Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Yes, YOU can do yoga

July 17, 2014

What is your knowledge of yoga?  Is it stretching for stretchy people? Is it for young, fit – and preferably blonde – types?  Do you have to give up your religious beliefs and become pagan?  Buy overpriced outfits? Become a vegan?

In other words, when you think of yoga, does an image come into your mind that maybe doesn’t look like you?

Well, we can thank the marriage of the fitness industry and marketing together with the selling out of the yoga industry for those images because the truth is that  yoga is for all of us. Especially interesting in yoga is the fact that as one gets older, one gets better with yoga provided he or she has a consistent practice, of course.

I have taught yoga for over thirty years but have made a decision in the last few years to distance myself from what I term American yoga. I do not teach this American-style yoga which has seemingly applied a fast-food mentality to a beautiful system of health in order to make a buck off everything from videos to music to yoga shoes.  American yoga teachers are often aerobics- cum- yoga teachers after some weekends of training. Teacher training has become big business and often just includes field trips to other yoga studios, sing-alongs and learning new tricks.  Certification is no assurance that your “teacher” will know what the hell they are doing – or why.

And by the way, Yoga Alliance does not certify teachers just in case it comes up in the future.  If someone tells you that they were certified by Yoga Alliance, they are intentionally misleading you or just careless. Either way, those qualities are not what you want in a yoga teacher, either.

No, I teach what I call Classical Yoga.  Classical Yoga is designed individually and for individual needs.  Why is that important? Because Classical Yoga (CY) for thousands of years has been a system of health for so many people and, much like going to the doctor, no one prescription is applicable to everyone.

Alignment in the asanas is important but there is no one “perfect” pose that one should aspire to. The perfect pose is the one that is perfect for you. How do you find the perfect one for you in a class of thirty people?

Even something deceptively simple as breathing exercises must be tailored to individual needs which may change daily – because we as humans are different every day. The wrong breathing practice at the wrong time can agitate the mind and/or certain physical conditions.

Modern medicine is beginning to appreciate how significant individual differences are in treating patients.  There is a growing number of doctors who practice what they term “functional medicine” which is looking at a person’s lifestyle behaviors in addition to their blood work and general observations to arrive at a proper treatment protocol. For example, depression is a common complaint and the response used to be to prescribe a pill and send the patient on his way. However, doctors who practice functional medicine understand that depression can be related to many factors: low thyroid function, folate deficiency, prediabetes to name a few.  Inflammation may be related to mental as well as physical stress that will not ease by just taking a pill.

Individual prescriptions for individuals in the pursuit of optimum health.

Classical Yoga works the same way. Best of all, CY helps you age in ways that allow you to move the process as effortlessly as possible; it allows you to maintain strength without encouraging degeneration; to keep flexibility of not just the body but the mind and spirit as well which often become stiff and angry in their own ways.

Aging brings its own set of unique challenges for the teacher as well as the student. Unfortunately, too many of these “teachers” have boiled down the “Over Fifty” classes to just lying around over bolsters. While that is certainly nice it ignores a large group of people who were active all their lives and continue to be so in their fifties and sixties but also recognize that they don’t want to beat themselves up in the competitive atmosphere of an American yoga class.

Middle-aged people and seniors should not have to choose either/or when it comes to yoga classes. It is unfortunate that this group is not often catered to but it is easier (as well as much more lucrative) to sell images to younger, impressionable people than older, wiser people who understand when they’re being played to.

Just remember that yoga is not the sexed-up, name-brand wearing, tramp-stamped product that you see advertised in magazines nor is it just for yuppie-cum-hippie types that you see coming out of the local Bambi-yoga studio down the street.

Classical Yoga is smarter, wiser and bigger than all of this and it will survive intact when the Twitter crowd moves onto the next thing that takes its short-lived attention.

A Father’s Day For Me

Sunday, June 15, 2014

For those of us whose fathers have passed, Father’s Day is filled with memories rather than present moment experiences. Depending on your relationship with your dad, those memories can be bittersweet or better forgotten.

In my case, it is a bit of both. My father died almost three years ago from Korsakoff’s syndrome brought on by years of alcoholism and malnutrition.

“Toxic and metabolic encephalopathy” and “history of recurrent alcoholism” are on his death certificate as the causes of his death. These are not emergency room diagnoses – these diagnoses were years in the making and most likely known by the physician he’d gone to for a long time. Yet I don’t blame the doctor for anything; what he knew was privileged information.

I do, however, have a problem with those around my father who knew of his alcohol problem and chose to stand by and do nothing other than to shame and guilt him for being a failure for it. It is a big issue for me because I’d spoken out about what I suspected was a problem almost thirty years ago; it drove me to ACOA, Al-Anon and therapy. I begged for my family to rally around my dad, to get an intervention together and to understand alcoholism but I was told I was imagining things, that I was a drama queen and that I thought too much.

I’d eventually had enough and moved away from my hometown. A year later, my dad had a seizure, got scared and finally went to AA. He sobered up. I was ecstatic at this return to health. I sent him cards on his sober anniversary date and told him how proud I was of him.

What I didn’t know is that he fell back into drinking within two years of that seizure. I wasn’t aware of it because I’d only seen my dad once a year or so. Apparently, what I thought was fatigue was a hangover; what I thought was crankiness was withdrawal from alcohol. It turns out that a few days before I’d visit, he’d try to dry out. I didn’t smell the alcohol and didn’t see the stumbling so I believed my family when they told me he was just tired.

The last year of his life was the worst. My husband and I had gone home and Dad was angry, irritated and foul-mouthed.  It was a horrible weekend. As we drove back to Illinois, I turned to my husband and said, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say my dad is back to drinking.” My husband asked, “How do you know he isn’t?” and I just scoffed at that idea, “Are you kidding? My mother almost lost her house years ago. She’d never put up with him drinking again!”  Surprise……….

Seven months later my dad was dead. He’d had another seizure, was rushed to the emergency room and never came out of the coma. The doctors just kept pumping alcohol out of his system but his brain was totally gone – literally and figuratively.

I think it has been one of the most devastating events of my life and not just because my dad died but also because of the events and fallout surrounding his death. There were those around him who could have helped him but instead either ignored or enabled him; there were others who used him and took from him but never gave back. Many of these people would profess that they “loved” my dad but what was their definition of “love”?

Certainly not my definition.

Another devastating thing was that I knew him when he was young, fresh, ambitious, healthy, gregarious.  I worked for my dad a year out of high school before I went to college. He was just starting his own business then. He worked very hard but he loved it; he was very passionate about his work. He had a unique ability to connect with everyone regardless of the business they were in and especially enjoyed young business start-ups.

My dad’s fiery passion inspired me and those days are my favorite memories of our time together. When I leave my studio at night, I believe I can feel his presence around me just like in the old days when we’d wrap up at the office and head home for supper.

My dad was funny, charming and curious about things. People loved being around him.

He was great at his work and became very well-known and sought-after as a management consultant and tax advisor. He’ d achieved everything he wanted.

But as life does for us all, it threw him some serious curves: he lost his best friend and mentor, my mother went through some health crises and the business climate changed.

I think that life does these things to challenge us to see what we are made of and while my father could handle any tax problem put before him, a culmination of catastrophic emotional events threw him into a tailspin.

For all of his strengths, emotional fortitude was not one of them. He felt emotions deeply but was ashamed to show them. Drinking made it easier to numb them and since he came from an alcoholic family, I think the genetic component just added fuel to the fire.

By the time the late eighties came, the problem was chronic and the personality changes were there. I had come back to Pittsburgh after spending five years in Tampa and noticed them immediately but wasn’t sure exactly what was happening. When I finally figured it out, I got myself to ACOA.

There is no doubt that my dad’s alcoholism hurt a lot of people. My dad had lost himself and chose a way of coping that resulted in devastation.

Yes, my dad was brilliant, funny, passionate and a joy to be around.  We loved to debate each other and I really miss that because I have no one to do that with anymore. He loved all of his kids a lot and in his healthier days, we enjoyed some really great times.

He hurt me when he drank. He hurt me when he died. It hurts me still that he died the way he did.

But I loved him very much.

The Three Aspects of the Healthy Person – Part One, The Body

According to Ayurveda, a person is truly healthy only when they are healthy in body, mind and spirit.  An unhealthy spirit within an otherwise healthy body is considered ultimately unhealthy. It is hard to keep all three aspects in balance. Most of us find one or two aspects easier to access. The ones not so easy to deal with we tend to neglect.

It is those  one or two aspects that we neglect are the ones that will eventually likely make us sick until we do pay attention.

This blog will be divided into three parts and today’s blog will center on the aspect of the body. It is probably the easiest one to start with – our culture’s obsession with the “perfect” body. We practically kill ourselves in the pursuit of a body that has low body fat, power, sculpted muscles and is essentially the ultimate physical machine.

Since I do not notice too many ultimate power machines or supermodels in my community, I assume that to beat one’s body up in pursuit of such a goal is nothing but a sad dream.

But I think it’s fair to say that  as a secondary goal, most people would like a healthy, fit body.

Are healthy and fit the same thing?  Not necessarily.  If someone is a marathoner who has low body fat but has a frozen low back, legs that can’t straighten because of excessively tight hamstrings and a significant kyphosis of the upper back, are they fit?  Is it healthy to have a body in this condition?

How about a cyclist who cannot use the full range of motion in her wrists?  Who is overly-flexed in her spine when she is off the bike? What happens when she decides to do planks to build up her core without addressing those  primary issues?  Is that a healthy choice for a healthy body?

And yet, these two individuals would probably be classified by the average person-on-the-street as fit due to their low body fat. And therefore, “healthy.”

According to the The United States Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS), physical fitness is defined as a “set of attributes that people have or achieve that relates to the ability to perform physical activity.” These attributes include cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, body composition and flexibility.

How about healthy? “ Health” as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary includes these terms: “the condition or being well or free from disease, the overall condition of someone’s body or mind; flourishing.”  (By the way, when was the last time you stood outside an exercise studio or gym and observed all the “flourishing” individuals exiting after class? Why do we tend to think that a “real” workout has to hurt, exhaust and/or require us to take painkillers for three days?)

If we are being picky about the two terms, then we see that they are not interchangeable at all.  In other words, we can even say that one can be fit but not healthy and vice versa.

And this is where we need to begin with the first part of the healthy human being according to Ayurveda. One of the best parts of the Ayurvedic model is that there are no numbers involved, no “ideals” to reach. The ideas are simple and common sense.

Referencing Ayurveda thought,  the weight you should be is the one where you feel your best, have good immunity, can sleep soundly and have good digestion. Your body fat should be a good percentage and it is better to have a little fat especially after the age of forty. This is because whether you like it or not, you’re getting older and after the age of forty, the years of depletion begin.  It is a fact of life and it happens to all of us. You can’t stop it but you can slow down the rate of depletion by examining what you may be doing to accelerate the process.

Can you see that to use the same tools you used at twenty-five to lose a few pounds may not be the smartest choices for the present?  To drastically change your workout program,  use crazy diet schemes, or add exercises to overused muscles and neglect other ones – especially postural muscles – amps up the rate of depletion.  To add more pounding, physical stress to aching legs when your legs have been standing all day because you think that low body fat is the one true indicator of health and fitness is a bad mindset that will never lead  to a good outcome. Working this way will eventually exhaust you to such an extent you will most likely give up and never again get that motivation back. If you don’t end up having a knee or hip replacement first, that is.

No matter where you are, you can begin the process of having a healthy body. By your standards, no one else’s.  When has it ever benefited you by following the crowd?  Isn’t it exhausting trying to keep up with what is being fed to you by some magazine survey or celebrity?

You have to examine where you are and then make small changes depending on the outcome you desire.  Approach this as a lifestyle change and a long-term investment.

The bottom line is knowing what fitness is, what healthy is, and where those aspects fit in with your life as it exists today. What are the realistic goals and healthiest choices you can make now so that each and every day, you jump out of bed with enough vigor and joy to embrace the day?

Can You Handle The Truth?

January 2, 2014

This morning I listened as two radio hosts were discussing their theories on why Mitt Romney lost the last election. “Well, he came out and pissed a lot of people off by saying that 50% of the population didn’t pay taxes,” one said. The other replied, “But it’s true!” To which the first guy said, “Yes, but there are times when you shouldn’t tell the truth.”

Wow. Maybe Colonel “You can’t handle the truth!” Jessep was right.

Maybe most of us don’t want the truth. Even in my practice, I’ve worked with people who don’t want to hear that it is not their poor eating habits that have caused weight gain – they want me to say it’s menopause.  People who don’t want to hear they have the power to overcome their gimpy knees – they want to keep doing what they do and just hope for different results while they pop toxic levels of drugs.   Women who are wearing “props” on their daily hourly runs instead of working those deep pelvic muscles. I am  not saying that sometimes the drugs, and the “props” are not necessary – what I am saying is that try doing all that you can before you have to use the drugs and the props. Unfortunately, this falls on deaf ears because it’s easier to blame something else.

In other words, too many people have the power to make the changes they seek but who want an excuse not to do the necessary work.

I’ve heard all the arguments – “it’s too hard; therapeutic exercises make me feel like I am old person,  I don’t like it, I can’t do it…..”  I had a client once who told me she did Intermediate Pilates Mat which surprised me as she didn’t carry herself as if she had any Pilates experience at all. A review of her Pilates mat answered any questions I had – she simply did not do the ones she did not deem important and avoided those she found too difficult. Which is why her matwork lasted about five minutes.  Instead of facing the truth about her choices, she instead chose to blame Pilates for not flattening her tummy bulge.

Another woman did a non-classical form of Pilates in another state. When she worked with me, I was horrified to see no body awareness at all or core involvement. The method of Pilates she does is based on circuit training and does not work the body as one integrated unit. Yet she complained about her belly, too. When I introduced her to classical Pilates she said, “Pam, I don’t want to work that hard.”

She was thirty-three!

That is why Pilates hybrids and watered-down yoga classes are proliferate – they appeal to people who just want to do things that are not very hard but trendy and – for the moment at least – “fun.”  They will also be the first ones complaining about how often they work out and see no results.

I have clients who have been with me many years. They vary in age, economic status, profession. But they share all the same qualities of working hard, being consistent and being honest with themselves. They see both their strengths and weaknesses and are not afraid to WORK on those weaknesses.

That has always been – and will continue to be – the only way to get the results you seek.

NYE – 2013 – Time For Resolutions

December 31, 2013

About a week before Christmas, my email box was filled with “Keeping Your New Year’s Resolutions” ideas. Of course, all of the resolutions have to do with losing weight – apparently everyone’s number one resolution in the New Year.  It is truly bizarre; in knowing that one will “promise” to lose weight by engaging in often strict, unmaintainable diets as of January 1, he/she often uses that as an excuse to eat more than usual pre-January 1.

Two weeks into January and half of those resolutions are in the trash.

I think we set our resolutions too high in an attempt to force ourselves to make better choices in our lifestyle behaviors. Force never works – not with kids, pets or adults – and it certainly doesn’t work with your Self. Smaller goals are more attainable, easier to keep and you can always expand upon them.  Yet we often small goals insignificant.

I dunno. If the goal takes me in the proper direction it doesn’t matter how big or how small, how fast or how slow it is. It just matters that I am heading towards achievement.

Also critical in achieving your goals is whether you blend your plan of action in achieving those goals with inner joy and satisfaction. Looking forward to getting up earlier to work out or meditate; feeling good with yourself about finally taking that class you’ve always wanted to take or getting started with strength training will keep you on the path.

Notice that I suggest “looking forward,” “feeling good,” “inner joy.” These are feelings. Making a list and crossing it off your list is not “feelings” – that is treating yourself as a machine without feelings. Crossing things off a to-do list might appease the control freak in you but it doesn’t help you to make a major change in your life. Lifestyle changes work only when they resonate with your heart.

When you connect with your heart (or Spirit), you will also know what to do when you occasionally fall off the wagon or have obstacles thrown in your path. Making to-do lists don’t quite cover those chapters.

Whatever you choose to list as your New Year’s Resolutions, my advice is to:

1. Keep your goals small. You will develop satisfaction as you achieve these small goals and you can always update them a few months down the road.

2. Begin each day with a new habit that you look forward to. Something that makes you practically jump out of bed with excitement. For example, it could be early time with a good book, sitting on your porch watching the sun rise while you wrapped in a deliciously fuzzy blanket – that quiet time allows your mind to wake gently and that gentle calm will help to carry you through the day.

3.  Be a better breather. It is amazing to me how many people don’t really breathe; rather it is some shallow facsimile and just enough to keep them alive.

Sad to say this is not even addressed in so many group yoga classes  Ahh, but that is another blog……….

The diaphragm is a muscle that is important in proper breathing.  Learning to develop diaphragmatic breathing has been attributed to a decrease in anxiety, improved digestion, and improved cardiac function to name a few of its benefits.  In Ayurveda, proper diaphgramtic breathing is often prescribed to severely obese patients who cannot exercise and who need to increase their circulation; along with proper dietary changes, these people lose weight along with improving their cardiac function.

You can improve your ability to breathe in just five minutes a day (yes, it sounds like a commercial!).  Lay on the floor, legs up on a chair or straight out on the floor – just be comfortable and take care of your back. Place a weight - maybe a 3 lb. weight to start (in my studio, we use a 10 lb. sandbag). Place the weight on your abdomen. Practice deep inhaling and full exhalation without force – let the weight work with you.  You can practice by doing equal lengths of inhales and exhales; you can add delays at the end of either or both.

The important thing is not to force – your breath or your time. Start in small steps.

And that little voice that tells you that if 3  lbs. is good maybe 20 is better?

Tell that voice to go away.  It is not there to help you.

If you have questions on this, you can always drop me an email and I’ll help you if I can.

Here’s to small steps, achieving your goals, and manifesting your dreams and hopes for a Happy Healthy New Year!

A Memory of Romana Kryzanowska

August 31, 2013

Romana Kryzanowska, referred to by Joseph Pilates as his most “devoted disciple” died yesterday at the age of 90. Romana made it her life’s mission to carry on the work of Joseph Pilates in the most pure form: she taught the basic structure and then taught how that structure is adapted to each individual.

Much in the way one learns ballet or music, there are foundational principles that are learned, the skills honed and then one learns how to piece together the elements into a dance or song.

This teaching style is what set Romana apart from other Pilates teachers, I think.  There were other teachers of her generation who are great in their own right but it has been my experience that these other teachers taught a form of Pilates as adapted to their own bodies as THE Pilates Method. Romana taught the basic alphabet, the root of the Pilates Method.

I was one of the first instructors certified by the Pilates Studio of New York in the first Pilates certification program back in 1993.  I remember in one of my early meetings with Romana that one of the other students asked whether she could still do the reformer exercises – whereupon she hopped onto a nearby reformer and performed a one-legged tendon stretch to the side in perfect form with complete control.

She was seventy at the time.

Romana was the type of woman that up until that time I’d only read about in Dance Magazine and biographies of dancers I’d admired.  She was old-school and full of wonderful stories of not just Joe, Clara and the old Studios but the dancers, musicians and theatre people who walked through the doors of those studios.

One year during a trip to New York, I was invited to celebrate her birthday with a group of people after closing time at Drago’s Gym, where Romana did her teaching at that time.  The festivities began in Romana’s apartment and we climbed five flights of stairs I think – maybe more – but the apartment was a wonderful throwback in time. Photos and art work given as gifts to her decorated an area that looked like what one would have called a “salon” back in the 30s.  We were all letting our hair down and getting to know one another on a casual basis when Romana gave me probably her greatest gift to me.

She was sitting in a chair looking like a queen and, as I bent over her to wish her happy birthday, she looked into my eyes and said  “You are a very good instructor and you have a very good memory for the work.”

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t like being told I was going to be the next Beethoven or anything but it meant the world to me because I admired her so much.  I didn’t even know that she’d noticed me when I was working at the studio; I was just going through the whole apprenticeship thing – working with a 6’3” soccer player from South African for ten minutes and then – BAM – switched off to work with a frail-looking eighty-year-old woman for a block of time.  And so on and so on.  It wasn’t unusual as this tempo was pretty much status quo for everyone at  Drago’s where clients from all walks of life – and not just dancers – came in for a workout.

Yes, Romana understood dancers best of all but more importantly, she understood bodies, period. She could relate to a baseball player, a person confined to a wheelchair or an older person suffering from osteoporosis. She knew how to make their bodies sing and enjoy the movement possibilities they had. And she passed that appreciation of all types of bodies onto her students.

I am forever grateful to be one of the many Pilates instructors that she trained, mentored and imparted her wisdom to.

Tips For Students When Searching For An Instructor

1. Ask the Trainer for their credentials – education, degrees, certifications – although too many certifications are suspect due to the lack of standards in the accreditation process. While the subtext of “certification” is that the instructor is knowledgeable and qualified, this is not always the case. I sat in a yoga seminar where a “certified” teacher asked the presenter why it wasn’t okay to take her whiplash-injury student into a headstand to help strengthen her neck! And don’t even get me started on those instructors who teach “intermediate” Astanga classes to students who can’t even do a safe Cobra let alone an Upward Dog!
You might even consider asking the instructor where he/she got their certification and research that.
2. Unlike teaching aerobics where the instructor can just learn a pattern and repeat it, good Yoga and Pilates teachers practice. Practice makes an above average teacher. A lot of practice makes a good teacher. A lot of practice for years makes a great teacher. Don’t hesitate to ask your teacher about their practice.
The fitness industry has, I believe, let us down big time in its hurry to always market the Next Big Thing. There are many fitness professionals who are very passionate about their work but there are just too many so-called fitness pros who are more passionate about making a buck. The fitness industry, instead of working to clean up the snake oil, seems to just shrug its shoulders – maybe they make some ad money off of these guys, I don’t know. I just wish they’d do more to protect the fitness consumer.
There is a movement to license personal trainers, yoga and pilates teachers and I for one am all for this as I think it will immediately clear out those “weekend certified” trainers. I am a bit unhappy that the oversight committee will be made up of physical therapists because I’ve had experience with too many of them who’ve been certified in yoga and Pilates themselves over a weekend. Somehow they think they know the body better because they are PTs. Maybe. But that doesn’t mean that they automatically understand Pilates or Yoga. But considering the apathy of the fitness industry, it may be necessary to join up with the licensing board.
What I know for sure is that a qualified, passionate trainer in any specialty will be happy to answer any questions you have about their training, practice, education, etc. and you should not hesitate to take the time to ask.