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Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins

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I am a reformed pastry fiend. I distinctly remember having my first croissant as a child during a family vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. It was unforgettable and I was forever hooked. The problem is, I am no longer a string bean of a girl, growing taller by the day. And simple carbs leave me feeling hungry 40 minutes later.

These days, I love baking with almond flour or coconut flour. They’ve got more protein, fewer carbs, and they feel dense (in a good way). This recipe is based on the Almond Muffin Mania recipe from nutritionist and chef Rebecca Katz. Sofia and I have made them several times and Jason loves them so much, they’re gone within 24 hours! They’re also refined sugar-free.

Sidenote: I did a podcast with Katz about cancer-fighting foods that you can listen to here. This recipe is from her cookbook, The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins
Makes 24 mini muffins
A quick note: I’ve tried these with pumpkin puree and also with canned pumpkin. I try to steer clear of cans because there are often traces of BPA found in cans, but I was able to find one that said it was a BPA free liner. (Let’s hope it was the truth!) The canned pumpkin has a better consistency for this recipe. If you use pumpkin puree, I suggest straining some of the liquid out and omitting the milk.

INGREDIENTS
1 1/2 cups almond meal
1/2 cup spelt flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/3 cup coconut palm sugar
1/2 cup canned organic pumpkin or organic pumpkin puree
1/4 cup organic milk, almond milk, rice milk, or soy milk
2 organic eggs
1/4 cup unrefined virgin coconut oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon dried ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 cup chocolate chips (I use TCHO disks 66% baking drops roughly chopped)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Prepare a mini muffin tin by generously oiling each cup.

Combine the almond meal, spelt four, baking powder, coconut palm sugar, and salt in a bowl and stir with a whisk until very well combined. Separately, combine the pumpkin, milk, eggs, oil, vanilla, and spices and whisk until smooth. Add the wet mixture to the dry and mix well with a rubber spatula. Fold in the chocolate chips.

Spoon the batter into the muffin cups filling each about three quarters full. Bake for 13-15 minutes, until muffin springs back when touched in the center. Let cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then gently run a knife round the sides of the muffins to loosen them before turning them out.

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Essential Sequence for Lower Back Pain

Yoga Sequence for Lower Back Pain

I know back pain. I’ve dealt with varying degrees of back pain—from mild to severe—for more than 20 years. I’ve also worked with hundreds of students that have similar challenges. In fact, many students turn to yoga when they’re facing lower-back problems.

My yoga practice has provided me with an exceptional tool for managing my back and minimizing flare-ups. At the same time, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for using yoga to manage back discomfort. Postures that soothe some students, agitate others. Yoga is for everybody, but not all postures are for everybody. With this in mind, the goal of this sequence is to provide you with some general principles and a simple sequence that may help you with general, overall lower-back maintenance. I’m hopeful that many of these postures–if not the entire sequence–will help you keep back discomfort at bay if you practice them regularly.

Of course, this sequence is not for acute pain, nor does it account for (or provide) specific diagnoses. If you’re in acute pain, please find a medical provider. Also, please omit all postures that are contrary to your medical provider’s suggestions.

One more thought: A detailed examination of yoga for back health is beyond the scope of this blog post. But, before you launch into this sequence, there are a few important principles to pay attention to:

1. Focus on maintaining the natural curves of your spine, especially the lordotic curve of your lower back.
2. Focus on hip and leg flexibility. Yes, some students need more stability in these regions. But, generally speaking, excessive tension in the hips and legs needs to be addressed so that the pelvis can be in it’s proper position in daily life and in yoga postures.
3. Breathe slowly, smoothly, and deeply. Breathing settles the inclination for the nervous system to overreact and helps facilitate spinal motion.
4. Remember that there’s going to be a little trial and error. Some things will work for you and some things won’t.
5. Back off when something hurts. Period.
6. Lastly, all hygiene requires consistency. Consider this sequence good hygiene for your lower back. Got it?

WHY THIS SEQUENCE WORKS

POSES 1-5

Reclined hip, hamstring, and inner leg (adductor) openers should be the bread and butter of lower back maintenance strategies. Yes, a strong and stable core is essential for lower back comfort. But, if excessive hip, hamstring, or adductor tension is keeping your pelvis out of proper alignment, no amount of core strength is going to protect your lower back.

These first three poses are so valuable that you can practice them on their own — especially if you’re not comfortable with the following postures. The first four postures of this sequence don’t require your lower back or pelvis to move. Instead, you keep your lower back and pelvis stationary and move your leg. Most of you will need to hold a yoga strap instead of holding your foot. The 5th posture introduces a mild reclined twist in order to help you create more mobility in your thoracic spine (the part of your spine that your ribs connect to).

POSES 6-8

In addition to mobilizing your hips, hamstrings, and adductors, strengthening your core is essential for lower back comfort. Two of the most effective core strengtheners in yoga are what I call “Core Connector” (pose 6) and Forearm Plank (pose 8). These poses require very little spinal flexion (anterior spinal rounding) to execute correctly. If the minor rounding of your spine in the “Core Connector” is uncomfortable, do a few rounds of Forearm Plank instead. In this sequence, I threw in Down Dog between the two core postures to help you focus on lengthening your spine, which can help alleviate back discomfort.

POSES 9-10

Most people love to alternate between Cat Pose and Cow Pose. I don’t. Honestly, I just don’t find Cow Pose to be comfortable or effective in my body. Cat, I like. Cow, I can live without. So, I selected Sphinx Pose to pair with Cat Pose instead. Sphinx is the first pose in these sequence where you’re taking your back into extension. As you do this pose, don’t let your belly sink heavily into the floor since this may arch your lower back too intensely. Instead, gently press your pubic bone into the floor and draw your lower belly toward your spine. Notice how this pose feels in your lower back. Some of you will crave more, some of you will want to get out sooner rather than later.

POSES 11-14

Hip openers should be a staple in your back care routine. Pigeon Pose is most notable for the stretch it delivers to the outer and posterior hips — especially gluteus maximus and the six external rotators that live under glute max. But, Pigeon Pose — like the two postures that follow it in this sequence — also lengthens the hip flexors that lay on the front of the pelvis. This is particularly true for those you with exceptionally tight hip flexors. Posture 13 adds the hip flexor lengthening by also stretching the quadriceps. This group is rounded out with a lunging twist since mild twists feel so good for many people with muscular tension in their back.

POSES 15-16

Closing a sequence with a mild twist and a mild forward bend like Child’s Pose is soothing for nearly everyone who struggles with lower back discomfort. You can make Child’s Pose even more effective by directing your inhalations toward your lower back.

Want to practice this sequence at home? When you sign up for our newsletter, we’ll send you free printer-friendly PDF of the sequence above!

AND, if you want to feel more confident and knowledgeable about your sequencing skills, check out my e-course, The Art of Yoga Sequencing. It’s great for yoga teachers and students who want to better understand how the body works and how to stretch and strengthen effectively.

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

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Essential Sequence: Neck, Shoulders, and Upper Back

12 Yoga Poses to Release Tension in the Shoulders, Neck, & Upper Back

WHY THIS SEQUENCE WORKS

Your shoulders have a lot of moving parts. Each shoulder has 4 joints (GH, AC, SC, ST), plus layers and layers of soft tissues that include muscles, tendons, and ligaments. When you add the physical demands that the shoulders undergo on a daily basis to the complexity of the region, you wind up with an unavoidable truth: Your shoulders need regular—if not daily maintenance—if you want your upper-body to be functional and comfortable.

ONE IMPORTANT THING ABOUT YOUR SHOULDERS, NECK, AND UPPER-BACK

We frequently take our body for granted. Even as yoga practitioners, we often forget the intricate subtlety and profound majesty of the body. When we take our body for granted, we forget that it needs our attention and care. We forget that our body needs regular—if not daily maintenance—especially as our body ages. I’ve watched my body through my yoga practice for 20 years and it’s finally become clear that my shoulders, neck, and upper-back need a simple, quick, daily practice if I want them to work optimally. I created the following sequence for myself a few months ago and I’ve been extremely consistent with it. It’s usually not the entirety of my practice or training on any given day. Rather, it’s a supplement. It’s simple, basic, and hugely effective. Think about it as the equivalent of brushing your teeth or taking a shower. It’s just basic hygiene that helps you feel better.

My recommendation is to do this sequence several days a week. It’s only going to take 10-15 minutes and it will be worth every moment. If you have a regular yoga practice, sneak this in at the end of your sequence. If you train, run, workout, or ride a desk all-day long, do this sequence in the evening before you go to bed. Just figure out a way to put this into your routine.

POSES 1-3

Child’s Pose and Cat Pose gently round the upper-back and release tension in the muscles that lay between the shoulder-blades. Since the head hangs freely in these postures, the muscles in the neck don’t have to work to support the weight of the head. This creates a nice, much needed rest for these often over-worked muscles.

POSES 3-6

If you practice with me live, online or with these illustrated sequences, you’ll recognize this straightforward, 4-pose shoulder-opening combination. I use this mini-sequence all the time. In fact, you can think about these 4 poses as a “mini shoulder-opening sequence” within a sequence. If you don’t have time to do this entire practice, these 4 poses will knock plenty of the rust off of your shoulders by themselves. These postures will help create mobility in your shoulders by taking them through a significant range of motion. If sitting in virasana is difficult for you—or, you want a little more movement in your practice—you can do this combination of shoulder openers in Tadasana, Warrior 1 or Warrior 2.

POSES 7-10

Poses 7 – 10 are included to get you moving a little bit more. Even though this sequence mellow, it’s nice to have a few poses where you can feel your body work. If you externally rotate your upper-arms and broaden your shoulder-blades properly, you will release the weight of your head and neck in down dog. This will help stretch the space between your shoulder-blades. Low lunge with your fingers interlaced behind your back will stretch your the front of your shoulders and chest. The two wide-legged standing forward bends will stretch your entire back-body and release tension in your upper-body by letting the weight of your head and neck to drop.

POSES 11

Down Dog with the elbows on the floor and the hands on the wall is one of my favorite shoulder openers. It creates the same effect as Down Dog, but it increases the amount of leverage that you can stretch your shoulders with. To do this posture effectively, place your hands on the wall with your fingers pointing away from each other (your thumbs will face the ceiling). Keep your elbows shoulder-width apart. The most common mistake that people make when they’re practicing this pose is to lean their shoulders toward the wall. Instead—just like you do in Down Dog—press your shoulders toward your legs.

POSES 12

Legs Up The Wall. Need I say more?

Want to practice this sequence at home? When you sign up for our newsletter, we’ll send you free printer-friendly PDF of the sequence above!

AND, if you want to feel more confident and knowledgeable about your sequencing skills, check out my e-course, The Art of Yoga Sequencing. It’s great for yoga teachers and students who want to better understand how the body works and how to stretch and strengthen effectively.

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

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Mid-Morning Pick-Me-Up Smoothie

Pick-Me-Up Smoothie

Coffee seems to be one of those foods that’s either vilified or celebrated in the media. Since having my daughter, I am on Team Celebrate Coffee, but it seems most important to determine what works for your personal constitution. I talk about this on my podcast with nutritionist and chef Rebecca Katz (episode 15, Nourish Yourself with Cancer-Fighting Foods). You can certainly make this smoothie without the coffee component. Between the coffee, the raw cacao, and the cinnamon, this is a smoothie that’s packed with antioxidants.

Pick-Me-Up Smoothie Recipe
Makes 1 serving
I love a great protein-packed smoothie for after a yoga practice or workout. This is not one of those — this is more of an, “I’ve been playing with my daughter for 5 hours and it’s 10am,” or, “I have to dive into this Excel spreadsheet for four hours and I need an energy boost,” type of smoothie.

I have a Nespresso machine, so it’s easy for me to take a quick shot of espresso. If you don’t have espresso at your fingertips, you can substitute with a small amount of French-press, Aeropress, or whatever type of regular coffee you brew. Just start with a little bit and add more to taste so it’s not too strong!

INGREDIENTS
1 cup of unsweetened almond milk
1 banana
1 shot of espresso
1 1/2 teaspoons raw cacao or unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup of ice
optional: 1/2-1 teaspoon maple syrup

Blend everything together in a blender and enjoy.

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When Students Behave Badly, Part II

Jason Crandell teaching yoga

For teachers, yoga classrooms are where we work. It’s where we share our passion for the practice, where we earn our livelihood, and where we help students learn skillful ways to manage the human condition. Of course, the studio is also where students come to learn and practice. Students have the reasonable expectation that they can be themselves and experience a safe and supportive environment. And, they can –if they’re reasonable. And, students are reasonable — usually.

Like all group environments — especially where the general ethos is “do whatever makes you feel good,” and where the stated fire-code allotment for number of humans that can safely fit into a room is regularly ignored — the social etiquette of YogaLand can be open to interpretation. From time-to-time, students go off the rails and it can be challenging to know how to respond. In Part One, I talked about students who “do their own thaaang” and students who are so physically satisfied with their practice that they serenade class with moans and groans that are better suited for more intimate environments.

As teachers, we need to ask ourselves two related questions when we encounter questionable behavior in a class: First, is the behavior truly a problem for the group? And second, do we need to take control of the situation to protect the overall group experience, or do we need to let it ride?

Now, let me paint a few scenes.

SHIRTLESS, SWEATY, AND PROXIMATE

The first time I taught at Power Yoga Germany in Hamburg, Dirk, the co-owner of the studio, made an announcement before my workshop. After the announcement, he told me in English what he just said to German-speaking students. He said, bluntly, that the studio has two rules and they’re both for men. Number one, he said, “We have two bathrooms and they’re both co-ed, so men need to sit down when they piss because men can never hit the target and women don’t need to put up with such inaccuracies.” Second, he said, “Men, when you get hot and start to sweat, you might want to take your shirt off. But, guess what? This isn’t allowed because the woman next to you doesn’t want to shower in the sweat that will be pouring off your body.”

Just when you thought chivalry was dead, right? I’m not going to expound on the first rule, but as a married man I can assure my male readers that hygiene in a shared bathroom is appreciated. So, take this consideration to heart if you’re a man using shared facilities. When it comes to the “Yoga: men gone wild, edition,” I don’t personally have a problem with men going topless in class. But, heavy-sweaters (men or women), please grab a towel and wipe down the region during and after class. And, teachers, you’ve got to get on your students to mop up their scene. It’s not just basic social etiquette. Students that are sweat on by their neighbor — or slip and slide on someone else’s sweat while walking to the restroom — are much likely to reconsider coming to another public class. So, teachers, if the need arises, simply grab a towel (nearly every studio has them), hand it to sweaty john or sweaty betty, give a quick glance toward their puddle and nicely say, “If you don’t mind.”

SAVASANA? NO THANKS!

I’m going to be honest, I don’t mind when people leave before Savasana. Yes, it’s important. Yes, it’s part of the practice. Yes, we live in a vata-deranged culture and everyone needs Savasana. I’m not going to argue against those points. But, some people have children to pick up at an exact time, or they have an incredibly brief window between jobs. Or, they simply can’t handle laying on the ground for 6-10 minutes in a room full of other adults. I genuinely have empathy for all of these situations.

But, I’ve got to tell you, it takes every single second of patience that I’ve accrued in 20 years of practicing yoga, to keep my blood pressure from spiking when someone leaves in the middle of Savasana — or, worse, 10 seconds before Savasana is over! There’s a natural settling-in phase when students are transitioning to Savasana. I don’t think students are disturbed when others leave during the onset of savasana because there’s already plenty of sound and rustling while everyone prepares for their 10-minute rest. When someone leaves in the middle of Savasana it’s a much more significant disturbance. And, it’s almost always made worse by the student leaving because they’re trying to be quiet, which translates to 45 seconds of hearing a mat sloooooowly peeling off the ground, 45 seconds of floor boards creaking while the student walks to the back of the room to collect their belongings, 90 seconds of the belongings shifting around until the student is able to put their handmade eye-bag away, and another 30 seconds of the squeaky studio door being closed.

As teachers, there’s almost no way to guarantee that someone doesn’t occasionally bail half-way through Savasana. And, hey, maybe someone just remembered that they’re needed on a conference call or whatever. We’re all human and this is going to happen. But, there are two things you can do to minimize these incidents. First of all, end your !@#$%^% classes on time!!! Don’t expect that everyone in your class can go over by 5 minutes or more because you took too long to get to your peak pose! We’ve all gone over — I’ve gone over — but I think it’s incredibly important to end class when the schedule says that class is over.

The second thing you can do is make periodic announcements in your class that you’ll be ending on time, that you’d prefer students to stay for Savasana, but if anyone needs to leave early, do so before Savasana begins or when class is over. Namaste.

SHOWER, SOAP, AND DEODORANT? NOPE, I’D RATHER NOT!

We’ve all forgotten to wear deodorant. And, sometimes, the deodorant that we’re wearing is having a bad day and is not up to the task of masking our wild side. Perhaps you believe that deodorant is evil and that it masks your natural pheromones. Fine. All those things are fine. But, attempting to have a body odor that won’t knock a pigeon out of mid-air while it’s cruising past the window of the yoga studio is, I believe, part of the modern social contract.

As a yoga teacher, I’ve never approached someone about their odor. As a studio manager, I have. Fortunately, it’s very rare that someone’s odor rises to level of a necessary conversation. But, it does happen. I can think of three occasions over a 5-year period where, as a yoga director, I had enough complaints from the community about people’s odor that I needed to intervene. It was a high-end fitness facility and the problem was that each of the individuals involved were doing intensive training before coming to class. They’d come to class directly after their training and arrive in a remarkably funky state. This wasn’t once or twice. This was a few classes every week for months. Eventually, in each of the scenarios, I had to address the individuals. It was difficult, but managers have difficult jobs sometimes.

So, if you have a student whose odor is compromising the group experience, take it to your manager and ask them to have a conversation with them. If you prefer to handle it yourself, go for it. Be nice. Of course.

RING-A-DING-DING! ANYBODY THERE????

Cell phones are going to ring, buzz, ding, quack, play questionable ring tones, like “Oops I didn’t again, I played with your heart…” during class. Yes, one Saturday morning during Savasana my class was serenaded with a Britney Spears ringtone. And, yes, I’ve taught yoga for a long time.

I ignore 999 out of 1,000 notifications that I hear during class. This is yoga, so let’s focus even if someone’s bag is chirping. But, on occasion, teachers will realize that either A) the person that’s calling the phone nestled in someone’s purse is not going to give up, or B) it’s not a ringtone making that noise, it’s an alarm. Here’s what I’ll say during class in these situations: “Hey, I know everyone has phones and we all forget to turn them to airplane mode on occasion. But, if this phone is still going off during Savasana, everyone is doing pushups for 10-minutes, okay? So, even if you are 100% sure that it’s not your phone that is making this racket, please go check.”

That gets the job done.

I want to conclude with a reminder that this two-part series is written with love. Seriously. I wouldn’t have a fraction of the life that I have without my students and I know that most teachers feel the same way. At the same time, this is our workplace and it’s important that we have the tools to manage some of challenges that happen while we’re teaching. Be loving, be clear, and have boundaries.

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