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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Any new parent can tell you of the importance of tummy time for healthy spinal development. The evolution of the human spine is an incredible thing, but the 'devolution' of the spine that occurs in adults who spend too much time hunched in front of a computer is frightening. I'm here today to say it: adults need tummy time, too. And yoga can provide it!

At birth, humans have a single C-shaped curve, and it is only in the first few months of life that the first secondary curve of the cervical spine develops. Tummy time is an important way that babies develop the strength and ability to hold their heads up, and thus create the curve of the cervical spine. The next secondary curve of the lumbar spine develops as a child learns to creep and crawl.
 
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Imagine your posture after you've been sitting in front of a computer for hours. You're tired of sitting and your back is achy, so you slump back in your chair. But then you can't see the screen very well so you find yourself leaning closer and closer. Your chin juts forward, the cervical and lumbar curves are reduced to the point where the spine more closely resembles a c-shape than the s-shape it should be in a healthy adult. Prolonged bouts of sitting in this manner may lead to a profound loss in strength in the core muscles of the body (think support system for the spine rather than "abs of steel"), resulting in a loss of the ability to access, much less maintain, the good posture we developed as active toddlers.

What to do?
 
Consider the humble backbend known as salabhasana, locust pose. Or as I've come to think of it lately, tummy time for grown-ups. I was recently watching a sweet little yogi who hadn't yet learned to crawl, and the ease with which he lifted his head and his legs was delightful. How many of us as adults can find that same ease in this pose on the yoga mat?
 
b2ap3_thumbnail_SeatedBackbend.jpgFor years, I avoided locust pose in my practice because it was so hard to lift my legs, arms, and upper body simultaneously. But as I know now, it was hard precisely because I avoided it (and needed it so badly). So I've been treating myself like a baby by doing daily tummy time and it's working like a charm. My core muscles are stronger and the pose is getting easier. It's gotten to the point where my body craves the simple, strengthening backbend that locust pose provides. 
 
You can even practice a seated variation right in your chair to help reset your posture and re-energize your body and mind. It's the antidote to sitting and slouching in front of a computer and it will remind you to breathe more deeply and sit up straighter!

The bad news: All the time you spend hunched in front of a computer may be detrimental to your health and may be contributing to the 'devolution' of your spine as depicted by our poor friend in the first image above.

The good news: You don't need to squirm and cry through the recommended 10-20 minutes of daily tummy time that a baby does. Start small and keep it simple. Integrate a simple backbend into your day, become more aware of your posture when you're sitting at your desk, take frequent breaks to get up, walk around, and get you out of your seated slump. There's even an app for that - you can download software that will provide you with timed reminders to get up and stretch every so often.

It seems simple, but a minor change in your daily habits may hold great potential for better back health and comfort. At first it will seem hard, but there's no need to be a baby about it: when you make time for tummy time, your back will most definitely thank you!

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