Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

Self-care is my thing, but I didn’t always know it. 

I credit my husband Zach with helping me figure it out almost 10 years ago when I was pregnant with our first child. One afternoon I was moping around the house, complaining of feeling tired and blah, and he turned to me and said, “Did you do yoga? Have you exercised? How long has it been since your last massage?”

I sputtered a few excuses and rolled my eyes at him the way you do when someone has so clearly pinpointed a truth that you’ve overlooked. But then I got over myself and did some yoga, took my big belly out for a brisk walk, and came home with a huge smile on my face. “I feel like a human being again!” I said, wrapping my arms around him.

“That’s your formula,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious.”

Since then, I’ve embraced the formula and become something of a self-care ambassador. And no, it’s not about trying to convert everyone to yoga and massage. Not one to lightly use expressions like “life-changing,” I’m just passionate about helping people discover how great it is to find your own unique and systematic way to consistently feel good. And while I used to be a yoga evangelist, I’ve since realized that we all need different tools in our self-care toolbox.b2ap3_thumbnail_Self-Care_20160203-161718_1.jpg

Last week I facilitated a self-care workshop, and my favorite part was when everyone shared what self-care looked like to them. There was some overlap among the group’s go-to techniques, but plenty of ideas that were unique and refreshing looks at how to prioritize health and wellbeing. And you know what’s cool? The ease with which the participants rattled off their self-care rituals showed that we’re all pretty good at identifying the tools. Consistently using them is another story.

In many ways, self-care is actually less about exercise or spa days and more about a mindset shift. It’s a commitment to prioritizing rest and down time, learning when to say “no” (or “not now”), and having sufficient support in place to ensure you can not only get through the day, but do so with grace and ease and enough juice left in your battery that you’re ready for tomorrow.

Just wanting to make self-care happen isn’t enough. Just think about how many times you’ve heard friends (or yourself) complain that they just can’t seem to make time for themselves. From where I’m standing, 10+ years into a dedicated self-care practice, I believe that if your self-care routine is failing, one of three things is going wrong:

1.You haven’t identified the right self-care routines for you.

2.You’ve identified the right routines but haven’t worked out realistic logistics for your life.

3.The routines are right, but you’re missing another key piece of the self-care puzzle.

I’m working on #3 right now. I’ve figured out my routines and I’m no longer trying to force them to work in an unrealistic way – for the moment I’ve accepted the fact that waking up at 6am for a quiet home yoga and meditation practice is just not going to happen while I’m a sleep-deprived mom of a 6 month-old. I’ve been a regular in our Mom & Baby classes and manage to squeeze in a home restorative pose or 5 minute breathing and meditation practice as little miss allows.

So it’s been frustrating that despite an unwavering commitment to my yoga, exercise, and massage self-care routines, lately I’ve still been feeling like I’m constantly on the verge of running out of battery.

The key piece of the puzzle for me, I’ve finally realized, is getting more help with my sweet baby so I can have ample time for work, self-care, and rest. This is a big step considering the fact that when my first two kids were babies I rarely used babysitters and prided myself on holding a sleeping baby while responding to emails one-handed. Sheesh, we all have our weakness, right?

Here’s to creating space and time for self-care, having adequate support, and not making yourself crazy. I look forward to watching my self-care routines work their magic once I have a better reserve in my batteries. I’m due for my monthly massage any day now and I ache a little every time I walk past the massage room at the studio. Once you train your body to love feeling good, it just wants to maintain that feeling. It’s a healthy addiction, and I hope you catch it!

 

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Since seeing my 94 year-old grandmother struggle to get out of her wheelchair at a holiday party, I’ve been contemplating new goals for the time I spend on my yoga mat. My grandma is famously hearty, spunky, and self-sufficient, and up until a year ago she lived on her own and walked up and down a long flight of stairs multiple times every day. Last year at the holidays, I recall her bending down to pick up a tiny piece of lint on the floor. I should have known she’d slow down eventually, but she’s been healthy, active, and self-sufficient for so long, I was starting to think she’d always be that way. How could so much change in less than a year? 

Aging is invisible, made even more so by the fact that we want to deny it’s happening. As I’m approaching 40 I’m both grateful for my relative youth and irritated that I now have to think about my form when loading the dishwasher if I want to avoid a backache. 

Inspired by my amazingly tough grandma and my desire to continue loading the dishwasher pain-free, I’m rethinking my yoga goals. Yes, it’s awesome that each and every time I practice I come off the mat feeling like a million bucks (or as I sighed after class the other day, “I feel like a human being again!”). But that’s just not enough for me anymore.   

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I’ve been all over the map in my 20 year yoga career. Having come from an athletic background, I started yoga with an overly vigorous, push-push-push mentality. Then after a few years (and a few too many injuries) I swung in the opposite direction and pretty much refused to do anything that risked me breaking a sweat or didn’t involve a bolster. 

From what I’ve observed in my years of teaching, many practitioners tend toward the same black-or-white approach, sticking with classes that match their natural inclinations on the mat. If you’re a vigorous yogi, you’re probably a regular in challenging vinyasa-style classes that build heat, throw in a few arm balances, and just generally kick your butt. If you’re a gentler yogi, you’re likely a pro at modifying poses, your bolster is your best friend, and in your eyes there’s no such thing as too many restorative poses. 

If you’re looking to yoga to support your aging process, which approach is better: vigorous or gentle?  

The answer (at least for me) is both. 

There’s plenty of conflicting scientific evidence and absolutely no guarantees as to the secret formula for aging well. But my money’s on a balanced approach that combines the vigorous and the gentle. In this approach, yoga is not about trying to improve or impress, but more importantly, to maintain. Whatever I can do today, I want to be able to do tomorrow, next month, next year, next decade. 

It takes a delicate balance to figure out when to push yourself and when to take it easy on the mat. Too strict an approach and you’re likely to injure yourself or burn out; too lax and you’ll gradually lose ground.  

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Think of the last time you practiced a long hold in chair pose. In order to build muscle strength you need to hold the pose until you begin to feel some sensation in your legs, but if you go too deep or hold too long, you’ll probably hold your breath, create unnecessary tension, or even strain yourself.  

Chair is a love-it or hate-it pose for most yoga students. I used to be a chair hater, mostly because the pose was hard for me, but eventually I realized that if I wanted to stay strong and mobile as I age, any pose that’s hard should become my best friend. Now, even in my gentle yoga classes, I sequence in gentle strengthening poses and incorporate a little bit of challenge into every practice (interspersed with plenty of delicious restorative moments).  

Here’s a cool scientific tidbit: Strength, especially leg strength, has recently been proven to be an important factor in improving brain health and slowing age-related decline. And there’s plenty of evidence touting the benefits of triggering the body’s relaxation response to reduce the chronic impact of stress on the body and mind. 

Scientific studies (and awesome grandmas) are giving us the formula. We just need to implement it: work a little, relax a little, aaahhh a little. 

So how can you bring your own practice more into balance?  

You don’t have to ditch your favorite class or completely overhaul your approach. But you may want to take an honest look at whether your yoga practice is just improving upon your strengths and ignoring your weaknesses? 

Maybe you crave the muscle burn from a long hold in warrior I, but when it’s time to lie still in savasana you want to crawl out of your skin. Or on the other hand, perhaps you’re the person who just “comes for the savasana” and barely tolerates anything more vigorous than that.  

Observe the yogi that you are today and consider adding either a new class that focuses on the opposite approach, or simply challenge yourself to fully embrace the parts of your favorite class that are particularly hard for you. There are no guarantees, of course, but my hunch is that rounding your yoga out will serve you well as you age. 

May we all live to be spunky 90+ year-olds who bend down to pick up lint off the floor; may we learn when to challenge ourselves and when to soften; and may we use our yoga practice for the good of our aging selves, so we can unload the dishwasher without pain rather than waking up one day and wondering how our bodies have suddenly, over the course of so many years, betrayed us.

 

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When faced with a cheese-crusted casserole dish that requires some serious scrubbing, what do you do? I’ve long been a fan of the procrastinator’s approach masked by the kind of squeaky clean optimism only found in dishwashing detergent commercials. “This dish will be so much easier to clean after it’s soaked for a good long time,” I rationalize as I’m filling it with hot, soapy water. “That crustiness will come right off!”b2ap3_thumbnail_Soaking.jpg

A few minutes of soaking can definitely be helpful. But the longer I leave the crustiness, the harder the job seems in my mind, so eventually the next morning I’m faced with a dish full of cold, murky water (which the smiling women in the commercials never tell you how to handle).

What does your dishwashing style have to do with anything, you might be wondering?

We’re approaching the number one time of the year for procrastination masked by optimism. Yes, it’s only December and talking about New Year’s resolutions now is a little like stores putting out Christmas decorations right after the back-to-school stuff comes down. But maybe that’s the point. 

I’m sure you’re nauseatingly familiar with the common themes for New Year’s resolutions: getting fit, losing weight, watching less TV, picking up a new hobby, etc. The media reminds us every January that we could be improving ourselves in so many ways (same to you, media).

What if you headed your resolutions off before January this year? What if this year you listened to an inspiration you have to make one small change in your daily life: go to bed 20 minutes earlier, include vegetables at lunch and dinner, take 3 deep breaths every day, find a way to move your body that you actually enjoy, make eye contact with humans more often than with screens. What if you started today instead of waiting for the New Year’s media push to set in?

Resolutions left till January are like scrubbing a crusty pot of cold, murky water. Our crustiness accumulates all day, year after year. Wouldn’t it be better tackled when the inspiration was hot?

The smiling dishwashing detergent ladies have one thing right: they just keep scrubbing. Some things in life simply take diligent, repetitive work. Whether the task at hand is scrubbing a crusty dish or making the decision to go to bed earlier, the decision of when to start is up to you. But keep in mind that the longer you wait, the colder the water and the bigger the task becomes in your mind.

Here’s to your health, happiness, and to identifying your own crusty spots so you can tackle them right away (every day) rather than letting them sit to soak indefinitely.

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When my 3 month-old daughter fussed during Mom & Baby Yoga class this week and the mom on the mat next to me smiled in support, I knew it was worth all the effort of getting there.

I almost hadn’t made it to class that day. The scene at home in the hour beforehand was the typical new mom war zone: I’d been keeping her fussiness at bay all morning and as I was getting her into the carrier she spit up all over me, but at this point I just consider spit-up another accessory. Then she turned on her baby A-game when an inconveniently-timed but urgently-needed diaper change meant I’d be arriving 5 minutes late to class. In all the chaos a part of me rationalized that maybe I should just try for a home practice and get her (or both of us?) a nap. But realistically I knew staying home would just mean the same level of fussiness for her, no yoga for me, and some distracted email checking that would leave me feeling physically and emotionally drained.

You don’t need to have a fussy baby at home to relate to how difficult it can be to get to class. 

In many ways your computer or smartphone can be every bit as demanding as a newborn. 

That blast of spam that fills up your inbox and clutters your mind is a spit-up surprise on your favorite shirt as you’re getting ready to walk out the door. The huge project with a deadline of yesterday is the diaper that demands to be changed NOW, or else. And, oh look, here comes yet another hilarious joke forward from Dad! It’s embarrassing, it’s inappropriate……there’s no newborn equivalent for that one – it’s just plain fun times.

I used to feel silly scheduling yoga classes into my calendar, but I’ve found it really helps me prioritize self-care when the demands of either my newborn or my virtual life threaten to take over.

What’s the alternative? If these babies and emails had their way, we’d never leave the house. We’d sit at home covered in spit-up or bathing in the glow of a computer screen. Neither babies nor emails have a great sense of timing, and they don’t tend to cooperate just because you sort of want to go to yoga class. 

You have to have conviction, you have to promise yourself that you can and will make time to do something good for your mind, body, and heart.

“It’s time to go to class,” I firmly tell my baby (and my computer). “I need yoga today.” I may be going slightly crazy, but somehow this helps. I believe myself when I hear how determined I sound.

After almost 20 years of practicing, I can say this with certainty: I always feel better after going to yoga class. Always.

It’s incredibly life-affirming to be in a room with a bunch of people who are moving and breathing and doing something good for themselves (with, I might add, not a smart phone in sight….what a pleasant novelty!). It’s humanizing to gather together for the purpose of taking good care.

Email never stops and newborns never stop, so I often second-guess myself when something threatens to derail the plan. But I’ve come to expect this now. 

“Just go,” I tell myself. “Just show up. That’s all you have to do, and you’ll feel better.”

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At this week’s Mom & Baby Yoga class, my daughter needed to be held for a good portion of the class, so I warriored and triangled with her in my arms. Yoga isn’t a magic cure for baby fussiness or the mommy blahs, but there is something magical about the experience of being led through a practice by a thoughtful, nurturing teacher. It’s a rare thing – a low-tech group experience that is intimately personal, a collective practice of connecting to the self, a chance to listen and breathe and get quiet.

As class began to wind down and we were preparing to settle into savasana, I couldn’t stop smiling at the other moms and babies in class. My baby girl and I shared a sweet few moments of rest together before the teacher brought class to a close. I looked around the room and felt proud. We all did it: we made it to class, despite dozens of potential obstacles, and we were part of this beautiful group experience that we created together, in the moment.

After class I scooped up my daughter and props and belongings, thanked my teacher, and headed for the door. I felt better, as expected. Much better. And by the time I got home and the demands of my baby and my emails started up again, they somehow felt a little less demanding.

 

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I can’t help but beat myself up when it happens. “I just wanted to see what an old friend was up to,” I tell myself. “Where did the last hour go?”

With a two-month-old baby as my “helper,” my work time is precious. Today I put her down for a nap and crack open the old laptop not knowing whether I’ll have 20 minutes or two hours to tackle all the things I want to get done.

“Okay,” I say, clapping my hands together. “Let’s get to work!” 

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But I can’t be expected to just jump into the real work right away. It’s going to be a little tricky, I tell myself, and I don’t want to strain myself. I wouldn’t pop up into full wheel pose without warming up first, would I?

I start by ticking off a few emails and feel a sense of accomplishment as I’m paring down my inbox, but soon I’ve found myself reading the latest YogaDork newsletter (it’s yoga related, I tell myself, so that still counts as work). Then I’m clicking on a link to an article about plank pose variations, which reminds me I need to post the photos from our first day of teacher training on our group’s Facebook page. You know what happens from here – it’s a rabbit hole of reminiscing over an old friend’s throwback Tuesday pic, jealousy over vacation photos (….like I’d even WANT to go to Italy), and a sloppy mess of emotions as I simultaneously seek to satisfy my curiosity about other people’s lives while sinking deeper into despair with each voyeuristic look into another “internet perfect life.” At some point I snap out of it and reopen the utterly stark whiteness of a new Word doc and face the fact that I have no idea what to write. Minutes later I hear whimpers on the baby monitor and realize I’ve unintentionally blown the last hour avoiding the only thing I really needed to do this morning.

We yoga teachers talk a lot about intention. We’re also fond of preaching the benefits of about taking your practice off the mat. But what does that really mean? Does it mean serenely practicing tree pose while you wait for the train? Saying “Namaste” when you greet a friend? Maybe, but there are more mundane (and yet profound) ways you can take your practice into everyday life, and for the most part it has nothing to do with asana (aka the postures that yoga is best known for today). Asana, after all, is just one limb of the eight-limbed practice of yoga. And truthfully, it’s way harder to be intentional in the course of an average day than it is while practicing postures in the relative peace and quiet of your friendly neighborhood yoga studio.

When I’m working up to wheel pose on the mat, I can spend a good 30 minutes systematically preparing my body and breath without the distractions of email, the internet, my phone, or the demands of my family drawing me away from the task at hand. In order to be able to practice the pose safely, I’ll have to fire up my core, warm up my spine, engage the strength of my legs, and cultivate openness in my shoulders, chest, and hip flexors. I treat the practice and the process with an almost sacred respect (although I never take it too seriously…..it’s just a little yoga after all!), and while my thoughts may wander or my body may be more or less responsive, depending on the day, intentionality is woven into the fabric of on-the-mat practice. 

Compare this to my attempted naptime work session, or to any of the dozens of things you do in the course of an average day. There are very few sacred moments or spaces, limited cues to slow down and breathe deeply, and a whole lot of ways you can unintentionally lose yourself down the virtual rabbit hole.

Cue grumbling about the evils of today’s multi-tasking world. Or maybe instead this can be a way to see if yoga can do more for you than just impressing your friends with your ability to literally bend over backwards. 

When I first started almost 20 years ago, I spent a lot of time shaking and sweating my way through poses that are relatively easy for me now because I’ve trained my muscles and established the habit of practicing with intention. But now more than ever I need intentionality off the mat to help me focus on what really matters amidst all the distractions of a typical day.

Tomorrow when I sit down at my computer I’ll draw on the discipline that helps me sustain a long hold in chair pose even when I’d rather just practice flop-asana. I’ll pause and take a breath before automatically bounding into the all-consuming world of Facebook; like my tendency to poke my front ribs out in backbends, it may be familiar and comfortable at first, but in the long run it’s probably not the best thing for me. I’ll undoubtedly screw up many more times and forget myself and my intention to not get lost in virtual land, but just as my wheel pose got better with continued practice, I’m sure my off-the-mat work will, too. 

 

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