Desk exercises — a playlist

So, I have a problem. The problem that arises from a good situation: I have been writing a lot lately. Why should that be bad? Well, it’s doing a number on my body. My shoulders are stiff, my lower back hurts, and I seem to have developed a nasty little case of tendinitis in my wrist.

So, all the writing is making it difficult for me to keep writing. And this comes in a period of my life when I have not only many deadlines, but also a ton of inspiration and ideas.

I need to see a doctor, obviously.And my ballet classes are back in session, which already helps a lot. But until then, I’m taking frequent breaks. So I put together A little playlist on YouTube of workouts around five minutes, most of which you can do while sitting in a desk chair. Please check it out, and let me know if you have any favorite videos or exercises.

The whole list: Desk Exercises playlist.

Or watch it here:

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Review of Elements of Yoga: Earth Foundation with Tara Lee

Tara Lee’s Beginners Yoga and Beyond: Elements of Yoga: Earth Foundation is meant to be a grounding practice. As Tara explains in her introduction, it’s supposed to help you let go of the stresses and anxiety of daily life, to find a balance and connection to the earth.

Tara Lee, yoga instructor

I tend not to get excited about the symbolic poetic effusions of yoga instructors, but I will say this. I worked with Earth Foundation after a period of no yoga at all. (Isn’t this always the case somehow?) I had been traveling a lot, my body was stiff, tired, inflexible… I wanted a yoga program that would stretch me out nicely without making me fall over. I wanted something that wouldn’t be too painful. In short, I wanted something forgiving. And this DVD hit the spot.

Tara Lee doing upward dog yoga position
What, did you expect blue skies and a tropical beach?

Earth Foundation is divided into three practices of about twenty minutes each, plus a 5-minute shavasana. In fact, the sections really build one well-constructed hour-long practice, though I guess you could do just one if you were pressed for time. Practice 1 starts out gently, with breathing to get centered, and continues with a series of slow, delicious dynamic stretches that get your body warmed up. Plenty of pauses in between too, with more breathing and relaxation. A number of the movements in this section were similar to exercises I know from Gary Kraftsow’s excellent Viniyoga programs, and since those have basically saved my back, I was inclined to trust the usefulness of this section. I may be getting you warmed up without too much trouble, but it also carefully strengthens the back muscles.

Tara Lee doing thigh work in her yoga DVD


Practice 2 begins with soft twists and forward bends, and moves into a long sun salutation. While it is not painfully challenging, I did feel myself working, getting warmer and even a bit tired. There are some deeper stretches like pigeon, and some delicious strength work. It’s all a bit more challenging, but still doable on a quiet evening. The third practice is more vinyasa flow, this time with warriors, triangles, and lunges. The latter part of this practice is another nice sequence of exercises and stretches for the back and hamstrings.

All in all, this is an approachable, but still satisfying, program. It’s marketed to beginners, and while you do need to know a bit about the poses, you don’t have to be in top shape to keep up. Nor do you need any uncanny flexibility. Someone very stiff could just do practice 1, and someone looking for a full workout should do the whole hour.

What I found particularly charming was the Englishness of it all. Tara has the accent of course, but even more delightfully, the “exotic” background is English countryside! It rather reminds me of a park I used to live near, and because it looks like a lot of places I’ve lived, it makes the yoga more approachable. I don’t get to practice yoga on a lot of Tahitian beaches, so why should I watch others do so?

The bonus features include three segments around ten minutes each: a more advanced balancing sequence for this “earth” program, along with a breathing segment for “air & water” and a difficult core workout for “fire.” I haven’t looked at the other DVDs, but I’m assuming they all have the same bonuses. Finally, there is a 17-minute interview with Tara, in which she describes how she found yoga and became a teacher. She also explains how her studies in shiatsu led her to focus on the elements, which became the basis of her DVD program. She comes across as thoughtful and intelligent. I should admit she really won me over with her description of yoga as a tool not only to deal with stress, but to get a sense of yourself as you, separate from the roles you inhabit in the world. Both yoga and dance do that for me (dance perhaps even more so), and it’s good to be reminded of how important that is.

I received a review copy of Beginners Yoga and Beyond: Elements of Yoga: Earth Foundation with Tara Lee.

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/.

Taking a breath; getting back to yoga

This morning I decided to do a bit of yoga. Not a big deal, except I haven’t done any in months — and I was enjoying my prenatal yoga so much before I gave birth. I’ve made a lot of time for dance lately, but taking the time to slow down my breath and really focus on the asanas just hasn’t been part of the picture lately. (One exception has been Hala Khouri’s Yoga for Stress Reduction.)

But here’s the thing: there really is nothing like yoga. It got rid of my knee and back pains, and that deep breathing kept me going through a stressful year in my life. So yesterday I bought a copy of Yoga Journal, and today I got my husband to watch the little one while I did a simple, two-page routine for stretching and twisting the back.

I didn’t have the right equipment. I was on a carpet (really not ideal for downward dog), wearing bellydance pants. But that barely mattered. It was so, so difficult to slow and deepen my breath at first. I think this is partly due to the fact that my dance courses have encouraged keeping tight abdominals and breathing into the rib cage, so I had to remember what the belly could do too.

It was wonderful. My back felt longer, and I was more relaxed. More than that, at some point, I started to feel just happy — about life, being a mother, and so on. I’m always just a little bit skeptical when I read these Yoga Journal articles about bhakti and radiant joy and love and all of that stuff, but you know what? Sometimes it works. No altars or mantras necessary. Not even a mat.