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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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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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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Any new parent can tell you of the importance of tummy time for healthy spinal development. The evolution of the human spine is an incredible thing, but the 'devolution' of the spine that occurs in adults who spend too much time hunched in front of a computer is frightening. I'm here today to say it: adults need tummy time, too. And yoga can provide it!

At birth, humans have a single C-shaped curve, and it is only in the first few months of life that the first secondary curve of the cervical spine develops. Tummy time is an important way that babies develop the strength and ability to hold their heads up, and thus create the curve of the cervical spine. The next secondary curve of the lumbar spine develops as a child learns to creep and crawl.
 
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Imagine your posture after you've been sitting in front of a computer for hours. You're tired of sitting and your back is achy, so you slump back in your chair. But then you can't see the screen very well so you find yourself leaning closer and closer. Your chin juts forward, the cervical and lumbar curves are reduced to the point where the spine more closely resembles a c-shape than the s-shape it should be in a healthy adult. Prolonged bouts of sitting in this manner may lead to a profound loss in strength in the core muscles of the body (think support system for the spine rather than "abs of steel"), resulting in a loss of the ability to access, much less maintain, the good posture we developed as active toddlers.

What to do?
 
Consider the humble backbend known as salabhasana, locust pose. Or as I've come to think of it lately, tummy time for grown-ups. I was recently watching a sweet little yogi who hadn't yet learned to crawl, and the ease with which he lifted his head and his legs was delightful. How many of us as adults can find that same ease in this pose on the yoga mat?
 
b2ap3_thumbnail_SeatedBackbend.jpgFor years, I avoided locust pose in my practice because it was so hard to lift my legs, arms, and upper body simultaneously. But as I know now, it was hard precisely because I avoided it (and needed it so badly). So I've been treating myself like a baby by doing daily tummy time and it's working like a charm. My core muscles are stronger and the pose is getting easier. It's gotten to the point where my body craves the simple, strengthening backbend that locust pose provides. 
 
You can even practice a seated variation right in your chair to help reset your posture and re-energize your body and mind. It's the antidote to sitting and slouching in front of a computer and it will remind you to breathe more deeply and sit up straighter!

The bad news: All the time you spend hunched in front of a computer may be detrimental to your health and may be contributing to the 'devolution' of your spine as depicted by our poor friend in the first image above.

The good news: You don't need to squirm and cry through the recommended 10-20 minutes of daily tummy time that a baby does. Start small and keep it simple. Integrate a simple backbend into your day, become more aware of your posture when you're sitting at your desk, take frequent breaks to get up, walk around, and get you out of your seated slump. There's even an app for that - you can download software that will provide you with timed reminders to get up and stretch every so often.

It seems simple, but a minor change in your daily habits may hold great potential for better back health and comfort. At first it will seem hard, but there's no need to be a baby about it: when you make time for tummy time, your back will most definitely thank you!

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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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