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Mindfulness is Like Making Chicken Soup (and how to make the soup!)

We have a tradition in my family that when someone gets sick, a pot of chicken stock goes on. The art of making healing chicken soup was taught to me in college by my roommate from NYC who’s grandmother referred to it as Jewish Penicillin. The process starts with someone not feeling well; anything from sniffles, discomfort or suffering. Conscious cooking to the rescue! The prescription is liquid gold.

In order to make the broth for the soup, you only need a big sturdy stock pot that will fit an entire fresh chicken, two good handfuls of whole carrots, the top half of a whole stalk of celery, an onion, some peppercorns, kosher salt and a few bay leaves. Fill the pot with cold water until everything is covered. Stick around and be patient.

When you first turn the pot on not much happens. After awhile, things begin to move and this icky gray and white foamy stuff floats to the top. Technically, its just protein, but you look at it and know its is not something you want to put in your body; extremely unappetizing and a good way to ruin the clarity of your broth. So you have to get rid of the impurities. The lid is left off the pot and you play witness to the transition. A long handled skimmer with fine mesh is the best tool for the job. Intermittently skim the top of the stock then rinse the skimmer in some water to start clean. Before the broth comes to the boiling point, you have to decrease the heat, but still keep it hot enough for the scum to surface. Scoop and dump. Repeat. The trick is to make sure the stove is not too hot or the scuzzy contaminants redistribute themselves back into the stock before you can get rid of them. This is the patience part. And please don’t stir it up. The stock is best when it cooks slowly and gently. Once the skimming is done, turn it down even more to a soothing simmer. I like my stock to cook for 8-12 hours before straining it so that the collagen and minerals leach out of the bones. If you don’t have the luxury of letting it cook that long, work within the space you have. Once all the cooked items are removed, you get to put whatever you want in the stock. In my house, it is fresh carrots and celery, matzo balls and fresh dill. Share it! Give from your overflow. Word of warning: keep some Kleenex handy because it will also open your lungs and make your nose run!

Thanks for reading about one of my favorite healing traditions. Now try making some and consider the process a philosophy for life. How often do we recognize that our thoughts are creating scum? And what do we do when they surface in the form of impure language or actions?

Making chicken soup is a recipe for mindfulness. We all experience unpleasantness and have the ability to create and heal through contemplative practices. Roughly 90% of thoughts are below the conscious level. When we practice mindfulness, we become aware of some of that 90% and icky stuff surfaces. When we are uncomfortable, physically sick or emotionally upset, things turn cloudy and gray. Like clear broth, clean thoughts don’t come in a neat package. It takes patience and love to turn water into to nourishing food and it takes the same to uncloud your thoughts. The practice of mindfulness lets us skim the undesirable mental fragments. Scoop and dump. Repeat. Sometimes we need a tool! A yoga or meditation practice is the fine sieve of the soup stock of life. Dip and delete. Skim and purge. My morning recipe, or sadhana as its called in yoga, allows for an hour to simmer in my subconscious. Maybe you only have or want 10-15 minutes. Sometimes that is all it takes to see who or what is bringing you to your boiling point.

The process of mindfulness makes us connoisseurs of our own consciousness. We learn to separate our thoughts, which are always changing, from the Self, which is unshakable. That which is always changing is called prakriti – thoughts, emotions, our physical bodies, the environment outside us. Think of prakriti in terms of the process of the stock cooking; when we have the right ingredients and process in place, water transforms into a magical medicine – that’s dharma baby! But first the waste surfaces and sometimes prakriti causes suffering. Yet, we keep eating it until all we can identify with and taste is prakriti. Purusha is another philosophical force to dine on. As the conscious cook, you can thoughtfully observe the broth cooking. Purusha allows us to watch the experience without putting ourselves in the pot. The healing begins when we see the Self as separate from prakriti and look beyond the displeasing scum at the whole process.

Prakriti shows itself through 3 forces called the gunas. Change is represented in the rajas guna. Rajas is experienced as agitation, anger or anxiety when we don’t continually attempt to remove the grubby thoughts. But if we keep skimming the undesirables, rajas becomes the creative force of change. Heat, or tapas in yoga, provides that agent of change. It is the force that burns impurities when you are disciplined in your practice. Just like making healing broth, tapas has to cook from a place of love; include acceptance and leave out judgement in the recipe. Other undesirable ingredients include expectations of how things will turn out, denial of what our awareness shows us and guilt about “bad thoughts”.  If we hit the boiling point or let the scum keep cooking, it will redistribute itself somewhere in your life. If we never even turn the heat on the pot, we experience tamas guna – nothing changes and life, like the stock, will be tasteless and unfulfilling. When we balance rajas and tamas, the third guna – sattva, makes chicken soup out of our suffering.

In the end, cooking chicken stock and your conscious awareness are both about not letting the scum ruin your day. And maybe sharing some of your liquid gold…

Happy, Healthy Cooking,

Megan

Application To Be A Yogi

Dear Student,

Thank You for applying for the position of yogi/yogini.  This position is not to be underestimated or taken lightly, but a sense of humor is encouraged.  During your initial yoga internship, you may commit to only one or two class per week. Before you can make a decision to accept a full-time position, you have to show up for yourself.  Eventually, becoming a yogi will require more time in the form of every day mindfulness with family, friends and total strangers.  You may be training for this position while doing things that bring you joy as well as with people who deplete you.

Perhaps you think you are applying for a seasonal position and a 3-6 month commitment is sufficient.  This is accurate if you plan to return to your current position.  However, you cannot place a time restriction on transformation.

Please detach yourself from any outcome. Things happen that we cannot plan for. Do not quit.  Always code your program with the belief that you are capable and deserving.

You are encouraged take your work home with you; a home practice is highly recommended and could include a few postures, meditation, or taking time throughout the day to observe your breath. This will promote self-study, increase productivity and promote happiness. You might even sleep better and like yourself more.

You will need to gain strength, flexibility and balance. These are mental traits. At times, you will be asked to slow down and under-do. You will also be taken outside your comfort zone, dig deep within yourself and stay present for whatever arises.  This is a prescription to reduce your own suffering, be more compassionate toward others, and uplift you from a state of ordinariness.

This position requires you to accept that you are a multi-dimensional being. Yoga is meant to release karmic bonds of human suffering using the Panchamaya Kosha model; there is a unique physical body (Anamaya Kosha), a breath body (Pranamaya Kosha), a mind/senses/emotions layer (Manomaya Kosha), a deeper intellect representing the relationship between self and the universe (Vijnanamaya Kosha) and the even deeper layer of pure, unbound bliss (Anandamaya Kosha). We can get stuck in any of these layers. What on the surface appear to be physical postures will bring about changes to your whole being. Working with any one of the Koshas can ‘unstick’ all layers.

To say this position is in the field of health care is accurate, but understand that you are starting with all the healing tools you need already within you. And while long-term health is important, please find who you are in spiritual terms.

Don’t worry about a dress code.  You will be observing yourself from the inside.  What you may come to see is that you are a spiritual being dressed in a human form.  And the human form can be uncomfortable.  Over time, you will begin to see possibilities in yourself. You will want to change, or so it appears.  But what is really happening is not a change as much as it is a shedding of anything that didn’t fit you to begin with.

There may be tears.  Thank them for carrying the agitated energy out of the body. You are not the first one to wet an eye pillow in savasana.

And know that if you chose not to show up for class, your teacher and co-worker yogi’s miss you and may even worry about you. By coming to class, we extend our own life energy to others.

This position is permanent and you are everyone. The main qualifications are self-love and discipline. Are you ready?

Light and Love,

Megan

How to Start a Daily Yoga Practice – with video

A question I am asked as a yoga teacher is how many days a week do I practice yoga.  Answer: every day.  But the next question should be what is a yoga practice?  What it should not be is a source of stress or guilt.  Rather, a daily practice should be whatever you have time for, considering what you need each day physically, mentally and spiritually. I often compare yoga to brushing teeth.  If you only have time to brush for one minute as opposed to the three minutes my kid’s orthodontist timer recommends, doesn’t that feel better than not brushing at all? Forming habits has little to do with duration and more to do with frequency.  And if the oral hygiene starts in the morning, you reap the benefits all day. Maybe later there will still be time for another opportunity to brush longer.

So find out what you need.  For me, a morning meditation is a must.  But the physical practice ranges from one and a half hours of strong standing postures outside listening to the birds (soon!) to a 20 minute restorative posture hibernating under the covers of my bed (Ohhh Winter – you test me.)  Years ago, while struggling with sleep deprivation from twins, anxiety and feeling I  “never had time for myself”, I  could not do lengthy meditations and a physical yoga practice. “One stop shopping” for body mind and spirit was required.  I created this short salutation to the words of a Tecumseh quote that is strategically placed on my bathroom mirror. While it is one thing to wake and read a positive statement of gratitude,  it is a stronger experience to embody it.

Disclaimer: this video was filmed in the afternoon after a 1 hour class.  Had it been in the morning, it would look like a different body – clothed in pajamas, groggy and stiff.  Not even a yoga teacher escapes the morning  fascia “fuzz”.

Habits Feed the Fire of Intention

As we journey to the end of 2013, the word intention is a hot button; a hot button that often goes lukewarm in the first 30 days.  But it doesn’t have to. In setting intentions, first there needs to be an awakening – accepting yourself as you are presently and knowing what it is you want to achieve.  Then you can keep the fire lit by transforming the habits that might hold us back; free up time and energy to manifest those dreams. If the word habit has a negative connotation, consider that your current ones need some reworking.  Yes, habits can be destructive, but they can also provide reinforcement for our intentions.  Though it takes some dedicated rewiring to keep the positive circuit flowing, good habits are more powerful than bad ones. If you are ready to ignite the flame and reflect on a few of your mental habits, ask yourself the following questions (written answers are best):

Are you ok with changing your routine?  And if so, how often do you do so?

Do you believe you have choices for healthier options? Are you willing to explore them?

How often are you engaged in your thoughts of the past and enslaved with judgement?

When are you preoccupied with thoughts of the future that strengthen the worry loop?

Do you feel guilty when your healthy habits pull you away from other’s needs?

What are your attachments?  What are your aversions? And how do they each influence habitual behavior?

What/who empowers you?

And finally, have you surrounded yourself with a whole team of defenders?  Denial, victim, cynicism, sarcasm, being highly critical, rigidity, withdrawal, being too nice, endless rationalizing, and self-deprecation just to name a few.

In the end, we have a conscious choice to repeatedly grab on to something to maintain a relationship with it or release.  Sometimes life brings pain.  There is no way around it. We forget to remember or just get lazy.  But if our good habits are more clever than the bad ones, they provide the transformative fire we need to get through the cold spells.

“It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson