Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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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.

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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 Yoga


This morning on my way to the studio, the light went from gray and rainy to gloriously golden in a matter of minutes. I took off my scarf, looked around, and for a moment felt unsettled: I had no idea what month it was. Were it not for the leaves falling it could have been spring, the start of the warmer weather.

Seasonal transitions test our ability to go with what is. We can't control whether we'll luck out with the gloriously golden or have to endure the gray and rainy. The only thing to do is to dress in layers and prepare to be surprised.

I'm working on the equivalent attitude adjustment with life transitions.

It's much harder, because more is at stake. I want to know clearly where I stand at every moment, I want to control how all the pieces fall. But when I am in transition, I am neither this nor that, and it can be painful for the ego to experience this confusion. The ego's job is to assert its 'I-ness,' but during in-between moments it can't fully do its job. My initial tendency is to project perfection on the future state I am transitioning to, to imagine that things will be so much better when I get there. But is that really any way to enjoy my life?

I've found it helpful to practice being okay during transitions on a physical level first, on my yoga mat. Sometimes it's tempting to think of the practice as only its end points, the asanas themselves. But when I feel unsettled in my daily life, when I'm not sure how everything will come together, I slow down on the mat and really focus on the transitions between poses. I try to be fully present as I move from up dog to down dog. Rather than 'shutting off' after up dog is complete and 'turning back on' when I get to down dog, I pay attention to precisely how I move from one pose to the other: I consciously roll over the tops of my feet to shift my weight back and grow into that long, satisfying stretch. There's a little itch to just get there already, to just be in the pose I'm headed towards. But then I remember, that is exactly the point: the transition is the practice, too. The transitions, the in-between times are my life, too. When I really work at it and experience these in-between moments fully, they are just as glorious as their end points.


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