Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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Over the past 15 years of teaching yoga, I’ve told my students thousands of times, in thousands of different ways to avoid creating discomfort with the practice. Physically I felt this was the key to guarding against overdoing, strain, and injury.

But a couple of weeks ago I took an Experiential Anatomy workshop with Judith Lasater, and since then discomfort has become my new normal. Judith presented a completely new way of looking at alignment through the lens of kinesiology, and the cognitive dissonance I experienced during the workshop was as unsettling as it was exciting. After 15 years of practicing mountain, triangle, and down dog one way, I’m now exploring what it would mean to do almost exactly the opposite.

Tadasana, mountain pose, my familiar friend, has become this new creature. The shifting of the pelvic alignment, the undoing of ‘sneaky tailbone tucking,’ has freed my belly and low back, requiring much less work while achieving greater stability. Relying more on my bone structure means not needing to do so much work in the poses.

As exciting as these discoveries were, I still wasn’t sure what to think. I felt like an absolute beginner again. While I’m not generally attached to my ability to achieve fancy poses and my practice looks more like a level 1 student’s these days anyway, I was still uncomfortable with this absolute throwback to beginnerdom.

I’m not used to being uncomfortable in any substantial way. Most of us in the US aren’t. I have adequate food, clothing, and shelter. I’m in good health and my yoga practice has been a constant comfort to me, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I’m used to knowing what’s what in my practice, but right now on the mat I’m caught in a dialogue between old habit and new. As I make my way into trikonasana with the new alignment cues, my muscle memory protests, ‘But this is NOT how triangle feels...’

At every point in the pose my mind tries to decide whether Judith’s way is good or bad, whether I like it or dislike it, and I can’t help debating whether or not she’s right. But as Judith reminded us, determining what’s ‘right’ demands identifying its opposite, and there’s really not room for ‘wrong’ in yoga practice. All these tiny alignment details teachers offer students are simply ways to encourage paying attention and moving consciously rather than from rote. The mental focus and awareness generated from such details helps you practice yoga rather than just asana.

What do most of us do when we feel discomfort? My tendency is to fill it up – over the years that tool has ranged from stuffing my face with chocolate, zoning out to bad TV shows, or losing myself in work or writing projects to avoid feeling the unease of not knowing. Unconsciously, I must believe that if I do something familiar (even something that causes other kinds of pain and discomfort, like an overfull belly, regret over wasted time, or exhaustion from staying up too late), the weird unfamiliarity will be quelled so I can go on about my nice little life without having to examine what the discomfort really means below the surface.

I’m ready to invite discomfort in for myself and for my students, to play with the balance between knowing and not knowing, between certainty and unfamiliarity. We often visited this world as kids because so many of our experiences were new and uncomfortable, but we were repeatedly told it was an important part of our growth and development.

As adults couldn’t embracing the discomfort of newness be useful in cultivating that same sort of growth?

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I’ve been refining my definitions. Yes, discomfort is a warning sign. But sometimes rather than a red light, it’s a flashing yellow. ‘Hey, you! Pay attention to this and decide – do you want to hit the brakes or proceed with caution?’

Discomfort and pain are distinct experiences on the mat. Discomfort is the unfamiliar, like when Judith asked me to shift my pelvis forward and down in triangle rather than trying to spin open as I have done so many times before. My body was confused, my muscle memory jostled, and I experienced emotional discomfort because I felt like a complete beginner again. On the other hand, some of the things Judith suggested did not quite feel right in my body and bordered on pain. In those cases I listened, pulled back, and asked for help. But for the most part, when I managed to stay with the unfamiliarity long enough to undo my habitual asana patterns, I experienced a new lightness, steadiness, and ease in the poses.

While I want to play with discomfort and encourage my students to do the same, I’m still a firm believer that pain does not belong on the yoga mat and you need not push through it to achieve a breakthrough. I also don’t feel I’ve unlocked the key to the one ‘right’ way to approach alignment, but rather have reinforced for myself that the value of asana practice lies in its ability to help us pay attention to small details and sensation. I look forward to inviting students to pay closer attention, undo habits, and explore their discomfort with newness in asana. And I hope that when they step off the mat and back into their day the exploration they’ve done will open them to the growth possibilities that exist within cognitive dissonance, with the questioning of patterns without need for determining ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’

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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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[caption id="attachment_1501" align="alignright" width="212"] On our wedding day, after someone hilariously dropped my dress in Lake Michigan

Zach and I are celebrating 12 years of marriage this month.

In many ways, we're an unlikely match. I'm an extrovert, while he's an expert at finding the quietest room at a big party. He's got an innate sense of direction, whereas I famously got lost trying to navigate my way home from high school. He's practical and efficient and knows how to keep to a schedule, whereas I get excited by big ideas and have more flexible boundaries (read: I'm often late).

Our differences are many, but we share a love of music and the arts, we laugh together freely and often, and we're both fiercely competitive by nature and always up for a game of any kind.

The first few years we were together, I only wanted to see our similarities. Being so in love and so new to each other, I wanted to believe we could be the same person. But as we lived together day after day, our differences became more apparent. And it worried me.



Early in our marriage we had lots of arguments over small silly things like losing in a mixed doubles tennis match against friends. After endless analysis over each point, the two of us lobbing blame back and forth in an effort to decide which one of us was the cause of the blown lead, our unrelenting stubbornness turned something inconsequential into a day of silence.

As I stomped around and pouted in our wordless apartment, I wondered how two people could live in harmony for an extended period of time without compromising their individuality. I was unsure how to fit my big personality and his big personality in the same home without explosive results.

After following the same argumentative pattern over and over again during the first year of our marriage, we eventually decided to try a different approach. When we argued - once the initial anger subsided - we began to dissect the disagreement and each of our perspectives on it. Gradually we came to better understand our different ways of looking at the world, processing information, communicating.

[caption id="attachment_1580" align="alignleft" width="240"] 12 years later. Photo courtesy of Jill Liebhaber of jookie


We'd talk through an argument wherever it happened, even if we were with friends. They'd laugh uncomfortably and tell us to lighten up, to brush off what seemed to them a small deal. But we knew better. It wasn't just about losing a tennis match. That time spent talking through our communication breakdowns was a process of refinement, both of ourselves as individuals and as a marital unit.

At the beginning, we were more wedded to our individualism than to each other. We clung to personality quirks as if our self-identities depended on it. But over the past 12 years, I've come to think of marriage as a dulling of our individual sharp edges - in the best possible way - so that our unique personalities don't snag the fabric of our union. Now rather than clinging exclusively to my unique personality traits, I love observing in myself things that are very 'Zach-like' because they reveal the ways that we have allowed ourselves to bleed together, to balance.

Just as in relationships, the balance of opposites is constantly at play on the yoga mat. When I first started practicing yoga 16 years ago, I was very flexible from my years as a dancer. It was exciting to be 'good' at yoga, to be able to touch my feet to my head in a backbend, to be able to twist myself into any crazy position my teacher suggested.

What I didn't realize was that my strengths on the mat were simultaneously masking and amplifying my weaknesses.


When I exploited my flexibility to get into a deep backbend and ended up getting hurt, I felt betrayed. I didn't understand why I shouldn't just go towards my natural inclinations, I was shocked that it could be harmful to do what came happily and easily.

Sharp edges still intact, I continued practicing yoga like this for the first year or so until I happened into a class where a teacher suggested engaging the quads in triangle pose, and I realized I had no idea how to access those muscles! Yoga had come so easily for me when I was pushing towards my natural bias of flexibility, so the challenge of working towards something I couldn't do piqued my interest.

I was enticed to consider that perhaps there was more to the practice than I'd initially thought, even though it was slightly scary because it completely threatened my self-identity as a 'good' yogi. But I dug deeper, tried and tried to lift my quads, and investigated the shadowy areas of my practice.



Over the next few years, I pulled back from my bias of flexibility and emphasized building strength and stability on my mat instead. I worked through shakiness to hold Warrior II longer. In Side Angle I disciplined myself to balance shoulder hyper-mobility by building strength and stability in the shoulder girdle. I realized that by working towards something that didn't initially come naturally or easily, I could become a more balanced and humble yoga practitioner.

My yoga practice better equipped me to apply these principles in my marriage. I'd already experienced the benefits of dulling my edges on the mat, of refusing to let my strengths continually get stronger and my weaknesses linger. So it was that much easier to accept the ache of evolution in my relationship with my husband.

Sometimes, despite an innate desire to have your own views reflected back, despite an intense need for consensus and agreement, it's important to have your worldview challenged. I can always count on Zach for that, and though I tease him for it, it's one of the things I love most about him. Yoga practice also provides continual opportunities to explore that which is difficult, to question your motives and self-identity, and to improve areas of weakness. When approached this way, yoga is less about being able to touch your feet to your head than it is about seeking a union of opposites. And like the union of marriage, yoga's greatest potential is in the dulling of sharp edges in pursuit of harmony and balance.

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