To be honest, getting motivated to do anything is a little hard right now, let alone make great transformations. Sometimes I just want the end result – to be able to hold a perfect handstand, to lose a little weight around the middle, to have sustainable energy and less ups and downs in life. But when I try to create change in my body and mind, those goals may not be enough to keep me motivated towards progressing. That’s why I invite you to ask yourself: Why?
What is your WHY? Why do you (want to) practice yoga?
Some of us are seeking to transform, improve or maintain our overall health and wellbeing. We’re looking for better balance, better posture, less pain in our joints, stronger bones, less stress, more energy, more focus, better sleep, to stay independent – to be able to take a walk without fear of falling. But behind those worthy goals lies another reason, the reason that will motivate you and keep you progressing, keep you in touch with who you are in this moment. Continue to ask WHY until you have that core reason, until you find your deeper WHY.
Finding your Core Why Exercise (example):
Why do you (want to) practice yoga? Because I want to improve my balance.
WHY do you want better balance? So I can take a walk by myself without fear of falling.
WHY do you want to take a walk by yourself? Because I want to enjoy the life I have.
Turn Your Why into an Intention
From there, turn your “Why” into a positive, present tense phrase that you can easily repeat to yourself internally.
For example, “I can enjoy the life I have.”
This is your intention. When we repeat intentions internally, we can actually repattern ourselves from within, cognitively. And it works as a motivator, when we’re practicing yoga, to remember why we’re there. More on Finding Your Intention.
Once you find your real why, it can literally help you get up in the morning and onto the mat! What’s your WHY?
Not sure? That’s okay! Practice Ujjayi Breath to hear the sound of a thousand fans cheering for you! Here’s another exercise that can help you channel your focus, and keep you motivated as you move.
Favorite Sweet Treat: Almost any kind of chocolate!
Years Practicing: 2
Most Challenging Pose: Boat Pose
Deb started her yoga practice two years ago somewhat reluctantly, by following up on a friend’s invitation to a group yoga session. While Deb wasn’t convinced that yoga was for her after that first class, I remember meeting her then and seeing her strength and stamina right out of the gate. Plus she gave me a bear hug, back when hugs were a thing. She returned to more group yoga classes, with the hope that yoga could help her get stronger, as well as improving her flexibility and balance. Her consistency over a period of time started to have noticeable results, starting with improved flexibility which has helped her while working in the garden.
“I have noticed greater stability through my core and hip muscles which has improved my balance, particularly on uneven surfaces.
Overall I have felt more energized and I have learned ways to bring ‘calm’ to my day through some breathing techniques and guided meditation.”
Yoga is Essential
“Up until just a few months ago, I was content to take the weekly group classes (in person and then through Zoom) and perhaps practice on my own during the week but most times not. Then a medical incident occurred that impacted my balance. It caused me to reflect on the fragility of independence and how life could potentially change drastically for me as well as my partner if allowed to persist or worsen.”
As part of her journey back to a state of health and independence, Deb expanded her “wellness team” to include me, and committed to private one-on-one sessions together. We created a practice plan to address Deb’s challenges and goals. I introduced some new tools for her yoga toolbox: restorative and yin postures, breathing exercises, and yoga nidra. I tailored her asana practice to take into account her medical challenges, with her doctor’s approval.
“Two years ago when I attended my first ‘try it on for size’ session, I certainly did not think that it would be on my list of essential elements for living a healthy, balanced life; but it is. And while I admit I still am not a person who rolls out her mat every day to practice, I believe aspects of my practice are present as I go about my daily routines. And that is a satisfying feeling.”
Air hugs, Deb. It’s an honor to be a member of your Wellness Team!
Many of us have had to be even more flexible and creative over these past few months as we schedule for our own self-care. To help you stay focused on your overall well-being, we have created a series of 30-minute express classes, which can be accessed through our video uploads page:
This week’s featured session is our Men’s Yoga: Foundations Express Class. In this 30-minute sequence, Brian focuses on building strength and flexibility in the deep core muscles of the abdomen, back and hips…those parts of us that help us to move safely and efficiently through our daily routines. No experience necessary, just an open mind and desire to improve your everyday posture and movement patterns. And better yet, if you like it, you can check out Brian’s hour-long Foundations class every Sunday at 11:00AM!
I recently came across a social media post by a local hot yoga studio exclaiming that we should have “no limits” when it comes to yoga. To be fair, the quote was “all limits are self-imposed,” and then someone commented that “no limit is the limit,” to which the studio owner replied “yes!”
It got me thinking about this attitude I’ve come across before; one that encourages yoga students to push themselves beyond their limits. I respect your choice to challenge yourself, but when you are teaching others to potentially hurt themselves, it becomes bullying. It goes against the very first moral observance of non-violence, or Ahimsa.
Entitled to my own opinion and interpretation, I believe that the “no limits” attitude in the world of yoga creates an ego-driven and competitive environment where people are encouraged to hurt themselves in the name of self improvement.
I choose to think of limits as grounding. Setting a boundary can be a form of self-compassion. We are human, after all. My personal yoga practice changes from day to day based on what my body and mind tell me. I don’t come to the mat and push myself in a pose that requires a deep hamstring stretch if I tweaked my hamstring the day before. I can continue to progress in other ways instead, because guess what? I want to do yoga for the rest of my life!
Anyone who has ever had an injury and adapted their yoga practice or exercise routine around it, knows – this is where you learn so much about yourself, your ego. This is where you develop self-compassion and can strive to take better care of yourself to heal and then thrive again with a fresh perspective. The injury is a limitation that teaches you to do something different. You become internally stronger by listening, modifying, and taking the best care of yourself so that you can continue to progress another day.
The pandemic world we are living in right now, where we need masks to go grocery shopping, are distanced from friends and family, and our careers have been put on hold: this is a limit. It’s a container that holds us and teaches us to do something different, to pivot and redirect our progression as human beings – which might include resting for a bit if we need it.
To the many people who are turning to yoga for the first time, or deepening their yoga practices during this unprecedented age: explore your inner landscape safely. Be grounded by, but not defined by, your limits. And work towards challenging your limits, safely.
Santosha, or contentment, is one of the five niyamas or personal observances that we vow to explore in yoga. I think the idea is to practice being content with whatever you’re experiencing in any given moment.
Practicing contentment doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with being unhappy; instead we are invited to train in being content with our unhappiness. That might go something like this:
Recognize that it’s a turbulence that will eventually pass.
Perhaps even develop some gratitude towards our ability to feel so much.
Look at that emotion like it’s an old friend who’s stopped by for lunch.
You already have everything you need.
It’s said that our basic nature as human beings is joyful; that we are happy without even trying to be. I recently learned that as babies, we are born breathing naturally into our bellies; taking deep breaths that utilize our full lung capacity. As adults, we get so disconnected from our bodies, so stuck in our minds, that we develop a tendency towards chest breathing, and must relearn full belly breathing, which can help reset the nervous system and manage stress. (But that’s a blog post for another time.) How do we get so far away from our natural state of being, from being able to take a deep breath?
Get off the rollercoaster of liking and disliking everything.
As we grow up and have our vast and quotidian experiences, we learn to ascribe value to everything. We categorize everything, and naturally move towards the things we like and away from the things we don’t. We make split second judgments based on our layers of experience, our culture, our upbringing. Everything we come into contact with throughout our entire day might get put into some kind of category!
Like / Dislike
Friend / Enemy
Feels Good / Hurts
Pretty / Ugly
How can we possibly be content in this digital age? While it is worthwhile on many levels, I believe social media breeds so much discontent and snap judgment. Is it a thumbs up, or a thumbs down? From our brave digital distance it’s also easier to express the flames of hatred…and even our own president does it!
We get caught in a loop of holding on to what we think is good, and we only tell the stories that sing our perfections. We avoid what we think is bad, choose to omit narratives that might bring shame. In all that grasping for the good and rejecting of the bad, we lose our clarity. We lose equanimity. We lose contentment. We forget how to breathe.
Not all monkeys bite.
Weird story: I got bitten by a monkey when I was little, and not only was it physically painful but I got into some trouble for wandering into the yard of the stranger who owned the monkey. (I was raised with a parenting style known as benign neglect, popular in the 1970s.) Now I’m kind of afraid of monkeys, and in particular, sharp little monkey teeth. When I go to the zoo or see monkeys on tv, I have a bit of a reaction. Not a big fan. I’m looking through the lens of my painful memory and putting monkeys into the category of “dislike” or “avoid at all costs.” Which makes sense, like it’s rational to avoid putting your hand into a fire because you will get burned. The process of distilling everything into categories gets dangerous, though, because it leads to the rollercoaster of needing to satisfy our likes and dislikes all the time. We might miss out on the possibility that not all monkeys are going to bite, and maybe some are actually cute. There are other more painful stories I can’t really share here, so the monkey story will have to do.
It is what it is.
When I worked in television, I must have heard that sentence a million times, “It is what it is.” It used to drive me crazy! It seemed to me a copout for not trying harder to make things right. But maybe, in fact, it was the ultimate santosha.
Acceptance of our present moment is one way to get off of the rollercoaster of liking and disliking. In our search for happiness, we ignore the possibility that happiness is already happening right here and right now. We also presuppose it will come from outside of ourselves. If we aim to practice santosha, we must stop seeking it and rest in the moment, whatever it brings. Even if it’s monkeys.
“Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”
Age: 71 (she adds, “old enough to know better and young enough to do it anyway!”)
Sun Sign: Aries
Pets: Two long-haired black cats, Amos and Pinkerton
Favorite Sweet Treat: anything chocolate
One thing I’ve noticed about Judy since I met her in 2016 (besides her lovely posture!) is her ability to open herself up to whatever she’s experiencing, and I can tell she’s really listening inward during class. She has been a fixture in my group classes since then, adding her special brand of graceful goodwill and lightheartedness.
Judy’s been practicing on and off since 1998, but in 2000, she needed spine surgery in her neck to repair a serious bone spur that was interfering with her range of motion and causing numbness down her arm. They took the discs out of C6+C7 and replaced them with bone from her left hip. While she suffers from arthritis throughout most of her joints, Judy has learned that she feels much better if she keeps moving.
Currently, she practices yoga about 2-3 hours each week, which has also helped strengthen her bones as we reported earlier this year. (Her improved Dexa Scan scores contributed to the blogpost I wrote on Yoga for Stronger Bones.) In fact, I blame Judy and another student for getting me interested in yoga for osteoporosis, and I’m only at the beginning of that journey, so thank you…
Judy came to my house for a special one-on-one session – or an osteocyte party as I like to say! Osteocytes are important building blocks of bone synthesis, but we need to practice the right poses with proper alignment and work hard within the pose (hold for at least 30 seconds, for one!) in order to put enough stress on the bone to get that bone-building party started. She even got into an Extended Side Angle Pose, great for stimulating the femurs and spinal vertebrae – the areas where Judy has thinning bone.
With her weak ankles and neuropathy in her feet, Judy’s toughest challenge is balancing poses like Tree. “Balance is hard for me, and it makes me feel less successful, though it does get somewhat easier with practice!”
Because of Judy’s regular yoga practice, she experiences less arthritis pain, stronger bones, and feels more centered in her daily life. Yoga class provides her with a social connection with like-minded people. I’m so grateful to have Judy’s beaming smile in my classes, along with her humor and present-moment insight into her own practice. I hope she will consider the yoga dose response study with Dr. Fishman and keep those BMD scores improving!
Living to be over 100 isn’t uncommon at all in regions known as the blue zones. In these areas, life expectancy isn’t just higher; centenarians are generally also healthy in mind and body. Author Dan Buettner teamed up with a team from National Geographic to study these groups, and whittled their longevity down to 9 common denominators. We found their recipe for wellness extremely interesting and wanted to share it with you.
As yoga and mindfulness teachers, our own blueprint for wellness always needs refining and fine-tuning. Whether we have time for a long yoga practice or a 5-minute mindfulness meditation, there is one daily constant, and that’s our high-energy dog, Lucy. She crosses a few things off the wellness list – she’s the reason we get up in the morning, she helps relieves stress (she loves snuggles,) and keeps us moving!
1. Move NaturallyThe world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.
What do you do to move naturally and stay active? How can you bring more natural movement into your everyday routine?
2. PurposeThe Okinawans call it “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida;” for both it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy A reason for being.” The word “ikigai” is usually used to indicate the source of value in one’s life or the things that make one’s life worthwhile.
What inspires you to get out of bed in the morning, what makes your life worth living, or gives your life value? Would you like to find more meaning in your life?
3. Manage Your Stress / Down ShiftEven people in the Blue Zones experience stress. Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t are routines to shed that stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.
What do you do to actively manage your stress? Can you add a few new stress-relieving habits like yoga or meditation to your list?
4. 80% Rule“Hara hachi bu” – the Okinawan, 2500-year old Confucian mantra said before meals reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it. People in the blue zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day.
When do you eat your biggest meal? Do you continue to eat until you are past full? Can you be more mindful of your hunger levels at the next meal?
5. Plant SlantBeans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat—mostly pork—is eaten on average only five times per month. Serving sizes are 3-4 oz., about the size of a deck of cards.
How often do you eat meat, and how big of a portion size do you put on your plate? Can you substitute beans at your next meal?
6. Wine @ 5People in all blue zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. The trick is to drink 1-2 glasses per day (preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine), with friends and/or with food. And no, you can’t save up all week and have 14 drinks on Saturday.
Are you able to drink moderately? We cannot condone drinking, as many Americans have a problem relationship with alcohol, but if you are able to enjoy a glass of wine without any negative consequences, cheers!
7. Belong / CommunityAll but five of the 263 centenarians we interviewed belonged to some faith-based community. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy.
Have you found a community where you feel you belong? If you have, can you reach out to someone who seems like they might need help finding theirs? If you haven’t, make a list of possibilities.
8. Loved Ones First/Family Successful centenarians in the blue zones put their families first. This means keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home (It lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home too.). They commit to a life partner (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love (They’ll be more likely to care for you when the time comes).
Can you create more quality time with your family? Can you commit more fully to your life partner if you have one?
9. Right Tribe / Social LifeThe world’s longest lived people chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviors, Okinawans created ”moais”–groups of five friends that committed to each other for life. Research from the Framingham Studies shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. So the social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.
Can you set up a phone call or lunch date with a friend this week? Even casual social relationships are important when it comes to longevity. Who is on your best friend list?
We are all our own best teachers, of course. What works for someone in Okinawa might not work for you. So listen to your own mind and body as you reach for new ways to be your best self. We continue to wish you health and well-being, and all the vitality you desire!
We feel really strongly that yoga is for everybody, and yet the images of people doing yoga don’t tend to represent our own bodies or those we teach. So we decided to start a new blog series highlighting our own students, in an effort to shine light on regular people doing yoga and what that might look like. Plus, we wanted to learn more about our wonderful students outside of the classroom! Our first spotlight is on Carol, who was kind enough to come into our home so that we could get to know her a little better. Carol is so motivated and consistent in her practice, she inspires all of us to show up!
C is for Carol and Consistency
How Long Practicing Yoga: 4 years consistently, 20 years sporadically
Favorite Pose: So many feel good!
Most Challenging Pose: Boat Pose
Sun Sign: Pisces
Pets: 2 cats, Diva and Misty
Favorite Sweet Treat: Dried Fruit
I first met Carol L. in the fall of 2017 while teaching a Hatha Yoga series run by the Wallingford-Swarthmore Community Classes organization. Since then, she has attended roughly 115 yoga classes with me and a few workshops!!
“Compared to most other exercises, yoga is the best for allowing you to move at your own pace and accepting your limitations. It gives the best benefits without stressing joints and muscles. And it helps with self acceptance.”
Carol gets to the mat about 5 hours a week and on top of that, logs a lot of miles on her treadmill for cardio.
“Yoga just makes me happy. Even thinking about doing yoga makes me happy. I’m more flexible, stronger and my balance has improved. I also have reduced much of my stiffness and back pain. I experience sciatica much less often, and when it does come on, it lasts a much shorter time. My balance has improved.
See you soon on the mat, Carol! Stay tuned for more Student Spotlights!
Yoga practiced on a regular basis could help strengthen your bones! Certain poses including Warrior II, Triangle, and Tree are considered weight-bearing exercise, often recommended along with a healthy diet for optimal bone health.
“Yoga puts more pressure on bone than gravity does. By opposing one group of muscles against another, it stimulates osteocytes, the bone-making cells.”
Recently, I’ve had several students approach me after yoga class to talk about their bones. “I just got the results from my most recent DEXA scan, and there’s been an improvement in my bone mineral density score in my spine!” says one 73-year old student who started practicing yoga consistently about two years ago in my classes. Another student, who just turned 70, reported a similar result on her latest scan. Both were kind enough to share their results with me, pictured below.
The DEXA or DXA scan is today’s established standard for measuring bone mineral density, and helps to estimate the density of your bones and your chance of breaking a bone. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, “a bone density test is the only test that can diagnose osteoporosis before a broken bone occurs.” If you’ve got osteopenia or osteoporosis, it’s reflected in the numbers.
In fact, more than 200 million people suffer from osteoporosis. Worldwide, 1 in 3 women over the age of 50 and 1 in 5 men will experience osteoporotic fractures in their lifetime.
We reach peak bone density by our late twenties, and then it’s maintained by a continuous process called remodeling, in which old bone is removed and new bone is created. The renewal of bone is responsible for bone strength throughout life. Certain factors like age, genetics, lack of exercise and poor diet can slow down bone renewal, and then our bones might thin to such a degree that we develop osteopenia or osteoporosis. Happily, there are lifestyle changes you can make to maintain and build bone density.
Of course we’d love to attribute the slight improvement in our yoga students’ bone mineral density scores to the practice of yoga. The only real change they’ve made has been adding a regular yoga practice, and neither of them are on medication. So just how effective is a regular yoga practice for building stronger bones?
According to one study, “there is qualitative evidence suggesting improved bone quality as a result of the practice of yoga.”
The study is pretty much the only one of its kind, and its revelations are being touted in Harvard Health and The New York Times. Researchers prescribed 12 yoga postures held for 30 seconds each, practiced on a daily basis by 221 participants. They measured bone density at the beginning and end of the study, and concluded that yoga “actually builds bone significantly in the spine and the femur, the two most frequent sites of fracture.” You can find out more on Dr. Fishman’s site, Sciatica.org.
The 12 yoga poses included in the study:
Triangle (Uttitha Trikonasana)
Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II
Extended Side Angle (Parsvakonasana)
Reverse Triangle (Parivrtta Trikonasana)
Bridge (Setu Bandhasana)
Supine hand-to-foot I (Supta Padangusthasana I)
Supine hand-to-foot II (Supta Padangusthasana II)
Straight-legged twist (Marichyasana II)
Bent-knee twist (Matsyendrasana)
We do most of these poses in our classes on a very regular basis, as they were covered extensively in our 250-hour teacher training certification. It’s been eye-opening to learn that not all yoga poses are good for someone with bone loss issues, and could actually increase risk for a vertebral fracture – as in poses with extreme spinal flexion (as in, forward folds.) Yoga should be practiced under the guidance of an experienced teacher who provides safe alternatives to classic poses, with an emphasis on proper alignment.
I’m so excited for my students who have committed to a regular practice and seen some heartening benefits show up in the very fabric of their bones! They continue to do the work, and it’s wonderful to witness firsthand what could be part of a relatively low cost and low risk answer to maintaining strong healthy bones and avoiding broken ones. Yoga also comes with some pretty great “side effects,” such as better balance, improved posture and strength, and reduced levels of anxiety. Hope to see you and your beautiful bones on the mat soon!
For best bone health, Harvard Health recommends:
eating foods rich in calcium, such as low fat dairy products, sardines, salmon, green leafy vegetables and calcium-fortified foods and beverages.
getting more vitamin D from the sun or a supplement
doing weight-bearing exercise every day
not drinking too much alcohol
Note: if you are under 30, building bone so that your peak bone density score is as good as it can be could help you tremendously later in life! All of the above recommendations apply to those who are still building bone density.