Survive and Thrive in Your first Yoga Class

 

Photo by Katherine Egli

Monique Parker with friends and clients of Taos Yoga Therapy. Photo by Katherine Eglie

by Monique Parker

Yoga not only helps you feel better physically, it also contributes to overall well-being, such as stress reduction, increased self-acceptance, and overcoming fear—including the fear of trying something new. Following are some tips to help you not only survive, but thrive in your first yoga class.

Feeling like a newbie around experienced practitioners

I took my first yoga class in the early 90s when I was living in the Caribbean. Upon entering the studio, any nervousness I felt was exacerbated when I discovered the teacher deep in meditation and one of the students standing on her head. The class hadn’t even started, yet they already appeared to have been practicing for hours!

During the class the teacher directed us into exotic and foreign sounding postures that were unfamiliar to me. I sheepishly copied the other students, who looked serene balancing and twisting with perfect poise. I felt self-conscious, as if everyone was watching and secretly judging me. As a result, I pushed myself too hard and found myself competing with the other students.

After over two decades of practice (and teaching), here’s some things I’ve learned about being a novice:

  • Give yourself permission to be a beginner. Even your teacher took her first class once.
  • Most students aren’t looking at you, but are preoccupied with their own poses: breathing, muscle engagement, and alignment. As your proficiency increases, the more inwardly focused you will become.
  • Don’t compete with others. Yoga is an individualized practice; everyone is at different levels of fitness with varying physical issues.
  • Overexertion is the antithesis of yoga. When you push yourself into poses, the body reacts by creating tension.

Studio etiquette: How not to be a jerk on the mat

Just as there are rules on the slopes, such as skiers in front of you always have the right of way, there is “Yoga Etiquette”. As a new yogi, in the throes of developing self-awareness, you may inadvertently be insensitive to your fellow practitioners. Here are some guidelines that will help you from disturbing the peace:

  • Remove shoes before entering class—yoga is practiced barefoot.
  • Chitchat outside the studio.
  • Avoid snapping your mat as you roll it out and/or unnecessarily cramping your neighbors.
  • Arrive on time. Late arrivals are a disturbance.
  • Refrain from wearing strong scents: perfume, hairspray.
  • Turn off your cell phone. Yoga classes are device-free zones.
  • Wear appropriate clothing.
  • Don’t walk on other peoples’ mats—they may be made out of thermoplastic elastomer, but to others they are sacred spaces.

Practicing self-acceptance like a seasoned yogi

When you engage in a new activity there is a learning curve—that period of time where you acquire new skills, comprehend new lingo, and experience your body in a new way. It takes time and can be frustrating.

Your yoga instructor may offer modifications or adjustments. This isn’t a critique. It’s a way of teaching you the proper and safe way of executing a pose for you at this time. If constructive criticism hits a nerve or you become defensive, accept that you cannot learn anything new without first making mistakes.

Seasoned yogis make practice look easy, not because it is, but because self-acceptance is a steep mountain slope.

 

 

How Yoga Transforms My Mind, My Life

Katharine Egli Class in session at Taos Yoga Therapy with Monique Parker on Jan. 29.

Photo by Katharine Egli for The Taos News

Article by Monique Parker

To say that the practice of yoga has transformed my life would be an understatement. The truth is that it weren’t for yoga the long shadow that follows my life would never get illuminated.

You may know me or have heard my name (I own a yoga school and yoga therapy studio here in Taos). But what you don’t know is personal and close to my heart. And that is that yoga has and continues to help me understand and, more often then not, cope with the obstacles (physical, psychological, emotional, energetic—real and imagined) that trigger destructive behaviors that keep me stuck. In short, yoga saves my life—daily.

Early infant abandonment and domestic violence that included constant belittling and physical abuse left emotional and psychological scars in my mind— what are called “samskaras” (latent impressions or conditioning) in Raja Yoga.

As a result, I, like many adolescent girls, suffered from a lack of self-worth, chronic low-level depression, and negative body image. These issues persisted into adulthood, morphing into a myriad of forms: bulimia, unaccountable fear, anxiety, anger, shame, unhealthy relationships, insomnia, and high-functioning workaholism.

While not everyone who has endured a traumatic experience is scarred, everyone is shaped by our life experiences—for better or worse. These memories and experiences (samskaras) are stored in our minds, shaping our beliefs, habits, and behaviors. Thus, creating our reality.

Our conditioning afflicts our mind even if we’ve never personally experienced trauma. From a yogic perspective, our cumulative storehouse of life experiences on our subconscious and unconscious minds gives rise to a host of vrttis—thoughts and emotions such as desire, fear, negativity, greed, doubt, prejudice, sorrow, arrogance, jealousy, and self-delusion—that while are essentially part and parcel of being human, constantly give us false assumptions about ourselves and the world around us.

These false assumptions (e.g. “I am unworthy”, “so-and-so doesn’t love me”, “this situation will never change”, and “I am not fill-in-the-blank enough”) impact our health and well being on all levels: physically, emotionally, and psychologically. They reinforce our conditioning, which gives rise to similar thoughts and behaviors that contribute to our feeling “off” and somehow lacking.

Think of samskaras or latent impressions as bindweed, those invasive climbing vines that tightly wrap themselves around plants and other objects. Left uncontrolled, a single plant can spread out to 18 feet, their hardy roots penetrating a depth of 20 feet!

Your thoughts and behaviors, left unchecked, have a similar effect. Negativity, fear, contempt, envy, worry, and desire not only cover or veil our perceptions, they literally distribute more: more thoughts that keep us wanting or feeling stuck, more stress, more symptoms of dis-ease, more suffering.

Its no wonder bindweed is referred to as “Morning Glories”. For a majority of the population, upon waking in the morning, the mind is already rushing, worrying, feeling depressed for no reason, and bombarded with seemingly uncontrollable and incessant thoughts.

Luckily, these vine-like perennials bloom beautiful pink and white flowers. When the sun is out, the flowers open in the morning and close at dusk. But if the sky is overcast and gloomy, the blossoms remain closed, like the mind.

The mind is capable of rising above the clinging, suffocating qualities of delusion. Yoga, as one of the oldest tools of personal development, offers a myriad of practices, such as japa meditation (repeating a mantra or sacred words), pranayama (breathing exercises), and pratipaksha bhavanam (looking at thoughts or situation from another perspective) that weaken habits of thought and behavior and bring us closer to our best, most authentic self.

Published March 10, 2016 “Taos Woman” supplement in The Taos News

Veterans Returning to Wholeness through Mindful Yoga and Meditation

By Carrie Leven

Questa Veterans find peace during free weekly Veterans Yoga class in Questa, New Mexico

Medical research shows that alternative and complimentary mindfulness practices like Yoga and Meditation can help trauma survivors return to a feeling of peacefulness.

Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans teaches, “Mindful movement is a tool to direct the breath through the body. Movement connected to the breath is powerful and helps bring Veterans back into their bodies, while helping move trauma out of their body, mind, and spirit.”

After attending just two of my Veterans’ Yoga classes in Questa, a Vietnam Veteran who was used to sleeping in 2-hour shifts told me, “My sleep has gotten so much better since starting yoga. I’m now sleeping 3 or 4 hours at a time.” Another Veteran, of the Iraqi war, stated, “I feel so peaceful after your yoga class.”

Dedicated Veterans and their family members continue to attend our Friday morning Free Svastha Yoga class at Questa Health Center, now well into our second year serving the community. A few have come and gone, but one Veteran loved the benefits of Yoga so much that he enrolled in the Yoga program at UNM – Taos and received specialized training in yoga for veterans.

Veterans under standard care for stress, anxiety, depression, and post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are usually treated with psychotherapy and pharmaceuticals like anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, and sleeping pills. A typical remedy is to increase dosages to deal with increased symptoms, but some patients want to use less medication and maybe eventually, no medication. They want to begin healing their unseen injuries from inside, to reawaken the connection to their body and mind, to gain more control and become whole again.

Mindful Yoga Therapy for trauma survivors is complimentary to what I’ve learned through Svastha Yoga Institute with Monique Parker and Dr. Ganesh Mohan. Svastha is Sanskrit for “returning to self” and has reintegration as a goal. Both Svastha Yoga Therapy and Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans encourage a peaceful Yoga practice done at deliberate and slow pace, while focusing on the flow of the breath.

Together, these disciplines use familiar and simple movements to awaken the mind-body connection and keep one connected to the present moment while contributing to overall health and wellness. Repeated practice of mindfulness techniques retrains the brain and body to be more resilient to stress, lessen future anxiety and depression episodes, and recover more quickly from mental and physical setbacks.

The best advice from Veterans to other Veterans is to reach out and seek help when feeling overwhelmed or if having trouble after returning from military service.

In the Taos area, counselor Kirsten Wing at the Taos VA Clinic is also trained in Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans, as is psychotherapist and Svastha Yoga teacher Deborah Halpern in Angel Fire.

VA Representative Michael Pacheco can direct Veterans to New Mexico VA services and programs, and Not Forgotten Outreach in Taos is a treasure for Veterans and families. Please see The National Center for PTSD website for more on Mindfulness Practices at www.ptsd.va.gov/public/treatment/therapy-med/mindful-ptsd.asp

Svastha Yoga teachers offer Svastha Yoga classes for stress management in Taos, El Prado, and Questa. A complete schedule of classes can be found at Svastha Yoga Institute at www.svasthayogainstitute.com.

Please join us in Questa for Carrie’s Free Weekly Svastha Yoga class for Veterans and families, every Friday 10:30 to 11:30 am at Questa Health Center. Her Community Svastha Yoga class on Wednesdays is also Free for Veterans, and held from 5:30-7PM at OCHO in downtown Questa.

Carrie Leven is an archaeologist and Svastha Yoga teacher living in Questa with her husband Monte Doeren, a Vietnam Veteran who attends her weekly yoga classes. This article first appeared in The Taos News May 22, 2014.

A Case for Yoga

By Monique Parker

Yoga is being used therapeutically in conjunction with modern medicine today to aid in a variety of physical conditions and psychological problems. Research reveals that practicing yoga regularly helps to reduce high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels. Yoga can even assist in the absorption of prescription medication, so that it can work more effectively.

When the physical exercises or asanas are combined with breathing exercises or pranayama, meditation, and a proper, well-balanced diet, the body’s physiological systems stabilize. The endocrine system—the thyroid, parathyroid, and thymus glands—normalize. Assimilation and digestion improves. Respiratory rate increases. Circulation and cardiovascular efficiency improves. Generally, your energy levels are higher.

From a physical and structural perspective, yoga improves both musculoskeletal strength and flexibility. Joint range of motion increases. Muscular asymmetry rebalances. Posture improves.

Yoga also has a huge advantage in that it directly and positively affects well-being and mood stability since breath regulation and focused concentration enhances one’s ability to cope with stress. There’s also more alpha and theta brain wave activity (which occur when we are relaxed and calm). As a result, you feel more alive, peaceful, and optimistic. Even sleep improves.

Yoga for Svastha

The Sanskrit word svastha is derived from two roots, sva meaning “self”, and stha meaning “to stay”. Thus, the goal of yoga is to stay as one’s self. As a practice you show up to your exercise-pranayama-meditation in order to 1) remind yourself to stay present in the moment, and 2) bring yourself back into harmony with nature and yourself.

Whenever you invest more energy in activities, work, and other people than you get back, you operate at a deficit. This state of imbalance leads to degeneration rather than regeneration. As well, because of the constant pull of gravity, our vital pranic life force flows in only one direction causing the stagnation of chi and results in high blood pressure, slipped disks, back ache, hernia, and other health issues.

That’s where yoga comes in as a healing modality. When practiced regularly, yoga brings about balance: structurally, physiologically, and mentally.  Here are some helpful tips for incorporating this ancient science into your life, today.

Tips for Starting Yoga

Find a teacher. Get direction from an experienced and certified yoga therapist or instructor. Guidance from a qualified professional will not only help you to feel better, but also help you to avoid injury or exacerbating a pre-existing condition.

Look around you. Increase your awareness by learning to pay attention to your body and how stimuli and certain activities affect your sense of well-being. Practice unplugging from brainless, instant gratification activities: TV, Internet, boredom eating. Notice the world around you: the wind, the shape of the mountains, how the body relaxes when exposed to the warmth of the sun.

Start small. Don’t overcommit. If you do less, on a more consistent basis, your body will more quickly regenerate. As with any resolution, habits form after around 30 days. You’ll have a better chance of sticking to a routine performed daily for 20 minutes than once a week for ninety minutes.

Join a class. A structured yoga class is beneficial because of the strong social support. If you are someone who needs people—and who doesn’t?—find a class that meets several times a week. Many teachers are trained to offer modifications for participants at varying levels of experience.

Be gentle with yourself. When we practice self-acceptance versus competition, we experience life in a way that nourishes rather than promotes conflict, both internally and externally.

The best news is that every step you take to improve your health will have a noticeably positive impact on the path of yoga.

**First published in The Taos News on May 23, 2013

 

 

 

 

The True Essence of Partner Yoga

By Monique Parker

Ed (71) and Lynn (66) Galusky, both of whom have been working to improve their balance, support each other in Vrkasana or Tree pose.

The term “partner yoga” conjures up the image of a couple simultaneously exercising together, perhaps one person supporting the other while both assume a posture.

While this relatively new form of “couples yoga” is on the rise among yoga practitioners and may offer a novel way to experience asana and “other”, the truest form of partner yoga is when two people provide the mutual support, trust, and encouragement to learn and grow in a way that serves the highest good of each individual.

Married 44 years, Lynn and Ed Galusky took up yoga for different reasons, but support each other in their individual practices, which they perform at the same time in separate rooms of their Questa home.

For Lynn and Ed Galusky, this means having a practice that addresses the unique needs and goals of each partner. Married forty-four years, the Galusky’s, who came to yoga for different reasons, practice yoga at the same time of day in separate rooms of their Questa home.

“Lynn started doing yoga first and kept it up,” says Ed, “I started thinking, ‘there must be something beneficial to this’ and it got me going.”

The Galuskys moved to Questa from a Dallas suburb ten years ago after retiring; Ed worked as a building maintenance engineer and Lynn as a special education teacher and counselor.

Lynn stretches her quadriceps, which is also a balance posture.

I met Lynn at Questa High School four years ago; I was teaching dual-credit college English and she was back at work full-time as both as a counselor and special education teacher. “I could have stayed retired, but why, when I can still make a difference in kids’ lives?” she says.

Lynn, 66, started taking yoga classes with me nearly two years ago at the Questa Health and Fitness Center. Soon after, she augmented her routine with a home practice. “I had polio as a kid and had to wear corrective shoes or my ankles would get all bloody,” she says, demonstrating a hyper-pronated duck-walk.

When Lynn first started practicing, she habitually locked her knees when standing, which is not uncommon when someone has a meniscus tear or knee pain accompanied by movement. “I have arthritis in my knees and a meniscus tear—probably from playing soccer—but I’m holding off on surgery,” she adds.

With the advice of Dr. Ganesh Mohan, we designed a series of exercises that helped strengthen the muscles surrounding her knee joint. “And look,” she happily says, “I don’t lock my knees anymore.”

Lynn also suffered from neuromuscular tension in her back and neck, affecting a rounded posture with hunched shoulders. “Turning my head like this,” she says, looking over her shoulder, “was almost impossible before I started yoga. My shoulders are now down and I no longer have aches and pains like I used to.”

The yogic breathing also helped her to cope with work-related stress. “It’s gotten harder at school with all the politics,” she says. “There are nights I don’t want to do my practice, but halfway through I’m glad I did.”

Her dedication has paid off in a marked change of attitude. “I can still spout off and get mad, but it doesn’t affect me as much,” she says. “I do deep breathing at work and my attitude now is ‘Oh well, it will be there tomorrow, let it go.’”

Nine months after Lynn took up yoga her husband Ed came to me for a private session. “I’ve never been flexible,” he says. “I had low back pain and high blood pressure. But since I started yoga my blood pressure has lowered. A few weeks ago it was 115 over 70.”

Ed practicing Tadasan or toe balance pose.

After a long hiatus, Ed, 71, took up tennis two years ago. While he was sprite, which allowed him to cover the court, he noticed that he was stiff and that his balance needed improvement. “I used to fall all over the place when I started standing on my toes,” he says.

One of the postures Ed practices is Tadasana or palm tree pose, a basic but important exercise for spinal extension, focus, and balance. While inhaling, he simultaneously raises his arms and lifts his heels to balance on his toe mounds. At first he took support of a wall, but he no longer needs to. Every couple of months, when Ed is ready for more challenge, he follows up with another yoga session.

Although retired, he keeps himself busy practicing permaculture; Ed also built a greenhouse and woodworking shop. A believer in preventative measures, he appreciates having a personal yoga practice that he can do in the privacy and convenience of his own home. “Group settings can be impersonal and somewhat generic since the teacher has a lot of students,” he says. “Having a home practice, then a weekly group class for variation is ideal. The familiarity of the exercises helps in the group.”

Perhaps by accident, Ed has already tapped into the crux of yoga practice: “I always feel better afterwards,” he says. “It’s what keeps me motivated so that I’ll do it again.”

**First published in The Taos News on April 18, 2013

 

Taos Men Do Yoga

by Monique Parker

Men have been the predominant practitioners of Hatha Yoga in India for thousands of years. That changed when yoga migrated west and women began attending classes in droves. It’s not uncommon to see a 10:1 ratio of women to men in most classes. Many men may have steered clear of Hatha Yoga as a form of physical exercise, thinking they weren’t flexible enough or that it wasn’t a macho activity.

Fortunately, the number of men attending yoga classes and seeking out private instruction is increasing—across the US and in Taos. This past month I met with three men from our community who I’ve known for years and who have at one time or another expressed interest in trying yoga. For a variety of reasons, they are all finally ready to get on the mat.

Steve Borkert

Steve Borkert combines pursed lip breathing to reduce shortness of breath with arm raises to lengthening his spine and expand chest muscles.

After ending up in the hospital with congestive heart failure four years ago, Steve Borkert, 60, got a wake up call. “I had a bop ‘til you drop mentality,” Steve says, “until I was in the hospital joking around with some bro’s, and my doctor says, ‘There’s a chance you might not survive this.’”

Since his recovery, Steve experienced several bouts of pneumonia. “I realized how compromised my lungs were,” he says. “I decided to recommit to yoga to improve my breathing, but also my posture and stamina.”

Steve’s yoga practice includes daily pursed-lip breathing exercises to reduce shortness of breath and exercises to help strengthen and mobilize the muscles that aid breathing, such as Dvidpada Pitham or bridge pose, arm raises, and Cat/Cow, which emphasizes spinal extension and flexion.

“I’ve been clean and sober for 20 years,” Steve says. “Since my illness I have reassessed my physical, mental, and spiritual life.” Besides yoga, Steve walks regularly and has recently made changes to improve his diet.

In addition to working as a general contractor for 18 years, Steve volunteered for the Latir Fire Department for 12 years and served as the vice-president of the Latir Neighborhood Association. “I’d like to be of more service to others because of my feelings about being inside this body for a short time.”

Michael Rael

Michael Rael takes support of a strap to stretch his calves and hamstrings after prolonged sitting in the car.

Despite living with pain for most of his life, Michael Rael, 63, lives life to the fullest. When he’s not working alongside his brothers at Questa Lumber & Hardware, he serves as the Municipal Judge in Questa, is a member of the Municipal Judge’s Association of New Mexico, is on the board of Roots and Wings Community School, and, for 11 years, served on the board of Community Against Violence (CAV).

An accomplished musician, his band plays at the Midtown Lounge once a month; he volunteers as a DJ at KRZA where he gives air time to “damn good friends who are damn good musicians”; and every Monday afternoon he entertains seniors at the Taos Living Center.

“I’m in pain from AM to PM,” he says. “I’m on the road so much now that my legs have started cramping.”

Like his father and grandmother before him, Michael was born with a genetic predisposition that eventually required spinal fusion of his lower three lumbar vertebrae. “I can’t flex my spine,” he says. “It gets so bad that when I’m not in pain I can’t figure out what to do with myself.”

Michael’s yoga practice focuses on exercises that increase spinal mobility and stretch his calves, hamstrings, and piriformis—muscles that both tighten and atrophy with prolonged sitting. We also added Tadasana or Palm Tree Pose to improve his balance.

“It’s time to untie all the knots in my body,” Michael says, “ to feel better and get healthier.”

Andy Romero

In addition to weight lifting and swimming, Andy Romero practices yoga poses like Warrior or Virabhadrasana to strengthen his lower body and improve his posture.

Since joining the Northside Spa in December, Affordable Adobe builder Andy Romero, 59, has lost 25 pounds by lifting weights and swimming. He recently started practicing yoga again to help prepare for Jujitsu training. “My body is shrinking,” Andy says. “I know yoga will help me get back into shape and extend my posture to its natural 5’7” state.”

Along with his sons, who are also business partners, Andy made 20,000 adobe bricks ((many of which were donated) to help restore the 175-year old San Antonio de Padua Church in Questa. He started Affordable Adobe so local working people could afford homes. “I’ve got some chronic use injuries from building the last 17 years…left wrist, knee injuries…my posture’s starting to round,” he adds.

Andy practices Virabhadarasana, or Warrior Pose, and Asymmetrical Forward Bend, also called Parva Uttanasana to help strengthen his torso and improve his posture.

For over two decades he’s also practiced one of yoga’s most important spiritual precepts: turning one’s will over to a higher power. “Twenty-three years ago I stopped drinking and broke a 300-year-old lineage,” he says. “It was a life-altering occurrence that shifted my whole mental attitude. Once it shifted I couldn’t operate old patterns out of ignorance anymore.”

He hopes that more men will follow suit and make healthier choices. “You can’t edit life. When you commit to something like yoga—it may inspire someone else.”

**First published in The Taos News on March 17, 2013

Martha Flanders: Not Ready to Be a Senior

by Monique Parker

Martha Flanders of Arroyo Hondo became a certified yoga teacher through UNM-Taos and Svastha Yoga and Ayurveda of Chennai, India at the age of 60.

Martha Flanders had already been practicing yoga for several years before taking my Svastha Yoga class at the Northside Spa in the winter of 2009. It only took a few classes before she realized yoga had much more to offer than just stretching. “Svastha Yoga didn’t just improve my flexibility, it also helped me to develop core strength and quiet my mind,” Flanders says.

 Martha wasn’t like other students who simply showed up for class and went through the motions. She asked poignant questions, took notes, and approached her health with a proactive and inquisitive mind. I suggested she come for a private session where I could address her questions in-depth, as well as develop an individualized routine that she could practice at home. “Oh, no, I’d never be disciplined enough on my own to do that,” I recall her saying.

Fast-forward five years. Today, Martha, 61, not only has her own home practice which she adapts as she sees fit, but she also teaches yoga classes in El Prado and on South Padre Island, Texas, where she vacations. A year ago, just weeks after completing her 200-hour yoga teacher certification at UNM-Taos, she traveled with me to Mamallapuram, India, to meet my teachers, A.G. and Indra Mohan. While there she obtained a second 200-hour level yoga certification from Svastha Yoga & Ayurveda.

Martha uses Virabhadrasana II or Warrior Pose to strengthen her legs for downhill skiing, cycling, and windsurfing.

“Since I found Svastha Yoga, my life has changed dramatically. The teachings make so much sense. Postures are synchronized with the breath, putting more attention on the movement and giving the asana practice a meditative quality, thus calming the mind—a quality that for me has had the most impact,” Flanders says.

Martha is one of fourteen other Taos-based yoga instructors who are working towards their 500-hour level certification in Svastha Yoga Therapy with the Mohans’ son, Dr. Ganesh Mohan, here in Taos. The program requires a three and a half year commitment. “What is so unique about Svastha Yoga is that it emphasizes the adaptation of postures for the needs and abilities of the individual, while continually reassessing the individual’s condition and making appropriate modifications,” Martha adds.

Prior to yoga, Martha had always been physically active. Two of her favorite pastimes include skiing, which she took up in high school during Christmas break when her family holidayed in Taos. (The formative memories of which have inspired her to make Taos her home since 1979.) The other is windsurfing, which she took up in her 30s and continues to enjoy today.

Martha demonstrates Adho Mukha Savanasana or Downward Facing Dog to stretch the hamstrings after long bike rides.

But it wasn’t until she quit drinking in her 30s and quit smoking a decade later, that she started taking her health more seriously. “When I quit smoking, it changed my life. I started walking and then hiking for twenty minutes during my lunch break at Taos Ski Valley, where I worked in the accounting department. Then I joined the spa for aerobics and weights. I didn’t start yoga and cycling until I was in my fifties,” she says.

Although Martha came to cycling late, she took it up with the same passion she does with most everything. Already she has completed two half continental rides: California to Colorado and Colorado to Georgia, with routes covering over 1500 miles each. She has also participated in several shorter rides of 400 miles and less, including a trek through Slovenia. “I’m active, but I’m no animal,” Martha says. “Plenty of fit folks my age and older leave me in the dust on the slopes and pass me on the road cycling.”

A few years ago, Martha was diagnosed with osteoporosis. But that hasn’t slowed her down. If anything, it gives her greater motivation to stay in shape.

Half Lord of the Fishes Pose or Ardha Matsyendrasana is great for opening the shoulders, neck and hips.

“I see people now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s whom I have known for twenty years and who continue to enjoy activities –skiing, cycling, hiking—if even at a slower pace,” she says. “I am saddened when I see those who have not addressed specific health issues or who have simply stopped moving. As we age we cannot avoid slowing down, but we can strive to comfortably carry on our essential day-to-day activities.”

Martha started teaching yoga last year. Her classes are geared to those who wish to improve their range of motion, flexibility, muscle strength and balance. The pace of her instruction is slow, with easy-to-moderately challenging exercises (asanas).

To quiet her mind, Martha meditates, focusing on her breath and repeating a mantra.

“When I was a child and my granny was 60ish, she was OLD.  She had permed bluish hair, wore support hose, and I think the only exercise she got was walking the two flights of stairs to her apartment. The thought of being that old was scary. When a friend suggested I market my yoga classes as “Gentle Seniors,” I was aghast. I am not ready to be a senior!”

**First published in The Taos News on January 24, 2013

Wellness Profile: The Positive Outlook of Krystle Struck

by Monique Parker

After being on her feet all day, Krystle uses Supta Baddha Konasana to release tension in her back.

I met Krystle Struck six years ago at UNM-Taos, where she was enrolled in my English Composition class. At the time, Krystle was 22 years old and had aspirations of one day opening her own hair and beauty salon. Like most people with a dream, Krystle had obstacles to overcome before turning her dream into reality: obtaining the proper certifications, learning how to start a business, acquiring capital and help from family, and consistently and persistently staying the course—no matter how hard things got. What struck me most about Krystle, then and now, is her attitude, which exudes self-confidence and faith in life working out. It is the kind of grounded self-assurance that puts people at ease and inspires those who would like to follow their own bliss.

Today, Krystle owns and runs Superstar Hair Salon on Estes Road in Taos. She cuts and colors hair, offers spa manicures and pedicures, and gives a deeply relaxing massage. Five years ago, while obtaining her cosmetology lisence at Northern New Mexico College in Espanola, she concurrently completed her massage certification so that she could offer services from head to toe. “I like helping people look and feel good,” she says. Krystle also offers massage at the Taos Spa & Tennis Club.

A key to healthy living that got reinforced at massage school was the necessity to breath. While we all perform this function involuntarily, it’s the unconscious breathing patterns, and specifically, holding one’s breath that creates stress. “Before I went to massage school I would catch myself holding my breath. At Northern New Mexico they reminded us each day: breathe, breathe, remember to breathe!”

“Now whenever I feel overwhelmed or uptight, I consciously remember to stop and breathe. Seriously, to stop what I am doing and take several deep breaths. And then, to let what is causing me to worry…to let it be,” she adds. The breathing exercise has come in handy now that Krsytle is pregnant with her second child.

“The first time I was pregnant with my son Kameron I was anxious and worried a lot of the time,” she says. “But now I work to surrender everything…to go with the flow and know it will be okay.” Krystle started using a mantra she learned while in massage school. She routinely repeats it as an aide to letting go of thoughts that arise incessantly. “If I feel my mind rambling, I will say my mantra over and over again in my mind,” she says. “I’ll even say it to myself when driving my car, as a way to keep my mind focused.”

Krystle also uses her mantra when she has difficulty falling sleep. “I think too much!” she jokes. “But if say my mantra when I lay down to sleep, it helps.”

Krystle practices supported standing squat to lengthen her truck and open the pelvis.

During her first pregnancy Krystle ate whatever she wanted and didn’t get enough water. As a result, she swelled up. “My feet would hurt so much by the end of the day,” she adds. This time around she is getting plenty of water, eating more organically, taking 5-minute breaks throughout the day for yoga stretches, and enjoying baths with Epson salts and lavender.

Some of the low impact yoga poses that help Krystle stay limber while she is on her feet all day include Supta Baddha Konasana, which is particularly useful for pregnancy since it prepares the hips for labor while releasing spinal tension, and the supported standing squat, which lengthens her trunk and opens the pelvis. “I didn’t know these were yoga poses when I started doing them. They come naturally and help to relieve my back,” she says.

The support of family has been invaluable to Krystle, both in her business and with her pregnancies. “If I didn’t have the support of my family, this would be a totally different world,” she says. “My parents have always said what they meant and meant what they said. I can go to them for anything.”

Her older brother Erick Struck holds a masters degree in social work and has been pivotal in Krystle’s outlook. “He’s the one person who has taught me to think positively. He reminds me not to think about how things could or should be, but to work from where they are,” she says.

As the delivery of her second child draws near (her son is due to arrive the second week of December), Krystle reflects on what she hopes to pass on to her children: “Have respect for everything. Never judge. Respect yourself. That has to come first.”

*Krystle welcomed her second son, Noah, into the world on December 10, 2012.

**First published in The Taos News on Dec 20, 2012

Pre-Season Conditioning with Ardha Utkatasana: Chair or Half Squat Pose

 By Monique Parker

Svastha Yoga teacher Julie Cortopassi demonstrating half squat pose.

As snow season approaches, Taos athletes can get in some last minute pre-season conditioning with a popular yoga posture that benefits all winter sports: Ardha Utkatasana, also called Chair or Half Squat pose. Whether you snow shoe, cross country ski, downhill ski, snowboard, or ice skate, Utkatasana can help you to improve your performance while decreasing the risk of injury.

Even if winter sports aren’t your thing, the squat (often considered the king of exercises), because it strengthens key posture muscles—erector spinae, gluteals, quadriceps, hamstrings, and abdominals, is an exercise that can make navigating through life easier. Think of the muscles you use when you’re getting up off the floor, or in and out of the car. And, the squat is versatile: you can perform it anywhere (office, home, outdoors), as part of a larger routine or as an isolated exercise by itself.

Utkatasana, the classic deep knee yogic squat may increase the potential of injury to knee ligaments and therefore should be performed after considerable preparation.

There are a variety of squat variations to creatively challenge your muscles and keep you from getting bored:

  1. Standing in either wide or narrow stance
  2. Varying the degree of knee flexion (ranging from a few inches to a half squat to a squat where the thighs are lowered past parallel)
  3. Using weights or no load at all
  4. Going symmetrical (two feet on the ground) vs. asymmetrical (one legged squat)
  5. Lifting the heels off the floor (which also targets calf muscles)
  6. Squeezing a block between the thighs to help hug or co-contract the hamstring and quadriceps muscles

Squatting requires a high level of proprioception when done correctly (the ability to sense the position, location, and movement of the body in space). It’s also a closed-chain exercise, which coordinates the ankle, knee, and hip joints so they move together in a functional pattern.

“Yoga is a great tool for developing proprioception and balance in the muscles used for skiing and boarding. So when you’re sliding down a hill with something strapped to your feet, you can react to the terrain and more skillfully move through those inevitability awkward moments with fluidity,” says yoga instructor Monica Martin. “The more ready you are before you’re on skis or a board, the less warm up time it takes to be comfortable in the terrain you want to be in.”

Besides being used for ski conditioning, the half squat is also the basic stance used in ice-skating (knees bent, back straight, and arms out). In fact, when students learn to skate they’re frequently told that “if you start to fall, get small,” meaning, regain balance by bending the knees, keeping the feet and arms pointed forward. In this half squat pose, skaters find stability out on the ice.

“I always think of these instructions when I’m walking outside in winter, especially on icy parking lots,” says Carrie Leven, an ice skater and yoga practitioner, “and have saved myself from falling many times.”

One legged squat is a great variation for toning and strengthening legs in preparation for ice skating.

Skaters use one-legged squats to condition their legs and core and improve balance for performing sit spins and moves like “shoot the duck”, a full one-legged squat with the opposite leg extended forward. “The half-chair strengthens the core abdominals, back, and leg muscles that are so important to holding the body firmly upright in forward and backwards skating, as well as in the fast turns and jumps,” adds Leven.

Besides being a great sports conditioner, the modified squat is also used in physical therapy centers and may be appropriate for the rehabilitation of most knee injuries. If you have knee issues, please consult your doctor or physical therapist before performing this exercise.

Whether or not you ski, board, or skate, the benefits of Ardha Utkatasana, can’t be ignored. Happy Trails!

Carrie Leven will be offering a free “Yoga for Ice Skating” conditioning class October 28 from 11am-12:15 at the Taos Youth and Family Center. “Practicing yoga off the ice gives people strength, stability and confidence on the ice,” Leven says. For more information, call 586-1480.

Squatting with the heels up puts greater emphasis on the calves, develops balance, and is one of the core postures in the famous Bikram Yoga series.

Julie Cortopassi instructs a Gentle Svastha Yoga class on Fridays from 12-1:15pm at Santosha Yoga of Taos. “We work on postures that develop core strength and stability and to prevent bone loss,” says Julie. “We put in effort in conjunction with using the breath to create a holistic feeling of being strong, yet relaxed.”

Monica Martin, together with partner Josh Fredrickson, a ski instructor with over 20 years experience, designed a Pre-Snow Season Yoga Conditioning series that she teaches on Tuesdays 5:15-6:30pm at the Edelweiss Lodge & Spa at the TSV, and Wednesdays 6:15-7:30pm at AwarenessWorks Feldenkreis Studio in the Northstar Plaza in El Prado.

First Published in The Taos News on October 18, 2012

Yogi Profile: The dedication and generosity of Carrie Leven

by Monique Parker

Carrie enjoys meditating and chanting each day, even if only for five minutes, to help quiet her mind.

Fourteen months ago, Carrie Leven, an archeologist with the Carson National Forest Service and yoga novice, started attending my community classes at the gym in Questa with the admirable dedication of a seasoned aspirant. Fast forward over a year later: she will receive her 200-hour Yoga Teacher Certification at UNM-Taos this December, and, on top of that, she is already nearly half way through her 500-hour Yoga Therapy Certification.

“After doing yoga for a year I feel transformed physically and mentally. I feel calm, clear-headed, with things falling into place without my effort,” said Leven, who attends two to three yoga classes a week. “I remember my first class with Monique. At the beginning she said something like, ‘Bring your attention away from the outside world and begin to draw your awareness inward—toward your breath.’ It resulted in such a peaceful and connected state that I was hooked.”

Diagnosed with osteoporosis, Carrie read that yoga could help in building strong bones. She started taking yoga with me in July of 2011 with this in mind, as well as to compliment her other activities: Zumba, ice-skating, and the hiking required in her job. “In addition to gaining flexibility, strength, and balance, I’ve also gotten a lot of psychological benefit from practicing yoga,” Leven added. “The chanting is definitely a big part of it. The more I chant, the calmer I feel. I’m not so reactive to situations.”

Last year Leven had a noticeable bump on the back of her neck where vertebrae were compressed. She experienced stiffness, a hunched posture, and frequent numbness in her arm and hand. “I sit at the computer a lot, writing archaeology reports,” Leven explained.

The asymmetrical yoga exercises have helped her to keep her spine elongated, which has reduced the pain she was regularly experiencing. “I noticed last month that my neck has lengthened and my posture has improved significantly. Even the bump on my neck is almost gone,” said Leven.

One position that has helped her realign her upper body is using “cactus arms”, where the arms are bent at the elbows and pulled in towards the ribs in postures such as warrior. Other positions that helped increase the mobility in her back are seated twist and cobra (a prone facing back bend), which she practices daily.

Carrie demonstrates the seated spinal twist she practices daily to relieve discomfort and to strengthen her back.

“Yoga has helped me to know myself better. I hope to share what I’ve learned about yoga with others,” she said. Anyone who knows Carrie will tell you her words are golden. Always willing to lend a hand or help somebody who is less fortunate, it comes as no surprise that Carrie was nominated as one the “Remarkable Women of Taos”.

At a young age, Carrie’s parents instilled in her the value of community service through their local Catholic church. “My mom and dad still do a lot of charity work to feed and clothe the poor and homeless,” she said.

Carrie volunteers for a number of causes. She and husband Monte Doeren help to raise awareness about the cost of war with Taos Veterans for Peace, a non-profit group that meets weekly at the Metta Theatre. On weekends and after work she and local volunteers are rebuilding the St. Anthony’s Church in Questa, one adobe brick at a time. And she writes war memorials for the Daily Kos, a liberal political blog.

“I’ve written nearly 100 war memorials. Publicizing American war fatalities is my protest of war and prayer for peace. I write the memorials to remember and honor the soldier who died, and for their families and friends who might read it,” she added.

The first war memorial Leven wrote was for her friend Joey Gallegos, who died in Iraq almost three years ago. Joey had asked her to write a memorial for him in case he died there. “I’ve had family members thank me for writing about their loved ones. It means a lot to them that a stranger would care enough to take the time to write about their son or daughter or spouse.”

What is remarkable about Carrie Leven is that she not only practices yoga now out of conviction for the physical and psychological benefits, but that she consistently models for our community a pleasant disposition and true charity.

“I like that everybody can do yoga,” Leven said. “You can always find 20 minutes a day, whether in the morning, at the office, before bed, or any time you feel stressed, sore, tired, or stiff, to breathe and reinvigorate your mind and body.”

*First appeared in The Taos News on September 20, 2012