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Posts Tagged ‘Natural Health & Wellness’

Fall Focus: Top Tips For Finding Balance During Vata Season

Happy Autumnal Equinox! Here at Five Pillars we hold the Intention to move through life in synch with the seasons. Listening to the messages and even advice each has to share with us and going with the flow or counterbalancing where beneficial – letting the pillars of Right Movement, Nutrition, Breathing, and Relaxation support and inform our choices.

According to Ayurveda—an ancient traditional system of medicine in India that’s been called Yoga’s sister science—Fall is Vata season. As the humidity of summer begins to wane and the Northeast experiences the incredible annual display of colorful Fall leaves, you may discover some signs and symptoms that suggest your Vata dosha is aggravated. You can adopt Vata-balancing practices to attain optimal health and feel your best.

But first, what’s a dosha? Three primary energies (aka doshas) based on the elements make up our physical and mental constitutions. These energies are Vata (Air & Space), Pitta (Fire) & Kapha (Earth + Water). Each of us has all of these elements, though one will likely be dominant in our constitutional makeup. If you want to #GoDeeper, try an online quiz.

The cooling weather patterns, Fall winds and shifting daylight hours that have arrived with the equinox often aggravate Vata. After all, the qualities of the Vata dosha are cool, light, dry, moving, and erratic—just like the weather patterns—and a basic tenet of Ayurveda is like increases like. Some common symptoms that occur when the Vata dosha is out of balance are anxiety, dry or chapped skin, indigestion, sudden bouts of fatigue, and light interrupted sleep.

Additional symptoms can occur on the physical or mental dimensions.

Common physical signs of a Vata imbalance:

  • • cold hands and feet
  • • constipation
  • • gas
  • • bloating
  • • aversion to cold and wind
  • • irregular appetite
  • • twitches
  • • spasms
  • • restlessness
  • • low body weight
  • • aversion to loud noises
  • • hypertension
  • • arthritis
  • • weakness
  • • restlessness
  • • irregular menstruation

Common mental signs of a Vata imbalance:

  • • nervousness
  • • fear
  • • panic
  • • racing mind
  • • worry
  • • spacey
  • • scattered
  • • inconsistency

The Five Pillars of Fall Wellness can help bring you back into balance, achieving your optimal state of being.


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Right Intention: Want To Book The Next Plane Ticket Out Of Here? Think Again And Dig Into A Steady Routine


When the Vata winds blow, we all need a little more grounding and stability. Now is the time to dive deeper into your mindfulness practices and stick to routines. It may help to begin by creating healthy patterns of eating and sleeping—try to sleep before 10 p.m. and eat regular meals around the same time each day. Beyond the basics, this is the perfect time to pick up or continue a yoga and meditation practice. Set an intention to be gentle and loving with yourself, and allow for plenty of time to reflect and go within. Your inner clarity will keep your health and wellness on track no matter what life throws your way.

Our recommendations: Take time to set an intention to stay grounded and stable during Vata season. Avoid the temptation to discard your routines and book the next plane ticket out of here. Instead, take a moment to organize your days into a soothing routine full of self-care and balance.


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Right Movement: Take It Easy


Choose a Right Movement practice that is light and easy on your body. Focus on flexibility and balance rather than long distances and speed.

Top movement tips: Walk through the park or take an easy breezy stroll with a friend. Power down your yoga practice and opt for therapeutics or gentle yoga, yoga nidra, tai chi or qi gong. Take some time out to practice pranayama and meditation. Focus on breathing deeply and be gentle with yourself.


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Right Breathing: Alternate Nostril Breathing


Pranayama (aka breathing practice) has incredible balancing effects on the entire body and can ward off unwanted stress & anxiety. Our favorite pranayama for inner balance and harmony during the Fall season is Nadi Shodhana Pranayama, otherwise known as Alternate Nostril Breathing. Nadi Shodhana Pranayama synchronizes the right and left hemispheres of the brain, helping to focus the mind and keep unwanted stress and anxiety at bay, providing the very foundation we need to stay peaceful and responsive no matter what the Vata winds blow into our lives.


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Right Nutrition: True Nourishment For the Fall Season


Fresh, cooling crudites were perfect for the hot summer, but the crisp fall air invites forth a natural desire to nourish ourselves with warming butternut squash soups, more protein, and hearty stews. Freshly cooked veggies are easier for our bodies to digest and assimilate than raw produce. If you are already in the practice of eating fresh, seasonal foods and shopping at the farmer’s market, you may notice the natural seasonal shift toward heartier produce that balances the vata dosha.

Begin to see your vegetables as vessels for healing herbs and spices. Each of the ancient, lasting cuisines around the world incorporate delicious, healing herbs and spices into meals. Oregano, basil, thyme, and rosemary make their way into Italian sauces. Turmeric, cumin, ginger, and cayenne spice up Indian fare.

As you know, food is so much more than fuel and nutrients. Many of the aromatic herbs and spices have anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, anti-fungal properties. As we spice up our recipes and savor the incredible flavor of international cuisine, our meals become medicine that support the immune system, keeping seasonal colds and the flu at bay.

Try cooking a healing coconut-milk curry with plenty of spices and seasonal vegetables. For inspiration, view this recipe: South Indian Style Vegetable Curry. For more information about Ayurvedic wisdom, check out this article: Vata Pacifying Diet.

Additional Vata-Pacifying Recommendations:

  • *Eat full-sized, well-portioned meals, but avoid overeating.
  • *Sip on tea and warm liquids throughout the day. Avoid chilled beverages.
  • *Sweet, sour, and salty tastes pacify Vata. Favor warming, oily, and heavy foods such as natural grains (particularly rice and wheat), soups and stews, cooked root vegetables, and sweet fruits (bananas, avocados, coconut, figs, grapefruit, oranges, lemons, melons, papaya, peaches, pineapples, dates, etc.). If you consume animal products, warm milk soothes Vata. Buy organic eggs, chicken, turkey and seafood.
  • *Integrate Vata-pacifying spices: cardamom, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, mustard seed, basil, cilantro, fennel, oregano, sage, tarragon, thyme, and black pepper.
  • *Avoid bitter, pungent and astringent foods. Minimize your intake of beans, aside from mung bean dahl and tofu. Light, dry fruits such as apples and cranberries can aggravate Vata. To avoid indigestion, steer clear from cabbage, sprouts, and raw vegetables in general.

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Right Relaxation: Self-Care


Book your favorite masseuse, invest in acupuncture, or get some reflexology done. These practices boost circulation and promote relaxation. Consider investing in a weekly or monthly self-care routine that includes your favorite treatments.

Want to keep it simple and stay at home?

  • *Give yourself a massage using warming oils such as sesame or almond.
  • *Play relaxing music
  • *Connect friends who make you feel calm and relaxed
  • *Try aromatherapy
  • *Take deep breaths often
  • *Pause in between tasks
  • *Take an Epsom salts bath
If you’d like to discuss how best to attune to the season, we’re here to support you! Feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns, or for an individual consultation.

 

 

*Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

3 Essential Oils to Beat Summer Heat

As the days heat up, there are some among us who are so eager for air conditioning they’ll duck into a random store or see a movie they don’t even care about, just to cool down. I happen to love the summer heat — give me a skimpy sundress and a balmy (read: sweaty!) rooftop party or long day by the pool in the blazing sun, and I’m in heaven! That said, there are a few essential oils I keep in my purse in case I need to freshen up after a yoga class (en route to said rooftop party).

Essential oils are the pure essence of a particular plant, extracted via distillation, and typically “taken” by deeply inhaling them through the nose, or placing a few drops on particular points on the body. Depending on the plant, they are good for everything from aiding in digestion to soothing a bee sting. Some oils have especially-powerful cooling effects. As in, literally bringing one’s temperature down. So, for the dog days of summer, these three essential oils are my top summer must-haves… pardon the pun.

 

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Fragrant and Cooling Lavender Essential Oil

Lavender — This soft, powdery, floral scent is one of my favorites, perhaps because it is so widely applicable. According to Ayurveda, Lavender decreases heat in the body, and also quells heat in the mind. Inhaling a few drops directly from the bottle or rubbed between your palms will not only cool you down on a hot day, but you can also apply a drop to your temples or forehead for helps alleviating those headaches caused by too much heat. It’s also uplifting, which helps with that sluggish feeling we can sometimes suffer from during heat of summer. Another neat trick for a particularly sweaty day — a few drops dabbed under your arms freshens you up and kills germs at the same time.

 

Peppermint — Just like a tall glass of iced tea, Peppermint essential oil offers frosty and refreshing relief. Its primary constituent, menthol, provides the powerful cooling effect, whether inhaled or applied to the body. Just opening the bottle and taking a sniff works wonders, but you can also apply a couple drops to the bottom of your feet or a drop to the back of the neck for an icy, tingly sensation (it’s highly potent, so really, just a drop rubbed between the hands and then patted on the back of the neck. And, it should not be used topically on children younger than 7 unless diluted in water). You can choose Spearmint essential oil or Eucalyptus as well, as both contain that integral menthol, and all three are lovely to use for cooling compresses – just add a few drops to water and soak a couple washcloths. They can be used right away or popped in the fridge and pre-chilled and then pressed on your forehead or the back of your neck.

 

Sandalwood — Sandalwood oil has long been prized in India — where it gets pretty darn hot — for its cooling, calming qualities. Its woody, earthy and ancient scent offers a more savory and subtle alternative to the floral qualities of Lavender, and Sandalwood more gentle to the skin than Peppermint. In Ayurveda it is known to cool Pitta Dosha, or literally quell the flames of the fire element – restoring calm and clear-headedness as heat and frustration arise. In Ayurveda Sandalwood is also said to “stop excessive sweating,” so again, this is one to dab under the arms on the hottest of days. Even just one drop smudged on the forehead/third eye area goes a long way. With Sandalwood, sustainable sourcing is incredibly important, as it gets rarer and rarer in the world. I recommend purchasing from Floracopeia, you’ll be getting the highest quality oil, and also know it’s being sustainably harvested and replanted.

 

**Essential oils are very powerful and should be used with caution. Always refer to the information and contraindications on the product bottles. They should never be taken internally, and avoid contact with the eyes. You can learn more about safe and effective use of Essential Oils here.

 

Top 5 Summer Superfoods

So what is a superfood? Superfoods are whole, unprocessed foods that contain a concentrated amount of nutrients. They are nutrition powerhouses. These incredible, natural packages have superpowers such as warding off cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and more! When you consume seasonal superfoods regularly, your skin will glow, your digestion will be incredible, and your inner superpowers will be unleashed as your mind clears and your body thanks you.



Here our our top 5 summer superfoods, plus quick tips for incorporating them into your daily diet. 


  1. Spinach (and other dark, leafy greens)



    Ahhh, the queens of alkalization! Dark leafy greens have been #1 on any reputable list of healthy foods for quite some time now and they are still at the top today. Spinach is often recommended, because it is mild in flavor and can be added to smoothies. That said, kale, arugula, beet greens, Swiss chard, lettuce, and dark green herbs (basil, parsley, cilantro) are also incredible sources of nutrition! Brimming with key vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, low in calories, and full of fiber, dark leafy greens keep the whole body system in tip top shape.


    Add greens to your smoothies, make delicious salads, sauté greens with garlic and olive oil, or make trendy kale chips in your oven! For inspiration, check out our fav Green Smoothie recipe. Consider making this delicious Summer Greens Power Pesto for extra nutritious flavor!


  2. Blueberries



    These sweet blue treats contain a concentrated amount of fiber, potassium, magnese, folate, vitamin C, and vitamin K. Blueberries contain the most antioxidants among commonly consumed fruits or vegetables! So what does this all mean? They help protect our bodies from cancer-causing free radicals and are chalk full of nutrients that support the immune system, nervous system, circulatory system, and digestive tract. They help our brains and our hearts. Need I say more?


    Add blueberries to your morning smoothies, cereals, or yoghurt. Eat blueberries as healthy snacks throughout the day. Check out this Summer Smoothie Bowls recipe and enjoy!


  3. Tomatoes



    Juicy red tomatoes are a sign of summer. Entirely different from out-of-season tomatoes harvested across the globe, in-season tomatoes are sweet, flavorful, and contain an abundance of nutrients and antioxidants that fight disease and keep us healthy. They are also a great source of lycopene, an antioxidant that helps protect us against breast and prostate cancers.


    Add fresh tomatoes to salads, sauce, salsa, and soup! Enjoy fresh with a pinch of salt, or top with mozzarella and basil for a delectable treat!


  4. Watermelon



    Sweet and juicy watermelon is a blissful delicacy on a hot summer’s day. Watermelon’s superpowers include nutrients and antioxidants that promote heart health and bone health, and aid in the prevention of prostate cancer. Watermelon has an alkalizing effect on the body and can act as an aphrodisiac! Each bite provides incredible hydration. True to its name watermelon is 92% water. Providing vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium, and magnesium, watermelon is a fun and delicious guilt-free summer treat. Feel free to enjoy watermelon all summer long!


    Check out this Watermelon Smoothie recipe for inspiration or try watermelon salad with our fav Sexy Summer Watermelon Salad recipe.


  5. Avocados



    Hass and Anaheim avocados are the commercially grown varieties that are in season during the summer months. Not only delicious, they contain one of the healthiest fats there is: monounsaturated fatty acids.  Plus avos are chalk full of vitamin K, C, E, B5, and B6. They also provide a significant amount of folate and more potassium than a banana. Since our brains are made of fat and we need healthy fats to protect our heart, a daily avocado may be the easiest and most delicious choice we could make for our health. And don’t be fooled by the word “fat.” Avocados can help with weight loss!


    Add avocados to smoothies, salads, guacamole, salsas, and more! Check out this Simple Summer Salad recipe for inspiration.


 

*Photos from Dr. Axe, California Avocados, and Authority Nutrition

 

The Warm Up

Chai means, simply, tea, but order a cup in India and you’re likley to get a small hot glass of something sweet, milky and spicy. Masala chai, the popular variety that has made its way into lattes in the states, is warming, comforting and tastes like bliss.

It’s also great for you. Ginger aids digestion and works as an anti-inflammatory; cinnamon helps keep blood sugar levels low; and all the spices work to warm the body from the inside out, another way to keep our digestive system moving and blood circulation flowing.

Black tea and cow’s milk are the traditional choices but you can experiement with caffeine free teas (tulsi or rooibos would be delicious) and alternative milks.

Here’s a simple recipe you can make at home.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 cups water
  • ~2 tsps black tea per cup (can also use decaffeinated black or tulsi tea)
  • 1 inch of unpeeled fresh ginger, coarsely grated
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 14 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed
  • 8 to 10 whole black peppercorns
  • a few cloves
  • 1 to 2 star anise
  • 2 tsps fennel seeds
  • maple syrup or honey to taste

Directions

Bring water, ginger and cinammon to a boil. Lower to a simmer and add all the other ingredients, saving the sweetener (if needed) until the very end. Strain and enjoy.

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As with all things culinary, use your intuition and play around with proportions until you find the right blend. This is an easy recipe to scale up if you’re looking for a warm beverage to share with friends or keep simmering in a crock pot (bonus: your house will smell delicious). For hot chai first thing in the morning, prepare the night before.

Photos: Top photo by Alex Lau for Bon Appetit; chai wallah by Ira Zavyalova

Ayurveda & the Five Pillars for Winter Wellness

It took a while, but winter is finally, and indisputably here. Here at Five Pillars we hold the Intention to move through life in synch with the seasons. Listening to the messages and even advice each has to share with us and going with the flow or counterbalancing where beneficial – letting the pillars of Right Movement, Nutrition, Breathing, and Relaxation support and inform our choices.

Here in New York winter is first and foremost cold. It can be quite drying. Or it can be wet and slushy. It is a season marked by sickness — colds, flus, sore throats and so on. It is a season where nothing grows… the harvest fields of summer and fall now lie fallow. There is scarcity in nature’s offering. Except, perhaps, in the case of snow!

According to Ayurveda, Winter is the Kapha season. A time marked by slowing down, turning in, and some stillness, even with the risk of stagnation. Picture a big, soft, slow-lumbering bear… nourishing himself generously and then retiring to his cave to hibernate the winter away. This bear is in synch with the season!

Bear Medicine



Cold. Dry. Wet. Slow. Still. Possibly Stagnant.
These are the qualities we’re working with.
Luckily, there are several easy and intuitive ways to live in harmony with these qualities.

Drawing from the wisdom of the bear, we can nourish ourselves, slow down, and find some balanced self-reflection and stillness:





Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 11.19.46 AMGiven the longer, darker nights, what more natural activity than curling up at home with a good book or your journal, reflecting on the year past and the year to come? This is also an ideal time for Yin or Restorative yoga, which encourages stillness and relaxed awareness. Right Relaxation practices help recalibrate the nervous systems and prepare us to meet the energy of growth and change that comes with Spring.


Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 11.19.46 AMHowever, while our bear totem might be content to sleep the season away, we can and should maintain active Right Movement. The bone-chilling temperatures certainly might make a run outdoors less appealing, but with a host of indoor exercise options available, we can get the blood pumping, warm ourselves up and stave off stagnation and lethargy. Obviously a flowing yoga practice is ideal, whether gentle or powerful. Utilizing a gym membership gives you access to treadmills, bikes, rowing machines and maybe even a lap pool! And when in a pinch – choose 4 of your favorite upbeat songs and have a private cardio-dance party in your living room. This last option not only works the body but works on dismantling unhealthy ego as well!


Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 11.19.46 AMAs we consider Right Nutrition through the lens of the season, it might seem common sense that the winter is not an ideal time for juice cleansing, for example! It’s not that we can’t eat clean, but juices and smoothies just add cold to an already cold environment. Instead, it is a time for warming up and fortifying with hearty soups and stews. It’s also important to keep our digestive fires burning bright, helping to stave off stagnation, which can come from many things including too much stillness or too much heavy food. So by including warming and carminative herbs and spices in our diet (ginger, cumin, cardamom, coriander, orange peel, and many of the culinary herbs like rosemary and basil) we support healthy, active digestion. Add these to any one-pot recipe, savor a cup of flavorful hot chai, or start your day off with some warm ginger water.


Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 11.19.46 AMBecause this season is fraught with germs we must also fortify our immune systems. The lungs are the gatekeepers for pathogens, they are literally a first line of defense. It is through our respiratory system that many germs can creep into our systems, while healthy lungs keep germs out. You probably won’t be surprised to hear the lungs are an organ associated with Kapha, and they hate the cold! So, given the risk for coldness, dryness or even too much wetness/stagnancy, we must balance out these qualities with heat, movement and respiratory support. Luckily, many of the carminative herbs and spices also fortify our immune systems, and many heart-opening Yin and Restorative yoga postures support lung health.

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 11.19.46 AMDeepening our Right Breathing practices at this time are especially beneficial — bringing some intentional and powerful pranayama into our daily routines to deepen the breath, strengthen the lungs, expand their capacity and resilience. Diffusing essential oils throughout the home is another way to support respiratory health, as they are anti-microbial and cleansing to the home or office environment. We especially love using Anjali Aromatics’ Breathe Essential Blend which is a distillation of some of the worlds great coniferous trees. We might aptly consider these trees the “lungs of the planet” and so it’s fitting that their essential oils are some our lungs’ greatest allies.

 

As always, the yogic lifestyle is about balance — a dynamic dance unique to each of us. Winter is a time to balance out the cold with warming practices. A time to embrace stillness but avoid stagnation. A time to support our immunity with breathing practices, diet and herbal support. A time to see the soft darkness of evening as an invitation to turn in, relax and restore. For while the outer landscape might be more barren during this season, the inner landscape (and the indoors with the home fires burning bright!) is full and abundant with opportunity for self-inquiry, wellness, and nourishing self-care. Spring will be coming soon enough, why not thoroughly enjoy the moment and the season that we’re in?

 

If you’d like to discuss how best to attune to the season, we’re here to support you! Feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns, or for an individual consultation.

Healthy Holidays – Easy Tips For Mindful Eating

As the holidays ramp up we’re just moments away from the dreaded/delicious culinary decadence vortex: a busy calendar means more wine or cocktails at social and work gatherings, overindulging in brunches, lunches and dinners with family and friends. Pies, cakes, holiday cookies, gravy, roasts, and a cornucopia of veggie and grain side dishes each more incredible than the next, and all too wonderful to pass up.

I might have put on five pounds just writing that paragraph!

It’s the same cycle every year, and changing recipes to “low fat” versions of everything is just as ridiculous as trying to play hermit and hideout fasting until the whirlwind is over. Worse yet would be to enjoy everything in the moment, only to wallow in guilt and remorse later.

 

So what are we to do?

 

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Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has some advice, in the form of a small, simple and highly practical book aptly titled HOW TO EAT.

Bringing our mindfulness practice to our dining table (or office party or family gathering) is a powerful tool for not only truly enjoying the abundance of the season, but also staying balanced nutritionally and where weight is concerned. The simple tips shared in the book encourage “a joyful and sustainable relationship with all aspects of eating.” Meaning we can absolutely say yes to dessert, just so long as we pledge to actually enjoy it. This means, slowing down, tuning in, chewing and actually savoring each bite before we load the fork up for our next mouthful.

Scientific research is now revealing the effect of mindful eating on obesity and binge eating disorders. The results of this practice include not just enjoying each bite more, but supporting healthy digestion and cultivating an awareness of your levels of satiation – all of which also leads to portion control and maintaining a balanced weight. Simply by using the power of your attention.

 

You can click here for a little “taste” of the book, and also to purchase. The book also makes a sweet stocking suffer or hostess present – the type of gift that keeps on giving.

I recommend getting the book and savoring each usable piece of advice. And in the meantime, here are some simple tips:

 

Mindful eating is a before ~ during ~ & after process.
A process of tuning in.

 

Before, we can tune into the efforts of the chefs or bartenders, the efforts of the farmers and grocers and bakers who contributed their energies into the forthcoming morsel. The efforts of the soil and sun and water that all conspired to facilitate your nourishment. If we’re cooking we can make the kitchen into a meditation room, cook without rushing and cook with love. We can thoughtfully set the table, supporting enjoyment for all those who will sit at it.

 

During we can chew and enjoy, tuning into the dance of flavors and activating our healthy digestive process at the same time. According to Thich Nhat Hanh we can let ourselves pay attention to two things: “the food that we’re eating and the friends who are sitting around us and eating with us. This is called mindfulness of food and mindfulness of community… true community building.” The good news is our powerful multi-tasking brains can listen to what’s being said around the table while also tuning into what’s happening on our plate, on our fork and in our mouth. Give it a try and I’m sure you’ll find you’re able to enjoy what you’re eating even as you listen to your tipsy cousin recount an embarrassing story for the third year in a row. We can sit down – turn off the radio or TV – and tune into our body’s signals. This will help us feel when we’ve had enough.

 

After a meal we can once again remember gratitude, and allow the body to be nourished by the nutrients in the food and the energy of our company. We can take some time to “rest and digest” so our systems can properly absorb and assimilate what’s just happened, before rushing to our next meal or engagement and overly taxing the system. We can even think of the act of doing the dishes as a meditation, a pause for digestion and appreciation.

 

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Bringing mindfulness into the decadent deliciousness of holiday season is a way to keep your yoga practice going “off the mat” and truly continue to live a yogic lifestyle.

 

 

 

Your Bones On Yoga

It’s easy to forget that bones are living tissue, constantly being dissolved and rebuilt in a natural cycle. So, while statistics around bone health are quite staggering, the good news is that we can have an impact on maintenance and repair at any age.

Our bones are comprised of both minerals (like the obvious calcium) and a “gelatin matrix” of water and collagen. They appear solid, but, like bamboo, are healthiest when they are strong and but flexible, pliant and moist.

Surprise surprise: Yoga is one of the most effective practices for bone health.

There have been many studies published over the last few years that show yoga can not only slow bone density loss, but can in-fact increase bone mineral density.

In short, the three yogic practices below can help maintain bone health starting from a young age, slow or prevent density loss, and even boost bone density, restoring strength and elasticity.

Research has recently shown that 72-seconds is an ideal time to hold a yoga posture for maximum benefit. But no worries if this is too long, yoga is a practice so work at your capabilities and gradually over time you might find your endurance increasing.
As you practice these asanas, listen to your body’s signals and work to your edge but not past it. Uncomfortable strain on joints should signal you to back off.

 

1. Take the Path of Most Resistance

Weight-bearing yoga postures put the right kind of “stress” on the bones: enough to stimulate cellular production, but not too much that the bones break or fracture. Resisting gravity’s pull and supporting our body weight stimulates our bones isometrically, signaling the bones to build up their mass in answer to the challenge.

Warrior 2

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Warrior I & II
These powerful standing postures activate the largest bones of the legs and arms, plus the ankle, knee and shoulder joints.

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Low Cobra

Bhujangasana is an active back bend that supports spine health, lengthening vertebrae and keeping them supple and limber.

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Bhujangasana

Bhujangasana

Plank
Resisting gravity in this shape strengthens wrists and builds core strength to support the spine.

 

 

2. Strike a Good Balance

The WHO estimates one in three women over 50 — and one in five men — will suffer from an osteoporotic fracture. Many bone injuries are caused by falling, and we’re not just talking about a serious fall. Even a little roll of the ankle off the curb (or from teetering on a pair of stillettos) can cause a fracture. Maintaining our balance as we age is a huge piece of preventing injury.

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Bhuj

Bhujangasanana

Vrkshasana
Tree pose is one of the simplest standing balancing postures to practice, yet has a powerful effect on developing balance and equilibrium. Best of all, it offers many different modifications suitable for all ages and levels.

 

Check out our Yoga Lab on Tree Pose to explore what variation is right for you

 

3. Make an Impact, Safely

There has been so much research done about various exercises that support bone health, and one that remains ahead of the pack is high-impact movements. The New York Times goes so far as to suggest simply jumping up and down!
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Shaking Qi Gong
This simple Eastern exercise delivers many of the same benefits of jumping or running, and many more. Best of all, it decreases the intensity of contact, making it safer for those with fragile knees or limited capacity for cardio-vascular workouts.
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Check out the video below that explains and demonstrates this easy movement. We recommend doing this for five minutes a day, several times a week. 

 

 

Additional Food & Lifestyle Tips for Bone Health

  • *Boost your intake of calcium-rich plants like Kale & Spinach
  • *Reduce or eliminate processed sugars from your diet – these sugars leach calcium from the bones and contribute to loss in bone density
  • * Stay moist – incorporate Abhyanga into your routine
  • *If you suffer from severe symptoms of Osteoperosis, check out this great yoga sequence created just for you – with modifications for all levels.
  • * When beginning any new type of exercise, always consult your primary care doctor, especially if dealing with acute physical problems.

 

Go Deep @ YogaJournal.com

Four Ayurvedic Practices to Boost Your Immune System

Leaves blanket the ground creating an artful display of fall colors. Hearty root crops and winter squash are abundant at the farmer’s market. According to Ayurvedic wisdom, autumn is the vata season, known for its cool, light, dry, moving, and erratic qualities. There is incredible momentum, movement, and vitality that occurs with when the wild vata winds blow, generating transformation. And yet, we can also find ourselves forced to stop in our tracks as colds and the flu spread through schools and workplaces like wildfire during this time of year. To go forth with steady confidence and healthy bodies, favor a vata pacifying lifestyle which boosts the immune system and brings the body, mind, and spirit into balance. Check out these four tips to be well and stay calm.

 

One: Begin to see food as medicine.

Incorporate a vata pacifying diet this fall, which consists of foods that are warm, moist, smooth, and nourishing. Fresh, cooling crudites were perfect for the hot summer, but the crisp fall air invites forth a natural desire to nourish ourselves with warming butternut squash soups, more protein, and hearty stews. If you are already in the practice of eating fresh, seasonal foods and shopping at the farmer’s market, you may notice the natural shift toward heartier produce that balances the vata dosha.

Freshly cooked veggies are easier for our bodies to digest and assimilate than raw produce. Minimize stress and support easy digestion by consuming lightly cooked foods that are warming and soothing. Sip ginger tea with meals to aid digestion, or make a healing, anti-inflammatory turmeric-honey tea to support the immune system. Go deeper with this recipe from 101 Cookbooks.

Begin to see your vegetables as vessels for healing herbs and spices. Each of the ancient, lasting cuisines around the world incorporate delicious, healing herbs and spices into meals. Oregano, basil, thyme, and rosemary make their way into Italian sauces. Turmeric, cumin, ginger, and cayenne spice up Indian fare.

Food is so much more than fuel and nutrients. Many of the aromatic herbs and spices have anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, anti-fungal properties. As we spice up our recipes and savor the incredible flavor of international cuisine, our meals become medicine that support the immune system, keeping seasonal colds and the flu at bay.

Try cooking a healing coconut-milk curry with plenty of spices and seasonal vegetables. For inspiration, view this recipe: South Indian Style Vegetable Curry. For more information about Ayurvedic wisdom, check out this article: Vata Pacifying Diet.

 

Two: Wake up before sunrise and create a morning routine.

Routine balances the vata dosha. The early morning hours before sunrise are the vata time of day, inspiring movement and energy. Practice pranayama, sun salutations, yoga postures, and meditation first thing in the morning to stimulate your body’s cleansing systems and set the tone for your day. Sip room temperature or lukewarm water with lemon first thing to stimulate and balance your digestive tract.

Poses that work on the colon (the bodily seat of vata), intestines, pelvis, lumbar spine, and sacroiliac balance vata by bringing energy back down into the base of the torso. Spinal twists and inversions of all kinds soothe this dosha. Sitting and standing forward bends are choice poses, particularly for insomnia; boat, plank, staff, and plow are also powerful vata-reducers. To support grounding, work with standing poses such as mountain, triangle, warrior, and tree. Avoid back bends, such as bow, cobra, pigeon, and arch, which increase vata, or hold them briefly. If you enjoy vinyasa, do sun salutations S-L-O-W-L-Y. Let child’s pose lead you back to your innate innocence and trust. End your practice with a long Savasana (20–30 minutes); it is really okay to do NOTHING for a while.

Selection taken from Kirupalu’s Yoga and Ayurveda article. 

Three: Give yourself a thorough rubdown.

A self-massage with warming sesame oil may provide the moisturizing nourishment your skin needs to maintain its healthy glow this fall. Plus self-massage boosts the immune system, improves circulation, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the body and mind. Follow the sesame-oil massage with a relaxing bath or shower. For more information on balancing your skin and body, check out Five Pillars’ recent article by Erika: Defeating Fall Dryness.

 

Four: Practice alternate nostril breathing.

Alternate nostril breathing is very balancing year-round, but particularly supportive during the vata season. Check out this video to go deeper:

 

 

Interview with an Acupuncturist

Acupuncture, like yoga, works by tuning people back into their bodies. Just as a yoga practice connects movement and breath to mindfulness and intention, acupuncture aims to integrate mind, body, and spirit in a whole-person approach to treatment.

Oceana Baity is an acupuncturist, yoga teacher and mother of two who practices and teaches in New York City. Grounded and wise, she has a matter-of-fact approach to acupuncture that keeps the ancient practice relevant to the here and now. She was recently interviewed by Vogue on the use of essential oils in acupuncture, one of her preferred treatment methods (scroll down for the full story).

We spoke with Oceana about acupuncture myths and modalities to get a deeper understanding of the powerful and time-tested healing technique.

Q + A with Oceana Baity

How would you describe acupuncture to someone who knows nothing about it? 

Acupuncture is a ancient, holistic approach to balancing body, mind and spirit. It treats not just the symptoms of disharmony but the underlying imbalance.

Does it hurt?

I like to reframe this for patients. Yes, you might feel a sensation. It could be achy, heavy, dull or spreading. On some points you will feel a lot of sensation, on others hardly anything.

I encourage patients to move from an association of sensation as pain into a more nuanced interest in what they feel. An expanded physical and mental vocabulary will hold more options to describe the variety of the sensation. 

Any acupuncture myths or misconceptions you’d like to clear up?

There are many styles of acupuncture. TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) is perhaps the most commonly known style, but there are Korean and Japanese lineages, Five Element acupuncture—which focuses on underlying emotional and spirit-level imbalance—and modern approaches like Trigger Point Therapy, which is great for pain conditions.

How does an Eastern medicine philosophy differ from a Western one?

Western doctors are focusing on treating symptoms and diseases and Eastern medicine is concerned with treating the whole person. All the symptoms, even the ones that may not seem related to the primary complaint are taken into account, along with their lifestyle, diet and their daily stressors. It’s a very holistic, whole-person approach.

Can you talk about the link between acupuncture and fertility? 

Acupuncture can be very supportive in regulating a woman’s cycle. It reduces stress and addresses lifestyle issues which may be contributing to difficulty conceiving. 

When acupuncture and Chinese medicine aren’t able to help a woman conceive without medical intervention, studies report that it can increase the odds of successful IVF by 50 percent.

Oceana and her two daughters in Costa Rica.

How did you first become interested in studying acupuncture?

I had my first acupuncture treatment in San Francisco when I was 16. I can’t remember what my concern was, but I do remember distinctly how great I felt after.

Years later I was recovering from a rotator cuff injury and acupuncture greatly relieved my pain and helped speed up my healing. I was already a yoga teacher at the time, but I was interested in advancing my education and having more to offer. I dreamed of being able to provide the care and feeling of wholeness I experienced. It was an easy decision to make and I am so fulfilled by my work.

Oceana interviewed in this month’s issue of Vogue on the use of essential oils in acupuncture.

What, today, keeps you interested in or excited about acupuncture?

I’ve done multiple advanced trainings over the years so that keeps things fresh. Most recently I’ve been incorporating essential oils into my work. I use specific oils to accelerate healing and to treat kids and needle-sensitive patients. They’re also great for working with women on fertility issues, hormone balancing and stress relief.

The beauty of essential oil therapy is that its very potent, yet gentle enough for everyone (even babies with dilution), and the oils smell great. 

Visit Oceana’s website to learn more and schedule a session.

Images: Needles; treatment; Vogue article and cover courtesy of Vogue; oils; all other images courtesy of Oceana Baity. 

Save Face

Our skin, our largest organ, absorbs what we put on it: The ingredients in our body lotions, shampoos, lipsticks and sunscreens eventually make their way into our bloodstreams. The products we use impact us in much the same ways as the foods we eat—turns out you are what you apply, too.

So, what’s in all those creams and concealers? For the most part, not stuff you’d want to put in your smoothie. The list of what to avoid and why is long; for an in-depth breakdown of common ingredients and what they do, visit the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics‘ comprehensive Chemicals of Concern list to learn about what’s in your lip gloss.

While the US food industry is attempting to keep up with consumer demand for transparency in labeling and regulations, the beauty industry is lagging behind. Label claims like “organic” and “natural” and even “FDA-approved” mean little to nothing at all, and, for now, it’s up to consumers to be their own fact and label-checkers.

Our advice: Keep it simple. Products with lengthy ingredient lists are likely to have more ingredients to avoid; a pared-down beauty routine—one with fewer products to vet and claims to investigate—is an easy way to feed your skin good food. If an ingredient is unpronounceable, look it up and learn more or move on.

Beauty Brands We Love

There are, thankfully, companies doing it right. We look for brands that champion holistic practices and pure products. Here are a few favorites: 

 

Earth Tu Face

Plant-based skincare from two herbalists in California. Their products are made from organic, high quality and food-grade ingredients.

Product we love: Virgin Coconut Oil + Cardamom Body Butter. 

 

Vitner’s Daughter

Winery owner April Gargiulo created her cult-favorite skin serum in an attempt to simplify her complicated skincare regime. It took two years of tinkering, but the result is a game-changing, nutrient rich face oil that uses anti-inflammatory, antioxidant-rich plant ingredients to maintain and restore skin’s natural radiance.

 

Tata Harper

Made in small batches in the company’s laboratory in Vermont, Tata Harper products are packed with from-the-earth, active ingredients like red algae (for elasticity) and borage (moisture retention). Many of their ingredients are grown on their own bucolic farm.

Product we love: Be Adored

 

Living Libations

For love-infused products from two high-vibrational souls, look no further than Living Libations. Essential oils, a holistic oral healthcare line and self-proclaimed “renegade” beauty products are all meticulously sourced; the founders, husband and wife Ron and Nadine Artemis, believe that radiance is a birthright, and they manage to capture that philosophy in every offering.

Product we love: Seabuckthorn Shampoo and Shine On Conditioner

 

In New York we love visiting CAP Beauty in the West Village (they also have an excellent website), and Living Libations‘ newly-opened store in Venice Beach, Los Angeles. For treatments, questions, and holistic beauty coaching, pro-makeup artist and Ayurveda expert Jessa Blades is a bi-coastal treasure.

Top image: Splash Happy; all brand images from their own websites; the Living Libations image is Courtesy of CAP Beauty.

A Heart-Opener You Can Eat

If you need convincing that chocolate, or, more specifically, cacao, which is chocolate in its purest state, is good for you, read our post on its physical and emotional benefits. And if you’re looking for a Valentine’s Day appropriate way to enjoy cacao on your own or with someone you love, here’s a recipe proven to warm hearts.

Cacao + Sea Salt Brownies

 

You need:

  • 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons coconut oil, firm, not liquid
  • 3/4 cup maple syrup
  • 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons raw cacao powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup almond flour (or flour of choice)
  • good flaky salt to taste (I use Maldon)

Preheat the oven to 325°. Combine the coconut oil, maple syrup, cacao, and salt in a double broiler. Stir until shiny and free of clumps.

Remove from the heat and let cool a little. You should be able to comfortably dip your finger into the mixture. Add the vanilla and gently beat the eggs in one at a time. Stir in the flour.

Pour into an 8 x 8″ baking dish, either with parchment paper lining the bottom and sides, or coconut oil coating the dish.

Salt!

Bake for 20 – 25 minutes.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Photos: Alison Baenen

The Benefits of Cacao

Cacao. Cocoa. Chocolate. All the same? Nope. Here’s the breakdown:

Cacao

The Theobroma Cacao tree grows pods that contain cacao beans. Chopped up, these beans become cacao nibs, a nutty, crunchy superfood you may have baked with or added to your smoothie.

Raw cacao powder is the unprocessed byproduct of cold-pressed, un-roasted cocoa beans. Pressing the beans removes the fat, which we know as cacao butter. Cacao is high in antioxidants and flavanols—good-for-us phytonutrients that are particularly abundant in cacao beans.

Cocoa

Natural cocoa powder is raw cacao that’s been roasted. Dutch-processed cocoa powder is cocoa powder that has been processed with an alkalized solution, making it less bitter, darker in color, and richer in taste.

While regular cocoa powder is closer to cacao than the Dutch-processed variety, both forms of cocoa have been processed and treated, ultimately stripping them of some nutritional goodness.

Unsweetened Chocolate

Like cocoa powder, unsweetened chocolate comes from ground cacao beans, but unlike cocoa powder the cocoa butter hasn’t been removed.

Chocolate

The product that we think of as chocolate—in a heart-shaped box or pressed between a Graham Cracker and a marshmallow—is unsweetened chocolate (the kind that still has cacao butter in it) that’s been dressed up with sugar, milk fat and an emulsifier like soy lecithin.

The take-away: Not everything in your baking aisle is created equal. Raw cacao outranks all of its more highly processed cousins in health benefits and has the added distinction of being more traceable as a pure product–that means it’s easier to shop for and find fairly-traded, sustainably grown, pesticide-free, straight-from-the-source, single origin cacao than it is to find a truly vetted chocolate bar.

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Ashley Alexander’s cacao, banana and blueberry smoothie bowl topped with cacao nibs

Benefits of Raw Organic Cacao

Super High in Antioxidants and Iron 

On the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) scale, an NIH-developed chart that measures the ability of antioxidants to absorb free radicals, cacao is at the very top of the list. It has over four times the amount of antioxidants as goji berries, another top-performing superfood, and more than 40 times the amount found in blueberries. As a plant-based source of iron, cacao is also chart-topping. As a non-heme iron (one that doesn’t come from meat), cacao’s minerals are best absorbed when combined with a diet high in Vitamin C.

Rich in Magnesium 

When it comes to deficiency, Westerners are sorely lacking in magnesium, a mineral that’s key in keeping hearts healthy by regulating blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar levels. Magnesium also helps transform glucose into energy, providing clarity and focus while maintaining nerve function and keeping muscles relaxed and stress at a minimum. If you suffer from period-related mood swings or irritability, try increasing the amount of magnesium in your diet, which fluctuates throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle. There’s truth to that monthly chocolate craving.

Calcium-Rich 

More calcium than a glass of milk.

Makes You Happy

Chocolate bliss. Cacao is high in chemicals that make you happy: serotonin, dopamine, anandamide and phenylethylamine. Neurotransmitters associated with happiness, relaxation and desire, these brain stimulators may even help to ease the symptoms of depression and lighten up dark days.

Photos: Cacao powder and beans; smoothie bowl by Ashley Alexander @gatherandfeast on thefeedfeed.com

Sugar Smarts

Back around Halloween we explored the effects of sugar on the body. In light of our most recent holiday, New Years—a time when many of us resolve to shift our diets or eat more mindfully—we’re picking the conversation back up.

While eating foods high in refined sucrose can wreak havoc with our blood sugar levels and cause foginess, anxiety and headaches, it can also lead to an overgrowth of candida.

Candida is a fungus found in trace amounts in the mouth and intestines that breaks down food and absorbs nutrients. All good.

But, when overproduced, candida can cause a system imbalance. It breaks down our intenstinal wall, enters our bloodstream and floods our system with toxins. This candida overgrowth can cause depression, digestive troubles, and leaky gut syndrome. Not so good.

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Common symptoms of candida

  • Indigestion: bloating, constipation or diarrhea
  • General fatigue and feelings of being worn down
  • Chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia
  • Moodiness: irritability, anxiety or depression
  • Skin issues: eczema, psoriasis, hives, or rashes
  • Fungal infections like athlete’s foot or toenail fungus
  • Brain fog: anything from lack of focus and difficulty concentrating to ADD and ADHD
  • Strong sugar and refined carbohydrate cravings
  • UTIs or vaginal itching
  • Strong seasonal allergies or itchy ears
  • Autoimmune diseases: Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, lupus, psoriasis, scleroderma or multiple sclerosis

What to do if you have it

Yeast feeds off sugar, so the first step is removing all sugars from your diet: Sweets, alcohol, flour, fruit, honey, maple syrup, dates, etc. Next, limit your intake of complex carbohydrates, like pasta and grains, as much as possible—no more than one cup a day.

With nothing to sustain it, the candida yeast will eventually die out. It’s a slow process that can take several months, so if you think you have candida overgrowth, see a functional medicine doctor for a blood or stool test to check your candida antibody levels and come up with a treatment plan.

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Maple sugar shack

The next step will be to heal the gut, a course that will likely mean taking probiotics on the regular (an excellent practice for everyone), avoiding inflammatory foods (like wheat, dairy, sugar, and booze), and limiting your intake of fermented foods, which provide fodder for both good and bad bacteria.

While candida overgrowth is an extreme example of what can happen to someone with a diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugar (heavy alcohol consumption, oral contraceptives, a high-stress life and a medical condition that requires taking antibiotics are other culprits), we may all experience spikes in our sugar intake and subsequent periods of bloating, fogginess, and mood swings. When that happens, look to your diet and see what can shift.

Photos: Candida yeast by Denni Bakardji 

Sit With It

Chair Pose, Fierce Pose, Lightning Bolt Pose, Awkward Pose—Utkatasana has many names.

And it has a reputation for being kind of awful. It’s challenging, often uncomfortable, and a true test of grit. If the pose could talk it might ask: How do you deal with discomfort?

That said, there is much power in our perception. If you always come into Chair Pose thinking I hate this pose! then you will most likely never learn to love it or soften into it enough to learn from it. So while the gym maxim No Pain No Gain may apply to this posture, consider approaching it from a different angle. When muscles are firing and sweat is dripping, try to find a moment of gratitude for the incredible machine that is your body and the fact that you get to play with it in this way. Really, that’s very cool.

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Physical Benefits

  • Strengthens thigh and foot muscles
  • Increases mobility in the ankle joints
  • Tones the core
  • Works the triceps and biceps
  • Opens the heart
  • Increases awareness in the pelvic floor and movement of the tailbone
  • Presents an opportunity to practice Mula Bandha

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How to Do It

  1. Stand with your feet together, big toes touching, and find Tadasana through the soles of the feet. Shift your weight until you feel it distributed evenly between the bases of the big and little toe and the center of the heel.

  2. With your hands on your hips, exhale deeply as you bend your knees and lower your seat toward the floor. Use the image of descending into an imaginary chair.

  3. Stop the descent when your base becomes unstable and you shift your weight to the inner or outer edges of the feet instead of balancing on your triangle of support.

  4. Look down at your knees. If you can’t see your big toes peeking out from underneath them draw your hips back until they come into view. You may have to straighten the legs a little to do so.

  5. Squeeze an imaginary (or real*) block between the upper thighs and energetically draw your outer hip points in.

  6. Lenghten your arms out in front of you and raise them overhead, palms facing each other and pinkies rotating toward the midline.

  7. Think Cat Pose in the tailbone and draw it underneath you, as if tucking your tail between your legs. Be mindful of overarching through the low back. Knit your ribs in to stay stable through the torso.

  8. Engage the muscles of the upper arms and soften the shoulder blades down the back, creating a subtle heart opening.

  9. Stay.

  10. Practice gratitude.

  11. To come out, anchor firmly through the soles of your feet to lengthen your legs, and then release your arms down by your sides.

*If you’re working with a block, start the pose with the feet hips-width distance.

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Prep pose: Use a block and the wall to strengthen your hamstrings and quadriceps.

The more comfrortable you get in chair pose the more you can use it as a base for other postures, like Twisted Chair, Figure-Four Pose, Side Crow, or, the pose we’ll explore next, Eka Pada Galavasana. Until then, sit deeply.

Photos: @nikksnow in Chair Pose; exercise class; chair prep against the wall

The Year of the Roar

For many of us, the end of the year and the start of the new can be both uplifting and exhausting. Travel, meal planning, angst over consumerism, and dark days (although they are getting lighter!) may contribute to the latter, while the feeling of working with a clean slate, having the opportunity to give to and receive from dear ones, and allowing time for introspection can give us a loving boost.

Whether we’re reveling in the fresh start or recovering from end-of-year commitments and festivities, we’ve all got stuff to clear.

Enter Lion’s BreathSimhasana.

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“Stretches away tension lines in the face. Helps prevent wrinkling.”

As you can see from the bold claims on this OG poster (Yoga for no wrinkles!), Lion’s Breath has long had a reputation for relieving stress. More recently, Colleen Saidman Yee reccomended the posture for releasing trauma and anxiety in her excellent book, Yoga for Life.

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Here’s How It’s Done

As a pranayama practice, Simhasana can be done in any posture. You may release the breath in heat-building poses like Utkatasana, or in a shape that exposes the throat, like Cow or Upward Facing Bow. We explored Jalandhara Bandha in a recent post, where the throat is constricted and the chin and sternum meet. Lion’s Breath is that bandha’s physical and energetic opposite. Here the focus is on expelling air forcefully through a wide-open mouth and opening the front side of the body.

The classic posture with breath is taken like this:

  • Sit on your knees and cross the front of one ankle over the back of the other, letting the feet splay out to the sides. Gently snuggle the perineum onto the top heel.
  • Flatten your palms against your knees, fingers spread wide—think lion’s paw. Press down firmly to lenghten and straighten you arms.
  • Breathe deeply through the nose. Pause at the top and open your mouth wide; stretch your tongue out, tip curling toward the chin; lift your brows to widen your eyes; contract the muscles in the front of your throat, and exhale out the mouth with an audible “HAAAAA.”
  • Repeat two or three times before changing the cross of the legs and roaring for the same number of times with the other heel on top.

    9a07224464cad7377c0d1125c436b54bThe Gaze

There are two options for where to set the drishti in this posture. One is right between the eyebrows, gazing up toward the third eye. This technique, Bhrumadhya Drishti, means “mid-brow gazing”–bhru is Sanskrit for brow while madhya means middle–and is often used in meditation to acheive dharana. Another possibility is to focus the gaze at the tip of the nose in Nasikagra Drishti, another common gaze for meditators looking to go deep; here nasa means nose and agra meas the foremost point, which, in this case, is the tip of the nose.

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However you sit or wherever you choose to gaze, use Simhasana to move energy, clear what feels stuck, or as practice for saying what it is you want to say. A hallmark of this pose is that you will look fiercely ridiculous while doing it; you could also think of yourself as looking ridiculously fierce.

Photos: Lion; vintage yoga photos; Colleen Saidman Yee shot by Johanna Yee; awesome illustration by Miriam Castillo

Coffee Alternatives

Depending on who you ask, coffee is either great or terrible for you. It’s been linked to certain health benefits—like a lower chance of developing Type 2 Diabetes or Parkinson’s disease—and contains minerals like magnesium and chromium, both of which help regulate blood sugar levels. It’s also high in antioxidants.

But coffee, of course, contains caffeine. Caffeine consumption is so normalized that it’s easy to forget it’s a psychoactive drug, meaning it changes how our brain functions and affects our perception, mood and state of being. A central nervous system stimulant, caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline, the body’s fight or flight hormone, which in turn increases heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow.

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Caffeine also increases our dopamine levels. A neurotransmitter—a chemical that transfers nerve impulses from one nerve fiber to another—dopamine controls the reward and pleasure centers in the brain, regulates movement and emotional responses, and controls where we focus our attention. In really simple terms, increased levels of dopamine makes us feel temporarily great; less dopamine, not so much.

Because it activates adrenaline and cortisol—the hormone that manages our stress levels—caffeine can be hard on our adrenals, the glands that secrete them. Unstable and spiked rates of both hormones cause blood-sugar fluctuations and create a generally volatile habitat for healing and restoration. If you suffer from inflammation, adrenal fatigue, or mood swings, eliminating or cutting back on caffeine may help alleviate those symptoms.

Still need a lift? There are other options. 

Rhodiola Rosea

A traditional Taoist herb prescribed in Chinese Medicine practices, rhodiola increases energy, has been shown to improve focus and actually lowers cortisol levels.

Maca

A Peruvian root rich in protein and Vitamin B12, maca can increase stamina, improve sexual function, and provide an overall boost. It’s also a source of several B vitamins, as well as Vitamins C and E, along with calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium, phosphorous and amino acids.

Chicory

If you’ve ever had coffee in New Orleans, it may have been blended with chicory, the roasted root of a flowering plant. Chicory came into widespread use during a major coffee shortage in France; locals mixed the root with the coffee they did have to stretch their supplies farther. On its own, or blended with dandelion root (here’s a recipe for Dandelion and Chicory Chai), it serves as a convincing stand-in.

Caffeine Free Chai

A few weeks ago we posted a recipe for a traditional chai masala. Make it with a caffeine-free tea like rooibos or tulsi for a little lift without all the hormonal havoc.

Below are two recipes using rhodiola and maca from The Chalkboard, one of our favorite resources for inventive recipes and wellness tips:

How To Beat Fatigue: A Replenishing Tonic For Coffee Drinkers

The Coffee Dupe: A Mushroom + Maca Tonic To Counter Caffeine

As herbs like maca increase in popularity, be sure you’re buying from a distributer you trust. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, a company whose ethos and products we love is Sun Potion.

Photos: PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images from the Huffpost; Caffeine compound illustration by Daniel Seex

 

Miso Tahini Chickpea Stew

I came across this recipe last winter through one of my favorite Instgram follows, Andrea Bemis of Dishing Up the Dirt, a farmer and foodie in the Pacific Northwest whose feed is full of her fresh-from-the-earth produce and enticing recipes in which to use them. After making this soup once I quickly elevated it to “regular” status and enjoyed it often through early spring.

What I especially like about Bemis’ cooking style is her focus on keeping it intuitive. This recipe calls for turnips and sweet potatoes, but it can easily be made with any root vegetables you favor or have on hand. White or purple potatoes, parsnips, beets and carrots would all work just as well. As with any soup and stew, this one is great to double or triple and freeze. Enjoy!

Miso Tahini Chickpea Stew

 

  • PREP TIME
    15 minutes
  • COOK TIME
    25 minutes
  • 1 cup dry quinoa
  • 1 medium sized sweet potato, scrubbed and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 1 medium sized turnip, scrubbed and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 2 Tablespoons grated fresh ginger
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/4 cup chickpea miso (or white miso)
  • 3 1/2 Tablespoons tahini
  • 1 (14 ounce) can chickpeas, drained
  • a few handfuls of spinach
  • Minced cilantro for serving
  • toasted sesame seeds for serving
  • tiny dash of Sriracha for serving (optional)

Serves 4

  1. Combine the 1 cup quinoa with 2 cups of water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, cover the pot, reduce heat to low and cook until the quinoa has absorbed the liquid and can easily be fluffed with a fork. About 15 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, in a large dutch oven or soup pot add the chopped veggies, grated ginger and water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Pour about 1/2 a cup of the hot water into a bowl and stir in the miso and tahini (this prevents clumping and helps thin out the mixture a bit). Add the thinned miso/tahini mixture to the soup. Taste the broth and adjust seasonings as needed. Add the chickpeas and spinach and stir until everything is well combined and the spinach wilts a bit.
  3. To serve place a generous scoop of the cooked quinoa into each bowl and top with the stew. Add a few healthy pinches of toasted sesame seeds, cilantro and a tiny dash of Sriracha sauce if desired.

Visit Dishing up the Dirt for more recipes and images of farm life. If you’re a fan of this recipe, keep your eyes open for Bemis’ first cookbook, due March 2017.

Images and recipe from Dishing up the Dirt

Candy Crush

A few weeks ago an article on sugar industry inter-dealings that took place half a century ago made national news. According to the piece, the Sugar Research Foundation funded studies in the 1960s that downplayed the maleffects of sugar and its link to poor coronary health and positioned fat as Public Health Enemy #1. The project concluded that cutting fat from the American diet was the best way to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Enter the low-fat and no fat craze of the past decades, a time when bold-printed claims on the front of packaged food became more important than the list of ingredients on the back. Whole milk, red meat, cheese, oils and butter were positioned as devious culprits, while fat-free, processed foods claimed health food status.

It’s a prevailing belief. The trendy Atkins diet shifted the blame to carbohydrates in the nineties, but the idea of fat as a health food will still sound far-fetched to most. And Americans’ sugar consumption? You don’t need a whistleblower to know it’s through the roof.

So what’s the story with sugar? Earlier this year we wrote about food cravings and how to understand them. Sugar, in short, makes us feel good, provides us with a burst of energy, and, ironically, actually helps us hold on to fat — an energy reserve for later use (good for hunter-gatherers, less important for driver-microwavers).

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But, what is it exactly?

Sugars have several names that all end in –ose. Fructose and glucose are naturally occurring carbohydrates found in fruits, vegetables and honey. Lactose is a milk sugar.

What we think of when we picture sugar in the baking aisle or next to the cream for our coffee is refined sucrose. Unrefined sucrose is found in the roots of sugar beets and in the stems of sugar cane. To make table sugar those plants are harvested, processed and refined (a process that usually involves bleaching and crystallization), ultimately stripping them of minerals or nutrients. By the time it reaches your coffee cup it’s just pure, refined sugar.

What does it do in the body?

One of two things. Depending on the efficiency of your fat-burning cells, your body will either use the sugar as energy (fast metabolism) or convert it to fat and store it (slow metabolism).

Either way, when sugar enters the blood stream, the pancreas detects it, recognizes it as potentially problematic, and releases insulin to deal with it, primarily by sending it to the liver and muscles to use as fuel.

The more sugar we consume the more insulin we produce. And if we flood the body with sugar, like on a Halloween candy binge, the body may produce too much insulin in an attempt to get the balance right. All that insulin moves the sugar out of our bloodstream, causing our blood sugar levels to drop, triggering hypoglycemia, a sugar crash, which can feel like this:

  • Shakiness
  • Anxiety
  • Sweating and chills
  • Irritability
  • Confusion
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Lightheadedness
  • Hunger and nausea
  • Sleepiness
  • Blurred/impaired vision
  • Tingling or numbness in the lips or tongue
  • Headaches
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Anger, stubbornness or sadness
  • Lack of coordination

And how does the body respond to being in such a state? By asking for more sugar to right the balance, setting the whole process in motion again.

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It’s not an impossible cycle to break, but it does take effort, information and discipline. For starters, the more we can decrease our intake of added sugars, the better. To get an idea of how much sugar is in your diet already, check out sugarstacks.com, a visual aid that stacks foods against sugar cubes.

We’ll take a look at naturally-occurring sugars, like the ones found in sweet fruits, in an upcoming post on candida overgrowth — an excess of sugar-fueled yeast that can disrupt the gut and compromise the immune system — and geek out on the Glycemic Index.

Until then, binge wisely.

 

Photos: Top illustration; Clare Crespo’s candy mandala; doughnut