Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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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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When my 3 month-old daughter fussed during Mom & Baby Yoga class this week and the mom on the mat next to me smiled in support, I knew it was worth all the effort of getting there.

I almost hadn’t made it to class that day. The scene at home in the hour beforehand was the typical new mom war zone: I’d been keeping her fussiness at bay all morning and as I was getting her into the carrier she spit up all over me, but at this point I just consider spit-up another accessory. Then she turned on her baby A-game when an inconveniently-timed but urgently-needed diaper change meant I’d be arriving 5 minutes late to class. In all the chaos a part of me rationalized that maybe I should just try for a home practice and get her (or both of us?) a nap. But realistically I knew staying home would just mean the same level of fussiness for her, no yoga for me, and some distracted email checking that would leave me feeling physically and emotionally drained.

You don’t need to have a fussy baby at home to relate to how difficult it can be to get to class. 

In many ways your computer or smartphone can be every bit as demanding as a newborn. 

That blast of spam that fills up your inbox and clutters your mind is a spit-up surprise on your favorite shirt as you’re getting ready to walk out the door. The huge project with a deadline of yesterday is the diaper that demands to be changed NOW, or else. And, oh look, here comes yet another hilarious joke forward from Dad! It’s embarrassing, it’s inappropriate……there’s no newborn equivalent for that one – it’s just plain fun times.

I used to feel silly scheduling yoga classes into my calendar, but I’ve found it really helps me prioritize self-care when the demands of either my newborn or my virtual life threaten to take over.

What’s the alternative? If these babies and emails had their way, we’d never leave the house. We’d sit at home covered in spit-up or bathing in the glow of a computer screen. Neither babies nor emails have a great sense of timing, and they don’t tend to cooperate just because you sort of want to go to yoga class. 

You have to have conviction, you have to promise yourself that you can and will make time to do something good for your mind, body, and heart.

“It’s time to go to class,” I firmly tell my baby (and my computer). “I need yoga today.” I may be going slightly crazy, but somehow this helps. I believe myself when I hear how determined I sound.

After almost 20 years of practicing, I can say this with certainty: I always feel better after going to yoga class. Always.

It’s incredibly life-affirming to be in a room with a bunch of people who are moving and breathing and doing something good for themselves (with, I might add, not a smart phone in sight….what a pleasant novelty!). It’s humanizing to gather together for the purpose of taking good care.

Email never stops and newborns never stop, so I often second-guess myself when something threatens to derail the plan. But I’ve come to expect this now. 

“Just go,” I tell myself. “Just show up. That’s all you have to do, and you’ll feel better.”

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At this week’s Mom & Baby Yoga class, my daughter needed to be held for a good portion of the class, so I warriored and triangled with her in my arms. Yoga isn’t a magic cure for baby fussiness or the mommy blahs, but there is something magical about the experience of being led through a practice by a thoughtful, nurturing teacher. It’s a rare thing – a low-tech group experience that is intimately personal, a collective practice of connecting to the self, a chance to listen and breathe and get quiet.

As class began to wind down and we were preparing to settle into savasana, I couldn’t stop smiling at the other moms and babies in class. My baby girl and I shared a sweet few moments of rest together before the teacher brought class to a close. I looked around the room and felt proud. We all did it: we made it to class, despite dozens of potential obstacles, and we were part of this beautiful group experience that we created together, in the moment.

After class I scooped up my daughter and props and belongings, thanked my teacher, and headed for the door. I felt better, as expected. Much better. And by the time I got home and the demands of my baby and my emails started up again, they somehow felt a little less demanding.

 

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After 18 years, I’m still amazed at the magic of mindful yoga practice. How is it possible to come to the mat feeling blah, mopey, achy, low energy, foggy, and pessimistic, only to step off the mat 90 minutes later feeling brand new?

This morning I woke up with that itch, that antsy feeling. My thoughts were jumbled with all the things I needed to do to get the kids out the door and myself to work and, while I didn’t feel any particular pain or discomfort, I just didn’t feel right (or at least I didn’t feel as good as I knew I could).

“I WANT YOGA!” my body/mind whined.

“Soon,” I comforted. “Today.”

I dropped the kids off at school and although my first instinct was to simultaneously jump into email and the fifteen things on my day’s to-do list, I knew I needed to prioritize yoga instead.

By the time I stepped off the mat 90 minutes later – once I had satisfied that physical/mental/emotional need to practice – I was a different person. My body pulsed, my low back was warm and spacious, that pesky shoulder and neck tension melted away. It felt like my entire body was breathing.

It’s incredible, it’s like magic. How in the world does this work?

Yes, as a diligent student and dedicated teacher I’ve done my homework – I know that yoga can help:

  1. Raise levels of the brain chemical GABA (higher GABA levels are correlated with a lower incidence of depression)

  2. Release less of a tension-triggered cytokine (a type of protein that can make you feel tired and moody)

  3. Lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate

  4. Engage the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for the “rest and digest” functions of the body)

  5. Enhance circulation, facilitate healthier digestion, and promote better sleep

  6. Increase strength and flexibility, thus reducing everyday aches and pains resulting from weakness, instability, or immobility

  7. Improve posture in daily life and counteract the impact of excessive sitting on the hips and low back, while reducing the effects of forward head position on the neck and shoulders

Terrific! I’m completely on board with all of that.

But somehow, that laundry list of benefits doesn’t do justice to the way I experience my body and mind after practicing. The whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. I feel like myself again after yoga, or rather, I feel like my best self.

Let me be clear - there are many approaches to yoga, and while all have their merits, all are not equal.

Some yoga masquerades as fitness (or rather, fitness sometimes masquerades as yoga). This is the version of yoga as calisthenics, pushing, striving. By isolating the physical aspects of the practice, by focusing solely on asana (postures), only one of the eight limbs of yoga, this approach floods you with more of the same things you may already suffer from in daily life –  busyness, aggression, doing.

Given its innate physicality, it can be easy to turn yoga into just another workout. But if your practice simply becomes another way to beat yourself up or compete with your neighbor on the next mat, yes, you will get stronger, yes, you will become more flexible, but you won’t experience the magic I’m referring to.

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Something incredible happens when you approach yoga mindfully and with an equal focus on effort and ease. There’s no mistaking it - a mindful yoga practice simply feels different, and the effects of such an approach are profound and last far longer than the typical post-savasana-high.

Unlike almost any other form of physical activity, yoga integrates the body, mind, and breath. It engages the whole person, and its benefits are rooted in physicality but go deeper than the physical to beautifully counteract the stresses and impact of daily life.

Mindful yoga practice helps you cultivate the ability to discern, to develop greater self-awareness, and to know your body, mind, and breath better so that it’s easier to listen to your needs on a moment-to-moment basis. This is the magic that, like Dorothy in her ruby slippers, you’ve always possessed. Yoga just teaches you how to access it.

When I came out of my first savasana 18 years ago, I didn’t know what hit me. I’d been an athlete and a dancer all my life, so I was no stranger to my body and to how great it feels to move. But something was different with yoga from the very first time I tried it.

I became a yoga evangelist! I insisted that my mom and dad try it and cajoled friends to join me forclass. I just knew that the world would be a better place if everyone practiced yoga daily.

I completed my first yoga teacher training two years later, and I’ve been a dedicated student, practitioner, and teacher ever since. My husband and I opened our studio 10 years ago and, fortunately for our friends and family, I’ve mellowed a bit over the years.

While I still occasionally have the urge to get on my soap box knowing there are people who haven’t tried this incredible, powerful, and empowering tool for body/mind health, I know Yoga doesn’t need me to speak for it. Yoga Matters because the benefits speak for themselves.

When you leave class feeling happier and healthier, your mindful yoga practice has made a difference in your body and mind.

When you find a way to get to your mat on a busy day, yoga creates time and space and puts things in perspective (and even turns your world upside down for a few minutes!).

When the cumulative effects of your practice allow you to react calmly rather than blowing up in a moment of conflict, yoga is doing its job off the mat, too.

Yoga may not be for everyone, but it’s most definitely suitable for anyone who wants to try it. Amen to that.

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A couple of weeks ago my family again joined our dear friends on a pilgrimage to Jasper Pulaski State Park to witness the migration of the sandhill cranes. It was a beautiful, chilly Saturday morning, and I was giddy. My son, on the other hand, trudged down the path, completely disregarding the “Sandhill Cranes – True or False?” quiz placards we had so eagerly read together the year before.

He tossed his football so high it grazed the tree branches overhead. “Why can’t we just stay at the campsite and play football?” he said, missing the catch and running after his ball as it rolled erratically through the golden brown carpet of leaves. “They’re just a bunch of birds!”

As we continued up the path towards the observation tower and the familiar sight of 100 or so people perched on railings overlooking a massive field of cranes, I realized I had been pondering the same question. Why do so many of us keep coming back to watch a bunch of birds who are completely indifferent to our presence? What would happen if we were all just too busy with work and family stuff to bother?

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I pictured the tall wooden observation tower empty, the cranes themselves the only witnesses to this natural phenomenon, and was comforted knowing that nothing would be different in that scenario. The cranes would still make their Mary-Poppins-style landings, do their flapping dance, and communicate with their incredibly resonant honks.

As I leaned on the railing and watched these gorgeous animals move and interact, I was overwhelmed with the pure joy of doing just one thing. Emails, status updates, schedules, and everyday aggravations fell away and it occurred to me that this one-pointed focus I had dropped into was not some kind of amazing feat. It was just who I am when I peel back the layers of busyness.

By the time we left I was brimming with the imagery and poeticism of the trees, the fallen leaves, the earth, and the sky dotted with birds and stars.

Back on my yoga mat last week after our return, I practiced a variation of crane pose, balakikasana,to cultivate some of that simplicity despite have been thrust back into the challenges of daily life. After 17 years of hearing yoga’s definition translated as “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind,” as I flapped my wings, moved with my breath, and steadied my gaze, I began to understand it in a different way.

In savasana I imagined a river flowing from my head through my trunk, arms, legs, and out my toes. I visualized that the flow of this river was my true, unchanging self, ease and wellbeing. It’s the part of me that is just waiting to be found if only I can stop distracting myself with things that seem important when I let myself get too busy. Whenever a thought popped into my head, I imagined that thought was a small stick or a golden leaf falling into the river, and I’d watch it float downstream.

Yoga is an undoing. It's not about wishing to stop the thoughts or mental fluctuations any more than a river wishes the sticks and leaves would stop falling into it. Thoughts, those little sticks and leaves, are not the problem.

When I visit the cranes, spend time outside, or simply practice being a mindful, breathing human being on a yoga mat, I’m clearing the river’s pathway so it can flow, as per its nature. I’m witnessing the delicate fall of sticks and leaves, watching the thoughts come and watching the go. I’m not the sticks or the leaves. Rather I’m the river that carries them, I’m the cranes that fly and honk and dance regardless of whether they have witnesses or not. I’m the stuff beneath my stuff, the steadiness beneath my busyness. I am right here, wherever I go, despite the layers of multi-tasking or distraction I sometimes choose to cloak myself in.

In the field beneath the observation tower my son sprints and dodges, clutching the football with a determined grin as he goes for the touchdown with his friends. The cranes honk, the perfect spectators, neither approving nor disapproving of his alternating successes and failures. He’s shed his coat, hat, and gloves, and his cheeks glow red despite my worries that he’ll be cold.

As a kid who’s relatively uncloaked in the layers of distraction, he doesn’t need the cranes in the same way I do. The sunlight fades and my husband goes in for a friendly tackle, then they tumble over each other in the grass, laughing.

I want to tell my son he's right, they are just a bunch of birds. I tell myself, remembering, we're all just a bunch of birds.

 

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Posted by on in Health


November marks seven years since my husband Zach and I opened Bloom Yoga Studio, and I've been thinking about all that's changed (and all that hasn't) since then.


In those early days, Zach and I logged long hours 7 days a week behind the front desk getting to know all the wonderful people who came through our doors. Though we're not behind the front desk as much these days, we're still scurrying around behind the scenes and love every opportunity we get to connect with students and massage clients. With our fabulous front desk managers now holding down the fort, we've been able to continually revisit our mission statement in order to keep Bloom growing.

Our mission when we opened was to make yoga more accessible and less intimidating, and to provide a space where people could pursue health and happiness in their daily life. That mission is as strong as ever and still informs the decisions we make on a daily basis.

Over the past couple of years we've reached out to the community to bring yoga outside the studio via our Bloom Workplace Wellness programs, and it has been so rewarding to see students who may have otherwise never tried yoga benefit from the practice.


This fall we started our first yoga teacher training program to help dedicated practitioners share their love of the yoga tradition with clarity. Though we're only a month into the program, I've found the process to be energizing and exciting, and I'm so proud of the work our pioneer trainees have done so far.

Our original crew of instructors and massage therapists was small but mighty. Over the years our staff has grown and we've been proud to get to know so many stellar instructors, massage therapists, and managers. We're grateful for all who have been part of our team. They truly are what makes Bloom special.


Many of our current students and massage clients have been with us from the very beginning, and others have so seamlessly become part of the Bloom community that I can't remember them ever not being here. We've been lucky enough to see many families grow, and as Zach and I welcomed our own two children into the world, our fabulous Bloom friends have been incredibly loving with them (even when they are loud during savasana....sorry).

The circumstances of all of our lives have changed over the past seven years, and together our community has shared good times and come together during difficult ones. But at the core Bloom has remained a friendly place where a wonderful group of people gather together to pursue a happier and healthier existence. I couldn't be more proud to be part of that mission.

Big, big thanks to all of our Bloom friends. And here's to many more years of yoga, massage, health, and happiness!

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