Thursday, February 25, 2016

Moment of Zen.

We all have a place that fills us with a sense of calm and peace when we think about it.  I think I found mine this winter.  A few deep breaths and remembering how it felt to be here does the trick.

What's yours?

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Why I do yoga. Today.

A friend recently asked why I do yoga.  She's working on a school project.  Here's my response...

Why do I do yoga?

I’ve been practicing yoga off and on for roughly twenty years now. I must admit it’s been mostly off, but I’ve rediscovered it over the past year. Usually my ‘on period’ is driven by a friend invite or seeing a sign for a yoga class at the gym or a nearby studio, but this latest rediscovery has been a more conscious effort. I think if I share my reasons for jumping back into yoga, it might help to explain what I like about it and how it helps me to be more centered.

I've been so wholly focused on making Mt. Tom’s a success over the past decade, I've neglected the part of me that craves spiritual connection - something deeper and more meaningful. I finally have a manager and a crew that have been with me for a few years and are ready and able to take on more of the tasks I've been doing myself since the beginning. This is opening up a sizable chunk of time for me.

I've been trying to redefine success where time and balance are weighted more heavily than my bank account.

I've always been into fitness, nutrition, and self-help, but I've generally compartmentalized that from my professional life, and even from each other. I'm still in the exploration stage, but I feel like yoga could be that 'thing' that brings it all together at a deeper level. Meditation is great, but I like how yoga connects you with your body, your humanness. It simplifies things down to just your breath. It's non-judgmental. It asks you to push past your comfort zone, but in a non-threatening way. Every yogi I've met has such good energy. They seem to have this aura of fullness to them, their happiness is overflowing. I know that happiness can really only be found within yourself, but it seems like yoga is great way to center yourself and help bring life down to its most basic level. And I think that's where many of the answers lie.

Yoga is like one of those great friends that even if you lose touch with them for a period of time, when you reconnect, you can just pick up where you left off. No hard feelings. No guilt. Nobody’s fault. You’re just genuinely happy to be together again.

I’ve done yoga in the comfort of my own home occasionally, but following the words of a one-dimensional person on a video just isn’t the same as being in a studio with a real live instructor. You’re surrounded by fellow yogis of all different sizes, shapes, and abilities. You get to feed on each other’s energy. You can’t just put the video on pause and go make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You’re in it for the duration. No two live classes are exactly the same. The instructor will often ask the class how they are feeling and if there’s anything in particular they want to work on. Classes vary certainly by instructor and style of yoga, but even the same class will feel differently from one week to the next.

I really like how yoga connects your mind to your body. Let’s face it, most of us wander through our days in an overworked, overstimulated fog. When you enter a yoga studio, and take your place on a mat, you leave all your to-do lists and dramas outside. It’s almost as if the stresses of your day are all in your shoes, and when you take them off as you enter the studio, they stay there with your socks. Of course, they’re still there waiting for you after class, but I’ve noticed those stresses have a slightly lighter grip on you compared to when you took them off and metaphorically left them at the door.

During a recent yoga class, the instructor asked us to set an intention to focus on the ‘space in between’. When you hold a pose, like when you’re stretching before a run, there’s a point where hit the resistance of your muscle. Your body says, ‘ok, that’s far enough.’ Then you try to push a little further. How hard you push past that point determines your level of discomfort, while stimulating your body to become more flexible. Just like when you lift weights and you do those extra reps after your body says, ‘I don’t think I can do one more.’ In both cases, you’re pushing yourself out of comfort zone. And as we all know, this is where the growth happens - both mentally and physically. Just as the highs and lows in our life shape our memories and our character, it’s the ordinary moments ‘in between’ where we spend most of our time. Being more fully in those ‘rainy Wednesday afternoon’ moments is one of the the keys to a more fulfilling life. Yoga seems to have a way of providing those kind of illuminating reminders.

In a nutshell, yoga is a great way to slow down for a little while, connect with that precious, irreplaceable instrument known as your body, and align it with your mind and your thoughts. To breathe deeply and consciously, and just be. Yoga is pliable. It can be whatever you want it to be. Go to hot yoga and sweat out your toxins. Take a core yoga class and strengthen your middle. Join a Vinyasa flow and enjoy a moving meditation. It doesn’t have to be spiritual, but it can be. No one is keeping score. Like meditation or lifting weights or running, the actual act of doing yoga likely will only happen for a couple hours of your week, but it has the ability to have a positive effect on all the space in between. It encourages you to be more aware of what’s going on around you and to take better care of your body and your mind. Like a warm ray of sun on your face, it sheds a little light on your soul, and that feels good.

‘Relax and lean away from the noise in the mind.’ - Michael Singer


Thursday, February 11, 2016

Costa Rica 2016

Welcome back to the Ice Cream Diaries, soon to be renamed ‘What Jim did in January’ for my lack of posts the rest of the year.  You may have been wondering if I got to get away at all this year, with the shop being open through the month of January for the first time.  Well, you’ll be relieved to know that yes, I did still get to enjoy my annual month of leisure, or ‘January of Jim’ as I’ve been known to call it. This thanks to scoopervisor extraordinaire and newly minted ice cream maker, Natasha, and her trusty sidekick, Abby. I made a pact with them and the rest of the crew that I’d keep the shop open so long as it still (mostly) felt like a month off for me.  Let’s face it, longing thoughts of January downtime have always been what’s gotten me through the summers of eighty hour scoop weeks and endless ice cream making. The crew and I worked harder and smarter throughout the Fall to engineer, to coin an old career, me out of the process. Tasha stepped up to the ice cream making plate.  Abby became candy wench.  And the rest of the scoop crew learned to think a little more like their boss (e.g. I’d better go make sure the bathroom is clean).  

Thanks to their efforts and care, and a nice little assist from Mother Nature, January was a rousing success. While you may have missed the hand-packed pint fire sale we usually have the end of December, a few of you may have enjoyed your first ever January Mt. Tom’s birthday ice cream cake.  I hope no one is reading this and thinking, ‘darn, I could have been getting my favorite ice cream for the past month!’  In any event, a huge thanks to Tasha, Abby, Ashley, Chloe, Tess, Brian, & Gabby for a job very well done.  Being made redundant feels good this time around.

So now you’re probably wondering, where did I go this year?

I kicked around the usual bucket list - Thailand, Africa, Bali, Chile, Machu Picchu, but decided I didn’t want to do such a long trip during this, my first ‘open January’. Secondly, I vowed to myself I would do something warm this year. Incidentally, that vow was made somewhere in a frigid tundra of Iceland this time last year.  I just couldn’t shake the image of me relaxing with a good book in a hammock on a beach much closer to the equator than Easthampton.  Couple that thought with my recent rediscovery of yoga, vacation planning started with a Google search, ‘tropical yoga retreats’.  The search ultimately landed me in Costa Rica - more specifically Montezuma Yoga, located in a hip little seacoast town on the lower coast of the Pacific side.  While I knew this trip wouldn’t be cultural rich or full of new city experiences, the thought of a more reflective, soul-soothing, skin bronzing inner vacation sounded like just what the doctor ordered.

In a word, the trip was fantastic.   Eight days of fun in the sun and on a yoga mat.  If you haven’t been to Costa Rica yet, I can’t recommend it more highly.  The beaches are amazing.  The weather is near perfection.  80’s during the day and 70’s at night. It’s safe, and the locals are super friendly. My accommodations weren’t five-star, but when you can hear the ocean surf through your window at night, you’re willing to overlook the lack of air conditioning and the shared bathroom. I’d chosen the ‘yoga & wellness package’ from the yoga studio based at the hotel.  It included one yoga class a day, breakfast at nearby hotel on the ocean, a one hour massage, a full day snorkeling excursion to Tortuga Island, and a one-on-one private yoga lesson with one of the resident yogi’s.  It had all the elements I was looking for without being overly restrictive.  No vegan, gluten-free, everything-free meal plan, or silent breakfasts, or mid-day Law of Attraction lectures.  The perfect way to relax while dipping my foot a little deeper in the yoga pool.  If any of that sounds good to you, here’s the link Montezuma Yoga.

I won’t bore you with what became a pretty sweet daily routine - wake up to a beautiful sunrise over the ocean, walk to breakfast on that ocean, relax on a hammock for a while, go to the beach with a few of my new beautiful yoga friends, do some yoga, walk into the town for a couple drinks and amazing seafood with aforementioned beautiful yoga friends.  Drift off to sleep to a warm sea breeze and the soothing sounds of the surf.  Wake up and repeat.

What I thought might be more interesting and challenging, and a good way to get the writing juices flowing as I get ready to start another installment of my soda fountain counter picture books  ‘Ice Cream Parlor Wisdom’, would be to share a few thoughts from my indispensable travel companion, the trusty journal.  One of the things I really like about traveling is it gives you a chance to get out of your routine. For me, that means more time to relax, to be a little more aware, and to reflect a bit on where I am and where I’m going. I recently read this quote somewhere, ‘Create a life you don’t need a vacation to escape from.’ While I appreciate the sentiment, I strongly believe everyone needs and deserves a vacation in some form, no matter how great your life is on a day-to-day basis.  A vacation is a chance to add some variety to your life, to try new things, see new places, and meet new people. These horizon-expanding experiences often offer great moments of clarity, like when you leave the city lights for the countryside and look up to see a dark sky full of so many more stars.

With that as an introduction, I’d like to offer what I’m calling my Lessons from Yoga Camp’.

Sometimes it’s best to just jump in.

Getting to Montezuma, Costa Rica was a bit of a challenge.  It started with an early morning drive to the airport, a flight to San Jose, a few hour layover in a very crowded airport, an anxious flight on a tiny plane to what could better be described as a parking lot than a landing strip, and a thirty minute taxi ride from a NASCAR-aspiring local who spoke zero English.  I got to my hotel room to find a note saying, ‘come on up and join us for yoga at 6’.  I looked at my watch, and it was 5:30.  Road weary and underfed, I was in no shape to try my first yoga class in the ‘big leagues’.

I went anyway.

It turned out to be the best class of the week. The studio was open air, with beautiful hardwood floors and gentle ceiling fans that circulated the cooling sea air. The sounds of the surf mingled with light guitar strumming from a local musician playing in the corner. The only light was from candles carefully placed around studio. The instructor walked around throughout the class with a spray bottle of lavender-infused water that felt like rain when it hit your skin. Was I out of my element and over-matched by the nearly fifty other yogi’s crowded into this studio in paradise? Absolutely.  Was I really nervous as Silvia, the Dutch instructor, called us into our first downward dog. Most definitely.  Did I feel a surge of confidence and a great sense of relief at the end?  You betcha.

People are mostly concerned about themselves.  I mean this in the most positive way.

When i started that first class, I was really worried about making a fool out of myself. After all, I was a total weekend warrior when it came to yoga.  I’d been going to a class a week for the past few months. That particular class has the words ‘gentle’ and ‘restorative’ in its title.  I really enjoy it. Karen the instructor is great, and while I know how to get into a pigeon pose and what Savasana means, I strongly suspected the yoga classes here would be much more challenging.  This was definitely the case, but the good news is that was ok.  Sure, most of the people in the class had better form than mine.  Heck, I can’t even reach my toes.  But as I fumbled with a couple poses that first night, and looked around to my fellow yogi’s to see where my limbs were supposed to be, I quickly realized everyone was so wrapped up in getting themselves into position, breathing, and staying balanced, that they probably wouldn’t have noticed if I was wearing a clown suit and juggling coconuts.  True in yoga, and I believe equally true in life.

How will you know what you like if you don’t try different things?

It was great to be able to try a number of different styles of yoga in one week.  Core, Vinyasa flow, Yin, Hatha, Nidra. There were two classes each day - morning and night, so it was great to also try out different times of day.  Each had a different instructor. This past week I went to a drop-in yoga class with the amazing Mary Beth from Kripalu, and I think she described it best.  She said,
Yoga is a lot like ice cream - many flavors so you should try them all.  Find a favorite that resonates - and then, before long you will likely shift and find another you like as much or better.’

You don’t need to be ‘Suzy the Snake’.

There was a woman in a number of my classes who was one flexible and strong yogi.  We’d do a relatively simple pose, and she would do it too but would put her foot behind her head or balance on her forehead or some other crazy move.  Even our instructors were impressed.  I know I’ll never be that flexible or be able to pull off half the poses she did seemingly effortlessly.  But you know, that’s ok. Neither could most of the people in the room.  I bet she has no idea how to make ice cream. :)

You don’t need to be plugged in all day long.

The hotel where I stayed, as I mentioned, was nothing fancy. In addition to not having mini-fridges in the room or TV’s, the only wifi to be found on the compound was within about ten feet of the reception desk.  I didn’t feel I needed an international data plan for the week, so my internet access was limited to that weak signal or the occasional restaurant in town. Every morning I’d walk down to the reception hut, drink a cup of the complementary coffee, and check in with the shop and the world.  I’d check in again once before I went to bed at night.  The rest of the day I enjoyed blissfully disconnected from the endless bombardment of what everyone else what was feeling or doing.  Those moments walking the beach, lying in the hammock, doing yoga, or writing in my journal were just that.  Moments spent in the moment, undisturbed. Just as life should be lived.

Set your intention.

At the beginning of each class, the instructor asked us to set an intention for the practice. What did we want to focus on for that hour.  Yoga is a bit like a moving meditation.  It involves focusing on your breathing while moving your body into various poses that stretch muscles into positions beyond their usual range.  You reach a point of resistance and then you try to go a bit further. Some asanas (poses) may also involve challenging elements of balance.  Setting your intention may be as simple as answering ‘why am I here’, meaning ‘why did I take this class’, or as complex as ‘why am I really here?’ It can be a single word to dedicate your practice to, like compassion, truth, or freedom. It’s simply a way to focus your subconscious mind on something that’s important to you.  

I am ___________.

One of the instructors, at the beginning of class, asked us to finish that sentence. For that entire class, we were to keep that in the back of our mind. It became our intention for the practice. How would you finish that sentence?

Dream jobs aren’t usually just given to you.

One my yoga buddies that week had just gotten off the boat.  Literally.  She had spent the past 8 years on the crew of a yacht company, sailing all around the world with people famous or just famously wealthy.  Over drinks at dinner she told amazing stories of adventures with guests that included Brad Pitt, Sarah Jessica Parker, David Geffen, billionaire Israeli businessmen, Oscar De Larenta, and Calvin Klein, just to name a few.  We were left speechless as we tried to imagine what that lifestyle must be like. The crazy stories were surreal, but it’s something else she said that stuck with me. When someone once said to her, ‘how did you get so lucky to be chief purser to the rich and famous,’ she answered calmly, ‘I scrubbed decks and washed dishes for two years and really shitty money.’’

Work hard, and you will be rewarded. I’ve always believed that, but it was refreshing to meet a living reminder in yoga pants.

Are you going to look for the goodness in things or the darkness in things?  That’s the choice.

The man who owned the hotel was an older Greek man named Costas. He was a friendly guy who sat by the reception area with his coffee and cigarettes and chatted with guests. He also had a little Ipad he gazed into like a looking glass. It seemed every morning when we joined him for the free coffee, he’d have some horrible news of the world to share.  My funny British yoga/drinking buddy appropriately called him ‘Dr. Doom and Gloom’.  He was the first to tell us about David Bowie, the bombing in Turkey, and the death of Alan Rickman.  Casual conversation with him usually ended up with him offering grim prophecies of an imminent WW III ‘Jim, you Americans won’t be able to avoid it this time’, and the collapse of world economic markets.  He seemed convinced civil war in his home country of Greece is also not far off.  His current impression of Americans in general could be summed up, to use his words, with ‘Miley Cyrus’ and ‘The Kardashians’. I asked him why he cared so much, especially living in paradise and all.  His response, ‘I have friends at home and these other places,’ While I respect the compassion, it seems like a horrible way to set the tone for your day.  Note to self, stop watching the news in the morning.  Which leads me to..

How you start your day sets the tone for your day.

I don’t need a lot of words to express how great my days started during my Costa Rica getaway.

Well, I think I could go on and on, but I’ll stop. My travel intentions to deepen my yoga practice, make a few friends from foreign lands, and most of all, unwind in a hammock on the ocean were all realized.

The universe is listening.  You just need to be clear about what you’re asking for.

Here are some of my favorite pics.

The Studio that dreams are made of..

Rock Garden on the beach

The check-in desk and wi-fi zone

The 'airport'

The studio

The Montezuma Falls.   Where the cool kids hang out.

Hotel Los Mangos

Snorkel Destination

Dr. Doom & Gloom

A banquet of yoga


Warrior II Selfie.

Some wildlife

The pool.

The big beach.

Downtown Montezuma.

Lunch crasher.

The ocean.

And last but certainly not least, the hammock..

Thanks for listening.