Are People Judging You in Yoga Class?

eyes mandy learo

I teach yoga in two very small towns, and as a result, when I go to a yoga class as a student, most people there know me to be a teacher. That the room is aware of my profession can make my time on the mat a bit stressful: I worry about whether they are side-eyeing my poses and evaluating my skill.

This is a feeling and fear not limited to yoga teachers, and it is a common experience among people who choose to practice in traditional class settings.

Are people looking at me? Are they judging me?

The answer: Yes. But not as much as you think.

No matter how many times your instructor reminds you to keep your eyes on your own mat, you will look around, and so will everyone else. It is in our nature to feast on the visuals that surround us, and in a roomful of bodies, it is inevitable that eyes feel hungry to examine them. Every single person in a yoga class will be looked at, multiple times, and more conventionally beautiful or physically gifted students will be looked at more (sorry, pretty people).

So yes, you are being seen.

As far as judgment goes, one has to consider the nature of the gaze. What is the intention and feeling behind the eyes? In yoga, errant eyes are generally full of curiosity and kind regard.

When a student looks at another student who is struggling, there is no evil feeling behind the look- not a wish for them to fail, but rather a benign interest in what they are attempting and how they are going about it.

When a student stares at someone who is beautiful or excelling, the looker is not generally full of envy or ill-will, but rather low-grade admiration and the desire to imitate.

Yoga is not, however, a spectator sport, and although students look at other students, their primary focus is themselves and their practice. This is not because they were told to focus on themselves but rather because of their reason for being there: to practice yoga, not to ogle at you. A train of thought may go like this:

“Look at the girl in the pink yogapants, wow her butt is cute, nice Tiger Pose, ow my hip is tight today, okay, time to touch my foot, breathe in, I did it last class, how long before Savasana?”

If you are the girl in the pink pants, you have been noticed, kindly, and prompted forgotten due to the looker’s concentration on their breath and body. Which is what they came to class to do, not to check you out.

I have to remember that sometimes my self-consciousness is a subtle form of arrogance. It comes from what David Foster Wallace once called a “deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” And it is built into my perspective because I am limited to myself, and my reality seems to develop around me rather than being a fixed thing that I am walking through. I feel that because I am always so painfully aware of myself, other people must be too, and that is just not the case.

Please, please, please do not allow your shyness to chase you out of a yoga class. Yes, people are looking at you and judging you, but only briefly and kindly. You are the most important student in the room only to yourself, and you yourself are worth your own attention. Go look at people and be looked at and then redirect to focus on your practice, just like everyone else.

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Breaded, Baked Chicken Breast Cutlet with Steamed Broccoli

breaded chicken cutlet mandy learo

The more active I am, the more I appreciate simple food. Maybe it is just because I am naturally hungrier, and my taste buds become less persnickety. Whatever the reason, last night’s simple plate made my mouth and belly sing- so here is how I made it.

(Recipe makes 2 servings.)  

Ingredients:

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 egg

2/3 cup Italian seasoned breadcrumbs

1/2 tablespoon canola oil

large broccoli crown

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400F. Coat bottom of shallow baking dish with canola oil. Scramble egg in a shallow bowl and spread breadcrumbs out on a dinner plate. Put breasts on a cutting board and cover with saran wrap, then beat them flat with meat tenderizing hammer. If you don’t have a hammer, a sturdy coffee cup will do. Dip breasts in egg, then place on breadcrumb plate and flip a few times to cover both sides with breadcrumbs. Place breaded breasts in baking dish and place in oven for ten minutes. Then, flip the breasts over and decrease heat to 375F. Let bake for 8 more minutes or until chicken is no longer pink in the middle.

For the broccoli, slice into the size floret you want and place in a steamer or colander set over a pan of boiling water. Cover with a lid or tight-fitting foil and steam for 5 mins. If you don’t want the hassle of steaming, you can microwave it for a minute, which won’t taste quite the same but will retain approximately the same nutrition. Don’t boil broccoli.

Three cheers for whole foods, real ingredients, and delicious, simple fuel!

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Take Yoga Into Your Life? Nah- Take Your Life Into Yoga.

mandy learo downward dog open hip

Go to enough yoga classes and you will eventually hear this gem:

Take yoga off your mat and into your life.

This is a pleasant platitude that is generally meant to remind people to live holistically: that we should expand the mindfulness, flexibility, and serenity of asana practice (poses) into our daily interactions with ourselves and others. There is something to be said for taking the principles of yoga into life outside the studio or gym.

Taking yoga “off your mat” is a concept that works for some people, but it is problematic in the assumption that yoga is a perfect place. It is okay to think of asana performance as a sacred time, but the implication here is a bit fishy: that practicing yoga constitutes participation in a perfect system of spiritual self-improvement. You are a desert, and yoga is an oasis, so fill up your bottle while you’re in class. If only we could live up to yoga- Heil Yoga!

For the sake of mixing things up, allow me to suggest an alternative approach:

Take your life onto your yoga mat.

That’s right, carry it all to your mat, your baggage and stress and anger, all your problems and unwanted feelings. Pack that shit like a Gaiam strap and when you get to yoga, unroll your mat and dump it all on top. As you settle into class, breathing and preparing, allow yourself to sit in it, being wholly with your struggles. Look at everything that’s hurting in you and practice being calm as your scan the interior weather. And when the teacher tells you to set an intention for your practice, say to yourself:

Let me find some acceptance or a new perspective.

Whether you choose to consciously invite your life onto your mat, it will be there: in your bouncy and distracted gaze as you wrestle with Tree Pose, in your rigid shoulder girdle as you try to take Eagle arms. Don’t try to escape your life by going to yoga and then try to pull yoga into the rest of your day- try dragging your life through yoga like a screen, and see whether some sediment gets pulled out when you’re on the other side.

Consider the idea that yoga can be a place to physically and spiritually work through problems instead of an oasis from which to draw perfect strategies for living. You don’t have to serve yoga if you don’t want to– yoga can serve you.

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Veggie-Packed Turkey Chili

turkey chili mandy learo

It’s not even March yet, and already I have battle fatigue from the CNY winter. For the past few weeks we have had relentless snow that smears the view out my windshield and blankets the roads in a slippery and progressively dirtier muck. The air makes the skin of my face burn, and I’ve begun to feel the drop in my mood that occurs each year around this time.

I will get through the winter with my light therapy lamp and my yoga classes, but the most important thing I do to manage my seasonal blues is to eat well. This means consuming a wide variety of whole foods, especially vegetables and protein. When I get home after a busy day battling the snow, there is nothing better to me than a hot, nourishing meal, and this chili really hit the spot last night.

There is no secret or special technique here except that I included twice or three times as many fresh vegetables as most recipes call for. Through experimentation I have discovered that so long as I include a couple jalapenos, the inclusion of extra tomatoes and peppers doesn’t dilute the “chiliness” of the dish. As you can imagine, this recipe makes a lot of leftovers- which is great because it freezes well and makes for a grab-and-go option when I don’t feel like cooking.

Ingredients:

2 pounds ground turkey

40 oz. can kidney beans, drained and rinsed

28 oz. can crushed tomatoes

8 oz. can tomato sauce

1/2 tablespoon canola oil

quart grape or cherry tomatoes

3 green bell peppers

2 red bell peppers

1 orange bell pepper

1 yellow belly pepper

2 yellow onions

2 jalapenos

1 or 2 chili seasoning packets (check the package to see how many pounds it is meant to season)

Optional garnishes: cilantro, sour cream, grated cheese, corn, avocado, corn chips, etc… If you choose only one garnish, go with cilantro- it adds a nice brightness and freshness, and it’s really good for you. 

turkey chili mandy learo 1

Directions:

Heat up large soup pot, then add canola oil. When oil is hot, add fresh tomatoes, peppers and onion. Meanwhile, in another pan, brown the ground turkey until it is thoroughly cooked. Stir spice packets, tomato sauce, and crushed tomatoes into the soup pot. Drain the fat off your turkey and add turkey to the soup pot. Cook on low heat until flavors are incorporated and peppers have reached desired tenderness. Add the beans last, and be careful not to crush as you fold them in.

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Make Your Own Burrito Bowl (Why Haven’t I Thought of This Before?)

burrito bowl oknamaste

Yellow rice, chicken breast, avocado, salsa, chives, sour cream, and cilantro.

Taco Night in my childhood home was warm, spicy family time with mounds of ground beef and those crunchy boxed taco shells that kind of taste like cardboard. Probably because of this happy association, I really dig Mexican food. When I was introduced to places like Chipotle and Moe’s, I started eating it a lot more often because I realized that Mexican-inspired meals can be as light or as rich as I choose. I can pile on the cheese, or not. Sames for pork, or sour cream.

I saw an insanely beautiful homemade burrito bowl on Pinterest the other day, so I decided to make my own (less beautiful) version. It was a very tasty and relatively easy dinner. I used up a bunch of food I usually keep around anyway, and I ended up with a nice variety of nutritious stuff in my belly. Would recommend- and will definitely be doing this again.

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Yes, You Can Practice Yoga on Your Period

triangle pose red

When I did my teacher training in India, the guru’s wife announced to the group that women should sit at the back of the classroom and observe while menstruating rather than participate in the asana portion of the day. I have a vivid memory of how the saffron-painted stone space looked from the back as I wondered, “Why can’t I practice on my period?”

The idea that women cannot practice yoga on their period comes first from Ayurvedic medicine, which considers menstruation a time of purification and discourages any and all vigorous activity so that the body can use its energy reserves for the business of mensies and cleansing. This part of the logic doesn’t hold up medically, as we now know it is perfectly safe to partake in rigorous physical activity while menstruating. (Imagine if Olympic sprinters took 60 days off a year!)

Ayurveda’s other rationale behind the ban is the dosha (bodily humor) apana vata. This conflates menstruation with other eliminations of the body such as urination or bowel movements. Apana vata is a hypothesized downward flow that should not be compromised by movements that turn the pelvis parallel with the floor or flip it upside-down. The theory jives with the medical scariness of “retrograde menstruation,” when menstrual fluid goes back up from whence it came. It was once believed that this can cause endometriosis, and fear of backward-moving period blood is what drives some yoga teachers and health experts to advise against the practice of yoga during that time of the month.

However, as early as 1984, retrograde menstruation studies began to show that menstrual fluid existed in the fluids around the pelvic organs of a whopping 90% of women and that the phenomenon was much more common than previously believed. Even women with sedentary lifestyles were experiencing it, and today doctors agree that retrograde menstruation is absolutely not a cause of endometriosis. It may be related to a deficient immune response to the menstrual fluid, but the fluid is not the cause.

Menstrual blood does not cascade out of the vagina because of gravity- it is pressed out by uterine contractions. This means that even the most challenging inversions (poses that flip the head below the heart) do not have significant impact on its flow. Headstands, handstands, all okay.

I believe that yoga teachers need to stop telling people that they shouldn’t do inversions on their period. Wherever possible, we should give advice that is soundly based in anatomical science, and when we are giving advice based on Ayurvedic principles or tradition, we need to be transparent about where that information comes from. Otherwise, we begin to look like New Age idiots instead of trusted guides for our classes. If our students can easily debunk our statements with a Google search after class, how are they to trust us in the long term?

There is nothing in yoga that you cannot do while you are on your period, so if you want to practice, practice away. If you choose to abstain from certain poses because of the way you feel, that is a different matter completely. If a woman elects to participate in only gentle poses when she is on her period, that decision is valid and should be respected. Maybe it just skeeves you out to flip upside-down while you are menstruating, and that’s okay: bowing to the truth of our bodies and their feelings is an immeasurably important component of a personal yoga practice. However, for those who would rather practice with balls to the wall, don’t let your lack of balls stop you, and don’t worry about the fact that you have your period.

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I Don’t Love My Body (And I’m Not Going to Pretend That I Do)

oknamaste

TLC is my go-to channel for judgmental underwear watching with a faceful of popcorn. Their newest feature, My Big Fat Fabulous Life, is a reality program about an extremely overweight woman who revels in her size and “loves” her body. That’s great for her, but the body acceptance movement’s pressure to “love” your body stresses me out.

We seem to have decided as a culture that there are only two ways for women to feel about their bodies. Regarding our sacks of meat and bone, we either loathe every cell or we could spend all day making out with mirrors and giving hickeys to our forearms.

This, of course, applies only to women, because how a man feels about his body is utilitarian. In general, no one loses sleep over how little boys regard their own reflections, because boys are socialized to see themselves as agents of activity- not decorations to be judged on aesthetic merit.

I don’t love my body. Does that mean I hate it?

Nothing about the body is fixed. Bodies grow and change and bloat and get stronger, weaker, bigger, smaller depending on our behavior and genetics and the time of the month. Bodies are sometimes beautiful but often quite ugly. They are fun to inhabit when they are well, but then they betray us with sickness and they suck. They age, every day growing older.

To say that mental health is dependent on loving your body is like having to love the weather to go outside.

I don’t love my body. I accept my body.

“I accept my body” isn’t the stuff of Dove commercials or bumper stickers, but it is a sustainable, sane way of relating to my physical person. It has always struck me as desperate and false when I hear people shouting about how much they love their bodies, and I am not going to pretend that I do.

I accept my body the way it is today, and I regard it with kind understanding. I take care of it because it is my responsibility, and I’m grateful when it operates well enough for me to enjoy life. Part of embracing feminism is taking back agency and crafting a self image that focuses on outward-looking experience instead of how the gaze of others bounces off us.

Cultivating this attitude has involved some work on my part, but here we are. Me and my body, we are collaborators. We work together, and we are at peace with one another.

Acceptance is an achievement, and it is enough for me.

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Coconut Sugar Candied Pecans

candied pecans

Do you pronounce the nut “pe-CANS” or “pe-CAHHNS?” My grandma says “pe-CAHHN” is the classy way.

I used coconut sugar here because I am always on the lookout for natural sweeteners, and this one seems to have come into vogue. It is made from the sap of coconut blossoms and has a rich, complex flavor that is closer to brown sugar or molasses than it is to white sugar. It is not “coconutty” in flavor. In addition to having a low glycemic index, coconut sugar is full of essential minerals such as zinc, potassium, and iron.

These candied pecans make a great topping for green salads or yogurt, but I prefer to eat them by the handful!

Ingredients:

1 cup coconut sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg white
1 teaspoons water
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
16 ounces pecan halves

Directions:

Preheat oven to 300 F and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Set aside. Stir sugar and cinnamon together in a large bowl.

candiedpecansdryingredients

Whisk together egg, water, and vanilla in a separate large bowl until frothy.

candiedpecanswetingredients

Toss pecans in wet bowl with your hands, turning over many times until pecans are all wet. Then, pour them into your dry bowl and turn them over and over until the pecans are coated with sugar mix. Then, pour pecans onto lined cookie sheet and spread out evenly.

candiedpecansoncookiesheetbeforebaking

Bake for 40-45 minutes, stirring and tossing every 15 minutes.

candiedpecansoncookiesheetbaked

Let cool completely before storing in an air-tight container.

Enjoy!

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Just 5 Minutes a Day: Starting a Meditation Practice from Scratch

meditation_pose_by_ofirbr-d58wodj

Yoga poses were created to promote physical comfort in preparation for meditation, but meditation tends to be lacking or absent from most modern American yoga practice.

Many of us, especially those who practice yoga, have an idea that meditation is good. We are always seeing new scientific studies on its benefits. Have you ever wondered what you’re missing out on? Make TODAY the day you begin to explore meditation, and discover whether it can assist you on your life’s path.

It is my experience that the biggest thing holding people back from meditating is lack of time and fear that they do not know how to do it. I’d like to extend a challenge that is small enough for anyone to do: just 5 minutes a day, meditating in any way you choose.

Release your expectations of what meditating means or what sort of outcomes you hope to generate. When we are quiet in the mind, gently guiding it and focusing on the breath, we are meditating, and we are doing it right. Do not worry about achieving a blissful “no-thought” state, worry about the practice of conscious breathing and attention regulation.

Here are some approaches available for you to try:

  1. Conscious Breathing. Set a timer for 5 minutes and find a comfortable seat on the floor or in a chair. Close the eyes and relax the body. Bring your awareness to the breath, each stage of it, the body moving in acceptance of the air and in releasing it back out. Allow thoughts to come and go, but do not reach out and cling to any of them. When you catch yourself becoming distracted, gently bring your awareness back to the breath. Imagine that thoughts are like clouds passing through the sky, and you are the sky. You may choose to count each breath up to five, then begin again at one. You may choose to instead take a count of inhales and exhales, counting to four or five for each inhale and exhale.
  1. Loving Kindness Meditation. Set a timer for 5 minutes and find a comfortable seat on the floor or in a chair. Close the eyes and relax the body. Bring your awareness to the area of your heart and the breath moving through that region. Draw up from your heart a wish you have for yourself. This should be deeply personal. For example, if you experiencing depression, you might say in your mind, “May I be happy.” Or if you are experiencing financial fear, you might say, “May I be secure.” Direct a sense of loving kindness to yourself as you repeat this wish a few times. Next, direct your awareness to someone or a few people that you love. Repeat the same wish, but this time, direct your loving kindness toward them. Next, direct your awareness to someone who is difficult and do the same thing. Then, spread your sense of loving kindness and blanket it to include all beings. Your may will sound like: “May all beings be happy. May we be secure.”
  1. 5 Mindful Minutes. Wherever you are, determine that you are going to practice five minutes of mindfulness. Bring your awareness to your breath and body. Sense that you are completely alive and completely in the moment. Notice what is going on in your mind and in your emotional life. Notice where you are and anything your body is touching. Enjoy a few moments of quiet reflection, not trying to control anything, simply existing in the moment as it is.
  1. Higher Power Meditation. If you are a religious or highly spiritual person who believes in God or a Higher Power or a Higher Self, you can use this belief in your meditation. Briefly pray or communicate with your Higher Power, then allow yourself to get deeply quiet inside. It is said that praying is talking to God and meditating is listening to God. Imagine a deep well of openness and quiet within you, a space you are creating to be filled with messages from or simply the presence of your Higher Power.
  1. Guided Meditations. Youtube is a great source for free guided meditation, and there are millions of choices at your fingertips. You can also look for mp3s to download or buy a CD. Open yourself to the possibility that these can be great tools for someone beginning a meditation practice.
  1. Something Else. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and if you are aware of another technique or approach you’d like to try- do it! Just be careful not to get so bogged down in theory that you never get around to practicing.

Developing a meditation practice is done one day at a time. Do not worry over yesterday’s sit or how tomorrow’s session will go. Do not stress about whether you can keep it up. Simply make it happen for five minutes a day, ONE DAY AT A TIME.

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The Little Duck

duck

I stumbled across this poem and, after reading, fell into a stunned, introspective silence. It has been haunting me ever since, so I knew I needed to share. Hope you are moved as much as I was.

The Little Duck

by Donald C. Babcock

Now we are ready to look at something pretty special.
It is a duck riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf.
No, it isn’t a gull.
A gull always has a raucous touch about him.
This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.
He isn’t cold, and he is thinking things over.
There is a big heaving in the Atlantic,
And he is part of it.
He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bodhi tree.
But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher.
He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.
Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is.
And neither do you.
But he realizes it.
And what does he do, I ask you. He sits down in it.
He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity—which it is.
That is religion, and the duck has it.
He has made himself a part of the boundless, by easing himself into it just where it
touches him.

(from The New Yorker, October 4, 1947)

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