Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

When faced with a cheese-crusted casserole dish that requires some serious scrubbing, what do you do? I’ve long been a fan of the procrastinator’s approach masked by the kind of squeaky clean optimism only found in dishwashing detergent commercials. “This dish will be so much easier to clean after it’s soaked for a good long time,” I rationalize as I’m filling it with hot, soapy water. “That crustiness will come right off!”b2ap3_thumbnail_Soaking.jpg

A few minutes of soaking can definitely be helpful. But the longer I leave the crustiness, the harder the job seems in my mind, so eventually the next morning I’m faced with a dish full of cold, murky water (which the smiling women in the commercials never tell you how to handle).

What does your dishwashing style have to do with anything, you might be wondering?

We’re approaching the number one time of the year for procrastination masked by optimism. Yes, it’s only December and talking about New Year’s resolutions now is a little like stores putting out Christmas decorations right after the back-to-school stuff comes down. But maybe that’s the point. 

I’m sure you’re nauseatingly familiar with the common themes for New Year’s resolutions: getting fit, losing weight, watching less TV, picking up a new hobby, etc. The media reminds us every January that we could be improving ourselves in so many ways (same to you, media).

What if you headed your resolutions off before January this year? What if this year you listened to an inspiration you have to make one small change in your daily life: go to bed 20 minutes earlier, include vegetables at lunch and dinner, take 3 deep breaths every day, find a way to move your body that you actually enjoy, make eye contact with humans more often than with screens. What if you started today instead of waiting for the New Year’s media push to set in?

Resolutions left till January are like scrubbing a crusty pot of cold, murky water. Our crustiness accumulates all day, year after year. Wouldn’t it be better tackled when the inspiration was hot?

The smiling dishwashing detergent ladies have one thing right: they just keep scrubbing. Some things in life simply take diligent, repetitive work. Whether the task at hand is scrubbing a crusty dish or making the decision to go to bed earlier, the decision of when to start is up to you. But keep in mind that the longer you wait, the colder the water and the bigger the task becomes in your mind.

Here’s to your health, happiness, and to identifying your own crusty spots so you can tackle them right away (every day) rather than letting them sit to soak indefinitely.

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I can’t help but beat myself up when it happens. “I just wanted to see what an old friend was up to,” I tell myself. “Where did the last hour go?”

With a two-month-old baby as my “helper,” my work time is precious. Today I put her down for a nap and crack open the old laptop not knowing whether I’ll have 20 minutes or two hours to tackle all the things I want to get done.

“Okay,” I say, clapping my hands together. “Let’s get to work!” 

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But I can’t be expected to just jump into the real work right away. It’s going to be a little tricky, I tell myself, and I don’t want to strain myself. I wouldn’t pop up into full wheel pose without warming up first, would I?

I start by ticking off a few emails and feel a sense of accomplishment as I’m paring down my inbox, but soon I’ve found myself reading the latest YogaDork newsletter (it’s yoga related, I tell myself, so that still counts as work). Then I’m clicking on a link to an article about plank pose variations, which reminds me I need to post the photos from our first day of teacher training on our group’s Facebook page. You know what happens from here – it’s a rabbit hole of reminiscing over an old friend’s throwback Tuesday pic, jealousy over vacation photos (….like I’d even WANT to go to Italy), and a sloppy mess of emotions as I simultaneously seek to satisfy my curiosity about other people’s lives while sinking deeper into despair with each voyeuristic look into another “internet perfect life.” At some point I snap out of it and reopen the utterly stark whiteness of a new Word doc and face the fact that I have no idea what to write. Minutes later I hear whimpers on the baby monitor and realize I’ve unintentionally blown the last hour avoiding the only thing I really needed to do this morning.

We yoga teachers talk a lot about intention. We’re also fond of preaching the benefits of about taking your practice off the mat. But what does that really mean? Does it mean serenely practicing tree pose while you wait for the train? Saying “Namaste” when you greet a friend? Maybe, but there are more mundane (and yet profound) ways you can take your practice into everyday life, and for the most part it has nothing to do with asana (aka the postures that yoga is best known for today). Asana, after all, is just one limb of the eight-limbed practice of yoga. And truthfully, it’s way harder to be intentional in the course of an average day than it is while practicing postures in the relative peace and quiet of your friendly neighborhood yoga studio.

When I’m working up to wheel pose on the mat, I can spend a good 30 minutes systematically preparing my body and breath without the distractions of email, the internet, my phone, or the demands of my family drawing me away from the task at hand. In order to be able to practice the pose safely, I’ll have to fire up my core, warm up my spine, engage the strength of my legs, and cultivate openness in my shoulders, chest, and hip flexors. I treat the practice and the process with an almost sacred respect (although I never take it too seriously…..it’s just a little yoga after all!), and while my thoughts may wander or my body may be more or less responsive, depending on the day, intentionality is woven into the fabric of on-the-mat practice. 

Compare this to my attempted naptime work session, or to any of the dozens of things you do in the course of an average day. There are very few sacred moments or spaces, limited cues to slow down and breathe deeply, and a whole lot of ways you can unintentionally lose yourself down the virtual rabbit hole.

Cue grumbling about the evils of today’s multi-tasking world. Or maybe instead this can be a way to see if yoga can do more for you than just impressing your friends with your ability to literally bend over backwards. 

When I first started almost 20 years ago, I spent a lot of time shaking and sweating my way through poses that are relatively easy for me now because I’ve trained my muscles and established the habit of practicing with intention. But now more than ever I need intentionality off the mat to help me focus on what really matters amidst all the distractions of a typical day.

Tomorrow when I sit down at my computer I’ll draw on the discipline that helps me sustain a long hold in chair pose even when I’d rather just practice flop-asana. I’ll pause and take a breath before automatically bounding into the all-consuming world of Facebook; like my tendency to poke my front ribs out in backbends, it may be familiar and comfortable at first, but in the long run it’s probably not the best thing for me. I’ll undoubtedly screw up many more times and forget myself and my intention to not get lost in virtual land, but just as my wheel pose got better with continued practice, I’m sure my off-the-mat work will, too. 

 

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“I want the blue cup, not the yellow one!” my 6 year-old daughter whined as we sat down to dinner.b2ap3_thumbnail_IMG_3687.JPG

Knowing a good fight when he saw one, my almost 9 year-old son decided the blue cup was the most important thing that had happened to him that day and clung to it with determination.

As a parent, there were three options for what came next:

1. Let my color-conscious daughter have the blue cup since I know my son doesn’t really care either way.

2. Buy a duplicate set of cups in every color so we can avoid future such fights.

3. Make things harder for everyone (including myself) by trying to teach two thirsty kids a lesson.

“Remember,” I told my daughter in my best Mom voice, “you get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” 

We learned this expression from one of the kids’ teachers a few years ago, and it’s become a staple in our house. It’s pretty profound stuff - contentment practice for kindergarteners. 

From my “you get what you get” high horse, I like to think of myself as a content person. But contentment is different than the default state of being happy when things are good. Santosha (contentment) is one of the niyamas (personal habits recommended for healthy living) described in yoga philosophy. Far from being a passive state, contentment requires consistent action and is much harder in real life than it looks.

In its truest form, contentment is essentially a mindfulness practice that separates cause from effect. It’s accepting that the external world need not determine my internal state, knowing that it could snow in April, I could become ill or immobilized, and still it’s my duty/privilege to practice being okay or at least present with whatever happens. 

Observing with compassion my daughter’s frustration at such a comparatively small disappointment, I came to realize that I have my own yellow cup situation going on right now. My shoulder and elbow have been a little wonky lately, and I’ve identified a few key movements that just don’t feel good.

“But I WANT to do that shoulder opener!” I complain to my yoga mat, with a persistence not unlike that of a certain 6 year-old someone I know.

As a physically-active person, I’ve experienced my share of injuries but it hasn't made the practice of contentment much easier during times of injury. Yes, I should consider myself fortunate to be healthy 99% of the time, but my inner child can’t help but whine that it’s not fair that my shoulder hurts today. While I initially resisted having to make any changes, I’ve started modifying my yoga practice to accommodate my current limitations. It feels much better physically, although it’s still a significant mental effort to accept having to do it.

I'm upping my contentment practice for when I get old. Sure, my hope is that by keeping up with yoga and meditation, regular exercise, and consistent massage (a self-care formula that has worked wonders for me thus far), I’ll be a vibrant, mobile, and self-sufficient 80 year-old. But there are no guarantees, and whatever kind of 80 year-old I am, I still want to be able to enjoy myself. 

When I look at my 90+ year-old grandmother who must be experiencing pain as a result of how stooped over she is, I’m always amazed that she can still muster a smile and hearty laugh despite her current limitations. Accepting this can't come easily. It’s got to be the result of a lifetime of practice. So if that’s what it takes, I’m in.

And despite the fact that my kids think I’m channeling my old friend Mean Mommy when I deny them their color preference or requests for extra TV time or treats, I’m just getting them started early. I want them to learn to do their best, work hard, be kind, be conscientious, and practice self-care, but then also remember that you get what you get (yellow cups, spring snow, injury, illness), so you may as well not get upset, too.

Throughout the first course of dinner my daughter, not being one to take things at face value, valiantly argued her case for blue. She eventually accepted the insult of yellow, though she did refuse to drink any water for the entire meal out of spite. So obviously, I have more work to do with her in the contentment department.

But who am I kidding? Would I ever choose a wonky shoulder over a healthy one? When blue is on the table, I don’t want that ugly yellow cup either. My hope is that if we both keep practicing contentment, we can learn to drink in with a smile all the yellow the world cares to throw our way.

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Posted by on in Off the Mat

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I have a confession: I’m not busy anymore, and I love it. 

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not claiming I can just lounge about all day doing whatever I please. As a business owner and mom of two with another one on the way, there are no shortage of projects, activities, and to-dos that can and do occupy me on a daily basis. But I’ve come to realize that busyness is more than just a scheduling issue; it’s choice, and a state of mind.

This weekend my wonderful husband took our kids for the morning and I found myself with an unexpected open window of free time. While I could have gotten busy attacking the 100 emails that were waiting for me or gone through yet another closet in my quest to purge more junk before our big home renovation project, I decided to take off my busy badge and make a different choice. I took a bath, read my book, and went to yoga class. When a friend asked me about my weekend and I smilingly relayed the story of my lovely morning, she said, “That’s great that you were able to do that. You’re always so busy.”

I’ve been consciously removing the word “busy” from my vocabulary for a while now because of the way it makes me feel. If you don’t know what I mean, try it: how do you physically react when describing your upcoming weekend as “busy” vs. “action-packed” or “fun?” “Busy” is a chest-tightening, pulse-quickening, pressure-inducing word, and I realized it had become my crutch of martyrdom.

But still, when presented with this praise from a friend about my choice to be un-busy, I had a moment of panic and an undeniable urge to list off all the other things I did over the weekend as a way of justifying why I really needed the down time. Instead I paused, took a deep breath, and smiled back at her saying, “It was a great morning.”

Why do we wear busyness as a badge?

Sometimes I pin on my busy badge to quell a fear that I’m not enough. Other times, as in the case of the urge I felt to explain myself to my friend, I polish it to prove that I’m important, smart, in demand, etc. The busy badge is a refusal to allow space to breathe. It’s squeezing every bit of productivity out of any open window of time for fear of wasting it. Given the choice, we busy badge wearers will almost always choose accomplishment over rejuvenation (until we nearly collapse, that is).

For years I consoled myself with the promise that when my kids were older I could be less busy. But now that I’m about to be thrown back into the den of the newborn, I’ve realized I need another strategy. I don’t want to wait until some anticipated future date when my life circumstances will change to make me naturally un-busy, because that day may never come. Just the other day I was talking with a student who said now that she’s retired, she feels as busy or busier than she did when she was working. 

Is busyness your goal?

The secret is that if your unconscious goal is to fill up the time, you’ll always manage to arrange your life to maintain a state of busyness. I’ve experienced it myself on a day when I have “nothing to do” and yet somehow manage to cram a whole bunch of things in. Then at the end of the day I’m surprised to find myself feeling depleted and scattered because I let what should have been down time get co-opted. 

Taking off my busy badge has been a multi-step process. Before I could change anything, I needed to wholeheartedly trust that busyness doesn’t make me a better or more interesting person. Then I looked at what I could safely let go of despite the constraints of my life stage, schedule, and obligations. The final step was a combination of the two, both a mentality and behavioral shift: when I have moments of down time between activities, I resist the urge to squeeze productivity into them. I’ll grab my book, sit down for a chat or a game with my family, or do some serious self-care (take a walk, go to yoga, practice meditation). 

How yoga and meditation cultivate un-busyness

My yoga and meditation practices have been so helpful in cultivating these un-busy moments between activities. Isn’t that really what yoga and meditation are all about? Whether you’re a vigorous or gentle yoga practitioner, your practice cycles between activity and rest, effort and ease. Your conscious breath is a cultivation of the spaces between, the wrangling of your mind back to the present experience rather than the tasks awaiting you. Practicing meditation for even five minutes is a commitment to not filling up the time with busyness, but rather filling out each moment with your presence and full being. It’s acknowledging that the moments between are just as important as the big peaks of activity and doing.

These on-the-mat practices have made it significantly easier for me to trust that I’ll still be an effective business owner and involved mom if I put away my busy badge. But I know this isn’t something I’ve conquered, something I can just consider done. As evidenced by my friend’s well-intentioned comments, our culture is programmed to expect and promote busyness, constant activity, and filling up the time. Yoga, meditation, and reflection may just be the tools we un-busy warriors need to take a different path. Who’s with me?

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As we’ve been celebrating and reflecting on Bloom’s 10 year anniversary with our staff, teachers, and students over the past month, certain conversational themes have continually reemerged.

“Can you believe it’s been 10 years? How does it feel?”

They’re hard questions to answer. On one hand it feels like the time has flown by, and on the other I can’t remember what used to occupy my thoughts when I wasn’t musing about yoga class schedules, massage appointments, the best way to build community, or how to continually improve our teacher training curriculum. I can’t recall a time when I didn’t have to fight the urge to keep working late at night or on weekends because of a pesky sentence in my latest blog post that just wasn’t quite right. Zach and Kerry at Bloom's Grand Opening in 2004

How do you describe the experience of spending each day focused on the tasks at hand – gradually growing our class offerings and developing new programs – then waking up one day at a party with 100 smiling faces toasting the fact that 10 wonderful years have gone by?

It feels like a time warp, it feels just right, it feels like yoga. Now a decade in, I know so much more about what’s important and where to let go.

When Zach and I were first married 14 years ago, we struggled to find that very balance. We were young, strong-willed, competitive, playful, and fiercely in love. Our good days were exquisitely fun, inspiring, and full of laughter. Our bad days, well….

We spent a lot of time in those first few years learning how to fight. At our weekly doubles tennis match with another young couple, half the time one of us would throw a racket or storm off the court enraged at the others’ unsatisfactory play, and we wouldn’t talk to each other for the rest of the day. Those fights felt so important in the moment (and surely they were – I mean, tennis is serious business). Our poor tennis friends couldn’t understand why we cared this much about a game. But it wasn’t what we were fighting about that mattered. What mattered was learning to communicate, to disagree, to express strong emotions, and to parse out what counts and what should just be forgiven and forgotten.

Thanks to those tumultuous early years and our hours of conversational nit-picking, after slugging through day after day of little fights, pettiness, and silliness, Zach and I are now able to work our way through a disagreement in a much more civilized way. So much so that I sometimes have a similar shock of recognition, a feeling of amazement as if I just woke up one day and we knew how to communicate. Because it's such a stark contrast it can be tempting to see it as more a magical transformation than a gradual evolution, as if those 14 years of consistent conversations had nothing to do with it. But truly, it was slow and often very painful (especially for our friends who had to witness it), and now here we are.

My relationship with Bloom has undergone a similar evolution, though fortunately much less dramatically since Zach and my relationship provided the training wheels for learning this process of gradual change. Rather than having to deal with drama or petty fights at Bloom, challenging incidents would pop up, like in early 2005 at our very first Midnight Yoga workshop when we had 35 enrolled students and a waitlist and we also discovered a serious leak in the studio where class was to be held just an hour before start time. I ran around like a crazy person, placing buckets and towels and calling our property management company with politely-worded threats about why this was an emergency that needed immediate resolution (as if a leak is ever that easy). Though it was not how I’d envisioned our first big workshop going, class went fine despite the musical accompaniment of drops in buckets and a blue tarp sprawled across a ladder decorating the room.

What I know now after years of day-in and day-out operations is that there's always something. In the early years, I’d face a challenge that seemed devastating at the time (a beloved teacher moving out of state, an unhappy student, a leak, a technology fail that meant we couldn’t run credit cards during a busy class sign-in). As I was dealing with the incident I’d console myself with the thought that when this was over, things would go back to normal.

But like life and love, there’s no normal with a small business. There is only change. The yoga of long-term commitment is knowing that you can’t always predict what the change will look like, but if you let go a little and roll with it, you’ll make it through just fine.

As a young married couple and new business owners we approached every problem like it was the first time anyone in the world had faced such a challenge, but 10+ years of commitment and consistency has shown us that, thankfully, we are not unique. The world has seen infinite other loves, other fights, other businesses before us, and will see many more after us.

10+ years feels like trust and steadiness, even when the ground is shaky. It’s knowing that when the city tore up our street right before our big 10 year anniversary party, it was inconvenient but survivable. We trust that opening our doors every day and doing our very best has gotten us this far, and will move us into the future, too. I’m infinitely grateful for both my wonderful husband and the incredible community that is Bloom. These experiences of love, challenge, and commitment have helped me grow in more ways than I can name. Here’s to the next 10 years of both, day by day. I can only imagine where we’ll go in that time.

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