Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

Subscribe to this list via RSS Blog posts tagged in be present

I’m a sucker for stories that remind me what’s important in life. In the hustle of the day-to-day it can be easy to forget the big picture; an expertly crafted analogy, like yoga practice, can wake me up and shine a light on the richness around me.

Life's Rocks

You’ve probably heard the story about the philosophy teacher who showed her students a jar that represents life. The teacher filled it with three big rocks and asked her students, “Is the jar full?” They said yes.

Then the teacher poured in some pebbles, filling in the gaps around the big rocks. “Now is the jar full?” she asked. The students nodded somewhat uncertainly, getting the sense that the teacher was up to something.

Finally she pulled out a bag of sand and poured it in to fill in the tiny spaces around the rocks, leaving the students nodding so hard that two of them later reported having a headache.

This one’s a bit heavy handed, so you may have already guessed what all this stuff represents. The rocks are life’s essentials: family, health, and relationships. The pebbles are other things that are important to you: work, school, hobbies, and passions. The sand is all the “small stuff:” material possessions, doing laundry, and other minutiae of life.

The lesson? If you fill your jar with sand, you’d never be able to fit the rocks or pebbles in. But as long as you have your rocks, life will be worthwhile.

Yes, wise philosophy teacher. Health and family are important, probably two of my top values.

But.

I also value leaving the house in a shirt that isn’t decorated with my baby’s strawberry hand prints.

Being somewhat contrary, my favorite part about this story is the pause afterwards where I’m trying to figure out all the exceptions to the rule (is it just me who does that?). 

This particular story leaves a distinct aftertaste of guilt. I’m a mom and a business owner. Does that mean that every time I put Bloom before my kids I’m foolishly forgetting my rocks?

Here’s my yogic twist on this story. All life’s things – rocks, pebbles, and sand – are important. The key is learning to pay attention to what’s important RIGHT NOW. It’s the difference between having a jar that represents your life overall vs. a jar that represents one hour, one day, or one week of your life.

For this hour, being timely about getting my strawberry-stained shirt into the laundry before I forever have little red fingers decorating a formerly white blouse is priority #1. Cuddling with my daughter is one of my favorite things, but unless I want to get a new wardrobe every week (or wear stained clothes every day), right now it can’t be a rock.

For this day, I’ll hug my kids and tell them why it’s important for me to be gone the entire afternoon and evening so I can celebrate our two yoga teacher training graduations, even if that means missing family dinner. Family dinner is a top priority for me, but today is a special day to celebrate the accomplishments of our amazing graduates. 

For this week, in order to get out the door in time to make it to the restorative yoga training I’m attending in the suburbs, I’ll need to forgo my usual morning yoga practice or run. When I don’t make adequate time for my health on a consistent basis, I feel lousy. But this training will enable me to share the powerful health benefits of conscious relaxation with so many people, so it’s worth sacrificing my usual routine for a few days (as long as I get back to it when the training’s done).

Long term, health and family are what matters. Of course. It doesn’t take a philosophy degree to understand that. But the daily life picture of what’s important is far from static. Rather than guilting myself, I’ve decided it’s more useful to hone my observation skills so I can identify the shifting priorities, the changing “rocks,” as they arise.

Yoga practice, above all its other benefits, teaches me to pay attention to what I need on a moment-to-moment basis. Each time I’m reminded to take a deep breath, my unruly mind with all its swirling activity and distraction is momentarily brought back to right now. After a deep breath and some reconnection time on my mat, the picture gets impeccably clear. Only then can I identify what this moment’s “rocks” are – more rest or more activity, more work time or more family time, more laundry or more cuddling. 

So yes, keep your rocks at the front of your mind. You can check in with those important things on a regular basis (weekly, monthly, quarterly?). But also give yourself permission to identify what’s important for this moment, hour, and day, so you can choose to prioritize your changing rocks without guilt.

There. I woke up before my big kids did, asked my husband to be on morning breakfast duty for our baby, and I finished this. Now if you’ll excuse me, this weekend’s rocks involve family, beach, and fireworks.

 

Hits: 2879

b2ap3_thumbnail_MeditationforEverydayLiving.jpgThe first time I tried meditating, I was 20 years old and pretty impressed with myself. I was a relatively new but 100% committed yoga student, and my teachers had made it clear that meditation was something I should do if I was serious about this yoga business. I solemnly rolled out my yoga mat in a tiny corner of my tiny New York City apartment, lit a candle, and sat there with closed eyes trying to figure out if I was doing it “right.” 

After a few minutes of being berated by my inner critic for not being able to stop thinking about that night’s dinner menu or the conversation I’d just finished with my mom, I blew out the candle and convinced myself that maybe I just wasn’t ready.

For my next attempt, I attended a group meditation at my local yoga studio, a musty 2nd floor walk-up with a fireplace and om signs everywhere. We were given a brief overview of what meditation was (“a vehicle for enlightenment”), then we were instructed to find a meditation posture (lotus was best, we were told) and stay completely still for 30 minutes. 

Ready, go! 

About 15 minutes in my legs were tingling, and within 20 minutes I was in excruciating pain. It felt like someone was stabbing the soles of my feet. I snuck a few peeks around the room to see if anyone else felt like they were dying, but they all seemed perfectly serene, so I sucked it up and just tried to shift position a little to make it tolerable. By the time the teacher rang the bells to signal we were finished, I could barely move my legs and decided that meditation, unlike the serenity my teachers described, was scary and painful.

I’ll admit it. With meditation, there’s really no such thing as being better at it than someone else. But this week when I was teaching yoga to my daughter’s 1st grade class in the gorgeous prairie garden outside her school, it occurred to me that kids get mindfulness in a way that I’m only now discovering 20 years into my yoga practice.

I arrived at the school garden ready to teach a boisterous animal-themed yoga practice that was all about moving quickly, making fun and silly sounds, and playing games. But as I was talking to the 1st graders before class about what yoga is and why it’s helpful, the first benefit they listed was relaxation. Not the response I’m used to when talking with people about yoga; usually the focus is on the flexibility bit, aka bending into a pretzel.

“Have any of you done yoga before?” I asked. All but two kids raised their hands. (Yoga’s come a long way in the last 20 years; when I first got into it my family worried I had joined a cult.)

As I told the kids my plan for our time together – breathing exercises, poses, then games – one boy interrupted me. “Can we meditate? I love meditating!”

Another boy chimed in, “I’m awesome at meditation,” and he sat up super tall, closed his eyes, and struck jnana mudrab2ap3_thumbnail_LittleMeditators.JPG (it looks like the OK sign). Several other kids joined him.

I couldn’t contain my smile. It blew my mind that the kids knew what meditation was and that it was now considered a cool thing. So I scrapped the games and said, “After we do some breathing and poses, we can sit on the logs and meditate,” like I was promising dessert if they ate a good dinner.

Throughout the breathwork and poses, they were focused little yogis who had lots of commentary to share: 

“This is easy!”

“I do yoga in my living room.”

“I’ve balanced on one leg for four minutes before.”

When it came time for dessert, I asked everyone to find a spot on the logs and pick a comfy position. Some sat cross legged, some didn’t. Most hadn’t tried meditation before, but they all followed my cues to sit up tall and close their eyes. As I guided them through a very simple “Special Place” meditation, they were quiet and still and attentive.

I’d bet that none of these kids, even the awesome meditators in the group, has ever been taught an official meditation technique or forced themselves to hold a painful position in the hopes of reaching enlightenment, but instinctively they get it. After a couple minutes, I gently brought them out, and we checked in about how they felt.

Their responses: relaxed, calm, in a special place, sleepy.

Some might argue that 2 minutes is nothing and that these eager 1st graders weren’t really meditating. I used to be one of those stalwarts who insisted that if I hadn’t read the technique in a book, it wasn’t valid.

I just don’t buy it anymore.

I think that any mindfulness practice, however long, is beneficial and beautiful and worthy of the big M word. Today’s little yogis are at a huge advantage having had exposure to even small bites of yoga and meditation by the age of 7. And I think all of us can learn from these wise little teachers. 

When you love something, when it’s really important to you, set it free from your own expectations. Don’t wait – just like you don’t need to get fit or flexible before starting yoga, you don’t necessarily need to wait for a peaceful, candlelit room to try meditation. 

Just start small. 

And then, be awesome at it.

 

Hits: 2205

While driving out to the suburbs for a cousin’s birthday party a few weeks ago, I readied my answer to the quintessential kid-in-the-car question. Depending on my mood, my answer can be compassionately accurate (“It’ll be a while – maybe another 30 minutes”) or sassily sarcastic (“I hope we’ll make it by dinnertime tomorrow”).

As an adult, I’ve grown out of needing to continually wonder when we will arrive at our destination, mostly thanks to Google Maps, but also because I’ve come to realize that life is a journey and blah, blah, blah. But when I’m not in one of my sassy moods, I can completely empathize with my kids’ question, both because I was an “Are we there yet?” kid myself, and also because I still get that same sort of unease during in-between moments as an adult.

My family is moving back to our house in a matter of days. We’ve been out for a year while renovations were being done, during which time we also welcomed our newest family member. So it’s been a full year, to say the least.

b2ap3_thumbnail_InBetween_20160428-142745_1.jpgOur life right now is boxes, tape, and Sharpies; it’s deciding what to keep, what to find a new home for, and what to donate; it’s not being able to find some crucial something that has inexplicably been packed away too early despite our best efforts at strategic packing plans (why did I think I wouldn’t need my yoga props this week??!?!?).

This is an uncomfortable place to be. Not really because of the boxes and the not finding stuff, although that’s certainly part of it. More because we’re not really here, and not really there. We’re nowhere. In-between.

Yesterday, despite the fact that there’s still plenty of packing to do, I needed to make time for yoga. And of course I couldn’t find my mat, so I just rolled myself out on the hardwood floor.

Lying on my back, I contemplated the in-between, practicing being comfortable there. I began to deepen my breath. I practiced being completely there to watch the way my rib cage expanded to accommodate the breath, and on the exhalation I practiced letting go of the effort of breathing. With my eyes closed, accompanied by my familiar friend the breath, I was at home, despite my bare, boxed surroundings.

At the top of a deep inhalation, I paused for a moment. There I was – not in the inhale, not in the exhale. I was hanging out in some other place, a quiet state where I could feel my hearbeat, a pulse in my belly. I took a long, slow exhalation and paused at the bottom, noticing a feeling of emptiness, of grounding, and a slight panic: is this enough? will I ever inhale again? Of course, it’s okay, I soothed. And then the cycle began again.

Life is full of these in-between moments, in big and small ways. There are job changes, times of illness or loss, relationship shifts, welcoming a baby, and of course, the ever fun home renovations and moves.

These moments are when we need to rely on some kind of inner sense of home, a strength that helps us feel unshakable even on unfamiliar ground. For me that means yoga, and my breath specifically. It’s the constant, the thing that has been with me from the day I was born, a tool I’ve learned to wield as a yoga-practicing adult, and it will be my daily companion until the day I die. 

Over the years, I’ve been here, I’ve been there, I’ve been in-between. I know I won’t have time to roll out my mat (if I could even find it….) on moving day. The truck comes at 8am and we’ll be going non-stop until we fall into bed in our new environment with all its unfamiliar sounds. But fortunately my breath doesn’t need to be packed away, so I’ll know just where to find my yoga that day.

Hits: 2798

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!” 

b2ap3_thumbnail_KMwheel.JPG

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. 

 

Hits: 3658

“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.”

Hits: 7065