Q: What does five years of Ashtanga Primary, home practice only, do to one middle-aged woman’s spine?

I’ve done some previous State of the Backbend posts (2011, 2012, 2013) so some of these photos have shown up on the blog before.  But I haven’t done one in a while. Today’s post is the year five installment.

A bit of backstory to catch-up any newcomers:  I started Ashtanga in the summer of 2009 when I was 38.  I started because I got a sore throat and found that I couldn’t gargle because I couldn’t tip my head back far enough.   This totally freaked me out.  I couldn’t look at the ceiling?  Seriously?!  Thus the yoga.  The fact that I ended up doing Ashtanga was a bit of random hit—Primary was a routine when my biggest question when I got onto my new mat was “what do I do?”  Ashtanga offered an answer.

In 2009 I had zero backwards mobility in my spine.  For example, I couldn’t do an Up Dog—I had to do this kind of baby cobra instead.  Just lying flat on my back on the floor felt like a backbend.  Maybe this was the result of years of nursing, all curled forward, holding my babies.  My spine felt like cement.

But listen, this isn’t a miracle story, okay?  I have not made kapotasana my bitch.  Temper your expectations.  Never the less, in my gentle, no-adjustments, no-shala, no teacher, kind of way, progress has been made.

Let’s take a look.  This first shot is after one year of practice.  I could look up at the ceiling!  Yay!

hangback July 2010July 2010

Six months later….

hangback Jan 2011Jan 2011

Three months after that…

backbendspring2011

April 2011

Four more months… A watched pot doesn’t boil very fast, does it?

hangback Aug 2012Aug 2012

But still, from the start, that’s some steady progress, yes?

However, six months jump again…and it stalls.  The next one is less bend, but I was trying to get more upper-back bend and less lower-back cranking.  More arch, less fold-at-the-lumbar.  If you look at the 2012 pic, my upper back is still rounded forward quite a bit.  In the 2013 pic, I was trying for more upper back curve.

hangback Feb 2013Feb 2013

And then, for a long time, nothing seemed to change.  I didn’t take any pictures because shifts of millimeters just don’t show up in a photo, and it was depressing.

But, finally, yesterday, a year and half since that last photo, here I am:

hangback July 2014 July 2014

 Hey!  Some progress!  Not only can I see the ceiling, I can see the wall behind me now, haha.  So that’s something.

Okay, now Urdhva Dhanurasana.

When I first started trying UD, I couldn’t do it at all.  So I would stretch out over an exercise ball.  This was the first day I could put my hands on the floor, eight months into practice.

backbend April 2010April 2010

Those first attempts were really terrible….and uncomfortable!  My arms are bent at near right angles!  And so are my knees.  It’s a mess.

backbend May 2010

May 2010

But slowly my arms straightened out a bit.  Three months later:

backbend Aug 2011August 2011

Six months later….

backbend feb 2012Feb 2012

My hands are still way in front of my face, but it’s looking more like a UD now.  This next one is after nearly three years of practice.

backbend June 2012June 2012

I could hold them a bit longer at this point.  Meaning, from five desperate seconds (ha!) to maybe 10, slightly less panicked, seconds.

backbend feb 2013Feb 2013

And then…very little change.  For a long time.  Those early days when change happens so fast—it’s so motivating!  Long periods of mostly-the-same, man, those are harder.  (And hey, what’s with that baggy shirt?  Ugh.)

But here I am yesterday:

backbend July 2014July 2014

Not bad! Seeing this picture, I realized, hey, there has been some movement.  My hands are nearly under my head now, not out in front of my face the way they were last year.  My legs are quite a bit straighter.  And the arch is more evenly distributed, with my butt closer to half way between my feet and hands, instead of crunched over on the foot side.  So that’s good.

On the other hand, I haven’t gotten nearly as far as I fantasized I would after five freaking years.  Maybe it’s being 43 now, maybe its because I’m on my own, no teacher.  I wanted to be omnipotent by now!

But hey, barring that, I’m relieved that I wasn’t just treading water the last eighteen months.

Slow—very slow, perhaps—but I’m a far cry from where I started.   Millimeter by millimeter, the body opens up.  The tortoise wins the race.

And hey, if I make no further progress, but stay right here for the next twenty years…that would be a fine backbend for a 63 year old.

(But I might get a little more bend out of my spine, yet.)

Finally, it wouldn’t be a backbend post without a shot of my gorgeous and bendy photographer, Sophie, 10, who popped into this backbend cold, just for fun.

sophie backbend 2014

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Luc, 8, has never cut his hair.  As in never.  The fringe ends of his hair are the baby fuzz he was born with.

luc hair 1

His hair has grown down to his cute little butt now and is this gorgeous golden yellow.  It’s amazing.  I covet it, I do.  It’s my shameful secret.

luc hair 4

Here’s a totally bizarre fact: he never washes it.  Seriously!  Maybe once a year or if he spills food into it.  Before you call social services, please look at these pictures—he does not have dirty, greasy looking hair.  I have no idea why.  (And he does bathe the rest of himself daily, in case you were wondering.  I’m just saying.)

He hated, hated, to have me wash his hair as a baby, so I would only do it when it looked dirty.  But then it almost never looked dirty so I’d just remember suddenly that it had been a long time, and I would guiltily subject him to a washing….but the interval between washings stretched and stretched until I realized it had been months and still his hair didn’t look dirty, so….why were we washing it again?  I swear, it’s like the Bermuda Triangle or how the Egyptians built the pyramids.  His hair always looks like a million bucks with no effort on his part at all.

He does swim almost every day in the summer, so it gets rinsed in pond water four months out of the year….

luc hair 5

See?  Mermaid hair!  IT’S SO UNFAIR.

He usually wears it in a braid.  That is, I usually braid it for him.  I’m the hair wench.  Don’t tell anybody, but I kind of love doing this, playing with the pretty hair.  I fear the day when he’s all, “Mom, I can braid my own hair, sheesh.”  It’s coming all too soon.

luc hair 7

If you watch Adventure Time (you should! It’s cool!) you might remember the very first time young hero Finn removed his white bear hat.  It was season 2, ep 10, so had been a long time that we’d only seen Finn in the hat…long enough to forget that it was indeed a hat, and therefore removable.  And then suddenly he whips it off and:

When we saw that we all, literally, jumped up shouting, “It’s Luc!  It’s Luc’s hair!!”

Finn is a bad-ass adventurer, a boy of great bravery, mad sword skills, and long, flowing, yellow hair.  There is also Thor, with his abs, his hammer, and his long, flowing yellow hair.  You don’t get more manly than Thor.  (See here for our first realization that LUC IS THOR.)

thor with hairNot as long and magical as Luc’s, but still pretty.  I’d braid it for him.

It might be due partly to Finn and Thor, but Luc has zero worries about having “girly” hair.  It never crosses his mind.  Has has BAD-ASS HEROIC HAIR and he knows it.

Despite this, the probability that someone will assume Luc is a girl when we are out is nearly 100%.  I’ve even had people question me when I correct them, as if I  might not know for sure, or possibly they think I think they are referring to some other kid.  Nope, he really is a guy!  A guy’s guy!  He has a weapons locker the size of a house, about a hundred toy dinosaurs, he wears boxers, and he will happily discuss who will win in a fight with any pairing you can imagine for hours.

And hey, I’m not saying that boys have to do these things or that girls can’t or won’t…I’m just saying that in all other culturally common gender markers, my little dude is, well, a dude.

A polite, “Actually, he’s a boy,” from me, or, “Actually, I’m a boy,” from him, and most people catch on quick and feel embarrassed they’ve gotten it wrong (no need, it’s a common mistake).  But some people really can’t grok it.  “This kid right here, this is a boy?” Incredulous looks. “Yes.  This is Luc, my son.  He is a boy.”

Other times we just shrug and let him be a girl in their mind long enough to check out at the register or whatever….

Luc is un-phased by this.  He really seems confident in his own masculinity.  He’s like, whatever.  I know I’m a boy.  Why should I care what they think?  He’s so cool.

The second thing people say is, “How long are you going to let him go like that?” or maybe “I could never let my son do that” or even, “I cried when I cut my son’s hair.”  To which I always reply, “It’s his hair.  His choice.”  Seriously!  It’s his body!  He can do what he wants to with his own hair. I’m shocked at how many people feel the need to control their kid’s bodies to this degree.  Hair is not a big deal.  It’s his hair.  He gets to pick.

I mean, if, say, my husband, made me cut my hair into the shape he felt was appropriate, I can tell you right now, I would NOT be thinking, “wow, we have such a great relationship.”  So why would I do that my kid, who I want to have a great relationship with?

The third most common thing people ask is, “doesn’t it get in his way?”

No.

luc hair 6

Unless you live in a place where conformity is a life or death sort of issue, hair is just this protein that grows out of your scalp.  Sometimes it is amazing and gorgeous like Luc’s—he won the hair lottery, for sure—and sometimes it’s little frizzy wisps like mine (SOB).  Maybe he’ll shave his head, or dread it, or mohawk it, or color it, or get a super conservative Normal-Guy cut.  Or all of these at different times.  It’s his hair.  He’ll have his reasons.  That’s fine with me.  I have had my reasons for doing all of these things with my thin, curly, scalp protein, at various times in my life, too.

Luc’s dad, SuperCoolHusband, had butt-length black hair when I met him.  It was hot.  Like, Native American day-um kind of hot.  He cut it when he got a real job after college.  I cried.  I still have it, the hair, in a box in my filing cabinet.

One day Luc will cut his.  I’ll probably cry then, too.  I wonder if he’ll let me keep it?  (Or he might have a partner-to-be by then who gets dibs?)

Moral of the story:  The rules lie!  Boys can have long pretty hair and be bad-asses.  Parents can support kids in having the appearance they want.  Heck you don’t even have to wash your hair, and I thought that last one was a truism.  But nope.

thor and loki

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Linky linky post!  Here, have a look at some of the tabs sitting open on my browser.  There’s some super cool shit out there, and that’s ain’t no lie.

For example, my twitter feed today served up self described sex scientist, Emily Nagoski PhD doing an all day Q&A answering all the questions about sex you can think of.  She is awesome, the  “sex nerd” who delivers Actual Science instead of the usual garbage on the myth<—>bullshit continuum that you tend to get when looking for real info about sex.  Go check it out! I’m curious what questions are going to come through…

I am waaaaaaay too bitter and cynical to enjoy things like this next video and yeah, the first 30 seconds were making that wounded, sardonic part of me cringe.  But I kept watching it because a friend sent it to me and INSISTED and WOW, wait till you get to the dancing!  I really loved this thing by the end!  I might have even—wait, I’ve got something in my eye.  Shut up.

On the yoga front, here is the phenomenal and beautiful Laruga, an ashtangi whose blog I’ve read for years, doing a rock star yoga video, wow.  Her practice is so smooth, so pretty, and she is SO STRONG.

On the other side of the effort scale, Have you heard about the potato salad kickstarter?  Nearly $50,000 bucks and counting?  I kind of love it, it’s like a palliative for all the kickstarters I’ve looked at—good ones, too, this isn’t exactly a complaint—that talk about how amazing, world changing, life altering, and numinous their project is (or will be, if you fund it).  Sometimes we can’t do the amazing.  Sometimes we can just make potato salad.  Apparently a lot of other people enjoy the whimsical as well, because the thing has gone ballistic, shocking the heck out of its creator.

Oh, I also ran across this wonderful, kick-in-the-pants essay, The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You, which I think has made the rounds, but it was new to me, so I’m posting it. Sometimes a slap across the face with a raw fish is what you need to wake you up.  Or is that just me?

cosmos

That essay, in a round about way, got us watching  Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey which is FREAKING AWESOME.  It’s the updated, ramped up, 2014 version of the old Carl Sagan Cosmos, and it is blow your mind stuff.  Highly recommended. Makes me wish we had a bigger tv.

And now, I’m heading off to walk Henry.  Have a good weekend!  I’ll leave you with this, because we all need inspiration sometimes to be our better selves:

holyshitthatwasawesome

 

I’m totally getting a copy of this when I do an amazon.jp order (I also have my eye on the gorgeous Mushishi aizoban artbooks, watercolor paintings of one of my most favorite manga/anime characters of all time, it caaaalls to me in my sleeeeeeep….but the shipping, man, it’s a bitch).

Hilarious! And such a needed bit of knowledge in language learning.

I think this book would be useful either way, Japanese to English or the other way around. Swearing is so important to understand!  It’s everywhere, and it isn’t taught. And swearing is awesome. Actually, I adore swearing, it’s my most favorite vice, right up there with chocolate and quickies. I’m interested and amazed when people get super offended (like, really, seriously upset) by swearing, that is, making this set of sounds versus that set of sounds (which we do, of course, by squirting air through our meat)(from “Meat,” possibly my most favorite SF short story ever). Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, but I love the power of words.

creativecursingBonus round!  For a fun and informative (it’s educational!) look at the etymology of English swear words, I highly recommend Expletive Deleted by Ruth Wajnryb.  And for maximum swearing hilarity you simply must check out Creative Cursing by Sarah Royal and Jillian Panarese. You will wet yourself.

And for an essay I wrote on swearing, that I totally forgot that I wrote (which is scary), but just found by accident looking for something else on my own blog (aging sucks), go here.  I just (re)read it and thoroughly enjoyed it, so maybe you will too.  Good to know I can entertain myself, at least.

 

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I have been blessed with matcha bounty.  Seriously, it’s coming out of the woodwork, I’ve got to drink tea faster.  And since Sophie and I had so much fun with our first Matcha Smackdown, clearly it is time for a second.  Let the drinking (of tea) begin!  WOOT.

Here are today’s contenders:

matcha taste test

Such pretty little tins.  Here’s the list from left to right:

From O-cha, Kiku Mukashi ($20 + shipping for 30 grams).  From Maiko teas, Matsu no Midori ($20 + shipping for 40 grams).  From Itoen teas, Koto no Tsuki, ($20 + locally bought so no shipping for 20 grams).  And from ZenMatcha, their “Premium” tea ($19 + shipping for 20 grams).

Actually there was one more that we added half-way through (so it missed the initial photoshoot), the O-cha Kiri no Mori ($14 + shipping for 30 grams).

matcha taste test 4

The Kiku Mukashi was my first purchase (as I reviewed first here) with just enough left in the tin to participate in today’s face off, the other O-cha my second purchase.  The Maiko I got to be my “next tea” when that was gone.  But then I stumbled upon a local tea shop where they had the Itoen tea, three days past it’s freshness date so they sold it to me for half off, $10, couldn’t say no to that!  And then Eric Newman over at ZenMatcha sent me a tin of his best matcha for review, very cool Eric!  Thank you!

Time to make tea.

matcha taste test 6

In the name of Science, I made each bowl of tea with 1/2 teaspoon of sifted matcha (using a measuring spoon instead of the little bamboo hook thingy that came with my whisk) and heated the water to 170 degrees.

matcha taste test 3

Aren’t Sophie’s wheelthrown bowls lovely?  She’s 10, by the way.  She rocks.

Anyway, Sophie and I took turns keeping our eyes closed and tasting the teas while the other one took notes.  As with our first test, she and I seemed to have the same preferences/experiences.  Except that in our first test, the two teas seemed noticeably different from each other, whereas with this group of teas, there was much more similarity.  Towards the end, we also roped SuperCoolHusband into the test. He is a total matcha virgin, so this was his first hit.

Blind, we described the Itoen as very sweet, mild, mellow, “I can drink this all day.”  No bitterness at all.  Round.  Smooth.  Lots of what I think is what they’re talking about when they talk about the umami, this interesting yum-factor that makes me smack my lips and make a spontaneous “mmm!”  A hint of sugar snap peas.

We described the Maiko as sweet, slightly grassy.  It reminded Sophie a little bit of that green, hay-like scent that henna has.  Maybe what I’m going for is a bit of seaweed flavor, not unpleasant, just a little stronger.  No bitterness, mild, with that hint of greenness in the center of the flavor.  Lots of umami.

The O-cha Kiku was very similar to the Itoen only perhaps more mild.  Mellow, sweet, a fresh green flavor.  Lovely umami.  Less grassy than the Maiko, a touch yummier, maybe.  Hubby said this one was richer than the others.

The ZenMatcha, had a stronger flavor.  Some bitterness, a bit harsh.  Definitely good, but next to some of these others, not as sweet, not as…luscious, whatever that thing is that matcha can have, that complex yumminess inside the flavor.  It was easy to tell this one apart from the others whereas with the other three, I really wasn’t sure which one she had given me.

The O-cha Kiri no Mori was the mildest, easy to drink, even for the virgin.  A bit less complex.  Very nice.  A simpler flavor but not overly so.

Overall Itoen stood out slightly as the sweetest and…roundest.  What IS that flavor in the center of the flavor, that round, interesting, magic flavor in great green tea?  If I had to rank them by that flavor/experience/thing/umami then I would say the Itoen had the most, then the Kiku, then the Maiko, then the ZenMatcha, then the Kiri.

matcha taste test 2

So much delicious tea!  After we did several rounds with straight tea, we added a bit of stevia and some cream and finished the bowls off.  We were quite buzzed after we had downed it all.

Final verdict, the Itoen was Sophie’s favorite straight.  The ZenMatcha was quite nice with a few drops of stevia and a splash of cream—it’s stronger flavor wasn’t washed out by the additions, but it was a bit bitter for me on its own.  The Maiko, delicious on its own, stood up a bit better with the cream and stevia also, that smoky, grassy flavor cutting through the additions.  For me, the Itoen was amazing with cream and stevia, like the richest, mellowest, most complex green tea ice cream flavor.  But it was hard to tell the difference between the Itoen or the Kiku, and either could be my daily bowl of heaven.  I would probably choose the Maiko if I wanted more of the matcha flavor, a grassier flavor kick, and the Itoen if I wanted a smoother, sweeter brew.  The Kiku is somewhere in between.

How about by price?

The Itoen and the ZenMatcha are the most expensive at $1.00 / gram (not including any shipping since I didn’t pay any shipping for these, you should do your own math with your own shipping to get your per-bowl cost).  A gram is about how much is used in one bowl of tea (1 gram or about 1/2 a teaspoon), so a dollar a bowl.

The O-cha Kiku is in the middle, price-wise at $.83 /gram.  (price includes my shipping of $4)

The Maiko is quite affordable at $.63 a gram  (price includes $4 shipping).  Remember that the Maiko came in a 40g tin where the Itoen and ZenMatcha are in 20g tins, O-cha in a 30g tin.  I’d say the Maido is probably the best bang for the buck. [Edited: it looks like the price of the Maiko has gone up since I bought mine, from $20 + shipping to $23 + shipping.]

The least expensive is the O-cha Kiri, at $.48 a gram (price includes $4 shipping).  Although it wasn’t as rich and complex a flavor, the Kiri really held its own against tea that was twice as expensive.  You could tell the diff, but it was no slouch.

I feel like I’m splitting hairs a bit.  At least with the Itoen, Maiko, and Kiku, they were all luscious, delicious tea, sweet with no sweetener added, slight differences in flavor, sweetness, and mellowness, and grassiness, but on the whole, very close.  The ZenMatcha stood out from the bunch as a bit bitter, a bit harsher, still nice, but for me needing a little stevia and cream to tone the flavor down a bit.  The Kiri stood out as the most mild.

And that’s it!  I’ve got a lot of tea to drink with all these tins open.  It doesn’t stay fresh for long.  Oh, darn, better go have some right now.  After all of this is gone, I’d like to try some matcha from Ippodo, another shop that comes highly rated.

Traditionally a potent and beautiful sweet is served with matcha.  We didn’t have any of these gorgeous little treats, but we did have…

matcha pocky

Yum!

 

Ah, home Ashtanga practice.  Over time it can take on little quirks and shuffles, habitually repeated and made part of the texture of the routine until one day they become invisible to the practitioner, to me…until I see a “straight” primary again and realize, WHOA.  I’ve kind of, uh, drifted off course.

Some changes start out as the smallest of tweaks, like staying for extra breaths in Up Dog, one of the few backbends that doesn’t trigger my backbend panic.  Or dropping vinyasas on alternate sides, a forgivable sin, maybe, given my prone-to-problem wrists.  Or how about that extra long stay in Baddha Konasana?  GOD I love that pose!  I can get through the three hard ones before it just thinking about the juicy BK coming my way.  I’m not even any good at it!  My knees are six inches off the floor!  I don’t care.  That pose is mine.

But then there are a few poses I love that have been, um, salted into my primary.  Just a few, here and there, guiltily practiced, tucked in where surely no one will notice.  Until I’ve added them in so regularly that they have actually become part of the, my, Primary.

There’s the Reclining Virasana after Triang Mukha Eka Pada Paschimottanasana.  I mean you’re right there, you might as well go for it, right?  Yum.   And that reclining twist after backbending: absolutely necessary.  My spine pops every time.

Oh, and pigeon pose, sandwiched inside the Marichyasanas somewhere.  I started adding that one in when the tops of my feet got over-stretched from lotus and I couldn’t do the Mari’s at all because of pain.  I stuck the pigeons in the Mari’s slot for some hip-opening without foot stretching…and man, I just really grew to like them.  Now my feet are fine, I do all the Mari’s but…the pigeons never left.  First I lay flopped over the bend leg, then do the backbend (another one with no panic! yay!), and then, because I’m right there anyway, I reach back for by bent leg.  Ahhhh, it’s so delicious!

And isn’t it the poses I look forward to that  get me through the hard stretches of the series?  Pleasure is my primary motivator, people, I freely admit it.  Make it feel good, that was one of David Williams’ Number One Lessons.

Speaking of workshops, I’m scared to ever go to another one!  I’d have to practice straight Primary for a month first just to break my off-the-count habits!  Oh the shame of it.

But I really love my practice. Five years this August.  No, I can NOT believe how that time has flown by.

I can’t be the only one who has made Primary a little bit her own?  Like that moment in Kino’s Primary DVD (Kino, my hero!) where she pops up into handstand during the Prasaritas “because it’s fun” ?  Of course I want to add all these reclining poses and she wants to do a handstand, ha.

Some people are such over achievers.

 

Summer is barreling along.  Here is a place we went:

summer 2014 3

The North Carolina Outer Banks, my favorite place in the world.

summer 2014 6

The kids like it, too.  For me its all steeped in nostalgia and I’m constantly saying, “I remember when this stretch was all Live Oaks, before there were any cottages/shops/roads.” Makes me feel old.  But it’s true!  I grew up on the Outer Banks.  It’s changed so much!  I still love it, though.

We’ve also been doing a ton of this:

summer 2014 4

We were such freaking geniuses to have bought property with a pond!  Every summer I feel this way.  Every winter I forget how wonderful a dip in the pond on a hot day is, so that every summer it is a revelation, all over again.  Pond!  Amazing!  Thank the Gods and Turtles for this Pond!

Let’s see, what else?  There have been funny hats:

summer 2014 5

Those are always fun.

Oh, and I’ve been trying to finish this As Of Yet Untitled novel but, honestly, I think its trying to kill me.  I keep poking at it and writing on it and editing but the ending keeps receding like the cockblocking mirage that it is.  Tell me this novel is not a mirage.  This is the longest I’ve spent writing anything, a solid year now with no solid draft yet to show for it.  I’m maybe 80% there.  Gah, I should be working on it right now.

We’ve done a lot of Minecraft, Kirby, and SkyRim.  Sophie and I are learning Photoshop from a million excellent and not so excellent Youtube videos.  I’ve hurt my knee and am waiting for it to heal so I can get back on my bike.  I’m still studying Japanese in my spare moments.  Still practicing yoga, although some mornings I struggle to make myself.  Sipping matcha and reading is so attractive a distraction.

I read from the endless landslide of books that is Oyster, Scribd, Overdrive, plus my guilty Kindle purchases.  Reading and drinking tea is just the best.  Seriously, between those first three, I already have access to enough great reading material to last me the rest of my life, ten times over. It’s overwhelming.  As an author I think, why bother adding anything to that already massive pile?  Then I remember, oh yeah, I can’t help myself.  Writing is a compulsion.  Like scratching.

Oh, and we do the daily one of these:

forest with may apples

Forest walks!  This picture is actually from the Spring, you can tell by all the May Apples and the lacy spring leaves.  Spring already feels like ancient history, doesn’t it?  What with the 100 degree days we’ve been having and the fact that it is almost freaking JULY already.

Seriously, the days whip by so fast, there feels like no time at all to do anything.  I mean, technically its the same amount of time it used to be, right?  Or is there actually some quantum event occurring where time really is speeding up and we’re all dancing our little dances faster and faster, our voices getting higher and squeakier?  What can we do but just try to keep paddling?  Moments are terrific, enjoy the moments as they rush by, make the moments as good as you can.  Be kinder and more generous.  And pay attention!  It’s the only strategy I’ve got right now.

summer 2014

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You know I’m a gadget whore.  So when I got a chance to play around with a Garmin Vivofit fitness tracker, of course, I got to experimenting, starting with several Ashtanga Primary yoga sessions.  This post will start with the Vivofit review, then move to what I found out about my yoga practice.  Proceed as you see fit.  And if you know Primary, definitely scroll down to see the cool graph.

The Vivofit

The Vivofit tracks your movement with an accelerometer (super cool demo of how an accelerometer works) and your heart-rate if you pair it with an ANT heart-rate monitor—which I happened to already have, yay!  Between the two sensors, the device attempts to give you actionable data about your steps taken, distance walked, your sleep, and your daily calorie burn.  I don’t know how they crunch the numbers to come up with all that, but they give it a fair go.  The Vivofit also has some motivational “Move More!” features, like the Bar O’ Shame, as well as software to connect you up with people you know for competitive challenges, etc.  More about that in a minute.

First Steps. I think the whole concept of “steps” is not so much about the actual number of physical steps you take, but more an attempt to quantify movement. This makes some sense as the majority of people’s daily life centers around walking and sitting.  And in the gamification of fitness—which is think is one of the main goals of fitness trackers—moving more is the goal, the Vivofit is a score keeper, and “steps” are the points.  However “steps” aren’t the best or only way, of course, since, for example, cycling, swimming, and yoga (all my kinds of exercise, boo) use no steps, and so don’t get counted.

But steps are what we’ve got.

Having said that, the Vivofit’s counting of steps seems (1) very accurate if striding in a regular manner, as on a walk (100 steps will read as 99 or 100 or 101, or so), (2) accurate-ish if taken in a general sense over the course of a day, and (3) downright terrible if taken over a few minutes of start-and-stop walking as one does in the house while, say, cleaning up, or grocery shopping.  This is especially true if you have a small house (re: yurt) where you (and by you, I mean me) never really take more than seven or eight steps in a row (before coming to a wall) and often less.

The Vivofit also miss-counts if you are a ninja and sneak around a lot.  It is perfectly possible to take a hundred steps lightly and sneakily, and slip past the notice of the Vivofit.  Wake up, Vivofit!  Pay attention!

I think “steps” are best used as a number compared to itself, as in: did I move more or less than yesterday?  What’s my score?  For this, the Vivofit is pretty fun, as long as you don’t sweat the details.

Speaking of steps, let me jump over to one of the motivational features of the Vivofit that I find surprisingly effective: a red bar that appears over your step count if you haven’t moved (taken a registered step) in the last hour.  Oh the shame of it!  I’m surprised at how compelling this shaming is!  Much more than praising, a la fitness trackers that give you an increasing bar showing you how many steps you’ve taken and how close you are to your goal, like a glass of water being filled up as the day progresses.  I’ve found I have no problem ignoring those pat-on-the-back indicators.  (Tracker: “Come on, Maya, you’ve done so well, just a bit more!” Me: “Buggar off.”) but man, that red bar shows up, and I’m up taking Henry on a walk right away.  AH!  The Red Bar!  Quick, Henry, we’ve got to go!

Henry is so confused lately.  “Why are we walking again?” he says with his big brown eyes.  “Didn’t we just do this?”  “Yes, Henry, sorry to interrupt your nap, but there’s this red bar, you see….”

Distance is, I reckon, the Vivofit making a guess based on average stride length times your “steps” score.  Meh.  It’s kind of fun for a second to say, oh, cool, I walked X.Y miles today!  But I have no idea how close it is to reality and I don’t really care.  As with “steps”, it’s more valuable as a comparative than as an absolute value.  If you really want to know how many miles you actually walked, get a GPS watch.  But it’s nice, a bit of psychological lift, giving a physical distance to all those “steps” to try to make them seem more real.

For Sleep, you tell the Vivofit when you’re going to bed by holding down the button past the SYNCH screen and into the SLEEP screen.  You deactivate sleep-mode when you wake up.  While you sleep it tracks your movements…by which you can infer the depth of your sleep, I guess.  I don’t really get much from any of this.  Perhaps if it was really extreme in one direction or the other, lots of movement (“Oh, yeah, I really tossed and turned last night,”) or very little movement (“Slept like a log…”) it would be corroborative, but who cares?  I don’t see how I would use that information for anything, honestly.

Experiment time!  What happens if I sleep with my heart-rate monitor on?  Yes, I did this.  It was cool as far as it went—my heart-rate bobbed around 70 for about an hour and then zoom! shot up to 100 for about fifteen minutes…then back down.  A dream?

Unfortunately, the heartrate monitor quit after 90 minutes.  Maybe the contacts didn’t stay connected?  Bummer.  Maybe I’ll try again.  Duct tape?  No, that’s probably going too far….

Calorie Burn comes next.  The Vivofit gives a guess about calorie burn based on age, weight, and “steps.”  But an accelerometer just gives data about motion, it can’t tell anything about effort.  For example, lifting a feather and lifting a twenty pound weight are basically the same motion, even though one takes more work (and presumably uses more calories).   Same with yoga—holding navasana is nearly zero motion, but some serious effort…and the accelerometer alone can’t detect it.  Add the heart rate monitor, however, and the picture improves.  Now it can tell something about how hard my body is working and, presumably, the calories burned number gets more accurate.

There’s no way for me to know how accurate, of course, but, as with “steps,” it’s probably valuable in relation to itself.  The Vivofit told me last night that the hour of easy biking on the trainer while I watched Veronica Mars burned 400ish calories.  That’s a heck of lot more than it’s telling me I’m burning sitting here typing this.  I mean, duh, I already know that, but putting numbers to it gives it heft and weight and lets me put it on colorful, motivating graphs.

I love colorful, motivating graphs!

Which brings me to the Garmin Connect software.  It works, I haven’t had any problems.   Synching is very easy, either with my ipod 5 or directly to my Macbook.  As for the social part, I couldn’t care less about competing with anyone else or posting my “steps” or activities, etc., so that component doesn’t do anything for me.  But the software does make some nice graphs and pie-charts, for example, the heart-rate graph that I post an example of below.  I like me some graphs.

What would make the Vivofit better for me

Biggest one: if there was a way to pair the Vivofit data with something like LoseIt, an app for tracking calories IN, that would be cool, and much more useful than just the calorie OUT info that the Vivofit offers.  Calories expended is, after all, only half the picture.  It’d be compelling if I had both in one place, with more of those colorful graphs.  Maybe they are working on it.

Second, if there was a way to get some “steps,” that is, some “credit,” some POINTS, for swimming in my pond, riding on my trainer, or doing yoga, that would be a big plus. To have a relatively complete picture of my daily activity, it really has to include these things.  Yes, I can put on my heart-rate monitor for improved calorie tracking during these times (except the swimming), but still.  In the game of Vivofit, I want my points, people.

But here’s what I realized:  I already know I’m active during those times.  After a week on the Vivofit, the All Mighty Graphs have shown me that 30% of my time is spent sleeping (or in bed awake), 10% of my time is spent “lightly active” by which I think it means walking around, and 4-5% or so is “highly active” by which I think it means my heart rate is elevated zone 2 or beyond.  It’s the remaining 50freaking% where I’m sitting on my ass, reading, writing, hanging with the kids, and driving, that could use some attention.

I mean, I do all this active stuff….but that still means I’m 50% sedentary.   Crap!  To the rescue comes the Red Bar O’ Shame and walking Henry or something comparable, once an hour to break up the physical inertia.  As a result, I’m definitely moving more.  And possibly upping the amount of low-level daily motion is, in some ways, more valuable than increasing the intensity of the hour or two a day I spend exercising.

A few bits and bobs.  The Vivofit doesn’t need to be charged!  Big Plus!  It runs on a coin battery, which should last a year.  Also, it’s water proof, so you can swim/bathe in it.  These two together mean you really can pretty much put it on and leave it on.  It’s a watch, too, so that’s useful.

It doesn’t have a backlight, which might bother some.  For me it’s irrelevant.  The only time I’m in the dark is when I’m sleeping and I don’t need to know my step count then.

Bottomline: For tracking actual hard-data numbers for various activities, the Vivofit is pretty bad.  But for addressing that sedentary 50% and getting me moving more during those non-exercising, sedentary parts of my day, the Vivofit is pretty good.

Having written that, I can’t help but think of people who do physical labor for subsistence living and I imagine how NUTS this whole thing must seem to them.  Rich, fat Americans wear devices on their wrists to remind them to moveWhaaaat?  Yeah.  We kind of do.  It’s fun, a game we play with ourselves.  I can’t explain it.

Anyway.  ON TO THE YOGA.

Ashtanga on the Vivofit

Having just said that the Vivofit numbers seem relatively iffy to me, I’m still going to give you some.

Context.  I’m a 43 year old, 115 pound woman doing an easy-going, full Primary series with 5 years of Ashtanga experience and conditioning under my belt (so it isn’t killing me to get through it any more, if that makes sense).  I don’t work super hard because I’m concerned about injuries (at my age they take forever to heal)(and I’m also lazy), but I work hard enough to feel tired and a bit rubbery at the end.  I do not do vinyasa on alternate sides (to save my wrists), something I picked up from David Williams.  But still, I have to keep it moving pretty briskly to get through all those asana in 60 minutes.

Note: Ashtanga is a meditative practice, a breathing practice, for some a spiritual practice.  For me, too!  But it is also a physical practice and sometimes it can be fun to look at it from that angle.  So don’t get weirded out by me looking at ashtanga as exercise for a few minutes.  I’m not saying it isn’t all those other things.  /end note.

Okay!  Given all of that context….

The Vivofit says the calorie burn for my one hour primary varies from 180 to 240.  (These numbers from four tracked primaries this past week).  (Number does not include basal metabolic burn.)

So low!  Seriously?!  Because if you’ve done Ashtanga, you know it’s an intense freaking practice.  You might be as surprised as I was by these low numbers.  Is this a casualty of the intensity problem, i.e. asana are motion-less, even if you are working very hard, and so don’t read as “high effort” to a tracker?  Maybe.  But this data was gathered while paired with the heart-rate monitor, so it should be more accurate to effort.  (“Steps” are irrelevant, obviously, although the Vivofit registers a hundred or so.)

So what about that heart-rate?  I’ve crudely tracked heart-rate during Primary once before, but that was me writing down my HR at various points as the practice progressed.  Here we can get a continuous line graph….

Heartrate during ashtanga primary

Isn’t this a cool graph?  I find it cool, anyway.

And I can start to see why the calorie burn might be lower than I thought.  During yoga, we see my heart spending some time at 120 (hopping up for each vinyasa, for example), but it spends just as much time below 100 (dropping down for each forward bend).  Let’s compare that to the bike trainer ride I did last night, about 60 minutes at a fairly steady heart-rate of 120 while I watched tv, or twice as much net time at 120 as the yoga practice.  The Vivofit says an hour of 120 bpm cycling on the trainer burns around 400 calories for me.  Twice as much.  Twice the heart-rate, twice the calories?

(And then there are rides where I do intervals that pop me up to 170…haven’t tried one of those on the Vivofit yet.  Maybe tonight…?)

What’s interesting to me is that despite this apparent difference in calorie burn and heart-rate, I get off the bike energized (if sweaty), whereas after my yoga practice, I’m relatively wiped and have to recover.  I wonder what’s going on there?  Are all these numbers bunk?  Or is yoga more exhausting for some obvious reason I’m missing?

So there you have it.  My experiment this week attempting to quantify my yoga practice. I’m going to call it…inconclusive.

Oh no!  Since I’ve been writing this, the RED BAR OF SHAME has popped up!  Come on Henry, quick!

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In my search for the perfect warm, delicious beverage that doesn’t give me heart palpitations (coffee, how I love you, why have you forsaken me?) I have recently begun drinking matcha.  Matcha is Japanese powdered green tea, frothed up in a bowl with a bamboo whisk.  It is emerald green, “vegetal” in flavor, and chocked with virtuous feeling.  In fact, drinking matcha is the exact opposite of a vice, so full of health-giving properties (there have been studies!) that no one is out there saying you shouldn’t drink it.

(Oh, except for the whole radioactive cesium thing, courtesy of Fukashima, that, apparently, contaminated some of Japan’s tea growing regions.  This is so sad it makes me want to weep.  Some information here.)

prettygoodnumberoneMatcha recently came to my attention while reading the oh-so charming food/travel/memoir Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo by Matthew Amster-Burton (who’s blog, Roots and Grubs is equally charming).

Pretty Good Number One is about Matthew and his daughter Iris’s adventures eating their way through as many Tokyo restaurants as they can during a one month stay.  I adored it.  A funny, self-deprecating voice, jaw-droppingly delicious-sounding descriptions of strange foods, and a hilariously self-aware kid—it’s a perfect storm of travel-food writing.  Highly recommended.

Matthew says, “Of all the snobby things I do–and it’s not a short list–carrying teabags is the worst,” in a description of green tea where he helpfully pointed me to o-cha.com, the online source for high-end green tea.  I went, I poked around, I bought some tea.  It came in the mail a few days later.  I was in.

Actually, I accidentally bought an expensive tin, Uji Matcha Kiku Mukashi, $20 (plus shipping $4.50, so about $25 bucks for this tin that is only two inches tall), the accident being that I thought the tin would be a LOT bigger.  Hey, I’m American, I have no idea how much 30 grams really is.  I thought, no problem, I’ll splash out for a tin of the good stuff (okay, actually it’s the mid-range stuff, the good stuff is more like $55 plus shipping for 30 grams, wow) and drink matcha for a couple of months.  Um, no.  Turns out 30 grams gets you about three weeks of a daily bowl of the stuff, so, maybe a buck a bowl if you stretch it.  That’s a buck a day if you can keep from having seconds.  Hmm.  I really, really don’t need an expensive (however virtuous) beverage habit, right now.

Crap!  Too late!  It’s freaking delicious!  And so incredibly green!  A GORGEOUS, amazing green.

matcha bowl 4

Confession: while I do like it straight, I admit I prefer it with a few drops of stevia and a small splash of cream, as seen above.  I know the matcha purists out there are probably shuddering right now, I’m sorry, I can’t help it, I just like it.  Super creamy, a bit sweet, round…it’s like green-tea ice cream, only much, much better.  Complex, I don’t know it’s just interesting, it’s impossible to describe.  There is a bit of a caffeine hit but it’s different from coffee or even chocolate, milder or softer.  Whatever, it’s working for me at the moment anyway.  No heart banging in my chest equals yay!

I held off getting one of the little bamboo brushes, thinking that was just going too far, but I was wrong, it’s super worth it.  I found one at the local Asian market for $5 bucks (I always feel bad buying super cheap stuff like that because sheesh, the dude that made the little brush probably got a penny for his/her efforts) and discovered that the bamboo whisk is ten times superior to my wire whisk at getting out the lumps, nay, a hundred times superior, resulting in a super silky smooth beverage with no strange sea-weed-ish blobs.  Definitely get the brush.

From coffee to matcha, my morning beverage routine switched overnight!  Until, da da DAAAA….all too soon, I started running out.

On my second order, I choose the cheaper stuff, Uji Matcha Kiri no Mori, $13 plus shipping.  When it came, looking at the two little tins, Sophie and I both had the same thought: BLIND TASTE TEST.

That’s right, green tea, time to rumble.

matcha bowl 1Sidebar: Please notice the very pretty bowls we’re drinking all this very pretty tea in.  Sophie made them!  She’s been learning to throw pots on the wheel for years, starting with tiny, one-inch high, lopsided “bowls” (so cute!) when she was six and up to these lovely cereal-bowl sized bowls now.  Turns out Sophie’s bowls are perfect for whisking up some matcha.  Plus they make me happy whenever I use them.  She’s so cool!  /end sidebar.

I made the matcha.  We took turns handing each other the bowls while keeping our eyes closed.  Honestly I was seriously hoping I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, that my palate would be too stupid, blasted by chocolate perhaps, to perceive the improvement that surely only an experienced tea drinker would notice.  Because a dollar a day is too much for my wallet.

matcha bowl 3(In case you’re curious, the left is the less expensive, the right is more.  They are nearly identical in color, although in the picture, the left looks a bit more olive.  Just a trick on the light.  They both look much duller in the pic, too, than they did in reality.)

Alas!  Both Sophie and I easily, hand-down, tasting blind, preferred the expensive tea.  It’s more complex, sweeter, smoother.  There’s just more going on in the bowl.  We kept switching bowls on each other, trying to trick it up, tried it multiple times, but the difference was always obvious—eyes closed!—our choice always the same.

Don’t get me wrong, the less expensive tea is lovely.  On it’s own, it is quite nice.  And the difference is less noticeabe (still there though, no doubt) once I adulterate it with stevia and cream.

But side-by-side, there is no comparison.

Dang it.

Or, as Matthew of Pretty Good Number One says in this informative post:  “Do not order the $60 matcha. I’m sure it’s great. That’s the problem.”

matcha bowl 2

For my third order, which will I get???  I have three weeks to decide….

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Sophie likes to draw on herself.  It’s a thing, right?  I mean, I remember drawing on myself around her age.  Is it about pinning down one’s identity?  Maybe?  Cripes, who knows, who cares.  It’s fun, that’s the important bit.

Sophie draws humerous little pictures on her ankle bones and writes down overheard snippets on her arms and thighs.  “Kodomo usagi” with a tiny bunny, or “don’t be a Malcolm” referring to the hilariously foul-mouthed character from “The Thick Of It.”  I’d tell you more , but I think they’re kind of private for her.

Fair enough, right?  Who wants their mother blogging their body art?

So she came into the bath the other night—I was soaking and reading, as is my wont—sporting a rather large amount of writing down one forearm, something on her thigh, drawings on her palms, and I gave her…a look.  It was all in sharpie and I get a little phobic about toxicity levels and…whatever.  I saw her see me see her body art and sort of…tense up.  I opened my mouth to say something like, “how about not using sharpies for this, huh?” and I could just see her closing down a little…so instead I found myself saying, “how about you draw something on me?”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really.”

“That isn’t what I was expecting you to say.”

Me neither.

She gave me a lotus tattoo.

sharpie tattoo 1

I loved it!  I’ve had an interest in lotus tattoos for quite a while.  This post from four years ago (!!!) proves the interest is at least that old (it’s much older).  This particular lotus came from a wonderful manga I’ve been reading, Nana, which is also a horrible, terrible manga, because it is unfinished, and will probably never be finished, because the mangaka got ill years ago and hasn’t returned to work.  SOB for me.  And her.  I hope she’s feeling better.

Anyway, here is Nana, the title character—actually, one of two Nana’s—and her lotus tattoo.

ren flower tattoo 6

When I saw it, I leaned over to Sophie, who was reading Soul Eater beside me, and said, “WANT.”

That was weeks ago, during the month of internet blackout around here, but apparently, Sophie remembered.

It came out really well.  It’s a little faded in the picture, but she did a great job.  The colors were lovely, people stopped me on the street about it.  It only lasted a couple of days, being sharpie and all, which was sad.  Made me consider getting the real thing….

But I’m not ready for that.  I have commitment issues.  Instead, I asked her to give me another one.  She played it cool, but I could tell she liked being asked.  Here’s what she did:

sharpie tattoo 2

A half-sleeve with flowers, blackberries, and an iris on the front.  Very pretty!  Why is it so hard to take good pictures of my arm?

It’s surprisingly enjoyable to be her canvas.  I’m not the focus of her attention, but I’m in her focus, if that makes sense.  It’s like being under a laser spotlight, while also kind of relaxing, like getting an acupuncture treatment or something.

The internet says if you talc a sharpie tattoo and then spray it with hairspray it will last longer, but that is not my experience.  Even if I’m very careful, it only lasts three days.  Sad panda face.

Okay, maybe toxic ink is going to leach into my blood stream and kill me.  But wow, my little budding tattoo artist is so pleased.  Now I’m walking around with little sharpie doo-das all over me.  I guess she can give me The Look now, if she wants to.

Totally worth it.

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