Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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I had just put my one-year-old to bed and was trying to squeeze a little work in before the next step in the nightly family routine. My big kids were fiddling around before their own bedtime when my 10 year-old son walked over to my desk and said, “Can I talk to you?” I kept my eyes on the computer screen and told him I needed to finish the email I was working on. He stayed put and said, “I need your full attention for a few minutes. Can we sit on the couch?”

I didn’t type another letter, astonished and proud of this sensitive boy’s eloquence. We sat together and he told me about a worry, something so little but big enough to bring tears. As we sat together, talking and cuddling, I was completely with him, unaware of my to-do list, my phone’s whereabouts, or the progress of the email I had been working on. It was simultaneously awesome that he found the words to tell me what he needed in that moment, and awful that he had to ask. Would this plea have been necessary 10 years ago before our devices got so smart that they made work and home life bleed together seamlessly?

Meet Distracted Mommy.

Distracted Mommy is the new Mean Mommy.b2ap3_thumbnail_Mean-Mommy.jpg

She’s the one who tells you it’s okay to reply to that non-time-sensitive text message while your daughter is telling you about a tough day at school. Distracted Mommy feels anxious if you’re not multi-tasking, and she breaks out in a sweat if you leave a beep or flash or vibration unanswered for more than a minute or two. She’s sneaky and greedy: she’ll pretend she’s giving conversations her full attention, but both kids and adults know the truth. And when her kids start manifesting the bad technology habits they learned from her, she goes Mean Mommy on them (“NO &@#&& PHONES AT THE DINNER TABLE!!!”).

Distracted Mommy is Mean Mommy’s passive-aggressive sister, and she has the same issues – not enough me-time, not enough self-care, not enough sleep (doesn’t that sound like most moms you know?) – only she’s opted for a subtle bandaid approach in an attempt to hide it. Distracted Mommy convinces you that checking Facebook updates on your phone while also helping your kid with homework is a perfectly acceptable way of squeezing in some me-time.

I made a promise to myself (and by extension, my kids) a couple years ago before my phone got so smart: I would avoid turning my computer on between after-school hours and bedtime, unless there was some sort of extremely time-sensitive emergency at the studio.

It was the best parenting decision I’ve ever made.

But when my son asked me to really be with him rather than figuratively (and literally, in a sense) phoning it in, I realized I’ve gotten sloppy on this promise. Blame it on the fact that I’ve consciously chosen less childcare and more amazing (and exhausting and all-consuming) time with my one-year-old, so I have to pick up the slack somewhere. And it doesn’t help that the greater culture has slid to a place where it’s common and accepted to be in one person’s physical presence while simultaneously “talking” with someone else via a device.

As my son and I sat together on the couch, his little-big issue morphed into urgent meaning of life questions: “What’s the point of life if once something is over it can never be repeated again?” Whoa. It was awesome to say no to distraction so we could be alone together in conversation, in cuddling, in silence….that is, until his 7 year-old sister sensed she was missing out and crashed our party with her own fascinating questions.

Technology and distractions are big topics of conversation at the moment, whether or not you’re a parent. It’s easy and hip to say that we really need to put down the phones and unplug, but I’m watching myself closely.

Am I really willing to do anything about it?

Am I willing to exercise a little discipline, a little restraint?

If not for my own health and well-being, then at least for the sake of my kids who just want some focused, undistracted interaction with me, and who desperately need models for how to use these life-altering devices in healthy and balanced ways that don’t ruin everything that was once fun about interacting with other humans.

 

To banish Distracted Mommy, you have to be willing to make a personal commitment. It’s a promise, a choice you’ll have to remake hundreds of times each day thanks to the convenience and invasiveness of technology. It’s hard, but all I know is I'm thankful for my yoga and meditation practice as I try again. If this isn't a mindfulness practice, I don't know what is.

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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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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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Posted by on in Family

 

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Just a few weeks ago, I had a person in my belly. Now that person, a little girl, the fifth member of our family, is sleeping a few feet away from me. She’s decidedly her own person, both independent and also completely dependent on me. After sharing space with me for 9 months, she made her exit into a world in which she has to learn, step-by-step, how to do everything. Everything. Breathing is new, digesting is new, controlling limbs is new and initially impossibly difficult. In our family, we call her frenetic arm movements “playing the bongos.”

What can you say about something that is so profound and yet so incredibly common? In the time it took you to read that sentence, four more babies were born.

Sure, there’s the typical territory, but to me the most notable things about the newborn days are not the sleep deprivation or how hard it is to find time to take a shower. What amazes me is the fact that within days of my third child’s birth I simultaneously felt an overwhelming love and a paralyzing fear.

A week before my due date, I wrote about the joy of waiting and not-knowing. Baby girl took the post  to heart because she kept us waiting and not knowing for two weeks past her due date! During those bonus weeks I did lots of yoga and meditation, took walks, enjoyed weekly massages and nightly baths, and just generally tried to savor the in-between while also doing all the things people tell you to do to get your baby out. Contractions would start and kick up in intensity, then they’d stop. I wanted nothing more than to make sense of the patterns and figure out what exactly I needed to do to give this kid her eviction notice.

The night before I went into labor the waiting finally got to me. I tearily told Zach I wanted to “take the night off,” so I pretended I wasn’t desperately hoping to have a baby and instead we watched “The Big Lebowski.”

The next morning I did a sweet meditation and a wiggly yoga practice that veered from the usual sequence of poses that had kept me feeling so great throughout my pregnancy. The practice was mostly hip circles and other organic movements that just felt right at the moment, and it tuned me into a different sort of mindfulness. 

Contractions finally began that afternoon and as I labored through the evening and deepened my breath to match the increasing intensity, I felt the echoes of my yoga and meditation practice and a connection to an intuition I hadn’t experienced with my other two births. I let go of attachment to where I was in the process or how long labor would last and instead just did my best to surrender one contraction at a time. My strong baby girl was born that evening 5 hours after the first contraction and just 1.5 hours after we arrived at the birth center.

For the first few days after her birth I embraced the fluidity of life with a newborn and was simply overflowing with gratitude: for our thriving baby girl, for my wonderful husband, for our doula, for our midwives, for the luck of having a healthy pregnancy and beautiful birth, for the support of our friends and family, and for the immediate love big brother and big sister showed for their new sibling.

But on about day four, all that poetically intuitive stuff went out the window and I had my first new mom anxiety dream where I couldn't find my baby after having brought her to a party. Then my overthinking, control-seeking mind tried to push its way back in between feedings and changings. “When will she get on a nap schedule?” “How long before she smiles?” “Should I take her for a walk in the stroller or sling?”  

My first instinct was to pump google for answers, but I stopped myself. It’s been 6 years since we’ve parented a newborn, but I still vividly remember days wasted crying over this stuff. The intensity of the love I’ve felt for each of my children took me to new heights of fear and self-doubt. What if I do everything wrong and mess up this perfect little being? How can I keep her from getting sick or hurt? What if every other mother in the world knows something I don’t?

As baby girl sleeps today I get on the mat to breathe and move to remind myself that as long as I’m taking care of her basic needs, none of these seemingly pressing questions really matters. I remind myself that the newborn phase is all about creating a strong attachment, and attachment naturally leads to a fear of loss of love. This new mom business is tough - the emotions are so raw and real and close to the surface.

These first few weeks as my body recovers from birth and I'm adjusting emotionally to this massive change in our family's life, my yoga practice looks different. It's abbreviated, gentler, and more subtle, but no less powerful. This is yoga as prep for birth as prep for parenting; it's learning to be okay in uncertainty and to listen to the experts on the big stuff, but to body, breath, baby, and my own intuition on all the little daily stuff. She will sleep, she will eat, she will get sick, she will get hurt. There are no magic answers. When she wakes up crying and I can't figure out why, I kiss her and tell her over and over that I lvoe her. I know this is the most important thing I can do: quell the fears and amp up the love.

The experience of growing, birthing, and raising a human being is no less amazing the third time around, and the love I feel for her is still chased by fear. But instead of running from it or feeding it with a relentless search for external answers, I coo to my fears and gently shush them knowing that sometimes being less in control and instead surrendering to a tiny love is a glorious change of pace.

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