Strong Is The New Skinny, And That’s Not Necessarily A Good Thing

A new student approached me after her first yoga class and asked me to write down my complete teaching schedule so that she could attend my class every day. My ego was honored, but my mind was surprised. This newbie had a grand total of 75 minutes of yoga experience, and we were talking about a huge commitment. Maybe she’d tasted the peace of being deeply connected, in the perfect place at the perfect time? Perhaps she’d sensed the possibilities to be discovered in a yoga practice? This is why every teacher works hard: to open the gate for a student to realize she can create the life and the health that she wants. How wonderful that, in this case, it had clicked so quickly. As I wrote out my schedule, I asked, “What’s your goal for your yoga practice?” I expected to hear about a deep revelation, which is why I was speechless when she said, “I want the definition in your arms.” Oh. Of course.

I’d forgotten, “Strong is the new skinny.” This catchphrase seems to be popping up in my world a lot lately. It’s on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and the window of a local yoga studio. The first time I heard “strong is the new skinny,” I was enthusiastic. In theory, I’m all for strong men and women! However, I’ve come to see an insidious side of this concept in the way it’s being adopted. What could have been an empowering approach to body confidence has become another way to prioritize unrealistic body image; we’ve just replaced one cultural standard (thin) with another (ripped muscles). Sure, strength is important. We need strength in order to live our lives, to care for our self and the people who mater most. Ultimately, when we get strong in our bodies, we can apply this strength to the actions we take, the degree to which we become masters of our minds, and our approach to living our lives fully. When I think of “strong,” I think of my students who approach radiation treatments with optimism and courage. I think of my mom supporting two kids on her own. I think of my friend who felt unfulfilled in his secure career, so he left to pursue a job that ignited his passion. True strength can’t be measured by how many pounds you lift on a barbell, but it can be measured by how many spirits you lift. Unfortunately, “strong is the new skinny” isn’t necessarily being adopted to encourage this type of strength. Turning the slogan into a focus on an ideal outward appearance can trigger a negative internal battle that diminishes, rather than builds, strength. I have experienced how this can happen. In my teens and twenties, I used to model. During that time, I went on some bizarre diets. (Tip: if you eat nothing but string beans and hard boiled eggs for a week, fainting is a foregone conclusion.)

I turned to extreme measures in an effort to achieve an idealized version of what I was supposed to look like. Because thin was in, if the scale read two pounds over my goal, I’d put myself down. Eventually, I realized that my body wasn’t built to sustain a waif-like figure, and holding myself accountable to an unrealistic goal often made me feel like a failure. Similarly, by making “strong is the new skinny” all about striving for a visible six-pack and shredded triceps, it’s not a step forward on the path to true strength. We’re not trying to actually get stronger, healthier, or raise our levels of self-esteem. We’ve just traded one potentially unrealistic and unhealthy external goal for another. Both paths lead to the same end point: self-criticism. I like the definition in my arms. They aren’t huge, but they are strong enough to hold some really fun arm balances. I especially like my arms because they stuck with me while I developed the patience, focus and self-acceptance to learn those same arm balances. My arms represent the strength of commitment and perseverance without self-sabotage. If a new student tells me this is her goal, my arms have a really big hug for her.

 

This post was originally shared on MindBodyGreen

Practice Makes Perfect

The universe doesn’t know the difference between what we want and what we don’t want. The universe only knows what we focus on and invest our energy in. It assumes we want more of that. Therefore, whatever we decide to practice is what we will become good at.

What are you practicing today? If the answer is anxiety, worrying, or negativity you’re going to get good at it. Would you rather practice empowerment and abundance instead? If you believe in judging and beating yourself up, you are practicing the art of hurting yourself and you will become a master at it. It reminds me of the unattributed quote, “If our strengths are not determined to be valuable, we spend our lives shoring up our weaknesses.”

Notice what you’re focusing your energy on and choose what you want to become good at.

7 Ways to Become Age Proof With Yoga

Kim Shand - Founder of Rethink YogaGrowing old, in the way we have come to understand it, complete with memory loss; Alzheimer’s; or dementia is not inevitable. Research is offering scientific evidence that these common, age related conditions are within our control to suspend or avoid, regardless of family history. The latest longevity research offers suggestions on how we can maintain our cognitive functioning as we grow older. The practice of yoga has many known physical benefits to keep us healthy as we age.  Here are 7 ways that a yoga practice meets science’s recommendations for age proofing our minds.

Exercise fattens your brain
The hippocampus is the portion of the brain that’s responsible for memory. As you age, the hippocampus shrinks and so does your memory. Physical activity triggers growth of new cells in the hippocampus which can reverse the shrinking process. In an article in “AARP The Magazine”, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Illinois, explains that physically active people maintain cognition and memory, reducing their risk of dementia by 30%-40%.

However, the amount and type of physical activity you choose is a factor in the success of your anti-aging efforts. Doctors have long recommended that as little as 15 minutes of exercise, three times a week helps maintain your brain’s capabilities. It’s not unusual for yogis to take 2-3 classes per week equating to 120-225 minutes of physical activity. At those levels, the Group Health Research Institute has shown that you can not only maintain your current abilities, but also restore lost competencies. According to a study by the University of British Columbia at Vancouver, physically challenging exercise increases levels of growth factors in the brain such as IGFI, which nourish and protect nerve cells. Power Yoga offers muscle building resistance training, which the study showed could gain them a 13% advantage on cognitive tests over those who practice gentler forms of exercise.

Yogic philosophy grows new brain cells
Learning new skills and information that challenge your brain increases your number of brain cells and their connections. After only a week of learning new skills, MRI scans done by UCLA researchers, showed that adults can stimulate the brain centers that control decision making and complex reasoning. The study of yogic philosophy is rich and broad. Learning its history, contradictions, modern applications and reinterpretations offers endless ways to challenge your thinking machine. In addition, to the intellectual challenge of confronting each new pose on the mat, understanding how the anatomy works and, of course, the Sanskrit offers your brain a fattening diet of information.

Ommm to the gray matter
Your memory is negatively impacted when you are under stress in large part because your brain is being flooded with cortisol. During a yoga practice you are guided to focus your attention on the sensations within your body, and the activity within your mind. Improving your ability to focus, and practicing this type of mindfulness, reduces harmful stress hormones like cortisol. An 8 week Harvard study on the effects of a mindfulness practice showed the density of gray matter in the hippocampus increased significantly over that of the control group.

Yoga is low fat and sugar free
Yoga can control and reduce your risk of having diabetes, hypertension and other chronic illnesses that are connected to the onset of dementia. A study from Japan demonstrates that Diabetes and obesity almost double our risk for Alzheimer’s. Therefore, controlling these risks is an important factor in age-proofing your mind. Power yoga in particular, but yoga in general, is helpful in weight lose and the

Yogis on a mission
A study of older adults conducted by Rush University Medical Center, indicates that feeling you have a purpose in life keeps you sharp. While yoga does not have a doctrine and it’s not a religion, it has a spiritual component that strengthens practitioners’ sense of purpose and connection. The Rush University study was conducted over a seven year period. People who started the study with a clear sense of life purpose, intention and goals were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s.

Remember your friends
Yogis belong to a community of people who share concerns and interests on a variety of levels including physical, mental and spiritual. Examinations of older people in Sweden confirm you can reduce your risk of dementia by having a full social life. Social interaction stimulates you emotionally and mentally. After just 10 minutes of conversation, participants in a University of Michigan study showed improvement on short term memory tests,

Better sex, bigger brains
Yoga increases your over all confidence and comfort level with your body. It provides a stronger awareness of physical sensations, increased relaxation, and better muscle control in your pelvis. All of which can lead to increased sexual vitality and satisfaction. While there’s no direct link between an active sex life and improved mental faculties; research, books and articles abound indicating that sex will keep you looking and feeling younger. At a bare minimum, we can assume that a happy sex life can put you in a better frame of mind to cope with the effects of aging.

You Don't Need Permission!

At the end of a long day and a longer week in which I worked hard and accomplished a lot, I came home and poured myself a glass of champagne. The reaction from my houseguest was curiosity as to what I was celebrating. My answer, “nothing in particular, everything in general”, gleaned more suspicious looks.

Why should the champagne stay in the fridge? I don’t wait for special occasions to give myself what I like. I don’t keep my silk PJs in the back of my closet, and I wear my favorite high heels whenever the mood strikes me – even if I’m just going to the drugstore. I’d rather wear them out from overuse than never get to enjoy them because they’re being “saved” inside bubble wrap.

If you don’t treat yourself like you are worth it, who will? You don’t need permission! What are you waiting for? Here are some suggestions in honor of the fact that you are totally worth it. Think up some to add and share with me.

– Use your best crystal glasses to drink your water everyday
– Break out the china, especially when you’re eating alone
– Wear perfume just to hang around the house
– Use your best jewelry
– Forget the sweat shirt, grab the cashmere sweater
– Light that fabulous scented candle
– Light the fireplace
– Never take a bath without bubbles
– Give really big hugs
– Say “I love you” as often as possible. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Are You in Need of a Digital Diet?

12 clues that you’ve moved from a healthy use of all things tech to digital addiction.

One night last week both of my twenty somethings, my husband and I all made it home for dinner. In celebration of the uncommon occurrence, we dusted off the kitchen table and sat down for a meal. After which, we deposited our tired selves in the family room where my husband and I shared space on the couch with the dog. The offspring lounged across the room in comfy chairs.

Sounds very Norman Rockwell, right? The difference is in the details. The TV was on. Four cell phones sang, buzzed and dinged from various tables. And each one of us fired up our laptops and started scanning, scrolling, and typing communication to the universe outside of the house. This is a family that is fully and completely plugged in.

I’ve read the studies claiming the internet is re-shaping our brains and shrinking our attention spans. I’m familiar with the warning that anxiety disorders, insomnia and panic attacks can be linked to the overstimulation inherit in our society’s information obsession. Maybe because we are not a family of anti-social introverts, gamers, or a techno-geeks; I haven’t felt the studies were talking about us personally. However, I’m willing to admit that I might be overly fond of my cell phone and my daily verbal interaction to texting ratio is often stilted toward the latter. So, over the next few days, I started to take note of our household digital behavior to get a handle on whether we are, in fact, in need of a digital detox.

My personal study yielded the following list of clues that you and/or your family have catapulted across the divide between compulsive technology use and full-blown digital addiction.

1. While at a party you pretend to be looking for pictures of your family vacation to share with the group, but you’re really checking your email/twitter/Facebook.

2. You’re out to diner with the girls but only half participating in the conversation occurring realtime while you hold a texting conversation.

3. You’re so used to having earbuds in your ears, you don’t notice when they’re not attached to anything.

4. You tell your spouse you are putting your blackberry on the bedside table to use as an alarm, but you really want to have it handy to check email if you wake up in the middle of the night.

5. When you wake up in the morning you check your email before getting out of bed.

6. You keep Facebook open and running in the background of your PC because you might miss a critical post in the lag time of opening and closing the app.

7. You have a clutching sensation in your stomach and an increased level of anxiety when you hear the words “The cabin doors are now closed. All electronic devices must be turned off.”

8. As the theater lights are dimming and the movie previews start rolling, you shrink down into the space between the seats trying to get one last email out.

9. Setting the table for dinner means putting out plates, glassware and silverware
with enough space in between for everyone to plop down their cell phone.

10. You adjust your wardrobe to accommodate carrying your cell phone.

11. You’ve acquired phantom ring tone disorder – You hear your cell phone going off in your purse and scramble to retrieve it, only to discover it wasn’t ringing.

12. The only articles you’ve read about the need to unplug from technology have been online.

Yoga And The Ugly Christmas Sweater

While there may be someone out there, I personally, do not know anyone who doesn’t have some form of an addiction. Our addictions can take a variety of shapes ranging from an addiction to a paycheck, a process, a person, food or chemical. As we prepare ourselves, and our homes, for the holidays two addictions that often surface are competitiveness and perfectionism. In my house the drive toward both was at full speed as we prepared for the neighborhood Ugly Christmas Sweater Party.

I first noticed the competitiveness between the four of us as we covertly acquired our ugly Christmas sweaters, refusing to admit where we were shopping or give hints on available inventory. I chose cyber shopping to find my brightly colored, dizzyingly busy item. I was particularly proud of the fact that it was a previously used and repurposed purchase! While good naturedly boasting to my daughter of my fashion find, and hoping for an extra points for the eco-friendly add-on, she advised that I cover my tracks by deleting the website from “history” on the family desktop. That was an early sign that our family had successfully cleared the bar for standard competitiveness and was racing toward cutthroat.

Perfectionism is so deeply rooted in many of us that some people describe themselves as “born perfectionists”. I realized The Ugly Sweater Party was triggering my husband’s obsessive compulsive disorder desire for thoroughness when I caught him sneaking glue, tinsel and a strand of Christmas tree lights upstairs. Not satisfied with his off-the-shelf gaudy sweater, he set about embellishing it with a resolve that comes from having stepped onto the slippery slope toward compulsiveness. With intimidating determination he spent his afternoon rigging his sweater with flashing lights and gluing tinsel to inappropriate places on Santa’s reindeer.

Perfectionists and those with a strong need to be the best, often set unrealistic standards for themselves and when they fail to meet these standards, they beat themselves up. The holidays offer plenty of opportunities for these tendencies to be triggered and enhanced. As the craving for perfectionism invades the holidays, our ability to take pleasure in family and friends can be overlaid with anxiety. Our enjoyment can be dampened by a sense of dissatisfaction and striving. The Ugly Christmas Sweater party was a great laugh, but our approach toward our preparations reminded me of the necessity to not let the fun of the holidays be overshadowed by those qualities that only bring tension. Softening our approach and allowing ourselves, our homes, our gifts, and our meals to “be as they are” invites everyone around us to also be comfortable with what is.

Fashion Week and The Statement You're Making

This week was Fashion Week in NYC.  A city full of people took a break from their normal lives to focus on what their style statement is, and to determine if their style is representing them the way they want it to.  Personally, I love the creativity and artistry of fashion.  I also believe in the impact of a style statement.  However, our style statement isn’t the only announcement we make when we walk out into the world.

Our thoughts, our presence, and our emotions make an energetic statement about who we are that is felt by everyone around us.  This statement makes an impact that is much less transient than our style statement.  It affects the way others interact with us, it influences the way we feel about ourselves, and the events we draw into our lives.   However, it is more difficult to remain conscious of our energetic statement than it is to choose the color of our jeans.

Bringing your best self into everything you do is a steep challenge.  It’s something that you will naturally fall out of and have to consistently re-check.  For example, when you find yourself: in a conversation where your body is present, but you’ve mentally checked out; waiting in a long line becoming angry and agitated; maintaining a relationship while simultaneously keeping an eye out for the exit door.   At these times the statement you’re making is not an accurate reflection of you really are, or want to be.  The results that are created, the energy and reactions that will be reflected back to you, will not be what you want either.   Consistently reconnecting inward to consider if the statement you’re making in the moment is your best self, transforms your life from a discovery process into a creation that you can control.    In his book Conversations with God, Neal Walsh wrote “There is only one reason to do anything, as a statement to the universe of who you are.”

Is Silence Always Golden Or Is There a Place For Music In Yoga Class?

I was sent a link to a blog submitted to the Toronto Body Mind website by an author listed as “Gary Empty Book Justice”.  The blog, titled Using Silence in Yoga Classes, http://torontobodymind.ca/blogs/gary-empty-book-justice/using-silence-yoga-classes, expressed Gary’s opinion that music is a distraction to the mindfulness practice of a yoga class.

While Gary makes some excellent points, and I agree that silence can be one means of finding a sense of presence during yoga class, I am also an avid proponent for the use of other tools – including music.  Mindfulness and presence are beautiful components of a practice.  However, as a yoga teacher, I also strive to create an environment, and a catalyst, for each student to find something new.  Sometimes they discover they have been holding a limited view of their capabilites.  Sometimes they uncover a new understanding of how they think and react.  Sometimes they tap into a personal power that had been buried and forgotten.  Sometimes they find a new stillness and balance.  Whatever it is that they discover, it will make a change and, for me, it doesn’t matter if that transformation is sparked from my words, energy, the sequencing of asanas, silence, or a resonance with the music.  I’m happy to use whatever entry is available to facilitate that growth.

As with any tool in the toolbox, the use of restraint can add value.  I always try to remember that the class is about the yoga, not the music.   Through my mistakes and my successes in using music as an enhancement to class, there are some lessons I’ve learned.  Following are a few that might be of interest:

  • The flow of the class, the intention, and the asanas all dictate the music that I play.  Rethink Yoga is a form of Power Vinyasa, which has a very distinct arc that ascends fairly early in the class, holds on a plateau until it peaks and then descends slowly.  The music compliments that arc, but doesn’t dictate it
  • By the same token, I am the only teacher in the class, the music doesn’t teach.
  • The music that I play is specific to the class I’m teaching.  I am personally a big fan of classical, heavy metal, rock and roll, and hip-hop music.  However, the tunes I choose to play in a class are not what I happen to be listening to on my iPod that day.
  • I don’t play music straight through class from beginning to end.  It’s on when it will add something and it’s off when it won’t.

I think to use music effectively you have to love music and be willing to spend a fair amount of time preparing class mixes.  To effectively hit the points above, it’s not possible to throw a CD into the stereo, hit play, and call it a day.  If that were the only option, I might agree with Gary’s position that no music is better.  Since that’s not the case, I think the lesson here is to learn how to use your tools well – as many, varied tools as you can.