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"Change leads to disappointment if it is not sustained. Transformation is sustained change, and it is achieved through practice." ~B.K.S. Iyengar

FAQs
On your downloads page, you say the audio classes are not appropriate for beginners. Why is this, when your live class is all-levels?
All these topsy-turvy and pretzel postures are kind of intimidating and look painful. I won't ever be able to do that, and why would I want to?

Yoga isn't enough to keep you fit, is it? I thought it was just stretching.
What is power yoga? What is ashtanga yoga? Are they the same thing?
What are the benefits of yoga?
How is yoga connected to religion or spirituality?
What are bandhas, dristi, and ujjayi breathing?
I don't have access to a yoga studio. How can I practice yoga?
I have some weight to lose. Will yoga help me? What about my diet -- what should I be eating?


On your downloads page, you say the audio classes are not appropriate for beginners. Why is this, when your live class is levels 1-3?

My live class is appropriate for beginners because I can see them and they can see me. To follow only audio cues, you need to have significant knowledge of yoga postures, terms, and form to practice safely and without getting confused. Experienced level 1 students may do fine with audio recordings, but if you're new to yoga, please seek out more personal instruction. You'll be much better off.

All these topsy-turvy and pretzel postures are kind of intimidating and look painful. I won't ever be able to do that, and why would I want to?
You may or may not, but it doesn't matter. Practice of the asanas, or postures, isn't about the end posture; it's about the feeling you get from whatever variation you are performing. The only difference between a loose person and a tight person is that a loose person has to go farther to get to the same place, as Bryan Kest says. When we're in touch with our breathing, and feeling our edge, that is where we receive the most benefits -- and a beginner is likely to receive even more benefits than someone who has been practicing for a long time.

As you practice, you will naturally progress to more challenging postures, depending on your unique skeleton and genetics. No posture should be painful. Some that may look painful take many years to work up to, and shouldn't be attempted without the necessary muscular control and experience. Yoga can definitely hurt you if you aren't careful, and part of the practice is knowing your own limitations (which can change day by day) and working within them. If you don't challenge yourself, the benefits won't be as great -- nor will you benefit if you work beyond your limits.

Yoga is something you can practice for life and never grow out of, and the basic, core postures are practiced by beginners and experienced practitioners alike, daily. You add to these as you progress. Each pose is endless, and therefore never actually "mastered." I experience trikonasana (triangle) in a new way everyday, even though I've done it thousands of times, and that's the beauty of yoga, and one of the reasons it never gets boring. Everyone can practice yoga, no matter what your age or physical condition.

As for the "why" of it all, do you remember rolling around on the floor as a child, somersaulting, shoulderstanding, twisting, and bending? It feels good to move through our range of motion, and this is our ideal state. As we get older, it's something we lose -- most adults seldom vary from standing, sitting, or lying down, and our body tightens into these positions. Try moving in ways you ordinarily would not, and see how it makes you feel.

Yoga isn't enough to keep you fit, is it? I thought it was just stretching.
Not only is yoga more than enough to keep you physically fit if that's the way you want to go, but yoga is the only fitness system on Earth that treats the whole person, inside and out. Yoga has the benefit of thousands of years of experience and refinement in working on the internal organs, energy body, and glandular system as well as the muscles and connective tissue.

I've thoroughly tested this theory. I only practice yoga, five or six days a week. I occasionally ride bikes or walk, but yoga is my only regular form of exercise. I was a former gym devotee, but since 2002, I can probably count the times I've been to the gym on two hands. From a physical point of a view, a recent study by Adelphi University found that vigorous styles of yoga can burn more than 500 calories per hour. But I haven't yet found a better summary of the physical fitness benefits of yoga than this article in Yoga Journal that put three types of yogis (ashtanga, Iyengar, and kundalini) through a battery of physical fitness tests to determine how they compared to other regular exercisers and to the general population. Pretty eye-opening, and will hopefully help shatter some of the common misconceptions about the physical effects of yoga. If you do rely on yoga solely for exercise, however, it is vital to practice it regularly, intensely, and for a sufficient amount of time, as the article mentions.

However, if you love sports or other forms of exercise, practicing yoga regularly will help you improve your performance, counteract muscle tightness from strenuous activity, and prevent injury.

What is power yoga? What is ashtanga yoga? Are they the same thing?

They are not the same. Both are styles of of hatha yoga, as are all types of yoga that are based on movement. (Ha = "sun" and Tha = "moon") The word "ashtanga" means "eight limbs" of enlightenment, with the asanas (postures) being only one of the eight. However, the term ashtanga also describes the series of postures created by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, postures designed to bring the body, and especially the spine, into perfect alignment. Ashtanga is a fiery, physical type of yoga whose intent is to produce heat and sweat to purify the body. The more heat built within the body, the easier and safer the postures become.

The sequencing of ashtanga yoga also serves to open the nadis (the body's energy channels) to the flow of prana (life symbolized by breath), and balance each of the seven chakras (energy centers). People often say they're "getting the kinks out," and yoga literally does that by opening up areas of the body that are tight or restricted.

Pattabhi Jois delineated three main series within ashtanga yoga: Primary, Intermediate, and Advanced, which was further divided into three smaller series. Despite being called "primary," the primary series is anything but easy. It can take many, many years to master the primary series and it is often called the most difficult of all the series, because the hardest step to make is the first. It is also called "yoga chikitsa," which means "yoga therapy." It is the primary series that cleanses and aligns the body, and focuses on forward bends to lengthen the spine. The intermediate series builds on this foundation with a focus on backward bending.

Ashtanga yoga is also set apart from some other forms of yoga by its use of dristi (fixed gaze), bandhas (yogic locks), and ujjayi (victorious) breathing.

Dristi: Each asana, or pose, has a dristi, or a focal point. In addition to helping the mind remain focused, dristi can also help with balance.

Ujjayi: Ujjayi pranayama is deep breathing through the nose while partially constricting the back of the throat, which makes it quite audible. While breathing, imagine the back of your throat is smiling, and this will help you produce the correct sound.

Bandhas: Bandhas, or yogic locks, are the holding of various types of the body. The two most common are mula bandha (root lock) and uddiyana bandha (abdominal lock). Mula bandha is accomplished by tilting the perineum slightly upward; think of a slight upturn of the pelvis and a contraction of the muscles that control the flow of urine. Uddiyana bandha is the lift of the lower ribs, which also helps open the chest. To visualize uddiyana bandha, imagine a string going through the back of your body and hooking to the bellybutton, then pulling slightly up and in while lifting the ribs. (Note that this is not the same as sucking in your gut!)

Also used to maintain heat during ashtanga yoga are vinyasas (a flowing sequence between asanas) and another static contraction — the lifting of the quadriceps muscles (think of lifting the kneecaps). All of the above require training to maintain, because there's a lot going on in these poses that appear to be still.

Power yoga, sometimes referred to as "vinyasa" or "flow" yoga, is loosely based on the concepts of ashtanga yoga and may or may not include the dristi, ujjayi, and bandhas mentioned above. Power yoga maintains the traditional athleticism and breath of ashtanga, but may use a variety of postures, focuses, class lengths, and practice atmospheres. With just a few exceptions, traditional ashtanga holds each posture for exactly five breaths, and power yoga simply focuses on intensity, whether that is a longer or shorter hold. Power yoga is often thought of as the idea of ashtanga yoga adapted for a Western audience, as the class lengths are variable and some of the more daunting postures of the ashtanga primary series are often left out. For more in-depth information about power yoga, please read Bryan Kest's essay at poweryoga.com. Bryan Kest has been an incredible inspiration to me and I highly recommend his entire library of articles.

Ashtanga yoga and power yoga are both are an incredible experience, and both will improve your physical fitness level beyond what you may have thought possible, in addition to all the other benefits of yoga. It's simply a matter of preference and class availability.

What are the benefits of yoga?
The answer to this question could fill an entire book. Two vital benefits that are often overlooked are:
1. One of the most obvious signs of aging is that we lose the ability to bend our spines backward. Our ligaments toughen and actually shorten, which pulls us forward into a stooped position, and this stiffening happens naturally as we age if we don't make the effort to counteract it. Your spine, which is the center of your whole body, can stay supple through the practice of yoga, which moves the spine in all six directions: forward, backward, sideways left, sideways right, twisted left, and twisted right.
2. Stress is a major cause of both physical and mental disease, but something people often ignore as a source of misery in their lives. Yoga relieves stress in the present and conditions you to deal better with it in the future.

A short and by no means complete list of further benefits:
1. Toned muscles. And because yoga tends to work the muscles in its extended state rather than its contracted state, the musculature produced tends to be more compact and streamlined than that from regular weight training -- the "long and lean" look people often associate with yoga.
2. Better lung efficiency and capacity from pranayama, similar to the effects of aerobic exercise.
3. Relief from back pain and general stiffness.
4. Better range of motion and flexibility.
5. More restful sleep if insomnia is a problem, and more energy if inertia is a problem.
6. Balanced glandular function.
7. Stimulation of the lymph system to help the body rid itself of wastes. Lymph has no heart to pump it, so the asanas help to move it.
8. Better mental focus.
9. Lower blood pressure and better heart health.
10. Better skin tone through increased circulation.
11. Increased ability to deal rationally with problems through a calmer and more clear mind.
12. More equality between the left and right sides of the body.
13. Better sense of balance, which naturally declines after age 40.
14. Relief from depression.
15. More balanced metabolism.
16. Healthier joints and bones through weight-bearing exercise, without the compaction and stress of impact activities.
17. Better digestion through massage of the internal organs by various asanas and pranayama.
18. Stronger immune system.

How is yoga connected to religion or spirituality?
Yoga has its roots in Hinduism, but at its core it is a system of self-care that can be used by people of any or no religion. That yoga is "religious" is probably the second most common misconception about yoga that I've noticed (the first being that yoga is only stretching and relaxation). I mentioned before that yoga is also what you make it. It holds different levels of spiritual meaning for different people. "Spiritual," to me, just means that it relates to who you are inside. If yoga causes self-examination and reflection, then it is spiritual... very different from "religious."

You can step endlessly on a Stairmaster while reading a magazine and completely tune yourself out, aside from occasionally checking the clock to see when your sentence is up. It is nearly impossible to do this when you're doing yoga. Part of the practice involves constant attention to your entire body -- every joint and every breath is significant, as is whatever thought your mind wanders toward when you relax at the end of practice in shavasana ("corpse" or relaxation pose). So in this way, yoga is certainly a spiritual practice. However, a person of any religion or no religion can practice yoga. I recently saw a "yoga praise" DVD led by a Catholic priest. No matter what your belief system, age, or physical condition, there is a style of yoga for you.

Yoga does, however, come with many suggestions for behavior and lifestyle. The eight limbs of yoga include the yamas and niyamas as given in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. These are are guidelines for ethical behavior. They are: Cleanliness, non-possessiveness or greediness, nonviolence, devotion, truthfulness, contentment, austerity, self-control, not stealing, and study of sacred texts (be it the Bible, the Talmud, or the Dhammapada, for example). These tenants are not unique to Hinduism or Buddhism -- in fact, they sound a lot like the Ten Commandments of Christianity and are guidelines that are loosely found in most cultures and belief systems. Yoga does mean "union," however, and that refers not only to union of mind and body as we typically think but also union of the self to everything around us -- that is its supreme goal.

What are bandhas, dristi, and ujjayi breathing?
These three are essential to ashtanga yoga and also often used in vinyasa or power (ashtanga-inspired) yoga classes.

Dristi: Each asana, or pose, has a dristi, or a focal point. In addition to helping the mind remain focused, dristi can also help with balance.

Ujjayi: Ujjayi pranayama is deep breathing through the nose while partially constricting the back of the throat, which makes it quite audible. While breathing, imagine the back of your throat is smiling, and this will help you produce the correct sound.

Bandhas: Bandhas, or yogic locks, are the holding of various types of the body. The two most common are mula bandha (root lock) and uddiyana bandha (abdominal lock). Mula bandha is accomplished by tilting the perineum slightly upward; think of a slight upturn of the pelvis and a contraction of the muscles that control the flow of urine. Uddiyana bandha is the lift of the lower ribs, which also helps open the chest. To visualize uddiyana bandha, imagine a string going through the back of your body and hooking to the bellybutton, then pulling slightly up and in while lifting the ribs. (Note that this is not the same as sucking in your gut!)

I don't have access to a yoga studio. How can I practice yoga?
Neither did I, when I first started. I had small children, a very limited budget, and limited access to classes. And now, for the same reasons, I have a strong home practice on the days I can't attend or teach class. While classes have been really helpful, a strong home practice has been essential to regular practice, and I recommend this to my students as well. Even 15 minutes of sun salutations at home will be incredibly beneficial to you. Some yoga is better than no yoga, and consistency is more important than time spent.

Even though it's ideal to attend classes in the beginning to ensure proper alignment and safety, with a little awareness, there is a wealth of helpful information out there for you. Books are a great source of information, but I highly recommend practicing with yoga DVDs at home, at least until you are experienced enough to come up with your own sequences. With the Internet and subscription services for DVD and yoga audio, you can experience "live classes" at home as well. For some recommendations, see my "recommendations" page.

I have some weight to lose. Will yoga help me? What about my diet -- what should I be eating?
Yoga will definitely help you come into your ideal weight range, not just through the calorie-burning you might expect but through stimulation and balancing of the glandular system (i.e. shoulderstand is said to regulate the thyroid and metabolism) and through supporting lifestyle changes. Yoga tends not to stimulate your appetite in the same way as regular intense exercise, and through deepening your practice and understanding the teachings of yoga, you will probably find you naturally gravitate toward healthier habits. Change takes time, though, so don't expect to overhaul your habits right off. Set very small goals, and make each a habit before you move on to the next -- it is said that 21 repetitions of something makes it a habit, and 90 makes it second nature. For three weeks, you might want to focus on simply drinking less soda each day. When you have that down, set another.

As for diet, I won't make any concrete recommendations on what you should or shouldn't eat. I'm not a nutritionist, and also we are all different, but here are some common-sense guidelines you can adapt to your specific situation:

1. According to some of the yogic texts, it's a good practice to "feel you could have eaten just a little bit more." Don't eat until you're stuffed, or even full. Bryan Kest recommends eating a meal until you're "two-thirds full." This may feel strange at first, in a culture where we're conditioned to eat large portions and clear our plates, but over time your body will get used to it.
2. It makes sense to eat foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. Foods that are overcooked, overprocessed, stale, and loaded with extra chemicals won't benefit your body or mind, and you aren't meant to eat these things. Choose as many fresh foods as possible, including fruits and vegetables and whole grains.

A great tip I've read is to "shop the perimeter" of the grocery store -- the produce section, dairy cases -- and generally avoid the center aisles where all the boxed and canned processed food is. When you can, make the more natural and healthy choice, i.e. fresh fruit over canned fruit. Much of the food in the United States has unfortunately been grown and packaged for volume and maximum profit instead of health, so get into the habit of reading labels and figuring out where your food comes from and what is in it. From a yogic point-of-view, you may want to look into the Ayurvedic system of eating and the three gunas, which are the three basic natures of food (and of all matter).

Your body is programmed for survival, and that means you probably won't get rid of the urge to overeat and snack mindlessly. Just be aware of what you're eating and why, and over time, you will naturally make small changes that will add up.

In the meantime, here are some of my favorite vegetarian recipes. I am not a strict vegetarian, nor am I saying you should be, but cutting down on meat consumption is a great way to start eating healthier and in a more compassionate way. Many yoga practitioners are vegetarians or eat very little meat.

One other thing about extra weight and yoga practice: if you have a lot of extra weight to lose, be careful about inversions. Headstand and shoulderstand are generally contraindicated in that case because of possible stress on the delicate vertebrae in the neck, so ask a teacher about possible modifications in the meantime.

More questions?
Feel free to contact me if I have missed anything.

 

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