Self-improvement

It’s this time of the year again, when everyone takes new resolutions to better themselves in the coming year. It’s been many years since I have taken new year’s resolutions, and this year is no different. I see self-improvement as something I do continuously, so I don’t generally have something specific on my resolutions list.

It’s funny that these good resolutions are so ingrained in our culture, yet most people do not think about self-improvement on a daily basis. Worse, most people are resistant to change, not only for themselves, but also for others. “Oh, you changed” is rarely a compliment (unless you’re back from the hairdresser… and sometimes not even). I personally get a lot of resistance to my changing of certain things, even from family members or friends (though I do feel quite lucky to have a generally very open-minded support group, which I attribute to having met most of them in an academic setting). One obvious point of contention is my veganism, but I’ve also experienced it with my journey of reducing waste, weightlifting, or even my yoga practice.

I think part of it comes from the fact that I’m trying something new, which often doesn’t fit with the idea they have of who I am. And they might be right sometimes, and I won’t stick with what I’m doing (looking at you, pole dancing – I have way too slippery hands). Other times it does stick, and funnily sometimes people who met me later in life cannot imagine me without it: for instance people who met me during my PhD have always known me as “the yoga girl with the allergies”. People who will meet me during my postdoc will likely have a hard time imagining me eating meat.

Conflict also comes when I do (or start doing) something others feel like they should be doing but don’t. I also have this, for exemple when it comes to zero-waste lifestyles, but I try to see it as inspiration instead of judgement. Because I cannot commit to a fully zero-waste lifestyle now does not mean that I cannot do anything. I can do research, I can change some things, I can limit my waste, I can talk to other people about the simple changes I am doing and how they can implement them too. And maybe one day I’ll be able to be fully zero-waste, but meanwhile I’ll be reducing-waste.

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I try to keep in mind that even though every little thing helps, in the grand scheme of things most people are not gonna become fully vegan or zero-waste. However, most people might become flexitarians or reducetarians. By striving in a lifestyle that is more compassionate and better for the environment, while still being relatable as fully part of society rather than an outcast (and hopefully a useful contributor to society as both a researcher and a yoga teacher), I hope and aim to inspire people to make small changes in their own lives. Even in France, I do see that things are changing, even for veganism, as usual slower than anywhere else (how dare you touch upon French Cuisine!), but at least in Paris, and in supermarkets, vegan products are becoming more broadly available.

I’ll still be taking the plane to move to NYC. I am convinced that we can live a modern lifestyle while being more respectful of our surroundings, and I don’t see flying stopping any time soon. However, I will not take the plane when it isn’t necessary: for exemple I went to Berlin by train a few weeks ago. The inconvenience+price VS ecological impact wasn’t enough to convince me to get a plane ticket. I would also like to see more initiatives limiting flying for science conferences for exemple, with all the options that new technologies such as Skype (and who knows, soon holograms?) offer.

’tis a complicated time to be alive, that’s for sure. Even when you want to make the right choice, and you do some research, there is so much conflicting information on ze internet that I cannot blame people who do not take the time to go through dozens of article, without any scientific training, and synthesize the information to make an educated choice. This is why I believe that we have to push for more certifications -even though there are already so many. I realize that more labeling might confuse consumers even more, but I am rarely as annoyed as when I am looking for information on a product and cannot find it. At least if it is there, you might or might not look at it, or spend much time comparing products, but you can do it. And there are often great people on the internet who will take upon themselves of making comparisons and come up with the best choice depending on both your budget and your values.

Anyways, are you readers taking new resolutions? Why / why not? And if so, what are they?

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Gratitude

As 2017 closes, I try and reflect on my blessings. 2017 was a special year, full of closures: I obtained my Introductory II certificate, my PhD, published my first first-author article, got a postdoctoral position at NYU and the corresponding visa, and saw many friends graduate.

A year full of events, which also lets me much room for growth in 2018, as I will be moving to a new continent, thus realizing my childhood dream of living in the USA, and also moving in with my boyfriend, a much awaited step after more than a year of long-distance.

It’s thus with mixed feeling that I start 2018, the excitement of my new life that is going to start soon, but also the small ping in the heart of leaving the nurturing environment of Utrecht where I lived for the past five years. I have learned so much here, met amazing people who became great friends, and have definitely made myself at home. While I am looking forward to the challenge of both living together as a couple and living in NYC, I am sad to leave this comfy life I created here. And of course, I am trying to finish as many things as possible before I leave, which makes things a tad hectic.

A bad surprise I got when I came back from Christmas break in France was to find that the house I am subletting until I leave not only did not have the new kitchen installed as it should (and there is thus a hole instead of a kitchen), but the heating does not seem to be working. Which also means no warm water as the hot water is controlled by the same system.

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Not sure who I should credit for this illustration, please let me know if you do 🙂

It’s been almost four days as nothing would happen in the weekend or on January 1st, and I don’t know when the situation will change. Luckily for me, this year is the hottest “oud en nieuw” recorded since records exist, with around 12C at the hottest moment of the day (thanks global warming?!). The house thus stays between 10 and 12C, which while cold, is sustainable for sleeping if covered by two warm duvets.

While this is obviously annoying, this makes me reflect on how lucky I am in my “misery”. First, I do have a house. I’m not sleeping on the street, which means I don’t get wind or rain, and generally the house isn’t humid so I’ve not been cold and managed to fall asleep quite rapidly. Secondly, I can (and have been) go to the gym or the yoga studio to shower with hot water. I also have a key of the yoga studio, which is heated up, so on January 1st, I spent most of my time there. I practiced, took a shower, made some tea and browsed the internet in a warm and comfy environment until it was dinner time and I headed home to use the microwave I managed to plug in. Thinking of which: I do have a working fridge and microwave, cold water, and general electricity. So I was able to store some food in advance for New Year’s, when everything is closed (and I did take some leftovers from NYE home). Furthermore, I was at a friend’s for NYE and had a great evening. I am incredibly grateful for their like-mindedness. So it’s not that bad, and makes me see how many things I use daily and take for granted. And it’s great for the environment!

In any case, I hope it gets fixed soon. Meanwhile, I am grateful for all the things I take for granted, such as utilities, but also health, a great support system, a loving family and partner, and all the opportunities that have been offered to me up to now and in the future. I hope I can keep on working hard, loving hard, taking care of as many people as I can to make this Earth a slightly better place than I found it.

Happy 2018!

 

 

What’s the best way to promote a lifestyle (aka: to instagram or not to instagram)

I’ve been considering starting an Instagram account. I keep on toying with the idea, yet not actually doing it.

On the one hand, Instagram clearly is an easy way to promote a healthy lifestyle, and inspire people. I believe that I am somewhat out of the regular yoga-crew, even though I am white, female, and relatively slim, since I also happen to be an Iyengar practitioner, who are relatively unknown on the interwebs, and I did my training while getting a PhD in structural chemistry, which I will defend and receive in November. I’m also a French vegan, which is still a rarity (though that is changing).

I genuinely would like to make Iyengar yoga more known and attract younger practitioners (I talked about age issues in the Iyengar community here). Few teachers are known outside of the Iyengar community, I would say Patrica Walden for sure but still mainly by older practitioners, and Carrie Owerko who is doing hell of a job at spreading the Iyengar world while making it seem fun and attainable.

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Interestingly, when I saw this cover of Yoga Journal, I did not notice it was Carrie Owerko initially, but my first thought was “wow she’s got her front foot really activated, really nice to see that in a yoga pic’ for once!”

Anyhow, the Instagram world, while full of yogis, is pretty void from Iyengar yogis, with the exception of yogi Zain who makes beautifully edited videos, and Fanny from Iyengar yoga notes. If you know of other follow-worthy Iyengar yoga instagrammers, by all means please leave a message in the comments.

So why am I not doing it? Well, I’m still wondering if having an Instagram wouldn’t make me addicted to a) taking pictures all the time and b) external validation. While I started this blog with the only intention to write down my thoughts, I would start my Instagram account with the idea of spreading my idea of yoga, veganism and generally my lifestyle to as many people as possible. First, I’m still not convinced I’m that worthy of an inspiration. Second, well, this blog is not getting many viewers, which I’m fine with, but what if my Instagram doesn’t either? Third, if it does get some traction, is it really promoting what I want to promote? Instagram posts are very short and centered around a picture. While it is easier to communicate and attract people through images, is an image-only medium really the best? Finally, the Iyengar community itself is quite critical about form. And I am too. If I would want to post picture of poses, they’d have to be pretty-near perfect… which might take a lot of time and fun out of my practice.

So overall, I’m thinking of changing the blog a bit, with maybe more short, Instagram-style posts. Maybe some “progress pics”. Maybe advertise my blog a bit more. But not a complete switch to Instagram.

What’s your opinion? Do you use Instagram? Do you wish there were more Iyengar yogis on Instagram? And what’s the best way to promote Iyengar yoga or simply a healthy lifestyle on the internet? Where should I promote my blog?  Looking forward to reading your comments and suggestions.

 

 

The pressure to be so French

I’m gonna keep on writing a bit on the differences between France and other countries. But this time, it’s not about veganism. It’s about the pressure to look good. I had already touched upon these topics here and there.

The more I live abroad, the more I can see clearly what makes France so typically French, and why it’s often seen as such an attractive country. French culture is very strong. It’s such a diverse country geographically speaking, yet somewhat culturally homogeneous for the size. Food is important, art is important, fashion, love, freedom are important, in ways often pervasive through society and difficult to recognize while you’re part of it. For example, I had never understood why Paris was seen as the city of love until I went abroad and noticed that Public Demonstrations of Affection (or PDAs, which at the time I didn’t even know there was a word for!) such as couples holding hands or kissing on the street, which were typical for me, were weird or even frown upon in other countries. Oh cultural norms! The main critic I will always bear towards Frenchies is their pride, for except perhaps Americans and Italians, I have never met people so proud of their countries. Now, there are many reasons to be proud of France, and I am proud of my country, but I often think it crosses borders when it becomes such a strong part of your identity that you can’t talk about anything else.

Anyways as usual I am diverging. I was going to talk about body image, specifically concerning women. I recently talked to a couple of people about what you’re expected to look like as a woman in France compared to other european countries. If you’re at least a tiny bit into fashion, you might have heard of the term “effortless chic”. Well, as a French woman, the ideal is for you to be “effortlessly thin”.

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Exemple case number 1 : Charlotte Gainsbourg, effortlessly chic and thin

This involves two parts: first, that you should eat everything. If you’re going to the restaurant, you should eat bread with butter while waiting for your starter, have a three course meal with wine, and coffee with sugar to finish. Secondly, you should not do sports, except maybe dance or gymnastics. You wouldn’t want to be muscular (= unfeminine)!

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Exemple case number 2 : Audrey Tautou

So, you ask, how does this work? You should be slim or better thin, eat everything and not do sports? It sounds impossible! And you’re right, it pretty much is. I’m sure you’ve heard before of CICO (Calories In, Calories Out): if your calorific expenditure is lower than your calorific intake, you will put on weight. If it’s the reverse, you will lose weight, and if they’re equal, you will stay put. You’ve probably also heard that muscle mass burns more calories than fat tissues, so an even weight of muscle vs fat will not burn the same amount of calories. This means that if you’re the same weight but have a different percentage of muscle you will not burn the same amount of calories at rest. And of course, the best way to build muscle is to use them, a.k.a. do sports. So these “effortlessly thin” simply doesn’t work.

Why, you ask, is it that most French women still look so lean?

First, this is rapidly changing. France, like other developped countries, has an increasing number of overweight and obese people, as obesity levels doubled between 1995 and 2004. So it’s pretty much a myth that French women don’t get fat. But let’s dig in a bit more, the French women who do, how do they do it? I’m not going to talk about eating disorders (even though France ranked second amongst european countries for rates of anorexia in 2012), but about things I’ve seen many of my friends do through the years. Some are positive life choices, others not so much. I’m not advocating you do what they do, just telling you how they do it. Here we go:

  1. They walk. Walking is not considered as exercice, and cities are easily walkable. Furthermore, the Sunday post-meal walk is somewhat of a tradition, as it is seen as very healthy to walk in nature, whether it is a park, the seaside, or a mountain.
  2. They take time to eat. When I was studying, we were always complaining that the one-hour lunch breaks were too short because we didn’t really have time to eat properly (we had around 30 minutes sat-down time once you count going to the university restaurant and queuing for the food).
  3. They skip meals. If you’re gonna induldge during your meals, skipping one efficiently cuts down the amount of calories you’re eating in a day.
  4. To help with not feeling hungry because of point 3, they smoke and/or drink a lot of water. Both help cutting through the feeling of hunger. Interesting article on France and smoking.

Overall, many French women are unhappy with their weight and their looks. When I was living in France, I was one of them. I would never be caught out of my appartment without make up or unfashionable clothes. It tooks a few years of living in the Netherlands (where what you should look like is very different, but that’s for another post) and yoga practice until I found myself happy with my looks, and I often stop and reflect at how happy I am with my body. It might sound conceited, but for me, after years of struggling with body image, it’s simply noticing how much brain space has been freed from not thinking about what I look like, how I could look better, and what people on the street think of me.

Not me, but one of the things I enjoy the most is cycling with bare legs. Especially the first time after winter, when the wind still feels quite cold ❤

2 years!

I can’t believe it’s already been two years since the experiment. I don’t think when I started, I ever imagined it would turn out into a permanent thing. Now I can’t imagine going back to eating meat!

So, what changed during the past two years?

I read. A lot. I informed myself about the different reasons to be vegan, and I realized that I was lying to myself. Even though I care a lot about the environment (see below), I am an ethical vegan. I recently came to this conclusion, partly after watching many of Unnatural Vegan videos, but also reflecting on my feelings towards animals (even though there is evidence that it can be healthy and in some cases environmentally neutral to incorporate some animal products into one’s diet, I would not do it) and reading this interesting piece on vegetarianism and the yoga sutras of Patanjali (please let me know if you cannot access the article).

People started to ask me questions about veganism, and I am slowly openning up to the idea of being an “activist”. At least with friends, I am ok explaining why I am vegan, and also not having all the answers. Planting a seed and sometimes admitting I’m not perfect has its role in promoting veganism, if only for making it more accessible and not-all-vegans-are-assholes. #leadbyexample? Interestingly, I’m the only vegan I know. And I used to think vegans were crazy, so I can relate to non-vegans. Arguing is getting easier as I get more informed, and I have to give a shoutout to r/vegan for its very well maintained wiki. I once too thought that animals were mistreated only in the US, that no harm was done to dairy cows and free-range chickens. And back in 2011 when I watched Earthlings (don’t you love that it’s classified as horror/documentary?!) for the first time, I got easily convinced to eat animals again “because you can’t survive without animals products”. Worst is, I totally believed it. But I know better now,  and I also know to do my research on pretty much any claim before taking a decision.

Which leads me to: making better decisions as a consumer. To reduce the harm I create, both to animals and to the environment. What am I doing about that?

I started looking into the zero waste movement. I replaced my plastic toothbrush with a bamboo humblebrush. I was already using a menstrual cup, but I’m trying to switch most of my other beauty products to plastic-free ones (think soap bars and homemade deodorant – I used to use coconut oil only, but it’s not strong enough for me). I’m planning to buy a safety razor when I’m done using the plastic ones I have. I stopped using plastic bags or plastic-wrapped fruits and veggies, am planning to start bulk-shopping, and near-stopped buying organic products once I realized that:

1) they’re not pesticide-free

2) they’re not vegan

3) they’re often not better for the environment

4) organic produce is almost always wrapped in plastic!

Ideally, I would grow my own veggies in my garden, but yeah, this is not gonna happen before a while. Even though I moved to a place which has a small garden with a compost bin, and I’m very happy to finally be able to compost most of my waste since I eat mainly whole foods!

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Illustration by Maddie Bright

Generally I’m trying to be more conscious of anything I’m buying and limit what I do buy. Do I really need it? Can I buy it second-hand? What about fairtrade / slave-free / etc? (I got a Fairphone 2). Food-wise, I sometimes have to make “hard” choices. I’m already very limited between allergies and veganism, so sometimes I will by a gluten-free vegan good that contains palm oil. Because my mental health is also important 😉

Alright I think that’s all for now, if you have advice and/or questions please leave them in the comments below, I’d be happy to hear what you do to limit your impact on this planet 🙂

Becoming an Iyengar teacher

I’m taking the introductory exam this year. I’m very excited about it. For some reason, I just feel ready and look very much forward to it. I had fun during our “mock exam” and my teachers gave me their recommendation happily.

I’ve already handed in my theory exam and the deadline is over, so I figured I’d post some of my answers to questions I found interesting here.

I have to say that the question that puzzled me most was about the foundation of teaching. For some reason I had not really thought about it before and if we discussed it in teacher training, I forgot about it. I’m very much looking forward to hearing other opinions, but here is what I wrote (we had to give three reasons):

” The foundation of teaching is self-practice. 

It is not possible to teach something that you do not understand. Through practice comes understanding. Practicing to teach is different from practicing for one’s improvement (see Basic guidelines for teachers of yoga, p.4., B.K.S. and Geeta S. Iyengar). For example, I have a flexible body, so when I practice with my stiff students in mind I am trying to understand how I can get the same effect that I get and use the appropriate prop so that they are not limited by their flexibility.

Self-practice will also make demonstrations easier. While teaching we rely on the body’s memory so that we can rapidly get in and out of the asana. Without practice it is going to take more time to find back the proper position of the body. Oftentimes we also need to show not only the proper way to perform the asana, but also the mistake the students are making. This requires a very good proprioception, which can only come with practice.

If you do not practice, you are instructing in a “do what I say, not what I do” way which is unlikely to work. Students can see through the hypocrisy and they will not be motivated to give their best in the class. In a way this is also practicing the yamas and niyamas, namely satya, tapas and svadhyaya. “

Another interesting question, especially for readers wondering why I’m not posting all that often, was about our experience with Abhyasa (repeated practice), and Vairagya (detachment from wordly desires).

“I can relate very well to sutra I.14 (sat u dirghakala nairantarya satkara asevitah drdhabhumih “Long, uninterrupted, alert practice is the firm foundation for restraining the fluctuations”. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali p.64, B.K.S. Iyengar.). Sustained practice is usually not an issue for me; however, it is often easier to notice how much practice is helpful in times when it is difficult to practice and practice becomes scarce. Since I am currently writing my PhD thesis, it can be difficult to find time to practice; I can notice very easily that if I haven’t practiced for a couple of days I become much more easily irritated and my mind is much more difficult to restrain.
Vairagya is a much more difficult practice for me. I have issues not letting other’s opinions interfere with my behavior. As I get older and keep on practicing, it is slowly improving. I am becoming much less attached to physical appearances and belongings. But once again, since I am very much engulfed at this moment with finishing my PhD, it is sometimes difficult to separate “myself” from “my work”, let alone letting go of the idea of “me”. Entirely dissociating from the ego, the “I”, seems at this point in my yogic journey, if not unattainable, very, very far away. But I try to remind myself of this quote from the Introduction to Light On Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar (p.12) “He {the yogi} believes that it is his privilege to do his duty and that he has no rights to the fruit of his actions”.”

An exercice which I had already done before, but which is always useful (especially reflecting on it months later) and which originally lead be to become vegetarian and then vegan, is the classical “Choose 1 Yama and 1 Niyama and explain how they work in your lifestyle and practice. “:

“I am currently working on applying Ahimsa and Svadhaya to myself. I have recently injured my left hamstring, without really knowing how. If I’m honest with myself, I have always felt like my left hamstring was slightly stiffer than my right one. Or at least, I would sometimes feel my left hamstring when I wouldn’t feel my right one in a deep Utthanasana for example. I asked my osteopath about it but he couldn’t really help me apart from saying that it might be due to my SI problem (I displaced my pelvis twice within the past ten years). Anyhow I kept on practicing as usual, which is usually quite an intense practice. If I would feel my hamstring, it would only be during the asana and not once I would come out, so I didn’t worry and assumed it was only stiffness. However, a couple of weeks ago I woke up with a pretty bad hamstring pain, even though I didn’t feel anything when going to bed the previous day. I took it easy for a couple of days and it got better, so I started practicing like I used to again. Except this time, I seem to be getting “bad” pain. Even if I don’t feel bad while practicing, either a couple of hours or a couple of days later I start to feel the tendon insertion of my hamstring onto the hip, when I’m cycling or even sitting. This is especially bad because before I always felt like the muscle tissue was hurting, but injuring the tendon is another story: it’s much more difficult to heal. Therefore, I am doing a lot of self-study (Svadhaya) in order not to harm myself (Ahimsa). It is difficult for me to back out and accept that I might not be able to do things that I was able to only a couple of weeks ago, and to practice in a way that I don’t feel my hamstring at all and don’t let myself be pushed either by my ego or the teacher. I am learning a lot in the process, both on my physical practice and my mental state.”

And finally, another question I thought might be interesting to share, was about choosing a sutra from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and explain what it meant to us.

“One of my favorite sutras is sutra II.47: prayatna saithilya ananta samapattibhyam “Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached” (Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali p.159, B.K.S. Iyengar). I find the concept of effortless effort very interesting. In my personal experience, the moments when I have been able to quieten my brain the best come when I am performing inversions such as headstand or shoulderstand. There is no doubt that there is effort involved in standing on one’s head for long stretches of time, however I find that after some time, on good days, I can grasp the effortlessness through the effort and my mind suddenly becomes much more sharp and focused. On these days, 10 minutes in the asana seems very short. I aim to find this type of quietness and ease in the pose in all other asanas, and focusing on the breath helps immensely, especially with standing poses. In my teaching, I like to remind my students that they shouldn’t “be dying in the pose”, which means that if holding the pose with ease isn’t possible anymore they should come out. I am often surprised at how long people stay in poses they don’t feel good in at all. I am not a lazy student, however if I feel that my pose is lacking quality and the alignment is suffering I will come out. Sometimes one has to battle the mind to stay longer in the pose; but it is difficult to walk the fine line between staying longer because the mind is being lazy, and even though the pose is still good, the muscles are getting tired, and staying longer for staying longer even though we cannot keep the proper alignment (and possibly injuring oneself in the process) and the practitioner had better come out and rest. “

I hope you enjoyed this short extract (the exam had about 50 questions and I filled in around 23 pages I believe) of my exam, and am looking forward to any comments / opinions / discussion!

Meanwhile, I am lucky enough to be in NYC for a couple of days and take classes at the Institute – I had a great class on Natarajasana with Lara Warren last Friday!

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Natarajasana, all right to Leslie Kaminoff

The weird things you know about your body

My pelvis has a tendency to be displaced easily. The first time it happened was likely years ago, when I fell down the stairs at my uncle’s place, and ended up on my tailbone. I initially thought I had only a superficial bruise and deemed myself very lucky not to have broken my coccyx.

At the time, I was taking the pill, and when my period would be painful, I would put it as a side effect of the magical drug. But at some point I started going to the osteopath, and he told me my pelvis was displaced. Once he put it back in place, I stopped having period pain, and I will forever be grateful to him for that. I didn’t use to have period pain when I started getting my period as a teenager. However, when I started contraception, pain came along, and it’s just one of the things that you somehow taught is normal to have as a woman and so do not worry about.

Fast forward a couple of years further. Not taking any more contraception, I end up displacing my pelvis in a yoga class. Notwithstanding the immediate pain which signaled me that something had gone wrong, the best indicator I had that my pelvis had been displaced and stayed that way was when my next period came, and I thought I was going to die from the intensity of the stomach ache. I immediately recognized the old pattern. I initially tried to replace it on my own with yoga, but though it helped, it didn’t work completely. I thus had the choice between  waiting until I could get back to France to see my osteopath, or finding another one in the Netherlands. The thought of going through two more very painful periods convinced me to get an appointment here, and a very funny appointment it was. Apparently, osteopaths are not used to patients coming in and telling them that they displaced their pelvis and that the sacroiliac (SI) joint is compressed on their right side.

Anyhow, my new osteopath put my pelvis back in place, and the pain receded. However, one or two days right before I get my period, I will always start feeling my right SI. I’m so used to it that it acts as a reminder that I should sterilize my menstrual cup if I haven’t already, and put it in my bag.

What are the weird things you know about your body, and that you would have to brief a stranger on if you ever magically exchanged bodies?