The Air We Breathe

I returned from Kathmandu late last night. More on my other-worldly experiences there and in India and Tibet to follow. Today, I want to share the news that my Peace Corps odyssey has come to an end. I debated whether to write a post about it. I don’t want to discourage anyone who’s currently in, or thinking about joining, Peace Corps. And I’d be a liar if I said I don’t care about being judged for backing out of something I had planned to do. Those concerns are outweighed by my desire to put my genuine self – the good, the bad and the ugly – into my posts, in the hope of helping someone who’s going through a similar experience. So here goes.

When I decided to apply for Peace Corps, I pictured myself living in a village or small city in South America, habla-ing Espanol, and helping people improve their skills and education to make their lives better. I put South America as my preference on my Peace Corps application and started investigating places to brush up on my Spanish skills. During my Peace Corps interview, I was told they only send people to South America who are already fluent in Spanish.

I was nominated to teach English at a university in China. Anxious to learn more about what that experience would be like, I searched for books about volunteering for Peace Corps in China. I hit the jackpot with Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion, by Michael Levy (the “Kosher” part referring to the fact that Levy is Jewish). Levy liked his experience in China. The intent of his book is not to discourage people from joining Peace Corps.

But Levy wrote about things that were news to me. Did you know that sixteen of the world’s twenty most polluted cities are in China? That nearly 200 Chinese cities fail to meet minimal air quality standards? And that fifty percent of China’s rivers and lakes are so polluted that they’re not even fit for industrial usage, and ninety percent of China’s urban groundwater is contaminated?

Levy describes his airplane’s “slow descent into a brown soup of pollution” and an “industrial nightmare” in Chengdu (the capital city of the Sichuan province and Peace Corp’s headquarters in China):

“I imagined the capillary veins in my lungs recoiling in horror as breath after contracted breath dumped carcinogenic particulate matter into my previously healthy chest cavity. It wouldn’t be long before my Chinese teacher would tell me that smoking cigarettes was actually healthy because it prepared one’s lungs for Chinese air. The tobacco, she insisted, served as a vaccine against the smog. This seemed far-fetched to me, though I reconsidered my convictions after the Peace Corp nurse advised us to cease all exercise. An increased heart rate, she warned us, would lead to deeper breathing which, in Chengdu, meant a more profoundly damaged cardiovascular system. Best to sit and smoke, perhaps.”

This seemed far-fetched to me, too. How could any country, especially a world power like China, be in such horrendous environmental condition in 2012? Then the Universe handed me a gift. I went for my annual physical at Northwestern and my regular doctor was on vacation. I saw another doctor who recently returned from several years of living in China.

She confirmed the dangers of breathing Chinese air. After living in China for two years, a CT scan of my lungs would look like that of a life-long smoker. Knowing that I’m on Synthroid (a prescription thyroid medication), she also told me about her mistake of getting a prescription filled in China. Many commonly used U.S. medications aren’t available in China, or don’t contain the same ingredients, or are counterfeit. She became seriously ill from the prescription medication and had to return to the U.S. for several months of detox.

Not exercising or taking my thyroid meds for two years would be compounded by what Levy describes as the “oil heavy” Chinese diet, consisting of “fried dough for breakfast every morning and piles of greasy meats for lunch and dinner” (something  I experienced first hand during my week in Tibet, which is officially — albeit very, very sadly — part of China). And the meat frequently comes from man’s best friend. Lassie. Rover. Toto. Levy describes walking past the “Dog Meat King” every day on his way to his classroom: “Its name – as well as the carcasses that dangled in its windows – made me pretty sure they weren’t serving chicken.”

Not. What. I. Bargained. For.

Sometimes that thing you’re pursuing with all of your energy turns out not to be the right thing for you. But if you’re lucky, and if you’re open to it, you learn from the journey. You learn about yourself, the world, and what truly matters in life. In this case, I learned that while I was willing to sacrifice my material possessions, I’m not willing to sacrifice my health. I also learned how lucky we are to find ourselves living in a place where we can step outside and breathe the air without worrying about what our CT scans will look like as a result.

I still have visions of going to South America for volunteer work. Only this time I plan to go to Guatemala in 2013 to help build schools from recycled materials with an organization called Save The World Today (featured in an article in the September 2012 edition of Oprah’s “O” magazine). Did I mention they don’t eat dogs in Guatemala?

What’s For Lunch This Week?

Here’s another set of recommendations for healthy lunch choices at restaurants that are hopefully in your area. Once again, these are from a nutritionist at Northwestern Hospital, and she’s once again my Rainbow of the Week.

Corner Bakery

  • Asian Wonton Salad: 530 calories, 39g protein, 11g fiber, 1g saturated fat, 1910mg sodium
  • Mom’s Sandwiches, Turkey: 470 calories, 39g protein, 6g fiber, 0.5g saturated fat, 1400mg sodium
  • Mom’s Sandwiches, Roast Chicken: 500 calories, 42g protein, 6g fiber, 0.5g saturated fat, 1400mg sodium
  • Lentil Soup (cup): 140 calories, 8g protein, 9g fiber, 0g saturated fat, 930mg sodium
  • Chicken Noodle Soup (cup): 140 calories, 8g protein, 1g fiber, 1.5g saturated fat, 1080mg sodium
  • Tomato Basil (cup): 200 calories, 8g protein, 3g fiber, 0g saturated fat, 1500mg sodium
  • Chicken Tortilla (cup): 230 calories, 7g protein, 6g fiber, 1g saturated fat, 1310mg sodium

Jimmy John’s

  • Turkey Tom: 515 calories, 24g protein, 1g fiber, 3g saturated fat, 1094mg sodium
  • Tuna Slim: 401 calories, 27g protein, 0g fiber, 0g saturated fat, 1075mg sodium

Pret A Manger

Sandwiches:

  • Balsamic Chicken & Avocado: 530 calories, 23g protein, 12g fiber, 2g saturated fat, 940mg sodium
  • Slim BC&A: 265 calories, 11g protein, 6g fiber, 1g saturated fat, 470mg sodium
  • Hummus & Garden Veggies: 410 calories, 12g protein, 13g fiber, 1g saturated fat, 560mg sodium
  • Slim H&GV: 205 calories, 6g protein, 6g fiber, 0.5g saturated fat, 280mg sodium

Baguettes:

  • Vietnamese: 550 calories, 30g protein, 4g fiber, 2g saturated fat, 1070mg sodium
  • Slim Vietnamese: 275 calories, 6g protein, 2g fiber, 1g saturated fat, 535mg sodium
  • Slim Chicken & Mozzarella: 310 calories, 18g protein, 3g fiber, 3g saturated fat, 530mg sodium

Wraps:

  • Avocado & Pine Nut: 440 calories, 9g protein, 9g fiber, 5g saturated fat, 470mg sodium
  • Turkey, Basil & Hummus: 400 calories, 22g protein, 5g fiber, 3.5g saturated fat, 1030mg sodium
  • Spicy Shrimp & Cilantro: 290 calories, 22g protein, 3g fiber, 2g saturated fat, 640mg sodium

Salad:

  • Chicken & Avocado (balsamic dressing): 540 calories, 22g protein, 12g fiber, 3g saturated fat, 190mg sodium
  • Farmer’s Market (lemon shallot dressing): 360 calories, 8g protein, 12g fiber, 2g saturated fat, 620mg sodium
  • Harvest (lemon shallot dressing): 360 calories, 7g protein, 5g fiber, 4g saturated fat, 350mg sodium
  • Tuna Nicoise (balsamic dressing): 390 calories, 29g protein, 4g fiber, 4.5g saturated fat, 650mg sodium

Subway

  • 6” Oven Roasted Chicken: 320 calories, 23g protein, 5g fiber, 1.5g saturated fat, 640mg sodium
  • 6” Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki: 380 calories, 26g protein, 5g fiber, 1g saturated fat, 900mg sodium
  • 6” Turkey Breast: 280 calories, 18g protein, 5g fiber, 1g saturated fat, 810mg sodium
  • Apple Slices: 35 calories, 0g protein, 2g fiber, 0g saturated fat, 0mg sodium
  • Light & Fit Yogurt: 80 calories, 5g protein, 0g fiber, 0g saturated fat, 80mg sodium

Nutritional values include toppings and dressings as listed on the menu, unless otherwise indicated. Enjoy, and here’s to your health!

What’s For Lunch?

Nothing is more valuable than our health and, as the saying goes, you are what you eat. For many of us, when it comes to lunch, what we eat comes from a fast-food type of restaurant. Here are some recommendations for healthy lunch choices at restaurants that are hopefully in your area. I got this information from a nutritionist, and she’s my Rainbow of the Week.

Cosi

  • Bombay Chicken Light Salad: 164 calories, 19g protein, 4g fiber, 0g saturated fat, 735mg sodium
  • Cosi Signature Lighter Side Salad: 383 calories, 10g protein, 6g fiber, 1g saturated fat, 504mg sodium
  • Shanghai Chicken Salad: 316 calories, 26g protein, 5g fiber, 2g saturated fat, 850mg sodium
  • Tandoori Chicken Light Sandwich: 376 calories, 35g protein, 2g fiber, 1g saturated fat, 889mg sodium
  • Hummus & Veggie Sandwich: 397 calories, 13g protein, 7g fiber, 0g saturated fat, 532mg sodium
  • Turkey Light Sandwich: 391 calories, 26g protein, 2g fiber, 1g saturated fat, 526mg sodium
  • Tuna Sandwich: 447 calories, 40g protein, 3g fiber, 2g saturated fat, 856mg sodium

Freshii

  • Vegetable Burrito: 593 calories, 15g protein, 6g fiber, 4.5g saturated fat, 524mg sodium
  • Bangkok Burrito: 639 calories, 24.5g protein, 4g fiber, 1g saturated fat, 918mg sodium
  • Vegan Wrap: 671 calories, 14.5g protein, 12g fiber, 2.5g saturated fat, 414mg sodium
  • Tuna Garden Wrap: 535 calories, 28g protein, 4g fiber, 5.5g saturated fat, 979mg sodium
  • Spicy Noodle Bowl: 505 calories, 19g protein, 4g fiber, 1g saturated fat, 139mg sodium
  • Asian Noodle Bowl: 600 calories, 26g protein, 3g fiber, 1g saturated fat, 544mg sodium
  • Warrior Chicken Bowl: 496 calories, 23g protein, 7g fiber, 1g saturated fat, 717mg sodium
  • Chicken Teriyaki Bowl: 420 calories, 24.5g protein, 5g fiber, 0.5g saturated fat, 1489mg sodium
  • Bliss Bowl: 491 calories, 10g protein, 6g fiber, 4g saturated fat, 73mg sodium
  • Spicy Lemongrass Soup: 348 calories, 20g protein, 2g fiber, 0g saturated fat, 988g sodium
  • 7 Vegetable Soup: 255 calories, 11g protein, 3g fiber, 0g saturated fat, 877mg sodium
  • BBQ Chicken Salad: 287 calories, 18g protein, 9g fiber, 3.5g saturated fat, 633mg sodium
  • Wild Pacific Salad: 188 calories, 26g protein, 4g fiber,0.5 g saturated fat, 669mg sodium
  • Antioxidant Crunch Salad: 420 calories, 24g protein, 7.5g fiber, 2g saturated fat, 409mg sodium
  • Asian Chop Salad: 338 calories, 23g protein, 6.5g fiber, 0g saturated fat, 596mg sodium

Panera

  • Smoked Turkey Sandwich: 420 calories, 33g protein, 3g fiber, 0.5g saturated fat, 1650mg sodium
  • Tuna Salad Sandwich: 510 calories, 29g protein, 5g fiber, 4g saturated fat, 1160mg sodium
  • Asian Sesame Chicken Salad: 450 calories, 32g protein, 4g fiber, 4g saturated fat, 810mg sodium
  • Thai Chopped Chicken Salad: 470 calories, 36g protein, 5g fiber, 3.5g saturated fat, 1460mg sodium
  • Vegetable with Pesto Soup: 150 calories, 5g protein, 12g fiber, 1g saturated fat, 930mg sodium
  • Chicken Noodle Soup: 120 calories, 8g protein, 3g fiber, 0g saturated fat, 1380mg sodium
  • Black Bean Soup: 240 calories, 12g protein, 9g fiber, 0g saturated fat, 1270mg sodium

Potbelly

  • Turkey Breast (originals): 395 calories, 29g protein, 6g fiber, 1g saturated fat, 1550mg sodium
  • Chicken Salad (originals): 530 calories, 29g protein, 6g fiber, 3g saturated fat, 1180mg sodium
  • Tuna Salad (originals): 490 calories, 35g protein, 6g fiber, 3g saturated fat, 1040mg sodium
  • Grilled Chicken (originals): 444 calories, 29g protein, 3g fiber, 3g saturated fat, 1886mg sodium
  • T-K-Y (skinnys): 270 calories, 20g protein, 4g fiber, 0g saturated fat, 1048mg sodium
  • Little Tuna (skinnys): 444 calories, 29g protein, 3g fiber, 3g saturated fat, 1886mg sodium
  • Chicken Salad (salad, with no-fat vinaigrette): 510 calories, 22g protein, 7g fiber, 5g saturated fat, 1052mg sodium

The nutritional values include toppings and dressings as listed on the restaurant’s menu, except the Freshii salads include a half portion of dressing. Enjoy, and here’s to your health!

Fundred Dollar Bills

Looking for a fun and creative Random Act of Rainbow to perform this week? During his stop in New Orleans in “Craigslist Joe”, Joe Garner learned about Fundred Dollar Bill, a nationwide art project to help eliminate the devastating effects of lead-contaminated soil that places children at risk for severe learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

The goal is to collect 3 million Fundred Dollar Bills — hand-drawn interpretations of U.S. $100 bills created by people like you and me, using a template furnished by the project’s sponsors. The cumulative total of 300,000,000 Fundred Dollars represents the equivalent cost required to make safe every lead contaminated property in New Orleans, so that every child is protected. The Fundreds will be presented to the U.S. Congress with a request for an even exchange of the creative capital for real funding to make safe lead-polluted soils in New Orleans. The model will then be made available to other lead-polluted cites.

You can get a cool template for your Fundred Dollar Bills here. If you enjoy coloring books as much as I do (I’ve never outgrown them!), this project is made for you. When your Fundred Dollar Bills are completed, send them to:

The Fabric Workshop and Museum

a.k.a. The Philadelphia Fundred Mint

1214 Arch Street

Philadelphia, PA  19107

Attn: Christine Roberts

christina@fabricworkshopandmuseum.org

The Fundred Dollar Bill project is continuing through the 2012-2013 school year.

“I Never Saw the Difference Between Disability and Ability”

Every four years, we’re treated to amazing stories about athletes’ roads to the Olympic games. One of the most inspirational stories to come out of the 2012 Olympics is that of South African runner Oscar Pistorius. A double amputee at 11 months old, Pistorius has played sports his entire life. In this video interview, he explains that, as a kid, he just thought he had different shoes than everyone else.

Pistorius is the first double amputee to compete in the Olympic games, making it to the semi-finals in the men’s 400 meters. He’ll also compete in the 4×400 meter relay.

I thought of Pistorius when I got up this morning. My legs were sore and my mind started to search for excuses to skip my morning run. As Pistorious says, “You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have.” Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to be able to run. Pistorious helped me remember.

Tough Love 3: You Can’t Change And Stay The Same

A typical American, I started practicing Iyengar yoga for the physical benefits and to help mend my problem hips. Little did I know that yoga would transform much more than my body. One Iyengar yoga teacher in particular, Manouso Manos (who doles out a very memorable brand of tough love), said something that stuck in my mind and drove me to examine how I was living my life: “You cannot change and stay the same at the same time.”

From The Sticky Mat …

Manouso was explaining how yoga teachers push students beyond our comfort zones, help us release our inner control freaks, and step out of the hard boxes we put ourselves in. Iyengar students learn these lessons through performing poses or asanas and observing our minds and bodies in action. Through observation and analysis, we can catch our habits of letting the strong parts (e.g., calves) do the work while the weak parts (e.g., hips) attempt to evade notice; doing things the same way over and over again (e.g., gripping my calves so my hips can release) without noticing our patterns; and avoiding certain actions (e.g., twisting standing poses) because they highlight our imbalances (e.g., weak and tight hip muscles).

Good yoga teachers help us become more self aware and show us how to do things differently in order to build strength and balance. Nothing is as transformational as having a teacher put your body in true alignment and feeling as crooked as Lombard Street to let you know that you need to change something. In order to incorporate the teacher’s corrections, yoga students need to maintain an open mind and be willing to shed old habits and adopt new methods.

… And Beyond

This approach was having positive results for my yoga practice and my hips. But Manouso’s words — “you cannot change and stay the same at the same time” – carried far beyond the sticky mat. I was unhappy with how I was leading my life. I felt the need to change. What was holding me back? My desire to maintain the same lifestyle. I wanted to change yet remain the same at the same time.

Turning to what I learned from yoga, I observed myself in action: What habits was I engaging in that were causing the misalignment? How could I break free from the box I’d put myself in and do things differently? The answers came fairly quickly. To borrow a term from Stephen Covey. I neededa paradigm shift. As Covey explains in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:

“We can only achieve quantum improvements in our lives as we quit hacking at the leaves of attitude and behavior and get to work on the root, the paradigms from which our attitudes and behavior flow.”

The Paradigm Shift

When I examined my life, I realized that I had fallen into what Covey describes in The Seven Habits as a “money centered” paradigm, putting economic security at the top of my priority list:

“When my sense of personal worth comes from my net worth, I am vulnerable to anything that will affect that net worth. But work and money, per se, provide no wisdom, no guidance, and only a limited degree of power and security.”

Latching on to material things had created weaknesses and imbalances that skewed my priorities as much as my wonky hips had skewed my body.  In order to change and create the life I envisioned, I needed to let go of the pseudo-security of owning a home and being able to buy whatever shoes strike my fancy at Nordstrom’s.

Once I opened myself up to moving away from a money-centered paradigm and aligned myself with my core values, the changes began to flow. In Covey’s words, “paradigm shifts move us from one way of seeing the world to another. And those shifts create powerful change.” Driven by my desire to use my talents to help others and to save money for my Reinvention Fund, I can now breeze through Nordstrom’s with no desire to buy another pair of shoes for my too-large collection. In fact, I’m amazed at how quickly that “shoe girl” disappeared.

That’s not to say that change is easy. The hard work of selling my condo and moving to a much smaller place ranks right up there with the challenge of working on my tight and weak hips. But by developing self-awareness (in my case, through yoga and Manouso’s tough love), we can identify habits that don’t serve us. No matter how deeply embedded those habits are, with persistence and the courage to change and a vision for a better life, we can replace them with more effective behaviors that strengthen and balance our bodies, minds and souls.

My “Really, Really Middle-Aged Woman” Hero

She was the keynote speaker at More magazine’s Reinvention Convention in Chicago three years ago. I vaguely knew who she was but wasn’t expecting that much from an athlete. She blew me away that day with her grace, humor, determination and character (not to mention those abs!!). She blew me away even more this past week with her performance at the U.S. Olympic trials.

At the age of 45, competing against swimmers less than half of her age, Dara Torres missed a spot on her sixth Olympic team in the 50-meter freestyle by less than a tenth of a second. Torres won a total of 12 medals in the 1984, ’88, ’92, 2000 and 2008 Summer Games. This includes three silver medals at the Beijing Olympics at the age of 41, which she started training for shortly after giving birth to her now six-year-old daughter, Tessa. Referring to herself as a “really, really middle-aged woman”, Torres had knee surgery in 2009 to combat osteoarthritis. Last year, her coach, Michael Lohberg, passed away from a rare blood disorder.

But after her last race at the Olympic trials, Torres offered no excuses. Her tweets evidence the strength of her character:

“Well, I gave it everything I’ve got & left no stones unturned. Time to cheer on all the amazing USA swimmers heading to London!”

“I guess it’s time to figure out what I wanna do when I grow up!”

Thanks to Dara Torres, when I go to the gym this morning to do my 45-minute run, I won’t let the fact that I’m surrounded by people half my age bother me. And I won’t use the surgical scars on my knee or any of life’s other hard knocks as an excuse to not work hard. Thanks to Dara Torres, us “really, really middle-aged women” know that with strength, determination and a healthy dose of humor, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.

Connect to Source Part 3: Iyengar Yoga

From meditation to journaling, we move now to the most active form of Connecting to Source: Iyengar yoga. After taking Iyengar yoga classes for more than 5 years, I’m still a beginner. This isn’t because I’m a bad student or have bad teachers. I’m still a beginner because Iyengar yoga conveys a wealth of information: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Many people think of yoga as physical exercise but, in it’s purest form, it’s an active meditation that coordinates body, breath and mental focus.

What Is Iyengar Yoga?

Iyengar is a form of hatha yoga developed by B.K.S. Iyengar. Born in 1918, and still actively practicing and teaching, Mr. Iyengar pioneered the use of props (blocks, blankets, straps, bolsters, chairs, etc.) to help yoga practitioners perform asanas (different poses) with attention to details of correct physical alignment. Poses are held for longer duration while interrelationship of different parts of the body is studied and alignment is perfected.

Another key aspect of Iyengar yoga is the sequencing of asanas, which creates powerful cumulative effects. In an Iyengar class, you won’t have a “yoga bingo” type of experience (where the teacher randomly calls out names of asanas, as if they were popping up on balls in a bingo machine). Instead, the teacher purposefully sequences the asanas to impart particular lessons, and each class is unique.

Mr. Iyengar has written several classic texts on yoga, including Light of Yoga, Light on Pranayama (the science of breath), and The Tree of Yoga. As Mr. Iyengar explains in this last book:

“Yoga means union. The union of the individual soul with the Universal Spirit is yoga. But this is too abstract a notion to be easily understood, so for our level of understanding I say that yoga is the union of body with the mind and of mind with the soul….”

“Through the performance of asanas, I become totally involved and find oneness of body, mind and soul. For me, this is active meditation. Although asana is sometimes described as physical gymnastics, this is a quite mistaken description, because asana means pose, and after posing, reflecting and reposing. Asana is not just exercise….”

“You have to make an effort of understanding and observation. ‘Why am I getting pain at this moment? Why do I not get the pain at another moment or with another movement? What have I to do with this part of my body? What have I to do with that part? How can I get rid of the pain? Why am I feeling this pressure? Why is this side painful? How are the muscles behaving on this side and how are they behaving on the other side?

“You should go on analyzing, and by analysis you will come to understand. Analysis in action is required in yoga. …. You have to see what messages come from the fibres, the muscles, the nerves and the skin of the body while you are in the pose. Then you can learn.”

How Are Iyengar Yoga Teachers Trained?

What initially attracted me to Iyengar yoga, and keeps me coming back regularly for classes, is the quality of its teachers. Before I started practicing yoga, I had several very good personal trainers and I explored other physical disciplines like Pilates. My Iyengar teachers have taught me far more than anyone about my body and its problems, habits, weaknesses and strengths, and how to work to bring my body – and in the process, myself – into balance.

In The Tree of Yoga, Mr. Iyengar emphasizes that “you have to work with a competent teacher to see why there is pain, what happens when you are doing which movements, what mistakes you are making in your postures, where the stress is when you are working, whether it is necessary to give stress to that point or whether it should be shifted elsewhere to nullify the pain.” Certified Iyengar teachers are beyond competent.

To begin Iyengar teacher training, you must have been a student for at least 3 years, attend at least 3 classes a week, and practice daily on your own. From there, you must complete at least 2 years of rigorous training for an introductory certificate. Subsequent intermediate and senior levels of certification are available. As stated on Mr. Iyengar’s website: “It is not just the ‘time’ or ‘years’ of practice that makes one eligible for a particular level of certification but the ‘quality’ of the practice.”

Manouso Manos, who holds one of only two Advanced Senior certificates granted by Mr. Iyengar, previews what you can expect from an Iyengar teacher in class:

“Most of us think we can write the script of who our yoga teacher is but we can’t. Of course, you have to find a yoga teacher who speaks directly to your understanding. But that doesn’t mean that the yoga teacher should not be pushing your buttons once in a while, saying, ‘Hey, there’s a little more to this.’ You can’t structure the box of what your yoga practice is. In fact, yoga is, by definition, transformative. The joke that I tell, and I’m not the first one to say this, is that you cannot change and stay the same at the same time.

“And this is an example of what most of us want to do in a yoga class. Okay, I want to control this. I want to have this, I want to understand this and you’re not going to push my button. And the answer is, the yoga teacher should always push you into at least a minor state of discomfort. This will encourage you to move into a state where you’re willing to step out of that hard box that most of us are in, out of that control freak and that ego that tries to box us in.”

Yoga Samachar (IYNAUS newsletter), Fall 2011/Winter 2012 edition. “You cannot change and stay the same at the same time.” In addition to being funny, that observation is pretty darn powerful!

How Do I Find An Iyengar Yoga Teacher Near Me?

A complete listing of Iyengar yoga teachers worldwide is available on Mr. Iyengar’s website. To search for Iyengar teachers in the U.S., go to the IYNAUS (Iyengar Yoga: National Association of the United States) website. I practice at Yoga Circle in downtown Chicago, where I take classes from two instructors who I love: Todd Howell and Bob Whittinghill. For a schedule of classes at Yoga Circle, click here.

Remember, as Mr. Iyengar points out in Tree of Yoga, “It is never too late in life to practice yoga.”

Connect to Source Part 1: Meditation

Shortly after turning 40, I visited my brother Gary at his home in Tucson, Arizona. A retired homicide detective turned personal trainer, Gary has served as a sort of “life coach” for me, giving me nuggets of advice at critical points in my life. During one of our hikes in the mountains surrounding Tucson, I asked Gary what he thought I needed to improve about myself. He said I should work on my spirituality.

After having focused for years on law school and then representing Wall Street clients (the infamous one percent), I knew he was right. Gary’s comment started me on a journey to find ways to connect to the higher power (what some might call God) and my inner wisdom. I think of these things collectively as “the Source.”

This is the first of a three-part series about practices that have helped me “Connect to Source”, starting with inactive (meditation), to more active (journaling), to a melding of the mind and body (Iyengar yoga). Cultivating these practices has been transformative: it has given me a much greater degree of calmness of mind, self-understanding, clarity on life’s purpose and direction, compassion, and better psychological and physical health. And we all need those things to make it in today’s stressful world!

The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler says that: “In our spiritual journey, it’s important for each of us to decide whether a particular practice is appropriate for us. Sometimes a practice will not appeal to us initially, and before it can be effective, we need to understand it better.” I hope this series will help those who are looking to connect to Source find and better understand a practice or two that may work for them.

Why Meditation?

It may seem like a trendy, “new age” thing, but the practice of meditation is ancient. I think people are turning to meditation in droves these days because of the overload of information and thoughts bombarding us from all of today’s media and technology, which invoke stress or the “fight or flight” response. We all need a few moments each day to turn off the laptop, iPhone and Blackberry and have some “quiet time” to destress and reconnect to our true selves.

And that is what meditation provides. During meditation, your body shifts into a state of restful awareness, which is a counterbalance to the “fight or flight” response. You experience a decreased heart rate, reduced stress hormones, quiet breathing and strengthened immunity. When you regularly activate restful awareness through meditation, you experience these and other physical and psychological benefits.

Productive Meditation

Ultimately, as explained in The Art of Happiness At Work, your meditation practice will benefit not only you but all of the people in your life:

“Genuine progress occurs when the individual not only sees some results in achieving higher levels of meditative states but also when their meditation has at least some influence on how they interact with others, some impact from that meditation in their daily life—more patience, less irritation, more compassion. That’s productive meditation. Something that can bring benefit to others in some way.”

Primordial Sounds And Other Mantras

My meditation practice began at a “Perfect Health” week at the Chopra Center near San Diego, which was a wonderful and memorable experience. The Chopra Center gives instruction in primordial sound meditation, a technique rooted in the Vedic tradition of India. A primordial sound is a type of mantra consisting of three sounds or vibrations, the first being “Om”, the third being “Namah”, and the second being one of 100 primordial sounds based on the time and place of your birth. A primordial sound mantra might be, for example, Om Bijah Namah.

These words have no particular meaning and are used as a tool to interrupt the flow of meaningful thoughts. Silently repeating your mantra in meditation helps you slip into the space between your thoughts, sometimes referred to as “the gap”, and expand to quieter, more abstract levels of the mind. If you don’t have a primordial sound mantra, you could just as easily use Om Mani Padme Hum (a mantra commonly used by Tibetan Buddhists to invoke compassion).

What If I Can’t Get My Mind To Be Quiet?

A common misperception about meditation is that you should be in “the gap” the entire time. But meditation isn’t about trying to force your mind to be quiet. It’s an effortless, non-judgmental process to rediscover the quietness that’s already there, behind our internal dialogue that keeps our mind in a state of turbulence.

Many thoughts arise during meditation, and your mind drifts and wanders. Just observe this happening and return to your mantra. The instructors at the Chopra Center assured us that even Deepak’s mind wonders during meditation, from what he’s going to say on his next appearance with Oprah to the topic of his next book. Then he gently returns to his mantra. For me, the few moments of silent spaces between my thoughts during meditation are precious glimpses of inner quietness and expanded awareness. I think of them as the time when I get quiet and let God speak to me, which is a more pure form of “prayer” than telling God what I want.

No Rules, Just Guidelines

There are no “rules” to meditating, but here are some guidelines to help you get started:

  • It’s generally better to meditation sitting up, since lying down is associated with sleep.
  • It’s best to close your eyes, since keeping our eyes open draws our attention outward.
  • The best times to meditate are first thing in the morning, before breakfast, and late afternoon or early evening. At the Chopra Center, these two times were memorably described to us as “RPM” (rise, pee, meditate), and “RAD” (right after dinner).
  • Try to meditate for 30 minutes. You may need to start with 10 or 15 minutes, and work your way up to 30. Meditate for whatever time you have.

You can think about it, talk about it, and read about it, but unless you do it, you won’t experience the benefits of meditation. So whether it’s RPM or RAD, get started  (or recommit to) your meditation practice today.

Loosening The Grip Of The Big Five

Recent news about mad cow disease in California is a good reason to rethink our diets, and to check out Kathy Freston’s book, Quantum Wellness Cleanse: The 21-Day Essential Guide to Healing Your Mind, Body and Spirit. This isn’t a cleanse where you starve yourself, take pills, or drink concoctions made with maple syrup, lemon juice and cayenne pepper. Instead, for 3 weeks, you refrain from eating what Freston calls the “Big Five”:

  • Caffeine
  • Refined sugar
  • Gluten
  • Alcohol
  • Animal products (dairy, eggs, meat, poultry, fish)

Benefits from Taking a Break from the “Big Five”

Freston’s book explains in detail why each of the “Big Five” can cause problems for our bodies and minds, and how we’ve become dependent on “artificial boosts” and have forgotten how to feel good naturally. Positive effects from the Quantum Wellness Cleanse can include:

  • Release from addictive habits
  • More energy (and better sleep)
  • Clearer skin and eyes
  • Weight loss
  • Cessation of certain aches, pains and digestive ailments
  • Deeper awareness of the effect that we and our eating habits can have on the world

As Freston explains:

“Doing this cleanse is one of the best ways I know to discover any negative emotional material we are covering over with food, so that we can shake it right out of our system. And the beauty of it is, you can take what feels right from this program and leave the rest behind. Once you’ve done the work, you can add things back in, though many people find they want to stick with the changes that have so improved the way they look and feel.”

Why 21 days? According to Freston, “because that’s about how long it takes for your tastes and cravings to begin responding to healthier and simpler foods.” Also, some researchers say that it takes about 21 days to form a new habit. Don’t worry about having some lapses during the three-week period:

“People often ask me about ‘discipline.’ They worry that they won’t be able to get through it or do it perfectly. Here’s what I tell them: challenge yourself, but don’t make yourself (or others around you) crazy. Do the best you can. …. Our goal is progress, no perfection.”

My Experience

About a year ago, I was feeling tired, like I needed to recharge my battery, so I downloaded Quantum Wellness Cleanse on my Kindle and decided to give it a shot. I’ve always eaten healthy, but I had never eliminated sugar, gluten or animal products from my diet. And I was a regular at Starbucks.

I find Freston’s advice to be easy to follow. She provides day-by-day guidelines, shopping ideas and recipes, but you select your own foods every day. There are lots of food choices that meet the guidelines these days, especially at Whole Foods. One thing I really like about the cleanse is that it forces me to break out of my food habits and try things that I would normally pass by at the grocery store. Some of them have become favorites foods of mine. (Amy’s Tofu Scramble Breakfast Wrap, anyone?)

As a result of the cleanse and the new habits it taught me, I have more energy, sleep more soundly, and my skin looks great. Although I’m not a vegan like Freston, I now eat far fewer animal products, and when I do buy meat or poultry or eggs, I buy products that align with  values of kindness and integrity (free-range, grass-fed, cage-free, etc.). As a bonus, my food bills are lower now that I consume less of the Big Five!

Your Turn

Freston does the Quantum Wellness Cleanse once a year. Writing this post inspired me to do it for a second time. A little too much refined sugar, caffeine and poor eating habits had crept back into my life over the holidays. Doing the cleanse again helped me get back on the right path. I even managed to kick the Starbucks habit! If you want to learn more about the 21-day cleanse, check out Freston’s web site.

Which one of the Big Five has the tightest grip on you, and are you willing to do the Quantum Cleanse to break free?