Why I’m addicted to ‘The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food’

There is a Tumblr devoted to photos of vending machines located in print newspaper buildings, and it reminds me that between graduate school and most of my career doing the daily grind, I ate far too many snacks and pseudo-meals out of vending machines like these:

“I work at a famous American newspaper,” the Tumblr creator explains. “In September 2011, the snack machine went from ‘bland but respectable’ to ‘where flavors go to die.’ Here, I will depict the fall of print journalism through the plummeting quality of newspaper snack machine offerings.” This is endlessly hilarious — and accurate — if you’ve worked in a newsroom.

The cover story in today’s The New York Times Magazine called “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food” reminded me about my sad culinary habits of years past, and it reminds me of two main observations I’ve noticed over the past three weeks:

  • Even though I’m now fully on the Ayurveda eating program — as noted in “Life after Sriracha: Transforming my eating habits with Ayurveda” – I’ve been working 11-, 12-hour days and weekends over the past two or three weeks, and the stress level has been pretty damn high. Here’s the thing: Anxious and exhausted, my cravings totally reverted to my pre-Ayurveda days. I’ve been craving carbs — oh, those salty snacks in the afternoon — and chocolate. In a couple short weeks, my few months of retraining my taste buds to crave whole grains and the like can’t seem to fight my ingrained habit of turning to salty and sugary snacks in times of stress.
  • It is so incredibly hard to find food that’s not ridiculously processed, not full of carbs and not full of sodium and empty calories. Coffee shops — even the good ones — offer croissants, wraps, banana nut bread. Conveniently packaged snacks that are healthy to boot? I have to go to make a specific trip to a natural food store to find those.

This article by Pulitzer Prize-winning Times investigative reporter Michael Moss, which is based on book called Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us coming out later this month, details in striking detail how we got to this point in this country.

Here’s a bit about the snack industry’s “bliss point” calculations:

The military has long been in a peculiar bind when it comes to food: how to get soldiers to eat more rations when they are in the field. They know that over time, soldiers would gradually find their meals-ready-to-eat so boring that they would toss them away, half-eaten, and not get all the calories they needed. But what was causing this M.R.E.-fatigue was a mystery. “So I started asking soldiers how frequently they would like to eat this or that, trying to figure out which products they would find boring,” [food-industry legend Howard] Moskowitz said. The answers he got were inconsistent. “They liked flavorful foods like turkey tetrazzini, but only at first; they quickly grew tired of them. On the other hand, mundane foods like white bread would never get them too excited, but they could eat lots and lots of it without feeling they’d had enough.”

This contradiction is known as “sensory-specific satiety.” In lay terms, it is the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm the brain, which responds by depressing your desire to have more. Sensory-specific satiety also became a guiding principle for the processed-food industry. The biggest hits — be they Coca-Cola or Doritos — owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.

Moskowitz worked on a big Dr Pepper campaign:

Finding the bliss point required the preparation of 61 subtly distinct formulas — 31 for the regular version and 30 for diet. The formulas were then subjected to 3,904 tastings organized in Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and Philadelphia. The Dr Pepper tasters began working through their samples, resting five minutes between each sip to restore their taste buds. After each sample, they gave numerically ranked answers to a set of questions: How much did they like it overall? How strong is the taste? How do they feel about the taste? How would they describe the quality of this product? How likely would they be to purchase this product?

Moskowitz’s data — compiled in a 135-page report for the soda maker — is tremendously fine-grained, showing how different people and groups of people feel about a strong vanilla taste versus weak, various aspects of aroma and the powerful sensory force that food scientists call “mouth feel.” This is the way a product interacts with the mouth, as defined more specifically by a host of related sensations, from dryness to gumminess to moisture release. These are terms more familiar to sommeliers, but the mouth feel of soda and many other food items, especially those high in fat, is second only to the bliss point in its ability to predict how much craving a product will induce.

In addition to taste, the consumers were also tested on their response to color, which proved to be highly sensitive. “When we increased the level of the Dr Pepper flavoring, it gets darker and liking goes off,” Reisner said. These preferences can also be cross-referenced by age, sex and race.

On Page 83 of the report, a thin blue line represents the amount of Dr Pepper flavoring needed to generate maximum appeal. The line is shaped like an upside-down U, just like the bliss-point curve that Moskowitz studied 30 years earlier in his Army lab. And at the top of the arc, there is not a single sweet spot but instead a sweet range, within which “bliss” was achievable. This meant that Cadbury could edge back on its key ingredient, the sugary Dr Pepper syrup, without falling out of the range and losing the bliss. Instead of using 2 milliliters of the flavoring, for instance, they could use 1.69 milliliters and achieve the same effect. The potential savings is merely a few percentage points, and it won’t mean much to individual consumers who are counting calories or grams of sugar. But for Dr Pepper, it adds up to colossal savings. “That looks like nothing,” Reisner said. “But it’s a lot of money. A lot of money. Millions.”

The soda that emerged from all of Moskowitz’s variations became known as Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper, and it proved successful beyond anything Cadbury imagined. In 2008, Cadbury split off its soft-drinks business, which included Snapple and 7-Up. The Dr Pepper Snapple Group has since been valued in excess of $11 billion.

It’s been years since I drank soda on a regular basis, but when I did, Diet Dr Pepper was one of my preferred.

Have you ever had Cheetos?

To get a better feel for their work, I called on Steven Witherly, a food scientist who wrote a fascinating guide for industry insiders titled, “Why Humans Like Junk Food.” I brought him two shopping bags filled with a variety of chips to taste. He zeroed right in on the Cheetos. “This,” Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it . . . you can just keep eating it forever.”

All I can say is that I’m quite grateful I’ve found Ayurveda as a method for short-circuiting the types of highly programmed eating habits described here. The magazine piece is well worth the time to read, and I can’t wait for the book’s release.

Shout out, by the way, to Michael Moss, who spent four years reporting the book that this magazine piece is based on. A reporter at the Wall Street Journal at the time, he was one of my favorites instructors at Columbia J-School. I learned a lot of subtle and important lessons from him, and I still remember that he took the time to sit on a campus bench one day to talk to me about why I had decided to go to graduate school in journalism, and what I had hoped to do post-graduation. I couldn’t have predicted then that Ashtanga yoga and blogging would eventually be such an important part of my life, but unlike our apparent collective, calculated taste for junk food, some things simply aren’t that predictable.

the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food

[Graphic credit: Cover of the Feb. 24, 2013 edition of The New York Times Magazine]

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

[VIDEO] Ashtanga Yoga Confluence: Eddie Stern suggests a high-stakes Vedic debate with ‘The Science of Yoga’ author William Broad

Screenshot of Eddie Stern's blog post (also published in the Huffington Post) responding to William Broad's "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body" article in the New York Times magazine.

The final panel discussion of the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence included a Q-and-A portion. Organizers had sent out an email to all registrants a while back asking if anyone had questions for the teachers.

One of the questions chosen was directed to Tim Miller and wanted to hear his take on William Broad’s book The Science of Yoga. Tim leaned into the microphone and said that Eddie Stern, who had written an excellent article in response to that very question, was the ideal panelist to answer that question.

You can listen to Eddie’s well-rounded answer here, and to the hilarious way he ended his comment — by basically challenging New York Times writer William Broad to a Vedic debate, which is a pretty high-stakes way of determining a winner in an argument.

P.S.  Should I have titled this post “How a Vedic debate can wreck a bad argument”?

In this series:

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

If you only read one response to the New York Times’ ‘How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body’ piece…

…may I suggest that it be the one posted today by Eddie Stern?

Before we get to that, however, here’s a quick boilerplate for the roughly nine yoga practitioners out there who haven’t seen “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” the New York Times Magazine piece by William J. Broad — published today in the hard copy edition, and Jan. 5 online. (By the time the magazine hit newsstands and porches today, this story was already old news in the yoga blogging world, because reactions have been fired off steadily since the online posting of the article. So steadily, in fact, that if you do a Google search for “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” you get about 31,000 hits. If you narrow that field down by adding “Ashtanga,” you still get about 1,600 hits. And none of this takes into account all the comment threads ricocheting around Facebook over the past few days.)

Here’s a snippet of the original article, which is an excerpt from Broad’s soon-to-be-released book:

Not just students but celebrated teachers too, [profiled yoga teacher Glenn] Black said, injure themselves in droves because most have underlying physical weaknesses or problems that make serious injury all but inevitable. Instead of doing yoga, ‘they need to be doing a specific range of motions for articulation, for organ condition,’ he said, to strengthen weak parts of the body. ‘Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It’s controversial to say, but it really shouldn’t be used for a general class.’

Interesting responses include:

One response that seems to have particularly struck a chord with a range of ashtangis came from The Reluctant Ashtangi’s “Reading blogs can wreck your body.” The piece, which is well worth a read, says this in part:

Other things that Wreck Your Body:

Hard Partying Wrecks Your Body (wassup, Charlie Sheen?!)

-Food Wrecks Your Body

-Tofu Wrecks Your Body (actually, this one just wrecks your brain, but what good is a body without a brain?)

-Forward Head Posture Wrecks Your Body (with a nod oto the Alexander Method)

-Alcohol Wrecks Your Body Or, as so eloquently expressed by The Smiths, “…past the pub that wrecks your body.” I’ll leave you on that glorious note. And, um, don’t dance or anything. That might wreck your body too.

 

The piece cooly ends with a YouTube clip of “The Queen is Dead.”

And then comes “How the NYT Can Wreck Yoga,” a post with the kind of clarity and flare that can only come from Eddie Stern, director of Ashtanga Yoga New York. Here’s a taste:

When there is a great potential for making money, quality is usually the first thing to be sacrificed. Fast food, anyone? It is unfortunate that this is exactly what we are facing now – yoga has been McDona-fied. It has been reduced from a practice that traditionally demanded dedication, discipline, sacrifice, humility, surrender, suffering, love, devotion, and rigorous self-investigation, to something that you can now learn to teach in a weekend. Or, more popularly, in a mere 200 hours you can become a bonafide, registered yoga instructor. 200 hours is spit. It is a joke. And it is a joke that is leading an entire tradition – that granted even in India was subject to ridicule – to an even greater harm. This is because we have an opportunity, in the West, to be leaders in the rising field of yoga, by bringing these transformative teachings to places where they will result in great good. Though it is true that this is already happening – in schools, prisons, hospitals, with veterans, and with everyday people who walk into a class off of the street – it is also true that a rotten apple can spoil the barrel, and this is what I fear is happening. And, it is a mighty big apple.

I miss the early days when I was first doing yoga in NYC, in the mid- to late 1980′s. The feeling of freshness, of being clean and free, of feeling that a whole, new world was opening in me. There were no products for sale, no fifty types of yoga mats, just a towel and some cut-off sweatpants to practice in, or a pair of white, cotton ‘yoga’ pants that I could buy on Bleecker St. for $5. I still feel that freshness when I practice, and I love that – but when I look around at what is happening with yoga in America, I can’t help but feel sad.

When I saw the title of Broad’s article, the first thing that came to mind was Ice Cube’s old hip-hop song ‘Check Yo’ Self’ (‘You better check yo’self before you wreck yo’self’) – pretty good advice for the over-enthusiastic in yoga or any physical endeavor. I was going to post it, but it is so inappropriate, and the issue of injuries is too serious an issue; I will not make light of anyone’s pain. But, searching out Ice Cube did lead me down the dark path of youtube, where two hours later, I found myself still trolling through videos that fill me with a happy nostalgia for the rawness of youth – of early punk rock, and the passion and energy that was being expressed through so many amazing songs.

Sanskrit means refined, and many of the yogis of India were extremely elegant, in a simplicity-filled way. The rishis, who became the world’s first yogis, purposely left society to meditate in the forests, turning their backs on the mundanity and suffering of the world. They discovered something that ultimately can be of great benefit to us all, if we use it wisely.  This is quite the opposite of the rawness of music that I grew up with, like the Clash or Sex Pistols – but, still, listening to White Man (in Hammersmith Palais) still fills me with the same feeling of freedom I felt when I first heard it when I was probably about 14.  And who can argue with this lyric: “The new groups/ are not concerned/ with what there is to be learned/ they put on suits/ they think it’s funny/ turning rebellion into money”. I always loved that line, and now it just makes me think of Lululemon.

I’d write more, but my throat is on fire (rough return from my travels abroad), and I need to try to go back to bed. Just as well — you’re better off anyway leaving this blog and heading over to read the rest of what Eddie Stern has to say and see which YouTube video he ended his post with.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Thinking, fast and slow — about yoga, gurus and everything else

Illustration by David Plunkert, via The New York Times

Thinking, Fast and Slow is sitting next to me right now, and I’m so into it that I debated whether to write this post or keep reading. Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, immediately tells the reader that his aim with the book can be boiled down to what he would like to happen with watercooler conversations. He’d like this text to:

improve the ability to identify and understand errors of judgement and choice, in others and eventually ourselves, by providing a richer and more precise language to discuss them. In at least some cases, an accurate diagnosis may suggest an intervention to limit the damage that bad judgements and choices often cause.

It’s a seriously ambitious goal, to be sure, and Kahneman’s important text offers nothing less than a fascinating approach to understanding when we can and can’t trust our intuition.

Intuition is an interesting thing — especially in the context of yoga, since one of the many benefits of the practice is that it’s designed to help us see through the veil of illusion. Sometimes — often? — our conditioned minds get us into trouble. Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations — or the spinning — of the mind. Once we quiet the mind down, can Thinking, Fast and Slow help us think more clearly about thinking clearly off the mat, in our day-to-day lives?

This next passage somehow reminded me about all those times that, as students, we swear our teachers just read our mind. How did they know that was the adjustment I was craving? How did they know my back/hips/[insert body part] needed that pressure? How did they fix that back/hips/[insert body part]?

We have all heard such stories of expert intuition: the chess master who walks past a street game and announces ‘White mates in three’ without stopping, or the physician who makes a complex diagnosis after a single glance at a patient. Expert intuition strikes us as magical, but it is not. Indeed, each of us performs feats of intuitive expertise many times each day. Most of us are pitch-perfect in detecting anger in the first word of a telephone call, recognize as we enter a room that we were the subject of the conversation, and quickly react to subtle signs that the driver of the car in the next lane is dangerous. Our everyday intuitive abilities are no less marvelous than the striking insights of an experienced firefighter or physician — only more common. (p. 11)

I kind of loved thinking about this idea in the context of our relationships with our most cherished teachers, who never cease to amaze us. Trust your guru, yes. Be grateful for, and moved by, the expertise and the inspiration. But remember that you have incredible everyday intuitive abilities as well.

That said, Thinking, Fast and Slow is about how to discern the quality of intuitive decision-making versus rational decision-making. Sometimes our gut is plain old wrong — so how do you know what you can rely on? You’ll simply have to read the book — and I highly, highly recommend that you get it sooner rather than later (one for yourself and one as a holiday gift, perhaps?). If you need more encouragement, read this New York Times review, this Washington Post review and this Financial Times review.

In any case, this post has kept me from the book long enough. I’m headed back in. Ciao, for now.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The New York Times Magazine wants to help you become a morning person

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been soaking up advice on how to become a morning person, even though, as you may remember from a recent blog post written from a hotel room, my feeling on mornings dovetails with Neil Gaiman‘s line:

Right. I was up at 6:00am this morning, and I have to be up at 5:00am tomorrow, and I am not a morning person (in much the same way that the stars are not fruit-bats) so I think it best if I simply stop writing just like

(yep, Gaiman’s 2004 blot post just ends there).

But I seeing as how it’s nearly 11 p.m. as I start this post, I better start getting to the point. Today’s New York Times Magazine features an article in the “Well” column called “So you think you can be a morning person?”

Like most creatures on earth, humans come equipped with a circadian clock, a roughly 24-hour internal timer that keeps our sleep patterns in sync with our planet. At least until genetics, age and our personal habits get in the way. Even though the average adult needs eight hours of sleep per night, there are ‘shortsleepers,’ who need far less, and morning people, who, research shows, often come from families of other morning people. Then there’s the rest of us, who rely on alarm clocks.

For those who fantasize about greeting the dawn, there is hope. Sleep experts say that with a little discipline (well, actually, a lot of discipline), most people can reset their circadian clocks. But it’s not as simple as forcing yourself to go to bed earlier (you can’t make a wide-awake brain sleep). It requires inducing a sort of jet lag without leaving your time zone. And sticking it out until your body clock resets itself. And then not resetting it again.

Shortsleeper, huh? In my book, that’s someone who can get by on seven hours of sleep — maybe six and a half. Left to my own devices — as in, how long I will sleep if I don’t have to be up for anything — I will get up after nine or 10 hours of sleep. I am not kidding. (I might average something like six or seven hours of sleep a night during non-crazy periods of my life, less if my schedule is seriously jammed.)

 

The article even comes with a quiz. Here’s the sixth question:

 

If there is a specific time at which you have to get up in the morning, to what extent are you dependent on being woken up by an alarm clock?

 

Again, I kid you not, I set three alarms to get up any given morning. Three. I think that makes me “very dependent.”

Perhaps the part I found most interesting was the part about light:

…you can facilitate the transition [of getting up incrementally earlier every day] by avoiding extra light exposure from computers or televisions as you near bedtime. (The light from a computer screen or an iPad has roughly the same effect as the sun.) ‘Light has a very privileged relationship with our brain,’ says Dr. Jeffrey M. Ellenbogen, chief of sleep medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. While most sensory information is ‘processed’ by the thalamus before being sent on its way, Ellenbogen says, light goes directly to the circadian system.

It’s still pitch dark outside when I wake up for a morning Ashtanga practice. Does this mean I can stare into my iPad as soon as I slam the alarm clock one last time in order to simulate throwing open the curtains to see the glow of a rising sun? I’m willing to try it.

As I referenced in a recent blog post, this AY:A2 post also has some good advice for getting up, including jumping into a hot shower. In the coldest months of our Michigan winters, I will surely rely on this.

That said, I’ve been managing, for the past few weeks anyway, to stick to a 6:30 a.m. practice on workdays. Ashtanga — the elixir for all ailments, including that genetic one of being born a night owl.

(Photo credit: “World Alarm Clock – Grove Passage, London” via bobaliciouslondon’s Flickr stream.)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Ashtanga, NY/USA/World on this 9/11 anniversary

I spent the weekend at Seva Yoga in Grand Rapids, Mich., at a yoga anatomy workshop with Dr. Ray Long and Chris Macivor (blog post coming on this outstanding workshop), and then I had to jet back here to Lansing to teach my Ashtanga primary series class, so I missed today’s 9/11 remembrances — from “real-time tweets” to The New York Times’ special The Reckoning edition.

I did manage to catch this blog post by The Confluence Countdown about Ashtanga, NY, a 2003 documentary that was screened at Ashtanga Yoga New York today  in honor of the 10th anniversary of this terrifying and traumatic attack of global citizens on American soil.

That reminded me that I have this DVD, still wrapped, on my shelf. It’s part of a large stack of Ashtanga-related DVDs that I bought earlier this year and have still not yet watched. It features several celebrities — actors Gwyneth Paltrow and Willem Dafoe and Mike D. of the Beatie Boys (shout-out for the latest Beasties album, which is excellent, in my humble opinion) — and author Stefanie Syman, who wrote The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America.

So, after a late dinner, I remedied this. The 60-minute documentary just ended, and I thought it was very powerful — especially the scene in which, on his last day during his September 2001 visit to New York City, Pattabhi Jois wore an FDNY shirt with his standard teaching shorts.

Steve over at The Confluence Countdown writes this about the documentary:

My understanding of the documentary is that it was intended to follow Guruji’s time spent at the shala; however, as fate would have it, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened during Guruji’s visit. His time in New York, and the documentary, obviously changed.

From my ‘critical’ perspective, that probably compromised the quality of the film as a documentary about Ashtanga and Guruji. But it captured something else and provides one view on New York in the days and weeks immediately after the attacks.

I’ve never met Steve, but I know we agree on a lot of things — starting with the awesomeness of both Tim Miller and the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence. We seem to disagree on this, though. I think the quality of the film as a documentary about Ashtanga and Guruji is strengthened by looking at how 9/11 helped the yoga practitioners who are interviewed realize the impact of the practice on their perspective in life.

If anything, I thought there wasn’t enough about 9/11 in this documentary. What I have been told, for example, is that Pattabhi Jois made what is now considered the traditional closing prayer part of the practice after the 9/11 attacks. Is this true? I’d certainly like to know. If it is, I think it speaks to how Ashtanga — often viewed as an unchanging practice — changes in important ways to reflect collective human events. If it’s not true — well, the fact that this is the story I’ve heard could reflect how much people need to find meaning in changes to the Ashtanga yoga system.

More than anything, though, I think the 9/11 inclusion in this documentary speaks to how this practice goes beyond one man or one family. It goes beyond being a deeply personal practice for celebrities who live in a particular city and millions of people around the world. This practice is ultimately about healing — whether it’s on an individual or community level.

Have you seen it? What do you think? I’m sure Steve and I would like a tiebreaker here. :) Haven’t seen it? If you have Netflix, you can watch it without buying it. You can also buy it. Watch it, then share your thoughts.

(P.S. — If you watch it, check out the outtakes special feature. It’s pretty funny if you’re an Ashtanga geek (think Mike D. answering a question about what Guruji would say about shouting into a microphone without doing ujjayi breath). It’s also a great reminder that ashtangis are pretty good about poking a little fun at themselves — it’s an important part of keeping what is literally for some practitioners a life-saving practice fun and light when it needs to be.)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Need a yoga travel agent? Check out my itineraries. (Or take a yoga staycation right on your mat.)

I ran into two fellow yoga instructors the other evening when I was at the Michigan Athletic Club (MAC) to teach my weekly vinyasa yoga class, and both of the separate conversations somehow flowed toward fun discussions about visiting yoga studios while traveling and about traveling to yoga trainings.

This had me wondering — for a hot second — whether YogaRose.net could branch out into the yoga travel industry. It reminded me of a day last year — a day when I was already daydreaming about finding a less stressful career — when a colleague sent me a link to a New York Times “Practical Traveler” article. My buddy John had found the dream job for me – teaching yoga at resorts around the world. How glorious. I still haven’t figured out how to apply to any of these places, but I’ve got that yoga resume ready to go.

I’m of course mostly kidding. While I would love to start traveling year-round to “research” national and international yoga retreats and the like (Which resort truly has the warmer water? Which has the deepest hues of turquoise?  Which offers the widest ranges of massage options? Trying to resolve tough questions like that), I somehow doubt that starting the YogaRose.net travel agency will be my ticket out of working full-time and praying that this country still has some social safety net when (if) retirement comes. Plus, it wouldn’t even be the most advisable yogic path.

Fantasies aside, I always try to connect people to a dreamy yoga destination or a deeply fulfilling training. Let me know what you think of some of the itineraries I find myself frequently recommending:

The yoga ‘staycation’

For most of the days out of the years when yogis can’t afford the time off or the money to travel, I remind them to consider time on their mat as a “staycation” for the body, mind and spirit. A 90-minute yoga staycation may not feel quite the same as practicing on the beach in a Caribbean climate, but most of the time, it’s the most practical, and the overall best, option. Yoga is about quieting the mind and turning the senses inward — sun, sand and Swedish massages are not technically mentioned in the Yoga Sutras or the Bhagavad Gita when discussing the aim of yoga.

But even the most dedicated yogis need a spark of inspiration and practical, hands-on guidance to deepen their practice. The most affordable way to achieve this is with a weekend workshop that’s within driving distance.

One-gas-tank getaway

After visiting the fantastic Yoga on High studio in Columbus, Ohio for the first time last year to take a workshop with Ashtanga instructor extraordinaire Tim Miller, I returned to Lansing and spread the word about how much I enjoyed the programs and the people in this town that’s a relatively easy four-and-a-half-hour drive from mid-Michigan. A few friends returned with me later that year for a workshop with the incredible Maty Ezraty. A few ashtangis made the pilgrimage to Tim Miller when I returned this year, and a fairly sizable contingent of Hilltop Yoga students went to Columbus last month to study with Maty Ezraty this time around.

In short, I like instigating one-gas-tank yoga caravans. But sometimes, there are events so powerful that I have to recommend students make the sacrifices they can make in order to plan for a big trip — like the one taking place in San Diego next March.

Converging where powerful streams of influence come together

I’ve been sharing my excitement — over Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr and, of course, here on WordPress — over the prospect of the first annual Ashtanga Yoga Confluence. I think at least a few folks from the greater Lansing area are already intending to make the trek — how very cool. Whether you are attending or not, I highly recommend getting in the spirit of the drumbeat leading up to the gathering by checking out The Confluence Countdown blog.

Ask a fellow yogi

When I can’t sleep, I am usually up reading (or writing) about yoga (most of my blog posts are written between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. — no joke! It’s the only real time I have to blog). When I travel, I try to find a local yoga studio to visit as a way to get to better know that place. When I get mischievous, I start plotting how to get to my next yoga retreat or training (such as the one I embark on in just over a week — working on Ashtanga second series with Tim Miller set against the backdrop of sweeping Mt. Shasta).

If we know each other in daily life and you have thoughts on a yoga getaway but don’t know exactly where to go, try me. If we don’t know each other except through this blog, try me anyway! Throw down a comment — the blogging community will certainly have ideas where I don’t.

Can yoganidrasana (“yogi’s sleep posture”) make dreams come true? 

If nothing else, let me know what you consider your dream yoga getaway. If you know me well, you probably know that mine is to be able to take the required month off of work to make the pilgrimage — and it is a pilgrimage — to Mysore, India, to study Ashtanga yoga in the city that serves as home base for this challenging and brilliantly designed practice. (There are pretty strict rules governing the  Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute, including the rule that you study for a minimum of a month at a time — no drop-in sessions or weekend workshops here!)

If I ever do get the chance to make this trip, I am all set because fellow Ashtanga yoga blogger Claudia Yoga, who is based in New York, has already created this guide to traveling to Mysore. I love the Ashtanga yoga blogging community dispersed around the world — they are some of the best built-in yoga travel guides you could ask for.

(Photo credits: YogaRose.net/iStockphoto(andreart) (top); “Acro Floating Yoganidrasana” via Yogable (bottom))

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

YogaRose.net Explainer takes on P90X Yoga X [Round 2]: What’s vinyasa, power yoga and Ashtanga all about? How do I tell the difference?

YogaRose.net Explainer Wordle

I’ve received so much feedback since writing my blog post on P90X Yoga X that I thought it might be helpful to do a part 2 blog post answering a few of the common questions people have.

What is a vinyasa?

In the P90X Yoga X DVD, Tony Horton refers to going through a vinyasa. It can be confusing, because “vinyasa” can refer to moving in between poses, it can refer to a style of yoga, and sometimes you see Ashtanga yoga referred to as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

There are many ways to explain it, but Shiva Rea does a concise job in an article titled “Consciousness in Motion“:

‘Vinyasa’ is derived from the Sanskrit term nyasa, which means ‘to place,’ and the prefix vi, ‘in a special way’—as in the arrangement of notes in a raga, the steps along a path to the top of a mountain, or the linking of one asana to the next. In the yoga world the most common understanding of vinyasa is as a flowing sequence of specific asanas coordinated with the movements of the breath. The six series of Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga are by far the best known and most influential.

You might see “vinyasa” described as “flow,” which refers to the fact that in this style of yoga, you flow from one posture to the next using the breath as the link. If you go to a new yoga studio and it lists vinyasa classes, these classes will connect breath and movement, generally by starting off with sun salutations, going into a sequence that is perhaps repeated a few times (though not necessarily) and then ending with finishing postures to cool the body down in preparation for savasana, or corpose pose, which ends the practice. People also use “vinyasa” to simply refer to the transitions between postures.

What kind of yoga is done in the P90X Yoga X video? Is it Ashtanga yoga? 

No, it is not Ashtanga. The fitness guide that comes in the P90X package refers to the opening section as “Astanga Sun Salutations.” (By the way, “Astanga” is an alternate spelling of “Ashtanga.” Both are correct, but you see it spelled “Ashtanga” far more frequently.) The sun salutations, in my opinion, have the spirit of Ashtanga sun salutations A (surya namaskara A), but to be true Ashtanga sun salutes, you would have to come back to standing in between each one rather than go right into the next one. You would also have to hold each down dog for five breaths. In a traditional Ashtanga practice, you do five sun salutation As and five sun salutation Bs (which add a warrior posture and utkatasana, or chair pose, into the flow).

Is the rest of it Ashtanga yoga?

No. Not even close. Ashtanga yoga refers to a set sequence of postures. If you’re curious about which postures appear in Ashtanga, take a look at this PDF of the Ashtanga primary series (there are several series of Ashtanga, but most people practice primary and second series). Yoga Journal provides this quick overview, and this Ashtanga.com backgrounder provides a deeper level of info on the design of the practice and all that it encompasses.

Now that we’re on this subject, is power yoga, Ashtanga yoga and vinyasa yoga the same thing?

Nope. I’ve seen plenty of references that go something like this: “Ashtanga, or power, yoga…” or “Power yoga, also described as “Ashtanga yoga…” “Ashtanga” is a specific system and it is not interchangeable with “power” or “vinyasa.” You might think of vinyasa as the broadest term, the one that refers most generally to linking breath and movement in a sequence. Power yoga is a vinyasa-style yoga, and, based on what I know, it was coined around the same time but separately by two yogis: Bryan Kest and Beryl Bender Birch. Bryan Kest refers to power yoga this way:

Power Yoga is directed at creating the highest level of energy, vitality and freedom. The only way to do this is to work with yourself, not against yourself.

Hilaire Lockwood, who owns Hilltop Yoga where I practice and teach, describes it this way:

Power yoga is often misunderstood. The power in power yoga refers to the inner power that we all hold. That deep inner strength that not only keeps us focused, but allows us to be honest with ourselves and our limits. We carry so much love and compassion as well as depth and a desire for challenge. It is quite amazing when we tap into the life force we hold as individuals and consequently begin to see how we can impact the world in small or very large ways. While we do experience a ‘workout’ by practicing power yoga, you will also experience the yoke and the union that is true yoga – a body, mind, and spirit connection that allows us to achieve a deep ‘working in.’

If you go to an Ashtanga class, it will always feature the same sequence. Vinyasa and power classes do not feature the same sequence every time, so the instructor can put together a sequence that is most fitting to the students in the room.

I’m still not entirely clear about the names and styles

Especially if you’re new to yoga, it can be hard to get a handle on these distinctions. My suggestion is to let it go for now. Don’t worry about it and instead use your energy to find a yoga class in your community that you will enjoy and benefit from. Go practice and clear your mind. :-)

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>>Related posts in the YogaRose.net Explainer series: YogaRose.net Explainer takes on P90X Yoga X

>>Previously in the YogaRose.net Explainer series: What’s that pose the guy in the Sunday Times is doing? And how do you get into it? 

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Got a question for YogaRose.net? Send it my way! Drop an email to ashtangayogarose [at] gmail.com or send me a tweet @rose101. I can’t promise to answer all questions (I do, after all, have another gig besides teaching and writing about yoga), but I will try to at least steer you to interesting answers. (It goes without saying that this isn’t meant to be a step-by-step how-to on yoga. To learn yoga, find a good teacher and get yourself to a yoga class, stat!)

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© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

YogaRose.net Explainer takes on P90X Yoga X

Are you among the more than 3 million who have ordered the P90x home exercise system? You know the one. P90X comes with a set of DVDs that you’re supposed to rotate through in a specific order over the 90 days of the program. The Yoga X DVD begins with the rather charismatic Tony Horton pounding out the virtues of yoga, including strength and calmness of mind. He then says:

Expand the mind here a little bit and try something new. I can do things at my age of 45 not because I can do a bunch of pull-ups, but because I do yoga.

My disclaimer here is that I’ve only done the 90-minute DVD once. But in the spirit of the immediacy of a blog, I’m going to share my initial impressions — from the point of view of a long-time practitioner — with you.

P90X Yoga X includes

What Tony says about it in the DVD

YogaRose.net’s thoughts

Intro on the virtues of yoga, including strength, flexibility, balance, coordination and calming the mind “…combining mind, body and soul together…”“It’s about breath work…”“The tip of the day is to clear your mind.” Bravo for talking about the need to expand the mind, and the fact that yoga aims to bring body, mind and spirit into union. I also liked that he noted yoga is about strength (the common perception is that it’s all about flexibility) and that it requires breath work. (Later on, he even talks about how yoga postures provide massages for the central nervous system.)
A 90-minute sequence

I like this because the styles of yoga I do (Ashtanga and power/vinyasa) connect breath to movement typically in a 90-minute format.
Written descriptions of each posture in the accompanying fitness guide

I haven’t read through all the descriptions, but I’m glad that they are there, including tips on how to intensify postures and a caution: “Avoid injury by not forcing the body beyond its capacity.”
Three sun salutations These are Ashtanga sun salutations Close, but not exactly. In Ashtanga sun salutations, you hold each down dog for five breaths and you return to standing in between each one. Tony goes right into the next one. (But bonus points for spelling it “Astanga,” which I consider the more traditional way to spell what in America is nearly always spelled “Ashtanga.”)
Breath cues Breathe Kudos for reminders on breathing. As an Ashtanga yoga practitioner, I would have loved for Tony to talk about how in this yoga breath (called “ujjayi” in Sanskrit), you inhale and exhale with the mouth closed and you breathe into the chest rather than the low belly.
Upward-facing dog

I would love to hear Tony tell P90Xers that in up dog, you need to send the hips forward (this decreases the risk of bringing tension into the low back).
Chaturanga Keep the elbows pinned (“pinched”) to the side of the body Agreed! I have to admit I don’t like to use words such as “pinched” or “collapsed,” etc. in yoga, but that’s a stylistic matter.
Relaxation reminders Keep the face calm Excellent!
Modifications for various postures For example, if you need to come out of reverse warrior 2, you can straighten the front leg for relief. Very important.
Transitions from warrior 2 to warrior 1

Warrior 2 is a wide-stance posture in which the hips open out to the side wall. Warrior 1 is a posture in which the hips square to the front. If you are toggling between the two, I think it really helps to know that you need to turn the back foot in 45 degrees in warrior 1 so that you can set the skeletal body up to even begin to square the hips. Otherwise, this can be such an awkward and uncomfortable transition.
Savasana Tony notes that in yoga, you shouldn’t just abruptly end the practice. He puts P90Xers into savasana (corpse pose). Cool.
Om/Aum Tony says it’s not a cult thing. He likes to do om three times and encourages his P90Xers to use their voice. Impressive. His oms are serious – he’s not just mailing them in.

P90X Yoga X includes

What Tony says about it in the DVD

YogaRose.net’s thoughts

Overall, I was surprised by the P90X Yoga X program. I expected an exclusively all-exercise, keep-pushing, lose-that-weight, tone-that-hard-body tone. I would have loved even more breathing cues and an explanation early on that in standing postures, you want to keep the kneecaps lifted up in order to engage the quadriceps (basically, you want to keep those upper thighs working). I outright disagreed here and there – for example, whether to contract the gluteus maximus in certain postures. And I definitely would have given more instruction for full wheel (upward bow) posture, or just not included it, since it’s such a deep backbend.

But here’s the thing – millions of people who perhaps would have gone their whole lives never having tried yoga have now been exposed to it because they’ve bought P90X. In an ideal world, I would love if everyone tried yoga in the setting of a dedicated yoga studio because there’s a sweetness and a quiet to it that’s hard to achieve in other places. But that’s not realistic, and I’d rather see people introduced to this incredible system by someone who at least talks about the benefits and design of the practice, talks about the importance of breath, and ends the sequence in savasana. Hopefully people who love it will find a yoga instructor who deepens their practice, and the rest will have had enough cues and enough personal sense to stay safe when they do practice.

This is all fine and good, YogaRose.net, but I have a different question. I know you in real life, Rose, and I am still having a hard time believing that you’re doing P90X. What’s the deal?

Those of you who know me will be shocked to hear that I — or, more accurately, my boyfriend and I — are indeed trying out P90X. What’s surprising about me doing this is that one of my most liberating days when it comes to health and fitness occurred in 2009 or 2010 when I realized that I had truly found a complete mind-body regimen in yoga. I could get cardio, strength training, stress relief and even meditation (of the moving kind) all rolled into one 90-minute practice a day. I was so excited by the fact that I would never have to step on to a cardio machine at the gym again that I gave away my Asics and never looked back.

This year, however, I’ve been expanding my horizons and exploring other ways to move my body, and the challenge of P90X is just that — a challenge. It’s liberating to see where I’m at compared to a few years ago, before I started doing enough yoga to make a difference in my body’s capacities. I am so much more aware of my body, and of my mind-body connection, now, so from this vantage point, it’s pretty fun to check out what this craze is all about. And I’m excited to tell you that the plyometrics program — the one Tony says puts the X in P90X — didn’t completely kick my ass (wicked hard, yes, but it didn’t floor me). Thanks to yoga, I can say, as Tony would, “Bring it.”

>>Update 7.15.12: In looking for some interesting yoga-related podcasts, I just stumbled over this archived interview on Yoga Peeps with Tony Horton

>>Update. Read the related YogaRose.net Explainer blog post: YogaRose.net Explainer takes on P90X Yoga X [Round 2]: What’s vinyasa, power yoga and Ashtanga all about? How do I tell the difference?

>>Got questions about P90X Yoga X that weren’t addressed in this post? Ask away and I’ll share my thoughts with you. Drop a comment or email to ashtangayogarose [at] gmail.com or send me a tweet @rose101.

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>>Previously in the YogaRose.net Explainer series: What’s that pose the guy in the Sunday Times is doing? And how do you get into it? 

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Got a question for YogaRose.net? Send it my way! Drop an email to ashtangayogarose [at] gmail.com or send me a tweet @rose101. I can’t promise to answer all questions (I do, after all, have another gig besides teaching and writing about yoga), but I will try to at least steer you to interesting answers. (It goes without saying that this isn’t meant to be a step-by-step how-to on yoga. To learn yoga, find a good teacher and get yourself to a yoga class, stat!)

~~~

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Ashtanga = boot camp?

As I write this, the third-most e-mailed story on The New York Times’ website is an article that hasn’t even appeared in the print edition yet. “The Yoga Mogul,” a profile of Anusara founder John Friend, will come out in this weekend’s Sunday magazine. It’s a fairly interesting piece that makes you think about whether yogic principles and business objectives can peacefully coexist without diluting the authenticity of this ancient practice (a meaty issue that deserves another blog post down the road).

What I’m going to focus on here is this section of the piece:

Like many other small-stakes subcultures — the world of poetry, or academia, say — yoga has become embroiled in head-of-a-pin type arguments. In yoga’s case it centers on authenticity. The fight over whether it is a spiritual or a physical practice has raged virtually since its inception, but now in the United States this question has been tinted with issues of competition, status and sweat. People who favor the demanding flow of Ashtanga yoga, for instance, might scoff at those who practice Iyengar yoga, which is slow-moving but stresses proper placement of the body in the poses. (Think of boot camp versus a classical ballet lesson.)

I think it’s unfortunate that as yoga becomes more popular, Ashtanga’s reputation grows – a reputation for being the style of yoga geared toward super fit, Type-A personalities. How many people out there have already shied away from trying the practice because they were turned off by what they had heard? The Sunday Times has a circulation of 1.4 million, so the potential reach of just this particular Ashtanga-as-boot-camp image is extensive.

Yes, Ashtanga is challenging. But yoga, in the most general sense, is challenging – it’s a practice that demands mindfulness, intention and honesty. And there is nothing easy in that.

Earlier this week, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in quite some time. Dealing with a low-back injury and post-surgery recovery, she told me that she’s starting to integrate more Ashtanga classes into her schedule because the primary series allows her to move at a slower pace and compassionately return to her asana practice.

Ashtanga is a deeply grounding practice that’s designed to detoxify the body, mind and spirit, and to bring us into balance. We can approach the practice in a hard, confrontational way by treating the asanas as a string of poses to be conquered – Hey, look at my Marichyasana D! Do you know how long it took to perfect this? – or we can approach the practice from a softer space in which we seek to flow with grace.

I think the best way to show people that Ashtanga is not the boot camp of yoga styles is to – well, show people. Show them through example, through how we experience and express our own practices, and encourage them to try the practice for themselves.