Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

After 18 years, I’m still amazed at the magic of mindful yoga practice. How is it possible to come to the mat feeling blah, mopey, achy, low energy, foggy, and pessimistic, only to step off the mat 90 minutes later feeling brand new?

This morning I woke up with that itch, that antsy feeling. My thoughts were jumbled with all the things I needed to do to get the kids out the door and myself to work and, while I didn’t feel any particular pain or discomfort, I just didn’t feel right (or at least I didn’t feel as good as I knew I could).

“I WANT YOGA!” my body/mind whined.

“Soon,” I comforted. “Today.”

I dropped the kids off at school and although my first instinct was to simultaneously jump into email and the fifteen things on my day’s to-do list, I knew I needed to prioritize yoga instead.

By the time I stepped off the mat 90 minutes later – once I had satisfied that physical/mental/emotional need to practice – I was a different person. My body pulsed, my low back was warm and spacious, that pesky shoulder and neck tension melted away. It felt like my entire body was breathing.

It’s incredible, it’s like magic. How in the world does this work?

Yes, as a diligent student and dedicated teacher I’ve done my homework – I know that yoga can help:

  1. Raise levels of the brain chemical GABA (higher GABA levels are correlated with a lower incidence of depression)

  2. Release less of a tension-triggered cytokine (a type of protein that can make you feel tired and moody)

  3. Lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate

  4. Engage the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for the “rest and digest” functions of the body)

  5. Enhance circulation, facilitate healthier digestion, and promote better sleep

  6. Increase strength and flexibility, thus reducing everyday aches and pains resulting from weakness, instability, or immobility

  7. Improve posture in daily life and counteract the impact of excessive sitting on the hips and low back, while reducing the effects of forward head position on the neck and shoulders

Terrific! I’m completely on board with all of that.

But somehow, that laundry list of benefits doesn’t do justice to the way I experience my body and mind after practicing. The whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. I feel like myself again after yoga, or rather, I feel like my best self.

Let me be clear - there are many approaches to yoga, and while all have their merits, all are not equal.

Some yoga masquerades as fitness (or rather, fitness sometimes masquerades as yoga). This is the version of yoga as calisthenics, pushing, striving. By isolating the physical aspects of the practice, by focusing solely on asana (postures), only one of the eight limbs of yoga, this approach floods you with more of the same things you may already suffer from in daily life –  busyness, aggression, doing.

Given its innate physicality, it can be easy to turn yoga into just another workout. But if your practice simply becomes another way to beat yourself up or compete with your neighbor on the next mat, yes, you will get stronger, yes, you will become more flexible, but you won’t experience the magic I’m referring to.

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Something incredible happens when you approach yoga mindfully and with an equal focus on effort and ease. There’s no mistaking it - a mindful yoga practice simply feels different, and the effects of such an approach are profound and last far longer than the typical post-savasana-high.

Unlike almost any other form of physical activity, yoga integrates the body, mind, and breath. It engages the whole person, and its benefits are rooted in physicality but go deeper than the physical to beautifully counteract the stresses and impact of daily life.

Mindful yoga practice helps you cultivate the ability to discern, to develop greater self-awareness, and to know your body, mind, and breath better so that it’s easier to listen to your needs on a moment-to-moment basis. This is the magic that, like Dorothy in her ruby slippers, you’ve always possessed. Yoga just teaches you how to access it.

When I came out of my first savasana 18 years ago, I didn’t know what hit me. I’d been an athlete and a dancer all my life, so I was no stranger to my body and to how great it feels to move. But something was different with yoga from the very first time I tried it.

I became a yoga evangelist! I insisted that my mom and dad try it and cajoled friends to join me forclass. I just knew that the world would be a better place if everyone practiced yoga daily.

I completed my first yoga teacher training two years later, and I’ve been a dedicated student, practitioner, and teacher ever since. My husband and I opened our studio 10 years ago and, fortunately for our friends and family, I’ve mellowed a bit over the years.

While I still occasionally have the urge to get on my soap box knowing there are people who haven’t tried this incredible, powerful, and empowering tool for body/mind health, I know Yoga doesn’t need me to speak for it. Yoga Matters because the benefits speak for themselves.

When you leave class feeling happier and healthier, your mindful yoga practice has made a difference in your body and mind.

When you find a way to get to your mat on a busy day, yoga creates time and space and puts things in perspective (and even turns your world upside down for a few minutes!).

When the cumulative effects of your practice allow you to react calmly rather than blowing up in a moment of conflict, yoga is doing its job off the mat, too.

Yoga may not be for everyone, but it’s most definitely suitable for anyone who wants to try it. Amen to that.

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As a yoga teacher and studio owner, friends often guiltily confess to me how long it’s been since their last yoga class, or profess that this will be the week (or month or year) they’re finally going to commit to taking yoga regularly.

The conversation usually goes something like this: “Every time I go to class, I feel great afterwards. But I just can’t seem to fit it into my weekly schedule. I’m so bad.”

Can you relate?

I certainly can. It’s frustrating to desperately want to do something good for yourself, only to continually watch as other things get in the way.

Yoga was my introduction to the concept of self-care. There’s something powerful about the practice of getting quiet and still and paying attention to what’s happening on a moment-to-moment basis in your body and mind. The more time I spent on my mat, the better I was able to understand myself and my needs. In the time since I began practicing yoga 18 years ago, I’ve experienced a complete shift in how I look at the time and money I spend caring for my body and mind, and I’ve made self-care an important part of my vocabulary and my daily life.b2ap3_thumbnail_Massage-with-text.jpg

If 18 years of self-care trial and error have taught me anything, it’s this: though we profess to want to take better care of ourselves (whether that means incorporating yoga, massage, exercise, reading, hobbies, or some other self-care routine into a weekly schedule), just wanting to do it isn’t enough.

Most self-care routines are destined to fail right from the start, no matter how many times you hear yourself talking to friends about wanting to make it happen. I’m grateful to have an established self-care routine at this stage in my life, and I know I wouldn’t have been able to swing these past 10 years of being a business owner and a mom without it. But it didn’t happen without lots of thought, effort, and continued rededication to the cause after losing my way day after day, year after year.

Self-care is no accident. To increase your chances of sticking to the routine, ask yourself these five questions first:

1. Do I deserve it?
This is a biggie. In order to have any hope for sustaining a self-care routine in the long term, you first need to get honest with yourself. Unless you believe you really deserve to feel good, your self-care routine doesn’t stand a chance.

Say it with me: “Taking care of myself is not a treat, a splurge, or an indulgence.” Self-care is a necessity (particularly if you spend much of your days caring for others), and it’s a desperately undervalued but basic survival skill of successful adults.

2. What am I willing to give up to make it happen?
It all comes down to math. If there are a finite number of hours in the week (and unfortunately there are), and you’re already filling all available weekly hours with various activities – eating, sleeping, working, commuting, caring for children or pets, watching TV, keeping caught up with the latest Facebook happenings, and so on – something’s gotta give. You can’t insert a new routine into hours that are already spoken for. That means you’ll need to give serious thought to your current time allocation to decide what you’re willing to part with in order to make time for yourself.

I’ll schedule a yoga class into my calendar just as I would a meeting so that it becomes a priority for me to attend. Give your self-care routine a presence in your calendar like you would for any other daily or weekly obligation, and resist the temptation to let other things encroach on that time.

3. What strategies have I used to successfully integrate other routines into my day?
You’ve already mastered the skill of sticking to a variety of routines on a daily basis. You likely brush your teeth a couple times each day (maybe you even floss for extra credit), eat 3 meals at approximately the same time each day, and if you have kids or pets or even plants, you’re able to do all of that PLUS manage the routine needs of another living thing, too.

Consider what has enabled you to make those routines successful. You identified the need, found a time in your day when you could consistently stop other things to focus on the routine, and then you just had to commit to doing it again and again.

When it comes to starting a self-care routine, it’s easy to start out strong. Then you miss a few days due to unforeseen circumstances (work, family stuff, or just plain busyness), and the whole plan seemingly flies out the window.

But think about it: if you accidentally miss brushing your teeth one night, you don’t just decide to never go back to brushing again (or at least I hope you don’t). You start the routine over the very next day. Self-care routines work the same way.

You will have slip-ups, days or even weeks where you just can’t make your self-care routines happen. Expect it to happen, acknowledge it, adjust your schedule if needed, and then remind yourself it’s important and recommit.

4. How can I make it easier on myself?
Imagine what it looks like to take good care of yourself. Close your eyes and picture where your self-care routine takes place. What do you need in order to make it happen? Self-care routines that are inconvenient or unpleasant are sure to be short-lived, so consider what you could do to take away any barriers that may exist.

When I was trying to solidify my home yoga practice, I always felt like it took me a while to figure out where to practice and to find my mat and props, and it became an excuse to not get on the mat at all. Once I found a lovely wicker basket to organize my props right next to my practice space, that barrier was gone and it made it way easier to get on the mat.

Since Bloom opened 10 years ago, I’ve been scheduling monthly massages and they’ve helped me manage what used to be a chronic neck problem. I love massage and it’s certainly no chore receiving a session, but I’ve made it easier on myself by setting up a reoccurring reminder in my calendar to book an appointment each month. That way, I don’t have remember when it’s time to book again. I just schedule, enjoy, and repeat.

5. Am I willing to stop apologizing for taking care of myself?

Self-care comes in many forms. For some people it means making 15 minutes each morning to sit in a comfy chair with a hot cup of tea before the rest of the household wakes up. For some it’s getting a pedicure and reading a magazine. For others it’s taking a yoga class or going for a run or getting a massage. It doesn’t matter what your routine is, what’s important is that it’s something that makes you feel better.

Imagine you were in the midst of your self-care routine and you ran into a friend. Would your first tendency be to apologize or to rationalize the indulgence of taking time just for yourself?

If so, I encourage you to explore what it would feel like to completely own your decision to care for yourself and to say goodbye to apologizing for feeling great. It’s empowering, liberating, and it may inspire others to similarly own their self-care routines. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone took better care of themselves….

Here’s to your health and a consistent self-care routine that makes you feel at your best!

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Within moments after bringing the kids home from camp, dragging myself and two drawstring bags stuffed full of swim suits, towels, sunscreen, water bottles, and lunchboxes through the front door, it began. 

“Can you help me find my baseball glove, Mom?”

“I want to watch TV!”

“Mom, can I have a snack?” (A favorite in our family. I’ve always suspected that when my kids see me coming to pick them up they imagine me as a big, juicy, steaming chicken drumstick.)

With each pull at my pant leg and each subsequent question, even when asked politely, I could sense my hulk-style evolution towards Mean Mommydom. My answers got unnecessarily curt and I gritted my teeth so as not to blurt out, “Just leave me alone!”

I wanted to be a mom so desperately in the years before my kids were born. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and wondering what it would feel like to have a baby, my baby, in my arms. What I was unprepared for was the intensity of the wanting on the other end, too.

Even as they’re gradually becoming more independent at 8 and 5, my children want a lot of me. They often still need full body contact in the form of cuddles, hugs, and kisses; they want to tell me about something unfair that happened at camp that day or ask me for help opening a new package of art supplies. I’m totally on board with this, most of the time.

But sometimes the wanting overwhelms me. After spending the bulk of my day working and going through the various routines to take care of my family’s needs, at the end of the day it can seem that there’s nothing left for me.

After my Gentle Yoga class a few weeks ago, one of my wonderful, thoughtful students said, “I feel so taken care of in your class. It made me wonder – who takes care of you?”

I hugged her and nearly cried because it’s the same question that had popped into my head that very morning as I was on my mat.

Taking care – of children, aging parents, spouses, friends – can be demanding, but harder still is consistently making time for self-care. Why are the needs of others so obvious, so impossible to ignore? Who, finally, will take care of you?

b2ap3_thumbnail_your-mask-first.jpgWe’ve all heard it before: put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

But there’s something important missing from that advice.

Once you’ve put the child’s mask on and he’s out of danger, there’s no need to be a martyr and take yours off. You don’t have to wait for another crisis to put yours back on again.

Of course there will be moments when the needs of those in your care necessarily (but temporarily) overtake your own. Whether your child comes home with a hurt (physical or emotional), your aging parent takes a turn for the worse, or a friend is going through a crisis and needs your support, sometimes the needs of others are intense and urgent and it’s a wonderful thing to be the one who is able to take care.

But when the immediate needs pass, what do you do? Do you find a way to make up for your overextension, or do you keep yourself perpetually in caretaking mode, resentful of the fact that there never seems to be enough time for you?

Any day when I practice yoga, sit for meditation, take a run, walk, bike ride, swim, connect with a good friend, or go to bed early with a good book, I’m doing what no one else can do for me. I leave the proverbial oxygen mask on for a good long time. I breathe in, replenish, and smile. I breathe out and answer for myself that essential question: who takes care of me? I do.

As the kids continue to bustle with post-camp questions and requests, I know they just want me to put on their masks, to help them come down from the day. But right now, after a late night spent working to make up for an afternoon of extra playtime at the park, my mask needs to come first.

“Guys,” I say, crouching down to their level, breathing deeply and feeling Mean Mommy melt a bit. “I just need five minutes with no one asking me for anything. Okay?”

They look at me for a moment, then nod. They’ve heard this before and though it’s not their first choice, they’ll do their best. My five-year-old daughter waits a whole minute before starting to ask me for something, then catches herself and stops mid-sentence. I hug her and feel taken care of.

After the five minutes are up I switch gears and let myself be needed again. Then when they go to bed, I pretend I’m my own mother and have a short debate with myself about the choice between work and sleep. I imagine how beautiful it would feel to heed rather than fight my droopy eyelids, and crawl into bed shortly after.

The next morning after I drop them off at camp, rather than immediately launching into battle with my email, rather than ripping off the mask, I bring myself to my mat for a gentle yoga practice. I move consciously and breathe deeply, because no one else can do it for me.

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For years, I've had an embarrassing little yoga secret. While I've been a student of yoga since 1996, and a teacher and home practitioner for over 16 years, whenever I'd try to incorporate meditation into my home practice something always got in the way. If you've tried practicing at home, you can guess what sort of important stuff I'm referring to: a dust bunny emergency under the couch that demands sweeping, laundry that must be folded right this instant, a ringing phone that simply can't wait.

More often though, and on a deeper level, what kept me from making time to sit was fear. After years of study it had been drilled into me that there’s a proper order to things on the mat. Since the purpose of the poses, or asanas, is to prepare the body to sit comfortably for meditation, meditation is typically practiced after asana.

But on the mornings when I was lucky enough to wake up at 6am and eke out an hour’s practice before my kids came trouncing onto my mat, my best intentions to carve out those last fifteen minutes for sitting were usually foiled either by an asana practice that overflowed into those allotted meditation minutes, or by my children who think all yoga poses should be partner poses that involve their feet dangling in my face.

About six months ago I was in a fabulous yoga class with the fabulous Dede Fuentes and she knocked my socks off with a simple statement one of her teachers had shared with her. As she guided us into a brief seated meditation at the start of class, she said: “You can’t do this wrong.”

I realized in that moment that I had wasted a lot of time needlessly worrying about the proper yogic order of things. Perhaps I subconsciously feared that the Yoga Police would somehow find out if I did something “wrong” on the mat and scold me. I smiled with eyes closed until Dede cued us to open them, and I knew something had shifted.b2ap3_thumbnail_KM-Meditation.jpg

The very next morning I rolled out my mat, settled into a comfy seat atop two fluffy blankets, and closed my eyes. With my body still a bit stiff from the night’s sleep and my to-do list pressing its way to the front of my mind, I initially chastised myself with negative self-talk that this wasn’t what meditation should look like. But remembering my new mantra, I stepped back from “right” and “wrong” and embraced the idea that any meditation is good meditation. I sat for a few minutes, finished my yoga practice, and went on with my day. And I felt fantastic.

The day after that it was a little easier to sit, and since then my morning practice no longer feels complete without a brief meditation to start. Sometimes I sit for 5 minutes, sometimes 15, but meditation is now neither a chore nor something that causes me to worry about getting hit with a citation from the Yoga Police. It’s not fancy, it’s not overly elaborate, but it works for me.

In my mind, there’s very little room for “wrong” in yoga. What good are principles and traditions if they can't be applied in daily life?

I believe everyone should be empowered to integrate even a brief, simple practice of mindfulness into their day in a way that fits with their personality, schedule, and life. If you're lucky enough to find a tool that helps you to feel happier and healthier on a daily basis, there’s nothing more right than that.

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It was one of those late-May days where you just want to whistle back to the birds. The breeze balanced out the warmth of the afternoon perfectly, gardens were just coming into their own, and I smiled and waved as a neighbor approached on the sidewalk.

“Isn’t it amazing?” I said, thinking that just weeks prior I would have been waving with mittens.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m happy because it’s summer, but I’m sad because it’s almost over.”

I chuckled and assured him that summer hadn’t even officially begun, but I understood what he was really saying.

It’s easy to think this is simply the curse of the Chicagoan – coming off of the brutality of a long, difficult winter, one can’t help but remember that despite the appearance of things when sidewalks are slapped by cheerful masses strolling in their flip flops, in a few short months we’ll bid farewell to those sweet evenings spent lingering on the porch while a cold beverage sweats in your hand. Big, bad winter looms over every lush corner garden.

But this isn’t just a Chicagoan’s problem, and it isn’t just about weather.

When my five year-old daughter cuddles up in my lap and asks me to scratch her back, interspersed with the sweetness of our connection is my disbelief over the fact that she grew almost an inch in the last few months and I can barely carry her anymore.

As I sigh into the incredible comfort of an exquisitely propped restorative yoga pose and feel that one stubborn tight spot in my neck begin to release, the next inhalation comes in a little more shallowly because my thoughts have inadvertently shifted to how bummed I’m going to be when it’s time to come out of the pose, put the props away, and get back on my computer.

Endings are hard. But like in a good story, there’s always a beginning, a middle, and an eventual end. The fact that summer or childhood or yoga or life ends isn’t the problem, the problem is when a worried mind focuses so much on the end that there’s no room to appreciate the middle.

I used to think that were I not so moved by the tragedy of endings, that would make me a cold and unemotional person. It seemed to me that the best way to appreciate a beautiful moment was to wallow in the sadness I’d feel when it was over.

Then in my second yoga teacher training 12 years ago as I explored my relationship to yoga’s philosophical concepts, I was fortunate to have the chance to really come face-to-face with my own natural tendency to simultaneously cling to the past while constantly anticipating the future.

What was missing in that picture?

The middle, the now, the what is.

Summer ends every year, but I don’t need to suffer that loss before it arrives. When my mom used to tell me, “Don’t wish your life away,” I’d nod but wonder how else to spend my time other than thinking about what was next.

good.jpgAfter years of yoga practice (going on 18 years now….wow!), the poses, conscious breath, mindfulness, and relaxation have helped me find what was missing, what was standing between me and the moment. Turns out it was just my busy little mind all that time!

Like Dorothy in her ruby slippers, it seems silly to have been unable to see I was standing in my own way. Yoga practice became my Glinda, and though it was a much less instant shift than a click of the heels, I’m forever grateful for the sparkly dose of clarity that set me on the path.

Once my neighbor and I passed on the sidewalk, there wasn’t too much more to say. The day spoke for itself with my not-yet-sunscreened skin soaking up the rays that managed to beam between leaves, and his sweatshirt, a holdout from the previous day’s cool, wrapped around his waist.

I turned to look over my shoulder once more and had the urge to tell the back of his head, to tell myself, the best we can do is to enjoy it while it’s here. But when I saw the spring in his step as he walked towards the train I shifted my gaze back to the sidewalk ahead of me and kept walking, one sidewalk square at a time, until I eventually arrived home.

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