Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

Kerry Maiorca

Kerry is the Founder & Director of Bloom Yoga Studio, voted Best Yoga Studio in the Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, and Citysearch. As a practicing yogi, writer, and mother of three, Kerry is all about making the principles and philosophies of yoga real and accessible for day-to-day living. You can find Kerry on Google+.

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Normally a 5 degree day would have been cause for grumbling and outright complaining. But after being polar vortexed twice in one month, the kids and I jumped up and down, tossing gloves, balaclavas, snowpants to each other, shouting, “It’s 5 degrees outside!”

Perspective is a funny thing. From the outside, depending on the angle from which you catch it, it can seem like blissful ignorance, delusion, or Pollyannaish optimism. But from within, from the viewpoint of the person who has emerged from not one, but two polar vortices or suffered a devastating illness, there’s a natural and undeniably sweet shift in understanding that comes from adversity.

Perhaps it seems crass to be grateful for what you have because you’re comparing it to how much worse it could be, like when you leave a funeral service feeling inspired to “live better.” But it’s also just a beautiful function of our humanness: we pay more attention when we realize just how much we have to lose: health, loved ones, a warm home.

Yoga is an exploration of perspective. On a literal level, you are consciously placing your body in different positions than you are accustomed to, looking at the room, the world from a different vantage point, seeing what life feels like with your heels over your head rather than the other way around.b2ap3_thumbnail_Kerry-Maiorca-in-Savasana.jpg

But you shift your perspective on another level, in a quiet reflective way, every time you come to your mat. Even if you were to just sit there, or do one restorative pose, or take a savasanap, the act of choosing something as slow, single-tasky, and low-tech as yoga is bound to be a counterpoint to whatever the rest of your day looks like.

Yes 5 degrees is still cold. Yes, it’s annoying that I still have a lingering sniffle from the cold our family contracted two weeks ago, but when I get on my mat to be still, then breathe, then move, then blow my nose, then be still again, a little voice in my head chimes in: “At least you are well enough to do this.”

This perspective voice is your friend. It does not intend to demean your life or its importance, but rather it serves to remind you that your life is so important  that maybe you forgot because you were so distracted with work, your marital spat, a demanding pet, or children who alternately profess their love for each other, then kick each other in the shins.

The kids and I bundled up dutifully, even joyfully, having been sidelined from our daily outdoor time because of cold that froze my eyelashes in a matter of minutes. My son patiently asked for help with his boot rather than flailing and screaming that he was dying because his pant leg had bunched up to his thigh. With the perspective of what -15 degrees felt like, what -15 degrees meant to our normal existence, we laughed and shoveled, and spent a bundled up hour outside in the 5 degrees making the best darn backyard sledding hill around. When we got cold, we went inside and put our wet gear on the radiator, then we lay down on the basement floor with our feet cozied up to the furnace.

I’d like to believe we’re cured of our winter complaining, just like after I’ve attended an inspiring memorial service I want to believe I’ll never waste another moment watching old reruns because I’ll be too busy knitting or volunteering or creating spontaneous poetry and finger-paintings with my kids.

But that’s not really how perspective works. Heels can’t perpetually stay over head, putting on snow pants and boots will sometimes make a small child feel like (and proclaim that) he’s dying. Perspective relies on the existence of the normal, the mundane, the overlooked, the underappreciated. It is defined by our base state of being ungrateful and unaware.

Despite how it has seemed here in Chicago these past few weeks, it will warm up again, the snow will melt, and our awesome backyard sledding hill will fade, as will our joy at the “warmth” of 5 degrees. Come February, we will surely grumble, flail, and claim we are dying from all this oppressive snowgear as we overheat on our way out the door into the cold. But that’s okay. There will be something else to remind us each time we forget.

Perspective can’t be bullied or faked, but fortunately it doesn’t take a -15 degree day or a terminal illness to access it. You need not channel your inner Debbie Downer. Perspective is just as sweet for the little things, just as uplifting when taken in small, consistent doses as when heaped upon you like a pile of snow.

Yoga is my sweet daily dose of perspective, the reminder that sometimes your quads burn in chair pose, but it’s okay. It ends. We breathe in, we breathe out. Snow comes, and eventually melts. It’s okay.

The further you get from the -15 degrees, the harder it is to appreciate the 5. But every time you come to your mat you have the opportunity to experience that state of grace called perspective. The stillness, the quietness the intimacy of breathing deeply with other human beings gives me the perspective to remember that despite all the details, hiccups, logistics, challenges, and irritations of putting on snow boots with bunched up pants, I am alive, I am healthy, I am okay.

And I don’t need -15 degrees to feel that kind of joy. Thank goodness. Brrrr.

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After the collective shouts and kisses to mark the stroke of midnight, the proverbial throwing away of old calendars (those relics) and pinning up of the new, and this year a pristine January 1st snowfall to lend a little extra oomph to the thrilling feeling of newness, the soundtrack of early January is peppered with New Year’s resolutions. If you’re quiet you can almost hear them – muffled by the snowy landscape and the voices of cheery news anchors and snarky radio DJs – the visions of our better selves crafted into five-to-seven word vows. But if you keep listening you’ll hear another sound, one that we’re deaf to as a culture: the echo of resolution shame.

Shame is now part of our cultural vocabulary. Recent research has demonstrated that it’s not the healthiest way to approach self-talk, parenting, procrastination, relationships, or even training a pet. But with very few exceptions, New Year’s resolutions are a shame-fest.

“I resolve to eat healthier.” (I’m still XX pounds heavier than I should be because I have no discipline. No one will ever love me if I look like this.)

“I resolve to exercise.” (That gym membership has become an expensive way to make me feel lazy. So-and-so has a personal trainer so I should, too. Maybe then I’ll have awesome abs.)

I’ve never been a big resolutions person, but like many people I can get swept up in the collective breath-holding on December 31st as the clock winds down. The January 1st exhale is more than just the turning of the calendar. It’s a time when the holiday craze settles and we get back to life as usual. It’s a natural time to get introspective after a month living in the hyper-extroversion mode of holiday parties and socializing.

What’s missing from this practice of introspection is not the identification of what to change, but rather why you want to change it. What’s missing is the other “R” word: Reflection.

This is not a matter of mere semantics. Consider the definitions:

Resolution: a firm decision to do or not do something.

Reflection: serious thought or consideration. Synonym; meditation

How can you expect to stick to a resolution that was not well-thought out or seriously considered?

Resolutions spotlight your greatest character flaws and behavioral challenges, the issues that have plagued you for years, and demand that you simply stop doing them right now. Just because.

If your past year has been one of junk food and couch surfing, shaming yourself with reactionary resolutions won’t do anything to change that. Buying every green vegetable at Whole Foods and chucking them into the crisper will not turn you into a health food eater. Guilting yourself into getting a gym membership that you don’t want to use will not force you to exercise.

Resolutions have the remarkable power to simultaneously let you off the hook while shaming you for falling short. Didn’t make it to the gym in January? Guess you couldn’t cut it. Maybe next year (but probably not then either).

Reflection, on the other hand, is all about asking questions. You want to get healthier? Why? Do you really care about abs, or do you just want to feel more vibrant and energetic?

If it’s the latter, reflect on what activities help you to feel healthier and more alive. That doesn’t mean googling “best ab exercises” or the latest diet some celebrity is following. Be honest without thinking too much about what you “should” do for exercise. (“Should” is shaming territory.)

Choose things you love to do that also happen to get you moving. Not a gym person? Me neither, and when I finally accepted that rather than telling myself exercise "should" look a certain way, a whole world of movement and activity opened up and it was stuff I actually enjoyed and wanted to keep doing.

Forget the "shoulds" - take a walk, cross-country ski, go to yoga, pull the kids on wild sled ride, go swimming at the park district, put on your favorite music and just start dancing. Skipped a few days? It happens, but the good news is there’s no expiration date on this stuff. Just start again, reflect, remember why you wanted to get healthier in the first place, and breathe deeply when you get back to movement so you don’t forget as quickly next time. But you will forget. And that’s okay.

Remember to reflect not only on the days you fall short of your goals but also on the days you nail it. Notice how you feel after taking a little extra time to make a meal that didn’t come from a box, savor the sensation of eating fresh fruit and vegetables at dinner, even if you dive into the old candy stash for dessert. The fruits and veggies will be there again tomorrow, and you can choose to come back to them when you feel the desire return rather than shaming yourself over a mushy plate of steamed broccoli.

Reflection is not hip or ironic. It can’t be accomplished with a clever resolutions tweet or a cute photo posted to Facebook. Reflection is quiet, low-tech, and takes consistent time and attention. But over time, reflection is the shame-free way to pursue real change that doesn’t fade by January 31st.

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We were having a perfectly nice dinner, our little family of four, when my phone rang. I tried to be all Zen about it and pretend that as a yoga teacher and conscious human being I didn’t care, but after three, then four rings I excused myself and pushed back from a delightful conversation about the latest findings on Mars, which was of particular interest to my son because of his recent Mars rover project for school.

My husband gave me the “is this really necessary?” look, the one that after 13 years of marriage seems less like a scolding or judgment and more a reminder from my own conscience. I made some lame excuse about needing to make sure it wasn’t an urgent call from the studio, but somewhere in my mind I knew it wasn’t. I was simply overcome by the urge to answer the call of the more subtle, conniving side of Mean Mommy, the occasional visitor who haunts our house.

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Yes, Mean Mommy is sometimes the yelling sort, but more often lately she emerges in other less obvious ways. She’s tricky, switching her methods on me like this, but you can’t blame her. I've become better at defending against her old yelling tirades, so she had to get creative.

The moment I stepped into my office to answer the phone, hearing traces of a conversation about what methane in the atmosphere might mean and why water isn’t the only important indication of life on a planet. I said an optimistic hello, hoping it would be something super important, something that would justify my leaving a perfectly lovely family dinner table moment, but I was instead greeted by a sharp robotic “Hello” in return. “This is a message from Chicago Public Schools…..” it continued. To my credit, I only listened to another ten seconds of the robo-call about the importance of childhood vaccinations for all CPS students before hanging up, but the damage had already been done.

Entering back into the dinner conversation, I was out of step and asked a question about Mars that my son curtly informed me had already been covered. Sneaky Mean Mommy smirked from within and I passed it off as a smile, trying to pretend I was fully present, but my thoughts were somewhere else entirely as my daughter shared the latest art project she had been working on.

Mean Mommy can’t tell the important stuff from the trivial and frequently acts as though possessed to find any distraction to set herself apart from the primary activities of the moment. Whether it’s reading while brushing teeth, checking email while the kids enjoy an after-school snack, or letting thoughts of work seep into family dinner time, she’s a sneaky, petty thief.

Mean Mommy knows nothing of asteya, the yogic principle of non-stealing. 

It starts out innocently enough. “I just need to finish this one thing,” I’ll say as I’m blasting through emails after school, talking to both my computer and my son, “and then we can play football. Okay, sweetheart?”

20 minutes and 7 follow-up requests later, my sweet tone has devolved into a Mean Mommy snark as I move from pleading, to threatening, to bribing with television. 

This may seem like pretty standard stuff for any mom, moms being the great multi-taskers, but it has been happening more frequently than I care to admit lately. This chronic distractedness reveals a deficit of time, productivity, and efficiency elsewhere. But instead of being a grown-up and addressing the core issue, Mean Mommy attempts to steal some of that time back from her family as a solution.

Mean Mommy has boundary issues, to say the least. 

Just as I worked to lessen the yelling Mean Mommy’s visits by making more time for self-care (been working like a charm, by the way!), my new plan with this thieving Mean Mommy is to set limits for myself, much as I do with my children.

Boundaries make me better. I’m a person who gets overwhelmed by limitless possibility, so the process of saying “this, not that” is actually freeing rather than limiting. 

If I know that after school I can pick up the slack and wrap up unfinished business I didn’t get to during my work day, I tend to be less productive than I could be. Were I not to have the release valve of multi-tasking while parenting, I would be forced to figure out a way to either get it all done during the workday or be more selective about what I commit to and how I use my time in the long run. Both of which would be incredibly positive consequences.

In anticipation of my kids’ upcoming two-week holiday break from school, I’ve decided to commit to some personal boundaries to avoid straddling the parenting and working modes whenever possible so that I can focus on just embodying one role well. It’s scary to change my habits, and I’m coming face to face with the ways in which I sometimes use work to escape the frustrating, boring, and annoying moments of motherhood. But I know from experience that when I just let myself play one role, I do it better. And I have more fun.

Before my phone rang at the dinner table that night, I was enjoying our family’s conversation, loving my husband and children, and reveling in the fact that in a busy, crazy, scary, hectic, connected world with billions of people, I was lucky enough to be in a room every night with the three who are most important to me. That is a gift that I’ve been given, and all I have to do now is not let Mean Mommy steal it away. 

This. Not that. And breathe.

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A couple of weeks ago my family again joined our dear friends on a pilgrimage to Jasper Pulaski State Park to witness the migration of the sandhill cranes. It was a beautiful, chilly Saturday morning, and I was giddy. My son, on the other hand, trudged down the path, completely disregarding the “Sandhill Cranes – True or False?” quiz placards we had so eagerly read together the year before.

He tossed his football so high it grazed the tree branches overhead. “Why can’t we just stay at the campsite and play football?” he said, missing the catch and running after his ball as it rolled erratically through the golden brown carpet of leaves. “They’re just a bunch of birds!”

As we continued up the path towards the observation tower and the familiar sight of 100 or so people perched on railings overlooking a massive field of cranes, I realized I had been pondering the same question. Why do so many of us keep coming back to watch a bunch of birds who are completely indifferent to our presence? What would happen if we were all just too busy with work and family stuff to bother?

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I pictured the tall wooden observation tower empty, the cranes themselves the only witnesses to this natural phenomenon, and was comforted knowing that nothing would be different in that scenario. The cranes would still make their Mary-Poppins-style landings, do their flapping dance, and communicate with their incredibly resonant honks.

As I leaned on the railing and watched these gorgeous animals move and interact, I was overwhelmed with the pure joy of doing just one thing. Emails, status updates, schedules, and everyday aggravations fell away and it occurred to me that this one-pointed focus I had dropped into was not some kind of amazing feat. It was just who I am when I peel back the layers of busyness.

By the time we left I was brimming with the imagery and poeticism of the trees, the fallen leaves, the earth, and the sky dotted with birds and stars.

Back on my yoga mat last week after our return, I practiced a variation of crane pose, balakikasana,to cultivate some of that simplicity despite have been thrust back into the challenges of daily life. After 17 years of hearing yoga’s definition translated as “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind,” as I flapped my wings, moved with my breath, and steadied my gaze, I began to understand it in a different way.

In savasana I imagined a river flowing from my head through my trunk, arms, legs, and out my toes. I visualized that the flow of this river was my true, unchanging self, ease and wellbeing. It’s the part of me that is just waiting to be found if only I can stop distracting myself with things that seem important when I let myself get too busy. Whenever a thought popped into my head, I imagined that thought was a small stick or a golden leaf falling into the river, and I’d watch it float downstream.

Yoga is an undoing. It's not about wishing to stop the thoughts or mental fluctuations any more than a river wishes the sticks and leaves would stop falling into it. Thoughts, those little sticks and leaves, are not the problem.

When I visit the cranes, spend time outside, or simply practice being a mindful, breathing human being on a yoga mat, I’m clearing the river’s pathway so it can flow, as per its nature. I’m witnessing the delicate fall of sticks and leaves, watching the thoughts come and watching the go. I’m not the sticks or the leaves. Rather I’m the river that carries them, I’m the cranes that fly and honk and dance regardless of whether they have witnesses or not. I’m the stuff beneath my stuff, the steadiness beneath my busyness. I am right here, wherever I go, despite the layers of multi-tasking or distraction I sometimes choose to cloak myself in.

In the field beneath the observation tower my son sprints and dodges, clutching the football with a determined grin as he goes for the touchdown with his friends. The cranes honk, the perfect spectators, neither approving nor disapproving of his alternating successes and failures. He’s shed his coat, hat, and gloves, and his cheeks glow red despite my worries that he’ll be cold.

As a kid who’s relatively uncloaked in the layers of distraction, he doesn’t need the cranes in the same way I do. The sunlight fades and my husband goes in for a friendly tackle, then they tumble over each other in the grass, laughing.

I want to tell my son he's right, they are just a bunch of birds. I tell myself, remembering, we're all just a bunch of birds.

 

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Over the past 15 years of teaching yoga, I’ve told my students thousands of times, in thousands of different ways to avoid creating discomfort with the practice. Physically I felt this was the key to guarding against overdoing, strain, and injury.

But a couple of weeks ago I took an Experiential Anatomy workshop with Judith Lasater, and since then discomfort has become my new normal. Judith presented a completely new way of looking at alignment through the lens of kinesiology, and the cognitive dissonance I experienced during the workshop was as unsettling as it was exciting. After 15 years of practicing mountain, triangle, and down dog one way, I’m now exploring what it would mean to do almost exactly the opposite.

Tadasana, mountain pose, my familiar friend, has become this new creature. The shifting of the pelvic alignment, the undoing of ‘sneaky tailbone tucking,’ has freed my belly and low back, requiring much less work while achieving greater stability. Relying more on my bone structure means not needing to do so much work in the poses.

As exciting as these discoveries were, I still wasn’t sure what to think. I felt like an absolute beginner again. While I’m not generally attached to my ability to achieve fancy poses and my practice looks more like a level 1 student’s these days anyway, I was still uncomfortable with this absolute throwback to beginnerdom.

I’m not used to being uncomfortable in any substantial way. Most of us in the US aren’t. I have adequate food, clothing, and shelter. I’m in good health and my yoga practice has been a constant comfort to me, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I’m used to knowing what’s what in my practice, but right now on the mat I’m caught in a dialogue between old habit and new. As I make my way into trikonasana with the new alignment cues, my muscle memory protests, ‘But this is NOT how triangle feels...’

At every point in the pose my mind tries to decide whether Judith’s way is good or bad, whether I like it or dislike it, and I can’t help debating whether or not she’s right. But as Judith reminded us, determining what’s ‘right’ demands identifying its opposite, and there’s really not room for ‘wrong’ in yoga practice. All these tiny alignment details teachers offer students are simply ways to encourage paying attention and moving consciously rather than from rote. The mental focus and awareness generated from such details helps you practice yoga rather than just asana.

What do most of us do when we feel discomfort? My tendency is to fill it up – over the years that tool has ranged from stuffing my face with chocolate, zoning out to bad TV shows, or losing myself in work or writing projects to avoid feeling the unease of not knowing. Unconsciously, I must believe that if I do something familiar (even something that causes other kinds of pain and discomfort, like an overfull belly, regret over wasted time, or exhaustion from staying up too late), the weird unfamiliarity will be quelled so I can go on about my nice little life without having to examine what the discomfort really means below the surface.

I’m ready to invite discomfort in for myself and for my students, to play with the balance between knowing and not knowing, between certainty and unfamiliarity. We often visited this world as kids because so many of our experiences were new and uncomfortable, but we were repeatedly told it was an important part of our growth and development.

As adults couldn’t embracing the discomfort of newness be useful in cultivating that same sort of growth?

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I’ve been refining my definitions. Yes, discomfort is a warning sign. But sometimes rather than a red light, it’s a flashing yellow. ‘Hey, you! Pay attention to this and decide – do you want to hit the brakes or proceed with caution?’

Discomfort and pain are distinct experiences on the mat. Discomfort is the unfamiliar, like when Judith asked me to shift my pelvis forward and down in triangle rather than trying to spin open as I have done so many times before. My body was confused, my muscle memory jostled, and I experienced emotional discomfort because I felt like a complete beginner again. On the other hand, some of the things Judith suggested did not quite feel right in my body and bordered on pain. In those cases I listened, pulled back, and asked for help. But for the most part, when I managed to stay with the unfamiliarity long enough to undo my habitual asana patterns, I experienced a new lightness, steadiness, and ease in the poses.

While I want to play with discomfort and encourage my students to do the same, I’m still a firm believer that pain does not belong on the yoga mat and you need not push through it to achieve a breakthrough. I also don’t feel I’ve unlocked the key to the one ‘right’ way to approach alignment, but rather have reinforced for myself that the value of asana practice lies in its ability to help us pay attention to small details and sensation. I look forward to inviting students to pay closer attention, undo habits, and explore their discomfort with newness in asana. And I hope that when they step off the mat and back into their day the exploration they’ve done will open them to the growth possibilities that exist within cognitive dissonance, with the questioning of patterns without need for determining ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’

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