Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

[caption id="attachment_1501" align="alignright" width="212"] On our wedding day, after someone hilariously dropped my dress in Lake Michigan

Zach and I are celebrating 12 years of marriage this month.

In many ways, we're an unlikely match. I'm an extrovert, while he's an expert at finding the quietest room at a big party. He's got an innate sense of direction, whereas I famously got lost trying to navigate my way home from high school. He's practical and efficient and knows how to keep to a schedule, whereas I get excited by big ideas and have more flexible boundaries (read: I'm often late).

Our differences are many, but we share a love of music and the arts, we laugh together freely and often, and we're both fiercely competitive by nature and always up for a game of any kind.

The first few years we were together, I only wanted to see our similarities. Being so in love and so new to each other, I wanted to believe we could be the same person. But as we lived together day after day, our differences became more apparent. And it worried me.



Early in our marriage we had lots of arguments over small silly things like losing in a mixed doubles tennis match against friends. After endless analysis over each point, the two of us lobbing blame back and forth in an effort to decide which one of us was the cause of the blown lead, our unrelenting stubbornness turned something inconsequential into a day of silence.

As I stomped around and pouted in our wordless apartment, I wondered how two people could live in harmony for an extended period of time without compromising their individuality. I was unsure how to fit my big personality and his big personality in the same home without explosive results.

After following the same argumentative pattern over and over again during the first year of our marriage, we eventually decided to try a different approach. When we argued - once the initial anger subsided - we began to dissect the disagreement and each of our perspectives on it. Gradually we came to better understand our different ways of looking at the world, processing information, communicating.

[caption id="attachment_1580" align="alignleft" width="240"] 12 years later. Photo courtesy of Jill Liebhaber of jookie


We'd talk through an argument wherever it happened, even if we were with friends. They'd laugh uncomfortably and tell us to lighten up, to brush off what seemed to them a small deal. But we knew better. It wasn't just about losing a tennis match. That time spent talking through our communication breakdowns was a process of refinement, both of ourselves as individuals and as a marital unit.

At the beginning, we were more wedded to our individualism than to each other. We clung to personality quirks as if our self-identities depended on it. But over the past 12 years, I've come to think of marriage as a dulling of our individual sharp edges - in the best possible way - so that our unique personalities don't snag the fabric of our union. Now rather than clinging exclusively to my unique personality traits, I love observing in myself things that are very 'Zach-like' because they reveal the ways that we have allowed ourselves to bleed together, to balance.

Just as in relationships, the balance of opposites is constantly at play on the yoga mat. When I first started practicing yoga 16 years ago, I was very flexible from my years as a dancer. It was exciting to be 'good' at yoga, to be able to touch my feet to my head in a backbend, to be able to twist myself into any crazy position my teacher suggested.

What I didn't realize was that my strengths on the mat were simultaneously masking and amplifying my weaknesses.


When I exploited my flexibility to get into a deep backbend and ended up getting hurt, I felt betrayed. I didn't understand why I shouldn't just go towards my natural inclinations, I was shocked that it could be harmful to do what came happily and easily.

Sharp edges still intact, I continued practicing yoga like this for the first year or so until I happened into a class where a teacher suggested engaging the quads in triangle pose, and I realized I had no idea how to access those muscles! Yoga had come so easily for me when I was pushing towards my natural bias of flexibility, so the challenge of working towards something I couldn't do piqued my interest.

I was enticed to consider that perhaps there was more to the practice than I'd initially thought, even though it was slightly scary because it completely threatened my self-identity as a 'good' yogi. But I dug deeper, tried and tried to lift my quads, and investigated the shadowy areas of my practice.



Over the next few years, I pulled back from my bias of flexibility and emphasized building strength and stability on my mat instead. I worked through shakiness to hold Warrior II longer. In Side Angle I disciplined myself to balance shoulder hyper-mobility by building strength and stability in the shoulder girdle. I realized that by working towards something that didn't initially come naturally or easily, I could become a more balanced and humble yoga practitioner.

My yoga practice better equipped me to apply these principles in my marriage. I'd already experienced the benefits of dulling my edges on the mat, of refusing to let my strengths continually get stronger and my weaknesses linger. So it was that much easier to accept the ache of evolution in my relationship with my husband.

Sometimes, despite an innate desire to have your own views reflected back, despite an intense need for consensus and agreement, it's important to have your worldview challenged. I can always count on Zach for that, and though I tease him for it, it's one of the things I love most about him. Yoga practice also provides continual opportunities to explore that which is difficult, to question your motives and self-identity, and to improve areas of weakness. When approached this way, yoga is less about being able to touch your feet to your head than it is about seeking a union of opposites. And like the union of marriage, yoga's greatest potential is in the dulling of sharp edges in pursuit of harmony and balance.

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What makes a yoga teacher "good?"

Acrobatic arm balances and deep backbends?
Mastery of yogic philosophy?
Innovative sequencing and intricate themes?
A magnetic and inspiring personality?

For the past 10 months, I had the pleasure of working closely with the 20 amazing men and women who were Bloom's first yoga teacher training program. During that time we've delved into not only the philosophies and techniques of yoga, but also the exploration of what makes a good yoga teacher.


Many of our trainees started the program with no plans to teach, rather they were looking to deepen their own experience of on the mat. Some knew from day one that they wanted to teach; having been inspired as students themselves, they were now curious to uncover exactly how their favorite yoga teachers worked their magic, how they transformed a sequence of poses and breath into something life-changing. But at the end of the very first night of training when I had them get in groups of two to teach the poses we'd just reviewed, it's safe to say that most were a little nervous and even doubtful that they had what it takes to stand at the front of the class.

As they continued on with their coursework that first quarter, they studied, worked, and integrated the material. Throughout that time they continued teaching each other in small groups to practice using their words to get students in and out of poses safely, to learn how to share what is, in many ways, a very internal practice with others. By the time they began the second quarter, the had both deepened their own experience of yoga and learned instruct students in the basic poses.


What happened in the second and third quarters was an incredible transformation. As the trainees continued to refine their understanding of the basics of yoga and as they taught week after week, both their practice and teaching became more refined. They crafted creative and yet wholly logical sequences, their poses took on a clearer shape, and the tone of their teaching voices projected confidence and joy. Our teacher trainees, who began as very competent little caterpillars, had emerged into beautiful butterflies.

I was amazed at how each one of these brand new teachers brought their own unique personality and spark to their classes. Over the course of the past ten months, our trainees showed up fully and brought bits and pieces of their home life, their work life, their hobbies, and their passions into class. They made the teachings personal rather than just adopting a cookie-cutter take on what yoga is or how a "good yoga teacher" teaches.

There is no one thing that makes a good yoga teacher. Or rather, there is one thing that all good yoga teachers have in common, and then there are infinite variations on that theme. A good yoga teacher seeks connection with students, a good yoga teacher wants nothing more than to share the practice they love with others. But whether a teacher is a drill-sergeant or a philosopher, an entertainer or a nurturer, each committed yoga teacher's approach is valid as long as it is genuine. There is a teacher out there for every student, an approach that will move and inspire each individual practitioner. A good teacher brings not only years of study and practice, but also the ability to be fully present and to connect - first to the deeper part of the self, and only then to students.

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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?

The fancy technology available today and increased speed of communication allows me to work on several projects simultaneously in a way that was just not possible when we opened the studio 7 years ago. 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. Efficiency has its place, but too much of a good thing is still too much.

Overwhelmed at the number of items on my to-do list that needed to be completed in short amount of time, I recently took my efficiency to an extreme, multitasking at an almost manic pace. As I bounced back and forth between text messages, email, a document I was editing, and social media updates, I felt downright scattered. With my mind racing, knees bouncing, and heartbeat elevated, it seemed that in my quest for greater productivity my whole being was now spinning, buzzing. As a result I was unable to settle in long enough to concentrate on accomplishing even a single task.

Too many of us have had this experience in the workplace, though studies have shown that multi-tasking is actually not 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.

What happens when your addiction to efficiency and multitasking spills over onto the yoga mat?


Yesterday morning I had only 20 minutes to sneak in a practice before the craziness of the day started, so I decided I'd use the principles of efficiency to make the most of my time on the mat. I didn't want to sacrifice anything and I was determined to produce the same good feeling I got after a nice long practice. So instead of exploring a few asanas deeply, I crammed in a bunch of standing poses, some sun salutes, backbends, twists, and so on. I bounced from one pose to another, trying to force my yoga practice to get with the efficiency program. Guess what? It turns out that efficiency and yoga are not friends.

As I blasted through the sequence, I lost the awareness of my breath and that glorious feeling of space that comes when I'm practicing Yoga and not just breezing through yoga poses. Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. On the other hand, efficiency and multi-tasking are, by definition, fluctuations of the mind - a cycle of constant mental interruption in an effort to move at a faster pace.



As above, so below. As in the mind, so on the mat. 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 for meditation and 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. As you 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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The cookies are made, the presents are wrapped, the holiday parties are in full swing. Now I've decided to give myself the best gift this season: the gift of being present.

It happens every year - I get so preoccupied with the stuff that's associated with the holidays (shopping, baking, wrapping, etc) that I forget to just breathe and enjoy what the holidays are about. For me, the holidays are a time to be with my family and to step out of my normal work mode and our family routines. It's a suspended time, where we have full permission to stop. Businesses close, the kids are out of school, email slows down; it's a built-in vacation at the end of each year. So why don't we feel recharged after the holidays?


If we don't pay attention, the holidays become just another form of busyness, just another of our routines. It helps to worry less about the presents and more about presence. I am here, at this holiday party. I am looking friends and family members in the eyes, I am connecting, I am letting go of all the hustle and bustle it took to get me here. Think of it as an extension of your yoga practice; all that time you spend coming back to your breath, letting go of distracting thoughts, and observing yourself in the moment has prepared you to be right here to have a genuine conversation with the person in front of you.

It's really the best present we could give ourselves and the ones we love. Be present and make it a wonderful holiday!

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This morning on my way to the studio, the light went from gray and rainy to gloriously golden in a matter of minutes. I took off my scarf, looked around, and for a moment felt unsettled: I had no idea what month it was. Were it not for the leaves falling it could have been spring, the start of the warmer weather.

Seasonal transitions test our ability to go with what is. We can't control whether we'll luck out with the gloriously golden or have to endure the gray and rainy. The only thing to do is to dress in layers and prepare to be surprised.

I'm working on the equivalent attitude adjustment with life transitions.

It's much harder, because more is at stake. I want to know clearly where I stand at every moment, I want to control how all the pieces fall. But when I am in transition, I am neither this nor that, and it can be painful for the ego to experience this confusion. The ego's job is to assert its 'I-ness,' but during in-between moments it can't fully do its job. My initial tendency is to project perfection on the future state I am transitioning to, to imagine that things will be so much better when I get there. But is that really any way to enjoy my life?

I've found it helpful to practice being okay during transitions on a physical level first, on my yoga mat. Sometimes it's tempting to think of the practice as only its end points, the asanas themselves. But when I feel unsettled in my daily life, when I'm not sure how everything will come together, I slow down on the mat and really focus on the transitions between poses. I try to be fully present as I move from up dog to down dog. Rather than 'shutting off' after up dog is complete and 'turning back on' when I get to down dog, I pay attention to precisely how I move from one pose to the other: I consciously roll over the tops of my feet to shift my weight back and grow into that long, satisfying stretch. There's a little itch to just get there already, to just be in the pose I'm headed towards. But then I remember, that is exactly the point: the transition is the practice, too. The transitions, the in-between times are my life, too. When I really work at it and experience these in-between moments fully, they are just as glorious as their end points.


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