Rather than a blessing given and received, maintaining our health seems to have become a chore of late. Instead of nourishing ourselves with healthy meals, deep breaths and perhaps a walk or run with a friend, we spend the day tracking our food, perhaps in an app, attending a meeting or working out to offset what we’ve ingested. We search for the newest foods that we can substitute for those we’ve labeled as “bad.” We read about the latest and greatest diet and health trends and cycle through speeches to ourselves (by ourselves) about the cookies we just ate as we resign ourselves to eating healthily from this day forward, so help us, God. Don’t we?
Who among us has ever gone to an annual physical only to be sent home with a prescription to “lose weight and exercise more?” For some of us, that means that we join a diet group, a weight loss challenge, eat less, start a cleanse, or buy more diet products. This instruction is so ambiguous that we’re left to our own devices, which, very often, are not such healthy ones. We, who are trying to get healthy or stay healthy, fall prey to diet companies. They’re the ones who feed us rich, highly caloric foods, only to make us swoon into their arms when we need help, offering us diet programs or products filled with additives and fake sugars.
We know exercise is good for us. Duh. Many of us have been witness to aerobics classes (headbands and leg warmers to boot) or we’ve got the stationary bike sitting stationary in the corner draped in T-shirts and well-meant sweats, but which exercise is the best? Is it all created equal?
Endorphin Equality?There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of a route well-run, a trail well-skied, or a great workout sesh. Many of us hydrate with electrolyte-enhanced waters and pad our workout on one end or the other with a nice protein shake. The jury is out on what works best for each body type, which burns fat the fastest, and which just may be the most enjoyable form of exercise.
Pilates, strength training or twerking, the choices are endless. We’ve got access to great swimming and hiking in the nice-weather months, a plethora of gyms for rainy days, and our favorite winter sports during more inclement weather. Thanks to the advent of online everything, we have no excuse not to exercise, yet, if you’re anything like I am, we find one.
If there’s one athletic practice that stands apart from others health-wise, it’s yoga. Yoga, one of the oldest and most established physical practices in human history, is sometimes thought about more as a meditative practice than one of physical athleticism. Yoga packs more than just a power of spiritual mysticism; it’s been scientifically proven to enhance health on many different levels. Perhaps because it’s been around for so long and its practitioners have maintained a trail of health, several studies have been conducted regarding yoga’s effects.
Most exercise, if not all, promotes better sleep and stress management and can increase strength and flexibility, but yoga’s reach is far deeper than just getting us bendier. Yoga can reduce depressive symptoms, lower levels of inflammation, reduce anxiety, boost immunity and can sponsor a better overall quality of life. These things are backed by science. One preliminary study cited that just 12 minutes of yoga each day may improve bone loss associated with osteopenia and osteoporosis. It is also said to increase brain function and contribute to neuroplasticity and, along with meditation, can help to stave off burnout.
Dawson DetoxAlex Dawson, a yoga teacher (the yoga teacher, if you ask me) who is based in Los Angeles, has been teaching for over 20 years. She’s incorporated more and more into her practice including sound bath, meditation, chanting and gong.
So many of us are in constant quest of the perfect cleanse or detox. Dry January is designed to wring out our livers and give our bodies a break from the effects of alcohol. Our weight loss resolutions usually have us swearing something off like fatty foods or sugary treats. Lent is the same: We stave off something we love for a period of time only to dive into it again on Easter.
But certain yogic poses can offer a physical cleanse. It makes sense, it would seem, that twists may help to wring out certain areas of our body, but simple poses do so as well. Child’s pose, which is often a resting pose, can stimulate waste and toxin clearing in our bodies, as can other poses. “Even just having the head below the heart is helpful, which happens every time we’re in downward facing dog. [These poses] … stimulate lymphatic drainage.” Dawson says the easiest way to do that is to lie down with your legs up a wall.
Our brain cleans itself when we sleep, our blood flows on its own and our liver’s job is to remove waste and dispose of it, which it does efficiently. The lymph system, according to Dawson, often needs a little jump start and those simple yoga poses seem like an easy, effective way to do it. There are also several poses that can aid in cholesterol reduction.
Dawson is big on the breath, reminding her students to focus on it during class. Breath, Dawson says, stimulates the Vagus nerve, which is the main connector between our mind and our gut. “I can tell a lot about the room just by the breath.” Breathing techniques, like breath of fire, can stimulate digestion as well. Dawson suggests it’s the yin and yang of the exercise that offers the balance for our bodies. “Yoga poses have counter poses. Through repetition … we being to align more balance in the body.”
The sound bath that Dawson has incorporated into her practice also has a purpose. “Crystal sounds play frequencies that are designed to access a harmonious state within us, perhaps one that was dormant.”
She is big on meditation, but advocates that there are many different types that will benefit its practitioners. From five minutes once a day to 20 minutes twice a day to an entire weekend at a silent retreat, taking some time to tune out helps us tune into ourselves. And that, she says, can be extremely powerful, no matter for how long.
One thing Dawson still talks about after all these years is yoga “off the mat.” As she grabs a sheet of paper and brings it to the screen, she rips off the tiniest corner and says that the little piece of paper represents the poses. The rest of a yoga practice lies off the mat: it’s the way in which we treat others between classes, it’s the way in which we treat ourselves. She offers an anecdote about leaving class one evening only to witness one of her students screaming at another because he wasn’t exiting the parking lot fast enough. At that, I joke that perhaps I had been the one yelling. We laugh, because after all, we’re all still a work in progress.
Chocolate Mousse Yogurt
As chocolate milk has been found to be an excellent replenishment tool for post-workout recovery, perhaps this yogurt will delight after a yoga class.
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 tablespoon cocoa powder, sifted (preferably not alkalized cocoa)
¾ cup Greek yogurt, plain
In a small mixing bowl, combine vanilla, syrup and sifted cocoa.
Mix until smooth.
Add yogurt until evenly combined.
Garnish with berries if desired.