Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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“This is hard,” I think as I’m shaking my way through a few breaths in plank pose. “It shouldn’t be this hard.” b2ap3_thumbnail_PlankPose.jpg

It’s been 9 months since I’ve fully practiced plank (other than the few brief big bellied demos I did because I’d forget I was pregnant while teaching), and I’m feeling it. My core is struggling so my wrists and low back seem to be bearing the brunt of the work, and a scared little voice in my head (my ego, perhaps?) warns that maybe I’ll never get back to where I was with my physical practice.

Yoga philosophy tells me I should cultivate beginner’s mind, but at the moment, almost two months after giving birth to baby #3, I’m completely wrapped up in the practice of beginner’s body. I’ve been here many times since I came to yoga 19 years ago – after injuries, after a lapse in practice, after pregnancy and birth – and each time I go into it with trepidation and impatience. “How long will it take?” I wonder. “I just want to be back to where I was.”

Five, ten, twenty planks from now, I know things will get easier. But ugh, do I really have to be present for all the awkward, shaky attempts between now and then? I’m reluctant to admit it, but it hurts my pride. I was religious about my modified practice throughout my pregnancy and I started gentle yoga again a few weeks after baby girl was born. Didn’t all that work earn me the right to just pick up where I left off?

Once I quiet my inner whiny yogi, I remember that strength comes and goes gradually. Just because I pop into a pose and demand my old abilities back, that doesn’t mean my body will instantly comply.  It took 9 months of not practicing plank to get to where I am now, so I can guess it’ll probably be at least another 9 months until I get back to feeling pre-baby strong again.

This is not about “getting my body back” or dropping that last 10 pounds of baby weight or fitting into my old jeans (though I won’t be sad when it’s time to say goodbye to maternity denim). Coming back to an active practice after having some time away is an opportunity to renew my love affair with yoga, to remember the joy, challenge, and possibilities I felt as a beginner.

My mantra on the mat today is “I am not my plank pose.” I place a blanket on the floor for a knees-down plank and my core, wrists, and back sigh a thank you for listening. I have my whole life to practice the full pose and although it can be frustrating to have limitations, they’re also sparks for new experiences. 

When I’m pressed for time in my home practice, it’s normally so easy for me to go on autopilot and just whisk through the same old sequences. But because there are certain places I can’t go yet (hello flowing sequence of full sun salutes), I’m getting creative with riffs on the half sun salute, I’m practicing more seated poses, and viparita karani (legs up the wall) is my new best friend, again.

A beginner’s body practice requires chaperoning by a gentle and forgiving beginner’s mind. 

My body feels heavier and less certain in down dog. I remind myself the pose is not the point and tap into a child-like joy at getting to go upside down again. 

I’m still lacking the strength and stability to even think about attempting navasana (boat pose). I lie on my back and breathe deeply, enjoying the sensation of my navel pulling in with each exhale.

“This is hard,” I tell myself. “As hard as it should be.”

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Are you sick of shame lurking behind your New Year’s exercise and diet resolutions

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I love January for its promise of a fresh start around the choices we make as we open the fridge or lace up our running shoes, particularly after the food-drink-dessert bombardment of the holidays and the distortion of well-established movement routines.

But while the New Year is as good a time as any to recommit to health of the body and mind, I’ve finally realized that I’m just not motivated by resolutions packaged in negative self-talk and tied up with a pretty read bow of shame. Shame makes health a precarious tightrope walk, and after one misstep it’s so easy to just eat the whole big bag of chips since I’m already plummeting toward the safety net anyway.

So how do you remove shame but keep the motivation to change your eating and exercise habits? The only thing that’s worked for me is to think differently about the whys and hows behind my resolutions.

 

Ask yourself “why?” 

You can’t reasonably expect a change to stick if you don’t know why you’re doing it in the first place. Are your diet and exercise goals motivated by a desire to lose weight, to look a certain way, or to feel healthier and more energetic? Is it some combination of the three? If you don’t know the why behind what you want (or if your “why” is really a “should”) lasting change won’t happen. Once you get past the initial honeymoon stage of your snazzy new diet and exercise resolutions, there’ll be days when you’re just too tired or too busy. Your “why” may be the thing that helps you get over the hump and recommit to the new plan.

 

Choose your own adventure

Once you know your “why,” let it guide your choices and routines. If, for example, your goal is to feel healthier and more energetic, why would you put yourself in a fitness class that has you staring at yourself in the mirror as you work on getting a beach-ready body? Instead of suffering through the latest celebrity-endorsed fitness and diet fads, find ways to eat and move that help you feel both healthier AND happier. My New Year’s exercise and diet resolutions used to be motivated by a desire to punish myself after a particularly rich string of holiday meals and couch-sitting. But like a rebellious teenager, I’d just end up acting out and bailing on my exercise and dietary penance.

 

Get real about your expectations

Recent studies have shown that (gasp!) exercise is not all that effective in creating weight loss. The conclusion from this study is that fitness and cardiovascular health are more important than the actual number on the scale, but it also means that many of us set unrealistic expectations each January when we visualize ourselves post-workout with glistening abs and a svelte new physique. If your “why” is purely weight loss, this study is a big bummer, I know. But if your “why” also includes a desire to enhance your overall health and feel more energetic, the good news is that you have lots of options and you may even enjoy them in the process. There’s some exciting new evidence that yoga may be as beneficial for heart health as brisk walking and biking. Yay, yoga!

 

Abandon the forbidden food list

There’s nothing more tempting than that which is forbidden. I spent years creating a warped internal logic about what I could and couldn’t eat (based on a hodge-podge of advice gleaned from such reliable sources as magazines, the internet, and overheard conversations at the health food store). You know what it led to? Me stuffing a 10th syrupy piece of my grandma’s baklava in my mouth on New Year’s Eve after having so virtuously foregone desserts the whole month of December. My new strategy revolves around eating real whole foods as the base of my diet and listening to that little voice that wants dessert. It knows what it’s talking about and WILL get its way eventually, so when I listen and enjoy a treat, it prevents me ending up in a fog of stuffed baklava regret later.

 

Put less weight in your weight

When it comes to health, it’s important to remember that weight is only one factor in the larger picture. Heart health, lowered stress, and overall feelings of well-being have a significant impact on the state of your health even if you’re carrying around an extra 5 or 10 pounds. Of course, weight, BMI, and other health factors are highly individualized and for those who are clinically overweight the numbers are a big deal. But when you’re already in a healthy weight range and you’re just battling a few stubborn pounds, it may be a good idea to examine whether the war you’re waging is enhancing your health and happiness or detracting from it.

 

Here’s to your continued health, happiness, and to resolutions without shame!

 

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