Know Thyself

Some days, it’s hard to look at yourself for the person you are. We as people are pushed and pulled to our limits, until the person we see in the mirror almost feels like a distortion of who we are. There were times where even I almost lost sight of who I am inside. It took a friend to remind me of my value in this world, and who I am inside.

The more we get caught up in things beyond our control, the harder it can be for us to center ourselves and remember what is good within us. Each one of us has a value to the people whose lives we enrich. It can be hard to remind ourselves of that, but somewhere, whether it’s from a friendly face or from deep in our soul, there’s someone who knows deep down who each of us are inside.

Whenever you feel as if you’re losing touch on what makes you a unique person, take a moment and think of what makes you unique, what makes you a good person. It may sound generic, but it’s truth. The truth tends to be simple when it counts.

Know thyself.

Punching Air vs. Punching A Target: A Therapeutic Observation

For the past few months, I have dedicated the majority of my blog to stress release and self care. With my life at a crossroads, I find myself testing out theory after theory, form after form of stress management. Today was one of those days I tested out an alternative to my normal routine.

For over 20 years, I’ve been a practicing martial artist. In my notes, several of my stress release techniques are derived from aspects of my training, including meditation and exercise. Any form of healthy physical exertion is good for stress release (the key word being “healthy”), but there are always small differences between one form of physical activity or another, just as there are differences in doing such activities in one way or another.

Lately, when I’ve practice my punches, I use small 3 lbs weights for 10 minutes of shadowboxing, then I shadowbox for another 10 minutes without the weights. It’s good aerobic exercise to get the heart pumping. However, with lack of a physical target, shadowboxing has its limitations, especially when it comes to stress relief.

After a particularly frustrating day yesterday that left me physically and emotionally drained, I decided to dust off my old focus mitts and practice elbow and knee strikes before getting ready for work today. For 10 minutes, I threw 30 knee strikes to my left pad, then 30 knee strikes to my right pad, followed by 30 elbow strikes to my left pad and 30 elbow strikes to my right, until the 10 minutes were up. I felt a wave of release that shadowboxing couldn’t give me, even when using weights. Each strike I landed was tension released from my body, energizing me in a way that I hadn’t felt in some time. The impact of these blows that I landed were the major difference between punching air and punching a target.

If you are battling stress, and regular exercise isn’t helping you relieve it, buy yourself something to hit. For me, it’s my focus mitts. For you, it can be anything from a punching bag (free-standing or with the chain and rack) to a piece of paper hanging from the doorway. (That last one is an old boxer’s trick that’s amazingly effective.) While getting the body mobile through shadowboxing or doing forms is good for working up a sweat, sometimes we just need to feel our fists (or feet) making a nice loud “thud” on a piece of heavy material, especially on the days where you just want to knock someone out. It’s definitely better than the alternatives.

As for me, while my mitts did well for today, I decided to order myself something a little bigger; an inflatable punching bag. Big enough to work on, light enough to move out of the way when I’m done.

New Year, Small Steps

Here we are in the year 2020. Funny thing is, when people think of the number “2020′, they associate it with 20/20 vision, as in perfect vision. For many, it’s just a funny, meme-worthy coincidence. For many others, it has been a call to make their visions and dreams happen. I fit into the latter category.

The past decade has mostly been missed opportunities and broken dreams for me. A breakup within the first two years, constant struggles with trying to find better employment, all while attempting to accomplish personal creativity goals in my life. It has not been easy at all trying to make my dreams happen, and a lot people can relate. There are so many artists, musicians, and writers trying to make their dreams happen, and it has been an uphill journey for each of us. It is these people that I’ve seen declare 2020 to be the year their visions come to life.

For me, making my vision come to life requires me to come out of my comfort zone. One huge reason my goals haven’t manifested yet is because of fear, both self-imposed and the fears that others, especially family members, have put upon me. So, when December 31, 2019 came down to its last hour, I put my fear aside in the smallest, but most significant way: I got on the dance floor.

It was a small bar & grill in the Bronx community of Throggs Neck, but it was a spot that so many of my friends had recommended to me. And there I was, among a small crowd of faces at a bar, the dance floor almost empty. Suddenly, two women old enough to be my mother invited me to dance with them. I did, and once I started, I didn’t want to stop. Even when my feet were aching, I kept dancing. Almost half an hour after the ball dropped, people started joining me on the dance floor, dancing to everything from Beyonce to Van Halen. I went from being the guy in the lonely seat of the bar to the king of the dance floor for a night. It was my way of doing something new and adventurous for the new year, and it was such a small step.

Sometimes, to make your dreams happen, it takes small steps. Befriending a new face, making a small investment, even adding one new thing to your daily checklist to spice things up. People think it’s all about going to they gym for your New Year’s resolution, but you can do something as simple as looking up stretches on YouTube. If you want to learn how to write a book, read a book on writing, one chapter a day, and bookmark your progress. If you want to learn to play piano, download a piano app onto your phone or tablet and learn the “C” scale. If you want to do something new on a particular Saturday, look up events in your area and pick one. Take small steps to get out of your comfort zone, because small steps lead to giant steps.

As for me, I plan on hitting Chinatown for the Lunar New Year. I’ve never seen a lion dance in person before. Just another small step.

7 Signs That You Might Need A New Job

Jobs are an essential part of our day to day for many of us. While many people have various sources of employment or income, the bulk of us work a standard job under a standard employer for the most part. However, health professionals have voiced their concern that certain factors of our jobs may very well be shortening our lifespan. Whether it’s constant stress, lack of fulfillment, or even financial woes, there are telltale signs that you might need a new job.

1. Frustrating Commutes

The commute is the unofficial beginning of the workday. Way before we clock in, we have to travel to our job. Unfortunately, getting from point A to point B is never as easy as it sounds. On our daily commutes, we deal with traffic, construction delays, bad weather, and so many other variables that can ruin our day before we even get to the job site. And if you rely on public transportation, your commute can be even more frustrating. If your commute is stressing you out every single work day, you might need a job closer to home.

2. Constant On-The-Job Stress

This one should be a given, but so many of us ignore how a stressful job can affect us in the long run. Dealing with anything from horrible bosses and aggravating superiors to unruly consumers on a daily basis can take a huge mental and physical toll on you. I’ve mentioned in the past how stress can affect us physically, but as a quick reminder, stress can manifest itself in us physically in everything from stiff and aching joints to hypertension, which is directly linked to heart disease. As for the mental impact of constant stress, nervous breakdowns and severe burnout are commonly caused by workplace stress. If you have the option or the means, changing your employer or source of employment may be what you need to reverse the damage that stress is doing to you.

 

3. Financial Difficulties

If you’re working long hours for little pay, you may want to reconsider your situation. The reason that so many people have no choice but to work into their older years is because of financial hardship, which usually stems from being caught in a cycle of working long hours for minimal pay. Again, this is stating the obvious, but sometimes, the truth is sitting there in plain sight. The fear of being unemployed leads to millions of people being underemployed; even though they know deep down that their knowledge or experience is worth more, they are made to believe that they have no choice but to settle for less.

The path to better employment starts with knowing your worth. If you have a creative talent, tend to it and nurture it, and create a business from it.  If you have years of experience in a field that makes you qualified for something better, advertise it to a better employer. Don’t box yourself into a job that doesn’t pay you what you’re worth.

4. Less Quality Time

If you barely have time to yourself outside of work, it may be time to switch to a new job. Jobs shouldn’t take us away from our families, friends, or hobbies.  If our world solely revolves around work, it becomes redundant; working to live, living to work.  We as people were built for more than just clocking in and clocking out. We shouldn’t have to solely rely on our vacation time to pursue our own interests, and our days off shouldn’t only be sick days. So if you’re finding that your job is leaving you less and less time for self-care, it’s time to move on.

5. Poor Benefits

Speaking of sick days and vacation time, if you’re not getting benefits such as sick time or vacation days, it’s time to go. In fact, even if you’ do receive such benefits, if you’re discouraged from using them, then it’s time to get a new job. Rest is essential to productivity, and if you’re not getting the proper rest, then it’s time to get a new employer.

Also, if your employer doesn’t offer quality health benefits that don’t eat up half your paycheck, then it’s time to go. A quality health plan, including vision and dental, shouldn’t cost more than you can afford, and a quality employer will know this.

As for retirement plans, a good employer will have good retirement options, but you should always consider meeting a trustworthy financial adviser.

6. Unethical Behavior

If your job is rife with business practices that are unlawful and unethical, yet you feel as if your back is against the wall, then it is time to move forward. While whistleblowing is usually advised, you should do so when you’re at a safe distance from the employer who is in question.  Merely having your name attached to the organization can have negative effects, so give yourself a fresh start, whether you take action or not.

7. Unfulfillment 

Most importantly, if your job doesn’t leave you with a sense of fulfillment, then it’s time to move on.  No job should feel mundane or pointless, and no job should make you feel as if you’re wasting your talents. Find something that you love and do it for a living. It won’t be easy at first, but the people I tend to see enjoying their jobs are either self-employed or doing what they love for an employer who appreciates them.  So take a chance and turn  your passion into a career, no matter how long it takes.

Strong Core = Strong Body

Three weeks ago, as I was cleaning out my closet, I found an old piece of exercise equipment; my ab wheel. It had been a long time since I had used it, and I was growing tired of doing crunches and leg lifts that would leave me looking bloated. So, I gave it a try. After doing 2 sets of 10 reps, I felt muscles in my abs and upper back I hadn’t felt used in a long time. It felt like I was actually undergoing a transformation rather than just a bit of maintenance work on my body. One week of doing 2 to 3 ab wheel workouts every few days had my body feeling stronger and rejuvenated.

Three weeks later, not only had I visibly lost inches in my waistline, but I noticed other drastic changes as well. My lower back fat had almost completely gone away, my love handles were shrinking to the point where I could wear light t-shirts and see the difference, and my overall torso was showing more muscle definition. Mind you, this was mostly centered around the ab wheel, but combined with other routine exercises, such as resistance training and daily walking, things I had already been doing up until that point.

The visual changes weren’t the only changes that I had noticed. I found that my cardiovascular endurance had improved as well; I had become capable of walking 1 mile within 15 minutes rather than 20, and running up flights of stairs was less physically taxing than it had been in the recent past. My overall energy levels had improved greatly, and I had even experienced less muscle fatigue after long days of work.

What was the difference between now and 3 weeks ago? I was taking care of my core muscles.

As much as some people don’t want to admit, core exercises are important for overall physical strength and health. Now, when I say the “core”, I don’t just mean the abdominal muscles. I mean every part of the torso: the chest muscles, the abdominal muscles, the lower and upper back muscles, the obliques, and everything from the lower neck down to the waistline, from front to back. We as people tend to only worry about the abdominal muscles, since most of modern media seems to be obsessed with six-pack abs. But let it be known: you don’t need to have a six-pack to have a strong core.

Why are core exercises important? In a nutshell, a strong core means a strong foundation for the rest of your body. A strong core takes pressure off of your spine and helps your posture. Also, having a strong abdominal wall helps aid your internal organs, especially your digestive system.

Perhaps the best asset of having a strong core is that it builds a mental and physical chain reaction to the rest of the body when it comes to exercise. When you strengthen your core with a full-motion workout, such as the ab wheel or leg lifts, you not only engage the core, but the limbs as well. In fact, having a strong core makes other exercises, such as push-ups and standing bicep curls, easier to perform. And as I mentioned from my personal experience above, having a strong core helps with overall endurance with cardio workouts, whether you’re jogging, kickboxing, or even cycling. The core is the nucleus of the human anatomy when it comes to motion.

If you’re looking for some basic core exercises, these videos are a good introduction to core exercises.

If you’re looking to start using an ab wheel, here’s a video on proper form when using one.

Chamomile: A Secret Weapon Against Anxiety

Like so many people, I find myself in a fair share of anxiety-inducing situations. I’ve dealt with everything from arrogant co-workers to almost getting hit by a getaway car. (True story.) Others might suppress whatever short-term anxiety they have until it eats them alive. But I’ve chosen methods of self-care to counter whatever anxiety I’m battling. I’ve already discussed with you the benefits of meditation, now I’ll share with you another tool you can use, one that tastes as good as you’ll feel after drinking it: chamomile tea.

Chamomile tea already has a reputation for being a relaxing drink, but that’s only scratching the surface.  The same properties that make chamomile a good drink for bedtime also make it the ideal remedy for reducing anxiety.

Herbalists and medical professionals classify chamomile as a natural herbal sedative. The reason is because the flower is rich in an antioxidant called apigenin, a substance with calming and anti-inflammatory properties. The levels of apigenin in chamomile are strong enough to relax tension in the body, which is a reason that the tea is recommended as a remedy for muscle spasms as well.

Because anxiety builds up physical tension, what you need in order to counter that tension is a relaxant. While certain prescribed remedies can help, chamomile offers a more immediate solution with no toxicity levels. Because it is absent of caffeine, it has been seen to be superior even to green tea when it comes to its calming effects.

As far as brands of chamomile tea go, Celestial Seasonings and Bigelow are two big-name brands that you can trust when it comes to quality.  If you’re looking for a bargain brand, Manasul makes an affordable, yet even more potent, variety of chamomile tea.  The reason Manasul’s brand of chamomile tea is especially strong is because its tea is made from the heart of the chamomile flower, which equals higher concentrations of apigenin, which leads to quicker results when you need to reduce emotional tension and anxiety.

So, the next time you fell as if you’re at the end of your rope, or the world is just hammering away at your patience, take the time to brew yourself a cup of chamomile tea. And take you’re time as you sip it; make every drop count.

Beach Therapy

In my stress relief practices, one of the major things I recommend is to take a trip for yourself, no matter how near or far. This summer, I had made a promise to myself that before the end of August, I’d take a trip to Orchard Beach in The Bronx. Sure enough, Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, I was able to keep that promise.

After taking care of a few personal tasks in the early part of that Saturday, I made my way to the Bx12 local, the main bus line to take to Orchard Beach in the summer. After Labor Day weekend, the bus lines to that beach are discontinued until Memorial Day the following year, so it was my last opportunity to get there this year. Thankfully, I made it to the bus with plenty of time to spare.

The bus ride was unusually dreamlike, with little to no traffic, which is unusual for a holiday weekend. The feeling of pulling up to the beach entrance was a feeling of joy and relief, making it there with 3 hours until closing. I walked through the paved path through the trees, and when I saw the spread of the beach, it was as if I had found a paradise a stone’s throw from the city.

After grabbing a hot dog and a bottled water, I started my walk along the paved path beside the beach, admiring the view of the Long Island Sound as it stretched toward the ocean. I couldn’t help but snap picture after picture of the seagulls as they flew over my head. The further I walked, the less crowded the beach became.

Soon, I found myself compelled to walk on the sand, keeping my sneakers on, and walking as carefully as possible to reduce how much sand could seep into my shoes. It felt good to walk on the beach, feeling the coolness of the wind on my face, the smell of the salt water. I ended up walking so far down the beach, I had made it to the edge.

This was my first time climbing the rocks at the edge of Orchard Beach. I could see the yachts and other boats sailing down the ocean water, the jet skis zooming towards the land. The calm ripple of the ocean waves were so calming, I had to close my eyes and listen. When I slowly opened my eyes, I couldn’t help but look into the distance to my left. I saw two small islands, the Twin Islands, out in the distance. I had to get a closer look.

I found a small, sandy path just beyond the end of the paved walkway, and as I walked that path, I could see a small group of people along the rocky edge. A lone fisherman, a father and son fishing together, two men drinking beers and laughing, and a woman looking off in the distance. Just past the lone fisherman, I could see the Twin Islands perfectly. It was the first time in my life I had seen them. So many people have been to this beach, but so few of them have ever heard of the Twin Islands, let alone seen them. As I snapped pictures, the lone fisherman gave me a thumbs up. Funny thing is, I didn’t notice until days later as I showed my pictures to my co-workers.

As I made my way back to the main entrance, I looked up, and I could see a small rainbow peeking through the clouds. I looked around, and no one else noticed it but me. It was a solitary and special moment as I made my long trek back to the bus, a way to end my trip that I can never forget.

Sitting on the bus as I made my way back to the hectic mayhem of the city, one repeating thought dwelled in my mind: It’s amazing what beauty awaits us if we’re willing to push further beyond the roads paved for us.

Beating Mental Fatigue

Today was a reminder for me about how real mental fatigue can be. There are days where no matter how healthy we are physically, the stress of the day can bear down on you until you’re aching from head to toe. Your muscles ache, your neck is stiff, and you feel like a rusty Tin Man without an oil can. Funny enough, there are metaphorical “oil cans” that can help you cope with and combat the mental fatigue of your day.

One of the easiest ways to combat mental fatigue is to stretch. You don’t have to do any fancy stretching to revive yourself mentally, just stretches as simple as reaching above your head, twisting your torso, or even bending over and letting your arms hang low towards the floor. Stretching eases the tension in your body and stimulates circulation.

Another way is to allow yourself a few minutes to meditate. As I mentioned in my previous blog entry, Meditating On The Go, you can relieve stress and mental tension with as little as 3 minutes of meditation. If you’re in an area that’s not exactly optimal for meditation, deep breathing can still help you beat that mental fatigue. (Be sure to read my prior blog entry for some quick meditation tips.)

When all else fails, hydrate. Drinking water helps cool you down and calm you down, and it can help flush out excess sodium that might be elevating your blood pressure, which plays into stress factors. If water isn’t doing the trick, drink some chamomile tea. It’s a natural sedative, and it’s an excellent way to reduce stress and anxiety.

There are going to be plenty of stressful days in our lives, but don’t let that stress conquer you. Take a bit of initiative and counter that stress with some relaxation.

Meditating On The Go

For the past two months, I have been working on my first book, a guide to stress management. While I began and continued working on this book, I put several of the methods within it to use, the most prominent method being breathing and meditation. Why meditation? Because if you can close your eyes and breathe, you can meditate.

Many of us who face daily commutes and deadlines can use meditation to calm ourselves down and relax ourselves, easing the built-up tension that the day has heaped upon us. Sadly, not many of us have taken the initiative to learn about basic deep breathing exercises, let alone meditation. It has been said that the most successful people practice meditation, from famous actors to industry moguls. So there is a proven crowd on the benefits of meditating.

One particular challenge that I face during the day is finding time to meditate. While I do make time either after I wake up or before going to sleep, there are times throughout the day where I need to meditate to de-stress and re-focus myself. Being that a positive meditation can take only 5-10 minutes, it’s all a matter of strategy and opportunity. Here are a few key points I’ve adopted for on-the-go meditation that you can practice.

1. Download A Meditation App

This one may be the most convenient way to meditate on the go. Back when CDs were popular, meditation CDs were a go-to. However, the guided meditations on these CDs ranged from 20 to 30 minutes in duration, which leaves a large chance for a meditation to be interrupted. Now and days, meditation apps are a solid go-to for meditating on the go. The most popular meditation apps are Stop, Breathe, & Think, Headspace, and Calm. Each of these apps have a wide variety of meditations with durations from 3 to 10 minutes, allowing you to enjoy a quick meditation or guided breathing on the go, whether you’re riding in a cab or taking your 15-minute break.

2. Add Soft Music To Your Playlist

Before I went the app route for my express meditations, my method was simply to play some soft music from my phone’s playlist in order to get my deep breathing or meditation done. If you’re experienced in meditation, this may be the better route compared to using an app, which is mostly for beginners or people who are experienced but prefer to be guided. Soft music, such as jazz or classical piano, can take the mind to a calmer place, which makes the deep breathing required for meditating even easier. Try to use music without lyrics, so your focus can be on the calming sounds. Meditating to a soft music track can take as little as 4 minutes.

3. Just Do It!

While apps and music are excellent aids to meditating on the go, when all else fails, just close your eyes and breathe. That in itself is the primary key to meditation. As long as you’re able to breathe, you can meditate. Focus on your breaths, the rising and falling of your chest and abdomen as you take each slow, deep breath, and you will be in that deep calming state in no time.

In the end, the motivation for meditation should be the feeling of a calm body and a calm mind. No matter where or how you meditate, when it’s done right, you will feel it.

Greener Pastures

I was born and raised in The Bronx.  I’ve lived here for over 3 decades of my life.  Everything in my life is practically synonymous with this borough, from the early days of hip-hop to the Yankees.  I had met Peter Gunz and DJ Kool Herc in the same summer just walking around my neighborhood.  I loved the fact that I was walking distance from Yankee Stadium, both the “House That Ruth Built” and the “House That Jeter Built”.  Every movie and tv show that was ever filmed in my borough, I’d be able to tell you exactly where that filming location was. Sadly, I’m getting a feeling that it’s time to leave the place I’ve called home.

One major drawback of The Bronx is that it’s ripe territory for greedy real estate agents to plunder. More people have lost their apartments here in the past 5 to 7 years than in the past 2 decades. Apartments that used to be $900 a month are now $2,500 a month, unless you qualify for section 8. Homeless shelters are popping up left and right, and people just can’t afford to live here anymore, unless they work 3 jobs and only get 3 hours of sleep a night. Currently, I’m living with my parents, and it’s a frustrating feeling to be in your mid-30s and having to answer to them. The job I’ve managed to hold onto for 5 years is driving me up the wall, and even with the city increasing minimum wage, the cost of living doesn’t get any easier, as the price for anything from groceries to entertainment just keeps rising.  I finally understand why so many of my friends who grew up here and raised their kids here have moved away.

A friend of mine had been trying to get me to move to Philadelphia for some time.  While living in the city of brotherly love has always been tempting, it wasn’t until now that it has become a necessary option. Living in The Bronx would mean that I’m stuck living with my dad and stepmother, and moving out to Long Island’s Suffolk County would mean living with my mother, as expensive as things have become out there. And as much as I love my mother, I can’t afford to have her doting over my life like Marie Barone in Everybody Loves Raymond. It’s a frustrating feeling when your folks keep asking when you’ll get a new girlfriend, yet quote Bible scripture about premarital sex and start fear mongering with images of hellfire and eternal damnation if you don’t do what they say.

To be honest, living with a friend rather than a parent or relative may just what I need right now, and living outside of New York may just be what my bank account needs.  As much as I love New York, I can’t keep up with things. And make no mistake, I love New York.  I love being about to take a bus into Harlem and walk 125th Street, whether it’s for DVD shopping or going to the Magic Johnson Theater. I love being able to take a train down into midtown or lower Manhattan, visiting comic stores, book stores, and pizzerias. I love being able to go down to Chinatown and visit every restaurant on Mott Street, even the back alley 4-for-$1 dumpling spot that no tourist has ever been to. I love being able to go arcade hopping, from Two-Bit’s Retro Arcade by NYU to the Barcade on St. Mark’s Place.  There’s so much to love about New York.

Yet, at the same time, every other thing I love about this city is vanishing, because of greedy real estate practices.  My favorite comic book store, St. Mark’s Comics, was forced to close after 35 years of business. My favorite retail store in Harlem, Kiss Electronics, was forced to close after decades of business. So many music stores, including my favorite record store, Second Hand Rose’s, had gone out of business. Even the landmark Katz’s Deli had been forced to shut down. Legacies that had shaped New York into the stuff movies and sitcoms were made of, forced to go out of business because, “The rent is too damn high.”  And politicians like Mayor Bill de Blasio, and his predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, could care less. It was under Bloomberg that the city became so unaffordable, and when New Yorkers expected de Blasio to turn things around for the people, all we were left with was higher costs of living, and our only options being to stay in the city and become homeless, or leave the city for a more affordable quality of life.

Of all the places I’ve considered moving to, Philadelphia might be the most feasible. Of the times I’ve visited Philly, I’ve never really gotten to do what most people do down there. I’ve never gotten to see the Rocky statue from Rocky III, or run up the “Rocky Steps”.  I’ve never had a Philly cheesesteak made in Philly.  I’ve never even been to a Wawa’s! Even my late Uncle Lenny would tell me about the times he’d visit Philly just to see the Penn State Relays. My friend’s sister-in-law ran the Relays, and I never even got to see her win.  But most importantly, my best friend lives there, and has invited me down there with open arms. He had mapped out in his mind ever scenario to get me to move down there, and now, I’m doing the same.  While he’s offered me a place to stay, I’m still eyeing apartments down there as a plan B, so I have a contingency just in case. I’m researching what kinds of jobs I’d qualify for, in case my writing endeavors take longer to come to fruition. And if worse comes to worse, I’d be only 2 hours away from NYC, and 3 hours away from my mom’s home in Suffolk.

Change is hard, especially when you’re leaving the place you’ve called home all your life.  But if you’re to truly grow, change is necessary. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck in the same self-destructive cycle you’ve been in. So, I’m making a change.  I’m going to miss The Bronx when I’m finally gone, and I’m going to miss NYC, but I’ll have a friend waiting on the other end for me.