Five Pillars Yoga

Posts Tagged ‘Mindfulness’

Yoga 101: Breathing!

Nestled under the rib cage at the base of the lungs, the diaphragm is the body’s best breathing muscle. Here’s how it works: When we breathe in our diaphragm flattens out and moves down, creating a vacuum for air to rush into; when we breath out, our diaphragm relaxes and moves up, pushing air up and out of our lungs.Image-1While our diaphragm is always working, we often don’t use it as much or as well as we could. Think of bending over to pick up a heavy box and straining your lower back instead of squatting down and lifting from your legs. That’s what shallow breathing is like — using your chest and neck to pump air in and out when there’s a much stronger muscle (the diaphragm) made for the job that’s waiting for some action.

Yoga is an incredible practice for engaging with the breath; we are constantly reminded to return to it, witness it, and listen to it. But off the mat it can be easier to let the thread of breath slip away.

Practicing diaphragmatic breathing is a super simple way to breathe more deeply wherever we are, immediately increasing the amount of oxygen in our system and blood in our brains.

First, try it lying down. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Take a deep breath in, following the movement of the diaphragm as it fills with air. If you’re breathing into your diaphragm your top hand will stay where it is while your bottom hand will rise as the belly fills. On the exhale, follow the movement of the diaphragm in and up. Continue until you feel euphoric.


Once you’ve gotten the hang of diaphragmatic breathing in a supine position, try it sitting and standing. The more aware you become of the sensation of deep, vital breaths, the easier it is to recognize when you move back into shallow, chest-centered breathing. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing is an absolutely ace relaxation tool to have in your arsenal. Try it the next time you feel unfocused, tired, irritated, disconnected or just want to get a little high, au natural.


Illustrations from Honeybeery Diary and The Acoustic Singer

Daily Inspiration: 50 Ways to Take A Break

As we race from one responsibility to another, day in, day out, sometimes we forget to just… pause.

And if we do have time to pause, we often don’t know what to do with it! 

We love this poster created by Karen Horneffer-Ginter, author of Full Cup, Thirsty Spirit

Playful, sweet and actually helpful, this poster will give you all the inspiration you need to relax and make the most of a sweet moment in-between.

So, go ahead… Take a pause… It feels good, we promise.




Healthy Holidays – Easy Tips For Mindful Eating

As the holidays ramp up we’re just moments away from the dreaded/delicious culinary decadence vortex: a busy calendar means more wine or cocktails at social and work gatherings, overindulging in brunches, lunches and dinners with family and friends. Pies, cakes, holiday cookies, gravy, roasts, and a cornucopia of veggie and grain side dishes each more incredible than the next, and all too wonderful to pass up.

I might have put on five pounds just writing that paragraph!

It’s the same cycle every year, and changing recipes to “low fat” versions of everything is just as ridiculous as trying to play hermit and hideout fasting until the whirlwind is over. Worse yet would be to enjoy everything in the moment, only to wallow in guilt and remorse later.


So what are we to do?



Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has some advice, in the form of a small, simple and highly practical book aptly titled HOW TO EAT.

Bringing our mindfulness practice to our dining table (or office party or family gathering) is a powerful tool for not only truly enjoying the abundance of the season, but also staying balanced nutritionally and where weight is concerned. The simple tips shared in the book encourage “a joyful and sustainable relationship with all aspects of eating.” Meaning we can absolutely say yes to dessert, just so long as we pledge to actually enjoy it. This means, slowing down, tuning in, chewing and actually savoring each bite before we load the fork up for our next mouthful.

Scientific research is now revealing the effect of mindful eating on obesity and binge eating disorders. The results of this practice include not just enjoying each bite more, but supporting healthy digestion and cultivating an awareness of your levels of satiation – all of which also leads to portion control and maintaining a balanced weight. Simply by using the power of your attention.


You can click here for a little “taste” of the book, and also to purchase. The book also makes a sweet stocking suffer or hostess present – the type of gift that keeps on giving.

I recommend getting the book and savoring each usable piece of advice. And in the meantime, here are some simple tips:


Mindful eating is a before ~ during ~ & after process.
A process of tuning in.


Before, we can tune into the efforts of the chefs or bartenders, the efforts of the farmers and grocers and bakers who contributed their energies into the forthcoming morsel. The efforts of the soil and sun and water that all conspired to facilitate your nourishment. If we’re cooking we can make the kitchen into a meditation room, cook without rushing and cook with love. We can thoughtfully set the table, supporting enjoyment for all those who will sit at it.


During we can chew and enjoy, tuning into the dance of flavors and activating our healthy digestive process at the same time. According to Thich Nhat Hanh we can let ourselves pay attention to two things: “the food that we’re eating and the friends who are sitting around us and eating with us. This is called mindfulness of food and mindfulness of community… true community building.” The good news is our powerful multi-tasking brains can listen to what’s being said around the table while also tuning into what’s happening on our plate, on our fork and in our mouth. Give it a try and I’m sure you’ll find you’re able to enjoy what you’re eating even as you listen to your tipsy cousin recount an embarrassing story for the third year in a row. We can sit down – turn off the radio or TV – and tune into our body’s signals. This will help us feel when we’ve had enough.


After a meal we can once again remember gratitude, and allow the body to be nourished by the nutrients in the food and the energy of our company. We can take some time to “rest and digest” so our systems can properly absorb and assimilate what’s just happened, before rushing to our next meal or engagement and overly taxing the system. We can even think of the act of doing the dishes as a meditation, a pause for digestion and appreciation.


Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 11.38.10 AM


Bringing mindfulness into the decadent deliciousness of holiday season is a way to keep your yoga practice going “off the mat” and truly continue to live a yogic lifestyle.




Yoga 101: Intro to the Chakras

Begin your day with a simple chakra meditation to alleviate stress and anxiety, improve self-esteem and boost your overall health. Although it takes less than five minutes, this meditation goes deep, re-balancing your body, energy, emotions, intellect, and spirit.


So what is a chakra anyhow?


Chakras are “wheels” or “disks” of energy concentrated in different locations throughout the body. There are seven main chakras that coincide with major organs and nerve centers located along the spine. Alongside a strong connection to the physical and energetic bodies, the chakras have psychological and spiritual significance. Each chakra is associated with a color, a location in the physical body and a deeper meaning.




The Meditation:


This uplifting chakra meditation comes from the Nosara Yoga Institute. It’s simple. Sense each chakra and picture the coinciding light rippling outward from the energetic center in your body as you repeat the following affirmations. Begin by sensing one chakra at a time, starting at the root and working your way to the crown. At the end of the meditation, you can imagine all of the chakras lit up at once.


The Affirmations:


Root Chakra: I have the right to be here now.

Splenic Chakra: I have the right to feel all of my sensations, feelings and emotions.

Solar Plexus Chakra: I have the right to be myself.

Heart Chakra: I have the right to love and be loved.

Throat Chakra: I have the right to speak my truth. I have a voice!

Third Eye Chakra: I am guided by my own internal wisdom.

Crown Chakra: I surrender to the divine flow of the universe.


Go deeper with this video:


*image taken from Zen For Life

Strengthening the Muscle of Empathy

If we’re lucky, moving through the holiday season usually means more time spent with friends or family – we spend time catching up on all the highs and lows in our loved ones’ lives. There are many moments of joyful connection, and probably many moments where we feel our buttons being pushed! The holiday season is more of a marathon than a sprint – we need to keep calm, open hearted, compassionate and patient as we interact with others over the next six (long) weeks or so.

To run a marathon you might need to train with a coach. Enter Brené Brown.

If you haven’t already hear of her, Brené Brown is a researcher, storyteller, scholar, PhD, and author of NYT bestselling books Daring Greatly (2012) and The Gifts of Imperfection (2010). She is a calm and illuminating voice on the subjects of vulnerability, shame, and courage, delivering powerful and applicable tools to use in our interactions with others, and in our own self-development.

Her defining Ted Talk really elevated the discussion of the strength in vulnerability to the next level. And now a sweet, simple and informative video is circulating on another important distinction: the difference between sympathy and empathy.



~ Some of us feel like “fixers” and that it’s our responsibility to weigh in on other’s choices and help them “do better” in the world.

~ For some of us, it’s easy to get defensive when a loved one is sharing something that has upset them.

~ Or we might get judgmental when we hear about a conflict in their life.

~ I admit I’ve often experienced all of the above and more: I’ve tried to help find the silver lining of a situation, assuring a struggling friend that “it’s not all bad.” I was surprised to see how even this common response isn’t really empathy!


According to Brown, we can all strengthen our muscle of empathy, lending an ear or a shoulder to cry on in a constructive way. This three minute video points out a couple of simple yet critical differences between empathy and sympathy, ultimately revealing a path to true connection that isn’t that complicated!

Give it a try and let us know how it goes via Facebook

Learn more at


The Upanishads: Moksha

There are a handful of ancient texts that modern day yogis turn to for foundational wisdom. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are one of them; the Upanishads are another.

A collection of philosophical texts, the Upanishads were written in India sometime between 800 and 500 BC. They emerged from a time of shifting spiritual sensibilities, when traditionally Vedic Indians were moving away from external religious practices to more internally-focused spiritual pursuits—put very simply, fewer sacrifices and more meditating.

The books of the Upanishad are made up of the teachings of that day’s spiritual leaders and guides. Although we refer to them collectively, each book (there are about 200 total) stands on its own. The name Upanishad reflects its content: upa (near) and shad (to sit) form to mean something close to “sitting down near,” that is, sitting at the feet of a sage to embark on a session of spiritual study.

Of all the concepts unpacked in the Upanishads there are four that we’ll look at in a little more depth over a series of posts: samsarakarma, dharma and moksha.

Gajendra Moksha: A tale in which Gajendra the Elephant King, under attack from a crocodile, appeals to the gods not to save his life but to free his mind from ignorance.


Much like working toward a peak pose in a vinyasa class, we’ve been building up in our study of the Upanishads to the Big Idea: Moksha.

Moksha is the end of suffering. Take that in for a second. The end of suffering.

So that means what, exactly? Attaining moksha means being released from the cycle of death and rebirth that is saṃsāra. It is the end of life as we know it in a human form on this particular plane. It is freedom from ignorance, which is what ties us to our material existence.

Other words that come up in an attempt to define moksha are emancipation, liberation, and release. It is also closely related to the concept of nirvana—the state of cosmic bliss one enters after gaining enlightenment.

While the particulars of Nirvana (a Buddhist concept) and Moksha (a Hindu concept) are different, their essences are the same. Hindus describe moksha as the experience of oneness with Brahman, the Supreme Self. Buddhists explain nirvana as being Self-less. Both are the result of right living and ego eradication. For Hindus, dharma, the concept we explored in our last post on the Upanishads, is a means to moksha.

Atman and Brahman

The Upanishads propose that the true nature of our being is atman, an intangible and undefinable Self. We are not our bodies or our minds but a greater, cosmic force that is at the core of all creatures. We can touch atman through meditation and other practices that take us outside of our purely physical existence.

Brahman is what makes the universe. It is the creator and sustainer of all life and phenomena; it does not change, yet it causes all change. It is supreme and absolute. To try and describe it further is, basically, impossible.

A core tenet of the Upanishads is that atman and Brahman are made of the same substance. This passage paints a picture:

As the same fire assumes different shapes

When it consumes objects differing in shape,

So does the one Self take the shape

Of every creature in whom he is present.

(Katha Upanishad II.2.9)

Moksha, then, is when atman returns to Brahman, the source from which it camel; in being reabsorbed it is liberation from the illusion that we are all separate. This epiphany frees us from ego and the endless cycle of life, death and suffering that is samsara. When one achieves moksha one is embraced and subsumed again into Brahman, the wide-reaching arms of Absolute Existence.

So how do we get there? According to the Upanishads meditation and dharma are key. By meditating on our Ultimate Selves, atman, and stripping away our identifiers (gender, age, race, income level, etc) we can can see through the veils that separate us from the rest of existence. This is when we can “see” Brahman, the ocean that contains all of us as drops of water.

If all of this is too out there to sink into—reincarnation, cosmic divinity, dissolution of self through knowledge of Self—think of atman as your Higher Self, the version of you whose actions, values and beliefs you admire. If moksha is too weird or inconceivable a goal, think of connecting to your higher self as you move through this earthly plane. We are rarely in our highest selves all the time, but when we are, the feeling is right and aligned. Those experiences of connectedness are liberating and freeing in their own powerful way.

Photos: Main image from Nirvana Films Pure Production Bliss; Gajendra Moksha from Exotic India; water image

The Upanishads: Dharma

There are a handful of ancient texts that modern day yogis turn to for foundational wisdom. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are one of them; the Upanishads are another.

A collection of philosophical texts, the Upanishads were written in India sometime between 800 and 500 BC. They emerged from a time of shifting spiritual sensibilities, when traditionally Vedic Indians were moving away from external religious practices to more internally-focused spiritual pursuits—put very simply, fewer sacrifices and more meditating.

The books of the Upanishad are made up of the teachings of that day’s spiritual leaders and guides. Although we refer to them collectively, each book (there are about 200 total) stands on its own. The name Upanishad reflects its content: upa (near) and shad (to sit) form to mean something close to “sitting down near,” that is, sitting at the feet of a sage to embark on a session of spiritual study.

Of all the concepts unpacked in the Upanishads there are four that we’ll look at in a little more depth over a series of posts: samsara, karma, dharma and moksha.


Ancient terms are tough to translate, and dharma [धर्म] is no exception. The Sanskrit root dhṛ means “to hold, maintain, keep,” and can be understood to mean “an established law.” Another definition gives the meaning “to support, hold, or bear” and is used alongside the concept rta, the order that makes life and universe possible; dharma is a steadfast condition that allows change and growth to occur.

In Buddhism dharma means “cosmic law and order;” in Sikhism, it means the path of righteousness and proper religious practice.

I first understood dharma to mean “one’s work in the world,” a concept that expands to hold one’s duties, rights, obligations, laws, standard of conduct and virtues; in short, a right way of living.

In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna tells a conflicted Arjuna:

“It is better to do your own dharma even imperfectly, than someone else’s dharma perfectly.”

At this point in the story Arjuna, facing a great battle, does not want to fight. Krishna points out that going into battle is Arjuna’s dharma. Arjuna is a warrior, so despite his reservations, his path lies on the battlefield.

Our dharmas are bigger than us. Specific courses to chart in the world, they may not be easy to navigate, but, as Krishna reminds Arjuna, it’s better to forge ahead than taking a path that wasn’t meant for us. The effort we put into following our dharma is as important as any result or outcome. It is the labor and not the fruits that are important.

Patanjali expands on the concept of dharma and right living in the The Yoga Sutras. The yamas and niyamas are restraints and observances that serve as guidelines for social action; they are the foundational ways of being that uphold order and make life possible. While dharma can be understood to be personal, it is also universal: Just as we each have our own unique dharma—the work we have to do in the world, with its own singular share of challenges, gifts, obstacles, and victories—there is a collective dharma we participate in as spiritual community members, as well.

In a 21st century yoga context, the concept of dharma is akin to reminding yourself not to compare yourself to the person on the mat next to you. On and off the mat, do your practice with compassion for your limitations and gratitude for your gifts; let go of any attachment to the outcome; and uphold the collective with your actions and conduct. That’s your dharma.

Photos: Dharma wheel; Bhagavad Gita.

The Cycle of Transformation through Awareness

One of the off-the-mat tools I find myself using again and again ties back into the ancient concept of Samsara, the continuous wheel of death and rebirth that we explored in an earlier post.

I received this tool from one of my dearest teachers, Don Stapleton, co-founder of the Nosara Yoga Institute. I am indebted to Don and NYI for many lessons and epiphanies, as well as a deepening understanding of how the way we live in our bodies shapes our emotional and mental wellbeing. But, if I had to pick one teaching that continues to resonate, it would be The Cycle of Transformation through Awareness. 

This cycle has a direct antecedent in Joseph Campbell’s famous Hero’s Journey, a narrative pattern that Campbell identified and codified in which a hero sets out on a transformative, symbolic quest. On this challenging journey he meets with obstacles, discovers guides, and ultimately returns to where he started, wiser and victorious (see: Star Wars).


If Campbell’s arc is something you’re interested in, be sure to read Maureen Murdock’s complementary text, The Heroine’s Journey. A woman’s quest, Murdock argues, must take into account her starting point, a society in which she has been defined according to masculine values.


Back to the The Cycle of Transformation through Awareness. Don has a gift for distilling big, universal concepts and questions into easily relatable truth bundles: Esoteric ideas get rooted in the every day and life’s mysteries seem less mysterious. He also makes great posters:


There are seven stages in the cycle.

  1. Normal Flow of Life

  2. Challenge

  3. Confusion and Chaos

  4. Fertile Void

  5. Inner Resources

  6. Integration

  7. New State of Being

The Cycle of Transformation starts when life is normal. This is the status-quo, everything’s-buzzing-along stage of life with predictable routines and and schedules.

Stage Two often enters with a bang. The challenge can take the shape of something unexpected—an illness, a death, a breakup. This test could also come in the form of a new job, a move to different neighborhood, or the start of a relationship. Whatever it looks like, Stage Two disrupts the schedules and routines in which we’d become comfortable. Our initial response may be to scramble to attain normalcy and make our lives look the same even though something major has shifted or changed.

Stage Three, Chaos and Confusion, is when any semblance of normalcy slips through our fingers. The map we’d been using is out of date, the tools in our toolbox are rusted, and everything feels topsy-turvy. Stage Three is when the foundational tasks of everyday life, like cleaning the kitchen and balancing the checkbook, likely get pushed aside. Internally we are out of sorts, unmoored, and possibly depressed or angry.

The Fertile Void is a wide chasm. In Campbell’s paradigm this stage correlates with the part of the journey that happens in “The Special World” or the world that exists beneath the one where we live our surface life. The Fertile Void is an alternate landscape; we move through it almost without moving, a time of waiting and contemplation in which the initial shock of the Challenge and the upheaval of Stage Three have passed. Not quite ready to leap, this stage is where the concept of leaping—of seeing possible paths, of refilling our energy reserves—feels, little by little, possible.

Stage Five is when we embrace that the only way through the trial is by using our Inner Resources. Help may come in the form of teachers and friends, but ultimately we possess all the tools we need. The hibernation of Stage Four gives way to guidance, in the form of messages through dreams, wisdom from guides and books, and clarity through meditation and journaling.

The next phase is when the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel gets brighter. Integration occurs when we incorporate the tools we’ve uncovered and the messages we’ve received into our life philosophy and action plan. The Challenge that upset our daily course of actions is a surmountable obstacle.

In the final phase, Evolution Into a New State of Being, we transform. It may be obvious or imperceptible, but our outlook and approach have changed; perhaps even the way we dress or present ourselves is different, and our frame of reference has shifted. We’ve been through an ordeal and come out on the other side, tempered by the hardships but also surer of our ability to persevere.

This is when the cycle starts anew. We will have some time in our new skin and our new lives to establish routines and get comfortable before a new challenge rises up to meet us once again.

If this continuous cycle sounds exhausting, take heart in knowing that it is, literally, how the world works. Every calendar year the earth goes through a parallel rotation of life and death, challenge and growth.


In my own life I have found the ability to step back and ask myself where I am in the Cycle of Transformation at any given moment to be incredibly comforting and illuminating. Use it as a tool in your own life to bring clarity to difficult passages or to remind yourself of the necessity of change in order to grow.

Images: Wheel of the Sun album cover artwork; the Hero’s Journey; the Heroine’s Journey; Don’s Cycle of Transformation; the Sun Wheel

Dive Deeper

Cultivating a personal, at-home yoga and meditation practice is one of—if not the—best way to commit to a true off-the-mat yogic way of life. That said, starting and committing to a new wellness or spiritual practice may feel overwhelming; retreats and workshops can offer a strong but gentle kick in the soul to get you motivated and keep you inspired on your chosen path. There are several beautiful and secluded retreat centers across the country that offer participants the option of self-study or mindful, unplugged weekends. If the cost or commitment level of a themed or group retreat doesn’t interest or appeal, a private, self-guided retreat in a sacred space could be the spiritual recharge you need.

Blue Cliff Monastery

Pine Bush, New York


A mindfulness and monastic training center founded by Vietnamese author, Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, Blue Cliff Monastery sits on 80 acres of undisturbed woodland in the Catskills, about two hours northwest of New York City.

The monastery permanently houses a community of monks, nuns, and lay practitioners; visitors are welcome year-round and can participate in a Day of Mindfulness or stay for longer personal or themed retreats. Hanh, who lives in Blue Cliff’s sister monastery in France, Plum Village, cut back on his traveling after a stroke in 2014, but his East Coast disciples are steeped in his teachings and mindfulness practices.

Visit for more information.

New Camaldoli Hermitage

Big Sur, California

big sur

The most famous retreat center in California’s stunning Big Sur is, hands down, the Esalen Institute. Less well known but just as gorgeously situated is a Benedictine monastery, the New Camaldoli Hermitage, which welcomes visitors for a minimum of two nights to unplug—there is no wifi or cell service at the monastery—and destress. Private rooms with a half-bath and personal garden overlooking the ocean are available, as are private hermitages, which offer a basic kitchen, full bath, and more chance of seclusion. It’s not all asceticism: The Hermitage’s bookstore features homemade “Holy Granola” and, in the spirit of non-competition, fudge from an order of Oregon monks.

Visit for more information.


Phoenicia, New York


Buried in the Catskills’ twisting mountain roads, Menla Mountain is the upstate New York retreat center of Tibet House US. Tibetan Buddhist scholar and Tibet House US President Robert Thurman serves as the center’s Spiritual Director and teaches there throughout the year; the center’s vision, with the Dalai Lama’s blessing (he last visited in 2006), is to draw from Tibetan wisdom traditions to work with integrative medicines now becoming popular in the West.

The Mahasukha Spa offers Tibetan and Ayurvedic therapies, along with massage, sauna, and skin treatments. Guests can book appointments at the spa as part of a weekend-long R&R retreat or when taking part in a Tibet House Retreat.

For a full list of retreat offerings and accommodation options, visit

Shambhala Mountain Center

Red Feather Lakes, Colorado

With the 108-foot tall Great Stupa of Dharmakaya on its grounds, you would be forgiven for thinking that Shambala Mountain Center was in South East Asia, not Northern Colorado. The stupa and grounds—the property spreads across 600 acres of rolling hills and native-growth forest—are open to daytime visitors, as are daily meditation practices and meals in the dining room.

Longer stays are available, as well, either in the form of a self-guided getaway or an Arts & Creativity retreat or one centered around Relationship, Family & Work.

The Shambhala Vision is rooted in the principle of human decency and goodness: At our core, we are all okay. Chögyam Trungpa, the author of Shambhala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior, and the Buddhist meditation master to whom the center’s stupa is dedicated, believed and taught that enlightenment and enlightened societies could be actualized. His teachings, and the works of the center, seek to draw out and foster the inherent goodness of people.

For more information, visit

Breitenbush Hot Springs 

Detroit, Oregon


Breitenbush Meadow Pool

A worker-owned resort community, Breitenbush Hot Springs is the site of a geothermal springs surrounded by the Willamette National Forest in Marion County, Oregon. With a decades-long history of offering counterculture holistic and spiritual retreats—it is famously clothing optional—Breitenbush was sustainable before that was a buzz word. With over 20 miles of hiking trails, along with rustic cabins, tent platforms, a meditative stone labyrinth, meal offerings and a yoga-meditation sanctuary, this bucolic spot has a loyal following of locals and long-distance peace seekers alike. Personal retreats, workshops, and day visits are all an option.

For more information, visit

Images: Top of photo of Menla by JBM Weddings; Blue Cliff Monastery courtesy of Blue Cliff Monastery; Big Sur image by @alisontheodora; Menla meditation room courtesy of Menla; Shambhala stupa by Insight Guides; Breitenbush hot spring by Travel Salem

The Upanishads: Saṃsāra

There are a handful of ancient texts that modern day yogis turn to for foundational wisdom. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are one of them; the Upanishads are another.

A collection of philosophical texts, the Upanishads were written in India sometime between 800 and 500 BC. They emerged from a time of shifting spiritual sensibilities, when traditionally Vedic Indians were moving away from external religious practices to more internally-focused spiritual pursuits—put very simply, fewer sacrifices and more meditating.

The books of the Upanishad are made up of the teachings of that day’s spiritual leaders and guides. Although we refer to them collectively, each book (there are about 200 total) stands on its own. The name Upanishad reflects its content: upa (near) and shad (to sit) form to mean something close to “sitting down near,” that is, sitting at the feet of a sage to embark on a session of spiritual study.



Of all the concepts unpacked in the Upanishads there are four that we’ll look at in a little more depth over a series of posts: samsara, karma, dharma and moksha.


Samsara is a wheel. It’s the cycle of reincarnation, a continuous spin of birth and death as the soul completes its time in one form (human, animal, or divine) before landing in another.

Whether or not you believe in actual reincarnation, there is a profound lesson to be had from the concept of samsara itself: Everything changes, continually. In the course of our lives we will birth and let go of many identities, beliefs, goals, relationships and epiphanies. In this way we are coming into new forms again and again. An appreciation and understanding of samsara as a natural and necessary process may make it easier to work through those moments of transition: They are periods of illumination that urge us to grow. The more we come to expect and anticipate these moments, the more comfortable we can become in the big-shift feelings that accompany them—the euphoria and anxiety of creating something; the sadness and tenderness of letting something go. These are as natural and necessary as the events the spark them.


On the mat, on a micro level, we move through this cycle of continuous flow over the course of a yoga class. We start the class feeling one way and emerge at the end changed, however subtly. Each pose, held for a series of breaths, has a life cycle: the satisfaction of finding it; the deepening of sensation the longer we stay in it; the frustration of holding it for too long; the decision to stay with it; and then the relief or sadness at leaving it.

Play with samsara in your on and off-the-mat practices. Notice your cycles. See what shifts.

Images: Om symbol by Geoff Kim; teacher and students; serpent wheel

Sugar Smarts

Back around Halloween we explored the effects of sugar on the body. In light of our most recent holiday, New Years—a time when many of us resolve to shift our diets or eat more mindfully—we’re picking the conversation back up.

While eating foods high in refined sucrose can wreak havoc with our blood sugar levels and cause foginess, anxiety and headaches, it can also lead to an overgrowth of candida.

Candida is a fungus found in trace amounts in the mouth and intestines that breaks down food and absorbs nutrients. All good.

But, when overproduced, candida can cause a system imbalance. It breaks down our intenstinal wall, enters our bloodstream and floods our system with toxins. This candida overgrowth can cause depression, digestive troubles, and leaky gut syndrome. Not so good.


Common symptoms of candida

  • Indigestion: bloating, constipation or diarrhea
  • General fatigue and feelings of being worn down
  • Chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia
  • Moodiness: irritability, anxiety or depression
  • Skin issues: eczema, psoriasis, hives, or rashes
  • Fungal infections like athlete’s foot or toenail fungus
  • Brain fog: anything from lack of focus and difficulty concentrating to ADD and ADHD
  • Strong sugar and refined carbohydrate cravings
  • UTIs or vaginal itching
  • Strong seasonal allergies or itchy ears
  • Autoimmune diseases: Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, lupus, psoriasis, scleroderma or multiple sclerosis

What to do if you have it

Yeast feeds off sugar, so the first step is removing all sugars from your diet: Sweets, alcohol, flour, fruit, honey, maple syrup, dates, etc. Next, limit your intake of complex carbohydrates, like pasta and grains, as much as possible—no more than one cup a day.

With nothing to sustain it, the candida yeast will eventually die out. It’s a slow process that can take several months, so if you think you have candida overgrowth, see a functional medicine doctor for a blood or stool test to check your candida antibody levels and come up with a treatment plan.


Maple sugar shack

The next step will be to heal the gut, a course that will likely mean taking probiotics on the regular (an excellent practice for everyone), avoiding inflammatory foods (like wheat, dairy, sugar, and booze), and limiting your intake of fermented foods, which provide fodder for both good and bad bacteria.

While candida overgrowth is an extreme example of what can happen to someone with a diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugar (heavy alcohol consumption, oral contraceptives, a high-stress life and a medical condition that requires taking antibiotics are other culprits), we may all experience spikes in our sugar intake and subsequent periods of bloating, fogginess, and mood swings. When that happens, look to your diet and see what can shift.

Photos: Candida yeast by Denni Bakardji 

Living Your Yoga

Over the next few months we’ll be exploring a few yogic concepts that happen off the mat. First up: seva.

Seva is the Sanskrit word for service. Its root siv, or sev, means to serve or to honor, so its definition encompasses both the act of doing and the spirit in which it is done. Seva is often referred to as selfless service: an undertaking or an offering with no benefit or payoff for the doer. Seva is done out of goodness or devotion.

We can track the word back to the Mahabharata, the epic Sanskrit poem about the battle for the throne in ancient India. In that tome, performing seva was a personal act of service for one’s guru or spiritual teacher. Today’s broader meaning, in which acts of seva are performed for the greater good, is analogous to the altruistic example set by famous giver-doers like Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and that person who always offers up her seat on the subway.


“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” ― Mahatma Gandhi


To posit that acts of seva have no benefit or payoff for the doer is, of course, dubious. Anyone who’s helped someone or some cause just because—from holding the door open for a stranger to making sandwiches for a food drive—has more likely than not felt lit up by the experience.

Seva takes that practice one step further and adds the element of intention. When mindfully performing acts of service as a spiritual practice they become a tool for elevating consciousness. This is seva.

Volunteers working in soup kitchen

A personal example: I spent a few weeks at Amma’s ashram in southern India and performed a daily seva as part of the exchange for staying there. My job was to clean the main temple. On the first day I received a bucket of water, a bunch of frayed rags, and a huge, very dusty staircase to clean. As I scrubbed, the water in the bucket got dirtier and dirtier. The steps collected new dust the minute the old dust lifted, and people left footprints in their wake. Fixated on doing the job “right,” I grew more and more frustrated. At this rate the staircase and temple would never get clean. I was horrible at doing my seva and a failure in general.

By the third day I softened. I used my hour of seva to turn off my hyper-aware and fault-finding mind. Instead of rushing through each assignment I gave myself fully to the task at hand, letting myself be absorbed by the balustrade I was polishing or wood carvings I was dusting. I was tending to a divine place of worship, adding my energy and efforts to it and giving it my full focus. I had done away with the idea of being “good” at doing my seva and realized that doing so missed the point entirely. I had been seeking approval or praise and internal validation from my actions when seva is about stepping into the actions so fully that approbation loses all meaning.


There are many ways to do seva. It can be a quiet, daily practice (see: subway seat donator), or something bigger, like committing to a cause like Off The Mat Into The World.

In the holiday season, charitable giving and volunteering get a lot of air time; there are many organizations, like So Others May Eat and God’s Love We Deliver, that receive more volunteer requests they can handle over the holidays but need help the rest of the year. If the idea of seva resonates with you right now, be sure to check back in after the new year.

If you’re interested in incorporating seva into your practice, The Yoga Service Council is a wonderful resource. An umbrella organization dedicated to maximizing “the effectiveness, sustainability, and impact of individuals and organizations working to make yoga and mindfulness practices equally accessible to all,” it’s a yogic toolbox for giving back.

Photos: Heart in hands; Gandhi; Ariel Skelley’s soup kitchen shot; beach clean-up.

Winter Solstice Meditation Practice

Today marks the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the day when the sun reaches its southernmost point, relative to the earth’s orbit, in the dome of the sky. We’ve been moving toward this moment since the Summer Solstice in June, when, after hitting peak sunlight, we’ve incrementally lost daylight, bringing us to today’s darkness. Starting tomorrow we’ll reverse course and add length to our days, eventually bringing us back to June’s longest day of the year. Then we begin the cycle again. Check your timezone to see exactly when the sun reaches it nadir today.

A celebration and acknowledgment of life cycles, the Winter Solstice is a fitting time to meditate, journal and practice mindfulness. Many Native American wisdom traditions use the Medicine Wheel as part of their spiritual practice to stay connected to the cycles of the natural world. The circle represents the passage of the sun and the seasons; the shift from night to day; and the cycle of birth, life and death.


The Medicine Wheel and the Four Directions

Wheels vary from tribe to tribe, but many share similar attributes. The East is the direction of beginnings—the symbol of birth, illumination of the spirit and the season of spring. The South is where warmth and growth abide; in our life cycle, this is the direction where the Self comes into being. The West is seen as a direction of endings and is a space of introspection and growing old. The North represents winter’s tests and purification. It is here that wisdom is attained as the cycle of one life ends before it begin again in the east.

How To Use It In Your Practice

If you choose to set aside a few moments today to observe this stage in the earth’s orbit and in your own life cycle, play with working in these cardinal points. Orient yourself to the compass and sit facing in the direction that most resonates with where you are or where you’d like to be. A meditation using the Four Directions could be as simple as setting an intention for each one:

  • To the East: Something you’d like to begin.
  • To the South: Something you’d like to grow.
  • The the West: Something you’d like to release.
  • To the North: A phase you’d like to complete

For an asana practice, move in a wheel:

  • Salute the sun while facing east.
  • Move into standing postures facing south.
  • Navel-gaze in headstand or Viparita Karani to the west.
  • Take shavasana to the north.

As with all Self check-in and meditation practices, listening to your intuition and following your instinct is key. There is no wrong way to pray, tune-in or connect to the cosmos.

The study of the Medicine Wheel is deep and sacred; an in-depth look would require more space or knowledge than we have here. If you’re inspired to learn more, draw the four directions into your practice more regularly and see where that takes you. If you’d like to learn more about recent protests in the Native American community over the Dakota Access Pipeline, this is a great resource for getting involved.

Images: Winter lightMedicine Wheel illustration

Happy Bodhi Day

December is a month of sacred holidays across all traditions. This weekend marked the celebration of Bodhi Day, the Buddhist holiday observed in honor of the Buddha’s attainment of enlightenment.

As history has it, Siddhartha Gautama, a 5th-century BC Nepalese prince, left his kingdom at age 29 to renounce his worldly goods and become an alms-beggar and ascetic. In his quest for transcendence he studied meditation with ancient yogis, starved himself, and nearly drowned in a river.

After the river incident, from which Siddhartha was recused by a villager who revived him with a simple meal of sweetened rice cooked in milk, the erstwhile prince sat beneath a pipa tree (now called a bodhi tree), vowing not to rise until he had found the root of all suffering and the tools of liberation. He meditated for 49 days, confronted temptation by the god Mara and, at the age of 35, six years after his quest began, is said to have achieved Enlightenment.


What exactly happened between Day 1 and Day 49 is, by its very nature, unknown, but the Buddha’s words, from an old Pali text, shed light on the awakening:

“My heart, thus knowing, thus seeing, was released from the fermentation of sensuality, released from the fermentation of becoming, released from the fermentation of ignorance. With release, there was the knowledge, ‘Released.’ I discerned that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.”

Bodhi Day celebrates Siddhartha’s passage from prince-as-beggar to an Awakened Being.


Celebrate with a Metta Meditation

In the Buddhist tradition, Metta is a practice of loving-kindness, first toward oneself and then to all others, including, eventually, those who have harmed or hurt you or others.

To practice, find a comfortable seat and drop into a state of dharana, focused concentration. Slowly, internally, repeat the following:

May I be happy.

May I be well.

May I be safe.

May I be peaceful and at ease.


Eventually, after receiving the meditation’s message, bring to mind a loved one or a friend. Now direct the mantra outward:

May you be happy.

May you be well.

May you be safe.

May you be peaceful and at ease.


Repeat for as long and for as many people as you like.


Photos: Draped Buddha; Buddha under the bodhi treeBuddha statue and devotees by Allie Caulfield

Morning Breath

Earlier this week we wrote about caffeine’s influence on the body (CliffsNotes’ version: It’s a mood-altering drug.) and suggested a few caffeine-free beverage recipes to try instead of coffee. The caffeine-free and mood-altering substance we didn’t mention was breath. Regular pranayama practices, as part of an intentional morning routine, may eliminate the need for coffee or energy-boosters entirely.

Try a morning practice that uses breathwork to prepare the body for meditation. Commit to a length of time that feels comfortable to you and feel free to adjust the minutes you spend on each component. If you’re new to the practices outlined below, start with five minutes and then work your way up to a 10, 20 or 30 minute practice.

If possible, let this be the first thing you do in the morning, before you check your phone or engage in conversation. For a really mindful morning, wake up with oil pulling and tongue scrapping, and then settle into a comfortable seat.

Morning Pranayama Practice

  • Seated well and free of distractions, start with Alternate Nostril Breath. For a five-minute total practice, do two minutes of this pranayama.

  • Next, take one minute of Kapalabhati or Breath of Fire. A long spine is especially crucial here. Work with your arms extended overhead in a wide V with your thumbs extended and your fingers curled into your palms; or rest the backs of your hands on your knees, palms up, thumb and index finger touching in Chin Mudra.

  • When that round of breathing is done, sit in silence. If you’re short on time, dedicate two minutes to stillness. Otherwise, stay for as long as you like.


As you gain comfort and familiarity with this practice, try to weight it a little more heavily toward meditation. The breathwork here serves as a way to subtly focus and balance the mind—that would be the work of Nadi Shodana—and then purify the container—the work of Skull Shining Breath or Breath of Fire. Those two, especially, work like an espresso shot on the nervous system: practicing them helps everything come into sharper focus.

For a 10- or 20- or 30-minute practice, try the following breakdown:

  • Alternate Nostril ~ 3 / 5 / 6 minutes
  • Kapalabhati or Breath of Fire ~ 2 / 3 / 4 minutes
  • Seated Meditation ~ 5 / 12 / 20 minutes

If possible, commit to the practice for a week and see what, if anything shifts. If you can ditch coffee that week, too, go for it. Here’s to getting high off your own supply.

Photos: Morning light by Ethanea; Chin Mudra by Cortnee Loren Brown via The Chalkboard.

Deep Sleep

Ever since the Autumnal Equinox two weeks ago the days have been getting shorter and the nights longer. Before the equinox we wrote about preparing for Vata season, a time associated with the untethered elements of Air and Space and the mutable energy of the wind; these outside shifts can easily cause anxiety can rise: We have as much to do, but seemingly less time to do it in.

Any change in the seasons is naturally disruptive to our sleep cycles, and this shift from summer to fall — from Pitta to Vata — really requires a conscious tuning in and slowing down on our parts. If you have trouble sleeping you’re not alone: the sound loop of a box fan has been streamed more than 5 million times on Spotify, one of many wildly popular white noise sounds you can put yourself sleep to.

Need more than a fan on a loop to help you sleep? Yoga’s got your back. These six poses are ideal for winding down and combatting insomnia. You can put them together in a simple posture flow before bed or pick one or two to spend more time in. Either way, give yourself at least two minutes in each shape, inviting your internal metronome to slow and your mind to stop chit-chatting.

It goes without saying that the more serene and relaxed an environment you can do these poses in the better, but just focusing on your breath in these shapes — despite what may be going on around you — will improve your chances for deeper sleep.

More sleep tips: No screens before bed; no screens in the bed; and keep the lights low. Try a simple, seated meditation to tune inward before getting under the covers or lead yourself through a guided relaxation once you’re already there.

Child’s Pose


Use a bolster or a blanket or a pillow from your bed to give your chest maximum support.


Giving the head and neck a chance to relax in a Standing Forward Bend sends a subtle message to the brain to chill out. If need be, bend the knees.

Prasarita Padottanasana


Same deal in Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend. Forward folds are great for reducing anxiety and insomnia and relieving headaches. Put the crown of your head on a block for super comfortable support.



Literally turn the gaze inward in a Seated Forward Bend. A successful night’s sleep means disengaging from the activities of the outside world. This is a great shape to practice Pratyahara in.

Supta Baddha Konasana


As with all of these pre-bedtime poses, props of all sorts are encouraged. A serene and supported Reclining Bound Angle Pose stretches major muscle groups and gives the spine, a.k.a command center for the Central Nervous System, a chance to relax.

 Viparita Karani


Legs-up-the-Wall takes all of the benefits of an inversion and delivers them to you while you lie on the floor doing absolutely nothing. Heaven.

Sweet dreams, yogis.

Photos: Namasty in Bed; the wonderful Elena Brower in Child’s pose; Prasarita PadottanasanaPaschimottanasanaSupta Baddha KonasanaViparita Karani

Breathwork Basics: Sitali Pranayama

Have you ever wished you had your own portable A/C unit? Or that you could cajole someone into following you around with a giant fan? If you haven’t, then you’ve probably never spent time on a New York City subway platform in the summer, hoping not to sweat through your shirt before you make it to work.

If you have, this pranayama practice has got you covered. A few weeks ago we wrote about balancing pitta — the hot and volatile Ayurvedic dosha associated with summer — and Sitali breath is another tool to help bring your fire and water elements back into equilibrium.

Sitali Pranayama is often translated as “cooling breath.” It calms the nervous system, quenches thirst, adds moisture to the body and lowers your body temperature. 



How To Practice Sitali

  • Find a comfortable seat (or stance, if you’re on the subway platform).
  • Take a few diaphragmatic breaths to get the oxygen flowing.
  • Open your mouth and make an “O” with your lips.
  • Curl your tongue, making a little alleyway for air to enter in, and stick your tongue out just a bit.
  • If you can’t curl your tongue, curse your genetic makeup and simply slide your flat tongue out between your lips. This is called Sitkari breathe and will do the trick just as well.
  • Inhale through your mouth like you’re drinking from a straw.
  • Close your mouth and exhale completely through your nose.
  • Focus on the air entering in and the cooling sensation against your tongue. Breath in deeply enough for that breath to expand into your lungs.
  • Continue for two to three minutes, pausing if need to take a break.
  • Eventually you can work your way up to a longer practice, breathing through your pursed mouth and out the nose for 10 minutes.
  • End the breath practice gradually, giving yourself time to stay in your new, cool headspace before entering back into the heat.
Photos: Top photo found here; tongue curl found on Well + Good

New Moon Meditation

Today the moon starts its cycle anew. It will be absent from tonight’s sky, but in a few days a skinny crescent will appear as the moon waxes into fullness on the 18th.

As a harbinger of a fresh lunar cycle, the new moon is a potent time to start something new here on earth; from our perspective down below it appears empty, a vessel waiting to be filled. Dark and unilluminated, a new moon also marks an opportunity to turn inward and reflect on those aspects of ourselves that often remain unseen. By the midpoint of its cycle, the full moon, with its bright light and pulsing energy, is a time to celebrate and transform. The new moon is a time to plant seeds for that future growth.

Journaling, meditating and carving out time for quiet introspection and self care are all practices supported by the new moon’s tranquil energy. To acknowledge this new phase, consider planting something you’d like to grow. A simple intention setting practice can ground you into the larger rhythms at play while revealing the beginning of a new path.


New Moon Intention Setting 

  • First, make space. Dedicate time — from as little as five minutes to as long as an hour — to sit with yourself. First thing in the morning, before you’ve reached for your phone or had too much coffee, or in the final moments before bed in the evening are both nice times for self practice.
  • Create a sense of ritual. Light a candle, dim the lights, put fresh flowers on your altar. Gather any supplies you might need, like a journal, some incense to set the mood, or a timer to take the stress out of meditating.
  • Practice pranayama. A balancing breath like Anulom Vilom will bring you into the present moment; or, simply breathe in out from the diaphragm, with one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly.
  • With the air newly cleared, ask yourself what you’d like to call in. To make space for the new, you may first need to identify what you no longer need — a way of treating yourself or others, a destructive pattern or a limiting behavior or belief.
  • Make a list. You can write this down or keep it internal. It can be short or long, specific or general. My intention for this new moon is to slow down and listen to my body. My intention this month is to take five minutes every day to practice meditation. 
  • If you’ve made a physical list, fold it up and stash it somewhere safe. In a few weeks time when the moon is full, you can take it out to burn, bury or otherwise release what you put down.
  • Non-attachment is key. Be kind to yourself as you identify ways in which you’d like to grow or patterns you’d like to shift without fixating on progress.
  • Taking the time to see yourself as you are and being unafraid of the darker parts is the practice. Setting intentions is a way to articulate your innate and powerful potential.


Photos: Moon rising by Liza Lubell; “All The Moons of Our Solar System” by Stella Marie Baer.