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Empowering Changes on the Mat

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.

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.

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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Being Pretty Isn’t a Career Tactic

To my horror, I received an email this morning with the subject line, “Are You Pretty Enough to Get A Job?” Normally, Excelle sends me advice with empowering information on how to forward my career ambitions with confidence, strategy and feminist savvy. Well, not today.

I was thoroughly disappointed to receive such an insulting and sexist email written for women with the words “Ugly Ducklings Need Not Apply” as soon as I opened it.

“Studies show pretty people make more money, and now a new beauty-based job board looks to take plain Jane’s out of the running altogether. Will a ‘plainness penalty’ keep the average unemployed?”

Underneath that quote was also a link to a quiz titled: “Do You Need a Makeover?”

I considered not clicking the link, but wondered if it was a joke or meant to be ironic. Or, better yet, I would discover that plain or not, we could all channel our inner Peggy Olson and the secrets to modern day upward mobility.

Again, not today.

The author, Career Diva, began with statements about disregarding the assumption that attractive people get better jobs, however, the article contradicted these claims by linking to other Excelle features on how to dress better and why appearance matters.

Next, Career Diva brings up a website that connects companies who want attractive prospective employees (and gives them ratings on their looks) because “[u]nderstanding our dark side is the first step in overcoming it, I always say.”

Even though she attempts to explore sexism in the job market and investigate the website, she mainly quotes stats from studies in Florida and the U.K. affirming that good-looking people do receive better pay and job titles, even when intelligence is in the mix.

Instead of feeling proud to be a woman, she cheapened the “career-minded” site with this article that lacked the intelligence and feminism I look for in these newsletters.

The article ended with this quote: “According to the Florida university study: ‘people who were rated good-looking made more money, were better educated and were more confident.’ Maybe there should be a site called ConfidentJobSeekers.com.”

Isn’t the very process of applying an act of confidence? Why not offer something more to women who seek techniques for improving their current position or cultivating new skills?

Everything about the article made me feel like my success is dependent upon something superficial and totally subjective — not something real like education, experience and excellence.

To add insult to injury, when I googled “Woman CEO” to link an image to this very blog post, I got a photo of Heidi Klum spread eagle and bikini clad (and my search filters are set!). Really Google? I know she’s a Victoria’s Secret model, but she’s also the Executive Producer of a hit TV show! There aren’t any pictures of her dressed? And, aren’t there other powerful women in business? (Hello, Sheryl Sandberg!)

Curious, I clicked the image which took me to a feature about the “25 Hottest Women in Business.” Again, to my disgust, “sexy” photos of women leaders posing for FHM, or simply looking like sex objects, with vacant stares and fishnets tights, filled the page.

Instead of showing the talent, importance and successful methods hard-working women use to attain their dreams, like the 50 Most Powerful Women in 2009 by Fortune, that list and Excelle reduce women to “hot” bodies and “pretty” faces. I refuse to believe that women’s worth will always be dictated by the way we look — it’s unfair, unkind and completely short-sighted by men and women alike.

We are leaders, we can earn high pay and we are powerful.

Will I continue to subscribe to the Excelle newsletter — whose name is also stupid — why gender a word, anyway? We’ve been trying to avoid gendered terms for decades — that’s not empowering — not today.

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A Glee-ful Moment in the Sun

Glee Girls in Glamour

Yesterday after a long day’s work, the subway gently rumbled up the tracks as the D train chugged into the light of evening on the Manhattan Bridge. I was on my way home to Brooklyn as a view of downtown came into view at sunset.

Crazy For You,” by Madonna began playing on my iPod as I felt a surge of happiness and honor to be a woman. The feeling surprised me. Where did it come from? Coincidentally, a week ago the show Glee reminded women everywhere to believe in themselves, and who they are as individuals, through the power of Madonna’s music.

With songs like “Express Yourself,” and “What It Feels like For a Girl,” I felt strong, I felt empowered and I felt proud that such a pop culture phenomenon could connect with young women in a feminist manner. Even the young women’s feature in Glamour this month, spoke of the power of personality and confidence, in “Glee Gets Glam.”

This week’s episode — which I later watched after that shining moment on the bridge, as the verses of Madonna’s ballad reminded me to cherish what I have — explored the issue of self-esteem among teens in a simple, but effective way.

The character Mercedes felt like she should be thin to fit in as a cheerleader. Feeling pressured to lose weight by coach Sue, Mercedes no longer appreciates her body for what it is, until ex-cheer captain Quinn, shares her insight.

By the end of the episode, the entire misfit cast sings “Beautiful” in an unorthodox pep rally where everyone joins together acknowledging their own insecurities with comradarie. Though this is far from the reality of teen life, I rejoiced in the positive message and attention to women’s issues like sexism, misogyny and (less heavy-handedly) eating disorders.

Last week’s “The Power of Madonna” episode was even better. The young men and Glee Club teacher, Mr. Shu, admitted to treating women poorly, professing their need to change. Part of that change came about when the women took a stand for who they wanted to be: strong, independent and bold about their talent.

To quote Madonna’s lyrics in “What It Feels Like For a Girl”:

“Strong inside but you don’t know it

Good little girls they never show it”

By going against what it means to be a “good little girl,” Glee showed real teens that they don’t have to conform to the standard gender stereotypes and restrictions forced upon them. Over the course of the week the Twitterverse was rocked by this feminist movement, people loved the it. I think Madonna’s music made such an impact because she lives to be unique, tenacious and unafraid to be herself.

If we could all be so brave, even for a moment, to see the bright shining star in ourselves, we could feel good about the women we are, and will be.

Take your moment and hold onto it.

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