Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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Posted by on in Off the Mat

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I have a confession: I’m not busy anymore, and I love it. 

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not claiming I can just lounge about all day doing whatever I please. As a business owner and mom of two with another one on the way, there are no shortage of projects, activities, and to-dos that can and do occupy me on a daily basis. But I’ve come to realize that busyness is more than just a scheduling issue; it’s choice, and a state of mind.

This weekend my wonderful husband took our kids for the morning and I found myself with an unexpected open window of free time. While I could have gotten busy attacking the 100 emails that were waiting for me or gone through yet another closet in my quest to purge more junk before our big home renovation project, I decided to take off my busy badge and make a different choice. I took a bath, read my book, and went to yoga class. When a friend asked me about my weekend and I smilingly relayed the story of my lovely morning, she said, “That’s great that you were able to do that. You’re always so busy.”

I’ve been consciously removing the word “busy” from my vocabulary for a while now because of the way it makes me feel. If you don’t know what I mean, try it: how do you physically react when describing your upcoming weekend as “busy” vs. “action-packed” or “fun?” “Busy” is a chest-tightening, pulse-quickening, pressure-inducing word, and I realized it had become my crutch of martyrdom.

But still, when presented with this praise from a friend about my choice to be un-busy, I had a moment of panic and an undeniable urge to list off all the other things I did over the weekend as a way of justifying why I really needed the down time. Instead I paused, took a deep breath, and smiled back at her saying, “It was a great morning.”

Why do we wear busyness as a badge?

Sometimes I pin on my busy badge to quell a fear that I’m not enough. Other times, as in the case of the urge I felt to explain myself to my friend, I polish it to prove that I’m important, smart, in demand, etc. The busy badge is a refusal to allow space to breathe. It’s squeezing every bit of productivity out of any open window of time for fear of wasting it. Given the choice, we busy badge wearers will almost always choose accomplishment over rejuvenation (until we nearly collapse, that is).

For years I consoled myself with the promise that when my kids were older I could be less busy. But now that I’m about to be thrown back into the den of the newborn, I’ve realized I need another strategy. I don’t want to wait until some anticipated future date when my life circumstances will change to make me naturally un-busy, because that day may never come. Just the other day I was talking with a student who said now that she’s retired, she feels as busy or busier than she did when she was working. 

Is busyness your goal?

The secret is that if your unconscious goal is to fill up the time, you’ll always manage to arrange your life to maintain a state of busyness. I’ve experienced it myself on a day when I have “nothing to do” and yet somehow manage to cram a whole bunch of things in. Then at the end of the day I’m surprised to find myself feeling depleted and scattered because I let what should have been down time get co-opted. 

Taking off my busy badge has been a multi-step process. Before I could change anything, I needed to wholeheartedly trust that busyness doesn’t make me a better or more interesting person. Then I looked at what I could safely let go of despite the constraints of my life stage, schedule, and obligations. The final step was a combination of the two, both a mentality and behavioral shift: when I have moments of down time between activities, I resist the urge to squeeze productivity into them. I’ll grab my book, sit down for a chat or a game with my family, or do some serious self-care (take a walk, go to yoga, practice meditation). 

How yoga and meditation cultivate un-busyness

My yoga and meditation practices have been so helpful in cultivating these un-busy moments between activities. Isn’t that really what yoga and meditation are all about? Whether you’re a vigorous or gentle yoga practitioner, your practice cycles between activity and rest, effort and ease. Your conscious breath is a cultivation of the spaces between, the wrangling of your mind back to the present experience rather than the tasks awaiting you. Practicing meditation for even five minutes is a commitment to not filling up the time with busyness, but rather filling out each moment with your presence and full being. It’s acknowledging that the moments between are just as important as the big peaks of activity and doing.

These on-the-mat practices have made it significantly easier for me to trust that I’ll still be an effective business owner and involved mom if I put away my busy badge. But I know this isn’t something I’ve conquered, something I can just consider done. As evidenced by my friend’s well-intentioned comments, our culture is programmed to expect and promote busyness, constant activity, and filling up the time. Yoga, meditation, and reflection may just be the tools we un-busy warriors need to take a different path. Who’s with me?

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Within moments after bringing the kids home from camp, dragging myself and two drawstring bags stuffed full of swim suits, towels, sunscreen, water bottles, and lunchboxes through the front door, it began. 

“Can you help me find my baseball glove, Mom?”

“I want to watch TV!”

“Mom, can I have a snack?” (A favorite in our family. I’ve always suspected that when my kids see me coming to pick them up they imagine me as a big, juicy, steaming chicken drumstick.)

With each pull at my pant leg and each subsequent question, even when asked politely, I could sense my hulk-style evolution towards Mean Mommydom. My answers got unnecessarily curt and I gritted my teeth so as not to blurt out, “Just leave me alone!”

I wanted to be a mom so desperately in the years before my kids were born. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and wondering what it would feel like to have a baby, my baby, in my arms. What I was unprepared for was the intensity of the wanting on the other end, too.

Even as they’re gradually becoming more independent at 8 and 5, my children want a lot of me. They often still need full body contact in the form of cuddles, hugs, and kisses; they want to tell me about something unfair that happened at camp that day or ask me for help opening a new package of art supplies. I’m totally on board with this, most of the time.

But sometimes the wanting overwhelms me. After spending the bulk of my day working and going through the various routines to take care of my family’s needs, at the end of the day it can seem that there’s nothing left for me.

After my Gentle Yoga class a few weeks ago, one of my wonderful, thoughtful students said, “I feel so taken care of in your class. It made me wonder – who takes care of you?”

I hugged her and nearly cried because it’s the same question that had popped into my head that very morning as I was on my mat.

Taking care – of children, aging parents, spouses, friends – can be demanding, but harder still is consistently making time for self-care. Why are the needs of others so obvious, so impossible to ignore? Who, finally, will take care of you?

b2ap3_thumbnail_your-mask-first.jpgWe’ve all heard it before: put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

But there’s something important missing from that advice.

Once you’ve put the child’s mask on and he’s out of danger, there’s no need to be a martyr and take yours off. You don’t have to wait for another crisis to put yours back on again.

Of course there will be moments when the needs of those in your care necessarily (but temporarily) overtake your own. Whether your child comes home with a hurt (physical or emotional), your aging parent takes a turn for the worse, or a friend is going through a crisis and needs your support, sometimes the needs of others are intense and urgent and it’s a wonderful thing to be the one who is able to take care.

But when the immediate needs pass, what do you do? Do you find a way to make up for your overextension, or do you keep yourself perpetually in caretaking mode, resentful of the fact that there never seems to be enough time for you?

Any day when I practice yoga, sit for meditation, take a run, walk, bike ride, swim, connect with a good friend, or go to bed early with a good book, I’m doing what no one else can do for me. I leave the proverbial oxygen mask on for a good long time. I breathe in, replenish, and smile. I breathe out and answer for myself that essential question: who takes care of me? I do.

As the kids continue to bustle with post-camp questions and requests, I know they just want me to put on their masks, to help them come down from the day. But right now, after a late night spent working to make up for an afternoon of extra playtime at the park, my mask needs to come first.

“Guys,” I say, crouching down to their level, breathing deeply and feeling Mean Mommy melt a bit. “I just need five minutes with no one asking me for anything. Okay?”

They look at me for a moment, then nod. They’ve heard this before and though it’s not their first choice, they’ll do their best. My five-year-old daughter waits a whole minute before starting to ask me for something, then catches herself and stops mid-sentence. I hug her and feel taken care of.

After the five minutes are up I switch gears and let myself be needed again. Then when they go to bed, I pretend I’m my own mother and have a short debate with myself about the choice between work and sleep. I imagine how beautiful it would feel to heed rather than fight my droopy eyelids, and crawl into bed shortly after.

The next morning after I drop them off at camp, rather than immediately launching into battle with my email, rather than ripping off the mask, I bring myself to my mat for a gentle yoga practice. I move consciously and breathe deeply, because no one else can do it for me.

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Can you imagine life without your cell phone?

An article I stumbled upon recently referenced a controversial story from a couple years ago theorizing that because Lithium (used in laptop, electric car, and cell phone batteries) is being used so excessively, the world’s supply would be depleted within a few years. The article came to a conclusion that would be alarming to some and welcome for others: by 2015 these tiny pocket computers we call cell phones may be gone.

After finishing the article I looked up from my computer screen at the wall in front of me, taking in the taped-up rainbow, heart, and bumblebee artwork my kids had made me. Then something caught my eye out my window and I turned to see a squirrel skittering across the window ledge, stopping to eat what looked like an apple. Watching the way the squirrel alternately spun and nibbled the big apple in its tiny paws, I took a deep breath and imagined a slower world, though I realized this was not the intended effect of the alarmist article.

Then my phone whistled. b2ap3_thumbnail_Multitasking.JPGTwo, three, and four whistles later (all within the span of a minute), my phone warned that potentially important stuff wanted me to look at it. I felt the itch, that urgency of digital now that I’ve become so familiar with over the past few years, so I obligingly punched in the password only to find the messages were a string of silliness that started with a photo and continued with increasingly wittier and wittier remarks.

I was slow to join the texting, social media-ing, digital world, but after doing so I quickly became obsessed. I drained hours unearthing the unsatisfying life details of people from my past who I was barely friends with in the first place. After several months of bouncing between loving and hating it, I realized a familiar pattern of extremism, much like I’ve been through with food and exercise. Just as in those cases, I came to realize the digital world wasn’t the problem. I was.

It was my choice to let my squirrel-watching be interrupted by a text message, just like it’s my choice to let the shiny promise of a clever new post or hilarious video oblige me to drop whatever I’m doing, squirrel-watching or otherwise, to play digital catch-up.

The digital world is so new. Many of us are still in the binge phase, simultaneously gobbling up these technologies while also needing, wishing for our proverbial moms to turn it off and say, “Enough!” As the mom of a 7 and 5 year-old, I know the day will soon come when I need to help them learn to navigate this world, so I figured I’d start by coming up with some guidelines (and trying to follow them myself):

1. Get a low-tech start to your day. Rather than jumping into the digital world first thing in the morning and finding myself overcome with envy over a friend’s awesome Mediterranean vacation photos or unease over the regurgitation and reinterpretation of a tragic news story, I start my day with 30 minutes of self-care (yoga, meditation, swimming, or walking) that centers and grounds me on a body/mind/breath level so I enter the digital world on my own terms rather than getting engulfed by it.

2. Check in: "I could engage now, but do I need to?” The trouble with having a computer in your pocket is that you hear every whistle or ring the moment a notification comes through, and it can be easy to think that you must therefore respond immediately. No matter how urgently my phone beckons, before reflexively picking it up I pull my hand back, take a deep breath, and ask myself if the world would end if I didn’t get to the message within the first minute of its arrival.

3. Create “technology-free” zones. Decide as a household what areas of your home (dinner table, bedroom, etc.) are designated places where you agree not to use technology. I also like to create windows of time (the afterschool hours or a weekend day) where I commit to taking a break from my devices.

4. Set a timer. In the same way that a parent limits a child’s screen time to teach self-regulation, set limits for when you’ll go on social media and how much time you’ll spend there. That part is easy. The hard part, I’ve found, is sticking to those limits even when the whining child in me begs for just five more minutes.

5. Quit planning your next profile pic. Nothing sucks the joy out of a beautiful, spontaneous moment like wondering how to best memorialize it on Facebook. Life is to be lived, not exhaustively documented. When I feel the urge to pull out your phone to capture a great moment with my kids or with friends, I try to remind myself to put down the phone, make eye contact with the people I’m with, and engage in the revolutionary act of being right where I am in the moment.

6.  If all else fails, go outside! With the heavy reliance on computers and mobile devices for work and communication, for hours at a time your whole world may be reduced to a glowing screen. When I start to feel myself really getting sucked in, I turn off the computer, ditch my phone, and engage with the natural world (no matter the weather - cold, rainy, snowy, or windy days work just fine) to remind myself how sweet life beyond the screen can be.

I’ve come to realize that technology is a neutral force and I don’t need a global lithium shortage to rescue me from my tendencies toward digital overload. By becoming more conscious about the ways I self-regulate time spent engaging with technology, I’m practicing coming to it on my own terms to harness the benefits without becoming overwhelmed by the vastness of it all.

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I vividly remember my first meditation experience more than 15 years ago. When the teacher said we'd be meditating for 30 minutes, I panicked. The teacher instructed us to close our eyes and quiet our minds. How could something so simple make me so nervous?

When I closed my eyes I felt tension building in my chest and it was as if my thoughts were screaming at me - mean, ugly, self-doubting thoughts. I was going through a difficult time and the last thing I wanted was to spend 30 minutes coming face-to-face with self-judgement. It was scary and intimidating and it made me want to quit.

Part of the problem was that 30 minutes was way too long for a first experience, but the bigger issue was that I had unrealistic expectations for what meditation should look and feel like.
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The word meditation is thrown around a lot these days because there have been so many recent studies touting its benefits. But too many people have a very narrow and unrealistic idea of what meditation can be.


When you first try meditation (or mindfulness or being present), don’t be surprised if you’re not feeling immediately blissed out and peaceful. In fact, you may initially find it incredibly frustrating. Your mind’s job is to think, so it's unrealistic to expect that simply sitting up straight and closing your eyes will translate to a peaceful, thought-free existence. Rather, the aim is to first become aware of the thoughts, and then to put some space between them. Thoughts will continue to come, as they should, but if you can learn to control how you react to the thoughts you will be able to move beyond habits to create newness and change in your life.
 
b2ap3_thumbnail_8minutemeditation.jpgThere are many techniques to help you do this, but a favorite of mine is one my colleague Lisa Sandquist shared with me. She drew the technique from 8 Minute Meditation by Victor Davich. He calls it "Gracious Declining" but Lisa refers to it as the ‘No, thank you’ meditation, which I love. Here’s how to do it: when a thought comes up, like 'I forgot to respond to that important email,' instead of following it to the next thought, 'I'm always letting people down,' silently say ‘No, thank you.’

The 'no' is a practice in derailing habitual thought patterns, and the ‘thank you’ is a reminder to work with compassion rather than beating yourself up.

Keep in mind that meditation (or whatever you want to call that quiet, reflective time) should not just become one more way to judge yourself and your value as a human being. It doesn’t matter if you meditate for a minute or an hour, what matters is how you apply the new perspectives gained to your daily life. When a conflict arises with a co-worker or your spouse, you can use that moment of pause to choose act with greater clarity and compassion, giving you the opportunity to communicate from a new place rather than just rehashing the same old argument.

Meditation is a powerful tool that can not only reduce stress, but can also be the first step towards creating change in your life and your relationships. But you have to practice regularly for that moment of pause to be there for you when you need it. For me, finding 8 minutes to be quiet and still can seem intimidating, and if you're too intimidated to actually do it who cares how high your goal is set? Two minutes is about how long it takes for your computer to boot up. And even two minutes can make a difference, so start there.

Give it a try. Right now if it feels appropriate. Or, be on the lookout for a 2-minute window of time later today that might work better. I'm a big fan of bringing wellness practices to unusual settings (I love to practice yoga in my kitchen!). It takes the pressure off when you practice meditation within the context of daily activities and don't make it too sacred.

I like to practice meditation at my desk (what a relief to take my eyes off the glowing computer screen for a few minutes!), on public transit, in waiting rooms, pretty much anyplace and anytime when I have a few minutes of downtime and I may be tempted to pull out my phone and check email.

It's all about finding something that's comfortable and manageable for you in the context of your daily life. When you first start, closing your eyes in a public place may feel too vulnerable (unless everyone else is doing it, too – can you imagine the power of midday office-wide meditation breaks?). In that case, you’ll just need to find a more private moment – maybe you can close the door to your office or take a moment on your morning train commute, or before you start your car (NOT while operating it!).

Stress is a reality, but tools like the 'No, thank you' Meditation can help you develop choice in how you react to it.

Despite the frustration and fear that arose from my first meditation experience, once I let go of what I thought meditation 'should' look like I was able to find ways to integrate this wonderful stress-reducing technique into daily life. It doesn't matter what it looks like or how long you do it. The key, as with everything, is consistent practice.

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Posted by on in Health

Some days it sneaks up on you, like the slow rise of a thermometer on a summer afternoon. Other days it hits all at once. However it arrives, stress is an unpleasant, obtrusive, and all-too-frequent visitor that leaves you feeling physically tense and mentally unsettled.

This past week has been particularly stressful for me. I have no fewer than five unfinished time-sensitive projects to deal with at work, my kids have been home sick from school, and it looks like a tornado blew through our house (how did that sock get on the ceiling fan, anyway?).

Pressed for time, I’ve been pushing myself to the limit in an attempt to be hyper-productive and somehow catch up and conquer my workload. I’ve been staying up late, working on weekends, neglecting to make adequate time for both activity and rest, and just generally sucking all enjoyment out of my daily existence.

Today I'd finally had enough.





During a quiet moment when no one was needing my attention, I inched to the front edge of my chair, sat up straight, rolled my shoulders a few time, placed my hands in my lap, and closed my eyes. As soon as my eyelids closed, I felt a shift. I took a deeper breath and felt some of my shoulder and neck tension release.

Without the visual stimulus of the stressors around me – my computer, the stack of papers I needed to address, the pile of mail that had to go out – my nagging to-do list seemed a little less important and I could see that in the big scheme of things it didn’t really matter if my house was a disaster for a few busy days. Things will settle down eventually – the projects will be done, the kids will go back to school – there is always enough time. I just have to choose to make space instead of stress.

I don’t like fancy labels, so if you asked me what I was doing I’d say I was just paying attention and tuning in.

Meditating?

Nah…..I was being present, I was taking care of myself. Meditation is something a yogi does under a tree at an ashram in some beautiful remote setting.

How can I call this ‘meditation’ when it's likely that the phone will ring at any moment?

What if I don't have more than two minutes to sit calmly and quietly? That can't still be meditation, can it?

Meditation, mindfulness, being present – it doesn't matter what you call it, or how long you spend on it. The practice of getting quiet can profoundly impact your stress levels and can be a key component of your daily stress-management toolbox. It’s amazingly simple and easy and it doesn’t take long to be effective.

Start by just closing your eyes, observing your breath, and noticing how you feel. And stay tuned for some specific ideas and techniques for how to incorporate meditation into your workday.

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