Yoga is Not Diet Culture

Here we are again.

It’s January. The time when news feeds, commercials and billboards are all flooded with ways to improve ourselves. “New Year, New You” messages inundate the airwaves of our subconscious and most of these messages allude to the fact that the best way to improve our miserable lives is to make drastic changes to our bodies. Couple this with a 2-year COVID landscape and the messages of undoing our depression and isolation induced weight gain are even louder and more difficult to ignore.

It saddens me that even as a member of the yoga community, surrounded by individuals and corporations who are jumping on the body positivity bandwagon (and profiting from it) I’m still seeing messages about how to “eat Ayurvedically to lose weight” or how to “tone your arms and tighten your core with inversions.”

At Heartwood Yoga institute where I teach, we often refer to the philosophical concepts of yoga as “Big Yoga.” What we mean by this is that there is so much more to yoga than just postures. Luckily here in the west we seem to finally be catching up to this idea (albeit rather slowly). What does this mean exactly though? What exactly is the deeper meaning of yoga? And how to we utilize postures in a way that isn’t detrimental to our mental and physical health when all we can see on Instagram are thin, white, female bendy bodies upside down in crop tops?

I have found so many students arriving at yoga Teacher Training with a mistaken idea of yoga, not even aware that the physical practice is only 1/8th of what we consider Hatha yoga. Even less often do we start this journey with an understanding of the magnitude of impact that our subtle body energies have on our physical body. “The issues are in the tissues,” as they say. What I love about the health and wellness community is that more and more often I am hearing these ideas come directly from the mouths of doctors and therapists (mine included), giving Yoga Therapists like myself more credibility than we have ever had before.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to explore where yoga might fit in the western world of body-obsessed individuals and what yoga teachers could be “Selling” instead of new year’s body goals.

Promise – “Yoga promotes physical change or improvement”

Reality – Yoga promotes Self-awareness which brings about a decision to be our best self

Yoga Asana (or the physical practice) is one of 8 limbs of the practice of Hatha yoga. Many lineages believe that the only reason yoga practitioners ever practiced postures is to prepare the body to sit for extended periods of time in meditation. That Meditation itself is the actual, ultimate goal of yoga. If this is the case, then it doesn’t matter if we can balance in Tree pose and stick our toe up our nose. If we cannot be still and go inward in reflection, then we aren’t practicing “yoga” at all. We are simply exercising. We may as well go find a spin class instead. There is a time and a place for asana to be of importance and for many students, this is a way to begin channeling our energy to discipline and growth, but the answer to weather or not we are actually doing this is in our intention. If we can be completely honest with ourselves and notice when our ego is guiding our practice, we should never have a problem knowing if our asana practice is legitimate or not. How do we start to recognize our ego? Meditation! To truly be an advanced yoga practitioner, it is said we must be able to be still and listen inward. Openly, honestly, without fear. If our goals are driven by ego, by the desire to be better, look better or win against ourselves or others then we are missing the whole point of yoga.

Promise – “Yoga promotes weight loss or management”

Reality – Yoga regulates our nervous system and this keeps our bodies in their optimal state

In addition to the self-awareness that yoga gives us, the stress relief of yoga is what mostly leads to a healthier body. When we feel a sense of inner balance and peace in savasana or meditation, our bodies move out of the sympathetic nervous system stress response and into a parasympathetic nervous response where we lower blood sugar, stress hormones and improve digestion and organ functions. Heart health is improved and our bodies return to a natural homeostasis. This does often lead us back to whatever shape our bodies were naturally intended for and hopefully along the way we find acceptance of what that shape is as well. Surprisingly enough however, physical movements can have very little to do with this change.

In the modern world where our nervous system is inundated with noise and stimulation and stress  – the most healthy activity we can do for our bodies, hearts and immunity is to simply relax. In addition, the concept of non-attachment or Aparigraha teaches us to accept that life will not always be perfect and our job is to stay grounded and present even when things totally suck. This allows us to regulate our own nervous systems even when there is chaos, because we have practiced it time and time again on the mat in a controlled environment. Weather you’re working toward 108 sun salutations or laying on a bolster for 30 minutes, whatever activates that parasympathetic response in your body is helping you win at health and longevity. How do you know you got there? One benefit is improved circulation to your digestive system = stomach growling during savasana is a great thing!

Promise – “Cleanses are part of yoga”

Reality – Your body cleans itself every day. Yoga DOES help you get rid of the mental gunk.

Ayurveda is the sister science to yoga. One element of this practice is eating in accordance with your given constitution. This means that some of us are built to eat meat, others are not. Some crave spicy foods and others crave sweets, etc. When we add like to like, it throws our bodies and energy out of balance. Firey people + firey food = inflammation and anger, for example. By practicing self-awareness and knowing what our natural tendencies are it is said that we will be able to stay in balance in part through the foods we eat. When we find ourselves out of balance, Ayurveda recommends a “cleanse” that involves natural elements such as oiling the body inside and out or eating a simple mono-diet of rice and mung beans etc. These types of cleanses are recommended based on the individual’s constitution and spoiler alert: NONE of them involve living off of lemon water, tea or mushroom milk for a month. The purpose is to reset the digestive system in a way that is soft and kind to the body under the care of a licensed or certified ayurvedic counselor with thousands of hours of schooling. Watch out for diet culture creeping into yoga spaces. Real Ayurveda will never come in the form of a one size fits all advertisement. It is always curated for the individual after careful one on one counsel.

IN ADDITION – The concept of “removal of toxins” is NOT a reality. Your body has specific mechanisms in place to remove wastes (digestive, lymphatic, sweating and more) and yoga postures do not “squeeze” wastes out of you. Movement can improve the function of your organs but speaking about the body as if it were “toxic” creates an unhealthy relationship with it for many of us living with body image issues. (More on language in yoga classes in another blogpost) The best cleanse that yoga can provide is the one where we release our expectations, our judgements, triggers and our self-deprecating thoughts.

Promise & Reality – Yoga is life.

So the next time you or someone you know mistakenly touts yoga as a way to “get rid” of the undesirable parts of themselves (physical or otherwise) perhaps you can gently remind them of all the wonderful things true yoga can add to our lives instead, such as:

– self-awareness
– acceptance
– compassion
– love
– inquiry into the subconscious
– empowerment
– stress relief
– mindfulness
– energetic awareness
– Ayurvedic education

– freedom from our thoughts and emotions

– union

After all, yoga isn’t about changing.

It’s about connecting to our innermost, untouchable, radiant self.

And we are perfect as we are.

What is Ayurveda, Anyway?

Denver Clark, LMT#89198, C-IAYT

Ayurveda is often referred to as “the sister science to Yoga.” It has been used as a system of health in India for well over 5,000 years and is deeply focused on not only healing the individual but teaching them how to use knowledge of the cycles of nature to stay in balance and avoid illness whenever possible.

The word Ayurveda comes from the Sanskrit roots of “Ayur” meaning “life” and “Veda” which is a deep, inherent knowledge when one truly understands. This knowledge cannot be taught, only experienced.

Now, the ancient practices from Ayurveda are spreading across the world as people experience the benefits of techniques such as dry skin brushing, oil pulling, cooking with turmeric and eating seasonally from locally grown produce.

One ayurvedic principle that pervades all the practices is that of the Doshas.

These are the 3 elemental energies that create and drive all of nature – including us.

These energies are created from the 5 great elements.

Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether (or space)

These elements are inherent in all natural things in various combinations. Even inside our own bodies, we see their qualities in different physiological processes. They are also in the foods we eat and the activities we engage in and can therefore increase or decrease depending on how we interact with the world, the season and even the time of day.

Kapha – Earth and Water create the Dosha of Kapha – useful for stability, steadiness and grounding but potentially sticky, dry and heavy or depressed when in excess.

Photo by Lisa on Pexels.com

Pitta – Water and Fire create the Dosha of Pitta – Transformative, full of energy and power but potentially destructive, hot and angry in excess.

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Vata – Air and Ether create the Dosha of Vata – light, free moving and circulates energy, but in excess can be disconnected, cold and restless or anxious.

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We come into this world with a specific tendency toward one or two of these 3 doshas. You may already be able to think of a person you know as very “earthy,” stable, reliable, nurturing and maybe even sometimes slow to change and may be prone to depression. This is Kapha energy. Someone who is “fiery” with high Pitta energy may often be described as  “Type A.” These individuals have a tremendous amount of energy and stamina to do all the things but may also be quick to anger or plagued with inflammatory issues in their body. “Airy” Vata people will naturally be more prone to move from project to project, easily letting go of grudges and always spouting out new creative ideas. They may also find it difficult or even impossible to complete any of these projects and be prone to forgetfulness, poor circulation, and anxiety. ALL of us have all 3 energies but as we look over our lifetime, we can see patterns of behavior that alert us to our primary “Prakriti” – which is the dosha balance we are meant to have when we are our best selves.

Life experiences, seasonal changes, foods and more call all bring us out of balance. This is referred to as or “Vikriti” or current imbalance. For example, as we age, we enter a period of “Vata” when we retire, become empty nesters and our bodies produce less fluid and become dryer. Those with high Vata tendencies already can easily be thrown out of balance and suffer from poor circulation, anxiety, insomnia, arthritis, osteoporosis and more. These are all light, dry, airy conditions filled with wind-like movement. Add to this, the dryness and cold weather in Fall and early winter and it’s no wonder why we are running to Florida when things cool down up North!

Once we determine our prakriti we can begin to see the way in which we help or hinder our sense of balance. Each of us has a unique constitution and will need a unique list of lifestyle choices that are best for us. Fad diets such as the keto or the raw food diet are perfect examples of ways in which we try to box ourselves into a way of eating that may work for others but will not work at all for us. This isn’t because we aren’t good at eating right, it just means that our constitution is different. The same can be said about the place where we choose to live or our job choice and how it affects our mood. Pittas make excellent lawyers, Kaphas are born to take care of others, Vatas are the creative geniuses.

Yoga teaches us that the ultimate goal in life is knowledge of the self. Ayurveda uses this knowledge to help us live our best lives.

If you’d like to take a simple dosha quiz to start your exploration of self, you can follow the link here.

If you are interested in learning more about Ayurveda, please join us at Heartwood for our “Intro to Ayurveda” weekend or try an Ayurvedic bodywork session with one of our Licensed and Certified Massage Therapists. You can read more about our offerings on our website at http://www.rytcertification.com & http://www.heartwoodyogainstitute.com.

Finding Pockets of Silence in a Busy World

By Stephanie Engebretson, 500-RYT, RCYT and Yoga Therapist in Training

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

After bustling through the holidays with family and friends, schedules and meals to plan, laughter and long nights, it may seem out of reach to accomplish just a few moments of conscious silence throughout our days. We set our lives in motion in such a way that we encourage our hours to be filled with more buying, more dining, more planning, which in turn leads to less mindfulness, less time in nature, and certainly less access to silence. Sound is constantly around us filling our minds with memories, thoughts, and emotion.

Take a moment right now, as you read this post, to become aware of just how many sounds you can hear around you. Is there a radio on? Can you hear the air conditioner or fan? Are there pets or children in the space you are in? Can you hear the cars on the road nearby, or the microwave beeping with your pizza? What about a television, a power tool, a washing machine?

All around us we are experiencing sensation stimulation; unconsciously receiving constant vibration in the form of individual influence on the natural world. There is no question that to live in this human world is to interact with sound in every moment, but the question is, how do we as humans find pockets of silence in our busy lives?

My journey in developing a daily practice for myself has been unpredictable in it’s setbacks, but truthful in it’s difficulty. I am frequently reminding myself that a practice is something that grows with us, changes as we need it to, and adjusts to our current circumstances. So many times, we shy away from things that we know will be good for us because we don’t think we can do it perfectly.

But if we consider that it is better to brush our teeth imperfectly every day, than to wash them perfectly once per month, then we might be able to take the logical step in knowing that the same would be true for meditating, finding silence, and mindfully living.

  1. Consider, what is something that you do every day? Is it making a cup of coffee in the morning? Is it walking your dog every evening after work? Is it brushing your teeth before bed? Take a few days to observe your daily habits and find the one thing that you do each day.
  2. Then, once your daily habit is acknowledged, we can place a pocket of silence before the habit is enacted daily. For example, on your way into the bathroom to brush your teeth each evening you can find a strong mountain pose facing your sink. Standing tall and powerful, close off your eyes and become mindful of the experience your body is having in that exact moment. Notice your breath and then invite in an easy count: 1 with the inhale, 2 with the exhale; all the way up to 10. If you become distracted by a thought, or a feeling try to notice whatever it is without attachment, and then return again to 1. Once you have finished your 10th mindful breath, release your focus and continue on to brush your teeth. Or perhaps you take 10 breaths after you’ve poured your morning coffee or tea; inhaling in through your nose as your smell the warmth and robust flavor of your bean water, and as you exhale you slowly breath your through your pursed lips to cool off the steaming drink.

Whatever these moments are for you, the point is not to achieve them perfectly, but instead to just allow yourself a few moments to slow down and become more aware of the present moment. Allowing the sounds to fall away as your focus your attention away from the vibrations they create, and instead onto whatever it is that you choose to set your mind to. Your breath, the smell of your coffee, a guided meditation on Youtube, whatever it is that allows you take a few moments to yourself will be worth it.

As we enter the New Year, I want to encourage you to find these simple moments. Allow yourself the time to try it out imperfectly, and with awareness that it is hard for everyone who tries it, and still committing to doing it anyway.

There is no perfect silence in this world, but there are little pockets of imperfect moments in which we can slow down, become more aware, and just “be”. 

8 Things your massage therapist wants you to know

Here are 8 things I used to waste time worrying about and questioning that I have learned since becoming a massage therapist. These tips will help you get the most out of every massage you get.

Growing up in a dance studio, owning one as an adult and then becoming a yoga teacher and massage therapist; the body has always (and I mean always) been the focus of my life. In many ways, this has been a tremendous blessing. My fascination with the human body has led to years of study, teaching and helping others understand their own bodies and heal them proactively. I’ve been able to understand the changes my body has undergone as I’ve grown and had a child of my own. In some ways however, the body as the focus of my life has left me with obsessive thoughts and fears about mine being “undesirable,” or “offensive.” Of course, this topic is for another blog post altogether but one thing that massage school and bodywork has helped me heal is my belief that my body needs to be apologized for. (For a fantastic reference on this issue, please buy yourself the book “The Body is Not an Apology” By Sonya Renee Taylor ASAP!)

Here are 8 things I used to waste time worrying about and questioning that I have learned since becoming a massage therapist. These tips will help you get the most out of every massage you get.

  1. The issue of underwear – Take em’ off! – Massage therapists spend hundreds of hours learning all about the anatomy of the musculoskeletal system. We are trained to learn how poor posture and lifestyle choices equal chronic lower back and hip pain for most of the world. We see client after client come in suffering from years of chronic discomfort in these areas and of course, we want to help! Most lower back pain comes from the area of the hips and buttock muscles. This means we need to access them as easily as possible! We can help you more efficiently if we can massage your glutes. So please don’t feel strange about removing your undergarments. We spend hours in school learning how to drape you securely with the sheet and your massage will be so much better if you just take em’ off. When we look at your rear, all we see are muscles that need help. Promise.
  2. Showering before your session – DO! – And speaking of butts, although our job is to massage yours, we don’t necessarily enjoy smelling them. It’s definitely helpful and respectful to us if you find time to bathe before your massage session. Please remember, we are humans with all 5 senses. Coming to your massage straight from the gym or beach may seem like an amazing way to spend the day but think of your therapist and rinse off on the way over please or if you cannot do so, stick a packet of body wipes in your car and wipe the smelly bits (and your dirty flip flop feet) before you jump on the table.
  3. Your hairy legs – we don’t even notice them – So bathing is nice but shaving? Eh, we don’t even notice! There’s no need to come out of your relaxed state to explain how sorry you are that you didn’t get a chance to shave your legs. It doesn’t hinder that massage or gross us out at all. Again, legs are muscles that need to be treated. That’s all we see.
  4. Eating before your session – In massage school, on my first big full body massage I decided it was an excellent idea to practice the abdominal work we had just learned…. Within the first 10 minutes of my 90 minute session…. And you guessed it… soon my poor client yelled “I’ve gotta go!” As they wrapped the sheet around themselves and ran through a room filled with 20 tables and 40 therapists/clients to relieve themselves. I learned a lesson that day to always leave abdominal work for the end of the session. In addition, massage puts your body into parasympathetic response, or “rest and digest,” which vastly improves your digestive function. This means growling belies and potentially, gas and other things moving along your GI tract. With that in mind, keep food and drink light before your bodywork to avoid any bathroom interruptions that will take away from your time on the table. Also – use the bathroom before you go in!
  5. The issue of “Deep Tissue” – Your muscles have a memory. They get used to the tension they’re under and think that the need to stay that way to protect themselves. This default mode has sometimes been in place for years! It’s hard to imagine we can erase all those years of repetitive tension in 60 minutes once every year. The best way to relieve chronic pain is to set up regular sessions, every 2-4 weeks. Your body will respond more and more quickly each session as it remembers the benefits of the massage. In addition – If your massage therapist comes at any muscle in your body with an elbow right away, your muscle tissues will tighten even more to protect themselves from injury. It takes time to warm up the muscle and let it know that we aren’t going to hurt it. So leave a few minutes for your therapist to work into the layers of tissue before requesting more pressure. We are most often working up to this by warming up the body layer by layer to get deeper inward. In addition, steamrolling muscles tends to be less effective that a single point of pressure. So before you judge the technique of your therapist, ask questions about their approach. A finger or thumb is often way more helpful than our entire forearm. When we tell you to let us know if you want more or less pressure, we mean it! Don’t shy away from asking what you want during your session. We prefer it. And the age old “you can go deeper if you want,” comment is kinda lost on us. Your massage is about what you want, not us. We don’t come to work with the intention of hurting people so we will work your muscles in the way that is most effective to relaxing them. Being sore after a massage doesn’t mean the massage was better. It means the pressure was probably a bit too much for your body. And please note that requesting a male therapist isn’t the most effective way to get the deep pressure you want. Plenty of us ladies can rock the deep tissue work too.
  6. Talking is optional – When you pay for a massage, this is your time. Please don’t feel the need to talk to us during your session. Personally, I prefer when my clients are quiet. I can focus on what I’m doing and usually do better work. When I’m on the table as a client, I also notice that I feel like my massage is better if I’ve focused on what I am feeling instead of chatting it up with my therapist. Feel free to let out anything you wish if it comes up though. If my studio walls could talk, they’d tell you that massage therapy is definitely “therapy” and often as our bodies let go of tension, the issues that caused the tension come up. People share a lot with me and that’s ok. Ethically, I made a promise to leave those things in the room and never repeat them. But you don’t have to make small talk with us. We are just happy to be helping you.
  7. Drinking water afterward – Here’s the thing. You should always be drinking water. Your body needs water to heal and thrive. In addition, after a massage (just like after a yoga or exercise class) your circulation and digestion have been greatly improved and this means you need to hydrate! I keep an “emergency water” in my car and my 6-year-old will even remind me sometimes to drink it. Dehydration leads to headaches, irritability, constipation, mood swings and more. Ps. Your coffee (although made with water) is not enough. Caffeine acts as a dietetic and drains fluid form the body faster. So, skip the joke “does my Starbucks latte count?” and just guzzle some good ole’ H2O.
  8. Rest after your session!!!! – Bodywork is serious. When we reset your physical body, muscles and joints are letting go of sometimes years of repetitive stress and pain. Please, oh please don’t leave thinking “I feel so good I’m going to go home and weed my entire yard!” Your body needs time to integrate these changes and hopefully reset so they stick. Placing yourself in physical or mental strain just after your massage is a bad idea and can lead to soreness, injury, and emotional distress. Let yourself heal and enjoy the reverberations of your treatment. Take it slow, drink your water, eat healthy foods, and nourish your body for the rest of the day. You’ll get much more for your money if you take the healing home with you.

For more information about massage, yoga or Ayurvedic bodywork treatments feel free to visit me at Heartwood Yoga Institute in Bradenton, FL any time! Stay happy and healthy and go book yourself a massage with your local therapist right now.