5 Tips to Take Control of Your Kitchen (And Your Health)

I think it’s safe to say that we all want to feel good in our bodies and to live our most healthy lives. Of course, there is a lot to think about in terms of living a healthy lifestyle. It’s important to be active by finding some kind of movement or exercise that feels good for you and fits well into your lifestyle. Self-care and stress relief are also huge in this day and age, and it’s crucial that you find the practices or the rituals that work for you (self-massage, face masks, meditation, journaling, essential oils, etc.). But a large part of living a healthy lifestyle starts in the kitchen by eating a healthy, well-balanced diet.

Eating healthy can be a daunting thing. A lot of us don’t feel super comfortable in our kitchens and often label ourselves as a “bad cook.” It’s just so easy to grab the quick processed foods that allow us to avoid our kitchens. Plus, there are so many fad diets out there and so much conflicting research about what we should and should not eat (A simple way to approach this is just try and stick to whole foods like veggies, fruits, legumes, and whole grains and avoid processed items). It can be super overwhelming when you are getting started, and it’s going to be a learning process that’s different for everyone. So, experimentation is necessary. But I wanted to just share a few of my favorite tips for taking control of your kitchen and making healthier food choices.

1. Learn More

Do your research! Take some time to dive in to some literature on healthy diets. Maybe this means you look up well-reviewed books on this topic that you can order from Amazon. Maybe you spend some time on Pinterest or on Google searching for articles or blogs about healthy living. Maybe you get on Instagram and search for hashtags that may lead you to recipe ideas or people in the industry to follow for inspiration. Whatever your favorite method of learning may be, take some time to do a little digging. Maybe you find a great podcast or documentary. Whatever works for you. Just do some reading or listening or watching. Learn a little bit about the human body and how it processes food. Become familiar with the benefits of eating certain things. Maybe you go into this with a specific goal such as weight loss/gain, heart health, blood pressure, digestive issues, energy levels, etc. Start your research around your chosen topic. See what foods may benefit you and what foods you may want to avoid. Again, we are all different, so this will be a bit of an experiment. Maybe a super healthy food might make you feel kind of crappy. So even though this particular food may be praised by people in the industry, if your body doesn’t process it well, then you will want to avoid it. But just take some time to learn more about food and what it can do for you. If you are serious about living a healthier lifestyle, this is a great way to start and a great thing to keep coming back to. The search for knowledge is a never-ending journey. Pursue it in a way that is enjoyable to you, and make adjustments as you learn more about your own individual body and its needs.

2. Be Creative

I truly believe that putting together a meal is an act of creating art. Whether you are cooking a beautiful dish, chopping up fruits and veggies, baking a delicious dessert, re-heating up leftovers from the night before, or throwing a snack together on a plate, I believe it can be done in an artful way. I think in every single thing you do in your life, there is room to make it your own. Every single task you complete has a little bit of space for you to sprinkle your own unique magic into it. Chop vegetables in a way that you think is cool. I’ve cut cucumbers into star shapes just for the hell of it. Put your food together on your plate in a way that is pleasing to the eye. I love making designs with fruits and nuts on top of my smoothie bowls. Maybe when you are choosing side dishes, think of the colors of the food and choose colors that would look good next to each other on a plate. One of the good things about veggies is that they come in all the colors of the rainbow! If you turn mealtime into a time for artistic expression, maybe it won’t be so daunting. Also, don’t be afraid to stray from the recipes a bit. Be creative with the foods you pair. Maybe you’ll come up with a bomb combination that no one has thought of before. Everyone has different tastes, so if a recipe calls for a combo that doesn’t sound great to you, tweak it until it does. Add some different spices or toppings. Try different methods of cooking things. Yes, you will probably find that some of your creative experimentation didn’t turn out so great. But that’s okay, too! Which brings me to my next tip…

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes

Trust me, you’re going to make mistakes in the kitchen. You’re going to burn things. Overcook things. Undercook things. Over-salt things. Combine things that should never be combined. Add too many spices or not enough. But you will learn from your mistakes. You will begin to hone your skills and learn the techniques that work best for you. Mistakes always leave room for growth. And growth comes with time and practice. Don’t use the excuse, “I can’t cook.” Everyone can cook. You just have to try. And you have to realize that everyone makes mistakes. Just because you burn your dinner does not mean that you should retire from the kitchen forever and wear the “Terrible Cook” badge for the rest of your life. You just have to dust yourself off and try again. Learn from your mistakes. Allow them to be your teacher. We all have to start somewhere, right? Don’t let it get you down. It’s just food. It’s always going to be there, and it will always give you a second chance.

4. Meal Prep

One of the most practical tips I have for eating a healthier diet is MEAL PREP. Yes, I realize that I shouted that in all caps, but that’s because I truly believe it’s that important. Meal prep is super duper helpful for me. Sundays have become my meal prep days. I usually get on Pinterest Sunday morning, choose a few lunch/dinner recipes, and write down the ingredients that I need to buy. Then I add any breakfast, snack, or dessert items to my list, and I head off to the grocery store. I try to stick to my list, because if I let myself loose in the produce section, I buy way too much, and it always ends up going bad before I have time to eat it. Not to mention spending way too much money. Plus, if I end up buying veggies that aren’t for a dish that I already have in mind, I end up forgetting about it and never using it. So, for me, it’s best to stick to my list. Then I go home, and I get to work. I make my two to three big recipes, and store them in tupperware containers – this way it’s easy to scoop out a serving to take for lunch or to reheat quickly when I’m hungry. Another thing I like to do is make a batch of quinoa, black beans, and some kind of roasted veggies. I store them in separate containers in the fridge, and then I either add them as sides or toppings to other meals, or I combine them all together for a meal on their own. I also chop up any extra fruits or veggies and store them in tupperware containers to make for easy snacking or smoothie making. For some reason, I am more likely to snack on pre-cut celery than to wash and chop a few celery stocks anytime I’m craving a snack. Lazy, but true. It’s just such a time saver. But anyway, after just a few short hours, my fridge is stocked full of healthy meals and snacks that are quick and convenient and ready for the week. Because no one wants to come home after a long day of work when you are starving and exhausted and have to cook an entire meal, am I right? But instead of grabbing a convenient processed snack to chomp on while watching Netflix, meal prepping earlier in the week allows you to quickly scoop out a serving of a healthy meal, reheat quickly, and do something good for your body while you relax in the evening.

5. Have Fun!

My final tip about taking control of your kitchen and living a healthier lifestyle is to have fun! Yes, it’s that simple. If you allow yourself to have fun cooking and preparing healthy meals, then you will be more likely to come back to it. Being creative with your recipes and meal presentation will help with this. But also, try combining other things you love with cooking your healthy meals. Listen to some dope music and dance around your kitchen while you stir ingredients together. Maybe you bring your laptop in and you watch Netflix or listen to a podcast. Maybe you sing. Maybe you and your partner or your kids cook together and turn it into a fun bonding activity. Maybe you meditate while you chop your veggies. Do squats while you’re waiting for your water to boil. Whatever calls to you. Just make it fun! Try not to dread your kitchen. You are doing something great for your body. Don’t turn it into a chore. Mindset is everything. If you start to look forward to cooking and experimenting and creating healthy meals in your kitchen, eating healthy will be easy! So, get in there. Do some research. Get creative. Get messy. Make mistakes. Plan ahead. And HAVE FUN!

Yoga is for EVERYONE.

 

I’m back! It’s been way too long since I’ve actually sat down to write. But the month of June was a big one for me. Intense, informative, exhausting, life-changing. I completed a month-long intensive yoga teacher training. Intense is in its name for a reason. For the whole month of June, we had four days off. And even those days were often filled with homework and reading assignments for the training. To be honest, even on my time off, it was hard to separate myself from the yoga world I had thrown myself into. I would try to take some time for me or take some time to spend with my boyfriend. But ultimately, my mind would always wander back to yoga. My days were so full of discussions on yoga history and philosophy that it was hard to switch to anything else. And the anatomy discussions led to me analyzing the alignment of strangers on the street. I was entirely consumed. Again, it was intense. But it was also beautiful and inspiring. And eye opening.

Over the course of the month, I learned a great amount about the practice of yoga and the ways of sharing this practice as an instructor, but I also learned so much about myself as a person. There were sixteen other women participating in this training with me, and due to the intense structure, long hours, and intimate nature of the yoga practice, we got to know each other pretty well. Getting to know these beautiful souls, and hearing their experiences and perspectives, taught me so much about my own feelings and experiences. These women taught me about who I am, who I want to be, and the world I want to create for myself. They reminded me of what I love about yoga, and they introduced me to new things to consider as well. They also showed me the kind of yoga teacher I want to be. These women were my mirrors, my teachers, and my friends.

I also learned so much about my own physical practice. I paid closer attention to my alignment. My strengths and my weaknesses. I noticed where I was pushing myself too far and where I could afford to push myself a little more. I also grew to appreciate the sacred space I have created for myself on my mat even more. My yoga practice began as a home practice, finding what feels good in my body. Moving in ways that allow me to open and feel strong. Expressing myself freely on my mat. Finding a place that is just for me. A sacred space. A home. My mat is a place that I always, always belong. No judgement. No one to please but myself. The more I learned about the practice of yoga in general and the practice of yoga as it has been experienced by all my fellow trainees, the more I realized how expansive this practice is. For me, yoga creates a sacred space for me to come home to myself. For others, it can be completely different. We all come to our mats for different reasons, and I think we all step away from our mats with different experiences. That’s the beauty of it.

Whether you’ve never done yoga before or you are a seasoned yoga veteran, your mat holds something special tailored just for you. This practice of yoga has so much to offer to everyone. It comes in many shapes and sizes and colors and forms. Maybe you think that because of who you are (how you look, the shape or size of your body, your level of flexibility, your strength, your personality, your religion, whatever!) you “can’t” do yoga. Or maybe you think you don’t want to. Maybe you think it’s just not for you. But after this month of diving in to the nitty gritty of this practice, I’ve seen that it really can be for you. It can be for all of us. No matter where you come from, what you believe in, or what you are looking for, yoga has something to give. Maybe you’re still unsure. That’s okay! I promise you that yoga is more than what you think it is. It’s a practice that offers so much. But you can just take what works for you and leave what doesn’t. It’s that simple. And it can’t hurt to try.

I want you to take a second and think about a reason that you might want to try yoga. Maybe you want to be more flexible or more strong. Maybe you want to reduce stress and anxiety. Maybe you want to increase your energy or you need help sleeping. Maybe you need to improve your digestion or other organ functions. Maybe you have a particular tense or sore spot you want to relieve. Maybe you just want to feel better in your body. Whatever your reason might be is valid. Now, I want you to think about the barrier you have put up that has been keeping you from actually trying yoga. Maybe you think you are too overweight or not flexible enough. Maybe you’re a guy and you think that yoga is for women only. Maybe you think you are too old. Maybe you think it goes against your religion. Maybe you think it’s only stretching and too slow moving for you. Whatever. Finally, I want you to imagine that this barrier you have put up does not exist. Because it doesn’t. There is nothing that can stop you from practicing yoga. Nothing. Yoga is for EVERYONE. Every body type, every age, every gender. Everyone. And it comes in so many different styles and forms and practices. Yoga is so much bigger than many people know.

So, if I’ve convinced you, and you want to try yoga, what’s the first step? Well, you have already taken the first step. You have opened your mind to something new, and you have acknowledged that you want to take better care of yourself. With yoga, the most important thing is showing up to your mat. Showing up for yourself. The next step is reaching out. Send me a message! Let me know why you think you might want to try yoga and why you think you haven’t tried it yet. I’ll do my best to give you some information on how to get started. I’ll give you any recommendations about styles of yoga to try, online videos, things you can do at home, books to read, whatever you are looking for! I’m here for any questions you might have. And if you happen to live in or around the Pittsburgh area, we can discuss possible one-on-one yoga lessons. I’m here to help. I want to share this magical practice with as many people as I can, because I believe whole heartedly that this practice has the power to change lives. Because it has changed mine, and I know it can change yours in whatever way you need it to. If I have learned anything in my month-long yoga training, it’s that I know for certain how passionate I am about sharing yoga with the world and making it accessible to the people who believe it’s not for them. So, please reach out. Send me a message. Ask me any questions. I really want to hear from you! Send me an email at nicol.eliz.yoga@gmail.com. Thanks for reading, and I hope to talk to you soon. Namaste, my friends.

How a Serial People Pleaser Got Back in Touch with Her Heart

For years, I had been living in a fog, going through life avoiding myself. My feelings, my pain, and my fear. My whole life up to this point had been controlled by an incessant need to please others. My family, my friends, the world. As a kid, my family was constantly falling apart, and being the “perfect” little girl that I was, I became the fixer. I was the glue holding everybody together. I was the rock. The dependable one. I was a chameleon, changing myself to be whoever the people around me needed me to be. Flash forward several years to a young girl, living on her own, incapable of making a decision without confirmation of approval from the people closest to her. I was constantly afraid of doing things that made me truly happy, worrying it would only end up disappointing someone. Feeling like I wasn’t allowed to struggle with my own shit because I had to be there for everyone else. I couldn’t fall apart; they needed me. So, I shoved my feelings down into the pit of my stomach. Hid my pain. I was moving through my life not really sure of who I was, only who everyone else wanted me to be, always trying to live up to the standard of the “perfect” girl I believed they all saw me to be. One day, I woke up tired. Tired of holding everyone else up when all I wanted to do was fall. Tired of not being able to know how I was actually feeling anymore because I had been silencing myself for so long. Tired of being the supporting character for my loved ones and never being the leading lady of my own life.  I knew I must go on an adventure, alone, attempting to allow nature to heal my soul. Attempting to feel something again. Allowing myself to take a step away from my family and the people I love. Allowing myself to discover who I actually am and who I want to be.

I set off alone into the wild, destination unknown. Hoping the universe would guide me. A few hours into my journey, I sat down to have a snack. I closed my eyes, truly enjoying the sunshine on my skin, the silence, and the serenity. I was beginning to feel something. I couldn’t be sure, but it felt like joy. I opened my eyes, and in the distance, I saw a mountain. I’d seen this mountain through my bedroom window for years, but this time, it looked different. And it seemed to be calling to me in a language only the two of us could understand. I had been hoping for a sign like this, searching for a place to belong. Just like that, the mountaintop became my new destination.

It took me another two hours to reach the base of the mountain. It wasn’t very tall, but the surface was violently rocky. I looked up, and I heard the mountain whisper. He was inviting me into his heart. I took off my backpack; I took off my shoes. Somehow, it seemed disrespectful to bring anything but myself. This space was sacred, I could feel it. I didn’t want to do anything that might offend the mountain, my new friend. I’d never climbed without my gear before, but somehow, I had a feeling it would be okay. Just myself and the clothes on my back, I took a deep breath and began my climb. Before long, I had reached the top. My hands and feet were bloody. My legs were bruised. Arms weak and exhausted. But I made it. I was home.

The wind began to blow and swirl around me. I understood that this was the mountain embracing me, welcoming me. All of a sudden, almost as if a light switch had been turned on, I began to feel. I became overwhelmed with everything I had been trying to hide, all the feelings I’d been silencing for years, all the desires deep within my heart. Tears began to fall uncontrollably down my cheeks. I had come out here to make myself feel again, and here I was, feeling everything all at once. It was intense, and I was literally trembling with emotion. The mountain whispered into my ear one more time. He said, “You must let go.”

Right then, I felt that I knew what I needed to do. It was like I was moving in a trance, like I already knew what was to come next. Just as I’d hoped, the universe was guiding me. All of a sudden, my clothes began to feel heavy, like they were weighing me down. Immediately, I stripped it all off. Every single piece of clothing. I wanted zero distractions. This was about me and only me, nothing else. Back to basics. Back to my natural state. Completely naked, completely vulnerable, I stood on the edge of the mountain, closed my eyes, and screamed at the top of my lungs. I screamed for my pain. I screamed for my sadness. My anger and my fear. I screamed for lost loves, lost dreams. For mistakes and misunderstandings. I screamed for my family. My disappointments. My failures. I screamed for self-doubt, insecurity, and self-hate. I screamed for the world. I screamed for myself. And just like my friend insisted, I let it all go.

When I opened my eyes and gazed out over the world below, the beauty of it all took my breath away. The colors were so vibrant. The trees, lakes, and hills were all just so beautiful. And my city, the place where I often felt so lost and misunderstood and trapped, shined like a diamond in the distance. I had been surrounded by all of this beauty my entire life, but I never saw it. All these memories and pains and emotions that I had been holding hostage, stashed away in my inner dungeon so I’d never have to face them, were actually imprisoning me. I was locked in a jail cell of my own making. I was trapped and living my life in a fog. Never feeling, never appreciating, never seeing beauty. Never living.

Our feelings and our experiences are all justified. They all happen for a reason. We have to accept them for what they are. We have to accept the way they make us feel, no matter how painful that may be. All of these things exist in our lives to teach us something. We have to let them in. We have to let them change us and shake us so that we can become the people we were meant to be. Keeping our sadness, our anger and our pain locked away may be tempting at times, but in doing so we sacrifice the ability to live a true, authentic life. And in the end, we sacrifice the ability to see beauty in the world around us. Think about it. What kind of life would that be?

We must allow ourselves to feel. Everything. Only then can we discover where we belong. Only then can we discover who we really are and who we want to be. Only then can we stumble upon our mountaintop. Our home.

I took a deep breath in, soaking up everything I had just seen, everything I had just felt. I wiped the tears from my eyes, grabbed my clothes, and headed back to my life with a new perspective. From that day on, all I had to do was look out my window at the mountaintop in the distance to remind myself that whenever I’m feeling bogged down or lost in my life, there are only two things I need to do. First, I need to feel everything. Anything that bubbles up inside of me, I must feel it. I must sit with it and really feel it. No matter how uncomfortable it makes me. Secondly, I must let it all go. I might take a few deep breaths, do some yoga, create something, or scream at the top of my lungs. Whatever it takes. But I must let it go. I must not let these things control me or my life. I must let it all go.

Soon after returning from my adventure, I discovered that there really is beauty in everything, and every single day I am reminded that finding a place to belong must begin inside of me. I still struggle sometimes with living my life for me more than for anyone else, but since that day, I began to live my life fully and honestly, listening to all of the cues from that quiet place inside of myself. And now, anytime the wind blows and swirls around me, I am reminded of my majestic friend and the adventure I once took to the center of my heart. I am reminded to let it all in and to let it all go.

Redefining Beauty

When she was a little girl, she would lie in bed at night trying to imagine what her life would be like when she got older, hoping with all her might that she would be pretty. Fast forward a few years, and sure enough, her wish came true. But now, as she stands here, a very beautiful woman, she contemplates what her life was like before that prettiness defined her. She thinks back to a time when she was praised for being smart and talented. Back to a time when her beauty was not the first compliment out of a strangers mouth, leading her to believe that her looks were her most important quality. Leaving her to put too much focus on her outer appearance, resulting in her having a distorted view of her own body, who she was and what she was worth. What she was capable of. How others would see her. Leaving her desperate to hear these words in order to feel okay.

She thinks back to a time when she could walk down the street without strange men honking their horns, whistling, or telling her how pretty she was. Making her feel unsafe. Forever putting a negative connotation on the idea of beauty. Making her wish she was never seen at all. She began to hate being called pretty just as much as society made her need to hear it. And when she did hear it, I hope you don’t think for a second that it ever actually shifted the way she felt about herself. It just put further focus on the world’s obsession with outer beauty. And how impossible the expectation was to live up to.

It scared her how easily beauty could be turned into objectification and fear, but she also couldn’t let go of the obsession. This obsessive need for the world to see her as their version of beautiful. The obsession would then transform into guilt. Guilt for eating too many cookies. Guilt for not working out enough. Hatred for that little bit of fat on her belly and her arms. Obsession with clean eating followed by tears of self-disgust after binging on chips and ice cream. She was tired of fighting with herself. She was tired of trying to keep up with society’s idea of what made a “pretty girl.” She knew it was bullshit, but it was there just the same, playing over and over in her head. Taunting her. Shaming her. She was tired of finally feeling confident enough to freely express her version of beauty out in the open only to be scared back into hiding herself because of unwanted words and lingering stares from men. She was torn between needing to be told she was pretty and needing to never hear that word directed at her ever again.

But one thing was for certain: she was tired of this beauty defining her in all of its forms. And most of all, she was tired of being misunderstood. She was tired of not being seen for who she really was. But she wasn’t ready to entirely give up on the idea of beauty. She had seen enough of the world by now to understand that beauty is not skin deep, but it does exist. It is real. Beauty is something that is found inside each and every one of us. She was tired of being told she was pretty by people she’d never met, because how could they know? They’d never seen her soul.

Today, she no longer wishes to be pretty. She wishes to be free. Free from the prison society has created. These nights, she lies in bed dreaming of being brave. Kind. Inspiring. She dreams of a world where she can feel safe walking down the street, without having to avoid eye contact in case a passing stranger decides to view a friendly smile as an invitation. A world where being pretty can mean more than one thing and can look different from person to person. Where beauty is all inclusive. Where beauty is synonymous with strength and fire. Bravery and passion. Raw, real emotion. Authenticity. Vulnerability. She is ready to let the world’s limited and disturbing idea of beauty go. She wants to move on. Today, she knows that beauty is more than being pretty. If only she could rewind her life to tell that little girl that being seen as pretty isn’t everything. That her body is perfect, no matter what everyone else looks like. That being pretty on the outside only matters when it comes from the inside. From being kind. Compassionate. Authentic. That being herself is what makes her pretty. She wishes she could rewind her life to every single moment she’s ever felt inadequate. To every time someone told her she was beautiful but she just didn’t have it in her to believe them. She wishes she could erase the pain of wanting so much to be thought of as pretty but never feeling like she was enough in the eyes of the world. She’s done with it all. She’s letting it all go. Because we all have beauty inside of us. Every single one of us. We just need a little self-love and creative expression to give it wings and to set it free from its prison deep inside our hearts.

This is where yoga can come in. Self-love is the practice, and yoga is the tool to cleanse the negative thoughts from our beautiful minds. Yoga can set our beauty free. Yoga can bring out the love in all of us. Maybe if we begin to heal ourselves from the inside out there will be less anger in the world. Leading to less violence. Less hate. Maybe if we begin to heal and love ourselves, we can begin to love others. Maybe women can feel safe and supported for being beautiful and expressing themselves openly in the world. Maybe we will all begin to see the beauty in everyone around us. Maybe young girls will stop hating and hurting themselves to fit in with a narrow standard of beauty. Maybe these girls will begin to understand that those things that make them weird and different are the same things that make them beautiful. Maybe we can all come together, no matter our differences, and make our world a more accepting place. Maybe self-love and kindness can be the new standard of beauty. Maybe this love can cure all of our hearts. Can cure our pain and our fear. Maybe yoga can cure us all.

What Is A Yogi? (And How Do I Become One)- Part Six: The Innermost Quest

The remaining limbs of yoga are more internal concepts. In a way, I like to think of the last four limbs as the final steps on the path of the inward journey of yoga and self-discovery. For me, they all sort of go together, so I thought I’d break them down one after another in a single post.

The fifth limb of yoga is Pratyahara which translates to the control of the senses. Basically, yogis are to practice gaining mastery over external influences. The purpose of this limb is to not be distracted from our journey inward by the material things around us. Instead, we should work toward withdrawing our energy from the senses. This does not mean that a yogi must physically withdraw from the world by hiding in a small white room to avoid all external influences. Pratyahara is the practice of being aware of the things happening around you (the sounds, the sights, the smells, the interactions with other people, etc.), but not reacting to them or allowing them to disturb you. We can still interact with the world around us, but pratyahara gives us the ability to let things sink in and allow for some time to choose how to respond or not respond rather than reacting instantly without thought or consideration of the repercussions. Not only is pratyahara helpful during meditation to keep you from reacting to everything happening around you, but it can also be used in asana. When you are in a particularly difficult pose and your mind starts racing: “Am I doing this pose correctly?” “What should I cook for dinner tonight?” “Is my belly hanging out of my shirt right now?” “Did I remember to DVR Girls?” You can use pratyahara to withdraw yourself and your energy from these external distractions, and focus on the pose and on your breath, bringing you back to the present moment.

(*Note: these last three limbs I’m about to cover are often discussed together and are often referred to as “the innermost quest.”)

The sixth limb of yoga is Dharana which translates to concentration, stillness of mind, and state of complete absorption. The seventh limb of yoga is Dhyana which translates to meditation or an uninterrupted flow of concentration. And the eighth and final limb of yoga is Samadhi which translates to enlightenment or super-consciousness, and it is the ultimate quest for a yogi to reach this state. When I first read about these three limbs, I felt super intimidated. As if these limbs were just something to read about and know about but not something that is ever attainable for me. I used to feel that way about meditation, too. That it wasn’t for me. That I’d never be able to do it. But it really doesn’t have to be intimidating at all. Like everything else, these are a practice. Something to keep coming back to. The more you learn and the more you practice, the more comfortable you will become.

For dharana, practice focusing on one activity or an object. Practice putting all of your attention on it, really focusing on it. If your mind starts to wander elsewhere, that’s okay. But when you notice it start to drift off, bring it back to your point of focus. That is the practice. This will get you prepared for dhyana, your meditation practice.

Dharana is about finding focus for a moment, and dhyana (meditation) is about discovering a constant flow of these focused moments. Again, this is a practice, and if you feel your mind start to drift off into thinking, recognize the thought, but don’t put any weight to it, and let it drift away. Come back to your focus. This, over and over again, is meditation. It’s unreasonable to believe that you can completely quiet the mind. But the more you practice not paying attention to your thoughts and coming back to your point of focus, maybe the amount of time between your thoughts becomes longer and more distinct. Maybe you begin to find more quiet moments and a glimmer of peace inside of yourself.

Finally, samadhi is the final destination for the yogi. Samadhi is the state of being completely present, completely aware of everything around you yet not paying attention to anything in particular. Just being. In the moment. Completely alive. Samadhi allows us to truly feel one with the universe. Some of us may spend an entire lifetime only experiencing one or two moments in this super-conscious state. But just knowing that it exists, and that it’s possible for you to feel that way is enough motivation to keep practicing.

Practicing yoga, in all of it’s forms, allows you to discover who you are at the deepest level, and it teaches you to be okay with it. It allows you to view the world as part of you and not an external place. It allows you to treat the people and the animals and the experiences in your life as part of yourself, because it allows you to understand that we are all one. Yoga is the union of all living creatures. Yoga is ethical disciplines, rules of conduct, physical postures, vital breath, control of the senses, concentration, meditation, and enlightenment. Yoga is life.

Before I wrap up this post, I wanted to leave you with a few tips for meditation. I would still consider myself a beginner at meditation, but here’s a little activity to get you started.

1. Find a quiet place with minimal distractions, and find a comfortable seat. Sit on a pillow or a blanket, and sit up tall, trying to keep your spine as straight as possible. Rest your hands on your lap.
2. Close your eyes and begin to breathe deeply. Work to match the length of your 
 exhales to the length of your inhales. In through the nose, out through the nose.
3. Begin counting your inhales. Try to focus only on the sound of your breath, and on 
 your inhale, count to yourself.
4. On the exhales, repeat a chosen mantra in your head. For example, I am worthy.
5. Start by counting up to 10, then back down to 1.
Example: Inhale (one), Exhale (I am worthy.), Inhale (two), Exhale (I am worthy.) etc.
6. Visually, as I’m counting and repeating my mantra, I like to imagine the ocean tide
 coming in as I inhale, and going out as I exhale.

Another idea is to focus on the word “Inhale” as you inhale and the word “Exhale” as you exhale. Or you could try a mantra on your inhale as well as your exhale rather than counting. For example, Inhale (I change my thoughts.), Exhale (I change my world.), repeat. And your mantra can be whatever you’d like. Whatever it is you need to hear and focus on in your life. Try one or all of these techniques. See what works best for you. Or look up guided meditations on YouTube. Just promise you’ll give it a try. I know it sounds intimidating, but meditating on a regular basis can seriously change your life and your relationship with yourself. Like I mentioned before, this is a practice, so if your mind starts to wander, notice the thought, and allow it to float away like a cloud in a sky or a leaf floating down a river. Then, come back to your counting, your mantra, and your breath. Don’t get frustrated with yourself. Be gentle. At the very least, you are committing to spending time on yourself and your health. What could be more important than that?

As always, if you have ANY questions at all or just want to say hi, please email me at nicol.eliz.yoga@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you!

What Is A Yogi? (And How Do I Become One)- Part Five: Pranayama

The fourth limb of yoga is Pranayama which translates to extension and control of breath. Prana means breath, respiration, life, vitality, wind, energy, and strength. Ayama means length, expansion, stretching or restraint. Essentially, pranayama is the rhythmic control of the breath. Slow, controlled breathing can strengthen the respiratory system, soothe the nervous system, and reduce craving. The goal of pranayama is to be able to control the senses and eventually reach a state of mindlessness.

Yogic breathing is generally inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the nose. Instead of sucking air up and in and blowing it back out, sometimes it’s helpful to think of an inhale as sipping air in slowly and deeply into the nose, letting the air travel down into the lungs and lower belly, filling up with air. On the exhale, you pull the belly in, drawing the air out of the stomach, up out of the lungs, and back up and out through the nose. So, the belly expands on the inhale and contracts up and in on the exhale. Now, there are several reasons to practice nostril breathing:

1. The nasal passages are naturally moist. Therefore, when inhaling through the nose, the air is moistened and better received by the bronchial passages and the lungs.

2. Inhaling through the nose gives the air a longer distance to travel to get to the lungs which begins to create heat, warming the air, better preparing it to enter the lungs.

3. Our nose hairs can cleanse the air we inhale, keeping any possible air borne particles from entering our lungs.

4. Exhaling through the nose allows us to retain the heat that was created by the inhale and further nourished in the lungs. This heat can then enter the blood cells in our nasal passages on the exhale and travel throughout our body to our muscles and tissues.

5. Breathing through the nose allows us to more easily slow, control, and elongate the breath, resulting in a deeper focus on our yoga asanas or meditation.

Before we talk about a few pranayama techniques, I want to briefly talk about how we can incorporate this practice daily and in harmony with our asana practice. As I mentioned in my post on asana, one of our focuses during practice is to marry the body with the breath. We inhale to expand and exhale to contract. As our body moves through the asanas, it’s important that our breath is moving right along with them. Without the breath, asana practice is simply aerobics. It’s the breath, along with the postures, that creates that yoga magic.

So, here are a few tips to help develop your pranayama practice. Keep in mind that this might take awhile to get a hold on. For me, I didn’t start breathing correctly until I had fully understood the physical postures. When I would practice in the beginning, it took all my concentration to focus on the poses, making sure they felt right and that I was following all the cues and in proper alignment. I always forgot my breath. But after time and lots of practice, I began to get in the groove and feel how breathing into the postures really can change the energy and the flow of it all in such a beautiful way. I also learned that if I am having trouble catching my breath or breathing deeply in a pose, I need to either slow down or back out of the pose a bit. Your breath should come first. Don’t worry if you’re not as deep in the pose as the pictures on Instagram show. Make sure you feel good in your body and that you are able to breathe. Deeply and easily. And you should never ever feel pain. Discomfort? Maybe. Muscles on fire? Absolutely. But never a pinching or sharp pain. That’s a sure way to know that you need to back off a bit. Speaking of discomfort though, pranayama is a great way to deal with that. Say you’re in a yoga pose that is challenging, and you are meant to hold the pose for awhile. You’re uncomfortable. Your muscles might be burning and shaking. Your body is transforming. One way for me to take my mind off the not-so-pleasant sensations is to focus on my breath. Try matching the length of your inhale to the length of your exhale. Focus on the sound of your breath. This really helps me quiet my mind, reduce stress, and drop into the moment. Truly feeling the power and grace of my body without panicking and giving up.

Let’s talk about a few specific pranayama techniques.

The first I’m going to talk about is a term that you might often hear in a public yoga class or yoga video, and this is Ujjayi (pronounced oo-ja-ee) or victorious breath. This is a very common pranayama technique to use during an energetic, powerful vinyasa flow practice. Ujjayi creates heat in the body, aerates the lungs, increases endurance, soothes nerves, and tones your entire system. This breath requires a slight restriction at the back of the throat during both the inhale and the exhale. It kind of sounds like ocean waves and is sometimes referred to as the Darth Vader breath. 🙂 This might take a while to practice, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a great breath to really bring you to the present moment, and the sound is something that is easy to focus on when you want to steady your mind.

Check out Yoga with Adriene’s instructional video for Ujjayi breath here!

The second technique that I really love is Nadi Shodhana or alternate nostril breathing. This pranayama technique is great for headaches, anxiety, and cleansing the sinuses. It’s also great for just a simple system reset for your energy channels and entire body. To practice this technique, you take your right hand and fold down all fingers but your thumb and your ring finger. Close your eyes if you wish, then plug your right nostril with your thumb, and take a deep inhale through your left nostril. Retain your breath at the top while you remove your thumb from the right side, and plug your left nostril with your ring finger. Exhale completely and with control out your right nostril. Inhale deeply into your right nostril. Retain the breath at the top while you switch your fingers (unplug the left and plug the right), then exhale completely out the left nostril. Inhale deeply through the left nostril, and repeat back and forth for as long as you wish. Next time you are feeling anxious and need to reset your busy mind, try some alternate nostril breathing. It really works!

The last pranayama technique I’m going to introduce is Kapalabhati or breath of fire. This is great for all sorts of things. It can improve digestion, invigorate the liver, spleen, and pancreas, and can create a feeling of exhilaration. Bonus: it’s also great for your abs! For this technique, you take a slow, deep inhale, followed by several vigorous rapid-fire exhales. During each exhale, you pull the belly in tight to the spine. This might take a while to coordinate, but after practice you’ll get the hang of it!

Check out my video on Alternate Nostril Breathing and Breath of Fire here!

Pranayama is a great companion to your asana practice, but it’s also a great practice on its own. I know for me, the more I practice yoga and focus on my breath, the more I am aware of it off my mat. I am aware if I begin to hold my breath or take shallow breaths in stressful situations. I take notice, and begin to take deeper breaths, calming my mind and soothing my nerves. It’s a great tool for anxiety, anger, or just when you’re feeling super down. And the best part about it is that it can be practiced anywhere at anytime, so give it a try. And be patient, because it might not come naturally to you right away. That’s why they call it a practice. 🙂

Stay tuned for the next post on the fifth limb of yoga, Pratyahara. Also, if you have ANY questions at all, please email me at nicol.eliz.yoga@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you!

Note: my study of this limb of yoga came from Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar.

What Is A Yogi? (And How Do I Become One)- Part Four: Asana

The third limb of yoga is Asana which translates to posture. This is what most people think of when they hear the word yoga. Basically, asanas are what you see all over my (and many others) Instagram. 🙂  So, asana is the physical practice of yoga. The purpose of these postures is to build a steadiness of body and mind, and they are known to develop agility, balance, endurance and vitality in the body. One of the best things about yoga asana is that you don’t really need anything to practice it. It’s a great physical activity that can be done anywhere at anytime, no equipment needed. A yoga mat can be helpful, but it is not necessary. And the only weights needed are the weight of your own limbs, which also reduces risk of injury.

Yoga asana has been developed and tweaked for centuries resulting in an array of postures that will work every muscle, nerve and gland in the body. Yoga asanas are not meant just to build muscle or lose weight, they can also increase flexibility, reduce fatigue, soothe the nervous system, activate digestion, and maybe most importantly, they can discipline the mind. This may be what sets yoga apart from other physical activities. Yogis absolutely don’t ignore the body, but they tend to put more importance on the mind, the senses, the intellect, and the soul. But they use the body to access and discipline these parts of themselves. The goal of yoga asana is to conquer the body in order to make it a “fit vehicle” for the soul, and to maintain a healthy body so as to live out their true purpose for being on this Earth.

The more you practice yoga, the more postures you will learn, and you will begin to realize that a lot of yoga postures are named after animals. This was not a coincidence. The names of all the asanas are very significant and have a purpose. You will notice that the postures are named after all kinds of living things. Plants, insects, sea creatures, birds, mammals, amphibians. Some postures are even named after legendary heroes. The postures often resemble the animal of which they are named, but also the purpose for these types of names is to reiterate the idea that a yogi should not despise any creature. So, when a yogi is in a posture, for example, scorpion, she is in a way transforming herself and her body into that creature, and she is reminded that she and scorpions are one in the same. We all share the same universal spirit, which brings us back to ahimsa (non-violence in thought, word, or deed toward any living creature). The yogi “finds unity in universality.” (Light on Yoga). Translation: same same, but different. 🙂 (And if any of that is too far-fetched for you, that’s okay, too. Take what works for you and leave what doesn’t. I encourage you to keep an open mind, but it’s also okay to just see the name of a pose as the name of a pose, and leave it at that. Don’t let some of the spiritual talk dissuade you from a yoga practice. Yoga is whatever you want it to be.) In short, the body is used for a vehicle of change, helping to develop discipline of the mind assisting the yogi in following the yamas and niyamas.

As part of this introduction to yoga asana, I thought I’d break down a sequence of postures. The first sequence I’ve ever practiced personally was Sun Salutation A, so I thought that’d be a perfect place to start. Sun Salutations are an energizing sequence of poses that activate all muscle groups of the body. They are sometimes referred to as the “cardio of yoga,” and they are very focused on the body/breath relationship, so each posture of this sequence coordinates with either an inhale or an exhale. Sun Salutations were originally meant as a sort of worship of the sun. Ancient yogis believed that the sun from the sky is deeply connected to our inner sun or our spiritual heart. So, this sequence was created as a form of gratitude, and it’s a great way to start your day or warm up for any type of exercise, reminding you to stay grateful throughout your day and your life.

So, let’s get started and practice some yoga! I’m going to break down each posture, showing modifications for beginners and certain areas of the body to focus on, then we will combine them all into the full sequence. (You’ll notice that the postures all have an English name with their Sanskrit name in parentheses. The more you practice, the more you will become familiar with the Sanskrit terms, but for now, it’s totally fine to only learn the English names.)

1. Mountain Pose (Tadasana) – We will begin and end the sequence in this pose. It may look like you are just standing here, but your body should actually be very active. Root strongly into the balls and heels of your feet; your toes can be light. Once you get your balance down a bit, you should be able to lift all ten toes from the mat. Activate your legs, squeezing all the muscles. Tuck your tailbone towards the ground so that your pelvis is directly under your center. Suck your belly up and in towards your spine. Your arms can be down at your sides, with the palms facing the front of the room, or your palms can be pressed together in prayer position at your heart. Your shoulder blades should be relaxed down your back, so squeeze your shoulders up to your ears, roll them back and down, squeezing your shoulder blades together. This allows your chest to be open, with your collar bone shining up and out. Make sure to stand super tall with the crown of your head reaching toward the ceiling. Relax the muscles of your face and jaw. Overall, the back of your body should be grounding down while the front of your body is lifting toward the sky. This is mountain pose.

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2. Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana): INHALE – Reach your arms to the sky, and bring your palms to touch over head. Look up toward your hands. You might take a slight backbend here (as shown in the 2nd picture below  – this is not necessary if it doesn’t feel good in your body).

 

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3. Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana): EXHALE – Dive forward, tracing your palms through your midline, bending your knees. Let your torso hang toward the floor. Your head and neck should be relaxed. Your knees can be bent as much as you need to be comfortable. Your hands can rest gently on the mat or wherever they are the most comfortable.

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Beginner Option – Bend knees generously. Rest your belly on the tops of your thighs.
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More Advanced Option – Straighten legs without locking your knees. Pull yourself closer to your legs by wrapping hands to the back of the ankles.

4. Halfway Lift (Ardha Uttanasana): INHALE – Straighten your spine by reaching the crown of your head toward the front of the room, gazing straight down at the floor. The line from the crown of your head to the tip of your tailbone should be very straight here. Your belly should be sucked up and in to support your lower back. Hands can be on the thighs, shins, or mat here, whatever feels best for you. Your shoulder blades should be squeezing together, almost as if you are trying to pull your chest forward. Straighten your legs, but keep your knees soft, and shine your tailbone toward the back of the room.

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*EXHALE – plant your palms on the mat on the outside of your feet. *

5. Plank Pose (Kumbhakasana): INHALE – Step (or hop) back into a plank pose or the top of a push-up. Your entire body should be strong and activated here. Your shoulders should be directly over your wrists. Don’t let your body sink into your bones here. Press up and out of your hands. Shoulder blades should be wide. Gaze straight down. Belly sucked up and into the spine. Tailbone should be tucked toward the heels (we don’t want the back to be arched here). Leg muscles activated. Heels should be reaching toward the back of the room. (If this pose is too much, you can come down to the knees.)

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6. Lower to belly or Low Pushup (Chaturanga Dandasana): EXHALE – The traditional pose here is to lower into a low push-up or chaturanga. However, this takes strength and you will most likely have to build up to it. Options for beginners are to lower slowly all the way to the belly or to lower your knees for a modified chaturanga.

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Lower all the way to the belly, flipping your toes so that you are resting on the tops of your feet.
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Chaturanga. You will shift your body slightly forward so that your shoulders are a couple inches in front of your wrists. As you slowly lower down, keep a straight spine as you squeeze your elbows in toward each other so that your inner arms graze your rib cage. You will stop and hover when you have lowered half-way down. The line between your shoulders and elbows should be parallel to the floor, and your elbows should be bent at a 90 degree angle.

7. Cobra (Bhujangasana) or Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana): INHALE – The traditional pose here is upward-facing dog. However, if you are lowering to the belly, you will transition into baby cobra or cobra. If you are doing chaturanga, you will pull the chest through and flip the toes for upward-facing dog.

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Baby cobra. Press your palms into the mat and take a very gently backbend here. Keep your gaze down to keep a neutral neck. Press the pelvis and the tops of the feet into the mat.
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Cobra. Press into your palms until your arms are more fully extended. This will be a little bit of a deeper backbend. Gaze can be forward here. Tailbone should be tucked toward the heels, with the pelvis pressing down into the mat. Try to press the pelvis down without clenching the butt muscles. Press the top of the feet down into the matt.
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Upward-Facing Dog. Press strongly into the palms and tops of the feet so that your thighs and shins lift off the ground. Your leg muscles should be strongly engaged here. Your shoulders should be directly over your wrists. Chest open. Your gaze can be forward or straight up if it’s okay on your neck.

8. Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana): EXHALE– If you are in baby cobra or cobra, you are going to release back onto your belly, push up to your hands and knees (tabletop position) and lift your hips up and back into downward-facing dog. If you are in upward-facing dog, you will use your core to press into the palms, roll over the toes, and lift your hips up and back into downward-facing dog.

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For beginners, you will most likely need to keep the knees bent and the heels raised. It’s important to keep the spine strong and as straight as possible with the tailbone tilting toward the ceiling. The head should be relaxed, gaze should be between the toes. Pressing out of the palms here. The shoulders should be rolling away from the ears. Belly should be sucked up and in, and the toes can point slightly inward toward each other. This will encourage the inner thighs to rotate in and upward toward the ceiling.
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Eventually, you can work toward straightening the legs and resting your heels on the mat. (Don’t worry if your downward dog doesn’t look like this right away. This pose takes awhile to feel comfortable. Practice practice practice. For me, it helped to take pictures or videos of myself in these poses to see what my alignment looked like, then I would adjust accordingly. Don’t get frustrated. It’s called a yoga “practice” for a reason. 🙂 )

*Stay in downward-facing dog for 3-5 full breaths, then look forward and step to your hands. (If it takes more than one step, that’s totally okay.)

9. Halfway Lift (Ardha Uttanasana): INHALE
10. Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana): EXHALE
11. Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana): INHALE
12. Mountain Pose (Tadasana): EXHALE – Bring your hands to your heart, and prepare to do the sequence again. 🙂

Below, I’ve posted a YouTube link to a short video where I go through the above postures. I go through the entire sequence four times, each time showing different options moving from beginner to more advanced. Feel free to stick with whatever options work best for you throughout the entire video (lower to belly rather than chaturanga and/or cobra instead of upward-facing dog). And always, always listen to your body. If a pose is hurting you, back off a bit. Also, please keep in mind that this is my first attempt at an instructional video and my first ever voice over, so I apologize for any bumps along the way. Practice makes progress. For all of us. 🙂 I plan on making a lot more instructional videos in the future, so if you have any video requests, send me an email!

Sun Salutation A (click the link to view the video on YouTube. I apologize for the not-so-great video quality. Still learning. 🙂 Any feedback is very much appreciated!)

Thank you so much for reading and for practicing with me. As always, please email me if you have ANY questions regarding asanas in general or any of the poses I’ve gone over today (nicol.eliz.yoga@gmail.com). I hope you enjoy the video, and I hope you get something out of it! If you share any yoga pictures or videos on Instagram or Facebook, use the hashtag #NamasteWithNicky so we can all share our yoga journey together! Above all, never EVER compare your yoga journey to anyone else’s. We all have different bodies, so our yoga is going to look different. We’re also all on different points in our journey. But no matter where you are today, yoga is there to meet you. And so am I! So please reach out. I would love to help you ease into this practice. It has changed my life, and I want to help you discover that same type of change.

Stay tuned for my next post on the fourth limb of yoga, Pranayama.

Namaste, my friends!