It is impossible to not feel more peaceful after a sincere yoga practice, after all its very principles are built on integrating all the aspects of life and its focus is on bringing our true, wise, more compassionate sense of selves out and into the world. Sadly, there are a lot of places now that forget the yogic roots and associate the practice solely with physical appearance. My yoga body is a great benefit, but it is only a tip of the iceberg, so I believe that people whose sole desire is to acquire a yoga body of their own are missing out on the rest of the benefits that it provides. Of course, some of the deeper benefits of yoga will still be felt even if they are not what the person strives for. Many report a sense of calm after a workout because yoga is a natural stress relief tool.
When I started to practice yoga eleven years ago, I wanted to condition my body and to improve my balance and flexibility. Stress relief was not something that I have expected, but I noticed that even on the most stressful of days I felt anxiety relief practically few minutes into a workout. It worked faster than running! With time I came to expect that serenity from yoga without knowing much about its roots. I have continuously done yoga, mixing it with the other workout routines, instinctively seeking it on days when I needed to find my inner center. In the beginning of this year I wasn’t feeling that well. Going for a run was the last thing on my mind, some days I struggled to get off the couch after a minor activity around the house. I felt drowsy from the lack of energy and gentle beginner yoga seemed all I could manage at a time.
After February and my switch to raw food vegetarian and then vegan lifestyle, I regained all my energy and then some. However, most of the days, I choose yoga over all other possible forms of exercise. I don’t need to work hard to burn fat anymore as my body naturally maintains its ultimate weight. I work out more days a week than I previously had because I have more energy to do so, but yoga doesn’t feel like a tedious task. It has become a part of my daily routine and an integral part of my life. A reach for a yoga mat first thing in the morning is like taking a deep breath and doing sun salutations is my saying hello to the world. I have awoken from sleep. I am here with the start of a new day. I am devoted to creating peace on my yoga mat and taking it everywhere I go.
For me, starting the day with yogic sun salutations is like turning the inner light on and aligning all the aspects of my life with each other. While my body is working physically, stretching, holding poses, finding balance, the mind unwraps itself of the unnecessary thoughts that often obstruct clarity. The spirit seems to grow stronger as the warm joyful energy smoothly flows through the body, penetrating every cell and nourishing it with its healing power. I feel peace and love toward the universe. I am at home within my body. The flow of action and relaxation is life itself and long after I am done with my morning yoga I will be synched with that rhythm, breathing deeply, calmly, inherent integrity preserved and maintained by the strong sense of self throughout the daily activities.
Yoga is my favorite form of exercise for a variety of reasons. It conditions the body and increases its strength and flexibility. It works from the inside out, activating every possible muscle there is. Simultaneously with toning, it promotes detoxification. Cleansing the body of toxins is as important as strength, even more so because the body will always have some harmful elements that will need to be eliminated. These toxins are either a product of metabolism or have entered our bodies with food, air or through the skin. If not expelled, they will cause havoc in the body (as well as mind and spirit).
Balancing poses help me find my center, literally and figuratively speaking. Even on one foot with limbs spread like a bird, leaning forward until the balance is achieved I feel firmly planted on the ground. And then, through the day that balance remains. If something sways it, I just need to breathe deep and focus, as if entering a balancing pose. Sometimes, if my immediate environment permits, I actually do a tree pose and reap deeper balancing benefits. I am reminded that life is all about the balance and an integration of numerous aspects that cannot exist without each other. No matter what happens to disturb it, I have the power to find my center again.
In the past, I used to focus on jogging and aerobics. My primary goals were physical fitness and stress relief. I still occasionally enjoy these physical activities, but now my focus is on efficiently covering all of my needs with one workout instead of doing one for the cardio and fat loss, one for toning and one for stretching. Also, I don’t miss my trips to the chiropractor because of the knee aches that were caused by too much running. Yoga is much gentler on the body. I can do it every single day, whereas with aerobics and even more so with running, I had to take frequent breaks as the knee pain would return after three or more days of strenuous exercise.
I read somewhere that walking on the ground barefoot has grounding and energizing effect. No wonder I always preferred to walk barefoot as a child, and even as adult, I love the way the earth feels under my feet. I especially enjoy walking barefoot on the grass - I get the tickling sensation that spreads from my feet upward into the rest of me, revitalizing me from my toes to the crown of my head. In a sense, I feel like a blossoming tree with moveable roots planted deep in the ground. I am grounded and sturdy, but not restricted in any sense. That’s another reason why yoga appeals to me - I get to practice barefoot! The vibrations of the earth and my feet are merged while I am on my yoga mat saluting the sun and the earth, flowing like water and opening my heart in the infinite space of the air to life and its endless potential for love.
After the weekend at the summer house last July I came home feeling angry and frustrated. My own family was seriously annoyed at me for speaking up about animal rights and for no longer being able to suppress my repulsion at the sight of meat at the dinner table. I agree that I might have spoiled their appetite when I made the sounds of disgust while they bit in “juicy” pieces of fried pork. I couldn’t help it, and I couldn’t help moving myself and my plate of bright crispy vegetables farther away from their plates filled with oiled chunks of animal carcass. I got yelled at for behaving disrespectfully. There was no point arguing that there was nothing respectful about killing animals for food, that would only lead to more yelling at the table and tears would surface in at least one of us by the end of the argument. I tried to suppress my deep disappointment and anger, I thought that my mom and I were on the same page, but I was wrong! Carefully observing the sounds that I made, I finished my salad as fast as I could and fled away from the dinner table to chant my frustrations out.
After chanting I dug further into my books. I needed to hear another voice that matched my own so that I wouldn’t feel so alone in the world. I quietly hugged my son and diverted my attention to yet another book on Raw Food. Coincidentally, I reached the chapter on animal rights. I read colorful descriptions of things that go on in the slaughterhouses and tears blurred my vision. I was no longer able to hold them back, they were freely flowing down my cheeks and dripping on the pages depicting the horrible scenes. In a midst of a crying bout I questioned myself whether I really needed to hear these gruesome details, but then a sentence struck me in the heart – while it is painful to read about the suffering of animals, it is by no means comparable to the pain that animals are subjected to. If the animals have no other choice but to endure the things that go on in the slaughterhouses, then we should not turn a blind eye on it and have the courage to face the truth. Paul McCartney said - “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.” People need to be aware! (Choose to be aware by watching a video.) For the rest of the trip I resisted talking about animals or food or anything related to the subject. But, on the two and a half hour ride home from the summer house we had another argument. This time it was about helpful benefits of yoga and its potential to make people more peaceful. My optimistic view was shot down immediately. I got overruled by my mom and my brother, with my son and my ex step father sitting quietly and wishing that they weren’t in the car. It took me by surprise that even something as seemingly unoffending as yoga practice that integrates body, mind and spirit could bring such a negative response from my family. As a firm believer in its benefits because I experienced them for myself, I defended my view only to be accused of not being accepting of views of others! I wanted to say that there was nothing wrong with believing that something like yoga could make people more peaceful and positive, bringing forth the compassion toward all living beings. I could hardly get two words out at a time - both my brother and my mom kept loudly interrupting me, “No, Nadia! No, you’re wrong!” Talk about being disrespectful of other people’s views. Our voices got loud and out of control, and once my brother told me that I haven’t changed one bit toward being more peaceful because of my yoga practice, I was no longer able to hold back the anger that I tried to control for the past two days. I just hated the negativity, the disbelief and the way that my opinions got shot down by my own family. I admit that I have yelled louder that I should have and that there came a point when I didn’t want to speak or to be spoken to by either one of them. I was unable to talk to my family about anything that mattered to me and I felt like my heart had been squeezed to fit in a tight little box, never to be taken out in their presence. I stared at the window as we drove in heavy silence for another hour, tears dripping down my cheeks again, thoughts of walking away from them once and for all filling my mind. I called my boyfriend when I got home. He listened and carefully tried to calm me down, explaining to me that I can’t push other people to believe what I believe in. I understood all that, but the sense of urgency was overwhelming. I felt stuck in the “culture of death” kind of world where people were more concerned with you making a silly noise at the dinner table than with the fact that millions of animals are dying every day. I was in an awful mood and knew that talking about the issue wasn’t a good idea anymore, so I tried to get off the phone, letting my boyfriend know that that I needed some quiet time. As he often does, he ignored my warning and continued to push the conversation further, this time bringing up his Italian culture and heritage and how he didn’t see his life without having pasta and meatballs. Before I knew it I was weeping hysterically, I felt the pain of the animals as my own, saw each of their deaths as something that I needed to prevent, but being unable to talk to anyone about it I felt like I failed them. I wept for a while and by the time I was out of tears my whole body ached and my head felt swollen. I was doing it again, making myself physically ill because I was emotionally upset. I got myself to chant for a little bit even though my throat was sore and my eyes were puffy and red. Since every problem in life can be resolved, there must be a solution. And my crying myself to sleep was not it! I won’t be helpful to any animals ever if I don’t pull myself together and learn how to be patient with people, understanding that it takes time to change a perspective on something like this. The next day at lunch I went online, looking for websites that encouraged vegan lifestyle. I visited PETA and Humane Society, but I craved a human connection. I wanted to read personal articles by people who were vegans and who, despite the opposition, had the courage to bring up their kids vegan as well. On one of the websites that I found there were beautiful pictures of children and animals. Those children were brought up to treat a dog and a pig the same way, with love and respect. It was lovely and I didn’t feel as alone anymore. There was one picture in particular that touched me – a baby holding a tiny kitten. It was a symbol of harmony and deep cross-species friendships. At that moment I wished with all my heart that I could have a second cat. It may seem silly, but the thought made me warm and toasty inside, like a hot bath on a winter day after playing in the snow, but much more pleasant. I went back to work, putting the thought aside, leaving it as an idea that may one day manifest itself into a reality. I got home and went back to the usual routine with my son, calmer, more relaxed and determined to figure this out without starting a war with everyone who didn’t agree. My son and I went to get pizza for him. Sadly, he hardly eats anything and pizza is one of the few foods that he loves. When we came back to our house my neighbor called me with urgency. I went outside to see what happened. I was flabbergasted to see a tiny black and white kitten trotting clumsily on the grass under my window. He let out a tiny meow and my heart floated upward like a balloon. I loved him, the little fur ball of a creature with bright blue eyes, pink nose and pointy ears. He must have been three or four weeks old. My neighbor didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl, but I had a feeling that it was a little he. I was about to call my son, but he was already running out toward us, barefoot, pizza forgotten. I watched him settle on the sidewalk with a little kitten which was now playfully biting his hand, running to get his toe and then his other hand. Maximus and the kitten seemed to be in their own little world - he was giggling, kitten was running around him in circles and purring. My neighbor told me that she found the kitten a few days ago at her doorstep and that she could only keep him temporarily, she already had two cats at home. The kitten needed a home and a loving family. I didn’t expect the kitten to be handed to me the same day when I made a hypothetical wish, but here I was. Maximus was pleading, even though he was pretty sure that I would say no. I told him many times that we already had one cat and there was no space in our one bedroom apartment to have more animals. Plus, my boyfriend wasn’t really a cat person and we have talked about moving in together at some point. Having two cats would be complicated. As thoughts zipped from why I should to why I shouldn’t and back, I was overcome with love toward the little guy and before I knew it, I was telling my neighbor that I wanted to take him. I needed to straighten some things out before I could do it, but the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that his presence there was a gift from the universe, its reaction to my heartfelt wish earlier in the day. We went home and the kitten was on my mind every single moment, no matter what I busied myself with. I would get him, I decided! If my boyfriend couldn't deal with me adopting an animal then he just didn’t get me or didn’t care to get me and we weren’t supposed to be together. I called my neighbor and told her that I would be happy to adopt the little guy. I then called my mom, forgetting the anger that I felt and seeing the fight that we had as an insignificant milestone of our relationship. Just a day before I felt like I could never talk to her again, but the kitten filled my heart with love where there was pain and I was able to see past our disagreements - she just needed more time, I should be patient and encouraging. She was surprised to hear my voice. Not sure if I will yell more or not, she cautiously asked me what was going on. I couldn’t hold back my giggles, “Mom! Guess what?! I am adopting a kitten…”
Back in January 2004 I have met an amazing person, Sidney Springer. He came to DDC where I worked at the time with his wife and daughter. His daughter was probably about two years old and his wife was pregnant with their second child. He came to share his experience at the weekly Buddhist meeting that we had during lunch breaks on Wednesdays. I knew he was coming and made sure that nothing interfered with me being there. Carlyle, the man who introduced me to Buddhism (he also introduced Sidney to the practice), said that a young man will come to the meeting who was recently diagnosed with cancer. He said that this young man wanted to encourage people with his positive outlook and victorious spirit. Despite Carlyle’s confidence, I wasn’t expecting a happy encouraging person. How can someone recently diagnosed with cancer not be swayed by the fact that he was probably dying? Forget encouraging me with my silly inconsequential problems, I wanted to go so that there would be someone who supported him during this trying time.
Everyone knew he was coming and there was sadness in the air - he was only twenty eight. However, when he stepped into the room with his wife and his daughter at hand, the atmosphere transformed in seconds. It was still sad, but now that we met him, we were encouraged by his remarkable strength and positivity. He was living his life to the fullest, without fear, without regrets and without asking “why me”. He talked about his sickness, but I could tell that his main reason for coming was to encourage everyone not to give up on their dreams no matter what. It was as if for him living to the fullest was touching as many hearts as possible. He fearlessly cheered people on to pursue their happiness without a selfish thought. It was beautiful how his wife supported him with her genuine loving smile and gentle touch.
I often thought about the bright young man that I have met on the cold day In January years ago. His smile, his words and his love for his wife reminded me about important things in life time and again. I hoped that he got well and overcame his sickness. I wished that someday I could tell him how grateful I was and give him a piece of my happiness to return the favor. Sadly, the only favor I could return was attending his memorial this October. He died on September 2, the day before his 36th birthday. On the day of the memorial it was raining and snowing, and everyone knows how I dislike going to the city without a class or dinner incentive, but there was no question that I had to be there for him and his family. My boyfriend came with me, knowing how important this memorial was from what I have told him. My grandfather also had lung cancer and died, but all he had was six months after the doctors got involved. Sidney was fortunate enough to have another eight years with his family. He got to meet his second daughter and see both of his children grow. He didn’t just disintegrate mentally, physically or spiritually, he lived with joy and vigor while he was alive.
During the first part of the memorial there was a lot of chanting, this would have made Sidney happy. I chanted for him with appreciation - thank you for being who you were, thank you for bringing so much optimism into the world that it stayed there even after you were gone. People shared their memories of Sidney. His wife remembered the lessons that he taught her, most important ones being that one has to be happy first before he/she can make others happy and that we need to chant for people who make us miserable because they need it most since they are suffering. One of his friends remembered how toward the end Sidney was so week that he had to be rolled in his chair from one room to the next, but he was always up for chanting. Another friend shared Sidney’s confidence that we always get back what we give. Sidney firmly believed that no smile is wasted, that each one will be returned by the person smiling back at us. That’s how he lived his life, bringing his smile wherever he went! His daughters danced for daddy, his friends sang and told jokes. It was a celebration of a wonderful young man’s life, a young man who deserved to be remembered. Sidney’s spirit is now a part of all the people that he has touched and therefore will live on through us as ripples of goodness and compassion that we project forth with him in mind.
One weekend in July my son and I went to my mom’s summer house in Pennsylvania!. I brought loads of fresh organic fruits and vegetables to last me while I was there. Everyone else ate what they usually ate. Even though my mom was the one who suggested that I would read the Raw Food book and believed the concept to be genuine, she wasn’t ready to switch completely. She started to include more salads and replaced breakfast with fruit and then she was what I call stuck, for the time being. I encouraged her to stop eating meat, especially the meat that was fried or contained large chunks of fat, but at one point she asked me to stop badgering her. I guess I did it one too many times. Now that I was aware of how unhealthy it was and how much suffering this kind of lifestyle promoted, I just couldn’t stop myself from telling people that it wasn’t a good idea to eat that poor pig, cow or chicken. Just like in case of a seatbelt, I was making the annoying “beeping” sound, “Beep, don’t eat that! Beep, that’s an animal right there! Don’t you care!?” In this case, however, I didn’t feel like I needed to apologize because while it is surely a person’s choice whether they want to wear a seat belt or get a ticket, or to eat foods that are unhealthy, the animals, however, are not given a choice and that is not right.
By eating meat we are supporting the “culture of death”, as Gabriel Cousins calls it. As long as we buy meat, the animals will be grown for food. They will live miserable lives until it’s time for them to be killed and become dinners. The idea of animals dying to be on our plates may not bother some at first because we, as society, made it acceptable and even expected to sacrifice other species for the joy of being alive. For many, a fancy dinner is the highlight of their existence, and if you ask them to give up eating meat, you will get the same rebellious response that you have gotten back in the days of slavery. They need meat just like slave owners needed slaves. Well, guess what – slavery has been abolished and now everyone in a civilized society seems to agree that it was unethical and wrong. So, why not go a step further and cherish not only the lives of people of different races, but also of animals. They too can think, feel and love! The truth is that we don’t need animals to die in order to stay alive. Our obsession with consumption of meat is driven by our appetites and the bottomless wallets of the meat industry owners who only care about making a buck. Just like the truth about the ever speeding demise of our precious planet, this truth may be inconvenient, especially for those who hide their selfishness behind the protein myth.
As human beings, we are free to choose how we will live out our lives. We are free to choose to be more compassionate and kind, even if wisdom to do so is slightly out of reach in the present moment. I understand that it is hard to walk away from something that has become a culture or a tradition, from something that you have identified with all your life, to walk out of your comfort zone and into the unknown. I must agree, it was easier for me than most, but it is only because of years of seemingly invisible progression toward this goal. We all are in different places in our lives. Some of us can do more than others, but we all should do something, even if it is only thinking about the problem. Devoting some time to honestly reflect on the issue is the hardest thing to do - to many this is a foreign concept that the mind can’t wrap itself around. But, all great things start with a thought. After all, the world is only as big as your perception of it. Open up your mind to the possibilities and expand it as far as your heart desires!