Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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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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As a kid I often wondered whether my mom had psychic powers. How else could she have known to warn me that I was too tired to go roller skating that one summer afternoon (the time when I insisted, went anyway, then fell and broke my leg)?

The other night as I was putting my own 5 year old daughter to bed I gave her a quick kiss on the forehead, my usual sendoff to slumber. In the half-second that my lips grazed her soft smooth skin, I received information that told me, despite the fact that she had just been dancing and singing and goofing off energetically for the last hour, despite the fact that she protested going to sleep claiming she wasn’t tired, despite the fact that it was too dark in her room for me to see anything more than a silhouette of her almost-sleeping body, that tomorrow morning she would wake up under the weather.

I no longer attribute this to any kind of Super Mom psychic powers. When you’re in a rhythm with another being day in and day out – whether that being is your significant other, your aging parent, your pet, your child, or even yourself – the most subtle signals read like billboards. And if you’re a dedicated yoga practitioner who is accustomed to tuning into subtlety in the body, mind, and breath, the signs are even more apparent. The trick is in what you do with that information.

It’s easy with my own kids. In the minute that followed the forehead kiss, I recalibrated our plans for the next day, knowing she wouldn’t have a raging fever that would require a trip to the doctor, but the outing to the swimming pool needed to be scrapped. I mentally shifted our plans to a day of lounging around rather than running around so we could catch this little bug before it really caught hold.

That next morning my not-so-psychic powers were confirmed so she and I cuddled on the couch in our pajamas, read books, and drank plenty of water. It was all so cozy and nice, I felt like I was getting mothered a little, too.

A few days later, part three of my own winter cold trilogy presented itself. As I trudged to the studio for a day full of to-dos and deadlines, I considered what I would suggest if I were my own mother. How might I kiss myself on the forehead, take my own figurative temperature, and then more importantly what might I do to recalibrate my plans for the day?

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By the time I arrived at the studio, I had the answer. I took out a bolster, blocks, and blankets galore and set myself up in the most delicious restorative pose (supta baddha konasana, reclining bound angle, or as it is also called, Queen pose!) and stayed there for fifteen blissful minutes. I even tossed a blanket over myself to keep warm, tucking myself in just as I would my daughter, recalling how good it felt when my mom used to tuck me in. In those first few moments as my eyes closed, my breathing slowed, and my whole body began to soften and embrace the supportive hug of the props, I smiled thinking of the forehead kiss I was bestowing upon myself, giddy remembering that I have the power to take really good care of myself anytime I choose.

My daughter’s little illness came and went without much fanfare, as if because we acknowledged it rather than trying to pushing it down, it did its work on her body more efficiently. She didn’t ask about going to the pool that day and didn’t seem particularly perplexed at how I could know she wasn’t feeling well just from a kiss. Instead she surrendered to the pajama morning, the books, and the cuddles. I went into the kitchen to cut some apple slices for us to share and when I walked into the dining room I found her lying on the floor in my usual restorative yoga spot with her legs up the wall. She scooted over to make some room and invited me to join her, so I rolled onto the ground, slid my legs up, and we both laid there, just breathing and smiling, taking very good care of ourselves.

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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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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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This morning after my daughter jumped into bed with me, all warm breath and messy hair and piercing blue eyes, each word out of her mouth felt like magic, each laugh we shared threatened to push me over the edge with the sheer joy of it. She was just so sweet, so real, such an embodiment of pure love as she nestled her little hands into the warmth of my neck.

Kids can be like that, their ability to be totally present can be more than a little mind-blowing, reminding you what it feels like to not just go through a human being's motions, but to really be one.

And yet that's only half the story, as any experienced (and non-delusional) parent knows.

There are the other moments, the ones that don't dazzle but rather dehumanize you: the fights you must referee among siblings, the myriad of bodily fluids to be managed, the whining and slowness at inopportune moments, the general dislike of parental suggestions for food, clothing, or any other choices that need to be made.

After my daughter and I emerged from the paradise of our early morning magic, the warm fuzzies were replaced by real life hiccups and things began to fall apart. Keys were lost, milk was spilled, punches were thrown (none by me, in case you wondered), and I ached with the frustration, the indignity of being a parent of young children who must figure out a way to hold it all together when there is still a lunch to pack and a plumber to meet and crying seems to be the only reasonable solution to all of the chaos.

Fortunately, I've experienced similar ebbs and flows on my yoga mat and after years of judging myself during the low times, I've come to understand it as a spectrum of experience.

Just as in parenting, sometimes yoga practice is glorious - I'll push up into full wheel pose and my whole body feels like it's breathing, like it's shining light from every pore. Then other days I'm a lump of clay that will not be moved, I'm an achy child's pose, I'm ungraceful and even grotesque in my attempt to move through a single sun salutation.

But in the end, it's all yoga. The dumpy days and the lovely ones provide the same opportunity for the experience of humanity. On the mat or with the family, it's not really how the pose looks or who says what that counts. It's the way you react and how you move through it.

This morning, once I stopped wishing the kids would hold hands and sing kumbaya instead of arguing over pokemon cards, once I acknowledged that the little girl who was now making me crazy was the same one I was in love with this morning, once I gave in to the fact that we would (again) be late for school rather than yelling at my son to get his shoes on, the day got a whole lot better. I got out of the way, I embraced the lumpiness, and felt as much at ease as I would have had it been a smooth morning.

Oh, the humanity.

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