journeys

Surya Namaskar

journeys

The first time I heard of celestial events affecting earthly lives was at the cusp of my transition from neuroscience researcher to full-time yogi. I was meeting with studio owners in preparation to sign a teaching contract, when they said that they would love to have me but couldn’t make any business decisions until Mercury was out of Retrograde. The neuroscientist in me was baffled (seriously?). The studio owners were blissful (yes).

After Mercury was no longer in Retrograde, we signed the contract, and I learned that there
is an unspoken expectation that yoga teachers must believe in astrology. I’m still a skeptic, which is a foundational quality of the scientist in me, but have spent the past few full-time-yogi years keeping tabs on the moon, my moods, and all the ways I can bring more of Earth’s nature into my life. To be honest, I totally missed the special eclipse the other day, because lately, I have been tuned in to one very powerful celestial event: sunrise.

For the past few weeks, I have been naturally waking around 5:30am, walking downstairs from my bedroom into my plant-filled practice space. Instead of turning on the lights, I light candles, incense, and create a playlist to soundscape my morning. (Most days, classical Indian flute. Some days, Hozier. When the moon is biggest, Prince. #mood. I try to keep the volume regular— once, in DC, a very cranky neighbor came up at 6am to complain that she could hear Don’t Stop Believing from her bedroom, which I think would be a nice way to wake up, but she disagreed.)

The first thing I do is drink a glass of water, then move through an hour of yoga asana, kriya, and pranayama, observing my body and mind, clearing them of the past day and preparing for the freshness of a new day. The sky begins to lighten as I finish this hour of practice, which is when I boil water for ginger-turmeric tea. It feels inexplicably correct to begin reading and writing in synchrony with the beginning of the sunlit day. I don’t ever need caffeine, or a nap. I just feel really good all day long, like a miracle.

I have woken up early before, but always with an alarm clock for the express purpose of getting to school on time, or to teach a class at 6:30 or 7am. It’s a completely different energy: sleep; sudden startling sound; somewhat speedy movement; certainly speedy exit onto city streets. After a few years of teaching every morning, I decided that was enough, and turned off my alarm clock forever, teaching only in the evenings and waking whenever I wanted. The freedom was delicious.

And as dreamy as it sounds, I realize now that there is an inertia to living in vacation mode, that I was perhaps resisting something or someone that I could be. I was holding to “truths” that were not particularly mine, like the pervasive idea that is more fun to stay up late, and sleep in, that the time of day is something to fight against, as if we could have more fun if we had more night time. My truth feels different now— it’s really fun to wake up, at dawn, because I love the energy of living a fuller day lit day.

The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night… All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere. The Vedas say, “All intelligences awake with the morning.”

― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Ayurveda, which is an ancient Indian science and the oldest extant medical system today, explains this phenomenon in terms of doshas, which are the elements that make up our world as well as our bodies. We can use our knowledge of doshas to balance or enhance the nature of ourselves as well as of time.

  • The hours of 2am-6am are Vata dosha, characterized by the mobility of the air element. It is best to harness the energy of movement by waking, then creating balance through conscious movement and meditative practices.
  • From 6am-10am, and 6pm-10pm, Kapha dosha takes over, which is characterized by the groundedness of water and earth elements. This is the energy of inertia, which is why we feel slow to wake up during these hours. It is best to use the morning hours of 6am-10am to work against the slowness, creating heat and movement to get the day going, and work with the slowness in the evening, going to bed by 10pm.
  • 10pm-2am is when Pitta dosha becomes prevalent. This is the element of heat, and fire. It is a great time for digestion, but it is hard to get to sleep during these hours. Pitta is also prevalent from 10am-2pm, which are the best hours to stay still, accomplish good work, and have a good meal. I’ll be on my mat for my Ashtanga practice around 9am, and when I finish, it is close to noon and I cook and eat an Ayurvedic meal, then do a little work before heading out for the afternoon.
  • Vata comes on again from 2pm-6pm, and these hours are the best times to create balance. I love an evening practice during these times, starting with energizing handstands and big backbends, then cooling and calming with long holds of headstand and shoulder stand.


I first studied these concepts just after I left neuroscience— I bought textbooks and read them cover to cover, highlighted, annotated, blew my own mind. And then I went into a couple years of vacation mode, working with other concepts: how to live without attachment to clock time or technology. I quit social media, pulled back to just 20 minutes a day of screen-time, forgot to change my clocks for day light savings, and managed to keep up with my clients even as I distanced myself from the real world. My intention was to scrub my mind clean, to find solace and solitude in the midst of Washington DC, without leaving my home or students. It worked beautifully.

And then I moved to Manhattan, with the intention of beginning life anew: applying all that I learned in a way that translates to benefit the lives of all those who live and work in the real world. I reinstated social media, remembered to check my email daily, and began replying to text messages within a reasonable time frame. My parents were greatly relieved to know that I was not only nearby, but also demonstrably alive and well (they call me less now that I post on insta daily). My friends were confused as to why they were suddenly seeing me on their phones. I was confused about how to maintain my “online presence” as well as my serenity/sanity.

I revisited my studies of Ayurveda and realized that it was (sadly) time to leave my vacation lifestyle of waking up whenever. The theory is that we humans are a part of the natural world, just as plants and animals are a part of the natural world, which inevitably is tied to the light cycles of sunrise and sunset. When we are in sync with the natural world, we can live with naturally balanced energy levels, which translates to both happiness and productivity.

I had very little desire to begin my day alarmed by a clock, so I just decided I would wake up early, all by myself. It’s weird to wake up in the dark. It’s especially weird when you realize you only own one clock and one phone, the latter of which mostly lives face down in airplane mode. (I am still committed to very little phone time.) I brought my clock upstairs to my bedroom, accidentally waking at 4:45am instead of 5:45am because I accidentally forgot to set back said clock for day light savings, two months ago.


The clock has been adjusted, as has my body, my energy, and my expectations. It turns out that I love waking in the darkness before dawn, and watching the variations of each day begin. Sometimes, there are clouds blushing in the sky, which always puts me in the mood for reading poetry and writing fiction. Other days, no cloud, and the sky plays with periwinkles and pale lemons before settling on the plain blue we know and love. Those are the days I feel more practical, handing emails and working on non-fiction. Cloudy days are sweet too— I let myself be a little slower, and I wonder if this is how plants and animals feel as well.

What I’ve really learned is how to examine my implicit beliefs about time, and that redirecting deep habits can feel like the fullness of an exhale: there is a letting go of what no longer serves me, to make space for something new within me. It feels like trust. Trust that I can choose to change the details of my life, trust that my body will wake when my mind asks it to, and trust that I, too, am connected with the daily rhythms set by the celestial body we call the sun.

xo

m.

stories of space and circularity

journeys

I’ve been thinking lately of space— not so much outer space as inner space, the kind of space that is just as important as anything you could fill it with.

As a society, we speak often of fulfillment, of success, of achieving and even of creating. But what of the blank page? The empty canvas? The adventure that is to begin?

But then again, these questions of space are really questions of circularity. How could we ever fulfill without first clearing the space with which to create? And so the questions of beginnings are really the questions of endings, in the same way that we celebrate the last moments of the old year as the first moments of the new.

2018. A year of beginnings that became endings that cleared way for more beginnings.

January 2018, and I turned 30 years old in Los Angeles, the city of my birth, surrounded by the very people that had known me for the entirety of my life. I rented a small house on Venice Beach and walked down to the water every day, thinking, I could do this, I could live here. (It helped that I flew out of DC the morning of a blizzard and landed in the blue skied 75 degree weather that LA knows as winter.)

I flew back to DC (still cold) then out to Durham the following month, visiting Duke for the first time since graduating 8 years earlier. 8 years! Nothing had changed and everything was different, all at the same time. My favorite professors were teaching— I dropped in on classes and office hours and spent hours every day in the gardens, where I met beautiful people and wandered among the tulips and practiced yoga on a bridge over a happy little creek. I remembered that I used to be a scientist before I was ever an artist.

When I came back to DC, it was March, my ex was running for mayor, and I fell very quickly in love with a banker about to move to Manhattan. It wasn’t LA, but it wasn’t DC either, and my mother was delighted with the prospect of impromptu meet ups at the Met. Sure, I agreed with the banker, let’s go, let’s move in together and live in a pretty little East Village walk up and fill it with palm trees and floor cushions and lots and lots of love.

It never occurred to me that I would be the one calling my mother for impromptu visits to our home in Long Island, that my childhood bedroom would become just as much home as the pretty little East Village walk up, where one must walk down five flights of stairs with twelve quarters in order to do one load of laundry. (Forgetting a quarter will cost you ten flights of stairs: five up to get the quarter, five down to the laundry.)

I came to Manhattan in April. From May through September, I would take the LIRR home twice a month for an escape from the pressure cooker of the city, and the suffocation of living with a man who I loved best when he was at some distance from me. Laundry was easier in Long Island too— just one flight of stairs, no quarters necessary.

What I realized during all these seismic shifts in my personal life was how much I really love to teach. When I left DC, I left my clients and my work and came to New York with nothing but the dream to start all over again. So what I began with was space. In those days, the first in many many years that I was not teaching regularly, I felt a sense of true emptiness, a question of purpose: who was I without my work?

Which is not to say that I was not working. I was working harder than ever, learning to share a home with someone for the first time after five years of living (blissfully) alone. I was learning what it was to be a good daughter, at arm’s length from my parents for the first time ever. I was learning that I need to carefully consider every outfit that I wore onto the streets of Manhattan, lest I walk into a vintage clothing store and be immediately and disdainfully directed to the sales rack (yes, that happened) (yes I was mortified) (yes I have rehauled my entire wardrobe in the past six months).

In that space, I found that I was lost. I came to New York entirely confident in my understanding of yoga and what made me a stellar teacher. Two months of living in New York and I was writing to myself day after day: what is yoga? What do I have to give?

But just as space invites creation, questions invite answers, and being lost invites finding oneself anew.

Today, I am living solo and teaching every day, with the Shala, an Ashtanga studio that has been cultivating a most beautiful community here in the village for the past 14 years, and am also teaching with Equinox, where I have rediscovered my love for fitness, stylish workout outfits, and steam rooms. I am supremely happy to teach each and every class. And no matter where I am, I am simultaneously humbled and inspired by the people I am meeting on and off the mat. The yogis of New York City are as strong as they are open, as dedicated as they are fun loving, and most miraculously of all, they tolerate my love for opening class with Prince or Jimi Hendrix.

And for the first time in my life, I feel well within the range of normal. No one bats an eye at a neuroscientist turned yogi. There is so much more to attend to in this city, like the occasional teal blue night sky, or Santa Con. (To be honest, I’m not sure which was the weirder event.)

I should mention that my two main concerns are that I am too excited to sleep much at nights, and that my distance vision is noticeably faltering. The former because there is so much to do in this city, and the latter because everything that you need to see is directly in front of you. So as I look forward into 2019, my vision has a lovely old-Hollywood blur to it, the way these winter fogs weave over the East River and through the skyline.

All I see are the invitations to love the space between what has already ended, and what is yet to begin.

Wishing you a beautiful year of creativity, clear vision, and cultivation of inner space: here’s to a 2019 already worth celebrating.

xo
m.

of denim and asceticism

journeys

My father came to stay with me in DC a couple years back, long after I left neuroscience and just after I had left the yoga studios. He looked around at my life. It appeared to be full-time play-time. He sat me down and told me seriously: this cannot last.

I had laughed, not because I thought he was wrong, but because he was teaching me the nature of impermanence, which made me happy. We are all in a state of becoming. Like spring flowers, the beauty of the present moment is in the knowing it will not last.

Full-time play-time pulled me very quickly and unexpectedly into asceticism. Immersed in my studies of ancient yogic philosophy and the roots of Buddhism, I pulled away from modern technology and social media, running my life and my business with just a few minutes of daily text/email access. I suddenly had all the time in the world, and got busy with it. I taught myself to play the guitar, took up drawing, went for 2-3 hour hikes every day, cooked all my meals, and, of course, spent 4-5 hours a day on my yoga mat, which is where I integrated all that I was living and learning.

It was easy for me to go days without speaking with anyone, and even easier to feel utterly blissful. I lived the inner life, learning to witness thoughts as they emerged, identifying and reshaping mental habits, until I was able to choose when to think and when to listen to inner silence. I learned to live intensely in the moment, to see beauty as children see beauty, to sleep when I was sleepy and eat when I was hungry. My first thoughts of the day were: I am alive, let’s go! And I went to bed each night in contentment, not thinking of whether or not another day would come again, knowing that I would live fully if and when I woke. I had no alarms, no deadlines, no supervisor, no coworkers, no real obligations other than teaching.

Society and politics and fashion moved on without me, of course.

When I was young, we would take summers in Calcutta, immersing ourselves in the fervor of family, food, and fans to keep away the tangible burden of the heat. Returning to school for Labor Day was always jarring. I missed the inception of Survivor, and the release of Legally Blonde, and countless summertime songs. I’d walk the school hallways like a stranger every September, a swirling speck in the cultural current of Long Island, adrift in what was once home. It happened so much that the not-belonging became my belonging.

I missed a lot of movies and memes over the course of two years in DC without tech, plus five years (and counting) without wifi. I am always surprised by weather storms. News comes to me as I roam the streets alone, immersed in the moment, a speck in the cultural current of our Capitol. In those years, it never occurred to me to bring my phone with me when I left the house. When my wanderings got me lost, I simply kept on wandering, always finding some well worn way back home. And though I was disconnected, I was living just down the street from the White House, and saw real-time trending.

A couple years ago, I noticed the girls starting to carry large cardboard packages of La Croix. I never asked anyone what it was but from the shape of the packaging presumed soda-like contents. I was slightly alarmed by the sudden appearance of food-delivery robots, not because robots were roaming the streets but because humans could no longer be bothered with tipping the delivery guy. I saw that anyone standing to wait for anything at all did it with an s-shaped curve in their spines, lordosis in the lumbar and chin to chest, to facilitate smart-phone scrolling.

I noticed protestors in front of embassies, and the sudden increase in helicopter traffic. But these were the things I saw on my way to the woods, and on the way back. In between, I wandered the trails, became familiar with the habits of deer, the moods of the creek. I saw a turtle in the creek once, and a tiny hummingbird in the spring flowers. I never missed a sunset.

The longer I spent in without technology, the more connected I felt to my tangible surroundings, the less I worried about circumstances far away from me. My attention span lengthened, and I saw the way other people were distracted, always, distracted, barely getting through their tangible lives, pulled by the important people who were saying and doing important things elsewhere. It was like living a single life among a world of double lives.

I am slowly, purposefully, coming back into that double life again. It feels like an awakening.

I reinstated facebook, reconnected with friends, and googled how to post an Instagram “story.” My parents text me less now that the internet provides them evidence that I am alive and well enough to post on social media; they suggest that I only share photos of myself wearing full length pants and long sleeve shirts, though I’ve always lived and loved short shorts and tiny tanks. And I get why my posts matter—I want to share yoga in a world of people who have constant access to pornography and need nothing more than reconnecting to a wholly healthy body and mind. So I desperately try to be as un-sexy as possible while staying true to myself, which is only one of the unexpected existential struggles that have come along with my reentry into normal, modern life.

Actually, clothing and appearances have been the number one existential struggle.

I grew up in New York, following fashion bloggers, and am very much my mother’s daughter, which means shopping and jewelry. But at the inception of my solitary sabbatical, I stopped caring about my appearances. I had read an article comparing the beauty habits of men versus women, and came away with the astounding realization that men have far more time and money in their lives because they do not care to get weekly manicures, monthly waxes, etc. It occurred to me too, that less time and energy on appearances would lend more time and money for delving into my inner self. So I learned how to love the look of my unpolished, self-trimmed nails. I stopped buying and wearing makeup, sold a lot of my clothing, and kept just what was black, white, gray, and good for yoga.

The first visible sign of my reentry into normalcy was that I pulled on a pair of jeans. It felt good. I remembered when I had bought them, a decade earlier, when I was an undergrad at Duke and cared about designers and cuts and washes. Back then, I had collected an impressive array of various designer jeans, size 26, each of which still fit. I started wearing them again, feeling good about the effort it took to button pants rather than shimmy into leggings.

Ignorance is bliss.

When I went back to campus for the first time since graduation a couple months ago, I was perplexed by the current undergraduate girls. Why were they wearing jeans all the way up to their navels? And when I came back to DC, and started going out with friends, I noticed: their jeans were all the way up to their navels too. I wanted to ask: isn’t that terribly uncomfortable? Do I need to do that too? Is it obvious that I haven’t bought denim in a decade? And though I pride myself on independence, I recruited a girlfriend for my first post-sabbatical shopping trip. We went to March for our Lives and then we went to shop for my (social) life. For the first time in many years, I tried on clothes in a dressing room. And for the first time ever, I enjoyed it.

Denim has changed, by the way. It’s this thin stretchy thing now, so the high waists don’t matter too much because even the button and zipper will stretch out with your belly… so much so that I’m a size 25 now. It feels like getting extra credit for wearing leggings. I even have a pair with store-made rips in the knees, which feels super cool, because it gives the impression that I could be the kind of person who asks Alexa to play Taylor Swift Reputation, instead of the kind of person who is upside down for an hour a day and never checks her phone and cares more about neuroscience and ancient philosophy than anything else in the material world.

And again, I feel belonging in not-belonging, laughter with the certainty that nothing lasts.

But I’m a little better dressed these days.

one week in Durham

journeys

It felt like homecoming as soon as I landed at RDU, as I had so many times a year, so many years ago. The airport had changed in many ways without really changing at all. Perhaps that was true of me as well.

I had never been back for a reunion, had only attended one Duke event in DC over the eight years since graduation. I had given away most of my Duke clothes, content to part ways with the past, eager for a future, though I tell myself that it is the in-between that really matters.

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an ascetic in DC

journeys

This is the true story of how I lived as a sanyasi in the heart of our nation’s capitol.

My grandmother, like each of her grandmothers and each of their grandmothers and even each of their grandmothers, has lived her whole life in India. Before she was my grandmother, she was a school principal, and before that, a history teacher. I call her in Calcutta because I love her and also because I love to learn from her: her lessons cross oceans and eras with ease. Through her stories and teachings, I consciously learn what the rich culture of India gives to her children. And while the US sends fast food and Amazon Prime to India, I request a return to the ancient, natural, knowledge that still permeates my grandmother’s words.

Ancient India teaches us that there are four stages to every person’s life. Each of us begins first as a child, then becomes a student, then matures to a householder with duties to family and community before retiring to the forests for the last stage of life. In this fourth and last stage, one becomes the sanyasi, leaving behind worldly duties (i.e. bills and 9-5) to return to nature and live in peace until it is time to leave the body.

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