Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

While driving out to the suburbs for a cousin’s birthday party a few weeks ago, I readied my answer to the quintessential kid-in-the-car question. Depending on my mood, my answer can be compassionately accurate (“It’ll be a while – maybe another 30 minutes”) or sassily sarcastic (“I hope we’ll make it by dinnertime tomorrow”).

As an adult, I’ve grown out of needing to continually wonder when we will arrive at our destination, mostly thanks to Google Maps, but also because I’ve come to realize that life is a journey and blah, blah, blah. But when I’m not in one of my sassy moods, I can completely empathize with my kids’ question, both because I was an “Are we there yet?” kid myself, and also because I still get that same sort of unease during in-between moments as an adult.

My family is moving back to our house in a matter of days. We’ve been out for a year while renovations were being done, during which time we also welcomed our newest family member. So it’s been a full year, to say the least.

b2ap3_thumbnail_InBetween_20160428-142745_1.jpgOur life right now is boxes, tape, and Sharpies; it’s deciding what to keep, what to find a new home for, and what to donate; it’s not being able to find some crucial something that has inexplicably been packed away too early despite our best efforts at strategic packing plans (why did I think I wouldn’t need my yoga props this week??!?!?).

This is an uncomfortable place to be. Not really because of the boxes and the not finding stuff, although that’s certainly part of it. More because we’re not really here, and not really there. We’re nowhere. In-between.

Yesterday, despite the fact that there’s still plenty of packing to do, I needed to make time for yoga. And of course I couldn’t find my mat, so I just rolled myself out on the hardwood floor.

Lying on my back, I contemplated the in-between, practicing being comfortable there. I began to deepen my breath. I practiced being completely there to watch the way my rib cage expanded to accommodate the breath, and on the exhalation I practiced letting go of the effort of breathing. With my eyes closed, accompanied by my familiar friend the breath, I was at home, despite my bare, boxed surroundings.

At the top of a deep inhalation, I paused for a moment. There I was – not in the inhale, not in the exhale. I was hanging out in some other place, a quiet state where I could feel my hearbeat, a pulse in my belly. I took a long, slow exhalation and paused at the bottom, noticing a feeling of emptiness, of grounding, and a slight panic: is this enough? will I ever inhale again? Of course, it’s okay, I soothed. And then the cycle began again.

Life is full of these in-between moments, in big and small ways. There are job changes, times of illness or loss, relationship shifts, welcoming a baby, and of course, the ever fun home renovations and moves.

These moments are when we need to rely on some kind of inner sense of home, a strength that helps us feel unshakable even on unfamiliar ground. For me that means yoga, and my breath specifically. It’s the constant, the thing that has been with me from the day I was born, a tool I’ve learned to wield as a yoga-practicing adult, and it will be my daily companion until the day I die. 

Over the years, I’ve been here, I’ve been there, I’ve been in-between. I know I won’t have time to roll out my mat (if I could even find it….) on moving day. The truck comes at 8am and we’ll be going non-stop until we fall into bed in our new environment with all its unfamiliar sounds. But fortunately my breath doesn’t need to be packed away, so I’ll know just where to find my yoga that day.

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Self-care is my thing, but I didn’t always know it. 

I credit my husband Zach with helping me figure it out almost 10 years ago when I was pregnant with our first child. One afternoon I was moping around the house, complaining of feeling tired and blah, and he turned to me and said, “Did you do yoga? Have you exercised? How long has it been since your last massage?”

I sputtered a few excuses and rolled my eyes at him the way you do when someone has so clearly pinpointed a truth that you’ve overlooked. But then I got over myself and did some yoga, took my big belly out for a brisk walk, and came home with a huge smile on my face. “I feel like a human being again!” I said, wrapping my arms around him.

“That’s your formula,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious.”

Since then, I’ve embraced the formula and become something of a self-care ambassador. And no, it’s not about trying to convert everyone to yoga and massage. Not one to lightly use expressions like “life-changing,” I’m just passionate about helping people discover how great it is to find your own unique and systematic way to consistently feel good. And while I used to be a yoga evangelist, I’ve since realized that we all need different tools in our self-care toolbox.b2ap3_thumbnail_Self-Care_20160203-161718_1.jpg

Last week I facilitated a self-care workshop, and my favorite part was when everyone shared what self-care looked like to them. There was some overlap among the group’s go-to techniques, but plenty of ideas that were unique and refreshing looks at how to prioritize health and wellbeing. And you know what’s cool? The ease with which the participants rattled off their self-care rituals showed that we’re all pretty good at identifying the tools. Consistently using them is another story.

In many ways, self-care is actually less about exercise or spa days and more about a mindset shift. It’s a commitment to prioritizing rest and down time, learning when to say “no” (or “not now”), and having sufficient support in place to ensure you can not only get through the day, but do so with grace and ease and enough juice left in your battery that you’re ready for tomorrow.

Just wanting to make self-care happen isn’t enough. Just think about how many times you’ve heard friends (or yourself) complain that they just can’t seem to make time for themselves. From where I’m standing, 10+ years into a dedicated self-care practice, I believe that if your self-care routine is failing, one of three things is going wrong:

1.You haven’t identified the right self-care routines for you.

2.You’ve identified the right routines but haven’t worked out realistic logistics for your life.

3.The routines are right, but you’re missing another key piece of the self-care puzzle.

I’m working on #3 right now. I’ve figured out my routines and I’m no longer trying to force them to work in an unrealistic way – for the moment I’ve accepted the fact that waking up at 6am for a quiet home yoga and meditation practice is just not going to happen while I’m a sleep-deprived mom of a 6 month-old. I’ve been a regular in our Mom & Baby classes and manage to squeeze in a home restorative pose or 5 minute breathing and meditation practice as little miss allows.

So it’s been frustrating that despite an unwavering commitment to my yoga, exercise, and massage self-care routines, lately I’ve still been feeling like I’m constantly on the verge of running out of battery.

The key piece of the puzzle for me, I’ve finally realized, is getting more help with my sweet baby so I can have ample time for work, self-care, and rest. This is a big step considering the fact that when my first two kids were babies I rarely used babysitters and prided myself on holding a sleeping baby while responding to emails one-handed. Sheesh, we all have our weakness, right?

Here’s to creating space and time for self-care, having adequate support, and not making yourself crazy. I look forward to watching my self-care routines work their magic once I have a better reserve in my batteries. I’m due for my monthly massage any day now and I ache a little every time I walk past the massage room at the studio. Once you train your body to love feeling good, it just wants to maintain that feeling. It’s a healthy addiction, and I hope you catch it!

 

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When faced with a cheese-crusted casserole dish that requires some serious scrubbing, what do you do? I’ve long been a fan of the procrastinator’s approach masked by the kind of squeaky clean optimism only found in dishwashing detergent commercials. “This dish will be so much easier to clean after it’s soaked for a good long time,” I rationalize as I’m filling it with hot, soapy water. “That crustiness will come right off!”b2ap3_thumbnail_Soaking.jpg

A few minutes of soaking can definitely be helpful. But the longer I leave the crustiness, the harder the job seems in my mind, so eventually the next morning I’m faced with a dish full of cold, murky water (which the smiling women in the commercials never tell you how to handle).

What does your dishwashing style have to do with anything, you might be wondering?

We’re approaching the number one time of the year for procrastination masked by optimism. Yes, it’s only December and talking about New Year’s resolutions now is a little like stores putting out Christmas decorations right after the back-to-school stuff comes down. But maybe that’s the point. 

I’m sure you’re nauseatingly familiar with the common themes for New Year’s resolutions: getting fit, losing weight, watching less TV, picking up a new hobby, etc. The media reminds us every January that we could be improving ourselves in so many ways (same to you, media).

What if you headed your resolutions off before January this year? What if this year you listened to an inspiration you have to make one small change in your daily life: go to bed 20 minutes earlier, include vegetables at lunch and dinner, take 3 deep breaths every day, find a way to move your body that you actually enjoy, make eye contact with humans more often than with screens. What if you started today instead of waiting for the New Year’s media push to set in?

Resolutions left till January are like scrubbing a crusty pot of cold, murky water. Our crustiness accumulates all day, year after year. Wouldn’t it be better tackled when the inspiration was hot?

The smiling dishwashing detergent ladies have one thing right: they just keep scrubbing. Some things in life simply take diligent, repetitive work. Whether the task at hand is scrubbing a crusty dish or making the decision to go to bed earlier, the decision of when to start is up to you. But keep in mind that the longer you wait, the colder the water and the bigger the task becomes in your mind.

Here’s to your health, happiness, and to identifying your own crusty spots so you can tackle them right away (every day) rather than letting them sit to soak indefinitely.

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I can’t help but beat myself up when it happens. “I just wanted to see what an old friend was up to,” I tell myself. “Where did the last hour go?”

With a two-month-old baby as my “helper,” my work time is precious. Today I put her down for a nap and crack open the old laptop not knowing whether I’ll have 20 minutes or two hours to tackle all the things I want to get done.

“Okay,” I say, clapping my hands together. “Let’s get to work!” 

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But I can’t be expected to just jump into the real work right away. It’s going to be a little tricky, I tell myself, and I don’t want to strain myself. I wouldn’t pop up into full wheel pose without warming up first, would I?

I start by ticking off a few emails and feel a sense of accomplishment as I’m paring down my inbox, but soon I’ve found myself reading the latest YogaDork newsletter (it’s yoga related, I tell myself, so that still counts as work). Then I’m clicking on a link to an article about plank pose variations, which reminds me I need to post the photos from our first day of teacher training on our group’s Facebook page. You know what happens from here – it’s a rabbit hole of reminiscing over an old friend’s throwback Tuesday pic, jealousy over vacation photos (….like I’d even WANT to go to Italy), and a sloppy mess of emotions as I simultaneously seek to satisfy my curiosity about other people’s lives while sinking deeper into despair with each voyeuristic look into another “internet perfect life.” At some point I snap out of it and reopen the utterly stark whiteness of a new Word doc and face the fact that I have no idea what to write. Minutes later I hear whimpers on the baby monitor and realize I’ve unintentionally blown the last hour avoiding the only thing I really needed to do this morning.

We yoga teachers talk a lot about intention. We’re also fond of preaching the benefits of about taking your practice off the mat. But what does that really mean? Does it mean serenely practicing tree pose while you wait for the train? Saying “Namaste” when you greet a friend? Maybe, but there are more mundane (and yet profound) ways you can take your practice into everyday life, and for the most part it has nothing to do with asana (aka the postures that yoga is best known for today). Asana, after all, is just one limb of the eight-limbed practice of yoga. And truthfully, it’s way harder to be intentional in the course of an average day than it is while practicing postures in the relative peace and quiet of your friendly neighborhood yoga studio.

When I’m working up to wheel pose on the mat, I can spend a good 30 minutes systematically preparing my body and breath without the distractions of email, the internet, my phone, or the demands of my family drawing me away from the task at hand. In order to be able to practice the pose safely, I’ll have to fire up my core, warm up my spine, engage the strength of my legs, and cultivate openness in my shoulders, chest, and hip flexors. I treat the practice and the process with an almost sacred respect (although I never take it too seriously…..it’s just a little yoga after all!), and while my thoughts may wander or my body may be more or less responsive, depending on the day, intentionality is woven into the fabric of on-the-mat practice. 

Compare this to my attempted naptime work session, or to any of the dozens of things you do in the course of an average day. There are very few sacred moments or spaces, limited cues to slow down and breathe deeply, and a whole lot of ways you can unintentionally lose yourself down the virtual rabbit hole.

Cue grumbling about the evils of today’s multi-tasking world. Or maybe instead this can be a way to see if yoga can do more for you than just impressing your friends with your ability to literally bend over backwards. 

When I first started almost 20 years ago, I spent a lot of time shaking and sweating my way through poses that are relatively easy for me now because I’ve trained my muscles and established the habit of practicing with intention. But now more than ever I need intentionality off the mat to help me focus on what really matters amidst all the distractions of a typical day.

Tomorrow when I sit down at my computer I’ll draw on the discipline that helps me sustain a long hold in chair pose even when I’d rather just practice flop-asana. I’ll pause and take a breath before automatically bounding into the all-consuming world of Facebook; like my tendency to poke my front ribs out in backbends, it may be familiar and comfortable at first, but in the long run it’s probably not the best thing for me. I’ll undoubtedly screw up many more times and forget myself and my intention to not get lost in virtual land, but just as my wheel pose got better with continued practice, I’m sure my off-the-mat work will, too. 

 

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“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.

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