Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Yoga - hurts so good

*disqualifier - none of the people in these pictures is me.*

I am not a gym person. I have spent more time in gyms than I care to remember, and whether working on the weight machines, running on the treadmill, or climbing endless flights of imaginary stairs, I was always bored, exhausted, and ready to go home. I know that you're supposed to exercise to, like, live longer and junk, but if one hour of gym time gives you one more hour of life, that doesn't exactly seem worth it to me.

Trade one hour of bad times for one hour of good times! Or you could just skip the bad times and get the good times anyway! See what I mean?

Gym kitteh.

Plus gym people kind of freak me out. I love the little gym that I currently belong to, and everyone who works there and works out there is really nice, including the owner. But he is ALWAYS EXCITED in the manner of gym people. I do not understand having that much energy. Take a seat, read a book, at least blink once in a while. You do not seem to be blinking as much as you should be. (The parking lot of this gym is shared with a dentist, and the dentist has a Hummer with the personalized license plate NOVOCN. Leland thinks this is awesome. I think this is terrifying.)

Luckily for me, there is one gym thing that I not only enjoy, I crave. Yoga. And not just because Yoga teachers are rarely of the Jack Russell Terrier / Small Child on a Sugar Rush energy level. Yoga is like exercise, stress release, and therapy all rolled up into one.

I've had a sad break of almost six months in my yoga practice, but in late December I returned (with a vengance - dum dum dummmm) when I used some Christmas money for a gym membership. Currently the gym offers classes only twice a week, but there is an enthusiastic yoga community there and the gym owner promised me that they were at least moving up to three times a week. When I lived in Minnesota I belonged to a gym with classes every day, and I did usually go 5-6 times per week.

The instructor at my new gym, A, is probably the best instructor I've ever had. She's my age, tiny, blond, pretty, and from California, and she speaks in this calm, husky voice. It's a waste of time to hate, but you know, when A first came into the room, I thought, "I hate her". I can't help it! My culture has programmed me to constantly evaluate my own body in comparison to other women! But you can't hate A, even though she is better at everything than you. She's too awesome, and too great of a teacher.

This brings me to one of the Great Rules of Yoga, something you hear over and over when you practice. "Yoga is not a competition." This is something I often have problems with. I am very competitive, so competitive that competition isn't even fun for me because I take losing so hard. Most people don't realize that I'm competitive because I try not to place myself in situations where I need to compete. If I'm not competing with the person next to me, I try to compete with myself. This is very stupid in yoga, because then I get annoyed when the person next to me seems to have no connective tissue. I fail to realize how well I'm doing with what I've been given in my own body, and I push too hard.

No amount of over-competitiveness will ever make me able to do this.

If I would try, I'd look like this.

Being over-competitive makes me miss all of the great results. And yoga gives you great results.

I am extremely inflexible - or I was, especially in my hips and legs. I took ballet for ten years as a child, and I remember my teacher pushing on my back in frustration, trying to get me to set my forehead on my stretched out legs. I remember her saying, "you're not trying!" when in fact I was in a lot of pain. When I began yoga, I hated doing any kind of forward bend because I was so stiff. I could sit at a 90 degree angle, and that was it. Now, while I still can't rest my forehead on my knees, it is a manageable goal that I know I will reach within the next few months. Just the other day, a yoga newbie in my class told me that I was "very flexible". False, but I will take your praise!

Once I could only do this.

Now I can do this!

Yoga is a whole body workout, and there are naturally some things that we are better at and some things that we need to work on. Of course, I always want to do the things I'm already awesome at, but according to my teacher, that's not a good idea. I did get an immediate boost in yoga from my wonderfully flexible back. I also have broad shoulders and am easily able to build muscle in my arms and back. I was inordinately pleased the other day when Leland said, "I can see new definition in your forearms". Forget this stupid trope that girls shouldn't have muscles. I want Michelle Obama arms!

I can do this. Because I am awesome.

When I started yoga, I didn't really like it. I kept going because I had already paid for several classes and I was going with a friend. While doing yoga, I felt (in no particular order) weak, fat, confused, frustrated, uncoordinated, and uncomfortable.

After the class was over, I kept going mostly out of stubbornness and the fact that it was still better than the treadmill (where I felt weak, fat, and about to die). I had several DVDs, which I used without any real conviction. I briefly went to classes in England, which was a horrible experience. The teacher called out the poses like a drill instructor, then actually yelled at me for modifying a pose because I was uncomfortable, and called me a wimp in front of about 30 other people in the class.

I can't imagine any one of the other teachers I've had being so cruel. Or ineffectual! One of the other Great Rules of Yoga is that you need to listen to your own body and move at your own pace. I am stubborn and determined and I push myself harder than I probably should. If the teacher says, "you can stay here or..." I'm going to shoot for the "or" option if it kills me. If I am modifying a pose, it's for a reason.

So I was disenchanted with yoga. Then I met Shiva Rea. Well, I didn't meet her, I bought her DVD. And she taught me to love yoga. The DVD is neat in that there are many different little segments which you can stitch together in any order you want to create probably 50 different "classes" depending on what you're interested in working on. No DVD is as good as a real-life instructor, but doing this DVD everyday built up my strength and convinced me to return to an actual class.

Shiva Rea, Yogi extraordinaire

Day to day, yoga is about listening really hard to what the teacher is saying and being mindful of every inch of your body. Where is your weight centered? What are your toes doing? Is your hip tucked enough? Is your face relaxed? And, for me, Are you hyperextending your joints? It's when you have this control and mindfulness that you are able to make those wonderful connections. With the simplest shift, a pose moves from unimaginable to possible, from uncomfortable to natural.

I still remember the first breakthrough I ever had. It came in the transition between plank pose and chaturanga, where you slowly and with control lower your body with your arms, like a very slow reverse push-up. I plopped right from plank to the ground, every time. I thought, this is impossible. I saw everyone around me doing it and I just couldn't. Then the teacher said, "tuck your elbows tightly against your chest."

From plank...

TA-DA!! My arms were strong enough! Instant self-esteem booster! And every time I do this transition, lowering myself slowly into chaturanga, I feel like He-man.

... to chaturanga.

A few months later I had another success when I worked out that crow pose is mostly about where your weight is centered over your body, and less about your arm strength. Suddenly I was balancing my legs on my own arms.

I still can't believe that I can do this. It just seems so unlikely.

Another great moment was the first time I lifted myself into wheel pose (which on the playground we used to call bridge, but that's another yoga pose - confusing. Also A hates calling it wheel pose and always uses the Sanskrit name but I can't remember it). A went through the set-up for the pose with me about ten times, but I couldn't make the final push into the position. Finally, I moved my hands just a bit closer to my ears, and then lifted myself right off the ground.

Further evidence of my awesomeness.

Every day in class I see the disbelieving faces of new students when they encounter certain poses. There is no way, they think, that my body will ever do that. I always try and tell new students to stick with yoga until they begin to see results, because I know how many great things await them if they are patient and persistent. I know they don't believe me yet, but soon they'll understand.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

How to Make Smiley Cookies

I started this blog because we were mobile and constantly doing interesting(ish) new things and being in new places. Now we're sedentary, at least for a couple years, so I've been thinking about the directions I want to take the blog in. I'd like to add more of the things that I actually do for fun - movie and book critiques, posts about yoga and dance, restaurant reviews, and posts about recipes and food we make at home. Hopefully this will get us away from the all-animals-all-the-time rut.

Hey Trust!

Who, me?

They are super cute though. In one brief bit of animal news, our former foster Butternut AND the orange kitten Thistle have been adopted. Trust's sister Hope has also been adopted. Big virtual high-fives for all of them!

Less happy news is that our dog Nova had a seizure on Thursday. It was terrifying, I think the world actually sort of collapsed around her like that special effect in horror movies. I picked her up while she was still seizing and drove to the vet. The episode ended during the drive and she was suddenly fine and super-excited to be in the car. She may have epilepsy, she may need medication, or she might never have a seizure again. Epilepsy is a common condition in dogs, so I've learned, and usually very controllable.

But onward to the meat of the post: it's Super Bowl Sunday! And the Steelers are playing the Packers. Not only am I required by marital law to support the Steelers, as a Minnesota native I must root for whoever is playing against the Packers.

Then there is the obligatory Super Bowl party with the friends and other nice people, and of course we need to bring something. So on a whim, I decided to make smiley cookies, beloved dessert of the chain restaurant Eat n' Park, which began in Pittsburgh and has locations throughout the area. They are a true icon of the region and Eat n' Park always makes Steelers Smiley Cookies during football season.

This is our goal, people.

To begin, you need cooled sugar cookies, lots of powdered sugar, milk, and food coloring. I'm not going to include my sugar cookie recipe because I think that would break some copyright laws, but it's the sugar cookie recipe from Baking Illustrated by America's Test Kitchen. I'm pretty lazy and I usually don't do anything that seems slightly optional in recipes (like rotating the cookie sheets halfway through cooking), but I slavishly do everything in an America's Test Kitchen recipe because they are The. Best. Ever.

They will tell you how to do everything and why you should do it that way. It's great!

Making the Cookies:

Two years ago I tried a Smiley Cookies recipe I found online that was supposed to mimic the Eat n Park recipe. Don't do that. It was tremendously disappointing. Just use your favorite sugar cookies recipe. Your sugar cookies should be large and soft in the middle. Probably you will need to make a double batch of whatever recipe you use, because most cookies are not intended to be as large as SCs. If you're like me, you always make cookies too large anyway. I'm always having this conversation with myself: "this recipe is supposed to make 30 cookies?! It only made six (om nom nom), uh, five!"

Cooking time and temperature needs to be adjusted accordingly. I found I needed to put the temp about 10 degrees lower than the recipe called for and needed to bake 2 minutes less.

Dip your hands in cool water, then take a fistful of dough (literally). Roll the dough into a ball then press gently down into a circle. The water will keep the dough from sticking to your hands.

Scale! With slight perspective problems because I was trying to hold the camera with one hand!

That thing the cookies are on is called a silpat and they are freaking sweet. You lay them over your cookie sheets and nothing sticks to them - no greasing or spraying required. Your dough may spread or rise or not spread or not rise depending on the recipe. Cookies will spread more if the dough has been sitting out, so put the dough in the fridge while the first batch is baking.

Tower of cookies!

(By the way, if anyone is thinking about birthday or Christmas presents for me, you can get me cooling racks. I have one. This is insufficient.)

Cookies must be cool before you ice them. Don't be a jerk and start icing too early!

Making the Icing

This is a very simple, utilitarian icing. Put some powdered sugar in a bowl. You know, some. A cup or so. Then put in a slosh of milk. A little slosh. Start with a tablespoon or thereabouts. Stir it in with a fork. I'm warning you to start with just a tiny bit of milk because you only need a little bit. The icing shouldn't be too runny, it should be a bit difficult to stir. You can add more sugar or more water as needed. If you want to get all crazy put in a drop of vanilla, almond extract, peppermint extract, or anything really. (But don't you do this if you're making Smiley Cookies! Unless you are not a Smiley Cookie Purist!)

Then comes the fun part, making the colors. The traditional SC has a white background with colored features. For our Steelers and Packers cookies we need four colors: Steelers yellow, Packers yellow, Packers green, and black.

Steelers yellow: lots of yellow food coloring. One SINGLE drop of red. I mean it, just one. And then add more yellow to keep it from going too orange.

Packers yellow: lots of yellow food coloring and that's it.

Packers green: lots of green food coloring. Two drops of red, two drops of blue. This will give you a nice dark green that is still bright.

black: the hardest color to screw up. Just keep adding colors! Start out with equal parts green, blue, and red. If it looks too green, add more red. Too blue, add more green. Just keep going. If you're desperate, add yellow. If the icing gets too runny from all the liquid, add more sugar and then more of all the other colors. If it's too gray, double all the colors. It's hard to get a true-looking black, but you can come close.

Ok, now it's time to run out to the store, because you didn't believe me when I told you you'd need a lot of powdered sugar. A LOT. Maybe your roommate or significant other will go for you, but probably they'll just whine about how you never go to the store for them when they run out of something. You could try threatening this person by telling them you'll withhold cookies from them, but this is a largely empty threat unless you're a true jerk.

Woo-hoo, icing time!

Oh crap, icing is harder than it looks.

Lay down parchment paper first, cause things are about to get MESSY. Put the foundation color (white for standard, Steelers yellow, or Packers yellow) into a sandwich baggie and cut off a SMALL corner to make your own icing bag. To get down the foundation color, put a bunch in the very center of the cookie and use an angled spatula to spread out to the edges.

Now is when you'll find out if your icing is too runny. If it is, oh well. Your friends are going to eat them anyway.

After you're done spreading the base layer, WAIT. I mean it, take a nap, clean the kitchen, go do something else for at least a half an hour. You're giving the bottom layer time to set up a bit and get a little hard so that the eyes, nose, and smile will sit on top of the icing instead of sinking into it.

See? This looks dumb! I told you to wait.

Now you may proceed. Don't worry, you'll finally get the hang of it by the last cookie.

The single good-looking one.

Look, he has a head injury. Two differently sized pupils. And some kind of skin condition (those are just cookie crumbs, I SWEAR).

90% of the cookies will look like a kindergartner's craft project. Whatever. They're still cookies. How often does someone make and decorate homemade cookies for you? Not very often. Your friends will still eat them, and they'll think its adorable that you brought them all your stupid looking cookies.

And that's it!

Go Steelers!