The Only Meditation Proven to Increase Happiness!

Love Yourself Happy!

IMG_7624Loving Kindness Meditation is an absolute must-have addition to all the Valentines Day chatter about cards, chocolate and candle light dinners. As yogis, this meditation practice is the essence of what we strive to achieve in our practice whether we are sweating through postures or sitting in contemplation. We learn to forgive, be kind, and compassionate toward ourselves. From this place of self-love, we are then able to extend this practice beyond our sphere of existence into the rest of the world.

Many studies have been done on meditation, and while all types of meditation are now known to have numerous types of positive impacts on your physical and psychological well-being, only one kind of meditation has been shown to increase the level of happiness in your life; Loving Kindness Meditation.

IMG_7631The Dalai Lama has written much on this topic. He admits that this is not completely a selfless practice, because we reap benefits of our own as we learn to love the world around us. He states beautifully however that if we are to be selfish then then we should be wisely selfish, practicing a philosophy of life that makes the world a better place as we make our own lives happier and more satisfying.

In addition to increasing happiness, studies also show that the positive impact of loving kindness meditation persists in the long term.(Michael A. Cohn, University of California San Francisco & Barbara L. Fredrickson, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2008). In this study, 15 months after participation in a loving-kindness meditation study, those who continued their meditation practice were found to continue to feel very positive emotions in their daily lives. Even those who had stopped meditating felt more positive than a control group that had never begun the meditation practice. What is especially significant about this is that feelings of happiness from events such as getting a great job or buying a new car dissipate rather quickly while feelings of happiness from loving kindness meditation endure.

Loving Kindness Meditation: How to do it

  1. Sit. To begin meditating on loving-kindness, first prepare yourself to sit in a comfortable position. Choose a place where you will not be interrupted, and allow yourself to settle into a natural breath rhythm for a few minutes.
  2. Love Yourself. Do a body awareness sweep. Smile at your feet and send love to them. Move up your body repeating this process until you have spent some time on each part of your body. Continue to do this until you feel full of this emotion, flowing completely into love, loving yourself unconditionally.  Initially there can be resistance to sending love to oneself. If you experience this, you may need to spend some time identifying and releasing feelings of unworthiness, replacing them with loving acceptance. Giving the practice some time to blossom in your heart will eventually allow you to overcome any feelings of self-doubt or negativity. This may not happen immediately, but with practice, you will remove this initial hurdle and be ready to systematically develop loving-kindness towards others. This is a key part of the process. When we feel genuine love and acceptance for ourselves we open the door to an unlimited source of love and kindness that can then be effortlessly shared with the world.
  3. Focus on someone you already love. Now cultivate the emotion of love by focusing on something, or someone, that evokes a powerful uncomplicated love response. Allow this emotion to penetrate your full experience and then slowly transition from the object or person that helped you connect with this emotion to sitting with the emotion itself in its purest form. Repeat silently “May they be healthy, live happily, and may they love others and themselves.”
  4. Love your family and friends. The next step is to allow this love to expand to include everyone in your close circle of family and friends, one at a time, or as a group. You can mentally repeat, “May they be healthy, live happily, and may they love one another and themselves.”
  5. Love everyone. Now expand your loving circle to include, acquaintances, strangers (This would include neutral people, the person who serves your coffee or unknown faces in far away locations, for example), again repeating, “May they be healthy, live happily, and may they love one another and themselves.”
  6. Love the difficult to love. Next, move on to include those who have hurt you in the past, those for whom you find it difficult to feel compassion in daily life, and again repeat the loving phrase written above. This step helps us better understand why Buddha described love as being the best armor. When we love those who are unkind to us, we remove the damaging impact that their behavior has on our lives and well-being. We cannot control how other people act. We cannot always understand what motivates them to do what they do, but we can control how we respond. If we feel loving-kindness towards those who do not treat us well, we remove their power to injure us and we stop the perpetuation of this behavior and energy.
  7. Enjoy the results. Allow yourself to sit immersed in loving-kindness for a period of time, visualize this feeling being released from your heart center to fill your whole body. Simply be with this love, sit with this love and breathe with this love.

Repeating this practice even for just a few minutes daily will allow you to cultivate these emotions more easily and in a shorter period of time.

Happy Heart Opening Yogis!

Five Reasons to Study Yoga Nidra

Twenty five years ago as an undergrad in an Altered States of Consciousness course I watched in fascination as my lab partner swatted an imaginary fly from the hypnosis script I was reading. I remember thinking “This is a big deal!” Yet somehow the significance of this experience faded into the background of degree finishing and other life priorities for almost a decade. Fast forward to me lying on a straw mat in an Indian ashram listening to sounds from the other side of the earth. I am able to do this because my Guru Ji, in his thickly accented yoga nidra instruction voice, had suggested I could. This far eastern experience reignited my undergrad passion for the mystery and power of the subconscious. It was at this point that my psychology background, yoga experience, and deep belief that we are more than our conscious thoughts, began to merge. I began a decades long yoga nidra study that included personal practice, coursework, and instruction. I can honestly say that this ancient guided meditation technique more powerfully informs my yoga teaching, personal interactions, and parenting than any other yoga practice. There are so many reasons why I think everyone should try this ancient practice. Here are just five.

  1. Get Deep and Profound Rest
    Yoga nidra is a state of brain wave activity that is just above deep sleep. While actual sleep can be disrupted by stressful dreams, repeated waking, teeth grinding, or tossing about, yoga nidra brings a consistent restful state. Yoga Nidra avoids such rest interruptions by bringing one to a theta brainwave sleep-like state that induces sleep-like relaxation, without fully going to sleep. Verbal guidance keeps the participant hovering just above deep sleep, or delta wave activation. The imagery used conveys a sense of safety to the deep consciousness. This allows the body to experience deep rest without the interference that some sleep experiences can bring.

    2. Transform thought Patterns, and Make Emotional Shifts
    We often maintain patterns of thoughts, behaviors, and emotions that hold us back from complete health and wellness, even when our waking mind is aware of this fact. A good example is the new year’s resolution. It is made because we perceive the action or habit that we are hoping to change is not contributing to our happiness, yet we rarely follow through. This is because we make the commitment with our most conscious layer of mind (in upper level beta brain wave activation). The message does not make it down through all the layers of consciousness. When the whole brain and nervous system are not involved in a decision follow-through is unlikely to be successful. To explore why we can hold so tightly to unhealthy patterns, and to discover how we might unravel them, we need to “talk with” the nervous system at every level of activation. I frequently use yoga nidra to help clients release fears, and optimize physical, mental, and emotional function in a variety of situations. For example, removing anxiety about birth, or transforming a fearful situation into manageable setting. With regular practice long held physical aches can release, unwanted habits may begin to shift, and more.

    3. Heal Yourself & Your Loved Ones
    Why we get sick is multi-faceted and complex beyond the understanding of even today’s advanced medical science. What we do know however is that anxiety and stress can cause, or significantly impair, our body’s ability to function in general. This includes both the processes that help us avoid illness, and those that aid the healing process. Yoga Nidra calms the nervous system, which turns on the body’s healing (para-sympathetic) response. This triggers increased availability of physical resources to heal imbalance, illness, and injury. The placebo effect is an incredibly well studied phenomena that proves we can potentially heal sickness by what we think. This is why all drug studies must include a placebo group. Scientists know that a large portion of any drug study group is going to get better just because they thought they would! Yoga nidra works to tap into this underutilized human super power. What we think changes our state of wellness, both emotionally and physically. And the best news is that this practice can be done by anyone. A facilitator can whisper yoga nidras into the ear of someone who is lying in a hospital bed. One could listen to a yoga nidra recording while reclining in a cushy chair.

    4. Help Ease Anxiety in Children (and Adults)
    Did you know that children may be the most powerfully impacted by Yoga Nidra (guided relaxation) meditation? They spend more awake alert time in alpha and theta brainwave activation and so are most easily able to visualize with real-life-like clarity. This can result in powerful healing and calming responses. Imaginary friends are a good example of this. Some of my most profound responses to yoga nidras have come from elementary school children. One little girl told me recently, “You just made all the sadness in my body disappear”. As a parent I have used this technique when my children were sick or anxious to induce calm and reduce discomfort. Bedtime is a great time to use this technique. Short yoga nidra techniques can even be taught to children to use on their own in stressful situations.

    5. Utilize the “Swiss Army Knife” of Wellness Tools
    Yoga nidra is the most versatile of yoga tools, and can be used for many purposes. Some do this practice to relax more deeply, others to heal from trauma. One day you can explore your psyche using Jungian style archetypal images, and the next prepare for an easy birth. In the same class one participant may report feeling a long held physical ache release, and another may obtain insight that allows them to make an important life decision. There are also energetic uses such as connecting with spirit guides, and loved ones who have passed. Past life regression and manifesting can also be explored with this technique. The usages of yoga nidra are limited only by your imagination and interest. Some focus on mainstream uses, others use yoga nidra to delve into a mystical exploration.

My two decades of exploring this topic have become the contents of the Shakti Yoga Nidra Teacher Training (2 Weekend Days). This training is suitable for yoga teachers, school teachers, medical professionals, social workers, and any other professional who wants add this technique to their tool kit. Also welcome is ANYONE interested in using this practice with friends, family members, or themselves, even if they have no yoga experience. Go to this link to the Shakti Yoga Nidra Teacher Training / Workshop page for more info or to register and hold your space. Contact Bobby@ShaktiYoga.ca if you have any questions.

 

Eating Tumeric for Medicinal Benefits? Don’t Forget The Pepper!

 

This Golden Powerhouse of Healing Needs a Little Help From a Friend.

Since ancient times, the Indian science of ayurveda has used turmeric for a multitude of healing purposes. Its popularity in the west has also risen dramatically in recent years as modern-day scientific studies confirm that this spice is indeed as effective a healing substance as its centuries-old reputation purports.(1)

Tumeric is an eye catching spice that is displayed in eastern markets in glistening golden piles. It is also readily available in western supermarkets. Both the turmeric root, as well as its powdered form, are used in food and remedies.

 

Eating turmeric in golden tea recipes, juices, or sprinkled on food is a great idea, however if you have been using this spice on its own, you may not be reaping the many health benefits that it is known for. Turmeric is bursting with compounds that have potential health benefits but it is actually very poorly absorbed into our bloodstreams. To increase the bioavailability of the medicinal properties of turmeric (curcumin), it is ideal to pair turmeric with other foods that aid absorption, such as black pepper.

Black pepper is one of the best ways to help maximize absorption into the bloodstream because it contains piperine. This substance has been shown to increase absorption of curcumin by as much as 2000 percent! (2)

There are many reasons to consider incorporating turmeric (and pepper) into your diet. Studies show that turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory (3) and anti-oxidant (4). It is good for your heart (5), your brain (6), has been effectively used to regulate moods (7), and ease arthritis (8). In fact the study link in this article shows tumeric to be MORE effective than the anti-inflammatory drug also included in the study, with the added benefit of having no side effects! I suspect the benefits listed here are just the tip of the iceberg. Scientists continue to deepen our understanding of the health impact of this incredible spice with each new study. It is obvious that the ancient Indian ayurvedic healers knew what they were talking about.

For years I have been drinking turmeric tea, and giving it to my kids in all kinds of remedies, however my new favourite thing is breakfast tumeric juice shots. If you have a juicer this is a great way to add curcumin to your diet without having to dig up new meal recipes, or change the flavour of your current favourite foods (however I do recommend you try adding it to your cooking, it is yummy!).

The photo above has a recipe for the breakfast shots I juiced up for my family to shoot back yesterday as they were going out the door. You can use any combination of ingredients to suit your taste.

Just don’t forget the pepper.

Enjoy!

 

1. J Nat Sci Biol Med. 2013 Jan-Jun; 4(1): 3–7. Role of curcumin in systemic and oral health: An overview.
Monika Nagpal and Shaveta Sood1

2. Planta Med. 1998 May;64(4):353-6. Influence of piperine on the pharmacokinetics of curcumin in animals and human volunteers.
G Shoba 1, D Joy, T Joseph, M Majeed, R Rajendran, P S Srinivas

3. Altern Med Rev. 2009 Jun;14(2):141-53. Anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, a major constituent of Curcuma longa: a review of preclinical and clinical research. Julie S Jurenka 1

4. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2007;595:105-25. Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin.
Venugopal P Menon 1, Adluri Ram Sudheer

5. Int J Cardiol. 2009 Apr 3;133(2):145-51. The protective role of curcumin in cardiovascular diseases.
Wanwarang Wongcharoen 1, Arintaya Phrommintikul

6. PLoS One. 2012; 7(2): e31211.Published online 2012 Feb 16. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0031211. Curcumin Enhances Neurogenesis and Cognition in Aged Rats: Implications for Transcriptional Interactions Related to Growth and Synaptic Plasticity.
Suzhen Dong,# 1 , 2 Qingwen Zeng,# 1 E. Siobhan Mitchell, 3 Jin Xiu, 4 Yale Duan,# 1 Chunxia Li,# 1 Jyoti K. Tiwari, 5 Yinghe Hu, 1 , 2 Xiaohua Cao, 1 , * and Zheng Zhao 1 , *

7. Phytother Res. 2014 Apr;28(4):579-85. Efficacy and safety of curcumin in major depressive disorder: a randomized controlled trial.
Jayesh Sanmukhani 1, Vimal Satodia, Jaladhi Trivedi, Tejas Patel, Deepak Tiwari, Bharat Panchal, Ajay Goel, Chandra Bhanu Tripathi

8. Phytother Res. 2012 Nov;26(11):1719-25. A randomized, pilot study to assess the efficacy and safety of curcumin in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis.
Binu Chandran 1, Ajay Goel

Healthline has a great article that links to many more studies. Find at this link to 10 Proven Health Benefits of Tumeric and Curcumin

A New Year’s Chocolate Re(solution)

The Solution to Mastering your New Year’s Intention? Make it This Easy!

20170114_1337250This year I have decided to eat more chocolate. Well actually not more. Anyone who knows me, also knows that I have actually been pretty unrestricted in this area for some time now. What I have decided to do is upgrade my stash. You might assume that I am talking about eating dark chocolate, and that would be true, however my usual chocolate is already 70% cocoa solids, organic & free trade. In fact I am fond of telling anyone who questions the magnitude of my consumption that eating this chocolate is one of the ways that I serve humanity, because altruism is, you know, just my thing.

This year though, I am stepping it up and making my own chocolate using raw cacao (not cocoa). This is something that I had been thinking of doing for some time now, but this year I was inspired to finally take the plunge when the talented Alison Nixon gave a chocolate making workshop in my area and I realized how easy it was to do this!

Why cacao and not cocoa you may ask? Cacao has many times more antioxidants than regular cocoa. It is also super high in magnesium, fibre and zinc. In fact if you crave chocolate it may be because you are low in magnesium and cacao would be the ideal way to top you back up! This doesn’t mean that regular cocoa isn’t good for you, but it is different from cacao in that it is heated at high temperatures and as a result loses a lot of its original nutrition. Cacao is the “raw” form of the same bean, but is cold pressed instead of roasted, retaining its living enzymes and making it much more nutritious.

OK, so now you know that it is good for you, but the real reason to eat this chocolate is that it is so yummy, and so creamy! Plus you can make it as sweet or as bitter as you like. The recipe below is similar to the topping of Alison Nixon’s Raw Chocolate Love Bar recipe that was included in the What’s Left to Eat Cookbook that she co-authored. I changed it up a bit but used her portions. This recipe combines the two great loves of my life, chocolate and matcha.

20170114_100819

Raw Chocolate Matcha Medallions

  • 250g Cacao Butter
  • 1 ½ cup (140g) Cacao powder
  • ½ cup (50 grams) raw cane sugar (Grind it up super fine in your mixer first) Other sweetener options such as honey, brown rice syrup, etc work as well.
  • 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract (or whatever extract flavour you like)
  • A pinch of Himalayan salt (or sea salt)
  • Matcha and cane sugar mix. Use as much of either as you would like in your topping mixture. Other options are also tasty. Sea salt sprinked on top once they are half set is another favourite. Also popular in my home was raisins, nuts, pumpkin seeds, gogi berries, or anything else that makes you excited.

Instructions

  1. Chop the cacao butter into small pieces.
  2. Heat a few centimeters of water in a shallow saucepan on low heat. Place a small metal bowl in the water and melt the cacao butter inside the bowl. This ensures that the butter doesn’t get over heated. Make sure that no water (not even a drop!) gets into the bowl. Avoid boiling the water so steam, etc doesn’t make its way into your butter.
  3. Pour the melted cacao butter, cacao powder, sugar and salt into your blender for one minute.
  4. Pour the chocolate into non-stick mini muffin pans. Just a centimeter high. If you want to make bars, or bark, line a flat pan with parchment paper and pour a thin layer on the bottom of the pan. I used a flat bottomed bread pan to make large size bars. A larger pan is also fine if you are going to crack it up to make bark.
  5. Add your toppings
  6. Refrigerate for at least an hour.

*Cacao butter and powder and be bought at most health food stores. I used Organic Traditions bags and got two recipes worth of butter. The powder can be added to cereal, etc and the cacao nibs are a super bitter nibble that some like to snack on as well. 

3 Sure Fire Yogic Ways to Keep Your New Year’s Resolution

ImageTis the season for some Tapas. And no I don’t mean the appetizers that we have all probably had a few too many of over the holidays. In yoga philosophy tapas is the Sanskrit word meaning self-discipline. In the yoga sutras, the ancient yoga sage Patanjali places such importance on this concept that he lists tapas as one of the three cornerstones of a yoga practice. Tapas is also granted it the status of being one of the all-important 8 limbs of Ashtanga yoga.

It has been said that the measure of one’s freedom can be determined by the measure of his self-discipline (or tapas). This never rings more true than at the beginning of the year when we are trying to free ourselves from (or to create new) habits. New Year’s Resolutions are things we know will make us happier so why do they so often fail? The answer is; tapas is uncomfortable. The literal translation of tapas is “to cook or to burn”. This an appropriate word to describe self-discipline because change requires discomfort. We must force ourselves to stay inside the fire of tapas long enough to reap the benefits, whether it is eating healthier, exercising more, or thinking positively. The ancient sages recognized that change was hard long before we knew the biology behind this peculiar fact. So, why is change so hard?

Change is hard because it doesn’t feel good. Our nervous systems are wired to maintain homeostasis (i.e. keep things the same). Throughout history our nervous systems have evolved to help us survive by essentially continuing to do the things that have kept us alive thus far. Being happy isn’t really a necessary survival skill. If what we are already doing is maintaining our existence then the nervous system is designed to keep it that way. Even though change might be beneficial it is risky.  Change also requires new muscle memories, new connections from sensory nerves to brain, and new pathways to be created inside the brain. It involves changing our “hardware” and it is hard work for the body. Think about learning the typing keyboard, new dance steps, a new piece of music. Remember how great it feels when you finally master it. Our nervous system loves to do what it already knows.

Another reason change is difficult is that our brains work economically. We don’t have much space in our conscious minds to do many things at once. As soon as something becomes second nature we relegate it to the unconscious. This is why we can eventuallyImage chat as we drive a car without crashing, or plan our day as we mow the lawn without cutting off our toes. The first day we did either of these things we were probably much more focused on driving and mowing. Our unconscious (i.e. our habits, second nature skills and thought/emotion patterns) is, in fact, most of what we are. Picture your mind as a big black square with just one little dot of white. That dot of white is your conscious mind. It is no wonder new year’s resolutions are so hard to keep. They are made with that little white dot of consciousness. The black area represents the storage space for automatic behaviors and beliefs that are already hard wired into your brain and done without thought. This area does NOT get the information your consciousness sends about your resolution. The result is the curious return to self-destructive habits that your conscious mind knows to be eroding wellness.

So what does this all mean for our new year’s resolutions? Now that you know how your nervous system and neuroplasticity works you can pursue your resolution with motivated perseverance, understanding and Swadhyaya (self-study). Try the tips below:

Set a Minimum Time to be in the Fire The good news is that the neuroplasticity that initially allows us to create these self-harming habits also allows us to also create healthy ones. It just takes some tapas. Recognize that the first time you start a new behavior is the most difficult act. Each repetition of the behavior makes it progressively easier. Visualize a fast flowing stream to represent the electrical charge that flows through your neural connections when you enact a behavior. The major artery of your river is your strongest unconscious habit. You do it whether you are thinking about it or not. Now take a stick and scrape out an offshoot into the riverbank and allow some of that fast flowing water to take a new course. This is like doing a new behavior for the first time. It’s hard to make that first groove and the water begins as just a trickle. The second time is marginally easier but continues to be hard. It does get easier each time you scrape out that groove but until you have created a gouge large enough to rival the power of the original river flow it will always be easier to backslide than to continue the new behavior. This is why a 30 day challenge can be so powerful. You commit yourself to staying in the fire of tapas for 30 days. You fully expect it to be hard for 30 days but plan to do it anyway. Hopefully by the end of 30 days your new tributary has had its banks ripped wide by the power of your tapas. If it is at least equally as powerful as the old flow then you may continue the new behavior into perpetuity with the old pathway eventually disappearing completely. Simplistic though this image is, it is a pretty good visual of what happens in your brain when you start a new behavior. You simply persevere until your brain has set up a smooth neural pathway for this new behavior or thought pattern. Eventually it is easier to do the new behavior than the old. Having a partner join you may help you to motivate each other.

ImageTalk to your Unconscious The unconscious is simply a recording that has been made and filed for ease of retrieval. It frees us from further investment of thought. It isn’t actually trying to undermine our efforts. At some point in our lives our consciousness instructed our unconscious to feel fear when a certain thing happens, to eat a certain foods when we are sad, etc. The unconscious dutifully follows these directions ad nauseam. The tricky thing is we don’t usually have access to all the layers of our minds when we are fully alert. Our unconscious listens most effectively when we speak to it while in varying states of relaxation. Repeated doses of visualizations and affirmations while experiencing different levels of brain wave activation allow us to share our desired outcomes with the unconscious. This is why the yoga practice of Yoga Nidra can make big shifts in our most basic emotional and mental beliefs (for info on the next Shakti Yoga Nidra Teacher Training go to this link). It is also the core of my birth preparation sessions, the result of which are women having calm and enjoyable birth experiences as a result of having re-trained their unconscious to believe that birth can be comfortable. People also use yoga nidra/guided meditation/hypnosis to change habits such as smoking or to release fears.

Embrace the Joy of Discomfort In essence, if enacting your resolution is making you uncomfortable then you know something BIG is happening at that new fork of that tributary in your nervous system. New neural connections are being made. Your brain is literally re-wiring! If you can get past this bout of discomfort today a whole bank of your new tributary may suddenly collapse and make way for flow. ImageThis could be the turning of the tide. As the ancient sages often wrote, “accept the pain as purification”. This is as true in the action of not saying/doing an habitual behavior as it is in your meditation and asana practice. If the action is easy it is probably not creating much change. Your daily tapas could be to do the yoga pose that you hate every day, to push yourself past that last uncomfortable minute of sitting still in meditation, or to replace an unhealthy habit with a healthy one. You will know you have reached purification when you come to love that previously hated yoga pose, when you have sat in meditation twice as long as you had intended, and you don’t even miss not doing the action you are trying to eliminate. The purification feels amazing!

If you are still unsure of the sensation of tapas  try an experiment to puts your neuroplasticity into perspective by changing something in your brain that is “hard wired”. For example, I recently relocated the garbage under the kitchen sink from the left side door to the right. Putting things in the left side kitchen garbage was an unimportant action that had become buried deep in my unconscious automatic behaviors. Even though I probably opened that door a dozen times daily it took me very close to a full month before I completely stopped opening the left side door first. This was hard even though it was an activity completely unwired with emotion. Such practices are a neutral way to explore tapas before taking on more challenging emotionally wired practices like smoking, eating, or snapping at a family member when they push your buttons.

Is there nothing you want to change in your life? Great. Tapas is still a fabulous practice to explore how long it takes your brain to rewire, and to stimulate your neurons in general. Somewhere deep inside us we recognize that tapas in any form has far reaching consequences that shake us to our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual core. From the newfound knowledge gained in your neuroplasticity experiments you will be better prepared to transform your eating habits, your movement habits, your patterns of thought, your meditation or asana practice.

Can you show courage and stay in the fire until you find the blessing? Yes you can.

Wishing you a wonderful new year warmed by the fire of your tapas.

Too Old, Heavy, Stiff for Yoga? No Way!

mom brightened navasana
My awesome mom in Navasana (Boat Pose).

Is the Western perception of yoga a barrier for some?

The picture to the right is my beautiful mom, Marilyn, whom I called from Tokyo 20 years ago, and asked to meet me in six months at a yoga ashram that was a half-day train ride outside Mumbai. Oh….and to sign up for a yoga class in the meantime so that she would know what yoga was before enrolling in a yoga teacher training course. If you know my mom it might not surprise you that she signed up for an introduction to yoga class at the local YMCA, and was waiting for me at the airport in New Delhi that fall wearing flip flops, and carrying the tiniest backpack you have ever seen.

In her late 50’s, with an average body size and sky-high blood pressure, my mother sweated her way through 40 degree days to complete her first 200 hour Yoga Teacher training. This included a full month of 5:00 am meditation wake up calls, followed by a 2 hour asana class (physical practice), 4 hours of lecture, a second 2 hour PM asana class, and evening mantra study.  While she was one of only a few “older” students, the teachers came in many ages, shapes and sizes. Many were seniors. Despite a lifetime of practicing asana they were all much more interested in talking to you about meditation and lifestyle. This ashram also ran yoga therapy clinics throughout that area and their students ranged from healthy young people to adults of every age, many with a variety of physical conditions. You could sense this in how they taught. The most beginner and the advanced student were all totally at home in the same asana class.

mom reading
Marilyn studying for her final training exams at the ashram.

In the wake of a series of recent articles talking about how the West is “ruining” yoga I thought of my mom and wondered whether she would have embraced this enormous challenge had her first yoga class been a vinyasa (flow) class taught by a young, lean teacher, surrounded by students in midriff baring yoga clothing. Don’t misunderstand this to mean that I think there is anything wrong with flow yoga, stylish yoga clothing, or young/ thin teachers. I enjoy and teach flow style classes (as well as other styles), own lululemon clothing, and believe an effective teacher can be of any age or body type, including young and thin. 

As a runner in my early 20’s I began studying hot yoga because it was the only thing that felt like a better work out than running. I spent many hours sweating in shorts and short tops and I would not have been interested in going to a gentle yoga class with an emphasis on breathing and meditation. I actually believe that the focus on asana (yoga poses) in the west may actually be necessary to introduce the practice to a society that has been taught to look outside oneself for answers, and values a state of being constantly busy. Indeed, I might not have become a yoga teacher/student writing a blog post on this topic if it were not for a style of yoga that many consider to be extreme. All of this stuff is good and we need to meet people wherever they are.

mom and teachers
Mom and I with our teachers in India.

Possibly more important than the discussion of whether the teacher ought to be Western or Indian, or classes traditional or physical is: Are we reserving space in the yoga image that is projected in the west to include populations not represented by the “perfect” models in the often challenging poses shown in yoga magazines (which I buy, by the way). I am simply concerned that for every brave soul who has written me prefacing their inquiry about yoga classes with their age and weight, as if it might be a deal breaker, there are a dozen people who simply did not write at all because they felt they were too much, or not enough to do yoga. I am not sure the yoga image (or the practice itself) in the West is always welcoming and accessible to these people.

Those of us who are yoga teachers must look at how we promote our classes, design our websites, etc., and ask ourselves if we are being inclusive. And to go further than that, we should ask ourselves if we are offering any classes that are genuinely accessible to everyone (not that everything we teach has to be for beginners or chair yogis, of course). When someone tells me that they tried yoga and it was too hard for them I let them know that this is simply not true. They simply did not go to the right class for them. However I worry that they will never pull together the courage to try another class.

To those looking to begin a yoga class please know that yoga is for everyone.

It doesn’t matter how old you are. The type of poses, speed of practice, balance of breath work and meditation will change as you age to be what you need at that time in your life. The same pose is doing something completely different for every single person in any class.

It doesn’t matter what size or shape your body is. All poses can be done in some version by everyone.

It doesn’t matter how flexible you are. The right class for you will help you maintain the range of motion that you have, and possibly increase it if it is appropriate for you. In the end maybe your yoga class does not need to change your flexibility or body shape. Maybe where you are is good for you and your yoga class will help you feel great about that.

It doesn’t matter what religion or spirituality you practice (or don’t practice). Yoga will help you develop skills of introspection that will help you deepen your understanding of your own truth in whatever form it resonates within you.

mom sun set
My mom enjoying a sunset just above our ashram in Nasik, India.

It DOES matter that you find the right class for you.  The goal of yoga is to enhance your physical, mental and emotional well-being. That is achieved differently by every person, and it changes as we evolve.  If something is not working for you, don’t give up until you have tried at least 2 or 3 different teachers and/or classes. The class for you exists somewhere. Maybe you will even find it on a DVD and do it in your living room!

And, back to my mom. She returned home from her time in India and blew her doctor away with a perfect blood pressure report, despite the fact that she had not taken any of her medication in India (I am SO not recommending that anyone do yoga in lieu of medical treatment! My mother simply does what she wants and listens to no one, doctor or myself included. An occasional source of frustration for me and possibly the karmic return for my teenage years). She continues to practice yoga and teaches chair yoga. She has students are in their 80’s and 90’s! As we begin our journey into the new year I say to anyone thinking of starting a yoga practice that if my mom could do it so can you!

Happy New Year to all of you Yogis and Yogis-to-be.

Welcome 2021 The Year of the Cow

The Japanese Animal Zodiac and What it Means For You

Welcome to the Year of the Cow. As each year-end nears in Japan, you begin to see images of one specific animal popping up in just about every setting imaginable; decorations, cards, advertisements. They vary from year to year and are always an animal of the Japanese zodiac. These animals are thought to be indicators of both individual personality and the nature of the year it represents. There are twelve animals, and they influence our world in twelve-year cycles. Your animal is determined by the year in which you are born. If you are in Japan and being asked what animal you are, that person is probably trying to learn more about your personality (of course, they could also be attempting to politely figure out your age without asking directly). The Japanese zodiac is Chinese in origin but has been fully adopted by the Japanese.

Maybe you don’t believe in horoscopes. That is ok because this is a just-for-fun-post. However, from a yogic perspective, there is value in anything that inspires us to pause and contemplate our personality and actions. This is the practice of swadhyaya, or turning inward to discover our true selves. Often, this means utilizing tools such as books and philosophies.

Before I tell you what animal you are, here is a cute origin story of how the animals in this zodiac were chosen. There are a number of variations on this story. I will pass along the most common version that I have been told by my Japanese friends.

One day the most important god gathered all the animals and told them that he would hold a race the next day to choose twelve animals to make up the zodiac. The order that each animal arrived at this revered god’s home in the heavens would determine their place in this cycle.

To get to the race destination, the animals had to cross a river. The cow knew this would be a challenging race. She was prudent, she planned ahead, and set out early. The rat was not a great swimmer, so asked to ride on the cow’s back (Some stories say the cat also rode on the cow but was pushed off by the rat. Other narratives have the rat lying to the cat about the day of the race causing him to miss it. Either way the cat did not make it into the zodiac because of the rat and this explains their continued rivalry to this day). Anyway, as the cow was approaching the finish line the rat jumped off his back and crossed the line first. This is how the rat became the first animal of the zodiac and the cow the second.

The tiger was the third to arrive. His early arrival was due to his great strength which enabled him to fight the currents of the river. The rabbit came in fourth, having made it across by hopping from stone to stone (and by some accounts with a little help from the dragon).

The dragon arrived in fifth place. This surprised the god who expected such a powerful creature to be first. The dragon explained that he had stopped to assist other race participants, as well as to help the people of the earth with their food and rain shortages.

The horse was the next animal to arrive, but was unaware that the snake had decided to hide in her hoof during the race. Just before reaching the finish line the snake jumped out of his hiding place and startled the horse. This gave the snake time to finish ahead of the horse and become the 6th animal of the zodiac, leaving the horse in 7th place.

The 8th, 9th, and 10th place were taken by the sheep, monkey, and rooster. They arrived together having worked together to build a raft to make it across the river safely.

The dog was next. His late arrival was also surprising as he was known to be an excellent swimmer. He explained that he had paused to enjoy bathing in the river, still landing himself in the 11th spot.

Finally, the wild boar/pig shows up. She had stopped for snacks and had then fallen asleep with a full belly. Upon waking up she rejoined the race and made it just in time for the 12th and final spot.

Each animal’s behaviour in the origin story expresses their nature to some degree. None are wholly good or bad. Each has the capacity for positive and negative expression of their characteristics. According to the Asian zodiac the personality of the animal that represents the year you were born will be reflected in your individual traits and patterns. Every twelve years your animal will come around again to influence the universal energy of that time.

A Japanese Macaque Monkey that I caught taking a dip in Jigokudani Hotspring back in 2000.

In order of their placement on the zodiac, there are some general characteristics of each animal and the years that they govern. Heads up, this post is a barely-researched and superficial presentation of an ancient system that traverses a number of cultures. Mostly, I am repeating things my friends have shared with me. More research is suggested if you want to truly understand the Asian zodiac. That said, let’s enjoy contemplating our place in the world through the lens of this beautiful horoscope.

Rat (2020, 2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948 …) people are very ambitious, and will push themselves hard to meet their goals. They will work hard and are unafraid of challenge. They are charming and honest. They may easily anger but are skilled at projecting an outward show of control.

Cow/Ox (2021, 2009, 1997,1985,1973, 1961, 1949 …) people are patient and inspirational. They are stirring speakers who inspire confidence in others. Cows exhibit great mental clarity. In the origin story she literally carried the rat to greatness.

Tiger (1998, 1986, 1974, 1962, 1950 …) people have stubborn tendencies and can be regarded as selfish, cold, and unkind. Tigers are, however, sensitive underneath all of this. They are thoughtful and have great compassion for those they love. They are also known for their courage. This is much like the personality of Tigress, in Kung Fu Panda (if you haven’t seen this movie series, why are you even reading this? Watch it now.)

Rabbit (1999, 1987, 1975, 1963, 1951, 1939…) people are good at talking their way into, and out of, things. They are known for being ambitious, virtuous, and reserved. They may have a taste for the finer things in life. Their reputation for being trustworthy means they are usually greatly admired.

Dragon (2000, 1988, 1976, 1964, 1952, 1940, …) people are easily excitable, short tempered, and can be stubborn. Despite their easily angered disposition, they are sensitive, and get their feelings hurt easily. They are also known to be honest, brave, and disciplined. Dragons inspire trust in people. Recall the dragon’s compassionate behavior in the origin story. A complex personality indeed.

Snake (2001, 1989, 1977, 1965, 1953, 1941, …) people are deep thinkers who often do well financially due to their determination in pursuing their dreams. They hate to fail, and will go to great lengths to avoid doing so (recall the origin story). Snakes are often people of few words.

Horse (2002, 1990, 1978, 1966, 1954, 1942, …) people are quick thinkers who are skilled at giving compliments. They tend to be successful in their endeavors, and have capacity to make wise financial decisions. They may talk too much, be impatient, or easy to anger.

Sheep (2003, 1991, 1979, 1967, 1955, 1943, …) people are noted for their quiet elegance. They are drawn to fine arts, and are passionate about the environment, as well as their spiritual endeavors. They may also sometimes be shy, lack will power, and unconsciously take a passive role in relationships.

Monkey (2004, 1992, 1980, 1968, 1956, 1944, …) people are seen as eccentric and highly intelligent. They are good at seeing the big picture and are lucrative in financial dealings. Their inventive, think-outside-the-box insights mean they can solve even complex problems with ease. Their behaviour is often both creative and erratic.

Rooster/bird (2005, 1981, 1969, 1957, 1945, …) people are devoted to their work and enjoy being busy. They push themselves to expand their skills, sometimes to the point of taking on more than they can handle. The rooster is ambitious and always looking to go further. Not achieving a goal is very upsetting for the rooster. They are known for speaking their mind. This is sometimes refreshing and other times may be seen as speaking out of turn.

Dog (2006, 1982, 1970, 1958, 1946, …) people are loyal, honest and work hard to create positive relationships. They inspire confidence in others and are known to be great at keeping secrets. Dogs are humble and easy going, so are considered to be good friend material.

Boar/pig ( 2007, 1983, 1971, 1959, 1947, …) people have an enormous inner strength that is difficult to unseat. They are honest, humble, very affectionate, and extremely kind to those they love. While they have short tempers, they do not enjoy arguments and try to avoid them. They are stubborn, often making it challenging to convince a boar to change their opinion. In the origin story, the boar is known to have rushed past the god at the finish line, and had to eventually turn back to join the group.

What does the Asian zodiac mean for the essence of 2021? I am excited to be entering the year of the cow. What could we need more of right now than mental clarity, patience, and slow thoughtful movement forward? Like the cow, we can plan to the best of our abilities, and do what needs to be done to navigate challenging paths. We know there will be challenges, yet we aspire to inspire others to greatness along the way.  

How accurate is the Japanese zodiac? That is something you will have to decide for yourself. It may well be a coincidence but I am a wild boar and my plan to have this post written two weeks ago was interrupted by a holiday of indulgences that included copious amounts of holiday napping and snacking (recall why the boar came last in the origin story?). I will also add that I regret nothing and it is unlikely you could change my mind about the value of my chosen course.

Wishing a Very Happy Year of the Cow to you all!

How to Make Ghee (Clarified Butter)

ghee newsletterI was introduced to ghee when my mother and I were on our first Indian backpacking trip. Mom had some scratches on her legs that were getting sorer and more worrisome by the week. We were staying at an ashram and the morning prayers had just been done with a purifying fire ritual. When our teacher saw my mother’s legs he exclaimed, “That has to be treated now!” He promptly pulled some burnt, ghee-soaked, coals out of the ceremonial fire ashes, ground them between his fingers, and explained that the holy healing properties of ghee, further purified by fire and morning prayers, would be the most powerful remedy possible. We were doubtful, but had already tried all of our travel pharmaceuticals, and so she rubbed this black, greasy powder all over her angry wounds. As you are probably by now expecting, the cuts promptly healed and disappeared. It was only later that we learned, in addition to being an integral part of traditional Indian healing practices, ghee is also an Indian cooking staple.

Ghee is clarified butter. It is heated carefully until the milk solids separate and is then strained into a translucent yellow oil that has a yummy, buttery, slightly-nutty flavor. Ghee has a very high smoke point, making it an ideal cooking oil because you can cook it at a higher temperature than many other oils without losing its health benefits.  It is also rich in fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D and E.

Ghee can be bought in supermarkets but is very easy to make at home. I love the buttery smell it makes in my kitchen, as well as the satisfaction of pouring the glistening finished product into mason jars. While many are intimidated by the idea of making their own ghee it is actually a pretty simple process. Just follow the steps below to make this tasty health elixir and cooking oil.

You Will Need:20170314_081849

  • A medium size sauce pan (with a heavy bottom if possible)
  • A stirring spoon
  • A fine sieve
  • Enough cheesecloth to form several layers
  • A large measuring cup with a pouring spout (optional)
  • 454g (4 cups) of unsalted butter (organic if available)

Instructions:

  1. Cut the butter into cubes.
  2. Melt the butter on Medium heat in the sauce pan.
  3. When it begins to bubble excitedly
    turn heat to medium-low.
  4. The ghee will slowly bubble more
    quickly, the bubbles will get bigger and bigger, and eventually you will see the milk solids separating and floating to the top. Depending on the quality of your pot you may need to stir occasionally.
  5. Eventually the milk solids will sink to the bottom and a
    white layer will form on the top. When you separate this top white layer yo20170314_081831u will be able to see all the way to the bottom of the pot. The ghee will have become translucent.
  6. Continue to cook until a second energetic boiling begins. The bubbles will start again as clear small bubbles, as originally seen on the first boil. At this point the ghee is ready to be removed from heat.
  7. Arrange the cheese cloth in many layers in your sieve and place over a large measuring cup, or another pot.
  8. Pour the ghee through the cheese cloth to leave just the clear translucent ghee in the receiving pot.
  9. Pour into mason jars and leave only lightly covered at room temperature until it cools. It will take a day or so before the ghee solidifies.
  10. You can keep this is your cupboard for a few months or store in the refrigerator for longer.

Pumpkin Pie or Pudding? You Decide

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This pumpkin pie recipe does not include any wheat, dairy, or sugar. And before you click your back button I’d like to add that it is also the creamiest pumpkin pie you will ever eat.

The creaminess comes from full fat coconut milk (so yeah, unfortunately you still can’t eat the whole pie), the sweetness is a result of juicy medjool dates, and oats are used as the binder. The perpetual presence of these three ingredients in my cupboard, along with my autumn ritual of keeping a container of muffin cup size baked pumpkin portions frozen in my freezer made this a super easy bake for me. While you could eat this pie filling as pudding (I did this morning), I would switch a few things up if pudding were your goal.

In addition to being tasty this recipe is a beautiful ayurvedic example of balancing ingredients for autumn. The pumpkin, and dates are grounding foods. Combined with the warming spices they work to balance the excess of vata energy that can build up at this time of year. Read on for the recipe.

Creamy Pumpkin

Pie Filling Ingredients

Pumpkin puree (14oz can or weigh what you have pre-cooked yourself)

1 can full-fat coconut milk (14oz)

1/4 cup rolled oats (3 tbs oat flour/or your flour of choice.)

8-10 medjool dates (or sweeten to taste with your favourite sugar)

1 tbsp vanilla extract

2 tsp cinnamon

A pinch each of nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, ginger (or a little more of each. Season to taste. Use pumpkin pie spice if you prefer)

1 tsp salt

Crust Ingredients

1 1/2 cups flour (I used oat flour)

1 tsp salt

6 Medjool dates

1/2 cup ghee

Water (add as needed a spoonful at a time)

Instructions: Preheat oven to 375. Crust: Blend dates and ghee into creamy mixture. Add flour and salt mixture until combined. Remove to bowl adding water if needed. Press into pie pan. Filling: Blend all ingredients in a blender/vitamix/food processor until smooth. Pour into pie crust. Bake for 25-30 min. It may look like it isn’t fully done. That is ok. It firms up nicely in the refrigerator. Whipped Topping: If a topping is desired scoop the cream out of a can of coconut milk leaving the watery portion behind. Mix the cream with a tsp of vanilla and desired amount of honey (I keep the watery portion for other recipes). If you keep your can of coconut milk in the refrigerator the milk and cream separate more easily.

Pumpkin Pudding Instructions: Yes, you could save a bowl of your pumpkin pie filling to snack on later but the BEST pudding involves mixing equal amount of pumpkin puree, coconut cream (separated from the milk as above), tsp vanilla, 4-6 dates (to taste), all the pie spices above to taste. Mix all in Vitamix/blender. Cool in refrigerator to set. I have been whipping this up for breakfast ever since the supermarket filled with pumpkins.

*If baking your own pumpkin use a pie pumpkin, or a buttercup squash, or kabocha. The carving pumpkins are wetter and not so tasty.

Three Books to Unleash the Wild Woman Soul

As I write this post Cardi B is defending her new WAP video that is igniting a fever of objections disproportionate to any leveled at the misogynistic and sexually explicit lyrics and images of male rap performers. Kamala Harris is chosen to be Joe Biden’s running mate however her strengths are sidelined by a flurry of the same timeless terms of denigration used to belittle female strengths throughout history. She is “Nasty”, “Unpleasant” and dares to not smile accommodatingly and stroke the ego of every male who disagrees with her. Women are losing their jobs at a much higher rate than men in COVID times. This is partially due to their higher representation in the lower paid service industry professions that are hardest hit by the pandemic, and also because the family workload has never been equally shared despite most women working outside the home. A disparity simply highlighted by the pandemic.

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