Arm Yourself (with Crazy, Strong Asanas)

“Summer’s coming!”

“Spring break, wedding season, and bikini season are right around the corner,” they say. Well, of course, these (rarely helpful) reminders often succeed in turning our attention to our day planners and our post-hiberation bodies. If you’re like me, then your inner monologue usually follows, “So, how much time do I have?” (Time enough to fit in one more weekend of Ben & Jerry’s and red wine indulgence, I hope!)

We can’t avoid all the reminders, and we can’t always hate them either. It’s important – all year round – to evaluate how we’re treating our bodies. But, instead of fueling a love-hate relationship with our bodies by feeling the need to suddenly ‘kick it into shape,’ could it be better (and healthier) to check in with our bodies on our own accord, in an effort to ‘take care’ of ourselves? The holidays bring an equally welcome and dreaded break in our regular schedules and eating habits, and the stress – and cold – of the season eggs on our urge to put on the pounds. (Literally, biologically, our bodies crave the extra fat for added warmth in the colder weather! My favorite excuse for reaching for a few extra Tollhouse cookies on a frigid night…)

Checking in with ourselves, as I discussed in a different context in “No Regrets: A Guide to Managing the Chaos,” is all it takes to stay healthy and happy on a daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal basis. Every day, checking in allows us to notice how our bodies are feeling, what our minds are up to, and consequently, how one might be negatively influencing the other.

For example, recently, I realized that my busy busy mind had been neglecting some physical discomfort and ailments that really deserved closer attention – so, I scheduled a doctor’s appointment. After taking the time to be more present to my body, I also began to notice how my headaches and other symptoms were affecting my focus, and thereby making me cranky and irritable. Not getting enough rest at night (8 hours or more, most nights each week) was also contributing to my negative attitude and my overall mindset. These are examples of how the body and mind are in sync at a very fundamental level, which ultimately affects our day-to-day comfort and productivity. By giving both my mind and my body the attention they deserve, as you would ‘take care’ or check in with a good friend or family member on a consistent basis, you’ll notice it’s much easier to be and stay healthy and happy for as long as you’re willing to stay present.

As I’ve said before and am often reminded, it’s already in you. Don’t bother looking at magazine covers with pictures of a body they’re telling you you should have this summer. Instead, check in with your own body, and treat it well; and you will undoubtedly be the happiest, healthiest, and sexiest you this summer, and always. Physical fitness can and should mean checking in with our body and what it’s really craving, (extra cookies are always okay to have sometimes; and despite your regular gym routine, maybe your body is craving a run outside or an exercise class this week). By paying attention to what the body really needs to be flawlessly in sync with our mental health and well-being, we can find balance and fitness that’s easily sustainable – if it’s approached as a welcome lifestyle shift, rather than a ‘quick’ fix.’ By listening more closely to what we already know (like that voice that tells me when I’m full, before I make the decision to pick up another cookie anyway), we can be our happiest and best selves without the high anxiety and the love-hate relationship. We’ll just keep the love part…

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look your best when it’s part of wanting to be your best. As much as yoga helps to manage daily mental chaos – of should’s and shouldn’t’s, temptations and remorse – by providing steadiness and clarity with regular practice, yoga also has its physical benefits. For me: I crave healthier, lighter foods because I have a greater awareness of how different foods impact my physical and mental well-being (and equally how I impact my food, through my footprint on the environment). I also am slowly but surely getting into the best shape of my life, effortlessly. Because, I return to my mat for benefits beyond a few push-ups; simply because I’m better (and certainly a better friend, daughter and girlfriend) when I do.

Since I’ve already introduced a few well-rounded basic asanas for home practice in “Happy Holidays! Your Asana Cheatsheet,” I wanted to share a few basic postures that specifically target arms – an area that caused my college girlfriends and I much anguish, as seemingly always “the last part to tone!” – so you can feel confident whatever the new season brings, without needing to master handstand or flying lizard pose to do it.

So…let’s do it.

—————————————————————————-

ARM YOURSELF with Crazy, Strong Asanas:

All the poses I’ve included below are for beginners, unless noted otherwise. Any beginner posture can be made more challenging by either holding it longer (anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes) or by adding modifications which require additional strength building, as I’ve noted below. My daily practice is a fluid (ever-changing) combination of these postures, which I’ve built upon over time to further challenge myself and engage new muscles in the body. Through repetition, we gain muscle memory – so as we practice more and more frequently, learning to engage our muscles in new ways, our bodies naturally start using these muscles more in our daily lives. For instance, bending over, you might find you engage new muscles in your core, or you might not notice. But over time, your body will change, as it becomes more engaged, stronger, and healthier. This heightened awareness and efficiency of our physical body is called body clairvoyance.

The sequences below are basic techniques that will, at face value, promote greater arm strength and stability. With further practice, however, these postures can also become a full body work-out, enabling you to begin to engage your muscles in new ways and stimulate greater all-day awareness for all-over strength building.

As always, be careful and present in your practice by listening to your body. Every body’s different and, as I’ve learned more and more throughout my studies, not every body is able to do every pose. Don’t judge yourself for what you can or cannot do today, just be present in acknowledging where you are, and set a goal for yourself of where you’d like to go from here. With patience and determination (aka repetition), the form and strength of the posture will come and you’ll be able to embody more and more of the cues I’ve included here. (But likely not at first, so go easy on yourself!)

Click the posture name below for step-by-step instructions and check out my full body cues for an added challenge. Enjoy, and let it flow! 😉

Down Dog Vinyasa Flow

Downward-facing dog
-Widen the fingers of each hand apart from one another, and press the palms firmly into the ground. (This means there should be no gap between the floor and your fingers, particularly where your ring finger meets the palm of each hand.)
– Lift your hips up and press back through your arms, engaging your triceps and keeping a micro (small) bend at the below. Then, gently straighten your knees and engage the backs of your legs (your hamstrings) to lower your heels closer to the ground. Once this is accomplished, you can press firmly through your heels, with equal force pressing through the hands, to engage the calves and enjoy a rock solid down dog. (Go ahead and try me, tsunami – I ‘ain’t budging!)

Beach Feb 2015.7

High Plank
– Lowering into plank from down dog, extend from your wrist through your shoulder without lifting out of your shoulder socket, by ensuring your arm/the head of the humerus rests securely in the shoulder socket.
– Holding this position, lower your hips and engage your core to maintain a straight spine.
– Flex your feet and push your heels away from you, to lengthen from your hips through your heels. This way, you’re engaging and lifting from the legs away from the ground and away from your upper body.
– Check back in to straighten your spine and engage your upper and lower body muscles, planting firmly into the floor and lengthening away from it in equal opposition for full body strengthening.

Beach Feb 2015.26

Chaturanga Dandasana
– Slowly lower from high plank to chaturanga by first bending at the elbows and focusing on drawing the elbows in against the sides of the body as you lower. (This is a great example of listening to your body, as some bodies may need to modify by moving the elbows slightly away given their unique skeletal structure.)
– Engage the core, flex your feet and push through the heels to engage your hamstrings and lengthen the legs away from the hips. Set your gaze slightly in front of you to straighten your neck and cervical vertebrae for a straight spine.
– As you build arm strength, you will be able to lower more slowly, hold this posture, and even push back up into high plank for a yogi push-up. Using your breath to guide this movement makes it much easier, by pressing up on a strong, deep inhalation and slowly lowering down with a deep exhale. (Trust me, it helps a lot.)

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Vasisthasana/Side Plank (with advanced modifications)
– The secret to holding this posture is core strength. Lift your hips away from the ground and lengthen the spine. Flex your bum and hamstrings, and lift your lower body up while pushing away through the feet.
– Widen your fingers and press firmly through the hand grounded into the floor. (Remember, the ring finger rule!) Once you’ve found this stability, draw your other arm up and lengthen away from the body, gently pulling your torso in opposite directions. (To start, it’s helpful to rest your arm on your hip to lift into the posture and work towards lengthening through the fingertips, only once you’re firmly grounded and comfortable in the basic posture.)
– *This posture has recently been scientifically proven to reverse sclerosis by practicing for 15 sec.  or more per day on the side with the spinal curvature.

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– Once you’ve mastered side plank in it’s conventional form (above), begin to play with movement and test your strength and stability by trying these variations:

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– Remember to utilize your core by lifting from the hips for stability, and flex the foot using the heel to guide movement of your free leg while strongly engaging the leg muscles. You may rest the foot above or below the knee to hold this posture, but do not rest your foot or put any pressure directly on your inner knee in this posture. 
– Maintaining the opposite force of pressing down and drawing up through the fingers and wrist is also key to maintaining upper body power and stability in this posture.
– Head and neck positioning is really unimportant in this posture, as long as you’re comfortable and not straining or holding tension in these places. Gazing up and through the finger tips is a popular choice for an added balancing challenge.

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– Fully engage your leg and slowly reach your foot up and away from your body through the heel, while maintaining upper body stability.

One-armed dog push-up’s
– Lower from downward-facing dog into a position similar to high plank (except here, it’s okay if your bum sticks up in the air a bit). Lift one foot off the ground and lengthen your leg away from you by flexing the foot and lengthening through the heel.

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– Bend at the elbows, and draw your arms alongside your body (for stability). Lower the forehead towards the ground while lengthening your leg further away from your body through the heel.

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– Lower fully down in an upper body chaturanga with your forehead on the floor and your leg still raised and pushing away from the body through the heel.

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– Raise back up, pressing firmly through the hands on a deep inhalation, keeping the elbows slightly bent and held tightly alongside the body with leg raised. (Returning to original ‘one-armed dog’ posture)
– Repeat 10, 20, 30+ times, switch legs and completed on the opposite side. (In a recent workshop, we were asked to do 50 of these on each side, in unison. There was a 60+ year old woman beside me who killed it. Time to give it a try?)

Intermediate/Advanced: Upward Bow or Wheel Pose Push-up’s
– For intermediate to advanced practitioners only, this posture becomes much easier once a solid foundation of arm strength is gained.
– First, lay on your back with your knees bent and your feet firmly planted on the floor. Bending your elbows and pressing your palms into the ground behind your head, push firmly into wheel pose while engaging the core to stabilize the spine. (See link above for more detailed instructions.)

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– Find a comfortable position in wheel pose by walking your feet in towards your hands and always keeping a micro bend in your elbows as well as your knees. (Did you catch it? I’m missing my micro bend below! This creates instability and undo pressure at the joints which can cause bone degradation and nerve damage over time. So keep that bend!)

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– Bend your elbows and gently lower the top (crown) of your head to the floor. Just like in chaturanga, be sure to draw the elbows in toward the body rather than letting them splay out and away, to maintain stability of your joints.
– Once your head is planted on the floor, push firmly through the feet and lift the hips up through the core. Move your hands slightly back (1 inch) towards your head, allowing brief and gentle pressure to rest on the crown of the head (*advanced practitioners only*), and press back up firmly through the hands into wheel pose, for an inverted yogi push up!
– For beginner and intermediate practitioners who want to give it a try, keep your hands firmly on the ground at all times and lower the head down to the floor before lifting back up for a safer, modified version of the push up.

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Resting Postures* (These are counter postures designed to stretch your muscles in gentle opposition to the work you’ve already done. Feel free to sprinkle these in between your more intense postures, but definitely include them during your post-practice cool down – that is, before you take your well-earned, luxurious Savasana!)

Relaxed Standing Forward Fold
– Grab onto the elbows and release the head and neck to fully relax the neck and spine.
– Press firmly through the feet and legs, but keep a micro bend in your knee to alleviate undo pressure to your joints.
– Gently hang here, releasing any remaining tension in your upper body and allowing your autonomic nervous system to kick in, sending ‘feel good,’ relaxation-inducing hormones to your brain. (This happens anytime you lower your head below your heart. Hence, why EMT’s have patients lower their head between their legs following an accident.)

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Knees to Chest Pose
– Gently wrap the arms around the knees, drawing the knees into the chest. Grab onto your fingers, wrists, or elbows, whatever is most comfortable for you. Hug your knees in and rest here (remembering to maintain your deep breathing).
– Hold for 30 seconds – 1 min., with or without rolling gently side to side, if this feels good to help loosen up tight hips.

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Reclining Bound Angle Pose
– Bring the soles of your feet together, and allow your knees to relax towards the floor and your hips to gently open. If you feel any tension or discomfort in your knees, move your feet further away from your body (1 foot away, or more) until you find a comfortable position.
– Allow your arms and shoulders to relax, turning your palms upward. Draw your arms alongside your body, place them farther away or let them rest above your head; whatever is most comfortable for you in the moment.

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Namaste ❤

Photo Credit: A big thanks to my photographer, Matt Annese! Check out more of his work here.

Hey, Good Lookin’

Early on in my teenage years, I received some valuable advice. While hanging at a (guy) friend’s house, he mentioned that his older sister was obsessed with losing weight. He relayed: “My mom says it doesn’t matter what the scale says, it matters how you feel.” As an impressionable 16-year-old, I could only assume his mother’s words were true. Regardless of why this mantra has stuck with me, I am ever grateful to have had it as I entered the age [or rather, decade] of body image and weight-obsession, myself.

Easier said than done – and for better or worse – I’ve always tried to let how I feel lead me. In the realm of weight loss, it’s interesting to note that we all have days when we feel gorgeous and sexy in our favorite size 6 jeans, and others when we loathe ourselves for wearing the same pair. I’d be willing to bet that on those days when you don’t feel good enough, it’s about the number – on the scale, at the store, or in comparison to others – or a reflection of how you’re feeling in other aspects of your life – you flunked a quiz, got in a fight with your boyfriend, or got blown off by your best friend. One negative thought, or instance, breeds many. (See Discovering Your Genius(!)) And it’s easiest to take all this negativity out on ourselves. If only I were thinner, more toned, had longer hair, were a smaller size. Then maybe I’d date that guy, go to that party, or nail that interview. But on those days when you’re feeling good, when all things are going your way, and you rock that size 6 like the hottest bitch in the club…nothing can touch you. And you don’t need a size 2, or anyone else to validate that you can do and be everything you want. What does this tell us? Another mantra I like to revisit in my own journey of up’s and down’s certainly applies here: It’s already in you. When you find yourself looking outside to feel better about yourself – to other people or to the scale – remember, that high you’ve felt before is always in you and nowhere else. (Although, speaking from experience, you may go broke and crazy searching…) It’s just up to us, when the low’s come around, to resist, remind, and rekindle the positivity within ourselves. Nothing else will do. Because, it’s all already in you.

So, with this in mind, I don’t like to spend much time dwelling on weight loss. If you’re happy, at any size, that’s all that matters. I also believe that the journey of weight loss is very personal. No one can do it for you. It can’t be bottled, or put in a pill. It has to be yours and ideally, to be successful, it should be full of activities you enjoy and foods you love. (Pick your poison – What new activity will you fall in love with? Yoga, hiking, kick-boxing, running, zumba, biking – there’s no wrong way, just your way.) As for eating, I believe maintaining a healthy weight without the drama (i.e. constant up’s and down’s of dieting) requires opening your heart and head to a lifestyle change, and learning about food. We’re bombarded with conflicting messages from the media, advertisements, documentaries, and Michelle Obama, advising us on the best approach to a healthy diet. But, I’ve found, when we simply go back to basics, eating well is easy – and intuitive. (Again, it’s already in you!)

First, I suggest getting in the habit of reading the ingredients of the foods you eat. I guarantee we spend more time researching our next big purchase, which movie to see on Saturday, or something about your Fantasy Football team (…trying to be gender neutral here, but that’s all I got), than thinking about the food we put into our bodies. The food we eat is directly responsible for fueling us throughout the day and protecting us from illness, now and as we age. Food also has the power to dictate our moods, energy levels, and even how much we break out, on a daily basis. (Pimples be gone!) You don’t need to put anything back on the shelf – not yet, anyway – but just read and acquaint yourself with what you’re putting in your body. It only takes a second. As you go, you may find that the ingredients listed in certain products, by certain brands, or at certain stores, please you the most. And remember, food is love – you deserve only the best (or the more horrid homage: your body is not a garbage can), and the better you eat, the ones you love will soon follow. [Side note: I have a huge crush on Trader Joe’s, but even there – read the labels! You’ll be surprised what you’ll find.]

My other big rule for healthy living (aka feeling good!) is: learn to cook. Ahh, I can hear the groans from cyber space, but wait just a second before I’m dismissed. I didn’t grow up loving to cook, and it wasn’t a big part of my up-bringing. But when I started living on my own, and wanted to control my weight – and reduce the anxiety I felt in finding something “healthy” among the greasy pubs and food trucks of Boston (however, delicious on occasion!) – I taught myself to cook. Here’s the thing, we’re all busy. I actually, really do believe that you have no time. I feel you, completely. But, I don’t believe you would say “Under no circumstances, will I ever cook for myself.” So I suggest, and challenge you, to create your own conditions. Under what circumstances, would you like to cook. (“Like” is important here – if you don’t enjoy the process, or the results, you won’t keep doing it. It has to be fun, and delicious!) Maybe it’s easiest for you to pack a lunch and snacks for work the night before, or the morning of. Maybe you’d prefer to cook yourself a big meal every couple days and keep the leftovers for lunches. (You can always get creative and jazz them up each time. For example, grilled chicken breast = dinner yesterday, buffalo chicken salad today, and Asian rice bowl tomorrow!) Find things you like to eat that are easy “go-to’s” for when you’re tired or feeling stuck. Under what circumstances would you brown bag it tomorrow? (Maybe buying yourself a rad new lunch bag would get you inspired.) As a loyal BYOL-er for many years, I’ll tell you it’s cooler than you’d think. Impressing people with leftovers has never been easier, in the age of $5 all you eat buffets. But the point is – Food is love. And once you start learning about the food you eat and cooking (some of) your own meals, you’ll discover you’re feeling better – you have less anxiety over what to eat and what you’re eating, more energy, fewer pimples, and more confidence because – Damn, you cooked that yourself?!

I recently received the following info-graphic for “Plus-Size Yoga” and wanted to share it with all of you. No matter your pant size – now or down the road – yoga is good for you. It feeds your physical body and psychological being in ways that allow you to feel better – crave healthier foods, have more energy, lose weight and live longer. This graphic does a great job at explaining some of the scientifically proven, medical benefits of a regular yoga practice, demonstrating specific postures which have real benefits for everyone, at all sizes. (Photo Credit and a BIG “Thanks” to Aldo Baker and Alight for spreading the word!)

I’ll check back in soon with my take on “juice cleansing” as a self-proclaimed once-a-day juicer and former juice bar employee (+ my own recipe for at-home juicing!). There’s no better place to take on the craze than out here in L.A. – I look forward to sharing what I’ve found!

Rock on,
Amy

plus-size-yoga

 

Hey, Good Lookin'

Early on in my teenage years, I received some valuable advice. While hanging at a (guy) friend’s house, he mentioned that his older sister was obsessed with losing weight. He relayed: “My mom says it doesn’t matter what the scale says, it matters how you feel.” As an impressionable 16-year-old, I could only assume his mother’s words were true. Regardless of why this mantra has stuck with me, I am ever grateful to have had it as I entered the age [or rather, decade] of body image and weight-obsession, myself.

Easier said than done – and for better or worse – I’ve always tried to let how I feel lead me. In the realm of weight loss, it’s interesting to note that we all have days when we feel gorgeous and sexy in our favorite size 6 jeans, and others when we loathe ourselves for wearing the same pair. I’d be willing to bet that on those days when you don’t feel good enough, it’s about the number – on the scale, at the store, or in comparison to others – or a reflection of how you’re feeling in other aspects of your life – you flunked a quiz, got in a fight with your boyfriend, or got blown off by your best friend. One negative thought, or instance, breeds many. (See Discovering Your Genius(!)) And it’s easiest to take all this negativity out on ourselves. If only I were thinner, more toned, had longer hair, were a smaller size. Then maybe I’d date that guy, go to that party, or nail that interview. But on those days when you’re feeling good, when all things are going your way, and you rock that size 6 like the hottest bitch in the club…nothing can touch you. And you don’t need a size 2, or anyone else to validate that you can do and be everything you want. What does this tell us? Another mantra I like to revisit in my own journey of up’s and down’s certainly applies here: It’s already in you. When you find yourself looking outside to feel better about yourself – to other people or to the scale – remember, that high you’ve felt before is always in you and nowhere else. (Although, speaking from experience, you may go broke and crazy searching…) It’s just up to us, when the low’s come around, to resist, remind, and rekindle the positivity within ourselves. Nothing else will do. Because, it’s all already in you.

So, with this in mind, I don’t like to spend much time dwelling on weight loss. If you’re happy, at any size, that’s all that matters. I also believe that the journey of weight loss is very personal. No one can do it for you. It can’t be bottled, or put in a pill. It has to be yours and ideally, to be successful, it should be full of activities you enjoy and foods you love. (Pick your poison – What new activity will you fall in love with? Yoga, hiking, kick-boxing, running, zumba, biking – there’s no wrong way, just your way.) As for eating, I believe maintaining a healthy weight without the drama (i.e. constant up’s and down’s of dieting) requires opening your heart and head to a lifestyle change, and learning about food. We’re bombarded with conflicting messages from the media, advertisements, documentaries, and Michelle Obama, advising us on the best approach to a healthy diet. But, I’ve found, when we simply go back to basics, eating well is easy – and intuitive. (Again, it’s already in you!)

First, I suggest getting in the habit of reading the ingredients of the foods you eat. I guarantee we spend more time researching our next big purchase, which movie to see on Saturday, or something about your Fantasy Football team (…trying to be gender neutral here, but that’s all I got), than thinking about the food we put into our bodies. The food we eat is directly responsible for fueling us throughout the day and protecting us from illness, now and as we age. Food also has the power to dictate our moods, energy levels, and even how much we break out, on a daily basis. (Pimples be gone!) You don’t need to put anything back on the shelf – not yet, anyway – but just read and acquaint yourself with what you’re putting in your body. It only takes a second. As you go, you may find that the ingredients listed in certain products, by certain brands, or at certain stores, please you the most. And remember, food is love – you deserve only the best (or the more horrid homage: your body is not a garbage can), and the better you eat, the ones you love will soon follow. [Side note: I have a huge crush on Trader Joe’s, but even there – read the labels! You’ll be surprised what you’ll find.]

My other big rule for healthy living (aka feeling good!) is: learn to cook. Ahh, I can hear the groans from cyber space, but wait just a second before I’m dismissed. I didn’t grow up loving to cook, and it wasn’t a big part of my up-bringing. But when I started living on my own, and wanted to control my weight – and reduce the anxiety I felt in finding something “healthy” among the greasy pubs and food trucks of Boston (however, delicious on occasion!) – I taught myself to cook. Here’s the thing, we’re all busy. I actually, really do believe that you have no time. I feel you, completely. But, I don’t believe you would say “Under no circumstances, will I ever cook for myself.” So I suggest, and challenge you, to create your own conditions. Under what circumstances, would you like to cook. (“Like” is important here – if you don’t enjoy the process, or the results, you won’t keep doing it. It has to be fun, and delicious!) Maybe it’s easiest for you to pack a lunch and snacks for work the night before, or the morning of. Maybe you’d prefer to cook yourself a big meal every couple days and keep the leftovers for lunches. (You can always get creative and jazz them up each time. For example, grilled chicken breast = dinner yesterday, buffalo chicken salad today, and Asian rice bowl tomorrow!) Find things you like to eat that are easy “go-to’s” for when you’re tired or feeling stuck. Under what circumstances would you brown bag it tomorrow? (Maybe buying yourself a rad new lunch bag would get you inspired.) As a loyal BYOL-er for many years, I’ll tell you it’s cooler than you’d think. Impressing people with leftovers has never been easier, in the age of $5 all you eat buffets. But the point is – Food is love. And once you start learning about the food you eat and cooking (some of) your own meals, you’ll discover you’re feeling better – you have less anxiety over what to eat and what you’re eating, more energy, fewer pimples, and more confidence because – Damn, you cooked that yourself?!

I recently received the following info-graphic for “Plus-Size Yoga” and wanted to share it with all of you. No matter your pant size – now or down the road – yoga is good for you. It feeds your physical body and psychological being in ways that allow you to feel better – crave healthier foods, have more energy, lose weight and live longer. This graphic does a great job at explaining some of the scientifically proven, medical benefits of a regular yoga practice, demonstrating specific postures which have real benefits for everyone, at all sizes. (Photo Credit and a BIG “Thanks” to Aldo Baker and Alight for spreading the word!)

I’ll check back in soon with my take on “juice cleansing” as a self-proclaimed once-a-day juicer and former juice bar employee (+ my own recipe for at-home juicing!). There’s no better place to take on the craze than out here in L.A. – I look forward to sharing what I’ve found!

Rock on,
Amy

plus-size-yoga