resolutionI have mixed feelings about New Year’s resolutions. On the one hand, they’re a good excuse to set goals and get my life back on track. My resolutions tend to center on health, mainly because that’s a big focus in my life. But I can’t help but notice they’re all about changing things that are wrong with me. Like “I will stop eating sugar.” “I will lift weights three times a week.” “I will get to bed by 10.”

Each of these resolutions implies that I am lacking in some way—like I am currently eating way too much sugar, not building my muscles and not getting enough sleep.

I was thinking about how to make my resolutions stick, and a thought popped into my head: Perhaps these kinds of resolutions fail because they make us face the new year feeling less than inspired.

It occurred to me that maybe if they were a tad more positive and fun, I might actually stick to them. And who knows? They may have a better effect on my life than all the grimly disciplined “to dos” of my normal list.

This idea gained momentum for me when I read about Shonda Rhime’s new book Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun, and Be Your Own Person.

If you’re like me and the name Shonda Rhimes doesn’t ring a bell, never mind—her accomplishments will. As the creator, head scriptwriter and executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy and other TV shows, and executive producer of How to Get Away with Murder, she calls herself a typical Type A personality. And until recently she was living a spectacular life on the job, but less so at home.

What spurred her to write the book, she says, was a sharp wake-up call from her sister. “You never say ‘yes’ to anything,” her sister said. This made Rhimes decide to not only say yes more often, but to seek out the very things she was prone to say ‘no’ to, the very things that scared her. And she ended up standing in the sun and dancing it out, as the book title shares.

I liked this idea of saying yes and immediately started making a list. Instead of focusing on things that scared me, I decided to focus on things that I want to continue doing because they are working for me. And on things I don’t allow myself to do because (as I tell myself), I don’t have time, don’t have money, don’t have the talent, etc.

Here’s my list so far:

1.) Taking a cue from Rhimes, I say yes to dancing. I’ve been taking a class in Indian classical dance that has been truly fun and has lots of health benefits too (when you slap your bare feet on the floor, all the nerve endings in your whole body wake up, stimulating your organs and hormones in a really good way). Plus it’s an all-women’s class, so that’s part of the fun. Yet lately, when I moved up to a more advanced class and couldn’t keep up with the practice time, I let it go. Yet in thinking it over, even if I practiced 10 short minutes a day, I could return to the class and not fall behind.

And why not say yes to this chance to dance? Why not twirl and swirl ten minutes a day? It’s worth a try.

2.) I say yes to taking time to engaging in unstructured play for an hour every week—to spending time in nature, wandering without a schedule, to journal or to play with my water colors and colored pencils.

Playing is so so so important, especially if you’re in a profession that relies on a fresh, creative mind. For me, playing not only rejuvenates my spirit but gives me new ideas that help me in my work. It’s a win-win, so why not say YES to play?

3.) I say yes to getting enough rest. Usually I feel tired by around 9:30 at night. I say yes to the needs of my body and mind. I say yes to paying them more attention. And I say yes to continuing to make time in my day for my twice daily practice of Transcendental Meditation. TM helps me feel happy. It helps me feel rested. It helps my mind think more clearly. And it keeps me grounded to my essential nature, so I stay connected to my best self even when the circumstances around me get challenging or crazy. So I say YES to giving myself this gift even if I’m traveling or with relatives or friends who don’t practice meditation.

4.) I say yes to continuing a great exercise routine. Full disclosure—I spent the money I received from my mom for Christmas on a Fitbit HR, and that has shown me that I’m doing well in the exercise realm. Taking a brisk 30-minute walk each morning with my husband in the early morning sunlight sets me up for the day—with just a little more exercise, my daily running around the apartment brings me to the recommended 10,000 steps most days without strain. And the three times a week weight training is making me feel so enlivened and happy. I say yes to continuing all that and more.

In writing these ideas down, in my mind saying yes started to converge with feeling gratitude for the things that are going right in my life. In some ways, I realized, gratitude is a way to find the yes in every experience.

And that is a good thing. I sometimes find myself—when I get stressed or have too many deadlines—wishing my computer didn’t take so long to boot up, that I didn’t have to wait in line, that there weren’t so many mundane tasks to do in a day. If I’m really stressed, I start feeling agitated by other people’s lack of speed or efficiency. Or my own lack of whatever.

This is not something I’m proud of. It’s a way of wishing life—and myself and the people in my life—were different. And when you start doing that, you can’t enjoy the great people and things that are right in front of you.

So now, when I’m waiting in line at the post office or at the grocery store, I’m using the time to think of things and people I’m grateful for, including the clerk who is so graciously serving me at that very moment. I also am starting each day thinking of three things I’m happy about, and ending the day that way too.

In Part II of this post I’ll explore the power of gratitude, its influence on brain functioning, and the latest findings on the Transcendental Meditation technique and its impact on happiness and well-being.

Happy New Year!

 

Let’s Dance in the New Year (Part II)
Does Gratitude Work?

Expressing gratitude is certainly not a new idea (prayer is a form of gratitude, after all), and lots of people have written about the power of gratitude in recent years. What is new is the increasing evidence that positive emotions, such as gratitude, have a positive effect on brain functioning.

The brain produces an astonishing 100,000 chemical and hormonal reactions every second. These can have good or bad effects. For instance, when we are stressed, the stress hormone cortisol courses through our body, contributing to aging, insulin resistance, and high blood pressure. Conversely, other chemical messengers have a positive effect on our minds and bodies—and are released when we are feeling balanced and happy.

Our brain’s neuronal connections also respond to our experiences and our emotions. In fact, the more we experience positive things in our lives, the more we give our attention to happiness, the more our brain gets wired to default to happiness, and the easier it gets to perceive our world in a positive light.

As brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor wrote in her gripping memoir, My Stroke of Insight, “Scientists are well aware that the brain has tremendous ability to change its connections based upon its incoming stimulation. This ‘plasticity’ of the brain underlies its ability to recover lost function.”

Basically, she explains, the neuronal pathways strengthen to reflect the stimulation the brain is receiving. If you make it a habit to think about positive things, in other words, your mind will tend to repeat those neuronal loops instead of the negative ones. It’s kind of like building a muscle—you use the same thought patterns in your brain enough, and those neuronal circuits get stronger and stronger.

A Dance Between Spontaneity and Intention

Yet there’s a problem here. Unless you’re genuinely feeling happy, it’s hard to keep up the positive thinking for very long. It works fine for a while, but if you get tired, or rushed, or stressed, then all good intentions fly out the window. Finding yourself in a negative thought loop, you may say or do things that you later regret.

And, let’s face it, trying to be positive can be a strain. If you’re not actually feeling so happy, plastering a smile on your face is not going to change your inner reality a whole lot (research does say that the act of moving the muscles on your face does lift mood a little). But ask anyone who is depressed how it feels to try to smile and be happy, and they will tell you it is a tremendous strain.

In fact, constantly monitoring your thoughts, forcing any kind of feeling (even positive ones) can divide your mind and add tension and strain to your life.

When you genuinely feel happy, on the other hand, then it’s so easy to respond in a positive way to everyone around you. Then your gratitude is a natural expression of happiness, a spontaneous result of feeling happy.

I think this word “spontaneous” is really important. It’s one of the things that attracted me to the Transcendental Meditation technique in the first place. I really liked the idea that you could spend time meditating for 20 minutes twice a day, diving deep into that reservoir of intelligence, energy and happiness inside you, and then when you’re outside of meditation, spontaneously act. I liked the idea that I didn’t have to try to remember to be happy or make a mood of being happy—the results would come naturally as a result of the experience of pure happiness in meditation, my teacher said.

And that’s pretty much what happened. As I found myself growing in happiness, I naturally started having a more positive viewpoint on my life and the people around me. Basically, it’s become my default mode to feel gratitude—and if I sometimes fall into an impatient mode, it’s not that hard to shift back.

This is a common experience among people who practice TM, I’ve found out. People often find that when they begin the practice, others ask them, “What’s different about you? You seem so happy!”

Rewiring the Brain for Happiness

And yes, there is research that supports this experience of greater happiness. For instance, people practicing the TM technique score higher on tests of well-being and happiness, and higher levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin are measured in the brains of TM practitioners. Research has also shown a significant decrease in stress, anxiety and depression in TM practitioners.

Dr. Fred Travis, the brilliant neuroscientist who has studied the effect of meditation on the neuroplasticity of the brain, explains that the experience of transcendence and inner happiness during Transcendental Meditation actually rewires the brain in a lasting way.

In his book, Your Brain is a River, Not a Rock, he explains that 70 percent of brain connections change every single day, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity.

“The circuits in the brain are continuously sculpted by experience,” he says. “If we are constantly under stress, then the part of the brain that triggers the fight-or-flight response grows thicker, and we find ourselves reacting to small stresses as if they are life-threatening.”

Dr. Travis goes on to say, “But—and this is the take-home point—if we add the experience of transcending to our daily routine, then brain connections that support the experience of pure consciousness are strengthened. This is the reality of growth to enlightenment. It happens every day with every session of the Transcendental Meditation technique.”

In other words, because in our quiet moments of meditation our minds experience the field of pure happiness inside us, that style of functioning of the brain becomes more dominant. Over time as we meditate regularly and go about our daily activities, the mind becomes more and more habituated to staying in that state of pure happiness, or bliss, even outside of meditation.

I love this idea of spontaneously growing in the ability to embrace more of life, of saying yes to the beautiful world around us. This is really what enlightenment is—experiencing everyone and everything as being as dear to us as our own self—our senses expanding to drink in the sounds, tastes, smells, textures and sights of our beautiful world. And from there, to embrace with love all our fellow creatures on this earth—whether family, friend or stranger across the world.

These are a few of my thoughts for the New Year—what are yours?

I wrote originally wrote this post for TM-Women.org. See www.tm-women.org

BY LINDA EGENES

Christmas treeTis the season to be jolly. But just as all work and no play can make Jack a dull boy, Jack (and Jill too) can feel overwhelmed by multiple holiday parties and rich foods.

The mental pressure of making hairsplitting decisions (does Uncle Harry really need another pair of socks?), staying up late, and rushing around during the holidays creates stress and imbalance in your body.

So how do you meet all your social obligations, keep your weight down and stay healthy when confronted with the extravaganza of food, gifts, and parties that has become our American tradition?

Here are seven tips from Maharishi Ayurveda for staying well when the holidays roll around.

1. Set priorities. Getting enough rest is the key to keeping your mind and body in balance. If you start losing sleep over holiday stress, it’s time to stop and reassess your priorities. Going to bed well before 10:00 p.m. and rising early go a long way in maintaining a calm and clear mind.

If you can’t sleep because your mind is busy looking for holiday gift ideas for dad, try drinking a cup of warm milk with turmeric and cardamom before bed. Aroma therapy with orange or lavender scents is relaxing and can help you fall asleep.

Ayurvedic herbal compounds containing herbs such as Indian Valerian are sometimes recommended for relaxing the body and promoting more restful sleep.

2. Reduce stress by simplifying shopping. According to one survey, 36 percent cited gift shopping as their biggest holiday stress. Not knowing what to buy or where to buy it was the major source of shopping anxiety, while others said fighting the crowds or not having enough time to shop created the most pressure.

To simplify gift-giving, try buying an inexpensive eco-gift and give it to most people on your list. I knew a family that bought a case of homemade organic jam from a local farmer, glued a personal label on each bottle, and gave it to all the families on their list. While not everyone will want to be this frugal, by buying the same gift for friends and neighbors, you can cut down on the stress of selecting the perfect holiday gifts for coworkers or a wide circle of friends.

For family, you’ll want to give more personal gifts. But if you’re planning a large family party, try drawing names and giving one nice gift instead of a dozen less expensive ones.

3. Try to plan your holiday parties for  daytime instead of evening. The holidays are when people break out their best holiday baking recipes, so how can your enjoy those holiday cookies without gaining weight? Digestion reaches its peak at noon—so that’s the best time to eat large holiday feasts. You’ll digest the food easier, without putting on pounds.

4. Exercise daily. If you can’t do anything else, take a break from shopping or socializing for a short walk in fresh air. Even better, stick to your normal exercise routine. Exercise will help you think more clearly, sleep more deeply, and minimize stress in your life.

5. Drink warm fluids. Start your day with a cup of warm water, and sip from a thermos throughout the day. This will flush out digestive impurities and toxins that are the inevitable result of holiday eating. Or make a tea: in 2 quarts of boiled water, steep 1/4 tsp. whole fennel, 1/4 tsp. marshmallow root, and 2 mint leaves. This will help stimulate sluggish elimination and keep holiday sweets from overwhelming your system.

6. Practice a stress reduction technique such as the Transcendental Meditation program and yoga postures. These techniques will help you remain calm and balanced instead of succumbing to holiday stress during the most hectic time of year.

7. Prevent holiday angst. For some people, the holidays bring emotional trauma, due to painful memories or family conflict. From the Ayurvedic perspective, experiences like this can lead to imbalances that also affect digestion.

To relieve emotional holiday stress, Maharishi Ayurveda recommends eating more astringent, bitter, and sweet foods (this doesn’t mean loading up on holiday sweets, but including whole grains, wheat, and whole milk products in your diet) to cool the body and soothe the heart. Flavor your food with cooling spices, such as cinnamon, fennel, and coriander. Drink rose petal tea or hot milk to soothe emotions when they are stirred up. Resist skipping meals and get to bed early to create more balance. Soothe your heart while you sleep with rose aroma oil.

Ayurveda also recommends herbs for soothing emotional stress.  Two important herbs for this purpose are Arjuna and Ashwaganda, which are often contained in ayurvedic compounds for reducing emotional imbalances such as Stress Free Emotions.

8. Pamper yourself. Make a list of positive, nurturing things you can do for yourself during the holiday season. A massage after work, for instance, can melt away seasonal blues and leave you with a genuine holiday glow. Take your grandchild to an ice-skating rink for a festive outing that doesn’t focus on eating or buying. Think outside the box—the holidays don’t have to be materialistic. In fact, it helps to remember that the real meaning of “holiday” is “holy day.” With a little effort we can emerge from the season feeling more healthy and whole.

(I originally wrote this article for The Iowa Source. Reprinted with permission.)

 

BY LINDA EGENES

PF-baby-2_1376795cThere are many times in a woman’s life when she needs extra support, but seldom as urgently as when she is pregnant and during the first year after giving birth. In many traditional cultures, the vulnerability of a mother is well known. The pregnant mother is fussed over and pampered, her cravings are satisfied and the extended family surrounds her with love and support.

In the traditional healthcare system of India, and in many homes in modern India today, by the time the mother gives birth, she has been relieved of her work and household responsibilities by her family members.

After giving birth, she is given a massage on a daily basis, fed special foods and herbs to help her recover her strength and mental balance, and surrounded with love and support the first six weeks so she can establish a strong bond with her baby—and recover her strength and mental and physical balance.

Our modern American mother tends to face a different world. Increasingly, mothers work until the last month of pregnancy, and when they leave the hospital a day after giving birth, they have little support, facing the challenge of feeling mentally and physically exhausted yet also responsible for the needs of a newborn. And with over 50 percent of birth mothers now also single mothers, the challenges are even greater without a partner to help.

No wonder maternal mental illness is on the rise. According to the two-part series in the NY Times, “A Mother’s Mind,” the range and duration of maternal mental illness is more extensive than previously thought, causing heart-breaking mood swings in some mothers that directly impacts the child’s safety and development.

Research now shows that postpartum depression can start earlier (during pregnancy) or later (after the baby is 4 months old—any time during the first year). It can be associated with a wide range of mental disorders, including anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, bi-polar disorder, and intrusive thoughts of doing harm to the baby.

The causes are complex. Some women are genetically wired to react more to the dramatic hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy, when hormonal activity increases by more than 100 times and then plummets to zero after giving birth, a phenomenon that Dr. Margaret Spinelli, the director of the Women’s Program in Columbia University’s psychiatric department calls “A roller-coaster ride that disrupts brain chemistry.”

Other women succumb to the stresses of financial insecurity, family dysfunction, exhaustion from childbirth and parenting itself, causing scientists to refer to maternal mental illness as “a complex interplay of genes, stress and hormones.”

While maternal mental illness is not new—reports exist in the literature since the time of Hippocrates—the added stress and isolation of the modern mother can’t be helping.

Yet there are mothers who are finding needed rest and stress relief by practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique. “Particularly in the postpartum period, the woman’s first act of being a mother—and all subsequent acts—will be to give,” says Rebecca Douglas, M.D., a board-certified obstetrician. “As mothers we can only give from what we have. And if what we have is exhaustion, then we’ll have less of a basis from which to give. If, on the other hand, we have a methodology to rest and rejuvenate and give rest to ourselves, then we’ll have that much more to give.”

Available at http://www.mumpress.com/health-maharishi-vedic-approach-to-health/c12.html.

Available at http://www.mumpress.com/health-maharishi-vedic-approach-to-health/c12.html.

My co-authors Dr. Kumuda Reddy, M.D., Margaret Mullins, MSN and nurse practitioner, and I wrote in the book For a Blissful Baby, which describes natural ways to help mothers regain their mental and physical balance after childbirth, “Practicing the Transcendental Meditation program is the most important recommendation to help both husband and wife reduce mental, emotional and physical stress. This simple technique helps develop the healthiest and happiest state of mind and emotions.”

If the mother is practicing the TM technique, she has an opportunity to recover much more quickly from the stress of childbirth. Research on TM also reports faster recovery from depression, anxiety, emotional numbness and insomnia after stressful experiences.

“People who practice the Transcendental Meditation technique experience less depression, because they are able to gain deep rest (both during meditation and at night) and release stress,” says Dr. Reddy. “Many of my patients report that the deep rest experienced during the TM technique helps them recover more quickly from the extreme fatigue after giving birth, and replaces it with more bliss and balance.”

Somehow as a society we need to think of how we can give more support to new mothers. In reading the 504 comments that readers posted online for the NY Times two-part Mother’s Mind series, I was struck by how many mothers cited social isolation as a major cause of maternal depression. As one mother wrote, “It is so, so important for people to check in on new moms, to let them talk about their feelings, to not judge them and to help them with cooking, cleaning, and with the babies. That help will never be forgotten.”

Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including Super Healthy Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Maharishi Ayurveda, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

(I originally wrote this post for Transcendental Meditation for Women Blog, July 28, 2014. Reprinted with permission.)

My parents, Gerald and Sarah Ward, on their wedding day in 1945. They were happily married for 65 years.

My parents, Gerald and Sarah Ward, on their wedding day in 1945. They were happily married for 65 years.

It’s a debate that goes on endlessly—are marriages less or more happy than they were in the past? And what contributes to a happy marriage anyway?

According to a new study by Eli Finkel and his fellow psychological researchers, reported in a recent article in the NY Times, the findings are as confusing as a Midwestern weather forecast. While the average marriage is less happy than the average marriage in the past, there are some marriages that are even more happy than ever before. It’s a bit of a divide between the loved and the loved not.

And the divorce rate increasingly appears to fall along economic lines, it’s not increased wealth itself that creates more marital satisfaction, the researchers say. It’s the fact that since 1980, many middle-class families have struggled with economic challenges, often working multiple jobs. This struggle to feed their families has resulted in less time spent together as couples, and according to their research, it is the time spent together that is the critical factor for a happy marriage.

In fact, since 1975, time spent enjoying fun activities together has decreased for both couples with kids and couples without kids, leading to a decrease in marital happiness for the average marriage.

One of the most interesting aspects of this highly nuanced article is the author’s discussion of the evolution of marriage, which he equates with the evolution of human consciousness described by Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” Finkel notes that Americans have moved through three stages of marriage—starting with the institutional marriage of past centuries, when a good marriage was expected to provide food and shelter, to the companionate marriage (1850-1965), which was expected to provide romance and companionship, to today’s self-expressive marriage, when couples expect marriage to bring self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth, or “the mutual exploration of infinitely rich, complex and exciting selves.”

And herein lies the rub: couples have much higher expectations for marriage than ever before, but because of the fast pace of life, the intrusion of technology, increasing parental demands, and economic burdens, many couples aren’t able to spend the time or effort to realize those expectations.

But those who do invest more time into their relationship are happier than ever before because they are able to fulfill the expectations of the modern marriage and grow in self-actualization together.

Finkel cited additional research by the sociologist Jeffrey Dew showing that couples who spent “time alone with each other, talking, or sharing an activity” on a type of date night at least once per week were 3.5 times more likely to be very happy in their marriage than spouses who did so less frequently, and couples with a larger percentage of shared friends spent more time together and had better marriages.

I personally think the researchers are on to something—the couple that plays together stays together. When my husband and I married 33 years ago, we had different ideas about what would keep our marriage together. Like many women, I wanted to talk about our relationship and iron out differences with verbal discussions and affirmations. My husband wanted to focus on spending quality time together each week (biking, walking, traveling, eating out with friends). This would strengthen our marriage more than anything else, he felt, because then we would be growing in joy together. Rather than talking about a happy marriage, we’d be living it.

So we compromised and made time for both elements in our marriage—communication and spending quality time together. By planning “date nights” and other outings, by consciously making time to do fun things together, it seems like the small differences go unnoticed and the shared the experience of happiness binds us together.

Meditating together has also been a huge factor in our marital harmony. Both of us practice the Transcendental Meditation technique, and there’s no doubt that when you take time to rest, recharge and refresh twice a day, your relationships can’t help but improve.

Stress is known to be a major cause of marital discord—and the TM technique is the most effective stress-reduction technique available, according to peer-reviewed research. When you start the day with the clarity of mind that meditation creates, you are naturally more successful on your job or whatever tasks you need to accomplish during the day.  In the early evening when you take time to meditate again, dipping into that transcendental field of infinite energy, joy, and love, you come out feeling that the stresses of the day are behind you. You’re ready to devote your full attention to your home life, to enjoy the evening with your family and spouse.

And when you’re growing as an individual, unfolding your inner potential and experiencing transcendental consciousness each time you meditate, it takes a great deal of strain off your marriage. You don’t have the expectation that the other person is going to fill your cup full. Rather, you meet on the basis of inner fulfillment, and when two full hearts meet, there is a flow of happiness that is, indeed, extraordinary.

Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including Super Healthy Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Maharishi Ayurveda, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

(I originally wrote this post for Transcendental Meditation for Women Blog, March 17, 2014. Reprinted with permission.)

IMG_2767Last year “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” was one of the most popular articles on The Atlantic’s website (www.theatlantic.com)—and nearly a year later it’s still getting a lot of attention. Clearly, it hit a nerve with thousands of women who are finding themselves stretched thin while juggling career, childcare and, in many cases, parental care.

Written by Princeton Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, the article shares the author’s personal journey as a feminist, career woman and mother. At the pinnacle of her career she found herself resigning from her dream job as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department so she could move back to Princeton where her husband and family lived, and where she resumed her teaching position. She needed to spend more time with her teenage sons, one of whom was in crisis. She needed to figure out a better approach to work-life balance.

The article is long and so full of insight that it’s difficult to paraphrase it here, but one of the sections that struck me most was titled, “Rediscovering the Pursuit of Happiness.” In it Slaughter says that because women have been so intent on competing with men, many have lost touch with their own deepest desire to nurture their children and families.

She writes, “One of the most complicated and surprising parts of my journey out of Washington was coming to grips with what I really wanted . . . . I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home.”

Yet, as the author notes, the decision to step down from a position of power—to value family over professional advancement, even for a time—is directly at odds with the prevailing social pressures on career professionals in the United States. “One phrase says it all about current attitudes toward work and family, particularly among elites. In Washington, ‘leaving to spend time with your family’ is a euphemism for being fired,” writes Slaughter.

Not to mention that for most women, taking a break from their jobs is not economically viable, nor are the family-friendly changes in social policies, the workplace and attitudes advocated by the author going to happen overnight.

And, having come this far, most women don’t want to give up on their dreams of success. Rather, they want to strengthen themselves in body, mind and spirit so they can handle their busy lives with grace and ease.  Perhaps the solution lies in finding a way to achieve balance on the inside so that will be reflected in greater balance in outer life.

CNN news anchor Soledad O’Brien says that practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique is helping her to balance work and family. She says, “If you know me, you know I cannot meditate! I have a crazy schedule, I have four small children and I am always going, so the idea of calming my mind I thought, ‘not possible!’ But I was able to learn, I was able to do it, and I appreciate very much the opportunity to take the time to focus and meditate. It allows me to experience a state of deep rest and relaxation that can be game-changing and sometimes a life saver in a crazy world. It helps alleviate stress and pressure when you’re trying to balance life and being a mother. And as a journalist I feel healthier and have fewer stressful days and more energy and more clarity of mind.”

Many other women are finding that practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique is a practical way to stay in touch with the most silent, rested, happy and powerful aspect of themselves. By staying rested, a woman can enjoy life more, find more happiness in whatever task is on her plate. And as Slaughter points out, the pursuit of happiness is essential to wellbeing, an integral part of the American dream.

And certainly that’s the key point here. In order to balance the various demands in our day, we have to take care of ourselves, nurture ourselves, and from that stable base we can nurture the others in our lives, whether at home or in the workplace. And isn’t that an appealing definition of what it means for women “to have it all”?

Linda Egenes is a health writer, blogger and author of six books, including Super Healthy Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Maharishi Ayurveda, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

(I originally wrote this post for Transcendental Meditation for Women Blog, July 1 2013. Reprinted with permission.)

Many Ways to Mother
May 9, 2014

BY LINDA EGENES
IMG_0005I guess I have to come out with something. Even though I once taught children in grades 2-4 and trained elementary school teachers in the language arts, wrote articles for a children’s column for Plain magazine and am a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, have co-authored two books on children’s health, written articles on parenting and am the loving aunt of two and Godmother of three, I myself have never given birth to a child.

Don’t get me wrong. I really do love kids, which is why so much of my career and my social life is wrapped around them. But when it came to having our own, it seemed like my husband and I always wanted to wait until sometime in the future. There were real obstacles that I don’t want to go into here, but basically, I admit it—we didn’t want kids enough.

Does this make me selfish? I never thought so, but lately I’ve been reading that many childless couples feel left out of the American mainstream, and some childless women today are finding themselves defending what others perceive as a selfish choice (whereas in times before fertility treatments and multiple adoption options they may have been pitied for not being able to have kids). A recent article by Lauren Sandler in Time magazine titled “The Childfree Life: When Having It All Means Not Having Children” sparked a national debate on talk TV and prompted LA Times columnist Meghan Daum to “come out” as child free by choice. “Parenting is a momentous job that should be undertaken only by those who really want it. And for whatever reason, I just never have,” she wrote.

To me, having children is simply a personal choice, and it’s a healthier world when all women are not slotted into any one track. Every woman should not be made to feel that she has to be a mother any more than every mom should be made to feel that she has to work outside the home in order to find fulfillment. And career women should be able to drop out of the workforce at times and just be moms. Arianna Huffington touched on this point in her commencement address at Smith College when she questioned why women had to have a career track that looked like a straight line to the goal—she felt that was more of a male model. It seems we need to change the workplace so a women might follow a more spiral pattern, circling into the job market and out, choosing to stay home with their kids at times and to work at other times, or not having kids at all, rather than trying to “have it all, all the time.”

I couldn’t agree more. A major factor in my choice to not have kids was realizing that it wouldn’t really work for me to be a supermom and “have it all” by working and raising kids at the same time.

And does not having kids make me less of a woman? I would again have to say “no.” The nurturing, mothering impulse is alive and well in every woman, I feel. It may just take different forms. Like many childless women I know, I find great joy in nourishing others—my students, my friends, my family, and the children in my life. This nurturing impulse is something central to my own being, and clearly evident in all the women I know, whether married, single, with children or without. In fact, this may be a common denominator that many women share—the tendency to want to harmonize, uplift and nourish those around us. Research shows that women excel in these tendencies, and men even become more nourishing just by being around women.

In fact, the problem for most women, whether with kids or without, is to keep from nourishing others at the expense of their own health and happiness. In other words, women often need to be reminded to nourish themselves first—and from there to nourish others. Only a full cup can overflow in love, only a lit bulb can radiate light.

One of my favorite quotes from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who founded the Transcendental Meditation technique, is about this very point. “There is no greater nourishing power in the world than the experience of bliss.” I love this, because it reminds us to stop trying so hard, to just be—to be in that state of pure happiness, like a child, and from there nourish everyone and everything around us.

I know for myself, if I’m happy I naturally seem to help everyone around me. If I’m tired or exhausted, if I haven’t eaten right or slept enough, no matter what my actions, it doesn’t have the same nourishing effect. That’s why for me, taking time for my daily dive into the transcendent has been rejuvenating and nourishing for me as a woman, and has helped me to nourish others around me.

Do I ever regret my choice concerning children? Not really. There were times when I was younger that I envied my friends with kids, but I’m sure that at times they, in turn, envied the freedom I had to travel the world, work for a nonprofit organization, and focus on self-development. That’s human nature—we make our choices and even if we are mostly happy with them, there are moments when we wish we really could have it all.

For me, “having it all” has been experiencing bliss and happiness within myself every day for the past 42 years. And the best part is that every woman, no matter what her childbearing choices, can “have it all” by diving into that reservoir of pure happiness within—and feeling nourished and revitalized, spread that nourishing happiness to all around her.

(I originally wrote this post for Transcendental Meditation for Women Blog, November 10, 2013. Reprinted with permission.)

BY LINDA EGENES

IMG_4482We’ve all heard the expression, “You are what you eat.” To most people this means simply that the vitamins, carbs, and proteins in food build the cells, blood and bones of your body.

But according to Maharishi Ayurveda, “You are what you eat” means something far more subtle and powerful. Food is known to directly influence your consciousness and feelings. It can create bliss or anger, contentment or restlessness, thoughts of the sacred or the profane. In Ayurvedic diet, the quality of the food you eat literally creates your state of mind, emotions and consciousness.

 Prepare Food for Happiness

Foods that are whole and unadulterated contain more of the intelligence of nature, and thus create more vitality, alertness and happiness when you eat them.

Just think of this example: if you eat an ayurvedic meal composed of fresh, organic vegetables, whole grains and dhal (lentils) lovingly cooked in delicious spices and garnished with panir (fresh cheese) and fresh-fruit chutney, how will you feel afterwards? Contented and satisfied. Now consider how you’d feel after eating a meal consisting of canned vegetables, processed foods, or food fried in unhealthy oils—or food served at a fast-food restaurant. The result might be dullness or a feeling of lack of wellness.

Ayurveda gives a name—tamasic—to such foods that create dullness, disease and even aggressive behavior in the people who make a steady diet of them. Tamasic foods may include leftovers; packaged, frozen, canned and processed foods; vinegar; red meat; alcohol; and any old, spoiled or rancid foods. Tamasic foods are anti-ojas (ojas is the finest and most refined product of digestion). They result in dull thinking, depressed emotions, and physical imbalances.

The foods you want to favor are the foods that have and create positive, spiritual qualities—they are called sattvic foods. Sattvic foods are wholesome, create bliss, heighten alertness, and are easy to digest. Sattvic foods include oranges; almonds; unheated honey; amalaki; rice and whole grains; milk; fresh, organic vegetables; and organic, sweet, juicy fruits such as mango, papaya and pear.

A diet consisting of easy-to-digest, sattvic foods is recommended for almost anyone desiring good health and is especially recommended for people who have chosen a spiritual path in life. These foods convert rapidly into ojas, the product of perfect digestion that in turn creates a glow in the skin, sparkle in the eye, and mental, emotional and physical balance.

Eat Food Cooked with Love

When you cook for your friends or family, it’s important to be in a happy frame of mind. Since ancient times, the ayurvedic texts have pointed out that the emotional state of the cook affects the quality of the food. This is why it’s ideal, in the ayurvedic view, to serve home-cooked meals whenever possible, because food cooked in a restaurant by strangers is unlikely to match the positive energy of a meal cooked by someone who loves you. It’s especially important to cook often for children. There is nothing to replace a mother’s (or father’s) love—a key ingredient in a child’s food.

When cooking, to the extent you are able to easily control your environment, focus on the food and make it a settled, conscious event rather than something thrown together under pressure. Turn off the TV, shoo the kids and pets out of the kitchen, and give yourself time to enjoy the simple act of smelling the spices, feeling the textures of the foods, playing with the colors, and having fun. Or, if your kids, friends or spouse like to help, get them involved, too. However it works for you, make meal preparation a happy time. Your positive thoughts and feelings make a meal a life supporting, sattvic act.

Eat in a Settled Environment

Finally, it’s important to eat your food in a settled, happy, and sattvic environment. This is actually a technique of ayurveda—creatively managing your environment. Make food and table arrangements attractive to the eye, and make sure the dining area is clean, pleasant and sunny, and the air is fresh. These things influence digestion.

Eating with family or good friends is ideal, while enjoying light, quiet conversation. Avoid intense discussions or arguments at the table, as this can interfere with proper digestion. Eating in silence if you are alone allows one to focus on the flavors of the food and the blessing and nourishment that it offers. The natural result will be better digestion. Resist the impulse to switch on the TV or radio. You will feel better and more settled when you create a more sacred, calm atmosphere around the act of eating.

Taking a few moments to give thanks for your food before eating is a universal practice. It’s a chance to remember that food is a living part of creation, and when you eat you are absorbing the infinite energy and intelligence of nature. Saying a prayer or giving thanks also gives you a chance to settle down after a busy day at the office, to give your digestion a chance to create ojas from your food. Ojas is the master ayurvedic biochemical that supports connectivity with nature and with others. Ultimately, eating is a sacred act—a privilege of that divine intelligence that sustains your every action. Preparing and eating food in this manner offers homage to that which is responsible for giving us life and sustaining our lives.

Finally, after the meal is finished, don’t rush off right away. Linger a few minutes at the table to help digestion begin properly and enjoy the opportunity to savor the satisfaction of sharing a delicious meal with those you love.

(I originally wrote this blog for the Maharishi Ayurveda Blog [MAPI], August 21,2012. Reprinted with permission.) 

BY LINDA EGENES

William Stixrud, Ph.D.a clinical neuropsychologist focusing on Stress ManagementWilliam Stixrud, Ph.D., is a clinical neuropsychologist and director of William Stixrud & Associates in Silver Spring, Maryland, a group practice specializing in learning, attention, and emotional disorders. Dr. Stixrud is an adjunct faculty member at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Enlightenment: What is stress?

Dr. Stixrud: Stress is anything that disturbs the body’s homeostasis and causes it to go into the fight or flight response. Certain things happen to the mind and body when you have to respond to a stressor—you get a surge of adrenaline, your muscles get stronger, your senses heighten, and you can do amazing things, like a mother lifting a car when her child is in danger.

However, if the stress response continues to occur, the adrenal steroid cortisol continues to flood the system. The great challenge of modern life is that stress is so prevalent that many people maintain a chronic stress response, which means that they stay in the fight or flight response mode for a long time. Chronic stress is always bad for you.

How does stress affect mental healthEnlightenment: What does stress do to the brain?

It is also true that chronic stress—or being stressed for a long time—actually ends up killing brain cells and shrinking parts of the brain that are extremely important for thinking and learning. For example, people who have been depressed or have had PTSD symptoms for many years usually have a smaller hippocampus, the brain’s major center for creating memories, and this places them at increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease and age-related dementia. You also see shrinkage in the prefrontal cortex resulting from chronic stress, whereas the amygdala, the part of the brain that detects threat, starts working overtime and actually gets bigger. Thus, the more anxious and stressed you are, the more anxious you become.

Enlightenment: How does stress affect mental health?

Dr. Stixrud: In the development of anxiety disorders and depression, the major cause is experience rather than genetics, and the main aspect of experience that creates these mental health problems is stress. Rats show symptoms of depression if they are simply injected with stress hormones. In humans, if you use an MRI scanner to look at the brains of adolescents or adults with an anxiety disorder or depression, the thing that shows up most consistently is a hyperactive amygdala, which indicates that these individuals are highly stressed. Because these problems are stress-related, they can be prevented to a significant extent. Prevention is hugely important because the onset of anxiety problems and depression is occurring earlier and earlier in children. Researchers think depression scars the developing brain, causing increased susceptibility to further bouts of depression. So the top priority is to reduce scarring of the brain by reducing stress-related problems.

Enlightenment: How can we keep stress from having an adverse effect on us?

Dr. Stixrud: A healthy stress response is when your stress hormones spike dramatically to help you respond to a real stressor, but then go back to normal quickly. In people who are frequently stressed, it’s the opposite—stress levels stay relatively high, go up slowly in an emergency, and take a long time to go down.

Practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique normalizes the stress response, which means that stress hormone levels are typically low, spike rapidly in response to threat, and then go down quickly. We want a healthy response to stress, but what we don’t want is a chronic stress response. We want the body to help us do what we have to do when we are threatened, but we don’t want the stress response to remain turned on.

With stressed kids, the level of mental efficiency is so low that it’s hard for them to function. Research shows that kids who meditate do well in school because their brains are working at higher levels of efficiency.

Enlightenment: How can we prevent stress in children and adults?

Dr. Stixrud: Sleep deprivation is a form of chronic stress. It does things to the brain and body that other stressors do. And Americans are chronically sleep deprived, sleeping 20% to 25% less than they did 100 years ago, before the advent of electricity.

You can prevent and alleviate stress by getting enough rest. This means sleeping until you wake up without an alarm clock—that’s how you know you’re getting enough sleep. Evidence also shows that daily physical exercise, such as walking, helps alleviate stress in the body and brain.

The role of the Transcendental Meditation technique is to provide deep rest to the nervous system, deeper than sleep. It provides this deep rest while making the mind more alert. It’s this combination that creates more resilience under stress.

The TM® technique is really good for the developing brain. Teenagers can do it really easily. They have a center, a core of peacefulness and happiness inside themselves that they can access. The more they do it, the more they find they are less reactive to stress. And if they do get stressed, it goes away faster. They generally sleep better, find it easier to eat normally, and are better able to successfully handle the hassles of life. These kids simply need antidotes to the stressors in life, which may include drugs and alcohol and sleep deprivation.

The TM program also significantly reduces the risk for type 2 diabetes. By de-stressing kids, I think we also significantly reduce the risk for heart-related and obesity-related problems. There is good evidence that the TM technique, by providing a tool for systematically de-stressing, allows the heart to work better, and if the heart works better, the brain works better. It makes kids less at risk for all manner of physical and stress-related problems.

(I originally wrote this interview for Enlightenment Magazine, Issue number 7. Reprinted with permission.)

BY LINDA EGENES

220Anyone who has been an adolescent girl knows the kind of crazy and negative thought patterns that can circulate through the brain when a girl thinks of her own body. I remember spending hours in front of the mirror, trying to change my hair, my face and every part of me to be more beautiful and appealing. And I was convinced that if I did look like the models I saw in the magazines or the popular girls at school, then I would feel more happy, more admired, more loved.

If anything, girls today feel more pressure than ever, not only to fit in with their peers, but to fit in with the perfect body image that they are constantly viewing in ads, magazines, TV and social media. If they feel bad enough about their looks, they can even disconnect from normal life, avoiding activities like attending school or even speaking up with their own opinions, a Harvard study found.

This obsession with looks is not just a question of overcoming typical teenage angst—research shows that negative body images, especially among pre-teens, can lead to eating disorders, acting out sexually, drinking, suicide, and bullying.

Yet what can be done about such a prevalent cultural bias toward only perfect body images? Can we really stop the media from objectifying women?

Blog 24New York City thinks they have a way to turn the conversation around. Through bus and subway ads, an inspiring ad campaign that ran in NYC was designed to tell girls aged 7 to 12 years old that they are beautiful just the way they are.

According to the NY Times, city officials cited evidence in The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing that more than 80 percent of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat, that girls’ self-esteem drops at age 12 and does not improve until 20, and that the drop in self-esteem is tied to negative body image.

To help stem the tide of low self-esteem among girls, the city is being plastered with posters depicting ordinary girls saying, in effect, “I’m glad to be me.”

For example, one ad featuring DeVoray Wigfall, a robust, laughing 12-year-old from University Heights in the Bronx, says “I’m a girl. I’m funny, playful, daring, strong, curious, smart, brave, healthy, friendly and caring.” The ads show girls of different races and sizes, some playing sports and one in a wheelchair. Each one ends with the campaign’s overall slogan: “I’m beautiful the way I am.”

I think this is a great step toward ending the objectification of women in the media. A great way to help girls take charge of their own body perception: to say, “I’m me and I’m loved and appreciated and that has nothing to do with how well I fit the media’s super-thin (and often PhotoShopped) body images.”

The city’s campaign also aims to increase self-esteem through physical fitness: as part of the NYC Girls Project, the City of New York is offering physical fitness classes for girls through the parks department, as well as a pilot program addressing self-esteem.

Another proven way to increase girls’ self esteem is to practice the Transcendental Meditation technique. “Since I started meditating, I don’t worry so much about what other people are thinking of me,” said one 12-year-old girl. “I feel happy.”

Research on TM shows that children who practice it regularly enjoy greater self-esteem as well as improved academic performance, increased memory and heightened creativity. The Transcendental Meditation technique helps build self-confidence from within. When a young girl meditates, she experiences deeper levels of intelligence, creativity, happiness and energy. At the same time, the deep relaxation gained during the TM technique reduces stress and anxiety. By unfolding their own inner nature, girls naturally grow in social skills and self-worth.

It makes sense that the NYC campaign was started by a woman, 38-year-old Samantha Levine, the mayor’s deputy press secretary, who serves as the project’s director. She was motivated to take action when she read that grade-school girls were wearing body-shaping undergarments and getting plastic surgery to become thinner.

The idea for the campaign took off, and for the posters, she enlisted the children of friends and other city workers.

“I think every mom has worries,” said Twanna Cameron, whose daughter was featured on a poster. “We can’t all be models, we can’t all be superthin.”

Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including Super Healthy Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Maharishi Ayurveda, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

(I originally wrote this post for Transcendental Meditation for Women Blog, December 10, 2013. Reprinted with permission.)

BY LINDA EGENES

IMG_0136As Valentine’s Day rolls around, we naturally get involved in matters of the heart. Yet when it comes to strengthening the emotional heart the rest of the year, many of us haven’t a clue.

Maharishi Ayurveda offers a unique view of the emotional heart. Just as there is a digestive fire in the stomach that metabolizes food, there is a similar function that metabolizes emotions. When this metabolic function, known as Sadhaka Pitta, is set too high, it can cause explosive emotions and irrational behavior. When it’s set too low, the person takes a long time to process negative emotions, making it impossible to let go and move on.

The secret to emotional health, then, is to balance the metabolic functions of the heart so you can relate to those around you in a loving, calm, and positive way. And because the emotions affect the body, balancing emotional stress is essential for keeping the physical heart healthy, too.

Here are ten ways to reduce emotional stress the ayurvedic way.

1. When you feel emotionally stirred up, drink a cup of rose petal herbal tea with milk.Roses have long been used to alleviate depression, anxiety, insomnia, and irritability. Milk also has a soothing effect on the emotions, but it’s easier to digest if you heat it to the boiling point first. Add cooling flavor with a pinch of cardamom or a teaspoon of rose petal jam, and let the milk cool before drinking.

2. Eat foods that are especially nourishing to the heart, including mature pomegranate fruit or juice; asparagus; sweet, juicy, seasonal fruits; rose petal jam; sweet yogurt drinks (lassi); avocado; and leafy greens. In general, eat more sweet, bitter, and astringent foods. Rather than eating a lot of seafood or red meat (which increase heat in the body), meet some of your protein requirements with soups made of small legumes, such as lentils or split mung beans.

3. Avoid excessively spicy and acidic foods such as chilies and tomatoes. Use cooling spices to flavor your food, like the Heart Healthy Spice Mixture:

  • 1 part ground turmeric
  • 2 parts ground cumin
  • 3 parts ground coriander
  • 4 parts ground fennel

Mix the spices and store airtight. When it is time to cook the meal, steam the vegetables. Melt a small amount of ghee in the pan and add enough spices to flavor the amount of vegetables you are cooking. Sauté the spices until the flavor is released. Add the vegetables, sauté lightly, add salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately. Both the weather and the foods you eat can quickly cause an imbalance in your physiology. When it’s hot outside, eat sweet, cooling foods.

4. Exercise every day. This helps keep digestion and elimination regular, cleanses toxins from the body, and releases endorphins, the hormones that are associated with a happy mood. According to Maharishi Ayurveda, it’s better to schedule half an hour of exercise every day rather than overdoing it three times a week. You can vary the intensity and type of exercise depending on your body type and strength. For people who are of slight build and tend to have trouble gaining weight, it’s better to start with gentle exercise such as yoga or walking. For people who are more competitive, team sports will be more appealing. And those with a sturdier build may need to increase the speed and intensity in order to stimulate their slower metabolism and stay in balance.

5. No matter what your body type, avoid overexertion of all kinds—both mental and physical. Working too hard, either physically or mentally, can cause the emotions to go out of balance. Plan leisure time every day, time for pure enjoyment. Listen to music, chat with your friends, take a moonlight stroll. Taking the time to appreciate the tranquil beauty of nature calms the heart.

6. Avoid skipping or delaying meals. This is so important for people who have a high digestive fire and may suddenly feel emotional when they are hungry. One of the best ways to avoid squabbles among the kids on family outings is to simply plan to eat regular meals. Schedule your main meal at noon, when your digestive fire is at its brightest and can metabolize food more efficiently.

7. Massage yourself every day with a cooling oil such as coconut oil. Ayurvedic oil massage releases toxins, improves blood circulation, and can help restore balance to body and mind.

8. Create a home environment that is pleasing and restful to the senses. Avoid watching too much TV at night, especially violent movies or shows. Rose aroma oil creates a soothing atmosphere and a cooling effect on the emotions.

9. Get your rest. Research shows that stress levels (and heart disease) soars among people who habitually stay up late. The body’s metabolic functions naturally shut down around 10 p.m.—so if you stay up and snack it disturbs the heart’s need to rest, recuperate, and cleanse. Try sleeping early two nights in a row and you’ll not only rest deeper, you’ll feel more emotionally balanced, too.

10. Nourish your emotional heart. Make it a point to tell your loved ones  why they are special to you. Practice gratitude and respect with your family and it will soon become a habit, generating the positive hormones and neuro-chemical reactions that create health instead of disease. Remember, your heart health depends more on the feelings you project rather than the feelings you receive.

And remember to take care of your physical heart, too. After all, it’s hard to overflow with love if you are ill. And to protect your heart, make sure your cholesterol levels are healthy, with a proper balance of good and bad cholesterol. February is National Heart Month—a reminder to schedule a checkup. You owe it to yourself and the people you love.

(I originally wrote this article for The Iowa Source, February 2010. Reprinted with permission.)

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