Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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Since seeing my 94 year-old grandmother struggle to get out of her wheelchair at a holiday party, I’ve been contemplating new goals for the time I spend on my yoga mat. My grandma is famously hearty, spunky, and self-sufficient, and up until a year ago she lived on her own and walked up and down a long flight of stairs multiple times every day. Last year at the holidays, I recall her bending down to pick up a tiny piece of lint on the floor. I should have known she’d slow down eventually, but she’s been healthy, active, and self-sufficient for so long, I was starting to think she’d always be that way. How could so much change in less than a year? 

Aging is invisible, made even more so by the fact that we want to deny it’s happening. As I’m approaching 40 I’m both grateful for my relative youth and irritated that I now have to think about my form when loading the dishwasher if I want to avoid a backache. 

Inspired by my amazingly tough grandma and my desire to continue loading the dishwasher pain-free, I’m rethinking my yoga goals. Yes, it’s awesome that each and every time I practice I come off the mat feeling like a million bucks (or as I sighed after class the other day, “I feel like a human being again!”). But that’s just not enough for me anymore.   

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I’ve been all over the map in my 20 year yoga career. Having come from an athletic background, I started yoga with an overly vigorous, push-push-push mentality. Then after a few years (and a few too many injuries) I swung in the opposite direction and pretty much refused to do anything that risked me breaking a sweat or didn’t involve a bolster. 

From what I’ve observed in my years of teaching, many practitioners tend toward the same black-or-white approach, sticking with classes that match their natural inclinations on the mat. If you’re a vigorous yogi, you’re probably a regular in challenging vinyasa-style classes that build heat, throw in a few arm balances, and just generally kick your butt. If you’re a gentler yogi, you’re likely a pro at modifying poses, your bolster is your best friend, and in your eyes there’s no such thing as too many restorative poses. 

If you’re looking to yoga to support your aging process, which approach is better: vigorous or gentle?  

The answer (at least for me) is both. 

There’s plenty of conflicting scientific evidence and absolutely no guarantees as to the secret formula for aging well. But my money’s on a balanced approach that combines the vigorous and the gentle. In this approach, yoga is not about trying to improve or impress, but more importantly, to maintain. Whatever I can do today, I want to be able to do tomorrow, next month, next year, next decade. 

It takes a delicate balance to figure out when to push yourself and when to take it easy on the mat. Too strict an approach and you’re likely to injure yourself or burn out; too lax and you’ll gradually lose ground.  

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Think of the last time you practiced a long hold in chair pose. In order to build muscle strength you need to hold the pose until you begin to feel some sensation in your legs, but if you go too deep or hold too long, you’ll probably hold your breath, create unnecessary tension, or even strain yourself.  

Chair is a love-it or hate-it pose for most yoga students. I used to be a chair hater, mostly because the pose was hard for me, but eventually I realized that if I wanted to stay strong and mobile as I age, any pose that’s hard should become my best friend. Now, even in my gentle yoga classes, I sequence in gentle strengthening poses and incorporate a little bit of challenge into every practice (interspersed with plenty of delicious restorative moments).  

Here’s a cool scientific tidbit: Strength, especially leg strength, has recently been proven to be an important factor in improving brain health and slowing age-related decline. And there’s plenty of evidence touting the benefits of triggering the body’s relaxation response to reduce the chronic impact of stress on the body and mind. 

Scientific studies (and awesome grandmas) are giving us the formula. We just need to implement it: work a little, relax a little, aaahhh a little. 

So how can you bring your own practice more into balance?  

You don’t have to ditch your favorite class or completely overhaul your approach. But you may want to take an honest look at whether your yoga practice is just improving upon your strengths and ignoring your weaknesses? 

Maybe you crave the muscle burn from a long hold in warrior I, but when it’s time to lie still in savasana you want to crawl out of your skin. Or on the other hand, perhaps you’re the person who just “comes for the savasana” and barely tolerates anything more vigorous than that.  

Observe the yogi that you are today and consider adding either a new class that focuses on the opposite approach, or simply challenge yourself to fully embrace the parts of your favorite class that are particularly hard for you. There are no guarantees, of course, but my hunch is that rounding your yoga out will serve you well as you age. 

May we all live to be spunky 90+ year-olds who bend down to pick up lint off the floor; may we learn when to challenge ourselves and when to soften; and may we use our yoga practice for the good of our aging selves, so we can unload the dishwasher without pain rather than waking up one day and wondering how our bodies have suddenly, over the course of so many years, betrayed us.

 

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Within moments after bringing the kids home from camp, dragging myself and two drawstring bags stuffed full of swim suits, towels, sunscreen, water bottles, and lunchboxes through the front door, it began. 

“Can you help me find my baseball glove, Mom?”

“I want to watch TV!”

“Mom, can I have a snack?” (A favorite in our family. I’ve always suspected that when my kids see me coming to pick them up they imagine me as a big, juicy, steaming chicken drumstick.)

With each pull at my pant leg and each subsequent question, even when asked politely, I could sense my hulk-style evolution towards Mean Mommydom. My answers got unnecessarily curt and I gritted my teeth so as not to blurt out, “Just leave me alone!”

I wanted to be a mom so desperately in the years before my kids were born. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and wondering what it would feel like to have a baby, my baby, in my arms. What I was unprepared for was the intensity of the wanting on the other end, too.

Even as they’re gradually becoming more independent at 8 and 5, my children want a lot of me. They often still need full body contact in the form of cuddles, hugs, and kisses; they want to tell me about something unfair that happened at camp that day or ask me for help opening a new package of art supplies. I’m totally on board with this, most of the time.

But sometimes the wanting overwhelms me. After spending the bulk of my day working and going through the various routines to take care of my family’s needs, at the end of the day it can seem that there’s nothing left for me.

After my Gentle Yoga class a few weeks ago, one of my wonderful, thoughtful students said, “I feel so taken care of in your class. It made me wonder – who takes care of you?”

I hugged her and nearly cried because it’s the same question that had popped into my head that very morning as I was on my mat.

Taking care – of children, aging parents, spouses, friends – can be demanding, but harder still is consistently making time for self-care. Why are the needs of others so obvious, so impossible to ignore? Who, finally, will take care of you?

b2ap3_thumbnail_your-mask-first.jpgWe’ve all heard it before: put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

But there’s something important missing from that advice.

Once you’ve put the child’s mask on and he’s out of danger, there’s no need to be a martyr and take yours off. You don’t have to wait for another crisis to put yours back on again.

Of course there will be moments when the needs of those in your care necessarily (but temporarily) overtake your own. Whether your child comes home with a hurt (physical or emotional), your aging parent takes a turn for the worse, or a friend is going through a crisis and needs your support, sometimes the needs of others are intense and urgent and it’s a wonderful thing to be the one who is able to take care.

But when the immediate needs pass, what do you do? Do you find a way to make up for your overextension, or do you keep yourself perpetually in caretaking mode, resentful of the fact that there never seems to be enough time for you?

Any day when I practice yoga, sit for meditation, take a run, walk, bike ride, swim, connect with a good friend, or go to bed early with a good book, I’m doing what no one else can do for me. I leave the proverbial oxygen mask on for a good long time. I breathe in, replenish, and smile. I breathe out and answer for myself that essential question: who takes care of me? I do.

As the kids continue to bustle with post-camp questions and requests, I know they just want me to put on their masks, to help them come down from the day. But right now, after a late night spent working to make up for an afternoon of extra playtime at the park, my mask needs to come first.

“Guys,” I say, crouching down to their level, breathing deeply and feeling Mean Mommy melt a bit. “I just need five minutes with no one asking me for anything. Okay?”

They look at me for a moment, then nod. They’ve heard this before and though it’s not their first choice, they’ll do their best. My five-year-old daughter waits a whole minute before starting to ask me for something, then catches herself and stops mid-sentence. I hug her and feel taken care of.

After the five minutes are up I switch gears and let myself be needed again. Then when they go to bed, I pretend I’m my own mother and have a short debate with myself about the choice between work and sleep. I imagine how beautiful it would feel to heed rather than fight my droopy eyelids, and crawl into bed shortly after.

The next morning after I drop them off at camp, rather than immediately launching into battle with my email, rather than ripping off the mask, I bring myself to my mat for a gentle yoga practice. I move consciously and breathe deeply, because no one else can do it for me.

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Posted by on in Health

Over the past week both of my kids have been sick and, as a result, home from school. I also had a ton of work to do and deadlines to meet at the same time, which made for an interesting few days.

Let me set the scene: I'm at my computer, the kids are playing in their room with Legos. All is going well for five whole minutes when I hear escalating voices arguing over who had to play with the headless Lego guy. I'm trying to finish an email but also need to address this very real and very important issue of Lego guys without heads and the fairness of whether brother or sister must be the one who gets stuck with said Lego guy. I get them settled and then return to my work, getting into a groove this time, only to be interrupted 15 minutes later by requests to watch television. I hold out for a while, but after 20 more minutes of whining I decide that this is an okay time to give in.

I push through some more work and after 30 minutes I hear screams from the other room. I dash in, thinking someone has vomited again or is mortally wounded, only to find that the show is over and they would like to watch another one.

I allow them one more show (let's be honest, I give myself the gift of 30 more minutes of uninterrupted work time) and fairly sprint back to my office to make the most of each of those thirty minutes.

For the first few days of my work-from-home-with-sick-kids routine, I was just plan grumpy. I felt the tiniest bit resentful of my children for choosing this particular week to get sick, when I had so many deadlines and such a profound need to be at the studio. But when they were sad and sickly and spilling bodily fluids all over the place, I realized that this was not their doing, it was not their fault, it was not my fault, it was not anyone's fault. It just was.

Recognizing that there was nothing I could do about it and no one to blame helped a lot. It didn't change the situation, it didn't buy me more work time, it didn't make them get better more quickly, but it changed how I felt about the whole thing. I surrendered a bit, gave up fighting, gave up the quest for control over my time, and notified my colleagues that deadlines would have to be extended. Instead of pushing, yelling, resenting, I decided to cozy up on the couch with my kids, a blanket, and some books, and just surrender to the situation as it was.

Though it wasn't easy to do, this surrendering felt very familiar, comforting even. Surrender is a lot of what I practice on the mat these days, particularly when it comes to my gentle yoga practice and teaching. I love how in a gentle or restorative yoga pose the emphasis is not on muscling through and making things happen, but rather on giving up effort and resistance, and practicing contentment rather than striving.

Though it would seem that relaxation should be easy, that it should be our natural state, in our busy culture relaxation actually requires significant effort and discipline. There is a particular skill in learning to release effort on a physical and mental level, and the process allows you to become more efficient in the most therapeutic and nurturing way. Conscious relaxation and surrender is a way of embrace the idea that this moment is enough, you are enough.

The other day in my gentle class I led students into reclining bound angle pose on a rolled blanket (insert picture). The blanket runs along the length of the spine and when you initially lie down there's a tendency to resist to lift away from the support. It's a little bit like the princess and the pea at first. 'What's this inconvenience beneath me?' you wonder. The muscles on the back of your body tense and prevent the release of your shoulders towards the floor. Your hips also hold on a bit, preventing that lovely opening that you crave in this pose.

I guided the students to progressively relax into this new sensation (we usually practice this pose on the bolster, which feels quite different). Gradually, with patience and concentration, they were able to access this state of surrender rather than resistance, they gave into the blanket rather than wishing it wasn't there, and thus they were in the moment rather than in the 'what I wish could be.' The result of their discipline and effort was a deep relaxation of body and mind that was visible as a watched from the front of the room.

My kids are mostly healthy now and I'm thrilled, for many reasons. They are back to their sweet, playful selves, there are no more messes to clean up, they are back in school, and I am back at work. But I take with me this newfound appreciation for surrender, both at work and at home. When the day is eaten up by meetings and conversations and I'm not able to get to some of the heads-down work I need to get to, instead of being frustrated I acknowledge that is what needed to happen that day, appreciate it for what it is, and know that when I come back tomorrow there will be time to get the other stuff done.

Most of all, surrendering is about taking yourself less seriously. The world does not stop if these emails aren't sent out today, the walls don't come crashing down if I return that phone call tomorrow instead. Surrender is freedom, and all of this almost makes me grateful for childhood stomach bugs. Almost.

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Posted by on in Yoga

As 10, then 15, then 20 students rolled through the door for my Gentle Yoga class yesterday morning, I felt like all was right in the yoga world.

It used to be that Gentle Yoga was stigmatized, the redheaded stepchild of yoga offerings. Injured? Go to Gentle. Over 60? Go to Gentle. Looking for an "easier" practice? You get the picture.

But as evidenced by the diverse and dedicated group of students who show up to move and breathe with me on Wednesdays at 10:30am, word is spreading
that Gentle Yoga is a deep, therapeutic, satisfying practice, and as my students and I regularly note, it's far from easy.



What does Gentle Yoga look like?



It depends on the day, the class time, the students who show up, and what their needs are. But the essential components remain the same regardless of those other variables. Gentle Yoga means a commitment to a slower approach to the practice, and one that emphasizes supported poses and poses that are done on the floor. Though it's possible to practice standing poses in a gentle way, the bulk of the sequence is usually in seated, kneeing, supine, or prone positions. We don't bang out a bunch of traditional sun salutations, though I will occasionally use a half sun salute to align movement and breath. Props play a big role in gentle practice, and we typically incorporate at least a few restorative poses throughout the course of the class. The slower pace of a gentle class affords the student time to luxuriate in a conscious breath and to pay attention to the details of alignment, all of which results in a deeply calming and re-energizing practice.

Gentle Yoga can be a very meditative practice because it is focused more on being in the pose rather than on the flowing transitions from one pose to another as is typically emphasized in vinyasa-style classes. The practice prioritizes mobility and support rather than pushing for strength and flexibility, and it provide students a space to listen to their own needs and practice accordingly.

Seated spinal twist

In the past few years, Bloom has grown our Gentle Yoga class offerings from one class a week to eight and have delighted in hearing the wonderful stories from gentle students who've experienced increased range of motion, reduction of pain, and overall enhanced feelings of well-being. Our students range in age from 25 - 75+ and they come for a variety of reasons, such as a need to slow down and be more 'grounded,' to provide a counterpose to their other physical activities or the stresses of work and family life, or to relieve discomfort from anything from typical aches and pains to injuries and medical conditions. There is no 'typical' gentle student, but they almost all share one thing in common: they are fully present whether we're doing a simple head circle or seated spinal twist.


To me, Gentle practice embodies the essence of Yoga and is the answer to moving yoga beyond just another form of exercise to be something far more therapeutic and holistic.

Supported child's pose

After class the other day, one of my students was remarking at how surprising it was that a floor-based gentle could feel so deep and so challenging. In many ways, moving more slowly, paying close attention to alignment and breath, and keeping the mind engaged despite the lack of flashy poses to focus on, makes for a much deeper experience on the mat, and one that translates well into the challenges of daily life.

The philosophy behind Gentle Yoga makes so much sense when taking the long view of yoga. I want to be practicing (and teaching!) when I'm 85, so each time I step on the mat I need to be reminded that I'm in it for the long haul. Does it particularly matter if I do a million sun salutes or the trickiest arm balances? Will a super vigorous class keep me healthy as I age, or might my practice better serve me if it's focused on maintaining mobility, stability, balance, and relaxation?

As yogis, we all face continuing evolution in our practice. I began as a vigorous practitioner and have gradually refined over the years to come to a place of greater balance between active practice and a softer approach. Gentle Yoga is a natural place to cultivate balance on the mat because the goals of the practice are less pointed and the experience is more spacious.

If you are a loyal practitioner of this beautiful practice, you're in good company! If you've never tried Gentle Yoga, I encourage you to give it another look and consider what may be in store for you if you slow things down on the mat.

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