Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

With mindfulness and 'being present' all the rage these days, it's got me wondering: considering the fact that many of us can't even 'be present' while operating heavy machinery (the admitted rate of texting while driving is now 31%), the overemphasis on being mindful of every step, every bite, and every breath seems like a lot of unnecessary pressure. Do we really need one more impossible standard to measure up against?

I'm a firm believer in lowering expectations as a technique for removing some of the pressure and getting out of your own way. 

When a student asks me how to start practicing yoga at home, I tell them to pick their favorite pose and start with five minutes. They always look at me like I'm crazy, surprised that a yoga teacher and studio owner would suggest that something so small could make a difference. I relay the story about the years I spent not doing the daily 90-minute home practice I told myself I 'should' be doing. In my mind, my home practice loomed intimidatingly large. What I didn't realize was that if I turned that practice into a small moment, just one tiny piece of my day, I would be comfortable enough to get to my mat and be present for that brief time, and that would mean more than the most brilliant 90-minute home sequence I could imagine (but never actually do).

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Yoga is all about thinking little. The poses themselves are much like a string of little moments: the conscious placement of one foot to bisect the arch of the other, the slight softening behind a knee, breathing, extending, hinging and lightly placing a hand on a block or shin. Triangle is the big picture, it's what we call that string of little moments, but it's not just a shape or an arrival point. Triangle, like any yoga pose, is one chance after another to be present and practice mindfulness.

Sometimes that means popping out of the present moment to ponder that ever-important item you keep forgetting to add to your grocery list (sneaky yogurt!), but that pop-out moment is what the practice of 'being present' (and the practice of yoga) is all about. If you were in a sustained state of presence, well, you would be a baby. And you probably wouldn't have much need for attending a yoga class, although your mom or dad likely would.

Through the developmental stages there's more wiggle room for distraction and multi-tasking to enter into the picture, which makes little moments of presence all the more important and poignant.

I still remember one particular thunderstorm from a summer when I was little, maybe 6 or so. The storm itself was not particularly memorable. But as rain beat the screens of the high bank of windows in our family room where my mom and I had been watching television, the power went out. After a confused minute of trying every button on the remote, my mom picked up a balloon that was lying around (there always seemed to be balloons around our house when I was little, as my grandparents owned a balloon business), and we played 'keep it up' in the fading light. At first we batted the pink balloon back and forth casually, but soon we were diving, laughing, doing whatever it took to keep the balloon from touching the floor. 

It was a small moment in an otherwise very full childhood summer, and I'm sure my mom doesn't even remember it now, but to me it was big. It was a moment of pure presence and true love and companionship, a moment that transcended whatever terrible television show we were inside watching as the cicadas droned on outside. It was big because of its smallness.

I often wonder what my own children will reflect on as adults, what they'll remember of our days together in this sweet and messy time of early childhood. Will it be the silly poems we made up on the walk home from school, or the fact that I yelled at them to put their shoes away once we got home? Will they remember the sound of my voice singing 'Twinkle, Twinkle' as I stroked their hair after a bad dream, or will it be my dull, transparently distracted reply to their requests to help with an important project to cut circles from the centers of 20 pieces of construction paper?

As a parent, I've had to make peace with the fact that I will not be present in every moment, that sometimes I will lose my temper instead of patiently responding with a smile. For me, this takes the pressure off and gives me permission to forgive the Mean Mommy slip-ups so I can get back to having fun with my sweet littles. 

Both as a yoga practitioner and a mom, I take great joy in the little moments and practice forgiving the bigger slip-ups, knowing that sustained presence just isn't in the cards for any of us beyond toddlerdom. If my yoga practice tomorrow morning yields just one moment of recognition of the incredible experience of vitality throughout my spine as I hang in a forward fold, that will be enough. If I can lose myself in just one rowdy game of 'keep it up' with my kids this summer as my mom did with me when I was little, I'll consider it a summer well spent. I'll leave the big task of 'being present' to others. For now I'm thinking little.

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It was a perfect Memorial Day weekend – my family and I played baseball in the backyard, followed by a rowdy game of tag at the park, a long bike ride (we ♥ Bike the Drive!), and wrapped it all up with a barbecue followed by a round of mini golf. We spent our days running, laughing, jumping, playing, and by Monday night I felt tired, but exquisitely alive.

Then Tuesday morning hit and as I kicked my legs over the side of the bed and stepped onto the hardwood floor, my body recoiled. Too much outdoor fun made for an achy morning after. When the warmer weather comes my family and I go a little bananas with the outdoor activities, and while it’s a relief from our comparatively less-active winter lifestyle, my body clearly needed something more than just activity.

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I creaked my way down to the living room floor to roll out my old friend, my yoga mat. As I stretched my hands forward into a satisfying child’s pose and rocked with my breath in cat-and-cow, I sighed in relief. By the time I rolled up from my first standing forward fold, my spine was tingling in the most incredible way. It was as if my whole body was breathing.

Then my husband walked in and the kids ran to sit on his lap, rubbing their sleepy eyes and watching me practice. “This yoga stuff is pretty amazing.” I said, unsurprised, for what was probably the 1000th time.

I’m a very physical person. Growing up I played softball, volleyball, or basketball nearly every day after school, and if I wasn’t in sports I was at dance class. As an adult it took me a while to realize it, but after paying attention to my habits for a few months I learned that my moods are closely correlated to both the amount of movement I get on a daily basis and how much time I spend outdoors. If I don’t get a good walk or bike ride, look out. Mean Mommy is likely to be just around the corner.

But the movement piece of my self-care routine (and Mean Mommy prevention regimen) is made up of two complementary components that are both opposites and integrally related to each other.

Especially given the fact that most adults (and sadly many kids, too) lead a very sedentary lifestyle – driving to work, taking the elevator, sitting at a desk all day, driving back home, and collapsing onto the couch – the warm weather and increase in activity level is a positive and very welcome change.

Isn’t it enough to just be a summer athlete? Do you really need yoga when the rest of your day has been so active already?

Playing outside in the summer works your body in unfamiliar ways. You’ve heard of the weekend warrior – consider the impact of the summertime warrior who suddenly becomes a 5K runner, a beach volleyball player, a triathlete, or a 16″ softball player just because the thermometer hovers above 80 degrees for a few weeks. How can the body handle this level of extremism without some negative consequence?

People often ask me if classes slow down at Bloom in the summer, expecting that as people go outside to exercise and enjoy some summer fun, they have less of a need for yoga.

But there are no summer tumbleweeds here! I think it’s because Bloom students realize yoga is not the same thing as exercise, and they don’t see it as an either/or proposition. Yoga is so much more than moving your body, so much more than stretching and strengthening, although those benefits are all part of the equation.

What I love about yoga, what’s kept me engaged with practice after 17 years (long after any fitness trend would have worn thin) is that it gives me a chance to slow down and pay attention to what’s going on on a body-mind-breath level. All the stuff I do on the mat is not the point, it’s the vehicle. Yoga practice gives me the tools to better know myself and my habits, and to better be able to identify and meet my needs as they arise, rather than overriding them.

Why would the need to pay attention and take better care of yourself stop just because it’s summer?

What I’ve seen at Bloom in the summertime inspires me. School teachers show up to daytime classes, summertime warriors mellow out in a Gentle class after a long run, workers with flexible schedules drop in on a Friday afternoon, friends catch some evening yoga before heading out to enjoy live music or dinner at a sidewalk cafe.

This is yoga practice at its best, this is the stuff that goes way beyond just knowing the proper foot alignment in warrior I or being able to recite the yamas and niyamas.

This is real people, in real life, making decisions about how to better care for themselves on a moment-to-moment basis.

And there it is. More tingling in my spine as I think about it. Only this time for different reasons.

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It's officially over.

The Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program that has been an amazing source of information, ideas, and support (as well as the cause of many late nights spent at my computer) came to a close a few weeks ago, and I'm still processing all that I learned along the way.

In a nutshell, the 3-month program provides small business owners with a practical education in how to better run their business as well as access to support in pursuing an opportunity to grow. I learned so many great things that I've already begun to apply at the studio, and the program opened my eyes to new ways to see both my role at Bloom and the direction we're headed.

The buzz word of the program was growth - what it means, why it's important, and how to make it happen. I struggled against what I initially perceived to be pressure to prioritize profit over passion and purpose. The more I compared myself to other business owners or to external expectations for growth, the more I began to feel off-kilter and confused. Midway through the program, I panicked. Should I be trying to come up with some brilliant new yoga gimmick? Should I be a business owner who aims to put a yoga studio on every corner? Should my ambitions be bigger?

This line of thinking sent me down a dark, bumpy path of self-doubt and judgment. So I did what I always do when I feel off-center and disconnected: I rolled out my yoga mat.

I've come to the mat thousands of times before, but each has been a new experience. Some days I've had a spark of inspiration in child's pose and had to scramble to find pen and paper to write out (in my terrible chicken scratch) the next Thinking Yogi post or article I want to publish. On other days, I've forced myself through a practice that felt dull and uninispired wondering why I didn't just stay in bed.

But despite all of the confusion in my head and heart that day, despite the stress and self-doubt and worry I felt over whether the growth I was contemplating was 'right,' coming to the mat made things so simple, so clear. I sat tall, closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and found my smile.

Bloom's vision is my vision for my own life, too.

I want to be happy and healthy.
I want to experience and enjoy the present moment rather than constantly striving.
I want do purposeful work that I love, connect with good people, grow and change, and be creative and inspired.

The growth I'm seeking at Bloom isn't all about the bottom line. The reason I started the studio is to make wellness more accessible. I believe yoga and massage can help people to feel happier and healthier in daily life, and I wanted to create a community that makes it easy and fun for people of all ages, stages of life, and levels of fitness or flexibility to give it a go. Every new class or program we've offered has been a direct result of that core belief.

Yes, the bottom line is important, but it's not what gets me up in the morning. I'm inspired by sharing what I love with others, excited when yoga and massage changes someone's whole day-to-day experience of life, thrilled when our students consider Bloom their home away from home.

So with all that said, just what sort of growth is in store for Bloom?

Here's what I'm excited about!

    • Promoting wellbeing at work - bringing stress-reduction and wellness (via yoga, massage, and meditation) to more folks right where they work
    • Taking yoga on vacation - bringing our community together beyond the studio walls in new, beautiful locations (our popular Maya Tulum retreat is likely to fill up again this year...)

After initially having moments of self-doubt and judgement in the program when I tried to fit myself into a certain business owner mold because I thought I 'should,' I soon realized that there is no one right way to grow. When I look at these four areas of growth I know what lies ahead at the studio is organic and true and aligned with our vision. And so we continually cycle back to what we do best, we revisit and revamp what we love, we grow, we Bloom.

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Ever had one of those days when you’re trying to be so efficient that you never actually complete a single task?

In many ways, I love multi-tasking. The technology available today and increased speed of communication means I can work on several projects simultaneously in a way that was just not possible 10 years ago. Now instead of having to wait for one project to be completed before starting the next, I can chip away at several at the same time.
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But the other day as I bounced back and forth between text messages, email, a document I was editing, and social media updates, I felt downright unsettled.

With my mind racing, knees bouncing, and heartbeat elevated, it seemed that in my quest for greater productivity I was now spinning, buzzing, and mentally scattered. As a result I was unable to focus long enough to even make a dent in any of the five tasks I was simultaneously working on.

Too many of us have had this experience in the workplace, though studies have shown that multi-tasking is not actually as much of a time-saver as previously thought. It turns out it just makes you feel like you’re accomplishing more.

In reality, multitasking is the new procrastination, a sneaky way to postpone doing something unappealing or challenging. This week I've been working on compiling some research into a spreadsheet, a task I've been putting off for the past few days. Instead of hunkering down with Excel and my sources, I kept getting distracted by bright, shiny objects like incoming emails, text messages, and articles in my news feed. Switching gears, although a joyful escape from the hard work of completing a dreaded task, made it hard to sustain a thought or to know where I'd left off in my process.

What do you do when you can't break free from your addiction to efficiency and multitasking long enough to focus in on a single task?

Start by slowing down and simplifying your experience.

Close your eyes and take a deep breath.

The simple act of shutting out external stimulus can remind you of your priorities and pull you out of the frantic multi-tasking mode so you can refocus.

This is what yoga's all about! The fabric of yoga philosophy is woven together by the practice of stilling mental fluctuations. That means harnessing your focus and concentration so that the fleeting thought about the TED Talk you wanted to look up doesn't stop you from finishing the less exciting work you need to get done right now. It means making conscious decisions about your behavior rather than being at the whim of the endless incoming pings.

Yoga practice can be both an antidote to efficiency and a place to practice greater concentration in an attempt to slow mental fluctuations. When you sit mindfully, focus in on your breath, and practice letting go of all the chatter and busyness from your day, you are undoing the harmful effects of excessive efficiency. When you successfully resist the urge to mentally flit off to some new exciting idea, you allow your body to settle and signal to your mind that it’s okay to just do one thing and do it well. And so you more closely approximate true efficiency, the appropriate use of time and energy in the accomplishment of a task. Be still my fluctuating mind.

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As 10, then 15, then 20 students rolled through the door for my Gentle Yoga class yesterday morning, I felt like all was right in the yoga world.

It used to be that Gentle Yoga was stigmatized, the redheaded stepchild of yoga offerings. Injured? Go to Gentle. Over 60? Go to Gentle. Looking for an "easier" practice? You get the picture.

But as evidenced by the diverse and dedicated group of students who show up to move and breathe with me on Wednesdays at 10:30am, word is spreading
that Gentle Yoga is a deep, therapeutic, satisfying practice, and as my students and I regularly note, it's far from easy.



What does Gentle Yoga look like?



It depends on the day, the class time, the students who show up, and what their needs are. But the essential components remain the same regardless of those other variables. Gentle Yoga means a commitment to a slower approach to the practice, and one that emphasizes supported poses and poses that are done on the floor. Though it's possible to practice standing poses in a gentle way, the bulk of the sequence is usually in seated, kneeing, supine, or prone positions. We don't bang out a bunch of traditional sun salutations, though I will occasionally use a half sun salute to align movement and breath. Props play a big role in gentle practice, and we typically incorporate at least a few restorative poses throughout the course of the class. The slower pace of a gentle class affords the student time to luxuriate in a conscious breath and to pay attention to the details of alignment, all of which results in a deeply calming and re-energizing practice.

Gentle Yoga can be a very meditative practice because it is focused more on being in the pose rather than on the flowing transitions from one pose to another as is typically emphasized in vinyasa-style classes. The practice prioritizes mobility and support rather than pushing for strength and flexibility, and it provide students a space to listen to their own needs and practice accordingly.

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In the past few years, Bloom has grown our Gentle Yoga class offerings from one class a week to eight and have delighted in hearing the wonderful stories from gentle students who've experienced increased range of motion, reduction of pain, and overall enhanced feelings of well-being. Our students range in age from 25 - 75+ and they come for a variety of reasons, such as a need to slow down and be more 'grounded,' to provide a counterpose to their other physical activities or the stresses of work and family life, or to relieve discomfort from anything from typical aches and pains to injuries and medical conditions. There is no 'typical' gentle student, but they almost all share one thing in common: they are fully present whether we're doing a simple head circle or seated spinal twist.


To me, Gentle practice embodies the essence of Yoga and is the answer to moving yoga beyond just another form of exercise to be something far more therapeutic and holistic.

Supported child's pose

After class the other day, one of my students was remarking at how surprising it was that a floor-based gentle could feel so deep and so challenging. In many ways, moving more slowly, paying close attention to alignment and breath, and keeping the mind engaged despite the lack of flashy poses to focus on, makes for a much deeper experience on the mat, and one that translates well into the challenges of daily life.

The philosophy behind Gentle Yoga makes so much sense when taking the long view of yoga. I want to be practicing (and teaching!) when I'm 85, so each time I step on the mat I need to be reminded that I'm in it for the long haul. Does it particularly matter if I do a million sun salutes or the trickiest arm balances? Will a super vigorous class keep me healthy as I age, or might my practice better serve me if it's focused on maintaining mobility, stability, balance, and relaxation?

As yogis, we all face continuing evolution in our practice. I began as a vigorous practitioner and have gradually refined over the years to come to a place of greater balance between active practice and a softer approach. Gentle Yoga is a natural place to cultivate balance on the mat because the goals of the practice are less pointed and the experience is more spacious.

If you are a loyal practitioner of this beautiful practice, you're in good company! If you've never tried Gentle Yoga, I encourage you to give it another look and consider what may be in store for you if you slow things down on the mat.

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