If you're anything like me you've thought about practicing the discipline of yoga, but you've been stopped in your tracks because you've gotten confused by the massive amount of information on the internet about the various types of yoga and don't know where to begin. With that being said, I was honored to speak with yoga practitioner, registered nurse and author of "Moving Meditation", Mary Jo Ricketson who joined me to discuss the discipline of yoga, where to begin, how to begin, what poses are best for beginners, how to strengthen your core, what to eat/what not to eat and much more!
Candace Rose: As an experienced yoga practitioner, health care specialist, registered nurse and author of "Moving Meditation", can you tell us about the discipline of yoga?
Mary Jo Ricketson: "Well, Candace the discipline is well tested, it's effective and it's also simple. It's a really beautiful form of mind-body training. The exercises and postures are designed specifically to awaken an awareness of really all that we were made to be. To use the muscles, to use the bones, to use the lungs and the heart and to realize that inner source, that inner potential and it's a great form of exercise that not only awakens in us a physical awareness but mentally because it is a discipline and it requires training of both mind and body unlike some other forms of exercise. Although I'd have to say you cannot really separate the mind and body, but the discipline of yoga gives particular attention to the mindfulness peace which enhances the physical peace so that you realize tremendous benefits from this form of exercise."
Candace Rose: What are some of the health benefits of yoga?
Mary Jo Ricketson: "Well yoga is one form of mind-body training, but the benefits that are specifically associated with yoga are many – increased energy; sense of well being; a more balanced, centered approach in really both on and off the mat- it can strengthen the core; it helps open the heart center which improves oxygenation to all the tissues including the brain, improving performance, creativity, productivity. It's also very grounding and relaxing so that the practice not only lifts and energizes you, but it grounds and relaxes you and that lends to a very beautiful balance in terms of optimal well being and sometimes we get so ramped up, we're working so hard we lose sight of the importance of the balance that we need to rest. We need to be calm, we need to not let the muscles lengthen and relax. So the benefits are many. Other benefits include: reduced blood pressure; decreased heart rate; some people even are able to sleep better with the yoga practice, reducing the need for drugs and sleeping medication – so there are many benefits on all levels."
Candace Rose: What inspired you to write "Moving Meditation"?
Mary Jo Ricketson: "Well, I think that there are three major factors that really prepared me to write it, and one is the science. My background is in nursing and my knowledge of the human body and its capabilities just inspired me to learn more, to do more, to realize all that we are made to be. The second piece was my masters is in education and I became familiar with the practices that promote learning. And the third piece is my faith, my belief in the inherent goodness of every person. And with that foundation, I think the inspiration, though what really moved me, it may sound trite but it really was love. Love of God, love of family, love of my clients, love of my students. I taught middle school science for several years and I just saw in the kids potential and some of the traditional methods of teaching (in my mind) weren't accessing- weren't giving them access to that inner potential and so I resigned my teaching position and I opened the Center for MindBody Training, and I focused on developing a program that was integrated in a whole mind-body approach to learning, so the book came from that. The book simply sort of flowed out from that experience with my family, with my students, my clients and I really then wrote it for them hoping that it would be a tool that would empower them to realize that inner potential, to move beyond what is seen on the surface."
Candace Rose: How would you suggest a beginner who is interested in learning more about the discipline and take part in it?
Mary Jo Ricketson: "Well, I think that to begin, probably the best way is with the deep breathing exercises. They're simple and very effective. On my website TheGoodWithin.com, on the homepage there's a free video that demonstrates these deep breathing exercises and they're a great way to begin because they increase energy and they're also very relaxing. When you learn to breathe deeply essentially into the belly and deep into the muscle of the diaphragm you get more oxygenation to all the tissues and the organs of your body and as I mentioned, including the brain. And this increased oxygenation improves performance, improves the sense of well being and it allows you to sleep better – many additional benefits from that deep breathing and that greater awareness and that lift – then you can proceed into some of the postures, but the deep breathing is a great place for anybody to begin."
Candace Rose: What's the secret to core and strength training for beginners, and how would you advise a person who has never practiced yoga begin so they prevent injuries?
Mary Jo Ricketson: "I guess maybe it is a secret, but the key to the core and strength work is discovering the muscle. Discovering that you have those muscles at your core and learning how to gain access to that strength, that stability and you gain access simply by both engaging the muscle/contracting it and then feeling the relaxation phase (letting the muscle go and letting it relax). And it's that flow from contraction to relaxation that moves us and so that core for some people without having touched that muscle, without having used it in a very specific way, in some ways they just don't know how strong they are and this training helps you discover that strength. It's not easily seen on the surface but through the exercises we connect with it, we connect with the feel of being strong and that empowers us.
In terms of going further advising so you don't get injured it begins again with awareness and developing a practice where you can pay attention to the alignment, pay attention to the breath and pay attention to control. Sometimes I advise my clients to remember your ABCs: alignment, breath and control. And the book describes how you can ease into this process one posture at a time rather than for some taking on a class might just be too much. Too much too soon. So using the book is a great way to begin a practice one step at a time – one posture at a time."
Candace Rose: What are some nutritious foods those practicing yoga (or those looking to practice yoga) should be consuming?
Mary Jo Ricketson: "Candace, it's interesting, there's so much out there now about what to eat and what not to eat. I try to advise my clients one simple – if you want to call it rule to follow and that is consume foods that are closest to their natural state as possible. In other words that would mean choosing an apple over apple sauce, apple juice or an apple fritter. As a food is processed, with every step of that processing a food loses energy, and so when you consume it it's not very satisfying or fulfilling because the food is so low in energy, it has nothing to give to you. But if you stay with foods that are whole; if you stay with foods that are close to their natural state, they're very satisfying, very fulfilling because they're full of energy. And when you consume that high energy food it lifts you, it sustains you and it's very interesting because as you start eating whole foods you will stop craving the junk food because you're fulfilled, you're satisfied- you've got this high energy. So briefly whole foods would be fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains and seeds. Meat products are fine. Again, natural organic products, fish, chicken, all those are fine. The less processing the better. I'm not saying to eat those foods raw, I'm just saying a baked fish would be far better for you than a fried fish. It's just less processed, less energy taken out of it before it comes into our bodies."
Candace Rose: How about in terms of drinks?
Mary Jo Ricketson: "That's a great question. The best drink is water and I know that doesn't suit some people, they feel like they want to taste or a sweetness but the best drink is water. And drinking water is one of the keys to ideal weight. In other words if you're trying to lose weight, one of the keys to that is to drink an adequate amount of water and that be can be up to 8 or maybe 10 glasses of water a day if you're active. If you feel like you need something in that water, use fresh lemon and lime squeezed into the water. They not only give it a taste but that lemon and lime actually aids digestion by keeping the proper alkalinity in the digestive system. So drinks- highly processed drinks (I won't say names) but high sugar, high salt drinks are not needed for most people and they stress the body in a way because to process all that sugar is a strain on the body and it ends up (for most people) as just additional weight. Water is the best drink. Outside of water, if you want a juice – if you take some of the clear juices like grape juice or apple juice, the best way to use that is to dilute it with water. So maybe go 1/3 juice and 2/3 water. You still get the lovely taste and a little bit of sweetness but you cut back way, way on your sugar consumption."
Candace Rose: How important are written goals and plans of action; and what types of goals should beginners have?
Mary Jo Ricketson: "Well, I think that the written goal is extremely important and for one reason- when you have a thought and you say 'I want to be more fit' or 'I am going to start an exercise program' that thought is key. But if you think about the thought, the thought does not have matter. The thought is not touchable; not seeable. When you take that thought and you put it on that piece of paper you literally make it matter. Now you have something that you can hold, you have something that you can see, you have something you can focus on. Making it matter is an important step in having it be realized. So those written goals and a plan of action are very, very important if you hope to achieve that goal and succeed.
Once you write the goal it's important that you set for yourself two or three action steps that you can take today to begin to move yourself toward that goal. It doesn't mean you have to achieve it today, but take the steps necessary to begin to move you in that direction. So for example if you said 'I want to be more fit, I want to add some cardio exercises to my daily routine', your action step might be: one- I'm going to buy shoes; two- I'm going to get in my car and measure one mile so I know where I can walk safely and how far I need to go; three- you might say 'I'm going to begin walking tonight at seven o'clock'. In terms of the types of goals there's an acronym- SMART goals. This is also described in more detail in my book 'Moving Meditation', but briefly SMART goals are specific. So instead of saying 'I want to be more fit', you say 'I'm going to walk one mile every day for three months. And measurable we've got that you need to know are you achieving your goal? If you walk one mile every day for three months, you've achieved your goal. So we have specific, measurable and A is achievable. If you've never exercised before, you would not want to set as your goal 'I'm going to run the Boston Marathon next week. R is relational- it's important that you set the goal in relation to others and even your environment, rather than setting that goal in isolation. So for example you might say (with this goal about being more fit) 'I might invite somebody to exercise with me, a friend' or 'I'm going to exercise every day because I know this will be a great example for my friends or for my children' – so you set the goal in relation. And then the last one is time sensitive. You want to put a time on it (like I mentioned) 'I'm going to walk one mile every day for three months'. This gives your mind and your body something to move toward. If you've set something too general without specifics, then the mind-body tends not to move. Not because you're lazy or undisciplined but you don't know what to do. So these action steps tell you specifically 'what do I need to do to move towards my goal' and you're much more likely to achieve it. Set the goals with action steps, and they don't have to be leaps, they just need to be steps. And once you begin you'll find you'll have a flow that will allow you to continue, and you may develop new goals, new steps. But it really takes flow to get moving.
Most people really are not lazy. I don't believe that laziness (that inertia) that sitting still is more typically a result of not knowing where to go. Not knowing what you want to do or what you want to achieve. Once you identify that you will go."
Candace Rose: Is it possible for the beginner to learn yoga poses in the comfort of their own home or would you advise them to take a class instead?
Mary Jo Ricketson: I think it's very possible to begin at home and I think the book gives you a good foundation for establishing a comfort level in the poses that are basic and fairly simple. Once you have that foundation, I think then that gives you the confidence to go out and take a class and explore the practice maybe more deeply. But it's very good to practice at home, it's simple and very few props are needed.
You don't need equipment, but a mat would be nice because the mat gives you stability, rather than slipping on a floor. A mat also gives you a little padding which is nice in the postures. So a practice at home is very doable. But I think if you are going to develop that practice at home, a guide is needed. You need to know what to do and the postures should be described in some details so there is attention to alignment, there is attention to the breath, there is attention to that sense of stability and control that gives you confidence and that confidence then drives you to continue your practice. The book 'Moving Meditation' again, you asked 'what inspired me'? I wanted to give people access to this form of mind-body training that is empowering, that awakens and helps you to be your best self."
Candace Rose: What's a good basic pose for a beginner?
Mary Jo Ricketson: "Well, again the deep breathing is the place to start, and then some of the balanced postures where you simply are lifting the knee on one side of the body, holding your balance on the other side. And open heart is another posture, it's a simple twist but it is invigorating and uplifting. Most of the beginning postures described in the book (20 or so) are easily adaptable to almost any level of ability. Some of the postures can be modified a bit so that you can do them in a chair- for example if you have a weakness in the legs. I think almost any of the beginning postures can be easily adapted."
Candace Rose: Do you have any additional tips or information you'd like to share?
Mary Jo Ricketson: "Candace, I think that one of the keys to health and happiness is being able to stay fully present. Our body is always grounded by gravity, we're here, we're present. Our body is always grounded by gravity. We're always here, we're present, we simply have to discipline the mind to stay in that space of the body which is essentially home to the mind. And when we discipline the mind to stay, a lot of the tension and stress that we feel begins to fade because some of the tension we feel is the body's attempt to get the mind back home. The body creates that tension to try to grab the mind's attention to come back into the body because that's home. And when the mind is home in the body, that's where we can begin to realize our full potential. So that key, I know we hear a lot about living in the now, this present moment training is a highly effective form of disciplining the mind to stay present in the body so that we can begin to realize all that we are made to be. It's there within us. When the mind is present we gain access to it."
Candace Rose: Where can we go for more information?
Mary Jo Ricketson: "My website TheGoodWithin.com has much more detail than we've discussed here in terms of mind-body training, the benefits and how you can begin to practice. On the website you can purchase the book 'Moving Meditation'. I also have a DVD that's instructional that shows and demonstrates all the postures and the exercises – the core and strength work and there's also a CD of guided meditations. I called this exercise 'Moving Meditation' because it really is a mindful movement that helps us access that inner source. The guided meditations are a more subtle practice. Seated quietly we move into that space of meditation where we access that inner source. So all three – the book, the DVD, the CD are tools to gain access to that inner source. You can also visit me on Facebook, and I would be happy to talk to anybody that wanted to send me an email, if you had a specific question on how to begin this mindful practice of mind-body training I call 'Moving Meditation'."