Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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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Can you imagine what your day would look like if you paid as much attention to your own battery levels as you did your phone’s?

Two weeks ago when my kids were home and our family was living in the limbo between summer activities and the start of school, I’d play outside with them for much of the day, compensating by shifting my workday to the post-bedtime hours. After a few late nights I was feeling run down and somewhat Mean Mommy-ish, but every evening I’d still find myself at my desk as the clock ticked past midnight. No matter how late I had stayed up, before I shut off the light and called it quits for the day I’d always double check that my phone was plugged in.

The battery on my phone predictably dies within a day, even when I haven’t used it. It’s been this way since I got the new phone six months ago, so after it died on me once or twice I noted the issue and have remained vigilant about checking my battery and recharging as needed. (Another approach would have been to just buy another battery, but that’s the subject of another post.)

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The sight of my fully charged phone – that proud green bar with a powerful little lightning bolt – makes me feel ready for anything that life throws at me. As the hours wear on and the battery level goes down, I check the battery display obsessively, worried about getting to the piddly yellow band or (gasp!) the dreaded red stripe accompanied by that terrible beep that signals the near-end of my phone battery’s life.

Without consciously setting rules, over the past few months I’ve adopted an unspoken method for keeping my phone juiced up. If my battery is more than halfway charged, I leave it alone for the day knowing it’ll be okay until I can charge it up overnight. If it’s less than halfway charged I strategize, no matter where I am, to figure out when and where I can plug it in. In extreme cases if I know there won’t be a recharging opportunity for a while, I’ll often just shut the phone off to conserve its precious energy.

When I consider the gymnastics I put myself through for this device (particularly considering that I’m anything but phone-obsessed), it seems laughable. I rationalize it because as a mom with young children and a business owner I rely on my phone, and these are the hard-and-fast rules it presents me. There’s no bargaining for just a few more minutes so I can finish a text message to let my husband know my phone is dying and we’ll be staying at the park for a while longer, or to call back a client who wants to know more about bringing yoga to her workplace.

I really never thought much about this recharging craziness until my friend and colleague Lisa Sandquist mentioned the idea in the context of restorative yoga, noting the irony of how vigilant we are about phone and device recharging, when it never even occurs to most of us (even the yoga teachers among us – ahem!) to apply the same concept to our own energy levels.  I’ve unfortunately become an expert at taking myself beyond the red bar, deaf to my own terrible version of the beep that comes when I’m overtired and grouchy.

Since Lisa planted the seed, I’ve been pretending that I’m a device that must be adequately charged in order to function. On nights when I’m super tired, even if I have work to do I pretend that my battery doesn’t have an override setting. I pretend that there’s no dark chocolate waiting for me in the pantry to give me that boost to work till 2AM. Instead I lie down on the floor and throw my legs up the wall for 10 minutes.  I breathe deeply and acknowledge my tiredness rather than trying to push through or beyond it.

When I emerge from that 10-minute plug-in, I feel different. Not fully recharged (that only comes with a few nights of consistent good sleep), but nowhere near the yellow or red. I’m solidly in the green, and I approach everything that comes after that in my day differently. Some of the softness of my restorative yoga break comes with me as I decide how to spend my time, how to move, how to speak.

This calls for svadyaya, self-study!

If I can modify my phone plug-in behavior based on hourly checks of a quarter-inch green bar, I can certainly learn to look inward once or twice a day to determine whether my body/mind may be in need of a recharge for a few minutes.

Humans don’t come equipped with bright, shiny, LED screens or that terrifying low battery sound. But with the conscious practice of yoga and self-awareness, we can learn to see the signals almost as clearly as if they were green, yellow, or red bars. 

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Theoretically it was a great idea to invite friends over for a last-minute barbecue so the kids could play outside while the adults chatted. It was a near-perfect impromptu summer plan. But then I looked down and saw that the floor of our apartment was carpeted in papers and crayons and stray Legos, and I noticed the smears of toothpaste on the bathroom mirror. We couldn't let our friends see this mess, and I couldn't possibly get the place to an acceptable level of cleanliness by the time they'd get here. As I chucked a stray pair of socks and slumped onto the couch, I briefly considered calling to cancel rather than letting our friends see such embarrassing domestic chaos. 

Meet my inner perfectionist. She doesn’t come out often, thanks to years of reflection and conscious habit-changing (not to mention having two children and a business to run). But she’s still hoarding 23 article drafts because they’re not quite ready to put out into the world yet, and she’s always daydreaming about that time when her future self will magically have more time. Then she’ll perfectly do all the things that have been in need of doing – reorganize that overflowing file cabinet, transcribe all the notes of cute things the kids said from the tiny slips of paper on her desk, and complete and submit every last one of those article ideas.

It's all one big stalling technique, I know. Just another way to put off finishing anything for fear that it won't meet my own high expectations. Whether at work, on creative projects, or at home, the perfectionist/procrastinator in me can always throw up an objection to calling a writing project ‘done’ and she fears allowing friends to witness just how ‘undone’ our home environment is. ‘What does it say about me?’ she wonders. ‘What if the world thinks this is the best I can do?’

But the truth is, while it’s not necessarily the best I can do, it’s the best I can do right now, under these circumstances. It’s the best I can do without avoiding doing it altogether.

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In my yoga classes, I encourage students to practice being content with where they are that day. I smile and remind students that sometimes the balance just isn’t there in tree pose (especially when I’m the one doing most of the wobbling), and encourage them to believe that doing the best wobbly tree pose you can do today is better than not doing it at all. I laugh when, even after 15 years of teaching, I mess up my right and left while cueing students into triangle. Yoga’s unofficial motto is not ‘Practice makes perfect,’ but rather ‘Practice, and then practice again tomorrow.’  

I feel freed by the knowledge that there is no need to pursue perfection when it comes to the physical, and I long ago stopped caring how my poses look or how my practice measures up to my neighbor’s. In fact, I love witnessing the changes and fluctuations of the physical on the mat. So why is it so hard to translate that attitude off the mat?

Off the mat the stakes are higher. Moving beyond the physical and into how I run my business or my home, the way I am with my children, or who I am as a creative being feels way more personal than how steady my tree pose is or whether I mess up as a teacher (again). These imperfections, unlike the limits or weaknesses of a body posing on a yoga mat, reveal a core part of my being, one that perhaps I wish could be more polished than is possible. To invite the world to see your imperfection at home, at work, or with family is to be fully revealed for who you are. Sometimes it just seems easier to pretend or to put things off until another day.

Back at home, I realize I have three choices:

1. Decide our house is just too messy for our friends to come over.

2. Tell them to come an hour later and spend that time frantically throwing all our junk in the closet instead of being with them.

3. Invite our friends into our home as is and let them see our state of less-than-perfection.

The rational part of me fully recognizes that our friends don't want to come over to socialize with our house, they want to see us, to be with us. So I take a few minutes to tidy the most essential offenders, invite our friends to join us (and a few dust bunnies) for an evening together, and know that because they are good friends they’ll look at us rather than our unmade bed. After the hugs and shoving a few blankets off the couch I invite them to sit down, making a conscious effort to avoid explaining away our messiness. Instead we let ourselves be seen, just as we are, in our full imperfection. It’s a start, and the start of a great evening together.

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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.

Tagged in: bliss ignorance
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