Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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Posted by on in Off the Mat

Are you struggling with motivation lately?

I’ve been avoiding writing this post for the past couple of weeks. Confession time: this isn’t my only recent motivation-fail. Other tasks, emails, and projects that aren’t particularly difficult or time consuming have been piling up on my to-do list, but I can’t seem to make myself focus long enough to complete them.

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When I realized the pattern, my first instinct was to cheerlead myself out of it like I usually do. I’m a glass-half-full person and I hate to be a downer in an already rough time (enough already, 2020!). But it’s probably better to come out and say it: I’m in a bit of a slump. It’s different, draggy feeling than the procrastination I’ve known all too well at various phases of my life.

Have you experienced a COVID slump, too?

If so, I encourage you to own it. It feels better just admitting it, granting yourself permission and compassion for the experience you're having. This is a weird time, far beyond what any of us has ever experienced. Is it any wonder just getting through the day is taking the oomph out of us?

During my morning meditation practice last week I came across this lovely and helpful mantra from Kelley Carboni-Woods’ book Manifest: 30 days of Intentional Mantras

“I will take a pause.

…..Speeding through each moment is the social norm. Cramming it with activity is expected. To our detriment we use every minute we can but rarely create space for what we really need. Each of us has an underutilized power to create a pause. We question whether we deserve it. We exalt being busy ahead of it. The pause lets us catch our breath, hone our mind and guide our steps. The pause makes space for the abiding practice of love and peace over everything else. The pause reminds us to be responsible for our energy and rescues us from reactionary patterns. Reclaim your time.”

Take a moment to let those wise words soak in. Really. Full breath in, full breath out.

Are you pushing yourself to meet self-imposed deadlines that are unnecessarily aggressive? Is there something that doesn’t absolutely have to be done right now that you could gift yourself a longer timeline on? If so, give yourself permission to pause.

On the yoga mat, the practice of pausing might mean inserting a rest pose between active poses and lingering there for a while. When practicing pranayama, insert a brief pause between inhale and exhale to feel what it's like to be in that limbo state without needing to do anything. Some days, it means choosing to only practice one long-held restorative pose instead of trying to motivate to do something more vigorous and active. The pause can appear many different ways on the mat, and the more you practice in a physical way, the easier it will be for you to access the mental and emotional slow down during the rest of your day.

The other day a friend guiltily shared that she was grateful to have had summer travel plans cancelled this year, appreciative of the forced slower pace of life. While I still hear the echoes of a shaming internal voice that tells me I should be more productive, these days I more often shush it and ask myself what really matters right now. I'd like to think that one of our collective COVID silver linings will be a renewed appreciation of slowing down and giving ourselves permission to do a little less.

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Posted by on in Yoga

I used to pretend to have the answer to this commonly-asked yoga student question.

Here’s how it went:

A student came up to me after a nice, juicy gentle practice that included several long restorative poses. She gushed about how peaceful and calm she felt after the practice.b2ap3_thumbnail_Childs-Pose-Balasana-Restorative.jpg

“I love the restorative poses,” she said. Then she added, in a whisper, “But I can’t help falling asleep. Is that okay?”

I smiled and nodded knowingly, as a wise yoga teacher should, and told her that savasana is different than sleep. To keep herself mindful and awake, I suggested she focus more intently on her breath.

I wasn’t intentionally misleading her. I believed my answer wholeheartedly at the time, because that’s what I’d been told by my teachers.

But could I actually follow my own advice?

With three kids, a business, and work hours that regularly kept me in front of my computer till 2am?

No way.

A 5-minute savasana was totally doable; I was present, still, mindful, awake.

When the duration crept up to 7-10 minutes, it was a toss-up; I might do one of those savasana arm twitches that gave me away to the teacher, but I could usually play it off like I just had an urgent (and twitchy) need to adjust my hand position.

But man, when the teacher went yoga nidra on me, it was over. Guaranteed, I’d be doing the twitch AND that weird sleepy exhale “HAAAA” sound that was tough to disguise.

I hated that feeling. Not the sleepy, relaxed goodness which was wonderful and clearly much-needed.

I hated the fear of getting too relaxed, as if there is such a thing.

My approach to long, deep relaxation in group classes was completely counterproductive. Worried I’d be exposed as a negligent savasana practitioner, I’d keep my mind on high alert. Sometimes it worked, but other times I still woke myself with an errant arm banging on the bamboo floor (followed by some pretend arm position adjustments to play it cool).

You’ve probably already figured out that yoga practice makes a lot of things better. Yoga can soothe everyday aches and pains, help you feel stronger and more alive, give you a feeling of peace and calm unlike anything else you experience in your day. But it can’t solve all your physical, mental, or emotional woes.

If you’re not getting enough sleep, I’ve got news for you. You WILL fall asleep in restorative poses (if you’re really going for it rather than taking the high alert approach I was attempting).

So what’s my new answer?

When a student from my Gentle class asked about the savasana/sleep issue this week, I told her it’s okay, and it still happens to me, too. The way I figure, with my third child approaching 18 months, I have a lot of catching up to do.

You’re not a savasana failure when you fall asleep. You could probably just use a little more sleep and  rest.

What’s the difference between sleep and rest?

Sleep is that thing that happens at bedtime, while rest is the conscious and mindful practice of relaxing body and mind. They’re different, but both are essential for total, vibrant health and exquisiteness.

Conscious rest is the companion practice to good sleep hygiene, and it belongs in everyone’s day, in my opinion. It’s different than watching TV, browsing Facebook updates, and even reading. It’s doing nothing, with intentionality.

These days I’m sleeping more (8 hours is my sweet spot), I’ve stopped working into the wee hours of the night, and I feel better than ever. I’m doing less, but enjoying it more. I’m allowing more time to get things done and giving myself a break where I used to be so demanding.

And yet still, still, I find myself waking up from restorative poses.

I don’t know how long it’ll take to get enough sleep and rest in the bank to make up for my sleep deficit. But it’s logical to assume that the longer the deficit has been in effect (ahem – I have a 10 year old, too), the longer it takes to make it up.

Restorative yoga practice has become the handiest little barometer for tracking my sleep/rest progress. It’s an embodied reminder that rest is important, and that slowing down has value (and is far from laziness or indulgence).

Judging from the fact that I managed to conk out in a restorative twist in under five minutes the other day, I still have a lot of work to do. But when your definition of work includes making an easy-chair out of bolsters, blankets, and blocks and then tucking yourself in for a nice rest, I can get behind that.

 

And in the meantime, I’ll be banking those minutes of restorative yoga sleep. And it’s okay.

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Since seeing my 94 year-old grandmother struggle to get out of her wheelchair at a holiday party, I’ve been contemplating new goals for the time I spend on my yoga mat. My grandma is famously hearty, spunky, and self-sufficient, and up until a year ago she lived on her own and walked up and down a long flight of stairs multiple times every day. Last year at the holidays, I recall her bending down to pick up a tiny piece of lint on the floor. I should have known she’d slow down eventually, but she’s been healthy, active, and self-sufficient for so long, I was starting to think she’d always be that way. How could so much change in less than a year? 

Aging is invisible, made even more so by the fact that we want to deny it’s happening. As I’m approaching 40 I’m both grateful for my relative youth and irritated that I now have to think about my form when loading the dishwasher if I want to avoid a backache. 

Inspired by my amazingly tough grandma and my desire to continue loading the dishwasher pain-free, I’m rethinking my yoga goals. Yes, it’s awesome that each and every time I practice I come off the mat feeling like a million bucks (or as I sighed after class the other day, “I feel like a human being again!”). But that’s just not enough for me anymore.   

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I’ve been all over the map in my 20 year yoga career. Having come from an athletic background, I started yoga with an overly vigorous, push-push-push mentality. Then after a few years (and a few too many injuries) I swung in the opposite direction and pretty much refused to do anything that risked me breaking a sweat or didn’t involve a bolster. 

From what I’ve observed in my years of teaching, many practitioners tend toward the same black-or-white approach, sticking with classes that match their natural inclinations on the mat. If you’re a vigorous yogi, you’re probably a regular in challenging vinyasa-style classes that build heat, throw in a few arm balances, and just generally kick your butt. If you’re a gentler yogi, you’re likely a pro at modifying poses, your bolster is your best friend, and in your eyes there’s no such thing as too many restorative poses. 

If you’re looking to yoga to support your aging process, which approach is better: vigorous or gentle?  

The answer (at least for me) is both. 

There’s plenty of conflicting scientific evidence and absolutely no guarantees as to the secret formula for aging well. But my money’s on a balanced approach that combines the vigorous and the gentle. In this approach, yoga is not about trying to improve or impress, but more importantly, to maintain. Whatever I can do today, I want to be able to do tomorrow, next month, next year, next decade. 

It takes a delicate balance to figure out when to push yourself and when to take it easy on the mat. Too strict an approach and you’re likely to injure yourself or burn out; too lax and you’ll gradually lose ground.  

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Think of the last time you practiced a long hold in chair pose. In order to build muscle strength you need to hold the pose until you begin to feel some sensation in your legs, but if you go too deep or hold too long, you’ll probably hold your breath, create unnecessary tension, or even strain yourself.  

Chair is a love-it or hate-it pose for most yoga students. I used to be a chair hater, mostly because the pose was hard for me, but eventually I realized that if I wanted to stay strong and mobile as I age, any pose that’s hard should become my best friend. Now, even in my gentle yoga classes, I sequence in gentle strengthening poses and incorporate a little bit of challenge into every practice (interspersed with plenty of delicious restorative moments).  

Here’s a cool scientific tidbit: Strength, especially leg strength, has recently been proven to be an important factor in improving brain health and slowing age-related decline. And there’s plenty of evidence touting the benefits of triggering the body’s relaxation response to reduce the chronic impact of stress on the body and mind. 

Scientific studies (and awesome grandmas) are giving us the formula. We just need to implement it: work a little, relax a little, aaahhh a little. 

So how can you bring your own practice more into balance?  

You don’t have to ditch your favorite class or completely overhaul your approach. But you may want to take an honest look at whether your yoga practice is just improving upon your strengths and ignoring your weaknesses? 

Maybe you crave the muscle burn from a long hold in warrior I, but when it’s time to lie still in savasana you want to crawl out of your skin. Or on the other hand, perhaps you’re the person who just “comes for the savasana” and barely tolerates anything more vigorous than that.  

Observe the yogi that you are today and consider adding either a new class that focuses on the opposite approach, or simply challenge yourself to fully embrace the parts of your favorite class that are particularly hard for you. There are no guarantees, of course, but my hunch is that rounding your yoga out will serve you well as you age. 

May we all live to be spunky 90+ year-olds who bend down to pick up lint off the floor; may we learn when to challenge ourselves and when to soften; and may we use our yoga practice for the good of our aging selves, so we can unload the dishwasher without pain rather than waking up one day and wondering how our bodies have suddenly, over the course of so many years, betrayed us.

 

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It was one of those late-May days where you just want to whistle back to the birds. The breeze balanced out the warmth of the afternoon perfectly, gardens were just coming into their own, and I smiled and waved as a neighbor approached on the sidewalk.

“Isn’t it amazing?” I said, thinking that just weeks prior I would have been waving with mittens.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m happy because it’s summer, but I’m sad because it’s almost over.”

I chuckled and assured him that summer hadn’t even officially begun, but I understood what he was really saying.

It’s easy to think this is simply the curse of the Chicagoan – coming off of the brutality of a long, difficult winter, one can’t help but remember that despite the appearance of things when sidewalks are slapped by cheerful masses strolling in their flip flops, in a few short months we’ll bid farewell to those sweet evenings spent lingering on the porch while a cold beverage sweats in your hand. Big, bad winter looms over every lush corner garden.

But this isn’t just a Chicagoan’s problem, and it isn’t just about weather.

When my five year-old daughter cuddles up in my lap and asks me to scratch her back, interspersed with the sweetness of our connection is my disbelief over the fact that she grew almost an inch in the last few months and I can barely carry her anymore.

As I sigh into the incredible comfort of an exquisitely propped restorative yoga pose and feel that one stubborn tight spot in my neck begin to release, the next inhalation comes in a little more shallowly because my thoughts have inadvertently shifted to how bummed I’m going to be when it’s time to come out of the pose, put the props away, and get back on my computer.

Endings are hard. But like in a good story, there’s always a beginning, a middle, and an eventual end. The fact that summer or childhood or yoga or life ends isn’t the problem, the problem is when a worried mind focuses so much on the end that there’s no room to appreciate the middle.

I used to think that were I not so moved by the tragedy of endings, that would make me a cold and unemotional person. It seemed to me that the best way to appreciate a beautiful moment was to wallow in the sadness I’d feel when it was over.

Then in my second yoga teacher training 12 years ago as I explored my relationship to yoga’s philosophical concepts, I was fortunate to have the chance to really come face-to-face with my own natural tendency to simultaneously cling to the past while constantly anticipating the future.

What was missing in that picture?

The middle, the now, the what is.

Summer ends every year, but I don’t need to suffer that loss before it arrives. When my mom used to tell me, “Don’t wish your life away,” I’d nod but wonder how else to spend my time other than thinking about what was next.

good.jpgAfter years of yoga practice (going on 18 years now….wow!), the poses, conscious breath, mindfulness, and relaxation have helped me find what was missing, what was standing between me and the moment. Turns out it was just my busy little mind all that time!

Like Dorothy in her ruby slippers, it seems silly to have been unable to see I was standing in my own way. Yoga practice became my Glinda, and though it was a much less instant shift than a click of the heels, I’m forever grateful for the sparkly dose of clarity that set me on the path.

Once my neighbor and I passed on the sidewalk, there wasn’t too much more to say. The day spoke for itself with my not-yet-sunscreened skin soaking up the rays that managed to beam between leaves, and his sweatshirt, a holdout from the previous day’s cool, wrapped around his waist.

I turned to look over my shoulder once more and had the urge to tell the back of his head, to tell myself, the best we can do is to enjoy it while it’s here. But when I saw the spring in his step as he walked towards the train I shifted my gaze back to the sidewalk ahead of me and kept walking, one sidewalk square at a time, until I eventually arrived home.

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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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