Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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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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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