Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What Your Tongue is Telling You

Over the past couple of blogs I’ve discussed digestion, ama (that toxic goo that is a byproduct of poor digestion,) and appetite. Perhaps you are beginning to suspect that your digestion isn’t buzzing along as well as you’d like. Maybe you feel a little fatigued, bloating, and irregular. Maybe you are wondering: "Could I have ama?"
There’s one efficient way to tell. Tomorrow morning, immediately after hopping out of bed, shuffle over to the mirror and stick out your tongue. Look hard. What is that? A thick white coating? Especially at the back of the tongue? Take the edge of a stainless steel spoon and scrape. Is your reaction “Ewww!” Yep. That’s ama
If that isn’t enough to get you bounding out of bed tomorrow morning, think about this. As I outlined in my November blog, Ayurveda believes much disease begins in the digestive system. The toxic product of poorly digested food, ama, is sort of like an undesirable neighbor. It coats our digestive system and then travels our body searching for a home, settling in our bodies weakest tissues. Our lifestyle and/or heredity can determine what these weak tissues are; heart, lungs, skin, joints. Once ama settles in, disease is soon to follow.
Achy joints, dull skin and eyes, bad breath and a sluggish mind are further indicators of ama. If you suspect the presence of ama, check out my blog “Tips to Keep the Digestive System Perking”. Then, take a few extra steps:
  • Brush your teeth and scrape your tongue immediately upon awakening
  • Avoid old, processed, artificial and fast food
  • Avoid cold, icy foods and drinks
  • Make lunch the largest meal of the day, when digestion is strongest
  • Eat light foods in large quantities, heavy foods in light quantities
  • Skip a meal occasionally to let your digestion rekindle
  • Fill a thermos with very warm water and sip throughout the day
These are good tips even if your tongue is squeaky-clean in morning. Why ruin a good thing? If you enjoy good digestion and your body is a clean machine, keep it that way. And if not, a few extra steps can have you enjoying good digestion, better energy, and vibrant health.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Tips to Keep the Digestive System Perking

Lime juice and ginger
stimulate digestion. Herbs
make certain foods more
Good digestion, according to Ayurveda, is the #1 way to keep ama at bay. Ama is undigested food, a gooey substance that takes up residence in the weak tissues of the body, leading to disease in those tissues. How to keep the digestive fires burning bright?
Eat when hungry. Develop a good appetite. If you never feel hungry, perhaps you are eating too often. Or, maybe you need to enhance your appetite with exercise. And remember, appetite and cravings are not the same thing! One comes from the belly, and the other from the mind. When a sense of hunger strikes, close your eyes and assess; do you feel content in the body, but anxious or bored in your mind? Or, is this truly hunger in the belly?
Give your digestion a little rest between meals to build appetite and allow digestion of previous meal to complete. Leave a little space in your belly from time to time. 
Chew completely. Chewing is the first step to digestion, and the more food is broken down at this stage, the more able your system is to utilize it.
Avoid cold drinks with meals. The digestive process is a heating process. The digestive juices work better warm and undiluted. Take sips of room temperature water with meals. Give up the icy drink habit and see if you feel less tired and bloated after a meal.
Stop eating before feeling 100% full 
Eat in a calm environment, and only when calm (stress affects digestion). Yes, having a family, I have an occasional laugh with this also. At least, take a slow, gratitude breath before diving in.
Use ginger as an appetite stimulant. Simmer a few slices in water to ingest as a tea. Or, make 1/8 in. thick slices, and eat with a little sea salt and lime. Also, soak 1/8 in. think slices in fresh lime juice for a few hours. Strain, and sweeten juice with a little honey to taste. Take a shot. Also, you can eat a slice or two of the ginger. Try these appetite stimulants 30 - 60 minutes before a meal to jump start the process.
Spices to use in cooking for digestion: cumin, coriander, fennel, turmeric, ginger, black pepper. Add these to a dish while cooking, the heat releases their digestive enhancing properties. These can be especially helpful to add to foods you find difficult to digest, like dairy, meat, or other heavy foods. But, they are delicious in vegetable and egg dishes.

And, yoga sure can help. Yoga can help increase appetite, especially a more vigorous practice. Standing poses help draw energy down, enhancing the downward flow of, umm, energy. And twisting poses tone and stimulate the digestive system.
Despite our best efforts, our digestion might cough and sputter occasionally, leading to the dreaded ama condition. Next week we'll look at this nasty substance to learn how to tell if we have it, and how to eliminate it before it settles in for a long stay.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Keeping the Digestive Fire Burning

Yep, it’s getting colder outside.  But have you noticed any changes inside? The cold and dryness outside means we need to create our own heat inside, and within ourselves. In Ayurveda, the inner heat that transforms our thoughts, perceptions and, yes, food, is called agni.
Strong, healthy agni means food is broken down and utilized efficiently. Hand-in-hand with strong digestion is strong elimination (you know what I mean). Ideally, what we take in as food is broken down, absorbed, assimilated, and the balance eliminated. 
But what if our agni is poor and our digestion and elimination is sluggish? During the colder, less active time of year, this may be an issue. Sure, we may feel a little uncomfortable, but is it really important? 
Yes. According to the ancient health science of Ayurveda, much, if not most, of disease begins in the digestive system. The toxic product of poorly digested food, ama, is sort of like an undesirable neighbor. It originates in our digestive system and then travels our body searching for a home, eventually settling in the areas not strong enough to keep it out: our bodies weakest tissues. Our lifestyle and/or heredity can determine what these weak tissues are. Heart, lungs, skin, joints...ama will find a hangout where there is a vacancy shingle. And once it settles in, there goes the neighborhood; disease is soon to follow.
Many of us aren’t really in-tune with our inner workings. Our digestive system may have the pizzaz and gusto of a snail and we wouldn’t notice. But clearly, we want to keep the neighborhood safe and happy...so it’s worth getting a little sensitive to what’s going on. What are the tell-tail signs of poor digestion?

  • Lack of appetite
  • Over-fullness after eating
  • Tiredness after eating
  • Bloating and/or gas
  • Irregular (less than once a day) bowel movements
  • Small, hard or otherwise constipated BMs

Any of these sound uncomfortably familiar? Check in next week. I’ll list some Ayurvedic and yogic remedies to help stoke agni and keep the digestion burning strongly.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Quick Squash with Yummy Herbs

One of our beautiful CSA shares
One of the things I love about being part of the Focus Yoga CSA is that it forces me to figure out what to do with a kohlrabi, or that weird, green Japanese pumpkin Randy snuck in my box, not once, but three times. And, I never enjoyed typical acorn squash recipes, either. Squash is so sweet, adding butter and brown sugar sent me into a puckered-lip sugar rush.

So, now that I've discovered savory Ayurvedic herbs and cooking, squash has taken on a whole new appeal. In this recipe, the cumin and coriander stimulate digestion, and the cumin also relieves congestion. Turmeric is an Ayurvedic powerhouse; it not only improves digestion, but reduces inflammation (think achy joints), strengthens the immunity, and even adds luster to the skin!

Plus, I think my simple recipe for acorn squash below qualifies as fast food. Throw one in the oven just for yourself if the kids prefer a pizza. If nobody is around to share the second half, enjoy it for lunch the next day, as I just did!

Acorn Squash Delish!

One acorn squash, halved and seeded
1/2 to one onion, depending on your taste, sliced thin
butter or ghee
1/2 t. cumin
1/2 t. coriander
1/2 t. turmeric
1/4 - 1/2 t. salt
Saute the onion in the butter or ghee till soft. Sprinkle the spices over the cut squash halves. Fill cavity with onions. Bake at 325 until soft, about 30 - 40 minutes. Easy!!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An Ayurvedic Massage for the Mind

After a 14 hour drive to PA last Thursday, three days of training, and a similar drive ahead of me, I decided to indulge in an Ayurvedia massage and Shirodhara treatment. While massage is pretty mainstream nowadays (for good reason!), Shirodhara is less familiar.  Shirodhara is it’s own experience, but following a massage, it makes the experience complete. It is a massage for the brain.
This is not me. But, the treatment looks
like this.
I had an amazing, vatta-balancing massage and ended on my back. Neema (my intuitive Ayurvedic therapist, and co-student at my training this weekend) covered my eyes with cotton. My head tipped slightly back, she positioned a pot of warm oil several inches above my forehead, the spigot aimed at the hairline. With a word to ready me, she opened the spigot, and warm oil began to flow, touching down, then flowing toward the back of my head and into a pan.

While the oil was warm, and only touching one spot, my whole body sprang into alertness. After a few breaths it calmed, and after a bit, Neema slowly moved the stream to first contact the center of my forehead. Then she sat quietly by my head.
I’d like to say that I immediately went into a deep state of bliss, but that wouldn’t be true.  Although I’ve had this treatment once or twice before, it’s still fairly new, and my mind stayed active for awhile. “What should I be thinking about? Should I be more relaxed? Should I be meditating right now? If I leave right after lunch, I’ll get home about....2:00am?  What is for lunch?  Is Neema meditating? How big is this pot of oil?”
Thankfully, it was a big pot. Gradually, my mind slowed to match my heavily relaxed body, and all the sensation, all the focus and energy, gradually gathered at the tiny point where the oil met my forehead.
That spot, the center of the forehead, or third eye, was abuzz. I think I have a pretty active third eye (judging by the way people are looking at me sometimes I think it must be glowing), so it jumped to the ready for this treatment. The rest melted away, and all the hype was right in that one spot.
After a good 30 minutes, the oil drained. As the last drops touched down and the stream ended, I felt a literal sucking sensation, from the ends of my hands and feet, right to that third eye and out. I’m a great visualizer, so I envisioned that all my bad habits, limitations and samskaras were being sucked right out of me. I’m sure that was true, as now I find I am perfect in every way. Hmmm.
Neema took some time to massage the oil into my scalp, wipe away the excess, and sent me off into a steam room for a final cooking. After 20 minutes I emerged, exfoliated and showered, ready for a sattvic lunch and a 14 hour drive. Which, amazingly, ended up being only 12 hours. I’m certain it was my newly-honed mental focus that allowed me to cut through any traffic and obstacles and get me safely home, in bed, by 1:00am. 

If you'd like to know more about Shirodhara, here is an interesting link.  And, if you think you'd like to try it, there are practitioners closer than Pennsylvania. One, Monica Yearwood, an Ayurvedic therapist that has presented at Focus Yoga, practices in Chicago.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Aparigraha and Bugs

This weekend found us at our farm with another family. They also have two girls, the oldest of which is in the same grade and school as our oldest. The mother informed me of some homework the girls had in science; they were to find three bugs, pop them in a jar with a cotton ball soaked in nail-polish remover, and then stick them with a pin onto a foam diorama, making a display of the bugs depicting them in a “natural habitat.”
The other mom and I are good friends, and kindred spirits in following a spiritual path. It didn’t take much discussion to discover we were both a little torn. The idea of the girls tossing a living thing into a stinky jar to asphyxiate it didn’t settle right, even if it was “just” a bug.
But, let’s be honest. I’ve thoughtlessly smashed quite a number of bugs in my day. Wasn’t it a little hypocritical to suddenly take the high road now? And...we were at the farm, probably the best location in the world to find bugs, both indoors and out. Finding three bugs each would be the easiest homework they’d have all year.
That much was true...within minutes they had two bugs each, and without even leaving the dining room. Given that the critters were in “our” space, it just didn’t feel that evil to plop them in the jar.
Wanting the girls to also find some bugs in nature, I led them outdoors to the tall grass around the ponds. We crawled around, and suddenly came upon a crowd of crickets. We grabbed up several, quickly surpassing the required three bugs, and viola! Mission accomplished.
But, hanging around the pond in the sunshine felt so good that we took our time heading back to the house with our bugs, and that’s when it happened. In the very tall grass right next to the pond, I saw him.
“Eva! Look at this!” 
This was it...our triple A+, eye-popping, celebrity-ensuring, cherry on the cupcake find. The most gorgeous spider in the world. An inch and a half from the tip of one long, thin black leg to the next, with a very large, bulbous black body highlighted in bright, lemon yellow spots. Spread out in the center of a huge web woven in the grass. Amazing. 
“I want it!!” Eva said.
“It’s wonderful!” I said. “You’d get an A for sure!”

Then, my friend spoke up. “But Eva, you already have your three bugs. He’s so beautiful. Don’t you think we should just leave him?”
Silence. Damn. Damn. I knew she was right. But, he was so gorgeous. Wouldn’t that be the insect to bring into school!
“But I want him!” Eva said again. She came forward with her jar. “He is so cool!”
“Eva, I think she’s right,” I said. “We already have all the bugs we need. Why don’t we leave him here?”
Eva countered, I did also, and after a couple of rounds we sat there, just looking at him, so still in his web.
“Maybe he’s dead,” I mused. “If he’s dead, then it would be okay to take him.”
“Yeah!” Eva said. “He’s so still! I bet he’s dead.”
We moved forward with a little stick. As we got closer, we both saw a leg move. Damn.
We sat there a little longer, debating this spider’s life vs. my daughter’s potential coup. Then it happened. Quick as a flash, instead of a spider sitting alone in it’s net, there was a spider holding a bit, fat fly.
“Did you see that?!” I cried. “He just caught a fly!”
“Cool!” Eva said. It sat very still, but, having read Charlotte’s Web several times, I believe that at that moment, it was slowly sucking the blood out of the fly.
The plot thickened. Since the blood-sucking spider clearly wasn’t following ahimsa (non-violence), did that maybe let us off the hook? After witnessing this viscous display, maybe it was okay to let it have it’s last meal, then toss it into the stinky jar?
Fat chance. I knew killing for survival and killing for an A were not the same thing. But, Eva clearly wanted the spider, so I had to try another line of logic. Eva had told me once that she liked the philosophy of Taoism. 
Now, other than every so often reading a few pages of the Tao Te Ching, I know nothing about the concepts of Taoism. Maybe Lao Tsu’s home was lined with little bugs, impaled with stick pins onto painted replicas of “natural habitats.” But, I really doubted it.
“Eva, don’t you think that Taoism frowns on killing that beautiful spider?” I asked.
“Mom!” she rolled her eyes. “That’s not what Taoism is about!”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about loving and appreciating nature and animals and stuff!”
“Well, doesn’t loving and appreciating this spider mean not killing it and sticking it with a pin?”
“No, it doesn’t.”
We both knew that neither one of us knew enough about Taoism to score any points. But, there was one thing I did know.
“Eva, sometimes following the high road on our spiritual journey means making difficult decisions.”
“What’s ‘the high road’ mean?”
“It means doing the right thing, even if we don’t get the A, or impress other people. It’s following our spiritual principles, even if that means giving up something we really want.”
Just then, in a flash, there was another flurry of action. Suddenly the fly was completely wrapped in white.
“Ooooh!” we both said.
We sat quietly for a minute longer, watching the spider finish the process of creating his meal. “You know,” I said. “If you had killed the spider, we would have never seen this.”
“I know,” Eva agreed.
I looked at the big, beautiful spider, in the sunlight, enjoying a meal in the high grass on the banks of the pond. That would be the coolest thing in the world to bring to school. And the saddest.
“Eva, do whatever you want to do. I have to go in to make lunch,” I said as I got up.
I went inside and as I worked I looked out the window at Eva still sitting in the grass, watching the spider. A couple minutes later she came inside.
“Did you get it?” her friend asked her.
“No,” she said. “If it was already dead, I would have taken it. But, I didn’t want to kill it.”
Now, I wish I confidently led her in the morally right direction, but truthfully, a part of me wanted her to plop that spider in the jar. It would have been amazing to share. The farm has so many truly beautiful bugs; dragonflies, beetles, grasshoppers. We could have created a kick-butt diorama. That spider would have been so impressive.
It was a little unnerving. After all, if I was truthfully following the “spiritual path,” with the “spiritual principles” that I held up so righteously to Eva, I wouldn’t have thought for one minute of harming that spider, right? If I were really successful with my practice, wouldn’t the greed of wanting to impress, at the expense of a life, have never existed? Is practicing aparigraha (non-greed) not feeling greedy...or feeling greed but not following through?
The answer is, aparigraha means not feeling greed. It’s the feeling as well as the action. Clearly, we made the right decision for us. However, I needed to talk both Eva, and myself, into it. My friend never had a moment’s hesitation about what was right, and I admire her for it. Perhaps as I continue practicing, I will flow into such clarity. 
But, I also have no doubts that if this day had happened 10 years ago, that spider would be stuck onto foamcore right now. There has been progress. 
We will find ourselves struggling with decisions, and hopefully make the right choices, many times. Each small decision can be a small triumph in our practice. “Practice” does not mean perfect. It means needing to think, over and over, until it becomes second nature. And, if we need to consider or even struggle with each decision, instead of automatically doing the right thing, so be it for now. Over time the rough edges of effort will smooth into ease, and there will be no choices. We won’t need to think. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Tapas and Pulling Weeds

This morning I finally went to my backyard to pull weeds from the vegetable garden. It really isn’t a vegetable garden anymore, as I’ve  let it go this year. My focus has been in other directions, and the garden had become a jungle. Weeds were, and I’m not kidding, at least 4 feet high. I feel empathy for the neighbors who have been watching it get to this state over the past couple of months, as I certainly haven’t.
Anyway, it didn’t get like this overnight, and it was going to take some hot, sweaty, and itchy work to find what few plants I have still growing between the weeds. As I started pulling, I was trying to find some sort of lesson in the mess (cause I do that). 
Finding the lesson really was fairly easy. Most of us have aspirations of living in a healthy, balanced way. At some point we make a plan, and begin to follow it. This is my garden at the beginning of the summer, weeded, mulched, with seeds planted.
We do well for a while, then, something happens. Perhaps we’ve eliminated coffee (I raise my hand) and have a particularly tough day. We treat ourselves to a cup. (I raise my hand.) A few weeds pop up in the garden, and nobody is looking.
That cup tastes so good. The next time we feel a little sluggish or cranky, we think about that cup of coffee again.  The weeds begin to gain height and strength, and several more begin to take root. 
But once we’ve opened the door of opportunity a little bit, these habits get a toe hold in and slowly, when our back is turned, inch the door open wider. While an occasional treat of anything is generally fine, it’s when the occasional becomes habitual that we lose ground. Soon the weeds become a ground cover...where is the garden? 
Our best intentions often go this way. We sincerely want a healthy life (clean garden) and know how to create it. What is missing?
In yoga we call the missing ingredient "tapas". The translation from Sanskrit is “heat”. In yoga is it used to describe the focused effort and self-discipline of the yogi on the spiritual path. But the connection to heat is very important.
First, it is important to remember that nowhere in any yogic texts is it implied that the practice of yoga is easy. In fact, the very difficulty, the very effort, creates a sort of friction. The friction is created between our cravings and goals, our desires and the higher path, our attachments and our inner knowledge. When we are working with a deep desire or attachment, and trying to follow the right path, that friction we feel creates heat. That is the heat of tapas.
Heat creates transformation. Heat transforms our food, allows us to change the shape of metal, and rejuvenates landscapes (think forest fires as a natural occurrence). The heat created by our efforts is what transforms us.
Given this, we should not feel discouraged when we have trouble in creating change in our lives. We should allow ourselves to feel the effort, the discomfort. Back off and give in, and the heat of transformation dissipates.

Tapas is a good thing. It needs to be created and cultivated, like my garden. It needs to maintained through constant applied effort, like regular weeding. With regular effort, the weeds may pop through from time to time, but will never again take over the original plan, a clean, productive garden.
I created a little heat this morning bringing the mayhem back in order. In retrospect, perhaps the heat of a blowtorch would have been useful. Sigh.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Studying at the Ashram

While in the strictest sense, the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, Pennsylvania may not fulfill the strict definition of "ashram" (a Hindu religious retreat), many of the visitors, teachers and residents here refer to HI as "the ashram". It is a spiritually charged community of learning for students of all religions, backgrounds and experiences, and I feel fortunate to have the opportunity and ability to drive 14 hours into the rolling Pocono Mountains to spend several days studying yoga and Ayurveda here.
HI is housed in a sprawling, brick building that used to be a seminary. Long halls are lined with small, simple rooms for guests. The spareness is so refreshing, coming from a home with a clutter table in the kitchen, books strewn about, all the messiness of an active family.
I’ve arrived on the hottest weekend of the year; of several years, actually. There is no air conditioning, except in the coffee/tea shop (yes, there is a coffee shop, and it’s a pretty hopping place). Each room has a fan, but the heat becomes oppressive in the rooms at night. I spoke with a woman this morning who suffered an anxiety attack in the stuffiness and almost packed up and left in the middle of the night. Luckily, the heat is more bearable today.
This particular ashram is located on abut 400 acres of beautiful fields and woods. On the property is an old dairy barn that now houses an herbal lab, an art/production studio (Hi publishes many books and publications, including Yoga International), and a warehouse. There is an organic vegetable garden as well as an herb garden, where medicinal herbs are grown. There are several houses where residents and families live.
In July, even in the heat, the outdoors here is energizing, full of Prana. Coming from the flatness of Illinois, one of my highlights was hiking through the woods to the waterfall. It was the most enjoyable cardiovascular thing I have done in a long time. While it takes great physical effort to walk the path on such a steep incline and decline (think staircase steep), the mental effort is practically nil; just put one foot in front of the other. No need to work harder; the incline gives you the effort.
Sattva is a quality of peaceful, balanced energy. It is focused. It is conducive to a healthy body and mind, and creates the optimal quality for meditation. The entire 400 acres, the space inside and out, is sattvic in quality.
The food is vegetarian, much from the gardens, very simple, chanted over by the cook staff, and designed to be sattvic as well. Oatmeal and fruit for breakfast (maybe my favorite, tofu scramble, yum!), rice, beans, vegetables for lunch and dinner, with non-heating spices. Salads and fruit. I have heard some comments that it’s a little repetitious.  I won’t really argue. But, I’m never left hungry, and have no cravings, (except for a chai tea from the cafe, which is delicious). I feel satisfied.
One can be as social, or non-social, as you’d like; there is no judgement. There are hours of observed silence, and a table observing silence in the dining room. After evening classes and prayers, things become amazingly quiet.
I am here for a training; Yoga Ayurveda Specialist. Although we meet morning, afternoon, and evening for class, there are spaces of time. The 7 1/2 hours of learning does not encroach on that. Naturally, having meals prepared, and no real work other than to learn makes that easier. 
Today, we participated in a Vedic fire ceremony, an offering to the transformative powers of fire, dedicated to the healing of our planet. Sandra Anderson began the chant as eight participants sat around the burning pit, (the rest of the group farther back awaiting their turn,) and at her cue tossed gifts of “food” into the fire. We rotated in at intervals. I listened to her chant on and on in sanskrit. There seemed to be no repetition in lines, and I was amazed she could memorize so much. As I rotated in closer to the pit, I saw she had a binder with pages in front of her. I thought “Well, that explains it!” and this made sense until I was just about to take my turn. I was close enough to see that the entire text was in the sanskrit alphabet, beautiful to look at, but as legible to my eye as a decorative wallpaper border. Sandy chanted for about an hour from this text.
It’s so easy to feel balanced and healthy in mind and body in this environment. There is none of the opulence and luxury you may find in a spa. Your feet feel firmly grounded in the earth. You feel cared for, but never pampered. The temptation to give into, well, temptation, just isn’t there; as a spiritual seeker you are supported on all levels. 
I have visited here twice so far and each time feel the unloading of stresses, self-judgement, and mind-clutter that a good yoga class will provide, except on a prolonged and larger scale. And, of course, when I leave tomorrow, I will be heading back to many of the stresses, judgements and clutter that provide the challenges that we, as householder yogis, struggle with. The ashram teaches us skills then sends us home to practice, and maybe share these skills in the larger world. I have 14 hours on the road to look forward to, to integrate and revisit the ideas my teachers have been so generous to share. Then the work begins.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Creating the Yoga Habit: one Focus Yoga student’s 30-day challenge

Samskaras are basically habits. The idea is this: once we begin a behavior, and repeat it over time, a groove begins to form in our psyche, much like a trickle of water running down the face of a rock. Naturally, as the groove appears, the water will continue to flow down that same path, because it’s much easier than breaking out of that path. And, of course, the groove continues to deepen.
That is a samskara. Samskaras can be positive or negative. We can probably all list some of our negative samskaras. A sugary dessert after every meal, a cocktail upon arriving home after work each day, even snapping at others when irritable or reacting with anger to setbacks; these are negative samskaras.
Now, I know it’s hard to begin to flow out of these well-worn grooves. Sometimes it’s easiest to focus instead of creating new grooves, new paths in which you can begin to flow.
Last month, one of our students at Focus Yoga, Mary Parra, informed me that she was giving herself a 30-day challenge: coming to yoga class each day for 30 days. Since this is such a powerful time of year for creating better habits (longer, warmer days give us more opportunities to exercise, and more fresh, healthy food is available to clean up our diets), I thought I’d check out how well she did and share!

Judi: What inspired you to create a 30 day challenge for yourself? 
Mary: I started coming to the studio in April with a 10-day pass. Once I used it up in May, I bought a 30 day unlimited pass, and decided to challenge myself to take class every day for 30 days in order to really get my money’s worth. I also felt like I needed a deeper immersion into my yoga practice. I work in real estate, which is very stressful, and I feel my heart has really hardened through this business. 
J: Did your challenge help you feel better mentally?
M: I hadn’t really been consistent in my practice up to that point, and I started feeling better quickly. As the days went by, I stopped reacting negatively to things, I started feeling calmer and more relaxed. 
I began dedicating myself to being happy where I am. This was an idea I picked up in class. Because of my business right now, I feel like everything is a struggle. I’m working on just being happy in the moment I’m in.
As the 30 days went by, I also stopped having my daily glass of wine. My body just told me not to drink. Sometimes after a stressful day at work I used to say, “I’m going home to have a glass of wine,” and I would. Now, I have no desire. 
J: How do you feel physically?
M: I haven’t met my goals yet physically; I’m still struggling to get into the poses. But, I’m working on relaxing and really focusing on alignment. I had a very sore ankle at one point, and by bringing attention to proper alignment, it just went away.
However, I definitely feel stronger, especially my legs. My shoulders were tight, and now they are much looser. And, I’ve had some recent classes where I’ve really felt that “mind/body” connection.
J: Did you have any challenges in making it to the studio each day for 30 days?
M: Sometimes work could get in the way. Toward the end of my 30 days, I had one day where I had to be in Orland for work, and just couldn’t make it into class. That motivated me to begin to develop a home practice. I bought some recommended books and began to read them. Now, in addition to coming to the studio most days, I try to devote some time at home to meditation, and a few poses, even just 15 minutes.  
J: Did you ever feel like you were neglecting other things in your life as you made more time for yoga?
M: Never. I’m very disciplined. In my life I’ve always been willing to follow through on the things I like and that benefit me. If after the 30 days, I didn’t like the practice, I would have stopped. But I’m still coming and practicing.
J: We’re glad you love it! Just what is it that makes you passionate about yoga?
M: I love the being in that mental flow, that “zone”. I was training for a marathon last year, and I like that being in that zone when I run. But, I think the benefits are better for me in yoga. Running makes me tighter. Yoga is much less stress on my body. I listen carefully to how the instructor cues things, and I’m finding I can get into the poses just by listening to the words now. That really helps me stay in the flow.
J: So even though your “challenge” is completed, I still see you at the studio all the time!
M: I used to practice at a gym, but I like the relaxed, soothing atmosphere at the studio. There are no mirrors to distract me.  And, I’ve taken class with most of the instructors, and I like them all!
Okay, yes I included that last quote as a shameless plug for Focus Yoga! But, creating new habits is easiest if they are pleasant and enjoyable, and finding recourses, such as a great teacher, environment or friends to support you can make the challenge of digging those new “grooves” easier.
Congrats to Mary and to everyone who has worked hard to develop new, healthy lifestyle habits!  I totally understand what a challenge it is. But, I know for certain: yoga is a powerful tool for transforming, for creating a vibrant, healthy life. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Breaking up with Joe

Now, I’m not a coffee addict. Of course not. Let’s just say I adore coffee. I take my affection for coffee back to when my two girls were very young. They were challenging and energetic, and it was such a peaceful break to be in the car, pick up a carry-out latte, and drive about peacefully while they were safely strapped in their car seats in the back...all of us content at once. Pretty rare in those days. 
Now that they are older, a fresh poured mug with half-and-half (not two-percent! Ick!) still makes me sigh with contentment. Even though those first few lattes after childbirth gave me a pleasant little caffeine kick, I never viewed the caffeine as the real draw. It didn’t seem to affect me much. Caffeine jitters were for amateurs. I could down a pot at night and sleep peacefully right afterward. 
But, although I always said that I’d rather give up any vice, any pleasure than give up my coffee, I began to get the sense that coffee was getting in the way of pleasure. On a mental level, I found myself really needed that cup of joe to be able to focus on my work. Just about every activity, driving, chatting with friends, writing, was better with a cup of coffee in hand.
And, physically, I began to suspect that my diet, while not bad by typical American standards, but be just a tad too acidic. While not all of these things are on my frequent menu, items such as wheat flour, sugar, meat, alcohol, processed foods and, yes, coffee, leave an acidic residue in the body. This lowers our overall body ph. Many typical items fall onto the acidic list, and if consumed regularly can leave us vulnerable to headaches, lethargy, frequent infections, joint and muscle pain, skin and digestive conditions, anxiety, and more.
I didn’t have most of these symptoms, so why was I concerned? I had some neck tension that was beginning to lead to periodic headaches. I had tension in my upper back. I frequently had restless legs, some joint pain, and every so often, leg cramps.
I’m not a doctor, but it just felt like an imbalance in my chemistry. I ordered some ph strips online. These can test either saliva or urine. I took several tests to be certain, but over and over, I fell into the “acidic” and sometimes the “highly acidic” category.
Well. That was the final step to convincing me. I had been trying to cut back on coffee, but I felt like a total coffee detox was in order.
So while I was ready to enter the race, what finally got me out of the gate was a chance visit to a small health food store.. There, on the shelves, was a can of a product called Cafix. A blend of barley, chicory, and fig, it describes itself as a “hot beverage”, and a substitute for coffee. 
I had read about chicory. Chicory is a tall plant with deep roots, and while many parts of it are edible and used as an herb, the roots have frequently been roasted and used as a substitute for coffee when coffee was scarce. It is added frequently to coffee blends (think New Orleans style coffee). 
I picked up a can and began my coffee “detox”. Cafix was just fine. It tasted like instant coffee to me. It has a heavier, thicker feel, perhaps a bit more bitter. A shake of cinnamon and some milk softened it and it hit the spot fine in the morning.
But while the mind was content with my solution, the body of course did not agree. The first day was fine. The second I began to get headachy, with flu-like symptoms. I had a cup of coffee. After that, when the headaches began, I popped an aspirin. I wasn’t trying to be a hero, after all, just coffee free. The next few days the muscle and bones aches began. I took another aspirin. When I awoke in the middle of the night with low back pain so bad I couldn’t sleep, I took a couple more.
After about a week, the symptoms went away. 
It has been about a month now since my daily coffee habit ended. I am not saying never to a cup of coffee, but I never want to “love” it so much (not addicted, remember) that I need to go through those symptoms again if I don’t have it. I want it to be my choice when to enjoy a steaming cup.
And, remember that my ph was the motivation for this detox to begin with. And in the a month of watching my diet closer and cutting out coffee, I am still acidic. I had a couple lovely moments where I tested in the “optimal” range, and I practically did a dance and taped the strips to the bathroom mirror for all to admire. But, the next day I was testing acidic again. Darn.
So, I am still working on it. But, in my mind, a big step has been made. I think my daily wake-up beverage will be my cup of chicory. In addition to replacing nasty acidic coffee, knocking back some chicory is believed to have benefits, from cleansing the blood, to improving liver health. I’ll raise my mug to that.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Maggie Mind

Yesterday was our first horse show of the year. It was a long one, had its ups and downs, and for a while, mostly downs. As I dragged myself toward bed last night, a thought occurred to me and from now on whenever my mind can’t be quieted, or it heads down paths I don’t prefer, I’m going to call it my “Maggie Mind.”
For the past several years we have owned a big, black Tennessee Walker named Mack. Mack is mature, and last year calmly and patiently led my two girls, Eva and Sylvia, through their first season of 4-H fairs and horse shows.  But, volleying one horse between two girls was tough, so this year when I had an opportunity to borrow a second horse for my daughter Sylvia, I took it.
Maggie is also mature, and while she matches Mack’s quick stride and long gaits, she is a very different horse. Maggie is gentle, but insecure. She enjoys her work, but she needs something to attach to help her through uncomfortable situations.
In the pasture, that security blanket is the leader horse. Horses run in herds, and  in a herd there is one horse in charge. The other horses understand this, and are comfortable with it. They feel secure. Maggie has been happy to let Mack be her leader.
However, in the saddle, the rider should become the leader. Remember, horses want to know someone is in charge. A good rider helps them feel secure as they go into new situations. 
After a handful of rides this spring, we had an opportunity to enter a small, casual local show. While we knew Sylvia and Maggie were still getting to know one another, we decided to enter for experience.
Any concerns I had were justified right from the start. The first class was a pattern each horse and rider performs solo. Maggie could not let Mack and Eva out of her sight. She pawed and hopped whenever they were separated.
In the next class, Mack and Maggie were able to be together in the ring, and Maggie took full advantage. She glued herself to Mack. Sylvia didn’t have the courage to separate Maggie from Mack. Although they looked like siamese twins, they performed fairly well.
Things went downhill from there. Maggie’s quick lope became way too fast in the next class, earned her the label “runaway horse” and she and Sylvia were unceremoniously (but kindly) ejected from the ring. The next class required the horses to perform a short solo pattern, and Maggie just couldn’t keep her mind on her work unless she was right next to Mack. She misbehaved through that class as well.
Watching my daughter bravely struggle in the ring, I hatched a plan. We’d scratch the next class, and I’d take Maggie out for a little ride, a little talk. My exhausted daughter gladly handed me the reins as she exited the ring.
I lengthened the stirrups and took a deep breath. I was nervous knowing what I’d have to do and what Maggie’s reaction would be, but I was also a little mad. And, a little “mad” can be good. Not reactive, impatient anger, but more like the “oh for heaven’s sake, Maggie!” type of anger that lets us know enough is enough, and it’s time for change.
As anticipated, Maggie resisted leaving Mack’s side. We put on a little show as we worked our way up the drive away from the ring. I turned Maggie in the direction we were to go, she resisted. I firmly turned her nose back, she reared and backed up. I drew her into a tight circle a few times to get her attention and tried again. She’d give in that time, only to challenge me again later. And again, and again.
I spent a good 40 minutes riding Maggie around the ranch, patiently going through the same process over and over. I praised her when she did well, quickly corrected her to keep her on course the moment she challenged my leadership. And then, something gave. It was as though suddenly, she was satisfied. I could be her leader. She could function without Mack. She became calm and willing.
Our uncontrolled mind is very much like our friend Maggie. It is insecure, latching onto things to keep it occupied, to make it feel busy and safe. Sometimes it even runs away with us. But, the direction may not be the way we, as meditators and yoga practitioners, want to go. 
Sometimes the uncontrolled “Maggie” mind defaults to habitual thought patterns, or “samskaras” that are unhealthy. Worrying, complaining, ruminating, and judging all are easy activities for our minds, but they do not head us down the correct path.
The controlled mind is the horseman. It needs to firmly direct the Maggie mind, correcting it, keeping her nose directed down the proper road. In meditation, the moment the uncontrolled mind begins to take over, the meditator exercises and strengthens the controlled mind, encouraging the mind as a whole to stay on a smooth, quiet path.
In horsemanship the rider needs to be strong, and in yoga and meditation our work is to strengthen our mind control. As an older rider, I have more experience, and have developed patience and gentler hand as well. My daughter, at 10, is still learning these things. Most of us are new to our meditation practice, and our Maggie mind is strong. But we can be patient and firm as we strengthen our riding skills, or controlled mind.
We can evoke this image as we meditate. Focusing on the breath; picture the breath as your path. As your mind begins to wander, imagine it as a horse choosing another direction, the way it is comfortable and secure. Evoke your firm and patient “horseman” to draw your mind back to the breath, the path. Be kind, your mind is unsure, and may be nervous of this quietness. Be patient, as it will take practice for your controlled mind to begin to strengthen.
Although Maggie still presented challenges as the show continued, Sylvia’s experience improved and she began to have fun. Maggie sometimes turned left when Sylvia cued her right, but Sylvia patiently brought her back to the right path. The high point was the crepe paper game, a team event where two horses and riders rode side-by-side around the arena holding a short length of crepe paper between them, closely and synchronized so the paper would not rip. Yes, not surprisingly, my girls and their horses finally won their ribbon.

Monday, June 6, 2011


The change of season and change of routine left me feeling depleted by the end of this past week. Summer, my favorite season, stretches ahead, yet I was feeling cranky and stretched way too thin.
No rhythm has yet to arrive in the new days. The sun rises so much earlier now, and the days have lengthened. But instead of feeling more organized and calm with this gift of longer days, I feel chaotic and overwhelmed.
Suddenly, I feel more pressure. I think about my promises to add in a run, practice yoga outdoors, eat lighter fresher meals. I think about them as I plant my garden, mow the rapidly growing lawn, and organize summer schedules. As I pack up the last cold-weather clothing, sort and clean the light summer garb. As I clean winter grimy windows, porch furniture, and the Weber.  As I try to adapt my thinking, cooking, and shopping list to new, seasonal foods. 
Transformation is hard. Effort must be applied. Even a transformation you’ve looked forward to, like moving into a lush, prana-filled late spring/early summer, can take effort. There is so much I want to do to take advantage of this wonderful season, to take advantage of the strong energy to create real change.  I know the change I want. But really, what is the change I need?
After spending a morning in my garden my perspective becomes a little healthier. Digging long rows for beans and corn, I ran into plenty of fat worms and bugs. A whole other world, oblivious to me and my to-do lists and goals, exists beneath my feet. Witnessing this world brings some perspective to my all-important ego. Maybe my plans and goals for the season are not so important. Maybe I need to take a deep breath and let the new season flow into my life at a slower pace.
Patience is required for transformation. My goals for the season and for my life are like the seeds I’m planting in my garden. It will be days, even a couple of weeks, before these seeds I’ve planted germinate and seedlings planted really take off. It will be weeks before this flat, hay-mulched square of land begins to take on color, and a couple of months before I really harvest anything. I need to give all these things, from my new routines to my seeds, the proper time. Then there will be abundance.