Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

I’m a sucker for stories that remind me what’s important in life. In the hustle of the day-to-day it can be easy to forget the big picture; an expertly crafted analogy, like yoga practice, can wake me up and shine a light on the richness around me.

Life's Rocks

You’ve probably heard the story about the philosophy teacher who showed her students a jar that represents life. The teacher filled it with three big rocks and asked her students, “Is the jar full?” They said yes.

Then the teacher poured in some pebbles, filling in the gaps around the big rocks. “Now is the jar full?” she asked. The students nodded somewhat uncertainly, getting the sense that the teacher was up to something.

Finally she pulled out a bag of sand and poured it in to fill in the tiny spaces around the rocks, leaving the students nodding so hard that two of them later reported having a headache.

This one’s a bit heavy handed, so you may have already guessed what all this stuff represents. The rocks are life’s essentials: family, health, and relationships. The pebbles are other things that are important to you: work, school, hobbies, and passions. The sand is all the “small stuff:” material possessions, doing laundry, and other minutiae of life.

The lesson? If you fill your jar with sand, you’d never be able to fit the rocks or pebbles in. But as long as you have your rocks, life will be worthwhile.

Yes, wise philosophy teacher. Health and family are important, probably two of my top values.

But.

I also value leaving the house in a shirt that isn’t decorated with my baby’s strawberry hand prints.

Being somewhat contrary, my favorite part about this story is the pause afterwards where I’m trying to figure out all the exceptions to the rule (is it just me who does that?). 

This particular story leaves a distinct aftertaste of guilt. I’m a mom and a business owner. Does that mean that every time I put Bloom before my kids I’m foolishly forgetting my rocks?

Here’s my yogic twist on this story. All life’s things – rocks, pebbles, and sand – are important. The key is learning to pay attention to what’s important RIGHT NOW. It’s the difference between having a jar that represents your life overall vs. a jar that represents one hour, one day, or one week of your life.

For this hour, being timely about getting my strawberry-stained shirt into the laundry before I forever have little red fingers decorating a formerly white blouse is priority #1. Cuddling with my daughter is one of my favorite things, but unless I want to get a new wardrobe every week (or wear stained clothes every day), right now it can’t be a rock.

For this day, I’ll hug my kids and tell them why it’s important for me to be gone the entire afternoon and evening so I can celebrate our two yoga teacher training graduations, even if that means missing family dinner. Family dinner is a top priority for me, but today is a special day to celebrate the accomplishments of our amazing graduates. 

For this week, in order to get out the door in time to make it to the restorative yoga training I’m attending in the suburbs, I’ll need to forgo my usual morning yoga practice or run. When I don’t make adequate time for my health on a consistent basis, I feel lousy. But this training will enable me to share the powerful health benefits of conscious relaxation with so many people, so it’s worth sacrificing my usual routine for a few days (as long as I get back to it when the training’s done).

Long term, health and family are what matters. Of course. It doesn’t take a philosophy degree to understand that. But the daily life picture of what’s important is far from static. Rather than guilting myself, I’ve decided it’s more useful to hone my observation skills so I can identify the shifting priorities, the changing “rocks,” as they arise.

Yoga practice, above all its other benefits, teaches me to pay attention to what I need on a moment-to-moment basis. Each time I’m reminded to take a deep breath, my unruly mind with all its swirling activity and distraction is momentarily brought back to right now. After a deep breath and some reconnection time on my mat, the picture gets impeccably clear. Only then can I identify what this moment’s “rocks” are – more rest or more activity, more work time or more family time, more laundry or more cuddling. 

So yes, keep your rocks at the front of your mind. You can check in with those important things on a regular basis (weekly, monthly, quarterly?). But also give yourself permission to identify what’s important for this moment, hour, and day, so you can choose to prioritize your changing rocks without guilt.

There. I woke up before my big kids did, asked my husband to be on morning breakfast duty for our baby, and I finished this. Now if you’ll excuse me, this weekend’s rocks involve family, beach, and fireworks.

 

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b2ap3_thumbnail_MeditationforEverydayLiving.jpgThe first time I tried meditating, I was 20 years old and pretty impressed with myself. I was a relatively new but 100% committed yoga student, and my teachers had made it clear that meditation was something I should do if I was serious about this yoga business. I solemnly rolled out my yoga mat in a tiny corner of my tiny New York City apartment, lit a candle, and sat there with closed eyes trying to figure out if I was doing it “right.” 

After a few minutes of being berated by my inner critic for not being able to stop thinking about that night’s dinner menu or the conversation I’d just finished with my mom, I blew out the candle and convinced myself that maybe I just wasn’t ready.

For my next attempt, I attended a group meditation at my local yoga studio, a musty 2nd floor walk-up with a fireplace and om signs everywhere. We were given a brief overview of what meditation was (“a vehicle for enlightenment”), then we were instructed to find a meditation posture (lotus was best, we were told) and stay completely still for 30 minutes. 

Ready, go! 

About 15 minutes in my legs were tingling, and within 20 minutes I was in excruciating pain. It felt like someone was stabbing the soles of my feet. I snuck a few peeks around the room to see if anyone else felt like they were dying, but they all seemed perfectly serene, so I sucked it up and just tried to shift position a little to make it tolerable. By the time the teacher rang the bells to signal we were finished, I could barely move my legs and decided that meditation, unlike the serenity my teachers described, was scary and painful.

I’ll admit it. With meditation, there’s really no such thing as being better at it than someone else. But this week when I was teaching yoga to my daughter’s 1st grade class in the gorgeous prairie garden outside her school, it occurred to me that kids get mindfulness in a way that I’m only now discovering 20 years into my yoga practice.

I arrived at the school garden ready to teach a boisterous animal-themed yoga practice that was all about moving quickly, making fun and silly sounds, and playing games. But as I was talking to the 1st graders before class about what yoga is and why it’s helpful, the first benefit they listed was relaxation. Not the response I’m used to when talking with people about yoga; usually the focus is on the flexibility bit, aka bending into a pretzel.

“Have any of you done yoga before?” I asked. All but two kids raised their hands. (Yoga’s come a long way in the last 20 years; when I first got into it my family worried I had joined a cult.)

As I told the kids my plan for our time together – breathing exercises, poses, then games – one boy interrupted me. “Can we meditate? I love meditating!”

Another boy chimed in, “I’m awesome at meditation,” and he sat up super tall, closed his eyes, and struck jnana mudrab2ap3_thumbnail_LittleMeditators.JPG (it looks like the OK sign). Several other kids joined him.

I couldn’t contain my smile. It blew my mind that the kids knew what meditation was and that it was now considered a cool thing. So I scrapped the games and said, “After we do some breathing and poses, we can sit on the logs and meditate,” like I was promising dessert if they ate a good dinner.

Throughout the breathwork and poses, they were focused little yogis who had lots of commentary to share: 

“This is easy!”

“I do yoga in my living room.”

“I’ve balanced on one leg for four minutes before.”

When it came time for dessert, I asked everyone to find a spot on the logs and pick a comfy position. Some sat cross legged, some didn’t. Most hadn’t tried meditation before, but they all followed my cues to sit up tall and close their eyes. As I guided them through a very simple “Special Place” meditation, they were quiet and still and attentive.

I’d bet that none of these kids, even the awesome meditators in the group, has ever been taught an official meditation technique or forced themselves to hold a painful position in the hopes of reaching enlightenment, but instinctively they get it. After a couple minutes, I gently brought them out, and we checked in about how they felt.

Their responses: relaxed, calm, in a special place, sleepy.

Some might argue that 2 minutes is nothing and that these eager 1st graders weren’t really meditating. I used to be one of those stalwarts who insisted that if I hadn’t read the technique in a book, it wasn’t valid.

I just don’t buy it anymore.

I think that any mindfulness practice, however long, is beneficial and beautiful and worthy of the big M word. Today’s little yogis are at a huge advantage having had exposure to even small bites of yoga and meditation by the age of 7. And I think all of us can learn from these wise little teachers. 

When you love something, when it’s really important to you, set it free from your own expectations. Don’t wait – just like you don’t need to get fit or flexible before starting yoga, you don’t necessarily need to wait for a peaceful, candlelit room to try meditation. 

Just start small. 

And then, be awesome at it.

 

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While driving out to the suburbs for a cousin’s birthday party a few weeks ago, I readied my answer to the quintessential kid-in-the-car question. Depending on my mood, my answer can be compassionately accurate (“It’ll be a while – maybe another 30 minutes”) or sassily sarcastic (“I hope we’ll make it by dinnertime tomorrow”).

As an adult, I’ve grown out of needing to continually wonder when we will arrive at our destination, mostly thanks to Google Maps, but also because I’ve come to realize that life is a journey and blah, blah, blah. But when I’m not in one of my sassy moods, I can completely empathize with my kids’ question, both because I was an “Are we there yet?” kid myself, and also because I still get that same sort of unease during in-between moments as an adult.

My family is moving back to our house in a matter of days. We’ve been out for a year while renovations were being done, during which time we also welcomed our newest family member. So it’s been a full year, to say the least.

b2ap3_thumbnail_InBetween_20160428-142745_1.jpgOur life right now is boxes, tape, and Sharpies; it’s deciding what to keep, what to find a new home for, and what to donate; it’s not being able to find some crucial something that has inexplicably been packed away too early despite our best efforts at strategic packing plans (why did I think I wouldn’t need my yoga props this week??!?!?).

This is an uncomfortable place to be. Not really because of the boxes and the not finding stuff, although that’s certainly part of it. More because we’re not really here, and not really there. We’re nowhere. In-between.

Yesterday, despite the fact that there’s still plenty of packing to do, I needed to make time for yoga. And of course I couldn’t find my mat, so I just rolled myself out on the hardwood floor.

Lying on my back, I contemplated the in-between, practicing being comfortable there. I began to deepen my breath. I practiced being completely there to watch the way my rib cage expanded to accommodate the breath, and on the exhalation I practiced letting go of the effort of breathing. With my eyes closed, accompanied by my familiar friend the breath, I was at home, despite my bare, boxed surroundings.

At the top of a deep inhalation, I paused for a moment. There I was – not in the inhale, not in the exhale. I was hanging out in some other place, a quiet state where I could feel my hearbeat, a pulse in my belly. I took a long, slow exhalation and paused at the bottom, noticing a feeling of emptiness, of grounding, and a slight panic: is this enough? will I ever inhale again? Of course, it’s okay, I soothed. And then the cycle began again.

Life is full of these in-between moments, in big and small ways. There are job changes, times of illness or loss, relationship shifts, welcoming a baby, and of course, the ever fun home renovations and moves.

These moments are when we need to rely on some kind of inner sense of home, a strength that helps us feel unshakable even on unfamiliar ground. For me that means yoga, and my breath specifically. It’s the constant, the thing that has been with me from the day I was born, a tool I’ve learned to wield as a yoga-practicing adult, and it will be my daily companion until the day I die. 

Over the years, I’ve been here, I’ve been there, I’ve been in-between. I know I won’t have time to roll out my mat (if I could even find it….) on moving day. The truck comes at 8am and we’ll be going non-stop until we fall into bed in our new environment with all its unfamiliar sounds. But fortunately my breath doesn’t need to be packed away, so I’ll know just where to find my yoga that day.

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After missing my beloved Mom & Baby Yoga class today because a certain 8-month-old someone decided to take a 2.5 hour power nap, I was faced with the classic yogi’s dilemma. The day’s self-care hopes were riding on that class and though life got in the way of me getting there, I still really needed yoga. I cycled through the familiar stages of home practice denial:

I’ll just do a 75-minute class at home while my baby girl plays contentedly nearby!  

First I’d better just make sure there’s nothing urgent in the old inbox.

I can’t concentrate with those dishes dangerously piled up in the sink.

Look at the time! Maybe I can squeeze a practice in later.

It’s remarkably easy to rationalize your way out of self-care. If it seems like there’s always something else competing for your attention, that’s because there is. Just like your thoughts never completely stop when you meditate, everyday life stuff doesn’t take a day off just because you’re trying to make time to do something good for yourself.

I’ve been in the self-care game for 20 years now, so I know my “tells” backwards and forwards at this point. As the clock kept ticking and my school pick-up deadline loomed, I got grumpy over the fact that my chances for a full practice were slipping away. I moped about how blah I felt for a little while, debated an outfit change so my yoga clothes would stop mocking my lack of yogaing, then tried to flash forward to consider how I’d feel at pick-up time based on the choice I was about to make in that moment.b2ap3_thumbnail_YogaTime.jpg

Sometimes a few deep breaths are enough to get me through the blahs. But on this particular day, I needed to work out some serious kinks. Every one of my muscles craved warmth and work, and my spine needed to remember that it’s more than the sum of all its articulating parts. I’m normally a super slow warmer-upper, and I now only had 25 minutes before I needed to leave to pick up the kids. Was it even worth rolling out my mat?

I decided not to waste another moment wondering.

I set a timer for 25 minutes and got to work. I skipped the long lead-in and managed to roll many of my favorite warm-ups into the active work of the practice. Each grateful breath I took reinforced that this was way, way better than killing 25 minutes on email or clean-up (or worse, email clean-up). 

Accompanied by the soundtrack of my chattering daughter, I managed to condense and focus my practice to build all the way up to full wheel pose, and it was glorious. I kept checking the clock to so I’d have enough time to wind down and get a brief savasana in. Afterwards I opened my eyes, stretched from fingers to toes, and rolled over to sit up. Those 25 minutes felt completely different than if I had let the to-dos of daily life just fill up that time.

It’s weird that my concept of “what I have time for” varies based on the activity. Why is it that I can always, always squeeze in computer stuff? But somehow self-care activities seem like they’ll take longer than my available window of time?

So here’s my new practice: rather than conceptualizing time in terms of a number of available minutes, I’ll picture them in terms of potential yoga practices. As in, I have a viparita karani until I need to go pick up the kids, or I have 5 sun salutes before my meeting. 

I’ll keep on scheduling yoga classes into my calendar and hopefully life (aka a sweet baby) won’t too often sabotage, but it feels good to remember that a missed class isn’t a completely missed yoga opportunity. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I only have a few deep breaths before it’s time to start dinner.

 

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I go through the full range of emotions each time I visit the dentist. The before and after is comical – I walk in feeling self-conscious about all the things my dentist told me to do after the last appointment which I’ve neglected, and as she reclines me in the chair I cross my fingers and hope I’ll be lucky enough to avoid any cavities or issues. Afterwards, I leave with a spring in my step, clutching my little white bag filled with dental goodies, solemnly promising myself to approach toothbrushing as a mindfulness practice and do that rinse the hygienist keeps recommending. I want to be a model dental citizen, I want my next checkup to be quicker and more painless, and my dentist’s cheerful voice echoes in my head reminding me to “only care for the teeth I want to keep.” I want to keep them all!

Post-checkup, I’m 100% committed to my teeth. For a week. But soon I’m back to my usual distracted morning brushing while stuffing a lunchbox in my son’s backpack, and can’t be bothered to even think about a rinse. The inspiration, while strong immediately after having spent an hour in a chair with metal tools poking at my teeth and gums, fades all too quickly when I get back to the flurry of everyday life.

How does exactly does the “dentist effect” work?

And how can you harness its power to inspire more consistent commitment to your yoga practice?b2ap3_thumbnail_DentistEffect.jpg

When you have a rough trip to the dentist, it’s intensely motivating because you tell yourself you’ll do anything to avoid that discomfort again. But when you’re not there, surrounded by the whizzing and whirling of all the equipment, it’s easy to forget how important your mundane daily tooth care routines are. It takes the big event of a check-up to remind you that, seriously, it’s not okay to have a midnight snack and go to bed without brushing.

In class yesterday, it occurred to me that yoga has a similar, but opposite effect. Instead of motivating you to avoid pain, yoga inspires you to practice so you can keep the good feelings going. I’ve never left a yoga class where I didn’t feel better than when I started.  

When I’m on my mat, it’s natural to breathe deeply and be mindful. For that hour I feel great, connected. My focus is on caring for my body, the only vehicle I get for the rest of my life. By the final Namaste, I try to imprint the feeling so I’ll hold on to the inspiration to come back to it again soon. It’s like when your teacher asks you to notice how you feel after practicing one side of a pose. It’s dramatic, though admittedly more subtle than the aversion to pokey dental tools, but the more you practice noticing how awesome you feel after yoga, the easier it is to consistently come back to the mat. 

Don’t let the inspiration fade. You only go to the dentist a couple of times a year (if you’re lucky), but you can step on your yoga mat at least once or twice a week, or even just take a deep breath every single day.  Each time I practice yoga, the deep breathing and conscious movement and inner quiet I cultivate are reminders to pay attention and take better care. I’m not waiting for life’s cavities to come find me, and I’m certainly not leaving something as important as my physical, mental, and emotional health to luck or crossed fingers.

 

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