Review of Hala Khouri’s Yoga for Stress Reduction

Every now and then, I quite simply fall in love with a DVD.

This happens to be one of those times.

Let’s just say I haven’t had the easiest time of it since becoming a mother. For all kinds of reasons, it’s been the most challenging period of my life.

I’ve worked with Hala Khouri’s Yoga for Stress Reduction: Simple Techniques to Manage and Release Stress a couple of times since getting a copy to review. It was hard to make the time for it, or rather, for myself, due to obvious reasons. But every time I did, I enjoyed it so much, for every single second, that I kept asking myself why I don’t do it more often. This should be my go-to yoga DVD. It may well become my go-to yoga DVD, at least for when I have about 70 minutes to devote to it.

Before I go into the chapter breakdown, let me list the things I like about this video:

  • It’s a flow, but it doesn’t move so fast that you don’t have time to find your stability or make sure your form is right. That tends to drive me nuts about flow-type yoga.
  • The focus is in fact on stability, on finding relaxation in a strong pose.
  • Hala incorporates faster and looser movements into the yoga practice, so there’s also a chance to get some nervous energy out.
  • Her voiceover is soothing, and inspirational. This kind of thing is such a fine line to tread, since the kinds of things that yoga teachers find motivational can sound a bit cheesy to the rest of us. But Hala walks the line well, and frankly, when you really are very stressed out, it’s nice to have the instructor remind you that it’s ok if you fall during a balance pose.
  • Good production values: Yoga for Stress Reduction is beautifully filmed, chaptered, all that stuff. The sound and image are clear. Though I found that by the second time around, I barely looked at the screen anymore — I just followed the instructions, often with my eyes closed.
  • Almost every single breath is cued with movement. Breath is central in this practice, and so good cueing is essential.
  • I slept like a baby last night after doing it.

Now to the contents. After a brief spoken intro, you have a Warm Up with a focus on deep breathing and basic, passive stretches for the back, legs, and shoulders. This 18-minute segment would be great on its own at the end of a long day.

Next is a 25-minute Standing Pose segment. You have a slow version of a sun salutation with a variety of standing poses worked into it. Then, facing forward, you do a straddle sit with arm movements — I found this delicious, building strength in the lower body and flexibility in the arms and torso. Finally, you move between balancing on the left leg and the right, also a really pleasurable way of practicing balance without getting bored or exhausted.

Shaking It Off is twelve minutes long, and you will either love it or hated. After some slow, tai chi-type moves, Hala has you “massage” different parts of your body with percussive hand movements. The second part is loose, energetic movement, in which you shake what your body needs shaken. I think the key to doing this section is being alone, closing your eyes, and really committing to looking ridiculous. I still don’t quite know what Hala does in this section, because I just don’t watch it. When I did this video, it really clicked with some of the online discussions I’ve had with Alia Thabit, mastermind of the 90 Day Dance Party Challenge. Alia sent me some literature by Peter Levine, who works to heal trauma by helping patients discharge nervous energy built up in the body (Somatic Experiencing). Touching the various body parts and shaking out the energy are two techniques I know, second hand, from Alia. Now, I am not a therapist, and I haven’t really evaluated the research too closely (though there is research on it). All I can tell is that it does feel good to do this kind of movement. I sometimes found myself moving into bellydance vocabulary, but I tried to shy away from it and just be really free and chaotic in this section. I didn’t want to feel like I was in the classroom! (A footnote: reading Hala’s online biography, I find that she’s trained in Somatic Experiencing. Makes sense!)

The physical part of the practice ends with a 15-minute Cool Down. This was probably my favourite part of Yoga for Stress Reduction. Hala leads you through forward bending poses, which always have a soothing effect on me. And shavasana to end, of course.

The video also includes two 5-minute meditation practices, but I have to confess I haven’t spent too much time with these!

The one fault I can find with Yoga for Stress Reduction is that the menu does not include minute counts for the individual segments. This is a small oversight, but I think I would have done the program more often if I could have seen at a glance how long I needed to commit. In fact, any of the yoga segments — including the warm up and cool down — would be great mini practice sessions too. I can imagine doing Shaking It Off during a particularly stressful day, or the Cool Down before going to bed. (This is why, incidentally, I’ve put all the info here!) The other thing you need to know is that Hala does not give really detailed basic instructions about how to do the poses. She gives good pointers, but it’s helpful if you are already familiar with basic asanas. I liked not having a lot of extra talking, since I already know to check where my weight is in mountain pose, for example.

Yoga for Stress Reduction is available at Amazon. You can also find out more about Hala Khouri at http://halakhouri.com/.

Review of Chantal Donnelly’s Pain Free at Work

Although I’ve dedicated this blog to activities that make me feel physically wonderful, like dance, and yoga, and pilates, the truth is that I spend enormous amounts of time in front of the computer like everyone else. It’s not just work, though it is also work. But many things I love to do, like writing creatively (and like, well, my work) require the computer.

This means that I can reliably count on one thing: pain.

I was recently sent a review copy of Chantal Donnelly’s Pain Free at Work. The funny thing is, I’ve often wanted something just like what this video includes, namely a short stretching program that can be done in my office chair. But first things first.

Let me just pull up a seat…

Pain Free at Work is a mixed-genre DVD, made up of both informative lecture segments and sets of practical exercises. It’s about forty minutes long, and divided into multiple sections:

Pain Free Sitting
Training for Marathon Sitting – Phase 1
Training for Marathon Sitting – Phase 2
Ergonomics in the Work Place
Exercising at Your Desk
After Work Workout
Handling Pain: Elbow, Wrist and Hand Pain
Express Stress Relief

The lectures:

In Pain Free Sitting, Chantal demonstrates how to sit correctly so as to minimize the curvature of the back, and reduce pain. She uses a live model and anatomical charts. As much as I am easily bored during this kind of lecture, the truth is that I realised how much I am doing wrong when I sit at a desk. (Just right now I was sitting back with my legs crossed on the chair!) I’ve always known I was sitting poorly, but having it spelled out somehow helps me to check my own posture. (Now I am sitting up straight, abdominals in. Aren’t you proud of me?)

This is the secret to good laptop mojo!

 I found Ergonomics in the Work Place very useful. Again, this is the kind of thing I’ve read dozens of articles on, but I’ve rarely been able to control my work space to the extent needed to have an optimal setup. What I liked about this section is that Chantal and ergonomics expert Brad Hutchins deal with laptops, which I never have seen before. The assumption tends to be that you have a huge desk computer. The other thing I liked was Brad’s point that even making one improvement is better than nothing. I don’t have to have the perfect setup at work, but changing one thing is still good.

Express Stress Relief was really express. It is a short conversation between Chantal and Dr. Jeff Gero, and includes a few strategies on dealing with stress. Mainly deep breathing, meditation, and positive thinking. Honestly, I think each of these take enough training to do them right that having a short segment on them is not particularly helpful.

The lectures with some exercises:

Training for Marathon Sitting – Phase 1 is basically an introduction to connecting with your transverse abdominal muscle. Chantal provides some strategies for strengthening it while doing everyday tasks. Again, simple, but good to have the reminder. I do think that people who have not had training in accessing this muscle might benefit from even more detailed instruction. (I found Helen Byrne’s postnatal conditioning workout to be particularly focused in this respect.)

Handling Pain: Elbow, Wrist and Hand Pain is another brief segment, including two self-massage techniques for dealing with elbow and hand pain that were completely new to me. Short, but very worth while.

The exercise programs:

The real gem of Pain Free at Work for me is Exercising at Your Desk. This is a compact set of exercises you can do at your desk that will gently stretch everything from the feet to the head. The thing I particularly like about this is that the exercises do not look weird — that is, you don’t have to get into any funny or embarrassing positions to do them. You could do them around your coworkers and no one would bat an eye.

This is just a delicious inner-thigh stretch

 Training for Marathon Sitting – Phase 2 is a gentle yoga and pilates-type workout for stretching the back and building strength in both abdominal and back muscles. Chantal suggests you watch it through before doing it. This is a good idea, as the cuing is minimal. (I would have liked for everything to be cued.) That said, she does give good prompts on form and using the abdominal muscles for support. And she has one of the demonstrators show modifications, sometimes using a Swiss ball.

Finally, there is an After Work Workout that uses a thick foam roller for stretching and relaxation. I didn’t have the prop, so I didn’t do it! I can say that the other two workouts are simple but definitely relaxing.

In short, I think Pain Free at Work can be very useful to anyone spending a lot of time at a computer. Watching the lecture segments is not as much fun as doing the exercises, but I did get some good tips out of them. I think the best way to use it is to keep it in your office and do the stretches and self-massages on a regular basis, once or twice a day, as a preventative measure!

Review of Myra Krien’s Anatomy of a Hip Circle

One of the great things about working with DVDs is that you can always get exactly what you need. Want a quick yoga workout? You’ve got it. Want a long bellydance choreography? It’s there. My only problem is — and I blush to admit it — that I’m such a video addict that I often don’t know what I have. There are so many videos I haven’t really worked with yet that it’s hard to know which to pick. So I look over them and choose one, and sometimes, karma smiles on me and gives me exactly. what. I. wanted. that day.

Myra offers safety tips for the Jewel

This was the case for me yesterday. One of the things I noticed when attending Sunday’s workshops was how completely and utterly out of touch with my core I am now, post baby, post c-section. This is, of course, tragic for a bellydancer. So I knew that I wanted something basic today, but something that would get me in touch with my long-lost abdominals, teach me how to feel them again. Enter a karmic smile, in the form of Myra Krien‘s Anatomy of a Hip Circle.

Despite being a regular on various online forums dedicated to discussing bellydance and bellydance videos, I hadn’t heard of Krien’s videos until I found them by accident, while poking around on the internet. And in fact, she has a whole series of them. When I started my review copy of Anatomy of a Hip Circle, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Was this a beginner DVD? It is the first in a series of three videos ostensibly dedicated to hip circles, but what exactly would be included?

The video begins with a brief introduction to Krien’s Pomegranate Studio. Krien then goes over proper bellydance posture, reminding us to check in on our posture as we practice. And, in fact, like a good teacher she really does remind you to protect your lower back and keep your upper body lifted throughout the following exercises.

The posture check

In the section on Anatomy, Krien goes over the muscles used to create hip circles, focusing on the psoas, the glutes, and the obliques. She also includes a few brief exercises to get in touch with these muscles.

The 17-minute section with Support Exercises starts to get really meaty. Here are a series of wonderful exercises and drills meant to help you become aware of the different muscles key in bellydancing and practice using them in releve and with different foot positions. This is great stuff, exactly the kind of drills you need to take the abstract discussion of muscles into dance practice. The exercises targeting the psoas were particularly difficult and, for that reason, most valuable. As a beginning bellydancer, it’s not hard to learn to use your obliques; it’s more challenging to get to your glutes (especially individually); but it’s hardest of all to target the psoas. This video is the best resource I have found so far for targeting the psoas that is aimed at bellydancers.

Drilling the psoas every which way

What follows is a four-minute section on the Jewel, one of those moves dancers are always trying to define and find instruction for (or so it seems). Krien acknowledges that there are different ways of teaching and even doing the Jewel, and that hers is just one — again, her version is very psoas-centered.

Next is a twenty-minute Technique Practicum that contains a short warmup, and uses a variety of horizontal and vertical hip circles, building up into more complex and interesting patterns. Circles build into figure eights, and these are varied upon in turn. Sections of circles become horseshoe-shaped movements. Movements are done up and down, backwards and forwards, each time giving a different feel.

The video closes out with a seven-minute Stretching section that serves as a delicious cool down.

So what is Anatomy of a Hip Circle, after all? I think the best way to think of it is as an information-dense one-hour workshop on using anatomical awareness to improve bellydance from the ground up. The information is way too detailed for a true beginner. Most beginners, unless they have a background in dance or movement, just want to learn the shapes and some hand and arm work. It’s really when you advance a bit in the dance that you start caring about using specific muscles to drive movements. An advanced dancer might find this a good review of material, and will probably pick up a few tips, but is unlikely to be challenged. So I think the best audience for this video would be advanced beginners and intermediates.

The entire program is about an hour, and on the surface, the material looks simple enough. Just a bunch of hip circles and figure eights, right? But I think it will bear repetition. A lot of the drills I could fake my way through, but I knew I wasn’t really “grabbing” the movement with the right muscle the way I should. After all, that’s what the drills are for. This is a video to return to when I want efficient, targeted technique practice. It’s like going to a great drills workshop, but being able to take it home with you as well for further work.

The video is shot in a bright studio with a live drummer. Myra Krien is filmed facing a mirror, and the image and sound are clear at all times. I like her affect — she speaks with the authority of an experienced teacher, is friendly, but not perky in an annoying way. Everything is drilled on both sides. But my favorite aspect of the program is Krien’s attention to safe movement. She is careful to point out movements that might tempt dancers to move in an unsafe way, and gives tips for avoiding muscle strain or injury. I wish more videos gave this kind of attention to safety, especially as dancers at home, without a teacher to watch them, are at even greater risk of injury.

The major con is that the structure is confusing. There is no warmup at the beginning, though a screen tells you to do so on your own. But the Technique Practicum begins with a slight warmup, as if you had not been doing the Support Exercises. And I would have liked a few words at the beginning explaining why the video was set up as it was, and how best to use it. The stretching segment at the end is really effective and relaxing, and Krien also offers a stretch to do when you don’t want to get down on the floor at a workshop. A warmup would have made the program perfect.

All that said, I’m still delighted with the video. A day later, and I already feel more control over my abdominals (and is it my imagination, or are they a little more pulled in?). It’s clear that these drills will be key to getting wonderful, gooey, Egyptian-style movement. In other words, I have my work cut out for me!

Anatomy of a Hip Circle is available at Persephone Store.

Putting mom’s body together again

Yesterday I swam for the first time since last October. Having finally received the go-ahead for exercise at my six-week check-up on Monday, I spent what free time I could carve out during the week doing a series of activities I hadn’t been able to for ages:

1. Tuesday: I took a hot bath.
2. Wednesday: I got a massage.
3. Thursday: I went swimming.

I’ve come to see these as necessary activities not just for me, but also for everyone around me. On the especially exhausted days recently, not only have I been miserable, but I’ve managed to make everyone around me miserable too. The destructive power of an unhappy mom is considerable! So my husband knows to send me out of the house when things are getting bad. On one particularly exhausted day, he said to me, “Why don’t I watch the baby and you go to Half Price Books and buy some books?” Now, I need more books like I need a tornado to go through my living room (oh, wait…), but I dutifully went and did what I needed to do for the sake of my soul. I don’t think what he did is pictured in Porn for New Moms, but it should be.

Anyway, to return back to swimming… During my pregnancy, I splurged on prenatal massages twice. I don’t usually go for massages, but I thought my body deserved them then. But what surprised me was how psychologically important they were too. Even during a pretty easy pregnancy, I still felt like my body wasn’t really my own anymore. People stared at my belly, and every time I went to the doctor’s I was poked and prodded in various ways. It started to feel like my abdominal area was just a totally different part of me, available for the viewing and inspection of others. When I got a prenatal massage, I nearly wanted to cry, since it was the first time I felt like a whole person, with body and mind both belonging to me.

Fast forward to labour, a c-section, breastfeeding… now my body feels even more cut up into chunks. This bit is for the baby, this bit was cut up and needs to be kept dry and not used for anything, this bit is still bleeding, this bit hurts from lifting the baby, and this other bit hurts from bending over too much. It’s a completely fragmented experience of my own body. And while massage and the bath helped a bit, it was really when I went swimming that my body didn’t feel like bits anymore.

Plunging into the water I felt shocked by its coolness, and so I focused on that. I had been a bit scared about my first bit of exercise — would my abdominal muscles hurt? Would I feel them pulling the way I did a few weeks ago when I stood up holding the baby? But they felt fine when I started swimming, my back pain went away, and suddenly I could just give in to the meditative flow of being in the water. I’ve never been a particularly strong or skilled swimmer — in fact, I really only started to like it in university, after reading a book on swimming and working on my technique (yes, I do everything via book learnin’!) — but I can now breast stroke for ages.

Even more surprising than the fact that my body felt ok, in fact just like my old, pre-baby body, was this: I found I wasn’t getting tired at all. You would think after six weeks of no exercise, lack of sleep, round-the-clock breastfeeding, and only short walks, the first bit of cardio would have me huffing and puffing at the edge of the pool. Not only did that not happen, but I only left the pool because of the cold weather, not because I was tired. I really felt I could have gone on swimming for another hour, forgetting all those worries and to-do lists that usually fill my head.

I am now really looking forward to starting some gentle postnatal workouts and bellydance…