Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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Posted by on in Health

As I settled in for another late-night work session last night, I wondered 'Will it ever end?'

The past few months have been incredibly busy as I've taken on a new time-consuming project on top of all of my other work and family obligations. The stress and pressure of the project have translated to some less-than-positive behavioral changes: I'm sleeping less, making less time for self-care, and eating a lot more dessert than usual!

But after struggling with it for a couple of months and beating myself up over the way I've been handling this challenging time, I've realized that I need to look at it from a different perspective. Realistically, until this project wraps up next month I need to squeeze more productivity out of myself without having the benefit of more time to work with. That means some late nights (and often the help of dark chocolate to keep me going!) as well as less time than I would like for yoga, swimming, and relaxation.

It's not ideal, but it's okay for now. More importantly, as long as I eventually make some behavioral changes, it will end at some point.

I've been using that idea as a mantra of sorts these past few months when my stress level rises. Knowing that nothing lasts forever is incredibly empowering and allows me to better tolerate times of stress.

However, the flip side is that the good times don't last forever either.

It's easy to be happy and upbeat when things are going great and you've just received word that your promotion came through. You may find yourself identifying with the good feelings and associating with them so strongly that they become intertwined with your self-identity.

However, if I'm attached to well-being, when it's taken from me I not only feel unwell, I also feel cheated out of something I had come to associate as my right. The attachment adds insult to injury.

When facing a challenging time, whether on a physical, personal, or professional level, only part of the pain or discomfort comes from the thing itself.

In the end, it's not so important whether you're facing good times or hard times. When you get a frustrating email that sends you into a rage that lasts the whole day, the email wasn't really the problem. The problem is the attachment to negativity, the refusal to let go and move forward. Likewise clinging to feeling good and having everything go well seems like it shouldn't be a problem, and it isn't until the good times fade.

The events of life and work arrive in a neutral state. Your mind brings the context and baggage to determine that a frustrating email from a colleague was 'bad' but an email from a friend was 'good.' The practice of detachment from judgement can be difficult because of the strong associations and emotional attachments you have in real-life situations, so it can be easier to practice on a physical level first.

A seated hip opener in a chair is one of my favorite places to explore and practice neutrality. Because of the long hours spent on desk work, the outer hips become very tight because they are not given their full range of motion on a daily basis. I love this seated hip opener because it's a gentle (and inconspicuous!) way to provide openness in the hips, but it's also a great place to explore sensation.

When I place my leg in this position and gradually fold forward, it produces a strong sensation in my hip. My first instinct is to label the sensation ('pain' or 'discomfort'). But once I've attached to the idea that it's painful, it becomes much harder to stay in the pose and give my poor hips the opening that they need.

When I instead practice observing it as a sensation without labeling it, I find that I feel less wrapped up in the emotional responses that pain can produce. I no longer victimized by a bad feeling that has no end. I no longer feel trapped, but rather curious. I know that when I choose to come out of the pose, the sensation will stop. That mindset makes it easier for me to tolerate and be present for the intensity.

Yes, I'm getting less sleep than I'd like to be, but won't be forever. My hips and back are tighter than I'd like them to be because of all the sitting I've been doing, but it doesn't have to be that way for ever. My dark chocolate habit is perhaps getting a bit out of control (is there really such a thing as too much dark chocolate?), but once I decide to make the change, all of this will be different.

This, too, shall pass. The choice of whether to stress out about it is mine.

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Sure, it was going to be an amazing experience. But how could I possibly step away when life was so busy?

A couple of weeks ago, my family was supposed to join our friends for a camping trip in Indiana to witness the annual migration of the sandhill cranes. We had every reason not to go this year. The computer at the studio died the day before the trip, our garage door was on the fritz, and from the way things looked on weather.com, it seemed just a little bit crazy to think of spending two whole days outside.

Secretly I was hoping that the weight of all these little headaches might be just enough to force us to call off the trip. I wasn't sure if I was capable of stepping back from my stress and busyness.

One thing I've learned from the past 8 years of running Bloom: when you say you're too busy to do something that will be fun or relaxing or will take you out of your everyday routine, you definitely are too busy.

But you need to do it anyway.


So we packed up the car and the kids and headed towards Indiana. As we left the city limits, I noticed my jaw had unclenched. By the time we were driving past cornfields, the ache in my upper back was gone. When we rolled into the campsite and freed the kids from their carseats, they immediately communed with the fallen leaves, rolling around, throwing them, swishing their feet through them and making the most delightful sound. We ran to the playground and romped about on the swings and the see-saw, then I took us all for a whirl on the old-school spinny ride. As I went around and around, looking up at the trees and the sky and enjoying getting just a little too dizzy, I was literally unwinding, unloading the burden of my daily routine.

That afternoon we headed to Jasper-Pulaski State Park, which the cranes use as a stopping point to feed and rest on their journey to Georgia and Florida. While our friends have been going to see the cranes for more than fifteen years, it was only our third year witnessing this amazing wildlife spectacle. By this point, we knew what we should expect to see. Thousands of birds, as many as 10,000, would be flying in over our heads as sunset rolled in. Though we had seen it before, it would still be an unbelievable thing to see this many birds in one place, to witness their fabulous dance and hear their unique call, and to know that it's been this way for millions of years.

Kind of makes my unanswered emails seem insignificant.

As we pulled in to the parking lot and exited the car, we looked up in the sky and didn't see much of anything happening. In past years, from the moment we arrived there were groups of cranes flying in from all directions like planes approaching the runway. But this time, we struggled to spot ten cranes in the sky at any one time.

So there were were: cold, with kids who (predictably) didn't find this particularly interesting, wrestling with our own expectations and our attempts at being patient. One hour in, we had seen a few dozen more, but we couldn't help commenting at how in past years there had just been so many more cranes. The others who gathered, including some birders who had been coming every year for 20+ years, were all talking about it.

We were here. Where were the cranes?

Migration is nature's built-in self-care and survival mechanism. When the weather changes and the cranes' quality of life is affected by it, they instinctively make a long journey for their well-being and the well-being of their family. It's no small thing, and it requires some work and a sacrifice. But migration keeps the cranes alive and well.



"They're probably too busy to migrate," I joked to my friend. "I blame the internet."

"Yeah," she said. "Maybe they tweeted a different landing location this year."

Could the cranes really override their survival programming? What would happen to them if they did?

Though I was perplexed by their relative absence and disappointed not to get to see their amazing spectacle, in a small, weird way it was validating and enticing to think that perhaps the cranes were just too busy this year to make a big deal out of the whole migration thing.

It was a very familiar rationale, at least in human terms. What if despite the knowledge that this was the one thing they needed, the one thing that would keep them healthy and safe, they opted out because they were busy and it was too hard leave their current situation?

As human beings we do not instinctively migrate, and we unfortunately possess immense power to override our body's signals. When my body showed signs of stress earlier that day, instead of recognizing that I needed time away to extract myself from the metaphorical cold front that was rolling in on my life, I nearly decided to just put my head down and power through.

When you unknowingly choose stress over self-care over and over again, you pay the price for it. Stress-related disease is on the rise, and the pace of life seems unlikely to slow down any time soon, so we must learn to override societal messages in order to better tune in to the biological ones. Our bodies and minds crave the break of metaphorical migration, we need a better balance of activity and rest, and yet it can be hard to know how to achieve that short of taking off for a warm-weather vacation.

Another thing I love about yoga: while it has been proven that many forms of movement and exercise provide health benefits, built right into the fabric of yoga's philosophy is this balancing act, the knowledge that 'active' doesn't necessarily mean 'healthy' unless it's balanced with sufficient rest and relaxation.

Deep down we humans know this, but in the flurry of external stimulus from work and media and busy schedules, we often forget. I was beginning to wonder whether the cranes had forgotten, too.

Hour two rolled around and we were getting colder and more discouraged, but I wasn't ready to give up on the cranes. I needed to see them come. As the sun went down a few more flocks started rolling in, and gradually the sky began to appear littered with them. They were coming as they did every year. Despite our computer problems and busy work schedules and minor home repair issues, we could depend on the cranes after all.



They flew in, proof of what is real and what is not. The need to be warm in the winter, the need for food and water, the need for social connections, for the support of a group - these are real. The other stuff, though it occupies our days and provides entertainment, is more of a construct of reality than reality itself.

That weekend we spent two days outside, bundled, huddled by the fire, focused mostly on our basic needs of eating, drinking, sleeping, and staying warm, and it was the medicine I needed. It was a reminder that it was safe and necessary for me to get away and escape the constructs.

The miserable notoriously love company, and in busy patches of my life I've often found myself seeking out my own kind. "Are things super busy for you, too?" I'd ask those around me, hoping. If others were experiencing the same thing, it validated and normalized what I was going through, and made me think that maybe it was just inevitable to grow more and more stressed each year.

But I've decided to stop asking that question of others, and have come up with a new answer should someone ask it of me. "I'm not super busy. I'm making time for rest and taking good care of myself."

It's time to say 'no' to busyness. It's time to normalize well-being, to take a lesson from the cranes, and stop overriding the body's signals to rest. Whether that means some yoga to start the day, a walk to clear your head, or simply time away from the computer, now is the time to take better care.

Like the cranes, we can only survive if we learn to listen to the body's signals. We can only thrive if we regularly choose to migrate, to fly away from stress in order to return home to that warm, sunny place called rest and relaxation.

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Posted by on in Family

When my alarm went off at 6am today, it was all I could do to keep myself from crawling back into bed. But I had made a plan, I had made a promise to myself that despite the temptation of the warmth and comfort of an extra half-hour of sleep, I would step onto the cool hardwood floor, pull my hair back, and move my body. Yoga, walking, dancing, biking - it's less important what than how. I simply knew I had to find a way to take better care of myself.

"There's just never enough time!" I said as I rolled out my mat. And it occurred to me that I've been saying that a lot over the past month.


The kids' school schedule is in full swing, I've added more workdays at Bloom (yay!), and as a result I've felt pulled in new directions (often towards my ball chair and the blue glow of a computer screen). The more projects I tackle and mental gymnastics I put myself through, the more aware I am at the end of the day that I've neglected my body. Much as I don't want to admit it, the increasingly sedentary nature of my work week is taking its toll.

I'm envious as I watch my kids run and play on the playground after school, remembering how good it feels for activity to be a seamless part of your existence. Having been an active person all my life, I'd like to believe that physical activity and exercise can just be a natural extension of my day. But I've recently come to terms with the fact that as an adult, the nature of my day has changed. The work I'm passionate about accomplishing at Bloom and the writing projects I aspire to complete require periods of sustained concentration, most often seated at a desk and in front of a computer.

I've been sneaking activity in whenever I can - when I'm at the park with the kids, I'll jump up to hang from the monkey bars or chase them around the playground - but it's not enough to have a lasting impact.

After a week or so of being achy and feeling sorry for myself, I gave myself a little pep talk:

You can't wait for exercise to happen to you, you have to schedule it in.

I reminded myself that everyone has the same number of hours in the day and some people manage to make time for whatever it is they want to do on a daily basis. Making time means being intentional about how you spend your day.

To successfully schedule time for physical activity, I realized that something else needed to come out of my day. That's where this scheduling business gets tricky - it's hard to decide what to sacrifice. But without a sacrifice, without a true commitment to the new plan, I knew nothing would change. So I started with an assessment of my day as it currently stands.

For me, the early morning hours are an ideal time for physical activity for logistical reasons and otherwise. It gives me quiet time before the kids wake up, time to focus and reconnect before the chaos of the morning routine begins, and it sets the tone for the whole day.

But having been accustomed to working at night once the kids go to bed for the past five years, it required me to make a shift. I had to sacrifice the late nights I used to knock things off my to-do list and prepare for the next day. It's a sacrifice that I'm excited to make because it means getting to bed earlier and feeling more rested, but I it's still taking a lot of discipline to change the habit.

When I want to take a yoga class, I don't just loosely plan to go anymore - I put it in my calendar. It's a way of committing to myself and making sure that I don't let anything else take priority over my plan.

I'll initially come up with all kinds of excuses why I can't spare 90 minutes to go to class. Over the years as I've had too much to do and not enough time to do it, I've become stingy with my time, demanding "productivity" of myself at every moment. But the way I feel when I leave a yoga class is fuel for productivity. The permission to shut off for a while, to go inside and connect on a breath and body level gives me the boost I need to return to my work with clarity and creativity.

In order to get myself to class, I must sacrifice my self-image as a workaholic. I must let go of the fact that more work time does not necessarily mean better results. I must be kinder to myself. Fortunately, following the schedule provides its own rewards. When I make the time to take care of myself, I actually feel like I have more time in my day.

These days it's easy to feel over-scheduled, so the idea of scheduling one more thing initially made my stomach turn. But when I use a different word for it, when I think of it as planning, of setting an intention for what I wish to do and create, scheduling time for physical activity becomes an exercise in mindfulness and self-care. That's the kind of scheduling I can get behind.

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Posted by on in Health

My blue paper gown crinkles as I shift back onto the long white sheet of paper. The table is so high that my legs swing like I'm a kid seated at the grown-up table. When the nurse left she said that the doctor would be in for my check-up in just a few minutes, but it has been considerably longer. I can hear the bustle outside the room as doctors and nurses call to each other about various patients and procedures, and the unease begins to creep in. I have no control over how long I will have to wait until my doctor comes in. And it bothers me.

Waiting used to just be a fact of life. I remember many quiet minutes spent as a child at the doctor's office or in the dentist's chair. No matter what I had been doing before my appointment, the moment I sat down in that room I slipped into waiting mode. I'd do windshield wipers with my feet, play connect the dots with the ceiling tile, or just look around, soaking up the stillness and the quiet of the in-between.

It's different now. With the faster pace of life and seemingly less time to accomplish everything, with smartphones and their mini computing power available almost everywhere you go, simply sitting and waiting can bring up feelings of emptiness and anxiety. Waiting for someone else to dictate when your time becomes 'useful' again can make you feel powerless and even deprived.

In the doctor's office, with all these emotions brewing, I looked around the room frantically for something to occupy me.

The magazines weren't my taste and I don't particularly like to spend time on my phone when I don't have to, so I started to read the office flyers and medical charts posted in the office. When I found myself squatting down in front of the Netter's Anatomy flip-chart looking at an illustrated explanation of the symptoms and causes of diabetes, I realized something had gone wrong. I was just trying to fill time, to calm the empty feeling that waiting now induces in me. It's not my own time, it's not my time to play a specific role (the patient, in this case). Rather it's an undefined stretch of in-between, a pause that will last for a minute or twenty, and my initial impulse was to just get busy doing something. Anything.

Instead, I get back on the table and let my legs dangle. I sit tall, fold my hands in my lap, and take a deep breath. It feels good, so I close my eyes and continue. When I hear a rustle at the door as my doctor is about to enter I panic and open my eyes, slouching a little so I look like someone who is waiting in the expected way. What if she comes in here and finds me with sitting stick-straight with my eyes closed? She'll think I'm some kind of weirdo.

But then she's called away to something else, and my eyes instantly close again. I lengthen the crown of my head towards the tiled ceiling, making more room to draw my breath in to the belly and chest, and I breathe. In and out, over and over again, like it's the best meditation session I've ever had despite the fact that I'm wearing a paper gown. I feel the stresses of the week falling away, my whole body feels like it's breathing, and for the first time that day, everything is just right.

When my doctor came into the room I opened my eyes and she was none the wiser of my waiting meditation. But as I talked with her I felt more open and connected than I can ever remember feeling during a doctor's visit. Those few minutes of waiting (I don't even know how many, that's the beauty of it!) could have made me feel victimized, bored, or irritated. But thanks to the waiting meditation, a technique no more complicated than closing my eyes and breathing deeply, the wait was transformed into 'me-time.'

Learning to integrate meditation into daily life is not as hard as it may initially seem. And once you start, it won't be long until you're just another weirdo at the doctor's office. If you're lucky.

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Any new parent can tell you of the importance of tummy time for healthy spinal development. The evolution of the human spine is an incredible thing, but the 'devolution' of the spine that occurs in adults who spend too much time hunched in front of a computer is frightening. I'm here today to say it: adults need tummy time, too. And yoga can provide it!

At birth, humans have a single C-shaped curve, and it is only in the first few months of life that the first secondary curve of the cervical spine develops. Tummy time is an important way that babies develop the strength and ability to hold their heads up, and thus create the curve of the cervical spine. The next secondary curve of the lumbar spine develops as a child learns to creep and crawl.
 
 b2ap3_thumbnail_computer-evolution.jpg
 
Imagine your posture after you've been sitting in front of a computer for hours. You're tired of sitting and your back is achy, so you slump back in your chair. But then you can't see the screen very well so you find yourself leaning closer and closer. Your chin juts forward, the cervical and lumbar curves are reduced to the point where the spine more closely resembles a c-shape than the s-shape it should be in a healthy adult. Prolonged bouts of sitting in this manner may lead to a profound loss in strength in the core muscles of the body (think support system for the spine rather than "abs of steel"), resulting in a loss of the ability to access, much less maintain, the good posture we developed as active toddlers.

What to do?
 
Consider the humble backbend known as salabhasana, locust pose. Or as I've come to think of it lately, tummy time for grown-ups. I was recently watching a sweet little yogi who hadn't yet learned to crawl, and the ease with which he lifted his head and his legs was delightful. How many of us as adults can find that same ease in this pose on the yoga mat?
 
b2ap3_thumbnail_SeatedBackbend.jpgFor years, I avoided locust pose in my practice because it was so hard to lift my legs, arms, and upper body simultaneously. But as I know now, it was hard precisely because I avoided it (and needed it so badly). So I've been treating myself like a baby by doing daily tummy time and it's working like a charm. My core muscles are stronger and the pose is getting easier. It's gotten to the point where my body craves the simple, strengthening backbend that locust pose provides. 
 
You can even practice a seated variation right in your chair to help reset your posture and re-energize your body and mind. It's the antidote to sitting and slouching in front of a computer and it will remind you to breathe more deeply and sit up straighter!

The bad news: All the time you spend hunched in front of a computer may be detrimental to your health and may be contributing to the 'devolution' of your spine as depicted by our poor friend in the first image above.

The good news: You don't need to squirm and cry through the recommended 10-20 minutes of daily tummy time that a baby does. Start small and keep it simple. Integrate a simple backbend into your day, become more aware of your posture when you're sitting at your desk, take frequent breaks to get up, walk around, and get you out of your seated slump. There's even an app for that - you can download software that will provide you with timed reminders to get up and stretch every so often.

It seems simple, but a minor change in your daily habits may hold great potential for better back health and comfort. At first it will seem hard, but there's no need to be a baby about it: when you make time for tummy time, your back will most definitely thank you!

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