14 Ways Your Life Will Be Better in 2014…

fireworks

…IF you take my advice and resolve to practice yoga, meditation and work-life balance this coming year. As we round the corner from one year into the next, now is the perfect time to consider who it is you want to be in 2014 and how you are going to achieve it.

Urban Practice is a blog all about sharing ways for you – the busy urban professional – to incorporate ancient techniques for maintaining a healthy, happy and thriving mind and body into your modern daily life.

Although I know that there are many beneficial mind/body practices out there (and I do discuss some of them – like martial arts, dancing, theatre, even mindful exercise – on this blog), I am partial to the teachings of yoga and buddhist-cum-secular vipassana meditation because they  have had a particularly huge positive influence on my life.

So while those other practices very well may give you many benefits in 2014, I am still going to plug yoga and vipassana meditation as the best way to improve your work, your life and the balance between both. Here are 14 reasons why. 

1. You will move from your core with confidence. Keep in mind that yoga is about so much more than physical movements/postures and meditation is about so much more than sitting cross-legged. If you practice both of them regularly, you will tap into an innate, infinite intelligence that already exists in your mind and body – right at the core of who you are. Once you access this magical core, a lot of problems in your life – that come from your perpetual issues with your self-esteem – will start to drop away.

2. Your selfie will look smooth and sexy. Now, getting a hot body is far from the goal of yoga (and the physical postures – the asanas – are only the tip of the iceberg of yogic teachings). But if you practice every day, or even every other day or even once a week, you will notice some nice changes in your physique. I call the smooth and sexy yoga body a “convenient side effect” from doing yoga: you practice yoga for the mental, emotional and psychic benefits but the improvement in your body, or at least how you see your body, will make you want to show yourself off on instagram. 

3. Your joints will thank you. Your joints have a big job enabling you to move your arms and legs, hands and feet – not to mention your spine, which is one long line of moveable joints. There is a viscous liquid that fills most of your body’s joints, called synovial fluid, and guess what? The many different postures of yoga help circulate synovial fluid around your many different joints and that in turn feeds essential oxygen and nutrients to the cartilage lining at the ends of your bones. The result is healthy happy joints.

meditation

4. Your mind will be able to focus. Meditation teacher Daniel Goleman says that we modern urban beings live in a state of perpetual partial attention. You know, checking email while texting while talking to your mom on the phone while walking across the street, and so on. Yes it is fun to practice multitasking, but there are plenty of moments when we want to focus on a single task – a deadline for example – and we have a hard time doing it. The single pointed attention that you gain from practicing meditation every day will “exercise” your mind so that when you need to home in on a task, you are able to do it fully and at will.

5. Your memory will improve. Ditto above regarding your memory. When you are able to focus on what you are reading, listening to, thinking about, your mind will retain it so that you can call it up later.

6. You will sleep better. The reason for this is multi fold: first, yoga moves your body and exercises your muscles in a way that burns up the anxious energy that might prevent you from sleeping; second, certain yoga postures (like shoulder stand or forward bends) calm your nerves and stimulate relaxation hormones in your body; third, meditation teaches you to observe your mind, rather than engage it, so when you are caught in a thought-loop at 3 am when you should be sleeping you can focus on your breath, calm down and just watch the show, which will eventually lull you back to sleep.

7. Your heart will be healthier. I hear this all the time: yoga is not aerobic exercise, it doesn’t get your heart rate up. To that I say: bollocks. It is true some yoga styles focus on alignment and slow movements. But others, such as astanga or vinyasa, focus on repeated challenging movements taken on each inhale and exhale. These styles certainly get your heart rate up and make you sweaty. So yes yoga does have all the heart health benefit of an aerobics class or jogging, but with a whole bunch of energetic benefits to your heart chakra as well.

8. Your breath will feel luxurious. This is the one that made me fall in love with yoga. I remember lying in savasana after those first few vigorous astanga classes and thinking ‘damn I feel awesome!’ And it was a lot because I had spent an hour and a half breathing deeply, for the first time in many years. So yoga will teach you to breathe in a way that maximizes your oxygen intake and use to make you feel sooooo good. And meditation teaches you to use your awareness to home in on your breath as it is. Combine the two and you will end up marveling at how rich and valuable your breath is.

9. Your inner critic will quiet down. One of my favorite parts of challenging myself in yoga is that there is no right way for any given posture, meditation, or state of being. Time after time I have heard teachers tell me to treat myself kindly, and leave judgments at the door. I remember these words often, and I share them now with my own students. With all the positive affirmations telling you that what you should do is refrain from judging yourself, it is hard to not absorb and integrate it into all parts of your life.

10. Your balance will amaze you. I have yet to meet anyone – student, friend or colleague – who does not improve their balance after beginning a consistent yoga practice. Consistency is the key: it takes practice to understand, experience and engage the many different elements that put you in balance. But you will get it eventually and when you do you will likely be inspired to share it (see #2).

Balance

11. Your moods will become less mysterious and more interesting. Yoga and mediation teach you to just observe: your body’s capacities and limitations, your mind’s tendency to wander and fret, your general habit patterns and style of engaging with the world. The skill of mindful observation – as opposed to blind reaction – will start to bleed out of your yoga/meditation practice into the rest of your life and you will start to notice connections between your moods and your choices, environment and even diet (see #12). This will provide you with a lot of clarity and endless entertainment, like watching a blockbuster movie where you are the star, the director and the audience.

12. Your diet will improve. There is something about tapping into your core intelligence (see #1 above) that encourages a change in your choices of what food to put into your body. This was one of the first things I noticed after I started a daily yoga practice (all those 12 years ago): all of a sudden I was more aware of the cause and effect of what I ate and how I felt later. So I began to choose more fruits and vegetables, fresh home cooked meals and less alcohol. But I do still have a strong craving for chewy sweets (like jelly beans) and I do let myself indulge. Note that the practice is not about suppressing all desires, but rather replacing them with healthy ones.

13. You will flow more than resist. Yoga and meditation will teach you discern what you should work on changing and what you should simply surrender to, whether in your body or your mind. The result will be a lighter attitude and less grasping of the-way-you-think-it-should-be. You will become adept as striking the balance between effort and ease on your yoga mat, your meditation cushion or at your desk.

14. You will become aware of the passage of time. Yoga and meditation will sharpen your perception of the continuous little changes that are occurring each and every moment of your life in both your body and your mind. It will also help you see – and accept – some things you might have preferred to avoid prior to beginning a practice. A wise teacher once told me to think about my yoga practice in terms of decades, rather than days, weeks or months. Reflecting on who you are physically, emotionally, mentally, or  psycho-spiritually through the perspective of yoga and meditation for years and years will give you the kind of insight that makes you wise.

Okay okay, even if you are not going to resolve to practice yoga/mediation every single day in 2014, do tell me what you plan to do. I want to know what lights your fire…

As always, if you are interested in learning more about how yogic breathing techniques, mindful movement/asana, meditation and work-life balance can improve your urban life send an inquiry here. And share this post with your friends!

Want more great tips on how to live a successful urban life?  Get the next Urban Practice post direct to your Inbox by clicking “Follow Urban Practice” (look to the right).

You can also join me for daily meditation/movement tips and musings with a Facebook “Like” here or on Twitter @MyUrbanPractice.

Add More Time To Your Day

With One Simple Trick…

image by Stuart MilesAre you squeezed on all sides by your schedule?  

You’re not alone: a simple fact of modern urban life is that we are busy.

With so many competing obligations, it’s no wonder that one of the most frequently experienced feelings we all have is a sense of overwhelm.

At its extreme overwhelm can be paralyzing.  But it always tends to slow us down making us work less efficiently and more sloppily—the exact opposite of what we need when we are facing back-to-back important deadlines.

I’ve shared with you before about how practicing yoga and meditation will make you less stressed and more productive (among many other related goodies for your mind and body).

But what about if you are too busy to practice yoga or meditation?

I will answer that question with an old Zen saying that goes like this: you should meditate for 10 minutes each day; unless you are really busy.  In that case you should meditate for an hour.  

In other words, the busier you are the more you need to get more intimate with what’s going on inside.  

In reality we are never too busy.  We simply choose how to spend our time.

An important point I’ve learned in my own busy life is that there is always time in the day to practice yoga and meditation, and to get the benefits.  The simple trick is to schedule a non-negotiable time for it.

Getting it all done...So I’ll share with you a trick that I learned back when I was a young corporate attorney at a law firm in Manhattan.  Whenever I needed to get a personal task done–run an errand, go to an appointment, catch a yoga class–I would tell my secretary to inform anyone looking for me that I was in a meeting.  

Although I no longer work for a law firm, I’m still mad busy with an overflowing Inbox and a constantly ringing phone.  Still, I make sure I schedule daily yoga and meditation meetings into every day.   When I am arranging the rest of my schedule, I let colleagues, clients and anyone else needing my attention know that I am unavailable during those times.  And I’m always glad I do because by consistently moving my body and stilling my mind, I am more effective in managing all the demands in my schedule.

It’s really a practice in setting boundaries and giving yourself permission to have a “meeting” with your body and mind.  In the same way you wouldn’t cancel a meeting with your boss or a client, don’t cancel such an important meeting with your Self.

schedule it

Once you start keeping your regularly scheduled yoga/meditation meetings you will discover the rest of your day runs much more smoothly…and that you have more time in it than you thought.

Now I want you to start scheduling your yoga/meditation meetings today.  But I also want to know if you have a secret trick for getting the most out of your busy day.  Tell me about it in the Comment section below.

And as usual, if you are interested in learning more about how  breathing techniques, mindful movement/asana, meditation and work-life balance can make your urban life better email me at zara@yoginizara(dot)com.

To get the next Urban Practice next post direct to your Inbox, make sure click Follow. You can also join me for daily meditation/movement tips and musings with a Facebook “Like” here or on Twitter @MyUrbanPractice.

Banish The Winter Blahs

Image by Maggie Smith

This is the part of the winter season when my patience for cold, wind, rain and slushy snow (mostly what we get here in NYC) is totally spent.  Right about now I’m longing for the warmth and sunshine that won’t be here for another few months or so…that is, well, depressing.

And it makes me feel blah.

Unless you are one of those rare creatures that loves the cold or you are reading this from below the Mason-Dixon line you know how it is, crunching into yourself to stay warm as you sprint from door to door, head down, eyes watering, cursing under your breath and wondering when that global warming thing we keep hearing about is really going to kick in…

We can’t escape it, the weather has an effect on our body, mind and thus our mood.  In the winter that effect is mostly a downer on our energy, health and productivity (the medical/psychotherapeutic world calls it Seasonal Affective Disorder).  Are you also suffering?

If so, the good news is that the mind/body practice—which I promote relentlessly throughout the year—contains plenty of ammo to combat the winter blahs. Here’s what I recommend:

Move, move, move the body.  Resist the urge to hibernate.  In yoga we talk about winter as the time we are dominated by heavy, dark and damp qualities.  The remedy is a heart-pumping, sweat creating yoga practice, like ashtanga or vinyasa flow.  I’m partial to yoga of course but other practices work just as well, like martial arts or African dancing.   A great thing about yoga, though, is that you can get up and move through some mood boosting poses right near your desk (hint: stay tuned to Urban Practice for future video teachings on “urban office yoga”).

If you don’t know where to start and the desire to stay inside is overpowering you (like it does me so often in the winter), try taking a vigorous yoga class online at Yogis Anonymous.

Expand the chest.  Stretching open the chest area is the most recommended posture for alleviating depression and other down moods.  Makes sense doesn’t it?  Think about how caved in your chest is throughout the winter months as you bundle into yourself trying to stay warm.  Practicing chest expansion counters the experience of closed-ness in the body, and this has a countering effect on the mind as well leading to an uplifted mood.

Great chest expanding yoga poses include cobra, warrior I, upward facing dog and camel (if you aren’t familiar with these, email me and I can send you further instructions).

You can also try my new favorite chest expanding pose (which does not come from traditional yoga): the exercise ball backbend (see picture below).  With your feet planted firmly on the floor, sit down on the edge of the ball and slowly lay back until your head dangles off the other side of the ball.  Depending on your size, you may have to use your feet to slide your tailbone up or down the ball until you find a comfortable spot where you can relax .  This stretch is divine and it is helping me cope with this winter!

ball stretch

Meditate on the blah.  Instead of trying to be happy and energetic when you’re not feeling it, just notice what the winter blahs feel like.  This is what we call “meditation in action.” After all, one of the goals of seated meditation practice is to cultivate the ability to experience all parts of your life more completely.  That includes the uncomfortable parts as well as the pleasant ones.

So when the cold is overwhelming, try focusing on the feeling of the cold on your body.  What is the quality of the feeling?  Is it uniform all over?  How deep does it go?

Likewise, when sadness, depression or tiredness arise, focus on how it feels in the body.   Try to stay with it for just a few moments.  It is in those moments—when the thinking mind takes a break—that a contented stillness appears.  Of course it will be shattered by the next blast of cold wind, but alas, the core of the meditation practice is to return to our focus over and over again.  So keep trying.

Take the sunshine pill.  Also known as Vitamin D.  We don’t get enough sunshine in the winter, as the days are short and we so often are bundled up inside or under lots of layers of clothing, so our Vitamin D store is depleted.  Vitamin D is necessary to our bone and muscle strength, and when our bone and muscles feel weak our mood is affected.  The mind and body are intricately connected, so help your body out by taking daily Vitamin D pills and your mind will thank you for it.

Have some fun.  It might seem like you should spend all winter working overtime because it is too cold to do anything else (or because your productivity is lower due to the nastier symptoms of the blahs), but the cold fact is that you need a balance of work and pleasure in your life to maintain happiness at all times of year.

In my opinion the best way to have fun during the winter is to take a vacation to a warm sunny beach (if you haven’t already read my post on the way vacation improves your life click here).

image by worradmuBut if that is not available to you this winter, then try my second favorite way: steam it up in a cozy hot sauna.  The sauna heat will release tension from your muscles (like those shoulders that are often hunched up fighting back the cold) and banish all wintry feelings from your mind and body.  It literally warms your soul.

Now I want to learn from you, what do you do to banish the winter blahs? Tell me about it in the Comment section below (I can use all the help I can get, really).

As always, if you are interested in learning more about breathing techniques, mindful movement/asana or meditation, email me at zara@yoginizara(dot)com.

To get the next Urban Practice next post direct to your Inbox, make sure click Follow. You can also join me for daily meditation/movement tips and musings with a Facebook “Like” here or on Twitter @MyUrbanPractice.

Boost Productivity With Yoga Inspired Tips

image by Pong

It seems like every time I look at my Inbox I have a new set of “tips for productivity” from one of the many blogs or other sources I follow.  It’s a popular topic for a good reason: we all feel (a bit or a lot) overwhelmed  by our busy, data-driven lives.  But how helpful is all this advice?

Some of what I read is wonderfully useful (set timers for 45 minute work blocks; complete two substantive tasks from your To Do list prior to checking email in the morning), some of it is vague (stay focused on the task at hand) but all of it revolves around the fact that every day we are inundated with information, in the form of demands for our actions, words or thoughts, through the ever present tasks on our To Do lists.  And we are in a continual struggle to process, assimilate, use and/or discard that information in a way that makes us feel like we are keeping everything together.  Or at least not falling apart.

All the “productivity tips” hype has gotten me thinking about how the lessons I have absorbed through a steady yoga and meditation practice help me stay productive, and how they might help you too.  So, here are a few of my favorite “yoga productivity tips”:

1. Start with a clean space.  It’s impossible to focus on anything when your environment is in disarray.  In a yoga class we take the time to clear a space in the room for our practice, moving books, bags and electronics out of the way so that they don’t distract us from what we intend to do, which is to focus on moving and feeling the body.  Otherwise we would spend the entire class thinking about our To Do list or who we might text afterwards!  In the same way we should clear our desk/office space from the distractions of piles of unorganized papers and work supplies.  Plus, the act of cleaning and organizing has an amazing calming effect on many people and could be a great way to focus your mind before accomplishing a bit of work.  Try it and see!

2. Practice silence.  There are various ways to practice being silent, by which I mean being in a space where you are not talking, typing, texting or thinking analytically.  One way is meditation practice.  Another is body practice (also known as exercise).  You can even practice silence in short bursts throughout the day by pausing for 1-2 minutes before you start a new task, and breathing deeply a few times allowing the shoulders and face muscles to relax.

image by africa

All forms of silent practice show us how un-focused our mind really is–this is what we call the “monkey mind” in the yogic/mindfulness traditions.  When we practice silence and meditation, we can start to observe just how crazy this monkey mind is as it jumps from thought-tree to thought-tree.  Amazingly, the more we observe the monkey mind–even if it is for just a minute or two, several times a day–the more clear our mind becomes because we are able to see our thoughts as merely separate bits related to the large quantity of data we absorb.  Over time with consistent practice, the mind will begin to sift through the volume of these thoughts and be able to focus on a particular one, such as the task that you need to accomplish.  It takes time to master; try to remember while you practice that focusing our mind is a skill that must be built through regular effort, just like any other skill you have acquired to improve your career and/or life.

3. Do less in more time.  It might seem counterintuitive, but taking more time to do less is the best way to create better time management.  In yoga we avoid rushing through our movements, from posture to posture, because when moving quickly we risk injury and often miss the experience of yoga itself, which is our awareness of the mind-body connection. In a similar way, when you rush through your daily tasks you will probably make mistakes and lower the quality of what you are doing.  In your hurry to get as much done as possible you will also lose the ability to discern what actually needs to be done now.  You will be missing out on the satisfying experience of being fully engaged in what you are doing–whether it is work, family or leisure.

Instead, you should choose your tasks and do them carefully.  I like the slow movement advice of Thich Nhat Hanh, a respected mindfulness master and teacher, who has poetically said:

‘Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment.’

Do your tasks like you drink your tea: slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.  You will probably find that your To Do list becomes more manageable, and your daily life much less overwhelming.

What about you, are you inspired by any productivity tips?  Leave your thoughts in a Comment below!

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Balance Your Life With a Vacation

As I busily prepared myself to leave for my vacation (during which I have been exploring the Mayan ruins and various indigenous cultures in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala) I realized that taking the time for a vacation can be quite a challenge. 

This past year I have put more effort into building my two businesses (i.e., teaching yoga/meditation/work-life balance through Urban Practice and doing legal research, writing and courtroom advocacy through On Point Expertise) and as a solo-preneur I spend a lot of time cultivating new clients and keeping my current clients happy.  The idea to step away from all that for three weeks gave me more than a little anxiety – not least because I live in one of the most competitive cities in the world!

But despite the piles of tasks left on my To Do list and the compelling inquiries from new clients for more work to be done, I stood firm with my plan.  And even though I still had to tie up some loose ends on a couple of projects after my flight arrived in a sun-soaked paradise, I managed to sweep away all of the other unnecessary demands and settle into my vacation. 

From pre-planning to scrambling packing to finally landing, to get through all of it I called upon many of the qualities that I cultivate and teach as part of Urban Practice.

First, I put into practice one of the most important teachings from any mind/body practice: kindness towards yourself

You know it, I know it, vacation is good for you.  It’s fun, relaxing and allows you to do the things you normally don’t have time to do.  It’s also a great time to try new activities, visit new places and meet new people, all of which allow you to continue to learn about your own body and mind.

Vacation is also good for your health.  Anyone who has gone on vacation knows that feeling of total relaxation, when even big inconveniences (like the posted bus schedule in a remote seaside village being completely wrong so that you missed your bus to a bigger town) don’t ruffle you at all. 

Also, some recent scientific studies have  shown that people who take vacation decrease their chance of having heart disease and even increase their life span.  That sounds like a great result from a week (or more) of lying on the beach or traveling through the countryside!

Next, planning a vacation and sticking to the plan is an exercise in boundary setting.  If you attended my Lawline Continuing Education Course on work-life balance, you know what I am talking about. 

It was hard to tell my clients that I would not be available for them for three weeks, but it was a boundary that I had to draw so that I can better serve them when I return.  I know that sometimes it is really necessary to cancel a vacation, but those times are rare, especially if you plan far enough in advance.  The important practice is to set the boundary and give yourself permission to make space and take the allotted time for your self betterment.

Finally, during all of my preparations I concentrated on my breathing to keep from being overwhelmed by the immensity of the work that I needed to get done before I left.  Each time I deepened my breath with slow, full inhales and exhales, I became calmer and was gradually able to be more realistic about what I absolutely needed to get done and what could wait until after vacation. 

One of the biggest reasons why people avoid going on vacation is because they are intimidated by the many things they need to do to prepare for it.  By putting into practice all of the breathing and meditation techniques I have shared here on Urban Practice (see previous posts for all of these!), you can overcome that anxiety and gain all of the wonderful benefits that will come from your well-deserved vacation.

So exercise kindness towards yourself, practice setting boundaries and keep your breathing long and deep…your body and mind will be all the better from it.

Do you have a story about how hard it was for you to prepare for a vacation?  Or a thought on how vacation makes your life better? Please share it in a comment below! 

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