It started with a question

Cafe Series

Last July, my husband and I spent over 2 weeks traveling throughout the Pacific Northwest.  We hopped from Portland to Seattle to Vancouver and back to Seattle again.  One of my favorite spots was a cafe called Small Victory in Vancouver, Canada.

Cafe Series

It was just two blocks away from the Airbnb apartment in the Yaletown neighborhood.  I spent three mornings there – writing and people-watching.  The latte and London Fog latte were crafted well, the croissant and blueberry almond brioche pastries were delicious and delicately flaky, and the decor was minimally trendy with modern gold details and ash wood panels.  It was my kind of scene and the perfect space to marvel at how I found myself on this trip.  

It started with a question.  

Earlier in the year, J & I were waiting in line for dinner at the ever-popular Ramen Dojo restaurant.  I had asked What would it take for us to ever move out of the Bay Area?  It was meant to be a fun, blue-sky type of discussion.  The questions then led to Where else would we want to live?  New York?  Canada?  Japan?  What kind of jobs could we have over there?  

At one point in the conversation, I wondered if there was a way we could have the best of both worlds.  How could we experience living away without uprooting our lives at home?  The question lingered for the rest of the evening, and then tangible ideas began to form into a solid plan.  

We had a trip already booked for Portland in July to attend the World Domination Summit for a few days.  We then calculated whether time, expenses, and work-schedules could make it feasible to extend our trip.  It grew from a few days to 2.5 weeks, from a visit to Portland to a tour of the Pacific Northwest.  While there were definitely some obstacles to figure out, we found a way to make it work.

Cafe Series

We’re already looking forward to our next adventure, eventually working our way to a month off or even a summer dedicated to living abroad.  A year ago, this kind of trip did not exist for us and our lifestyles.  We couldn’t even conceive of it.  And now it feels entirely possible.

Sometimes it takes a good question to allow for possibilities to form.  To consider a new way of living.

Cafe Series

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My Healthy Habit Backslide: Not a Good Move

Gym

It’s been a struggle for me to find my way back to a healthy diet and gym routine.  S-T-R-U-G-G-L-E.

Here’s the problem with some habits. Once you STOP a habit, it’s HARDER to get back into it. In Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before, she believes that we overestimate how easy it will be to start a habit again. When it comes to starting over with a former habit, she writes, “the novelty has worn off, I’ve remembered all the reasons I struggle with that habit, and it’s discouraging to feel myself backsliding.”

I read that paragraph and realized it was describing me. I had let my ego get the better of me. I believed that since I knew how to eat well, maintain a healthy weight, and challenge myself at the gym, it wouldn’t be a big deal to veer off the healthy path. Just for a little bit.  We all know how that goes.  It took a just this once mentality to fool myself and fall off the path completely.

I used to have only Saturdays reserved for my cheat days, when my husband and I would go to town on carbs and sweets a la Tim Ferriss’s Slow-Carb Diet.  It then morphed into Friday nights AND Saturday (because Friday night is part of the weekend, right?). Then indulging for Friday lunches and Thursday evenings crept into the mix.  Worse than the increase of my cheat days was that I also began emotionally eating. I would snack or crave carbs when I was stressed and depleted of willpower and discipline, but I would also eat unhealthily when I was happy and wanted to celebrate the weekend or a special occasion.

Tony Robbins calls this process Anchoring, which is tying a behavior or stimulus to an intense emotional state.  Anchoring is something you can train yourself to do, and it can be used for better or worse. A good example would be like assuming a powerful stance in order to associate it with the feeling of confidence. If you train yourself effectively, you can call up this emotion every time you act out the behavior (hands on your hips) or see a stimulus (the podium and microphone for your presentation). But Anchoring can also be tied to bad behaviors, such as the case of my unhealthy eating habits. In the few months I let myself veer off course, I had unintentionally ANCHORED myself to associate the behavior of eating junk food and the stimulus of NetFlix with two powerful emotional states: stress and joy.  Nice move, P.

The weight that I had lost last year and had proudly maintained for nearly 6 months crept back. The glimmer of toned muscle on my arms, legs, and abs disappeared.  My pants were getting snug, and I was deliberately choosing shirts with more room.  AND YET.  I couldn’t stop. My husband couldn’t stop either. We were both turning into a regularly snack and pizza-obsessed, Netflix-watching couple, and it was a slow-moving train wreck that neither of us had the willpower to stop.

After several weeks of unsuccessfully trying to stop myself from snacking, I gave up. Kind of.  It was time to switch approaches.  So, I decided to stop stopping. Instead of fighting against my primal, emotional side with my limited willpower, I had to find a way to work with it. To acknowledge its existence.  I needed to use emotions with emotions.

I’ve experienced how ineffective it is to deprive myself.  It doesn’t work for very long. Ever get the urge to do something EVEN MORE when you tell yourself you can’t do it?  Often times people who go on a restricted low-calorie diet usually binge afterwards and gain everything back.  I had to find other ways to reward myself when I was happy and to soothe myself when I was stressed.  After some trial and error, I discovered a few tricks that started to work for me.

When I’m happy and want to go out, I am usually satisfied with treating myself with frozen yogurt.  Or when I’m stressed, I bypass the urge to watch NetFlix by not staying home.  Instead, I immediately head to the gym for Zumba or do some window-shopping at the mall.  It’s a re-direction tactic, and it works because my stress melts away when I get to mindlessly dance it off or browse pretty stuff at the boutiques.  I have also begun to ANCHOR myself with a new healthy habit and routine.  After a good workout, I drive over to Whole Foods and reward myself with a refreshing drink at the juice bar and happily wander the aisles for tasty and healthy snacks.  It actually feels like an indulgence when I go to the juice bar.  Yes, it’s $7 for cold-pressed juice, but it’s damned GOOD.  It also feels like a treat when I buy a local, organic brand of almond butter because the label looks pretty or a container of Strauss yogurt because it’s delicious swirled with honey and berries.  My taste buds appreciate food that is good, even if it’s healthy.

Okay, it’s not the same thing as splurging on a shiny pair of shoes or ordering a cocktail at a restaurant.  But surprisingly, those small indulgences are enough to make me happy.  And maybe that’s enough for my body and spirit to get back on track.

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Kitchen Stories

Prologue: Delancey 
Last December, I read Delancey by Molly Wizenberg, a sweet and funny memoir about opening a pizza place with her husband Brandon. Molly, who writes the blog Orangette, portrays the unglamorous side and stress of owning a restaurant. It’s easy to romanticize the idea of being a restauranteur, especially with the onslaught of reality shows like Top Chef or profiles in Food & Wine magazine. I occasionally have fantasies of opening up a cafe, where artists and community members gather over good coffee and events. However,  Delancey shows what happens before the doors officially open –from the fights between the married couple, the scraping together of money and second-hard parts to build the kitchen, and the exhaustive cleaning and prep work involved during the hours long after doors shut at 10 p.m. Owning a restaurant is not the same as the dream of hosting a dinner party with friends, Molly confides. It is more like hosting a huge Thanksgiving dinner for family, friends, and strangers. Every single night.

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Reading Delancey did not make me want to open a restaurant or progress in the dreams of my cafe, but It piqued my interest in cooking again.  It also renewed my craving for a good slice of wood-fired pizza.  And surprisingly, a good salad.

Act 1: Starting with salad
As Molly created the first menu for opening night, she prepared a simple salad using local produce, sharp cheese, and a homemade vinaigrette. I’m not typically impressed by salads, but J & I learned to appreciate a really good salad.  One of our favorite Italian restaurants serves a serious seasonal salad– sweet golden beets, Beemster cheese shavings, toasted nuts, and a citrus vinaigrette.  We silently hoped the other person was done so that we could finish off the plate.

I never had a salad that made me care about it before.  I had found the inspiring dish that would draw me back to the kitchen again.

Recipes

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Pasta Salad with Tomatoes, Zucchini, and Feta via The Pioneer Woman
My aunts like to task me with bringing the salad to bring for parties and holidays. Maybe they think salad is easier to delegate and is a failure-proof potluck dish. I made this salad for my grandma’s 86th birthday last October at a beach house family event. I found this simple, refreshing salad from The Pioneer Woman, and I loved that it required less than 5 ingredients.  It’s great to make in advance and keeps well during long drives.

Radiccio and Radish Salad with Pear and Parmesan via Orangette

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I returned Delancey to the library, ready to make a REAL salad, and realized that I did not copy down any of the recipes from the book. I assumed Molly would post some of her newer salad recipes on Orangette, but I couldn’t find them. Instead, I found an older salad recipe on her blog that seemed just as refreshing and simple as the ones featured in her book. It was my first time experimenting with creating my own dressing, and it was fun.  I usually grab a bottle of dressing from the store, but it goes to waste because I never make enough salad at home to use it up. I liked everything about this salad except for the radiccio itself.  I had forgotten that leaves like radiccio and endives tasted bitter, so I would personally substitute the radiccio for shredded red cabbage.  When I made this, I also used an apple instead of a pear.

Beet Salad with Oregano, Pecans, and Goat Cheese via Fine Cooking

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It was my first time buying beets at Whole Foods and roasting them!  It was odd to finally see what these vegetables look like in their raw form.  I didn’t know they came with huge stalks of green.  It was an easy process to cook and slice, but a bit messy due to the red beet stains.  Also, listen to the recipe order and sprinkle the goat cheese on last before serving.  My cheese bits were stained by the time I mixed everything together.  Even though it looked red and pinkish, the salad was refreshing and delicious.  I also used walnut pieces instead of pecans.  The next time I make this, I’ll add golden beets and the actual beet leaves for an extra pop of color.

Lazy Salad:  Literally, I throw together grape tomatoes with sliced Persian cucumbers from Trader Joe’s.  If I have cheese or basil leaves, I use those, too.

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Act 2: French Classics Made Easy
I decided to take my next cooking step and open up my kitchen and home.  Making salad and dressing was a good start, but it’s more fun to share food with others and loved ones. Plus it adds the right amount of pressure to make something good.

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I’m surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed the recipes that I’ve made from French Classics Made Easy by Richard Crausman.  We received it as part of my husband’s Quarterly package from Timothy Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Chef (more about Ferriss later in this post).  The Made Easy part of the title speaks to my preferences of easy, simple techniques and minimal ingredients.  I started off by making a simple side of green beans in a garlic, cream sauce.  Then, I tested the poached salmon recipe in a different cream sauce.  How fantastically simple and versatile are cream sauces?  You don’t have to worry about anything else except tossing the fish or meat in the oven, and it piggybacks on the flavors of the sauce.  The sauce itself only has a couple of steps and ingredients – my favorite kind of recipe.

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After making a few dishes from the book, I was ready to test some of the recipes on others.  Every Christmas morning for the last five years, I host brunch for my family.

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I decided to serve a simple menu from French Classics Made Easy:  French omelettes with Gruyère cheese and a mushroom cream sauce, bacon, and a side of tomatoes and mozzarella with truffle salt.  J and I have an Aeropress and a French Press coffee maker, so we also whipped up a few rounds of Bulletproof Coffee blended in butter (our breakfast staple).  My mom said she felt like she was at a bed-and-breakfast joint, and I beamed.  Cooking for others in my home is probably the closest thing I’ll have to running my own cafe anyway.  And it feels even better.

Recipes
Recipes from French Classics Made Easy:
Omelette au Fromage (Gruyère Omelet). Similar recipe via Food.com
Champignons à la Crème (Mushrooms in Cream Sauce).  Online recipe via SavorSA
Basil Beurre Blanc (Basil Butter Sauce).  Similar recipe via allrecipes.com

Gouda Béchamel Sauce via Food and Wine

Bulletproof Coffee via Bulletproofexec.com

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Act 3:  Sous Vide and Sunday afternoons 
For Christmas, my husband excitedly received his gift at our front door — two enormous crate-sized boxes lugged upstairs by the poor FedEx delivery guy.  It wasn’t from me.  It had been a hefty investment in Tim Ferriss’s Secrete Santa Megabox – the ultimate mystery package.  Among the random assortment of tech goodies, including bluetooth Sonos speakers, an electric Boosted board, and a humidifier, there were two items that especially resonated with me.  An Andrew Zimmern enameled cast-iron wok and a Sous Vide Supreme!  Vacuum sealer included!  I tore open the Sous Vide Supreme box in excitement.  It was understood between us that I could claim any culinary items that came in the Megabox.

“What is that?” J asked.  We’d never seen one before.  I just knew it was a fancy gadget for cooking food in water, and it was as large as a microwave.

I spent the next few days poring over the recipe books, researching articles about sous vide cooking, and watching the Sous Vide Supreme starter dvd.  As summarized by many sites, sous vide cooking originated in France and is a method of cooking food in vacuum-sealed pouches using a water oven.  The vaccuum seal also intensifies the flavor within the pouch, so only minimal ingredients are needed.  The water oven is set to maintain a precise temperature, which allows for food to cook evenly and to keep warm until ready to serve.

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There is less margin for error in overcooking food, such as steak.  I can toss my steak into the Sous Vide at 140F, and leave it in there for 1 hour, even for 4 hours, and it will still come out perfectly cooked at medium.  The method of cooking is used in many restaurants, even in Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry.  Keller had written a book dedicated to sous vide cooking called Under Pressure.  The thought of learning a cooking technique that Keller advocates for was thrilling.  And intimidating.

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My world of cooking had expanded exponentially.  I made it a goal for 2015 (and on) to learn how to use the sous vide, along with other cooking tools that have been sitting around my kitchen.  My first test was cooking our New Year’s Eve dinner using the Sous Vide Supreme and the new wok.  It took nearly 5 hours total, including fiddling with the water oven and the sealer, but I triumphantly pulled together a delicious meal:  ribeye steak in brown butter and stir-fried green beans.

The possibilities seemed endless.  I could use the Sous Vide to cook large amounts of food in advance, and thanks to the magic of the vaccuum sealer, the food could freeze for up to 6 months.  There are a few downsides of sous vide cooking, such as the large amounts of water used in each session and that it takes a long time for the water temperature to reach 140 degrees.  For busy weekdays, I don’t have 30 minutes to wait for the oven to warm up before I can cook dinner.  It’s not a quick cooking method, but more suited for batch cooking on a Sunday or for a large group dinner.  After a few trial runs, I devised a few sous vide cooking hacks.

One idea is to only use the Sous Vide roughly once per month, which would allow me to batch cook and freeze several packets of food during one or two sessions.  If I need to use it for a second session, I save the water in a jug so I can re-use it a few days later.  That way, my conscious is at ease given the California drought.  Instead of using the sous vide to re-warm the food, I thaw the pouch in the refridgerator overnight, and re-heat the food in the oven.  Because I can control the temperature and cooking times of the food using the sous vide, I cook the food to medium rare.  By the time I reheat the food in the oven, it should be at medium or nearly well-done without overcooking too much.  I researched lots of ways to reheat frozen or thawed food without sacrificing the quality and taste.  Here, here, and here.

My secret weapon is not really a hack, but a disciplined habit.  I spend Sunday afternoon cooking a lot.  And listening to Pandora and podcasts.  Lately, these have been on heavy rotation: StartUp, Pop Culture Happy Hour, The Tim Ferriss Show.  Here’s the latest episode of StartUp:

I still spend 3 or 4 hours cooking on Sundays, but I’m more intentional about using different cooking tools and methods.  One time, when I was really organized and focused, I had different meals cooking in the sous vide, the oven, and the stove top at roughly the same time.  It doesn’t happen often because it takes so much damned advanced planning –finding recipes suited for each type of cooking method, finishing grocery shopping, and preparing all of the ingredients.  Most of the time, I’m lucky if I can crank out a few extra meals that will last me from Sunday through Tuesday.  I have to continuously remind myself that those 4 hours are worth it because I get a cooking break for a few days, and I save money by bringing lunch to work.

One of these days, I might be as organized as this blogger.  Until then, I’m just happy that I found my way back to the kitchen.

Recipes 
Recipes from the Sous Vide Supreme website.
Ribeye Steaks in Browned Butter
Basic Sous Vide Salmon
Pork Tenderloin Sous Vide
Sous Vide Poached Eggs

Stir Fried Green Beans from The Slanted Door cookbook (a wonderful holiday gift from my sister-in-law!).  Actual recipe via KCRW.

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P.S.
I’ve compiled the links and resources from this post, in addition to a few others, into an online flipboard magazine: CONTEXT | Kitchen Stories.

View my Flipboard Magazine.

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Fuzzy Pink Robe

Fuzzy pink robe

There was a period for a few years during my childhood and teenage years when I anticipated my father’s Christmas gift: pajamas.

Every Christmas, like clockwork, my sister and I received pajamas from our dad. We used to joke and wonder which colors or patterns he would surprise us with that year. As a kid, my heart sunk a bit upon holding the wrapped gift and feeling the lightness of the bundle. Light gifts were almost always clothes, which were practical and no fun at all to a ten-year-old. As a teen and young woman, I gradually grew fond of the pajamas from dad tradition.

I have an assorted collection of pajama tops and bottoms from him — a pink and grey plaid Espirit flannel set, pink Betty Boop cropped pants with a white ruffle trim, and a light blue snowflake cotton set. Some pieces have come and gone throughout the years, whether lost or donated, but I still wear a majority of them. During the final two years before the tradition faded, he decided to mix things up by giving us robes instead of pajama pant sets.

My favorite clothing item to wear at home is the fuzzy, pink robe I received one Christmas. I honestly can’t remember which year he had purchased it for me, but it was around the time I first moved back home from graduate school.  2008?  I vaguely recall having received two pink robes that Christmas year — one from my dad and one from my aunt. I gave the robe from my aunt to my mom, since I reasoned that I didn’t need two plush robes taking up space in my closet — a patch of fluffy pink in the corner that contrasted my wardrobe of largely black, whites, and denim.

The robe followed me when my husband and I purchased our home.  On chilly mornings, I would throw it on as I prepared my coffee. I also love writing and reading in it. I imagine stay-at-home writers to be people with messy hair wearing robes and drinking coffee. Doing so makes me feel like I’m donning the wardrobe of a writer. I’d cozy up in it on slow Saturday mornings. I feel immediately at ease when I wrap myself in it.  It was like receiving a big bear hug. There is now a little hole in the back of the neck tag area from excessive wear and hanging. Although I have a tiny suspicion that my stepmom had a say in my dad’s gifts over the years, I like to think of my serious dad – the opposite of a fuzzy, pink robe person – tied to this warm and loving piece of clothing.

My husband made comments now and then about how warm and comfortable I looked in my robe.  I think he longed for a robe of his own. Two years ago for Christmas, I purchased him a fuzzy robe on a whim. It was a dark green and blue plaid robe, and it was just as soft and cozy as the pale pink robe I wear and love so much.

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This piece is inspired by the book Worn Stories by Emily Spivack, a collection of sartorial stories and memories of the clothing we wear, own, and love. For a deeper dive, read Brain Pickings post of the book here and see Spivack’s ongoing project Worn Stories here.

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Morning Meditation | The Ritual I Grew to Love

“Waking up this morning I smile
knowing there are 24 brand new hours before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment,
and look at beings with eyes of compassion.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh via zenhabits

 

“I’m not a morning person.”

I’ve said this statement countless of times in the past few years. It was easy to use as an excuse. I’ve said it in the mornings when I was forced to wake up early in the morning for school, teaching, or meetings. I didn’t realize that the more I said it, the more I closed myself off to the possibility of ever changing and becoming a “morning person.”

Earlier this year, I decided to challenge this belief. I no longer wanted to wait until the end of the work day or the weekend to carve out time for myself. I wanted to read. I wanted to write. I wanted to work on fun, creative projects. By the time I came home from work, all I had the mental energy to do was either turn on Netflix, hastily make dinner, or drag myself to the gym. Mindless tasks. After spending so much effort and energy at work, I was too tired to make use of the remaining scraps of time for other activities, even though I knew they would fulfill me. This sort of lifestyle felt backwards.

I had three choices. I could either continue with my status quo routine. I could make use of late evenings for personal time. Or I could wake up earlier. The thought of more monotonous weekdays filled with Netflix shows and web-surfing seemed comfortable yet empty. Staying up late in the middle of the night seemed tiresome and torturous. That left me with the mornings. I would learn how to become a morning person.

I Googled and tested nearly every strategy I could find for waking up in the morning. I made myself go to bed earlier. I set the alarm an hour ahead of my usual time. I tested the alarm with increments of 15 minutes. I put my alarm further away so it would force me to get out of bed. I stumbled into the kitchen to make coffee. I started the morning with stretches and light exercise. I jumped in the shower right when I woke up. I used my phone so that the screen would stimulate my senses.

It was a long process. There were several mornings when I defied the entire exercise and intentionally snoozed through the alarm. I can’t remember which strategies worked because I mixed and matched them sporadically. However, with a month of deliberate practice, I started to notice a shift in my attitude. On the days I was able to wake up earlier than my usual time, whether it was 20 minutes or 45 minutes or an hour, I rewarded myself. For days I woke up 20 minutes early, I read a blog entry. For days I woke up 45 minutes early, I journaled or squeezed in a writing session. For days I woke up an hour or more early, I headed to Philz coffee for leisure reading and writing. My mornings transformed into something to look forward to instead of something to dread or disregard. That mental shift alone attributed the most to my success than any strategy could.

After another few weeks, the times became more consistent. I was able to wake up with a full hour all to myself. There’s a luxurious comfort and stillness that comes with waking up before the rest of the world. Before the frantic pace of rushing in the morning, getting ready for work, commuting in traffic, running into the office, and checking e-mails. All of that would eventually arrive. But that hour belonged to me– untainted by the demands of the outside world.

My morning ritual has evolved since that spring. I used to spend that hour for coffee, leisure reading, and journaling. It was a great way to wake up my mind and stimulate my creativity first thing in the morning.  In late May, my husband J introduced me to a device called emWave that uses Heart Rate Variability science as part of a relaxation practice. The device measures your pulse either through the finger or earlobe and signals your coherency levels with your breath and heart rate. He purchased two devices for us to test out at home. I had been interested in the idea of medtiation for some time, but was too intimidated to try. My mother-in-law is a devout Buddhist, and she has encouraged me to read spiritual books and attend temple with her. I imagined myself as a clumsy spiritual being, so the emWave device seemed like an accessible place to start.

For the first few days, I used the emWave device while I prepared my coffee. I was eager to jump straight into my reading and writing routine. Needless to say, the HRV results were not that great. Multi-tasking is the antithesis to meditation. By day 4, I took the task more seriously. I rolled out my purple yoga mat in front of the living room window and sat there in silence. I lasted for 3 1/2 minutes before I ended the session. However, to my surprise, the HRV coherency score was significantly higher. I was so excited by my improvement that I meditated later that day for twice as long, also getting a high coherency score.

For that month, I challenged myself to devote at least the first few minutes of each morning to begin with meditation. Before the coffee and the reading and the writing. If I could only do 5 minutes, that was okay. Some days, I would go longer. Just like a shift took place when I started to enjoy waking up early, another subtle yet powerful transformation took place from my morning meditation. I noticed that I would write more freely, the ideas were more creative, and my mood significantly improved throughout the day. All I had done was the daily practice of mindful meditation for five minutes!

Prior to using the emWave, the closest I had come to a secular spiritual practice was taking a yoga or pilates class every now and then. My favorite parts of yoga were the beginning sun salutations and the ending with shivasanna. Sun salutations moved and stretched my body from the ground to upward, embracing the heavens. Shivasanna was quietly laying in the stillness, pulling myself to the present moment through all five senses. After reading Josh Kaufman’s book, in which he covers yoga practice, I was inspired to incorporate sun salutations into my morning meditation.

This is now my morning ritual. I wake up at 6am. Even though I may still be tired, I calmly ease into the morning by walking to the kitchen to begin brewing my coffee. I head to the purple yoga mat, where it now consistently lays by the windowsill. In that space, I have a candle that I light and a sound machine set to ocean waves. Sometimes I’ll open my window to feel the crisp morning air. I start with 5 sun salutations — slow and deliberate movements that gently stretch and awaken my body. If my joints are tight, I use the foam roller which loosens my back and shoulder muscles. When I feel ready, I set up the emWave device on my phone, sit, and breathe. I appreciate the still simplicity of the moment.

I take comfort in knowing that the next two hours are mine before the outside world comes into focus. And when it does, I reach a place where I’m ready to welcome it.

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More Reading:

Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages exercise

Daily Rituals book by Mason Currey

The First 20 Hours book by Josh Kaufman

zenhabits post Creating a Lovely Morning 

Tara Brach’s guided meditation and talks as recommended by Maria Popova

Sam Harris post The Mirror of Mindfulness and guided meditations

emWave and HeartMath information

 

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