Monthly Archives: January 2013

yoga hygiene: a response

Today my studio published a guest post from Yoga Peach on how to maintain good hygiene when practicing hot yoga. When you are practicing hot yoga on a regular basis, having a good hygiene routine is a must. Having a daily practice can easily result in the accumulation of heaps of sweat-soaked yoga clothes, towels, and mats. When left wadded up in a car or in the bottom of a laundry basket, a real bacteria and odor problem can result.

I’d like to add a few points to the topic, and maybe even contest a few points made in Yoga Peach’s post.

1. You’ve Got Some Time
First, bad body odor is a result of bacteria growth. That means if you are clean and if your clothes are clean, you will not develop a bad odor during class, or in the hour or so after class. That means you *can* stop by the store for a quick coconut water purchase because, if you were clean to begin with, you probably won’t start to develop an odor until you’ve “sat in it for awhile,” which is not something I advocate…especially if you want to maintain a long-term yoga practice, friends, and loved ones.

2. Women Can Be More Sensitive to Odor
It seems that men tend to be less sensitive to odor than women. While I’m sure that I could link to quick research that supports my claim, I’ll just use this anecdote: my appliance repair guy recently told me that women are far more likely than men are to smell a gas leak in the house or an extinguished pilot light. The take away is that men who practice hot yoga need to be that much more diligent about cleanliness because what goes unnoticed by the man might be distractingly strong to the woman practicing next to him.

3. Launder Your Mat
Cleaning the mat is a must. In addition to wiping down the mat with your studio’s cleaning solutions, vinegar water, and/or other natural cleansers, did you know that most yoga mats can also be laundered in the washing machine? It’s true! Using a washing machine can be a great way to more thoroughly clean your yoga mat. (Disclaimer: You’ll want to double check the specs of your mat and your washing machine before proceeding.) This practice can reduce the overall lifespan of a mat, so it’s not a good option for daily cleaning. It’s more of a “once in a while” type of thing. I learned this “washing machine” tip from a fellow yogi who also laundered new mats to get rid of the slick, plastic film that some “sticky” mats have when they are brand new. If you use the washing machine, remember that you should let your mat dry completely before using it again. Because mats are made of varying degrees of thickness and materials, they usually take much longer to dry than lightweight towels. Plan accordingly.

4. Follow a Routine
I’m doing a 30-day Bikram challenge right now, so keeping up with hygiene is an essential daily practice. When I leave yoga, I follow a strict routine. I live very close to my studio, so I usually drive home and shower there. I immediately launder my towel and clothes and hang my mat to dry. If I cannot launder the clothes immediately, I hang them to dry. This is a daily (and somewhat time consuming) practice. However, if I do not practice this ritual, the various fabrics will develop an odor. It’s gross, I know, but it’s the reality of hot yoga.

a moving meditation

Today is one of those days where the 30-day challenge will be hardest. We had a major snowstorm last night and this morning, and so I had to wake up crazy early and drive really slow for tens of miles. I’ll be conferencing with students all morning, which is intense and exhausting (but pedagogically worth it!), and in meetings all afternoon. I’ll get home late and that means I’ll attend Bikram late this evening.

That said, I’ve been surprised by how doable these long days have been. Before the 30-day challenge, I would’ve never considered attending classes on days like these. Because of the 30-day challenge, I now know that it is possible. I have been fortunate in that I have not had a super busy schedule since I began the challenge, so this will be my toughest, longest day yet. I’ve noticed that on days like these, I’m better able to do the “moving meditation.” I’m tired, and so my brain is less distracted. I’m able to move through the poses without all of the unnecessary commentary from my brain. It’s quite enjoyable.

“you’ve got to feel it to heal it”

I’m the kind of person who is pretty sure that every benefit and change that yoga offers can be backed up by good science. Here’s the thing: science is not really the “drive behind my kick” so to speak. I am generally more interested in what yoga philosophy has to say about various poses, including a pose called ustrasana, or camel pose.

Most people experience strong sensations in ustrasana. Here is an list of just some of the physical experiences I have while in the pose: nausea, numbness, nerve pain, surges of energy, dizziness, emotions (including tears welling up, though not from pain), lower back pain, constricted breathing, muscle fatigue, and deep stretching.

flickr image by odysseyfx

Although it may not look particularly challenging, it’s an intense pose. In Western culture, we spend a lot of time hunched and rounding forward: at our desks, at the computer, as we drive, watching tv on the couch, etc. So, at first, it can feel really foreign to open up the chest in this way. Most of us are really unaccustomed to doing it.

Backbends are supposed to be the “healers of the spine.” By practicing regular backbends, we keep our spine flexible and in turn, help lubricate and stimulate the myelin sheath, which leads to better nerve function and that leads to better overall health and good feelings in the body. The pose also helps to builds core strength and stretches the front body and hip flexors, which get tighter as we age and as we sit in front of computers all day. Although the pose is intense and can make you want to hold your breath, once you start breathing in the pose, the lungs and chest are open and optimal for really deep breathing, which, in turn, helps send fresh, oxygenated blood throughout the body.

According to yoga tradition, part of the physical reaction to the pose has to do with opening up the  fourth chakra, which is the heart chakra. In theory, we hunch forward to protect our emotions. When we open up that chakra, intense energy flows through the chakra and helps release emotional energy that, for whatever reason, we weren’t able to release when we first experienced the emotion. If energy flows through the body all the way from the root chakra to the crown chakra, then it is possible for energy to get stuck at a chakra and thus effect the energy flow through the rest of the body. A regular yoga practice, including ustrasana for the heart chakra, can help these energy centers to become and remain balanced for optimal physical, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional health. That’s according to yoga philosophy, but chakras are also physically connected with nerve bundles in the body, and so the metaphor works on several levels.

Recently, one of the Bikram teachers said, “You’ve got to feel it to heal it” during class. It’s one of those things that you might hear many times in class before it really resonates. The idea that “you’ve got to feel it to heal it” works for physical injures. For example, I overstretched my hamstring a few months ago. In order to heal it quickly, I was attentive to it. I had to move, walk, and gently stretch it in yoga. I am certain that this extra care helped the injury to heal quickly. But, I had to go to the sensation; I had to feel the injury in order to heal it. I am convinced that sitting on the couch and ignoring an injury and never doing anything that might pull, stretch, or otherwise remind us that we had an injury in the first place, only slows the healing process.

The adage also works in an emotional sense. When I am deep in ustrasana, emotions well up and other physical reactions happen that seem to emanate from my chest. In a traditional yogic sense, it would seem that I have to feel those emotional sensations in order to work through them and release them from my body. Old disagreements and confusing situations also come to mind during the pose. It’s clear to me that this is my mind and body’s way of letting me know that, although I might think it is long gone, I’m still physically and emotionally working through the problem. And yoga is the catalyst for helping me feel the things that I need to heal.

When Women Were Birds by TTW

When Women Were Birds, the latest book from Terry Tempest Williams (TTW), is a wonderful, painful, poetic, and intensely personal meditation on Williams’ life: her femininity, her spirituality, her relationship with her mother, and more. Her work resonates with me because, like TTW, my family has been affected by cancer–cancer that was likely caused by exposure to radiation. “Clan of the One-Breasted Women” was the first beautiful thing I’d ever read that spoke directly to that experience.

Grandma on her wedding day

My own grandmother died after a painful, decade-long battle with cancer at the age of 54. I gasped as I read that TTW’s mother also died of cancer at 54–an age that becomes painfully young the older I get. My grandmother’s youngest sister was also afflicted with cancer and did not survive childhood. Her siblings, who lived to adulthood, got cancer too. The doctor said the type of cancer indicated that the kids “must have gotten into something.” Indeed, they lived along a river in Northeast Oregon, with an air stream that carried plutonium from Hanford, Washington. Though it was over 100 miles away, the pollution seeped into the atmosphere and even caused green snow one winter. Locals were unaware of it’s toxic nature.

Williams reminds us that silence and secrecy have long plagued the female experience. But within a family, women also navigate the most beautiful and painful experiences together: the loneliness and intimacy of marriage, the pain and power of childbirth, the joy of children, the suffering of disease; death. TTW navigates this territory with raw honesty and vulnerability. In addition to her connection to the women in her family, she reveals her own unique path, her own choices.

Like Williams, I have often felt that I have very few role models. I am a woman who has chosen a somewhat unconventional life. I tend to give less energy to relationships (although, at times, my love for Z has been completely consuming), and I currently have no children. I have not always understood my path, but it is one that has clearly deviated from my peers. My friends from high school have careers, yes, but they have also invested their energy profoundly into their husbands and their children in ways that I have not.

My nearest role models are women in my field, colleagues and former teachers. Even still, I’ve yet to meet one whose relationship to her partner and to her children, or lack thereof, has really reflected my own choices and relationships. This is a theme that TTW explores in When Women Were Birds. In the early years of her marriage, her inclination not to have children (at least not right away) made her different from her peers. And yet, like me, she does not seem to reject or disidentify with her femininity or her capacity and potential as a mother.

In a world where these stories seem too few and far between, her admissions are brave. It is this bravery that allows her to share her fear in enduring a hemangioma in her brain. For a writer, a woman whose world is in her thoughts and creativity, I cannot imagine the trauma, fear, and doubt involved in recovering from such an injury. But she does recover–though changed, perhaps–and the eloquence and insight in her book is a testament to that.

I first discovered TTW sometime during my undergraduate degree. I was struck by the accuracy with which she addressed the themes that most interested me in my own life. She feels like a kindred spirit, and I think that’s the sign of a great artist: she shares her secrets with the reader, and the reader has the same secrets, and then everyone is united in realizing how much we are the same.

After finishing the book, I remembered a bird feeder that was still boxed up in the basement from my recent move. I brought it upstairs, dusted it off, and filled it with fresh sunflower seeds. It now hangs on my front porch, waiting for birds.

the half way point

This weekend Z and I passed the half way point on our 30-day Bikram challenge. To celebrate, we both had a few really strong practices in a row. At the half way point, I feel strong, balanced, and have reached new territory with my stretching.

Lately, I’ve been working on switching my grip to the non-dominant hand half of the time. There are a few poses where switching the grip is easy for me, and I’ve done it for months, including standing deep breathing. After the sit-ups, I’m also pretty good at alternating the side that I turn to. With poses that are extremely challenging for me, like standing head to knee, switching the grip is not something I’m usually able to think about. In those poses, getting a grip at all is still work enough for me.

I’m also consistently grabbing my toes after the sit-ups. That might seem like a simple thing, but for a long time, I just reached for my feet and pulled my toes back. I was focusing more on the stretch in my legs than proper grip. I’ve also read that it is fairly easy for yogi/nis to injure their toes by pulling on them if the toes aren’t “active” in the posture. Lately, I have felt stronger shifting into the proper pose, which means grabbing the big toes with the “peace fingers” or first and middle fingers to pull myself into the stretch after the sit up.

In terms of flexibility, I’m also making noticeable improvements with standing separate leg stretching pose. Last summer, I was practicing yoga regularly at an Iyengar studio in Moscow, Idaho. The teacher–Jeri–who became a friend, was incredibly talented at getting students warmed up properly and safely into difficult poses, like Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana. Throughout the summer and previous year of practice, standing separate leg stretching was a cinch. I could easily touch my forehead to the floor in that pose–felt my spine lengthening and felt a wonderful stretch through my legs. Shortly after I began Bikram again (when I moved to SLC in late summer), I suddenly lost the ability to touch my forehead to the floor.

I suspect that the cause was my hamstrings. They had gotten tight from running and overstretching. When I first moved back to the area and returned to my Bikram practice, I overstretched my hamstrings and the pain told me to take it easy for about two months. Last year I also trained for and ran in the Bloomsday race in Spokane, WA. (It was an amazing experience, and I highly recommend it.) Nothing improves my fitness quite like running, but it definitely tightens my hamstrings. I continued to run about three miles a day throughout the summer and fall. (I haven’t ran much in the past month. The cold weather and winter air pollution has been a deterrent, and the 30-day challenge takes up all extra time.) Through all that running, my hamstrings were steadily tightening.

During the 30-day challenge, I suspected I would regain the ability to touch my head to the floor. I had been careful with my muscles and my injured hamstring has felt recovered from the overstretching. At some point last week, I finally felt my forehead touch the floor, and then I pushed even harder. That’s the thing about yoga: your body can always do more than your brain can. Though the distance is mere inches, it seems like the forehead will never touch. Some poses are really difficult, and you feel a million miles away from the final expression. When you feel yourself finally get into that pose, you realize that your body has way more to give that you originally thought possible. 

That’s the lesson at the half way point. My body consistently surprises me with perfect balance in one pose or a deeper stretch in another. I’m constantly surprised by what my body can do. On days when the balance is off or my body feels stiff, I listen to that. I back off. And, by being gentle, I am rewarded.

the challenge continues

Today was day thirteen of the Bikram challenge. Yesterday and today were the hardest days I’ve had in Bikram since the challenge began. Yesterday was fine, but my energy was noticeably low. A girl nearby was doing her second class of the day, and she spent a lot of time laying her mat looking fairly miserable. Sometimes that can zap the energy out of a room, and maybe that was my problem.

Tonight, I think it was my turn to feel miserable. About halfway through class, my blood sugar plummeted. As I recalled the days’s diet, it’s really no wonder I was having trouble. I ate an orange, a post-season candy cane, some chocolate, and some cranberry juice–all very sugary–in the hours leading up to class. As someone who is prone to low blood sugar, I have to be careful about balancing my sugar intake with a lot of fiber and some protein. I did not do a good job of that today. Normally, I can muscle through any Bikram class, though it sometimes means that I take some shortcuts (sshhh!). However, when my blood sugar is low, I start to worry about passing out. This was a bigger fear when I didn’t have insurance. After all, a few sips of juice could be the difference between finishing a class and a costly trip to the ER in an ambulance. I didn’t have any food at the studio, and today was the first time since the challenge began that Z didn’t attend class with me (he did his class earlier in the morning), so I didn’t have someone to literally catch me if I fainted.

It only hit me about halfway through class, so I ended up doing all of the spine strengthening series at about 50% and then sat out about half of the rest of the poses until class was over. Thankfully, I had enough energy to finish class, change, drive home, where I then gorged myself on tortilla chips, popcorn, pomegranate juice, more chocolate, cheese, and two pomegranates over the course of a few hours. It was not the dinner of champions. The good news is that my blood sugar is back to normal, but now I’m feeling a bit woozy from the junkie food. I should add that, normally, I can manage my blood sugar with proper diet. It hasn’t given me serious trouble since I was in my early twenties and was still figuring out the best diet for my body. So, this little blood sugar bought tonight caught me off guard. Since I’ve had two classes in a row where I’ve felt weak, I’m thinking I’m about due for a good, strong practice tomorrow.

yoga competition

Last weekend, we braved the inclement weather and terrible roads to go to Weber State to watch the Asana Regional Championships. The winners of the competition will go on to Nationals. Yoga and competition rarely go in the same sentence, unless it is an admonishment from the instructor to  “let go of competition,” and yet, somehow Bikram pulls it off.

One intention of the Asana Championships is to get yoga recognized as an Olympic event. Participants do five required poses: standing head to knee, standing bow pulling pose, bow pose, rabbit pose, and stretching pose. After that, they do two additional poses of their choice, and that’s where things get really interesting. People start bending and contorting and getting into some really difficult poses.

The event was inspiring. It was great to see the people whom I’ve been practicing next to for the last several months and my teachers competing in the event. I’ll also admit that the event improved my practice. The next day I was challenging myself in ways I haven’t in weeks, maybe months. The experience has helped me make some real improvements in my poses and moved into some new territory in just the last few days. 

On that note, the 30-day Bikram Challenge is going really well. Today was my tenth day in a row, and I haven’t missed a day. I wish I knew my previous record for consecutive days of practice, but I’m not sure. I know it is more than ten days and probably less than twenty.

Last Thursday, the teacher Roxanne had us hold camel pose for two-minutes. Like most people, my relationship with camel pose varies based on the day. Lately, I’ve been trying to focus more on building back strength in the pose. The two minute camel was really hard, but worth it. Once I was able to open my chest and really breath in the pose, time in the pose was manageable. For the first minute, I kept my hands on my hips and really worked on using the strength of my spine to stretch. For the last minute, I shifted my hands to my heels. Evidently, I was warmed up enough because the last minute felt good. I mean, it was intense–don’t get me wrong–but good.

Our resolve to complete the 30-day challenge was not really shaken until last Thursday and Friday when a major snowstorm swept through the area, leaving about a foot and a half of snow at my house. The roads were a mess. Even today, several days after the snowstorm, my street appears to be the only one in the city that hasn’t been plowed yet! Needless to say, we made it to our practice, and enjoyed smaller class sizes for two days in a row while I imagine many of our fellow yogis were waiting out the snowstorm from the safety of their homes.

Today, at day ten of the Bikram challenge, I feel great. My muscles are mildly sore. My mood has been good. My energy is up. I am clear minded, and I’m on a great sleep schedule. These are all improvements I can attribute to the yoga practice. Don’t get me wrong, all of my problems have not been solved (maybe that happens at the 30 day mark?), and I still occasionally argue with my boyfriend, but for the most part we are both ridiculously joyful each day in a way that can be directly attributed to the yoga.

We also feel good physically because our diet is quite clean thanks to our commitment to preparing meals at home. I should clarify from my past post that we don’t usually eat fast food. I eat it from time to time and my boyfriend almost never eats the stuff. Our 30-day commitment is to not eat out *at all* unless with we are with friends. Last weekend, after the Asana Championships, we spent time with friends, which meant our first dinner out since we returned from Christmas break! It was Indian food. It was delicious. There was garlic naan, which is probably all you really need to know.

30-Day Challenge

My boyfriend and I are doing a 30-day Bikram challenge, which means that we attend Bikram every day for 30 days. We can miss up to two days during that time, but then we have to make it up by doing a double, two Bikram classes in one day. I’ve never done a double before, and I really don’t want to start! Bikram is always a series of 26 postures for 90 minutes in 105 degree heat. It’s intense and a huge time commitment.

When I first moved back to SLC, I bought a year’s worth of unlimited Bikram yoga. In fact, I chose my apartment based on it’s proximity to the studio where I wanted to practice. During the summer, I think I went for about two weeks in a row. I went nearly daily, but I would miss a day here or there. Since school started, I’ve gone consistently four to five times a week. I have never gone for 30 days in a row.

During Saturday’s class, I had the strong desire to start the 30-day challenge. It’s something that I’ve had on my mind for awhile. The timing finally seemed right. I’ve been going mostly alone for the last five months, but circumstances are such that now my guy can attend with me. Because he is not on an unlimited yearly pass, we wanted to make the most out of his time in Bikram. Once we made the commitment to start, a work-study program came through for him, meaning that he’ll clean the studio once a week in exchange for unlimited yoga. This felt like karma somehow. Once we made the decision to do it, we were rewarded.

As cheesy as it sounds, I think we’ve both been re-energized by the prospect of a new year and new beginnings. So, we’re doing Bikram everyday for 30 days, and along with that we’re not eating out at fast food restaurants, unless we are with friends, or if it is during a work day and, for whatever reason, we aren’t able to bring a lunch.

Yesterday was our third day in a row of Bikram. This is nothing new to me because last semester I attended class Fridays through Sundays. The hardest days for me will be Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Those are the days where I’ll have to teach and work long hours and then take Bikram in the evenings. Evening classes are nice because I’m usually more flexible by the end of the day, but I’m also tired at the end of the day. I prefer to go mid-morning.

I’m hoping that this adventure is good for us individually and for our relationship (it already has been). I’m hoping that we’ll feel healthier and fitter by the end of it. My calendar is such that I think I could actually do a 60-day challenge, but I’m going to focus on getting through this 30-day challenge first.

this thing called “unconditional love”

Today in Bikram, during ustrasana (camel pose)–a punishing pose that can leave you feeling nauseous, lightheaded and then amazing immediately thereafter–the instructor quickly glossed over an idea about opening the heart chakra and thus increasing our capacity for “unconditional love.” Unconditional love is a phrase that gets bandied about on the regular. It’s a nice concept, but I guess I’ve never really thought about it in too much depth. Today, that changed. I wondered if partners (lovers) ever really achieve unconditional love. I believe that parents can experience unconditional love for their children, though that is not always the case. Between grown adults, I think it is somewhat uncommon.

I have a relative whose marriage of many decades has ended. This is not one of these we’re-grown-adults-who’ve-made-the-thoughtful-and-loving-decision-to-end-our-relationship, but, from what I gather, it is an especially painful dissolution (I’ve “gathered” this from Facebook where she has been very open about the, what seems like very sudden, end to her marriage). It has made me wonder more about love. If someone unconditionally loves another, they can have all manner of bad behavior and the love never ceases. I guess maybe that’s where the pain comes from–not necessarily the lack of love or hate, but the pain of watching someone you love do something that is against your will.

That’s where letting go of expectations comes into play. I think loving someone unconditionally means letting go of expectations for how they should behave. Likewise, unconditional love is not contingent upon good or expected behavior.

I’m not sure if I truly have unconditional love in my relationship. I mean, we’re *really* in love, but love (including our love) changes and evolves. Over the last six years, we may not always behave in ways that the other would prefer, we still have always love each other and want the best for each other. Sometimes these lost expectations mean that we aren’t actually together and a good deal of heartbreak sometimes ensues. Sometimes it’s painful. The vast majority of the time knowing him is fun, funny, and interesting. For now, I’m trying to learn what it means to be in a relationship, and more specifically to be in this relationship and to love this man.

Happy New Year!

Since it is New Year’s eve, I suppose some sort of reflection is in order. 2012 was a big year for me. A good year. I finished my dissertation. Finished by PhD. Got my first tenure-track job. Moved to Salt Lake City. Reunited with my long lost boyfriend. I can’t complain.

Tonight that boyfriend is ringing in the new year with his family. I opted to stay home, eat chocolate chip cookies, and catch up on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills before the episodes expire from Hulu. Yes, that is my reality. I also spent the evening sorting through all of the photos I took while I was home in Oregon. I got so many good photos, and going through them made me miss my nephew all over again.

I hope that in 2013 I am able to practice yoga regularly and even find a venue to teach yoga. I hope to learn something entirely new, like training to be a doula, which is something I’ve wanted to do ever since my training in pre/postnatal yoga. I hope to take knitting lessons at this nearby yarn store. I hope to commit more deeply and grow in the relationship I have with my boyfriend.

I’m the kind of person who loves to daydream about the future. Now I’m off to read my horoscope for 2013 and imagine that future.