yoga the Iyengar way

For the past eight months, I’ve been taking an Iyengar yoga class in town. The teacher is really wonderful: she steered me toward a slower-paced class in the beginning&#8212where the predominately over-60 folks made me feel quite welcome—and has nudged me forward to not giving up quite so quickly when I start to get tired. The Iyengar approach, with which I was unfamiliar before starting this class, is well-suited for my particular challenges with its emphasis on props and modifications. I have flexible but achy joints, strong but chronically tight muscles, a skeletal structure that likes to slide out of alignment with minimal provocation, and a history of injuries that can make it difficult to know when pain is something going wrong or just the aforementioned tight muscles finally opening up a bit. Having just a bit more time moving into and out of the poses makes an enormous difference in my ability to actually get something out of them, and having a good teacher makes me confident that I won’t be either pushed beyond my limit or allowed to slump into something that really isn’t a pose at all but feels easy at the time. After attending more than one yoga class taught by a skeletal 20-something exhorting me to feel the burn, this class is a relief and a joy.

Knowing what it’s like to struggle to find a yoga class that fits, I was quite interested in the recent New York Times article discussing the pros and cons of having yoga classes specifically designated for larger people. Since I participate weekly in a class designated for people over 60, who have been kind enough to allow me to join them despite being a few years short of that marker, I see the benefits of having classes tailored for groups of folks with similar kinds of challenges. Certainly people over 60 are not excluded from the other classes our teacher offers, and it is a testament in part to the Iyengar method that there are a mix of ages and body sizes in all of the classes I attend. I know from experience such diversity can be hard to find, though, and I’m not sure I could hack another class where I was the largest and the oldest and the slowest. That had been my experience at all classes besides those at the Ann Arbor zen center, once I crept up to and beyond age 30. Not that being larger and older necessarily means being slower, although it often can; it certainly doesn’t mean being weaker, it just often means needing a little more time to get everything into place without injury.

To return to the article, I do agree that it’s the responsibility of every teacher to be able to incorporate modifications and adjustments for the variety of students in their classes, to prevent injury and make sure that students are getting the benefits of the poses. From the teaching perspective, I also agree that there is a typical pace to a class at each level and there are limits to the degree to which pauses for modifications can occur without disrupting the flow of the whole process. Some balance between the two interests is required. As much as I would like philosophically for everyone in the United States to just calm the heck down and stop treating yoga like aerobics or spinning classes, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. I also am not sure that I would trust teachers in that mindset to offer me modifications that were suited to my body rather than to their goal of moving me into the correct alignment for each of the poses we were attempting. Certainly I was much better off seeking out a different style of instruction than I was staying and trying to make it work, and I was somewhat surprised to not see Iyengar mentioned at all as an alternative.

In the end, the question posed as the premise of the article is a bit silly, because of course people should be able to attend classes where they are comfortable and shared needs are addressed. The real issue is whether classes are welcoming places for larger students and whether there are classes for all ability levels. While it may be surprising to some people to consider that it’s harder to stay as long in a weight-bearing downward pose when you’re bearing 250 pounds of weight rather than 115, it’s not exactly neuroscience. Ditto with standing poses and arthritic joints or forward-bending poses and large stomachs. Certainly teachers should learn how to modify poses for all students, but that’s not the same as saying that all classes should accommodate all abilities. Rather than always being the one to go into a pose last and come out of it first, however supportive the teacher and other students might be, it’s far nicer to be one of many in a class moving a different pace.

yoga the Iyengar way

high fiber muffins

Over the past month we’ve been shifting to a high-fiber low-saturated-fat way of eating in our house. Because of my eating choices — no mammal flesh, no dairy — we largely ate this way already. Largely hasn’t been good enough, though: my partner’s cholesterol is unacceptably high. Not just high overall, but inverted on each individual measure (high triglycerides, low HDLs, high LDLs). So, we’re (as my students used to say) taking it to the next level.

The next level, such as it is, involves no butter, egg substitutes, and whole wheat flour (we already bought whole wheat bread and high fiber cereal, just because those generally contained the smallest amounts of sugar). It also involves salads every day, which isn’t difficult with the food from our farm share and the community garden streaming in, and fish oil supplements. In addition to boosting fiber and shifting to exclusively using non-animal fats, I’ve also been trying to include things like rhubarb and walnuts in our meals, both of which are purported to specifically contribute to lower cholesterol.

In the course of trying to find something that’s tasty and moderately sweet that meets these criteria, I have been baking variations of the muffin recipe from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks At Home (one of my favorite cookbooks for food that’s delicious and easy to make). While the recipe doesn’t call for whole wheat flour, I find that I actually like the muffins better when made that way. And, most of the variations call for walnuts!

Muffin Madness

wet ingredients
1/2 cup egg substitute (equal to 2 large eggs)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3/4-1 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

dry ingredients
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

additional ingredients
blueberry lemon
1 1/2 cup blueberries (add to wet ingredients)
1 tbsp freshly grated lemon peel (add to wet ingredients)

banana nut
1 1/2 cup mashed bananas (add to wet ingredients)
1 cup chopped walnuts (add last)
optional: handful of blueberries

2 cups grated zucchini (add to wet ingredients)
1 tsp cinnamon (add to dry ingredients)
1/2 tsp cardamom (add to dry ingredients)
1/2 cup raisins (add at end)
3/4 cup chopped walnuts (add at end)

2 cups grated apples (add to wet ingredients)
1 tsp grated lemon peel (add to wet ingredients)
1/2 tsp cinnamon (add to dry ingredients)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (add at the end)

1 1/2 cup diced rhubarb (add to wet ingredients)
1/2 to 1 cup chopped walnuts (add at end)
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon (add to dry ingredients)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, mix together the wet ingredients, then stir in the additional ingredients and mix well. In a separate bowl, sift together the dry ingredients. Combine wet and dry, being careful not to overmix the batter. Spoon the batter into oiled standard muffin tins, and bake for 20-25 minutes, until puffed and golden (test with toothpick; they are done in my oven, which tends to need more time, after 23 minutes). If you are using mini-muffin trays, only bake for 10-15 minutes. Each plain muffin is listed as having 220 calories; I don’t know how much the adjustments to the recipe might change that.

Finally, the recipe emphasizes that the basic ingredients do not make a plain muffin: you must choose a variation to get the delicious end product!

I’ve been making a batch of these at least once, usually twice a week. We eat them warm for breakfast or as dessert in the evening, and then with our lunches through the week. I like each of the variations in their own way. The banana ones are sweeter, and I tend to use less sugar (more like 1/2 cup, especially when I’m putting in blueberries). The zucchini ones require more sugar because of the strong spices; they were more like a savory bread when I used only a minimal amount of sugar. I’ve made the rhubarb ones most often (and tucked away chopped rhubarb in the freezer, for when the season’s over), and the tartness of the rhubarb is nice. Maybe you have to have grown up in the Midwest to appreciate rhubarb? At any rate, we like it.

My serving recommendation: warm, with a big cup of strong coffee.

high fiber muffins

popping pills

In the last day, I have gained a greater appreciation for those little boxes that tell you not only which day to take your pills, but what time of day as well.

This week I finally received my January blood work from my endocrinologist’s office, and confirmed that my blood counts remained at last year’s low levels. Both my acupuncturist and nurse-practitioner agreed that I needed supplements: from one, I received a prescription for a blood booster, and from the other, a prescription for an iron pill (with instructions to take it with a vitamin C drink).

Really, the only tricky thing about this is that I can’t take iron or calcium within four hours of my thyroid medication. And, of course, I can’t take iron or calcium within four hours of each other. And, I need to take all of these things with food, including the one that I take three times a day. So I need to eat three times a day, four hours apart, beginning one hour after I wake up and take my thyroid medication. Oh, and in between two of those meals, the probiotic supplement, with water only.

Thankfully, I have a sports watch with five alarms. Its original purpose was to time me for run/walk intervals, but reminding me to eat meals and take pills is a perfectly useful adaptation.

The upside: I finally have a use for those eensy weensy plastic storage containers that you get when you buy a set.

popping pills

cold weather woes

Having spent so many years in places where winter starts on November 1st, it’s still somewhat shocking to me to have winter come in with a vengeance in February. I’ve already adjusted to the idea that winter is mild, it’s in the 30s, blah blah blah and then, wham! Suddenly my hair is standing on end from static electricity, I’m slathering on body butter like there’s no tomorrow, and I can’t work in the basement for longer than an hour or so without starting to chatter. I’ve taken to wearing my silk long johns in the house, along with slippers and the standard several layers of wool, because (as I’m sure is the case everywhere) natural gas rates are still going up up up. I haven’t quite gotten to the hat stage, but if I had some of those oh-so-punk-rock fingerless gloves, I wouldn’t be above putting them on.

Along with all of this comes the inevitable sinus infection. This year’s isn’t so bad, but it’s dragging and I’d really rather just not have any more head congestion. Enter my nemesis: the Neti pot. I have been (strongly) encouraged by my acupuncturist to use the Neti pot to clear out my sinuses and prevent a lingering low grade infection. And, I have used it before, and it’s not unbearable (8 years of competitive swimming left me with a chronic shoulder injury and the ability to control the flow of air through my nose in pretty much any way you might come up with). It’s just not that fun, and it’s a pretty ignoble endeavor, bending over a sink to pour salt water into your nostril. Yeah. Not to mention kind of messy.

But, in the interest of remaining off of antibiotics, I will get out the little pot, polish it up, and follow the recommendation of the person I pay for such advice.

Right after I put on another sweater.

cold weather woes

the season of water

For the past two and a half years now, I have been getting acupuncture treatments with five element acupuncture practitioners. All of the people I’ve seen at Crossings graduated from the same school of acupuncture here in Maryland. Five element acupuncture is a variant of traditional Chinese medicine (I’ve heard it described as ‘Chinese acupuncture using Japanese needles’), although I don’t know enough about these fields to say more than that.

One thing I’ve liked with this style of medicine is the way in which the diagnosis and treatment resemble a logic puzzle, which, as the daughter of a mathematician, I have always enjoyed. From symptoms and patterns that may be the same in a variety of people, the acupuncturist determines the causative or constitutive factor of the imbalance. What this means, in my lay interpretation, is that the imbalance may manifest as symptoms in any element, but the root will lie in the element that is dominant or formative for the person. Each of the five elements is associated with various factors, for example an emotion, a time of year, and a color. There’s plenty written about this, in both more clear lay person terms and in more accurate technical ones; I apologize for vagaries of understanding or expression in this brief synopsis.

I bring all this up because winter, the season we’re currently in, is the season that corresponds with my constitutive factor, which is water. For me, with my auto-immune thyroid disease and history of structural alignment issues, the imbalances have been varied, but treatment in water has had the most success in improving my overall health and constitution. In terms of the logic puzzle aspect, reading a description of the seasonal element (provided by the folks at Crossings) is a bit like reading a description of your astrological sign: it’s eerily familiar, and it brings into the light things about yourself that you wouldn’t have listed if asked, but which are clearly there when called to your attention.

When I read that description, the concept of holding two opposites in the same vessel particularly resonates with me, even in as simple a way as my relationship to the season. For many years, winter has been my favorite season. I love the crisp air, the colors, the quality of the light, the clarity of the moon and stars, the starkness of the landscape, and all of the activities that come with it, from playing in the snow to the baking and cooking of winter foods. Yet, I was hardly ever truly comfortable during the winter season: I became cold very easily and found it difficult to impossible at times to warm up again, and I suffered from incredibly dry skin. Since my thyroid disease has been diagnosed and properly treated, I’ve learned that both of these difficulties are common with low thyroid function: the ability of the body to internally regulate temperature (I had inverse problems of being easily over-heated in the summer) and to use water ‘properly’ in systemic maintenance. What is interesting to me, then, is the correlation with an imbalance in the water element in the physiological symptoms I had, but also the way in which I mentally and emotionally enjoy the season even with the attendant physical discomforts.

To sum up, I gain a great deal of nerdy pleasure from discovering the layered ways in which my physiological experiences, my western medical diagnosis of disease, and my acupuncture treatments align. The convergence is remarkably intellectually satisfying to me. And, unlike many people I know, I find that I have absolutely no curiosity about the mechanics of acupuncture. The system is clearly described, internally consistent, and I am more healthy than I’ve been in years, even by the measures of western medicine. That’s good enough for me.

the season of water