Don’t judge me.

I walked into a gym the other day and the receptionist was eating McDonald’s. The bag caught my eye, as it’s been market-researched to do, and I ignored it (as I was raised to do– thank you, MA). But before I could make my way past the desk, the receptionist sighed and said, ‘oh, don’t judge me.’

Honestly, I wasn’t sure what she meant. She had those San Diego gym couture looks– fresh-faced and blonde, sparkling around the cheeks and shoulders like she’d just been spritzed by sea spray. If I’d intended to judge, it might have been for that lovely sweetness– seriously, how is everyone in this city so good looking? But she pointed, grimaced and I got it: she wanted me to know that she knows what I know and what most of us know– that McDonald’s is probably (definitely) a crappy choice in most (every) circumstance.

And here I commend this woman’s brain power for its complex reasoning. Reasoning, I should add, that comprises an awesome part of our human experience. We use it to innovate, to create, to discern and to justify. That last one is well utilized when we face the challenge of controlling our desires. As this woman did. As every human being who ever walked this earth has done.

In the case of this woman, she rued an indulged craving; she reflected on her commitment to health; and then, with her fingers on a fry, she respected her investment. She said, ‘A woman’s gotta eat.’ I said, ‘Totally.’

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, five principles of good behavior make up one path to yoga– that ultimate union between our selves, our bodies, our minds. These five principles of right living are known as the yamas. They include: compassion, honesty, not stealing, sense control, and freedom from envy or avarice.

I bring up the yamas because I saw a story on NPR’s site about the connection between stress, food and our moods. A recent survey by NPR and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that 86 percent of folks surveyed reported experiencing stress in the past month. Thirty percent of them ate more than they normally would as a result. What complicates the reaction is the attraction of sugar and carbs when stress hits. In other words, the stuff inside that McDonald’s bag might seem like the right response when life gets rough. But then that stuff in the bag increases our vulnerability to stress. Oof. What a cycle.

But it’s not unbreakable nor is it out of our control. Which is where yama #4 comes in. Sanskrit term: brahmacharya. Sure, sure, I hear you old school yogis muttering through your enlightened lips: ‘that’s the celibacy yama.’ Which is true. But not quite as relevant these days as we collectively indulge in subsidized corn turned into nuggets and called chicken. Did you know that Americans in 2014 consume, on average, 540 calories from sugar daily? Compared to 60 calories from sugar in 1914? And that those 500 calories are contributing to a 23 percent increase in calorie intake since 1970? 500 calories. That’s a whole meal. It takes almost two hours for a 160-pound adult to walk that energy off.

So let’s give some thought to this. Yoga is more than a physical practice; it’s physiological and psychological. Food is more than sustenance. It’s emotional and, thanks to food science and marketing, manipulative. We know we shouldn’t indulge. And yet we do. And then we feel bad. Which means we’ll indulge again to relieve ourselves of that maddening stress of shame. Sigh. Don’t judge. We’re human.

I’ve written about finding our yoga beyond poses and spandex. Here’s another place to look. We can practice yoga by applying some sense control (some sense, to start with) to confront our urge for comfort food. Brahmacharya. And in doing so, we break a pattern. Instead, try foods rich in nutrients– fresh, local and in season. Maybe even ones that you grow yourself. Who doesn’t swoon over the scent of tomatoes from the garden? Who doesn’t giggle at the juice of a very ripe strawberry dripping off her lip?

It’s pretty simple, actually, though by no means easy. If we don’t eat crappy food, we won’t feel crappy. When we don’t feel crappy, we don’t crave crappy food. So go easy and give it a go. Forgive yourself often and remember not to judge. Then forge ahead and try again. New patterns eventually develop with good intentions. I swear. I totally think this.

Atta yoganusasanam: now we’re doing yoga.

Who, exactly, are you?

While I’d love to meet anyone taking the time to visit– hello, and here’s a hug– I’m less interested in the people we say we are and obsessed with this idea that we are not our thoughts. All this, ‘I’m tired,’ ‘I’m lazy,’ ‘I’m worried,’ ‘I’m going bananas,’ initiates with the preliminary fixture, ‘I am.’ I’m obsessed with this condition precedent. And anything that is my obsession becomes your reading material. You’re welcome.

Through the ruckus of my internal mob and resistance– vive l’me– I occasionally hear the words of my teachers, and the dead guys who interpret Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the even deader, though possibly reborn, guys who passed along the Vedas. A good bunch, all of them, sage-like but a mite dry. Sometimes, even, dusty. And not just due to decay. I’m not saying that wisdom seeking isn’t an adventure; I’m saying the adventure can be arduous.

Quick and dirty background: most folks who do asana think the postures pave the path to yoga. They’ll cruise a few rest stops here and there for breath and meditation. Maybe do a little good work to satisfy their karma. But this physical practice is really just the prep work. Folks may debate this, but here’s my position: we hone our bodies through asana to begin the process of settling our minds. Yoga postures ask that we move mindfully through space. Our attention becomes one-centered, hopefully, as we explore the boundaries of every pose. And if not completely one-centered, well, close enough in fleeting moments.

The healthy body’s our ride. Nothing more than a soft and juicy vehicle we’d like to go the distance. The mind: that’s the driver. And the pot-holed, winding road is yoga. The path, I might interpret for the new age folks in white pajamas. Sometimes the driver flies into a rage. He’s sure everyone on the road but him is an asshole. Sometimes, the driver gets lost. She knows she took a wrong turn but she can’t remember when. Both drivers are looking around, distracted by billboards, luxury cars, road conditions, traffic accidents.  To slaughter the metaphor: we’re just a bunch of truckers hauling our asses across land we barely see. Unless, suddenly, we become aware. Our mind becomes one-centered. Cue trucker horn.

Here’s an idea that Eckhart Tolle calls ‘observing the thinker.’ We learn to identify our thoughts as experiences, and then to distinguish them from our nature. Just as we may temporarily become cold when the window is open, we are not always cold. We may transiently feel anxious because we’re focusing on a future we can’t see, but we are not anxiety. What we are is people capable of feeling worry, or pain, or joy, or grief, or drama, or hot, or cold. What we are is a person who perceives. We aren’t what we perceive.

Whoa.

So, who, exactly, are you? All those sages (and, ahem, a therapist or two) suggest that observing thoughts– noting our emotions and manipulating them like so: ‘oh, I’m feeling sad as I think of the crap decisions I’ve made but I’m not actually a sad person who always makes crap decisions’– that we start to let go of the anchor of these perceptions. They become fleeting. Like the roadside distractions. They pass by and disappear in the rearview mirror. You may even start to notice that you have patterns of perception: ‘I’m so bad with money’ becomes ‘I’ve experienced some loss of money’ becomes ‘oh, that did happen but it’s not actually who I am.’ And you’ve just disarmed another billboard with a shitty self-limiting message. Well done. Now you know those billboards aren’t selling anything you need.

What do you think? Am I wacky with this? Let me answer that for you. I am. Occasionally wacky. But still. I am. Keep on truckin’, my friends. On whatever road you need to take.

 

What is your body telling you?

A conversation with a client over the weekend, followed by a spill off the sidewalk, has me thinking about the funny ways our bodies call for change. And the anxious rebellion our mind wages to ignore the call: ‘I have no time for this.’ ‘I don’t slow down.’ ‘I can handle it.’ We are our own worst insurgents. Eventually, if we ignore our bodies long enough, we’ll be at war… with depression, or disease, or that intransigent grandmaster of fate– death, itself.

Contrary to popular belief, it is no great weakness to acknowledge that the rat race isn’t for humans. (It isn’t for rats, either, a sad fact proven again and again by scientists who put rats into stressful situations and then watch them crap out.)

But what to do, what to do? In justifying her reluctance to save herself, my client ducked into a blackhole of excuses– schedule, family expectations, future anxiety, paralyzing fear– before she said, ‘I mean, it’s amazing I’m even here for this massage.’ Which, I assured her, is a huge accomplishment. And a great step. And something that sends a telegram to her body that says, ‘I hear you, you wondrous strapping beast.’ It’s like that kindness you get from a stranger that reminds you that we’re all capable of loving and being loved.

It’s also the case, however, that the kindness of strangers might exceed the favor we show ourselves when we spiral into that black hole. My client, fortunately, had someone push her into her massage. Literally, with two hands. The thing is, the psychological stress that spins us– that some of us would say sustains us– is a relatively new phenomenon when you consider the time it took our animal kingdom to get around to crowning us. Old school homo sapiens might have suffered physical crises– running from predators, overcoming famine or bacterial infection– but their helplessness didn’t present the same sort of absurdities as comes with a showdown with your insurer or the DMV or the IRS. Fifty thousand years ago, no one was zooming at 80mph when someone decided to cut them off before slamming on the brakes. No one was ingratiating themselves to a grumpy customer so a middle manager in Houston would approve a paltry bonus. The bank didn’t even exist to call a loan on our cave sweet cave. Despite our apparent freedoms, our orbits expand and contract at the whim of forces beyond us. If we let them.

These stressors are not only ubiquitous– in the air as surely as particulate matter and dandelion kites– they’re insidious. They challenge our hearts, our nerves, our lungs, our adrenals and our tummies– the whole of our physiology.  Under stress, our bodies careen to their edge, get taut like wire. Maybe they fray; maybe they snap. And while old school stressors– predators and drought– eventually tired or ended, new school stress doesn’t seem to tire. It keeps pinching our shoulders like that crappy alcoholic uncle. Which means our bodies never find a quiet moment to activate their magical mechanics of restoration and repair.

Enter our big, evolving brains. The smarts that come up with dumb ideas like for-profit health care can be put to use devising ways to see beyond for-profit health care. Or the inequities of the tax code. Or the sour relationship you have with your neighbor. Our big brains, with a little work and a lot of detachment, can help our bodies find ease. So offer yourself time to relax– a massage or a series of Slow Yoga classes is a good way to start. An evening walk away from a screen is great. A day spent in shade at the park. A morning reading poetry. Plant a garden, deep breathe, hold someone’s hand.

You have more control than you might think, and your control is pretty absolute. This is your life to manage. Act appropriately.

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