All posts by MeiMei Fox

About MeiMei Fox

MeiMei Fox is the published author, co-author, ghostwriter, and freelance editor of numerous non-fiction health, wellness, spirituality, and psychology books and articles, including New York Times bestsellers Bend, Not Break with Ping Fu and Fortytude with Sarah Brokaw. At present, she is penning a young adult sci-fi/fantasy trilogy called VAPOR with her husband, author/filmmaker Kiran Ramchandran. She blogs regularly for The Huffington Post and MindBodyGreen. MeiMei graduated Phi Beta Kappa with honors and distinction from Stanford University, with a BA and MA in psychology. She also holds an MA in counseling psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute, and is an Ana Forrest-certified yoga instructor. In addition to writing, MeiMei works as a life coach, assisting clients in realizing their most ambitious dreams. Her loftiest goal is to be a Joy Champion. She lives in Los Angeles with Kiran and their twin boys. Her mantra is: Fear Less, Love More!

Yoga for Hope coming this Fall!

shutterstock_177759824-BEACH-YOGA-COUPLE

In 2004, I traveled to India for the first time. During my month-long exploration, I found myself enchanted by the colors, spirituality, and rich cultural heritage of the country, and simultaneously shocked by the poverty, especially in the slums of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), my first destination.

I resolved to make a difference…

Then, on only my second day in India, I stumbled across The HOPE Foundation, an NGO founded by Maureen Forrest, an Irish woman who believes that her life “belongs to the whole community.” HOPE has many fantastic programs to help the most abandoned and destitute residents of Kolkata: Its street kids and slum dwellers. I visited their hospital, which serves the poorest of the poor; their free medical clinic located in the slums; a restaurant where HOPE residents learn to cook, serve, and run the business; the skill center where people with no employment opportunities can train in media and fashion; and two of the homes where street kids come to live and learn. Continue reading

Where’s the Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘N’ Roll in Our Spiritual Teachings?

I have a bone to pick with spiritual gurus: They’re just such goody two-shoes. Where are the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll?

I mean, is anyone really as saintly as Liz Gilbert makes herself out to be in “Eat, Pray, Love,” avoiding even one torrid Italian love affair? As for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he was raised from a young age to embody compassion and mindfulness, never lashing out in anger or seeking revenge, and he does an excellent job of that. But this isn’t a new story: Jesus resisted every temptation thrown his way some 2,000 years ago.

You might argue, “Hey, these spiritual types aren’t trying to deal with everyday life the way the rest of us are. They get to go live in convents or under a tree in the desert or in a cottage in Bali with no wee ones running around, and devote their entire existence to the pursuit of enlightenment.” But then there are teachers, such as Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield and celebrity guru Deepak Chopra, who manage to attain great wisdom while holding down a job and raising kids.

We need spiritual role models, of course. I wouldn’t wish a Jim-and-Tammy-Faye-Bakker-esque humiliation, fraught with dripping spider-legs mascara, upon any one of the aforementioned leaders. However, I do find that their standard of virtue can be set too high for the rest of us.

Plus it makes me wonder: Where’s the fun in a life like that?

Here is where I diverge from many of the modern and ancient masters. I revel — passionately, blissfully and unapologetically — in the “non-spiritual” aspects of my life. I celebrate my wild side with gusto. I enjoy being sloppy with my emotions. I’ve been called loud, obnoxious, and an attention-seeker. At times in my life, unlike Liz Gilbert, I’ve been promiscuous. And I’d argue that it hasn’t done me any harm. Nor have the drugs I’ve consumed at Burning Man. I’ve been known to make quite a mess of things in my personal life, getting divorced and then spending four years as “the human yo-yo” with a guy who couldn’t decide if he adored me or I made him miserable. I’ve plunged into new activities and commitments without thinking through my choices mindfully, as the spiritual gurus would urge. Sometimes, I give things a try just to see what will happen, knowing full well that I might wind up with a broken heart or woefully miniscule paycheck.

This, to me, is what it means to live “the life out loud.”

Don’t get me wrong. I have discovered that the spiritual first-aid kit can prove immensely valuable. In my 20s, I had what appeared to be the textbook near-ideal life: I graduated from Stanford, worked at the prestigious McKinsey & Company, married a dot-com entrepreneur, and then started my writing career. But in my early 30s, trauma, like an earthquake, brought my life tumbling down. My parents got divorced. I separated from my husband of nine years. My father was publicly convicted and put under house arrest for a federal crime.

When my soul was no more than dog crap smashed on the bottom of my shoe, I prescribed myself spiritual medicine. I dragged myself to yoga for daily 90-minute doses of salvation. Unable to sleep without Xanax, I found meditation an equally intoxicating way to calm my mind. I read spiritual books offering advice on how to be comfortable with uncertainty. I journaled obsessively.

These days, I’m a self-confessed yogaholic who freaks out when she has to go a week without a bowl of kale. I meditate regularly. Sometimes. At least I intend to meditate regularly. I believe in seeing a psychotherapist, life coach, energy healer, or chakra aligner in order to come to terms with your past. It’s all good stuff.

But I guess you could say I’m the Bad Girl of the Spiritual Club. If there were a summer camp where we all met up — me, His Holiness, Liz, Jack, and Deepak — to impart great teachings about egolessness and tactics for freeing others from their monkey-minds, I’d be the one caught smoking a joint in the bathroom on lunch break.

What about you?

 

Originally published April 2011.

photo by: andriux-uk

The Truth About Medications during Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 5.54.14 PMThree years ago, I received a tragic phone call from a friend. Her sister, whom I’ll call Mary — a bright young woman who had struggled with bipolar disorder throughout her life — had recently given birth to her second child. Mary had chosen to go off her psychiatric medications during pregnancy and breastfeeding. This hadn’t posed a problem during and after the birth of her first child. But this time, it led to disaster.

Lack of sleep, stress from caring for a toddler and a newborn, and problems at work took their toll on Mary. She began to spiral, pacing and panicking. Just as her husband was about to take her to the hospital for treatment, Mary slipped into a psychotic episode. She heard voices telling her to attack her husband and children — which she did, with a knife.

Thankfully, Mary’s husband was able to wrestle the knife away and prevent her from causing any real physical harm. But the damage had been done. The government accused Mary of attempted murder and domestic violence assault. Mary was sent to prison and later a psychiatric hospital. She was forbidden from having any contact with her children. Only last month was Mary permitted her first visit with her now 3-year-old, who has no memory of his mother.

This is obviously an extreme illustration of what can happen when pregnant and breastfeeding women don’t treat their own illnesses out of fear of harming their children. But my closeness to the incident has made me extra sensitive to the issue, which is so important yet rarely discussed in our society or media.

2013-04-25-KateHeadShot-thumbI was so excited to hear that a dear friend of mine, writer/editor Kate Rope, had taken a position as editorial director for a new non-profit called the Seleni Institute. Seleni is dedicated to women’s reproductive and maternal mental health. It offers online resources and support as well as research funding for women’s mental health issues. And, in early May, Seleni will open a clinic in Manhattan to serve women during this critical time in their lives.

Kate, who has been a health journalist for the past 15 years, began focusing on the mental health issues of motherhood after her own difficult pregnancy. Just one week after conceiving her first child, Kate ended up in the emergency room with horrible chest pain. The doctors, worried that she had a blood clot, gave her a CT scan — but found no answers.

For the next five months, Kate suffered from debilitating pain that was misdiagnosed as heartburn. When several different medications brought no relief, she ended up in the hospital again. After three days of tests — including one that involved nuclear radiation — she had a diagnosis: inflammation and fluid around her heart. For the rest of her pregnancy, she had to take ibuprofen and steroids to control it.

And she worried about the health of her baby constantly. “Everyone around me was planning home births and practicing prenatal yoga. Meanwhile, I was doing all the things pregnancy books say are dangerous — taking medications and getting X-rays. I felt very alone and scared.”

Kate’s story has a happy ending: Not only did she eventually get the diagnosis and treatment she needed, but also she gave birth to a beautiful, healthy daughter. Still, the experience traumatized her and led to two outcomes: postpartum anxiety so severe she needed medication to treat it, and a personal commitment to helping other women facing the same choices get good information and peace of mind.

2013-04-25-CarlheadshotKate got help for her postpartum anxiety and went on to co-author The Complete Guide to Medications During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding with Carl P. Weiner, M.D., a perinatologist and professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Kansas School of Medicine.

Kate explained to me that there is very little well-researched information about the safety or effectiveness of medication during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Most pharmaceutical companies won’t do controlled clinical studies because of concerns about liability. Therefore, much of the information doctors use to make prescribing decisions comes from doctor’s case studies, animal research, and epidemiological evidence.

Dr. Weiner had already combined all of this scattered information into an academic text to help doctors choose appropriate medications for their pregnant and breastfeeding patients. Kate helped him translate that text into an easy-to-understand, A-to-Z directory of over-the-counter and prescription medications for pregnant and breastfeeding moms. It also explains how to find good medical care if you have a chronic condition or develop complications during pregnancy.

“We want pregnant and breastfeeding women to have good information and to know that they are not alone and they don’t have to sacrifice their well-being for their baby’s health. We want to help them make good decisions with their health care providers,” says Kate.

If you are planning to become pregnant and require medication for physical or psychological conditions, Kate and Dr. Weiner recommend getting informed before trying to conceive. “Meet with your doctors — your psychiatrist, OB-GYN, midwife, or specialist — and talk through your concerns,” says Kate. “Ask them what they know about the medications you take, their risks and benefits, and whether or not you should switch to a safer option or discontinue treatment during pregnancy.”

Of course, you may not have the chance to prepare (half of all pregnancies are unplanned). In that case, don’t make any choices about stopping or starting medications on your own. Meet with your health care providers right away to discuss your treatment.

And whether you plan for pregnancy or need to make choices once you learn you are pregnant, Kate and Dr. Weiner both recommend looking for providers who have experience treating your condition during pregnancy.

It’s also wise to be wary of the Internet. A March 2013 study supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed 25 websites that published lists of “safe” medication during pregnancy. The researchers found 22 medications deemed safe by one site were labeled unsafe by one or more of the other sites. “That kind of inconsistency online,” says Kate, “not only means you don’t have access to the best information, but that you can become unnecessarily anxious.”

In the end, “the important thing is to remember that you need to be a healthy, happy, high functioning person for yourself and your child,” Kate offered as reassurance. “And that means getting good medical care and making good choices for both of you.”

 

Photo credit: Flickr

Photo credit: Kate Rope

A Meditation on Impermanence

An unfamiliar companion has been hanging around me lately. His name is Death.

Masala my sweet 12 yo
Masala my sweet 12 yo

Within the last month, I have learned that our sweet old dog, Masala, is dying of liver cancer. I’ve made a new friend, Mitali, who, at age 32, has devoted the past 18 months of her life to serving as caretaker for her father as he battles colon cancer. And another close friend called to tell me that her husband of 20 years, her best friend, had been killed in a tragic accident.

There is a message here about impermanence. While I’ve heard it many times before, somehow every time an unexpected event happens or I receive unwelcome news, I have to learn the lesson all over again. We are not in control of so many things.

View From Hearst Castle

When I was going through a divorce eight years ago, I took great comfort from the book When Things Fall Apart, by American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. She reminds us that in spite of all our carefully-laid plans and best efforts, the only aspect of life we can predict with certainty is change. Therefore, rather than fighting against forces larger than ourselves to maintain a semblance of control, we’re best served by surrendering to the reality of impermanence. Accepting that we are truly adrift in a sea of unknown. When we do, we realize that the only place where we truly can, where in fact we must, find grounding is in ourselves. I would add: and in our relationship to the higher power.

Forest light

It is a powerful — and threatening — message to digest. But the irony is that when we embrace impermanence, when we surrender to God, we don’t become weak; we grow that much stronger.

When I came to accept my life as it is in this very moment, when I learned to find peace, joy and love for myself as I am right now, I knew for the first time who I was and what life is about. I am a peaceful warrior. My purpose on this planet is to help others overcome their self-sabotaging patterns and achieve their loftiest goals. I even have a mantra: “Fear less, love more!” And I have seen with absolute clarity that the point of being here is only, truly, simply, beautifully… to love.

Central CA Coast

I had done more than overcome the pain of my divorce. The very heartbreak I experienced had cracked me open, exposed my flaws, and readied me to form even deeper and more profound connections with myself and others.

And that’s exactly when I united with the love of my life, Kiran. My soulmate. My creative partner. My inspiration. After six long years of loneliness and personal growth, and not a moment sooner. Shiva the Destroyer had set my old life on fire and burned it to the ground. From the ashes, I had rebuilt on a foundation of trust, love, and radical honesty. Now, God the creator had brought me my greatest gift. True love.

Open Sky

But any of this might — will — disappear again at any moment. An accident. A tragedy. An illness. We know that we all will die someday. Some of us are facing that truth on a moment-by-moment basis. Others are choosing to forget, to push it aside, to pretend like we can outsmart God. I do both, depending on the day.

Horse in field

Buddhism, a well of wisdom from which I have drawn much comfort, preaches non-attachment. You’re not supposed to give weight to your past, your story, your ego, your societal position, or even your friendships. The Dalai Lama himself was taught to view all beings as his mothers, to love every single one of us equally, without giving any special consideration to his real-life blood family.

Well, I’m no Tibetan Buddhist master. While it’s true that beyond having enough clothes, food, and shelter to keep me safe and sound, I could care less about status, wealth, or possessions, I also choose to attach myself to my loved ones. I love them fiercely, like a lioness. And now that it is time to say goodbye to one, my Bodhisattva of a doggie companion, it pains me more deeply than I thought possible. My heart cracked to allow more love in, and when it did, it also opened the gateway to more suffering.

Masala in the forest

But I am okay with that. In fact, I welcome it.

I am reminded of the words of Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet:

“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain… When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”

So be it. I will carve deeper the sorrows so that my cup of happiness may overflow. I will sob and ache as I let go of my beloveds and hold tight those around me as they grieve their losses, so that one day, we all may cry again with tears of joy.

Meanwhile, I walk by the ocean and watch the waves roll in, exactly as they have done for millions of years. Unperturbed by our human loves and frailty, our strengths and pain.

How comforting, the vast indifference of the sea.

Woman on beach

Photos by Kiran Ramchandran, @KIRANCreates on Instagram

5 Ways To Turn Your Relationship Into A Romance

stock-footage-loving-couple-at-sunsetI never was a romantic. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t sentimental; I cried at the expected moments during chick flicks and even the occasional TV commercial. I enjoyed celebrating anniversaries of first dates and bringing unexpected gifts home to my partner for no reason. But I didn’t believe in such fantasies as “true love” and “love at first sight.”

Until I met the Love of My Life, Kiran, I was hopelessly pragmatic. I’d cite statistics when talking with my friends about finding life partners.

“Look,” I’d say, assuming a newscaster tone of voice, “There are 7 billion people on this planet. If you get out there and meet enough of them, you’re sure to find a soul mate. It’s a numbers game.”

But my worldview got turned upside-down this year. I met Kiran completely by chance on a beach in Costa Rica early in 2008 — and it was love at first sight. However, thanks in part to my no-nonsense nature, it took us three years to venture from friendship into relationship territory.

When we did make the decision to give our romance a chance to blossom this past spring, it flourished like Jack’s beanstalk. I moved from San Francisco to LA to be with Kiran after only two months of dating. We eloped less than three months after that.

Suddenly, I find that I am no longer “Miss Practicality,” as my college friends nicknamed me decades ago. I’ll be sitting at a restaurant telling new acquaintances mine and Kiran’s love story, and I’ll find myself saying things like, “It was meant to be,” and “He is my destiny.”

During our short time together as a couple, Kiran and I have navigated our share of scratchy patches. Yet even when we have misunderstandings or I get snappy (which I do too often… but hey, I’m working on it!), we find our way back to a profound connection and deep love.

Let’s be honest here: Kiran gets most of the credit. Unlike me, he was born a romantic — wildly creative, beautifully sensitive and capable of imagining a world that is far more magical than ours. The care and attention he gives our romance has kept our intimate bond sacred.

While we co-authored this blog, the lessons are Kiran’s. I only hope that by sharing them, I can inspire you in the ways that the Love of My Life has inspired me.

1. Call it a romance

Relationships are work. That’s what you hear people say, time and again.

“So let’s not call it a relationship,” is Kiran’s response. “Let’s call it a romance.”

The simple act of giving our partnership this label makes it feel special. When you’re in a relationship, it does take work to settle conflicts. When you’re in a romance, it takes a passionate moment of disagreement, followed by an even more passionate reconnection.

2. Gush on each other

Kiran is truly gifted in paying compliments. Several evenings a week, when he comes home from work, he sits me down on the sofa and begins reciting to me all the reasons that he loves me. “My love supreme,” he says, cradling my head in his hands. “You are so beautiful, so talented…” (I won’t go on and on here as he does, lest you grow annoyed and click away.)

Several times a week, I receive a voicemail from Kiran. He’s singing a made-up song about how much he adores me.

“I like to gush on you,” Kiran says. He didn’t have to teach me to do the same. I started mimicking him on my own accord.

Seriously, I don’t think you can gush on your loved one too much. There’s simply no such thing.

3. Take multiple mini-moons

Kiran and I only took a one-night honeymoon after we eloped in September, as he was starting a new job the next day. We jokingly called it our “mini-moon.” But then, a few weekends ago, Kiran decided that we needed an escape from everyday life in order to cultivate our romance.

So he booked a room at a Santa Monica hotel for one night. Sure, it was only 15 minutes from home, but it felt a world away with its ocean view, room service, and complimentary bottle of champagne from the front desk clerk who loved us.

This gave us the idea of taking frequent “mini-moons” throughout your relationship. Why wait for your anniversary? You don’t need an excuse to get away from dishes, groceries, and even kids for a night when you’re living a romance. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, either. You can always check into a cheap motel or even swap houses with couple friends who also need a break from their daily routine.

4. Handle with care

Okay, let’s get serious here. Even when you’re talking romance (and not relationship), there is some work involved. Kiran says, “Romances are strong, but they’re also very fragile. You need to nurture them.”

It’s critical to own your stuff. When you’re triggered by something your beloved says or does, rather than reacting from a hurt place — lashing out with criticisms, getting defensive — take a deep breath. Say, “I need a moment to clear my head” and take a short walk. Do what you need to do to respond from your heart, with tender loving care.

Also (note to self) mind the snippy little remarks that can sneak out when you’re hungry or tired. Treat your romance like the delicate rose that serves as its most celebrated symbol.

5. Practice devotion

Don’t just say it; do it. Put your beloved’s needs first: before your work, before your friends, even before your family of origin. Practice devotion to your romantic partner.

Every day, Kiran makes the deliberate choice to show me that I am his No. 1 priority. Even when stretched thin during a 14-hour film shoot, he still takes the time to text me, call me, and let me know that he’s thinking of me. As a result, I never doubt his commitment to us and to our fine romance.

This devotion to one another is the container that keeps the relationship safe and secure. It is the vase containing the water that sustains the rose and revives it after its delicate petals have been bruised.

Kiran, Love of my Life, I adore you. I am blessed to be your wife. Thank you for the magic you bring into my life.

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Originally published in 2011

“Emotional Equations” by Chip Conley

Have you ever met someone for the first time and — not in a romantic or sexual way — inexplicably tumbled into a space-time vortex of pure human-to-human connection? As you talk with this stranger, a sense of urgency emerges, while simultaneously you lose track of how many minutes have passed. There’s so much to share! Your speech hastens, your gestures grow larger, your facial expressions more elaborate. Then you find you’re interrupting each other with gasps of, “Me, too!” and “You had a similar experience?” and “Wow.” You feel certain, even if you don’t really believe in reincarnation, that you met this individual in a previous life.

Suddenly, the spell breaks. Sounds and sights from your current reality come flooding back into your awareness. Your partner taps you on the shoulder. “Can we go now, please?” he groans, eyes rolling. Or you get to the front of the line at your favorite local café and the barista asks, “What would you like to order?” Or a siren wails down the street whose corner you’ve been occupying, startling you. You gaze about yourself in a daze. Fifteen minutes have passed, or three, or 60 — it doesn’t matter. You have discovered a soulmate.

This was my experience when I first met Chip Conley at a mutual friend’s birthday party in San Francisco in 2006. Psychology, Joseph Campbell and archetypes, personal transformation, Abraham Maslow and self-actualization, spirituality, yoga, Stanford–we zinged through topics like kids on Christmas morning, delighting as we opened one gift after another to find a cosmic meeting of the minds.

Ever since, Chip Conley has been a dear friend and one of my greatest inspirations in living the Life out Loud: Legendary founder and CEO for two decades of Joie de Vivre, which he grew to be America’s second-largest boutique hotel chain. Bestselling author of PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from MaslowTED speaker on Bhutan’s Gross Happiness Index and measuring what makes life worthwhile. All-around “super human,” to borrow from Chip’s own lexicon.

I’m thrilled about Chip Conley’s latest book, which hits the shelves on January 10: Emotional Equations(watch the whimsical illustrated book promo video here). Chip magically reduces complex conundrums and universal truths into simple equations that help us both understand ourselves and others, and escape from emotional traps that we unconsciously create.

My personal favorite from Emotional Equations is, not surprisingly:

Joy = Love – Fear
My mantra as a Champion Joy-Giver for the past few years has been, “Fear Less, Love More,” so I feel Chip hits the target with this formula.

I’m also a fan of Chip’s Happiness Equation: Wanting What You Have Divided By Having What You Want. Wanting what you have, for me, involves a daily practice of gratitude. Or as Tony, a homeless man I bought dinner for in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve, put it: “Count your blessings.”

Chip lives and breathes the Life Out Loud more than anyone I have the privilege to call a friend. A few years back, he went through a difficult period: the economy collapsed and his hotel business was struggling; he broke up with a long-time life partner; and a dear friend committed suicide.

Yet unlike many other CEOs and public figures, Chip did not shy away from speaking the truth about how he came to overcome his despair by finding greater meaning in his life (hence his emotional equation:Despair = Suffering – Meaning). On the contrary, he shares his battles openly during his frequent public speaking engagements, and also tells the tale in Emotional Equations. I’ve seen the way audience members respond to this genuine expression of vulnerability, finding inspiration from Chip to confront their own demons.

Do you have any emotional equations that guide you in your life? If so, please share in the Comments section of this post and I’ll be sure to pass them along, or visit the Emotional Equations website and post your responses there.

Photo credit: Lisa Keating

Today’s Featured Yoga Blog By MeiMei Fox: How Yoga Saved Me


 As is the case for so many people, an injury brought me to yoga. At age 29, my doctor told me that I’d done too much damage to my knee from years of running to continue with the sport. But neither the prop-centric style of Iyengar nor the McYoga predictability of Bikram—the first two styles of yoga that I tried—engaged my interest for long.

Eventually, a friend suggested that I try a Rusty Wells bhakti, or devotional, power yoga class. It was the magical combination I found there of rigorous physical poses, inspiring music (ranging from Krishna Das to Bob Marley to U2), and spirituality that turned me into a self-professed “yogaholic.”


I found myself utterly enthralled by the chanting in Sanskrit accompanied by a tambourine that we did at the beginning and end of each class. Rusty’s own words throughout the practice also moved me, as he reminded us to let go of past hurts and resentments in order to create space for more joy in our lives. I loved how, when I was in a deep hip opener such as pigeon, an emotional channel would open in my heart at the same time. I frequently would find myself a sopping wet mess of sweat and tears by the time class was over.

A few months after I found Rusty, I took off to travel the world for a year with my then-husband, D. I returned to San Francisco 18 months later, at the age of 32, alone. D and I had ended our marriage following our journey and a six-month stint in LA. My first venture into psychotherapy, getting hit by one physical ailment after another, and my overwhelming sense that my life was not what I wanted it to be—these factors had me convinced that it was time to give up. D and I simply did not have the same goals or values. He remained in LA; I moved back to the city where I had spent most of my adult life.

At that point, I thought I had survived the worst of it: the trauma of choosing to break a commitment I had made in front of my beloved friends and family members for life. But as it turned out, the suffering had only just begun… One month after I returned to San Francisco as a divorcée, my father was convicted of a sex crime and placed under house arrest. As a politician, his story was plastered across the Honolulu press, and he was forced to retire.

The earth opened up, and I fell into a gaping crevasse in its crust. All the truths I’d lived by for the past decade or two were crumbling around me like plaster edifices during a 9.0 quake.

Amongst the rubble in between aftershocks, yoga was the only solid ground I could find. Every day, I dragged myself to a class, whether taught by Rusty or one of the other fabulous teachers at Yoga Flow, the studio miraculously located just two blocks from my house: Janet Stone, Stephanie Snyder, and Les Leventhal.

I knew that if I could make it to a yoga class, then I’d be okay. The moment I set foot in the heated, candlelit room, heard the soft chants playing over the stereo, and lay my weary body down upon my mat, my spirits would lift. I’d go to challenging classes, eager to feel the sweat drip from my pores and my muscles shake—physical confirmation that I was a living, breathing human being.

I’d connect with my fellow students, too, and they would check in on me. “How’s it going today?” they’d ask with genuine care that went far deeper than the usual, “How are you?” Many of them grew to be close friends. 

In addition, yoga proved a valuable reminder that I was part of something bigger than myself. When we chanted, I felt a thread extending from my chest up to the heavens. I could, for those few moments, believe… in a higher power, in some inherent goodness in the universe watching out for me.

Without fail, I left the studio every time feeling ten times better than when I had entered it. I knew that my hard times would pass. And indeed, they did. I began to heal. I could feel the joy creeping through me in the midst of a backbend, when I’d catch myself grinning like a child who has just discovered her reflection in the mirror for the first time. Thanks to yoga, I would get so thoroughly caught up in the present moment that I’d forget my woes for longer and longer periods of time, first during and then also after class.

It has been ten years now since I first set foot in a yoga studio. I am in a far happier place in my life today: passionately in love with my partner and trying to start a family, as well as enjoying success in my career. But this connection that I get from yoga, both to myself and to the divine—far above and beyond any physical benefits—is why I still practice regularly. It is also why, three years ago, I became a yoga instructor. My hope is to bring the same kind of joyful healing power of yoga that I have experienced to my students.

I hope each of you reading this article will give yoga a try, if you haven’t already. Yoga is so accessible these days; it’s fantastic. You can go to a studio, order a DVD, download a Podcast, attend a festival, or follow along with a livestreaming class. And I strongly encourage you to explore different styles and instructors. You might not find your Rusty Wells right away. But the teacher who touches your heart and feeds your soul is out there somewhere.

 

 

Mama Hope: Revolutionizing How Aid is Delivered in Africa

 "We’re trying to start a revolution. Our goal is to transform development," dynamic duo Nyla Rodgers and Amy Vaninetti, the founder and operations director of Africa-centric nonprofit Mama Hope tell me as I settle into the one spare chair in their small, sparsely decorated office in downtown San Francisco. Blonde-haired beauties with sparkling white smiles, they look more like supermodels than superheroines. But listening to these vivacious, well-connected women tell their story, it seems that if anyone can succeed, they can. 

Most NGOs operate according to a top-down model, Nyla and Amy explain. Officials decide what the locals need. The NGO builds the project and then leaves. Often projects are abandoned six months later because the community never took ownership of them. 

Mama Hope works in just the opposite way. Nyla, Amy and their volunteers spend time getting to know people in communities where they’ve been invited to help. They confer with the locals to determine what projects would most benefit the village. And while Nyla and Amy raise the micro-development funds for, say, the community garden, school or hospital, they involve the locals at every phase, from planning, to sourcing materials, to construction, to long-term management.  

Nyla explains, "When Amy and I travel to Africa, we see people born into difficult circumstances living with tremendous hope, love and happiness. They are eager to give back to their communities. Mama Hope seeks to empower these innovative, driven and capable people by providing them with the minimal resources they need to get their projects started."

Mama Hope has gotten 13 projects up and running, benefiting the lives of over 76,000 people in Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana and Uganda. In Moshi, Tanzania in 2009, through hosting a series of town hall discussions, they discovered that locals wanted a school. In the course of making the villagers’ dream a reality, Mama Hope created 700 jobs and sourced all building materials locally. Together with the community, they came up with a solution for covering the school’s ongoing operating expenses: two thirds of the children, the ones whose parents could afford it, would pay tuition; the other one third would attend for free. Today, the school has educated over 200 students at no cost to their families. It is managed completely by locals, who take tremendous pride in what they’ve created. 

Nyla says, "They own it, and they know it. These are not our projects. At end of day, if most of the villagers don’t even know that Mama Hope was involved, then we’re happy. We want to be like angel investors, not CEOs."

Amy adds, "In fact, we’re so committed to this vision that we’ve set up a training program to teach the next generation of nonprofit leaders our approach. We want to generate systemic change." 

"Changing the world isn’t about a sound byte," Nyla chimes in again. "The key to sustainability is ownership. We’d like to see a lot more NGOs adopting this approach."

I ask them how they got started. Nyla, who founded Mama Hope, tells me her touching story. She grew up with a single mom in California. "It was just the two of us. My mother was a complete powerhouse and an amazing role model. She had been a musician who never finished college, and she worked as a dance teacher, writing teacher, whatever the hell she wanted. We never had much money, but she made enough to take care of me. It was an unconventional life."

After completing her undergraduate degree in international studies at UC Santa Barbara, a masters in Austria, and living in Bosnia working at a nonprofit for peace, Nyla returned to the Bay Area. Soon after, her mother got sick with cancer and died six months later, at the age of 54. 

"I was so entwined with my mom that when she died, I had a really hard time figuring out who I was in the world," Nyla says. "I was so angry that I lost faith in everything."

Nyla’s mother had always dreamed of going to Africa to meet an orphan she had sponsored there for years, named Bernard. So when coincidentally, right after her mother’s death, Nyla got an offer to work at the U.N. office in Nairobi, she took it, fully intending to visit Bernard. 

The day she arrived at Bernard’s village, Nyla was shocked to find hundreds of villagers lined up to meet her — to honor her mother. It turned out that long before Kiva popularized the concept of micro-finance, Nyla’s mom had donated $1,000 to various local women to start their small businesses. As a result, they had been able to put their kids through school, pay for AIDS medications and reinvest in their village. These micro-loans had impacted the entire community. 

"I was so overwhelmed when I found out all that my mother had done," Nyla says, her eyes brimming. "I’d been in a pit of despair, having lost my mom who was my whole family. I’d been wondering, ‘What do you do with your love for someone after they’re gone?’ This community showed me what to do. I had to give back to others, just as my mother had, in order to honor her."

Thanks to her mother’s actions, Nyla also had a clear vision of how to proceed. She explains, "My mom had no agenda of her own. She just asked the villagers what they wanted and gave it to them. I’d been working with high-powered, well-funded NGOs in the developing world for six years at that point, and had never seen them have such a profound impact on a community as my mother had with a thousand dollars."

Nyla soon found a village in Kenya that wanted a health clinic built. When she returned to the U.S., she got a job waiting tables to pay the bills. Then she wrote an email to everyone she had ever known asking for contributions. Within two months, she had raised the necessary $30,000, which she turned over to the villagers. They rallied their community to build and operate the clinic. 

"I saw that I was really onto something," Nyla says. "That’s when Mama Hope came to life."

"What does it mean to you to live the Life Out Loud?" I ask. 

Nyla says, "I speak out. I see myself as a renegade. I want to see things change in the nonprofit world. So I lead by example."

Amy answers, "For me, it means standing up for what you believe in. We’re trying to solve one of the most fundamental problems in the world today: how aid is delivered. I’m a doer who believes that being fearless is living out loud."

 

 

Cary Chessick Reminds Us To Pay it Forward

As a young child, Cary Chessick was silent. For years, he refused to speak. The only time he uttered a word was when his mother asked him what he’d like for dinner. Then, he’d spurt, "spaghetti."

This phenomenon is known in psychological circles asselective mutism. But no one, including Chessick himself, can explain why he did it. He had a happy childhood. No other family members have displayed this trait, from his loving parents to his two siblings to his three children. Chessick simply chalks up his behavior to being "painfully shy."

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Those who knew Chessick back then would not recognize him today. As the founder and CEO of Restaurant.com, a multi-million-dollar company that offers gift certificates for savings at thousands of restaurants nationwide, Chessick spends plenty of time in the spotlight.

In fact, Chessick recently attracted nationwide attention for his TweetItForward program. In June, he gave away $20,000 in cash to 40 random attendees at a social media conference in New York, asking nothing in return. His intention? "To begin a social movement in celebration of the gift of giving."

"It’s my belief that a simple act of giving can change a life, alter a person’s path and create new social connections," Chessick explained in a press release. "It can bring together friends and family in a way that is unique, and ultimately increase happiness in both the giver and the gift recipient."

I met Chessick at the Summit at Sea— a floating TED meets Burning Man conference on a cruise ship — where we dove immediately into a conversation about his selective mutism.

"How did you overcome your shyness?" I wondered.

Chessick responded, "I guess I just decided to get over it. In 5th grade, for student-parent day, I did a shadowboxing dance routine solo on stage to the ‘Rocky’ theme music. That was pretty bold for me." In 6th grade, Chessick became the class president, which required giving a campaign speech in front of the entire school.

"I learned to look at myself from the outside and say, ‘If you’re scared of this, just pretend you’re the opposite,’" Chessick explained. "I do that to this day, because I’m still shy, yet outgoing. For example, I can speak to a large crowd, but in social settings, I can get really timid. So I use that same tactic of pretending to be more outgoing than I am."

Chessick was born and raised in the Midwest. After college, he went on to law school because he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. For the next eight years the "quiet kid" wound up a successful litigator, making public arguments in the courthouse on a weekly basis. "I didn’t like it, though," he declared. "It wasn’t my passion."

Fortunately, the dot-com boom had arrived, so Chessick decided to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams, "diving into the unknown frontier." He founded Restaurant.com in 1999 and launched it in early 2000. 
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Originally, Restaurant.com’s business model was selling websites to restaurants for $1,200 per year. Chessick hired a few dozen salespeople and customer service reps and hit the ground running, thinking, "We’re going to crush the Internet." Instead, he found out very quickly that restaurants wouldn’t pay for websites. His company ran out of money, and Chessick was forced to shut it down just months after he started it.

Chessick was mortified at the failure, but he wasn’t about to quit. "That was the only time I genuinely talked to myself in the mirror. I said, ‘I will not go back to law. I’m going to figure out how to make this work. I’ll never give up.’"

Six months later, Chessick relaunched Restaurant.com. Companies offered gift certificates, which Restaurant.com sold on eBay. But still, the business wasn’t making it. "We just couldn’t scale," Chessick said. "So we shut down for the second time and started over."

Many people would have become demoralized at this point, but not Chessick. He tweaked his idea again. "Now, in exchange for marketing restaurants, we get $10 to $100 gift certificates from them, which we sell at a discount to our consumers. It’s a win-win-win: We keep proceeds from the sale, the consumer saves money on eating out and the restaurant gets the business plus all sorts of backend data on the customer."

This time, Chessick had hit on a winning formula. By 2007, he had gone on a massive hiring spree. Today, Resturant.com partners with more than 18,000 restaurants, offers 45,000 daily deals and has 6,000 affiliates and 350 employees. And it’s still growing.

But Chessick isn’t content just with being a successful businessman and having a close-knit family. He is deeply committed to making a larger impact in the world. He said, "After the economy crashed in 2008, I was getting sick of all the negative press that I read. So I decided to do something about it and get some positive news out there."

For the past three years, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Restaurant.com’s Feed it Forward program has enabled its customers to give away free restaurant gift certificates to other people — no strings attached. Chessick said, "Our community has given away over $32 million in free meals. We’ve been flooded with thank you notes. I’m amazed at the detailed nature of the stories that people share. I pass these around to our employees because they’re daily doses of happiness. The program gives us such a sense of purpose. We all feel that we’re making a tremendous difference on a national scale."

Chessick feels that he is fulfilling his life purpose, which is helping people. "I ask everyone I meet: ‘How can I help you?’" he grinned.

I asked Chessick, "How do you make sure that you’re living your Life Out Loud — staying true to your purpose — in the midst of the daily chaos of life and stress of business pressures?"

Chessick replied, "I have a list, which I call my ‘Happy Day List.’ It’s a list of 17 things that I make sure to do every day, having to do with both business and my personal life. I won’t share all of them, but I will tell you that the number one item on my list is to say thank you to someone who has impacted my life every single day. That accomplishes two things. One, instead of waking up first thing in the morning and diving into emails with a sense of urgency, I spend a few minutes feeling grateful for someone. Then I go thank that person. It relaxes my shoulders, opens my heart and makes me feel good. Second, I get a double dose of happiness when I receive the person’s reply, which 9 times out of 10 comes in the same day. People say, ‘I can’t believe you sent me this note.’ I know that I made an impact on their life, which is really important. Doing this keeps me happy and fulfilled."

"Life is about being happy, ultimately," Chessick added. "I think too often people feel that success will lead to happiness, when actually, the reverse is true."

 

 

A Volunteer Story to Inspire All of Us

If you asked me who my heroes are, my answer would be: my mother (the subject of a future blog post) and Alison Thompson. Whether responding to an earthquake in Haiti, a tsunami in SE Asia, or a terrorist attack here on US soil, Thompson selflessly devotes her life to serving those in need.

I had the good fortune to work with Thompson on compiling and editing her memoir about volunteering around the world, The Third Wave, which hits bookstores this week. However, I am writing this article for just one reason: because knowing Thompson has made me a better person.

Ten years ago on September 11, most New Yorkers fled lower Manhattan in horror as the first World Trade Center tower collapsed in a paroxysm of glass, metal and fire. Not Alison Thompson. The investment banker-turned-filmmaker feared that many of her friends, who had been working on the building’s top floors, were at that very moment fighting for their lives. "I had to help," she recounted.

So Thompson strapped on her rollerblades and fought her way south from her apartment against an endless stream of shell-shocked refugees toward Ground Zero. There, she tore off her blades and dove, unmasked and unprotected, into the rubble to search for signs of life. The petite blonde-haired, blue-eyed young woman must have appeared as a hallucination to anyone who caught sight of her through the dusty haze: an angel descended to Earth.

Thompson remained volunteering at Ground Zero for the next nine months with the Red Cross, caretaking the rescue workers. The experience gave her "the volunteering bug." She realized that service to others mattered more to her than any career objectives or personal goals.

Therefore when a massive tsunami hit Southeast Asia just three years later in December 2004, Thompson dropped everything to go help. Her boyfriend at the time, Oscar Gubernati, decided to join her. They quickly pulled together their meager savings, solicited donations of medical supplies and took off for Sri Lanka, where they wound up living for the next 14 months. Partnering with volunteers Donny Paterson of Australia and Bruce French of Colorado, they rebuilt the coastal village of Peraliya, including a school, hospital and shelters for hundreds of people.

In Sri Lanka, Thompson relentlessly combated corruption from international NGOs and death threats from disgruntled locals who accused her team of pocketing their aid money. She witnessed people at the edge of survival behaving cruelly towards one another and at one point "lost faith in humanity." But in the end, laughing with local children or consoling a grieving mother always kept her going.

Thompson’s background makes her uniquely suited to a life of volunteer work. Born and raised "in the bush" of Australia by missionary parents, she spent her childhood traveling to remote areas of Asia. Moreover, she acquired valuable nursing credentials by working for years at her mother’s elderly hospital.

Nevertheless, leading the relief efforts in Peraliya taught Thompson that everyone who wants to help can, regardless of their training or expertise. She witnessed dozens of volunteers with "no skills" make a positive impact in Sri Lanka. "You don’t have to be a doctor or a construction worker to be of service after a crisis," Thompson insisted. "Anyone can give a hug."

Being a filmmaker, Thompson had brought a video camera with her to Sri Lanka. Upon returning to the US, she put together a documentary to inspire other people to volunteer. Sean Penn ended up choosing "The Third Wave" as his Presidential pick at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008. That’s why, when an earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince in January 2010, Penn reached out to Thompson first. He texted her just one word: "Haiti??"

Within 48 hours, Thompson had gathered an expert team of doctors, and Penn had solicited a major donation from Bosnian philanthropist Diana Jenkins. Donna Karan offered her private jet to fly Alison’s team from Manhattan to Miami. Penn’s political pull got them all safely into Port-au-Prince. Thompson then spent months helping Penn to establish the Jenkins/Penn Haiti Relief Organization, or J/P HRO, which manages one of the largest tent villages in the city.

Thompson has remained working in Haiti ever since. However, she has left Penn’s non-profit to run her own, called We Advance, which she co-founded with actress/activist Maria Bello and lawyer Aleda Frishman. The NGO’s vision is to advance the health, safety, and well being of Haitian women.

Winking, Thompson said, "Come to Haiti to help. You’ll lose weight, get a tan, make hundreds of new friends and save lives. You might even fall in love like I did." Thompson met her new love, Albert Gomez of Miami, while volunteering in Port-au-Prince.

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