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

Ashes to Ashes

I am a reluctant woman of rituals. In the morning I run. Afterwards, I squeeze a lemon into a cup of hot water. In the evening, I spread out my yoga mat. After savasana and dinner, I pour two drops of essential oil into my tap water. And in the snowy, damp space of February and March, I give up sugar for Lent.

I was twenty three, in graduate school at St Andrews, Scotland, when I decided to observe Lent for the first time. Maybe it was because I was attending a Catholic church on Sunday evenings with my Catholic classmate Shawn, or maybe because I  was surrounded by reminders that even in the secular community of St Andrews, ancient church rituals rarified the air. They were as old as the stone castle and cathedral ruins, the waves lapping at the beach, the wind shaping West Sands and the golf courses beyond. The boundaries had been set and the air moving through them told us to repent.

I decided to give up two things: sugary lattes, and music purchases. This was mostly connected to my bank account but also the knowledge that I had enough. My new drink became an Americano with milk and honey, then eventually just milk. I sometimes wondered why I made this decision to forego new albums and mochas when I hadn’t been raised on Lent, or on a theology of giving up daily privileges. If something wasn’t a sin, it was fair game. My family never talked about our indulgences, because we worked too hard, us farming people, to deprive ourselves of anything we had time for.

Three years later, when the daffodils and tulips were sprouting in lawns and grocery stores in Northern England, I returned to Lent, this time deciding to give up all sugar and most wheat and bread. My roommate from Oxford, Sarai, had told me once that giving up gluten was like being on crack, but in reverse. You feel amazing while you’re off it and you feel terrible when you go back on. I remembered this when I ran my fastest half marathon during my Lenten half marathon season, then threw up sugar, bruschetta and strawberry daiquiris the day after Easter.

For some reason that cycle of purging continues every spring, usually with less vomit and more Easter restraint. I wake on Ash Wednesday, push the cookie butter and Andes mints to the back of the cupboard, and kneel in front of a priest who marks me with ashes, saved. I come home and avoid stopping in front of the cupboard, or the freezer. I feel the absence in my tired heart and I hate it. And the next day I feel the absence, and still hate it, but feel something hovering in that space I used to fill with cookies and wine. Perhaps the Holy Spirit flutters when we aren’t covering her in sugar.

On Sundays, Lenten fasting doesn’t count though. It is a feast day, and this first feast days was also Valentine’s Day. My husband and I drove to Indy, eating chocolate chip cookies and almond croissants, sharing a package of Valentine’s M&M’s, then retiring to Bucca di Beppo for a feast. Over giant bowls of salad and pasta, I told him about traveling to Austria and Bulgaria. He told me about the marble floors in his first grad school apartment. Over Italian Cream Cake we toasted our goals for the year.

On Monday I scraped the ama of the feast off my tongue, slogged through my Insanity workout, slunk in my desk after class. Sugar, like alcohol, and most other vices, is no gentle mistress. She gives, and takes, everything. I am taking myself away for another week, so I go back to my rituals. I run in the morning and drink my lemon water. In the evening, when the emptiness groans at me, I spread out my yoga mat, drink tea, and pour another drop of oil in my water glass, because I have enough. I sit down, and in the space where the Holy Ghost flutters her wings, I wait for something to stir.

 

 

 

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.

 

The Yoga Room

A month ago, I woke up at 1:00 a.m one Tuesday morning so I could run a few miles on my dark street.  A full moon hung in the west, and firelies lit up the dark edge of my street. Bullfrogs sang a baritone jazz hymn. This part of being awake was not so bad.

But then I got on a small bus with nineteen other people headed to Chicago O’Hare. We were flying  to China, and to ensure Chicago traffic and any unknowns wouldn’t slow us down, we were leaving at 3:00 a.m.  I had grumbled about this part.  I hate to waste time sitting. While it’s true that sitting at a gate for hours is more relaxing than running to it, my personal travel plans often default on the side of at least a brisk walk to the gate, especially when I could be sleeping an extra hour at home. But this wasn’t my trip to plan. I was going as a chaperone, not as a leader. The Pitta part of Katie who likes being the master of her own ship struggled (the Vata part of Katie, who despises planning schedules and budgets, was pretty grateful to not be in charge though).

Part of my change in thinking about this four hour layover came through Chicago O’Hare’s dedicated yoga room in Terminal Three.

yoga room inside

This room is nothing short of a gift of the travel gods.  Several airports, including San Francisco, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Burlington, VT, have yoga rooms as well.  The Chicago yoga room is in the rotunda in heavy, concrete Terminal Three, on the mezzanine level. Frosted glass lets light in but allows privacy from the kids sprinting around the rotunda. The hefty door knob will disturb anyone in savasana, but does keep out the merely curious (as does the “For Yoga Only” sign on the door). Along one wall is a mirror, on another, a television shows scenic vistas of American cities and muscled men doing inversions on wooden blocks. Blue loaner mats sit in baskets on the floor, and while the mat wipe container was empty when I visited, this appeared to be a temporary omission.

From the first down dog my hamstrings rejoiced. Because I’d tried to maximize marathon training the week before I headed to the unknown running environment of China, my legs ached. My spine was tight, my shoulders compacted from bus slumber and a heavy backpack. In every pose I reintroduced myself to my body the friend, not my body the beat-up transportation device. I could even forgive my midsection pudge–a particular injustice when training for a marathon.

But I wasn’t sure the four other yogis practicing near me would feel the same. I startled a woman out of savasana when I walked in. I dripped sweat, landed in awkward jump-throughs, and cracked my joints while two middle-aged women practiced gentle postures. My headstand lurched while a younger, thinner woman began sun salutations. I kept waiting for one of these yogis to tell me my alignment was off in Warrior Two, or that this particular yoga room was no place for my rowdy, sweaty ashtanga. I realized halfway through the Primary Series that I was expecting to re-experience my college weight room days, where a bro in a tank top was going to be telling me what was wrong with my dead lift or in this case, down dog.

One of the first commandments of yoga is to keep your eyes on your own mat. I am slowly learning to follow this advice (which I give every time I teach), because otherwise I’ll critique too much  to enjoy my own practice. But despite fixing my eyes on my sweaty mat and not on the woman nearby, I expected her judgment anyway. I expect it out of everyone. My ex-husband and I volleyed criticism and defense at each other our whole marriage, and long before we met we learned the pattern  from our families. Every year I wait for horrific evaluations from colleagues and students. Even after  years of therapy and meds, lots of yoga, and a healthy relationship, my judgmental streak still assumes faults in others while waiting for them to point it out in me.

But my fellow travelers never said a word, not even when I landed hard on the hollow spot in the floor. Perhaps they were frequent fliers who knew how to turn the creaky door knob gently, the best spots to line up the borrowed mats, how long they could practice before rolling their carryons to their gate. Perhaps they knew what yoga room annoyances to expect and ignore. Perhaps they knew how wonderful they would feel on their flights if they tuned out the person next to them long enough to practice.

After my practice, I sat in gratitude meditation, silently naming each thing I was grateful for, such as my husband. My dogs, who never judge me. My yoga mat. The ten dollars in my pocket that would be going towards breakfast. The chance to go to China for free. Gratitude works best when criticism doesn’t, because reminders of the 1:00 a.m. alarm and the bus ride never interrupted my meditation.

When I opened my eyes, the thin girl in yoga shorts and a sports bra was moving through Sun Salutation B. I rolled up my mat; my spine felt three inches longer, my whole body like a promise granted. Even when I pulled my backpack onto my shoulders. Even when I walked out of the room, towards a fourteen hour flight and twenty-one days of unknowing. When I passed the girl, she was paused in her own beautiful, spine-lengthening upward dog. Once upon a time, I’d have hated such a perfect person. That morning, my thoughts were something closer to blessing.