Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Power of Negative Thinking

"Worrying is praying for what you don't want."
-Yogi Bhajan- 

The inspiration for today is, as you may have guessed, derived from the quote at the top.  My beautiful friend Laura Frye shared that with me as we had a fun Thai Yoga Massage date on Monday night and she was sharing with me her adventures in Radiant Child Yoga teacher training with Shakta Kaur Khalsa.  The training is based strongly in the traditions of Kundalini yoga and she learned an amazing amount in just one weekend - including some of the wisdom of Yogi Bhajan, the spiritual leader who introduced Kundalini Yoga to the US in the late 1960's.

I tend to be a worrier by nature.  It's probably partly related to being a compulsive planner.  Both of worrying and planning are greatly derived by a need to control, and worry basically arises when we're thinking of something that is either beyond our control completely or not yet in our control for whatever reason.  Worrying if we locked the door behind us, if we did well on a job interview, worrying about our health and the health and well being of friends and family - nine times out of ten, the things we worry about are completely out of our control.  Which means they require faith - something not everyone possesses or even necessarily wants to possess.

When I started yoga teacher training at Sonic back in September of '09, one of the many, many profound lessons I took away from it was this idea that was completely foreign to me at the time:  "Worry is futile."  It's simple, and it might seem obvious to more level-headed people, but it kind of blew my mind.  I try to remember this phrase when I'm stressed and worried about something, but it doesn't always stick in my head.

I feel like Yogi Bhajan's pearl of wisdom is one step beyond the simple truth of, "Worry is futile." The basic idea is this:  Let's say you're worried you're going to be laid off from your job.  If your mind is constantly occupied by the negative chatter of, "I'm going to lose my job, I'm going to lose my job, What happens if I lose my job?, How do I tell people I lost my job?" and so on and so forth day in and day out, you're not just introducing stress into your mind and body.  Stress, by the way, that is coming from something that hasn't even happened and could possibly not happen at all, and so therefore just took a strain on yourself from nothing.  It's not only doing that, but by making this fraught, worried negativity your mantra, essentially, you're filling your body and mind with that negativity.  You're using your energy which we can choose to direct in any positive way we choose (and it is a choice, believe it or not) to hook into a loop of thought that all but assumes disaster is imminent.

It takes a lot to accept that we have total control over a vast majority of our thoughts and mind-chatter.  How often do you feel like you're a slave to your brain?  Maybe a song that you hate is seemingly stuck in your head with no relief or you're feeling irritable and can't stop internally cursing out whatever it is that's got you frustrated.  Once again, for probably the millionth time in this blog, I feel compelled to recommend Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor's phenomenal book, My Stroke of Insight, to help yourself understand the science behind our thoughts and neuroses.

Luckily, there's a shortcut to quieting the worry and the chatter of the mind.  There are many shortcuts, in fact, all to be found in a yoga practice.  Here are two particular practices that help me find a shortcut to quieting the brain:

Asana (Pose)
For me, vinyasa asana practice is the key to getting my thoughts to take a backseat.  The link of breath to movement requires a level of focus and concentration that can shift your focus very quickly.  Try performing a set number of sun salutations, surya namaskar - either Series A, Series B, a combination - or make up your own sequence. 

Here are basic building blocks of a sun salutation:
1. Tadasana, Mountain Pose.
2. Urdva Hastasana, Arms Reach Up (inhale)
3. Uttanasana, Standing Forward Fold (exhale)
4. Ardha Uttanasana, Lift halfway with a flat back (inhale)
5. Adho Mukha Svanasana, Downward Facing Dog (exhale)

From there you can add in a vinyasa flow including plank pose, chaturanga, cobra pose, any combination of low lunges, high lunges, Warriors 1, 2, and 3...the sky is the limit!  The important thing is the precision of linking the breath with the movement as well as the quality of the breath.  See if you can, with each movement, keep the breath slow, deep, and complete.  The breath comes and completes first - the movement follows.

Pranayama (Control of the life force - the breath)
There are so many different pranayama techniques to choose from that I could write a whole series of posts on pranayama alone.  Here are a just few techniques that I think are most effective for clearing the mind:

1. Samvritti - Equal Breathing
In a comfortable seat or laying on your back, begin to focus on your inhale and exhale and count to yourself how long each inhale and each exhale is.  Begin to equalize your breath so the inhale and exhale are the same length - 6 counts, for example.  Sometimes keeping a hand on the belly helps with this exercise and helps encourage you to allow the breath to originate at the belly and lead up to the chest instead of starting with the chest.


2. Langhana with Bahir Kumbhaka - Lengthen exhale and hold the breath out
Begin the same as above, only this time your exhale will be longer than your inhale.  The ratio can be whatever you're comfortable with - perhaps inhaling for 3 and exhaling for 6, inhaling for 6 and exhaling for 10 - there are no rules and no yoga police to tell you you're doing it wrong!  When you've reached a comfortable ratio, begin to pause at the bottom of your exhale for a few beats before taking your next inhale.  Don't hold your breath just to see how long you can do it or to make yourself turn blue!  You should be able to retain your level of calm and peace and eventually, this practice should increase it by activating your parasympathetic nervous system.  If anything feels too strenuous, back off and find a new comfortable breathing and holding ratio.

3. Kapalbhati with Kumbhaka - Skull Shining Breath with breath retention
My personal favorite, kapalbhati can take a little time to get the hang of.  Sit up tall in a chair or comfortably on the floor.  This is another technique where sometimes putting a hand or two on your belly is helpful.  The focus with kapalbhati will be on the exhalation, and your breath will be short and quick instead of long and extended like with the last exercise.  

Imagine you're pressing your navel back into your spine with each strong, forceful exhalation through your nose.  The inhale will happen naturally and doesn't need any exaggeration.  As you begin to get the hang of it, increase the speed your breath.  Keep your focus on your navel and your nose (sometimes flaring my nostrils helps me) and not at your chest to avoid feeling like you're hyperventilating.  After 25 breaths, you have an option to take a huge inhale and hold your breath in (antar kumbhaka) or exhale all the air out and hold the breath out (bahir kumbhaka).  As soon as your body tells you it needs fresh air, very gently take a few normal breaths.


Changing our breath can literally change our mind.  Next time you find yourself consumed with worry, take a few minutes out for the sake of your own inner peace and breathe.


"Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?"
-Jesus Christ-

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

To Your Health

I confess, I sat down at my computer this morning with absolutely no clue what I should write about.  I have a couple of ideas, but none that can really blossom into an interesting discussion or question or even a bit of a pondering.  I tend to write about things I've been thinking about, practicing, or an article that's sparked my interest.  This past week?  I've been sick.  Really, really sick.  Sick as a dog.  I tried very hard to resist writing a blog about "the yoga of being sick," because I feel like I do that after every time I've been sick, but alas...the brain will write what the brain wants to write.

This past Valentine's Day weekend was spent much like last year's Valentine's Day weekend - with me completely and utterly unwell.  I had a couple false alarms of feeling better, but for the most part I was a goner from Thursday night up until yesterday.  Nothing makes you thankful for the teeny tiny little things that make up your health like losing it.

The littlest of things, like walking at a fast pace or truly craving and savoring a rich, delicious meal can become impossible when you're sick.  It's so fascinating that the one thing we lose by being generally healthy people in our society is the acknowledgment and gratitude of what the old toast, "To your health!" really means.  How precious, tenuous and absolutely not guaranteed it is.

I'm sure a good percentage of the folks reading this (you precious few!) are rolling their eyes a bit - of course good health is precious - and of course we take it for granted!  I think it's something you learn with age, or if you struggle with illness or chronic health disease.  However, when you're in good health - it's amazing how quickly the memory fades of what it's like not to have it.

When I was younger, I was sick all the time.  Right from the beginning, I was an unbelievably colicky baby.  I suffered from severe allergies, ear infections, frequent flus, tonsillitis, various minor surgeries on my feet once I started doing pointe...I could write an entire entry on my health history.  Once I hit high school, however, I started to equalize into what I'm assuming is the health of the average American person.

Now that I'm the healthiest I've been in my life, getting sick is always kind of a shock to me.  I'm 26, I eat fairly well (amazingly well compared to how I used to eat), I work out and do yoga religiously (ha), I very jealously guard my sleep, and I do my best not to let life's stressors make me sick.  It's always a shock both in wondering how on earth perfectly healthy me could possibly get sick, and because I think I've forgotten how it feels to just be knocked flat.

My life and livelihood these days depends on my body.  My healthy, fully-functional body.  Being sick has become kind of a terrifying notion.  I'm not just sitting at a desk where you can fight through a cold.  I'm touching people, I'm interacting with small children, I'm running around everywhere, whether it's the city or just the Karma Kids yoga studio.

Being sick helps me to practice ahimsa, the yogic yama meaning non-harming.  Even though I do sometimes push myself beyond my limits, my body always has a way of holding up a big red stop sign and forcing me to listen.  You gain nothing by pushing yourself too far and only extend the time it will take for you to be reunited with your strongest, healthiest self again. 

Being sick is an amazing reminder to have not just gratitude, but respect and reverence for your health.  When it returns, of course.  And when it does, it really pays to slow down and notice the little things that your good health is enabling you to do.  Running to catch the train, lifting something with ease, going to a party, savoring a great glass of wine...It's a beautiful way to find joy and gratitude for each and every healthy day you have.  No matter if the day is good or bad - your health truly does deserve a toast.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Meditation Station

 "Meditation takes us just as we are, with our confusion and our sanity."
-Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You-

I could probably ramble and write non-linear-ly about meditation for a million and one pages.  It's an equally inspiring and infuriating topic for me, and probably for everyone who's ever tried it.

An interesting article in the New York times came out last week on how meditation may change your brain.  It seems like every few weeks one of these articles comes out, but they still say the science is very young.

What I always find interesting about these scientific articles about meditation is how they focus on the positive sides - of which there are many, granted - but they tend not to mention how, at a certain point in a meditation practice, it can bring things up that make us feel more agitated and irritable instead of less.  More on that later!

I've always been intrigued by meditation.  It sounds nice - quiet time to yourself, it's supposed to lead to reduced stress and increased clarity, and may eventually lead you to the ultimate:  enlightened bliss.  Who wouldn't want that?
I started a practice on my own without any instruction or mentors to help me and I just sat.  It was the spring of 2009 - I decided that I would celebrate Lent for the first time ever not by giving something up, but by adding to my life.  I called it "devotional practice," and it consisted of getting up at least a half hour early every day and taking my pick of reading, writing, going for a run, doing some yoga, or meditating.  Regardless of my practice, I always tried to tack on at least a little bit of meditation every morning.

It was not what I expected.  For some reason, I think I expected it to be a lot easier to find a quiet mind than it turned out to be.  It was sometimes interesting, often frustrating, and there were many times where it took awhile to get up due to one leg or both having fallen asleep!

Several months later, when I began my teacher training at Sonic Yoga, it was actually required of me by the program to meditate every day.  I was very excited by this outside push and motivation, not to mention the incredible community of people who were going through the exact same baffling journey I was.  It was so helpful to have a community of people to ponder the endless questions for beginning mediators.  How should we sit?  What technique works best?  Should we just pick one and stick with it, or try a different one each time?  Should we just sit without any visualization or mantra and see what happens?  If we think about our boyfriend or dinner or work or sleeping the whole time, does it still count as a meditation?

I still haven't entirely answered these questions.  I really enjoyed my consistent meditation with Sonic, but once Marc and I got together, I fell very hard off the meditation wagon and into the complete and utter distraction of true love.  We've been trying to help each other back on it, to varying degrees of success over the past year.

Most recently, as I wrote about in New Year, I decided to kick off 2011 with a dedicated mantra practice.  My number one new year's resolution was to get serious about my daily meditation practice - once and for all.  It's important to me and I can't let myself and my overflowing abundance of excuses get in my own way of my spiritual practice.

Today marks Day 37 of my practice, and it's interesting.  The agitation and irritability I referred to earlier?  I'm right in the thick of that!  My japa mala practice has been specifically about the obstacles in my life - to oversimplify it, I've been praying for the destruction of the obstacles in my life and/or the ability to overcome them.

Lord Ganesh himself.
Now, I didn't literally think that by doing a 40 day meditation practice that the Obstacle Fairy (aka Ganesh) was going to come and fix all my problems for me.  Not in my conscious, rational, adult brain.  But I did think - I'm sending lots of stuff out into the universe, it's not so crazy to expect a little positivity as a result.  To expect something to come of my efforts.

I think I have gotten something - just not necessarily in the form I hoped for.  The year has been good, but busy and stressful (but then, what else is new?) and I haven't necessarily been dealing with it as well as I've wanted all the time.  I'm working hard on accomplishing all my goals and keeping up with my resolutions, but I've found myself just a little more emotional and a little more cranky these days.

What my meditation is doing is what both Sally Kempton, a renowned meditation teacher, and Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, have written about in passages I've been fortunate enough to read lately.

Sally Kempton writes in an article in February's Yoga Journal, "[The mind isn't] getting more restless, of course.  It's just that when [we] sit down to meditate, [we] notice how restless it really is.  Normally, we aren't aware of the intensity of our inner dialogue.  Our attention is focused on what is going on around us, so unless we are unusually introverted or introspective, the wild and crazy scenarios running through the mind generally escape our notice.  But when we sit for meditation - ah, then we see them."

It's no wonder so many people have such a hard time being consistent with a meditation practice when it can bring up such intensity and seem as though it's not helping.  Not to mention, in this insanely busy world, it can seem like a waste of time.  I know I always like to make sure I'm making the most of my time, and it was a bit of a battle for me to fully appreciate the value of just sitting.  Not reading, writing, emailing, working, working out...just sitting.

Kempton also writes about the unavoidable presence of thoughts during meditation.  They not only create frustration in those of us a bit impatient to get on with the enlightenment already, but force you to deal with issues you might not think about when caught up in the hustle and bustle of the everyday.  When you meditate, it's just you and your mind.  There's no escaping what it has to say except through consistent practice.  As they say: the only way out is through.

I've been wondering where I'm going to go with my daily practice once the 40 days is up on Saturday.  I haven't been sure whether to continue on with that current practice or to switch it up - and if I switch it, then to what?  And for how long?

For all this talk about the difficulties and frustration and occasional madness of meditation, it actually has burned through a lot of my resistance and found a piece of clarity.  The last several days have revealed to me what my next steps should be, and because of that I think my practice has done its job.  Ganesh hasn't magically gotten rid of my obstacles - but I have been shown which ones are most deserving and in need of my own energy to fight.  These things require physical action in the outside world as well as a meditation, but one thing is clear:  we cannot forget the fact that meditation is action.


If you're interested in starting up a meditation practice, there are a myriad of places you can go, websites you can check out, books you can read, etc.  Like anything else these days, it's all just a Google search away.  I did come across an interesting article in The Huffington Post today, though - meditation leader Sharon Salzberg is hosting a 28-day Meditation Challenge for the month of February, though you can join anytime.  The article is worth checking out - it's interesting and at the bottom she has some quotes from some of her participants, including an NYC firefighter and NYC police officer.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Single-tasking

My weekly entry is a little later than usual!  I normally try to write on Wednesday or Thursday, but things didn't quite work out as planned.  I had my set amount of time I had scheduled out for myself to write, but I found that once I started writing the topic was much bigger than the time slot!  I saved my draft and I'll work on it and post it next week.  It's about meditation, a topic that's been on my mind a lot lately as I stay strong on my New Year's Resolution to meditate every single day - and as I mark Day 33 of my 40-day japa mala practice.  (Woohoo!)

I'm often very guilty of overplanning.  I touched on this a little a couple weeks ago (One thing at a time) when I wrote of being overwhelmed at all the things I need to accomplish in order to get my Thai Yoga Massage career going, among other things.  Aside from having a million to-do's I want to achieve in an unspecified 'long term' situation, I tend to pack in a million things day-to-day.  There are only so many hours in them, y'know?  I try to make the most of them.  Even within the day, if I'm checking my email or writing a blog, chances are very, very good that at some point I will randomly and abruptly stop, open up another tab in my Internet browser, and look at Facebook.  Or iGoogle.  Or the New York Times website.  Or weather.com (because I am my mother's daughter).  Especially for a yoga teacher, I have some issues with getting my mind to focus completely.

A few weeks ago, I had planned out Thursday as a day completely, 100% devoted to alphabetizing our books.  I remember first walking into Marc's old apartment when we first started dating and falling even more in love with him because he had SO many books!  His room was like a Barnes & Noble.  Unfortunately - as you may have discerned - they were in absolutely no order whatsoever.  This drives an organized person like me a little bit insane.  So after over a year of being together and after six months of living together, the day had finally arrived.

As Thursday approached, however, I grew a little complacent over how long I'd need to do this project and started tacking on other tasks to complete along with it.  Finish my blog, do laundry, make homemade soup - I even agreed to sub a yoga class.

I started work at 8:30am and didn't finish until 6, when I was running out the door to teach.  Not a single thing got accomplished other than organizing those millions upon millions of books.  At first when noon was approaching and I realized I wasn't doing anything with my day besides alphabetizing, I felt a tiny frission of...well, a couple things.  Frustration, irritation, vague panic.  It very quickly dissipated when I accepted it and got even more nerdily excited about my mission.

I can't remember the last time I had a day devoted to one simple task.  I hardly paid attention to my email, I had the tv on just for cheesy background (I do not miss daytime tv), and it felt so oddly soothing and peaceful.  By the time I needed to teach the class, I felt confident even though I hadn't planned ahead at all.  I think it was one of the best classes I've ever taught.  I felt confident, I had a spontaneous yet clear direction and theme, and a roomful of kind, happy students at the end of class.

I won't always be able to block off an entire day do to some kind of project that will give me an organizational nerd / focused mind / peace fix.  But I do have a lot of control over how I divide and devote my time.

Right now - I'm devoting it to meditation.  Happy Saturday, and happy Superbowl Sunday if that's a holiday in your household :)