Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

With mindfulness and 'being present' all the rage these days, it's got me wondering: considering the fact that many of us can't even 'be present' while operating heavy machinery (the admitted rate of texting while driving is now 31%), the overemphasis on being mindful of every step, every bite, and every breath seems like a lot of unnecessary pressure. Do we really need one more impossible standard to measure up against?

I'm a firm believer in lowering expectations as a technique for removing some of the pressure and getting out of your own way. 

When a student asks me how to start practicing yoga at home, I tell them to pick their favorite pose and start with five minutes. They always look at me like I'm crazy, surprised that a yoga teacher and studio owner would suggest that something so small could make a difference. I relay the story about the years I spent not doing the daily 90-minute home practice I told myself I 'should' be doing. In my mind, my home practice loomed intimidatingly large. What I didn't realize was that if I turned that practice into a small moment, just one tiny piece of my day, I would be comfortable enough to get to my mat and be present for that brief time, and that would mean more than the most brilliant 90-minute home sequence I could imagine (but never actually do).

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Yoga is all about thinking little. The poses themselves are much like a string of little moments: the conscious placement of one foot to bisect the arch of the other, the slight softening behind a knee, breathing, extending, hinging and lightly placing a hand on a block or shin. Triangle is the big picture, it's what we call that string of little moments, but it's not just a shape or an arrival point. Triangle, like any yoga pose, is one chance after another to be present and practice mindfulness.

Sometimes that means popping out of the present moment to ponder that ever-important item you keep forgetting to add to your grocery list (sneaky yogurt!), but that pop-out moment is what the practice of 'being present' (and the practice of yoga) is all about. If you were in a sustained state of presence, well, you would be a baby. And you probably wouldn't have much need for attending a yoga class, although your mom or dad likely would.

Through the developmental stages there's more wiggle room for distraction and multi-tasking to enter into the picture, which makes little moments of presence all the more important and poignant.

I still remember one particular thunderstorm from a summer when I was little, maybe 6 or so. The storm itself was not particularly memorable. But as rain beat the screens of the high bank of windows in our family room where my mom and I had been watching television, the power went out. After a confused minute of trying every button on the remote, my mom picked up a balloon that was lying around (there always seemed to be balloons around our house when I was little, as my grandparents owned a balloon business), and we played 'keep it up' in the fading light. At first we batted the pink balloon back and forth casually, but soon we were diving, laughing, doing whatever it took to keep the balloon from touching the floor. 

It was a small moment in an otherwise very full childhood summer, and I'm sure my mom doesn't even remember it now, but to me it was big. It was a moment of pure presence and true love and companionship, a moment that transcended whatever terrible television show we were inside watching as the cicadas droned on outside. It was big because of its smallness.

I often wonder what my own children will reflect on as adults, what they'll remember of our days together in this sweet and messy time of early childhood. Will it be the silly poems we made up on the walk home from school, or the fact that I yelled at them to put their shoes away once we got home? Will they remember the sound of my voice singing 'Twinkle, Twinkle' as I stroked their hair after a bad dream, or will it be my dull, transparently distracted reply to their requests to help with an important project to cut circles from the centers of 20 pieces of construction paper?

As a parent, I've had to make peace with the fact that I will not be present in every moment, that sometimes I will lose my temper instead of patiently responding with a smile. For me, this takes the pressure off and gives me permission to forgive the Mean Mommy slip-ups so I can get back to having fun with my sweet littles. 

Both as a yoga practitioner and a mom, I take great joy in the little moments and practice forgiving the bigger slip-ups, knowing that sustained presence just isn't in the cards for any of us beyond toddlerdom. If my yoga practice tomorrow morning yields just one moment of recognition of the incredible experience of vitality throughout my spine as I hang in a forward fold, that will be enough. If I can lose myself in just one rowdy game of 'keep it up' with my kids this summer as my mom did with me when I was little, I'll consider it a summer well spent. I'll leave the big task of 'being present' to others. For now I'm thinking little.

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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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It's officially over.

The Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program that has been an amazing source of information, ideas, and support (as well as the cause of many late nights spent at my computer) came to a close a few weeks ago, and I'm still processing all that I learned along the way.

In a nutshell, the 3-month program provides small business owners with a practical education in how to better run their business as well as access to support in pursuing an opportunity to grow. I learned so many great things that I've already begun to apply at the studio, and the program opened my eyes to new ways to see both my role at Bloom and the direction we're headed.

The buzz word of the program was growth - what it means, why it's important, and how to make it happen. I struggled against what I initially perceived to be pressure to prioritize profit over passion and purpose. The more I compared myself to other business owners or to external expectations for growth, the more I began to feel off-kilter and confused. Midway through the program, I panicked. Should I be trying to come up with some brilliant new yoga gimmick? Should I be a business owner who aims to put a yoga studio on every corner? Should my ambitions be bigger?

This line of thinking sent me down a dark, bumpy path of self-doubt and judgment. So I did what I always do when I feel off-center and disconnected: I rolled out my yoga mat.

I've come to the mat thousands of times before, but each has been a new experience. Some days I've had a spark of inspiration in child's pose and had to scramble to find pen and paper to write out (in my terrible chicken scratch) the next Thinking Yogi post or article I want to publish. On other days, I've forced myself through a practice that felt dull and uninispired wondering why I didn't just stay in bed.

But despite all of the confusion in my head and heart that day, despite the stress and self-doubt and worry I felt over whether the growth I was contemplating was 'right,' coming to the mat made things so simple, so clear. I sat tall, closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and found my smile.

Bloom's vision is my vision for my own life, too.

I want to be happy and healthy.
I want to experience and enjoy the present moment rather than constantly striving.
I want do purposeful work that I love, connect with good people, grow and change, and be creative and inspired.

The growth I'm seeking at Bloom isn't all about the bottom line. The reason I started the studio is to make wellness more accessible. I believe yoga and massage can help people to feel happier and healthier in daily life, and I wanted to create a community that makes it easy and fun for people of all ages, stages of life, and levels of fitness or flexibility to give it a go. Every new class or program we've offered has been a direct result of that core belief.

Yes, the bottom line is important, but it's not what gets me up in the morning. I'm inspired by sharing what I love with others, excited when yoga and massage changes someone's whole day-to-day experience of life, thrilled when our students consider Bloom their home away from home.

So with all that said, just what sort of growth is in store for Bloom?

Here's what I'm excited about!

    • Promoting wellbeing at work - bringing stress-reduction and wellness (via yoga, massage, and meditation) to more folks right where they work
    • Taking yoga on vacation - bringing our community together beyond the studio walls in new, beautiful locations (our popular Maya Tulum retreat is likely to fill up again this year...)

After initially having moments of self-doubt and judgement in the program when I tried to fit myself into a certain business owner mold because I thought I 'should,' I soon realized that there is no one right way to grow. When I look at these four areas of growth I know what lies ahead at the studio is organic and true and aligned with our vision. And so we continually cycle back to what we do best, we revisit and revamp what we love, we grow, we Bloom.

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After a late night work session I drag myself onto the yoga mat at 6am for a brief practice, knowing the fully scheduled day ahead will leave no room for the complete yoga class I'm really needing. I stand at the top of my mat in tadasana, or mountain pose, trying to ground, to rise, to be the mountain, but it seems the only mountain in my life right now is the mountain of work that awaits again today.

As my arms float out to the sides I begin to draw in a deep breath, but by the time my arms have reached shoulder height I realize I'm holding it, the inhalation has petered out. My breath is completely held as I make my way up to urdhva hastasana, or upward salute. I begin the exhale as I fold forward and it seems that the breath can go out forever, like there's no limit to how long I can exhale. I play with the inhale again as I extend into half forward fold, but the same thing happens. My in-breath starts out strong, like a flood, then midway through there's no more room to expand and take in. My deep exhalation as I fold into uttanasana, or standing forward fold, confirms it:

My breath is trying to tell me something.

From a physiological perspective, there's nothing 'wrong' with the breathing I've just described. The lungs do their job whether we are conscious of it or not, and the body and brain will get the oxygen they need just because the human body is an incredible system. But the writer in me couldn't help but notice the analogy here.

I'm less than two weeks away from graduating from 10,000 Small Businesses, the small business education and support program I've participated in for the past few months. Since January, in addition to my regular work load and family obligations, I've been fortunate enough to participate in fantastic business education modules that have encouraged me to think about Bloom in a new way, to come up with better systems to keep the studio running well, and to consider a variety of ways to help Bloom to continue to grow and flourish in the future. It has been nothing short of an incredible gift and an opportunity I'm endlessly grateful to have had.

That doesn't mean it's been easy (as rewarding things often aren't).

Because I've had to sacrifice on sleep and self-care in order to get all my work done these past few months, I've actually become quite comfortable in that mode. For the first month or so I was surprised to find myself voluntarily signing up for additional commitments - 'Sure, I can head up that sub-committee!' or 'I should volunteer at both kids' schools this month!' I realized that to some degree it felt safe to put my own well-being last. If something had to give, I knew I was tough enough. That something could be me.

But for how long and at what cost?

It's easy for me to short the inhalation, like it's easy to short self-care and that which nurtures me. This morning when I was on the mat it seemed as if my exhalations could go on forever, like I could just keep giving, keep putting energy into external projects without any thought of recharging or nourishing myself in order to do so.

But though I can sustain the movement of my arms up overhead without breath to accompany it, it feels much more satisfying to slow down the breath and let it accompany the movement all the way up. While I can use dark chocolate to fuel work sessions that last until 2am, I'd rather spread out the work as best I can, play with the kids after dinner, work for an hour or two once they've gone to bed, then get myself to bed at a reasonable hour.

As my graduation date nears, I'm as excited to usher in a change of habits as I am to celebrate the completion of this big project.

For now, I'm satisfied to be on my mat for even a few minutes, glad for the chance to explore the connection between breath and movement. With my next breath I slow down the inflow, allow it to sustain the full motion instead of forcing the air to rush in up front, and the breath is still coming in as my arms pass shoulder height and reach overhead. The pinnacle of my inhale syncs with the press of palms together, then I begin the exhale, dive forward, and release into what comes next.

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As I settled in for another late-night work session last night, I wondered 'Will it ever end?'

The past few months have been incredibly busy as I've taken on a new time-consuming project on top of all of my other work and family obligations. The stress and pressure of the project have translated to some less-than-positive behavioral changes: I'm sleeping less, making less time for self-care, and eating a lot more dessert than usual!

But after struggling with it for a couple of months and beating myself up over the way I've been handling this challenging time, I've realized that I need to look at it from a different perspective. Realistically, until this project wraps up next month I need to squeeze more productivity out of myself without having the benefit of more time to work with. That means some late nights (and often the help of dark chocolate to keep me going!) as well as less time than I would like for yoga, swimming, and relaxation.

It's not ideal, but it's okay for now. More importantly, as long as I eventually make some behavioral changes, it will end at some point.

I've been using that idea as a mantra of sorts these past few months when my stress level rises. Knowing that nothing lasts forever is incredibly empowering and allows me to better tolerate times of stress.

However, the flip side is that the good times don't last forever either.

It's easy to be happy and upbeat when things are going great and you've just received word that your promotion came through. You may find yourself identifying with the good feelings and associating with them so strongly that they become intertwined with your self-identity.

However, if I'm attached to well-being, when it's taken from me I not only feel unwell, I also feel cheated out of something I had come to associate as my right. The attachment adds insult to injury.

When facing a challenging time, whether on a physical, personal, or professional level, only part of the pain or discomfort comes from the thing itself.

In the end, it's not so important whether you're facing good times or hard times. When you get a frustrating email that sends you into a rage that lasts the whole day, the email wasn't really the problem. The problem is the attachment to negativity, the refusal to let go and move forward. Likewise clinging to feeling good and having everything go well seems like it shouldn't be a problem, and it isn't until the good times fade.

The events of life and work arrive in a neutral state. Your mind brings the context and baggage to determine that a frustrating email from a colleague was 'bad' but an email from a friend was 'good.' The practice of detachment from judgement can be difficult because of the strong associations and emotional attachments you have in real-life situations, so it can be easier to practice on a physical level first.

A seated hip opener in a chair is one of my favorite places to explore and practice neutrality. Because of the long hours spent on desk work, the outer hips become very tight because they are not given their full range of motion on a daily basis. I love this seated hip opener because it's a gentle (and inconspicuous!) way to provide openness in the hips, but it's also a great place to explore sensation.

When I place my leg in this position and gradually fold forward, it produces a strong sensation in my hip. My first instinct is to label the sensation ('pain' or 'discomfort'). But once I've attached to the idea that it's painful, it becomes much harder to stay in the pose and give my poor hips the opening that they need.

When I instead practice observing it as a sensation without labeling it, I find that I feel less wrapped up in the emotional responses that pain can produce. I no longer victimized by a bad feeling that has no end. I no longer feel trapped, but rather curious. I know that when I choose to come out of the pose, the sensation will stop. That mindset makes it easier for me to tolerate and be present for the intensity.

Yes, I'm getting less sleep than I'd like to be, but won't be forever. My hips and back are tighter than I'd like them to be because of all the sitting I've been doing, but it doesn't have to be that way for ever. My dark chocolate habit is perhaps getting a bit out of control (is there really such a thing as too much dark chocolate?), but once I decide to make the change, all of this will be different.

This, too, shall pass. The choice of whether to stress out about it is mine.

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