Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

Posted by on in Yoga

I used to pretend to have the answer to this commonly-asked yoga student question.

Here’s how it went:

A student came up to me after a nice, juicy gentle practice that included several long restorative poses. She gushed about how peaceful and calm she felt after the practice.b2ap3_thumbnail_Childs-Pose-Balasana-Restorative.jpg

“I love the restorative poses,” she said. Then she added, in a whisper, “But I can’t help falling asleep. Is that okay?”

I smiled and nodded knowingly, as a wise yoga teacher should, and told her that savasana is different than sleep. To keep herself mindful and awake, I suggested she focus more intently on her breath.

I wasn’t intentionally misleading her. I believed my answer wholeheartedly at the time, because that’s what I’d been told by my teachers.

But could I actually follow my own advice?

With three kids, a business, and work hours that regularly kept me in front of my computer till 2am?

No way.

A 5-minute savasana was totally doable; I was present, still, mindful, awake.

When the duration crept up to 7-10 minutes, it was a toss-up; I might do one of those savasana arm twitches that gave me away to the teacher, but I could usually play it off like I just had an urgent (and twitchy) need to adjust my hand position.

But man, when the teacher went yoga nidra on me, it was over. Guaranteed, I’d be doing the twitch AND that weird sleepy exhale “HAAAA” sound that was tough to disguise.

I hated that feeling. Not the sleepy, relaxed goodness which was wonderful and clearly much-needed.

I hated the fear of getting too relaxed, as if there is such a thing.

My approach to long, deep relaxation in group classes was completely counterproductive. Worried I’d be exposed as a negligent savasana practitioner, I’d keep my mind on high alert. Sometimes it worked, but other times I still woke myself with an errant arm banging on the bamboo floor (followed by some pretend arm position adjustments to play it cool).

You’ve probably already figured out that yoga practice makes a lot of things better. Yoga can soothe everyday aches and pains, help you feel stronger and more alive, give you a feeling of peace and calm unlike anything else you experience in your day. But it can’t solve all your physical, mental, or emotional woes.

If you’re not getting enough sleep, I’ve got news for you. You WILL fall asleep in restorative poses (if you’re really going for it rather than taking the high alert approach I was attempting).

So what’s my new answer?

When a student from my Gentle class asked about the savasana/sleep issue this week, I told her it’s okay, and it still happens to me, too. The way I figure, with my third child approaching 18 months, I have a lot of catching up to do.

You’re not a savasana failure when you fall asleep. You could probably just use a little more sleep and  rest.

What’s the difference between sleep and rest?

Sleep is that thing that happens at bedtime, while rest is the conscious and mindful practice of relaxing body and mind. They’re different, but both are essential for total, vibrant health and exquisiteness.

Conscious rest is the companion practice to good sleep hygiene, and it belongs in everyone’s day, in my opinion. It’s different than watching TV, browsing Facebook updates, and even reading. It’s doing nothing, with intentionality.

These days I’m sleeping more (8 hours is my sweet spot), I’ve stopped working into the wee hours of the night, and I feel better than ever. I’m doing less, but enjoying it more. I’m allowing more time to get things done and giving myself a break where I used to be so demanding.

And yet still, still, I find myself waking up from restorative poses.

I don’t know how long it’ll take to get enough sleep and rest in the bank to make up for my sleep deficit. But it’s logical to assume that the longer the deficit has been in effect (ahem – I have a 10 year old, too), the longer it takes to make it up.

Restorative yoga practice has become the handiest little barometer for tracking my sleep/rest progress. It’s an embodied reminder that rest is important, and that slowing down has value (and is far from laziness or indulgence).

Judging from the fact that I managed to conk out in a restorative twist in under five minutes the other day, I still have a lot of work to do. But when your definition of work includes making an easy-chair out of bolsters, blankets, and blocks and then tucking yourself in for a nice rest, I can get behind that.

 

And in the meantime, I’ll be banking those minutes of restorative yoga sleep. And it’s okay.

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I’m delighted to be able to answer a question from a reader this month! And it’s a good one – a small detail that holds greater significance. If you’ve tried to launch a home practice, you’ve probably pondered this same question. I know I did!

Here it is: “Can I leave my mat unrolled all the time in the spot where I practice, or would I would lose some kind of meditative energy by not doing the unrolling/rolling ritual?”

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Yogis are all about the mat. As an asana practitioner your mat is your home base, so it makes sense that it all starts there. But is there greater significance to the physical act of rolling out your mat before practice?

When you head to your friendly neighborhood yoga studio, there are certain rituals involved with getting ready for class: upon walking through the doors you’re greeted with a smile, you remove your shoes, set aside your personal belongings, and silence your phone. Then you choose a spot in the inviting yoga room, consciously roll out your mat, settle into your first pose, and exhale the stresses of your day. 

There’s something about the complete process from hello to rolling out the mat that’s like a Pavlovian response for yogis (Pav-yogian response?). It’s your signal that it’s okay to shift gears from your usual to-dos and obligations for the designated period you’re going to spend in class. Your mat becomes your refuge, and the act of rolling it out is your promise to yourself: now is the time to take good care.

But when you’re trying to start practicing at home, without the built-in aah factor a studio environment brings, is it better to leave your mat out for easy yoga access any time of day, or is the ritual of “rolling out the mat” essential for creating a mindful environment?

The answer to this question is as varied as the aspiring home practitioner who asks it.

I struggled for years before being able to consistently make yoga happen in a satisfying way outside the bounds of my favorite studio classes, and I’ve approached the mat question from a variety of angles: I’ve stashed my rolled mat in the closet so it wouldn’t clutter my space (inconvenient), left my mat unrolled in the middle of my bedroom so it would inspire me to practice (didn’t work + tripping hazard), and even gone so far as to set up a designated yoga corner complete with my yoga books open and props carefully stacked on top of the mat to look extra inviting (too much pressure). 

My home practice started working when I stopped making such a big deal out of it. When yoga was too important, too sacred, too perfect, I could never bring myself to try it at home because I couldn’t live up to my own expectations for what it would look like.

I made home practice my friend when I let it be 20 minutes of gentle yoga in my pajamas first thing in the morning, or 15 minutes of strengthening asana while my big kids were having a nerf gun war around me, or 10 minutes of legs-up-the-crib on the thick baby blue carpet in my 1-year old daughter’s room after an early morning wake-up.

When I am able to carve out 30-60 minutes for a more formal, conventional practice, I personally prefer the intentionality of rolling out my mat and setting up my props each time I practice. I like the mindful act of neatly folding blankets, rolling up my mat and strap, and nestling my bolster into the wicker basket that (mostly) contains my props.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with leaving your mat out all the time, but beware: if you’re feeling a need to keep your mat out to encourage (read: force) yourself to practice, you may be yoga-bullying yourself. 

Yes, the act of rolling out the yoga mat may bring you into a mindful space that will be more conducive to practice. But also remember to practice mindfulness and self-compassion each time you roll the mat out, then roll it back up, deciding you really ought to reorganize your filing system instead. 

Home practice is a lifelong endeavor, and one that must necessarily adapt based on your current circumstances. There have been times in my life when I was a dedicated 6-days-a-week home yoga practitioner. Right now, for a variety of reasons (ahem….1 year old!), my home practice is happening in a structured way a few times a week, with mini yoga breaks on other days.

There are many ways to approach home practice, mat rolling and otherwise. My best advice is to be gentle with yourself and remember it typically takes many, many failed attempts to make home practice stick. Part of your yoga practice can be learning to listen well enough to find the approach that works best for you at this moment of your life.

Well, that was fun! Thanks for the question, dear reader. And thanks to you for reading.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_MeditationforEverydayLiving.jpgThe first time I tried meditating, I was 20 years old and pretty impressed with myself. I was a relatively new but 100% committed yoga student, and my teachers had made it clear that meditation was something I should do if I was serious about this yoga business. I solemnly rolled out my yoga mat in a tiny corner of my tiny New York City apartment, lit a candle, and sat there with closed eyes trying to figure out if I was doing it “right.” 

After a few minutes of being berated by my inner critic for not being able to stop thinking about that night’s dinner menu or the conversation I’d just finished with my mom, I blew out the candle and convinced myself that maybe I just wasn’t ready.

For my next attempt, I attended a group meditation at my local yoga studio, a musty 2nd floor walk-up with a fireplace and om signs everywhere. We were given a brief overview of what meditation was (“a vehicle for enlightenment”), then we were instructed to find a meditation posture (lotus was best, we were told) and stay completely still for 30 minutes. 

Ready, go! 

About 15 minutes in my legs were tingling, and within 20 minutes I was in excruciating pain. It felt like someone was stabbing the soles of my feet. I snuck a few peeks around the room to see if anyone else felt like they were dying, but they all seemed perfectly serene, so I sucked it up and just tried to shift position a little to make it tolerable. By the time the teacher rang the bells to signal we were finished, I could barely move my legs and decided that meditation, unlike the serenity my teachers described, was scary and painful.

I’ll admit it. With meditation, there’s really no such thing as being better at it than someone else. But this week when I was teaching yoga to my daughter’s 1st grade class in the gorgeous prairie garden outside her school, it occurred to me that kids get mindfulness in a way that I’m only now discovering 20 years into my yoga practice.

I arrived at the school garden ready to teach a boisterous animal-themed yoga practice that was all about moving quickly, making fun and silly sounds, and playing games. But as I was talking to the 1st graders before class about what yoga is and why it’s helpful, the first benefit they listed was relaxation. Not the response I’m used to when talking with people about yoga; usually the focus is on the flexibility bit, aka bending into a pretzel.

“Have any of you done yoga before?” I asked. All but two kids raised their hands. (Yoga’s come a long way in the last 20 years; when I first got into it my family worried I had joined a cult.)

As I told the kids my plan for our time together – breathing exercises, poses, then games – one boy interrupted me. “Can we meditate? I love meditating!”

Another boy chimed in, “I’m awesome at meditation,” and he sat up super tall, closed his eyes, and struck jnana mudrab2ap3_thumbnail_LittleMeditators.JPG (it looks like the OK sign). Several other kids joined him.

I couldn’t contain my smile. It blew my mind that the kids knew what meditation was and that it was now considered a cool thing. So I scrapped the games and said, “After we do some breathing and poses, we can sit on the logs and meditate,” like I was promising dessert if they ate a good dinner.

Throughout the breathwork and poses, they were focused little yogis who had lots of commentary to share: 

“This is easy!”

“I do yoga in my living room.”

“I’ve balanced on one leg for four minutes before.”

When it came time for dessert, I asked everyone to find a spot on the logs and pick a comfy position. Some sat cross legged, some didn’t. Most hadn’t tried meditation before, but they all followed my cues to sit up tall and close their eyes. As I guided them through a very simple “Special Place” meditation, they were quiet and still and attentive.

I’d bet that none of these kids, even the awesome meditators in the group, has ever been taught an official meditation technique or forced themselves to hold a painful position in the hopes of reaching enlightenment, but instinctively they get it. After a couple minutes, I gently brought them out, and we checked in about how they felt.

Their responses: relaxed, calm, in a special place, sleepy.

Some might argue that 2 minutes is nothing and that these eager 1st graders weren’t really meditating. I used to be one of those stalwarts who insisted that if I hadn’t read the technique in a book, it wasn’t valid.

I just don’t buy it anymore.

I think that any mindfulness practice, however long, is beneficial and beautiful and worthy of the big M word. Today’s little yogis are at a huge advantage having had exposure to even small bites of yoga and meditation by the age of 7. And I think all of us can learn from these wise little teachers. 

When you love something, when it’s really important to you, set it free from your own expectations. Don’t wait – just like you don’t need to get fit or flexible before starting yoga, you don’t necessarily need to wait for a peaceful, candlelit room to try meditation. 

Just start small. 

And then, be awesome at it.

 

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After missing my beloved Mom & Baby Yoga class today because a certain 8-month-old someone decided to take a 2.5 hour power nap, I was faced with the classic yogi’s dilemma. The day’s self-care hopes were riding on that class and though life got in the way of me getting there, I still really needed yoga. I cycled through the familiar stages of home practice denial:

I’ll just do a 75-minute class at home while my baby girl plays contentedly nearby!  

First I’d better just make sure there’s nothing urgent in the old inbox.

I can’t concentrate with those dishes dangerously piled up in the sink.

Look at the time! Maybe I can squeeze a practice in later.

It’s remarkably easy to rationalize your way out of self-care. If it seems like there’s always something else competing for your attention, that’s because there is. Just like your thoughts never completely stop when you meditate, everyday life stuff doesn’t take a day off just because you’re trying to make time to do something good for yourself.

I’ve been in the self-care game for 20 years now, so I know my “tells” backwards and forwards at this point. As the clock kept ticking and my school pick-up deadline loomed, I got grumpy over the fact that my chances for a full practice were slipping away. I moped about how blah I felt for a little while, debated an outfit change so my yoga clothes would stop mocking my lack of yogaing, then tried to flash forward to consider how I’d feel at pick-up time based on the choice I was about to make in that moment.b2ap3_thumbnail_YogaTime.jpg

Sometimes a few deep breaths are enough to get me through the blahs. But on this particular day, I needed to work out some serious kinks. Every one of my muscles craved warmth and work, and my spine needed to remember that it’s more than the sum of all its articulating parts. I’m normally a super slow warmer-upper, and I now only had 25 minutes before I needed to leave to pick up the kids. Was it even worth rolling out my mat?

I decided not to waste another moment wondering.

I set a timer for 25 minutes and got to work. I skipped the long lead-in and managed to roll many of my favorite warm-ups into the active work of the practice. Each grateful breath I took reinforced that this was way, way better than killing 25 minutes on email or clean-up (or worse, email clean-up). 

Accompanied by the soundtrack of my chattering daughter, I managed to condense and focus my practice to build all the way up to full wheel pose, and it was glorious. I kept checking the clock to so I’d have enough time to wind down and get a brief savasana in. Afterwards I opened my eyes, stretched from fingers to toes, and rolled over to sit up. Those 25 minutes felt completely different than if I had let the to-dos of daily life just fill up that time.

It’s weird that my concept of “what I have time for” varies based on the activity. Why is it that I can always, always squeeze in computer stuff? But somehow self-care activities seem like they’ll take longer than my available window of time?

So here’s my new practice: rather than conceptualizing time in terms of a number of available minutes, I’ll picture them in terms of potential yoga practices. As in, I have a viparita karani until I need to go pick up the kids, or I have 5 sun salutes before my meeting. 

I’ll keep on scheduling yoga classes into my calendar and hopefully life (aka a sweet baby) won’t too often sabotage, but it feels good to remember that a missed class isn’t a completely missed yoga opportunity. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I only have a few deep breaths before it’s time to start dinner.

 

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I go through the full range of emotions each time I visit the dentist. The before and after is comical – I walk in feeling self-conscious about all the things my dentist told me to do after the last appointment which I’ve neglected, and as she reclines me in the chair I cross my fingers and hope I’ll be lucky enough to avoid any cavities or issues. Afterwards, I leave with a spring in my step, clutching my little white bag filled with dental goodies, solemnly promising myself to approach toothbrushing as a mindfulness practice and do that rinse the hygienist keeps recommending. I want to be a model dental citizen, I want my next checkup to be quicker and more painless, and my dentist’s cheerful voice echoes in my head reminding me to “only care for the teeth I want to keep.” I want to keep them all!

Post-checkup, I’m 100% committed to my teeth. For a week. But soon I’m back to my usual distracted morning brushing while stuffing a lunchbox in my son’s backpack, and can’t be bothered to even think about a rinse. The inspiration, while strong immediately after having spent an hour in a chair with metal tools poking at my teeth and gums, fades all too quickly when I get back to the flurry of everyday life.

How does exactly does the “dentist effect” work?

And how can you harness its power to inspire more consistent commitment to your yoga practice?b2ap3_thumbnail_DentistEffect.jpg

When you have a rough trip to the dentist, it’s intensely motivating because you tell yourself you’ll do anything to avoid that discomfort again. But when you’re not there, surrounded by the whizzing and whirling of all the equipment, it’s easy to forget how important your mundane daily tooth care routines are. It takes the big event of a check-up to remind you that, seriously, it’s not okay to have a midnight snack and go to bed without brushing.

In class yesterday, it occurred to me that yoga has a similar, but opposite effect. Instead of motivating you to avoid pain, yoga inspires you to practice so you can keep the good feelings going. I’ve never left a yoga class where I didn’t feel better than when I started.  

When I’m on my mat, it’s natural to breathe deeply and be mindful. For that hour I feel great, connected. My focus is on caring for my body, the only vehicle I get for the rest of my life. By the final Namaste, I try to imprint the feeling so I’ll hold on to the inspiration to come back to it again soon. It’s like when your teacher asks you to notice how you feel after practicing one side of a pose. It’s dramatic, though admittedly more subtle than the aversion to pokey dental tools, but the more you practice noticing how awesome you feel after yoga, the easier it is to consistently come back to the mat. 

Don’t let the inspiration fade. You only go to the dentist a couple of times a year (if you’re lucky), but you can step on your yoga mat at least once or twice a week, or even just take a deep breath every single day.  Each time I practice yoga, the deep breathing and conscious movement and inner quiet I cultivate are reminders to pay attention and take better care. I’m not waiting for life’s cavities to come find me, and I’m certainly not leaving something as important as my physical, mental, and emotional health to luck or crossed fingers.

 

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