Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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Until recently, we hadn’t bought a single piece of furniture in over 15 years. Zach and I picked up a bunch of “firsts” shortly after we were married: first coffee table (which after a few years got a huge crack down the middle due to being too close to the fireplace), first couch (the beastly convertible sleeper sofa that our movers later hated us for), first dresser (a steal from a San Francisco Salvation Army store). Then we just lived with them. First because we couldn’t coordinate a cross-country move AND new furniture purchases, then because we were sure our kids would wreck everything, then because we knew we’d be moving twice in a year as part of our home renovation process.

We decided upon moving back in that it was time for an upgrade. But I wasn’t prepared for the anxiety of:

1. Picking out new furniture, or

2. Allowing our 3 children to touch, breathe on, or look at said new furniture.

When the gray gunmetal barstools arrived, they looked as new furniture should: pristine, almost buzzing with their newness. These stools weren’t over the top fancy or expensive, and I had picked them out in large part because of their stain-resistant fabric. But only hours after taking them out of their protective shrink wrap I had to allow actual children to sit on them while eating. Picture two big kids who mostly remember to put napkins in their laps while eating pasta with red sauce, and a one-year old in a highchair next to said barstools who eats as much as most adults, gets equal amounts of food in her mouth as on her face, hair, and hands, and has incredible reach and quicker hands than you would think possible for a baby, and you’ll have a hint of the nervousness I felt.

Before allowing this dangerous situation to unfold, I read the cleaning instructions with a seriousness bordering on piety. I instructed my big kids what to do if something spilled on the stools with the same seriousness as the talks I’ve given them on what to do if a stranger approaches them in the park.

In the first few weeks we owned the stools, it’s probably most accurate to describe my behavior around them as insane. The kids and their friends would sidle up to the counter for a nice, friendly snack during a playdate, and I’d snarl if I saw any arms drop below the counter top. “Hey! Are your hands clean?” The kids guiltily showed me their paws and I’d make them dismount the stools so I could perform an inspection, only to find that there were just a few crumbs, or perhaps a small drop of milk that I could easily wipe up.b2ap3_thumbnail_IMG_20161001_150109.jpg

Then one lovely afternoon while the big kids were in school and the baby was sleeping, I found myself hungry and gloriously alone, so I pulled up to the counter with some chips and salsa. I steered a heaping, salsa-coated chip towards my mouth, and then proceeded to drop the entire thing face-down on the chair. I gasped and stared for a moment, as if maybe it would jump back into my hand and the whole thing would end up being some sort of anxiety dream, but it sat there, heavy and tomato-y on the gray gunmetal fabric.

While racing to get my white clean-up towel I reflexively felt the urge to yell at someone for being so careless. But as I dabbed the salsa, turning my white clean-up towel red, all at once I knew how stressful this stool situation must have been for my kids.

Irritated as I was at my carelessness, the day I spilled salsa on our brand new chairs (no more than three weeks into owning them), was a great day. It was the day that the stress of perfection flew out the window, that pristine became well-loved, and my craziness was revealed for what it was so I could stop being such a freak about the chairs.

This doesn’t mean I’m so zen that you can wipe your PB&J hands all over our barstools, but I won’t ruin your meal by hovering over you with my white clean-up towel. If you spill I’ll know that I can probably get the stain out, and even if I can’t, it’s okay. Some of the best stories involve the accidents that leave a memorable impression.

There’s a name for this. It’s called Wabi-Sabi, and you can see it as an extension of yoga practice.

(Bloom insider secret – our front desk has its own Wabi-Sabi story. Ask the managers to fill you in if you’re interested. Here’s the cliff notes version: it involves my elbow, an enthusiastic jump, and a huge crack in our countertop.)

Wabi-Sabi is a commitment to the beauty of imperfection. It’s cultivating contentment (santosha) rather than wishing for things to be different or better. On your mat, Wabi-Sabi is acknowledging that the external expression of a pose may look completely different from right to left side, it’s smiling when you can’t stop wobbling in a balance pose, and it’s being kind to yourself when your mind refuses to slow down as you’re attempting to practice meditation.

 

Bringing the concept of Wabi-Sabi into your daily life is a great way to reframe life’s spills and take some of the pressure off yourself. Celebrate the woops moments in your own life and on your mat, knowing that the stains, dings, and dents are part of what makes life well-loved and beautiful.

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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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Theoretically it was a great idea to invite friends over for a last-minute barbecue so the kids could play outside while the adults chatted. It was a near-perfect impromptu summer plan. But then I looked down and saw that the floor of our apartment was carpeted in papers and crayons and stray Legos, and I noticed the smears of toothpaste on the bathroom mirror. We couldn't let our friends see this mess, and I couldn't possibly get the place to an acceptable level of cleanliness by the time they'd get here. As I chucked a stray pair of socks and slumped onto the couch, I briefly considered calling to cancel rather than letting our friends see such embarrassing domestic chaos. 

Meet my inner perfectionist. She doesn’t come out often, thanks to years of reflection and conscious habit-changing (not to mention having two children and a business to run). But she’s still hoarding 23 article drafts because they’re not quite ready to put out into the world yet, and she’s always daydreaming about that time when her future self will magically have more time. Then she’ll perfectly do all the things that have been in need of doing – reorganize that overflowing file cabinet, transcribe all the notes of cute things the kids said from the tiny slips of paper on her desk, and complete and submit every last one of those article ideas.

It's all one big stalling technique, I know. Just another way to put off finishing anything for fear that it won't meet my own high expectations. Whether at work, on creative projects, or at home, the perfectionist/procrastinator in me can always throw up an objection to calling a writing project ‘done’ and she fears allowing friends to witness just how ‘undone’ our home environment is. ‘What does it say about me?’ she wonders. ‘What if the world thinks this is the best I can do?’

But the truth is, while it’s not necessarily the best I can do, it’s the best I can do right now, under these circumstances. It’s the best I can do without avoiding doing it altogether.

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In my yoga classes, I encourage students to practice being content with where they are that day. I smile and remind students that sometimes the balance just isn’t there in tree pose (especially when I’m the one doing most of the wobbling), and encourage them to believe that doing the best wobbly tree pose you can do today is better than not doing it at all. I laugh when, even after 15 years of teaching, I mess up my right and left while cueing students into triangle. Yoga’s unofficial motto is not ‘Practice makes perfect,’ but rather ‘Practice, and then practice again tomorrow.’  

I feel freed by the knowledge that there is no need to pursue perfection when it comes to the physical, and I long ago stopped caring how my poses look or how my practice measures up to my neighbor’s. In fact, I love witnessing the changes and fluctuations of the physical on the mat. So why is it so hard to translate that attitude off the mat?

Off the mat the stakes are higher. Moving beyond the physical and into how I run my business or my home, the way I am with my children, or who I am as a creative being feels way more personal than how steady my tree pose is or whether I mess up as a teacher (again). These imperfections, unlike the limits or weaknesses of a body posing on a yoga mat, reveal a core part of my being, one that perhaps I wish could be more polished than is possible. To invite the world to see your imperfection at home, at work, or with family is to be fully revealed for who you are. Sometimes it just seems easier to pretend or to put things off until another day.

Back at home, I realize I have three choices:

1. Decide our house is just too messy for our friends to come over.

2. Tell them to come an hour later and spend that time frantically throwing all our junk in the closet instead of being with them.

3. Invite our friends into our home as is and let them see our state of less-than-perfection.

The rational part of me fully recognizes that our friends don't want to come over to socialize with our house, they want to see us, to be with us. So I take a few minutes to tidy the most essential offenders, invite our friends to join us (and a few dust bunnies) for an evening together, and know that because they are good friends they’ll look at us rather than our unmade bed. After the hugs and shoving a few blankets off the couch I invite them to sit down, making a conscious effort to avoid explaining away our messiness. Instead we let ourselves be seen, just as we are, in our full imperfection. It’s a start, and the start of a great evening together.

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Posted by on in Health

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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Posted by on in Health

I had already rolled out my yoga mat this morning, but when I looked at the clock and saw that I only had fifteen minutes before the chaos of my family's morning routine began I thought, "What's the use? There's not enough time to get a full practice in anyway!"
 
My body was craving yoga though, so I went for it before I could change my mind. I started quickly, rushing from one pose to the next. But it didn't feel right, didn't feel as satisfying as it usually does. I slumped down into child's pose in an I-told-you-so kind of pout. After a minute of child's pose pouting, I pressed up into down dog and lingered for a bit, unsure what to do next. I sighed out a few deep breaths and started wiggling around, and pretty soon I was enjoying the playful feeling of being upside-down. Ah.....the breath, the slowing down, the un-rushing. I was in!

It was the hook to something bigger and this down dog moment reminded me that it didn't matter how many asanas I practiced, what mattered was how and why I did them. I gave up my daydream of a 'full' practice filled with dozens of standing poses and luxurious restorative variations. Instead, I set more humble goals: I wanted to take some time to breathe, move, and reconnect. That's it.
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With new goals in mind, my practice was different than usual. I did fewer poses, but worked on being more fully present in them as I held and breathed. Revolved lunge was the freedom my spine craved, Lizard was the love my hips needed. As much as I was practicing asana, the real work this morning was enjoying the poses I could do while being okay with not having the time to also go into all my old favorites: warrior II, triangle, side angle, half moon, revolved triangle, and so on. It was a practice of acceptance of that fact I just can't do everything.

It seems like a logical concept and one I should have learned by now, but I've really been struggling with this lately. I want to do it all, and do it well, so when I fall short of that I feel resentful and frustrated. Whether in my work at the studio, my role as a mother and wife, on the mat, or in the writing process, I want to give 100% to everything all the time, which simply isn't possible, not even for Superwoman.

This morning's yoga practice hit home that sacrifices are required, both of my to-do list and my expectations. I acknowledged that for busy people, quality always loses out to quantity. As I practiced, I came up with my new mantra:

I can't do it all, so in this moment I will do one thing well.

On the mat that means being okay with a truncated practice, rather than trying to cram 20 poses into 15 minutes. It's committing 100% to down dog when I'm in down dog instead of longing for the laundry list of other poses that I wish I had the time for. It's embodying santosha, contentment, instead of grasping for the poses that were necessarily left out of the sequence, being present with what's happening breath to breath instead of watching the clock in fear.

Off the mat it means asking for help with projects I've taken on but shouldn't have. It means giving new ideas the time they need to develop instead of trying to accomplish five things simultaneously. It means being more fully present for my kids when I come home from work rather than trying to catch up on a few emails while distractedly tending to them at the same time.

Being here right now is enough. All the thoughts about what I'm not getting done or where I'm falling short are not real, they're just constructs of my mind, and destructive ones at that. So instead I'll head back to my mat tomorrow, for 5 minutes or 50 minutes, and keep working on slowing down and practicing contentment. I'll say it to myself over and over again to drown out the Superwoman Syndrome messaging. I'll say it until I wholeheartedly believe it: It's enough to do one thing well.

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