Why Ashtanga Vinyasa?

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Since I started writing this blog I’ve found myself intrigued by the blogosphere and the many variations on the theme of body acceptance. I’ve noticed a curious tendency for people (let’s be honest, it’s mostly women) to express support for size diversity and then define themselves as either ‘normal’ or overweight aka curvy, large, voluptuous, fat. My favourite descriptive term comes from Alexander McCall (well that’s where I heard it anyway – you know the Number One Ladies Detective stories) who refers to ‘the traditionally built’. But no matter what words people use, the inherent judgment is the same isn’t it? I think this need to compare and categorise is perfectly normal, it’s part of how we order the world in our minds but it becomes problematic when our internal life is negatively impacted by the physical space we fill. For me yoga is the ultimate mind body medicine and I’ve practiced the whole range of limbs including plenty of asana and meditation at every size. When I started at 20 I was tiny but not terribly strong, now I’m about to turn 36, have had two children (and practiced and taught yoga throughout the pregnancy and breastfeeding years) and inhabit a much larger body which is strong and supple but has some limitations. For years I stuck with general hatha yoga classes under a range of teachers, from the very spiritual at Beacon Ashram to the cross section of suburban teachers when I moved to the northern suburbs. I enjoyed all styles for different reasons and when I started teaching I based my classes on the best of those teachers influences, especially the anatomical understanding of my mentor teacher Sheri Foskett. Yet even when I was prescribed asanas to balance my endocrine system from a teacher I respect, I found it hard to get into my home practice in a really committed way. I felt the need to move more, not find stillness, when my boys were little. For some months I enjoyed a long walk with the pram and the dogs to a gorgeous round park overlooking the ocean where I could let the dogs off leash and the baby would be either asleep or happy to cruise around the park while I did my yoga. It was during this phase that I felt I needed to learn how to make my yoga practice more of a heating, physical workout, as well as a mindful moving meditation. I added more sun salutations but still practiced the standing, seated, inverted and twisting postures in a static way, there was no real vinyasa in my repertoire. Through the wonderful workings of the universe I came into contact with Jean Byrne, one of Perth’s only authorised Ashtanga teachers. Initially I was influenced by my previous teachers (not Sheri but others) who had expressed concern about Ashtanga due to the prevalence of injuries and the appeal to the young and athletic. Maybe they hadn’t been outright critical but they’d insinuated that it was a more superficial form of yoga and not suited to a genuine seeker like myself. How wrong that perception turned out to be! The founder of the Ashtanga Vinyasa system Sri K. Pattabhi Jois is often quoted as saying that yoga is 99% practice and only 1% theory. His other famous phrase is ‘Practice, practice and all is coming’. It was winter 2010 and I co-facilitated a retreat with Jean where I expressed to her my frustrations with my practice. Her sage responses planted the seed and I took a beginner’s course the next month. It’s been over a year and I am still working on the consistency of practice but I can already say that Ashtanga has changed my yoga and my life. These days I am up at 5am, mostly willingly, and heading down to Jean and her husband Rob’s yoga school The Yoga Space in West Perth www.yogaspace.com.au at least three days a week. While my workload is light over the summer I aim to practice six days a week. Because I have found that even when my belly rolls do get in the way, the practice is so deep that I don’t judge myself harshly. In fact, after practice I feel like I can walk tall, knowing that my body is capable of great strength and stamina, and my mind can get past craving and aversion (well, mostly). Of course I still struggle with twists, especially the ones that require arms to bind – I’m certain that a narrower waist would help, since I doubt my arms will actually get longer. And sarvangasana (shoulderstand) is a doozy for the hefty folk – I nearly suffocate under my breasts and although the drishti (gaze point) is the toes, I can’t help but look at the rolls of flesh on my abdomen. No doubt this vigorous and challenging practice is off putting to people with a lot of weight to lose. I watched some US ‘Curvy Yoga’ and ‘Plus Size Yoga’ clips on you tube and they were demonstrating practices for the morbidly obese, stretches that can be done sitting on a chair, with little weight-bearing (definitely no jump throughs) and I didn’t see any twists or inversions either. That’s awesome work and I commend the teachers and students who are starting from where they’re at and finding all the benefits of yoga for mind and body wellness. But I haven’t found anyone like me on the net yet – someone who is heavy but athletic, who has a firm grasp of safe alignment, and knows how to use her bandhas to get some elevation. I’ve overheard other students comment about their fat getting in the way and I want to cheer them on. No matter what your size you can use your yoga as a gentle stretch, a meditation or pranayama practice, a subtle body awareness or all that AND a workout that actually will use stored fat for energy, that actually can improve body composition. Just like all therapeutic yoga, it’s not necessarily going to cure your disease, but it can turn your face in the direction of wellness and the effects of your diligent practice may just transform your body along with your mind and soul. That’s why I choose Ashtanga Vinyasa.

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What is Wellness?

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The existing movement known as Health At Every Size is inspirational to many and controversial to those who vehemently deny that overweight or obese people can be healthy. Both sides of the discussion make excellent points and can provide scientific evidence to support their beliefs. But wellness is not the same as health. In calling my blog Well At Any Size I am explicitly not suggesting that fat is healthy but rather that individuals can face towards wellness no matter where they are at this point in time. My much revered teacher (one of them) Professor Jack Travis illustrates this with his Wellness Continuum. The idea that a person who is wheelchair bound can experience high level wellness should come as no surprise. In my work with cancer survivors there is growing acceptance that you can be well even when diagnosed with a potentially terminal illness. The same applies to different body shapes and sizes. Yes there’s some proof that abdominal fat and certainly visceral fat is a health risk but having one physical measure of health out of whack does not negate the entirety of a person’s wellness potential. Just as the jogger in Jack’s diagram is heading away from wellness, so too can people who neglect all the mental, emotional, social and spiritual dimensions of wellbeing, even if they are in excellent physical health. During my Masters degree I have taken a bunch of Wellness Assessments and always scored highly, however some HRA’s (Health Risk Appraisals) emphasise BMI/weight and therefore put me at risk of heart disease, diabetes and due to my family history, cancer. My point is that whether or not someone has a disease that fits a diagnostic criteria, or has high risk for a disease, their actions, thoughts and feelings can lead them towards ill health or towards wellness.  And just like the wellness programs for cancer, my chosen lifestyle interventions are not aimed at treating the physical disease but rather at increasing subjective wellbeing amongst other measures. If in that process of living well, the disease also goes into remission, fantastic, but that is not the main aim. I choose wellness.

How To Be Happy

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This blog is a space to explore all the dimensions of wellness. For me personally I am committed to exercising, eating well and investing in positive relationships. However one stumbling block I keep stubbing my toe on is the issue of self-concept and body image. As a yoga teacher I see the beauty in my students efforts no matter what their external form. As a therapist I am interested in people’s internal lives. Yet everytime a client cancels or does a ‘no show’ on me or the turn out at yoga is smaller than expected, I take it as a personal affront and my thoughts run to self-criticism, specifically ‘I’m too fat’. In the majority of my life and thoughts I am positive, focused and constructive but living large (and the fact is I am overweight) and working to enhance the wellbeing of others might just be a little contradictory. When I turn on myself I ponder why anyone would take my advice about healthy living, I condemn myself as a failure as a teacher and when the chips are really down, as a human being. So what to do? Should I quit lecturing, consulting and teaching yoga until I drop 20kgs? Should I give up on my yogic lifestyle and take up binge eating cos’ what the hell, I’m fat anyway? I simply don’t accept either of those options. Instead I believe I can be an advocate for making the most of what you’ve got, enjoying moving your body whatever the size or shape and feeding that body with nutritious, nurturing food like you love it because it’s yours for this lifetime. And how about finding meaning and purpose in your life, loving wholeheartedly, being vulnerable, creative and adventurous?