24 December 2012

Clearing out the old; making space for the new

It was completely a coincidence last week that I had designed my yoga class around emotional wellness and healing. Between the events that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the upcoming "end of the world," and the general stress of the holidays, you can say it went over well. One of my Tuesday students left saying she could "use about 5 more hours of that," and Saturday's class also was well received.

With emotions still running high in my life and in the world, I remembered two things from my yoga teacher training (YTT) earlier this year:
  • you always teach the class you need
  • shaking releases deep seated emotional energies
I also recalled that in one of our sessions we did the Osho Kundalini MeditationTM -- it was a really unique and powerful experience, so I went to the web site and refreshed myself on it. I thought it might be the perfect last class for the year -- different, cleansing, fun. (Basically, you spend the first half releasing energy through fast movement--shaking and dancing; then you revel in stillness in sitting meditation and shavasana.) I downloaded the music the led my last Saturday class through it. While I'm am a far cry from the fabulous Jurian Hughes who guided my experience, I managed to keep the class moving throughout the time allotted for each stage. We weren't quite as noisy as my YTT but we were fewer people; plus it can be difficult to completely release all inhibitions, even within one's yoga community!

I'd highly recommend that anyone who wants to clear out the old and make space for the new try this meditation. And stay tuned, I may just lead it again next year. :-)

Happy holidays, everyone!

18 December 2012

RaMaDaSa - 10 Minutes of Pure Joy

I didn't post anything this past weekend, I know.

I was trying to implement more of self-care into my life and quite frankly, I just didn't feel inspired to write.

Today I came across this beautiful video of RaMaDaSa by Snatam Kaur, and I had to share it. It's a little under 10 minutes, a perfect amount of time for a short meditation or relaxation. You can close your eyes and just listen, or get lost in the images as well as the sounds.

10 minutes folks. Take that time for you this holiday season (and really, any other time you need it).

09 December 2012

The Gift of Self Care

This is the time of year that many of us are running around, trying to find gifts for others. Given how many people have told me that I'm too hard on myself and need to take better care of myself lately, I've decided to try and actually do it. (Of course people have been telling me that for years!)

Today I wanted to share a couple things I'm finding helpful:
  • I signed up for the 30 Days of Self Love Challenge. Nicole sends emails with daily activities, and there's a Facebook group to help support you as you go through this. I started late, but found yesterday's exercise to be particularly useful. Essentially you wrote down on a piece of paper everything you didn't like about yourself, then read it and absorbed how that made you feel. Then, you say aloud, "I love you anyway" as you burn the paper. Although it took me lighting the paper 5 times to get it to completely burn (hmmmm....do you think I might be holding on??), it did feel like a real release, and now I find myself saying "I love you anyway" to lots of thoughts that come up.
  • I decided to track at least one thing that I'm grateful for every day. Before bed, I write a couple of words on my (real wall) calendar. I figure that way, if I'm ever feeling really low, I can look at the calendar and see all the things I've been grateful for over the past days or weeks. 
  • Instead of just having a morning routine (with which I've fallen off the wagon and need to get back on), I've decided to create a little "unwinding" evening / before bed routine. One thing is to add to the calendar as described above. I also love Shiva Rea's Moon Flow, so I'm doing that. (She has a downloadable one here.) And self-Reiki is not only healing for me, but practice as well. (I'm going for Level II in January!)
Anyway, in the interest of self-care this weekend, i.e. not spending my day stressing about writing a complicated post, here it is. Hopefully still useful and informative! 

02 December 2012

Reiki in the First Degree

It's been a busy weekend for me--Friday night I taught my Introduction to Ayurveda workshop at Breathe Wellness in Marlboro, and then again on Saturday morning at JoLynn Fitness and Wellness in Dracut. Then, off to teach my regular Saturday afternoon class at Earthsong Yoga in Marlboro.

Today I spent the day with the lovely Betty (and her equally lovely Maine Coon, Little Bear), getting my first degree Reiki certification!

For those of you who missed the Introduction to Ayurveda workshop this week and are still interested, I'll be running it one last time next Saturday, December 8th from 2-4pm at Earthsong Yoga, followed by a special dosha-balancing yoga class for my 4:30pm.

Also, if anyone wants to give the gift of yoga or Reiki as a holiday gift, please don't hesitate to contact me. (It's the gift that keeps on giving--in a good way! :-) )

25 November 2012

Is it "taste-worthy"?

We're smack in the middle of the holiday season, and making good food choices has likely already been challenging for many of you. (I know it is for me.) However, I've come up with a very simple question that helps me in deciding whether or not to eat something.

I ask: "Is it taste-worthy?"

Seinfeld joke aside, the point is that whatever I decide to put into my mouth--especially if it's a dessert or other chocolate treat--has to be REALLY good. If I eat it, I have to know that I'm going to enjoy it thoroughly, and that it's not just going to be OK.
Chocolate Brownies

Here are some examples of when asking this question helped me make a good decision:
  • When out at a restaurant, faced with a dessert menu. Sure, there may have been some options, but were they more taste-worthy than the gourmet dark chocolate bar sitting in my pantry at home? No. I'd rather taste that.
  • At pot-luck gatherings. (My company likes to have "cookie lucks", which are even worse!) I can examine a dessert table and automatically exclude any obviously store-bought items. I also know I love chocolate above all else, so that reduces the number even further. And dark over milk (and definitely white -- foul stuff!), any day. Now I can make a few selections I'm more likely to enjoy.
  • This morning, when I tried making Paleo pumpkin pancakes. They were a crumbly mess. I took a bite and it tasted like it looked. Initially I was upset about wasting all the ingredients and time, so I thought about eating them anyway. Then I asked the question, realized how gross it tasted and figured my calories were better spent elsewhere.
Like all things in life, if nothing really grabs you, save yourself for something better! Savor what you choose. You won't have to feel guilty, you'll have satisfied any craving for a treat, and you'll be able to partake in the social connection.

17 November 2012

Reflections on Teaching

As I've started teaching yoga more, I'm realizing what a true gift teachers are. In the definition of "teacher" I include people both in an official teaching capacity, as well as others who, for whatever reason (and whether we like it or not!), come into and leave our lives to teach us something we wouldn't have otherwise discovered about ourselves.

Teachers: in the official capacity
I got my first taste of teaching several years ago when I substituted as a dance instructor for a friend who was recovering from surgery. Trying to verbally communicate how I moved my body (even with demonstrations) was a difficult task. I'd been dancing for so long at that point that it was hard to articulate the minute details of what I was doing so those who didn't have that experience could understand. I also quickly learned that students interpret what they see and hear from teachers in different ways, and through their own filters on the world--which may not always be what the teacher intended. And even more interesting was how students picked up on things I did even when I didn't speak to them. (I vividly remember seeing one student bending her knee in a certain way that I always did, which I never spoke of because it was simply a bad habit. And oops, now there is someone copying my bad habit!) It took one class into the six week session for me to appreciate my teachers for their dedication to spreading the dance, and to gain a first-hand understanding of why they'd sometimes seem frustrated.

Teaching yoga is similar, and potentially even more challenging than teaching dance. It's similar in that the teacher has to verbalize what they're doing with their body, but in dance, it's completely left up to the student to find the flow of the dance, to feel the freedom and joy in the experience. I don't think any class or instructor can teach that--it has to be found by the student on their own, in their own time. But in teaching yoga (and maybe this is just my perspective as a new one) the teacher's role is not just about articulating the body positions so no one gets hurt (though that's important). It's also to use verbal and body language to create a safe emotional / mental space that assists students in finding the spaces and openings within themselves, setting the stage for self-inquiry and the spiritual side of yoga that isn't immediately obvious when performing the postures. I also know this cannot be taught. The best a yoga teacher can do is create the conditions for it to be learned, when the student is ready.

Which segues nicely into my second category of teachers: the people who come into and out of our lives to help us learn a lesson.

Teachers: as mirrors into our souls
These teachers can be (and often are) even more powerful transformers than those in an official role. Maybe that's because they almost sneak up on us, challenging us by making us think or feel things we've chosen to avoid. These teachers might help us grow by constantly pushing our buttons, by loving us in ways we never thought we could be loved, by supporting (or not supporting) us when we really need it, by being close to us and then moving on. Quite often, these life teachers are really mirrors into our souls. They show us reflections of ourselves, often without any softening or distortion. And this can be hard to take.

Have you ever had the experience of not liking someone, for no apparent reason? I have. A few months ago I met someone I had a visceral reaction to, without knowing anything about them. Sure, I could point to a few surface-level things the person did that could justify some negative feeling (maybe), but none that could explain what I felt, which bordered on hatred. (How un-yogic of me, right?) Fortunately, I kept running into this person and we got to talking here and there--me feigning interest in what they had to say--at first. It took only a few deeper conversations for me to realize how similar our pasts were, and then something clicked in me: I hated this person without knowing them because I instinctually picked up on the things I saw in them that I hated in myself. Talk about enlightening! And now because of this experience, I know that whenever I have strong feelings about someone (whether that's hatred or love), that person has come into my life to teach me something significant, and may be mirroring me as well.

The teacher appears when the student is ready?
Maybe. It's taken me 15 years to recognize the spiritual aspects of yoga. (Even though throughout my life, I've had teachers who offered the space for me to discover it. I denied it when anyone told me I was "spiritual" because heck, after 12 years of Catholic school I was anything but religious!). When I look back on notes from dance privates 5+ years ago, I see the same advice I'd get if I took one today. And it's only in the past few months that I've finally figured out what "dancing down into the floor" means--which I've gotten through the "grounding" concepts of yoga and Ayurveda. It's taken me 13 years to recognize that I can always trust my intuition, because it is always right (even when the ultimate outcome isn't what I expected), and even longer than that for me to recognize what's important in life and love.

So yes, I think teachers always appear, but regardless of whether the student is actually ready. They'll keep appearing too--as both official teachers and soul mirrors--over and over until we students are in a place where we can really entertain the lesson they're here to teach us. And once we learn a lesson, they'll be new lessons to learn. Life is learning, and learning is life.

11 November 2012

Acupuncture for the Needle Phobic

Two years ago I decided to try acupuncture, and ended up going fairly regularly to a  practitioner who saw clients at the yoga studio I frequent. It was summer when I started, and over the course of the next several months, I struggled with the acupuncture experience. I was generally fine with the needles (apart from some nervousness the first time), but I couldn't seem to handle the effect it had on me. For several months I was terribly weepy and often sick with flu-like illnesses (while it was 90 degrees out, mind you!), and after awhile I couldn't quite bring myself to return. I knew that what was happening was likely good--a release of long-held feelings and toxins--but I wasn't able to function very well as a result, and just couldn't keep it up. You can read about the first and second of these experiences on my prior blog.

Since the beginning of 2012 I'd been thinking about trying acupuncture again, thinking that maybe I was more "ready" somehow. Between my yoga teacher training and some other personal efforts, maybe things would be different. Or maybe a different practitioner would take a different approach to me and my reactions to the treatments. They say that when the "student is ready the master appears", and a month or so after I discovered that my neighbor was a Reiki master, she gave me the contact information for Robert at Gracey Holistic Health. I made an appointment right away.

My experience with Robert has been quite different. He spends a good amount of time learning about what's going on with me before every treatment, often acting as a good friend or even a therapist at times. When I first climb onto the table, he checks my pulses in both wrists, and then looks at my tongue. Next, he presses firmly in various spots on my lower legs and feet, asking where I feel sensitivity. He marks those reference points with a pen. Because Robert favors Shakuju--a gentler, Japanese-style of non-insertive acupuncture--there are never any needles put into my skin, as in traditional acupuncture. Rather, he does something called contact needling, where he holds a needle and places in on the places he needs to to move the chi, or energy, in my body. For sensitivities in my legs and feet, the needling happens on my stomach, as shown in this video. Robert then repeats this process by checking my abdomen and chest for sensitivities, and using the needle on my right arm to correct them. When I flip over, sensitivities are searched for in my calves, upper back, and jaw. (The latter of which is the most consistently problematic area for me!) The interesting thing is that after the contact needling, Robert presses on those same reference points, but the pain is either completely gone or radically diminished. Many time I've exclaimed, "you're not pressing as hard!"

Robert has also had dietary recommendations for me, including which supplements to take and which to ditch, what foods are helpful for me and not, and various other (sometimes strange) suggestions, including coconut oil pulling.

While I can't say that there has never been a time in between treatments where my emotions are out of control, I do know that it isn't a result of acupuncture this time. And, I've not been sick once since I started to see him. No matter how wound up I might be when I arrive, when I leave Robert's office I feel grounded and calm. Anyone local who's been interested in acupuncture but unsure about the needle part should definitely check him out.

04 November 2012

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

"Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify."

Today my post is inspired by Henry David Thoreau and his classic work, Walden Pond. It's a short post, because I've spent most of the afternoon clearing out stuff I don't really need: clothes, purses, shoes, jewelry. I feel so free.

A different me, one that was overly concerned with looking fabulous on the outside instead of being truly authentic, purchased all these things over the past few years--and I won't lie, I often had fun shopping!. But if the past few years have shown me anything, it's that there are truly more important things in life than material goods.

The bags you see below will be donated to Planet Aid: it's as easy as driving to the supermarket and throwing them in a bin. 

Not inspired to purge your closets anytime soon? Well, if you're still feeling a bit selfish, also know that as a result of this effort, I'm able to get rid of the wobbly shoe tree, all my handbags fit on my holder, and all my clothes fit in one closet (with room to spare). Benefits all around.

28 October 2012

Opposite Ends of the Yoga Spectrum: Bikram vs. Kripalu

The other week I got a wild hair and decided to try out Bikram Yoga at Yoga Crossing. After having a brief conversation about my yoga experience with the instructor at the front desk, I entered the heated, silent studio about 10 minutes early. The room was notably hotter than what I'm used to at Inner Strength Yoga, but as always, very welcoming to me as the constantly freezing chick. The floor was made out of a material I'd never seen before, and it already felt slick as I walked to an empty place to set up my mat. Within that small time frame, I was able to enter into a yoga nidra-like state, which felt wonderful.

When the instructor entered, she flipped all the bright lights on, which was kind of jarring for me. I noticed there were mirrors in two directions, which was kind of nice. (At home, I have a mirror and use it to check my alignment.) We started with Seagull Breath, which is where you interlace your fingers with the palms together, placing them under the chin. On the inhale, you lift the elbows up and as you exhale with the sound "Ha", you slowly lower the elbows while tilting the head back, pressing the chin up with the hands. (This is how Kripalu teaches Seagull Breath anyway, as a Pratapana, or warm up.) What struck me about how the instructor at Yoga Crossing guided it was that she strongly encouraged us to really "push" our heads back, and to bend our backs so we could look at the back wall. This warmup is challenging for me because my shoulders are tight, and what she lead seemed kind of intense right off the bat. Although my perfectionistic part wanted to keep pushing, I was feeling pain in my back and in the compassionate style of my Kripalu training, gave myself permission to make it gentler that I interpreted the instructions to be.

We then proceeded through each of the 26 Bikram postures. The sequence started with several standing and balancing postures, which the instructor didn't ever model. (I model most of the time in classes I teach because many of my students don't have enough experience with the postures to know what they should look like, plus my cuing can still sometimes use some work!) One interesting posture for me was what she called Triangle, which had a very bent knee and felt more like a Side Angle Lunge. But what really struck me throughout the class was how quickly the instructor was speaking. At times, I couldn't even understand her, she was talking so fast! I got exhausted just having a moment's thought about teaching this way. She also stated--and several times, in a drill sargent-like tone--that we should "feel pain" in various areas of the body, that we should "lock our knees", that we should "push". This felt like the complete opposite end of the spectrum to me from what I teach as a Kripalu instructor--which is to honor your body's limitations and never feel pain. She also had us keep our eyes open at all times, which prevented me from cultivating some of the blissful introversion I often reach while practicing yoga. Because of the speed of the class, there was little time or space to sink into the postures. At one point I did feel my heart beating fast--there's no doubt in my mind to the cardio effect of this practice, which is often a debate about yoga.

After an intense first half, we received a two minute break in corpse pose, with our head facing the instructor. We were again told to keep our eyes open. This was so foreign to me, but I tried to experience it as a new, more active way of doing the posture. We were then told to roll up to sitting, to grab our big toes with our peace fingers, and (what I think was) to bounce, but honestly it took me several round of this (with some looking around the room) to decipher what to do, since I couldn't make out her rapid words. We then rotated back around to face our instructor on our bellies, and did a back bend two times. Then back to shavasana for a mere 30 seconds! I soon learned this was part of the sequence for part of the second half: a posture two times facing the instructor with a 30 second corpse pose in between. Transition-wise this seemed inefficient to me. However, the limited time in shavasana did encourage me to relax everything as quickly and efficiently as I possibly could. It kind of reminded me of an extremely abbreviated progressive muscle relaxation exercise. I enjoyed the instructor's imagery in full locust pose, which was to create one leg by pressing our two legs tightly together. And before I knew it, I was put in shavasana and allowed to close my eyes. As soon as that cue was given, the instructor told us we could stay as long as we like, said "namaste", and left the room. This also surprised me, that there was no guided relaxation.

I could immediately hear other students putting away their mats and leaving. Given how intense the practice was, however, I was determined to stay and relax my body. Even though I didn't feel as though I stayed long, I was one of the last ones to leave.

On my way out, the instructor told me I'd "done well" for my first time. She said I clearly knew my body very well and adjusted appropriately whenever I was told. I mentioned to her that I usually use a strap for some of the postures where you need to grab the foot, not always because I can't reach, but sometimes because all the sweat makes it difficult to hold onto the foot with the hand. She told me that it's part of building up my grip--I imagined it meant my fingers, hands, and wrists could use some strengthening, which is likely true. (There were no props of any kind available that I could see.)

Since a single drop in was $19 and a week's worth of classes for newbies was $20, I had opted for the extra dollar and went back the next day, figuring I would see if I had any different thoughts after having gone through it once already.

The second time through I had a different instructor, who I liked better than the first one. She still spoke quickly but she was clearer in her instructions and actually seemed to take a breath between words. Also, knowing the sequence and what to expect made it a little easier. I did get "called out" (by name) for changing my grip on my foot when I couldn't keep my fingers from slipping, which I wasn't thrilled about. There was still a lot of talk about how this "hurts", to "hold it", "feel the pain", "this will be uncomfortable", and to "push it", without a lot of mention of using the breath. It still felt like a lot of forcing rather than allowing the openings to occur naturally, though I will say that sometimes I was surprised at what I could do when mindfully moving into postures that did bring me some pain, such as steeple position with my hands (especially in Balancing Stick position). In some postures, such as the Wind Removing and Rabbit poses, I thought I started to feel the benefits of the opposition in the stretch that I created with my own body, but it was over so quickly I couldn't be sure.

I caught myself several times closing my eyes (especially in forward folds), and had some difficulty keeping the fingers tight together instead of spreading them wide apart for a better base. One thing that worried me a bit in the cuing was about Cobra and the lower back. I don't remember exactly what was said, but if there were other the perfectionists / people-pleasers in the room who were still in their ego during the class, I would be afraid of them injuring themselves. As I looked around, I noticed several students dropped down into Child's pose though, so maybe they were self-aware enough to stop when it got to be too much. Personally I stopped once as well, since I felt my heart pounding again with a slight bit of nausea (I hadn't eaten anything for breakfast, so I'm not sure whether that's why or not--though I couldn't imagine having eaten prior to class!) Again I noticed the lack of space between poses to transition, integrate, or even grab a sip of water. It occurred to me that the rollups from corpse pose could really help strengthen my core, and that the quick moving aspect of Bikram did keep my mind focused. I really didn't have any space to think about anything else!

Would I go back? Not sure. I've tried doing more traditional Ashtanga primary series sequence from time to time, because there is something about a regimented sequence and pace that does attract my busy mind and my competitive nature. But lately I've started to appreciate the gentler forms of yoga like Kripalu, Restorative, and Yin; although not what I gravitate to naturally, they really are more balancing for me.

Isn't it great that there's a yoga for everyone out there? Write in with your experiences and/or your favorite style of yoga. And if you are curious about yoga but don't practice because you're worried you can't do it, or haven't found a style that's right for you, don't fret. Keep trying. You'll find the yoga you're meant to find!

21 October 2012

Emotional Chutes and Ladders

Kripalu Yoga teaches us to "ride the wave" of emotion using a technique abbreviated "BRFWA" -- Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, and Allow. But what happens when your waves seem more like endless pits of darkness and despair?

I've sometimes found it difficult to relate to the wave analogy, but I've come full circle back to it, and wanted to offer several other analogies one might call to mind when standing in the face of strong emotions.

Moods move (if you ALLOW them to)
First, I see parallels of this wave analogy with several forms of therapy that focus on emotion regulation, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). These teach us that moods always move. Positive and negative, they're like a sine wave graph--up and down, up and down. Like the weather in New England, our moods always keep us on our toes! But knowing that moods naturally shift can provide us with a sense of freedom. Feel bad? If you WATCH patiently it's very likely that your mood will naturally shift.

Unfortunately we humans have several tendencies that make this whole process difficult:
  • We reinforce bad moods with automatic negative thoughts (a self-harming behavior)
  • We assume our moods are dependent on changes in the outside world (though these internal states of mind would change regardless)
  • When we're in a low state, we're more likely to recall all the other times we felt the same way--this is called "mood congruent bias", and it reinforces the thought that we must always feel this way (an over-generalization as well as technique used to avoid the present moment)
  • We fail to trust in the process--for moods we label "bad" in particular, we try to "solve the problem" (rather than radically accepting what is)
Alternatives to the wave analogy
One of my friends from yoga teacher training once told me that even if I dig my own hole, I know how to get myself out, and that I would. While this made me feel a little better at the time, it didn't quite capture the depth of what I was going through. In conversations with a another friend who seems to experience her emotions as deeply as I, I started to think of it like this: instead of a hole, it's really a well--I visualize something like the one from the movie "The Ring". And when things are bad and I start to feel myself falling, I have two choices.
  1. I can try using my nails to claw at the dirt on all sides, flail my feet and my legs to try and find some footing to prevent it from happening, scream in terror at my misfortune, etc. 
  2. Or, I can let go and surrender --using my BREATH to RELAX my whole body until I land with a splash at the bottom. I can take in my surroundings (FEEL), maybe learning something new or discovering some message I'd left myself the last time I was down there. I'll trust that I'll find the stashed rope ladder when I'm ready to, and then with the energy I've conserved from not fighting the fall (brahmacharya!), I'll use it to climb back up into the sun.
Another analogy that came to mind for me was the game Chutes and Ladders (am I dating myself here? :-). If I can freely and easily slide down--maybe even learning to find some small pleasures in the ride--I'll have the strength to climb back up the ladder when its time.

What about you? Is this the first time you've heard about BRFWA and riding the waves? Do you simply ride the waves like an expert surfer? An awkward beginner? Do you find this as challenging as I do? I know a lot of people currently who are going through difficult times--what analogies have you created to help yourself (or a friend) get through them?

14 October 2012

How to Replace Complaints with Contentment

A few months ago I was in a yoga class, and the instructor said something to the effect of:

"Complaining is simply a rejection of the present moment, which is all we have."

A Google dictionary search defines "complain" as:
  1. Express dissatisfaction or annoyance about a state of affairs or an event
  2. State that one is suffering from (a pain or other symptom of illness)
  3. State a grievance
Leaving the distinction between pain and suffering for another day, I'll admit it: I'm someone who's gotten into the habit of complaining a lot.

Santosha is the second niyama, or observance that yogis should follow. Santosha means "contentment". In other words, it's the exact opposite of complaining: it's cultivating gratitude for everything (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual) that's going on in your life, right here, right now, regardless of whether you'd prefer to be / have something / someone / someplace else. It's not jealousy or envy but rather, radical acceptance.

Sigh. Whether or not you feel as though your life as a whole is going well, practicing santosha day to day can present us all with a challenge every now and again.

Much has been written about santosha and how the ego plays a large role in keeping us in a state of perpetual complaint instead of being satisfied and even hopeful about what is. Fortunately, several fellow yogis join us in this struggle, and offer practical advice about how to cultivate more contentment in our lives. Here are a few of my favorites:
Hopefully, the more we focus on being content with what is, right now, the less room there will be for complaints! How will you replace your next urge to complain with contentment?

07 October 2012

Chanting Your Way to Joy

My First Kirtan Experience
My first kirtan happened over 12 years ago, probably among one of the first couple of times I visited the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. Back then, they had a long weekend program that included elements of yoga and Buddhist practices, both of which I was starting to explore. If memory serves, most of the four days involved an hour of yoga, an hour of seated meditation, a meal. Rinse and repeat, multiple times a day. In the evenings (before we practiced loving silence) there would be a special event of some sort, such as a lecture or group discussion. One evening, there was something called a kirtan.

I had no issues with the silence. I was shy and loved not having to worry about "making friends." Although I was getting better at meditating for an hour at a time and tolerating the caffeine-withdrawal headaches that thumped my skull against my head to the point I feared others could see it, I anticipated these evening events; they were somehow more engaging than what was going on in my thoughts or in my body. Even though I'd been forced into music by my parents as a child, I welcomed listening to music as a distraction to all this, and was curious about the strange instruments, such as the harmonium, which I saw before me on the makeshift stage.

Looking back, I realize now that while I did yoga (asanas) to strengthen and stretch my body, and meditated to focus my mind, kirtan was the third point on the triangle--the one that got at my emotions and caused me to question who I really was. I enjoyed the music, and sang along though I had no idea whether I was saying the words correctly and had no idea what they meant. But what stood out to me, which I still remember, was the spontaneous dancing. Sure, my foot was tapping, and I may have even clapped a bit. But every now and then, someone would stand up, move to the outside of the room (maybe), and dance freely, in whatever way the music moved them. It was as if the song animated their bodies from the inside, and they were oblivious to things like, say...how they might look to other people. As someone who had always enjoyed dancing, I was envious, but completely self conscious. What would people think of me if I got up and started moving in "weird" ways? I had only ever done ballet--where I was shown the steps and like most other things in my childhood, told many times when I got them less than perfect. I just couldn't do it.

That was when I saw her. A woman had stood up from her back jack and pink square cushion, and started dancing in place. She had long gray hair (which may have been in braids, breaking multiple other "rules" that I had learned about women and aging). As I watched her, my thoughts began to shift. I felt admiration toward this strange woman. In that moment I asked myself, "how do I want to live my life?" "Do I want to be the kind of person who cares so much about what others think of me that I won't do something my body is aching to do, something I know I will thoroughly enjoy?" After a few more moments, I got up and let loose.

I still don't always pronounce the words right. I still don't know what many of them mean. And I've never lasted long in a chair or cushion at a kirtan since. I'll say "thank you" to that woman, whoever you are. That night, you were my guru (teacher).

Benefits of Kirtan as a Spiritual Practice
I attended Krishna Das' "Heart of Devotion" workshop, where we chanted and he talked about how kirtan was his primary spiritual practice. He told us he chanted because he HAD to, describing it in a way that sounded as though his very life depended on it. Given that I've been going through my own personal hell recently, I could relate.

So what makes kirtan such a powerful antidote to people's "dark places in the heart", as Krishna Das describes? What is it about chanting that an help us find the happiness that resides within?

For starters, it can be an alternative for those who have trouble meditating while sitting still, in silence, or who fear yoga as something that requires twisting their bodies into pretzels. Focusing just on the sounds from the instruments and people singing has a way of drowning out unwanted and automatic negative thought patterns.

Additionally, some believe that the very practice of sounding (of which vocalizing the Sanskrit language is one possibility), has healing properties--correct pronunciation is helpful, but an open heart is more important in order to receive the benefits, which include inner peace and a sense of joy.

And then there's the sense of community and belonging that attending a kirtan with friends (and even strangers) can help one feel again. In an age where communication happens primarily via technological devices and where in many cases, regular "church going" has fallen by the wayside because of the unpopularity of religious dogma, it's just NICE to sit in a room with other kind, compassionate human beings and sing. Plus, there are now some scientific studies in contemplative neuroscience that help explain why rituals like kirtan can create a kind of "buzz".

Is Kirtan for Me?
If you're interested in learning more about kirtan, the best advice I can give you is to just jump in. Listen to music online, buy a CD for your car (in my opinion, kirtan is fantastic for helping one handle traffic jams!), or find a meetup near you. For those in the Boston area who are up for an experience, check out the Boston Yoga and Chant Fest coming up in a few weeks! It's sure to be a memorable experience.

30 September 2012

Where is your mind now? And now...and now?

I believe that everyone should strive to be mindful, in everything we do--throughout our moments, hours, days, weeks, months, years, and lives. This post focuses on the what, how, when, and why of mindfulness practice.

A moment's insight is sometimes worth a life's experience.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes 

What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is:
  • Being fully aware of each moment as it's occurring
  • Accepting that moment just as it is, without judgment
  • Not being attached to continuing this moment, or wanting to push it away
Although mindfulness technically is a form of meditation, I tend to think of mindfulness as meditation "off the cushion". Like me, some of you may have a regular meditation practice and find it easier than you used to to focus your mind when sitting in a designated space, with minimal distractions. But when the world is moving quickly around us and we're moving around in the world, it's easier for our minds to run around unchecked.

How to Be More Mindful
Whatever you're doing in this moment, bring your full attention, your "heart and soul" as it were, to it. Keep your mind out of the past, out of the future, and completely in the here and now. No mental time travel! You will quickly observe that this is difficult. Try repeating, "I'm doing X" over and over as you're doing X, anytime you notice your mind wandering. You may not notice your mind wandering at first, but with practice, you will come back to a mindful state more quickly. I don't think it's coincidental that it's called "mindfulness practice"--it's not something that comes easily. We all have to work at it.

Where to Practice Mindfulness
Here are some ordinary yet challenging situations where you might practice being mindful:
  • Driving your car to and from work
  • Exercising (e.g. running on a treadmill, using an elliptical machine or a bike)
  • Washing a sink full of dishes
  • Eating meals
  • Cooking a meal or preparing a snack
  • Walking from place to place
  • Taking a shower and other tasks related to personal hygiene
  • Performing a task at work
  • Talking with another person
Why is mindfulness difficult, especially in these situations? You might characterize some of these activities as mundane tasks or chores. Many of them are repetitive, and/or there's nothing new about them. It is exactly in these types of situations where our mind wants to be entertained with something more interesting. This makes them great "training opportunities" for mindfulness practice. For others, these activities might be ones where the desire to multitask to "get more done" is high. (Thinking about your response in a conversation when someone is still talking is an example.)

Why Practice Mindfulness
But what's in it for us really? To start, how about:
  • Improved memory: since you're fully present in what you're doing (i.e. "I'm putting my keys on this counter top"), you'll forget less. While this is a simple example that might drive us nuts occasionally, there are obviously much more important things to remember. For more information about memory and mindfulness, check out the video Improving Attention and Working Memory with Mindfulness Training.
  • Better relationships: if you're not thinking about your responses but are actively listening to other people, they'll feel more heard and connected to you. Read about 11 Ways That Active Listening Can Help Your Relationships.
  • Heightened ability to make connections, and therefore better decisions: when you're really paying attention, you will more easily be able to take in more information, and possibly identify themes that will help you make more informed decisions. Learn more about how mindfulness meditation changes decision-making process.
  • Increased productivity and efficiency: yes, single (rather than multi-) tasking will help you get more done in less time, and feel more accomplished to boot. See How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking for more information and some advice.
  • Generate less stress, and be a more loving person: if we're not as attached or adverse to what happens in our lives, when we can accept "what is", we not only become more accepting of others, but also of ourselves. Overall we generate less anxiety and stress, and cultivate loving-kindness.
What Has Your Experience with Mindfulness Been?
Have a story about how being mindful has helped or changed you, or a specific challenge you've come across in trying to practice mindfulness? Let's chat about it -- comments are welcome!

23 September 2012

How to Prevent Jet Lag: A Remedy Reviewed

Before our recent trip to Belgium and Amsterdam, I decided to try an Ayurvedic remedy to prevent jet lag. Typically whenever I fly long distances with more than five hours of time difference, the first couple days are really rough. My whole body feels incredibly heavy, it's difficult to focus my mind, and I get dizzy. Since we often do trips that are "three days here, three days there," being in this state can really impact my enjoyment of the new scenery! Here's my story and assessment of how well this simple Ayurvedic remedy worked for me.

How to Prevent Jet Lag
The remedy I tried was from the book, "The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies", by Dr. Vasant Lad. Dr. Lad attributes jet lag to an imbalance of vata in the body, specifically excess vata. (For those not familiar with Ayurveda, vata is one of the three doshas or constitutions, is represented by the element air, and is characterized as light, dry, cold, and mobile. Given that the activity of flying has many similarities with this dosha, one can see how balance might be tipped in the vata direction when traveling.) The goal with this remedy is to reduce vata to bring the body back into balance.

Dr. Lad's remedy consisted of three parts:
  • Taking 2 capsules of ginger with a cup of water an hour before flying
  • Drinking 2-3 cups of water at intervals of 1-2 hours while flying, and avoiding caffeine
  • When arriving, rubbing warm sesame oil on the scalp and the soles of feet, and drinking 1 cup of hot milk with a pinch of nutmeg and ginger

How I Used the Remedy
Unfortunately in the rush to pack, I didn't get the ginger capsules but I had ginger, so instead I cut a few big slices and ate it raw. I know that may sound gross, but I'd done it before for a cleanse and I got kind of used to it. The only challenge was whether to eat it before flying at all, or just flying the long flight (we had only an hour or so flight to JFK and then a 7 hour flight to Brussels). I decided to wait and eat it right before the long flight.

I always drink lots of water and avoid caffeine, so that part was easy. I'm not sure whether I did it at intervals of 1-2 hours, but every time my water bottle was empty, I asked the flight attendant for a refill.

Before dinner, I started my hunt for hot milk, and found it in the Jazz Cafe at Hotel Navara, where we were staying in Brugge. The bartender didn't ask any questions as I happily poured my Ziplock baggie of ginger and nutmeg into the cup. I will say I did much more than a pinch, and probably would have had a smoother drink had I used less. Still, it was very tasty (and I don't usually do dairy, especially whole milk)!

Before bed, I rubbed (room temperature) sesame oil into my feet and scalp. I suppose I could have run the container under hot water to warm it up, but I didn't.

There was an optional step that advised travelers to drink tea made of equal parts chamomile, mint, and jatamansi, but I didn't do this. I didn't have time to get the loose tea, and wondered if it might invite inquiry at security.

How Well the Remedy Worked
For reference, our first flight left Boston around 4 pm EST on Friday August 31. We boarded our connecting flight from JFK around 7 pm EST that same day, arrived in Brussels Saturday September 1 around 9 am CET, and then spent a couple hours getting to Brugge via the train.

I didn't set any expectations up front about what I expected from the remedy, which makes it a little more difficult to gauge now that I'm home. But I will say this: my husband voiced his tiredness and overall readiness for bed hours earlier than I felt the need to sleep. At 8 pm CET on Saturday we decided to turn in, and I was up reading for about an hour after he'd already gone to sleep. I did fall asleep easily, but woke at 1 am, getting confused about the time and doing a half hour workout in the hotel gym before I realized it was two in the morning! Slightly embarrassed (with no one to witness it), I went back to bed and slept like a baby. The following day I felt fine and we went to bed at a normal time (somewhere between 9-10 pm CET), but I woke again at 1:30 am CET. I intentionally went to the gym this time, hoping to repeat the success of the prior day. Unfortunately, this time my workout backfired and I ended up sitting up until dawn and reading books on my iPad, because I was too wound up to return to sleep. That day of course I was very tired, but the rest of the trip I was fine.

What Traditional Medicine and the Scientific Community Says
  • The medical community understands jet lag to be a disruption of the body's natural circadian rhythms, which is in line with the core principles of Ayurveda. Doctors offer similar advice about staying hydrated with water and avoiding caffeine when flying.
  • Drinking warm milk is typical grandmotherly advice, but the belief that it's the tryptophan in this beverage that makes one sleepy has actually not been proven. Rather, like a warm mug of chamomile tea, the medical community only references that the act of drinking something warm and soothing comforts us and therefore helps with relaxation before bed. So drink up the milk and/or the tea, taking it in with all your senses. (Which by the way, is another very Ayurvedic thing to do!)
  • Ginger is typically associated with relieving an upset stomach and aiding in digestion. In Ayurveda it has many reported benefits, including being good for lubrication of the joints and for circulation, which could be helpful when one is seated in a cramped airplane for hours. (Stretching regularly, of course, is also recommended.) WebMD mentions ginger as a way to treat muscle soreness and low back pain, likely because of its ability to reduce inflammation. I can see how that would be useful after sitting in the airplane seats, which don't appear to have been designed for anyone I know.
  • Another "non-FDA approved" aspect of this remedy is the topical use of sesame oil. Ayurveda recommends sesame oil quite a bit, especially for self massage to promote general health. There are a few studies that show the topical use of sesame oil might be "useful," particularly as an ingredient for alleviating knee pain from osteoarthritis and inhibiting the growth of malignant melanoma. Unrelated I know, but if there's some evidence circulating for such conditions (which in my opinion, are much worse than something like jet lag!), I don't doubt sesame oil's power. It's also had many uses throughout history. Plus, who doesn't love a massage?

My Blog, My Soapbox
Like anything else, there are conflicting viewpoints about whether techniques like the Ayurvedic jet lag remedy I described above really work. Without scientific research, many such remedies are looked upon with skepticism. Here's my personal view:
  • these remedies have been around for thousands of years and are in line with nature
  • more scientific studies are being conducted about yoga and meditation, showing they really work--I wouldn't be surprised if in the future, many more "unproven" techniques are supported by data. I'd rather not wait, and experience them for myself in the present.
  • many of them are easy enough to try (though you may have to shop around for supplies)
  • given the list of side effects listed for prescription and over-the-counter medications these days, I don't worry much about taking herbs
  • whether its a placebo effect or not, if it works for me, I'll continue doing it
  • if it doesn't work for me, I'll try something else, no big deal!
The caveat of course, is if one is sensitive to certain things, has existing medical conditions that require medications with which herbs might interfere, or is worried about side effects. One should always talk with their health care providers about what they're doing to make sure a remedy is safe to explore (but don't be surprised if they don't think it will actually help!).

16 September 2012

Poor Kids, Rich Kids, and Food

Today's post is a guest blog from Justin Locke, a long-time kindred spirit on the road to good mental and emotional health. This nutrition-focused excerpt from his new book, "Getting in Touch with Your Inner Rich Kid," got me thinking about my recent food issues in new ways. I hope it also inspires some new ways of thinking for some of you.

Desire and the Refusal Experience
One of the biggest differences between poor kids and rich kids is this: poor kids are taught that desire is bad. This is because when a poor kid wants something, there is a very high likelihood that when they express that desire, they will encounter a painful “refusal experience.”  

These refusals apply not just to requests for toys and candy bars; they also apply to requests for all sorts of physical and emotional necessities.  For the average poor kid, the most common workaround for dealing with the pain of these refusal experiences is to train oneself to simply not want things in the first place.  To get back in touch with your inner rich kid, it is essential to examine your desires and how you may have been taught to suppress them.  

One of the most consistent manifestations of desire is hunger.  And again, when you live in a poor kid “poverty thinking” world, desire is bad. That means hunger, that is to say, the desire for food, is bad too.  Managing your desire for food is key to good health.  So let’s examine how “poverty thinking” and desire suppression may be affecting the way you eat. 

The Preemptive Eating "Solution"
Many of us – not just “poor kids”– are taught to think of appetite as a bad thing.  It’s not just about handling the impending disappointment of a sparsely set dinner table.  Even for people with lots of money, the desire for sugary snacks is also seen as bad as well.  After all, the desire for chocolate often leads to a most undesirable result, i.e., of having body weight you don’t want.  As a result, we end up trying to stop our hunger. We think of desire as being a bad thing that will inevitably get us into a space where things are out of control.  So we look for ways to suppress our desires.  

One of the most common workarounds for suppressing the desire of hunger is a very simple one: it’s something called “preemptive eating.”  After all, if you eat constantly, now you are in control of your hunger, as it never occurs. 

Of course, to eat preemptively, one must eat things that can override the body’s natural resistance to overeating.  This means one must eat salty, oily, and sugary items.  Sadly, while this fills the stomach in a physical sense, it fails to fulfill the body’s overall nutritional needs, so it becomes a vicious cycle of actually increasing desire instead of suppressing it.  
What We're Really Hungry For
Hunger can be very a very difficult feeling to suppress, as there are many forms of hunger.  Poor kids hunger for nutritional sustenance, but they also hunger for things like safety, structure, trust, and emotional sustenance, and the wiring for these many signals of desire is often routed near or through the tummy.

Poor kids know that having any desire for anything equals danger.  It means a very painful refusal experience is likely to follow.  So when a poor kid feels a desire for some love and attention, what can they do?  How can one suppress this vague longing and make it go away?  For a poor kid, if the emotional sustenance they truly desire is not available, a quick remedy is to shove something – anything – down the throat, and hope it hits the empty spot.  After all, the stomach is right next to the heart.  Greasy fast food has successfully suppressed one form of gut-level hunger, why not all the others?  

Again, the poor kid eating philosophy is to avoid being in a vulnerable position of need, and not risk having yet another awful refusal experience.  If you have no desire, you cannot be refused.  

Eating Like a Rich Kid
To become a rich kid and get what you want, you must start by letting yourself want.  You must no longer tell yourself the catechism of lies that poor kids are taught to repeat every day, such as “I don’t deserve it,” “I can get along without it,” or “this is all there is, and there won’t be any more.”  Being a rich kid is about having what you want.  And you can have what you want.  You may not be able to get it right this minute, but even if there’s no sign of it on the horizon, it’s still okay to want it.  

As you get in touch with your inner rich kid, remember that a big part of being a rich kid is eating like one.  Your physical health is your most valuable possession, and food and your health are inextricably linked.  

Do what you have to do to maintain this wealth.  I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but we live in a hostile nutritional environment. There are large numbers of people (with large advertising budgets) who are constantly trying to persuade you to eat things that you don’t really want.  They will try to confuse you by linking your desire for emotional connection with a desire for chocolate.  One ad will seductively persuade you to indulge in eating a candy bar as a way of meeting your need for interpersonal connection.  Then the very next ad (for exercise equipment) will tell you that eating the chocolate bar is now making you totally unappealing.  It's all about confusing your desires, throwing you into a panic, to make you think you want to buy their product.  Don’t let these subtle threats of an impending refusal experience overwhelm your own rational thought.  

By the way, “poverty thinking” also assumes that there are limited amounts of everything.  This means you might feel compelled to eat as much as you can today because there may not be any tomorrow – or perhaps, a bag of potato chips is is the closest thing you will get to the emotional support you need, so eat as much as you can, and make do.  This presumption of “universal limitation” is poverty thinking at work.

Let yourself have the desire of hunger.  Instead of managing desire by suppressing it, try embracing it, expressing it, and managing it.  By the way, everything, even kale and tofu, tastes better when you allow yourself to get hungry before you eat it. 

About Justin
Justin Locke grew up in a rural community where he attended the local public “poor kid” school, but at age 15 he was transferred to a “rich kid” private school.  The culture shock was enormous.  This article was adapted from his new book, “Getting in Touch with Your Inner Rich Kid,” a comparison of the cultures and world views of poor kids and rich kids.

To read more about "Getting in Touch with Your Inner Rich Kid,"  visit Justin's website at http://justinlocke.com/RK.htm

09 September 2012

What Do I Suck At?

A few weeks ago, I found myself at an interesting blog post titled "What do you suck at?" by Danielle LaPorte.

For the most part, I feel like we're all too critical of ourselves and one another, yet the title intrigued me. Once I read the post, I was pleased at how positive an experience the exercise sounded, and so I decided that I would try it.

Here is my list:
  • I have no patience. I want everything done now. I want to get everywhere ASAP. On the flip side, I have a bad habit of responding too quickly. I can be impulsive. When walking or driving, I get frustrated when others doddle. I have the optimally efficient route to everywhere.
  • Likely related, I have trouble slowing down & relaxing. I multi-task like mad, and I can't sit still, really listening to the Universe, really paying super close attention, enjoying nature, the moment, etc. without a LOT of struggle. I stand at my desk at work. I can't take naps (unless I'm pretty sick). Every time I decide to free up my personal schedule, it ends up getting full again. Meditation and yoga are ways that I've found to create this for myself a little bit though.
  • I suck at math. I know it's stereotypical, and it's ridiculous given that I work for a company that's named after the subject. (Thankfully, it's not a highly used skill for my particular position.) I blame it on my 7th grade math teacher, where is when I started doing poorly. It's most annoying when I'm at a restaurant and I need to split the bill with someone, or need to figure out a tip. And yeah, there's a good app for that. :-)
  • I'm a recipe junkie. I collect and organize more recipes (hard and soft copy) than I will probably ever be able to make in my life.
  • I find it difficult to trust / have faith. My life has been filled with pretty harsh conditions, with lots of close people abandoning me in one form or another. It's more likely these days that it's a self-fulfilling prophesy, but I don't think it started that way.
  • I suck at making decisions. This is a newer one for me, again likely related to the previous. My husband makes me flip a coin and then asks me how I feel about what the result was, just to be sure I'm really sure. And sometimes I still regret my decision.
  • I have trouble with hugs. My yoga teacher training at Kripalu was quite a challenge. A month of people seeing me, touching me, hugging me. Something I'm not at all used to. I'm not sure I'll ever be completely comfortable with it, but sometimes I try, and sometimes it's OK.
  • I'm not photogenic. From my early class photo days where my mom would always frown in disappointment, getting a "good" photo of me is a lot trickier than it sounds. Even before LASIK I blinked predictably on every flash, or I'm making a funny face, my hair's sticking up, etc.

Ah. Writing all that down actually felt liberating! So, what's your list? Own it. You'll feel better. :-)

02 September 2012

Transform Your Eating Habits

I'm going out on a limb with this week's post, publicizing a highly personal struggle about which I feel very vulnerable. And, I trust that you, my loyal readers will forgive and support me.

"What Girls Do When They're Upset"
Back in the late 90s, when my fiancé Kevin and I broke up a few months before our wedding, a mutual (male) friend stopped by with a pint of Ben & Jerry's. I appreciated his kindness, and I never forgot that moment, because I remember truly being perplexed at why he brought me ice cream. "I thought that's what girls did when they were upset," he said innocently. "They ate whole pints of ice cream."

How times have changed. It's 10 years later and I'm finally married (to a different Kevin). I have a house in the suburbs and a high-tech job. On the side I love to exercise (I recently started running), I dance West Coast Swing, and I'm starting to teach yoga and meditation. I collect healthy recipes like they were going out of style, and although I love to eat out, I also cook a lot myself. I also post about health and wellness topics on this blog every week. I do all these activities to counteract stress, which is rampant in my job and in society at large. Maintaining optimal health and wellness in the face of life's daily challenges is very important to me.

And, I have developed a problem with food. I've come up with (and have heard from others) all sorts of theories about why I've struggled with compulsive eating for almost a year now, binging and overeating (sometimes daily for weeks at a time) before getting a handle on it again. "It started when you first tried that Yoga Journal detox." "I was so sad when my best friend in the world moved across country and stopped talking to me, I felt abandoned." "You're being too restrictive with your food and so your body is craving what it can't have." "I'm feeling creatively unfulfilled." And on it goes.

I've gotten fed up with the theorizing. The fact is, it doesn't really matter why it started or what it is I'm really upset about. I'm tired of digging into my past and dissecting my present. I know I have a problem, and I need to fix it or risk further damaging my body and mind.

One Strategy for Halting Compulsive Eating
Although there are many tools available, I like to establish my own strategies to tackle problems, try them out to see if they work, and revise them as necessary (or, completely replace them if they fail completely)! After all, I'm unique, and what works for someone else may or may not work for me. Here I offer up what seems to be helping me stay on track, with the intention that someone else might benefit from trying something like it, or get an idea for something else that might be equally effective.

Ironically, one of my first blog posts was about eating mindfully. Yet I find that in my maxed out, crazy busy life, this is SO HARD. I start multitasking, taking the iPad or a magazine to the table with me at breakfast and dinner. Or, I'm in a situation (i.e. in a lunch meeting at work) where I just can't focus on nourishing myself because I need to facilitate or contribute to the conversation. Or, I forget and shovel my lunch into my mouth, preoccupied with work as I sit (or stand) at my desk.

Here's what I'm trying these days that seems to be working:

  • In the evening, I write a "Triggers, Emotions, and Countermeasures" email, which I send to myself and a supportive person in my life.

    This email is simple. I look at my schedule (work and personal) for the day. I identify any interaction I feel might become a trigger for me to eat unnecessarily. I identify the emotion(s) the situation may stir in me. I brainstorm some ideas for things I could do (besides eat) that would create that oh-so-needed pause before habit takes over and I'm riding that "binge and feel terrible" roller coaster again.

    Here's are two examples from an email I sent myself and my friend:

    10 am meeting w/ Bob (trigger) -- desire to eat from the chocolate candy bowl near his office (emotion), make a b-line for his office and don't even look at the candy! (countermeasure); fear about my ability to influence him about a project / discomfort about a potential difficult conversation if he doesn't agree with me (emotions), need to be curious about his perspective,and accept my current level of influence (countermeasures).

    Decision about putting Ferris down (trigger) -- fear over my ability to handle sadness / anticipated regret over being selfish vs. doing the best thing for him (emotions). Accept that there is no perfect answer and trust myself to make the best decision I can (countermeasures).
  • Before each meal, I complete an online, "Pre-eating Checklist".

    This is a short survey I created with Google docs (and therefore accessible everywhere, including any computer or mobile device). It forces me to ask questions I wanted to think about before any food crosses my lips, including things like "Did you drink a full glass of water first?", "Is it already in your food plan for the day?", and "Did you consult your 'Triggers, Emotions, and Countermeasures' email first?" The same supportive friend has access to the survey results spreadsheet, which they can look at any time. And, the last question happens to be a very personal and highly motivating one for me.

What I've Learned So Far
Here are some things I've learned while employing this strategy over the past couple weeks:
  • Some people think this is a lot of work. But if you've ever tracked your food in something like MyFitnessPal, counted calories or points, etc., you understand how quick it can be once you've gotten into a routine. And, to me, anything that helps create that slightly larger, mindful pause before I act impulsively is totally worth it. Plus, I'm done caring what other people think, especially if it's working for me!
  • It only works if I actually do it. There was a fatal flaw in my plan initially: I thought most of my binging / overeating was caused by work stress, so I only used these tools during the week. I then found that I returned to binging Saturday night, as a result of some non-work related emotions.
  • I found interesting themes in my emotions. Coincidentally I've been reading Emotional Intelligence 2.0. In it, Bradberry and Greaves say that "all emotions are derivations of five core feelings: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and shame." Since I find this to be true, my emails are now more abbreviated to one of these. And although I hadn't originally considered positive emotions, the situation I described above (on the weekend) was a good example.
  • And in my countermeasures too! Although there were some very specific ideas, many of my countermeasure brainstorms included phrases like, "accept what you can't change", "breathe and surrender", "love yourself as you are right now", etc. In theory I know these things, but in practice, the email (which I reread throughout the day) reminds me of them exactly when I most need to be reminded.
You Can Do It Too
If you struggle with an eating habit you’re not particularly fond of, you probably know that there are many different diets and tools out there to choose from. Some of them are good, some not so good. And that judgment may be different for different people. What works for you may not work for someone else, and vice versa. My advice? Try things, and pay attention to your body, to your mind, and to your emotions. You don’t have to accept diets or diet tools at face value. Tweak them, combine them, and play with them until you find something that works for you. And please do make something up! Personalize it. If your strategy doesn’t work, revise it. Try something else. But don’t ever give up. Your health and wellness is too important.

26 August 2012

Tell Your Story

Today's post is a guest blog from Erica Trestyn. I met Erica at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating workshop I went to last month. I hope your find her message as insightful and inspiring as I did.

“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind.” - Dr. Seuss
For many years I have been ashamed to tell my story I have been ashamed for anyone to find out “my big secret”. Even now I have a hard time telling people that I am a recovering food addict and compulsive eater. I don’t want anyone to know how much food consumes every part of my life. How much I think about what to eat and what not to eat. I don’t want anyone to know that I used to make batches of chocolate chip cookies from scratch just to eat the raw cookie dough. I don’t want anyone to know how much I love to eat food.

Recently I have come to realize that what makes me most vulnerable is in fact my biggest strength. I am learning that in order to help heal myself from my compulsion to eat I need to expose my truth. Sharing my story can be difficult. It takes me back to a place that makes me uncomfortable. When I reflect back on my past and the person I used to be I am reminded of that scared and lonely fat girl who is hiding from the world. I am reminded of a girl who is self-conscious and insecure. I am reminded of a girl who I never want to be again. What I remind myself of is that when I expose my story and share my truth I don’t feel alone anymore. I know that through the sharing of my story I make it possible for others to share their own stories. I hope that in the sharing of this story you will feel inspired to share your own.

My Story
My “weight issue” has been with me for as long as I can remember. When I was seven, I went on my first diet. I was “not allowed” to eat certain foods and believed I was “good” when I ate what I was supposed to. By the time I was ten years old, I was sneaking cookies up to my room and eating them in secret under the bed. Before becoming a teenager I had been on weight watchers twice, seen a nutritionist, and been in a special program recommended by the doctor for overweight kids.

Dieting continued way into High school. I tried many forms of therapy and support groups for compulsive over eaters. For so long I felt like people were judging me based on what I ate. I began to judge myself in the same way. I was “good” when I ate what I was “supposed to” and “bad" when I didn’t follow the rules. After seeing that nothing seemed to be working my parents relinquished control over my eating habits. For the first time in my life I felt free and in control. I was finally “allowed” to eat whatever I wanted. I began to eat without thinking of the consequences. Without thinking about what I was doing to my body or myself. I gave myself permission to eat whatever I wanted and once I did I couldn’t stop. I left High School weighing almost 300 lbs.

I stayed obese for a long time. I was not ready to let go of my unhealthy habits, nor did I want to. It was nice to have control over my eating and I wanted to remain in control. I didn’t like the feeling of other people controlling what I was “allowed” to do. Control is something that I still struggle with. Even now that I have lost 150 lbs and I am not binging on food I struggle with finding the right balance. I don’t want to restrict my eating habits too much because I am afraid that will lead to binge eating. I also don’t want to give myself permission to eat whatever I want because I am afraid I won’t be able to stop. I still feel like it's not fair that I always have to “watch what I eat” and at times I get frustrated with my healing process, but I do know that I am making tremendous progress.

Over the past ten years I have gained tremendous strength and wisdom. I know that being in control is something I need to learn to let go of and that if I do start to get “out of control” with my eating habits I now have the tools to be able to stop. Learning to love myself and heal my spirit is a daily practice. I am honored to be able to share my most important tools with you.

Focus On Feeling Good
Focus on what you can change, not what you can’t. This also translates into focus on feeling good on the inside. I challenge you to count how many times you think something negative about yourself throughout the day. When I first did this I stopped counting after a few hours because the number became too overwhelming. Once I realized how much I was putting myself down I understood why I felt so insecure. I decided that I needed to change the way I thought. I began to flip that negative self-talk into positive talk.

Each time you catch yourself saying something negative, turn it into something positive. Negative self-talk: "I hate myself, I am so fat":: Positive self-talk: "I choose to love my body today no matter what." Say this positive affirmation as often as you need. Post it in a place around your house where you’ll see it all of the time, or program it like a reminder into your smart phone.

Learn To Let Go
“Wisdom comes with what you let go of, not what you hold onto.” -Unknown
If we start to sweat the small stuff we create anxiety. When we hold onto anxiety we can never truly learn to live within the moment. Allow yourself to be angry, sad, depressed, or lonely. Then allow yourself to let it go. When we hold onto to our past too much we can never truly experience the here and now. Once I began to let go of “my weight issue” I was finally able to change the way I thought and felt about myself. What are you holding onto? Usually those are the very same things you need to learn to let go of.

This is something that takes daily practice. Moment by moment we have the power to change the way we think, believe, and feel about ourselves. We have the power to re-create our thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Every time you catch yourself saying something negative about yourself, acknowledge it, observe it, and then challenge it. Begin your day with a positive affirmation: “I am getting better and better every day in every way.” Repeat throughout the day as needed. You don’t need to say it aloud, just changing your thinking can have powerful results on your actions.

About Erica
Erica Trestyn, MA, HHC
Holistic Health Counselor. Soft Spoken Teacher. Powerfully Passionate Motivator. Creative Spiritual Being.
Erica is the owner of Cultivate Nourishment LLC. Her personal story has provided tremendous inspiration. She healed herself from morbid obesity, loosing over 150 lbs, and changed her life. After a career as a New York City public school art teacher for 6 years she enrolled in the Institute For Integrative Nutrition in 2012 and received her certification as a Holistic Health Counselor. This allowed her to pursue her passion for educating others about health and wellness. Everyday she strives to cultivate more joy, peace, and love into her life by empowering others to nourish themselves.

Website: www.CultivateNourishment.com
Facebook: Facebook.com/CultivateNourishment
Follow: @EricaTrestyn

19 August 2012

Petitioning the Universe

Early in her book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert describes an activity a friend had her do while she was waiting to hear from her lawyer about whether her husband finally signed their divorce papers or not. She was feeling tortured by the whole drawn out, painful experience, and just wanted to be free. Her friend encouraged her to write a "petition to God," and once she had written down what it was she really wanted, she gave Elizabeth permission to summon signatures from all the people she could think of who would be in support of her plea. After naming close friends, family, colleagues, and so on, the list became wider, until lots of people from her life or from the world at large virtually signed her petition. Of course, in true cosmic fashion, minutes later she got the call that her divorce was final.

I started listening to this book on my iPod again while at the gym the other morning, and it occurred to me that there were one (or two, or three) things in my life where I was feeling lost about, and that this might be an interesting exercise to try. (I re-frame is as "petitioning the Universe" only because that's the term I particularly feel comfortable with, after 12 years of Catholic school ruined me for the word "God", though in theory I recognize it's all the same.)

It may be obvious, but I've never had trouble writing, so I opened up to a new page in my journal and just started writing. In about a page and a half, I spilled my guts. I wrote about things I felt tortured about, and asked for help. My last free-flow statement was, "help me find some way, some answer, some light."

And then it got weird.

I heard an answer, and I wrote it down. Not really a tangible, "do this thing now" kind of answer, but an answer nonetheless. I argued. And something responded. Two parts of me, having a dialog, back and forth. Sounding like a stubborn child and a patient adult. A lost friend, with another gently and supportively putting her back in her place, making her realize what's in her control and what's not. Reminding her of things along the way that she'd forgotten. Encouraging her to have faith, to trust, and believe that the answers will come. And that she MUST wait for them, must be patient.

Then the writing just naturally stopped. The child part didn't have any other counterpoints, and there was nothing further coming through.

Methinks I need to do this more often.

11 August 2012

Yoga & Loss

As many folks know, my husband and I recently lost Ferris, our feline friend. In this blog post, I discuss some of the challenges of the situation from both a personal and yogic perspective.

Ferris' Story
I found Ferris at my then veterinarian near Hartford, Connecticut, back in 1999. I'll never forget the first time I saw him--a 6 month old in a cage with his "brother"--both of them looking up at me with the sweetest eyes you ever saw. Ferris' given name was Preston, and his brother's given name was Avery. I remember my face wrinkling at the thought of these two going through life with those names, and immediately adopted both.

Rattrap & Ferris as Kittens
My best friend Frank helped me rename both kitties. Rattrap came from a Transformers cartoon series; Ferris, perhaps obviously, from the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off. (It could have been worse--I remember trying to stick with the Transformers theme and wanting to name Ferris "Megatron"!) In retrospect, neither of these names really captured his personality, so he often ended up being called "boo-bah".

Ferris was terribly shy when I first brought him home. I remember starting both kittens out in my bathroom, sitting on the floor with my back leaned up against the wall, playing with Rattrap. I could feel Ferris hiding behind me. When they first started to roam my apartment, Ferris found a spot under my bed, and wouldn't come out. I remember wondering what happened to the poor fellow that made him so timid, and decided to reassure and love him all the more.

Apparently a few years of my care worked. Ferris not only became a "lap cat", but he was essentially a pose-able ball of fur. You could pick him up anytime (you'd always want to put him down before he'd want you to), you could turn him upside down, flip him over, blow on his tummy, and so on. I remember one phase where I wore him around my neck like a scarf and another where I stuffed him into the front of my overalls like a baby (yes, I had a pair) while I tooled around my condo. He was insatiable when it came to cuddles.

Around 2001, when I worked exclusively from a home office, I heard Ferris growling in the other room. Thinking he and his new buddy were about to get into another scuff (Rattrap suffered from congenital heart failure and after his third stroke, died just before his second birthday), I ignored it. But when Ferris arrived at my chair with a little red puff toy in his mouth, I sat in amazement. He dropped it at my feet; I tossed it out of the room, and he brought it back. Although we never played "fetch" like that again, Ferris often carried around his red puff, growling at the same time. I wish I had gotten a photo or video!

Ferris' other funny skill was detecting stretches. I could be in a completely different room, but the minute I got on the floor to stretch or do some yoga, Ferris could just sense it. He would find me and lay down next to me, stretching his body out long as well, or putting his head into my face. The other very unique thing about Ferris was his meow. It was of a lower tone than any other cat I'd ever heard.

Me and Ferris

Ferris was also a very finicky eater. Although he weighed 13 pounds for a lot of his life, he occasionally went on "hunger strikes"--we originally thought this was because of the ongoing struggles for dominance he still occasionally had with our other cat.

Eventually though, we though we'd discovered a non-behavioral reason for Ferris' eating issues. He was diagnosed with kidney disease in December 2009, soon after I returned from a trip to Chile and Argentina with a friend. I felt guilty, as if my going away somehow prompted his condition. From that point on, I (or my husband eventually) would administer subcutaneous fluids to Ferris every evening, and give him a pill every morning. Ferris was generally good about this--in fact, the most he'd complain was just before we put the needle in. About a year later, when his blood work was redone, we (our vet included) were all thrilled that Ferris actually seemed to have improved from the fluids. We'd given him another chance at life.

The Difficult Choice
In 2012, it became more difficult to manage Ferris' condition. He would go on hunger strikes more often, and started losing weight. Putting him on an appetite stimulant at one point sent him into an allergic reaction, warranting a trip to the kitty ER. Finding him pawing at a bloody mouth sent us back another time, only to find a rotten, half dislodged tooth as the culprit. And then the urinating started. Outside the box. First occasionally, then almost daily. When I came back from my Kripalu Yoga Teacher Training in June, my husband was at his wits end trying to manage everything. We knew Ferris was starting to decline.

A few months later, we started having conversations about the ultimate question: "when is the right time to put Ferris down?" We hated asking the question at all. Apart from the issues I mentioned, Ferris was still active and friendly--he didn't seem to be in any pain. So, we waited. Sure enough, over the next few months, the urinating got worse, Ferris got skinnier, our other cat got more neglected, and we got more stressed. We could no longer let Ferris freely roam the house while we were gone, as we'd never know where he'd urinate. When we were around and he roamed, he'd meow a lot, and sit uncomfortably on the window sill. Soon after, he seemed to start having trouble with his mouth again. When we last weighed him, he was about 7 1/2 pounds. "Stabbing" him with the fluids every night made us sad--he was all skin and bones.

After several appointments made and cancelled, we decided that Tuesday, July 31st was the day. He'd made it to his 13th birthday on the 20th, it was the end of the month, our wonderful vet at Westin Vet Clinic could do it, and we had nothing going on after work so we could process the situation afterwards.

From a yogic perspective I struggled with this. What was ahimsa here? Who gave us the right to decide when to take Ferris' life? Or was it more harming to keep him alive, hurting both of us and our other cat? And then I pondered, "who gave us the right to prolong Ferris' life with fluids when he was first diagnosed?" I'd always felt that Ferris was a human in another life--he just had that kind of soul. This made finding "the right time" all that more difficult. It wasn't the first time yoga and death had been on my mind.

Facing a Fear for Love
About a month prior to getting Ferris, I had been surprised by a diagnosis of lymphoma in my 18 year old Ivory, who had essentially grew up with me, and who I had taken with me all the way to college. When the vet told me he needed to be put down, I was in the midst of a breakup with my then fiance as well. I just couldn't handle it. I said goodbye but insisted that nothing be done until I was gone. Even once I was in the car with my fiance, I remember urging him to "just drive" so we could get out of there. So I could remember Ivory alive and well.

Unfortunately with years gone by, I ended up deeply regretting that decision. In retrospect I felt like I had completely abandoned my loving companion and childhood friend. I was determined not to have that happen this time, and I was acutely aware of how "being with my feelings" was not something I was good at. I decided to use this opportunity Ferris provided me to grow spiritually.

After preparing me with information about how it would go and what my happen, Dr. Mike left me alone with Ferris for a few moments. In that time, I whispered many things to him. I told him I loved him, that he was a good companion. I told him that I believed he was before, and that he would be again. And that he's be safe, free. Then while petting him, I chanted: "Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya" over and over. It seemed to have an effect: Ferris put his head down on his catnip mouse, purred, and relaxed.

Inner Knowing
Coming home that evening was difficult, but in the days that followed, I felt very content with our decision and completely at peace with it. That's how I knew it was the right thing to do. That's how I know it was in line with ahimsa. And then, a few days later, as I lay in shavasana (corpse pose) at the end of a gentle, yin yoga practice, I saw a vision of Ferris. It was likely inspired from a photo I looked at a few days earlier; he was stretched out long, front paws reaching toward me, floating up into the sky. He looked healthy, and it felt like he was saying goodbye, letting me know he'd be just fine. At the time I felt comforted--today the image brings tears to my eyes but I'm still certain that everything is OK, just as it is.