The Snail

This morning I put the kids on the bus and headed out for a run along the South China Sea. Listening to Krista Tippett interview Paul Elie about Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy on her radio show On Being, I settled into an easy pace and listened. Of these 20th century writers Elie said, “They weren’t content to settle in that place and say, ‘This is my lot,’ or ‘This is the lot of our time.’ Their hunger for something more, for something deeper was so strong that they made that unbelief or disbelief a starting point and then a continual testing ground for their religious convictions.”

As I listened to the interview, I ran along Stanley Main Beach, through town and up over Chung Hom Kok Road. Turning into Ma Hang Park on my return I noticed a woman standing in the middle of the path ahead of me. Something held her attention, and I wondered what it was.  Getting closer, I saw that the woman was a friend of mine and the object of her attention was a large garden slug with a shell on its back that had made its way all the way to the end of a long, dangling palm. The palm hung from a towering tree, but stopped short a good three feet above the concrete path. We stopped and stared wondering where the snail would go from there. It seemed to be in the most impossible predicament. Could a snail that size turn around? Could it back up? Would it linger until it ran out of food, water and strength then release and fall to the path below, surely cracking its shell? Had the snail unwittingly crept to a certain death, or was there a way out that we couldn’t see?

My friend was out for a walk. Her in-laws are visiting and, it being Monday morning, she subtly suggested that her walk was precipitated by a need for a little alone time after a weekend of togetherness. I bid her a cheerful farewell and started again on my run, but then stopped and called out to her.

“Monique! I love that you stopped to look at that snail. Keep that in mind today and remember, it doesn’t get worse than that!”

We both smiled and went our separate ways. As I turned back to my podcast, Paul Elie was quoting Walker Percy. “The pilgrim’s search is outside oneself. The Guru searches within.” I thought this delightfully fitting apropos the poor snail’s predicament and my friend’s momentary escape. Were any of us this morning content with “this is my lot” or did we hunger for more? Were the snail’s survival resources to be found within or outside itself?

I think I will return this afternoon to see if the snail remains on the palm or if the snail’s remains mark the pavement below. If it’s still hanging on, I may just give it a lift to lower ground. Perhaps, as I think about it now, I should have done that in the first place. But then how can it be that a snail would need me to save it?

Yoga Slu*!

I wrote this a few years ago and sent it to my local paper in Telluride.  They published it under the title “Yoga and Commitment,” saving me from forever being linked to the word slut on the internet.  It made me think about the value of a good editor and the danger of blogging without one, but I still prefer the original...


I wish I could remember my very first time. On my back, eyes closed, exhausted but energized from all that activity, peaceful, breathing deeply.   Savasana. Namaste!

I’m a yoga girl, but it hasn’t always been this way. I rack my brain trying to remember the first time I did it, but I really can’t recall. Did I take a class in college, bum a guest pass in DC from a friend and try it out, or salute the sun as it sank into the Indian Ocean on my R&R in Malindi? Most likely it coincided with my move to Los Angeles. Being twenty-three and single, idealistic, just off the boat from Africa and friendless in LA is prime fodder for yoga exploration, but even then I can’t remember a special first time.

Like childhood, there are hazy half memories of down dogs and cobras, but nothing significant until after I got married and my new husband and I launched a Saturday morning routine of running from our rental in Manhattan Beach down to Hermosa for a class under flowing curtains of silk in a small, independent studio by the beach. We quickly moved from Manhattan Beach to Santa Monica where the choices for yoga were much greater and I flirted with many different styles, but still I didn’t commit to one. Well, that is, until I got pregnant. Amazing how that one little line on the stick can make a girl take a deep breath and become faithful. Yet as quickly as I committed, nine months later I was back playing the field.

You see, I have a confession to make. As much as I love yoga, and I do, I’m a yoga slut. I’ll do any kind, anywhere and with any instructor. I have no ego and no real standards when it comes to a yoga class. Ashtanga, anusara, yoga for athletes, hatha, yogafit, core fusion, prenatal, meditative, restorative, fusion, hot, iyengar, yogalates, acro, beginner or advanced…I’ve done them all. From celebrity yogi classes with my mat so close to the next woman’s that my nose ends up uncomfortably close to parts of her I really don’t want to be near, to free community classes with one or two other random people, I’m equally happy, and I actually pride myself on not caring – and often not knowing — what kind it is.

I love setting up my mat in a new studio and sitting there waiting to see who walks through the door. I’ve had some laugh-out-loud funny experiences in yoga classes that have reduced me to stifled giggles. There was the German instructor in a banana hammock on Main Street in Santa Monica who spent the whole class demonstrating with us standing around him rather than practicing ourselves. Another time a girlfriend visiting from DC wanted to do yoga so I took her to my studio of choice at the time. The instructor insisted, over and over, that we show her our “star fingers” which nearly had us kicked out of class for laughing every time she said it. Years later, that same girlfriend and I took a prenatal class together in DC. The next day I got on the plane back to LA and she went into premature labor. Not a laughing matter, but memorable still. I could go on and on.

When I was training for the NY Marathon I loved the yoga classes in Venice where the tagline of the place was “No chanting. No granola. No sanskrit.” The lesbian corporate lawyer turned yogi would put on the greatest KCRW-like music in her brick lined warehouse space and we’d do her signature workout designed for athletes. I lived a block from the famous Maha yoga studio at the time, but rather than commit to an hour and a half class – I can get fidgety after an hour – I would drive 20 minutes each way to Venice to take the hour class there.

For anyone who found herself knocked up on the Westside of LA at the turn of the century, Rocky’s yogababy was the place to be. We’d trek to Marina del Rey, park on the street, open the gate and walk along a little path down the side of her house to the quiet little studio she built in the back. The walls were lined with mirrors and straps, there was always a basket of toys and a few big yoga balls rolling around for the mommy-and-me classes, and the whole place had a strong odor of cat urine, but still, it was comforting for all of us and we grew together. Our husbands will tell you about the pain of gripping an ice cube for one minute in each palm. This was Rocky’s way of trying to demonstrate to them the intensity and duration of a contraction. Little did any of us know at the time that it was not a good comparison. Many of us returned with our little babies a few months later. Rocky would sit on a yoga ball, bouncing sometimes three of our little offspring at a time as we began to explore and find our bodies again after the trauma of giving birth.

Yoga has also been there to pick up the pieces in the tough times too. When my dad was dying in Pennsylvania and I was living in London with my three kids, my husband already living in our next home, Hong Kong, I found my way to a yoga class at a studio in Primrose Hill that unknowingly but very clearly guided my grieving process. The instructor (a dead ringer for Hollywood’s Jesus)  would offer a few words before our meditations and they always resonated and kept me going until the class the next week. This was as close to God as I got during those painful months.

So yoga has been my vehicle of choice for navigating life’s milestones over the last decade, more so than church or any other institutional support mechanism. I have the utmost respect for the practice and philosophy of yoga and I rely on it heavily, but I humbly admit that I really know nothing about it.

In fact, there’s only one thing related to yoga that makes the hair on the back of my neck bristle, and that is yoga snobbery by fellow lycra-clad, latte-fisted, buff, skinny, white girls. To hear these women hold court about their loyalty to a particular form of yoga sends my eyes rolling to the sky. I had coffee with a girlfriend who was telling me about her Indian in-laws who do yoga. She said they feed a string up one nostril and out the other and could do the same with water. They would walk on fire and sit for hours in a meditative trance as part of their practice. Even the perkiest of the yoga set in Santa Monica, I can assure you, is not feeding string through her nose.

And that’s my point. The commercialization of yoga has benefited millions of us around the world who now have access to elements of a rich tradition that offers a holistic combination of spirituality and exercise – the holy grail for us 40 somethings – to guide us through the days when our knees and hips start to go and our diagnoses get more serious and frequent. But watching us all pretend to actually “know” yoga must be hilarious, or maddening, for those who really do. True yoga requires an all-consuming, life-long committed relationship, and this floozy is just not there yet.

Dharma Diet: The Rise of Secular Mindfulness

The diet industry and the burgeoning popularity of secular mindfulness have a lot in common I realized as I sat listening to the distinguished panel at the Mind & Life Institute conference at Hong Kong University last fall. Growth of the mindfulness industry in the last decade has been meteoric and is as unruly as is the diet industry, and subject to the same vulnerabilities. Like dieting, the desired outcome of mindfulness efforts is evident, but for most of us, the path is unclear.

We have accepted a huge “mindfulness” umbrella that houses everything from deeply spiritual monks who relinquish everything to sit for years in silent solitude in mediation and prayer to completely secular deep breathing exercises used to help modern day stress cases function better in their stressful environments. The comingling of untrained “experts” and revered practitioners in one big pot of mindfulness soup makes it difficult for the layman to figure out what is solid research and what is just clever marketing.

Mindfulness is the latest panacea. If you haven’t read of the benefits of a mindfulness practice, you must have been living under a rock. Compassion, stress relief, mental acuity and memory, health, your emotional style, relationships and more can all be enhanced with a simple daily practice.   Add deep breathing exercises to your to do list and you’re bound for greatness, in just six weeks!

When scientists like Dr. Richard Davidson, Dr. Mark Williams, Dr. Rick Hanson and others share quantitative research indicating actual brain changes as a result of meditation, I am curious to know if all meditation practices are created equal, or if the specific benefits they claim are the result of a particular form of practice. When I asked the question at the conference, Dr. Davidson glibly replied, “The one that you’ll do is the one that works“ suggesting that sticking to it is more important than the practice itself.  Sound familiar?

Twenty years ago I was nearly 40 pounds overweight. I remember standing in front of a mirror squeezing the fat rolls on my stomach and making deals with God. If I could just be thin and have a flat stomach, I would be happy. I tried dieting, depriving myself of the foods that I loved, restricting calories, but the moment-to-moment willpower required to achieve the overall goal was never strong enough and I felt like a failure.

Beyond the “freshman 15”, mine was a mixed up combination of emotional overeating to combat the starvation I witnessed in Somalia and downright gluttonous expat living in Nairobi.   From Africa I moved to Los Angeles where my lifestyle changed organically. I started running after work because it was so beautiful outside. My first run was 11 minutes long, but I eventually worked up to 30, then 45 and then amazingly an hour. I consciously cut out beer, but otherwise I ate the foods I wanted. As I began to run more, the foods I craved changed. I still had the diet coke and Twix bar after lunch (a disgusting habit of the late ‘90s I still can’t believe I did), but I had them after a salad instead of a burger and fries, and eventually they dropped out too in favor of water and a home made cookie (still my favorite). That was 20 years ago. Since then I have had three babies, gained and lost 60 pounds with each pregnancy, and my weight is not currently a struggle.

What finally worked for me was letting go of the goal in favor of small daily changes that eventually, almost without my noticing, achieved the results I had nearly forgotten I wanted. What I learned is that most diets don’t work because they’re tied to outcome.

I agree with Dr. Davidson, that to achieve the benefits of meditation you must actually meditate, but by defining the benefits by a set of outcomes, we’re missing the point and actually adding stress to our over burdened lives and never-ending to do lists. What if we forgot about the benefits for a moment and remember where these practices come from in the first place? What if we were actually motivated intrinsically, instead of for superficial external reward?  Let’s take a lesson from the largely failed diet industry and try instead to pay attention to deep yearnings in our souls for more meaningful lives. When motivated from this place, from a conscious decision to capture and defend those unplugged quiet moments without distraction, the benefits of a mindfulness practice will flow naturally and the minutes on the meditation cushion will melt away as easily as the unwanted pounds.