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.

5 Ways to Stay Calm for The Bar Exam

Don’t panic…try these 5 tips to pass your exam with ease

image by jcreationsz

It’s that time of year again, when thousands of young attorneys-to-be trek to an enormous exam center and sit through 2-3 days of grueling test taking.  

It’s intense.  I know because I did it too.

I took my first Bar Exam in New York ten years ago (the second one I took was several years later in Florida), but I still remember clearly the days leading up to it.  I was full of anxiety and overwhelming panic.  A couple of days before the exam I was nauseous and felt like I couldn’t breathe.

You see, I hadn’t studied nearly as much as my friends and colleagues.  But even even if I had, it still wouldn’t have been enough because the material we have to memorize for the Bar Exam is so extensive that no matter how hard or how long you study, you still feel like you don’t know anything.  

And that was exactly how I felt the weekend before my exam.

I was sure I was going to fail.

Luckily, though, I had already found the great ancient practices of yoga and meditation, and I was beginning to put them into action in my life.  And not a moment too soon because without them I would not have had the calm, clarity and endurance to survive the Bar Exam.

Are you on the verge (or in the midst) of a panic attack right before the exam? 

If so, keep reading because I’m going to share with you the 5 best ways to stay calm leading into and during your exam.  I used these tips myself and they worked—I passed both exams on the first try (and both after studying 50% less than everyone else around me).  

I want YOU to pass your exam.  Trust me, it works.

(NOTE: these tips are useful for any kind of exam, so share this post with anyone who is facing a difficult exam or test taking anxiety…)

1. Get enough sleep.  The sheer size of the Bar Exam–hundreds of multiple choice questions and several essays–and the limited time frame for completing it means that every minute counts.  You have to be 100% focused for hours at a time or you won’t be able to finish.  You need a mind clear like crystal.  

The single best way to maintain your clarity for an extended period is to get enough sleep.  I have written before about the negative effects of sleep deprivation, and you certainly don’t want any sleep-deprived slips during the exam (not to mention you want to avoid falling asleep with your head on your desk, which basically ensures you will be fast filling “c’s” for your last 100 questions).

So put down the study guide and get a full 7-8 hours of rest (more or less depending on what you normally require for optimum functioning).  The gain in mental clarity you get from a full night of sleep will more than outweigh the fact that you didn’t get to memorize all the elements distinguishing murder from manslaughter.  And you’re not going to finally understand the Rule Against Perpetuities between 1-3 am the night before the exam.  Put it down and go to sleep.

image by jscreationsz

2. Chant “pick the right answer” before and during the exam.  In a time limited exam, many of your answers are going to be rushed.  You might know for sure the answer to some questions, but for a bunch of others you will have to pick the one that is most right (or that just feels right).  This will be a gut-reaction selection, so by chanting “pick the right answer” you will be sending your gut (also known as your subconscious) the positive reinforcement of making the right selection.  

You’ve probably heard that studies have shown when test takers change an answer from their first selection to something else, their second selection is usually wrong.  This is because you have a whole pile of intelligence simmering under the surface of your conscious mind that pushes you toward one answer or another, but then it gets clouded over by other distractions (like your fear of failure, the freezing temperature of the exam room or your wondering why the person behind you keeps snorting).  Keep chanting “pick the right answer” and let your intelligence lead you.

Plus, chanting has a remarkable way of focusing the mind the same way that meditation does.  So you can literally meditate while you are taking the exam. 

What about those essay questions you ask?  Try this chant: “words on paper.”  It will clear your mind and help you dump all that information you memorized onto the paper, collecting valuable points along the way.

3. Go easy on the caffeine.  If you follow the first two steps, your mind and body will be awakened enough by the thrill of test day.  Taking such an important exam triggers your body’s “fight or flight” response and your adrenal glands respond accordingly.  You will naturally have plenty of energy to fight through the experience (or take a flight if you must!).  Adding caffeine to the mix will just make you jumpy and increase your anxiety.  Rely on your body, it has been designed to do exactly what you need it to.

4. Stop and breathe.  Taking the Bar Exam will probably be one of the most anxiety inducing events in your life.  So even if you follow all my advice, you are doubtless going to have plenty of moments of raw, unadulterated panic.  Make sure you keep breathing, no matter what happens.  

I remember in the first 3-hour session of the first day, while I was dealing with a difficult question that I knew little about (of course the essay questions had to be on a subject that I didn’t get to study enough), I felt the panic rising.  I started to think “sh*t! I’m f***ing it up! I’m f***ing it up!”

Then I remembered what I had learned from yoga about breathing.  I took a deep breath and felt it fill up my lungs; when I let the breath out I felt my body tight with fear and anxiety.  I took a few more slow, deep breaths.  Then I started to chant again “pick the right answer” “words on paper” and continued the test.  The fear and anxiety did not disappear, but by making sure I was breathing fully I was able to stay focused on the test despite it.

Any time you feel the panic coming on, pause for just a second and take a deep breath.  Then keep on moving through the test with nice and even, full, deep breaths.

5. Meditate through the free time.  If you have not begun a meditation practice yet, check out my posts on getting started and for some ideas on what to do.

Whatever you do, don’t try to cram more information into your head during the breaks or the nights between exam days.  That will only make you more aware of how much you still don’t know.  Instead, keep your mind quiet and clear by practicing meditation during any free time.  

You can meditate while sitting on a bench during the lunch break, lying down in your bed or couch at night, standing in the long line for the bathroom or even walking around the exam center waiting for the next session to begin.  

Do your best to not think about the test, or how you’re doing so far.  Stay focused on keeping your mind clear and your body calm.

In the end, one thing is sure: you will survive the exam.  But follow these tips and hopefully you will move through the experience with more calm and ease, which is the best way to pass any difficult test in life.

image by renjith krishnan

I wish you the very best success on your exam!  Try these tips and tell me how it turns out.  What was your experience on test day?  Share it all in the Comment section below.

If you are interested in learning more about how breathing techniques, mindful movement/asana, meditation and work-life balance can improve your test taking experience, or any other life event that is really stressful, email me your questions/inquiries here.

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.

There’s more to a hug than you think…

Giving and receiving hugs is good for both your emotional and physical health. Here’s how (one, two, more?) hugs can help you in your mind-body practice.

(click here to tweet about the benefit of hugs!)

get a hug…

I was reminded of emotional benefits of a hug when, on a balmy summer evening a couple of weeks ago, I made my way to the Javits Center (on the far western side of midtown Manhattan) to queue up for what would be a 7 hour wait to get a warm, motherly hug from Amma.

Amma

If you’re shocked by the fact that I waited 7 hours for a hug, then you obviously haven’t been hugged by Amma yet. Known as the “hugging saint,” Amma comes from Kerala, in southern India, where she began hugging her family and neighbors at a young age. Amma says she is and has always been overwhelmed with compassion for the suffering of others, which is just about everyone because who in the world doesn’t suffer?

Instead of turning away from others’ suffering, like many of us–myself included–so often do, Amma acknowledges suffering with a loving embrace. For everyone, all over the world. No matter how they look, talk, walk, smell or feel, Amma hugs them all with the same amount of love. Hundreds of thousands of them.

This was my third hug from Amma, the first one being in India itself, where the sights, sounds and smells lend an ethereal air to everything that happens including being hugged by Amma.  But I have had a similar experience each time: I approach her, she pulls me to her bosom, I have a strong feeling that she knows me personally (even though my mind knows I am only one of the thousands of people she hugs each night on her tours), and I move away feeling blessed and full of love myself.

It’s a powerful experience to be hugged by Amma, and her example of hugging everyone with the same unconditional loving intensity is mind-blowing. It is the ultimate practice of loving-kindness.

If you haven’t been hugged by Amma, you should go to see her the next time she is in your area or you are in hers (you can find her “hugging tour” schedule on her website; when she is not on tour she is hugging from her lovely ashram in Amritapuri, Kerala).  It is an experience unlike any other. And it will uplift your spirit from whatever emotional or mental doldrums you might be inhabiting.

…give a hug

Your body (and mind) can also benefit from giving a hug to yourself.

One of the most frequent questions I get from students is how to relieve tension in the upper back, shoulders and neck. I also feel tightness and tenderness in this area when I am particularly stressed about a deadline. My favorite way to give my body relief is through a hugging stretch that can be done seated on the floor (as part of your yoga or other body practice), standing or even seated at your desk.

This “self hug” stretches the shoulder and neck muscles, and relieves pressure from the middle-upper back. To try it, follow these simple instructions, using the little pictures as a guide:

1. Sit or stand with your feet hip distance apart.

2. Open your chest by gently pulling your shoulder blades toward each other and lengthen your spine by lifting the crown of your head toward the ceiling.

3. With a deep inhale, fully extend your arms out to the side (and if possible, a bit back as you open your chest further by pulling your shoulder blades toward each other).

4. Exhale slowly and cross your arms (with the right elbow on top) over your chest and reach your finger tips towards edge of the shoulder-blade closest to the spine. If it feels comfortable you can also drop your chin toward your chest to deepen the stretch in your neck.

5. Repeat movements #3 and #4, this time crossing your left elbow on top.

6. Do the sequence, linking each movement with your breath, as many times as you need to until you feel the muscles in the upper body relax, or until you have had enough of giving yourself hugs.

Don’t be shy with these self hugs.  After a while you will find your mental state relaxing as much as your body, and your compassion for yourself growing. This is the start of the loving kindness practice, the start of embracing the world as Amma would by embracing yourself.

If you have questions about this (or any other) yoga inspired posture, fire away in the Comment section below.  And if you are interested in learning more ways to relieve tension and feel good at your desk (or to discuss my office yoga workshops), email me at zara(at)yoginizara(dot)com.

As always, follow Urban Practice to get my next post direct to your Inbox.  You can also follow me with a  Facebook “Like” here or on Twitter @MyUrbanPractice.

Why I Like the Facebook “Like” Button

A Digital Metta Meditation

I admit it. I was reluctant to join Facebook because I was suspicious of having a social life that is cultivated online. I often wondered, and commented to others, ‘what is the purpose of having all these “friends” if I don’t regularly see or have real interactions with them?’ It just seemed superficial to me.

image by xedos4

In the end, I decided to join Facebook because I realized it was a good forum to connect and interact with my students, and other interested people, who have questions about their yoga, meditation or mindfulness practice, or want to know more about how to integrate it into their busy lives, but with many of whom I couldn’t possibly speak on the phone or sit down for coffee each time a question arises because of the reality of our busy urban lives.

Then of course, like so many others, I found that after joining and adding my circles of friends, family and colleagues, I have also reconnected with friends and colleagues from the past, far past and distant far past, even friends who I would otherwise never know anything about because we’ve moved clear across the country from each other. It has been wonderful to see familiar faces and learn about the paths that lives have taken. Clearly Facebook has unleashed a potent connecting power on our generation, a power that makes it possible to keep track of all the many people who pass through our lives, even those that we meet for only a short time, and the connection is pleasant and exciting.

But what I am most moved by on Facebook is the “Like” button, which I believe generates countless pulses of positivity every day all over the world. Is there anyone out there that doesn’t feel a similar surge (big or small) of happiness that I do when I click on the little globe icon to reveal what friends have responded to my status updates or recent photos? Each notification of a “Like” makes me feel seen and heard, validated and affirmed. And who doesn’t like that?

The best part is that it’s so easy to send the positive “Like” vibe. Just one little click and you are sharing a digital version of a compliment, some word of encouragement, a smile, or a shoulder squeeze. In less than 3 minutes you can click click click your positive affirmations to a dozen of your friends–way faster than sending them individual emails or text messages. The ease and simplicity of the “Like” button encourages us all to positively engage with more people than we possibly could (or would) on any given day, and to constantly cheer each other on.

I am so impressed by the “Like” button that I regularly find myself engaging in what I call “liking” sessions: reading through the News Feed and liking statuses and pictures, links and pages. Although most of my liking comes naturally and rapidly, I have noticed on occasion a stray negative feeling…maybe envy about someone’s travel adventure, or irritation with someone who hasn’t given me the attention I think I deserve. At those times I might pause slightly, but then I press the “Like” button anyway because I really want to share the positive affirmation, despite whatever other negative feeling I might be experiencing.

When I first noticed myself doing this, I thought of a popular buddhist meditation technique, called Metta, that I have been practicing for the last 5 years.  Metta is a Pali word (the language of the historical Buddha) that is often translated as “loving kindness” but is also said to mean “friendliness,” “kindness,” or “close mental union.”  Metta meditation practice involves mentally sending a kind wish to a variety of people in your life (in other words…a “Like”) with the purpose of cultivating more positive, kind feelings in your self, and meditating on any un-kindness (a.k.a., hatred or ill-will) you might feel towards others.

image by mr lightman

It’s best to practice Metta when your mind is balanced and calm, perhaps upon waking up or when you are feeling particularly relaxed. To try it, follow these simple instructions:

  1. Sit in a comfortable posture.
  2. Take a few deep inhales and exhales, gradually slowing your breath.
  3. Breathe for a few moment and simply observe your breath as it flows in and out of your nostrils.
  4. In your mind, repeat the following words to yourself: May I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be free from pain.
  5. Bring to mind someone you care about, like or love and repeat the following words directed to that person: May you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be free from pain.
  6. Next, bring to mind someone in your life that you have no strong feeling towards, whether positive or negative (I usually imagine the worker at my post office, or someone else I have encountered briefly during the previous day), and repeat the following words directed to that person: May you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be free from pain.
  7. Then, bring to mind someone you don’t like–or even hate–and repeat the following words directed to that person: May you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be free from pain.

Don’t worry, no one has an easy time wishing happiness, peace and freedom from pain on someone they don’t like–in fact we often want to wish the exact opposite!  But say the words anyway, even if you don’t feel it, because eventually after consistent practice, you might find that your negative feelings towards that person begin to dissolve.  The objective of Metta practice, and the reason we practice well wishing ourselves and loved ones first, is to cultivate a strong feeling of warm kindness towards others…and then rely on that good feeling to break through the heaviness of our negative ones.

And so it is with the “Like” button, which in my world is a mini digital version of Metta practice–by pressing the “Like” button to encourage and affirm others even when I’m hesitant, I’m cultivating strong positive feelings and dissolving negative ones.  I am betting that most of you already use the “Like” button frequently, and if you do, perhaps you will try Metta practice and get the many benefits of sharing positive wishes with others.

In the meantime, I would love to know, what do you think about “Like” button? Leave your thoughts in a Comment below!

And if you are feeling it, go ahead and share it with a “Like” for me on Facebook here: http://on.fb.me/y37e3F

Don’t forget that you can get my next post direct to your Inbox if you sign up to follow Urban Practice. You can also follow me on Twitter @MyUrbanPractice.