Be Well

I am a hedonist when it comes to fitness, food, and my city. I work out because I love the feeling: power, endorphins, productive pain. I see movement as celebration and therapy, and food as art and love. New York City chants along generously to this kind of hedonism. There’s an energy on this island that unites body, mind, and spirit at a brilliant pulse. Here are some stories from that rhythm.

India: Mind-blowing, Spirit-kindling, Holy Dirt

A magnetic pull, decades deep.

I have dreamed of this place forever, didn’t imagine I would go in grief. I lost my mother suddenly a month before leaving, and the weeks after were a haze of tears and shock and logistics and that dull throb in the throat that never quite entirely fades. After a season of transition, all my paradigms shifted. My universe untrustworthy. Painfully alert. It was the hardest time, and the best time, to immerse in another world.

There are many Indias. Some are more globalized, more apparently organized, more focused on the future, but the old threads of its culture run through them all. I spent most of this journey in places that consciously look backward: places with a deep sense of tradition, weaving the past into the now, rooting into the wisdom of age. Places marked by devotion. That was the word—the feeling—that pulsed through everywhere I went. Devotion. In Sanskrit, bhakti—भक्ति—an unembarrassed, heartward, humble practice of bowing to the divine, interwoven into the routines of everyday.

It was strange and energizing to be in a culture where belief is default. Faith is assumed. I dropped a ragged heart into the refuge of epic ceremony that’s just part of the fabric of everyday routines. Most of my culture’s ceremonies of grief and celebration are so meager. By contrast, Indian rituals assume that we have radical grief and gratitude on a regular basis, that we need material ways to mark them. So, I found myself on my first night in Rishikesh, way up north in the foothills of the Himalayas, on the rocky banks of the Ganges fresh from its glacier source, its twists and rapids an otherworldly shade of aquamarine. I gathered with the villagers for nightly aarti—an evening offering of prayers, maybe yoga and meditation, and little banana leaf bowls of flowers lit by a single candle released into the river as a prayer, usually for someone, something lost. Thanks to the Indian cash crisis of the last few months I had no rupees to buy a bowl from the kids who sell them on the ghats—the bathing steps—of the river, but when I tried to explain to the kid who approached me, he just put one into my hand and walked away saying “gift. gift.” So I knelt, wiped my eyes, lit a prayer, and let it go, scattering its petals and light into the current. Which is how we want to pray big, heavy prayers—with our bodies, with our knees to the earth, with our hands wet in pure, racing water, with something that signifies the hope, the delicacy, the materiality of the world we want changed, the beauty of whom, of what we’ve lost.

I stayed about 20 miles above Lakshman Jhula and Ram Jhula, the two villages at the heart of Rishikesh, at an ashram on the bank of one of the rivers that flows into the Ganges. In the cold mornings before the sun rises over the mountains yogis and villagers sit meditating silently or quietly chanting, their white wool wraps barely visible in the mist. Beginning the day grounded, whispering desire alongside the rushing river that embodies a flow of gift and loss. Morning possibility. Evening peace, resignation. Almost everywhere I went in India people marked sunrise and sunset with some form of aarti—most dramatically at night in Varanasi, most delicately in the quiet mornings in Rishikesh or on the coast in Goa: a woman sitting alone for an hour until her breath matches the river’s give and take, a man on the beach practicing salutations at sunrise or standing in the surf at sunset, feeling the waves pull back only to gather again. These moments of sunrise and sunset are made holy—

Limits that become rhythms

if we learn the freedom

of bowing before

the too muchness of day’s beginning,

the enough of day’s end

in silence, in gratitude, in something closer to

satisfaction. In unison.

Riverside, beachside, or in a dingy airport, I experimented with ways of marking these times of day, the coming and going of light. Pausing even if simply to fully feel whatever had been bubbling beneath the surface of the day—fear, grief, delight. Amazed at how the practice started to infuse attention to the moments in between.

From Rishikesh, I went to Varanasi, Vrindavan, Agra, Bharatpur, and Goa—cities the yogis have always called “thin places,” where the borders between heaven and earth get hazy. Long-time centers of yoga and meditation. I didn’t plan for this trip the way I usually do. Didn’t have a return ticket booked when I left, only knew there were three essential cities, and that I wanted to feel led. Wanted to experience the grace that can fill the gaps in our preparation. So many stories of that, which was the greatest gift of this journey.

Part of what I wanted was to open up to other side of the world—not just the rich weirdness of a radically different culture but vast differences of economics and opportunity. It's painful to let that in. To physically get in touch with the realities of limitation and need on such an overwhelming scale. I experienced this most dramatically in Varanasi, India's oldest, holiest, and dirtiest city. Varanasi never stops ringing with prayer. Its physical forms thicken the air and float down the river constantly: the flutes and cymbals of monks and a smoky mix of incense and hash rises upward; flower petals and the shimmering metallic fabrics bodies are wrapped in before riverside cremation swirl downstream with the Ganges currents. The Buddha preached his first sermon a few miles upstream, in Sarnath. You can’t escape the city’s obsession with reaching for God, for purification, for enlightenment, for union with the whole we sense beyond us, for each other in song and ceremony. And you can’t escape the filth. For its promise of holiness, Varanasi attracts the most desolate and broken. Beggars, cripples, blind, abandoned who hope in the Ganges, the temples, and the tourists. The narrow, twisting streets of the old city leading to the river ghats are dense with lives on the edge of survival. Maybe this is why no one seems to care about the heaps of trash everywhere. More wandering cows and water buffalo than I saw anywhere, more poop and mysterious fluids. The cobblestones ran with it. I turned a corner to a temple and almost tripped over a huge plastic bag smeared with blood. My first morning I stepped out the door of an ashram on the edge of town right onto a muddy riverbank that served as one big public toilet where several men squatted before a ceremonial dip in the Ganges and water buffalo rolled before walking the city streets in search of food. An even ratio of shit to prayer.

Maybe there is some uncomfortable wisdom in this culture’s acceptance of decay. The India I experienced was not disgusted by death or waste. It lives alongside bodily fluids, dirt roads and walls, corpses, animals that move in and out of the wild. There are all kinds of reasons for sleek systems of waste removal and recycling. But I tried to get curious about what it means to live alongside it undisturbed. To practice faith in the midst of filth. To oscillate well between this material world that decays as much as it renews, and the perfection we suspect possible. There is some deep acceptance of the body behind all of it. The body as the way, rather than the roadblock, toward God. That maybe we are dirt and we are holy.

This groundedness may have something to do with something else I saw over and over. A kind of delicacy in acts of devotion. Huge, gnarly trees wrapped in hand-made prayer flags, hand-woven strings. Tiny altars, everywhere—tucked into cracks in a concrete wall, built by the roadside like a birdhouse, on the steps of a home or the roots of a grand tree—filled with handmade deities, painted paper flowers, votive candles. Not that India lacks industries of mass production. But often, in acts of devotion, the rough, quirky, marks of someone’s hand. Even in the birthplace of transcendent meditation—worship, on the scale of the body. As an act of the body. Streets smeared with the waste we can’t help shedding. And beside a shack of trash and blankets, a palm-sized bowl of marigold petals, a single flame of light. A shrine to possibility, on a scale of enough. Brick and mortar of Mother Teresa’s invitation: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

India, still undoing, enlarging this heart.

Trial by Fire: Ironman 70.3 Los Cabos Race Report – October 30, 2016

Heat. This race is all about managing heat. The high of 95 degrees F and intense humidity made this the toughest Ironman race I have ever completed of any length. I raced the half and thought many times I couldn’t imagine racing a full in this kind of heat.

This race was not about a personal record or a world championships slot for me; it was about getting fully into the body and feeling everything from this past season. 5 months out from a bike crash and grade 3 AC shoulder separation, my focus was on testing shoulder strength, Celebrating imperfect ability, imperfect recovery. Testing the spiritual strength brokenness offers. Putting myself through a bonfire and seeing what survives.

Check-in logistics for this race are complicated. The race check-in at the host hotel is midway between T1 (bike check-in) several miles to the north and T2 several miles to the south. T1 is at the bottom of a very long, steep hill, which you can’t drive down. Leave at least an hour to park, walk down, get body marked, check-in the bike, and walk back up to the parking area. About a 20-min drive from T2 to T1 for run check-in, which has to be completed the night before the race—don’t count on being able to access a run transition bag on race morning.

The ocean water gets very warm, very fast. I cannot imagine wearing a wetsuit in this race, even if it’s legal temp. One more reason to settle in and drop the heart rate as soon as possible. The swim’s end can sneak up on you as the depth changes quickly. Definitely take the time to apply sunscreen well during T1, especially if racing the full. Even as early as 8AM on the road you will be in full sun.

The bike course is beautiful. Long, steady climbs at low grades mean a tough effort but super fun descents. The roads for the entire bike course are very well paved—seemed brand new—mostly highways closed for the race, into and out of the mountains surrounding Los Cabos. The bike was over too soon, but given the heat it was really hard to gauge how much to push it for the last 10miles. I had no idea how a half marathon would feel in the mid-day heat, so I played it very conservative and I think this contributed to a steady run. In this race it was rare for even athletes at peak conditioning not to walk some part of the run because the heat was just too much.

Two run superpowers: salt tabs and ice! I took a salt capsule every 30 min (started the last 30min of the ride) and absolutely believed that saved my legs. I almost couldn’t walk the first few steps off the bike, legs totally buckled but sure enough give it 3 miles and I found a rhythm that was never easy in the heat, but steady. I didn’t push it; my goal was simply to run the entire 13.2 mi, not to walk. That meant 9-ish min miles. What saved my mind: ice, ice baby. There were aid stations at least every mile, and I sipped a few sips of ice water at every one, poured the rest out or down my back (avoid your shoes! I saw so many runners sloshing through soaked shoes 5mi in and then walking through blisters miles later. Keep the feet as dry as possible!) and slipped the big pieces of ice down the front and back of my top, behind my visor on my head, and—this is key—held ice in my hands almost the whole race. Hands are the body’s major heat conductors. Simply holding ice felt like it cooled my whole body. The last 3 miles were pure hell. That simple. I ran on rage at the heat, and started dropping to 8min miles. The feeling of passing peak-conditioned athletes walking at the end of that gnarly run is amazing and worth the strategy of holding something back. Unless you train in crazy heat and humidity you simply don’t know what your body is going to do the second half of the run.

The finisher’s chute is high energy, right in the center of town. It always amazes me how much transfers as I approach a chute. Completely drained seconds before, round a corner to a cheering crowd and discover some extra gear hidden down underneath everything. Sub-7-min pace into the finish line.

The most incredible feeling of the day was stepping into a blow-up pool ice bath in the shade of the finisher’s plaza, biting into a hot piece of pizza. Totally spent. Completely happy.

 

Have a plan to get out of old town Los Cabos after the race. Every paved street is shut down/re-routed. We found a dirt road through corn field, dodged cows and dogs and somehow found our way back to El Ganzo Hotel, which is funky, rustic perfection on the marina. Mezcal & sushi by the infinity pool overlooking the Pacific, and a deep, long sleep. Cheers to now.

Sweat Family

My peloton:

Some families are made of blood. We have built one of sweat. 

We match cadence and resistance, but we are connected by what those breathless moments unlock in us. What we feel, what we dream, what we dare to think possible when we glimpse our full strength. How ferocity becomes generosity. Consumption shifts to creativity. 

From the first time I felt that connection, to the first rider whose name was written on a whiteboard ‘Leaderboard’ in our makeshift first studio, and every time I have clipped into the bike and scrolled through a worldwide roll call, I have been lifted by you, inspired by you, pulled into the force field of your dreams, power, brokenness, and best intentions. Calling us to life has been my deep joy.

You have heard me tell you to wipe your slate clean with sweat. I am starting a new canvas. I want you to be in my picture.

Let's surprise ourselves.

All my love,
Nicole

The Bedrock of Ambition

They call it Manhattan Schist—the exceptionally dense granite bedrock of this island. An unseen foundation solid enough for the tallest structures in the world, at the highest concentration. Monuments of ambition. I took this photo on my first night in New York almost 10 years ago, magnetized by the city for the thousands of ways it reaches for the sky. The love's only gotten wilder. Ambition is contagious. NYC today was electric with it, pulsing with the energy of a new season. Creative business. The world's most visionary artists and designers flooded uptown for Fashion Week. But every few blocks, a cop or firefighter in dress uniform, headed downtown. Dressed in tradition. Dressed in roots. Dressed in a different kind of courage. One empowers the other.  Tonight two holy, defiant towers of light rise from Lower Manhattan, higher than any building will reach. Testifying to the strength of our foundation, even in grief—in hope, peace, courage. Reminding this island at the center of an increasingly connected world of the roots—the service, the courage, the community-building—that matter. And that we can dream alongside fear. We can hope and love alongside loss. We can stoke radical ambition for art and work that inspires the broken, empowers the weakest, welcomes the stranger. Our losses can become the bedrock of hard-won love, hard-fought forgiveness that supports the building that matters.

They call it Manhattan Schist—the exceptionally dense granite bedrock of this island. An unseen foundation solid enough for the tallest structures in the world, at the highest concentration. Monuments of ambition. I took this photo on my first night in New York almost 10 years ago, magnetized by the city for the thousands of ways it reaches for the sky. The love's only gotten wilder. Ambition is contagious. NYC today was electric with it, pulsing with the energy of a new season. Creative business. The world's most visionary artists and designers flooded uptown for Fashion Week. But every few blocks, a cop or firefighter in dress uniform, headed downtown. Dressed in tradition. Dressed in roots. Dressed in a different kind of courage. One empowers the other. 

Tonight two holy, defiant towers of light rise from Lower Manhattan, higher than any building will reach. Testifying to the strength of our foundation, even in grief—in hope, peace, courage. Reminding this island at the center of an increasingly connected world of the roots—the service, the courage, the community-building—that matter. And that we can dream alongside fear. We can hope and love alongside loss. We can stoke radical ambition for art and work that inspires the broken, empowers the weakest, welcomes the stranger. Our losses can become the bedrock of hard-won love, hard-fought forgiveness that supports the building that matters.

Back to Unfinished Business

The first week of September is its own kind of New Years Day. On the East Coast, if you're lucky, the weather starts feeling like it has a secret it wants to tell. The air's sucked dry. Wind picks up. Central Park and the Farmers' Markets are still in full bloom, flush with morning glories, sunflowers, the juiciest heirloom tomatoes and figs almost bursting through papery-thin skin. Somehow a morning glory seed got mixed up in my rogue fire escape vegetable garden and it must be growing a foot a day, twisting around every metal line it can reach, popping off iridescent purple fireworks from dawn to noon. Another month of sun-soaking, fewest possible layers between skin and sand, grass, soil, sky. 

But the soft closing of summer. After a stressed run to the post office before it closed Saturday, I found myself standing across the street from the Urgent Care on Broadway, where I ended up right after crashing my bike exactly 14 weeks earlier, on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. I sat down on a park bench to try to come to terms. I let my body remember the feeling of pain that was deeper than any I'd felt, radiating from my shoulder and hip. The way my body was tightening around these joints, the whole right side shutting down. Trying to stop shivering for the x-ray. The knot pulled tight between my heart and my stomach when the doctor walked in and said "ruptured ligaments." Ruptured. Ligamentsplural. And then directions to the ER. Career, racing dreams, training plans, possibly ruptured too.

I'm not 100% yet. But every morning I can roll over on my right side or reach to shut off the alarm with something that feels more like post-workout soreness than a hot stab is a reminder of how far I've come. The body wants to heal. Still a small, dull flame of pain. But 8 push-ups this morning. Real ones. Working my way all the way down to the floor. More of a downward dog each week. Most importantly, bear hugs.

And the bike. I missed my Peloton something fierce. Thank you for riding harder and harder, and with more heart these last few weeks. If you're just getting back to the bike after a summer of training outside, here are some of my recent favorite rides. Catch them On-Demand!

7/16 – Warrior Hour

8/1 – Rockstar Ride

8/16 – Summer of '69 Ride

8/17 – 20min Seated Intervals

8/17 – 5:30 Metrics

8/16 - Victory PR Ride

8/23 – Orchestral Rave

8/23 – 20min Beginner

8.26 – 12:45 Metrics

So much to come this season. Let's sweat our way into full attention, overflowing gratitude, this fall. Still healing. Still messy. More curious about the ways we can be knit (back) together. All in. 

Crash School

Four weeks ago I crashed hard. Days before Ironman France, on my last ride before packing up the bike, a girl darted into the bike lane in NYC’s Riverside Park—I swerved, braked, went over the handlebars and my right shoulder took the full impact of the pavement. Torn ligaments, AC shoulder separation grade 3, road rash and a bone-deep technicolor bruise on my hip.

Just like that.

I was at my strongest, most fit, tapered and hungry to race harder than ever, and in an instant, broken. Unable to lift my arm. Body shaking with a cocktail of adrenaline, rage, confusion, and increasing pain. I didn’t at first realize the extent of the injury. Hadn’t yet felt the lifted edge of the clavicle bone. Hoped that with enough ice and rest and anti-inflammatories, I could somehow race in a week. When Urgent Care rerouted me to the ER, hope dimmed and pain started to amplify. Within an hour my arm was frozen into a right angle across my chest and my hip swelled into a gnarly sunset. I spent Saturday night of Memorial Day weekend with an unlucky, beat-up crew at St. Luke’s Hospital ER, realizing this summer was going to look very different than I had imagined.

This is my first major injury and the longest recovery I have navigated. Pain shifts from an 8 to a 5 to a 2, and back to a 3 the next day. More range of motion, tons of optimism, then plateau, then less, then more, then less again.

4+ weeks without downward dog.

Without the meditative bliss of running.

Without rocking out with my worldwide tribe of Peloton cyclists.

Without any hard-core, explosive, rhythm-resetting movement.

With a constant dull or burning pain that has its own mantra: your body is broken.

Here’s what I am learning.

Deep healing is slow. But most important stuff is. I believe in slow food, slow love, slow friendship, slow wine, slow base training, slow change. Slow is how something becomes systemic, full-bodied, complex, deeply rooted. I stopped using anti-inflammatory drugs as soon as I could handle it because inflammation is part of healing and pain is part of monitoring healing. (Actually, I swapped them out for a twice-daily ginger-turmeric-lemon-pineapple-honey cocktail and food to give my body the tools is needs to efficiently process, rather than dull the register of inflammation.) We like to treat and doll-up surfaces. We want the life hack, the quick-fix. We’ll settle for the 60% recovery as long as we get to look and kind-of feel like nothing gets us down, or at least not for long. But deep down, I want the unmatched satisfaction of the long haul and the slow burn. One of my Peloton tribe passed along this gem: Patience IS a form of action. Yes.

Sit in the pain.  Mornings are the worst: the joint has been immobile all night and all the lymph of inflammation has built up. The first movement I make in the morning as I reach for the alarm clock is a radical reminder that I’m seriously injured, and it feels the worst it will feel all day. So I go sit in that. Soon after I’m out of bed I sit down and do whatever version of meditation I’m capable of that day— a mantra, a whiney, crooked prayer, a banging Bob Dylan song, as close to nothing as possible—and breathe. From that pain. To that pain. 70% of the time, it goes to some wild, creative, demanding places.

Strength Train. There’s a good chance I will not be physically stronger on the other side of this recovery. This joint has been radically compromised. I believe in the body’s miraculous ability to heal beyond imagination and prediction, to possibly heal stronger— but it doesn’t always. So it’s a good thing we’re a helluva lot more than bodies. And that physical, relational, vocational strength comes from a strength of soul that can only grow in response to seasons of darkness and pain. Also: strength train. What an opportunity to do some funky mobility work. The first couple weeks all I could do was one-armed Warrior asanas and some really simple Pilates moves. So I did them really slowly and really well. If I had broken my leg and could only move my feet, I’d end up with the strongest feet I’d ever had. Everything is connected. I never realized how the shoulder absorbs movement from so many other parts of the body, or how much of the body will shut down to protect one compromised joint. Or how working muscles around an injured area increases blood flow and minimizes scar tissue. Maximize the opportunity to work in unusual ways.

Feed your body as though it is a miraculous, divine organism that has perfect intelligence. Because it is. Give it a rich toolbox of nutrients.

I hope I am moving again in the ways I love very soon. I have never wanted to do a pushup so much. But I hope I won’t be able to return to normal. I hope this injury scars me with gratitude, attention, generosity. Because nothing is a given. Everything is gift.

The Architecture of Peace

Starstruck. What does it feel like to sign a decade-long project of vision, journeys, gritty art—finally bound, polished, gleaming? On an icy winter night, two of my favorite yogi communities, Pure Yoga East and Tanya-B, co-hosted a full-body fêtê celebrating the launch of Michael O'neill's stop you in your tracks, sense riot of a book 'Yoga: The Architecture of Peace.' Can't buy that light in the eyes. Or the truth bomb his teacher Siri Sat Kaur dropped mid-vinyasa: guru means 'the heavy one.' The woman, the man of great weight. Yes, please.

Eat Beauty.

January sense riot. Grey day, bright eats. Middle Eastern-Mexican mashup El Rey has the best kale salad in the city. And I've had a few. Serious pretty points.

You Say You Want A Revolution

'The dreams you crave—the daring feats you want your body to be capable of; the art, the work, the love you want to create—are your spiritual DNA. You want them because you were made for them. Your world deserves to see you accomplish them...' Real talk on vision and revolution to CADENCE. Join the conversation.

Food Love. On Your Doorstep.

Sakara Life is an NYC-based, globally driven, food revolution. At its core, a clean, pant-rich, organic meal delivery service founded by two wonder-women who've run the gauntlet of fad diets and foodie obsessions and landed at a fresh, visionary perspective on food as love, celebration, and community. I'm digging in. It was love at first taste of this lush Soba-shiitake-sriracha party. Cooking is a passion. But when time doesn't allow, this kind of energy with a side of inspiration is my jam. Meals to be savored. Handmade, hand delivered. I'm in love. 

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