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The Meditation Challenge Begins!

Meditation Challenge

And it begins!

Three years ago, we hosted our first meditation challenge and, for a number of reasons, we’ve decided to bring it back—and make it a little harder. Instead of a week, we’re going for two, and we want you to give it a shot. I’m not going to try to convince you meditation is good for you (it is) because science says so (it does)—because if listing the benefits of meditation were enough to get you started and keep you started, you’d already have a daily practice. But you probably don’t, and neither do we, so let’s all get in on this together.

Tomorrow, Alexandra will give some concrete tips. But for today, I want to gently suggest a new way of thinking about meditation that I think might help a little. It helped me, anyway.

Meditation, for most of us who have ever had a practice, is something we commit to for a while and then drop, usually when we need it most. We get really busy at work. We’re going through some stuff. We have the flu. We’re not being very nice to ourselves. Those are the times when a little quiet time could help pump the brakes on panic and, go figure, that’s when the good habits go out the window.

People often say meditation is hard, and I suppose that might be true if that’s what you expect it to be.

But I think it helps to consider the possibility that it’s not hard at all. It might be boring and your legs might fall asleep and your mind might wander, but that’s not actually very difficult to endure for a few minutes.

I had been in an off-again phase with a daily practice, but a few things have come up recently to remind me to recommit to meditating and relaunch this challenge. First, one of my teachers sent me an email with instructions on how to build a daily practice. It was full of very practical tips—drink coffee first if you’re a coffee drinker; go to the bathroom; pick a spot in your apartment and decide that’s going to be where you sit every day. Coffee first?! That’s probably the best single piece of advice I’ve ever gotten about meditation. The idea is, create a ritual you can stick to, and that instead of feeling like punishment it feels like a little gift. Ten quiet minutes after coffee and before I dry my hair sounds like heaven to me now that I think of it that way. It’s not to say it’s all pleasure and no discipline, but it helps to set yourself up to succeed.

I was recently introduced to a new word, svadhyaya, which means self-study. It’s the theme of the month at my yoga school, Prema, and for some reason the word really stuck with me. I’ve gone through periods of my life where I was actively learning more about myself, either in therapy or by writing in my diary or through the various out-there holistic things I’ve dabbled in. But it had never really occurred to me that a regular meditation practice is the ultimate form of self-study—a way to check in, to observe the thoughts that come up when you’re still, to breathe, to get to know yourself a little better.

The trick is to bring a little curiosity to it.

Imagine you’re on a promising first date with yourself. You don’t already know everything there is to know about you, but you’re into you, so you want to know more. You don’t know what you’re going to say next. You’re a little charmed. You’re taking what’s happening as it happens, moment to moment all with a healthy, sincere I-don’t-have-all-the-answers curiosity. Then see what happens.

When you’re sitting, some stuff might come up. Do your best not to be mean to yourself if those thoughts or feelings are negative. Pretend, as one teacher told me, you’re zooming out on Google Earth away from the thought. You can still see it, but you’re not as close to it. (Seriously, try the Google Earth trick—it works.) Most of all, don’t worry about doing it right. There’s no bad way to meditate. Your mind won’t go blank. You won’t instantly feel a deep sense of inner peace. You’ll feel whatever is true about you in that moment, and then that moment will pass.

So give it a try, would you? There’s strength in numbers!

Please let us know in the comments if you plan to participate and share any tips or thoughts you have with the rest of us.

The rules: Don’t lie.

The instructions: For 14 consecutive days, sit quietly for a minimum of 5 minutes—set a timer on your phone—with the intention to meditate. You can still participate in the challenge if you skip a day, but to enter to win the prize, you have to do it for 14 days straight. Honor system, people.

The prize: H. Gillerman Organics is going to reward two NMDL readers who participate in the challenge with a bespoke meditation blend. To enter to win, write us an email at nomoredirtylooks (at) gmail (dot) com with SITSTILL in the subject line, and include your first name and location, written thusly “Siobhan, Brooklyn, NY” and a brief description of how you felt at the end of your 14 days. Send this to us by the end of the day Friday, November 28. (That’s to give people who start late time to catch up.)

A favor: Help us make sure this awesome. Tell your friends on Twitter, Facebook, at the gym or at the bar. Friend us, follow us, and then RT us, or whatever. Spread the word!

And just to that you understand that we’re all in the same leaky boat here, I asked the rest of the NMDL crew to share their honest experience with meditation. Here’s what they had to say:

Alexandra: “My experience with meditation has totally run the gamut. While I’ve had periods where I stick to a daily practice—and during my yoga teacher training it was twice daily—it tends to be the first thing I let slide when I start feeling strapped for time. When I do sit, I have a wide range of experiences from the most common state of listening to the eternal hum-drum of my brain, to having fleeting small victories in quieting that monkey mind, to a handful of times where I have actually gone to a place of total silence and even lost some sensation of my physical body. The last happened in the company of more experienced meditators, and I suspect that I was riding their wave in some way. While it was exciting on one level, it was also quite scary, and it’s clear to me that I need much more practice—probably a lifetime’s worth—before being ready for that kind of state.”

Susannah: “Does daydreaming count as meditation? Probably not. Last week was the first time I ever intentionally meditated. I have never felt that motivated to experiment with meditation until the last year or so, after reading a lot in the media about the benefits of meditation as it relates to mindfulness and health. Still, I put it off, but last week the Lotus Wei newsletter had some great tips on meditation, plus an audio file with a short 5 minute guided practice. Knowing that this challenge was coming up, I gave it a shot. The verdict? More please! One 5 minute sitting resulted in a day where I felt more present in each moment, and less harried overall. This looks promising.”

Rebecca: “I like the idea of meditation, but in practice find it a challenge.  I sit for up to 7 minutes max, and I need something to help my focus, like a mantra and/or my favorite stones to hold. My brain is too noisy to quietly sit still. I do my best when listening to iTunes versions of my favorite mantra, Om Namah Shivaya, which has many translations, one of which is: “I honor that which I am capable of becoming.” I have a couple tunes I use for walking meditations, and apps I like.  Now, if I can just establish a daily routine, I might get somewhere.”

Nicolle: “My most consistent meditation experience came as part of a holistic therapy treatment. For about two years, I had a mindfulness practice that included daily, 15-minute meditations centered on decreasing stress levels and training my body to listen to itself. It was hard to do at first, but also really helped treat some of my long-term anxieties and migraines. My practice sort of fell off in the past year, and I’m now in a place where I’d love to start up a daily meditation again—I just haven’t yet gotten over that initial hump of making it a habit.”

P.S. It’s really hard to find a photo about meditation that isn’t terribly corny. And while I like this one (via), I can’t say for sure what’s happening here. Please forgive my poetic license.

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Thanks, Horst

We’re going to take a time out from a rather lively few days on the site and say thank you to a guy who helped us get here.

Horst Rechelbacher, as most of you likely know, founded the Ayurveda-inspired Aveda many moons ago, in 1978. He went on to become a kind of patron saint of truly-natural beauty long after that, with the launch of Intelligent Nutrients. He was also an activist and an advocate, a researcher and a provocateur, and this week he passed away at the age of 72.

Horst started his first line with the goal of bringing to the rest of us a holistic, natural and luxurious approach to beauty. His formulas were playful. They smelled amazing. They worked. The line was borne by a philosophy that was ahead of its time, taking naturals out of the stinky health food store and giving women an excuse to feel sexy and indulgent in their rituals of personal care—while still doing something ostensibly good for herself and the planet.

I got really into the stuff as a teenager. I wouldn’t have said it at the time, but looking back, it made a scared-of-being-girlie me (don’t ask, I just was) feel like I was kind of becoming a woman. It made me think it was OK to take a little longer in the shower. And for someone who has a nervous hair-smelling tick that tends to present, even to this day, on dates, it also assured me my hair would smell rosemary-mint amazing if someone went in for the kiss.

Yes, the formulas changed when the line got sold, and yes, what I’m saying is extremely earnest right now, but back in the day that line really stirred me. And when I met its founder a couple of years ago, that stirred me even more.

When Alexandra and I were reporting the book, Intelligent Nutrients was already on store shelves, but it was new. We were dying to interview him, and after a few phone calls I’d landed an hour with the guy at his house (an hour! his house!). Day of, I showed up on time but grew concerned when, 20 minutes after I’d arrived, his wife offered to grab me some soup from around the corner. It was going to be a while—Horst was meditating—but the last thing I wanted was soup. I was busy trying to count how many angel statues there were in the room I was sitting in. I was worried about what I’d ask him. I was distracted by how pretty his wife was.

A little bit later, Horst emerged from his roof deck with the bright eyes of a person who’s gone inside for a bit. A couple of minutes after that, he offered me a sip of hairspray.

I took him up on it—”beauty so clean you can drink it!”—and I was bummed when I later learned this was a kind of parlor trick he pulled out on reporters from time to time. But no matter; the stuff tasted pretty good, like a few drops of bitters in some fizzy water, neat. Plus, as far as gimmicks go, this one, at least, got a point across.

What struck me most about my meeting with him, though, wasn’t that it he made me drink hair products. It’s that no matter how much I tried to talk to him about the industry or even the ingredients in his products, he turned the conversation back to the two things that really actually matter in this whole thing: First, how our actions impact the planet as well as our resilient but ultimately human forms; and second, what it means to feel beautiful.

There’s no doubt in my mind Horst cared about the products and the formulas and what works and what doesn’t. But that’s not what he wanted to talk about. He wanted to talk about biodynamic farming and soil integrity, and he wanted to talk (not in a creepy way) about why love and sex make people beautiful, and why happiness and health make us more gorgeous than anything else. These are things that have continued to inform my ideas about health and beauty, and they’re what stood out for me when I met him.

It’s a rare and lucky thing to have a memorable and perspective-shifting conversation with anyone. I feel especially lucky to have had one with him.

So let’s all please wish his family well, and his own spirit well wherever it goes. And as for me, I want to give a little thanks. Great guy. Great-tasting hairspray. And a life that made a big, big difference.

Please feel free to share any thoughts you have about his legacy, or really anything else inspired by what you’ve read here. Just keep it civil, please. Thanks, everyone, and thanks, Horst.

Image via

Consider this a dispatch from the Department of Heavy Lifting.

I’m going to be talking about the antiaging superstars retinoic acid, retinol, and other sources of Vitamin A. Judging from this post in July — and the zillion really smart comments (seriously, read them all—banana peel?!) — I can see I’m not the only one who has been curious about clean alternatives to Retin-A and its many over-the-counter cousins.

Retinoic acid, in case you’ve never read a beauty magazine, is the active ingredient in Retin-A. It’s derived from vitamin A and it’s a very effective antiager — one of the few with actual scientific studies to back it up — for a number of reasons. First, because it triggers your skin cells to turn over more rapidly, which is why it’s a reliable way to reverse UV damage like sun spots, freckles, and discoloration. It also helps your skin hold onto the collagen you have and it helps produce more of it. Since collagen is the structural support of your skin, keeping it elastic and firm, and since our supplies of it dwindle as we get older, this is where the ingredient really earns its stripes.

Of course, as anyone who’s tried the Rx formulas can attest, the stuff is intense.

I, like many other people, have used various prescription versions over the years  — this was before I switched to clean cosmetics — but I stopped after one particular formula burned off my face.* It was initially prescribed to me for acne. Let’s have a show of hands because if you break out and go to a regular derm, I bet some doctor prescribed it to you, too! Or tried to. The thing is, I was still really young at the time, and no wrinkles means no heavy lifting means I have no idea if the stuff actually worked as it was supposed to, and it definitely didn’t help my breakouts.

I knew at the time that retinol was a gentler version of the ingredient, and that in exchange for it not burning off my face it would just take a little longer to work (“work”). I also knew it was available in hundreds of OTC beauty products, but for whatever reason (probably because I was like 26) I never got around to trying one.

But in the back of my head, and because I’m 35 now, I’ve been wanting to find a clean retinol formula to test the promise. My first stop was vitamin A. I’d learned that rosehip oil contains high levels of the vitamin, and I’d heard anecdotally of people seeing amazing results. It seemed the gentler, more natural route but I used the stuff religiously for months and months and I can’t say I saw much of a difference at all. Maybe I was using a bogus product?

My next move was to investigate products by formulators who I know are serious about their science — because we all know that any old company can fairy-dust a little vitamin A into a product, call it an anti-ager, and then rip you off with a promise that doesn’t deliver. Which is why I was so excited to try Marie Veronique Organics’ Pacific Night Serum With Retinol. MVO, which was founded by a former chemistry teacher and chemist, doesn’t mess around when it comes to active formulas, and they do their own clinical trials to test results. (This is standard from the beauty giants but rare in the naturals category because it can cost a fortune in terms of manpower and money, and most companies are too small and/or don’t have the budgets for such things.) Anyway, I saw the clinicals and I was ready to try it.

I’ve been using it now for 7 weeks and I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that the lines around my mouth are less pronounced and the fan of wrinkles at the corner of my eyes has filled out a bit. Also, my skin tone is more even (though I’ve seen similar results from brightening treatments, so that wasn’t the big thing here). Obviously, I still have lines, and I always will, and I’m good with that!

I even kind of love the lines around my eyes, but I’m not going to lie and say I’d wouldn’t like to slow down the process of aging skin. That’s why my retinol experiment has been so wowing.

The downsides are that I find it a little drying, which really just means I  need a little more moisturizer, and unlike Retin-A, it’s not covered by insurance (god, imagine?). Which sucks because at $150, I know it’s not for everyone.

Has anyone else tried this puppy? Have you found another clean retinol product you like? How about successes with vitamin-A-rich oils? Share, share.

* I want to acknowledge that there are some really smart cookies in the clean beauty community who think that forcing skin cells to turn over more rapidly with topicals can produce problems in the long run, like rosacea and irritation. And while I have no doubt people have seen this happen in their skin, I personally have not, nor have I found research to support the idea. If you have, weigh in!

A little while back I had a natural-beauty girl date at a restaurant here in New York. It was with Kahina’s founder Katharine who has, over the years, become a friend. If you’ve never met her, here are some things to know: She has an easy laugh, she’s emotionally generous, and she has the envious glow of a woman who seems to love life, love the work she does, and love herself. She just has that thing (and by thing I don’t just mean argan oil, though that probably plays a small part).

(Psst, also. Kahina is our Friday Deal tomorrow, so if you’re going to get this new product or gift it, hold your horses till tomorrow when we reveal the codes.)

That night, she was so excited to tell me about her long-time-coming new product: a body serum. It took some doing because getting the oil mix just right for deep hydration but also a bit of a glow can be tricky when argan oil is the foundation of your line. That’s because argan oil is so incredibly good at absorbing into your skin — as anyone who uses it on their face can tell you — which  means when you apply it alone to your body, especially when the air is super dry, it could leave you a little…wanting.

To get an oil blend that is rich and hydrating without being greasy or clothes-stainy? Not so simple. But leave it to Kahina to figure it out.

The new Kahina Giving Beauty Fez Body Serum is, in a word, delightful. A few of us tried it and agree that it’s amazingly hydrating, but its real selling point is the smell, since you’re going to be wearing it all over you. Here’s what Nicolle had to say:

“I never thought I’d say I loved smelling like cumin and clove, but the FEZ Body Serum has a luxurious, spicy scent that calms and de-stresses. A little on my neck and chest before bed helped me relax and sleep better.”

Mmm. I agree. There’s something very end-of-day to the smell, perfect for unwinding and warming up in cool weather. But I’ve also recently been revisiting some of my books on Ayurveda, and after some recent travel, seasonal change, work stress, and a nasty cold, I came to the conclusion my Vata dosha was out of balance. (Pretty sure my Pitta is wacked too, which is awesome.) Maybe Fez could help?

I was keen to add abyanga back to my daily routine. It’s a kind of self-massage ritual that you perform with therapeutic body oils, and you can find out more about that here if you want to try it (you do!). It can be a bit of a messy pain to do it the old fashioned way, and I wouldn’t want to use up all my oil in one shot. But since Fez has such a warming, soothing fragrance, I thought it would be nice to, post-steamy-shower, apply it, abyanga-style, in slow circular motions starting at my feet.

I did that for a few days and while it’s too soon to know if it’s rebalancing my Vata (LOL),  I can say this: I feel calm, I smell good, and today, anyway, I feel like I’m doing something good for myself.

If that’s not an ideal natural beauty product, I don’t know what is.

What’s your favorite Kahina product? Some other body oil you love? (And any Ayurvedic dosha-balancing tips are welcome, too. Ahem.)

Calling all moms and friends of moms!

We are going to share something a little different here because our dear friend Erika has a delicious six month old, her first born, and she’s learned so much in such a short period of time. Through her pregnancy and now into her experience as a new mom, Erika has blown our minds. She’s also had some days that are harder than others, mainly because however much we, as a culture, focus on pregnancy and birth, everything that happens after is a little less clearcut. When the baby is born there’s…a baby. And a life that needs to be nurtured, even as moms try to do basic things like, you know, eat dinner. Some things proved easier than others.

So she wanted to share her story and we’d also love to hear from you — moms, friends of moms, moms of moms, partners — for what you’ve learned about preparing for the post-birth period, too.

In April of this year, I gave birth to my baby boy. During the course of the pregnancy, I spent a lot of time preparing psychologically, physically and emotionally for labor and birth. However, I hadn’t spent much time planning many of the more practical issues:

How was I going to feed myself (and my soaring metabolism), especially after my husband went back to work? Who was in my day-to-day support group and what kind of help would I need? What kinds of challenges might I face with breastfeeding and were there remedies or helpful products I could stock up on in advance?

I am writing this post because I wanted to share what I learned about the post-birth period. The most important plan I had made for the first forty days after birth was to stay close to my baby and incubate with him. I had read about the first forty days as being a special time for mother and baby across a number of cultures (Mexico, India, and ancient Israel, and even in Kundalini yogic philosophy), and it seemed to coincide with what my doctors were saying about how long it would take to heal physically from birth. But hardly any of the professionals—including the doctors, the doula, the birth class teacher—spoke to me in any depth about what happens after birth.

There was a lot I wish I had known how to plan for, and how to talk about with close family and friends. On the most basic level, for example, I found it really challenging to feed myself. This got easier with time (and with online delivery, god bless) but it seemed way beyond me at first.

I would sit there alone in my apartment, half naked, breastfeeding, and really hungry. I couldn’t even figure out how I was going to get dressed to pay the delivery guy, never mind run downstairs to open the door for him in my third-floor walk-up in Brooklyn. This might seem ridiculous, and even as I write it now, six months later, it makes me laugh, but only because the fog of motherhood is just starting to lift. And in the end, I was grateful for really simple things—visitors who came with a ready-made meal (such as Aunt Siobhan’s snap pea salad!) or even a slice of pizza. Someone to hold the baby while I cooked or ate or showered. Or just someone to look at and talk to other than the baby. A friend of mine, Rachel, has recently started working on helping parents plan the period after birth, too.

So for those of you who, like me, jumped in with your eyes closed and woke up in a pool of spit-up with no one to blame but yourself, here are some things to think about before the big day:

• If possible, fill your freezer with healthy food and set up a meal plan with friends/family.

• Ask someone to help you manage expectations for visitors and well-wishers.

• Prepare chicken stock or beef stock for the first few days after birth. This is especially helpful if you’ve had a Cesarian and you are only allowed to ingest liquids for the first couple of days.

• If you’re planning to breastfeed, do you have the name of a good lactation consultant? Maybe you can meet her before you give birth so you know what to expect and what to buy in advance (my personal go-tos include Lansinoh Lanolin, All Purpose Nipple Ointment (by prescription), Dr. Bronner’s soap to wash any abrasions, and cabbage leaves to ward off infection in the breast—seriously! They work!).

• If you’re planning to pump, you should know that the Affordable Care Act makes it a requirement for your insurance to provide you with a breast pump free of charge.

• Consider whether you will have support for the nights. The sleep deprivation starts to accumulate and it’s important to get help before you lose your rocks. This can be your partner, a close friend, a family member, a postpartum doula, or a night nurse.

• If some of these tips seem hard to plan or unrealistic given your personal circumstances, see if there are any services you can sign up for. A friend of mine, Rachel Weinstein, recently created Wooden Spoon Wellness, to help new parents plan the period after birth. She also offers cooking lessons for partners, drops off nutritious meals for hungry moms (which I devoured throughout my first forty days), and works one on one with women to help them connect with their new bodies.

• Get out of the house every day. Even for a really short period of time, even without taking a shower, even in your pajamas. My commitment to going outside was my own personal lifesaver.

• See if any close friends or family would be willing to come over to help on a fixed schedule (once a week or twice a month, whatever works) so that you can count on the help in advance, instead of having to ask for it in a moment of panic.

Women have been giving birth and raising babies in all kinds of circumstances and communities since time immemorial.  And although it’s the experience we most have in common, it is also the most personal and unique, and sometimes the most challenging. And the most miraculous. Please, share your advice in the comments!