Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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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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Posted by on in Health

My blue paper gown crinkles as I shift back onto the long white sheet of paper. The table is so high that my legs swing like I'm a kid seated at the grown-up table. When the nurse left she said that the doctor would be in for my check-up in just a few minutes, but it has been considerably longer. I can hear the bustle outside the room as doctors and nurses call to each other about various patients and procedures, and the unease begins to creep in. I have no control over how long I will have to wait until my doctor comes in. And it bothers me.

Waiting used to just be a fact of life. I remember many quiet minutes spent as a child at the doctor's office or in the dentist's chair. No matter what I had been doing before my appointment, the moment I sat down in that room I slipped into waiting mode. I'd do windshield wipers with my feet, play connect the dots with the ceiling tile, or just look around, soaking up the stillness and the quiet of the in-between.

It's different now. With the faster pace of life and seemingly less time to accomplish everything, with smartphones and their mini computing power available almost everywhere you go, simply sitting and waiting can bring up feelings of emptiness and anxiety. Waiting for someone else to dictate when your time becomes 'useful' again can make you feel powerless and even deprived.

In the doctor's office, with all these emotions brewing, I looked around the room frantically for something to occupy me.

The magazines weren't my taste and I don't particularly like to spend time on my phone when I don't have to, so I started to read the office flyers and medical charts posted in the office. When I found myself squatting down in front of the Netter's Anatomy flip-chart looking at an illustrated explanation of the symptoms and causes of diabetes, I realized something had gone wrong. I was just trying to fill time, to calm the empty feeling that waiting now induces in me. It's not my own time, it's not my time to play a specific role (the patient, in this case). Rather it's an undefined stretch of in-between, a pause that will last for a minute or twenty, and my initial impulse was to just get busy doing something. Anything.

Instead, I get back on the table and let my legs dangle. I sit tall, fold my hands in my lap, and take a deep breath. It feels good, so I close my eyes and continue. When I hear a rustle at the door as my doctor is about to enter I panic and open my eyes, slouching a little so I look like someone who is waiting in the expected way. What if she comes in here and finds me with sitting stick-straight with my eyes closed? She'll think I'm some kind of weirdo.

But then she's called away to something else, and my eyes instantly close again. I lengthen the crown of my head towards the tiled ceiling, making more room to draw my breath in to the belly and chest, and I breathe. In and out, over and over again, like it's the best meditation session I've ever had despite the fact that I'm wearing a paper gown. I feel the stresses of the week falling away, my whole body feels like it's breathing, and for the first time that day, everything is just right.

When my doctor came into the room I opened my eyes and she was none the wiser of my waiting meditation. But as I talked with her I felt more open and connected than I can ever remember feeling during a doctor's visit. Those few minutes of waiting (I don't even know how many, that's the beauty of it!) could have made me feel victimized, bored, or irritated. But thanks to the waiting meditation, a technique no more complicated than closing my eyes and breathing deeply, the wait was transformed into 'me-time.'

Learning to integrate meditation into daily life is not as hard as it may initially seem. And once you start, it won't be long until you're just another weirdo at the doctor's office. If you're lucky.

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Ever had one of those days when you're trying to be so efficient that you never actually complete a single task?

The fancy technology available today and increased speed of communication allows me to work on several projects simultaneously in a way that was just not possible when we opened the studio 7 years ago. Instead of having to wait for one project to be completed before starting the next, I can chip away at several at the same time. Efficiency has its place, but too much of a good thing is still too much.

Overwhelmed at the number of items on my to-do list that needed to be completed in short amount of time, I recently took my efficiency to an extreme, multitasking at an almost manic pace. As I bounced back and forth between text messages, email, a document I was editing, and social media updates, I felt downright scattered. With my mind racing, knees bouncing, and heartbeat elevated, it seemed that in my quest for greater productivity my whole being was now spinning, buzzing. As a result I was unable to settle in long enough to concentrate on accomplishing even a single task.

Too many of us have had this experience in the workplace, though studies have shown that multi-tasking is actually not as much of a time-saver as previously thought. It turns out it just makes you feel like you're accomplishing more. In reality, multitasking is the new procrastination, a sneaky way to postpone doing something unappealing or challenging.

What happens when your addiction to efficiency and multitasking spills over onto the yoga mat?


Yesterday morning I had only 20 minutes to sneak in a practice before the craziness of the day started, so I decided I'd use the principles of efficiency to make the most of my time on the mat. I didn't want to sacrifice anything and I was determined to produce the same good feeling I got after a nice long practice. So instead of exploring a few asanas deeply, I crammed in a bunch of standing poses, some sun salutes, backbends, twists, and so on. I bounced from one pose to another, trying to force my yoga practice to get with the efficiency program. Guess what? It turns out that efficiency and yoga are not friends.

As I blasted through the sequence, I lost the awareness of my breath and that glorious feeling of space that comes when I'm practicing Yoga and not just breezing through yoga poses. Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. On the other hand, efficiency and multi-tasking are, by definition, fluctuations of the mind - a cycle of constant mental interruption in an effort to move at a faster pace.



As above, so below. As in the mind, so on the mat. Yoga practice can be both an antidote to efficiency and a place to practice greater concentration in an attempt to slow mental fluctuations. When you sit for meditation and focus in on your breath and practice letting go of all the chatter and busyness from your day, you are undoing the harmful effects of excessive efficiency. As you resist the urge to mentally flit off to some new exciting idea, you allow your body to settle and signal to your mind that it's okay to just do one thing and do it well. And so you more closely approximate true efficiency, the appropriate use of time and energy in the accomplishment of a task. Be still my fluctuating mind.

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Posted by on in Health


It's New Year's resolutions time again......Did you spend the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's on a cookie, alcohol, and rich food binge? Then you're the perfect candidate for the "Eat Healthier" resolution! Here's how it works:


      January 1 - eat only raw fruits, nuts, and vegetables, with a rice cake for dessert. You'll feel light, in control, and altogether superior to those around you.



      January 3 - insert a big bag of potato chips after the rice cake.



      January 6 - insert a tub of ice cream after the potato chips



    January 7 - see above re: binge

 


At this point, it's pretty well established that most of the sweeping promises made at the turn of the new year stick for about 1-2 weeks, or a month if you're lucky. New Year's resolutions are typically too broad and require a dramatic change in behavioral patterns overnight, going from one set of habits on December 30, to exactly the opposite patterns on January 1.

I've long ago given up on New Year's resolutions because it feels unnatural to force such dramatic change upon myself. And after many failed attempts of "I will start eating healthier tomorrow" while stuffing a third brownie into my mouth, I realized that just as slow and steady wins the race, small changes always beat out grand proclamations. Small changes require consistent discipline and a certain gentleness with yourself. With the small changes approach, you just keep showing up, holding yourself accountable to your goal while forgiving the occasional slip-up, and continually recommit to healthy choices to the extent possible in each moment.

In lieu of a typical broad resolution like those of the popular "eating right" and "exercising more" variety, this year I'm trying something different as a way to kick start a great 2012. It started off as an idea for our Teacher Training students as a way to motivate them to maintain a daily home yoga practice.

Beginning January 1, we are encouraging all of our trainees to commit a daily practice of some sort to do for 30 days. It could be a brief asana practice, seated meditation, or pranayama practice, or it could just be rolling out the old yoga mat and going with what comes up. The time limit is very flexible - even if it's only 5 minutes carved out of an otherwise busy day, that counts as part of this discipline.

The idea is that, unlike the empty promise of a "get healthier" resolution, picking a specific activity and committing to doing it for 30 days creates the possibility for real, lasting change. If, for example, your resolution would have been to eat healthier, perhaps your practice of discipline could be to eat green vegetables every day for a month.

Hopefully, after the first 30 days the new habit of choosing health on a daily basis will be so ingrained that it will be easier to stick to in the long-term. Just like yoga practice, in which we take it one day at a time, one moment at a time, one breath at a time, so too must we approach changes in habits with the same gentle, but disciplined mindset. Real change does not come with great proclamations made on December 31. But rather with small acts of commitment on January 1, January 2, January 3, January 4, and so on.

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