Holiday Hip Openers

stressed gingerbread man
Holiday’s Have You Stressed?

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:

photo, ball of yarn

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.

Dragon Pose
Dragon Pose

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.

photo of pigeon pose
Pigeon Pose

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.

photo of sphinx pose
Sphinx Pose

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.

photo of half-frog pose

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!

cutcaster-photo-100361826-Christmas-snowflakePS: my Indiegogo “Birthday for Giving Campaign” is still running–click on the snowflake for details!

Birthday for Giving


People always ask, “What do you want for your birthday?” or “How are you going to celebrate?” Since my birthday is November 30, I have been thinking about this quite a lot. I knew there wasn’t really anything I wanted, and after years of bar crawling and all-night dancing (on occasions not limited to my or anyone else’s birthday) I really wasn’t interested in painting the town. What I do want is something that makes a genuine contribution. I’m not a billionaire, so I won’t be able to build a hospital or arts center, but we can all do something to help leave the world in better, fairer, and more beautiful condition than when we first arrived. Right?

It turns out that Tuesday December 3–the Tuesday following my birthday–is #GivingTuesday! What is Giving Tuesday? From their website: “#GivingTuesday is a movement to create a national day of giving to kick off the giving season added to the calendar on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday.” Learning about #GivingTuesday and their partnership opportunities with Indiegogo inspired me to turn my birthday into an occasion to do something positive. I figured if all my friends, family, and fitness participants contributed $5 to a cause instead of buying me a cappuccino, a fancy cocktail (which would be more like $10 anyway), or even a card, I could collect around $500!

photo of baby elephant

Choosing the cause was easy. I love elephants, and because of the recent surge in poaching, their plight had been all over the news. Choosing the organization, however, proved rather difficult. There are countless, wonderful foundations dedicated to elephants–everything from the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, which houses retired zoo and circus elephants to Soraida Sawala’s amazing Elephant Hospital in Thailand, which adopts orphaned baby elephants and has provided prosthetic limbs to animals injured by landmines.

One of my key considerations was convenience. I couldn’t choose a charity that didn’t accept U.S. dollars or required a complicated bank transfer to a foreign bank. I’ve done that myself once before to pay for a yoga retreat in Veracruz–and while the process made me feel like James Bond, it’s a bit complicated, complicated enough to deter potential donors. I ultimately decided on The Asian Elephant Foundation. TAEF not only supports Soraida’s work, they also work in tandem with the Elephant Parade, which is an international open-air art exhibit that brings awareness to the Asian elephant and raises funds for all of TAEF’s projects. I was lucky enough to visit the first U.S. Elephant Parade in Dana Point, CA this past October.

photo of me at the U.S. Elephant Parade
Floppy and me at the Elephant Parade!

Since we had visited the Elephant Parade as a sort of early birthday celebration for me, it seemed only right to use my real birthday to give back to the organization that made the parade possible. I am so excited to share with you my first (and hopefully annual) Birthday for Giving. The Birthday for Giving campaign is live and will last for approximately 30 days. Click on the image to see it.

photo of cupcake
Click on the image, please!

More information, more yoga, and more recipes forthcoming!

Exercise is the New Watercooler

This week I gave a lunchtime talk about fitness at a local law firm. The firm has a group committed to health and fitness, and they provide a weekly lunchtime yoga class as well as a lecture series. When they asked their yoga instructor–the multi-talented Molly O’Neill–to suggest a speaker for a talk on fitness, she recommended me. Of course, “fitness” is a pretty broad topic, so I asked them if they had any particular topics in mind. It turned out they had something very specific in mind: office exercise.

Cartoon of office exercise

As someone who usually teaches group exercise in gyms, I knew this would take some careful thought and preparation. Pretty quickly I decided that Functional Fitness would form the heart of my presentation. Because offices offer limited space and time, small scale exercises that contribute to overall ease of movement, reduce risk of injury, and ultimately improve quality of life seemed like a logical choice. Plus, knowing that Molly was offering yoga on a weekly basis meant that I could focus on complementing her work on flexibility, breathing, and stress reduction.

To be brutally honest, desk work can put the body at risk. One study revealed the staggering effects of habitual sitting: “men in the study who spent six hours or more per day of their leisure time sitting had an overall death rate that was about 20 percent higher than the men who sat for three hours or less” (“Is Sitting a Lethal Activity“). Since many occupations necessitate prolonged sitting, simply telling my audience not to sit was not a sensible option. There are, however, two parts of the day where office people can easily integrate more physical activity and break up a “long sit”: commutes and brief breaks.

Click on the link for the article
Click on the link for the article

For the commute:

  1. Take the stairs (this office happened to be on the 19th floor, so I suggested getting off on the 17th or 18th and taking the remainder on foot)
  2. Park the car a bit farther away from the office
  3. For those taking public transportation, choose a train or bus stop that will force you to walk an extra block or two

For Breaks:

Cartoon of man doing bicep curls while speaking on the phone

Yoga: I mentioned poses they were quite likely already doing in Molly’s class that stretch or open the front of the body: crescent moon, bridge pose, or a simple standing backbend.

Core Stability: these exercises can help prevent low back pain and injury while lifting objects from the floor or a table. Although many people immediately think crunches when they thing core stability, crunches can reproduce some of the same postural problems caused by sitting: Why-Crunches-Dont-Work-Your-Abs. Consequently, I recommended planks and single-leg balance exercises (like Tree Pose). I demonstrated a basic plank/hover and side plank done on the forearms and knees on top of the conference table. Later (see below), the group tried a modified table plank–forearms on the table, feet on the floor–a simple but effective variation.

Weight-Bearing Exercises: after a quick Q&A, I invited everyone to try a few exercises that could easily be done during short breaks.

  1. Squats: to strengthen the glutes and hamstrings, reproduce a move we do every time we get out of a chair, and promote mobility and balance
  2. Tricep Dips (we did these from a chair): these reproduce the action of the elbow joint when returning something to a high shelf. They strengthen the triceps, engage the chest muscles to assist, and tone the backs of the arms
  3. Single-Arm Rows (we did these with a waterbottle and in a lunge position): terrific for strengthening the middle back (esp latissimus dorsi) and thereby counteracting the pitfalls of prolonged sitting
  4. Incline Pushups: as one of the best functional fitness exercises, these require no extra equipment, engage multiple muscle groups (chest, glutes, the entire core), and actually reproduce an action we do all the time (getting up, pushing off or away from things). We did these with our hands on the conference table, but I also demonstrated wall pushups as an option

Any of these exercises can be done in a small space and during a short break. Doing something as simple as 5 tricep dips and 5 desk pushups before lunch or setting a goal of 10 squats every Friday can make a difference over time. The audience responded with great enthusiasm to my short presentation. In fact, it was their response that prompted me to turn that presentation into this blog post. I hope you enjoy it too!

Yoga Weekend, Part 3: Led Primary Series

During Saturday morning’s session (10am-1pm) Kino led us in the Ashtanga Primary Series. This series formed the foundation of my initial yoga teacher training back in 1998 at It’s Yoga in San Francisco. Since that time, I’ve been something of a “yoga slut” – dabbling in a variety of formats, studying with a whole host of “yoga stars”: Shiva Rea (vibrant), Sean Corne (intense), Anna Forest (wildly funny), and so on – sucking it all in and mixing and matching styles to suit my participants’ wants and needs. But sometimes it’s nice to get back to your roots, to stop wandering, so for the past few years I’ve limited my workshopping and yoga-vacationing to ashtanga.

Despite the fact that the Primary Series is a set series (same poses every time, start to finish), no two instructors seem to teach it in exactly the same way – including people who have studied at length with the grandmaster himself, Shri K. Patthabi Jois. Each time I’ve done the Primary Series with a new instructor there have been several moments when I thought, “Whoa! never seen that before!” or, “What just happened?” But since Kino spoke of lineage and tradition with great reverence, I assumed there would be no corners cut, no easy options. As we took our places on our mats I closed my eyes just for a second, cleared my head, and surrendered.

Surrendering to the practice involves far more than following the postures in order. We were told to bring three elements into play: the postures (asana), the breath (pranayama), the gazing point (drishti). Of the three, drishti has always been most difficult for me. If the class uses music (traditional ashtanga classes do not), I want to close my eyes; if there is no music, I start looking around – “Oooooo, what a cool tattoo! Philly seems more tattooed than Chicago. Wow! her spine is crazy flexible! Why don’t hairbands stay on my head?” So surrendering – at least for me – meant making a conscious effort not to look around, not to think about lunch. The first half of the class rocked! My body felt strong, my mind was focused, everything just flowed. Then all of a sudden my abs bonked. There I was humming along between navasana (like a V-sit) and a cross-legged “pop-up” onto the hands. I got through two or three rounds, and then in mid-pop-up my legs dropped, and my butt hit the mat. I tried to get back into it, but I just kept falling. So for a good 10-15 seconds I was baffled. I thought, “I teach Core Conditioning! I sing through planks! I love arm balances! What just happened?!?!?!” But there is magic in these large and music-free classes, and it lies in the breath. The sound of eighty people breathing in sync billows like a wave. You hear it, you feel it, and if you surrender, it might carry you to the next asana. And that’s exactly what happened. Call it acceptance, call it a second wind – but after that things actually got easier. Supta kurmasana (sleeping turtle), chakrasana (backwards roll to the bottom of a pushup, sort of), finishing sequence … not every pose was perfect, and at one point Kino gave my butt a little push as I hesitated mid-chakrasana, but for 90% of the class I managed to accomplish what I had set out to do, which was not to worry about accomplishing anything.

Yoga Weekend, Part 2: Twists

Unlike the workshop on adjustments, the evening session on twists was organized just like a “regular” yoga class. Kino began with a short description and rationale of what was to follow, led us in some chanting, and then took us into asana (poses/postures) practice. Since twisting is meant to detoxify, I assumed the class would be fast-paced to heat our bodies quickly and include numerous postures. I was pleasantly surprised when we focused on about a dozen poses. Kino employed a very meticulous, step-by-step method to get us into each one, and even repeated several poses. As someone on the less-flexible end of the yoga spectrum, this worked wonders for me. I actually had to stop myself from shouting, “Marichyasana C, Baby! Check out the bind!”

Digression: sometimes I get my formats confused – but only in one direction. That is, I never accidentally “speak yoga” while teaching Body Combat or Total Body Conditioning (although maybe it would be fun to say, “Open your heart” next time I’m teaching pec flies). But on several occasions I have very inappropriately gone “full-on aerobics instructor” while taking a yoga class. The worst episode occurred during a master class at Fireflow Yoga in Toronto. I was very focused on following directions, being “in the moment,” and not anticipating the next pose. But suddenly I found myself in a previously impossibly pose and inadvertently shouted, “Yeeeeeaaaaaah!” Thankfully no one fell, and class proceeded as if the outburst had never happened.

But back to twists … very commonly, spinal twists end up confined to the cervical and maybe the thoracic spine. That is, people turn their heads more than their bodies. But if the lumbar spine is left out of the twist, so are all those digestive organs! Kino had us anchor our sit bones very firmly onto our mats and then initiate our spinal twists with lateral movement of the ribcage. If you’ve ever taken modern or jazz dance, you will recognize the movement from isolations. Adding this lateral movement – which she described as “packing” – allowed me to feel that spinal twist much deeper and lower in my body than ever before. We employed this tactic with sitting poses like Marichyasana C, standing posts like Parivrtta Parsvakonasa, and even the super-exciting Parsva Bakasana (during which I made a conscious effort to keep my mouth closed – maybe this is an unstated reason behind nasal breathing in yoga?). Since returning to Philly, I’ve incorporated some of what I learned into my own classes, and participants have been binding left and right, literally!

The three hours flew by like one, and I felt interestingly sore in some new areas: psoas and internal obliques (this was to return with a vengeance during the Saturday morning Primary Sequence class). But as we came out of relaxation, my mind immediately flew to the urgent matters of catching the train and silencing my stomach.

Yoga Weekend, Part 1

This weekend, I flew to Chicago for an amazing series of workshops in Ashtanga Yoga with Kino MacGregor at Moksha Yoga. Even though it would have been possible to sign up for the sessions à la carte, I figured, if I am going all the way to Chicago, why not just do it all? The schedule included two sessions on Friday, two sessions plus a Q&A on Saturday, and one session on Sunday (each session lasted approximately three hours). The weekend was amazing, but it really wiped me out. In fact, I was a little nervous about teaching Spinning today at noon because I had hit abdominal failure during Saturday’s morning session (seriously, my abs just gave out!) and my quadriceps suffered the same fate during Sunday’s session.

Friday afternoon was geared towards teachers and focused on adjustments. I loved this session and raised my hand at the first opportunity to ask for some pointers on being a short instructor helping tall participants. Kino gave me a great tip (and had me practice on the tallest man in the room!) for a tricky pose called uttitha hasta padangustasasa or extended hand to big toe pose. She had me get under the man’s outstretched leg so that he could rest it on my shoulder. What a neat trick! This allowed him to feel secure as I adjusted his hips. In addition to addressing questions, Kino had us partner up and practice adjusting a series of tricky poses on one another.

The evening session focused on “twists.” According to the yogic model of the body, twists are detoxifying – which makes sense once you think about it. I always tell my participants, “You move your guts around like they’re being agitated in a washing machine and then squeeze everything out like a sponge!” Detoxifying is great, but I wouldn’t want to walk into an entire session on twists with a full stomach. Luckily, I had eaten such a huge lunch that I only wanted a snack during the break. But this brings me to the subject of food …

NOTE: if you want to read more about the yoga portion of this week, skip to the next post, because I am about to digress (I do this a lot).

Eating has always been a problem for me when I do workshops and trainings. I the past I’ve wildly miscalculated and ended up bloated and crampy or shaky and weak at all the wrong moments. I’ve even returned from a weekend only to discover that I’d lost 2-3 pounds from dehydration. Not good! Over the past year I’ve gotten better at planning ahead and now carry snacks like Lara bars, nuts, and packets of peanut or almond butter with me at all times. But since I had left Philadelphia on a 9:30 am flight and then hopped on a train at O’Hare airport, by the time I got to Moksha I was starving. In anticipation of the weekend, I had mapped out the neighborhood and located coffee shops and restaurants. I quickly spotted the Windy City Cafe, which I recognized from my Google search. Breakfast? Lunch? Pancakes? Salad? Panini? the menu looked so uniformly tempting that I wanted it all! I settled on the Juan’s Black Bean Burger with kettle chips and told myself, “You can just eat half if it’s huge and save the rest for the break.” Of course I ate the entire burger, the chips, and was actually eying the top piece of grilled bread my boyfriend had discarded from his Cuban Melt when the server took away his plate. As a result I was happy-full, energized for the afternoon, and well digested by the time we got to twists. So even though I thought I had miscalculated yet again, it turned out to be just right. My yoga friends would tell me it was meant to be; I call it felix culpa.