Book Review: Atheist Yoga, Anton Drake (2013)

Monday, June 10th, 2013

Atheism & Yoga

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the author’s invitation.)

I’ve suffered from back problems most of my life. When I was younger, the likely suspect was an old, cheap mattress situated on the top of a bunk bed; in my young adulthood, nights spent sleeping at the bottom of a dog pile (sometimes five deep!) did the trick. And I won’t even get into my poor posture.

I started practicing yoga a little more than a decade ago in order to help relieve back pain. Not only did it work out the kinks, relieve stress and tension, and increase my flexibility, but yoga also helped me achieve a greater inner awareness: of different muscle groups, and how to alternately flex and relax them, sometimes simultaneously. This in turn aided me in other athletic endeavors, such as kickboxing and abdominal exercises.

I’m also a life-long atheist.

In Atheist Yoga, atheist yogi Anton Drake makes a compelling argument for the compatibility of yoga and meditation with atheism and materialism. Yoga’s “fundamental emphasis on introspection and self-mastery” is actually more suited to atheism than religious belief, Drake posits, because atheists are open to disbelief, aren’t censored by internal thought filters, and thus have an easier time both “losing” themselves and turning their focus inward, on the unconscious self. Atheists are better able to open their minds because they aren’t afraid of offending a supreme being or violating an external belief system.

(More below the fold…)

And what if I love dogs, yoga and yogurt?

Monday, August 24th, 2009

The recent spate of probiotic/fiber-filled yogurt commercials is starting to make me loathe yogurt – even the vegan kind. And I freaking adore cherry and lemon Whole Soy!

These dairy-based offenses have become so frequent that even Sarah Haskins – who has poked fun at yogurt ads not once, but twice – cannot keep up with all the stupid.

First, we have this uber-obnoxious ad from Fiber One:

In case you can’t view the video, here’s the gist: A thin, blonde, WASP-y looking woman – who, incidentally, appears to have stepped straight out of the ’80s – runs into a friend at a Fiber One sample station, located outside the supermarket’s exit. Our fair WASP is dressed head-to-toe in oversized accessories: softball-sized “pearl” earrings and necklace; a bracelet that might have been fashioned out of a mug from Central Perk; huge, Pee Wee Herman sunglasses; a purse the size of a backpack; a heart-shaped pendant nearly as big as her head. And…a large dog. A Great Dane, perhaps?

The large accessories are supposed to make her body look smaller and thinner when viewed next to their comical monstrosity. Why resort to such crazy antics, the commercial suggests, when you can just go on a semi-liquid Fiber One yogurt diet and slurp your way to an eating disorder?

Aside from the emphasis on thinness (incidentally, neither of the two women are what you’d call “fat,” yet the need for dieting is not questioned, but reinforced), there’s some pretty casual and nefarious speciesism at play here. The dog is likened to an object, a fashion accessory, a tool of sorts; something to be disposed of when no longer needed. He’s not treated as someone, but something. Earrings, necklace, bracelet, sunglasses, purse, pendant, dog: one of these things is not like the other.

The disposal of “pets,” by the by, is a pretty serious problem. Perhaps this commercial might seem like a harmless joke – but try explaining the punch line to the three to four millions cats and dogs killed in U.S. shelters each year.

Thankfully, the next offender isn’t speciesist, rather, it’s just plain stupid.

(More below the fold…)

DVD Review: Yoga Wisdom for Neck Pain & Tight Shoulders, Allison Nolan (2005)

Monday, December 18th, 2006

Chase that upper-body pain and stiffness away!

five out of five stars

YOGA WISDOM FOR NECK PAIN & TIGHT SHOULDERS, with instructor Allison Nolan, is a great complement to Nolan’s other 2005 release, YOGA WISDOM FOR BACK PAIN & TIGHT HIPS. I own both DVDs, and together they help ease the aches and pains that occasionally bother my shoulders, back, neck, and hamstrings.

NECK PAIN & TIGHT SHOULDERS follows the same basic format as BACK PAIN & TIGHT HIPS. The DVD contains two different workouts. The first, Level 1, is the shorter of the two (at 36 minutes), and is aimed at beginners. Level 2 is only slightly longer (48 minutes), and is a bit more advanced. However, Nolan works with two “models”, one of which modifies the poses for the beginners in the audience. The second model generally follows Nolan’s intermediate-to-advanced lead, and Nolan sometimes pulls ahead with more advanced versions of the poses. Thus, a wide range of difficulties is demonstrated throughout, making both levels fully workable (and challenging) for all.

Many of the same poses used in BACK PAIN & TIGHT HIPS are repeated in NECK PAIN & TIGHT SHOULDERS. However, Nolan introduces some subtle variations that target the upper body, particularly the shoulders and arms. NECK PAIN & TIGHT SHOULDERS also includes some poses that BACK PAIN & TIGHT HIPS does not, such as stretches with a resistance band that works the shoulders, neck, and arms.

Overall, I think I enjoyed BACK PAIN & TIGHT HIPS slightly more than NECK PAIN & TIGHT SHOULDERS; it seems like the former did a better job of stretching and loosening the promised areas than did the latter. Even so, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend NECK PAIN & TIGHT SHOULDERS to anyone who’s suffering from stiffness or tightness in the upper body. It’s really a gratifying, effective workout.

My only quibble: all four workouts contained in BACK PAIN & TIGHT HIPS and NECK PAIN & TIGHT SHOULDERS use the exact same musical track. Since it’s not really possible to keep my eyes glued to the tv while I flow through the poses, I’ve learned to pick up on auditory cues to help me anticipate when a transition from one pose to another is ahead. Of course, this leads to some confusion and the occasional misstep when four workouts, all led by the same instructor (with the same voice, vocabulary, and speaking style), are set to the same score. At almost $20, you think they could have sprung for four unique compositions instead of one!

Equipment needed: A carpeted floor or a yoga mat; one to two yoga blocks; and a yoga/resistance band.

(This review was originally published on Amazon. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

DVD Review: Karen Voight: Yoga Power (2002)

Wednesday, August 16th, 2006

Strength + Flexibility = Yoga Power!

four out of five stars

Karen Voight’s YOGA POWER is really two yoga workouts in one: Yoga Strength, which utilizes a number of challenging yoga poses to build strength and stamina; and Yoga Stretch, which consists of a series of gentle stretches to increase flexibility.

The Yoga Strength segment is 30 minutes long, but you’ll be so focused on the poses that the time will fly by. This workout definitely isn’t for beginners! I’ve been doing yoga – on my own – for a few years now, and consider myself an intermediate, but some of the poses are much too challenging for me. Even following Karen’s workout partner, who is the modifier, I have trouble balancing during unfamiliar poses. However, none of the exercises is impossible; I’m confident that, with practice, I’ll be able to master them. The poses that Karen guides you through in Yoga Strength include Sun Salutation, Warrior 1 and 2, Upward Dog, Downward Dog, Down Dog Split, the Triangle Series, Plank, Side Plank, Awkward Chair, Dancer’s Pose, and Boat Pose.

In contrast, at 20 minutes, the Yoga Stretch segment is slightly shorter. Unlike Yoga Strength, it’s also suitable for all fitness/skill levels. The poses, performed primarily while sitting on the floor, are very gentle and forgiving. With Karen’s help, you’ll slowly stretch and relax all the body parts you worked in the first segment: your neck, shoulders, arms, back, hips, thighs, and legs. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the neck stretches are simply divine! My only complaint with this portion of the workout is that some of Karen’s instructions are a little sloppy and confusing. Overall, though, this is an anomaly: for the most part, Karen is an excellent instructor.

As far as necessary equipment, you’ll need either a carpeted floor or a yoga mat, as well as two yoga blocks (but you can make do with one block, if that’s all you have on hand). A yoga strap is optional for the Yoga Stretch segment.

Enjoy your workout!

(This review was originally published on Amazon. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

DVD Review: Yoga Wisdom for Back Pain & Tight Hips, Allison Nolan (2005)

Sunday, August 6th, 2006

Opens the hips, loosens the back like a charm!

five out of five stars

YOGA WISDOM FOR BACK PAIN AND TIGHT HIPS with Allison Nolan promises looser hips and a more relaxed back – and it delivers both in less than an hour! The DVD consists of two workouts: Level 1 runs 32 minutes long and is targeted at beginners, while Level 2 is longer at 54 minutes, and is meant for more advanced yoga practitioners.

Personally, I have been doing yoga for about two years, and I’d place myself in the “intermediate” category. As such, I generally stick to the 2nd level on this DVD. Level 2 begins with a gradual back warmup via The Cat/Cow pose, and then slowly builds in difficulty. Over the course of 54 minutes, Ms. Nolan guides you through a number of beginning to advanced poses, including Upward and Downward Facing Dog; Baby Cobra; Down Dog Split; Pigeon and Double Pigeon; Eagle Arms; Awkward Chair; Sun Series; and two Warrior Series, as well as a variety of forward bends and back bends. At the end of the workout, there’s also a five-minute abdominal section with the Baby Boat and Boat poses. The grand finale is a restorative segment that employs a yoga block to help you stretch out the lower back. I’ve never enjoyed a back stretch so much!

Level 1, which I’ve done several times now, doesn’t strike me as less difficult than Level 2, even though Level 1 is supposedly for beginners. In both workouts, Ms. Nolan has two models working through the poses with her; one of these modifies the poses for beginners, while the other follows along with Ms. Nolan, who is performing the poses at an advanced level. The biggest difference, to me, is that Level 1 is 22 minutes shorter. Thus, it makes for a nice, quick stretch when I don’t have time to do a full 54 minutes. It’s also a great warmup to the 30-minute Tae Bo DVDs that I sometimes use. However, the shorter workout does have one significant drawback: when you get to the more difficult poses near the end, you’re not as warm and flexible, and it’s harder to ease into some of the more advanced poses. (I find that my hips just haven’t had enough time to warm up for the Pigeon pose in particular.) Overall, though, both make for a very challenging – but do-able – workout.

As far as the quality of instruction goes, I liked Ms. Nolan’s teaching style. I didn’t find her overly peppy or annoying, and I thought her cueing was timely. I found that her descriptions of some poses helped me to better visualize and achieve them. She also avoided the standard New Age drivel that so many yoga instructors spout. My only complaint is that she tended to cycle through Downward Facing Dog / Plank / Baby Cobra / Upward Facing Dog sequence rather quickly. Other than that minor quibble, I thoroughly enjoyed the workouts, especially the longer one.

Equipment needed: A carpeted floor or yoga mat is a must for any yoga workout. You’ll also need at least one yoga block for the restorative stretch, and two if you’d like to modify the poses. Extra padding for the “sit bones” is optional.

(This review was originally published on Amazon. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

DVD Review: Iron Yoga, Anthony Carillo (2005)

Thursday, June 15th, 2006

Yoga on Steroids!

four out of five stars

The main premise of Anthony Carillo’s Iron Yoga workout is that you can maximize your yoga session by adding hand weights to increase the challenge. The result is a highly effective, low-impact yoga routine that demands great focus, endurance, balance, flexibility, and willpower.

The 54-minute Iron Yoga workout is led by instructor Anthony Carillo, who designed the routine as part of his training for the Iron Man Triathlon (this should give you some clue as to how effective and demanding the workout is). Although Carillo leads you through an advanced workout, there are two women working through the same routine in the background; one at a beginner level, the other, intermediate. The most obvious difference is that each instructor uses a different set of dumbbells. You can clearly see that the beginner is working with a 2-pound set, while the intermediate instructor sports a 3-pound pair (which is the weight I use). However, I couldn’t tell what weight Carillo was working with, and he never mentions it. Aside from lifting different weights, the beginner and intermediate models modify the yoga poses to demonstrate easier levels for less experienced yoga students. In general, the transition between poses is gradual enough that beginners won’t have any trouble following along, and the risk of tweaking a muscle with the weights is significantly lowered for all. Consequently, Iron Yoga is a great workout for both beginners and experienced yogis alike: you can vary both the weight and the poses according to your fitness level.

During the workout, Carillo leads the audience through a number of challenging yoga poses, including the triangle, several warrior series, awkward chair, tree sequence, and eagle. Poses that help with stretching and flexibility include the sun series, upward and downward facing dog, locus, pigeon, and child’s pose. Throughout the workout, he also incorporates various moves with the dumbbells to work the upper body. Examples include bicep, tricep, and wrist curls, tricep extensions, military presses, and lateral raises. These exercises are performed either while standing in mountain pose, or while holding some of the more challenging yoga poses (e.g., triangle). The dumbbell work, with few exceptions, involves three slow reps of each move while inhaling and exhaling deeply, and on the fourth count you must hold the move at “static peak” for several breaths. Depending on the yoga pose and the dumbbell exercise, this can be much harder than it sounds!

As an instructor, Carillo is great: simultaneously calm and soothing and motivational and encouraging (not exactly what you’d expect from an Iron Man!). On their own, neither the yoga nor weighted portions of the workout are exceptionally challenging; but combined, they make for a very demanding routine. I’ve been doing yoga for several years now (in addition to some light weight training, as well as pilates, kickboxing, and Tae Bo), and am in fairly good shape, but I still find myself sore the day after I do Iron Yoga. Of the many DVDs I own, this is probably in my top six favorites. It’s a fun break from the frenetic cardio sessions I’m used to, but it’s still effective, especially for toning the upper body. With both yoga and weights, it’s the best of two worlds. Kind of like yoga on (natural) steroids (!).

My only complaint is that Carillo has only made one Iron Yoga DVD to date (hint, hint!).

EQUIPMENT NEEDED: A pair of dumbbells and a yoga mat or carpeted floor. A masseuse for the day after won’t hurt, either!

(This review was originally published on Amazon. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

DVD Review: The Method: Pilates Target Zones (Upper-Mid-Lower Body), Jennifer Kries (2003)

Monday, November 21st, 2005

Ab-solutely Awesome Mix of Pilates & Yoga!

five out of five stars

Although I mainly stick to Tae Bo and kickboxing, I also like to throw the occasional yoga and/or pilates workout into the mix for flexibility and strength. I love Jennifer Kries as an instructor – she’s always peppy and cheerful without becoming annoying, and she does a great job of explaining the poses in such a way that even yoga newbies like myself can easily understand. Because I’ve enjoyed Kries’s DVDs in the past, I chose The Method: Pilates Target Zones: Upper-Mid-Lower Body when I needed a dedicated abdominal routine. As usual, Jennifer does not disappoint!

The workout is divided into three 25-minute segments: Abdominal/Centering, Lower Body/Grounding, and Balanced/Lengthening. The segment titles are a bit misleading, however; the first two, Abdominal/Centering and Lower Body/Grounding, focus on the abdominals via a series of “roll ups,” while the last portion, Balanced/Lengthening, is an interesting mix of yoga and ballet. The distinctions between Upper, Mid, and Lower Body aren’t as discrete as the titles would have you believe. Nonetheless, each segment is challenging and effective – I’ve noticed a definite improvement in my abdominal strength and overall flexibility since incorporating this DVD into my fitness program.

Abdominal/Centering, the first segment, begins with some breathing exercises, and then alternates between yogic stretching and increasingly difficult pilates “roll ups” that really (and I mean REALLY) challenge the abs. Lower Body/Grounding is more of the same, but this series incorporates the use of a lightly weighted bar to assist in the standing stretches and give a point of focus in the “roll ups.” Even so, you don’t have to run out and buy extra equipment in order to take full advantage of this workout – you can very easily substitute a broomstick or similar object for the bar (I use my Richard Simmons Ab Roller!). Finally, the Balanced/Lengthening section leads you through various yogic postures, including the Sun Salutation, the Proud Warrior series, and Awkward Chair (this one really works your legs!). Kries also includes a few ballet exercises, such as pliés and ankle presses (again, great leg work!).

I have absolutely no complaints about this DVD – which is very rare for me! The exercises are great, the instructor is engaging and encouraging, and the DVD format is suitable (i.e., each segment is its own chapter on the DVD, so you can easily customize your workout). Upper-Mid-Lower Body is especially worthwhile for those looking to firm their tummies. Along with Tae Bo: Billy’s BootCamp: Ab BootCamp, this is my favorite ab workout. And it shows – my six-pack is coming in quite nicely!

(This review was originally published on Amazon. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

DVD Review: Yoga Zone: Yoga for a Strong and Healthy Back, Andrea Ambandos (2001)

Thursday, June 2nd, 2005

The Best “Yoga-for-Back-Care” DVD I’ve Found!

five out of five stars

Yoga Zone’s “Yoga for a Strong & Healthy Back” is a must-have for anyone suffering from back pain (especially those yoga enthusiasts with sore backs!).

The DVD features two 20-minute workouts, each with a different set of instructors, in which you work through a number of useful stretches, twists, and poses to help make your back stronger and more flexible. The poses are relatively simple, so more advanced yoga practitioners might not find the workouts challenging enough – but they’re perfect for beginners and intermediates. I’d even recommend this to someone who’s never done yoga before – the instructors explain and demonstrate everything very succinctly, and transitions between poses are slow enough that you should be able to keep up, even if you’re unfamiliar with the exercises.

As an added perk, each 20-minute workout is further divided into four separate segments, so you can easily select which exercises you’d like to perform, and even craft your own customized workout.

(This review was originally published on Amazon. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

VHS Review: Jane Fonda’s Yoga Exercise Workout (1993)

Thursday, June 2nd, 2005

An awesome intro to yoga – if only there was a DVD!

five out of five stars

Jane Fonda’s Yoga Exercise Workout” is one of the first exercise videos I bought, and it’s still one of my favorites!

Jane starts out with a 20-minute stretching/toning routine that consists of a number of different poses. Next, she focuses on the Sun Salutation and leads you through a 15-minute segment based on the one sequence. She starts with the easiest variation of the routine, and gradually increases the intensity. Experienced yoga practitioners can repeat Level 3 (the most difficult level) three times, while beginners can stick to Level 1 (the easiest level). Throughout the segment, she repeats her demonstration of the lower levels for newbies. Jane finishes with a 15-minute relaxation routine. While some people might enjoy this section the most, I generally skip it.

Since beginning yoga, I’ve bought a number of other yoga instructionals, all on DVD; “Jane Fonda’s Yoga Exercise Workout” is the only VHS tape I own. As much as I like the workout, as well as Jane’s easygoing teaching style, I don’t use the tape as much as I should. I just don’t find the VHS tape as convenient as the DVDs, which usually have short segments that you can easily navigate through (many even let you customize your own workout). It would be great if they released “Jane Fonda’s Yoga Exercise Workout” on a DVD format (hint, hint, guys!). Other than this minor complaint, though, I’d definitely recommend “Jane Fonda’s Yoga Exercise Workout” to beginners and intermediates alike (advanced users might want to stick to some of Rodney Yee’s more difficult workouts).

(This review was originally published on Amazon. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

DVD Review: The Method: Precision Yoga, Jennifer Kries (2002)

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

Great Stretching/Strengthening Routine

four out of five stars

I’ve been working out for almost two years; mainly I stick to Tae Bo, but I enjoy yoga as well. I find that it’s especially helpful for flexibility, and I often find myself incorporating different yoga exercises into my warm-up/stretching routine, prior to doing Tae Bo.

The Method Precision Yoga,” featuring Jennifer Kries, is a great introduction to yoga for newbies. Jennifer explains and demonstrates the poses very well, and she illustrates different levels of the same pose so that novices don’t get frustrated and the more advanced students don’t become bored. The workout is divided into three segments, each roughly 20 minutes in length: Strength & Vitality, Flexibility & Balance, and Serenity. I love each of the first two, especially Flexibility & Balance, but hardly ever do the Serenity portion. Jennifer walks you through such poses as Warrior I and II, the Sun Salutation, Downward Facing Dog, The Cat, Child’s Pose, etc. – mostly your standard yoga fare.

I own a number of yoga DVDs, and “The Method Precision Yoga” is invigorating without becoming impossible, like some of the ones that I’ve bought and hardly ever used. More advanced yogis might want to stick with another series, perhaps the longer Rodney Yee ones (sometimes I swear Rodney gets a little help courtesy of Adobe Premiere – no one should be able to do some of those moves!). However, “The Method Precision Yoga” is great for newbies and moderate-level students, and very useful if you just want a great stretching routine (some of the twists are awesome). I’m knocking one star off for its short running time, though – I’ve seen a number of more interactive DVDs with twice the number of segments.

(This review was originally published on Amazon. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)