Friday, August 23, 2013

How to create a yoga habit

Hello readers! First of all, apologies for the long silence - things in the non-virtual world have been super busy lately, chiefly because my partner and I have been moving house - an exhausting task now complete! Yes, as I type this I'm sitting in our new apartment that will be our home for at least the next 12 months. For a gypsy like me, that's pretty darn exciting... Too bad I'm off on a 3-month work trip in a few weeks!!

Anyway, as part of last week's giveaway, I asked readers to leave questions or suggestions for posts on the blog, and this post is in answer to one of those comments (don't worry, the rest will be coming along!). The request was for a post on how to make a daily commitment to yoga as part of a healthy lifestyle.

SUCH a good question! We all know that we feel better when we do some yoga - but many of us get to a point where we are going to as many classes as we can - a few times a week, or maybe only a few times a month - but we want to get more out of our yoga! Yet making the transition from practicing in class to a daily practice can be daunting and many of us don't know where to start.

First of all, many of us might ask: is it worth it? Well, if you are feeling the urge to bring more yoga into your life, then of course it is worth it! Everytime you follow your instincts, you come closer to living a lifestyle that allows you to express who you really are. I have had a regular home practice since about 2005. Now, I can hardly live without my yoga - and those who live with me would agree! My regular practice (usually 5 days a week) helps me stay happy, healthy, balanced, and be generally a nice person to be around.

How to create a yoga habit

Building a home practice is like creating a new habit. The good news here is that people are creatures of habit. Just try depriving us of our morning cup of coffee or our 2pm cookie-break and it becomes clear: we gravitate towards our habits, in fact, we crave them. So the secret to creating a home practice is to let yoga become a new habit. Thankfully this is something that people have been researching for years! Read some fascinating insights from a Zen perspective, here.

Step 1: Make it so easy you can't say no
The most critical part of creating a new habit is to make it easy for yourself. For most of us, the idea of taking 90 minutes every day to practice yoga is not easy. So while a 90-minute home practice might be your eventual goal, you won't be doing any favours by trying to make it a habit right away. In fact, trying to do your full goal straight away is one of the top reasons that people fail to make the changes in their lives that they dream of.

So instead of picking something difficult that you will then have a hundred excuses not to do, pick something that is SO EASY YOU CAN'T NOT DO IT. And once you've picked that, REALLY COMMIT to it. The easier you make it, the more certain you will be that you can fulfill your commitment.

My recommendation? 7 minutes. 7 minutes is a perfect amount of time to start out with. It's more satisfying than 5 but not as long as 10. Even the busiest among us can carve out 7 minutes (say, the time we spend staring at Facebook) in our day. Now, you might not be busy - you might be able to immediately commit to 10, 15, or even 20 minutes. But remember that when you're starting out, keep your minimum commitment to something that you can really do. If you do more, great, but make sure you can always do that minimum.

Then, decide what you're going to practice. Again, the key at this stage is not what you do, it's simply doing it. So start with something familiar and easy - perhaps cat and cow, followed by a few sun salutations. Or, choose a short online class and follow along.

Whatever you do, don't give in to negative thoughts! Acknowledge them, let them go, and stick with your plan.

Step 2: Pick a reminder from your daily routine
One of the hardest things about creating a new habit is to remember just to do it! And the best way to do this is not to rely on our fickle human memories, but to make sure that we are reminded.

A good reminder is not the same as a beeping noise from your smartphone. To be really effective, it should be connected to something that you already do in your everyday life, so that your new habit becomes a part of your daily routine.

First, think of the time of day when you would like to practice. For the purpose of forming a habit, it's really helpful if this can be the same time everyday, or at least a scheduled time if your daily routine varies too much. Then, think of other things that you regularly do around that time of day and make a list of the things that you do without fail.

For example, my morning list (without yoga) might look something like this:

- Get up
- Shower
- Make coffee
- Drink coffee
- Check my email
- Have breakfast

Next, decide where you want to insert your yoga practice. For me, it comes after I check my email. If you are able to pick the right spot for your practice and regularise the sequence of events around it, your yoga habit will form MUCH more easily.

Second, when you are starting out, use a strong visual cue that can't be ignored.

For example, when I used to practice in the mornings before going to the office (now I work from home), just setting an early alarm clock was not enough, so I would do 2 things to remind myself to get up for yoga in the morning. First, I would get out my yoga clothes and set them by my bed. Second, I would move my furniture and unroll my yoga mat. Setting the alarm wasn't a good enough reminder for me - I had to a) make it easy for myself and b) give myself a visual reminder that made sure I got on my mat in the mornings.

So, if you want to practice in the morning, you could unroll your mat the night before and set up your yoga space. Or, if you want to practice in the evening, unroll your mat before you leave the house, to remind you to do yoga when you get home.

Step 3: Reward yourself when you stick to it!
Getting a reward is a critical part of habit formation. Your subconscious will be much more likely to stick to your new habit if it knows that a reward is coming. For example, my reward after my morning practice is a nice hot shower and a good, big breakfast. Your reward can be as simple as just saying to yourself: "I did it! I'm awesome!"

Step 4: Take your practice with you, everywhere

The wonderful thing about yoga is that it's so much more than just a few postures or meditation. The practices that underpin yoga are things that you can take with you everywhere. I like to call these things "tiny yogas" - breath and body awareness, being present, taking a few deep breaths, and practicing the yamas and niyamas - things you can do anytime, anywhere.

Monday, August 12, 2013

And the silk eye pillow giveaway winner is...

Hey everyone, apologies for the delay in announcing this, but we have a winner!

The winner was chosen by assigning all the entrants with a random number, and then choosing a number using a random number generator. So, without further delay, the winner is...

Alisa Rosenkrance

Congratulations Alisa! If you send me an email to: lagitane (at) mac (dot) com with your postal address, Barefoot Yoga will mail your gift to you.

Once you get it, enjoy it for about 2 weeks and then send back your review and I'll post it on the blog.

Hopefully, dear readers, I'll have some other goodies for you soon. :)


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Yoga Tip Tuesdays - Triangle Pose: Choosing what's right for you, with 5 awesome variations

Ah, triangle pose (tri-kon-asana - three-angle-pose). It's one of the foundational postures of modern yoga (ancient yoga didn't involve any standing postures) and you will probably find it in nearly every yoga class you go to. Because of that, you'll probably find that different yoga styles approach this pose differently, and you may have seen different teachers doing quite different variations of this pose. So all that might leave the yoga student wondering: "which one is right?" Which is totally understandable, but it's not the right question.

The real question is: "which one is right for me?" Now that question, we can work with!

When exploring a yoga pose, whether it's a new one or one you've done a hundred times, there are three simple steps that I have found really helpful over the years.

1) Start with the foundation, and work your way up and out.
2) Remember: function over form!
3) Try different variations

Triangle: The foundation

The foundation of triangle pose is, of course, the feet, which form the base of the pose. The classic alignment cue for the feet is to turn your front foot forward 90 degrees, turn your back toes forward between 30 and 45 degrees, and align the heel of the front foot with the inner arch of the back foot. This is picture b), above.

However, triangle pose requires a fair degree flexibility and range of motion in the hip joint (not to mention flexibility in the hamstrings and groin), so if you are just starting out, if your hips are stiff, if you have trouble balancing (for example because you're pregnant!) or if you're recovering from, say, hip replacement surgery, you can make the base of the pose more stable by having your feet hip-width apart, as shown in a), above. Some teachers cue this by asking people to imagine that their feet are on "railroad tracks," so if you stand with your feet hip width apart, you can move the feet forward or backwards but not wider apart or closer together than hip width. This (a) is the most stable, safest placement for the feet.

Finally, a note on what not to do: don't let the back heel stray backwards of the mid-line of your body! This really destabilises the pose and puts unnecessary strain on the hip joint.

[There is actually a third option which is to keep the feet parallel - we'll talk more about that in the Variations section, below.]

Function over form

Ok, let's be honest. We have ALL seen the photos in the yoga magazines with people doing triangle pose with one palm resting flat on the ground. And even though we are trying to be all "one with where we are," we just can't help it: we WANT that hand to touch the ground. So we creep a bit lower, and a bit lower, and a bit lower, and even though we have kind of lost the stretch a bit, we finally arrive, triumphant, with our palm flat on the mat. Victory! Or not?

Well, have a look at the first picture, above, for an idea of what this kind of thinking actually looks like on the mat. It's a pretty typical illustration of how the mind plays tricks on us and gets in our way (what Patanjali called "false perception," (1.30))! We are confusing the form of the pose, a form that we have seen in a picture, with the actual function of the pose. Our ego drives us to achieve the form, and suddenly we are out of our bodies and our breaths and catapulted into a mentality of hand-to-floor-OR-DIE!, when in fact the function of the pose has absolutely nothing to do with where your hands are.

The actual functions of triangle pose are to stretch the front hamstring and psoas, and the upper side and back muscles (with a secondary stretch in the back hamstring and groin muscles).

So keeping that in mind, if we look at the first picture above, in my desire to get my palm to the floor, I have lost the lengthening stretch in the upper side and back. The photo shows just how far off my alignment I have come, all because of that pesky fixation on the floor! In order to get the stretch that I am supposed to be getting, I want my hips and shoulders to be more or less in line with back foot, creating a big lengthening stretch in the upper side-body. Depending on the day, the temperature, the time, and of course, on my body, I may want to explore a number of different variations to get that wonderful, therapeutic stretch from this pose.


Triangle pose probably has the most variations of any pose I know! ALL of the poses shown below achieve the function of the form. Once you've understood what the function of the pose is, try them all to see how the different variations feel, and which one gives YOU the best stretch.

PS - the "ticks" and "xs" below are definitely not a comprehensive list of recommendations or contra-indications for these poses... Just suggestions. We are all different! If you are recovering from an injury or have a condition like osteoporosis, work with an experienced teacher to find out what's right for you!

  • Hand-to-shin variation: This variation is definitely the most versatile and accessible (no props required!). Simply place your hand on your shin, below the knee, as you extend sideways. To get a deeper stretch, bring the hand lower on the shin, towards the ankle. I don't recommend this variation if: you tend to hyper-extend the knee backwards (because the weight of the hand can make this worse), or if you have weak joints or osteoporosis (same reason).
  • With a block: This variation closely resembles the previous one, but using the block is safer for the knee joint because you can put weight on the block, instead of on your knee! For that reason, this variation is excellent if you are very heavy set or if you are pregnant. Depending on the person and the height of the block, this variation might be suitable if you have osteopenia or osteoporosis, but because yoga blocks are generally quite low to the ground it does still require a fair range of motion in the hips, which is not suited to everyone. I would not recommend this variation if: you have a lower back injury, or if you have severe osteoporosis. If you have  had hip replacement surgery and have recovered your normal range of motion, this would be a good variation, but not during the recovery phase.
  • With a chair: This variation is, in a word, awesome. Using the chair creates a safe support for the stretch that makes it accessible to almost anyone. For extra stability and support (helpful if you are heavily pregnant or for older people who are afraid of falling) you can also do this stretch with your back against a wall to make it safe, supported, and truly sweet.
  • Viniyoga triangle: This is a fantastic variation if you have a more limited range of motion in your hips. This might apply if you are still recovering from a hip replacement, if you have osteoporosis, or for any other reason. In this variation, your feet remain parallel and you simply stretch to the side. You lose the hamstring stretch, but there are other ways to get that. The side stretch is spot-on!
  • Open chain triangle: This is a good option if you have strong joints and are generally injury-free, and want to add a strengthening aspect to your triangle pose. Doing triangle pose "open-chain" (without the support of the hand) means that the side-stretch also becomes load-bearing, so you are strengthening and stretching at the same time. This also creates a greater risk of injury, so I would not recommend this variation if: you have lower back injuries, if you have weak/injured joints or osteoporosis, if you are still recovering from a joint replacement. If you have hypermobile hips, I would not recommend this posture until you have some yoga experience and have built up the strength in your lower back and core, because otherwise you are likely to "hang" into your hips and put extra pressure on the joints. However once you have built up your strength and know how to support your joints, this is an excellent variation for you.
  • Fully extended triangle: These versions are the ones you are most likely to see in books and magazines, and they are wonderful if you have a strong, flexible and healthy body, and no injuries or issues with your lower back, knees or hips. Just make sure that you are retaining the function of the posture as you work towards the form! Note that if you have hypermobility, generally the most extended versions of postures aren't recommended.
 [NB: I've shown different variations here mainly focusing on the hips - if you have a shoulder injury you would also adapt this pose by changing the position of the arms.]

Yoga is about self-inquiry - so be curious!

Don't forget that yoga, fundamentally, is about self-inquiry. Use the poses as a chance to express your curiosity ("what happens if....") and try as many variations as you can. With each variation ask yourself: "how does this feel?" "what feels different?" "what feels good or not good?" And when you find the one that feels best for you in that moment (because everything changes, always!), be bold, and express yourself, no matter what everyone else around you is doing. Because at the end of the day, it's YOUR yoga.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Interview with Kino MacGregor: Thoughts on meditation, menstruation, pain, and chocolate

A few weeks ago I reviewed Kino MacGregor's new book, The Power of Ashtanga Yoga, on the blog. As a follow-up, Kino agreed to answer a few questions for the blog! I am super honoured and appreciative that she took time out of her busy schedule to answer my random philosophical musings... So please read, digest, enjoy, and comment!

Oh, and have you entered the giveaway yet for the chance to win a fabulous lavender silk eye pillow from Barefoot Yoga? No? What are you waiting for?


Interview with Kino MacGregor

YG: You don't talk much in your book about meditation, but I know from your other writing that you have a personal meditation practice. I have heard Ashtanga practitioners argue that the Ashtanga asana system is a complete practice that already incorporates elements of pranayama, pratyahara, dharana and dhyana, so there is 'no need' to meditate. What brought you to a meditation practice and what are some of the effects that you have experienced?
KM: My interest in Ashtanga Yoga came from a desire to quiet my mind and live a more peaceful life. When I went to Mysore to study with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois I would ask him whether I could try meditation practice and he would often respond that if I tried to sit for a long period of time my mind would not be settled. The tool of the physical practice of Ashtanga Yoga is meant to train the body and mind to be strong and steady so that it is fit for deep states of concentration (dharana). The experience of meditation (dhyana) is only possible when the mind is able to maintain continuous unbroken connection with the object of meditation. Most often we experience distractions that draw the mind’s point of focus away. It is not that the traditional practice of Ashtanga Yoga does not recommend meditation but that it is only recommended as a practice when the student is ready. Guruji would say that it would never harm us to sit and try to meditate but that if we merely sit and think for the whole time devoted to meditation that it was “no use”.
My mind is not naturally calm, in fact, it is more naturally jumpy and kinetic. I turned to the discipline of Vipassana meditation to train my mind to steady and strong. I’ve done three 10 day Vipassana meditation courses and I plan on taking another. My daily sitting practice settles my mind. Working with the mind without the addition of a physical posture helps me focus more clearly on the subtle body and the subconscious emotions. Some days (maybe most days) I end up just sitting and thinking as Guruji warned, but other days I am able to slip into a thoughtless, wordless connection with the inner self. When that happens my sense of peace is restored as a deep and fundamental level.  I think every student of yoga can benefit from at least five minutes of seated meditation practice as a supplement to daily asana practice.

YG: I was so appreciative to find that your book had such an emphasis on the spiritual journey that is the heart of yoga, especially given that modern yoga sometimes seems so far removed from its roots as a journey of self-realization. On my blog a while back I mused about how as a yoga teacher, I often contribute to this narrative by assuming that my students are seeking a predominantly physical practice and being too 'shy' to introduce the idea of spiritual transformation for fear that students will run away screaming that you're trying to induct them into a cult. Can you share any advice for teachers who are hoping to incorporate some of these teachings into their asana classes?
KM: The thread that connects all human beings is inherently spiritual. We are drawn to yoga in yearning for a direct experience of the true self.  The epiphany moments of our lives are not based in purely physical experiences, but are a blend of the emotional, physical, mental and spiritual. If you speak from your direct experience of the inner work of the yoga practice you will open a door for others to attain that same experience. If you want to introduce the spiritual essence of the practice to your students the key is to keep it based in your real world experience. If you find yourself speaking too esoterically or too intellectually then people won’t be able to relate. The spiritual side of the practice is an invitation to go deeper.

YG: In your book you talk about how the practice of yoga is not just about performing asanas, but is about transforming the way we live our lives and our relationship to ourselves and the world around us though the yamas and niyamas. You talk passionately about adopting a vegetarian diet as a way of practicing ahimsa towards our planet. What are some of the other practical ways that you live your yoga off the mat? 
KM: Ahimsa, non-violence, is the first of the yamas on the Ashtanga Yoga path and it is a conscious choice to allow peace to be a value. Not only is it asked to live a non-violent life but true ahimsa asks you to leave the world a more peaceful place.  If it is possible to do less harm by eating a vegetarian diet, is it possible to actually heal the planet with a new type of agriculture or paradigm about food?  If it is possible to do the daily sadhana of Ashtanga Yoga, is it possible live every moment in accordance with the yoga lifestlye? For example, when you speak are your words aligned with the yogic path? Adopting a non-violent style of communication is an important conscious step for yoga practitioners. This speaks to the ability of yoga to transform your personal life because our personal relationships are our foundation.

YG: Related to that last question, there has been some critique within yoga community in recent years for being too inwardly-focused, or glorifying the personal journey at the expense of a healthy engagement in the outer world. What led you to look outwards and commit yourself to teaching and sharing yoga with the world?
KM: At some moment there is no difference between the outer journey and the inward journey because what you seek to share with the world is what you seek to discover within. As you delve deeper and discover new layers of the inner self then you will be drawn outward to share that with others.

YG: There is quite a discussion going on in the blogosphere at the moment about pain and Ashtanga. You talk a little bit about pain in your book - what advice do you have for people who are trying to decide whether to "take it and practice with it" or to "back off if it hurts"?
KM: Pain is an important part of the yoga student’s journey. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali state that when dukha (suffering) arises it is associated with the purification of obstacles. If you run from every painful circumstance you will create aversion towards pain. Aversion towards pain is a stated obstacle in the Yoga Sutras. That being said, when pain arises we do not necessary need to hunker down and just “take it”. It’s a sign from the body that some obstacle has arisen and we need to develop a new way of relating with that pain. For example, instead of fighting against it or running from it a way to practice when pain arises is simply to “be” with the painful experience, not going any deeper and especially not to the point of injury, but just allowing the pain to be as it is without any judgment, placing the pain in the purity of the light of awareness. If you allow the pain to simply speak to you it might tell you that the muscle fibers are burning but not being hurt or it might tell you that the joint is impinged and that you are at risk of injury. Once you have that clear sight you can take appropriate action that is based on clarity rather than fear. This is the liberation that the practice offers all students.
Pain in the practice is a great teacher of our emotional response to pain in our life. What do you do when you experience uncomfortable life experiences? Do you run, escape, avoid, fight or collapse? The experience of pain in your yoga practice gives you the forum to develop a new neurological response to adversity in life so that when you come face to face with difficulty you will learn how to walk the middle way between attachment and aversion into a clear, strong path forward and appropriate action.

YG: In my review, I mentioned that I’m surprised that your book doesn’t include any mention of contra-indications for the postures, could you explain what your reasoning was behind that choice?
KM: I believe that with practice and careful direction from a teacher all the postures of the Primary Series can be made accessible over time. It is more important for me to focus on technique that will one day lead to your experience of the posture. I gues I believe, perhaps, naively, in the limitless potential of the human spirit and that yog is an expression of that. In my book I advise students to follow the traditional method and not skip ahead more fun looking postures but to stay at their places of difficulty allow those postures to teach them. While there are clearly some medical conditions that requires extreme care, such as people with auto-immune disease, people who have suffered a heart attack or stroke, or diabetics, the postures can be modified to suit their conditions with the guidance of a qualified teacher. Pregnant women can also continue their practice under the guidance of a qualified teacher.

YG: I really enjoyed the section in your book when you talked about overcoming gender stereotypes (your own and other people's) in your practice. (I was particularly amused by the quote you shared from P. Jois saying that "before, not possible" that women could have performed "correct asana!")  One issue that has always brought up passionate discussion in my teacher trainings has been whether or not to practice during your menstrual period. If it's not too personal, would you mind sharing how you deal with this in your personal practice and/or any advice you have for women practitioners?
KM: Guruji advised women to take the days of heaviest flow of the menstrual cycle (usually one to three days) totally off. The downward flow of energy during that period directly opposes the idea of yoga practice which seeks to bring energy up the spine. The  ovaries are also in a state of flux during which it is not advised to squeeze on them with the deep work of the bandhas. I’ve noticed that women who practice too regularly during their menstrual cycles sometimes experience disruption of the cycle or even infertility. If a woman wants some activity during the cycle I recommend going for a walk, taking a bike ride or even doing some easy restorative yoga but not the intensive Ashtanga Yoga practice.

YG: Ok, enough of the heavy stuff! You and your husband are not only married but you run Miami Life Center together. I'm marrying my partner and best friend early next year, any advice?
Kino: If you are going to work with your life partner I can suggest to set up clear boundaries for work and private life. Tim and I recently switched roles, where he is now the Director of our yoga center in Miami, Miami Life Center and I am focusing more on developing my own teaching both at the center and in my workshops and trainings. I wanted more time to focus on my writing, my online classes and videos and new ventures that I simply didn’t have time to look at while I was involved in the daily operations of a business.

YG: I travel a lot so I know the importance of getting your luggage right. When you travel, what is in your suitcase that you simply can’t live without?
KM: I am attached to my electronics and I love watching movies on my iPad on longer flights, so I need a constant power source. I always have a power adapter for international travel and a double USB cigarette charger with me to plug into the power outlets on airplanes.

YG: Anything else you'd like to share with us? Such as, your thoughts on chocolate-chip cookies or any great books you've read recently?
KM: My favorite chocolate dessert is a really rich lava cake.  I’m a little obsessed with sprouted almonds right now—I think they’re amazing with a little sea salt  and dehydrated to be super crunchy.
I love a really good novel. One of my favorite all time books is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Marukami.

Kino MacGregor is an international yoga teacher, author of two books, producer of six Ashtanga Yoga DVDs, writer, vlogger, world traveler, and co-founder of Miami Life Center ( You can find details of her current book tour, her books, DVDs, videos and other goodies at


Wow. Some amazing and inspirational words there! I suddenly have a massive craving for chocolate cake... What about you, readers?