Status Update: My Back Hurts.

There, I said it. It hurts. Not in the way that I pulled a muscle or messed up some disc in my spine. It’s sore. As in, I wish I could spend every waking moment on a heated massage table. Go ahead, laugh at me. I deserve it. Little Miss “I Looooooove Kapotasana” is changing her tune. I used to feel comfortable the back bending portion of my daily ashtanga practice. Not only could I breathe freely in even some of the most challenging back bends, but I would hold them. Willingly. For extra breaths. I’m (somewhat) sad to report that the love affair is over. For now.

My fellow ashtangi’s told me that putting my legs behind my head would affect my back bending practice. So when I was given Eka Pada Sirsasana through the Tittibasana sequence in second series, I was prepared for my back bends to take a backseat. Word on the street was that the magical cure for back bending issues developed in conjunction with placing your legs behind your head is Pincha Mayurasana.

Pincha is a demanding forearm balance that follows Tittibasana in the second series syllabus. I was warned me that I’d likely cringe at the thought of back bending until I was progressed to that posture. For me, poses involving putting my legs behind my head are menacing, so I was prepared for regression in my back bending practice. Each time I got on my mat, I waited for the discomfort…discomfort that never actually came. I realized I could still work on my back bends without distress. The day I heard DG say to me, “Pincha Mayurasana”, I thought I survived the ordeal unscathed.

After that, I’m fairly certain that I became slightly cocky about working on back bending and leg behind the head postures. I remember telling someone that the hype surrounding the leg behind the head postures was, in fact, false. After my experience, I believed that everyone’s body was built differently and would therefore have a different reaction to the experience. I mean, clearly MY back bends were completely invincible and only capable of progression. Enter third series. Oh hello, Kasypasana through Durvasana. Goodbye, pretty back bends.

I’ve decided that I’m not dwelling on it. Better yet, I’m using the experience as a learning opportunity in many different capacities. Dealing with regression in a posture that I was somewhat proficient in is a total blow to my ego. Ashtanga always does that. It swoops in, and knocks you off of your high horse at the exact right moment. It’s part of what I love about the practice. It never fails to instill a sense of humility, both on and off of my mat. Each practice reinforces this trait to some degree, but the back bending situation is taking it to a different level.

I have (had?) a flexible back, so I never encountered the challenges that others face when working on back bending. As a yoga teacher, working through this difficulty will give me insight, experience, and empathy to assist students struggling with these postures.  I’m confident that eventually my back will become stronger and my back bends will improve as I continue to work on the asanas and the weak muscles that are creating discomfort.

Interestingly enough, I recently began seeing a chiropractor. I never really bought into the whole chiropractor thing, but I thought eh, why not. As it turns out, he’s pretty great at his job and the whole experience is exceeding my expectations. Besides his exceptional adjustments, he’s already worked on core exercises to stabilize my spine. I have a natural, pronounced lower back arch that every yoga teacher I’ve worked with attempts to correct. The chiropractor also recognizes this and the core exercises focus specifically on correcting the issue.

Last week, he did an exam that tested my overall strength and flexibility. One of the items he discussed immediately after the exam was my back strength in relation to my core strength. He found both to be strong, but they were equally strong.  To keep the spine stable and promote back health, my chiropractor believes back muscles should be 20% stronger than core muscles. Hanging out with my leg behind my head in crazy third series postures is absolutely strengthening my back muscles, and now it’s literally what the doctor ordered. It’s fascinating to see how this practice really does work to naturally restore balance and alignment to the body.

Most importantly, the back bending ordeal is reinforcing the fact that nothing in life is permanent – not even postures in my yoga practice. So I’m acknowledging the obstacle, but working on not dwelling on it. I’m learning to let go of any sense of ownership of asanas, the idea of “completion”, and embracing how much more I have yet to learn with this beautiful practice.

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Hello, Better.

I’m having an affair. I’ve been cheating…on my running sneakers. With a completely different brand. Shhhhhh.

When I tell you that I have an addiction to shoes, it shouldn’t come as a much of a shock. I mean, let’s be honest. What woman doesn’t love shoes? Only my addiction isn’t to boots, heels, flats, etc. It’s to running sneakers. Take me to DSW or Famous Footwear and I can easily walk out empty handed. Send me into Aardvark or the Finish Line and I can almost guarantee that I’ll walk out with a new pair of kicks. Hi, my name is Allison and I have an addiction to running sneakers.

During any given training cycle, I rotate between 2-3 pairs of sneakers. It’s a necessity for injury prevention when running upwards of 60 miles per week. My usual contenders are sneakers  for medium to long distances, trail sneakers, and lightweight sneakers for shorter distances and speed work.  My go-to sneakers are the Brooks Adrenalines and are always part of my rotation. Over the years, I’ve strayed and tested out many different shoes. A pair of Asics here, several pairs of Mizunos there, the Brooks Green Silence, Brooks Ravenna, and Brooks Trance are just a few that have infiltrated my stash. I always go back to the Adrenalines. As a matter of fact,  I ended up picking up a pair of Brooks Adrenaline GTS trail shoes over the summer – LOVE.

At the end of my 2012 fall running season, I wore out three pairs of sneakers and was ready to start stocking up for spring training. I planned to purchase a pair of Adrenalines, but I was interested in checking out the Brooks Pure Project line, specifically the Pure Cadence. Enter the Newtons. Hello, better.

There were a three different models of the Newtons in stock Aardvark. It’s hard NOT to notice them: the screaming neon colors catch your eye, and they look out of place among traditional running sneakers. The soles are chunky and oddly shaped, and the logo is a crazy looking letter “N”. My first thought? Ohhhhhhhhhhh, pretty.  But I know better than that. For as frequently as I purchase sneakers, I never buy based primarily on appearance. Besides, I’m a Brooks girl. I was there to try on the Pure Cadence. And so the conversation went something like this:

Salesperson: “Wanna try something on?”

Me: “Yeah, the Brooks Pure Cadence in a 7, please. And a pair of those crazy looking Newtons. Which model do you recommend?”

I felt like I was having an outer body experience. Or a Freudian slip.  I hadn’t done any research. No harm in trying them on, right? It’s not like I was actually going to buy them. $255 later, I walked out of Aardvark carrying my trusty Adrenalines…and a pair of Newtons. The “Distance U” model. Nicknamed a “PR in a Box”, they are considered a fast, lightweight performance trainer. Yep, sign me up.

Minimalist? Transition Shoe? The jury’s still out. Theoretically, they could be tossed into the “minimalist” shoe category, weighing in around seven ounces, but the soles are kind of thick to be considered a traditional minimalist shoe. I’d still classify them in more of the minimalist category than a transitional sneaker because the heel-toe drop is only two millimeters. My Adrenalines have a 13 millimeter heel drop, so that’s quite the adjustment.

The heel-toe drop (also referred to as  “Heel Drop”, “H-Delt”, “Delta H”) refers to the differential of the height off the ground of the heel and of the forefoot.The design and technology behind shoes with a greater heel drop is to take the strain off the Achillies tendon and promote a more forward momentum. With minimalist running and less (if any) heel drop, the point is to engage more of the foot and allow for a greater range of motion.

The Newtons are designed to practically force runners not to heel strike, and to run more on the mid/forefoot, causing less impact on the body than heel striking. The “Distance U” features four little forefoot lugs, which are little rectangles of rubber that assist in springing off of the forefoot. The soles are constructed of a high density rubber, and are rumored to last 800-1000 miles. That’s  at almost three times the life expectancy of a normal pair of running sneakers. The $155 price tag seems excessive, but could be more cost effective if they last longer. Or as long as I can refrain from purchasing weird shoes with hefty price tags.

Newton recommends slowly transitioning into the shoe, running short distances at low intensity. I should only wear them for a mile or two, but I broke them in a few weeks ago on a four miler (oops). They felt so comfortable and I just couldn’t resist. I’ve used them once per week since then. What is it about these shoes? All I know is that I took them out for an easy 5 miler last week, and I couldn’t slow myself down even if I tried. For me, an “easy” pace is usually somewhere between 8:30-9 minute miles. When I finished the run and my Garmin reported my average pace per mile as a 7:45, I was ecstatic.

I’m aware that shoes aren’t going to make me run faster, but maybe those crazy Newton designers are onto something. I’ve only been out on them a few times, but maybe they will make me a more efficient runner. Or maybe it was the Sesame Quinoa Spring Rolls that I made for lunch, or the Starbucks that I downed when I was en route to my trail. Either way, I think I’m in love. Comfortable and springy, they almost remind me of a trampoline. At first stride, they felt a bit awkward since they are constructed differently than traditional sneakers. After each use, I seem to prefer the feeling of running on my mid/forefoot and seem to try to mimic that feeling when I wear my Adrenalines. Am I a Newton girl now? It’s a definite possibility…

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Sesame Quinoa Spring Rolls

My favorite day of the week is Sunday. I get up early, and meet up with my friends and head down to AYS in Philadelphia for an intense yoga practice. I’m usually home in the early afternoon hours, and spend the rest of the day in my kitchen. Besides cooking a nice dinner for my husband, I love making healthy and delicious food to bring with me for lunch during the work week. During the winter, I’ve been making lots of soups and stews. Recently, I found an intriguing quinoa recipe on Pinterest and adapted it based on my own personal preferences. Enjoy!

Sesame Quinoa Spring Rolls
Makes 12-14 Rolls
Adapted from iHerb Blog: The Healthy Haven

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups red quinoa
  • 3 cups water
  • 4 handfuls of shredded cabbage
  • 3/4 cup of chopped walnuts
  • 2-3 medium scallions
  • Matchstick carrots
  • Bean Sprouts
  • Rice paper wrappers

Dressing:

  • 4 Tbs. rice vinegar
  • 5 Tbs. soy sauce or shoyu
  • 2 tsp. minced garlic
  • 2 Tbs. minced ginger
  • 4 tsp. toasted sesame oil
  • Pinch of sea salt
  • Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
  • Garlic Chili Sauce (sweet or spicy)

Make the quinoa: Rinse and drain the quinoa. Add to a medium saucepan with three cups of water and bring to a rolling boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook until all of the water has been absorbed (about 12-15 minutes).

Mix the dressing/veggies: While quinoa is cooking, toast the walnuts in a dry skillet over medium heat until brown and toasted. Mix shredded cabbage, scallions, and walnuts in a bowl. In a small bowl, whisk the rice vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, ginger and sesame oil. Add the dressing to the greens and walnut mixture and season with sea salt and pepper to taste. When the quinoa is done, add it to the dressed greens and mix.

To assemble: Fill a large pan or plate with water. Take a rice paper wrapper and soak it for about 30 seconds, or until it begins to soften. Place the wet rice wrapper on a cutting board or a flat surface. Lay some bean sprouts and carrots (or any other veggies of choice, julianned) on the wrapper and spoon about 4 heaping tablespoons of the greens/quinoa mixture on top. Fold the edges over and roll into a spring roll. Repeat until all of the filling is gone. Serve with garlic/chili sauce and enjoy!

On Learning Third Series: Trusting the Process

I didn’t think I ever really wanted to learn third series. Or maybe I just thought I wasn’t capable of even getting to that point. I’m still not sure I am, but I’m letting go of my uncertainties and trusting the process.

During the first few years of my ashtanga practice, I had the typical mindset of an endurance athlete. I mean, what do you expect – I run. A LOT. My competitive nature sought instant gratification in each posture. That attitude led to my eventual plateau in my practice, as it probably does with anyone who gets onto their yoga mat with that mindset. Beginning a daily practice and becoming part of a devoted Ashtanga community helped instill a sense of humility and patience that I was lacking. It really needed to happen before I could even think about progressing.

I remember the day my teacher, David Garrigues, gave me the first few postures from the second series syllabus. They seemed to be almost impossible.  Pashasana? Yeah, my heels were never touching the ground (or so I thought). Krounchasana? My tight, distance runner hamstrings hated even the thought of that one (they still do). I am blessed (and cursed) with a flexible back, so even though postures like Laghuvajrasana and Kapotasana were challenging, they didn’t torment me the way Eka Pada Sirsasana, Dwi Pada, Yogi Nidrasana and Tittibhasana did. Telling me to put my legs behind my head was the equivalent of telling most people to poke their eyes out with a spoon. Ugh.

For awhile, DG wanted me to practice all of primary series and every posture I was working on in second series. My full practice was upwards of three hours long (thank God for summer break, or I really would have gone crazy). Finally, when I was learning the last few postures in second series he cut me from practicing both primary (although, my hamstrings could still use all of the primary series they can get) and second series together each time. Primary began to look like an old friend that I didn’t get to see very often. When I completed my weekly primary series practice, I noticed progress in postures that challenged me prior to completing second series.

Second series didn’t get easier but it started to flow a little bit more with each practice. I started to feel somewhat comfortable with the asanas and enjoyed the challenging pace. When I began learning the intermediate series, I used to think the postures were beyond what my body is capable of and that I would never practice it in it’s entirety. As I continued to visit the Ashtanga Yoga School of  Philadelphia (AYS) , I watched in amazement as the dedicated students at the shala progressed in their own practice. Seeing their progression was inspiring, and made me realize that if I kept persevering I would finish learning second series at some point in my lifetime. For me, that point was the end of August 2012.

Getting on my mat six days a week is always a challenge in itself, but it’s teaching me more than just the physical benefits of the practice. I’m learning to be patient with myself, and to acknowledge the postures that challenge me without placing too much emphasis on them. It seems that challenges in my practice are more complex than just tight hips or hamstrings. It’s a reflection of how I carry my emotions and deal with things like stress and anxiety. Practicing consistently helps me view things with a different perspective and face up to situations that I’m avoiding.

So, like I said – I never really wanted to learn third series. Even when I completed second series, I thought I was content. Third series, or “Advanced A” is known as Sthira Bhaga, loosely translated to divine stability. I like second series, and I was pretty sure I was about as stable as I was going to get (or maybe I just wanted to avoid attempting more variations of sticking my legs behind my head).  But I’m trusting the process.  It’s undoubtedly the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. That’s where my yoga practice is at this point. On a more superficial note, the actual asanas are pretty fun. I’m fairly certain that means that I’m doing it all wrong. But it’s all part of the process, and I’m just going with it.