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The Gayatri Mantra

19 Feb

There are many ways beyond asana to practice yoga in daily life. Asana is done to strengthen the body, make it more pliable, facilitate better circulation and improve cognitive function, but in a more classical sense, yoga postures are preparation for seated meditation. When your body is properly stretched and strengthened, sitting in meditation becomes more comfortable. The more ease you have in your seat, the less of a distraction the body will be while you are trying to meditate.

But there are times when a vigorous asana practice is entirely inappropriate. If the body is ill, or you have an injury, or you are simply listening to your own inner wisdom’s craving for peace, it may be enough to find a comfortable seat.

Another way to practice yoga is by chanting a mantra. Mantra is a Sanskrit word that has two parts: The root, “man,” which means “mind,” and the suffix “tra,” which can be translated as tool or instrument. If you put the two together you have an “instrument of thought” or “tool of the mind.”

If you, like me, find yourself very challenged by the concept of “turning down your thoughts” in meditation, mantras can be an exceptionally good tool to have in your kit. There are many, many mantras out there, the most simple of which is “Om.”  “Om” is considered the primordial utterance, the sound which all life grew from. Pretty spectacular, right? And so beautiful to feel and hear the way it vibrates your whole chest.

The "Om" symbol represents the all-encompassing vibration of the cosmic universe. (Woah.)

The “Om” symbol represents the all-encompassing vibration of the cosmic universe. (Woah.)

Try chanting “Om” three times when you wake up in the morning. It’s like shaking the cobwebs off of your respiratory system and vocal chords.

A mantra does not have to be audible. The spiritual power of a mantra is awakened when it is seen, heard, or thought. Yoga is a very personal thing—some people are far more affected by writing a mantra repeatedly or meditating on it rather than chanting. Experiment with it without judgment. You may find that some mantras are more powerful to you as a visual reminder, while others are more useful as a vocal exercise. Others may be quite private, and exist only in your thoughts.

What I’d most like to share with you is the mantra I personally greet the day with, and sing to students frequently during savasana. It is called the Gayatri Mantra.  There are many translations of it, but the one I like best is “We meditate on the divine light that is the source of life in all worlds, and pray for that light to illuminate our intellect.” In your personal theology that “divine light” could be the sun, god, science, any number of things. Consider what speaks to you and allow yourself to make this part of your practice an offering. No matter what you believe in, it’s a pretty kind thing to send positive vibrations out into the universe.  So send that out to someone you feel needs your love and assistance.

In this video, I chant the Gayatri Mantra three times and offer both a Sanskrit transliteration and phonetic pronunciation guide in the captions. This healing mantra can bring more steadiness, compassion, and confidence into your day. Try sending your good vibrations out into the world!

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The Gayatri Mantra

Sanskrit transliteration: Oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ
Phonetic pronunciation: Om bhoor bhu-wah swa-ha

Sanskrit transliteration: tát savitúr váreṇ(i)yaṃ
Phonetic pronunciation: tat savi-tur varen-yam

Sanskrit transliteration: bhárgo devásya dhīmahi
Phonetic pronunciation: bhar-go de-va-sya dheem-a-hi

Sanskrit transliteration: dhíyo yó naḥ prachodáyāt
Phonetic pronunciation: dhiyo yo nah pra-cho-day-at

Translation: We meditate upon the divine light that is the source of life in all worlds, and pray for that light to illuminate our intellect.

Ciao for now,


Morning Habits

4 Feb

Like many people, I’m a habitual creature when I first wake up. Sometimes I think we need habit to save us from ourselves in those first few groggy moments of the day (or at least until I find where I left my glasses this time). Also like many people, I’m stiff in the morning. Fortunately, I do have a really good tool in my kit for this that I use everyday, call it yoga’s morning coffee: Awareness of Breath and Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation). If you have 5-7 minutes and a willing heart and mind, it’s yours to use too. Yoga’s nonexclusive like that.

Yoga's other "morning coffee" is a rather silly utkatasana apparently.

Yoga’s other “morning coffee” is a rather silly utkatasana apparently.

The key component as always is the breath. If you’re ever unsure of where to start in yoga, always begin by bringing awareness to your breath. The lips are sealed. What is the temperature? Is the pace fast or slow? Does it feel narrow or very round? Is it restricted? Where do you feel your breath in your body? Don’t judge any of these things as good or bad, and notice where you are at the present moment without any anxiety about what it means.

Next, start to lengthen the inhales and exhales. Try inhaling for 4 counts, and then exhaling for 4 counts—you can expand it more if you wish. Constrict the back of the throat slightly so that you can hear your own breath. Consider this thought: Each time you inhale, your body takes that breath, filters it, breaks it down into the essential components it needs to use, and sends those where needed.  When you exhale it gets rid of all of the junk that is no longer necessary. It does all of this without conscious thought for much of our lives, which is crazy and amazing. In yoga practice, we become conscious of the breath’s power, and every breath you take becomes an opportunity to bring in new possibility and life, and to let go of something that you don’t need anymore.

The more you exhale, the deeper the next inhale can be. And so the more that you are willing to let go, the more possibility there will be.

What a beautiful reality to live in.

So as you allow yourself to melt into the rhythm of breath, it becomes linked with movement in Surya Namaskar where that breath will initiate and guide each and every movement.

Surya Namaskar warms the muscles and links breath to movement, but it is also a way of expressing gratitude for the sun as the source of all life on the planet. This ancient practice exists in many theologies, but also in everyday life. Have you ever lifted your face toward the summer sun to feel its warmth? In taking a moment to appreciate the way it felt on your skin, you performed a kind of sun salutation. In yoga practice, sun salutations can act as a way to prepare the body for asana practice, or be an entire practice as-is. Investing in this time to link your mind, body, and breath improves concentration, focus, and (most importantly for me) patience.

This video will guide you through the breath and movement for a variation of the classical sun salutation. If you have any questions, or are in need of a modification, please feel free to post in the comments and I will do my best to assist you.

Do subscribe to my YouTube channel if you’re interested in seeing more. Teaching is most often guided by questions, so knowing what you’d like to see is important to me as well. Feel free to email me with video demo requests.

Ciao for now,


Neen’s Notes is BACK (with cookies)!

16 Jan

Almost a year after quietly fading away, here I am. So what happened?


Yoga Teacher Training Graduation, March 2014.

Yoga Teacher Training Graduation, March 2014.

Okay, you want details. After I finished yoga teacher training at the end of March 2014, there was a void. It was a steady, dull ache that huddled in my heart and reminded me constantly of how much I missed the long weekends learning about yoga with kind souls. I grasped at every opportunity I could to take classes from my friends (now amazing yoga teachers!), but I couldn’t get grounded. Things at work were really challenging. The organization where I worked had gone through huge transitions in procedures and leadership, and the growing pains got more palpable with time. Every time one fire started to die out, another blazed in its place. There was sadness within me that I couldn’t shake, but I did my best to keep grinding forward.

As we do each spring, Joe and I made our grand return to Boston for PAX East in April and that was when everything started to change. While we were away, two local studios emailed me and offered me yoga teaching jobs, and one of them offered to hire me to do some writing work for their website and blog. That night I was sitting at a panel event hosted by the team from Giant Bomb. All of the panelists and their guests were having fun—they’d found a way to take their joy and make a living doing it. I decided that night to leave my office job.

In Boston for PAX 2014, the weekend it all began!

In Boston for PAX 2014, the weekend it all began!

The next few months were an insane experiment. At the beginning, I only had one or two classes a week that were permanent, so I took substitute teaching positions as often as possible. I spent the rest of my time writing about yoga for a studio blog, and studying therapeutic yoga as a way to expand and continue my training. I wrote class plans, built a website, found a graphic designer to create a logo, started developing a social media presence on Instagram and YouTube, and began to teach myself the ways of Adobe Premiere Pro for video editing (oh we have a ways to go together). And I read. I devoured yoga books, always looking for things to share with my students.

It was not and is not a linear experience. In July, the studio that hired me to write for their blog decided to take their student outreach in a different direction, and at the same time another studio cancelled two of my classes because of low attendance. I was crushed. Maybe I’m not actually cut out for this. I was having some health issues too, and felt frustrated and overwhelmed by everything.

I started to really question myself and did some serious svadhyaya (self-reflection in yoga practice). They say comparison is the thief of joy, but it is also the creator of doubt. I saw my friends in crazy arm balances and strength poses that I didn’t have in my practice and thought, “I can’t offer that to my students. How can I possibly be a good yoga teacher?”

The answer came quietly: You do you.

Instead of focusing on what wasn’t there, I remembered my friends during teacher training telling me that they wished they could just lay in savasana and listen to my voice. It is round, rich, and warm. It is probably my favorite quality about my physical self. So I started using that—sharing a soft chant while students were in a restorative pose or reading a poem during our break between standing and seated poses. People smiled. They thanked me for an experience.

I reminded myself of the importance of maintaining a beginner’s mindset. I was intimidated when I came to yoga by all of the strength and flexibility around me. The teachers I returned to were those who took that away, the ones who offered variations so everyone could try something, and who encouraged students to own their practice. Those are the people I thought, and still think of, when I stand at the front of the room. I decided (rather radically for me) to love myself unconditionally. I looked in the mirror and said aloud, “I love you.” Nothing else needed to be said.

When I let go of trying to be what I thought I needed to be, my confidence grew. I was me when I stood up, and not anyone else. Sure, teachers beg, borrow, and steal cues from one another all the time. That’s the amazing thing about yoga—there is always, always, always something more to learn. Part of the reason I love social media is because the Instagram community is chock full of talented, smart yogis who share their journeys. It makes me feel so connected and whole knowing that we are all in this together, all working together.

And here it is, 2015. I finished my graduate certificate in nutrition in the fall, I’m teaching yoga seven days a week, and have learned to just ride this wave. Classes will ebb and flow, but there is always more to learn and there is always an outlet to share it with others. I’m making my own way and living life on my own terms. It is not always easy and I do still feel twinges of doubt or the urge to control, but more and more I am learning to breathe through it. Life happens one moment at a time.

The universe has put me exactly where I need to be, and I trust that. I have faith. I am welcoming it in, and I hope you’ll join me.

And because this is, after all, Neen’s Notes, I also have cookies!

Over 6 years of Notes, and I never shared my favorite cookie recipe with you: Shortbread. Shame on me.

How lame is that? The truth is that it’s such a simple recipe that I never thought to share it. And then I was making a batch last week and thought that of all the things I make, it is pretty much the embodiment of those words: You do you. (Well, me doing me, but that sounds strange.)

Why? A few reasons. First of all, it’s pretty much pie dough with a slightly different method. And if you know anything about this blog, you know my love for pastry dough runs deep. Secondly, it’s four ingredients that I always have in the house. That’s it. And third of all, in encapsulates my loves of recipe manipulation and kitchen science, because I tried a whooooooole lot of shortbread recipes (tough job), and then made up my own based on knowing exactly what I was trying to achieve in terms of texture and flavor. For me, the perfect shortbread is crisp, but flaky on the inside.

Let’s do it.

Crisp Shortbread Cookies


  • 4.5 oz. (9 tbsp.) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • Heavy ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • *Optional: 2 tbsp. corn starch. Adding cornstarch to your flour will make these ultra-snappy and crispy. Especially ideal if you want to use these as sandwich cookies or plan to ice them. It gives them sturdiness without making them tough.
  • *Optional: Sprinkles!

Team Shortbread


Preheat an oven to 325 degrees F.

Combine the flour and salt (and cornstarch if using it) in a bowl and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy and smooth.


Nice and fluffy, buy you can taste to be “sure”.

Slowly add the flour mixture to the creamed butter and sugar, mixing slowly and just until pieces of dough start to adhere together. Pour this on to a clean surface.


Bring the dough together with your hands and knead just until smooth. Wrap in plastic wrap and rest the dough in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.


Smooth and ready to wrap/roll.

Lightly flour a counter and roll the dough out until it’s about a 1/4 in. thick, and cut out shapes as desired. I used a fluted 1 ½ in. biscuit cutter and got 2 dozen cookies.


Any shape will work, but if there are a lot of fine edges, roll the dough a bit thicker.

Put the cookies on a baking sheet with about ½ in. of space between them. They won’t spread very much. Here you can add sprinkles if you like.


Ready to bake.

Bake the cookies on a rack in the middle of the oven for about 17 minutes, or until the edges are lightly golden.





Sparkling shortbread, yum.


Mmm, so flaky inside.

 And that is the delicious, and dare I say very happy, return of Neen’s Notes. It’s good to be back.

Ciao for now,


Turning Inward

19 Aug

One of the branches on yoga’s 8-limbed path is called pratyahara, or “withdrawal of the senses.” It is turning inward and beginning to release attempts to exercise control over the external forces.


The past week and a half has weighed heavy. The light of an actor I respected and admired went out, my sister-in-law’s father went to peace after his battle with cancer, and then a friend was taken from the world in an accident so sudden I don’t know that I’ve actually wrapped my head around it. I still expect that the next time I visit where we once worked together, I will see my friend with her red coffee cup and mischievous smirk, giving me a half-annoyed grin because I didn’t bring cookies for the visit.

What is most difficult about the latter loss is that many of my friends and acquaintances also loved her. To watch so many people you care for grieving a loss is hard.

The grief I felt kept catching me off-guard. Out in Crystal City on Saturday morning, I saw within a crowd of shoppers a dark-haired woman wearing an orange sweater and did a double-take. There was a mistake! It wasn’t you. Or waiting for a receipt for parking and finding myself suddenly thinking about everyone from her supervisor, her fiancé, her family, the people she had coffee with every day, even her dog.

To ignore sadness and push it away so that I could go through the motions of teaching felt disingenuous. I turned to practice for healing and thought of pratyahara.

Pratyahara is the moment in yoga when we let go of attention to physical technique and turn inward. The senses are calmed down, no longer seeking to break down the constant flood of information. What we hear, smell, taste, touch, and see fall away, and we enter a place of tranquility. This does not happen overnight, and it is often incomplete. Some days I am able to close my eyes and let go of all that my vision is taking in, but it is not so easy to simply notice sounds and let them pass by. The curious mind wonders, What is that? Where is it coming from? Oh, that reminds me! I need to…

No. I don’t need to do anything. Let go.

In practicing pratyahara, we often return to pranayama (breath control), the limb that comes just before pratyahara. If you’ve been in a yoga class, perhaps a teacher has said to you, “If thoughts become intrusive, just listen to your breathing.” The breath is a tool, even a guide, for accessing this internal space.

I realized that while highly inappropriate to my pass the grief I felt along to my students, this experience of pratyahara might help them access the places within their own selves that were in need of healing. I came across a passage from Rolf Gates’ Meditations from the Mat that pinpointed it eloquently:

“Letting go of our pain is not an overnight affair, but the process quickly gains momentum. It’s a little like water moving through a hole in a dam. First, there is just a trickle, then a small flow, then before you know it there is a torrent. The most miraculous part of this process is in the trickle stage. This is when you see the dramatic courage, the thrilling movement and change. It is the addict’s first few months of sobriety, the battered woman leaving home for good, the forty-something businessperson leaving a job and going to medical school. It’s picking up the pieces after a great loss. It’s trying again after bitter failure. This is the time when you find out who your friends are and what a friend really is. Later, once the flow has become established, the work changes. Now the challenge is in staying green and fresh, remaining established in a beginner’s mind. Pratyahara is right down there at ground zero, in the field where heroes are made. It is our first steps into the light. The remaining limbs on the eight-limb path are about maintenance and growth. Pratyahara is about beginnings.”

I am a firm believer that the universe sends us what we need, and it is no mistake that my book fell open to that page when I sought comfort. I put my trust in the honesty of that message and read it to a room of students meditating in a supported heart-opening posture. Throughout the rest of our practice together, I challenged them to close their eyes as we went through asanas.

Listen to your body; it will not lie to you. We can tell ourselves all sorts of messages in our minds, but the body will never lie to you. It can’t. Feel the life entering and the excess exiting with every cycle of breath. You don’t have to control anything.

Afterward, I was thanked by several students. I was astounded by their kind words; some had never had a yoga experience like that before that morning. It is a challenge—how do we retreat inward when right outside the door is a shopping mall buzzing with people?

We simply try. We make a new beginning.

today is your day

The necklace I wear daily with a “Today is your day! / New beginning” charm that my mom gave me earlier this year, and diamond circle from Joe that he gave me in 2005.

Pratyahara is starting to pick up the pieces and doing the work because we choose to thrive. When we stop needing to control everything—our joy, our suffering, even the moments that feel mundane—we make space for real healing, new growth, and the chance to experience a deeper connection to all living things.

And the part of it that seems almost like it should be magic is the most genuine truth of all. When we recognize that connection, the realization comes that no one is ever really gone.

Read about the brilliant, funny, and delightful Nadia here.