any cyclist looking to conquer chronic pain in the hips or upper legs.

Before and after a day of cycling, you may not have the time to dedicate to fully stretching. Try this: every morning, perform classical sun salutations. These are designed to fully extend the whole body in a quick stretch. Try doing 3-5 rounds. Here’s a video to help:

If you are interested in learning more about addressing sports injuries with yoga, look into my Yoga for Athletes program this September!