Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

Posted by on in Family

 

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Just a few weeks ago, I had a person in my belly. Now that person, a little girl, the fifth member of our family, is sleeping a few feet away from me. She’s decidedly her own person, both independent and also completely dependent on me. After sharing space with me for 9 months, she made her exit into a world in which she has to learn, step-by-step, how to do everything. Everything. Breathing is new, digesting is new, controlling limbs is new and initially impossibly difficult. In our family, we call her frenetic arm movements “playing the bongos.”

What can you say about something that is so profound and yet so incredibly common? In the time it took you to read that sentence, four more babies were born.

Sure, there’s the typical territory, but to me the most notable things about the newborn days are not the sleep deprivation or how hard it is to find time to take a shower. What amazes me is the fact that within days of my third child’s birth I simultaneously felt an overwhelming love and a paralyzing fear.

A week before my due date, I wrote about the joy of waiting and not-knowing. Baby girl took the post  to heart because she kept us waiting and not knowing for two weeks past her due date! During those bonus weeks I did lots of yoga and meditation, took walks, enjoyed weekly massages and nightly baths, and just generally tried to savor the in-between while also doing all the things people tell you to do to get your baby out. Contractions would start and kick up in intensity, then they’d stop. I wanted nothing more than to make sense of the patterns and figure out what exactly I needed to do to give this kid her eviction notice.

The night before I went into labor the waiting finally got to me. I tearily told Zach I wanted to “take the night off,” so I pretended I wasn’t desperately hoping to have a baby and instead we watched “The Big Lebowski.”

The next morning I did a sweet meditation and a wiggly yoga practice that veered from the usual sequence of poses that had kept me feeling so great throughout my pregnancy. The practice was mostly hip circles and other organic movements that just felt right at the moment, and it tuned me into a different sort of mindfulness. 

Contractions finally began that afternoon and as I labored through the evening and deepened my breath to match the increasing intensity, I felt the echoes of my yoga and meditation practice and a connection to an intuition I hadn’t experienced with my other two births. I let go of attachment to where I was in the process or how long labor would last and instead just did my best to surrender one contraction at a time. My strong baby girl was born that evening 5 hours after the first contraction and just 1.5 hours after we arrived at the birth center.

For the first few days after her birth I embraced the fluidity of life with a newborn and was simply overflowing with gratitude: for our thriving baby girl, for my wonderful husband, for our doula, for our midwives, for the luck of having a healthy pregnancy and beautiful birth, for the support of our friends and family, and for the immediate love big brother and big sister showed for their new sibling.

But on about day four, all that poetically intuitive stuff went out the window and I had my first new mom anxiety dream where I couldn't find my baby after having brought her to a party. Then my overthinking, control-seeking mind tried to push its way back in between feedings and changings. “When will she get on a nap schedule?” “How long before she smiles?” “Should I take her for a walk in the stroller or sling?”  

My first instinct was to pump google for answers, but I stopped myself. It’s been 6 years since we’ve parented a newborn, but I still vividly remember days wasted crying over this stuff. The intensity of the love I’ve felt for each of my children took me to new heights of fear and self-doubt. What if I do everything wrong and mess up this perfect little being? How can I keep her from getting sick or hurt? What if every other mother in the world knows something I don’t?

As baby girl sleeps today I get on the mat to breathe and move to remind myself that as long as I’m taking care of her basic needs, none of these seemingly pressing questions really matters. I remind myself that the newborn phase is all about creating a strong attachment, and attachment naturally leads to a fear of loss of love. This new mom business is tough - the emotions are so raw and real and close to the surface.

These first few weeks as my body recovers from birth and I'm adjusting emotionally to this massive change in our family's life, my yoga practice looks different. It's abbreviated, gentler, and more subtle, but no less powerful. This is yoga as prep for birth as prep for parenting; it's learning to be okay in uncertainty and to listen to the experts on the big stuff, but to body, breath, baby, and my own intuition on all the little daily stuff. She will sleep, she will eat, she will get sick, she will get hurt. There are no magic answers. When she wakes up crying and I can't figure out why, I kiss her and tell her over and over that I lvoe her. I know this is the most important thing I can do: quell the fears and amp up the love.

The experience of growing, birthing, and raising a human being is no less amazing the third time around, and the love I feel for her is still chased by fear. But instead of running from it or feeding it with a relentless search for external answers, I coo to my fears and gently shush them knowing that sometimes being less in control and instead surrendering to a tiny love is a glorious change of pace.

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With baby #3 fully cooked and safe to arrive any time in the next couple of weeks, I wait. Or rather, I try to go about my everyday life despite the fact that something incredible is about to happen, that my body is preparing for a powerful physical experience, that our family’s life is about to be forever changed.

Friends wonder (and place bets) on whether I’ve had the baby yet, my mom is certain every time I miss her call that I’m in labor, and several nights recently I’ve gone to bed wondering if tonight is the big night.

WaitingI sit in wait with my huge belly and savor this in-between time in a world where waiting has gone out of fashion. Have a few minutes before the next train arrives? Pull out your phone and suddenly you’ve transformed what would have just been a wait into productive and/or entertainment time. But the last weeks of pregnancy are all wait, all wondering, and surrender to the fact that there’s no app for predicting the onset of labor.

I sit in not-knowing with this new person who is either a boy or a girl, one or the other, and though I could have found out months ago I revel in my ignorance of this key fact about our new family member. My dreams are of no help – last night I dreamt of a sweet cheeked blond boy who looks remarkably like my son, but a few nights ago the baby was a cuddly baby girl. It’s not often I get to not-know something so big for so long. Not even a conversation-ending google search on my phone can give me this answer.

I sit in surrender because I have no control over when labor starts, how the birth goes, or any of it. I like control, so this is hard. Meditation helps, as does yoga practice.

I’m practicing the yoga of waiting for baby. Maybe it’s the hormones, but it’s not as difficult as I remembered. I’ve given up bargaining with baby (“Please wait until your grandparents are back in town, until I wrap everything up at the studio, until our teacher trainees graduate…”), realizing this is not a negotiation I can win. It’s refreshing to loosen my grip on schedules and plans and just say “I’ll be there if I haven’t had the baby yet!”

The present is the only thing I can count on. This is always true, but never more obvious than right now. Sometimes I have to stop and catch my breath after walking up the stairs to our apartment, other times I feel strong and vital, like I could walk miles without issue.

I’m overflowing with gratitude to feel as good as I do at this stage of the game. Each time I’m asked how I feel and respond with a smile, I’m careful to not get too attached to this whole “feeling good” business.  While the yoga, meditation, massage, and walking I’ve done throughout my pregnancy certainly helped, I’ve just been incredibly lucky, too. And I know that could change at any time, so I enjoy any day where I can get up from my mat without grunting.

There’s nothing more to prepare: the names are picked out, the carseat’s installed and awaiting a tiny passenger, and we’ve done our best to prep big brother and big sister for the intensity of life with a newborn. Now, again, it’s just the wait.

I breathe in and feel baby wiggle and adjust in the private world of my belly. I breathe out and know there will only be so many more times I get to experience his or her movements from the inside. 

I breathe in, I breathe out, I am grateful. 

My breath will get me through whatever comes next – wait, birth, and afterwards.

 

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Every year around this time, I get a little wistful as our yoga teacher trainees prepare for their graduation. After almost 10 months during which my co-teacher Sharon and I guided and supported these fabulous people in delving into the aspects of yoga that aren’t typically addressed in a standard yoga class, I feel compelled to write a love letter of sorts. I can’t believe how lucky I am to be co-leading this exploration, and I’m amazed that though the point of the program is for us to teach them, I always learn so much from working with our trainees.

So here’s my love letter to our trainees (current and past), a thank you for just a few of the things I’ve learned from watching such dedicated practitioners grow into teachers.

This yoga business is so much more than stretching and strengthening: it can change your life

It’s been a long time since my first teacher training back in 1998, and every year when I watch our trainees discover all the other aspects of the practice and tradition that go beyond poses on a yoga mat, I’m reminded of how life-changing it can be to delve into the introspection and self-study that are imbedded in the larger philosophy of yoga. Our trainees excitedly share how their daily interactions with friends and family have changed since exploring the yamas (ethical guidelines for relationship to others) and niyamas (personal practices/observances), they talk of their new appreciation of the koshas (sheaths or layers of being) and how they’ve begun to observe themselves on more subtle levels as a result.

As a new practitioner and budding teacher myself almost twenty years ago, I remember how thrilling it was to realize that by contemplating these new concepts I could better recognize my own habits and patterns both in relationship with others and towards myself. Having always felt myself to be a self-confident person, I was blown away when we’d explore meditation practice and it was like someone had cranked up the volume on the self-hate radio station in my brain. Those first few years of practice was all about turning the volume down and eventually changing the channel altogether. If letting go of negative self-talk isn’t life changing, I don’t know what is.

I practice for my 80 year-old self

Yoga’s not just for the young and fit (thank goodness!). Each year when we ask about our trainees’ future plans to teach, more and more of them express a desire to share yoga with an older population with more limited mobility and different concerns/goals. This, to me, is such a huge victory. Of course it can be fun as a young, fit person to sweat your way into some crazy arm balance or backbend if that’s your thing, but that’s not what has kept me interested in yoga all these years. I practice for my 80 year-old self. I practice to give myself the best possible chance at staying active and healthy as I age, despite whatever life may throw at me. I’m proud that our amazing trainees are emerging from the program with a broader view of yoga for the long run and I know they’ll make the yoga world a better place as they offer the practice in an accessible way for people of all ages in a variety of environments.

Start small and keep your friends close (and your books closer!)

Over the past few weeks we’ve asked our trainees to reflect upon their teaching journey thus far and where they see themselves going from here. When I finished my first teacher training, I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the subject I had just scraped the surface on (my first training was a one month intensive!). I knew there was so much more I had to learn, but wasn’t sure where to go next with my studies and practice. I just wanted to consider myself done and move on because I didn’t have a clear direction.

Our fun-loving 2014-2015 trainees!

Our trainees are studying the same vast subject and have identified both the aspects of the practice they’ve started to become more familiar with (for many of them it’s pranayama and meditation), as well as the places they know need time for further exploration (for most it’s the rich philosophical study of yoga that we’ve been working on them with consistently over the course of the program). They all have their own strategies, but there’s a consistent theme of being patience, starting small, picking one or two areas to dive into next, and repeating for the long-term. They’re so wise – it took me years to figure that out and I’m grateful to be reminded of this sensible and practical approach. Wouldn’t life be better if we looked at everything this way? Just start with one small step, research, explore, then move to the next thing when you’re ready. Imagine how much you could grow if you always had a subject you were studying. Though our trainees are sad to see our twice weekly sessions come to a close (as are Sharon and I!), they know that they can continue their yoga schooling on their own because they have each other for support (their group picture says it all - they're pretty awesome folks!).

The community they’ve built is amazing. They hang out socially, share favorite new yoga books and websites, and support each other in times of need. The further away from teacher training you get, the harder it is to maintain this community and support. But our trainees in years past are still going strong, encouraging and inspiring each other, and I know they are better teachers for it. They inspire me to reinvest in my own community of yoga teacher peers and to seek out new resources to continue my own growth.

To all of our teacher trainees past and present, thank you for trusting us to guide you in this adventure and for bringing your full selves to our work together. I am a better teacher for knowing you all!

The journey starts again this fall for a new group of trainees. There’s still time to join us! Learn more about our 200 hour hatha yoga teacher training on our website or reach out to me directly.

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Posted by on in Family

b2ap3_thumbnail_Mean-Mommy.jpgWhen it comes to interactions with my kids, it can seem like a mystery why sometimes I’m able to channel the patience of Super Mom while other times I’m snappy, unsmiling, finger-waving Mean Mommy, a shriveled up version of my ideal maternal self. For the longest time I assumed if I could just learn enough parent-whisperer techniques I could master this split personality problem. But after reading countless alternative parenting books and yet still screaming at my son over a literal glass of spilled milk at the dinner table, it finally dawned on me that knowing what to do and actually doing it are two completely different (and often unrelated) things.

You don’t have to be a mom to relate. Before my first child was born 9 years ago, I struggled with many of these same challenges. But back when that grouchy irritability was directed at my husband or mom or friend, it was more easily masked. If I snapped at Zach he’d inevitably either snap back or point out how unreasonable I was being, both of which would just amp up my irritation and fuel a self-righteousness that made it impossible to see how I could be in the wrong.

Kids are little mirrors. When my son berates his younger sister over her spilled glass of water, I’m seeing an unflattering version of myself on a bad day. Having witnessed that pattern repeat over the past 9 years of parenting, I’ve been on a quest to discover Mean Mommy’s kryptonite so I can channel Super Mom more often.

I think I’ve figured it out, and it’s embarrassingly, irritatingly simple how direct the correlation is: consistent self-care + adequate sleep = not losing your mind when the little people around you do the stuff they are programmed to do (like spilling milk, arguing with their sibling, or taking forever to tie one shoe when you’re trying to get everyone out the door). 

I figured out the self-care part of this equation years ago (with the help of my wonderful husband). One afternoon I was lamenting my sour mood and general blahness and he walked through what has since become my self-care checklist: 

Had I done my yoga and meditation practice?

Was my monthly massage scheduled?

Had I gotten outside for a walk or run or bike ride?

After I took care of those three things and felt like an entirely different person, I committed then and there to consistent self-care. That checklist has served me well for the past few years. But in order to juggle my mom and business owner roles, I was simultaneously becoming the master of late night work sessions. I’d stay up until 2am, typing away in the blue light of my computer, only to be surprised the next day when I felt lousy even after yoga and exercise.

Now that I’m in the third trimester with baby #3, my body is forcing the issue. Exhausted from the work of growing a person, there’s been no denying the need to quit my late night work habit. I’ve consistently been in bed before 10pm for the past seven months and I’ve never felt happier, healthier, or more able to enjoy the little moments with my kids that would make the less-rested version of me insane.

I’m finally convinced that you can’t have one part of the equation without the other. I’ve discovered Mean Mommy’s kryptonite: self-care on its own is not enough, but when combined with good, old-fashioned rest it’s an unstoppable formula.

Turns out while there are many things you don’t have to do anymore once you become a grown-up, you never really age out of being well-rested. When I was a whining or just generally unpleasant kid, it always made me crazy when my mom would reply, “You must be really tired.” But as with so many other things, my mom was right (and still is). Super Mom's not all that different from Mean Mommy - sometimes all that separates the two is 8 hours of sleep!

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“I want the blue cup, not the yellow one!” my 6 year-old daughter whined as we sat down to dinner.b2ap3_thumbnail_IMG_3687.JPG

Knowing a good fight when he saw one, my almost 9 year-old son decided the blue cup was the most important thing that had happened to him that day and clung to it with determination.

As a parent, there were three options for what came next:

1. Let my color-conscious daughter have the blue cup since I know my son doesn’t really care either way.

2. Buy a duplicate set of cups in every color so we can avoid future such fights.

3. Make things harder for everyone (including myself) by trying to teach two thirsty kids a lesson.

“Remember,” I told my daughter in my best Mom voice, “you get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” 

We learned this expression from one of the kids’ teachers a few years ago, and it’s become a staple in our house. It’s pretty profound stuff - contentment practice for kindergarteners. 

From my “you get what you get” high horse, I like to think of myself as a content person. But contentment is different than the default state of being happy when things are good. Santosha (contentment) is one of the niyamas (personal habits recommended for healthy living) described in yoga philosophy. Far from being a passive state, contentment requires consistent action and is much harder in real life than it looks.

In its truest form, contentment is essentially a mindfulness practice that separates cause from effect. It’s accepting that the external world need not determine my internal state, knowing that it could snow in April, I could become ill or immobilized, and still it’s my duty/privilege to practice being okay or at least present with whatever happens. 

Observing with compassion my daughter’s frustration at such a comparatively small disappointment, I came to realize that I have my own yellow cup situation going on right now. My shoulder and elbow have been a little wonky lately, and I’ve identified a few key movements that just don’t feel good.

“But I WANT to do that shoulder opener!” I complain to my yoga mat, with a persistence not unlike that of a certain 6 year-old someone I know.

As a physically-active person, I’ve experienced my share of injuries but it hasn't made the practice of contentment much easier during times of injury. Yes, I should consider myself fortunate to be healthy 99% of the time, but my inner child can’t help but whine that it’s not fair that my shoulder hurts today. While I initially resisted having to make any changes, I’ve started modifying my yoga practice to accommodate my current limitations. It feels much better physically, although it’s still a significant mental effort to accept having to do it.

I'm upping my contentment practice for when I get old. Sure, my hope is that by keeping up with yoga and meditation, regular exercise, and consistent massage (a self-care formula that has worked wonders for me thus far), I’ll be a vibrant, mobile, and self-sufficient 80 year-old. But there are no guarantees, and whatever kind of 80 year-old I am, I still want to be able to enjoy myself. 

When I look at my 90+ year-old grandmother who must be experiencing pain as a result of how stooped over she is, I’m always amazed that she can still muster a smile and hearty laugh despite her current limitations. Accepting this can't come easily. It’s got to be the result of a lifetime of practice. So if that’s what it takes, I’m in.

And despite the fact that my kids think I’m channeling my old friend Mean Mommy when I deny them their color preference or requests for extra TV time or treats, I’m just getting them started early. I want them to learn to do their best, work hard, be kind, be conscientious, and practice self-care, but then also remember that you get what you get (yellow cups, spring snow, injury, illness), so you may as well not get upset, too.

Throughout the first course of dinner my daughter, not being one to take things at face value, valiantly argued her case for blue. She eventually accepted the insult of yellow, though she did refuse to drink any water for the entire meal out of spite. So obviously, I have more work to do with her in the contentment department.

But who am I kidding? Would I ever choose a wonky shoulder over a healthy one? When blue is on the table, I don’t want that ugly yellow cup either. My hope is that if we both keep practicing contentment, we can learn to drink in with a smile all the yellow the world cares to throw our way.

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