It has been said that fear of the unknown is mankind’s oldest and deepest fear. Why should that be? We live our entire lives moment to moment, never really sure of what will happen next. Given that, it would seem that familiarity would cause fear of the unknown to fade into the background.
The key lies in “moment to moment”. Life happens only in the present moment. The past is memory and the future is imagination. When we are focused on the present, the direct experience of living, there is no thought of the future…no window of imagination to allow fear to slip in.
Life is a balance between hanging on and letting go. Most of us are much more comfortable with hanging on. There is a certain security in continuity. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that everything known was, at one time, unknown.
While every culture has its prophets and oracles, the future remains obstinately unknowable. Is that really a bad thing? If it were possible, would any of us truly want to know all that our future holds? As Alan Watts observed, a completely predictable future is already the past.
It may be that survival instinct has predisposed us to imagine unfortunate outcomes for the future. After all, if something good is going to happen, then there is nothing to fear and no preparation needed.
Living with the unknown and unknowable is an unavoidable part of life. Living in fear of them is optional. Positive outcomes and negative outcomes are, on the whole, equally likely.
The past and future are illusions, and they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is. Just keep your eyes on the road and have a little faith.
As a verb, “diet” implies a short-term effort intended to drop a few (or many) pounds. Paleo, ketogenic, gluten-free, clean eating…it seems like there is a new one every week, each promising to make shedding pounds quick and painless. One thing that they all have in common is that they frequently come at the cost of “diet” as a noun. Taken that way, “diet” is your long-term relationship with food. As with other types of relationships, the bar for a “quick fix” is considerably lower than that for a lifelong partnership. It’s important to be clear about expectations and consequences to avoid disappointment.
Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is a key component of overall wellness, but it’s certainly not the only consideration. It’s perfectly plausible to be at an appropriate weight and not be healthy at all. Diets that focus on weight loss tend to be nutritionally incomplete and unsustainable. I have a friend who gives the Cabbage Soup Diet a whirl nearly every spring. He loses a few pounds, but that soup gets old after a day or two and the weight loss never sticks. That’s an unfortunate and very common trait of any weight loss diet. A restrictive menu makes sticking to the plan difficult, and any progress is temporary and often offset by binges once the diet has ended.
Let’s look at three of the “trendy” diets out there in the spring of 2018.
The paleo diet holds forth that humans are, by nature, hunter/gatherers and not farmers. The paleo diet is primarily composed of meat, with nuts and certain fruits on the side. Dairy, grains and legumes are to be avoided. Because this diet is naturally low in calories and carbohydrates, it will definitely help with weight loss. However, severely limiting carbohydrates will almost certainly result in fatigue and headaches, and the link between heavy consumption of red meat and heart disease is well established. There are some healthy, paleo-friendly food choices, but the limited list of acceptable fruits and vegetables makes this diet restrictive and seriously imbalanced.
Originally developed to help control the weight of pediatric epileptics, “keto” appeals to those who overindulge in fats more so than sweets. The macro split on this plan is 75% fats, 20% protein, and only 5% carbohydrates. After about four days of inadequate carbohydrates for fuel, the body enters a state of ketosis and begins burning fat instead of stored glucose to produce energy. Given that it lauds foods that are often demonized in other diets, keto’s attraction is readily apparent. Satiety is enhanced by the high fat content, making it seem like less of a sacrifice. As with paleo, this diet is sorely lacking in fiber. Digestive issues and constipation are common. It’s reliance on animal products also makes it a poor source of several key vitamins and minerals.
Nearly every mainstream grocery store now has a section devoted to gluten-free products. It’s easy to get the idea that gluten is the dietary evil hiding in our midst. The truth is that gluten is simply a protein found in wheat, barley, or rye. Those with celiac disease have long been advised to avoid gluten, and with just cause. A theory has taken hold in recent years that it is possible to be sensitive to gluten, yet test negative for celiac disease. There isn’t a lot of evidence to back that claim, and neither test nor definition for “gluten sensitive”. From the weight loss perspective, while gluten itself is a protein, it arises in conjunction with carbohydrates in foods such as bread and pasta. Reducing carbohydrate intake is a cornerstone of any weight loss plan. Reducing carbohydrates by avoiding gluten seems more like good marketing than good sense.
At the end of the day, any diet plan is going to help more with weight loss than having no plan, simply eating anything at will. Who really wants to yo-yo back and forth between on a diet and not on a diet? Doesn’t it make more sense to look at diet (noun) as an integral part of life rather than diet (verb) as an occasional fix? It’s certainly a healthier perspective.
I can hear it now, “but I’m not an athlete”. Just because you don’t aspire to run marathons or play a competitive sport doesn’t mean you aren’t an athlete. It’s as much a state of mind as anything. Conscious attention to what you eat and what you do. Maybe you’d like to try a “Couch to 5k” just to see if you can do it. Or perhaps you’d like to just not be winded after a bike ride in the park. What you eat and what you do go hand in hand to create the healthy body needed to enjoy whatever you do in life.
Become a conscientious consumer and “eat clean”. Focus on whole foods and avoid processed or artificial ingredients. Read nutrition labels, understand them, and use the information to make better choices. It doesn’t have to happen all at once, and it doesn’t mean you can never have another potato chip. It’s all about balance.
I’m a huge fan of the If It Fits My Macros plan. All foods are composed of some combination of macro-nutrients (macros). These are fats proteins, and carbohydrates. The ratios will vary depending on your metabolism and lifestyle, but here is an article with some solid information to get you started. The real value in this plan is twofold. There are no lists of foods that you must or must not eat. That makes the whole undertaking much easier to follow as there is no need for drastic or forced change. Secondly, by reading the nutrition labels and understanding the impact of your choices, you will begin to make better selections. Rather than losing a few pounds that will likely be back in a month or two, you are developing a habit that will keep you from ever needing to resort to a quick fix again.
In martial arts, there is a concept called “rooting”. It refers to ability to keep one’s footing and balance amidst incoming force. There are numerous techniques, but one of the most powerful revolves around visualization and a particular point on the sole of the foot. There is a slight indentation below and to the inside of the big toe called “yong quan”, or “bubbling springs”. Mentally focusing on that point, as if there were roots sinking into the ground, has an incredible effect on the ability to maintain balance and not be moved. I have heard several explanations for this, none of them likely to hold up under scientific scrutiny. I have also experienced it firsthand, and I know that it works.
“When you cease to strive to understand, then you will know, without understanding”.
Many forms of yoga expand on this theme through reflexology. Reflexology uses gentle accupressure techniques on the feet, the hands, and the outside edges of the ears to affect change elsewhere in the body. Charts of the energy meridians and pressure points are readily available. My first experience came through treatment of my hands.
I had been having problems with my lower back and sacrum. A massage therapist, who also happened to be trained in reflexology, offered to try and help…while I was having my hair cut! I was somewhat skeptical, but saw nothing to lose. She worked on my hands for ten minutes or so, then asked me to let her know the next time I was in if it had helped. The following morning, the nagging back pain significantly better. I tried to convince myself, without any real success, that it was just psychological. I was duly impressed.
Most commonly, reflexology is done with the feet. Looking at the charts, the pressure points for hands and feet are very similar. The point for the pituitary, for example, is on the pad of the thumb and also on the pad of the big toe.
There are subtle differences in the two that might suggest one as a more appropriate choice than the other for a desired outcome. The thumb is the primary instrument for administering pressure in reflexology of both the hands and feet. Using the “inch worm technique”, the thumb is walked slowly along a particular energy meridian. Pressure is sometimes applied in a directed circular pattern over a specific point. Flexion and twisting of the whole foot or the toes are also part of the reflexology toolkit.
The basic techniques of reflexology are not difficult to learn. I am fortunate to have a massage therapist who is also trained in various other healing modalities, including reflexology and reiki. She has been very generous in sharing her knowledge with me. I feel no calling to become a healer like her, but I benefit greatly from what she has taught me. Reflexology is something that one can, and should, do for oneself. It is part of the daily practice for students of kundalini yoga. I personally divide my kundalini practice into two parts. The evening portion consists of gentle stretching, meditation, and reflexology.
I would recommend experiencing reflexology first with an experienced practitioner. Learning to do it for yourself is much easier when you know what it’s supposed to feel like.
Turmeric is a staple in Indian cooking. It is a main ingredients in curry powder, and it gives many Indian dishes their distinctive yellow coloration. One component of turmeric, curcumin, has been in the news a lot lately as a natural anti-inflammatory. I use a post workout formula from Rivalus that boasts curcumin as a primary ingredient. It works well to head off muscle soreness after a hard workout.
But there’s no need to wait until after the gym to reap the benefits of turmeric. Turmeric is a powerful antioxidant. It helps to improve the lining of the blood vessels (endothelium). Dysfunction of the endothelium is a major driver of high blood pressure and heart disease.
Both inflammation and oxidation play a role in Alzheimer’s disease. A buildup of amyloid plaques is one key feature of Alzheimer’s. Curcumin is able to cross the blood brain barrier and clear amyloid plaques, reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. It almost seems unfair that something with so many benefits can be this inexpensive and tasty!
One of the easiest ways to add turmeric to your daily diet is by drinking yogi tea. Yogi tea is something of a catchall phrase referring to any of a number of hot beverages containing turmeric. I like to keep it simple, so my go to is this version from Ekhart Yoga.
This recipe uses maple syrup, but I prefer raw honey. Raw, unfiltered honey adds its own health benefits while providing natural sweetness. It all comes down to personal preference, of course.
Almond milk, coconut milk, soy milk, or even dairy milk can be used as a base in place of water. Such recipes usually add cinnamon to the turmeric and ginger, and are called golden milk. Cardamom is another common additional ingredient, and a dash of black pepper aids in absorption.
Yogi Bhajan was a strong advocate for golden milk within the kundalini yoga community. His recipe included the following:
1/8 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 cup water
8 ounces milk
2 tablespoons raw almond oil
Honey to taste
1 cardamom pod (optional)
All of these are just variations on a theme centered around turmeric and ginger. Master the simple recipe from Esther Ekhart, then let your imagination go wild!
My first trip to the Williams River was over Veteran’s Day in 1981. It almost didn’t happen. The original plan was to camp at Blackwater Falls, but the destination changed on a whim the day before we left. Starting out after everyone was off work on Friday afternoon, the six hour drive ended at Ken’s Creek in the wee hours of the morning. We slept as best we could in the truck, waiting for dawn and sunlight to set up camp. It was cold. As we came to know over the many seasons we camped along the Williams, the temperature averages about twenty degrees cooler than home in northeast Ohio. The handful of campers on that trip who had been to the area before assured us newbies that we “wouldn’t believe it” when the sun came up and we could see. They were not exaggerating.
In those early days, the “campground” was a fairly primitive affair. Access via the Williams River Road was a gut-busting ride, the dirt road being narrow and pocked with potholes and ruts from logging trucks. It was best to have 4WD, and anything less burly than a pickup was likely to have to slow to a crawl to avoid damage. The campsites themselves consisted of a post with a number, a lantern pole, and a fire ring made of rocks hauled up from the river. A shovel was a must, since there were no outhouses. The nearest town was forty minutes away, and it consisted of a Texaco station, a grocery store, and the Liquor Shack. The primal nature of the place was the main attraction. It was not unusual to camp there for a week and never see another person outside of the group. There was a ranger station at the end of the road, and the only time we saw the ranger was when we stopped by to refill our water jugs from the well.
Scenic Highway 150 stretches over the Gauley Mountains above the river valley. There are numerous overlooks and trailheads along its length. The Cranberry Glades Wilderness Center offers trail maps and advice for hikers. We read in a survival manual available for purchase there that “all birds are edible”. Good to know.
The Cranberry back country itself is one of my favorite places in the region. It is interesting in that it is an area of bogs of a type normally found much further to the north and in Canada. They are a remnant of the last glacial retreat. It’s well worth spending a day wandering the area, as there are plants and trees here that are found nowhere else in the state. More information can be found on the Cranberry Wilderness page of the Forest Service’s website.
A close second favorite is Black Mountain. Despite the ominous name, it is an astoundingly beautiful area to hike in any season of the year. There was a lot of logging in the area in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A narrow gauge railway connected the peak of Black Mountain with the Williams River below. Only the usable portions of felled trees were hauled off the mountain. Branches and stumps were left to decay naturally where they fell. One particularly dry summer, a lightning strike on the mountain set all of this discarded material ablaze. The fire burned for days, and some areas burned clear down to the underlying bedrock. The entire mountaintop was left scorched and barren. It is from this that Black Mountain gets its name. The forest returned over time, and today the mountain is green again. Still, there are no trees to rival the giant red spruce from a century ago.
For most of the years that we camped along the Williams, there was little change. Then in the early 2000s, a fishing dock was built near the ranger station. The Hadley Fish Hatchery regularly releases brown trout into the river, and the dock allowed anglers convenient access. The dock was followed in the ensuing years by the pavement of the Williams River Road and the installation of outhouses near the campsites. These improvements had the intended effect, and more people came to camp and play along the river. Unfortunately for us, the character of the area changed. There were now fees to camp, rules to follow, and regular patrols by the rangers. The area is still as beautiful as it ever was, but the experience has forever changed. Still, we had a great run, and tons of memories.
Numbers can be a great thing. They strip away the hazy vision of wishful thinking and tone down the tint of rose colored glasses. Alternatively, they can shed light on what appears to be only shadow and reveal the rainbow behind dark clouds. Perhaps the best thing about numbers is their objectivity. That’s what makes them such a useful tool when it comes to tracking progress towards fitness. While the numbers themselves may be completely objective, our interpretation of them may not be. Each of us has a level of tolerance for “numbers truth”, and it is important to take that into account when using fitness data.
I think we can all agree that the elephant in the room when it comes to fitness numbers is weight. Most people who undertake a diet and/or exercise program are at least initially motivated to do so in an effort to confront the scale. Weight is quite likely the most useful and accessible fitness number available. It is also a prime example of the tolerance just mentioned. Regardless of the data being tracked, the more data points there are, the more accurate the tracking picture will be. That being the case, it would seem optimal to weigh yourself every day. It’s an easy habit to form if it is done consistently. I weigh myself every morning as soon as I get up and before I dress. That takes recent meals, water, and clothing out of the equation and makes the measurements as comparable as they can be. I was initially a little surprised by how much variance there was day to day. Most of the time, the difference is a fraction of a pound, but there have been times when it has been as much as a pound and a half. Temporary gains are normal, and can generally be attributed to differences in hydration levels or recent consumption of something high in sodium. Likewise, drops in weight after training days are a reflection of water lost through perspiration. In either case, weight will level out within a day or two. If seeing fluctuations of this sort is something that will likely trouble you, then perhaps it would be better to weigh yourself less frequently. Once per week is the minimum to produce any sort of reliable data concerning trends. It is suggested that weekly weigh-ins should be done on Wednesdays, as those are most accurately reflective of the average of the seven days.
Another number gets frequent mention is BMI, or Body Mass Index. Even medical professionals attribute some significance to this measure. It can be useful, to a point, but it is based on some underlying assumptions that are not valid for everyone. These need to be taken into account before determining how much weight BMI should carry in any specific case. BMI is simply a mathematical ratio between weight and height. In U.S. measures, it is the weight in pounds divided by the square of the height in inches, and multiplied by a conversion factor of 703. The National Institute of Health will do the math for you with their online BMI Calculator. BMI uses raw weight without taking into consideration overall body composition. A person who weighs 150 pounds and is an elite athlete with 12% body fat is not the same as a person who weighs 150 pounds and is an elite couch potato with body fat of 36%. Yet, both would have the same BMI. BMI is not accurate for anyone who has above average muscle mass, even a weekend warrior. Likewise, it will not truly reflect the health of an older person who may have reduced bone density. Charts are readily available, but 18.5 – 24.9 is generally considered to be the “normal” range. There is certainly no harm in knowing where you fall with BMI, but it should be taken with the appropriate grains of salt.
Weight and BMI are the only two numbers that will matter to most. For those who want to take fitness further than simply being “in decent shape”, numbers related to body composition come into play. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the various techniques to determine body composition. The most clinically accurate measure require advanced measuring equipment and trained professionals to operate it. Expense is considerable, taking such measure outside the reach of the average person.
Fortunately, those of us who are not professional athletes can focus more on trends than on hard numbers. Several companies market “smart scales” that use bioelectric impedance to measure body composition. Stepping on a smart scale barefoot passes an imperceptible electric current through the body and measures the time it takes to return. Then, applying mathematical equations, it delivers an estimate of the amount of muscle, fat, water, and bone. They key word here is “estimate”. The scale might say that you are at 15% body fat, and that may be in the ballpark, but it is likely not completely accurate. The point of using such a scale isn’t to produce hard numbers, but rather to reveal trends. If you see your body fat at 15%, then notice it regularly reaching 17%, then 20%, it is safe to assume that your body fat is increasing even if the actual percentages are not clinically accurate. Trends are much more actionable than less frequent and isolated hard numbers. As with BMI, it is important to know what these body composition numbers are and what they are not. Another advantage to a smart scale is that it will typically connect via Bluetooth or WiFi to a smartphone app or website. That makes it much more convenient to track your measures since it is not necessary to manually record them in a spreadsheet or notebook.
Amrit vela…the ambrosial hours. Those hours just before sunrise when, in the words of Yogi Bhajan, one decides to live or die. It is a very special space, one in which the possibilities of the day are completely open and nothing seems out of reach.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
~ The Breeze at Dawn, Rumi
Yogi Bhajan defined amrit vela as the hours in the morning and the evening when the sun strikes the earth at 60 degrees. More traditionally, the day is divided into eight “peh” of three hours each. Amrit vela is the fourth peh, between the hours of 3:00 and 6:00 AM. In kundalini yoga, it is the ideal time for morning meditation. My bedroom faces east, and I am naturally a “morning person”, so it is easy for me to greet the rising sun. There is a core practice that only takes about twenty minutes. I do that, at a minimum, every morning…no exceptions. On weekends when there is more time available, other elements can be added to stretch the practice out to about an hour.
In the summer months, I start off with a cold shower to get the blood flowing through the capillaries. In winter, I make do with just splashing cold water on myself. The spinal awakening series series follows to stretch out the kinks and get an energy flow going. The mantra for the meditation itself can be anything, but my “go to” is the Mul Mantra.
Mantras in kundalini yoga are frequently recorded as songs. That makes them much easier to learn, at least for me, because I can just listen to them outside of meditation and learn them almost subliminally. The first thing most people want to know when they hear a mantra in Sanskrit or Punjabi is what the words mean. I got some really solid advice on that when I first started out doing mantra meditations. Find what the words mean once to satisfy your curiosity, then forget about it. The key to any meditation is intention. Words can get in the way of that, and they take on different meanings with context anyway.
Mul mantra is followed by a series of pranayama, or breath exercises. The practice closes with recitations of the Guyatri mantra. Also known as the Savitri mantra, it is a highly revered mantra from the Rig Veda dedicated to Savitir, a form of the sun. A fitting conclusion to a journey begun at sunrise!
In very general terms, your fitness level is determined by what you eat and what you do. From the perspective of simple weight control, it’s a balance between calories eaten and calories burned. But the equation is more than just weight. You can be a beast in the gym, but your gains will depend on supplying your body with the fuel it needs for exercise and the materials to rebuild after a workout. Likewise, you can have a stellar diet and maintain a healthy weight, yet not be really fit in terms of strength, muscle tone, and endurance. Like any equation, changing one of these variables will affect the other.
When I first started trying to get my weight under control and get myself in better shape, I thought I could just use a common sense approach. I cut out fast food and cut down on soda and snacks. I took the stairs instead of the elevator. I bought a membership at Fitness 19 and tried to go at least once per week. In the beginning, I did see some progress. I lost around 20 pounds, and my clothes seemed to fit better. Lulled into a false sense of security, I let my guard down and gained half of that twenty pounds back. I clearly needed a better system; something that would quantify my efforts and hold me accountable.
Enter Fitbit and MyFItnessPal. I bought a Fitbit Charge HR, thinking that it would be plenty since I was not planning to train like an athlete. It tracked my steps, my gym workouts, and gave me some information on heart rate. Fitbit has a native application to track food and diet, but it was a little clumsy to use and I didn’t really care for it. By week two, I had moved on to MyFitnessPal. It is very intuitive, and offers the ability to scan bar codes on packaged food, making entry a breeze. It has a database to search for foods, and it remembers things that I have eaten so that they can be quickly added when I have them again. Getting used to the FItbit was easy. Just wear it, it does its magic and syncs the data to a smartphone app for your viewing pleasure. The companion website offers a more in depth look at the data and an easy way to view progress over time. Getting used to MyFitnessPal was a little more challenging. Even with my background in managing data, tracking everything that I ate was a chore at first. The app does a lot to make it easier, and it was second nature by a month in. In something of a cliché, I started my new program on New Year’s Day. By June, I had hit my initial weight target, dropping 36 pounds. I was at the gym at least a couple of times per week, and had stepped up my game to more than just a half hour on the elliptical. Even though I’d reached the goal I had set, I wasn’t done. It became about what more I could do.
It’s difficult to overestimate the impact of the diet tracking portion of the program. Keeping track of everything I ate also made me pay more attention to it. I began to read and understand the nutritional information labels on food. I learned about macronutrients (fats, protein, and carbohydrates) and, from that, I adopted the IIFYM approach to diet. Unlike traditional diet plans, If It Fits Your Macros doesn’t restrict me to eating foods from one list and avoiding foods on another. I can eat whatever I like, remaining mindful of the impact on my macros. A screen in the MyFitnessPal app breaks it all down. It shows me where I am now, allowing me to weigh whether or not adding cheese to that burger is worth it. Over time, keeping track and reading labels trained me to make better choices with my food. It’s amazing how much I came to be motivated to avoid those red numbers with the minus sign in front.
The Fitbit had a similar effect on exercise. It became a point of honor to make that daily step goal and see how many days in a row I could string together. On my longer hikes, I got excited to see what the steps and distance would be at the end. An understated aspect of using an app to track food or a wearable to track exercise is engagement. Unlike simply trying to eat better or move around more, interacting with the apps and devices kept my efforts front and center. There was a continuity to the whole process that I was loathe to break. That helped me over the hump on days when I may not have been feeling it quite so much.
By the end of that first year, I had progressed beyond what the Fitbit could do for me. I had taken up trail running and dusted off the mountain bike that had been sitting in my garage for years. I moved from the storefront Fitness 19 gym to an actual fitness facility with free weights, an indoor track, and group fitness classes. The Fitbit lacked GPS to accurately track distance on outdoor activities, and really didn’t measure much beyond steps. I had also outgrown the Fitbit app. It was great for a more casual user who might not be interested in a lot of detail, but I was getting into heart rate zone training, and the Fitbit app simplified the data a bit too much. I moved to a Garmin Forerunner. It did everything I needed and left me room to grow. The app tracked things I had not previously known existed…VO2 max, running dynamics, and training load. Just when I think I have it all down, Garmin adds a new feature giving me another insight into my data.
I won’t lie, those first three months on this program were not fun. I awoke every morning a little sore, and went to bed each night a little hungry. I was fortunate enough to have friends who had walked the path before me for advice and encouragement. I try to repay their kindness by offering those things to others when I can. I’m not a certified personal trainer, and I don’t play one on TV. But I do think that this approach can be tailored to work for anyone. MyFitnessPal is free and tracking could start out as simply and inexpensively as a pedometer.
For more information on the If It Fits My Macros approach to diet and some handy calculators to get you started, visit If It Fits My Macros.
As I’ve mentioned before, I began practicing yoga to help with my martial arts. I started out with “regular” hatha yoga. It was a great help, improving my flexibility and balance tremendously. I knew that there were other styles of yoga, but few of them had classes available in the area. One style kept popping up…kundalini. I read some articles comparing it to qi gong, a component of Chinese martial arts that I had been practicing for a couple of years. I was intrigued. Watching videos on YouTube, it became apparent that it was quite different from the more traditional hatha yoga. In fact, some hatha purists referred to it as “kundalooney”. My interest was unabated, however, and I found that there was a class in Lakewood. That’s a fair distance from home, around 100 miles, but I wanted to experience kundalini yoga for myself. The first class was interesting, enough so that I went back the next week. That happened to be a special class, one focusing on white tantric yoga. It was one of the more remarkable experiences of my life, and I have been learning and practicing kundalini yoga ever since.
Kundalini yoga was introduced to the West by Yogi Bhajan in 1969. Prior to that, its practice was mainly restricted to the Sikh people of the Punjab region in India. Sikhism is a monotheistic religion founded in the 15th century by Guru Nanak. Many of the mantras used in kundalini yoga are drawn from the Sikh scripture, the Guru Garanth Sahib, but Sikhism is not in any way a prerequisite to the practice of kundalini yoga. Without going into unnecessary detail about Sikh religious tenets, there are two things that bear mention. Sikhs, both men and women, commonly wear turbans. Women will sometimes simply cover their heads with a scarf and men, less frequently, might wear a small cap called a kufi. Non-Sikh students of kundalini yoga often adopt this practice for the classroom, although it is certainly not a requirement. Most kundalini yoga classes will have at least a few people who are practicing Sikhs, and they are not in the least offended if non-Sikh students choose not to cover their heads. Many of the mantras used in kundalini yoga are drawn from the Sikh scripture, the Siri Guru Garanth. These are in Punjabi, so they sound a little different than the Sanskrit mantras used in other forms of yoga. It is common for yoga students to greet each other with “namaste”. Literally translated, this means “I bow to you”. It is generally explained as “the spirit in me recognizes and acknowledges the spirit in you”. In kundalini classes, “namaste” is replaced by “sat nam”. This is pronounced to rhyme with “but mom”, and means “truth is my identity”. It is more than a greeting, being a bij, or seed mantra.
I’ll cover a lot more about kundalini yoga in future posts. For now, I would like to focus on one particular kundalini exercise called the spinal awakening series. What might be called a flow or vinyasa in hatha yoga is termed a kriya in kundalini. Kriya literally means “completed action”. Most kriyas consist of multiple parts, and the spinal awakening series is no exception. It requires minimal training, and is accessible to anyone. I have been performing this kriya every morning for several years as a warm-up to my full morning practice. You don’t even need to leave your bed!
The breathing technique in the video is called “breath of fire” or “agni prana”. It’s use is restricted almost entirely to kundalini yoga. I have never encountered it in a hatha class. It is often described as panting like a dog, and taught as “happy puppy”. I struggled with learning it that way. The video briefly mentions pulling in at the navel point, and that is really the key to breath of fire. Imagine that there is a balloon in your stomach. and you pull your navel in to force the air out of the balloon, then relax to allow it to fill again. Another key is to not focus too much on the exhale. Breath of fire is often done in classes for ten minutes or more. If the inhale and exhale are not kept approximately even, it will be difficult to continue for that length of time. A little more force on the out breath is OK, and promotes “taking out the trash”. Try it….your spine will thank you for it!
It started with a photo on the internet. I had just started working with high dynamic range (HDR) photography when I happened across a time lapse HDR image of a waterfall. My initial interest was in the technical details of the shot, but I soon found myself wondering how people found such interesting places to shoot. The article accompanying the image didn’t mention where the shot was taken. I gleaned what I could about how the photo was achieved and began to apply the technique to photos I shot at Quail Hollow and in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. But, for some reason, that particular photo kept popping up. A subsequent article identified it as Elakala Falls, and Google informed me that this was in the vicinity of Blackwater Falls in West Virginia.
I had camped at Blackwater a few times, but I did not recall seeing anything like the waterfall in the photo. The Blackwater Falls themselves are considerably taller at 57 feet than Elakala Falls appeared to be. The name comes from the murky water in the Blackwater River. It isn’t quite black, but it is tinted a dark shade of reddish-brown by the tannic acid from fallen hemlock and red spruce needles. The campground at Blackwater is a little more civilized than I would prefer, but I decided it was worth a few days to see if I could find Elakala. I learned that there were four levels to Elakala Falls, and that access was difficult, requiring a steep 140 foot descent down the canyon wall.
I made the trip in June of 2012. As I was registering for my campsite, I asked the attendant if she knew where I could find Elakala Falls, but she did not. I looked at a trail map, and there was an Elakala Trail on the other side of the river near the lodge. No guarantee that it wasn’t just coincidence, but it seemed like a good place to start. At its head, the trail did not look all that promising. There’s really no such thing as a bad hike, so I set off. The trail ended after a mile or so at this sign:
That sounded like the approach as it was described, so I started down over the side. Had I not been carrying my camera gear in a backpack, the climb would not have been quite so intimidating. I couldn’t go down forward as the pack kept catching on rocks and branches, throwing me off my balance. So I turned and continued to descend backwards, facing the canyon wall. I couldn’t see where I was going, just feeling for my next foothold as I went. The practical side of me was thinking, “You know you’re going to have to climb back out of here, right?”. I tried not to think about that much, just hoping that I would find what I sought in the end. I did.
The first and second levels of Elakala were all that I had hoped to find. The lower two levels were not quite so impressive. I was determined to make the effort worthwhile, so I climbed all the way down, leaving the camera bag at level two. The climb back to the rim wasn’t bad at all. It was much more natural to climb up facing the wall than it had been to descend that way. Having accomplished what I came to do on that first day of the trip, I spent the next few days chilling at a remote lake near the campground. The only ill effect from the whole adventure was the sunburn I got doing morning yoga on a sandstone ledge overlooking the river.