Saturday, April 30, 2011

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait


Hear that? A sound like paintbrushes being tossed all together into a bag...it is the sound of victory! Of sticking it to the man!

But unless you A.) Read my blog faithfully and B.) are pretty hyper-perceptive, I'm getting ahead of myself.

IT'S SPRING!!!!!

I've said it before: the first sign was the sex (tree sex in the form of pollen among other forms...) in the air,

the second sign was the abundance of bare legs seeking the sun after solitary confinement,

but the Third, the Ultimate Sign of Spring, has finally arrived! (Say it with me Farmer's Market Aficionados...)

ASPARAGUS!!!!!!!

Yes, I am that excited about asparagus. And you would be too if you were a dedicated locavore just coming off of three (or four or five...) months of winter squash, potatoes, and occasional kale. Sure the salad greens have been popping up via green houses for a month or more already, but my winterized system is only ready to go raw on the warmest of days just yet. It wasn't until those beautiful, bountiful, dare I say, sexy(!) spears phallically rose out of pans of water before my weary eyes that the whispers of my second chakra could be heeded by my fourth, and joyfully sung out by my fifth! (That's sacral, heart, and throat respectively.) Yes, it is Spring, and after ample warm-up with winter citrus, and storage apples...

The Preserving Season has Begun!

If you're the kind to buy asparagus suffering from jetlag and great confusion on a whim (haling from Peru most likely, but by March perhaps Mexico)this may be an interesting tidbit for you: Asparagus has the shortest season, at least in our growing zone, of any veggie, and more interestingly, it has the shortest growing season out of mercy to the plant. Asparagus, you see, is the first tender shoot to raise its eyes to the sun in the Spring. If left to its own devices it'll grow into a lovely little Christmas-tree-looking thing, believe it or not. We hungry folk are more of a mind to chop off those first eight inches or so and simmer, steam, or saute with glee. Asparagus is a hearty perennial, but like any of us, eventually it's going to get discouraged if its every effort gets hacked down. So, after a matter of weeks, maybe four, maybe six, maybe three, if the plant is young, a cease-fire is declared. Each asparagus shoot is allowed to unroll branches from those scales about the head (incidentally, if those scales seem loose or falling open, instead of hugging tightly to the stalk, it's a sign the farmer left it in the field a bit too long hoping for larger spears, and the specimen will likely be on the woody and not-so-sweet side...bitter with disappointment perhaps?)


In an effort to atone for all the needless poetry in this post, allow me to offer more asparagus tips (no pun intended, I swear!)

You may have heard that the more slender the spear the better. Simply not true. Big plants produce thick stalks, small plants produce narrow ones.

As previously noted, choose stalks with tight heads (can't resist urge to point out how dirty this all sounds...)

Ideally, asparagus should be standing in trays of clean water. If it's not, check the cut end of the stalk, and try to find specimens that aren't totally dried out.

Regardless of how it was kept before, when you get it home, do stand it up in an inch or so of water in the fridge, and if the bottoms are on the dry side, give it a little trim as you would cut flowers.

To separate tough and woody from tender and wonderful, take the stalks at both ends, and bend until it snaps.

Don't panic if it snaps far closer to the head than you would have hoped! Take all those ends, simmer them in enough water to cover till tender, puree, force through a sieve, add garlic, onions, herbs (dill is lovely), and cream or butter for a fabulous soup! Composte what's left in your sieve, but not till you've wrung out as much of that lovely asparagus broth as you can!

With such a short season, it makes sense to put this stuff up for later use, and yes, I am at last getting around to that crazy paintbrush reference! Bring a big pot of water to a boil, prepare an ice bath in a big bowl, snap your asparagus, blanch the spears in the rapidly boiling water for one minute. Fish out and plunge into the ice bath. Transfer to towel-lined trays and blot dry. Lay out with a little space in between each spear on trays, and transfer to your freezer for a few hours. When frozen solid, transfer to a freezer container (listen for that paintbrush, Victory of the Seasons, stick it to the Peruvian asparagus man sound!) And feel really really good.

Best of luck Spring lovers.

Ready? Set?? GO!!!

Live Omily, love this crazy wonderful world and its bounty!
~em

Friday, April 22, 2011

Spring Cleaning My Closet

I've been happening onto more blogposts about yoga and body image lately. These are old blogposts; as far as I know I'm not riding the coattails of a trend. Ah, body image: that old bugaboo. Maybe he's the monster in our closet we tried to tell our parents about. We knew he was there; we knew his potential for destruction. If only our parents had turned on the light and exposed him for what he was: just as likely to be Cookie Monster or Elmo as he was to be Jaws or Predator.

Sorry for the House-style metaphor: What I'm saying is, there's no avoiding having thoughts and feelings about your body, and if you're human, there's no avoiding ever having negative thoughts and feelings about your body, either. The way to keep those occasional moments of frustration with how your body fits into the latest trend in jean cuts from blossoming into a deadly flower of self-loathing, punishment, and potential mental illness is to focus on cultivating a healthy perspective on the issue, and to fight for all your worth to keep your opinion of your body from being based solely, or even significantly, on how it looks. This is infinitely more manageable a task if your parents laid the groundwork for it in your very early years, and yes, too, I'm simplifying a very complex issue, but this is valid:

If you value your body based on what it can do, you will always have a sense of appreciation and fondness for it. If you value your body based on how it looks, or worse, how it looks in comparison to the unrealistic idealistic-to-this-time-place-and-culture figures that are so readily available to us, you're setting yourself up for some serious unpleasantness.

In the name of total disclosure, I'm 5'1'', roughly 100 lbs, pear-shaped, and due to a fondness for using my body, and for feeding it things that are good for it and the planet, I'm in great shape: slender, fit, and toned.

Soooooooo, yes, all that love your body BS is easy for me to say.

Yes. It's really easy for me to say. I struggle constantly with living it. Not because I'm a perfectionist, or because I'm struggling with/recovering from an eating disorder. I'm not. I know I have an unusually attractive according-to-the-standards-of-the-time-place-culture-I-was-born-into-through-no-effort-of-my-own body. It's really easy to give myself the once-over in the mirror, and go to bed happy. Why work toward valuing myself based on capabilities, let alone character, actions, etc? What fun would that be? This so easy! I look good in a bikini, therefore I'm a great person who's achieved inner peace. Done! I'm the freakin' Buddha!

Surely the does-not-compute alarm is going off by now. Aside from the fact that valuing yourself based on your appearance is shallow, and does not lend itself to self-fulfillment, and there will always be someone out there who can send you into a tailspin by looking better than you do, it gets worse.

If I take the easy way out and judge myself, satisfactorily, based on how I look, that's how I'm going to judge other people. This isn't a theory: I did this for years without realizing it. Oh sure, when circumstances forced me to get to know someone and they were a great person I stopped noticing how they looked, but that didn't stop me from assuming there was something bad about them. My view was so skewed, I earnestly believed that the universe would reward me at every turn for how pretty I looked, and punish the less fortunate. I looked for this pattern to play out, and when I didn't see it, I suffered anxiety, and low self-esteem. If I'm not being rewarded, I must not look good enough! I must have gained weight!

It wasn't until I decided to spend Lent of 2009 exploring how I viewed myself and other people, and our bodies, that I realized the extent of my unhealthy and dangerous attitudes. It was a pretty severe wake-up call. I'm glad I kept a written record of those 40-odd days.

So, no, I don't know what its like to be overweight. I don't know what it's like to have an eating disorder. I don't know what its like to hear voices in your head constantly tell you you aren't worth a damn because you don't look a certain way. I do know what it's like to be one of those voices in other peoples' heads.

I am so sorry.

It seemed worthwhile to add my version of the body image story: the rarely told one. I've already poured the oil from my alabaster pitcher. I've cried enough tears to wash road-dusty feet, and my hair is long enough to dry them off afterward.

Condemn if you choose, but as someone very wise once said, "Let he or she among us who is without sin cast the first stone." Ahimse means to do no harm. Harming our own bodies with negative actions or thoughts is no less destructive to us all than harming others with negative actions or thoughts. Truth be told, if we're doing one because of body image issues, odds are good we're doing the other as well.

We all, absolutely every one of us in this country, could use a big dose of self-love (and no, I'm not returning to the sex topic just yet, haha).

You are amazing: the temple of a divine spark. Your body enables you to do incredible and beautiful things, even if you're Stephen Hawking. Take a moment, before you do anything else, and just thank yourself. Thank all of us. Love all of our different, beautiful, big, small, curvy, flat, squishy, firm, funny, weird, unusual, altered, differently-abled bodies.

Please, love your own. Send beautiful, loving thoughts and energy to yourself. If we're all connected, you'll be serving us all.

Live Omily,
~em

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Bringing Sexy Blag: Part 2

Ah, Spring! The flowers are blooming, the trees are blossoming, the sparrows are making love, as one yogi so poetically put it, the pigeons are conducting their ages-old love rituals...It's the perfect time to talk about brahmacharya!

Sex as holy, beautiful, miraculous ritual of rebirth is all around us! That's all the trees are doing when they make our noses run, what the pigeons are doing when they coo and chase each other around, what we're hinting at when we show off our legs even though it may not actually be that warm out yet...Yay sex: Celebration of second chances, of not letting death take the day! In that spirit, why should we ever not take part in this beautiful, sacred ritual that springs up from so deep inside our minds and spirits?

Well...truly I hate to rain on the sexy parade, but we aren't trees; we aren't sparrows; we're people. We're capable of understanding that there's a time and a place for all things: a season and a purpose to all things under Heaven, or so they say. Spring may well seem like the season for sex, but if that's the case, when was your season for not sex? When was the last time the opportunity for a roll in the hay presented itself and you turned it down? When was the last time you weighed the pros and cons, the potential harm to yourself or the other person, before hopping into a sexual encounter?

Part 1 of this topic was written in a pretty stream-of-conscious way, and going back to reread it and read the responses I got to it really got the wheels turning. When was the last time I contemplated or practiced brahmacharya? Brahmacharya doesn't mean not having sex. It means practicing celibacy: holding sex as something beautiful and sacred and worth treating with reverence - not as a game, a toy, a recreational activity, a right, an entitlement, something you'd do if you could but lately it hasn't been in the cards and doesn't that really suck. What treating it that way means in daily practice will vary widely from person to person, culture to culture, etc., but the attitude should be present for anyone who practices yoga as more than a mentally soothing workout. Being married definitely has lent itself to my treating sex as a right and an entitlement at times. Even when practicing abstinence, sex was still something that I would be entitled to, just not yet.

So, maybe it matters even less than I thought whether you're doing it or not doing it, because it's just as easy to fail to practice brahmacharya as a virgin or celibate person as it is as a sexually active person.

There is deep value in choosing to step out of the intercourse arena and sit quietly with your body and mind's responses to that step. I definitely think a lot of people, myself included, could benefit from that. But whether that seems impossible or crazy, or just not something you're ready for right now, you can still practice brahmacharya by slowing down, and being fully present to the sex in your life: making a decision to take part in a given sexual exchange, or not, based on what's in your heart, the other person, and the circumstances.

All that said, it is Spring. If ever there was a time to fully assess a situation, enter it with the proper sense of reverence and joy, and then go at it till the cows come home, this is it!

Happy Spring!
Live Omily!
~em

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Some More Food for Thought for Foodies

*Beginning Note: I may still wander back to that sexy, slippery topic of last week, but it seemed good to inter-space something heavy with something light.

A few years ago (September of 2005; good heavens, nearly six years ago!) I swung a hard right (left?) away from all things processed and straight into a more natural, and health-conscious lifestyle. I was raised on pb and j's, and spaghetti-os, and by the time I moved from Mansfield, Ohio to NYC the focus of my rebellion was clear. It was a process, of course, no pun intended. For a while I was proud of myself for chopping fresh broccoli I swiped from the crudite platter at some school event into my Campbell's broccoli and cheese soup. Over the course of a few years, I started getting produce from the farmer's market when possible, baking my own bread, searching out humanely-raised meat (when I ate meat at all; I was poor), and going organic (again, when I could afford it.) On the plane ride home from my honey-moon I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and became a born-again locavore. I didn't give up the bananas over night, but these days at least 50% of our groceries come from the farmer's market, including all of our meat and eggs. We have our little cheats of course (for the past two days I've walked to the grocery store to buy one Californian date to eat with my New York State cheddar cheese) but all in all we take this seriously! This summer we're joining a CSA!

And now, I am happy to announce, I am eating more processed foods. If you've been following along for a few weeks now, that statement may not shock you in the least. If you're a dedicated locavore and it does, you're in need of an intervention you poor, vitamin-deprived soul!

Processed foods have a very bad rap in healthy-eating, vegetarian, raw, clean, organic, local, etc, eaters. It's not that the reputation is unearned. Pick up a box of oreos and start reading and you'll likely never go near one again! On the other hand, I don't think any of us think soy milk grows in happy little pods, just waiting to be squeezed into those charming, recyclable cartons. We eat processed things all the time. Particularly if we're enjoying substitutes for things we're not eating: tofu, gluten-free products, dairy-free products, etc. Chocolate's processed, agave nectar is processed, organic whole-grain cereal is processed, frozen veggies are processed, dried spices are processed, you get the idea. We all eat processed foods to some degree, and anyway, I'm a firm believer in the significance of coming full-circle.

Alright, I've left you hanging long enough. I'll quell the WTFs in the audience. I've started processing the foods myself. All that stuff I'm buying at the farmer's market has found its way into a big pot soon after entering my house, and ended up sitting in lovely little eight-ounce jars on the canned-goods shelf of my pantry. That's sort of the rock-star method of home-preservation, but I also have a bunch of rosemary tied with a blue ribbon hanging rather romantically from the bedroom window lock, and quarts and quarts of autumn concord grapes in the freezer, just waiting to cool me down and satisfy my sweet tooth once things get hot and sticky. This is both incredibly empowering, and a little mind-blowing because...

my first step down the road to a healthier me was a giant one back from processed foods, and now I've run back to them with open arms. My second step was a giant one back from sugar, and in nearly six years, I have never looked back. Everything gets checked for sugar: how many grams per serving, how big is a serving, and how far is it up the ingredient list? I'll use sugar if I'm baking cookies, but if I'm making hot cocoa, I'll use agave nectar, thanks. Now if you jump into that rock-star preserving world of the boiling water canning method, the first thing you'll notice about the recipes you encounter is likely to be how much sugar you add. With things like old-fashioned jams, this is sort of expected. The high sugar content allows the natural pectin in the fruit to do its job. So I add it, and try not to think about it when I spread it on my toast. But what about spiced apple chutney (an ambrosial substance, by the way)? What about vin d'orange (another home-made miracle)? In the case of the former, there are two cups of brown sugar in a recipe that makes about six cups finished product because two of the other cups are apple cider vinegar. A food item is only safe to be canned in boiling water if that food item is sufficiently acidic. All that sugar is necessary to tame that vinegar bite to an irresistible tang.

So, when I say I'm eating more processed foods, what's really eating at my stomach's conscience is that I'm eating significantly more sugar than I have in a long time. All in all I feel sort of ok about this; spiced-apple chutney and blood orange marmalade are not items that you eat much of at a time; they're condiments after all. I've made these items in my own home, from local (no, the oranges aren't local, I confess to another cheat), organic sources. It's making me ponder just how subjective, most of the time, our decisions to eat what we eat and not eat what we don't eat really are. I got into this issue in my Thanksgiving Post. I was feeling a little ornery after one too many preachings from vegetarians so it takes a somewhat hard line on the issue. I want people to educated themselves; to get the full picture, and then decide what to eat or not to eat!

Well of course I do, and I try to be educated myself, but ultimately, there will always be more that we don't know. It's a running gag in the nutrition industry that today's super-food is tomorrow's carcinogen and vice-versa. Maybe, it's time I ask you to look at what you eat in a kinder, gentler way. One of my favourite yoga teachings is that you're perfect just as you are; you are exactly what you need to be right now. Of course we're constantly striving to grow, but in this moment, you don't need to be anything that you aren't already. So, it's ok if you eat mangos from Chili all winter long because they have so much prana. It's ok if you eat tofu that was grown by a major corporation to get your protein because you want the cows and chickens to be allowed to live. It's ok if I eat bacon from a local farm that raises their animals with respect and compassion because I just don't see a world in which no one eats meat as viable. We're all doing the best we can. Good job. That said, it's never a bad thing to examine those decisions...I'll get back to you if I find a way out of the sugar dilemna...if you happen to know a good source for canning recipes with the health-nut in mind, please do pass it along!

live Omily, and eat what tastes right!
~em

Sunday, April 3, 2011

My sexiest post ever! (Or so totally not...)

We talk about ahimsa in yoga a lot: ahimsa means non-violence. We talk about how it applies to what we eat, how we practice, what our clothes are made of, how and where we travel, how we treat others, etc. Ahimsa is only one of the yamas and niyamas (there are five of each; it easily equates to a Yoga version of the 10 Commandments. Although they don't all match up perfectly, there are easy parallels to be drawn- i.e. Ahimsa/Thou shalt not kill/"but I say to you, anyone who has anger in his heart for his brother has already killed.") Ahimsa is a very accessible yama. It makes sense to us that this is important, that any spiritual path would embrace this approach. It's also broad enough in its meaning that there's a lot of room for discussion, interpretation, and debate, which is very healthy.

One that sometimes gets sort of rushed over, on the other hand, or maybe just not gotten to, is brahmacharya. I want to wade right into the thick, messy, interpretable, debatable land of this yama! The simple translation of ahimsa is non-violence. The simple translation of brahmacharya is celibacy. Nervous yet?

America has a very interesting relationship with sexuality that has to do with our roots in Puritanism, and our free-enterprise economy. Most of us grew up being taught, to varying degrees, that sex can be a very negative thing. For some people, sex was shameful, dirty, sinful, wrong. For others, sex was a powerful force that could easily be misused to hurt others. Even in the more balanced latter case, it's easy for a young person to walk away with the message that sex is taboo...and walking directly into a world of advertising and culture that glorifies sex as the best thing ever! Ads for anything you can imagine are selling, not clothes, not cigarettes, not potato chips, but sex! "Here is sex; it's the ultimate good; you want it, and you are entitled to it!" Is the message there. No wonder bringing it up makes us nervous!

After centuries of cultural sexual repression (i.e. pretending that sex drives, particularly in women, either a.) didn't exist or b.) were way too strong and inherently evil, among other neurosis that, yes, we are still dealing with in varied ways), the 20's, and then the 60's even more so let the cat out of the bag. The ads, and the culture got a whole lot more overt, and now even with parents still offering the cautionary or downright negative view of sex, everyone else was all for it. What's an animal biologically wired to reproduce sexually to do?? Well, "It", of course! And do we ever! I can't speak from experience-my spirituality led me to making some highly unusual choices in that department, but I live in New York, and I have a lot of single friends, and there is a lot of sex happening. Some of that sex is built on a loving relationship, or is responsible, or is respectful, or all of the above, and some of it is none of the above.

The average yoga teacher or Yoga Sutras interpreter in this day and age will tell you that brahmacharya refers to keeping sex within that framework of love and respect for the other person. That's one very legitimate interpretation.

Well, Patanjali, that lovely guru who gave us the Yoga Sutras, did not mean to always use a condom and make sure the other person is truly comfortable with this step. He was talking about celibacy...abstaining...totally. Nooooow we're nervous. There's a knee-jerk reaction that comes up here: "Don't you tell me I can't have sex! Sex is NOT dirty, or shameful, or sinful! I AM entitled to sex!"

I find this interesting, and I'd like to ask: Why are we entitled to it? When are we entitled to it? With whom are we entitled to it? (Please do answer these questions in comments on the blog, or on the facebook page, and please note that I'm not necessarily saying we're not entitled to it; I just don't think it's necessarily a given, either.)

The spiritual tradition that I come from, and the spiritual tradition I've evolved that is built on the framework of that tradition, and basically every other organized spiritual tradition that I am familiar with (which is certainly not to say all, and I welcome information on others that I'm not aware of, or info one ones I am familiar with I'm not currently privy to) does in fact advocate celibacy in certain circumstances, during certain life stages, or in certain situations. The most basic, or at least the most commonly familiar, is that Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and (I believe, but could be mistaken) Islam all advocate abstaining from sexual activity until one has chosen one partner for life, and celebrated the ceremony that bonds you and your chosen partner into one family unit. You've heard it as, "Save sex for marriage!" Likely, it makes you cringe. "How old-fashioned!" "How impractical!" "How ridiculous; why should I repress my sexuality if and until I find someone I want to marry?" Or, "I don't want to get married at all, ever, so that whole system doesn't acknowledge I exist!" The ramifications for homosexuals are obviously problematic as well.

Before we shut down completely, let's explore the reasons, pragmatic and spiritual, behind that precept, and behind Patanjali's precept of total celibacy (as in, we're all priests and priestesses in yoga!!) Back when both of these guidelines were put down, there was more or less no such thing as birth control. If you were in a (hetero)sexual relationship, you were going to be parents. Following a spiritual, philosophical lifestyle with the goal of merging your soul into complete unity with the divine, and the divine inside of each other living thing, is sort of incompatible with the time, attention, and emotional demands of child-rearing, yes? Raising a child with someone that, it turns out you don't like that much, they were just really hot, is really difficult and not likely to be an awesome situation for the child, yes?

So, one reason for both of these guidelines is, children in the wrong context are a whole lot of trouble, but we're not talking about getting a couch that's too big for your living room: you've created a human being! It's a pretty big karma load if you mess things up for the little guy.

I think most people agree (again, please speak up if you don't) that sex is a very powerful force. We put out a lot of energy when we engage in sexual activities. In yoga, the second chakra is associated with our sexuality, and also with creativity. It's a logical connection: creating other humans; creating a pretty picture! The idea is, sexual energy isn't only good for sex; it's good for lots of things. If we use it up having sex, we won't have it for asana or pranayama practice. We won't have it to work with and grow stronger through during meditation. It was even believed at that time that by holding in your sexual energy, instead of letting it all out with orgasm, you could live much longer and be much healthier. I can't speak for all traditions, but in Catholicism, it's not advocated that you repress or stuff down your sexual energy: it's advocated that you express that energy in other healthy ways: go for a run, draw a picture, learn to knit (say, that sounds kinda like yoga!). It seems to me that in our culture, we assume if we aren't having sex, it's because we're repressing a natural part of who we are, which is, however you slice it, unhealthy. To Patanjali, and to Catholics, it's not an either/or proposition. You can use that sexual energy in other positive ways, either indefinitely, or until the proper time to let it out it's more traditional channel. (Think that's utter BS? I'd like to hear about it!)

I know what I believe about sex, but I also know that it's a highly personal (not to mention highly volatile - that sexual energy is freakin' gasoline just waiting for a match!) issue. I am not, in any way, shape, or form, attempting to tell anyone how they should or should not incorporate the yama of brahmacharya into his or her life. I do think that we've been on one end of the spectrum in our culture for quite a while now, and while there are areas of that still require further progress, it's worth while to step back, and evaluate that other end of the spectrum. After we've taken a moment to release that knee-jerk reaction. So, take some time; write an angry letter if you need to. Then, maybe read this again.

Live Omily, and whether you're doing it or not, stay sexy!
~em

P.S. A lot of different things were brought up in this post; very little was explored, for the sake of space. I don't mean to leave any view of this issue that I can speak about knowledgeably unrepresented. To that end, this may be first in a series. We'll see.

P.P.S. It's worth noting that my inspiration for this post, and also an important source for it, was this article that I found on yogajournal.com. It discusses several different views of this yama, from the more open-ended, to the case of one woman who is practicing the very strict view of it, and has been doing so for years. It's likely worth checking out.