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I had a lot to smile about yesterday–a fresh pumpkin raisin muffin from the farmers market, getting to pet a black pug, and a long mid-afternoon walk through town with Bryan–but the thing that got me smiling the most was an hour of Laughter Yoga!

Laughing with Buddha (Lhasa, Tibet)

A local yoga studio offered the hour-long class, led by Bob Pileggi. I was interested in the class because it seemed to be more about the physiological/psychological aspects of laughter and smiling, not about telling funny jokes or being silly for the sake of being silly. And just having written about the importance of breathing and opening up the lungs, I thought this would be a great way to experiment more with just that. Another reason I went was to figure out how to lighten up a bit. A lot of times when I’m doing the 5Rhythms, I feel like everything but my face dances, that there is so much emotion in my hands, my fingers, my torso…everything but my face. Even when I feel joy inside, my jaw clenches. It takes a lot of build-up for me to break out into a genuine smile or to laugh when I dance. I hoped that Laughter Yoga would teach me how to be more comfortable turning up those two corners of my lips. 🙂

I was a bit anxious when only three other students showed up for the class; would it be possible to bust a gut laughing with such a small group? (Answer: YES!) Bob instructed us to commit ourselves 100% to the exercises, like little children playing princesses or pirates. Immerse ourselves completely, don’t hold back. I vowed to do just that; I mean, I had paid for the class so I might as well dive right in.

We started standing with some simple warm-up exercises to loosen the spine and hips, then moved on to conscious breathing, very much like dirgha pranayama in yoga, raising the arms during inhale, lowering the arms during exhale. We picked up the pace by breathing as though we were blowing out a candle on a birthday cake, very sharp exhales, a bit like kapalabhati breath. Already, I could feel my lungs opening up, my cells dancing with oxygen.

Then came the vocalizations, which we used for much of the class: Ho, ho, ha-ha-ha, done while clapping to the rhythm. We did this standing in a circle, exchanging eye contact with others. This continued for a while, getting louder, softer, faster, slower. Bob encouraged us to change the pitch of our voices, the direction of our clapping. Soon, this exercise continued with us walking around the studio instead of standing in place, still making eye contact with those we passed. Things lightened up at this point, and we shifted in and out of different “characters,” maybe ha-ha-ha’ing haughtily like a snobby debutante or ha-ha-ha’ing demonically like a monster. Before we knew it, unconscious giggles slowly began to escape our lips.

Once the beginnings of true laughter began to appear, we got back in our circle and…laughed. It felt a bit forced at first, just a tad uneasy. But the longer we continued, the more real it became. Each person’s laughter took on a different tone; one woman had a cute giggly sound to hers, another had a spirited ebullience to hers. Hearing all the different kinds of laughter was, well, kind of funny and contagious, and eventually I felt the shift from “I’m doing this because the instructor said so” to “I’m doing this because it’s coming naturally to my body!” It was a bit like babies crying–when one starts, they all start.

Next, we connected laughter to emotions. Standing in the circle, we took turns shouting out things that brought joy to our lives. After each person made their exclamation, we all laughed. It went a bit like this: “My baby nephew falling asleep on my chest.” (::laughter::) “Walking down Main Street, USA in Disney World!” (::laughter::) “Little curly puppy dogs!” (::laughter::) Then came the trickier part: doing the same thing, but shouting out things that caused us stress: “Sitting in traffic!” (::laughter::) “Sallie Mae loans!” (::laughter::) “Getting into a fight with your boyfriend!” (::laughter::) As Bob explained, if something stressful has happened and there’s nothing you can do about it, why cause yourself more stress by stewing and steaming? By choosing to laugh at something, you’re guiding your body into a more optimistic response and not harming your health in the process.

One of my favorite exercises was the three-part’er: (a) Cover your mouth and give a small, polite, demure little giggle; (b) Relax and give a medium-sized chuckle; and (c) Let loose and give a full belly laugh. I found this to be a bit like 5Rhythms–a little wave of laughing–from flowing to staccato to chaos. By the time we got to chaos (full belly laugh), we were ready to erupt. For a while, it sounded like the five of us were old college chums meeting up for the first time in years, cracking up about the good ol’ days. The funny thing is that I only knew one person in the class.

Before a final savasana, we lay on our mats and went through a final breathing-to-laughter exercise. Maybe it was because we were all spread out across the room and couldn’t see each other, but I found my most authentic laughter during this part. I heard one woman’s delightful giggle and just lost it, the full back-arching, throaty laughter you get when someone tickles you mercilessly. It eventually winded down naturally, and soon I was sinking into my yoga mat for a very peaceful savasana.

Sure, the class felt a bit silly at times, but just an hour of ho, ho, ha-ha-ha’ing and laughing without reason opened me up from my core to my head. That area of my body that always feels so neglected during 5Rhythms had a chance to dance, and I felt all kinds of wonderful pops and cracks throughout my spine and neck as the muscles around them relaxed and warmed up. For someone so intrigued by pranayama practice, I was thrilled to work with the breath in such a unique way–standing and moving and laughing–not necessarily sitting in lotus pose and doing ujayii breath for 20 minutes straight.

Also, on a more biopsychosocial-spiritual level, the actions of laughing and vocalizing are centered around the chest (anahata chakra) and throat (vishuddha chakra). Since finding out I have hypothyroidism, I am especially interested in the vishuddha chakra, and that maybe perhaps I don’t give it enough attention. Maybe introducing more laughter and throat-opening exercises will help my thyroid?

Playground version of simhasana (Lion's pose)

What did you laugh about this weekend?

OK, so it’s become evident that my morning routine is a bit extensive. As my husband noted the other night as I set my alarm clock:

Me: I’m sleeping in tomorrow!

Bryan: So, you’re getting up at what, 5:45?

Me: 6!

Bryan: Well, I guess you won’t be able to do all 17 of your morning exercises then.

And I didn’t. That morning, I had time for one set of the 6 movements of the spine, a downdog or two, and finally–pranayama.

Pranayama is the practice of breathwork. It’s breathing but with control, focus, and mindfulness. Yes, we breathe involuntarily all day, but when you take a few moments to do nothing but concentrate on your inhalations and exhalations, the benefits can be felt almost immediately. A greater sense of calm. More energy. Vitality. Like you’re really alive, that you are not numb to the world around you. You feel. After all, inhalations increase sensation.

During my yoga teacher training at Kripalu, we did A LOT of pranayama. It was one of foundations of the style and was incorporated into every class. I think I breathed more during that month than I did the 26 years of my life leading up to the program. The results were intense, especially after one session where we did nothing but different styles of pranayama for an hour and a half. I’m 99% sure I floated out of the classroom that day. I left Kripalu with a new appreciation for the practice and a fondness for oxygen.

One of my favorite pranayama techniques is nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing (also called “anulom vilom” at Kripalu). I try to do it every morning, because it focuses my mind and helps clear both nasal passages.

Most people sit cross-legged; I sit in hero with a blanket between my butt and feet.

The right hand (active hand) goes into Vishnu mudra: index and middle fingers tucked into palm; thumb will close off right nostril; ring finger and pinky, acting as a unit, will close off the left nostril. The left hand (resting hand) can rest gently on your knee or lap.

1. Gently press right nostril shut with thumb. Inhale slowly through left nostril.

2. Close off left nostril with ring/pinky fingers and exhale slowly through right nostril.

3. Keep right nostril open, inhaling slowly.

4. Shut off right nostril and exhale through left.

5. Keep left nostril open, inhaling.

6. Close off left nostril and exhale through right.

So on and so forth. There are several variations of this technique, including adjusting the ratio of inhalation/exhalation counts, retaining your breath at the top of every inhale and bottom of every exhale for a few moments, breathing only through one nostril, so on and so forth. I usually stick to the basics for about 5 minutes. One thing I’ve heard in kundalini classes is that finishing your last exhalation through the left nostril (lunar side) will promote peace and calmness, whereas ending with an exhale through the right nostril (solar side) will promote increased energy; hence, the side I finish on in the mornings!

Another note: You don’t need to be sitting peacefully on a yoga mat or blanket to reap the benefits of nadi shodhana. Sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic is a great time and place to do this, and you may arrive at your destination with blood pressure that’s not off the charts!

My final pranayama of the morning is kapalabhati breath. This is very intense, rapid breathing that involves a quick, involuntary inhalation through the nose followed by a sharp exhalation through the nose while simultaneously contracting the belly. It’s also called “Breath of Fire,” and rightfully so. It will warm you up in seconds! It’s a bit tricky to teach through words and it usually takes people a few tries to get it right. When executed properly, you won’t even be aware of your inhalations, and during your exhalations, your belly will look like it’s being punched by an invisible hand.

Here’s one of my favorite add-ons to kapalabhati, which I learned at Kripalu. It makes a juicer practice even juicier!

After your final exhalation, continue drawing out the exhale as you bend your upper half over your legs. Open your mouth and expel as much air as possible, like you’re vomiting oxygen/carbon dioxide.

Keeping the body empty of air, roll up through the spine and retain the exhale while sitting peacefully. When done correctly (and it takes a few tries), you’ll feel a “vacuum” effect from the belly up through the throat. Keep your pelvic floor engaged and lifted, the belly pulled in, and a slight lock in the throat (this throat lock is called jalandhara bandha).

Stay in this exhalation retention for as long as you can, concentrating on the belly as your mental focal point. Learn how to respond, not react to the desire to inhale. Panic mode will set in quickly, but the lesson is to work beyond the initial “OMG I’m gonna diiiie!” reaction. You will not die, and you may even find that moving beyond that initial fear will feel quite empowering and peaceful.

When the time is right, take a deep inhale through the nose…but only inhale to 2/3 of your capacity, so you’re not stuffed to the brim with air. At this time, shift your focus to the third eye (the space between your eyes, but just a hair higher) and retain the partial inhalation, allowing the oxygen to swirl throughout your body, feeling it dance from your head to your toes. I always feel a gentle, warm “hum” in my head at this point and a faint golden glowing sensation between my eyes, like all the rest of the world has shut off and I am just here. I tend to hold my hands out, palms up during this part, because I feel open to receiving energy.

Again, hold this inhalation until it’s absolutely necessary to finish the other 1/3 and then exhale into normal breathing. I do this sequence about three times and then finally–FINALLY!–end my 47538923893-step morning routine with a big, fat Om!

This past year I’ve really struggled with establishing a solid morning routine. Between waking up and leaving the house for work–with a shower/hair/makeup routine somewhere in the middle–I’ve experimented with doing hip-strengthening PT exercises, practicing therapeutic yoga DVDs, sitting in meditation for at least 10 minutes, committing to 10 sun salutations (5 A, 5 B), reading books while walking around the park, meditating with alternating mudras, and dancing around the living room in my pajamas.

Regardless of which activity I choose, the key is that I warm up as soon as I wake up. Even on my wedding day more than 7 years ago, I woke up at 6 a.m. and, before I headed off to the hairdresser, rolled around in my underwear, stretching and loosening up my limbs. I don’t consider myself “creaky” yet, but as I move into my 30s I am more aware of that car-in-the-winter feel that sets in overnight. Starting a day without stretching is like heading off to work without brushing my teeth–terribly icky and not recommended.

After doing the Kripalu yoga video the other day and being reacquainted with pratapana (Kripalu’s version of “warming up”), I was also reminded about the importance of going through the 6 movements of the spine before engaging in any other movement. The spine is that what holds us all together, and giving it the proper warm up will enable all other limbs to kick in gear.

The great thing about these movements is that they can be adapted for people comfortable being on the floor, those who wish to stay seated, and for others who prefer standing. Whatever variation I choose, I do about 5 to 10 of each movement.

Seated variation (can be done in easy/hero pose or in a sturdy chair)

Part A. Extension/flexion

Spinal extension

Spinal flexion

 Part B. Lateral (side-to-side) movement

A beautiful C to one side...

...and on the other.

Part C. Twists

Wring it out, like a wet sponge!

Other side, different angle (from which you can see the severity of my hypermobile elbow joints).

Floor variation (for those comfortable on hands and knees)

Part A. Extension/flexion

The well-known "cat" pose

...followed by dog/cow pose.

Part B. Lateral movement

Keeping the spine in one plane, curve head, shoulders, spine, and hips into a "C" on one side

...and then the other. Try not to raise the head to look back at hips.

Part C. Twists

Slide arm under chest while turning head in that direction. No need to settle in this warm-up; I just let my head tap the floor and draw up to move to other side.

Be sure to keep hips over knees!

Standing variation (great for adding hara breaths)

Part A. Extension/flexion

Extend up to sky, slight backbend, chest lifted. (inhale)

Drop down, swinging arms behind hips. Give a big sigh on the descent! (exhale-HA!)

Part B. Lateral movement

Bend to one side, letting that arms slide down leg. Draw other arm up to armpit, like a monkey. Hara breath can be done during the drop; inhale while drawing back up to center.

Increase the speed/breath to create more heat.

Part C. Twists

Imagine your arms are empty coatsleeves. Gently swing them back and forth as you twist side to side, one wrapping in front of body, the other behind. Exhale HA! at final point of twist; inhale while swinging back through center.

I always picture myself as a washing machine agitator during this movement.

Since last week, I’ve been mindful of starting each morning with those 6 movements, and the end results feel pretty darn good. Most mornings I do all three sets, starting with the floor exercises and working my way up to standing. Incorporating the deep hara breaths really gets things warmed up and opens up my chest, throat, nose, and mouth, clearing the path for the pranayama practice that follows. The spinal movements open up the space between each vertabra, thus opening the pathways for greater energy/prana flow.

I’ll show you the remainder of my morning routine in a future post. Until then, remember to brush your teeth, wash your face, and move your spine!

Back in June, as I entered the yoga studio in which my monthly 5Rhythms classes take place, the studio owner–also a yoga teacher–asked how I was doing.

“Well, to tell you the truth,” I said, “I feel uncharacteristically impatient. A bit on edge. Like I have all this unchecked rage bubbling inside of me.” I went on to explain that little things were easily irritating me, from traffic to aisle-blocking supermarket patrons to emo Facebook status updates. By nature these are all annoying things, but the problem was that they stayed with me, and I couldn’t brush them off. I could feel my heart beat faster, my chest tighten, my jaw clench any time I was faced with an obstacle.

The following is a loose transcript of the dialogue that followed:

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I do all the things you’re supposed to do to prevent these kind of feelings. I do yoga. I do 5Rhythms. I start my day with meditation and pranayama.”

“What kind of pranayama?”

“Nadi shodhana.”

“Hmm. What about ujayii?”

“No, never ujayii.”

“I think you should try ujayii to start your day. It’s a good, deep cleansing breath. Try some supported savasana, too.”

“Really, in the morning? And how can savasana be supported?”

“Oh, yes. Prop your legs up on a chair so your shins are parallel to the floor. Supported savasana is incredibly relaxing. Also–may I ask–do you have compassion for yourself?”

“Um, yes. I think?”

“Perhaps you should try some metta meditation in the morning. Especially if you’re feeling angry toward others. Perhaps extending compassion toward others through metta will help.”

Although I haven’t gotten around to trying all of the teacher’s suggestions, I found the conversation utterly fascinating. Here we were, two women: me, describing my symptoms; her, offering guidance in the form of breathing, meditation, and yoga. What makes this even more interesting is the fact that this yoga teacher is also an RN; she could have easily offered more “medical” suggestions: therapy, pills, a psychiatric evaluation. But instead of tossing around words like “Valium” and “Cymbalta,” we discussed ujayii, savasana, and metta.

I am a firm believer in integrative medicine (using conventional treatments when warranted but integrating alternative therapies when appropriate). I am not opposed to taking 200 mg of ibuprofen when my hip acts up or when I have a pounding headache. However, the conversation reminded me about all the ways yoga and its individual components (asana, meditation, pranayama, compassion) can help with day-to-day ailments and complaints. For example:

When I am bloated…

…I do intestine-wringing twists like ardha matsyendrasana/supta matsyendrasana, or the classic “wind-relieving” pose, pavanamuktasana.

When I need some “regularity” in the morning…

…I do bhunaman vajrasana, the abdominal massage I learned during my YTT at Kripalu, after several classmates complained of “blockages” from too many beans and fiber-filled dinners. (Have a toilet on standby!) 🙂

When I’ve been on my feet all day…

…I prop my legs against the wall for a few minutes of viparita karani, to get the blood from my legs flowing back into my core.

When I feel my energy waning…

…I power up for a few rounds of kapalabhati pranayama.

When I feel like I need a boost of clarity or to clear a mental block…

…I rise into headstand or handstand and spend a few minutes directing my energies toward my brain.

The above are all very specific asanas/pranayamas for specific symptoms, and I think by now it’s common knowledge that a regular yoga practice in general can lower blood pressure, improve posture and balance, and calm the nervous system, to name a few whole-body benefits.

What pose/breathing practice/meditation do you do for your everyday ailments? I’m still trying to find one that eases my PMS of doom–other than an all-day savasana!

One of the things a consistent yoga practice has helped me with is understanding the difference between responding to versus reacting to a struggle, especially on the physical level. How far I’ve come from those first months of yoga, when I’d approach Natarajasana with my brow furrowed, teeth grinding, and muscles tensed. And heaven forbid I fall out of the pose, when I’d curse under my breath, roll my eyes at myself, and immediately jolt right back into the pose without taking a moment to compose myself, regroup, and take a breath.

Balancing poses are no less easier today than they were 8 years ago, but the manner in which I approach them now certainly gives them a sense of effortlessness. I keep my face soft, my eyes focused but not burning an angry hole through the wall in front of me. I am mindful of every movement that goes into getting into the pose, aware of my foot planted into the ground, the leg muscles wrapping around the bone, the breath that carries me from rootedness to flying. I feel my wobbles before I tumble, so when I fall out of the pose, I do it with an air of grace, as though it’s all part of some yoga choreography. There is no cursing, self-berating. I inhale, exhale, and start the pose from the beginning.

This isn’t to say that I’m not struggling or being challenged. Just because I’m not gnashing my teeth doesn’t mean I’m not battling with a physical or mental conflict. I have simply chosen to respond with mindfulness and self-compassion rather than react with groans or frustrated, heavy sighs. (It’s also one of the reasons why Loud Yoga Guy grates my nerves so much.)

However, this response to struggle did not seem to be appreciated during a recent yoga class with a substitute teacher. Thirty minutes into the class, with the studio temperature just decimals away from three digits and several rounds of sweaty sun salutations under our belt, the teacher wondered aloud why the class wasn’t making any noise. “I’m worried—it’s too quiet in here,” she said. “Is the class not challenging enough? Do I have to make it harder?” She gave a snarky grin and made us squat into another Uttkatasana. As a joking kind of response, several people in the class groaned loudly as if to say “We get it! We’re feeling the burn!”

Why does it have to be that way? Why did the teacher need us to cry uncle for her class to feel validated? We were all bending low in our Warriors, keeping our arms tight to our sides during Chaturanga. We weren’t checking ourselves out in the mirror or letting our elbows droop in Warrior II. We were just focused yogis, ujayiing our way through the class…like you’re supposed to (well, except if your name is Loud Yoga Guy).

And believe me, my brain was crying uncle throughout most of the class. She was leading us through a wickedly intense standing series (the following postures were completed all on one leg before repeating the entire combination on the other leg): Warrior II > Reverse Warrior > Extended Side Angle > Triangle > Revolved Triangle > Half Moon > Revolved Half Moon > Standing Head-to-Knee prep > Shiva Twist > Tree > Eagle > Dancer >  Warrior III. This is a challenging series for anyone, even without hip issues. I found the combination a bit ridiculous; I mean, by Standing Posture #8 the leg has pretty much gone numb and anything from there on is going to be compromised, lack form, and get plain sloppy.

I had to stop several times and shake out my leg so my hip didn’t lock up, even though the instructor kept reminding us not to drop the lifted leg, and if we had to rest to do so in any form of one-legged pose. Well, I broke the “rules” over and over again and stood in Tadasana to regroup. The Old Me, guilt-ridden about not executing a perfect yoga sequence, would have apologized after class: “Oh, I’m soooo sorry I couldn’t stay standing on one leg for all 13 poses (!!!). I have this hip thing, and I tried, honestly, but I’m just so sorry!”

I didn’t apologize this time, though, not because I was being smug or selfish, but because I had nothing to apologize for. I gave the class my all, breathing through the hard spots, and listening to my body when it was telling me that it needed a little break. I didn’t flippantly cross my arms over my chest and roll my eyes when pose #10 approached; I stood calmly in Tadasana, eyes closed, and re-centered.

I’m not sure if that’s what the teacher wanted; maybe she was hoping for more curses under my breath or a frustrated stomp of the foot on my yoga mat. But in yoga, when the going gets tough, sometimes the best way to move two steps forward is to first take one (mindful) step back.

Ever since having to give up running last year, I’ve turned to swimming as my main workout. My gym has an indoor, heated, salt-water pool with 25-yard lanes, and there I do my laps. In the year and a half I’ve been swimming, I have definitely progressed. I don’t fatigue as easily, my lap times have improved, and I feel more “in the flow” when I move, rather than just chopping furiously through the water.

I see my husband and friends competing in all these 5Ks and races and stuff and have been bummed that there’s nothing like that for swimming. (Typical triathlon relays don’t count, because swimming in the open water is nothing–NOTHING–like doing solo laps in heated, aquamarine pool.) So when I saw an advertisement for a duathlon (swimming and running) (a) with a relay option and (b) that took place in a pool, I felt like I couldn’t turn it down. My husband Bryan agreed to be my running teammate, but then once it came time to send in the entry form, I got cold feet and let it sit for a while. I don’t consider myself a competitive swimmer! I may swim faster than the 50-year-old man in the lane next to me, but then along comes a 17-year-old girl from her high school’s swim team, and she butterflies my ass out of the water. I swim because it’s a good workout. Because it doesn’t bother my hip. Because on 90 degree days it just feels darn good to leave the hot car and jump into the cool water.

Finally, I talked myself back into doing the event, mostly because I didn’t want to be a hypocrite for whining about there not being any pool-related competitions, and then when the opportunity arises, for me to turn it down. Also, Bryan sent in the check and kind of bypassed me in the process. 🙂

After a week of above-average temperatures extending into the 90s, Saturday, duathlon day, started out a chilly 56 degrees with only a high of 79 predicted. I reached into the back of my dresser to pull out the sweatpants and hoodie I thought I had tucked away for good until at least September. Even though the swim event was taking place in a pool, the pool was outside. Outside, unheated, and chlorinated.

This picture pretty much sums up my feelings about how things went:

That’s me, after my 500 meters, panting like a dog, dubious that I had really only swam 10 complete laps and not the 25 like it had felt, and way disappointed at my time. In my practice runs at the gym, I clocked in between 7:12 and 7:38 for 10 laps; however, the lengths between the two pools are not exactly equal. My time for this 500m was 11:02.

It started off the moment I jumped in the water–it was COLD. Not Atlantic Ocean cold, but much colder than what I was used to. I instantly felt my chest tighten, and I bobbed up and down trying to warm up. Once I started swimming, I felt OK for the first half of my first lap…and then I looked to see how close I was to the wall, and there was a lot more space to go. My body was so used to hitting the wall after so many strokes, and in this bizarro pool everything was just a tad longer. The gap in between where my mind said “wall” and where the actual wall was felt like miles, and with that thought my brain went into full-blown panic mode.

The sensation that resulted was probably akin to a panic attack…not being able to breathe, feeling like you’re going to die, just wanting someone to end your misery. It wasn’t exhaustion or panting, just more like someone flipping an “off” button in my lungs. I attempted to keep swimming at this time, but it didn’t last very long. I had stop several times in the middle of the pool, stand in place, and regain my composure. Then I’d swim, swim, swim, STOP AND BREATHE FOR DEAR LIFE. I heard Bryan on the side of the pool shout my name for motivation, and that made me feel worse, because I just could not get my act together, not even for my husband.

The first five laps were a mess. At the gym, I normally follow a stroke-stroke-stroke-breathe pattern; now it was stroke-breathe, stroke-breathe. Just focus on your breathing, my yoga mind told my floundering body. Visualize that oxygen pumping throughout your body, and the rest will fall into place. I could have done an hour of pranayama practice before this event; none of it would have made a difference. (Also, it’s a bit hard to do alternate nostril breathing while swimming.) I totally lost count of what lap I was on, and because I had my mondo earplugs in, I couldn’t hear what the timers on the side were saying. I could have been on lap five, maybe lap 15. I had no idea. I just keep on swimming.

Things began feeling slightly better somewhere between Lap 6 and 7. I frantically thought of a mantra I could repeat, and I stuck with Om Namah Shivaya, the only one that came into my head at the time. It would work for a few strokes, my mind would drift off, and then I’d have to corral it back in again. I also tried to focus on fluidity–You’re dancing! I told myself. Just move with grace through the water, approach it like the Flowing portion of 5Rhythms.

It was some of the crappiest dancing I’ve ever done, but the pep talks and visualizations helped me complete all 10 laps without dying, giving up, or requesting to finish the race in the baby pool.

As I said, my time was 11:02. I pouted and moped, but then I saw someone swim without once putting her head in the water, and I felt a little better.

An hour later, it was time for the 5K portion. Bryan started off strong, but the less-than-ideal road conditions (being forced to run on the sidewalk and dodge yard sale-goers) slowed him down and flattened him out mentally. He still ran a relatively fast 23-something, but it wasn’t his normal time.

We both sulked back to the clubhouse with little gray clouds over our heads and the Charlie Brown Christmas Song playing in the background (sorry, had to throw in an Arrested Development reference there!).

However, despite our mediocre times, we came in first place for the team category of the event! Alone, our times wouldn’t have gotten us any prizes, but together we took home a $20 gift certificate for the local running/sports store.

There’s no “I” in duathlon…teamwork rocks!

One way of knowing that I’m truly engaged in the rest of the world, plugged into the matrix of the universe, is how many moments of synchronicity I experience. Back in the day when I was doing 60+ minute yoga sessions almost seven days a week, I was totally in the flow–not just a juicy physical flow but immersed in the flow of the world around me. I experienced coincidences all the time: I’d run into people I was just thinking of; a song would come on the radio just as I wishing that particular song would play; I’d contemplate a big trip to China and then come home, switch on the TV, and come face to face with a travel documentary about China AND get a phone call the same day from a Chinese woman (true story!).

I find that as my yoga practice dwindles, so do these special moments of connection. Maybe they’re still there, but my receptors just aren’t on. Life without yoga and breath is like living in a house with the blinds shut all the time: Everything is still out there–those people, that music, those opportunities–but I’m just closed off to them. I can go about my life just fine, but I’m shrouded and shut off from those moments of brilliance and clarity.

However, for the past few months I’ve been very committed to beginning each day with some meditation and pranayama. Nothing crazy–no more than 10 minutes in the morning–but I just have to do it. I missed being in tune with myself. My brain felt foggy from my stifled breathing and lack of oxygen. Plus, I recently listened to an interview about pranayama with Larissa Hall Carlson on a Kripalu Perspectives podcast; I took a few classes with her during my YTT, and she freakin’ blew me away. She is the Queen of Breathwork, and I remember feeling like I was dancing on clouds after 90 minutes with her. Her podcast interview was very inspiring and reminded me about the importance of those two little words: inhale and exhale.

So each morning, I do little nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), right-nostril breathing (the “solar” side), and then finally kapalabhati (cleansing) breath, which is like the extra-caffeinated version of breathing exercises. (I took time this morning to use my neti pot beforehand, and WOAH, each breath was like a shot of espresso in my brain!)

What I’ve found is that as I am getting reacquainted with my breath, those much-appreciated moments of synchronicity are returning. Slowly and gradually I am getting “plugged in” again. For example:

(a) The Dunkin Donuts Dream.

Earlier this week I had a very innocuous dream about being very tired and bored at work, but then looking up and finding an iced coffee from DD on my desk. The coffee made everything seem so much better, and I sipped my cold treat with joy. For me, this dream is actually very odd because I usually don’t have normal dreams. My dreams usually involve terrorist plots, friends turning into aliens, nightmares about taking hundreds of photos in Disney World and then having the roll of film fall out of the camera into the destructive daylight.

The next morning (in real life), my husband calls me from the road and tells me he is stopping by my office to say hi. I greet him outside, complaining about the broken air conditioner (“I’m hot!”) and my lethargy (“I’m tired!”). And then Bryan–having no idea about my dream, and even I forgetting about it–asks me if he should go to Dunkin Donuts to get me an iced coffee.

Suddenly alarms went off in my head, and I may have even pushed Bryan in disbelief in an Elaine Benes “Get out!” kind of way. And then 10 minutes later I was sitting at my desk at work with an iced coffee from Dunkin Donuts sitting on my desk, helping me get through the afternoon.

(b) The Black Woman.

During lunch on Tuesday afternoon, my coworker and I somehow got on the topic of how women of different races carry themselves, specifically how Black women exude so much confidence. I talked about my love of African American hair, black skin, and just my overall fascination with women of color.

That evening, I went to yoga class as usual. The only difference this time was that a new student dropped by that night. As you may have already guessed, she was a beautiful Black woman, smooth cocoa skin, and the poise of a yoga model. Up until then, there had never been a Black female in that class.

(c) Egypt.

When I stepped out the front door on Thursday morning, it smelled like Cairo. Perhaps there was a fire somewhere in the area, but the aromatic smell of burning instantly transported me back to Egypt, that  smoky and hazy blanket that constantly covered the city. It’s incredible how strong the sense of smell is, and how one whiff of something familiar can take your mind back years ago. A rush of images flooded through my mind every time I inhaled: the green lights strung on the minarets, the dusty streets lined with sheesha pipe-smoking men, the perpetual haze that stuck to the sky and blocked out the stars’ natural glow, the neverending flow of traffic, the browns and beiges of the landscape. I was half expecting to hear a muezzin sing a call to prayer or see the outline of the Citadel in front of me.

That afternoon, our company had a summer picnic. A coworker introduced me to the new IT guy…who just so happens to be Egyptian. He still has family in Egypt! He visits Egypt every summer! “I was in Egypt in 2005!” I exclaim, and suddenly I was engaged in a 30-minute conversation about the country I smelled so vividly that morning.

Bottom line? It’s nice to be back in the “sync” of things. It’s definitely a breath of fresh air. 🙂

I had a family obligation yesterday morning that had me dressed in business attire and stuck in an office for 2 hours with another 2 hours on the road, which is torture in itself but even moreso when the sunny sky and warm temps made yesterday one of The Most Beautiful Days in the World. On the drive home, sitting in the car in my black pants and black blazer, I fidgeted like a kid before recess, declaring that all I wanted to do was change into my play clothes and frolic outside! All the usual demands of the weekend–laundry, cleaning, sorting through a week’s worth of mail–automatically switch to “low priority” when Mother Nature gives us a beaut like yesterday. I spend so much time in the winter complaining about the dark and cold that I feel like I have to take advantage of every awesome day that comes our way.

After grabbing lunch at one of my favorite juice and burrito cafes (no burrito juice, however) and changing out of my stuffy office attire, Bryan and I headed to Red Bank Battlefield, which I’ve written about on here before. It’s one of our favorite “nice day” places to hang out, a sprawling park on the edge of the Delaware River, directly across from Philadelphia International Airport (perfect for plane watching!).

A new plane every 90 seconds!

Obligatory couple shot.

Pre-pubescent goose and parent. Hasn't reached the "God, Mom, you're so embarrassing" stage yet.

Canada geese. You're so darn cute when you're little, but then you get older and we hate you.

Sun and skyline.

Vrksasana break!

While we were walking around the park, we noticed a wedding party posing for photographs. They couldn’t have chosen a better day to get hitched (especially since the world didn’t end, as predicted).

We toted along some blankets, chairs, books, and magazines for some quality riverside reading time. Bryan prepped the space…

…and then I promptly fell asleep. I had been awake since 5:15 and was dragging at that point. I always feel the urge to nap but rarely actually follow through with it. Yesterday was an exception: I conked out for close to an hour but was delighted to do so under a big tree and wearing a tank top without being chilly. This is the stuff I dream about from November through April.

Bryan likes to put lobsters on me while sleeping.

Days like yesterday are my fuel. They revive my engine, bring light into my heart, and make me focus on the positive. They remind me of all the good things I’ve been wanting to write about and share, stuff like:

The mind and body studio in my gym is my secret getaway spot when the urge to dance calls. Every now and then, like this past Friday, I’ll be minding my own business, lifting weights, swinging a kettlebell, or stretching, and something on my iPod comes on that just hits me in the solar plexus, and suddenly my body says, “Dance! I must dance! Get thee to a wide open space and move, please!” It’s almost like a sickness, like a feeling of nausea that you know must exit soon, but not as gross. Just very urgent, and you know that if you hold it in, you’re going to feel (psychological) discomfort for the rest of the day. Luckily, my gym’s yoga studio was free that Friday afternoon, and I was able to sneak inside, pump up the volume on my iPod, and just dannnnnce. Twenty-five minutes later, I emerged a little sweatier and very satisfied.

I am actually, like, 95% “cool” with my yoga teacher’s languaging. I tend to be very critical about what teachers say in class and how they say it (I can’t help it; I’m like the Larry David of yoga students), and if something irritates me too much for too long, I’ll turn to a podcast for class instead, like the one teacher who said “really” in almost every sentence (“Really feel your sitz bones pressing into the ground,” “Really lengthen the breath,” “Really press those feet into the mat and really feel alive”). But the teacher I go to now, aside from some “blossoming like a lotus” stuff she starts off with every now and then, is very mindful about her choice of words and what she says to the class. For example, there is a pregnant woman in the class, and as the teacher is showing her modifications she says, “Now, as the baby grows, you’re going to have to adjust your legs like this…” Notice it’s “as the baby grows,” not “as you get bigger.” Yeah, yeah, it’s the same thing, but I’m a semantics freak (and a woman), so I know how choice of words can make a huge difference. The teacher is also very careful not to showcase certain students; meaning, if someone goes into a perfect Bird of Paradise or scorpion, the teacher doesn’t blurt out, “Everyone, look at Heather! See, that’s how it should be done,” making those less flexible or with limitations feel inferior.

My Fake Mom Carrol and her (real) daughter went to Kripalu this weekend for an R&R. Knowing how much I love the place, she sent me an e-mail yesterday (“Hi from Kripalu”) describing her afternoon yoga class, deep (emotionally and physically) massage, big changes, fresh whipped mango sauce, and a neti pot workshop. “Love carrol ( you are here in my heart and spirit can you feel it)?”, she closed. Instead of feeling jealous about her getaway, her e-mail made me so happy for her. Her daughter melted my heart, too. She tagged me on this photo she posted to Facebook:

"This one's for you, Jen!", Vee wrote from Kripalu.

I’ve switched up my morning meditation a bit. Instead of sitting down and starting right away with a mudra meditation, I do 5 minutes of nadi shodhana pranayama (alternate nostril breathing), finish with solely right-nostril breathing (it’s the “solar” side; it’s a good early-morning energizer), and then do whatever mudra feels appropriate. Meditation is A LOT easier after opening the lungs and waking up those brain cells!

I am disappointed with myself right now because I feel like a bit of a hypocrite.

When I’m on the yoga mat, I’m all about breeeeathing, feeling the flow, living in the transitions. When I dance, I’m always reminding myself to breeeathe. When I have to get something “icky” done like a blood test, I breaathe through the procedure as if I’m in a yoga class, trying my best to experience it as it comes, no judgment, no tensing up. Don’t clench, don’t resist.

But, the problem is that when it comes to truly tough stuff–like death–I clench, I resist, and I forget to breathe.

I realized that this morning as, during my commute to work, I was “prepping” myself for my aunt’s funeral tomorrow. I was envisioning who would be there, what they’d be doing: My mom will probably be crying the whole time. My grandmom may burst out into tears. Sad music will most likely be playing in the funeral home. It will be difficult, but I will be STRONG! If memories of my aunt crop up as I sit there during the viewing, I will smile with fondness, not blubber like a baby. I will resist any urges to tear up, and I will be a role model for all those around me!

Essentially, I was prepping myself not to breathe.

Because how else can you prevent yourself from truly experiencing your emotions? You hold your breath. You breathe shallowly. As it was stated so eloquently during my YTT, “inhalation increases sensation.” The moment you allow your cells to be fully nourished with oxygen, they are more receptive to physical and emotional pain. Likewise, restricting that oxygen decreases sensation; we may exit from the difficult situation (e.g., funeral) tear-free, but now we’re also rigid and lifeless and just a shell of our true selves.

That’s the nature of Kripalu yoga, the lineage in which I received my teacher certification. In fact, one of Kripalu yoga’s mantras is “Briffwa,” or BRFWA: Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, Allow. This not only applies to holding a yoga asana but to being in any of life’s more difficult situations. Take a deep breath. Don’t clench. Allow the tears to fall. Acknowledge the tears falling, the wrenching feeling in your gut. Don’t judge the emotions, and don’t overanalyze the situation either.

Just live in the moment. Just breathe. Just be human already.

One thing that absolutely drivers me bonkers at work is when my dinosaur computer acts like a sluggish, uncaffeinated lazy bum and comes to a complete standstill when I’m trying to accomplish something. You know the feeling. You’re trying to open an e-mail, and you just wait and wait and wait; the screen image stays the same, nothing new opens, and no matter how many times you violently click your mouse or slide it back and forth on the mousepad (like that works) you’re stuck in this limbo land, caught between being completely productive and completely helpless. You either have to wait it out or restart your computer, which, if it’s a PC with 4584797859 programs like the one I deal with in the office, well, you might as well take your lunch break while waiting for everything to reboot.

The frustration and anger that arises in me during such encounters is not healthy, and at times I feel like my computer’s “Not Responding” message is synonymous with “Time for Jen to Turn into the Incredible Hulk.” I huff and puff and stomp over to my manager’s office, whining, cursing, shaking my fist at the invisible force that stalls my system. Stupid PCs. Stupid IT department. Stupid, ironic world in which technology keeps us from being productive.

So I’ve decided to do a little experiment to counter my rage. Every time I get a “Not Responding” message, I’m going to close my eyes and take a few deep belly breaths, using this “down” time as a way to regroup and clear my mind. If I have to restart my computer, what a perfect opportunity to step away from my desk and escape into the bathroom for a few minutes of light stretching and breathing.

Maybe it’s a good thing that my computer is a sluggish dinosaur; it may just turn me into one blissed-out editor.

About the Author

Name: Jennifer

Location: Greater Philadelphia Area

Blog Mission:
SHARE my practice experience in conscious dance and yoga,

EXPAND my network of like-minded individuals,

FULFILL my desire to work with words in a more creative and community-building capacity;

FLOW and GROW with the world around me!



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