Four low or no-cost gifts to give yourself during the holidays

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We spend much of December thinking up gifts to give family, friends, and coworkers — but what about ourselves? Because we all need a little TLC, I’ve come up with a few easy gifts you can give yourself. No need to break the bank on these presents — they are all free or low in cost. Enjoy!

Time.   Time may seem hard to come by in the busyness of the season, but that’s exactly why it’s so important to pause and take time to connect to yourself. Give yourself at least five minutes a day to enjoy a cup of tea, walk outside, journal, pray, or meditate. Be fiercely protective of this time, and make it non-negotiable. You probably wouldn’t skip brushing your teeth on a busy day, and neither should you skip self-care — with benefits for your mental and physical well-being, self-care is arguably just as important to your health as your daily brushings.

Mindfulness.   Mindfulness, which is the practice of being present in each moment, is a gift we can enjoy all year long — and this moment is the perfect time to start. Being present can be as simple as reminding yourself, “I am here,” writing a gratitude list, or paying attention to your breath for a few minutes. If mindfulness seems like an overwhelming task, try reading Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn, or The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Han. These books  offer bite-sized tips for enjoying mindfulness daily and are likely available at your local bookseller or library.

Aromatherapy.   Familiar smells can be wonderfully calming when our schedules are full and our holiday cheer is fading. I love drinking a cup of fragrant chai tea, or putting a few drops of clove-infused essential oils in my diffuser. Baking spiced breads or lighting a naturally scented candle may also bring you a measure of calm by way of your senses.

Yoga.   This wouldn’t be a yoga blog without mentioning yoga, right? But seriously, enjoying a little yoga can help you melt away physical tension and become better equipped to walk through mental stress. If you can’t make it to a full class, try a few minutes of flowing at home (I have a couple of videos — both under 35 minutes — that you can try).

As you make your way through December, try not to edge yourself off your gift list.  Pause to enjoy the season, and savor all the joyful moments that come with it.

More With Less

There is nothing like moving houses to help you pare down and assess what you really need.

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Image from: Death to the Stock Photo

Last summer, our family moved to Fort Worth, Texas. Before we even knew a move was in the works, I got the urge to clear out the closets and drawers. We had a garage sale, and whatever didn’t sell, we donated or tossed. We said goodbye to many knick-knacks, toys the kids had outgrown, and appliances we had never removed from the box.

Later in the summer, we learned that we were moving. Thus, cleaning house again became a priority. This was when we discovered that our previous efforts at getting rid of the unnecessary was woefully inadequate. Again, we found ourselves filling up bag after bag of old linens, unplayed-with toys, worn-out apparel, and plain old junk.

When we moved a few weeks later, we put whatever we could fit in the car and drove to Fort Worth. Later, our furniture would be loaded onto a truck and brought to us, but for the time being we settled into our new home with the clothes from our suitcases and not much else. We borrowed a bed, camping cots for the kids, a couch, and a couple of tables. We learned to live more simply. In the process, we began to reassess what it was we really needed, which turned out to be not nearly as much as we thought. Living without our stuff wasn’t fun and I wouldn’t want to do it again, but I have to admit that the situation helped me learn a lot. Here are a few lessons I’ve come away with:

  1.  We don’t need a lot of appliances. We like having a tea kettle, a coffee maker, a blender, a hand mixer, and that’s about it. We use those appliances regularly, and find that they’re worth having around. 
  2. Our aesthetics have changed.  One day, we slipped into a furniture store just to look around. We found ourselves gravitating toward furniture with clean, modern lines — which we realized was unlike the intricate antiques we picked up when we lived in the Northeast. This made us rethink our furniture. Ultimately, we decided to part with most of the furniture that doesn’t go with modern, Mad Men-style lines. Not having our regular furniture with us gave us the chance to discover our new stylistic preferences.
  3. We like living in a smaller space. Small houses have their challenges — lack of privacy or a space to retreat to can be issues, so we’ve discovered the importance of living in a small home with a layout that addresses these issues.  Also, smaller houses are easier to keep clean. You can sweep or vacuum every day when you’re dealing with a small living space, and the task doesn’t seem too overwhelming. We’ve also realized that though we want to live in a smallish house, it’s nice to have large back yard for the kids and dog to get their wiggles out.
  4. We love art. Of all the things we left behind in our old home, our art was the most missed. You’d think it be winter coats or comfy chairs, but really, it was the art. Artwork warms up the space and also helps communicate our personalities. There are just a few pieces we let go of, but for the most part, our art stayed with us.
  5. We don’t need a lot of clothes or shoes. Moving presented a good opportunity to reassess what we needed to wear on a monthly basis. I don’t know that I would have come to this conclusion had many of my clothes not been in storage. I found that I wore the same few pieces of clothes and didn’t need much more beyond that. This was especially true for my yoga attire. I love yoga leggings and trying different brands. I even bought a couple of pairs in Fort Worth, forgetting all about the pairs I had left behind. Then, I had the chance to get a few clothing items from storage. I had forgotten just how many leggings I left. Truth is, I wear the same four pairs all the time. Do I really need more than that? Absolutely not. Hence, I’ll be on a fast from buying new yoga pants for quite a while.
  6. We don’t need that many dishes. You’d think that with five people in the family, we’d need a ton of dishes. It turns out, we don’t; we just need to load the dishwasher when we are finished using them. We made due with five plates for a long while. We did decide to keep some plates for entertaining, but also to let go of many others that go unused.

If you’re looking to simplify, or just to reassess your personal inventory, there are so many resources out there to help. Personally, I enjoyed Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, as well as Jen Hatmaker’s Seven: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess. The key factor for us, however, was distance. There just was nothing like being far away from most of our stuff to help us rethink our needs.

If you’re having a hard time letting go, consider taking some time away from your house and mentally itemizing its contents. You can do this while at the park, or a coffee shop, or while you’re on vacation. Make a list containing the items you really like and use, and also make a list of the things you know you no longer want. When you get home, take a look around. Were there any pieces you forgot about? Where there pieces that didn’t make the “really like and use” list? If so, it could mean those pieces have reached the end of their journey with you.

Pose spotlight: Paschimottanasana (Forward fold)

Paschimottanasana roughly translated from Sanskrit means “intense stretch in the back body.” Until viewing instructional videos by Leslie Kaminoff, I always thought of this as a pose primarily interested in the hamstring muscles and secondarily interested in the low back. Really, though, its Sanskrit name suggests that pose offers benefits for the entirety of the back side, from the calves to the nape of the neck. Where you feel the most intense stretch will depend on your body– some people feel it mostly in the hamstrings, others in the low back, others in the calves. To feel the stretch and release more evenly, try making adjustments like bending or straightening the knees, or use some of the props listed below.

If you feel pain, that is your body’s signal to stop or pull back significantly. Start with the first step, and if everything feels good there, try the next step. Be gentle with yourself and enjoy the release in this pose.

Here’s how you do paschimottanasana;

1. Come to a comfortable seat on the floor or bed. Extend your legs in front of you and flex your toes toward your face. Keep a slight to generous bend in your knees to protect the hamstrings and ease the stretch in the low back; you may even feel a deeper stretch this way! If your hamstrings feel pretty open, wrap your peace fingers around your big toes or reach your hands toward your feet. Alternatively, you can loop a strap around your feet. A third option is to place your hands on the floor beside your hips.

2.Bend forward from the hips with a flat spine. You may start to feel a stretch in your hamstrings and calves as you bend. If your hands are on the floor, creep them toward your shins or feet.

3. Keep the spine straight for as long as you can, then tuck your chin toward your face and round the back as you continue to fold. Maintain a slight to generous bend in the knees. Now, you may begin to feel more of a stretch in the back as well. Try to feel this stretch throughout the back body and avoid dumping the weight of the posture into one area of the spine. If you want more support for the upper body, place blocks beneath your forearms, or place a bolster or pillow on your thighs.

If you do this stretch and don’t feel much of a stretch anywhere, try placing a block behind your heels and reaching for it. Or, increase the bend in your knees and take your forehead toward your knees. You won’t look like the version of paschimottanasana found in all the yoga books, but you might be able to feel the back body elongate here.

As you try paschimottanasana, remember that you’re stretching the entire back body and not just the hamstrings. Try the versions above and let me know how it goes!

How often should I practice yoga?

Many people often wonder how often they should be practicing yoga. When considering how often you should get on your mat, consider first what your goals are. Do you want to build strength? Encourage flexibility? Develop mindfulness? Your answers to these questions may alter the frequency with which you care to practice.

When you’re encouraging conditioning of the muscles, it’s best to have a consistent physical practice with periods of rest. For most people, that means practicing for 30-60 minutes three to five times a week. Though you’ll see some improvements with a once-a-week practice, the increased movement will help move you toward your goal and maintain progress.

There is a such thing as practicing too much. Always give yourself at least one day a week of rest from your yoga practice. If you practice a more vigorous style of yoga like Baptiste, power yoga, or Ashtanga, consider taking off more than one day, or using one of your practice days for restorative or yin yoga. This will help you avoid overuse of your muscles and give your body much needed rest.

Speaking of rest, if you’re sick or nursing an injury, give yourself more time to recuperate, or opt for a gentler practice.

Also remember that it’s important to give your body a well-rounded physical practice. That means incorporating some strength-building into your yoga routine, or into your physical regimen as a whole. Additionally, regularly including aerobic exercise like walking, running, biking, swimming, kickboxing, or dancing will help keep your heart as healthy as your mind-body connection.

If your goal is to develop mindfulness, yoga can be an excellent daily practice. The physical practice of yoga, asana, is only one of eight limbs of yoga [https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/the-eight-limbs], so consider making your yoga practice about some of the other limbs, like attention to the breath or meditation.

As for me, I tend to practice asana four to six days week, and I always take at least a full day off to rest. Over the last few months, I’ve been incorporating more strength building for my arms, hips, and shoulders to help balance the stretching and motions common to yoga (I’ll share some of my favorite exercises in future posts).

I am trying to take a more conscious approach to yoga’s other limbs. This practice is isn’t as consistent as I would like, but I’m making progress. I could tell as much during the holidays when shopping and errands tweaked my sanity. I breathed, and breathed some more, and this helped me avoid yelling my way through December (mostly). This helped me realize I need as much meditation and breathwork as I do asana — if not more.

As you’re trying to find your sweet spot for practice days, remember that your needs may change. Be gentle with yourself and open to this change. Be as consistent as you can, for consistency will likely lead to growth.

Non-obvious ways to use your yoga wheel 

Yoga wheels seem to be gaining popularity among yogis and athletes alike. I bought my Dharma Yoga Wheel last year and loved the stretch it gave me during chest openers. However, there are many other ways to use the wheel, not all of which are totally obvious. Here are a few of my favorites:

Abs and adductors

Grip the outside of the wheel with your feet, ankles, or lower legs. Squeeze the wheel firmly with your legs as you stamp your low back into the mat to engage the low belly. Keep the engagement with your legs and in your belly as you raise the wheel up 45 degrees. Lower the wheel to a hover, then raise the wheel to 45 degrees. Repeat for ten rounds or more.

Abs and abductors

Place your feet through the wheel. Press your outer calves into the wheel so that you’re able to lift the wheel. Stamp your low back into the mat to engage the low belly. Keep the engagement with your legs and in your belly as you raise the wheel up 45 degrees. Lower the wheel to a hover, then raise the wheel to 45 degrees. Repeat for ten rounds or more.

Quad and hip flexor stretch
I saw someone do this stretch on Instagram and thought, “Looks easy enough.” I was so wrong! For me, this stretch requires a surprising amount of concentration and muscle awareness in the low belly and in the stretching leg — you’ll see in the video how challenging it is for me to remain balanced on the wheel.


Start in a standing lunge with your left leg lunging. Place the wheel under the front of your right thigh. Slowly lower your right thigh to the wheel. Gradually bend your right knee bend to a 90 degree angle and the sole of your right foot is parallel with the ceiling. Flex your right foot toward your shin to help stabilize your right ankle and knee. Square your hips. Play with the placement of the wheel. I find that the closer the wheel is toward my hips, the more supported and stable my hips feel. The closer the wheel is toward where my thigh and knee meet, the more I am able to sink my hips and deepen the stretch in my back hip flexor. Repeat these movements in the opposite side.

Yoga won’t fix all of your problems; practice anyway

We yogis love yoga so much that sometimes we treat yoga as a panacea to all of life’s problems. It’s not. I’ve been acutely reminded of this over the past few months.

Despite a near-daily asana practice, I’ve been in a consistent funk with no clear origin or exit. I’ve felt negative, I’ve doubted myself and my gifts, and I’ve felt just generally down. I have found myself in the midst of stressful situations struggling to maintain perspective, struggling to breathe mindfully, struggling to just keep my cool. I have failed as much as I have succeeded. This was particularly disappointing because I felt that, as a yogi, I should do better. I mean, I teach yoga, for goodness’ sakes. I wake up at the crack of dawn, and sometimes before, to get in a practice almost every day. Yet, my struggles persist.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The physical practice of yoga can be transformative, especially when combined with yoga’s other principles, like meditation and breath work. But yoga doesn’t fix problems so much as shed light on them and maybe, just maybe, help us see a path toward moving through or beyond those problems.

And I suppose I’ve caught a glimpse of that light. During stressful situations, there is a part of me that rages like a bird against a cage, and another that calmly observes and points toward another way — a calmer way. This calmer me doesn’t always prevail, but at least I can hear the voice — and I have yoga to thank for that.

But, importantly, yoga hasn’t magically made stressful situations disappear, or granted me a patient disposition to replace the anxious one I’ve spent decades cultivating. To expect even a consistent yoga practice to fix these problems is unrealistic; change takes time.

As I continue on my yogic journey, I’m noticing that the path toward inner peace is less like a peaceful stroll, and more like chasing a wild goose in the mud. Yoga won’t catch the goose for me, but maybe it’ll give me the strength to chase that goose. Or, better yet, maybe yoga will help me drop the chase altogether  and develop the patience to allow the goose come to me.

 

Stronger core, better practice (with video)

Our abdominal muscles are amazing. They help us sit upright, keep us from falling over when we stand, and hold in our organs so we don’t have upset tummies.

I took all this for granted until after I had my third child. By then, my abdominal muscles were lax, and even sitting up on a stool seemed taxing. The effects were more than just cosmetic; I regularly experienced abdominal discomfort because there were no strong muscles holding in my organs.

Thank goodness my yoga studio — like many others — recognizes that abdominal strength is an integral part of the practice. We integrate the core muscles during even basic postures like mountain pose and forward folds, and we dedicate time to leg lifts, boat pose, and other postures which are more core-focused. Had it not been for those exercises, I might have just endured my abdominal woes, figuring they were an inevitable part of having kids. Turns out, my woes were largely reversible.

After several months of consistent abdominal exercises, I noticed a difference on the mat and off. On the mat, I became less wobbily in standing poses like airplane and half moon. Off the mat, I sat up straighter, and stopped frantically searching for walls to lean on after a couple minutes of standing.

Before I’d experienced these benefits, building abdominal strength had never been an interest of mine — mostly because I didn’t see the benefit of having strong abs if you didn’t live your life in a bikini. But now, I’m sure to incorporate at least a few minutes of core work into my day six days a week.

I don’t have swimsuit model abs by any means, but I do have a pretty strong core, thanks to consistent practice with exercises like the ones described below.

I’ve included just a few poses that helped me strengthen my abdominal muscles (plus a video!!). For maximum benefit, dedicate time each day towards this strengthening.

 


1. Dynamic navasana
This variation of a classic pose builds strength throughout the core muscles while engaging the hip flexors.

Begin in navasana, with your legs bent at ninety degrees or fully straightened. Ensure that your spine is straight. Breathe in and, as you exhale, lower your back and feet a couple of inches above the ground. Inhale and return to navasana; using just your abdominal muscles, hug the thighs toward your chest. Repeat the sequence up to 14 more times, resting as necessary.

2. Hip lifts
Hip lifts challenge the often-ignored low abdominals, which can be key for sticking balancing poses or handstands.

Begin on your back with your legs lifted. Using your low abdominal muscles, lift your hips a few inches from the ground. If you’re still building strength, bend your knees or press your palms into the mat to help stabilize yourself. Complete up to 15 lifts.

3. Dynamic plank
This sequence strengthens the core muscles from the quads to the sternum and brings special attention to the obliques in the side body.

Begin in plank. Raise your right leg, hovering it above the ground a few inches. Bring your right knee toward your right tricep, hovering the knee beside your arm. To make the pose more difficult, straighten your leg. Extend the right leg behind you, hovering it. Now, bring the right leg toward the left tricep, straightening your leg for more of a challenge. Return to high plank. Complete the same actions using your left leg. Complete 3-5 reps per side.

4. Pelvic tilts
Pelvic tilts target the transverse abdominis, which helps hug in the organs. While tilts may not give you six-pack abs, they will help strengthen your overall core and may alleviate low back pain. As you complete pelvic tilts, engage mula banda. Engaging the entire pelvic floor will help build strength in your core muscles.

Begin on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the ground. Bring your feet to hip-width distance. Keeping your upper and mid back engaged with the floor, lift your tailbone and sacrum from the mat, scooping your pelvis upward and slightly toward your face; hold for three breaths. Slowly release your sacrum back to the ground. Complete ten reps.

5. Ankle taps
A great exercise to cap a challenging practice, ankle taps offer strength-building without too much grunt work. Bring mindfulness to your movements to ensure you’re engaging your oblique muscles.
Begin on your back. Bend your knees, pointing them skyward. Bring your feet hip-width apart. Lift your shoulders from the floor and extend your hands toward your feet. Using only your abdominal muscles to create movement, tap your right hand to your right ankle and contract your side abdominal muscles. Switch sides. Complete up to 15 taps on each side.

Have fun as you condition your belly muscles, and remember to move mindfully. As you build strength,  the exercises will become easier and your core more stable. Hopefully, you’ll see the fruits of this stability on your mat as well as off. Namaste!