Arise and Fail

On Monday morning at 6:00 the world was very, very dark. Most days I’d stay put for a while, but somehow I rolled out of bed and found my pre-selected shorts and tank top, and staggered to the living room. Briefly, I considered if I’d regret just never starting this new workout regime. Then I remembered I paid for it. I also remembered my skinny jeans, and Christmas chocolate. I hit play on the DVD player and took a deep breath. “Remember, it’s OK to fail, it’s OK to max out,” Shaun T tells me in the introduction video. It’s OK to fail, it’s OK to max out, I repeat.

For those of you who don’t know, Insanity Max30 is an exercise program designed by the beautiful and sadistic Shaun T. Speed and “maxing out” is the priority. When during the course of the video I reach the point where I can’t keep going, I’m supposed to take a break and write down my time, then jump back in. The workout is designed to make me fail. I hate failing.

But I was also so excited to begin this workout, in some part for the fitness benefits (Christmas and January are rough on the body, no matter how mindful you think you are in the face of cheese), but also for the challenge. I ran a marathon in just-under Boston qualifying time in November, but have been in a goal-less slump since then. I wanted a fitness change as well as a challenge.  Since I live in a midwestern Rust Belt city that doesn’t believe in plowing roads, much less sidewalks, now is a great time for that break.

Insanity, and marathon training, imposes a schedule that I’ll never make happen on my own. Marathon training is brutal but it brings a soothing regularity. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I do speedwork. On Monday I do an easy-ish run. On Saturdays I do long runs. I get to do nothing on Sunday. This kind of rhythm is good for me, even though I’m terrible at enacting it on my own. I’ve been on no workout schedule since November, which means I still work out, but without a plan or a goal. Usually I do too little or too much, ricocheting between the two extremes. Give me a printed schedule, however, like the one that comes with Insanity, and I’ll stick to it religiously. Vatas can always use a good schedule.

The Max30 workout is five minutes of warm up, twenty-five minutes of plyometric cardio or body-weight strength exercises, and two minutes of cool down. I didn’t max out on Monday until 26:40, when the double-jab, double tuck jump combo became way too much (the sound of my feet hitting the floor made me fear for my shins too). Given that a number of the cast members maxxed out around the half way mark, it makes me think I probably could have kicked it up a little had I known the exercises well enough to not look up at the TV during a pike-in-wide-legged plank jump.

Today I should have stopped (along with half of the cast members) or modified the plyometric side-to-side pushups (it’s worse than anything you’re imagining), because that whole side-to-side jumping thing–from a pushup– wasn’t happening. It might never. I’m really OK with that.

Here’s a few things I like about the workout: it was a hard workout but didn’t trash my body. My muscles are still tingling but I don’t feel like a cattle truck hit me. What I loved the most is how successful I feel at life afterwards. I’m not raging with heady success or bitter failure because of when I had to stop–I just feel successful for having done the exercise. My workout was done by 7:15, and though I felt thoroughly worked over, I also felt energetic. Not falling into the couch. Not like limping through my Monday and eating a crate of donuts.

Rather, I felt like getting some fresh air. I threw on some sweats, grabbed the leashes, and took the dogs on a short walk. None of my beloved canines tried to bite each other, lurch towards traffic, or eat a stray piece of litter, not even when the German Shepherds down the street started their barking duet. The sun was rising pink over the athletic fields as we walked. They say red sky is warning, but on Monday it looked more like a promise. I sometimes forget what I love about January, but this week I smelled earth under the frosty hard ground. It smelled like spring was taking on a challenge. It felt something like happiness.

 

Learning to Meditate

I first meditated at vacation Bible school when I was eleven or twelve. Instead of crafting with macaroni or learning a musical version of the Lord’s prayer, our pre-teen class lied  under a tree, eyes closed, while the man in charge led us through a short guided meditation. I had recently read Frank Peretti, whose villains included female characters who sat in lotus pose while communing with the anti-Christ, and I’d heard my mother and aunts talk nervously about women who did yoga. I had suspicions, but our teacher assured us that Jesus meditated too.

Twenty-two years later, I began helping with a yoga teacher training course, where we had to meditate forty-five minutes a week. “If you’re teaching, you need to be meditating,” one yoga teacher told me, advice I obediently resisted with I don’t have time. But with a concrete requirement hanging over me, I sat down on my red bedroom rug the night after our first class and set my timer for ten minutes. I did it the next night. And the next. And then I didn’t stop.

I’ve meditated while fuming, crying, anxious, distracted, depressed, happy, and exhausted (like this morning), but I always end meditation calm(er). The more I read about yoga and Ayurveda, the more necessary meditation seems to be for a healthy life. Doctors and health practitioners now recommend meditation for controlling stress, heart disease, ADHD, depression, and anxiety, to name just a few.

The question I get asked most as a yoga instructor is “how do I meditate?”The answer is deceptively simple: sit quietly and and breathe. Simple doesn’t always mean easy, however, when your mind is reciting a to-do list or replaying all your worst-case scenarios in your head.  Over the last year, I’ve found more ways of meditation, which gives me  options when I’m struggling to focus or calm down. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I’ve compiled a few things that work for me.

Sitting: Most meditation experts recommend sitting. Some say lying down is OK, but the chances of falling asleep increase. I like sitting because it strengthens my back and lengthens my spinal cord, so I usually sit in sukasana (easy cross-legged pose) on a yoga block or cushion if possible, on the floor if necessary. If sitting on the floor isn’t an option, sitting straight up in a chair, spine elongated, hands resting on the legs, is a fine alternative.The goal is comfort–don’t go for full lotus position unless it’s comfortable.  Meditation is not an extreme sport.

Time: You can meditate any time of day. However, Ayurvedic experts recommend meditating in the morning before sunrise. The theory is that this is Vata time, full of lightness and creativity, which aids meditation. Practically, your interruptions are minimal, and meditation tends to energize people and leave their minds clearer and more focused, making it a spiritual and mental equivalent of a cup of coffee. I tend to meditate either at night, because it’s the last thing I do and I won’t be distracted, or at the end of my personal yoga practice when my body is relaxed. I’m trying to add meditation to my morning routine.

Amount of Time: My yoga teacher meditates an hour a day. I’m happy if I meditate ten or fifteen minutes; most days it’s more like five. Start with what works for you. I use the timer on my phone, but meditation apps like Headspace can also be very useful. Note: when I first began meditating my back would cramp and my feet would fall asleep. This is normal; sit as comfortably as possible and be patient.

Methods: At its most elemental, meditation is sitting quietly and noticing the breath. That’s it. To help keep the mind out of the way during meditation, however, some breathing practices and mantras can be useful.

  • Breath: One simple way to meditate is to count breaths as you breath in and out, aiming for at least four to five seconds per inhale and exhale. This is one of the most effective methods if I’m very distracted, because even if my mind is racing I can focus on counting. Other methods involve an inhale, holding the breath for a count, exhaling, and holding the breath for a count. Nadi Shodhana, literally “channel cleansing breath”is a more involved breathing practice where the practitioner alternates inhaling, closing a nostril with the fourth finger, exhaling through the opposite nostril, then repeating that pattern from nostril to nostril. Yoga Journal has a good article about this breathing technique here.
  • Mantra: The most basic yoga mantra for meditation is soham, which translates as “I am that,” which can be a powerful reminder of who I am in the universe. Additionally, in Sanskrit, the vibration of words is as important as the meaning. On the inhale, think so, and on the exhale think ham. Continue this mantra during the meditation.
  • Metta Meditation: Metta mediation, also called loving-kindness meditation, involves internally reciting a few things you want for your life. Ideally this should be three or four phrases, such as “May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease” (Metta Institute).  When I do a metta meditation, I say the phrases for myself, a loved one, a person who’s annoying the crap out of me, and the rest of the living world. Because this meditation forces me to think kind thoughts about myself and others, it’s especially beneficial if I’m having a ragey day.
  • Gratitude Meditation: Bryan Kest over at poweryoga.com is an advocate of gratitude meditation, which is to sit quietly in meditation while thinking of individual things you are grateful for. This simple meditation is nice if I can’t think in full sentences for the metta meditation or stay focused on a mantra. It’s also a beautiful reminder of how much I have.
  • Guided Meditation: I love guided meditations, because someone else is using their voice to keep me mindful. Some people find the talking during meditation to be distracting, however–try it and see what works for you. The Chopra Center has several guided meditations, ranging from four to twenty minutes. I love the “Awaken Your Abundance” meditation. Bryan Kest also has several longer guided meditations available at poweryoga.com.
  • Mala Meditation:  While in China this summer I picked up two strands of mala beads. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with them, but I began wearing them almost as a talisman. When I visited my Ayurvedic consultant this summer and began crying in anxiety, she recommended I try using the beads for a mala meditation. While sitting in meditation, move the fingers from one bead at at time, thinking of one particular mantra. For me, that mantra is trust. Like the gratitude meditation, it reminds me of how much I already have, which in turn reminds me that I’m probably going to be okay, whatever that looks like.

Many yoga studios and natural health clinics offer meditation workshops, which adds insight and practical suggestions. I believe we don’t have to know very much in order to start meditating, however; we just need to try it. I usually find different times of day, month, and year, I need different kinds of meditation. Be willing to experiment, and realize there’s no doing it wrong when it comes to meditation.

 

Hot (Coffee) Minute

I can make coffee four different ways in my house: drip, French press, pour over, espresso. When it gets warm enough for cold coffee again, I will also be trying out the new cold brew bag I bought while in Idaho (if you’re ever in Nampa or Boise, check out the Flying M coffee garage. Amazing). But most mornings, my sainted husband (or I) make me a Cuban Americano, made of a quad shot of espresso pressed with raw sugar and cinnamon, mixed with hot water and half and half. For me, this drink is love, through and through.

I adore coffee. As a vata-pitta, this can be a problem–lots of coffee can be an irritant to people who are already in high drive and hurtling from one thing to the next. Because I love the people around me, and I don’t love headaches, I’m not going off coffee. Fortunately, Tiffany, my friend and Ayurvedic consultant, didn’t tell me I had to. She did suggest I monitor how much caffeine I drink, and also suggested I try cutting the harshness of coffee with more spices. The cinnamon in my drink is warming, which is good for Vata people, and she suggested I try adding cardamom (also warming) to the espresso.

I’ve been doing this for a few weeks and have enjoyed the extra spice addition, although fresher spices, or using a cardamom pod instead of ground spice would probably make the flavor more noticeable. One thing Tiffany pointed out is that a hundred years ago, people cooked with hundreds of spices. Now they use about twenty. According to the authors of  Healing Depression the Mind-Body Way, food, and especially spices, are not just calories, but “packets of universal intelligence,” or rather, nutrition and knowledge in flavorful food groups. They feed your body on multiple levels.

Since starting my Ayurvedic journey, I’ve noticed that much of Western food feels like either punishment or indulgence. It errs on the side of speed, convenience, fat, and sugar, rather than flavor. The result is that whether the food is healthy or not, it can feel like eating punishment. Ayurvedic food usually doesn’t feel that way. While I balk at some food suggestions, like not eating fruit with any other foods, and eating everything cooked, the emphasis on flavor and spice (which means taking time to care about the food) results in delicious and satisfying food that never makes me or my stomach hate myself later.

Of course, that takes time. And sometimes when you’re low on time you make K-cup coffee with almost-expired Irish cream chocolate flavored creamer and eat a granola bar laced with chocolate chips and corn syrup. If I ever have children, Lord, hear my prayer.

The good news is that good habits, really good ones, tend to reward me enough to keep going. Exercising feels much better than not exercising. Eating good food means I’m usually not tempted by restaurants (at least not the ones in this town). Writing, even on bad, numb-brain days, feels much better than not writing. I’m getting to the point where trying something new–whether the food I eat or the way I write or my reactions to my spouse–feels much better than running down the same well-worn rut the rest of my life.

I didn’t make a New Year’s goal, but I’ve been thinking about risks and new things a lot lately. On Sunday I tried an online yoga class called “Power Yoga Bruce Lee Style” which was a kung fu inspired yoga flow. It was a lot of fun. One highlight was pulling off an arm balance that usually results in me on my face; another was doing yogi pushups on my fists, something I hadn’t been able to do (or felt confident doing) the last time I tried the class. However, the most powerful moment of the class was at the end, when the instructor quoted Bruce Lee as saying, “If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”

I teared up on the mat. I’ve been at a plateau professionally for a while, in great part because I don’t feel focused or confident or like I have enough to do extra. Physically I stay at plateaus because I worry about falling out of headstands and arm balances, so I do what I’m good at–over and over. And I almost didn’t write this blog today because I didn’t know how I was going to get a post out of coffee, or who would want to read it. It’s all safe, and pretty unsatisfying.

So here’s to putting cardamom in my coffee, trying new pushups and scary arm balances, and blogging about coffee. I think this might work out.

 

VataTime

Happy MLK Jr Day, from the Indiana tundra. It’s four degrees at noon, with a windchill of negative fourteen. My cats yowl at the garage door, my dogs circle my feet, and I’m circling from exercise to unopened mail to dishes to food.  All of these factors make it seem like my first post in a long time should deal with the Vata dosha.

This is what happens when I have a day off in the winter: I stay up late, get up late, exercise longer than normal because I have time, and then realize I have more to do than is possible on a day off, and go into a frenzy. On one snow day several years ago, I ran, angry cleaned all day, went to a kickboxing class, walked my dogs in a near-blizzard, and wondered why I wanted to weep by the end of the day. The feeling of not being able to sit still fought a death match with total exhaustion. The loser was always me.

This was the after-affects of a Vata imbalance. Vata, according to Ayurveda, is made up of the elements of space and air and is dry, windy, cold, light, and changeable. Just like too much cold wind, it can make a person brittle and anxious. Vata is the leaves rattling on the trees and the wind howling around the corner of your house in the dark. It is your skin cracking and bleeding on your hands and the inability to sleep early in the morning.

It is also creativity and movement, like the rush of poems Sylvia Plath composed in the fall of 1962 or the way my friend becomes a stand-up comedian and performance poet, riffing from one word to another on our conversation until our sides hurt from laughing and she performs vibrant and unpredictable. It is the scurrying of a squirrel up and down a tree, and the vibration of the flag pole outside my window. Vata moves things: ideas through the brain, words out the mouth, bodies around the world.

vata

Vata’s season is usually the autumn through early winter. Like Kapha, it is cold, but unlike Kapha, this cold is bitter, windy, and dry, whereas Kapha’s is damp and heavy. When I ran Saturday morning, hard tiny pellets of snow hit my face, whirling in the wind. That is a Vata snow. Traditionally, Vata’s time period in the day is 2-6, a.m. and p.m. This is why insomnia often strikes early in the morning, and probably why so many authors and poets (and occasionally this one) claim the very early hours of the morning are their best times for inspiration.

I probably always had a lot of Vata in my life, but college helped it take over my life. Fall semester in college followed my favorite math formula: busier = better.  This seemed like magic–the more you do, the more you can do, and there was no upward limit, especially if I quit sleeping and lived on granola bars. As the authors of Eat Taste Heal point out, the ways to imbalance Vata are to do everything I was doing in my twenties–eating on the run, over-consuming coffee, sleeping irregularly, staying up late, and traveling a great deal.  One good thing I did was follow my creative interests in college and graduate school. Another was choosing to follow those interests to grad school in Scotland, where my multitasking was tempered by the slower European lifestyle. Walking everywhere slowed me down and forced me to make more logical scheduling decisions.

But during the winter of my first year living back in America, I backed into a mailbox and rear-ended a guy within a week. Neither incident caused much damage, but my mom pointed out I was getting increasingly distracted, which my three jobs and constant exercise probably had a lot to do with. And if I was honest this pattern had happened long before. I’d barely sleep for weeks during the semester, then oversleep and miss a class and work. I’d overcommit everyday while the urge to cry over anything got stronger.

 

Vata tamed is like magic to me. Vata under its own dark, dry power can become mania. After her autumn of creativity, Sylvia Plath killed herself in the bitterly cold British winter. My funny, creative, high-energy students begin to weep and flail against themselves sometime in early December when the enthusiasm and creativity gets burnt up in late nights studying and partying. According to the Chopra Center, “When unbalanced they are prone to worry and anxiousness and often suffer from insomnia. When they feel overwhelmed or stressed, their response is, “What did I do wrong?” Vata can make me feel limitless, like space, but on bad days I feel like the falling is limitless too.

If this sounds like an ADHD diagnosis, it’s because ADHD can be described as an extreme Vata imbalance. In reading The Atlantic’s article “ADHD is Different for Girls” I recognize myself and so many of my female students. Women with the disorder tend to be less hyperactive and impulsive, more disorganized, scattered, forgetful, and introverted. ‘They’ve alternately been anxious or depressed for years,’ Littman says. ‘It’s this sense of not being able to hold everything together.” When these qualities appear in a person with elements of Pitta, the airy anxiety of a Vata imbalance can turn into a rage (see my posts on Pitta imbalances to see where the hot mess ends up). When it happens in a person with Kapha elements, depression often results. An excellent book that goes more into the connections between Ayurveda and depression is Healing Depression the Mind-Body Way.

While Ayurveda would not tell a person with ADHD and its accompanying anxiety and depression to go off their meds, it will say  you can do other things to make your life better. For balancing Vata, think grounding and schedule–from food, to exercise, to daily activities. Particularly in the fall and winter, eating heavy, solid, nourishing foods like soup, sweet potatoes, squash, almonds, and oatmeal at regular times of day are important, as is avoiding dry, overly sugary foods. Oil massage has become an important way to soothe my wind-dried hands as well as my tired quadriceps and frantic mind. Ayurvedic doctors recommend sitting down in the afternoon and pursing creative activities, which is why I’m sitting on my butt writing, staring down my writing goals instead of trying to clean the whole house at once.

Finally, meditation and yoga has helped me learn to one thing, or even nothing, at a time. While running and intense fitness classes often make me feel better because they burn off the nervous energy, they sometimes don’t replace it with anything else, and it’s very easy for me to add another mile, another class, more movement, rather than holding still and letting myself be confronted. Yoga in all its variations–power, ashtanga, restorative, yin–does this for me. With yoga, I’ve gradually added a short but reliable meditation practice. I spend at least five to ten minutes a day meditating, either focusing on my breath or focusing on specific things I’m grateful for.

This morning, when the old urge to panic kicked in, I did something different, which I suppose what the last year has been all about. I rubbed oil into my skin from my toes to my neck, then wrapped myself in a robe and sat down. The anxiety beginning to rattle me started to pause, then go away as I sat cross-legged, ridiculous, calm on my floor, taking one breath at time.