Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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Until recently, we hadn’t bought a single piece of furniture in over 15 years. Zach and I picked up a bunch of “firsts” shortly after we were married: first coffee table (which after a few years got a huge crack down the middle due to being too close to the fireplace), first couch (the beastly convertible sleeper sofa that our movers later hated us for), first dresser (a steal from a San Francisco Salvation Army store). Then we just lived with them. First because we couldn’t coordinate a cross-country move AND new furniture purchases, then because we were sure our kids would wreck everything, then because we knew we’d be moving twice in a year as part of our home renovation process.

We decided upon moving back in that it was time for an upgrade. But I wasn’t prepared for the anxiety of:

1. Picking out new furniture, or

2. Allowing our 3 children to touch, breathe on, or look at said new furniture.

When the gray gunmetal barstools arrived, they looked as new furniture should: pristine, almost buzzing with their newness. These stools weren’t over the top fancy or expensive, and I had picked them out in large part because of their stain-resistant fabric. But only hours after taking them out of their protective shrink wrap I had to allow actual children to sit on them while eating. Picture two big kids who mostly remember to put napkins in their laps while eating pasta with red sauce, and a one-year old in a highchair next to said barstools who eats as much as most adults, gets equal amounts of food in her mouth as on her face, hair, and hands, and has incredible reach and quicker hands than you would think possible for a baby, and you’ll have a hint of the nervousness I felt.

Before allowing this dangerous situation to unfold, I read the cleaning instructions with a seriousness bordering on piety. I instructed my big kids what to do if something spilled on the stools with the same seriousness as the talks I’ve given them on what to do if a stranger approaches them in the park.

In the first few weeks we owned the stools, it’s probably most accurate to describe my behavior around them as insane. The kids and their friends would sidle up to the counter for a nice, friendly snack during a playdate, and I’d snarl if I saw any arms drop below the counter top. “Hey! Are your hands clean?” The kids guiltily showed me their paws and I’d make them dismount the stools so I could perform an inspection, only to find that there were just a few crumbs, or perhaps a small drop of milk that I could easily wipe up.b2ap3_thumbnail_IMG_20161001_150109.jpg

Then one lovely afternoon while the big kids were in school and the baby was sleeping, I found myself hungry and gloriously alone, so I pulled up to the counter with some chips and salsa. I steered a heaping, salsa-coated chip towards my mouth, and then proceeded to drop the entire thing face-down on the chair. I gasped and stared for a moment, as if maybe it would jump back into my hand and the whole thing would end up being some sort of anxiety dream, but it sat there, heavy and tomato-y on the gray gunmetal fabric.

While racing to get my white clean-up towel I reflexively felt the urge to yell at someone for being so careless. But as I dabbed the salsa, turning my white clean-up towel red, all at once I knew how stressful this stool situation must have been for my kids.

Irritated as I was at my carelessness, the day I spilled salsa on our brand new chairs (no more than three weeks into owning them), was a great day. It was the day that the stress of perfection flew out the window, that pristine became well-loved, and my craziness was revealed for what it was so I could stop being such a freak about the chairs.

This doesn’t mean I’m so zen that you can wipe your PB&J hands all over our barstools, but I won’t ruin your meal by hovering over you with my white clean-up towel. If you spill I’ll know that I can probably get the stain out, and even if I can’t, it’s okay. Some of the best stories involve the accidents that leave a memorable impression.

There’s a name for this. It’s called Wabi-Sabi, and you can see it as an extension of yoga practice.

(Bloom insider secret – our front desk has its own Wabi-Sabi story. Ask the managers to fill you in if you’re interested. Here’s the cliff notes version: it involves my elbow, an enthusiastic jump, and a huge crack in our countertop.)

Wabi-Sabi is a commitment to the beauty of imperfection. It’s cultivating contentment (santosha) rather than wishing for things to be different or better. On your mat, Wabi-Sabi is acknowledging that the external expression of a pose may look completely different from right to left side, it’s smiling when you can’t stop wobbling in a balance pose, and it’s being kind to yourself when your mind refuses to slow down as you’re attempting to practice meditation.

 

Bringing the concept of Wabi-Sabi into your daily life is a great way to reframe life’s spills and take some of the pressure off yourself. Celebrate the woops moments in your own life and on your mat, knowing that the stains, dings, and dents are part of what makes life well-loved and beautiful.

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While driving out to the suburbs for a cousin’s birthday party a few weeks ago, I readied my answer to the quintessential kid-in-the-car question. Depending on my mood, my answer can be compassionately accurate (“It’ll be a while – maybe another 30 minutes”) or sassily sarcastic (“I hope we’ll make it by dinnertime tomorrow”).

As an adult, I’ve grown out of needing to continually wonder when we will arrive at our destination, mostly thanks to Google Maps, but also because I’ve come to realize that life is a journey and blah, blah, blah. But when I’m not in one of my sassy moods, I can completely empathize with my kids’ question, both because I was an “Are we there yet?” kid myself, and also because I still get that same sort of unease during in-between moments as an adult.

My family is moving back to our house in a matter of days. We’ve been out for a year while renovations were being done, during which time we also welcomed our newest family member. So it’s been a full year, to say the least.

b2ap3_thumbnail_InBetween_20160428-142745_1.jpgOur life right now is boxes, tape, and Sharpies; it’s deciding what to keep, what to find a new home for, and what to donate; it’s not being able to find some crucial something that has inexplicably been packed away too early despite our best efforts at strategic packing plans (why did I think I wouldn’t need my yoga props this week??!?!?).

This is an uncomfortable place to be. Not really because of the boxes and the not finding stuff, although that’s certainly part of it. More because we’re not really here, and not really there. We’re nowhere. In-between.

Yesterday, despite the fact that there’s still plenty of packing to do, I needed to make time for yoga. And of course I couldn’t find my mat, so I just rolled myself out on the hardwood floor.

Lying on my back, I contemplated the in-between, practicing being comfortable there. I began to deepen my breath. I practiced being completely there to watch the way my rib cage expanded to accommodate the breath, and on the exhalation I practiced letting go of the effort of breathing. With my eyes closed, accompanied by my familiar friend the breath, I was at home, despite my bare, boxed surroundings.

At the top of a deep inhalation, I paused for a moment. There I was – not in the inhale, not in the exhale. I was hanging out in some other place, a quiet state where I could feel my hearbeat, a pulse in my belly. I took a long, slow exhalation and paused at the bottom, noticing a feeling of emptiness, of grounding, and a slight panic: is this enough? will I ever inhale again? Of course, it’s okay, I soothed. And then the cycle began again.

Life is full of these in-between moments, in big and small ways. There are job changes, times of illness or loss, relationship shifts, welcoming a baby, and of course, the ever fun home renovations and moves.

These moments are when we need to rely on some kind of inner sense of home, a strength that helps us feel unshakable even on unfamiliar ground. For me that means yoga, and my breath specifically. It’s the constant, the thing that has been with me from the day I was born, a tool I’ve learned to wield as a yoga-practicing adult, and it will be my daily companion until the day I die. 

Over the years, I’ve been here, I’ve been there, I’ve been in-between. I know I won’t have time to roll out my mat (if I could even find it….) on moving day. The truck comes at 8am and we’ll be going non-stop until we fall into bed in our new environment with all its unfamiliar sounds. But fortunately my breath doesn’t need to be packed away, so I’ll know just where to find my yoga that day.

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Have you ever been in a yoga pose that was so unbearably uncomfortable you started to resent your teacher for making you stay in it, only to look around the room and see a handful of other students who seemingly could happily nap in the same pose? 

I’ve definitely been there, and in my early days as a yoga student I always just thought discomfort in a pose was something I had to work through and that it would get better once I was stronger or more open. After almost 20 years of yoga practice, I now realize there’s another way to approach these sorts of challenges on the mat and I’m incredibly grateful to find that principle following me off the mat as I prepare for a very big year personally.

Some yoga poses just don’t feel right initially. This week with in teacher training we were exploring upavistha konasana, seated wide angle forward fold. Upavistha is a “love it” or “hate it” pose, one that either clicks for students or doesn’t, and when it doesn’t it’s exceedingly unpleasant. b2ap3_thumbnail_BloomYogaForwardBendSeated.gif

One of the themes we harp on over and over again in teacher training is the fact that every pose is completely different from one body to another. Your experience of loving or hating a pose is often a result of a variety of factors, including bone structure, limb length and proportions, and a lack of mobility in certain muscle groups.

Upavistha will give you lots of trouble if there’s any restriction in your hip flexors, groins, inner thighs, or hamstrings. Tightness in these muscle groups can rock the pelvis backwards in a way that causes overwork in the low back and makes it nearly impossible to sit up straight, despite your best yogic intentions and your teacher’s encouragement.

Here’s the cool thing – if you find yourself in this sort of struggle with a pose, upavistha or otherwise, there’s something you can do about it. That’s a relief, right? Many students just assume that uncomfortable poses are meant to be that way. Challenge has its place, but I’m a big believer in learning to distinguish between necessary and appropriate challenges, and those that can be alleviated, both on and off the mat.

My husband Zach and I have a very big year ahead between preparing to welcome our third child into the world this summer and renovating our home to accommodate our new family of five. Though upavistha and project New Baby/New Home present me with completely different challenges, I know my handy dandy yoga toolkit can help me in both cases. 

Rather than letting myself get overwhelmed when faced with a challenge, I can take a deep breath, choose to look at things rationally, and ask myself a few basic questions:

1.What IS NOT possible for me to change in this moment? 

On the mat answer - “My hips and legs are chronically tight.”

Off the mat answer - “I’m having a baby and doing a home renovation simultaneously!”

2.What IS possible to change in this moment? 

On the mat answer - “I can sit higher up to lessen the hip restriction I experience in the pose, or I can place my hands behind me and lean back instead of forward folding.”

Off the mat answer – “I can delegate more to my wonderful and very capable staff, and my husband Zach and I can commit to simplifying by saying no to any additional projects or commitments that are not absolutely essential right now.”

3.What is the impact of the proposed change? Did it help or hurt?

As a yoga teacher and teacher trainer, I’m always trying to model a willingness to be curious with my students and to acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes a suggested change makes the pose feel worse, sometimes it makes it better. Only the individual in the pose can know the difference, and my goal as a teacher is to empower students to honestly evaluate the impact of the change. If it didn’t help, we can always try something else.

In family life, acknowledging a busy time by making real changes in schedule and commitments is almost always a good move. But knowing that I can be a bit reactionary at times, I’ll have to pay attention over the course of the next year and make sure I don’t withdraw from everything and just head into the isolation of our baby-renovation bunker. Stay tuned for more news on that as plans (and my belly) develop….

Every Thursday night when I come home from teacher training I’m all smiles and chattiness. I tell Zach about some great new insight a trainee shared or something funny that happened in class, and I just gush about how grateful I am to have the opportunity to work with such fabulous people over the course of 10 months. I love empowering these dedicated yoga practitioners and teachers-in-training to trust what they already know and make changes that make the practice work for them. There’s nothing better than seeing the look on a student’s face when a “hate it” pose turns into a “love it” pose (or at least a “tolerate it” pose!). Thank you, upavistha and fabulous trainees. Thank you, project New Baby/New Home. Thank you, yoga.

 

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