3 Yoga Lessons I Learned From My Tobago Surfing Teacher

Little Tobago, Tobago

As many of you know, I am a huge fan of surfing–I love the feel of the water on my skin, the sounds of sea birds diving, and the spectacular view of the sea meeting the sky on an endless horizon.

I wish I could say that I am a master surfer (I first learned how to do it way back when I was in law school in 2003)…but I am far from it still. It’s just so hard to practice enough while living a busy urban professional here in NYC! But I am committed, and like any good student I want to keep learning and getting better.

So, partly to celebrate my birthday this year, and partly to practice what I always preach to you about taking a vacation, in early September I treated myself to a surfing retreat in Tobago (which is a tiny Caribbean island off the coast of a slightly bigger one called Trinidad).

Pigeon Point, Tobago

I’ve long suspected that my surfing form has gotten sloppy over the years, and I really wanted to make good use of my time in Tobago, so I decided to take some private lessons from one of the best surfers in the Caribbean–a man known as Rasta George.

As his name suggests, Rasta George had a laid back style fitting for his home in the far south Caribbean and his chosen profession. For our first lesson, Rasta George told me to meet him at a place under the coconut trees–furnished with a beach blanket and a hammock–that he lovingly referred to as The Office.

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View from The Office on Mount Irvine beach

When I got to The Office on that first day, like any good teacher, Rasta George started at the beginning. He laid a surf board onto the sand and said “Jump up so I can see where you are.” 

So I laid on the board, mimed some paddling strokes, and jumped up.

“Ohhhh noooo, everyting is wrong!” Clearly it was a good thing I had decided to take these lessons.

Rasta George turned out to be a great surfing teacher–and he had a way of speaking that reminded me of an old, wise yogi. Over the course of the week I came to realize that the principles he was teaching me were exactly the same as those I regularly teach my yoga students.

It was a humbling experience to understand that even I need to learn these lessons over and over again. And it was a great exercise in mindfulness to practice integrating what I have experienced as deep yogic wisdom into my skill as a surfer.

So although I went to Tobago to learn about surfing, I ended up learning about yoga too.

And here are three of my favorite yoga lessons that I learned from Rasta George (you might hear one or more of these in a class by me sometime soon):

Keeping feet together
Keeping the feet together.

Be one with the board.

While paddling out and trying to catch the waves, Rasta George kept telling me to be one with the board: keep my feet and legs together at the back, balance on my belly in the middle, and don’t put my head too far in the front.

The idea, as I understood it, was that I had to lose the feeling of being a body on top of the board and using it as a tool to ride the waves–instead I had to experience the board as an extension of me as we both glide across the water in unison. 

Okay, I know there is no board in yoga practice, so the correlation of this teaching may not be so clear. But to me it makes perfect sense: in order to surf skillfully I have to drop my usual sense of being totally separate from my environment.

And that is exactly what I do, and what I teach others to do, in yoga practice. In order to effortlessly manipulate the body into various (and sometimes quite challenging postures) postures, we have to become deeply connected with the ground, the air, and our breath. We have to be one with our environment.

Surfing til sunset…

Don’t look down.

This is the teaching Rasta George had to repeat to me the most as I wiggled and wobbled trying to balance my board through the waves: whatever you do, don’t look down!

For some reason I have such a hard time keeping my eyes straight ahead while I’m on the surf board–there is something so appealingly curious about the water below. In the beginning, each time I stood up I would give a cursory glance at the shore and then start looking down at the rushing wave. And I would promptly lose my balance and crash into the water.

As any good yoga teacher know, where your eyes go, your energy goes; and when you look down, you fall down. This is true for yoga postures and it’s true for surfing too.

It’s also true that if you look straight ahead at a stable point, you will find your balance there.

Despite knowing this truth, and engaging it relentlessly in my yoga practice, I kept losing my concentration on the board and looking down. As I prepared to catch a wave, Rasta George would admonish me “Focus on the mango tree on the beach, don’t move your eyes from the tree.” Then as I dropped in to each wave, he would shout behind me “DON’T LOOK DOWWWWWN!!” 

Finally, with Rasta George’s help, I broke the habit of looking down and sure enough I stopped falling down too.

Waiting for the next session, Caribbean style.

You have to climb the tree to eat the mango.

The island imagery of this teaching made me laugh out loud when I first heard Rasta George say it after I attempted to jump up on my board before the wave was pushing it fast enough.

For those of you who have never tried surfing, then I should explain this: timing is everything. You have to get the board at just the right place in the water, to get the wave to push you and the board at just the right speed, so that when you do jump up you and the board (in unison, of course) are at the top of the wave’s face and going fast enough to ride down and out toward the shore.

Because of the precision necessary for timing your position and the wave, a great deal of patience is required so that you choose wisely which waves to chase and catch (otherwise you spend a ton of energy flapping your arms around to catch a wave that is not quite right).

Sometimes, if you’ve been waiting a while for a good wave, you start paddling to catch one and in your eagerness you jump up onto the board too soon. This is what I did when Rasta George told me about the mangos and the trees.

And this is what I see my yoga students doing too frequently: jumping into a posture before they have carefully set their body in just the right place and with just the right breathing to be able to do it. But there is no way to get to a final posture, if you don’t do the groundwork movements first.

In yoga, as in surfing, patience is important because in order to do it, everything has to be set up at just the right moment. And timing is everything.

Me & Rasta George
Me & Rasta George

If you liked these teachings, then you should get ready for some more. Click the “Follow Urban Practice” button and you can get the next post straight to your inbox.

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Hope to see you everywhere!


A recipe for the best Chai on this side of India

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Dawn on the Ganges river, Varanasi, Northern India.

One of my favorite parts of traveling in India is the ritual of sipping little steaming cups of Chai.

It’s a ritual that I take part in daily whenever I am in India: huddling together around the Chai wallah in the early dawn hours waiting to get the first cup of the morning, hearing the familiar chant–chaaaiiii…garam chaaaiii–on long train rides knowing I will soon have a sweet and spicy milky treat, sharing Chai with anyone and everyone–from friends to government officials to passing strangers–as a way to slow down and spend some time getting to know each other’s vastly different cultural styles.

A while back I was missing India–and her Chai. I have never found anything quite like it anywhere else. So I decided to try my hand at making an authentic Indian Chai.

I reached out to some of my friends in India who gave me the basic elements of the recipe (thank you Abhinav and Pushkar!). Then I practiced, tweaked, and tested various versions until I finally made a cup that transported me back to India when I tasted it.

I’m proud to say that my Chai is the best there is on this side of India (and it’s way better than Starbucks). I’m happy now to share it with you.

A word before you start: the key to the deliciousness in Indian Chai is the freshness of the spices. So whenever possible use whole spices that you grind yourself (as opposed to powder). Also, this recipe calls for holy basilwhich is a native–and sacred–plant in India. It’s also known as tulasi or tulsi. It’s not the easiest to find and I am growing it in a pot in my garden. But I also know they sell it at Asian/Indian groceries. If you can’t find it, just leave it out.

What you’ll need for 2 cups of Chai

  • 1 tablespoon loose black tea (Assam is my favorite)
  • 3-4 black peppercorns
  • 2 whole cardamom pods
  • 1 whole clove
  • 1/2 cinnamon stick
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger (or 2 coin sized slices of fresh ginger–I tried it both ways and for some reason ground ginger makes it taste more authentic)
  • 1 heaping tablespoon of sugar (I use unprocessed turbinado)
  • 1 inch sprig of holy basil
  • 1/3 cup milk (more or less as you prefer; also, I use cow milk because that’s what they use in India; you can easily substitute with almond milk although it won’t taste the same!)

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What you’ll do to make your Chai in about 15 minutes

Bring 1 and 2/3 cups of water to a boil in a sauce pot. In the meantime ground the peppercorns, cardamom pods, and cinnamon (I like to use a mortar and pestle, but a spice grinder will do as well if you are careful not to over-grind).

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Add the ground spices, clove, and holy basil to the water and boil for a few minutes. Then add the tea.

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Boil for a couple more minutes. Add the milk and bring to a boil again. When the tea with milk is boiling, turn off the heat and add the ground ginger and sugar. Stir well.

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Then cover the pot and let it steep for a few minutes. Pour it through a strainer into your mug–and enjoy!

If you like this recipe, or you know someone who would love some homemade Indian Chai, then please forward this post to them.

Stay tuned for more great posts from Urban Practice, and if you don’t want to miss them make sure you click the “Follow Urban Practice” button below to get the next post straight to your inbox. You can also join my monthly newsletter, where I share tips on incorporating the ancient teachings of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness into your modern life. Sign up here.

In the meantime, join me for daily yoga/meditation/mindfulness tips and musings on Facebook, Twitter (@MyUrbanPractice), or Instagram (@zarayoga). Hope to see you everywhere!


Corner Office Anatomy – Are You Ready To Give Up On Your Hamstrings?

OfficeCompasDon’t give up yet!

Because there is reason to be optimistic about those pesky tight backs-of-your-legs.  And in this segment of my Corner Office Anatomy series I tell you why.

As I’ve said before, I started this series because I realized–from my own experience and from observing so many of my students–that so much of the body is a mystery. And I wanted to shed a bit of light on various parts of the body that are particularly strained by our desk-working and chair-sitting culture.

Because the more we understand our bodies, the more we are able to adjust our habits to both avoid long-term, repetitive stress injuries and bring more balance and flexibility into our daily experience.

One of the biggest casualties of the ongoing habit of sitting in a chair all day long: tight hamstrings.

Almost everyone – including me – who sits for a large part of their work life complains about tight hamstrings.

It’s usually the part of the body people are referring to when they say to me something like “I can’t practice yoga because I’m so inflexible…” Because it just seems wrong to us – I think – that when we bend over we can’t reach our toes.

Part of tightness in hamstrings is physiological and structural: the way your hamstring muscles interact with your pelvis, knees, and other muscle groups (like your hips and calves) will determine what your maximum range of stretch is.

But a big part of tightness comes down to the fact that your hamstring muscles just get cozy in their shortened form, and then resist (loudly at times) when you try to push them out of their comfort zone.

And why are the hamstrings so often in a shortened form? Because in our modern urban professional lives we sit in chairs with knees bent to 90 degrees (usually), and that leaves the hamstrings to hang out in a shortened form for way too many hours. 

We sit at the desk for many hours, of course. But think about it: we also sit down for a commute, and then again to eat meals, and watch TV (or surf the net, or whatever you do to wind down) at night.

Well, that is the annoying news that I know you already know.

But here’s the good news: with frequent and sustained lengthening, the hamstrings (and all your other muscles too) will gradually and continually increase their ability to lengthen. That means less resistance, and more of that deep stretching feeling (and who doesn’t love that?).

Keep in mind that frequent is the name of the game. To get more length (i.e., flexibility) it requires more than just a weekly yoga class, and more like multiple times a day.

I know what you are asking: how am I supposed to stretch my hamstrings frequently when I sit in my chair nearly all day long?

With the portable standing forward bend, of course. 

The standing forward bend can be done in your work clothes, and wherever you happen to find yourself: by your desk, in front of the TV, next to your bed, in your garden, or even while you are waiting for the train. That means it is highly portable.

And that means you can practice it numerous times a day. Anytime you think of it, really.


There are multiple variations of the standing forward bend (see picture above), and you can choose the variation that allows you to gradually lengthen your hamstring muscles at your own pace:

1. Hands/fingers on the floor. If you reach the floor set your hands or fingers lightly in front of your feet. If you’re almost there (or you feel pain in your lower back), bend your knees.

2. Hands on a book. In yoga class we usually use a block for our hands, but we’re not bound by that formality! Out in the world just use a book (you see me using Black’s Law Dictionary in the picture above) or anything else that can serve a prop to bring the floor up to you. Again, if you’re almost there with your hands on the book (or you feel pain in your lower back), bend your knees.

3. Holding elbows. If you are far from the floor or the book, then hold your elbows lightly with your hands as you fold forward. And again, if you feel pain in your lower back when you do this, bend your knees.

Try to be honest about which variation to work in, and don’t strain to reach the floor or book. Find the place where you can still take deep breaths (breathing deeply is the key to successful lengthening of the muscles).

In yoga we often say that you should find your “edge” and breathe there. From the “edge” you will take deep inhales and then work a little more length with each deep exhale (if your knees are bent, straighten them a little bit more with each exhale; if your knees are straight, try to lift your sit bones up with each exhale). 

Go ahead and try the portable standing forward bend this week. And tell me when you do, I want to know how it feels for you and if you experience your hamstrings releasing more and more.

And remember: when dealing with the body, progress is made through baby steps taken many, many times.

Of course, there are many, many more techniques that you can practice both in the office and at home to work on those hamstrings—and I am happy to share them with you if you would like (contact me here to set up a class).

As always, if you are interested in learning more about how yogic breathing techniques (pranayama), mindful movement (asana), meditation, and work-life balance can bring more balance and flexibility to your life both at home and in the office then inquire more here.

And if you know someone who will benefit from these teachings then don’t be shy and share this post with them! I greatly appreciate all your forwards, likes and comments.

Want more great tips on how to be healthy and balanced in both work and life? Get the next Urban Practice post direct to your Inbox by clicking “Follow Urban Practice” or join me for daily tips and pics on Facebook, Twitter (@MyUrbanPractice) and Instagram (@zarayoga) — lots of choices, lots of buttons. Click all the ones you like.


The Incredible Importance of Play (and some pictures from my recent Central American adventure)

This is my favorite time of year! Winter has finally gone, Spring flowers are starting to bloom, and I am feeling recharged, rejuvenated, and renewed.

My great mood at this time of year is not just because the season is changing (even though I am FILLED with Spring Fever at the moment). It’s primarily because, as I’ve had the blessed fortune to do over the last several years, I just returned from a rollicking month-long adventure abroad.

As you know, last year I was in India learning up on yoga, meditation, and all things spiritual. This year I went to Central America and while it wasn’t as earth movingly intense as India, it was so much fun.

I literally felt like a child at times, having an unbridled play session doing yoga on the beach, surfing the waves, hiking forests filled with cute monkeys. 

One afternoon, after I had spent nearly the whole day frolicking in the waves, I remembered a news story from last year that talked about lots of research showing adults (in America at least) need to play far more frequently in order to stay physically and mentally healthy. 

Well, I definitely got my yearly recommended dose of play while I was in Central America.

And this is essentially the reason why I structure my work and my life to make sure I have enough time each year to get out and play. The research I’ve read just confirms what I have known from my own experience: keeping play a priority in my life makes the rest of my life so much better. 

Seriously. I sleep better, work better, and generally feel better when I make the time to have rip-roaring fun-filled play.

I’ve talked before about the importance of making time for vacation in your life (no matter how supercharged your work-life is), and the importance of play is one of the reasons why I push it so much.

Because vacation is a time to let loose and play. Like a child: curious, carefree, cheerful. I certainly did. I hope you will too. 

For some inspiration, here are some photos of my trip. (I’m a closet travel advisor so if you have any questions about these places, I’m happy to tell you more–ask me in the comment section below).

Now I want to hear from you…when is the last time you had rip-roaring playful fun? Share it in the comment section, and post your pictures if you have some. And if you haven’t had any play in a while, then tell me what you are hoping to do soon.

With all my playful, post-vacation energy, I’ve got some great posts planned for you in the coming months–so stay tuned.

In the meantime, if you have any questions about any of these places, or about yoga, meditation, and mindfulness in general, then comment below or send an inquiry here.

Plus, more posts relating to yoga and your urban professional life are coming soon and you can get the next Urban Practice post direct to your Inbox – just click the “Follow Urban Practice” button below.

Or join me for daily yoga/meditation/mindfulness tips and musings on Facebook or on Twitter by following @MyUrbanPractice.

Corner Office Anatomy – Why Your Work Gets On Your Nerves

OfficeviewIn this segment of Corner Office Anatomy, I want to talk about one of the most vital parts of your body, but one that you might not think about so often while you are in the office (or at any other time for that matter).

It’s a part of your body that could hold the key to your success or failure as a professional in this modern urban era. Still, you probably power through day after day of your career without giving it a single thought. What could be so important yet so easily ignored?

Your autonomic nervous system, of course.

Unless you are an anatomy buff, you are probably wondering what in the world is that, and what does it have to do with your workaday experiences?

The autonomic nervous system is extremely complex, and it is impossible for me to explain it you entirely in this post. To put it very simply, it’s a system of neurons, nerves, plexuses, neurotransmitters, etc. that is responsible for regulating the involuntary (a/k/a unconscious) functions of your body, you know, things like your heart rate, blood circulation, sweat glands, digestion, and the basic rhythm of respiration. Basically anything in your body that carries on without your needing to think about it.

There are two parts of the autonomic nervous system that are constantly interacting with each other to react to your environment and maintain your body’s essential functioning. One part, the sympathetic nervous system, prepares the body for emergencies—it’s the famous “fight or flight” system. 

The other part, the parasympathetic nervous system, is known as the “rest and digest” system because it supports the day-to-day functioning of your internal organs. The parasympathetic system always working, it’s just that when the sympathetic system kicks in, certain of the parasympathetic functions (like digestion, elimination, basic rhythmic breathing) are altered while the body prepares to deal with a threat.


So, what does this all have to do with you and the office?

Well, the sympathetic nervous systems gets triggered when you perceive stress (for example, a tiger is chasing you or your home is on fire). In response, your body does a number of things, like increasing your heart and respiration rate, releasing bunches of adrenaline, and slowing down the other bodily functions (like digestion) that are not absolutely necessary to deal with a threat to your survival.

Obviously, this kind of reaction has been hugely effective for us humans as we have evolved through extremely dangerous environments. But even though our modern urban living is (usually) far safer than it has ever been in our evolutionary past, our day-to-day lives are still full of the kind of stress that triggers our sympathetic nervous system.

Especially in the workplace.

Things like difficult bosses, office politicking, deadlines, incessantly beeping electronic devices, and overwhelming task lists frequently create a “fight or flight” response in our bodies. Basically, our bodies can’t process the difference between fighting a woolly mammoth or running away from a spear wielding enemy, and a constantly buzzing phone or preparing for a career-breaking presentation.


The physiological experience of the sympathetic nervous system being triggered—increased heart rate, dilated pupils, sweating, out of control breathing—is the same no matter where the stress comes from.

Our bodies were not designed to withstand the near constant triggering of the sympathetic nervous system, which is such a common occurrence in the modern world of work (and, thanks to technology that allows you to be connected to your work 24/7, the modern world of rest).

The more the sympathetic nervous system is triggered, the less the rest of your body is able to maintain its regular, peaceful functioning—and the more wear on your nerves. Over time, your overall health will suffer and your ability to handle stress will decline. I know I don’t need to tell you what a breakdown of your nervous system will do to your effectiveness at work, or your ability to handle all the other aspects of your life.

So, in order to counteract the effects of stress, it is vital to learn how to calm the sympathetic nervous system. This is exactly what many of the yoga, meditation, and mindfulness techniques are designed to do. 

There are numerous techniques I could teach you, but in this post I’m going to give you just 3 mini-practices that you can use to calm your sympathetic nervous system particularly while you’re in the office. You don’t even need to leave your chair for these techniques to work!

Seated forward fold

Forward folds are hugely calming (for a variety of anatomical reasons that I won’t get into here). You can certainly stand up, or sit on the floor, and fold over your legs, but that’s not always possible in the office so try this one right from your chair.

Forward Bend_BlueSit about half way between the back and front edge of your chair with your feet flat on the ground and set widely apart (about as wide as the two sides of the chair seat). Take a deep breath in as you sit up tall with your hands resting lightly on your lap. Then, exhale as you  drop your arms in between your legs and roll yourself forward until your fingers or hands touch the floor. If your fingers/hands don’t reach the floor, you can let them dangle, or if that is uncomfortable, then just rest them on your thighs. Stay here and breathe deeply for at least 5 breaths—or as long as you need to feel calm and stable.

Double exhale breathing

Yogic breathing techniques (which are broadly called “pranayama”) have long been known to calm the sympathetic nervous system by slowing the heartbeat, reducing blood pressure, and producing a sense of calm and stability. How it happens is not entirely clear, but it has to do with our ability to consciously control a function–respiration–that is affected by all the other involuntary functions. 

One of the most effective, simple breathing techniques is the double exhale.

Practice like this. Sit comfortably in your chair, with your feet on the ground and your hands resting lightly in your lap. Inhale for a count of 3 (or 4 or 5, depending on your lung capacity and state of mind); exhale for a count of 6 (or 4 or 10 etc.). Continue like this for at least 5 minutes. 

Breathwork - Yogic Full Breath_Blue

Pause meditation

It’s now well-known that meditation (especially mindfulness meditation) lowers your stress levels and calms your sympathetic nervous system. But it’s also well-known how hard it is to spare any time for a dedicated meditation practice.

Worry not—there is a way to incorporate some mindfulness meditation into your very busy day. Just practice this “pause meditation.”

To do it is simple: at different moments in your day, such as before you make a difficult phone call, respond to an email, or go into an important meeting, pause and take 3-5 deep inhales and exhales (take more if you have the time or are feeling particularly stressed out).

You are sure to feel more calm and stable, even after just a few breaths. Remembering to pause is as much part of the practice as the breathing, so the more you train your mind to take the pause, the more you will experience the mental clarity that comes with a focused practice.

Will you try one or more of these this week? Tell me if you do, I want to know how it feels for you.

Of course, there are many, many more techniques that you can practice both in the office and at home—and I am happy to share them with you if you would like (contact me here to set up a class). In the meantime, start practicing what I’ve shown you in this post and you will get a good start on calming your overworked sympathetic nervous system.

As always, if you are interested in learning more about how yogic breathing techniques (pranayama), mindful movement (asana), meditation, and work-life balance can help your life in the office run smoothly then inquire here.

And if you know someone who will benefit from these teachings then don’t be shy and share this post with them!

Want more great tips on how to live a healthy and balanced urban life? Get the next Urban Practice post direct to your Inbox by clicking “Follow Urban Practice” or join me for daily tips and musings on Facebook or Twitter (@MyUrbanPractice)—lots of choices, lots of buttons. Click all the ones you want.