Yoga for a better bedtime

February 3, 2012
by Heidi Kyser

Change and yoga

Current events have made this a good time to point out that all human practices, including yoga, change over time according to their cultural contexts.

William J. Broad‘s forthcoming book, “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards,” and its teaser article that ran Jan. 5 in the New York Times have elicited many thousands of words in the public conversation about yoga. Good. People have debated the benefits dangers of yoga compared with other physical activities, whether there’s too much focus on it as a physical activity to begin with (particularly in the U.S.), whose responsibility it is if someone does get injured doing yoga and even, recently, who should be allowed to teach yoga to begin with. All good.

Students have e-mailed me and stayed after class to ask my thoughts on the matter. I’m glad to see them thinking about how and why they do yoga, questioning their teachers’ and their own roles. I believe it can only increase their awareness of themselves and the world – a worthy goal for any yogi.

In answer to their questions, I would turn a page to the next chapter in our class, and in doing so look back to one of the canonical texts of the yoga tradition, the Bhagavad Gita. The next several weeks of my classes at Yoga Sanctuary will be based on various themes from the Gita. In his brilliant (although perhaps overly academic for non-scholar readers) introduction to the edition I studied with my teacher, J.A.B. van Buitenen places the composition of the Gita in a time of significant change in the practice of yoga.

For the historical details of what was going on when and where the Gita was written and how the story fits into all that, it’s best to read van Buitenen. Suffice it to say, he describes a shift that places more emphasis on individual action and contemplation, with less reliance on the assistance of a priest and his exclusive knowledge of rituals for spiritual salvation.

In this interpretation, Krishna‘s urging Arjuna to take up arms and do his duty as a soldier takes on a meaning we can easily understand today. The ancient codes and texts , as well as our teachers, serve an essential purpose on our spiritual path, but each person has his own duty to carry out on that path (albeit without attachment to reward, etc., which we’ll get to later).

To reduce this to the terms of the current debate, I must be properly trained, get continuing education, buy insurance, be mindful of students’ limitations and assume the many other responsibilities required of a teacher. Nevertheless, students aren’t guaranteed enlightenment, weight loss or even a good time in exchange for the fees they pay to take my class. What if they were? I can imagine the ad taglines for places selling such an ideal – “permanent bliss, or your money back.”

The world of yoga has kept changing since Krishna signaled the beginning of householders appropriating yogic power from the brahmins – for as many equally complicated reasons as those van Buitenen addressed. Today, unimpaired adult students in a yoga class are expected to take responsibility for their own well-being; the waivers they sign attest to this. Most American studios don’t adopt a strictly guru-centered approach, in which all one’s hopes (and conversely, his failures) could be pinned on a great enlightened one. Another way to put it is, there’s no one Yoga.

If there were, it would be easier to answer with a simple yes or no the question, “Can yoga can wreck your body?” You would only have to investigate the prescription  in question. As it is, the effect yoga has on you – whether physical, spiritual, mental or emotional – has a lot to do with your teacher, yes, and a lot to do with you, too.

July 11, 2011
by Heidi Kyser

Getting older isn’t easy for Title IX either

A couple years ago, I was assisting a student in one of my restorative yoga classes, when she and I got in a conversation about the wrist brace she was wearing. She summarized her doctor’s diagnosis as “the three Fs: fat, female and 40-plus.” Although she conceded she had arthritis, she expressed her doctor’s belief that these “three Fs” were inevitable problems.

I was reminded of this incident as I read the Women’s Sports Foundation‘s press release about Title IX turning 40. As the women’s rights legislation matures, proponents also realize how much work remains to be done.

For those unfamiliar with Title IX, it’s an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In its original form, Title IX made it easier for minorities to get a fair trial by allowing civil rights cases to be moved from state to federal courts. In 1972, it was amended to include: “No person in the U.S. shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal aid.”

Over the years, “Title IX” has come to be synonymous with equal access to and participation in school sports for both boys and girls. It is this aspect that the Women’s Sports Foundation is highlighting during its yearlong celebration of the law’s 40th birthday, from June 2011 through June 2012.

Much has changed since 1972, as the foundation points out: Then, one in 27 girls participated in varsity sports; now, two in five do.  Nevertheless, girls today still have 1.3 million fewer opportunities to participate in high school sports than boys, and 60,000 fewer opportunities in college.

Billie Jean King, who founded the Women’s Sports Foundation, said, “Title IX has been and continues to be the driving force behind providing women and girls more opportunities in sports, but as we enter Title IX’s 40th year the gaps between boys and girls are still substantial. As a community, it’s our duty to provide these opportunities for both girls and boys and everyone should have a chance to play.”

The benefits of school sports participation – from weight control and better all-around health, to improved problem-solving skills and teamwork – are well-documented. In addition to myriad anecdotal observations, there is a sizable body of research on the topic (here‘s an example).

School sports programs are as much at risk of elimination caused by cuts to Nevada’s education budget as other extracurricular programs, such as visual arts and music. Sports like soccer and softball are the last to be funded by individual schools, which favor more popular programs like football and baseball. These also tend to be dominated by males. Girls’ opportunities for school sports in our state, therefore, are unlikely to increase in the foreseeable future.

It will be up to parents, community leaders and non-governmental organizations to fill the gap. An example of how this can be done is GoGirlGo!, a community program of the Women’s Sports Foundation. It currently has chapters in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New York and Seattle; none in Las Vegas. But the website offers grants, handbooks and other materials for people who need help getting girls’ sports programs off the ground.

In any case, Title IX’s anniversary serves as a reminder for people who care about the health and well-being of girls to do what they can to support equal access to sports. Otherwise, Title IX too may fall victim to the “fat, female and 40-plus” mentality.

June 6, 2011
by Heidi Kyser

Beware the Battle for the Plate

People – especially my teenage step kids and their friends – frequently ask me nutrition questions. Since I’m a vegetarian and yoga teacher, they figure, I must know something they don’t.

Because I read all the nutrition news that comes my way, I get as confused as anyone about healthy eating. The more you know, the more questions you have about what to eat, in what proportions.

USDA's MyPlate

To help solve that problem, the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated its food pyramid, the iconic nutritional guide that Gen Xers grew up with. The new guide is a plate sectioned off for fruits, grains, protein and vegetables – with a side of dairy.

Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack formally introduced the new icon, dubbed MyPlate. According to a press release, the USDA intended to create a simple way for consumers to make healthy choices at meal times. Obama said, “As a mom, I can already tell how much this is going to help parents across the country.”

The plate icon does seem to obey all John Maeda’s design laws of simplicity, so it should make the basics of healthy eating easy for anybody to remember. And anybody who wants more details will find extensive further reading on the USDA’s new companion Web site,

But the discussion about what’s best to put in your body is far from closed. Macrobiotic practitioners, raw foodies, anti-carb extremists and other diet proponents will undoubtedly deconstruct the plate until it’s eventually retired and replaced by an even better icon, based on information we have yet to learn.

Already, big food business is co-opting MyPlate. In a flurry of press releases last week, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Dairy Council, USA Rice Federation and Soyfoods Association of North America all held up the new icon as proof that their products are essential to a healthy diet. The Produce for Better Health Foundation, apparent winner in the battle for the plate, declared, “It’s official! Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.”

There is a healthy public debate being waged on the relative merits of such organizations, how their member companies do business and control the world’s food supply (e.g., the film, “Food Inc.”). Regardless of these organizations’ respective virtues and evils, however, the human body should not serve as their board for a game of Risk. With all sorts of global health issues on the rise – from e-coli to obesity – it’s more important than ever for people to claim control of their own bodies.

MyPlate could provide a tool for that if people use it correctly. It behooves consumers to remain brand-blind when making nutritional choices, and to ask where their food comes from, what’s in it and how it’s made. No meal breaks down as easily as the red, orange, purple and green sections of the icon – but an overly complex or processed collection of dishes could signal the need for simplification. You should be able to tell about how much fruit, grain and so on are on your plate. If you can’t, you have to admit you’re ignorant of what you’re eating. You’re not in control.

A minimal amount of knowledge can save people from the onslaught of corporate-generated hype about what they should and shouldn’t eat. As the battle for plate-share continues, consumers have to keep returning to the basics, and let the common sense of a balanced diet lead their buying and cooking decisions.

Next time a teenager asks me a question about nutrition, I’ll refer them to MyPlate with an editor’s note: What’s on that plate becomes you; don’t let anybody else own it.

May 17, 2011
by Heidi Kyser
1 Comment

Nobody loves their body

OK, corporate-sponsored surveys are to be taken with a grain of salt. We all know that. Still, an item or two from a recent poll by Anytime Fitness gave me pause.

According to a press release, the folks at the national gym chain hired Synovate eNation to ask 1,000 people over age 18 how they felt about donning their board shorts and bikinis come June. The responses indicated that 60 percent of women and 46 percent of men felt they weren’t ready for swimsuit season.

OK, who ever is? But get this: “More than 70 percent of Americans would rather go to the dentist, do their taxes, sit in the middle aisle on an airplane, or visit their in-laws than go swimsuit shopping,” the release stated. Some 30 percent of women said they’d wear something to cover their whole body at the beach or pool.

That’s more than your standard, “Oh wow; I just finished the last of the chocolate-dipped Peeps, and it’s already summer. Guess I’ll have to do some extra laps…” type of talk. That’s self-loathing.

Naturally, the folks at Anytime Fitness suggest hitting the gym (preferably with a trainer) as the remedy for swimsuit dread. While I’m all for working out, let me suggest a somewhat backwards approach as well: Try loving your body first.

Weight loss having a positive effect on self-esteem is almost as well-proven as self-esteem having a positive effect on weight loss. (Here is one recent example of the mountains of studies on the topic.)

Yeah, that’s right. The better you feel about yourself, the easier it is to accomplish goals, like losing weight. So, the trick might not be the weight loss — which, say it with me, comes from eating less and exercising more — but the feeling better first part. How do you love your body in a biking before it hits the gym?

Maybe it’s not about loving the body, per se. Mind-body arts teach that the self is physical, mental/emotional and spiritual. If you’re putting too much emphasis on the physical third of the equation, and not enough on the other two thirds, it stands to reason that you’ll continue feeling bad no matter how thin you get… and that’s likely to push you right back into weight gain (or loss, or alteration — whatever your body obsession is).

Here’s some related evidence.  A 2009 study, the results of which were published in Science Daily, found that yoga doesn’t bring about the physical conditions normally associated with weight loss  (e.g., heart rate accelerated to calorie-burning levels). However, the regular yoga practitioners participating in the study lost weight anyway. Why? Because they were more mindful of how they ate.

In other words, cultivating mindfulness, working on that mind/emotion third of the self, made more difference than the type of exercise they were doing.

Think about that as you head to the gym in search of the cure for your summertime blues. You might want to make sure you’ve got enough money in your budget for therapy and church, too.

April 16, 2011
by Heidi Kyser

De Rossi Memoir Outs Anorexia

Anyone picking up Portia de Rossi‘s book with the hope of finding juicy tidbits about her wife Ellen Degeneres should put it right back down. “Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain”  is a book about anorexia nervosa. Period.

Everything else – de Rossi’s romance with the famous talk show host, her role in the 1990s sitcom “Ally McBeal,” her career as a child model – is subservient to the rapacious main character, the eating disorder that nearly killed the Australian-born actress before she fully recovered in 2002. The only thing that occasionally shares the spotlight with anorexia is de Rossi’s struggle to accept her own sexuality, and even that appears mostly as an exacerbating factor to the disorder.

This laser-like focus on the subject not only lends the book a compelling narrative arc, it also allows the author to inhabit herself in a totally subjective way. She tells her story, which is so full of shame, shamelessly, because it’s not about her; it’s about anorexia.

I painstakingly extinguished the cigarette… and I wondered when I was going to use up the calories I’d eaten for breakfast, as I hadn’t had time to do my full one-hour run. As I followed the last wisp of smoke from the ashtray as it meandered upward and collided with the passenger window, I saw a beautiful tree-lined street on my right named Commodore Sloat. The name struck me as being very odd, as it sounded more like a street name you’d come across in London than where I was, south of Wilshire in Los Angeles. I checked the time: 9:20. It occurred to me in a  flash of excitement that I had time to get out of the car and away from this anxious feeling of being trapped, stale and inactive. I would take a quick run up and down that street.

The reader helplessly witnesses de Rossi suffer many other such strokes of genius, often less comical than an actress stopping her morning commute to take a jog in platform heels on a strange Hollywood street – and sometimes downright gruesome. We might shudder with embarrassment, but she never does.

All but the epilogue of “Unbearable Lightness” is told in the first person and is devoid of commentary aided by hindsight. In other words, de Rossi only explains her actions from the point of view of someone caught in the throes of psychosis; and mainly, she just recounts her actions. She also sprinkles the journey into anorexia with flashbacks to warning signs from her childhood, giving the story an onion-like complexity that allows the disorder’s true potency to creep up and sink in like cold dread. One wonders how she survived.

According to the epilogue, she did so because she learned to love herself. In the post-script, de Rossi finally ruminates, unmasking anorexia as self-loathing fueled by unreasonable societal pressures. It’s not an extraordinary coup, but she pulls it off so deftly (particularly in the first two sections) that it compensates for the overall  average prose and instances of sloppy editing. After all, de Rossi isn’t a writer.

She is, however, a story-teller. And with “Unbearable Lightness,” she offers a tale full of rare insights that counselors, nutritionists, parents and anyone else interested in eating disorders will appreciate.