Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

Posted by on in Health

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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Posted by on in Writing

 

      I've spent the past four days

not

      doing the one project I really needed to get done.



      Every morning I put it on my to-do list, but once I sit down to work something else always seems to take priority. Even when I schedule time into my calendar to work on the project, I find that other shiny objects - a fun conversation that emerges in

the studio

      , the new article a friend recommended, or that thing I've been meaning to research - pull my attention away from buckling down to just get the work done.



      I've been frustrated at my procrastination because it feels like I'm continuously breaking a promise to myself. 'This time,' I said yesterday morning, 'I'll really get it done.' But my behavior didn't change to support the promise, so another day went by with my task list unchanged, the project grew even more monumental in my mind, and I began to think maybe I wasn't suited to completing it.



      Why do we procrastinate?



      It’s not necessarily because the task at hand is all that difficult or time-consuming, in fact it's often quite the opposite.

 

 

      I procrastinate when I’m afraid of bringing important work into a state of completion because it means of putting it out in the world to be evaluated and judged. I don’t want people to think this is the best I can do, so I convince myself that if I just had a little more time I could do better. This is where the perfectionist meets the procrastinator, and when the two traits team up it makes for a paralyzing combination.



      One of the most important things I've learned from 17 years of yoga practice is that the best I can do is to show up and be the fullest expression of who I am right now, however imperfect or out-of-shape or tired or overworked I am. Yoga is not about wishing for what could be, it's about being with what is.



      When I place my body in a yoga pose, it doesn't matter what the pose could look like on another body. When I practice conscious breathing, it doesn't matter how full my breath is compared with the person next to me. What matters is that I'm practicing awareness in my body and in my breath rather than being carried away in my thoughts. Yoga is a practice of consciously choosing what to do and what

not

      to do from moment to moment.



      I understand how to do this on a yoga mat, so I found it frustrating that I was having trouble translating that to my worklife.


      Recently my friend and colleague

Tina DeSalvo of The Soul Purpose

      introduced me to a tool that has become key in my anti-procrastination toolbox. It's called the NOT To Do List.



      Every morning after I make a plan for the three things I hope to accomplish in my day's work, I also list (mentally or on paper) the things I will not do in that particular work session. There are always so many things pulling at me, so many deadlines going at the same time, and it can be tough to realistically prioritize. The NOT To Do List is a way of acknowledging the fact that all those shiny objects will be distractions from the work that needs to get done. Identifying them makes it easier to avoid unconsciously slipping into that behavior.



      On my NOT To Do List for today was: responding to every email in my inbox, researching the

Chicago Symphony Orchestra family matinee series

      a friend just told me about, searching for a slow cooker, watching a new TED talk, and finishing up revisions to a story I've been writing.



      It's not to say that these things aren't important to do. They're just not important to do today.



      The NOT To Do List gives you permission to prioritize, to set boundaries, and to consciously decide how to spend your time on a moment-to-moment and day-to-day basis. It empowers you to make conscious choices rather than feeling as if you're constantly breaking promises you've made to yourself.



      Procrastination is nothing more than an excuse for holding back. As long as I have a sprawling To Do List waiting, I can reasonably tell myself there’s no way I can take on that bigger project I've been putting off - a project that might require me to open up, to be brave, to change, to be vulnerable. As long as that To Do List is waiting, nagging, there’s always a valid reason why that other bigger project can’t happen.



      But in the end, it can happen if you want it to, if you make time and space for it. It's all about priorities and making conscious choices regarding how you spend your time.



    To do, or NOT to do. That is the question.
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Posted by on in Health

Over the past week both of my kids have been sick and, as a result, home from school. I also had a ton of work to do and deadlines to meet at the same time, which made for an interesting few days.

Let me set the scene: I'm at my computer, the kids are playing in their room with Legos. All is going well for five whole minutes when I hear escalating voices arguing over who had to play with the headless Lego guy. I'm trying to finish an email but also need to address this very real and very important issue of Lego guys without heads and the fairness of whether brother or sister must be the one who gets stuck with said Lego guy. I get them settled and then return to my work, getting into a groove this time, only to be interrupted 15 minutes later by requests to watch television. I hold out for a while, but after 20 more minutes of whining I decide that this is an okay time to give in.

I push through some more work and after 30 minutes I hear screams from the other room. I dash in, thinking someone has vomited again or is mortally wounded, only to find that the show is over and they would like to watch another one.

I allow them one more show (let's be honest, I give myself the gift of 30 more minutes of uninterrupted work time) and fairly sprint back to my office to make the most of each of those thirty minutes.

For the first few days of my work-from-home-with-sick-kids routine, I was just plan grumpy. I felt the tiniest bit resentful of my children for choosing this particular week to get sick, when I had so many deadlines and such a profound need to be at the studio. But when they were sad and sickly and spilling bodily fluids all over the place, I realized that this was not their doing, it was not their fault, it was not my fault, it was not anyone's fault. It just was.

Recognizing that there was nothing I could do about it and no one to blame helped a lot. It didn't change the situation, it didn't buy me more work time, it didn't make them get better more quickly, but it changed how I felt about the whole thing. I surrendered a bit, gave up fighting, gave up the quest for control over my time, and notified my colleagues that deadlines would have to be extended. Instead of pushing, yelling, resenting, I decided to cozy up on the couch with my kids, a blanket, and some books, and just surrender to the situation as it was.

Though it wasn't easy to do, this surrendering felt very familiar, comforting even. Surrender is a lot of what I practice on the mat these days, particularly when it comes to my gentle yoga practice and teaching. I love how in a gentle or restorative yoga pose the emphasis is not on muscling through and making things happen, but rather on giving up effort and resistance, and practicing contentment rather than striving.

Though it would seem that relaxation should be easy, that it should be our natural state, in our busy culture relaxation actually requires significant effort and discipline. There is a particular skill in learning to release effort on a physical and mental level, and the process allows you to become more efficient in the most therapeutic and nurturing way. Conscious relaxation and surrender is a way of embrace the idea that this moment is enough, you are enough.

The other day in my gentle class I led students into reclining bound angle pose on a rolled blanket (insert picture). The blanket runs along the length of the spine and when you initially lie down there's a tendency to resist to lift away from the support. It's a little bit like the princess and the pea at first. 'What's this inconvenience beneath me?' you wonder. The muscles on the back of your body tense and prevent the release of your shoulders towards the floor. Your hips also hold on a bit, preventing that lovely opening that you crave in this pose.

I guided the students to progressively relax into this new sensation (we usually practice this pose on the bolster, which feels quite different). Gradually, with patience and concentration, they were able to access this state of surrender rather than resistance, they gave into the blanket rather than wishing it wasn't there, and thus they were in the moment rather than in the 'what I wish could be.' The result of their discipline and effort was a deep relaxation of body and mind that was visible as a watched from the front of the room.

My kids are mostly healthy now and I'm thrilled, for many reasons. They are back to their sweet, playful selves, there are no more messes to clean up, they are back in school, and I am back at work. But I take with me this newfound appreciation for surrender, both at work and at home. When the day is eaten up by meetings and conversations and I'm not able to get to some of the heads-down work I need to get to, instead of being frustrated I acknowledge that is what needed to happen that day, appreciate it for what it is, and know that when I come back tomorrow there will be time to get the other stuff done.

Most of all, surrendering is about taking yourself less seriously. The world does not stop if these emails aren't sent out today, the walls don't come crashing down if I return that phone call tomorrow instead. Surrender is freedom, and all of this almost makes me grateful for childhood stomach bugs. Almost.

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I vividly remember my first meditation experience more than 15 years ago. When the teacher said we'd be meditating for 30 minutes, I panicked. The teacher instructed us to close our eyes and quiet our minds. How could something so simple make me so nervous?

When I closed my eyes I felt tension building in my chest and it was as if my thoughts were screaming at me - mean, ugly, self-doubting thoughts. I was going through a difficult time and the last thing I wanted was to spend 30 minutes coming face-to-face with self-judgement. It was scary and intimidating and it made me want to quit.

Part of the problem was that 30 minutes was way too long for a first experience, but the bigger issue was that I had unrealistic expectations for what meditation should look and feel like.
 b2ap3_thumbnail_Meditation.jpg
The word meditation is thrown around a lot these days because there have been so many recent studies touting its benefits. But too many people have a very narrow and unrealistic idea of what meditation can be.


When you first try meditation (or mindfulness or being present), don’t be surprised if you’re not feeling immediately blissed out and peaceful. In fact, you may initially find it incredibly frustrating. Your mind’s job is to think, so it's unrealistic to expect that simply sitting up straight and closing your eyes will translate to a peaceful, thought-free existence. Rather, the aim is to first become aware of the thoughts, and then to put some space between them. Thoughts will continue to come, as they should, but if you can learn to control how you react to the thoughts you will be able to move beyond habits to create newness and change in your life.
 
b2ap3_thumbnail_8minutemeditation.jpgThere are many techniques to help you do this, but a favorite of mine is one my colleague Lisa Sandquist shared with me. She drew the technique from 8 Minute Meditation by Victor Davich. He calls it "Gracious Declining" but Lisa refers to it as the ‘No, thank you’ meditation, which I love. Here’s how to do it: when a thought comes up, like 'I forgot to respond to that important email,' instead of following it to the next thought, 'I'm always letting people down,' silently say ‘No, thank you.’

The 'no' is a practice in derailing habitual thought patterns, and the ‘thank you’ is a reminder to work with compassion rather than beating yourself up.

Keep in mind that meditation (or whatever you want to call that quiet, reflective time) should not just become one more way to judge yourself and your value as a human being. It doesn’t matter if you meditate for a minute or an hour, what matters is how you apply the new perspectives gained to your daily life. When a conflict arises with a co-worker or your spouse, you can use that moment of pause to choose act with greater clarity and compassion, giving you the opportunity to communicate from a new place rather than just rehashing the same old argument.

Meditation is a powerful tool that can not only reduce stress, but can also be the first step towards creating change in your life and your relationships. But you have to practice regularly for that moment of pause to be there for you when you need it. For me, finding 8 minutes to be quiet and still can seem intimidating, and if you're too intimidated to actually do it who cares how high your goal is set? Two minutes is about how long it takes for your computer to boot up. And even two minutes can make a difference, so start there.

Give it a try. Right now if it feels appropriate. Or, be on the lookout for a 2-minute window of time later today that might work better. I'm a big fan of bringing wellness practices to unusual settings (I love to practice yoga in my kitchen!). It takes the pressure off when you practice meditation within the context of daily activities and don't make it too sacred.

I like to practice meditation at my desk (what a relief to take my eyes off the glowing computer screen for a few minutes!), on public transit, in waiting rooms, pretty much anyplace and anytime when I have a few minutes of downtime and I may be tempted to pull out my phone and check email.

It's all about finding something that's comfortable and manageable for you in the context of your daily life. When you first start, closing your eyes in a public place may feel too vulnerable (unless everyone else is doing it, too – can you imagine the power of midday office-wide meditation breaks?). In that case, you’ll just need to find a more private moment – maybe you can close the door to your office or take a moment on your morning train commute, or before you start your car (NOT while operating it!).

Stress is a reality, but tools like the 'No, thank you' Meditation can help you develop choice in how you react to it.

Despite the frustration and fear that arose from my first meditation experience, once I let go of what I thought meditation 'should' look like I was able to find ways to integrate this wonderful stress-reducing technique into daily life. It doesn't matter what it looks like or how long you do it. The key, as with everything, is consistent practice.

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Posted by on in Health

Some days it sneaks up on you, like the slow rise of a thermometer on a summer afternoon. Other days it hits all at once. However it arrives, stress is an unpleasant, obtrusive, and all-too-frequent visitor that leaves you feeling physically tense and mentally unsettled.

This past week has been particularly stressful for me. I have no fewer than five unfinished time-sensitive projects to deal with at work, my kids have been home sick from school, and it looks like a tornado blew through our house (how did that sock get on the ceiling fan, anyway?).

Pressed for time, I’ve been pushing myself to the limit in an attempt to be hyper-productive and somehow catch up and conquer my workload. I’ve been staying up late, working on weekends, neglecting to make adequate time for both activity and rest, and just generally sucking all enjoyment out of my daily existence.

Today I'd finally had enough.





During a quiet moment when no one was needing my attention, I inched to the front edge of my chair, sat up straight, rolled my shoulders a few time, placed my hands in my lap, and closed my eyes. As soon as my eyelids closed, I felt a shift. I took a deeper breath and felt some of my shoulder and neck tension release.

Without the visual stimulus of the stressors around me – my computer, the stack of papers I needed to address, the pile of mail that had to go out – my nagging to-do list seemed a little less important and I could see that in the big scheme of things it didn’t really matter if my house was a disaster for a few busy days. Things will settle down eventually – the projects will be done, the kids will go back to school – there is always enough time. I just have to choose to make space instead of stress.

I don’t like fancy labels, so if you asked me what I was doing I’d say I was just paying attention and tuning in.

Meditating?

Nah…..I was being present, I was taking care of myself. Meditation is something a yogi does under a tree at an ashram in some beautiful remote setting.

How can I call this ‘meditation’ when it's likely that the phone will ring at any moment?

What if I don't have more than two minutes to sit calmly and quietly? That can't still be meditation, can it?

Meditation, mindfulness, being present – it doesn't matter what you call it, or how long you spend on it. The practice of getting quiet can profoundly impact your stress levels and can be a key component of your daily stress-management toolbox. It’s amazingly simple and easy and it doesn’t take long to be effective.

Start by just closing your eyes, observing your breath, and noticing how you feel. And stay tuned for some specific ideas and techniques for how to incorporate meditation into your workday.

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