Surviving a Violent Summer

“The Pitta dosha controls digestion, metabolism, and energy production. The primary function of Pitta is transformation. Those with a predominance of the Pitta principle have a fiery nature that manifests in both body and mind.” The Chopra Center.

“Ahimsa isn’t simply the practice of refraining from violent words or actions, it’s also about abstaining from violent thoughts. Ahimsa is the total and complete absence of violence from one’s mind, body, and spirit. It’s not only about evading harmful deeds, but about lacking the capacity to engage in harmful thoughts whatsoever.” -Gabriella Horowitz, “What Does Ahimsa Really Mean?”

jail photo
Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin

Below are the dominant events that have been in the news (besides the presidential election and its own special horrors) since the beginning of June. I’m probably missing a few things:

June 12: Pulse Club massacre

June 23: Brexit, causing economic unrest in the the UK as well as an increase in hate crimes against minorities and immigrants.

June 28: Istanbul airport attack

July 2: Dhaka Cafe attack in Bangladesh

July 2: Baghdad car bombing

July 5: Alton Sterling shooting

July 6: Philando Castile shooting

July 7: Five Dallas police officers killed during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest

July 14: Bastille Day truck massacre

July 17: Three police officers assassinated in Baton Rouge

The world is two gladiators killing each other for eternity; Facebook, the Roman crowd. Meanwhile the midwestern heat fornicating with the thick humidity rankles up the skin. I am in Indiana in June, July, swiping my screen, pulling weeds, running hot in swampy heat, shouting “you idiot!” at the monitor because I’m voting not-Republican in a red state, in a mostly conservative Christian Republican community. I am the aforementioned Pitta that the Chopra center speaks of. The fire is everywhere at the moment. I’m still waiting on the transformation.

But in its place are a few principles that I’ve found make this steamy, aggravating, even murderous time of year more manageable. I give these with the humility that comes from not following my own suggestions very well, but knowing that when I do, my life is better. If you are lucky enough to not be a ragey person, use these suggestions to whatever extent they help you.

  1. If you like to run, cycle, or in other ways exercise outdoors, get up in the morning before the sun bakes all your irritations up to a steamy boil. Also, give yourself an end time, and try to workout in the shade, or at least in a green space. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate too. Coconut water is a great alternative to sports drinks.
  2. Speaking of green spaces, try to spend a little more time around plants and trees. Work, exercise, or read here around as many green things as possible. Perhaps try to do some actual gardening, whether it is pulling weeds from a flower bed, working in a local garden, or planting a few seeds in a pot on your apartment’s balcony.  Dig your shovel in the earth, turning over the soil, turning up the roots you don’t want. It’s satisfying. It also keeps you off  social media (see Number 5, below). Whatever you do, attempt to do this early in the morning before the sun is baking on your shoulders and your brain cooks in a stew of wrathful juices. garden
  3.  Keep the inside of your living space as cool and uncluttered as possible. This means take regular time to tidy up, and then take a little bit of time to make the inside of your living space soothing. It might mean bringing in cut flowers, keeping a potted plant alive, or investing in an oil diffuser and some essential oils (full disclosure: doTerra might be a cult but I love them), and moisturizing with a cooling oil like coconut oil.
  1. Dive into a pool. Or a lake, or a river, preferably a clean one, and swim laps. Let the water hold you up like a cradle that is always rocking. Rock with it, rhythmic, steady. The pitta and vata doshas benefit from the steady rhythm and breathing of swimming, while Kapha doshas benefit from the movement. All of the doshas can also benefit from being outside; if you are lucky enough to have an outdoor swimming area, you can gain in two ways at once.
  2. Eat to stay cool. Instead of throwing heavy, sugary pasta, brownies, wine, and spicy food on top of an already fiery system, try adding salad, yogurt, cucumbers, mint and cilantro to your meals to cool things down. This might mean paying attention to your body and asking yourself, “what do I need now?”
  3. Shut off the news; close your laptop; ignore the social media updates on your phone; resist posting another meme or a snappy comeback. Put limits on your social media, especially when the news is terrible and the online perspectives worse. You are not cable news. You are a human who has to live in a world with other humans. Try questions instead. Try listening.
  4. Practice siesta. This might seem counterintuitive given the public campaign to get more Westerners moving, but we have to live a life in balance. If you are a person who runs in circles all day (raising guilty hand now) intentionally set aside time in the hottest part of the day to do some seated work. Write, read, type, grade online essays. Whatever it is you need to do, take a break.
  5. But also make time to move. If you are the type of person who is slumped on the couch more often than not, get up. Go for a walk outside. Walking in the morning or evening will be the most calming. If you practice yoga, consider trying Ashtanga, which while vigorous, also brings a steady breathing practice as well as seated postures, or yin yoga, which is a very gentle practice of long, deep stretches. Vinyasa flows are great for purging some of the pent-up angst that Pittas often feel, but be careful that you don’t just stoke the fire more. Take time to cool things down too with seated stretches and gentle inversions.
  6. Breathe deeper.  Nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) cools down the brain and the body as well as clearing the nostrils. Sit in a comfortable position on a chair, a cushion, or on the floor. Close your eyes. Hold your right ring finger over your left nostril, and your right thumb over your right nostril. Close one nostril and inhale through the open nostril. Close both. Open the other nostril and exhale. Close both nostrils. Inhale through the nostril you just used, and continue repeating this process for three to five minutes.
  7. Then, meditate. This is hard when your brain is on fire, which is why doing breathing exercises first can be helpful.  Sit in a quiet place in a comfortable position–usually crossed-legs works best. Set a time for a short amount of time at first–five or ten minutes is plenty. Shut your eyes and try to breathe quietly, and try to stay there for the whole time. This is how meditation starts. Admittedly, when everything is terrible, it’s hard to sit quietly and not think. Guided meditations can definitely help. So can metta meditation or gratitude meditation, largely because they ask us to take the focus away from ourselves and our frustrations and outwards to others and our blessings.

As I write this, I’m afraid to look at the news again today. The world is so self-destructive, as I am too, and I know my tendencies towards extremes, like hours of exercise and housework followed by hours on social media, with no hours left for taking care of my mind and soul. However, becoming more aware of my own tendencies has actually caused me to judge myself less for them. Understanding has led me to more patience with myself, which eventually turns into more patience with others, even on social media. Does world peace really start with ourselves? Can we actually be the change we want to see? Was Hellen Keller right when she said, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it”? I’m tentatively asking myself to believe it.

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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.

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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.

 

The Other M Word

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On Saturday, after a long day of trail running and yard work, I finally collapsed in the easy chair. I was clean for the first time all day and beyond hunger. And I just didn’t get up. You can always be doing something, my mother used to say. Not right now, I replied from the future. While waiting for my husband to come in for dinner, I sat in the easy chair with The Atlantic Monthly. I read book reviews and short articles, forgetting that I had a dish washer or dirty laundry or an outside world chiming in through my phone. The quiet and stillness felt like it had been years coming.

Back in August, I drove up to Columbia City one Thursday morning to take a yoga class and meet with Tiffany, a yoga teacher and Ayurvedic consultant. After the gentle flowing class (which I never would have taught, but completely enjoyed) we sat in the foyer of her studio drinking a home blend of spiced tea. The door was wide open to the breeze blowing through the windchimes and the golden grasses outside. Against this Midwestern Eden, we talked about food, poop, menstruation, sleep, stress, self-massage, and self-care. I was there to learn more about Ayurveda, but also to learn much more about how to live better.

I have attended several workshops with Tiffany during my time as a new yoga teacher.  The last was an adjustment workshop that showed us how to energetically work with our students’s bodies during class. Part of adjustment is being aware of our own energy, or lack thereof. For female teachers, this can be particularly dicey at certain times of the month. According to Ayurveda, menstruation is a very Vata time period–the body is trying to get things out. All the energy leaving the body doesn’t give us much in reserve. “When I’m on my period, I barely get off my mat,” Tiffany told us at the workshop. She referenced the book The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, which portrays the world where women gather in “the red tent” for menses, birth, and illness. “Nowadays,” Tiffany said, “we stick a tampon in and go do a cartwheel.” The implications on our body, she said, are huge.

When we met in August, she was a little more intentional about her advice, probably because she heard me saying I wanted to have more energy, be less stressed out, maybe try the pregnancy thing sometime. She probably noticed, too, how I’m constantly moving. She furrowed her eyebrows at me after asking me about my marathon training schedule, and said, “Take it easy a few days a month. Give yourself the day off during your period. DEFINITELY no running; do gentle restorative yoga. Let someone else handle the cooking and cleaning. Your body needs downtime, so give it what it needs.”

And of all the Ayurvedic advice she gave me that day, this was the one I disagreed with the most. I have run through every period, including the first one, as a way to stay calm and unbitchy. I climbed Half Dome, have gone for long-distance bike rides, attended boot camp workouts, competed in races, and taught inversions while menstruating. I wasn’t about to get Old Testament with my body.  While yoga teachers still debate whether or not women should go upside down during menses, I tend to agree with teachers like Mark Stephens, who believes most of those arguments against women practicing yoga while menstruating and pregnant are based on bad science and male-dominated yoga worlds. On a practical level, it means I follow the advice of teachers like Bryan Kest: if you don’t want to go upside down, don’t. If you do, go for it. Pay attention to your body and make your own decisions.

And then yesterday I accidentally followed Tiffany’s advice. After a brutal fifteen mile run Friday night, and the trail run and yardwork on Saturday, we collapsed on the couch in front of Project Runway. On Sunday morning we rushed to church, then went for our usual post-church Starbucks date. Some days this is nice, but this time, the cafe was overcrowded with churchgoers looking for speciality frappes. The barista accidentally gave my husband caffeine, and with both of us overtired and buzzing,we went Meijer. By the time I walked out I felt like I had noise and nerve pollution. After a dog walk (nice) and manic Sunday cleaning and cooking, I finally sat down at 3:00 to eat. My husband looked up from his phone and asked if I wanted to play board games with friends that evening. I nearly cried.

Instead,  I stayed home on the couch with my forty pre-comp essays. The dogs (mostly) curled up at my feet and I (mostly) focused on grading. In the quiet and the single attention to a task, I felt relief. The well was filling back up.

Jinua Jell-o (or, China for a Pitta)

Before we left for China, I taught the college students going on the trip how to meditate. “This could be a tool to help you with stress,” I told them as they sat cross-legged with long spines, breathing quietly in and out of their noses, focusing on gratitude rather than stress. “Remember, there’s nothing you can’t breathe through.”

The irony was not lost on me when four days later, I stood in the Jinhua Wal-Mart, staring at the lines of people, too overwhelmed to even join my group in line. A seven hour bus ride, heat, humidity, dirty dorm rooms, an hour and a half at the mobile phone shop, and finally now Wal-Mart was too much. Outside the temperature was like warm soup, and raining. Back at the dorm, my roommate and I stress-unpacked and stress-organized our cupboards, then washed the black grime off our feet. I finally sat on my rock hard mattress in the dark and forced myself to breathe in and out of my nose, thinking about anything other than how much I wanted to be somewhere else.

As I’ve written before, my dosha is part pitta, which means heat, humidity, lack of structure, spicy foods, sour foods, caffeine, alcohol, thwarted success, and summer are all irritants. When pittas are in balance, we can be glorious, happy powerhouse humans. Out of balance, we’re total cranks, who start by blaming you for our problems, and end by collapsing in a puddle of angry self-loathing. As the Chopra Center points out, “When Pittas are overstressed, their typical response is ‘What did you do wrong?” And here I was in tropical Jinhua, China, in typhoon sweaty hot season, with a gaggle of American college students and three hundred Chinese middle school students for three weeks.

And China was often an irritating place. Suddenly the classroom and afternoon activity might change. Suddenly a deep muddy ditch and a backhoe gouged the road I walked to class. Daily I’d have to cover my shoulders while men could their shirts up over their bellies (the bigger the better) in a look one of my friends dubbed the “Beijing Bikini.” Crowds pushed, everywhere. On “fun days,” I’d spend twelve hours getting on and off a tour buses, taking group photos, feeling privileged and miserable.

And yet I loved China, because it was such a convenient place to try Ayurvedic health principles. Because of the hard beds and early sunlight, getting up at 5:30 was easier than sleeping in. I drank hot or lukewarm water around the clock and walked at least four or five miles a day, much of which included the seven flights of stairs to my room. I couldn’t keep my eyes open past 11:00, and while my bed was uncomfortable, my back never hurt.

The pitta balancing techniques I’d read of became essential. Exercise every morning (a moderately paced run) and every evening (yoga) kept the pitta fires in check. Because I was always sweaty from running, walking, or yoga, I was also taking cold showers twice a day. Finding my way into meditation and deep breathing became each night’s necessity.

On my last day of teaching in China, I realized how much food could help too. The lunch meeting was another scheduled surprise, which by now I only shrugged at. Inside the small dining room, an air conditioning unit hummed and beads of perspiration collected on our bottles of water and the backs of our necks. The waiter brought out plates of sliced cucumber and bowls of brown liquid and brown gelatinous chunks. It tasted like Jell-O made from sugar-free Dr. Pepper. “This is a local dish made of herbs,” said our host, pointing to the bowls. “It is a Jinhua specialty. We believe eating it in the summer is good for our health.” I sipped the cold sweetish liquid between bites of the gelatin and noticed too the plates of seafood, the bowls of cucumber salad, the plates of watermelon—“the fortune cookie of China,” according to our hosts—the many dishes designed to bring our core temperature down. For two weeks I’d eaten many naturally sweet, cooling, light foods. I ate hardly any dairy, raw vegetables, or refined sugars—all difficult foods to digest. Because I was trying to be an adventurous vegetarian, I was trying all the tofu and cooked vegetable dishes, the cucumber juice, chilled milk tea, lychees and dragon fruit. I even tried the fermented cold rice soup Sunny, my co-teacher, recommended as good for my health, and the brown Jell-O—twice. Because I was eating new foods with chopsticks, I went from inhaling my food to eating slowly, paying attention—a technique both Ayurvedic doctors and French women recommend for weight loss. Alcohol (a pitta irritant) was forbidden to our team for religious reasons, and my caffeine intake was limited to maybe a cup of coffee per day and some tea. My body felt healthy and my mind always felt clear

During my first pancake breakfast home in America, I discovered the antibiotic I took in China had wrecked the good bacteria in my stomach along with the bad, so I spent the first few days home cautiously eating vegetables and missing greens and rice. In the weeks following, I’d wake up at 8:00 or 9:30 instead of 5:30, and miss the early dawn. In the schedule-less days of the end of summer, I missed the rhythm of waking, working out, teaching, eating, teaching, and trying to not get hit by a scooter. In the comfortable sameness of Indiana, I missed the invigoration that comes in trying to order a coffee when all you have is a picture and your hands, or teaching Chinese students the concept of baseball and Easter. I sat in my comfortable American house, at a desk with a 70-degree breeze blowing into the house, and missed even the tropical heat with its curative purge.

Sometimes when we advise study abroad students, we ask them to consider their coping mechanisms—the gym, video games, homework—and ask what they’ll do when all of those are gone. We don’t ask them the reverse, and I believe now we should. Back in America, and frustrated with my days listing like a half shipwrecked boat, I found myself unable to walk everywhere and eat greens for every meal. What I could do is find my way into my dark bedroom at night and sit on the hard floor, shut my eyes, and tell myself to breathe slowly and deeply in and out of my nose.

How to Summer (at the End of Summer)

Child’s pose. Down dog. Three to five sun salutations. A long uncomfortable hold in dolphin plank and I still haven’t quit picking lint off my mat or stress-checking the clock.

Summer is hard for me. I work eighty hour weeks from September to May and then suddenly I have almost no schedule, but lots of projects, for four months. I should be able to do everything. This summer, everything included planning a wedding in two weeks, getting married, moving from two households to one, cleaning out one of those houses, mowing lawns, pulling weeds, planting flowers and vegetables, researching, writing handbooks, working on a book, doing layout for a magazine, writing syllabi, thinking about reading, thinking about taking up piano again, teaching yoga, training for a marathon, making food from the randomness of the CSA, taking students to China, and collapsing sunburned in my bed at night and sleeping until mid-morning. Some of those things have been accomplished. Many of the ones I care about have not. Now at almost the end of August, I feel like I’ve done nothing. 

Because every summer, I struggle to get out of bed early even though running mileage and pulling weeds would be more enjoyable if I did. Every summer, I get to September and feel the urge to scream at myself when I feel like the summer evaporated while I clicked a few links on Facebook and made a blueberry pie. This summer, in the year of my Ayurvedic adventures, I’ve been trying to learn how to live with my pitta self, the self that tackles a long run or a patch of weeds—and the self that weeps and screams when she can’t master all things in a day.

I’ve been trying for the past week to write a blog about how I learned the art of being a pitta in the summer. It hasn’t felt right, which is probably because I haven’t really learned it yet. The summer closes and work emails trickle into my inbox. Earlier this week one of those emails put me into an angry anxiety attack even though the issue was a small, stupid one. I stomped off for a late night dog walk and afterwards sat in meditation for an extra five minutes, trying to remind myself of all the reasons I have for compassion and gratitude, and not all the reasons I wanted to punch someone’s face.

Sometimes though, I make good decisions. Exercise is one of the more important ones. I feel the worst any day of the year–anxious, foggy, unfocused, irritable–when I don’t exercise at all.  But too much of a good thing isn’t a good thing either. I only had to go for one long run at midmorning this summer and feel the heat on my head turn into irritation and exhaustion and cranky thoughts towards EVERYONE  to know that I need a plan for staying cool. I can endure heat, but the misery isn’t quite worth it.  Because I’m training for a marathon, I can’t always avoid heat, but when I can, I’m trying (trying!) to avoid running late in the morning because too much sun irritates what’s already hot and irritable inside.

Swimming is almost always a good choice for cooling my pitta dosha. It’s a strong workout, but low-impact and I don’t overheat. And no matter what exercise I do, adding a yoga session makes everything better, as I learned over and over again this week when I chose (or didn’t) to flop down on my yoga mat and let the online instructor on Poweryoga.com guide me towards a different place. Yoga is medicine, the instructor in the online video said as he put us in pigeon pose. For those of you who are really competitive, he said, this pigeon pose is your medicine, and we’re going to stay in it a little longer.

By then, after forty minutes of simple, repetitive, sweat-inducing postures, I’d stopped picking the lint off my mat. I’d stopped checking my phone (mostly) and I’d stopped pulling my shoulders towards my ears. My brain melted into my hands and mat and the sweat dripped off my hair and I didn’t want to punch anyone anymore, not even myself. There was no such thing as email or August or syllabus. There was just my body, my imperfect amazing body with its even more imperfect and amazing mind, letting the mat, the sweat, the yoga do its work.