Friday, October 18, 2013

Get thee to the studio on time!

An old friend of mine shared some thoughts about punctuality. "Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable!" This was my friend's philosophy about getting her daughter to her youth symphony rehearsals on time. Or rather, early. Because if you want to truly be on time, you must arrive early.

In our yoga tradition, each class begins with the chanting of the sound om, followed by the Invocation to Sage Patanjali, who was the compiler of the Yoga Sutras, the essential teachings of yoga philosophy. It is powerful to experience the way chanting draws us together as a group of practitioners. Beginning students may not understand why we start each class this way, but they are easily able to experience the calm and focus that the sound evokes.

Unfortunately, students arriving late to class miss this important start to the practice. They are greeted by a sign that says, "Stop! Do you hear chanting? If so, please wait  until chanting ends, and then enter the room quietly."

In my early twenties, when I first discovered yoga, I often had a very difficult time getting myself to class, or actually anywhere, on time. It was a life skill I had not yet developed. I hadn't yet learned that arriving on time for a six pm yoga class means entering the yoga studio several minutes before six o'clock. Because we need time to take off our shoes, set up our mat in the yoga room, and maybe some extra time for changing clothes or using the bathroom.

Before I developed the life skill of arriving on time, I would always push everything to the last possible moment. If I knew I could bike to the yoga studio in fifteen minutes, and the class started at six, I would leave my house at five forty-five. So I would be the breathless, flustered person rushing into the studio and looking for a place to put my mat right when the teacher was getting ready to begin the lesson.

At some point I figured it out. I realized that it was more respectful to my teacher and fellow students to get my butt into the yoga room a few minutes BEFORE the official start time of the class. I figured out that my own body and mind were actually more receptive to the teachings if I had a little time to settle myself before the class began. And on a purely practical level, I noticed that stuff happens. I realized that I couldn't count on my path to always be clear. Someone might stop me to ask for directions, a road detour might appear, or even a delightful surprise, like running into an old friend, could cause a delay. I realized that it was my responsibility to allow for these possibilities, in order to still be able to arrive at my destination on time.

Now one of the practical aspects of teaching yoga as a livelihood, is that my paycheck is bigger if more students come to class. So I welcome late arrivals with a smile and a friendly, "Come on in!" But by starting my class exactly on time, week after week, month after month, and year after year, I hope to teach the importance of a punctual arrival.

All of us who embark on a yoga practice start with the bodies and minds that we have. We might begin yoga with a very bad back, a frozen shoulder, or a knee injury. Or we might begin our yoga practice with a depressed or anxious mind, a habit of being impatient, or a tendency to be late. In just the same way that a skillful teacher will work with a sore back or torn hamstring muscle, a good teacher will help her students learn to work with their own mental and emotional habits, including the pattern of rushing and being late. Often we can do this without even saying anything to the student, but simply by teaching with integrity, class after class.

Like a good story, yoga class has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is best not to miss any of these parts.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Love Letter to Elmer Farm

It finally stopped raining today so I got on my bike to pick up my vegetables at Elmer Farm. Since I live in what is possibly the shadiest spot in Addison County (and I mean shady as in lack of sunshine, not in the illicit activity sense of the word) it's difficult to grow a garden here.

I feel so lucky that Jennifer and Spencer Blackwell took over the historic Elmer Farm to grow organic vegetables for our community. When I pick up my produce each week I can also buy locally baked bread and meat from another nearby farm. I can go out into the field and harvest sugar snap peas. And the flowers! Jennifer plants unusual varieties of all kinds of blossoms. Sometimes when I'm out in the flower field, cutting a bouquet alongside kids, moms, dads, and grandparents, I feel like I'm in heaven.

Growing all this delicious food is hard work. I bow in gratitude to Jennifer, Spencer, and their farm helpers, who spend countless hours in the muddy fields, coaxing this bounty out of the earth.

I usually run into several friends while I'm choosing my beets, cucumbers, and lettuce. I chat with Jennifer and Spencer and watch the kids chase chickens around the yard. The adults swap recipes while the children switch from chasing chickens to capturing frogs and setting them free in the kiddie pool.

When I get home with my heavy pack, I decide what to make for dinner. After all the rain, the river outside my house is raging. I watch it for awhile, in awe of the power of this huge amount of water pouring down from the mountains. Our existence here feels so fragile. All over the world, climate change threatens people who live near the water's edge.

How much of the damage being inflicted on our planet is caused by food production and distribution? Whether its animals fattened on feedlots, heavily sprayed vegetables shipped from California, or high fructose corn syrup laden beverages, the way most Americans eat is killing our beautiful earth.

As Michael Pollan, and other food experts, have pointed out, if you are poor it's hard to eat healthy. In the supermarket, the real food is all around the edges of the building (produce, meat, dairy, eggs). Pretty much the entire inside of the store is over packaged empty calorie "food" that causes heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other medical problems that are sinking the health of our country.

How beautiful would it be if every single neighborhood in our whole country had its own small farm? If we could all bike or walk to pick up our weekly veggies? If butchers, bakers and jam makers had a place to sell their wares? Think of all the green jobs that would be created if we could kick our addiction to industrialized agriculture, fast food, and empty calories.

John Lennon said it best: "You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one." I hope someday you will join us, and all people can have healthy food to eat!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Hero in Atlanta

We might be all mourning another Newton style gun tragedy, this one near Atlanta, if it weren't for the bravery and calm of a school clerk named Antoinette Tuff. She had just sat down at a desk, taking the place of another secretary at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, when 20 year old Michael Brandon Hill entered the school. Dressed in black and armed to the teeth, the would-be gunman appeared extremely agitated and ready to inflict harm.

Although she was terrified, Antoinette stayed calm. She started praying, and began to practice a spiritual technique called "anchoring" that she had recently learned from her pastor at church.

Spiritual practice is meant to instill in us a deep, unshakable calm. In postural yoga practice we learn to "anchor" ourselves into the earth, by sending imaginary roots down from the soles of our feet. These roots may be imaginary, but the slowed breathing, heightened awareness, and increased ability to be present, are very real. We work with the physical body to affect the mind and emotions.

Although Antoinette Tuff may not have a yoga practice, her actions that day inspire me to want to practice more diligently. She began speaking to the disturbed young man in front of her.

She assured him that everything would be okay. She started telling him about some of her own difficulties. She had recently lost her husband, and one of her children was disabled. She told him that in the past year she had felt a great deal of despair, but had managed to get to a better place, and that he could too.

At one point in their conversation, the young man told her his name. "That's my mother's maiden name!" exclaimed Antoinette, "We could be related."

This part of the story really struck me. In spite of her fear, this brave woman reached out and connected with the frightening person in front of her. Although he was wielding an AK-47, she reminded him of their shared humanity.

Michael Brandon Hill told Antoinette that he had not taken his medications that day. "It will be okay," she assured him. "You haven't hurt anyone. It's alright."

Later, she was able to convince him to put down his weapon. She got him to lay down the rifle on her desk. She got him to empty his pockets of ammunition. She got him to lay down on the floor, with his hands behind his back. The police came in and got him out of the school.

He was armed with a deadly weapon, one that was designed to kill a lot of people in a short amount of time. She was armed with compassion, a strong connection to her spiritual source, and a calm and quick mind. I watched an interview with Antoinette Tuff, which is how I learned some of the details of her ordeal. As I watched and listened, I couldn't help but wonder, would I be able to be so grounded, so calm, so brave?

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Yogic Look at Your Beverage Choices

The stone hearth around our woodstove was built by a talented Bristol jack of all trades named Gary Barnett. These days, the area immediately in front of the stove is covered with bits of orange rind. Whenever we eat an organic orange, I break the peel into small pieces, and place them on the hearth to dry. Why? Because they are a frequent ingredient in the herbal teas that we serve after class in the yoga studio. After the rind has dried, I add it to the large jar which is stored in the pantry. Each time I open this jar, an intoxicating citrusy fragrance is released.

 In addition to smelling good and tasting amazing in tea, this orange peel is a fantastic source of vitamin C, calcium, and even natural cholesterol lowering compounds! But my favorite thing about saving and drying my orange peels is using the fruit a bit more completely, after it has traveled such a great distance to get to our house. We just can't grow oranges in Vermont, so they come to us from Florida, California, even Spain!

When we pour boiling water over dried plant matter, we are performing a task our ancestors did before us. Not only are the flavors, scents, and plant compounds released into the boiling water, but our intentions to live in a balanced way can also be a part of our tea ritual. We humans need fluids, and we've used our human ingenuity to create so many different beverages to enjoy. But not all libations are created with equal care and respect for our earth's precious resources. Think of the difference between a cup of herbal tea and a 16 oz bottle of soda. One may be sweetened with local honey, if you so desire. The other contains a shocking 65 grams of sugar, if it's Coke; 70 grams if it's Pepsi. Translation: a 16 oz bottle of Pepsi contains almost 17 teaspoons of sugar. Diabetes, anyone?

I feel sad when I see obese people lugging cases of soda home from the supermarket. It is such a natural human desire to enjoy sweetness  on our tongues. Our primitive, foraging ancestors were surely at an advantage if they harvested loads of nutrient rich berries, or if they ate wild honey whenever they could find it. We've evolved to desire sweetness. Unfortunately, companies that sell highly processed foods and beverages profit from our desires, and are pouring their creative energies into hooking us on their 17 teaspoons of sugar soda pops.

If they were sitting in their corporate boardrooms TRYING to make a nation obese and diabetic, they could hardly do a better job than they are doing now. Can't you just picture a bunch of suited executives around a long table, saying things like, "Yes! And then we'll advertise our 3.5 grams of sugar per ounce chocolate milk during the most popular kids TV shows- and get them obese before they turn 6! Bwahahaha!" Imaginary evil laughter aside, it is a fact that all of the major processed food companies employ scientists to conduct sophisticated studies to determine the "bliss point" of a food, which is the point where you feel completely satisfied with a taste and wouldn't want it to be any sweeter or saltier.

As a yoga teacher, I'd like to propose that we all discover multiple "bliss points" for ourselves, and practice finding them every day. A deep, relaxed breath can be quite a blissful experience, as can a hug from a close friend. While many yoga postures contain elements of difficulty, there is also a blissful sensation that arises, if only upon finishing the pose, and getting the body into a different position! Offering tea to someone you care about is blissful for both the giver and the receiver. When we have many ways to find satisfaction, comfort, and joy within ourselves every day, we are less vulnerable to addictive substances, be they alcohol, tobacco, or sugary drinks.

I can't remember when I started making herbal teas for family and friends, but it's been a long time. I love how simple and low tech it is to make herbal tea. Step one: boil water. Step two: place herbs into mason jar. Step three: pour boiling water over herbs. Step four: cover and allow to steep for twenty minutes or so. Step five: strain into your favorite mug and enjoy!

You can customize your herbal blends in infinite ways. Making tea for your pregnant friend? Add plenty of nettle and red raspberry leaf. Need vitamin C? Try rose hips and hibiscus, and even add some frozen blueberries. Want to calm down after a stressful day? Have a cup of soothing chamomile. Unsettled stomach? Chamomile plus peppermint. Like it sweet? Add some honey.