Emily Rath

Urdhva Dhanurasana

FullSizeRenderurdhva – upward
dhanu – bow

Backbending can be intense, but it is wonderfully healing.  It comes at the end of the seated postures, immediately before the finishing postures in the Ashtanga Primary Series.  When I was living in Scotland with an immense amount of stress, this pose brought me to tears, not because of physical sensations, but because it was releasing the worries about my sister’s health, my trying relationship, and pressures to do well in culinary school.  I’d lay there after each backbend, silently trying to hold in the overwhelming emotions pouring out.  When I was living in Italy, this pose would once again bring tears to my eyes because of the relationship issues and depression I was going through.  Now that I am in a more stable period in my life, I do this pose without crying.  Sometimes though, especially when I go weeks without practicing, it will release strong emotions which I’ve been stuffing down my throat.

This posture is essential for keeping your heart chakra open, while staying grounded to the earth.  In the photograph, I’m in a partial backbend, but I always do at least three full backbends (the bow/wheel).  One spring I was doing a yoga workshop in Boulder with internationally renowned yoga master Richard Freeman.  We did at least five backbends and in my own practice two or three was enough.  “Why so many backbends?” I asked shyly during class.  Richard explained that it cleanses the nervous system and opens the psoas muscles which hold trauma.  It opens up your chest, therefore opening up your heart to new perspectives.  Now every time when my mind jumps in the way like a bus and tells me to just do a few backbends, I remind myself of the healing properties this pose brings.  Days I do fewer backbends, I am more unstable, quick to anger, and sad.  Days I practice five full backbends, I am open to new possibilities, full of courage, stable, and I can breathe.  This pose lengthens your spine, relieves chronic neck and back pain, stretches the abdominal muscles, internal organs, lungs, and chest, tones your arms, legs, abs, back, wrists, and spine, stimulates the thyroid and pituitary glands, and helps with infertility, asthma, depression, and osteoporosis.  It relieves stress and insomnia.  Holding this for five breaths, five times, is like having an intense therapy session.  You may want to cry, but it’s an incredible release of stress which heals your mind, heart, and body daily.

I like Kino MacGregor’s thoughts on this posture.  You can read more about backbending in the link below.  “One of the deepest lessons in the yoga practice is about brining the energy up the spine and cleansing the nervous system. Backbends thrust your full life force up through this central channel and burn through blockages along the way. When one of these blockages gets triggered it really does not matter whether you are doing a deep backbend or a beginner backbend because the emotional state that gets triggered is really of paramount importance. When things are difficult, scary and emotional it is hard to remain clam, breathe and think clearly. This is where the guidance of an experienced teacher is crucial. They can support your process, direct your body with sound instruction and finally give the process back over to you when you’re ready.”

 

https://www.kinoyoga.com/the-emotional-journey-of-backbending/

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Navasana

I can’t think of a pose I dread more than boat pose.  My core has never been stronger as now, but somehow my enthusiasm has run dry and I find myself just baring a grin for what feels like two thousand years just to get through the beastly pose.  Right after the relaxing seated postures it comes like a bat in the night about to slap your face with its wings.  Your legs are up in the air, toning your abdominals and arms, strengthening your hip flexors, hamstrings, and lower back muscles…  It’s the only time of day I have a thigh gap, although everyone should know that those are irrelevant to anything important in life.  I have to say though, it’s a pleasant distraction to observe my muscles toning up in the air, while they are simultaneously burning to return to the ground.

I really hate this posture.  For the longest time I’d support myself with all of the weight on my sternum.  One day during Mysore (traditional Ashtanga yoga un-led class as done in Mysore India), my British teacher Michael walked over and sweetly wagged his finger at me.  “Emily… you can’t sit back on your sacrum.  You need to lift up here, and be further up on your sit bones.”  OH GOD.  Just when this pose couldn’t get any worse.  Now my body was in a perfect V but this was clearly working my body more effectively, with the weight on my sit bones, my hamstrings lengthening forever and ever, and my mind trying to focus on five breaths instead of death.  Then you cross your legs, do a press up, and do it again.  For a total of five times.  That’s a total of twenty five breaths in this pose, which is essentially almost a minute of pretending like you are a boat.  Certainly the most difficult boat ride I’ve ever been on, this pose challenges my sanity and perfervearance. I feel like if I make myself go through the motions of Navasana every morning for five breaths, five times, I can probably accomplish anything else I attempt that day.  According to various websites Navasana increases confidence.  I’m guessing it’s because you survive near-death everytime you do it.  Navasana improves balance and digestion.  It also stimulates the kidneys and intestines.  It can help with hernias, thyroid, or prostate problems.  It relieves stress (once again I’m assuming because this pose is so damn stressful that anything in comparison is easy).

For further reading, I like Zo Newell’s article on the mythology of boat pose. https://yogainternational.com/article/view/the-mythology-behind-navasana-boat-pose

Happy journey.

Karnapidasana

“Ear Pressure Pose”

This pose is my happy place.  First of all, it comes at the near-end of the Ashtanga Primary series.  After an hour and half of stretching, pulling, reaching, toning, breathing, 15826527_10100672960763116_7309471172155200700_nand sweating… this pose is just the cherry on top of the cake.  I feel safe.  The world is quietly shut away, by putting light pressure around the ears.  In this pose, your spine is elongated and all of the vertebrae are cleansed.  Your buttocks, arms, and thighs tone.  It stimulates and cleanses the abdominal organs and thyroid gland.  It can ease symptoms of menopause, help with infertility, insommnia, hypertension, sinusitis, and backache.  In can gradually strengthen your lungs and help with asthma.  It stretches your spine and shoulders.  It reduces stress and gives you a sense of tranquility.  In order to do this pose you should be comfortable doing Halasana (plow pose) and Sarvangasana (shoulder stand pose).  This pose is intermediate to advanced so should be done for the first time with a teacher.

Karna (ear)

Pida (pain)

Asana (posture)

Stevia

It’s in the majority of protein shakes.  It’s now in tea.  It’s in certain chocolates.  It’s even now in Coca-Cola Life.  Stevia is a zero calorie sweetener that comes from the leaves of the plant Stevia rebaudiana which naturally grows in Brazil and Paraguay.  It is 150-300 times sweeter than sugar (depending on the site you read…) so just a few drops can go a long way.  However, we must remember that cocaine also comes from a plant (coca leaves).  Just because stevia comes from a plant, does not mean it is good for you.  The stevia we have in our American market is highly concentrated and processed.

Back in 2013 I was throwing back several protein shakes a day and my brand of choice at the time was Vega.  I was by no means vegetarian and in fact was following closely the Paleolithic diet.  I just enjoyed the taste and the ample amounts of stevia.

One day in the gym I began jump roping.  This was a great way to rapidly increase my heart rate and metabolism by means of a cardiovascular activity which I rarely did.  I was healthy, about fifteen percent body fat, had a personal trainer there with me, and we were doing a regular training session.  Like a bolt of lightning, I got what is called a thunderclap headache, which the Mayo Clinic describes as so: “Thunderclap headaches live up to their name, grabbing your attention like a clap of thunder. The pain of these sudden, severe headaches peaks within 60 seconds and can start fading after an hour. Some thunderclap headaches, however, can last for more than a week.

  • Strikes suddenly and severely — sometimes described as the worst headache ever experienced
  • Peaks within 60 seconds
  • Lasts anywhere between an hour and 10 days
  • Can occur anywhere in the head, and may involve the neck or lower back
  • Can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting or loss of consciousness”

 

This headache lasted months.  I was depressed, confused, and terrified.  Much later I got an MRI which showed normal activity.  As I noticed the headache was worse after drinking Vega protein shakes, I began to research if anyone else was experiencing similar things from this new “natural” sweetener.

Here is what you need to know:

  • The chemicals steviol glycosides are what make stevia sweet.  There are at least ten forms of steviol glycosides in the plant, but because of the way it is manufactured and processed today, often only one or two steviol glycosides are used.  The stevia plant has been used for centuries in Paraguay and Brazil, and for decades in Japan.  However, in those cases it is often used as a whole leaf or powdered form.
  • Stevia can trick the body into hypoglycemia because your body believes it is about to receive glucose due to the taste. Read about the extensive explanation in the sources below.
  • It can tax the adrenal glands by increasing cortisol and adrenaline.
  • It is structurally similar to, and synthesized in our bodies like the plant proteins (gibberellin and kaurene).  Dr. Sarah Ballantyne states steviol glycosides therefore have a hormonal structure which can affect our production of progesterone and estrogen, can act as a mutagen, and possibly lead to cancer.
  • In 1991 stevia was banned by the FDA in the United States because studies conducted with rats exposed to high amounts of stevia proved toxic results and possible carcinogenic effects.  In 1995 the FDA allowed stevia to be used as a supplement but not as a food additive.
  • “The FDA still harbors concerns that pure leaf stevia products may have adverse effects on blood sugar control, kidneys, cardiovascular functioning and reproductive system.” (Livestrong)

All that said, I have read studies showing no adverse affects in rats given high doses of stevia.  The studies I found though were on stevia.net.  Go figure.  I don’t intend on convincing you one way or another, or creating a hypothesis through supporting evidence.  Just please, please, take my thunderclap story into consideration.  Ever since that summer, I’ve developed an extreme sensitivity to the “natural” sweetener.  Whenever that very particular feeling headache returns, I look at the ingredients of what I just consumed, and there it is, stevia.

 

Sources and articles for further reading:

http://www.livestrong.com/article/468892-stevia-vs-sugar/

https://www.thepaleomom.com/teaser-excerpt-from-the-paleo-approach-the-trouble-with-stevia/

http://empoweredsustenance.com/is-stevia-bad-for-you/

“Familiar” Book Review

Maybe I needed answers as much as the character Elisa Macalester Brown.  She quit graduate school in order to raise children.  “She married at twenty-one.  Derek was in law school – he was twenty-five, wore a tie; he took her out and drank one bottle of beer and they had sex in his room.”  While reading Robert Lennon’s book, Familiar, you become a constant companion to Elisa Brown’s dissatisfaction with life, and one can’t help but sympathize immensely with her from the beginning because of the loss of one of two of her sons to a car crash.  The novel begins as she is driving on Interstate 90 through Ohio, the crack in her windshield disappears, and all of a sudden she is wearing different clothes, and driving a different car.  Parts of her world have changed, and others have stayed the same.

Throughout the novel you move day to day, sometimes with months flying by at a time, while observing the differences between her old life and her new one.  Her sons, Silas and Sam are both alive, but estranged.  Her marriage is better, but difficult in other ways.  She questions herself of the most basic things, “She wanted to make coffee — but does she make coffee? Or does Derek make coffee?” And by doing so, you realize how much a part of who you are, your being, is how you relate to other people, and pleasing other people. If she was just herself, wouldn’t she do it the same way as her old self?  But she is constantly trying to adjust to the interactions with her husband, children, friends, and co-workers in her new life, therefore molding herself into someone else.  And what is more confusing is when she is told actions of the past, she doesn’t understand her new self.  “Elisa tells herself-this Lisa, the one she is impersonating, is soft, pliable, defanged.”  Her new self in this alternate reality has made decisions the Elisa we know would not have made.  But then again, if everything is circumstantial, then perhaps half of our personality and choices are because of circumstance? “She is a casualty of circumstance, not the center of the universe.”

I wanted, perhaps like many readers and Elisa, to believe that her lost son Silas had created an alternate reality for her in which he was alive.  In order to find answers, she plays a video game which her son Silas created.  “She has never played video games, beyond Pac-Man once or twice at the pizza shop, with a boyfriend, in 1984.”  Lennon’s writing is seductive and humorous.  The characters are fleshed out and intriguing.  “It has to be Silas.  He is everything she remembers.  He is as charming as he is vitriolic; you feel proud when he accepts you, and when he turns on you, you blame yourself.”  Elisa becomes obsessed with internet forums and answers on how and why her world changed.  It provides only speculation to what it all means, who we are, and in essence, what makes us happy.  Perhaps an alternate reality is not as good as it seems.  It has just as many problems and is equally as confusing.

The day after I finished the novel I walked into my therapist’s office.  He had however, moved into the office one room over and was standing there with the door open, inviting me in.  I commented, “oh it’s a different room.  But almost the same.”  He said, “Yes, it’s familiar, but different.” After spending a week in her head and feeling an awful lot like Elisa Brown from the book Familiar, this was almost too much to handle.  Mysterious and captivating, the book left me disturbed for days afterwards and grateful for my one reality.

 

 

Yoga

15823016_10100672960728186_4507148961924527229_nI am standing on my head.  My elbows and wrists are pressing into the floor while my eyes are softly gazing at the thermostat on the other side of the room.  Successfully, I am able to fade out the other yoga students who are bending in my peripheral vision, by way of my Ujjayi breathing, in and out with sounds like the ocean.  A bead of sweat drips down between my breasts to my throat as my toes point upwards like prayers to the sky.  My stomach is soft but engaged.  My eyes are open but unfocused.  My mind is clear but concentrated.  My heart is open but upside down.

This is Shirshasana (sher-SHAH-sahn-ah) also known as headstand.  By reversing the flow of gravity, the intestines, colon, and thyroid are cleansed thus improving digestion.  The adrenal glands are squeezed and flushed out, allowing you to better adapt to stress.  Being upside down obviously brings blood flow to the head which will enhance memory and bring mental clarity.  Nutrients and oxygen are sent down into the brain, scalp, and eyes which helps prevent macular degeneration and bring blood flow to your hair follicles (amen to beautiful hair and 20/20 vision!).  In order to do the pose properly you must be relaxed and engaged in the right places, bringing awareness to your center of gravity, helping you with the way you move and control your body in space, which you do, everywhere, everyday.  By turning your focus inwards, it helps relieve depression and brings feelings of relaxation, peace, and happiness.  It flushes out excess water built up in your legs, ankles, and feet which will prevent edema.  Your forearms, core, and back are doing most of the work while only the slightest pressure is on the head.  This will build strength, and as I have noticed, make your back look beautifully toned.  Basically, headstand is the “King” of postures and should be done for at least ten breaths, or as the Master of Ashtanga Yoga, Shri K Pattabhi Jois likes to suggest, three hours.  Ha!

It took me years to be able to do headstand.  It wasn’t that I needed to build up the strength.  I just needed the right teacher to poke me with the tip of his finger in the right place, and up my legs went.  Now I find myself every morning, upside down, and wondering what it all means.  So try this pose against a wall, and ideally with a yoga teacher.  Soon you’ll be walking tall with luscious locks, perfect vision, and feeling awfully grateful you’ve learned the benefits of standing on your head.

“Suffer the Children”

Tonight I went to bed at 10 and woke up to my own strained voice, shouting, “Mama!  Mama!”  Every dream I am crying out to her for help.  And she’s not hearing me.  I’m walking in the dark downstairs trying to find a blanket.  Something was scary, and wrong in the house, in my room.  So Carrie and I were moving into her room in the middle of the night.  It was huge.  We spread blankets out on the floor.  But they didn’t have enough for me.  And I didn’t have a nightgown.  I didn’t have something to wear to protect me, or blankets to keep me warm.  So I went downstairs.  It was creepy, lit by just a tiny light I was carrying, with shadows and messes everywhere, piles of things in the dining room and hallway coming out of the dark.  I still couldn’t find something to wear.  I got scared.  It felt like someone was there.  I ran up the stairs.  I leaned over the bannister because I heard someone.  And I saw him, in a grey hoodie.  He was tall and large, moving quickly to the door of the kitchen, I started screaming for my mom but she didn’t hear me, or believe that we were in danger, even though I was right in front of her bedroom door.  And I woke up.  Trying and failing to scream.

My heart racing and eyes wide, there was no way I could lull myself to sleep so the next few hours I spent reading about recurring nightmares and how to stop them.  Exercise.  Don’t eat before bed.  Don’t drink alcohol.  Don’t eat sugar.  Cut down on caffeine. Play more.  All of the things I have tried to do again and again but sometimes relapse into an average life of eating sugar and having a glass of wine before bed.  I feel though, like I have given up everything.  Dancing.  Singing.  Studies.  I’m suffocating.  I am robbing myself of life and freedom by living with my mother.  I didn’t had these dreams while living alone, or with roommates.  It has only been since moving home that these have inflicted my every week.  However, I know this is a transition, a period in my life of what feels like confinement, while I address my future.  It does not make sense to sign a lease on an apartment for a few months if I am about to move out of the country.  So at this time, I must keep my heart open, take care of my needs, and listen to the nightmares that return.

It is always a burglar.  Sometimes his purpose is not to steal, but to murder me.  Dreams about burglary can mean “feeling that something has been taken from you without being able to control it.”  Feeling dishonest and sneaky.  It can mean feelings of insecurity about losing power or stability.  Feeling violated on a personal,  emotional level or material level. All of these apply to me.  It’s like a mound of feelings with thousands of layers of earth, each different, deeper and deeper, and my vines are struggling to grow until I give them the nutrients they need.  My therapist told me I have all of these emotions that I am not letting out, and that I must express myself creatively.  I feel like I may explode.  So through reading other’s poetry, lyrics, novels… I find inspiration.  These lyrics are very close to how I feel… a feeling of neglect, sadness, and nightmares.

 “It’s a sad affair
When there’s no one there
He calls out in the night
And it’s so unfair
At least it seems that way
When you gave him his life

And all this time he’s been getting you down
You ought to pick him up when there’s no one around
And convince him
Just talk to him
’cause he knows in his heart you won’t be home soon
He’s an only child in an only room
And he’s dependent on you
Oh he’s dependent on you

And it seems so strange
That at the end of the day
Making love can be so good
But the Pain of birth
What is it worth
When it don’t turn out the way it should

And all this time he’s been getting you down
You ought to pick him up when there’s no one around
And convince him
Just talk to him
’cause he knows in his heart you won’t be home soon
He’s an only child in an only room
And he’s dependent on you
Oh, he’s dependent on you

…Suffer, suffer the children”

-Tears for Fears, 1981

London in December

 

Everything is Nothing

Here I am in the land of gelato.  The land of great wine.  The land of beautiful people, masterpieces, and language.  Beauty and art surround me, engulf me, along with all of the tourists.  But I find myself at times, like today, longing for the past, longing for something or rather someone else.

Have you ever found that person that fulfils you more than anything else in the world can do?  Their love and beauty fill you beyond the time it takes to digest a gelato or drink a glass of prosecco.  While espresso and wine elevate you for a short hour, this person makes you fly for through life and dreams, endlessly.  This is whom I long for now, on a gorgeous Friday where sun and birds soar through Florence, wine courses through peoples blood, pasta e prosciutto are on every corner, and historical sculptures gaze pensively.  I look back at them lowly, with melancholy coursing through my blood, and hoping that this will get easier.

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