Culinary Zen

I love food—I love eating it, preparing it and thinking about it. The most direct and intimate contact we have with our environment is eating, especially when we eat fruits and veggies that are grown locally or even in our own backyards.

As some of you may know, Yoga Nook is a pick-up destination for the Underwood Family Farms CSA program (community-supported agriculture), so my husband and I enjoy local produce picked fresh from the farm and delivered the next day. I don’t look at what we’re going to get in the box ahead of time, as I like the surprise of opening it and making the best of whatever arrives.

In the last few weeks, we’ve been finding peppers and chilis of every shape, color and variety in our weekly box; and I must say that I was challenged to think of something that would use such a large quantity to its best advantage.

Then I remembered my recipe for Panang, a spicy Thai dish that we first ate in Hawaii over 20 years ago. Not only is the dish fragrant and spicy, it’s also easy to make and allows me to take advantage of some culinary Zen.

We should nourish our mind and body with the food we eat. More often we eat on the run—doughnuts and coffee in the car serve as breakfast, and a trip to the drive-through is lunch. Who has time to cook anymore? If preparing or even eating food has become a chore, then perhaps we could learn something from the Zen approach to cooking.

Culinary Zen focuses on moment-to-moment awareness, balance and wholeness. This mindfulness in everything you do begins with the food gathering and preparation. Even the cleaning of the workspace is carried out with diligence and attention to detail. The freshest ingredients, organic if possible, are chopped and diced with focus, love and harmony.

As I slow down and enter a state of moment-to-moment awareness, cooking becomes a meditation. Chopping the veggies for the Panang, I enjoy the bright primary colors of the peppers and the rhythmic sound of the knife on the chopping board. I linger for a moment to savor the fresh lemony scent of cilantro, the aroma of an onion as it sizzles in the frying pan. The pungent mix sends a spicy hotness into the very air that I breathe, and I douse its heat with a cooling coat of coconut milk. The result is a creamy, spicy and somewhat soupy dish served with rice.

Granted, with our busy lifestyles, we may not have time to prepare a meal like this every day—so why not try some mindfulness as you peel and eat an orange, or bite into a juicy peach? Think of the cycle of seasons that has brought the food to your plate, the sun and rain and the energy that the food contains. As you change how you think about food, you’ll be more likely to choose foods that truly nourish your mind and body.

For more on Zen cooking, check out “Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings” by Edward Espe Brown.


Related article:
Food for Thought

Image credit: Young Sok Yun via Flickr (CC) 

My Retrograde

Need to get things in perspective? Then escape the ambient light of LA, lie on the desert floor and look up. The view will take your breath away — stardust scattered like grains of silver sand across an indigo sky. Light reaching us from the inky blackness of space is thousands, sometimes millions, of years old. As you are looking up, you are also looking back in time.

I lie on a blanket, a pillow under my head, a pair of binoculars and a star map in my hand. I gaze through the binoculars, a poor man’s telescope. I’m a closet star-spotter, finding patterns in the randomness of space and rejoicing in names like Ursa Major and Andromeda. I lose myself and find myself at the same time in the infinite depths.

This month, low in the western sky just after sunset, you can get a glimpse of Mercury. This scorched and barren planet is closest to the Sun and has an unusual, highly elliptical orbit that causes it to change speed as it journeys around the Sun. Mercury is at its slowest when it’s furthest from the Sun, giving Earth a chance to “catch up.” Much like driving next to a car on the freeway that speeds past you and then slows down, this motion creates the illusion that Mercury travels backwards in the night sky at certain times of the year. These cycles are called Mercury retrogrades and are traditionally blamed for confusion, delay and frustration.

mercury retrograde infographic
Infographic via MySign

Don’t worry, Mercury doesn’t enter its next retrograde until September 17; and as any astrologer will tell you, Mercury’s influence will depend on your own astrological makeup. My personal experience of Mercury in retrograde has been frustrating at times — but the chance to revisit, re-experience and re-do has been valuable, even advantageous.

Frequently during a retrograde, I see absent students returning to the studio and remembering how good they feel after class. People from my past seem to make their way into my thoughts or dreams, then randomly call or get in touch. The retrograde reminds me to be specific when I communicate and make sure that I dot the “I’s” and cross the “T’s” when completing paperwork. I can re-launch a class or theme and find people interested and engaged.

I found the new studio space on the cusp of the last retrograde in May while I was reminiscing about Body Venture, a women’s gym I used to work at over 20 years ago, located in the same shopping center as Yoga Nook @ Fifth. The new yoga studio is a re-visiting in so many ways for me, and as we prepare to launch on September 8, just a little before the next retrograde, I find myself in familiar surroundings geographically, emotionally and physically. As we work to create the same warm, comfortable and safe environment in this new space, I hope to ride the wave of Mercury’s influence, giving people a chance to reinvest in their relationship with Yoga, the Nook and themselves.


Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr (CC)

Ayurveda 101: The Science of Life

Many great philosophical systems emerged from the Indus Valley in India around 5,000 years ago. It was a time of great spiritual movement, when man was seeking a deeper knowledge of both body and mind. The ancient systems of Yoga and Ayurveda grew up hand-in-hand against this backdrop, their foundations deeply rooted in the Upanishads, a collection of mankind’s most ancient historical texts.

upanishads eknath easwaran

Thought to be written around 800-500 BCE, the Upanishads are a distillation of hundreds of years of Indian spiritual teachings that were passed down through oral tradition before they were ever recorded. They describe the universal laws of nature and principles for living in harmonious balance within yourself and the world around you.

These teachings form the foundation of Ayurveda, a holistic health system and ancient form of medicine that offers wisdom for achieving balance in the mind, body, spirit and environment. Ayu comes from the Sanskrit word for “life,” and veda means “knowledge”; thus, Ayurveda can be roughly translated as the knowledge or science of life.

How Does Ayurveda Differ From Western Medicine? 

Western medicine, also known as allopathy, tends to focus on curing the symptoms of disease. Here in the West, our emphasis is on fixing what has gone wrong with the body — cutting it out, replacing it or taking medication that has been prescribed by a physician.

In Ayurveda, prevention of disease is the main focus. People who practice Ayurvedic medicine believe that everything is connected with your state of health. Diet, exercise, breath and meditation all have a part to play. This principle is simple enough, but it does require a little effort at first — certainly more effort that popping a pill. However, the rewards of incorporating Ayurvedic wisdom in your life can transform your health and sense of well-being in a profound and permanent way.

While we sleep, the body repairs damaged cells, processes toxins and recharges the mind. Junk food, alcohol, drugs and too much stress overload the body and affect its ability to repair itself. Ayurveda says that, in this unbalanced state, we are vulnerable to illness, depression and disease.

Like Yoga, Ayurveda is enjoying a revival as the West awakens to the need for a more balanced lifestyle. Widely promoted by popular speakers such as Deepak Chopra, Ayurveda, with its simple yet potent philosophy on life, is reconnecting us to the rhythms of nature and our own physiology.

Ayurveda Doshas infographic
Infographic by Sattva Ayurveda

What Are the Doshas? 

According to Ayurvedic philosophy, everything in the tangible world (known as prakriti, or nature) consists of three vital energies called doshas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. We are each born with an individual doshic makeup, or constitution — not equal parts of the three doshas, but our own unique blend of these energies. Each dosha is associated with certain physiological processes, qualities and physical characteristics.

1.  Vata Dosha 

Vata energy regulates all bodily functions and is the quality of motion and change. People who are predominantly Vata are likely to be thin, enthusiastic, quick-thinking, restless and creative. They may find it difficult to put on weight, and often have thick, wiry hair that is curly or wavy.

Because Vata is an active energy, Vatas benefit from calming (Kapha) activities like meditation, massage and yoga, which help ground their restlessness and anxiety.

2.  Pitta Dosha

Pitta energy regulates the absorption of food; it can be thought of as the fire of digestion. Pittas tend to be ambitious and confident perfectionists who love a challenge. They are lucid thinkers and often inspiring public speakers.

Since Pitta quality is hot, they can have a quick temper. Calm, cool surroundings can be used to balance this dosha. Pittas tend to have a medium build and fine hair that may turn gray or thin prematurely.

3.  Kapha Dosha 

Kapha energy holds together the cells of the body and the connective matrix that contains them. The most stable of the doshas, Kaphas generally avoid change and feel secure when things stay the same. They are patient, supportive and caring.

Physically, Kaphas tend to be short and strongly built; they may put on weight easily and find it hard to lose again. Their hair is likely to be thick, dark and wavy. Kaphas benefit from regular exercise and shaking things up a bit from time to time to avoid dullness and boredom.

Image via A Charmed Yogi

In the Ayurvedic view, if one of the doshas in our makeup is out of balance, health problems may arise. The aim of Ayurveda is to treat each patient with a recommendation for diet, exercise and daily routines that are most beneficial for their individual doshic constitution and its ongoing balance.

There are many self-tests that can help you identify which dosha or combination of doshas make up your individual constitution (for example, this one from The Chopra Center). For a truly accurate reading, however, it’s best to seek out an experienced Ayurvedic practitioner, who can help you discover which foods, environments and exercise will help balance your mind and body.

This article only scratches the surface of the vast and fascinating subject of Ayurveda. If you’re interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the doshas, I recommend checking out Perfect Health by Deepak Chopra and Ayurveda by Anna Selby and Ian Hayward — two great books on the topic.


Image credit: Miran Rijavec on Flickr (CC)

Yoga Nook Event: Essential Oils Wellness Workshop

Who doesn’t like the smell of fresh-cut lemons? So energizing, vibrant and refreshing. Lemon balm, or Melissa officinalisis a perennial herb in the mint family that has a delightfully fresh, lemony scent. The plant can grow up to three feet tall, and blooms with tiny white flowers from summer through fall. Bees are very attracted to the pollen produced by the flowers; in fact, the genus name Melissa comes from the Greek word for honeybee.

Essential oil extracted from the lemon balm plant is commonly sold in stores as “Melissa essential oil.” It is one of the rarest, most expensive oils in the world because it requires such a large amount of the fragrant herb to yield a small amount of oil–it takes 95,000 pounds of dried plant material to yield just one gallon of Melissa essential oil. As a result, there are many cheap imitations on the market labeled “lemon balm oil,” which may be adulterated with lemon oil or lemongrass oil. Consumers beware!

Pure Melissa essential oil is generally used to alleviate digestive and respiratory problems originating in the nervous system.* The oils in the lemon balm plant have a calming effect, which also make it useful for depression, menstrual cramps and stress-related conditions.

You can use Melissa essential oil in an aromatherapy diffuser, or chop fresh lemon balm leaves and add them to salads or fruit dishes. You can also make a refreshing herbal tea by adding 2 tablespoons of torn or chopped lemon balm leaves to one cup of boiling water. Steep for up to 10 minutes, strain and drink. Hot or cold lemon balm tea will put a zing in your step!

To learn more about preparing, mixing and using essential oils for health and wellness, come to Yoga Nook instructor Cindi Hunt’s Essential Oils Wellness Workshop at the Nook on Saturday, June 27 from 12:30-2:00 p.m.

In this fun, hands-on workshop, you’ll be able to smell, apply and even taste dozens of essential oils. Cindi will show you how to use oils in your home, in your cooking and for proactive healthcare–for only $15 a person. You’ll get to make and take home your own room spritzer and de-stress with special essential oil combinations.

Hope to see you there!

Essential Oils Wellness Workshop with Cindi Hunt
Saturday, June 27
12:30-2:00 p.m.

*Please note, Melissa essential oil should always be diluted and should not be applied to sensitive skin. To avoid contact with sensitive areas such as eyes and nose, always wash your hands after handling the fresh herb or essential oil.


Image credit: hitomi on Flickr (CC)

Am I Losing My Mind?

I walk purposefully down the hallway, in a hurry to get to the bedroom–but when I get there, I can’t remember why I’ve come. I stand there, faintly embarrassed, like the first person to arrive at a party. I scratch my head and look around at the items on my dresser, thinking perhaps there’s a clue as to the reason for my arrival. What did I come in here for? It’s an absolute mystery. Sound familiar?

We’ve all lost our car keys, put the milk carton in the pantry instead of the fridge, or forgotten the name of a neighbor when we see them out of context. But having a complete blank when we enter a room to get something feels a bit like you’re losing your mind.

The good news is that, unlike aging, memory loss is not inevitable. Day-to-day glitches are not the same as dementia. Most of the time, short-term memory losses are normal and nothing to worry about.

It’s true that at middle age, it takes a bit longer to learn new concepts or retrieve a colleague’s name, but as we enter our 50s, 60s and beyond, our brains are still capable of creating new brain cells. The “use it or lose it” principle applies. Your lifestyle choices, exercise habits, and cognitive stimulation have a huge impact on the health of your brain.

Celebrating the brain is not something we’re used to doing; rather we just get frustrated with it when it’s not as quick as it used to be. But let’s take a moment to review the talents of a middle-aged brain: Life skills are much improved by middle age. We are often able to manage emotion more effectively, communicate more efficiently, and ask for what we want. Our experience allows us to project the outcome of our actions, helping us avoid pitfalls that younger brains just don’t see coming.

Frequently we are caregivers to aging parents, helping our kids graduate, and rolling with the highs and lows of menopause or other crises. We juggle all that life throws our way, and do it with an optimistic smile. Perhaps the secret to our cheery outlook is that we know “this too shall pass” and “tomorrow is another day.”

Of course, it’s not all a bucket of roses. There are days when we get it wrong, make stupid mistakes, and pay the price for doing so–but so does everyone else. We all misplace our cell phones, call our kids by the wrong name, and write notes to ourselves so we don’t forget things. But instead of complaining about our forgetful brain, let’s be grateful for the gifts of a brain that’s more creative, has a huge amount of life experience, and recognizes life patterns more quickly. Welcome to middle age!

A great book on coming to terms with our middle-aged brains is “The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain,” an easy, educational, and fun read by Barbara Strauch. I highly recommend it.


Image credit: Allan Ajifo on Flickr (CC)

Food for Thought

One hundred and eight million people support the diet industry, 85% of whom are female. The average person makes four or more attempts at weight loss, helping the industry accrue $20 billion in annual revenue. Yes, that’s right, 20 billion dollars.

There’s the low-fat, no-carb, raw veggie, even the “skip breakfast and take a cold bath instead” diet (I’m not kidding) – all competing for our consumer support and paying up to $3 million for celebrities to sell the results in commercials.

This unfortunate phenomenon is a great example of the population seeking the answer outside of themselves rather than looking within. We think someone else can make a food plan for us that will provide fast, convenient, lasting results. We forget that in order to earn our way towards a better relationship with food, there has to be a shift in our state of mind.

A few years ago, I offered a program at Yoga Nook called Body WiZe. It was not a weight loss program, but rather a yoga, meditation and mindful eating workshop that focused on increasing the importance of food and slowing down. We encouraged participants to cultivate their intuition and self-restraint so they could make better choices without feeling deprived of foods they enjoyed.

Mindful eating brings you into the moment and reminds you to pause. In that pause, you can inquire: Are you standing in front of the pantry because you really are hungry, or because you are feeling anxious/bored/overwhelmed with your current activity and need a break?

Nourishing your body with food should take time. Primal man didn’t rush out, kill a bison and eat it on the way to the next hunt. A satisfying meal is one that appeals to all the senses – it is not only flavorful, but also looks colorful on the plate, smells tantalizing and feels textural as we eat it. Your whole body should be recruited into the meal, so every part of you knows you have eaten and becomes sated.

If we are in such a rush to eat that we are swallowing without even paying attention to what’s in our mouth, or so distracted as we eat that we forget we’ve eaten at all, how can we be satisfied or nourished by our food?

Here are some tips that we shared as part of the “Body WiZe” program:

  • Give yourself enough time to eat. Once prepared, a simple meal should take between 20 to 30 minutes to eat mindfully.
  • Reduce distractions. If you have to eat at work, turn off your computer – or even better, go for a walk to a local park bench. Just for the time you are eating, turn off the TV, radio or phone, and focus on nurturing your body with each mouthful. Experience the food fully.
  • Look at your food. As you prepare your food, keep in mind that it should be colorful and aromatic. Include a variety of textures to tantalize the tongue.
  • Chew more slowly. Put less in your mouth than usual and keep it there for longer, taking time to enjoy the flavors. Remember that digestion begins in the mouth.
  • Completely finish your first mouthful before you eat more. Your mouth should be empty between bites, ready to experience a new array of texture, flavor and temperature.
  • Remember: You don’t have to finish everything on your plate. Stop when you begin to feel full. You can also try using a smaller plate.

Practicing mindful eating is another way to bring yoga off the mat and into your life – mind, body and breath as one. Namaste.


Image credit: Thomas Hawk on Flickr (CC)

A Blinding Flash of the Obvious

One of my valued gurus, Judith Lasater, uses this phrase to describe the moments in life when we suddenly gain a newfound awareness of something that’s not new in the world, but is deeply relevant to us – an “aha!” moment that is recognizable as a whole-body experience. We have all felt these to a greater or lesser degree.

I want to share a blinding flash of my own, a revelation that changed how I think about meditation. It was a realization that allowed me to feel successful for the first time in a practice that had, until then, been fraught with discomfort and disappointment.

When I began to meditate about 20 years ago, I was filled with ambition. I wanted to be a great meditator and feel the bliss that my own teachers seemed to be experiencing. But the harder I tried and the more determined I was, the more frustrated I felt – and the further away from meditation I seemed to be.

Meditation is one of the eight limbs, or techniques, that make up the practice of Yoga. In just the same way you learn physical poses (asana) in a beginning class, it’s wise to begin a meditation practice with baby steps.

During my own teacher training, I was taught that the definition of meditation was 144 seconds of uninterrupted concentration, or a little over two minutes. While two minutes doesn’t seem long, it can feel like eternity if you’re uncomfortable, not at ease, or experiencing “monkey mind.”

One morning, as I attempted in vain to achieve two minutes of uninterrupted concentration, I had an epiphany, a blinding flash of the obvious. What if I went for a walk in my garden and walked with concentration for two minutes, my mind completely focused on the walking? Perhaps I could do some Yoga (asana) and move with mindfulness for two minutes, or be focused and completely present as I prepared the evening meal by chopping vegetables with full intent on the task.

The more I thought of applying mindfulness and meditation to everyday life, the easier it seemed to find activities I could do with 144 seconds of focused concentration. Once I gave myself permission to integrate meditation practices with everyday activities, I discovered multiple opportunities to practice.

Try these ideas to add mindfulness and meditation into your daily life:

1.  Rise early and take a short walk. Be mindful of each step you take, the nature around you, the temperature, and the sounds of the morning. Remember, walking is the meditation. Unlike walking for exercise, you’re not focused on a goal, outcome or destination; you are simply focused on the walking itself.

2.  Make a simple salad for lunch and eat with conscious awareness. Notice the way you chew your food, the texture, and its flavor. Take your time – each bite is an opportunity to practice being present.

3.  The next time you take a shower, bring your attention to your sensory experience. Notice how the water feels on your skin, the smell of your shampoo or body wash, and the sound of the water as it hits the ground. Just be aware of your experience as you cleanse your body and mind.

Blending mindfulness and meditation with movement, cooking or enjoying nature were the beginning steps I needed. Now I celebrate the start of every day by sitting for 30 minutes or so. Sometimes my eyes are open, sometimes closed, but my practice is always calming, quiet and blissful.


Image credit: Tomi Tapio K on Flickr (CC)

Get OFF Your Yoga Mat

I love Yoga. So why am I asking you to get off your mat?

Because in the West, we have a very narrow view of Yoga — we think it’s all about stretching. We celebrate flexibility as if it’s the only result Yoga can help us achieve.

I’m here to show you how Yoga can benefit you OFF the mat. Rooted in a history that’s over 5,000 years old, yoga techniques are as relevant in today’s world as they were to the ancient yogis and yoginis.

My intention for this blog is to show you how to apply these ancient techniques to your lifeI’ll be giving you practical tips, sharing my own yoga experience, and inviting you to comment on the posts.

I’ve been a Yoga teacher in Simi Valley for over 20 years, and Yoga Nook has been in business for 12 of those years. Our studio is built on a valley-wide reputation for excellence in teaching yoga classes, teacher training and somatic education.

Until now, the only way you could benefit from Yoga was to come in and take a class. That’s about to change. Now you can subscribe to our blog to receive two monthly posts that will shed light on how Yoga can help you understand yourself and the world we live in.

Simply enter your email address below to sign up. I invite you to share your insights, stories and comments. Join us and become part of the Yoga Nook community, living Yoga OFF the mat.

With gratitude,

Jeni Winterburn


Image credit: bradleypjohnson on Flickr (CC)