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.

fitness · yoga

Exploring bossy yoga

It’s been fun over the past couple of years to explore different types of yoga offered at my studio in Watertown, MA, as well as other places.  They offer flow, restorative, ropes yoga, yoga and meditation, chair yoga, and many specialized classes for particular groups (like yoga for cyclists and runners) or particular body parts (like hip opener workshops and such).

My studio also features Iyengar yoga classes.  Here’s what Yoga Journal says about it:

By paying close attention to anatomical details and the alignment of each posture, Iyengar Yoga is the practice of precision. Poses are held for long periods and often modified with props. This method is designed to systematically cultivate strength, flexibility, stability, and awareness, and can be therapeutic for specific conditions. B.K.S. Iyengar founded Iyengar Yoga.

I was talking with a friend about Iyengar classes, and she said to me, “I like them, but the teachers are kind of bossy”.

This is so true, now that I think about it.  In an Iyengar class, the focus is entirely on alignment, which requires a number of small but crucial adjustments of inner or outer rotations of limbs, weight shifts, foot position, etc.  The result is a deep and often intense experience of what it feels like to be embodied.

But getting there is often not pretty.  In Iyengar class, I often feel like I’m trying to back a large truck into a small parking space.  This is not what the teacher says, but it is what I hear sometimes:

Okay, bend the left knee– not that knee, the other knee.  Now, rotate the left hip back and the right hip forward.  More.  More. Even more!  Stop. Pull the torso back– no, not that way– back!  Lift out of the ribcage.  Breathe.

It’s kind of an intense experience, my body being bossed around in class.  I have to surrender individual control and will to what’s happening.  There’s no place to hide.  I can’t soft pedal or adjust the tension like in spin class.  It’s all out there, and the teacher sees all and attends to all.

Oddly enough, Iyengar class doesn’t make me feel vulnerable.  It makes me feel attended to and seen.  It’s a place (one of the few places, actually) where I just don’t mind being bossed around.  The teachers see me, and are brave and caring enough to help me in a literal hands-on way to achieve alignment and strength.  I’m into it.

Readers, do you have experiences of being “bossed around” in physical activity classes or workshops or events?  Do you like it?  Do you not like it?  How does being seen, identified as doing what you’re doing, and adjusted, advised, etc.  affect you?  I’d like to know.


Sat with Nat · yoga

Savouring Yin Yoga

Many of my regular fitness activities have fallen by the wayside over the winter. Some of it was treacherous sidewalks and multiple slips & falls. Other things, like starting a new role last December, have changed when and how long I’m at work and if I can make fitness classes.

One thing I’ve been able to consistently do is hot yoga on Sundays with my friend & neighbour Kim. We did a few flow classes in December and January. One day we decided to try the yin yoga class. We’ve both fallen in love with these 90 minute classes of gentle movement and lengthy stretches.

I had a preconceived notion that the class was for, well, people much older than me. The class is typically a mix of ages from university students to retirees.

In many aspects of my life I’m driven by achieving and squeezing more out of or into my day. This class is not about any of that and I’m getting a great deal of joy out of being in the moment and adopting passive postures that are surprisingly intense.

Sometimes my mind is rushing and impatient. When I first did a reclined crescent posture I thought “This is a waste of time. I’m not feeling anything. Are we going to move on soon?”

Funny enough, as I laid there stretching, my side started burning and the intensity traveled up and down my side as well as wrapping around my hip. Whoa. Unexpectedly intense and very pleasant.

I keep going back with Kim and we visit a bit walking back and forth to class. We share what worked for us in the class or sensations or cranky body bits.

I love the whole package: walking to class, visiting, and the class itself.

I’m not sure how long I will keep going to the class (I’m horribly fickle) but for now I’m savouring the class and all that it is doing for me. Natalie is taking a selfie on a sidewalk looking up at the camera. She is wearing a neon green crochet hat, a bag of yoga gear and her favourite Enderman hoodie.

fitness · gear · traveling · yoga

Yoga mats are purple in India, too

It’s my last full day in India and it’s been a dream trip in so many ways. But if I had to identify one thing that hasn’t been great it’s been my activity level. Now, I’m not one to get down on myself when I don’t stick with routine. Regular readers of the blog will know that I am endlessly forgiving in that area, a committed advocate of doing less.

But I’ve been  completely absorbed with the adventure of exploring India, and one aspect of that adventure is that unless you’re in a high end hotel with a fitness centre, you can pretty much forget running. Apart from it being too hot, the roads are not navigable for runners (at least not anywhere I’ve been). The traffic is chaotic and there aren’t really long stretches of good sidewalk. Dangerous potholes mean you need to pay close attention even when walking.

I’ve spent part of my time in high end hotels when in Chennai (four nights at the Hyatt at the beginning of my trip and now two nights at the Taj Clubhouse at the end of my trip). At the beginning, I was too wiped out to think about spending time in the gym. But this morning, after many hours of sitting in the conference Thursday to Sunday then on a road trip on Sunday after lunch (sitting on a bus for hours and then on a boat before spending two hours on our feet exploring an ancient temple) my body was screaming for some of my regular activity. This hotel has a roof top fitness centre and I noticed last night when we were at the roof top restaurant beside the rooftop pool (it’s extremely luxurious and we got a deal on expedia) that they have a bank of treadmills.

The lovely concierge here, Rajeswari, said I could ask her anything.

Image description: Head shot of Rageswari, a young Indian woman with dark hair, a red bindi between her eyebrows, a large beaded read necklace, and a red and beige sari, and a gold name plate that says Rajeswari. Blurred background of a green plant on the left and chairs on the right.
Image description: Head shot of Rajeswari, a young Indian woman with dark hair, a red bindi between her eyebrows, a large beaded read necklace, and a red and beige sari, and a gold name plate that says Rajeswari. Blurred background of a green plant on the left and chairs on the right.

So I messaged her this morning at 6 a.m. to find out if the fitness centre has gear kits. Some hotels, like the Westin, will provide you with a kit that contains shoes and workout clothes. I didn’t expect to hear back from her quite so quickly, but she let me know that they don’t do that here. What about yoga classes, I asked. No yoga classes either. But, she said, I can have a mat delivered to your room.

Within ten minutes a purple foam yoga mat, just like the very first yoga mat I ever owned, was delivered to my door. There is something comforting about familiar equipment. Anyone who has ever worked out somewhere new will know that initial feeling of disorientation. But encountering something you already know makes you feel right at home. That’s how I felt when I was handed the purple yoga mat.

Image descrription: purple yoga mat on the floor in Tracy's hotel room, with wood shelving and desk in the background.
Image descrription: purple yoga mat on the floor in Tracy’s hotel room, with wood shelving and desk in the background.

It’s been many years since I’ve been this inactive, with only walking and sitting, for this long (over two weeks). My feet have swollen with the heat and inactivity. As I said to Sam this morning when I was messaging her: “I want my ankles back!”

When the mat came I couldn’t get going fast enough. I spent the next hour working my way through the moksha series of standing poses then floor poses. It felt incredible to stretch it out and put in some effort. I held each pose for at least 30 seconds, some longer, and did my best not to rush through anything. By the end, my aching bones and muscles and joints felt alive again.

At breakfast, Rajeswari came by to assure me that the mat would stay in my room until I check out tomorrow.

Image description: Rolled up purple yoga mat propped against built-in wood shelving with black desk chair and part of desk visible in the background.
Image description: Rolled up purple yoga mat propped against built-in wood shelving with black desk chair and part of desk visible in the background.

And I’ve already done my research: I have a four hour stop over in Toronto on the way home. Pearson International Airport has a Good Life gym where you can rent a workout clothing kit for $10, store your luggage, and have a workout and a shower. After 24 hours enroute, I’m sure this will be a most welcome way to hit the Canadian ground running.

What workout gear makes you feel at home when you’re working out in a new or unfamiliar place?

fitness · yoga

Working on my base– a foot yoga workshop

What’s your weak spot? Mine is my feet and ankles. They are almost never perfectly happy. I am constantly searching for that magical, elusive shoe that will 1) cushion my flat feet; 2) be gentle enough to avoid giving me blisters, and 3) be sturdy and supportive enough so I don’t twist, turn or sprain an ankle.

So imagine my surprise and pleasure to see that my local studio, Artemis in Watertown, MA, was holding an event called Functional Body Workshop: The Feet! Sign me up now!

The workshop was part information session and part foot/leg workout. We started with a cool exercise that added an arts-and-crafts element: we were supposed to pair up and draw an outline of our partner’s feet on a piece of paper. Here’s mine:

a drawn outline of my two feet, on a piece of white paper.
a drawn outline of my two feet, on a piece of white paper.

Then, we were asked to stand on our yoga mats for a bit, eyes closed, attending to what our bodies felt like, focusing on the feet. We were asked to annotate our foot drawing with that information. I noted the following on mine:

  • both feet pronate inward
  • some pressure on left heel
  • more stability on right foot
  • more pressure on left foot
  • some leg and lower back stiffness

Then we went to work: The teacher, Carly Vernon, who does integrative muscular therapy, handed us each a woolen ball (squishier than a tennis ball), and we proceeded to use it for various forms of deep massage. We used our body weight and moved the ball around to work areas of our legs, ankles and feet. We massaged and rubbed our toes.

Here a person is pushing toes against the wool ball, which is against a wall.
Here a person is pushing toes against the wool ball, which is against a wall.
Here a person is in a lunge, with the front knee bent, and a wool ball is under the foot, being rotated, and then at rest.
Here a person is in a lunge, with the front knee bent, and a wool ball is under the foot, being rotated, and then at rest.

Some of these exercises, well, uh, they hurt. A good bit. When asked about pain, Carly said, “when you experience pain during these exercises, double down on it. Let yourself get inside it. Don’t back off.” Uh, okay. It was pretty interesting to play around with intensity while doing these exercises. We worked all the way from our IT bands above the knee to the knee area, down the calf (front and back) and focusing a lot on the foot and ankle.

After about 75 minutes of intermittent exercises (with breaks), I tried a couple of yoga poses. I often have trouble with balance in some of the warrior poses, like this one:

A woman in a warrior lunge pose, front knee bent, back leg straight, with torso upright and arms straight and overhead.
A woman in a warrior lunge pose, front knee bent, back leg straight, with torso upright and arms straight and overhead. Me

What happens sometimes is that my feet will start to cramp, as I’m holding them tightly for balance. Well, I tried several warrior variations, and they felt great. It was a totally different experience. Wow.

Before we ended, we were asked to stand on our yoga mats again, eyes closed, paying attention to our bodies in general (and feet in particular). Were there any differences?

You betcha. Here’s my feet picture showing in green my before-exercise comments and in red my after-exercise comments:

The same picture of my feet with comments in green and red ink indicating before and after exercises.
The same picture of my feet with comments in green and red ink indicating before and after exercises.

So what changed?

  • less inward pronation
  • a shift in the areas and degree of tenderness in my left foot
  • overall more even distribution of weight on both feet
  • no more feeling of pressure on left foot
  • no more leg or lower back stiffness

Wow! Yay!

Of course, none of this is a miracle (although I’m very grateful for Carly’s expertise and help at the workshop). It’s the result of concerted attention to my feet. If I want my feet to feel great, I will have to attend more to them. Sigh. One wishes that feeling great in parts of one’s body required less work. But knowledge is power, and I now have some easy-to-do exercises (and a nice orange woolen ball as a takeaway gift) that I can (and should) do anytime. They do a lot for me– it’s the least I can do for them.

A pair of feet with a french pedicure and lotion in the shape of a smiley face.
A pair of feet with a french pedicure and lotion in the shape of a smiley face.

London’s Calling Anita to Hot Yoga (Guest Post)

Running park in London, UK. The photo is of a bridge with metal rails, water on the right, grey skies.

By Anita Kothari

Back at home one of my weekly joys was meeting up with friends Tracy and Julie for our long and slow Sunday runs. It was a chance to chat about work, family and life with lots of time for cross-interrogation during our hour, or more, together. Often, we followed up with brunch.

It never felt like exercise (ok sometimes it was grueling but the camaraderie was infectious). If convenient we met during the week for shorter runs but often we did those on our own. Last year I’d also started taking a weights-based exercise class at my gym to get in some muscle toning. And that was my weekly exercise regime.

I’ve had to adjust here in London, England where I am spending my sabbatical year. I’ve joined a gym that isn’t a perfect match for my middle-aged self but it’s within walking distance from my home. The toning classes are different…the instructors are obviously trained differently here, and they emphasize different things in their routines. Hey – it’s better than nothing, I thought to myself, and I slowly began to see the advantages to their technique.

What’s different at this gym is that one must sign up online for a class ahead of time. This means that many times my class of choice is at capacity, which in turn means I can’t establish a Mon/Wed kind of pattern like I had before. #firstworldproblem

In terms of running, there’s a terrific little park across the street for short weekday runs. I found parks nearby for long Sunday runs. The sad thing is I haven’t found a running club. I’ve heard rumours of Saturday Park runs across the country where groups of people do 5K together. I can’t figure out how it works. And I’m spoiled for SUNDAYS not Saturdays (Saturday seems to be the long run day here). I’ve been trying oh so hard to keep up my solo Sunday 10Ks. Correction: along with Tracy’s Spotify playlists (thanks Tracy!). I really miss the company of my pals.

Going to the gym this month has been difficult because everyone is going to the gym this month. Experience has taught me that I just need to wait it out – wait till those who aren’t able to keep their New Year’s resolutions for whatever reason stop signing up for MY CLASSES.

I tried a different tactic this Saturday. I saw an early-morning yoga class that requires an extra fee. That, combined with the rain, ought to keep people away, I thought, so I signed up. I haven’t done any yoga in over a year, and although I never got to the point of calling yoga a “practice”, I was excited about doing the class. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to hear the instructor’s soft-spoken instructions over the loud personal trainer on the other side of the wall. But the magic happened. I grew accustomed to her voice.

Her timing and instructions were excellent, she offered different levels or ways of doing the poses, she demonstrated the poses, and she gently corrected those who needed adjustments. To really enjoy the class I positioned myself away from the mirrors. My middle-aged confidence kicked in so that soon enough my mind was focused on the moves. The hour flew by.

My body ached all over as I walked home. Good aches, in places that don’t normally ache. And how much fun was it to twist and move in different ways than my regular running and toning class motions! The afterglow was exhilarating, really. I hope this experience inspires me (and others) to move out of my comfort zone from time to time. I will remind myself: try something new! Your body can do it!

Anita is a life-loving academic who wants more experiences and fewer things

Sat with Nat · yoga

Revisiting Hot Yoga

It’s been a long time since I first tried hot yoga. My friend and neighbour Kim had scored a free pass to try hot yoga and asked me if I would like to join her. I agreed to go but wasn’t sure which studio we were heading for.

I’m very lucky that I live within walking distance of many yoga studios. As we walked down in the squeaky snow I realized it was a studio my oldest son goes to as well as a few other friends.

I knew to bring a towel and water. We did an evening community class. It was not too crowded and the instructor was lovely.

I enjoyed chatting and walking to and from with Kim. We both decided to get 5 class passes and have been going to a noon flow class for 3 weeks.

Since I now manage cold hands and feet from Raynaud’s the heat feels especially good.

I’ve had the chance to have a different instructor each class which keeps it interesting. The timing worked out that we were in class both on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.

It felt great to move with intention and take time to support my wellbeing during potentially hectic days.

One surprise has been the muscle fatigue, especially in my gluteus medius. It’s the crescent shape spot on my upper glute that joins to the bone and fans outward towards my hip.

I’m taking that as a sign that the other muscles are doing enough work that new muscles are engaging. I’m delighted that my piriformis is not aching.

Natalie stares at the camera wearing a brown and orange toque, a mustard yellow cowl and an army green parka. The background is a narrow lane with apple trees covered in snow

I keep forgetting to snap a photo after yoga but here’s one of my outside, walking to meet Kim.