Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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Can you imagine what your day would look like if you paid as much attention to your own battery levels as you did your phone’s?

Two weeks ago when my kids were home and our family was living in the limbo between summer activities and the start of school, I’d play outside with them for much of the day, compensating by shifting my workday to the post-bedtime hours. After a few late nights I was feeling run down and somewhat Mean Mommy-ish, but every evening I’d still find myself at my desk as the clock ticked past midnight. No matter how late I had stayed up, before I shut off the light and called it quits for the day I’d always double check that my phone was plugged in.

The battery on my phone predictably dies within a day, even when I haven’t used it. It’s been this way since I got the new phone six months ago, so after it died on me once or twice I noted the issue and have remained vigilant about checking my battery and recharging as needed. (Another approach would have been to just buy another battery, but that’s the subject of another post.)

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The sight of my fully charged phone – that proud green bar with a powerful little lightning bolt – makes me feel ready for anything that life throws at me. As the hours wear on and the battery level goes down, I check the battery display obsessively, worried about getting to the piddly yellow band or (gasp!) the dreaded red stripe accompanied by that terrible beep that signals the near-end of my phone battery’s life.

Without consciously setting rules, over the past few months I’ve adopted an unspoken method for keeping my phone juiced up. If my battery is more than halfway charged, I leave it alone for the day knowing it’ll be okay until I can charge it up overnight. If it’s less than halfway charged I strategize, no matter where I am, to figure out when and where I can plug it in. In extreme cases if I know there won’t be a recharging opportunity for a while, I’ll often just shut the phone off to conserve its precious energy.

When I consider the gymnastics I put myself through for this device (particularly considering that I’m anything but phone-obsessed), it seems laughable. I rationalize it because as a mom with young children and a business owner I rely on my phone, and these are the hard-and-fast rules it presents me. There’s no bargaining for just a few more minutes so I can finish a text message to let my husband know my phone is dying and we’ll be staying at the park for a while longer, or to call back a client who wants to know more about bringing yoga to her workplace.

I really never thought much about this recharging craziness until my friend and colleague Lisa Sandquist mentioned the idea in the context of restorative yoga, noting the irony of how vigilant we are about phone and device recharging, when it never even occurs to most of us (even the yoga teachers among us – ahem!) to apply the same concept to our own energy levels.  I’ve unfortunately become an expert at taking myself beyond the red bar, deaf to my own terrible version of the beep that comes when I’m overtired and grouchy.

Since Lisa planted the seed, I’ve been pretending that I’m a device that must be adequately charged in order to function. On nights when I’m super tired, even if I have work to do I pretend that my battery doesn’t have an override setting. I pretend that there’s no dark chocolate waiting for me in the pantry to give me that boost to work till 2AM. Instead I lie down on the floor and throw my legs up the wall for 10 minutes.  I breathe deeply and acknowledge my tiredness rather than trying to push through or beyond it.

When I emerge from that 10-minute plug-in, I feel different. Not fully recharged (that only comes with a few nights of consistent good sleep), but nowhere near the yellow or red. I’m solidly in the green, and I approach everything that comes after that in my day differently. Some of the softness of my restorative yoga break comes with me as I decide how to spend my time, how to move, how to speak.

This calls for svadyaya, self-study!

If I can modify my phone plug-in behavior based on hourly checks of a quarter-inch green bar, I can certainly learn to look inward once or twice a day to determine whether my body/mind may be in need of a recharge for a few minutes.

Humans don’t come equipped with bright, shiny, LED screens or that terrifying low battery sound. But with the conscious practice of yoga and self-awareness, we can learn to see the signals almost as clearly as if they were green, yellow, or red bars. 

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With mindfulness and 'being present' all the rage these days, it's got me wondering: considering the fact that many of us can't even 'be present' while operating heavy machinery (the admitted rate of texting while driving is now 31%), the overemphasis on being mindful of every step, every bite, and every breath seems like a lot of unnecessary pressure. Do we really need one more impossible standard to measure up against?

I'm a firm believer in lowering expectations as a technique for removing some of the pressure and getting out of your own way. 

When a student asks me how to start practicing yoga at home, I tell them to pick their favorite pose and start with five minutes. They always look at me like I'm crazy, surprised that a yoga teacher and studio owner would suggest that something so small could make a difference. I relay the story about the years I spent not doing the daily 90-minute home practice I told myself I 'should' be doing. In my mind, my home practice loomed intimidatingly large. What I didn't realize was that if I turned that practice into a small moment, just one tiny piece of my day, I would be comfortable enough to get to my mat and be present for that brief time, and that would mean more than the most brilliant 90-minute home sequence I could imagine (but never actually do).

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Yoga is all about thinking little. The poses themselves are much like a string of little moments: the conscious placement of one foot to bisect the arch of the other, the slight softening behind a knee, breathing, extending, hinging and lightly placing a hand on a block or shin. Triangle is the big picture, it's what we call that string of little moments, but it's not just a shape or an arrival point. Triangle, like any yoga pose, is one chance after another to be present and practice mindfulness.

Sometimes that means popping out of the present moment to ponder that ever-important item you keep forgetting to add to your grocery list (sneaky yogurt!), but that pop-out moment is what the practice of 'being present' (and the practice of yoga) is all about. If you were in a sustained state of presence, well, you would be a baby. And you probably wouldn't have much need for attending a yoga class, although your mom or dad likely would.

Through the developmental stages there's more wiggle room for distraction and multi-tasking to enter into the picture, which makes little moments of presence all the more important and poignant.

I still remember one particular thunderstorm from a summer when I was little, maybe 6 or so. The storm itself was not particularly memorable. But as rain beat the screens of the high bank of windows in our family room where my mom and I had been watching television, the power went out. After a confused minute of trying every button on the remote, my mom picked up a balloon that was lying around (there always seemed to be balloons around our house when I was little, as my grandparents owned a balloon business), and we played 'keep it up' in the fading light. At first we batted the pink balloon back and forth casually, but soon we were diving, laughing, doing whatever it took to keep the balloon from touching the floor. 

It was a small moment in an otherwise very full childhood summer, and I'm sure my mom doesn't even remember it now, but to me it was big. It was a moment of pure presence and true love and companionship, a moment that transcended whatever terrible television show we were inside watching as the cicadas droned on outside. It was big because of its smallness.

I often wonder what my own children will reflect on as adults, what they'll remember of our days together in this sweet and messy time of early childhood. Will it be the silly poems we made up on the walk home from school, or the fact that I yelled at them to put their shoes away once we got home? Will they remember the sound of my voice singing 'Twinkle, Twinkle' as I stroked their hair after a bad dream, or will it be my dull, transparently distracted reply to their requests to help with an important project to cut circles from the centers of 20 pieces of construction paper?

As a parent, I've had to make peace with the fact that I will not be present in every moment, that sometimes I will lose my temper instead of patiently responding with a smile. For me, this takes the pressure off and gives me permission to forgive the Mean Mommy slip-ups so I can get back to having fun with my sweet littles. 

Both as a yoga practitioner and a mom, I take great joy in the little moments and practice forgiving the bigger slip-ups, knowing that sustained presence just isn't in the cards for any of us beyond toddlerdom. If my yoga practice tomorrow morning yields just one moment of recognition of the incredible experience of vitality throughout my spine as I hang in a forward fold, that will be enough. If I can lose myself in just one rowdy game of 'keep it up' with my kids this summer as my mom did with me when I was little, I'll consider it a summer well spent. I'll leave the big task of 'being present' to others. For now I'm thinking little.

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Posted by on in Yoga

It was a perfect Memorial Day weekend – my family and I played baseball in the backyard, followed by a rowdy game of tag at the park, a long bike ride (we ♥ Bike the Drive!), and wrapped it all up with a barbecue followed by a round of mini golf. We spent our days running, laughing, jumping, playing, and by Monday night I felt tired, but exquisitely alive.

Then Tuesday morning hit and as I kicked my legs over the side of the bed and stepped onto the hardwood floor, my body recoiled. Too much outdoor fun made for an achy morning after. When the warmer weather comes my family and I go a little bananas with the outdoor activities, and while it’s a relief from our comparatively less-active winter lifestyle, my body clearly needed something more than just activity.

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I creaked my way down to the living room floor to roll out my old friend, my yoga mat. As I stretched my hands forward into a satisfying child’s pose and rocked with my breath in cat-and-cow, I sighed in relief. By the time I rolled up from my first standing forward fold, my spine was tingling in the most incredible way. It was as if my whole body was breathing.

Then my husband walked in and the kids ran to sit on his lap, rubbing their sleepy eyes and watching me practice. “This yoga stuff is pretty amazing.” I said, unsurprised, for what was probably the 1000th time.

I’m a very physical person. Growing up I played softball, volleyball, or basketball nearly every day after school, and if I wasn’t in sports I was at dance class. As an adult it took me a while to realize it, but after paying attention to my habits for a few months I learned that my moods are closely correlated to both the amount of movement I get on a daily basis and how much time I spend outdoors. If I don’t get a good walk or bike ride, look out. Mean Mommy is likely to be just around the corner.

But the movement piece of my self-care routine (and Mean Mommy prevention regimen) is made up of two complementary components that are both opposites and integrally related to each other.

Especially given the fact that most adults (and sadly many kids, too) lead a very sedentary lifestyle – driving to work, taking the elevator, sitting at a desk all day, driving back home, and collapsing onto the couch – the warm weather and increase in activity level is a positive and very welcome change.

Isn’t it enough to just be a summer athlete? Do you really need yoga when the rest of your day has been so active already?

Playing outside in the summer works your body in unfamiliar ways. You’ve heard of the weekend warrior – consider the impact of the summertime warrior who suddenly becomes a 5K runner, a beach volleyball player, a triathlete, or a 16″ softball player just because the thermometer hovers above 80 degrees for a few weeks. How can the body handle this level of extremism without some negative consequence?

People often ask me if classes slow down at Bloom in the summer, expecting that as people go outside to exercise and enjoy some summer fun, they have less of a need for yoga.

But there are no summer tumbleweeds here! I think it’s because Bloom students realize yoga is not the same thing as exercise, and they don’t see it as an either/or proposition. Yoga is so much more than moving your body, so much more than stretching and strengthening, although those benefits are all part of the equation.

What I love about yoga, what’s kept me engaged with practice after 17 years (long after any fitness trend would have worn thin) is that it gives me a chance to slow down and pay attention to what’s going on on a body-mind-breath level. All the stuff I do on the mat is not the point, it’s the vehicle. Yoga practice gives me the tools to better know myself and my habits, and to better be able to identify and meet my needs as they arise, rather than overriding them.

Why would the need to pay attention and take better care of yourself stop just because it’s summer?

What I’ve seen at Bloom in the summertime inspires me. School teachers show up to daytime classes, summertime warriors mellow out in a Gentle class after a long run, workers with flexible schedules drop in on a Friday afternoon, friends catch some evening yoga before heading out to enjoy live music or dinner at a sidewalk cafe.

This is yoga practice at its best, this is the stuff that goes way beyond just knowing the proper foot alignment in warrior I or being able to recite the yamas and niyamas.

This is real people, in real life, making decisions about how to better care for themselves on a moment-to-moment basis.

And there it is. More tingling in my spine as I think about it. Only this time for different reasons.

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It was 3 o'clock on a hot summer afternoon, my kids were restless, and the insults were flying.

With every activity either a competition or an opportunity to put their sibling down, one yelled 'Stupid baby!' and the other responded with 'Shut up!' and then Mean Mommy swooped in. She raged and threatened time-outs all around, to no great effect. She waved her finger and made her voice as quietly vicious as she could but as most kids will do when offered meanness, they dished it right back. It seemed like it would never be bedtime, and it seemed like no one in the house would ever be happy again.

Summer's end is a a time that as a parent I both savor and dread, often within the same day. With so many 'lasts' to squeeze in - last trip to the beach, last leisurely family bike ride, last chance to catch an outdoor concert - the days are somewhat motivated by fear of not making the most of the beautiful weather and relaxed schedule.

And yet at times I guiltily feel an intense longing to return to the order of the school year. By the time August rolls around, many summer thrills no longer hold the same appeal that they held in June, and I crave an escape from the senseless bickering that occurs when the kids, because they can't find one thing to hold their attention, get at each other.
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I recently read an interesting article about a study that found smiling, even when you don't genuinely feel happy, can help reduce the effects of stress.

Cool fact from the article - there are two types of smiles: a 'standard' smile that just involves the muscles surrounding the mouth, and a 'genuine' or 'Duchenne' smile that also engages the muscles around the eyes. Turns out that even just muscling your way into a 'standard' smile, regardless of minor stresses, can lower your heart rate, make you feel better, and improve your health.

When Mean Mommy is raging, even if the kids say something cute or endearing, she usually refuses to budge from her meanness. But this one afternoon after the 3 o'clock showdown, because every other option had been exhausted, I forced my face into a 'standard' smile. When I smiled I exhaled a little longer, my jaw released, and my shoulders dropped. It seemed too simple, could a fake smile really be that powerful?

Smiling is softening, lightening. It's poison for Mean Mommy, even if it doesn't start out with any genuine happiness behind it. Mean Mommy is a gnarled, hardened creature who is just waiting for someone to tick her off. The smile derailed her train of rage just long enough for something new to set in. It was my job to decide what to put in place of the meanness.

Fueled by the power of my fake smile, I mustered up a joke and the kids giggled. And gradually the mean comments ceased and we fell into a playful mode of being together.

Meanness follows meanness, but contentment is contagious. The more I smiled, the happier the kids looked. And as their laughter grew, I felt my smile turning into something genuine, even 'Duchenne.'
 
b2ap3_thumbnail_Navasana.jpgI've been giving this fake smiling business a try on my yoga mat, too. Even after all these years of practicing, there are some poses that I can't say I genuinely like, poses that I tend to either avoid or grimace through. In my classes this week I've been encouraging students to make their yoga practice more advanced by smiling at times they would rather just curse me out for making them stay too long. Hello, navasana!
  
It's amazing how well it works. The tension that builds up from working hard in a challenging pose immediately dissipates once you smile. The principle is the same regardless of where you apply it: at home with the kids, when you're on a deadline at work, or when you're just working hard on the mat. It's common sense, I suppose. But it's always fun when science and common sense align.

Grin and bear it. Fake it till you make it. Whatever catchy phrase you use to remember it, know that just by deciding to smile you can help yourself to feel better. Look out, Mean Mommy.....

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Posted by on in Family

Mean Mommy was back for a quick visit to our house over the past few days. Fortunately, this morning it became clear that her residency was coming to a close. Before she skipped town, the Thinking Yogi decided to sit down with Mean Mommy to find out what makes her tick.

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Thinking Yogi: Mean Mommy, I'd love to pick your brain, to find out what exactly it is that puts the mean in the mommy. Can I ask you a few questions?

Mean Mommy: Yeah. But I'm busy, so make it quick.

TY: It had been a while since your last stay with us, but when you breezed in last weekend it was like you never left. What was the reason for your latest visit? Was it the fact that the kids were fighting and whining incessantly?

MM: Kids are brats. They fight and whine as a matter of course. The timing of my visit had nothing to do with them.

TY: What then?



MM: After all these years you still don't get it? Let me spell it out for you: If you're not getting enough sleep, I'll be there. If you're too busy at work, I'll be there. If you're feeling stressed, if you don't make time to eat well, move your body, and sprinkle in enough rest, I'll be there.

TY: But weren't the kids being especially difficult this past week? I mean, it can't all be about me, can it?

MM: You don't believe me? Try this little experiment next time I come to visit: change just one thing about your self-care routine (go to bed 30 minutes earlier, squeeze in a quick yoga session or get out for a run, spend some time sans kids), and see how much easier it is to tolerate the kids, stress at work, and other everyday irritations. I probably won't be around to see the results of your little experiment, but just know that wherever I am I'll be saying 'I told you so.'

TY: I'll definitely have to try that.

MM: Don't sass me!

TY: Talk me through what you were thinking in our final showdown yesterday when the kids were screaming, you were screaming, and I was trying to wrap my head around how to get us all out of the cycle of anger.

MM: My goal in that showdown was to make sure no one else got a word in without me coming down like the hammer. I want to promote an environment in which there's no reasoning, just reacting (and overreacting). I knew that everything the kids would say would be a challenge or a complaint, so before they were even done talking I was ready to dole out a snappy comeback and a punishment.

TY: I always thought the expression "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy" was a vindictive take on mothers, that it was like saying "If I can't be happy, I'm taking all of you bratty kids down with me." But I now realize that it's just a pure statement of fact. Mean Mommy, this past week when you were the one running our household, your every interaction provoked conflict. The kids fought more while you were here, they tried to manipulate each other with threats and ultimatums, they mimicked your bitter tone of voice, they assumed the worst of each other (and therefore got it). You're like a cult leader. I had to really work to pull them back out of the meanness after you left. Why is that?

MM: There's a certain addictive thrill that comes with meanness, and it is highly contagious. Once the volcano of meanness starts spewing, it's hard to plug it up. Each time you yell at the kid who poked her brother or forgot to say please or whined about watching another tv show, you feel like it will vindicate you, like your kids will be recognized for the brats they are, and you will be acknowledged as the saint you are, and your meanness will be justified once and for all. But meanness.....well, it just begets more meanness. And vindication never comes.

TY: Are you crying, Mean Mommy? Do you need a hug?

MM: Shut your mouth and go to your room. This interview is over. I'm out of here.

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