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Khichdi (or Kitchari) – healthy, homestyle, fasting?!

OK, so it’s not really a fast if you’re eating. Let’s call it a “khichdi detox” – an Ayurvedically prescribed diet that is easily prepared, well-tolerated by sensitive stomachs, balances the subtle energies, and promotes self-healing / self-cleaning of the internal organs. It’s great food for upset stomachs, elimination diets (I’m attempting to be gluten-free using it), and as part of a serious yoga regimen.

Also, it tastes delicious when prepared correctly. The spices should be as fresh as possible – for instance, the best garam masala is made by grinding your own peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, and cardamom. The best ghee is organic / local and hasn’t been sitting in a plastic tub for months (coconut oil is a solid option for vegans). The rice and lentils should be thoroughly cleaned before cooking.

Khichdi with cilantro garnish

You can search for recipes online and find a ton of versions. Just so you have some context before delving in, there are two basic methods to preparing this concoction: (1) Boil / pressure-cook the rice and lentils together with a sprinkle of hing (asafoetida, magic ingredient that minimizes bloating), then saute your ginger/garlic/spice mix in ghee and stir the ghee into the rice/lentils, or (2) saute the stuff in the ghee in the pot/pressurecooker, then add rice and lentils into the mix, add water, and cook until done.

Khichdi may be served as is, with a dollop of yogurt or pickle on the side (to break the monotony of taste), or with a simple veggie saag or gravy. If you elect to use option (2) above, you can also prepare your gravy using the tempered oil/ghee, then add the rice and lentils into the same container and cook until done. This combination of veggies, rice, and lentils is known as “khichda”, famous in northern India (some add meat, which probably makes it even more delicious).

Take it to the next level and mix and match with brown rice, red/black/green lentils, mung beans, and even quinoa! It’s still khichdi so long as you stick with the basic grain + legume + spiced ghee/oil formula. Keep it simple for a detox, and make it complex for added flavors – the possibilities are endless.

Luna(cy)

What does the full moon do to us? There’s an undeniable effect. Emergency personnel anecdotes claim that full moon nights are busier, crazier, and more dangerous than nights when the moon is dim.

Some believe it is the slight effect of gravity on the H20 laden brain/body. Others have told of terrible man-wolf creatures lurking in the shadows. Being the product of a scientific education, I scoff at these theories.

Here’s what I think: over many millenia, the endless rhythm of the moon cycle has imprinted itself on our genetic makeup. Our ancestors were able to see better during full moons and, therefore, stay up later, and do more stuff. Despite our very recent lifestyle of artificial lighting and climate control, we’re still coded to have more energy during full moons, thanks to their patterns. Conversely, we’re also coded to lay low during new moons.

In other words, we’re being programmed by lights in the sky.

So what does all this have to do with yoga? Well, yoga empowers us to take control / connect with our true selves by detaching ourselves from being overly attached to transitory things, so that we can live our lives (more here). We do this by practicing diligently to overcome our so-called limitations. For instance, we hang out upside down to reverse the effects of gravity on our circulatory system (among other reasons). Some of us transcend breathing. So we can easily become aware of this celestial cycle and mitigate it’s effects on us, or at least avoid being swayed by these external phenomena.

How do we do this? Simple: do less during full moons and waxing cycles, and do more (or at least attempt to do more) during new moons and waning cycles.

For instance, the full moon is over, and the waning cycle has begun. We can start brushing off the dust, and building more energy so that we can continue functioning through the new moon 28 days from now.

Then, as the waxing cycle begins, we can begin to slow down, and absorb this energy in the form of meditation and higher awareness, rather than mindlessly expend the energy. Or, at least channel the energy creatively, writing words or music, or building relationships and connections.

Tips on staying warm

Brrrr…it’s getting cold! Did you know that cold showers help you stay warm? I douse myself with the coldest possible water every morning, which triggers a reaction in my body to instantly bring all the blood and resources towards the core. This reaction has lasting impacts throughout the day, minimizing heat loss through the extremities, improving digestion, and boosting immunity. Check out more here.
Some more tips for staying warm:
  • Sip warm-to-hot water throughout the day to stay hydrated without dousing agni (inner digestive fire, or metabolism). A dash of lemon does wonders for taste and immune benefit. You can add tea as well – just make sure you alternate with cups of plain warm water.
  • Eat more warming foods like root vegetables (beets, onions, radishes), red and black lentils, meat and eggs, yogurt, brown rice, and season with ginger, garlic, pepper, cardamom, clove garam masala, anyone?), sesame seed, turmeric, mustard seeds. More about ayurvedic foods.
  • Massage the joints with sesame or coconut oils to keep them warm and lubricated, especially if you’re a vata like me.
  • Stay active. Work out rigorously. Attend community yoga classes. Do Ujjayi pranayama whenever possible.
  • Relax to conserve energy. Minimize unnecessary movements or conversations that leak energy.
  • Socialize! Potlucks are awesome. Last night’s gathering of friends at my place resulted in a crowdsourced soup, chock full of root veggies, spices, and coconut oil/cream. It was heavenly, especially when shared with other warm and loving people. Get close to friends and family and share your energy with them.
  • Related to socializing: curb the alcohol consumption. A drink or three is great social lubrication, but be aware that you’re dilating the blood vessels on the surface of the body, leading to more heat loss. Also, hangovers really suck.

Finally, here’s a trick I use while walking down the street in the crippling icy wind: I imagine that I’m walking on a hot sunny beach, and I sing reggae music to myself. YMMY, good luck!

Going with the flow – improvised 1-hour class routine

We’ve all heard this gem: “The body is the best instructor.”

For the all-levels community class that I taught last night, I applied the same concept to my own body. In other words, I taught my students what I would have wanted to practice on my own. Don’t get me wrong – I stayed true to the class description and used elements of my original routine. But, it was the hottest day of the year, and I really wanted to start in savasana (corpse pose) to cool the body, and to play with how my routine would look like as a cooling practice.

So this is what came out of it – it worked well, and I got some positive feedback from the mostly-beginner students:

  • Savasana (as students trickle in)
  • Deepen breath, begin Yashtikasana (each arm, then both)
  • Pavanmuktasana (each leg, then both)
  • Rock left/right, then back/forth until seated in sukhasana
  • Introductions, intentions, injuries
  • Stretching mixed with sukshma vyayam (subtle yoga exercises)
  • Stith prarthnasana (mountain pose)
    • Explain attitude (bhava) based asana, in this case, stillness
    • Encourage checking in with body, mind, and everything in between (nervous system)
  • Inhale, lift arms, backbend (with bhava of confidence and embracing the universe)
  • Exhale, fold forward (with bhava of humility and acceptance)
    • Repeat lifting to backbend + folding forward, emphasizing the contrast
  • Surya namaskar (sun salutation) introduction
    • Intended to be practiced facing the morning sun
    • Stretches and exercises every muscle in the body
    • Explain alignment and attitudes for each of the 12 poses (mountain, arms raised, forward fold, lunge = alignment, downward dog = stability, plank = strength, pronate = humility, cobra = confidence + willpower, downward dog, lunge on the other side, fold, arms raised, mountain)
    • Repeat several times, finding a flow
  • Stith prarthnasana, checking in with body, mind, and breath
  • Chair pose + twist
    • Add breath of fire (optional)
  • Lower to child’s pose
    • Deep cooling breaths
  • Gomukhasana (without arms)
    • Lower forward if possible
    • Rise, add arms
    • Release arms, twist
    • Repeat for other side
  • Paschimottanasana
    • Yin and yang versions
  • Reverse plank provides a nice counterpose, especially with lion’s breath
  • Savasana + deep relaxation

It’s not a strongly physical practice, but that’s not what I was feeling at the time! Definitely cooling and relaxing, and incorporating lots of yogic principles. Most importantly, it was exactly what I would have done given ~65 minutes alone.

Breathe Deep

Really, that’s the only instruction for the Pranayama (yogic breathing) workshop that I’ve been teaching in the DC area for the last couple of years.

Sure, I’ve added more instructions. A sample class (~1.5 hours) is listed below. But really, all I could do is to say: “Inhale deeply. Hold the breath for as long as is comfortable*. Let it go. Observe the effect on mind and body. Repeat.”

Meanwhile, to keep my students busy for the allotted time, here’s my routine:

  • Welcome and introduce oneself (student participation is crucial)
  • Brief intro to 8 limbs and the context of today’s session
  • Warmup and stretches
  • Asanas for core and lungs (surya A, cat/cow, child, Lion’s breath optional!)
  • Pranayama 1: equal breathing (for calming nerves and balancing energy)
  • Pranayama 2: 3-part yogic breathing (for inner awareness and lung expansion)
  • Pranayama 3: Kumbakha (retention, upto 4, 8, or 12 seconds)
  • Pranayama 4: Kumbakha (retention) + Rechaka (suspension)
  • Pranayama 5: Pranayama 4 + Bandhas (mula + jalandhara during Kumbakha, maha bandha during Rechaka)
  • Pranayama 5: Kapalbhati for ~3 minutes (detox)
  • Pranayama 6: Fire Breath for ~3 minutes (more of a kriya)
  • Pranayama 7: Minute breath (to balance out the previous two)
  • Pranayama 8: Bhastrika (double-espresso shot, handle with care)
  • Pranayama 9: Anulom vilom / nadi shodana / alternate nostril (balancing, relaxing)
  • Savasana, and closing Meditation: Choice between 3x3x3, “I have arrived, I am home“, or 5-points of awareness

Thanks for reading, and please share your routines and link to my blog or let me know and I can post your routine. Let’s keep yoga open-source and accessible!

* Breath retention should be avoided by those suffering from a high blood pressure, and those who are pregnant. Pranayama should not be practiced for longer than 30 minutes per day – the bulk of the time of the session is for explanation / discussion.

1-hour beginner’s class plan

For my first regular yoga class (7:30PM Friday nights at Kali Yoga, pay-what-you-can), I’m going to start with the following routine. Briefly, it will include a ~5 minute intro and shares, ~5 minutes of simple stretches, ~40 minutes of asana, ~10 minutes of pranayama, and ~5 minutes of meditation.

  • General Intro
    • I will introduce myself, and ask everyone to introduce themselves and share something (will vary with each class)
      • The philosophy is that student participation makes things more yogic.
    • Start with stretches (not asana) from neck to toes.
      • “Let the breath be free, let the mind wander.”
  • Intro to Asana
    • Stith prathnasana (mountain pose with hands in prayer).
      • Define yoga as unity of body and mind, with the nervous system being the connector. Yoga asanas are specific body configurations designed to link the body and mind by activating the nervous system.
      • Introduce the concept of Bhava (attitude), i.e., with the feet together and hands clasped, our bodies have to stand still, so our nervous system links this message to the brain, and our mind becomes more still. In this pose, we practice the bhava of stillness and acceptance. Accept that you’re here to practice yoga (or whatever your intention is).
    • Forward fold, with the bhava of humility and acceptance. Accept the stretch in the back body.
    • Lower to child’s pose, with the bhava of security, grounding. Introduce deep yogic breathing.
  • Basic Hatha sequence (that I learned in my very first yoga class)
    • Table + cat/cow
    • Core warmup, extending each leg back and arm forward and curling inward.
    • Downward dog -> plank, with emphasis on alignment and breath.
      • Repeat ~3 times before slowly walking up to forward fold and mountain.
    • ONE sun salutation very slowly, explaining how it is intended to expose the body to the morning sun, and stretch + exercise every muscle, and practice bhavas of stillness (mountain), confidence (back bends), humility (forward folds), balance (lunge), and integrity (plank/downward dog).
    • THREE more suryas by themselves.
    • Tree pose, with bhava of balance.
  • Seated asanas
    • Parbat asana, and all variations (lean left, right, back, front, twist).
    • Gomukhasna + forward fold
      • Add twist OR eagle arms
    • One / both legged forward fold, with emphasis on yang version (reaching, breathing deep) vs. yin version (relaxing hands, letting the back body melt forward).
    • Reverse table / bridge / wheel, depending on class energy.
    • SHORT savasana (corpse pose)
      • explain metaphor for death
  • PRANAYAMA
    • Ideally in vajrasana, or any comfortable seat, on a block, or against a wall
    • Breath awareness, without judgment
    • Basic pranayama: inhale, hold, exhale, hold
      • build this gradually, introducing each portion separately, and increasing the time slowly
      • explain how breath is a metaphor for lifespan
    • Nadi shodhana / alternate nostril
      • optional: “virtual” version using visualization instead of actual hands on nose
    • Kapalbhati (if time permits)
    • Chant OM / OM SHANTI / etc. (if time permits)
  • MEDITATION
    • any one of 5-points of awareness, tratak (open-eye concentration), metta (loving-kindness), vipassana (breath-awareness), zazen (watching the watcher)

That should easily take a little over an hour! I’d also like to introduce themes for each class, such as one of the 8 limbs, or a specific chakra or element to focus on, depending on the day and the energy level. Stay tuned for more routines that I’ll keep posting in my efforts to make yoga more open-source and accessible!

My first regular yoga gig

“Am I a man who has just awaken from a dream of being a butterfly, or am I a sleeping butterfly now dreaming he is a man?” -Zhuangzi

It’s been over 2 months since I returned from my yoga-training trip to India. Weirdly, my yoga practice has taken a back seat to several other activities. Or should I say my “external” (physical) yoga practice has taken a back seat to my “internal” (psychological and subtle) yoga practice? Let me explain.

Similar to how a caterpillar dissolves into a primordial soup that is rearranged to produce a butterfly, I feel as if my journey was the beginning of my own metamorphosis, with the last couple of months since my return being the end of this process. I’ve been practicing swadhyay (realizing my potential in the context of my abilities and situation), ahimsa and satya (loving-kidness and honesty), aparigraha (minimizing material and mental clutter), santosha (contentment), and trikaldarshi (awareness of the passage of time).

Alex_Grey_Metamorphosis

Somehow, this process has resulted in me being more myself. I’m still the same guy I was before, but clearer in my goals as a patent attorney, musician, significant other, and yoga teacher. I’m working more efficiently (and closer to getting my green card), I’m writing more music and playing more shows, going deeper with my girlfriend (we’re traveling to Guatemala next month), and just scored my first regular gig as a yoga teacher in DC!

The yoga teaching is particularly exciting, as it embodies my dream of being a renaissance man in today’s complicated world. Not only can I travel with my current patent attorney gig, I can travel and teach universally accessible yoga! Also, not only will this new yoga teaching gig provide valuable experience, it will also help me tweak my “product” that I will offer worldwide.

The new teaching gig is at Quiet Mind Yoga, soon to be renamed Kali Yoga, in Columbia Heights, Washington, D.C. Similar to my other yoga efforts, this will be donation-based, with proceeds going towards similar yoga outreach efforts. This also embodies the concept of Karma yoga, or performing one’s duty without any expectations of material gain. Although I’m aware that at some point I’m going to want to sustain my life by teaching yoga, the free / donation / pay-what-you-can model appears to have worked in some cases.

The content of the class will be tailored to be universally accessible. Since my students are likely to be educated city-dwelling office-workers, I’m going to give them a bit of a workout to stimulate blood flow and body awareness, and introduce some specific asanas and pranayamas to burn away toxins. I’m also going to focus on bhavas or attitudes of action, as taught to me at the Yoga Institute, specifically: acceptance of one’s dharma (or duty), and maintaining equanimity and a balanced state of mind in overstimulating situations. Finally, the class include short discussion portions where I’m going to encourage students to share their thoughts, with the belief that the lesson is not what the teacher conveys to the students, but what the students collectively understand based on their own backgrounds. Plus, collaboration is connection, which is one of the definitions of yoga, no?

Yoga Teacher Training – Graduation!

An hour prior to our test, we received a final lecture, emphasizing that the four positive bhavas were central to all the concepts taught here, and everything stems as a result. It was nice to confirm what I had already suspected (that attitude dictates action and therefore results), but in a very simple and straightforward manner.

Our final exam was tougher than I expected. It was an objective test of our knowledge of the concepts we had learned (names and effects of yamas / niyamas, meaning of sutras, psychological effects of asanas). However, the grading was pretty unique: we self-corrected our own papers, and never had to submit them anywhere, and everyone got a certificate. In other words, the test was purely an exercise in svādhyāya and karma yoga! In retrospect, it made a lot of sense: worrying about results distracts us from simply taking the test to take the test.

Yoga Teacher Training Certificate!

Yoga Teacher Training Certificate!

Besides, the test was only a small portion of what was to come. Apparently, we were the first 1-month batch in several years to be invited to present a program of events for the graduation ceremony, likely because of our diverse backgrounds and skill set.  I mean, we collectively represented Japan, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, India, Iraq, Germany, France, Belgium, Finland, Sweden, UK, USA, and Argentina! And some mad skills were offered! (photo credits: Farah and Karin)

West Meets East by Ana-Lena

West Meets East by Ana-Lena

Indian Dance 1 by Nikytasha

Indian Dance 1 by Nikytasha

Indian Dance 2

Indian Dance 2

Western medley by Martin, Karin, and Sachin

Western medley by Martin, Karin, and Sachin

Marathi song by Sailesh

Marathi song by Sailesh

Poetry reading by Inder

Poetry reading by Inder

Music and acrobats / circus tricks by Martin and Joanna

Music and acrobats / circus tricks by Martin and Joanna

One of my realizations here is that connecting with my classmates was a huge part of the experience for a couple of reasons: learning how others learn the material is vital to understanding how yoga is disseminated, and sharing our diverse energies in the same room created an electric atmosphere that sparked vibrant discussions before, during, and after classes. It’s also nice to observe how aligning our frequencies for 1 month, while coming from such diverse backgrounds, can result in so much co-creation, balance of opinion, learning how to live and love each other, and accept ourselves for who we are. and that’s the lesson of the day!

Our group (minus a few)

Our group (minus a few)

(of course, the real lesson from my yoga course is that it’s all in the mind – stay tuned for more…)

Seeing like the snake

I’m developing a theory of the nervous system as an antenna. This is probably not an original thought, but I’m exploring it from my own perspective (physicist, patent attorney, musician, yogi). Anyway, I wrote the following piece about 3 years ago, and am posting it here as a preview of my upcoming theory (no promises on when it will be ready).

 

Can you read people’s minds? Do you get “signals” out of thin air? Thoughts that materialize into reality seconds, hours, or days later? What about dreams of events, people, situations that contain elements of the past, yet may hint at the future?

I’m particularly interested in the “signals.” What type of signals do you receive? Do you act out of instinct, turning around just in time to see your friend enter the room? Is it a mental tic, insisting that it needs to be acted on? Or is it a mere whisper of a suggestion, willing to be ignored, maybe even forgotten by the time it is real? How much do you trust this feeling to be true? If it was clear as a bell, how much would you attribute as hindsight? 

If you’ve recognized and acknowledged your ability to observe happenings beyond the realm of our basic senses, have you noticed any patterns of behavior of this extra-sense? Do you practice this process? What methods do you use to tune into your surroundings? How far do you think you can take it? Where is the balance between developing this “muscle” and overexerting it to the point of exhaustion? Do you find your yoga and meditation practice having a positive effect on your extra-sense? Alternatively, what other methods have you used to exercise this extra-sense?

Our basic senses are only limited in their function by the apparent ability of the brain to process their input. The eye “sees” only a fraction of the available electromagnetic spectrum, known as visible light. Similarly, the ears “hear” somewhere between 20Hz and 20,000Hz. Dogs can hear and smell far better than us. Reptiles see infrared. Bats build images with their echoes. It is said that animals can “sense” fear. Considering that our bodies undergo subtle shifts in chemical balance depending on our emotional state, what exactly are the animals picking up on? Can we humans, as distant relatives of most other life, pick up on these with our senses? Can we practice sniffing like the dog, listening like the cat, seeing like the snake? And if so, can we clear up the smoke around the concept of extra-sensory perception, and start focusing on how to harness these new skills?

Yoga Teacher Training – Day 23

This is it! The last day of the 1-month TTC course at the Yoga Institute in Mumbai, India! Tomorrow, we have to give a written exam, and then get awarded our certificates. I’ve also set up a show with my new band (of sorts), including gypsy-jazz violinist Martin, and sultry jazz/classical singer Karin – we’ll be the first 1-month batch to put on a show in several years!

Martin + violin

Martin + violin

Anyway, we started the day with a simple concentration exercise: read a passage from one of our textbooks, and write it out in 2 minutes. We first performed this exercise as is, and then repeated it (with a different passage) after 1 minute in sukhasana. Everyone performed better the second time, with the moral of the story being that specific yoga asanas can increase our concentration powers.

Coincidentally (or not?), the passage I copied the 2nd time was a summary of yogic concentration! Here’s what I wrote: “Concentration is the essence of yoga. Anything that does not bring our mind to a state of concentration is not yoga. To improve concentration, one must first rid themselves of Kleshas. This can be done by practicing Yama and Niyama. Concentration can further be developed by performing specific asana and pranayama. Concentration cannot be achieved by simply sitting still with the eyes closed – yogic principles must be observed. People with sanskaric imprints (read: karmic baggage) may have trouble developing concentration.

It turned out that the topic of the day was the spine! We went into detail about the components of the spine, the main causes of back problems, and the ideal asanas for improving the strength and flexibility of the spine.

Notes on Spine

Notes on Spine

I asked the teacher why there was no emphasis on core strength, particularly the abdominal region, and she said that most of these asanas also strengthen the core. Yet, I haven’t heard from this institute must about the role of the abdominal muscles in maintaining proper alignment, something I’ve heard a lot about in my experiences in the west.

Martin, James, and I attempted to perform sutra neti today! Basically, we acquired some surgical tubing, sterilized it, inserted it into our nostril until it reached the throat, and pulled it out of the mouth. This is a powerful variation of the regular old jal neti we’re doing every day.

In hunting for the tubing, we ended up coming late to the next session, which was explaining the senses (Indriyas), and specifically, the human organs of sense (Gnanendriya) and action (Karmendriya), with a sanskrit focus that I’m going to abstain from typing out tonight 🙂

There was a further elaboration on the Bhavas, or attitudes in life that this institute takes very seriously. Basically, a bhava is an attitude of the subconscious mind that is based on patterns of though, and that results in patterns of actions. For instance, a person that typically lives in one or more of the negative bhavas (adharma, agyana, raaga, and unaishwarya) will have a negative outlook, complain a lot, be unhealthy, and will tend to create problems out of opportunities. Whereas, a person that practices one or more of the positive bhavas (dharma, gyana, vairagya, aishwarya) won’t complain, will have healing qualities, live a simple guilt-free life, and is a problem solver, i.e. converts problems into opportunities. We covered some rules for living with Bhavas, including the dharma or duty-minded bhava, which must involve living by a code of conduct (i.e. yama, niyama), maintaining a balanced state of mind, and a positive outlook on any situation.

Now, I’m going to review for tomorrow’s exam! Stay tuned for a final post evaluating the test, graduation, and my thoughts on this 1-month TTC program in general.