My Secret to a Healthy Body-Mind

About two months ago, I was twenty pounds heavier than I am now. It showed. I had fallen into the gym rat trap of building muscle mass by packing in calories and skipping on the cardio. I was beefy, for sure, yet because I’m mostly German, genetically (but Italian forever!), I looked several boxes of pastries away from Augustus Gloop status. In my head, anyway. My fat builds up on my ass (great!) and on my belly (not so great!). Because of that extra weight, my yoga practice was suffering. There was too much of me to move around on my mat. Even a brisk walk up Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles – which is really a walk in the park – got me winded.

I knew that intermittent fasting had worked for me in the past, so I’ve gone back to only eating between 12pm and 8pm. I don’t count calories and I don’t focus on protein intake. I just give my body sustenance within that timeframe. Sometimes I’m not even hungry despite not having eaten much so I’ll have something small to eat just because I don’t want it to become a complex.

I also decided that, out of respect for my body and out of respect for the yogic principle of non-violence, I was going to go vegan. I’d been vegan before, way back when I lived in Seattle because that’s just what you do there, so I knew what it would entail. Cooking at home, I didn’t usually prepare meat anyway, so it wasn’t a big deal to skip the rotisserie chicken at the grocery store.

I’ve also built cardio back into my workout regimen. Whether it’s running two miles on the treadmill, cycling, rowing, or a fun combination of all three (because yes, cardio IS boring – deal with it), I spend at least 20 to 30 minutes working up a huge sweat, which also powers me through the next hour of my resistance training. My body is warmed up and ready to go. I even started walking to the gym as a pre-warmup.

Two months in, I’ve got abs again. We all have abs, really, it’s just a matter of how much fat is hiding them. I also feel lithe and flexible again when I practice yoga. I can run at a fast pace on the treadmill and not be out of breath. And I feel good again about the way that I look – though I’m working on getting my ass back.

Here’s what’s worked for me. Each person’s experience is unique, so start slow and go safely through a process of trial and error until you can figure out what works best for you.

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1. INTERMITTENT FASTING

You can fast anywhere between 12 and 16 hours at a time, if you’re doing a daily fast. At 12 hours, the body has used up all your food intake for energy and switches to the glucose stored in your body. At about 14 hours, you start to metabolize fat for energy. At 16, the body will switch to denser material – lean muscle – so that’s when you want to start eating again. Drink A LOT of water, and don’t get upset if you cheat with a slice of pizza at 2am. The body is going to work with you and you’ll be shocked at how quickly it changes.

2. VEGAN FOOD

I love a PETA video. Did anyone else see Okja? Look – I’m not here to take away your rights to bacon. I’m just going to suggest that you wouldn’t be missing out on anything by skipping meat for your meals. Plants provide all of the nutrition you need and, because it’s the future, you can supplement anything else. What’s more, you can avoid participating in a filthy industry where living beings are bred and kept in cages just so you can have a burger. There’s a lot to say about the energetics of food, but I think you get the picture. You’re big boys and girls – make your own choices.

3. EXERCISE

This one is non-negotiable, unless your doctor says you can’t. Lifting weights is the best way to lose weight, when paired with a healthy diet. Cardiovascular activity is guaranteed to improve your well-being. I don’t need to cite scientific journals – You know. Turn your fucking TV off and take a walk.

4. MIND-BODY CONNECTION

A lot of us are just walking bobbleheads with more potential than we care to consider because who needs to participate creatively in society when the Kardashians do it for us. Seriously? You are a child of the universe, equipped with the divine powers of awareness and love. Take more than just a moment to focus on your breath and stretch your limbs. Make it an essential part of your lifestyle. Don’t be jealous of that bendy bitch across the room – BE THAT BENDY BITCH. You can do it. You just need to a) believe in yourself, and b) work for it. We’ve all got God within us, but releasing the full potential of that energy takes time and effort.

That all sounds easy enough, right? Great. Go for it. Me and millions of others have got your back. ✌️

WTF is “Being In Alignment”?

We talk a lot in yoga about “being in alignment”. You’ve heard it before. It’s tossed about casually while some Coachella-looking hipster waves a burning stick of wood at you, smiling like she knows something you don’t. It’s ok if you want to slap that smug look from her face, but take a deep breath. Phrases like that or “finding your center” tend to sound like woo-woo bullshit. Aligned to what? Center where? We end up thinking we have to be initiated into the divine secrets of some mystery cult and scour the recesses of Amazon for authentic sandalwood beads and little statues of Hindu deities.

Don’t get me wrong – I love a good sandalwood bead mala as much as the next yogi, but terms like this need more explanation and we don’t need to study ancient Sanskrit to understand them.

In fact, being in alignment is similar to a car. Over time, we travel far, we come upon obstacles and bumps in the road, we make hard turns left and right, hit the brakes hard, and swerve to avoid things we didn’t see coming. Just like we take our car to Jiffy Lube for a tune-up, we take our bodies to the yoga mat to work out all the kinks, reset our spines, lubricate our joints, and stretch our muscles.

A car would never need an alignment if it stayed on a straight road its whole life. Likewise, our bodies would never need the kind of healing that yoga movement provides if we weren’t being normal, active human beings. Since this isn’t possible, things like yoga exist to help us feel good in our bodies.

However, we’re doing much more than just physical work. When we talk about being in alignment, we’re also and more so talking energetically. I’m going to do my best to make this sound as little woo-woo as possible.

Being in alignment means acting from a place of pure love within you. This is the love that shines unceasingly from your heart. It’s the love that transcends special relationships. It is undying and the home of our truest, highest selves.

We get out of alignment when we start to source the power of love from anywhere other than that place within us. A car gets its power from its own gas tank. When we take love from someone or demand it with guilt and fear, we are way off base. It’s like we become spiritual Nosferatus, drinking life from sources that don’t belong to us. So what, then is the fuel?

Your source of life and power is the same as everyone else’s, so there’s no need to take it from anyone. It exists within you already. Alignment means extending love freely from your own limitless reserve and not placing it in a box – or another person or object – and labeling it with our limitations or judgments.

This point of perfect alignment is also what we mean when we say “center” – At your center, your heart, that energetic point within you that is undeniably fierce and strong, there is your power and your joy.

Look, I’m just as punch drunk stupid on love as the next human. I have my own layers of abandonment and perception of self-worth that I struggle with, especially when it comes to romantic relationships. It’s usually in romantic relationships where our sense of alignment is tested most harshly, but that’s just another big pothole or detour on the road of life amongst many others.

Whatever happens to you, it is your sacred mission in life to stay aligned to your highest self and steady at your center. There’s a force within you and all of us that’s got your back. This doesn’t mean don’t get involved romantically or shut the door and draw the shades on life’s many experiences and opportunities. It’s like building muscle memory: The more you test yourself and return to your sense of alignment, to the God at your center, the more resilient you’ll be in the face of the chaos of the world.

Let the power of love within you be the hands on the wheel. Don’t let the ego do what it loves to do – careen about wildly, smash mailboxes, toss trash out the window, and honk for attention. No – let love guide your way on the road of life. If you take a detour, you’ll come back to the way that is meant for you. If you have a passenger and they have to get off at the next exit, bless them on their journey. That’s it. That’s all you can do.

Jack Kerouac said it best in Desolation Angels… though most people snip off the first part of the quote, which in my opinion is the most important:

So shut up, live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry.

Here’s a stupid selfie of me looking exactly like that bead-wearing, self-knowledge smug, hipster yogi. Oh well – Embrace it!

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Feeling Without Identifying

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I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling a deep sense of loneliness. It’s still there, poking at my heart, reminding me of some distant wound that I’ve never fully resolved. When I’m seeing or experiencing something that presses against it – even something as innocent as a scene in a movie – those familiar pangs return and I’m immediately overwhelmed by emotion.

We all have these little bits of shrapnel trying to work their way out of our hearts – relics of the thousands of battles we’ve had on the fields of life, love, and loss. It’s the body’s natural response to reject these things in order to heal itself, yet the fearful mind keeps them pushed down inside of us, terrified of the pain it would experience should we allow them to be released.

Don’t get me wrong – the process of release is painful… but this is a matter of perspective. Letting go is all about recognizing that you are not your wounds. The mind would identify with all of your scars, but you are not your mind. You are something greater than any mind. How do we get to know this? By observing.

As I’ve mentioned before, we gain immense freedom in this world when we stay aligned at our center. The yogis call this “sat-chid-ananda” – existence-knowledge-bliss. When you identify with this living power in your heart, you are immune to the world’s ills. It’s pure awareness, which is not affected by your experience.

When you’re feeling lonely, all you have to do is sit with it. Notice it. Because you can notice your loneliness, you realize that it is an object, something external. Yes, it “feels inside” but if you notice closely, it does not affect your true center. It’s not who you really are. It’s just something the body-mind experiences on the surface of awareness.

As you observe your loneliness, allow it to move through you. Don’t jam it back down because you’re afraid of the pain. Feel the pain all the while knowing that you are not that pain. Another helpful tip from the yogis is that everything is temporary. As you observe the piece of shrapnel moving out of the heart, you will hurt. This pain is an important learning tool because it teaches you two things. One, not to put yourself into situations that can cause a new wound like this one. Two, that you are so much stronger than you even knew.

Stand behind the pain and just notice how your body-mind reacts. Let your body-mind experience the reaction as you breathe. Your body-mind needs to feel the full extent of this pain in order to let it go. That’s it. This is all about letting go. And once you let it go, chances are you aren’t likely to feel it again. Things that remind you of your loneliness won’t be able to press against that sharp bit of hurt inside you because you no longer identify with it. You’ve let the feeling of it move through you and you’ve decided to let it go. All just by noticing and breathing and remembering that you are more than your faults or your wounds.

Awareness does not cling or fight against the things we experience or feel. Awareness releases things as they come and go. Be aware of your feelings but don’t identify with them. Identify instead with that immense power within you. You will then see that your inner disturbances have no strength to overcome your higher power within. This is what is meant by “being in the flow” – the flow of love extending from your heart through which all things pass without leaving a mark.

Harmony of the Heart

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I’ve spent the winter learning to play a harmonium. Ever since my 200-hour yoga teacher training, I have wanted to learn how to sing yogic chants with this instrument. I’m not terribly musically inclined, but I can carry a tune and I was able to recall my essential piano lessons from way back when. I’m also an avid shower-singer, much to the chagrin of my roommates over the past decade or so. It simply uplifts me to sing.

Chant is a practice in yoga that we don’t often come across in the mainstream. Referred to usually as bhakti, it’s a powerful form of devotion in which those singing become absorbed in the vibration of the mantras. There are thousands of mantras and each one signifies a specific form of the divine.

Singing, whether in yoga or otherwise, is a perfect means of purifying our emotions. In the expression of what we’re feeling, we are able to release those feelings and move through them. In the practice of bhakti yoga, we surrender those feelings to the divine as an act of faith and love.

Singing, therefore, is a fluid combination of breath control, vocal expression, and, most importantly, living within the heart.

Think about it anatomically: The diaphragm controls the expansion of the lungs and the movement of the breath in and out of the body; the voice is the instrument of the body through which we relate to others; the heart sits right between the diaphragm and the vocal chords.

There is no escaping the heart when you wish to express yourself through song. It’s right there between the breath and the voice, so you have to move through whatever is in it in order to reach your fullest potential for expression.

The harmonium is built in a similar way. There’s a bellows that pumps air through the reeds which make the sound. Where’s the heart component? That’s the human element playing the instrument, fingering the keys, and harmonizing your voice and breath with those of the harmonium.

In the expression of your highest self, you must lead with the heart. Sometimes the work we do at the level of emotion is difficult, dark, and painful. Yet much like the sound of the chords you’re playing, they move outward from the body and dissipate into the big unknown. They are fleeting and beautiful.

In terms of singing yogic chants, we repeat the names of the divine because this instills in us a sense of power beyond the power of our emotions. We give life to the god within ourselves simply by acknowledging it, naming it, and setting it free. We take the time, much like in meditation or our movement practices, to turn inward and view our experience from a perspective beyond the ego. Observation of emotion protects you from becoming too involved in feelings that don’t last and don’t have any bearing on your true happiness.

True happiness, according to the yogis, is simply remembering that you are always attuned to the divine, which guides you to joy and success beyond your ego’s vainest dreaming, if you’ll listen closely and work with it instead of against it.

Meditation

Choose which pattern of waves you would create.
Huntington Library & Gardens, Pasadena, CA.

Meditation is a practice. It requires consistent, repeated effort, like any other art. By coming to physical stillness first, we may then observe the motions of the mind. We see how thoughts flow. We see how they are impermanent and fickle. We ground ourselves by focusing on the breath – a substance far more real and more important than thought. We rest upon the pulse of the heart, which has slowed its rate in our state of concentration. We inhabit this moment instead of being carried away by our wild thinking to a moment beyond the present.

How beautiful, this peace we cultivate. How orderly and subtle, like soft lines intentionally raked across sunlit sand. Our mind, a garden to attend. Zen.