The Tao of Tap, Tap, Purr

“Be aggressive.”

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard this advice in the gym. From coaches to workout buddies to YouTube videos, “be aggressive” seems to be one of the most popular Olympic weightlifting cues.

Which makes sense. The Olympic lifts — the snatch and clean — rely on a transfer of power from the hip to the barbell. There is a magic moment when the glutes squeeze tight and the hips open up. When done correctly, there is an explosion that propels the barbell from the hip pocket up into the air, before it comes to rest overhead or in the front rack, depending on which lift you’re doing.

This powerful movement is commonly described as “explosive,” “violent” and “aggressive.” Which all make sense.

There’s just one problem. I’m none of these things.

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I’m not inwardly or outwardly aggressive. I don’t have pent-up aggression that I can “release” in a lift. Yes, exercise helps keep me sane by fighting the effects of chronic life stress.

But I never have a bad day at work and think to myself, “I’ll take it out on the bar.”

In general, I’m quiet. I avoid confrontation and I smile a lot. It takes a lot to get me worked up and not much to get me to calm down. Whether this is good or bad, healthy or not, is something best left for a therapist to figure out.

For me, and for the purposes of this post, it means one thing: The most common lifting cues go right over my head.

When someone encourages me to “be aggressive” with the barbell, it just doesn’t compute.

Instead I have flashbacks to my previous life as a teenage cheerleader in New Jersey, where we encouraged the boys’ basketball team to “Be aggressive. B-E aggressive. B-E-A-G-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E. Be aggressive! Wooooo!” (There’s no better illustration of multi-tasking than girls who can spell, clap and fling each other in the air at the same time.)

I love nostalgia as much as the next gal, but it does nothing to help me achieve a successful lift.

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So what did I do? I tried to force it.

I’d throw shade at the bar, staring it down as I stepped up to the platform. I’d move quickly and purposefully, hooking my fingers around the iron and squeezing my butt as tight as humanly possible. I’d take a deep breath, accelerate from the ground and… wait.

Wait for the bar to collide with my hips.

This rarely, if ever, happened. I’d pull too soon and muscle the bar up. My maxes only increased as my upper body strength did. I stalled out on both the clean and snatch months ago, and finally the snatch and I went through a little break-up.

Then, during a snatch demo in Asheville last month, I heard three magic words: Tap, tap, purr.

The bar “taps” the hip. The bar “purrs” when it leaps into the air.

This was new. I gave it a try.

Tap.

Tap.

Once, twice I tapped the bar against my hip. Then I jumped and squeezed.

Purr.

The bar literally purred like a wild cat, rattling and shivering as it bounced past my face.

I tried it from the high hang, the low hang and finally from the floor. I tried it with pulls and full snatches. I added some weight. And then a little more.

With each challenge, as my strength and skill gave out, the purr got softer. But the auditory and sensory cues — the rattle of the bar echoing in my ears and the shiver against my hands — were still there.

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Not to get hyperbolic or anything. This cue — which I now refer to the “Tao of Tap, Tap, Purr,” courtesy of Jen Sinkler — didn’t save my snatch. Far from it. I didn’t magically PR. Any discernible improvement is probably all in my head, at least for the time being. But it allowed me to see the lift in a new light.

Power and strength do not necessarily correspond to aggression. Power and strength can come from a place of quiet and calm. They don’t have to come at the expense of a smile.

So off I go. Time to make it purr :-)

Tell me: What cues — in lifting (and life) — do you find most helpful? Least helpful?

Talisman

When I think “talisman,” I think “magical object.” More specifically, I imagine a stone or jewel, full of magic, that brings good luck and protection to the holder.

So when Jill Coleman, fitness and mindset guru extraordinaire, asked me and some 40 other women at last weekend’s Radiance Retreat to close our eyes and identify our talismans, my mind immediately jumped to jewelry.

I pictured a large emerald green stone, set in gold. I could practically feel it’s weight in my palm and wondered what it would look like as a necklace, or perhaps a giant cuff. Yes yes, a cuff. As my attention drifted to my closet back home in D.C., trying to match this imaginary bracelet to outfits I already own, Jill pulled me out of my sartorial trance.

A talisman, Jill explained, is a word that is personally meaningful to you. A word that gives you strength and inspires you to pursue your goals.

Compassion.

The word, just like the green stone, appeared in my mind before I knew it.

Compassion for others. Compassion for myself.

It’s not the kind of word you’d expect to hear at a women’s health and fitness retreat, but it perfectly encapsulates what the weekend represented for me.

 

To give you a little background, last weekend was the first of what (I hope) will become an annual event.

“The Radiance Retreat is a 3-day women’s only adventure designed to cultivate your intrinsic radiance, enrich your fitness journey, and create the lifestyle you crave and deserve.”

It was hosted in Asheville, NC, by Jill Coleman, Neghar Fonooni and Jen Sinkler. These three women could technically be described as “fitness trainers” but honestly, they are much more than that. They’re fitness pros, obvi, but they’re also successful entrepreneurs and talented writers that are motivating women not just in fitness but in all aspects of healthy living — most importantly, perhaps, in “mindset.”

Women from across the country traveled to Asheville for the inaugural retreat. Registration had included two-day and three-day option; those who took the three-day “VIP” option would start the weekend with a series of lectures on the business of being a “fitness professional” — the nitty gritty of starting a company, managing your time, growing your business, branding, marketing, and more.

I’m not a fitness professional — heck, I don’t even really know what that means — but as a writer with a passion for fitness, I figured there would be something for me to learn and give me more guidance on what I want to be “when I grow up.”

Initially, I was nervous. I had a nagging fear that I wouldn’t “fit the part” — that to be able to openly claim that I’m passionate about exercise and nutrition that I also had to look like something other than myself. Leaner, stronger… “better.”

But when I met the rest of the ladies, I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong. The entire group was warm and welcoming, and I quickly forgot about my issues. Though we came from all walks of life, spanning several decades and body types, a common thread emerged over the weekend: We were all grateful to have found a community of “like-minded women.”

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Together we sat through lectures on fat loss nutrition, “bouncing back” and female phase training. Outside the “classroom,” we had in-depth discussions about the pros and cons of intermittent fasting and the importance of an explosive hip drive in Olympic lifting. We nodded along as Jill and Neghar coached us through dealing with negative body image and marveled as Jen demo-ed the basics of intuitive training.

“Move where you can, so you can move where you can’t.”

In other words, we talked unabashedly about all the things that normally make our friends, families and co-workers roll their eyes.

And, lest anyone forget this was a FITNESS retreat, we sweat. A lot.

First, on Saturday, we began with a snatch demo led by Jen. I was especially excited about this one because although I had practiced the Olympic lifts before, the snatch and I have not been on good terms lately. If you subscribe to the notion that lifting is like being in a relationship, the snatch and I had been on a break for about two months.

But thanks to Jen’s coaching and some cues I had never heard before, the snatch and I had a reconciliation. While I didn’t PR my lift — the session was a beginner-friendly intro to snatching — I did walk away with new tools in my arsenal.

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Other workout sessions that day included Neghar’s Metabolic Resistance Training class, in which she broke down the principles of MRT with a challenging circuit, and a yoga class, in which Neghar guided many of us to balance in crow for the first time.

On Sunday, Jill led us on a morning hike through the North Carolina Arboretum’s beautiful trails, followed by a Metabolic Effect workout. For those who have never done a ME workout — as I hadn’t until last week — it’s based on the principle of pushing your body until you need to rest.

Not “want to rest.”

Not “take a rest because it’s scheduled within your WOD.”

NEED to rest.

“I want you to rest,” Jill said kindly in between orders to do jump squats, lunges, superman-burpees, hill sprints, pushups and planks. “Thank you for resting.”

This style of exercising required a huge mindset shift for me, and it was only when I began to rest that I found I could push my body even harder.

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Which brings us back to the “talisman” challenge, a key part of the mindset work we did as a group over the weekend.

Among the words the group members chose: Elevate. Empower. Balance. Strength. Unicorn. Cat.

Each word, each talisman, was unique to the woman who spoke it.

As I mentioned, my talisman was “compassion.” Compassion for others, as well as for myself.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to lead my life from a place of kindness. I might not be able to give everyone in the world a solution to their problems, but the least I can do is offer a smile and an open heart. For years, I didn’t grant myself the same grace, but it’s something I’m working on.

As a woman, I’m fully aware of the power of words. There is the stereotype that women like to talk a lot. We chat and gab, gossip and share secrets. The “mean girl” model shows that we, as women, use our words to build each other up and take each other down. But more often, we use our words to beat ourselves up.

Words are charged with power. They can be manipulative or ambivalent, strong or subtle, imbued with meaning that is conscious or unconscious.

Like an amulet that brings the bearer good luck, a “talisman” word can be a source of strength. We may as well choose our words wisely.

Tell me: What is your “talisman” word? Leave a comment below :-)

More about the Radiance Retreat:

7 Reasons You Pretty Much Rock via JillFit

Slapped in the face by a mountain in Iceland

“Where am I?”

Geographically speaking, I was somewhere between the base and the peak of Mount Esja, about 10km outside Reykjavik, when this question occurred to me. I slowed my pace as the leader of my merry little band of hikers — my mom and little sister — to look around me.

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The landscape, which at the base of Esja had been lush, green and flower-specked, had grown jagged. The trail we set off on had started to blur with what lay “beyond”: dirt, mud, boulders and loose rocks that gave the mountain a wholly otherworldly feel. Ahead of us lay more rocks and an increasingly steep mountain side.

Behind us — or, rather, beneath us — I could make out our grassy starting point and, beyond that, the city of Reyjavik on the horizon. Around us, there were bodies; people whose faces I couldn’t couldn’t quite make out but who were within shouting distance. You know, just in case.

We weren’t alone. We weren’t lost. Esja was not a particularly demanding climb. But I couldn’t help but wonder.

Where am I? Continue reading

Slow-Cooked Persian Green Beans

Why, hello there.

It’s been a while, eh?

I don’t know about you, but the last two weeks have brought more adventure into my life than I could have imagined or asked for.

In Iceland, I ate all the skyr, drank all the coffee and hiked not-quite-all-but-still-a-bunch of mountains and even a glacier speckled with volcanic ash. And when I got home, I had a hot second to celebrate my birthday (yet again, but this time in costume) before setting off for the first annual Radiance Retreat in Asheville, NC, a women’s fitness and mindset retreat hosted by the inimitable Jill Coleman, Neghar Fonooni and Jen Sinkler. (If you don’t know these ladies yet, do yourself a favor and follow those links.)

Now I’m home and have So Much To Tell You, I can barely contain myself. But really, all I want to do is sleep for a week. So the stories have to wait. Luckily, dinner doesn’t.

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Meet my Slow-Cooked Persian Green Beans. This side dish was inspired by a traditional Persian meal called loobia polo, which translates to “green bean rice.” Sounds boring, I know, but woo-boy, the name doesn’t do any justice to the flavor. Loobia polo is built on a base of basmati rice combined with a sauce of green beans, beef, tomato paste, lemon juice, dried limes and turmeric. My mom always likes to amp up the tart-ness of her foods by adding a bit of pomegranate molasses, which also makes an appearance here.

Here I’ve pared down the original recipe to just the green beans, which crop up in farmers markets and CSA boxes this time of year. Slow-cooking on the stovetop isn’t hugely popular in summer, but consider this recipe a small but totally worth-it compromise to make the most of a summertime staple.

Slow-Cooked Persian Green Beans

Ingredients:

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 lb green beans, cleaned and trimmed

Juice of one lemon

1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses

14.5-oz can diced tomatoes

2 tbsp tomato paste

1 teaspoon turmeric

Dash of garlic powder

S+P, to taste

1. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat and add onions. Sweat the onions until soft and translucent, but don’t let them brown.

2. Add the green beans and season with some salt and pepper. Stir to coat the beans in oil.

3. Add the remaining ingredients, stir to combine, and cook on medium heat about five minutes, until the mixture is hot and simmering.

4. Reduce heat to low, cover the pot and cook for about an hour, giving the mixture a good stir every 15-20 minutes.

5. You’ll know it’s done when the green beans are cooked through — well past al dente, but not mushy. Follow my lead and taste as you go, a bite each time you stir, to see how it’s progressing.

6. Add more s+p, if needed, and serve with anything. (Leftovers are great with a fried egg on top. But then again, what isn’t great with a fried egg?)

Note: I have not made this with frozen green beans, so I don’t know how best to adjust the recipe. If you go that route, leave a comment and let me know how it turns out!

Sparkle on

Happy July 4th Eve!

As you read this* I’m probably halfway across the Atlantic, skipping this D.C. swamp in favor of the Land of Fire and Ice and 50-degrees-and-no-humidity-and-sunshine-at-midnight-omg. Aka Iceland.

Just wanted to wish you a very happy holiday, full of friends, R&R and good food. Speaking of which, you might want to check out some of these summer and bbq friendly recipes right over here. (May I suggest the Pomegranate Kebabs and Primal Chocolate Torte as options?)

I’ll be back at the end of next week, hopefully with stories to tell — think glacier hikes and rotted shark. Until then… xo

*Actually I have no idea who is reading this since my mom is sitting right here next to me on the plane.

“Beyond Bacon” — A Love Story

I have a small but wonderful collection of cookbooks. I’m not a hoarder by any means — my books take up barely two shelves — but they are well loved. Many are dog-eared and thick with sticky notes; countless fingerprints mark up glossy pages. With the risk of revealing my true nerd nature, I’ve always counted my books as friends and my favorite cookbooks are no exceptions. The best ones have a narrative, characters on a journey, and a lesson. They tell stories, often first-person accounts, that transport you and evoke the senses. The best cookbooks are, fundamentally, good books.

“Beyond Bacon” is a good book. Not just good for a paleo cookbook. “Beyond Bacon” needs no such qualifier. 

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Continue reading

My 30th

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Circa 1985. I’ve always taken birthday wishes (and birthday cake) very seriously.

Today I am 30.

I feel like my feelings about this life event are wrong. I feel like I’m supposed to keep my age to myself. Like I’m supposed to freak out about getting older, or panic about where my life is now versus where I thought it’d be. Like I’m supposed to feel “old.” Or “mature.” Or, something.

But, frankly, I don’t feel any of these things. I feel happy and grateful and very loved. And really, really excited, like there’s an inexplicable electricity in the air. Except there is an explanation. You see, I believe in a little something called Birthday Magic.

I love birthdays, my own and others’. On my birthday, it feels like the whole world is on my side, like the universe is sending out “you’ve got this” vibes. It feels like I can do anything. There’s no rational reason for this. July 1 is a day like any other. It’s a birthday for lots of other people. Hey, every day is lots of people’s birthdays! (Am I the only one who gets irrationally excited by that thought?!)

But I’m a sucker for celebration and birthdays are celebrations of existence. EXISTENCE, GUYS! A birthday is a day to do and to be, to eat and to love, to set PRs and walk around with a smile on your face. To make a big ol’ wish, blow out some candles and eat a piece of cake.

The intro of the short story “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros describes aging as an onion, each year a layer that is intrinsically and forever a part of who you are.

“…when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are — underneath the year that makes you eleven.

“Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. …

“Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one.”

Using this logic and what I like to call “Maggie Math,” that makes me 30 + 29 + 28 +27… = 465. To think, I’ve accumulated nearly five centuries of experience and I don’t look a day over 30. Magic ;-)

It’s silly, I know, and it’s totally okay if you don’t believe. Just forgive me if you catch me dancing around with a goofy smile on my face. And know that I’ve got enough magic today to go around. Because just like cake, Birthday Magic is best shared.

***

The Cake

Adapted from Orangette.

I’ve gotten into a weird habit of making my own birthday cake. I know what I like — duh, chocolate — and luckily, others like it to. This nearly flourless torte has been on regular rotation in recent years, but don’t feel like you need to wait for a special occasion to bust this out. In all likelihood, you’ve already got all the ingredients at home already. The key is to use the best quality dark chocolate and the best quality butter (real butter) that you can find.

Ingredients:

7 ounces dark chocolate, finely chopped (I like 85%)
7 ounces unsalted butter, cut into half-inch cubes
5 large eggs
1 teaspoon coconut flour

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Line the base of an 8-inch round pan with parchment paper, and butter the parchment.

2. Melt the chocolate and butter in a double boiled or microwave, stirring gently until combined.

3. Remove from heat, then add the eggs one at a time. Once all the eggs are well combined, add the coconut flour. Mix until smooth.

4. Pour batter into the pan and bake until the cake is set and the top is crackly, about 20-25 minutes. (Per Molly: At 20 minutes, it’s usually quite jiggly in the center. You’ll know it’s done when it jiggles only slightly, if at all.)

5. Cool for 10 minutes, then remove cake from the pan. Arrange it so the crackly side is facing up, and serve. (If you can bake it a day ahead or bear the thought of saving a slice for the second day, you’ll be greatly rewarded.)

Recipes: Avocado-Coconut “Mousse” with Berries, and Two Savory Dips

Yesterday I shared my recipe for homemade coconut milk yogurt, and today I want to tell you about three of my favorite ways to eat it.

One of these recipes is on the sweet side and would be great on its own as a dessert, snack or even breakfast. The other two are savory “dips” — inspired by traditional Persian recipes — that taste great with raw veggies and alongside grilled or roasted meat. Mmm meat :-)

Let me know what you think — and tell me about your favorite ways to use yogurt!

Avocado-Coconut “Mousse” with Berries

1/2 cup coconut milk yogurt

1/2 avocado

1/2 cup fresh or frozen berries (if using frozen, let them defrost or cook them down a bit in a saucepan)

coconut flakes (bonus points if they’re caramelized)

1. Wit a fork or in a blender, whip up the avocado and coconut milk yogurt until you get a “mousse”-like consistency. (If you want a thinner, “runnier” mousse, add a bit of coconut milk or coconut water to dilute the mixture.)

2. Layer the avocado-yogurt mixture, berries and toasted coconut, topping the mixture with a coconut layer. Eat.

Mast O Khiar (Persian Yogurt Dip with Mint & Cucumber)

2 cups coconut milk yogurt

2 Persian cucumbers, chopped into bite-sized pieces

1 tbsp dried mint

Salt and pepper, to taste

Combine all ingredients. Eat.

Mast O Moosir (Persian Yogurt Dip with Shallots)

2 cups coconut milk yogurt

1 shallot, finely diced

Salt, to taste

Combine all ingredients. Eat.

Creamy Coconut Milk Yogurt

photo(24)The Greeks get a lot of credit for their yogurt and its many uses, but we Persians don’t exactly shy away from using the stuff, either.

Dollops of thick yogurt are often served plain alongside many dishes. It’s the base of numerous spreads and dips, is commonly used as a marinade for chicken, and can be combined with water and mint to make a traditional beverage called doogh. Plain yogurt is also a common home remedy for upset stomach, probably because of its awesome probiotic properties, and as a cooling mask for sunburns.

Recently, I started wondering if it would be possible to make yogurt out of coconut milk. I checked my local grocery store with no luck (womp, womp), but a quick google search revealed that a homemade version was, in fact, very possible. The best instructions were also quite complicated, with lots of talk of heirloom starters, active cultures, thermophilic and mesophilic approaches, and very specific temperature control.

Being the queen of reductionist cookery, I knew there had to be a way to simplify it. Here’s what I came up with:

Creamy Coconut Milk Yogurt

(Adapted from Cultures for Health)

Ingredients:

1.5 cups coconut cream or canned coconut milk (Note: If you use coconut milk, the resulting yogurt might be a bit watery; you can always strain the finished product through some cheesecloth to thicken it up, if you want.)

1 tbsp gelatin (plain, unsweetened, unflavored)

Contents of 1 probiotic capsule

1. In a mason jar or other glass container, combine the coconut cream, gelatin and the contents of the probiotic capsule.

2. Screw the lid onto the jar. Put jar inside an unheated oven and close the oven door. Turn on the oven light. Leave it alone for 24 hours. (Do not turn your oven on during this period.)

I didn’t really believe that this would work, but it turns out the oven light really does generate some heat — just enough heat to get some kind of awesome chemical reaction going on with the coconut.

3. When you remove the jar from the oven, it’ll be warm to the touch. Let it come to room temp, then move it to the fridge until you’re ready to use it.

Tell me: What’s your favorite way to eat yogurt, coconut-derived or otherwise?

Primal Strawberry-Coconut Chocolate Bark

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In the spirit of summer, I thought I’d share one of my fave no-fuss primal sweet treats.

This frozen strawberry-coconut chocolate bark is a lovely warm-weather dessert that is low in sugar, low on effort, and full of good, yummy fats. The bark’s pretty, rustic look makes it great for entertaining, but it’s easy enough to whip up for just one. (I’m becoming an expert on the “just for one” recipes…)

As always, there’s room for variation and I’d love to hear if you choose a different type of fruit or sweetener — let me know what you try in the comments below :-)

Primal Strawberry-Coconut Chocolate Bark

Ingredients:

4 tbsp coconut oil

3 tbsp high-quality salted butter or ghee (or 3 more tbsp coconut oil + pinch of salt)

2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

1 tbsp maple syrup (or other sweetener of choice, amount to taste)

4 tbsp coconut flakes

6 frozen strawberries, quartered (or ~1/3 cup of other berry)

1. In a small saucepan, melt the coconut oil and butter.

2. Remove from heat and stir in cocoa powder and maple syrup.

3. Pour mixture into a small baking dish or flat bowl. (I used a 9-inch cake pan covered in wax paper.)

4. Arrange the berries and coconut flakes on top.

5. Put in the freezer until it sets, about 10 mins, then slice (or crack off a piece) and serve.

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