My morning meditation was fairly half-assed. I didn’t ride my bike at sunrise to my preferred Buddhist center in Cambridge, over the Mass Ave. bridge with the elegant crew boats manned by chiseled athletes sculling the Charles River below, sit in silence for 45-minutes, and emerge a more kind, patient, and productive person afterward. Sometimes, my meditation is like this, but not today.
Today, it was 5-minutes, dutifully timed by my iPhone. I sat on my loveseat, which is not hippie code-speak for a special form of cushion or zafu. It’s just a loveseat from West Elm. I didn’t even light a candle. No time. No need, really.
It’s tempting to judge this juxtaposition of experiences. One looks, sounds, and feels more Zen. The other looks, sounds, and feels like nothing much. My reason for mentioning any of this is that, in my experience doing yoga and meditating since the age of 16 (I’m now 34), it’s become clear that people genuinely want to meditate. They may even go so far as to get a routine going, perhaps started on a retreat or with the help of a guided program by a local teacher or remote one via the Internet or audio files by Deepak Chopra (friends raved about his 30-day program with Oprah earlier this year) or Jon Kabat-Zinn, to whom I introduce all new meditators (his resources are so lovely and accessible).
Then, we fall off the wagon. It’s not as easy back home as it was in Tulum with the ocean waves crashing outside and only pressing responsibility being to get to the dining hall for fresh fruit and herbal tea afterward. We don’t have much space at home and no real cushion or seat meant for meditating. It’s trash day, and the damn truck outside is so noisy. We’re already late for work. We didn’t get enough sleep. We overslept. I just don’t wanna we mentally whine, or we forget altogether. It happens.
Alternatively, some never try (for any length of time, at least). They mean to. They want to. They hear meditation would be good for them. It reduces stress, relieves anxiety, increases focus, combats depression, and on and on. Many people can practically recite the benefits by heart despite never encountering them. It’s just so hard, they lament, gamely resigned to an immutable fate. They’re just “not good at it.”
Here’s the good news: it’s not possible to be bad at meditation. There’s doing it and not doing it. That’s all. If you want to try: try. And be assured that it doesn’t always look, sound, or feel Zen. Sometimes, it feels wretched or boring or like nothing much at all. It doesn’t matter how long or where you sit, whether roused by an antique Buddhist gong or iPhone.
All experiences of meditation are good and valuable because they cultivate the skill of being present, of strengthening the mind. How many other skills would we expect to master without much practice, especially life-altering ones? Even your chaturanga took a while, didn’t it? Moreover, it’s not only the immediate results of meditation from which we benefit. They accumulate over time, whether 45-minutes here or 5-minutes there. Like modern yoga, depictions and descriptions of meditation can be very skewed, prioritizing the beautiful, effortless, and happy–no itchy noses or furrowed brows– which is why it’s important to gently remind ourselves that these are images.
Forget the images. Forget how other people do it. Grab a spot, set a timer, close your eyes, and breathe. That’s all. It might not look like much, but when it amounts to you being less dominated by your thoughts, emotions, agenda, and judgments and more at peace with yourself, it’s everything you need.
Are you vegan?
Have you heard of this juice cleanse?
Are you gluten free?
Have you heard of that juice cleanse?
What do you do for cardio?
How often do you run?
Do you do Pilates?
What do you think of Crossfit?
Do you lift weights?
Do you wear a heart rate monitor, Nike Fuel Band, Jawbone, etc.?
Which yoga poses will strengthen my core?
And lift my butt?
Do you think I should do a juice cleanse?
I get a lot of questions about my personal and professional approach to fitness, including those above and many more. Each time I’m asked by a reader, yoga student, Om Athlete, curious media type, or casual acquaintance at, say, a dinner party, I’m delighted to – forgive me – weigh in. I enjoy the fact that people trust me; it means I’m doing work I’m meant to do, helping people become more healthy and mindful, and I’m happy to share knowledge acquired over the years. I’ve studied a lot, experienced a lot, and been exposed to a lot, through a lifetime of playing sports, 18 years of practicing yoga, 13 years of teaching it, and the privilege of working with some of the fittest and fastest athletes in the world about what it means to look, feel, and perform your best.
But my favorite piece of advice is the same for everyone, and it has nothing to do with explicitly choosing a diet or type of exercise. It’s about choosing a mindset or, possibly, a heart set. Because the truth is not about what you do, but rather, why you do it.
I believe the intention behind anything colors everything, which is why my diet advice is not a diet. My most killer workout secret is not some grand secret. I’m not hiding stealth spa procedures or supplements in my bicycle basket. I’m not fired up by fitness fads or new technology that tracks my every calorie taken in or burned off. (I respect that many people like and benefit from health trends and technology; I just don’t think they’re essential to my point or your wellness).
Personally, I do a lot of yoga. I run a lot. I eat a lot. What I eat has read like Michael Pollan’s advice long before he wrote In Defense of Food and other books widely regarded as manifestos for eating mindfully: eat real food, not too much. Mostly plants. But, sometimes, chocolate covered salted caramels. (I added that last part). Professionally, I’m like a sherpa for surpassing mind/body limitations, and my approach to yoga might cause your kid to turn to you and say, “Wow, Mom, you’re STRONG! You’re stronger than Daddy,” as the child of one of my clients did at the beach over the weekend when she tossed him high in the air so that he landed in the ocean with delight like it was no big deal.
In the past, I’ve been too thin and too heavy. I ended up too thin by accident, at a time when I felt very heavy—as in emotionally. I wasn’t trying to lose weight. It just happened as a result of the stress of what was happening in my life. I couldn’t have cared less about scales or pant sizes. Ironically, I was too heavy while trying too hard to be thin. Roughly around college, as the current often pulls women that age. It was my personal heyday of low fat frozen yogurt, Diet Coke, and other fake foods about which I didn’t know better and were the diet de rigueur of the time. Now, I know better, and I stay away from that stuff. It’s not a diet. It’s chemical junk that messes with your hormones and doesn’t add any nutritional value anywhere. I don’t eat other non-food stuff like Play-Doh or glue. That’s not a diet. It’s common sense.
And, ultimately, that’s the secret weapon I want people to rediscover. Good sense. Stop cleansing. Start sensing. Ask yourself this one essential question:
What do you want to embody?
Seriously. Think about it. Because the answer will be telling, and the actions needed to achieve your desired state will be clear. If you know how you want to feel, you’ll intuitively know what to do to get there. You don’t want to embody artificial colors, flavors, or feelings. You don’t want to embody scarcity and deprivation.
If you want to embody strength or confidence, you can’t choose diets, fitness inspirations, or yoga teachers that encourage diminishing or depletion. It’s that simple. If you want to feel joyful and light, you can’t choose workouts that are drudgery or self-talk that is demoralizing. Maybe you’ll lose weight on a certain diet, cleanse, or workout regime, but will you feel light? Will it last? Or, will it dissipate—like anyone’s capacity to stay on a diet or regime, and you’ll have to search for the next fitness fix during the next dinner party conversation. If you want to embody speed or endurance, your workouts must prioritize the same. If you want to feel energetic and endorphin-drunk, then you’ve got to get up and move like your life depends on it (because it does). If you want to embody beauty, you’ll have to do things that genuinely make you feel beautiful. They are not usually available in stores. They frequently include smiling or laughing. Remember: mindset. Heart set.
The way we move our bodies and how we nourish them are beautiful opportunities every day. Meanwhile, getting too caught up in how we label ourselves according to what we eat (i.e. vegan, paleo, gluten-free, etc.) and forgetting that the best wellness resource we have is our own mind only leads to more of the same. Change how you think. Start with what you want to embody, and let that word, feeling, or mantra dictate the health choices you make.
Embody grace. Eat energy for breakfast. Run with heart-pumping, leg burning, soul exhilarating speed. Balance with confidence. Breathe with love. Put on your clothes with joy. Take them off with acceptance. Embody yourself fully. It’s a beautiful thing.
I can tell it’s going to be a good day because Priscilla Warner, best-selling co-author of The Faith Club (her new book Learning to Breathe is an OG Book Club read for the fall), has said “f*ck it” three times before we make it from the ferry boat where she picks me up to the farmer’s market, where we buy radishes and baby carrots and marvel at a zucchini that is just too big to talk about politely.
The man selling the massive zucchini is of the natural, sea salty, walk-on-the-earth types which Martha’s Vineyard attracts as locals. He has longish sun-bleached hair tucked under a hat and wears a shirt that says downward facing dog, which is not actually a yoga reference. (Thank god; that would be too obvious). It depicts a dog salmon, swimming downstream. Get it?
Priscilla is a new friend who feels a lot like an old friend, which is nothing to say of her being older than I am at age 60 (about which she wrote in “Why 60 is the New 60” for the Huffington Post) and more to do with the fact that the connection between us has been quick and easy, like synapses in a brain that’s doing what it’s wired to do, the Pop Rocks candy fizzle of a friendship that exists before the two parties get there, so that when they show up, there’s not much work to be done. Oh, hello. So, we are friends. This is how it is.
In a spirit of generosity that I am barely able to fathom, Priscilla invited me to the Vineyard (a short boat ride from where I grew up and my parents still live, on the same ferry on which I worked as a deckhand as a teenager) to enjoy the effervescence of new friendship and put our heads together professionally. Specifically, she offered to read some of my manuscript and provide feedback.
She did. It was genius.
But it was the sparkle in her eye each time she said “f*ck it” and gracious welcoming into her beautiful home, with its old Buddha statue and less old and more precious photos of her sons– one taken by their Dad in which they are little and leaning against massive trees– that inspired me even more. I leaned on her experience, adored her lack of a filter, and felt the comfort of a home in which love hangs from the walls and hides in the garden. It helped me share my writing.
In the past year, I’ve learned what many writers say: we live on islands sometimes. We work alone, tapping at keys, words for company, in an unpredictable creative climate. It can be harsh or mild or aglow with a moon that lights up your brain so you can write for hours as it watches over you. Sometimes, though, the climate is itchy and hot, with gnats buzzing in your mind. You can barely string together a sentence. You’re in a doubt storm without an umbrella.
Not without the help of people like Priscilla, I’m learning to survive the elements. I know that inspiration can come from any direction, without much notice, but when it arrives, you know it like an old friend, or a new one who feels like an old one.
DON’T SAVE ANYTHING. Priscilla tells me in the car. Don’t save it for later. Don’t save it for another book. Write everything. Put it all in there. You never know what will happen next or if there will be another book.
She’s right, and this advice applies to anything.
Whether it’s writing a book, starting a business, sharing something we’ve created, professing our love, or beginning an exercise program after being inactive for a long time: anything worth anything takes courage. But, how often we hold back. How often people tell me that they’d do yoga if they were more flexible or meditate when they weren’t so busy. When it’s the weekend, on a beach, when the weather is right, then we can relax and appreciate the moment. We can all relate.
And we can learn to say f*ck it. We can venture off our islands, to find a friend, farmer’s market, and a very good day on the opposite shore.
I could hear the shrieking of five-year-olds in the bouncy fortress from the driveway as I arrived at my goddaughter’s birthday. When they saw me, she and her best friend, Mia, ran to the mesh lookout windows to say hello, clinging to the strings and mushing their noses against the material, still bouncing lightly as they spoke. Adrianna climbed out to hug me and noticed a necklace I was wearing.
“Who’s that?” she inquired, fingering the bright blue pendant.
“That’s the Buddha,” I responded, figuring this would be sufficient. It didn’t seem like the time to delve into spirituality, even for a wacky 20-somerthing godmother who taught yoga for a living.
“Oh.” Adrianna said, satisfied enough. Until she wasn’t…“Is he coming to my party?”
I wish I could tell you that I said something meaningful, from which my goddaughter then gleaned a childhood twinkle of wisdom. Instead, I ummed & I-don’t-know-ed until another five-year-old shrieked with glee, and her attention was needed elsewhere. She ran away.
Next week, she turns 13, signaling inevitable changes in our bond. I no longer have to pretend to sleep beside her to convince her to nap. She no longer naps, obviously. How many times I’d open my eyes, thinking she’d fallen for my ruse, only to see her tiny face inches from mine, awaiting whatever was next. I still stock her favorite healthy foods before she visits; cherry tomatoes have always been like candy to her— ‘matoes, she used to call them.
I no longer carry her anywhere, but sometimes we link arms through a crowded street or T station. I remember tripping once in the Davis Square station while holding her when she was very small. Fear shot through me so fast that I barely noticed I’d landed squarely on my kneecap, tearing my favorite pair of jeans. My knee bled and began to bruise as we boarded the train, but I didn’t care. I was shaken and grateful that I didn’t drop her, and she didn’t notice how terrified I was.
My friend, Abigail, a mother of two adult children and one teen and a standout high school English teacher, once told me what teenagers most want from their parents: beige couch.
“I’m sorry; I don’t understand. They want new furniture?”
“Beige couch,” she repeated. “Comforting. Supportive. Blends in. Doesn’t stand out. Always there when needed.”
Being a godparent is nowhere close to the same realm as parenting, but we all know it takes a village, and I’ve been thinking about how I can be most useful to Adrianna, while she leaves childhood and enters adolescence. I keep recalling the women who helped me navigate through the quagmire of junior high and high school—older cousins like Louisa and Celia who laughed so easily; family friends like our childhood nanny, Emma, who was studying to become a lawyer and so smart and the opposite of boy crazy and Linda, who made not wearing the same cool clothes as everyone else seem even cooler; teachers like Mrs. Hess who honed in like a hawk on the fact that I could identify any author by a sentence of his or her work. I was like a nerd sniper of writing styles in my accuracy, but I didn’t rate the highest on standardized tests like the SATs, and I sometimes thought that this meant I couldn’t be a writer. Other teachers sometimes hinted at this.
And, then, my coaches—too many tough, dedicated, big-hearted, hard-pushing, whistle-wielding women to count. Coach Robertson, who first taught me to end even the most frustrating days by thinking of one small thing for which I am grateful. Coach Smurl, who was the first same-sex relationship, pregnant woman, and parent I’d ever witnessed. When DOMA fell last month, I thought of her. I am forever grateful to her for helping to shape my view of family, marriage, and love. Coach Marini, my original swim coach, who simply would not let us use the word can’t. It was like a swear word to her.
I know that I can’t be any of them (in this context, I think Mrs. Marini would be OK with it), nor can I be a beige couch. I can only be myself, to the best of my ability and hope that somehow the joy and satisfaction in that glints in my goddaughter’s direction. I want her to know that she’s strong, bright, kind, and unstoppable. I don’t want her worrying about her weight already. I want her to know the difference between liking Kanye West’s music and seeing him as a role model of any kind other than working hard at a job you love. I want her to know about love—that it is supportive and comfortable, a little like a couch. But it also dazzles, lifts you up, amplifies what’s best about you, is tender with what’s worst, and would never dream of making you smaller or less than you dare to become. Because being yourself will require daring—not the kind that jumps off things but the kind that forgoes the opinion of the crowd, the popular, too often, the mean girls. Now and always.
Adrianna visited last week, her last as a twelve-year-old. We went for a walk through Christian Science Park, past the reflection pool and had dinner on my deck. The arugula salad was her favorite, and she thinks she might like to run track & field next year. These were both of her volition. I swear. We listened to hip-hop after dinner and looked at old photos. The photo below was one of her favorites, from that birthday party when she turned 5 and asked if the Buddha would be there.
I didn’t mention that the Buddha is no longer a single living person who comes to parties or eats cake. Instead, he’s a symbol of the best, brightest, and most peaceful core within each of us.
We went to a well-known bakery in my neighborhood, and I told her about its chef and owner, Joanne Chang. For her birthday, I bought her a pair of Nike Frees, her first proper running shoes. It was oppressively hot that day, as we walked toward her mom’s office, but she didn’t want me to carry them for her. She held them close on her lap as we rode the T.
She taught me something, about handstands, too. I do them for yoga, and she does them for gymnastics. Mine are often short-lived if I’m not near a wall for support.
“How do they teach you to stay up without a wall,” I asked?
“Oh, I can’t do it yet, but people say you have to press down really hard, to push your legs up higher… You have to lift yourself up,” she explained.
Days later, during a workout at the gym, I read the latest issue of Vogue on the elliptical machine with an article about Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu member of congress, a woman from Hawaii who served in Iraq, recently sworn in using the Bhagavad Gita, and jumped rope, marveling at how hard it is after you don’t do it for a while. Then, I fluttered in and out of handstands, practicing without an agenda, just having fun On the last one, I thought of Adrianna’s advice, and I pushed down harder into the ground, until I felt buoyant and steady.
As I hovered longer than usual, I thought of my goddaughter’s face, not the baby face I used to see after fake napping but the young adult face, with its bright, dark eyes sparkling and watching, ready for whatever comes next. I smiled at how high she might soar knowing already how to lift herself up. I walked home by the street with a community garden, which I explained means that each person has their own plot of land, and they can grow whatever they want. She liked this idea, and as we walked ahead, she was quiet, thinking about the possibilities.
A few months ago, one of my oldest friends, Alex (we’ve been friends since age 13), set me up on a friend date with Toni Nagy, the bold and bright voice behind the Toni Balogna blog.
We met for tea and a hot yoga class at my old stomping grounds of the Baptiste Power Yoga Institute. Ten-minutes underway, I realized Toni mentioned she wasn’t accustomed to heated yoga and was likely melting on the mat next to me. It was absurdly hot, even for me, someone who previously spent upwards of 6-hours a day teaching and practicing in the same soupy environment (sort of like the weather in Boston today). I was bombing on our first date. Toni probably hates me, I thought.
That’s my version. Here’s hers, for the she said/she said perspective.
To make matters worse, I had returned from Asia the day before, so life during this period of jet lag (and for the following near two weeks it took to recover) is a bit foggy. From what I can recall, Toni and I hit it off at tea. I’d even say there were friend fireworks. She made it through yoga, possibly enjoying it– at least the part when it was over, and she was still alive. We parted ways with the familiarity of two people who gainfully assume: I love our friend Alex. You love our friend Alex. We shall love each other as friends!
And what do you do with people you love? You make crazy Internet videos with them.
For our first blog buddy collaboration, I sharpened my acting chops as– wait for it– a yoga teacher! The subject matter hits close to home, too. It’s called Competitive Yoga Chick, referencing a familiar breed of yogi that Toni brings to light in a very funny way. We all know this yogi or have behaved like this yogi (in our less enlightened days, naturally…), and I think the video does a great job of parodying the temptation to develop a “more than you” mentality through yoga.
Take a peek, and please share your laughable or lovable competitive yogi moments, especially if you have an all out I-AM-SO-MUCH-MORE-SPIRITUAL-THAN-YOU tirade like the talented Bridget Barkan, who plays our over-the-top Competitive Yoga Chick. Alex also makes an appearance. She’s the blonde with nice alignment in Warrior I.
To close, I’d just like to reiterate that I was acting, and if anyone tried this crap in a real class, I’d have to regulate. Check out Toni’s blog for Elephant Journal on being a recovering competitive yoga chick. It’s so good, you’ll want to go on a friend date with her, too. But, remember, I was friends with her first.
If you know me, you know that I love the Boston Marathon. I ran it in 2009. I cheer myself hoarse and crazy as a spectator. I prepare athletes for race day and help them recover afterward with yoga. I’ve scoped many favorite spots to watch over the years: the finish line when it was blistering hot in 2004, Coolidge Corner as a 20-something living in nearby Allston, Kenmore Square where I swelled with pride when my absurdly fast and dedicated roommate at the time ran by (the noise is deafening there, especially when the Red Sox game lets out). When I worked at Boston magazine, I would dart up Mass Ave. from my office, to watch at the intersection of Commonwealth. I loved it there because the crowd wasn’t too thick, and I’d grown to recognize the kindly police officer on duty over the years. Bless him for looking the other way as I scaled a lamp post to cheer for friends with one– jubilant or near delirious– mile to go. Yesterday, this was the precise location where thousands of runners were halted, as reports surfaced of two bombs detonated in quick succession at the finish line, killing at least two people, injuring dozens, and turning the scene of Boston’s high athletic holiday into something resembling a war zone of blood and chaos.
I was at mile 20 of the course, known as Heartbreak Hill, on a day that broke my city’s collective heart.
One moment I was cheering runners, including the American Red Cross marathon team, along with its coach Dan Fitzgerald. The next, I was too somberly aware of how important its work is. There was a tragic and twisted irony in cheering Red Cross chief executive, Jarrett Barrios, who was having a long, hard race at mile 20, in one moment, and in the next, frantically calculating that he likely finished during the blasts. He was OK, stopped at mile 25.8, near my favorite lamp post.
The concern from family, friends, and fans of my site Om Gal (many of whom I’ve never met) via calls, texts, tweets, Facebook, and Instagram was immediate and unforgettable. My dad, the emotional first responder called; he never panics. My brother, who factored that I may have jumped into the race for the last 6-miles with a friend, as he did for me in 2009… My mom, who already knew I was OK but was in tears at the thought that it could have been me running, or her spectating, or anyone…
And, that is the saddest, most bottomed out feeling. It may not be me among those who lost their lives or limbs or my loved ones (you realize you love them all, really, on days like this), but it’s someone’s someone.It always is. It’s a hollowed out feeling that on the other side of moments when a B.A.A. volunteer directing runners across the finish is saying, “You’re all winners.” There are times of profound darkness, seconds later, when all of us lose.
Which leads us to the question we’re all asking: what are we to do next? As Bostonians, those all over the world standing in support of us, as yogis, as athletes who live for finish lines and never expect to die on one, and as citizens of the world. We need to do something right now. What is it?
We can pray.
We may not be doctors, but we can pray for doctors and medical staff in area hospitals. May they have all the resources they need, in body, mind, and spirit, to do their lifesaving work. We may not be therapists, but we can pray for those who witnessed the carnage first-hand. A close friend crossed the finish moments before the blasts; her two small children were in the stands watching. They are unharmed but terrified. They do not want their mom to run another marathon. We can pray for government and law enforcement officials seeking answers and future safeguards. We can pray for each and every person whose life brushed too painfully close to yesterday’s traumatic events. Our collective heart can choose, right now, to eradicate harm and violence of any kind, in thoughts, words, and deeds, and as often as humanly possible choose love over fear and peace over hatred. This is the only way to change anything.
Prayers don’t need to be articulate or dogmatic. Maybe you’re not much for God, but the way I look at prayer: it never hurts. It’s your heart speaking a truth, for good. If the concept of prayer doesn’t speak to you, you can mediate, which is simply the act of sitting in the presence of our own mind with the conscious intention to cultivate peace for yourself and others.
If you can’t wrap your brain around that right now, which is entirely OK, you can do something of service for someone. It doesn’t matter whom or how big. Just pick a someone. Give them light and love. Give a smile, a handwritten card, or a meal because they need one. Give blood. Give time and energy to someone troubled who needs it to feel more whole. When your work is done, the card mailed, the vial full, the sandwich devoured, do it again. Do it bigger. Or, do it more humbly. Because that’s the thing about peace and healing: there’s no finish line. It is our daily work. It’s what we do next and always.
What I did when I got home from the marathon course: prayer and meditation. Because it never hurts.
Of all the ways to motivate me to do anything, calling me fat isn’t one of them. Showing me photos of underweight underwear models is more likely to make me hungry than inspire me to hit the gym. And while thousands of people over the years have sought my advice on how to become more fit, lose the baby weight, or sculpt a certain body part as if it were a fashion accessory (this is one part of my job, and I happily oblige), I have told people they should lose weight precisely this many times in my career: never.
Why would I bother when there are so many other voices telling women and men that they need to whittle more of their bodies away in order to feel worthy of living inside them? I wouldn’t, and it’s a shame.
But people find inspiration in different places, and, while disconcerting, thinspiration is a thing—a style of motivation that ranges from cheeky mantras like “Sweat is your fat crying,” to downright dangerous behaviors in support of eating disorders. Yes, there are people who don’t believe anorexia is a disease but rather a lifestyle. It’s call the pro-anorexia movement (“pro-ana” for short). Terrifying, right?
Glamorizing an eating disorder is never cool, but this crazy social behavior (even if only in shadowy corners of the Internet) doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It comes from some source of inspiration somewhere and is compounded by some insecurity inside—or vice versa. I remember attending a fitness class taught by a popular teacher a few years ago at a swanky Boston health club. It was a strong class, and I liked the teacher’s sense of humor. But when she encouraged us to eek out one more rep of an upper body exercise to incinerate the “disgusting flab on the backs of our arms,” it didn’t make me work harder. I wilted. I worried about all the ears hearing those words of disgust about their hardworking bodies in the room (some of whom were also my yoga students), and I wondered how they would be internalized.
Because that’s the thing about a body—it’s much more than muscles and bones and fat, and, thankfully, yoga tradition encourages us to remember this. (Yoga does; the business of yoga, society, advertising, and Photoshop do not). Your body has a spiritual layer (or kosha) that endures or shrinks, fuels or flags, lights up or loses heart depending on how you and others treat it.
Thinspiration, whatever it is to whomever is using it, is an interesting word, a riff on inspiration, which is, in turn, formed by the root to inspire—to fill with spirit. Whether at the gym, in a yoga class, or on the Internet, be mindful of what you allow to fill your spirit, and choose these inspirations accordingly.
I began practicing yoga at the age of 16, which, by most standards, is young, particularly when you consider that yoga was not widely available at the time. At 20, I started teaching small groups of my peers, fellow college students on a study abroad program without access to a gym or other forms of exercise. This peer group soon attracted teachers and faculty and swelled in size to more than 100 people on some days. In my early 20s, I was the youngest “senior” teacher at one of the most popular yoga studios in the country.
Well, la-di-da, you say, and I tend to agree. This doesn’t make me special. It just means that I got an early start in terms of age and experience in the field of yoga. Unless you compare me to Shruti Pandey.
This week, The Daily Mail reported that, at age 6, Shruti is the youngest yoga teacher in the world (and, most assuredly, the cutest). To read more about her, see the UK media outlet’s story, here.
Kinda makes all of us look like geezers, eh?
Or, it illustrates perfectly the adage that “All unhappiness comes from comparison.” Whether we compare ages, appearances, job titles, or bank accounts, we will always find some with more and others with less. None of which alter our personal situations at all. Perhaps the flip side of the above saying is another favorite, “Happiness is an inside job.”
Soon after reading about Shruti, I visited a private client of mine, a dedicated yoga student and accomplished author. She’s in her 60s, a long way from Shruti’s 6 years; however, I could have sworn I saw a resemblance, yesterday. In moments, my client tackled new poses with the same curiosity and tenacity of a child. With backbends and inversions, especially, I could see her shed her sophisticated exterior, leave her analytical writer’s mind behind, and play with the possibilities and expressions these poses offer.
After a few attempts at tripod headstand, she sat up, her face flushed from being upside down, “This is all so new to me,” she confided, with equal touches of exhilaration and fear in her voice.
“I mean, I didn’t do this stuff as a kid . . . I didn’t do a backbend until I was 50,” she continued.
At this, I didn’t think, Geez, what a late start. Instead, I smiled and said something like, Wow, that’s badass.
How old were you when you started practicing yoga, and how does your practice change with age, or in what ways does it keep you young?
Having the ability to practice yoga at home, without the need for a teacher or studio, has many benefits, including convenience, cost-savings, and added creative license. Students often express an interest in practicing on their own, particularly while traveling away from their regular studios and health clubs during the summer months; however, they’re unsure of how to begin.
I believe that practicing solo provides yogis with essential opportunities for growth. Free from the confines of a structured class, a home practice allows for greater self-expression and deeper meditation. Here are a few suggestions to help you cultivate a knack for om-ing at home.
1. Start small. Many people are overwhelmed by the prospect of remembering or recreating the sequence of a 60 or 90-minute class, which is why it’s best to throw that idea out the window. Instead, start with 10-15 minutes. Your sequence can be as simple as 5 rounds of sun salutations and sivasana, or child’s pose followed by seated postures such as half pigeon, upavista konasana (seated straddle), and pascimottanasana (seated forward bend).
2. Create space. It’s important to create space for your home practice. This doesn’t mean you need to build a yoga room with bamboo floors and import a statue of Ganesh from India. Truth be told, your home might not have a separate room for yoga but rather a little space on your bedroom floor or a few squares of linoleum in the kitchen, which is fine. The concept of creating space doesn’t actually require much square footage at all– just enough for the length of a yoga mat and the height and width of your arm span. While in college, I once worried about not being able to practice yoga while studying abroad. I’ll never forget my ashtanga teacher’s response: You can practice yoga in a prison cell. Fortunately, I’ve never had to test the theory, but he’s right. The beauty of yoga is its simplicity. To that end, create an oasis for yourself by turning off all cell phones, computers, TVs, iPads, etc. Perhaps you light a candle to make the space feel serene and special. Your yoga space doesn’t have to be elaborate or elegant, just welcoming.
3. Play favorites. The most liberating part about a home practice is the freedom to choose your own asanas. In the beginning, it’s important to develop a sense of play on your mat. Don’t worry about the "right" order of poses. Choose your favorites and build a mini class around them. Over time, you will learn how to order your yoga postures effectively. However, your initial goal is getting on your mat and having some fun, not reenacting one of B.K.S. Iyengar’s books, pose for pose, page by page.
4. Cheat. Speaking of books, there are oodles of yoga resources to help you acquire the knowledge you need to fly solo, such as books, blogs, DVDs, magazines, podcasts, and more. For the study abroad trip I mentioned earlier, I left home with a yoga mat and Beryl Bender Birch’s book Power Yoga and returned a few months later not only comfortable practicing by myself but also leading classes for more than 100 of my peers, professors, and members of the school staff at once. If you feel adrift on your mat without an instructor, use a "cheat sheet" in the form of one of the above resources or a few notes written on a piece of paper until you get the hang of structuring a practice on your own.
5. Groove. As you know, different teachers and styles of yoga have different- often strong- opinions about playing music during class. Some see it as a crucial element for setting a certain mood or theme; others think it’s a crutch for both students and teachers. At home, none of this matters. First-time solo yogis usually benefit from playing music, as it encourages rhythm and provides another outlet for self-expression (not to mention drowning out the sound of your roommate playing bongos in the other room or the neighbor mowing the lawn). That’s right, if you want to practice yoga to Rihanna or The Red Hot Chili Peppers or The Rolling Stones, go ahead! Rock on with your bad yogi self.
Readers: Do you practice yoga at home? If so, what are some of your keys to solo success?
Plenty of experiences make us feel off balance and ungrounded, as if the rug is pulled out from under us or we’re on a nonstop treadmill scrambling to keep it together, with varying levels of success. Working too much, sleeping too little, eating too much or too little; losing someone or something of value; gaining never-ending responsibilities– there’s no shortage of daily stressors, running the gamut in degree of intensity, to make us feel fried, frayed, and fatigued.
Each of us exhibits symptoms of feeling stressed or stretched beyond our limits differently. Some people get anxious, angry, forgetful, flighty, or all of the above. Ironically, when I am stretched beyond my limits, I literally lose my physical sense of center and become a klutz of perilous proportions. (Remember how I head-butted the overhead luggage bin on the Acela train last week? Prime example). Sure, it’s entertaining for those around me (who doesn’t love a good slip-on-a-banana-peel moment?), but I’m one unexpected telephone pole or oncoming truck away from serious injury.
Getting back to center can be easy or challenging, depending how far-gone you are. And, in truth, it’s best to catch yourself from spiraling into uber crazed territory sooner than later. Hence, this is why we practice yoga and
meditation. . .
As I’ve mentioned here before, mudras are an effective way to set a specific intention for a meditation practice, which brings me to bhumudra, a very grounding, earthy mudra that is said to help practitioners find trust, grounding, and a sense of feeling rooted. It’s important to note that not all stress manifests itself in a manner lacking solid ground. Depression, for example, can be very heavy, in which case you might want to try a more uplifting mudra. However, the type of tension to which I am referring today is an airier kind, a feeling of being unstable, unsteady, flying around like a whirling dervish for too much activity, stimulation, travel, responsibility, etc.
This mudra is the perfect antidote. I have been practicing it more regularly since learning it at an Ayurveda workshop at Kripalu, taught by Jennifer Reis. It’s incredibly simple to try: Make "peace" signs with each of your hands, then root the tips of your pointer and middle fingers on each hand into the earth. You will immediately feel a sensation of "plugging" into the ground.
Close your eyes, sit still and breath deeply. As you do so, imagine your first chakra, residing at the tip of your tailbone, connecting to the floor beneath you. A mantra that inspires grounding can also help. Reis recommends saying to yourself or out loud, "I am grounded. I am connected."
Good luck getting grounded, yogis! If you have other mudras, asanas, or personal tricks that help you feel centered, please share.