Author name: Elliot

34 y/o American yogi Elliot is a naturalist and explorer; he prefers to work outside as a landscaper and is actively writing music, stories, and creating art in his own style.

Ahimsa | अहिंसा

Yama #1

Ahimsa is the Yogic concept of non-violence, or non-harm to other beings. Himsa means to strike, injure, or harm and adding an ‘a’ before a word in Sanskrit makes the meaning opposite; in this case meaning non-injuring, non-harm. This is especially important in the yoga practice that occurs in the studio, but plays an equally important role in getting you to and from the yoga studio and all around in your life. Ahimsa is one of the Yamas, or principles for living that Patanjali expounded in writing the Yoga Sutras. I believe it is one of the most useful and important concepts in yoga and philosophy in general. Words, deeds, even thoughts have the ability to create harm; and by renouncing violence you allow life to flourish around you.

All beings have a divine spark within them, trees, plants, flowers, animals, and humans. God, or divinity (however you want to define it, “the universe” is also useful here) is intrinsic in all things, so harming another being is really harming the shared divinity within yourself and the other being. By hurting others, you hurt yourself because of the connection we all shared. Separateness is an illusion, as any astrophysicist, molecular biologist, or mathematician will tell you, electrons are constantly colliding and interweaving in everyday objects that appear to be still. Everything is vibrating and melting, but the human eye does not perceive these realities; instead we construct a conscious image that is useful for things like eating, hunting, and surviving. By truly allowing other beings to grow and flourish you are allowing yourself to prosper simultaneously.

But the concept is even more useful on the yoga mat. Instead of working against the body, work with it to relax and sooth the tension and stress within muscles. Mostly this becomes apparent in the breath, in how relaxed and focused you are on the sensations of the muscles. Injury is probably the easiest way to completely halt the journey of yoga; avoiding it is the key to progress and cultivation of joy within a yoga practice. Make your yoga sweet, not forced, and gentle instead of moving through physical strain, even in the intensity of a pose like Warrior 3. You can amp up your breath to match a difficult pose, but don’t force your body to do things. Mindfulness and care of your body will keep you on the yoga mat working to relieve the stresses of the body even with very intense asana practices rather than being injured and not being able to work on the physical asanas and prana-yama.

As I mentioned earlier, it is also an extraordinarily useful concept off the yoga mat. Mahatma Gandhi was a huge proponent of Ahimsa; you could offer that Martin Luther King Jr. was too, though he was likely unfamiliar with the Indian concept. Violence is cyclical, meaning that is progresses in a downward spiral and the only way to allow for it to cycle is to put energy into it. If everyone in the world could find a way to be non-violent with one another, than world peace wouldn’t even be discussed. It would be a given.

I lived in Paris when I was 20. I also drank a good amount in this time, because I was a rebel, liked being a rebel, and loved to party. So one Saturday night, while in the center of the city (I lived in the 13th, a solid 45 minute or hour walk from the center of the city) my friends and I decided to take one of the night buses home. We were at a club before, drinking and dancing on tables so we were all tired and still quite drunk. All 5 of us got on the public bus and right when I got on, I knew it would be a shit-show.

There were a few younger guys in the back smoking what was obviously hash and cigarettes. They were being pretty rough, so my ground and I sat in front of them, by the door. But these kids were drunk so eventually someone smacked me in the back of the head, for no reason. I turned around and looked to see what happened, I was a rugby player back then so I was a bit more inclined to violence than I am now. I saw a guy just a bit older than me, staring back drunkenly. His friend started to apologize and I said thanks and just turned around. But I was pretty heated; it took every ounce of energy not to yell, or get up, or get my friends to start something. I took the headshot and sat quietly.

When I was 14, I got my black-belt, so I had committed myself to only using violence in self-defense and this did not fall under that category. This is the biggest reason I didn’t react. But as the older kids continued to push each other around in the back of this public bus, the police pulled the bus over; the driver had called in because of his passengers breaking the law. Five squad cars pull up with their lights blaring and we all exit the van. I see the kid that hit me and the others that were causing the trouble get to put the side and the rest of us were allowed to walk from there; we were at the Bastille which was 15 minutes from my foyer, or apartment building. As I began to walk home, I saw the one that was behind me resisting an officer that was questioning him. Then the officer searched him, found more drugs and a switch blade. A big one.

I probably would have been stabbed if I had given that dude just a comment. If I had defended myself, I am sure that someone would have been hurt badly. Sometimes it is really better to end the cycle of violence immediately, as soon as you come into contact with it. Absorb it for everyone else, process it yourself and you just made the world a better place. The story reminds me of the commitment to pacifism. If everyone could sit still and process their own emotions including fear and anger, the world would be peaceful. But it requires commitment from each individual, everyone has to be disciplined to serve the same vision.

Ahimsa is powerful. It shifts the ego lens inward rather than externally making you more aware of your projections of insecurity and fear. Use it in the yoga room and your practice will flourish. Add some love and knowledge to the mix and you will be flying in no time. Then take it outside the studio and live by it; violence in society is never a good thing. Help to make the world a better place.

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The Death of Dreams (part 2 of 3: Love)

When we are young we idealize about love. Disney helps, but it’s probably also a natural characteristic, that we view things through a lens that says they should be perfect. I was no exception to this rule and still struggle with it. I dream about somebody that might not even exist; I also think sometimes that maybe I am incompatible with most people? But on the other hand, maybe I’m not, I just don’t give myself a fair chance. The truth is that love is nitty-gritty, it’s not always pretty, and sometimes you have to stop worrying about it.

I fell in love in Paris once. When something like that happens you start to expect big things out of life, and out of love. It kind of shifts the lens backwards and refocuses you on a bigger picture. But expectations lead to suffering and confusion so perhaps this is not such a good thing. But I honestly believe it’s not a question of how I act at all, rather a question of how I think. Maybe my own expectations about love that influence my unconscious decisions. It’s also possible a divorce that happened a few years ago, not mine, still has me troubled. But love seems to have changed for me, radically, in the past few years. Since that crazy year in the city of love just over four years ago, everything about the world seems to be different.

I’ve learned to drop my expectations and take it for what is, rather than allowing my imagination to get the better of me. The heart of love is romanticism so I allow the present moment and the sensations of happiness to dictate what I do. I find myself now grounded with others in the real, rather than floating alone amongst ideals. I try to find the beauty in every moment, not that I succeed or expect to. But the quest itself is enough for me.

Love is not about ideals. It is about commitment, reality, and the pursuit of a shared future, hopefully prosperous. I thoroughly enjoy my freedom now that I have sacrificed to create; teaching yoga is truly a joy in my life. But I have a relationship with yoga as well; some days I don’t want to practice or don’t practice when I know I should. Maintaining my relationship is about commitment, going when you don’t want to and being reliable and available. This is how dreams become reality, but reality is truly the death of a dream. This is how they die, in a good way. Now you can enjoy every second of what you have created, for creation to flourish death is an integral player.

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The Death of Dreams (Part 1 of 3)

Daily Prompt

Today, write about a loss. The twist: make this the first post in a three-post series.

All dreams die someday. This is the story of the death of one of my first dreams. It was 2005 and my singular goal in life was to play basketball as much as I could. It was my favorite sport of many and despite my height I had gotten quite good.

During the summer I trained with a college player who got me shooting about 500 shots in a couple of hours. As in any sport, repetition is key. I will still continue to wonder what would have happened to my three-point shot if I had continued for another two years. I could sink them like it was my job.

I worked so hard that I got to be in great shape. Better shape than I had ever been in. This was before I knew to diet, so I ate lots of meat and pizza, not to mention Captain Crunch. The peanut butter flavor was my favorite. But my hundreds of sprints each day heartily counteracted any excess. I was strong, lean, and ready to rock and roll for tryouts.

I arrived to a scene of about 30 people from school, each was a great basketball player in their own right. But when it came to conditioning it was easy to see who had put in the time. I won every single sprint during that tryout. On most, the second person wasn’t even close. At the end of the first day, my calves cramped badly when we did some full court drills. I kept going but those cramps would affect me for a few days, I attribute it to my poor diet. Man, that is an important thing for any athlete to know.

During the entire try-out, I gave it my all. I played defense like a madman and would run the ball as point faster than anyone else. I was a speed demon, but my control wasn’t on par. I wasn’t used to going as fast as I did so I would lose the ball, or make a bad decision. I was right on the cusp of making the team and I knew it.

The last few days of the tryouts came to a close and I could see who was left, who I was competing against. There was a definite separation between the starting 10 or so and the rest of the squad.

Coach pulled us into his office and let us know one by one who hadn’t made the team. I watched as the three guys I had dropped pounds of sweat with left the room in despair, my fate was all too apparent. In basketball, height matters. Almost more than anything else. I knew that my 5’8″ stature had doomed me, but I was determined. I walked into that office with my head held high.

“Elliot, this is going to be hard to tell you, but we are going to cut you from the JV team. Its hard because you work so damn hard, you have more heart than anyone else out there. But we don’t have room to keep you on the team. I need to be completely focused on the twelve guys that will play and you are above the line.” Tears started to come to my eyes at that point. My basketball dreams were dying, but I knew that this wasn’t an end. And it had been inevitable, I could see that now.

I shook off the tears and told the coach it had been fun to be on the team. I had loved it. I shook his hand firmly and said, “Thanks for giving me a shot coach. I did my best.” I’ll never forget the look he gave me that day, almost as if he couldn’t believe me. I didn’t argue, or become emotional, it was simple to me. It was over.

Dreams die. Give them all you’ve got and they will still perish eventually. But life will bring you more. Go with them, without holding on to the past. You will find that they are born just as easily.

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My Second Teacher Training begins tomorrow

I am lucky enough to be starting a second teacher training tomorrow. This will be my second one with Ryan and Natasha Bailey and EastWind Yoga. The excitement is brimming, I am really looking forward to spending time with Ryan, Timmy, Kyle, Jamie, and the whole rest of the gang (it’s going to be an awesome group) that is doing the training. This is a 100 hour training, for 12 hours each weekend day for 4 weeks straight. This includes father’s day, as my dad reminded me and so I am gona try to get the morning off to go up to the mountains with him.

After teaching two classes tonight, I’m wiped. Still so excited for 12 hours of yoga and I’m so ready to expand my teaching repertoire to the next level. I can’t wait to see how Timmy teaches, he already has so much potential. Kyle too, but I haven’t seen quite as much of his yet. But I think this is really going to take my ability to teach yoga to the next level.

So wish me luck, two twelve-hour days ahead and I’m pretty stoked to peel back even more layers to get at the core of who I am. I am also starting the WordPress writing challenge on Monday, it going to be an interesting next few days!

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The Mahabharata | महाभारतम्

The Mahabharata is one of the two major epic stories written in Sanskrit in ancient India, the other being the Ramayana. The main works contained in the Mahabharata are the Bhagavad Gita, an abbreviated Ramayana, the story of the princess Damayanti, and the Rishyashringa. The primary focus of the Mahabharata are the Purusarthas or four goals in life: Dharma – righteousness, Artha – prosperity, Kama – desire, and Moksha – spiritual liberation. Vyasa is the attributed author and is also a character in the work, though much of the information about his life conflicts with the work itself (many believe that the origins of the stories were written in about 800 BCE while the texts claim him to have lived from 3000-1500 BCE. He is also immortal according to Hindu legend and an avatar of Vishnu, meaning that he is still considered to be alive.

The Mahabharata is an extremely long work and is known as the longest epic poem with over 200,000 verses. There are over 1.8 million words in the epic, roughly ten times the size of the Odyssey and the Iliad combined. Ganesha, the god of unblocking obstacles, was said to have written the epic as long as Vyasa did not stop his dictation; Vyasa agreed to dictate under the condition that Ganesha must understand each verse as it was written. Many scholars compare its world-wide importance to Shakespeare, the Bible, the Qur’an, and the greek epics.

The story depicts a struggle for power amongst several dynasties. The climax occurs with the battle of Kurukshetra where the Pandavas, five brothers married to the same woman, were victorious over the Kauravas, their cousins. The epic ends with the death of Krishna, the coming of the fourth age where man degenerates from duty and morality. This is recognized as one of the first theories of a just war, which would be later debated around the world for centuries. This continues today with articles like the Geneva convention and the just war theory of the Vatican.

The story is quite long and detailed. This long, exhaustive religious and philosophical text led to some of the biggest advancements in society in the ancient world. It undoubtedly trickles down into our world today, influencing us in the way we view the world. My favorite part of the story is the battle with Arjuna also known as the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna explains the ways of yoga and detachment. The Mahabharata is long, fragmented, and disorganized, but the lessons from the stories are timeless and the themes are apparent even in today’s culture.

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The Monkey God Hanuman

Hanuman is a Varana, or a shapeshifting monkey-humanoid from the ancient Hindu epics the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Puranas, and Jain texts (Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism). He is a steadfast devotee of the god Rama (the seventh incarnation of Vishnu) and is an intricate part of the war against the demon king Ravana. Some texts presume him as an incarnation of lord Shiva, but in many texts he is mentioned as a son of Vayu, god of the wind. The name Hanuman has a few possible origins: one where he was struck in the jaw by Indria, king of the deities where hanu means jaw and man means prominent or disfigured; a second where hanu means killed or destroyed and man means pride, meaning one whose pride was destroyed; and finally a theory that hanuman means male monkey.

Hanuman is an intriguing character in many ways. He is viewed as an ideal devotee or Bhakta to Rama. He was also a lifelong Brahmachari or celibate in his devotion, which is believed to be his source of strength, especially by Indian wrestlers. In one tradition (my favorite) he is said to be born to Vayu and Anjana through the ritual of Dasharatha to have children. The sacred pudding that he gave his wives led to the birth of Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, and Shatrughna; however, by divine grace some of the pudding fell onto a kite and Vayu brought the kite on the wind to Anjana, in deep worship to Shiva in the forest who consumed the pudding. This led to the birth of Hanuman to Anjana; his mother was a spirit of the clouds and waters also known as an apsara.

The mythology of Hanuman’s childhood is also very interesting. He was quite mischievous during his childhood and would steal things from sages meditating in the forest and re-arrange their sacred artifacts. They placed a curse on him that he could only remember his abilities if he was reminded by another person. He also believed the sun to be a ripe mango and went to eat it, but clashed with Rahu and thrashed him, even though Rahu was supposed to be creating an eclipse. Indra was told of this by Rahu and struck Hanuman with a thunderbolt on the chin, causing him to fall to the earth unconscious. Vayu, upon seeing the attack, withdrew the air from the world. After seeing all of creation asphyxiate, Indra withdrew his thunderbolt and the devas bestowed multiple blessings of power upon Hanuman. In another story, Hanuman learned that Surya,the sun-god, was all-knowing and ascended to the sun to ask for his teaching. Surya told Hanuman that it would be impossible since his chariot was always moving, but Hanuman was undeterred and ended up being a most respected student of Surya.

Hanuman’s adventures occur in the Ramayana, more specifically in the 5th book called the Sundara Kanda. Hanuman meets Rama when Sita was kidnapped by Ravana and Rama’s brother Lakshmana and Rama are searching for her. He disguises himself to find their identities, but upon learning Rama’s identity prostrates himself. Rama then embraces him with warmth, beginning their epic friendship and Hanuman’s devotion to Rama.

Hanuman then begins his own search for Sita, which leads him to cross the sea. But Hanuman laments that his powers are not enough to cross with the other varanas, until Jambavantha reminds Hanuman of his virtues and he leaps across the sea to Lanka, where Ravana’s palace is. He finds Sita there, but she refuses to return with him saying that it would harm Rama’s honor. Hanuman then begins to wreak havoc on Lanka until he allows himself to be subdued and learns the size of Ravana’s armies. He then warns Ravana of Rama’s warning to return Sita to him and offers his forgiveness in return. Ravana becomes enraged and orders Hanuman to be killed until Ravana’s brother intervenes and reminds him that it is against the rules of engagement to kill a messenger. Ravana decides to light Hanuman’s tail on fire, but Hanuman enlarges himself and again wrecks havoc on Lanka, before returning to Rama.

Hanuman also saves his brother, Lakshamana, by delivering an entire mountain to him. Ravana tries several ways to stop him, even by expediting the rise of the sun, Surya. Hanuman grows in size to slow the sun’s rise and delivers the entire mountain to Lanka to save his brother. Rama embraces Hanuman to show that he is as dear to him as a brother and Hanuman releases his grip on Surya with apologies to his guru. Rama holds a celebration to honor his well-wishers and helpers and Hanuman enters without desiring a reward. As Hanuman comes to Rama, Rama is overwhelmed with emotion and embraces him with deep compassion for his work in the war against Ravana. Sita, knowing that Hanuman deserved more honor than any other, gave Hanuman the precious stones around her neck. When he receives it, Hanuman takes apart each stone saying that he won’t accept it unless Rama and Sita are inside. Many unbelieving witnesses watch and question Hanuman, saying he could not possibly be so devoted to Rama and Sita so Hanuman opens his heart to show them Rama and Sita inside.

Hanuman, after the war with Ravana, left to the Himalayas to record the Ramayana, including each detail of Rama’s deeds. Rama then departed for his supreme abode Vaikuntha. Hanuman requested to stay on earth as long as Rama’s name was worshipped. He is immortalized by his actions and is one of the most powerful and venerated gods in Hinduism. Hanuman is also on Arjuna’s flag in the Bhagavad Gita and stays with him during the entire battle, protecting his chariot from celestial weapons until at the end of the battle when Hanuman floats back into the sky, the chariot bursts into flames.

hanuman_statueHanuman is a god venerated by many traditions spread all over Asia, inferring that he is a very old deity and is intricate to the religious formations over the years. The biggest statue of Hanuman is in Murti and is 85 feet tall. Hanumanasana is the Sanskrit name for the splits in yoga, named that way for how Hanuman leapt over the ocean to rescue Sita.

 

Who are your favorite Hindu deities?

Hanuman is a fascinating character and worshipped for many of his devotional qualities; how do the stories speak to you about devotion in your life, in relationships, even your Dharma?

What resonates with your about these stories?

Let me know in the comments!

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lotus

The 8 Limbs of Yoga (part 6: Dharana)

Dharana is a single pointed concentration of the mind, focus on a single thing supported by the retention of the breath. This is the 6th state of yoga, after the withdrawal of the senses in pratyahara and after the body has been tempered, the breath calmed and stilled, and the external environment cared for, as well as the internal bodily function of the yogi. Indeed, Dharana is a late stage of the progression of the yogi and must be followed with care and conscientiousness. It it towards the end of the path that it is easiest to stay from the ultimate goal. Don’t end up lost.

Dharana is a key to this. The yogi evokes a single concentration during the practice; dristhi towards the ultimate goal of union with the divine. It is only when a yogi is supported by his endeavors outside that he will be free to pursue the infinite realm of feeling and what is inside. Humans are stuck between two infinite abysses; the infinite smallness of the atom versus the infinite expanses of space of the universe. Our consciousness seems to be able to find stillness despite it all, to be able to create stillness and balance in the midst of the chaos of our universe. This is the gift of Dharana.

It is with the single-minded focus that the yogi is free to pursue blissful freedom. Possessions, attachments, and excess are left to follow the purest bliss, the highest nirvana, and ultimate happiness. This limb is the first of the Samyama, or utilizing Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi to truly know an object of the mind’s focus. This is why it is important to minimize distraction with the 5th limb of yoga, pratyahara, so that the objects of the senses are relinquished and pure concentration of the divine sought.

This is the first of the last three stages of yoga, each of which is intrinsic to the elevation of consciousness and enlightenment into the world of awareness. These are the deepest levels of meditation and lead into the darkest fathoms of the unconscious mind. Stay tuned for the 7th limb of yoga, Dhyana in the next blog in the series.

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Kumbhaka

Samadhi and Kumbhaka seem to be intricately related. Samadhi is the bliss one experiences during Savasana, or after a long meditation or yoga practice and Kumbhaka is the space between breaths, or between inhales and exhales. The more that I practice, the more I find bliss existing in each moment and not simply at the end of a day’s practice, or when the view is good. Finding peace in the present moment seems to lead to being peaceful all the time.

Patanjali taught that the mind fluctuates, between highs and lows, depression and elation. Yoga teaches that breath allows one to control and truly harness the breath; it is the doorway to the unconscious mind. By deepening Kumbhaka, or the time between breaths, a yogi can deepen their state of bliss, leading deeper into the mystical realm of nirvana. The space between the breaths is where the space between thoughts are found; the most blissful of all states. When one is able to simply feel and appreciate the world with gratitude, then all suffering leaves the individual.

The link between the mind and the breath is truly extraordinary. Consciousness, it seems, is the result of having a body; the mind is not only the brain, but by the entire nervous, muscular and skeletal system. We can then assume that the body influences the states of the mind and that breathing is a way to control the body. Breathing is actually one of the most powerful influencers of conscious states; it is functioning minutes after a child leaves the womb and doesn’t cease until death. Breathing even continues when you are unconscious and I believe it is the most powerful link to the unconscious mind, the deepest layers of thought that create consciousness.

Lately I have been playing with lengthening my breaths, to see how long my body can go without breathing while relaxed. Time seems to be constantly increasing between the need for breaths and my ability to slow my breath has improved enormously. At the end of a practice, once my nervous system has calmed, it seems like I can go into extended periods of time without breathing. Buddhist monks are said to be able to stop breathing completely; in fact, some meditate into death by slowing and stopping the organs through breath. Doctors agree that the lifespan of a being is not measured in the amount of time (minutes, seconds, etc) but by the amount of breaths. Breathing is your life force, known as prana in yoga; the lungs encompass the heart, feed and cleanse it and give the body ability to normalize itself to the environment. The breath, it seems, is also the doorway to long life.

Kumbhaka seems to be a pathway to enlightenment and the inner workings of the mind, having deep implications for the unconscious mind, the heart, and entire circulatory system. Poorak is the name for an inhale and Rechak is the name of an exhale in Sanskrit. The different types of Kumbhaka are also important to understand:

  • antar kumbhaka – after the inhale, when the lungs are full
  • bahya kumbhaka – after the exhale, when the lungs are empty
  • Sahit Kumbhaka – performed during the middle of an exhale or inhale
  • Kevali Kumbhaka – complete cessation of breathing, an advanced stage of Kumbhaka after intensive Pranayama and Kumbhaka exercises

Practicing these exercises will calm the nervous system and slow the breath rate, leading to increased vitality and focus of the mind. Humans are one of the few species that can voluntarily stop the breath, whales are a second species, and it gives tremendous insight into the inner workings of consciousness. Over time Kumbhaka exercises may very well lead to ultimate Samadhi, enlightenment, and the realization of god. But in any case, it will certainly bring your mind to a more peaceful state and allow you to be less reactive to the outside world, so that you can enjoy it more. Practice your Kumbhaka and look for the little nooks and crannies that you’ve never felt before; these will turn into new worlds for exploration.

 

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Meditation

Sometimes, I forget how powerful meditation is. It really gets lost in the daily shuffle of american life, but it is so beneficial to clear the mind and make space for new things to come. But after a long day of work, good luck getting anyone unglued from the TV.

I find that 5 minutes in the morning can change my whole day. It allows for a shift in perspective that just isn’t available without spending time to clear your mind. It can help you to space out your reactions, so that you are less reactive and more perceptive.

America is so obsessed with going fast; but I think we really want to go slow in this life, to feel all of the little sensations and feelings that we only get to experience once. Time, it seems, is the ultimate paradox because the more you want it and attach to it, the faster it goes by. Meditation can slow things down.

This is even more important when it comes to health; doctors are learning that lifespans are really measured by breath, rather than by heartbeats, or time. So lengthening and slowing your breath will also help you to live longer (not to mention lower your heart rate, reduce your risks of heart disease, and reduce the negative impacts of stress on the body).

5 minutes is all it takes. You don’t need to spend 5 hours trying to sit still (and good luck if you are trying!), but even extending your time to 20 minutes can completely shift the unconscious mind into a state of relaxation and awareness. We have to remember that we are not truly in control over the mind and that the unconscious is far more powerful than what we are aware of.

So for a few days, before sitting in front of the TV or relieving stress whatever ways that you do, spend 5 minutes just breathing, sitting still, and focusing on your breath or on nothing. It might add some years to your life, as well as appreciation for the present.

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