This Too Shall Pass

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I am lucky enough to a spiritual teacher who listens to my craziness and provides me with guidance.

She is quiet as I ramble, “I-have-so-much-on-my-plate-and-I’m-overwhelmed-and-I-wish-I-had-more-money-and-why-is-it-taking-so-long-to-get-pregnant-and-my-dog-shit-on-the-floor-and-I-have-nothing-to-wear-and-everything-sucks.”

Then, she pauses a moment to make sure that I am finished, and says, This too shall pass.

When I am having a great day, I tell her about that too. “I-woke-up-with-such-a-great-feeling-and-my-marriage-is-so-harmonious-right-now-and-I’m-feeling-so-healthy-and-I’m-teaching-a-new-class-and-the-sun-is-out-and-everything-is-great!”

Again, she pauses to make sure I’m done, and says, This too shall pass.

“This too shall pass” could be interpreted as depressingly nihilistic: no matter whether we feel good or bad, it doesn’t matter because life is fleeting and without meaning. If everything is passing and impermanent, then why bother getting out of bed?

I don’t see it that way. “This too shall pass” is a call to action.

When life is crappy, this too shall pass, so hang on tight. When life is good, this too shall pass, so savor it.

We are trapped in time and the fleeting nature of everything. Life most often happens completely on life’s terms, and it is my perception of my life that determines how peaceful and centered I feel, no matter what the current circumstances.

When I am agitated, it does not mean I have entered into a bottomless pit of bad luck. I have to continue walking my path and trust that I am passing through the unpleasantness. When I am joyful and everything seems great, I must use my knowledge of its impermanence to treasure and appreciate it while it lasts.

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H.A.L.T. : Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired

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I was first introduced to H.A.L.T. in a therapeutic setting where I was seeking help, and the acronym was shorthand for a list of conditions that made an individual more prone to relapse of self-destructive behavior patterns. H.A.L.T. is also a useful tool to anyone seeking to improve their self-care and address their states in a mindful way.

Often when we are agitated, we do not pause to wonder why. We feel vaguely uncomfortable and reach blindly for something to change the way we feel. But if we can stop and mindfully identify exactly what is going on with us, we are more likely to soothe ourselves in appropriate, healthy, and self-loving ways.

When I don’t feel well, I ask myself: Am I hungry, angry, lonely, or tired?

HUNGRY: I love the Snicker’s Bar campaign with the tagline, “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” We have all been to that grumpy place where we have neglected to eat and therefore do not even feel like ourselves. When I am hungry, I get headachey and short-tempered. Without mindfulness of my hunger, I often blame the nearest person for my unpleasant feeling. If I am on a road trip, I may interpret hunger as irritation with my driving companion, when what is really going on is that we haven’t stopped for lunch. It is often a relief when I discover that I am hungry: Oh, you’re not an incompetent asshole? I just need a sandwich? Great. 

ANGRY: Despite the fact that I am a yoga teacher and “supposed to be” super zen, anger is a dear friend to me, and it has always been my go-to emotion for when things don’t go well in my life. In fact, most of my negative feelings quickly transform into anger because at least anger makes me feel powerful and gives me the illusion of self-righteousness and personal agency. Typically, anger is a reaction to an unmet expectation of mine, a childlike railing against something outside of my control. I used to express my anger in self-destructive ways: viciously attacking others, seeking solace in mind-altering chemicals (AKA viciously attacking myself). Today, I am able to identify anger and express it in healthier ways: a brisk walk outside, a productive conversation, a rigorous yoga session, etc. It has also been helpful for me to give myself permission to identify and embrace the emotion behind the anger. It is okay to unmask the rage and reveal whatever softer, more vulnerable feeling is behind it: disappointment, grief, whatever it is.

LONELY: As a loner by nature, it is hard for me to know when I’m lonely. An undercover introvert, I am happiest by myself with a book or a movie. What is the difference between being alone and being lonely? For me, the two are differentiated by a vague longing. I know I am lonely when I feel yearning to be understood or seen, and when I am lonely, I do not have to seek a speedy and self-destructive escape from the feeling. I can talk to my husband or family member or call a friend. Sometimes, I simply make plans with a friend for later, which, even though it is not immediate companionship, does immediately lessen the lonely feeling. Journaling and blogging also help me with my loneliness, blogging because I am communicating with the world, and journaling because I am essentially being my own friend.

TIRED: Sleep is life- sleep is everything! It takes a measure of discipline to begin a pattern of going to bed early, but enforcing my own bedtime has been the best self-parenting move of my adult life. Like an obnoxious toddler that gets whiny around naptime, I do not always immediately know I am tired because the feeling can masquerade as righteous indignation, apathetic lethargy, or even hunger, and I have to consciously ask myself whether I am behind on my precious sleep. In sleep, the body and mind get the rest they so badly need, and I must remember that it is essential to my being a fully functional and reasonably happy person. If, for some reason, I am unable to get enough sleep at night, it is okay to take a nap when agitated or overwhelmed.

Next time you are not feeling great, I encourage you to H.A.L.T. before you do something you don’t want to do. Mindfulness of the true nature of our states is the first step in managing them in a healthy way.

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White Bean and Kale Soup

white bean kale soup

Just because something takes a long time to cook doesn’t mean it’s difficult– this soup takes all day to make, but for the vast majority of its life on the stove, you can be wandering around doing other things.

The base, an intensely flavorful bone broth, is rich with minerals and full of nutritious gelatin and protein. I have developed a taste for great stocks, so I keep all my bones instead of tossing them, and I like to make soup once a week with what I have in the fridge. Hope you enjoy it!

Ingredients:

chicken carcass and as many leftover chicken bones as you have

1 or 2 bay leaves

tablespoon salt

1 pound dried Great Northern beans

1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 pound carrots, diced

about 3 celery stalks, diced

1 onion, diced

1/2 pound kale, chopped

3-5 peeled cloves of garlic

drizzle of lemon juice

Directions:

Snap chicken bones in half and tear up the carcass as much as you can. Use a meat tenderizing mallet if you have trouble breaking up the bones. Place bones, bay leaves, and salt in a large stock pot and then fill with water. Allow to simmer on medium heat for at least 6 hours. Occasionally check on the pot, and when the water gets low, add more. At the end of your stock-making, eyeball the level of liquid in your pot to try to have twice as much stock as you do beans.

Strain the bone broth with a fine wire mesh and return to stock pot. Rinse beans and add to broth. Add rosemary and thyme. Allow to cook until beans are tender (an hour or so).

Add carrots, celery, onion, kale, and garlic. I kept the garlic cloves whole because I really love the moment when I find a whole stinky chunk of garlic in a nice soup.

Serve with a drizzle of lemon juice. This would also be good with a bit of high-quality parmesan cheese, but I didn’t have any on hand today, and it was good as is. Also, so clean and healthy that I felt just fine about having ice cream for dessert!

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Yoga Fusion Playlist

yoga fusion playlist

Not everyone digs sitars and sanskrit and New Age grooviness, so it’s helpful for me as a teacher to have music options other than what is traditionally played in a studio. This is especially true when I teach fusion classes that incorporate elements of pilates or other forms of exercise, invariably attracting at least a few “non-yoga people.” This playlist has nary a yoga song on it save the final tune intended to be played over savasana. Hope you enjoy it!

For more awesome OKnamaste playlists click here.

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The Best Use of Imagination

creativity mandy learo

“The best use of imagination is creativity.

The worst use of imagination is anxiety.”

-Deepak Chopra

In the present moment, I am usually safe. I am reasonably happy, and things in my life are altogether okay.

It is when I muse about the future that I begin to feel my serenity slip, and I can get lost in stress and anticipation that makes my shoulders lock up and my mood sour. The gift of my imagination is a curse when I wield it this way: dreaming up scenarios to come and scheming over how to achieve the outcomes I prefer.

Whether or not we consider ourselves artistic, we are creative beings with a need to flex our imaginative muscles. Those of us who fail to expend creative energy in positive outlets are doomed to watch our creativity spin out of control, resulting in anxiety.

For myself, I find that having positive places to put my creative energy helps me to manage my natural anxiety about the future. I like to dream up unique yoga sequences, design interesting playlists, write blog posts, and journal. When I don’t make the time for these things, my anxiety gets worse. It is almost as though I have an inner reserve of imagination, and it requires expression. If I give my imagination a productive channel, it will abide, but if I let imagination rattle around without direction, it transforms into negative fortune-telling.

I have to be aware of this, to consciously channel my imagination so that it works for me, not against me.

Thought for the day: Am I using my imagination to plot out a vision of the future that causes me stress? Do I have a positive place to use my imagination? How can I find more opportunities to exercise my creativity?

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Compliments are Great… When We Truly Mean Them

thumbs up mandy learo

In my early twenties, whenever I noticed a change in someone (a haircut, new purse, new lipstick, etc.) I complimented it. Whether or not I genuinely liked the change, I automatically turned my observation into a compliment.

Looking back, I think I did this because of my awkwardness and desire to have something (nice) to say. I’m pretty good at the hi-how-are-you part of social interaction, but beyond that, I am not always a smooth operator. This is especially true with acquaintances, that second ring of social closeness.

My compliments were a compulsion back then, a symptom of my need for connection, to make the person feel good, to have something to say… whatever it was. Even after I realized that my compliments were often hollow and untrue, I kept doing it, and it took me awhile to stop.

Just because someone went to the salon doesn’t mean I have to praise their new style. Especially if I don’t genuinely “LOOOOVE your hair!”

Here’s the karmic backlash of my years doling out fake adulation: I have given so many compliments that were actually dispassionate observations that I now often believe compliments from others are the same thing. I now think everyone who says something nice about my appearance is just trying to endear themselves to me or break through the awkwardness of being someone’s acquaintance or make me feel good… whatever it is.

I am grateful that I no longer feel the need to praise every little physical change I observe in others, but now I need to work on my suspicion that compliments directed toward me are fake. I suspect that the longer I continue to be genuine in my own compliment-distribution, the more I will be able to trust that others are being genuine as well.

It is good to be generous with compliments when they are sincere and deeply felt, but surely we can find ways to interact without blandly praising one another. Let’s save our compliments for when we truly mean them!

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Italian Easter Pie

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You can keep your Cadbury eggs and jellybeans– for me, the food that signals spring is Easter Pie, a savory Italian meat and cheese dish that my father’s family has been making for generations. When I bite into this pie, I am a child again on Good Friday, rolling dough with my dad, smelling the grease on my fingers but unable to lick them because meat was not allowed on Fridays during Lent. We had to savor the wonderful smells of it baking and then wait excitedly till morning to devour thin slices of it at breakfast and then more, snacking through the weekend and into Sunday. I remember leaning way forward in my childhood kitchen while I nibbled, trying not to get grease on my pastel church dress.

Each year, my dad declares the final product is the best pie he has ever made, and each year it feels truer.

easter pie slice mandy learo

Ingredients:

CRUST

2 1/4 ounce packages yeast

2 1/2 pounds flour

2 cups hot water

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon sugar

3 large eggs

FILLING

1 1/2 pounds hot Italian sausage

1 1/2 pounds mild Italian sausage

10 slices deli ham

10 slices Genoa salami

10 slices hard salami

10 slices hot soppresatta

10 slices hot cappicola

8 slices prosciutto

2 pounds Basket Cheese

1 pound provolone (the stinkiest you can find!)

Let’s take a moment to talk about ingredient selection so I can mention the importance of buying the highest quality deli meat one can afford. A cheaper cut of cured meat with be fattier and contain more water, which causes wetness in the pie and can impede achievement of a dry bottom crust. The meat quantities listed above are not really an exact science because they will come in different shapes and varying diameters, but one can try to visualize each meat being a single layer in the pies and purchase as many slices as needed to create that layer.

Making an Easter Pie is a great excuse to acquaint oneself with a local Italian deli. Yesterday morning, my dad and I went to Indelicato’s Market in Auburn, NY. It is a tiny shop that smelled so strongly of provolone that I had to step outside for a moment of fresh air while the butcher was slicing up our order. This is, believe it or not, a selling point for me. Stinky provolone fills me with Easter joy, and I encourage potential Easter Pie chefs to purchase the FUNKIEST provolone they can find.

indelicatos auburn ny mandy learo

The other cheese needed for Easter Pie is basket cheese, which is a soft, bland cow’s milk cheese formed in a basket and usually only available at this time of year. We were sad to learn that Indelicato’s had sold out, but we were not surprised due to the high Italian population in Auburn and how deeply we dagos dig Easter Pie. If basket cheese is absolutely not an option, one can use mozzarella. We got lucky and discovered that Wegman’s still had some left.

basket cheese

Directions:

Start with the crust. Preheat the oven to 100 degrees F. In a stand mixer’s bowl, whisk yeast, sugar, and a quarter cup of water together, then let it sit for ten minutes. Add flour, then salt. Using a dough hook attachment, put the mixer on your slowest setting and allow it to knead as you crack in 3 eggs. Pour in the rest of the water slowly. Let the machine knead the dough until it is relatively smooth and consistent, then knead it by hand until it absolutely smooth and consistent.

kneading the dough mandy learo

Place the dough in a greased glass bowl and cover with wrap or foil. Then, put it in the oven for one hour.

dough resting mandy learo

While the dough is rising in the oven, it’s time to prep the sausage. Squeeze the meat from its casing into bite-size bits and saute on the stovetop until crispy on the outside and cooked throughout. Then, pour into a bowl and set aside. If you haven’t already hard-boiled your eggs, now is a good time.

italian sausage mandy learo

After the dough has rested for an hour, remove it from the oven and cut into quarters. Time to knead the living ess-aych-eye-tee out of it. Flour your surface and use a rolling to flatten it out and guide into a circular shape. This will require some muscle and patience.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

My dad and I used slotted pizza pans to hold the pie, but regular pizza pans or a cookie sheet works just as well. If your surface is nonstick, the dough can go directly on the pan, but if not, it may be wise to use parchment paper.

dough rolled out mandy learo

Time to start layering! Use ham as your bottom layer- the density of it will help contain moisture and protect your bottom crust. The rest of the deli meats can be stacked in whatever order feels right to you. Once the deli meats are arranged, top with Italian sausage bits and cut-up hard-boiled eggs. My dad likes to omit the yolks, so we did one with and one without.

easter pie before cheese

Next, cube the basket cheese and grate your stinky provolone, then sprinkle on top.

easter pie with cheese

Now, create your top crusts using the same rolling technique as the bottom. Lay your crusts atop the pies and seal at the edges but rolling in toward the center of the pie. Use a skewer to poke 10 or so tiny holes in the top crust.

Back for 45 minutes to an hour, until golden.

easter pie two mandy learoEnjoy in moderation, and share it with your family. Happy Easter!!

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Getting to Handstand

Handstand mandy learo

I have fallen in love with the idea of standing on my hands. My beloved occupies my thoughts, whether I am on my mat or off. While my morning coffee brews, I spread my fingers on the concrete floor of my kitchen and walk up the wall, leaving dusty toe prints. As the room fills with the peppery, sweet smell of coffee, I draw one foot off the wall, and then the other. I am there, on my hands, weight dancing on the back of my knuckles. I may take a breath there, or two.

But I cannot take three breaths. To me, this means that I cannot do handstand. Yet.

I did not come to yoga from a background in gymnastics or have any experience with stretch and tumbling. In high school, I played soccer and ran track until those things got in the way of my partying, then I quit both. For a long time, I struggled with addiction, and as a consequence of this background, I came to yoga in terrible physical shape, with very limited strength and flexibility, and thinking of my body as an obstacle to pleasure, not the source of it. I was not a former dancer or cheerleader happily bounding to the mat with a set of skills to draw upon. I was a pretty sick person, further sickened by the knowledge that I had done the damage myself. As a beginner, I felt drawn to the movements of flowing asana, but the poses in no way “came naturally” to me. I didn’t know what I was doing. But slowly, and with practice, I learned.

Whenever I say I’m going to “do yoga,” I have to correct myself. I’m going to “practice yoga.” It may sound pretentious, but choosing the right word helps me maintain the right attitude. When I have my eye on a particularly challenging pose, the word “practice” becomes especially important.

Years ago, I could not do headstand, and I lusted after it in much the same way I now long to handstand. Headstand is an balance inversion which uses the top of the head and triangulated forearms to flip the body upside-down. I remember aligning my hands and arms where they belonged, and endlessly drawing my knees to my chest, trying to kick up, braced for flight, over and over, and falling, and realigning, and being sort of miserable, and repeating, and doing it until my shoulders ached, and then doing it again. Then, one day, the pose happened for me. There was a moment of disbelief as I looked out at the inverted room and felt the balls of my feet extending skyward. An ecstatic sweat sprung to my skin- I had done it.

In retrospect, it is clear to me that the practice– the trying and failing– of headstand was not only as important as achieving it but was likely even more important. In the time I spent getting to the pose, I was developing the specific muscular strength required, the muscle memory of which body parts to engage, and the balance I needed. I was also teaching myself discipline at that time, the ability to persist in something that was not instantly gratifying, the dedication required to get somewhere that was further than arm’s length away.

I am trying to keep these things in mind as I work toward standing on my hands. It could take me six months to be comfortable in handstand; it could take a year or more. I have to remind myself that the best and most worthwhile part of my practice is not the moment of excitement upon achieving a pose but the quiet moments spent moving toward it, when I am alone with the sound of my breath and the repetitive striving to inhabit a shape, trying, failing, brushing up against it and then feeling it disintegrate. The practice is the yoga.

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