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‘Tis The Season…For Green Juice!

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I got a call from ZiZi this morning, asking if she could come home from school.

I’m in the nurse’s office and I feel awful, Mom. My nose is running, it’s hard to breathe, my tummy aches, and my throat hurts. 

My kids have not been home sick from school in ages–and definitely not since we committed fully to this crazy healthy life–so I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with her after I picked her up. When I was a kid, sick equalled Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, Saltine Crackers and 7-Up. None of that flies in this crazy healthy life, so I needed a Plan B.

I thought about it on the drive to school. She needs to get better quickly. Her big performance in “Honk! The Musical” is only five days away, and she just can’t be sick. She needs an injection of crazy healthy.

Poor girl was looking pretty puny when I picked her up.

You need a great big green juice and a lot of water, sweet girl. Let’s go get you better.

We bundled her up, and off to the grocery we went. On the list? The makings of an immunity-boosting green juice: parsley, swiss chard, celery, lemon, ginger, carrots, apples and pineapple juice.

I ran it all through the juicer, and what came out was as green as the grass in our yard. Most of the juice was greens, but the apples, carrots and pineapple added enough sweetness to cut the bitter and balance the sour.  Of course, the sweeter foods did up the sugar content of the juice, but it’s a trade off I am willing to make, to make sure my kids are getting the phytonutrients they need, when they are sick.

When I set it before her, the look on her face was priceless…the juices I normally make for her are less green and more berry colored, so this was a big change. I told her that, when my kid’s sick, I don’t mess around. Leafy greens, citrus and ginger are the best ammunition we have to fight disease.

ZiZi didn’t exactly love the juice…it was “just ok”, but she drank it all, after I explained why it would help.

The greens will reduce the inflammation that makes it hard to breathe, the lemon gives you vitamin C to for energy and immunity, ginger will settle your tummy, and the vitamins and minerals in the apples, celery, carrots will help your body eliminate the virus. 

Coincidentally, Erika Miller, a reporter/friend/supermom in NYC who follows us on the Facebook page for My Crazy Healthy Life, asked a similar question about green juices earlier this week. She wrote:

“I bought a 20z “Hail to Kale” juice drink (120 calories) — only to discover it has 20 grams of sugar! Can you talk about how to make the decision trade off between calorie count and sugar count?”

The thing that struck me about this question was the focus on calorie count and portion size. Although I was a die-hard calorie counter in college and my early twenties, I honestly have not considered calories at all, in the past ten years.

Here’s why: practicing yoga has made me aware that A) my body tells me how much is enough, if I am mindful and intentional about food, and B) the way we treat food today is not the way God intended.

This is true for both calorie counting, and portion size. I try to eat as if we live in a time before food labeling, frozen dinners, and fast food. How did people eat 100 years ago? Most people didn’t know what a calorie was, there was no such thing as Super Size, and food was less convenient…it was harder to come by, and it took longer to prepare. People actually planned their meals, and ate on a schedule.

The cultural norms were radically different before processed foods, sodas and drive thrus became mainstream. A hundred years ago, people ate what was served, when it was served. They were more aware of what they were eating, and where it came from, and they were appreciative of the preparation and presentation of the food. Perhaps most importantly, they stopped eating when they were full, and waited until the next meal to eat.

I think this is the way we are supposed think about food. Intentionally, and with awareness and gratitude. The more we pay attention to how foods affect us, the easier it is to make healthy choices.

The other thing that struck me about Erika’s request was the question about sugar count, in relation to the portion size. Twenty ounces is, in my opinion, two servings, not one. Which means the sugar count is only 10g per serving, and I think that’s pretty reasonable for a green smoothie, especially if the sugar comes from fruit. Remember, fruit sugars are the good kind of sugars…the kind our bodies know how to process. It’s the refined sugars that cause the biggest problems, and should always be avoided.

That being said, it’s still important to eat more veggies than fruit. Too much of any kind of sugar can cause inflammation and put stress on our liver and kidneys.

In our family, we talk a lot about the idea that vegetables, beans and grains should be the foundation of our diet, and fruit, nuts and proteins are complements (we don’t need as much protein as Dr. Atkins and The Paleo Diet have led us to believe, in my experience). Serving fruit for desert helps my kids understand that fruit should be used in moderation, and when they have a pure fruit smoothie for breakfast or snack, they are not allowed other fruits for the rest of the day.

And when we get sick, we fill our bodies with veggies, and eliminate sugars and processed foods as much as possible, until we feel better. This easier for me than it is for my kids, but I think we do a better job now than ever before. As I have said before, crazy healthy is a journey, and it gets better ever year.

ZiZi seems to have perked up a little in the hour since she drank her green juice. I’d like to think it’s working already! We’re going do a little yoga and pranayama in the studio now, and that should make a difference, too.

Say a little prayer for her as she heals…so she can back on her feet, and on the stage by Sunday. And stock up on leafy greens, the next time you hit the market. That way, you can be armed and ready, if the next call from the nurse’s office is made to you.

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Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way

ZiZi climbed off the bus with this tucked under her arm yesterday afternoon:

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Her lips and teeth were blue, and she was chewing a wad of gum that was way too big for her mouth.

With a goofy smile on her face, she said, “Guess what Mom?”

“You won the estimation game at school?”

“Yes! There were 96 gum balls in the jar, and I guessed 94! I gave some away on the bus, and I had a few, so there are 72 left.” She was so proud of herself, and clinging to her prize. 

All I could think was, “How am I going to get this mood-altering candy away from her? It’s hard enough to be an 8 year old girl with red hair, without a bunch of sugar and chemicals messing with your brain.”

I tried to bargain with money. I think it’s a much more appropriate reward than food, and she usually takes the bait. But not this time. The gum was a novelty–something she consumes a few times a year–and she wanted to enjoy it.

“There’s a lot of sugar in that gum, and you know sugar affects your moods. How about I’ll trade you a dollar for the whole jar?”

Blank stare.

“Two dollars?”

Nothing.

“How about a Beanie Boo key chain for your backpack?”

“Can I have the $6 Beanie Boo I want at Richard’s?”

I had to draw the line. Six dollars would have sent the wrong message.

“No, honey, I think that’s too much.”

And then, I remembered that our dentist had a dish of Spry Gum, last week when we visited. Spry is non-GMO, has no artificial colors, artificial preservatives, GMO or carcinogenic sugars, or artificial flavors and it is made with Xylitol. Also, the manufacturers claim it cleans our teeth as we chew.

I still don’t think that chewing gum is a good idea–it messes with our body’s ability to produce digestive enzymes–but I decided Spry Gum was a much better option than big blue sugar-coated gum balls .

“How about I buy you some of the Spry Gum you loved at Dr. Goldstein’s last week. It’s a healthier choice than sugary gum, right?”

“Could I have fruit flavor?”

“You can have any flavor you like! But I get the sugary gum with the blue dye.”

“OK, Mom that’s fair.”

As soon as we got home, I fired up my laptop, and together we ordered 100 pieces of Fresh Fruit Spry Chewing Gum.

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Here’s the thing, though…I will only offer it once when it arrives. I feel like the less I offer treats, the less my kids expect them, and the more balanced they can be in their diet. Our rule is no more than one treat a day, and I work hard to make sure we stick to it.

In doing so, I’ve learned that it’s best to rarely offer treats, BUT oblige within reason, when asked. My kids receive so much sugar outside the house, that it’s impossible to stick to our “one treat a day” rule, if I offer sweets at home. So, I keep candy and gum of sight, which usually keeps it out of mind. This is how we deal with Halloween candy, Valentine’s candy, birthday party goody bags, and other sweets that come into our home unexpectedly. I also make a point of asking a lot of questions about school each day, including whether they had any candy, cupcakes or other sweets. They are good about telling me the truth…I think because we have always talked this way, and they know I only ask because I truly care about their well-being.

When ZiZi asks for her gum later this week, I will oblige, if she has not had any other treats that day. Afterwards, I’ll put the gum up on a shelf, until she asks for it again. She will remember the day after, and maybe the day after that, but at some point ZiZi will forget about the gum. When she does remember, or if I need a semi-healthy treat for her, I will pull it back out when it serves a purpose.

I wanted share this story with you, because I think it demonstrates a fundamental belief about this crazy healthy life. We always have options to be healthier, and where there is a will to make a healthier choice, there is a way to make it happen.

Have you liked My Crazy Healthy Life on Facebook? Join the conversation…we would love to get healthy with you!

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A Lot Can Happen In 6 Weeks

calendarThe are 6 weeks and 1 day left in 2013. Which means there is still time to make this the year that you got crazy healthy.

I know, I know. You’re thinking I’m just plain crazy to suggest such a thing. But the thing is, I know it’s possible, because I’ve done it myself. All I had to do was change what I believe.

The truth is that the last six weeks of the year used to be the most unhealthy days of my life. I gained weight, got sick, and felt bad about myself by the time January 1st rolled around. I didn’t understand why it kept happening, year after year. What was wrong with me, that I couldn’t control myself?

It turns out, I was asking the wrong question. The question is not “What’s wrong with me?” Instead, we must ask “What do I need to do, to break the cycle?” 

When I started examining my habits, I realized I was surrendering my power to things that are not worthy of power–food, alcohol, shopping. I told myself that I “couldn’t resist” this, or “I deserved” that. And of course I “just didn’t have time” to workout, because I had too much to do. All of these beliefs  added up and stole my power. By the time Christmas rolled around, I was sick and had gained ten pounds.

It was the same thing, year after year, for over a decade. I didn’t think it was possible to break the cycle, until I got into yoga. Yoga taught me to be more intentional, and helped me see that I always have a choice, and that every choice matters. By setting an intention, and making choices based on long term goals, instead of short term pleasures, I learned to change my habits.

These days, I rarely get sick at the holidays, and my weight stays constant throughout the year. I’ve reclaimed my power over food and exercise, and I feel so much better about myself! Best of all, the last six weeks of the year are pretty much the same as the other 46, from a health perspective. I make time to eat foods that boost my immunity, and ignore the voices that tell me I don’t have time to workout. I do allow myself to indulge in the treats of the season, but always with awareness and small portions.

The thing that helps me the most, during this busiest time of year, is making daily commitments. I have four disciplines that are non-negotiable, every single day, and they are my priority:

Start the day with warm lemon or lime water: Every morning, when I wake up, I drink a glass of warm water with the juice of a lemon or lime. It boosts my immunity, improves my digestion, and gives me energy.

Veggies first: I try to fill up on veggies whenever possible, every single day. The nutrients help me keep my energy levels high, and reduce sugar cravings. My favorite trick is to eat a can of veggie soup before I leave for parties. When I arrive with a full stomach, it’s easier to indulge in moderation.

Resist a lot: I do a minimum of 30 minutes of intense, resistance-based exercise, every single day, to help boost my immunity and clear my mind. I give myself grace if I miss a day here and there, but I never miss two in a row. For me, yoga is the best form of resistance, but it could also be running, weight lifting, or swimming if yoga’s not your thing. When I practice, I always do the hard stuff first–chair poses, warrior poses, planques, arm balances, and anything else I can think of to work against gravity and build heat in my body. Afterwards, when I have time, I stretch for 5 to 20 minutes. (If you’re not sure how where to begin, read my article about using yoga to build strength here.)

One is my limit: I never deprive myself from tasting the yummies at holiday parties. But I do limit myself to no more than one treat a day. If there are several goodies I want to try, then I will take a bite or two of each, and give the rest to someone else or throw it away (I know it’s a waste, but it’s not really food and it’s better in the trash than in my body!) No matter what, I always make sure my intake adds up to one serving of sweets, or less, each day. This can be challenging, because we are attached to eating what we want, when we want it. It gets easier, however, when we realize that what we truly want is to be fit, healthy, and happy, and sweets get in the way of that goal.

The clock is ticking, and 2013 is slowly slipping away. There is still time, however, to make this the year that you get crazy healthy.

Change what you believe. Create some new habits that boost your immunity, strengthen your body, and keep food in its proper place. I know it seems difficult, but that’s what makes it worthwhile. I promise you can do this! Resolve to get crazy healthy now, and make 2014 the happiest, healthiest New Year of all.

*And by the way…have you liked My Crazy Healthy Life on Facebook? Click here, and join the conversation about staying healthy through the holidays!

Photo: http://www.absopure.com

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Yoga Is Full Of Surprises

photo copyI guess I thought that, after fifteen years on my mat, I would know everything I needed to know about yoga. Thankfully, it doesn’t work that way. Yoga is full of surprises, no matter how many years we practice.

Yesterday was the perfect example. I was practicing at Green Monkey in Miami, FL with an instructor named Joey Corona. It was my first time in my class, and I knew little about him, other than he seemed to live his yoga, and I liked his teaching style and sense of humor.

Our bodies were warm from half a dozen sun salutations, by the time Joey moved us into hip openers. That familiar instinct was growing…I was ready to fly. You see, I’ve been working on arm balances almost every day this year, and I just can’t get enough. Once I finally figure a new pose out, I want to play with it even more. I find it wildly empowering to stand on my hands.

Truthfully, there’s also an element of ego involved. But it’s not what you might think. It’s not ego in the sense of “Look at me, I’m awesome!”, but more like “I can do this really hard thing and I don’t need anyone else’s help.”

I’m aware of that side of myself…the one that thinks she has all the answers, but yoga has taught me to ignore her on my mat. And because of this, I tuned her out, and asked for help, when Joey said, “now you can move from the lunge into the balance, if you’ve got it.”

I knew how to get into an arm balance from a lunge, but something told me he could make it better. I called him over, and asked him to look at my alignment.

What happened next was so unexpected, and wonderful, that I’ll never forget it.

Joey started rattling off instructions: “Ground through your left foot, reach your left hand to your right foot.”

What is he talking about? That’s not how you get into Koundinyasana!

I couldn’t question him, though, because he was still teaching a class, with twenty other people in it (including my hubby, on the mat next to me!). I fought the urge to move into Koundinyasana (Running Man Pose), which was what I wanted to do, and let him take me somewhere unfamiliar.

It felt tight, and awkward, and I worried that I might fall. And then, all of a sudden, I was in Vishvamitrasana, aka Balancing Side Angle.

The pose I thought I couldn’t do. The one I have been working on for a year, but haven’t been able to get. I was there, in the pose…and it was so surprising, I laughed out loud.

I finally got it! Months and months of work all led up to this one moment of surrendering to what was possible, and it made me happy. Blissfully, joyfully, overwhelmingly happy.

Not because I finally “own” the pose (although it is fun), but because I prepared for it, and when the time was right, I surrendered enough to let it happen.

This is the promise of yoga. On our mats, day after day, we learn to stop seeking, and be still, so the things we want most can find ultimately find us.

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The Power of Possibility

As a wellness coach, I hear “I could could never” and “I can’t” all the time. In fact, I’ve heard it five times in the past 24 hours. Three times from friends, once from a client, and once from a complete stranger.

They say things like…

I can’t find time to exercise every day!

I can’t do yoga!

and

I could never give up bread!

The story is all about what is not possible, instead of what might happen, if we are willing to try. It makes me think that we are not very good at seeing ourselves clearly. Because, if we knew the truth about who we really are, we would know that we are all capable of really amazing things.

I’m just as guilty of doubting possibility as anyone else. For as much as I have conquered my attachments in my yoga practice and in my diet, I struggle with the I could nevers in other aspects of my life. Like right now, as I try to write my first book. Most days, it seems like a pipe dream.

Who am I to think that this is possible? I have to remind myself to examine my beliefs, and shift the conversation to Who am I, to not write this book? I have a story to tell, that will inspire people to live healthier and happier lives…why wouldn’t I share it?

It makes me wonder, at what point in our lives, do we trade possibility for status quo?

Kids don’t think this way. They think they can do anything and everything, until experience proves them wrong. Their favorite phrases are Why? and Could I?, and they don’t say things like I could never.

At ages 6, 8, and 9, our girlies are curious, eager, and adventurous. They want to know the truth about themselves, and about life. They try new things, like cartwheels and handstands, just to see if they can. They ask questions all day long–so many, that my brain almost always hurts by dinnertime. And they don’t give up on their dreams without a fight.

I’ve decided that, if the whys shape childhood, and the I could nevers shape adulthood, I don’t ever want to grow up.

I am certain that the whys of my adulthood led me cure my migraines, get back to my college weight after having three babies, and learn how to do really crazy yoga poses that I had only seen in magazines before this year. It reminds me that possibilities for our lives are only as limited as we think, and we bless ourselves by turning our I could nevers into why nots.

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Fallen Angel Pose, July 2013

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Crazy Healthy Halloween

Before I got crazy healthy, I couldn’t wait for Halloween candy to hit the store shelves, so I could purchase a huge bag of treat size M&Ms, without feeling guilty. I told myself that they were for the little ghouls and goblins that would grace my doorstep on All Hallow’s Eve.

But, somehow, every single year, that bag would disappear long before Halloween. Having it in the house was just too tempting! I told myself that we had more than enough candy for trick or treaters, and it would be ok, if I just had one little bag, just this one time. That one bag would lead to another bag the next day, and the next, and then maybe two the day after that, and before I knew it, the bowl would be empty. And I would tell myself it didn’t matter, because it was Halloween, and candy is just part of the season.

I’d buy another bag of treat-sized M&Ms around the 15th of October, and promise myself that the new bag would stay sealed until Halloween. I’d do really well with this plan, until I had a bad day at work, or PMS struck, or my husband “accidentally” opened the bag when I wasn’t looking. And then it would start all over again, and I would be back at the store, on October 30th, picking through what was left in the Halloween aisle.

All of those little indiscrections added up. Before I knew it, I was sick, tired, and I couldn’t zip up my skirts. Worst of all, I felt bad about myself.

What was wrong with me? Why did I keep making the same mistakes, year, after year, after year?

I didn’t understand my lack of control then, but I do now. It was all about what I believed about food back then–that it was my right, and my reward. That I deserved it. But now that  I have changed what I believe about food–that it is mostly fuel for my body, and only rarely a reward–I enjoy Halloween more than ever before.

Nowadays, instead of turning my attention to the treats and sweets of the season, as I used to, I think of Halloween as an opportunity to let go and have fun. It’s the one day out of the year that we can be silly, sparkly, and uninhibited in public, without scaring off all the neighbors!

Of course, this change in attitude was cultivated on my yoga mat. Regular yoga practice made me aware of my attachments to food, and how they sabotaged my health goals. This awareness helped me realize that food is just food–it does not have power over me–and that I can change my behavior by shifting my attention. Yoga also taught me to be more aware and intentional about how I spent my time and energy, and that I didn’t have to be just like everybody else. And that changed everything.

Instead of thinking about, and talking about, and feeling bad about eating candy, I purposefully turned my attention to how we could have more fun. What crazy healthy traditions could we start for our family? What healthy foods could we create, that would be more interesting, but just as satisfying, as candy? It was fun, to explore the possibilities, get creative, and realize that Halloween could be anything we wanted it to be.

I decided that my favorite thing about Halloween, besides the M&Ms, was dressing up. So, as soon as our girls were old enough to understand the meaning of “group costume”, we starting creating family themes for Halloween. We began the discussions in early September, asking the girls what they might like to be, and trying to make a plan that would work for everyone. We never forced them into it, but we did try to talk it up, because we knew the kids would ultimately enjoy it. Which they really, really did.

The first year, we were The Wizard of Oz:

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And then, Alice in Wonderland (my sister-in-law was visiting from Colorado, and gladly played along!):

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My favorite was the year that we were superheroes (truth: I just loved wearing the boots):

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But it was also fun to be Peter Pan last year.

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If you want to have a crazy healthy Halloween, change what you believe it means. Candy has no power, unless you give it power.  When candy appears, walk in the opposite direction. If it still ends up in your hands, give it to someone else immediately, or put it back when they aren’t looking. If you just can’t resist it, take one bite, and then throw it away. It’s better to waste food (that really isn’t food in the first place), than feed your addictions. Most of all, believe that you can just say no. Because you can, and the more often you do, the easier it gets.

As for the trick or treaters, and their expectations? Why not give out stickers or toys, instead of candy? I let my kids pick out toys from Oriental Trading Company, for us to pass out this year. Here’s what our visitors will add to their loot (glow in the dark vampire teeth and glow in the dark martian fingers):

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And check out some of the amazing healthy food ideas on Pinterest. We’re making these treats today (bananas with orange juice, raisins, chocolate chips and coconut):

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If you feel like you absolutely have to hand out candy to trick-or-treaters, then don’t buy your favorites–buy the candy you don’t like! A moment of pain at the store will save you a lot of frustration and guilt down the road.

And as for the candy that comes home in the loot bag, we let the kids examine it all, enjoy two pieces on Halloween night, and one piece each day afterwards (if they ask for it–I never offer!). I keep the bags up high, because out of sight means out of mind, and they usually forget to ask for their candy about 2 weeks into November, and I donate what’s left in December.

This year, the girls are asking if we can do the Switch Witch, so I think I might just do that instead of the daily treat…it seems much easier and healthier! All we have to do is leave the candy out on the front porch at night, and the Switch Witch replaces it with a toy, or other non-food treat while we sleep. We can make up a story as to where the candy goes, so the kids feel good about the decision, or you can just tell them the Switch Witch eats it all. A pretty easy and efficient way to stay out of the candy, don’t you think?

Just because you have always acted a certain way in the past, doesn’t mean you always have to act that way. Halloween is just another day, and we have the power to control what it means for our crazy healthy lives. All we have to do is BELIEVE.

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Yoga: The Alternative Lifestyle

I just returned from spending the weekend with my oldest daughter and her Girl Scout Troop at Camp High Harbour. It was really, really fun, and the best quality time I have had with my Sunshine Girl in a long time. We needed it.

But, I have to confess, I was pretty anxious about the prospect of integrating my crazy healthy life with YMCA camp life. I knew that, logistically, it would be challenging.

It would not be the end of the world if I missed a day of yoga, but food was definitely a problem. I am allergic to gluten, egg, beef, chicken, and dairy. Which is pretty much all that is served at YMCA camps, and everywhere else that large groups of people must be fed quickly.

I’d have to bring my own meals to Girl Scout Camp.

Would that be weird?

Could I make it not weird?

I had no choice but to pack my own meals, and packed my yoga mat, just in case.

After all that worry, it turned out that no one minded that I ate canned lentil soup in the cabin before dinner. Or that I munched on trail mix, while everyone else was enjoying fried chicken and biscuits. There was even an opportunity to practice yoga and meditate yesterday during free time. No big deal.

Why was I so anxious about this? It all worked out fine in the end, and led to a funny thought on my mat:

Am I living an alternative lifestyle? Has yoga stopped being something I do, and become a way of life?

I had to look it up. Thank God for Wikipedia, for validating that I am living an alternative lifestyle, and for putting it all in perspective, with this important insight:

“Alternative lifestyles and subcultures originated in the 1920s with the “flapper” movement, when women cut their hair and skirts short (as a symbol of freedom from oppression and the old way of living). Women in the flapper age were the first large group to practice…dancing, cursing, and driving in modern America without scandal following them. This was because this new flapper lifestyle was so popular that the flapper’s brash behavior became more normal than previously thought.”

Yes! Yes! Yes! That is what I want most…for these crazy healthy habits to become more normal than previously thought. For practices that heal our bodies to stop being scandalous (chanting, anyone?). True, yoga is less scandalous than the risqué behavior of the flappers, but it’s the exact same thing in theory: a battle against the old way of living.

In the old way of living, we believed that low cost, convenience, and great taste were more important than nutrition, awareness, and discipline. Thankfully, the flappers taught us that what we have always done, does not have to be what we always do. We can change the normal. There are alternatives. Isn’t that inspiring?

It makes me think that, if the flappers can free women from oppression with a haircut and a mini-dress, then I can change the world with lentil soup and a yoga mat. Yoginis ARE the new flappers.

My revelation led to a resolution: no more hiding my crazy healthy. I’m gonna pin my alternative lifestyle to my sleeve.

Join me in this crazy healthy life, and together we’ll free the world from the old normal. Kinda like the flappers, but much crazier, and a lot healthier.

Happy National Yoga Month, for one more day!

Namaste,

Amber

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The 5th Discipline Of Yoga: Making Space For My Soul

Sometimes it feels like my brain is broken. Like there is a disconnect between what I know I should do, and actually doing it. And between what I should think, and what I actually think. For example, last night I promised ZiZi that I would wash her school t-shirt, so she could wear it on today’s field trip to the zoo. I left in in the middle of the hallway, so I wouldn’t forget.

I walked around that bright red shirt twenty times before I went to bed, yet I still forgot to wash it. Because my brain is broken. And because my brain is broken, my 8 year old went on a field trip to the zoo in a shirt stained with last week’s peanut butter. And in my broken brain, I am thinking that the chaperones on the field trip, parents that I see all the time, must think that I am the worst mom ever.

I know I they probably don’t think that, and that dirty laundry does not make me a bad mom, but I do think this way sometimes. Thankfully, I have confirmed that I am not the only one with a broken brain, and other people also have these feelings from time to time.

The good news is that there is a remedy for broken brain syndrome.  All we have to do is create a little space between what the world thinks we should be, and who we really are.

This is what the fifth limb (discipline) of yoga, pratyahara, is all about. The word pratyahara is sanskrit for “withdrawal”, and the practice of pratyahara teaches us how to create space between ourselves and our attachments to the relentless chatter of the world. It makes us aware of the stories circulating around us, and opens us to the possibility that some of them are not true.

Pratyahara is difficult to explain, if you have not experienced it before.  It’s more of a belief, and a feeling, than something we do. When we believe that we can quiet our minds, we make it possible to tune out the chatter that separates us from God.

It’s that thing that happens in savasana, when you forget that there are other people in the room. You know that you are physically there, but you are not there. You are floating in space, and it feels free, and nothing else matters besides staying in that space where you are neither here nor there. Just like any other discipline, pratyahara becomes more rewarding, the more frequently we practice it.

Knowing how to create this space between us and the world is especially helpful, as we navigate the messy details of our busy lives. Like when I gave birth to three children in 39 months, and they were all in diapers at the same time. My days were a blur of bottles, music classes, homemade baby food, and Baby Einstein.

I wanted to be the perfect mom, but when you have three tiny humans that are totally dependent on you, it is impossible to be perfect! Somebody was always crying, I was on sensory overload, and my broken brain couldn’t figure out which way was up. People were quick to give me the stink eye if my babies cried at the store, even though I was clearly outnumbered. Strangers gave me breastfeeding advice, as if it was something I couldn’t figure out on my own. It was all so overwhelming, and withdrawal from the chatter was the only way I could begin make sense of the chaos.

When I needed a break, I would strap the girls into whatever bouncy seat or johnny jumper would hold them safely for a few minutes, and stretch on the floor, while they watched Dora. If my husband was home, I would escape to the basement and meditate. And, when I was lucky enough to have a sitter, I would find a yoga class and get my pratyahara on in public.

Little by little, I chose to make space for my soul. I learned to recognize the difference between what was essential, and what was not, and got really good at saying “no” to anything, and anyone, that might make me feel less than enough. I realized that I don’t have to be everything to everyone, and sometimes “no” is the right answer for me, even if it’s not what other people want to hear.

My kids are older now, somehow things are even busier, and my brain feels just as broken as it did when they were babies. I kinda doubt that my brain will every get fully unbroken, at least not as long as we still have kids in the house. But it does find peace when I practice yoga, and it’s good to know that peace will always be there for me, as long as I remember to make space for my soul.

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The 4th Discipline of Yoga: Just Breathe

just_breathe_by_xhypnotizeWhat are the two words we hear most often, when we are in pain? When we can’t stop crying, when we are overly anxious, or we just can’t seem to get our act together?

Just breathe. 

And it works, every time, doesn’t it? Controlling our breath balances our autonomic nervous system and removes toxins from our bodies. This is why a few deep breaths can drastically change how we feel.

The fourth limb (discipline) of yoga, known as pranayama, teaches us to cultivate awareness of our breathing as much as possible, to improve our concentration, and nourish our bodies with healing energy.

The Yoga Sutras tells us that:

“The fourth of the eight rungs of Yoga is Pranayama, which is regulating the breath so as to make it slow and subtle, leading to the experience of the steady flow of energy (prana), which is beyond or underneath exhalation, inhalation, and the transitions between them.”

The original intent of the discipline of pranayama was to encourage yogis to breathe on purpose.

Breathing is an automatic bodily function, so it’s easy to take it for granted. We forget that the breath can be controlled in ways that greatly improve our quality of life, and make us more available to God. When we breath deeply, our mind clears, and we release energy that is not essential, so our true nature can be revealed.

Like most ancient beliefs, the interpretation of pranayama has evolved over time. Ptanajali’s original idea of controlling the breath has inspired yogis to create dozens of specific, controlled, breathing practices that now also fall under the umbrella of “pranayama”. You have probably heard of some of them, such as ujayi, bhakti, and alternate nostril breathing.

While I love to get my bhakti breath on, when it comes to The Eight Limbs, I define pranayama as it was originally intended: observation of the breath.

When we pay attention to our breathing, we notice things about ourselves that we would otherwise miss. We become aware that we hold our breath when we are stressed, that our inhales are shorter than our exhales, or that we clench our stomachs and block the breath, when we are mad. Awareness is the first step in fixing unhealthy breathing habits that inhibit our health, our mind, and our spirit.

Paying attention to my breath has made a huge difference in my daily stress levels. It’s empowering to know that, no matter how chaotic my day might get, I can keep calm and carry on, by drawing awareness to my breath. A few deep inhales and exhales helps me think more clearly and put things in perspective.

What I love most about the lessons of The Eight Limbs, and especially pranayama, is that the disciplines described are universal. No one is excluded, and everyone benefits. And we can practice them anywhere, and everywhere we go.

We’re halfway through this series of posts about The Eight Limbs of Yoga. I hope you have found these discussions helpful. Have you practiced one or more of the first Four Limbs this week? What have you noticed?

Namaste,

Amber

Photo:deviantart.net

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You Have To Look With The Heart

“People where you live,” The Little Prince said, “grow five thousand roses in one garden… yet they don’t find what they’re looking for…

“They don’t find it,” I answered.

“And yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water…”

“Of course,” I answered.

And the little prince added, “But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.” 
― Antoine de Saint-ExupéryThe Little Prince

I have been writing about yoga every day this month, as my way of helping to raise awareness about the benefits yoga, in support of National Yoga Month.

After fifteen years on my mat, and twelve years of teaching yoga to everyone under the sun — adults, children, the visually impaired, doctors, lawyers, musicians, and so many more — I have a lot of stories and knowledge that might help inspire you to explore yoga as a personal practice.

The truth about yoga, though, is that you don’t need me, or anyone else, to learn how to practice it.

We already know what we are supposed to do, at some level. Patanjali didn’t create the “Eight Limbs of Yoga”, he just pointed out that we have all of these opportunities for happiness within us, just waiting to be revealed. They might be covered up by our fears, our traumas, and too many hours on Facebook, but they are there.

Nobody owns our breath but us. Nobody can strengthen our bodies, but us. And nobody can focus our minds, and our emotions, but us. Teachers, and books, and DVDs can offer inspiration and point us in the right direction, but we are the only ones who can do the work.

The entire point of The Yoga Sutras, which is considered the most essential text about yoga, is that we must stop looking around for happiness…and start looking inside. Happiness is there, and it’s our responsibility to let it out.

I think that’s the point The Little Prince is trying to make. We don’t need more. We need to nourish what we have. We need to OWN IT.

And that’s why I love yoga. Because I don’t need anything but myself, and God, to OWN my life. Not even a yoga mat (although it does make things a bit easier.)

I choose happiness, every time I practice yoga.

You are the rose. Yoga is the water. Connect the two, and you will ultimately find that what you really, truly want, is closer than you ever imagined.

Namaste~

Amber

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Photo: deviantart.net

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The 2nd Discipline of Yoga: Respect Yourself

The second limb of yoga, the Niyamas, is essential for yogis, and everyone who aspires to live a crazy healthy life:

Saucha, the first niyama, teaches about the importance of cleanliness. It is easy to think of this as a directive to shower before and after yoga practice, and keep your practice space clean and organized. At a deeper level, however, saucha teaches us to organize our emotional and spiritual energies, separating those that serve us from those that do not.

Santosha teaches us to cultivate contentment in our lives. When we accept life as it is today, we realize that we are already happy. There is no thing that will make us happy, because happiness is what we are inside. By practicing santosha, we give power to this happiness, so it can shine through, and illuminate our lives.

Tapas literally means “to generate heat”. We create heat in our lives through physical, spiritual, and emotional disciplines. It is the friction of the disciplines that help us strip away what is unnecessary. The heat of tapas burns away the heaviness that covers up our happiness. Personally, tapas has helped me learn to love my home practice as much as I love to take classes.

Svadhaya teaches the importance of self-study. This Niyama teaches us to practice awareness of ourselves, so that we might draw closer to God. It also helps us refine who we are, and what we do. Svadhaya has become increasingly important, as I strive to write something meaningful about yoga each day. The more I study what yoga means to me, the better I can share the benefits of yoga with you in this blog, and with my students in class.

Ishvara Pranidhana is the relentless pursuit of relationship with God. It teaches us to let go of our ego (specifically, what we want from life) and give our heart, mind, and body to God. It can be incredibly uncomfortable at first, because it forces us to surrender our wishes, so that we might honor God’s desires. That can be really really hard. Over time, however, ishvara pranidhana becomes a more comfortable way of living, because it reveals our connection to the world around us, and reminds us that we don’t have to go it alone.

Personally, I don’t think it is possible to practice real yoga without the niyamas. I tried it in the beginning of my yogic journey, and it always felt like something was missing. The niyamas helped me make more sense of my asana practice. They also make me feel more purposeful when I meet my mat, and that makes me really happy.

 

Namaste~

Amber

design2a22Photo: eveyoga.com

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Happy Yoga With Steve Ross

DSC_1501It’s really, really great to be back in Ojai. This is my third yoga retreat with Steve Ross and Meredith Klein, and it felt a lot like returning to summer camp, when Amy and I arrived yesterday. I wondered who might be here, what amazing delicacies Meredith might serve, and what I might learn on my mat.

I am excited to be back, because every time I visit this place, I grow. And I leave feeling like I am more of who I am meant to be.

A lot of that has to do with what I have learned from Steve. He has taught me so much of what I know to be true about yoga. He is a man of few words, but what he does say, always resonates deeply.

As we practiced with him last night, I could not help reflecting on what I have learned from Steve, in the past fifteen years:

It’s all yoga. Sometimes we, as yogis, get so wrapped up in the details, that we miss the experience. We believe that there is only one right way to practice. We get hyper-focused on alignment. Or maybe we spend the entire class comparing ourselves to others. Steve, more than anyone, has taught me to let go of what I think my practice should be, and appreciate what it is…and the bottom line is that yoga is a blessing. All of it.

Amazing things happen when we hold poses for a really long time. We hold poses for a really long time in Steve’s classes. It was so annoying, when I first practiced with him! I used to have conversations in my brain with him about it. “Ok, Steve, that’s enough!”

Sometimes it even made me mad, that he kept us in chair pose for what seemed like forever.

Until one day, I decided I would try it his way, and start holding poses longer when I practiced at home. I started counting the breaths, holding each pose for ten breaths at first, and then working up to twenty breaths. I learned to quiet my mind, when I thought I couldn’t hold the pose much longer, and grew to appreciate the “burn”.

When I wrapped this discipline around my personal practice, my body grew stronger, and my meditation practice improved. I learned new poses, that had previously seemed out of reach, and it made me feel empowered. I realized that Steve had it right all along. Amazing things happen when we push ourselves further than we think we want to go.

Yoga can, and should be fun. The studio where I practice with Steve is hidden in the woods. It’s pretty quiet, except for the birds chirping outside. So it feels a little unexpected, and spontaneous, and maybe even a little rebellious, when he presses play on his iPod, and “Blurred Lines” fills the room.

Steve plays music really, really loud. It’s always just the right music (I needed to let loose with Robin Thicke, after four hours on a plane and two hours in the car!). It vibrates through my whole body, and it feels good. His students dance a little in the poses, and more people smile in his classes than any other classes I have visited.

I also love that Steve makes a lot of jokes, and teases us if he thinks we are being too serious. He reminds us that we can’t GET happy, we can only BE happy. We already have happy inside us. He’s so right…and I find myself thinking, over and over again, this is how we are supposed to feel.

Amy and I are headed back to the studio again this morning, And this afternoon. And tomorrow, and the next day. I could not be happier to be here. It’s a blessing, this practice of yoga, and the people it brings into our lives. I can’t imagine life without it.

Happy National Yoga Month! Go get your yoga on, wherever you might be.

Namaste~

Amber


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