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What I’ve Leaned As a Yogi Who Eats Meat

I’m not a very good cook.  I watch cooking shows with the same sense of amazement I have watching aerial artists.  I can’t go into the kitchen and make something fabulous with whatever is there.  I need to work from a recipe. I have some yellowed cookbooks that have served me well since college, and there are some great websites available for any style or odd ingredients that I’m trying to use.

I tend to cook vegetarian and definitely buy organic ingredients. I think eating organic, and locally grown, grown food is a responsible way to be kind to our environment. However, I am not a vegetarian.  I eat meat about twice  week.  When I eat meat, I am careful about the amount and where it comes from. I like to keep my diet as clean as possible, and as free from processed foods and chemicals as possible.  My diet mirrors my general philosophies which do not tend toward extremes, absolutes, or imposing my way as the only way.  

I was vegetarian for a long time but I found that, especially with the amount of teaching I do in hot yoga rooms, I was getting very tired, and I felt weak. My body and muscles were never fully recovering from the physical activity.  On the other hand, the quality of the meat I eat can also have a negative impact. For example, if I eat fried or fatty meat like a hamburger, I don’t digest it well.  I work with a preventive health and wellness doctor, especially since I am entering menopause, to determine what is the healthiest foods and supplements for my body and lifestyle.  In general, I feel better with higher amounts of protein, including small amounts of meat, than other people might need.  Ultimately, I think deciding how to feed and fuel your body should be based on your personal requirements, a knowledge of your body, and not what someone else tells you is right.

Within the yoga community the concept of ahimsa is often tied to vegetarianism.  Ahimsa, the practice of non-harming must start with not harming yourself.  Treating yourself well and fueling a healthy body are important pieces of ahimsa.  Any choices about how to feed your body, should be mindful and well considered, but ultimately they need to reflect compassion and care for yourself.

The practice of ahimsa is a good deal broader than not eating a hamburger.  I’ve given a lot of thought to this quote from  Autobiography of a Yogi“This world is inconveniently arranged for a literal practice of ahimsa. Man may be compelled to exterminate harmful creatures. He is not under compulsion to feel anger or animosity.”

Violence shows up in our lives from the fear that causes humans to go to war, to physically and verbally attack each other.  Violence shows up because we are out of balance from our over scheduled lives in which we mistreat ourselves, and end up erupting at others. We feel powerless in our own lives and we cause violence to others by trying to “fix” their lives and make ourselves feel better.

If we each work to conquer our fears, create balance, and reconnect to our personal power,  we would be making greater strides toward the practice of ahimsa than eating tofu.

When Your Give & Their Take Leaves You Drained

Have you ever been in a relationship where there’s little or no return on the amount you give and the amount they take? When relationships get out of balance it can be very draining, diminishing, and damaging. Eventually, in an effort to find stability, you have to either cut all of the users out of your life or set hard boundaries that will keep you from injury. The way we balance (or do not balance) giving our energy out to others with replenishing energy into our lives, impacts our emotional well-being and our physical health.

We get used to being out of balance, and we bring this habit with us onto our yoga mats. Many people believe that yoga is strictly about increasing flexibility. The theory is that the more flexible you are, the less likely you will become injured. Unfortunately that theory is only a partial truth, and pursuing a yoga practice with that single strategy can create imbalance. The broader truth is that being too flexible can also increase your chances of becoming injured.

During yoga class I often see students taking an imbalanced approach to stretching in Tadasana, Parsvottanasana, and Trikonasana. In an effort to lengthen their hamstrings to maximum capacity, students (especially those who are double jointed) lock their knees. As they hold in these poses with their knees hyper-extended, the tendons and ligaments behind their knees are being stretched to the point of being weakened. Contracting and strengthening the front of your thighs, creating a very slight bend in your knees, is the healthy balance your knees will thank you for later.

Over reaching, pushing too far out, without hugging into your strength in Plank pose, Parsvakanasana, Ardha Chandrasana, and Downward Facing Dog weakens and destabilizes your asanas. Instead, find and build your strength in these poses. Hug your arm bones into their sockets. Draw your shoulder blades together and use the strength of your upper back.

If your muscles are too tight, your joints are at risk of being damaged.  If tendons, ligaments or muscles become over stretched, they can no longer provide boundaries to keep joints in place, which also puts your joints at risk. The lack of balance between length and strength in your body creates a similar result to an imbalance between what you give and what you get. You are primed to be hurt. Let your yoga practice be the place where you experiment with reacting to life’s challenges with equanimity. Don’t just stretch, pull into your strength. Create the balance that keeps you stable mentally, emotionally and physically.

As A Parent, Child's Pose Is Always An Option

I’ve been a mother for 23 years.  In that period my husband and I have raised two children to the point to adulthood (if not complete independence).  We navigated pee-wee soccer, teen acne, and way too many Prom nights.  We survived the transition when they left for college.  We endured the roller coaster ride toward degrees.  We are now waist deep in the ”kids are back at home adventure.

I knew when I became a parent that it was going to be for the rest of my life. 23 years ago (which feels like 5 years ago) I could not have foreseen the variety of challenges inherent in having two grown children leave for college and, just as I successfully adjusted to their absence, four years blinked by and they are back under my roof.   Today  I watch my two young professionals coming and going from the house, eating enormous quantities of food, and going to bed at hours that would render me a zombie.  When your children are babies you feel the excitement and the trepidation of not knowing what’s ahead of you.  Having conquered the unknown, I had adopted a perception of myself as an effective parent.  Now, with two twenty-somethings in the house full time, I am once again facing down the ravine of unknown territory.  As I embark on the journey of redefining the role a of motherhood in this new phase, I find myself once again leaning heavily on the lessons of my yoga practice to find the calm within the storm that is parenting.

Childs pose is always an option: It used to be that time outs were a useful tool for the children, giving them time to calm down, and choose a better course of action.  Now they are an appropriate tool for me. On the mat taking child’s pose is an opportunity to pull back from the intensity of the practice and check in.  Off the mat, a mental child’s pose steps you back, and allows for a few deep breaths. My husband and I had taken a long weekend away to reconnect and recharge, leaving our house in the hands of our children who needed to remain on their work schedules.  Although I love to travel, I always have a sense of joy in returning home to my own kitchen, my own bed and everything familiar.  Walking through the door of our home on a Tuesday afternoon, I fully expected the comfort of the familiar.  I was greeted with something I’d never seen before.  The kitchen sink was piled with dirty dishes.  The smell of rotting food pervaded.  The family room had piles of laundry.  For some reason I couldn’t possibly fathom, a soaking wet towel was lying on the wood floor of the kitchen.   It was time for child’s pose.

Maintain a beginners mind: No matter how long you’ve been practicing, your body is different every time you step onto the mat, and what you need is different.  Approaching each yoga pose as though it is your first allows you to stay open to new possibilities without predetermined ideas of what works and what your limits are. My child’s pose allowed me to call my son at his office and, and resist the temptation to launch an assault.  I asked what had happened in the house.  He explained that there had been a power outage leaving them without electricity for 3 days.  They couldn’t run the dishwasher.  The ice in the freezer had started to melt, so each morning they put a towel in front of it before leaving for work.  They were showering at friends’ houses at night and then changing into work clothes in the Family room because it had the most windows and natural light at dawn.

Release your attachment to the outcome: Each time you try a yoga pose you get stronger. Mentally and physically, you create change by putting out effort without your ego demanding a specific outcome.  It makes no difference if you stick the pose perfectly or struggle and fall.  The benefits are always there. Could they have emptied the ice from the freezer to avoid the flood?  Maybe used a bigger towel (or several)?  Would I have washed the dishes by hand in the same situation? Was it feasible to neatly fold the clothes they walked out of before putting clean clothes on? It’s all possible.  On the other hand, their effort created a benefit.  My vision of an outcome was not their vision.  My kids have very distinct personalities all their own, and (hard to believe) not everything about them is a reflection, or indictment, of me.  The dishes got washed.  The clothes found the laundry room.  The wooden floor dried out.  Two young adults didn’t end up feeling like they came up short.

Relax with what is: Simultaneously the most difficult, and the most useful, single lesson a yoga practice can offer.

Sometimes It's A Good Idea To Blow Up Your Bridges

Before man learned how to engineer and construct bridges, our movement was restricted. Bridges allow us the freedom to explore territory farther away from home base and grow our knowledge of the world around us.  The same holds true in our spiritual and emotional growth.  If we don’t effectively build a bridge from where we are to a new place, we will pretty much stay the same.  Through my life I have constructed bridges to new places of great value.  I’ve also traversed a bridge or two only to find myself in a destructive pit stop.  For example, I crossed a bridge to a successful corporate career and then I built another bridge from that career to one of service and health.  On my way to middle age I walked across a bridge that seemed to be traveled by all of my contemporaries only to find myself on a new shore where I was told I was becoming useless, tired, old.  On that shore I found a place where people over 45 yrs of age gave up and shut down.  I high tailed it on to the next bridge out of there and found a very different land where I currently reside in vitality and strength.

As we cross these many bridges to new locations, we tend to hang on to the structure that got us here.  You’ve heard the advice “Don’t burn any bridges”.  It usually refers to keeping a safety net, maintaining an option, or having a back door retreat strategy in the event you don’t like where you’ve landed.  That’s an old tactic that’s useful when you’re in your 20s and 30s because at those ages your toolbox is still sparse.   As we age, we accumulate quite a few bridges.  If you don’t somehow let go of them, they will begin to weigh you down.  Each one of those old bridges requires attention, upkeep and maintenance to keep around, which uses your energy with no return on investment.

I have a different suggestion for those of you who have joined me on the shoreline of middle age.  Start blowing up your bridges.  Let them go.  They were useful, sturdy supporters, but they are of no use to you anymore.  Your future is in front of you.  If you find yourself on land that’s not a good fit, build a new bridge and get out.  However, you don’t need to go back.   You don’t need to be 20 again.  That location’s value had walls you couldn’t see beyond and strictly enforced limitations.  You don’t need to trade your wisdom for smoother skin.  You don’t need to leave this place of knowing who you are in order to find adventure and limitless possibility, its available right here.  Honor the many bridges that got you where you are, fix your sights on the path ahead of you, set the dynamite, light the fuse and let it blow.

Practice Makes Perfect

The universe doesn’t know the difference between what we want and what we don’t want. The universe only knows what we focus on and invest our energy in. It assumes we want more of that. Therefore, whatever we decide to practice is what we will become good at.

What are you practicing today? If the answer is anxiety, worrying, or negativity you’re going to get good at it. Would you rather practice empowerment and abundance instead? If you believe in judging and beating yourself up, you are practicing the art of hurting yourself and you will become a master at it. It reminds me of the unattributed quote, “If our strengths are not determined to be valuable, we spend our lives shoring up our weaknesses.”

Notice what you’re focusing your energy on and choose what you want to become good at.

The Yoga of Waiting

Over the last ten days I’ve spent a lot of time waiting. After traveling and teaching yoga for five days, I landed home and immediately developed a head cold. While for some, the experience of a head cold involves lady-like sneezes and charming sniffles; there is nothing dainty about what’s been happening in my sinuses.

I decided that there was no time in my schedule that could be allotted to sitting and healing, so I continued with my week’s commitments. After a few days of trying to ignore the constant company of my head cold, it finally escalated to a full blown “respiratory event”. Gone were the days of lady-like sniffles. These were replaced by a roguish hacking cough that even western medicine could not improve. Upon the doctor’s orders, I was now destined to wait.

For the last ten days I’ve waited, and what has struck me is how much thought and energy I’ve put into the waiting process. There are 1,440 minutes in a day. I’ve spent all of mine thinking about when my personal invasion of the body snatchers will end.

I’ve been here before. A few years ago I tore a muscle in my shoulder. I wanted my shoulder to heal immediately, and risked injury by going on with my life long instead of being patient. In checkout lines at banks, supermarkets, and car washes I actively employ breathing techniques to maintain a relaxed state. Occasionally these tendencies toward impatience will accompany me onto the mat when I want my hips to release or my hamstrings to lengthen — now.

Through our careers and family life we‘re rewarded for getting things done quickly. A sense of urgency becomes an advantage that enables our success. However, impatience can become a silent thief that we allow into our lives with a free reign. Impatience steals the enjoyment of our 1,440 minutes as we focus instead on a preferred future. A practice of patience offers the benefit of fully experiencing where we are, who we are with, and what we are doing. Being wholly in each conversation, fully engaged in every mundane encounter, average cup of coffee, and ordinary chore, without time traveling to an imagined future, is to be an active participant in our own lives. Each day holds 1,440 of these opportunities, none need to be mindlessly wasted.

This blog was originally featured on MindBodyGreen.

Yoga And Religion

No matter how well prepared I hope my teacher trainees are when they graduate from the Rethink Yoga Academy, when they begin their adventure of teaching public classes, there are a lot of fears to be faced and overcome. One of the most daunting is not knowing if you will have answers to your students questions.  (Actually, that fear survives the early years of teaching and doesn’t dissipate until you finally realize it’s OK not to have all the answers.) When one of my recent teacher trainees took on the topic of yoga and religion for her writing assignment, I was intrigued. Jen was facing down a topic for which there is no final answer and no shortage of strong opinions.

The Relationship Between Yoga and Religion
By Jennifer Kimak

I began yoga as a physical practice.  Later, I became interested in the history of the practice.   I wanted to understand how the philosophy fits into our modern Western lives, if it does at all.  Other people are also curious, or even skeptical, about this when I mention yoga.  As a yogi, I feel it is important to provide interested parties with the best information possible in order to help them along their journeys on and off the mat.

There are differing opinions on whether yoga in and of itself is a religion or simply a philosophy.   As yoga becomes used more and more as a physical exercise, questions have arisen from all sides about its relationship to religion.  Some oppose the secularization of yoga, while others feel it does not matter how or why one comes to practice.  Religious orders are unsure of how it will affect their followers.

According to anthropologists all known cultures have religion of some form. Dictionary.com defines religion as “a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects”.  This often includes “devotional and ritual observances and containing a moral code governing conduct”. By this definition, it seems traditional yoga, as laid out in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, could be considered a religion.  Swami Satchidananda even compares the Sutras to the Bible in the preface to his translation of the text.

Yoga developed as a Hindu practice to bring the practitioner to salvation.  Though Christianity has become divided into denominations, the majority of them share the idea that the way to salvation is through the acceptance of Jesus Christ. In his book World Faiths, P. Oliver discusses Hinduism, a religion preceding Christianity by almost 2000 years.  Oliver writes that Hinduism has developed a “number of different strategies for trying to achieve salvation”.  For this reason, he states, it is a difficult religion to summarize.  Oliver sites that the devotional practices are many and there is no comprehensive outline, such as the Quran or Bible.  Yoga is only one of the ways to spiritual enlightenment.

Though rooted in Hindu tradition, yoga is often regarded as a philosophy that many feel can be separated from organized religion.   The practical teachings for how to live a life without suffering are appealing, as that seems a desirable, though near-impossible, goal to most human beings.  Still, the foundation texts read by many yogis, such as the Upanishads and the Vedas are Hindu.

In their December 2011 issue, “Yoga Journal” published an article exploring questions regarding yoga and religion. Andrea Ferretti interviewed Brooke Boon, David Frawley, Gary Kraftsow, and Stefanie Syman, four yogis of different religious backgrounds.  Frawley, founder of the American Institute of Vedic Studies, explains, “yoga’s not a belief system. And many of the other traditions coming out of India- Hindu and otherwise- are not belief systems like Christianity, which has one singular perspective that followers have to adopt.”  This freedom allows people to follow their own path to spiritual truth.  Western traditions often fear yoga for this reason.

Boon, founder of a Christian yoga ministry, Holy Yoga, posits that most Christians are uneducated about yoga.  According to Frawley and Syman, an Ashtanga yogini, the mystical experience and Self-realization aspects of yoga can be in conflict with other religious traditions. One woman who feels this is true is Laurette Willis, founder of Praise Moves.  Willis was a yoga practitioner who followed “New Age” tradition and studied metaphysics for 22 years.  Now a Christian, she renounces yoga as “a dangerous practice for Christians” that leads people away from God.  Though her website www.praisemoves.com, Willis shows graphics of traditional asanas, but states that she is opposed to the name yoga for Christians and markets Praise Moves as “a Christian alternative to yoga”.

One solution to this has been to extract all spirituality from yoga, stripping it of references to God and leaving behind Sanskrit as it becomes more mainstream.  TheBabarazzi.com, a yoga blog opposed to this practice, refers to it as “yoga bleaching”.  In many places yoga is little more than the physical asana, historically one limb of eight, which includes meditation and pranayama (breathing).  To Frawley the problem is that yoga is “primarily a deeper spiritual experience.”  He concedes that the physical, secular practice has many health benefits that should not be overlooked.  Kraftsow, founder of the American Viniyoga Institute agrees, adding that those who see it as sacred should be respected.

There may never be a consensus in the yoga community or the religious world regarding how yoga and religion fit together.  Many people find yoga beneficial to their spirituality, regardless of their preferred religion.  I find yoga a beautiful way to connect to the divine.  Though I do not identify as a Hindu, I feel it is my responsibility as a yoga practitioner to know and respect the origins of my practice.

As a teacher, it is not my place to preach any religion or spiritual path to my students.  Rather, I am there to create a safe space for students of all religions and faiths. I feel it is my responsibility to understand that there are differing and strong opinions surrounding this area of the practice. I would like to help cultivate respect of the historical practice in those I reach.  In the future when a student, or potential student, asks if yoga is a religion I will be able to provide them with the best possible platform for understanding.  What they do with that is up to them.

Jennifer Kimak has been practicing yoga for 10 years.  While teaching in Africa last year, her practice was a way to energize and let go of the day.  This experience drove her decision to pursue teaching training.  Jen recently graduated with her 200 hour teaching certificate from the Rethink Yoga Academy.

Here's The Question That Changes Your Life…..

We all want to be happy, healthy and strong.  Taking this train of thought a step further, you could probably add the desire to be more at peace, less reactive, and more balanced to the list.  Creating these qualities in ourselves can seem like a daunting task.  You know what you’d like to have and who you’d like to be, but how do you get there?

In the new movie “The Avengers”, Thor is one of the superheroes who have pledged their lives to fight the bad guys.  (There’s no need for a spoiler alert here, I’m not giving anything away.) Unfortunately, the biggest bad guy is Thor’s brother, a circumstance that causes Thor some conflict.  At one point in the movie Thor is confronted with the question, “What are you prepared to do?”

As a yoga teacher, I often see students experimenting with yoga as a way to achieve some very admirable goals.  They come to the mat, and go through the physical motions of a practice.  Then they wait to feel their bodies and lives improve.  What these students often don’t realize is that they can make a choice to take a more active role in achieving their goals.  You have a say in how you view yourself and your experiences.  You can choose your level of conviction and commitment.  You can decide how you act, and how you react, to the circumstances in your life.  You can make the choice to be a bystander or an active participant.  But, “What are you prepared to do?”  What are you willing to step up on, to have your feet held to the fire on?

Transforming yourself and your health isn’t about becoming someone new.  It’s a process of revealing who you really are when you’re not playing it safe, or pretending, or trying to please other people.  On the mat, when you put yourself into a new pose and you stick with it, even though it’s uncomfortable and foreign to you, you learn how to change your body.  Once you learn that you can transform your body, you realize that you can do the same thing with the way you think, your habits, and your perspectives.

The happiness, balance, peace and health that you want are available to you.   Sit down, find the time and space to be truly honest with yourself, and to listen.  When you’re ready to be honest, radically honest, ask yourself “What are you prepared to do?”

Is It Your View That Limits You?

Spring has officially arrived in the Northeastern US. In this part of the country spring is the season of new color and new growth, but I think spring is welcomed everywhere as a time of renewal. It seems Mother Nature knows how to release what’s no longer working in order to make room for what is new. All living things have a natural instinct for this same releasing/renewing process. Our bodies automatically know to exhale in order to make room for new oxygen.

Unfortunately, as we mature, we practice collecting more than we practice letting go. We cling to our wounds all the back from our childhood. We stockpile our failures, allowing them to create fears and resistance to change. We maintain our inventory of times we didn’t measure up to someone else’s expectations. We hang onto the resulting feelings that we are not enough.

These old thought patterns and definitions are confining,. They confine us to a very negative place where we stop seeing that there are other possibilities. It’s necessary to regularly perform a spring-cleaning on what we’re holding on to that’s not working for us. If we are willing to consider that the old ideas we’ve become used to are not entirely accurate, we leave space for new, life enhancing, ways of thinking.

My cousin is a loving father to his 16 year old son, but his job demands that he spend weeks at a time out of state and he misses many evenings and weekends with his family. Over the Easter holiday father and son spent an entire afternoon on the golf course together.
Afterward, his son told my cousin that he wished they could spend time together more often. My cousin, whose habitual thinking includes a great deal of self-recrimination, heard his son’s comment as a criticism that he isn’t available enough.

By the time he came home for the holiday dinner my cousin felt angry with his son for what he perceived to be a lack of gratitude. He was disappointed in himself and felt he’d been abad father. On top of these reactions he piled some old, well-worn guilt and frustration that he was unable to live up to the expectations of the people he loves. The family dinner wastense. Afterward, the teen quickly retreated to his room feeling the weight of his father’s upset, but having no idea what he had done. My cousin, unable to let go of his insecurities and limited perceptions, lost the opportunity and potential that had presented themselves in that golf outing.

We may not always be able to recall where we left our keys, but when it comes to holding onto grudges, old behaviors, and thought patterns our minds are very efficient. Our minds wrap around habitual thoughts like a clenched fist. However, to reach out for something new, you have to open your fist and let go of what you’re gripping.

Originally posted on MindBodyGreen.

Do You Lift Weights? No, I Do Yoga.

At least once a week, I’m asked how often I lift weights. “I’m a yoga teacher, I don’t lift”, is generally met with polite skepticism. The truth is, my practice is the reason behind my physique, and also my ability to maintain my sense of humor because strangers rarely believe me.
I teach my style of power yoga once a week in a bare bones, no kidding around, “muscle gym”. The first time a member takes my class they are shocked at how difficult it is to access the strength required to do foundational poses, like Plank, Chatturanga and Upward Facing Dog (yoga variations of a push-up). Weight lifting isolates each muscle, but rarely asks their body to use its entire self in a single movement. The opposite is true of yoga. Each posture tones and strengthens muscles throughout your whole body. Although you will not build the bulk of a serious lifter, yoga stretches your muscles while simultaneously contracting them, resulting in increased flexibility, definition and a chiseled, leaner, longer physique.
A power yoga class can burn about 300 calories. Put that class in a hot studio and you’re burning 600 calories. The successive movement from one pose to the next will increase your heart rate, your respiration, and the amount you sweat.
If you’re going to work out for more than an hour each day, it should be with something you look forward to. If you drag yourself to the gym simply because you want to stay in shape, it’s time to reconsider. Most yogis truly enjoy their workout time, and you can retain the metabolic and strength benefits of your old regime, while adding flexibility, detoxification,  mental clarity, balance and a greater sense of well being.
Ultimately, the proof is in the practice. Take a class and notice how your muscles feel the next day. They’re sore for good reason – and your body never lies to you.

*originally posted on MindBodyGreen

7 Ways to Become Age Proof With Yoga

Kim Shand - Founder of Rethink YogaGrowing old, in the way we have come to understand it, complete with memory loss; Alzheimer’s; or dementia is not inevitable. Research is offering scientific evidence that these common, age related conditions are within our control to suspend or avoid, regardless of family history. The latest longevity research offers suggestions on how we can maintain our cognitive functioning as we grow older. The practice of yoga has many known physical benefits to keep us healthy as we age.  Here are 7 ways that a yoga practice meets science’s recommendations for age proofing our minds.

Exercise fattens your brain
The hippocampus is the portion of the brain that’s responsible for memory. As you age, the hippocampus shrinks and so does your memory. Physical activity triggers growth of new cells in the hippocampus which can reverse the shrinking process. In an article in “AARP The Magazine”, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Illinois, explains that physically active people maintain cognition and memory, reducing their risk of dementia by 30%-40%.

However, the amount and type of physical activity you choose is a factor in the success of your anti-aging efforts. Doctors have long recommended that as little as 15 minutes of exercise, three times a week helps maintain your brain’s capabilities. It’s not unusual for yogis to take 2-3 classes per week equating to 120-225 minutes of physical activity. At those levels, the Group Health Research Institute has shown that you can not only maintain your current abilities, but also restore lost competencies. According to a study by the University of British Columbia at Vancouver, physically challenging exercise increases levels of growth factors in the brain such as IGFI, which nourish and protect nerve cells. Power Yoga offers muscle building resistance training, which the study showed could gain them a 13% advantage on cognitive tests over those who practice gentler forms of exercise.

Yogic philosophy grows new brain cells
Learning new skills and information that challenge your brain increases your number of brain cells and their connections. After only a week of learning new skills, MRI scans done by UCLA researchers, showed that adults can stimulate the brain centers that control decision making and complex reasoning. The study of yogic philosophy is rich and broad. Learning its history, contradictions, modern applications and reinterpretations offers endless ways to challenge your thinking machine. In addition, to the intellectual challenge of confronting each new pose on the mat, understanding how the anatomy works and, of course, the Sanskrit offers your brain a fattening diet of information.

Ommm to the gray matter
Your memory is negatively impacted when you are under stress in large part because your brain is being flooded with cortisol. During a yoga practice you are guided to focus your attention on the sensations within your body, and the activity within your mind. Improving your ability to focus, and practicing this type of mindfulness, reduces harmful stress hormones like cortisol. An 8 week Harvard study on the effects of a mindfulness practice showed the density of gray matter in the hippocampus increased significantly over that of the control group.

Yoga is low fat and sugar free
Yoga can control and reduce your risk of having diabetes, hypertension and other chronic illnesses that are connected to the onset of dementia. A study from Japan demonstrates that Diabetes and obesity almost double our risk for Alzheimer’s. Therefore, controlling these risks is an important factor in age-proofing your mind. Power yoga in particular, but yoga in general, is helpful in weight lose and the

Yogis on a mission
A study of older adults conducted by Rush University Medical Center, indicates that feeling you have a purpose in life keeps you sharp. While yoga does not have a doctrine and it’s not a religion, it has a spiritual component that strengthens practitioners’ sense of purpose and connection. The Rush University study was conducted over a seven year period. People who started the study with a clear sense of life purpose, intention and goals were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s.

Remember your friends
Yogis belong to a community of people who share concerns and interests on a variety of levels including physical, mental and spiritual. Examinations of older people in Sweden confirm you can reduce your risk of dementia by having a full social life. Social interaction stimulates you emotionally and mentally. After just 10 minutes of conversation, participants in a University of Michigan study showed improvement on short term memory tests,

Better sex, bigger brains
Yoga increases your over all confidence and comfort level with your body. It provides a stronger awareness of physical sensations, increased relaxation, and better muscle control in your pelvis. All of which can lead to increased sexual vitality and satisfaction. While there’s no direct link between an active sex life and improved mental faculties; research, books and articles abound indicating that sex will keep you looking and feeling younger. At a bare minimum, we can assume that a happy sex life can put you in a better frame of mind to cope with the effects of aging.

You Don't Need Permission!

At the end of a long day and a longer week in which I worked hard and accomplished a lot, I came home and poured myself a glass of champagne. The reaction from my houseguest was curiosity as to what I was celebrating. My answer, “nothing in particular, everything in general”, gleaned more suspicious looks.

Why should the champagne stay in the fridge? I don’t wait for special occasions to give myself what I like. I don’t keep my silk PJs in the back of my closet, and I wear my favorite high heels whenever the mood strikes me – even if I’m just going to the drugstore. I’d rather wear them out from overuse than never get to enjoy them because they’re being “saved” inside bubble wrap.

If you don’t treat yourself like you are worth it, who will? You don’t need permission! What are you waiting for? Here are some suggestions in honor of the fact that you are totally worth it. Think up some to add and share with me.

– Use your best crystal glasses to drink your water everyday
– Break out the china, especially when you’re eating alone
– Wear perfume just to hang around the house
– Use your best jewelry
– Forget the sweat shirt, grab the cashmere sweater
– Light that fabulous scented candle
– Light the fireplace
– Never take a bath without bubbles
– Give really big hugs
– Say “I love you” as often as possible. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Are You in Need of a Digital Diet?

12 clues that you’ve moved from a healthy use of all things tech to digital addiction.

One night last week both of my twenty somethings, my husband and I all made it home for dinner. In celebration of the uncommon occurrence, we dusted off the kitchen table and sat down for a meal. After which, we deposited our tired selves in the family room where my husband and I shared space on the couch with the dog. The offspring lounged across the room in comfy chairs.

Sounds very Norman Rockwell, right? The difference is in the details. The TV was on. Four cell phones sang, buzzed and dinged from various tables. And each one of us fired up our laptops and started scanning, scrolling, and typing communication to the universe outside of the house. This is a family that is fully and completely plugged in.

I’ve read the studies claiming the internet is re-shaping our brains and shrinking our attention spans. I’m familiar with the warning that anxiety disorders, insomnia and panic attacks can be linked to the overstimulation inherit in our society’s information obsession. Maybe because we are not a family of anti-social introverts, gamers, or a techno-geeks; I haven’t felt the studies were talking about us personally. However, I’m willing to admit that I might be overly fond of my cell phone and my daily verbal interaction to texting ratio is often stilted toward the latter. So, over the next few days, I started to take note of our household digital behavior to get a handle on whether we are, in fact, in need of a digital detox.

My personal study yielded the following list of clues that you and/or your family have catapulted across the divide between compulsive technology use and full-blown digital addiction.

1. While at a party you pretend to be looking for pictures of your family vacation to share with the group, but you’re really checking your email/twitter/Facebook.

2. You’re out to diner with the girls but only half participating in the conversation occurring realtime while you hold a texting conversation.

3. You’re so used to having earbuds in your ears, you don’t notice when they’re not attached to anything.

4. You tell your spouse you are putting your blackberry on the bedside table to use as an alarm, but you really want to have it handy to check email if you wake up in the middle of the night.

5. When you wake up in the morning you check your email before getting out of bed.

6. You keep Facebook open and running in the background of your PC because you might miss a critical post in the lag time of opening and closing the app.

7. You have a clutching sensation in your stomach and an increased level of anxiety when you hear the words “The cabin doors are now closed. All electronic devices must be turned off.”

8. As the theater lights are dimming and the movie previews start rolling, you shrink down into the space between the seats trying to get one last email out.

9. Setting the table for dinner means putting out plates, glassware and silverware
with enough space in between for everyone to plop down their cell phone.

10. You adjust your wardrobe to accommodate carrying your cell phone.

11. You’ve acquired phantom ring tone disorder – You hear your cell phone going off in your purse and scramble to retrieve it, only to discover it wasn’t ringing.

12. The only articles you’ve read about the need to unplug from technology have been online.

HEALING A SPIRIT

My brother, Ryan, was absently looking out of the car window as his husband drove across a long, isolated stretch of Florida Highway. He was looking without really seeing, allowing the passing landscape to blur. He became very suddenly alert when, against monotonous miles of dried grasses, he saw mound of black fur several feet off the side of the road. He asked Kevin to stop the car. He got out and walked toward the furry mound. The dog lifted his head and looked toward Ryan. He wasn’t crying, but he was shaking and his mangled leg extended at an odd angle from his boney body. Ryan slowly walked closer expecting the dog to have a reaction, but he didn’t. The dog let my brother sit right next to him while Kevin got a blanket from the truck. They wrapped the dog, taking care not to put pressure on his fully exposed leg bone, hip bone and shredded skin.

The vet said the leg could be saved with surgery, but she wouldn’t do it if the dog didn’t have a home. Having three cats didn’t make Ryan’s house seem like a natural fit, but the alternative was unacceptable. He assured the vet he would take care of the dog.

Buster was discharged to Ryan and Kevin after his surgery to reattach all the tendons and ligaments in his leg. The leg would always be smaller than the others as the muscle from his hip to his ankle had been sheared off. It would be usable, if only just slightly. The strongest impression you had of Buster at that time was that his leg was not the only broken and scarred part of his being. His eyes were dead. He showed no aggression or fear. He didn’t care. He was walking dead. Vacant. It was impossible to know how long he had been outside, but it was clear his brush with a car or truck wasn’t the only incident that hurt him. Ryan spent full days with Buster nursing his leg, feeding him, rehydrating him, brushing him, carrying him outside and back in. One day Buster looked directly into Ryan’s eyes and held it. He began sticking his nose under Ryan’s hand until the round top of his head would fit snuggly under Ryan’s palm. Buster was beginning to seek contact. Ryan was bringing Buster’s Spirit back.

Buster now lives with Ryan, Kevin, a few cats and two other rescue dogs that have found their way in. He calmly holds any visitor’s gaze, looking you squarely in the eyes without breaking. No aggression. No fear. He tells you through his steady gaze that he sees you. And you feel it. When we visit, Buster protects my older dog from the rambunctious younger ones. He will place his body solidly between my older, small toy poodle and the other two dogs when the play gets a little rough. He makes no threats. No barking. No grandstanding. Just the most confident and full presence a Spirit could possess in physical form.

Through a pure love and caring Buster’s Spirit healed.

Yoga And The Ugly Christmas Sweater

While there may be someone out there, I personally, do not know anyone who doesn’t have some form of an addiction. Our addictions can take a variety of shapes ranging from an addiction to a paycheck, a process, a person, food or chemical. As we prepare ourselves, and our homes, for the holidays two addictions that often surface are competitiveness and perfectionism. In my house the drive toward both was at full speed as we prepared for the neighborhood Ugly Christmas Sweater Party.

I first noticed the competitiveness between the four of us as we covertly acquired our ugly Christmas sweaters, refusing to admit where we were shopping or give hints on available inventory. I chose cyber shopping to find my brightly colored, dizzyingly busy item. I was particularly proud of the fact that it was a previously used and repurposed purchase! While good naturedly boasting to my daughter of my fashion find, and hoping for an extra points for the eco-friendly add-on, she advised that I cover my tracks by deleting the website from “history” on the family desktop. That was an early sign that our family had successfully cleared the bar for standard competitiveness and was racing toward cutthroat.

Perfectionism is so deeply rooted in many of us that some people describe themselves as “born perfectionists”. I realized The Ugly Sweater Party was triggering my husband’s obsessive compulsive disorder desire for thoroughness when I caught him sneaking glue, tinsel and a strand of Christmas tree lights upstairs. Not satisfied with his off-the-shelf gaudy sweater, he set about embellishing it with a resolve that comes from having stepped onto the slippery slope toward compulsiveness. With intimidating determination he spent his afternoon rigging his sweater with flashing lights and gluing tinsel to inappropriate places on Santa’s reindeer.

Perfectionists and those with a strong need to be the best, often set unrealistic standards for themselves and when they fail to meet these standards, they beat themselves up. The holidays offer plenty of opportunities for these tendencies to be triggered and enhanced. As the craving for perfectionism invades the holidays, our ability to take pleasure in family and friends can be overlaid with anxiety. Our enjoyment can be dampened by a sense of dissatisfaction and striving. The Ugly Christmas Sweater party was a great laugh, but our approach toward our preparations reminded me of the necessity to not let the fun of the holidays be overshadowed by those qualities that only bring tension. Softening our approach and allowing ourselves, our homes, our gifts, and our meals to “be as they are” invites everyone around us to also be comfortable with what is.