Thursday, May 01, 2008

Student Video Project 3

You may have noticed that a few times a year we do a video featuring the real stars at Yoga Garden, our wonderful students.

The videos all revolve around a simple question. The first one was, "Why Do You Like Yoga?"

The second one was, "What's Your Favorite Pose?"

And, I'm proud to announce the question for our third student video...

"What Pose Is Giving You Trouble?"

We'll be making this video for the whole month of May, so think about your answers, and when you've chosen your troublesome pose, we'll be shooting the mini videos after class!

I'm still thinking about mine. It might be Pasasana...

or Firefly...
Let's have fun with this video!


Yoga Garden

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Secret Project Unveiled!!

Hi everyone, I've been tinkering away in the dead of night on this, and it's finally ready for the public!

I've finally got my own homepage. Everyone check it out, leave some comments. I'll still be posting on What's Sprouting monthly, but the new site will be less formal and updated more often.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Why I'm Voting for Barack Obama

This is my first and I promise it will be my last foray into politics on this blog. Politics is a black hole of partisan opinion, misleading rhetoric, distortions of truth, and outright lies.

Below is me and my absentee ballot for the Presidential Primaries.
I voted for Barack Obama and here's my reasoning.

Before we get to directly to Obama, let me first share why I am a Democrat. Of the two parties in American politics (I wish there were more) Democrats tend to have a more interdependent worldview. Interdependence is a Buddhist concept that means nothing in this world exists independently of anything else. Everything is connected and constantly interacting. Say, for example, I steal 10 dollars from your wallet, and you don't notice. It may appear that I've gotten off cleanly and that my action has had no impact aside from letting me have a good lunch that day. But suppose, not having as much money as you thought you did, you don't tip your new waiter well at your lunch and he has negative feelings for you which he carries over to his next customer, who thinks the service is lousy and tells all her friends not to go to the new restaurant which closes down 6 months later due to lack of business. Of course this is a rather trite and trumped up example, but it serves its illustrative purpose well enough. (And doesn't take into account all the internal reverberations you will feel from stealing money from your friend)

All the things we do emminate outwards in impossibly complex ripples, and all the things that happen to us are the result of a distant action sometime in the past.

This is not only scientifically true but it has the advantage of having an inbuilt civic code. Eventually my actions and the actions of my country will come back to me in some way or another. So yes, I can sanction polluting the environment and messing with other countries governments for a personal gain, but it's not hard to see how sooner or later those choices will affect me and those I love in a negative way as well.

Interdependence is unfathomable. We have no idea what will happen even despite our good intentions. That's why we need to make choices that tread softly on the Earth and our neighbors, rather than blazing ahead with a misguided sense of what is right and wrong. I'm not afraid of high taxes or of helping people in my society who are worse off than me. And as it turns out, Denmark, with one of the highest tax rates in the world, also ranks as the happiest country on Earth. This week 60 minutes has a great story about the reason why Denmark is so happy and America isn't doing so well.

So that's why I'm going with the Democrats. Now, why I'm not voting for Hillary Clinton.

  • America does not need dynasties. I find it mind boggling that more people aren't asking what is wrong with America that we have had just two families in the White House for 20 years. (not including Bush seniors 8 years as Vice President) I am 28 years old which means that for my entire politically aware life I have been looking at a Bush or Clinton behind a podium with the Presidential Seal. It's a shame that with such a dynamic and intelligent population we can't get past these two families.

  • Is Hillary really empowering for women? I respect and esteem women and think they make great leaders (women too have a better sense of interdependence). I'm sure Hillary Clinton was a great corporate lawyer before, but it's clear that the only reason she has gotten to where she is now is based on who she married rather than her own accomplishments. This seems to me the antithesis of feminism. I would much rather see our first female president (and it will happen) be someone like Nancy Pelosi or even Condoleeza Rice who has won the post on her own merits.

  • Hillary Clinton has had her chance. A few months ago when Hillary teared up at the luncheon and told us all that she kept going because she just cares so much, I had a few moments of sympathy and fondness for her. But then a voice inside my head said, "Wait a minute, this person had the ear of the single most influential man in the world for 8 years. She's been in the highest seats of power and has had her opportunity to change her country. She's had more power than you ever will." My sympathy for her quickly vanished.
  • Bill Clinton gives me the creeps. No, not because of Monica Lewinsky. Because of the way he acted in South Carolina. For a few days the curtain was parted and we could all see the man for what he is, a politician who will do anything to win. His false attacks and marginalization of Obama as another "Jesse Jackson" left a bad taste in my mouth which won't go away. Like Bush, 8 years of Bill Clinton was enough for me, I'm all full up.

Up until now this post has been all negatives. But that is just a small part of why Obama has my vote. Here's the happiest thing. I'm going to lay out why I like Obama and I don't have to apologize for things he's done, do any mental wriggling to be at peace with his positions, or convince myself that he's the right person for the job. I just honestly support him.

  • Obama isn't straight out of the 60's. Before Obama became a serious contender, way back in the summer of 07, he made a statement that really got my attention. He said, “I didn’t come of age in the ’60s. I’m not invested in them.” He went on to explain that the Baby Boomers have been having the same fight since the Vietnam era. The Hippies vs. the Establishment. As Andrew Sullivan from The Atlantic put it much better than I ever could:

"At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a mo­mentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama—and Obama alone—offers the possibility of a truce.

The traces of our long journey to this juncture can be found all around us. Its most obvious manifestation is political rhetoric. The high temperature—Bill O’Reilly’s nightly screeds against anti-Americans on one channel, Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World” on the other;’s “General Betray Us” on the one side, Ann Coulter’s Treason on the other; Michael Moore’s accusation of treason at the core of the Iraq War, Sean Hannity’s assertion of treason in the opposition to it—is particularly striking when you examine the generally minor policy choices on the table. Something deeper and more powerful than the actual decisions we face is driving the tone of the debate." (For the full article click here)

Before I heard Obama's comments on the 60's divide I didn't have a clear understanding about what so turned me off about American politics. As soon as I heard him say that a lightbulb went off in my head that illuminated so much. These people are still arguing about something that happened more than 40 years ago. I was born in 1979 and I don't care who went, who didn't go, who supported and who dodged the draft for a terrible war that we didn't even have any business starting. I don't care. What I do care about are the issues facing us today, a sensible foreign policy, alternative fuels, healthcare, and sustainable growth. This isn't to say that the 60's era politicians like McCain and Clinton don't care about these things either, but they are hampered in their vision by these old, bitter divisions which have shaped their lives.

  • Obama lived abroad. A few months ago, when asked about his foreign policy experience, Barack Obama said:

"Probably the strongest experience I have in foreign relations is the fact I spent four years overseas when I was a child in Southeast Asia."

The next day Hillary Clinton mocked this answer, saying "Voters will have to judge if living in a foreign country at the age of 10 prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next president will face.’’

This response deeply unnerved me as it could only be said by someone who has never lived abroad. Living in a foreign country for long periods of time (sorry, a semester in England doesn't count) is a deeply changing experience. It teaches you that the way you interact with the world is not due solely to your own personality but to your culture, your upbringing, and even your language. (interdependence again) Knowing this about yourself, that you approach a situation not just as "Jane" but "English speaking Jane from East Coast America middle class" will forever alter your worldview. It allows you to respect that other people might not see things like you. It gives you skills for compromise and also informs you of when compromise is impossible due to too great a cultural gap. Does it matter that Obama was a young child when he lived in Indonesia? Not at all, the lesson from living abroad is like riding a bike, it's a part of you that you never lose. Clinton's answer is far too characteristic of the self-centered, narrow perspective of the ugly American.

Fareed Zacharia, who has more degrees than I have fingers, wrote very eloquently about this in Newsweek, excerpted here. Please read it if you have the time!

  • The dude can talk. I have been continually amazed at George W. Bush's poor public speaking. I mean, you are the President of the United States. Being able to think on your feet or deliver a good speech should not be optional qualities. If you're trying to be an actor, a certain amount of handsomeness is required. If you're unattractive, that's ok, but maybe acting isn't the best field for you. We have no qualms with this reasoning and I don't see why we shouldn't hold our leaders to similar standards of public speaking. Being President means speaking a lot. And no one does it better than Obama.

  • Obama snorted cocaine. One of the most depressing aspects of American politics is how our electorate insists its leaders pretend they are perfect beings. And then when they show a crack and act like a regular old human, with addictions, lusts, and skeletons in the closet, we cast them out with disgust. None of us could live up to the ideal of the Puritan American leader. What I respect much more is someone who has had their problems and actually worked through them. And isn't ashamed of it. Plus, you gain compassion for people in the same circumstance and are less likely to get on a high horse about anything. I deeply distrust someone who has never done anything bad in their life. There's just something unnatural about that, something pent up and explosive. Doing bad stuff (I would rather say unskillful), and then coming back from that line is where we find our humanity.

So, that's all I'll ever say about politics. I just figured if there ever was a point to say it, now, when things are being decided, is that time. Thanks for reading, and sorry for all the non-Americans who don't give a damn about our crazy political system! : )


Yoga Garden

Monday, January 21, 2008


This month I've made it my priority to finally get on top of all my old receipts which for the past year I've just been throwing in a big plastic box every few days when my wallet gets too full of them. For tax reasons I have to keep track of each and every purchase, and put it into a spreadsheet. But I've just been throwing them in the box.

So tax season is coming up and I decided once and for all to break my bad habit* of not cataloging my receipts in a timely manner. So I've invested in a whole new system of files and folders and gotten the entire 2008 year ready to go, and it's working marvelously so far. But I also wanted to put the past behind me and finally enter all those old receipts.

So, I spent an entire day organizing and another whole day putting the receipts into Excel. This amount of time (nearly 16 hours) spent closely analyzing stuff I bought more than a year ago really taught me a lot about myself and my spending habits. So many times I wondered why I had bought some stupid thing and even more times I couldn't help imagining how much extra money I would have today if I had only skipped a few of those mochas or snacks from the convenience store.But what was most revealing was that some months in particular had a lot more receipts for junk food, pizza delivery, and cheap restaurants. It took me a while to figure out the pattern, but finally I put it together. It was during times of emotional stress that those receipts for junk food and eating out really shot up. And the good months when everything was going well had me buying a lot of healthy food from the supermarket and vegetable seller. The irony is of course that when you're under a lot of pressure your body is already going through the wringer, (see my post on How Stress Affects the Body) and the last thing it needs is fatty, nutritionless junk going in it. Also, if there was ever a time to slow down and quietly prepare a home-cooked meal, it would be when you are stressing out.

The funny thing is, I thought that I was pretty in control of myself during those tough stressful times. After all, my job is teaching people how to handle stress and take care of themselves. And if you had asked me during those hard months if I was "stressing out" I would have been like "nah, it's hard right now but I'm dealing with it well." The receipts however, tell a different story.

So the next time you're feeling the pressures we all go through in the course of our lives, stop for a minute and try to imagine yourself looking back at the situation a year or two out. What choices would you be proud you had made? And which ones would you slap yourself on the forehead about? It's a pretty sure bet that one good one would be to make a small space in the day to enjoy the rhythms of chopping, the smell of fresh ingredients, and the satisfaction of actually thinking about what you but in your body, with a home-cooked meal.

Yoga Garden

*I've found this site called Joe's Goals really, really helpful in getting me to stick to my resolutions this year. What I've found is that when I fail to change a habit, it's not because I'm actively deciding not to do it, just that I forget about it because it's not, well, a habit. This site makes it so that you see your goals and are reminded of your commitment often throughout the day, and that's usually enough to get me to do it. I've added my Joe's Goals graph on the blog so you can check in and see how I'm doing over there on the right side!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Get Yourself Into a Pickle!

One of my favorite things about living in Morocco was the family of sheep and goats that lived under my rooftop quarters. They were noisy as hell and didn't smell great, but there was nothing more satisfying than taking out my food scraps and seeing them happily devour them, without a crumb wasted. That plus the fact that there were no plastic bottles, cans, or packaging meant that my total waste from eating was essentially nil.

These days, I often end up with a situation like the one pictured here. I made a lasagna and salad for dinner, but I didn't need a whole cucumber, zucchini, or carrot to make the meal. So I had these halves left over. I usually try to put them in the refrigerator with the hope that I'll eat them in the next few days but that rarely happens, and I usually end up throwing out rotting, soggy halves of vegetables I really meant to eat but never got around to.

That was, until I found out how to make pickles!

Pickling is easy and fun. You don't need any special equipment, but if you have a chance, pick up a cheap pickling jar like the one shown in the photo above. It's a glass bowl with a heavy glass top that adds pressure to the pickles as they sit in the brine. But more on that later. For this batch of used veggies I decided to make two kinds of pickles. The first batch will be regular vinegar style and so I'll cut the pieces small, along with some very thin strips of ginger for flavor.

This type of pickle brine usually calls for:
1/2 cup vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
2/3 teaspoon salt
ginger cut into small strips

But here's my secret if you don't want to bother with all that. Sushi rice vinegar! It has just about the same proportions of sugar and salt as the recipe and it's all already mixed. It works great but you might want to cut it with a little water if you don't like too sour a taste.

Put the cut vegetables in a bowl and, with your hands, rub them with about a tablespoon of salt.

This is part of the magic of making pickles. Getting the water out of the vegetable and replacing it with the yummy stuff.

After rubbing in the salt for about a minute, leave the bowl for 15 minutes... and...

... you'll see that the salt pushes the water out from the veggies. Separate the water and vegetables and it's on to the last step.

Gently squeeze the vegetables with your hands, kind of bruising them so that the vinegar will be able to get into all the nooks and crannies. Then place them in your bowl or pickling jar.

For the best effect you'll need a heavy lid that presses down on the pickles. The weight of the lid will draw even more water out from the vegetables as water is lighter than the vinegar. As I said before a 12 dollar (1300 yen) pickling jar is great, but if you don't have one I'll show you how you can make your own in the following recipe.

Now with the vegetables under a bit of pressure all you need to do is wait at least 24 hours. If you want the pickles to be eaten much later you should cut the veggies into bigger pieces. If you want to eat the next day, keep the size small and thin.

This recipe will give you a really typical "pickle" taste.

This time I decided to make another batch with a spicy chinese flavor.

3 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
(or as before just use sushi vinegar for the last three ingredients)
1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 small red pepper or red pepper flakes
ginger cut into small strips

Prepare the water, oil, and vinegar mixture.

Just as before you want to bruise the veggies a little by lightly hitting them with the flat side of a knife or something like that.

Mix the vegetables into the vinegar mixture and be sure to coat all the surface area on them.

If you don't have the special pickle jar you can just use two bowls that fit inside each other like this. To get the weight you need for the proper pressure, you can fill the top bowl with water or, like I did here, just put an onion or whatever heavy thing you have laying around in your fridge inside the top bowl.

So here are my two pickles. Regular on the left, and spicy Chinese style on the right. I'll put these in the refrigerator overnight and they should be pretty tasty tomorrow!

The next day, here are the regular style pickles. They really shrunk overnight and are packed with flavor now!

And here are the spicy pickles. Yummy!

Add a bowl of rice and I've made a meal out of what yesterday I was thinking about throwing out because it would probably end up rotting in my refrigerator. It's no substitute for a goat, but making pickles is a simple, tasty way to reduce your waste! Enjoy!


Yoga Garden

Friday, November 09, 2007

What Riding a Bike in the City Can Teach You

One of my favorite things about living in Japan is not needing a car. I have never been interested in cars, and I don't really enjoy driving. Sometimes Japanese people will tell me that one of their hobbies is "driving", but for me speeding down an asphalt road in a big hunk of metal with other bigger hunks of metal just inches away also moving at high speeds, it's just not my idea of relaxing.

Instead, I ride my bicycle just about every day of the year. I can get to any part of the city in under a half hour on my bike, often faster than a car. And over time I've learned a lot from riding a bike. These lessons also apply to a well-lived life, and so I'll share them with you now!

Lesson 1: Get off the rails! Back in the early 90's when video games didn't have a lot of processing power, there was a genre called "Rail Shooters." In these games you had a spaceship or a dragon or something, and you were traveling along a path through a stage, shooting at the bad guys. You could move up and down, and strafe to the left or right, but these only gave the illusion of freedom. In reality, you were just on a rail, like a Disney world ride. Here's one of the more egregious examples, StarFox.

Needless to say, these games sucked, and were eventually replaced by games in which you could fly any direction you wanted.

Driving in a car is very much the same experience for me. You're stuck on a track, looking through a big sheet of glass, watching the world go by like so much background scenery in one of those rail shooters. And you can't even shoot anything. Well, you could, but it would end up being a short trip.

On the other hand, on a bicycle the city becomes your playground. Everything is open to you... One-Way streets, red lights, back alleys, jogging paths, shopping streets, these all add to the fun. There is room for variation and creative solutions. I'm sure everyone has had the experience of driving, slipping into a kind of hypnosis, and snapping out of it, finding you have arrived at your destination without even remembering the trip. This has never happened to me on a bicycle. The mind is alert, working, and solving problems.

I think some people kind of have a life on rails. They've locked themselves into situations at work or at home where variation is impossible. Starting the studio was one way we tried to bring more freedom into our lives. Maybe for you the solution doesn't have to be as drastic as opening your own business, maybe just starting a new hobby, going to a place you never thought you'd like, or just putting the left sock on first will be enough to get the brain juices flowing again?

Lesson 2 : When seeking a goal, be flexible and keep the overall picture in mind. Let's say I want to ride my bike to Yokohama station. I always have in mind the arrival point of Yokohama station, but how I get there is not set in stone. For example, if I hit a red light (that I can't blaze through) I'll happily take a left or right and cross the street at another point when the light goes my way. Or sometimes it's just the opposite. The light will be green and it will look like a good chance to get closer to my goal, but by taking the light at that point I'll hit a mass of businessmen getting off the subway which will ultimately take longer than passing on the green and using another route. I've found that what looks like the most direct route on a map is often not the fastest.

When you have a goal, it will rarely turn out that everything goes your way and you can zip right to it. Be ready to take some right turns. Just because your not moving directly towards it doesn't mean that you're not still moving towards it! And also be wary of easy chances for quick gain at the expense of the overall destination point.

And lastly, speed isn't everything. Sometimes I will choose a longer route because it goes down a tree-lined street, a lively part of Chinatown, or past some graffiti I like. Enjoying your life is the ultimate goal after all!
Lesson 3 : Not being attached doesn't mean you don't try. I have written a lot in this blog about the Buddhist idea of "non-attachment" as the key to lasting happiness. But sometimes people take this to mean a laissez-faire approach to life in which you just float along in a kind of haze. That's absolutely the wrong way to approach this, and I've found a great illustration of this on my bicycle which I've been eager to share with people.

On one of my usual bike routes, there is a long street from which you can see the traffic light at the end from really far away. This happens to be a long light without any of those options to zig-zag that I discussed above. So, I can see from a few hundred yards that the light is green. I know that if I pedal hard I have a chance to get across, which will really help me out, as I can get to my destination faster and get on with my day.

So I dig in and go for it, weaving through pedestrians and narrow street like an X-wing through the Death Star. And sometimes I make it through just as the light turns yellow, but often the light turns red before I reach it, and I'm stuck at the corner.

Now here is where the attachment comes in. If I've really built up the idea that I'm going to make the light, get to where I'm going early, have more time to do my stuff, and therefore have a more fulfilling and relaxing day, when I hit the red it's a little upsetting, I might even curse under my breath. On days when my mindfulness isn't really engaged this often happens. But, on a more mindful day, I'll miss the light, and just let it go, coming back to the present moment (as opposed to that fantasy where I got there early and had a more relaxing day) and enjoy the sun, look at the things in the window of the corner shop, and watch the people on the other side of the street going about their day. Much healthier!

But you'll notice that in both situations, I still pedal hard to make the light. Being non-attached to outcomes doesn't mean you just throw in the towel and meander through the streets. Go for it! But if it doesn't go your way let it go just as easily as if you had made it. This is really tough and if you're like me you'll often find yourself almost faking non-attachment, saying to yourself "I didn't really care anyway" when inside you're still churning about the incident. Those times when you honestly and completely let go of attachment are so wonderful and good signs of progress!

Lesson 4 : Don't invest too much in the vehicle. I've never spent more than 120 dollars on a bicycle. Bikes get stolen, run over, and break down, especially the way I ride them. A bicycle or a car is just a way to get somewhere. Maintain them, be good to them, but don't cling to them.

Of course this is also a Buddhist idea, often formulated as "Leave the raft behind." The Buddha didn't want his followers to be attached to him or his practice too much. He compared the Buddhist path to a raft you use to cross to the far shore of a river. When you get there, you would be crazy to pick up and and start carrying the raft! You leave it behind, for it has served it's purpose and is no longer useful. This same light touch should be applied to our spiritual path, whatever it may be. As we can see any day from reading the international headlines, investing too much in your particular religion leads to violence and bloodshed.

However, some people take this to mean that their bodies are also just another vehicle that we shouldn't spend too much time on. Ascetic philosophies stresses this point a lot, with the idea being to transcend the impure, worldly body in favor of the pure mind.

For me, this is a serious mistake. You aren't a little person inside your head "driving" your body around, able to transcend it if you try hard enough. You are your body. I'll say that again, You Are Your Body. Your brain and the rest of you are completely interdependent. Taking care of your mind/body is the single most important thing you can do in your life. Part of this means exercise, part of it meditation, healthy diet, stress reduction, good sleep, and surrounding yourself with a good community of people.

A great way to get a headstart on all of those things is getting out of the hunk of metal with wheels and into the open air on a bicycle! So, see you on the roads, I'll be the one pedaling past you as you wait in traffic!


Yoga Garden

Monday, October 22, 2007

Where I've Been!

Hey all, sorry for not updating in so long. I've been spending a lot of time producing our videos for YouTube which you can find here. Check them out, give them a rating (rate it even if you hate it!) and leave a comment if you feel so inclined!

I'll be back soon with a real update and news from Yoga Garden!


Yoga Garden