Yoga Journal’s 21 day challenge

Airport stopover, and my usual treat: heading to the Hudson’s News and buying a variety of magazines, my guilty pleasures for the flight. They usually tell more about me than I’d like to have known: I think a combination of food magazines like Food and Wine and exercise mags like Yoga Journal really says everything about causes and effects.

The current issue of Yoga Journal (to which I used to subscribe, until it got a bit boring) did inspire me, however. They’re beginning a 21-day yoga challenge. The idea? Do yoga, any kind of yoga, for 21 days straight, and make a habit of it. To support this, they’re putting up free yoga videos on their website. There are supposed to be twenty-one, for each of the twenty-one days, but when I click through the three weeks, I see the same week’s workouts repeated.

I began last night, by doing the 20-minute evening sequence. It was a super-easy practice of gentle back stretches. Which was good, since I had a bit of back pain and was almost asleep as I was doing it. Kate Holcombe encourages you to do most of the practice with your eyes closed, which made it even more soothing.

Everyone thinking of doing the 21-day challenge should begin with the evening sequence, not with the more rigorous 40-minute practice. Why? Because the evening sequence proves it is possible to get a bit of yoga in even when exhausted and ready for bed.

Quickie Review of Ralf Bauer’s Yoga 2

For most people, going to the Alps means one of two things, skiing or snowboarding, combined with liberal amounts of melted cheese. Since any of those items are likely to put me in the hospital, I decided I would do yoga instead. This was also a chance to check out some of the local yoga videos in Germany, although I had to be careful, of course, to buy only those specifically marked as Region Code 0.

Ralf Bauer doing yoga in the Alps

One of my choices was Yoga 2 mit Ralf Bauer, and to be honest, part of my motivation was that the practice is filmed in the mountains (albeit in summer). After all, it doesn’t really make sense to be doing yoga on a cold mountaintop and looking at people stretching on a Caribbean beach, does it?

The other thing that drew me to the video is that it actually has a variety of shorter programs (morning and evening yoga, meditation, guided relaxation) along with a 48-minute practice. I’ve really only done the main practice so far, so I haven’t even begun to use all the options available.

The main practice itself was quite a bit easier than I expected — it’s really aimed at people who might not have done any yoga at all, and therefore doesn’t push too far. Usually, a simple combo is guided, and then a very slightly more difficult addition is added to that combo on the third and fourth repetitions. What I enjoyed, however, was the fact that every single move was combined with a cued breath. It reminded me of my Gary Kraftsow Viniyoga DVDs. Part of what I find so relaxing about them is not having to think about anything but following the cues.

Ralf Bauer's Yoga in the Alps

I can imagine this workout being good for those days when I want to do something medium-length, but am not feeling too pliable. During my mountaintop practice, I had plenty of time, so I wound up using it more as a warmup for my own, added asanas, which lasted another hour or so. The whole practice wound up being some kind of magical calming drug — simply wonderful.

Back to yoga with Rodney Yee’s Strength Building Yoga

I used to do yoga pretty regularly — once or twice a week, in fabulous, long, intense sessions that left me nearly comatose. But since I’ve been too lazy to find an instructor or studio in my new town, I’ve relied on videos.

Rodney Yee doing Strength Building Yoga

Today, I tried Rodney Yee’s Strength Building Yoga for the first time. It’s really two workouts, the first around 45 minutes, and the second another 20 or 25. That’s short enough for it to make sense just to string them together and have a decent practice. Yee assumes that you know the postures, and there is almost no instruction on how to perform the asanas. On the other hand, the breaths and movements are cued well enough that I was able to do most of the practice without looking at the screen. (What did suck: the sections aren’t really chaptered, so if you need to review an explanation for a complicated set-up, you really have to “rewind” manually.) 

There were moments in both sections of the workout when I not only couldn’t keep up, but couldn’t even begin to do the basic move. But that’s the fun of yoga, no? Its effects make themselves known in increments, and almost always by surprise. And aside from those few, quite difficult, asanas, the practice is slow-paced and not particularly exhausting.

Returning to Bellydance Arms & Posture

Today, in an attempt to begin my resolution (actually made after I finished this video), I worked again with Rachel Brice’s Bellydance Arms & Posture.

I did it, in short, because of pain. Shoulder pain. Upper back pain. Stiff neck. I have a great DVD for yoga-based shoulder work by Jill Miller, and it really is great, but I wanted a bit of dance too. Just in case you’re wondering how bad my shoulders are: there is enough loud cracking in my upper back every time I roll my shoulders that I know whether I’m keeping time with the music or not. (I know: you really needed to know that.)

Rachel Brice performing shoulder exercises
The rope pulling exercise

On the one hand, I was stiff, my shoulders were weak, and I still see no point in the knee-hurting level changes she covers that have nothing to do with the rest of the workout. On the other hand, I was much more inspired by Bellydance Arms & Posture this time around. Although Brice doesn’t have you do a lot on posture per se, working so much on the shoulders just has that effect. The practice periods for moves like sidewinder are long enough to actually *get* it. And there’s a cute little combination at the end that, done enough times, is something you can adapt to other kinds of dance.

Rachel Brice tribal fusion dancing

I also really appreciated the soothing, yoga-based warmup and cool down. The video is a cohesive unit, and if it’s not as comprehensive a source for arm work as dancers might want, it’s easy to commit to fifty minutes and just do it. And the neck stretches — Brice didn’t forget the neck stretches! Bless her.

After it was over, and to my surprise, I found myself just dancing. For some reason, loosening up the shoulder area (and live dance teachers are always telling me to keep my shoulders down) was strangely liberating for the rest of my body. Wonderful!

Pleasant Surprises: Hemelaya Behl’s Yoga for Urban Living

There’s nothing quite like surpassed expectations. I didn’t have particularly high hopes for Hemalaya’s Yoga for Urban Living (her ads for her other workout videos always look so cheesy), but it was super-cheap and had decent reviews on Amazon. Also, I wanted quickie workouts I could fit into my schedule, so it seemed worth the risk.

The DVD has three programs, “Morning Quickie” (about half an hour), “Evening Bath” (25 min), and “Daily Connection” (1 hr). I’ve done “Morning Quickie” a few times, and found it a nice, simple set of sun salutations and twists that get my back more flexible at the start of the day.

Hemelaya Behl doing at-home yoga
You’ll get to your yoga practice faster if you don’t bother with pants

Last night, I decided to try “Evening Bath,” since my back was still a little sore from the previous day’s bellydance marathon. It turns out that it actually was very relaxing. The music is toned down, Hemalaya speaks in a soothing, quiet voice, and the positions are more of the resting or deep stretch kind. Except — the shoulder stand! There was an entire shoulder stand series, which I found surprising. I must admit I worried a little about my back while doing them, but I woke up this morning feeling great, so I guess it must have worked.

All in all, the program really helped me relax and stretch my back muscles. In fact, for most of the DVD, I was able to follow her verbal instructions and ignore the screen altogether. The funny thing is this: it was only last night that I noticed the third program, which is an hour long, and just when I’ve been looking for longer yoga videos! Yoga for Urban Living indeed.

Review: Suzanne Deason’s Yoga Conditioning for Weight Loss

Yoga Conditioning for Weight Loss spent some time gathering dust on my shelf before I finally tried it. When I finally did, I loved it, and this may well become my “go to” yoga video for busy days.

I happen not to like “flow” videos so much, and it seems most yoga DVDs out there are exactly about that. I love the feeling of breathing into a pose, and the challenge of using my muscles to maintain a strong pose for a little while. Yoga Conditioning for Weight Loss gives me just what I need: a good combination of standing, sitting, and lying poses; lots of twisting poses (which I’ve also found lacking in flow videos); a few poses which gently, but powerfully, build abdominal strength.

The video allows you to do the workout at different levels of modification, which means that you can measure yourself to someone at your level as you check your position. It’s hard to know if you’re doing a pose right if the only model you get a yoga master, or if the modified pose is somewhere behind the yoga master (hard to see on a small screen). Almost every breath is cued, which I also appreciate, and Deason keeps up a running commentary with advice on what you should be feeling and doing during each pose. Her voice is soft enough that you can ignore it if you wish, but I found her suggestions very useful for working on strength and balance, especially during standing poses.

And, the entire thing is only forty-five minutes long! It really fits into a busy day, and is wonderfully restorative. I’m not sure what it does for weight loss, but I can tell you that I feel physically good after doing the video, with just the right combination of energy and pleasant fatigue.

Using Barbara Benagh’s Yoga for Beginners

I’ve had Yoga For Beginners for a while now, and I’m pretty sure I’ve used it in the past, but since I’ve been taking proper yoga lessons for six months now, I rarely turned to it.

What made me take it off the shelf today was my search for yoga practices longer than 30 or 40 minutes. Generally, I’m very glad to have shorter practices that are easy to fit into my day. Still, I wanted to see if any of my DVDs have longer practices, preferably an hour to an hour and a half, so that I might try and approximate the feeling of a real class on days when I have more time.

What’s neat about Yoga For Beginners is its organization into two levels. There is a menu with a series of focused workouts at around 20 minutes each, and a second menu of longer workouts that combine and recombine the shorter routines. I wound up picking up a forty-minute “Energize” routine, looking forward to the yoga wakeup.

My feelings about it were mixed. Maybe it’s because I love Benagh’s Yoga for Stress Relief, but I expected this to be great. It wasn’t. Benagh pays a lot of attention to breath, and gives all sorts of detailed instructions for positioning. Unfortunately, the movement cues didn’t really match what was going on on the screen, so when I looked towards the screen for guidance but listened to her breathing and movement cues, none of it made sense.

Another thing that annoyed me was a strange combination of slowness, lack of variety, and difficulty in the program. Now, I like slower yoga, but I want to spend my time deepening an asana, not lying down on my face breathing and thinking about what I might do next. The slowness of the program also meant there wasn’t much variety in the movements — the same program could have been done in 20 minutes. On the other hand, although the sun salutation didn’t have a full forward bend (I suppose because this is a beginners’ video), there were many repetitions of a full cobra, which I find quite hard on the lower back. My yoga instructor really challenges us in practice, and yet she still doesn’t have us do the full cobra that often.

I don’t think the video is bad, per se… a few hours later, my back does feel better, and it’s probably good for a slow and lazy day. Still, the “Energize” workout was anything but energizing. (I’m sure her relaxation and stretching routines are better.) And I want an hour-long video that really challenges me — if I want to spend an hour mostly lying on my face, I’ll stay in bed!

Review: Gary Kraftsow’s Viniyoga Therapy for the Upper Back, Neck & Shoulders

I bought Viniyoga Therapy for the Upper Back, Neck & Shoulders and its companion for the lower back shortly after having a debilitating back spasm that put me out of commission for several weeks. I went to physiotherapy, and although it did help, I find the exercises excruciatingly boring, which of course means I don’t do them as often as I should.

So, what was the result? These DVDs are quite simply a godsend. (I’m only writing a review of this one now because I haven’t yet used all three segments of the lower back DVD.) Kraftsow says in his introduction that doing the yoga exercises should be like brushing your teeth, and I find that the program is designed to make it just as easy to keep the stretching going as brushing teeth would be! Knowing that I have a choice between segments of different lengths, and that I can do just 20 minutes in the morning (before I get too hungry!) and still be doing something for my back, makes it so much more realistic to keep up a yoga program.

That, and the fact that the exercises work. I am sometimes so tense that the neck & shoulders movements don’t relax me completely, but they do help, and I generally feel the difference the following morning: they can be better described as preventing future, worse pain than easing current pain. I might add that several of the exercises are similar to what I learned in physiotherapy, which gave me some confidence in the system.

I spent more on these DVDs than I usually do on exercise videos, but I also use them several times a week, much more than I use anything else. They offer variety in type of exercise and duration of program, and they’re set up so that I can do a light program when I’m suffering from pain and a harder one when I want to build strength. I’ve also noticed a difference in my core abdominal strength from using the two videos. Finally, I should add that the DVDs also include mp3 files of the practices, in case you just want to work out with the sound and don’t need the video any more.