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.

gap of dunloe

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.