fitness · yoga

A week of more yin, less yang

This week I’ve been in Tucson, Arizona on a work trip.  Two colleagues and I are developing a paper on discriminatory speech and weight concern trolling– e.g. when health care folks urge weight loss, saying “I only care about your health”.  And so on.  This is a prime entry point for fat shaming, and we’ve blogged a lot about it.

But that’s not what I’m here to tell you about today.  I’m here to spread the word on the joys of yin. Yin yoga, to be exact.  Or maybe yin in general.  I’m not sure, but hoping it becomes clear by the end of this post.

Starting at the beginning (of the week): I flew into Tucson from Boston on Monday night late, and woke up early Tuesday, jet lagged and not well slept. I had arranged for delivery of a rental road bike by 7:30am, so I could ride before it got beastly hot. However, the delivery folks had a problem, and I was wide awake and without bike.

Looking around online, I found a cute downtown Tucson storefront studio called Tucson Yoga.  They had a gentle Yin yoga class for 9am.  Perfect!  Even though I don’t really know what yin yoga is, it sounded relaxing and soothing for my jet-lagged self.

What is yin yoga? Here’s what one yoga website has to say about it:

Yin yoga is based on the Taoist concept of yin and yang, opposite and complementary principles in nature. Yin is the stable, unmoving, hidden aspect of things; yang is the changing, moving, revealing aspect. In the body, the relatively stiff connective tissues(tendons, ligaments, fascia) are yin, while the more mobile and pliable muscles and blood are yang.

A Yin yoga class usually consists of a series of long-held, passive floor poses that mainly work the lower part of the body – the hips, pelvis, inner thighs, lower spine. These areas are especially rich in connective tissues. The poses are held for up to five minutes, sometimes longer.

You might think, hmmm– I wonder if this is for me.  Well, here’s your answer:

Yin yoga is for you if you are tired and craving energy or you’re over-stimulated and have too much energy; if your mind is overactive or your energy levels erratic.

Right.  This means yin yoga is for everyone.  I was certainly in a slow-down mood that morning.  So I headed over to this lovely little studio, and walked in.

The storefront of Tucson Yoga, complete with serene sun and mountain mural.
The storefront of Tucson Yoga, complete with serene sun and mountain mural.

The place consisted of one long room, with a registration desk and IKEA cubbies for storing stuff at one end. We all got our mats, blocks, bolsters and blankets, and set up. I didn’t even realize it until my second yin yoga class this week, but this studio doesn’t have air conditioning!  They left the front and back doors open, and there was a very nice summer breeze.  That, along with ceiling fans, made the temperature perfect, even in July in Arizona.  Amazing.

Back to class: we started with a guided centering meditation, and then moved to various seated or lying-down poses.  We did some twists, some forward folds, some chest opening poses, and other non-demanding moves.  The difference was that we stayed in those positions for several minutes at a time. This deepened the feelings of stretching, and for me, allowed me to sink into the pose and really relax.  This pose below is my new favorite relaxing yoga position:

A person lying down on a mat with a block under their chest, and another under their head.
A person lying down on a mat with a block under their chest, and another under their head.

 

I could lie like that all day. But the class ended at 10:15, so I left, but not before buying a 5-class card. Which cost $28.  That’s less than $6 a class!  Did I step back into 1996 or something?  I had discovered not just yin, but heavily discounted yin. Woo hoo!

My main activity plans for this week were to cycle on the bike loop around Tucson, a more than 120-mile network of protected paths and roads with bike lanes. I did this in March with friends and really enjoyed it. However, there were more logistical snags with getting the bike, so I didn’t actually get around to balancing my yin with some yang-like cycling until Thursday.  And man, was it not fun!  I was miserable in the heat and humidity (the monsoons are here, so it’s in the upper 90s with high humidity and intermittent heavy rainstorms.).  I managed a bit more than an hour and called it quits.

Friday marked my full return to yin. The day started with a visit to a fancy Tucson resort where other friends were staying, so we could all float together down the lazy river pool.

A lazy river pool at a desert hotel, with trees and desert mountains in the background.
A lazy river pool at a desert hotel, with trees and desert mountains in the background.

Okay, maybe that’s technically not a yin activity, but it certainly felt yin-ish. And deliciously relaxing.

After lunch my friend Alice and I went to a restorative yin yoga class at Tucson Yoga.  It was very hot outside, but again breezy and refreshing in the studio.  This class was more intense, as we held poses for up to 5 minutes.  That doesn’t sound like long, but is when you are holding this pose:

A person seated with soles of the feet together, knees out, leaning forward, head on a yoga block, arms forward resting on the mat.
A person seated with soles of the feet together, knees out, leaning forward, head on a yoga block, arms forward resting on the mat.

We were encouraged to play with finding our edge– seeing what level of stress or discomfort we were experiencing, and decide before adjusting to create less or more stress.  I enjoyed having the time to experience changes in physical stress or tension in various parts of my body. I could then back off and create a sense of relaxation. Or, I could stay with a pose and the feeling would morph from tension to release and then relaxation.  Cool, huh?  I thought so.

I gave up on cycling in Tucson this week.  It was too darn hot, I couldn’t seem to get up early enough to manage it, and I was finding myself desiring more yin. So I’ve done some gentle swimming, easy walking, and am going to a yin restorative class Sunday afternoon following my morning hike in Sabino Canyon with Kay.  Even the hiking has felt more yinny, as Kay doesn’t mind going at my pace.

Monday I fly back to Boston to my yangy life of work, responsibilities, and cycling (which I adore). But it’s been nice to slow down the pace and focus inward for a bit. And I am going to incorporate more yin into my yoga and life schedule.  Maybe I can even take some yin bike rides.

What about you, dear readers?  What do you do when you want to slow down the pace of activity, life, self?  I’d love to hear some tips.

 

 

 

yoga

Cause and Effect, Effect and Cause – Anxiously Dealing with Tight Neck Muscles

I don’t suffer from any sort of anxiety disorder but I am quite experienced with garden variety anxiousness.* So that means I get stressed out while to manage my work, or when I am trying to figure out what order to do my work in. I’m sure lots of you have the same kind of thing going on.

 

While anxiety makes my thoughts hop from topic to topic, my main physical symptom is tightness in my neck, shoulders and upper back. Sometimes I don’t even realize I feel anxious until my neck gets cranky with me, and then I take the opportunity to corral my racing thoughts and bring myself some ease.

The author, a white woman with light brown hair and glasses and wearing a black shirt, is using her right hand to gently pull her head to the right and stretch the left side of her neck. Her eyes are closed and she is smirking.
This is what happens when I try to demonstrate a stretch while smirking and then accidentally close my eyes as I snap the photo. Goofiness abounds.

 

I wouldn’t say that anxiety *causes* me neck and shoulder tension but they are definitely related. 

 

I discovered a few years ago that the relationship goes both ways.

 

If I do too much writing, or overdo my upper body workouts, or if I walk too long in the wind,** my neck and shoulders get tight. Once those muscles get themselves in a twist, my brain goes problem-solving mode and tries to figure out what I am anxious about. My breathing gets shallower, I draw my shoulders up closer to my ears, and I keep waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.

 

The thing is, there wasn’t even a first shoe, let alone an ‘other’ one. I wasn’t anxious in the first place, I just had tight shoulders. But my brain, my ever-so-helpful brain, knows what that tension signifies and reacts by generating anxious thoughts.

 

Delightful, hey?

 

Okay, it’s more frustrating than delightful, but at least I have started to recognize when it happens. Once I know what’s going on, I stretch, I do a little exercise, I roll a lacrosse ball around on my shoulders and neck (based on my chiropractor’s advice – thanks, Ken!) and eventually both the muscle tension and the resultant anxiety eases.

 

This whole scenario happened to me this past Sunday. I woke up with neck, shoulders and upper back all pulled taut. I had weird nightmares all Saturday night so I suspect that I was hunching my shoulders in my sleep.

 

I spent a good chunk of Sunday morning feeling pretty awful – my brain was bouncing from side to side in my skull and it was hard to breathe –  and I couldn’t figure out what to do with myself.

 

I meditated for a little while which helped with my racing thoughts but not with my shoulders, and then I hit on the idea of doing some yoga.

 

That’s when I found this:

A yoga video from ‘Yoga with Adriene’ that is focused on ‘neck and shoulder relief’

 

(I really like Adriene’s videos because she’s cheerfully goofy)

 

It was exactly what I needed. Not only did it have the sort of stretching that I needed to do, it kept me sitting still long enough for my brain to rest a bit.

 

My next step is to work on some preventative habits that help keep my neck from getting so tight in the first place.

 

Do you have that cause then effect and effect then cause thing going on too? How does it happen for you?

What do you do to help yourself out of that loop?

 

*I feel like this is pretty common with people with ADD. When you have trouble measuring time and your executive function is not always on call, the risk of messing something up or forgetting something important is pretty high.

**Apparently, I hunch my shoulders when walking in the wind. This is a serious hazard in NL where it is windy ALL THE TIME.

fitness · yoga

Good/bad yogi me? How about just yogi me?

I’ve been doing more yoga lately, which makes me very happy.  I like taking time out for focused and thoughtful movement, some of which is easier and some of which is harder for me.  I’m reminded of limits and also opportunities– there’s a modification of most yoga poses for lots of people, and I’ve gotten comfortable with not trying to kill myself to do something that I simply cannot do that day, these days, or ever.  Like this one– not happening:

A person (I think just one but am not entirely sure) with a head on the floor, leg(s?) behind head, arms behind back.
A person (I think just one but am not entirely sure) with a head on the floor, legs behind head, arms behind back.

One of my favs is this legs up the wall restorative pose, which I could do all day:

A woman in turquoise tights and a purple top lying down with her legs up and against a wall. She looks relaxed (probably because she is).
A woman in turquoise tights and a purple top lying down with her legs up and against a wall. She looks relaxed (probably because she is).

I love my local yoga studio, Artemis Yoga, which is near my house, beautiful inside, and filled with friendly and chill yoga aficionados of all sorts.  I’ve also been supplementing my classes with at-home yoga, using the Bad Yogi youtube videos.  Erin Motz is the Bad Yogi, and she has a veritable cornucopia of yoga video classes for every mood/method/body part that one might want to practice with on the mat. I did her 30-day yoga challenge last year, which included some undoable-by-me workouts; I just ignored them and did some other happier-for-me classes.  The videos are 10–20 minutes long, which is enough to make me feel good and also squeezable into my schedule. If I’m feeling the need for more, I just do another video. Bad Yogi yoga is explicit about welcoming everyone to yoga, demystifying the practice of yoga, and offering a variety of ways to enjoy what yoga has to offer.  This sounds great to me.

Yesterday I decided to check out the Bad Yogi website in more detail. I’m rather sorry I did, because I found that Bad Yogi has branched out into health and wellness and fitness and nutritional advice, replete with lots of messaging about how to be GOOD.

Bad Yogi advertisement for a Cleanse Kit, saying "be good, feel good".
Bad Yogi advertisement for a Cleanse Kit, saying “be good, feel good”.

Apparently, being good may sometimes involve cleansing, whatever that is (although I see an avocado graphic, and I like avocados). Excuse me, but what does cleansing have to do with yoga? What does cleansing have to do with being good? With feeling good?

Tracy wrote a great post on cleansing here (spoiler alert: four days of non-diary coconut ice cream may not be a great idea).

I get it that there’s a whole industry around “cleansing” (as opposed to actual cleansing, which to me means something to do with laundry), and I happily ignore it.  But I’m really disappointed that my online yoga friend Bad Yogi is promoting this.  And with the extra ka-pow message of “be good”. No.  No on so many fronts:

  • No to me being asked to be good– I can be how I choose.
  • No to me being asked to be good– I can be how I am.
  • No to identifying being good with doing some food deprivation regimen.
  • No to linking feeling good with being good (that’s way too much to untangle right now).
  • No to linking feeling good with eating particular food items (or abstaining from them).
  • No to making feeling good a goal (maybe that’s too high a bar sometimes).
  • No to more things I haven’t listed but would agree to if someone else told me.

Here’s where I am on yoga:  I’m there. Just there. I’m not good, I’m not bad, I’m just yoga-ing.

What about you, yogic readers: what’s your yoga about these days?  I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

 

gear · walking · yoga

Summer Victory! Christine troubleshoots her outdoor fitness

I’m my own superhero this week – gleefully removing obstacles that prevent me from going outside to play.

 

How did I do that you may ask?  I bought a mat and a new pair of sneakers.

 

I know, it doesn’t sound heroic at all, blah de blah, Christine bought things, but I had to do a ridiculous amount of thinking to figure that those were the things I needed.

 

I’m sure I have told you before how my ADD makes it hard to break a problem into pieces, I usually refer to it as a reverse ‘forest for the trees’ problem – it’s not that I can’t see the forest for the trees, it’s that I can’t see that the forest is made of trees. So, when I meet some resistance to things I am trying to do, I often can’t see what the solvable issue is – I just see the whole situation as difficult.

 

So, given that it is (finally) getting summer(ish) here in Newfoundland*, I want to do more things outdoors, especially exercise. I love to go for walks and I love to do yoga in the sunshine in my yard.

 

But, last summer and fall, I found myself a bit reluctant to go out walking. I liked the process of being on a walk but it was hard to get myself to put on my sneakers.

 

And, also last summer, I really liked the times that I did yoga in the yard but I didn’t do it as often as I meant to.

 

I know that some of the more fitness-driven readers might be thinking – oh, just do it and stop whining about it. You’re right, of course, that’s a lot of the issue. I ‘just’ need to get over myself but there was more to it, and this week,for some reason, I managed to zero in on the issues with both activities.

 

First, the walking… 

 

My old sneakers had holes in the sole. I don’t mean that I had worn a hole in them, I mean that the design was such that there were a series of spaces in the sole of the shoe. That may not seem like a big deal until you realize that the holes are big enough to pick up rocks. So, every time I wear them, I have to stop and pry rocks out over and over. It’s annoying but apparently the task had sunk at least part way into my subconscious, so I didn’t really realize what a hassle it had become.

The bottom of a right sneaker. The sole is grey and green and the design of the surface includes ridges and a line of large holes. The sneaker is resting on a brown linoleum floor.
See what I mean? Imagine the rocks that could fit in there and click while you walk.

 

It was only this week, when I was putting the sneakers on to walk my son to school for an exam and I suggested a less rocky route, that I realized they were such an impediment. And the sneakers are several years old so I don’t even feel guilty about replacing a pair of ‘perfectly good sneakers’ because they aren’t perfectly good in other ways either.

 

So, now I have a pair of brand new sneakers and I have already taken the long way to get several places just to get a bit more of a walk in.

The author's feet in her new grey and pink sneakers. She is standing on black asphalt.

 

 

Next – yard yoga!

 

The grass in my backyard is bumpy. I’m sure that there are plenty of rocks getting in my way under the surface out there, as well. Perhaps the sod is not laid well, I don’t know, and I am not about to do the kind of landscaping that would fix it. If I put my yoga mat directly on the grass, I am all uneven, I’m on a slant, and I can’t do any poses requiring balance.

 

My back deck is old and the ‘floor’ is made of fairly widely spaced slats. If I put my yoga mat directly on that, I can feel the spaces under my feet or back or knee, and one of my fingers always ends up pushing my yoga mat into the space.

Three weathered brown deck boards. There are finger-width spaces between each one.
Look at those finger-trapping spaces. Ignore how badly the deck needs painting, we’ve only had about nice days so far, so painting will have to wait.

 

Last summer, I countered the problem by dragging a piece of plywood from behind the shed and placing it on the grass before putting my yoga mat down. It worked but it added one more task to the process of doing yoga and that was enough hassle to stop me sometimes.

 

After I bought my sneakers on Wednesday, my next errand was the grocery store.

 

Since I was in problem solving mode, I guess my brain decided it was a good time to kick up the memory of the patio mats I had seen at that store a couple of weeks before. Previous to that, I didn’t know patio mats existed.

 

This time, I put two and two together and, to quote my dad, ‘got something approximating four’ and realized that the patio mat would instantly remove the obstacle to putting my yoga mat on the deck.

 

A green yoga mat with flowers printed on it in yellow rests on a larger beige patio mat that has circular patters on it.
Yoga mat + deck mat = more yoga It’s mathematical!

 

I’ve already done two outdoor yoga sessions and it had only been a few days.

 

So, yeah, I’m my own obstacle-removing superhero this week. I don’t have a clever name yet though, and my costume will have to wait until I get back from a walk.

 

*My province is called Newfoundland and Labrador but I live on the island portion and I can’t speak for what the weather is like in Labrador.

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.