Thursday, December 29, 2011

No Dairy January!

It's that gloriously lazy-yet-still-sort-of-stressful week between Christmas and New Year's!  We're all recovering from our holiday hangovers, food comas, and, in some cases, jet lag or family stress.  I always say this ought to be a national week off - who's focused on work this week?  We're coming off the high of Christmas (or the holiday of your choice!) and gearing up for one last big bash of the season before becoming virtuous resolution makers.

As I've said (probably a million times), I love New Year's.  I love the countdown, the resolutions, journaling my heart out reflecting on the past year and looking forward, and of course, eating black eyed peas for dinner on New Year's Day for good luck.  (Each pea you eat equals a good day in the coming year so say my southern forefathers-and-mothers!)

I haven't sat down and sussed out exactly what all my resolutions are going to be yet.  Inspired by The Happiness Project, I've actually been much more actively engaged in my month-to-month goals and resolutions than ever, but an entire year's worth?  I haven't quite touched that yet.

However, there is one particular resolution I'm going to follow for the month of January 2012.  Much like my gluten free journey of last March (which I'm starting to think I could have done a better job with...), I'm entering the world of abstaining from a food group - this time one of my favorites.

I'm doing a Dairy Free January!

Why on earth would I do this when cheese is one of my all-time favorite foods, and an ingredient in most of my other favorites?  I think it all started when my dear vegan friend Laura introduced me to Kris Carr.  Carr wrote Crazy, Sexy, Diet, detailing the diet and lifestyle that has naturally kept her cancer-free for nine years, and Laura has been sharing tidbits and wisdom with me.  (And thanks to Marc, I got my very own copy for Christmas!  Thank you, love!)

I haven't read the whole thing yet, but I remember very clearly reading a couple of her essays on dairy and its links to asthma, allergies, and eczema - three afflictions I've suffered from my whole life.

This really struck a chord in me.  I had an allergy test done on me when I was 12 and the triple threat of those conditions was getting to be too much to bear.  I tested positive for nearly all 35 allergens they injected into me (that was a fun day), including a whole host of foods - Wheat, Corn, Milk, Eggs, Chicken - seriously, you name it, and I am at least mildly allergic to it.

Mild being a key word - I never, ever changed my diet to accommodate my afflicted body.  Not once.  In fairness, I was 12, a monstrously picky eater and my mom had enough of a hard time finding anything I'd be willing to eat, let alone putting me on a super restrictive diet.  I'd probably have just starved out of protest.  Or run away to a cheese-and-buttery-popcorn factory (if such a magical place exists...).

So we turned to what most people turn to - drugs.  Expensive prescription drugs.  Also allergy shots and an operation on my poor swollen nasal passageway and deviated septum so that I could breathe like a normal person.

The asthma, allergies, and eczema have all ebbed and flowed in intensity, but all three have always been a part of my life.  I've accepted their permanence as my unlucky, sickly lot in life, especially as, with the help of modern medicine, it is manageable.  It honestly never occurred to me to change my diet.  If the subject of food allergies comes up, I'll rattle off the list of things I'm allergic to by rote, without really thinking about what I'm saying.  I think I figured that as long as it wasn't deadly (my airways won't close if I eat a strawberry or a peanut, for example) that I'd live with the eczema, the constant mild headache - take your pick.


As I wrote in my gluten-free entry, I've always been big on not depriving myself.  I eat healthfully, but I always stayed far away from any kind of diet or any food rule which stated something was 100% off limits.  Since that time, though, I've continued to read about food, watch documentaries about the food industry and the importance of a whole foods, plant-based diet, and I made the decision earlier this year to avoid meat that isn't either organic, pastured, or local (with the big exception being when I'm being served by my or Marc's family).  The latter element hasn't always been consistent or perfect, but I've done far better than my carnivorous self could have imagined.

Once I got the idea to do this, I wanted to make sure I wasn't going to be depriving my body of anything essential that I'd need to supplement.  As opposed to meat, which despite all its faults does at least provide our bodies with the essential Vitamin B12, I've come to learn that dairy is thoroughly useless when it comes to our health.  The Dairy Industry has spent a fortune convincing us that if you don't drink milk/eat cheese/eat yogurt, you will become calcium deficient and need osteoporosis.  Meanwhile, spinach, broccoli, kale, sesame seeds, almonds, and countless other plants, seeds, and nuts provide us with plenty of calcium that's lower in calories, higher in other nutrients, and more easily absorbed by the body.


So as I embark on this experiment, I know my bones will be just fine.  I've already worked on replacing the milk I use at home with SoDelicious Coconut Milk, and it's worked out great with cereal and occasional baking.  The hardest part of this?  CHEESE!  I've yet to taste a vegan cheese that I find even mildly appealing, let alone delicious, so I might just abstain altogether from that creamy goodness for the month.  Vegan friends, please share your recommendations!

I'm just interested to see the effect this has on my body and my health.  Laura and other vegan friends have said they can absolutely see a difference in their skin and their weight when they have cheese in their diet (the real stuff, that is) versus when they're virtuously vegan.  

It's only 31 days, and if my skin and health benefit, it'll be worth it down the line.  I can't picture myself bidding farewell to my beloved cheese for good, but I can at least prioritize my health above it, and keep it as a spare, special treat.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Queen of Asanas

I've been taking a lot more yoga classes for myself this month than usual.  It's kind of funny, considering I've felt so busy and pressed for time, yet without even trying I've been fitting classes into my schedule.  I'm sure it's my subconscious taking over and protecting my health and sanity in the midst of birthday/holiday madness.

Last Wednesday, Marc and I took a class with one of our all-time favorite teachers with whom we hardly ever get to practice anymore.  Toward the end of the (wonderful) class, she taught what has become one of my least favorite poses: salamba sarvangasana, or supported shoulderstand.

I hardly ever practice this pose anymore.  It feels scary being upside down in that funky way, I have major neck paranoia, the alignment-OCD yoga teacher in me is frustrated that I'm never sure if the positioning of my legs and pelvis and curve of my spine are exactly right, and I often have funky back pain a few minutes after I come down.

Someone remind me why is this called the Queen of Asanas again?

Normally if a teacher starts guiding the class into shoulderstand, I take the restorative variation by placing a block under my sacrum and extending my legs long into the air.  I get a super gentle inversion and a head start on final relaxation - win-win.  However, between my teacher from last Wednesday and another of my favorite teachers (who has her own issues with the pose, and therefore hardly ever teaches it) who taught it in class this weekend, I've decided the Queen merits a second look.

The funny thing is, I really want to like shoulderstand.  It seems like an especially appropriate pose for this time of year.  Despite all the flurry of activity and celebration in the air with all the millions of holidays coinciding at once, this is the darkest time of year, and therefore the time in which our bodies most want to go inward and rest.  (for more on that, here's a great Yoga Journal article on how winter is the most "yin" time of year)  Shoulderstand is the least effortful and involved of all the inversions, except for legs up the wall.  It takes some strength and body knowledge, but it doesn't take the courage, abdominal strength, and sometimes years of practice that it takes to master head, hand, or forearm stand.  It's both active and restorative at once.

The first place I turn whenever I want to dig deeper into any pose is, of course,  Yoga Journal.  They have excellent in-depth asana columns as well as quick looks at any pose.  Reading and studying more about shoulderstand can be helpful, but it's really no substitute for one-on-one attention with a trusted teacher when it comes to conquering a pose you have issues with.

If you've never done shoulderstand before, ask a teacher the next time you go to a yoga class if she or he will devote some time to it in class.  It usually comes toward the end, when you're completely warm and are starting to work your way toward savasana.  Some teachers are big advocates of only teaching supported shoulderstand, using blankets under the shoulders for extra protection of the neck, while others teach without.  If you have a particularly protruding/bony spine like me, I'd definitely recommend some blankets.  Notice not just the physical sensations you experience, but the emotional ones.  This pose can soothe and ease anxiety, but it can also very easily bring it up.  This can change with how often you practice the pose and how you're feeling going into it.

I'm going to continue my own exploration through talking with my teachers, reading through my anatomy books, and reading all the handy dandy Yoga Journal columns on the subject.  As important as it is to me as a teacher and a student to educate myself about this pose and hopefully get comfortable with it, ahimsa is still the first rule in my yoga practice book.  As I'd advise any of my own students - if it hurts, don't do it.  I might discover that this practice just isn't good for my body (not to mention my dinosaur spine).  I have no problem letting go of that, and neither should you - the restorative version of shoulderstand or any pose that doesn't agree with you is always there waiting for us!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Stressful Storytelling

I was without a book for whatever reason on the train a week or so ago, and so I was perusing the New York Times and Huffington Post on my iPhone.  I came across this article:  10 Ways to Reduce Stress.  Most every newspaper and magazine has this kind of story nearly every week or month, but I always like reading them to see if there's any new or unique advice.

Reading this article struck me as kind of funny because I do almost all of those things on a daily basis (with the exception of getting a massage, but yesterday's 27th birthday was a fantastic excuse to splurge).  I agree that they are stress relievers  but it got me thinking that if you do something every day, does it lose its ability to reduce your stress?  After all, just because I meditate and journal every day and do my best to get 8 hours of sleep doesn't protect me from feeling stressed out.  I'm still alive, after all.

This time of year, right now, is probably the most stressful in general.  I blogged about it last month, and boy am I in the thick of it right now.  A lot of it is positive stuff - it's Birthday Week for Marc and I, there are lots of fun holiday parties to go to where I get to hang out with fellow yoga teachers I don't get to socialize with much or good friends I don't see as often as I'd like.  On top of all of that, Karma Kids Yoga has opened its second studio this week (Peace In - for teens and grown-ups!  Check it out)! and as you can imagine, a lot of work is going into getting the place up and running and ship-shape for our clients and teachers.  Throw in finalizing Christmas Cards and you've got a perfect recipe for a typical crazy December week.

What I've started to notice, however, is that a vast majority of the stress that I experience and the stressful thoughts that I think and emotions that I feel, occur 100% inside my head during a situation that is in no way stressful at all.  Praying fervently that my class attendance is higher than it has been or envisioning a confrontation or trying to anticipate how many hours of sleep I'll be able to achieve is something that, as a worrier, is truly second nature to me.  I tell stories in my head.  I want to say that I can't help it, because I'm sure I can exact a measure of control over it, but it is a huge struggle.  I catch myself doing it all the time.  I like to plan things out to the nth degree, which involves a lot of anticipation, which then leads to my brain creating a mind-movie of what might happen, usually being sure to include the worst case scenario before the best.

What's the simplest solution here?  STAY. PRESENT.  Practice letting go, trust that the chips will fall however they're supposed to and that when they do, you will be ready in that moment with whatever the best response may be.  That takes a lot of faith in yourself, and it's a lot easier said than done.  Talking to Marc about it, he threw another of my favorite pieces of advice / my life motto at me:  "The purpose of life is to enjoy every moment."  So instead of just thinking about staying present, think about enjoying it.  Even if it seems like an impossible situation to enjoy and you just want it to be January already (or better yet, May!), find something to enjoy about it.  Even if all you can think of is that you're still breathing.  The enjoying gives you something to do with this moment instead of thinking, "Okay, I'm present.  Now what?"

Another piece of advice from Marc that I usually get when I come to him stressed out or upset is an oldie and a goodie:  This too shall pass.  All the bad, all the good, all the stressful, all the peaceful - it's only temporary.  In yoga, we work to create an inner equanimity to help us stay steady throughout the ups and downs of life.  It's the practical, every day purpose of the practice.

So figure out which of those 10 Ways to Reduce Stress can serve you, enjoy every lovely, stressful, fun, emotional, fleeting moment of this holiday season, and be comforted by the fact that everything passes.

Monday, December 5, 2011

"With self-discipline, most anything is possible." - Theodore Roosevelt

For the last several years, I've kept my journal on my computer.  Each year gets its own word document and special name.  The first was 2007, which is entitled 2007- Take One.  I assumed I'd have a lapse of journaling, and then come back a little later for what would probably be Take Two.  To my pleasant surprise, I wound up sticking faithfully to that "journal," and subsequently each year has had its own little name.  As the years have gone by, I've put more thought and intention behind the name - almost like declaring a theme for the year.

The title for 2011 has been Discipline.  Looking back on the previous years' New Years Resolutions, I noticed the same things kept coming up over and over.  Although I knew I had made some progress and forward motion, it seemed like I needed to tap into that well of self discipline I knew I had inside me to really make some lasting positive changes in my life.  Overall, I'd say my Year of Discipline has been a success.  It's been a long and winding road with more than a few detours, like any year is, but in the end I'd say I lived up to the title.

With my 27th birthday coming next week (yay!) and New Year's right around the corner from that, I'm starting to get into my New Year reflect-y mood already.  I'm a big New Year's nerd, as I'm sure I've written about before and as if on cue, the yoga books I'm reading have started talking about discipline.

Judith Hanson Lasater's Living Your Yoga has been on my Must Read list for over a year.  I'm finally reading it (thanks for loaning me your copy, Laura Frye!) and her mini-essay on discipline was incredibly eye opening.  She writes of how discipline, to her, used to mean pushing herself and accomplishing neverending to-do lists, which sounds all too familiar to me.

Over time, she says, "I have learned that discipline is less to do with accomplishment and more to do with intention and with commitment."  It's in taking a longer term look at things rather than just the short term - the day's list of to-do's and accomplishments.  For some people, whether they're super Type A or super laid back, "discipline" is a dirty word, like the obnoxious angel on your shoulder reminding you of the things that you should be doing or shouldn't be doing or could be doing better.

Despite how it can intimidate me, I've always had a positive association with the word discipline.  I think this comes from being a ballerina as a young girl (I danced until 14, when my feet rebelled violently against dancing in pointe shoes).  I was in awe of the older girls who would dance with injuries and sickness, at the girls who seemed to subsist on salads.  To me, that was something to be looked up to and emulated.  I wanted to be as mentally strong as those girls, and I think that, although my sense of self discipline luckily hasn't pushed me to do anything unhealthy (nor has it made me perfect by any means), that desire has served me well academically, with my career, and overall in my life.  By the same token, I can be the source of a lot of my own stress.  It can be hard for me to let something go, or to properly prioritize, or not stress that there are going to be dishes in the sink for one night because of my own internal sense of order and discipline.

However, it's just as mentally unhealthy to over idealize or idolize the concept of discipline as it is to avoid it like the plague.  Without a healthy respect for discipline, how can we grow?  As adults, no one holds our hands and tells us what we need to do or be - our fate is completely up to us.  A negative attitude toward discipline leads to personal chaos.

Lasater's shift from accomplishment toward intention really resonated with me and made me think about my number one resolution in this Year of Discipline, which was to practice yoga every single day.  I mainly meant a seated mediation practice, but journaling, asana practice - as long as it was me sitting with an honest intention to practice, I'd say it counts.  I had off-and-on success with this resolution until late August of this year where I've finally found some consistency.

I think this passage below, my favorite of her Discipline essay, helps clearly illustrate the importance of intention behind discipline.

Practice is not about what you get, it is about what you give.  Whether you are driven or resistant, the medicine is the same - do what is truly possible with unwavering commitment to giving yourself to the moment.  Without this intention, practice becomes another task to be completed and loses its ability to transform.  And transformation, or freedom, is the reason for all discipline.

One more thing I'd love to share with you, blogverse, is a blog from Kris Carr's fantastic site, CrazySexyLife.com.  She has guest bloggers post about all aspects of health - mental, physical, emotional, financial, you name it.  I'll be writing more about Kris Carr in the coming weeks or months - she's a really phenomenal woman whose books I'm just now starting to devour.

The entry I'd like to share is called Sweat with Love by Erin Strutland.  She is a former dancer and writes here about the darker side of discipline I alluded to earlier and more importantly, how to change your thinking and reframe your perspective into something more positive.  It's a must read for Type A yogis, runners, dancers, or other enthusiastic exercisers.



I'm not sure what my focus is going to be for 2012 yet, but I do know that while my previous way of looking at discipline has served me, it can also stress and guilt me.  Moving forward, I'm definitely going to take a different view on what it means to live a disciplined life.  As we tell the kids at Karma Kids - it's a yoga practice, not a yoga perfect.  The same principle applies to life, discipline, and living every day with intention.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Little Yogis and Yoginis

Happy December, Internets!  November was fast, furious, and absolutely wonderful.  I'm so happy to be back in New York after a whirlwind week of traveling home to see my fabulous family.  The food was rich and decadent, the weather in Florida was wonderful, and the family got a last minute treat - my cousin Missy brought two of her three beautiful children to come visit us the day after Thanksgiving!

Her twin girls, Ashleigh and Kaitlyn, are five (turning six in January!  I can't believe it) and I haven't seen them since they were in diapers.   A lot has changed in those few years - significantly, I discovered my absolute love, joy, and passion for playing with children!  So needless to say, spending a day with those funny, fabulous girls was a major highlight of the trip.
Me with Ashleigh - a broken arm doesn't stop this girl from anything!
They requested Ballet Music...the best I could do was Fly Like a Butterfly!
Super Ashleigh!
With my big sister Megan...Ashleigh and her broken arm are much more like her; Kaitlyn zonking out is much more like me!


It's so funny to me that I spend about 85% of my yoga life with children, and yet I hardly ever talk about them on my blog.  I think it's partly because I'm utilizing this blog to tackle Big Questions, yogic philosophy, or just my own personal interests week to week.  I think when I sit down to brainstorm or write my blog, I don't always make the connection between barking like a dog in downdog and going on yoga adventures to Samadhi.  (Samadhi = the 8th limb in the 8 Limb Path of Yoga.  Enlightenment, Higher Consciousness, Bliss...different definitions from different people, but you get the idea)

But it's exactly that silliness, spontaneity, and complete and utter presence that children possess and inspire in us that does move us toward that path of enlightened bliss.  Babies are the most effortlessly present humans on the planet.  Toddlers and kids too, although the older you get the more of that presence you tend to lose with each passing year.  Kids and babies experience each emotion to its absolute maximum, and then the next minute can transition to a completely different mood.  Watch a child go from a full fledged temper tantrum to laughing hysterically - it's exhilarating to see such a complete lack of inhibitions.  (Unless it's your kid and you're in a supermarket, I'd imagine) 

In my kids yoga classes, though, it's not like we discuss how magically present they are, and we certainly don't sit in silence and meditate.  It's through how I relate to them and through my observation of their joy and uninhibited taking-in of every moment that I learn from them in our yoga classes.  From the incredibly generous and effortless compassion of the six year old in my Queens class who spontaneously made up a song for the three year old yesterday to the toddler on Tuesday who preferred to give his mommy a foot rub rather than receive one himself, I'm learning loving kindness and compassion on a huge scale every day from children.

In my first (adult) yoga class post-Thanksgiving, the teacher made illusions throughout class of bringing a sense of childlike play to the practice.  Instead of just teaching urdhva hastasana using straightforward alignment, she encouraged us to really reach for the ceiling, just like kids genuinely try to actually touch it as if they could.  In our yogic squat, she told us to think of sitting like a frog.  Well, I've been teaching kids so much that I forgot grownups didn't think of the pose as frog squat already!  I could see from some of the reactions around the room, though, that not everyone was used to thinking in silly terms during a hardcore vinyasa practice.  Our teacher was trying to remind us not to take ourselves and the practice so seriously, and I smiled to myself and gave a little prayer of thanks to my job for reminding me of that every single day.

Monday, November 21, 2011

All things in Brahmacharya

Thanksgiving is without a doubt my favorite holiday.  Food and gratitude are two of my favorite things, and I always know I'll be seeing wonderful family and friends.

Last night I had the joy of gathering with a whole bunch of my dearest friends from college who all are living in New York now for our second annual (second of many more to come!) CNU Thanksgiving.  There was turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, cornbread, biscuits, pies, wine - the whole nine yards.  I tried not to go overboard, but it was a Thanksgiving dinner, after all, and by about 8:00 everyone in the room was helplessly slumped against the couch and their chairs, full to bursting with delicious food.  We all never wanted to eat again, but we all wanted third helpings at the same time.

It got me thinking about Rolf Gates's passages in Meditations from the Mat concerning the fourth yama, Brahmacharya.  Now, people mostly equate this yama with celibacy or chastity, but the literal translation is "to walk with God."  Gates (and others who study the sutras) look at brahmacharya as, "a call to practice moderation."

When it comes to talking about food, Ahimsa is most likely the yama that will be brought up when discussing with yogis.  Vegetarian and vegan yogis cite this first yama, meaning "non harming," as a reason for not eating meat.  The subject of a light, moderate diet is also a big conversation point in yoga, but I've never really looked at it through the lens of brahmacharya.  We've all heard the phrase, "Moderation in all things" (often tagged with "especially moderation").  Gates isn't suggesting that brahmacharya is unrelated to sex, he's saying that brahmacharya extends as wide as does the concept of moderation.  Both can be applied to food, sex, drinking, spending money, sleep or lack thereof - the list could go on forever.

As Marc and I get ready for the long trek down to my grandma's house in Florida, where rich, glorious, southern food awaits us, I'll be doing my best to remember these following wise passages from Rolf Gates.  Moderation is not about denying yourself from enjoying the food, wine (if you drink), and company - it's about mindfully keeping your body and therefore your mind and spirit happy, healthy, and comfortably nourished instead of overindulged and overtaxed.  It's about slowing down, savoring every bite, and stopping before you get that too-full feeling.

Gates elaborates:

Brahmacharya...gets a very bad rap in our culture.  Most of us associate moderation with repression.  The hero of the story loves the fair maiden, loves her passionately, and then the repressive forces come in to wreck the day.  No one ever seems to dedicate poems, screenplays, or odes to the joys of moderation or the rewards of passionate balance.  As a species we seem unable to see the forest for the trees.  Despite the staggering amount of evidence that excess destroys our dreams, there appears to be a human blind spot when it comes to the possibility that our most passionate existence might actually be accessed through balance and moderation


As we practice moderation, a wind begins to fill our sails.  We find that the ever-present anxiety that accompanies immoderation evaporates.  We realize that our fear, which grew out of a specific behavior, has contaminated every aspect of our lives.  And as we finally walk away from the food, the sex, the alcohol, the debt, the fill-in-the-blank, we leave our fear behind as well...We are no longer making up excuses for our reality....We find that when we do right, we fear no man.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Tis the season...

...to be stressed out!

Don't get me wrong - I love this time of year.  And there are two kinds of stress - positive and negative.  But both are called STRESS for a reason!

This is the time of year when things get, as my best friend Lisa might say, insane in the membrane.  Aside from the obvious holidays, my family has a lot of milestones in November and December.  My big sister kicks off the season with her birthday on November 1st (right after Halloween, which you can also count if you put a lot of time and mental energy into your Halloween), then it's my anniversary with Marc on the 13th, then Thanksgiving, then my birthday on December 13th, his on December 15th, then before you know it it's Christmas and New Year's.

Whew.  I'm tired just typing that - and I wouldn't be surprised if I had left something out.

All of these days and events are happy, exciting, positive things.  I look forward to each and every one, but they come with a lot of planning, anticipation, preparation, and often involve travel.  I think this time of year can get so many people bogged down and zapped of their energy, aside from the major sugar high/crash we all get from the extra sweets of the season, is because our minds can get stuck in that anticipatory mode where we're always thinking about the future.  Or perhaps, a holiday party was stressful and you can't stop thinking about how it went.  It's a season of major highs and major lows, and as a result it can feel impossible to get anchored into the present.

To prevent what sometimes feels like inevitable burnout this time of year, go on the offensive - go through your calendar and carve out 10 minutes a day to chill.  Not to zone out in front of the TV (although I'm not denying the fact that that can be an EXCELLENT way to destress), not to get lost in the labyrinth of facebook, but to put yourself into a restorative yoga pose.  Or to just lie down on a mat or on your bed, whether you want to call it savasana or a catnap.  Maybe write in your journal for ten minutes to make a little space in your chattery mind.

If it's one of those days where you're truly swamped from the time you get up to the time your head hits the pillow, find little moments to take a mini break.  A 3 minute meditation on your breath while waiting in line to purchase gifts can make a surprisingly big difference in your mood, or maybe try taking 5 minutes to throw your legs up the wall while your coffee or tea cools down and your bread is in the toaster.  Whatever it might be, make yourself a priority, and notice if you feel like you're being run ragged.

The last suggestion I'd have is to comb through your to-do list and look for anything you can possibly eliminate.  I'm no fan of procrastination, but because of that I often overwhelm myself with tasks that really aren't that urgent.  This season, with all the gift buying, travel plans, party plans, holiday cards, et cetera, to-do lists that are full on a normal day can often balloon to an unmanageable size.  Give yourself a break and look for things that can be done another day - or even another month!

I'm hoping to snag a bit of each of these suggestions for myself for a more peaceful, less mentally frantic holiday season.  The most important thing is to remember the greater meaning behind all of these special events and occasion.  Focus on the positive aspects and remember, above all, to have fun!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Pranayama Power: Kapalabhati Breath

The discovery of so many different kinds of breathing techniques was one of the coolest things about my 200-hour teacher training for me.  The most commonly taught, ujayih or victorious breath, was something I was familiar with, since about 90% of my yoga teachers cued that breath to be maintained throughout the class as we moved through our asana practice.  You may be familiar with it too even if you don't recognize the name - it's simply a deep inhalation and exhalation with a slight constriction of the throat.  It makes what some teachers call a "deep ocean sound," and others (me) call a Darth Vader sound.

Rarely, in my classes in beautiful ol' Virginia or Florida, we would do another technique, like slow three-part breath.  Perhaps the teacher would throw out the Sanskrit name, and I'm sure it went in one ear and out the other.  Now, however, I regularly reference back to my old manual to review all the different techniques (and pretty sounding names) we learned.

My number one favorite is Kapalabhati, or Skull-Shining Breath if you want the equally awesome English name for it.  I've been practicing this technique every morning as part of my daily meditation practice to help clear away some of the chattery cobwebs of my brain and help my body sink into stillness.  It works like a charm.

To start, you want a steady and comfortable seat.  Normally I'm just in a regular cross legged seat for my personal practice, but whenever I teach kapalabhati in a class I usually have my students sit in supported virasana as the picture demonstrates.  I think this is the best seat for the practice because you're higher up, your hips are both level, and your spine can be taller than if you're just in cross legged (even if you're sitting up on a blanket).  You can also just sit in any chair where you can place your feet flat on the ground and your spine straight.

Take a deep breath in and a full breath out.  Start to pull your navel in towards your spine as you exhale, but keep your spine tall - resist the urge to hunch forward or slouch.  Imagine there's a string tied to the top of your head pulling up gently up to keep that length.

Take one more deep breath in, and exhale all the air out, as much as you possibly can.  Once you're empty, take a small breath in (think "halfway inhale" or even a third) and begin sharp, rapid exhales, bringing your navel and your lower abdomen in towards your spine.  The inhales will happen naturally - the focus in kapalabhati is entirely on the exhale.  One of my teachers this week taught this in class (the day I decided this would be my blog topic for the week, in fact) and she often calls out "Tap, tap, tap, tap," both to help us find a rhythm and to also keep our focus on the physicality of our exhale.  We imagine that our navel is tapping the spine, that it's giving our internal organs a vigorous massage.

Those are the basics of this practice.  You can do it for one minute, you can do one round or three, you can even slow down the breath so it's not quite so rapid.  Or you can play with the speed and see what works for you.

My favorite part of kapalabhati, though, comes when you add breath retention in between rounds.  For example, after I finish my first round (I don't time myself necessarily but I'd guess I go for about a minute each round) I exhale all the air out again, and then take a deep breath in and hold my breath for as long as I comfortably can, trying to relax my body around the holding.  If you're familiar with moola bhanda, uddiyana bhanda, and jalandhara bhanda, I engage them.  If not - well, that's a whole other post!

Once I've had enough of the holding, I take one more tiny sip of air in, release the locks, and slowly breathe out, then either returning to normal breath or taking a couple more rounds.

I love this practice because it never fails to leave me with a tangible, physical feeling of peace and stillness.  It's really remarkable.  The first time I experienced it (with the breath retention), it was mindblowing. This is a great breath to do to help wake yourself up or calm yourself down (although it's usually the practice of retention during and after that brings about calm).  I also love it because it's actually a great way to tone the abdominal muscles.  Drawing the muscles in close to the spine does you a lot more good than a typical crunch or sit-up.

As far as the subtle body goes, this practice is very much associated with the 3rd Chakra, Manipura.  Manipura is located at the solar plexus, and is associated physically with our abdomen and our digestive fire.  It's also associated with fear, courage, power, steadfastness, and is considered the store house of our emotions.  The element associated with it is, not surprisingly, fire.  Kapalabhati is a great way to stir up the fire, or agni, of the third chakra, but if you're already feeling pretty fiery, it could be overkill.

 Because of the drawing in of the belly and the rapid movement, yogis also categorize this as a highly detoxifying breath.  Good news with Thanksgiving around the corner!

Try integrating a few rounds of kapalabhati with your regular yoga practice and notice how it makes you feel.  With the winter upon us, this is a great warming practice to carry with you throughout these next few months.  Post your comments and feedback to let me know how it went!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Beginnings

Sometimes the first five to ten minutes of a yoga class are my favorite.  Don't get me wrong, savasana is the icing on the yoga cake, but there is an amazingly simple joy in the practice of simply sitting, being reminded to pay attention to your posture and breath, and pulling yourself back from the past and the future to enjoy the present moment.

Not every yoga class starts this way - some teachers like to jump right in from standing to sun salutations, others will start in child's pose or even from savasana, which is always yummy.  However, I do find that a majority of the classes I take - and all of the classes I teach - start in that comfortable, meditative seat.

Especially lately, I've really started taking my time with the beginning of the classes I teach.  I'm mostly teaching Prenatal these days, with a few random vinyasa classes or privates thrown in every couple of weeks.  I have my students come to a cross legged seat, often sitting on a blanket to slightly raise the hips.  I teach them to rock their pelvis back and forth, or even in a circle, making the movements smaller and smaller until they find just the right position so that their sit bones are firmly rooted into the earth and that their lower back curve is present but not exaggerated.  I teach a slight drawing inward of the navel on the exhale, drawing together of the shoulder blades to open up the heart, and to slightly tuck the chin down while moving the back of the head back in space an inch or two.  (With all of us on our iPhones or reading on the subway, we tend to constantly lean our head forward these days)  Then once we're all snugly settled into our seats, the attention turns to the breath.

I take my time.  I cue little things, I take snippets from other teachers that I love and find effective, and I really want to make sure my students are as grounded and present as they can be in those first few moments before we start moving our bodies.

However, I've come to realize that in my own meditation practice that I always expected myself to just kind of jump into it.  I sit on my blanket, set the timer (I use the Insight Timer app on my iPhone - lots of different Tibetan bowl sounds.  It's a gentle way to come in and out), and boom - the search for peace or enlightenment or whatever it is begins.  A few weeks ago, I decided to add some pranayama (simply translated to breathing exercises, more literally translated to extension of the life force energy) to the beginning of my practice as a neat little switch to help calm my mind.  It certainly does help and provide plenty of other benefits, but I wouldn't take a moment before beginning to center myself, so I was still missing an important ingredient to my practice.  I think part of my tendency to rush into the practice is my eternal awareness of how much time I have - or don't have.  If I'm only going to meditate for 10 minutes, I better not waste a second!  I think I should start right away and hit the ground running, so to speak.

Now, I'm doing what I'm teaching in my adult classes - find my posture, scan my body for unecessary tension, and then relax into my breath and take my time. I always teach it and I always appreciate it in my asana classes, yet I almost never did it for myself!  It's a little crazy how long it took me to notice that.  One of my personal commandments is to "Treat myself as my best friend."  In this situation, I needed to treat myself with the same consideration as I treat my students.  Whether it's a seated practice or an asana practice, it's unbelievably beneficial to set the stage by spending a few moments grounding yourself in the here and now.

An issue like this on the mat is usually a good indication of a similar issue off the mat.  However, I'm usually pretty good about the beginning of things.  I'm not a procrastinator (about most things, anyway), I never had problems with the beginnings of papers in college, and I'm usually much more game to start a project than to complete one.

I searched a little longer, and the answer smacked me in the face.  I have a really hard time letting myself be a beginner.  I'm a fast learner in general, so when something takes me a little longer to integrate into my brain or body (or both, as with teaching yoga) it gets very frustrating.  There's a huge amount of vulnerability into letting yourself be a beginner, and I've learned over the years that it's very hard for me to be vulnerable in that way. 

I recently completed an absolutely incredible teacher training - Yoga Mom, Buddha Baby taught by Jyothi Larson.  It empowered me to address the specific needs of the post-partum woman in yoga class along with baby yoga songs and exercises.  I've been looking forward to being a Mom & Baby teacher ever since I found out the class existed, but I have to still remember to take my time and be patient with myself as I develop my teaching style for this very unique class.  I'm trained and qualified - and I am also a beginner.  Especially in New York, where the atmosphere is often so competitive, it sometimes feels like you have to keep any "beginner" status a secret.  How silly is that?

Experience is my best teacher for everything, and I have to accept that that experience will involve some mistakes and imperfections.  If this were my best friend having these feelings or frustrations, I'd tell them to take their time and be patient with themselves, and that, most importantly, it's a part of life to keep learning and to be a beginner at something.  Respecting the beginning goes a long way toward sustaining you throughout your practice - whatever it might be.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Jala Neti

Today I'm going to write about something you might not necessarily expect from a blog about yoga - my Neti Pot!

I was feeling a little low on inspiration for my entry this week, especially since Tuesday afternoon I started feeling sick toward the end of my work day.  My head had ached all day, but that's not too out of the ordinary for me.  When I started feeling my throat become sore and scratchy, I knew it was the kiss of death, and I needed to start getting proactive with my health before this cold (or whatever it is) gets the better of me.

Marc suggested writing about being sick, how it affects my practice - things of that vein.  It's a good suggestion, but I feel like I always do that when I get sick and I wanted to go a different route this week.  Marc also suggested I use a neti pot to help with my sinuses, and then it struck me - the neti pot comes from Ayurvedic medicine and is a yogic technique for cleansing the body!  It wasn't discovered by modern medicine or bored people who suddenly were struck with the idea to put water through their nose -  it's something that has been around for five thousand years.

Ayurveda, which translates to "knowledge of life"  is the "sister science" of yoga.  Scott Blossom of YogaJournal.com says of Ayurveda, "It's a system of healing that examines physical constitution, emotional nature, and spiritual outlook in the context of the universe."  You can read the full article here to learn more about the doshas, or three different energies we're made of according to Ayurvedic medicine.

Jala neti is Sanskrit and literally translates to "water cleansing."  It's part of the Panchakarma ("five actions") program for cleansing of the body, mind, and spirit.

Just googling neti pot can provide you with a ton of ways to find and purchase your own.  It doesn't need to be fancy or expensive, it just needs to have a spout that can fit in your nose and it needs to hold an adequate amount of water.

Everything's better with a thumbs-up!
To use jala neti, boil some water to make sure it's clean and free of any stray bacteria that may be lurking.  Pour the water into the pot and wait until it's about lukewarm (this could take 20 to 30 minutes - just check with your finger until it is a temperature you think will be comfortable).  From there, you want to add salt.  Plenty of places sell salt packets specifically designed for use in a neti pot, but sea salt works just fine as well.  Holding your head over a sink, put the spout up one nostril and tilt your head pot-side-up.  (The hilarious picture illustrates - it's a pretty tricky thing to try to explain!)  Hold your tongue firm against your throat to keep from swallowing the water (although you'll probably swallow some your first few times) and the water will pour out of your other nostril into the sink.

Jala neti isn't for everyone.  My sister reminded me that as a little girl, I used to despise blowing my nose.  I'd cry and say I couldn't do it and I hated being made to - it just seemed disgusting and wrong.  If this kind of thing makes you squeamish, it may not be for you.  However, my experience so far this week has been amazing.  My cold is still hanging on, but after using the neti 2-3 times a day I can really feel an improvement.

If you suffer from seasonal allergies or colds - and as a fellow sick friend said to me recently, Tis the Season! - I highly recommend giving the neti pot a try.  Stick with it a couple times and see if it helps you.  In the meantime, enjoy some hot tea, hot soup, and fuzzy sweaters.  Happy fall!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

To thine own self be true



Satya pratishthayam kriya phala shrayatvam.  
Upon being established in truth, there is surety in the result of actions.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
ii:36


I've been reading a passage a day from a book by Rolf Gates called Meditations from the Mat.  I'm sure I've mentioned it once or twice before on the blog.  It's designed to be a kind of yoga devotional, where you read one passage a day (there are 365 passages/days within the book).  It's the perfect accompaniment to my morning meditation, and it's the perfect way to reacquaint myself with the Yoga Sutras and other yoga philosophy at a leisurely pace and with Gates's fantastic, personal, truthful, clear writing.

He's started to dive into the yamas, the "thou shalt nots" of yoga.  The most recent one he's been exploring has been Satya, or truth.  There are many different ways to tell the truth - or not to.  Being true to yourself, however, I think is where it starts and is by far, in my view, the most important.  How can you be true and truthful with others if you're not true to yourself?


As I've been reading these daily passages on Satya for the last week or so, it's gotten me thinking about the areas in my life most affected by my own personal satya.  In my post Happiness Project frenzy of improving my life, I came up with lots of possible answers, but the most obvious one was the subject of money:  how I spend it, earn it, feel about it, relate to it, and organize it.

This brings me to yet another book - Your Money or Your Life, by Vicki Robin, Joe Dominguez, and Monique Tilford.  The original edition was published in 1992, and an updated version came out in 2008, which is the one that I read.  Having never really read any books about money before, I had no idea how absolutely perfect this one would turn out to be in helping me discover my personal truths about my relationship with money.

I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone. Your Money or Your Life has a brilliant way of breaking down our society's relationship with money, with consumerism, with debt, and with savings.  The most important way it does that is by giving you steps to make yourself totally, completely, 100% aware of the money you have made in your life, the money and other property value you currently have (even if you feel, like, me that you have no property value), and the money that comes in and goes out of your life every day.

Consciousness is the key to the book.  I believe consciousness and awareness are the key to becoming truthful about anything in your life.  Money is a great tool through which to view satya because it's so easy to either deliberately lie to ourselves about it or ignore issues as they come up.  The restaurant bill that was a lot bigger than you expected but it's forgotten as soon as you sign for it.  Going crazy at a clothing sale just becomes another line on the credit card statement.  You go to take money out of the ATM and realize you don't have as much as you thought.  These little things happen to pretty much all of us at least every once and a while if not on a regular basis.  It's easy to feel like it all just snuck up on you when suddenly one day you peek through the fog for a moment to see the reality of what you have, and then you think...well, it's okay.  Money's not everything, I'll make more next week, I'll download a budget app and then it'll be okay.


 I'm not rambling about money to prove a point about money, or to judge anyone (including myself) for how great or not-so-great our spending and saving habits may be.  The point is satya.  It can be very scary to face financial realities, but if we don't face them, the first person we hurt is ourselves.  If you have a family to support, other people wind up hurt as well.  It's not always fun or easy to get real with yourself about money, but it's always worth it in the end because you can rest in your own knowledge of where you stand, for better or worse.


I realize this is probably a terrible metaphor for you if you keep excellent financial records and have a great relationship with money, but it's the one that works best for me at the moment.  This can apply to relationships with people, with our jobs, with our health.  People who don't go to the doctor for years and then suddenly have to face a terrible diagnosis weren't being true to themselves by not going to the doctor and keeping themselves in ignorance.  It's comparable to a lie of omission, only the person you're lying to is yourself.


We can make a choice every single day to invite more truth into every aspect of our lives.  What part of your life could benefit from the practice of satya?


"We must not be afraid to follow the truth no matter where it may lead."
Thomas Jefferson

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tristin & Tyler come to Karma Kids!

Awhile back, we had some very special visitors to our Family Yoga class at Karma Kids.  Tristin and Tyler, two twin boys who go around the city having awesome, eco-friendly adventures, shot an episode during the class I taught.

Check out the video, their website, and their mom's blog, Tiffany's Take.  Cuteness abounds!



Happy Monday!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"Do Not Squander Time; That is the Stuff Life is Made Of"

 A couple weeks ago, while teaching a Prenatal class, my watch broke.

I've had a watch on my right wrist (I'm left-handed) since I was probably about 6 years old and got my first Mickey Mouse watch from my grandma.  I don't know if my obsessive desire to schedule out my days started as a result of that or if I was born with that tendency, but it's sure always been there.  I always know what time it is, I always know what time I have to be at a given place (my calendar obsession helps with that too), and I tend to be a good at predicting how long any given thing will take.  If I had a nickel for every time I looked at my bare right wrist in the last week, I'd feel a lot better about my financial situation!

The watch is fixable, thank goodness - it's another gift from my ever-generous Grandma.  I just have to find a good place and get it done.  I'm not completely without a timepiece, since every electronic device keeps perfect digital time and is there at my fingertips whenever I need it, but man, do you get used to a wristwatch!

Despite all of that attachment to time and to my identity as  a time keeper, there is a kind of freedom in not always knowing the time.  I have definitely noticed that I'm less likely to do time calculations in my head in certain situations - walking home from the subway, reading a book, eating a meal.  The watch is going to get fixed and come back to my lonely right wrist, but I hope that taking all of this into consideration, my mind will fixate a little less on using the time to plan the future and a little more on enjoying the present moment as it is.

Shortly after losing my watch, Marc asked me to watch Cast Away with him.  He loves it, but I remember being rather traumatized by a lot of the scary, devastating, sad moments, and the power of Tom Hanks's performance.  (He's a life ruiner, that one.)

As we were watching, I couldn't help but notice the overwhelming presence of the concept of time in the film.  As a FedEx employee, Hanks's character, Chuck Nolan, is forever giving speeches on the need for time efficiency in package delivery.  His girlfriend gives him her father's pocket watch for Christmas (that he ironically used in the South Pacific, where Chuck winds up stranded).  Once he is stranded, his watch no longer works, there's no way to tell time, and there's pretty much no need to tell time in any unit smaller than day and night.

Beyond these more obvious ways in which time is presented in the film, Marc and I noticed that Chuck's inability to comfort his friend with a sick wife, to properly propose to his girlfriend before leaving on his fated flight, and his inability to cut ties with work for his personal life all showed a man very uncomfortable with being in the present moment and being vulnerable.  The most vulnerable we see him is when he's proposing to his girlfriend, but even then he's outside of the car literally about to run on an airplane.  He's not taking the time, so to speak, to make it a true moment.  Marc even went so far as to say that as a consequence from ignoring the present moment, he loses what he identified as his life - his identity as a successful manager, a boyfriend, a member of an extended family, a friend.

"We live by the clock, we die by the clock," he says to his employees when we first meet him, and in a sense, that becomes true for him.  His old self dies when the clock is no longer there and he is profoundly changed by his experience on the island.

The implication is that our fast paced modern lives have gotten us way out of touch with each other and instead cause us to always rush forward, ignoring the importance of the present moment.  It's a powerful stance to take, with some truth to it despite its rather extreme one-sidedness.

I have found it in certain tiny moments rather liberating to not have the time right on my wrist when I wanted it.  It's helping me discern when I want it, to orient myself in my time and place and life and to seek out as a comfort, and when I actually need it - when I'm running late or need to check the time in the middle of a crazy kid's yoga class to see if I have time for one more game.  It takes me out, even just for one or two moments a day, from my own version of the giant, constantly present FedEx clock in the film that is presented almost as a god to be feared as well as worshiped.  It may or may not have anything to do with the fact that I've become more patient during my morning meditation, and less likely to open one eye and sneakily peak at my countdown timer to see how much time is left until I can rush on to the next thing on my to-do list.

I do plan on getting the watch fixed.  It's a lovely watch, it was a gift, and because I do still live in the real world and am not stranded on a desert island, I have some necessary allegiance to the God of Time.  Time is life - it's our gift, and we should use it wisely.  That doesn't mean we should be a slave to the clock, it means living with awareness.  I just know that when I put my watch back on my right wrist, I'll do so with a little more perspective and a little less attachment.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Challenges of Being Present

The phrase "Be present" seems ubiquitous these days.  Maybe it's just because I'm a yoga teacher and so it's ubiquitous in the things that I read and the conversations that I have (even the pants that I wear), or maybe it's because there's a national worry on how obsessed we are with smartphones and multitasking.  Whatever the reason, it seems to be one of those spiritual secrets of happiness.  It's even one of my Personal Commandments (more on those when I write yet another Happiness Project-inspired blog soon).  But what does it mean to Be Present?  More importantly - how do you do it?

Our thoughts are always focused on the past, the present, or the future.  The present is the only place we can be grounded in the reality of what is happening in our lives at any given moment.  Past is gone - as insubstantial as the thoughts of it.  Future is a completely imagined composite of assumption, hope, worry, and storytelling.  Present encompasses all of our five senses and the ability to act with a clear, focused mind.

Meditation is one of the number one ways people can work on embracing the present moment, but it's also probably the hardest, at least in my humble opinion.  Just sitting there, eyes closed or open, focusing on a mantra or breath or whatever your technique is, the brain is just roaring with memories, plans, stories, and everything else under the sun.  It can be incredibly frustrating, and often the assumption is that in order to properly meditate, you need to banish all thoughts from your mind.  That's certainly what I've always thought - that implies great focus, self control, inner peace.

The book I've been reading for the last week or so has given me a completely different perspective on meditation, however.  It's called The Joy of Living by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist master teacher of meditation and philosophy.  Marc recommended it, and it's a great read, regardless of your religion, spiritual affiliation, or if you're a seasoned or green meditator.  It's taken a lot of the self-imposed pressure off my meditation practice by reiterating time and again that the purpose of meditation isn't to stop your thoughts - that would be like trying to stop the flow of a river.  The purpose of the mind is to have thoughts.  Meditation, in Mingyur's view, is "simply a process of resting the mind in its natural state, which is open to and naturally aware of thoughts, emotions, and sensations as they occur."

Later, he goes on to say one of my favorite things I've read in the book so far.  In describing how attention to thoughts always wavers in beginning meditation practice, he says that the trick is to simply catch yourself and become aware of your mind wandering.

And when you suddenly remember, Oops, I was supposed to be watching my thoughts... just bring your attention back...The great secret about these "Oops" moments is that they're actually split-second experiences of your fundamental nature.

The good news is that the more you practice, the more "Oopses" you're likely to experience.  And gradually these "Oopses" started to accumulate, until one day  "Oops" becomes a natural state of mind, a release from the habitual patterns of neuronal gossip that allows you to look at any thought, any feeling, any situation with total freedom and openness.

'Oops' is a wonderful thing.

I find this is great wisdom and advice not just for a seated meditation practice, but for throughout the day.  Getting distracted, dissolving into worry over something - we can always catch ourselves with what Mingyur would call an "Oops" moment and come back to wherever we are at present.  By letting go of past rumination or future supposition, we're better serving ourselves and those around us by being engaged in whatever we're doing and wherever we are.  Have you ever felt like you spaced out during your entire commute or running errands?  It's can be a little disconcerting to feel like you just came back into your body with only the haziest recollection of what you were just doing.

Personally, I think the number one time I'm present throughout my day is when I'm teaching yoga to young children - especially the under 5 crowd.  I have to be 100% focused on what is happening in that room right in that moment.  Who's engaged?  Who's flopping out and running around in circles and about to faceplant?  Who wants to go upside down?  Who sees a dog at the jungle?  (My job is wonderful)

Teaching yoga to kids is so interactive.  We're always asking them questions - everything from "Did you bring your hands to yoga today?" to "What do you see?" or "Can you show me your manatee pose?"  You never know what they'll respond with or when 57 ideas will be thrown at you at once.  One kid needs to be praised, another needs to be asked to keep their hands to themselves or their yoga mat off the floor, another kid needs a little encouragement to come out of their shell.  As the teacher, it's your job to be the leader of the adventure, so for 30, 45, 60 minutes, you're 100% engaged in your surroundings.  It's exhilarating, energizing, and sometimes exhausting all at the same time.

The great thing about it, though, is it doesn't require any conscious effort for me to be present with the kids.  It's not a choice, it's a natural response.  Whatever else is going on in my life, any worries or weariness, simply shuts off in deference to the present.  As opposed to seated meditation, where you're actively trying to focus or let thoughts go or focus on breath, and when you're inevitably wondering if you're doing it right, there's so much action and interaction with teaching kids that being present is something that just happens.

I'm trying to bring that kind of total mental focus to other areas of my life, but as a compulsive planner, slave to the clock, daydreamer, and worrier - it's a challenge.  Keeping up with my meditation practice every morning has been a huge help in keeping myself present throughout the day.  The biggest help, though, is simply remembering that it is my intention.  "Oops" moments happen every day, a zillion times a day.  The important thing to remember is to be thankful for them.  Every "Oops," as Mingyur says, gets you closer to freedom and openness in your mind and in your heart.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

State of the Blog

I almost always have one of two inspiration issues when I sit down to write a blog:  overabundance and underabundance ("underabundance" isn't actually a word, but why shouldn't it be?).  Today, I suffer from an overabundance.  I just finished rereading The Happiness Project, I've started reading The Joy of Living by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, and I'm starting to consistently read one passage a day from Rolf Gates's fabulous Meditations from the Mat.

I started this blog as a way to have an outlet for myself to sort through the massive, life-changing yogic education I had received months prior through my teacher training at Sonic.  Even before Sonic, I had started reading books on meditation, getting deeper into a yoga practice, and found myself learning all these crazy new words and theories and ideas.  A blog seemed like a perfect way to make sense of things for myself, one week at a time, and to share what I was learning with whoever was interested in reading.

It quickly became a source of stress, pressure, obligation, writer's block, judgment, and disappointment.  That's not all it's been, of course, but more often than not I have anxiety about not living up to my own expectations, or feeling shy or embarrassed about putting myself out there.  I forget that I didn't start this to be a Yoga Expert or a saint or anything - it was about sharing my own journey.

Lately, I feel like I've cleared out a lot of the spiritual and mental cobwebs that have been hanging around.  I feel more connected to my meditation practice than I have since I was in teacher training, I feel happier and more at peace at home after going through my Happiness Project-inspired cleanfest, I feel secure and strong in my job teaching beautiful children, and I feel like I'm really ready to make my personal yoga practice a priority again.

During my teacher training, I fell in love with the idea of being a Perfect Virtuous Yogi.  I loved the idea of meditating every day (maybe I'd meditate for an hour a day!), having a "code" to live my life by in the Yoga Sutras, and maybe even becoming vegetarian!  I was absorbed in my education and my practice all the time, every day - even when I fell off the meditation wagon a bit (okay, a lot) when Marc and I started dating in the middle of the training.

Once the training was over, however, things were different.  I got caught up in major anxiety that I wasn't ready to be a yoga teacher, I was so afraid of how much work I was going to have to put into supporting myself as a freelance yoga teacher, and I lost myself in my insecurities, judgments, and fear for awhile.  Not to say I didn't do anything - I didn't get to where I am now by accident, after all - but it was very hard.  Even though at this present moment I am thrilled with how my career has gone and am so in love with teaching children, I've realized that I have shied away from really delving deep into the practice of yoga.  Not just working on my arm balances and chaturangas, but "Living My Yoga," as we like to say.

Now that the dust of the past two-and-change years seems to be settling a little bit, I'm re-prioritizing.

I had vastly underestimated how much of a commitment I'd have to make day-to-day in my continuing education and practice.  I should have had an idea - my teachers called our training, "Yoga nursery school," telling us we were barely scratching the surface.  They crammed in as much knowledge and education as they possibly could in the 200 hours allotted, but any progress beyond that is up to each individual.  I knew that intellectually, but now I fully understand how it applies to my practical, everyday life.
The point of all of this rambling is that yoga is a top priority on my life.  It has changed my life dramatically for the better, and I'm still at the very beginning of my journey.  This blog is supposed to serve my journey, and I want to get better at letting it.  One of my resolutions - and believe it or not, I have yet another post in me about The Happiness Project and resolutions, so stay tuned for that - is to spend more time on my blog.  Often I carve out an hour or two for it a week, and then feel like I'm cramming to write something amazing, or I just write something really quick, like a link to an article.  There's nothing wrong with that, necessarily - the blog police aren't going to get me for being lazy or neurotic - but for my own sake, I want to change that.

So now that I've set the bar way up high for myself...stay tuned to see what next week brings! 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Taking Care

Happy Monday!  I'm breaking out of my usual middle-of-the-week entry writing so as to avoid driving myself crazy by trying to squeeze in an entry in the midst of what is going to be a very busy week.

It's that time of year again...one of my all time favorites.  To me, fall means soup, sweaters...and assisting my teacher, Jyothi, in her Thai Yoga Massage Level 1 Intensive.  From Wednesday through Sunday I'll be bouncing back and forth from Massage Intensive Assistant to Kid's Teacher to Karma Kids Desk Lady.  I'm excited about it, as these are all three hats I love wearing.  However, every time I'm either taking or assisting any kind of training, I find that I forget to make the proper space to let myself rest.

The need for rest and recovery, both physical and mental, is necessary in any intensive training, but I find it's especially true for Thai Yoga Massage.  There is a lot of intense energy and emotional exchange back and forth.  As a student, you feel like your head's going to explode with all the new poses to master, and as an assistant, it's both a major energy boost and drain to be the median between the teacher and all the students.  Jyothi affectionately calls her assistants the "good cops" to her "bad cop," which, although not true in any literal sense at all, is a way in which we function.  If a student feels more comfortable coming to us with confusion or stress, we're there for them.

I've gotten a jump on it this time, however.  I took two half vinyasa/half restorative classes this weekend, one at The Giving Tree and one at the Om Yoga Center in Union Square (I'm using my new student 3-pack - it's a lovely studio!).  I'm trying my hardest to cut down on outside activities and obligations.  Most importantly, I'm going to be super vigilant about sleep.  I'm usually super vigilant about sleep anyway, because I know how losing sleep affects the whole rest of my day, but this week it's especially important.

Regardless of what's going on in your life, fall in general is a great time to shift your focus toward taking extra good care of yourself.  A lot of people's allergies flare up around this time, and a lot of people get the dreaded change-of-season-cold which can really put a damper on enjoying the changing colors of leaves or the hot apple cider that fall is so loved for.  This is a good time to prepare for the turning inward that winter will bring by catching up on sleep, maybe introducing some restorative yoga poses to your morning or evening routine, and be mindful of not overextending yourself. 

These practices, though they sound lovely, often become very hard to actually apply - especially if you live in the city that never sleeps.  Even just choosing one to focus on can increase your energy level and your focus, and give you a little more time to stop and bask in the beauty of fall.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book Report: The Happiness Project

At the train station on the way back from Massachusetts last month (which feels like just yesterday and zillion years ago all at the same time), Marc and I killed time by browsing the mini-bookstore at Boston's South Station.  Browsing bookstores is one of our all time favorite activities as a couple.  We could probably spend an entire day doing it and not get bored.  While there, Marc spotted a book that had been on a list of books I'd sent him to try to get from the New York Library before we left (where he had gotten me enLIGHTened).  In bright, lovely blue and yellow, there was The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.  I snatched it up and promptly spent the entire train ride reading magazines...my biggest travel indulgence.

A few days later I started the book, and had to force myself to make it last and not gobble the whole thing up in one or two sittings.  It's just shy of 300 pages, but compulsively readable.

Gretchen Rubin, Supreme Court law clerk-turned-full-time-writer, is a wife and mother of two little girls.  One day she realized that although she had a perfectly wonderful life - a family she loved, a career she loved, a life in beloved New York City - she too often let crabby moods or a short temper  or day-to-day sources of stress get the better of her.  She often didn't act the way she wanted to feel - which was happy.  Thus, The Happiness Project was (pretty much) born.

Rubin modeled Ben Franklin's Chart of 13 Virtues (google it to download a pdf example) to create a Resolutions Chart for herself.  She decided to make this project last a calendar year, tackling a different element that contributes to happiness (and unhappiness) for each month.

January: Vitality
February: Marriage
March:  Work
April:  Parenthood
May: Leisure
June:  Friendship
July:  Money
August:  Eternity
September:  Books
October: Mindfulness
November: Attitude
December: Happiness 
(or "Boot Camp Perfect," where she tried to live up to all her resolutions every day)

In addition to all this, she makes up a list of Twelve Commandments, Secrets of Adulthood, and, as she discovers them for herself, the Splendid Truths of Happiness. 

Rubin is a wonderful tour guide through all of her happiness research as well as through her own personal day to day life and struggles.  She doesn't shy away from her own personal shortcomings at all - she is nothing if not honest, which makes her very relatable, whether or not you share the same shortcomings, or even have the same lifestyle circumstances.

Certain resolutions, elements of research, and personal anecdotes of hers resonated with me more than others.  I went wild for January's part about Clearing out Clutter, because I have the same deep love for organization but struggle to stay on top of it during busy day-to-day life.  Just reading this book has actually sent me on an organizational tear of my own - throwing out, giving away, clearing up, and finding order in my own apartment has made a big difference in my happiness/stress level.

Although I don't have children, I was fascinated by April's Parenthood chapter, both as someone who works with children and as a future mother.  The dynamics of her relationship with her husband and my relationship with Marc are very, very different, so although it was hard to relate, it was still interesting to learn what her research showed her about coupledom and happiness.

As a former law student who is nothing if not thorough and as someone who loves organization, lists, and order, there are a lot of layers to Rubin's Happiness Project.  There are quotes galore about happiness and so many tips and tidbits that I feel I should reread the whole thing and take copious notes.  It can be a lot to take it, but the overwhelming of information doesn't slow the pace of the book or affect its compulsive readability, which is the number one element I reward gold starts for in the books that I read.

Another way to get more information, aside from just rereading the whole book (which I am seriously considering) is to visit her blog at http://www.happiness-project.com.  She posts daily tips and insights, and you can also email her to get a "happiness project starter kit" if you're interested in starting your own happiness project.  She recently just announced on her blog that she'll be releasing another book next August:  Happier at Home.  I'm already excited for it!

I highly recommend this book to...well, anyone.  Whether you're happy or unhappy, motivated or unmotivated, organized or disorganized, you will take away something valuable from this book.  Or at least get a few smiles of recognition.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Home is where the Heart is

I arrived back home this past Tuesday after almost 2 solid weeks of being away from the city to visit family. What was supposed to be a short weekend visit to Boston to see Marc's parents and his grandpa turned into a luxurious 5 day wait-out-Hurricane-Irene visit. It worked out great for us - I only had to cancel one class and Marc wasn't scheduled to work, so we could afford the extension and enjoy the extra time with his wonderful grandpa without worry of our oh-so important lives in New York going on without us.

For about a day and a quarter, we returned home. Just long enough for Marc to get in a shift at his restaurant and for me to re-pack for another 5 day trip. My brilliant sister came up with a plan for Marc and I to travel down to South Carolina to surprise my mom, who was planning to come down for Labor Day to celebrate her 60th birthday.  It was an incredibly special and fun-filled weekend and I'm so thankful we were able to surprise her and send her into her 60's in style. 

It also meant a great deal to me to be back in the south.  I grew up in a combination of North Carolina, Florida, Texas, and Virginia, and had never lived above the Mason-Dixon line before September 8th, 2009 when I moved to New York (happy 2-year anniversary, NYC!).  I returned home to Virginia once last year, but this was my first time in the Carolinas in a good long while.  Just getting off the plane into the Charlotte airport was enough to make my heart burst with joy - hearing southern accents all around me, not being the only one saying y'all, seeing glorious seafood restaurants, seeing Tar Heel State memorabilia in the airport newsstand.  I felt the absolute ecstatic joy of being home.

Funnily enough, I experienced the exact same feeling upon landing in LaGuardia.  I'm sure part of it was the joy of knowing we were headed back to our own tiny, humble apartment after two weeks of being (very well taken care of) house guests, but it was more than that.  New York is just as much my home as the South - they just nourish different parts of me.  It's exhilarating, comforting, and frankly kind of weird that I can feel such deep love and attachment for two parts of the world as vitally different as these are.

Another thing I find that happens when I travel these days is that my meditation practice tends to become consistent again.  It strikes me as really funny, considering that usually travel completely throws things out of whack.  No matter what gets thrown aside or altered with travel - eating habits, exercise, etc - my meditation either stays consistent or becomes consistent once again.  I think part of it has to do with the fact that, as an introvert, my batteries sometimes get very drained if I don't get any time to myself throughout the day.  If I guarantee myself 10 minutes before breakfast to just sit (or in the late afternoon, as was my habit with the LeVasseur's), I'm much more comfortable spending all the livelong day in the presence of the wonderful people I'm visiting.  It also acts as a solid way to ground myself amidst the upheaval and change that travel brings.

Now that I'm back home, I'm rededicating myself to a seated practice every morning.  Ten minutes before breakfast is all it takes, and I'm home again.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Book Report: enLIGHTened

As the summer starts drawing to a close and the reopening of Karma Kids starts peeking around the corner, I've been craving a slight change in reading material.  It's been a fabulous summer for reading - I've read many of my old Stephen King favorites, a few new King gems, Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho (which...good LORD), John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath....lots of great fiction.

However, fall means the beginning of a busy semester of work and getting back into the full swing of things as a yoga teacher as well as a student.  My summer of 30 Day Challenges and Bikram were great, but I wasn't spending my summer reading the Yoga Sutras or the Bhagavad Gita or anything.  I felt I needed something more yoga-esque to help get my head in the game.  I also wanted something a little lighter than King, Steinbeck, and Ellis for the train ride to Boston last week!

Appropriately enough, the first book on my random list of yoga-esque books was enLIGHTened:  How I Lost 40 Pounds with a Yoga Mat, Fresh Pineapples, and a Beagle Pointer by Jessica Berger Gross.  I've been wanting to read this book for awhile.  Jessica Berger Gross also writes the Enlightened Motherhood blog for Yoga Journal.com, and her simple, clear writing style is often a huge help and inspiration to me when I'm feeling like I need to turn a blog entry into a novel.

Gross uses the yogic yamas and niyamas (kind of the yogi's 10 Commandments) to illustrate different steps in her weight-loss and "enlightenment" journey.  She doesn't pretend to be a perfect, superhuman, all knowing all meditating yogi, but her life was dramatically changed by yoga and she doesn't shy away from the lessons she learned from it.  One thing I liked about this book is that the philosophy of yoga is treated as the utmost important thing - important over the yoga poses themselves (the asana practice).  The asana serves the philosophy.

I think because I knew a lot of these yogic principles and factoids and Sanskrit terms, I felt this book was a lot more about weight loss than I was expecting.  Yes, obviously, it's right there in the subtitle - the story is "How I lost 40 Pounds."  But after doing so much reading from different places about everything in moderation, it was occasionally jarring to read some of the food philosophies she adheres to.  The most notable is the chapter on fasting/cleansing, and we all know my opinion on that.  I personally don't think it's safe and would never advocate it, but she has the right to her opinion and I realize that people do it all the time without serious incident.  It was interesting to read such a detailed account from someone with a different perspective on it.

Although I'm not on a weight loss journey right now, per se, I have lost a lot of weight and changed my body over the years.  My fitness level and size when I was 19 and 20, for instance, were lightyears behind where I am now.  I do absolutely credit yoga for helping me make better choices and for inspiring me to educate myself about my own health and eating habits.  It was really moving to read someone else's journey with it, and it helped me reacquaint myself with the importance of eating mindfully.  Even though I'm at a healthy size and weight, I do still hold onto some unhealthy habits that have been with me since a kid.  The way this book links a lot of basic yogic principles - truth, purity/cleanliness, and moderation - and links them to the everyday decisions you make in the kitchen, the restaurant, or on any single street in NYC with endless access to all kinds of food, was very thought-provoking and, at times, profound.

She also touches on vegetarianism as a way of exploring ahimsa, or non-violence.  That's a very common interpretation for yogi vegetarians and/or vegans, and I like that she didn't apologize for her views.  She didn't judge meat-eaters, but she makes a compelling case for cutting out (or at least down on) meat consumption.

I'd recommend this book for either a seasoned yogi or even a total yoga newbie - anyone who would be interested in an Eat, Pray, Love-esqe memoir about weight loss and spiritual gain.  It's funny, touching, insightful, and given that I devoured the whole thing in a 4 hour train ride, it's good light reading.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Breathing: The Best Tool in Your Toolbox

Good gloomy Saturday morning!  I'm sitting here in peaceful, tranquil (for the moment) Boxford, Massachusetts.  Marc and I are visiting his family and our visit has just been extended by two days to make way for angry Irene!  I hope our home and our city is safe, but it surely is nice to be surrounded by green, peace, and quiet for a few extra days.

Simple post today - I just wanted to write about something a new (to me) yoga instructor said last week.  I went down to Bikram Park Slope with my wonderful cousin, who is doing a 30-Day Bikram Challenge.  This woman, Robin, was so inspirational, fun, and funny.  She even left us little vegan blueberry muffins on our mats after class!  One of the best Bikram classes I have ever attended, hands down.

She does a lot of talking in the 90 minutes, as do most Bikram teachers.  The dialogue (or monologue, technically) is partly there to keep you engaged in the present so your mind doesn't get a chance to ask you what on earth you're doing in such a hot, disgusting room.  I could have listened to her talk for another 90 minutes, easy.

She said something that I know I've heard before, but in such a way that it resonated with something different in me.  Isn't it so amazing - and often a little annoying, she said, that the cure to most of our emotional distress at any given moment, is right here within us?  All we have to do is adjust our breath.  It's infuriatingly simple and often sounds trite, but it's the truth.  She gave us a mini homework assignment (or would have if we were capable of writing) to notice how often you hear someone tell someone else to breathe.  Whether that person is angry, upset, perhaps worried that a hurricane will damage their apartment or city...the first thing you will tell them is to take a breath.

Beyond that, notice your own breath when you get in those states.  When I cry my breath is shallow, short, and very jerky.  When I'm trying not to cry I hold it a lot.  It's very hard to have long, slow, full breath when you're angry or sad - your body physiologically just can't really support both states at the same time.

So go ahead, notice it.  We're going to need something fun to do if the power goes out!  Take slow, deep breaths, whatever comes, and you can weather this and any other storm with your own internal strength.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Last Days of Summer

August is winding down, and with it - summer.  We've still got a good 12 days left, and I intend to make good use of them.  Still...the unseasonable cool and wet weather we've had these past couple of weeks in New York are hammering home the reality that soon it'll be autumn.  The Back to School commercials are already dominating the airwaves, so it must be real!

We're encroaching on a time of year that always feels a lot like New Year's to me.  I don't think I've ever been able to release myself from the New School Year conditioning, and somehow the way my life and jobs and moving to and from new cities always seems to center around Fall Semester, Spring Semester, and Summer.  I never seem to have a big transition smack in the middle of March or November, it's always May and August/September.  I wonder how much of that is conscious and how much unconscious!

This is yet another way in which Karma Kids is a perfect job for me.  We slowed down in the summer and will pick back up again in September, schedules packed and rarin' to go.  Today, after I substitute a class at an Upper East Side school for a fellow teacher, I'm finished with teaching for at least two weeks.  It's really strange and hard to believe, and hammering home this time of transition, reflection, and recharging more than ever.

Coming into the last few months of 2011, I'm trying to stay committed to my number one goal for the year which was to have a daily meditation practice.  I've had times of practicing every day and I've tried a lot of different practices, but I still feel like I haven't really dug in deep with one particular practice.  Swami Satchidananda, founder of Integral Yoga Institute (where I do my fabulous Thai Yoga Massage trainings) has been so widely quoted on this subject that I can scarcely find an actual quote, so I'll just paraphrase.  He says you cannot find water by digging many shallow holes - the only way is to dig one deep hole.  Essentially, finding enlightenment, peace, whatever you're meditating for is not going to happen if you're doing something different every week.

I mostly agree with that, but I think the only way you know which technique really works best for you is to try the variety.  I'm not so sure I'm out of the experimentation phase - or if I ever should be, at least not completely.

These are the things I have time to think about when I'm not working all the time.  Not a bad problem to have, granted, but it's hard enough to find the time every day to sit and meditate without spending the entire time wondering if you're making the best use of this time you're giving yourself.

I've decided this time I'm just going to sit each and every day and meditate and try to be as consistent as possible.  I'll let you know how it all turns out.

In the meantime - get outside!  Go to the beach!  Go anywhere and enjoy this beautiful weather.  (And bring an umbrella)