Death and Isvara Pranidhana

While sipping a cup of fresh mint tea at a local coffee shop yesterday I listened to my friend Julie rant about the unfairness of life and how it doesnt pay to adhere to a healthy lifestyle. The husband of another friend of hers had just been diagnosed with a life shattering leukemia. How could it happen? she asked. He was the healthiest person she knew. He ate healthy. He worked out every day. He didnt smoke. He didnt drink too much. He didnt do drugs, practice risky sexual behavior, or leave his helmet at home when he rode his motorcycle.

Still. The guy was 48 and dying.

Her conclusion was that it doesnt matter how you live your life. We all die. You might as well enjoy it while you can. Light up. Binge drink. Eat crap because it tastes good. Have blatant disregard for the effects of whatever it is youre doing to your body and your health.

Her anguish was palpable. And its a sentiment Ive heard many times. Yep, we all die. No question about that. No matter how healthy you live your life, it will end. Even if you do absolutely everything right the curtain will still come down and youll take your last breath.

But when you die is a matter beating of the odds, not one of absolute certainty. A woman who primarily eats plants within the guidelines of the Mediterranean diet, doesnt smoke, exercises with at least a brisk 30-minute walk every day, and keeps her body mass index (BMI) below 25 severely reduces her chances of sudden cardiac death which accounts for more than half of all heart disease deaths. In other words, your first clue you might have heart disease is when you drop dead, especially in women. The proportion of sudden death from a heart attack that can be attributed to smoking, inactivity, being overweight, and having a poor diet is 81%. The majority of women who suddenly drop dead arent living a healthy lifestyle.

But its the majority, not ALL. You can live perfect and still have sudden cardiac death. Odds are that you wont though.

Similarly, a German study looked at the same four components of a healthy lifestyle and found the likelihood of having a heart attack, developing cancer, or suffering a stroke (the three leading causes of death in the US) increased progressively as people chose to be sedentary, eat poorly, gain too much weight, or to smoke. Those who chose to eat a Mediterranean diet, not smoke, exercise at least 30-minutes a day, and keep their weight down decreased their chances of having a heart attack by 81%, developing cancer by 36%, and having a stroke by 50%.

There are no guarantees. We are complicated creatures with a plethora of genetic, personality, and environmental factors influencing our chances to live and die at every moment. I choose to stack the deck in my favor by living healthy. I enjoy living healthy. Chances are that Ill live longer because of it, but more important to me is quality rather than quantity. Eating lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains and moving my body every day with Yoga and a brisk walk in the fresh air lightens my mood, relieves my stress, decreases the aches and pains in my muscles and joints, and drastically improves my quality of living.

If I develop leukemia tomorrow I wont feel my healthy lifestyle has been a burden or a failure. It might not be a perfect recipe for immortality, but its a good one for a better life and a decreased chance of a premature death. The rest of the chance part requires grace and surrender, the yogic niyama of Isvara Pranidhana.

I think of the serenity prayer asking for peaceful acceptance of the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. We are responsible for ourselves and our paths, but theres some stuff thats simply out of our hands. Within a yogic lifestyle, practicing Isvara Pranidhana means being grateful for what we have been given and surrendering to the higher order of the Universe that bends and twists our fate, sometimes in ways that seem unfair and which we cannot understand.


Chiuve, S. E., Fung, T. T., Rexrode, K. M., Spiegelman, D., Manson, J. E., Stampfer, M. J., Albert, C. M. Adherence to a Low-Risk, Healthy Lifestyle and Risk of Sudden Cardiac Death Among Women. JAMA 2011 Jul 6;306(1):62-9.

Earl S. Ford, Manuela M. Bergmann, Janine Kröger Anja Schienkiewitz, Cornelia Weikert, Heiner Boeing. Healthy Living is the Best Revenge. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(15):1355-1362.


The Temptation of Food

My friend leaned backward in his chair, tapped his belly, and let out a sigh. “I’m as full as a five-day old tick on a dog.”

I’m home in the Midwest, and we love to eat here. Food is abundant, inexpensive, and there’s a wide variety. Golden arches are almost as prevalent as gas stations, and our senses are bombarded with constant marketing messages to eat more now. There’s a new favorite in my family, an all-you-can-eat buffet that just doesn’t stop.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipka advises eating a moderate Yoga diet in several of its verses.

HYP 1:58  A moderate diet means eating satisfying, sweet food for Shiva’s pleasure, while leaving the stomach one-quarter empty.

The Gheranda Samhita gives similar advice.

GS 4:21,22  A measured diet is said to consist of food that is pure, sweet, rich, leaves half the stomach empty, and is eaten with love for the gods. One should fill half the stomach with food, a quarter with water, and leave the fourth quarter for the movement of air.

The Shiva Samhita (3:35-37) proclaims that overeating along with too much chatter, cruelty to animals, and untruthfulness – are things a yogi should definitely give up.

It’s hard to imagine what life was like hundreds of years ago when those words were written, but I don’t think they had McDonalds on every street corner and all-you-can-eat buffets. They couldn’t have had the wide variety of foods available that we have with modern transportation and refrigeration. And still the Yoga gurus felt it was necessary to recommend against overeating.

People love to eat no matter where they are in the world or on a time line. Food is an almost irresistible temptation. It’s instinct to want to eat when it’s available. That’s our basic drive for nourishment.

Our minds, with reason and proper judgment, need to lead. It’s tough not to overeat, especially in our modern culture, but for good health on all levels – mental, physical, and spiritual – we’ve got to stop.

Around the world, we’re all getting fatter. Overeating creates obesity, and that’s killing us slowly through chronic disease.

In the United States, two of every three adults and one of every three children are overweight or obese. The number of U.S. adults that are obese has doubled since 1980 and the number of obese kids has quadrupled since then.

Eating too much is one part of this epidemic. Yeah, it’s more complicated than that. We don’t move as much, we eat way too much refined sugar and hydrogenated and trans fat, we don’t get enough sleep which makes us put on weight, and maybe environmental chemicals are contributing to our tendencies to just keep packing on the pounds.

But we eat too much.

Take the old yogis’ advice. With a Yoga diet, leave at least one-quarter of the stomach empty when you’re refueling.

Be the Witness. Watch yourself and what you choose for your bodily temple and contemplate the why of it.

And surrender. The fifth niyama, isvarapranidhana, asks for surrender to a higher power through the consecration of actions, feelings, and desires. Accept a little in each decision to eat or not to eat.

Neck Pain and Yoga

As I work on the detox book, Im spending hours sitting at a desk in front of a computer. Thats brought back my neck pain – the place I tend to hold tension. Ive got a deeply ingrained bad habit of poking my neck out in front of my body as if my head needs to get closer to the screen than the rest of me. I try to maintain awareness of posture, but I get so absorbed in what Im doing that before I know it Im hurting again.

Thats when I take a five-minute break for Brahmamudra, a set of yogic neck exercises taught to me by a medical doctor at the Kaivalyadhama Yoga hospital in Lonavala, India. Brahma is the Creator personified as a God with four heads. Brahmamudra is a set of exercises involving moving the neck through four different directions.

While I know these exercises work from personal experience, its great that theyve recently been validated in a therapeutic trial published last month in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The study didnt refer to the exercises they employed as Brahmamudra, but theyre similar to the classic technique. The doctors found that simple, natural, home-based therapy with stretching was significantly more effective than medication. It was equally as effective as chiropractic therapy – no need to travel and pay.

The authors recommend six to eight sessions of the exercises daily – thats about once per hour if you spend an eight-hour day at the office. The yogic advice from Kaivalyadhama is to close the eyes while doing them and to focus on the throat region where visuddha lotus manifests. Relax as much as possible throughout the series. For each position, hold for inhale-exhale-relax. This comes out to about three seconds for each. Rotate through the set of exercises at least five times.

The first thing is to learn how to retract the head. Almost all of the exercises involve keeping the chin tucked in. Sit up straight (in your straight-backed chair with both feet firmly planted on the ground or in sukhasana or other cross-legged position on the floor), put your index finger on the point of the chin and push back as far as possible until you feel a stretch in the back of the neck. Thats head retraction. Its the first of eight exercises.

After holding head retraction for inhale-exhale-relax, extend the neck to look up at the ceiling while still retracting the head. Then rotate the head to place the chin over the left shoulder while still retracting the head. Then flex the neck as if to put the chin on the chest while still retracting the head. Rotate the head to place the chin over the right shoulder while still retracting the head. Remember to breathe in and out and then pause during each of these positions.

Now bend the neck as if placing the left ear on the left shoulder while still retracting the head. Then the right ear goes to the right shoulder for a similar inhale-exhale-relax while still retracting the head.

Lastly, reach behind the body and clasp the hands together near the buttocks. Pull the shoulders back and the scapula, or shoulder blades, together and down. If on a chair, it helps to sit on the edge. I like to lean forward after a round of inhale-exhale-relax and repeat a breath with the clasped arms raised up and over my head.

Sometimes it feels great to simply sit and hold each position for two or three minutes. That takes more time – fifteen minutes or so – but when I have an accompanying headache from poor posture and muscle tension, it does the trick.

Another thing Ive found helpful is to spend a second round of breath in the left and right rotations with an alteration of tilting the head down to look at the armpit. When doing this correctly, youll feel the tug of an additional stretch.

Please note that these exercises are for tension and strain, not for cervical vertebrae or intervertebral disk pathology. If you have a serious neck problem, see a doctor and/or physical therapist.

Summary of Yoga for Neck Pain:

Seated position with a straight back, eyes closed.

Hold each position at least two or three seconds with inhale-exhale-relax.

Focus on the throat at the location of visuddha lotus.

Rotate through 8 exercises at least 5 times each session, 6 – 8 times each day.

  1. Head retraction
  2. Head retraction with extension
  3. Head retraction with left rotation
  4. Head retraction with flexion
  5. Head retraction with right rotation
  6. Head retraction with left side bending
  7. Head retraction with right side bending
  8. Scapular retraction


  1. Gharote, ML.  Brahmamudra.  Yoga Mimamsa. Vol XXXX No 3&4:170-171. Oct 2008/Jan 2009.
  2. Bronfort G et al. Spinal Manipulation, Medication, or Home Exercises With Advice for Acute and Subacute Neck Pain: A Randomized Trial. Annals of Internal Medicine 2012, 156(1):1-10.

The Power of Yoga to Change a Life (part 3)

I personally got the added bonus of also saying goodbye to that other incapacitating substance, alcohol. I feel certain if I hadn’t stopped drinking, I would have fallen back to the smoking on the first inebriated chance. Even something as seemingly inoffensive as a cup of coffee, screamed in my head cigarette, so this also had to go, on reflection I don’t miss any of it.

It’s been four years now and I am well out of the woods. I do feel for smokers though, I know it carries with it a form of self loathing and is certainly the strongest addiction I encountered. We have to take care though that we do not replace one addiction with another and while we are patting ourselves on the back in congratulatations over the defeat of this or that substance, another one is sneaking in the back door in disguise. In my case I developed a raging sweet tooth, candy bars and biscuits by the packet,which I have only recently address and controlled .

We excuse ourselves as we always do with habits, with words like, well I deserve it I don’t drink , smoke etc anymore, so I deserve some of the “good” things of life, not realising that we are slowly drawn back into some of the symptoms from the previous discarded addictions, mood swings, fatigue to name but two.

Moderation in all things might be the word but abstinence in something’s would definitely apply.

I would say looking back to those smoking days, and particularly when the smoking became intense and assumed the role of a psychological crutch, that no amount of horror stories about its bad effect, or photographs on packets of cancerous tumours and the like, would have mattered in the slightest to me.

I feel in fact the reverse is true and they could have something of an perverse encouraging affect to the smoker, he is after all the “outside” ,”the outlaw’ or has been increasingly cast in this role, and so probably immune to this form of fear tactic.

Smoking is also another form of suicide, be that a slow one, so theres also a sort of bravado, ”Hey bring it on”, feel about it all, and “who‘re you trying to scare with this shit, you wanna hear some really scary stories, let me tell you about my life, etc, etc.”

So there are many conflicting factors for sure but it does boiled down to an almighty strong addiction and this there is no denying.

I doubt if you would ever find someone who has stopped, that does not bless the day they finally said goodbye to cigarettes. The time has to be right for the person to stop and the support has to be there and also lifestyle changes will have to be considered. It is not easy to stop, it is though brilliant and perfect to be free, and that’s exactly what it is, freedom.

I could go on and on, as could one who has discovered a new life, a life free of illness, and incapacity, and this is no exaggeration, I have had nothing more than the odd slight cold these last few years since stopping smoking, and where as a cold would have lingered weeks in my smoking days, and I would have had to carry on smoking through the sore throat and tortured lungs and chocking cough, now that rare cold, is if anything, little more than a 24/48 hour wonder.

That’s my Story Kathleen, far from unique I am sure. Oh I also might add, when I left the UK those years ago before India I was on the strongest prescription for a very high blood pressure rate, when I asked how long I would need to take these pills for I was informed, for life. I asked how I might break free of this need, I was told you would have to quit, smoking, drinking and meat eating, I remember at the time responding with words of the, And pigs might fly variety, well pigs it turned out did fly, so I discarded those pills along with the packs of tobacco I had in far way India those years back.

The Power of Yoga to Change a Life (part 2)

I had a slight help, my previous smoking comrade who had quit the days before me had some nicotine gum with him. This gave me something of an aid in my quitting, even if on the level of a placebo. I realized quickly, all the things that I had previously associated with cigarettes had to also go. So that was goodbye coffee, goodbye booze and goodness knows what else. I quit so many things in those early days I will never really know stopping taking which one made me begin to feel good. Maybe it was all of them, because I had gone a few days, or maybe a couple of weeks without a drink before stopped smoking, I had already begun to feel more alive without the drink.

I had also stopped eating meat. Again this was something to do with the location, Rishikesh being a Holy Hindu town, so it was not easy to get hold of, but after a few days of not having meat, and heaven forbid, looking back to my previous life, that heart attack on a plate, The Full English Breakfast, I began to feel more alive, less lethargic and more active in general.

So it was difficult for me to pin point the precise thing that made me feel this way, this healthier, more alive me. Would I have still felt this way if I had carried on eating meat, or taking the booze or not started the yoga, maybe quitting one but not the other, I don’t know but what was for sure was my body was now getting all its Christmases at once and had never felt better. I had drank and smoked and eaten meat since early teen years, so I had to conclude, I had never known another way and had therefore perhaps never known what it was like to be truly alive.

I very quickly noticed a beautiful benefit of not smoking. As my lungs shook off the years of abuse they had been subjected to, I began noticing and feeling air in parts of my chest area I had never felt before. I should explain, my lung capacity had obviously been reduced over the years and little by little I had begun to survive on shallow breathing, that’s not filling the lungs.

Within days of stopping smoking and certainly within weeks, I began to feel the air reaching right down to the bottom of my lungs and in particular at the lower sides of my back, it was like, “Hello it’s been a long time since we saw you down here fresh air, but welcome home.

I still marvel at this feeling of air actually filling the lungs, we get so used to things and accept them as the norm, perhaps compensating in other ways, but this feeling of an easy, natural inhalation feels about as sweet as it gets. I wonder as I write, has there been any research into the obvious consequence of a nation of smokers and the affect this shallow breathing might be having on them as regard, Shallow breathing would be associated also with the fight or flight response, i.e. Fear, so are smokers in a state of constant fear be this not on a conscious level, and the damage on top of the smoking damage this level of toxic release from fear would be having to the person would be considerable .

The Power of Yoga to Change a Life (part 1)

Id like to share with you a personal triumph story that came to me this week. Its about the power of Yoga to change your life. After the latest news report on the dangers of secondhand smoke, I had asked for any tips ex-smokers might be able to share in order to help others ditch the habit. This gentleman was kind enough to send me his story (along with permission to post it), and Im so glad he did. It brought tears to my eyes. Enjoy the inspiration

I had been smoking since around 14 years old. We got suckered in back then, as kids do I suppose. I had tried the regular cigs and could not for the life of me see what the attraction was, they tasted horrible. One day a friend passed me a pack that he assured me tasted like chewing gum, these were menthol cigarettes. He was right, it reminded me of mint or mint flavored gum, what harm could a pack or two or ten of these do me.

This was the beginning of a three decade’s plus long addiction, and to paraphrase Oscar Wilde; Such an unsatisfying addiction, there never was.

I was fifty years old when I finally quit. I was lucky, the time and place was right and this is the most important thing I feel. A few factors and circumstances came together to bring this about, without these it would not have happened.

It was late 2008. I was in India, something of a lost soul after a very bad divorce that had turned a drink habit into a drinking problem. After around two months in that country I had massive a spiritual awakening, a real cliché I know, but that’s why they are clichés after all. I guess you know the one guy thinks he has it all, family, career, the house, the car, the whole thing is that all there is, loses it all in the blink of a tear filled eye, drifts around lost for a few years and turns increasingly to that great pain killer booze and seeing as this is essential a story about nicotine, also leans increasingly heavily on cigarettes, lot of them, like a couple before he gets out of bed in the morning and then throughout the day, including in bed in the night time, falling asleep boozed up, cigarette in hand. Slow suicide.

So there I am in India minding my own business and someone offers me a blessing one day and would you believe it, it turns out it’s my time for this and I promptly leave my body, yes I do and return instantly to Source become all things. I find out it was all an illusion after all, Maya, and before you can say Jesus Christ Superstar, I’ve merged with the universe, in fact I discover, I am the universe and guess what, it’s all Love and its infinite and eternal and seeing as there is no time or space, because it turns out this is also an illusion, eternities not so bad after all and its about as blissful and good as you might imagine, actually its far more than you might imagine , the mind being fairly limited when it comes to these things Well that’s what happened and that’s the truth, now back to the cigarettes.

Not long after this somewhat life changing experience, I headed to the north of the country on the advice of a friend to take a yoga course; you and I know this as Trika yoga or Agama. I signed for the first level, one month intensive yoga. I was still smoking at this point because even finding out you are the universe isn’t enough to break that addiction.

So here’s the factors which came together to separate me from the old tyrant cigarettes. There was only one other smoker on that first level class , so naturally we formed a band of brothers, us against them . You notice how addicts of whatever persuasion stick together but this was short lived ,as after a few days he quit smoking, obviously not a serious smoker thought I. So I was on my own.

Not only was I now on my own, which is a great help not being in a peer group of smokers but I was in a country that was down on smokers in general. In many public areas smoking was not allowed and drew the attention of the police, the criminal cigarette smoker, what a concept.

So already the chips are being stacked against smoking but had not yet reached a critical mass. Now I was doing the yoga and lighting up as soon as I left the hall at the end of the session and having a last puff before the session began in the mornings.

Then one day a technique was introduced, you will know it, Udyhana Banda, basically expelling all the air from the long suffering lungs and holding a void retention, or holding as long as you can with no air, as opposed to holding the breath, this was holding no breath. I managed to maintain this unenviable position for around 2 seconds, before collapsing into hacking, choking, coughing fits, and this really began to tell me something, and on top of this coughing a foul taste was brought up into the mouth akin to licking a used ashtray, Yuk!

So this was a defining moment I feel looking back. This moment had been reached before numerous times throughout my life but had only lasted days before falling back into the trap, usually after taking one drink too many and seeing the will fold and collapse under the cosh of the stupefying drink.

So here was another supporting factor about where I was. I was in a dry town, Rishkesh, North India. I had already gone many days without a drop of booze and I could not remember when the last time in my life this had happened. So one day I decided to cold turkey.



The Back Pain Prophecy

Almost everyone of us has faced back pain, and we know how bad can it be for our well-being. What part does the mind play in back pain?  If it’s a very big part, then Yoga can help back pain sufferers beyond increasing flexibility and muscle strength.  Yoga helps practitioners to tame the mind, to control it rather than letting it control them.

It turns out that anticipating back pain is a big elicitor of the actual pain.  Thinking we’re going to hurt actually makes us hurt.

In recent experiments, researchers looked at how any movement of the arms or legs affects the back.  When walking, before we swing a leg forward, the brain thinks ahead and sends an unconscious signal to our trunk to command stability by tightening abdominal and back muscles so that the force of the leg swing doesn’t knock us over.

When people are experiencing back pain after an injury, those early brain signals get distorted.  The normal response to arm or leg movement is changed, and the spine stiffens with a recruitment of more superficial muscles.  In some people this continues to happen, even after the initial injury has healed and they are pain free.  They worry, sometimes subconsciously, that they might have pain again anytime they move.  That anticipation of pain induces a change in their protective postural adjustment strategy.

It’s important because the change in posture puts the back under excessive load.  While general spinal splinting may be beneficial in the short term to protect against re-injury, in the long term it reduces spinal flexibility which is important for normal function and the dampening of reactive forces.  Biomechanically, it imparts an increased compressive load on spinal structures that accelerates degeneration of tissue and stimulates pain receptors.  In the long run, splinting actually predisposes to more injury rather than protecting against it.

In other words, the mind’s altered response to arm or leg movement when anticipating pain may not be a problem initially.  It may even help to protect an acutely injured back.  But if it becomes a long term habit, which it does in many people, it causes chronic back pain. Thinking that you are going to have back pain actually causes it.  It turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy of the mind.

In Yoga, we learn to tame the mind.  It’s been validated by science that with mind control we can alter our blood pressure, heart rate and muscle contractions.  If you want a holistic and effective way to heal, try Yoga for back pain.

Most cases of sudden acute back pain will resolve on their own in six to eight weeks no matter what intervention is chosen – even if you simply do nothing except go about daily activities as much as possible. Most ‘slipped’ discs also self heal on their own through the power of nature without any surgery. Help the body to heal through Yoga rather than fight it with fear, anxiety and increased muscle tension.