12.29.2013

Gentle Yoga for Better Breathing & Balance

A 20-minute guided practice appropriate for all levels.  Try it at home, share with a friend, and leave your questions and comments below.

12.14.2013

I Don't Know How to Write About Yoga Anymore


In a couple of weeks, I will have been writing this blog for four years.  It started as the lonely outcry of a sequestered home practitioner.  Then it went on to become a detailed journal of my practice, an account of my experience in yoga teacher training, and a record of my life along the yoga path.

Oh, and Asanas of the Week.  Lots of those.

Over the course of the past year, since I have gone back to school, I have written less about my own life and far less about my practice.  I've been spending a lot of time with one particular person whose company I enjoy.  That closeness seems to pacify my creative energy, for better or worse.  And while practicing and teaching yoga are largely solitary pursuits which leave much of my thought free for putting on the page, being in the classroom saps me dry.  There are times that I yearn for that winter I spent largely unemployed, eating beans, doing nothing but practice or huddle in blankets and write.  

Sometimes, when I have an interesting insight or experience on the mat, I try to write about my practice now.  But it doesn't feel right.  Occasionally, I have a spark of inspiration to compose a post about the best time to shower in relation to practice, the importance of refinement in jumping back, or how to bind Pasasana.  But then I think: jesus, who cares...?

The truth is, I care.  I ponder these trivialities every day.  In my practice, or with my students.  I research.  I troubleshoot.  I tinker.  I continue to examine this yoga, this thing that sometimes seems so full of mystery and other times absurdly plain.  But I've forgotten how to write about it.  Maybe I don't have the energy, or maybe I don't think I should.  As the nature of this blog has evolved over the years, so has the nature of my relationship to practice.  It's become a comfortable relationship.  An everyday relationship.  One that isn't always satisfying, but one so wrapped up in who I am that it's impossible to leave.  And it seems almost that whatever happens in a relationship like that is too intimate to share, too gnarly and complex for understanding.

So I don't write about my practice anymore.  Don't talk much about it either.  I just do it, and that's enough.  Maybe this will change.  I enjoy reading about others' practice once in a while, and early on I learned a lot from blogs.  Maybe next week I will need notebooks for detailing my drop backs or logging meditation time, but for now, practice is enough.  And where does that leave the yoga blog?  Who knows.  Who cares?

12.09.2013

Natural Health Hack #10: Three Steps to Better Digestion

The "Tao" Bamboo Squatty Potty
Improper digestion is a primary cause of poor health and one of the most common complaints in our modern world.  Everything from constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and hemmorrhoids to acne and infections may be the result of inadequate digestion.  The most obvious answer to digestive trouble is a simple whole food diet with plenty of fresh greens and healthy fats.  But sometimes, particularly if digestive trouble is long-standing, a nutritious, fibrous diet is not enough to get digestion back on track.

While I was brainstorming this topic, I realized I could write a number of posts on ways to improve digestion, from diet and herbs to exercise and stress-relief, but I've decided to focus on just three easy but important solutions to get you started:

#1)  Squatty Potty

The human body is designed to squat during elimination.  Though many countries around the world still use squat toilets, the porcelain throne has become ubiquitous in today's modern Western restroom.  While it may seem more dignified to sit high and tall on a toilet, the sitting posture in which the body is positioned on a modern toilet is not conducive to evacuation of the bowels.  


As illustrated above, an upright sitting posture in which the tilt of the pelvis is relatively neutral actually places the rectum at an angle, reducing the efficiency of defecation, and causes the puborectalis to compress the narrow opening of the rectum.  This leads to difficult and incomplete evacuation, resulting in toxicity, illness, and increased potential for infection.

The "Ecco" Squatty Potty
A squat position, on the other hand, in which the pelvis is tilted forward and the knees are brought toward the body, brings the rectum into alignment and loosens the sling of the puborectalis, freeing up the digestive tract.  Squatting also creates downward intra-abdominal pressure, encouraging things to move along more quickly and easily.

Fortunately, you don't have to rip out your toilet and squat over a hole in the floor to achieve proper digestion.  The Squatty Potty (pictured right) is a footstool designed to fit at the base of your toilet which allows you to elevate your feet and bring the pelvis forward into a posture more conducive to elimination.  The Squatty Potty comes in two different heights: the 7" for those with more limited flexibility, or the 9" for a deeper squat position.  The basic, economical model is made from durable plastic and costs $35.  It is well worth it.  For those craving more refined bathroom decor, there is a bamboo model (pictured above) currently priced at $80.  

*Links to purchase at the bottom of this post.

#2)  Nauli

The practice of nauli, also known as abdominal churning, is a yoga kriya or cleansing practice designed to tone the digestive organs and stimulate agni.  Agni is the inner fire of digestion.  To put it in contemporary terms, agni is your metabolism.  A hotter fire in the belly means faster metabolism, and a faster metabolism means we are digesting our food quickly and completely.

I learned how to practice nauli while studying with David Swenson, but there are numerous resources online to show you how.  First, a few tips:
  1. DO practice nauli on an empty stomach first thing in the morning.
  2. DO develop your nauli practice gradually.  Start by learning to isolate just one side of the abdomen at a time, and work toward the full rippling motion over days or weeks of practice.
  3. DO NOT strain to the point of gasping or sweating.  Take a few free breaths between each round.
  4. DO NOT practice nauli if you are pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or menstruating,
And now, here's Kiki to show you how it's done:


#3) Triphala

Triphala is an affordable Ayurvedic herbal compound used for stimulating digestion and detoxification.   Translated from the Sanskrit, tri means "three" and phala means "fruit."  Triphala contains the powder of dried amalaki fruit, bibhitaki fruit, and haritaki fruit.  Combined, these three fruits have a mild diuretic and laxative effect and may be taken daily as part of an ongoing detoxification program.

Always get organic
I take my triphala powder twice a day:  in the morning after nauli and in the evening at least one hour after dinner and an hour before bed.  You may choose to take triphala only once a day, either in the morning or at night, as is most suited to your lifestyle.

To prepare triphala for consumption, mix 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon in a small glass of water.  Stir it up and set it aside for at least a few hours.  I like to use a small jar with a lid to mix my triphala, so I can simply shake it up and then set it aside with the lid on until it's ready to drink.  It is most convenient to prepare the evening's triphala in the morning, and the morning's triphala at night so that the powder has the chance to completely settle to the bottom.  Drink the cold infusion when it's ready, but leave the powder at the bottom of the glass.  It will have an earthy, bitter taste that is only mildly unpleasant.  When you're done, dump the powder, rinse the glass, and prepare your next dose.

*Link to purchase at the bottom of this post.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned, these three steps are just a few of the many things you can do to improve your digestion.  However, I have chosen to highlight these particular three because I believe they are the most affordable and immediately beneficial changes one can make.  Healthy digestion is the cornerstone of a healthy life.  If you have any persistent health problems or obvious signs of poor digestion, I strongly encourage you to take at least one of these steps toward your long-term health and wellbeing.

Links to Purchase

11.26.2013

Natural Health Hack #9: Self-Massage for Sore Muscles

There are numerous health benefits to regular massage:  reduced stress, reduced soreness, improved immune function, greater mobility and ease of movement, improved athletic performance, better digestion. The list goes on.  One study published in 2012 found that, while anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin and ibuprofen actually retard the healing process, massage promotes quick healing of muscle fibers by reducing the production of cytokins -- a key player in the inflammation response -- and stimulating the mitochondria to repair tears in the tissue caused by heavy use or abuse.

Unfortunately for many of us, frequent professional massage can be prohibitively time consuming and expensive.  However, with a just a few simple tools and a few minutes a day, self-massage can go a long way toward bringing you the healing benefits of professional massage without the cost.  In some instances, self-massage can be even more effective than professional massage because you are able to respond directly to your own sensation and hone in on the areas that need attention most.

What You'll Need

For gentle, full body self-massage to enhance your health and wellbeing, try Ayurvedic oil massage known as abhyanga.  (Learn how to perform abhyanga here.)  But for those deep knots, sore muscles, and old injuries, you'll need one or more of the following:

  • Foam Roller:  A large, foam cylinder for targeting long muscles such as the quadriceps, IT band, back muscles, and sides.
  • Tennis Ball:  Tennis balls have just the right diameter and firmness for targeting knots or pressure points in the upper back, chest, glutes, and hips.
  • Massage Ball:  Smaller and firmer than a tennis ball, these are great for massaging the feet, hands, forearms, and even face.

Getting Started

Do self-massage after yoga or exercise, not before.  It is best to massage on an empty stomach or at least 2 hours after a meal.  Do not do self-massage if you are menstruating, have open wounds, skin irritation, bone fractures, or swollen lymph nodes.  Lay out a yoga mat or find a clean, carpeted floor.  You can do just a little, working for a few minutes on particularly tense muscles, or if you have the time, give yourself what I like to call "the works."

"The Works"

Start by standing on your massage ball with one foot at a time and roll your foot over the ball, getting into the arch of the foot, the heel, and along the outer edge.  Spend extra time on any knots or crunchy spots, adjusting the pressure as needed by placing more or less weight on the foot being massaged.  It is helpful to have a hand on a chair or wall for support (see below).


Next, lie down with your foam roller.  Come onto your belly and slip the foam roller under your pelvis so the roller is perpendicular to your legs.  Then, supporting your upper body with your hands as if in Upward Facing Dog position, pull yourself forward until the roller puts pressure on your quadriceps (see below).  This may be painful at first.  Start slowly.  Breathe deeply.  Relax your legs and let your feet slide freely on the floor. Roll forward and back on top of the roller, working just a few inches of muscle at a time until you come all the way down to the attachments just above the knees.  Once the biggest knots have been worked out, roll a few times along the entire length of the quadriceps.  This is especially great for those of you with knee problems, as tight quads can often be the culprit.


Next, turn onto your side and place one hip on the roller (see below).  Bend the top leg and place that foot on the floor.  Using the arms for additional support, roll along the outer hip and thigh to massage the IT band.  Do this until the IT is noticeably looser, then switch to the other side.


Next, lie down on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.  Place the roller under your neck.  Rock gently side to side, massaging any tension on the side of the neck or at the base of the skull.  Then bring the roller under your shoulders and support the back of your head with your hands as if you were about to do abdominal crunches (see below).  Push into your feet and roll your upper back onto the foam roller, using the legs to roll the body to and fro, massaging different parts of the back.  Work your way down the back toward your lumbar, bringing more curve to the spine the lower you go.


Then set your roller aside and grab your tennis ball.  Lie down on your back, tuck the ball under your trapezius and shuffle yourself around as you navigate the tennis ball along the ridge of the scapula and down the muscles of the back.  Linger over stubborn knots, using only as much pressure as appropriate.  Do both sides of the back.

Finally, place the tennis ball adjacent to the sacrum and work your way around one side of the hips, massaging the piriformis and glutes.  Do both sides with equal enthusiasm.  Be gentle at first.  These muscles can be home to a lot of suppressed pain, fear, and anxiety, so don't be surprised if you come out feeling weepy or giddy, or both.

Final Thoughts

If muscle soreness is a persistent problem, insufficient hydration or electrolyte imbalance may be contributing factors.  Be sure that you are drinking plenty of fresh, filtered water, take an epsom salt bath at least once a week, and consider taking electrolyte supplements to address the issue.

Links to purchase

10.18.2013

Natural Health Hack #8: Easy Detox Bath


There are few things on Earth as relaxing as a warm bath at the end of a long day.  I love a good bath, but I don't always have the time to take a bath as often as I'd like.  So when I do have the time, I like to bump my bathwater up a notch by adding a few detoxifying, immune-boosting ingredients.

There are lots of things you can add to your bathwater to enhance your bathing experience, but this recipe is my personal favorite:

Easy Detox Bath
1 cup bentonite clay
1 cup epsom salt
1 cup baking soda
10 drops essential oil

Bentonite clay is a powerful detoxifying agent.  It pulls harmful metals and impurities from the body and the bathwater, improving skin tone and reducing bloating and inflammation.

Baking soda is extremely affordable and well known for its myriad health benefits and cleansing properties.  It is anti-fungal and antiseptic, making it effective against many types of infections or skin irritation.  Baking soda also softens and exfoliates the skin by absorbing loads of dirt and oil from the surface.

Adding epsom salt to bathwater reduces muscle soreness, swelling, and inflammation of the joints.  It also supplements the body's magnesium content which tends to be low, especially in those who like to "sweat it out" daily, as I do, with Ashtanga yoga or other rigorous activity.  Magnesium facilitates the production of serotonin, which enhances mood and helps the body fight the adverse effects of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.

The essential oils add an element of aromatherapy, and may be chosen based upon mood, health, or aromatic preference.  My current bathwater favorites are geranium, lavender, and clary-sage, but peppermint oil is nice and cooling for summer, and rosemary is good for mental clarity and invigoration.

Soak for 20-30 minutes, or as long as you can.  Be aware that the powerful detoxifying effects of this bath may leave you feeling lightheaded.  If you feel overly groggy or dizzy with this recipe, try reducing the amount of all ingredients by half.  Warm water will facilitate the detox, but water that is too hot can be dangerous.  Be sure to rinse thoroughly with cool water after your bath.  You will most likely feel quite sleepy when you're done, so be sure to do this at the end of your day.

Links to purchase

Lavender Essential Oil
*Find epsom salts and baking soda at your local pharmacy or health food store

Readers:  Have you tried these ingredients in your bath?  Do you have another favorite recipe?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

9.10.2013

Asana of the Week: Mermaid Pose


This variation of Eka Pada Rajakapotasana is a potent posture that is rich with challenges, and should not be attempted by the novice practitioner or anyone who cannot sit properly in the preparatory variations pictured below for at least 2 minutes without discomfort.

Like most variations of Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, Mermaid Pose demands a wide range of external rotation in the front leg in order to maintain the integrity of the knee joint.  Length in the hip flexors of the back leg are needed to avoid compression of the sacrum or lumbar spine, and independent mobility of the scapula is required to prevent twisting while the shoulders rotate in opposite directions.  All of this may be achieved through regular, committed yoga practice.

Position A
Practice this posture only when you are fully warm.  Prepare the body with lunges, backbends and shoulder openers.  When you feel ready, step into position A (pictured above), with your right heel in line with your left hip bone.  Flex the ankle and toes as you externally rotate the right leg and place the right hip on the floor.  Inwardly rotate the left leg behind you and square the chest and pelvis to the front edge of the mat. Breathe in this position until you are able to maintain the posture without using your arms to steer the body or support your weight.

Position B
When you're ready to take the next step, bend your left knee and grasp the arch of the foot with your left hand.  Draw the foot toward your outer hip while you swivel the hand until the fingers point over the toes, as in position B (pictured above).  Keep the body facing forward.  If the right hip lifts from the floor, consciously turn the right thigh out and relax your glutes.  Use the right hand minimally for support.  If you are able to breathe in position B without turning the torso to the long edge of the mat, you may be ready for Mermaid Pose.

From position B, simply slide the foot up the inner forearm to the crook of the elbow and reach the left hand toward the head.  Then take the right arm behind the head and clasp the hands.  (Watch the video below for the transition.)  Your pelvis may have shifted during the course of this movement, so recheck your posture once you have your bind.  Steer the hipbones straight ahead, lift the chest, and press the head against the arms.  Feel the energizing tension created along the central axis of the body.

video

For the context of this posting and information on how NOT to do this posture, click here.  And don't forget to leave your questions and comments below!

8.24.2013

Do you know what pains me?

*Good morning, all.  So I slept on it, and I wish to apologize to anyone who, for whatever reason, is taking this post personally.  The message is meant to be a positive one, to bring us all out of the dark and into the light, so to speak, regarding safe and appropriate ways to use the body and, more pointedly, to represent the practice of asana.  Mermaid pose, done safely, is quite lovely.  But, clearly, there has been and continues to be a major failing to teach this posture correctly.  The prevalence of images like the few I've shared here, which I selected at random from a google search for "mermaid pose," is an expression of skewed priorities and the degradation of what should be a safe and sustainable practice.  Can we all agree to move forward with this awareness and treat our bodies with respect?

Love, light, and lifelong practice,
Megan


This:
Ouch!

And this:


 And this:
Are you hurting yet? 

 And this:

 And this:
Oh god, my knees!

 And this:
Getting a good stretch?

And this:
Chest forward!

And this:
Crunch!  Nice background, though...

And this:
Oh boy...

And this:
The humanity!

Ok, folks.  Listen.  I know we've all decided that "Mermaid pose" (a variation of Eka Pada Rajakapotasana) is sexy, but this isn't it.  This is a back crunching, side spasming, knee tweaking abomination.  Stop it. 

I am so tired of seeing people in this posture who have no business being there.  They're all over magazines and blogs, apparel catalogs and facebook, and nearly every newbie teacher's website.  Enough already.  Work on your backbends.  Open your shoulders and hips.  Let's reconvene after a few years of daily practice, shall we?

Ah... that's better.

If you are one of the women pictured and you wish to have your photo removed, email megan@damngoodyoga.com.  Then go do your practice.

8.23.2013

Natural Health Hack #7: Fluoride-Free Oral Health


We've all been told to brush our teeth at least twice a day, but there is more to a clean and healthy mouth than well-brushed teeth, especially if you wish to keep your mouth clean and healthy naturally.

The first step is to assess the ingredients in the toothpaste, mouthwash, and floss that you use.  Most toothpastes on the market contain sodium fluoride, a highly toxic synthetic variant of naturally occurring calcium fluoride.  Sodium fluoride is synthesized from industrial waste.  Frighteningly, sodium fluoride is then added to the water supply under the guise of improving dental health, though there is little evidence to show that it is doing our mouths any good, but lots of evidence that it is killing us slowly.  It ravages brain cells, weakens willpower, and calcifies in the pineal gland, the physical seat of the third eye.  Educate yourself on the hazards of sodium fluoride and take steps to reduce your fluoride consumption: eat organic foods, drink fluoride filtered water, and use natural, fluoride-free toothpaste.  Neem and/or xylitol based toothpastes are best.  They taste great, too.  Himalaya is my personal favorite.  Brusha brusha.

Inform yourself: http://www.antigmofoods.com/2013/05/calcium-fluoride-vs-sodium-fluoride.html
Next, find a simple, unwaxed, flavor-free floss and floss your teeth every night before you go to bed.  I like Glide Pro-health Original, but any kind will do.  Read the package and try to find one with more yardage per container to cut down on plastic waste.

As for mouthwash, never rinse with Listerine or any other alcohol-based mouthwash.  Not only are the artificial colors and flavors used in these rinses harmful to your health, but alcohol breaks down into sugar, which is the very thing that the bacteria in our mouths feed on.  So while your mouth might feel painfully clean for a few minutes after a rinse, that feeling doesn't last long for a reason.  Instead, for a clean feel and bright white smile, rinse your mouth after you floss and brush each night with a 1:1 dilution of 3% hydrogen peroxide.  Add a teaspoon of xylitol powder (preferably not the kind derived from corn), and swish for 1 minute.  The peroxide will continue to foam for a few minutes after you spit, but resist the urge to rinse with water.  Just spit a few more times and go to bed.   Xylitol has been shown to prevent and even repair tooth decay, and the peroxide will keep your gums healthy and whiten your teeth safely while you sleep.

Finally, no oral health regimen is complete without a good tongue cleaning.  The textured surface of the tongue is the perfect place for bacteria and food remnants to hunker down while the rest of your mouth is flossed, brushed, and rinsed.  Even brushing your tongue with your toothbrush doesn't adequately remove this layer of bacteria and food.  Buy a stainless steel tongue cleaner and scrape your tongue clean first thing in the morning, after meals, and after you brush and rinse each night.  When you see what is removed, you'll be so glad that you did.

Links to purchase


Readers:  What natural alternatives do you use to keep your mouth clean?  Let me know in the comments!

8.20.2013

Ashtanga Yoga for Beginners

An accessible 40-minute practice for your first step on the yoga path.  Try it at home, share with a friend, and let me know how it goes in the comments below.

8.17.2013

Natural Health Hack #6: Natural Face Care for Radiant Skin


Face care products are some of the most heavily advertised health and beauty products on the market.  Chemical-laden and perfumed face wash, astringent, moisturizer, and masks are just a few of the things we are told to smear on our delicate faces each day.  But I'm here to tell you that you don't need all that crap.  Just treat your skin gently and with respect, and your radiant health will beam from your face.  

First thing's first: stop using soap on your face.  This may be hard to swallow, especially for the acne-sufferers among you, but soap dries the skin by stripping the natural oils from the surface, leaving it scaly and creased.  For those with more oily skin, washing with soap causes the skin to over-produce oil, leaving the face chronically greasy and slick.  Instead, clean your face by removing the dead skin and grime, but leave that natural moisture behind.  

Daily face care:
  • In the morning, wet a clean cotton washcloth with warm water.  Wring it out and exfoliate the face and neck in soft, circular strokes.  Get into all the nooks and crannies, and don't forget to scrub behind the ears.  You can do this in the shower or at your bathroom sink.  Skin will be left smooth, clean, and refreshed, with no need for further cleansing or moisturizer.
  • In the evening, to remove makeup and/or the daily grime, apply an organic, cold-pressed oil of your choice.  Massage into the face and neck, behind the ears, etc.  (I use sunflower oil mixed with tea tree and peppermint essential oils.  You can make your own blend.  Be creative.)  Next, wet a clean washcloth with warm water, wring it out, and wipe your face clean.  The oil will dissolve makeup and gather up anything else collected on the surface, leaving behind nothing but moisturized, radiant skin.
Weekly Masks:
  • For a deeper clean, apply a bentonite clay mask once per week.  This is sold as Aztec Secret Healing Clay in most health food stores (pictured right).  A large tub costs $10, and it will last you many months.  Pour a tablespoon or two into a ceramic or glass bowl and mix with water until a thick, spreadable consistency is achieved.  Apply to your face, avoiding the delicate eye area, and leave on for 10-15 minutes or until the mask is mostly but not completely dry.  You will feel your skin tighten as the clay pulls deep dirt and dead cells from the pores.  When you're ready, rinse with warm water and wipe clean with a cotton cloth.  Your skin may look flushed or blotchy when you first remove the mask, but this will subside in a matter of minutes.
  • For deep overnight moisture, apply a castor oil mask weekly or as needed.  Pour a dime-sized drop into your hand and rub between your palms to warm the oil.  Pat the castor oil onto dry areas and wrinkles, and lightly dab around your eyes.  Massage into the skin and allow the oil to absorb.  Apply the mask at least an hour before you lie down to give it a chance to soak in, or simply lay a towel over your pillow.  You will wake to a glowing, youthful, even-toned face in the morning.

As a final note, it is important to remember that your outer health is a reflection of your inner health.  Even the gentlest, most natural skin care routine won't do a lot of good if you are putting junk into your body.  Limit your caffeine and alcohol consumption.  Eat whole, healthy foods including lots of healthy fats, and drink at least 2 liters of fresh, filtered water per day.  (Shoot for 3+ liters if you do Ashtanga yoga or other rigorous activity.)  Perhaps most importantly, get plenty of uninterrupted sleep.  When you feel great, you look great, and it will show up on your face.

Links to purchase


Readers:  Do you have questions, concerns, or additional tips?  Let me know in the comments!