Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

b2ap3_thumbnail_American-Tulip-Gothic.jpgThe first tulips of spring always bring back the dull ache of a Mother's Day disaster from when I was about 8 years old. I was playing on our block on a beautiful spring day, skipping, whistling, loving the return of the warmer weather and all it brought, when I noticed that the tree in our neighbors' front yard was now sporting a circle of the most exquisitely bloomed yellow, pink, and red tulips. Earlier that morning on our walk to school my mom had enthusiastically pointed out and expressed her love for some other floral beauties that had just sprung. It was almost Mother's Day. It seemed like kismet.

When I showed up at our front door and proudly showed my mom a colorful bouquet with ragged stems, her expression was exactly the opposite of the beaming smiles I'd seen in FTD Flowers commercials. She gasped and demanded to know where I had gotten them. After suffering through my lame claim that I found them on the sidewalk, she coaxed out a confession then instructed me to return the flowers to the neighbors.

A few months ago I told this story to my own children as a funny cautionary tale, and they’ve since asked me to repeat it over and over. This is their favorite part: when I sheepishly went to return the flowers, I dropped them on the neighbors’ welcome mat and ran back home. My mom was perched against the screen door, arms crossed when I returned.

“Did you give them back?” she asked. I nodded. “What did they say?”

When I couldn’t come up with anything, she sternly instructed me to go back and apologize to the neighbors in person. Since I couldn’t be trusted, she accompanied me to confirm that I did it right this time, watching from the sidewalk while I went up to their front door alone.

My kids giggle here, picturing their mommy as a little girl walking up the neighbor’s steps in tears, embarrassed and mad that she was getting busted for trying to do something nice. The story closes with me ringing the doorbell and giving a quiet apology and the slightly droopy flowers to our neighbor whose corners of her mouth were now droopy as well and I always throw in a little lesson for good measure, a that’s-why-we-don’t-damage-other-people’s-things nudge.

This is the kind of stuff I’d like to see on Mother’s Day cards. Sometimes moms ask us to do things we don’t want to do and speak sternly to us (some even yell, or so I've heard), but they do so out of love and a desire to help us grow up to be people they want to be around. The real mother-child relationship looks nothing like the sort depicted in the foreign language of Hallmark-ese:

“Dear Mom, When I grow up I want to be just like you,” followed by an idealized list of virtues (patient, loving, sweet, thoughtful, dependable, etc).

“A mother is a person who, seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.”

Is she? Just the other day I snuck away while the kids were getting ready for bed to savor the last piece of chocolate in our house because I knew otherwise my treat-crazy children would’ve taken a few careless bites and likely left it for dead under a pile of dirty laundry.

I want to reclaim Mother’s Day and make it more real. Instead of buying into the “perfect supermom” Mother’s Day story, this year I’m celebrating Mean Mommy’s Day.

Mean Mommy’s Day means not speaking in platitudes. Instead it means focusing on specific real life interactions, big or small, regardless of whether they’re the sort memorialized on Mother’s Day cards or the incidents that would be better labeled “the day mom went crazy and threw our shoes down the basement stairs.”

Yes, being a mom is cuddling up with your sick child to read a book together, playing an epic game of tag at the park, and giving up your ice cream cone after your son drops his on the pavement; but it’s also the occasional hurry-up-ing, forgetting to pack gym shoes, under-your-breath cursing, and the refusal to play that second round of the board game the kids invented because it’s just too long and boring to endure another time.

I want my children to know that a good mother doesn’t have to put her own needs last in all circumstances. A good mother is not always patient, kind, and smiling. Rather, a good mother is a combination of all the great stuff plus the shadow side of her Mean Mommy self, that person she is when she isn’t at her best.

After years of suffering through Mean Mommy’s visits, I’m finally proud to own her as part of me. Naming her has made those shadow moments less scary and easier to recover from, because she represents a neutral way to acknowledge that it’s normal and okay to sometimes lose my cool and fall short of my best self.

Happy Mean Mommy’s Day to all the wonderful and imperfect mothers out there. May we celebrate as the loving and flawed moms we are, and may we smile knowingly at any well-intentioned Mother’s Day cards we receive with implications otherwise.

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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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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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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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This morning after my daughter jumped into bed with me, all warm breath and messy hair and piercing blue eyes, each word out of her mouth felt like magic, each laugh we shared threatened to push me over the edge with the sheer joy of it. She was just so sweet, so real, such an embodiment of pure love as she nestled her little hands into the warmth of my neck.

Kids can be like that, their ability to be totally present can be more than a little mind-blowing, reminding you what it feels like to not just go through a human being's motions, but to really be one.

And yet that's only half the story, as any experienced (and non-delusional) parent knows.

There are the other moments, the ones that don't dazzle but rather dehumanize you: the fights you must referee among siblings, the myriad of bodily fluids to be managed, the whining and slowness at inopportune moments, the general dislike of parental suggestions for food, clothing, or any other choices that need to be made.

After my daughter and I emerged from the paradise of our early morning magic, the warm fuzzies were replaced by real life hiccups and things began to fall apart. Keys were lost, milk was spilled, punches were thrown (none by me, in case you wondered), and I ached with the frustration, the indignity of being a parent of young children who must figure out a way to hold it all together when there is still a lunch to pack and a plumber to meet and crying seems to be the only reasonable solution to all of the chaos.

Fortunately, I've experienced similar ebbs and flows on my yoga mat and after years of judging myself during the low times, I've come to understand it as a spectrum of experience.

Just as in parenting, sometimes yoga practice is glorious - I'll push up into full wheel pose and my whole body feels like it's breathing, like it's shining light from every pore. Then other days I'm a lump of clay that will not be moved, I'm an achy child's pose, I'm ungraceful and even grotesque in my attempt to move through a single sun salutation.

But in the end, it's all yoga. The dumpy days and the lovely ones provide the same opportunity for the experience of humanity. On the mat or with the family, it's not really how the pose looks or who says what that counts. It's the way you react and how you move through it.

This morning, once I stopped wishing the kids would hold hands and sing kumbaya instead of arguing over pokemon cards, once I acknowledged that the little girl who was now making me crazy was the same one I was in love with this morning, once I gave in to the fact that we would (again) be late for school rather than yelling at my son to get his shoes on, the day got a whole lot better. I got out of the way, I embraced the lumpiness, and felt as much at ease as I would have had it been a smooth morning.

Oh, the humanity.

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