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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I go through the full range of emotions each time I visit the dentist. The before and after is comical – I walk in feeling self-conscious about all the things my dentist told me to do after the last appointment which I’ve neglected, and as she reclines me in the chair I cross my fingers and hope I’ll be lucky enough to avoid any cavities or issues. Afterwards, I leave with a spring in my step, clutching my little white bag filled with dental goodies, solemnly promising myself to approach toothbrushing as a mindfulness practice and do that rinse the hygienist keeps recommending. I want to be a model dental citizen, I want my next checkup to be quicker and more painless, and my dentist’s cheerful voice echoes in my head reminding me to “only care for the teeth I want to keep.” I want to keep them all!

Post-checkup, I’m 100% committed to my teeth. For a week. But soon I’m back to my usual distracted morning brushing while stuffing a lunchbox in my son’s backpack, and can’t be bothered to even think about a rinse. The inspiration, while strong immediately after having spent an hour in a chair with metal tools poking at my teeth and gums, fades all too quickly when I get back to the flurry of everyday life.

How does exactly does the “dentist effect” work?

And how can you harness its power to inspire more consistent commitment to your yoga practice?b2ap3_thumbnail_DentistEffect.jpg

When you have a rough trip to the dentist, it’s intensely motivating because you tell yourself you’ll do anything to avoid that discomfort again. But when you’re not there, surrounded by the whizzing and whirling of all the equipment, it’s easy to forget how important your mundane daily tooth care routines are. It takes the big event of a check-up to remind you that, seriously, it’s not okay to have a midnight snack and go to bed without brushing.

In class yesterday, it occurred to me that yoga has a similar, but opposite effect. Instead of motivating you to avoid pain, yoga inspires you to practice so you can keep the good feelings going. I’ve never left a yoga class where I didn’t feel better than when I started.  

When I’m on my mat, it’s natural to breathe deeply and be mindful. For that hour I feel great, connected. My focus is on caring for my body, the only vehicle I get for the rest of my life. By the final Namaste, I try to imprint the feeling so I’ll hold on to the inspiration to come back to it again soon. It’s like when your teacher asks you to notice how you feel after practicing one side of a pose. It’s dramatic, though admittedly more subtle than the aversion to pokey dental tools, but the more you practice noticing how awesome you feel after yoga, the easier it is to consistently come back to the mat. 

Don’t let the inspiration fade. You only go to the dentist a couple of times a year (if you’re lucky), but you can step on your yoga mat at least once or twice a week, or even just take a deep breath every single day.  Each time I practice yoga, the deep breathing and conscious movement and inner quiet I cultivate are reminders to pay attention and take better care. I’m not waiting for life’s cavities to come find me, and I’m certainly not leaving something as important as my physical, mental, and emotional health to luck or crossed fingers.

 

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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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On our daily walk to school, my kids and I pass a stretch of sidewalk on Rockwell that had been crumbling over the past year. More accurately it had evolved into a pile of rubble with a few patches of solid sidewalk. After reporting it to 311 a few times, I’d eventually just grown accustomed to dodging the dodgy parts and held out only a faint hope that someday it might change.

Then on a recent morning that was not much different from the one before it, the kids stopped in their tracks when they saw that the whole stretch had been dug up. The crumbling sidewalk was now a long ditch of dirt surrounded by yellow plastic tape and bounded on both sides by a sign that read, “Sidewalk closed. Please use other side.”

But somehow, every time I walked the kids to and from school for the next week, I’d find myself standing in front of that sign, not having had the presence of mind to alter my usual course before getting there. Judging by the growing rut that was developing in the grass next to the pit, the other commuters who marched this path were doing the same. All of us ignoring, or simply forgetting about, the sign’s plea until it was too late and habit won over. Once the concrete set a week later, the sidewalk was reopened and we all kept on in our usual way, the ruts of our daily walk again hidden by smooth, gray concrete.

When yoga practice becomes just another rut

Because the physical part of yoga requires repetition of the same shapes and breathing practices again and again, your time on the mat could easily become just another of life’s habitual routines. You know the drill: chaturanga, up dog, down dog, repeat. On the other hand, when you go to class and your teacher inspires you to try a different variation or prop set-up for a pose, when you cultivate a certain quality of attention to your practice, yoga can be a tool for uncovering ruts, much like a construction crew’s sledgehammer.b2ap3_thumbnail_Down-Dog-Rut-2.jpg

Down dog is a classic rut pose. Because the pose makes an appearance in almost every class (often multiple times if you’re practicing sun salutes), yoga practitioners often develop habitual down dog routines. Some people are wigglers, foot-pedalers, or sighers. Others are head-nodders, shoulder-hangers, or constant-adjusters.

I have my own little habits, and I’ve been paying closer attention to them this week on the mat. When I move from cobra into down dog in a sun salute, there’s a lot of oomph involved in simply getting my body from a prone position to an upside-down one. With all my attention on the muscular work of pushing up against gravity, hand and foot placement isn’t usually the first thing on my mind. But once I’m back in down dog, upside-down, feet staring me in the face, those little misalignments become glaringly obvious and the recovering alignment-stickler in me almost can’t take it. Is there anything wrong with making a few adjustments to my foot positioning once I get in the pose?

Of course not. But……

Here’s what I learned: my down dog adjustments are pretty much the same every time. A ha! A rut!

If my right foot always ends up a few inches forward of my left, that means my innocent little down dog foot adjustments were obscuring and deepening a rut in a way that has implications on strength, flexibility, and balance from one side of my body to the other. While my foot position in down dog isn’t a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, what I hadn’t been seeing because of this hidden rut revealed something bigger than just my lack of “perfect” alignment.

How to break out of ruts on and off the mat

Breaking out of a rut in your practice does not necessarily involve practicing a new or more difficult pose. It simply involves practicing differently.

Imagine your mat is made of wet concrete so your down dog footprints and subsequent shifting are made visible. How does that change the way you move into the pose?

Check your attachments at the door and instead be open when a teacher suggests a new variation or prop set-up for a familiar pose. What can you learn physically, mentally, and emotionally from a different approach?

If yoga makes you stronger and more flexible, great.

If it helps you to find greater peace and calm, fantastic.

But yoga’s greatest gift may be something else entirely.

What if instead of going on autopilot through chaturanga, up dog, and down dog, you could move consciously enough to discover a long-held habit? What if this simple practice of integrating body, mind, and breath could follow you out of the studio? What if you were able to be more present in conversations with people you love, more aware of the changing leaves on the route you habitually take to work, better able to recognize your ruts (physically, mentally, and emotionally)?

The crumbling sidewalk and slight inconvenience of its repair helped me to see something that had been hidden in plain sight, and it reminded me of why I keep coming back to the mat. Yes, I practice because it makes me feel better physically, mentally, and emotionally. But I don't just want to feel better today, I want to grow and change and become a more fully expressed version of myself. I want to bloom. You can only change what you can see. I'm incredibly grateful to have the help of a mindful approach to yoga to reveal my habits and patterns in a way that’s as plain as a footprint in wet concrete.

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After 18 years, I’m still amazed at the magic of mindful yoga practice. How is it possible to come to the mat feeling blah, mopey, achy, low energy, foggy, and pessimistic, only to step off the mat 90 minutes later feeling brand new?

This morning I woke up with that itch, that antsy feeling. My thoughts were jumbled with all the things I needed to do to get the kids out the door and myself to work and, while I didn’t feel any particular pain or discomfort, I just didn’t feel right (or at least I didn’t feel as good as I knew I could).

“I WANT YOGA!” my body/mind whined.

“Soon,” I comforted. “Today.”

I dropped the kids off at school and although my first instinct was to simultaneously jump into email and the fifteen things on my day’s to-do list, I knew I needed to prioritize yoga instead.

By the time I stepped off the mat 90 minutes later – once I had satisfied that physical/mental/emotional need to practice – I was a different person. My body pulsed, my low back was warm and spacious, that pesky shoulder and neck tension melted away. It felt like my entire body was breathing.

It’s incredible, it’s like magic. How in the world does this work?

Yes, as a diligent student and dedicated teacher I’ve done my homework – I know that yoga can help:

  1. Raise levels of the brain chemical GABA (higher GABA levels are correlated with a lower incidence of depression)

  2. Release less of a tension-triggered cytokine (a type of protein that can make you feel tired and moody)

  3. Lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate

  4. Engage the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for the “rest and digest” functions of the body)

  5. Enhance circulation, facilitate healthier digestion, and promote better sleep

  6. Increase strength and flexibility, thus reducing everyday aches and pains resulting from weakness, instability, or immobility

  7. Improve posture in daily life and counteract the impact of excessive sitting on the hips and low back, while reducing the effects of forward head position on the neck and shoulders

Terrific! I’m completely on board with all of that.

But somehow, that laundry list of benefits doesn’t do justice to the way I experience my body and mind after practicing. The whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. I feel like myself again after yoga, or rather, I feel like my best self.

Let me be clear - there are many approaches to yoga, and while all have their merits, all are not equal.

Some yoga masquerades as fitness (or rather, fitness sometimes masquerades as yoga). This is the version of yoga as calisthenics, pushing, striving. By isolating the physical aspects of the practice, by focusing solely on asana (postures), only one of the eight limbs of yoga, this approach floods you with more of the same things you may already suffer from in daily life –  busyness, aggression, doing.

Given its innate physicality, it can be easy to turn yoga into just another workout. But if your practice simply becomes another way to beat yourself up or compete with your neighbor on the next mat, yes, you will get stronger, yes, you will become more flexible, but you won’t experience the magic I’m referring to.

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Something incredible happens when you approach yoga mindfully and with an equal focus on effort and ease. There’s no mistaking it - a mindful yoga practice simply feels different, and the effects of such an approach are profound and last far longer than the typical post-savasana-high.

Unlike almost any other form of physical activity, yoga integrates the body, mind, and breath. It engages the whole person, and its benefits are rooted in physicality but go deeper than the physical to beautifully counteract the stresses and impact of daily life.

Mindful yoga practice helps you cultivate the ability to discern, to develop greater self-awareness, and to know your body, mind, and breath better so that it’s easier to listen to your needs on a moment-to-moment basis. This is the magic that, like Dorothy in her ruby slippers, you’ve always possessed. Yoga just teaches you how to access it.

When I came out of my first savasana 18 years ago, I didn’t know what hit me. I’d been an athlete and a dancer all my life, so I was no stranger to my body and to how great it feels to move. But something was different with yoga from the very first time I tried it.

I became a yoga evangelist! I insisted that my mom and dad try it and cajoled friends to join me forclass. I just knew that the world would be a better place if everyone practiced yoga daily.

I completed my first yoga teacher training two years later, and I’ve been a dedicated student, practitioner, and teacher ever since. My husband and I opened our studio 10 years ago and, fortunately for our friends and family, I’ve mellowed a bit over the years.

While I still occasionally have the urge to get on my soap box knowing there are people who haven’t tried this incredible, powerful, and empowering tool for body/mind health, I know Yoga doesn’t need me to speak for it. Yoga Matters because the benefits speak for themselves.

When you leave class feeling happier and healthier, your mindful yoga practice has made a difference in your body and mind.

When you find a way to get to your mat on a busy day, yoga creates time and space and puts things in perspective (and even turns your world upside down for a few minutes!).

When the cumulative effects of your practice allow you to react calmly rather than blowing up in a moment of conflict, yoga is doing its job off the mat, too.

Yoga may not be for everyone, but it’s most definitely suitable for anyone who wants to try it. Amen to that.

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