Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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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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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As a kid I often wondered whether my mom had psychic powers. How else could she have known to warn me that I was too tired to go roller skating that one summer afternoon (the time when I insisted, went anyway, then fell and broke my leg)?

The other night as I was putting my own 5 year old daughter to bed I gave her a quick kiss on the forehead, my usual sendoff to slumber. In the half-second that my lips grazed her soft smooth skin, I received information that told me, despite the fact that she had just been dancing and singing and goofing off energetically for the last hour, despite the fact that she protested going to sleep claiming she wasn’t tired, despite the fact that it was too dark in her room for me to see anything more than a silhouette of her almost-sleeping body, that tomorrow morning she would wake up under the weather.

I no longer attribute this to any kind of Super Mom psychic powers. When you’re in a rhythm with another being day in and day out – whether that being is your significant other, your aging parent, your pet, your child, or even yourself – the most subtle signals read like billboards. And if you’re a dedicated yoga practitioner who is accustomed to tuning into subtlety in the body, mind, and breath, the signs are even more apparent. The trick is in what you do with that information.

It’s easy with my own kids. In the minute that followed the forehead kiss, I recalibrated our plans for the next day, knowing she wouldn’t have a raging fever that would require a trip to the doctor, but the outing to the swimming pool needed to be scrapped. I mentally shifted our plans to a day of lounging around rather than running around so we could catch this little bug before it really caught hold.

That next morning my not-so-psychic powers were confirmed so she and I cuddled on the couch in our pajamas, read books, and drank plenty of water. It was all so cozy and nice, I felt like I was getting mothered a little, too.

A few days later, part three of my own winter cold trilogy presented itself. As I trudged to the studio for a day full of to-dos and deadlines, I considered what I would suggest if I were my own mother. How might I kiss myself on the forehead, take my own figurative temperature, and then more importantly what might I do to recalibrate my plans for the day?

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By the time I arrived at the studio, I had the answer. I took out a bolster, blocks, and blankets galore and set myself up in the most delicious restorative pose (supta baddha konasana, reclining bound angle, or as it is also called, Queen pose!) and stayed there for fifteen blissful minutes. I even tossed a blanket over myself to keep warm, tucking myself in just as I would my daughter, recalling how good it felt when my mom used to tuck me in. In those first few moments as my eyes closed, my breathing slowed, and my whole body began to soften and embrace the supportive hug of the props, I smiled thinking of the forehead kiss I was bestowing upon myself, giddy remembering that I have the power to take really good care of myself anytime I choose.

My daughter’s little illness came and went without much fanfare, as if because we acknowledged it rather than trying to pushing it down, it did its work on her body more efficiently. She didn’t ask about going to the pool that day and didn’t seem particularly perplexed at how I could know she wasn’t feeling well just from a kiss. Instead she surrendered to the pajama morning, the books, and the cuddles. I went into the kitchen to cut some apple slices for us to share and when I walked into the dining room I found her lying on the floor in my usual restorative yoga spot with her legs up the wall. She scooted over to make some room and invited me to join her, so I rolled onto the ground, slid my legs up, and we both laid there, just breathing and smiling, taking very good care of ourselves.

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Normally a 5 degree day would have been cause for grumbling and outright complaining. But after being polar vortexed twice in one month, the kids and I jumped up and down, tossing gloves, balaclavas, snowpants to each other, shouting, “It’s 5 degrees outside!”

Perspective is a funny thing. From the outside, depending on the angle from which you catch it, it can seem like blissful ignorance, delusion, or Pollyannaish optimism. But from within, from the viewpoint of the person who has emerged from not one, but two polar vortices or suffered a devastating illness, there’s a natural and undeniably sweet shift in understanding that comes from adversity.

Perhaps it seems crass to be grateful for what you have because you’re comparing it to how much worse it could be, like when you leave a funeral service feeling inspired to “live better.” But it’s also just a beautiful function of our humanness: we pay more attention when we realize just how much we have to lose: health, loved ones, a warm home.

Yoga is an exploration of perspective. On a literal level, you are consciously placing your body in different positions than you are accustomed to, looking at the room, the world from a different vantage point, seeing what life feels like with your heels over your head rather than the other way around.b2ap3_thumbnail_Kerry-Maiorca-in-Savasana.jpg

But you shift your perspective on another level, in a quiet reflective way, every time you come to your mat. Even if you were to just sit there, or do one restorative pose, or take a savasanap, the act of choosing something as slow, single-tasky, and low-tech as yoga is bound to be a counterpoint to whatever the rest of your day looks like.

Yes 5 degrees is still cold. Yes, it’s annoying that I still have a lingering sniffle from the cold our family contracted two weeks ago, but when I get on my mat to be still, then breathe, then move, then blow my nose, then be still again, a little voice in my head chimes in: “At least you are well enough to do this.”

This perspective voice is your friend. It does not intend to demean your life or its importance, but rather it serves to remind you that your life is so important  that maybe you forgot because you were so distracted with work, your marital spat, a demanding pet, or children who alternately profess their love for each other, then kick each other in the shins.

The kids and I bundled up dutifully, even joyfully, having been sidelined from our daily outdoor time because of cold that froze my eyelashes in a matter of minutes. My son patiently asked for help with his boot rather than flailing and screaming that he was dying because his pant leg had bunched up to his thigh. With the perspective of what -15 degrees felt like, what -15 degrees meant to our normal existence, we laughed and shoveled, and spent a bundled up hour outside in the 5 degrees making the best darn backyard sledding hill around. When we got cold, we went inside and put our wet gear on the radiator, then we lay down on the basement floor with our feet cozied up to the furnace.

I’d like to believe we’re cured of our winter complaining, just like after I’ve attended an inspiring memorial service I want to believe I’ll never waste another moment watching old reruns because I’ll be too busy knitting or volunteering or creating spontaneous poetry and finger-paintings with my kids.

But that’s not really how perspective works. Heels can’t perpetually stay over head, putting on snow pants and boots will sometimes make a small child feel like (and proclaim that) he’s dying. Perspective relies on the existence of the normal, the mundane, the overlooked, the underappreciated. It is defined by our base state of being ungrateful and unaware.

Despite how it has seemed here in Chicago these past few weeks, it will warm up again, the snow will melt, and our awesome backyard sledding hill will fade, as will our joy at the “warmth” of 5 degrees. Come February, we will surely grumble, flail, and claim we are dying from all this oppressive snowgear as we overheat on our way out the door into the cold. But that’s okay. There will be something else to remind us each time we forget.

Perspective can’t be bullied or faked, but fortunately it doesn’t take a -15 degree day or a terminal illness to access it. You need not channel your inner Debbie Downer. Perspective is just as sweet for the little things, just as uplifting when taken in small, consistent doses as when heaped upon you like a pile of snow.

Yoga is my sweet daily dose of perspective, the reminder that sometimes your quads burn in chair pose, but it’s okay. It ends. We breathe in, we breathe out. Snow comes, and eventually melts. It’s okay.

The further you get from the -15 degrees, the harder it is to appreciate the 5. But every time you come to your mat you have the opportunity to experience that state of grace called perspective. The stillness, the quietness the intimacy of breathing deeply with other human beings gives me the perspective to remember that despite all the details, hiccups, logistics, challenges, and irritations of putting on snow boots with bunched up pants, I am alive, I am healthy, I am okay.

And I don’t need -15 degrees to feel that kind of joy. Thank goodness. Brrrr.

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After the collective shouts and kisses to mark the stroke of midnight, the proverbial throwing away of old calendars (those relics) and pinning up of the new, and this year a pristine January 1st snowfall to lend a little extra oomph to the thrilling feeling of newness, the soundtrack of early January is peppered with New Year’s resolutions. If you’re quiet you can almost hear them – muffled by the snowy landscape and the voices of cheery news anchors and snarky radio DJs – the visions of our better selves crafted into five-to-seven word vows. But if you keep listening you’ll hear another sound, one that we’re deaf to as a culture: the echo of resolution shame.

Shame is now part of our cultural vocabulary. Recent research has demonstrated that it’s not the healthiest way to approach self-talk, parenting, procrastination, relationships, or even training a pet. But with very few exceptions, New Year’s resolutions are a shame-fest.

“I resolve to eat healthier.” (I’m still XX pounds heavier than I should be because I have no discipline. No one will ever love me if I look like this.)

“I resolve to exercise.” (That gym membership has become an expensive way to make me feel lazy. So-and-so has a personal trainer so I should, too. Maybe then I’ll have awesome abs.)

I’ve never been a big resolutions person, but like many people I can get swept up in the collective breath-holding on December 31st as the clock winds down. The January 1st exhale is more than just the turning of the calendar. It’s a time when the holiday craze settles and we get back to life as usual. It’s a natural time to get introspective after a month living in the hyper-extroversion mode of holiday parties and socializing.

What’s missing from this practice of introspection is not the identification of what to change, but rather why you want to change it. What’s missing is the other “R” word: Reflection.

This is not a matter of mere semantics. Consider the definitions:

Resolution: a firm decision to do or not do something.

Reflection: serious thought or consideration. Synonym; meditation

How can you expect to stick to a resolution that was not well-thought out or seriously considered?

Resolutions spotlight your greatest character flaws and behavioral challenges, the issues that have plagued you for years, and demand that you simply stop doing them right now. Just because.

If your past year has been one of junk food and couch surfing, shaming yourself with reactionary resolutions won’t do anything to change that. Buying every green vegetable at Whole Foods and chucking them into the crisper will not turn you into a health food eater. Guilting yourself into getting a gym membership that you don’t want to use will not force you to exercise.

Resolutions have the remarkable power to simultaneously let you off the hook while shaming you for falling short. Didn’t make it to the gym in January? Guess you couldn’t cut it. Maybe next year (but probably not then either).

Reflection, on the other hand, is all about asking questions. You want to get healthier? Why? Do you really care about abs, or do you just want to feel more vibrant and energetic?

If it’s the latter, reflect on what activities help you to feel healthier and more alive. That doesn’t mean googling “best ab exercises” or the latest diet some celebrity is following. Be honest without thinking too much about what you “should” do for exercise. (“Should” is shaming territory.)

Choose things you love to do that also happen to get you moving. Not a gym person? Me neither, and when I finally accepted that rather than telling myself exercise "should" look a certain way, a whole world of movement and activity opened up and it was stuff I actually enjoyed and wanted to keep doing.

Forget the "shoulds" - take a walk, cross-country ski, go to yoga, pull the kids on wild sled ride, go swimming at the park district, put on your favorite music and just start dancing. Skipped a few days? It happens, but the good news is there’s no expiration date on this stuff. Just start again, reflect, remember why you wanted to get healthier in the first place, and breathe deeply when you get back to movement so you don’t forget as quickly next time. But you will forget. And that’s okay.

Remember to reflect not only on the days you fall short of your goals but also on the days you nail it. Notice how you feel after taking a little extra time to make a meal that didn’t come from a box, savor the sensation of eating fresh fruit and vegetables at dinner, even if you dive into the old candy stash for dessert. The fruits and veggies will be there again tomorrow, and you can choose to come back to them when you feel the desire return rather than shaming yourself over a mushy plate of steamed broccoli.

Reflection is not hip or ironic. It can’t be accomplished with a clever resolutions tweet or a cute photo posted to Facebook. Reflection is quiet, low-tech, and takes consistent time and attention. But over time, reflection is the shame-free way to pursue real change that doesn’t fade by January 31st.

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