Big Decisions.

IMG_4405

At various stages through our lifetimes, we are faced with big decisions about what to do with ourselves.  Beyond providing for our own individual basic needs, this becomes a question of how to be most useful to the world, leveraging all our experience, training, privilege, and unique inclinations and circumstances.

You may know that I was in graduate school for the past several years, developing numerical models of ice sheet dynamics and meltwater drainage beneath glaciers.  This is arguably important work, as these processes have significant consequences for sea level rise and global climate effects in the coming decades, and we need accurate predictions in order to properly prepare and adapt.  Upon completing my PhD in civil engineering this summer, I was presented with some very nice, stable, well-paying opportunities for postdoctoral research in academia and at national labs to continue similar modeling work.  After serious consideration, I turned them all down.

What have I done?  Why would I do such an irresponsible thing and not “use” my degree?  I see a distinction between the ice sheet modeling work, which is useful for predicting sea level rise and dealing with problems that are coming, and teaching yoga to people, which has great potential to actually change how things move forward.

After visiting my parents last week, I received an email from my dad, a retired astrophysicist who spent his career studying cosmic rays to understand the origins of the universe.  He wrote: “I’m not sure there is any way to get there from here, but wouldn’t it be neat if the world were full of compassionate and mutually supportive rational beings?  We should collectively kick away the ladder of evolution, which got us this far up, and start perceiving things in a better way.”

This is precisely why I am drawn to the path of yoga.  In a way, the decision was already made long ago.  The practices and teachings have somehow always seemed familiar; some people would assert that this is a result of practicing in previous lifetimes, but you can think what you like about that.

Sometimes there appears to be a divide between yoga and modern Western science or physics, with each side misunderstanding or misrepresenting the other perspective, or trying to draw inappropriate comparisons.  This usually isn’t intentional, but is typically a result of not having the proper background in the language of advanced mathematics or the subtle internal language of yoga.  Both disciplines provide systematic methods of understanding the nature of reality, and I find myself in a somewhat unique position of being relatively highly trained in these seemingly distinct realms.  It will be interesting to see how this might be useful, and what doors open along the way.

I am delighted to be teaching at The Yoga Workshop now, in the Ashtanga tradition, which is a tremendously effective approach to personal yoga practice.  Beginning next week on October 22, I will be teaching guided Short Forms classes on Mondays and Wednesdays at noon, and I am also assisting Ty Landrum in morning Mysore classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Plans are underway for retreats and workshops in 2019 to explore the expansive possibilities and purpose of yoga.  Details will be forthcoming soon.

I’ll look forward to seeing you again, and I would love to hear about what you have been up to, along your own path.

With great love,
Aleah

img_4291.jpg

Advertisements

Seeing what is right in front of you.

Whatever you might think yoga is, it is probably not quite that.  This is the beauty of it, the endless inquiry through experience that opens itself up and keeps unfolding.  Part of it is technique, creating the right conditions in the body and mind and surroundings, and that requires sincerity, discipline, and consistency.  Once you have some amount of structure and competence, a significant component of yoga involves softening and giving it away, letting things merge in ways you might not expect.

If you understand this in some way, that is good.  If you have no idea at all what I mean, that is also good.  We all experience life in different ways, depending on the particular circumstances we find ourselves in.  And instead of becoming complacent in our situation, we can continue to look inside ourselves and look outside at the complex world around us, again and again, with fresh, bright eyes.  It is all right there, but we have to remember to look.

I hope you are enjoying the summer so far, soaking up all the sunshine and adventures.  Stay in touch, and I’ll look forward to crossing paths again some day soon.

With much love,
Aleah


Summer Garden Pesto

Growing up in Utah, my family always grew an abundance of basil in the garden to make pesto all summer, with even enough to freeze to tide us over for the winter.  This year, I have two basil plants in my patio garden that are doing quite well, so it has been a good pesto year.  (The past few years, the basil didn’t thrive, and we had to make do with arugula and kale pesto – which is quite good, and still tastes like summer.)

This is how I usually make my pesto these days:

What goes in:
Basil
Olive oil
Lemon
Walnuts
Salt
Black pepper

What to do:
Put the basil leaves in a food processor, with some olive oil and fresh-squeezed lemon juice.  Run the processor briefly until the leaves are chopped finely.  Add and grind the walnuts in, then salt and pepper to taste.  Adjust the consistency by adding more olive oil or walnuts.

I like to eat pesto with bread and salad for a delicious, fresh dinner on late, warm summer nights.  It is also obviously excellent with tomatoes, gnocchi, pasta, rice, in quesadillas, on sandwiches, or in many other settings…

It’s always changing.

IMG_3731

How beautiful is the spring, with all its growth!  If you put your face close to the dirt, you will see many things happening.  If you look up, you will see young leaves and blossoms bursting forth on tree branches silhouetted against the backdrop of sky.  Our days are longer, and there is a palpable sense of relief and invigoration that summer is coming and we made it through another winter.

Everything happens on many different scales.  The tilt of our planet with respect to the sun is huge from our perspective, but is tiny in comparison to the scale of the galaxy, which is tiny itself when considered as part of the entire universe.  Then you can go the other way, and scale down from our usual frame of reference to all the different organisms that make up your body, and even smaller still to molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, and so on…  You may have heard the term “microbiome,” frequently used in the context of the bacteria that live in your digestive tract.  You yourself are an entire ecosystem (wow!).  My dad is a retired astrophysicist who spent his career thinking on very large scales, studying cosmic rays to infer information about the origins of our universe.  Recently, he acquired a microscope and has become fascinated by the “Small World” (cue the Disney song…) that we don’t ordinarily perceive with our eyes.  There is a lot going on at the small scale, alien-looking creatures going about their lives, that influence the larger scales, and on and on.  How wonderful!

In Tantric philosophy, from which yoga emerges, the human body can be considered as a mini universe, and by understanding the rhythms, interactions, and subtleties of different pieces on different scales, you can gain better understanding of the world in general.  Everything in the universe is constantly moving or pulsing with its own rhythm, and this is true inside your body as well.  The heartbeat is obvious, but your other organs also carry on their own, independent beats to do their work.  These pulsations, along with the more subtle rhythms that most of us don’t notice, are called spanda in Sanskrit.  Most of us can’t control the spanda – with the important exception of the breath.  The body breathes even when you don’t intentionally do it, but you can deliberately alter the depth or speed or ratio of the breath, which then has ripple effects (think of the familiar example of how breathing slowly and deeply with a relaxed belly can calm the nervous system and slow the heart rate).  The breath is a useful link between mind and body, and there is much to explore.

Can we ever fully understand the universe?  No, and the unknown is an important part of the beauty.

In our everyday lives, we perceive the world in four dimensions: three spatial dimensions plus time.  Interestingly, time is the only one of these dimensions that has a distinct direction; we can’t freely navigate backward or forward as we please. Why?  This “arrow of time” question is still puzzling to physicists.  But as we move ever forward along the vector of time, everything is in a state of change, evolution, creation and dissolution.

If you can somehow sort out how to move forward with the rhythm of things around you depending on the circumstances you find yourself in, even the big unknowns or transitions seem to become exciting.  You may know that for the past five years I have been in graduate school, working on a PhD in civil engineering, with research involving meltwater drainage and ice flow of the Greenland ice sheet and its glaciers.  I am defending my PhD on May 30 (which happens to be the same date that Eli and I were married three years ago).  You may also know that Eli is in Kenya for four months working on toilets in the Kakuma refugee camp near the South Sudan border, so it is an interesting time, and very quiet at home.  I am basically in full hermit mode, practicing yoga in the early mornings, working during the day on last pieces of research and my dissertation, drinking lots of chai, eating simply, and teaching yoga in the evenings.  It could be a stressful time, but instead feels very calm.  What comes next?  We’ll see, but it is exhilarating to be on the verge of a big transition and I love not knowing.

With much love,
Aleah


Feeding the Physical Body

Eating fresh, simple, Sattvic food (calming and pure, not overly heavy or pungent) can significantly affect your state of mind and sense of well being in the body.  For a nourishing and refreshing lunch or dinner, this is what I like to eat:
  • Brown rice or black forbidden rice (freshly cooked is best, but these both take about 45 minutes to cook, so you’ll need to start early or cook enough to save for a few meals)
  • Half an avocado
  • Goat cheese
  • Fresh greens (arugula, sweet pea shoots, spinach, kale, or other spring greens)
  • Chopped cucumber
  • Fresh herbs (like basil, cilantro, mint, or thyme)
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Lemon
  • Fresh ground black pepper

Improvise as you like – cherry tomatoes are also good, or raw cashews.  Assembly is intuitive: put rice in a bowl, top with greens, avocado, goat cheese, cucumber, and herbs.  Drizzle olive oil and squeeze a lemon slice over the greens, and grind black pepper generously over the whole thing.  At lunch, it pairs well with a big mug of chai 🙂


Oh, the Hips and the Knees!

It seems like a lot of people suffer from stiff hips and knees, which tend to get more uncomfortable and restricting as we get older, and also contribute to all sorts of other imbalances and pain in the back, neck, shoulders, etc.  Many of us rarely bend our hips and knees much past a 90-degree angle in day-to-day activities (think about our chairs, beds, toilets, cars, and even bikes or running).  Probably the most important simple change you can make in your life is to sit on the floor whenever possible instead of using chairs, and get rid of your raised bed frame to put your mattress on the floor.  This way you use a wider range of motion in the hips and the knees multiple times every day (and not just in yoga class).  I have been sleeping on the floor since 2009, and raised beds always feel a bit strange to me now!  It feels wonderful to sleep close to the ground.

A good practice to get in the habit of doing is to sit on the floor, and without using your hands, fold your legs into a cross-legged seated position.  This will tell you something about your knee and hip mobility, as well as the strength of the hamstrings and hip rotators.

  • If you can’t quite make it, get the legs as close to folded as possible (which might not be close at all), and only then use your hands to move them the rest of the way.
  • If it felt easy to fold your legs by themselves, now try folding yourself into half lotus (ardha padmasana) without using your hands.
  • If half lotus went well, go for the no-hand full lotus (padmasana).

hut2018_header

Save the date!  

The “Second Annual” Mountain Hut Yoga Get-Away will be happening September 14-16, 2018.

Details and registration will be coming soon, so keep it in mind.

Love.

IMG_3690

Love is the underlying most worthwhile aspect of human existence, and it is multi-faceted, with layer upon layer of incredible depth.  Around Valentine’s Day here in the US, love is cheaply associated with sex, flowers, and chocolate (and maybe stout here in Boulder… and “heart-opening” back-bending yoga poses).  These are all wonderful, but there is certainly more there.

Love is the attraction and connection to a partner or lover, the deep contentment of being held and seen, simultaneously codependent and independent, through the times of brilliant clarity and through the unsteadiness.  Love is the perpetual trust and comfort of parents and children.  Love is the laughter and immediate picking right back up when you see old friends after years of losing touch.  Love is that spark of recognition when you meet someone for the first time, and feel as though you have known each other before.  Love is the constant interplay of pure awareness (Shiva) and embodiment (Shakti) that gives form to that consciousness.  Love is in the pause between breaths, full of potential, in the stillness before the first breath, and after the last breath of life.  Love is a kind word, a touch, a moment of eye contact, a smile and a wave of acknowledgement to the bedraggled man at the intersection, even when you have nothing to give.  Love is respect and understanding, even when you’re tempted to retaliate.

Of course, love can be difficult.  What does it feel like to try to love someone whose attitudes and actions in the world are so at odds with your own worldview, who you can’t seem to understand, and would be easier to view as “other”?  Sometimes our love is betrayed, or we feel undeserving of being loved.  But could anyone truly be unworthy of love?  Indeed, as naïve as it might sound, learning to love all others, including ourselves, and including those we consider enemies or irrevocably different, could have a profound impact in the current circumstances of our modern world.  This stuff never gets old.

Back when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama, I used to struggle with the expectations and hopes of an entire community to help them design and build an aqueduct (among other things).  I would worry in my bamboo hut, alone with the moon at night, if I was doing things right, or doing enough.  One evening, I realized that I was doing just fine – because nobody else was doing it.  And this applies to us all at whatever stage on whatever path we happen to be on – because nobody else is doing what you are doing, nobody else is living your life, walking your unique path.  So keep in mind that whatever you’re doing, you’re doing just fine.

“Self love” is kind of a trendy term these days, frequently appearing in the context of yoga retreats, massages, and other healing practices or luxuries.  As overused as the phrase might have become, there is something nevertheless potent about cultivating internal love.  It seems like when you are comfortable in your own skin, calm in your mind, and confident in your body and actions and role in the world (even with all your mistakes and imperfections), you eventually happen to find an inexhaustible well of love that somehow radiates out, touching others, without any need for external validation.  It may be worth a try.  What could be better?  And the worst that could happen is nothing.

With much love,
Aleah

 


Speaking of self love, here is my much-loved and fine-tuned recipe for banana bread…

You will need:
1 cup cane sugar (I like it quite sweet, but feel free to use less sugar)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2-3 old brown bananas
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup almond flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon ground cardamom (optional, but highly recommended)
a dash or two of ground cinnamon

What to do:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Whisk together sugar and olive oil in a large mixing bowl.  Mash the old bananas, then whisk into the sugar/oil mixture.  In another bowl, combine flour, almond flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cardamom, and cinnamon.  Stir the dry mixture into the wet mixture until it is all combined.  Pour the batter into a loaf pan, and bake for 45-50 minutes.  Let cool for 10 minutes before cutting a warm piece or three.

After the bread cools, cover the pan with foil.  It will keep just fine on the counter for a few days (and banana bread never lasts very long around here).


Big News: 

We recently added a few more spots in a shared room for the Mayan Riviera retreat in May!  There are three spaces still available in this room (think of it like a “luxury backpacker dorm”).
To help make it more accessible to anyone who is interested, I’m pleased to be able to offer a substantial discount: Total cost of $800 per person if you and a friend sign up.

Get in touch if you want in, or with any questions.  I sincerely encourage you to join us for this adventure in exquisite calm!  There is something very special about going away on retreat, and it’s much more than just another vacation.

Details are here.

IMG_3652

Welcome, winter.

IMG_3676

Happy Solstice!  The darkest time of the year (here in the northern hemisphere) can be particularly conducive to introspection and internal awareness. Take advantage of that coziness.

Make space, make time.

Be less busy.

Eat simply. Notice how everything you incorporate into your body affects you.

Don’t worry if you’re doing enough, or doing all the right things; instead, focus on learning how to be, and the rest will happen.  Something will happen.

Be fearless.  What’s the worst that could happen?  Be humble.
Be aware.  Be strong.  Be still.  Be unstoppable.  Be kind.

Learn to be alone without being lonely.

Listen to your conscience.

Be empty and full at the same time.

Let yourself break apart, to welcome the unwelcome, the unimaginable, and the unexpected.

Close your eyes.
Open your eyes.
Don’t go back to sleep.

Don’t be complacent.  Don’t get too comfortable.

For the benefit of others.

 

From my parents’ house on the coast in North Carolina, watching the wind on the water, the herons and the boats, much love to you. 

Aleah


Drink plenty of chai this winter.  Here is the way I make it at home (and this is how it is done in India). 

To make 2 cups of chai:  Heat one cup of water in a pot with two spoonfuls of loose black tea leaves (Assam is good, or any other plain black tea) and one spoonful of tea masala (ground spice mixture that you can buy or make yourself, usually including cardamom and ginger, with many variations that could include clove, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, fennel, saffron, turmeric, or cayenne pepper).  Add an inch of chopped or grated fresh ginger root.  Watch the pot carefully as it heats – when the water boils, the tea and spices can rise quickly and overflow if you aren’t vigilant!  After it boils, reduce the heat and let the tea and spices steep for about 5 minutes.  Turn the heat up again and add one cup of milk (I use organic whole milk).  Stirring occasionally, heat until the milk is just on the verge of boiling (you will see small bubbling, and a velvety foam will form on the surface).  Again, be attentive not to let the milk rise to overflow the pot!  (If it starts to boil suddenly, pull the pot off the heat.)  Strain the chai through a fine mesh into a cup and add a few spoonfuls of cane sugar or honey (the sweetness helps bring out the spices).  You can let the second cup continue to simmer on low heat until you finish your first cup… or share it.

IMG_3660

Yoga and Death.

IMG_1700

Happy Halloween, a day on which death might be a more palatable topic than usual.  In that spirit, here we go…

I have heard many great yoga teachers allude to the fact that “death is the greatest teacher,” and I have personally found it to be a worthwhile subject of attention.  I don’t intend for this to be depressing, but rather awakening and enlivening.  If it feels uncomfortable to think about your own mortality, this is good.  Go there, into the discomfort.

Death is an inescapable part of life, essential to the cyclical nature of things.  Plants grow and die, pets grow and die, relatives die, parents die, friends die, children die, lovers die, strangers die… and – believe it or not – we ourselves will also die.  Just as we are surrounded by life and change, we are surrounded by and constantly moving toward death – which is really inseparable from life.

When I was little, sometimes the immense reality of my own impermanence would creep up on me, frequently as I looked at my own reflection in a darkened window just before closing my curtains at bedtime.  I learned to push away the idea and think of something more immediate and happy to distract myself, and I think this is what most of us tend to do.  Certainly, by thinking about death we don’t get a clear answer to the big question of what happens after we die, and it can feel safer to just ignore it.  We can turn to our various deep-seated beliefs about an afterlife, or heaven, or reincarnation, for comfort or some sense of dealing with the unknown, but these are just different forms of speculation, which we can’t personally verify – until we die.  So while it is mostly futile to concern yourself with trying to figure out precisely what will happen after death, I have found it helpful to become comfortable with the inevitability of death itself; I think that coming to terms with death is a valuable life skill that many people unfortunately don’t seem to cultivate early enough in their lives.  And we never know when it is coming.

Some places in the world are more obviously conducive to contemplating death than others.  When I went to India for the first time in 2008, for three months as an engineering exchange student at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, I spent a few weeks traveling by train before returning to school at Rice.  We passed through Varanasi, the holy city on the banks of the Ganges River, a city where many people go to die.  It is thought that by dying and being cremated in Varanasi, one escapes the cycle of death and rebirth.  I encountered some of the most skeletal living humans I have ever seen outside the Varanasi train station.  The narrow, twisting, stone-paved alleys in the old city are hardly wide enough for a cow to pass (so if you encounter one, you had better step into a doorway to let it pass, or turn around to find another way).  There is also a sense of vibrancy to the place, and the wide, flat river is stunningly beautiful and calm in the early morning, with mist gently floating over its filthy waters.  Wading into the holy water makes you wonder if you will develop some sort of infection in your feet.  Several crematory ghats line the river, and the air in the entire city is perpetually thick with smoke – so thick that contact lenses become unbearable after a few days, and you can wipe black sweat off your forehead.  Some body is always being burned.  The body is wrapped in a colorful, shiny cloth, placed on a wooden pyre, and lit.  The cloth burns quickly, the small kindling burns quickly, even the flesh burns quickly, and soon a leg bone juts out of the fire.  The fire burns until everything is ash, and then the ash becomes part of the river.  It isn’t glamorous or clean, but it is a very raw, final way to experience the end of a body.

Several years later, lying awake to the blinding light of a full moon one night, in my bamboo hut as a Peace Corps volunteer in the mountains of Panama, I had a deeply comforting realization regarding my own death.  It goes something like this:  Before I was aware of being alive in this body, there was a vast expanse of time (going back at least until the Big Bang, long enough to be unfathomable).  After I die, there will be a similarly vast expanse of time.  That first “half” (before this life awareness) presumably went pretty well, so what is there to worry about the semi-infinite part coming up after death?  Somehow this makes a lot of sense to me, and maybe it will to you too.

A few years ago, I came up with a wonderful New Year’s Resolution to really become comfortable with the idea of death – not to simply grasp the fact that I will die (which is easily done on an intellectual level, and is obvious to most of us), but to viscerally feel that truth, in an embodied way.  This was one of the most effective resolutions I have ever made in terms of personal growth.  Later that year, I was present for the last few days of my last living grandfather’s life at my parents’ house, and it was not an easy end for him.  The body holds on so tightly to life and to the breath, even when everything else is shutting down.  He suffered from severe dementia in his last years, and one of the most heart-wrenching aspects of being with him as he died was his confusion and the not knowing that he was old, in a dying body.  Every few minutes that awful realization would hit again, and again.  What if we could prepare ourselves for that final journey earlier in life, so it becomes deeply rooted in our consciousness, and even when dementia sets in, we might be more at ease with death in whatever stage of life our mind takes us back to?

An interesting exercise in preparing yourself for the uncertain timing of death is to imagine that this day could be your last – would you be ready?  Last year I rafted the Grand Canyon, which involves a whole slew of enormous rapids that can tear apart boats if not properly navigated by the person on the oars.  The most ferocious of these is Lava Falls, with a hydraulic hole near the top that looks big enough to swallow a house, followed by all sorts of other nastiness that can ruin your day, ending with a large rock slab at the bottom of the falls known as the “cheese grater.”  The morning of our approach to Lava, our entire group was quiet.  We had been on the river for a few weeks at that point, with nothing but water, sky, and unthinkably old rock walls to distract us from our own bodies and minds.  As Eli rowed our little blue rubber boat through the flat water leading up to Lava, I lay on my back on the plywood deck, looking up to the cloudy sky and the black inner canyon walls, and sorted things out to prepare myself for the reality that we could actually die that day, which is a useful exercise on any day.  We ended up having a perfect run through Lava, skirting just far enough from the edge of the top hole to avoid being pulled in, but close enough to avoid the succession of smaller-but-still-nasty holes downstream to the right, dancing our way between terrifyingly large hydraulics, punching through the crucial V-wave perfectly centered, and somehow timing the periodic standing wave at the bottom of the rapid perfectly at its low phase, coming out clean.

By regularly exposing ourselves to death (but not in a reckless way) and by considering our own mortality, or at least by not quashing the idea in our thoughts, maybe we learn to live a little more fully every day.  This is it, so live the very best life you can!

With much love,
Aleah


For your pleasure, here are some practices related to death (not just for Halloween):

Savasana:  In yoga, the final pose we do at the end of a practice is savasana, the corpse pose, that lovely, nourishing finish where you get to simply lie on your back and let everything soak in, after a strenuous asana practice that made you feel indescribably alive.  The nervous system comes back to balance, the body integrates all the effort and release, and you spend some minutes in total stillness with nothing to do. Savasana is like a little death that we practice over and over again, which ultimately helps us prepare gracefully for the real one, whenever it comes.

Self-decomposition:  I sometimes look at my own body and imagine its aging and decay.  You can do this by simply staring at a hand or your feet.  Visualize the bones inside, the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and all the other physical pieces that won’t last forever. Once, after a particularly long run, as I lay on my back with my legs up the wall, I could almost see my feet dissolving into old feet, then bones, then nothing.  Try to do this in simply an interested, uninvolved way – and notice if it scares you.

The “last breath” meditation: (based on a technique presented in Meditation Secrets for Women by Camille Maurine and Lorin Roche).  Find a comfortable position, lying on your back. Breathe smoothly and deeply through your nose, and particularly focus on lengthening the exhalations.  On every exhalation, imagine that it is your last.  Every gentle “haaa” is the final release of the body from this life.  Try to keep your awareness like this for several minutes, and just notice whatever thoughts, sensations, or emotions come up along the way.  After a while, let go of the technique and breathe normally, back to balance and fully alive.

Note: In a similar but different practice, you can imagine every inhalation is the first breath of life – a new start in the beautiful world, full of potential.  This can be very uplifting.