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+.

Posted by on in Off the Mat

ig·no·rant/ˈignərənt/
Adjective:
Lacking knowledge or awareness in general; uneducated or unsophisticated.
Lacking knowledge, information, or awareness about something in particular: "ignorant of astronomy".

I'm practicing being ignorant, and it feels downright blissful. When I give myself permission to not look at all of the updates facebook beckons me to check with its tantalizingly highlighted numbers, or when I decide to opt-out of following the latest news story in its hourly online installments and instead wait until the dust settles and the full story comes out, I'm consciously choosing ignorance without being unsophisticated. Considering the lure of the 24-hour news cycle and the endless quantities of information available to us on every subject imaginable, I'd like to think that opting not to consume every last bit of that content makes us all the more sophisticated.


Last weekend I practiced freedom from my computer, a few days of delightfully real world un-electronic activities. But on Monday morning I anticipated the e-build-up, like water collecting in a dam. When I opened my email it burst forth, message after message, and all at once I was drowning in it. As I waded through, hand heavy on the mouse, I was right back where I started, fully stricken with the internet itch. Clicking from one thing to the other, I reflexively checked in with all my usual internet spots - following the latest news around our neighborhood, the updates in the yoga world, the most recent word on CPS, and I could feel it creeping up on me, the unease becoming more and more pronounced. It was an itch that could seemingly not be scratched.

I'm still figuring out how to live in harmony with my computer, how to manage the ebbs and flows of my internet activity, how to prevent my smartphone from becoming the brains behind this whole operation. The plethora of information and technology available today require us to be more disciplined, more aware of our habits, and more moderate in our online behaviors than perhaps we are even capable of yet.

So for now, for today, this is my meditation. Sometimes the phone can go unanswered, the text message can hang out in the virtual world for a few extra minutes, the status updates can go unread. Sometimes it's okay to not be the first to know the very latest news about the world. Sometimes it's okay to like something without 'liking' it. These days, in order to find your bliss, you must not be afraid to be a little ignorant.

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 In my gentle class this week, we spent a long time in supta padangusthasana, reclining big toe pose. The pose provides a relaxing way to stretch the hamstrings and strengthen the legs, while allowing for a deep release in the hips, back, and neck. Much as I love this pose today for the perspective it has given me on and off the mat, it still brings back some painful memories.

As someone who is naturally flexible, when I first started yoga I delighted that many of the poses played to my strengths. I moved deeply into forward folds, bent myself into tight backbends, and pursued the goal of making my poses look like whatever the teacher demonstrated or whatever a yoga book pictured. I exploited my flexibility, played with the line where a stretch crosses into the danger zone, and then pushed further, impatient to see a visible 'improvement' in my pose.

You might be able to guess what happened next.

My poses didn't so much improve as they served to teach me some valuable (though painful) lessons. As the teacher led us into supta padangusthasana, I went through the first side following the cues, a little bored as we were instructed to wait and work our way into the pose gradually. When I came out of the first side the teacher had us compare the two, giving us perspective on how far we had come. That first side felt incredible!

But when we started in on the second side, that leg felt stiff, dull, and reluctant. With the memory of the after-effects of the first side so close, I just didn't want to have to wait to get that feeling again. So I tried to skip steps, forcing my leg deeper into the stretch, and that's when I felt a snap in the back of my leg.

Having not yet learned patience and perspective on the yoga mat, I was forced to practice these virtues as I waited for my hamstrings to heal. My injury was a waiting-period, an imposed time to reflect on the true aims of the practice and how I was approaching it. Weeks later as my hamstrings began to feel close to normal again, my approach on the mat became slower, more measured. I found that waiting was not, in fact, boring. Rather it gave me perspective that a rushed approach would have never allowed.

The patience and perspective I've since practiced on the yoga mat has helped more than my hamstrings. Whether in the context of the writing process or in decisions pertaining to my role as director at Bloom, I've made my fair share of rushed decisions because I felt the pressures of time or expectations. When I'm on a deadline, it doesn't seem practical or possible to wait and process. Particularly now that the speed of personal and business interactions has so rapidly increased, when I take extra time it feels like I'm shirking my responsibilities, so I rush to some sort of action. Without exception, the hasty decisions have not turned out to be the best ones. Without the benefit of time, there is always some element that I forget to consider in my process.

Now when some time-sensitive situation comes up in my personal life or at the studio, I imagine the decision is the second side of supta padangusthasana. I reassure myself that a little extra time will help rather than hurt, I send feelers out, and contemplate the issue from a variety of angles. But mostly, I just wait. I'll often experience moments of panic as the deadline looms, worrying that I'm not actively 'doing anything' to resolve the issue. But sometimes doing is not what is required. Often patience and perspective are more effective.

As my experience on and off the mat has shown, you can't rush a good thing. I've come to trust that. I practice being okay on the mat during in the in-between time when my hamstrings are not yet open, I give myself permission off the mat to slow down and wait until a decision becomes clear. In this age of quick replies and instant everything, I now savor the chance to productively wait.

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I could feel it building up over the course of the last few weeks, packed as they have been from the time I woke up, dressed, fed myself and the kids, then ran around like a crazy person trying to find matching gloves. The morning routine culminates in me shoving the kids out the front door and then saying 'let's go' 50 times as we walk the five blocks to school and try to make it before the bell rings. It's safe to say, we were in a rut. I was crabby, felt uninspired and short on time, and more than once I wondered if this was all life was about - a series of routines that fill up each day.

You may now be crying out, 'No, no! life can be so much more!' But I maintain that life is, in many ways, a series of routines. The key is figuring out how to move your routines beyond ruts.

And, as my son has been known to say, we just do the same things every day. Routines are important because they allow us to fall into rhythms, to be able to navigate the world more efficiently. Just think if you woke up every morning and spent 20 minutes contemplating how to spend your time before leaving for work or school. Routines ensure that certain important parts of our lives (eating, sleeping, brushing teeth, exercise) will not be forgotten in the midst of the busyness.

But there are routines and then there are ROUTINES.

Last night I was listening to Glenn Gould's exquisite take on Bach's Goldberg Variations, and it occurred to me that life is much like a theme and its variations. Your daily routines are the theme, the consistent base from which you move forth, but within that context there is almost infinite room for flourishes, for creativity, for variations on the theme. The fact that these variations are all tied to or grounded in the theme makes them all the more meaningful.

Lately, I've become more aware of my own routines on the mat. While it's good to have expectations - I will get to yoga class a couple of times this week, I will do a few poses at home or at work - it's less helpful when these routines manifest in the exact same way every time.

When I pay attention, I can identify the points in my own practice where I go on auto-pilot, almost automatically transitioning through a sequence of poses (Hello, Warrior II - Reverse Warrior - Side Angle - Triangle!). Because my typical sequence has felt good in the past and I don't have to think about it, it feels safe and easy to fall back on it. But lately, instead of just diving back into Reverse Warrior, I've been trying to sequence a different pose in next, challenging myself to break out of my yoga rut, and choose a variation on the theme instead. It feels so fresh, so good!

Mix it up on the mat, let go, and see how good it feels to be freed from the routine-ness of your routine. You may feel a little unhinged at first, like you're skipping out on your homework. But yoga is about letting go of attachment and living in the present moment, so hiding behind routines and expectations for asana practice is not really practicing yoga at all. Have your routines and leave them, too. Find a way to exercise both discipline and freedom simultaneously. And let your routines move beyond ruts to become beautiful variations on a theme.

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Last month's New York Times article "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body" certainly threw the yoga community for a loop! I've given the article a lot of thought over the past few weeks and have written several responses to the reactions I've heard from students and teachers. In the aftermath I've had conversations with colleagues who have practiced daily for years, and for many dedicated yogis the question still lingers: is it possible for intermediate practitioners to find a challenge on the mat without "wrecking" their bodies?


To me, the answer is a qualified yes. If you are a beginner who stumbles into a Level 2 class and you try to crank yourself into a complex backbend or muscle your way through a long headstand, or if you are a continuing student who tries to pretzel your way into those poses at the back of Light on Yoga without the guidance of a qualified teacher, you will very likely do yourself some damage.

But if you have been practicing consistently in order to gain a deeper understanding of your body and mind, you have developed the intuition to help you know when to pull back rather than push through. You are taming the ego every time you resist the urge to show off your awesome yoga skills when the teacher calls out your favorite pose. If you opt for a rest in child's pose as the class whips through yet another vinyasa, you are practicing humility in caring for your own needs rather than following the crowd.

So what makes an intermediate practitioner? What does the Level 2 designation mean?

Many people would cite the extreme asana variations and long holds referenced in the NYT article. My take is a little different.

To me, Level 2 means maintaining the ujjayi pranayama, or victorious breath, throughout every single pose. It means more complex transitions between the poses as a way of developing greater concentration and balance; if you've ever moved from tree pose to half moon and then back again, you know that creative transitions amplify the intensity of any pose. It means working towards a deeper experience of a backbend (with the help of props or not), with constant reminders from your teacher to pay attention and stop if you find you are not breathing deeply or feel discomfort in the pose. Like anything else in yoga, Level 2 means different things to different people. In my opinion, the safest way to provide students with a challenge is to offer many ways to experience more intermediate poses. For example, if you were to look around the room (which, of course, you would never do because you are a yogi and do not compare yourself to other people!) during the practice of an arm balance such as side crow pose, you would find students working at a variety of levels in the pose: some with feet still firmly planted on the ground and others in full flight.

At Bloom, our take on Level 2 moves beyond the typical harder + faster = better equation. We believe there is a way to explore a physical and mental challenge on the mat without "wrecking" yourself; we encourage students to remember that the process of trying these more advanced pose variations is more important than the final shape of the pose any day.

Most of the time I keep my own practice simple, soft, and gentle. But as I've learned over the years, it can be incredibly valuable to shake up old habits, to get out of the rut of a comfort zone, to carefully go where you have not gone before. That's when I roll out the old yoga mat in a Level 2 class, and I'm grateful to have a dedicated, knowledgeable teacher to provide me with both a challenge and the requisite cautions and reminders to keep me healthy as I work.

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I'm pleased that the wonderful, positive online community MindBodyGreen posted my article "Fear No Yoga" this week. The article examines the myriad of responses the yoga community has had to the recent NYT article "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body." But it looks at them from a new perspective: how fear influences our relationship with yoga practice.

In the article I talk about an exercise on fear that my colleague Sharon Wentz led for our teacher trainees this fall. The process of uncovering and better understanding our fears can be informative and empowering, particularly in relationship to our yoga practice.

Check out the article and let me know what you think!

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