In Defense of Moving Quickly

One of my favorite teachers to practice with, Sean Haleen, shared the zen saying, “Nothing in nature is rushed, yet everything is accomplished,” which, as a vinyasa yoga teacher, is thought provoking. I don’t teach a ton of superfast flow and in my classes and I often say, “slow yoga is advanced yoga;” however I wouldn’t go so far as to say nothing is ever gained from moving quickly. While I don’t think your whole yoga practice should be fast flow (there often isn’t enough focus on integrity), I think playing with speed can be an amazing tool. Here are some reasons why, drawing from my own experience in yoga and fitness:

1. Going fast primes us psychologically for life: Five years ago, I visited San Francisco for two months and practiced yoga nearly every single day with teachers known for fast flow. I worked as a lifeguard back home, and a few months after my stint in SF, I responded to an extremely harrowing emergency at the pool–the type where you have to move quickly. The next week, my supervisor told me she was impressed by my ability to stay calm and take leadership in that situation. I told her it was because of yoga. Although vinyasa yoga sequencing can be crazy, hectic, up-regulating, and even stressful, the idea is to stay present, to maintain equanimity, to sustain even breath. Many people’s jobs, volunteer work, or family lives involve regular emergency situations, that require the body to be in a sympathetic (fight-or-flight) state. Although stress hormones can be damaging in the long run, activating our sympathetic nervous system isn’t a bad thing; it drastically improves our ability to respond physically. Teaching people to maintain focus in a body pumped full of adrenaline is invaluable. Of course, this should be balanced with down-regulating practices.

2.Going fast can refine our technique: Back when I was training half-marathons, I used to do one sprint-training session per week when I’d try to improve my time running distances shorter than a mile. Exploring my maximum power output at shorter distances taught me so much about technique and pushed me to recruit muscles I wasn’t fully taking advantage of. That training made my long-distance running much more efficient. Yoga is a different beast and more dangerous to do quickly, but in the case of a seasoned practitioner using speed with the intention of refining technique (which granted, often isn’t the case when people are blasting through practice), moving fast can spotlight detrimental habits. You can’t find the alignment for Warrior I in one breath? Why is your habit to come into the pose out of alignment and then fix it? You can’t make it from Warrior I to Chattarunga in one exhale? What’s holding you back from breathing more deeply? Moving quickly is another lens for svadyaya, self study.

3. Going fast is part of a balanced physical regimen: The body grows, develops, builds strength, and builds flexibility in response to stress (and loses all of that in the absence of stress). For example, the bones respond to high impact exercise (like jumping) by becoming more dense, which can prevent or delay the onset of osteoporosis. When I was a runner, my sprint training didn’t only improve my technique, it increased my muscle strength and power output. One of the reasons yoga is so great is that it stresses the body in many different ways and directions. I don’t usually recommend that people get their cardiovascular exercise solely from an asana practice–I think there are more functional ways to stress the aerobic energy system–but if someone insists on only doing yoga as their physical activity, I would recommend they have some fast movement in there. Life can move quickly and I want you to be able to meet it without getting physcially overwhelmed. Obviously there are innumerable factors we cannot control, but there are many we can; if my child ran out into traffic and got hit by a car, I would hate for it to be because I had to stop running after them to catch my breath.

None of this is in disagreement with the zen saying above, because moving quickly and rushing are different things. Moving quickly is a physical process whereas rushing is a psychological process. The art of moving quickly is to do so without rushing. In my sprint training, I was moving nearly as quickly as I could, but without the mental chatter associated with rushing. I was focusing to intently on minimizing wasted energy that I didn’t have the mental space to feel rushed. I’m effective in emergencies because I make fast decisions and move quickly without rushing, without panicking. If you incorporate fast movement into your yoga practice to get the physical benefits of moving quickly, it shouldn’t feel rushed. If it does, you’re moving too fast for your awareness to keep up with. That could mean that you need to move slower, it could mean you need to refine your awareness. Experience and a great yoga teacher can help you explore this.

Why Yoga Bootcamp?

After ten years teaching fitness and yoga and seven years studying Kinesiology and Cognitive Science I’m finally putting it all together: In January, I’m teaching Yoga EMPOWER Bootcamp at Thriveability in San Francisco. This four-week transformational series combines yoga and meditation with fitness and goal-setting to provide students safe, fun, and motivating, complete mental, physical, and spiritual workout. Here’s why I’m so hyped up about it:

Why Yoga?

Side Plank with Tree

Side Plank with Tree (Photo Credit: Faye Chao)

Yoga is the foundation. It is the ultimate system for letting go of what no longer serves us, coming into acceptance of who we truly are, and realizing our divine purpose. Without the work we do in yoga (or other systems that guide us to develop in the same way), any action we take or goal we set is directionless and purposeless. The present moment awareness that yoga cultivates provides us a springboard from which we can take mindful, intentional action. Also, yoga helps us develop body awareness and flexibility, feels amazing, and is just plain fun.

Why Not Just Yoga?

As with any other type of paradigm that involves physical activity, there are common patterns of muscle imbalance that can arise when yoga is our only form of regimented movement (these imbalances often aren’t from the yoga, we come in with them and can reinforce them in yoga if we’re not careful). Even if we have yoga teachers who enforce alignment meticulously, it doesn’t mean we will rehabilitate these imbalances; often, it means we are discouraged from going into positions where our body shows signs of that imbalance. Yoga is not supposed to be about ego or goals, so we should be content with backing off and taking it easy, right? This is great for avoiding injuries on the mat, but it avoids problems rather than addressing them, so it allows us to retain imbalances that may lead to injury off the mat during our day-to-day movements.

It’s so amazing and healing to be able to think to yourself, it’s okay that I can’t do handstand. I’m perfect the way I am. But, without losing touch with that thought, it’s also worthwhile to question, why can’t I do handstand? Where am I losing the energy that is supposed to be holding me up? If the energetic bottleneck is something physical, it’s doesn’t really make sense to address it only with the spiritual practice of yoga (especially if you’ve been doing yoga for years and nothings changed). Drawing on the extensive knowledge of kinesiologists, exercise specialists, fitness instructors, and physical therapists would be much more directed and intentional.

Why Fitness?

Core Twist

Core Twist (Photo Credit: Faye Chao)

Fitness helps us fill in the gaps of our yoga practice so we can maintain strong, healthy, functional, injury-free bodies. Developing body awareness, stability, strength, endurance, and power using fitness allows us to practice a broader range of poses safely. Often, the physically challenging poses offered as options in yoga classes will only ever be available to those who already have the fitness to do them (or who gain that fitness outside of yoga). Regular yoga classes often don’t provide the frequency, intensity, and type of movements to elicit the significant training effects needed to build the strength for a challenging pose like handstand.

For example, in yoga we do moderate-intensity core work as part of our warm-up or prep-work to bring awareness and circulation into the core and prime these vital muscles for the rest of class. It makes the core more able to contract properly in the short term. In fitness, we do high-intensity core work toward the end of class. The goal in this case is to fatigue the muscles, which is essential for improving strength and endurance over time. However, it makes the core less able to contract in the moment, which is why it’s safer to do at the end of class.

Personal Experience: After doing both yoga and fitness for years, I cancelled my gym membership and started doing vinyasa yoga almost exclusively. It only took a year of this for me to developed some painful imbalances and hypermobilities in my body that kept getting worse the more I practiced yoga. Everyone told me to stick to gentle classes, but the gentle poses made me feel worse than anything else. It wasn’t until I started doing Pilates and rehabilitative exercises that my body finally started recovering. Not only was I in less pain, as I strengthened my glutes, my hip flexibility increased instead of decreasing. Once my body was more stable it was safer for it to open up. As I strengthened my core to support my aching spine, a side effect was that poses that had never been accessible to me before started showing up. All of a sudden I could stick a handstand–if only for a couple seconds. I began to see poses like handstand not as an end goal, but as a check-in on stability, integrity, balance, and body awareness.

Doing fitness is not only about the physical benefits, there’s a philosophical aspect to it, too. It’s one thing to have a vision and a purpose, and even to clearly see your path (yoga and meditation are phenomenal forms of self-study that allow you to establish these things). It’s another thing to have the drive and know-how to follow the path toward your intention. In one of my college classes, we learned that will power is like a muscle: if you overuse it, it becomes burnt out; but if you practice it regularly without exhausting it, you’ll slowly build its strength and endurance. By adding fitness into our weekly practice, which–unlike yoga–is goal-oriented, we develop our tenacity, our determination, our perseverance, and our will. When we experience ourselves achieving our what we said we would achieve (especially if the goal was audacious), we begin to trust our own words, and our intentions become more powerful.

Why Inversions and Arm Balances?

Eka Pada Galavasana

Eka Pada Galavasana (Photo Credit: Faye Chao)

1. They’re fun.

2. They are informative. If you wanted know where you tend to collapse in your body, do handstand and you’ll find out immediately. While many other poses whisper bits and pieces of feedback that are easy to miss, arm balances and, even more so, inversions give you a full presentation on a loudspeaker with PowerPoint slides.

3. They are empowering. The first time we see an inversion or an arm balance, our immediate reaction is, I can’t. But then (after a little work, perseverence, and guidance), it turns out we can, it helps us re-evaluate other possibilities in your life we’ve dismissed. Very few things are impossible. It just takes practice to identify and diligently follow the path to your wildest dreams.

Why So Often? Why so long? Why so early?

I want Yoga EMPOWER Bootcamp to remind you how powerful you and inspire you to tap into that power to achieve your divine purpose. The program is 5-days-a-week (Monday to Friday) at 6am for 4 weeks. To make radical changes in our lives, we must practice new habits regularly and for a sustained period. We alternate what we do everyday so we never end up with overworked or fatigued, and we take weekends off to we can recharge our will power and maintain balance in our lives. As with any program for improving fitness, it takes six weeks to see significant results, and I wouldn’t want you to miss out on experiencing what your capable of by cutting the program any shorter. However, for now, we’re offering a trial version of the program that’s only four weeks long, which is a little easier to commit to. Stay tuned for the full six-week version.

Down dog on the Wall with Leg Lift

Down dog on the Wall with Leg Lift (Photo Credit: Faye Chao)

6am is earlier than most of us have anything planned, so there aren’t many excuses for not showing up. It’s hard to get up that early for six whole weeks, but each of us knows we’re capable of it–it’s another way we will develop will power. Also, when we’re waking up that early every day, we start to feel the effects of our lifestyles. They’re amplified. If we pay a even an iota of attention to our energy levels, it will become painfully apparent which lifestyle choices allow us to get out of bed and do an intense workout first thing in the morning, and which leave us running late, groggy, and unable to harness our power.

See you bright and early on January 6th at Thriveability!

I am so excited to share this program with you. I truly, wholeheartedly believe it will help you realize your purpose, develop the skills to achieve it, and learn some fun poses along the way.

Five Aha Moments from Wanderlust

This year, my lululoves at lululemon athletica Union Square, San Francisco, treated me to indulge in four full days of the Squaw Valley Wanderlust Festival. I am so grateful to them and to the Wanderlust organizers. The festival blew me away; it totally exceeded my expectations. In the spirit of sharing the love, here are five things I learned from my weekend in the mountains:

1. According to Annie Carpenter, in challenging poses, our bodies have “escape valves” that keep us from holding steady and strong. For example, in handstand, many yogis collapse into the lower back or shoulders, so they have no choice but to fall out of the pose. To learn to hold a challenging pose, yogis must identify the root of their personal escape valve (be tightness, weakness, fear, or something else), and then instead of try to find their way around it or compensate for it, address it and move through it.

2. Matt Giordano taught one of the most intentional flows I’ve practiced in a while. Each pose was built on the foundation of previous poses. Among many other things, from Matt I learned that a twist is a twist, not a backbend. In revolved high lunge, we tend to cock the front hip out to the side as an escape valve (thanks for the terminology, Annie Carpenter) so that we can backbend instead of twist, and still feel like we’re in the pose. Matt had us “go into the dysfunction” (as Amy Ippoliti labelled a similar contrast in one of her workshops) by cocking the hip out to the side and then harnessing it back into proper alignment; by hyperextending the spine and then restabilizing. I’m not sure I’ve ever truly twisted that deeply in my life.

3. In Amy Ippoliti‘s Core Potential workshop, I learned that this pose is a thing:

We warmed up for it doing some pretty fun and funky core stuff, which I will definitely share with you in my upcoming public classes.

4. My friend and fellow yoga teacher, Nacera, and I showed up for Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa’s workshop about 20 minutes late, and as we approached the giant tent, we saw that all 150-200 students were dancing their hearts out. Both of us were pretty tentative about going in there. One of us suggested going to another workshop and the other said, “maybe they’ll stop dancing by the time we get in there.” They didn’t. But as soon as we kicked off our shoes and rolled out our mats, we immediately joined into the shimmying, shaking, and twirling. It was contagious!

Dancing with Gurmukh

Nacera and me dancing with Gurmukh (Selfie credit: Nacera Mekki)

The workshop ended with a yummy 17 minute savasana. Afterward, Nacera and I went to thank Gurmukh for her workshop. We said, “We’re totally blissed out.” She replied “Keep it going. That’s reality.” Woah. Bliss is reality. Yoga just reminds us to notice that.

5. To end my Wanderlust weekend, I had two workshops in a row that referred to sankalpa, which means divine purpose, will, or oathe. In Sienna Sherman‘s workshop, we were asked to identify our personal sankalpa as yoga teachers. At the time of that workshop, I identified my sankalpa as empowering people to choose their path rather than moving through life mindlessly and without questioning. I went straight from that into Yoga Nidra with Rod Stryker, which consisted of two long sessions of complete relaxation. The first session was lovely and blissful. In the second session I was completely distracted from my Yoga Nidra by a deluge of ideas for my upcoming Yoga EMPOWER Bootcamp at Thriveability. I realized this six-week program is the ultimate vehicle to realize my sankalpa. Stay tuned for more info about it and sign-up now if you’re interested, because space is limited!

I cannot wait for Wanderlust next year!

Yoga For Cyclists

I recently taught a Yoga For Cyclists workshop at Mission Cliffs, and I wanted to put some suggestions out there for those of who couldn’t make it, and a refresher out there for those of you who did!

Cyclists tend to have short, tight chest muscles and tense, but overstretched, upper and lower back muscles from continually hunching over their handle bars (for more details on this, see my recent blog post on getting to the root of upper back tension). To stretch the chest muscles and give the upper back muscles a chance to relax, try this prone shoulder opening twist. To strengthen upper and lower back muscles, try locust pose.

Cyclists can develop tight hips, which may contribute to lower back soreness. To stretch tight hip flexors, quads, and hamstrings, consider moving through the following sequence on both sides, holding each of poses for at least thirty seconds:

Sit bones tilted back

Half splits.

To stretch the outer hip muscles try pigeon pose or thread the needle. It is important to stretch the outer hip muscles as these muscle can contribute to tension in the IT band (a long strap of connective tissue running from your hip to below your knee), which can cause problems in both the hip and the knee.

It is also important to maintain strong core muscles to have healthy form while cycling. As mentioned above, locust will help strengthen your low back. Holding plank pose will strengthen all the core muscles at once.

I hope that gives you some stuff to try at home for now. I will be offering the Yoga For Cyclists workshop again soon at Mission Cliffs, so keep your eyes out for it!

Put the Kibosh on Upper Back Tension

You may be surprised to know that tight chest muscles are often the culprit behind aching shoulder, upper back, and neck muscles. Writing e-mails, texting friends or driving to work, we spend most of the day in one position: seated with our shoulders slumped and our arms out front. With our body in this shape, our chest muscles are at their shortest, and over time they tighten to stay this way. In turn, when the chest muscles are shorter, the we tend to slouch even more—it’s a vicious cycle. In response, the muscles in the upper back, shoulders, and neck compensate, becoming tired, sore, tense, and overstretched. Read More on the Yoga Mayu blog>>
Office Chest Stretch

Office Chest Stretch

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