Finding your yoga home

Some of the obstacles to getting started in yoga is not knowing what type of yoga is right for you. There are many different styles of yoga and sometimes the best way to find out if you like something or not is to try it for yourself.

Yogitastic with her mat

But just to help you along, below are brief descriptions of the most popular yoga styles in the U.S.:

Ashtanga – In this style there are six established (and strenuous) pose sequences. Meaning there’s a series 1, series 2, etc. Yogis move rapidly from one pose to another, combined with deep, controlled breathing. Also referred to as power yoga.

Hatha – All yoga poses are considered hatha but more popularly when referring to a type of class it means it is slower-paced, gentle and focused on breathing and meditation.

Bikram – Created by Bikram Choudhury. This style is a series of 26 poses (each performed twice) in a nearly 105º room with 40% humidity.

Hot yoga – This style is similar to Bikram only in that the room is warmer than your average room but only from 85º to 95º. The lower temperature is more manageable while still benefitting from the warm room which helps with flexibility.

Iyengar – Founded by B.K.S. Iyengar. This form of yoga focuses on precise alignment and deliberate sequencing. Props are used in this class to helps students to get into the right position.

Anusara – Created by John Friend (who is awesome, by the way). This style of yoga also focuses on precise alignment like Iyengar but taps into the more spiritual (and fun) aspects of yoga. Expect a lot of “heart-opening” poses like backbends.

Jivamukti – Created by Sharon Gannon and David Life. A typical class includes a theme, some chanting and references to ancient scripture weaved into the physical practice. It is rooted heavily in yoga philosophy and traditions.

Kundalini – This practice is intended to release the kundalini (serpent) energy of the root chakra (area around your lower spine). Movements are intense and with a lot of work on core. There is also a lot of sitting. This one thoroughly kicked my butt.

Restorative – This style of yoga is heaven on earth. The poses for this class focus more towards relaxation. Props like blankets, bolsters and eye pillows help yogis to sink into their breath and let go. Stressed out? This is the yoga practice for you.

Vinyasa – My favorite style of yoga. Also commonly known as flow, like ashtanga, yogis rapidly flow from one pose to the next with attention to the breath. Most vinyasa classes are taught with music. (And I love that!)

Yin – This practice involve more passive stretches held for longer periods of time (read: not a cake walk). For those people (like me) who have a more fiery practice, this style of yoga is the perfect balance to cool down with.

Sometimes you’ll see a class labeled Yoga I/II. If the studio isn’t clearly affiliated with a style of yoga, it probably means that the teacher combines or blends several teaching styles in her classes. If you have never tried yoga, it’s best to start at Yoga I. As you improve, then you can move up to Yoga II then Yoga III.

I hope this helps get you on your yoga journey. If you have any questions, please let me know!

P.S. I teach a Yoga I/II class every Thursday at 7:00 PM in Silver Spring. I mix different styles of yoga and share a theme with my students. Questions and requests for clarification are always welcome. Come and join me next time!

Fat Yoga

“Do overweight ladies do yoga? It seems to be for the thin and flexible.”

In one form or another, the sentiment above is one of the most common ones expressed to me ever since I started doing yoga. It is infuriating!

YOGA IS FOR EVERY BODY. Repeat after me: YOGA IS FOR EVERY BODY.

It doesn’t matter whether you can touch your toes or even see them. Everyone can practice yoga. And it makes me angry to think that maybe someone or something has made a person feel like she can’t come to yoga because she’s too fat.

As an overweight person will there be poses you can’t do or have more difficulty doing? Yes, of course! There are poses I can’t do simply because my arms are too short. That doesn’t mean I can’t do yoga – only that modifications have to be made. Because we are all so anatomically varied, yoga is different for every person. If you think you might be more comfortable, there are plus-sized yoga classes like Annie Carlin‘s “Larger Bodies Miniseries” at Golden Heart Yoga. Find and take the class where you will feel the most secure and at ease.

Every teacher is trained and prepared to teach yoga to students of all shapes, sizes and different levels of ability. So that is never an issue when you walk into a yoga class. But I can’t pretend that every yoga class is a judgment-free haven. Rest assured, those classes do exist and it’s important to keep looking until you find one. Why? Because yoga is good for you and if you enjoy it, nothing should stop you from doing it.

Yoga’s popularity in the U.S. exploded these past few years and I’m glad people are practicing but I worry that others who could benefit from it feel too intimidated to come or tried it and felt unwelcome. When I look out at my classes, the majority of my students are thin, white women. More often than not, I’m the only minority in the room. That reality is probably a combination of where I teach and where yoga is at this time (or at least people’s perception of it). Organizations like Decolonizing Yoga are working to dispel the notion that yoga is only for certain types of people.

So you mustn’t feel discouraged. There is a yoga home for every person. When you find it, I promise you it will have been worth the search. Now go out there and do some yoga!

Yoga on the Mall 2013

Recap: Yoga on the Mall 2013

Sunday was an amazing day!

I participated in Yoga on the Mall for the first time. I even had the honor of practicing on stage with a few of my favorite teachers like Nina Stanger and Andrew McAuley! Over 1,600 yogis joined in the wonderful event and my goodness was it wonderful! The day started off cool and cloudy but by the time practice started the sun was shining and it had warmed up considerably.

At some point Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” was blasting over the speakers, teachers were snapping their fingers and everyone was singing along as they rooted their feet into the earth while hands reached up to the glorious sky. The only thing brighter than the sun was the smile on everyone’s faces. I was not expecting to be so moved by the experience of doing yoga in a beautiful place with hundreds of other yogis but my heart felt like it was going to explode from all the joy. I felt alive, awake and so grateful to be part of the DC yoga community. I thought my heart would burst! (No wonder Forbes.com recently counted Washington, DC in the top ten U.S. cities for yoga). By the time we reached the end and everyone chanted OM loudly and clearly, it felt like every cell in my body was vibrating! I felt alive, awake and thankful to be part of this yoga community. I will not easily forget this day. But I will let the pictures below do a better job of describing what I saw. (There are more pictures on my Facebook page.)

Yoga on the Mall 2013

Yoga on the mall sun salute

Yoga on the mall sun warriors

Yoga on the mall childs pose

If you missed it this year, hopefully you can join me in 2014. One thing is for sure, whether you practice yoga or not, you shouldn’t miss it. Thank you to the organizers of DC Yoga Week for all of their hard work!

Sharing the light series: Meet NINA STANGER!

Nina Stanger is a serious yogi who doesn’t take yoga seriously. (Have you seen her picture?)

Nina’s class was the first Vinyasa Flow class I had ever taken and truthfully it blew my mind. It was a beautiful experience – I was challenged and tired but it felt a lot like poetry in motion. The sequence of poses just made sense. It was where my body naturally wanted to go (aside from Savasana which is where my body ALWAYS wants to go). Her gentle way of teaching has an undercurrent of strength and support guiding you through the practice rather than leading you to it. There is a lightheartedness to her tone and style – you’ll still notice that your body is being taken to its edge – you just won’t mind. Nina is one of my favorite yoga teachers and I am really glad I can share a little bit of her with you.

You can find Nina’s classes at extendYoga on Tuesdays at 9:30 AM, Fridays at 5:30 PM and Sundays at 4:00 PM and at Allay Yoga on Tuesdays at Noon. If you’re lucky, you can catch her teaching at Lululemon in Bethesda Row. She is one of their ambassadors. Online you can get to know her on her blog on food addiction and recovery: Prana Rising. When you are ready to take the next step in yoga and you want to learn more about Nina’s teaching style, she is also a core faculty member at the Sky House Yoga – Yoga Teacher Training.

Okay, one last thing: She’s also hosting a yoga retreat in St. Croix in June. (Who could resist?)

Nina Stanger1.How did you find your way to yoga?

I think yoga found me, actually. I took my first class in high school as a way to get out of gym class. We had the option to do yoga for a semester, so I chose that since I hated gym. After that, I took random classes at different studios in the area. Then, in college, I again had the option to take it at school for a semester, and the teacher was absolutely wonderful. She was the first Vinyasa teacher I had, and her classes inspired me greatly. I continued to dabble with other classes on and off, but didn’t have a dedicated practice. Then, the summer before my last year of college, I decided I’d really like to be a yoga teacher, but I thought I wasn’t flexible enough, good enough, etc. One of my teacher friends heard me say this, and he said, “If you want to teach yoga, all you have to do is LOVE yoga.” That was all it took; I got over myself and became a diehard Vinyasa student, and a year later, a yoga teacher.

2. How would you describe your teaching style?

FLOW. I guide students through sequences linking breath and body, building flexibility and strength. In my classes the poses are important, but the breath comes first. I like to have fun and teach challenging asanas with gentle spirit.

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

Closing my eyes, taking a deep breath, and remembering that I am alive. Laughing and getting outside helps, too.

4. Describe your perfect day.

SLEEP IN. Wake up when my body is ready to wake up, not because an alarm is buzzing! Eat a delicious breakfast (my favorite meal, especially when chocolate chip pancakes are involved), go to a yoga class, hang out with friends/my boyfriend, spend some time in the sun… I’m pretty content as long as yoga and the people I love are involved!

5. Your last meal would be?

Chocolate chip pancakes, complete with whipped cream. (It took me about half a second to come up with that answer.)

6. Best advice you can give someone would be?

In the form of a question: How can you love yourself right now, in this moment? Whatever we are struggling with, whatever is challenging or difficult or confusing, how can you trust your heart and follow your gut instinct? One of my favorite quotes says it best: “The heart needs no reason.”

Your yoga will change…

Or maybe it won’t. Either way, it’s okay.

When I started doing yoga, I was at a low point in my life. I was directionless. Uninspired. Lost. Depressed.

My sister took pity on me and magnanimously bought me a full year’s membership to the local gym which offered free yoga classes. And then she dragged me to one. (I think she was tired of seeing me moping around the house).

At first, yoga was purely a workout for me. I had an emotional attachment to it but only in the sense that it made me feel good (and look good!).

It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized that yoga had become this physical AND mental practice for me. I mean I always knew that yoga was so much bigger than me doing poses. I was starting to benefit from yoga beyond the mat. I was using breathing techniques learned in class during stressful situations. I could channel into the good feeling that resulted from my practice even when I wasn’t on my mat. I was also starting to follow yogic principles of practicing self-care and non-violence. I was no longer just a gym rat who happened to be in a yoga class. I felt like a yogi. I had finally (maybe accidentally?) tapped into the larger fabric of yoga. Despite myself I had moved beyond yoga as a workout to yoga as a way of life. And HOLY HELL I liked it! I could not get enough. My heart felt bigger than my chest. I was calmer. I was happier. I didn’t feel so alone.

One of the more beautiful things about yoga is its independent existence. Whether or not I believed in yoga, it just was. When I stepped on to the mat, I was joining the millions of other people who have done the same poses for hundreds of years and sharing in the cosmic energy. I didn’t have to be special. I didn’t need to be able to do certain poses to gain access to its full potential. In whatever measure that I wanted to take it on, it was enough and there for me. I don’t even have to be vegetarian (though some would argue with that – but that’s for another blog post).

One of my teachers spent over ten years trying to define “his yoga” and he finally concluded that yoga was anything good that he was doing for himself. It could be anything from practicing, meditating, going to bed earlier or choosing a healthier meal to eat.

And so maybe like my journey with yoga, your relationship with yoga might change as well. Or maybe it won’t. It’s okay. You will get there when you get there.

So tell me, has your yoga changed?

Yogitastic on the beach

My yoga class playlist

VolumeI believe in the magic of music.

Music is an easy way to channel something inside or outside of myself. When I have emotions I can’t quite put words to, there is definitely a song that can do it for me. Some songs can take me right out of my current experience while others are completely grounding. Naturally, I use music in my yoga classes as a quick way to get students “in the mood.” Below is one of my favorite playlists:

The Mystic’s Dream by Loreena McKennitt

Moment of Surrender by U2

Eminence Front by the Who

A Different Drum by Peter Gabriel

Empty by Ray LaMontagne

For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey, What’s That Sound) by Buffalo Springfield

Strength, Courage and Wisdom by India.Arie

Fly by Steve Winwood

I Shall Believe by Sheryl Crow

By Your Grace/Jai Gurudev by Krishna Das

By This River by Brian Eno

Life and Death by Deeper Connexions

Gymnopédie No. 1 by Erik Satie

Do you have any songs you love hearing in yoga class or would love to hear in class? Please share them here!

(Thanks to Teachasana for the inspiration to share my playlist!)

Getting hurt while doing yoga…

Lorin at The Vegan Asana recently wrote about yoga sometimes hurting. In it she says, pain is okay

as long as the pain is not extreme, is not unusual, is not unbearable, does not produce dizziness or nausea, and is not in areas of the body that are very easily injured (e.g. knees) or where injuries could be quite dangerous (e.g. neck).

Great things to keep in mind with any physical activity. At the beginning of my class and throughout class, I remind students that though they should feel challenged within the poses, they should not feel any sharp pain and if they do, then they need to slowly and carefully come out of the pose. Additionally, I emphasize modified versions of poses by demonstrating that first then showing the more advanced positions before returning to the other version to encourage students not to push beyond what they are capable of at the present. (Yes, more often than not, I can tell when a student is not ready for a pose).

Despite all of that I still see plenty of students who push harder than they should at the risk of getting hurt.

But I encourage them to come back because I want them to learn that a great thing about yoga is that it provides an opportunity to tune in to your body while it is in action. Whether you are moving into the warrior poses, holding them or coming out, you are mindfully going slowly enough to listen to your body. You can ask: what felt good? What didn’t? Did adjusting one way make it better or worse? You will learn so much about your body during a yoga practice.

That is, if you are listening…

The key to avoiding getting hurt inside and outside of yoga is knowing where your edges are. Your physical edge is that line in your body right before the benefit of exertion becomes harmful and injury is likely. Like a cliff, you approach your edge slowly and carefully so that you don’t fall over. Knowing where solid ground ends and free fall begins is important to preventing injury.

For example, in a seated forward fold, a student with tight hamstrings shouldn’t grab his feet, jerk his torso towards his legs and pull as hard as he can to get his chest as close to his thighs as possible. This can cause a serious tear and take him out of commission for weeks. The fold should be approached slowly, bending from the hip creases while using the breath to gradually lower the chest towards the legs to deepen the stretch. Done carelessly, it’s not just your legs that you can hurt but your back as well.

The mentality of pushing past pain does more harm than good. Pain, after all, is your body telling you that it is not okay. Ignoring pain comes with a price that can easily be avoided if we spent just a little more time listening to our bodies and being kinder to ourselves. There is, of course, a difference between pain and intensity. In a stretch, it changes from intensity to pain when you are no longer enjoying the movement. At that point, pulling back is recommended.

It is up to us to define our own edges – physically and psychologically. It is the only sure-fire way to stay safe. If you have any wisdom to share about your experience with injury, please leave them here!

Smarter than you are