What core strength really is
1. STRETH FROM, NOT TO!
In his book “Light on Life,” B.K.S. Iyengar (http://www.bksiyengar.com/) stresses, amongst other things, the essentiality of stretching from rather than to, not only in yoga, but in all facets of life. But what does that really mean? In the context of yoga, this translates to using the core muscles, the trunk of our being, to perform asanas (poses), hence requiring less strain on the limbs and a more effective and long-lasting yoga practice. Most people that I know who have somehow “injured” themselves doing yoga, including myself, have made the mistake of stretching to, of wanting more, of going past their limit at a particular moment. On the flip side, when one applies his/her whole self in breathing and moving, lengthening the spine and softly engaging in the abdominal wall, the pose takes on a new form, and feels entirely different for the practitioner, that is much more steady, real, and organic.
But the motto stretching from can be very powerful in our everyday lives too. A simple example resides in Iyengar’s observation that society has taught every one of us, very much to our detriment, to ask “How do I sound?” rather than “How am I doing?” We can liken this to the idea of thinking “How do I reach my toes?” versus “How do I make this pose work for my body?” It all comes down to performance, which can be a dangerous thing. We all like to please others, to make them smile or laugh or approve of us, but in the process sometimes our deeper needs and desires get lost. When Iyengar writes that “intuition transcends rationality and is from the heart” (Light on Life, p. 179), he reminds us to trust our innermost self and not focus on the material or what’s easily seen. This is why “core yoga” isn’t about doing a ton of crunches and being able to flaunt an impressive six-pack; it’s about being brave enough to feel the poses from within and shine this internal energy out onto the world, which doesn’t mean it’ll always be aesthetically pleasing… and the same goes for how we can more fully approach life in general…from the core, the very center of our being.
2. CLEAN UP YOUR INSIDES…OR WORK WITH THEM!
Not entirely different from what a psychologist might say, Iyengar explains that our “I-shape” is covered with the superglue of the construct of “my” through memories, possessions, desires, experiences, attachments, achievements, opinions, and prejudices. We all want to be “here and now” but we are predisposed to a conflicting desire to be irrevocably linked to past and future events. In order to build a strong core, Iyengar wisdom stresses the need to “find and eradicate the worm, so that the whole apple, from skin inward, can be a perfect and healthy one” (174). Yoga is one of the methods that allows us to express the “will to be free” from the worm inside of us, and only then will we be using our authentic core.
Incidentally, Debbie Ford, New York Times bestselling author and respected advocate for positive personal transformation and realized human potential, takes a slightly different approach, one that seems just as valid. She goes so far as to state, in a proud tone mind you, that she is a “bitch” and that her path to success only began when she stopped being ashamed of her bitchiness and started embracing it. Weird, huh?! But kind of awesome, because she’s right: if we don’t find a way to use the qualities inside us that we deem “negative,” then these qualities could wind up hurting us in the end. The idea can be summed up in the following motto: “What you resist persists, what you can’t be with won’t let you be. And you’re human be-ings. Embrace the totality of your humanity.” And as Carl Jung once said, “I’d rather be whole than good.” Having a strong core is about not being afraid to express all aspects of ourselves, both the good and the bad.
3. HAVE FAITH IN BOTH STILLNESS AND TRANSFORMATION.
Despite Debbie Ford’s emphasis on the importance of showing our darker side in life, she still believes that making changes for the better is important, and although Iyengar argues for separation from our past and future, he does not tell us to entirely forget how we got here or where we are going. The key factors here seem to be integration and transformation, involving continuous reevaluation of ourselves and searching for our “core being,” whether we are in a yoga pose or in the midst of making a difficult life decision. Yet, we also need to be able to find the stillness, true contentment in the way we are, to take a breath or two or three and just be. And as long as we remain willing, “at any moment, to sacrifice what we are for what we could become” (Charles Du Bos), we are exercising admirable core strength. No six-pack needed.
Why Fat, Alcohol, and Carbs are NOT the enemy
While embarking on my Health Consulting Career thus far, I have learned some interesting facts about diet and health that everyone should know and will probably be psyched to hear. First and foremost, instead of spreading that chemical-infused non-fat miracle whip on your fat-free cheese sandwich with light wonder bread, indulge in a goat cheese and avocado sandwich on sprouted whole wheat. And add real mayo if you want. Why? Because studies have now pretty much disproved the American Heart Association’s theory that a low-fat diet can reduce the risk of heart attacks, and some even say foods stripped of their fat content contribute to a weakened immune system (see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1375687/Low-fat-foods-INCREASE-risk-heart-disease-nutritionist-says.html)
What about the old saturated fat culprit? While it is undeniably true that trans fat is rightly what renowned MD DrPH Walter Willet calls a “metabolic poison,” saturated fat is not really linked to coronary heart disease. And we’ve all heard that all the “bad” fat in coconuts is actually good for you. Of course, mono and poly-unsaturated fats, those found in foods such as olive oil, fatty fish and nuts, are the healthiest choices. In the Nurse’s Study (http://www.channing.harvard.edu/nhs/) that has been going on since 1976, Harvard Physicians discovered that there was an 80% lower risk of cardiac arythmia in women who ate a lot of Omega 3. And one more cool tidbit: a study in France showed that people on a mediterranean-based diet with lots of vegetable oils had a 70% reduction in deaths from heart attacks…Guess what? Statin drugs only reduce them 30%.
Point being, it doesn’t seem to be serving us AT ALL to be afraid of fat. Same thing goes for alcohol and carbs, to an extent. Like most people, I love a drink or two from time to time, and it turns out that if you are less than 50 years old or so, it is totally fine, even beneficial, to enjoy in moderation ANY type of alcohol. Tons of studies have shown a correlation between better health and drinking, as long as individuals make sure to get enough folic acid in their diet. For women who are at risk of breast cancer, they do need to be extra careful about this. As far as carbs go, avoid refined ones like Snackwell’s and eat loads of whole grains.
Lastly, don’t forget that milk doesn’t actually prevent bone fractures, and people in non milk-drinking countries have considerably less osteoporosis rates than us American folk. While milk is not a bad choice, there is no reason to pester your vegan friends about needing it. For dairy-eaters, try the least processed, fattiest kind :-) and then go outside and get some sunshine…you may be one of the two-thirds of Americans that has insufficient levels of vitamin D in their blood. Plus, no excuses, it’s miraculously 50 degrees and sunny out there and it’s February!
Yoga teacher inspiration
Yoga became an integral and particularly meaningful part of my life as a means to find freedom in my body and mind after having suffered a huge personal loss. Returning to the mat meant applying expression, healing, and transformation to that pain and darkness and creating something soft and joyful and reincarnated. The interweaving of being safe and vulnerable, the beautiful balance of being active in my body and yet gentle and forgiving towards it, and the remarkable experience of simultaneously embodying all that is “me” with all that is universal and shared, were elements that I could never have found somewhere else.
Now, as I enter the world of teaching yoga, it is striking to come to terms with just how much yoga has brought to my life. The power of yoga to fundamentally shift the way one views him or herself and the world, the way movements and alignment and breath can stimulate decades of expression and truth and in turn promote healing, the mutual and intimate trust that practitioners share, simply because they commit to the same discipline, all inspire me to want to teach and help others unravel the many layers of their yogic journey.
As I continue to cultivate my own yoga practice, I feel that teaching must have a place in it. I want more balance, more strength, more opening, not just in my body, but more crucially in my heart. I want to facilitate that connectedness and grounded feeling that yoga brings, that energetic radiance and aliveness it uncovers. I want to show compassion and softness as I help students gain confidence and clarity and move and breathe through pain and joy. I want to be there for others as they discover their own growth and transformation through mind-body awareness. As a yoga teacher, I want to toss all judgment and harmful thought aside and open up a space for magnificent sharing and free expression, a space where practitioners can be unfailingly and authentically proud and peaceful and present.
What is yoga?
Yoga, to me, is the freest expression of body and mind; it is the most true and powerful way to manifest life energy and simultaneous connectedness with both the world and the authentic self. It allows the practitioner to find inner peace while, at the same time, sharing his/her essence of spirit with many others. Within an individual, this practice promotes positive transformation and pilots a playful and non-judgmental state of candid awareness. As a result of yoga, the personal release, healing, and mutual giving that can occur amongst and within members of a community are unbelievable and can even, at times, prove to be overwhelmingly beautiful.
As I reflect on what yoga really means to me, the subject actually brings up a great degree of emotion, which includes some pain and sadness but is also doted with a feeling of wonderful freedom and joy. This, I think, is due to the fact that yoga has, little by little, replaced much of the negative force that seems to have defined the way I once (not so long ago!) viewed both my own identity and the world in general. I’d go so far as to say that when I finally made yoga a discipline, I reclaimed my body and mind, which I felt that I had lost, or at least, had lost sight of and control over, during one of the darkest periods of my life, when I nearly lost my father. I literally somehow came to think, although I was unaware of it, that my true existence was unmerited, that destructive self-sacrifice was in fact my duty. Suffice it to say that the journey of yoga has so far brought me further and further away from the ego while, all-the-while, I trek closer to my, dare I say, “best”, and certainly, most genuine self.
The healing force behind yoga has been unconditionally present ever since I began the practice. Some days, body aches miraculously seem to go away, or shortness of breath emerging from anxiety subsides, or a fellow yogi or yogini gives me a much-needed hug. Other times, I find that practice makes me realize how stressed or sad or happy or lonely I am on a particular day. The yoga studio is the only place I feel utterly at ease bawling my eyes out in public or making bizarre noises in order to release stress and toxins from my body and mind. The yoga mat has the power to encourage people to be themselves, but also to step outside of themselves and, in turn, it allows them to experience just how closely linked all beings, and all elements, are.
In short, yoga leads the body and mind, the individual and the group, to move toward a state of absolute clarity, awareness, openness, acceptance, intuition, discovery, playfulness, focus, and freedom. And of course, in addition to all of that, it has the added benefit of being extremely fun, rewarding, energizing, and good for your mental and physical health! I am amazed at how transformative a yogic lifestyle has been for me. As I continue to explore how yoga shapes our worlds, I am eager to continually share and learn a practice that so extensively redefines us.