The Nectar of Chanting

We just returned from a family trip to the ashram in upstate NY.  Our visit was profound, powerful, and uplifting, in ways that are too deep, personal, and difficult to explain with words.  As is typically the case when taking the kids to a new, unfamiliar place, they were uncomfortable at first, but by the end of the week they loved it.  Much to my surprise and delight, the kids have really taken to chanting.

Chanting at the ashram can be quite challenging.  We sit for almost two hours, chanting in Sansrkit, where the words can be as long as 30+ characters.  Sometimes the chants are repetitive, but the longest, most challenging chant is 183 verses, lasting 45 minutes, and is not repetitive at all, which is more difficult to chant than a repetitive chant because you have to stay focused and present.  The first time the girls went through it they thought it was immensely boring but politely sat through the entire program.  One or two days later, something clicked, and their whole attitude changed.  “Chanting makes me feel good,” said Charlotte.

Chanting can be wonderfully euphoric and grounding.  At the most basic, physiological level, chanting is about breath control.  Chanting requires a relatively short inhale followed by a long, sustained exhale during which the notes are vocalized.  It is yoga for the vocal chords and tongue!  The control of breathing is a useful tool for reducing anxiety and stress and increasing feelings of gratitude.  

Singing offers similar benefits as chanting but there are features unique to chanting that contribute further to one’s well-being.  Chanting features a highly regular cadence and has an even range of tone.  Thus, it is much simpler and more accessible than singing and more energizing than regular speech.  Not everyone can sing, but everyone can chant.  

When chanting is done in Sanskrit, most students only have a loose association with the words.  As a result, the words are said in a more emotional than analytical way.  Making sounds with feeling creates a release which helps people feel better and breathe in a more balanced way.  The repetitive chants at our ashram often progress through a range of cadences and tones, which results in a journey through varied moods and emotions.  

Since most of us don’t know Sanskrit, chanting also becomes an exercise in setting aside one’s ego and approaching an activity with a beginner’s mind.  In addition to the health benefits, chanting cultivates increased concentration and mindfulness.  

Watching a beautiful music or dance performance can be extremely moving.  The performers are  united, mindful, filled with love for what they do, and sharing it with the world.  Chanting provides a similar sense of unity, with the difference being that you are also a participant.  That unity is our yoga. 

Goodbye Google, Hello World!

I’ve been getting enough inquires about my current employment status that it seems a blog post is in order.  Yes, it’s true:  after 6 years at Google, I have decided to leave and move on.  I turned in my badge yesterday!  Reflecting on my time spent there, it has been an incredible journey. Google’s relationship with design has evolved in ways that seemed unimaginable six years ago. I’m extremely proud of the team I built there, and Google UX is in great hands with the next generation of leaders. I’m excited for its future and look forward to seeing what comes next!

One of my main intentions behind leaving Google was to pursue a different path from what I was doing before. Having run not just one but two of the largest, most prominent UX teams in the Internet industry and in Silicon Valley, the impact I was having was at a large scale, but in a very indirect way. Going through the yoga teacher training last year taught me a lot about myself. First, I loved being in the beginner’s seat again and learning something entirely new and different. Second, in contrast to the work I’ve done for the past sixteen years, the impact I’ve had in teaching yoga is very direct and hands-on, albeit at a small scale relative to what I did before. Reflecting on this, I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Albert Einstein: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

What’s next for me remains to be seen. For now, I am potting plants, literally and figuratively. (As it turns out, potting plants is another activity that puts me in the beginner’s seat, as my children have pointed out to me that I know nothing about gardening.) I’ll continue to teach yoga, but not too much, to give myself the time and headspace I need now. An avid advocate of Montessori education, I’ve joined the Board of Trustees for my children’s school. As I’ve already begun to advise and consult with startups, next month I will join Trinity Ventures as an EIR. I’m extremely excited to join a team comprised of genuinely good people in the venture community. I’ll save details on that for another post. In the meantime, Namaste!

The Friendly Letter

My soon-to-be 7 year-old daughter has been subjecting us to reenactments of her lessons from school lately, using the whiteboard in the girls’ playroom.  In the moment, these lessons are a mixed blessing; we get insight into what she is learning at school while being bossed around in the evening as we catch up on the day’s emails, finish dinner and clean up, and get ready for bedtime.  The lessons have ranged from “From Seed to Tree” to “The Works of Leonardo da Vinci” to “What is an Adjective?”, complete with lesson, review, Q&A, and homework.

Last week, we had a lesson on The Friendly Letter.  We learned about friendly letter structure, formatting, and proper greetings and closings.  For homework, we randomly drew names of another member of the household and were assigned to write a friendly letter addressed to that person, due in one week.  As if we weren’t busy enough!  We procrastinated, hoping Sophie would forget about the whole thing, but she never does.  She even made notebook paper for us by drawing blue lines on white paper, an orange line for the margin, and punched three holes along the side (I told her I had notebook paper, but she insisted on making it for me).

And then, we started to experience the magic of The Friendly Letter.  I received my letter shortly after the assignment was made, from my father, written in Google Docs and emailed to me.  It was brief, but I was moved by his expression of his love and the sense of permanence and sincerity from his written words.   Over the following few days, notes of love and appreciation trickled throughout the house from one person to another.  For the recipients and receivers of The Friendly Letter, it has been a moving experience, an opportunity to reflect on the goodness evident in our lives, to practice kindness, and to nourish our relationships with each other.

Thank you, Sophie, for the lesson on The Friendly Letter.

Contemplating the 3 C’s

I’ve been taking a yoga teacher training class (PURE) through Equinox with Michelle Myhre and Keith Erickson. Both are passionate and inspiring teachers and practitioners; in fact, when I signed up, my intention was not to become a yoga teacher but rather, I was motivated because I wanted to learn all Keith and Michelle could offer about yoga. Although this training has been a huge commitment that has required a lot of time, money, and energy (160 hours of classes plus 40 hours of practice, observation, and assisting in class required), I’m extremely grateful I took the time to learn the skills to do healthy things for the body and soul and be able to share them with others.

I opened this past weekend’s class with this dharma talk I wrote, a derivative of the commencement speech I gave at the College of Engineering at my alma mater last month:

Come into a comfortable seated position with your spine erect. Begin taking long, slow, and deep breaths through the nostrils. Take notice of your body… what’s happening within you today? Take notice of your mind… how is your spirit today?

We are near the end of our eighth week of our yoga teacher training; only two more weeks to go. We’ve devoted our weekends, and weekday mornings and evenings to this journey. Along the way, we’ve bonded as a community and have grown to know each other’s souls and bodies. What brought each of us here, and what will we take away as this training comes to an end?

For today’s opening, we will contemplate the lifecyle of learning and growth. I call them the three C’s: curiosity, courage, and confidence. Let’s meditate on these three C’s.

First, curiosity.

We all wanted to be part of this yoga teacher training because we are curious about yoga and are interested in learning more. Curiosity is the basis of learning and creativity. It’s more about asking the right questions than the answers themselves. On the yoga mat, being curious opens ourselves to discovering and connecting with our minds and bodies. Off the mat, our curiosity allows us to discover and fuel our passion. Walt Disney once said, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

Now let’s talk about courage.

How many of us know someone who has said to us, “I don’t want to try yoga because I’m not that flexible?” Or “I don’t want to try do X because I’m afraid of Y?” Maybe we have felt that way at times too, when we had to make something out of nothing, or when we engaged in an activity even though we didn’t really know what we were doing.

On the mat, we summon our courage to go into poses that may be new, or seem awkward or unnatural. Whether on or off the mat, courage is the willingness to face whatever is in front of us. Maybe it’s fear of failure. Maybe it’s a fear of the unknown. Maybe it’s a fear of rejection. Whatever it is, when we gather the courage to face whatever is in front of us, we emerge stronger, more resilient, more flexible, and those qualities will withstand whatever failure, rejection, and uncertainties we encounter in life. Courage gives us the strength to take risks, and where there is risk there is opportunity.

The last C is about the value of challenge and adversity and the confidence gained from it.

Each of us made sacrifices to be part of this yoga teacher training. We devoted significant time, energy, and money to be here. Along the way, we had doubts about our ability to fulfill all the commitments required of this training. How could we possibly complete all the reading, writing, and practice hours while juggling work, family, and other responsibilities and commitments? And yet here we are all still here. We are doing this!

On the yoga mat, as we practice asana, we are physically and mentally challenged. Sometimes we don’t know if we can get into the pose, or stay in it long enough. But when we do, we feel awesome!

Adverse conditions help toughen us mentally and build confidence. We can choose to blame failures on factors we cannot control, or we can believe we have the ability to shape events and circumstances by making the most of what we can control. When we take on new challenges, a little at a time, we build our confidence to take on more ambitious endeavors. And thus the cycle of learning and growth begins again, with curiosity.

Let’s bring our hands together and offer our salutations to Brahma, for curiosity which cultivates passion and creation; to Vishnu, for courage through which we persist through whatever we face in front of us with optimism, and to Shiva, for adversity and the confidence and joy gained after we overcome challenges.

Guru Brahma
Guru Vishnu
Guru Devo Maheshwara
Guru Sakshath Parambrahma
Tasmai Shri Gurave Namaha

(tr: Guru is the creator Brahma, Guru is the preserver Vishnu, Guru is the destroyer Siva. Guru is directly the supreme spirit — I offer my salutations to this Guru.)

Who is the inventor?

The other day, Sophie brought home stencils and coloring pages about inventors including George Stephenson and Leonardo da Vinci. It prompted an interesting discussion with Charlotte as the two of them argued as passionately as I’ve ever seen them.

Sophie: “Leonardo da Vinci invented the airplane.”
Charlotte: “No, he didn’t! The Wright brothers invented the airplane.”
Sophie: “YES! It was Leonardo da Vinci. We learned that in school.”
Charlotte: “No, Leonardo da Vinci only drew designs for airplanes but he didn’t make it up into the air. The Wright brothers built the first airplane that made it into the sky.”

In fact, Leonardo da Vinci made the first real studies of flight in the 1480’s. He made hundreds of drawings that illustrated his theories on flight. One of his ideas, the Ornithopter flying machine, was a design that da Vinci created to show how people could fly, and was the basis for the modern day helicopter.

Who is the inventor, the designer or the builder?