About a month ago a friend of mine posted a link to a YouTube video called “Happy Asian Thanksgiving.” Like the guys in the video, I also joke about Asian or Japanese versions of holidays. Our 4th of July BBQs featured hamburgers and chicken teriyaki skewers grilled on a hibachi and served with rice (no buns) and cucumber salad. And I can’t imagine a proper Thanksgiving without sesame green beans and a healthy serving of rice to soak up the gravy. Not surprisingly, our Christmas dinners have always featured my Mother’s twists on American standbys. But as we kids have grown up, our celebrations have become simpler. Lately we’ve been gathering on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day, and a sushi platter has taken center stage.
This year my Mom decided to make inarizushistuffed with gingered rice, which is one of my favorites. We also decided on steamed asparagus and a simple salad. I wanted to contribute something homemade and seasonal–but with flavors that would complement the rest of the meal. I quickly imagined a butternut squash soup, pale and sweet with coconut milk, but brightened with hints of ginger, lemongrass, and red chile.
1 butternut squash
1 stalk of lemongrass
1 slice of ginger, about the size of 3 quarters stacked
2 cups water or vegetable broth (I used a cube of unsalted vegetable stock)
1/2-3/4 cups coconut milk
red chile flakes and salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. While it is heating slice the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, and place in a baking pan with the shallot. Bake for 25-46 minutes, testing the squash after 25 minutes. While the squash is baking, cut a slice of ginger. Slice the ends off of the lemongrass and bruise the stalk (smash it with the flat side of a knife, cut a few slashes in it). Set these aside.
Scoop the baked squash into a dutch oven or stock pot. Peel the shallot and place it in the pot as well. Add 2 cups broth or water, the ginger and the lemon grass, and bring to a simmer. Cook for 20-30 minutes. When everything is soft and smelling fragrant, remove the lemongrass and ginger (keep it in the soup for a stronger ginger flavor). Puree the soup–shallots and all–until smooth. I let this cool, packed it up, and finished just before serving.
Finish the soup by adding coconut milk to desired consistency (I used about 2/3 cup). Add salt to taste and red chile flakes for a bit of heat (I used about 1/8th of a teaspoon).
This soup was delicious and warming. Next time, however, I plan to use a kabocha squash and finish it with fine shreds of kaffir lime leaves.
Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, the winter holiday season can prove quite stressful. Gift shopping, social obligations, and irregular eating patterns can take their toll on our bodies. On top of all this, those of us living in my neck of the woods often face plummeting temperatures and hostile precipitation. Not surprisingly, many of us find our bodies feeling stiffer and sorer than usual. In fact, some days it takes a real effort for me not to spend all day hunched over, clutching my arms. Heart openers offer a sensible solution to all that arm-crossing and face huddling. But yoga also tells us that we “hold stress and negative emotions in our pelvis” (Yoga Journal “Hip Enough?”). Maybe it’s time we all added hip openers to our holiday traditions. Here’s one way to do it:
A few weeks ago I integrated a hip opening series into my yoga classes. The classes ranged from gentle 55-min hatha to a vigorous 75-min vinyasa class. Regardless of the format, each class received a healthy dose of yin yoga-based hip openers, which left many sighing with relief. As an added bonus, you will notice that some of these also include options to add a subtle heart-opening component, effectively extending the stretch from the quadriceps, up through the hip flexors and pelvis, and into the torso.
My hatha class began with breath-work and slow spinal movement, often referred to as cat-cow. Click here for a description and explanation of the benefits. From there we moved slowly towards Downward-Facing Dog and a wide-legged forward bend that includes a wonderful shoulder stretch: Prasarita Padottanasana C. My vinyasa class began with several long flow sequences based on sun salutations, moved on to held standing asanas, and then settled into seated and reclining asanas. The following asanas served as a transition between standing and seated work for the vinyasa class and the main focus for the hatha class. You can try the entire sequence, or test out one or two of the asanas. As with all yoga practices, the duration of any pose should be determined by your body. You should also feel free to modify and use props as needed.
Shown above is a version of Dragon Pose, sometimes referred to as “Baby Dragon.” This is a pose I often integrate into opening vinyasas, reaching the arms overhead with palms touching and lifting and opening the chest (sometimes called Crescent Moon). Click on the photo for variations. In designing this sequence, I used Dragon to prepare our bodies for Pigeon (shown below). More flexible students were invited to take both elbows to the floor (called “Dragon Flying Low” on the link). We held this for 5-8 breaths on one side and then moved into Pigeon on the same side.
For Pigeon Pose, “Flexies” were invited to fold forward (click on the image for instructions) or move into One-Leg King Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana). Please note: any version of pigeon can be extremely difficult or painful for many people, but it becomes much more user-friendly if a folded blanket or a rolled mat is placed under the forward (front) butt-cheek and thigh. We held this pose a bit longer–8-10 breaths–to allow those wanting to fold forward an opportunity to sit with this a bit before going deeper. After moving through Dragon and Pigeon on the first side, we rested in Child’s Pose for about 5 breaths. We then repeated Dragon and Pigeon on the second side, and then rested in Child’s Pose once again.
In order to ease the spine into the held extension that comes with Half Frog (Ardha Bhekasana), I had us pause in Sphinx Pose,a yin alternative to Cobra(click on the image for a detailed discussion of Sphinx and Seal, which involves a much deeper compression of the lumbar vertebrae and is therefore not suitable for everyone). I invited my participants to add a little extra padding (either under the pubic bone and thighs or the elbows and abdomen). We did not hold this for very long, since Half Frog also involves spinal extension and resting considerable body weight on one forearm or hand.
For Half Frog, imagine you are shifting gears on a car with manual transmission. We started in neutral: grasping the right foot with the right hand. First gear: those who could easily reach their foot then gently moved the right foot towards the right buttock. After 3-5 breaths, we went back into neutral. Then, for those with the flexibility, 2nd gear: the foot moved towards the outside of the hip and the heal aims for the floor. Note: the hand position in this pose can be very uncomfortable for the wrist, shoulder, and foot. I offered the option of simply placing the palm on the top of the foot. Click on the image or the source link for detailed directions.
Saving the (almost) best for (almost) last: Cat Pulling Its Tail. Can I tell you how much I love this pose? Honestly, every time I do this pose I wonder why I don’t do it every morning before I crawl out from under the covers and every evening before I crawl under them. It’s just that good.
So if you have been reading this post thinking it confirms that yoga is not for you, give me 3 minutes more. Click on the image or the source link, find a warm and cozy spot on the floor, and maybe try this pose–especially the reclining version shown in the image–if you can. Relax. Try lingering a bit in your exhalations so that they last a second or two longer than your inhalations. Hold each side for 30-60 seconds. Then roll onto your back. Let your feet and legs flop open. Let your arms rest by your sides. Close your eyes.
The weather might still be frightful, but (hopefully) your body will feel delightful!
One of my friends has an annual Black Friday party called the Night of Many Wines. He provides some bottles, guest bring some bottles–beer, wine, bourbon … In the past, I have referred to this particular event as the Day of Many Hangovers. Maybe I’m getting wiser and not just older, because for some reason I only had one glass this year. Yet unbeknownst to me more than booze was brewing at the party.
The next day my boyfriend casually asked if I wanted to join him (a Body Pump instructor) and our friend Pedro (an elite cyclist) in the December Pushup Challenge they had devised the night before. I have to admit, I hesitated a bit when he revealed their goal of 5000 pushups in 31 days (approximately 161 a day). But maybe I was just feeling smug for exercising restraint the night before, because I said yes.
December 1 went well. Sundays I teach a 9 am class called Power Pump. The participants are enthusiastic, dedicated, and really strong, so I usually incorporate push ups into the class. We did 48 in 4 sets of 12 throughout the class. I threw in a few more before my 10:30 am cycling class, a few more before lunch, and suddenly the count was up to 100–and it wasn’t even noon!
Later in the day, my boyfriend knocked out 140 while watching football and drinking beer (!). At practically the same instance Pedro sent me a text–something about doing “7 sets of 30 in about 10 minutes” after one of his epic rides. Despite feeling like the weakest link in this fitness chain and struggling to push through 100 more (Pedro’s tip: front-loading early will allow for a break later), it was starting to seem like fun. In fact, being part of a team was so inspiring that I started a Facebook group and began inviting people to join. Right about now you’re probably wondering why anyone would make such a crazy commitment during the holidays.
Here’s the lowdown:
Push ups are a phenomenal compound exercise. They work far more muscles than you might imagine as you can see from the illustration above (click on the image to be taken to an article that explains the benefits and offers several variations on traditional push ups).
In addition to functional fitness, core stability, and muscular strength, push ups help women build or maintain bone density.
Push ups do not require any equipment and can be done almost anywhere–case in point: Monday found me sneaking in a quick 20 while waiting for the elevator at my dentist’s office. For convenience alone, they are the perfect exercise for a hectic holiday season.
Push ups, like most forms of exercise, do get easier over time. In fact, one member of our group posted on day 2 “getting a tiny smidge easier tonight.” By Day 4 she had surpassed her initial daily goal (go Alice!).
Curious? Convinced? Join our December Push Ups Challenge or start your own group. Remember that joining a group brings the added benefits of accountability and support. In our group, people are setting their own personal goals. For some people this means 1000 in a month (33 a day), some feel 10 on the knees will be a serious challenge, and my crazy friend Ron is doing 1500 a day. You can also set a different kind of goal (like 20 in a row by the 31st), which will allow members to start with a comfortable number and build up over the weeks. Of course, you can also keep an eye on our Facebook group, see how we fare over the coming weeks, and propose your own New Year’s Challenge while the champagne is flowing.
As I mentioned in my previous two posts, I started an Indigogo campaign for my birthday. Because today is #GivingTuesday, I thought it was only right for me to give something in return for asking readers to donate to my cause. So here is a quick recipe to make your winter a little warmer:
Maple Vanilla-Glazed Carnival Squash (2 whole carnival, delicata, or small acorn squashes)
preheat oven to 350 degrees
wash your squashes, slice them in half, and remove seeds
slice the squash halves into uniform slices (I cut them into sixths)
remember: the thinner the slices, the more quickly they will cook – and the more glaze per slice
place the slices on a lightly greased or parchment-covered baking sheet (I used a pizza pan)
loosely cover the pan with foil, place in the oven, and bake for about 20 min
while squash are baking, mix maple syrup and vanilla in a small bowl
NOTE: I used about a tablespoon of maple syrup and 1/2 tsp of Dominican vanilla extract. This will seem like an extreme amount of vanilla; it is. But this was the total glaze I used for all the squash. If you want a sweeter dish but don’t want an overwhelming vanilla flavor, try 1/4 cup of maple syrup with 1/2 tsp vanilla
check the squash after 20 min. If they are soft and starting to brown, remove them from the oven. Turn them so that the center (hollow) is face up. Lightly brush with syrup (or pour it on). I also put a tiny dab of butter in the center of each
return to the oven for 5-15 minutes until the squash golden and the glaze is sizzling
As always, thank you for visiting my blog. Please take a minute to read about my campaign. If you are inspired, please consider donating. Every dollar counts, and today Indiegogo is kicking in $1 for every $20 that I collect midnight to midnight PST. And please pass along this campaign to any animal-lovers you know: