Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Yoga for a Woman Out of Balance

"Fear is nervousness; fear is anxiety; fear is a sense of inadequacy, a feeling that we may not be able to deal with the challenges of everyday life at all. We feel that life is overwhelming. People may use yoga to suppress their fear..."--
Chögyam Trungpa, from Smile at Fear: Awakening the True Heart of Bravery

The decision is always a tough one: stay in bed/on the couch, staring at the wall or with my eyes closed but not sleeping--or, get up and do something productive in the morning, something healthy that will make my life like a cereal commercial. I'm the well-dressed career woman who admires her slimmer figure in a full-length mirror, picks up her sporty gym bag, then eats a bowl of Special K (which I would like to add is made with high fructose corn syrup, a contributor to weight GAIN) and sashays out the door, oozing self-satisfaction.

Or I'm the petite and lean young woman with the bouncy blonde ponytail and the "Arlington 5K Race" T-shirt, running at a swift pace without sweating or wheezing. I see this person all over the place--in the park, on the city streets, in my neighborhood. She's everywhere and she's always fitter than you.

The point is, I can loaf around and eat a second bowl of Kashi Autumn Wheat or I can get up and exercise. Since I quit the gym (I never went, it was boring, I felt compelled to take a shower and put on make-up BEFORE going to workout!) and after I stopped my walking routine, I've been feeling muscle aches, lower back pain, and just a general apathy about my body. But I remember what it's like to feel strong and energized, and I want that feeling back.

So here I am again, starting yet ANOTHER workout regimen. This time its Yoga. I figured it would be an appropriate practice, considering where I work. The pictures of the fresh-faced women in Yoga Journal, the kinds who only eat natural products and bathe themselves in kelp and are 55 but look 35--maybe I can aspire to be like them. No more Proctor & Gamble chemically-laced soap and shampoo for me! I will only buy my toiletries from obscure producers in California. No more Cheez-Its breaks! I will munch on unbleached almonds. I will practice Yoga at home everyday until I'm confident enough to take my act on the road, to a Yoga studio.

I bought the Rodney Yee's Yoga for Beginners DVD (featuring Colleen Saidman, yet another pretty, lithe middle-aged woman who looks like a college student.) I had a roommate who used a Rodney Yee DVD to do Yoga. She said she had heard that Yee was a letch in real life, sleeping around with his female students. If this is true, it wouldn't surprise or really phase me. He's rich, he's famous, he can wrap himself into a pretzel. Many women would find that attractive.

I start with the practice poses. If there were someone in my livingroom right now guiding me, they'd probably be constantly repositioning my Mountain pose or pushing my legs out further for Downward Facing Dog. I make up some poses. I struggle to replicate Rodney. It reminds me of when I was a little girl in Miss Maria's class at Bayshore Dance Academy, when she told my mother that I had a hard time following the class. It's probably because I had to stop and think before I could remember which was my right foot and which was my left, or I'd have to pause to do the "L"-shaped thumb reminder. By the time I had pinpointed the correct leg, the other dancers were on to something else.

Yoga is supposed to be relaxing. Unfortunately, our kitten Joey Thumbs keeps digging her claws around my ankles and "playing" with me. I try to shake her off without flinging her across the room, but she's surprisingly strong. I should have known this. After all, I had witnessed her running toward the front of the dishwasher several times and ramming her head into it, without showing any signs of a headache or permanent brain damage.

When I manage to get Joey off me, she goes after her other favorite punching bag, our ten-year-old cat Audrey. I focus on my breath while trying to block out the sounds of growling, hissing, and spitting. When the 40-minutes are up, I feel both relief and a sense of accomplishment. But I won't get ahead of myself here. I'm only on Day #2. They say it takes three weeks to form a habit.

I disagree with Chogyam Trungpa that Yoga is an escape from fear. Yoga has inspired fear in me for years--in addition to the right/left problem, I'm also a high-strung type. The one other time I took a yoga class, in college, I hated lying on the floor contemplating the top of my head. Such stillness and physical awareness scared me. Now it's becoming a welcome respite, a time to slow down and really experience my strong legs, flexible back muscles, and open chest. I feel what it's like to stand up straight instead of slouching, to reach up instead of shrinking back.

When I walk to work this morning, I stand a little bit taller.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ghee, You're Swell

"Muffins are wonderfully quick and easy to prepare, and generally they require only 20 minutes or so to bake. Plus people are fond of muffins--at least I am."--Edward Espe Brown, from The Tassajara Bread Book

Yoga Journal recently had this wonderful recipe for Apple Muffins. It was a gorgeous, sunny Sunday but I was indoors baking muffins. They made the kitchen smell like a scented candle, except the mingling smells of cinnamon and cloves and apple were real, and not created by a chemical factory.

I felt a little guilty not going outside. I half-expected a call from my mother saying, "Get out and enjoy the weather, it's a beautiful day!" She says this often. I expect mothers of pale adult children everywhere say this. And yes, some natural Vitamin A would have been good for my broken foot bones. But I was so excited that it was cool enough to turn the oven on that I chose baking as my sensory pleasure of the moment.

The recipe was fairly straightforward: 2 chopped apples, 2 cups whole wheat flour (I used half King Arthur whole-wheat and half KA all-purpose flour. I find baking with exclusively wheat flour makes the end product too dense), 2 eggs. It called for delightful warming spices, like cinnamon and cardamom and cloves, and 2 TBSP of maple syrup to coat the apples. Dates were also on the list, but as I despise any dried fruit (including raisins) I substituted with chopped walnuts. The only unusual ingredient was Ghee.

I had heard of Ghee before but was scared of it. Before I came to love Indian food, I had heard stories of non-Indians getting sick from Ghee. I always assumed it was spoiled butter.

When I told Mike about needing Ghee, thinking maybe they'd have it in the international aisle in Star Market, he immediately jumped on the computer. He found a cooking blog called Ma Cooks that ticked off the many wonders of Ghee and how to make it at home. Eager for something new to try, Mike got started on the Ghee, frequently stirring the butter in a pan for 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile I wrestled with the apple corer, shooting tubes of core through the air like I was playing with a rocket launcher. Mike reported that his Ghee didn't look clear enough. Should he skim the foam off the top? There was some talk of using a cheese cloth to strain it, but I wasn't an advanced enough cook to have some just lying around. Ma Cooks had said that the solids would sink to the bottom and get caramelized. She recommended saving this to put on hot cereal. We were both intrigued. Carmelized butter on oatmeal or Cream of Wheat--it sounded heavenly.

But the bottom of the pan eventually scorched, so there was none of that. However, the Ghee that resulted was the same color as the picture on the blog. Frankly, it looked like a urine sample in a jar, but it was too late for me to change my mind.

The muffins came out beautifully, with nice brown tops and a layer of gooey chunks of sweet apples inside. I loved the combination of the softness of the muffin and the crunchiness of the walnuts. They were warm and filling, and since they came from Yoga Journal, they had to be healthy, right?

We each ate two.

The question then was, what do we do with the rest of the Ghee? A few hours after it was made, the consistency thickened and the yellow color went from dark to light. Ma Cooks said she used her Ghee up in a matter of days. But we had never cooked with Ghee before. Could it replace olive oil or butter when we sauteed onions and garlic? Could we drizzle it on popcorn? Or was it strictly an Indian food ingredient? I figured I'd whip up a vegetable curry at some point.

But Michael raved about it. "Smell it," he said, holding the open jar up to my nose. It smelled like the inside of a movie theater, a somewhat stale smell that made you salivate nonetheless.

He smeared a piece of bread with it. "Mmmm" he said. Curiosity got the better of me, even as I worried that I was headed toward intestinal disaster.

It was as delicious as he said. I had a second piece of toast just to savor more Ghee goodness. Again, I had assumed I didn't like something, but never bothered to test my theory. I thought I didn't like Indian food, but proved myself wrong several years ago. I thought I would get sick from Ghee, but so far, so delicious.

I have a feeling we won't be hanging on to our jar of Ghee for very long, either.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Advantages of a Disciplined Life

Photo credit: Pascal O. Marolla

"The notion of ruling your world is that you can live in a dignified and disciplined way, without frivolity, and at the same time enjoy your life. You can combine survival and celebration. Many people feel that the regularity of life is a constant imposition. They would like to have a different life, or a different menu, every second, at every meal. It is necessary to settle down somewhere and work at having a regular, disciplined life. The more discipline that occurs, however, the more joyous life can be. So the pattern of your life can be a joyous one, a celebration, rather than obligation alone. That is what it means to rule the kingdom of your life."--``Chögyam Trungpa, from Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior

This weekend my husband and I and the two cats stayed home. It had been a while since we had a weekend at home, much less a weekend that wasn't so humid that I had to sequester myself in the bedroom--the only room with an air conditioner. My foot is slowly mending so I was able to walk around without hobbling too much. We both had ambitious to-do lists--mine had about 38 items on it. Some were easy like, Put away clean dishes. And some were more ambitious like, vacuum entire apartment. In the morning, we took the kitten to the vet for her last booster shot and cha-ching! another $250. So far, this kitten has cost us upward of $750. Not that you can put a price on cute.

When we got back to the apartment, I took a nap. I take a lot of naps on the weekend. Naps in a cool room with my sound machine on and no interruptions is heavenly. Yet, I almost always feel guilty. I don't have time to nap! I have a to-do list taunting me, saying You are the most undisciplined, lazy person I've ever known. You're 36, start acting like an adult and do your chores. Cross something off of me, lady!

So I cleaned out the fridge from top to bottom, swiping every crevice of its stuck-on food particles, sticky spills, and onion peels. It took a couple of hours because I also cleaned the outside and the top of the fridge. I found all sorts of weird things tossed on the top--bags of nails, a torn mobile, a chipped mug filled with various pieces of folded paper, a mangled cat toy, an ugly fake plant that was left behind by the apartment's previous owner. Once I was done, I knew that would be the end of my usefulness for the day. I curled up with the kitten and read a book.

Meanwhile Mike was running around, picking up blinds and fixing our broken basement door. He washed all the dishes, and then because he hadn't written wash dishes on his list, he wrote it in and then crossed it out.

We are not self-starters, Mike and I. We need a deadline or someone's parents coming over to spring us into action. When company comes over, I actually think our place looks pretty nice--cluttered, a little ragged around the edges, but homey. It's the same when I'm taking a writing class or posting on this blog. I remember why it is I like to write. It's no longer a chore, but a pleasure--especially the end result. Why don't I write more?

On Sunday, I was determined to clean up all those spots of dirt and dust that had been bothering me for weeks. I washed the floor, vacuumed, cleaned the bathroom, even wiped down the inside of the microwave (have you ever looked at the top of the inside of your microwave? Don't. It looks like the aftermath of a slasher film.)

I made a dinner of pumpkin and sage ravioli (store-bought) with a walnut and basil pesto (homemade.) Mike, who had been laboring away on sifting soil from his worm composter (pretend I didn't write that and you didn't read it) was genuinely impressed by the difference a day and a half of harried, almost manic cleaning made to the apartment. Our cats spent most of the day either advancing or retreating on each other like boxers ready to throw a punch, or they were fleeing from the vacuum. But mutual terror of loud machines became a bonding experience, because at one point they were both in the livingroom, just a few feet apart, and no claws were extended, no hisses or growling could be heard from the kitchen.

Sunday night, I thought about the weekend and felt a sense of accomplishment, but also a sense that I had spent my two days off in the most mundane way possible. We hadn't gone to any nice restaurants or taken any fun car trips or visited any of our far-flung friends. I would have no stories to tell about my weekend. I kept thinking how age was making me duller and duller. Wasn't it more fun to ignore the laundry and buy new, never-before-worn clothes? Wasn't it better to have an interesting life than a to-list with checkmarks?

But obviously we can't sustain a life of idle luxury. There's a recession going on. Frugality is the new black (even if budgets make me tremble and sweat).

I have to admit it was nice to walk barefoot around an apartment with a clean floor. It was nice to see sparkling white tiles in the kitchen. I was happy because I cooked, something I want to do more of as summer gives way to fall. And there was no big bill at the end of dinner that would surprise us when we opened our next credit card statement.

There can be joy in doing what you have to do. There can be satisfaction in starting and finishing something. There can be comfort in knowing you're not going to be eating cat food when you're 90 because you spent all your money on things that are now long gone. We're saving money for a rainy day and I'm making do with the fall wardrobe I have (for now--I'm not a monk.) Sure, a new Lulu Guinness bag has been calling my name lately, but luckily I can't hear it over the whirr of the vacuum.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Every moment is magnificent (unless you're a worrier like me.)

"Has the most wonderful moment of your life already happened? Ask yourself that question. Most of us will answer that it hasn't happened yet, but that it could happen at any time. No matter how old we are, we tend to feel that the most wonderful moment of our life hasn't happened yet. We fear maybe it's too late, but we are still hoping.
"The teaching of the Buddha tells you clearly and plainly to make this the most magnificent and wonderful moment in your life. All you need to transform this present moment into a wonderful one is freedom. All you need to do is free yourself from your worries and preoccupations about the past, the future, and so on.
"The deep insight of impermanence is what helps us do this. It is very useful to keep our concentration on impermanence alive. You think the other person in your life is going to be there forever, but that is not true. So if you can do something to make that person happy, you should do it right away."--Thich Nhat Hahn, from You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment

I'm in Maine at the family cabin overlooking a pond. When I look up, I see the criss-cross of branches like a leafy dome covering my view of the blue sky. I am cold, having worn summer clothes on a September day in the north country. Even the two blankets that cover me up to my lips aren't keeping me warm. And yet, I'm on a hammock, reading a book, sipping wine on a beautiful near-fall day in the woods. I should drink this in, let the moment seep into my skin. Why worry about a little chill? Why think about the next thing I want to be doing? Didn't I wait for a chance like this all year? C'mon, appreciate this Jennifer, appreciate it, dammit!

Maybe I'm trying too hard to be positive and, as Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, "make this the most magnificent and wonderful moment in your life." That's a lot of pressure. The cliche goes that for women, their wedding day is the best moment of their life, and if it's not, then the marriage is a sham. I had so many expectations surrounding my wedding, starting with the impression I got from TV and movies growing up that the only happy ending to a story is a wedding. Then of course there are stores like Kate's Paperie that make weddings look like a great excuse to buy lots of pretty stationery. When I was single I would spend a lot of time sighing plaintively over bridal shower invitations with elegant typefaces and scalloped edges.

But when I got engaged on Christmas Eve 2005, I wasn't prepared for the mixture of emotions I was feeling. Of course, I was pleased, but I was also scared, nervous, speechless, and shaking. Suddenly I was having my moment, the one I had hoped for all those years of dating and getting dumped or duped or both. And I didn't know how to feel. The past snuck in there to remind me of the good parts of being a single girl in the city. The future elbowed its way into the moment, flashing images of me as an old, decrepit widow, staring at pictures of my late husband (who is seven years older than me. And women statistically outlive their men.)

That night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, my head was whirling.

This is the thing they never tell you about in all those whimsical articles in women's magazines like "How to get him to pop the question," which made me think of a question mark flying out of the top of a champagne bottle. The bridal magazines were no better--they were just another form of pornography, but one that was sanctioned by your mother and friends. They sold you desire in the form of gowns as rich as frosted cake, as much jewelry as you'd find in a treasure chest on a deserted island, flowing veils that could at any moment swoop you up and carry you away to heaven, even tiaras(!) I hadn't worn a tiara since I was six, but suddenly I thought maybe I wanted one. For a few months after I was engaged, I bought dozens of these glossy seduction manuals, dog-earring page after page of place settings and bridesmaid dresses and rules of etiquette for making seating charts.

But nowhere was their an article like "He Popped the Question--and the Bubbly is Making Your Head Spin." No ambiguous feelings allowed, the magazines seemed to imply. You are a happy future bride whose only focus should be on whether to go for a sweetheart neckline or an empire waist.

The wedding itself was beautiful and moving, but even on my wedding day, I was afraid to feel anything but absolute, undiluted bliss. I remember being nervous at the hair salon, staring at the grilled shrimp salad in my hands but not eating it. My stylist mistook my silence for calmness, and told me she was impressed that I wasn't freaking out. Not only was I not calm, but I was worrying about all kinds of stupid things, like wanting to be a perfect customer at the salon, not some pushy, demanding bride that they would all talk about later to their other clients. I was worried that I would not look the prettiest I had ever looked (as is expected of brides), or that the prettiest I could look would not amount to much. I worried about standing in profile in front of hundreds of people because I think I look better straight on. I wasn't even thinking about what the wedding meant, that in fact at around 4:30 that afternoon I would be married, that I would have a husband who I promised to love and honor for the rest of our lives. No, I was worried that I wouldn't be the perfect bride like the ones who filled all the magazines I'd been reading for a year.

A flute of champagne helped. So did the moment when my mother entered the bridal suite, late but nevertheless there. Seeing her finally arrive was the only time the whole day that I cried. I live several states away from her, and though I'm OK with that, at that moment I missed her terribly. She would tell me to relax, to stop worrying about silly things, to enjoy the moment and have fun.

One of my most joyful moments of my wedding day didn't involve anyone. It was just me, sitting at a table in my room the morning of the wedding, eating a simple breakfast of yogurt, tea, and a mini-bagel, writing out a card for Michael that I would have delivered to him before the ceremony. I thought of all the beautiful moments we had shared together in the past 7 years. I let myself free-write my thoughts in that card, not crossing anything out or editing myself at all. It was a quiet moment, the sun streaming through the curtains, me in my bathrobe and no make-up quietly writing and taking sips of peppermint tea, which soothed my nervous stomach. Sealing the card, I couldn't wait for Mike to read it because I knew it would make him smile, and maybe calm his own fears for the moment.