Five Pillars Yoga

Posts Tagged ‘Off the Mat’

The Yoga of Swimming

If you love swimming and are interested in deepening your pranayama practice on the mat, you are in for a wonderful surprise. Whether you swim laps or enjoy water recreationally, you probably recognize that swimming can transform the way you feel. Similar to yoga, the before and after effects are astounding! A powerful, low-impact activity, swimming can also become a incredible pranayama.

Pranayama refers to breathing exercises or breath control. Breath control is one of the very first things we learn during swim lessons by blowing bubbles into the pool. Aside from yoga practice and swimming, there are few places in life where we intentionally control our breathing. With intention and awareness, we can transform swimming into yoga.

What was that about pranayama? Most of the time, we breathe automatically. During yogic breathing exercises, we control the breath to create more energy or prana in our bodies. Pranayama is one of the eight limbs of yoga (Ashtanga = eight limbs) in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Ashtanga Yoga is a pathway to ultimate freedom and bliss. Although modern-day yoga is often dominated by yoga asanas or postures, breathing exercises are given equal importance in the Yoga Sutras.

How do we practice pranayama while swimming? When we swim, we hold our breath to go under water and then slowly let the air out while we propel ourselves forward or backward. When we surface, we take another big breath and continue the pattern we have started. The more rhythm we create with our breathing, the more ease we feel when swimming. In essence, we learn to coordinate our breath with movement, which is the foundational concept in a yoga vinyasa class. In fact, the word vinyasa means “a method in yoga in which movements and breath are coordinated.” Paying attention and controlling our breath during yoga practice and swimming alike has the capacity to create a vinyasa, or a moving meditation.

 Swimming and pranayama are mutually beneficial.

Practicing swimming requires breath control and rhythmic breathing, which will deepen your yoga practice on the mat. And practicing pranayama on land can help to enhance your swimming techniques and lung capacity in the pool. Win-win.

That said, you may be thinking to yourself: I swim all summer and even during the other months of the year, but my mind races while I swim and I am hardly aware of how I am breathing… I am on autopilot. How is this like yoga?

Like the ease we feel peddling and balancing once we have learned to ride a bike, breath control while swimming becomes automatic. Even though we are raising our energy levels and opening energy channels in our body when we swim regardless of our intention, awareness and mindfulness gradually shifts our experience in the water.

The Yoga of Swimming = Swimming + Intention + Awareness

Without intention and awareness, yoga resembles stretching, calisthenics, sitting, or even napping. Similarly, without mindfulness, swimming is the act of moving through water. Intention and awareness transforms these movements and postures into what we call yoga. Yoga is the union or yoking of mind with spirit.

When you cultivate mindfulness and intention, swimming can become yoga, leaving you with a deep sense of inner peace, freedom, and even bliss! Ready to dive in?

Three Ways to Practice the Yoga of Swimming:

In the pool: How does your physical body feel before and after you swim? What happens to your energy before and after you swim? Do you feel pulsing, streaming or tingling sensations? How do you feel emotionally before and after your swim? Notice your state of mind before you enter the water. Then notice your state of mind at the end of your practice.

On the mat: While you are practicing yoga on your mat, imagine you are moving through water. Anytime you expand (raise your arms, lift your heart, head, or hips), inhale deeply. And anytime your contract (fold forward, root into the ground, sink your hips, lower your hands), slowly exhale. When you hold postures, create long inhalations. Imagine you are about to dive under the water at the top of your inhalation and pause. Then slowly exhale. At the bottom of your exhalation, imagine you are still under water and pause. Continue this breathing pattern. With a little intention and imagination, you can use your experience in the water to deepen your yoga on the mat.

Practice yoga by the water: Practice yoga by the water. If you are by a pool, take your standing balancing postures into the shallow end of the pool. Then, end your asana practice with savasana on a floatation device or lying down next to the water. Try meditating near water after you swim or practice yoga.

*Be sure to use safety precautions while practicing by water, especially the ocean, and have fun!





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.

Save Face

Our skin, our largest organ, absorbs what we put on it: The ingredients in our body lotions, shampoos, lipsticks and sunscreens eventually make their way into our bloodstreams. The products we use impact us in much the same ways as the foods we eat—turns out you are what you apply, too.

So, what’s in all those creams and concealers? For the most part, not stuff you’d want to put in your smoothie. The list of what to avoid and why is long; for an in-depth breakdown of common ingredients and what they do, visit the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics‘ comprehensive Chemicals of Concern list to learn about what’s in your lip gloss.

While the US food industry is attempting to keep up with consumer demand for transparency in labeling and regulations, the beauty industry is lagging behind. Label claims like “organic” and “natural” and even “FDA-approved” mean little to nothing at all, and, for now, it’s up to consumers to be their own fact and label-checkers.

Our advice: Keep it simple. Products with lengthy ingredient lists are likely to have more ingredients to avoid; a pared-down beauty routine—one with fewer products to vet and claims to investigate—is an easy way to feed your skin good food. If an ingredient is unpronounceable, look it up and learn more or move on.

Beauty Brands We Love

There are, thankfully, companies doing it right. We look for brands that champion holistic practices and pure products. Here are a few favorites: 


Earth Tu Face

Plant-based skincare from two herbalists in California. Their products are made from organic, high quality and food-grade ingredients.

Product we love: Virgin Coconut Oil + Cardamom Body Butter. 


Vitner’s Daughter

Winery owner April Gargiulo created her cult-favorite skin serum in an attempt to simplify her complicated skincare regime. It took two years of tinkering, but the result is a game-changing, nutrient rich face oil that uses anti-inflammatory, antioxidant-rich plant ingredients to maintain and restore skin’s natural radiance.


Tata Harper

Made in small batches in the company’s laboratory in Vermont, Tata Harper products are packed with from-the-earth, active ingredients like red algae (for elasticity) and borage (moisture retention). Many of their ingredients are grown on their own bucolic farm.

Product we love: Be Adored


Living Libations

For love-infused products from two high-vibrational souls, look no further than Living Libations. Essential oils, a holistic oral healthcare line and self-proclaimed “renegade” beauty products are all meticulously sourced; the founders, husband and wife Ron and Nadine Artemis, believe that radiance is a birthright, and they manage to capture that philosophy in every offering.

Product we love: Seabuckthorn Shampoo and Shine On Conditioner


In New York we love visiting CAP Beauty in the West Village (they also have an excellent website), and Living Libations‘ newly-opened store in Venice Beach, Los Angeles. For treatments, questions, and holistic beauty coaching, pro-makeup artist and Ayurveda expert Jessa Blades is a bi-coastal treasure.

Top image: Splash Happy; all brand images from their own websites; the Living Libations image is Courtesy of CAP Beauty.

The Upanishads: Karma

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.


We’ve all heard of karma.

It’s Newton’s Third Law: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” and a pop-culture concept with a wide reach. Do something bad and something bad will happen to you.

Our modern-day conception of karma is not very far off from the Upanishad version. In Sanskrit the word karma [कर्म] means action, work, or deed and, according to the sages, our actions and deeds—as well as our thoughts and desires—have consequences. While the concept of karma today carries an in-this-lifetime immediacy to it, the Upanishad version conceives of karma as actions that ripple out from one lifetime to the next; in other words, the ancient belief in karma presupposes a belief in past and future lives.

From the Svetasvatara Upanishad:

This vast universe is a wheel. Upon it are all creatures that are subject to birth, death and rebirth. Round and round it turns, and never stops. It is the wheel of Brahman. As long as the individual self thinks it is separate from Brahman, it revolves upon the wheel in bondage to the laws of birth, death and rebirth. But when through the grace of Brahman it realizes its identity with him, it revolves upon the wheel no longer. It achieves immortality.

Brahman is the Great Unknown; it is the divinely infinite and formless cause of all change that is itself changeless. All beings, the Upanishads posit, will be reborn again and again until they are able to transcend their material worlds and physical realms and see themselves as part of the infinite, encompassing All.

Karma’s deal in all of this is that it is our worldly actions that determine our fates. Evil thoughts and deeds = rebirth in bad conditions; good thoughts and deeds = rebirth in uplifting conditions.

It’s important to note that actions on their own are not enough to change fates. It’s actions plus intentions—the attitude with which we perform our deeds—that seal our karmic fate. The ancient scholars warned against doing nothing at all in the hopes of outsmarting karma, but inaction is not the same as good action.

From a chapter in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

Accordingly as one behaves so does he become. The doer of good becomes good, the doer of evil becomes evil. One becomes virtuous by virtuous actions. Others become bad by bad actions.

Inaction, then, gets you nowhere on the wheel of Brahman; or, worst-case scenario, it’s a potential “good karma” loss if the intention behind your inaction was to shirk your responsibilities and cheat the system.

Whether or not you believe in past lives or the boomerang effect of karmic comeuppance, the idea that we shape our fates through our actions is a compelling one. Taking responsibility for our thoughts and conduct is a wise step in any worldview, and the practice of mindfulness, yoga and meditation makes it easier to get clear on what the thoughts that drive our behavior are.

But maybe Justin Timberlake says it best:

I heard you found out
That he’s doing to you what you did to me
Ain’t that the way it goes

You cheated, girl
My heart bleeded, girl
So it goes without saying that you left me feeling hurt
Just a classic case scenario
Tale as old as time girl, you got what you deserved

Images: Boomerang; ripple effect; Wheel of Fortune

Get to Know the Gods: Exploring the Hindu Pantheon

Welcome to our mythology series—Get To Know The Gods: Exploring the Hindu Pantheon—a dive into the fables and rituals surrounding the Hindu deities. So far we’ve covered Ganesh and Durga.

Today, in honor of Maha Shivaratri—celebrations in honor of Lord Shiva taking place this weekend—we’re turning the spotlight on Shiva, one of Hinduism’s major players and the supreme God of Shaivism, a main branch of contemporary Hinduism. Shiva is a key player in most myths; we’ve met him already as Ganesh’s jealous father and as the creator of Virabhadra, the Warrior of Warrior I, II, and III.

Along with Brahma and Vishnu, Shiva is one third of the Trimurti, Hindu’s holy Trinity. Together these deities personify the cosmic functions of the wheel of life. Brahma represents creation; Vishu preservation; and Shiva transformation or destruction. Essentially, they represent birth, life, and death in its micro and macro iterations. (To examine this birth and death cycle through another lens, read about the Cycle of Transformation through Awareness.)


In Shaivism tradition, Shiva creates, protects and transforms the universe. He is often honored as the patron god of yoga, meditation, and the arts. In that guise he appears in seated meditation, living a life of simple asceticism on sacred Mount Kailash.

In his more fearsome roles Shiva is a ruthless demon slayer, bringing transformation through death in most of his deeds. At his highest, Shiva is the primal Self, or Atman, of the universe. He is without form and limitless, a transcendent and unchanging Godhead.

Mahasivaratri Picures Lordshiva

Shiva’s Features and Accessories

You can recognize Shiva by his third eye, a feature that opened on the god’s forehead when he beamed a missile of fire out of it to destroy an enemy. This fire bomb effectively reduced Kama, the god of lust, to a pile of ash. Shiva’s third eye, then, represents the rejection of desire and ignorance.

The serpent around Shiva’s neck stands for the ego. Once mastered, it can be worn as an adornment.

An elegant crescent moon rests above Shiva’s brow. One of Shiva’s names is Chandrashekhara, the one who holds the moon (chandra) on his head. The crescent is said to be the moon in its fifth day; it symbolizes the cycle of time, from beginning to end, over which Shiva reigns supreme. He is beyond and outside of time.

The Ganga, India’s holiest of all rivers, flows from Shiva’s hair. He is a fount of spiritual teachings.

Shiva’s trishula, the trident he carries as a weapon, has many interpretations. It signifies the interweaving of creation, preservation, and destruction (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva); the three gunas, energetic qualities in the physical world; and the nadis, energetic currents at work in the physical body.

Finally, Shiva’s damaru, a small two-headed drum represents Shiva’s role as the creator of all sounds, languages, music, and vibrations in creation. In one myth, the basic rules of Sanskrit arose when one of the language’s primary grammarians watched Shiva dance to the beat of his own damaru.


Maha Shivarati celebrations in India

Images: Shiva illustration; seated Shiva; black and white Shiva; Maha Shivrati

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

The Benefits of Cacao

Cacao. Cocoa. Chocolate. All the same? Nope. Here’s the breakdown:


The Theobroma Cacao tree grows pods that contain cacao beans. Chopped up, these beans become cacao nibs, a nutty, crunchy superfood you may have baked with or added to your smoothie.

Raw cacao powder is the unprocessed byproduct of cold-pressed, un-roasted cocoa beans. Pressing the beans removes the fat, which we know as cacao butter. Cacao is high in antioxidants and flavanols—good-for-us phytonutrients that are particularly abundant in cacao beans.


Natural cocoa powder is raw cacao that’s been roasted. Dutch-processed cocoa powder is cocoa powder that has been processed with an alkalized solution, making it less bitter, darker in color, and richer in taste.

While regular cocoa powder is closer to cacao than the Dutch-processed variety, both forms of cocoa have been processed and treated, ultimately stripping them of some nutritional goodness.

Unsweetened Chocolate

Like cocoa powder, unsweetened chocolate comes from ground cacao beans, but unlike cocoa powder the cocoa butter hasn’t been removed.


The product that we think of as chocolate—in a heart-shaped box or pressed between a Graham Cracker and a marshmallow—is unsweetened chocolate (the kind that still has cacao butter in it) that’s been dressed up with sugar, milk fat and an emulsifier like soy lecithin.

The take-away: Not everything in your baking aisle is created equal. Raw cacao outranks all of its more highly processed cousins in health benefits and has the added distinction of being more traceable as a pure product–that means it’s easier to shop for and find fairly-traded, sustainably grown, pesticide-free, straight-from-the-source, single origin cacao than it is to find a truly vetted chocolate bar.


Ashley Alexander’s cacao, banana and blueberry smoothie bowl topped with cacao nibs

Benefits of Raw Organic Cacao

Super High in Antioxidants and Iron 

On the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) scale, an NIH-developed chart that measures the ability of antioxidants to absorb free radicals, cacao is at the very top of the list. It has over four times the amount of antioxidants as goji berries, another top-performing superfood, and more than 40 times the amount found in blueberries. As a plant-based source of iron, cacao is also chart-topping. As a non-heme iron (one that doesn’t come from meat), cacao’s minerals are best absorbed when combined with a diet high in Vitamin C.

Rich in Magnesium 

When it comes to deficiency, Westerners are sorely lacking in magnesium, a mineral that’s key in keeping hearts healthy by regulating blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar levels. Magnesium also helps transform glucose into energy, providing clarity and focus while maintaining nerve function and keeping muscles relaxed and stress at a minimum. If you suffer from period-related mood swings or irritability, try increasing the amount of magnesium in your diet, which fluctuates throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle. There’s truth to that monthly chocolate craving.


More calcium than a glass of milk.

Makes You Happy

Chocolate bliss. Cacao is high in chemicals that make you happy: serotonin, dopamine, anandamide and phenylethylamine. Neurotransmitters associated with happiness, relaxation and desire, these brain stimulators may even help to ease the symptoms of depression and lighten up dark days.

Photos: Cacao powder and beans; smoothie bowl by Ashley Alexander @gatherandfeast on

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

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

Candy Crush

A few weeks ago an article on sugar industry inter-dealings that took place half a century ago made national news. According to the piece, the Sugar Research Foundation funded studies in the 1960s that downplayed the maleffects of sugar and its link to poor coronary health and positioned fat as Public Health Enemy #1. The project concluded that cutting fat from the American diet was the best way to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Enter the low-fat and no fat craze of the past decades, a time when bold-printed claims on the front of packaged food became more important than the list of ingredients on the back. Whole milk, red meat, cheese, oils and butter were positioned as devious culprits, while fat-free, processed foods claimed health food status.

It’s a prevailing belief. The trendy Atkins diet shifted the blame to carbohydrates in the nineties, but the idea of fat as a health food will still sound far-fetched to most. And Americans’ sugar consumption? You don’t need a whistleblower to know it’s through the roof.

So what’s the story with sugar? Earlier this year we wrote about food cravings and how to understand them. Sugar, in short, makes us feel good, provides us with a burst of energy, and, ironically, actually helps us hold on to fat — an energy reserve for later use (good for hunter-gatherers, less important for driver-microwavers).


But, what is it exactly?

Sugars have several names that all end in –ose. Fructose and glucose are naturally occurring carbohydrates found in fruits, vegetables and honey. Lactose is a milk sugar.

What we think of when we picture sugar in the baking aisle or next to the cream for our coffee is refined sucrose. Unrefined sucrose is found in the roots of sugar beets and in the stems of sugar cane. To make table sugar those plants are harvested, processed and refined (a process that usually involves bleaching and crystallization), ultimately stripping them of minerals or nutrients. By the time it reaches your coffee cup it’s just pure, refined sugar.

What does it do in the body?

One of two things. Depending on the efficiency of your fat-burning cells, your body will either use the sugar as energy (fast metabolism) or convert it to fat and store it (slow metabolism).

Either way, when sugar enters the blood stream, the pancreas detects it, recognizes it as potentially problematic, and releases insulin to deal with it, primarily by sending it to the liver and muscles to use as fuel.

The more sugar we consume the more insulin we produce. And if we flood the body with sugar, like on a Halloween candy binge, the body may produce too much insulin in an attempt to get the balance right. All that insulin moves the sugar out of our bloodstream, causing our blood sugar levels to drop, triggering hypoglycemia, a sugar crash, which can feel like this:

  • Shakiness
  • Anxiety
  • Sweating and chills
  • Irritability
  • Confusion
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Lightheadedness
  • Hunger and nausea
  • Sleepiness
  • Blurred/impaired vision
  • Tingling or numbness in the lips or tongue
  • Headaches
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Anger, stubbornness or sadness
  • Lack of coordination

And how does the body respond to being in such a state? By asking for more sugar to right the balance, setting the whole process in motion again.


It’s not an impossible cycle to break, but it does take effort, information and discipline. For starters, the more we can decrease our intake of added sugars, the better. To get an idea of how much sugar is in your diet already, check out, a visual aid that stacks foods against sugar cubes.

We’ll take a look at naturally-occurring sugars, like the ones found in sweet fruits, in an upcoming post on candida overgrowth — an excess of sugar-fueled yeast that can disrupt the gut and compromise the immune system — and geek out on the Glycemic Index.

Until then, binge wisely.


Photos: Top illustration; Clare Crespo’s candy mandala; doughnut

Exploring The Eight Limb Path: Samadhi

Back in April we launched a series of posts exploring the historical and philosophical foundations of yoga based on the writings of Patanjali, one of yoga’s foundational architects. Patanjali’s thesis, The Eight Limb Path, posits that yoga is a practice that starts with our behavior toward others and ends with connecting to divine, universal consciousness.

The links to all of those posts are below. They’re worth revisiting before we jump into the deep end that is the eighth and final limb, Samadhi. 






In reading about Samadhi I came across an article by the wonderful Judith Lasater. In it she joked that in tackling the topic she was tempted to leave that page of the article entirely blank. Encapsulating samadhi is a near-impossible task: It is a state most of us have glimpsed but cannot quite grasp, or an experience we can’t reliably translate for someone else.

The idea of Samadhi is shared across wisdom traditions. In Buddhism it is the last of the eight elements of the Noble Eightfold Path, the final step towards liberation from suffering; in Sikhism samadhi is the practice which produces complete concentration on God.

In the yogic lineage, samadhi, along with dharana and dhyana makes up Samyama, the perfected control of the mind. These three limbs are often studied together and are called Antaratma Sadhana, or the innermost quest. Grouping the final three limbs together makes sense: If dharana is about concentration on one point and dhyana is about absorption into that point, samadhi is about utter, uninterrupted, nonjudgemental immersion in all points at once.

Or, as Lasater puts it, “Samadhi is a state of being intensely present without a point of view. In other words, in samadhi you perceive all points of view of reality at once, without focusing on any particular one.”

Unattainable? It’s tempting to turn to the image of the levitating sadhu in his cave, high from oxygen and lack of food, and dismiss the pursuit of samadhi as something from a different time and place. But samadhi is essential to today’s world.

Think of the practice of samadhi as ego eradication at the highest level. In samadhi we dissolve the barrier between self and other and connect to the humming, vibrating chord that thrums through the whole universe. With universal awareness and consciousness as a goal, we can increase compassion, empathy, understanding, and hope.

Get To Know The Gods: Exploring the Hindu Pantheon

In case you missed last month’s post on Ganesh, we’ve got a new series going on over here — Get To Know The Gods: Exploring the Hindu Pantheon — a dive into the mythology surrounding the Hindu deities.

This week the goddess of the hour is DurgaNavaratri, or Durga puja, began on October 1 and the celebrations will continue for nine nights. Puja is a prayer ritual or act of worship performed to honor a deity, and this particular ceremony honors Durga’s creation story.

As the tale goes, the gods were in trouble. Mahishasura, a demon born from the union of a human with an inflated ego who fell in love with a water buffalo, had staged a coup and claimed heaven as his own. The gods’ rage was so intense they manifested a new being, Durga, who formed from the flames shooting out of the gods’ eyes.


Durga, then, is known as the brilliance of all the gods. Awed and impressed, her cohorts bestowed upon her many powerful gifts.

Durga’s Weapons

  • Conch Shell: Symbolizes the sacred sound Om; the sound of God in the palm of her hand.
  • Bow and Arrows: Durga has control over energy in all its forms — potential and kinetic.
  • Thunderbolt: A signal to attack with firmness. A thunderbolt breaks that which it strikes without being destroyed. The message: Move forward with confidence.
  • Lotus: The blossom in Durga’s hand is not fully bloomed. Born from mud, the lotus stands for continual spiritual evolution. We are always in process.
  • Sudarshan-Chakra: A spinning disc with 108 serrated edges that revolves around Durga’s finger, never touching it. She uses it to destroy evil and support righteousness.
  • Sword: Durga’s sword symbolizes knowledge, a tool that can cut deeper than any weapon. Doubt-free, this knowledge shines like a polished blade.
  • Trident: Each prong of the trident marks one of three interconnected qualities — Satwa (light or clarity, non-doing); Rajas (action and movement); and Tamas (inertia, heaviness). Concurrently, the trident signifies Durga as the remover of three types of suffering: physical, mental and spiritual.

A goddess needs many hands to hold those weapons, and Durga has plenty.

Durga’s Arms

Depending on the representation, Durga has eight or ten hands, an indication that she protects her devotees from all directions. Also, weapon holders.

Durga’s Eyes

Durga is referred to as Triyambake, the three-eyed Goddess. The left eye represents desire, the right eye action, and the central eye knowledge.

Durga’s Mount: The Lion

The lion is a universal symbol of power. Here he also stands for will and determination, qualities over which Mother Durga has complete mastery. Durga came into being to defeat the demon Mahishasura, a clear stand-in for ego and an inflated sense of self. To destroy the ego, first come into possession of power, will and determination.


Oh, yeah, the demon Mahishasura! To pick up the creation myth where we left off, Durga destroyed him. As if you had any doubt.

So what does this have to do with yoga? As the warrior goddess of strength, protection, and courage Durga is all about staying calm in chaos and graceful under pressure. She is great example for anyone getting too caught up in the “doing” instead of the “being” of yoga. Though she may appear violent (all those weapons!), Durga is more about mastery and total clarity. When she strikes she never misses. Practice with a clear intention and observe the results.

Photos: Top and bottom image; middle image

The Body Whisperer

One of the primary goals of Five Pillars Yoga is to support the heath and vitality of our community. “Off the mat” we can pursue Right Relaxation by working with exceptional practitioners in the fields of medicine, nutrition, body work, acupuncture and so on.

Neil Runyon, the founder of Carnegie Hill Massage, is one of these exceptional practitioners that we simply couldn’t keep secret.


Neil has extensive training in numerous modalities — including Swedish and Deep Tissue massage, trigger point therapy, myofascial release, and neuromuscular therapy — and has been working his magic for over seven years. He has been reviewed as one of the most knowledgeable and skilled massage therapists around, as well as being intuitive, caring and compassionate. After a treatment with Neil this summer I can second all of these raves!


If you’d like to experience the magic, he is currently offering Five Pillars students a 10% discount on sessions!


12961512_802767543189127_1831009344832943948_nCarnegie Hill Massage can be found in a converted garden studio that is sweet, peaceful and utterly convenient – it’s located just two blocks down from Five Pillars on 92nd between Park & Lex. Soft linens filter the light and pale wood and ivory walls create a tranquil atmosphere. Classical music sets the tone for a massage that felt just as precision as an orchestral arrangement. In fact “massage” is too minimal a word.

As Neil applied a combination of techniques specific to my issues (including trigger point and myofacial release) he spoke about the relationships and mechanics of my muscles and connective tissue the way an astronomer might speak of constellations.

His understanding of body mechanics, of anatomy and of modern human afflictions was staggering. He’s perfectly happy to let people drift off into Right Relaxation “la la land” during treatments, but, being the curious yogi that I am, I asked question after question and left feeling like I had taken a master class in my own physiology.

As for my body – the work he did that day was deep, targeted and corrective. I have been working with some issues in the low back and also upper shoulders and once my body had integrated his work, I’d say around 36 hours later, I felt like a whole new woman.


Neil has the skills and the intuition to give us each what we might need – one day might be just a relaxing slow Swedish indulgence, another day he might spend an hour working on just one hip. If you have specific issues you’re working with, he can help not only on the table, but also might recommend certain stretches or practices to help.


“Opening my own private practice has allowed me develop longer term personal relationships with clients who value the role massage therapy can play in their wellness regimens. My approach is a holistic one – I do believe that our physical, emotional, and spiritual lives express themselves in our bodies…”


Neil meets each client with skill and compassion and seeks to treat the whole person. His specialties include:



Low Back, Hip and Pelvic Imbalances

Shoulder Girdle, Neck and Head Imbalances

Post Surgical/Injury Rehabilitation 

Depression and Stress Related Disorders

Certified Pre and Post-Natal Massage



Neil books books both 90-minute and two hour sessions. Do yourself a favor and book the longer session. While he can work wonders in an hour and a half, with that extra time he can really #GoDeep, sussing out a few of your particular source issues and giving them the time and attention they need to begin to rebalance.


Whether you’ve got something specific that needs work or you just crave a little Right Relaxation, take advantage of Neil’s exclusive 10% discount offer for the Five Pillars community. For a limited time only. 

Click here to Contact Neil
Or call 347-324-6745



Get to Know The Gods: Exploring the Hindu Pantheon

This week marked the beginning of Ganesha Chaturthi, a 10-day festival celebrating one of the most ubiquitous deities in Hinduism, Lord Ganesh.

The timing seemed right to launch a new series of posts exploring the history and mythology behind the Hindu Pantheon, i.e. those multi-armed gods and goddesses whose images or icons might be in your yoga studio, printed on your mat or screened on to your leggings.


Lord Ganesh is considered the god of new beginnings. He’s often invoked at the start of projects or ventures, so he’s an appropriate kick-off subject; plus, the riotous festival taking place in his name this week (pictured above) celebrates his birthday, so we had to give him a little love.

Ganesh’s origins are appropriately incredible. Here’s one of his many creation myths:

Longing for a son, the Goddess Parvati created Ganesh from clay that she moulded into the shape of a boy. Shortly after creating him, Parvati enlisted Ganesh to guard the door to her bathhouse while she bathed. When Shiva, Parvati’s husband, returned and demanded access to his wife, Ganesh denied him entry. Enraged at his impudence, Shiva cut off his head. Hearing all the commotion, Parvati emerged from her bathhouse and furiously reproached her husband for killing their son. Shiva ordered that a new head be found for the boy and promised to bring him back to life. The first available animal was an elephant, so that was the head Ganesh received. A deity was born.


Given his start in the world it’s not surprising that Ganesh is known as the remover of obstacles. There are no yoga poses named after him, but his perseverance and calmness in the face of challenge is applicable on the mat and off. And Ganesh’s unusual elephant head is a lesson about the ego: Without his original head Ganesh represents not the individual self but the larger, universal Self. He is able to see beyond his own experience, another benefit of a regular yoga practice that extends beyond asana.

Stay tuned for more history lessons on other Hindu gods and goddesses, some of the original yogis. 

Photos: Festival photo found here; pink Ganesh found here.

Ayurvedic Oral Care: Jihwa Prakshalana and Swish

We are well documented fans of Ayurveda at Five Pillars (here’s an intro, if you’re curious) and especially love the ancient science’s approach to oral health.

Two simple practices we’re advocating: Jihwa Prakshalana (a.k.a tongue scraping), and oil pulling. Chances are you’ve heard of both. Oil pulling is a celeb fave (Gwyneth Paltrow approves) and tongue scraping is a practically compulsory part of any cleanse.

So why do them?

Tongue scraping is like popping into your dentist’s office for a quick cleaning. The ancient oral hygiene practice removes bacteria, toxins and dead cells from the surface of the tongue, one of the easiest places in the body for germs to brew.

While we sleep, our digestive system deposits unwanted toxins on the surface of our tongue. If these toxins aren’t flushed out or removed, they get reabsorbed, compromising our immune system and leading to digestive ailments and respiratory woes.

Brushing and flossing will help with the toxin removal, but sometimes these practices just move bacteria around. Better to scrape.

It’s very simple: Using a metal or copper tongue scraper (this one’s great), drag the curved blade down toward the tip of your tongue, rinse the scraper and repeat until the scraper stops picking up residue.

This is best to do in the morning, before you brush your teeth and right after…

Oil pulling, another straightforward practice with natural detoxifying powers.


The idea is to swish (not swallow) up to 3 teaspoons of high quality, unrefined, cold-pressed oil like coconut or sesame for up to 20 minutes first thing every morning. Try swishing in the shower, while you steep your tea or while you make your bed. Don’t try to talk at the same time.

The actual pulling itself can take some getting used to, but working the oil around the mouth helps loosen the body’s overnight bacteria out from the teeth and gums, resulting in brighter teeth, stronger gums, fresher breath and a cleaner smile.

When you’re done, spit the oil out the window or into the trash to avoid a clogged sink. Follow oil pulling with tongue scraping, brushing and then flossing.

Your dentist will be impressed.

Photos: Tongue scraper from; coconuts from