Saturday, December 31, 2011

Perky Holiday Letters, Yogic New Years’ Resolutions, and Valentine's Day

Does anybody ever read those impossibly happy holiday letters that friends and family send out?

You know, the ones that say,

"Dear Friends, We had a great year! John got promoted to VP at the bank, Mary’s online business grew like gangbusters, junior is at the top of his little league baseball team and won his school’s spelling bee, we’re remodeling our kitchen with John’s Christmas bonus, and here’s a picture of us having loads of fun in Bermuda last August."

Don’t these letters/emails always seem a little too… perky?

Once, just once, I want to receive a letter that says,

"Dear Friends, This year I broke my stupid toe in the same place as the last three times. I was out of commission for two months and when I went back to work I found out they gave my job to someone with the IQ of a gnat. In other news, after twelve years of marital bickering, my wife eloped with the butcher from the Safeway store down the street. Also, my five-year-old was expelled from kindergarten for Googling something I’d rather not tell you about. Oh, and remember the retaining wall that’s been a source of arguments with the neighbors for the last few years? It’s turned into a nasty lawsuit that has everyone in a six-mile radius shouting at each other."

Wouldn’t this be a refreshing holiday letter, a little closer to real life? I think so.

So along with these holiday letters comes that other time-tested tradition, New Years’ Resolutions. New Years’ Resolutions is why all my yoga classes are filled to capacity this January and every single January I’ve been teaching for the last fifteen years. Who of us hasn’t vowed, “I’m going to work off all the lard accumulated during the holidays!”; or “It’s time to resume the yoga practice I ditched for family gatherings, Christmas shopping, wrapping gifts and composing upbeat holiday letters”? We all have. And I’m just like everybody else. I’m even re-reading Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to help with my New Years’ Resolutions. (I want to write a companion volume, The Seven Million Habits of Highly Ineffective Dolts, a book I am very qualified to author.)

So, yoga in January: I try to go gentle on the newcomers, I really do; but despite my best intentions, they soon discover that along with enthusiasm, it requires a little commitment. And if their spouse or their date doesn’t tell them how good they look by Valentine’s Day… it’s over for the newcomers till next January. Yep, February 15 each year marks the date when yoga class attendance drops back to its usual levels.

So, how can I help the great bare-footed masses stay committed to their yoga practice beyond the first six weeks of the year? Could I just announce on February 14th, “Surprise! Today’s not Valentine’s – it’s actually January 1st! The entire world just pulled a fast one on you!”? Mmmm. Methinks not. Even if it worked, at best it’d last just six more weeks... till the new Valentine’s Day.

No, I need to be realistic and come up with a solution that is far more long-term and far more motivational. All you yoga teachers out there, feel free to copy this idea and fine-tune it. Ready?

Here’s my plan: on Valentine’s Day I will get everyone in my classes to write their Christmas letters. Not the ones they neglected to send out last December: the ones they’re going to send at the end of this year! They’re going to talk about their lives in the past tense with the same hyperbolic exaggerations and happy-happy-happy phrases reserved for this type of epistle. Then, before the class is over, we’re going to the closest mailbox or internet access point, and we’re sending them all out! Not in December: now.

This will accomplish two things: (1) Their friends and family will actually read the letters, and read them closely and critically, since they’re not buried under many such other Pollyanna-esque messages; and (2) my students will get calls, emails and text messages from every single person on their list, wondering how they accomplished so much in just six weeks. My students will have no choice but to continue to come to yoga so they can keep up the fa├žade of their accomplishments in strength, flexibility, balance, peace of mind, and open-heartedness.

Who said hyperbole, exaggeration and vanity couldn’t be put to good spiritual use?

Photo Credit: Vicky TGAW

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

As a sort of self-help followup of a previous article I wrote, Yoga for Your Eyes, I thought I'd compile a quick-and-dirty set of rules for keeping your eyes healthy.

The below are courtesy of Drs. Michael Rozen and Mehmet Oz, in "You: The Owner's Manual"

  1. Drink 8 glasses of water daily, more if you also drink coffee.
  2. Minimum of 5 hours of sleep per night (though 7 or 8 are better for most people's better health)
  3. Take ten minute breaks for every two hours in front of a computer (though personally, I'd prefer to take 2 hour breaks for every ten minutes in front of the computer)
  4. Computer screen always below eye level to keep opening between lids small and prevent dry eye
  5. Eat lutein, which can be optained from spinach and dark leafy vegetables. (A good reason for a salad a day.)
  6. Take vitamin c and bioflavonoids through food sources: oats, onions, broccoli, tomatoes, apples, cranberries, strawberries, green tea, and juices – tomato, grape, cranberry
  7. Take fish oil / omega 3 oils. DHA is the ultimate form of omega 3s on humans. 500mg a day has been found to prevent macular degeneration.
  8. If you are on the brink of macular degeneration, patients have responded well to this cocktail of supplements : daily 500mg of vitamin C; 400 IU vitamin E; 15mg of beta carotene; 80 mg. of zinc; 2 mg of coppe -- all of these spaced out in various doses during the day.

All of this might seem a lot to do, but it reminds me of the poster my English teacher used to have in his class, back when I was in tenth grade: "Think education is expensive? Tray ignorance." So, likewise... "Think doing all these things daily for your eyes is a drag? Try blindness."

Actually, I hope none of us ever tries blindness...

Photo credit: Ibrahim Iujaz

Friday, May 27, 2011

Extra! Extra! Yoga teacher smoked as an eight year old! Read all about it!

Yes, I started smoking when I was eight years old.

As a future yoga teacher, it’s not as if I didn’t know that smoking was bad for you, it’s just that I grew up in Spain, where smoking is so endemic that not too long ago they had an anti-smoking campaign aimed at doctors so they could quit and have the moral authority to advise their patients to do the same. Anyway, one day in my tender childhood, my best friend and I found a still-lit, still unfinished cigarette smoldering in the dirt. We picked it up and took turns smoking it. How very appealing, right? Well, from a health standpoint, sharing a cigarette that’s been on the ground is nothing compared to what’s actually in a cigarette, so if smoking didn’t kill me, neither did the germs in the cigarette butt. And the fact was, once I started, as a crafty and resourceful eight-year-old (the part about tender childhood was smoke and mirrors), I had no difficulty finding sources of unused cigarettes, even if that involved stealing a couple here and there from a visiting older cousin’s stash.

I don’t remember if cigarette boxes had warning labels in those days; if they did, they obviously failed to make an impression on me. Maybe they were as inane as this one, which, seems to be the most common warning I’ve come across through the years:

Now, if you’re a male, how effective a deterrent is that? Or if you’re a female and not planning on getting pregnant? Wouldn’t your reaction be “Hell, this doesn’t apply to me! I can smoke all I want!” Or the other very common one, “Cigarette smoke contains carbon monoxide.” Don’t you feel like exclaiming, “Yeah? So?”

I can’t say whether I would’ve quit smoking (or never started) had there been more memorable labels, but a couple of months ago I was visiting Portugal, and started taking photos of warning labels that, had I seen them as a kid, would’ve most likely have prevented me from starting.

Take this one, for instance:

It reads, “Protect children: don’t force them to breathe your smoke.”

I’d like to have shown that to the smokers in the Spain of those days. Bars, restaurants, parks, homes – everywhere you went there was no dearth of smoke or kids inhaling it. Even before studies came out on the effects of second-hand smoke, I don’t think it takes a genius to figure out that a room full of smoke isn’t exactly pristine mountain air. The coughing gives it away, really.

It’s a message that’s emphasized in this other warning:

“Smoking severely harms your health and the health of those around you.”

US warning labels are tiny, a fact no doubt reflecting the bullying power of tobacco companies and the reluctance of lawmakers to resist them and do what is right. By contrast, check the size of this label relative to the box:

“Smoking causes a high level of addiction. Don’t start smoking.”

That size label does really grab you by the throat, if you’ll pardon the pun. Even if it seems a little strange to find it in a box of smokes that you bought… since if you’re buying it, my guess is that it’s kind of late not to start smoking.

And, I have to say, the following reads more like a chemistry textbook than a warning label:

“Cigarette smoke contains benzene, nitrosamines, formaldehyde, and hydrogen cyanide.”

Excuse me while I pull out my eleventh-grade chemistry notes to figure out what nitrosamines are and why I should care. And is hydrogen cyanide the same thing as plain old cyanide? Or is it a kinder, gentler thing?

Other labels are a little more compelling. I know they would’ve lowered my chances of smoking:

“Smoking blocks arteries and provokes strokes and heart attacks.” Hm. I dare say that cool, suave, sexy guy blowing some smoke doesn’t look so cool, suave and sexy if the right side of his body is paralyzed post-stroke.

Or how about:

“Smokers die prematurely.”

Definitely in the “not mincing our words” category. Or, better yet:

“Smoking can cause a slow and painful death.”

Wow. Images of Mafiosi saying, “Ya shouldn’ta had that smoke, Vinny. Ya pissed off the boss. We gonna make ya die a slow, painful death.”

Of course, then there’s the atom bomb of messages –

“Smoking kills.”

It’s interesting in that you’d assume that with something as damning as that, people would just not buy the box. Or maybe say, “Hey, can you give me the box to the left instead, the one that says, ‘Cigarette smoke contains cyanide?’ I like that one better.”

Alas, a study was done that suggests that “Smoking kills” is a message that actually backfires in terms of effectiveness – maybe because when you’re young and stupid, death is a pretty remote concept, so it doesn’t mean anything to you.

On the other hand, here’s something you do care about when you’re young and stupid (or mature and wise): impotence. There’s nothing sexy about that. So this may in fact be the best visual


Yet, perhaps the most compassionate label is one that doesn’t get in your face about the harm of smoking, and just aims to be helpful:

“Your doctor or your pharmacist can help you stop smoking.”

As for me, I’m lucky to report that my career as a young, impressionable smoker came to a quick end two weeks after my taking up the vice: not only did I hate getting (my own) smoke in my eyes, but more importantly, after two weeks of coming home to my staunchly nonsmoking father, I started to run out of plausible lies as to why my clothes smelled like tobacco.

Thank God for that, because today I’d be hard pressed to explain why I’d step out of the yoga studio to relax with a cigarette while everyone else was relaxing in shavasana.

Main picture credit ("Fumar Mata"): Matt Doughty

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Yoga In an Airplane

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen – this is the captain speaking, and on behalf of the flight crew and everyone at Reunited Airways, I’d like to apologize again for the delay in departing.

I know you’re all feeling a little antsy, but unless you must use the lavatories, please remain in your seats with your seatbelt firmly fastened. Word from the ground crew is that they should have the wheel replaced in about twenty minutes and we then should be under way. With some tailwind and a miracle or two, we might recover five or so of the ninety minutes we’ve spent here.

While we’re waiting, and since we’ve already attempted to distract you with the video on the safety features of this aircraft, I’d like to direct your attention to the yoga stretches we’re now showing on your screen. Your comfort during our flight is a top concern at Reunited, even though we do pack you in like anorexic sardines. Let me assure you that our competitors designed your seat to fit a slim eight-year-old girl just as much as we did. But perhaps you can close your eyes for a moment and connect with how your body felt at that age instead of fretting that the bulge from the person on either side of you is encroaching on about half of your personal space. If you’re in first class, on the other hand, feel free to let it all hang out, knowing that you’re entitled to that experience on account of paying twice one of the main cabin seats. That, or you qualified for an upgrade because you’ve been flying with us since before World War I.

I also realize there may be a few kids crying in your general vicinity – we can hear them up in the cockpit – but if you look at your monitor and follow the stretching instructions, you will be able to forget them and have a more enjoyable flight this afternoon. Now, I know that the soothing nature images and wide-open spaces featured in our program are about as realistic in your cramped personal space as those car commercials where you drive through a wide open road instead of smog and gridlock traffic, and on behalf of myself and the flight crew, I’d like to say that we empathize. We ourselves wish we had space for a ping-pong table in the cockpit, but as the folks in first class know, we’ve all learned to make some compromises in life.

Please pay close attention to the part in the video about stretching your legs. You may have your bag stowed below the seat in front of you because the jerk to your left hogged up the overhead-bin space by the time you made it to your seat on row 48, so if you’re flexible enough, you might want to stretch your legs instead by placing one at a time on the headrest of the person in front of you. Just be sure to do that with your seatbelt strapped on, in case of any sudden turbulence. Also, please note in our video the importance of getting up to walk – as depicted somewhat unrealistically in treading through a sandy beach or a log across a river. Maybe you’re going on vacation and you can do that when you get to your destination – otherwise, if every one of the two hundred people aboard this aircraft starts walking around, there’s no way to keep this from turning into a circus. But if you don’t walk around, please know that Reunited Airways can’t be responsible for any instances of deep-vein thrombosis or anything else that might compromise your health or safety. We’re all adults here – well, except for the kids crying near you – so we must exercise personal responsibility.

Speaking of personal responsibility, you should now be seeing on your screen the part about eating and drinking sensibly, a concept not just taken from yoga but from years of flying. You’ll be happy to know that by keeping your food and drinks to a minimum, we’ve managed to care of this for you, unless you brought your own rations or would like to purchase the wine and spirits featured in the inflight magazine located in the seat compartment in front of you. Incidentally, you might appreciate that we priced these duty-free items in euros or British pounds so those of you holding American pesos – I mean, American dollars – won’t experience sticker shock before you’ve charged your purchase. So, do drink sensibly, ladies and gentlemen, and eat sensibly, even though we do admittedly come up with some unconventional food combinations like chicken pasta with a tangerine salad and caramel-covered saltine crackers with high-fructose rice pudding that will give the air fresheners in our lavatories a run for their money. Those of you who choose to stand and stretch near the back of the aircraft or whose seats are located near the lavatories will soon know exactly what I mean.

Speaking of stretching, I know that you can do the part about turning your neck this way and that way and shrugging your shoulders a few times, even though speaking for myself and not for Reunited Airways, I don’t see what good that does when you’re caved in and compressed on both sides for nine hours straight. Just remember that if you don’t feel like your seat was designed to provide any lumbar support, you can always use your blanket to prop up your low back. We only have three extra blankets somewhere in first class, so if you do use your blanket for lumbar support, please bear in mind you might shiver once the main cabin temperature starts to drop. Alternately, you can forego lumbar support and be warm, but be sure to see your chiropractor soon after your flight to correct your newly-acquired simian gait. Remember, whether you’re flying with Reunited or any of our competitors, you should always factor the price of a couple of chiropractic adjustments into your travel budget.

Lastly, you may have seen in our safety video the part about exiting the plane onto the inflatable rafts in case of an emergency water landing. My superiors might not like me to say this, but unless you’re on a seaplane (and obviously this isn’t one) we’re about as likely to land and float in water as a lead balloon. But that’s not the part I wanted to draw your attention to. It’s the position you should take in the unlikely event of an emergency. As you saw on the video or in the safety instruction card in the pocket in front of you, you lean forward with your head resting on the front seat. My guess is that Reunited created the video and the card before we decided to cram in a few extra seats, because you need to be the size of that slender eight-year-old girl or suffer from congenital dwarfism to have the space to even remotely replicate the position portrayed in the video or card. Our passengers in first class need not worry about this and are advised to have their forearms across their chest like beatific nuns, which, granted, looks about as protective in a real emergency as an airbag made out of cotton candy. But observe in the video how peaceful they look with their arms crossed when they jump onto the inflatable rafts.

So, please continue to enjoy whatever yoga stretches you can do, knowing that it’s not so much about the physical experience as the peaceful feeling you’ll get from the yoga.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it looks like we’ve gotten the all-clear now, so if you’re up and about, please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts. Cabin crew, prepare for take-off. And do something about those bathrooms, for God’s sakes. We haven’t even served any food yet and I can already smell them from up here.

Picture credit: (a)artwork (traveling)

Monday, March 28, 2011

The 5 percent solution for depression

Selective Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitors: Who would pass up the opportunity of saying that mouthful on a regular basis?

Well, okay, anybody who isn’t a biochemistry nerd would. But in case you don’t know, it’s a class of drug that throws some light in the amazing ways in which the brain works… and helps anyone immobilized by a clinical depression start to function like a normal person.

Now, I’m a yoga teacher, and yoga teachers are known for pushing holistic solutions, not psychotropic drugs. But what if you suffered from a crippling depression because the chemicals your brain cells use to communicate with one another aren’t working – as in, a cell sends a message to its neighboring cell and the latter doesn’t have the ability to read it before the chemicals used for sending the message are recycled?

Seratonin is one of those messenger chemicals; re-uptake refers to the process where a cell reabsorbs the chemicals it used for communicating with the next one, and selectively inhibiting the reuptake of seratonin, as much of a mouthful as that is, means that the seratonin gets to float between those cells a lot longer, thereby giving the next cell much more of a chance to get the message.

And when it gets the message, a funny thing happens: you aren’t depressed any more.

The yoga teacher in me wants someone who’s depressed not to take a pill but to breathe more, to move more, to sleep better and to get a lot more nurturing. But that’s because, while I have been depressed during certain phases in my life, I have never been clinically depressed, which is something vastly different. We’re talking about feeling like you’re in a hole you can never hope to claw your way out of. We’re talking feeling so down that the thought of rising from bed feels overwhelming. We’re talking a complete inability to take care of oneself. We’re talking not wanting to go on living.

So I humbly take off my hat to those folks who experience that, and say that while I would hold your hand and try to give you uplifting tools, I would have no idea what the hell I was doing, and might do more harm than good with my good intentions. Those folks might only begin to get some breathing room and apply the tools I have once they have in their system some SSRI’s or whatever latest wonder drug exists to balance brain chemistry.

Now, if your significant other just left you, or you’ve awakened to the realization your life is the manure that ought to be fertilizing someone’s lawn, or you haven’t been called back for the job you so desperately wanted and knew were perfectly suited for, then that’s a run-of-the-mill depression, and for that, may I submit for your consideration The 5% Solution.

“5% Solution” stems from the fact that whenever I suggested something to a dear friend of mine who suffers from occasional bouts of depression, she would say, “Yeah, I tried that for a while, and it didn’t work” – and I came to realize that yes, one single thing may not work long-term, but it may be 5% of the answer… which, together with a bunch of other 5 percents, might amount to the active self-nurturing that tip the scales to the good side. And if on the one hand depression is a vicious circle where you feel diminishing ability for self-nurturing, on the other hand success with the behaviors of self-nurturance (even small successes) can snowball into transcending the depression.

For these two reasons (not one single thing is likely to pull anyone up from depression; and small successes will tend to reinforce each other), here are the bunch of 5% steps that consistently applied tip the scales in your favor:

5% using a dawn simulator to wake up slowly and naturally in the morning
This makes a significant different compared to the drawn-out grogginess and adrenalin-induced grumpiness that can go with waking up to an alarm.

5% using a neti pot daily to enhance how much oxygen you take in through clear sinuses
Breathing well (and, specifically, breathing through the nose), makes for a significantly calmer mind and more level mood, not to mention higher innate energy levels.

5% getting active exercise – preferably in the morning or by midday, but any exercise at all is good
For a host of biochemical reasons, exercise alone can overcome a lot of physical and mental problems. The best kind of exercise to engage in? One that you actually enjoy.

5% flossing, brushing, showering, all that good stuff
This is in the category of the obvious, but beyond the slight mood uplift of not smelling or feeling like a tramp, it also keeps a bunch of pathogens at bay, which don’t further tax an immune system that’s already struggling to stay in the game

5% drinking 8+ glasses of water a day
Yadda yadda yadda. Everybody talks about this for health and better skin, right? I don't have hard evidence for this, but I believe abundance of water literally has the ability to clear emotions in the body. Do taper off around 6 p.m. for better sleep. Oh, yeah, and for the people who always ask – it really does mean water, not coffee or beer.

5% eating small, balanced, frequent meals (every 4 hours, starting within one hour of waking up), avoiding sugar and refined carbohydrates to maintain evenness of mood
For anyone who hasn’t noticed, sugar and refined carbs are a huge contributing factor to mood fluctuation. Have steady quality food (you know, food that actually feeds you), and you remove one important source of imbalance.

5% eating new, interesting things
Think tastebud-titillating flavors like the Thai coconut and lemon grass soup known as Tom Kah, yam fries, strawberries, pineapple, kiwi – anything that feels new and exotic to the tastebuds and gives you something to look forward to on a daily basis has mood-enhancing capacities.

5% eating foods that are known to have anti-depressant qualities
Chillies, jalapeno peppers as well as spices of Thai, Indian, and/or Asian provenance not only have antioxidant qualities, but they stimulate the release of the very brain chemicals that raise your mood.

5% spending time somewhere where there are trees and grass
Forget about “spending time in nature” – it brings up thoughts of plans and clearing time in your schedule and all those other things that always get postponed. A fifteen minute break spent outside at the nearest park every day will do. More if time permits.

5% daily solitude
Some people need this more than others as a means of collecting their thoughts and emotions and feeling grounded. It might be five minutes in the bedroom or it might be a ninety-minute walk by the water – reset and replenish with the right amount and you’ll find that solitude is a solace for the soul. Alliteration and all.

5% immersion in beautiful or awe-inspiring things
A friend of mine loves astronomy magazines, exhibits or TV programs – the universe in all its grandeur brings out that awe. But it could be holding a baby. Or watching gigantic clouds move above. Or seeing athletes play at the edge of human ability. Or becoming lost in dance. Or feeling a piece of music intensely. Or walking amid larger-than-life statues at a museum. Experiencing, acknowledging and recognizing awe-inspiring things that shift around often enough (so as not to become desensitized to them) can change your experience from “just getting by” to “there is a lot of beauty in life.”

5% keeping objects around you that bring you pleasure to touch, smell or see
A pleasantly-shaped stone, a candle, a seashell, a vase, a bottle of perfume, a ring, a wallet crafted just so, a pen with perfectly-balanced weight, a cup you love – it need not be anything fancy, just a close-by touchstone to remind you of your personal connection to beauty.

5% dancing and/or playing
Think 5-year-old kid here. Most people lose or forget their ability to play when they reach adulthood. But 5, 10, 20 minutes a day dancing or playing for its own sake decreases the adrenal hormones associated with stress and releases a plethora of other ones that regenerate your body and mind. For this to work, you must enjoy the play tremendously: 20 minutes of minesweeper on the computer doesn’t count unless it transports you to the rapturous levels of excitement that prompt your co-workers to ask if you’re feeling okay.

5% getting into a story you enjoy
Whether through reading or listening or film-viewing, becoming immersed in someone else’s story adds a break and fresh perspective to life. I suggest sticking with fiction for best results. Humor doesn’t hurt either. And if you don’t feel like reading anything humorous right now, well, go ahead and pick up that suspense novel. No, not the one with the high body count – that’s not going to uplift you and renew your faith in the human condition.

5% taking a step (any step) daily toward a long-term plan; or, if you can't think of anything, help someone every day – a friend, a stranger, an animal.
These are two ways in which life acquires meaning: working towards a goal, and making a difference in someone’s life if through no other way than making them feel seen, heard, or cared for.

5% connecting with friends
To state the obvious, any challenges become more bearable when shared with people who care about you. (Have a Twitter or Facebook account? You’ve got this covered… not.) And while a text message, email or phone call are better than nothing, in-person interaction with friends or family who see, hear and care about you increase tenfold that sense of connection.

5% being held
That effect of lowering stress hormones while raising health-promoting ones isn’t just the realm of playing. Hug often and the results are the same. If you don’t have a significant other, hug friends when you see them. If you’ve never been one to do that and your coworkers are now dodging you in the hallways, you can say you were adopted and just discovered your birth parents are Italian… Seriously, though, if you’re not a touchy-feely type of person, or you feel awkward with hugging people, you can always hold a dog, or a cat, or a baby… or your pet hippopotamus.

5% sex
This one’s a little tricky. Sex tends to magnify whatever emotions we already have – meaning that if you’re happy, it’ll reinforce the happiness, but if you’re feeling down, there’s the chance that it may open you up to further sadness. Then again, it may just open you up to release emotions and eventually let them dissolve. If being close to someone is hard the way you feel now (or it’s tied up with conflicting emotions), it might be better to fly solo, as they euphemistically say, before adding the many emotional variables of having someone else be part of the equation.

5% having a pre-bedtime routine of 30 minutes
No, we’re not talking the evening news (Everything Bad Around The World Today). Nor are we talking meditation – we wouldn’t want to suggest something as radical as that, would we, now? No, for a pre-bedtime routine it’s some very gentle yoga, or quiet contemplation with the lights turned off, or lying down with some guided visualizations or gentle relaxation movements.

5% a consistent bedtime with plenty of time (say, 9 hours) before needing to rise again
A bedtime that stays consistent even in the weekends lets the body become accustomed to produce on schedule the chemicals that enhance sleep. And having a leisurely-allocated 9 hours, whether you ultimately use them or not, will virtually guarantee that you will feel well-rested by the time your dawn simulator goes off.

So there it is – one 5% step at a time. The idea is not to try one or two cherry-picked ones and see how it goes. Rather, the idea is to do all of them daily, allowing for variability in their success. So long as 75, 80 or 85% of them work, they will yield steady improvement in mood and a more balanced of being and of feeling. And while it may look as though doing these twenty things daily would require a lot of time, many lend themselves to combining – for instance, solitude and a pre-bed-time routine of yoga/relaxation; or being in nature while connecting with friends; or exercising through dancing. Once they become second nature, they require no more time than waking up to the dawn simulator. And, as anyone who’s ever been depressed can tell you, they certainly eat up a lot less time and energy than being depressed.

All right, I think I’ve earned the right to go play minesweeper for at least 2 hours. Ooops. You didn’t hear me say that, did you?

Photo Credit: Diego Sevilla Ruiz

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

You can lead the horse to the yoga mat, but you can't make him do parasympathetic yoga

When it comes to yoga, I’ve always been like those racehorses rearing to get out of the starting gate.

Actually, when it comes to anything, I’m that racehorse… yet my first introduction and training in yoga was in a gentle, introspective, meditative tradition. And there actually existed, as I found out, an even gentler and more introspective yoga tradition, one where you rested in Shavasana, after every pose! I confess I made fun of that in an unenlightened moment or two.

When, five years later, I found Ashtanga yoga, I thought, “Wow! This is great! A style of yoga that’s athletic, gets your heart pumping, stretches and strengthens you and still manages to be meditative and leave you stoned by the end of the class! Where do I sign up for this?”

Now, after fifteen years of practicing and leading hard-core yoga classes, I’ve been developing an appreciation for the nuances of the slower, gentler, more introspective approach. For one thing, I found physiology and biochemistry useful in understanding what we’re going with yoga. Here’s the For-Dummies version:

  • There are the muscles you have direct control over. Those are the ones with which you practice yoga.
  • Then there’s the breath, which, made rhythmic, acts as a gateway between the conscious and the not-so-conscious muscles (e.g., your pupils; or the muscles that generate the peristaltic action in the intestines to move stuff along)
  • At the level of the not-so-conscious part of the body, there’s the sympathetic system, which is what kicks in under instances of danger or physical or psychological stress. The sympathetic system gears the body for fight-or-flight by shutting down digestion and reproduction, while stimulating the adrenals and increasing heart rate and blood pressure. This is why if you’re, say, careening out of control in your car and facing a life-or-death situation, it’s not a time in which you feel particularly amorous. (Unless you’re really weird.)
  • The other part of the not-so-conscious part of the body (okay, technically called the autonomous nervous system) is the parasympathetic system. The parasympathetic system kicks in when the sympathetic fades out, and it does things like stimulating digestion and increasing blood flow to the genitals, and is generally speaking responsible for those times when you feel contented: after a good meal; lying on a beach, listening to the waves; and hey, even after a great yoga class, when you’re stoned out of your gourd.

All of the foregoing is to bring back home the point that the slow, gentle yoga actually does a far better job of turning on the parasympathetic nervous system (and hence letting the body regenerate) than the hard-core yoga does. Don’t get me wrong – we still need exercise that gets the heart pumping, stimulates growth factors, and all of that good stuff, but relative to the pace at which we live and the daily stressors, we, by and large, don’t get enough of the parasympathetic.

So I’m planning on being more sympathetic to my parasympathetic. More slow-mo yoga classes for me and a more relaxed rhythm in the more intense classes.

Except I caught someone asking one of my students at the end of my uber-gentle classes whether the class might be beginning enough for them. “Well – it’s not a beginning class!” my student responded. “You do do some hard things in here!”

Apparently I still have a ways to go to rein in the racehorse.

Picture credit: Kathy789

Saturday, February 12, 2011

How to ruin your knees with yoga, running, tennis or skiing

Hello, boys and girls, this is Mr. Rogers and today we discuss the fine art of ruining your knees. Can you say “knee replacement surgery?” I hope you never have to.

Actually, ruining your knees is not a fine art. It’s a rough art. You can do it without your parents’ supervision. Just go running in poorly-designed shoes, and after a decade or two, you’ll have managed to whittle that cartilage in your knees down to nothing. What about you, little Timmy? Running’s not your thing? Well, if you like, you can make sharp, quick stops to catch and return little Lindy’s devastating serve on the tennis court. What? You practice yoga? Well, then, they’ve got a couple of yoga poses where you bend your knees and press your feet all the way to the floor, and that will also do the trick! Just ask for them by name: bhekasana and virasana.

So why are we talking about this today? You see, boys and girls, my neighbor Ricardo here is a yoga instructor – that’s right, he gets to act mellow like me for a living. And through the years, he has seen people come into his classes and have trouble with a simple squatting position. Well, you know – it’s simple for him, but not so simple for some of the other boys and girls who are runners or tennis players, or cyclists, or skiers, or like to race boats that require them to be on their knees hanging over one side of the boat, as crazy as that sounds. Doesn’t that sound crazy to you? No? You must have rich parents, then.

Anyway, that’s all stuff my neighbor Ricardo the yoga instructor has seen. He also says things like “the body is an extraordinary self-repairing machine… if you give it enough rest and a chance to repair.” But that’s not going to happen, boys and girls, if you’re pushing yourself or doing competitive sports three days a week, or running ultra-marathons, or stuff like that, because that speeds up the damage like crazy. Of course, you’re all between two and five years old, but someday you’ll be collecting Social Security, and you want to do it without rolling around in a wheelchair, as fun as that may sound to you right now. However, racing in a wheelchair is better than say, tennis or racquetball, because in a wheelchair at least you use both arms, whereas a sport that emphasizes only one side of the body makes you more at risk for injuries because uneven wear makes for weaker bones.

And those yoga poses don’t do your knees any favors either – unless you started practicing yoga inside your mommy’s belly and come out with naturally hyperextended knees. But if you don’t mind helping knee surgeons pay they mortgage, you can bend those knees like there’s no tomorrow.

So that’s why, boys and girls, you’ll never see Mr. Rogers at an Ironman competition. Or on the ski slopes. Or in those intense yoga classes. Why do that when I can get all my exercise from putting on my cardigan sweater at the beginning of each show?

Picture credit: im247frogs

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Zen and the Art of Password Management

“Never recycle user names or passwords,” Internet gurus tell us, “so if one of your accounts is compromised, the damage is contained to just that account.”

It used to be that looking both ways before crossing the street only cost me a second of my impatient kid’s time; following the above rule as an adult just taxes my ability to stay Zen. I used to freely reuse my user names and passwords online, but alas, that’s harder to do even if you want to. And your patience, your information overload and your sanity is the price.

Take, for instance, (the U.S. government’s online copyright service), which didn’t like the user name I tried to register with many moons ago. Since I don’t go there on a regular basis, I’m always stumped by the fields, “User name” and “Password.”

The problem is not only their rules for user names, but their passwords must incorporate at least one capital, two numerals, a special non-alphanumeric character and three of Shakespeare’s more obscure sonnets. Okay, that last part was an exaggeration, but still, one “non-alphanumeric character”? I’d have to be a mutant freak to remember a password with those characteristics.

But I’m going to be Zen about it.

So I click over on the “Forgot your password?” field and get stumped with the next hurdle: email account you registered with? And phone associated with this account? (And did I use dots, parentheses, dashes or nothing to separate the phone number from the area code?) When, after thirty minutes of trial and error (and setting up a spreadsheet to keep track of all the permutations I’ve tried), I finally hit upon the right combination of email and phone, is kind enough to automatically reset the password for me, (it looks something like “Eat_$h*t-M0r0n!”) and sends me to the login page again.

Whereupon I spend the next half hour of trial-and-error attempting to determine just what the hell my user name is (must be no fewer than 18 characters but not longer than 23, must have three accented Slavic characters, two alchemical symbols, and must rhyme with “orange”). And no, there’s no field there for “Forgot your user name?”

Welcome to the world of online security.

I realize it’s there for our protection, but I do grow nostalgic for the good old times of 1994, when “1234” was a sufficiently strong password for all my online needs, which pretty much consisted of checking messages from the single friend who also had an email address. Today we can do a lot more than that, and most of it has real-world, economic consequences, which is why my cell phone provider has rules for how to create a user name and password that would give the world’s leading cryptologists a run for their money. It’s also so far from my choices that, in a less Zen moment, I had to resort to an at last very memorable password that commanded the aforementioned cell phone provider to go do something with itself, and how many times.

It’s also why, in its zeal to protect me, my bank locks me out after three failed log-in attempts.

This is to keep out the crooks. Good. It also keeps out people like me who haven’t logged in a long time, and though I have my choice of user name and (almost) my choice of password, my cerebral database doesn’t come up with the right permutation within three tries, so the bank locks its online vaults to me.

I’m still trying to be Zen about this, but barely hanging onto my meditation cushion.

So I call my bank and punch in my account number and select the option to talk to a customer service representative. Incidentally, they’re not called that anymore: they have lyrical names like “apostle of fulfillment” or “ambassador of satisfaction” or “herald of contentment.” But I digress.

After a two-minute hold, a bored voice answers the phone. “Thank you for calling the Royal Bank of Marx and Engels [not their real name], where we exceed your expectations every day. May I have your name and last four digits of your Social Security Number?”

I tell him.

“And how can I deliver outstanding service for you today?”

“I got locked out of my online account.”

“I’d be happy to help you with that,” he says with as much vigor as if he’s just swallowed a couple of Valiums. “And what is your codeword?”

“Well, if I knew, I wouldn’t be calling you.”

“Not your online password – your codeword for talking with us.”

I sigh. Could this be my mother’s maiden name, the name of my first pet, my favorite rock star, or the name of the maiden who first petted my favorite rock star’s mother? Who knows? I try all of those to no avail.

“Well, what’s your mailing address?”

I tell him.

“I’m sorry, sir. Try again.”

“Try again? But that is my mailing address!”

“The address you get your bank statements at.”

“I have the paperless option! I’ve been getting online statements since 1998!”

“Well, I’m sorry, but that address doesn’t fit what we have on file.”

It’s been such a long time since this has come up that it could’ve been one, maybe even two residences ago. I reach into the deepest recesses of my brain and manage to wrench an address from the fog of oblivion.

“Sorry. That’s not it either.”

“Can you give me a clue?” I plead.

“Sorry, I’m not allowed to reveal any information on the account.”

“Was it the Harrison Street address?”


“The Nevada Place address?”


“The Dewey Avenue address?”

“Which street number?”

“Oh, God. Um… 5560?”



“What unit number?”

“How the [blankety-blank] am I supposed to remember? I haven’t lived there in six years!”

“Well, sir, it’s the address we have for you!”

“Unit 520!” (God, what will I do with myself the day Alzheimer’s sets in?)

“That is correct. Now, how may I help you?”

“I need to reset my online password.”

“All right. It’s been reset. Do you have a pen to write this down?”

Yes, I write down my password. I also give my new address to the Emissary of Happiness, or whatever he’s called, and I make a note that on such-and-such date, my bank had such-and-such address. But let’s face it, chances are the next time this comes up might be twelve years from now, and I’m no more likely to remember my current address than where I put the paper that tells me which address the bank had on which date.

Of course, I bet some of you are sitting all smug, thinking that you’ve got all your accounts and passwords written on that spiral-bound notebook by the bedstand.

May I be the first one to offer my congratulations.

I have one word for you: children.

Actually, more: teenagers. Former lovers. The cleaning maid. The real estate agent showing your house. The plumber you had to let in when you were away on vacation. Are you getting paranoid yet?

Now, if you’re really techno-savvy, you’re smug because you have a super-duper smartphone, and in it, a password-protected app that tells you which password goes with which account. I applaud you.

Now tell me what you’re going to do on the day you lose your phone.

Ah, you have a backup plan. More than a backup plan: the app synchronizes itself with someplace on the cloud, so as soon as you get another phone (or to the right website) you’ll be able to retrieve everything. Congratulations again. So techno-savvy and up-to-the-minute of you.

I will soon follow in your footsteps and get that app. To log into it and access all my accounts and passwords, I’ll use “1234.”

Not only will that be a nice way to loop all this back to its cozy dawn-of-the-internet beginning, but also, now that everybody’s in on my secret, when Alzheimer’s does set in and I don’t remember even that, I’ll be able to ask the nearest person.

Or the nearest crook.

Photo credit: Leo Reynolds