fitness · motivation · yoga

Psyched out: Spirituality, the yoga space, and laughter (Guest post)

My favourite piece of fitness advice is that “the best exercise is the one that you will do.” I have spent much of my life trying to find exercise I can stand. I discovered that I can always get myself to do yoga, which is why I’ve become committed to it. Also, I can do it anywhere — except small hotel rooms! And I’ve found with time that I really enjoy the psychological benefits.

But I find the notion of “psychological” benefits to be clinical in a way that puts me off. I have no trouble taking medicine, but it grates for me to think of yoga that way. Yet, a friend (who is actually a clinical psychologist) speaks of the “spiritual” benefits of yoga in a way that refers to the mental aspects.

I have resisted yogic spirituality because my view of the universe is not especially religious or non-material. Sure, I like to chant “ohm,” but that’s for three material reasons: I like to sing, I enjoy how the voices come together, and I like in the vibration on my lips from the final “mmmmm.” There is nothing religious or metaphysical about it. But “spirituality” describes seems to describe the changed orientation I get from yoga, the patience, the humour, and the pleasure in physicality. I view those as important aspects of my fitness.

Lately, I have neglected the need I have for physical exercise, strength training especially. I’ve not been practicing yoga the three times a week I find is essential to maintaining strength; sometimes taking yin yoga which is beautifully relaxing and can be a mental challenge but requires little strength. Further, the ashtanga program I dipped in and out of has moved to another studio, and it’s become clear that I need to “up my game” and add some strength training to my routine.

IMG_3953 2

A large dog with a white heart-shaped face and legs and black ears and saddle looks straight into the camera. She stands on a striped rug, her white tail blurred from wagging.

I’ve tried to run a little, but I need to strengthen my legs, and to be honest that may not be an option for me anymore. Now the weather is better, I’m walking a lot more and getting back to my bike, and my dog Chloe is very encouraging. Spending time with her is part of my spiritual practice too. But strength, strength, strength…. my physician has been telling me for years that yoga would not cut it, but I didn’t want to believe.

So I am trying some other things out. I’ve tried barre classes at my yoga studio, and I really, really like them — I felt better for the whole next week, stronger and more limbre. Barre mixes pilates, dance, yoga, and functional strength training. In a single class we do all the exercises I’ve been given by physiotherapists, and a range more, plus I enjoy the lively music. Because it’s in a yoga studio, I feel happier — more spiritually at home, perhap. I went to a gym last week too, and I laughed while working out, when it got tough. People stared. People don’t stare in yoga, and they laugh. That’s part of the spiritual element that I value! I don’t want to say, as others do, that the yoga studio or the mat have a positive energy. I would say instead that my relationship with the studio and the mat involves all sorts of positive associations and vanishingly few negative ones; it is happy and resilient. I aim to to take that spirituality, as I will now allow myself to call it, into other places as I change up my fitness routine. If I have to, I will laugh at myself in the gym.

Bio: I am an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Windsor, Canada, where I am also cross-appointed to Women’s and Gender Studies and Director of the Interdisciplinary PhD program in Argumentation Studies.

bras · equality · fashion · fat · fitness · gender policing · inclusiveness · men

Liberation, two nipples at a time (Guest post)

When all the fashion magazines featured women with hands (their own or others’) covering their breasts, a thought flickered that hands are much more comfortable than the average bra. Hiding women’s breasts, one way or the other, is standard media fare, and of course in some places women aren’t allowed to go topless in public, a clear gender disparity.

Fashion in the last few decades has even come to erase to nipple that might protrude from a shirt — again only for women like Serena Williams, not for men like Andy Murray.

It’s become really hard to find a non-padded bra, even for sports. Yet it’s seriously unpleasant to exercise with sweaty padding. Does anyone really believe in “breathable padding”? Sorry Victoria’s Secret, but my skepticism was well placed.

However, in recent years fashion has shown glimpses of the saucy braless 70s, including the bralette and bandeaus, all pleasant options for small-breasted women. The news even declares that bralessness is in fashion.

Many of us may sneer “how nice for you!” Bralessness and even lightweight bra alternatives are not realistic choices. Many heavy breasted women are simply not comfortable and even experience back pain without support from a bra. Sizes small, medium, and large rarely do the work we need them to do either. Sports bras tend to be sized that way and create a special kind of hell. We end up pinched and unsupported on top of being sweaty.

So I suggest the new move away from bras and padded bras may be good for all women. It marks a greater diversity in the types of breast support and sports tops available for women. The less women are expected to hide our breasts the easier it will be for us to demand comfortable functional support.

fitness · Guest Post · weight loss · yoga

Letter to the New Yoga Studio (Guest Post)

I was dismayed this week to discover that a yoga studio moving to my neighbourhood was claiming to help people with weight loss. For me and many people yoga provides a sanctuary from the body negativity and dieting pressure that pervades our culture. Yoga builds strength and flexibility and encourages pleasure in what one’s own body can do — which is completely different for everyone.

Increasingly, it seems to me, the value of yoga for both physical and mental fitness is perverted by the weight loss industry. A friend living in rural Alberta has no access to any other yoga, and misses the body positivity yoga properly provides. Are others of you finding this?

So, I thought I needed to write the owner a letter — if only to exorcise my frustration, and with some encouragement from a friend I did. It helped that the studio’s values concern community health and well-being, to which I appealed, along with a few links and facts — many gleaned from posts on this blog. Here’s what I wrote, some particulars omitted.

We have never met formally but your yoga classes were a favourite for me and my colleagues years ago at DTY.  I’ve practiced yoga on and off for decades and several times a week for a few years now. So I was excited to hear that your studio was moving very close to my home.  I know a number of people who live and work in this neighbourhood are excited about your studio move.

So, I started to check out your schedule on-line, but as I navigated there I was shocked and disappointed to see a weight loss message.  I haven’t looked far, but the very mention of weight loss as a goal for yoga is highly problematic, it jumps out from the screen, and the effect is fat shaming.  There is a body of research showing this effect of weight loss messages and the ineffectiveness of fat shaming in producing weight loss, though I expect you never intended that effect. 

I assume the reason you associate yoga with weight loss is because of its profound benefits for fitness, both physical and mental. Associating weight loss with fitness is a common error — see here, perpetuated by the massive weight loss industry.  I hardly know where to start discussing this: you are a fitness professional, but you are mistaken to associate yoga or fitness with weight loss, and I can only guess how you’ve been misled. It’s intuitive that encouraging weight loss would help people who want to lose weight, but the evidence indicates the opposite. First, losing weight is unhealthy for many people. More generally, while the science of weight loss is complex and often contradictory, one of the clearest results is that permanent weight loss is rare, and most weight loss programs just make people gain weight in the long run (see here and here, just to start). 

Perhaps you think you can help “the obesity crisis” and there is some reason to be concerned about that, but little reason to think individual weight loss programs will help. Those who lose weight and keep it off more than a year are known as “weight loss unicorns” and even then the evidence shows diet more effective than exercise. Nevertheless there are many reasons to desire the fitness and health — at any size — that yoga can provide

Part of the Yoga Loft mission stated on your web site is “to positively influence friends and family, ultimately influencing the community for better health, quality of life and happiness.” I share your hope for a healthier and happier community and believe the move of the arrival of your studio could aid that. However, the fat shaming and false hope extended by the mention of weight loss stands in the way.  It may be especially harmful for women who are pressured in so many ways to pursue weight loss, but that message poisons fitness for all kinds of people, including those like me who enjoy in yoga the very opposite of fat shaming and instead a robust body positivity.  

Please don’t spoil the potential of your studio to have a positive influence on our community by perpetuating the misinformation and fat shaming that comes across when you suggest you can help with weight loss. A healthier sense of our bodies would help us all thrive. If you are interested in a more positive view of fitness, this blog is a rich resource and it inspired a book that will be out in the next year — it has a feminist focus, but as the saying goes “feminism is for everybody.” (I have a few pieces there myself.) By resisting fat shaming, you may actually do more to help people who are struggling with obesity, as this recent article in The Globe and Mail indicates.  

If you’d like to chat about this over coffee, tea, or lunch, I’d be happy to.  

Very quickly I received a positive response! They removed the weight loss language, and apologized for the oversight. Wow!  That’s the best response I’ve ever received to a complaint, and renews my faith in yoga as a social as well as physical and mental practice.

Guest Post · yoga

Old School (Guest Post)

I have never considered myself to be traditional or a purist, but I love Ashtanga yoga. Yoga is one of the oldest regimes for exercise and Ashtanga is perhaps the most traditional form that remains popular. Yes, there is an app!

Ashtanga practice follows a set series of postures, practiced in a definite order, according to set breath counts; the same series each time. While there are six series in total, not many people practice beyond the primary series, and a lot like me are happy completing about half the primary series, which takes approximately an hour and fifteen minutes.

The regimented nature of Ashtanga appeals to me because it enhances certain aspects of yoga that I value. First of all, practicing the same series repeatedly builds strength in those particular postures (“asanas”). Yoga strength is the ultimate in “functional strength” because the physical practice explores and expands the body’s range of motion, and builds strength across that range. Screw ab crunches — yoga is way more fun and effective. Seriously, everyone is doing plank now.

 However, progress can be hard to track and yogis advise we measure it in millimetres and years — patience can be part of what one learns. Progress is easier to experience in Ashtanga because the postures don’t vary from one practice to the next. Each time — though probably not every time, I can experience a little improvement, and that’s encouraging.

Breathing is central to yoga too. It helps to maintain focus, sometimes using specialized techniques, and keeps one’s attention in the body which helps prevent injury. In Ashtanga, breathing determines the length and pace of postures, which I found fosters the type of serenity that yoga famously promises.

Breath leads most strongly and serenity follows most readily, for me, in the most traditional — even – of Ashtanga teaching formats, named after the historical centre of Ashtanga style, Mysore, India. Mysore style classes are like open houses: one arrives and begins when one likes, so long as there is enough time for practice during the designated period. People practice alongside each other, but at different points in the series, and at different paces depending largely on their breath, coached individually by the instructor who moves from person to person as needed. Marking time by one’s own breath for over an hour creates an incredible sense of grounding and peace.

I most enjoy learning in the Mysore style, as I first did. At my very first lesson, I was guided through five Suryamaskara or “sun salutations” in version A and sent home. Next time, I did the same plus five in the longer version B, and then I was sent home. Each time a new piece was added to the series, but only so long as I practiced three times per week. Otherwise, I remained where I’d been. Led classes can be part of Ashtanga too, and they can be fun, but I really like Mysore practice, and I follow the rule of not going past Marichyasana D, because I can’t bind my hands in it.

So I’m more a traditionalist than I ever imagined! I was aghast when I visited an Ashtanga studio in another city to find them violating some of the rules. Everyone had blocks and straps – common in other styles but virtually banned in my Ashtanga experience. I did a triple take. Was I in the right place? Sure, for an introductory class, props can help, I thought… but for everyone?! And then I noticed water bottles! WATER BOTTLES! They are contrary to the Ashtanga principle of building up internal heat. That’s not my favourite aspect of the practice. I don’t buy the line about detoxification: sweating is good for the body and one way we excrete, but I sweat plenty, thanks. Still, the rule is clear, and I hydrate thoroughly the rest of the day.

That class class experience reminded me how at eighteen and I was shocked attending Easter service in a “high Anglican” church that people lined up to kiss the crucifix. To me that was sacrilegious idol worship. Apparently, Ashtanga is my new orthodoxy.

For that class, I got a strap and blocks like everyone else, but I felt like a cheater the whole time. When I told my instructor at home about the water, she gasped in astonishment! I still feel like I’m getting away with something when I succumb to temptation (in a led class) and try a posture from the latter half of the series. I may get over that, but for now the orthodoxy suits me, and that’s what matters.

Guest Post · yoga

Negotiating Ashtanga: Belly, butt, boobs & breath VS Abs, arms & enlightenment

“You know Ashtanga was designed for teenage boys?” my friend said. I hadn’t heard that but I wasn’t surprised because it had struck me as designed for men, given all the upper body strength it requires. Arm support and abdominal strength help one jump back and forth (or walk lightly) for the sun salutations at the beginning, and in the vinyasas

that precede many of the postures. I have since learned that the origins of the practice are not so clear, and I know its important to remember that all traditions have complex histories: they grow and change. (Neglecting that consideration is part of the reasoning fallacy of appeal to tradition.) Perhaps part of Ashtanga’s development was to address the needs of adolescent boys, and men seem to be particularly keen on it because of its physical demands — it’s “macho yoga,” but … as the old soap commercial says, “I like it too!” 

I’ve always enjoyed ashtanga, since I first spent a couple of months learning it at a shala in Palo Alto. I hadn’t heard any of the other myths about it. I was originally attracted by its aerobic challenge, but found the benefits of improving upper body and core strength keep me going back. Few other activities have been so empowering for me, except perhaps one summer job planting trees that also gave me good upper body strength (such that I ended up actually knocking down other women in my self-defense class – oops!). I can’t (yet) “float,”

but Ashtanga does make me feel lighter and move with greater ease. My posture improved, my chiropractor remarked.

When my local yoga studio began to increase their Ashtanga offerings recently, I was excited. To get back into it I took part in a study of the effects of Ashtanga practice held at Downtown Yoga and run by yoga community leader Gina Wasserlein and University of Windsor psychologist Josee Jarry. As many of the participants in the nine-week study were undergraduate psychology students (as is the case for most psychology studies) the class tended to be tuned to the needs and abilities of young women — one teacher to my irritation remarked on all the “skinny girls”. I also find the whole first series and the pressure to practice six days a week a bit daunting. But it was exciting to be part of the research and among so many keen energetic people and I can gain different inspiration from the Jessamy Stanley who defy assumptions about yoga bodies.

My biggest complaints have been that I simply can’t twist like others can. The binds seem unreasonable given my belly. The jump through and floating seem absurd with my hips and butt. When I try to do plough – which used to be a favourite pose – my now substantial middle-aged boobs are squashed to my face and I seem to have some trouble breathing.

One class I had to hold back tears – it had been a bad day generally. I also injured my back pretty badly and it really hurt for a few weeks. Though I had never heard the myth that ashtanga is gymnastics, the tradition may well have been influenced by gymnastics, and it did strike me as yoga calisthenics. That misunderstanding is the reason why I hurt myself. (Remember, I was originally attracted by the aerobic aspect.) I was not focusing on my breath and my bhandas, the keys to strength in yoga;and my teachers (including Tammy Blaze) helped me through that. They also allowed me to see that my perceived breathing troubles may be more about claustrophobia (being trapped by my boobs) than anything else.

Patience and persistence provides part of the mental discipline of yoga. I’ve been glad I can now switch to a Mysore style practice where I follow the sequence of poses on my own, stop where I need to, and push myself where I can.

I’m also learning to trust the practice. Sure I need to adjust and mind my own physical peculiarities. I use a block for some asanas (poses). I’m not sure if I’ll ever get the binds that allow people to move into to the second-half of the first Ashtanga series. However, I’m noticing that the difficulty is less my boobs, belly, and butt than I thought. As my abdominal strength improves, as I work those twists, I can do a lot more on the mat — and everywhere else!

aging · family · Guest Post · health · men · weight loss

The joy of diagnosis: Sleep apnea (Guest post)

Testing for sleep apnea
Testing for sleep apnea

I’m sick…. ill, and I’m really happy about it! I’m relieved to know that I have sleep apnea, and especially that it’s severe. Although my treatment hasn’t started, good treatment is available. Also, there is a definite physical reason behind some of the problems I’ve had in recent years, even though it’s an extremely serious condition. The regular interruption of breathing that defines apnea can cause serious strain on the heart in addition to some of the other symptoms that are more easily observed and that have troubled me. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is common, often arising in middle age (I’m 48), though less in women than men. Mine may be encouraged by allergies, sinus problems, a small jaw, and body weight. (Non-obstructive or central sleep apnea (CSA) is due to problems with how the brain controls sleep.)

In recent years I’ve known something was wrong with me. I seem always tired, lethargic, and have trouble concentrating. I can nap pretty much any time of the day. I may be more irritable too. I thought I was being lazy, not trying hard enough, failing to manage my time. It was hard not to beat myself up. Or perhaps this was related to my migraines or tension headaches. Maybe I was depressed?

I worked on my organization, I got more exercise, set multiple alarms for the morning, put inspirational notes next to the bed to help me get up, and treated my headaches more seriously. They all helped, but I’m still tired most of the time, and the stress of the situation actually did make me depressed. Another problem seemed to be my recent dramatic snoring. Sometimes the dog even left the bed! I live alone and so have little idea how I sleep, but when there was occasion, others observed not just the horrific noise but that I seemed to have trouble breathing.

I tried sleeping on my side, which helps my snoring but also aggravates my shoulder and hip problems. It turns out that I have mild apnea on my side, and severe (stopping breathing about once a minute) on my back where I prefer to sleep mostly. That was the diagnosis from the sleep study, in which the patient gets all hooked up with electrodes of various sorts (including glue in the hair,) a snoring microphone (!), and a breath monitor. (In a private room like a tiny institutional hotel with a shared bathroom.)

Now I have the choice of the very effective CPAP machine (standing for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) which would normally be the obvious choice since I have adequate health coverage.  Many of my friends find the machine has changed their lives — yeah, they say that, almost all of them.

Sure, some complain that it’s embarrassing to have to wear the mask to bed, making one an unattractive bed partner, like Darth Vader. But it must be better than the snoring, to be sure; and if that’s a deal breaker, it’s not much of a “deal.” Also, some people find the mask uncomfortable, and while they’ve made big improvements in design in recent years nobody wants to wear an apparatus on their head if they don’t have to; so sometimes people refuse to use it or don’t use it regularly. My problem is that I have a rare genetic vascular condition (HHT) that manifests in ways that mean that I can’t scuba dive, of all the odd things, because of the forced air; I suspect the positive air pressure of the CPAP may pose a similar problem. I’m waiting for advice from my specialist, but it may be best for me to try the alternative dental appliance; it’s not typically best for severe sleep apnea, but it may be best for me.

One downside of this diagnosis is the complication to my body image: weight loss can eliminate sleep apnea. I would certainly love to lose some weight. Yet of course, as the sleep specialist understood, I’d have done that already if I could.

On the other hand, people do lose weight sometimes as a result of addressing their sleep apnea. More energy makes them more active, I suspect, and less inclined to seek energy in food; though an improvement in mood might help too. Anticipating this reminds me of the perverse pleasure so many of us have when an illness makes us lose weight: “because of the flu last month I can get into my old jeans!” Although if I should lose weight from treating my sleep apnea, it would be due to improved health. I just need to resist letting that possibility fuel weight loss fantasies that take up time I could be spending actually enjoying my life.

Time and energy are the real promise of treatment. In my homemade efforts to fight the energy loss from sleep apnea I got more active; now — with treatment — I should be able to perform and recover better (running-walking with my dog and yoga, recently the quite ambitious ashtanga style), and I’ll have the time to exercise more. I’ll keep repeating that to myself, and let the weight fall where it may.

body image · fitness · Guest Post · health · weight loss

Canine fitness coach (Guest post)

At one time I thought it would be good to have a small dog that I could take places with me, but I soon learned that a big dog could take me all sorts of places I really wanted to go! I had the chance to adopt a very nice husky-shepherd mix that a friend had rescued, and I knew she’d keep me active. I knew she could run with me, if I wanted, and that otherwise keeping her happy would require me to walk a lot. I named her Abbie – Abigail means “heavenly gift,” and she has not only required me to be active but helped me to enjoy exercise and build a better body image.

I’ve never particularly enjoyed exercise, except for step classes in certain places, dancing, and walking. Finding exercise that I can enjoy has been a long-term quest. I would run a little from time to time just because it was minimal hassle and investment. But running has become a special pleasure with Abbie: finding the freedom in letting out my stride and running alongside her, sharing the joy she finds in running. Nobody enjoys running like a dog, and perhaps no dogs more than huskies. Her pleasure at using her strength inspires me to simply enjoy what I’m doing, and to accept the exercise as an end in itself. We enjoy our movement, being together, and being simply being out!

I find it easiest to lose weight (and keep it off) when I run or get intense cardio of any kind, and I used to consider losing weight really important. It was my central reason for exercising: I’ve suffered from the usual body image nonsense that many women endure. I wanted a better motivation to exercise, but I couldn’t internalize the other goals it serves: stress reduction, energy, sleeping well, and so on. That’s a lot easier to do now that Abbie’s helped me to appreciate the pleasures of exercise itself, and being outside just to be in the light and the air. That motivates me to continue to exercise, so I can continue to do more, especially as my aging body needs encouragement.

Abbie checks out my new shoes, reserves judgement
Abbie checks out my new shoes, reserves judgement