Although I try to live my life without regrets, I often wish I had discovered yoga at a much earlier age. And not just the physical practice (although I am always happy to sing praise about the benefits of that.) Knowing and practicing yogic wisdom early in my life would have influenced it for the better — I am certain of that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because it’s graduation season. So many young people, degrees in hand, are eager to explore their potential and unleash their powerful energy on the world. They get inundated with advice about how to find or keep a job, how to be successful, how to maximize their earning potential. However, it seems to me that except for those (hopefully) inspirational ceremonial speeches, they get less guidance on how to be at work.

Truly, I wouldn’t swap the life I have today for another,  and yet still I would love to go back and advise that oh-so-young me at college graduation, that 21-year-old aspiring journalist and soon-to-be mother.

No one has ever invited me to deliver a commencement address, but then again, why wait for an invitation? Seize the day, as they say! In two parts, I’m going to share some of the yogic wisdom I wish the young me knew about as she began her first professional newspaper job, four months after graduation and three months after having a baby. I am certain that if young me had created practices based on this advice back then, she would have been a more productive worker, a more skillful supervisor, a more effective leader. Throughout her career, she would have been more satisfied (and sane) in life and in work.

The five precepts contained in the First Limb of Yoga (the Yamas), often referred to as universal morality, provide a brilliant career road map. The Indian sage Patanjali, often called the father of yoga because he wrote down the ancient precepts that had been shared orally for generations, saw them as a necessity for “the broad training of humanity.” Each precept stands alone like fingers on a hand. And each depends on the other, just as the hand is made stronger and better with all five fingers.

Here is my retroactive graduation advice to young Maren:

Non-violence (ahmisa): Be compassionate to yourself. Learn to silence the voice of that harsh inner critic who whispers (or shouts) that you are not good enough, that you don’t belong, that what others think of you is what really matters. Treat yourself with the same unbounded love and care you instantly felt when your newborn daughter was placed in your arms, and extend that to everyone. Remember that violent acts don’t have to be physical. Cutting words, vicious gossip, blaming others instead of owning your own contribution to a problem — these things and more constitute violence.

Non-lying (satya): Understand that speaking your truth, no matter how difficult, is an essential gift, even if it makes you or others uncomfortable.  Temper your truth by acknowledging that others have their own truths, and be willing to listen with an open heart. Finally, know that many things can be true at the same time. Before you speak, always ask yourself these four guiding questions: 1) Is it true? 2) Is it necessary? 3) Is it kind? 4) Does it improve upon the silence?

Non-stealing (asteya): So many things of value get stolen every day out of selfishness and lack of mindfulness. Open your eyes to the value of people’s time and energy, and ask for it judiciously. When you are being paid for your work, be sure that you are giving full value — to do less makes you a thief. Remember that stealing credit for others work or ideas is an egregious and unnecessary form of robbery, and that denigrating others behind their backs is a form of denying humanity and stealing reputations.

Non-squandering of vital energies (brahmacharya): Be wary of using your precious energy and resources on things that don’t serve you or others well — drama, unhealthy habits, worrying about the things over which you lack control. Refuse to become a slave to your cravings — whether it be for foods, consumer goods or attention. Honor and respect your relationships and those of others.

Non-greed (aparigraha): Remember that initial wonder at being paid for doing something you loved? Try to retain that joy, even in the face of discouragement and certain disappointment. Avoid being caught in the trap of thinking what you earn is what you are worth. That old adage “Whoever dies with the most toys wins”? It is a horrible, soul-sapping lie — don’t fall for it! As long as you can meet your needs, remember that work is about meaning, not about how many numbers are printed on your paycheck. Live simply, and be generous.

Finally, never, never, never stop learning and always, always, always be grateful for what you have.

NEXT WEEK: Advice from the Niyamas, often called yoga’s personal code of conduct.


Today is my birthday, and I have a birthday wish for you:

Get old.

Really. I truly hope that you get old. Really old. Worn out, used up, wrinkled-and-wise old.

Lately I've noticed a lot of people my age and older turn to those who are much younger and admonish, "Don't get old!"

I know it isn't meant literally — that would be heartbreaking. It is people's gentle and humorous way of letting off steam about their aching joints, their occasional memory lapses, synapses that have lost their rapid fire and muscles that motor way more slowly than they used to. It's happening to me, too. I get it.

But I want to get OLD! And I want that for my husband, my siblings, my children, and their children and my friends. What a gift that is — a gift denied to so many.

There's no denying that with age comes loss. But then again, youth has its own challenges. If you're lucky enough to get old, that means you've learned and survived. If you're old, you have gained far more than you lost. And the bottom line is that your exit from this earth is completely out of your control anyway.

So my present to myself this year is to strive harder to be present. What a gift that would be! I want to savor every moment with the people I hold dear and connect deeply with people so they become dear. I want to recognize life's challenges for what they are — momentary pain that provide opportunities for  a little humility and personal growth. I want to immerse myself in love and gratitude. 

I want to get old.

When I blow out my birthday candles, I will wish that for you, too. I will wish for you a rich life filled with sparkling, mindful moments.

And I will hold the vision of you and I getting old.  Really, really old.

DON'T WORRY! (But . . .)

When doctors say, “Hmmmmm, I don’t want to worry you but. . .”  it’s pretty much certain that the next thing they say will be worrisome. And when a surgeon said it to me last month, it was.

“I want you to be checked out by a specialist for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” he said.

I said, “ALS?”

“Yes,” he said.

He didn’t want to WORRY ME? What I said next wasn’t pretty.

For the first time in 61 years, a sense of my mortality slugged me directly and squarely in the gut. ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, has a definite expiration date. And the process to getting there is pretty gruesome — degeneration of the brain’s motor neurons that slowly rob you of movement and speech and life while leaving your brain aware of everything you’re losing. The news didn’t exactly put me in the holiday spirit.

I went home and told Maren. It took all she could muster not to break down (she saved the tears for a more private time.) As we talked about it, we vowed not to let it spoil all the upcoming Festivus activities. But ALS lurked and sometimes loomed large. I was bummed by the possibility and the “not knowing” was almost as bad.

I wish I had a yogic secret to divulge here, some amazing technique that miraculously dissipated the fear and anxiety. I wish I could tell you that my practices kept my head from running to the darkest of places. What I can report is that immediately after my reactive expletives in the doctors office, I instinctively focused on my breath – inhale 1-2-3-4, hold 4, exhale 1-2-3-4. After a few repetitions, at least my head cleared and my heart rate returned to normal.

Over the next few weeks, I used this breathing technique many times to slow my thoughts and regain equanimity. I also was drawn back to a more conscious meditation practice. I have been meditating since 1972, and it had become a bit like breathing – automatic. Now I used the practice with purpose to calm the physical anxiety and quiet my mind.

I have realized yoga is useful on two fronts. Long-term yoga practices create long-term effects — a quieter mind, a peaceful outlook, and physical strength and flexibility. It also can provide a sort of triage process in life’s circumstantial emergencies, such as dealing with a stressful period or coping with unwanted changes.

Three weeks after hearing “ALS,”  I saw the specialist who could confirm that I did not, in fact, have the disease. I thanked him like he gave me a gift — and in a sense he had. But the real gift of the situation was a reconnection to two important aspects of my yoga practice – controlling my breath and meditation.

Now I can get on with trying to avoid neck surgery by hitting physical therapy hard and working with my physical trainer, which suddenly seems a much more manageable set of circumstances with which to deal.