On any given day in Washington, Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) answers combative questions like the one posed to him in 2004 by CNN's Wolf Blitzer: "Why are you
such a loser, Dennis?"
It takes a certain inner peace to transcend that kind of ugliness. Fortunately for Kucinich, he's got his meditation practice to fall back on. "It gives me energy, clarity, and the ability to function at an optimum level at all times," he says. "I try to always come from a place of love."
Kucinich, 58, has practiced Agni Yoga for most of his adult life. Don't expect to find an Agni Yoga studio in your hometown; they don't exist. "Agni Yoga is more of a spiritual than a physical type of yoga," Kucinich explains. "The only way I can describe it is that it's like meditation in action: Every moment is a moment of meditation, coming from a deep spiritual perspective at all times. It's not easy to do."
Although raised as a Catholic, Kucinich always had an interest in alternative religions. When he lost a mayoral election in Cleveland in 1979, he took a break from politics to study spirituality and spent time at the Light Institute, a spiritual healing center in Galisteo, New Mexico. He read every book about religious philosophy and spiritual teachers that he could find, eventually encountering Agni Yoga.
Founded in 1920 by the Russian artist, spiritual thinker, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Nicholas Roerich and his wife, Helena, Agni ("fire") Yoga does not require specific practices; it's more about incorporating mindfulness into everything you do. The Agni Yoga Society's Web site, www.agniyoga.org, calls the discipline "the yoga of fiery energy, of consciousness, of responsible, directed thought," adding that Agni Yoga teaches that "through individual striving," planetary consciousness is "an attainable aspiration
"For some, meditation is seen as distinct from the rest of your experience in time and space," Kucinich explains. Agni Yoga, he says, is about being constantly present. "It makes each moment a prayer. I don't really have a how-to book. It's really a result of a lifetime of reading and study." Still, he often turns to sitting meditation when he's trying to delve deeply into an issue—"for example, when I'm searching for an answer to a particular question."
It's not surprising that Kucinich finds inspiration within. An avowed vegan who fights for environmental causes, opposes the war in Iraq, and has even proposed a cabinet-level Department of Peace, he doesn't appear to be taking his direction from focus groups. His meditation practice, he says, has not only led him to take these stands but has also more broadly shaped his career. "I understand the importance of working for peace at all times," he explains. "Politics is the perfect place to practice this, because if you want to stand for peace, there are practical ways to do it."
Meditation helps Kucinich rise above the political fray. As a controversial left-of-center politician, he has had to speak before skeptical or even hostile crowds. "When you're in politics, someone often wants to hurt or even attack you," he explains. "I avoid attacking people personally, so I don't create polarities and conflicts that are hard to resolve. I practice compassion. I am constantly aware of the impact my conduct has on everyone around me."
Singing of Solace
Singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke spends half her time on the road, in a grueling routine. "It becomes a strange little cocoon of vehicle-hotel-club," she explains. "I do press interviews. I go to yoga. I do a sound check and do a show, then come home and go straight to bed. Singing is physical as well as emotional, so I have to conserve energy."
She may recognize the need for rest, but Brooke, who has released several critically acclaimed albums—including her latest, Back in the Circus—is no slacker. After starting out in the '90s band the Story, Brooke launched a solo career in 1994, put out two records with MCA Records before the label abruptly dropped her in 1997, then launched her own label, Bad Dog Records. And because she runs the label, Brooke has to balance performing with managing the money.
Her yoga practice, she says, is what makes this swirl of demands manageable. Brooke came to yoga in 1997, after a particularly difficult year: Besides the trouble with MCA, she had recently divorced, her mother was sick with cancer, and—as though she were a country musician down on her luck—her father and her dog had died. "My heart was broken in ten places. Yoga was an amazing place I went to, in order to recover," she recalls. "I found a real solace there, just going inside and focusing on postures and breathing. It was transformative and restorative."
Now an avid practitioner of Bikram Yoga, Brooke tries to visit a studio at least four times a week, no matter where she's touring. "If I can't find a studio, I'll do it in the hotel room. Or I'll do it on a mat backstage."
After seven years, yoga has changed the way she reacts to the world around her, including the chaos of her career. "I step back and take a breath," she explains. "I think before I leap; I see other ways around things."
Rather than panicking before going onstage, for example, she does five to 10 abbreviated Sun Salutations. "It makes a huge difference."
Despite the ups and downs of her career, Brooke is more confident about her path. "Yoga has given me a calmness, a certainty of my physical being in space," she says.
The favorite heart surgery tool of Mehmet Oz, M.D., is ...the Triangle Pose. "I want to operate on people when I'm at my best, and yoga is the best way to get me there," he explains.
As the director of Columbia University's Cardiovascular Institute and the author of Healing from the Heart (Penguin, 1998), the 44-year-old Oz performs about 400 operations a year. When he's not in surgery, he's traveling around the country giving lectures and teaching medical students. His day typically starts around six in the morning and ends late at night; on a busy day, he's in surgery three times.
His schedule doesn't lend itself to a daily yoga practice, but Oz has made asana an integral part of his routine, sneaking in a few minutes in the morning, a few minutes at night, and quick fixes in between—and, occasionally, even during—surgeries. "If you're doing a transplant and waiting for the donor organ to come, you can do a few quick poses," he explains. On the weekend, he'll gather his entire family—his wife, Lisa, and their four children—and do a 50-minute Power Yoga session outdoors.
Because of time constraints, he focuses on a handful of moves: A forward bend, an Up Dog, and a Down Dog, plus a few other poses. "The beauty of my yoga is that I can do it anywhere and anytime," he says.
A family friend introduced Oz to yoga in 1990, during his residency. He took a class only to humor her: A lifelong football player and sports fan, he'd always thought yoga wasn't "manly." To his surprise, he realized yoga was the coping mechanism he'd been looking for. "Yoga is a catalyst. It allows me to do more than I should be able to."
On a physical level, that means handling the daily challenge of precision surgery in unnatural postures. "Musculoskeletal ailments are the main reason physicians retire prematurely," Oz says. "Yoga makes the cervical spine and back more limber." It also acts as a pressure-release valve. "Surgery is stressful—decisions are made rapidly and you can't second-guess," he says. "Yoga is cathartic. You can let the stress go. You can use your body to pull your attention away from your day-to-day activities."
These days, Oz not only practices yoga, he proselytizes for
it. Because of his enthusiasm, the Cardiovascular Institute now offers yoga to its heart patients. "I saw the power of yoga to help me function better," he reflects, "and I do what I can to share that insight."
Fashioning a Different Life
Most people have midlife crises in, well, middle age. Alejandrina "Ali" Mejia had hers when she was 22. She was working as an analyst on Wall Street, when she suddenly lost her job. Rather than trying again, she abandoned her career, moved back to her family's home in Miami, and began practicing Kundalini and Ashtanga Yoga.
"I was happy with the illusion of my life in New York, but it was not deep," she says. "I wanted a balanced life. Being able to work on myself, but also developing spiritually and emotionally."
She also wanted to try something completely new: designing lingerie. Eight years later, the company she cofounded, Eberjey Intimates, is doing several million dollars in business annually. Her girlish bras and swimsuits grace the pages of magazines like InStyle and Vogue and are worn by Liv Tyler, Jessica Simpson, and Heather Graham.
But Mejia has discovered that she traded one stressful industry for another. "This business is very competitive, and people can be mean," she says. The occasional cattiness and the often-crazy schedule of the industry crank up her stress level. "The fashion industry is nonstop," she says.
To remain calm in the face of this chaos, she's constructed a strict routine. She goes to work late—10:30 a.m.—to give herself two hours of personal time. She drinks a "power smoothie" and meditates for 15 minutes while listening to her favorite Seal CD, then heads off to a local studio for an hour of Ashtanga Yoga or Pilates. "It's about being really aware before I start my day," Mejia says.
That doesn't mean she's immune to panic attacks, but these days she knows the right yoga poses to make the panic disappear. "I'll do Bound Angle Pose to relieve the tension in my back, or do a series of Sun Salutations," she explains.
But you can't exactly execute Frog Pose on the floor of a trade show. For moments like that, she relies on breathing and meditation exercises. "If I'm really stressed, I say to myself 'sat nam' [a mantra that translates loosely as "infinite truth"], and I do yoga breathing."
Even through the third trimester of her recent pregnancy, Mejia kept up with her yoga practice—and even designed a line of yoga pants for Eberjey. "Yoga makes me feel so much healthier, and that helps me feel more confident in my being," she says. "Having a thicker skin allows me to operate in the fashion world more easily. When I'm feeling strong, I feel like I can do anything."
Investing in Meditation
Nancy Stevens used to track her moods by the stock market: When stocks were up, life was good. When the market was down, she simmered in stress. As an investment adviser for high-net-worth customers at Reber/Russell in Boulder, Colorado, Stevens felt responsible for every dollar her wealthy clients made or lost. "If they were upset, I was upset," she explains.
There were other pressures, too: In 1997, she and her husband divorced, and she found herself a single mother at 41. Her colleagues began to complain that she was too demanding and angry. "I would piss them off," she admits. "If a client wanted something done, I felt tremendous pressure to get it done regardless of how it affected
These days, her coworkers refer to her as "the kinder, gentler Nancy." The reason? Her vipassana meditation practice (as taught by S.N. Goenka), which she began six years ago, after a friend suggested she give it a try. "I went to my first 10-day course, and halfway through, my anger toward my ex-husband disappeared," Stevens recalls. "I didn't know that peace was what I was looking for."
Vipassana, which means "insight" or "seeing things as they really are," is a 2,500-year-old Buddhist meditation technique that focuses on quietly observing and understanding physical sensations and learning not to react to them. Stevens meditates an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, and with a group three times a week. She also attends monthly three-hour sessions and, once a year, participates in a 10-day meditation retreat.
All that time devoted to meditation has produced some dramatic results. "My closest friends say I'm totally different," Stevens notes with a laugh. "I stopped reacting to situations in my life where I had been quick to anger or become anxious. It's not that I never get angry or anxious anymore—just not as often. And I feel more compassionate toward myself and those around me."
Her practice helped her get through the market crash of 2000. "Every emotion comes up around money," she says. "But I could be more comforting to my clients because I wasn't reacting to where they were."
Stevens is an anomaly in her industry, and she's careful about discussing her meditation practice in professional situations. "People think it's too off-the-wall. I come from an analytical world, where it's about numbers and performance," she says.
But kinder, gentler Stevens hasn't lost her edge. "That worn-out phrase about letting go of your attachments? I was really afraid of that," she says. "But I'm still very motivated and do the best I can in the moment. If anything, I have more energy."
Los Angeles journalist Janelle Brown (www.janellebrown.com) has written for Salon, the New York Times, and Wired.