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March 2010

The Proper Push-Up

About a month ago, I decided to start conquering one of my most dreaded fitness feats:  The Push-Up.   No, I didn’t choose to do push-ups for the Arnold Schwarzenegger arms, or for the perky chest, or for the high school boyish bragging rights, although those were all naturally added perks.  (Let me tell you ladies, do a few push-ups and you can stop going on that endless search for the perfect push-up bra.  Push-ups naturally push-up what yo momma gave ya.)  I chose to take on push-ups because for me, they’re one of my biggest challenges, and I simply thrive on challenge.  A fellow blogger actually implanted the idea into my head a few months back when she was conquering the push-up, and I thought, “I’ve got to do this!”

Don’t get me wrong, as much as I love a good challenge, I certainly wasn’t looking forward to doing push-ups everyday.  But I did love the thought of being able to test my body in new ways and set a goal that, with some effort, was almost undeniably achievable.  After a few months of practice, I wanted to make the act of doing more than a few push-ups not just look easy but feel easy too.

When I started, I could do ten full push-ups and make each one of them look easy.  Sure I could do a few more beyond that, but they sure wouldn’t look like the ones those macho men on TV do (not that my first ten really did either).   Each push-up beyond reaching ten, I’d look like a dying kangaroo with a bottle of hot sauce spilled down my face, while probably sounding like I was literally drowning in my own sweat at the same time.  Not a pretty site, and it didn’t feel like it either.

Even the first ten push-ups didn’t feel amazing, probably because I would hold my breath after the first five (no wonder I sounded like I was drowning).  However, when I saw other people doing push-ups, they not only made them look comfortable, but like they actually felt good!  I was determined to get to this point.

When I first started, I really wasn’t making much progress beyond ten.  The whole holding my breath thing was really hindering me.  I decided to look at a How-To website to fully implant in my head a correct knowledge of form and technique for the proper push-up.  I’m not sure why I didn’t do this at the outset of my challenge, but I think it’s because I thought push-ups were common knowledge.  I’ve been told to do push-ups since elementary school, shouldn’t I have known how to properly do them by now?  Obviously not.  Here’s what the How-To tutorial taught me was the correct way to do a push-up:

1.  Hands should be slightly wider than shoulder width, feet should be together and parallel to each other with the toes tucked under.
2.  Head should be slightly tilted up and should remain still during the up and down motion.
3.  At the top position, keep the arms straight but not locked.  This makes the muscles contract during the entire push-up, enhancing what your muscles get out of each one.
4.  Lower the body between the hands until the inside angle of the elbows reaches at least 90 degrees.  Make sure to keep the body straight and palms in place.
5.  Exhale as you straighten the arms, coming back up to a plank position.  (This was what I was missing!)
6.  Pause, then inhale as you lower your body back down until the inside of the elbows reach at least 90 degrees.  Once your chest grazes the ground, begin to straighten the arms, exhaling as you come back up.

That my friends is the proper way to do a push-up, or so they say.  I’ve taken this knowledge and have put it to use, and have now progressively worked my way up to doing 30 full push-ups at a time.  The first 2o or so look easy and surprisingly feel pretty good too!  I’m working on the last ten or so.  My goal is to reach an effortless 50…we’ll see!

If you are a beginner like me and want tackle the push-up, here’s what I recommend:

  • Start by learning the basics (see above).
  • Next, determine the maximum number of push-ups you are able to do without feeling like you’ll collapse.
  • Make a set by combining the calculated number of full push-ups with the same number of “girl push-ups”-  For girl push-ups, simply start out with your knees on the ground, and proceed with the regular push-up instructions.  Make sure you remember to breathe!
  • Over the next couple weeks, as the first half of the set, the full push-ups, begins to feel easy, gradually start to increase this number, increasing the number of modified push-ups in the latter half as well.
  • Once the number of full push-ups in the set reaches a fairly high number, you can decrease the number of corresponding modified push-ups per set.  For instance, I started by doing 10 full push-ups and 10 modified push-ups.  Then I did 15 full push-ups and 15 modified.  Once I reached 20 full push-ups, I only did 15 modified.  Now I do 30 full push-ups, and 10 modified.
  • To speed up your progress, do more than one set per sitting.  This will boost your endurance and muscle building at a quicker pace.
  • As always, tailor the practice to meet your needs.

Do you do push-ups?  What’s your method of increasing the number and achieving an effortless set of push-ups?  What fitness feat do you find really challenging?

Easy Homemade Salad Dressing

Salad is the perfect complement to almost any meal.  Its vibrant green color, leafy ruffled texture, and fresh clean taste pairs perfectly with all types of cuisine.  However, the key to keeping salad such the exemplary side dish that it is, it needs to be kept light.  Creamy, heavy dressings can totally ruin the light and refreshingness of the perfect salad.  To ensure this, I prefer to make my own dressings– free of preservatives, light on the fat, and heavy on the flavor.  While even just a simple olive oil and vinegar can complete a salad, sometimes I like to throw in a few other various ingredients to jazz up my salads and even occasionally make them the center of the meal.  The following recipe is one of my favorites and is so easy to prepare that aside from its supreme flavor, you’ll barely even notice it wasn’t store bought.

Homemade Dijon Vinaigrette

-5 Tbsp. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
-2 Tbsp. Apple Cider Vinegar
-1 1/2 tsp. Dijon Mustard, (use coarse ground, if available)
-1/2 tsp. Honey
-Salt and Pepper, to taste

Whisk together all ingredients until combined.  Lightly drizzle over a bed of fresh greens.

Tempeh Oatmeal Meatloaf

Looking for a new way to eat your oats?  How about for dinner?  For those of us who just can’t seem to get enough oats, this recipe adapted from the Vegetarian Times is perfect.  It’s also great for those who are getting sick and tired of that same bowl of oats for over and over again for breakfast and are looking to get out of a little rut of repetition.

While this recipe utilizes two cups of oatmeal, the real star of the dish is tempeh.  Tempeh is made from a process that combines whole, fermented soybeans into a rectangular cake-like form.  Similar to tofu, tempeh provides a lot of protein and along with its chewy texture, it makes a great alternative to meat.  However, unlike tofu which is rather bland, tempeh definitely has a distinct taste and for some people it can take some getting used to.  It has a sort of fermented, nutty flavor, which is delicious but only when combined with the right sauces.  If you’re new to tempeh, the following makes a great starter recipe.

Warning:  When cut into slices, the end product looks like what I am sorry to say is a resemblance of thrown up cat food (for anyone who has cats, you should be familiar with what I’m talking about).   I even opted not to take pictures of the “meatloaf” in its sliced form because it really wouldn’t have looked that attractive.  However, the looks are deceiving, and the taste bears no semblance any sort of throw up at all!  I suggest covering it with some extra sauce or chopped parsley if serving for visitors.  But I want to restate, the looks aren’t an indicator of this recipes taste!  Plus, at least it looks beautiful before placed onto a plate!

Tempeh-Oatmeal Meatloaf
(Serves 6)

-2 cups old-fashioned oats, divided
-2 cloves garlic, minced
-2 bay leaves
-1 medium onion, chopped
-2 tsp. poultry seasoning
-1 15 oz. can diced tomatoes
-1 8-oz. package tempeh
-1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
-1 tsp. vinegar
-scant tsp. sugar
-1 1/2 cups prepared marinara sauce (if I don’t have any unthawed from my summer garden, I like to use Classico’s Tomato and Basil- A little salty, but tasty
and contains a short and simple list of ingredients)
-Nutritional yeast, optional
-Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions:  Preheat oven to 350F.  Grease a loaf pan with olive oil.  Place one cup of water and bay leaf into a saucepan and bring to a boil.  Add 1/2 cup oats and garlic.  Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for approx. 10 minutes, or until oatmeal is thick.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in large skillet over medium heat.  Add onion and saute 5-7 minutes, or until translucent.  Add poultry seasoning and saute an additional minute.  Add chopped tomatoes with juice, sugar, and vinegar.  Crumble the tempeh into the mixture, and season with salt and pepper, if desired.

Transfer tempeh mixture to food processor or blender.  Once oatmeal is finished cooking, remove bay leaf and add to blender/food processor.  Blend until combined.  Add remaining 1 1/2 cups of oats and pulse until combined.

Pour oat mixture into loaf pan.  Spread marinara sauce over top.  Bake 1 hour, or until top begins to brown and sauce starts to bubble.  Slice and serve.  Top with a sprinkle of nutritional yeast, if desired.

Nutrition info. per serving:  Calories-289, Protein-14 grams, Total fat-10 grams, Saturated fat-2 grams, Carbs-38 grams, Cholesterol-1 mg, Sodium-449 milligrams, Fiber-6 grams, Sugar-10 grams

Deep Discussion Brings Happiness

Are you tired of the weather being the main focus of a majority of your conversations?  Sure, the fresh spring air that has newly arrived in many areas is worthy of discussion, but many people will continue to carry on these weather-filled conversations long past spring.  In fact, I know some people that seem to talk about the weather 12 months of the year, as if it’s their favorite topic.  And I’m not just talking about meteorologists.  More than a few people insist on having the same weather-based conversations multiple times per day.  Uncomfortable or awkward encounter with someone- let’s mention the weather.  Awkward silence- let’s fill it with small-talk about the weather.  Simply avoiding a long conversation- let’s talk about the weather…I mean there’s only so much one can say about the weather!

I’m not trying to be pessimistic about the weather because personally, I love to appreciate beautiful days and even embrace the occasional rainy day.  But sometimes these endless weather conversations just get down-right boring.

There are so many other areas of life to pursuit, and bouncing ideas off our companions is often one of the greatest forms of such exploration.  The key is finding the confidence to speak of what’s really on your mind or share your opinions on issues that go beyond simple, limited answers.

If you’re one of those persistent weather-talkers, you might just want to start taking a new approach to your daily chitchats, at least every now and then.  A study published in the journal Psychological Science, consisting of 32 male and 47 female college students, found that people who spend more time engaged in deep discussions and less engaging in meaningless chitchat seem to be happier.

The students were asked to wear an electronically activated recorder containing a microphone that would be used to record 30-second excerpts from the students’ conversations every 12.5 minutes over a period of four days.  Researchers then sorted through the conversations, labeling the 30-second clips as either small talk or substantive talk.  Small talk consisted of conversations about areas such as the weather or TV, while substantive talk included topics such as philosophy, religion, current affairs, or other topics worthy of analyzing and debating.  (Some topics of conversation lied somewhere in the middle and were unable to be classified.)

Then people’s happiness levels were measured by assessing the students’ self-reports about satisfaction with their lives and by interviewing people who personally knew the subject.

Of the happiest students’ conversations, small talk made up a mere 10%, while substantive conversations made up almost half of their conversations (45.9%).  Small talk made up almost three times as much of the unhappiest students’ conversations (28.3%), with a substantive conversation percentage that weighed in at even less than that (21.8%).

I think that Matthias Mehl, the psychologist at the University of Arizona who published a study on the subject, hit spot on the reasons as to why the results came out how they did.  According to the New York Times, Mehl proposed that substantive conversation brings happiness because of two main reasons:  human beings are compelled to find meaning in their lives and because we have a need to connect with others, which I would argue is a need to connect with others on more than just a shallow level.

If you are like me, conversations over nebulous topics with often unanswerable conclusions are the one’s that will almost never get old.  How cool is it to discuss the unexplored territory of space, or the future of our Earth, or the purpose of life?  There are so many different paths and approaches in answering these questions that the topics seem to never wear out.  These are the kinds of topics that lift my energy levels and perk my spirits…even if the answers aren’t always so optimistic.  The problem is finding enough people who are comfortable and willing to explore these insoluble, hazy, open-ended, often contentious topics.  Maybe if more people stepped out on the branch and quit replaying the story of the weather over and over again we’d see more smiling faces on the street.  Who knows?

Nadi Suddhi

Now that I have laid the foundation for the 3-part breath (see my last post), I can begin to instruct Nadi Suddhi, my favorite of the pranayama breathing practices.  I utilize this almost everyday, sometimes more than once.

“Nadi” means channel for the flow of prana, and “Suddhi” means purification.  So as you can see, the aims of Nadi Suddhi are to increase prana, our life source, within the body while purifying the mind.

If you are first starting out with this, just like with the 3-part breath, I recommend establishing a comfortable seated position.  Nadi Suddhi is carried out exactly like the 3-part breath except that it involves breathing through individual nostrils alternately.  In order to alternate the breath through each nostril, one hand (generally the right hand) is formed into Vishnu Mudra.  To do this, make a gentle fist with your right hand.  Release the last two fingers and the thumb, keeping the second two fingers tucked into the palm.

Begin by taking an inhalation.  Then, close off the right nostril with the thumb and slowly exhale through the left.  Keeping the right nostril closed, breathe in through the left.  Close off the left nostril, release the thumb from the right, and exhale through the right nostril.  Inhale through the right nostril, close off the right, and exhale through the left nostril.  Continue to alternate as you gradually begin to deepen the breath, eventually bring the breath to full 3-part breathing.

As you become familiar with Nadi Suddhi, you can begin to lengthen the exhalation, bringing it towards a ratio twice as long as the inhalation.  However, do so only in a way that is effortless, making sure not to strain as you work towards elongating the exhalation.  If the right arm gets tired, feel free to support the elbow with the left hand.  If you have taken a seated posture, make sure to keep the shoulders relaxed, spine tall, and it is recommended to keep the eyes closed.

The act of simply bringing the awareness to the breath and the alternation of breath between nostrils is so beneficial in centering and calming the mind.  In addition to focusing the mind, Nadi Suddhi is said to balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain.  It also acts as great preparation for meditation.

I set aside 10-15 minutes every morning to do some meditation in order to start my day off in a calm and peaceful manner.  I always begin with some deep breathing, followed by Kapaalabhaati (another pranayama practice that is great for awakening and bringing energy to the body), and then a couple minutes of Nadi Suddhi before going into a period of complete stillness.  When I do my Nadi Suddhi in the morning, I like to use it as a tool for optimism.  I choose an issue I may be dealing with at that particular moment in my life, whether good or bad, and use Nadi Suddhi to help me draw positive energy towards this issue.  As I inhale, I focus on bringing in the positive element of this issue, and as I exhale I focus on releasing the negative energy that opposes this element.  For instance, if I have been feeling tired all week (something I despise), then I’ll focus on drawing in energy as I inhale, and releasing fatigue as I exhale.

This can implemented for practically any issue you may want to shed light on in your life.  For instance, you could inhale happiness and exhale misery.  You could inhale balance and exhale imbalance.  You could inhale weight loss and exhale mindless eating.  You could inhale productivity and exhale procrastination.  Inhale excelling and exhale failure.  Inhale tranquility, excel stress.  Inhale health, exhale sickness. Etc. etc. etc.

This will help you to both draw positive energy towards you and instill a positive outlook on the issue you may be dealing with or want to change.  This explicitly shows that there’s always two sides to an issue, and that the positive side is never too far from your reach.  Having the openness to believe that good can come your way will make all the difference.  I love starting my day out like this because as cliche as it sounds, it really helps me believe that I can do anything I want in life if I just set my mind to it.  Starting with some Nadi Suddhi and meditation in the morning immediately instills some balance geared on the positive side into my day.

I also love utilizing Nadi Suddhi just after a run or a cardio workout before I go into a post-cardio stretch.  Typically, I’ll lay on my back with my legs up the wall and do a few minutes of the breathing practice.  It really helps to bring my breath back to a calm state and allows me to fully enjoy the present moment and any exercise endorphin high I may be feeling at the moment.  I love it because I feel like I’m bring back into my body all of the oxygen I may have lost from any huffing and puffing during running.  Plus, it sets me up with a great mindset for the forthcoming stretching.  Yeah, I may look a little strange at the gym alternating my nostrils as I breath, but who cares!  It makes me feel good and that’s what really matters.  I guess you could even say it builds confidence.

Nadi Suddhi is an incredibly useful tool that allows you to bring yoga off the mat and into your everyday life, no matter where you are.  As long as you have at least a few fingers and some available oxygen, this breathing practice can truly do wonders in calming both the mind and body.  Nadi Suddhi allows you to release all tension and anxiety from the mind and body and fully focus and enjoy the present moment.  Nothing feels better than truly living in the present moment because it’s the thoughts that we connect with the past and future that bring us pain.

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