Aqua Yoga: Pranyama in the Pool

This is the final post in my five-part series about aqua yoga.

Before you read this post, take a deep breath.

If you’re one of those people who is interested in yoga but feel intimidated by all of the buff and bendy folks you see on the slick yoga magazines and the internet, I have a fabulous secret for you.

Yoga, at it’s heart, is about breathing.

It doesn’t matter how long your legs are or what the scale says or even if you can touch your toes; if you can breathe, you can do yoga.

(And since you’re reading this, I know you can breathe.  So no excuses!)

The yogic breath practice is called pranyama.  I must admit that I practiced yoga for years– mostly in fitness-oriented studios– and never encountered pranyama.  It was only when I started studying to teach yoga that I learned about pranyama.  And now it is one of the key parts of my practice.

But what does all of this have to do with aqua yoga?

I find pranyama practice in the pool especially effective at settling my mind and cooling my body.  Because I teach aqua yoga outdoors during the summer in Austin, integrating the cooling practices of pranyama are a key part of my classes.

Here are two types of cooling pranyama I use regularly:

Sitali breath

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  • Form a “taco tongue” and inhale through the mouth.  (If you can’t make a taco, purse the lips for the inhale.)
  • Place the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth, close the lips, and exhale through the nose.
  • Aim to make the exhale longer than the inhale.
  • Repeat for 10-20 breaths.

I usually stand with my feet about 6 inches from the pool wall, back to the wall, and my fingertips lightly pressing in to the wall.  This helps me keep my shoulders low and chest open.

Single-Nostril Breath

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  • Stand with your feet grounded under your hips
  • Use the right pinky to close off the right nostril.
  • Inhale and exhale with the left nostril only.
  • Repeat for 10-20 breaths.

The left side of the body is associated with the lunar tendencies.  The left nostril is considered the subtle channel, responsible for cooling the body.  I like this pranyama for the pool because water is also a lunar element.

Hey, Swimmers….

You’re well aware of the importance of breathing while you’re in the water.  Pranyama can help you become even more in tune with the inhale-hold-exhale-hold pattern we always have while breathing, but getting the timing right in the pool means breathing air rather than choking on water.

If you’ve ever tried lap swimming but struggled with regulating your breath, take a yogic approach.  First, establish a breathing pattern that feels comfortable to you– that may mean breathing every other stroke (so you’re always breathing to the same side) or every third stroke (alternate-side breathing).  Next, ensure that you’re exhaling into the water–aka blowing bubbles– when you’re swimming.  Finally, add a “hum” to your exhale.  Not only does this give you something to focus on to keep your rhythm steady, but it also creates a bodily vibration similar to chanting “om” in a yoga class.  The vibration is steadying and centering.

I hope you’ll take some of these ideas and play around with them next time you’re in the pool.  Breath work is one of the few silver bullets in the wellness world– breathe deeply and fully, and you’ll be amazed at how much better you feel.

You say, “Back-to-School?” I say, “Self-Care!”

Back-to-School!

Self-Care!

As a parent of three kids (ages 4, 9, and 12), I love the opportunities of summer: hanging out, playing board games, exploring new places, and doing whatever the heck we want.  But I’ve got to be honest with you; it’s a fat ton of work.  When you add in the fact that summer is my busy work season thanks to teaching swimming lessons, and I relish the idea of back-to-school as a time to tune into some self-care outlets that have been pushed aside the last few months.

  1. Exercise as its own reward- I’ve been blogging a lot recently about my running goals over the next year.  While I’m focused on my path to achieve them, I also know that I exercise because it makes me feel good….NOW.  The New York Times recently published an article linking the way people viewed exercise with their compliance to sticking with an exercise program.  In short, the more people felt they HAD to exercise, the less they actually did.  The people most compliant with a long-term exercise program were those who were most focused on exercise as a strategy for feeling good in the short term.  So while it’s great to have a goal, I’m going to enjoy the journey.
  2. Eat lunch every day– I have a bad habit of forgetting to eat lunch.  Or I eat snacks here and there, but they don’t always add up to the most nutritious combination of foods.  For me, taking care of myself by eating a high-quality lunch every day– even if it’s a hodgepodge of foods– will help me  from getting “hangry” once kids are home from school.
  3. Fire up the sewing machine– It’s been a while since I’ve sewn on a daily basis.  I miss the creativity and satisfaction of productivity that I feel when I sew.  Taking the time to indulge my sewing interests works parts of my brain that don’t get worked in my family or business life.  More brain work = happier, healthier, more whole me.
  4. Connect to Build Community– I often spend part of the first day of school making a list of people I see regularly but don’t often get to talk to.  You know the type– the parent friends who I see every day at drop-off but we don’t do more than exchange pleasantries.  These are the people I want to approach and offer to go for a walk after drop-off or meet up with over coffee 30 minutes before pick up.  By nurturing these friendships, I can help build my sense of community.
  5. Say NO!– This school year, I am room parent for two of my three kids and soccer team manager for two of my three kids.  I also volunteer teach eight hours a week at the elementary school.  I enjoy each of these roles, but I recognize that I am fully doing my part to support my kids’ educations.  Any further requests for volunteering shall be met with a polite, “Not at this time; thanks for asking!”

How can you take care of yourself this school year?  I encourage you to make a list of your own self-care strategies.  Writing them down is useful not only because you are forced to really think about how these issues affect your life, but also as a record of accountability to yourself.  By intentionally bringing balance into your life, wellness will follow.

Wishing you and yours a creative, active, stimulating, and healthy new school year!

Aqua Yoga: Finding the Goddess

This is the fourth post in a weekly series about Aqua Kriya Yoga.  You can read about aqua yoga and how it’s great for buoyancy and balance work.  When you change the planes of your yoga practice, good things happen.

 

Amy Cuddy, Harvard Business School professor, has research that demonstrates a fascinating link between holding the body in a “power position” and building confidence.  Cuddy’s research is often cited as a way to pump yourself up before a big presentation or job interview, but the same ideas can be applied to running the gauntlet of everyday life.

 

 

 

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One of my favorite yoga asanas is Goddess Pose, as it requires concentration on many of the physical elements of my every day life: strong legs, a long, tall spine. and an open chest.  With a lifted heart and ready hands, I can get through even the toughest day, knowing that I have the strength within myself to do so.

The challenge of Goddess Pose is that it can be hard to sustain.  Even in the above photo, I could be lower into the squat to feel more of a release in the tailbone and lengthen the spine.  Let’s try again:

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Better here, especially with the consciously-raised chin, but I can see my legs are working so hard here that I’m collapsing the tiniest bit forward into my chest.

Yoga can be simple; yoga can also be hard.

There are a lot of moving parts–so to speak– even in these static poses.  Taking them into the pool can help get all the parts into the right place.  Remember how I talked about the great benefits of buoyancy and balance with regard to aqua yoga?  Goddess Pose is one of the asana that, when done in the pool, can be held for longer (thanks to the water bearing some of the bodyweight).  It can, therefore, give you time to better organize your body and appreciate the full expression of the posture.

Even more, the water can help you push the asana into deeper bodywork.  For example, because it’s easier on the big muscles in the low body to do the work of Goddess Pose in the pool, it can be held long enough to transition into a side body stretch.

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The knees are still bent, the glutes are still working hard, the feet are still bearing equal weight, the chest is still open and lifted– but now the side body receives a lengthening, too.  Breathing deeply in this posture, one can feel both strengthening (in the legs) and relaxation (in the chest and side body) at the same time.

I particularly like taking Goddess Pose into the pool because of the benefits women tell me they feel when working in water.  The freedom of movement we feel in the water allows one to feel confident in her body in a way that we usually do not on land.  This confidence creates a deeper breathing pattern, re-energizing the body on a cellular level.

Also, our bodies are primarily made of water.  By holding Goddess Pose in the water, we are connecting our outer and inner strength in a physical way.  For perimenopausal women, expressing the Goddess in the pool builds muscular strength and internal heat without the annoying side-effect of sweating.

What can be greater than feeling confident and strong?

I dare you to try Goddess Pose aqua yoga style and NOT feel like you can take on the world afterwards.  Check out the nationwide aqua kriya yoga class listings, or if you’re in Austin, leave a comment to join in my Wednesday evening class.

Note that the deep squat of Goddess Pose is contraindicated for women in the 3rd trimester of pregnancy unless the baby is known to be vertex.

GIVEAWAY: Go Cheer on the Austin Aztex!

Austin Aztex (Photo credit: Carlos Barron)

Austin Aztex (Photo credit: Carlos Barron)

It’s no secret that the OnBalance family is a soccer family.  My experience playing soccer is limited to one year as a Honey Bear– a team which scored only one (own) goal all season, but we sure were cute.

That's me in the back row on the far left. You're digging my yarn-bowed pigtails, right?!

That’s me in the back row on the far left. You’re digging my yarn-bowed pigtails, right?!

My husband’s soccer experience is even less than mine.  But that hasn’t stopped him from coaching The Monkey’s team for the last three years.

Our kids have been the reason we’ve become fans of The Beautiful Game, and it’s been one of the great surprises of my adult life:  Being soccer parents is actually fun!  Having kids involved in the sport has also given us the chance to host coaches from Brazil and England.  All of this while the kids get some exercise, learn teamwork, and enjoy one of the most world’s most social sports.

While the popularity of professional soccer lags in the US as compared to other parts of the world, we are lucky to live in Austin, the home of the Austin Aztex.  The Aztex play in the USL now, which means we have the opportunity to watch quality soccer, close to home, at family-friendly prices.  Our kids have learned so much about the sport by watching live games.

Want to catch a game?

For FREE?

I’m giving away two tickets plus a parking pass to the Saturday, August 22nd Austin Aztex match!

All you need to do to enter is leave a comment below.

To receive bonus entries, you can also follow the Austin Aztex on their social media channels:

Twitter: @AustinAztex
Leave a note in your comment for each follow.

Even if you don’t win the giveaway, you’re invited to come Pack The House and watch the Aztex take on Orange County Blues FC at Kelly Reeves Athletic Complex! Gates open at 6:00 p.m. First 100 fans that go to the Aztex Team Store receive a collectible poster. Enjoy the pregame festivities and get ready to cheer on your Aztex.

Hope to see you there!

Entries close at 5pm Central Time Thursday, August 20.  I will notify the winner immediately thereafter, so please use an email address you check regularly!  Thanks to the Austin Aztex for donating the tickets for this giveaway.

Aqua Yoga: Changing the Planes

This is the second in a four-part series posting on Thursdays about Aqua Yoga.  

Last week’s Aqua Yoga post discussed the benefits and challenges of buoyancy and balancing postures.  This week, I want to show you how changing the planes in which your asana are practiced can bring greater awareness to alignment and muscular connectivity as well as deepen the breath.

Let’s look at two postures.

High Side Lunge

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In a land practice, this version of this posture, the feet are both turned out slightly with the weight shifted toward the side with the bent knee. The lower bent leg should track over the ankle, and the chest should remain lifted with shoulders away from the ears.  Holding this posture will strengthen the legs, stretch the inner thigh of the straight leg, and allow for deep breathing along the tall spine.

When the side lunge is taken into the pool, we utilize the side wall of the pool as our base.

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The feet remain in firm contact with the base, and the hands on the pool deck should be as relaxed as possible.  The spine is still tall, the chin neutral, and the shoulders are low.

But here’s the amazing difference: when doing side lunge on land, the work is quite intense.  The quadriceps start to burn, and the body starts to warm.  With this work, breathing often becomes less deep.  When in the water, however, the legs are still active, but the tailbone hangs free allowing an incredible release along the entire length of the spine.  And because the legs aren’t working so hard to hold the weight of the body, breathing can remain deep and even.

To take this posture into rotation:

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On land, the rotation of the side angle deepens the stretch in the groin.  The twist should originate in the lower back, but that may not be achievable for many people. (Use of a block for the ground-side hand would help.)  Again, the legs are working hard here, so holding the twist may be limited to just a few breaths.

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In the water, the twist can happen freely thanks to the released tailbone.  By pushing the feet into the side wall, the torso lifts up and out of the pelvis as the arm and body twist toward the bent leg.  This rotation can be held for longer– giving the benefits of improved digestion, decrease in back pain, and stress relief–and allows for the full expression of the asana.

Eye of the Needle- Sucirandrasana

This pose for hip opening, low back stretching, and general gentle feel-goodness is a favorite of many yogis.

You’ve probably already figured out that we’re not going to do this one lying down on the bottom on the pool.  Rather, we’re going to modify it into a standing posture.

Performing eye-of-the-needle while standing is fantastic for pregnant women who cannot be in a supine position for extended lengths of time.  This is a population who needs the hip-opening benefits of the posture.  But it feels great for anyone who does a lot of sitting….which is pretty much everyone.

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Start in utkatasana  (chair pose) with the back against the pool wall.  Shift the bodyweight into one leg and cross the other leg over the base leg.  Hands come to the heart in prayer position.  Focus on sinking down into the pose, lowering the upper bent knee (right, as shown above) toward the pool floor as you keep the foot flexed.

One bonus of taking eye-of-the-needle into the water is that you can add an element of core work to it.

Drape your arms on the pool deck behind you to brace your body.  With your legs still crossed with heel pushing out and knee opening to the bottom of the pool, tilt the pelvis up toward the head so that the feet and legs float up.  You can either hold this position or do mini crunches in rhythm with your breath.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this look into how taking your yoga pratice into the pool and changing the planes the asana are expressed in can help you establish strong alignment and connect with your breath.

Next week we’ll explore Goddess Pose and discuss why finding your goddess in the pool is so blissful.

Summer Nectarine Salad

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For all the time I spent on Pinterest, you’d think I do a new workout and sew a new garment and prepare a new recipe every day.  Sorry to burst your bubble, but I don’t.  Not even close.

Every once in a while, though, I come across something that must.be.made.now.  This summer nectarine salad from Honestly Yum is one of those things.  How could you not love a salad with prosciutto, nectarines, heirloom tomatoes, and mozzarella?  Impossible!

If you’re not convinced, take a look at it up close:

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I mean, really…….drooooooooooooool!

As written, the recipe is:

  • 3-4 nectarines
  • 2 heirloom tomatoes
  • 1 ball of mozzarella di bufala
  • 1 small bundle of basil
  • 6-8 slices of prosciutto
  • 2 heads of little gem lettuce
  • 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup of balsamic vinegar
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

  • Rinse and dry the lettuce and rip larger leaves in half.
  • Slice the nectarines and tomatoes into wedges.
  • Assemble the salad by laying the lettuce down on the bottom, scatter the tomatoes and nectarines over the lettuce.
  • Tear the mozzarella over the salad.
  • Tear leaves of basil over the salad.
  • Lay slices of prosciutto throughout the salad.
  • To make the dressing, whisk together 1/4  cup of balsamic vinegar with 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil.
  • Season salad with sea salt and black pepper.

I followed the basics of the recipe Honestly Yum set out (above), but I’ve never used butter or gem lettuce to make it.  I’ve made it with both mixed spring greens and arugula, and both are tasty.  Let’s be honest here:  it’s the “goodies” that make this salad so delicious.

And why stop at nectarines for fruity goodness in the salad?  Instead of basalmic to dress it, I like to make a quick vinaigrette of 3 parts orange juice , 1 part lemon juice, a dash of apple cider vinegar, and a hearty glug of EVOO.   I whizz it all together in my smoothie cup blender (but a whisk would do you just fine, too.)  Adding this slightly sweet dressing balances the salty of the prosciutto and mozzarella nicely.

If you have a favorite summer salad, won’t you please leave me the recipe or a link to where I can find it?

Good health and great happiness to you!

Aqua Yoga: Buoyancy and Balance

This is the first in a four-part series, posting weekly on Thursdays, to introduce concepts of Aqua Yoga.

I love the water– I love the feeling of floating and being free and light.  Being in the water allows me to both escape my body and come in very fine balance with it at the same time.  For that reason, aqua yoga provides me a way to play with buoyancy and balance in a way that a land-based mat yoga class does not.

Let’s dive right in and think about it.

When on land, balancing postures are some of the most physically challenging parts of yoga.  We must feel confident that we aren’t going to fall.

Scary!  I am so worried about falling that I can't keep my hips stacked or raise my leg to full extension.

Scary! I am so worried about falling that I can’t keep my hips stacked or raise my leg to full extension.

We must trust that we have the strength in our legs to hold our weight.  If we’re really good, we even try to concentrate of getting the alignment of the body correct so we can breathe deeply and experience the full expression of the asana.  But let’s be honest– most of us are working so hard just to hold the pose in whatever way we can that we are cutting short the experience we’re trying to achieve.

This Dancer looks pretty graceful, but I cannot hold this alignment for very long...and I'm certainly concentrating more on the physical work of the pose than the breath moving through me.

This Dancer looks pretty graceful, but I cannot hold this alignment for very long…and I’m certainly concentrating more on the physical work of the pose than the breath moving through me.

Enter buoyancy.

The water helps to alleviate much of the risk  of balancing postures.  First of all, who cares if you fall?  Rather than risking an injury, you just get wet.

With a little support from a noodle, I can feel confident in this more complete expression of Half Moon.

With a little support from a noodle, I can feel confident in this more complete expression of Half Moon.

Next, the water carries about 75% of your bodyweight when you are standing in chest-deep water.  That means less weight on your joints, and that can help you focus on the correct alignment of each body part.  It also translates into the ability to hold postures for much longer than on land.

All of this together means that you can hold a well-aligned pose long enough that you can breathe deeply and enjoy the full expression of the posture.  Without all of the gripping in the muscles due to lack of confidence and/or physical stamina, the ease of breath while in water flows freely.

Experimenting with balancing postures in the water is available to a wide population, especially to those people who lack confidence to try them on land. Whether you are obese or pregnant, practicing aqua yoga balancing postures is fantastic for their strength-building potential.

An aqua yogi at eIght-months pregnant, able to find Full Moon with the support of the water.

An aqua yogi at eIght-months pregnant, able to find Full Moon with the support of the water.

Now, don’t go thinking this means that balancing postures in the pool easy.  Because you are buoyant and gravity isn’t doing it’s thing to keep you on the floor of the pool, you are forced to concentrate on the rooting down in the base leg of the posture.  By bringing your focus to your foot, you can begin to think of how the posture is stabilized, then trace the alignment of the body up from that base.  Again, because you are not working so hard just. to.get.in.the.pose. you can turn your attention to alignment and breath.  This deeper level of inner focus that can be achieved in the pool will translate to a mat practice, too.

Three first-time aqua yogis playing with buoyancy and balance in Graceful Dancer.

Three first-time aqua yogis playing with breath, buoyancy and balance in Graceful Dancer.

Grab some noodles and get in to the pool.  Aqua Yoga can help you find your balance, both mentally and physically.

Good health and great happiness to you!

I teach Aqua Kriya Yoga classes and host private events in Austin.  Here’s a complete list of certified Aqua Kriya Yoga teachers.