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Posts Tagged ‘Yoga Lifestyle’

Fall Focus: Top Tips For Finding Balance During Vata Season

Happy Autumnal Equinox! Here at Five Pillars we hold the Intention to move through life in synch with the seasons. Listening to the messages and even advice each has to share with us and going with the flow or counterbalancing where beneficial – letting the pillars of Right Movement, Nutrition, Breathing, and Relaxation support and inform our choices.

According to Ayurveda—an ancient traditional system of medicine in India that’s been called Yoga’s sister science—Fall is Vata season. As the humidity of summer begins to wane and the Northeast experiences the incredible annual display of colorful Fall leaves, you may discover some signs and symptoms that suggest your Vata dosha is aggravated. You can adopt Vata-balancing practices to attain optimal health and feel your best.

But first, what’s a dosha? Three primary energies (aka doshas) based on the elements make up our physical and mental constitutions. These energies are Vata (Air & Space), Pitta (Fire) & Kapha (Earth + Water). Each of us has all of these elements, though one will likely be dominant in our constitutional makeup. If you want to #GoDeeper, try an online quiz.

The cooling weather patterns, Fall winds and shifting daylight hours that have arrived with the equinox often aggravate Vata. After all, the qualities of the Vata dosha are cool, light, dry, moving, and erratic—just like the weather patterns—and a basic tenet of Ayurveda is like increases like. Some common symptoms that occur when the Vata dosha is out of balance are anxiety, dry or chapped skin, indigestion, sudden bouts of fatigue, and light interrupted sleep.

Additional symptoms can occur on the physical or mental dimensions.

Common physical signs of a Vata imbalance:

  • • cold hands and feet
  • • constipation
  • • gas
  • • bloating
  • • aversion to cold and wind
  • • irregular appetite
  • • twitches
  • • spasms
  • • restlessness
  • • low body weight
  • • aversion to loud noises
  • • hypertension
  • • arthritis
  • • weakness
  • • restlessness
  • • irregular menstruation

Common mental signs of a Vata imbalance:

  • • nervousness
  • • fear
  • • panic
  • • racing mind
  • • worry
  • • spacey
  • • scattered
  • • inconsistency

The Five Pillars of Fall Wellness can help bring you back into balance, achieving your optimal state of being.


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Right Intention: Want To Book The Next Plane Ticket Out Of Here? Think Again And Dig Into A Steady Routine


When the Vata winds blow, we all need a little more grounding and stability. Now is the time to dive deeper into your mindfulness practices and stick to routines. It may help to begin by creating healthy patterns of eating and sleeping—try to sleep before 10 p.m. and eat regular meals around the same time each day. Beyond the basics, this is the perfect time to pick up or continue a yoga and meditation practice. Set an intention to be gentle and loving with yourself, and allow for plenty of time to reflect and go within. Your inner clarity will keep your health and wellness on track no matter what life throws your way.

Our recommendations: Take time to set an intention to stay grounded and stable during Vata season. Avoid the temptation to discard your routines and book the next plane ticket out of here. Instead, take a moment to organize your days into a soothing routine full of self-care and balance.


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Right Movement: Take It Easy


Choose a Right Movement practice that is light and easy on your body. Focus on flexibility and balance rather than long distances and speed.

Top movement tips: Walk through the park or take an easy breezy stroll with a friend. Power down your yoga practice and opt for therapeutics or gentle yoga, yoga nidra, tai chi or qi gong. Take some time out to practice pranayama and meditation. Focus on breathing deeply and be gentle with yourself.


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Right Breathing: Alternate Nostril Breathing


Pranayama (aka breathing practice) has incredible balancing effects on the entire body and can ward off unwanted stress & anxiety. Our favorite pranayama for inner balance and harmony during the Fall season is Nadi Shodhana Pranayama, otherwise known as Alternate Nostril Breathing. Nadi Shodhana Pranayama synchronizes the right and left hemispheres of the brain, helping to focus the mind and keep unwanted stress and anxiety at bay, providing the very foundation we need to stay peaceful and responsive no matter what the Vata winds blow into our lives.


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Right Nutrition: True Nourishment For the Fall Season


Fresh, cooling crudites were perfect for the hot summer, but the crisp fall air invites forth a natural desire to nourish ourselves with warming butternut squash soups, more protein, and hearty stews. Freshly cooked veggies are easier for our bodies to digest and assimilate than raw produce. If you are already in the practice of eating fresh, seasonal foods and shopping at the farmer’s market, you may notice the natural seasonal shift toward heartier produce that balances the vata dosha.

Begin to see your vegetables as vessels for healing herbs and spices. Each of the ancient, lasting cuisines around the world incorporate delicious, healing herbs and spices into meals. Oregano, basil, thyme, and rosemary make their way into Italian sauces. Turmeric, cumin, ginger, and cayenne spice up Indian fare.

As you know, food is so much more than fuel and nutrients. Many of the aromatic herbs and spices have anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, anti-fungal properties. As we spice up our recipes and savor the incredible flavor of international cuisine, our meals become medicine that support the immune system, keeping seasonal colds and the flu at bay.

Try cooking a healing coconut-milk curry with plenty of spices and seasonal vegetables. For inspiration, view this recipe: South Indian Style Vegetable Curry. For more information about Ayurvedic wisdom, check out this article: Vata Pacifying Diet.

Additional Vata-Pacifying Recommendations:

  • *Eat full-sized, well-portioned meals, but avoid overeating.
  • *Sip on tea and warm liquids throughout the day. Avoid chilled beverages.
  • *Sweet, sour, and salty tastes pacify Vata. Favor warming, oily, and heavy foods such as natural grains (particularly rice and wheat), soups and stews, cooked root vegetables, and sweet fruits (bananas, avocados, coconut, figs, grapefruit, oranges, lemons, melons, papaya, peaches, pineapples, dates, etc.). If you consume animal products, warm milk soothes Vata. Buy organic eggs, chicken, turkey and seafood.
  • *Integrate Vata-pacifying spices: cardamom, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, mustard seed, basil, cilantro, fennel, oregano, sage, tarragon, thyme, and black pepper.
  • *Avoid bitter, pungent and astringent foods. Minimize your intake of beans, aside from mung bean dahl and tofu. Light, dry fruits such as apples and cranberries can aggravate Vata. To avoid indigestion, steer clear from cabbage, sprouts, and raw vegetables in general.

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Right Relaxation: Self-Care


Book your favorite masseuse, invest in acupuncture, or get some reflexology done. These practices boost circulation and promote relaxation. Consider investing in a weekly or monthly self-care routine that includes your favorite treatments.

Want to keep it simple and stay at home?

  • *Give yourself a massage using warming oils such as sesame or almond.
  • *Play relaxing music
  • *Connect friends who make you feel calm and relaxed
  • *Try aromatherapy
  • *Take deep breaths often
  • *Pause in between tasks
  • *Take an Epsom salts bath
If you’d like to discuss how best to attune to the season, we’re here to support you! Feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns, or for an individual consultation.

 

 

*Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

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!

 

 

 

 

Top 5 Summer Superfoods

So what is a superfood? Superfoods are whole, unprocessed foods that contain a concentrated amount of nutrients. They are nutrition powerhouses. These incredible, natural packages have superpowers such as warding off cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and more! When you consume seasonal superfoods regularly, your skin will glow, your digestion will be incredible, and your inner superpowers will be unleashed as your mind clears and your body thanks you.



Here our our top 5 summer superfoods, plus quick tips for incorporating them into your daily diet. 


  1. Spinach (and other dark, leafy greens)



    Ahhh, the queens of alkalization! Dark leafy greens have been #1 on any reputable list of healthy foods for quite some time now and they are still at the top today. Spinach is often recommended, because it is mild in flavor and can be added to smoothies. That said, kale, arugula, beet greens, Swiss chard, lettuce, and dark green herbs (basil, parsley, cilantro) are also incredible sources of nutrition! Brimming with key vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, low in calories, and full of fiber, dark leafy greens keep the whole body system in tip top shape.


    Add greens to your smoothies, make delicious salads, sauté greens with garlic and olive oil, or make trendy kale chips in your oven! For inspiration, check out our fav Green Smoothie recipe. Consider making this delicious Summer Greens Power Pesto for extra nutritious flavor!


  2. Blueberries



    These sweet blue treats contain a concentrated amount of fiber, potassium, magnese, folate, vitamin C, and vitamin K. Blueberries contain the most antioxidants among commonly consumed fruits or vegetables! So what does this all mean? They help protect our bodies from cancer-causing free radicals and are chalk full of nutrients that support the immune system, nervous system, circulatory system, and digestive tract. They help our brains and our hearts. Need I say more?


    Add blueberries to your morning smoothies, cereals, or yoghurt. Eat blueberries as healthy snacks throughout the day. Check out this Summer Smoothie Bowls recipe and enjoy!


  3. Tomatoes



    Juicy red tomatoes are a sign of summer. Entirely different from out-of-season tomatoes harvested across the globe, in-season tomatoes are sweet, flavorful, and contain an abundance of nutrients and antioxidants that fight disease and keep us healthy. They are also a great source of lycopene, an antioxidant that helps protect us against breast and prostate cancers.


    Add fresh tomatoes to salads, sauce, salsa, and soup! Enjoy fresh with a pinch of salt, or top with mozzarella and basil for a delectable treat!


  4. Watermelon



    Sweet and juicy watermelon is a blissful delicacy on a hot summer’s day. Watermelon’s superpowers include nutrients and antioxidants that promote heart health and bone health, and aid in the prevention of prostate cancer. Watermelon has an alkalizing effect on the body and can act as an aphrodisiac! Each bite provides incredible hydration. True to its name watermelon is 92% water. Providing vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium, and magnesium, watermelon is a fun and delicious guilt-free summer treat. Feel free to enjoy watermelon all summer long!


    Check out this Watermelon Smoothie recipe for inspiration or try watermelon salad with our fav Sexy Summer Watermelon Salad recipe.


  5. Avocados



    Hass and Anaheim avocados are the commercially grown varieties that are in season during the summer months. Not only delicious, they contain one of the healthiest fats there is: monounsaturated fatty acids.  Plus avos are chalk full of vitamin K, C, E, B5, and B6. They also provide a significant amount of folate and more potassium than a banana. Since our brains are made of fat and we need healthy fats to protect our heart, a daily avocado may be the easiest and most delicious choice we could make for our health. And don’t be fooled by the word “fat.” Avocados can help with weight loss!


    Add avocados to smoothies, salads, guacamole, salsas, and more! Check out this Simple Summer Salad recipe for inspiration.


 

*Photos from Dr. Axe, California Avocados, and Authority Nutrition

 

Hydrate The Ayurvedic Way

Want to create a healthy body and glowing skin?


Look no further. Hydrating the Ayurvedic way can help you achieve your optimal wellness.  


By now you’ve probably heard the recommendation to drink eight glasses of water per day. But the reality of hydration is more complex. After all, each of us has a unique constitutional makeup, with diverse needs. We each have different habits that may dehydrate our bodies. Plus, there are quick and easy tips to help your body to absorb water and stay hydrated you won’t want to miss.


Ayurveda, the sister science to yoga, looks at the human body as a whole system, affected by seasonality and our environment. Moreover, Ayurveda sees the physical body as both a cause and effect of a person’s energy, state of mind, emotional health, and spirit. 


Ayurvedic practitioners approach health and wellness topics from a holistic perspective. 


According to Ayurvedic science, the physical body and everything that interacts with the body is made up of a unique balance of the five great elements (water, fire, air, earth, and ether or space). Each person’s elemental constitution affects all aspects of their multidimensional being. 

A person’s original constitution is called Prakriti.This is the inherent elemental makeup of a person determined at conception, akin to eye color or height. A person’s Prakriti is described as having a specific balance of three doshas: Vata (Air), Pitta (Fire) and Kapha (Earth). Each of us is made up of each of the doshas, our Prakriti reflects our individual formula, as unique as our fingerprint. 



So how does this work? If you have a Pitta predominant dosha, for example, you have a lot of fire in your body relative to earth and air. You tend to digest and metabolize food quickly. And your body may run hot. Additionally, you may be prone to rashes or acne. With so much heat running through, a “hot” temper and a quick intellect may define aspects of your personality. 


If you are curious about your personal Ayurvedic constitution, check out this online quiz. Plus you can learn more about the doshas and your Prakriti in our Five Pillars’ article, Intro to Ayurveda. And, if you want a professional assessment, consider working with an Ayurvedic practitioner.


So how does your constitution relate to hydration?


Discovering your Ayurvedic dosha can help you to better understand your body’s tendencies. Even without turning to Ayurveda, you probably know if you experience water retention on the one hand or if you tend to become dehydrated easily on the other hand. A person who tends to retain water may need to balance their body with exercise, foods, and drinks that act as healthy diuretics, while the person who tends to be dehydrated may benefit from learning about the body’s water absorption process. The goal of discovering the doshas is creating deeper self-awareness and, in this case, discover a balanced approach to hydration and its impact on your overall health and wellbeing.


When you understand your own constitution and personal tendencies, you can begin to create healthy hydration habits that benefit your body. 


Vata: People with predominant Vata constitutions have a tendency toward dehydration and need plenty of water and tea throughout the day. Since the qualities of Vata are cool, dry and rough, sip warm liquids and add hydrating oils to the skin each morning create balance.


Suggested bevies to pacify Vata? Add some fresh ginger to your water. Sip water with chia seeds to help with absorption. To increase flavor, add sliced strawberries or raspberries.


Pitta: People with predominant Pitta constitutions run hot, tending to sweat and metabolize nutrition quickly, thus losing liquids at a rapid rate. To stay in balance, consume room temperature liquids and cooling foods, especially during the hot Spring and Summer months. Also, when overheating, cool the entire body with dips into water and cold showers.

Suggested bevies to pacify Pitta? Sip on cooling cucumber and watermelon water or juice. Add a few sprigs of mint and lemon to your water to enhance flavor and soothe digestion.


Kapha: People with predominant Kapha constitutions tend to retain water and metabolize nutrition slowly. Qualities of Kapha are cool, smooth, soft, slow, and stable. To increase digestive fire and stay in balance, consume warm liquids and add heating spices such as ginger and a dash of cayenne to create a spice water to sip all day long. When the body retains water, yoga asana, exercise, and saunas can help water to move through your body.


Suggested bevies to pacify Kapha? Enjoy some steaming decaf chai, add ginger, lemon, and a splash of cayenne to your water, and sip on warm tea throughout the day.



ॐ See you on the mat ॐ



*images taken from:

jeevalifestyle.com

realfoodwholelife.com

lifehack.org

shareably.net

drtayade.com

TeaSource Chai Spice Blend | Chai Tea

mapi.com

Warm Up With Our Winter Yoga Sequence

Winter is in full swing and it has been absolutely frigid. If you are feeling stagnant and finding your Right Movement practice challenging, you are not alone. After weeks of freezing weather, you may be feeling a bit lethargic, blue or just not quite yourself. Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Although we obviously did not create the frosty weather, we are often able to choose how we respond to our circumstances. Yoga is the perfect practice for shifting mindset, re-energizing the body and the mind.

So when when the doldrums set in- or better yet, before the blues take hold- take 10 minutes to practice our short soothing sequence to build warmth from the inside-out. You will find yourself renewed and ready to take on your Winter plans with presence and zeal.

This sequence is designed to slowly warm up with breath and continuous movement; and then go deeper into energizing postures that will leave you feeling ready to head out into the brisk air.


Sun salutation variations plus some standing
core-strengthening postures build heat.

This helps to warm the muscles up and prevent injury.

It also begins the process of moving in meditation. 
Once the heat and breath flows, deeper twists, folding and backbending
postures open up stuck energy channels and generate much-needed life force.
Take your time flowing from posture to posture, breathing deeply and moving joyfully.
Hold postures for 3-5 deep breaths.


 


Sequencing is about balance — exploring a posture and then offering the body a soothing counter posture. Winter is a time to balance the natural tendency to turn inwards with postures that open the heart and generate a sense of openness to the world. Rather than push through the stagnant energy that so easily builds during Winter, there is the opportunity to breathe deeply and move into yoga postures slowly and deliberately, paying attention to the subtle shifts that emerge.

Ayurveda & the Five Pillars for Winter Wellness

It took a while, but winter is finally, and indisputably here. Here at Five Pillars we hold the Intention to move through life in synch with the seasons. Listening to the messages and even advice each has to share with us and going with the flow or counterbalancing where beneficial – letting the pillars of Right Movement, Nutrition, Breathing, and Relaxation support and inform our choices.

Here in New York winter is first and foremost cold. It can be quite drying. Or it can be wet and slushy. It is a season marked by sickness — colds, flus, sore throats and so on. It is a season where nothing grows… the harvest fields of summer and fall now lie fallow. There is scarcity in nature’s offering. Except, perhaps, in the case of snow!

According to Ayurveda, Winter is the Kapha season. A time marked by slowing down, turning in, and some stillness, even with the risk of stagnation. Picture a big, soft, slow-lumbering bear… nourishing himself generously and then retiring to his cave to hibernate the winter away. This bear is in synch with the season!

Bear Medicine



Cold. Dry. Wet. Slow. Still. Possibly Stagnant.
These are the qualities we’re working with.
Luckily, there are several easy and intuitive ways to live in harmony with these qualities.

Drawing from the wisdom of the bear, we can nourish ourselves, slow down, and find some balanced self-reflection and stillness:





Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 11.19.46 AMGiven the longer, darker nights, what more natural activity than curling up at home with a good book or your journal, reflecting on the year past and the year to come? This is also an ideal time for Yin or Restorative yoga, which encourages stillness and relaxed awareness. Right Relaxation practices help recalibrate the nervous systems and prepare us to meet the energy of growth and change that comes with Spring.


Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 11.19.46 AMHowever, while our bear totem might be content to sleep the season away, we can and should maintain active Right Movement. The bone-chilling temperatures certainly might make a run outdoors less appealing, but with a host of indoor exercise options available, we can get the blood pumping, warm ourselves up and stave off stagnation and lethargy. Obviously a flowing yoga practice is ideal, whether gentle or powerful. Utilizing a gym membership gives you access to treadmills, bikes, rowing machines and maybe even a lap pool! And when in a pinch – choose 4 of your favorite upbeat songs and have a private cardio-dance party in your living room. This last option not only works the body but works on dismantling unhealthy ego as well!


Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 11.19.46 AMAs we consider Right Nutrition through the lens of the season, it might seem common sense that the winter is not an ideal time for juice cleansing, for example! It’s not that we can’t eat clean, but juices and smoothies just add cold to an already cold environment. Instead, it is a time for warming up and fortifying with hearty soups and stews. It’s also important to keep our digestive fires burning bright, helping to stave off stagnation, which can come from many things including too much stillness or too much heavy food. So by including warming and carminative herbs and spices in our diet (ginger, cumin, cardamom, coriander, orange peel, and many of the culinary herbs like rosemary and basil) we support healthy, active digestion. Add these to any one-pot recipe, savor a cup of flavorful hot chai, or start your day off with some warm ginger water.


Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 11.19.46 AMBecause this season is fraught with germs we must also fortify our immune systems. The lungs are the gatekeepers for pathogens, they are literally a first line of defense. It is through our respiratory system that many germs can creep into our systems, while healthy lungs keep germs out. You probably won’t be surprised to hear the lungs are an organ associated with Kapha, and they hate the cold! So, given the risk for coldness, dryness or even too much wetness/stagnancy, we must balance out these qualities with heat, movement and respiratory support. Luckily, many of the carminative herbs and spices also fortify our immune systems, and many heart-opening Yin and Restorative yoga postures support lung health.

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 11.19.46 AMDeepening our Right Breathing practices at this time are especially beneficial — bringing some intentional and powerful pranayama into our daily routines to deepen the breath, strengthen the lungs, expand their capacity and resilience. Diffusing essential oils throughout the home is another way to support respiratory health, as they are anti-microbial and cleansing to the home or office environment. We especially love using Anjali Aromatics’ Breathe Essential Blend which is a distillation of some of the worlds great coniferous trees. We might aptly consider these trees the “lungs of the planet” and so it’s fitting that their essential oils are some our lungs’ greatest allies.

 

As always, the yogic lifestyle is about balance — a dynamic dance unique to each of us. Winter is a time to balance out the cold with warming practices. A time to embrace stillness but avoid stagnation. A time to support our immunity with breathing practices, diet and herbal support. A time to see the soft darkness of evening as an invitation to turn in, relax and restore. For while the outer landscape might be more barren during this season, the inner landscape (and the indoors with the home fires burning bright!) is full and abundant with opportunity for self-inquiry, wellness, and nourishing self-care. Spring will be coming soon enough, why not thoroughly enjoy the moment and the season that we’re in?

 

If you’d like to discuss how best to attune to the season, we’re here to support you! Feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns, or for an individual consultation.

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!

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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 PsychologyToday.com

 

Four Ayurvedic Practices to Boost Your Immune System

Leaves blanket the ground creating an artful display of fall colors. Hearty root crops and winter squash are abundant at the farmer’s market. According to Ayurvedic wisdom, autumn is the vata season, known for its cool, light, dry, moving, and erratic qualities. There is incredible momentum, movement, and vitality that occurs with when the wild vata winds blow, generating transformation. And yet, we can also find ourselves forced to stop in our tracks as colds and the flu spread through schools and workplaces like wildfire during this time of year. To go forth with steady confidence and healthy bodies, favor a vata pacifying lifestyle which boosts the immune system and brings the body, mind, and spirit into balance. Check out these four tips to be well and stay calm.

 

One: Begin to see food as medicine.

Incorporate a vata pacifying diet this fall, which consists of foods that are warm, moist, smooth, and nourishing. Fresh, cooling crudites were perfect for the hot summer, but the crisp fall air invites forth a natural desire to nourish ourselves with warming butternut squash soups, more protein, and hearty stews. If you are already in the practice of eating fresh, seasonal foods and shopping at the farmer’s market, you may notice the natural shift toward heartier produce that balances the vata dosha.

Freshly cooked veggies are easier for our bodies to digest and assimilate than raw produce. Minimize stress and support easy digestion by consuming lightly cooked foods that are warming and soothing. Sip ginger tea with meals to aid digestion, or make a healing, anti-inflammatory turmeric-honey tea to support the immune system. Go deeper with this recipe from 101 Cookbooks.

Begin to see your vegetables as vessels for healing herbs and spices. Each of the ancient, lasting cuisines around the world incorporate delicious, healing herbs and spices into meals. Oregano, basil, thyme, and rosemary make their way into Italian sauces. Turmeric, cumin, ginger, and cayenne spice up Indian fare.

Food is so much more than fuel and nutrients. Many of the aromatic herbs and spices have anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, anti-fungal properties. As we spice up our recipes and savor the incredible flavor of international cuisine, our meals become medicine that support the immune system, keeping seasonal colds and the flu at bay.

Try cooking a healing coconut-milk curry with plenty of spices and seasonal vegetables. For inspiration, view this recipe: South Indian Style Vegetable Curry. For more information about Ayurvedic wisdom, check out this article: Vata Pacifying Diet.

 

Two: Wake up before sunrise and create a morning routine.

Routine balances the vata dosha. The early morning hours before sunrise are the vata time of day, inspiring movement and energy. Practice pranayama, sun salutations, yoga postures, and meditation first thing in the morning to stimulate your body’s cleansing systems and set the tone for your day. Sip room temperature or lukewarm water with lemon first thing to stimulate and balance your digestive tract.

Poses that work on the colon (the bodily seat of vata), intestines, pelvis, lumbar spine, and sacroiliac balance vata by bringing energy back down into the base of the torso. Spinal twists and inversions of all kinds soothe this dosha. Sitting and standing forward bends are choice poses, particularly for insomnia; boat, plank, staff, and plow are also powerful vata-reducers. To support grounding, work with standing poses such as mountain, triangle, warrior, and tree. Avoid back bends, such as bow, cobra, pigeon, and arch, which increase vata, or hold them briefly. If you enjoy vinyasa, do sun salutations S-L-O-W-L-Y. Let child’s pose lead you back to your innate innocence and trust. End your practice with a long Savasana (20–30 minutes); it is really okay to do NOTHING for a while.

Selection taken from Kirupalu’s Yoga and Ayurveda article. 

Three: Give yourself a thorough rubdown.

A self-massage with warming sesame oil may provide the moisturizing nourishment your skin needs to maintain its healthy glow this fall. Plus self-massage boosts the immune system, improves circulation, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the body and mind. Follow the sesame-oil massage with a relaxing bath or shower. For more information on balancing your skin and body, check out Five Pillars’ recent article by Erika: Defeating Fall Dryness.

 

Four: Practice alternate nostril breathing.

Alternate nostril breathing is very balancing year-round, but particularly supportive during the vata season. Check out this video to go deeper:

 

 

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.

Moksha

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

Our Top 3 Ways To Reverse Stress

Behind chronic fatigue, mood swings, anxiety, depression, hormonal imbalance, and poor eating habits lies a stealthy and swift imposter: stress. We hear so much about the destructive shape changer we call stress these days, it has become a part of daily conversation.



Why am I suddenly craving sugar?

You must be stressed.


Why did you say that?

Oh, I’m stressed.


Why do I feel so tired all the time?

You’re probably stressed.


How are you feeling?

Stressed.


We all seem to nod our heads in understanding when someone shares they are stressed. “Stressed out” is one of the few negative states we openly share, yet it masks the array of emotions that may be arising in response to challenging situations. So… What exactly is stress?


According to the American Institute of Stress (AIS): The term “stress,” as it is currently used, was first defined by Hans Selye in 1936 as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”


In simpler terms: Stress is our body’s resistance to change. Since constant change is one of the only guarantees in life, it’s no wonder we are all stressed!


Despite this initial definition, stress quickly became an all encompassing term laden with confusion. In fact, AIS quotes one physician in a 1951 issue of the British Medical Journal reporting that, “Stress in addition to being itself, was also the cause of itself, and the result of itself.”


The origin of Hans Selye’s term “stress” was coined in a lab that tested stimuli on animals. Style observed that animals subjected to “noxious physical and emotional stimuli” such as extreme temperatures, sounds, light, and frustration all developed physiological changes. These poor animals suffered. And their adrenals swelled, the tissues in their lymph systems shrunk, and their stomachs developed ulcers. And that’s not all. Over time, these animals developed the same diseases humans experience today: heart attacks, stroke, kidney disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. Yikes. (source: AIS)



These studies shifted the dialogue about the source of disease. Whereas before illness and disease was linked to pathogens, stress was now identified as a potential underlying cause, quickly shifting the disease paradigm.


In response to the mass confusion about the word “stress,” the term has been reworked and debated over time. Adopted by the modern medical community, WebMD now has a working definition: “Stress is the body’s reaction to harmful situations — whether they’re real or perceived.”


As modern life becomes more complex and we move further away from living in harmony with nature, we tend to experience more mental threats than physical threats. Our critical and judgmental minds are growing more powerful in this relatively new environment. We experience more psychological and emotional stress today than ever before. Stress has quickly become habitual, even addictive. And our bodies do not know how to handle this new way of living.



Our bodies release cortisol when there is a real or perceived threat in our environment. Cortisol is the “stress hormone” made in the adrenal glands responsible for our fight or flight or freeze response system. Whereas cortisol may have saved our lives when we lived more connected to our animal natures, this stress hormone is now pulsing through our bodies on a daily basis, causing fatigue and anxiety in the short term, and adrenal burnout (among other diseases) in the long run.


So when we catch ourselves saying “I’m stressed out” or a friend points out with compassion “you seem so stressed out,” perhaps we will better understand the implications of what is being said. Rather than stop there, we can take positive action in our lives to reverse this stress and restore equilibrium in our bodies and our minds. We can make these changes and practice as though our life depends on it- because it does!


Our Top Three Ways To Reverse Stress and Balance the Adrenals


  • 1. Relax With Yoga

It is no surprise that yoga is at the top of our list to reverse stress and balance the adrenals. Deep breathing, focusing the mind, tuning into the physical body, and connecting with spirit are all aspects of yoga that promote well-being and dissolve unproductive stress. Plus, yoga ripples out into everything we do preventing and reversing an accumulation of stress and adrenal burnout, cultivating calm and peaceful minds on and off the mat! Our recommendations? If you are feeling overwhelmed and worn out, try restorative or therapeutic yoga. Feeling down and out? Heat up the body and pick up your energy with a flowing vinyasa yoga class or Ashtanga based vinyasa.


  • 2. Nourish Yourself

Yoga and nutrition go hand-in-hand, working together to promote well-being and inner peace. Did you know that you could ward off approximately 60% of unproductive stress in the human body with nutritional support? The Standard American Diet (SAD) creates so much imbalance and unnecessary stress in our bodies, adding to the loads we already carry. Ready to reverse this unnecessary stress and balance your system? Check out these Five Pillars Right Nutrition articles to discover a new way of nourishing yourself that will not disappoint: More is More, The Pleasure of Eating, A Different Kind of Detox, Top 5 Summer Superfoods, and The Five Pillars of Water.

  • 3. Support and Balance Your Whole System with Adaptogenic Herbs

True to their name, adaptogenic herbs help our bodies to adapt. They restore balance in our bodies. Their name comes from their ability to adapt to their surroundings. And they do the same thing for our bodies. Adaptogens help our bodies to adapt and adjust when we are faced with new environments, change & stress.

What’s amazing about these herbs is they have the capacity to restore balance regardless of where we begin. They have been likened to a thermostat for wellness in the body. Regardless of whether you are too hot or too cold, too up or too down, too dry or too oily, these adaptogens will help to bring you back to your ideal, stable state of being.

Humans have been using adaptogenic herbs to alleviate stress, inflammation & disease for thousands of years. They are central to Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. Adaptogenic herbs include plants such as Ginseng, Licorice Root, Holy Basil, Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), Astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceus),  and Rhodiola rosea. These non-toxic herbs are non-specific in that they do not alleviate specific symptoms in the body, but instead strengthen the body’s capacity to respond to stress. They are incredible energy boosters and stabilizers.

To learn more about benefits and dosage of each adaptogenic herb, click here.

#GoDeeper with Dr. Frank Lipman.

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.

Dharma

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.

Interview with an Acupuncturist

Acupuncture, like yoga, works by tuning people back into their bodies. Just as a yoga practice connects movement and breath to mindfulness and intention, acupuncture aims to integrate mind, body, and spirit in a whole-person approach to treatment.

Oceana Baity is an acupuncturist, yoga teacher and mother of two who practices and teaches in New York City. Grounded and wise, she has a matter-of-fact approach to acupuncture that keeps the ancient practice relevant to the here and now. She was recently interviewed by Vogue on the use of essential oils in acupuncture, one of her preferred treatment methods (scroll down for the full story).

We spoke with Oceana about acupuncture myths and modalities to get a deeper understanding of the powerful and time-tested healing technique.

Q + A with Oceana Baity

How would you describe acupuncture to someone who knows nothing about it? 

Acupuncture is a ancient, holistic approach to balancing body, mind and spirit. It treats not just the symptoms of disharmony but the underlying imbalance.

Does it hurt?

I like to reframe this for patients. Yes, you might feel a sensation. It could be achy, heavy, dull or spreading. On some points you will feel a lot of sensation, on others hardly anything.

I encourage patients to move from an association of sensation as pain into a more nuanced interest in what they feel. An expanded physical and mental vocabulary will hold more options to describe the variety of the sensation. 

Any acupuncture myths or misconceptions you’d like to clear up?

There are many styles of acupuncture. TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) is perhaps the most commonly known style, but there are Korean and Japanese lineages, Five Element acupuncture—which focuses on underlying emotional and spirit-level imbalance—and modern approaches like Trigger Point Therapy, which is great for pain conditions.

How does an Eastern medicine philosophy differ from a Western one?

Western doctors are focusing on treating symptoms and diseases and Eastern medicine is concerned with treating the whole person. All the symptoms, even the ones that may not seem related to the primary complaint are taken into account, along with their lifestyle, diet and their daily stressors. It’s a very holistic, whole-person approach.

Can you talk about the link between acupuncture and fertility? 

Acupuncture can be very supportive in regulating a woman’s cycle. It reduces stress and addresses lifestyle issues which may be contributing to difficulty conceiving. 

When acupuncture and Chinese medicine aren’t able to help a woman conceive without medical intervention, studies report that it can increase the odds of successful IVF by 50 percent.

Oceana and her two daughters in Costa Rica.

How did you first become interested in studying acupuncture?

I had my first acupuncture treatment in San Francisco when I was 16. I can’t remember what my concern was, but I do remember distinctly how great I felt after.

Years later I was recovering from a rotator cuff injury and acupuncture greatly relieved my pain and helped speed up my healing. I was already a yoga teacher at the time, but I was interested in advancing my education and having more to offer. I dreamed of being able to provide the care and feeling of wholeness I experienced. It was an easy decision to make and I am so fulfilled by my work.

Oceana interviewed in this month’s issue of Vogue on the use of essential oils in acupuncture.

What, today, keeps you interested in or excited about acupuncture?

I’ve done multiple advanced trainings over the years so that keeps things fresh. Most recently I’ve been incorporating essential oils into my work. I use specific oils to accelerate healing and to treat kids and needle-sensitive patients. They’re also great for working with women on fertility issues, hormone balancing and stress relief.

The beauty of essential oil therapy is that its very potent, yet gentle enough for everyone (even babies with dilution), and the oils smell great. 

Visit Oceana’s website to learn more and schedule a session.

Images: Needles; treatment; Vogue article and cover courtesy of Vogue; oils; all other images courtesy of Oceana Baity. 

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.

Karma

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

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).

Heros-Journey

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.

heroine-journey-arc-1a-crop-e1426605586958

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:

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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.

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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

A Heart-Opener You Can Eat

If you need convincing that chocolate, or, more specifically, cacao, which is chocolate in its purest state, is good for you, read our post on its physical and emotional benefits. And if you’re looking for a Valentine’s Day appropriate way to enjoy cacao on your own or with someone you love, here’s a recipe proven to warm hearts.

Cacao + Sea Salt Brownies

 

You need:

  • 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons coconut oil, firm, not liquid
  • 3/4 cup maple syrup
  • 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons raw cacao powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup almond flour (or flour of choice)
  • good flaky salt to taste (I use Maldon)

Preheat the oven to 325°. Combine the coconut oil, maple syrup, cacao, and salt in a double broiler. Stir until shiny and free of clumps.

Remove from the heat and let cool a little. You should be able to comfortably dip your finger into the mixture. Add the vanilla and gently beat the eggs in one at a time. Stir in the flour.

Pour into an 8 x 8″ baking dish, either with parchment paper lining the bottom and sides, or coconut oil coating the dish.

Salt!

Bake for 20 – 25 minutes.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

brownie+gone
Photos: Alison Baenen

The Benefits of Cacao

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

Cacao

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.

Cocoa

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.

Chocolate

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.

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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.

Calcium-Rich 

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 thefeedfeed.com

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

home

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 www.bluecliffmonastery.org 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 contemplation.com for more information.

Menla

Phoenicia, New York

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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 menla.us.

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 www.shambhalamountain.org.

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 breitenbush.com.

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