Mindful awareness

Monday, July 18, 2011

Benefits of Yoga

I have seen many of the popular press articles and some of the research articles (most are not very well controlled – unfortunately the studies are for the most part too poorly designed to make confident conclusions) espousing the benefits of yoga practice. Every body system, including endocrine, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal is supposed to be positively affected by yoga in some way. Perhaps they are.

Exercise certainly will positively affect every body system. Many well-designed studies have removed doubt that the higher intensity the exercise the more one will benefit (up to a point that is not likely to be sustained by anyone but a few elite athletes). Unfortunately, few articles that claim health benefits of yoga compare asana practice (poses linked with breathing) to traditional exercise so no one can say for certain if yoga is as good as or more or less effective than a workout that includes cardiovascular exercise and resistance training. There also are many styles of yoga practice, some more likely than others to benefit all body systems. Of all the classes available on any one day in any city, most will not be as beneficial as a gym workout for any body system because of the difference in workload intensity.

I personally look to the gym where I maintain an elevated heart rate during cardio exercise and lift my maximum weight during resistance training (see previous blog posts) for physiologic benefits of physical activity. It is the mindfulness part of yoga practice that keeps me coming back to my mat. Turning inward to time by breath with body movement keeps me present the entire time I practice. Anytime my mind wanders off to the huge list of things I need to do or issues I need to resolve, I come back to my breath and alignment to maintain my mindful yoga practice. My poses are deeper when I’m aware and my experience is more awake and alive.  I finish my practice feeling like I’ve been to a spa or had a nap in a way that other physical activity doesn’t offer. My mind is still after a yoga practice and I feel ready to tackle the to-do list and unresolved issues with new clarity and vigor.

 My awareness practice on the mat also helps me to return to the present moment during my experiences off the mat. I have learned to tune into the present by being aware of each breath and of the sensations of each moment.  I have come to appreciate the difference between gulping tea without awareness and presence and drinking with attention to the aroma, taste, and sight of the drink. I stay with each sensation to take advantage of each moment, particularly when I am enjoying an experience. Why get a fabulous massage when I’m busy mentally running down my to-do list?! Why indulge in a decadent dessert unless I’m enjoying each bite with all my senses?!

 I’ll rely on my gym workout to benefit me physiologically. It is the awareness and mindfulness I learn from my yoga practice that I see as the valuable benefit of yoga.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Balancing Diets

There is certainly room for treats and sweets in a balanced diet. It just requires strength to keep the balance from tipping in a direction that is both unhealthy and likely to lead to weight gain. Eating a balanced diet is similar to parsva bakasana (side crow pose) variation in that way. Yoga students tend to think the pose is all about strength when in fact it is more about maintaining a precarious balance.

 There is a role for desserts in a balanced diet as long as they are eaten in moderation and planned carefully as a component of the entire days’ calorie intake. I enjoy nice wines and friends of mine serve fantastic wine. I know that when I plan to dine at their home in the evening I will need to balance my anticipated extra caloric intake through a careful meal plan for the rest of the day. Another friend bakes incredible desserts and I enjoy her vegan fruit pies. But I have trouble deciding between the choices when she invites me to dinner parties. So I plan for the dessert as I eat my other meals for the day then eat a very small portion of two different pies. These are realistic strategies to plan for sweets. It is neither realistic nor balanced to never eat desserts or fine wine at all.

Treats need to be considered special, not eaten with each meal. The problem with calling a food “good” (vegetables) or “bad” (desserts) is that we lose sight of a balanced lifestyle based on moderation. Once a dieter deprives herself of a certain type of food that she has labeled “bad”, she finds she craves it even more. The strength to resist is less important than a balanced plan. She will be more likely to over indulge on the forbidden food and spiral into a diet that is further from her goal. A meal plan that includes less healthy options as part of one’s lifestyle is more likely to be sustained than dieting that excludes any one type of food.

It has become more difficult to be mindful of portion size because food manufacturers have increased the packages of familiar treats. Coca Cola had been bottled as 6-ounce servings in the 1950’s. That is a moderate portion of a sweet treat. A single 6-ounce serving every now and then as Coke products were consumed in the 1950’s would not be a diet catastrophe. The problem now is that people consume 28-ounce bottles even several times a day. That is when a reasonable indulgence becomes catastrophic for a healthy lifestyle.

Tiny bite-sized candy bars can be a solution to curb a sweet tooth as long as we eat only two or three of them and put the rest of the bag in an inconvenient location (maybe in a box in the garage for the serious Snickers fan). To take time to enjoy the sweet makes it more satisfying than mindlessly polishing off the huge theatre-sized bar that will unbalance any meal plan.

Candy bars do not happen to tempt me; I’m more of a crunchy/salty type. So I don’t often purchase corn chips. If I do, I grab a handful and put the bag back in the pantry before I start to mindlessly plow through more chips than I needed. Another solution to control portion size is to purchase single-serving bags of chips.

We cannot sustain a diet that has drastically cut sweets, fats and salts without eventually feeling hungry and deprived, leading to later gauging. However, a diet high in sweets, fats and salts will lead to unwanted weight gain and potentially unhealthy insulin and lipid protein profiles. We each need to find balance by developing strategies that work for ourselves to reduce unnecessary calories (a number greater than the calories we burn in a day) without feeling deprived. It is a balance of consuming fewer calories from treats while enjoying each small portion.

Today I’ve enjoyed my lunch salad without rice crackers. I’m saving my sweet calories for some Ben and Jerry’s Berried Treasure sorbet. And when I do eat it on this hot evening I will take out only a couple of spoonfuls and enjoy each taste. Perhaps I need a little strength to resist eating the whole pint, but it’s really all about balance.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


Freedom has been the lesson I keep returning to this week, (not coincidentally) timed with the country’s celebration of its freedom from a relationship that did not work to the advantage of the colonies nor the English. I have explored many ways to deepen the feeling of freedom, or moksha (liberation), on the mat that have followed me off the mat.
Some students requested that we work on hip openers for our Independence Day practice. We worked to soften through the hips and pelvis to find a sense of ease in several asanas (poses), including gomukhasana (cow face pose) and in many lunges and standing poses including parivrtta trikonasana (revolved triangle pose). We worked toward eka hasta bhujasana (elephant trunk pose) and astavakrasana (eight-angle pose). But these two are not easy poses. Many students did not get into them and some of the students that did were unable to hold the poses for five breaths. This is where we are presented with the opportunity to free ourselves from our egos. Difficult poses like these offer important lessons to let go of the ego that tells us we need to “nail” each pose and let us explore the pose and experience it as our bodies offers it at this point in time. We are free to develop our practice and our attention as we challenge ourselves – where is the opportunity to develop if we never practice a pose we find difficult? 

Many yoga students are challenged by hip openers like these. Others find these poses easier and need to explore freeing their egos in other poses such as shoulder openers like garudasana (eagle pose) and arm balances such as bakasana (crow pose). Whatever our challenge pose is at the moment, it will challenge us emotionally and mentally as much as it will challenge us physically. The challenging pose will become easier if we surrender into it and soften our resistance, using our breath to move into it, rather than pushing, expecting, trying and doing.

So where have I applied these lessons to my life off the mat? As a chronic perfectionist, I’ve been working on freedom from finding perfection in myself, others, and events. It is not easy for me to let go of my ego that I wrap in perfectionism. But I am more aware of softening expectations, looking for the best possible outcome perhaps, but finding something natural and generally ok about imperfection. I’ve been lengthening my breath and releasing resistance to what is and accepting it with a free and open mind. Just as every asana isn’t going to be perfect, nor will every action off the mat. If I accept freedom to experience fluctuation on my mat then I need to soften and release perfectionism off my mat.  

We find more opportunities to liberate ourselves by releasing habitual thoughts and actions. Habits by definition are the easy way to function and lead to our reaching for a less healthy food option or automatically finding the negative in someone or something. It requires more mindfulness to interrupt a habitual pattern by reaching for a peach rather than a chocolate bar when we feel stress. It is hard work, but that is where the opportunity to develop ourselves comes from. True freedom comes from controlling and interrupting patterns and habits that don’t serve us. The founders of our country declared independence from patterns that didn’t serve the colonies. The freedoms they sought did not come easy but were rewarding, liberating, and enduring much as the benefits of our yoga practice can be for us. If we could only surrender and let go of our ego then we can be free.