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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.


Flowing Through the Vinyasa

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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, 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.

Do Men Feel Pressure to be Fit?

Last weekend I spent some much needed friend time with two women who are about my age, height and weight. We all wear around the same size clothing and have similar interests in fitness to slightly varying degrees. Yet, when it comes to diet and body image, I was stunned that we all had complaints.

“I should be eating this…”

“My new work out includes…”

“I’m on this diet…”

Image By, Bola Browne

“I just want to tone my…”

Each one of us, though we are all healthy, felt like we had something to improve about our bodies. I couldn’t help but wonder why so many women who are aware of body image issues and the pressure to be pretty and thin in American culture, are unhappy with the way we look — when most of the men I know, do NOT.

You rarely hear men in their twenties and thirties discussing their need to eat right and work out, or feeling dissatisfied with their looks. And, as this article on magazine marketing points out, you don’t see diet articles geared to men nearly as much as women on the news stand.

So, I ask, what gives? Do men feel pressure to be fit and eat right? Do they obsess over their appearance? Are there things men would like to change about their bodies, but they don’t say it?

Or, is men’s fitness out of style unless you’re an athlete or gay? I know that skinny, hipster chic is popular among some men, but they aren’t talking about trying to be thin, or changing there diet. Are they?

In my opinion, it seems like there’s no pressure for men to be fit because it doesn’t affect their sex appeal. A man can be funny and smart and he’s a catch, even if he’s not conventionally good-looking, but if a woman has the same qualities, she “needs a makeover” so people will be attracted to her “personality.”

I think it’s the “Homer Simpson Effect,” he’s this lazy guy who never works out or eats veggies, but is endearing, so Marge loves him anyway. Meanwhile, Marge is always fit and fussing over her appearance. (I mean, think how long it would take to make your hair look like that!)

Homer is not the only guy who doesn’t care about his looks. In fact, most male characters on TV and in films, don’t talk about their appearance. Except in Eclipse, of course. We all remember Jacob Black‘s famous line to Edward, “I’m hotter than you.”

Image By Men's Health
Image By Men's Health

So,  now we have two men who look completely different– thin, pale and tall, versus muscular, tan and rugged — but both are “fit.” Which one do men want to emulate? Will they follow Taylor Lautner’s work out regimen, or will they look to more athletic types to model like Omar Epps?

And, since there’s been so much publicity over women careening over Team Edward and Team Jacob’s appearance, with Taylor Lautner running around without a shirt, or Robert Pattinson sparkling like diamonds on screen, do men feel the need to hit the treadmill and lay off the burgers?

What do YOU think? Are men pressured by society to be fit too? Or does the Homer Simpson effect just part of America’s obesity problem?

Into the Ring

come on.. fight like a girl
Image by nicolette wells via Flickr

For boys, learning how to throw a punch is a simple part of growing up and their training to become men, but for women, that is not the case. We’re taught to rock baby dolls to sleep after tea parties and to play sports with minimal physical contact. Recently, I met with a trainer at my gym and told her I wanted to learn how to hit. Hard. I thought she’d show me a couple of techniques similar to what I learned in one of the hundreds of cardio kickboxing classes I’ve taken. I was wrong.

After ten minutes of lunges, squats, push-ups and checking to make sure my knee was ok, she was wrapping my hands and wrists, then shoving UFC gloves on my hands. I’ll be honest, I felt very self-conscious, like people were watching me as I was standing next to, and later inside, the boxing ring at my gym.

What happened next surprised me. As I hit the punching bag — jab, cross, hook — I realized how much I was taught to suppress my aggression and willingness to hurt anything, even myself. What came next was my own fight against cultural conditioning, trying to let go of all those times I’ve been told to be gentle, polite and well, let’s be honest, feminine.

As my trainer firmly told me to “hit harder,” to “put my weight behind each punch” and to “let it out.” I pondered what “it” was. Is it anger? Is it aggression? Is it testosterone?

No. I discovered for me, it was will. As I hit the punching bag, focusing my strength on each punch, hitting harder than the last, I willed myself to forget the sugar, spice and everything nice. When I got in the ring to hit her gloves I sparred against my own insecurity and hit as she drew me outside of my comfort zone.

By the time I finished, I knew I’d broken a barrier for myself, one that made me feel more free and taught me that it doesn’t matter what I think about who I am as a woman, I can knock out any limitation given by society or myself.

All I needed was a chance to get in the ring.

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A Knee-d to Change

A Brand New Day
Image by Thomas Hawk via Flickr

Over the past few months I’ve suffered with runner’s knee, a peculiar affliction that causes intense pain when running, walking and climbing stairs. The condition is notorious for varied healing times that keep exercise fiends like myself doing stretches and physical therapy for weeks to months on end.

The worst aspect of this injury is the unexpected time it may take to heal and possible recurrence, since “everyone is different” and it’s so tricky to treat.  And, since runner’s knee occurs from overuse or trauma to the knee, even every day activities can aggravate it.  The other cause of runner’s knee is a “wobbly knee cap,” or misaligned patella, which can cause friction in the joint.

In pursuit of speeding up the treatment period of my blistered and inflamed tissue underneath my kneecap, I’ve tried eating more protein, wearing a brace, RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevate) and even looked into glucosamine supplements and arthritis creams.

There’s nothing like a limp and arthritis meds to make you feel older than 25. Is this really when these types of health issues begin?  Apparently for women, it is.  I’ve found several articles and heard from my orthopedic doctor that knee problems are very common among women.

Especially ACL tears and runner’s knee.  Why, you ask?  Well, I’ll give you a hint, knee problems begin to develop after puberty.  Due to sudden balance issues with extra weight in the torso and the widening of the hips, young women move their bodies differently during athletic activities like running and jumping.

In fact, I read this article in the New York Times about a study among young women basketball players.  Doctors suggest that some injuries can be prevented with proper movement exercises and balance instruction — for girls and boys.

So, change number one: Work on body movement.  Change number two: Get some good shoes that fit my stride.

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Striding Towards a Half Marathon

On Health and Achieving Fitness Goals

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an active person enjoying exercise and sports.  Growing up with six younger brothers, playing football, basketball or simply wrestling in the living room were normal activities.  While in high school, I played any and every sport that held my interest, but it wasn’t until I went to college that I really enjoyed “Gym Culture.”  I know many athletes look down on the elliptical-running freaks who also show up to cardio kickboxing class fifteen minutes early to get in the front row, but I still proudly consider myself an athlete and a gym freak — exercise is exercise.

Labels aside, as you may have read in this blog, last year I lived in India with my fiance for a few months.  I became terribly ill after only two weeks and could not get better for about eight months.  While recovering in California last summer, I enjoyed going to the gym five and six days a week, once I started to feel better.  I was planning my wedding with my mother-in-law and recovering from losing weight and muscle mass from the illness.  Going to the gym was not only a way for me to decrease stress about the wedding, it was a method of gaining back the strength and confidence I had lost after the illness.

At the gym I did everything from machines and weights to group exercise classes.  I particularly liked cardio kickboxing, yoga and pilates.  Thankfully I had my sister-in-law to go with me and make them even more fun.  When my husband and I moved back to New York in the fall, I had a hiatus from exercise while finding an apartment, getting a new job, settling in the new apartment and then adjusting to working full time.

I never realized how difficult it was for people to make time to exercise while working.  In the past, my schedule was flexible, but I still managed to work out, go to class and handle my part time job.  Now it’s a real challenge.  Sitting at a desk all day and working at the same activity can be quite draining.  I never realized how the variety of my life as a student allowed me to have more time and energy, even though I’m probably doing the same amount of work each day.

Today while reading the New York Times, an article on health and fitness caught my eye.  Even though I know “Fitness Isn’t An Overnight Sensation,” it was at once discouraging and educational at the same time.  Since getting back into the routine of working out a few days a week, I’ve noticed I’m slower and my stamina isn’t what it was this summer.  Though it has been a few months since working out regularly, I didn’t think it would take more than four to six weeks to get back to my prior level.  After reading this article, my New Year’s resolution of running a half marathon in May, seems more daunting then before.

Will it really take months, rather than weeks to get back in shape?  I’m sure there is another Human Guinea Pig testing this sort of theory.  And, I understand that the article was about seeing dramatic differences in the entire fitness and appearance of a sedentary person, but running 16 miles from running nothing, is no small feat either.

I’ve started reading the Non-Runner’s Guide to Marathon Running and trying to think positively about the situation.  Yet, if an athletic person can be frustrated by this article, what would someone who has never worked out and has a new fitness resolution think?  What does that say about women’s health magazines and their front cover tips?  Are we doomed to only get hot abs in six months instead of six weeks?

We’ll see how it goes.  Best of luck to everyone else out there with a new health and fitness goal.

Bye, Bye Barbie

Women & Gym Culture

Since college, I’ve researched women’s body and health issues.  Essays on beauty, body dismorphic disorder (BDD), and trends in aesthetic plastic surgery fill my academic portfolio.  I dog-eared and highlighted books by writers like Virginia Blum, Naomi Wolf, and of course, Betty Friedan.  (For another interesting article about women’s bodies by Naomi Wolf, click here.)  Every day I think about my role in the world as a woman and how my gender affects my experience.

Four times a week I walk to or from the gym by myself.  When I am alone I notice people looking at me.  As a foreigner, people stare at me, which I’m told is a common Indian past time.  At the gym, women stare at each other.  Each day I think about this gaze.  I wonder how they perceive each other as women and how they see their own bodies.  How is beauty and health defined in Jaipur?  How is it manifested at the gym?

Let me begin with a description of Talwalkars, a gym franchise in India.  With the high cost of the membership (the equivalent of $220 for three months), this specific examination of gym culture centers around middle and upper class women.  Talwalkars is a western style gym with four trainers in the main studio.  They have the latest cardio and weight training equipment along with a stretching room with Bosu balls.  When a client opens a membership with the gym, she is measured, weighed and asked a series of questions.  At the New York Health and Racquetball Club in Manhattan, members are only asked to identify their fitness goals.  At Talwalkars, they are given a questionaire with questions like, “How long have you been overweight?” and “Why are you overweight?”  When I asked a man who works at the gym about women’s fitness culture, he basically said: Women typically join the gym if they are overweight — not to stay fit.  The difference is slight in the approach taken by Indian and American gym memberships.  Yet it seems, if you join a gym here, you think you are fat.

This initial introduction to the gym led to an even more surprising observation — most of the women at the gym are overweight.  A few female members are fit and look healthy, but some of them have even said they’ve lost 40 pounds and go to the gym every day.  While we exercise there are many women dancing to Bollywood tunes on TV with their flat tummies shaking to the music, but at Talwalkars, overweight women have apple-shaped figures with thin arms and legs.  As I look around the room and see their disinterest and lack of effort in their work outs, it makes me think they don’t have proper fitness and nutrition guidance.  Having a trainer available to show members how to use equipment is one thing, but not realizing how the intensity of your work out and nutrition affects your health is another.  Plus, with the high cost of membership, who could afford a meeting with a nutritional advisor?

Members who begin exercise plans are given times for cardio activity and weight amounts for equipment, all without a fitness test.  During their rotation around the room, I do not see women working very hard.  After reading an article in the New York Times, my suspicions were confirmed.  Many are not utilizing the health benefits of proper weight training.  While they complete their weekly lifting programs, they are only lifting about 20 or 30 lbs. on leg exercises, for example.  Typically, a large muscle group like your quadriceps, requires more weight during exercise because it’s used to supporting your body weight.  By not breaking down the muscle with repetitions that stress the body, new muscle tissue will not be built.  This is a problem among women everywhere, but the popularity of sweets and fried foods combined with this misconceived work out, could lead to permanent health problems.

After meeting Indian women who say they want to lose weight, but take second helpings of dessert after lunch and dinner, I wonder if they are simply enjoying their food or if they don’t realize how it will affect their health.  I will admit, after my grandma was diagnosed with diabetes I reduced my sugar intake and then coming to India was a shock to my dessert regime.  But having dessert every day seems excessive.  I can’t imagine the amount of sugar in traditional desserts like jalebi or gulab jamun.  This is not to say that I want Indian women to become skeletal, calorie-counting hungry people that get breast implants because they are too skinny.  I don’t think America’s skinny obsession is the answer.  I simply want to know more about how women receive health education.

This initial exploration of women’s health is only my warm-up.  So far, understanding Indian women’s health poses a paradox when searching for information.  Most articles talk about malnourished women and poor medical attention, yet few discuss the high rate of diabetes in India or obesity. 

While there is a clear discrepancy between the importance of men and women’s health, what about fitness?  Indian women’s reproductive health is the biggest concern in the media (and rightly so), but the combination of these women’s health issues lead to one crucial fact: Women’s health in India needs to become a priority.  Faced with dowry murders, problems of feticide, and early menopause — who wou
ld pay attention to nutrition and fitness issues?  Without media or statistics, it’s no wonder women only join the gym after they become overweight.  What lurks beneath this second tier problem is a larger thematic one — women take care of themselves after the fact, keeping their needs secondary to the needs of everyone else.  Who’s helping the mothers, daughters, aunts, cousins, wives and sisters?