Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

Posted by on in Yoga

Have you ever been in a yoga pose that was so unbearably uncomfortable you started to resent your teacher for making you stay in it, only to look around the room and see a handful of other students who seemingly could happily nap in the same pose? 

I’ve definitely been there, and in my early days as a yoga student I always just thought discomfort in a pose was something I had to work through and that it would get better once I was stronger or more open. After almost 20 years of yoga practice, I now realize there’s another way to approach these sorts of challenges on the mat and I’m incredibly grateful to find that principle following me off the mat as I prepare for a very big year personally.

Some yoga poses just don’t feel right initially. This week with in teacher training we were exploring upavistha konasana, seated wide angle forward fold. Upavistha is a “love it” or “hate it” pose, one that either clicks for students or doesn’t, and when it doesn’t it’s exceedingly unpleasant. b2ap3_thumbnail_BloomYogaForwardBendSeated.gif

One of the themes we harp on over and over again in teacher training is the fact that every pose is completely different from one body to another. Your experience of loving or hating a pose is often a result of a variety of factors, including bone structure, limb length and proportions, and a lack of mobility in certain muscle groups.

Upavistha will give you lots of trouble if there’s any restriction in your hip flexors, groins, inner thighs, or hamstrings. Tightness in these muscle groups can rock the pelvis backwards in a way that causes overwork in the low back and makes it nearly impossible to sit up straight, despite your best yogic intentions and your teacher’s encouragement.

Here’s the cool thing – if you find yourself in this sort of struggle with a pose, upavistha or otherwise, there’s something you can do about it. That’s a relief, right? Many students just assume that uncomfortable poses are meant to be that way. Challenge has its place, but I’m a big believer in learning to distinguish between necessary and appropriate challenges, and those that can be alleviated, both on and off the mat.

My husband Zach and I have a very big year ahead between preparing to welcome our third child into the world this summer and renovating our home to accommodate our new family of five. Though upavistha and project New Baby/New Home present me with completely different challenges, I know my handy dandy yoga toolkit can help me in both cases. 

Rather than letting myself get overwhelmed when faced with a challenge, I can take a deep breath, choose to look at things rationally, and ask myself a few basic questions:

1.What IS NOT possible for me to change in this moment? 

On the mat answer - “My hips and legs are chronically tight.”

Off the mat answer - “I’m having a baby and doing a home renovation simultaneously!”

2.What IS possible to change in this moment? 

On the mat answer - “I can sit higher up to lessen the hip restriction I experience in the pose, or I can place my hands behind me and lean back instead of forward folding.”

Off the mat answer – “I can delegate more to my wonderful and very capable staff, and my husband Zach and I can commit to simplifying by saying no to any additional projects or commitments that are not absolutely essential right now.”

3.What is the impact of the proposed change? Did it help or hurt?

As a yoga teacher and teacher trainer, I’m always trying to model a willingness to be curious with my students and to acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes a suggested change makes the pose feel worse, sometimes it makes it better. Only the individual in the pose can know the difference, and my goal as a teacher is to empower students to honestly evaluate the impact of the change. If it didn’t help, we can always try something else.

In family life, acknowledging a busy time by making real changes in schedule and commitments is almost always a good move. But knowing that I can be a bit reactionary at times, I’ll have to pay attention over the course of the next year and make sure I don’t withdraw from everything and just head into the isolation of our baby-renovation bunker. Stay tuned for more news on that as plans (and my belly) develop….

Every Thursday night when I come home from teacher training I’m all smiles and chattiness. I tell Zach about some great new insight a trainee shared or something funny that happened in class, and I just gush about how grateful I am to have the opportunity to work with such fabulous people over the course of 10 months. I love empowering these dedicated yoga practitioners and teachers-in-training to trust what they already know and make changes that make the practice work for them. There’s nothing better than seeing the look on a student’s face when a “hate it” pose turns into a “love it” pose (or at least a “tolerate it” pose!). Thank you, upavistha and fabulous trainees. Thank you, project New Baby/New Home. Thank you, yoga.

 

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Are you sick of shame lurking behind your New Year’s exercise and diet resolutions

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I love January for its promise of a fresh start around the choices we make as we open the fridge or lace up our running shoes, particularly after the food-drink-dessert bombardment of the holidays and the distortion of well-established movement routines.

But while the New Year is as good a time as any to recommit to health of the body and mind, I’ve finally realized that I’m just not motivated by resolutions packaged in negative self-talk and tied up with a pretty read bow of shame. Shame makes health a precarious tightrope walk, and after one misstep it’s so easy to just eat the whole big bag of chips since I’m already plummeting toward the safety net anyway.

So how do you remove shame but keep the motivation to change your eating and exercise habits? The only thing that’s worked for me is to think differently about the whys and hows behind my resolutions.

 

Ask yourself “why?” 

You can’t reasonably expect a change to stick if you don’t know why you’re doing it in the first place. Are your diet and exercise goals motivated by a desire to lose weight, to look a certain way, or to feel healthier and more energetic? Is it some combination of the three? If you don’t know the why behind what you want (or if your “why” is really a “should”) lasting change won’t happen. Once you get past the initial honeymoon stage of your snazzy new diet and exercise resolutions, there’ll be days when you’re just too tired or too busy. Your “why” may be the thing that helps you get over the hump and recommit to the new plan.

 

Choose your own adventure

Once you know your “why,” let it guide your choices and routines. If, for example, your goal is to feel healthier and more energetic, why would you put yourself in a fitness class that has you staring at yourself in the mirror as you work on getting a beach-ready body? Instead of suffering through the latest celebrity-endorsed fitness and diet fads, find ways to eat and move that help you feel both healthier AND happier. My New Year’s exercise and diet resolutions used to be motivated by a desire to punish myself after a particularly rich string of holiday meals and couch-sitting. But like a rebellious teenager, I’d just end up acting out and bailing on my exercise and dietary penance.

 

Get real about your expectations

Recent studies have shown that (gasp!) exercise is not all that effective in creating weight loss. The conclusion from this study is that fitness and cardiovascular health are more important than the actual number on the scale, but it also means that many of us set unrealistic expectations each January when we visualize ourselves post-workout with glistening abs and a svelte new physique. If your “why” is purely weight loss, this study is a big bummer, I know. But if your “why” also includes a desire to enhance your overall health and feel more energetic, the good news is that you have lots of options and you may even enjoy them in the process. There’s some exciting new evidence that yoga may be as beneficial for heart health as brisk walking and biking. Yay, yoga!

 

Abandon the forbidden food list

There’s nothing more tempting than that which is forbidden. I spent years creating a warped internal logic about what I could and couldn’t eat (based on a hodge-podge of advice gleaned from such reliable sources as magazines, the internet, and overheard conversations at the health food store). You know what it led to? Me stuffing a 10th syrupy piece of my grandma’s baklava in my mouth on New Year’s Eve after having so virtuously foregone desserts the whole month of December. My new strategy revolves around eating real whole foods as the base of my diet and listening to that little voice that wants dessert. It knows what it’s talking about and WILL get its way eventually, so when I listen and enjoy a treat, it prevents me ending up in a fog of stuffed baklava regret later.

 

Put less weight in your weight

When it comes to health, it’s important to remember that weight is only one factor in the larger picture. Heart health, lowered stress, and overall feelings of well-being have a significant impact on the state of your health even if you’re carrying around an extra 5 or 10 pounds. Of course, weight, BMI, and other health factors are highly individualized and for those who are clinically overweight the numbers are a big deal. But when you’re already in a healthy weight range and you’re just battling a few stubborn pounds, it may be a good idea to examine whether the war you’re waging is enhancing your health and happiness or detracting from it.

 

Here’s to your continued health, happiness, and to resolutions without shame!

 

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As we’ve been celebrating and reflecting on Bloom’s 10 year anniversary with our staff, teachers, and students over the past month, certain conversational themes have continually reemerged.

“Can you believe it’s been 10 years? How does it feel?”

They’re hard questions to answer. On one hand it feels like the time has flown by, and on the other I can’t remember what used to occupy my thoughts when I wasn’t musing about yoga class schedules, massage appointments, the best way to build community, or how to continually improve our teacher training curriculum. I can’t recall a time when I didn’t have to fight the urge to keep working late at night or on weekends because of a pesky sentence in my latest blog post that just wasn’t quite right. Zach and Kerry at Bloom's Grand Opening in 2004

How do you describe the experience of spending each day focused on the tasks at hand – gradually growing our class offerings and developing new programs – then waking up one day at a party with 100 smiling faces toasting the fact that 10 wonderful years have gone by?

It feels like a time warp, it feels just right, it feels like yoga. Now a decade in, I know so much more about what’s important and where to let go.

When Zach and I were first married 14 years ago, we struggled to find that very balance. We were young, strong-willed, competitive, playful, and fiercely in love. Our good days were exquisitely fun, inspiring, and full of laughter. Our bad days, well….

We spent a lot of time in those first few years learning how to fight. At our weekly doubles tennis match with another young couple, half the time one of us would throw a racket or storm off the court enraged at the others’ unsatisfactory play, and we wouldn’t talk to each other for the rest of the day. Those fights felt so important in the moment (and surely they were – I mean, tennis is serious business). Our poor tennis friends couldn’t understand why we cared this much about a game. But it wasn’t what we were fighting about that mattered. What mattered was learning to communicate, to disagree, to express strong emotions, and to parse out what counts and what should just be forgiven and forgotten.

Thanks to those tumultuous early years and our hours of conversational nit-picking, after slugging through day after day of little fights, pettiness, and silliness, Zach and I are now able to work our way through a disagreement in a much more civilized way. So much so that I sometimes have a similar shock of recognition, a feeling of amazement as if I just woke up one day and we knew how to communicate. Because it's such a stark contrast it can be tempting to see it as more a magical transformation than a gradual evolution, as if those 14 years of consistent conversations had nothing to do with it. But truly, it was slow and often very painful (especially for our friends who had to witness it), and now here we are.

My relationship with Bloom has undergone a similar evolution, though fortunately much less dramatically since Zach and my relationship provided the training wheels for learning this process of gradual change. Rather than having to deal with drama or petty fights at Bloom, challenging incidents would pop up, like in early 2005 at our very first Midnight Yoga workshop when we had 35 enrolled students and a waitlist and we also discovered a serious leak in the studio where class was to be held just an hour before start time. I ran around like a crazy person, placing buckets and towels and calling our property management company with politely-worded threats about why this was an emergency that needed immediate resolution (as if a leak is ever that easy). Though it was not how I’d envisioned our first big workshop going, class went fine despite the musical accompaniment of drops in buckets and a blue tarp sprawled across a ladder decorating the room.

What I know now after years of day-in and day-out operations is that there's always something. In the early years, I’d face a challenge that seemed devastating at the time (a beloved teacher moving out of state, an unhappy student, a leak, a technology fail that meant we couldn’t run credit cards during a busy class sign-in). As I was dealing with the incident I’d console myself with the thought that when this was over, things would go back to normal.

But like life and love, there’s no normal with a small business. There is only change. The yoga of long-term commitment is knowing that you can’t always predict what the change will look like, but if you let go a little and roll with it, you’ll make it through just fine.

As a young married couple and new business owners we approached every problem like it was the first time anyone in the world had faced such a challenge, but 10+ years of commitment and consistency has shown us that, thankfully, we are not unique. The world has seen infinite other loves, other fights, other businesses before us, and will see many more after us.

10+ years feels like trust and steadiness, even when the ground is shaky. It’s knowing that when the city tore up our street right before our big 10 year anniversary party, it was inconvenient but survivable. We trust that opening our doors every day and doing our very best has gotten us this far, and will move us into the future, too. I’m infinitely grateful for both my wonderful husband and the incredible community that is Bloom. These experiences of love, challenge, and commitment have helped me grow in more ways than I can name. Here’s to the next 10 years of both, day by day. I can only imagine where we’ll go in that time.

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On our daily walk to school, my kids and I pass a stretch of sidewalk on Rockwell that had been crumbling over the past year. More accurately it had evolved into a pile of rubble with a few patches of solid sidewalk. After reporting it to 311 a few times, I’d eventually just grown accustomed to dodging the dodgy parts and held out only a faint hope that someday it might change.

Then on a recent morning that was not much different from the one before it, the kids stopped in their tracks when they saw that the whole stretch had been dug up. The crumbling sidewalk was now a long ditch of dirt surrounded by yellow plastic tape and bounded on both sides by a sign that read, “Sidewalk closed. Please use other side.”

But somehow, every time I walked the kids to and from school for the next week, I’d find myself standing in front of that sign, not having had the presence of mind to alter my usual course before getting there. Judging by the growing rut that was developing in the grass next to the pit, the other commuters who marched this path were doing the same. All of us ignoring, or simply forgetting about, the sign’s plea until it was too late and habit won over. Once the concrete set a week later, the sidewalk was reopened and we all kept on in our usual way, the ruts of our daily walk again hidden by smooth, gray concrete.

When yoga practice becomes just another rut

Because the physical part of yoga requires repetition of the same shapes and breathing practices again and again, your time on the mat could easily become just another of life’s habitual routines. You know the drill: chaturanga, up dog, down dog, repeat. On the other hand, when you go to class and your teacher inspires you to try a different variation or prop set-up for a pose, when you cultivate a certain quality of attention to your practice, yoga can be a tool for uncovering ruts, much like a construction crew’s sledgehammer.b2ap3_thumbnail_Down-Dog-Rut-2.jpg

Down dog is a classic rut pose. Because the pose makes an appearance in almost every class (often multiple times if you’re practicing sun salutes), yoga practitioners often develop habitual down dog routines. Some people are wigglers, foot-pedalers, or sighers. Others are head-nodders, shoulder-hangers, or constant-adjusters.

I have my own little habits, and I’ve been paying closer attention to them this week on the mat. When I move from cobra into down dog in a sun salute, there’s a lot of oomph involved in simply getting my body from a prone position to an upside-down one. With all my attention on the muscular work of pushing up against gravity, hand and foot placement isn’t usually the first thing on my mind. But once I’m back in down dog, upside-down, feet staring me in the face, those little misalignments become glaringly obvious and the recovering alignment-stickler in me almost can’t take it. Is there anything wrong with making a few adjustments to my foot positioning once I get in the pose?

Of course not. But……

Here’s what I learned: my down dog adjustments are pretty much the same every time. A ha! A rut!

If my right foot always ends up a few inches forward of my left, that means my innocent little down dog foot adjustments were obscuring and deepening a rut in a way that has implications on strength, flexibility, and balance from one side of my body to the other. While my foot position in down dog isn’t a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, what I hadn’t been seeing because of this hidden rut revealed something bigger than just my lack of “perfect” alignment.

How to break out of ruts on and off the mat

Breaking out of a rut in your practice does not necessarily involve practicing a new or more difficult pose. It simply involves practicing differently.

Imagine your mat is made of wet concrete so your down dog footprints and subsequent shifting are made visible. How does that change the way you move into the pose?

Check your attachments at the door and instead be open when a teacher suggests a new variation or prop set-up for a familiar pose. What can you learn physically, mentally, and emotionally from a different approach?

If yoga makes you stronger and more flexible, great.

If it helps you to find greater peace and calm, fantastic.

But yoga’s greatest gift may be something else entirely.

What if instead of going on autopilot through chaturanga, up dog, and down dog, you could move consciously enough to discover a long-held habit? What if this simple practice of integrating body, mind, and breath could follow you out of the studio? What if you were able to be more present in conversations with people you love, more aware of the changing leaves on the route you habitually take to work, better able to recognize your ruts (physically, mentally, and emotionally)?

The crumbling sidewalk and slight inconvenience of its repair helped me to see something that had been hidden in plain sight, and it reminded me of why I keep coming back to the mat. Yes, I practice because it makes me feel better physically, mentally, and emotionally. But I don't just want to feel better today, I want to grow and change and become a more fully expressed version of myself. I want to bloom. You can only change what you can see. I'm incredibly grateful to have the help of a mindful approach to yoga to reveal my habits and patterns in a way that’s as plain as a footprint in wet concrete.

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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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