Saturday, March 2, 2013

Yogasana Schools: a Definitive Guide

My definitive (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) guide to the different styles of yoga. A lot of lists will tell you that a style combines "a focus on the breath" and "alignment" and "flow," and they all end up sounding exactly the same. But I'm here to lay it out for you. Of course, let me know if I'm way off base, because I'm always interested in learning more!

imageAshtanga: the beast that started it all. The popularity of "vinyasa-style" and power yoga all come from lineage in ashtanga. Developed about one hundred year ago an popularized by Sri Pattahbdi Jois, who died last year. Adherents refer to hum affectionately as "guruji." Modern asana-based yoga practiced had two daddies; one is B.K.S. Iyengar. The other is K. Pattahbi Jois. Every practice follows the same pattern: chant, 10 sun salutations (5 of A, 5 of B), an opening sequence of standing forward bends, then a series of balancing and seated postures interspersed with "vinyasas" to keep you nice and sweaty throughout. You end with closing sequence of shoulder stands and variations lotus. 

As if an intense series of forward folds and full and half lotus variations weren't enough for a liftetime, there are Intermediate and Advanced series. And depending on who you talk to, there are FOUR levels in the Advanced series. So, yeah, this is a style for overacheivers. Perfect for people with OCD, people who wake up eary to run 10 miles, etc. 

imageAnusara: A combination of vinyasa-style and alignment-obsessive styles. You'll here the phrases "keep that" and "melt your heart" and reference a lot of "spirals" mentioned. The guy who started it ripped off a bunch of employees and had affairs with witches. The teachers are a giggly bunch. 
Bikram: Same type-A's who like Ashtanga and repetition (again, this style is the same series of poses), but also are into S & M and think most yoga is too touchy-feely. Suck it up, buttercup! This is the style that made swimming in a pool of your own sweat popular. People tend to think this is a calorie-burner, but that's only because they're sweating like there working hard, even though they're not. And the guy who created it is the douchebag who is suing other hot yoga studios. 
Hatha: All the asana-based classes you attend are technically hatha yoga, so this is kind of a catch-all term, but tends to describe classes where the focus is the poses without all the vinyasas. Generally a fairly gentle style, but again, this is a fairly non-specific denomination, so you could end up standng on your head for 30 min and then blame me for saying this is a gentle style. 
Iyengar: Takes alignment obsession to the next level. This is the the yin to ashtanga's yang, but only in the sense that vinyasa and surya namaskars are not emphasized. Studios actually have rope on the wall and encourages adherents to hinge violntly at the hips to get the blood flowing. Hmmmm. Not sure about that. This is a good foundation/basic style. Because it focuses on the "right way" to do a posture, it generally is the best approach for those with pre-existing injuries or anyone predisposed to them.... so really anyone. This style will teach you everything you need to know about how to do the pose, but personally, once I know, I prefer modern vinyasa/flow styles to get in and out of them. 

Jivamukti: Started in the eighties by Iggy Pop and Morticia, this is a style that's pretty similar to the Ashtanga/vinyasa way of doing things, but with a pretty hefty dose of veganism and New Age politics. This is NOT a school to recommend to your Republican friends. If it weren't for the vegan sanctimony, I would actually suspend more disbelief and really get into this, because they emphasize spirutuality and meditation more than your typical most vinyasa-based physically demanding practices. SO you get your physical AND mental workout, which is similar to my own practice. Sharon was rumored to be having an affair with one of the couple's celebrity clients years ago, but at this point, what yoga guru HASN'T been in a sex scandal?
Kripalu: Not as much a style of yoga as a school of yoga. Another place plagued by guru's who couldn't keep their pants on, the founder resigned in 1994 for having sex with followers and failing to pay employees. Are we seeing a pattern here? Now it has redesigned itself as an center for holistic and alternative medicine. The yoga taught tends to be in the gentle camp, so pretty much low-key hatha. Very into meditiation and mindfulness during poses. 
imageKundalini: This is not an asana style, this is a style based on kriyas. Kriyas are distinct from asana in that they are generally repetitive movements performed with some rapidity rather than static poses. Like asana, can be an incredibly powerful experience, but can feel very wacky to the uninitiated. This is a style that CAN attract some intensely hippy-dippies who believe in crystal healing, which, I have to say, is the epitome of New Age bullshit.

imagePower Yoga: Developed by Shiva Rea, Power Yoga was one of the earliest attempts at translating yogasana for a Western body-concious audience. The argument could be made that it went to far and distorted the original intention of the practice, with DVDs entitles "Yoga for Abs," but anyone who's met Ms. Rea (as I can) can tell you, she is pure positive energy, and if she didn't emphasize the spiritual component of practice, its because we weren't paying attention. She's also helped the popularization of kirtan, and essentially creating a mash up of a large group yoga class and a late 90's-rave. Instead of being hopped up on goof-balls, everyone's hopped up on yoga.

imageSivananda: One of the earliest schools in the U.S., this is a style that follows the popular format of seated opening prayer and pranayama, the sun salutations, followed by a series of 12 asana plus variations. How the heck is that different than any other kind of yoga school? This style is almost like the photo-negative of Ashtanga; where Ashtanga tends to place inversions towards the middle or end of the practice, Sivananda leads with those posture, starting with headstand and shoulderstand plus variations, ending with a standing posture (trikonasana). Where Ashtanga likes to intersperse postures with vinyasas, Sivananda typically focuses on resting between postures. The sequences start and end with pranayama, savasana, and meditation. While the variations can be quite advanced, this is a relaxation and breathing focused practice.

imageVinyasa: Another catch-all term, but a good descriptor for intensely paced classes that can not only get the heart racing with lots of vinyasas, but also tends to feature teachers who love inversion variations and arm balances. May or may not include spiritual components and chanting, depending on the teacher. Not all that different from power yoga except the teachers like to use sanskrit and at least PRETEND that their classes aren't about firming you butt. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Chakra #1: Mula or Root Chakra

The first in the series of 7 chakras (do you ever feel like lots of this kind of stuff ends up being in 7s? 7 deadly sins, 7 dwarves...) This chakra is considered to be located at the perineum. That's doctor talk for... well, the space between your front business and your back business. I told you yogis we're disturbingly preoccupied with bowel movements; that obsession likely has something to do with the importance of the mula chakra in tantric and vedic theory. This is the place from which all your energy, or prana, or qi, or whathaveyou emanates.  Obviously this system was thought of primarily by men; who else would think that the source of all knowledge, power and health emanates from the pudenda?
Anyways, just like an out-of-balance dosha is associated with ailments, your chakras can be "blocked," and a root chakra problems fall into 2 categories
  1. Overactive: greedy, angry, narcissitic, sexually promiscuous, sadistic; basically, you're a jerk
  2. Underactive or blocked: feeling unsettled or nervous, sciatica, fatigue, insomnia, feelings of inadequacy or self-loathing
When this chakra is open, it is said to evoke feelings of bliss, innoncence, and pure joy. Sounds pretty great? Who knew? Turns out your junk is even more important than you thought.

Learn more after the jump!

Chakra Kahn!

So, back by popular demand, I'm reposting my popular Chakra series. Let's do it!

Besides doshas, which I discussed earlier, part of the ayurvedic/yogic tradition also address the bodies little mills of energy, or chakras. The chakras are linearly located along the spine, and are considered centers of energy flow, or prana, and also places of potential blockage. Theorectically, yoga works by opening these channels, thus allowing for prana to flow, bringing balance and therefore good health to the body. You'll probably notice the similarity this has to the Qi Gong and Chinese theories re: chi or qi.

The chakras are as follows, in order, from bottom to top:

1) Root (muladhara)

2) Pelvis (swadhisthana)

3) Navel (manipura)

4) Heart (anahata)

5) Throat (vishuddha)

6) Third eye (ajna)

7) Crown (sahasrara)

So get ready, we'll talk about each chakra in turn.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What the hell is a dosha?

Back in the day, before we knew about things like kidney failure and bacteria, the body was thought to be made up of humors. Black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. Creative. But ultimately based on pretty much nothing but human creativity. Thanks, Hippocrates.
So, with time, medicine started basing itself on things like, you know, facts, and the humoral system went by the wayside.
Except traditional medicine didn’t get the memo. And let’s face it, the humoral system is appealing, thinking of the body as a holistic system in delicate balance. Certainly feels more intuitive than the complex intersection of biology and physics known as modern physiology.
But therein lies the beauty of the humoral system: it organizes the way we think about our bodies. Whether or not this bears out in a lab is besides the point. Traditional medicine and its focus on balance, diet, and the mind-body connection bridges a pretty significant gap in the modern medical model.
Which brings us to doshas. Ayurveda divides the body into three humors, vata (air), pitta (fire), and kapha (earth). Like a simplified Captain Planet. Keeping these doshas in balance is vital to health. They are also used to describe tastes, seasons, and personality traits. Too much of one? Balance it with the opposite.
Also, fair warning, like a new mother, ayurveda seems to have an obsession with bowel movements.
Vata: cold, windy; dryness, constipation, weight loss, insomnia, anxiety, cold-intolerance; thin, light, flexible, easily distracted, energetic, excitable; associated with the colder portions of autumn and early winter
Pitta: hot; rashes, heartburn, indigestion, heat intolerance; medium weight and build, strong sexual drive, short-tempered, argumentative, witty, outspoken; associated with summer and the earlier, warm portions of autumn
Kapha: cold, wet; weight gain, depression, allergies, congestion; stubborn, loyal, patient, strong, likes following a set routine; associated with spring and early summer
Most people are made up of a combination, and are dominant in one or two. Take the fun quiz to find out what your dosha(s) might be here.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Let's Get Ready to Rumble!!

What is UP with "the yoga community's" love of controversy? For a practice that at its heart if supposed to be about non-violence, in word, thought and deed, its pretty amazing how much fighting and backstabbing and complaining happens, at least in the online iteration of its Western form.

The latest is, of course, about whether yoga can hurt you or not. Again. I thought this dead horse had been thoroughly flogged, but of course not! Why give up a pointless argument!!

A blogger on Huffington lashed out at Yoga Dork for targeting "high-profile male yogis," like Bikram Chowdury, who's been trying to sue other people for teaching heated yoga without paying him first.... Where does it end?

There's the 4chan of yoga in-fighting, Elephant Journal, run by  the Dov Charney of the yoga world, the man people LOVE to hate, Waylon Lewis. There was the John Friend debacle, a story that I honestly cannot hear too little about. If there's one topic I have no interest in, its the sex lives of strangers.

There's the ever-present derision on the more commercially successful and most visible purveyors of yoga to the general public, like Yoga Journal (what's with all the skinny white women?!?!1) and lululemon ($98 for yoga pants?!?!1).

On facebook today, by brother's ex who happens to be a yogini, posts a link to a diatribe against skin-tight clothing in yoga class. Everyone wants to have a piece of the yoga-fight-pie!!

I happened to work in that oft-maligned retailer, lululemon, and it was such a breath of fresh air to be in the eye of the negativity storm. For all of the parts of the company that can seem "problematic," I have never worked with a group of people more committed to living a message of openness, acceptance, and positivity. Considering 85% of my co-workers were female, I found this truly astounding; I had never worked in an environment where gossip was expressly banned, where people asked about your weekend and then LISTENED to your response, where everyone was invested in the success and accomplishment of their peers. Every week, rather than going to happy hour, we'd arrange a "class en mass" where we'd all go to SoulCycle or an aerial yoga class and sweat our butts off. Not only was it infinitely healthier, it actually ended up being more fun and bonding us all closer together.

It was a group of people committed to embracing ahimsa, the most important of the yamas, one of those too easily forgotten 8 limbs. It roughly translates to "non-violence," but what it means at its core is live in a world where you make as little negative footprint on it as possible. It charges us with contributing to a more open and positive world than the one we encounter, to reject judgment and negativity.

My experience working around people who took their ahimsa seriously helped me fully embrace yoga and all its eight limbs as I do now. Maybe I'm naive, but I believe that yoga (NOT asana, but yoga, which is a system of philosophy and way of living) really can be a panacea, in that it encourages us to treat everyone with kindness, including ourselves. I encourage these fightin' yogis out there to give it a try.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Problem with Cleansing

Ah, its January, so in holistic/yoga/health nut circles, that means its time for a cleanse!

While most people consider cleaning up their diet, exercising more, or losing weight, the health-concious-iest among us have to take it a step further. If you're already vegan, gluten-free, etc, what else can you eliminate? Enter the "cleanse."

The term is unfortunately typically associated with the "juice cleanse," which entails some number of days where only clear-ish fluids are consumed, and unfortunately, those fluids do not include scotch. If you own one of these noisy, expensive machines, that means you have the honor of watching pounds of perfectly good fruit and vegetables pulverized into a few ounces of disgusting liquid (I'm looking at you, kale), all while making the kind of mess in your kitchen where your husband comes home and feels lucky he has my psychiatrist on speed-dial.

I you are either 1) a celebrity or 2) lazy and bad with money, you can sign up for a service who will deliver your juice to you. Considering how weak you'll be from only drinking juice, this will prove crucial. Especially because your ass will be glued to your toilet seat.

You see, to the "holistic" crowd, cleanse really means one thing: ceaseless diarrhea. The uninitiated hear "clearing toxins from the liver" and are told of occasional skin breakouts, but waaay too much euphemism is used when it comes to the colonic effects of juice.

Like this, but on a toilet. 
This is because of the way water moves back and forth across your gut. Remember that from biology class in high school? Do people still learn about the movement of water from areas of high concentration to low concentration? Like this:

Anyways, when you drink water thats full of sugars and particles that are NOT absorbed by the body, it actually pulls more water into your gut. So even through you're drinking a ton of liquid, you can actually end up shitting out even more.

Also, all that sugar is feeding the garden of bacteria in your gut. As those bacteria eat the sugar that you're not absorbing, they create gas. So not only will you be peeing from your butt, you can also look forward to filling the yoga studio will enough farts to set off a fire alarm.

I'm obviously being facetious. The truth is, the occasional juice cleanse rarely does any lasting harm. Review of the literature is scant to say the least. The truth is, most of us can do just fine not eating ANYTHING AT ALL for days at a time. In the hospital, we frequently have patients on IV fluids who are NPO (short for the latin phrase for nothing by mouth) for days at a time. The fact is, as long as you're hydrated (drinking water), you're fine. The human body is awesome like that.

To live, we need lots of stuff, thankfully in small quantities. But there are 3 things we need on the kinda-regular: sugar, fat, and protein. The fact is, a juice cleanse provides the water and the sugar, but very little in the way of protein or fat. When the body doesn't get these things from the diet, you metabolism harvests them from your muscles and fat stores. The fat harvesting sounds awesome, but the muscle wasting - not so much.

Even the high "nutrient" content that everyone refers to is something I have issue with: by digesting these plant extractions without their natural fibers, there's a fairly high chance you won't absorb the nutrients that are there. When you eat fiber, you gut simply works better. It doesn't just "make you regular." To completely over-simplify, it helps slow things down enough for you to actually absorb all the good stuff that's there.

All this stuff will make you poop. 

However, I have fallen in love with occasionally (read: 3-4 times a year for no longer than 5 days) restricting my diet. It works as a mental reset more than anything: it helps develop a taste for healthier things, helps break my addictions to salty, fatty, fried foods (at least for awhile), and yes, help to relieve any, ahem, blockages.

Notice that I focus on the MENTAL aspects of the cleanse. I'm sure my cholesterol and my colon and maybe even my weight are all the better for the extra fiber from eating a ton of fruits and vegetables. And this time, I'm hoping the slow re-introduction of glutens and dairy products will once and for all whether I have any sensitivity to these foods.

Here's to a "cleaner" new year!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Bwah ha ha ! I FINALLY got into eka pada koudinyasana! After 2 years of sitting like a fool with my shoulder hooked under my knee and being told to just let my leg lift. Um how? My legs feel like cement.

This was me. For a long time. 
Then, while doing a class on yogaglo (which I cannot recommend too highly) with Tara Judelle (who, up until this point was NOT my favorite teacher, mostly for silly reasons, like her high rising terminal and humblebrags about teaching in Bali). But she showed how a swiveling the hip of the front leg open makes your front foot...magically lift off the floor.

So that move got me to this:
Which is pretty good. I guess. But I knew what I wanted and I wasn't about to back down now, when so much was at stake.

So I bent my arms. No dice. That back leg is HEAVY! WTF? All that running and biking and i don't have the hammies to raise that back leg?? Whenever you feel like a yoga pose is impossible, flex your abs (ahem, in yoga-speak: "engage your core) and shift your balance. I leaned forward. Voila!

Yeah, obviously I don't look like that. Soon I'll have the nerve to post a picture of myself. But until then, trust me, mine looked almost exactly like this. In my head.