Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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

In many ways, I love multi-tasking. The technology available today and increased speed of communication means I can work on several projects simultaneously in a way that was just not possible 10 years ago. Now 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.
Multi-tasking
But the other day as I bounced back and forth between text messages, email, a document I was editing, and social media updates, I felt downright unsettled.

With my mind racing, knees bouncing, and heartbeat elevated, it seemed that in my quest for greater productivity I was now spinning, buzzing, and mentally scattered. As a result I was unable to focus long enough to even make a dent in any of the five tasks I was simultaneously working on.

Too many of us have had this experience in the workplace, though studies have shown that multi-tasking is not actually 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. This week I've been working on compiling some research into a spreadsheet, a task I've been putting off for the past few days. Instead of hunkering down with Excel and my sources, I kept getting distracted by bright, shiny objects like incoming emails, text messages, and articles in my news feed. Switching gears, although a joyful escape from the hard work of completing a dreaded task, made it hard to sustain a thought or to know where I'd left off in my process.

What do you do when you can't break free from your addiction to efficiency and multitasking long enough to focus in on a single task?

Start by slowing down and simplifying your experience.

Close your eyes and take a deep breath.

The simple act of shutting out external stimulus can remind you of your priorities and pull you out of the frantic multi-tasking mode so you can refocus.

This is what yoga's all about! The fabric of yoga philosophy is woven together by the practice of stilling mental fluctuations. That means harnessing your focus and concentration so that the fleeting thought about the TED Talk you wanted to look up doesn't stop you from finishing the less exciting work you need to get done right now. It means making conscious decisions about your behavior rather than being at the whim of the endless incoming pings.

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 mindfully, 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. When you successfully 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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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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