Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

I vividly remember my first meditation experience more than 15 years ago. When the teacher said we'd be meditating for 30 minutes, I panicked. The teacher instructed us to close our eyes and quiet our minds. How could something so simple make me so nervous?

When I closed my eyes I felt tension building in my chest and it was as if my thoughts were screaming at me - mean, ugly, self-doubting thoughts. I was going through a difficult time and the last thing I wanted was to spend 30 minutes coming face-to-face with self-judgement. It was scary and intimidating and it made me want to quit.

Part of the problem was that 30 minutes was way too long for a first experience, but the bigger issue was that I had unrealistic expectations for what meditation should look and feel like.
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The word meditation is thrown around a lot these days because there have been so many recent studies touting its benefits. But too many people have a very narrow and unrealistic idea of what meditation can be.


When you first try meditation (or mindfulness or being present), don’t be surprised if you’re not feeling immediately blissed out and peaceful. In fact, you may initially find it incredibly frustrating. Your mind’s job is to think, so it's unrealistic to expect that simply sitting up straight and closing your eyes will translate to a peaceful, thought-free existence. Rather, the aim is to first become aware of the thoughts, and then to put some space between them. Thoughts will continue to come, as they should, but if you can learn to control how you react to the thoughts you will be able to move beyond habits to create newness and change in your life.
 
b2ap3_thumbnail_8minutemeditation.jpgThere are many techniques to help you do this, but a favorite of mine is one my colleague Lisa Sandquist shared with me. She drew the technique from 8 Minute Meditation by Victor Davich. He calls it "Gracious Declining" but Lisa refers to it as the ‘No, thank you’ meditation, which I love. Here’s how to do it: when a thought comes up, like 'I forgot to respond to that important email,' instead of following it to the next thought, 'I'm always letting people down,' silently say ‘No, thank you.’

The 'no' is a practice in derailing habitual thought patterns, and the ‘thank you’ is a reminder to work with compassion rather than beating yourself up.

Keep in mind that meditation (or whatever you want to call that quiet, reflective time) should not just become one more way to judge yourself and your value as a human being. It doesn’t matter if you meditate for a minute or an hour, what matters is how you apply the new perspectives gained to your daily life. When a conflict arises with a co-worker or your spouse, you can use that moment of pause to choose act with greater clarity and compassion, giving you the opportunity to communicate from a new place rather than just rehashing the same old argument.

Meditation is a powerful tool that can not only reduce stress, but can also be the first step towards creating change in your life and your relationships. But you have to practice regularly for that moment of pause to be there for you when you need it. For me, finding 8 minutes to be quiet and still can seem intimidating, and if you're too intimidated to actually do it who cares how high your goal is set? Two minutes is about how long it takes for your computer to boot up. And even two minutes can make a difference, so start there.

Give it a try. Right now if it feels appropriate. Or, be on the lookout for a 2-minute window of time later today that might work better. I'm a big fan of bringing wellness practices to unusual settings (I love to practice yoga in my kitchen!). It takes the pressure off when you practice meditation within the context of daily activities and don't make it too sacred.

I like to practice meditation at my desk (what a relief to take my eyes off the glowing computer screen for a few minutes!), on public transit, in waiting rooms, pretty much anyplace and anytime when I have a few minutes of downtime and I may be tempted to pull out my phone and check email.

It's all about finding something that's comfortable and manageable for you in the context of your daily life. When you first start, closing your eyes in a public place may feel too vulnerable (unless everyone else is doing it, too – can you imagine the power of midday office-wide meditation breaks?). In that case, you’ll just need to find a more private moment – maybe you can close the door to your office or take a moment on your morning train commute, or before you start your car (NOT while operating it!).

Stress is a reality, but tools like the 'No, thank you' Meditation can help you develop choice in how you react to it.

Despite the frustration and fear that arose from my first meditation experience, once I let go of what I thought meditation 'should' look like I was able to find ways to integrate this wonderful stress-reducing technique into daily life. It doesn't matter what it looks like or how long you do it. The key, as with everything, is consistent practice.

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Posted by on in Health

Some days it sneaks up on you, like the slow rise of a thermometer on a summer afternoon. Other days it hits all at once. However it arrives, stress is an unpleasant, obtrusive, and all-too-frequent visitor that leaves you feeling physically tense and mentally unsettled.

This past week has been particularly stressful for me. I have no fewer than five unfinished time-sensitive projects to deal with at work, my kids have been home sick from school, and it looks like a tornado blew through our house (how did that sock get on the ceiling fan, anyway?).

Pressed for time, I’ve been pushing myself to the limit in an attempt to be hyper-productive and somehow catch up and conquer my workload. I’ve been staying up late, working on weekends, neglecting to make adequate time for both activity and rest, and just generally sucking all enjoyment out of my daily existence.

Today I'd finally had enough.





During a quiet moment when no one was needing my attention, I inched to the front edge of my chair, sat up straight, rolled my shoulders a few time, placed my hands in my lap, and closed my eyes. As soon as my eyelids closed, I felt a shift. I took a deeper breath and felt some of my shoulder and neck tension release.

Without the visual stimulus of the stressors around me – my computer, the stack of papers I needed to address, the pile of mail that had to go out – my nagging to-do list seemed a little less important and I could see that in the big scheme of things it didn’t really matter if my house was a disaster for a few busy days. Things will settle down eventually – the projects will be done, the kids will go back to school – there is always enough time. I just have to choose to make space instead of stress.

I don’t like fancy labels, so if you asked me what I was doing I’d say I was just paying attention and tuning in.

Meditating?

Nah…..I was being present, I was taking care of myself. Meditation is something a yogi does under a tree at an ashram in some beautiful remote setting.

How can I call this ‘meditation’ when it's likely that the phone will ring at any moment?

What if I don't have more than two minutes to sit calmly and quietly? That can't still be meditation, can it?

Meditation, mindfulness, being present – it doesn't matter what you call it, or how long you spend on it. The practice of getting quiet can profoundly impact your stress levels and can be a key component of your daily stress-management toolbox. It’s amazingly simple and easy and it doesn’t take long to be effective.

Start by just closing your eyes, observing your breath, and noticing how you feel. And stay tuned for some specific ideas and techniques for how to incorporate meditation into your workday.

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I used to punish myself with exercise. For most of my 20s, exercise was little more than a way of dealing with the negative feelings I had about my body. It was my way of coping with having eaten too much or having eaten the 'wrong' things. When I felt too fleshy, too indulgent, I'd try to 'work it off,' to shed those bad feelings.

I've never been much of a gym person, so going out for a run was my punishment of choice. But it took a lot just to get out the door. I dreaded my runs and would find any excuse to delay. I usually felt pretty good when I was done, but mostly because I had appeased my feelings of self-loathing. I had paid the price for my wrongdoings (at least for that day).

Just as a child who is accustomed to punishment will continue to act out in order to get the expected result, after my workout I'd feel like I had earned a reward, so I'd allow myself a big bowl of ice cream. But as I ate, feelings of guilt and obligation arose because I was anticipating the next day's punishment. And since I'd already been 'bad' with the first bowl, I helped myself to a second (with chocolate syrup this time), thus feeding the cycle. The next day I'd have to run harder and longer to feel okay, then I'd rebel again the day after by polishing off the rest of the container of ice cream. And so on.

Having grown up as an athlete and dancer I couldn't understand why fun exercise was so hard to come by as an adult. In high school I went to volleyball or softball practice every day after school, running, jumping, playing, playing. In college, dance classes were an integral part of my day and a way to express my creativity. My body liked movement, so why was it so hard as an adult to find a way to 'work out' that felt good?
 
I soon realized that the big difference from the days of teams and dance classes was that back then I pursued purposeful movement rather than a goal-based activity of logging a certain number of miles to get a sufficient workout. When my kids play they roll around on the floor, crawl under or over me as I practice yoga, jump over cracks in the sidewalk, and always find ways to express themselves with their movement. As an adult, my exercise routine had become punitive rather than joyful and purposeful, and I was determined to change that.

I decided to take the leap and stop 'working out.' It was a little rough at first. It was hard to find a way to get enough movement to satisfy my body's needs, and I worried that I would gain weight. But I stuck with it because it just felt awesome to go for a nice walk, to swim, to get on the mat for the joy of it instead of pumping out a ton of mindless vinyasas.

The funny thing is, when I stopped punishing myself and focusing on negative body image, I felt less of a need to eat compulsively or overeat on unhealthy things. Emotionally I was more satisfied, and I knew that I could enjoy a delicious brownie and a big glass of creamy whole milk without feeling the need to 'work it off' later. I was practicing balance and joy, and it felt great.

Now that I've stopped 'working out,' I've realized that I don't want to compartmentalize exercise. Movement is part of who I am, not just something I can do at a gym. Going for a walk is not about burning calories, but rather about getting me from home to the grocery store, about moving and breathing and being part of my community. My yoga practice is part of who I am, not something I have to force myself into doing because I've been 'bad' and had too much dessert. Movement just feels good, so I do it. To me that's what exercise should be - it should answer a physical, mental, and emotional question, a need we all have to be mobile beings.

I believe that even when yoga is practiced vigorously, it's not a 'workout.' Rather you're 'working in,' going deeper into yourself on all levels. When I step back from being compulsive about exercise and eating, when I choose to move my body in ways that bring me joy, I feel healthier and happier. And I'm actually in better physical shape now than when I was beating myself up with exercise.

Yes, it's the New Year. Yes, this is traditionally the time to make health and fitness commitments. But if exercise becomes a chore and a punishment, it's something that you will inevitably fall off from. When you instead recognize your body's innate need to move and you find the ways that feel best to you instead of just dragging yourself to the gym, movement can be as joyful as you remember it as a kid. And that brownie you enjoy without fear of retribution will be even sweeter.

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Sure, it was going to be an amazing experience. But how could I possibly step away when life was so busy?

A couple of weeks ago, my family was supposed to join our friends for a camping trip in Indiana to witness the annual migration of the sandhill cranes. We had every reason not to go this year. The computer at the studio died the day before the trip, our garage door was on the fritz, and from the way things looked on weather.com, it seemed just a little bit crazy to think of spending two whole days outside.

Secretly I was hoping that the weight of all these little headaches might be just enough to force us to call off the trip. I wasn't sure if I was capable of stepping back from my stress and busyness.

One thing I've learned from the past 8 years of running Bloom: when you say you're too busy to do something that will be fun or relaxing or will take you out of your everyday routine, you definitely are too busy.

But you need to do it anyway.


So we packed up the car and the kids and headed towards Indiana. As we left the city limits, I noticed my jaw had unclenched. By the time we were driving past cornfields, the ache in my upper back was gone. When we rolled into the campsite and freed the kids from their carseats, they immediately communed with the fallen leaves, rolling around, throwing them, swishing their feet through them and making the most delightful sound. We ran to the playground and romped about on the swings and the see-saw, then I took us all for a whirl on the old-school spinny ride. As I went around and around, looking up at the trees and the sky and enjoying getting just a little too dizzy, I was literally unwinding, unloading the burden of my daily routine.

That afternoon we headed to Jasper-Pulaski State Park, which the cranes use as a stopping point to feed and rest on their journey to Georgia and Florida. While our friends have been going to see the cranes for more than fifteen years, it was only our third year witnessing this amazing wildlife spectacle. By this point, we knew what we should expect to see. Thousands of birds, as many as 10,000, would be flying in over our heads as sunset rolled in. Though we had seen it before, it would still be an unbelievable thing to see this many birds in one place, to witness their fabulous dance and hear their unique call, and to know that it's been this way for millions of years.

Kind of makes my unanswered emails seem insignificant.

As we pulled in to the parking lot and exited the car, we looked up in the sky and didn't see much of anything happening. In past years, from the moment we arrived there were groups of cranes flying in from all directions like planes approaching the runway. But this time, we struggled to spot ten cranes in the sky at any one time.

So there were were: cold, with kids who (predictably) didn't find this particularly interesting, wrestling with our own expectations and our attempts at being patient. One hour in, we had seen a few dozen more, but we couldn't help commenting at how in past years there had just been so many more cranes. The others who gathered, including some birders who had been coming every year for 20+ years, were all talking about it.

We were here. Where were the cranes?

Migration is nature's built-in self-care and survival mechanism. When the weather changes and the cranes' quality of life is affected by it, they instinctively make a long journey for their well-being and the well-being of their family. It's no small thing, and it requires some work and a sacrifice. But migration keeps the cranes alive and well.



"They're probably too busy to migrate," I joked to my friend. "I blame the internet."

"Yeah," she said. "Maybe they tweeted a different landing location this year."

Could the cranes really override their survival programming? What would happen to them if they did?

Though I was perplexed by their relative absence and disappointed not to get to see their amazing spectacle, in a small, weird way it was validating and enticing to think that perhaps the cranes were just too busy this year to make a big deal out of the whole migration thing.

It was a very familiar rationale, at least in human terms. What if despite the knowledge that this was the one thing they needed, the one thing that would keep them healthy and safe, they opted out because they were busy and it was too hard leave their current situation?

As human beings we do not instinctively migrate, and we unfortunately possess immense power to override our body's signals. When my body showed signs of stress earlier that day, instead of recognizing that I needed time away to extract myself from the metaphorical cold front that was rolling in on my life, I nearly decided to just put my head down and power through.

When you unknowingly choose stress over self-care over and over again, you pay the price for it. Stress-related disease is on the rise, and the pace of life seems unlikely to slow down any time soon, so we must learn to override societal messages in order to better tune in to the biological ones. Our bodies and minds crave the break of metaphorical migration, we need a better balance of activity and rest, and yet it can be hard to know how to achieve that short of taking off for a warm-weather vacation.

Another thing I love about yoga: while it has been proven that many forms of movement and exercise provide health benefits, built right into the fabric of yoga's philosophy is this balancing act, the knowledge that 'active' doesn't necessarily mean 'healthy' unless it's balanced with sufficient rest and relaxation.

Deep down we humans know this, but in the flurry of external stimulus from work and media and busy schedules, we often forget. I was beginning to wonder whether the cranes had forgotten, too.

Hour two rolled around and we were getting colder and more discouraged, but I wasn't ready to give up on the cranes. I needed to see them come. As the sun went down a few more flocks started rolling in, and gradually the sky began to appear littered with them. They were coming as they did every year. Despite our computer problems and busy work schedules and minor home repair issues, we could depend on the cranes after all.



They flew in, proof of what is real and what is not. The need to be warm in the winter, the need for food and water, the need for social connections, for the support of a group - these are real. The other stuff, though it occupies our days and provides entertainment, is more of a construct of reality than reality itself.

That weekend we spent two days outside, bundled, huddled by the fire, focused mostly on our basic needs of eating, drinking, sleeping, and staying warm, and it was the medicine I needed. It was a reminder that it was safe and necessary for me to get away and escape the constructs.

The miserable notoriously love company, and in busy patches of my life I've often found myself seeking out my own kind. "Are things super busy for you, too?" I'd ask those around me, hoping. If others were experiencing the same thing, it validated and normalized what I was going through, and made me think that maybe it was just inevitable to grow more and more stressed each year.

But I've decided to stop asking that question of others, and have come up with a new answer should someone ask it of me. "I'm not super busy. I'm making time for rest and taking good care of myself."

It's time to say 'no' to busyness. It's time to normalize well-being, to take a lesson from the cranes, and stop overriding the body's signals to rest. Whether that means some yoga to start the day, a walk to clear your head, or simply time away from the computer, now is the time to take better care.

Like the cranes, we can only survive if we learn to listen to the body's signals. We can only thrive if we regularly choose to migrate, to fly away from stress in order to return home to that warm, sunny place called rest and relaxation.

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I used to be a bit of a yoga snob.

As a young, vigorous practitioner, I prided myself on being able to keep up with the most challenging sequences my teacher could throw at me. When rest was presented as an option, I most often declined and chose the harder pose variation instead. I viewed child's pose with something resembling disdain. To me it was either a throwaway that I waited out before moving on to a more exciting variation, or it was what I resorted to when I couldn't cut it, when I was too weak or too tired to do the 'real pose.'

At the time, I was an undergraduate at what I then considered peak physical condition and I had nothing but time on my hands to practice yoga, dance, and obsess over the healthiest brand of tofu at my local food co-op. Now 16 years later, I'm the mother of two young children, a business owner, a wife, and (as much as I can make the time) an individual with creative aspirations.

My practice has shifted a great deal over the past 16 years, and I'm currently enjoying moderation on my mat. More than any other time in my life, I'm balancing out my active practice with consistent gentle and restorative work. I feel stronger, healthier, and more relaxed than I have in years.

Even so, though most days I'm inspired on the mat, other times I notice myself slipping into boredom or complacency. The poses seem to lose their magic, and I wonder why they're not 'working' any more. If the pose is the same one I practiced the week before and it felt great then, what's different now?



Yoga poses serve as a structure into which to fit your physical, mental, and emotional self. They are shapes you return to in order to observe what's the same and what's different. They are touchstones that reveal how life is wearing on you.

I love how as a yoga practitioner you circle back to the same shapes, the same practices over and over again. Depending on the day or the month or the year, those same poses allow you the opportunity to find something delightfully different. But you have to pay attention.

Take child's pose, for example. At various points over the course of the past 16 years of practice, child's pose has felt entirely different to me. It has gone from being a throwaway pose to a place to deeply experience the breath in my back body. Now as I move into child's pose I'm fascinated by the lengthening sensation in my lower back and the stretch in my shoulders. I savor the nurturing feeling of folding inward into such a simple, humble shape. To look at my experience of child's pose from one year to the next is to look at the changing nature of my mind, body, and breath.

Yoga practice teaches you to be more observant, to be more aware as you explore what is new in your body during your time on the mat. This keen observation is a wonderful skill to practice, but it's not the end goal.

What good would it be if you were totally aware and fully present in child's pose or down dog or tree pose, but then when you came home from class you snapped at your loved ones for having left dirty dishes in the sink?

Once you have practiced observing how these shapes affect your state of being over and over on your mat, once you have trained your mind to pay attention in the 1000th downward facing dog you have done this year so you can notice how this particular pose on this particular day is different rather than going on autopilot, you are better equipped to do it off the mat.

When you say hello to the person behind the grocery checkout counter, maybe you'll really look him in the eyes. When a friend asks you how you're doing, you may genuinely respond and connect with her to find out how she is instead of just going through the motions.



It's been 8 years since we opened our doors at Bloom. Each November since we've opened, I reminisce about how things have changed from those early days and how they have stayed the same.

Though many things have changed, our core mission is still the same and drives every decision I make at Bloom. I'm passionate abut inspiring people to find greater health and happiness on a daily basis, and I'm always exploring new ways we can help our students do just that. Bloom continues to be a welcoming community that makes the rich tradition of yoga accessible to those who are looking for a fun, clear, down-to-earth way to integrate it into their daily life.

When I think about the many child's poses that have been practiced in our studios over the past 8 years, and I share a smile or a hug with one of the many practitioners of said pose and hear about the happiness or sadness in their life in this moment, and I recollect the joys and sorrows of last year and the year before and so on, I know that it's all the same and it's all different.

And through it all child's pose remains.

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