Meditation homework is hard

Look at my new meditation corner. Isn't it sweet and cozy?

It's just one part of my meditation homework. I'm one class into a six-class series on meditation through the Seattle Insight Meditation Society and the homework is already intense. 1) Sleep eight hours a night (ack.) 2) Meditate 30 minutes a day (double ack). 3) Do one thing mindfully every day, be it brush your teeth, eat breakfast or comb your hair. OK, this one I can do.

OK, I can do them all. What did I expect from a meditation series? One class and I'd be sitting with a calm, clear mind? I kind of wish that was how it worked. But 30 minutes a day is a commitment. I already set an alarm on my phone to remind myself to do it every day. We are supposed to put a little note next to our toothbrush or whatever activity we choose to focus on for this week that says "Be mindful." Then do it and really shut everything else out except for that activity. My teeth are going to be very clean.

Teacher Rodney Smith said it's easy to intellectualize meditating, but you can't absorb its lessons until you actually do it. And Smith, a former monk, is serious about the process in the nicest way possible. But I am excited. He walked us through the proper supported seat, talked us through a 5-minute meditation, then introduced us to walking meditation. It's much harder than it sounds. Meditation is about taking the unconscious to the conscious, and letting the flow of chatter that talks incessantly all day long in our heads become secondary instead of primary. It's about understanding our minds and the fears tucked into the nooks and crannies. He addressed a lot that's been going through my head lately about leaving the past in the past and the future in the future and living in the present. It's a lesson I think about and fail at almost all the time. Smith says we all do, some intentionally and most of us absent-mindedly as we think about everything else in life except for what we are actually doing.

Much of what he said I learned and absorbed during my teacher training. But listening to him talk tonight reminded me how far away I have drifted from my training, just six months later. Sitting those 30 minutes a day might be the toughest thing I do every day, but being a nerdy yogi, I am into having homework. I actually do homework. Meditation nerding out to commence now.


Indulging in meditation and chocolate

My progress toward actually attending a meditation retreat is going about as well as my progress on cutting back on sugar. That is to say, it's not going very well.

Last night, my friend KGB and I ate popcorn and pizza at Central Cinema on Union Street and laughed hysterically at the cheesy, melodramaticness that is the movie "Purple Rain." I had never seen the movie and KGB, among others, considered it a major gap in my pop culture education. I sort of loved it. Prince makes everything, including his own bad movie, better.

We were stuffed from dinner, but after the movie ended, we both craved a little sugar. KGB suggested we stop by Dilettante Mocha Cafe on Capitol Hill. We scored majorly on parking, with a spot on Broadway on a Friday night, which KGB deemed a sign we were supposed to have chocolate.

The moment we stepped inside, both of us went into chocolate shock. The walls are painted a rich, chocolatey hue, which frame a counter with a dozen tempting kinds of cake on display and rich chocolate truffles, chewy chocolate caramels and other decadent chocolate morsels. The menu included several kinds of hot chocolate, ice cream with chocolate truffle sauce and many, many variations of chocotinis. It was a chocolate frenzy.

KGB settled on a milkshake with Frangelico and brandy ($8), while I chose a sundae ($6.50) with Molly Moon Scout Mint and espresso ice cream topped with chocolate and cream caramel sauce and chocolate bits. Once I took my first bite of luscious, almost chewy caramel and chocolate sauce mixed with melty, cold ice cream and crunchy chocolate bits, I was ready to die in a chocolate and ice cream-induced coma.

Hm, this post was actually intended to be about meditation. How did I get so off track? Ahem. A couple of months ago when I started leading meditation, I hoped I would somehow find the gumption to go on a 10-day silent meditation retreat. That gumption, like my willpower, is nowhere to be found, at least not yet. But I'm not a total wimp: I decided to take an intro meditation series from the Seattle Insight Meditation Society, which starts Monday. I need another commitment like I need the pair of gray patent oxford shoes that just arrived (they are really so very pretty), but I think the six-week series, led by Rodney Smith, will be a huge step toward deepening my meditation practice and guiding my students on a weekly basis. I have really fallen in love with leading meditation and the space it opens for other people, and I hope this meditation series will help me with my own practice. I roped my friend KNA into it, and I am happy we are both putting aside some regular time to just sit and breathe.

I'm having some technical issues today but will post pictures of aforesaid desserts as soon as I can.


Joining the yoga teacher sub circuit

I always knew in theory that teachers get subs. My friend Karen teaches high school, and unlike most of us, calling in sick requires getting someone to take over her classes. After a few go-rounds of the yoga teacher sub circuit, I finally get why she lives in fear of getting sick. Getting sick = finding a sub. At 6 a.m. While hacking up a lung.

I haven't been there yet. But try finding someone who wants to teach at 6:15 a.m. I don't even really want to get up. That's where yoga sub lists come into play.

The sub list is its own universe that I never even knew existed. The sub list is generally the first step to picking up a new studio. Sub a few classes for a few grateful staff teachers, and perhaps you'll pick up a coveted teaching slot. But the thing about yoga studios is there is no set way to get on a sub list. With the four studios I have approached to date, I have gotten four different answers. Let us count the ways.
  • One local studio put me on its sub list based on my current teaching gigs.
  • Another had me come in for an interview and "audition" by leading the director of yoga through 10 minutes of flow. I passed and made it on the list.
  • One of Seattle's biggest yoga studios advised me to take a class with the owner and talk to her afterward about getting on the master sub list.
  • The studio where I assist requires most teachers go through an extensive assisting program and multiple practice classes, where you teach an hourlong class to fellow teachers and assistants and sit down afterward for a half-hour of feedback. Sound scary? That's because it is.
    I had my first practice class this past Sunday. I am much more relaxed about teaching than when I started, but my brain played some crazy tricks on me on Sunday morning. The group of seven are people who have been supporting me through the entire teaching process, have heard me teach and were there to help. I knew that, in theory. But it was all I could do to keep the flow on track whenever my Mexico roomie Val would stop mid-flow and write down notes. At those moments, I was not quite overflowing with gratitude.

    But, of course, when we sat down in a circle and they gave me feedback, it was amazing. They lauded my lightness (yay!), my grounded presence and my flow. I moved well and had confidence. They loved my assists. My alignment cues worked. They asked for more fire, adding more modulation and energy in my voice. They cautioned me about "yoga teacher voice," a disembodied version of Nicole that descends when I'm on auto-pilot. (Guilty as charged.) They noticed I sometimes roamed the room instead of being present with the class. They advised I use the word "your" instead of "the" when talking about parts of the body, like your foot, or your shoulders. They noticed my filler words. "And then" is my yoga albatross. Really.

    A lot of feedback is small, simple things, but they translate big in class. Saying "the" instead of "your" distances me the teacher from the students, even if I am being authentic and real. "And then" is a verbal crutch. It is ridiculously hard for me to stop saying that dumb little phrase. Modulating my voice more shifts the energy of the class. One of my teachers says we are ultimately always responsible for the energy in class, not the students.

    So, there you go. Not all studios are so rigorous, but this process is also extremely helpful and gratifying. I've got another practice class with the studio owner, and if all goes well, I'll earn myself a spot on her studio's sub list. Keep your fingers crossed!


    Solving shoulder pain with the Saka Pinda

    If the New York Times loves it, and blogger Roseanne at It's All Yoga Baby loves it, then I firmly believe I will love it too.

    I am talking about the Saka Pinda Yoga Backpack. Until today, I didn't do the fancy yoga mat bag thing. I'm mostly low maintenance about hauling my stuff to and from class. I owned a mat bag once, but got annoyed squeezing the mat into the bag all the time. It also didn't fit what I considered a very minimal amount of clothes, so I ditched it.

    That was a few years ago. Since then, I have just tucked my mat under my arm and scoffed at the people with fancy mat bags. Last year, I went out on a limb and bought a mat strap, and carry everything else -- on the weekdays, it swells to two changes of yoga clothes, work clothes, sneakers, a journal and a water bottle -- in a massive green and white beach bag.

    But that canvas bag weighs a ton. And my right shoulder is paying for it. It hurts a lot and the pain has made me extra cautious about binds and other intense shoulder openers in my practice. But until I read this post, I didn't think I could fix this problem beyond trying to lighten the load and use my left side, with minimal success.

    But then I saw the Saka Pinda. Look at it. Doesn't it look comfy? I love that you can just Velcro the mat in instead of wrestling it into the bag. There's pockets and space for clothes. The NYT calls it "absolutely the No. 1 bag hands down." Roseanne said it was amazing. I got online immediately. I can't wait to use it and share what I think. Shoulder pain, begone!
    (Image from nytimes.com)

    And for the word of the week. This week, my word is "lower." That's an easy one, right? But I got feedback that I use the word "drop" and while it works to drop the head or drop all thoughts, it's not really that smart to tell an intro class to drop body parts like their knee or arm. It lacks intentionality. So instead, my dear students are being asked to gracefully and mindfully lower.


    Spacing out to the music

    Our minds space out all the time. We space out while driving, in yoga class and while talking to people. But have you ever spaced out while on a stage in front of 2,000 people. *Raises hand*

    I started playing violin when I was 8, and having played pretty consistently since, I can tell you there's something to that muscle memory thing. During orchestra rehearsals and also sometimes in concert, I am capable of reading music, moving my bow and fingers and also spacing out so much that I have no memory of how I got through a page of music.

    It's much worse in orchestra than it is when I play in small chamber groups. I have a really hard time shaking it when I'm playing relatively easy music. But my community orchestra has been working on a difficult Bartok piece, which we performed today. There was no spacing out during the "Concerto for Orchestra." Bartok is neither easy to play nor easy to listen to, and it was tough to get the challenging piece ready in just seven rehearsals.

    Hi Maestro! I'm paying attention!

    But in the same way that I love challenging yoga classes that are so tough it's impossible for my mind to focus on anything but the poses, I love complex music like Bartok that engages the mind and makes it difficult to go super spacey. Every time my mind wandered while rehearsing, I would get hopelessly lost. So instead, I paid attention. Yup, imagine that. During our performance today, I paid attention almost the whole time. It was a big day.


    The best, most perfect kind of vacation

    New York beckoned and I answered its siren call. Who could resist a day and view like this?
     City Hall and Mayor Bloomberg are over there.

    And this?

    The stunning Woolworth building

    And this?

    Corned beef sandwich at 2nd Avenue Deli

    By the time I arrived on Friday, the previous weekend's snowpocalypse had long ago melted and blue skies, skyscrapers and Tom Colicchio beckoned. (I know I should shut up about Tom Colicchio, but I really am obsessed with "Top Chef". If Padma Lakshmi had a restaurant in NYC, my dad would not have gotten his pastrami sandwich at 2nd Avenue Deli, birthday or no birthday.)

    In the scheme of family vacations with my sister and parents, I would rate this among our best. We bickered almost never and we all were infatuated with every step of the weekend which was designed for my dad, ably planned by my sister and aided by little sis. Activities included a dinner of slurpy soup dumplings and magnificently mysterious fish head stew at Joe's Shanghai, tender, tender pastrami sandwiches at 2nd Avenue Deli, a weepy, joyous experience watching "Billy Elliott" on Broadway (if you want real inspiration, go see those little kids who play Billy leap around the stage) and a luscious meal of suckling pig, meaty duck and a flaky pear tart at Craft. There was, sadly, no sign of chef Tom, but then the hostess handed us each a beautiful little carrot muffin to go after dinner, so all was forgiven.

    All that divinity, plus post-dinner drinks with my college friend Leigh, required some serious recuperation on Sunday with the New York Times. I adored lying in bed reading the Sunday Styles section in the city that produces that awesome paper.

    But I needed one more thing to call the weekend/day complete. Sunday was my first trip to Kula, my sister's regular yoga studio. Kula is a down-to-earth, lovely studio located at the top of three steep flights of stairs in Tribeca. There's no sign. My sister warned me that Nikki's two-hour class would leave me in a puddle on the floor. Mission mostly accomplished. Nikki took us through some serious backbending to start, and wove standing balancing poses into a flow that occasionally was reminiscent of Baptiste and Ashtanga series, but mostly went where Nikki wanted it to go. My mind twisted in circles trying to follow her path and remember some of it for my classes while still trying to do some of what she was asking, which wasn't easy to begin with. And really, I wanted to sit and watch. There were some really lovely advanced practitioners in that class, who do many things I still aspire to, like hold a handstand as long as they want, arc gracefully into chaturanga or do the splits, or hanumanasana, while holding their back leg. My body rejects splits. I have overcome many physical barriers since I started practicing yoga, but my body won't budge on splits. At least it makes life more interesting.

    We followed class with a sun-soaked stroll to brunch with some of my sister's yoga friends. I love seeing yoga in action, building community and intention with lots of love. Her community is vibrant and amazing. But it also made me eager to return to my own supportive, incredible yoga community. New York, you were pretty great, but my heart belongs to Seattle.


    Fruit cleanse: the aftermath

    If life had gone according to plan, I would have followed up my very cleansing weekend with a super indulgent weekend of pastrami sandwiches at Second Avenue Deli, soup dumplings in Chinatown and roasted meats at Craft. I was going to throw in yoga for good measure, too. New York was on my agenda, but Mother Nature buried the plan in some big, fluffy drifts of snowcrazy.

    After all our flights were canceled, my family managed to reschedule my dad's entire birthday celebration, cutting and pasting the plan and moving it to another weekend. I am positive my upcoming New York weekend will still include pastrami sandwiches, Chinatown and Tom Colicchio singing happy birthday to my dad because that is my fantasy and don't you dare ruin it for me.

    But in case you were worried I followed up the fruit cleanse with immense amounts of healthy eats, two days after it ended I found myself at Toulouse Petit in Queen Anne for my dear friend Amber's don't-hate-me-because-I'm-moving-to-New-Zealand (but we do, Amber, we do) going-away party. Amber and I started off with happy hour, when we polished off tuna tartare with a quail egg and a bottle of Prosecco. During dinner, I was dazzled by chicken and duck liver terrine with pickled onions and cornichons and crawfish etouffee, then finished it off with hot, puffy beignets dipped in crazy amazing coffee-ish sauce. I also might have had a huge bowl of Szechuan beef noodle soup at Toy's Cafe in Bellevue yesterday. Cleanse? What cleanse?

    Nice and clean

    Just plain delicious.

    I blame it on the fruit-induced hunger. Fruit digests fast and I ate all the time. I couldn't wait to eat filling food again. But despite the cranky stomach, I liked the cleanse. I liked it better when it was over, but I'm proud of me and Angie for pulling through. I'm far more in tune with food cravings, and I've mostly avoided eating cookies at work since, except for the time a coworker brought over a huge, home-baked chocolate chip one. I was just being polite. Aaaaand I might have eaten all the sugar in my house (mochi ice cream, chocolate) just to get rid of temptation. But in one major triumph over my stomach, I bought mangoes and almonds at the store over the weekend instead of chocolate and crackers, though it's highly possible this uber-healthy trend will be short-lived. We are talking about me after all.

    Yoga word nerd alert: I missed last week, but I haven't forgotten about the Word of the Week. This week I am fixated on the word rhythm. As in rhythm of the breath. I love listening to the breath in class, and letting the body naturally flow in time. Listen to the rhythm and see where it takes you today.
    Header Image from Bangbouh @ Flickr