Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

Posted by on in Health

I had already rolled out my yoga mat this morning, but when I looked at the clock and saw that I only had fifteen minutes before the chaos of my family's morning routine began I thought, "What's the use? There's not enough time to get a full practice in anyway!"
 
My body was craving yoga though, so I went for it before I could change my mind. I started quickly, rushing from one pose to the next. But it didn't feel right, didn't feel as satisfying as it usually does. I slumped down into child's pose in an I-told-you-so kind of pout. After a minute of child's pose pouting, I pressed up into down dog and lingered for a bit, unsure what to do next. I sighed out a few deep breaths and started wiggling around, and pretty soon I was enjoying the playful feeling of being upside-down. Ah.....the breath, the slowing down, the un-rushing. I was in!

It was the hook to something bigger and this down dog moment reminded me that it didn't matter how many asanas I practiced, what mattered was how and why I did them. I gave up my daydream of a 'full' practice filled with dozens of standing poses and luxurious restorative variations. Instead, I set more humble goals: I wanted to take some time to breathe, move, and reconnect. That's it.
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With new goals in mind, my practice was different than usual. I did fewer poses, but worked on being more fully present in them as I held and breathed. Revolved lunge was the freedom my spine craved, Lizard was the love my hips needed. As much as I was practicing asana, the real work this morning was enjoying the poses I could do while being okay with not having the time to also go into all my old favorites: warrior II, triangle, side angle, half moon, revolved triangle, and so on. It was a practice of acceptance of that fact I just can't do everything.

It seems like a logical concept and one I should have learned by now, but I've really been struggling with this lately. I want to do it all, and do it well, so when I fall short of that I feel resentful and frustrated. Whether in my work at the studio, my role as a mother and wife, on the mat, or in the writing process, I want to give 100% to everything all the time, which simply isn't possible, not even for Superwoman.

This morning's yoga practice hit home that sacrifices are required, both of my to-do list and my expectations. I acknowledged that for busy people, quality always loses out to quantity. As I practiced, I came up with my new mantra:

I can't do it all, so in this moment I will do one thing well.

On the mat that means being okay with a truncated practice, rather than trying to cram 20 poses into 15 minutes. It's committing 100% to down dog when I'm in down dog instead of longing for the laundry list of other poses that I wish I had the time for. It's embodying santosha, contentment, instead of grasping for the poses that were necessarily left out of the sequence, being present with what's happening breath to breath instead of watching the clock in fear.

Off the mat it means asking for help with projects I've taken on but shouldn't have. It means giving new ideas the time they need to develop instead of trying to accomplish five things simultaneously. It means being more fully present for my kids when I come home from work rather than trying to catch up on a few emails while distractedly tending to them at the same time.

Being here right now is enough. All the thoughts about what I'm not getting done or where I'm falling short are not real, they're just constructs of my mind, and destructive ones at that. So instead I'll head back to my mat tomorrow, for 5 minutes or 50 minutes, and keep working on slowing down and practicing contentment. I'll say it to myself over and over again to drown out the Superwoman Syndrome messaging. I'll say it until I wholeheartedly believe it: It's enough to do one thing well.

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Posted by on in Family

When my alarm went off at 6am today, it was all I could do to keep myself from crawling back into bed. But I had made a plan, I had made a promise to myself that despite the temptation of the warmth and comfort of an extra half-hour of sleep, I would step onto the cool hardwood floor, pull my hair back, and move my body. Yoga, walking, dancing, biking - it's less important what than how. I simply knew I had to find a way to take better care of myself.

"There's just never enough time!" I said as I rolled out my mat. And it occurred to me that I've been saying that a lot over the past month.


The kids' school schedule is in full swing, I've added more workdays at Bloom (yay!), and as a result I've felt pulled in new directions (often towards my ball chair and the blue glow of a computer screen). The more projects I tackle and mental gymnastics I put myself through, the more aware I am at the end of the day that I've neglected my body. Much as I don't want to admit it, the increasingly sedentary nature of my work week is taking its toll.

I'm envious as I watch my kids run and play on the playground after school, remembering how good it feels for activity to be a seamless part of your existence. Having been an active person all my life, I'd like to believe that physical activity and exercise can just be a natural extension of my day. But I've recently come to terms with the fact that as an adult, the nature of my day has changed. The work I'm passionate about accomplishing at Bloom and the writing projects I aspire to complete require periods of sustained concentration, most often seated at a desk and in front of a computer.

I've been sneaking activity in whenever I can - when I'm at the park with the kids, I'll jump up to hang from the monkey bars or chase them around the playground - but it's not enough to have a lasting impact.

After a week or so of being achy and feeling sorry for myself, I gave myself a little pep talk:

You can't wait for exercise to happen to you, you have to schedule it in.

I reminded myself that everyone has the same number of hours in the day and some people manage to make time for whatever it is they want to do on a daily basis. Making time means being intentional about how you spend your day.

To successfully schedule time for physical activity, I realized that something else needed to come out of my day. That's where this scheduling business gets tricky - it's hard to decide what to sacrifice. But without a sacrifice, without a true commitment to the new plan, I knew nothing would change. So I started with an assessment of my day as it currently stands.

For me, the early morning hours are an ideal time for physical activity for logistical reasons and otherwise. It gives me quiet time before the kids wake up, time to focus and reconnect before the chaos of the morning routine begins, and it sets the tone for the whole day.

But having been accustomed to working at night once the kids go to bed for the past five years, it required me to make a shift. I had to sacrifice the late nights I used to knock things off my to-do list and prepare for the next day. It's a sacrifice that I'm excited to make because it means getting to bed earlier and feeling more rested, but I it's still taking a lot of discipline to change the habit.

When I want to take a yoga class, I don't just loosely plan to go anymore - I put it in my calendar. It's a way of committing to myself and making sure that I don't let anything else take priority over my plan.

I'll initially come up with all kinds of excuses why I can't spare 90 minutes to go to class. Over the years as I've had too much to do and not enough time to do it, I've become stingy with my time, demanding "productivity" of myself at every moment. But the way I feel when I leave a yoga class is fuel for productivity. The permission to shut off for a while, to go inside and connect on a breath and body level gives me the boost I need to return to my work with clarity and creativity.

In order to get myself to class, I must sacrifice my self-image as a workaholic. I must let go of the fact that more work time does not necessarily mean better results. I must be kinder to myself. Fortunately, following the schedule provides its own rewards. When I make the time to take care of myself, I actually feel like I have more time in my day.

These days it's easy to feel over-scheduled, so the idea of scheduling one more thing initially made my stomach turn. But when I use a different word for it, when I think of it as planning, of setting an intention for what I wish to do and create, scheduling time for physical activity becomes an exercise in mindfulness and self-care. That's the kind of scheduling I can get behind.

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[caption id="attachment_1501" align="alignright" width="212"] On our wedding day, after someone hilariously dropped my dress in Lake Michigan

Zach and I are celebrating 12 years of marriage this month.

In many ways, we're an unlikely match. I'm an extrovert, while he's an expert at finding the quietest room at a big party. He's got an innate sense of direction, whereas I famously got lost trying to navigate my way home from high school. He's practical and efficient and knows how to keep to a schedule, whereas I get excited by big ideas and have more flexible boundaries (read: I'm often late).

Our differences are many, but we share a love of music and the arts, we laugh together freely and often, and we're both fiercely competitive by nature and always up for a game of any kind.

The first few years we were together, I only wanted to see our similarities. Being so in love and so new to each other, I wanted to believe we could be the same person. But as we lived together day after day, our differences became more apparent. And it worried me.



Early in our marriage we had lots of arguments over small silly things like losing in a mixed doubles tennis match against friends. After endless analysis over each point, the two of us lobbing blame back and forth in an effort to decide which one of us was the cause of the blown lead, our unrelenting stubbornness turned something inconsequential into a day of silence.

As I stomped around and pouted in our wordless apartment, I wondered how two people could live in harmony for an extended period of time without compromising their individuality. I was unsure how to fit my big personality and his big personality in the same home without explosive results.

After following the same argumentative pattern over and over again during the first year of our marriage, we eventually decided to try a different approach. When we argued - once the initial anger subsided - we began to dissect the disagreement and each of our perspectives on it. Gradually we came to better understand our different ways of looking at the world, processing information, communicating.

[caption id="attachment_1580" align="alignleft" width="240"] 12 years later. Photo courtesy of Jill Liebhaber of jookie


We'd talk through an argument wherever it happened, even if we were with friends. They'd laugh uncomfortably and tell us to lighten up, to brush off what seemed to them a small deal. But we knew better. It wasn't just about losing a tennis match. That time spent talking through our communication breakdowns was a process of refinement, both of ourselves as individuals and as a marital unit.

At the beginning, we were more wedded to our individualism than to each other. We clung to personality quirks as if our self-identities depended on it. But over the past 12 years, I've come to think of marriage as a dulling of our individual sharp edges - in the best possible way - so that our unique personalities don't snag the fabric of our union. Now rather than clinging exclusively to my unique personality traits, I love observing in myself things that are very 'Zach-like' because they reveal the ways that we have allowed ourselves to bleed together, to balance.

Just as in relationships, the balance of opposites is constantly at play on the yoga mat. When I first started practicing yoga 16 years ago, I was very flexible from my years as a dancer. It was exciting to be 'good' at yoga, to be able to touch my feet to my head in a backbend, to be able to twist myself into any crazy position my teacher suggested.

What I didn't realize was that my strengths on the mat were simultaneously masking and amplifying my weaknesses.


When I exploited my flexibility to get into a deep backbend and ended up getting hurt, I felt betrayed. I didn't understand why I shouldn't just go towards my natural inclinations, I was shocked that it could be harmful to do what came happily and easily.

Sharp edges still intact, I continued practicing yoga like this for the first year or so until I happened into a class where a teacher suggested engaging the quads in triangle pose, and I realized I had no idea how to access those muscles! Yoga had come so easily for me when I was pushing towards my natural bias of flexibility, so the challenge of working towards something I couldn't do piqued my interest.

I was enticed to consider that perhaps there was more to the practice than I'd initially thought, even though it was slightly scary because it completely threatened my self-identity as a 'good' yogi. But I dug deeper, tried and tried to lift my quads, and investigated the shadowy areas of my practice.



Over the next few years, I pulled back from my bias of flexibility and emphasized building strength and stability on my mat instead. I worked through shakiness to hold Warrior II longer. In Side Angle I disciplined myself to balance shoulder hyper-mobility by building strength and stability in the shoulder girdle. I realized that by working towards something that didn't initially come naturally or easily, I could become a more balanced and humble yoga practitioner.

My yoga practice better equipped me to apply these principles in my marriage. I'd already experienced the benefits of dulling my edges on the mat, of refusing to let my strengths continually get stronger and my weaknesses linger. So it was that much easier to accept the ache of evolution in my relationship with my husband.

Sometimes, despite an innate desire to have your own views reflected back, despite an intense need for consensus and agreement, it's important to have your worldview challenged. I can always count on Zach for that, and though I tease him for it, it's one of the things I love most about him. Yoga practice also provides continual opportunities to explore that which is difficult, to question your motives and self-identity, and to improve areas of weakness. When approached this way, yoga is less about being able to touch your feet to your head than it is about seeking a union of opposites. And like the union of marriage, yoga's greatest potential is in the dulling of sharp edges in pursuit of harmony and balance.

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Elephant Journal just posted my article "Why the Olympics would Ruin Yoga" about the renewed interest in making yoga an Olympic event.

Every four years when the Olympics roll around, an insistent group of yoga practitioners make a case for why yoga should be an Olympic event. My article looks at why this would be a devastating thing to happen to yoga.

Comments are very welcome, just scroll down to the bottom of the article on elephant journal to continue the conversation!

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It was 3 o'clock on a hot summer afternoon, my kids were restless, and the insults were flying.

With every activity either a competition or an opportunity to put their sibling down, one yelled 'Stupid baby!' and the other responded with 'Shut up!' and then Mean Mommy swooped in. She raged and threatened time-outs all around, to no great effect. She waved her finger and made her voice as quietly vicious as she could but as most kids will do when offered meanness, they dished it right back. It seemed like it would never be bedtime, and it seemed like no one in the house would ever be happy again.

Summer's end is a a time that as a parent I both savor and dread, often within the same day. With so many 'lasts' to squeeze in - last trip to the beach, last leisurely family bike ride, last chance to catch an outdoor concert - the days are somewhat motivated by fear of not making the most of the beautiful weather and relaxed schedule.

And yet at times I guiltily feel an intense longing to return to the order of the school year. By the time August rolls around, many summer thrills no longer hold the same appeal that they held in June, and I crave an escape from the senseless bickering that occurs when the kids, because they can't find one thing to hold their attention, get at each other.
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I recently read an interesting article about a study that found smiling, even when you don't genuinely feel happy, can help reduce the effects of stress.

Cool fact from the article - there are two types of smiles: a 'standard' smile that just involves the muscles surrounding the mouth, and a 'genuine' or 'Duchenne' smile that also engages the muscles around the eyes. Turns out that even just muscling your way into a 'standard' smile, regardless of minor stresses, can lower your heart rate, make you feel better, and improve your health.

When Mean Mommy is raging, even if the kids say something cute or endearing, she usually refuses to budge from her meanness. But this one afternoon after the 3 o'clock showdown, because every other option had been exhausted, I forced my face into a 'standard' smile. When I smiled I exhaled a little longer, my jaw released, and my shoulders dropped. It seemed too simple, could a fake smile really be that powerful?

Smiling is softening, lightening. It's poison for Mean Mommy, even if it doesn't start out with any genuine happiness behind it. Mean Mommy is a gnarled, hardened creature who is just waiting for someone to tick her off. The smile derailed her train of rage just long enough for something new to set in. It was my job to decide what to put in place of the meanness.

Fueled by the power of my fake smile, I mustered up a joke and the kids giggled. And gradually the mean comments ceased and we fell into a playful mode of being together.

Meanness follows meanness, but contentment is contagious. The more I smiled, the happier the kids looked. And as their laughter grew, I felt my smile turning into something genuine, even 'Duchenne.'
 
b2ap3_thumbnail_Navasana.jpgI've been giving this fake smiling business a try on my yoga mat, too. Even after all these years of practicing, there are some poses that I can't say I genuinely like, poses that I tend to either avoid or grimace through. In my classes this week I've been encouraging students to make their yoga practice more advanced by smiling at times they would rather just curse me out for making them stay too long. Hello, navasana!
  
It's amazing how well it works. The tension that builds up from working hard in a challenging pose immediately dissipates once you smile. The principle is the same regardless of where you apply it: at home with the kids, when you're on a deadline at work, or when you're just working hard on the mat. It's common sense, I suppose. But it's always fun when science and common sense align.

Grin and bear it. Fake it till you make it. Whatever catchy phrase you use to remember it, know that just by deciding to smile you can help yourself to feel better. Look out, Mean Mommy.....

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