From thin to fat

Both my brother and I were painfully thin while growing up, which in Chennai was a bad thing. My Mom gave us strange concoctions to fatten us up– raw eggs with milk was the worst– to no effect.

Now I am finally confronting my slowing metabolism with wonder (I’ve gained weight!) and shock. And finally, I am exercising.

I’m going to keep up my fitness regime, even if it kills me
Shoba Narayan

August 12, 2014 Updated: August 12, 2014 05:34 PM
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The women in my kick-boxing class generate a lot of oestrogen. Or is it testosterone that is created when women kick, punch and scream their way to fitness nirvana?
Keeping up with these women takes my breath away – literally. I wheeze and cough as I perform high kicks and low punches. The woman in front of me glances back, as if low fitness levels were contagious. She is wearing a pink leotard, and she goes through the class like a fireball, never letting up, never giving less than 100 per cent.
She is small, packed tightly, treads lithely and punches like Muhammad Ali. Just the fact that I belong to the same species as her makes me proud, even giddy. But maybe that’s just the exercise.
I wonder about her, this pink leotard lady. Perhaps she has a job in marketing and is forced to be nice to clients all day. Perhaps that’s why she punches so fiercely.
She smiles at me sometimes. I don’t smile back. If I do, she’ll become my friend. Then she’ll start giving me advice about how to become fit; and from there it is a short road to “stop eating potatoes”, which I absolutely refuse to do. In fact, I am eating a chip right now, just to prove my point.
For people who, like me, lack discipline, fitness classes are a great motivator. They turn fitness into a group activity rather than a Herculean lone task. Of late, I’ve signed up for them all: zumba, kick-boxing, pilates, circuit training, cross- fit, yoga, you name it. Whether I go to them all is another matter.
When I do go, which is infrequently, I get daunted by the level at which my cohorts are performing. Whoever thinks that India is a country full of unfit, diabetes-prone, cholesterol-laden citizens perpetually on the verge of cardiac arrests ought to go to cross-fit classes.
Fitness is a mild obsession of mine, not because I am fit or I am working towards getting fit in any serious manner but because I am trying to game the system and my body to see if I can optimise fitness and lose the greatest number of kilograms with the least possible effort.
Every device that maximises benefit without extra effort, I will buy. I suck my stomach in during a car ride until I almost asphyxiate. In yoga, it is called uddiyana bandha, and we are supposed to do it during ashtanga yoga exercise. I do it while standing in queues.
Kick-boxing is a recent addition to my fitness cocktail, mostly because it calms me down.
The five women who stand in the front row are the leaders of our kick-boxing class. They stare murderously at their reflections in the mirror as they kick, punch, snarl, side swipe, squat and punch again.
A few rounds of this and my eyes glaze. I wobble like a snake that has just been banged on the head by a snake charmer. They glance at me; their eyes even look concerned. But they don’t stop kicking.
This, then, is what it has come down to. A person could have a cardiac arrest and keel over, right there in the fitness studio, and all those extreme-fitness mavens would just keep on punching.

Intuition/Imagination

Leap before you think

Before he began Apple, Steve Jobs spent seven months in India, something that is described in his biography by Walter Isaacson. In it, Jobs talks poetically about the difference between intellect and intuition. “The people in the Indian countryside do not use their intellect like we do,” he said. “They use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect in my opinion.”
Jobs was not a fan of India. If he identified intuition as the one Indian thing that he wanted to emulate, that is worth considering. There are a few Sanskrit words for intuition: pratibha being the most common one. Developing intuition, discernment (or viveka) and wisdom (vijnana) have been Indian preoccupations for centuries.
Different cultures are obsessed with different things at different stages in their evolution. Japan, for instance, is obsessed with refinement and perfectionism. Singapore is obsessed with systems. China, with scale. The US, with innovation. Ancient Indians were obsessed with self-cultivation; to figure out “how God thinks”, as Albert Einstein said.
In a quote attributed to Einstein, he said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Notice that this scientist used the word sacred—proving that the rational and the intuitive are not as disconnected as we make them out to be.
Intuition is something that every religion knew about. Jesus, as the story of Lazarus (and the fish which had a four-drachma coin in its mouth) illustrates, was a man of intuition. As was Mohammed the Prophet. In today’s world, we call these intuitive thinkers visionaries. Religion teaches us that the way to develop intuition is through prayer and meditation. As Jobs says: “If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to comment, it will only make it worse. But over time, it does calm down, and when it does, there is room to hear more subtle things—that is when your intuition starts to blossom.”
Typically, flashes of insight that are the result of intuition occur at dawn. This is the time when the free-flowing, loose, flexible stillness of the mind gives rise to solutions that are fully formed. During the day, the mind is a wandering beast. Typically, when you try to sit still and meditate, the mind wanders to knotty problems that need to be solved: who said what to whom and how to resolve unfinished business. But if you can still your mind and keep it loose, you increase the chances of insight; of the muse sitting on your shoulder and allowing your imagination to flourish.
Focusing on the moment is the gift that prayer and meditation afford. There are many things that civilizations use to centre their mind. Tibetans use bells. In Aldous Huxley’s novel, Island, which recreates a utopian land, parrots fly over people screeching, “Here and now, boys. Here and now.” They were reminding the islanders to focus on the present; to live for the here and now. The anklets that Indian women wear serve a similar purpose. Try it. The rhythmic jingle of these anklets when you walk serves to bring your mind back to the musical sound; to the here and now.
The ability to voluntarily bring back a wandering mind again and again and again is what we call meditation. American psychologist William James said that this ability to focus was the root of judgement, character and will. The wandering mind is also the root of imagination and creativity.
Paradoxically, it is the controlled kind of wondering that elicits the best results. Think of a kite—rooted to the earth and yet bobbing in the sky. That is the kind of mind-wandering that we need to create. In a famous Time magazine cover that appeared decades ago, Hollywood director Steven Spielberg said, “I dream for a living.” Daydreaming creates the kind of associations that lead to blockbuster movies—and companies, I might add. The trick then is to allow the mind to fly and figure out how to rein it in. Indians have numerous tools for this. We have anklets, for example.
Neuroscientists ask people to close their eyes to see how much the mind flits around. When the eyes move behind closed lids, so does the mind. Bharatanatyam has a famous saying that is taught to every new dancer. It is from the Abhinaya Darpana (Mirror Of Gesture), by the redoubtable Nandikeshvara, often spoken of as a rival to Bharata Muni, who composed the Natya Shastra, the foundation of dance and other arts. In Sutra 36-37 of Abhinaya Darpana, the author talks about how to focus the mind and create rasa or emotion. This famous verse goes: “Yatho hastha thatho drishti. Yatho drishti thatho manah. (Where the hands go, there the eyes will follow. Where the eyes go, there the mind will follow)”.
You want to meditate? Hold your hands in a certain position (mudra, according to Buddhists), and focus your eyes on an object.

Shoba Narayan’s favourite mudra is “bhoomi sparsha mudra” or “caressing the earth mudra”. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Yoga and Willpower

I restarted yoga lessons. My teacher is very good, but very very busy!!! Hope his timings and mine can work out long term.
Inspired by my lessons…..

yoga1

Can yoga improve your willpower?

In an ideal world, stilettos would have massager-inserts in them; French fries would remove the toxins from your body and make your waistline shrink; and everyone would have the willpower to do whatever they wanted to accomplish. But reality, sadly, is a little different. Social psychology points to four characteristics that lead to success: resilience, willpower, focus and imagination. In an outlandish and somewhat brilliant twist, all four of these characteristics can be cultivated by a practice that is at least as ancient as Indian corruption. I speak, of course, of the global juggernaut that we call yoga.
As someone who learnt yoga as a child, I am a little unnerved by the sight of blonde women with long Scandinavian bodies chanting Sanskrit mantras and doing the downward dog with far more flexibility than I ever could. I suppose I should feel proud rather than resentful. After all, it takes a special kind of inventiveness to look at how scorpions, dogs, crows and locusts move and come up with asanas that manage to enlighten or humiliate, depending on what level you’re at.
Like many Indian children, I was sent off to the local playground to learn yoga from a man who looked like a military commander. My teacher made us contort our bodies into bends, stretches and lunges. No theory was given. Raps on the knuckles were a favoured mode of punishment, along with “Stand up on the bench”, except that there was no bench on the field, so it was modified to “Stand up on the branch”, which was equally humiliating because we stood there swaying on a guava branch that was permanently at risk of breaking.
I have remained interested in yoga. I do the asanas or poses every now and then, sometimes consistently and sometimes sporadically. Looking back, it seems like I turned to yoga at transition points in my life. As a newly wed, my husband would walk into the house and find me engaged in a headstand—an unnerving experience for him, particularly after a flaming row. When things got rough in graduate school, I would find myself waking up in the morning and doing the Trikonasana, or the triangle pose, bending down as if I was surrendering to a higher power—or in my case, my thesis adviser. After the birth of my children, my gynaecologist recommended stretches. Although I couldn’t see how more stretching could remove stretch marks, I turned to yoga.
There are many schools of yoga now, and those of us who have learnt yoga since childhood have a view on them. I, for example, don’t subscribe to Bikram Yoga, in which practitioners do the asanas in a room heated to 40 degrees Celsius, with high humidity to boot. It’s like a combination of sauna and steam shower, except that people are not naked and are doing poses. Power yoga was invented in the US as a way of combining fitness with yoga. As someone who is reflexively against fusion—be it in food or anything else—I have trouble with this too. I find the Bihar School of Yoga (BSY) to be authentic; as is Ashtanga, Sivananda and Iyengar yoga.
My current teacher follows these four schools and often, we have discussions. A Sanskrit quote he recently taught me goes like this: “Sthiram sukham asanam”. It comes from the “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”. The literal meaning is “stability comfort is asana”. If you find a pose where you are able to stay still for a long time, it is like doing an asana. Indian mythology supports this. In every mythical story, it seems, there is a saint (or rishi) who sits in Padmasana, or the lotus pose, for centuries in order to obtain immortality, the company of beautiful women, or eternal youth.
Why obtain immortality if you are going to use it to sit still for centuries is beyond me but that was what the stories said. My goals are more modest. I would like to have more willpower so that I can resist any number of things: stop eating potato chips late at night; stop throwing things at the television when a particular news anchor comes on; and stop hankering for increased willpower to engage in all these goals.
Roy F. Baumeister, a psychologist and author of Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength, has a few pithy points. He says that willpower is a muscle. It can be developed; at the same time, it gets tired with overuse. So if you want to stop eating chocolates at the end of the day, reduce the number of decisions you make at the beginning of the day.
A simple way to do this is to wear the same suit to work every day. Schools call it uniform. The logic is simple. Choices involve decisions which reduce willpower. One of the activities that Baumeister suggests is to sit still in one position. He says that postural discipline leads to mental discipline.
This then is the way to merge yoga with modern social psychology. To use an asana to develop focus and willpower. Try sitting in one position without moving. It could be in front of the computer or while you are conversing with somebody. The whole point is to find a position where you are able to stay still and do just that: Stay still. According to Baumeister, this stillness increases willpower over time. “Sthiram sukham asanam.”

Shoba Narayan can definitely stay still for at least 3 hours—as long as
there is an action-packed Jackie Chan movie on TV. Write to her at thegoodlife@ livemint.com

Yoga Journal

Yoga Journal

Parvati Power

This Hindu goddess, consort of Shiva, proves that dignity and smarts prevail.

By Shoba Narayan

Parvati is one face of the divine female energy, often called Devi (the shining one) or Shakti (power), that many Indians worship as the power above all deities. The goddess is personified in many forms, including Saraswati, goddess of learning and consort of Brahma, and Lakshmi, goddess of fortune and consort of Vishnu.

Parvati came into being when a female demon was terrorizing the world, smug in the knowledge that only a son of Shiva could kill her. But Shiva had withdrawn from the world to practice ascetics high in the Himalayas. He wouldn’t even look at a woman, much less sire a son.

In an effort to woo Shiva, Shakti, the great mother goddess, took the form of Parvati. Shiva scorned her until she engaged in austerities of her own. Impressed, Shiva accepted her as his wife, and they produced a son who destroyed the demon.

Smart and curious, Parvati questioned Shiva about the Vedas and other sacred texts, whose secrets he whispered into her ears. But the couple also had their spats, one of which resulted in Ganesha: Parvati was frustrated that none of Shiva’s ganas (attendants) would swear allegiance to her, so she created a boy and instructed him to let no one enter her home. When Shiva arrived, the boy blocked his way, so the god chopped off his head. Parvati was sick with grief. To appease her, Shiva fused the head of an elephant onto the boy’s body and breathed life back into it—and named him Ganesha, “leader of the ganas.”

Today, Parvati is the epitome of determination and discipline. She refuses to let Shiva’s scorn intimidate her and doesn’t take no for an answer. Instead, she wins with grace and dignity, something we can all aspire to.

therefore, all sages worship him. He is there before anything else was there in the world. Whomever Narada approached could not give him an answer. Therefore, finally he approached Lord Shiva and asked this question. Lord Shiva replied that he mediate upon his guru. Narada satisfied and went back and told to other gods that he got his answer. Then the other gods asked Narada- who is Lord Shiva’s guru? The sage, then only realized that he did not get the answer to his question so far. So he went back to the Lord and praised him. ‘O Lord’, you are above everything. You can destroy the whole world and can create it back even better way within seconds. So, please be kind enough to understand all my doubts instead of asking you silly questions. Then, Lord Shiva replied with a smile. ‘Oh Narada, The person you and the entire world worship as their mother is my guru’. Narada surprised and replied; But, she is your wife? Then Lord Shiva said; Yes, that is the reason why she is my guru. Then he showed Narada his mediating form which we normally see in pictures. So, Narada saw Parvathi as Kundalini rising across Shiva’s spine and going across his neck and realized the reason why he is called ‘Nataraja’. Finally, he saw Parvathi at Shiva’s Crown Chakra in woman form just like the universal mother and water falling out of her mouth to feed the entire living beings. Then, Lord Shiva told to Narada: ‘Oh! Great sage, Narada, please spread the knowledge to the entire world that when one respect and believe their wife to the most, their Kundalini will start aligning with her and they will have the perfect married life. Then only, she will yield to him willfully’.

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Yoga Journal

Thanks, Naomi, for sending me these links in the Yoga Journal.  Wrote these pieces a long time ago.  Didn’t know they existed.

    • Quite Contrary

      Kali is both a fierce warrior and a compassionate mother goddess, reflecting the range of behavior available to us all.

      By Shoba Narayan

      Many of the female deities in Hindu mythology are powerful and full of contradictions. The goddesses Kali and Durga are perfect examples of this: They mix fierce destructive power with maternal protectiveness.

      Durga, often shown riding a tiger, is one of the names given to the consort of Shiva. When one of their sons was battling a demon, Durga came to her child’s aid by assuming the form of Kali, a fearsome, bloodthirsty figure with a long, protruding tongue. The demon’s power allowed every drop of his blood to turn into a hundred copies of himself as soon as it hit the ground, but Kali’s tongue caught each drop in midair, and the demon and all his copies were vanquished.

      The victorious Kali danced on the corpse-strewn battlefield, adorned herself with skulls, and, fueled by blood and gore, ran amok, wreaking havoc on the three worlds—the heavens, the earth, and the underworld.

      To stop her, Shiva turned into a corpse on the battlefield. When Kali stepped on him, she stopped short, fearing she’d slain her husband in her rage. As she paused, Shiva became an infant and began crying. Kali instantly picked up and suckled the baby Shiva, transforming from a fierce warrior to a benevolent mother goddess. This story illustrates how Kali’s destructive power can bring about good, though it needs balance and direction.

      Portrayals of Kali are symbolic in many ways. She is depicted as black-skinned, which means she’s without form: infinite and changeless. Her girdle of hands looks horrific, but it suggests the way for devotees to free themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth; our hands can free us from the karmic wheel. Her garland of 50 skulls signifies the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, the destroyers of ignorance. Like Shiva, Kali has three eyes, meaning she knows the past, present, and future.

      An incredibly powerful female icon, Kali is full of contradictions. She’s naked but not vulnerable, motherly yet unafraid of battle and blood. She’s a warrior but a compassionate one; she brings death but also gives life. Like Kali, we’re all capable of fierce opposition to evil as well as tenderness and compassion.

      Kali is both a fierce warrior and a compassionate mother goddess, reflecting the range of behavior available to us all.

      By Shoba Narayan

      Many of the female deities in Hindu mythology are powerful and full of contradictions. The goddesses Kali and Durga are perfect examples of this: They mix fierce destructive power with maternal protectiveness.

      Durga, often shown riding a tiger, is one of the names given to the consort of Shiva. When one of their sons was battling a demon, Durga came to her child’s aid by assuming the form of Kali, a fearsome, bloodthirsty figure with a long, protruding tongue. The demon’s power allowed every drop of his blood to turn into a hundred copies of himself as soon as it hit the ground, but Kali’s tongue caught each drop in midair, and the demon and all his copies were vanquished.

      The victorious Kali danced on the corpse-strewn battlefield, adorned herself with skulls, and, fueled by blood and gore, ran amok, wreaking havoc on the three worlds—the heavens, the earth, and the underworld.

      To stop her, Shiva turned into a corpse on the battlefield. When Kali stepped on him, she stopped short, fearing she’d slain her husband in her rage. As she paused, Shiva became an infant and began crying. Kali instantly picked up and suckled the baby Shiva, transforming from a fierce warrior to a benevolent mother goddess. This story illustrates how Kali’s destructive power can bring about good, though it needs balance and direction.

      Portrayals of Kali are symbolic in many ways. She is depicted as black-skinned, which means she’s without form: infinite and changeless. Her girdle of hands looks horrific, but it suggests the way for devotees to free themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth; our hands can free us from the karmic wheel. Her garland of 50 skulls signifies the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, the destroyers of ignorance. Like Shiva, Kali has three eyes, meaning she knows the past, present, and future.

      An incredibly powerful female icon, Kali is full of contradictions. She’s naked but not vulnerable, motherly yet unafraid of battle and blood. She’s a warrior but a compassionate one; she brings death but also gives life. Like Kali, we’re all capable of fierce opposition to evil as well as tenderness and compassion.

      Kali is both a fierce warrior and a compassionate mother goddess, reflecting the range of behavior available to us all.

      By Shoba Narayan

      Many of the female deities in Hindu mythology are powerful and full of contradictions. The goddesses Kali and Durga are perfect examples of this: They mix fierce destructive power with maternal protectiveness.

      Durga, often shown riding a tiger, is one of the names given to the consort of Shiva. When one of their sons was battling a demon, Durga came to her child’s aid by assuming the form of Kali, a fearsome, bloodthirsty figure with a long, protruding tongue. The demon’s power allowed every drop of his blood to turn into a hundred copies of himself as soon as it hit the ground, but Kali’s tongue caught each drop in midair, and the demon and all his copies were vanquished.

      The victorious Kali danced on the corpse-strewn battlefield, adorned herself with skulls, and, fueled by blood and gore, ran amok, wreaking havoc on the three worlds—the heavens, the earth, and the underworld.

      To stop her, Shiva turned into a corpse on the battlefield. When Kali stepped on him, she stopped short, fearing she’d slain her husband in her rage. As she paused, Shiva became an infant and began crying. Kali instantly picked up and suckled the baby Shiva, transforming from a fierce warrior to a benevolent mother goddess. This story illustrates how Kali’s destructive power can bring about good, though it needs balance and direction.

      Portrayals of Kali are symbolic in many ways. She is depicted as black-skinned, which means she’s without form: infinite and changeless. Her girdle of hands looks horrific, but it suggests the way for devotees to free themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth; our hands can free us from the karmic wheel. Her garland of 50 skulls signifies the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, the destroyers of ignorance. Like Shiva, Kali has three eyes, meaning she knows the past, present, and future.

      An incredibly powerful female icon, Kali is full of contradictions. She’s naked but not vulnerable, motherly yet unafraid of battle and blood. She’s a warrior but a compassionate one; she brings death but also gives life. Like Kali, we’re all capable of fierce opposition to evil as well as tenderness and compassion.

    • READER COMMENTS

      K-km YEP:
      “mix fierce destructive power with maternal protectiveness”
      dat’s what I am, but WASTED a so much of my life FEELING GUILTY about the CONTRADICTORY nature of me; little did I know:
      I AM GODDESS KALI
      kali this is so weird. my name is kali and yes, i am young, 13 to be exact but my mom reads this magazine and showed it to me. she was freaked out about how close this resembled me. i can say no to anyone and stand up for myself and my friends. i was coming on here to find the article to put on my myspace, my friends would agree with my mom. :)

Beliefnet

I used to be the Hinduism columnist for Beliefnet when it began years ago. When it got acquired, I even got stock options for which. They have a page for me here but most of my articles are archived under the Hinduism banner.
Beliefnet’s Search page which has all my stories.

Here are some of the topics and links.

The Meaning of a Guru

I have to admit that I have trouble with the whole ‘guru’ thing. Guru means teacher in Sanskrit, but it connotes much more than that. A guru is someone who removes your ignorance, without whom you cannot attain the knowledge you are seeking.
Delaying Puberty with Yoga.

Pop Karma: My Name is Earl TV show.

Ritual Initiation: Varalakshmi Puja

Rama: Beloved Avatar

Saying a Traditional Goodbye

Yoga as Middle Path

Loving with no strings attached

The Incomparable M.S. Subbulakshmi

Decoding Destiny with the I-Ching

Incarnations of the Mother Goddess

May Hanuman be with you

Soy: soul food or spiritual sham

Stop Building Hindu Temples

Bah, Humbug!

Confessions of a Closet Vegetarian

Fashionably Devout

Just Say No to Turkey Propaganda: Hindu Thanksgiving Recipes

End to Passive Resistance
Indian or Hindu: One, Both or Neither?

Karma’s a Drag
– Movement Meditation
Shortcut to Spirituality

Stripping the Soul out of Yoga

The Vasthu Vibe

Tuning Out the Teletubbies
Vegetarian Nirvana