Tag Archives: mornings

A Questioning Mind

“When we are not sure, we are alive.” — Graham Greene

Fascinating article in Scientific American Mind this month: The Willpower Paradox. Turns out that resolving to do something is not nearly as effective as wondering if you will do it.

…Those primed with the interrogative phrase “Will I?” expressed a much greater commitment to exercise regularly than did those primed with the declarative phrase “I will.”

What’s more, when the volunteers were questioned about why they felt they would be newly motivated to get to the gym more often, those primed with the question said things like: “Because I want to take more responsibility for my own health.” Those primed with “I will” offered strikingly different explanations, such as: “Because I would feel guilty or ashamed of myself if I did not.”

This last finding is crucial. It indicates that those with questioning minds were more intrinsically motivated to change. They were looking for a positive inspiration from within, rather than attempting to hold themselves to a rigid standard. Those asserting will lacked this internal inspiration, which explains in part their weak commitment to future change. Put in terms of addiction recovery and self-improvement in general, those who were asserting their willpower were in effect closing their minds and narrowing their view of their future. Those who were questioning and wondering were open-minded—and therefore willing to see new possibilities for the days ahead.

I’ve always wondered why my softer declarations were more effective than my stricter ones. I wonder if I’ll remember this article in the future?

A Rested Mind

“For those just coming back from vacation, think carefully about what you are going to put your fresh, valuable mind to in your first few days. Value this resource highly. It may be your only chance to see the mountain you are on, to decide if you’re taking the right path up, or even if it’s the right mountain to be climbing at all.” ~ David Rock in Psychology Today

For the past few weeks, I’ve been working on clearing my mind more often during the day. The natural tendency for a busy mind is to work ever-harder to crack a problem or find an innovative solution. The yogic belief is that a clear, unburdened, relaxed mind is actually a more creative, efficient problem solver. And now that belief has a boost from hardcore science.

Continue reading

Morning Practice #2

This felt great. For posterity:

Kundalini Warmup (seated, all with Breath of Fire)

  • Low Back Flexes (hands on knees)
  • Mid Back Flexes (hands on ankles)
  • Spinal Twists (hands on shoulders)
  • Upper Back Flexes (hands on shoulders)
  • Shoulder Shrugs (hands on thighs)
  • Shoulder Seesaws (hands clasped)
  • Shoulder Stretch (hands clasped in front of heart and pull, above head and pull)
  • Neck Circles
  • Eye Circles

Vinyasa Warmup

  • Down Dog
  • Down Dog Split (twisted)
  • Crescent Lunge
  • Forward Angle
  • Handstand
  • Lunge
  • Down Dog Split (straight)
  • repeat other side

Hatha Holds

  • Camel
  • Forearm Stand (2x, lead w/each leg)
  • Headstand

Then run take a shower! (That was all I had time for.) 30 minutes total.

Quickie Practice

Gosha I borrowed your photo
Gosha I borrowed your photo

Crazy week last week, but I kept up a daily practice, a MORNING practice no less, for the length of it. Why? I got off on a good foot last weekend (a blissful hiking/yoga retreat with some Russian friends)… and my morning practice is 15 minutes short!

3-5 sun salutations, left and right sides

100 breaths of fire (in Plank)

2 handstands

That’s it. It’s delicious and fun, I’m so stiff that I don’t try to stretch, I just step back all sloppy and sleepy. And it wakes me up and sets the tone for the day.

And, five minutes of meditation after I get off my computer each night has cleared my insomnia! Yoga EXPRESS, love it.

[I’m just writing this so I remember that daily practice doesn’t have to be a big ordeal.]

Discerning Brute and Barefoot Tiger

This sounds super fun:

PURE BLISS: Brunch & Yoga w/ The Discerning Brute & Barefoot Tiger
Saturday, May 30th, 2009
10:30am Yoga
12:00pm Brunch

What could be better than mixing a spring Saturday, a yummy vinyasa flow yoga class with Kendra of Barefoot Tiger, and a scrumptious vegan brunch by the Discerning Brute himself, Joshua Katcher? You won’t want to miss this event! If it’s your first time trying vegan food, you’ll be blown away – you’ve never tasted vegan deliciousness like this before!

I am a big fan of the Yoga Brunch at Om Factory, maybe I need to pursue this hobby further. I’m not familiar with Kendra Coppey, but I do like the Discerning Brute blog (simple, creative veggie recipes and more). Plus, it’s right here in Williamsburg, so I could start my day without the MTA…

I Hate This Pose

The last couple days, I’ve returned to Sun Salutations. They are a perfect practice in and of themselves. I used to hate them. Always forced myself through them, knowing I needed the warm up. Finally I realized: if you hate a pose in yoga, you’re doing it wrong. There is some other alignment, variation, or way of breathing that will work for you. Even burning, strengthening poses are enjoyable if you’re at your edge, and not over it. A few examples:

“I hate Warrior I.”
Many standing poses create intense burning in the legs. This pose in particular has some goofy alignment on top of the fire. Back foot rotates out while hips face forward? Are you kidding? Just know that different traditions have different expressions of the pose, for different reasons. Iyengar aligns front heel to back arch; Kripalu has the back heel up, like a Lunge! Once you learn or decide the intent of the pose (for me, it’s a heart opener with a lot of fire underneath), you can wiggle the hips and explore the breath until you feel that intention with full-body participation. We all have different skeletons, no two poses will ever look alike. The stance can be very narrow if that is where you breathe fully and feel stable. The hips can turn towards the side if it lets you lift through the heart and stop sinking into the lower back. You want ease but not easy. There’s a lot of room for exploration. Your teacher’s head might explode, just tell them you have a doctor’s note for self-medication. Adjust.

“I hate Ankle to Knee.”
One of the most intense hip openers, Ankle-to-Knee (aka Fire Logs) gets right into the freaky tightness in a mysterious corner of the hips. All around the classroom, students avoid the full parallel of the shins and round into a cross-legged ball. Try not to care that they’re cheating. See above. For full sensation, keep the ankles right on the knees, not on the thighs. Flex the feet and try to relax. In martial arts tests, you hold squats for 1, 10, 20 minutes to get your belt. The secret is apparently to focus on the sensations of breathing, not the sensations of pain. Like life: if you run around thinking about your problems all day, you will not be smiling very much. So, sit up tall, and breathe up and down the back. Maybe an exhale tips the hips an inch forward; maybe not. As Leslie Kaminoff says, think about spinal movement, not spatial. A new door opened on intense poses when I learned to stay where I was. Relax.

“I hate Handstand.”
This inversion uses an invigorating combination of muscle and fear. Even against a wall, I used to freak out. I was sure I didn’t have the strength to hold it. Heart openers immediately prior helped — a little clasp of the hands behind the back before diving forward — but I still hated the feelings of panic and wobbly weakness while in the pose. It was too unfamiliar, there was too much going on. So, I simplified. An L-shaped Handstand allows both feet to be firmly on the wall, which somehow feels much more familiar and secure, so that the alignment of the shoulders can be the focus. (Since we want to work from the ground up, we have to tackle the hands and shoulders before the core and legs.) Eventually, each leg could take a turn extending to the sky.  I firmly believe it’s better to do one piece of the pose well, then all of them terribly. Simplify.

And finally, “I hate Sun Salutations.”
The jump backs. The Down Dogs. The repetition. There’s so much to hate! My attitude finally changed I think at Sivananda, when we were led through two rounds of Surya Namaskar, and then told to do three more at our own pace. It’s a shock to realize that you don’t know what your own pace is. Suddenly, this exercise was an exploration of how I actually wanted to move. I started skipping Up Dog, and appreciating Cobra. Keeping the step-backs, and their connection to the core. Hearing the breath more like a breeze than a freight train. Since then, I’ve noticed how different the speed of my breath is at different times of day — sometimes it wants to race, sometimes it wants to relax. Following the breath is like letting an alternate brain lead. It’s a different choreographer each day; the quality and rhythm of movement changes subtly and sometimes drastically. Breathe.

Acknowledging, deciphering and accommodating irritants will create positive reinforcements for your practice instead of negative. Practice in a way that leaves you looking forward to the next one, not holding subconscious dread. You will start to get it.

Morning Yoga Revisited

This morning I went to a free class at Om Factory, schlepping over to the Garment District at 10am. (Still better than the 7am call time when I used to teach there.) I was puffy-eyed and groggy from some gluttony the day before, but knew that three hours before breakfast wouldn’t work for me, so I had a quarter-cup of coffee with cream en route. (I had to save the rest of my daily coffee allotment for a meeting at everyone’s favorite coffee place, Grumpy’s.)

The class was slow vinyasa, a perfect pace to guard my shoulder from any aggravation. (I saw a sports medicine MD on Tuesday, who assured me my shoulder was no big deal and would heal without problem. Tendonitis is a really common yoga injury. But weight-bearing will stress it, I have to be careful to strengthen and not stretch too much. I have ligaments “like rubber bands.”)

I felt so alive and awake afterward, I wondered why I don’t practice in the mornings any more?? Then I remembered: the hump. I don’t make it past the first 15 minutes. If I plow through it I have an amazing, creative, fulfilling solo practice, but I have issues with plowing through yoga. Aren’t we supposed to listen to our intuition? What if that body awareness is saying “I don’t want to move! I want to lay back down!” How do we know if it’s actually tamasic (heavy) energy that needs to be burned up?

This is the weird dialectic that is my practice: I have to force myself through the beginnings, but once I’m going it’s an easy flow.

40 Days Without Breathing

Two-score days ago I started a little New Year’s Resolution, and guess what? Today is day 40! I did it!

“It” was a simple daily practice of Navel Lock with breath retention for 10–40 seconds. In most cases it was about twenty or twenty-five seconds; I’ve always had trouble with retentions on exhales more than inhales. Of course, I wasn’t using a metronome to count, just “Om 1, Om 2, Om 3…” like they do at Sivananda… so the actual times were who knows what. I started off doing it in bed, right after I sat up, but I felt like I had no capacity at all. Plus, I was sick for the first few days of this practice, and couldn’t breathe so well. So, after a few days I went for shower, clothing, makeup, pranayama, breakfast as my routine. (It is kind of bizarre to put on makeup before yoga, but it feels like part of my “getting dressed” bit.) This also created a nice pause if any rushing-to-get-ready feelings had built up.

This kriya/pranayama is called a Golden Nugget, one of the most powerful yoga practices (according to the excellent blog/resource Mastery of Meditation, Yoga & Zen). I did the intermediate option: one retention only, for 10–40 seconds max — although I had quite a few vinyasa classes this month that threw in this bandha practice too! So I might be disqualified. And on two mornings I forgot to practice, and did it later on the subway platform or in bed. We’ll assume that those disruptions did not affect the efficacy of the exercise (?). As for the quoted benefits:

  • “Dissolv[es] blockages (granthis) caused by emotional debris and toxin buildup in the psychic channels (nadis)” — I’ve never directly experienced the specific energy channels in the body, only the more general waves and tingles of energy or lethargy. So I can’t give a full traffic report on my blockages and channels. But I have felt more like myself lately; enlivened by spurts of real joy and actual relaxation. The lows are not so low, the highs are actually high.
  • “Tones and cleanses all the digestive organs and markedly improves the entire digestive system” — My digestion is getting better, but I’m doing some dietary changes as well. My skin looks better. I should have kept watch on my tongue, that’s a real indicator of toxins. But if this kriya is cleansing, shouldn’t I feel WORSE as the toxins come out?
  • “Works on the respiratory system and nervous system” — Not sure what “works on” implies, but I’m less nervous and more easy-going.
  • “Builds core strength and power” — Definitely. It’s helped my postural awareness too.
  • “Most importantly, its goal is to burn up unresolved emotions stored in the subconscious mind.  Steady and sincere practice of Golden Nugget Yoga Pranayama, results in a significant refinement of awareness and a calm, peaceful, silent mind capable of connecting with the Divinity that lies within.” — This has been the most pronounced or noticable change: I can meditate again. For the last six months, or even year, I’ve really struggled with my mind’s dances and dashes when I sit. It was really depressing and discouraging, because I really craved those moments of peace, and didn’t know why they had disappeared. I went back to open-eye, object-focused meditation; no luck. I tried a more regular schedule; still crazy. Group practice, solo practice; same thing. But in my Hatha class the last week or two, I’ve finally felt really at ease in the poses, and ended up in a peaceful little buzz of stillness. Credit to my teacher, too — he’s quite radiant :)

We can debate if I was “steady and sincere”; I will put forth that I felt genuine excitement to do the practice each morning. I’ve missed my pranayama routine, it really cleared my head in the mornings, and I was happy to have the inspiration to restart it. (In fact, these Golden Nuggets often led into a long round of Breath of Fire and a few rounds of Alternate Nostril Breathing.) One of the nice things about pranayama is that it doesn’t trigger my athleticism or vanity like asana sometimes does. It’s unique, mental, and wholly engaging, and in any case I’ve reached a point in my life where I think 80% effort is a lot better than 100% (and the subsequent 0%). It was a very valuable exercise to focus a practice on regularity versus quantity.

Overall, however, I’m left with a chicken-and-egg situation, because there are a lot of things going on in my life right now, so I can’t credit or blame individual factors with any degree of certainty. In the last two months, I ended a long relationship, I started talking to a therapist, I turned 30, and I finished a big job  — all these things affected my habits and health. Did the kriya inspire some of these events, or did the events actually cause the above benefits? This is one of my continual confusions with yoga; it’s not a black-and-white science, and none of us are isolated laboratory subjects. It’s empirical, holistic, and slow; you have to get a big-picture perspective of yourself over time. A steady practice works you like water in canyons — the current is most eye-catching, but years later what’s dramatic is the epic change.

The image that keeps coming to mind is from the Scientific American piece on rapid thinking: “even brief periods of heightened mood can lead to upward spirals.” This pranayama practice was part of an upward spiral… or the bellows beneath the whole great contraption.

Super Smoothie

Smoothie!
Smoothie!

OK, random post because I am really excited about my breakfast. I have never been a smoothie person, I am not satisfied with breakfast until I get to chew something like Thai food or brussels sprouts, but this one is GREAT. It has about 25 grams of protein, which is right about a third of my attempted daily intake, and lasts me until lunch. I’ve had it every weekday for about three weeks, and my skin is rosy and taut like I’ve had a facial. This is double good, because the skin and the brain develop at roughly the same time, from the same type of cells, so if your skin is in good health you can trust that your brain is in good health. Dunno what the secret ingredient is, all of them are great. Here goes:

  • 12 oz. soy milk (unsweetened) — this has about 10 grams protein
  • 1 scoop protein powder (unsweetened) — another 15 grams protein
  • 1 scoop açai powder — this is a berry from Brazil that’s energizing
  • 1 large spoonful green powder — this has every vitamin and mineral you could possibly need
  • 1 large spoonful flax seeds — these have essential fatty acids, which are good for your brain and make the smoothie thicker
  • 1 large spoonful raw almond butter — also good for your brain, this makes it heartier so I’m not hungry again in an hour
  • 1/2 cup frozen berries — these add flavor, thickness, and anti-oxidants

Other notes:

  • You have to blend it for a while so the flax seeds get destroyed. They will still be a little chewy, which I like. If you want it even chewier you can add a little raw oatmeal. I love hand blenders cause they’re much easier to clean. I got the flax seeds in bulk at a food co-op.
  • The brand of protein powder you get will also affect the consistency. I first got Aria, a “women’s blend”, then Spiru-tein Banana (unsweetened), which is thicker but a bit less sweet and slightly more chemical in taste. (Might be the banana flavoring versus the vanilla.) Now I’m using hemp protein powder — I started to have allergic reactions to the whey proteins.
  • Get the açai online if you can, it’s expensive in the stores. In fact this whole smoothie is much more affordable if you can stock up online, at Trader Joe’s, or at a local health food co-op. Price per smoothie will be about $2 instead of $5.
  • Greens+ is the best green powder, it has everything from spirulina (the most complex protein your body can digest) to bee pollen (another rich protein / energizer). Trader Joe’s also has a version. Both taste like lawn clippings, so you need the berries to mask the flavor. Orange juice is another great pairing, but it has too much sugar for me; I feel a sugar crash an hour later.
  • Berries are high in anti-oxidants, which scoop up all the roaming, possibly pre-cancerous ions in your body.
  • Most of this stuff is enriched with vitamins, so you’re covered if you forget your multi-vitamin.
  • Don’t worry about the fats, they’re good fats.
  • There is argument on whether soy is actually good for you — the cons saying it’s so genetically modified that your body doesn’t even recognize it as food, storing it as fat. See for yourself. I still prefer it over regular, raw, rice, or almond milk. I could still try hemp milk.

Your brain uses vitamins and minerals to think, and deal with stress, which is why you need a lot of fruits and vegetables every day. That fact finally got me to take a daily B-vitamin (occasionally), but even better is getting vitamins and breakfast at once. Vitamins from whole foods are supposedly absorbed better anyways.

I’ve felt more energetic and less stressed in the past few weeks, so I’m giving the smoothie some credit. But, it might be the Golden Nuggets…

POSTSCRIPT — I ran out of almond butter, so I’ve been adding a big spoonful of raw sunflower seeds instead. Haven’t noticed a difference. I’ve also switched to flax seed oil, but I kind of miss the chewy flax seeds.

Yoga Brunch with Aarona Pichinson at Om Factory

Aarona Pichinson
Aarona Pichinson

I just came back from yoga brunch. Best. idea. ever. We had a fabulous class with Aarona Pichinson, then a delicious brunch afterwards. I looked up and it was 1:15 — I’d been there since 10am. Om Factory is such a cozy place I could stay there all day. (Full disclosure: I used to teach there and absolutely love the owner and staff.)

I’ve seen Aarona’s name around town forever; she used to teach at my old hangout Atmananda, and she runs a site called Yoga of Nourishment that I’ve seen featured in a lot of the holistic newsletters. But I’d never tried her class. Her bio listed Elena Brower, Schuyler Grant, and Ana Forrest as influences, so I got really excited to see what she’d teach. (Elena taught the wonderful class at MoMA this weekend, a slow Anusara exploration of the breath into the back ribs. Schuyler seems to teach all my current favorite teachers, she teaches Freestyle Vinyasa down at Kula Yoga. Ana teaches the eponymous Forrest yoga, an excruciatingly slow but transformative practice.)

The theme of the class was “Soften into Fire” and it was well executed. We started off soft, in a long supported Fish pose. Next, we lay face down on blankets rolled up into balls, pressing below the navel, then below the ribs. It was fairly intense; like a Shiatsu massage you had to relax into the discomfort. Then, we started the flow. Her pacing was more like an Anusara class: we held poses for 3 or 5, but sometimes 9 breaths — definitely enough time to really feel and explore each one. It also gave us time to practice softening and relaxing into our burning muscles. She reminded us not to be tense, but gave all sorts of interesting muscular actions like drawing the shoulder blades together while extending the forearms in Lunge with Cactus Arms, or pulling the knees towards each other to square and lift the hips in Pigeon. She also inserted uddhiyana bandha practice into creative places like Revolved Awkward Chair, or Forward Angle Pose. (Another Kula teacher, Ariel Karass, does this — maybe Schuyler teaches it? Or it’s in the water supply.) But we kept up a steady Vinyasa flow of movement, with nicely paced breathing instructions, so all the muscular energy did get stretched out well.

We ran out of time to do inversions (class had started a little late), but I had a blissful come-down as the class closed. She had this nice image of letting your outer body relax, and lifting your inner body, and in our last standing Mountain Pose I really felt it. All my insides felt connected, as if I were one gooey mess from my heels to my head, yet light. My outsides were just hanging on top like a coat. I walked out ready to leap tall buildings.

Instead, I went into Om Factory’s beautiful kitchen for brunch. It’s prepared each week by a chef from The Natural Gourmet Institute, and for only $10 they served zucchini quiche, roasted veggies, quinoa with sweet potatoes, fruit, cheese, coffee, tea, bread, jam, and hard-boiled eggs. I ran into a teacher I’d met at a Sivananda retreat, and talked shop with a bunch of random yoga students. Totally lovely and relaxed.

There’s a different guest teacher each week, so the Yoga Brunch is a great way to sample different yoga styles happening in New York right now (or to actually meet the people you sweat with each week). In the past they’ve had Isaac Pena, Paula Tursi, Sara Tomlinson, Holly Coles… I’m looking forward to the next one.