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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Normally a 5 degree day would have been cause for grumbling and outright complaining. But after being polar vortexed twice in one month, the kids and I jumped up and down, tossing gloves, balaclavas, snowpants to each other, shouting, “It’s 5 degrees outside!”

Perspective is a funny thing. From the outside, depending on the angle from which you catch it, it can seem like blissful ignorance, delusion, or Pollyannaish optimism. But from within, from the viewpoint of the person who has emerged from not one, but two polar vortices or suffered a devastating illness, there’s a natural and undeniably sweet shift in understanding that comes from adversity.

Perhaps it seems crass to be grateful for what you have because you’re comparing it to how much worse it could be, like when you leave a funeral service feeling inspired to “live better.” But it’s also just a beautiful function of our humanness: we pay more attention when we realize just how much we have to lose: health, loved ones, a warm home.

Yoga is an exploration of perspective. On a literal level, you are consciously placing your body in different positions than you are accustomed to, looking at the room, the world from a different vantage point, seeing what life feels like with your heels over your head rather than the other way around.b2ap3_thumbnail_Kerry-Maiorca-in-Savasana.jpg

But you shift your perspective on another level, in a quiet reflective way, every time you come to your mat. Even if you were to just sit there, or do one restorative pose, or take a savasanap, the act of choosing something as slow, single-tasky, and low-tech as yoga is bound to be a counterpoint to whatever the rest of your day looks like.

Yes 5 degrees is still cold. Yes, it’s annoying that I still have a lingering sniffle from the cold our family contracted two weeks ago, but when I get on my mat to be still, then breathe, then move, then blow my nose, then be still again, a little voice in my head chimes in: “At least you are well enough to do this.”

This perspective voice is your friend. It does not intend to demean your life or its importance, but rather it serves to remind you that your life is so important  that maybe you forgot because you were so distracted with work, your marital spat, a demanding pet, or children who alternately profess their love for each other, then kick each other in the shins.

The kids and I bundled up dutifully, even joyfully, having been sidelined from our daily outdoor time because of cold that froze my eyelashes in a matter of minutes. My son patiently asked for help with his boot rather than flailing and screaming that he was dying because his pant leg had bunched up to his thigh. With the perspective of what -15 degrees felt like, what -15 degrees meant to our normal existence, we laughed and shoveled, and spent a bundled up hour outside in the 5 degrees making the best darn backyard sledding hill around. When we got cold, we went inside and put our wet gear on the radiator, then we lay down on the basement floor with our feet cozied up to the furnace.

I’d like to believe we’re cured of our winter complaining, just like after I’ve attended an inspiring memorial service I want to believe I’ll never waste another moment watching old reruns because I’ll be too busy knitting or volunteering or creating spontaneous poetry and finger-paintings with my kids.

But that’s not really how perspective works. Heels can’t perpetually stay over head, putting on snow pants and boots will sometimes make a small child feel like (and proclaim that) he’s dying. Perspective relies on the existence of the normal, the mundane, the overlooked, the underappreciated. It is defined by our base state of being ungrateful and unaware.

Despite how it has seemed here in Chicago these past few weeks, it will warm up again, the snow will melt, and our awesome backyard sledding hill will fade, as will our joy at the “warmth” of 5 degrees. Come February, we will surely grumble, flail, and claim we are dying from all this oppressive snowgear as we overheat on our way out the door into the cold. But that’s okay. There will be something else to remind us each time we forget.

Perspective can’t be bullied or faked, but fortunately it doesn’t take a -15 degree day or a terminal illness to access it. You need not channel your inner Debbie Downer. Perspective is just as sweet for the little things, just as uplifting when taken in small, consistent doses as when heaped upon you like a pile of snow.

Yoga is my sweet daily dose of perspective, the reminder that sometimes your quads burn in chair pose, but it’s okay. It ends. We breathe in, we breathe out. Snow comes, and eventually melts. It’s okay.

The further you get from the -15 degrees, the harder it is to appreciate the 5. But every time you come to your mat you have the opportunity to experience that state of grace called perspective. The stillness, the quietness the intimacy of breathing deeply with other human beings gives me the perspective to remember that despite all the details, hiccups, logistics, challenges, and irritations of putting on snow boots with bunched up pants, I am alive, I am healthy, I am okay.

And I don’t need -15 degrees to feel that kind of joy. Thank goodness. Brrrr.

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