Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

Posted by on in Family

It was a beautiful summer afternoon and we were sitting outside at my parents' house with my extended family, having some ice cream. Someone got the idea to put on some music, so my brother cued up a few songs. I leaned back in my Adirondack chair, tapped my toes, and nodded my head to the beat with a grin as an old Smashing Pumpkins song came over the speakers. With a light breeze blowing, the sun going down, and good music and good company blending together, all at once I felt as relaxed as if I were on a nice long vacation.

Then the record skipped, figuratively speaking (and nearly literally). The song abruptly changed to some pop song about about rocking in a club all night. After 15 seconds or so, it changed again to a song about a red solo cup. Then again to something else that was subsequently changed so quickly I didn't have a chance to identify the melody or lyrics. All the while, my kids and their cousins were yelling over each other as each new song came on - 'I love this one!' - until finally the grown-ups groaned, 'Just let one song play all the way through!"

I had a knee-jerk 'Kids these days....' reaction, lamenting the fact that our fast-paced culture is ruining our children's attention spans. But when I took an honest look at myself and my own habits, I could think of more than one occasion in which I opted not to read an online article because it was more than three pages long. I could even come up with a few instances where I clicked on a link to a youtube video someone had forwarded to me and decided after watching 1 minute of the 7 minute video that I pretty much got the gist.

It's exciting to hear the first few bars of a song and say, "I love this!" or "I hate this!' But listening to the whole thing requires getting past the initial burst of excitement over the song and the rush of dopamine, in order to stick with it long enough to see it through.

While our incredible shrinking attention span may not be one of the great societal dangers of our age, the ability to concentrate and pay attention for a sustained period of time is a "Use it or lose it" proposition, and unfortunately as a society we seem to be well on our way to losing it.

Sound the trumpets: Yoga can help! Studies have shown that practicing yoga can improve concentration. Each time you practice a pose like vrksasana or tree, you are not only working your legs and hips, you're also practicing sustaining your focus in order to maintain balance. When you lose concentration, the feedback is instant: you wobble and perhaps even fall out of the pose. Wobbliness is inevitable, no matter how long you've been practicing. The real work lies in learning to refocus and come back into the pose. The real challenge is to go back and see it through once distraction (or loss of balance) has taken hold.

Since that lovely summer afternoon, I've been practicing sustained concentration on the mat by slowing down and paying closer attention to my breath as I move and hold poses. When my mind wanders off, seeking new excitement whether via thoughts about what I'm going to do later or ideas about a more challenging pose that I might try, I consider it a growth opportunity. Like in tree, I refocus and come right back to where I am and know that the simple act of paying attention to my body and breath is a concrete way to undo all the daily damage of quick-fire song changes and communication in 140 characters or less.

My hope is that when the next 4+ page article comes my way, I can draw upon my experience of staying present on the mat in order to resist the lure of the email that just landed in my inbox or the text that just came through or the song that beckons from the cue, to simply see one thing all the way through.

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Posted by on in Health

My blue paper gown crinkles as I shift back onto the long white sheet of paper. The table is so high that my legs swing like I'm a kid seated at the grown-up table. When the nurse left she said that the doctor would be in for my check-up in just a few minutes, but it has been considerably longer. I can hear the bustle outside the room as doctors and nurses call to each other about various patients and procedures, and the unease begins to creep in. I have no control over how long I will have to wait until my doctor comes in. And it bothers me.

Waiting used to just be a fact of life. I remember many quiet minutes spent as a child at the doctor's office or in the dentist's chair. No matter what I had been doing before my appointment, the moment I sat down in that room I slipped into waiting mode. I'd do windshield wipers with my feet, play connect the dots with the ceiling tile, or just look around, soaking up the stillness and the quiet of the in-between.

It's different now. With the faster pace of life and seemingly less time to accomplish everything, with smartphones and their mini computing power available almost everywhere you go, simply sitting and waiting can bring up feelings of emptiness and anxiety. Waiting for someone else to dictate when your time becomes 'useful' again can make you feel powerless and even deprived.

In the doctor's office, with all these emotions brewing, I looked around the room frantically for something to occupy me.

The magazines weren't my taste and I don't particularly like to spend time on my phone when I don't have to, so I started to read the office flyers and medical charts posted in the office. When I found myself squatting down in front of the Netter's Anatomy flip-chart looking at an illustrated explanation of the symptoms and causes of diabetes, I realized something had gone wrong. I was just trying to fill time, to calm the empty feeling that waiting now induces in me. It's not my own time, it's not my time to play a specific role (the patient, in this case). Rather it's an undefined stretch of in-between, a pause that will last for a minute or twenty, and my initial impulse was to just get busy doing something. Anything.

Instead, I get back on the table and let my legs dangle. I sit tall, fold my hands in my lap, and take a deep breath. It feels good, so I close my eyes and continue. When I hear a rustle at the door as my doctor is about to enter I panic and open my eyes, slouching a little so I look like someone who is waiting in the expected way. What if she comes in here and finds me with sitting stick-straight with my eyes closed? She'll think I'm some kind of weirdo.

But then she's called away to something else, and my eyes instantly close again. I lengthen the crown of my head towards the tiled ceiling, making more room to draw my breath in to the belly and chest, and I breathe. In and out, over and over again, like it's the best meditation session I've ever had despite the fact that I'm wearing a paper gown. I feel the stresses of the week falling away, my whole body feels like it's breathing, and for the first time that day, everything is just right.

When my doctor came into the room I opened my eyes and she was none the wiser of my waiting meditation. But as I talked with her I felt more open and connected than I can ever remember feeling during a doctor's visit. Those few minutes of waiting (I don't even know how many, that's the beauty of it!) could have made me feel victimized, bored, or irritated. But thanks to the waiting meditation, a technique no more complicated than closing my eyes and breathing deeply, the wait was transformed into 'me-time.'

Learning to integrate meditation into daily life is not as hard as it may initially seem. And once you start, it won't be long until you're just another weirdo at the doctor's office. If you're lucky.

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Posted by on in Yoga

What makes a yoga teacher "good?"

Acrobatic arm balances and deep backbends?
Mastery of yogic philosophy?
Innovative sequencing and intricate themes?
A magnetic and inspiring personality?

For the past 10 months, I had the pleasure of working closely with the 20 amazing men and women who were Bloom's first yoga teacher training program. During that time we've delved into not only the philosophies and techniques of yoga, but also the exploration of what makes a good yoga teacher.

Many of our trainees started the program with no plans to teach, rather they were looking to deepen their own experience of on the mat. Some knew from day one that they wanted to teach; having been inspired as students themselves, they were now curious to uncover exactly how their favorite yoga teachers worked their magic, how they transformed a sequence of poses and breath into something life-changing. But at the end of the very first night of training when I had them get in groups of two to teach the poses we'd just reviewed, it's safe to say that most were a little nervous and even doubtful that they had what it takes to stand at the front of the class.

As they continued on with their coursework that first quarter, they studied, worked, and integrated the material. Throughout that time they continued teaching each other in small groups to practice using their words to get students in and out of poses safely, to learn how to share what is, in many ways, a very internal practice with others. By the time they began the second quarter, the had both deepened their own experience of yoga and learned instruct students in the basic poses.

What happened in the second and third quarters was an incredible transformation. As the trainees continued to refine their understanding of the basics of yoga and as they taught week after week, both their practice and teaching became more refined. They crafted creative and yet wholly logical sequences, their poses took on a clearer shape, and the tone of their teaching voices projected confidence and joy. Our teacher trainees, who began as very competent little caterpillars, had emerged into beautiful butterflies.

I was amazed at how each one of these brand new teachers brought their own unique personality and spark to their classes. Over the course of the past ten months, our trainees showed up fully and brought bits and pieces of their home life, their work life, their hobbies, and their passions into class. They made the teachings personal rather than just adopting a cookie-cutter take on what yoga is or how a "good yoga teacher" teaches.

There is no one thing that makes a good yoga teacher. Or rather, there is one thing that all good yoga teachers have in common, and then there are infinite variations on that theme. A good yoga teacher seeks connection with students, a good yoga teacher wants nothing more than to share the practice they love with others. But whether a teacher is a drill-sergeant or a philosopher, an entertainer or a nurturer, each committed yoga teacher's approach is valid as long as it is genuine. There is a teacher out there for every student, an approach that will move and inspire each individual practitioner. A good teacher brings not only years of study and practice, but also the ability to be fully present and to connect - first to the deeper part of the self, and only then to students.

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Posted by on in Family

Is there such a thing as being too thoughtful? I know this may initially come off as a groan-worthy question along the lines of, 'Can I be too good a person?' But the way I see it, thoughtfulness is less an indication of moral superiority than a worldview that, in some cases, can become a self-sabotaging personality attribute.

I grew up with constant reminders to consider the feelings of others. My mom is an immensely kind and giving person, and one who is frequently described as being thoughtful. Whether it's her offers of help to pick up some new yoga clothes for me while she's at the store ('They're on sale!'), her insistence on helping out those in our family who are too proud to ask for help (that's you, Grandma), or just caring enough to both ask how things are going and to listen to the answer (however long and rambling), my mom embodies thoughtfulness. My mom is that person who thanks you for your thank-you card, remembers to display the vase you made for her when you were eight years old, and offers you the last cookie even if she didn't get a single one.

I'm grateful that my mom gave me the gift of thoughtfulness, although on occasion it can seem more like a curse.

Merriam-Webster defines thoughtfulness as "given to heedful anticipation of the needs and wants of others." In order to anticipate the needs of others, you must be highly attuned to the state of those around you at all times. While this is incredibly helpful in my role as a business owner and a mother, it can be also be hindrance.

Every personality attribute has a flip side and if left unchecked, thoughtfulness quickly evolves into the habit of putting yourself last in all cases, to your detriment. You know how on the airplane they suggest you put on your own mask first? This is where you get to explore both the good side and the dark side of thoughtfulness (yes, we have been watching Star Wars at our house this past week). Being too attuned to the needs of others makes it seem selfish to figuratively put your own mask on first; by not putting others first you may worry about causing them harm. But, of course, succumbing to the dark side of thoughtfulness means that because you neglected your own needs, those around you will necessarily suffer, too.

The level of self-consciousness that results from constantly imagining what others think of you and your actions is exhausting. If I was out with my kids and they were being loud (just supposing), I'd worry that people might think I was inconsiderate and lacking authority over my children. So I'd find myself scolding the kids loudly when they acted up in public to let people know that I was charge and aware of the disturbances they were causing.

Eventually I realized that my hyper-awareness of other people's perceptions had overtaken me and was controlling my behavior. I had overdone something positive and turned it into a negative. I'd neglected to put on my own mask and was instead gasping and lurching to put a mask on every person in sight. My thoughtfulness had turned to the dark side.
As I'm wont to do, I've been working it out on the mat. In cases where I really shouldn't be concerned with what others think, I'm practicing not anticipating their thoughts. It has become a variation on the practices of pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses and santosha, contentment. When I'm in a yoga class and the teacher suggests popping up into bakasana, crane/crow pose, but I know I shouldn't because of a lingering bout of tendonitis, my first impulse is: "What will they think if the studio director can't do this basic arm balance?"

But instead of explaining my reasons or worrying about how I will be perceived, I practice withdrawal from my projections of what others will think and contentment with what I can safely do in this moment. It's helped me to become more fully present in my actions without apologizing for them. And though it's been a struggle to trust that I don't need to explain myself or my motivations to the world in every moment, it's a relief when I finally get out of my head and simply act.

The more I practice this on the mat, the easier it gets off the mat. When the kids are loud in public, I now try to talk with them in a way that addresses the root issue instead of my worries of how I will be perceived by annoyed passersby. It takes the pressure off and helps me to be more present with them and their needs, rather than having it be all about me.

My own children, sweet little things that they are, are already thoughtful to the core in all the right ways. I smile when they ask "So, how was your day?" at the dinner table, knowing the have the foundation. My job is to help them cultivate thoughtfulness in a healthy way, to make sure that as they get older they not only ask how my day was, but also do what they need to do to make their own day, their own life, great.

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Ever had one of those days when you're trying to be so efficient that you never actually complete a single task?

The fancy technology available today and increased speed of communication allows me to work on several projects simultaneously in a way that was just not possible when we opened the studio 7 years ago. Instead of having to wait for one project to be completed before starting the next, I can chip away at several at the same time. Efficiency has its place, but too much of a good thing is still too much.

Overwhelmed at the number of items on my to-do list that needed to be completed in short amount of time, I recently took my efficiency to an extreme, multitasking at an almost manic pace. As I bounced back and forth between text messages, email, a document I was editing, and social media updates, I felt downright scattered. With my mind racing, knees bouncing, and heartbeat elevated, it seemed that in my quest for greater productivity my whole being was now spinning, buzzing. As a result I was unable to settle in long enough to concentrate on accomplishing even a single task.

Too many of us have had this experience in the workplace, though studies have shown that multi-tasking is actually not as much of a time-saver as previously thought. It turns out it just makes you feel like you're accomplishing more. In reality, multitasking is the new procrastination, a sneaky way to postpone doing something unappealing or challenging.

What happens when your addiction to efficiency and multitasking spills over onto the yoga mat?

Yesterday morning I had only 20 minutes to sneak in a practice before the craziness of the day started, so I decided I'd use the principles of efficiency to make the most of my time on the mat. I didn't want to sacrifice anything and I was determined to produce the same good feeling I got after a nice long practice. So instead of exploring a few asanas deeply, I crammed in a bunch of standing poses, some sun salutes, backbends, twists, and so on. I bounced from one pose to another, trying to force my yoga practice to get with the efficiency program. Guess what? It turns out that efficiency and yoga are not friends.

As I blasted through the sequence, I lost the awareness of my breath and that glorious feeling of space that comes when I'm practicing Yoga and not just breezing through yoga poses. Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. On the other hand, efficiency and multi-tasking are, by definition, fluctuations of the mind - a cycle of constant mental interruption in an effort to move at a faster pace.

As above, so below. As in the mind, so on the mat. Yoga practice can be both an antidote to efficiency and a place to practice greater concentration in an attempt to slow mental fluctuations. When you sit for meditation and focus in on your breath and practice letting go of all the chatter and busyness from your day, you are undoing the harmful effects of excessive efficiency. As you resist the urge to mentally flit off to some new exciting idea, you allow your body to settle and signal to your mind that it's okay to just do one thing and do it well. And so you more closely approximate true efficiency, the appropriate use of time and energy in the accomplishment of a task. Be still my fluctuating mind.

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