Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

Since seeing my 94 year-old grandmother struggle to get out of her wheelchair at a holiday party, I’ve been contemplating new goals for the time I spend on my yoga mat. My grandma is famously hearty, spunky, and self-sufficient, and up until a year ago she lived on her own and walked up and down a long flight of stairs multiple times every day. Last year at the holidays, I recall her bending down to pick up a tiny piece of lint on the floor. I should have known she’d slow down eventually, but she’s been healthy, active, and self-sufficient for so long, I was starting to think she’d always be that way. How could so much change in less than a year? 

Aging is invisible, made even more so by the fact that we want to deny it’s happening. As I’m approaching 40 I’m both grateful for my relative youth and irritated that I now have to think about my form when loading the dishwasher if I want to avoid a backache. 

Inspired by my amazingly tough grandma and my desire to continue loading the dishwasher pain-free, I’m rethinking my yoga goals. Yes, it’s awesome that each and every time I practice I come off the mat feeling like a million bucks (or as I sighed after class the other day, “I feel like a human being again!”). But that’s just not enough for me anymore.   

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I’ve been all over the map in my 20 year yoga career. Having come from an athletic background, I started yoga with an overly vigorous, push-push-push mentality. Then after a few years (and a few too many injuries) I swung in the opposite direction and pretty much refused to do anything that risked me breaking a sweat or didn’t involve a bolster. 

From what I’ve observed in my years of teaching, many practitioners tend toward the same black-or-white approach, sticking with classes that match their natural inclinations on the mat. If you’re a vigorous yogi, you’re probably a regular in challenging vinyasa-style classes that build heat, throw in a few arm balances, and just generally kick your butt. If you’re a gentler yogi, you’re likely a pro at modifying poses, your bolster is your best friend, and in your eyes there’s no such thing as too many restorative poses. 

If you’re looking to yoga to support your aging process, which approach is better: vigorous or gentle?  

The answer (at least for me) is both. 

There’s plenty of conflicting scientific evidence and absolutely no guarantees as to the secret formula for aging well. But my money’s on a balanced approach that combines the vigorous and the gentle. In this approach, yoga is not about trying to improve or impress, but more importantly, to maintain. Whatever I can do today, I want to be able to do tomorrow, next month, next year, next decade. 

It takes a delicate balance to figure out when to push yourself and when to take it easy on the mat. Too strict an approach and you’re likely to injure yourself or burn out; too lax and you’ll gradually lose ground.  

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Think of the last time you practiced a long hold in chair pose. In order to build muscle strength you need to hold the pose until you begin to feel some sensation in your legs, but if you go too deep or hold too long, you’ll probably hold your breath, create unnecessary tension, or even strain yourself.  

Chair is a love-it or hate-it pose for most yoga students. I used to be a chair hater, mostly because the pose was hard for me, but eventually I realized that if I wanted to stay strong and mobile as I age, any pose that’s hard should become my best friend. Now, even in my gentle yoga classes, I sequence in gentle strengthening poses and incorporate a little bit of challenge into every practice (interspersed with plenty of delicious restorative moments).  

Here’s a cool scientific tidbit: Strength, especially leg strength, has recently been proven to be an important factor in improving brain health and slowing age-related decline. And there’s plenty of evidence touting the benefits of triggering the body’s relaxation response to reduce the chronic impact of stress on the body and mind. 

Scientific studies (and awesome grandmas) are giving us the formula. We just need to implement it: work a little, relax a little, aaahhh a little. 

So how can you bring your own practice more into balance?  

You don’t have to ditch your favorite class or completely overhaul your approach. But you may want to take an honest look at whether your yoga practice is just improving upon your strengths and ignoring your weaknesses? 

Maybe you crave the muscle burn from a long hold in warrior I, but when it’s time to lie still in savasana you want to crawl out of your skin. Or on the other hand, perhaps you’re the person who just “comes for the savasana” and barely tolerates anything more vigorous than that.  

Observe the yogi that you are today and consider adding either a new class that focuses on the opposite approach, or simply challenge yourself to fully embrace the parts of your favorite class that are particularly hard for you. There are no guarantees, of course, but my hunch is that rounding your yoga out will serve you well as you age. 

May we all live to be spunky 90+ year-olds who bend down to pick up lint off the floor; may we learn when to challenge ourselves and when to soften; and may we use our yoga practice for the good of our aging selves, so we can unload the dishwasher without pain rather than waking up one day and wondering how our bodies have suddenly, over the course of so many years, betrayed us.

 

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When my 3 month-old daughter fussed during Mom & Baby Yoga class this week and the mom on the mat next to me smiled in support, I knew it was worth all the effort of getting there.

I almost hadn’t made it to class that day. The scene at home in the hour beforehand was the typical new mom war zone: I’d been keeping her fussiness at bay all morning and as I was getting her into the carrier she spit up all over me, but at this point I just consider spit-up another accessory. Then she turned on her baby A-game when an inconveniently-timed but urgently-needed diaper change meant I’d be arriving 5 minutes late to class. In all the chaos a part of me rationalized that maybe I should just try for a home practice and get her (or both of us?) a nap. But realistically I knew staying home would just mean the same level of fussiness for her, no yoga for me, and some distracted email checking that would leave me feeling physically and emotionally drained.

You don’t need to have a fussy baby at home to relate to how difficult it can be to get to class. 

In many ways your computer or smartphone can be every bit as demanding as a newborn. 

That blast of spam that fills up your inbox and clutters your mind is a spit-up surprise on your favorite shirt as you’re getting ready to walk out the door. The huge project with a deadline of yesterday is the diaper that demands to be changed NOW, or else. And, oh look, here comes yet another hilarious joke forward from Dad! It’s embarrassing, it’s inappropriate……there’s no newborn equivalent for that one – it’s just plain fun times.

I used to feel silly scheduling yoga classes into my calendar, but I’ve found it really helps me prioritize self-care when the demands of either my newborn or my virtual life threaten to take over.

What’s the alternative? If these babies and emails had their way, we’d never leave the house. We’d sit at home covered in spit-up or bathing in the glow of a computer screen. Neither babies nor emails have a great sense of timing, and they don’t tend to cooperate just because you sort of want to go to yoga class. 

You have to have conviction, you have to promise yourself that you can and will make time to do something good for your mind, body, and heart.

“It’s time to go to class,” I firmly tell my baby (and my computer). “I need yoga today.” I may be going slightly crazy, but somehow this helps. I believe myself when I hear how determined I sound.

After almost 20 years of practicing, I can say this with certainty: I always feel better after going to yoga class. Always.

It’s incredibly life-affirming to be in a room with a bunch of people who are moving and breathing and doing something good for themselves (with, I might add, not a smart phone in sight….what a pleasant novelty!). It’s humanizing to gather together for the purpose of taking good care.

Email never stops and newborns never stop, so I often second-guess myself when something threatens to derail the plan. But I’ve come to expect this now. 

“Just go,” I tell myself. “Just show up. That’s all you have to do, and you’ll feel better.”

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At this week’s Mom & Baby Yoga class, my daughter needed to be held for a good portion of the class, so I warriored and triangled with her in my arms. Yoga isn’t a magic cure for baby fussiness or the mommy blahs, but there is something magical about the experience of being led through a practice by a thoughtful, nurturing teacher. It’s a rare thing – a low-tech group experience that is intimately personal, a collective practice of connecting to the self, a chance to listen and breathe and get quiet.

As class began to wind down and we were preparing to settle into savasana, I couldn’t stop smiling at the other moms and babies in class. My baby girl and I shared a sweet few moments of rest together before the teacher brought class to a close. I looked around the room and felt proud. We all did it: we made it to class, despite dozens of potential obstacles, and we were part of this beautiful group experience that we created together, in the moment.

After class I scooped up my daughter and props and belongings, thanked my teacher, and headed for the door. I felt better, as expected. Much better. And by the time I got home and the demands of my baby and my emails started up again, they somehow felt a little less demanding.

 

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“This is hard,” I think as I’m shaking my way through a few breaths in plank pose. “It shouldn’t be this hard.” b2ap3_thumbnail_PlankPose.jpg

It’s been 9 months since I’ve fully practiced plank (other than the few brief big bellied demos I did because I’d forget I was pregnant while teaching), and I’m feeling it. My core is struggling so my wrists and low back seem to be bearing the brunt of the work, and a scared little voice in my head (my ego, perhaps?) warns that maybe I’ll never get back to where I was with my physical practice.

Yoga philosophy tells me I should cultivate beginner’s mind, but at the moment, almost two months after giving birth to baby #3, I’m completely wrapped up in the practice of beginner’s body. I’ve been here many times since I came to yoga 19 years ago – after injuries, after a lapse in practice, after pregnancy and birth – and each time I go into it with trepidation and impatience. “How long will it take?” I wonder. “I just want to be back to where I was.”

Five, ten, twenty planks from now, I know things will get easier. But ugh, do I really have to be present for all the awkward, shaky attempts between now and then? I’m reluctant to admit it, but it hurts my pride. I was religious about my modified practice throughout my pregnancy and I started gentle yoga again a few weeks after baby girl was born. Didn’t all that work earn me the right to just pick up where I left off?

Once I quiet my inner whiny yogi, I remember that strength comes and goes gradually. Just because I pop into a pose and demand my old abilities back, that doesn’t mean my body will instantly comply.  It took 9 months of not practicing plank to get to where I am now, so I can guess it’ll probably be at least another 9 months until I get back to feeling pre-baby strong again.

This is not about “getting my body back” or dropping that last 10 pounds of baby weight or fitting into my old jeans (though I won’t be sad when it’s time to say goodbye to maternity denim). Coming back to an active practice after having some time away is an opportunity to renew my love affair with yoga, to remember the joy, challenge, and possibilities I felt as a beginner.

My mantra on the mat today is “I am not my plank pose.” I place a blanket on the floor for a knees-down plank and my core, wrists, and back sigh a thank you for listening. I have my whole life to practice the full pose and although it can be frustrating to have limitations, they’re also sparks for new experiences. 

When I’m pressed for time in my home practice, it’s normally so easy for me to go on autopilot and just whisk through the same old sequences. But because there are certain places I can’t go yet (hello flowing sequence of full sun salutes), I’m getting creative with riffs on the half sun salute, I’m practicing more seated poses, and viparita karani (legs up the wall) is my new best friend, again.

A beginner’s body practice requires chaperoning by a gentle and forgiving beginner’s mind. 

My body feels heavier and less certain in down dog. I remind myself the pose is not the point and tap into a child-like joy at getting to go upside down again. 

I’m still lacking the strength and stability to even think about attempting navasana (boat pose). I lie on my back and breathe deeply, enjoying the sensation of my navel pulling in with each exhale.

“This is hard,” I tell myself. “As hard as it should be.”

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Every year around this time, I get a little wistful as our yoga teacher trainees prepare for their graduation. After almost 10 months during which my co-teacher Sharon and I guided and supported these fabulous people in delving into the aspects of yoga that aren’t typically addressed in a standard yoga class, I feel compelled to write a love letter of sorts. I can’t believe how lucky I am to be co-leading this exploration, and I’m amazed that though the point of the program is for us to teach them, I always learn so much from working with our trainees.

So here’s my love letter to our trainees (current and past), a thank you for just a few of the things I’ve learned from watching such dedicated practitioners grow into teachers.

This yoga business is so much more than stretching and strengthening: it can change your life

It’s been a long time since my first teacher training back in 1998, and every year when I watch our trainees discover all the other aspects of the practice and tradition that go beyond poses on a yoga mat, I’m reminded of how life-changing it can be to delve into the introspection and self-study that are imbedded in the larger philosophy of yoga. Our trainees excitedly share how their daily interactions with friends and family have changed since exploring the yamas (ethical guidelines for relationship to others) and niyamas (personal practices/observances), they talk of their new appreciation of the koshas (sheaths or layers of being) and how they’ve begun to observe themselves on more subtle levels as a result.

As a new practitioner and budding teacher myself almost twenty years ago, I remember how thrilling it was to realize that by contemplating these new concepts I could better recognize my own habits and patterns both in relationship with others and towards myself. Having always felt myself to be a self-confident person, I was blown away when we’d explore meditation practice and it was like someone had cranked up the volume on the self-hate radio station in my brain. Those first few years of practice was all about turning the volume down and eventually changing the channel altogether. If letting go of negative self-talk isn’t life changing, I don’t know what is.

I practice for my 80 year-old self

Yoga’s not just for the young and fit (thank goodness!). Each year when we ask about our trainees’ future plans to teach, more and more of them express a desire to share yoga with an older population with more limited mobility and different concerns/goals. This, to me, is such a huge victory. Of course it can be fun as a young, fit person to sweat your way into some crazy arm balance or backbend if that’s your thing, but that’s not what has kept me interested in yoga all these years. I practice for my 80 year-old self. I practice to give myself the best possible chance at staying active and healthy as I age, despite whatever life may throw at me. I’m proud that our amazing trainees are emerging from the program with a broader view of yoga for the long run and I know they’ll make the yoga world a better place as they offer the practice in an accessible way for people of all ages in a variety of environments.

Start small and keep your friends close (and your books closer!)

Over the past few weeks we’ve asked our trainees to reflect upon their teaching journey thus far and where they see themselves going from here. When I finished my first teacher training, I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the subject I had just scraped the surface on (my first training was a one month intensive!). I knew there was so much more I had to learn, but wasn’t sure where to go next with my studies and practice. I just wanted to consider myself done and move on because I didn’t have a clear direction.

Our fun-loving 2014-2015 trainees!

Our trainees are studying the same vast subject and have identified both the aspects of the practice they’ve started to become more familiar with (for many of them it’s pranayama and meditation), as well as the places they know need time for further exploration (for most it’s the rich philosophical study of yoga that we’ve been working on them with consistently over the course of the program). They all have their own strategies, but there’s a consistent theme of being patience, starting small, picking one or two areas to dive into next, and repeating for the long-term. They’re so wise – it took me years to figure that out and I’m grateful to be reminded of this sensible and practical approach. Wouldn’t life be better if we looked at everything this way? Just start with one small step, research, explore, then move to the next thing when you’re ready. Imagine how much you could grow if you always had a subject you were studying. Though our trainees are sad to see our twice weekly sessions come to a close (as are Sharon and I!), they know that they can continue their yoga schooling on their own because they have each other for support (their group picture says it all - they're pretty awesome folks!).

The community they’ve built is amazing. They hang out socially, share favorite new yoga books and websites, and support each other in times of need. The further away from teacher training you get, the harder it is to maintain this community and support. But our trainees in years past are still going strong, encouraging and inspiring each other, and I know they are better teachers for it. They inspire me to reinvest in my own community of yoga teacher peers and to seek out new resources to continue my own growth.

To all of our teacher trainees past and present, thank you for trusting us to guide you in this adventure and for bringing your full selves to our work together. I am a better teacher for knowing you all!

The journey starts again this fall for a new group of trainees. There’s still time to join us! Learn more about our 200 hour hatha yoga teacher training on our website or reach out to me directly.

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Have you ever been in a yoga pose that was so unbearably uncomfortable you started to resent your teacher for making you stay in it, only to look around the room and see a handful of other students who seemingly could happily nap in the same pose? 

I’ve definitely been there, and in my early days as a yoga student I always just thought discomfort in a pose was something I had to work through and that it would get better once I was stronger or more open. After almost 20 years of yoga practice, I now realize there’s another way to approach these sorts of challenges on the mat and I’m incredibly grateful to find that principle following me off the mat as I prepare for a very big year personally.

Some yoga poses just don’t feel right initially. This week with in teacher training we were exploring upavistha konasana, seated wide angle forward fold. Upavistha is a “love it” or “hate it” pose, one that either clicks for students or doesn’t, and when it doesn’t it’s exceedingly unpleasant. b2ap3_thumbnail_BloomYogaForwardBendSeated.gif

One of the themes we harp on over and over again in teacher training is the fact that every pose is completely different from one body to another. Your experience of loving or hating a pose is often a result of a variety of factors, including bone structure, limb length and proportions, and a lack of mobility in certain muscle groups.

Upavistha will give you lots of trouble if there’s any restriction in your hip flexors, groins, inner thighs, or hamstrings. Tightness in these muscle groups can rock the pelvis backwards in a way that causes overwork in the low back and makes it nearly impossible to sit up straight, despite your best yogic intentions and your teacher’s encouragement.

Here’s the cool thing – if you find yourself in this sort of struggle with a pose, upavistha or otherwise, there’s something you can do about it. That’s a relief, right? Many students just assume that uncomfortable poses are meant to be that way. Challenge has its place, but I’m a big believer in learning to distinguish between necessary and appropriate challenges, and those that can be alleviated, both on and off the mat.

My husband Zach and I have a very big year ahead between preparing to welcome our third child into the world this summer and renovating our home to accommodate our new family of five. Though upavistha and project New Baby/New Home present me with completely different challenges, I know my handy dandy yoga toolkit can help me in both cases. 

Rather than letting myself get overwhelmed when faced with a challenge, I can take a deep breath, choose to look at things rationally, and ask myself a few basic questions:

1.What IS NOT possible for me to change in this moment? 

On the mat answer - “My hips and legs are chronically tight.”

Off the mat answer - “I’m having a baby and doing a home renovation simultaneously!”

2.What IS possible to change in this moment? 

On the mat answer - “I can sit higher up to lessen the hip restriction I experience in the pose, or I can place my hands behind me and lean back instead of forward folding.”

Off the mat answer – “I can delegate more to my wonderful and very capable staff, and my husband Zach and I can commit to simplifying by saying no to any additional projects or commitments that are not absolutely essential right now.”

3.What is the impact of the proposed change? Did it help or hurt?

As a yoga teacher and teacher trainer, I’m always trying to model a willingness to be curious with my students and to acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes a suggested change makes the pose feel worse, sometimes it makes it better. Only the individual in the pose can know the difference, and my goal as a teacher is to empower students to honestly evaluate the impact of the change. If it didn’t help, we can always try something else.

In family life, acknowledging a busy time by making real changes in schedule and commitments is almost always a good move. But knowing that I can be a bit reactionary at times, I’ll have to pay attention over the course of the next year and make sure I don’t withdraw from everything and just head into the isolation of our baby-renovation bunker. Stay tuned for more news on that as plans (and my belly) develop….

Every Thursday night when I come home from teacher training I’m all smiles and chattiness. I tell Zach about some great new insight a trainee shared or something funny that happened in class, and I just gush about how grateful I am to have the opportunity to work with such fabulous people over the course of 10 months. I love empowering these dedicated yoga practitioners and teachers-in-training to trust what they already know and make changes that make the practice work for them. There’s nothing better than seeing the look on a student’s face when a “hate it” pose turns into a “love it” pose (or at least a “tolerate it” pose!). Thank you, upavistha and fabulous trainees. Thank you, project New Baby/New Home. Thank you, yoga.

 

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