Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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Within moments after bringing the kids home from camp, dragging myself and two drawstring bags stuffed full of swim suits, towels, sunscreen, water bottles, and lunchboxes through the front door, it began. 

“Can you help me find my baseball glove, Mom?”

“I want to watch TV!”

“Mom, can I have a snack?” (A favorite in our family. I’ve always suspected that when my kids see me coming to pick them up they imagine me as a big, juicy, steaming chicken drumstick.)

With each pull at my pant leg and each subsequent question, even when asked politely, I could sense my hulk-style evolution towards Mean Mommydom. My answers got unnecessarily curt and I gritted my teeth so as not to blurt out, “Just leave me alone!”

I wanted to be a mom so desperately in the years before my kids were born. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and wondering what it would feel like to have a baby, my baby, in my arms. What I was unprepared for was the intensity of the wanting on the other end, too.

Even as they’re gradually becoming more independent at 8 and 5, my children want a lot of me. They often still need full body contact in the form of cuddles, hugs, and kisses; they want to tell me about something unfair that happened at camp that day or ask me for help opening a new package of art supplies. I’m totally on board with this, most of the time.

But sometimes the wanting overwhelms me. After spending the bulk of my day working and going through the various routines to take care of my family’s needs, at the end of the day it can seem that there’s nothing left for me.

After my Gentle Yoga class a few weeks ago, one of my wonderful, thoughtful students said, “I feel so taken care of in your class. It made me wonder – who takes care of you?”

I hugged her and nearly cried because it’s the same question that had popped into my head that very morning as I was on my mat.

Taking care – of children, aging parents, spouses, friends – can be demanding, but harder still is consistently making time for self-care. Why are the needs of others so obvious, so impossible to ignore? Who, finally, will take care of you?

b2ap3_thumbnail_your-mask-first.jpgWe’ve all heard it before: put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

But there’s something important missing from that advice.

Once you’ve put the child’s mask on and he’s out of danger, there’s no need to be a martyr and take yours off. You don’t have to wait for another crisis to put yours back on again.

Of course there will be moments when the needs of those in your care necessarily (but temporarily) overtake your own. Whether your child comes home with a hurt (physical or emotional), your aging parent takes a turn for the worse, or a friend is going through a crisis and needs your support, sometimes the needs of others are intense and urgent and it’s a wonderful thing to be the one who is able to take care.

But when the immediate needs pass, what do you do? Do you find a way to make up for your overextension, or do you keep yourself perpetually in caretaking mode, resentful of the fact that there never seems to be enough time for you?

Any day when I practice yoga, sit for meditation, take a run, walk, bike ride, swim, connect with a good friend, or go to bed early with a good book, I’m doing what no one else can do for me. I leave the proverbial oxygen mask on for a good long time. I breathe in, replenish, and smile. I breathe out and answer for myself that essential question: who takes care of me? I do.

As the kids continue to bustle with post-camp questions and requests, I know they just want me to put on their masks, to help them come down from the day. But right now, after a late night spent working to make up for an afternoon of extra playtime at the park, my mask needs to come first.

“Guys,” I say, crouching down to their level, breathing deeply and feeling Mean Mommy melt a bit. “I just need five minutes with no one asking me for anything. Okay?”

They look at me for a moment, then nod. They’ve heard this before and though it’s not their first choice, they’ll do their best. My five-year-old daughter waits a whole minute before starting to ask me for something, then catches herself and stops mid-sentence. I hug her and feel taken care of.

After the five minutes are up I switch gears and let myself be needed again. Then when they go to bed, I pretend I’m my own mother and have a short debate with myself about the choice between work and sleep. I imagine how beautiful it would feel to heed rather than fight my droopy eyelids, and crawl into bed shortly after.

The next morning after I drop them off at camp, rather than immediately launching into battle with my email, rather than ripping off the mask, I bring myself to my mat for a gentle yoga practice. I move consciously and breathe deeply, because no one else can do it for me.

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Can you imagine life without your cell phone?

An article I stumbled upon recently referenced a controversial story from a couple years ago theorizing that because Lithium (used in laptop, electric car, and cell phone batteries) is being used so excessively, the world’s supply would be depleted within a few years. The article came to a conclusion that would be alarming to some and welcome for others: by 2015 these tiny pocket computers we call cell phones may be gone.

After finishing the article I looked up from my computer screen at the wall in front of me, taking in the taped-up rainbow, heart, and bumblebee artwork my kids had made me. Then something caught my eye out my window and I turned to see a squirrel skittering across the window ledge, stopping to eat what looked like an apple. Watching the way the squirrel alternately spun and nibbled the big apple in its tiny paws, I took a deep breath and imagined a slower world, though I realized this was not the intended effect of the alarmist article.

Then my phone whistled. b2ap3_thumbnail_Multitasking.JPGTwo, three, and four whistles later (all within the span of a minute), my phone warned that potentially important stuff wanted me to look at it. I felt the itch, that urgency of digital now that I’ve become so familiar with over the past few years, so I obligingly punched in the password only to find the messages were a string of silliness that started with a photo and continued with increasingly wittier and wittier remarks.

I was slow to join the texting, social media-ing, digital world, but after doing so I quickly became obsessed. I drained hours unearthing the unsatisfying life details of people from my past who I was barely friends with in the first place. After several months of bouncing between loving and hating it, I realized a familiar pattern of extremism, much like I’ve been through with food and exercise. Just as in those cases, I came to realize the digital world wasn’t the problem. I was.

It was my choice to let my squirrel-watching be interrupted by a text message, just like it’s my choice to let the shiny promise of a clever new post or hilarious video oblige me to drop whatever I’m doing, squirrel-watching or otherwise, to play digital catch-up.

The digital world is so new. Many of us are still in the binge phase, simultaneously gobbling up these technologies while also needing, wishing for our proverbial moms to turn it off and say, “Enough!” As the mom of a 7 and 5 year-old, I know the day will soon come when I need to help them learn to navigate this world, so I figured I’d start by coming up with some guidelines (and trying to follow them myself):

1. Get a low-tech start to your day. Rather than jumping into the digital world first thing in the morning and finding myself overcome with envy over a friend’s awesome Mediterranean vacation photos or unease over the regurgitation and reinterpretation of a tragic news story, I start my day with 30 minutes of self-care (yoga, meditation, swimming, or walking) that centers and grounds me on a body/mind/breath level so I enter the digital world on my own terms rather than getting engulfed by it.

2. Check in: "I could engage now, but do I need to?” The trouble with having a computer in your pocket is that you hear every whistle or ring the moment a notification comes through, and it can be easy to think that you must therefore respond immediately. No matter how urgently my phone beckons, before reflexively picking it up I pull my hand back, take a deep breath, and ask myself if the world would end if I didn’t get to the message within the first minute of its arrival.

3. Create “technology-free” zones. Decide as a household what areas of your home (dinner table, bedroom, etc.) are designated places where you agree not to use technology. I also like to create windows of time (the afterschool hours or a weekend day) where I commit to taking a break from my devices.

4. Set a timer. In the same way that a parent limits a child’s screen time to teach self-regulation, set limits for when you’ll go on social media and how much time you’ll spend there. That part is easy. The hard part, I’ve found, is sticking to those limits even when the whining child in me begs for just five more minutes.

5. Quit planning your next profile pic. Nothing sucks the joy out of a beautiful, spontaneous moment like wondering how to best memorialize it on Facebook. Life is to be lived, not exhaustively documented. When I feel the urge to pull out your phone to capture a great moment with my kids or with friends, I try to remind myself to put down the phone, make eye contact with the people I’m with, and engage in the revolutionary act of being right where I am in the moment.

6.  If all else fails, go outside! With the heavy reliance on computers and mobile devices for work and communication, for hours at a time your whole world may be reduced to a glowing screen. When I start to feel myself really getting sucked in, I turn off the computer, ditch my phone, and engage with the natural world (no matter the weather - cold, rainy, snowy, or windy days work just fine) to remind myself how sweet life beyond the screen can be.

I’ve come to realize that technology is a neutral force and I don’t need a global lithium shortage to rescue me from my tendencies toward digital overload. By becoming more conscious about the ways I self-regulate time spent engaging with technology, I’m practicing coming to it on my own terms to harness the benefits without becoming overwhelmed by the vastness of it all.

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As a kid I often wondered whether my mom had psychic powers. How else could she have known to warn me that I was too tired to go roller skating that one summer afternoon (the time when I insisted, went anyway, then fell and broke my leg)?

The other night as I was putting my own 5 year old daughter to bed I gave her a quick kiss on the forehead, my usual sendoff to slumber. In the half-second that my lips grazed her soft smooth skin, I received information that told me, despite the fact that she had just been dancing and singing and goofing off energetically for the last hour, despite the fact that she protested going to sleep claiming she wasn’t tired, despite the fact that it was too dark in her room for me to see anything more than a silhouette of her almost-sleeping body, that tomorrow morning she would wake up under the weather.

I no longer attribute this to any kind of Super Mom psychic powers. When you’re in a rhythm with another being day in and day out – whether that being is your significant other, your aging parent, your pet, your child, or even yourself – the most subtle signals read like billboards. And if you’re a dedicated yoga practitioner who is accustomed to tuning into subtlety in the body, mind, and breath, the signs are even more apparent. The trick is in what you do with that information.

It’s easy with my own kids. In the minute that followed the forehead kiss, I recalibrated our plans for the next day, knowing she wouldn’t have a raging fever that would require a trip to the doctor, but the outing to the swimming pool needed to be scrapped. I mentally shifted our plans to a day of lounging around rather than running around so we could catch this little bug before it really caught hold.

That next morning my not-so-psychic powers were confirmed so she and I cuddled on the couch in our pajamas, read books, and drank plenty of water. It was all so cozy and nice, I felt like I was getting mothered a little, too.

A few days later, part three of my own winter cold trilogy presented itself. As I trudged to the studio for a day full of to-dos and deadlines, I considered what I would suggest if I were my own mother. How might I kiss myself on the forehead, take my own figurative temperature, and then more importantly what might I do to recalibrate my plans for the day?

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By the time I arrived at the studio, I had the answer. I took out a bolster, blocks, and blankets galore and set myself up in the most delicious restorative pose (supta baddha konasana, reclining bound angle, or as it is also called, Queen pose!) and stayed there for fifteen blissful minutes. I even tossed a blanket over myself to keep warm, tucking myself in just as I would my daughter, recalling how good it felt when my mom used to tuck me in. In those first few moments as my eyes closed, my breathing slowed, and my whole body began to soften and embrace the supportive hug of the props, I smiled thinking of the forehead kiss I was bestowing upon myself, giddy remembering that I have the power to take really good care of myself anytime I choose.

My daughter’s little illness came and went without much fanfare, as if because we acknowledged it rather than trying to pushing it down, it did its work on her body more efficiently. She didn’t ask about going to the pool that day and didn’t seem particularly perplexed at how I could know she wasn’t feeling well just from a kiss. Instead she surrendered to the pajama morning, the books, and the cuddles. I went into the kitchen to cut some apple slices for us to share and when I walked into the dining room I found her lying on the floor in my usual restorative yoga spot with her legs up the wall. She scooted over to make some room and invited me to join her, so I rolled onto the ground, slid my legs up, and we both laid there, just breathing and smiling, taking very good care of ourselves.

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Can you imagine what your day would look like if you paid as much attention to your own battery levels as you did your phone’s?

Two weeks ago when my kids were home and our family was living in the limbo between summer activities and the start of school, I’d play outside with them for much of the day, compensating by shifting my workday to the post-bedtime hours. After a few late nights I was feeling run down and somewhat Mean Mommy-ish, but every evening I’d still find myself at my desk as the clock ticked past midnight. No matter how late I had stayed up, before I shut off the light and called it quits for the day I’d always double check that my phone was plugged in.

The battery on my phone predictably dies within a day, even when I haven’t used it. It’s been this way since I got the new phone six months ago, so after it died on me once or twice I noted the issue and have remained vigilant about checking my battery and recharging as needed. (Another approach would have been to just buy another battery, but that’s the subject of another post.)

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The sight of my fully charged phone – that proud green bar with a powerful little lightning bolt – makes me feel ready for anything that life throws at me. As the hours wear on and the battery level goes down, I check the battery display obsessively, worried about getting to the piddly yellow band or (gasp!) the dreaded red stripe accompanied by that terrible beep that signals the near-end of my phone battery’s life.

Without consciously setting rules, over the past few months I’ve adopted an unspoken method for keeping my phone juiced up. If my battery is more than halfway charged, I leave it alone for the day knowing it’ll be okay until I can charge it up overnight. If it’s less than halfway charged I strategize, no matter where I am, to figure out when and where I can plug it in. In extreme cases if I know there won’t be a recharging opportunity for a while, I’ll often just shut the phone off to conserve its precious energy.

When I consider the gymnastics I put myself through for this device (particularly considering that I’m anything but phone-obsessed), it seems laughable. I rationalize it because as a mom with young children and a business owner I rely on my phone, and these are the hard-and-fast rules it presents me. There’s no bargaining for just a few more minutes so I can finish a text message to let my husband know my phone is dying and we’ll be staying at the park for a while longer, or to call back a client who wants to know more about bringing yoga to her workplace.

I really never thought much about this recharging craziness until my friend and colleague Lisa Sandquist mentioned the idea in the context of restorative yoga, noting the irony of how vigilant we are about phone and device recharging, when it never even occurs to most of us (even the yoga teachers among us – ahem!) to apply the same concept to our own energy levels.  I’ve unfortunately become an expert at taking myself beyond the red bar, deaf to my own terrible version of the beep that comes when I’m overtired and grouchy.

Since Lisa planted the seed, I’ve been pretending that I’m a device that must be adequately charged in order to function. On nights when I’m super tired, even if I have work to do I pretend that my battery doesn’t have an override setting. I pretend that there’s no dark chocolate waiting for me in the pantry to give me that boost to work till 2AM. Instead I lie down on the floor and throw my legs up the wall for 10 minutes.  I breathe deeply and acknowledge my tiredness rather than trying to push through or beyond it.

When I emerge from that 10-minute plug-in, I feel different. Not fully recharged (that only comes with a few nights of consistent good sleep), but nowhere near the yellow or red. I’m solidly in the green, and I approach everything that comes after that in my day differently. Some of the softness of my restorative yoga break comes with me as I decide how to spend my time, how to move, how to speak.

This calls for svadyaya, self-study!

If I can modify my phone plug-in behavior based on hourly checks of a quarter-inch green bar, I can certainly learn to look inward once or twice a day to determine whether my body/mind may be in need of a recharge for a few minutes.

Humans don’t come equipped with bright, shiny, LED screens or that terrifying low battery sound. But with the conscious practice of yoga and self-awareness, we can learn to see the signals almost as clearly as if they were green, yellow, or red bars. 

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Posted by on in Yoga

It was a perfect Memorial Day weekend – my family and I played baseball in the backyard, followed by a rowdy game of tag at the park, a long bike ride (we ♥ Bike the Drive!), and wrapped it all up with a barbecue followed by a round of mini golf. We spent our days running, laughing, jumping, playing, and by Monday night I felt tired, but exquisitely alive.

Then Tuesday morning hit and as I kicked my legs over the side of the bed and stepped onto the hardwood floor, my body recoiled. Too much outdoor fun made for an achy morning after. When the warmer weather comes my family and I go a little bananas with the outdoor activities, and while it’s a relief from our comparatively less-active winter lifestyle, my body clearly needed something more than just activity.

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I creaked my way down to the living room floor to roll out my old friend, my yoga mat. As I stretched my hands forward into a satisfying child’s pose and rocked with my breath in cat-and-cow, I sighed in relief. By the time I rolled up from my first standing forward fold, my spine was tingling in the most incredible way. It was as if my whole body was breathing.

Then my husband walked in and the kids ran to sit on his lap, rubbing their sleepy eyes and watching me practice. “This yoga stuff is pretty amazing.” I said, unsurprised, for what was probably the 1000th time.

I’m a very physical person. Growing up I played softball, volleyball, or basketball nearly every day after school, and if I wasn’t in sports I was at dance class. As an adult it took me a while to realize it, but after paying attention to my habits for a few months I learned that my moods are closely correlated to both the amount of movement I get on a daily basis and how much time I spend outdoors. If I don’t get a good walk or bike ride, look out. Mean Mommy is likely to be just around the corner.

But the movement piece of my self-care routine (and Mean Mommy prevention regimen) is made up of two complementary components that are both opposites and integrally related to each other.

Especially given the fact that most adults (and sadly many kids, too) lead a very sedentary lifestyle – driving to work, taking the elevator, sitting at a desk all day, driving back home, and collapsing onto the couch – the warm weather and increase in activity level is a positive and very welcome change.

Isn’t it enough to just be a summer athlete? Do you really need yoga when the rest of your day has been so active already?

Playing outside in the summer works your body in unfamiliar ways. You’ve heard of the weekend warrior – consider the impact of the summertime warrior who suddenly becomes a 5K runner, a beach volleyball player, a triathlete, or a 16″ softball player just because the thermometer hovers above 80 degrees for a few weeks. How can the body handle this level of extremism without some negative consequence?

People often ask me if classes slow down at Bloom in the summer, expecting that as people go outside to exercise and enjoy some summer fun, they have less of a need for yoga.

But there are no summer tumbleweeds here! I think it’s because Bloom students realize yoga is not the same thing as exercise, and they don’t see it as an either/or proposition. Yoga is so much more than moving your body, so much more than stretching and strengthening, although those benefits are all part of the equation.

What I love about yoga, what’s kept me engaged with practice after 17 years (long after any fitness trend would have worn thin) is that it gives me a chance to slow down and pay attention to what’s going on on a body-mind-breath level. All the stuff I do on the mat is not the point, it’s the vehicle. Yoga practice gives me the tools to better know myself and my habits, and to better be able to identify and meet my needs as they arise, rather than overriding them.

Why would the need to pay attention and take better care of yourself stop just because it’s summer?

What I’ve seen at Bloom in the summertime inspires me. School teachers show up to daytime classes, summertime warriors mellow out in a Gentle class after a long run, workers with flexible schedules drop in on a Friday afternoon, friends catch some evening yoga before heading out to enjoy live music or dinner at a sidewalk cafe.

This is yoga practice at its best, this is the stuff that goes way beyond just knowing the proper foot alignment in warrior I or being able to recite the yamas and niyamas.

This is real people, in real life, making decisions about how to better care for themselves on a moment-to-moment basis.

And there it is. More tingling in my spine as I think about it. Only this time for different reasons.

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