Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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!

Hits: 218

“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.

Hits: 426

Posted by on in Off the Mat

b2ap3_thumbnail_BusyBadge.jpg

I have a confession: I’m not busy anymore, and I love it. 

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not claiming I can just lounge about all day doing whatever I please. As a business owner and mom of two with another one on the way, there are no shortage of projects, activities, and to-dos that can and do occupy me on a daily basis. But I’ve come to realize that busyness is more than just a scheduling issue; it’s choice, and a state of mind.

This weekend my wonderful husband took our kids for the morning and I found myself with an unexpected open window of free time. While I could have gotten busy attacking the 100 emails that were waiting for me or gone through yet another closet in my quest to purge more junk before our big home renovation project, I decided to take off my busy badge and make a different choice. I took a bath, read my book, and went to yoga class. When a friend asked me about my weekend and I smilingly relayed the story of my lovely morning, she said, “That’s great that you were able to do that. You’re always so busy.”

I’ve been consciously removing the word “busy” from my vocabulary for a while now because of the way it makes me feel. If you don’t know what I mean, try it: how do you physically react when describing your upcoming weekend as “busy” vs. “action-packed” or “fun?” “Busy” is a chest-tightening, pulse-quickening, pressure-inducing word, and I realized it had become my crutch of martyrdom.

But still, when presented with this praise from a friend about my choice to be un-busy, I had a moment of panic and an undeniable urge to list off all the other things I did over the weekend as a way of justifying why I really needed the down time. Instead I paused, took a deep breath, and smiled back at her saying, “It was a great morning.”

Why do we wear busyness as a badge?

Sometimes I pin on my busy badge to quell a fear that I’m not enough. Other times, as in the case of the urge I felt to explain myself to my friend, I polish it to prove that I’m important, smart, in demand, etc. The busy badge is a refusal to allow space to breathe. It’s squeezing every bit of productivity out of any open window of time for fear of wasting it. Given the choice, we busy badge wearers will almost always choose accomplishment over rejuvenation (until we nearly collapse, that is).

For years I consoled myself with the promise that when my kids were older I could be less busy. But now that I’m about to be thrown back into the den of the newborn, I’ve realized I need another strategy. I don’t want to wait until some anticipated future date when my life circumstances will change to make me naturally un-busy, because that day may never come. Just the other day I was talking with a student who said now that she’s retired, she feels as busy or busier than she did when she was working. 

Is busyness your goal?

The secret is that if your unconscious goal is to fill up the time, you’ll always manage to arrange your life to maintain a state of busyness. I’ve experienced it myself on a day when I have “nothing to do” and yet somehow manage to cram a whole bunch of things in. Then at the end of the day I’m surprised to find myself feeling depleted and scattered because I let what should have been down time get co-opted. 

Taking off my busy badge has been a multi-step process. Before I could change anything, I needed to wholeheartedly trust that busyness doesn’t make me a better or more interesting person. Then I looked at what I could safely let go of despite the constraints of my life stage, schedule, and obligations. The final step was a combination of the two, both a mentality and behavioral shift: when I have moments of down time between activities, I resist the urge to squeeze productivity into them. I’ll grab my book, sit down for a chat or a game with my family, or do some serious self-care (take a walk, go to yoga, practice meditation). 

How yoga and meditation cultivate un-busyness

My yoga and meditation practices have been so helpful in cultivating these un-busy moments between activities. Isn’t that really what yoga and meditation are all about? Whether you’re a vigorous or gentle yoga practitioner, your practice cycles between activity and rest, effort and ease. Your conscious breath is a cultivation of the spaces between, the wrangling of your mind back to the present experience rather than the tasks awaiting you. Practicing meditation for even five minutes is a commitment to not filling up the time with busyness, but rather filling out each moment with your presence and full being. It’s acknowledging that the moments between are just as important as the big peaks of activity and doing.

These on-the-mat practices have made it significantly easier for me to trust that I’ll still be an effective business owner and involved mom if I put away my busy badge. But I know this isn’t something I’ve conquered, something I can just consider done. As evidenced by my friend’s well-intentioned comments, our culture is programmed to expect and promote busyness, constant activity, and filling up the time. Yoga, meditation, and reflection may just be the tools we un-busy warriors need to take a different path. Who’s with me?

Hits: 647

Posted by on in Yoga

Have you ever been in a yoga pose that was so unbearably uncomfortable you started to resent your teacher for making you stay in it, only to look around the room and see a handful of other students who seemingly could happily nap in the same pose? 

I’ve definitely been there, and in my early days as a yoga student I always just thought discomfort in a pose was something I had to work through and that it would get better once I was stronger or more open. After almost 20 years of yoga practice, I now realize there’s another way to approach these sorts of challenges on the mat and I’m incredibly grateful to find that principle following me off the mat as I prepare for a very big year personally.

Some yoga poses just don’t feel right initially. This week with in teacher training we were exploring upavistha konasana, seated wide angle forward fold. Upavistha is a “love it” or “hate it” pose, one that either clicks for students or doesn’t, and when it doesn’t it’s exceedingly unpleasant. b2ap3_thumbnail_BloomYogaForwardBendSeated.gif

One of the themes we harp on over and over again in teacher training is the fact that every pose is completely different from one body to another. Your experience of loving or hating a pose is often a result of a variety of factors, including bone structure, limb length and proportions, and a lack of mobility in certain muscle groups.

Upavistha will give you lots of trouble if there’s any restriction in your hip flexors, groins, inner thighs, or hamstrings. Tightness in these muscle groups can rock the pelvis backwards in a way that causes overwork in the low back and makes it nearly impossible to sit up straight, despite your best yogic intentions and your teacher’s encouragement.

Here’s the cool thing – if you find yourself in this sort of struggle with a pose, upavistha or otherwise, there’s something you can do about it. That’s a relief, right? Many students just assume that uncomfortable poses are meant to be that way. Challenge has its place, but I’m a big believer in learning to distinguish between necessary and appropriate challenges, and those that can be alleviated, both on and off the mat.

My husband Zach and I have a very big year ahead between preparing to welcome our third child into the world this summer and renovating our home to accommodate our new family of five. Though upavistha and project New Baby/New Home present me with completely different challenges, I know my handy dandy yoga toolkit can help me in both cases. 

Rather than letting myself get overwhelmed when faced with a challenge, I can take a deep breath, choose to look at things rationally, and ask myself a few basic questions:

1.What IS NOT possible for me to change in this moment? 

On the mat answer - “My hips and legs are chronically tight.”

Off the mat answer - “I’m having a baby and doing a home renovation simultaneously!”

2.What IS possible to change in this moment? 

On the mat answer - “I can sit higher up to lessen the hip restriction I experience in the pose, or I can place my hands behind me and lean back instead of forward folding.”

Off the mat answer – “I can delegate more to my wonderful and very capable staff, and my husband Zach and I can commit to simplifying by saying no to any additional projects or commitments that are not absolutely essential right now.”

3.What is the impact of the proposed change? Did it help or hurt?

As a yoga teacher and teacher trainer, I’m always trying to model a willingness to be curious with my students and to acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes a suggested change makes the pose feel worse, sometimes it makes it better. Only the individual in the pose can know the difference, and my goal as a teacher is to empower students to honestly evaluate the impact of the change. If it didn’t help, we can always try something else.

In family life, acknowledging a busy time by making real changes in schedule and commitments is almost always a good move. But knowing that I can be a bit reactionary at times, I’ll have to pay attention over the course of the next year and make sure I don’t withdraw from everything and just head into the isolation of our baby-renovation bunker. Stay tuned for more news on that as plans (and my belly) develop….

Every Thursday night when I come home from teacher training I’m all smiles and chattiness. I tell Zach about some great new insight a trainee shared or something funny that happened in class, and I just gush about how grateful I am to have the opportunity to work with such fabulous people over the course of 10 months. I love empowering these dedicated yoga practitioners and teachers-in-training to trust what they already know and make changes that make the practice work for them. There’s nothing better than seeing the look on a student’s face when a “hate it” pose turns into a “love it” pose (or at least a “tolerate it” pose!). Thank you, upavistha and fabulous trainees. Thank you, project New Baby/New Home. Thank you, yoga.

 

Hits: 678

Are you sick of shame lurking behind your New Year’s exercise and diet resolutions

b2ap3_thumbnail_NYR-2014.jpg

I love January for its promise of a fresh start around the choices we make as we open the fridge or lace up our running shoes, particularly after the food-drink-dessert bombardment of the holidays and the distortion of well-established movement routines.

But while the New Year is as good a time as any to recommit to health of the body and mind, I’ve finally realized that I’m just not motivated by resolutions packaged in negative self-talk and tied up with a pretty read bow of shame. Shame makes health a precarious tightrope walk, and after one misstep it’s so easy to just eat the whole big bag of chips since I’m already plummeting toward the safety net anyway.

So how do you remove shame but keep the motivation to change your eating and exercise habits? The only thing that’s worked for me is to think differently about the whys and hows behind my resolutions.

 

Ask yourself “why?” 

You can’t reasonably expect a change to stick if you don’t know why you’re doing it in the first place. Are your diet and exercise goals motivated by a desire to lose weight, to look a certain way, or to feel healthier and more energetic? Is it some combination of the three? If you don’t know the why behind what you want (or if your “why” is really a “should”) lasting change won’t happen. Once you get past the initial honeymoon stage of your snazzy new diet and exercise resolutions, there’ll be days when you’re just too tired or too busy. Your “why” may be the thing that helps you get over the hump and recommit to the new plan.

 

Choose your own adventure

Once you know your “why,” let it guide your choices and routines. If, for example, your goal is to feel healthier and more energetic, why would you put yourself in a fitness class that has you staring at yourself in the mirror as you work on getting a beach-ready body? Instead of suffering through the latest celebrity-endorsed fitness and diet fads, find ways to eat and move that help you feel both healthier AND happier. My New Year’s exercise and diet resolutions used to be motivated by a desire to punish myself after a particularly rich string of holiday meals and couch-sitting. But like a rebellious teenager, I’d just end up acting out and bailing on my exercise and dietary penance.

 

Get real about your expectations

Recent studies have shown that (gasp!) exercise is not all that effective in creating weight loss. The conclusion from this study is that fitness and cardiovascular health are more important than the actual number on the scale, but it also means that many of us set unrealistic expectations each January when we visualize ourselves post-workout with glistening abs and a svelte new physique. If your “why” is purely weight loss, this study is a big bummer, I know. But if your “why” also includes a desire to enhance your overall health and feel more energetic, the good news is that you have lots of options and you may even enjoy them in the process. There’s some exciting new evidence that yoga may be as beneficial for heart health as brisk walking and biking. Yay, yoga!

 

Abandon the forbidden food list

There’s nothing more tempting than that which is forbidden. I spent years creating a warped internal logic about what I could and couldn’t eat (based on a hodge-podge of advice gleaned from such reliable sources as magazines, the internet, and overheard conversations at the health food store). You know what it led to? Me stuffing a 10th syrupy piece of my grandma’s baklava in my mouth on New Year’s Eve after having so virtuously foregone desserts the whole month of December. My new strategy revolves around eating real whole foods as the base of my diet and listening to that little voice that wants dessert. It knows what it’s talking about and WILL get its way eventually, so when I listen and enjoy a treat, it prevents me ending up in a fog of stuffed baklava regret later.

 

Put less weight in your weight

When it comes to health, it’s important to remember that weight is only one factor in the larger picture. Heart health, lowered stress, and overall feelings of well-being have a significant impact on the state of your health even if you’re carrying around an extra 5 or 10 pounds. Of course, weight, BMI, and other health factors are highly individualized and for those who are clinically overweight the numbers are a big deal. But when you’re already in a healthy weight range and you’re just battling a few stubborn pounds, it may be a good idea to examine whether the war you’re waging is enhancing your health and happiness or detracting from it.

 

Here’s to your continued health, happiness, and to resolutions without shame!

 

Hits: 1065