Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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I’m delighted to be able to answer a question from a reader this month! And it’s a good one – a small detail that holds greater significance. If you’ve tried to launch a home practice, you’ve probably pondered this same question. I know I did!

Here it is: “Can I leave my mat unrolled all the time in the spot where I practice, or would I would lose some kind of meditative energy by not doing the unrolling/rolling ritual?”

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Yogis are all about the mat. As an asana practitioner your mat is your home base, so it makes sense that it all starts there. But is there greater significance to the physical act of rolling out your mat before practice?

When you head to your friendly neighborhood yoga studio, there are certain rituals involved with getting ready for class: upon walking through the doors you’re greeted with a smile, you remove your shoes, set aside your personal belongings, and silence your phone. Then you choose a spot in the inviting yoga room, consciously roll out your mat, settle into your first pose, and exhale the stresses of your day. 

There’s something about the complete process from hello to rolling out the mat that’s like a Pavlovian response for yogis (Pav-yogian response?). It’s your signal that it’s okay to shift gears from your usual to-dos and obligations for the designated period you’re going to spend in class. Your mat becomes your refuge, and the act of rolling it out is your promise to yourself: now is the time to take good care.

But when you’re trying to start practicing at home, without the built-in aah factor a studio environment brings, is it better to leave your mat out for easy yoga access any time of day, or is the ritual of “rolling out the mat” essential for creating a mindful environment?

The answer to this question is as varied as the aspiring home practitioner who asks it.

I struggled for years before being able to consistently make yoga happen in a satisfying way outside the bounds of my favorite studio classes, and I’ve approached the mat question from a variety of angles: I’ve stashed my rolled mat in the closet so it wouldn’t clutter my space (inconvenient), left my mat unrolled in the middle of my bedroom so it would inspire me to practice (didn’t work + tripping hazard), and even gone so far as to set up a designated yoga corner complete with my yoga books open and props carefully stacked on top of the mat to look extra inviting (too much pressure). 

My home practice started working when I stopped making such a big deal out of it. When yoga was too important, too sacred, too perfect, I could never bring myself to try it at home because I couldn’t live up to my own expectations for what it would look like.

I made home practice my friend when I let it be 20 minutes of gentle yoga in my pajamas first thing in the morning, or 15 minutes of strengthening asana while my big kids were having a nerf gun war around me, or 10 minutes of legs-up-the-crib on the thick baby blue carpet in my 1-year old daughter’s room after an early morning wake-up.

When I am able to carve out 30-60 minutes for a more formal, conventional practice, I personally prefer the intentionality of rolling out my mat and setting up my props each time I practice. I like the mindful act of neatly folding blankets, rolling up my mat and strap, and nestling my bolster into the wicker basket that (mostly) contains my props.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with leaving your mat out all the time, but beware: if you’re feeling a need to keep your mat out to encourage (read: force) yourself to practice, you may be yoga-bullying yourself. 

Yes, the act of rolling out the yoga mat may bring you into a mindful space that will be more conducive to practice. But also remember to practice mindfulness and self-compassion each time you roll the mat out, then roll it back up, deciding you really ought to reorganize your filing system instead. 

Home practice is a lifelong endeavor, and one that must necessarily adapt based on your current circumstances. There have been times in my life when I was a dedicated 6-days-a-week home yoga practitioner. Right now, for a variety of reasons (ahem….1 year old!), my home practice is happening in a structured way a few times a week, with mini yoga breaks on other days.

There are many ways to approach home practice, mat rolling and otherwise. My best advice is to be gentle with yourself and remember it typically takes many, many failed attempts to make home practice stick. Part of your yoga practice can be learning to listen well enough to find the approach that works best for you at this moment of your life.

Well, that was fun! Thanks for the question, dear reader. And thanks to you for reading.

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While driving out to the suburbs for a cousin’s birthday party a few weeks ago, I readied my answer to the quintessential kid-in-the-car question. Depending on my mood, my answer can be compassionately accurate (“It’ll be a while – maybe another 30 minutes”) or sassily sarcastic (“I hope we’ll make it by dinnertime tomorrow”).

As an adult, I’ve grown out of needing to continually wonder when we will arrive at our destination, mostly thanks to Google Maps, but also because I’ve come to realize that life is a journey and blah, blah, blah. But when I’m not in one of my sassy moods, I can completely empathize with my kids’ question, both because I was an “Are we there yet?” kid myself, and also because I still get that same sort of unease during in-between moments as an adult.

My family is moving back to our house in a matter of days. We’ve been out for a year while renovations were being done, during which time we also welcomed our newest family member. So it’s been a full year, to say the least.

b2ap3_thumbnail_InBetween_20160428-142745_1.jpgOur life right now is boxes, tape, and Sharpies; it’s deciding what to keep, what to find a new home for, and what to donate; it’s not being able to find some crucial something that has inexplicably been packed away too early despite our best efforts at strategic packing plans (why did I think I wouldn’t need my yoga props this week??!?!?).

This is an uncomfortable place to be. Not really because of the boxes and the not finding stuff, although that’s certainly part of it. More because we’re not really here, and not really there. We’re nowhere. In-between.

Yesterday, despite the fact that there’s still plenty of packing to do, I needed to make time for yoga. And of course I couldn’t find my mat, so I just rolled myself out on the hardwood floor.

Lying on my back, I contemplated the in-between, practicing being comfortable there. I began to deepen my breath. I practiced being completely there to watch the way my rib cage expanded to accommodate the breath, and on the exhalation I practiced letting go of the effort of breathing. With my eyes closed, accompanied by my familiar friend the breath, I was at home, despite my bare, boxed surroundings.

At the top of a deep inhalation, I paused for a moment. There I was – not in the inhale, not in the exhale. I was hanging out in some other place, a quiet state where I could feel my hearbeat, a pulse in my belly. I took a long, slow exhalation and paused at the bottom, noticing a feeling of emptiness, of grounding, and a slight panic: is this enough? will I ever inhale again? Of course, it’s okay, I soothed. And then the cycle began again.

Life is full of these in-between moments, in big and small ways. There are job changes, times of illness or loss, relationship shifts, welcoming a baby, and of course, the ever fun home renovations and moves.

These moments are when we need to rely on some kind of inner sense of home, a strength that helps us feel unshakable even on unfamiliar ground. For me that means yoga, and my breath specifically. It’s the constant, the thing that has been with me from the day I was born, a tool I’ve learned to wield as a yoga-practicing adult, and it will be my daily companion until the day I die. 

Over the years, I’ve been here, I’ve been there, I’ve been in-between. I know I won’t have time to roll out my mat (if I could even find it….) on moving day. The truck comes at 8am and we’ll be going non-stop until we fall into bed in our new environment with all its unfamiliar sounds. But fortunately my breath doesn’t need to be packed away, so I’ll know just where to find my yoga that day.

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After missing my beloved Mom & Baby Yoga class today because a certain 8-month-old someone decided to take a 2.5 hour power nap, I was faced with the classic yogi’s dilemma. The day’s self-care hopes were riding on that class and though life got in the way of me getting there, I still really needed yoga. I cycled through the familiar stages of home practice denial:

I’ll just do a 75-minute class at home while my baby girl plays contentedly nearby!  

First I’d better just make sure there’s nothing urgent in the old inbox.

I can’t concentrate with those dishes dangerously piled up in the sink.

Look at the time! Maybe I can squeeze a practice in later.

It’s remarkably easy to rationalize your way out of self-care. If it seems like there’s always something else competing for your attention, that’s because there is. Just like your thoughts never completely stop when you meditate, everyday life stuff doesn’t take a day off just because you’re trying to make time to do something good for yourself.

I’ve been in the self-care game for 20 years now, so I know my “tells” backwards and forwards at this point. As the clock kept ticking and my school pick-up deadline loomed, I got grumpy over the fact that my chances for a full practice were slipping away. I moped about how blah I felt for a little while, debated an outfit change so my yoga clothes would stop mocking my lack of yogaing, then tried to flash forward to consider how I’d feel at pick-up time based on the choice I was about to make in that moment.b2ap3_thumbnail_YogaTime.jpg

Sometimes a few deep breaths are enough to get me through the blahs. But on this particular day, I needed to work out some serious kinks. Every one of my muscles craved warmth and work, and my spine needed to remember that it’s more than the sum of all its articulating parts. I’m normally a super slow warmer-upper, and I now only had 25 minutes before I needed to leave to pick up the kids. Was it even worth rolling out my mat?

I decided not to waste another moment wondering.

I set a timer for 25 minutes and got to work. I skipped the long lead-in and managed to roll many of my favorite warm-ups into the active work of the practice. Each grateful breath I took reinforced that this was way, way better than killing 25 minutes on email or clean-up (or worse, email clean-up). 

Accompanied by the soundtrack of my chattering daughter, I managed to condense and focus my practice to build all the way up to full wheel pose, and it was glorious. I kept checking the clock to so I’d have enough time to wind down and get a brief savasana in. Afterwards I opened my eyes, stretched from fingers to toes, and rolled over to sit up. Those 25 minutes felt completely different than if I had let the to-dos of daily life just fill up that time.

It’s weird that my concept of “what I have time for” varies based on the activity. Why is it that I can always, always squeeze in computer stuff? But somehow self-care activities seem like they’ll take longer than my available window of time?

So here’s my new practice: rather than conceptualizing time in terms of a number of available minutes, I’ll picture them in terms of potential yoga practices. As in, I have a viparita karani until I need to go pick up the kids, or I have 5 sun salutes before my meeting. 

I’ll keep on scheduling yoga classes into my calendar and hopefully life (aka a sweet baby) won’t too often sabotage, but it feels good to remember that a missed class isn’t a completely missed yoga opportunity. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I only have a few deep breaths before it’s time to start dinner.

 

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“This is hard,” I think as I’m shaking my way through a few breaths in plank pose. “It shouldn’t be this hard.” b2ap3_thumbnail_PlankPose.jpg

It’s been 9 months since I’ve fully practiced plank (other than the few brief big bellied demos I did because I’d forget I was pregnant while teaching), and I’m feeling it. My core is struggling so my wrists and low back seem to be bearing the brunt of the work, and a scared little voice in my head (my ego, perhaps?) warns that maybe I’ll never get back to where I was with my physical practice.

Yoga philosophy tells me I should cultivate beginner’s mind, but at the moment, almost two months after giving birth to baby #3, I’m completely wrapped up in the practice of beginner’s body. I’ve been here many times since I came to yoga 19 years ago – after injuries, after a lapse in practice, after pregnancy and birth – and each time I go into it with trepidation and impatience. “How long will it take?” I wonder. “I just want to be back to where I was.”

Five, ten, twenty planks from now, I know things will get easier. But ugh, do I really have to be present for all the awkward, shaky attempts between now and then? I’m reluctant to admit it, but it hurts my pride. I was religious about my modified practice throughout my pregnancy and I started gentle yoga again a few weeks after baby girl was born. Didn’t all that work earn me the right to just pick up where I left off?

Once I quiet my inner whiny yogi, I remember that strength comes and goes gradually. Just because I pop into a pose and demand my old abilities back, that doesn’t mean my body will instantly comply.  It took 9 months of not practicing plank to get to where I am now, so I can guess it’ll probably be at least another 9 months until I get back to feeling pre-baby strong again.

This is not about “getting my body back” or dropping that last 10 pounds of baby weight or fitting into my old jeans (though I won’t be sad when it’s time to say goodbye to maternity denim). Coming back to an active practice after having some time away is an opportunity to renew my love affair with yoga, to remember the joy, challenge, and possibilities I felt as a beginner.

My mantra on the mat today is “I am not my plank pose.” I place a blanket on the floor for a knees-down plank and my core, wrists, and back sigh a thank you for listening. I have my whole life to practice the full pose and although it can be frustrating to have limitations, they’re also sparks for new experiences. 

When I’m pressed for time in my home practice, it’s normally so easy for me to go on autopilot and just whisk through the same old sequences. But because there are certain places I can’t go yet (hello flowing sequence of full sun salutes), I’m getting creative with riffs on the half sun salute, I’m practicing more seated poses, and viparita karani (legs up the wall) is my new best friend, again.

A beginner’s body practice requires chaperoning by a gentle and forgiving beginner’s mind. 

My body feels heavier and less certain in down dog. I remind myself the pose is not the point and tap into a child-like joy at getting to go upside down again. 

I’m still lacking the strength and stability to even think about attempting navasana (boat pose). I lie on my back and breathe deeply, enjoying the sensation of my navel pulling in with each exhale.

“This is hard,” I tell myself. “As hard as it should be.”

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As a yoga teacher and studio owner, friends often guiltily confess to me how long it’s been since their last yoga class, or profess that this will be the week (or month or year) they’re finally going to commit to taking yoga regularly.

The conversation usually goes something like this: “Every time I go to class, I feel great afterwards. But I just can’t seem to fit it into my weekly schedule. I’m so bad.”

Can you relate?

I certainly can. It’s frustrating to desperately want to do something good for yourself, only to continually watch as other things get in the way.

Yoga was my introduction to the concept of self-care. There’s something powerful about the practice of getting quiet and still and paying attention to what’s happening on a moment-to-moment basis in your body and mind. The more time I spent on my mat, the better I was able to understand myself and my needs. In the time since I began practicing yoga 18 years ago, I’ve experienced a complete shift in how I look at the time and money I spend caring for my body and mind, and I’ve made self-care an important part of my vocabulary and my daily life.b2ap3_thumbnail_Massage-with-text.jpg

If 18 years of self-care trial and error have taught me anything, it’s this: though we profess to want to take better care of ourselves (whether that means incorporating yoga, massage, exercise, reading, hobbies, or some other self-care routine into a weekly schedule), just wanting to do it isn’t enough.

Most self-care routines are destined to fail right from the start, no matter how many times you hear yourself talking to friends about wanting to make it happen. I’m grateful to have an established self-care routine at this stage in my life, and I know I wouldn’t have been able to swing these past 10 years of being a business owner and a mom without it. But it didn’t happen without lots of thought, effort, and continued rededication to the cause after losing my way day after day, year after year.

Self-care is no accident. To increase your chances of sticking to the routine, ask yourself these five questions first:

1. Do I deserve it?
This is a biggie. In order to have any hope for sustaining a self-care routine in the long term, you first need to get honest with yourself. Unless you believe you really deserve to feel good, your self-care routine doesn’t stand a chance.

Say it with me: “Taking care of myself is not a treat, a splurge, or an indulgence.” Self-care is a necessity (particularly if you spend much of your days caring for others), and it’s a desperately undervalued but basic survival skill of successful adults.

2. What am I willing to give up to make it happen?
It all comes down to math. If there are a finite number of hours in the week (and unfortunately there are), and you’re already filling all available weekly hours with various activities – eating, sleeping, working, commuting, caring for children or pets, watching TV, keeping caught up with the latest Facebook happenings, and so on – something’s gotta give. You can’t insert a new routine into hours that are already spoken for. That means you’ll need to give serious thought to your current time allocation to decide what you’re willing to part with in order to make time for yourself.

I’ll schedule a yoga class into my calendar just as I would a meeting so that it becomes a priority for me to attend. Give your self-care routine a presence in your calendar like you would for any other daily or weekly obligation, and resist the temptation to let other things encroach on that time.

3. What strategies have I used to successfully integrate other routines into my day?
You’ve already mastered the skill of sticking to a variety of routines on a daily basis. You likely brush your teeth a couple times each day (maybe you even floss for extra credit), eat 3 meals at approximately the same time each day, and if you have kids or pets or even plants, you’re able to do all of that PLUS manage the routine needs of another living thing, too.

Consider what has enabled you to make those routines successful. You identified the need, found a time in your day when you could consistently stop other things to focus on the routine, and then you just had to commit to doing it again and again.

When it comes to starting a self-care routine, it’s easy to start out strong. Then you miss a few days due to unforeseen circumstances (work, family stuff, or just plain busyness), and the whole plan seemingly flies out the window.

But think about it: if you accidentally miss brushing your teeth one night, you don’t just decide to never go back to brushing again (or at least I hope you don’t). You start the routine over the very next day. Self-care routines work the same way.

You will have slip-ups, days or even weeks where you just can’t make your self-care routines happen. Expect it to happen, acknowledge it, adjust your schedule if needed, and then remind yourself it’s important and recommit.

4. How can I make it easier on myself?
Imagine what it looks like to take good care of yourself. Close your eyes and picture where your self-care routine takes place. What do you need in order to make it happen? Self-care routines that are inconvenient or unpleasant are sure to be short-lived, so consider what you could do to take away any barriers that may exist.

When I was trying to solidify my home yoga practice, I always felt like it took me a while to figure out where to practice and to find my mat and props, and it became an excuse to not get on the mat at all. Once I found a lovely wicker basket to organize my props right next to my practice space, that barrier was gone and it made it way easier to get on the mat.

Since Bloom opened 10 years ago, I’ve been scheduling monthly massages and they’ve helped me manage what used to be a chronic neck problem. I love massage and it’s certainly no chore receiving a session, but I’ve made it easier on myself by setting up a reoccurring reminder in my calendar to book an appointment each month. That way, I don’t have remember when it’s time to book again. I just schedule, enjoy, and repeat.

5. Am I willing to stop apologizing for taking care of myself?

Self-care comes in many forms. For some people it means making 15 minutes each morning to sit in a comfy chair with a hot cup of tea before the rest of the household wakes up. For some it’s getting a pedicure and reading a magazine. For others it’s taking a yoga class or going for a run or getting a massage. It doesn’t matter what your routine is, what’s important is that it’s something that makes you feel better.

Imagine you were in the midst of your self-care routine and you ran into a friend. Would your first tendency be to apologize or to rationalize the indulgence of taking time just for yourself?

If so, I encourage you to explore what it would feel like to completely own your decision to care for yourself and to say goodbye to apologizing for feeling great. It’s empowering, liberating, and it may inspire others to similarly own their self-care routines. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone took better care of themselves….

Here’s to your health and a consistent self-care routine that makes you feel at your best!

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