Breathing

What is the relationship of breath to life? At its simplest, breathing is life - without the in and out flow of air, we cease to be. In yoga we see prana as the vital life force and focus on breathing fully and deeply, bringing that force to all parts of the body.

Consider for a moment if the natural, even involuntary, act of breathing might not be in itself an expression of love.

Breathing in, I receive love. Breathing out, I give love.

Everyone of us has been gifted with a life, and our breath is an embrace of that gift. Our acceptance of the tapestry of circumstances through which we make our path. Our love song to this moment, this world, this shared dream.

Breathing in, I receive love. Breathing out, I give love.

By continuing to participate in this human experience, by continuing my breath, I am expressing love for what is – no matter how reality might fail to match up to my expectations. Even when things are going wrong. Even when I don’t feel wonderful.

When we see our breath as an expression of love, we become an energetic force of love.

Breathing in, I am love. Breathing out, I am love.

For today, why not try this simple and beautiful meditation. With focus mindfully on the breath, think, say, or feel love with each inhale and exhale. 

Time

There is enough time for me. 

The other day I caught this phrase in a list of suggested mantras at just the right time. Not only did it speak to me in that moment, it sparked a thought that has shifted my life. 

My immediate reaction was dismissive. I’ve long been scheduling time for me – whether for yoga, meditation, self care, being with friends, etc. I have made a rigorous practice of ensuring there is time for me amid the obligations and flurry of life. And suddenly I saw how doing exactly that was counterintuitive to the underlying concept of time enough for me. 

We are our own wellsprings of energy, attitude, and service in this world. Tending to ourselves is the essential foundation that enables us to participate fully and effectively in our relationships and our lives. Treating that care as yet one more thing to be scheduled into life may be missing the point. I saw that time enough for me is not simply a construct in my daily schedule; it is an essential element of the lens through which I perceive life. 

Time enough for me means much more than reserving 30 minutes to get into that book I’ve been meaning to read, an hour to spend doing a favorite yoga sequence, a weekly mani-pedi. (All wonderful things!) Time enough for me means letting go of the autopilot relay race from one appointment to the next, giving up the self-imposed pressure of getting it all done, rejecting the sense that I must be doing something purposeful. Every. Single. Minute. 

Time enough for me means allowing as many moments as feels good doing absolutely nothing. Staring into space. Musing on life. Daydreaming. It means mindfulness in the daily routines I typically rush through without thought. Enjoying my senses, enjoying my environment, enjoying the incredible reality of existence as a sentient creature. Because in so doing I am affirming to myself that indeed there IS time enough for me. Just to be. If we aren’t actually experiencing the simple being of ourselves, what exactly are we doing? 

Certainly there are events and responsibilities that call for our timely participation; I’m not advocating a habit of keeping the people in your life waiting. But I urge you to consider a shift of perspective and notice how when this assurance is part of your approach, and not merely part of your schedule, you can find that there was time enough for you all along. 

Yoga for Your Heart

How is yoga great for your heart? Let me count the ways …

The practice of yoga is composed of three parts: asana (postures), pranayama (breathing) and meditation (stilling the mind). On a strictly physiological level, all three components of yoga benefit our hearts. The focus on breath and stretching pumps up the cardiovascular systems by improving circulation. Fully breathing creates a more efficient oxygen/ carbon dioxide exchange and all that wonderful O2 rejuvenates our blood. The stretching impacts not only our muscle groups, but also our major blood vessels, keeping them clear and supple.

The more freely our blood can flow, the stronger our entire cardiovascular system AND the less likely we are to suffer from hypertension or high blood pressure. Meditation is also a proven tool to lower blood pressure, (See here and here.) These benefits are of particular note for us ladies given that the World Health Organization has identified heart disease and stroke as the two top leading causes of female deaths worldwide. (See here.)

In language and culture the concept of heart signifies much more than a muscle. It is colloquially the seat of our love, kindness, compassion, courage and relationships. It’s where we store our dreams, secret fears, and beloved memories. And it sits in counterpoint to our rational mind - the monkey mind.

Any meditation practice in which we engage is heart-healthy because it creates a space for heart energy to resonate. This energy is loving, peaceful, and wise. It’s within our heart space that we can tap into knowing without knowing, finding wisdom that is deeper than the anxieties and confusion of the overactive brain.

When we practice pranayama, we feed our heart space by focus on the breath, on the present moment, on a greater truth than the incessant thoughts crowding our heads. When we practice asana, we feed our hearts with patience and loving-kindness; for ourselves, our bodies and our abilities in that moment. When we practice yoga, we foster compassion, we express love, we generate heart-positive energy both within and without. How is yoga great for your heart? Let me count the ways …
 

Love

Let us always meet each other with a smile, because a smile is the beginning of love. 

- Mother Theresa

Thinking on this today and how powerful our every moment has the potential to be. As human beings won’t always be joyfully in the moment. (Hello, Stepford). 

Human experience is full of emotions and plenty that aren’t pleasant. And I think its okay – more than okay, important – to honor those emotions and feel them fully as they pass through us. When we allow ourselves to feel what we’re feeling, we can acknowledge ourselves and our reactions and choose to feed or let go of emotional states. 

But what about the times we are just simply so distracted that we forget to engage with the moment, with the opportunity for a smile? How many times have I rushed through portions of my day, mentally cataloguing errands to accomplish or rehashing recent conversations or taking care of seemingly urgent business via text – anything that takes me away from the actual experience I am having, even if it is simply walking through the supermarket? I’m not striving for perfection. But there is something here that speaks to me now. 

And compels me to become more aware of my tendencies towards autopilot, tendencies that could be obscuring opportunities for the beginning of love, even if that love is just a momentary human connection with a fellow traveler through this life.

Fresh Coconuts

Crack open a fresh coconut – sometimes easier said than done – and be transported to a tropical paradise. And beyond the exotic taste, these fruits have multiple valuable uses. Coconut water is replete with potassium – a great hydrator to choose over chemically processed sports drinks. Virgin coconut oil is able to withstand high cooking temperatures without creating trans-fats or oxidizing as do vegetable and olive oils. Coconut meat works in the body to decrease the levels of LDL cholesterols, which are associated with cardiovascular disease. And, though there is no definitive proof that using coconut oil as a daily mouthwash effectively destroys all oral bacteria, coconut is proven to be anti-viral, anti-fungal, and anti-bacterial and it makes my mouth feel amazing. 

Home

I love to make a home and over the years there have been quite a few of them. Having fun with feng shui and decorating a space that suits your temperament can be a truly satisfying project. And creating a cozy environment to spend time in, chill, and recharge is definitely grounding. At the end of the day, though, whatever physical environment you create is only a collection of material items, subject to the ravages of climate, time, and the circumstances of life. 

More importantly, I want to turn inward and consider my real home, composed of the energy I bring to my life experience, the thoughts and relationships I encourage, the peace I create independent of external events. 

Thich Nhat Hanh says that our true home is in the present moment. To me this means that when I am at peace with myself and the world, I am fully present in every moment. I truly am home. 

Favorite things

Some days I am acutely aware of all the things I simply can’t find in Vietnam … fluoride-free toothpaste, New York style pizza, easy access to a good book. : )

But there are also many great things we can much more easily get here than in the US, and I want to share a few of my faves. 

First of all, fresh aloe. If you aren’t already taking advantage of this multi-purpose gift from nature, let me get you started! It’s not only a natural pain reliever for burns – it’s a medicinal, nutritional plant used both internally and externally. Packed with vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids, aloe is a must-have addition to your smoothie. What’s more, it’s alkalizing, detoxifying, and boosts the immune system. After you cut out the clear gel center to pop in the blender, rub the remainder on your skin (it’s safe for your face) to stimulate collagen and elastin repair. 

For the Mamas and the Papas

Last week I wrote about conscious parenting, which may or may not be a good fit for you. Regardless, I feel that one of its basic premises is universal: we need to be present with our child and meet her where she is at. This is not as simple as using age-appropriate communication, but also includes understanding what difficulties our children may be facing. Did you know that all children, even toddlers, deal with stress? The NIH (National Institutes of Health, USA) explains that any situation that causes a child to adapt or change is a potential stressor, in which case our quickly developing, socially-adapting little ones are bombarded with scenarios in which they are apt to feel uneasy!

One great way of helping your child develop positive coping skills is through yoga. A growing body of research shows that yoga-practicing children are more adept at handling their emotions and calming themselves. And when a child is calm and centered, certainly he is a happier, more attentive participant in his life at home and school. 

Even just the focus on movement is a critical opportunity to help our children get back into their bodies, in this day and age of less unstructured play and more screen time.

Don’t sweat it if your experience has strayed far from the cute internet images of sweet little children modeling mom or dad in a yoga posture. Reality more often resembles a long-suffering parent thwarted by a thrilled child who has discovered said parent now functions as the perfect tunnel / beast of burden / jungle gym. 

If you already have a yoga practice, you may favor certain postures for how they open tight areas or for the challenge they represent. Postures are great, and finding new space in our bodies is satisfying. But when it comes to practicing with our little yogis, we get back to the basics: breathing, balance, and mindfulness in an imaginative package. 

Many of the simpler postures – cat/cow, table, butterfly, e.g. – are easily accessible to a child’s imagination. And yes, pretending to be a series of animals is still yoga! Get creative – whatever appeals to your little one can most likely be adapted to movement. 

A great breath exercise for waking up and energizing is the elephant breath. Using your arms as trunks, you can imagine what you are showering out with each big breath – sparkles, love, laughter. When it’s time to calm down, you each become a coiled snake and focus on slow, resting breaths. During this time, you might provide a guided meditation that is as simple as a story of a journey for your child to take, sounds, smells, and sights to exercise their focus. 

However it works for you, getting into yoga movement with your child is undoubtedly a great way to share time and have some fun while introducing highly beneficial personal skills.

Detox diets

It often makes sense to let go.  "Let go of be dragged" - Zen Proverb But how to let go? Each time we can detach from what is painful or annoying, we create more space for beauty and feeling good. But how? The intellect is often not able to "manage" or "control" our feelings, stress, dysfunction. However, getting quiet, meditating and "releasing" into the space of our hearts, can help to soften the rough edges when they come.

We can not force ourselves to meditate, we must "allow" it to happen.

We can not "force" ourselves to feel better and most often times, the more we try to "think" our way out of confusion, sadness, frustration and stress, the worse we feel. When the brain kicks in and tries to "fix" things, often times, we end up feeling exhausted, sometimes even ill. 

Can we learn to "allow" difficult emotions to come in, to "sit with them", instead of feeling bad about our negative feelings? If we allow ourselves to observe and fully "feel" without judgement, we can quite possibly release negativity and anxiety and move onto feeling more at peace. "Allowing" and "letting go" are helpful tools. Try to embrace what is coming up inside when emotions are high, instead of forcefully shutting your feelings off or giving yourself a hard time, and see what happens. 

Much love, Suzanne 

Kids

Several years ago, my parents had requested we have "proper" photos taken of our family. To appease them, we headed to the nearest mall to get some  "family shots". 

My kids were all hyped up on sugar that afternoon (thanks to my Mom's delicious lemon cupcakes, the M&M's their Grandfather gave them on the way out of the front door or the soda AND Skittles their Dad pumped them up with during the shoot to "bribe" them with- geez Louise, people!). 

So anyhow, during this photography session, the photographer was finding it impossible to get the kids to cooperate. I looked over and he was just dripping with sweat, trying as hard as he could to get my kids to calm down. It was a total scene and we were all tired from jet lag, to top things off.

My then 2 year old nearly knocked down the man's entire "make shift" changing stall (I don't know who was more horrified, me or him). 

Next, my older son refused to give a normal smile or face. Just as the man would prepare to take a shot, my older son would suddenly make this really weird face (check out the photo for just a little taste). 

I was SO mad. So there I was. Threatening. Guilting. Scolding. Bribing. Begging. I even cried on the way home. I am laughing as I write this now (my kids truly are well behaved for the most part), but in looking back, I know I hit the wall. I also know my kids were tired, sleeping in a bed other than their own (we were visiting family) and were not on their usual schedule. We were all out of whack that day. 

As parents, we’re all just figuring it out, doing our best, and typically modeling the same parenting style we experienced as children. More likely than not, your experience, like mine, was of the old-school, hierarchical variety in which power-based authority and the fear of punishment was used to mold behavior. This seems to have been the predominant approach for generations. 

For my own development as a parent, I’m exploring new approaches that are in alignment with my core values.

Conscious parenting is one approach that synchronizes beautifully with yogic concepts. Dr. Shefali Tsabary’s book The Conscious Parent: Transforming Ourselves, Empowering Our Children introduces this model based on mindfulness and empathy, rather than on dominance and threat. Conscious parenting sees that we are – or can be – growing along with our children. In fact, our children are key players in our spiritual journeys, reflecting the subconscious issues we need to address in order to transform into more aware, authentic individuals. 

I feel that greater understanding for both our children and ourselves, transforms us and empowers our children. I also know that setting clear boundaries and teaching my kids about cause and effect and consequences is a must.  The thing I am watching most, is noticing when I am on the verge of "reacting". It's interesting to be aware in that moment of annoyance or frustration and to take a step back and soften, instead of getting more upset. I am still practicing. 

In the end, the photographer merged two pictures together and "photo shopped" normal looking eyes onto my older sons photos. What. And I am not even going to post the photos we ended up with. But what a funny day to look back on. I will repeat this story to my Grandchildren one day. It is a classic. 

Nurture yourself

I’ve been writing about self compassion recently in terms of our emotional and intellectual processes. And one of the yummiest ways to stay in touch with respect and kindness to ourselves is to nurture our physical bodies. It’s so satisfying to get our muscles moving with activity, to linger in a quiet bath, to enjoy a deep tissue massage.

There are great natural and environmentally-sound ways to pamper yourself, using fresh fruit. Recently I’ve been exploring how these super-foods can enrich our wellbeing, inside and out. Papaya, for instance, can be used from rind to seed, not simply chopped up in a fruit dish.

When we eat papaya, we’re consuming a variety of antioxidant nutrients – carotenes, flavonoids, plus Vitamins B & C – as well as fiber and minerals. But the fruit is probably most famous for papain, its digestive super enzyme. The properties of papain work internally to improve digestion and cleanse the digestive tract, and are effective topically to kill dead cells and purify the skin. Blending up chunks of ripe papaya for use alone, or with honey or pineapple, makes a lovely natural face mask to soften and brighten the skin. I’ve found I can get the same results by simply rubbing the flesh side of papaya rinds on my face, neck and hands and rinsing off about 15 minutes later. And then I still have all edible the papaya fruit to enjoy in a smoothie or salad!

Even papaya seeds are edible and make for a superdose of digestive enzymes, great to take before eating a large meal. Scoop them out of the fruit, dry them off, and grind into a teaspoon. With a sharp, peppery flavor, the seeds also work well in a pepper mill to be ground over savory dishes.

Eating well, moving regularly, making time to relax and pamper your body – these are all wonderful ways to practice self compassion. Whatever it is that connects you to the beauty of your physical being, take some time every day to do it. It’s important!

A few things to keep in mind – papaya is rich in latex, especially when green, so anyone with a latex allergy should proceed carefully to determine whether papaya is right for his body. Latex also causes uterine contractions, so pregnant women should avoid the raw fruit. Also, greater quantities of papaya have a laxative effect, so get to know the amounts that are comfortable for your intestinal system. Finally, the seeds contain traces of the enzyme carpine, which is a potentially toxic substance in high doses.

Self compassion

Since my last post, I’ve been thinking about self compassion and how we practice this in our own lives. We can talk about loving ourselves, having compassion for ourselves, but where do we begin? What does this look like? How does it work?

When I’m feeling bad about a situation or a relationship in my life, I might choose to numb those feelings by some sort of indulgence. And I might rationalize this in a way that seems like a kind of self compassion – i.e., I deserve something that makes me feel happy right now and takes away this discomfort. But every time I choose a response that resists, rather than softens into what is, the original discomfort only increases. Now I’m not only feeling bad about an argument I had, but I also feel bad from overindulging in food, alcohol, or consumerism. And that can be a new basis to criticize myself and continue a vicious cycle.

Self compassion is kindness towards oneself, at the center of which is respect for self. When we treasure and esteem ourselves, we aren’t relying on external circumstances or opinions for validation or happiness. When situations arise out of sync with how we’d prefer the world to be, we are less influenced, because we find our stability internally. When we’re respecting ourselves, it’s easier to make choices that feel positive beyond that moment of immediate gratification. We choose life affirming options to decrease discomfort, like finding a way to help someone else or getting out into nature for some exercise, rather than reaching for the closest numbing agent. And in time, old habits give way to new and our positive response mechanisms become the stronger inclination.

But of course, we’re not always going to make the best choices. Sometimes, there is nothing better than pouring your heart out to your closest friends over too many bottles of wine. (And nothing worse than the day after!) And that’s okay. The kindness of self compassion knows that perfection is not the goal.

The Yoga Sutras remind us that change is a process, not an instant transformation. There is a single endpoint in your development as a person; until then, everything is simply the process of change. If you find Samadhi on your mat in the morning and lose it by the afternoon, it doesn’t mean you have failed. Everyone is doing the best she can, exactly where she’s at. We all need to do our own work, in our own way. So with an eye towards how you might prefer to choose in the future, be kind to yourself now. There is nothing you can do to invalidate your inherent lovability and your worthiness as a being on this earth.

All these situations that come up and evoke feelings we’d rather not deal with – these are gifts, new opportunities to face our fear of discomfort, practice self compassion and grow.