The secret to happiness? Ram Dass may have had it right

This weekend, NPR’s “TED Radio Hour,” focuses on happiness.

The one that caught my eye — er, ear — was the first: Are we happier when we stay in the moment? Here’s a summary:

When are humans most happy? To answer this question, researcher Matt Killingsworth built an app, Track Your Happiness, that let people report their feelings in real time. Among the results: We’re often happiest when we’re lost in the moment.

In other words: Be here now. Ram Dass may have been on to something.

Other topics from the show: Are we happier if we slow down? Does less stuff equal more happiness?

Tune in or down load.

Posted by Steve

What you’re doing is ‘complex yoga stretches,’ says the Washington Post

We were going to put up a Friday asana aid, but then we realized: It’s a Moonday. So let’s chill.

Instead, we’ll offer up the Washington Post’s Style section coverage of the Smithsonian yoga exhibit gala, complete with an encounter between Alex Baldwin and an unnamed yogi who was demonstrating the practice.

A little bit of “investigative reporting” by us — aka happening upon something on Facebook — turns up that the unnamed yogi is Peg Mulqueen.

Here you go, and it all seriousness, it sounds like the Smithsonian exhibit is well worth it if you can make it. (We’ll keep our eyes out for any reviews.) From the Post:

Paparazzi cameras  – the bane of her volatile husband’s existence – were poised Thursday night as the A-list couple, married last summer, arrived for the museum’s “Some Enlightened Evening” fundraiser at the Mellon Auditorium.

After submitting to a brief TV interview, Baldwin got distracted by a woman performing complex yoga stretches on the ground – one of the many performers on mats around the giant ballroom. “Have you met my wife, Hilaria?” he asked her, guiding his spouse away from the cameras.

And really, what could be a better way to end this stressful week in Washington than an evening celebrating the art of staying calm? The black-tie, $1,000-a ticket evening (relocated from the gallery to the Mellon because of the shutdown) celebrated the debut of the Sackler Gallery’s “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” exhibit, which opens Saturday.

Because there was no time to move the gala back to the museum after the government reopened, photos of sculptures and paintings from the exhibit were shown on video screens on the wall of the dimly lighted room, which piped in soothing, dreamy music throughout the night.

Several hundred guests showed up to the event, which raised about $450,000 – though a rep said that amount could change because of the last-minute venue switch. VIPs included the museum’s Jillian Sackler, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough and Indian Ambassador Nirupama Rao.

The Baldwins, you might suspect, get a lot of the focus, and they donated an undisclosed amount as part of chairing the gala, so good for them. (Baldwin did a hilarious promo a few years back for our local NPR station during its pledge week, too.)

But to note: The event raised $450,000.

The Post story ends with this:

In response to what yoga position he would recommend for members of Congress to avoid another shutdown, Baldwin was initially stumped. But he later said: “My wife came up with a brilliant idea.” The position: bed of nails.

True enough. Or just put them through Primary, right?

Posted by Steve and Bobbie

All things coffee: Caffeine, tapering off, Jerry Seinfeld

We promised to point you toward NPR’s coverage of all things coffee, so here we go with our wrap up.

We start with one of the most salient points about coffee: the caffeine. (The others, for those wondering, are coffee’s role in social life and how darn good it tastes.)

Just how does that caffeine work? Here are some answers:

According to Braun, caffeine works by blocking receptors for adenosine, a compound in the brain that makes you feel sleepy. In other words, he writes in the book, consuming caffeine is like “putting a block of wood under one of the brain’s primary brake pedals.”

Of course, there’s a huge amount of variation in how caffeine affects individuals, which depends on genetics, tolerance and other factors. But several small studies have shown that at low doses (between 100 and 250 mg), caffeine improves alertness and mental performance, especially in people who are already tired. Neuroscientists report that it makes us more supportive of each other in social situations. And one study even found that higher caffeine consumption helped reduce the risk of workplace accidents.

“Its indirect action on arousal, mood and concentration contributes in large part to its cognitive enhancing properties,” according to a review article in the Journal of Alzheimers Disease.

As Allison Aubrey reported last month, caffeine also seems to improve short-term memory — if you’re exhausted. But researchers said it didn’t have any beneficial effects on memory among people who are well rested.

All that sounds pretty good to us. But then NPR ends its story with this:

Braun has a theory on how to get the most out of caffeine, and it involves taking regular “caffeine holidays” five or six times a year.

“I find it to be most useful when I start at a virgin state, so I taper down slowly,” he says. “I switch from coffee to black tea, and then peppermint tea. So when I get that first cup of java again, it’s such a great feeling.”

Tapering down also reminds him that he can function perfectly well — and sleep better — without caffeine.

Taper off? Crazy.

Here’s the full archive of NPR’s Coffee Week.

And I suppose it is worth directly linking you to what appears to be NPR’s big “catch” in this piece: Jerry Seinfeld called and talked to them. Here’s the link and one of the things he said:

On why coffee is so central to our culture

“I think the answer is we all need a little help, and the coffee’s a little help with everything — social, energy, don’t know what to do next, don’t know how to start my day, don’t know how to get through this afternoon, don’t know how to stay alert. We want to do a lot of stuff; we’re not in great shape. We didn’t get a good night’s sleep. We’re a little depressed. Coffee solves all these problems in one delightful little cup.”

It just so happens Seinfeld has a coffee-related show, so… that explains that. We were never big Seinfeld fans.

Now, time for today’s second cup.

Posted by Steve

‘Rama loves you twice as much as you love him’

Thursday is Hanuman’s birthday, Hanuman Jayanti. (We missed highlighting Ram’s birthday a couple days back. A bit of an oversight, admittedly.)

As we’ve mentioned, Tim Miller will be celebrating the birthday of his Ishta Devata with a puja and singing of the Hanuman Chalisa, with the help of Naren Schreiner from Sangita Yoga. It all begins at 6 p.m.

But before then, you can scoot on over to Tim’s blog and read his subtle and sweet summary of Hanuman’s role in the Ramayana. A taste:

A divine contract was negotiated in the heavens –Vishnu, the Preserver, would incarnate in human form as Rama, and Shiva would incarnate as Hanuman, born for the special purpose of serving Rama with unfailing strength, wisdom, and devotion in his quest to rescue Sita and kill the demon king, Ravana.

These stories are probably what won me over.

And, as promised, more from NPR’s coffee series this week. This time: Does that fair trade label mean anything?

With that, we seem to be back on our old two- or three-post-a-day schedule. We’ll try to back off unless something really earth-shattering — even more than People’s most beautiful list — happens today.

Posted by Steve

Here’s a cup full of knowledge about coffee for you

This week, NPR is doing a series of reports on our second, maybe third, favorite beverage: coffee.

The first one on Monday focused on how coffee brings the world together. Link here, to a print and audio version. From the story:

Vietnamese farmers grow a species of coffee tree called robusta. (The scientific name isCoffea canephora.) It grows fast and produces a big crop, but the bean has a bitter taste. It’s often used in blends, especially in Europe. But high-end coffee producers like Counter Culture avoid it. They stick to another species — arabica.

This is one big divide in the coffee business. On one side is “commodity” coffee; on the other, small companies like Counter Culture Coffee, or even big ones like Starbucks or Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, which sell coffee that’s been more carefully harvested and graded. These companies market coffee almost like wine, labeling where it came from and how it tastes.

At Green Mountain’s headquarters in Waterbury, Vt., tasters suck in mouthfuls of fresh brew, pause to reflect, then give each sample a score and talk about what their supersensitive taste buds picked up. “Chocolate, melon, lime, subtle peach,” says one taster.

Specialty coffee like this accounts for only a small part — probably 10 or 15 percent — of the global coffee market.

Sometimes, these two sides of the coffee business seem to live in different worlds. But Counter Culture Coffee’s Ionescu says they sometimes come together in surprising ways.

NPR also has a little quiz up about coffee, its history and its production. We of course got all 10 questions 100% correct.

Mostly thanks to our third cup of coffee that’s powering us through the mid-day!

Posted by Steve


“The Fascination of What’s Difficult”

There's a dance party in my head, and you're invited. Dancing Ganesha, from the Norton Simon museum.

Today is my birthday. Because it falls around Thanksgiving, I’m used to a sort of mixture of remorse (for what I ate), gratitude (it is a day to give thanks, after all), and a deep sense of my own mortality (a natural by-product of all birthdays over 30).

And with all the Ashtanga news lately being totally preoccupied with things that are most decidedly not one of the Eight Limbs (whether or not it makes you skinny, whether or not it’s from the Devil–that sort of silliness), it’s part of my contrary nature to take stock of my own vanity.

It’s true that I didn’t come to the practice to deepen my connection with the universe or learn Vedic philosophy. But it wasn’t to get skinny, either. I had early onset degeneration and arthritis and was trying to beat back death (see earlier sense of mortality, but I was in my 20s). Ashtanga was the only practice where the teacher never told me to “stop when it hurts.” Everything hurt. I felt, instinctually that I needed to do it, even if every forward fold was excruciating. Steve remembers all the times I would come home from practice, weeping.

Now a new study out of Northwestern University is suggesting I’ve made the right choice. (NPR did a story on it this morning–very timely.) Those of us who practice in pain are doing the right thing.

It’s not like there was never any doubt. You might check out this poem by W.B. Yeats, the poem of my title above, to see what that’s like. But it was the philosophy of yoga, and Ashtanga in particular, that got me through it, and still does. Reading Ramesh Menon’s translations of the great Indian epics, classic translations of the Upanishads, the poetry, and learning to connect to the divine through the image and stories of Ganesha, the Lord of Obstacles.

What’s a goal? Me and my ego still have long discussions over my second series practice (I hear Tim in my head: “Avoidance is not the answer”). I try hard to remember the whole journey. Every time I put my hands together over my head in a suryanamaskar, there’s a little party in my head, a little dance (I couldn’t do that when I was 28). I suppose you could say that’s vanity. Or demonic. Maybe, though, it’s more “daemonic,” in the ancient Greek sense, a moment that belongs to the intermediary between me and the universe. Whatever it is, it makes me smile, even on the day I complete my 47th year.

Posted by Bobbie