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/.

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Bellydance and Pregnancy – An Interview with Sera Solstice

I’m very excited to introduce a new feature on this blog: interviews with video artists and producers. Kicking us off is Sera Solstice, a pioneer of the East Coast Tribal style of bellydance. Besides founding Solstice Studio in New York City, she has produced five DVDs with World Dance New York, among them Foundations of Bellydance: East Coast Tribal, Lunar Bellydance, and Solar Bellydance. I previously reviewed Bellydance: East Coast Tribal, but for our first interview I wanted to ask Sera about a subject near and dear to my heart, the relationship between bellydance and pregnancy. Before continuing, you can read my review of her video Goddess Dance – Prenatal Bellydance & Meditation.

Why did you decide to put together a prenatal bellydance video?

I wanted to document/record my pregnancy and be able to share it with others. It was my second pregnancy, and I felt that it was a very special and sacred time. My first pregnancy was filled with fear and anxiety of all the unknowns. During the second go-around, I had more confidence. The meditations and presentation are what I wish I could have had during my first pregnancy. Perhaps there are a few Moms-to-be out there that could benefit from it.

How did bellydance help you during your own pregnancy?

There were many days when I didn’t feel like doing ANYTHING. But I still had to show up to teach class because I had committed to doing it. As soon as I would drag myself out of the house and to the studio, I realized how good it was for me. Suddenly I was surrounded by loving community who could share in my experiences, and I got great exercise. Getting your blood moving is so very important. Bellydance expands your body awareness, especially in the hips and abdomen. So it really helps a woman to connect to her body when she is pregnant, and be able to connect to the changes, and celebrate that through movement. It helps to connect to the baby too, as you feel your whole womb moving, its as if you are dancing with the baby. I think it makes women feel like a Goddess.

What are some of the greatest myths or misconceptions about prenatal exercise, or about dance more specifically? 

I think there is definitely an overload of precautions, and this is so no one is held responsible in case someone gets hurt. But the problem with all the warnings, is that it opens up the psyche and the consciousness to imagine these possible injuries, and then, I believe, it can make a person afraid, and therefore less trusting of their body, and therefore, more prone to the exact thing they are afraid of. What is most important is for a dancer to listen to her body.

Is bellydancing during pregnancy helpful to women even if they wind up having – or plan to have – a caesarean?

Of course! Bellydance is not just meant for preparation for birth. It is an active meditation of connecting with your body. I would assume it would help a woman heal faster from Caesarean, as she would have a stronger body, and a stronger desire to get back to that physical place of enjoyment of her body. As well as having stronger muscles in the abdomen. Plus a stronger back to help her to NOT use her abdominals as she is healing.

Is there a difference between the benefits an amateur can gain from prenatal bellydance and an advanced student or pro? 

Yes. A dancer who is already familiar with Bellydance will be able to achieve more benefits since she has already built the strength and flexibility BEFORE her body begins to change during the pregnancy. I would recommend that someone who has not studied any bellydance, try to get in as many classes as possible before your body starts the massive physical changes during pregnancy. I don’t think it is good for a 3rd trimester pregnant dancer to pick up Bellydance for the first time. I think it is best to go easy as possible and do movements that your body is already familiar with. Bellydance is a very internal dance. Many dancers seek it for its external image and style, but ultimately, the dance initiates from within and is most powerful in this way. So if a new dancer can approach it this way and not worry so much about looking like her teacher, than she could begin dancing during her 9th month of pregnancy. But again, it is about perspective. I see many people overdue it in order to get the results to LOOK right. A new dancer who is more concerned about FEELING right is on the right path.

How did you learn to meditate, and what role do you think it can play in a new mom’s life?

I started meditating as a teenager and have read countless self-help books and participated in countless spiritual, new age, shaman workshops and rituals. I had to make this meditation, really for my own birth, as I recorded it 3 days before I gave birth. I knew it was pretty far out, and may be a bit too inaccessible for a first-time meditator, but it was what I was called to do. For me, this was what the DVD was all about. The meditations were the most important element. I think WDNY played it down a bit in the title, probably because it was so far out there, but I had to commit to what I felt moved to do. It helped me a lot during my birth. I hope so much that Moms-to-be can use the visualizations. It is meant to be listened to multiple times over to prepare for birth.

In your experience, how soon after birth can women start to dance again? 

A woman should wait 6 weeks minimum. Unless the baby slides out without pushing, chances are the pelvic floor muscles have undergone some damage. The womb needs time for healing and for contracting back into place. It is most important that a woman does not rush out and start trying to work off the pregnancy weight. She is doing a disservice to the beautiful home (womb) of her baby, and her own body that worked so hard to find balance during this time. It makes me sad to see so many women who spend so much of their thought-energy on how much they weigh after the baby is born. It is a beautiful gift that you have received, that you were able to birth this little being. Celebrate your body, that did this work, treat yourself like a goddess, and enjoy your baby. Listen to the subtle voices of your body. IF it hurts, AT ALL, don’t do it! I waited at least 6 weeks, because I could feel there was damage to my pelvic floor, and I wanted to recover and heal, physically and emotionally. Birth is a traumatic miracle. It takes a lot of processing and adjusting. It is a whole initiation into a new stage that you will never return from.

Did having a child change the way you approach your dance? 

Yes. Life experience is what makes good art. I have such depth of life-experience, I have endless emotions and anxieties and frustrations, and incredible joys and loves to dance about. Dance about dance itself is quite boring to me.

I’d like to thank Sera for generously answering my questions about bellydance and pregnancy! I think “birth is a traumatic miracle” is a quote to hold on to — I can’t think of a single sentence that has better summed up my experience of it. And now I’m inspired to go back to my daily meditation…

You can visit Sera’s website at www.boldbellydance.com and find out more about her videos at World Dance New York.

Review of Maha Al Musa’s Dance of the Womb

As I near my due date, my thoughts turn more and more towards preparing for birth and labour, rather than just keeping fit and dealing with the aches and pains of pregnancy. For a while now I’ve been watching and working with sections of the Maha Al Musa’s 2-DVD set, Dance of the Womb: A Gentle Guide to Belly Dance for Pregnancy and Birth (which I received as a review copy), and I’m happy that I’ve played with all of it just at the right time in my pregnancy.

In what sense? Dance of the Womb is much less a workout, and much more a guide to and meditation on connecting with your body to have the best pregnancy and birthing experience possible. To be frank, I don’t think I would have appreciated it very much in my second trimester — I did take some peeks into the program, but was not moved to work with it just yet. And I was lucky to have a pretty active third trimester, for the most part, which enabled me to take on more challenging prenatal programs and even normal dance DVDs. (Though I wasn’t jogging or weight lifting or anything I probably wouldn’t do anyway!) But working with Dance of the Womb as everything in my body is starting to get heavy and painful, and as labour itself approaches, has been just right.

Dance of the Womb has two very different components. One DVD contains a short film of Maha’s home birth of her third child. Between beautifully-shot landscape scenes, photographs, and videos of the birth itself are interspersed interviews with Maha’s midwives. This is an intensely personal film, and really, for lack of a better word, quite amazing. Again, I think this isn’t something I appreciated so much earlier on in my pregnancy, but as I’ve come to see how many of the women I know wound up with cesarean sections recently (the vast majority), I’ve wound up more passionate about being able to labour naturally and with a minimum of interference. I would be too nervous to have a home birth, at least right now, but seeing that it’s possible, and seeing Maha do it, is truly inspiring at this point in my pregnancy.

It’s also inspiring in a practical way. Labour is a long process in many cases, and very different from what they show in the movies. Actually, it’s also quite different from the movies I saw in the Lamaze class on dealing with pain naturally and in the hospital’s prepared childbirth class. Those tend to be shorter and to focus on the last, most painful part of the first phase of labour (transition) and the birth itself. As astounding as all of those births are (both my husband and I are in tears when the lights go up), the videos themselves make the process look rather horrifying and unmanageable. The documentary in Dance of the Womb has a lot of shots of Maha walking and moving around, and as boring as this probably is to someone not currently with child, it’s great to see how she manages most of labour, and that she can manage it. The video also inspired me in nitty gritty ways. While I don’t live in the paradise of nature Maha inhabits, I do have a little bit of a park just outside my apartment, and only when I watched her video did it occur to me that I could spend some of my time outside instead of cooped up, communing with the carefully landscaped nature available to me!

Astoundingly beautiful

The first DVD contains the dance program itself. This is broken down into the following chapters:

Warm Ups (45 min)
The Circle (26 min)
The Spiral (9 min)
The Figure 8 (12 min)
The Cervix (4 min)
The Hands & Arms (13 min)
The Chest (7 min)

This is, as should be obvious, an enormous amount of instruction and practice time. What this means, practically, is that it was a little tricky for me to get started with it. I really had consciously to set aside a good chunk of time for it, and even then had to break it apart into two sessions. Again, this makes sense at the end of pregnancy, as I wind down from the usual pace of my work and more carefully take time to take care of myself.

 
The Warm Up is a program all on its own, comprised of a variety of yoga-based stretches and movements for improving bodily mobility. The instruction is incredibly precise, and the pace is slow. There is much focus on concentration and breath. Despite the fact that I’ve done what feels like a million prenatal workouts by now, I was still surprised by how many movements in this section were new to me. They effectively stretch every part of the body (every part), and are quite satisfying. I’ll add that I was working with this during a pretty high anxiety week, and it really helped to calm me down.

The subsequent chapters are all dance based, but also all subtly different from each other. Each takes as its focus either a part of the body or a basic shape associated with bellydance, and each teaches bellydance movements. However, some chapters are structured like more typical dance instruction, and teach you movements and variations on them (like the figure 8), while others introduce a basic shape or idea and then have you move and improv freely (hands & arms). Instruction is detailed and from the ground up — while I picked up some new things, a woman who had never bellydanced before in her life could learn to do these movements comfortably and safely. Moreover, Maha often gives tips on using the particular movement in childbirth, especially when the form would be different for labour than it would be in “proper” bellydance.

The key sections are the circle and the spiral, probably because those are the most elemental movements both for bellydance and for birthing. The focus here is really not on dancing in a performance sense, but on using the movements to enter a meditative, trance-like state. And it works, at least for me. Again, this is a quality of the video that I think makes it less suitable for an energetic early pregnancy, but fabulous for the end stretch. If I go into labour tomorrow (and this is not unlikely), I will probably play the circle and spiral chapters and move along with them.

You have to be creative to figure out how to suit the program to your needs. The 45-minute warmup would be enough for any day, and does incorporate some of the bellydance moves too. You could do the warmup and then a variety of chapters, or just some of the chapters on their own. The pace is slow and careful enough that I don’t think a lengthy warmup is really necessary.

Dance of the Womb: A Gentle Guide to Belly Dance for Pregnancy and Birth is a valuable compendium of preparation, information, and inspiration for birth.

Review of Sera Solstice’s Goddess Dance: Prenatal Bellydance & Meditation

As much as I tend to hate anything with “goddess” in the title, especially with combined with “pregnancy” or “bellydance,” I love Prenatal Bellydance & Meditation and by the end of it, have a bit of a girl-crush on Sera Solstice. This is the first prenatal bellydance program that leads you through what feels like real dancing. Moreover, the aesthetics of it are simply delightful.

This woman’s dancing is perfection

I’m going to review this from two perspectives — as a prenatal workout and as a dance instructional. The video also has two meditation segments, but I’m not quite into that right now.

Prenatal Bellydance & Meditation as prenatal workout:

Sera is eight months pregnant during the filming of the video, and she explains that she has chosen movements based on what she has found satisfying for her pregnant body. She doesn’t mention consulting any medical literature on safe movements for pregnancy, but nothing she does contradicts any indications I’ve seen. Her backup dancers demonstrate the moves for early pregnancy and postnatal, but there really isn’t too much difference in most sequences.

The beginning warmup is dancey, smooth, but quite minimal — I suggest complementing with your own basic movements like cat stretches, leg stretches, and neck and shoulder rolls. The dance combos themselves are great for a woman who’s growing. Yes, they push a little further than the very basic movements of other prenatal workouts, but it ultimately feels very good. Although Sera often talks about the need to lower awareness to the hips and pelvis, I think the real strength of this program is in what it does for the upper body. I’m in my sixth month of pregnancy, and I end every day feeling pain in my upper back and rib area. While my yoga videos do provide good side stretches, there really is nothing like bellydance to stretch upper abdominals, upper back muscles, and obliques.

The workout as a whole is not heavy on the cardio, but you will feel it, especially if you have been doing lighter, pregnancy-type exercise. I added a necessary cool-down and stretch on my own. There is one hilarious section in which Sera explains the most complicated Kegels I’ve ever heard of, and then guides you to do them along with a series of bellydance movements. This was too much for me! Look, if you want me to move all those muscles separately and precisely, muscles I have never been asked to control to that extent in my life, then I had better be sitting on the ground thinking about that and only that. It’s not gonna happen during an omi.

Prenatal Bellydance & Meditation as dance workout:

I loved the video as a dance workout. I don’t think it would be the right thing for someone trying bellydance for the very first time. Although Sera does give quite lengthy explanations of the movements, using good visuals, you have to pick them up pretty quickly to be able to move along with the video. It takes most women a bit of time to learn a flat-footed maya or an omi or even a chest circle. However, if you have some experience of the moves, her instruction is great for improving your execution of them. The combinations are manageable, but not boring, especially if you also think about getting the hands and arms right.

Most importantly, Sera is a really beautiful dancer. I tend not to get as excited about tribal fusion, since it often seems to lack the fluidity and grace I love about more traditional bellydance forms. Sera is the person to prove me wrong. Her movements are an education in grace, and it’s saying a lot that following her makes you feel like you are dancing.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this DVD from World Dance New York.