Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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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b2ap3_thumbnail_American-Tulip-Gothic.jpgThe first tulips of spring always bring back the dull ache of a Mother's Day disaster from when I was about 8 years old. I was playing on our block on a beautiful spring day, skipping, whistling, loving the return of the warmer weather and all it brought, when I noticed that the tree in our neighbors' front yard was now sporting a circle of the most exquisitely bloomed yellow, pink, and red tulips. Earlier that morning on our walk to school my mom had enthusiastically pointed out and expressed her love for some other floral beauties that had just sprung. It was almost Mother's Day. It seemed like kismet.

When I showed up at our front door and proudly showed my mom a colorful bouquet with ragged stems, her expression was exactly the opposite of the beaming smiles I'd seen in FTD Flowers commercials. She gasped and demanded to know where I had gotten them. After suffering through my lame claim that I found them on the sidewalk, she coaxed out a confession then instructed me to return the flowers to the neighbors.

A few months ago I told this story to my own children as a funny cautionary tale, and they’ve since asked me to repeat it over and over. This is their favorite part: when I sheepishly went to return the flowers, I dropped them on the neighbors’ welcome mat and ran back home. My mom was perched against the screen door, arms crossed when I returned.

“Did you give them back?” she asked. I nodded. “What did they say?”

When I couldn’t come up with anything, she sternly instructed me to go back and apologize to the neighbors in person. Since I couldn’t be trusted, she accompanied me to confirm that I did it right this time, watching from the sidewalk while I went up to their front door alone.

My kids giggle here, picturing their mommy as a little girl walking up the neighbor’s steps in tears, embarrassed and mad that she was getting busted for trying to do something nice. The story closes with me ringing the doorbell and giving a quiet apology and the slightly droopy flowers to our neighbor whose corners of her mouth were now droopy as well and I always throw in a little lesson for good measure, a that’s-why-we-don’t-damage-other-people’s-things nudge.

This is the kind of stuff I’d like to see on Mother’s Day cards. Sometimes moms ask us to do things we don’t want to do and speak sternly to us (some even yell, or so I've heard), but they do so out of love and a desire to help us grow up to be people they want to be around. The real mother-child relationship looks nothing like the sort depicted in the foreign language of Hallmark-ese:

“Dear Mom, When I grow up I want to be just like you,” followed by an idealized list of virtues (patient, loving, sweet, thoughtful, dependable, etc).

“A mother is a person who, seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.”

Is she? Just the other day I snuck away while the kids were getting ready for bed to savor the last piece of chocolate in our house because I knew otherwise my treat-crazy children would’ve taken a few careless bites and likely left it for dead under a pile of dirty laundry.

I want to reclaim Mother’s Day and make it more real. Instead of buying into the “perfect supermom” Mother’s Day story, this year I’m celebrating Mean Mommy’s Day.

Mean Mommy’s Day means not speaking in platitudes. Instead it means focusing on specific real life interactions, big or small, regardless of whether they’re the sort memorialized on Mother’s Day cards or the incidents that would be better labeled “the day mom went crazy and threw our shoes down the basement stairs.”

Yes, being a mom is cuddling up with your sick child to read a book together, playing an epic game of tag at the park, and giving up your ice cream cone after your son drops his on the pavement; but it’s also the occasional hurry-up-ing, forgetting to pack gym shoes, under-your-breath cursing, and the refusal to play that second round of the board game the kids invented because it’s just too long and boring to endure another time.

I want my children to know that a good mother doesn’t have to put her own needs last in all circumstances. A good mother is not always patient, kind, and smiling. Rather, a good mother is a combination of all the great stuff plus the shadow side of her Mean Mommy self, that person she is when she isn’t at her best.

After years of suffering through Mean Mommy’s visits, I’m finally proud to own her as part of me. Naming her has made those shadow moments less scary and easier to recover from, because she represents a neutral way to acknowledge that it’s normal and okay to sometimes lose my cool and fall short of my best self.

Happy Mean Mommy’s Day to all the wonderful and imperfect mothers out there. May we celebrate as the loving and flawed moms we are, and may we smile knowingly at any well-intentioned Mother’s Day cards we receive with implications otherwise.

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Can you imagine life without your cell phone?

An article I stumbled upon recently referenced a controversial story from a couple years ago theorizing that because Lithium (used in laptop, electric car, and cell phone batteries) is being used so excessively, the world’s supply would be depleted within a few years. The article came to a conclusion that would be alarming to some and welcome for others: by 2015 these tiny pocket computers we call cell phones may be gone.

After finishing the article I looked up from my computer screen at the wall in front of me, taking in the taped-up rainbow, heart, and bumblebee artwork my kids had made me. Then something caught my eye out my window and I turned to see a squirrel skittering across the window ledge, stopping to eat what looked like an apple. Watching the way the squirrel alternately spun and nibbled the big apple in its tiny paws, I took a deep breath and imagined a slower world, though I realized this was not the intended effect of the alarmist article.

Then my phone whistled. b2ap3_thumbnail_Multitasking.JPGTwo, three, and four whistles later (all within the span of a minute), my phone warned that potentially important stuff wanted me to look at it. I felt the itch, that urgency of digital now that I’ve become so familiar with over the past few years, so I obligingly punched in the password only to find the messages were a string of silliness that started with a photo and continued with increasingly wittier and wittier remarks.

I was slow to join the texting, social media-ing, digital world, but after doing so I quickly became obsessed. I drained hours unearthing the unsatisfying life details of people from my past who I was barely friends with in the first place. After several months of bouncing between loving and hating it, I realized a familiar pattern of extremism, much like I’ve been through with food and exercise. Just as in those cases, I came to realize the digital world wasn’t the problem. I was.

It was my choice to let my squirrel-watching be interrupted by a text message, just like it’s my choice to let the shiny promise of a clever new post or hilarious video oblige me to drop whatever I’m doing, squirrel-watching or otherwise, to play digital catch-up.

The digital world is so new. Many of us are still in the binge phase, simultaneously gobbling up these technologies while also needing, wishing for our proverbial moms to turn it off and say, “Enough!” As the mom of a 7 and 5 year-old, I know the day will soon come when I need to help them learn to navigate this world, so I figured I’d start by coming up with some guidelines (and trying to follow them myself):

1. Get a low-tech start to your day. Rather than jumping into the digital world first thing in the morning and finding myself overcome with envy over a friend’s awesome Mediterranean vacation photos or unease over the regurgitation and reinterpretation of a tragic news story, I start my day with 30 minutes of self-care (yoga, meditation, swimming, or walking) that centers and grounds me on a body/mind/breath level so I enter the digital world on my own terms rather than getting engulfed by it.

2. Check in: "I could engage now, but do I need to?” The trouble with having a computer in your pocket is that you hear every whistle or ring the moment a notification comes through, and it can be easy to think that you must therefore respond immediately. No matter how urgently my phone beckons, before reflexively picking it up I pull my hand back, take a deep breath, and ask myself if the world would end if I didn’t get to the message within the first minute of its arrival.

3. Create “technology-free” zones. Decide as a household what areas of your home (dinner table, bedroom, etc.) are designated places where you agree not to use technology. I also like to create windows of time (the afterschool hours or a weekend day) where I commit to taking a break from my devices.

4. Set a timer. In the same way that a parent limits a child’s screen time to teach self-regulation, set limits for when you’ll go on social media and how much time you’ll spend there. That part is easy. The hard part, I’ve found, is sticking to those limits even when the whining child in me begs for just five more minutes.

5. Quit planning your next profile pic. Nothing sucks the joy out of a beautiful, spontaneous moment like wondering how to best memorialize it on Facebook. Life is to be lived, not exhaustively documented. When I feel the urge to pull out your phone to capture a great moment with my kids or with friends, I try to remind myself to put down the phone, make eye contact with the people I’m with, and engage in the revolutionary act of being right where I am in the moment.

6.  If all else fails, go outside! With the heavy reliance on computers and mobile devices for work and communication, for hours at a time your whole world may be reduced to a glowing screen. When I start to feel myself really getting sucked in, I turn off the computer, ditch my phone, and engage with the natural world (no matter the weather - cold, rainy, snowy, or windy days work just fine) to remind myself how sweet life beyond the screen can be.

I’ve come to realize that technology is a neutral force and I don’t need a global lithium shortage to rescue me from my tendencies toward digital overload. By becoming more conscious about the ways I self-regulate time spent engaging with technology, I’m practicing coming to it on my own terms to harness the benefits without becoming overwhelmed by the vastness of it all.

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