Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.





Elephant Journal just posted my article "Why the Olympics would Ruin Yoga" about the renewed interest in making yoga an Olympic event.

Every four years when the Olympics roll around, an insistent group of yoga practitioners make a case for why yoga should be an Olympic event. My article looks at why this would be a devastating thing to happen to yoga.

Comments are very welcome, just scroll down to the bottom of the article on elephant journal to continue the conversation!

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It was 3 o'clock on a hot summer afternoon, my kids were restless, and the insults were flying.

With every activity either a competition or an opportunity to put their sibling down, one yelled 'Stupid baby!' and the other responded with 'Shut up!' and then Mean Mommy swooped in. She raged and threatened time-outs all around, to no great effect. She waved her finger and made her voice as quietly vicious as she could but as most kids will do when offered meanness, they dished it right back. It seemed like it would never be bedtime, and it seemed like no one in the house would ever be happy again.

Summer's end is a a time that as a parent I both savor and dread, often within the same day. With so many 'lasts' to squeeze in - last trip to the beach, last leisurely family bike ride, last chance to catch an outdoor concert - the days are somewhat motivated by fear of not making the most of the beautiful weather and relaxed schedule.

And yet at times I guiltily feel an intense longing to return to the order of the school year. By the time August rolls around, many summer thrills no longer hold the same appeal that they held in June, and I crave an escape from the senseless bickering that occurs when the kids, because they can't find one thing to hold their attention, get at each other.
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I recently read an interesting article about a study that found smiling, even when you don't genuinely feel happy, can help reduce the effects of stress.

Cool fact from the article - there are two types of smiles: a 'standard' smile that just involves the muscles surrounding the mouth, and a 'genuine' or 'Duchenne' smile that also engages the muscles around the eyes. Turns out that even just muscling your way into a 'standard' smile, regardless of minor stresses, can lower your heart rate, make you feel better, and improve your health.

When Mean Mommy is raging, even if the kids say something cute or endearing, she usually refuses to budge from her meanness. But this one afternoon after the 3 o'clock showdown, because every other option had been exhausted, I forced my face into a 'standard' smile. When I smiled I exhaled a little longer, my jaw released, and my shoulders dropped. It seemed too simple, could a fake smile really be that powerful?

Smiling is softening, lightening. It's poison for Mean Mommy, even if it doesn't start out with any genuine happiness behind it. Mean Mommy is a gnarled, hardened creature who is just waiting for someone to tick her off. The smile derailed her train of rage just long enough for something new to set in. It was my job to decide what to put in place of the meanness.

Fueled by the power of my fake smile, I mustered up a joke and the kids giggled. And gradually the mean comments ceased and we fell into a playful mode of being together.

Meanness follows meanness, but contentment is contagious. The more I smiled, the happier the kids looked. And as their laughter grew, I felt my smile turning into something genuine, even 'Duchenne.'
 
b2ap3_thumbnail_Navasana.jpgI've been giving this fake smiling business a try on my yoga mat, too. Even after all these years of practicing, there are some poses that I can't say I genuinely like, poses that I tend to either avoid or grimace through. In my classes this week I've been encouraging students to make their yoga practice more advanced by smiling at times they would rather just curse me out for making them stay too long. Hello, navasana!
  
It's amazing how well it works. The tension that builds up from working hard in a challenging pose immediately dissipates once you smile. The principle is the same regardless of where you apply it: at home with the kids, when you're on a deadline at work, or when you're just working hard on the mat. It's common sense, I suppose. But it's always fun when science and common sense align.

Grin and bear it. Fake it till you make it. Whatever catchy phrase you use to remember it, know that just by deciding to smile you can help yourself to feel better. Look out, Mean Mommy.....

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Posted by on in Family

It was a beautiful summer afternoon and we were sitting outside at my parents' house with my extended family, having some ice cream. Someone got the idea to put on some music, so my brother cued up a few songs. I leaned back in my Adirondack chair, tapped my toes, and nodded my head to the beat with a grin as an old Smashing Pumpkins song came over the speakers. With a light breeze blowing, the sun going down, and good music and good company blending together, all at once I felt as relaxed as if I were on a nice long vacation.

Then the record skipped, figuratively speaking (and nearly literally). The song abruptly changed to some pop song about about rocking in a club all night. After 15 seconds or so, it changed again to a song about a red solo cup. Then again to something else that was subsequently changed so quickly I didn't have a chance to identify the melody or lyrics. All the while, my kids and their cousins were yelling over each other as each new song came on - 'I love this one!' - until finally the grown-ups groaned, 'Just let one song play all the way through!"

I had a knee-jerk 'Kids these days....' reaction, lamenting the fact that our fast-paced culture is ruining our children's attention spans. But when I took an honest look at myself and my own habits, I could think of more than one occasion in which I opted not to read an online article because it was more than three pages long. I could even come up with a few instances where I clicked on a link to a youtube video someone had forwarded to me and decided after watching 1 minute of the 7 minute video that I pretty much got the gist.



It's exciting to hear the first few bars of a song and say, "I love this!" or "I hate this!' But listening to the whole thing requires getting past the initial burst of excitement over the song and the rush of dopamine, in order to stick with it long enough to see it through.

While our incredible shrinking attention span may not be one of the great societal dangers of our age, the ability to concentrate and pay attention for a sustained period of time is a "Use it or lose it" proposition, and unfortunately as a society we seem to be well on our way to losing it.


Sound the trumpets: Yoga can help! Studies have shown that practicing yoga can improve concentration. Each time you practice a pose like vrksasana or tree, you are not only working your legs and hips, you're also practicing sustaining your focus in order to maintain balance. When you lose concentration, the feedback is instant: you wobble and perhaps even fall out of the pose. Wobbliness is inevitable, no matter how long you've been practicing. The real work lies in learning to refocus and come back into the pose. The real challenge is to go back and see it through once distraction (or loss of balance) has taken hold.

Since that lovely summer afternoon, I've been practicing sustained concentration on the mat by slowing down and paying closer attention to my breath as I move and hold poses. When my mind wanders off, seeking new excitement whether via thoughts about what I'm going to do later or ideas about a more challenging pose that I might try, I consider it a growth opportunity. Like in tree, I refocus and come right back to where I am and know that the simple act of paying attention to my body and breath is a concrete way to undo all the daily damage of quick-fire song changes and communication in 140 characters or less.

My hope is that when the next 4+ page article comes my way, I can draw upon my experience of staying present on the mat in order to resist the lure of the email that just landed in my inbox or the text that just came through or the song that beckons from the cue, to simply see one thing all the way through.

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Posted by on in Health

My blue paper gown crinkles as I shift back onto the long white sheet of paper. The table is so high that my legs swing like I'm a kid seated at the grown-up table. When the nurse left she said that the doctor would be in for my check-up in just a few minutes, but it has been considerably longer. I can hear the bustle outside the room as doctors and nurses call to each other about various patients and procedures, and the unease begins to creep in. I have no control over how long I will have to wait until my doctor comes in. And it bothers me.

Waiting used to just be a fact of life. I remember many quiet minutes spent as a child at the doctor's office or in the dentist's chair. No matter what I had been doing before my appointment, the moment I sat down in that room I slipped into waiting mode. I'd do windshield wipers with my feet, play connect the dots with the ceiling tile, or just look around, soaking up the stillness and the quiet of the in-between.

It's different now. With the faster pace of life and seemingly less time to accomplish everything, with smartphones and their mini computing power available almost everywhere you go, simply sitting and waiting can bring up feelings of emptiness and anxiety. Waiting for someone else to dictate when your time becomes 'useful' again can make you feel powerless and even deprived.

In the doctor's office, with all these emotions brewing, I looked around the room frantically for something to occupy me.

The magazines weren't my taste and I don't particularly like to spend time on my phone when I don't have to, so I started to read the office flyers and medical charts posted in the office. When I found myself squatting down in front of the Netter's Anatomy flip-chart looking at an illustrated explanation of the symptoms and causes of diabetes, I realized something had gone wrong. I was just trying to fill time, to calm the empty feeling that waiting now induces in me. It's not my own time, it's not my time to play a specific role (the patient, in this case). Rather it's an undefined stretch of in-between, a pause that will last for a minute or twenty, and my initial impulse was to just get busy doing something. Anything.

Instead, I get back on the table and let my legs dangle. I sit tall, fold my hands in my lap, and take a deep breath. It feels good, so I close my eyes and continue. When I hear a rustle at the door as my doctor is about to enter I panic and open my eyes, slouching a little so I look like someone who is waiting in the expected way. What if she comes in here and finds me with sitting stick-straight with my eyes closed? She'll think I'm some kind of weirdo.

But then she's called away to something else, and my eyes instantly close again. I lengthen the crown of my head towards the tiled ceiling, making more room to draw my breath in to the belly and chest, and I breathe. In and out, over and over again, like it's the best meditation session I've ever had despite the fact that I'm wearing a paper gown. I feel the stresses of the week falling away, my whole body feels like it's breathing, and for the first time that day, everything is just right.

When my doctor came into the room I opened my eyes and she was none the wiser of my waiting meditation. But as I talked with her I felt more open and connected than I can ever remember feeling during a doctor's visit. Those few minutes of waiting (I don't even know how many, that's the beauty of it!) could have made me feel victimized, bored, or irritated. But thanks to the waiting meditation, a technique no more complicated than closing my eyes and breathing deeply, the wait was transformed into 'me-time.'

Learning to integrate meditation into daily life is not as hard as it may initially seem. And once you start, it won't be long until you're just another weirdo at the doctor's office. If you're lucky.

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Posted by on in Yoga


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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