3.15.2014

Ashtangi Self-Care: 5 Ways to Support your Practice

Ashtanga got you down?
Ashtanga gets a bum rap for being an injurious practice.  I've definitely had my share of injuries, and while I don't believe Ashtanga to be inherently more dangerous than any other athletic endeavor, it does seem to be the case that this demanding daily practice draws a certain type of person.  Call them "type-A," intense, or just plain crazy, ashtangis who go all-in tend to expect a lot from themselves in every area of life without leaving any room for rest.

Unfortunately for these particularly driven folks, if not approached in a healthy, balanced way, the rigor of the Ashtanga method can provide a platform for self destruction, eventually resulting in fatigue, burnout, or even physical and psychological harm.  Fortunately, however, there are some simple things that we everyday practitioners can do to support our daily practice, prevent burnout, and restore balance to our lives.

1.  Castor Oil Massage

Weekly castor oil self-massage can do wonders for sore muscles, tweaked joints, and all those random aches and pains.  It can also help to remove excess heat and ama (the ayurvedic term for digestive sludge, the product of inadequate digestion) from the body, leaving you cooler, calmer, and cleaner from the inside out.

Castor oil is pressed from the seeds of the Castor plant (ricinus communis) which are also used to make the poison Ricin.  The presence of mildly toxic ricinoleic acid in castor oil, which the oil transports through the skin, stimulates an inflammation response -- the body's natural healing mechanism -- which increases blood flow and cellular regeneration in the affected areas.

Be sure to use high quality cold pressed, cold processed oil for your castor oil bath.  Follow the instructions for dry brushing and oil massage:  prepare the skin with vigorous brushing, then massage the oil through the skin from head to toe in long, firm circular strokes.  But instead of washing the oil off right away, lie down on a towel (preferably one you don't intend to use for any other purpose) and allow the oil to soak deeper into the tissues of the body.  Start with just 5 minutes of soak time and gradually work up to 20, 30, or even 45 minutes over the course of several weeks.  When you're ready, wash the oil off in a hot shower. 

2.  Foam Roller & Trigger Point Release

It is easy to convince ourselves that yoga is all we need, especially if we do it every day, but for many of us with persistent soreness or joint problems, our bodies vehemently disagree.  To this end, professional massage is wonderful, but the effects are short-lived.  Since few among us have the time or money to see a massage therapist every time we feel a kink, foam rollers and massage balls are great options.

A basic, firm foam roller is fabulous for massaging tight quadriceps, calf muscles, IT bands, and sides.  For trigger point release in the hips and back, use a tennis ball, your body weight, and breath to untangle knots and tension.  A golf ball or similarly sized massage ball works well for releasing hands, feet, forearms, and face.  

Just a few minutes a day on problem areas can make all the difference in your practice.  Immediately after practice when the muscles are warm and soft is the best time for massage, but before bed or any time on an empty stomach is good, too.  It is best not to do deep massage work during menstruation, but if you need to release a knot, it is my opinion that a bit of upper body trigger point release would be just fine.

(For more information on how to use your foam roller and massage balls, see my post on self-massage.)

3.  Epsom Salt Baths

Though the science behind why epsom salt baths work is murky, there is loads of anecdotal evidence that epsom salt baths alleviate muscle tension, soreness, and reduce joint inflammation.  One theory is that they provide the body with a boost of magnesium, an important mineral in muscular and nervous system functioning that can be difficult to absorb adequately through diet.

You can find epsom salt for cheap at your local health food store or pharmacy.  Just put 1-2 cups in a warm bath and soak for 15-30 minutes.  Feel free to add 10-20 drops of any essential oils that you like, and a tablespoon or two of bentonite clay if you know that your water supply is thick with heavy metals.  

I find epsom salt baths to be particularly helpful just before my practice, as the warm water gently releases muscles and frees the joints without diminishing energy or muscular force.  

4.  Electrolyte Supplements

Electrolytes are essential minerals that regulate many important systems in the body, from nerve and muscle function to blood pressure and tissue regeneration.  Normally, we ingest electrolytes through our diet, particularly from fruits and vegetables grown in mineral-rich soil.  The kidneys and endocrine system regulate electrolyte levels, but when we sweat -- and we ashtangis tend sweat a lot -- we lose electrolytes at a rate faster than the body can regulate effectively.

Coconut water is an increasingly popular choice among yogis for restoring electrolyte balance after practice, but if you leave puddles around your mat like I do, coconut water alone isn't going to cut it.  I take an all-natural, sugar-free powdered electrolyte supplement almost every day, and the difference it has made on my endurance is pronounced.

I like Hammer Endurolytes powder, but there are other options out there.  Just steer clear of sweetened, artificially flavored or colored sports drinks.  And for pete's sake, don't even think about drinking a 5-Hour Energy or Redbull... not even as a last resort.

5.  Rest

I know you think that if you miss one day of practice, all your hard work goes down the drain, but you're wrong.  Adequate rest is absolutely essential to a healthy, sustainable practice.  Rest on Saturdays.  Rest on moon days.  Take short practice when you need to.  There is nothing about the Ashtanga method that says you must do a full sequence every day.  On the contrary, a more-is-better attitude can be a great impingement to your progress.

And ladies, by all means, rest during your monthly holiday.  Your body requires rest.  If you give your body what it needs, it will give you what you want.  You want to be stronger?  You want to better backbends?  You want liberation?  Work hard, and then rest.

Final Thoughts

I share these restorative practices with you because it breaks my heart to know that this method that has been such a powerful force of healing in my own life can also cause such injury, distress, and pain.  Help me to share this practice by treating your own body with respect and by treating your practice as the precious thing it is.

I'll leave you with wise words from two of my favorite balanced ashtangis:
"Learn, also, to not practice." -- Matthew Sweeney
"When in doubt, take a nap." -- Kimberly Flynn


3.02.2014

Anthem

The official Damn Good Yoga anthem:


PS:  I am still waiting for Carl to claim his Gaya rug, so if I don't hear from him by Wednesday, I will select another winner.


2.26.2014

Giveaway Winner Announced!

First, many thanks to everyone for all the thoughtful comments on what you'd like to see from Damn Good Yoga in the coming year.  I will consider your ideas and try to bring them to fruition in every way I can.

Drum roll, please...


The winner of the Barefoot Yoga practice rug giveaway is...

CARL BRINGENBERG!

Congratulations, Carl!  Please send me an email with your name and shipping address and I will forward that information to Barefoot Yoga Co. to get your Gaya practice rug on its way to your door.

Thanks again to everyone for reading, participating, and sharing your thoughts on Damn Good Yoga.  Stayed tuned for more giveaways, Asanas of the Week, videos, and more!


2.19.2014

Product Review: Barefoot Yoga Practice Rug (And a Giveaway!)

 I get several emails each week from company representatives asking me to review products on this blog.  I've been asked to review everything from sports drinks (gross!) to body-shaping undergarments (does this make my ass look... ass-shaped?),  but I only ever agree to review products that are relevant to my practice and yours.  So when a friendly rep from Barefoot Yoga Co. emailed me earlier this month to request a product review, I jumped at the chance.

Admittedly, I have used Barefoot Yoga's Mysore rugs in the past but historically have preferred the equa towels from Manduka for sweaty practice.  However, with my pitta fires greatly damped by 2nd series, the mat towels just aren't serving me as well these days, so I thought I'd give the Mysore rug another chance.

Barefoot Yoga claims to be the "original manufacturer and designer of the Mysore Practice Rug," and while I don't know if this is absolutely true, I do know that Mysore rugs are common among my students.  I've seen many of Barefoot's designs -- some more commonly than others -- and if you've spent any time in a Mysore room, you probably have too.  They tend to be woven with earthy tones and patterns, often dulled by years of sweaty hands and feet, but when I opened up the box from Barefoot and saw the new Gaya rug they sent me, I literally gasped with delight.

Gaya Mysore practice rug in its natural environment
This rug is beautiful.  It is tightly woven of 100% cotton in vibrant rose, coral, and black.  After a week of practice on this baby, I can tell you that it really does the job for which it is intended.  There are no ridges or seams, but the weave is course and highly absorbent.  With just a little spritz of water before the Surya Namaskara, the rug provides a perfect grip and, unlike microfiber towels, doesn't dry out before I manage to break a sweat.  It stays in place on my mat, even with a sloppy jump back, so there is no fussing with wrinkles or folds (and, consequently, no excuse to pause and adjust before confronting scary postures).

Rug pattern up close
I love the texture of the rug under my hands and feet, and appreciate that it doesn't stretch or leave little stirrup marks where my heels sit in Downward Dog like other rugs I've tried.  The colors are rich and inviting, and the stripes are nice for checking alignment and precision.  Most of all, I appreciate that even by the end of a sweaty 1st or 2nd series, I don't feel like I'm lying in a slushy mess.  The Gaya rug absorbs everything I throw at it without becoming saturated or feeling wet.

Bottom line:  Barefoot's Gaya Mysore rug is fun to look at, and it supports and simplifies my practice.  What else is there to say about a yoga rug? Not much.  

Giveaway Details

Like my rug? You can have one, too!  Barefoot Yoga Co. has generously agreed to give away a Gaya Mysore practice rug ($41 value) to one lucky reader.  All you have to do is leave a comment below with an idea of what you'd like to see from Damn Good Yoga in the coming year.  Do you want practice tips?  Philosophy?  More videos?  Natural health?  Be specific.  On February 26th -- one week from today -- I will randomly select a commenter to receive one of these fabulous rugs and announce the winner on the blog.  

Stay tuned and good luck!

UPDATE:  The winner has been announced!  Click here to find out if you're the one.


1.31.2014

Natural Health Hack #11: Diatomaceous Earth

A heaping mound of DE
Street value: $2.00

What is it?

Diatomaceous earth is the powered, fossilized shell remains of a type of ancient marine algae.  The tiny shells are made of silicon dioxide, otherwise known as silica, a common ingredient in hair products and cosmetics.  Silicon dioxide is present in the earth's crust in large deposits all over the world where it  is then mined, processed, and put to use by humans in an impressive number of ways.

Food grade diatomaceous earth is silica powder with less than .5 percent crystalline silicon dioxide.  Crystalline particles are smaller than the amorphous particles in food grade DE and, in large quantities, can be dangerous when consumed or inhaled.   Food grade DE, however, is safe, dirt cheap (pun intended), and widely available.

Incredible, Edible

Silica is an important mineral that exists naturally in the soil and is present to some degree in any diet coming more-or-less directly from the earth.  The amount of silica one takes through their diet depends largely on how many fruits and vegetables one consumes, and on the quality of soil and agricultural practices with which the food was grown.

In the body, silica is used to make healthy skin, hair, bones, teeth, and nails.  Expensive silica supplements may be found in health food stores or even be prescribed by your doctor, but a spoonful of food grade DE in a glass of water once a day works just as well to ensure you are getting enough silica in your diet.

Food grade diatomaceous earth may also be taken to improve digestion and detoxification.  DE particles are highly absorbent with sharp edges and a net-like structure.  They move rapidly through the digestive tract, collecting junk in the intestines and sweeping the intestinal wall clean.  My dogs and I take DE regularly to support healthy tissue growth, clean the digestive tract, and keep internal parasites at bay.

Cosmetic Catch-All

Silica is a common ingredient in cosmetics, lotions, and hair products.  In its dry form, it is a remarkably absorbent fine powder; when wet, it has a smooth, almost slippery feel.  Food grade diatomaceous earth (a.k.a. silica powder) is a natural alternative that costs literally pennies on the dollar compared to specialty cosmetics.  It has fast become a staple in my personal beauty regimen.  These are a few ways I use it at home:
  • Dust into hair to add body and malleability.
    • Dust hair, shake in with fingers, shape as desired.
  • Dust face for a translucent matte cosmetic powder.
    • Dust on and blend with fingers or brush.
    • Note: This is the best shine-control powder I have ever used, but it may not work on all complexions.  If you are very dark skinned and try DE on your face, please let me know how it goes.
  • Dab blemishes with DE for both treatment and concealer.
    • Dip a fingertip in some DE and dab the spot to zap it dry.
    • Blend to conceal redness.
  • Apply to rashes and itchy skin for relief.
    • Yoga butt?  Bra-strap back?  DE is where it's at.
I keep my cosmetic DE in an old loose powder container and apply it with a make-up brush.  For hair and skin, I bought a travel-size bottle of baby powder for .99 cents, emptied it, cleaned it, and filled it with DE.  Both are working beautifully.

Bugs Beware

Diatomaceous earth is perhaps best known for its properties as an insecticide.  Understandably, this could cause one to be wary of eating DE or dusting it on the skin, but the reason food grade DE is not dangerous to humans is that DE kills insects physically, not chemically.  The sharp-edged, absorbent particles damage the waxy coating that covers the exoskeleton of most insects, exposing their soft, vulnerable insides which are rapidly dried out by the DE, killing them dead.  The fine particles, however, are safe for animals and humans.  Dust doorways, around the trash can, under the oven, and anywhere else bugs tend to congregate in your home to deal with unwanted insect populations.

DE can also be used as a safe, natural alternative to chemical flea and tick prevention for your pets.  Dust your pet's coat and bedding with DE to prevent flea infestation and kill ticks.  While you're at it, put some in your dog or cat's food to ensure your pet is not host to any gut-based parasites.

Final Thoughts

I am not a doctor.  I do not have medical training.  What I do have is an interest in living well and a thirst for information.  Many of my natural health endeavors have been and continue to be experimental.  That being said,  I have found diatomaceous earth to be safe, versatile and, given its myriad uses, absurdly affordable.  I encourage you to do your own research, and if you are going to try DE in any of the ways I've mentioned here,  I urge you to ensure that it is high quality food grade diatomaceous earth like the products I've linked to below.

Links to Purchase