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Morning Habits

4 Feb

Like many people, I’m a habitual creature when I first wake up. Sometimes I think we need habit to save us from ourselves in those first few groggy moments of the day (or at least until I find where I left my glasses this time). Also like many people, I’m stiff in the morning. Fortunately, I do have a really good tool in my kit for this that I use everyday, call it yoga’s morning coffee: Awareness of Breath and Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation). If you have 5-7 minutes and a willing heart and mind, it’s yours to use too. Yoga’s nonexclusive like that.

Yoga's other "morning coffee" is a rather silly utkatasana apparently.

Yoga’s other “morning coffee” is a rather silly utkatasana apparently.

The key component as always is the breath. If you’re ever unsure of where to start in yoga, always begin by bringing awareness to your breath. The lips are sealed. What is the temperature? Is the pace fast or slow? Does it feel narrow or very round? Is it restricted? Where do you feel your breath in your body? Don’t judge any of these things as good or bad, and notice where you are at the present moment without any anxiety about what it means.

Next, start to lengthen the inhales and exhales. Try inhaling for 4 counts, and then exhaling for 4 counts—you can expand it more if you wish. Constrict the back of the throat slightly so that you can hear your own breath. Consider this thought: Each time you inhale, your body takes that breath, filters it, breaks it down into the essential components it needs to use, and sends those where needed.  When you exhale it gets rid of all of the junk that is no longer necessary. It does all of this without conscious thought for much of our lives, which is crazy and amazing. In yoga practice, we become conscious of the breath’s power, and every breath you take becomes an opportunity to bring in new possibility and life, and to let go of something that you don’t need anymore.

The more you exhale, the deeper the next inhale can be. And so the more that you are willing to let go, the more possibility there will be.

What a beautiful reality to live in.

So as you allow yourself to melt into the rhythm of breath, it becomes linked with movement in Surya Namaskar where that breath will initiate and guide each and every movement.

Surya Namaskar warms the muscles and links breath to movement, but it is also a way of expressing gratitude for the sun as the source of all life on the planet. This ancient practice exists in many theologies, but also in everyday life. Have you ever lifted your face toward the summer sun to feel its warmth? In taking a moment to appreciate the way it felt on your skin, you performed a kind of sun salutation. In yoga practice, sun salutations can act as a way to prepare the body for asana practice, or be an entire practice as-is. Investing in this time to link your mind, body, and breath improves concentration, focus, and (most importantly for me) patience.

This video will guide you through the breath and movement for a variation of the classical sun salutation. If you have any questions, or are in need of a modification, please feel free to post in the comments and I will do my best to assist you.

Do subscribe to my YouTube channel if you’re interested in seeing more. Teaching is most often guided by questions, so knowing what you’d like to see is important to me as well. Feel free to email me with video demo requests.

Ciao for now,


Neen’s Notes is BACK (with cookies)!

16 Jan

Almost a year after quietly fading away, here I am. So what happened?


Yoga Teacher Training Graduation, March 2014.

Yoga Teacher Training Graduation, March 2014.

Okay, you want details. After I finished yoga teacher training at the end of March 2014, there was a void. It was a steady, dull ache that huddled in my heart and reminded me constantly of how much I missed the long weekends learning about yoga with kind souls. I grasped at every opportunity I could to take classes from my friends (now amazing yoga teachers!), but I couldn’t get grounded. Things at work were really challenging. The organization where I worked had gone through huge transitions in procedures and leadership, and the growing pains got more palpable with time. Every time one fire started to die out, another blazed in its place. There was sadness within me that I couldn’t shake, but I did my best to keep grinding forward.

As we do each spring, Joe and I made our grand return to Boston for PAX East in April and that was when everything started to change. While we were away, two local studios emailed me and offered me yoga teaching jobs, and one of them offered to hire me to do some writing work for their website and blog. That night I was sitting at a panel event hosted by the team from Giant Bomb. All of the panelists and their guests were having fun—they’d found a way to take their joy and make a living doing it. I decided that night to leave my office job.

In Boston for PAX 2014, the weekend it all began!

In Boston for PAX 2014, the weekend it all began!

The next few months were an insane experiment. At the beginning, I only had one or two classes a week that were permanent, so I took substitute teaching positions as often as possible. I spent the rest of my time writing about yoga for a studio blog, and studying therapeutic yoga as a way to expand and continue my training. I wrote class plans, built a website, found a graphic designer to create a logo, started developing a social media presence on Instagram and YouTube, and began to teach myself the ways of Adobe Premiere Pro for video editing (oh we have a ways to go together). And I read. I devoured yoga books, always looking for things to share with my students.

It was not and is not a linear experience. In July, the studio that hired me to write for their blog decided to take their student outreach in a different direction, and at the same time another studio cancelled two of my classes because of low attendance. I was crushed. Maybe I’m not actually cut out for this. I was having some health issues too, and felt frustrated and overwhelmed by everything.

I started to really question myself and did some serious svadhyaya (self-reflection in yoga practice). They say comparison is the thief of joy, but it is also the creator of doubt. I saw my friends in crazy arm balances and strength poses that I didn’t have in my practice and thought, “I can’t offer that to my students. How can I possibly be a good yoga teacher?”

The answer came quietly: You do you.

Instead of focusing on what wasn’t there, I remembered my friends during teacher training telling me that they wished they could just lay in savasana and listen to my voice. It is round, rich, and warm. It is probably my favorite quality about my physical self. So I started using that—sharing a soft chant while students were in a restorative pose or reading a poem during our break between standing and seated poses. People smiled. They thanked me for an experience.

I reminded myself of the importance of maintaining a beginner’s mindset. I was intimidated when I came to yoga by all of the strength and flexibility around me. The teachers I returned to were those who took that away, the ones who offered variations so everyone could try something, and who encouraged students to own their practice. Those are the people I thought, and still think of, when I stand at the front of the room. I decided (rather radically for me) to love myself unconditionally. I looked in the mirror and said aloud, “I love you.” Nothing else needed to be said.

When I let go of trying to be what I thought I needed to be, my confidence grew. I was me when I stood up, and not anyone else. Sure, teachers beg, borrow, and steal cues from one another all the time. That’s the amazing thing about yoga—there is always, always, always something more to learn. Part of the reason I love social media is because the Instagram community is chock full of talented, smart yogis who share their journeys. It makes me feel so connected and whole knowing that we are all in this together, all working together.

And here it is, 2015. I finished my graduate certificate in nutrition in the fall, I’m teaching yoga seven days a week, and have learned to just ride this wave. Classes will ebb and flow, but there is always more to learn and there is always an outlet to share it with others. I’m making my own way and living life on my own terms. It is not always easy and I do still feel twinges of doubt or the urge to control, but more and more I am learning to breathe through it. Life happens one moment at a time.

The universe has put me exactly where I need to be, and I trust that. I have faith. I am welcoming it in, and I hope you’ll join me.

And because this is, after all, Neen’s Notes, I also have cookies!

Over 6 years of Notes, and I never shared my favorite cookie recipe with you: Shortbread. Shame on me.

How lame is that? The truth is that it’s such a simple recipe that I never thought to share it. And then I was making a batch last week and thought that of all the things I make, it is pretty much the embodiment of those words: You do you. (Well, me doing me, but that sounds strange.)

Why? A few reasons. First of all, it’s pretty much pie dough with a slightly different method. And if you know anything about this blog, you know my love for pastry dough runs deep. Secondly, it’s four ingredients that I always have in the house. That’s it. And third of all, in encapsulates my loves of recipe manipulation and kitchen science, because I tried a whooooooole lot of shortbread recipes (tough job), and then made up my own based on knowing exactly what I was trying to achieve in terms of texture and flavor. For me, the perfect shortbread is crisp, but flaky on the inside.

Let’s do it.

Crisp Shortbread Cookies


  • 4.5 oz. (9 tbsp.) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • Heavy ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • *Optional: 2 tbsp. corn starch. Adding cornstarch to your flour will make these ultra-snappy and crispy. Especially ideal if you want to use these as sandwich cookies or plan to ice them. It gives them sturdiness without making them tough.
  • *Optional: Sprinkles!

Team Shortbread


Preheat an oven to 325 degrees F.

Combine the flour and salt (and cornstarch if using it) in a bowl and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy and smooth.


Nice and fluffy, buy you can taste to be “sure”.

Slowly add the flour mixture to the creamed butter and sugar, mixing slowly and just until pieces of dough start to adhere together. Pour this on to a clean surface.


Bring the dough together with your hands and knead just until smooth. Wrap in plastic wrap and rest the dough in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.


Smooth and ready to wrap/roll.

Lightly flour a counter and roll the dough out until it’s about a 1/4 in. thick, and cut out shapes as desired. I used a fluted 1 ½ in. biscuit cutter and got 2 dozen cookies.


Any shape will work, but if there are a lot of fine edges, roll the dough a bit thicker.

Put the cookies on a baking sheet with about ½ in. of space between them. They won’t spread very much. Here you can add sprinkles if you like.


Ready to bake.

Bake the cookies on a rack in the middle of the oven for about 17 minutes, or until the edges are lightly golden.





Sparkling shortbread, yum.


Mmm, so flaky inside.

 And that is the delicious, and dare I say very happy, return of Neen’s Notes. It’s good to be back.

Ciao for now,


Meet Your Feet

11 Nov

Feet. Boy do feet get ignored. I never realized this until I started going to therapeutic yoga and my teacher Marianne had us do toe exercises. We sat with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. The exercises started off simple, “Lift your big toe up and keep your little toes down,” and progressed often to strange places like, “Big toe down, little toe down, three middle toes up. Okay, big toe and little toe up, three middle toes down!”

Go ahead. I’ll wait while you try that. Oh, and breathe. Breathing is important.

Hard, isn’t it? Our toes, like our fingers, should be able to move independently of one another. But unlike our fingers, our toes are constantly wrapped up inside socks or shoes and rarely experience full sensation or range of motion. Marianne told us not be discouraged, because with consistent practice those neural pathways between the brain and toes could be re-awakened.

Yoga gets you back in touch with your feet and toes relatively quickly. Whether it’s hooking your big toe with the first two fingers and thumb in a balance, grabbing the soles of the feet for happy baby or cobbler’s pose, or shifting weight to/grounding through different parts of the foot, we tend to focus on feet a lot. That’s because every asana, pranayama, and meditation requires a solid base of support. In order to find the “easy comfortable seat” in practice, we must first be able to feel grounded.

When I want to stretch and strengthen my toes and feet simultaneously, I like to flow through variations of utkatasana (awkward pose / chair pose) that require strength and stabilization through the ankles, feet, and toes, but also require pliability in the toes and general lengthening of the foot muscles. Try the sequence below, flowing through it three times.

If you have trouble with the balance, do the sequence with a wall behind you. Not only will it assist balance, it will also help you find the perfect alignment for a nice, straight spine throughout. You can also try the sequence with feet flat on the floor to learn the breathing cues before adding the tip-toes.

Cues for the breath are below the video.

Inhale, and come high up on the toes and bring the arms up parallel to the floor.

As you exhale, slowly begin to sit down on the tops of the toes, keeping the spine long and upright. Press the heels forward, bringing more weight toward the first and second toe to keep the ankles or heels from splaying outward.

Engage the inner thigh muscles and pull the navel back toward the spine. Take a full inhale. On the exhale, slowly begin to hinge at the hips until the torso comes into line with the hips.

Keep sinking the hips low, pushing the heels forward, and drawing the lower abdominals in. Bring the arms alongside the body with palms facing down, or interlace hands behind the back and lift them up on an inhale for a shoulder stretch.

To release, inhale and slowly hinge back up from the hips, engaging the core through the heels, inner thighs, and abdominal muscles.  Return the arms to the parallel position. Hold the upright pose through the exhale.

Inhale, and come high up on the toes with straight legs, and exhale to release to tadasana (mountain pose).

The keys to working through this sequence from the bottom up are:

Ground all of the toes. Really feel as if you are “plugging in” to the ground.

Press the heels forward firmly throughout and let the toes bend.

Engage the inner thighs (as if you were squeezing a ball or block between the legs) to keep the legs in line with the hips and feet.

Pull in the lower abdominals and draw the navel back toward the spine.

Lengthen through the spine. Traction from tailbone all the way through the crown of the head.

Broaden the back and retract the shoulder blades to keep an open chest and lots of space for your even breaths in and out of the nose.

Squeeze all five fingers together. It might seem silly, but this forces the arms to engage all the way through the finger tips and stabilizes their position.

Breathe evenly. The steadier the breath, the steadier the balance.

Steady your gaze. In the upright position, the gaze is ahead. As you fold, slowly shift the gaze to a point on the floor between your toes.

Above all, have fun! It’s just practice and play.
Try more utkatasana variations and standing poses with me at Hot Hatha Detox on Mondays at 10 am, or Hot Hatha Classic on Wednesdays at 6 am and Fridays at 4:15 pm at Mind Your Body Oasis.

“Come on Baby, Let’s Do the Twist!”

17 Sep

Stretch, strengthen, and twist your way into the day. This brief sequence is a wonderful way to awaken the body. Take it moving with the natural pace of your breath and allow that breath to  you through the postures. The video demonstrates the sequence, and cues for the body and breath can be found below the video:

Twist and Balance for Strength and Flexibility from Neen LeMaster on Vimeo.

Begin with the feet together, standing in tadasana (mountain pose).

Inhale deeply and pull the right knee up toward the chest. Exhale to ground the standing leg, squeezing the front of the thigh and rooting through all four corners of the foot.

Inhale and reach for the outside of the right foot with the left hand, exhale and extend the right leg forward as you reach the right arm back into parivrtta padangusthasana (revolved hand to big toe pose. If this hamstring stretch in the right leg is too intense, simply keep the right knee bent and bring the left hand to the outside of the right knee.

Slowly move the gaze to the right and take a full inhale and exhale.

Inhale deeply, and on the exhale release the foot and reach the right leg behind you, as you bring the right hand to the mat and reach the left arm high, coming into parivrtta anjaneyasana (twisted lunge). Exhale.

Inhale and reach the left arm back as the right arm reaches forward, coming into a standing version of the twist, and exhale completely as the gaze moves toward the left hand. Take a full cycle of breath.

On a long, full inhale, shift the weight into the left leg and reverse the motion, reaching for the outside of the right foot with the left hand and extending that leg forward once more as the right arm reaches back. Again, keep the right knee bent if this extension is too intense of a stretch. Exhale and turn the gaze toward the right hand.

Take a full cycle of breath in the twist. Think about lengthening the crown toward the ceiling as you twist toward your back hand. Then exhale and release with control.

Repeat the sequence on the opposite side.

Like this sequence? Want to twist, twist, and twist some more? Join me for Hot Hatha Detox at Mind Your Body Oasis in Crystal City on Monday mornings at 10 am, with Shari on Wednesday evenings at 7 pm, or with Soozie on Friday mornings at 10 am.

“Find a Comfortable Seat…”

23 Aug

This is one of those yoga teacher phrases I used to internally roll my eyes at when I was first practicing yoga. If you started practicing after prolonged joint damage, have low back pain, tight hips, sciatica, or sore knees, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

It seems like a lot of folks just fold one leg in front of the other and sit, doesn’t it? Yoga’s second most famous cross-legged seated position (aside from the controversial lotus pose) is sukhasana, which is often translated as “easy seat.” When I learned that during teacher training I gave a sarcastic laugh and mentioned that sitting cross-legged was just about the least comfortable way I could think to sit.

One ankle always fell asleep, I felt like I was rounding in my lower back, my knees were practically up to my chest, and eventually that feeling in the lower back transformed into a dull ache that lasted for hours.

Like many asanas, I assumed that finding ease in this posture was about patience. Just as a childhood full of swimming butterfly had given me a strong back and shoulders, it had also created solid muscles in my hips. And I was not the most intelligent athlete as a younger person. I focused my efforts on strength and endurance with little care about flexibility. So I built those solid, strong muscles, but never allowed them to be pliable. Asking them to simply release, relax, and lengthen right away wasn’t going to happen.

So how could I find a comfortable seat? Even though we almost always meditated after asana practice when the muscles were warmer, it still felt plain uncomfortable every time. It was frustrating because I tried so hard to shut out the fiery soreness that radiated almost like sciatica down my leg that I lost the plot entirely.

Did you ever try sitting on a block?

Wait, I can do that?

I don’t know why this was such a revelation to me. We encourage students to use props in order to help the body align properly in all sorts of asanas. For some reason, I always thought that doing so for meditation meant that I lacked discipline of a sort.

Finding a quiet place within is challenging in a cacophonous world, so why make it any harder than it needs to be? Why not support yourself? And by support yourself, I mean in the literal and figurative sense. Be kind to yourself and be okay with the idea that sitting cross-legged on the floor is not an easy, comfortable seat for you.

Then take one that is! Imagine how much more you could go inside if you weren’t thinking about your foot falling asleep or sore hips?  Imagine what deeper places you could explore if you took the time to eliminate a distraction that doesn’t need to be there?

It’s not a compromise, it’s accommodating your body with compassion.

The world lost one of yoga’s great lights this week. B.K.S Iyengar is the man credited with bringing yoga to the western world. The Iyengar yoga lineage is highly focused on proper alignment in order to facilitate a more profound, deep experience in yoga practice. Mr. Iyengar refined the use of props in yoga in order to make poses accessible to students. Props can open up practice to individuals with physical limitations, support practitioners to work in a safe range of motion, highlight a particular quality in a posture, and/or allow students to balance the effort and surrender in each pose.

Simply putting a block under me raised my hips enough that my knees could relax down and away from my body. With knees no  longer above my hips and pulling on my lower back, the roundness dissipated and the pain down the back of my leg disappeared. My outer hip flexors sometimes get sore since my knees don’t touch the ground, and in those instances I also like to support them on the outside of the knees with blocks or bolsters.

Oh, and then I met the amazing Marianne Meyers who showed me this ultra-deluxe version with two blocks and a blanket. It’s like the royal throne of sukhasana. Seriously, try it. (And then go take one of Marianne’s therapeutic yoga classes and learn all of the ways to really be supported. Taking therapeutic yoga is one of the best things a practitioner of any level can do to learn about healthy movement.)

Sukhasana with blocks side-by-side covered with a blanket.

Sukhasana with blocks side-by-side covered with a blanket.

You don’t need anything special. A thick phone book, the afghan on the chair, even the cushions from the couch can be a prop.

The next time someone tells you to find a comfortable seat, take them seriously. Let it be a balance of ease and effort so that you can be open to receive the benefits of your practice.

Ardha Chandrasana: An Open Heart

11 Aug

I’m not shy about my love for Ardha Chandrasana, or, Half Moon Pose.  To my heart, it is the embodiment of grace and peaceful power. And there are variations to serve students of all levels that still allow each to receive the bliss of this expansive, radiant posture.

On a physical level, the benefits of this posture are numerous and rich: The muscles of the standing leg are strengthened as that leg acts as the main point of structural stability in the balance. The practitioner grounds through the whole foot, engages the quadriceps to allow the hamstrings to lengthen, and engages the muscles around the calf to stabilize the ankle. The muscles of the raised leg are also engaged. The foot flexes strongly so that all five toes point back evenly and the muscles of the calf lengthen. Again, the quadriceps muscle in the front of the thigh is engaged to allow the hamstring to lengthen and the leg to eventually become straight. The upper body is working and stretching also in this posture. The spine is long; if the spine collapses or curves when the bottom hand is brought to the ground, place a block underneath that hand to lift the torso and encourage length from the heel of the raised leg all the way through the crown of the head.

One way to approach this is from Parivrtta Parsvakonasana / Extended Side-Angle Pose. From Extended Side-Angle, reach the lower arm about 6-12 in. beyond the front foot and press the fingertips into the floor. Bring the overhead arm to the top hip. Begin to shift weight into, and ground through all four corners of the front foot (big toe, little toe, inner heel, outer heel). On an inhale, slowly begin to straighten the front leg while simultaneously raising the back leg and extending it until it is parallel (or slightly above parallel) to the floor. Engage the quadriceps of the standing leg to lift the kneecap and allow the hamstring to release and stretch, while continuing to engage the calf muscles and ground through the foot of the standing leg. The more firmly you press the foot of the standing leg into the floor, the more lift and stability you will feel.

Flex the foot of the raised leg as if you were standing on a wall behind you. By flexing the foot, the leg muscles awaken and make this posture feel more stable.

Half moon with hand on hip


Inhale and begin to rotate the top hip back, and open the chest toward the sky. If you feel steady, take the top arm away from the hip and raise it straight overhead. Your drishti, or eye-gaze can look either at the toes of the standing leg or up at the top hand. Do whatever brings the most ease and comfort to your neck.

If you have trouble with balancing in this posture or simply want to invite greater length into the spine, try bringing a block under the grounded hand. This will encourage lift and length in the spine while simultaneously offering more stability. A block is especially useful if you find rounding or curving happening in your back as you bring the hand down toward the floor.

Half moon with block

You might also practice this posture against a wall. Even if you have strong balance, I often encourage students to try Ardha Chandrasana against a wall to really understand what it feels like to stack the hips and shoulders evenly. The foot of the standing leg remains pointed directly toward the front of the mat while the rest of the body opens toward the long side of the mat. Think about pressing both shoulder blades, the back of the hips, and the raised leg into the wall firmly in order to open the chest and heart more toward the sky.

Half moon at the wall

Breathe deeply in this pose, reaching and lengthening through all of the limbs and the crown of the head. You can even make this into a little flow, lengthening the crown of the head and flexing to reach strongly through the back heel on the ihales, and stretching the arms apart in opposite directions on the exhales. Feel the energy all the way through the fingertips and toes, and expand as if you were trying to radiate across as much space as possible. Open your heart to a feeling of bliss as this energy flows out from you. Take 3-5 breaths and then slowly bend the front knee and bring the back leg down with control. Repeat the asana on the other side.

Once you feel comfortable and steady in Ardha Chandrasana, there are a few ways to challenge yourself if you wish.

For a deep stretch along the psoas and hip, on an inhale, bend the raised leg and reach back with the top arm to receive the foot. Exhale, relax the shoulder, and kick the foot into the hand. You should feel deep opening in the shoulder and a stretch through the hip flexors, psoas muscle, and quadriceps of the raised leg.

Full moon

If you’re interested in playing with your balance, try bringing the fingertips up off of the ground. I like to rest mine gently on my shin.

Half moon balance

Full moon balance

One wonderful way to explore your body’s center of gravity and challenge your balance is to create a vinyasa (breath linked with movement) between holding the foot in this posture, and Natarajasana / Dancer’s Pose.

Inhale and kick into the hand strongly, using the breath and the traction created between this kick and extension of the front arm to rise up, coming into Natarajasana. Take one full breath in the posture and reach wide. Kick the foot away from you as you reach the chest and fingertips up and forward. Inhale deeply, and then exhale and reach through the front fingertips as you lengthen the spine and fold back down, bringing the hand either all the way to the mat or back to the shin. Think of moving your body like a seesaw with the hips serving as the axis. And again, always feel free to try these variations with your standing leg against a wall so that you can explore with support. Build a solid foundation and the balance will come.

I hope you enjoy exploring movement freely in Ardha Chandrasana. Remember to listen to your breath always, as it will guide your asana practice. Allow it to be calm and even through the nose. If it gets ragged or choppy, or you find yourself holding your breath, try a variation of the posture with more support. Be open and listen to the messages of the body, so that you can experience your practice in the most complete way possible.