Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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Posted by on in Health

I had already rolled out my yoga mat this morning, but when I looked at the clock and saw that I only had fifteen minutes before the chaos of my family's morning routine began I thought, "What's the use? There's not enough time to get a full practice in anyway!"
 
My body was craving yoga though, so I went for it before I could change my mind. I started quickly, rushing from one pose to the next. But it didn't feel right, didn't feel as satisfying as it usually does. I slumped down into child's pose in an I-told-you-so kind of pout. After a minute of child's pose pouting, I pressed up into down dog and lingered for a bit, unsure what to do next. I sighed out a few deep breaths and started wiggling around, and pretty soon I was enjoying the playful feeling of being upside-down. Ah.....the breath, the slowing down, the un-rushing. I was in!

It was the hook to something bigger and this down dog moment reminded me that it didn't matter how many asanas I practiced, what mattered was how and why I did them. I gave up my daydream of a 'full' practice filled with dozens of standing poses and luxurious restorative variations. Instead, I set more humble goals: I wanted to take some time to breathe, move, and reconnect. That's it.
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With new goals in mind, my practice was different than usual. I did fewer poses, but worked on being more fully present in them as I held and breathed. Revolved lunge was the freedom my spine craved, Lizard was the love my hips needed. As much as I was practicing asana, the real work this morning was enjoying the poses I could do while being okay with not having the time to also go into all my old favorites: warrior II, triangle, side angle, half moon, revolved triangle, and so on. It was a practice of acceptance of that fact I just can't do everything.

It seems like a logical concept and one I should have learned by now, but I've really been struggling with this lately. I want to do it all, and do it well, so when I fall short of that I feel resentful and frustrated. Whether in my work at the studio, my role as a mother and wife, on the mat, or in the writing process, I want to give 100% to everything all the time, which simply isn't possible, not even for Superwoman.

This morning's yoga practice hit home that sacrifices are required, both of my to-do list and my expectations. I acknowledged that for busy people, quality always loses out to quantity. As I practiced, I came up with my new mantra:

I can't do it all, so in this moment I will do one thing well.

On the mat that means being okay with a truncated practice, rather than trying to cram 20 poses into 15 minutes. It's committing 100% to down dog when I'm in down dog instead of longing for the laundry list of other poses that I wish I had the time for. It's embodying santosha, contentment, instead of grasping for the poses that were necessarily left out of the sequence, being present with what's happening breath to breath instead of watching the clock in fear.

Off the mat it means asking for help with projects I've taken on but shouldn't have. It means giving new ideas the time they need to develop instead of trying to accomplish five things simultaneously. It means being more fully present for my kids when I come home from work rather than trying to catch up on a few emails while distractedly tending to them at the same time.

Being here right now is enough. All the thoughts about what I'm not getting done or where I'm falling short are not real, they're just constructs of my mind, and destructive ones at that. So instead I'll head back to my mat tomorrow, for 5 minutes or 50 minutes, and keep working on slowing down and practicing contentment. I'll say it to myself over and over again to drown out the Superwoman Syndrome messaging. I'll say it until I wholeheartedly believe it: It's enough to do one thing well.

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Posted by on in Family

When my alarm went off at 6am today, it was all I could do to keep myself from crawling back into bed. But I had made a plan, I had made a promise to myself that despite the temptation of the warmth and comfort of an extra half-hour of sleep, I would step onto the cool hardwood floor, pull my hair back, and move my body. Yoga, walking, dancing, biking - it's less important what than how. I simply knew I had to find a way to take better care of myself.

"There's just never enough time!" I said as I rolled out my mat. And it occurred to me that I've been saying that a lot over the past month.


The kids' school schedule is in full swing, I've added more workdays at Bloom (yay!), and as a result I've felt pulled in new directions (often towards my ball chair and the blue glow of a computer screen). The more projects I tackle and mental gymnastics I put myself through, the more aware I am at the end of the day that I've neglected my body. Much as I don't want to admit it, the increasingly sedentary nature of my work week is taking its toll.

I'm envious as I watch my kids run and play on the playground after school, remembering how good it feels for activity to be a seamless part of your existence. Having been an active person all my life, I'd like to believe that physical activity and exercise can just be a natural extension of my day. But I've recently come to terms with the fact that as an adult, the nature of my day has changed. The work I'm passionate about accomplishing at Bloom and the writing projects I aspire to complete require periods of sustained concentration, most often seated at a desk and in front of a computer.

I've been sneaking activity in whenever I can - when I'm at the park with the kids, I'll jump up to hang from the monkey bars or chase them around the playground - but it's not enough to have a lasting impact.

After a week or so of being achy and feeling sorry for myself, I gave myself a little pep talk:

You can't wait for exercise to happen to you, you have to schedule it in.

I reminded myself that everyone has the same number of hours in the day and some people manage to make time for whatever it is they want to do on a daily basis. Making time means being intentional about how you spend your day.

To successfully schedule time for physical activity, I realized that something else needed to come out of my day. That's where this scheduling business gets tricky - it's hard to decide what to sacrifice. But without a sacrifice, without a true commitment to the new plan, I knew nothing would change. So I started with an assessment of my day as it currently stands.

For me, the early morning hours are an ideal time for physical activity for logistical reasons and otherwise. It gives me quiet time before the kids wake up, time to focus and reconnect before the chaos of the morning routine begins, and it sets the tone for the whole day.

But having been accustomed to working at night once the kids go to bed for the past five years, it required me to make a shift. I had to sacrifice the late nights I used to knock things off my to-do list and prepare for the next day. It's a sacrifice that I'm excited to make because it means getting to bed earlier and feeling more rested, but I it's still taking a lot of discipline to change the habit.

When I want to take a yoga class, I don't just loosely plan to go anymore - I put it in my calendar. It's a way of committing to myself and making sure that I don't let anything else take priority over my plan.

I'll initially come up with all kinds of excuses why I can't spare 90 minutes to go to class. Over the years as I've had too much to do and not enough time to do it, I've become stingy with my time, demanding "productivity" of myself at every moment. But the way I feel when I leave a yoga class is fuel for productivity. The permission to shut off for a while, to go inside and connect on a breath and body level gives me the boost I need to return to my work with clarity and creativity.

In order to get myself to class, I must sacrifice my self-image as a workaholic. I must let go of the fact that more work time does not necessarily mean better results. I must be kinder to myself. Fortunately, following the schedule provides its own rewards. When I make the time to take care of myself, I actually feel like I have more time in my day.

These days it's easy to feel over-scheduled, so the idea of scheduling one more thing initially made my stomach turn. But when I use a different word for it, when I think of it as planning, of setting an intention for what I wish to do and create, scheduling time for physical activity becomes an exercise in mindfulness and self-care. That's the kind of scheduling I can get behind.

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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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 In my gentle class this week, we spent a long time in supta padangusthasana, reclining big toe pose. The pose provides a relaxing way to stretch the hamstrings and strengthen the legs, while allowing for a deep release in the hips, back, and neck. Much as I love this pose today for the perspective it has given me on and off the mat, it still brings back some painful memories.

As someone who is naturally flexible, when I first started yoga I delighted that many of the poses played to my strengths. I moved deeply into forward folds, bent myself into tight backbends, and pursued the goal of making my poses look like whatever the teacher demonstrated or whatever a yoga book pictured. I exploited my flexibility, played with the line where a stretch crosses into the danger zone, and then pushed further, impatient to see a visible 'improvement' in my pose.

You might be able to guess what happened next.

My poses didn't so much improve as they served to teach me some valuable (though painful) lessons. As the teacher led us into supta padangusthasana, I went through the first side following the cues, a little bored as we were instructed to wait and work our way into the pose gradually. When I came out of the first side the teacher had us compare the two, giving us perspective on how far we had come. That first side felt incredible!

But when we started in on the second side, that leg felt stiff, dull, and reluctant. With the memory of the after-effects of the first side so close, I just didn't want to have to wait to get that feeling again. So I tried to skip steps, forcing my leg deeper into the stretch, and that's when I felt a snap in the back of my leg.

Having not yet learned patience and perspective on the yoga mat, I was forced to practice these virtues as I waited for my hamstrings to heal. My injury was a waiting-period, an imposed time to reflect on the true aims of the practice and how I was approaching it. Weeks later as my hamstrings began to feel close to normal again, my approach on the mat became slower, more measured. I found that waiting was not, in fact, boring. Rather it gave me perspective that a rushed approach would have never allowed.

The patience and perspective I've since practiced on the yoga mat has helped more than my hamstrings. Whether in the context of the writing process or in decisions pertaining to my role as director at Bloom, I've made my fair share of rushed decisions because I felt the pressures of time or expectations. When I'm on a deadline, it doesn't seem practical or possible to wait and process. Particularly now that the speed of personal and business interactions has so rapidly increased, when I take extra time it feels like I'm shirking my responsibilities, so I rush to some sort of action. Without exception, the hasty decisions have not turned out to be the best ones. Without the benefit of time, there is always some element that I forget to consider in my process.

Now when some time-sensitive situation comes up in my personal life or at the studio, I imagine the decision is the second side of supta padangusthasana. I reassure myself that a little extra time will help rather than hurt, I send feelers out, and contemplate the issue from a variety of angles. But mostly, I just wait. I'll often experience moments of panic as the deadline looms, worrying that I'm not actively 'doing anything' to resolve the issue. But sometimes doing is not what is required. Often patience and perspective are more effective.

As my experience on and off the mat has shown, you can't rush a good thing. I've come to trust that. I practice being okay on the mat during in the in-between time when my hamstrings are not yet open, I give myself permission off the mat to slow down and wait until a decision becomes clear. In this age of quick replies and instant everything, I now savor the chance to productively wait.

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Last month's New York Times article "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body" certainly threw the yoga community for a loop! I've given the article a lot of thought over the past few weeks and have written several responses to the reactions I've heard from students and teachers. In the aftermath I've had conversations with colleagues who have practiced daily for years, and for many dedicated yogis the question still lingers: is it possible for intermediate practitioners to find a challenge on the mat without "wrecking" their bodies?


To me, the answer is a qualified yes. If you are a beginner who stumbles into a Level 2 class and you try to crank yourself into a complex backbend or muscle your way through a long headstand, or if you are a continuing student who tries to pretzel your way into those poses at the back of Light on Yoga without the guidance of a qualified teacher, you will very likely do yourself some damage.

But if you have been practicing consistently in order to gain a deeper understanding of your body and mind, you have developed the intuition to help you know when to pull back rather than push through. You are taming the ego every time you resist the urge to show off your awesome yoga skills when the teacher calls out your favorite pose. If you opt for a rest in child's pose as the class whips through yet another vinyasa, you are practicing humility in caring for your own needs rather than following the crowd.

So what makes an intermediate practitioner? What does the Level 2 designation mean?

Many people would cite the extreme asana variations and long holds referenced in the NYT article. My take is a little different.

To me, Level 2 means maintaining the ujjayi pranayama, or victorious breath, throughout every single pose. It means more complex transitions between the poses as a way of developing greater concentration and balance; if you've ever moved from tree pose to half moon and then back again, you know that creative transitions amplify the intensity of any pose. It means working towards a deeper experience of a backbend (with the help of props or not), with constant reminders from your teacher to pay attention and stop if you find you are not breathing deeply or feel discomfort in the pose. Like anything else in yoga, Level 2 means different things to different people. In my opinion, the safest way to provide students with a challenge is to offer many ways to experience more intermediate poses. For example, if you were to look around the room (which, of course, you would never do because you are a yogi and do not compare yourself to other people!) during the practice of an arm balance such as side crow pose, you would find students working at a variety of levels in the pose: some with feet still firmly planted on the ground and others in full flight.

At Bloom, our take on Level 2 moves beyond the typical harder + faster = better equation. We believe there is a way to explore a physical and mental challenge on the mat without "wrecking" yourself; we encourage students to remember that the process of trying these more advanced pose variations is more important than the final shape of the pose any day.

Most of the time I keep my own practice simple, soft, and gentle. But as I've learned over the years, it can be incredibly valuable to shake up old habits, to get out of the rut of a comfort zone, to carefully go where you have not gone before. That's when I roll out the old yoga mat in a Level 2 class, and I'm grateful to have a dedicated, knowledgeable teacher to provide me with both a challenge and the requisite cautions and reminders to keep me healthy as I work.

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