To every heartbreak...

Note: The sentiments below do not come to me often authentically. They happen in little glimpses during or after my meditation practice (which is often an exercise in having my demons sit down for tea). I can only access this feeling for a few seconds, but I believe it is what freedom feels like. I want to capture it here, but know that fingers pointing at the moon are not the moon.

To every heartbreak, empty room, every impossible situation. To every person who has let me down. To what tried to break me. To the times when no one could understand and the times when I could not describe.  To every night I felt alone. To the feeling of being at the very end. To the inyourface pain. To the times I quit and failed and stumbled and canceled plans and screwed up. To when I lost my temper and took the easy way out. To the times I took it out on my body and to the hateful thoughts I unleashed on myself. To the crap I ate and drank and watched and thought and believed.

Thank you. 

I thought of you as "bad" and hated you. I wished you away and I tried to exile you. I blamed you for my unhappiness. I didn't know I needed absolutely every single one of you. I couldn't see it then, but I needed you to be as blaringly loud and disruptive and impossible as you were. The truth is you shook me awake when I would have just been content to sleep. I see that now; it's so clear. (Why is it not always this clear?) You have made me strong. You have made me who I am. You have been my training.

The awareness that came with meditation made me observe myself when I'd rather look away. It made it harder at first. Like that part in the movie when it's gory and gross and you want to cover your eyes. And with practice,  I'd hear the voice of my teacher in my mind not only on the cushion but in the fire: Hold your seat. No matter what happens, hold your seat.

And it changed everything.



When enough is never enough: brahmacharya as an act of kindness

Student question: How can the practice of brahmacharya be seen as a practice of kindness toward oneself rather than self-denial or austerity?

Fellow yoga teachers will understand why this made my day as a teacher. It's incredibly inspiring to have students engage with the practice on this deep level. So keep questions of all sorts coming my way and I'll do my best to respond based on yogic texts. I will also refer you to relevant resources, which can be a good jumping off point for self-study and inquiry (probably even more useful than my commentary).

That said, my astute student is referring to one item on the ten-item yogi code for living, which we call the yamas and the niyamas (or the restraints and observances). This particular code asks us, as yogis, to respond to our desires in a way that is not excessive. We are asked not to overindulge. (Note that there is another interpretation of brahmacharya that refers to conserving sexual lifeforce, but I find that translation too limiting and impractical for daily life outside a monastery. So I will leave that translation alone and go with the broader one.)

My understanding is that the texts are not asking us to become ascetics and refrain from all pleasurable activities. Yoga is a science of happiness and this would make for a pretty bleak existence if we could never enjoy a sweet strawberry, a glass of wine, or a day in our pajamas. So then we must make a distinction between indulging in a healthy way and overindulging in a way that causes harm. How can we tell the difference? One way, according to my meditation instructor, Pema Chodron, is to observe when enough is never enough.

A personal example. I could live on sugar alone. If not practicing discretion and simply going with my urges, I'd probably eat nothing else. If I have sugar in my home, I eat it, and not in moderation. I just eat all. of. it. Some part of my brain, my inner sugar monster, will invent a thousand seemingly-plausible reasons for why I need one more cookie. Or why that cake at the end of the day will make my anxiety go away. So what's the problem, besides my girlish form? It doesn't work. It's a trick.

Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lindseywb/

Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lindseywb/

I'm imbuing the food with a power that it doesn't have. I'm asking it to make me feel OK. It can't. Nothing outside can. Certainly nothing in cellophane. It is a setup for disappointment over and over and over again. The more power I give it, the more I make it responsible for my happiness or "okay-ness," the more I am addicted. When I'm addicted, I can't see clearly.

From this perspective we all have addictions. They are not all substances. Perhaps it is negative thinking. Gossip. Overworking. Worrying. Micromanaging. Sex. Gambling. Shopping. Selfies. Social media. Pema refers to these as "bubbles." We want to find a Safety Bubble of some kind where we can return to get a certain feeling (most often safety). But the fundamental problem is that these transitory states and situations and substances can't give it to us. They just can't. Ever. Maybe there is short-term symptom relief, but that quickly goes and the underlying issue remains. Some part of us realizes this, right? Some part of us is addicted and truly believes that this time the cookie will really work. Or that new phone. Or a new wardrobe. Or that awesome guy. That great professional success. Except it's fleeting. We are in a constant state of transition and we try to cling on to parts of life like a static oil painting. It doesn't work.

From this perspective, it is not kind to overindulge or become addicted. It creates suffering. An easy example is the tummy ache I got when I ate a piece of cake after a long day. I felt bad about myself. I didn't feel better about the situation I was trying to "solve." And I strengthened the neural pattern feel bad --> get cake (will feel better!)-->don't feel better ---> feel worse than before (maybe need more cake?).

To break this cycle we must learn to be mindful. It is the only way that I know of making kind choices for ourselves and others. That is, we have to learn to observe the mind working in this way so that we can make different choices. New choices take a lot of effort. (I hope this isn't news to you.) But by breaking this cycle of overindulging, we become a little more free. This takes a LOT of practice. So come practice. Consistently.

As for me, I don't keep sugar in the house anymore. I eat it on special occasions a few times per week. And I enjoy it more. The other day I was cleaning out the cupboard and found a stray chocolate chip, probably a year old. Did I consider eating it? Shamefully yes. I know. How gross? That's the nature of strong addiction, though. The urge might not go away. The awareness that a consistent yoga practice cultivates helps us to recognize the harmful patterns and stop them. In the words of Krishamacharya, "Yoga is a process of replacing old patterns with new, more appropriate patterns."

So, you see? Yoga isn't supposed to make you harder on yourself! And you don't have to be a monk that never eats a cupcake. Just become very curious about the things in your life that make you feel like enough is never enough.

References for further reading:

The Yamas and the Niyamas by Deborah Adele

Getting Unstuck by Pema Chodron

Apps to make you mindful? I've found three!

It's a common conundrum for the modern yogi: How do I use technology mindfully? I want to stay connected to those I care about and I want to document the small, sweet moments in life, but I don't want to spring to action every time my phone dings. And I definitely don't want to be checking my messages while there are real, live humans to interact with. That's a big issue that I'm still working out myself.

One practice I've cultivated is to simply turn off my phone after 8pm. This helps me to simmer down for the evening and turn inward in preparation for restful sleep.

The sign I keep by my keys to help me remember to make my home a sanctuary. Right above you'll see my pepper spray. Because a city yogini's sometimes gotta practice pratyahara and sometimes gotta lay down some smack.

The sign I keep by my keys to help me remember to make my home a sanctuary. Right above you'll see my pepper spray. Because a city yogini's sometimes gotta practice pratyahara and sometimes gotta lay down some smack.

However, I have found that not all smartphone usage is bad news. One strategy I've used to be more mindful with technology is to limit the aspects that stress me out (frantic emails) and increase my positive activities online.

The following three apps have really improved my life online and offline, so I want to share them with you, too.

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Gratitude365: It's like Instagram but it's a gratitude journal. Each day you take a photo of something you are grateful for and list as many items as you'd like. There is a simple photo editor to make it pretty, and you don't have to save the photos to your phone, freeing up space. I keep this on my home screen so that when I'm fiddling around with my phone I remember to take a moment for gratitude. Gratitude makes us happier. Period.

Insight Timer: I enjoy using this timer sometimes for my meditation practice. It has a pleasant bell to begin and end the session. You can also connect with others and see who you've meditated with that day. After I use the app, I like sending someone (a stranger, usually) a message thanking them for meditating with me. It provides me with a sense of connection, even in a solitary practice. The timer also rewards you with stars for consecutive days of meditation and keeps track of your overall time. The pitta part of me is motivated by this tracking and it helps me be consistent in my practice.

Pranayama: This is a very simple app that provides me with an alternative to counting while working on pranayama. I don't like counting because I find it stressful. That's the short of it. I also feel that increases the activity in my mind. As an alternative, this app plays a deep, soothing sound for both inhale and exhale. You can set the time you want (including holding time, if appropriate) and then go with the flow. It doesn't instruct specific technique, however. I personally think this should be learned in person anyway, so please come to class to learn more. Then you can use this app wherever you are to increase energy, relax, and refresh.

There you have it! Three ways to use your phone for mindfulness. Enjoy and share other apps you've found useful in the comments.

Comfort food, yogified

OK, I'll admit it. Chilly weather, cozy sweaters, more time indoors watching movies and reading books? It makes me crave comfort food. My many comfort food delights include creamy mashed potatoes with butter and warm, gooey chocolate chip cookies from the oven. What's a health-conscious yogi to do? I am constantly on the hunt for comfort food recipes that are a little spiffed up, health-wise. I have tried a lot of recipes. I've endured some outright gross eating. All for you, my friends. I present, two of my favorite, yogified comfort food recipes!

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Dinner: "Mashed potato" bowl. Mashed potato bowl? Serena, you're asking, how is this healthy? This "mashed potato" bowl uses cauliflower as the base. All you need is a big head of cauliflower, a little seasoning, and the oil/butter of your choice. Oh, and your food processor.  Cut your head of cauliflower into small florets and steam for about 11 minutes. When the cauliflower florets are soft but not mushy, add them to a food processor with a little oil and the seasoning of your choice (I used olive oil and salt, pepper, and oregano). Process well (this might take a few minutes), and top your "potatoes" with what you'd like! I did some garlicky wilted spinach with pine nuts, cheddar cheese, and chives. Get creative. And then eat up! You get your veggies in a smooth, savory, comforting bowl of YUM. (Adapted from this genius, which is where the pic came from.)

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Let's not forget dessert: Cookies! Alright, when I saw cookies with no flour and BEANS, I was...horrified. Let's not beat around the bush, I don't like people tampering with a good thing like chocolate chip cookies. It was so weird that I had to try it. And, much to my surprise, these chocolate chip cookie dough bites are really good! Now, they are not the consistency of regular cookies and they are not as sweet. It's more like eating cookie dough. But honestly? Flourless, (almost) sugarless cookies, with fiber and protein....check! I think my hubby and I ate an entire batch within a day or two... Perfect with a hot mug of tea and a good movie. OK, you'll need your food processor again, so clean it off and preheat the oven to 350 while you're at it. In the food processor, combine one standard can of chickpeas (rinsed), 2 tsp vanilla extract, 3/4 cup of NATURAL (no added oil, sugar) almond butter, a few tsp of stevia or 1/4 cup of your sweetener of choice (agave or honey are nice options), tsp baking powder, pinch of salt. Mix well. Then, by hand, stir in 1/2 cup of chocolate chips. Wet your hands (mixture will be sticky), and form into 12 balls. Smush the balls down a little to look like cookies and bake for 10 minutes. Once they come out, they will be soft and mushy, so you can't dive right in. Let them cool for 30 minutes or so and then get ready to enjoy. (Adapted from this brave soul! And that's where the pic is from, too.)

There you have it! A few favorites, spiffed up a bit. Enjoy.  

 

Yoga to support immunity

Sniffle, sniffle. Cough, cough. Oh, the sounds of fall and winter. Living in a city, constantly changing weather, busy days, not enough sleep...it can all weaken our immune systems. I used to not miss a single virus that was circulating around the office. I think I had bird flu and swine flu in the same year. When I started practicing yoga, I noticed a slow shift. Sure, I still get sick, but I seem to get sick less often. As I've studied yoga, I've learned more about why: yoga supports the immune system. No, sadly, it will not make you invincible and I'm not peddling snake oil for all that ails ye here. But yoga is a science and that science is really smart when it comes to supporting immunity. 

So what is the "immune system." Well, I'm not a doctor, sweet reader, unless you count extensive WebMD usage as medical training. But, as I understand it, two components of the immune system are the glandular system (which controls and produces hormones) and the lymphatic system (which produces disease-fighting cells).  

Think this looks similar to the chakra system? That is not a coincidence. :)  

Think this looks similar to the chakra system? That is not a coincidence. :)  

So how does yoga figure in? Well, in roughly a bajillion ways. But we will use yoga in two major ways to strengthen immunity this week. First, the lymphatic system actually does not have a pump, as the blood system does. This means that it's possible for lymph to stagnate and become a less-effective germ fighter, making you more susceptible to the dude that coughing all over you on the bus. Yoga asana, when used in targeted ways, can help to stimulate and flush the lymphatic system, helping it operate more effectively.  

Second, it is a well-known fact that mental and emotional stress affects the physical body. Stress freaks out the adrenal glands, which must pump out more and more stress hormones to deal with your inbox. Over time, this can lead to a cascade of negative effects throughout the body, including getting the flu. We all know  this, but sometimes life gets in the way of taking the time out to relax deeply. That doesn't change the fact that your body desperately (desperately!) needs some time to chill out. Science is now supporting this, with a study recently released that showed that genetic expression is favorably altered in response to deeply relaxing. This means that the genes you're born with change how they actually operate in the body and how they affect your health. And the genetic changes the researchers found were specifically related to immunity. This may be because yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing the body to shift into a restorative mode that facilitates healing. The good news? Small changes in routine pay off big time.

Yoga asanas, among other things, specifically flush and stimulate the lymphatic system. Can you see which poses might affect which sets of lymph nodes?

Yoga asanas, among other things, specifically flush and stimulate the lymphatic system. Can you see which poses might affect which sets of lymph nodes?

Want to make a change? A consistent yoga practice can be a great place to start. Want some guidance? That's where your yoga teacher comes in! See you at class this weekend (Saturday 8:30a, Sunday 2pm or 6pm, Monday 10a; click for deets), where we'll explore how with a specialized practice in support of immunity and resilience, both physical and mental.

Wishing you healing and balance, 

Serena