Life After Deaths

Remember those kids’ bounce-back inflatable toys—the ones you hit, they go down, then magically pop back up again, unscathed and poised for the next round?  In one, Bozo the Clown’s inane smile remains unflappable and unflinching, in spite of blow-after-blow.

Not so, me.

The first hit came when my father died unexpectedly. He’d been my champion, best buddy and teacher of all things:  how to throw overhand, how to play gin rummy, how to solve for X and most importantly, how to be gracious and generous— to vote for the other guy even if you and she were the only two running.

The second hit came eight months later when my husband died after a noble and epic fight with cancer. Having fled Iraq in his twenties, Sass lived in Iran for several years, then finally made his way to the US, where he saw an ocean and tasted cereal for the first time—both of which became lifelong loves. That’s why we came to the East End some thirty years ago and why, when he was asked what one food he would bring if stranded on a deserted island, it was a no-brainer. Corn Flakes.

The third came some four months later when my mother died. Here we have a more complex and labyrinthian story, the details of which I’m still trying to work out, but it was a devastating blow nevertheless.

The fourth hit? That was the knock-out punch. I was down for the count… and then some.

My daughter, Jess, and I found my only sister and best friend, Andy, dead in her bed. Although the autopsy said it was an overdose, we knew it wasn’t. She’d just chosen a golden retriever puppy from a litter of seven to be her very own. Cooper was the one with the green bow—the playful, goofy one—and we couldn’t wait to pick her up the following Tuesday.

The following Tuesday, however, never came for Andy.

After each hit, I had managed to stand back up, albeit slower and less steadily, but upright nonetheless—though definitely without the idiotic grin. I was strong!  Tough!  Resilient!  I could handle it. And I did—until I couldn’t.

Dark days descended, make that dark years, and I was smothered under heavy clouds of doom. I had no interest in going anywhere or doing anything. I stayed alone, took uppers, prescribed, went back to talk therapy and started EMDR, therapy for PTSD, my diagnosis. Everything helped. A little.

And then I tried yoga.

My first ever yoga class was at Yoga Shanti. Someone I barely knew suggested I might like it. Fat chance, I thought, since I had just told my therapist, “There’s not one thing in the entire world that I want to do: NOT garden, swim, socialize, bike, bake, shop, kayak, run, hike, sing, dance….”  You get the idea.

That first day, I took a beginner class. Of course, I didn’t know a Warrior One from a Down Dog, but there I was, giving it a go. The instructor was soft-spoken, kind and encouraging. I found myself inhaling and exhaling along with everyone else. I stuck my tongue out and sighed Haaaaaah—along with everyone else. I bowed my head in gratitude and dedicated my practice—along with everyone else. I felt a glint of possibility, a glimmer of hope. I figured I could do this again, which I did.

Then again. And again. And again.

For the first year, I sobbed during every savasana.

During the second year, several yogis asked if I’d like to go for coffee.

At the end of the third year, I braved a retreat.

During the next three years, I traveled to India and Montana (two equally exotic places) for yoga immersion, took yoga teacher training and fell in love.

With yoga.

Of course, the hits keep coming—not even love can keep them away. But now, when I find myself face down on the floor, I’m able to pick myself right back up—stronger, wiser and grateful. Yes, grateful. Grateful that I have the opportunity to do it again and again.

Yoga, that is.

And here are just a few things I’ve learned along the way:

Everyone has taken a spill in Tree Pose, and it’s okay. In fact, if we believe what we’ve been told, it shows progress. Thank you, Rodney. Make that tree pose a metaphor for life.

From time to time, everyone breathes in when it’s suggested they breathe out and vice versa.

Not everyone folds the blankets and puts them in the cubby the “right” way. And that’s not okay.

Knees, chest, chin was designed for inch worms.

Natarajasana—Dancer Pose—offers a glimpse into the sublime.

Everyone has a show-stopping yoga party trick—landing on your nose in Crow Pose counts. Regardless of what it is, it will be wildly applauded. Guaranteed.

And most importantly, we are all good enough. Thank you, Colleen.

Into The Light

When I was in the tenth grade, my best friend and I went to the New England Tennis Camp in Groton, Massachusetts. After lessons, we were instructed to select an evening activity:  Pottery, Dance, Creative Writing, Painting or Yoga. YOGA – What was this thing called yoga?  The unknown and mysterious, ever exciting, lured us into its web and we chose Yoga. Outfitted in our Danskin leotards, we giggled continually throughout each class. Why was this lady with the VERY long hair and flowy, flowered dresses telling us to put our bodies in these strange, weird shapes?  (Surya Namaskar A & B). And yet, I went home at the end of camp and persuaded my mom to buy me the paperback, Integral Yoga Hatha, by Sri Swami Satchidananda. This funny little book with black and white photos of people in baggy clothes posing in these odd architectural shapes remained in my library, well-used, long into adulthood. That summer, my long and deep relationship with yoga was born.

Fast forward – October 2014.

I went for my routine gynecologic exam wearing my favorite skinny jeans, my suede and sparkly flats, my most delicious black cashmere crewneck with my breezy blue blazer. Great haircut, highlights holding strong, quintessential me. The start of a very good day. I was happy and calm.

By the end of that day, I was rearranging my schedule for a CAT scan. Nine days later, I was in surgery. I woke up from being debunked:  a hysterectomy, bi-lateral pelvic dissection, insertion of a metal abdominal port, 9” vertical abdominal scar, an appendectomy and my surgeon telling me, “You have Stage 2 Ovarian Cancer. You will be fine. It’s all gone. Next up, prophylactic chemotherapy protocol.”  In my post-op delirium, I asked if I would lose my hair and whether I would still be able to practice my headstand (yes and yes). But the “cantaloupes” (as we renamed cancer) were gone. I was elated.

In honor of my upcoming protocol, I vowed to make a Post-It Wall for each day of my treatment (126 post-its) with a positive affirmation for each day. (You are so much more than your hair. You did it. You are a Princess Warrior. Breathe. You are amazing.)  At the end of each day, I would remove a post-it and see my health be reborn. I am an optimist. I had GOALS!  At the end of week one, I stared at that wall and wondered how on earth a person could be expected to get through the next 119 days and why did I have GOALS.

But I did have my yoga mat.

Over the course of those next four months, I practiced a lot of yoga (most of it in my head) and made more GOALS. (Get to restorative yoga once a week.)  Those days are a blur of physical pain and avoiding mirrors so as not to see myself without “Gigi,” my beloved wig. Medicine through an abdominal port is uncomfortable and punishing. Often, I laid on my heated bathroom floor in a delirium of extraordinary discomfort. Steroids had me crushing the 3 am bedtime. As instructed, I took a drugstore of pain medication and was still delirious with extreme physical pain. Get to Restorative Yoga once a week. And so I did.

Often upon arrival, I was dizzy, other days, nausea sunk me and, on bonus days, I was both dizzy and nauseous. Yet, my mat, my beloved 24” x 68” yoga mat, was always there for me, always available, ever restorative, never judgmental, no matter my mood or condition, always re-energizing some part of me that was in hibernation during treatment. There was not one day that dragging myself from that bathroom floor was a mistake. I always felt reunited to a part of myself that I felt had been kidnapped. The joy of being on my mat reminded me during those months, despite so much that had been taken from me (flat stomach, beautiful long hair, my time…), I was still intact. For 60 minutes and beyond, I was returned to myself, fully back and reconnected to the person I had been for the past 51 years. I distinctly remember getting back on my mat post-surgery at Yoga Shanti in Sag Harbor. My place. My spot. My “temple;” filled with my people, so many of whom are now my most beloved and cherished friends. Each day on my mat, a part of me was resurrected, I was in flow and back into the light.

After I finished those 126 days of brutality (“No sign of disease present.”), yup, I had more GOALS. 30 days of yoga. I was bald and now fighting a severely damaged lymphatic system where my leg was extremely swollen. I woke up each day wondering/screaming, “Who took my leg?”  Those 30 days re-booted my reason for being and set me on a quest to find my purpose.

Fast forward one and a half years – 2016.

The BEAST is back. More chemotherapy (no hair loss!), more chemotherapy, a clinical trial and more chemotherapy (hair loss again, ugh) plus four unforgettable hospital stays. Five years in and I’m still on this path. Life is so very different now:  roller coasters of fear (6-week blood tests), elation (good CAT scans) and every other emotion possible, seeking precious time that often feels stolen from me. I still think about my hair and how phenomenal it is to have it. And yet, my mat, is always my re-entry back into living, not just surviving the brutality of an ongoing Ovarian Cancer protocol. Yoga is my medicine; it awakens the best of me, even as I often observe my abilities/practice diminished from the steroids and massive doses of Napalm-like drugs I have been administered. On my mat, it’s an imperfect/perfect and complex place; world wars against my personal demons have been fought in my head, rooms of my house redesigned, dinner parties planned and arguments resolved. It is a place of great comfort and safety.

The teacher may be within ourselves but I am grateful to my 10th grade yoga teacher for opening my eyes to a world of joy and possibility beyond my imagination, transporting me into the light each time I step on my mat.



So, you feel like the bad weather is following you around and you just can’t get a ray of the sun. It’s time to check your horoscope and see a Shaman and get active in shaking the shadows or maybe it is time to hide and wait out the storm. Are these lessons for you to uncloak the diamond soul or just random events that keep turning up sour. Who knows? Who knows?

This is the time your asana practice is supposed to kick in and turn lemons into juice. It would work if you could only get out of the lethargy that the turn of events is manifesting. Sad, dejected, lifeless and beaten, you sit unable to lift a finger and even your cat smells the stink and won’t keep you company. Bad attracts bad and an endless cycle of rotten is at hand. There at the bottom, sinking now, in your own despair, you are left with a heartbeat and a breath. A rhythm and a miracle has not abandoned you yet. That beat and that breath is quite magnificent, especially at the bottom of this isolated infinity. Dare you be hopeful? To hope sometimes provides a light but it is often a cliff in which you fall again and again. So why not stay with the pulse and the wind, over and over. Do you feel your heart and your lungs? They are the call of the wild and, for a split second, they are able to give you a relief from your monkey mind. In a day, approximately 20,000 times, you breath in and out and have 90,000 beats of your heart. So many chances you are given to land your mind, your heart and your soul into the moment by moment arising phenomenon. Even a couple of times a day, this dropping into the inner exquisite workings of the body can bend the corners of your mouth skyward and save you from only seeing the doom and gloom.

Practice this tuning in and listening daily and, when the chips are down, it might just save your life.

Dropping Into Our Roots

I am so grateful to live in a place where I can feel so connected to my environment. Recognizing my connection to the world around me is a way I practice yoga off the mat. And a big part of that connection is through light: We are so lucky to live in a place known for its beautiful light, and I love watching how it changes.

The light changes moment to moment with the movement of the clouds. It changes from morning to night. The phases of the moon change the light at night. And the light shifts with the changing of the seasons. As we move towards the winter solstice and darker, shorter days, I notice the environment responding by turning inwards—I notice the landscape going dormant—and I feel like doing the same thing. I feel like turning inward, and cooling down after the brightness and the heat of the summer. This makes me think of pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga, defined as withdrawal from the senses, and considered the gateway from the more external outer limbs to the internal subtler ones.

The term pratyahara is made of up of two Sanskrit words—ahara, meaning food or anything taken in, including what comes in through our senses; and prati, meaning away or against—that is, moving away from sensory input. Practicing non-attachment to our senses moves us along the yogic path to the deeper limbs—dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (absorption).

I think about trees and plants shedding their leaves in the fall. Not only do the leaves of plants provide nourishment, they are also the way plants receive information from their surroundings. Leaves are the trees sensory organs; through their leaves, plants take in nourishment, feel the breeze, and sense the seasonal changes of the light. And their response to this change is to shed their sensory organs—they simply detach from stimuli. As they do this, they become still; they drop into to their roots and their deeper connection to the world.

This is what I think of when I have glimpses of pratyahara: I am not actively trying to shut down my senses. I can’t stop the vibrations of sound from entering my ears, or stop the feeling of the sun on my skin, but I can practice detaching from those sensations—I can just let them go. As I do this, I feel I am taking a step on the now leaf-covered path of yoga, towards an even deeper connection to the world around me.


Once upon a time, I went to a party. There were a lot of other yogis in attendance, and after a good amount of apple cider and vegan carrot cake, merriment was at a high point. Someone asked, “What’s the hardest pose?,” and the challenge was on: One by one, the yogis proceeded to demonstrate their definitive answers, showing off really hard stuff — visvamitrasana, vatayasana, and mukta hasta sirsanana. (Look, Ma! No hands!)

Biding my time, I waited until the shenanigans had peaked, and then made my move. Ceremoniously, I lay down, feet a little apart, arms a few inches from my sides with my palms upturned, chin gently regarding my chest, ears equidistant to each other. Within me, I beheld my breath, and let my muscles fall away from my bones. As a finale, I disappeared completely. Well, so to speak. Recognizing a slam-dunk, the enlightened company at once exclaimed, “Savasana! Of course! The hardest pose of them all!” I rest my case.

As I write this, I am in England with my family. Too soon to coin it “recently,” my father passed away on October 11th. Safe to say, he has reached his final rest.

Today I wandered out on the Downs and lay in the grass. I arranged myself as comfortably as I could, including all of the asymmetry in my body, my mind, and my heart. I scanned from head to toe, looking for something other than the natural lop-sidedness of things. I was searching for a sense of evenness, or sama — a Sanskrit word that essentially means “same,” or “equal.” Since everything is marked by impermanence, and moment-to-moment the world spins, what is it that remains the same?

Savasana offers us a glimpse of an unperturbed place — in Rumi’s words, “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing” — where we may subtly perceive the deep mystery of our being. We realize the miracle of our existence — a state of grace, actually. Lying on the earth under the sky, nothing added, nothing taken away. There is no more practice, no one to practice. You have arrived. You are the practice.

Still lying in savasana, I opened my eyes. Just above, a swarm of late-fall fruit flies circled my head, vying with each other for my attention. I pursed my lips and blew a long, reluctant exhale toward them. My breath, becoming one with the wind, dispersed the flies. I had a vision of being dead, and coming back to life.

Savasana, or mrtasana (mrt meaning “death”), also known as “corpse pose,” ultimately presents us with a chance to rehearse for our last curtain call, only without the drama. I think of words by the poet Shi Te, “Not going, not coming, rooted, deep and still.”  This equanimity is savasana.

So savasana has everything to do with preparing us for death, yet it’s equally a powerful prescription for life. The pose promotes relaxation for mind and body, helps to alleviate anxiety, depression, and stress, and cultivates peace and calm, or, at the very least, acceptance. While the pose can help reduce fatigue and insomnia, it has nothing to do with taking a nap or zoning out after an exhilarating asana practice. If you do fall asleep, no need to berate yourself, just try to have an early night. But so you don’t miss the whole show, resolve to roll your mat out again in the morning.

Savasana occurs in that gap between coming and going. Richard Freeman says this gap is where “observed content is released and dropped.” In Buddhist terms, it’s shunyata — the awareness that all things are intrinsically empty. It’s reached when one is not attending to any themes. The paradox is that savasana, for many, is anything but empty; instead it’s filled with a sense of what B.K.S. Iyengar described as “illuminated emancipation, freedom, unalloyed and untainted bliss.” There’s room for it all in savasana.

But what if you aren’t one of the lucky ones who just plop themselves down in savasana and feel instantly at home? Trust me, I know where you’re coming from: I witnessed the catastrophic events of 9/11 firsthand while standing in the WTC Plaza with my infant daughter in a stroller. I was shaken and stirred to my core. But I continued to get on my mat — continued to lean in and take a closer look. For an entire year post-9/11, I practiced savasana with my eyes open. Sometimes I had to just sit up. An unexamined life, it is said, is not worth living.  Sometimes that examination takes place with gritted teeth and blurred vision. Rumi, again: “When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.”

Anyway, you begin to see why savasana might be the hardest pose, don’t you? I mean, who in their right mind is going to voluntarily lie down on the ground, belly-up, heart exposed, eyes closed, in a room full of strangers, and hang out with absolutely everything and nothing? The physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual challenge of savasana is immense. As a yoga teacher, watching my students in savasana is humbling. It’s an honor to witness the human condition — vulnerability and valor side-by-side.

Savasana is generally suitable for everyone, though one size doesn’t fit all. Practice according to time, place, and circumstance. Try to position your body so that it feels balanced, neutral. Let the earth hold your weight, and simply notice that you’re breathing. No need to reach for anything, or push anything aside. Let the tongue rest on the bottom of your mouth, as though it, too, were in savasana. Relinquish the desire to speak, to see, to hear. Let your hands serve the sky, and your feet serve the earth. Relinquish the energy of your arms and legs. (You can place a bolster on the tops of your thighs to help with this, or under your knees, if you experience any discomfort in your back.) If you’re pregnant, elevate your head and torso. If you’re sad, keep your eyes open and your gaze gentle. If you’re scared, make sure you’re covered with a blanket, or near a wall.

Whatever you do, remember to practice for all sentient beings. Don’t be afraid to let anything that’s holding you back from truly living, die. Realize that (in Rumi’s words) “ideas, language, even the phrase each other, doesn’t make any sense.”

200 Hours

Colleen and I both look back at the first teacher trainings that we took (she at Jivamukti and myself at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco), and remember that we each went in wanting to learn more about yoga with no intentions to teach. A common trajectory of yoga learning in this country goes from taking public classes or doing video programs, to attending yoga retreats, and then right into a 200-hour teacher training program. Often the teacher training is the spark that ignites a genuine home practice or a launching pad for taking more classes per week. This is a fine evolution of a yogi, but it doesn’t really qualify one to hang up a shingle and start a teaching career. Two hundred hours in any subject is a drop in the bucket – an introduction, a pillar to a foundation.

The long time yogis in this country are recognizing this and are setting up continued education and looking toward creating more stringent certification processes. We all love teacher training programs and love how practitioners get turned on and set on fire. We love when students begin to see the rich history and the infinite body of knowledge and the unlimited realms of exploration that are possible in this beautiful art of yoga. The only difficulty is when the 200-hour teacher training is seen as a completion or a sign of mastery.

So then, what is being taught in these 200 hours and what is possible in such a curriculum? A good introduction and some essential foundational aspects can be covered. Some essential questions that can last a lifetime can be served up. But let us not demean a 2500-year old art form that includes some of the most brilliant human thought and experimentation by thinking you can become a yoga teacher after 200 hours. Instead come and have your mind blown open, your heart cranked wide, and your liver cleansed, and get introduced to your new life as a curious and beautiful sentient being.

The Still Point

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only dance.
—T. S. Eliot

S. Eliot’s poem, which has haunted my yoga practice for decades, came to mind recently at a London dance performance called Dust, Akram Khan’s contribution to Lest We Forget, a collaborative tribute to those who had suffered the pain of World War One. There was a moment in Dust when all the dancers moved as one body, and it created one of those magical seconds of intense hush in the audience where there is no past and future, no dancer no audience—just breath.

As yoga practitioners we know these moments, when stillness becomes movement and movement stillness, the ego mysteriously evaporating. But we also know times when no matter how adept our craft of asana is, it can become limiting, externally oriented, and performance-based, losing the quality of our original intention to practice.

How do we cultivate this quietness in movement, this presence? Fortunately, in yoga we don’t need massive orchestras and the grueling regime of rehearsal to bow to the sacred! Instead, in the middle of an asana, we pause, and come back to the breath—to the moment of being rather than becoming. Yoga helps us in the everyday of our mundane realities: walking down a busy street, doing the laundry, engaging in a challenging conversation, we come into the center of our bodies and experience ourselves from an embodied, compassionate place.

Most of the time, we live on the rim of the wheel of existence, getting battered by the rocks and mud of the road on which we travel. But through a meditative approach, we can come to the center of the hub of this wheel. Ajahn Chah, a well-known Buddhist teacher in the Thai Forest tradition, talks about “still, flowing water”—the place where nothing moves, but everything happens! For me, this image, remembered in asana, reconnects me to my breath, my core, the reason I came to yoga in the first place. It allows me to access the center of my physical being—my belly, my hara, my womb—and invites the movement to arise from a fecund, fluid reality, beyond my dry left-brain-dominant universe.

Did you ever as a child play with the light switch, trying to find the place between off and on? Perhaps not, but I did, and probably drove my parents crazy in the process! I see now that I am still playing with that notion, curious and enchanted by moments on the mat, in nature, in both deep trauma and the nuttier details of life, in great art, and the simple cyclical rounds of being, where the world stops and yet keeps moving—moments that are neither off nor on, neither flesh nor fleshless, neither from nor toward, reminding me that I am part of something so much bigger than that little “I,” where there is only dance.

Self-Care Tips For Winter and Spring

Self-care means taking time for yourself so that you can find a sense of wellbeing and balance in your life. There are three basic types of self-care: foundational self-care, which gives meaning to your life; structural self-care, which gives your mind, body, and emotional life stability; and practical self-care, which supports your daily functioning.

Few of us take care of our whole being (though many of us are good at maintaining our superficial needs). Plagued by anxiety, stress, poor nutrition, insomnia, and exhaustion, we get sick. I have worked in hospital settings in New York City and Haiti—and I teach three restorative classes a week at Shanti—and the one thing that everyone I work with has in common is a lack of balance. Everyone I meet is striving to be the best that they can be, but very few people are asking the question, “How can I work this hard and still maintain a level of balance in my life?”

Self-care can be just another item on your to-do list, or you can create new patterns in your life that include self-care as a way to maintain health, balance, and longevity. Here is one way I like to take time for myself:

I lay a soft blanket on the floor with a second blanket folded once to support my head. Then I swing my legs up onto the couch so that my calves are resting on the cushions, and my thighs are perpendicular to the floor. After that, I cover my eyes with an eye pillow, and put a few drops of a nice essential oil like lavender on a cotton ball nearby. If I have some time alone, I set a timer for 10 minutes, and just let my breath be easy. (If my son is around, I stay in that position until he jumps on me.)

We have asked our team of Urban Zen teachers at Yoga Shanti to share with you some of their go-to self-care techniques to regain balance through the winter…

Mary-Beth Charno

Certified Holistic Oncology RN, NP-S & Lead Teacher

My favorite home remedy for fatigue, exhaustion, and over-stimulation? I start with a cup of herbal tea, like chamomile. Sounds good already, right? Here’s what you do next: to a bathtub full of hot water, add 2 tablespoons of baking soda mixed with a generous amount of Young Living’s eucalyptus and lavender oils—about 20 drops each. Make sure to pre-mix the oils in the powder before adding them to the water (oil and water don’t mix, and will sit on top). Then slowly step in. If candles are lit around the tub, even better! Set the timer and begin your self-Reiki practice, taking in the scents of the gorgeous oils: eucalyptus to clear out the lungs, lavender to decompress. Come out of the tub like you do after savasana.

Then head to your yoga mat for a 30-minute restorative practice. Keep the lights low. Start with supported child’s pose for 3 minutes. Then side-lying pose for 5 minutes. From there move into a simple supported twist for 3 minutes on each side. Then an easy supported backbend for 5 minutes. After that do constructive rest for 5 minutes, and finish with legs up the wall or calves on the chair.  It’s the best gift I can give myself, and I feel so much more spacious and at peace afterwards.

Gillian Cillabrasi

When I’m wiped out but need to keep going, I do some gentle movements, set myself up in a flat-back version of supta baddha konasana, cover myself well, apply the essential oils Joy or Valor to my hands, and do self-Reiki. It’s a no-fail 15-minute pick me up!

Keely Garfield

Whenever I feel a cold coming on, I rub massage-quality sesame oil into my feet, put my socks on, and go to bed! After that, I usually wake up feeling much better. Sesame oil is very warming, and draws toxins out of the body. Try it. (It works with my kids too!)

Maggan Soderberg Daileader

My favorite home remedy is using the therapeutic-grade oils for kids: peppermint on the stomach for bellyaches, PanAway for growing pains, and Peace and Calming when waking up from a bad dream.

Fanny Oehl

I’ve made this remedy a ritual two or three times a month. I do it in the afternoon, when I know I have a chunk of time. I lay down towels on my bathroom floor, and run a hot Epsom-salt-and-lavender-oil bath. I get out of the bath the same way I do from savasana—trying to move as a little as possible as I make my way to the floor and warmly wrap myself in my towels. In constructive rest, I run through the self-Reiki positions and finish with a belly massage. I stay until I’m ready to come out. I do not set a timer!

Kirtan Smith

Staying healthy during the cold winter months in New York City is a challenging proposition. One of my favorite tools for staying healthy is Young Living’s Thieves essential-oil blend. This powerful blend combines some of nature’s most potent remedies: eucalyptus, cinnamon, rosemary, lemon and clove, which, according to the FDA, has the highest antioxidant rating of anything they’ve ever tested! This is a powerful oil, so I suggest you diffuse it. Using a diffuser in your home or office can kill many airborne microorganisms, and the cinnamon-y/clove smell feels like the holidays!

The Power of Pause

The day after Labor Day is known in these parts as Tumbleweed Tuesday. Yes, the traffic calms and you can eat at any restaurant that has the stamina to stay open. But these are just the visible signs of a giant East End exhale—it’s as if those of us still here collectively let go and say ahhhhhhhhh.

On that Tuesday morning, Colleen’s restorative sequence perfectly nurtures the heavy sigh, opening us up to a deep relaxation that brings us back to balance. And as a newcomer to the Yoga Shanti tribe, when I first came into the yoga room not familiar with this grand tradition, it was a welcome respite of calm before the impending wave of fall activity.

There is no stopping the engine that revs into high gear as back-to-school, work, and everyday life demand that we plug more deeply into our digital devices. Apps abound and the cloud holds the content of our lives. And yet this is just the dawn of the internet of everything.

So there is no denying our status update—we are fully connected. Always on. In fact, if you sleep with your cell phone, you are in good company. According to annual Pew Research studies, 65% of adults do it, and that jumps to 90% if your fall between the ages 18 and 29.

The irony is that while we are virtually connected 24/7, we are increasingly more disconnected from the present moment, from each other, and from our true selves.

The digital dominance in our life leaves little or no down time for the mind to rest. And we are already proud owners of a perfectly busy monkey mind. So now the mind is in hyper drive—over stimulated by the constant barrage of highly seductive digital distractions.

How do we slow it down? Who can hear their inner voice, take time to notice their breath, or look into the eyes of a loved one instead of a glowing screen?

I’ve been tethered far longer than most, starting down the digital media path in 1980. Learning to unplug was just a career survival strategy then, but now it’s a required life skill for everyone in our supercharged era.

Short of a full hog digital detox, here are simple ways to press pause, give your mind a rest, and make space to relax.

  1. Schedule time for daily practice. Put it in the calendar like any other appointment—and be consistent. Make it a habit, and the magic will unfold. See Yoga Sutra 1.12 -1.16 to hack the roadmap to freedom.
  2. Cultivate discernment—viveka—for what you decide to chase down the digital rabbit hole. Challenge yourself to get offline in a reasonably short period of time.
  3. Pause your online sessions every 20-30 minutes to save your body and mind. Get up, stand up. Step away from the screen. Do some full breathing, and move around before restarting.
  4. Place your bare feet or body on the bare earth for a few minutes each day. We are blessed to live by the ocean, so if you can do it on the sand, even better. This practice of earthing will ground and rejuvenate you.
  5. Spend more time in nature. You’ll find it’s easy to exhale here. Simply enjoy and delight in the magnificence that surrounds us.
  6. Do things that you love to do, sooner rather than later. Savor the feeling that arises as your engage in your chosen passion. Repeat often.
  7. Experience precious time with family and friends, fully present. No devices. Lay down your weapons of distraction. The neuroscience tells us there is no such thing as multitasking, so remember what human interaction is all about.
  8. Take short pauses throughout your day for breath awareness. Eyes open or closed. Sitting, standing, or lying down. One breath or one hundred. Whenever you feel like it, the breath is always with you, always available to help you navigate the inner terrain.
  9. Love.

As Pema Chodron shares in When Things Fall Apart, “It’s a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately fill up the space. By waiting, we begin to connect with fundamental restlessness as well as fundamental spaciousness.”

Just remember, at any moment you can simply inhale, exhale, pause. How lucky are we? Om Om.

True Independence: Freedom to Feel

I danced Shiva Rea-style alone in my dark bedroom last night. Sshh, don’t tell anyone.

I barely told myself.

Dance, poetry, music…yoga—each of these experiences affords us entry into that special, magical kingdom within, from which we are otherwise barred entry, barraged and embedded as we are in schedules, plans, strategies. By their grace we regain a kind of Eden missing from ordinary life. The poetry, the music, the yoga—All summons that Eden forward. We exit relative reality and bask however briefly in the divine extravagance of pure feeling, unencumbered by duality.

Yoga fails when self-consciousness enters the room. Fretting at all over “what others may think” renders the holy dance dead in the water, and yoga then doesn’t happen for us; there is no joy, and yoga continues its sad descent into empty Indian calisthenics with nifty side effects like longer hamstrings and a calm brow. Yoga and its offerings devolve to mere stress management, and another sage rolls over in an ancient grave.

We are entreated over and over to “be present.” But we can’t be present and think at the same time. Impossible! We are only ever thinking thoughts about the past, whether a lifetime ago, a year ago, or three seconds ago; or thinking thoughts about the future, whether a lifetime ahead, a year ahead, or three seconds ahead. Go ahead and try to think about something that isn’t one of those things. Thinking about what I just wrote is thinking about the past.

Reality, otherwise known as What Is, lives in neither the past nor the future. EVER. As real as our thoughts feel, they separate us from What Is. Funny, isn’t it? We have been trained to think of thinking as being super aware, when more often it’s the opposite. Thinking gets you in touch with other thoughts that mate furiously and have more thoughts. They don’t believe in birth control. It feels like an ant colony up in there, doesn’t it?

The yogis knew this a long time ago. The English word “mind” (as in yours) comes from the Sanskrit “mana,” which means “to measure.” That’s because to think is to measure; it is to separate and divide one thing from another like Chinese from French, or raincoat from down parka, or red from blue. Helpful if you’re allergic to French and its snowing and you’d like to vote Democratic, but beyond that, not helpful for the yogini.

That’s why we who teach yoga are always asking you to stay with the breath. The breath is one thing you can count on as occurring in the present moment and only in the present moment. To disappear inside of it is to merge in the present moment. Very paradoxical. Yoga can place you in direct relationship with your IS. The senses come alive like water hitting desert and they alone key us into what IS rather than what is a thought in your head that shuffles around year after year taking up space and making you wonder if Bellevue has a spare bed on the 6th floor.

There’s a lot working against you, making it damn hard to follow the advice of the teacher telling you again and again to “be present.” You’ve got the NSA peeking in your underwear drawers and cameras on every corner recording as you walk the dog, fight with your lover, sob in 7/11, and determine which carrot to buy for dinner. Add the proliferation of social media and the idea of always being “on,” lest someone upload you chowing down at Tutti mid-pasta bite, and we are all occasionally turned into strange creatures made of appearance and scrim, wish, and fib.

We have been trained not to feel…anything. By “feelings” I don’t mean your emotions. I have no advice about them. They are in a league of their own, as you and your team of shrinks well know. Here we mean the feelings of the body. It’s scary. To feel is to be vulnerable. You’re only allowed to feel things in the bedroom or in a paid stranger’s small, candlelit den, replete with Enya, warm oil, and massage certificates on a dim wall. Much easier to think your way through a yoga class. But we all know how that works out in the bedroom. It’s the same on your mat. To be present is to be available for what’s going down.

Only the strong can tolerate being vulnerable. When you start to feel the subtle, shimmering, ever-arising and disappearing, tactile somatic glimmerings of the body, life avails herself to you in an entirely different way, and the whole fake Western pioneer town of your life begins to fall down. You see for the first time that there is nothing at all behind the façade of cowboys and saloons and dusty horses. Connection is not a thought. Joy is not a thought. Compassion is not a thought. All are an experience, a feeling.

No longer are you asunder from Everything Else. No longer are you twiddling your thumbs on the sidelines of nature, that green thing out the window. Rather, you step fully and completely into the ever-present NOW, and that book you read half of by Eckhart Tolle begins to make dramatic and compelling sense, and you don’t need anyone anymore to tell you up from down, right from wrong, yes from no, because you are now IN IN IN. And for a glorious moment, all truth and wisdom is yours.

God isn’t an entity to worship but an experience to have. It’s a funny thing when the founders of religions are allowed to experience ecstasy, but their adherents aren’t.

Quit that.