Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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

On our daily walk to school, my kids and I pass a stretch of sidewalk on Rockwell that had been crumbling over the past year. More accurately it had evolved into a pile of rubble with a few patches of solid sidewalk. After reporting it to 311 a few times, I’d eventually just grown accustomed to dodging the dodgy parts and held out only a faint hope that someday it might change.

Then on a recent morning that was not much different from the one before it, the kids stopped in their tracks when they saw that the whole stretch had been dug up. The crumbling sidewalk was now a long ditch of dirt surrounded by yellow plastic tape and bounded on both sides by a sign that read, “Sidewalk closed. Please use other side.”

But somehow, every time I walked the kids to and from school for the next week, I’d find myself standing in front of that sign, not having had the presence of mind to alter my usual course before getting there. Judging by the growing rut that was developing in the grass next to the pit, the other commuters who marched this path were doing the same. All of us ignoring, or simply forgetting about, the sign’s plea until it was too late and habit won over. Once the concrete set a week later, the sidewalk was reopened and we all kept on in our usual way, the ruts of our daily walk again hidden by smooth, gray concrete.

When yoga practice becomes just another rut

Because the physical part of yoga requires repetition of the same shapes and breathing practices again and again, your time on the mat could easily become just another of life’s habitual routines. You know the drill: chaturanga, up dog, down dog, repeat. On the other hand, when you go to class and your teacher inspires you to try a different variation or prop set-up for a pose, when you cultivate a certain quality of attention to your practice, yoga can be a tool for uncovering ruts, much like a construction crew’s sledgehammer.b2ap3_thumbnail_Down-Dog-Rut-2.jpg

Down dog is a classic rut pose. Because the pose makes an appearance in almost every class (often multiple times if you’re practicing sun salutes), yoga practitioners often develop habitual down dog routines. Some people are wigglers, foot-pedalers, or sighers. Others are head-nodders, shoulder-hangers, or constant-adjusters.

I have my own little habits, and I’ve been paying closer attention to them this week on the mat. When I move from cobra into down dog in a sun salute, there’s a lot of oomph involved in simply getting my body from a prone position to an upside-down one. With all my attention on the muscular work of pushing up against gravity, hand and foot placement isn’t usually the first thing on my mind. But once I’m back in down dog, upside-down, feet staring me in the face, those little misalignments become glaringly obvious and the recovering alignment-stickler in me almost can’t take it. Is there anything wrong with making a few adjustments to my foot positioning once I get in the pose?

Of course not. But……

Here’s what I learned: my down dog adjustments are pretty much the same every time. A ha! A rut!

If my right foot always ends up a few inches forward of my left, that means my innocent little down dog foot adjustments were obscuring and deepening a rut in a way that has implications on strength, flexibility, and balance from one side of my body to the other. While my foot position in down dog isn’t a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, what I hadn’t been seeing because of this hidden rut revealed something bigger than just my lack of “perfect” alignment.

How to break out of ruts on and off the mat

Breaking out of a rut in your practice does not necessarily involve practicing a new or more difficult pose. It simply involves practicing differently.

Imagine your mat is made of wet concrete so your down dog footprints and subsequent shifting are made visible. How does that change the way you move into the pose?

Check your attachments at the door and instead be open when a teacher suggests a new variation or prop set-up for a familiar pose. What can you learn physically, mentally, and emotionally from a different approach?

If yoga makes you stronger and more flexible, great.

If it helps you to find greater peace and calm, fantastic.

But yoga’s greatest gift may be something else entirely.

What if instead of going on autopilot through chaturanga, up dog, and down dog, you could move consciously enough to discover a long-held habit? What if this simple practice of integrating body, mind, and breath could follow you out of the studio? What if you were able to be more present in conversations with people you love, more aware of the changing leaves on the route you habitually take to work, better able to recognize your ruts (physically, mentally, and emotionally)?

The crumbling sidewalk and slight inconvenience of its repair helped me to see something that had been hidden in plain sight, and it reminded me of why I keep coming back to the mat. Yes, I practice because it makes me feel better physically, mentally, and emotionally. But I don't just want to feel better today, I want to grow and change and become a more fully expressed version of myself. I want to bloom. You can only change what you can see. I'm incredibly grateful to have the help of a mindful approach to yoga to reveal my habits and patterns in a way that’s as plain as a footprint in wet concrete.

Hits: 6513

It was one of those late-May days where you just want to whistle back to the birds. The breeze balanced out the warmth of the afternoon perfectly, gardens were just coming into their own, and I smiled and waved as a neighbor approached on the sidewalk.

“Isn’t it amazing?” I said, thinking that just weeks prior I would have been waving with mittens.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m happy because it’s summer, but I’m sad because it’s almost over.”

I chuckled and assured him that summer hadn’t even officially begun, but I understood what he was really saying.

It’s easy to think this is simply the curse of the Chicagoan – coming off of the brutality of a long, difficult winter, one can’t help but remember that despite the appearance of things when sidewalks are slapped by cheerful masses strolling in their flip flops, in a few short months we’ll bid farewell to those sweet evenings spent lingering on the porch while a cold beverage sweats in your hand. Big, bad winter looms over every lush corner garden.

But this isn’t just a Chicagoan’s problem, and it isn’t just about weather.

When my five year-old daughter cuddles up in my lap and asks me to scratch her back, interspersed with the sweetness of our connection is my disbelief over the fact that she grew almost an inch in the last few months and I can barely carry her anymore.

As I sigh into the incredible comfort of an exquisitely propped restorative yoga pose and feel that one stubborn tight spot in my neck begin to release, the next inhalation comes in a little more shallowly because my thoughts have inadvertently shifted to how bummed I’m going to be when it’s time to come out of the pose, put the props away, and get back on my computer.

Endings are hard. But like in a good story, there’s always a beginning, a middle, and an eventual end. The fact that summer or childhood or yoga or life ends isn’t the problem, the problem is when a worried mind focuses so much on the end that there’s no room to appreciate the middle.

I used to think that were I not so moved by the tragedy of endings, that would make me a cold and unemotional person. It seemed to me that the best way to appreciate a beautiful moment was to wallow in the sadness I’d feel when it was over.

Then in my second yoga teacher training 12 years ago as I explored my relationship to yoga’s philosophical concepts, I was fortunate to have the chance to really come face-to-face with my own natural tendency to simultaneously cling to the past while constantly anticipating the future.

What was missing in that picture?

The middle, the now, the what is.

Summer ends every year, but I don’t need to suffer that loss before it arrives. When my mom used to tell me, “Don’t wish your life away,” I’d nod but wonder how else to spend my time other than thinking about what was next.

good.jpgAfter years of yoga practice (going on 18 years now….wow!), the poses, conscious breath, mindfulness, and relaxation have helped me find what was missing, what was standing between me and the moment. Turns out it was just my busy little mind all that time!

Like Dorothy in her ruby slippers, it seems silly to have been unable to see I was standing in my own way. Yoga practice became my Glinda, and though it was a much less instant shift than a click of the heels, I’m forever grateful for the sparkly dose of clarity that set me on the path.

Once my neighbor and I passed on the sidewalk, there wasn’t too much more to say. The day spoke for itself with my not-yet-sunscreened skin soaking up the rays that managed to beam between leaves, and his sweatshirt, a holdout from the previous day’s cool, wrapped around his waist.

I turned to look over my shoulder once more and had the urge to tell the back of his head, to tell myself, the best we can do is to enjoy it while it’s here. But when I saw the spring in his step as he walked towards the train I shifted my gaze back to the sidewalk ahead of me and kept walking, one sidewalk square at a time, until I eventually arrived home.

Hits: 14237

We were having a perfectly nice dinner, our little family of four, when my phone rang. I tried to be all Zen about it and pretend that as a yoga teacher and conscious human being I didn’t care, but after three, then four rings I excused myself and pushed back from a delightful conversation about the latest findings on Mars, which was of particular interest to my son because of his recent Mars rover project for school.

My husband gave me the “is this really necessary?” look, the one that after 13 years of marriage seems less like a scolding or judgment and more a reminder from my own conscience. I made some lame excuse about needing to make sure it wasn’t an urgent call from the studio, but somewhere in my mind I knew it wasn’t. I was simply overcome by the urge to answer the call of the more subtle, conniving side of Mean Mommy, the occasional visitor who haunts our house.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Mean-Mommy.jpg

Yes, Mean Mommy is sometimes the yelling sort, but more often lately she emerges in other less obvious ways. She’s tricky, switching her methods on me like this, but you can’t blame her. I've become better at defending against her old yelling tirades, so she had to get creative.

The moment I stepped into my office to answer the phone, hearing traces of a conversation about what methane in the atmosphere might mean and why water isn’t the only important indication of life on a planet. I said an optimistic hello, hoping it would be something super important, something that would justify my leaving a perfectly lovely family dinner table moment, but I was instead greeted by a sharp robotic “Hello” in return. “This is a message from Chicago Public Schools…..” it continued. To my credit, I only listened to another ten seconds of the robo-call about the importance of childhood vaccinations for all CPS students before hanging up, but the damage had already been done.

Entering back into the dinner conversation, I was out of step and asked a question about Mars that my son curtly informed me had already been covered. Sneaky Mean Mommy smirked from within and I passed it off as a smile, trying to pretend I was fully present, but my thoughts were somewhere else entirely as my daughter shared the latest art project she had been working on.

Mean Mommy can’t tell the important stuff from the trivial and frequently acts as though possessed to find any distraction to set herself apart from the primary activities of the moment. Whether it’s reading while brushing teeth, checking email while the kids enjoy an after-school snack, or letting thoughts of work seep into family dinner time, she’s a sneaky, petty thief.

Mean Mommy knows nothing of asteya, the yogic principle of non-stealing. 

It starts out innocently enough. “I just need to finish this one thing,” I’ll say as I’m blasting through emails after school, talking to both my computer and my son, “and then we can play football. Okay, sweetheart?”

20 minutes and 7 follow-up requests later, my sweet tone has devolved into a Mean Mommy snark as I move from pleading, to threatening, to bribing with television. 

This may seem like pretty standard stuff for any mom, moms being the great multi-taskers, but it has been happening more frequently than I care to admit lately. This chronic distractedness reveals a deficit of time, productivity, and efficiency elsewhere. But instead of being a grown-up and addressing the core issue, Mean Mommy attempts to steal some of that time back from her family as a solution.

Mean Mommy has boundary issues, to say the least. 

Just as I worked to lessen the yelling Mean Mommy’s visits by making more time for self-care (been working like a charm, by the way!), my new plan with this thieving Mean Mommy is to set limits for myself, much as I do with my children.

Boundaries make me better. I’m a person who gets overwhelmed by limitless possibility, so the process of saying “this, not that” is actually freeing rather than limiting. 

If I know that after school I can pick up the slack and wrap up unfinished business I didn’t get to during my work day, I tend to be less productive than I could be. Were I not to have the release valve of multi-tasking while parenting, I would be forced to figure out a way to either get it all done during the workday or be more selective about what I commit to and how I use my time in the long run. Both of which would be incredibly positive consequences.

In anticipation of my kids’ upcoming two-week holiday break from school, I’ve decided to commit to some personal boundaries to avoid straddling the parenting and working modes whenever possible so that I can focus on just embodying one role well. It’s scary to change my habits, and I’m coming face to face with the ways in which I sometimes use work to escape the frustrating, boring, and annoying moments of motherhood. But I know from experience that when I just let myself play one role, I do it better. And I have more fun.

Before my phone rang at the dinner table that night, I was enjoying our family’s conversation, loving my husband and children, and reveling in the fact that in a busy, crazy, scary, hectic, connected world with billions of people, I was lucky enough to be in a room every night with the three who are most important to me. That is a gift that I’ve been given, and all I have to do now is not let Mean Mommy steal it away. 

This. Not that. And breathe.

Hits: 23000

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).

 b2ap3_thumbnail__MG_6427.jpg

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.

Hits: 48801

Posted by on in Health

Some days it sneaks up on you, like the slow rise of a thermometer on a summer afternoon. Other days it hits all at once. However it arrives, stress is an unpleasant, obtrusive, and all-too-frequent visitor that leaves you feeling physically tense and mentally unsettled.

This past week has been particularly stressful for me. I have no fewer than five unfinished time-sensitive projects to deal with at work, my kids have been home sick from school, and it looks like a tornado blew through our house (how did that sock get on the ceiling fan, anyway?).

Pressed for time, I’ve been pushing myself to the limit in an attempt to be hyper-productive and somehow catch up and conquer my workload. I’ve been staying up late, working on weekends, neglecting to make adequate time for both activity and rest, and just generally sucking all enjoyment out of my daily existence.

Today I'd finally had enough.





During a quiet moment when no one was needing my attention, I inched to the front edge of my chair, sat up straight, rolled my shoulders a few time, placed my hands in my lap, and closed my eyes. As soon as my eyelids closed, I felt a shift. I took a deeper breath and felt some of my shoulder and neck tension release.

Without the visual stimulus of the stressors around me – my computer, the stack of papers I needed to address, the pile of mail that had to go out – my nagging to-do list seemed a little less important and I could see that in the big scheme of things it didn’t really matter if my house was a disaster for a few busy days. Things will settle down eventually – the projects will be done, the kids will go back to school – there is always enough time. I just have to choose to make space instead of stress.

I don’t like fancy labels, so if you asked me what I was doing I’d say I was just paying attention and tuning in.

Meditating?

Nah…..I was being present, I was taking care of myself. Meditation is something a yogi does under a tree at an ashram in some beautiful remote setting.

How can I call this ‘meditation’ when it's likely that the phone will ring at any moment?

What if I don't have more than two minutes to sit calmly and quietly? That can't still be meditation, can it?

Meditation, mindfulness, being present – it doesn't matter what you call it, or how long you spend on it. The practice of getting quiet can profoundly impact your stress levels and can be a key component of your daily stress-management toolbox. It’s amazingly simple and easy and it doesn’t take long to be effective.

Start by just closing your eyes, observing your breath, and noticing how you feel. And stay tuned for some specific ideas and techniques for how to incorporate meditation into your workday.

Hits: 6873