Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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

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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!

 

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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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After a late night work session I drag myself onto the yoga mat at 6am for a brief practice, knowing the fully scheduled day ahead will leave no room for the complete yoga class I'm really needing. I stand at the top of my mat in tadasana, or mountain pose, trying to ground, to rise, to be the mountain, but it seems the only mountain in my life right now is the mountain of work that awaits again today.

As my arms float out to the sides I begin to draw in a deep breath, but by the time my arms have reached shoulder height I realize I'm holding it, the inhalation has petered out. My breath is completely held as I make my way up to urdhva hastasana, or upward salute. I begin the exhale as I fold forward and it seems that the breath can go out forever, like there's no limit to how long I can exhale. I play with the inhale again as I extend into half forward fold, but the same thing happens. My in-breath starts out strong, like a flood, then midway through there's no more room to expand and take in. My deep exhalation as I fold into uttanasana, or standing forward fold, confirms it:

My breath is trying to tell me something.

From a physiological perspective, there's nothing 'wrong' with the breathing I've just described. The lungs do their job whether we are conscious of it or not, and the body and brain will get the oxygen they need just because the human body is an incredible system. But the writer in me couldn't help but notice the analogy here.

I'm less than two weeks away from graduating from 10,000 Small Businesses, the small business education and support program I've participated in for the past few months. Since January, in addition to my regular work load and family obligations, I've been fortunate enough to participate in fantastic business education modules that have encouraged me to think about Bloom in a new way, to come up with better systems to keep the studio running well, and to consider a variety of ways to help Bloom to continue to grow and flourish in the future. It has been nothing short of an incredible gift and an opportunity I'm endlessly grateful to have had.

That doesn't mean it's been easy (as rewarding things often aren't).

Because I've had to sacrifice on sleep and self-care in order to get all my work done these past few months, I've actually become quite comfortable in that mode. For the first month or so I was surprised to find myself voluntarily signing up for additional commitments - 'Sure, I can head up that sub-committee!' or 'I should volunteer at both kids' schools this month!' I realized that to some degree it felt safe to put my own well-being last. If something had to give, I knew I was tough enough. That something could be me.

But for how long and at what cost?

It's easy for me to short the inhalation, like it's easy to short self-care and that which nurtures me. This morning when I was on the mat it seemed as if my exhalations could go on forever, like I could just keep giving, keep putting energy into external projects without any thought of recharging or nourishing myself in order to do so.

But though I can sustain the movement of my arms up overhead without breath to accompany it, it feels much more satisfying to slow down the breath and let it accompany the movement all the way up. While I can use dark chocolate to fuel work sessions that last until 2am, I'd rather spread out the work as best I can, play with the kids after dinner, work for an hour or two once they've gone to bed, then get myself to bed at a reasonable hour.

As my graduation date nears, I'm as excited to usher in a change of habits as I am to celebrate the completion of this big project.

For now, I'm satisfied to be on my mat for even a few minutes, glad for the chance to explore the connection between breath and movement. With my next breath I slow down the inflow, allow it to sustain the full motion instead of forcing the air to rush in up front, and the breath is still coming in as my arms pass shoulder height and reach overhead. The pinnacle of my inhale syncs with the press of palms together, then I begin the exhale, dive forward, and release into what comes next.

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As I settled in for another late-night work session last night, I wondered 'Will it ever end?'

The past few months have been incredibly busy as I've taken on a new time-consuming project on top of all of my other work and family obligations. The stress and pressure of the project have translated to some less-than-positive behavioral changes: I'm sleeping less, making less time for self-care, and eating a lot more dessert than usual!

But after struggling with it for a couple of months and beating myself up over the way I've been handling this challenging time, I've realized that I need to look at it from a different perspective. Realistically, until this project wraps up next month I need to squeeze more productivity out of myself without having the benefit of more time to work with. That means some late nights (and often the help of dark chocolate to keep me going!) as well as less time than I would like for yoga, swimming, and relaxation.

It's not ideal, but it's okay for now. More importantly, as long as I eventually make some behavioral changes, it will end at some point.

I've been using that idea as a mantra of sorts these past few months when my stress level rises. Knowing that nothing lasts forever is incredibly empowering and allows me to better tolerate times of stress.

However, the flip side is that the good times don't last forever either.

It's easy to be happy and upbeat when things are going great and you've just received word that your promotion came through. You may find yourself identifying with the good feelings and associating with them so strongly that they become intertwined with your self-identity.

However, if I'm attached to well-being, when it's taken from me I not only feel unwell, I also feel cheated out of something I had come to associate as my right. The attachment adds insult to injury.

When facing a challenging time, whether on a physical, personal, or professional level, only part of the pain or discomfort comes from the thing itself.

In the end, it's not so important whether you're facing good times or hard times. When you get a frustrating email that sends you into a rage that lasts the whole day, the email wasn't really the problem. The problem is the attachment to negativity, the refusal to let go and move forward. Likewise clinging to feeling good and having everything go well seems like it shouldn't be a problem, and it isn't until the good times fade.

The events of life and work arrive in a neutral state. Your mind brings the context and baggage to determine that a frustrating email from a colleague was 'bad' but an email from a friend was 'good.' The practice of detachment from judgement can be difficult because of the strong associations and emotional attachments you have in real-life situations, so it can be easier to practice on a physical level first.

A seated hip opener in a chair is one of my favorite places to explore and practice neutrality. Because of the long hours spent on desk work, the outer hips become very tight because they are not given their full range of motion on a daily basis. I love this seated hip opener because it's a gentle (and inconspicuous!) way to provide openness in the hips, but it's also a great place to explore sensation.

When I place my leg in this position and gradually fold forward, it produces a strong sensation in my hip. My first instinct is to label the sensation ('pain' or 'discomfort'). But once I've attached to the idea that it's painful, it becomes much harder to stay in the pose and give my poor hips the opening that they need.

When I instead practice observing it as a sensation without labeling it, I find that I feel less wrapped up in the emotional responses that pain can produce. I no longer victimized by a bad feeling that has no end. I no longer feel trapped, but rather curious. I know that when I choose to come out of the pose, the sensation will stop. That mindset makes it easier for me to tolerate and be present for the intensity.

Yes, I'm getting less sleep than I'd like to be, but won't be forever. My hips and back are tighter than I'd like them to be because of all the sitting I've been doing, but it doesn't have to be that way for ever. My dark chocolate habit is perhaps getting a bit out of control (is there really such a thing as too much dark chocolate?), but once I decide to make the change, all of this will be different.

This, too, shall pass. The choice of whether to stress out about it is mine.

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Over the past week both of my kids have been sick and, as a result, home from school. I also had a ton of work to do and deadlines to meet at the same time, which made for an interesting few days.

Let me set the scene: I'm at my computer, the kids are playing in their room with Legos. All is going well for five whole minutes when I hear escalating voices arguing over who had to play with the headless Lego guy. I'm trying to finish an email but also need to address this very real and very important issue of Lego guys without heads and the fairness of whether brother or sister must be the one who gets stuck with said Lego guy. I get them settled and then return to my work, getting into a groove this time, only to be interrupted 15 minutes later by requests to watch television. I hold out for a while, but after 20 more minutes of whining I decide that this is an okay time to give in.

I push through some more work and after 30 minutes I hear screams from the other room. I dash in, thinking someone has vomited again or is mortally wounded, only to find that the show is over and they would like to watch another one.

I allow them one more show (let's be honest, I give myself the gift of 30 more minutes of uninterrupted work time) and fairly sprint back to my office to make the most of each of those thirty minutes.

For the first few days of my work-from-home-with-sick-kids routine, I was just plan grumpy. I felt the tiniest bit resentful of my children for choosing this particular week to get sick, when I had so many deadlines and such a profound need to be at the studio. But when they were sad and sickly and spilling bodily fluids all over the place, I realized that this was not their doing, it was not their fault, it was not my fault, it was not anyone's fault. It just was.

Recognizing that there was nothing I could do about it and no one to blame helped a lot. It didn't change the situation, it didn't buy me more work time, it didn't make them get better more quickly, but it changed how I felt about the whole thing. I surrendered a bit, gave up fighting, gave up the quest for control over my time, and notified my colleagues that deadlines would have to be extended. Instead of pushing, yelling, resenting, I decided to cozy up on the couch with my kids, a blanket, and some books, and just surrender to the situation as it was.

Though it wasn't easy to do, this surrendering felt very familiar, comforting even. Surrender is a lot of what I practice on the mat these days, particularly when it comes to my gentle yoga practice and teaching. I love how in a gentle or restorative yoga pose the emphasis is not on muscling through and making things happen, but rather on giving up effort and resistance, and practicing contentment rather than striving.

Though it would seem that relaxation should be easy, that it should be our natural state, in our busy culture relaxation actually requires significant effort and discipline. There is a particular skill in learning to release effort on a physical and mental level, and the process allows you to become more efficient in the most therapeutic and nurturing way. Conscious relaxation and surrender is a way of embrace the idea that this moment is enough, you are enough.

The other day in my gentle class I led students into reclining bound angle pose on a rolled blanket (insert picture). The blanket runs along the length of the spine and when you initially lie down there's a tendency to resist to lift away from the support. It's a little bit like the princess and the pea at first. 'What's this inconvenience beneath me?' you wonder. The muscles on the back of your body tense and prevent the release of your shoulders towards the floor. Your hips also hold on a bit, preventing that lovely opening that you crave in this pose.

I guided the students to progressively relax into this new sensation (we usually practice this pose on the bolster, which feels quite different). Gradually, with patience and concentration, they were able to access this state of surrender rather than resistance, they gave into the blanket rather than wishing it wasn't there, and thus they were in the moment rather than in the 'what I wish could be.' The result of their discipline and effort was a deep relaxation of body and mind that was visible as a watched from the front of the room.

My kids are mostly healthy now and I'm thrilled, for many reasons. They are back to their sweet, playful selves, there are no more messes to clean up, they are back in school, and I am back at work. But I take with me this newfound appreciation for surrender, both at work and at home. When the day is eaten up by meetings and conversations and I'm not able to get to some of the heads-down work I need to get to, instead of being frustrated I acknowledge that is what needed to happen that day, appreciate it for what it is, and know that when I come back tomorrow there will be time to get the other stuff done.

Most of all, surrendering is about taking yourself less seriously. The world does not stop if these emails aren't sent out today, the walls don't come crashing down if I return that phone call tomorrow instead. Surrender is freedom, and all of this almost makes me grateful for childhood stomach bugs. Almost.

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