Empowering Changes on the Mat

Image by YogaMatReviews.net

Image by YogaMatReviews.net

With only 10 days remaining in my 28-days of yoga, I had hoped practicing 30 minutes a day would become easy. Unfortunately, this has been one of the most surprising observations I’ve had about my experience: it hasn’t. Over the past 18 days I’ve worked long hours and had little time to myself due to obligations with my job. Though squeezing in time to practice yoga has been a daily challenge, I promised myself I would devote time to a personal goal and my well being, so I’m doing it.

Overall, performing yoga each day has reduced my stress level and increased my physical strength. I think my time on the mat has been both a gift and challenge, however, on nights like tonight — when I fall asleep on the couch after a long day — moving through sun salutations and holding poses are the last things I want to do. Hey, I’m being honest, here.

Despite my grumbling and the sleep in my eyes, I washed my face and went to the mat to practice. I haven’t missed a day, why would I start now? As I flowed through my movements I cared less about getting in all of my favorite poses or working out my arms and I chose to simply keep moving and breathing. The silence of my living room and new mat helped me ease into some light meditation. Slowly, I began to move beyond the tiredness from my day and in a way, I felt revived.

By the end, I was more centered and relaxed. I didn’t have a surplus of energy, or anything like that, but I had also overcome my self doubt and negativity about my 28-day challenge. I thought this was a small success overall, but then I had a realization. Each day I’ve done yoga there was something I needed to work out within myself. Today I was tired from not sleeping well the night before. Yesterday I felt weak. On Sunday I had anxiety about the week ahead. I discovered that going to the mat helps me identify emotions and tensions within myself that I wouldn’t necessarily recognize (no matter what type of yoga I’m doing — Vinyasa, Bikram or a blend of practices). When I practice yoga I am forced to confront these issues to establish the concentration required to breathe, hold poses and remember sequences. If I take nothing away from this experience, I hope I can at least remember the power of letting it go on the mat — even if that means forcing myself to get there and start.

How to Find the Perfect Yoga Mat

Image By BalaYoga.com

Image By BalaYoga.com

Today my much-anticipated yoga mat arrived. It’s a good one. However, finding the perfect yoga mat can be challenging. Yet, there comes a time when you can’t ignore the holes and thinness of an old one and you have to start shopping.

I began by perusing the mat selection at my yoga studio, which has a wide variety of colors, lengths and thickness, but only a couple of brands. Next, I explored Amazon.com to find a good one quickly since many of the mats at YogaWorks and on YogaJournal.com’s shop were too pricey. I figured the reviewers on Amazon would help me decide.

I also didn’t want to pay $70-80 for a yoga mat. Plus, I wanted to know what the real differences were among brands like Gaiam, Manduka, JadeYoga, Agoy and Aurorae? Turns out, there are many.

I spent hours reading about yoga mats, yoga mat companies and reviews by other yogi shoppers seeking the zen of a perfect mat. I agonized over the materials, prices, colors, lengths and thickness. Choosing a mat was more than just selecting a useful piece of athletic equipment; picking a mat says something to your fellow yogis. It demonstrates your style, feelings about the environment and shows what kind of practitioner you are — if you choose a boring color, or a mat made out of PVC, instead of eco-friendly products or get the wrong length or thickness, you could totally look like a novice (or just someone who doesn’t care about the landfills filling up with discarded mats).

Maybe I’m over thinking it, but I didn’t want these yoga toes leaving too big of a carbon footprint. Here’s a quick cheat sheet I came up with so you don’t obsess the way I did.

My Tricks For Picking the Best Yoga Mat:

1. See the mats in person. Visit a yoga mat retailer and touch every type of mat. Get a feel for the texture, lengths, colors and thickness. Make note of what you like and what you don’t.

2. Do not make an impulse purchase. Avoid the temptation of walking out of the store with an overpriced mat. Do not buy one.

3. View options online. Go home and check out the online selection of mats on Amazon.com.

4. Narrow selections immediately. If you have Amazon Prime, you might as well filter buy Prime products only; especially since you were so eager to by that $80 mat earlier at the store. This way, you’ll get it in two days once you decide.

5. Go for the best. Sort your search results by the highest rated reviews. Begin reading about each type of mat and starting thinking about what you need in a mat. How thick is your current mat? Is it long enough? What would make your practice better?

6. Make it a 50-50 choice. Choose two mats that seem like the top rated products. Check out their websites to make sure they are legit and aren’t offering a special promotion that is cheaper than Amazon.  Begin reading the reviews for both mats. Read the best ones, read the worst ones — make sure you also read the comments on the reviews. You’ll want to see how people respond to negative and positive review in case they disagree. I would also make sure there are a lot of reviews, if there are only a few, it might be a sign that it’s a new product or a bad one.

7. Budget.Consider the amount of time you spend using the mat and the amount of money you want to invest in your practice. Also consider how long you think the mat will last and if the price point fits into the amount you have to spend.

Image By Aurorae

Northern Lights Yoga Mat By Aurorae

8. Talk it over with a friend. Tell a friends you are trying to find the best mat for your buck and then describe both mats. Tell your friend the pros and cons that matter to you and then see what he or she says about your options.

9. Make a decision. Ultimately, you need a mat, so once you’re pretty sure which mat will work best — buy it.Make sure there’s a good return policy in case you find it doesn’t work for you after all.

10. Try it out. Be your own best reviewer. Once the mat comes in the mail, try it out in the studio. If you have problems that can’t be fixed based on the reviewers notes return the merch, yogi! You have that second choice waiting for its test run.

Which mat did I choose? I went with the Northern Lights Yoga Mat by Aurorae because it had the best reviews. I had narrowed it down to Aurorae and Manduka mats because both had rave reviews. I ended up choosing the Aurorae mat because it was $45 as opposed to Manduka’s $84 for the BlackMat Pro or $63 for their PROlite. Plus, Aurorae has unbelievable customer service. In dozens of reviews the CEO of the company responds to people thanking them for reviewing his products or if there is negative feedback he wants to understand it and send it back to his company, and he gives away free stuff to entice his customer to remain loyal. And, it’s completely free of anything toxic or polluting when it’s produced or discarded. I also adore the ombre dip-dye effect in the colors.

On the other hand, Manduka has a lifetime guarantee for their mats, which is amazing, but I just couldn’t pass up this smaller brand. Plus, the Aurorae mat is machine washable and has a focal point to help you balance during tricky standing poses.

UPDATE: As of August 5, 2013, I’m still enjoying my yoga mat by Aurorae that I purchased. I’ve washed it, wiped it down a lot and basically used it every other day since I bought it. I hasn’t started showing signs of wear and tear until now! There are small little divots forming in the spot where my feet generally are for downward dog. This isn’t a huge issue, but thought I would note it here in case anyone wanted to know. The mat is still thick and has a bit of stickiness to it. Loving it. (Also, I get compliments on my mat all the time!)

Buddy Up For Bikram

Image By ScalesonFire.com

Image By ScalesonFire.com

After taking a Vinyasa course, I chose to do Bikram for day-two of my yoga challenge. I know Bikram is super trendy right now, so this probably isn’t a surprise, but I promise, I did not take Bikram to “lose weight like the stars” (Rebecca Romijn recently credited losing 60 lbs. of post-pregnancy weight to the practice). Even founder Bikram Choundry, himself touts his practice as the more glamorous yoga, but honestly, I just went with a friend who does Bikram regularly and I was really pleased with the experience.

If there’s one thing I can say about Bikram, it’s always good to go with a friend. I had done Bikram before and I liked it, but I didn’t care for the instructor’s boot camp teaching style or the stuffy studio that smelled of feet. The studio I tried recently was filled with light and a patient instructor — two things my other experiences at a Bikram College did not include. I learned the room in which you practice yoga, matters. Clearly, for me, having light and windows is important, but a yoga buddy was essential both times, too.

I don’t know what it is, I guess I like knowing someone else is there enduring the challenge with me, it’s such an intense experience, it’s comforting knowing you have someone there to support you, talk about it afterward and be there in case you feel a little woozy.

So, what’s Bikram like? Well, I think many people feel intimidated by the practice because they don’t like being hot and sweaty, or the 90 minutes of 100-plus-degrees and humidity seem unbearable, but the truth is, with the right mindset, a bottle of water and an absorbent yoga towel, Bikram is a cleansing and rewarding experience.

In “A Guide to Bikram Yoga,” Tessa Rottiers, Founder and instructor of Bikram Yoga Melbourne, believes there are many benefits to practicing Bikram, “In the short term you will sleep better, feel happier, be less injury prone with a more energetic and toned body. In the long term, you will have overall improved physical and mental health.”

While this is probably true of many forms of yoga, I really found her point about sleeping better to be particularly true. Yes, you sweat more during these classes than anything else I’ve experienced (including spinning!), but you gain so much energy afterward because your circulation is restored and you’ve perspired so much, you feel clean of any toxins and stress. And, with all that revived vigor, a good night’s rest is a guarantee. It’s like your body secretes all the bad stuff that’s inside with all the perspiration, so it can be released.

Most Bikram classes are similar. You begin with standing poses and end with floor exercises — 26 therapeutic postures in total that are said to improve your circulation and flush out the endocrine and nervous systems. During the class you perform intense breathing exercises and hold poses longer than other practices like Vinyasa. It requires absolute concentration. Seriously, do not go to Bikram if you don’t think you’ll have the patience or concentration to steady yourself and hold poses without letting your mind wander. Of course, that’s also part of the appeal, finding that intense focus in the midst of your day. And, trust me, as soon as your body temperature starts to rise and you’re holding a strenuous pose, you’ll start to feel every bead of sweat slowly making it’s way down your body. The trick is to stop thinking and go to a place where you know you can hold the pose and that’s all that matters — not the heat, the pain in your muscles, the thirst, or the tickle of sweat down the bridge of your nose.

How much sweat are we talking? A yoga instructor in Denver was interviewed about hydration (and the benefits of coconut water) after Bikram and he estimates up to a gallon of water loss from one class, according to a report by ABC Action News.  So, drink up after Bikram to help your body and muscles recover. During class, remember to take things slow and to always continue to breathe. “Avoid injury by easing into postures the first few times, then as you get to know the practice, you can use your breath as your guide,” says instructor Tessa Rottiers, “if you stop breathing, stop stretching.” She also says that dizziness and nausea are common for newbies, but taking potassium or sodium tablets before class can help.

This challenging heated practice is supposed to help you release tension and pain — physical and emotional — without over exertion. For those looking to increase their flexibility, Bikram will also move your goals forward even more because your joints and muscles get so warmed up. However, this is also the risk of Bikram, it’s easy to injure yourself at such high temperatures, whether it be from overstretching or dehydration.Yet, like I said, if you have water and you’re focused on what you’re doing, you’ll know when to take care of your body and when to push yourself. And, if you go with a buddy, you can rely on each other for support and a friendly reminder to take things easy.

Flowing Through the Vinyasa

Image By ShantiYogaShala.org

Image By ShantiYogaShala.org

Choosing to start my 28 days of yoga was an easy decision. I had seen Yoga Journal’s 21-Day and 30-Day challenges and I thought it would be cool to do 28 days beginning on my birthday, but then with my trip to SF, I thought, “Why not start on the following President’s Day weekend?” It would give me a few work-free days to dive right into my new downward dogma: yoga for at least 30 minutes a day.

After I finished working on Friday I started my little journey by going to YogaWorks and taking the most challenging class, from the most challenging instructor I’ve had at the studio over the past month. It was a level 2/3 Vinyasa Flow class. Vinyasa is definitely my favorite style of yoga, and according to “Om Shanti: A Yoga Blog,” I’m not alone; this practice is supposedly the most popular in the U.S. because it combines cardio, flexibility and strength training through a series of poses.

This particular class I attended always challenges me with fast-moving asanas and usually one or two poses I can’t hold at all. Though it sounds frustrating, I actually like taking classes where I feel the discomfort of not knowing how to do something because it shows me new things to try and build upon for my yoga practice. It’s funny, in most areas of my life, I hate feeling inadequate or like I can’t do something (as is the case with most people), but when there’s a pose I can’t do — that’s something tangible and real I can practice and later (hopefully) perfect. (I know, I know, my yoga instructors always say, “They call is yoga practice, not yoga perfect,” but you know what I mean.)

For me, yoga is about helping find balance between handling what I can control (my stress level, learning a new pose, etc.) and letting go of what is out of my power (work demands, family issues, etc.). I think this quote in an article from YogaJournal.com, called, “Not All Yoga Is Created Equal,” explains it best:

“‘Americans are usually drawn to yoga as a way to keep fit at first, but the idea behind the physical practice of yoga is to encourage a deeper mind-body awareness,’ explains New York yoga teacher and author Beryl Bender Birch. ‘Healing and balancing the physical body helps bring clarity and focus to the mind as well.'”

I think this is very true for me too. As I did yoga more, I started feeling stronger and more flexible, but then it became about feeling calm, confident and comfortable in who I am. And craving that feeling of balance. So often when I’m stressed, I start to question everything about myself. After yoga I feel a balance, or link between accepting those feelings and being able to move beyond them.

Yoga means “union” in Sanskrit; the union of mind and body is what you seek from a practice. Vinyasa helps me to not only receive the fitness benefits from the constant flow of asanas, rhythmic breathing and intensity, it makes me focus on my body’s alignment and breath, too. This concentration is a form of meditation, which is the point; K. Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga, one of the forms of Vinyasa has a famous saying, “Practice, and all is coming.” Not only is this true of yoga, I’m starting to see it’s true of life — making the practice even more important.

What’s common about Ashtanga and Power Yoga, both forms of Vinyasa, they both help people let go and feel more prepared to deal with “emotional and philosophical challenges that arise in your life,” according to the article, “Which Yoga is Right for You?” Sounds like just what I need to deal with just about anything that comes my way!

Not sure which type of yoga works best for you? This “Yoga Styles Quiz” was pretty fun to take. My result was Bikram, but I think it’s because I said I don’t mind a sweat. Funnily enough, I took Bikram for day two of my challenge.

28 Days of Yoga

By TheVerve360.com

By TheVerve360.com

January is exciting because everyone feels empowered to do new things and change their health. I was excited to see many fitness and health challenges, but they all seemed to start so fast without giving much build up, or an opportunity to try something out before committing to a 30-day running challenge or month-long health food binge. What if you discover after you’ve started that you hate running or can’t stand the latest super food on sale at Whole Foods? Then, you’re destined for disappointment, or by February 1, you’re comfortably back in your old habits and have completely lost the energy and zeal for your new year’s project.

As many of my friends know (because I’m always sending them requests to join me), I think Groupon, Living Social and Daily Candy Deals are some of the greatest resources on the internet. They all allow you to try new products, facilities and activities inexpensively and with little risk. I can’t get enough of the 30-day memberships to gyms and yoga studios or class bundles for dance studios or rock wall climbing. In January a couple co-workers and I got a Daily Candy Deal for YogaWorks. It was 30 days of unlimited classes with access to any of their gyms. Plus, it came with a $25 gift card. What a deal. I went to class at least three times a week and couldn’t get enough. Not to mention the fun bonding time with friends since we all had the same pass and goal to try out the studios.

When the 30 days were up, I decided that not only did this deal help me manifest my new year’s resolution to take better care of myself, by exercising and finding a source for stress relief, it helped me rekindle a passion for yoga that I had in college. Over the course of the month I couldn’t believe how fast I made progress. I tried new styles and poses — elevating my yoga practice to a new level I’d always wanted. Midway through the month I started feeling stronger, more confident and less stressed and I realized, wow, this makes me truly happy. I also realized I wanted to do a hand stand.

By the time the month was over, I could do a modified hand stand on my forearms and I’d joined YogaWorks officially. They even gave me a discount. And, I thought of an interesting birthday gift for myself, 28 days of yoga for my 28th birthday. I’m hoping since I gave myself a test run I’ll be able to do it. I also thought it would be a fun way to set an attainable goal for myself to achieve.

My plan is to do 30 minutes of yoga each day at home or the studio. For the days I’m not motivated I’ll remember the awe I felt when I saw “Yoga By Equinox.” How I wish to be this good at yoga.

Yet, this is not just about committing to my fitness, it’s about investing time for myself that I know makes me feel strong, confident and at peace.

Today was day one.

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Make 28 Great

Image By ScenicReflections.com

Image By ScenicReflections.com

A gal’s birthday makes her think about a lot of things — the past (Where did my twenties go and why do I still feel 21?), the future (What does it mean to be in my “late twenties?”), and how I can make this my best year yet (Get back to writing, you dork.)?

You see, last week was my birthday and I was lucky to share it with my sweet co-workers and kind friends, and of course my generous husband who planned a surprise trip for me to San Francisco. I couldn’t ask for more. It was a fun weekend — delicious seafood, time with family, and lots of walking around one of my favorite cities… but there’s something about my birthday that always makes me reflect on what I’ve done with my life and where I’m going next.

I know I’m not the first person to feel this way, I bet we all go through it one time or another. Even rocker Sammy Hagar once said: “Every year on your birthday, you get to start new.” I think a guy with an album called “Livin’ It Up!” might know a thing or two needing a fresh outlook.

So, how do you start a new path and make the next year better than the last? I have a few ideas.

As a kid I believed I would be married by 25, with a baby by 28 and running my own magazine by my thirties. Yikes. Clearly, my young self was overly ambitious and completely unaware of the time and efforts required to cultivate relationships, a family and a career, while still pursuing an education, having a social life and maintaining an exercise regimen and doing laundry. Life takes time, especially when trendy delicates need to be hand-washed.

I think some birthdays, like the turn of the new year, bring pressure and anxiety, when they should actually be rewarding and liberating. Who wants to be analyzing their 12-year-old self’s life plan while feasting on a crab cake in North Beach? Not me. Ok, clearly it was me, but here’s me trying to be older and wiser. I’d like to plan some things that I could do before I turn 29. Sure, I’d like to say I’ll finally make that trip to Paris or learn to design and sew my own clothes, but let’s be realistic, here. That’s a lot of expectations to put on myself in a mere 365 days. I can think of one, realistic goal for the year, and I’ll be honest, it directly supports and relates to my new year’s resolution to take better care of myself: Make a commitment to doing things that make me happy.

Often I, like many others get distracted and bogged down by obligations, laziness, routines and work — when sometimes a better choice, even a small one, could make me happier. Leaving work when I promise myself I will. Taking a moment to relax without feeling guilty that I should be doing something else. These types of things impact how we enjoy our days and I need to make sure I make choices that benefit my happiness over everything else.

My trip to San Francisco for my birthday reminded me of this — things don’t have to be so planned or focused on specific goals. I may not run a magazine or learn how to sew, but that’s ok. My goals right now are simple. Be myself. Spend quality time with people I love. Make my home more beautiful and tranquil. Take time to relax. Cook healthy and delicious foods. Go to yoga. Write every day. I don’t need much more.

I, like many others, get so wrapped up in my daily routines and tasks. It’s easy to forget that happiness is something you can create yourself at anytime, anywhere. Why blow out the candles by making a wish, when you can actively choose to change your life.

Great things come to those who work and play hard. I’ve had 28 years to practice and I’ll keep going until I get it right. Starting now.

Any one else game to give it a go with me?

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Photo Credit: travelmoore.wordpress.com

Ode to Transitions

In order to tell you where I’ve been over the past few months, I have to share how I got here.

Most of the biggest transitions in my life over the past five years began and ended in a taxi cab. When I moved to New York City after graduating from college, I was filled with excitement and a young naivete about journalism as I stood in line at the airport waiting for a cab. I had never been to New York, but I was moving to Manhattan to become a writer — more specifically a journalist, and later, after hard work, I wanted to become the editor of a women’s magazine. I had it all planned out. I was going to conquer this foreign and unwelcoming city — even though I was just 21-year-old and had grown up in a rural Northern California town without a stoplight (or cabs, for that matter).

Big Apple? I was ready to take a big bite.

I wanted to learn from journalists who wrote for national newspapers and magazines, and gain experience at a magazine while studying for my Master’s at New York University. And, I was ready to take whatever the city was going to throw back at me, despite never having been there before. Ever.

What followed during my first two weeks in New York, were the agonies of finding an apartment during the height of the real estate market. (We’re talking pre-recession, people!) My boyfriend, Daniel (who later became my husband) and I needed to find a true one bedroom (that did not look out onto a brick wall and had a kitchen) for under $2,000 somewhere near the Village, where I would attend class for J-school.

However, we also needed to be near a subway stop so Daniel could commute to downtown Brooklyn easily. Boy, was that a lot to ask. We had only two weeks before my classes started, but the school wouldn’t give me any money to pay for a deposit on an apartment, let alone my books. I had graduation money, which was running a little low after experiencing my first summer without a job. I had worked all through school and decided to give myself one summer free from working minimum wage. Thankfully, my future in-laws helped make the work-free summer and new apartment a reality — without them, it would have been impossible.

We finally found a place amidst the sticker shock, humid heat and our aching feet. It took a pushy broker and $10,000 to move into our first apartment in the East Village on 3rd Street at 2nd Avenue, but it was ours! Who knew we’d need three months’ rent and a huge brokerage fee to get a place on such short notice? Yet, we were starting a new chapter in our lives. The apartment was tiny, but we loved it. We didn’t have air conditioning or much closet space. No matter, our little second floor walk-up was home. We even had a view of a park — well, ok it a quiet, squirrel-filled historic cemetery, but for $2,100 a month it was totally worth it.

Fast forward through new restaurants, friends, classes and jobs — our East coast lives had rapidly changed our outlook on the world and each other. During our time in New York, I buzzed around the city reporting stories on a woman comic writer, a stabbing in Williamsburg, a young jewelry designer and then got the amazing opportunity to work as a web intern for my favorite magazine, Marie Claire. Each week was filled with new stories, books, lessons and adventures, as I learned the subway lines and fell in love with living in NYC.  And I wasn’t the only one to find a passion for my career path. Daniel worked his way up at an e-commerce start-up, got to know Brooklyn, found us cool concert venues and discovered trendy restaurants and hot spots before they were popular. It was as if the world continued to unfold before us through grid-like patterns of the city streets and the boom of internet businesses where we started to find our niche.

Los-angeles

Image via Wikipedia

Over the past few years, our lives in New York were not limited to the city. I spent part of a summer in Africa reporting stories from Ghana. Daniel moved to India for nine months to help manage a new office in Jaipur. He also traveled to Australia and New Zealand. After grad school I joined him in India for a couple months before we were married in the summer of 2008. Life continued to change.

For me, post-grad life in New York included freelancing and working as an Associate Online Content Editor for teen news network, Channel One News. For two years I worked for Alloy Media + Marketing, learning the inner workings and demands of a daily network news program and what it’s like to edit and maintain a website with a really small staff — it was the best opportunity a young journalist could attain. Writing, editing, publishing and working cross-functionally with teams in marketing, sales, broadcast, design and engineering.

I could go on and on with how much I will forever live in an “Empire State of Mind,” but living in the city that never sleeps can be tough. To be honest, some of those people aren’t sleeping because they are just out having fun — they are working second jobs, writing in the middle of the night and searching for their next big break. Mine came just before Christmas as the snow began to fall.

I was offered a job in Southern California. Daniel and I had started our careers in New York and then, on December 22, with only a few weeks to prepare, we left it all for my new job as an editor for Demand Media. So much has happened since moving to California: new jobs, friends, an apartment, two cars…. but I realized in the move I lost touch with my writing, some of my friends and great things that made my life special because I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of changes we’d made. Then I remembered that the things I love most don’t just disappear. We just have a to make a little effort and find new adventures in the City of Angels.

Glad to say things are back on track (just on another coast with significantly fewer cabs).

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