Interview with Brian Leaf: Self-Medicating with Yoga

Brian Leaf is the author of 11 books including Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi and his most recent book, Misadventures of a Parenting Yogi…

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Sujantra: This is Sujantra and today I have the pleasure of interviewing author, parent and yogi, Brian Leaf, who is joining us from Massachusetts. Hi Brian, how are you?

Brian: Good!

Sujantra: It’s so great to have you on the program. Brian Leaf is the author of 11 books including Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi and his most recent book, Misadventures of a Parenting Yogi. Some of his other books include: Name That Movie!, Defining Twilight and he also writes educational books on improving your SAT score, math skills and multiple tests, so a wide variety of topics.

Brian: A strange mix.

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Sujantra: A strange mix, indeed. (Laughs.) Our show goes out to yogis all over the world, we have listeners in 38 countries, so I first wanted to touch base with you as a yogi, Brian, because I notice in your most recent book that I was fortunate enough to read, the Misadventures of a Parenting Yogi you dedicate the book to Swami Kripalu. Could you tell us a little bit about how your yogic journey began?

In the Beginning

Brian: In 1989, I started going to college at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and I was a super high achieving New Jersey kid. I was actually a first place debater in New Jersey. I don’t know if you know New Jersey out there, but if you’re the first place debater in New Jersey, it’s pretty intense I think. People argue a little bit. I was really intense and I developed ulcerative colitis which is an ulcer of the colon and it’s kind of rare at that age, I think, and it was pretty awful and debilitating. The first round I had it in high school and my mom took me to a bunch of doctors and it eventually got better. When I was at Georgetown I started taking yoga as sort of a goof, and from the first class it really captured me. It was like I found my place. I think a lot of yogis have this experience. You know it was like day one and class one and it was the first time I felt like I found my church or somewhere I belonged and I felt relaxed for pretty much the first time in my life. From there I got really into it and when the colitis came back, I made the link that when I did yoga it felt better. So I wondered if I did a ton of yoga if I’d feel a ton better. I started doing yoga 5 times a day, a sun salutation and a guided meditation, five times a day.

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A Healing Practice

Sujantra: A quick question for you, Brian. You’re saying a ton of yoga five times a day. Would you say 5-10 minutes five times a day? How long were you actually practicing?

Brian: Yes, of course, it wasn’t hours at a time. I called it self-medicating because it felt like taking a dose of medicine. I had this epiphany that maybe it would help and I was in college so I had the ability and the time to do it, so five times a day I would do about fifteen minutes of sun salutations and ten to fifteen minutes of relaxation. The style I was studying in college, the lineage the teacher who came to the gym every day to teach, I came to realize it was sort of an integral or Sivananda style so the sun salutations were a big part of it. Not as big a part as Ashtanga yoga, but just as a warm up and it really spoke to me. So I did that five times a day and after three days, it’s like a miracle, the symptoms went away in a way that the meds weren’t helping. It’s like I avoided my doctor after that because I was afraid he was going to tell me I was crazy, you know it was going to make it come back. So on the purely physical level that got me really zealous about it and then over a period of about 25 years it changed my life. I could handle stress better and I learned how to show my emotions, and I opened up my heart and I just sort of was more exposed and open to the spiritual aspect seeking union and freedom and love. Initially the classes I took at Georgetown were Sivananda or Integral inspired, and like anybody in the early 1990s, I did a bunch of Iyengar Yoga and then I found Kripalu. Kripalu for me, and everybody has their own style, it’s like dating there’s no right person to love it’s just who you love, and I dated a bunch of different styles and they all spoke to me in different ways but when I found Kripalu yoga, which is a style based upon something developed at the Kripalu Yoga Ashram in Pennsylvania and then in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts by the folks surrounding Yogi Amrit Desai and his guru Swami Kripalu, and when I found that style it just really woke me up in a whole other way. For me it was the style that brought me past simply the physical, the physical postures and discipline and into something deeper into spirit and heart. That’s the part that really captured me and I’ve been a student of that style ever since.

Feeling at Home

Sujantra: And is there something specific about that style that brought that depth to you or that made it so different?

Brian: Yeah, I think I can answer that question in two ways. It’s the same way any of us could answer the question, “Why do you love your wife” or “Why did you marry your partner or husband? Or why do you love your kids?” There’s, you know, I could say certain reasons , but Kripalu spoke to me. It’s like it mirrored who I am and who I want to be. The values that it has. I think Kripalu really values tuning in and looking inside and finding truth and meaning deep inside not just from academic study and not seeking perfection in the physical postures but going inside and looking for your own inner wisdom or inner guru and living and practicing yoga from that place. I also think Kripalu spoke to me, especially in those days, because I was a perfectionist, a New Jersey debater and was overworked and overstressed. I felt like some styles said to me “You don’t have it quite right. Rotate your hips thirty degrees,” whereas Kripalu whispered in my ear, “You’re good enough. Relax.” (Laughs.) That’s what I needed. That’s a simplification and could be said for any style, both things I said, but that’s what got me in. The deeper answer goes along with “Why do you love your partner?” it just spoke to me and I fell in love. It matched me and made sense to me. It completed me to quote Jerry McGuire.

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Sujantra: The ancient scriptures say that when the student is ready the teacher appears. For each of us, there is no right or wrong path, but there is definitely a path that each of us is going to accelerate on the most.

Brian: Yeah, and like in the Ayurvedic and Yogic texts we learn that there are different parts to one’s evolution. We need different things at different times in our evolution, no hierarchy just different things at different times. Just like a different posture might be one’s edge at different times in one’s practice. Maybe for a year, forward bend is the most challenging. You know it brings up tension and emotions and who knows what, and then for five years it’s shoulderstand, and then suddenly it’s a forward bend again. I think it’s like that; there are different things we need to be pushed physically, to be pushed emotionally or spiritually or to do more breath work at different times in our practice.

Sujantra: Has your practice moved to a home practice where you do primarily a lot of asana or do you do meditation and pranayama? What does your personal practice look like?

Brian: It’s true that it mostly did go to a home practice. For years and years I would go to classes many times a week, I even lived at Kripalu for a while. At some point, I guess when I found what I particularly wanted, and maybe a lot of yogis have this experience, it did turn to a home practice because I could do exactly what I wanted and what felt right to me. For a while, when I first had kids, it was hard to do yoga and at that point meditation had become more the priority. At first, yoga was a pure pleasure for me. I never had to try to do it and never had to work to fit it in, I just loved it. I looked forward to it all the time and at some point it did shift a little bit where meditation was my joy and what I loved and looked forward to. The postures were more like getting my homework done. Then after I had kids and there was less time and my boys were little, that was something that actually did kind of go a little bit which was a shame because now I was older and sitting all the time writing and more stressed and I needed it more than ever and then my back started hurting which got me back into it. It had gone to the wayside a little bit. Meditation had always been a priority at that phase and now I am back into doing postures at home and having a pretty strong home practice.

 

ABOUT BRIAN LEAF

Brian LeafBrian Leaf, MA, is director of The New Leaf Learning Center, a holistic tutoring center in Massachusetts. In his work helping students manage ADD and overcome Misadventures of a Parenting Yogistandardized-test and math phobias, Brian draws upon twenty-one years of intensive study, practice, and teaching of yoga, meditation, and holistic health. He is certified by The New England Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine and holds licenses or certifications as a Yoga Teacher, Massage Therapist, Energyworker, and Holistic Educator. He also incorporates Bach Flower Essences, Cranio-Sacral Therapy, Reiki, Shiatsu, and Tai Chi into his work.

Brian is the author of eleven books, including Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi, Name That Movie!, and McGraw-Hill’s Top 50 Skills for a Top Score. His books have been featured on The CW, MTV.com, Fox News, and Kripalu.org.

Brian lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and two sons.

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Meditation – Building Your Home Practice

The importance of a home meditation practice and how to successfully establish one for yourSelf. Practicing meditation might just be…

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The importance of a home meditation practice and how to successfully establish one for yourSelf.

Practicing meditation might just be the best thing you can do for yourself! We’re so busy every moment of every day that we spend no time on Self-realization. Meditation is a practice where we consider the nature of our existence. Through this exercise we take stock of our life. It’s a practice of Self-awareness and Self-growth. We discover that there is more to life that just existing. We discover how to live. We discover Truth… inner Truth, outer Truth. We improve ourSelves.

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Let’s face it. When we’re by ourselves it’s easy to be lazy. We can rationalize any excuse to avoid and procrastinate (substituting low-priority endeavors for high-priority endeavors.)…  no ‘task’ is too big or small that it can’t wait until tomorrow.  And that’s part of the problem; we tend to look at meditation as a TASK. And avoiding tasks can easily become habitual.

It’s important that we reassess our perception of meditation early on. How we establish our practice initially is vital to its longevity. We want to create an anticipation about our practice so we are drawn to it. It’s important to look forward to your meditation practice! It can’t be tedious. If it becomes tedious you’ll skip it. So it’s important to establish a TIME during the day that works within your schedule. That time is set aside for your meditation practice every day.

Buddha

I recommend that you keep your regular, daily meditation short. Ten minutes is a good DAILY practice. If you want to go on a marathon meditation adventure once in a while, go for it. But your regular, daily practice should be short and sweet, an easy routine.

I practice in the morning, first thing. I get out of bed, take care of my body, make a cup and go sit down for ten minutes. It’s entirely routine. I look forward to it. It’s easy. It’s a good way for me to start my day, centering, aligning, grounding, sharpening my focus, building greater awareness. And from a practical point of view, I’m not so busy and engaged in my day yet that I can willfully avoid my practice.

Make sure your family or roommates understand that for your 10 minutes or so you are UNAVAILABLE! If you want to meditate as a family, that’s fine. But otherwise, this is your private time. Do not disturb! No kids, no spouse, no phone, no doorbell…

meditation patio

Create a Mediation Space

Create a meditation space. Establish a comfortable seat. Set up a little altar or shrine. Populate it with meaningful reminders that resonate with you. Pictures, plants, candles, statuary… it doesn’t matter what it is, necessarily. What matters is that they remind you of what you are doing there. Meditation. Devotion. Outpouring. Contemplation… And then keep your space pure. Keep it tidy. Don’t leave your coffee cup on your shrine. Straighten it up once in a while. Add new things. Let it grow with your practice. Keep it sacred.

Lastly, understand that change is inevitable. Our shrines are just tools, like meditation itself. Avoid becoming too attached to the tool. We may move, so a new shrine is in order. A while back I moved six times in three years. I reestablished a new shrine at each new location. Every shrine was different depending on space and environment. What was enduring was that I immediately created a space where I could continue my practice. It might be all too easy to have just let it slide. The first thing I do is establish a meditation space.

It doesn’t take long to establish a routine. You just have to DO IT. Once you are established you will look forward to it. SELF discovery is exciting! Practice Self-discovery daily.

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You’ll be amazed what you will find!

One last thing: If you are brand new to mediation, find a guided meditation class offered at a local yoga studio or spiritual center. Participating in a few of these offerings will help you develop a meditation routine for yourself. You’ll learn the philosophy of meditation and gain some insights about basic meditation techniques that might work for you. Then, ‘cut and paste’ to create a routine for yourself. And remember, your practice will change and evolve as you grow.

Be open to change. It’s inevitable.

 

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When’s the Best Time to Meditate?

Anytime we are able to meditate is the best time for meditation. In our hectic society…

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by Sujantra McKeever

Anytime we are able to meditate is the best time for meditation. In our hectic society with busy schedules, work and a myriad of responsibilities, just finding five to ten minutes a day for meditation is an accomplishment. What is most important is that you do practice, every day.

Morning is a Splendid Time

If you are able to accommodate your schedule or make changes, there are certain times in the day that are more conducive to meditation. These times coincide with the cycles of nature. Morning is a splendid time for meditation. When we wake, the sun is rising, the new day is dawning. Nature is once again beginning her growth process, the sun is beginning to shine; this is an excellent time for meditation. The dawning of the day reminds us—inspires us—of the dawning of our aspiration for the soulful and spiritual experiences life can offer us.

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Noon has Power

Noon is a powerful time to meditate. With the sun at its apex we find the world fully active and dynamic. Meditation is not just the experience of peace and calm; meditation also embodies the dynamic and powerful. Noon—the middle of the day—is a time of power for nature and we can feel that power within our own consciousness.

Evening Calm

In the evening, as the sun is setting, the world is again in transition; we leave behind our multifarious activities, the hustle and bustle, and we enter into the calm of the evening. This aspect of day allows us the opportunity to let go of problems, worries, and anxieties and enter into the quiet, soulful peace of evening.

Right Before Sleep

Before going to sleep at night is another excellent time for a few moments of meditation. This is the time to calm and quiet our mind and body before going to sleep. Sleep is a significant part of our lives; in face, it is a sort of biological meditation, and by preparing ourselves and infusing ourselves with a peaceful consciousness, we create a deeper, more fulfilling and effective sleep.

Midnight Soulfulness

Midnight is a soulful time for meditation on the quality of love. Love begins with self-acceptance. Concentrate and meditate upon a photograph of yourself which you feel embodies your best qualities. While concentrating on your photograph allow your body and mind to relax. Becoming comfortable with your image n the photograph helps you to accept and love yourself. Once we feel love within ourselves we have access to the greatest thing we can offer to others: love.

3 am Hour of Brahma

Finally, 3 a.m. is called the hour of Brahma, or the hour of God. If you have ever awakened at 3 a.m., you will find the earth consciousness silent and asleep, deep within the peace of rest. By meditating at 3 a.m., we are able to enter into that peacefulness, that calmness.

Morning and Evening Are Best

Of all the times mentioned, the most practical are in the morning and in the evening. When meditating in the morning we gather peacefulness and calmness into ourselves and are then able to access these qualities during our day. It is as if we are putting money in the bank and during the day we draw from our account. When we face stressful situations we can use the peace and quiet and power from our morning meditation to deal with these challenging moments. During the evening meditation we can invoke peace and then reflect on our day, resolving events that we have pushed away from our consciousness. As our day’s activities and memories melt into peace we are renewed and ready to experience the evening hours.

Reprinted with permission from Learn to Meditate by S.G. McKeever.

Author Sujantra McKeever founded Pilgrimage of the Heart studio in 2006. He began exploring yoga and pranayama at the age of 12. Sujantra has authored five books on eastern philosophy, success motivation and meditation. Since 1987 he has delivered over 1000 lectures on meditation and yoga in over 30 countries. Sujantra studied meditation with spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy.

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Setting up a Regular Place for Meditation

Ideally we should have a regular place for our individual meditation, whether it is a corner of our room, an entire room in our home, a park bench…

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by Sujantra McKeever

 

Ideally we should have a regular place for our individual meditation, whether it is a corner of our room, an entire room in our home, a park bench, or any place where we can go and be free of distractions.

Be Free of Distractions

The reason for this is twofold: by consistently meditating there, having this sacred spot for our practice, we create a meditative vibration in that area. Every time we sit down to meditate that energy becomes stronger. Secondly, just as we have various rooms in our house—when we go into the breakfast room, we know we ill eat breakfast; when we go into our bedroom, we will sleep—so, too, when we go into our meditation area we know exactly what will take place in that room: meditation. We want to make that place free from distractions: ringing telephone, other people, television, and other common distractions.

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Create an Altar or Shrine

In the place where you practice your daily meditation it is essential to create an altar or shrine towards which you can focus your attention when practicing your meditation. On your shrine you can place objects which will inspire you, remind you of your own spiritual journey and be practical aids in your practice. I suggest: candles, flowers, incense, photographs (either of people or places that offer you spiritual inspiration), uplifting music and books. In essence you are creating your own church or sacred, holy ground where you can commune with the spirit and potential within and around you. Freed from the pull of the mundane, your consciousness can dance with the limitless aspect of existence. You can then infuse this new energy and feeling into your daily activities. I know a number of individuals who use the daily practice of meditation as an oasis amidst the intensity of their business careers. They enjoy the focus and concentration needed in their careers. They also find it essential to meditate and infuse the intensity with joy and gratitude which they derive from their meditation.

By creating this sacred spot you are also saying to yourself and those you know you: “The spiritual quest is a reality for me and this is the sacred area where I sit to seek and know the vastness of all that is.”

Author Sujantra McKeever founded Pilgrimage of the Heart studio in 2006. He began exploring yoga and pranayama at the age of 12. Sujantra has authored five books on eastern philosophy, success motivation and meditation. Since 1987 he has delivered over 1000 lectures on meditation and yoga in over 30 countries. Sujantra studied meditation with spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy.

(Candle photo credit Shawn Carpenter)
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