At one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants in the East Village, they write their daily specials on chalkboards posted about on their softly lit brick walls. In multi-colored chalk they list their daily specials: a pasta, a seasonal vegetable side, a savory meat or seafood, and a few tantalizing appetizers to get your taste buds turned on. Underneath it all, written by one of the wait staff with the prettiest handwriting, reads a persuasive command: “Stop texting and start eating.” I love it. Staying consistent with the restaurant’s home-style cooking and straightforward service, this statement canonizes the presence of mind for a wonderful dining experience. I look at this phrase as an American chef’s version of an important spiritual precept that is interweaved throughout many Eastern philosophies and religions.
Be present. Balance your life.
Everywhere I look I see people linked to some kind of modern piece of technology, an Ipod, a cell phone, or laptop. Small, streamlined, and attractive are their designs, but they can be a heavy weight on our attention, our bodies, and our minds. These modern devices are not in themselves a malicious or toxic influence but our modern obsession with them may be a symptom of a bigger beast spawned from materialism and our frenetic desires and fears.
We all have witnessed two people, be they lovers, friends, or colleagues, ensnared in the ultimate irony of sitting across a table from one another at a table, only to each be interfaced with their own personal devices, and devoid of any present and lively conversation. Where is the opportunity for the richest and most valuable experience there? Of course our devices can bring joyful music to our ears, connect us quickly to a friend or family member far away at any given time, they may even save our lives in an emergency. The balancing act here is to make our actions and activities completely conscious and enabling of a balanced, healthy life. When in doubt, steer clear of too much thought or activity that takes your attention over there, in another place and time, and focus on the present moment, here and now.
Our technological accessorizing and preoccupation is only one potential imbalance. We may excessively consume coffee, alcohol, or food to feel a certain way, or a desperate ambition to acquire more money, power, or fame may keep us prisoner to our workplace too often, pushing our bodies to exhaustion. Even so called healthy or good habits can take us out of our true nature and make us prisoners of our actions. We may think we are completely present in our obsessive activity but in fact it can be a form of inebriation disguised in an item of luxury, a seemingly noble aspiration, or mind-altering substance.
Yoga in the counter act to an over stimulated world. It is one approach to union with the divine. It is a marriage of the physical with the spiritual and there are many modalities and ways to practice yoga: meditation, selfless service, study, and devotional practices. Asanas are the yoga postures which make up the physical aspect of yoga called hatha. There are several different schools of hatha yoga so one can find a practice suited towards their personality, as well as their mental and physical needs. All hatha practices have the same basic intention. They are designed to heal, strengthen, and purify the body so that one can live in the best possible way, serve as an inspiration to others, and be a conductor of universal intelligence and compassion. For Western society it also offers us a much-needed sanctuary of mindful attention and peace that is not easily fostered in a culture bombarded by images, information, and consumerism.
I love food and hatha yoga because they draw my attention in a very similar fashion. I take detail and attention in ordering or making a meal. I ask myself what combination will create the most harmonizing effect to go with my mood, state of health, and activities of any given day? If I am cooking for friends I tap into that particular group’s personal tastes, the time of the year, and the mood of the evening. Vegetables, leafy greens, and seafood will give a meal a light quality. Green tea and fruit juices can be an energizing accompaniment. But some cold winter’s night I may put together slowly cooked stew, with spices and herbs married to perfection through a slow and steady cooking, the finishing touch being fresh bread from the bakery and a silky smooth glass of red wine. Any good chef knows cooking is a precise and intricate skill combining a sense of timing, temperature, the savory and the sweet, skills in chopping, stirring, and combining. Too much of one thing and the entire meal could be spoiled.
Our yoga practice can be approached with the same sense of artistry and instinct. A sweaty, vigorous practice with challenging balance postures and sequential movement may be just the catalytic fire we need to feel a transformation in our bodies and minds. On another day, when life is already rapid enough, and we are feeling overwhelmed, we may need some contemplation and length of time in our asana, a slower tempo, more restorative poses and a long, steady stay in headstand, before we lay ourselves down for that peaceful final resting pose, sivasana.
If you have yet to experience the joys and challenges of a consistent yoga practice take this to heart: you don’t need a yoga mat, seventy-five dollar yoga pants, or even flexible, limber limbs to practice, all you need is your attention and your breath. A moment in yogic bliss can occur while painting a picture, doing housework, shooting hoops, or brushing your teeth. Some call it “being in the zone”, others call it “blissing out”, the yogis call it “samadhi”. It is a feeling of union, wholeness, contemplation, and brilliant energy that infuses our entire being.
If you saw a day in your life as a yoga practice, a meal, or work of art, what ingredients, what postures, what music, what colors would you add, and when, to make that day the most delicious and healthy feast, the most interesting and inspiring painting, the most balanced and complete yoga practice of your life? Composing a conscious and present state of being in any given activity or part of your day is the ultimate challenge of being a modern day yogi but in achieving it, you will hold the key to a balanced, happy, and healthy life.