Art in the DNA

By JiJi Russell

Clarke County resident Kathy Stewart, M.D., appears adept at using both sides of her brain. She will seamlessly segue from molecular biology to fiction to a lifetime passion: art. JiJi Russell recently shared a conversation with Stewart to glean insights into her area of medicine—oncology and hematology—now that she has retired from the field to pursue intensive art studies. Here is what she had to say.

Without a doubt, the greatest changes in medicine over the past 25 years have come in our understanding of the molecular biology of human disease. For centuries, the physician’s greatest tools were the medical history, the physical exam, and the stethoscope.

When I first began to practice medicine some 25 years ago, technology began to be added to this equation. The crude and simple X-ray gave way to more improved techniques. First on the scene were CT scans, then MRIs, then PET imaging, and forward we surge. These capabilities have truly revolutionized our ability to view the human body with more precision and accurate detail.

But even though these tools allowed us to visualize human anatomy and see where it was aberrant, the underlying reasons why these anomalies occurred were not answered. These past many decades of basic science research elucidating both normal and abnormal physiology on a molecular level have begun to produce insights and answers into the mystery of human disease. Understanding exactly what the defects are that result in disease states like cancer is now being translated into newer and improved treatments that are highly focused and targeted against what specifically has gone wrong within the DNA of an individual patient.

Recently, the pace of newly published medical information has proceeded, not linearly, but logarithmically. This has produced the need for specialization in medicine because one physician cannot ‘do it all.’ It would be impossible for one primary care doctor to keep pace with all of the new information arising daily in fields of cardiology, oncology, and all of the other ‘ologies.’ This has altered the face of medicine, and it is a rare individual who never requires a referral to a specialist.

It is quite a challenge for both the physician and the patient in today’s world of medicine to maintain that old heartfelt bond that described the doctor-patient relationship for so many centuries. Holding on to this human element describes the art of medicine in today’s world. Not that it is impossible, just more difficult. Although this is the ‘downside’ of the medical information revolution, the very positive ‘upside’ is that more and more individuals are being treated more specifically and more effectively for their underlying disease states than ever before. And the future looks even brighter.

Although medicine has been my passion for the past 30 years since I began training in 1984, I have been fortunate enough to have found yet another passion in life, and that is art. I retired earlier than I had imagined from medical practice last summer to pursue this newer passion.

On the surface the two endeavors could not seem more dissimilar. But both flow from a desire to serve the human family and to share and express meaning in our existence together. I very much miss spending time with patients, but all of the experiences I have been privileged to have over these years are adrift within me and are expressed in every brushstroke.

Kathy Stewart practiced as an oncologist and hematologist for 20 years at Shenandoah Oncology. She attended medical school at the University of Virginia; completed her residency in Internal Medicine at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and her fellowship in oncology and hematology at Duke University Hospital. Currently, Dr. Stewart is enrolled in Studio Incamminati, a full-time art atelier in Philadelphia.

Changes that Matter

By JiJi Russell

Want to feel good about yourself? Do something new. When we do new things, we can access a new level of confidence. We see it in children as they acquire skills like learning to swim or ride a bike; or perhaps tackling a difficult math concept and finally “getting it.”

Something happens in the brain when we put ourselves to a test and prevail. The concept of “neuro plasticity” holds the key to this phenomenon. I appreciate the way Dr. Michael Merzenich describes brain plasticity in his many forums.

Merzenich, a professor emeritus at the University of California, who has pioneered research in brain plasticity for more than 30 years, says the brain actually “changes physically, functionally, and chemically,” as one acquires an ability or improves an ability. These kinds of activities actually create a new system of connectivity in the brain that did not formerly exist. This change is known as “plasticity.”

Cool, huh?


“More” Is Not Equal to “Better”

Many people I encounter in my wellness travels wish for, and often work for, greater energy, more endurance, loss of an increasing waistline, greater strength, and so forth. As I’m learning from both helping and observing others, as well as having to work harder personally for change as the years add up, one common tactic is to go “harder” or even “more frequently” with a practice, especially when it comes to physical endeavors. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily yield results in the form of change.

One the first conversations I had with Paula Barnes, a skilled and quite intuitive personal trainer, went something like this: “But I walk/run three or more times a week,” I said. “I eat well—lots of fruits and veggies, hardly any bread or sugar. I do yoga. I don’t know why I’ve gained weight, slowly but surely.”

To which she replied simply, “You can’t expect to keep doing the same thing you’ve always done and see changes.”

This reminded me of something I’ve heard told: The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing but expecting to get different results. To avoid the possibility of going insane, I listened further. “Besides,” Paula said. “If you just do a bunch of cardio [my go-to routine], you’ll only become a smaller version of yourself. It’s the strength-training that changes your metabolism and your overall shape.”

That was it. When a straight-shooting girl from Brooklyn tells me what’s what, I listen.


Strong for the Long Haul

In my personal trajectory of fitness change-making, Paula has motivated me to do some ridiculously difficult strength and balance training. It always makes me chuckle when she says: “Okay, first you do 40 of these [absurdly hard] weight/lunge/balance moves; then you’ll hop over here and do 20 pushups in perfect form; then you’ll stand on one leg and . . .”

Usually I wobble all over the place the first time; then I laugh, focus, and try harder. Before I know it, I’m moving in some completely new way, which gives me one of the greatest joys of my life, having been a mover of all sorts for as long as I could walk. My brain loves having some new feat to work out. It loves promoting that plasticity effect, I suppose.

I think it’s easy for anyone to get stuck in a comfort zone, even if that zone is mostly a healthy one. It takes some motivation to thrust oneself into a new mode of doing, but it could open you up to welcome changes.

While each one of us has a different prescription for healthy eating and exercise, surely each of us can stand refinement at the least; improvement at best. Or, maybe a complete overhaul is in order.

What part of your physical well-being might you want to change? Would you be willing to change up your routine in order to get there?


JiJi’s Short List of Fitness Change-Makers

Paula Barnes, personal trainer;

6-lb or 8-lb medicine ball

2-lb or 3-lb hand weights

Add one of these strength tools to a yoga move, or simply squat or lunge with weight to bring up the burn:

Nike+ Training Club app: A free app with “tabata” –inspired workouts for all levels

Interval walking (still love it): Every few minutes, stop and do some power moves: lunge, squat, or do pushups or other strength-training moves while your heart rate is up. Then resume your walk.

JiJi Russell, a yoga instructor and integrative nutrition health coach, manages the corporate wellness program for American Public University System in Charles Town, W.Va. Reach her at

Get a Leg Up Climbing Gym Offers a Taste of the High Life

By JiJi Russell

If your New Year’s resolutions involve trying something new, how about this: Change your perspective by getting further off the ground. The contemplative arts like meditation aim at helping us gain objectivity over our mind, and by extension, our habits and our way of being. However, one very literal way to rise up above our midst might offer a rewarding reach of faith: Climbing.

At the end of the summer, an indoor climbing gym opened outside of Martinsburg, W.Va. Climbing New Heights, as it’s aptly named, offers a warehouse-style gym with walls reaching from 18 1/2 to 26 feet; a “bouldering” wall for free climbing (mats placed in fall zones); a gigantic, vertical cargo net; a climbing rope; and a slack line, which challenges even a well-balanced yogi.

Gym owner Brance Keesecker, a part-time Guardsman for the Air National Guard, has parlayed his experience as a combat survival trainer for aircrew members. Serving as both an outdoor climbing guide and indoor gym operator, Keesecker says of climbing: “I like the whole aspect of figuring it out. When you climb outside, you can’t change anything; you have to figure it out as you go.” Indeed, many climbers note the single-pointed focus required to climb effectively.

Harpers Ferry-based chiropractor Alissa Harris has been going to the gym for a little over a month. Starting out as a beginner, she has noticed much improvement in her strength and coordination. And, she said, “Brance and Luke are really good if you can’t figure out a route. They’ll give you tips on how to hold or where to put your feet.”

Luke Badley, a gym employee, who likes “getting up there and puzzling . . . having to think,” appreciates climbing for its power to move one through fear. “Anytime you get to overcome fear and overcome failure, it can be metaphorical for good living and good life skills,” Badley said.

He has seen and appreciated such triumphs as he works with children in the gym. On the afternoon I took my family to the gym for a trial session, Badley’s positive and easy manner nudged my hesitant eight-year-old son right on up the wall.

The gym offers a great cold-weather opportunity for families to stay active and physically engaged together. And with party-hosting services, winter birthdays can take on a new vibe.

“I think it’s a fun way to get exercise and strength training. It’s like a playground for kids and adults. You gain a lot of strength, coordination, and balance,” Harris said. “And with the rappelling, you work on trust and teamwork.”

Keesecker and Badley hope that the gym will become a hub for recreation in and around Martinsburg. In the near term, Badley, who has hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, would like to expand the gym’s offerings by leading hiking excursions outdoors near to the gym.

For those who might feel concerned about safety, from a practical standpoint the “top roping” style of climbing ensures a ready catch if you need it. Additionally, Keesecker is certified by the Professional Climbing Guides Institute, or PCGI. And, as Keesecker says, “I’m not going to climb on something I wouldn’t let my kids climb on. All the holds are structurally engineered and the anchors are certified by an engineer.”

Sometimes a change in perspective is just what the body, mind, and spirit might enjoy.

JiJi Russell, a yoga instructor and Integrative Nutrition health coach, manages the corporate wellness program for American Public University System in Charles Town, W.Va. Reach her at

Finding Center One Moment at a Time

By JiJi Russell

As the weather turns chilly and the hustle-bustle begins, you might feel your own time compressing. What a perfect opportunity to take up meditation. Ten minutes a day, to begin, can offer a great antidote to the tendency toward insanity that seems to define the holiday season.

These days, the practice of meditation is being used within many structured environments, including corporate and medical, and with much documented success. Mindfulness practice, a type of secular meditation, requires no financial outlay and no equipment. The practice “simply” asks us to show up, pay attention, and become present as we hone our ability and turn inward and cultivate compassion, clarity, and/or guidance.

Some medical organizations and integrative health centers have dedicated entire facilities and programs to mindfulness practices and relaxation techniques as a means to reduce the impact stress can bear on us physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Not too long ago, I attended a training course in “Mindful Leadership.” What a gift to be immersed in four days of training, which included intensive daily meditation and a detachment from electronic devices, all within a serene and majestic high mountain valley in the Catskill Mountains of New York.

We all serve in leadership roles from time to time—as a parent, a teacher, a supervisor, a community leader. Taking on these roles with a mind and a heart tuned with mindfulness will bring even greater integrity to those who look to you for guidance. Start with yourself and allow the experience you gain to better support others.

Leaders need the ability to recognize their own habits of mind and states of mental, physical, and emotional balance (or imbalance). In this way they can come from a more skillful place and respond to the many and urgent matters that arise at work and at home.

When we neglect our own inner work, we risk becoming victim to our own distracted minds and perhaps unskillfully reacting, instead of responding, to the people and situations at hand.

I learned a lot about my own path toward better balance at the training, I’m trying to ‘rewire’ my brain to break bad mental habits and give way to greater attention, clarity, and compassion.

During this time of year, and indeed, this time of great global conflict, we need to find and nurture a strong, steady core of goodness and resiliency. We need leaders who act in ways that are thoughtful, clear, and compassionate. We need to show those who depend on us what those ways of acting look like and how they feel. Meditation can help us defragment the parts; find commonality; and tap into a more true essence of who we are and what we have to offer.

If you have any feelings of stress or anxiety, I encourage you to explore the practice of meditation. Try it for just ten minutes a day, for one week. It costs nothing but your time and attention. Give yourself that gift, and you will be sharing it with others around you more than you might realize.

For several guided meditations (free), try the audio downloads of long-time instructor Tara Brach:

Workflex Promotes Greater Health and Wellness

By JiJi Russell

Employers who value loyal, happy, and productive workers cannot ignore the rapidly changing demographics and needs of our workforce. Many workers these days manage more than “just” a job and a family. They might serve as caregivers for an elder family member; they might be working beyond retirement age; or they might be single dads, to name a few circumstances. Today’s workers most likely do not look the same as their own parents did.

Research shows that employees who enjoy workplace flexibility, which encompasses a host of options that could include scheduling flexibility and/or telecommuting, also enjoy greater health and wellness.

The Society of Human Resource Professionals (SHRM), a national industry authority on people management issues of our times, works diligently to advocate for “workflex,” and cites comprehensive research that supports flexibility both from an employee perspective and as a sound bottom-line strategy for organizations.

Flexible and Favorable

Lisa Horn, who directs SHRM’s workplace flexibility initiative, “When Work Works,” points unequivocally to “a direct link between flex and better employee health.” Horn and her colleagues highlight the Families and Work Institute’s 2014 National Study of Employers (NSE) as “the most comprehensive and far-reaching study of the practices, policies, programs and benefits provided by U.S. employers to enhance organizational and employee success by addressing the changing realities of today’s economy, workforce and workplace.”

According to Horn and her SHRM colleagues, findings from the NSE show that employees in more effective and flexible workplaces are more likely than other employees to have:

• greater engagement in their jobs;

• higher levels of job satisfaction;

• stronger intentions to remain with their employers;

• less negative and stressful spillover from job to home;

• less negative spillover from home to job; and

• better mental health.

Workflex as a practice covers a broad range of employee-centric flexibility options that deviate from the standard 9–5 work schedule. Such options could include compressed work weeks; alternative start and stop times; self-scheduling, and so forth.

Flexibility for one organization might look quite different from that of another. Think of manufacturing versus online education. SHRM leaders note that specific flexibility options need to suit the industry and the organization, but that no industry or organization is without its own set of possibilities for flexibility.

Less Stress, Greater Health

The 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce underlined the link between flexibility and health and well-being by showing that employees in more effective and flexible workplaces are more likely than other employees to indicate:

• being in excellent overall physical health;

• a low frequency of minor health problems and sleep problems;

• no indicators of depression; and,

• a low general stress level.

Horn also referenced a Staples survey from 2011 showing that those employees who telecommuted at least one day a week remotely realized 25 percent reduction in stress level, reported being happier, felt more loyal, and noted other positive indicators. These findings might help to address a significant health issue of our times.

“Stress is a major precursor to more serious health conditions that employers care a great deal about,” Horn said.

For those workers who are interested in workflex, Horn has this advice: “Present your request for flexibility, which will help you better navigate your work life, in a way that shows your manager or supervisor that the work will still get done. Workers need to take the business needs into account as well.” In the end, Horn says, “For flex to be successful, it has to work for both employee and employer.”


JiJi Russell, a yoga instructor and Integrative Nutrition health coach, manages the corporate wellness program for American Public University System in Charles Town, W.Va. Reach her at

Cool Dip The Perfect Summer Remedy

By JiJi Russell


Alongside the yoga tradition lies the wonderful world of Ayurveda. Translated as the “science of life,” Ayurveda, which was gleaned from ancient texts of India, lays out a personalized system of health, based on one’s individual body constitution, personality traits, personal preferences, and other characteristics. For those looking to approach diet and lifestyle from a holistic and energetic standpoint, Ayurveda offers a fascinating realm of self-discovery.

Summer time, according to Ayurveda, is the “pitta” time, which correlates with the sun and fire. As a system of balance, Ayurveda aims to bring in what is absent or lacking in order to strike equilibrium. Thus, the summer time heat and activity levels demand cooling foods, water, and quiet respite. Certain foods and activities suit us better than others during the warm season.

If your own nature tends to be “hot and fiery” on top of the hot season, you would certainly benefit from inviting more coolness and balance within. If you are “cooler” in your constitution and nature, then you might relish the idea of soaking up some heat. No matter where your own constitution lies,  here is some general guidance aimed at keeping the “pitta” energy of summer in balance.


Tame the Fire

Ayurveda recognizes six basic “tastes” for food—the rough equivalent to modern-day food groups. The most balancing flavors for cooling our bodies during hot days are bitter, sweet, and astringent, while the most aggravating taste is pungent, otherwise known as spicy.

Within this system, the bitter taste correlates with the elements of air and ether. Foods in this taste category are light, cooling, and dry in nature. The bitter taste is thought to possess powerful detoxifying agents, and has antibiotic, anti-parasitic, and antiseptic qualities.

Examples of bitter foods include green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, and green cabbage; herbs and spices like turmeric, fenugreek, and dandelion root; coffee and less-sweet varieties of fruits.

Sweet foods constitute water and earth elements. Milk, most grains, sweet fruits, and certain cooked vegetables (carrots, potatoes, beets) are considered sweet. These foods increase bulk and moisture in the body.

Astringent foods create a puckering on the tongue, or a dry, chalky feeling. The contracting qualities of these foods can help absorb water, tighten tissues, dry fat, heal skin wounds, and offer antibiotic and antibacterial qualities.

Examples of astringent foods include legumes, lentils, cranberries, pomegranates, pears, dried fruits, broccoli, cauliflower, artichoke, asparagus, and turnip, rye, buckwheat, and quinoa.


Play it Cool

Some cultures have a tradition of retreating for a long mid-day meal and then resting afterward, during the hottest part of the day. If you tend to become overheated in summertime, take this practice on for yourself. Give yourself permission to relax a bit, drink a cool drink, perhaps read or stretch, or simply do nothing for 30 minutes in the middle of your day. You might find it helps you conserve your energy over the longer days of summer.

While summertime offers a wide array of sports and activities to keep us busy and energized, the coolness of water sports lends great balance to our efforts. Swimming and other water activities offer respite from baking-in-the sun field sports. If given the choice, opt for a close proximity to water.

Restorative yoga can also provide a way to tone down the heat and slow down the activity level, just when you need it most. Choose one or two seated or reclining yoga poses you like, and spend five minutes doing each one. Slow your effort and your breath down, and see how your mind and energy level might benefit.


Cool It Now

Food Picks for Beating the Heat

1) Watermelon (sweet): There’s a reason that a super-hydrating, sweet food comes into season just when the temperature rises. The vitamin B in watermelon helps us to maintain our energy over a longer period of daylight; while the water and electrolytes cool and hydrate us.

2) Blueberries (sweet): These North American natives offer many valuable antioxidents and anti-inflammatory compounds. They deliver the sweet taste, with a low glycemic index, meaning that they do not spike blood sugar levels.

3) Lettuces of all kinds (bitter): We all know we need to eat more greens because of their nutrient density and positive impact on digestive and cardio vascular health alone.

4) Celery (bitter/astringent): It can go just about anywhere: salads, stir fries, smoothies, a snack on the go. The crunch provides snacking satisfaction, while the veggie promotes digestive tract health and delivers lots of antioxidants and vitamin K.

5) Cucumbers (astringent): The saying “cool as a cucumber” might hold water. These veggies offer a blank slate for adding spices, oils, and other flavors. They contain many antioxidants and cancer-fighting compounds, and provide a surprisingly refreshing addition to summer smoothies.

6) Quinoa (astringent): Use this as a starting point for a summer pilaf. Chop up your favorite raw or lightly cooked veggies, toss in some spices and seeds, and take this protein-packed salad on the go. Great fiber, folate, manganese, and other goodies inside.


JiJi Russell, a yoga instructor and integrative nutrition health coach, manages the corporate wellness program for American Public University System in Charles Town, W.Va. Reach her at

Wring Out the Old

More Cleansing Practices for Springtime

By JiJi Russell

The peepers peeped. Springtime arrived.

Last month, the snow was still melting when my “spring cleaning” article introduced practices of deep breathing and appropriate seasonal eating (see This month, we’ll explore several yoga poses, a more advanced breathing technique, and a meditation appropriate to the season of detoxification.

Yoga poses, or “asanas,” can be used for everything from calming anxiety to helping ease back pain—yes, the integrative power of yoga runs deep.

Purifying the System

Any yoga pose that puts pressure on the digestive organs can help cleanse and detoxify those organs. Backward bends, forward bends, and twists each fit the cleansing criteria, as they compress and/or stretch the tissues of the stomach, intestines, liver, and gall bladder. When combined with a yogic-style of breathing, the poses offer even greater oxygenation to the cells of the abdominal organs and systems, which helps purify digestive and eliminatory systems overall.

With this month’s spring cleaning focus on yoga poses and an advanced breathing technique, let’s introduce one of the simpler, yet powerful, yoga poses that you can combine with deep breathing.

Knees-to-chest pose 

You can use the seated version if you prefer not to lie down on the floor or ground.

1) Lie down on your back, and stretch your body from fingers to toes. Take a minute to feel yourself relax into the floor, or better yet, into the springtime earth, beneath you.

2) Bend your knees one at a time, and tuck them in toward your stomach and chest. If your shoulders and/or head rise off the floor, place a folded blanket, or a pillow, underneath them. You should feel no strain in the neck, chest, or shoulders.

3) Keep your knees bent, and place your right hand on your right knee “cupping” the knee; keep  your left hand on your left knee (see photo A). Tune into your breath, and recall the deep breathing (see March Observer).

4) Next time you begin to inhale, gently guide your knees away from your belly and chest by extending your arms (see photo B). Leave the hands on your knees the whole time.

5) As you exhale, slowly guide the knees and thighs back toward your belly and chest.

6) Keep up this pattern of breathing and subtle movement so that the pace of your breath matches the pace of your leg movement. Be slow and deliberate.

When you inhale, your belly expands, gently “pushing away” your thighs. As you exhale, the belly and chest flatten out, allowing space for the thighs to return. The hands remain on the knees the whole time.

This is a rhythmic breathing and movement technique that can help to cleanse the internal organs while offering the mental refreshment that comes with deep, conscious breathing. Repeat the technique for three to five minutes, then relax.

Seated knees-to-chest pose

1) Sitting tall in a chair, place your hands on your thighs. If this makes you slump over at all, place a pillow or book on your thighs, with your hands on top of your prop.

2) Next time you begin to inhale, gently press your hands into your thighs and sit taller, allowing the belly to expand as you breathe in.

3) As you exhale, slowly bow forward from the hips, bending your arms as your belly and chest come down toward your legs or pillow.

4) With your next inhalation, slowly rise up again to seated. Repeat instructions 2 and 3 so that the movement of your upper body fits the rhythm of your breathing. (Inhale, sit tall; exhale, bow forward.)

Repeat the technique for three to five minutes, then relax. As with the standard knees to chest pose above, this seated version can help to massage and cleanse the internal organs and offer greater mental clarity.

Reclining twist

Find a pillow or blanket to place beside you on the right you as you come to the floor. Begin by lying on your back, as you did with the knees to chest pose. Stretch yourself out from fingers to toes.

1) Bend your knees one at a time, and tuck them in toward your stomach and chest.

2) Slowly drop the knees, together, over to the right side. They can land on your pillow or blanket, or the floor.

3) Find a comfortable position for your arms. They can stretch out to the sides like a “T”, or they can reach up beyond your head, resting on the floor. They can also bend at the elbow so that your hands cradle the back of your head. Whatever is comfortable for you is the “right” way to place your arms.

4) Make sure there is no tension in your shoulders, neck, or back. What small movements can you make to find greater comfort? Fidget around until you figure out your placement.

5) Once you get settled, take some deep breaths, and feel how your chest and belly, though twisted and compressed, can fill up with your in breath, and release the fullness as you exhale.

Hold for six or more full breaths before you slowly extend your legs and roll to your back. After a moment of rest, repeat on the other side.

The Breath of Champions

One of the secrets of the yoga practice is the power one can unleash with a regular “pranayama” or breathwork practice.

Do this practice on an empty stomach. Take a wide stance, knees bent, hands pressing on the thighs, looking down at the abdomen. Exhaling, pull the abdomen in and up, hold the breath without becoming tense, and then pump the tummy in and out as you hold (without actually inhaling and exhaling while you pump).

When you need to inhale, cease pumping, take a normal breath, exhale, and continue. Start with just a couple of pumpings, then build up to as many as 10 per round.

Have a Seat

Taking a mere three to five minutes to meditate each day can help to clear mental clutter, refresh your focus, and relieve stress. Here is a simple way to sit, breathe, and inquire for a moment as you reach for greater purity and health this spring.

Use the Deep Breathing technique (see March Observer) throughout the meditation. In lieu of the full deep breathing technique, simply breathe as deeply and fully as you can throughout the next three to five minutes, concentrating on smoothing out each inhalation and exhalation.

1) Come to a comfortable seated position. This can take any form, including sitting in a chair, on a sofa, etc. Make sure you have a few pillows on hand so that you can place them under knees, thighs, feet, or any other body part, to make yourself feel more supported and comfortable.

2) Exhale all your breath out and “sink” into your seat. Feel yourself become more heavy and committed to the spot where you sit. Relax your facial muscles, your shoulders, your hips, and any other areas you might discover tension or “holding on.”

4) As you inhale, dynamically reach your spine upward into the back of your skull. Feel your breath fill your whole lung capacity.

5) As you exhale, let out an audible sigh.

6) Repeat this inhale-exhale pattern for about five breaths.

7) Next: Ask yourself what you could “let go” to become more healthy and bright this season. Ask several times, noting the different answers you “hear.” When you find one that rings true for you, let this word accompany each exhalation you make, as you mentally say, “I release ________.”

8) Ask yourself what this release might bring to you or offer you. Again, ask several times and note the answers you hear. When you find one that feels right, let this word accompany each inhalation you make, as you mentally say, “I invite _______.”

Allow this release and invitation to serve as your own personalized mantra for three to five minutes, which sounds like so little time but can truly refresh you when you need a break.

As April and May bring forth their ephemeral gifts of nature, take some time for yourself to reflect on your own ability to become more pure and filled with light this season.

JiJi Russell, a yoga instructor and Integrative Nutrition health coach, manages the corporate wellness program for American Public University System in Charles Town, W.Va. Reach her at

Mirroring the earth’s energy and vitalityToo

The first of a two-part series on springtime cleansing


By JiJi Russell


With the fresh layer of snow that early March delivered, it was hard to believe that springtime loomed. A single, lovely thing reminded me: the light. As if overnight, the light began earlier in the day and lasted longer into the early evening, providing a buttery glow as it reflected off the early-March snow.

And now, spring is definitely poking through. A Clarke County springtime offers a beautiful cool-bright profusion of green renewal.

Springtime also provides some of nature’s best gifts for cleansing. The season gives over more water than the drier winter months, which helps to flush out our lands and bodies alike of winter detritus. And bitter plants, which are known as detoxifying cleansers for animals and humans alike, grow abundantly in springtime.

This two-part series will explore the concept of spring cleansing for your body, mind, and spirit.

What is “cleansing” and why bother?

With all the hype on “clean eating,” juicing, Vitamix-ing, etc., we hear a lot about the importance of cleansing. But how and why did this trend come about? Many philosophies and perspectives weigh in on the question, but let’s keep things simple. Here are two good reasons to cleanse our bodies internally in the springtime.

Reason 1: We tend to eat heavier, perhaps more oily foods in the winter. Starchier fruits and vegetables (think winter squash; bananas) are the foods that have been available more readily in the cold seasons. They tend to add bulk (perhaps inches) to our bodies, which served us well during cyclical times of low agricultural yield. In springtime, you can think of eating lighter in order to slough off some of your own “accumulations” of wintertime.

Reason #2: We are under exposure to a greater number of chemical toxins than ever before. Toxins accumulate in the liver when the liver cannot fully process them; and eventually can come to “rest” in the fat cells. Any time is a good time to consider eating/drinking in a way that will help your body naturally rid itself of toxins.

Coming Out Party

We can bring ourselves into greater alignment with the inherent intelligence of nature by practicing simple yoga poses and targeted breathing techniques, and by eating appropriately, and through meditation. This article introduces a deep, yogic style of breathing and a primer of what to eat in springtime.

Next month, we’ll explore several yoga poses, a more advanced breathing technique, and a meditation appropriate to the season of detoxification. As with any endeavor, setting an intention behind your effort may press you toward greater energy and a more “light filled” presence of being as springtime presses through the earth.

Start Here: Breathe

Always a wise place to begin, conscious breathing offers a continuous massaging action for the digestive organs, as the movement of the diaphragm muscle exerts gentle pressure on these organs. Deep breathing also delivers oxygen to all the tissues and organs of the body, which in turn promotes greater energy and vitality.

Practice diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing” for just five minutes a day (see sidebar), and make note of your observations. This simple technique returns your nervous system to a relaxed state, which is known to help improve digestion and sleep, and helps you to more effectively manage stress.

Whenever you can, as often as you can, notice your breath. Try to slow it down by focusing on elongating your exhalation just slightly. This technique will both enliven and ground you.

Next: Let Food Be Thy Medicine

Eating appropriate foods for the season in a relaxed, unrushed atmosphere provides a key to proper digestion and absorption of nutrients. Important signs of good digestion include regular bowel movements, feeling hungry at regular times, and having a light, energetic feeling in the mind and body after digestion.

Many cookbooks categorize their recipes by season. See resources below for cookbook ideas, and/or hit the farmers market as soon as possible to see for yourself what’s “in season.” If it’s growing in the ground nearby to where you live, it’s an appropriate seasonal food. A shortlist of seasonal foods from a more traditional perspective includes: peas, Swiss chard, water cress, lentils, chicken, quinoa, freshwater fish, and many more. (See Resources section for where to find a complete list.)

The next time you walk outdoors, take note of the seasonal changes around you. Then take a deep breath while you invite your own body, mind, and spirit to reflect the glorious season of springtime.


Learn about local CSAs -

Cookbooks: Great Food Fast by Martha Stewart Living magazine (recipes categorized by season).

The Modern Ayurvedic Cookbook by Amrita Sondhi.

Eat, Taste, Heal, an Ayurvedic Cookbook by Thomas Yarmea, et. al.

The Three Season Diet by Dr. John Douillard ( Spring Grocery List by Dr. John Doulliard (


sidebar: Belly Breathing Technique

This explanation of yogic breathing was adapted from training text written by the Kripalu Yoga Fellowship.

  1. Come into your restorative yoga pose.
  2. Begin taking long, slow, deep breaths through the nostrils.
  3. Focus first on filling the lowest chamber of the lungs so that as you inhale, your belly gently puffs out, and as you exhale, your belly deflates and drops back toward your spine. Work on this portion of the technique for as long as it takes to feel comfortable breathing “into the belly” this way. It may seem contradictory to your usual breathing pattern and might take some practice to master.
  4. Once Step 3 becomes easy for you, expand your awareness of the inhalation into all three chambers of the lungs, first the abdominal region, then the thoracic region, then the clavicular region. Feel each chamber expanding as much as possible as the breath flows through the lower, middle, and upper regions of the lungs in a wave-like motion.
  5. As you exhale, allow the breath to flow out of the lungs like a balloon deflating, in the most relaxed and natural way possible. Just before the end of the exhalation, contract the abdominal muscles, squeezing the residual air out of the lungs so they empty completely.
  6. Continue taking several deep breaths in this way, keeping your body totally relaxed without inducing strain. Let the breaths be smooth, even, and uninterrupted.


JiJi Russell, a yoga instructor and integrative nutrition health coach, manages the corporate wellness program for American Public University System in Charles Town, W.Va. Reach her at

Have Your Snacks, and Eat Them Too

By JiJi Russell


Okay, I’m going to fess up about snacking, right up front. Not too long ago I thought eating snacks was strictly for children—and perhaps those who were interested in gaining weight (yes, such folks do exist). I had become increasingly upset by the American way of justifying eating at any old time, and the seemingly strange recommendation to eat “five mini-meals a day.”

I contended that no other culture on our planet eats this way . . . and no other culture shares our rate of obesity, diabetes, or any number of other chronic diseases and conditions that are contributing to our nation’s downward spiral of health and vitality. Moreover, our ancestors were not able to fuel up on a 300 calorie DRINK while they simultaneously scarfed a doughnut, all after paying for gas at the local convenience store. Why, then, should we do these things?

For several years I tried to purify my digestive system and stabilize my blood-sugar level by eating three meals a day with no snacks. It was a bit tricky at first, but after a month or so, it worked out just fine. It became a habit, and I stayed true to it even when dispensing snacks to the kiddos. A very important piece of learning came out of this long-term habit. I learned to make each of my three daily meals really mean something.

First of all, each meal had to taste good, full of fresh ingredients and herbs and spices (after waiting so long, it better be good). Secondly, I have learned how to pack more nutrition into a plateful of food than I had ever imagined (high-quality nuts, seeds, and oils are great for this). I also figured out how to make all the food I ate “count” toward improving my energy level. If it did not work toward this end, it was out. I always took notes of the good snack suggestions that came my way, but very rarely indulged.

Then something changed.

As a result of slight but uncomfortable joint pain and back injuries, I decided to get onboard with a diet that combats inflammation, a condition that is showing up as a precursor to many maladies. There are many anti-inflammatory diets one can follow. Most focus on eating whole foods, mostly fruits and vegetables. The diets also restrict common inflammatory triggers like sugar.

The diet I follow has a strict instruction to eat three meals a day, plus two snacks. There are specifications for the snacks, and they do have to be comprised of “real” food, primarily fruits and vegetables. But this new way of eating has opened up a new enthusiasm for me. I have discovered some really tasty and satisfying snacks, and I like that I don’t have to compartmentalize my eating. Snacking also has cut down on the portion size of my meals, particularly lunch and dinner.

Since it’s still a new year, and the moment presents itself for new habits, I will share a few favorite finds and creations. Each snack is easy to prepare and requires minimal ingredients. Enjoy!

Curry Roasted Chickpeas

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Drain and rinse one can of chickpeas. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with a high-heat oil (like coconut) to coat evenly. Spread in a single layer and roast until deep brown and crispy, tossing occasionally, 30-40 minutes. Remove and sprinkle with ½ teaspoon of curry powder, a generous pinch of cumin, paprika, garlic powder, and sea salt. Place back in the oven for two to three minutes more. Remove and transfer to a paper-towel lined plate to let cool completely.

Yogurt and Frozen Fruit Treat

Use about 1/2 cup of your favorite plain or vanilla yogurt. Drop in about 1/4 cup of frozen organic berries like blueberries and raspberries. Mix together, allowing the berries to slightly freeze the yogurt. Enjoy while it’s cold (a great substitute for ice cream).

Cannellini Beans with Basil

Drain and rinse a can of cannellini beans. Drizzle two tablespoons of high-quality extra virgin olive oil over the beans, and sprinkle with sea salt and black pepper. Chop or snip a handful of fresh basil (or another herb of your choice) over the beans. Toss gently with a spoon. Eat alone, with crackers, or over a green salad.

Fennel Crunch

Cut a bulb of fennel into strips, then small chunks, to yield about one cup. Sprinkle in about two tablespoons of shelled pistachios (or other nut). Cut up about six olives into quarters. Drizzle with balsamic glaze or olive oil and gently toss.

For snack attacks, stock the ingredients in the following recipes.

Fruit with cocoa-nut butter spread

Take a tablespoon of your favorite nut butter (almond; peanut; cashew; etc.); add a teaspoon of cocoa powder, and smash around with a spoon or fork to mix. Add a few drops of flax or sesame oil to moisten if necessary. Cut up a fresh apple, pear, or banana, and spread the cocoa-nut-butter spread over it for a satisfying snack.

Brown rice cakes with avocado

Take one rice cake and a ripe avocado. Slice the avocado and place the slices generously on the rice cake. Sprinkle with sea salt and/or spices including cumin and paprika.

DIY trail mix

Take a handful of your favorite salty, crispy, snack—mini pretzels, corn chips, rice or seed crackers. Break them up into small bite sizes. Add one tablespoon each of your favorite nut (peanut; almond; pistachio; cashew); raw pumpkin seeds; and dried fruit like currants, raisins, or cherries. Optional: Add about four dark chocolate chips. A trail mix that you make yourself is bound to be more nutritious and less laden with sugar and/or salt than a packaged variety, even the organic brands.

JiJi Russell, a yoga instructor and integrative nutrition health coach, manages the corporate wellness program for American Public University System in Charles Town, W.Va. Reach her at