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Entering Elul – Meeting the Beloved in Consciousness

August 26, 2014

By Rabbi Chava Bahle

Friends in two short days, the cycle of the Hebrew calendar will bring us back, once again, to the month of Elul, the Hebrew month that precedes the beginning of the new year, Rosh HaShana. I suppose if you do yoga that day, it’s called Rosh HaShanasana. 🙂

Bear with me. This will eventually be about yoga practice.

Rabbis love to create word play, and the letters of the name of Elul are often read as a series of five acrostics of holy verses that point us to the spiritual significance and inner work of the month.

1) “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” (Song of Songs). Here we read about love, belonging, reciprocity, seeing the self in each other. The world would be completely transformed if we were able to look into each other’s faces and see that same Self residing within. Elul challenges us to see Mother Theresa’s teaching that, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Love and meeting the beloved in all its forms, seeing Self in each other.

2) Cities of Refuge (Exodus). In the bible, cities of refuge are places where people accused of crimes are protected from “frontier justice” and get a fair trial. Like our Buddhist cousins we might ask, “In what do I take refuge?” Many of you know I live by seven vows, which I revisit and revise annually at this time of year. These vows are my “refuge” – they include careful speech, having no enemies, eyes that see, ears that hear, a heart that understands, etc. Mine are based on the traditional language of Judaism, flavored with the idea of “taking refuge” from Buddhism. What are yours? Carefully considering the sacred “vows” that guide your actions.

3) Tzedakah – charitable giving (Scroll of Esther). As in Islam, this value of sharing resources is different than the notion of “charity” which comes from the Latin caritas, the type of that arises spontaneously in the heart or “caring”. In Judaism, tzedakah (in Islam, zakat) comes from the notion of justice – that is, there is great wealth disparity in our society, and we have a moral obligation to move resources to the people and places that are in need. Judaism and Islam also have ideals about giving from the heart – called g’milut chasidim, benevolent giving which we are expected to do as often as possible (“without limit”). Tzedakah has to do with society inequality. Supporting social justice.

4) T’shuvah (Deuteronomy) – taking stock of the places where we have veered from a path of goodness and making every attempt to return. This might mean the kind of “searching, fearless moral inventory” that is taught in recovery. In this past year, have a wronged anyone, and do I owe and apology? How might I make amends? Whom do I need to forgive? Also it can be read as “what questions is my life asking me, and what re the answers I am giving through my behavior?” Returning to center, forgiveness, reading life.

5) Hope (“redemption”, Exodus) – we live in a time when it is easy to lose hope: violence, racism, social inequality, war – all these things can make us doubt that the future can be any better. This month is a time to connect with hope for the future – for ourselves, our community, the world. Feed the part of your heart and brain that can know hope: read about groups doing great things and support them. Learn about heroes bravely working for peace. Don’t engage in social media arguments that go nowhere. Spoonfeed hope to your heart and soul.

So whether Elul is your tradition or not, as we move from summer to fall and its many forms of resumption, this is a great time to work with these themes: love, your guiding principles, social justice, returning to center and hope.

In the end, yoga is a spiritual system more than it is a form of exercise. Check out the awesome film Breath of the Gods for more on this. (It is available on Netflix.)

Every time we have the bald faced courage to step on a mat, we are calling up the deepest truths of our lives. YOGA IS AN ACT OF SPIRITUAL COURAGE where we meet all our inner allies and demons.

Begin your practice always, always, with love – for yourself, for the grace and good fortune to practice, for your teacher and her/his lineage. Take a moment to dedicate your practice to something of beauty: an ideal, a principle that guides you through your practice. Recognize that as you cultivate a little more inner peace and self-acceptance, true yoga demands that we take those qualities into our life away from the mat. And finally, have hope! Yoga requires deepest patience. One of my teachers reminds us that, after years of doing salabasana [locust pose], you may only be able to come up an inch higher! Hope means persistence and listen for hidden goodness, as Emily Dickenson wrote,

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”

Whether Elul is a holy month for you or not, never stop singing and let your yoga practice support you in finding your voice.

Finally let me add that each morning of this new month (except Saturday, our Sabbath) – to the great (not) delight of our neighbors – I sound the ram’s on the front porch. It is a wake up call, a shrill sound meant to awaken the sleeping soul and to rouse us to the compassion that is beyond “sides” and beyond “us and them”: the place of perfect love and equanimity that in many ways is the aim of yoga. Using pranayama breath to sound this most ancient of instruments, we awaken to that place in us that already in perfect harmony. The sound of the shofar is a rousing Namaste.


Kettlebells Have Your Back: A Neurosurgeon’s Personal and Professional Perspective

April 25, 2014
Find the original article here by Dr. Patrick Roth, M.D.
I am a 53-year-old neurosurgeon and girya aficionado.478770099Kettlebells are an ideal tool for treating back pain. They not only strengthen the back, but also enable improved posture, improved bending form, and patient confidence. If you are already an experienced kettlebell user, this is likely already evident, but if you are a patient with back pain, read on and open your mind to some extraordinary possibilities.

A personal history of back pain resulted in my professional transformation from a general interest in the brain and spine, to a holistic focus on the cause, treatment, and philosophy of back pain. I spent the first 20 years of my career cultivating techniques to pinpoint, and then surgically treat the often-elusive anatomical generator responsible for back pain. However, personal and professional experience led me to shift my focus towards enabling patients suffering with back pain to help themselves—independently—without their surgeon, therapist, chiropractor, medications, etc.

My journey began when I was a teenager. At the time, any of my athletic endeavors triggered back pain. I accepted this pain as a part of my life. In retrospect, it was a healthy reaction attributable to my innocent age. My acceptance of the pain allowed me to exercise my back—even while in pain. I used a Roman chair (hyperextension machine) that happened to be in my basement. After exercising, I would feel a measure of relief. However, most of my patients are not innocent teenagers and tend to regard their back pain with anxiety. They assume the pain is a result of an injury and something broken must be “fixed”.

Later in life I experienced my first herniated disc. After obtaining an MRI, I discovered that I not only had a herniated disc, but also had a chronic stress fracture with a laxity between my L5 and S1 bones. This latter fracture is called a spondylolisthesis.

My reaction to the MRI was eerily similar to the reaction that I tended to criticize in my patients. I was afraid because I thought something was broken. I ultimately managed to overcome my fears and embrace back strengthening again—but this time, with kettlebells.

As in my teen years, I was successful again with exercise. I began to study the muscles of the back (particularly the multifidus and gluteus muscles) in more detail to understand their potential role in both the cause of—and solution to—back pain. I began to encourage my more ambitious and open-minded patients to embrace the idea of back strengthening with kettlebells as a solution to their back pain—even while they were in pain. Almost always, patients who made the effort were rewarded with less pain. These patients learned how their posture and form could change with kettlebell training. Exercise changed their bodies, and their changed bodies changed their minds.

EXERCISE AND PAIN RELIEF: USING STRESS TO CREATE STRENGTH Back pain can be successfully treated by harnessing the synergy between the brain and the body—or in this case the brain and back—and by harnessing the equally extraordinary capacity of the body (and back) to adapt and change when properly stressed.

Kettlebell training is an excellent medium for using the body’s self-healing and self-changing capabilities. I have used it successfully, at first personally, then professionally with my patients. The typical back pain sufferer usually stares back at me incredulously when I suggest such an aggressive treatment for back pain!

To imagine how kettlebells can help back pain sufferers, it is helpful in to envision the body (and back) as antifragile. The term, borrowed from Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile, refers to entities which are not eroded or weakened by stress, but instead become stronger.

Our capacity to change as a result of stress is called phenotypic plasticity. Recent research has shown that much of what was once thought to be meaningless DNA in our genome is likely dedicated to individual cells’ capacity to adapt to environmental stressors. This adaptation occurs in the alteration and expression of proteins. When stress is applied to an organism—a cell, an organ, or the entire individual—the adaptation is cumulative and interdependent. The organism’s design changes to match the functional demand created by the stress. This biological matching of functional demand to structural design is called symmorphosis.

multifidus psoas
An example of symmorphosis in healthcare is the treatment of heart disease. The traditional approach to a minor heart event would focus on medication to protect against a future event. An alternative approach to the same heart event would be to make the coronary arteries bigger. How many of you would look to fundamentally change your heart by gradually training for and competing in marathons? How many of you would become a vegan in order to improve your vascular function? In other words, how many of you would use the body’s capacity to change itself (symmorphosis) as the primary treatment of a disease? Focusing on causing the cells, organs, and body to adapt to a stressor is quite different than the “quick fix” most of my patients crave or have come to expect.Similarly, in cases of back pain, the back can be changed by the appropriate use of kettlebells. Fundamentally altering the fabric of the back with kettlebells will result in decreased back pain, despite the many possible causes for that pain. The pain may be the result of a herniated disc or spondylolisthesis (which was the case with my situation). Back pain can also be the result of postural changes, muscle imbalances, disused muscles, muscle spasms, or scar tissue in muscles of the back. Kettlebell training is an excellent way of treating all of these etiologies for back pain because the back muscles can change. Back strengthening in this setting can also result in less pain by diminishing the motion between the spinal bones. Thus, the back can be held stiff while bending or getting up from a chair, preventing the sensation of pain.

Back pain always has a psychological component. Kettlebells utilize the psychological principles of embodied cognition. This concept suggests that our minds are inexorably bound to our bodies. For example, we all know that we smile because we are happy, but often forget that we are also happy because we smile. Likewise, learning to move our bodies with increased back strength, improved posture, and form will alter our perceptions of back pain. This is a biologic “bait and switch” of sorts. The patient’s improved mental state is also described by a psychological principle called self-efficacy—the patient’s belief that he or she is able to achieve the goal.


My belief in symmorphosis as an approach to back pain, and using kettlebells to treat the pain while strengthening the back, motivated me to write a book on the subject—The End of Back Pain. Obviously, no treatment is perfect and no treatment is universal for all back pain sufferers. However, we healthcare providers are currently doing a poor job of treating back pain. More and more money is being spent on disappointing results.


Earlier, I alluded to my patients’ incredulity when I suggest back strengthening as a treatment for back pain. This conceptual transition is often a difficult task for the patient. When I send patients to physical therapy, therapists often suggest that my measures are draconian. The therapists provide the more “sensible” advice: “let pain be your guide” in what exercises to perform. This resonates with most patients, as they have been indoctrinated with this idea for years. However, I believe that it is wrong. Therapists attempt to protect themselves from legal liability by advising their patients to be guided by the “sensible” warning sign of pain, but in doing so, they limit the patients’ potential gains. This “sensible” advice may in fact be detrimental advice!

As difficult as it is for me, as a physician, to convince my patients of the efficacy of kettlebells to diminish back pain, I’d imagine it’s even harder for kettlebell instructors to encourage their clients to strengthen their backs when they have back pain. If the client subsequently becomes a patient of a therapist or doctor, one can only imagine the ensuing conversation… “He did WHAT to you?”

The scientific rationale provided in my book, and my own experience of empirical success treating back pain with back strengthening, supports the use of kettlebells as an effectual treatment option for back pain sufferers. Ultimately, it is my hope that the onus and responsibility for treating back pain will be shifted from the healthcare providers to the back pain sufferers themselves. Kettlebell instructors are indispensible in this paradigm, as proper form, technique, variety, and safety are essential to success. The key to treating the patient with back pain is to find the “sweet spot”. An approach that is too aggressive could potentially result in a set-back, while too little effort might not yield results. Proper supervision by kettlebell instructors maximizes the potential for healing.

One of my favorite quotes is by Michelangelo, “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short: but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark”. This is a perfect conceptual guideline for exercising with kettlebells as a treatment for back pain.

Clear the Clutter

March 27, 2014

Think it’s impossible to see how your brain works? Walk over to a closet or open a drawer in your home. What you see is what you’ve got. While a few of you may be looking at something that could grace the pages of a Martha Stewart publication, chances are most of you are looking at a jumble of products, clothes and knick-knacks that live together for reasons unknown to your rational mind. Coupons, letters, bills and a hand sanitizer shoved into your kitchen junk drawer? Don’t get embarrassed — get organized!

The following room-by-room checklist offers the perfect opportunity to cut through the clutter while staying light on the landfills and giving you peace of mind!

Get room-by-room help for the bathroom, the kitchen, the home office and the clothes closet using this step-by-step green home guide.

Helpful hints for getting started

  • Get a good night’s sleep before any major project and work at the time of day you feel at your physical peak. A tired mind makes tired decisions.
  • Eat a good meal before you start and have lots of water and healthy snacks available.
  • Create an environment that supports your best efforts; music and aromatherapy are a couple simple things that will soothe your soul during the process.
  • Be sure you have set aside a block of time commensurate with the size of the project. The ideal first pass is five hours.
  • Warn family members that you will need some private time, and do not let yourself be interrupted. Nothing is worse than coming back to a disastrous closet when you’ve used all your strength elsewhere.
  • If any aspect of getting organized is outside your comfort zone (for example, if you have a large collection of receipts that need to be sorted and you don’t know what to save for the IRS), hire a professional organizer or call upon an organized good friend or family member for guidance.

The bathroom

If we are indeed spiritual beings having an earthly experience, then it stands to reason that taking care of the body is a sacred task. Yet most of our bathrooms are often neglected and/or abused. Let’s see how we can transform this room to a place of peace.

1. Linen check

What’s the condition of your towels? If they’re faded, threadbare and holey, let them go. Take them to your local vet or animal hospital. They need your old sheets as well.

2. Let go of disappointments

We all invest in products from time to time that disappoint us. We feel too guilty to let them go, letting them live on indefinitely in our cupboards as space hogs. The solution? Host a “Product Swap Party” for your friends. With everyone’s hair and skin having such different needs, what disappointed you might be a great find for a friend.

3. Divest in packaging

Are there products you love so much that you purchase them in multiples? Very often the commercial wrapping that comes with these products takes up a lot of space. Recycle the plastic and cardboard.

4. Detangle your haircare

Take an honest look at your brushes, combs and rollers. Pull out any you might not be using. If they’re in good shape, remove all excess hair and soak them in a solution of water and baking soda before rinsing, air-drying and donating to a shelter. Exceptions are items with wooden handles, which will waterlog, those with boar bristles, which will curl, and those with rubber cushioning, which will split. For these, remove all excess hair and scrub clean with a good shampoo. Rinse under the faucet and let air dry.

5. Face the bacteria

Check the expiration date on your makeup. Separate out anything that is more than six months old, as bacteria likely resides there. Rinse and recycle all recyclable glass and plastic (making sure to check the number of the plastic, so that you don’t put anything on the curb that will ultimately not be recycled).

6. Sort your meds

Take a look at your medicine collection, identify what’s expired, then remove the label, and rinse and save the bottles for travel purposes.

Helpful hints for everyday upkeep:

  • Keep a sponge handy for quick wipes of the counter every time you exit.
  • The mirror gets water and toothpaste splashed at regular intervals. Keep a spray bottle of homemade cleaner and a soft cotton cloth under the sink. Spray and wipe at least once a day.
  • Make your own cleaner for the countertop and the mirror by mixing equal parts vinegar and water. Vinegar has the added benefit of being both a disinfectant and a deodorizer. The smell dissipates the minute it dries.
  • Straight vinegar will clean your bathroom bowl.
  • When your counters need a good scrub, use baking soda! Add a little water and you’ll have a natural cleaning paste.
  • Remove and recycle the plastic wrap from around your soap. Soaps last longer when they’ve been dried out a bit.


Find the whole article from our friends at (including complete checklist) here!

Choosing the right cycling shoes.

March 3, 2014

Question:  Can you give me some advice on purchasing cycling shoes for your cycling classes? Image

Answer: A stiff-soled, breathable shoe with a recessed Shimano Pedaling Dynamics (SPD) cleat is compatible with our bikes and is the best choice for indoor cycling. Wearing a shoe that clips into the pedal improves efficiency and allows you to power your pedaling during the full circle of a pedal stroke. notes, “Indoor cycling shoes are specially fitted to clip into the pedals of a bicycle. This allows the feet to remain firmly affixed to the pedal, and ultimately works more muscle groups and ensures greater control.”

In addition, recommends purchasing shoes with “strong Velcro straps to prevent slipping and to aid the upward movement of the pedal stroke,” while paying specific attention to the sole. “A stiff sole is essential as it allows a greater transfer of power between the leg and the bike.”

Adapted from this article.

Yoga Amidst Stress and Chaos – A Dispath from O’Hare Airport

February 24, 2014

By Rabbi Chava Bahle

Like some other major travel hubs, O’Hare Airport in Chicago now has a yoga room. Located in a rotunda a floor above the movement between Unknown terminals, and next to the indoor garden, the little room is an amazing oasis amidst the stress of the airport.
I had been stuck at O’Hare for almost 36 hours when I finally decided to visit the yoga room.  It is small but quiet and observes yoga space etiquette like removal of shoes, silencing electronica and wiping down the mats that are available for use.
I was skeptical, ‘though it must be said that after being trapped for that long in my least favorite environment – a large, loud space filled with a great many angry, sad, frustrated people – I was feeling skeptical about a great deal more than the yoga room at that point.
In any event, meditative music was playing from a screen with soothing images, and there was a large mirror on one side of the room, along with a basket of mats to use.
I decided to “vinyasa-fy” the hot yoga sequence and just flow through what I normally do in class.  My skepticism quickly faded.
The power of yoga, with intention and breath, is truly transformative.
For a few moments I wasn’t stuck at O’Hare. I wasn’t getting ripped off from the day I had planned with my sweetie. I wasn’t homesick – okay, that’s a lie, I was still homesick, but for a few moments, I was my yoga self, not the aggravated, sleep starved, ill-fed lunatic who has been stuck at O’Hare.
I focused a lot on postures that open the heart, especially back bends and breathing, and on just enjoying doing one of my favorite things: prayer through movement, breathing, being present.Unknown-1
I gave myself permission to just do yoga for a half hour or so, and it completely shifted how I felt, and how I now feel about the remaining several hour wait until I get to try again to get home.
Earlier in the day I had one of those nice confluences of sacred reading: reading totally unrelated texts from different traditions which ended up making the same point.  The confluence was around the concept of expanding the mind and perspective to allow for the fact that our small perception of things is not the whole story, the big picture, or the ultimate reality of a situation.
My time on the mat at O’Hare brought me to the very same place: yes this is inconvenient, yes, I am sad to once again lose a day with my honey, yes I am home sick, but it is possible to relax the grip on all that a little and realize, sitting here in front of some sprouting cilantro, that life does indeed go on.

Day 3 Interfaith Harmony Week & Yoga: A Cheerful Countenance

February 4, 2014

By Rabbi Chava Bahle

Rabbi Shammai said, “Greet everyone with a cheerful countenance.”
On this 3rd Day of United Nations Interfaith Harmony week, let’s focus on greeting everyone -including that beautiful yogi facing you in the mirror – with a cheerful countenance.  I cannot remember which Sufi poet said, “If you don’t like what you see in the mirror, you are looking in the wrong mirror.”

What if we were to take this a couple of steps further: what if we began every encounter with another person with a gentle smile?
What if we cultivated a cheerful emotional countenance – that is, an inner attitude of friendliness – to our moment by moment experience?

When you get to the yoga studio, greet the front desk folks with some extra warmth.  Say a quiet hello to folks in the changing room.  Greet and thank your teacher and her/his teachers.  Face yourself and bow with warmth and appreciation for that brave, sweet yogi facing you with readiness and warmth this day.

Interfaith Harmony Week & Yoga Days 1 and 2

February 3, 2014

By Rabbi Chava Bahle

Friends this is United Nations Interfaith Harmony Week so I have decided to post a very short blog each day, so those of us not participating in formal events can still be part of the interconnected web of learning and good will the week is intended to create.

Day One: The Platinum Rule (Saturday)YogaLeafMan
Yesterday was Shabbat so I didn’t blog, but the thought for the day was to explore the implications of the Platinum Rule. We know the Golden Rule, “do unto others” of course. The Platinum Rule asks us to go a step farther:

Treat others the way they wish to be treated.

This is an invitation to go beyond even the great goodness of  “do unto others what you would have them do into you”.  To treat others the way they wish to be treated implies other steps: engagement, friendly curiosity, listening and learning.

Engagement means we take the time to meet one another on deeper levels, past surface impressions.  Friendly curiosity means we acknowledge what we do not yet know, listening means we genuinely want to hear the answers and learning means that we will try new behaviors, sometimes make mistakes and try again based on feedback.

In a way doesn’t that sound like yoga practice? We meet each posture, explore it with friendly curiosity, see what our practice has to teach us and them we try again. And in my case bang into the mirror during Standing Bow. Repeatedly.

What would it mean for us to take this from the mat into world?

Remember: questioning in pursuit of truth and understanding is a sacred act of humility -we have something to learn from and about everyone.

Day Two (Sunday): Three Breaths

The Vietnamese Buddhist teacher and peace maker Thich Nhat Hahn teaches that we should begin every interaction with three breaths. I once heard him say that the first breath reminds me that I am mortal, the second that you are mortal and the third reminds us that this makes the moment of interaction and coming together even more precious.

For today, pause often to breath.  When interacting, explain that you are undertaking the practice to slow down  and appreciate the other person, place a gentle smile on your face, breath and then begin whatever it is you are doing.

How different would our interactions be if we more consistently took the time to pause, relax and truly see the person or people in front of us? And when in yoga, that person is none other than our own true Self.