Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Here & Now

This is what I’m doing right now. This is what I’m doing right now.

Those seven words are my new mantra. My only mantra.

For a long time and still to this day, I’ve struggled with staying in the present moment. In fact, earlier this year I e-mailed one of my best friends, a yogini, about my frustrations with the present. I wrote:

For yogis, living in the present moment is inherent. But for our Western culture, we are essentially raised with the thought that if we live in the present moment we’ll be left behind because the present becomes the past so quickly. Living in the future is how you get ahead in our world. So I have a question about this:

What is the purpose of living in the present moment?

What’s so great about it anyway?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that we have all of the answers to our own questions. We’ll hear them loud and clear only when we are ready. I guess I’m ready.

I’d barely considered the present moment since shuttling off that email almost six months ago. But lately, the present moment question has made itself apparent and is at the forefront of my mind. And it happens that I am finally hearing the answers.

Question: What is the purpose of living in the present moment?

Answer: Joy lives in the present moment.

Let me put it into non-yogi speak: It is impossible to experience joy—fun, happiness, abandon—if your body and mind are not in the same place at the same time. If you are physically somewhere, say, sitting at a dinner table with your most favorite people on the planet, and your mind is thinking about work or tomorrow’s plans, you can bet your sweet bottom that you will never enjoy yourself to the fullest. You can’t. It’s humanly impossible. I’ve tried and I’ve failed.

But when you show up to the metaphorical table with everything you’ve got—your humor, your kindness, your sweetness, your frankness, your quirks and the rest of your lovable self—and take in what everyone else has to offer, that’s when life becomes blissful no matter what you’re doing.

I’ve found this to be true in even the smallest things. You know how I love my walks with my dogs, but I’ve become aware that when I am not living in the present moment—when my body is moving, but my mind is still at my desk—I hardly notice its effects. I return to my iMac with exactly the same attitude that I left it. (Typically tired and perhaps a little frustrated.) But when I show up fully for my walk and feel the warm sun on my (sunscreened) skin and the cool breeze whispering across my (sunscreened) cheeks, I feel lighter, renewed, and invigorated. It’s like giving my internal Etch A Sketch a rough shake so I can start over.

Ditch the present moment and I reap none of those benefits.

Earlier this week, when I found my mind drifting to items on my To Do list during a walk (I’m talking about a real Bic-pen-on-legal-pad-paper To Do list, not a mental one that I had to be sure not to forget) I started chanting to myself: This is what I’m doing right now…This is what I’m doing right now…This is what I’m doing right now…

Immediately my mind snapped back to the present moment. I felt my body being propelled forward and my Nike Shox striking the pavement with every step. It’s such a simple phrase that quietly reminds me to be in the here and now. Since then, I’ve employed those seven words (go ahead, try it!) during countless activities when I noticed my mind wandering. Each time it has helped me to find so much more pleasure in what I was doing whether I was making one of my favorite recipes (Indonesian ginger chicken) or hanging out in Half Moon pose.

This whole present moment thing is still a little new to me and I am excited to find out where it might take me. But I’m slowly waking up to the reason it’s called the present in the first place. Because this moment is a gift.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Salmon & Lentils

Salmon and lentils have become somewhat of a running joke with my family. It all started several weeks ago when I called my Mom one evening, as I often do, while walking home from yoga. She told me that my Dad made a delicious dinner of salmon and lentils. It sounded like an interesting dish, so I made a mental note to ask for the recipe some time. You’d think that would be the end of it.

Fast forward to last Thursday afternoon, when I found myself cooped up in the back of a Mini Cooper driving from New York City to southern Vermont with my sister and brother-in-law. We were meeting my parents at our ski house for the weekend. As hunger began to creep in, we started discussing what we’d like to eat for dinner. You see, the ski house is a magical place. Calories don’t matter and it’s all about great food and even better company. That kitchen has churned out gourmet feasts for 20-plus house-guests at a time—and that’s often after a full day of skiing. We’re talking roast turkey with the works; spaghetti and meatballs made with three different kinds of meats; chicken pot pie that gives new meaning to the words “comfort food,” and if a food can be grilled, we'll grill it especially if it’s raining, sleeting, snowing, or below zero degrees and there’s a solid threat that a 6-foot long icicle will fall on our heads at any second. Oh and if it’s pitch dark and head lamps are involved, it’s even better. Extreme grilling. It’s the only way.

My sister mentions that my Mom said she and my dad might make salmon and lentils for dinner one night. WHAT? Stop the car. What planet are they on? Salmon and lentils is a Wednesday night meal, not an I’m-on-vacation-at-the-ski-house-with-my-family-for-an-extended-weekend dinner. A few moments later, I receive a text from my mom.

“Is it raining where you are? It’s pouring here and the temperature is dropping. Drive safely.”

“We don’t want salmon and lentils.”

“Wow, saved by the bell,” she responds. She and my dad were on their way to the store that very minute to pick up ingredients for…you guessed it…salmon and lentils. “Pork roast, sweet potato, and a green vegetable?” she asks.

“Grilled pork loin, mashed potatoes, and green salad, please?”

And so that evening, in a complete deluge, my dad grilled the most incredible spice-rubbed pork you’ve ever tasted while my mom mashed potatoes, put together a green salad, and even churned out homemade apple sauce with freshly picked Vermont apples, cinnamon, and freshly grated nutmeg. It was a feast that filled the very depths of our bellies and even reached our souls. (Or maybe it was the three different kinds of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for dessert that reached our souls.)

I returned to Chicago after a wonderful, relaxing weekend with my family. Last night, a Wednesday night, I was trying to come up with something I could make for dinner, and the first thing that came to mind was…you guessed it…salmon and lentils. I’ll tell you something—for a quick, healthy, mid-week meal—it was pretty darn good.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Big Picture

Ever since I started this blogging journey and gave my lifestyle a label (balanced or in search of balance) I’m constantly finding new ways to think about finding the fulcrum in the seesaw of life. Lately, I’ve been thinking about it in terms of The Big Picture.

Here’s how I see it: We try to make smart, healthy choices every day. We try to make them all day every day. But sometimes life makes it difficult for us to be as heroic as we’d like to be. Work gets hectic and your sneakers don’t see the light of day. You get sick or tired or are just sick and tired. You take a vacation. Thai food delivery exists.

It’s easy to get down on yourself when you’re not able to make the healthiest choices. But when you think about things in terms of The Big Picture, you realize that you don’t have to all of the time. In The Big Picture, or the larger scheme of things, it doesn’t make a difference. Your body and your overall health are not influenced by a single day. They’re not even influenced by a single week. It’s what you do over the long run that makes the difference in how you look and feel.

When I was working on The Yoga Body Diet last year, Ayurveda expert John Douillard explained a principle that I’ve since embraced. It’s called the 51 percent rule. As long as you make healthy choices more than half of the time, you’re on the right path. Sure, more is better, but you can feel good about doing the right things most of the time—and your body will benefit. (As you make more and more healthy choices, you’ll feel so good that you’ll continue making them because you want to keep feeling that way.) What’s more, The Big Picture and the 51 percent rule remind me that being healthy is not an all-or-nothing endeavor. That’s why I call a healthy life a balanced life: There’s room for everything in just the right amounts. Thinking about The Big Picture can help you ease up on yourself when you have a tough day or a tough week. If your overall lifestyle is aiming toward healthy, you’re going to be just fine.

The Big Picture can also help you make some decisions a little more easily. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how I sometimes have a difficult time deciding between a workout and something else, like dinner with friends. And just earlier this week I wanted to do it all in one day—I wanted to take an hour long walk, I wanted to take a yoga class, and I wanted to whip up a brand new recipe for dinner that I’d already purchased the ingredients to make. As I began to wrap up work, I realized that there was no time to do it all. I also realized that meeting deadlines all day had drained me of a lot of energy, and I needed to make a choice. Sure, this kind of choice is like deciding between a German chocolate and a red velvet cupcake, but I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of regret at missing out on whichever I didn’t choose. I remembered to consider The Big Picture. I took a moment and realized that as much as I wanted to unroll my mat, I really wanted to get outside and enjoy the beautiful weather (I already feel like the days are numbered before we enter hibernation). Would my mind and body really suffer if I missed out on a few Sun Salutations and handstands? Probably not. I fit in a several mile-long walk and took my dogs to a dog park where they happily expended every last ounce of energy, leaving them only enough to walk home, eat, and sleep until the next day. I knew just how they felt. Still, I made the delicious (and nutritious!) new recipe and kicked back for the rest of the evening, knowing that I had done my body good.

The Big Picture is your secret weapon. It’s guilt’s arch nemesis. It’s perspective and a reality check. And you have my permission to use it any time you need.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Sometimes the Universe gives us exactly what we need. Scratch that. The Universe always gives us exactly what we need. Sometimes we accept that.

This weekend, I got exactly what I needed: Down time. Going into this Labor Day weekend, I’ll admit that I wasn’t too excited. Many of my friends were heading out of town and I was staying here with few plans. As someone who loves the comfort of plans, this is a less than ideal situation. But as Friday rolled around, I decided that I could get wound up over my lack of plans, or I could take full advantage of my lack of plans and wind down.

I’ll admit that I spent a fair amount of time at my desk cranking out work over the weekend. For the most part, I did it because I knew that writing a few articles would make this coming week infinitely less hectic—so far I was right. And working felt so different than it normally does. Without the constant ding of new e-mails wooshing into my inbox (since no one else was working) and without the pressure of meeting a deadline that very same day, it felt almost…peaceful. I sat there steadily typing away. I wasn’t worried about what time it was or what I needed to do next. It was as if time didn’t matter.

Over the course of the weekend, this no-plans thing took on a life of its own. I filled each moment with exactly what I wanted to do in that particular moment. Have you ever stopped and asked yourself, “What do I want to do right now?” The answer might surprise you. I got so carried away with the pleasure of answering this question that I couldn’t even commit to plans when plans popped up because I wasn’t sure that’s what I’d want to do when the moment arrived.

Above all, what I needed this weekend was some alone time. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve needed time to recharge. On ski vacations, after days of being in a packed house, I'd instinctively retreat into any empty space I could find in search of a few minutes of inner and outer quiet. Now, I live alone so I thought that I had plenty of alone time, but I don’t. Like the rest of the world, I pack every moment of my day so fully and try to be as productive as I possibly can. Although I may be the only one around, I’m never actually alone.

I realized this weekend that we have to intentionally carve out this time for ourselves every now and then. Fortunately, the Universe handed me exactly that. And for once I accepted it.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Portion Distortion

I’m just going to come out and say it: I like to eat. A LOT. I don’t mean that I really, really, really like to eat, which, of course, I do. I mean that I like to eat a lot of food. What can I say? I’m a quantity over quality person when it comes to grub. (If I can get both, that’s even better.) If you were to offer me a big hunk of decent chocolate cake or a measly bite of the best chocolate cake on the face of the planet, I’d choose the hunk every single time. I think that this is just one of those things that’s ingrained in your DNA...or your taste buds…or your corneas…or the result of a previous life in which you were a refugee…or a swimsuit model…or something. I have no clue. All I know is that I like my servings to be substantial.

Of course, eating A LOT all of the time won’t get me anywhere except the plus-size department, so I often need to rein it in. Over the years, I’ve gained a pretty good idea of what a serving should look like from reporting about the inflated portions we often put on our plates. But every so often I need to check in and make sure that my portions are what they should be. Usually I am right on track. Sometimes it can get a little messy. (Remember the granola experiment?)

One caveat, before I go any further. Some people can get obsessive about portions and want to whip out the measuring cups and food scale every time they eat. That is the opposite of balanced. For me, the smart thing is to check in every so often to make sure that my eyes and my stomach are on the same page. The other thing is that if you predominantly eat good-for-you foods, then portions shouldn’t be a huge issue. Most people don’t get the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day (not to mention the even-healthier 10 servings). In that case, it’s about eating more—not less.

But this week, I learned that I had been eating a little too much of something: Brown rice. I’ve started incorporating more grains into my diet over the past few months. And by more grains I mean, well, brown rice. I can get lazy like that sometimes. It’s easy and reasonably fast to make, I know that I like the taste, I don’t have to add anything to it after cooking to make it taste better, it goes with just about everything that I make, and I know that it’s good for me. However, I thought that I was being saintly and making myself half a serving based on the cooking instructions on the bag. There, the smallest amount is 1 cup of rice, so, without thinking any further, I assumed that half a serving was ½ a cup of the dry, pre-cooked grain. I’d boil it up and simmer it down with some water or low-sodium chicken broth and eat the whole thing, happy as a clam. But when I took a closer look this week, I saw that an actual serving, based on the nutrition facts panel (which is where you should look--duh), was ¼ cup. It’s not the end of the world that I’d been enjoying a hefty serving of rice. And if I hadn’t already been getting the recommended three to five servings of whole grains per day (from cereal at breakfast, wheat-berry bread at lunch, sometimes some popcorn for a snack), this would be a very good thing. But I could afford to cut back here.

I’ve realized over the years that one serving is supposed to be enough, and it often is enough. I recently made a single serving of pasta as one of my little experiments. Let me tell you, it looked like there were six noodles in my bowl. It looked like someone had already had dinner and I was eating the leftovers. I will also tell you this: When I topped the handful of noodles with a single serving of good tomato sauce and some broccoli, it was enough. My eyes weren’t happy, but my belly was. (I crack up now when I think about how, in college, I’d cook the whole box of pasta—and eat most of it. Good lord, I was clueless.) I realized the same thing about servings this week when I corrected my error and made only ¼ cup of rice (which cooks up to about ½ a cup): It looked like nothing, but it was plenty alongside my teriyaki salmon and sautéed kale.

What’s more, I was able to spend a little extra time in the store this week (typically, I could qualify for Supermarket Sweep) and inspected many different bags of rice. For some reason, I had it in my head that brown rice was the best kind you could buy. I’m sure this is from talking to experts who recommend brown rice as a way to move beyond white rice. But if you let it, brown rice can be your gateway food into all kinds of great grains. I’ve only been touching the surface. It turns out that the nutritionals for most of the whole grains were nearly identical. Being the rebel that I am, I swiped up some brown basmati rice and wild rice to change things up a bit. I also grabbed a box of quinoa. Living on the edge.

Some experts say that one way to shrink your portion sizes is to eat off of a smaller plate—it tricks you into thinking you’re eating more than you actually are. Occasionally I’ll do this, but in this particular case I knew I’d be piling on the kale (again, this is a portion I don’t have to worry about) so I used one of my big red plates.

I also recently adjusted how I buy fish and other animal proteins. I used to order the pre-sliced salmon filets because I thought that they were cut to be single servings. Not so. They’re typically sold in 6-ounce portions, when a smarter size is 3 to 4 ounces. I found that I was either eating the whole thing or tossing part of it away. When I mentioned this to my sister, she stated the obvious: Ask them to cut you a 3 to 4-ounce filet. Done and done. I do the same thing with chicken breasts. I ask them to find me a 3 to 4-ounce serving. Ask and you shall receive, folks.

Here’s the final product: A meal I ate earlier this week with perfect portions all around.

A feast for the eyes and the mouth.