Overhaul Your Scents Sense

by Yael Grauer

Artificial scents put into most of our cleaning and beauty products these days reek havoc not only on your sense of smell, but our environment. Get smart about the perfumes in your life.

The sense of smell is arguably the strongest, with fragrances being linked to events and emotions in our deepest memories. In fact, smell is one of our earliest senses, belonging to our limbic system or olfactory brain. Scents can release some very pleasant neurotransmitters such as endorphins and serotonin.

Sadly, our glorious sense of smell is not all roses. Commercial scents can do a great deal of harm to both ourselves and our environment.

Phthalates are often included in perfumes and other substances that have scents added. These are endocrine disruptors that affect the body’s hormone system, many of which are listed as reproductive or developmental toxins by the state of California. Some phthalates (such as dibutyl and diethylhexyl) have been banned in cosmetics by the European Union. Although the US government has recently limited the use of pthlalates in baby toys, new research indicates that prenatal exposure is linked to neurodevelopmental issues leading to disruptive and problematic behaviors (such as aggressiveness, conduct disorders, and ADHD) in children aged four to nine. Previous research has indicated a link between phthalates and lower sperm motility in adult men, and birth defects in the reproductive systems of boys. The chemicals are found in plastics, cosmetics, and perfumes and lotions — but it is the latter that are most strongly related to neurodevelopment. And although members of the perfume industry says phthalates are safe in small doses, they are stored in the fat and stay in our bodies for a long time.

Sadly, phthalates are difficult to spot, as they are often hidden in the product’s “fragrance” ingredient, due to an FDA loophole that allows manufacturers to simply use the generic term to protect proprietary secrets. This is true not only in perfumes but also in lipsticks, mascaras, moisturizers and shampoos. Even products labeled as “unscented” can contain phthalates as part of a masking fragrance. Other chemicals can also be included, as the FDA does not systematically review the safety of fragrances, but instead lets the fragrance industry’s own trade association (the International Fragrance Association) regulate itself.

In addition to phthalates, synthetic fragrances can also include parabens (hormone disruptors), sodium laureth sulfate, or PEGS, often contaminated with dioxins. And of course there are other environmental factors to consider the vast majority of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum. The U.S. National Academy of Science has also identified certain fragrance ingredients as neurotoxins, though systematic research to determine the safety of these ingredients has not been funded.

Musk scents are often found in perfumes, in the form of nitromusks and polycyclic musks. Both are unregulated, although they are linked to reproductive and fertility problems in women at high levels. These synthetic musks have been found in human fatty tissues, breast milk, and the umblicial cord blood of newborn babies. Synthetic musk has been found in rivers and wastewater, and preliminary research indicates that it may be harmful to aquatic life as well. Galaxolide and Tonalid are two trade names for musks, but they are often simply hidden in the “fragrance” ingredient.

So what’s a healthy and environmentally-conscious consumer to do?

1. Find safe products. Luckily, the Environmental Working Group has compiled an online database of safe cosmetics and personal care products, which can be searched for ingredients.

Some companies have even made a committment to create safer products by signing the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, thereby pledging to meet or exceed formulation standards and deadlines set by the European Union Cosmetics Directive (eliminating their products of chemicals known or strongly suspected of causing cancer, mutation, and birth defects). These companies are listed on the site Skin Deep: Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetic Safety Database (http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/) as well as The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (http://safecosmetics.org/).

2. Choose products with no added synthetic fragrances. Just look at the ingredient list and make sure “fragrance” is not listed on the label.

3. Buy products that use natural fragrances or essential oils. Or, buy your own essential oils to spruce up your new safe products. These oils are safe and green, and have the added benefit of their own medicinal properties. Just think, instead of using fragrances that cause harm, you can use fragrances that are healing!

Cautions: Because essential oils are extremely concentrated, do not apply them directly to the skin unless you’ve diluted them in a carrier oil (such as almond oil, grapeseed oil or even olive oil). Make sure to use organically produced essential oils to avoid pesticide residue. Do not ever ingest essential oils.

Some Scent Favorites

  • Lemon balm, often called balm (botanically, melissa officianalis) is a wonderful herb often made into tea to cheer the spirit. The oil, which was written about by St. Hildegard of Bingen and used as far back as the 10th century, is extremely calming and revitalizing and good for stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • Cedar (cedrus sp.) essential oil is extracted by steam distillation of the woodchips and sawdust of this amazing tree. Often used as a fragrance for men’s products, cedar is warming, harmonizing, and calming. It is excellent for aggression and anger masking fear or discontent.
  • Eucalyptus (eucalyptus sp.) oil is great for breathing, and can be applied (in a carrier oil) directly to the chest or used as a steam. It is incredibly effective for asthma, bronchitis, colds and flu. Mentally, eucalyptus is stimulating, increasing concentration or helping with mental sluggishness or overload.
  • Lavender (lavandula sp.) is one of the most popular essential oils, and for good reason. It has a light, sweet and flowery scent and aids with relaxation. Add just a few drops to a carrier oil and massage it into your temples for a headache, or simply let the scent waft over you for balancing and cleansing.
  • Lemongrass (cymbopogon) is widely used in its country of origin, India, oil is refreshing and tonifying. It also works well as an insect repellant.
  • Mint (mentha sp.) Add just a drop to your soap in a morning shower and you’ll definitely wake right up! Mint is as refreshing as it is stimulating, increasing concentration and memory. Be very careful, however, as many people are quite sensitive to this oil!
  • Rosemary (rosmarinus officianalis) has been used since ancient times to aid in memory, with students in Greece and Rome wearing wreaths on their head while studying. One would do well by continuing in the tradition by trying the essential oil. Uplifting and strenghtening, this plant does indeed help stimulate the brain.
  • Tea tree (melaleuca alternifolia) Although the scent is definitely an acquired one, one can’t deny tea tree oil’s immense benefit as an antiseptic. Tea tree oil has anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties, and can be used to treat infections such as athlete’s foot.
  • Neroli Orange (citrus aurantium or citrus sinensis) is said to be named after Anna Maria de la Tremoille, the Princess of Nerole. The oil is tranquilizing, sweet, and strengthening. It is excellent for cramps, headaches, and digestion. The fruity scent is particularly useful for those who don’t care for flowery scents (like lavender) but could still use some calming and relaxation from a place of strength.
  • Ylang ylang (canangium odoratum) means “flower of the flowers” in Malayan. The oil is derived from blossoms of the cananga tree and it is said to be used by newleywed couples in Indonesia. Flowery and exotic, ylang ylang is primarily known for its use as an aphrodisiac, though it can, of course, be used by individuals for its healing and balancing properties.


Wal-Mart in Trouble Again Over Organic Marketing Practices

Home Pesticide Manufacturer Misrepresenting Products as Certified “Organic”

from The Cornucopia Institute

Cornucopia, WI—The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based public interest group that focuses on food and agriculture, today filed legal complaints with the USDA alleging that Wal-Mart, and a North Carolina-based company, HOMS LLC, are violating the USDA organic standards by using conventional agricultural oils, and other ingredients, in pest control products that bear the word organic and the green “USDA organic” seal. The pest control products in question are marketed under the Bio Block label (see front of bottle, back of bottle, and company webpage product screenshot).

A debate has been raging for years whether non-food products, such as pet food and personal care products, are included in the strict regulations that determine the use of the word “organic” on packaging. Most of those products at least had organic ingredients involved in their manufacture, whereas Bio Block pest control products contain not a single organically produced ingredient.

However, there has never been any question that the green “USDA Organic” seal can be used only by producers that follow the rigorous standards mandated by Congress and administered by the USDA’s National Organic Program.

In addition to using the word organic prominently on its label, HOMS uses the USDA seal on at least one of its Bio Block products without specifying that organic ingredients were used, and without disclosing the identity of the organic certifying agent, which is also required by federal organic regulations.

“This amounts to, allegedly, illegally usurping the value of the organic label,” says Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at Cornucopia. “The USDA Organic seal is meaningful to consumers and should not be used frivolously. This places ethical industry participants at a competitive disadvantage.”

The Bio Block products that appear to violate the organic standards were discovered on the shelves of Wal-Mart stores, resurfacing concerns long held by The Cornucopia Institute, and others in the organic industry, that the giant corporation has failed to take the organic standards seriously.

For years, Cornucopia has criticized Wal-Mart for inventing a “new” organic—food from corporate agribusiness, factory farms, and cheap Chinese imports of questionable authenticity.

Wal-Mart’s store brand organic milk, for example, comes from Aurora Dairy in Boulder, Colorado. In 2007, federal investigators found that Aurora had “willfully” violated 14 tenets of the organic standards, including confining their cattle to feedlots, instead of grazing, and bringing thousands of illegal conventional cows into their organic operation.

Inside Wal-Mart stores, Cornucopia researchers at the time discovered that the company was mislabeling conventional foods as organic, including yogurt, sugar, rice milk, soy milk and produce. Cornucopia notified Wal-Mart’s CEO of the problems with in-store signage, but the corporation ignored these concerns until officials of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and the USDA took enforcement actions against Wal-Mart in 2007.

“These instances of mislabeling are emblematic of the company’s lack of investment in knowledgeable staff, its inexperience, and its questionable commitment to organics,” says Kastel.

While Wal-Mart vowed to solve its false and misleading in-store signage problems, Cornucopia says it has failed to ensure that its store brand organic milk, and some of its other product offerings, come from ethical family farmers following the spirit and letter of the organic law.

Now the organic industry watchdog alleges Wal-Mart is once again marketing organic products fraudulently.

Cornucopia contends that it is not only up to farmers, food processors and certifiers to ensure that foods labeled “organic” are truly organic, but that retailers play an important role as well.

Retailers can and do invest in the resources necessary to ensure organic integrity in their stores. The Wedge, a member-owned cooperative grocer in Minneapolis, handled Bio Block pesticides very differently from Wal-Mart when recently approached by one of HOMS’ distributors.

Since The Wedge has invested years in recruiting, hiring, and training qualified staff, it came as no surprise that one of their buyers questioned the legality of Bio Block’s labels.

The Wedge is one of about 275 cooperative grocers in the country, which collectively helped pioneer the growth in the organic industry. The Wedge was one of the first certified organic retailers in the country and has a full-time Organic Certification and Sustainability Coordinator, Susan Stewart.

“We take the confidence our members and shoppers have in The Wedge very seriously,” said Stewart. “Our job is to protect the integrity of the organic label and the authenticity of the food and products we offer in our store.”

Cornucopia states that this collaboration between farmers, organic processors and retailers, in partnership with the USDA, makes the organic label the gold standard in helping consumers choose safe and ethically produced food.

“As an organic industry watchdog, we make sure that stakeholders in the organic community, like The Wedge, are not placed at a competitive disadvantage by outfits like Wal-Mart that are attempting to profiteer from the trust consumers have in the organic label,” stated Cornucopia’s Kastel.

The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit farm policy research group, is dedicated to the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community. Their Organic Integrity Project acts as a corporate and governmental watchdog assuring that no compromises to the credibility of organic farming methods and the food it produces are made in the pursuit of profit. Their web page can be viewed at www.cornucopia.org.

So You Think You Can’t Dance?

Belly Dance: It’s for Every Body
by Jennifer Bush, Dancing Mountain

I teach and perform Belly Dance. After a recent performance a friend said to me: “Wow! That was fantastic! I could never do that!” To which I replied: “Of course you can! Every body can dance.” Her comment got me thinking. Why do some people think they can’t or shouldn’t dance? It is my philosophy that every movement is a dance and every moment is a chance to dance. But why is it that we so often forget that joyful movement is our birthright? My approach to teaching is to use Belly Dance as a means for women to reclaim and celebrate our whole selves through a joyous dance.

Belly Dance is a term primarily used in the Western world to describe a plethora of dancing styles coming out of the Middle East. Though belly is in the term, students coming into classes are not required to show their bellies and there is not a focus on making the belly move by itself. That’s just one aspect.

I feel compelled to yell out to everyone in the region that Belly Dance is truly for every body. Not just for the thin belly or the voluptuous belly. Not just for after you’ve lost 10 pounds. Why allow self-judgment and perfectionism about our bodies to stand in the way of a chance to move joyfully?

The belly is an all too often chagrined area of our form, oft misunderstood, and certainly under-utilized. While it’s true that Belly Dancing has the potential of waking up movements and muscles throughout that section, and there are the inevitable belly laughs shared by the students that gather, there are no requirements for belly size, shape, or aptitude. All women are welcome and encouraged to give Belly Dance a try.

We each have a belly and we each are ripe with creative potential. My class teaches Belly Dance from the ground up. We start by simply getting the rhythm in our feet and moving it up and out of us, improvising movements as we go, expressing ourselves organically. Isolations are also introduced (the movements of the dance) as well as traveling steps.

There is an art to Belly Dance. The art for me includes isolating movement in one part of the body, such as the hips or rib cage, while the rest of the body remains still. Eventually we get to layer movements on top of others like coordinating Snake Arms while stepping the Grapevine or adding a shimmy to a pelvic circle.

The layers and the isolations are integrated into choreographed or improvised pieces, another aspect of the art. Whether dancing to live musicians (a wonderful dynamic) or to a favorite recorded song, we get to put the moves into a variety of sequences that the teacher may offer or that you interpret from your own experience. The mastery of the art comes with practice, persistence and patience, over time.

But while mastery may come over time, it is not the point. As adults, we are often quick to judge ourselves in a learning environment. We approach dance, or other new skills, with an expectation that we should “get it” right away, or that we need to do the movement perfectly after a couple classes, otherwise we might as well give up. Self-compassion is important in learning anything new. If you get a chance, observe a small child learning to walk and marvel at her persistence. The young child isn’t counting the number of times she’s fallen; she gains more information with each fall, refining her movements constantly.

I invite students to get curious about their own process of learning. How do these new movements feel? What is it like to dance to new rhythms and songs? In class, I provide an environment to explore: to get a feeling of the rhythm of the music being played, to get a general rhythmic sense into the body, and to try out new ways of moving—up-down, side-side, in circles, diagonally, forward-back, in various traveling steps, etc. Let the joy come first and the moves will follow almost magically.

We embark on a journey of getting more comfortable being in our whole selves—body, mind, all our parts into one whole. We get clear about setting an intention for movement, trusting that with time, the movements will come and will come from an authentic place. We begin to get comfortable moving and groovin’ within a group of people. Whenever possible, I relate the Belly Dance moves to movements many people are already familiar with in daily activities.

Every movement is a dance and every moment is a chance to dance.

Women might hold back from Belly Dance because of a misconception about what Belly Dance is. They might think it is an erotic dance performed for men. While any dance or movement can be expressed or perceived as erotic, as I teach Belly Dance, it is by women for women. People also think of it as a solo performer’s dance when it can really be a group experience within a community of women. And it has a deep history in this vein.

In the history of Belly Dance, there is evidence that at women-centered gatherings, women would perform movements that expectant mothers could learn to facilitate childbirth, or at the very least, that could be seen as sympathetic movement to encourage the laboring mother (see the dancer Morocco’s account (http://www.casbahdance.org/GIVE2LIGHT.htm). Moreover, women in many Middle Eastern countries (and around the world) come together around various life events, celebrating in laughter, music, and dance. It’s a natural part of being together.

Not only are there many events where women have the opportunity to share dance, there are many different types of Belly Dance. The style of dance I teach and perform is called Tribal Fusion. It’s a generalized term that encompasses a broad base of styles of dancing, music, and costuming. The dancing comes from the Middle East, North Africa, India, Spanish Flamenco, Gypsy Rom, and North, Central and South American dance forms. The costuming has a “tribal” look, though there is no specific tribe to which to attribute the look. Coins, pendants, fabrics, and more originate from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other countries. There are crafters and musicians from the U.S. who are also creating costume pieces and music inspired by these cultures and these styles of dance.

The term “tribal” not only describes the style of costuming, but also speaks to a way of life. Women who dance together encourage each other to grow within an accepting community. My students are becoming increasingly more comfortable in their own skin, more connected with each other, more courageous with their movements, and they are taking opportunities to costume up and perform in front of others together. It’s wonderful! The women who come to class are beautiful and varied in size, age, and background.

Dancing to our hearts’ content is a joyful way to celebrate our lives on Earth. Moving, swaying, skipping, etc. to rhythms and to melodies is innate to us. Belly Dance, culturally based in the Middle East, offers us a wide range of expression of our whole selves. Dance is for everyone. Belly Dance is for every body.

Yoga and Grief

by Sandra Helpsmeet

Anyone who has experienced a significant loss knows that one’s body and mind are profoundly affected by it. The normal and natural reaction of grieving simply happens. And it is painful. The pain can be physical, with aching head, neck, chest, and back being common symtoms. The pain can be emotional, such as anger, despondency, sadness, fear, and confusion. Some common reactions are hard to categorize, like the low energy, apathy, difficulty eating and sleeping, difficulty with focus and memory, and numbing fatigue. The body is sent into a stress response, which can make one more vulnerable to becoming ill. As is true in the face of any pain, we frequently contract around it, creating areas of tension in the body that become more painful, or simply numb. Or we organize around the pain. Either way, the pain of grief can easily become the center of our lives at least for a time.

In addition, grief triggers old loss, so we may find ourselves grieving for more than one loss. And all of this occurs in a cultural surround that does not give much permission or safe space for grieving. While it is helpful, important even, to eat well, exercise, get adequate sleep, nurture oneself, and receive understanding, non-judgmental support, that can be easier said than done. Yoga and meditation can be very helpful in this welter of confusion and pain. Yoga is a mind/body/spirit practice, so it is uniquely positioned to help on all those levels. The physical practice (asana), breathing practice, meditation, and spiritual understandings of yoga cannot make grieving go away, but they can help us change our relationship to our grief.

The physical practice of asana invites the practitioner to focus inwardly, noticing body sensations, thoughts, images, and feelings. Keeping attention focused on the experience of the pose helps students see that they focus instead of being at the mercy of their thoughts and feelings. Asana practice helps the student find and release areas of tension, the tension of grief held in the tissues of the body, thus reducing pain. Breathing exercises help bring the mind-body connection into awareness, calm the stress response, and create stillness. The practice of deep relaxation helps integrate experience and bring new awareness into focus. Through the combination of practices, students learn to suspend judgment and step back and observe. This can create greater awareness of how we are responding to our grief.

In the process of trying to hide, deny, or manage our grief, we can inadvertently do things that increase our suffering. We flee our ‘in the moment’ experience by either shutting down our awareness or entertaining worse images of the future out of fear of future losses. We desperately try to believe that we can have ease by escaping our present experience, which can never work. It is only by being in our present experience that we can change our relationship to it. Ken Druck, a grief counselor and yoga practitioner says, “Through yoga, people can learn to modulate the breath, the pain, and the obsessive thinking.” Diane Roberts of Foundation Yoga says: “… I tell students…that rather than trying to ‘get over it’ or ‘work through it’, try to integrate your grief into who you are … Yoga helps you live in your body with your emotions.”

Yoga teaches that everything changes, including what is me and mine. When we think about it, it is obvious that this is true. Yoga also gives us a way to get in touch with our essence, that which does not change. Learning to sit or stand with this touchstone gives us a way to weather the storms of grief. Asana practice, breathing practice, and meditation, give us glimpses of this deep stillness.

To find a yoga class or teacher that can help you when you are grieving, you may need to look around and try things out. A class situation and/or teacher who can provide safe space is enormously helpful because it is possible that the practice of yoga may unlock areas of the body and release emotions or thoughts. You may want to cry, or to stop and reflect or write in a journal. A safe space can help you feel free to do so.

Sometimes when one is feeling lethargic or anxious it can be helpful to do some strong poses to help one get back into one’s body and connected to life energy. Sometimes one needs more gentle movement or nourishing poses. A sensitive teacher can help facilitate what one needs. If there is a yoga class for grief near you, that is ideal. If not, a class that feels safe to you and allows you to do what you need to can be a very good alternative. It is also possible to arrange private lessons with a teacher.

Yoga is often thought of as a practice that helps you feel good, but feeling good is not really the point. Being aware of what is real for us in the moment is closer to yoga’s aim. Being in the moment takes us closer to our essence, and acceptance of what is takes us closer to peace. Sometimes that takes us into pain that we would like to avoid, but as is usually true, the shortest way is through. Yoga teaches us that clinging to pleasure and avoiding pain keeps us trapped. Accepting, breathing, being with what is, helps us come to the point where we can let go and allow a new view to arise.

“He who binds to himself a joy Does the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in eternity’s sunrise.” ­­–William Blake

Eye Wonder…

Women of the world have been searching for centuries to find the best way to maintain and pamper the skin in those delicate eye areas that tend to age faster than the rest of the face. Most medical professionals agree that the number one course of action needs to be hydrating the body. But experience shows us that sometimes those little lines around the eyes need more than a good drink. While ancient civilizations used essential oils (still a hallmark of natural eye creams today), modern eye creams feature great combinations of plant-based ingredients and age-defying technology that can do wonders for anyone’s eyes.

Though many skin experts confess eye cream is often unnecessary if a person is already using an anti-aging moisturizer with sunscreen, there comes a time to get some extra help. How do you know when it’s time to add eye cream to your skin care regimen? A tight feeling around the eyes may signal excessive dryness, which is often followed by deeper lines and wrinkles, and then the “raccoon” puffiness and darkness. Applying an eye cream morning and night can help restore moisture and firmness to the eye area, explains Rachel Rowen, of the Center for Beauty and Advanced Esthetics in California. And to help you on your quest to finding the perfect eye cream for you, here’s a list of 10 “eye cream all-stars” from the experts at Alternative Medicine.

  • Hyaluronic Acid, a.k.a. Sodium Hyaluronate – This naturally-derived protein attracts 1,000 times its weight in water and plumps up fine lines.
  • Vitamin E/Tocotrienol – Palm oil-derived vitamin E is more potent than the regular form, though all Vitamin E protects eyes from sun damage, heals redness and stops flaking in very dry skin.
  • Peptides – These essential proteins promote the production of elastin and collagen, giving a firming effect.
  • Coenzyme Q10 – This antioxidant is in every cell of the body. It counteracts free radical damage, increases tissue oxygenation and fights skin damage.
  • Alpha-Hydroxy Acids – Derived from sugars in plants like grapes and citrus fruits, these acids are naturally occurring and slough off dead skin cells, thus helping plump up fine lines.
  • Chamomile – This natural flower has anti-irritant and antioxidative properties for the mind and skin, helping to alleviate redness and smooth fine lines.
  • Retinoids/Vitamin A – These vitamin A derivatives penetrate the skin, helping to exfoliate damaged cells and produce new ones. Use sunscreen with them, as they increase sun sensitivity.
  • Green Tea a.k.a. Camellia Sinensis – The young tea leaves are packed with anti-oxidants and are rich in anti-inflammatory properties that repair and strengthen skin.
  • Essential Fatty Acids – EFAs are derived from plant and animal lipids and are also found in the outer layer of the skin. They protect skin from sun damage.
  • Vitamin C-Ester a.k.a. Ascorbyl Palmitate – This non-acidic combination of vitamin C, bioactive metabolites, and minerals reduces puffiness and stimulates collagen synthesis.