Saturday, September 29, 2012

Fitness Fuel

Most Yoga and Pilates students know the rule that you should not eat 2 hours before a Yoga or Pilates class. If you didn’t, you do now.  This rule also applies to belly dance, core classes, any class on the fitness ball, boot camp, or any type of fitness class or personal training session that involves twisting, abdominal training, or inverted postures (where your head is below your stomach).  Most people only make the mistake of eating too soon before this type of class once.  After that, they understand the rule without question!

However, what do you do if the class you want to take is not well spaced between your meal times?  Do you skip the meal?  Do you skip the class?  Do you leave your class early because you’re starving?  What if your regular lunch is around noon or 1pm, but your class is at 6pm or 7pm, and you know you won’t be hungry at 4pm to give that 2 hour window?  How do you deal with this dilemma?

I teach a number of classes that start somewhere between 5pm – 7:30pm.  The people who attend them often arrive right after work, or have only been home briefly before heading to the gym.  These people are hungry, but determined to work out.  Unfortunately, when you’re hungry, you’re also tired, cranky, weak, distracted, and unlikely to get the full benefit of your class.  Clearly, starving yourself for a class because the timing doesn’t fit your normal meal schedule is not healthy.  I completely understand your problem, and I have a solution.

Rather than moving your meals around every day to try to fit both your work schedule and your evening class schedule, or starving yourself, or missing out on great classes because you’re too hungry to go to the gym, you should have an appropriate, small snack 75 – 60 minutes before class.  It seems like an obvious solution, I know, but it’s hard to give yourself permission to eat in that forbidden window.  And there is most certainly an art to picking the right snack foods.  If you eat too much, you will be sick once you start working out.  We don’t want that!  If you eat too little, or the wrong thing, you will make yourself hungrier in the process.  We don’t want that either!  What you want is a small, light, but nutritionally packed snack that will give you power and energy and stop the hungry feeling, while also leaving your stomach empty enough to handle twisting, crunching, and forward bending.  It sounds like a tall order when you look at the big picture, but that’s what Yoga teachers are for. I can help you with this.

I have compiled a list of just the right kind of snacks and portion sizes to help you with this problem.  I recognize that nutrition related decisions confound most fitness goers.  They’re being buffeted from all sides by the latest diet trends and conflicting information.  I’m not going to ask you to take a formula and figure it out.  All you have to do is look down the list and figure out what is going to work well for you.  I’ll even tell you why these snacks are the right choice to help you with your hunger problem, and I recognize that many of my students and readers are vegan or vegetarian, and I am completely sympathetic to that need.  I also realize that you may need to have this snack on the road or standing in the break room before you leave work, so ingredients and preparation for them are minimal. All of them are portable.

  •  One banana cut length wise with ½ - 1 tablespoon of peanut butter spread on it:  This also works well on apple slices, but I recommend the banana if you like them because they are higher in potassium, which you will need if you sweat at all during your class.  You’re also not limited to peanut butter. You can use almond butter, macadamia nut butter, soy nut butter, or any similar spread that you like.  You don’t need a lot of the nut butter, though.  A little will be enough to cut the hunger.  A lot of these kinds of products can be oily, so if you eat too much, they won’t settle well in your stomach.  Just the apple or banana alone will work fine, but won’t have as much staying power to prevent recurrent hunger as just a ½ tablespoon of nut butter will lend them.

  •  A handful of almonds with a handful of apple slices: just 1 handful of each is enough.  Almonds are the best choice of nut because they are less oily and high in fiber.  However, if you don’t like almonds, feel free to use cashews, peanuts, hazelnuts, or whatever you do like.  Keep the portion small and include a small amount of fruit.  Apples also have a high fiber content, so they leave you feeling sated.  The nuts give the apple a more lasting effect.  You could use a banana (again high in potassium) or an apricot, or figs.  All of these fruits are high in nutrients your body is likely to need during your work out. Make sure that you use fresh fruit.  Canned or dried fruit will often contain much more sugar per portion than fresh fruit.  If you eat a lot of sugar before your work out, you may have a brief increase in energy, but it will quickly burn off and leave you feeling hungrier than ever.  Always choose the freshest, least processed options for your snacks.

  • Kale Chips:  I cannot say enough good things about kale.  This snack is low in fat and high in just about every possible nutrient you could want.  It’s also filling thanks to its fantastic fiber content.  For the record, kale chips are very easy to make.  Ten minutes in the oven at 350 degrees with just the lightest brush of olive oil or flaxseed oil will produce a lovely, crunchy kale chip.  You can add salt, pepper, or whatever seasonings you like.  I like a sprinkle of cayenne on my kale chips. It works best to sprinkle the chips with seasonings before you bake them.  One loose cup of fresh kale will give you plenty of chips to combat your hunger.

  • Veggie sticks with hummus:  You can use any vegetable that you like: carrots, bell peppers, celery, snow peas, cucumbers, radishes, parsnips.  Squash or zucchini cut into sticks also work well for this.  You only need about a handful of veggies with 1 – 2 tablespoons of hummus.  Keep the portions small.  Vegetables are high in fiber and always a good choice when you need to stop your stomach from chewing on you between meals.

  • For non-vegans, ½ cup of cottage cheese with a handful of fruit or veggies:  If you don’t like cottage cheese, a single cheese stick of any variety that you do like can be used instead.

  • A little fruit with a small amount of yogurt: I highly recommend cutting open a nice ripe apricot and filling the pitted center with just little yogurt.  The portion is 1 apricot plus about 1 tablespoon of yogurt.  This yogurt based snack option will satisfy your appetite without over filling your stomach.  I use plain Greek yogurt when I eat this snack, but you can use any kind of yogurt that tastes good to you.

  • A small portion of just yogurt: this one you’ll want to be careful about.  Yogurt cuts the hunger well, but doesn’t always settle as nicely in the stomach.  Some brands are also very high in sugar, so you may end up hungrier before you make it home for dinner.  Always read the label.  Know what you're eating.  But it’s portable, so I know it’s appealing.  If you can get this snack into your system at about the 2 hour mark before your class, it will likely fuel you well until your class ends.  If you try to down a single serving of yogurt right before class, it might try to come right back up when you start doing abdominal compressions.  If you like yogurt, and this feels like a top choice snack for you, then you can try cutting the normal portion in half so that it is less likely to feel heavy in your stomach.  This option works for any type of yogurt: Greek-style, standard dairy yogurt, soy yogurt, coconut milk yogurt, or almond milk yogurt.  I highly recommend coconut milk yogurt as being fortifying and least likely to make you uncomfortable if you have to eat it right before class.  Eat half before class—leaving as much time before the class actually starts as possible—and save the other half to eat the moment you get out of class so you won’t be ravenous when you get home.

Any one of these options will keep you strong and sated through your work out.  Yes, only one.  It’s enough.  If you eat more than that, your stomach will be too full to handle your class routine, and then you’re back to square one.  It’s also a great idea to have one of these snacks ready in your locker for you to eat after your work out or on your way home from the gym.  It will be small enough that it doesn’t ruin dinner for you, but will prevent you from over eating at dinner if it has been a long time since your last full meal.

Naturally, leaving your 2 hour window before class totally free of eating is ideal.  But when you must have something, choose something light, filled with fiber and complex carbohydrates, and low in sugar, oils, or fats.  Never go hungry.  Forcing your body to work when it has run out of fuel slows your metabolic rate way down and actually causes you to store rather than burn calories.  So, get your healthy, small snacks ready.  Hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more of you at the gym, and hearing a lot less of your growling stomach.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Equinox: Striking the Balance

This past Saturday was the Autumnal Equinox, the official first day of Fall.  Up here, in the Seattle area of the Pacific Northwest, Fall literally happened over night.  All week it was warm and sunny like Summer.  I woke up Friday morning to the cool, overcast weather that is typically associated with Western Washington, and all the leaves had turned.  Just like that, Instant Fall!  I suspect most areas experience a less sudden and dramatic change of seasons.  Where I grew up, in Florida, you start to notice Fall about the time it should be starting Winter.  I've lived in this region for almost a decade, and it still amazes me that Fall happens right on cue rather than gradually sneaking up on you some time around Thanksgiving.  However, the Equinox happens everywhere, heralding the start of Autumn, whether it feels like it or not.

What actually happens on the Equinox is the hours of the day are perfectly balanced to the hours of the night: they are equal in length, "Equinox."  In honor of this occasion, I feel it appropriate to examine the value of balance in daily life and the part it plays on the road to inner peace.

For someone like me, a Yoga, Pilates, and Dance Instructor, the word "balance" is so second nature and integral to my thoughts as to be easily taken for granted.  I recently stood in for a fellow Yoga instructor, and her class commented on how much of a balance element there was in my class.  It surprised and challenged them.  I was surprised it was so unfamiliar for them, but every teacher is different.  We have our strengths and weakness, and we will tend to teach toward our strengths.  As a former ballet dancer, balance is my strength.

In a broader scope, truly, where there is balance, there is harmony.  This applies to all aspects of life.  When something is out of balance, there is discord.  Bringing things into balance creates ease and joy.  I would like to suggest that now, at the balance of the seasons, is the ideal time to examine the aspects of your life that need to be balanced.  Is your health in balance?  Do you balance active pursuits with enough restful time?  Is your work life balanced with a healthy dose of recreation?  Do you balance social life and solitude?  Is your income balanced by your expenditure, a balanced budget, as it were?  If you are a very giving person, as most spiritual folk are, do you balance it with the ability to freely receive?  The list goes on and on. I challenge you to take a few moments to look at what areas of your life are filled with discord, pain, fear, stress, or anything else that essentially equals being out of balance. What would it take to bring those things into balance, to fill that area of your life with pleasure, harmony, and ease?  Begin taking steps to bring that balance back into your areas of discord.  You don't have to make the change over night, like the seasons of the Pacific Northwest.  You can always choose a gentle change, but at least take the first steps.  Bring the right balance into your being, and figure out what you need to do to keep it that way for life.

Friday, September 14, 2012

When in Doubt

One of the foundations of Yoga is deep breathing.  I talked fairly extensively about the benefits of Yoga breathing and methods for improving breath control in my book, Kundalini Rising.  I'd like to devote some of my posts via Peace in the Body to examining breath work as well.

Let's start with the most basic controlled breath: an equal length in-breath followed by equal length out-breath.  The concept is quite simple, but people often struggle with it when they first begin.  I think the reason something so simple feels so hard is that we are not taught to breathe.  It's instinct; it's necessary; it's life.  We assume that we all do it well because we must.  Unfortunately, this simply isn't true.  We can get enough air to keep ourselves alive, but few people use their lung capacity well without training.  If you do not already do breath work as part of your daily health regimen, consider what a great untapped resource of rejuvenation and power you have right in your own chest.  This is something anyone can do, and anyone can improve.  Do you suffer from dizziness, anxiety, high blood pressure, insomnia, asthma, stress, fits of rage, depression, confusion, headaches or migraines, tension, poor memory, or chronic fatigue?  All of these things can be improved by conscious, active deep breathing and breath control. Do you want to improve your athletic stamina?  You need breath control for that, too.  Breath work not only strengthens your lungs, but your cardiovascular system as well.  Breath work also is a necessary foundation for meditation and integral to any relaxation technique.

This first exercise, the one I'm focusing on in this post, is The Equal Length Breath.  It is a great starting place for anyone who struggles with deep breathing or has had trouble with any of the above symptoms.  The best times to use this technique are right before bed, first thing in the morning, when you are in the grip of one of the issues I've listed above, before meditation or at the beginning or end of any physical exertion.  This exercise opens the lungs and increases the amount of oxygen circulating in your blood stream.  Over time it improves your lung capacity and mental efficiency.  It also gives your body the signal to continue using the opened lungs more fully after the exercise has ended, so the effect is longer lasting than just the time you spend doing the exercise.  It triggers your sympathetic nervous system  to slow down, shifting you out of a reactive state, into one that is more peaceful and aware.

To do The Equal Length Breath all you need to do is breathe in for a 5 count, and back out for a 5 count.  Do not try to hold your breath at all.  Let it flow in for 5 seconds and flow right back out for 5 seconds.  Do that again 10 or 15 times and then let the breath flow without counting.  Five is the lowest count you should ever do, and I expect most people whose lungs are not compromised can start higher. An 8 or 10 count is much more effective, but if you've never done any deep breathing or breath work or if you have lung disease, 5 is a good starting place.  After you've tried this a few times, increase your count to 6.  Then try 8.  Once you're able to do 10 don't ever go back to 5 or 8.  Always count very slowly.  There is a tendency to want to count faster and faster, especially if you are a goal oriented person.  The goal is not to finish the exercise!  Pushing for the end will actually cause you to miss the purpose of doing this.  The goal is to complete the best, slowest, most fully equivalent breaths that you can. If you think the counting you are doing has started to speed up, start over and count slower.  Always maintain a perfectly even count.  The basic 10 count is a great platform for breath work even if you haven't done it in a while. I always asks my classes to try their breath on a 10 count, and I don't feel like that is not too much to ask of Yoga practitioners.  You can increase it from there as you feel ready.  I generally count to around 30 or 40 myself, but have gotten up to 90 or 100 when I'm meditating.  For the record, I was born with fairly severe asthma, and I struggled with it all through my childhood, teens, and into my early 20's.  Growing up, I had the weakest lungs of anyone I knew.  If I can learn to do this, so can you!   

When you do this breathing exercise, I recommend breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.  This will help you maintain control, focus, and flow of the breath.  It should feel like your breath is a circle.  Breathing in takes you half way around the circle.  Breathing out completes it. One cycle of the breath is a full circle: all the way in and all the way out.  I always like to suggest that as you breathe in, you focus on the feeling of joy, filling yourself with good health and happiness, and as you breathe out, feel any tension, pain, or anxiety flowing out and evaporating into thin air.  Breathe in only what feels good.  If anything in your mind or body doesn't feel joyful, breathe it out and just fill your thoughts with the counting of the breath.  The numbers are neutral.  Use them to clear the cluttered thoughts out of your mind.

I always tell my classes, "The breath is more important than the postures.  When in doubt, just breathe."  That is what I am telling you, too.  Whatever you face today, pain or joy, whatever the obstacle, big or small, the first and best thing you can do is just breathe.