Yoga vs. Religion

Do you have to believe in God or a higher being in order to practice yoga?

Newcomers (and maybe not so new ones) delving deeper into yoga often come up against that question. The books that I have been reading assume that a yogi believes in a higher being (at the very least). But we all come from different religious backgrounds. Some of us don’t have a solid definition of God while others are flat-out atheists. So isn’t it a little presumptuous to assume a belief in God? And if I did believe in God, what if my God isn’t the same as your God?

I was raised Roman Catholic (with all the baggage that comes with that). I attended Catholic school for most of my life and even went to a Jesuit college. During college, I was a Eucharistic Minister and I attended and led religious retreats. I was not a religious zealot by any means – I more enjoyed being part of the Catholic community. After college, I removed myself from that community and I only go to midnight mass now because I can’t say no to my mother.

Through yoga I have become exposed to a different spiritual experience. Yoga is rooted in eastern traditions but not necessarily tied to a religious system. Statements like “the universe is conspiring to make your wishes come true,” “humans are intrinsically good beings” and other similar themes are common when talking about the full expression of yoga. But I have to admit that as a yoga practitioner I don’t buy into all of that. I can appreciate the spirit in which it is shared but I have my own beliefs that I am working to refine based on what works for me, my experiences and what I perceive as the truth. And that in no way hinders my practice. I am not less of a yogi.

I asked one of my teachers, “What if I don’t believe in God or a higher being?” And her response was, “Well, whether or not you believe in a higher being, there is something outside of yourself that you are working towards, working for or answering to – be it your family, your dreams or something like that and so even in that context we are not functioning in isolation.” And that made a lot of sense to me within the context of my practice.

So can you continue with your yoga practice while having a completely different belief system?

The answer is a resounding YES!

Ultimately, yoga is  a personal journey and is open and flexible (pun intended) enough to accommodate your religion or lack thereof.

If you are a yogi, I encourage you to learn a little bit more about the history of yoga and its traditions. But don’t be afraid to explore, push boundaries and ask questions. You can ask them here or share your experience with religion and yoga.

Candle Flame

Photo via Flickr (Creative Commons) by Peter Zoon.

Why do you yoga? by Crystal Ellis

I know why I practice yoga. But I wanted to know why others do. Are they the same as mine? What is their story? What can I learn from other people’s experience with yoga?

So I asked the Twitter-verse WHY DO YOU YOGA?

Crystal Ellis (aka YogiCrystal) shared her answer with me. You can check her out on her blog and on Twitter. She’s also on Facebook.

A picture of Yogi Crystal

A couple weeks ago Samantha posted a tweet asking “why do you yoga?” and because I am so passionate about how yoga has helped me, I jumped at the chance to share my story and tell you why I yoga.

I started yoga in January 2008 after much deliberation and critical self talk. I had been in a car accident in 2006 and suffered whiplash/soft tissue damage to my neck and had myself thoroughly convinced that I did not belong in a yoga class.

You see, back in that time I didn’t know anything about yoga and I believed that it was only for the flexible and strong. I had been weakened from the accident and couldn’t touch my toes, so in my mind, I would look like a fool in class. Good thing that a friend of mine had just graduated from teacher training and listened to my story. First thing she told me was that there’s no ego in yoga and most people are doing their own thing, so they don’t really see you. Well, that was enough to get me to my first class and I have been hooked ever since.

I am glad that I had a great teacher from the start that supported me and offered adjustments according to my injury. This helped me gain strength and confidence in my practice and pushed me to never give up. I quickly grew quite interested in yoga philosophy and anatomy and I completed my teacher training in 2009. I believe this helped me gain understanding and awareness on a whole other level that I am extremely grateful for.

I started yoga for injury rehabilitation, but now it has grown into so much more. Pain relief, strength, energy, flexibility, and most of all, peace. Yoga takes me away from the world for just a little bit. Away from the rush, stress, noise and occasional craziness of life. It’s an escape for me, like a mini-getaway. Like most people, my life can be busy and it always feels like I am on the go. I get to stop in yoga. Get to breathe. Get to relax. And these days, it’s so important to have yoga in my life for these reasons and more.

Yoga brings me such a sense of serenity that I can’t imagine my life without it now.

I sometimes laugh at my old self and all those nerves I had about taking a class, because now I am the one helping unsure people get to their first class. I feel great doing yoga, but it also feels amazing sharing this practice with others and seeing how they change and grow.

These are the reasons I yoga, have you thought about yours?

Sharing the light series: Meet LAUREN UBERMAN!

Lauren is a nice person… I don’t mean that in a prosaic “I don’t have anything better to say about her and she’s dull as dishwater” way. I mean that she’s good to people. Really good to people (her students especially).

When I see her I always feel like she’s got a laugh lurking around her smile just dying to get out. And this excited energy permeates her classes and leaves you tired and yet somehow refreshed. Maybe it helps that she doesn’t seem to take herself so seriously.

She was teaching a Yogilates (a yoga and Pilates combination) class at Gold’s Gym when I first met her. Despite the fact that laughing hurt for days after her class because of my abs, I really enjoyed it. She is a great teacher – clear, concise, approachable and obviously loved by her students. Sometimes yoga teachers with all their knowledge can become inaccessible and a little out of touch… But not Lauren. She knows her stuff and more importantly she is willing and able to help you.

Luckily for us all, you can find Lauren’s wonderful classes at Blue Pit Workouts. She has also been known to participate in a few plays in our area. When you see her, tell her I said HI.

1.  How did you find your way to yoga?

I grew up doing ballet and gymnastics but struggled with lower back pain due to mild spinabifita. I always stayed active but was in a lot of pain. I tried yoga and pilates (somewhat out of desperation) and have NEVER looked back!! My back NEVER bothers me anymore and I’ve found that due to my own struggles, I’m better able to help my clients and students with theirs – I can relate. We have to know our limitations before we can expand them. Yoga has definitely expanded mine.

2. How would you describe your teaching style?

Varying. I stay true to Iyengar (of course, from ballet, I’m focused on alignment!) but I go with the energy of the group I’m practicing with each time. I like to ask people what they feel like working on (it’s their class after all!) and incorporate that into our practice, whether it be adding extra hip openers to some Vinyasa or extra planks to Ashtunga. I like to mix it up so that the class doesn’t get bored and it keeps their muscles guessing as to what will come next from week-to-week. No same positions each class here!

3. What is your go-to stress fighting technique?

Deep Breaths. And music. Both can do wonders for your mind, body and mood. Sometimes it’s fun to relax and breathe to “yoga music” then dive into a full practice to Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan. Whatever helps to keep us, as a class, in the moment, in the room, in the posture and out of our heads! Outside of class, going for long walks (while listening to my iPod), and playing guitar, piano, or ukulele takes my stress away – same principle – being in the moment and not wasting energy with worry.

4. Describe your perfect day.

Perfect Day? California-weather. Blue Skies, sunshine, and some kind of outdoor activity. Follow it up by either jamming with friends or going to watch some great live music. Yeah…nice. 🙂

5. Your last meal would be?

Something spicy. Either mexican or sushi – mmmmmm…… :-p

6. Best advice you can give someone would be?

Embrace your flaws, embrace your strengths. Usually one can help the other. No one has it all together and everyone is trying to figure it out. Cherish what makes you different, but don’t lose your desire to connect to your fellow man (or woman :-p). Take life in, ALL of it – the good and the bad – there is something to be learned in every situation, no matter how small. Other than that, it’s not a competition, encourage each other and be loving and kind, you never know who you may positively effect. It’s worth it. Count your blessings and just keep on keepin’ on. 🙂

Sharing the light series: Meet ANNIE CARLIN

I am always on the look out for good yoga teachers to connect with. On Twitter I have been fortunate to talk with a whole slew of yogis, teachers and like-minded folks. Annie Carlin is one of them. When she invited me to attend one of her classes, I jumped at the chance.

I was uncertain when I walked into the room but Annie’s infectious smile made me feel at ease. Her smile also had an element of mischievousness right at the very tips and I knew I was in for a fun class. I was not disappointed. From her I learned a nifty trick to help me strengthen my full boat pose… And it’s so great that I still get bubbly excited just thinking about it. These are the things you look forward to when teachers take classes from other teachers. The sharing of knowledge and feeling yourself expand right into that new information.

I look forward to many more experiences with beautiful Annie.

You can find out more about Annie here. She was also recently featured in Curvy Yoga.

1. How did you find your way to yoga?

Before I moved to DC five years ago, I lived in New York City my entire life. New York has a zillion yoga studios, but during college, one of my roommates told me I had to try a free class at a yoga studio a couple of blocks from where we lived. Though that first class kicked my butt and I felt like I would faint at any minute, something obviously spoke to me. When I moved back to Brooklyn after college, I found a studio I loved and was soon practicing almost everyday. To say that changed my life would be an understatement. Moving to DC was rough – but since then, I’ve become a yoga teacher myself and can pay forward the experiences I’ve had.

2. How would you describe your yoga teaching style?

So I’m a Prajna Inspired teacher – i.e. certified at 200 hours by Prajna Yoga out in New Mexico. The style incorporates asana principles from ashtanga and iyengar yoga with detailed anatomy instruction and wisdom from the buddhist traditions.

I teach a hybrid of flow and longer holds, and specialize in modifications for every body including working around injuries and other physical issues. I sometimes call what I teach what I call supportive yoga – yoga that incorporates props and modifications for folks who might not feel comfortable in a typical yoga class. I’ve done both a very physical and necessarily therapeutic practice at various times in the past ten years so I can adapt for students of all levels and needs. My current regular class is specifically for those who live in larger bodies, but I teach general classes quite often as well (as you saw this weekend)!

3. What is your go-to stress fighting technique?

Yoga certainly is up there, but I read somewhere once that singing was a great way to relieve the symptoms of stress because it forces you to regulate your breathing naturally. Since I love to sing anyway, it works especially well for me. My neighbors might feel otherwise. 😉

4. Describe your perfect day.

65 degrees, sunny, no humidity…

I tend to wake up early naturally so I’d start the day by walking to the local coffee shop, then I’d hit a farmers market and buy way too many delicious fruits and veggies. I’d spend a couple of hours at a yoga class with a teacher I adore or at a rocking zumba class, and then I would come home and make something amazing with my farmers market purchases. Finally, I’d spend the rest of the day snuggling with my boyfriend and/or chilling with friends.

5. Your last meal would be?

This one is hard! I’m going to say french fries from Cafe Luluc in Brooklyn, a Ray’s Hell Burger and a perfectly ripe plum or three. 🙂

6. Best advice you can give someone else would be?

Don’t miss the process for the outcome and don’t avoid experiences because you don’t know if you will succeed. I wish I always followed this advice myself – I think many mistakes I have made would have been avoided.

Sharing the light series: Meet ALLY SHUTTY

Ally Shutty and I were introduced via email by a mutual friend. Her first few words to me were, “Hiya Sam ~ I don’t know if people call you that but I will.” As I laughed to myself, I immediately knew that I’d be dealing with a firecracker.

There is a yoga teacher perception and though it’s not all bad it’s still not always true. Ally was generous, upbeat and straightforward in our email exchange and I wanted to see how that would translate into her teaching. When I finally had the chance to take a class with her, I enjoyed the combination of her vibrant personality with a direct and concise teaching style. No frilly, out of this realm, intangible words… She was clear, down-to-earth and completely relatable. I look forward to taking more classes with her.

Ally teaches in the DC/MD metro area. If you have any questions for her, leave a message here or send me a message and I’ll get you in touch with her.

1. How did you find your way to yoga?

I used drugs for many years to escape depression…. however, this just sent me into a deeper depression.  My mom bought me a gift certificate to a yoga class and I think the teacher took particular interest in me… perhaps she could sense my darkness. She asked me to show up for class everyday and from there on out I was hooked. Yoga became my drug of choice and allowed me to escape the dark and head towards the light.

2. How would you describe your yoga teaching style?

I teach from the heart. Whatever life lessons I am currently learning I incorporate into my practice. I use poses that might resemble that theme. I don’t box myself with a certain style a.k.a. vinyasa, yin, hatha… I mix it up. At the end of the day I get students to move and breathe to create healing in the body. After all yoga is used to end suffering and remind us who we are.

3. What is your go-to stress fighting technique?

Anytime I move my body whether its yoga or running… this is my go-to stress fighter. When I can match my body rhythms and my mind rhythms to the same tempo, it creates a steadiness and ease in my life.

4. Describe your perfect day.

My perfect day would begin sitting on my front porch with a cup of warm tea watching and listening to nature. Then some form of yoga or exercise. In the evenings I like to gather with friends or practice my ukulele.

5. Your last meal would be?

I love Pho… it would have to be a bowl of Pho!

 6. Best advice you can give someone else would be?

The body is our wisest tool and it can heal itself from heartburn to heartache.  Stop and listen… the signs and signals it sends us are all we need to heal ourselves. Are you eating the right foods, are you hydrated, are you sleeping enough, are you having fun?  Ask yourself these questions, do your practice, and all will come.

Sharing the light series: Meet INGRID MARTIN

Ingrid Martin and I met in a Gold’s Gym Body Flow class in 2008. Shortly after, she insisted that I get certified to teach Body Flow. She hasn’t stopped talking me into things since. Ingrid has been instrumental on my fitness journey – providing guidance, pushing when I needed to be pushed and providing plenty of opportunities for me to teach. I could not have asked for a better person to be on my team.

Ingrid is the Group Exercise Director for Bethesda Sport and Health. She is certified to teach yoga, weightlifting and spinning – just to name a few. When she is not terrorizing – I mean “motivating” people to be at their best and work a little harder, she is busy taking care of family and friends. I am only one of many people she has encouraged to get into group exercise. Take any one of her classes and you will see why her infectious energy and authenticity can help push you to the next level.

How did you find your way to yoga?

I found my way to yoga thru Body Flow. I began teaching Body Flow at Gold’s Gym and fell in love with it. I wanted to deepen my knowledge base and my own personal practice so I began down the road to complete my 200RYT. I am thrilled to have taken this path, and while I find myself done with the required trainings, I feel that I am just beginning the true journey.

How would you describe your teaching style?

My teaching style is evolving. When I first began teaching I put a lot of emphasis on the strength benefits of yoga. The longer I teach the more the meditation speaks to me so my classes are beginning to move into a more meditative style. I am looking forward to teaching a Restorative class in the near future.

What is your go-to stress fighting technique?

Breathing. I can completely change my mood by focusing on my breath and the rhythm of my breathing. It sounds so silly, but it truly works. The problem is you have to remember to do it when you are stressed.

Describe your perfect day.

Sleeping in late (I love sleep) and then eating a great breakfast. I would spend the rest of the day lounging by the pool reading magazines. I find the noise of the kids in the pool to be comforting and I just love the feeling of being around lots of people but still off to myself. A late afternoon yoga class followed by a wonderful dinner and a bottle of wine with someone that I love and that loves me would be my perfect day.

Your last meal would be?

What a sad thought. I guess I would say a delicious thick steak covered in crispy thin onion rings, with a fresh green salad, and strawberry shortcake with loads of cool-whip for dessert.

Best advice you can give someone else would be?

Listen to your gut.

Sharing the light series

I am eternally grateful for the wonderful people I have encountered in my life. Some I have known for a few years and others are recent acquaintances. I am featuring a few of them here.

They are real people. Real yogis. With a tremendous amount of love to share. I am hoping they will inspire you just as they have inspired me in big and small ways.

I have asked each one to answer the same set of questions below. Discover how the same questions evoke different answers based on her own experiences.

How did you find your way to yoga?

How would you describe your teaching style?

What is your go-to stress fighting technique?

Describe your perfect day.

Your last meal would be?

Best advice you can give someone else would be?

Feel free to direct a question their way – whether it’s for clarification or just looking for advice. Either way, stay tuned and enjoy!

Namaste.

6 tips on getting the most out of your yoga practice

Your yoga practice is called that because – duh – it requires practice! It also takes work, commitment and dedication. You will be elated by your good days and you will have to persevere through your bad days. You will learn and re-learn things. You will discover truths about yourself.

Each time you step on your mat will be a complete and unique experience. Your yoga teacher plays a role in what happens during class but, more importantly, YOU play a role in your yoga experience.

Think about it – after a particularly heinous day, you get on your mat thinking you’re going to “yoga this day right out of your hair” but then you hold on to your unpleasant thoughts… Does your practice then feel a little lacking? Do you feel as frustrated as when you started? Do you feel like you just wasted your time?

Below are some tips on how you can make the most of yoga each and every time you step on your mat:

  • Be patient. Strong poses take time. It will come.
  • Stay present. Mindfulness increases awareness of your body. It will not only help you fly in your poses but also prevent injuries.
  • Release your expectations. Don’t start with the goal of successfully holding a difficult pose. Allow your body to guide you and don’t be too hard on yourself.
  • Do not multi-task. Set aside your to-do list or what lies ahead of you. Focus on the one thing that you are doing. You will be better at listening to the needs of your body.
  • Ignore your peers. You are on a different point in your yoga journey than your fellow yogis. Turn your blinders on and focus.
  • Breathe. When you are straining, you tend to hold your breath. When you hold your breath, your muscles tighten up instead of expanding and this will hamper your flexibility.

I know… You’re thinking… It can’t be that easy?!? Trust me. It isn’t. In an age where multi-tasking is king not letting our mind go “SQUIRREL!” is a hard task. Rather than talking to yourself as you flow from one pose to the next let your mind go blank. Then come back here and tell me how it went.

Good luck!

Yoga for Men?

These past few weeks I have been consumed by one question: How can I get more men into yoga? Hell, I would be satisfied with just getting them to try it! Just once! It is ironic that there was a time when yoga was meant only for men and women had to fight for the right to practice yoga.

But to get to the bottom of my issue, I asked a wide range of men – young, old, single, married, straight, gay, normal, weird, athletes, non-athletes, boxers or briefs (?) – what is stopping him from trying yoga? I even set up a poll on my Facebook Page to get more input!

Below are the three most common objections voiced by the people I interacted with (and my response to each, of course!):

1. I am not flexible enough.

My response: Yoga will help you with that. Trust me. No one expects you to be an expert. It is my job to help you get there.

2. Yoga is a female-dominated exercise (aka Yoga is for women).

My response: I do not see what the problem is especially for those hoping to make new female friends. 😉 But then again I am not afraid to walk into a male-dominated weight room. No one is paying attention to what you are doing. Get over it.

3. Yoga is like stretching. It would be one more thing to do. I’m not seeing the  benefits.

My response: Yoga is so much more than “stretching.” (You would know that if your ignorant butt would actually try a class!) It requires flexibility and strength. It is holding your squats and planks instead of powering through them (poorly and incorrectly I might add). It is stretching your muscles to the limit but still demanding strength from it. Instead of weights you are using your own weight with gravity. Anyone who has ever done a pushup would know that this is enough.

This man is not a pansy

Men need yoga maybe even more than women do precisely because men are less flexible. As you age, you are going to need that flexibility more than ever. Even Men’s Health Magazine recognizes the need for men to do yoga and have dedicated a page on their website for precisely that.

But my question of how to get men into yoga classes remains unanswered. My husband suggested a “Yoga for Men” class – designed specifically for men in a room filled with men. The idea has merit (don’t tell him I said that). So what say you, men of the world? Are you in?

And if anyone else has any suggestions, I would certainly love to hear it. If you are a man who practices yoga, I want to hear from you as well!

Image via Flickr (creative commons) by Andy Polaine.

My short stint with Bikram Yoga

According to Dictionary.com, Bikram Yoga is “a type of hatha yoga characterized by a set series of postures and breathing exercises, performed in a very hot room.”

It’s the “very hot room” part that has most people talking. 105 degrees to be exact. When you first walk into a room heated up to 105 degrees, it’s like getting punched in the gut. You’re not quite sure what happened but you know you didn’t like it.

As a yoga teacher, I am asked all the time about different types of yoga – Bikram especially. So finally, with Groupon in hand, I went to my first ever Bikram Yoga class. Can’t hurt, right? (Famous last words?)

I approached Bikram with a lot of trepidation. I swim in sweat at room temperature so I was not looking forward to sweating more. Or worse yet, having someone else’s sweat splatter on me. And, of course, I was completely unprepared for my first class despite how many times I googled “how to survive Bikram” prior to going.

My first class was not a complete disaster but I was mentally unprepared for how difficult it was going to be. Suffice it to say, I didn’t quite make the 90 minutes. At 60 minutes I had to make the awful decision between walking out with tail between my legs or vomiting in the room. I opted for the walk of shame.

Other people would not willingly return after such a defeat but not me. I couldn’t stand the thought of failing at something yoga-related. So I came back… not just once but TWICE! (My belief is that you need to try something at least 3 times before you can have a respectable opinion on it. Belief excludes illegal and dangerous activities.)

I was better prepared the next time. My husband thought I was crazy as I packed my gear to try again especially when I ranted and raved after the first class. I looked like I was going into battle. I packed my water bottle with ice, wore shorts instead of pants, I brought a watch so I’d know how much time was left and I firmly planted myself by the door in the hopes of catching any breeze. Sure enough, it went much better and I made it through the 90 minutes with a smile on my face.

So the big question is: Will I be back? The answer is a firm NO.

I don’t want to offend Bikram lovers but it simply wasn’t for me. It was complete torture. When I tell people this, they always inadvertently imply that I didn’t have the mental stamina to practice Bikram. Some have demanded that I keep going until I learn to love it. But the truth is I spent all of my time at Bikram focused on making it through the movements and cursing the incredible heat. I wasn’t focused on my body and how it was feeling. I wasn’t thinking about how good it was for me. I didn’t feel glorious and open. I didn’t feel good. And I hated having to lock my knees! Sure, I felt tremendous pride in making it through but I didn’t like where my mind was while I was practicing.

So do I recommend that people try it? Hell yes! I admire the folks who practice Bikram and you should definitely have your own opinion on it. Don’t just take my word for it. But as for me? I will be keeping my distance.

What are your thoughts on Bikram or hot yoga?