Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_MeditationforEverydayLiving.jpgThe first time I tried meditating, I was 20 years old and pretty impressed with myself. I was a relatively new but 100% committed yoga student, and my teachers had made it clear that meditation was something I should do if I was serious about this yoga business. I solemnly rolled out my yoga mat in a tiny corner of my tiny New York City apartment, lit a candle, and sat there with closed eyes trying to figure out if I was doing it “right.” 

After a few minutes of being berated by my inner critic for not being able to stop thinking about that night’s dinner menu or the conversation I’d just finished with my mom, I blew out the candle and convinced myself that maybe I just wasn’t ready.

For my next attempt, I attended a group meditation at my local yoga studio, a musty 2nd floor walk-up with a fireplace and om signs everywhere. We were given a brief overview of what meditation was (“a vehicle for enlightenment”), then we were instructed to find a meditation posture (lotus was best, we were told) and stay completely still for 30 minutes. 

Ready, go! 

About 15 minutes in my legs were tingling, and within 20 minutes I was in excruciating pain. It felt like someone was stabbing the soles of my feet. I snuck a few peeks around the room to see if anyone else felt like they were dying, but they all seemed perfectly serene, so I sucked it up and just tried to shift position a little to make it tolerable. By the time the teacher rang the bells to signal we were finished, I could barely move my legs and decided that meditation, unlike the serenity my teachers described, was scary and painful.

I’ll admit it. With meditation, there’s really no such thing as being better at it than someone else. But this week when I was teaching yoga to my daughter’s 1st grade class in the gorgeous prairie garden outside her school, it occurred to me that kids get mindfulness in a way that I’m only now discovering 20 years into my yoga practice.

I arrived at the school garden ready to teach a boisterous animal-themed yoga practice that was all about moving quickly, making fun and silly sounds, and playing games. But as I was talking to the 1st graders before class about what yoga is and why it’s helpful, the first benefit they listed was relaxation. Not the response I’m used to when talking with people about yoga; usually the focus is on the flexibility bit, aka bending into a pretzel.

“Have any of you done yoga before?” I asked. All but two kids raised their hands. (Yoga’s come a long way in the last 20 years; when I first got into it my family worried I had joined a cult.)

As I told the kids my plan for our time together – breathing exercises, poses, then games – one boy interrupted me. “Can we meditate? I love meditating!”

Another boy chimed in, “I’m awesome at meditation,” and he sat up super tall, closed his eyes, and struck jnana mudrab2ap3_thumbnail_LittleMeditators.JPG (it looks like the OK sign). Several other kids joined him.

I couldn’t contain my smile. It blew my mind that the kids knew what meditation was and that it was now considered a cool thing. So I scrapped the games and said, “After we do some breathing and poses, we can sit on the logs and meditate,” like I was promising dessert if they ate a good dinner.

Throughout the breathwork and poses, they were focused little yogis who had lots of commentary to share: 

“This is easy!”

“I do yoga in my living room.”

“I’ve balanced on one leg for four minutes before.”

When it came time for dessert, I asked everyone to find a spot on the logs and pick a comfy position. Some sat cross legged, some didn’t. Most hadn’t tried meditation before, but they all followed my cues to sit up tall and close their eyes. As I guided them through a very simple “Special Place” meditation, they were quiet and still and attentive.

I’d bet that none of these kids, even the awesome meditators in the group, has ever been taught an official meditation technique or forced themselves to hold a painful position in the hopes of reaching enlightenment, but instinctively they get it. After a couple minutes, I gently brought them out, and we checked in about how they felt.

Their responses: relaxed, calm, in a special place, sleepy.

Some might argue that 2 minutes is nothing and that these eager 1st graders weren’t really meditating. I used to be one of those stalwarts who insisted that if I hadn’t read the technique in a book, it wasn’t valid.

I just don’t buy it anymore.

I think that any mindfulness practice, however long, is beneficial and beautiful and worthy of the big M word. Today’s little yogis are at a huge advantage having had exposure to even small bites of yoga and meditation by the age of 7. And I think all of us can learn from these wise little teachers. 

When you love something, when it’s really important to you, set it free from your own expectations. Don’t wait – just like you don’t need to get fit or flexible before starting yoga, you don’t necessarily need to wait for a peaceful, candlelit room to try meditation. 

Just start small. 

And then, be awesome at it.

 

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Self-care is my thing, but I didn’t always know it. 

I credit my husband Zach with helping me figure it out almost 10 years ago when I was pregnant with our first child. One afternoon I was moping around the house, complaining of feeling tired and blah, and he turned to me and said, “Did you do yoga? Have you exercised? How long has it been since your last massage?”

I sputtered a few excuses and rolled my eyes at him the way you do when someone has so clearly pinpointed a truth that you’ve overlooked. But then I got over myself and did some yoga, took my big belly out for a brisk walk, and came home with a huge smile on my face. “I feel like a human being again!” I said, wrapping my arms around him.

“That’s your formula,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious.”

Since then, I’ve embraced the formula and become something of a self-care ambassador. And no, it’s not about trying to convert everyone to yoga and massage. Not one to lightly use expressions like “life-changing,” I’m just passionate about helping people discover how great it is to find your own unique and systematic way to consistently feel good. And while I used to be a yoga evangelist, I’ve since realized that we all need different tools in our self-care toolbox.b2ap3_thumbnail_Self-Care_20160203-161718_1.jpg

Last week I facilitated a self-care workshop, and my favorite part was when everyone shared what self-care looked like to them. There was some overlap among the group’s go-to techniques, but plenty of ideas that were unique and refreshing looks at how to prioritize health and wellbeing. And you know what’s cool? The ease with which the participants rattled off their self-care rituals showed that we’re all pretty good at identifying the tools. Consistently using them is another story.

In many ways, self-care is actually less about exercise or spa days and more about a mindset shift. It’s a commitment to prioritizing rest and down time, learning when to say “no” (or “not now”), and having sufficient support in place to ensure you can not only get through the day, but do so with grace and ease and enough juice left in your battery that you’re ready for tomorrow.

Just wanting to make self-care happen isn’t enough. Just think about how many times you’ve heard friends (or yourself) complain that they just can’t seem to make time for themselves. From where I’m standing, 10+ years into a dedicated self-care practice, I believe that if your self-care routine is failing, one of three things is going wrong:

1.You haven’t identified the right self-care routines for you.

2.You’ve identified the right routines but haven’t worked out realistic logistics for your life.

3.The routines are right, but you’re missing another key piece of the self-care puzzle.

I’m working on #3 right now. I’ve figured out my routines and I’m no longer trying to force them to work in an unrealistic way – for the moment I’ve accepted the fact that waking up at 6am for a quiet home yoga and meditation practice is just not going to happen while I’m a sleep-deprived mom of a 6 month-old. I’ve been a regular in our Mom & Baby classes and manage to squeeze in a home restorative pose or 5 minute breathing and meditation practice as little miss allows.

So it’s been frustrating that despite an unwavering commitment to my yoga, exercise, and massage self-care routines, lately I’ve still been feeling like I’m constantly on the verge of running out of battery.

The key piece of the puzzle for me, I’ve finally realized, is getting more help with my sweet baby so I can have ample time for work, self-care, and rest. This is a big step considering the fact that when my first two kids were babies I rarely used babysitters and prided myself on holding a sleeping baby while responding to emails one-handed. Sheesh, we all have our weakness, right?

Here’s to creating space and time for self-care, having adequate support, and not making yourself crazy. I look forward to watching my self-care routines work their magic once I have a better reserve in my batteries. I’m due for my monthly massage any day now and I ache a little every time I walk past the massage room at the studio. Once you train your body to love feeling good, it just wants to maintain that feeling. It’s a healthy addiction, and I hope you catch it!

 

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Posted by on in Family

 

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Just a few weeks ago, I had a person in my belly. Now that person, a little girl, the fifth member of our family, is sleeping a few feet away from me. She’s decidedly her own person, both independent and also completely dependent on me. After sharing space with me for 9 months, she made her exit into a world in which she has to learn, step-by-step, how to do everything. Everything. Breathing is new, digesting is new, controlling limbs is new and initially impossibly difficult. In our family, we call her frenetic arm movements “playing the bongos.”

What can you say about something that is so profound and yet so incredibly common? In the time it took you to read that sentence, four more babies were born.

Sure, there’s the typical territory, but to me the most notable things about the newborn days are not the sleep deprivation or how hard it is to find time to take a shower. What amazes me is the fact that within days of my third child’s birth I simultaneously felt an overwhelming love and a paralyzing fear.

A week before my due date, I wrote about the joy of waiting and not-knowing. Baby girl took the post  to heart because she kept us waiting and not knowing for two weeks past her due date! During those bonus weeks I did lots of yoga and meditation, took walks, enjoyed weekly massages and nightly baths, and just generally tried to savor the in-between while also doing all the things people tell you to do to get your baby out. Contractions would start and kick up in intensity, then they’d stop. I wanted nothing more than to make sense of the patterns and figure out what exactly I needed to do to give this kid her eviction notice.

The night before I went into labor the waiting finally got to me. I tearily told Zach I wanted to “take the night off,” so I pretended I wasn’t desperately hoping to have a baby and instead we watched “The Big Lebowski.”

The next morning I did a sweet meditation and a wiggly yoga practice that veered from the usual sequence of poses that had kept me feeling so great throughout my pregnancy. The practice was mostly hip circles and other organic movements that just felt right at the moment, and it tuned me into a different sort of mindfulness. 

Contractions finally began that afternoon and as I labored through the evening and deepened my breath to match the increasing intensity, I felt the echoes of my yoga and meditation practice and a connection to an intuition I hadn’t experienced with my other two births. I let go of attachment to where I was in the process or how long labor would last and instead just did my best to surrender one contraction at a time. My strong baby girl was born that evening 5 hours after the first contraction and just 1.5 hours after we arrived at the birth center.

For the first few days after her birth I embraced the fluidity of life with a newborn and was simply overflowing with gratitude: for our thriving baby girl, for my wonderful husband, for our doula, for our midwives, for the luck of having a healthy pregnancy and beautiful birth, for the support of our friends and family, and for the immediate love big brother and big sister showed for their new sibling.

But on about day four, all that poetically intuitive stuff went out the window and I had my first new mom anxiety dream where I couldn't find my baby after having brought her to a party. Then my overthinking, control-seeking mind tried to push its way back in between feedings and changings. “When will she get on a nap schedule?” “How long before she smiles?” “Should I take her for a walk in the stroller or sling?”  

My first instinct was to pump google for answers, but I stopped myself. It’s been 6 years since we’ve parented a newborn, but I still vividly remember days wasted crying over this stuff. The intensity of the love I’ve felt for each of my children took me to new heights of fear and self-doubt. What if I do everything wrong and mess up this perfect little being? How can I keep her from getting sick or hurt? What if every other mother in the world knows something I don’t?

As baby girl sleeps today I get on the mat to breathe and move to remind myself that as long as I’m taking care of her basic needs, none of these seemingly pressing questions really matters. I remind myself that the newborn phase is all about creating a strong attachment, and attachment naturally leads to a fear of loss of love. This new mom business is tough - the emotions are so raw and real and close to the surface.

These first few weeks as my body recovers from birth and I'm adjusting emotionally to this massive change in our family's life, my yoga practice looks different. It's abbreviated, gentler, and more subtle, but no less powerful. This is yoga as prep for birth as prep for parenting; it's learning to be okay in uncertainty and to listen to the experts on the big stuff, but to body, breath, baby, and my own intuition on all the little daily stuff. She will sleep, she will eat, she will get sick, she will get hurt. There are no magic answers. When she wakes up crying and I can't figure out why, I kiss her and tell her over and over that I lvoe her. I know this is the most important thing I can do: quell the fears and amp up the love.

The experience of growing, birthing, and raising a human being is no less amazing the third time around, and the love I feel for her is still chased by fear. But instead of running from it or feeding it with a relentless search for external answers, I coo to my fears and gently shush them knowing that sometimes being less in control and instead surrendering to a tiny love is a glorious change of pace.

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Posted by on in Family

With baby #3 fully cooked and safe to arrive any time in the next couple of weeks, I wait. Or rather, I try to go about my everyday life despite the fact that something incredible is about to happen, that my body is preparing for a powerful physical experience, that our family’s life is about to be forever changed.

Friends wonder (and place bets) on whether I’ve had the baby yet, my mom is certain every time I miss her call that I’m in labor, and several nights recently I’ve gone to bed wondering if tonight is the big night.

WaitingI sit in wait with my huge belly and savor this in-between time in a world where waiting has gone out of fashion. Have a few minutes before the next train arrives? Pull out your phone and suddenly you’ve transformed what would have just been a wait into productive and/or entertainment time. But the last weeks of pregnancy are all wait, all wondering, and surrender to the fact that there’s no app for predicting the onset of labor.

I sit in not-knowing with this new person who is either a boy or a girl, one or the other, and though I could have found out months ago I revel in my ignorance of this key fact about our new family member. My dreams are of no help – last night I dreamt of a sweet cheeked blond boy who looks remarkably like my son, but a few nights ago the baby was a cuddly baby girl. It’s not often I get to not-know something so big for so long. Not even a conversation-ending google search on my phone can give me this answer.

I sit in surrender because I have no control over when labor starts, how the birth goes, or any of it. I like control, so this is hard. Meditation helps, as does yoga practice.

I’m practicing the yoga of waiting for baby. Maybe it’s the hormones, but it’s not as difficult as I remembered. I’ve given up bargaining with baby (“Please wait until your grandparents are back in town, until I wrap everything up at the studio, until our teacher trainees graduate…”), realizing this is not a negotiation I can win. It’s refreshing to loosen my grip on schedules and plans and just say “I’ll be there if I haven’t had the baby yet!”

The present is the only thing I can count on. This is always true, but never more obvious than right now. Sometimes I have to stop and catch my breath after walking up the stairs to our apartment, other times I feel strong and vital, like I could walk miles without issue.

I’m overflowing with gratitude to feel as good as I do at this stage of the game. Each time I’m asked how I feel and respond with a smile, I’m careful to not get too attached to this whole “feeling good” business.  While the yoga, meditation, massage, and walking I’ve done throughout my pregnancy certainly helped, I’ve just been incredibly lucky, too. And I know that could change at any time, so I enjoy any day where I can get up from my mat without grunting.

There’s nothing more to prepare: the names are picked out, the carseat’s installed and awaiting a tiny passenger, and we’ve done our best to prep big brother and big sister for the intensity of life with a newborn. Now, again, it’s just the wait.

I breathe in and feel baby wiggle and adjust in the private world of my belly. I breathe out and know there will only be so many more times I get to experience his or her movements from the inside. 

I breathe in, I breathe out, I am grateful. 

My breath will get me through whatever comes next – wait, birth, and afterwards.

 

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Every year around this time, I get a little wistful as our yoga teacher trainees prepare for their graduation. After almost 10 months during which my co-teacher Sharon and I guided and supported these fabulous people in delving into the aspects of yoga that aren’t typically addressed in a standard yoga class, I feel compelled to write a love letter of sorts. I can’t believe how lucky I am to be co-leading this exploration, and I’m amazed that though the point of the program is for us to teach them, I always learn so much from working with our trainees.

So here’s my love letter to our trainees (current and past), a thank you for just a few of the things I’ve learned from watching such dedicated practitioners grow into teachers.

This yoga business is so much more than stretching and strengthening: it can change your life

It’s been a long time since my first teacher training back in 1998, and every year when I watch our trainees discover all the other aspects of the practice and tradition that go beyond poses on a yoga mat, I’m reminded of how life-changing it can be to delve into the introspection and self-study that are imbedded in the larger philosophy of yoga. Our trainees excitedly share how their daily interactions with friends and family have changed since exploring the yamas (ethical guidelines for relationship to others) and niyamas (personal practices/observances), they talk of their new appreciation of the koshas (sheaths or layers of being) and how they’ve begun to observe themselves on more subtle levels as a result.

As a new practitioner and budding teacher myself almost twenty years ago, I remember how thrilling it was to realize that by contemplating these new concepts I could better recognize my own habits and patterns both in relationship with others and towards myself. Having always felt myself to be a self-confident person, I was blown away when we’d explore meditation practice and it was like someone had cranked up the volume on the self-hate radio station in my brain. Those first few years of practice was all about turning the volume down and eventually changing the channel altogether. If letting go of negative self-talk isn’t life changing, I don’t know what is.

I practice for my 80 year-old self

Yoga’s not just for the young and fit (thank goodness!). Each year when we ask about our trainees’ future plans to teach, more and more of them express a desire to share yoga with an older population with more limited mobility and different concerns/goals. This, to me, is such a huge victory. Of course it can be fun as a young, fit person to sweat your way into some crazy arm balance or backbend if that’s your thing, but that’s not what has kept me interested in yoga all these years. I practice for my 80 year-old self. I practice to give myself the best possible chance at staying active and healthy as I age, despite whatever life may throw at me. I’m proud that our amazing trainees are emerging from the program with a broader view of yoga for the long run and I know they’ll make the yoga world a better place as they offer the practice in an accessible way for people of all ages in a variety of environments.

Start small and keep your friends close (and your books closer!)

Over the past few weeks we’ve asked our trainees to reflect upon their teaching journey thus far and where they see themselves going from here. When I finished my first teacher training, I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the subject I had just scraped the surface on (my first training was a one month intensive!). I knew there was so much more I had to learn, but wasn’t sure where to go next with my studies and practice. I just wanted to consider myself done and move on because I didn’t have a clear direction.

Our fun-loving 2014-2015 trainees!

Our trainees are studying the same vast subject and have identified both the aspects of the practice they’ve started to become more familiar with (for many of them it’s pranayama and meditation), as well as the places they know need time for further exploration (for most it’s the rich philosophical study of yoga that we’ve been working on them with consistently over the course of the program). They all have their own strategies, but there’s a consistent theme of being patience, starting small, picking one or two areas to dive into next, and repeating for the long-term. They’re so wise – it took me years to figure that out and I’m grateful to be reminded of this sensible and practical approach. Wouldn’t life be better if we looked at everything this way? Just start with one small step, research, explore, then move to the next thing when you’re ready. Imagine how much you could grow if you always had a subject you were studying. Though our trainees are sad to see our twice weekly sessions come to a close (as are Sharon and I!), they know that they can continue their yoga schooling on their own because they have each other for support (their group picture says it all - they're pretty awesome folks!).

The community they’ve built is amazing. They hang out socially, share favorite new yoga books and websites, and support each other in times of need. The further away from teacher training you get, the harder it is to maintain this community and support. But our trainees in years past are still going strong, encouraging and inspiring each other, and I know they are better teachers for it. They inspire me to reinvest in my own community of yoga teacher peers and to seek out new resources to continue my own growth.

To all of our teacher trainees past and present, thank you for trusting us to guide you in this adventure and for bringing your full selves to our work together. I am a better teacher for knowing you all!

The journey starts again this fall for a new group of trainees. There’s still time to join us! Learn more about our 200 hour hatha yoga teacher training on our website or reach out to me directly.

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