Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

I vividly remember my first meditation experience more than 15 years ago. When the teacher said we'd be meditating for 30 minutes, I panicked. The teacher instructed us to close our eyes and quiet our minds. How could something so simple make me so nervous?

When I closed my eyes I felt tension building in my chest and it was as if my thoughts were screaming at me - mean, ugly, self-doubting thoughts. I was going through a difficult time and the last thing I wanted was to spend 30 minutes coming face-to-face with self-judgement. It was scary and intimidating and it made me want to quit.

Part of the problem was that 30 minutes was way too long for a first experience, but the bigger issue was that I had unrealistic expectations for what meditation should look and feel like.
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The word meditation is thrown around a lot these days because there have been so many recent studies touting its benefits. But too many people have a very narrow and unrealistic idea of what meditation can be.


When you first try meditation (or mindfulness or being present), don’t be surprised if you’re not feeling immediately blissed out and peaceful. In fact, you may initially find it incredibly frustrating. Your mind’s job is to think, so it's unrealistic to expect that simply sitting up straight and closing your eyes will translate to a peaceful, thought-free existence. Rather, the aim is to first become aware of the thoughts, and then to put some space between them. Thoughts will continue to come, as they should, but if you can learn to control how you react to the thoughts you will be able to move beyond habits to create newness and change in your life.
 
b2ap3_thumbnail_8minutemeditation.jpgThere are many techniques to help you do this, but a favorite of mine is one my colleague Lisa Sandquist shared with me. She drew the technique from 8 Minute Meditation by Victor Davich. He calls it "Gracious Declining" but Lisa refers to it as the ‘No, thank you’ meditation, which I love. Here’s how to do it: when a thought comes up, like 'I forgot to respond to that important email,' instead of following it to the next thought, 'I'm always letting people down,' silently say ‘No, thank you.’

The 'no' is a practice in derailing habitual thought patterns, and the ‘thank you’ is a reminder to work with compassion rather than beating yourself up.

Keep in mind that meditation (or whatever you want to call that quiet, reflective time) should not just become one more way to judge yourself and your value as a human being. It doesn’t matter if you meditate for a minute or an hour, what matters is how you apply the new perspectives gained to your daily life. When a conflict arises with a co-worker or your spouse, you can use that moment of pause to choose act with greater clarity and compassion, giving you the opportunity to communicate from a new place rather than just rehashing the same old argument.

Meditation is a powerful tool that can not only reduce stress, but can also be the first step towards creating change in your life and your relationships. But you have to practice regularly for that moment of pause to be there for you when you need it. For me, finding 8 minutes to be quiet and still can seem intimidating, and if you're too intimidated to actually do it who cares how high your goal is set? Two minutes is about how long it takes for your computer to boot up. And even two minutes can make a difference, so start there.

Give it a try. Right now if it feels appropriate. Or, be on the lookout for a 2-minute window of time later today that might work better. I'm a big fan of bringing wellness practices to unusual settings (I love to practice yoga in my kitchen!). It takes the pressure off when you practice meditation within the context of daily activities and don't make it too sacred.

I like to practice meditation at my desk (what a relief to take my eyes off the glowing computer screen for a few minutes!), on public transit, in waiting rooms, pretty much anyplace and anytime when I have a few minutes of downtime and I may be tempted to pull out my phone and check email.

It's all about finding something that's comfortable and manageable for you in the context of your daily life. When you first start, closing your eyes in a public place may feel too vulnerable (unless everyone else is doing it, too – can you imagine the power of midday office-wide meditation breaks?). In that case, you’ll just need to find a more private moment – maybe you can close the door to your office or take a moment on your morning train commute, or before you start your car (NOT while operating it!).

Stress is a reality, but tools like the 'No, thank you' Meditation can help you develop choice in how you react to it.

Despite the frustration and fear that arose from my first meditation experience, once I let go of what I thought meditation 'should' look like I was able to find ways to integrate this wonderful stress-reducing technique into daily life. It doesn't matter what it looks like or how long you do it. The key, as with everything, is consistent practice.

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Posted by on in Health

Some days it sneaks up on you, like the slow rise of a thermometer on a summer afternoon. Other days it hits all at once. However it arrives, stress is an unpleasant, obtrusive, and all-too-frequent visitor that leaves you feeling physically tense and mentally unsettled.

This past week has been particularly stressful for me. I have no fewer than five unfinished time-sensitive projects to deal with at work, my kids have been home sick from school, and it looks like a tornado blew through our house (how did that sock get on the ceiling fan, anyway?).

Pressed for time, I’ve been pushing myself to the limit in an attempt to be hyper-productive and somehow catch up and conquer my workload. I’ve been staying up late, working on weekends, neglecting to make adequate time for both activity and rest, and just generally sucking all enjoyment out of my daily existence.

Today I'd finally had enough.





During a quiet moment when no one was needing my attention, I inched to the front edge of my chair, sat up straight, rolled my shoulders a few time, placed my hands in my lap, and closed my eyes. As soon as my eyelids closed, I felt a shift. I took a deeper breath and felt some of my shoulder and neck tension release.

Without the visual stimulus of the stressors around me – my computer, the stack of papers I needed to address, the pile of mail that had to go out – my nagging to-do list seemed a little less important and I could see that in the big scheme of things it didn’t really matter if my house was a disaster for a few busy days. Things will settle down eventually – the projects will be done, the kids will go back to school – there is always enough time. I just have to choose to make space instead of stress.

I don’t like fancy labels, so if you asked me what I was doing I’d say I was just paying attention and tuning in.

Meditating?

Nah…..I was being present, I was taking care of myself. Meditation is something a yogi does under a tree at an ashram in some beautiful remote setting.

How can I call this ‘meditation’ when it's likely that the phone will ring at any moment?

What if I don't have more than two minutes to sit calmly and quietly? That can't still be meditation, can it?

Meditation, mindfulness, being present – it doesn't matter what you call it, or how long you spend on it. The practice of getting quiet can profoundly impact your stress levels and can be a key component of your daily stress-management toolbox. It’s amazingly simple and easy and it doesn’t take long to be effective.

Start by just closing your eyes, observing your breath, and noticing how you feel. And stay tuned for some specific ideas and techniques for how to incorporate meditation into your workday.

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Posted by on in Yoga

Ever had one of those days when you’re trying to be so efficient that you never actually complete a single task?

In many ways, I love multi-tasking. The technology available today and increased speed of communication means I can work on several projects simultaneously in a way that was just not possible 10 years ago. Now instead of having to wait for one project to be completed before starting the next, I can chip away at several at the same time.
Multi-tasking
But the other day as I bounced back and forth between text messages, email, a document I was editing, and social media updates, I felt downright unsettled.

With my mind racing, knees bouncing, and heartbeat elevated, it seemed that in my quest for greater productivity I was now spinning, buzzing, and mentally scattered. As a result I was unable to focus long enough to even make a dent in any of the five tasks I was simultaneously working on.

Too many of us have had this experience in the workplace, though studies have shown that multi-tasking is not actually as much of a time-saver as previously thought. It turns out it just makes you feel like you’re accomplishing more.

In reality, multitasking is the new procrastination, a sneaky way to postpone doing something unappealing or challenging. This week I've been working on compiling some research into a spreadsheet, a task I've been putting off for the past few days. Instead of hunkering down with Excel and my sources, I kept getting distracted by bright, shiny objects like incoming emails, text messages, and articles in my news feed. Switching gears, although a joyful escape from the hard work of completing a dreaded task, made it hard to sustain a thought or to know where I'd left off in my process.

What do you do when you can't break free from your addiction to efficiency and multitasking long enough to focus in on a single task?

Start by slowing down and simplifying your experience.

Close your eyes and take a deep breath.

The simple act of shutting out external stimulus can remind you of your priorities and pull you out of the frantic multi-tasking mode so you can refocus.

This is what yoga's all about! The fabric of yoga philosophy is woven together by the practice of stilling mental fluctuations. That means harnessing your focus and concentration so that the fleeting thought about the TED Talk you wanted to look up doesn't stop you from finishing the less exciting work you need to get done right now. It means making conscious decisions about your behavior rather than being at the whim of the endless incoming pings.

Yoga practice can be both an antidote to efficiency and a place to practice greater concentration in an attempt to slow mental fluctuations. When you sit mindfully, focus in on your breath, and practice letting go of all the chatter and busyness from your day, you are undoing the harmful effects of excessive efficiency. When you successfully resist the urge to mentally flit off to some new exciting idea, you allow your body to settle and signal to your mind that it’s okay to just do one thing and do it well. And so you more closely approximate true efficiency, the appropriate use of time and energy in the accomplishment of a task. Be still my fluctuating mind.

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Posted by on in Yoga

As 10, then 15, then 20 students rolled through the door for my Gentle Yoga class yesterday morning, I felt like all was right in the yoga world.

It used to be that Gentle Yoga was stigmatized, the redheaded stepchild of yoga offerings. Injured? Go to Gentle. Over 60? Go to Gentle. Looking for an "easier" practice? You get the picture.

But as evidenced by the diverse and dedicated group of students who show up to move and breathe with me on Wednesdays at 10:30am, word is spreading
that Gentle Yoga is a deep, therapeutic, satisfying practice, and as my students and I regularly note, it's far from easy.



What does Gentle Yoga look like?



It depends on the day, the class time, the students who show up, and what their needs are. But the essential components remain the same regardless of those other variables. Gentle Yoga means a commitment to a slower approach to the practice, and one that emphasizes supported poses and poses that are done on the floor. Though it's possible to practice standing poses in a gentle way, the bulk of the sequence is usually in seated, kneeing, supine, or prone positions. We don't bang out a bunch of traditional sun salutations, though I will occasionally use a half sun salute to align movement and breath. Props play a big role in gentle practice, and we typically incorporate at least a few restorative poses throughout the course of the class. The slower pace of a gentle class affords the student time to luxuriate in a conscious breath and to pay attention to the details of alignment, all of which results in a deeply calming and re-energizing practice.

Gentle Yoga can be a very meditative practice because it is focused more on being in the pose rather than on the flowing transitions from one pose to another as is typically emphasized in vinyasa-style classes. The practice prioritizes mobility and support rather than pushing for strength and flexibility, and it provide students a space to listen to their own needs and practice accordingly.

Seated spinal twist

In the past few years, Bloom has grown our Gentle Yoga class offerings from one class a week to eight and have delighted in hearing the wonderful stories from gentle students who've experienced increased range of motion, reduction of pain, and overall enhanced feelings of well-being. Our students range in age from 25 - 75+ and they come for a variety of reasons, such as a need to slow down and be more 'grounded,' to provide a counterpose to their other physical activities or the stresses of work and family life, or to relieve discomfort from anything from typical aches and pains to injuries and medical conditions. There is no 'typical' gentle student, but they almost all share one thing in common: they are fully present whether we're doing a simple head circle or seated spinal twist.


To me, Gentle practice embodies the essence of Yoga and is the answer to moving yoga beyond just another form of exercise to be something far more therapeutic and holistic.

Supported child's pose

After class the other day, one of my students was remarking at how surprising it was that a floor-based gentle could feel so deep and so challenging. In many ways, moving more slowly, paying close attention to alignment and breath, and keeping the mind engaged despite the lack of flashy poses to focus on, makes for a much deeper experience on the mat, and one that translates well into the challenges of daily life.

The philosophy behind Gentle Yoga makes so much sense when taking the long view of yoga. I want to be practicing (and teaching!) when I'm 85, so each time I step on the mat I need to be reminded that I'm in it for the long haul. Does it particularly matter if I do a million sun salutes or the trickiest arm balances? Will a super vigorous class keep me healthy as I age, or might my practice better serve me if it's focused on maintaining mobility, stability, balance, and relaxation?

As yogis, we all face continuing evolution in our practice. I began as a vigorous practitioner and have gradually refined over the years to come to a place of greater balance between active practice and a softer approach. Gentle Yoga is a natural place to cultivate balance on the mat because the goals of the practice are less pointed and the experience is more spacious.

If you are a loyal practitioner of this beautiful practice, you're in good company! If you've never tried Gentle Yoga, I encourage you to give it another look and consider what may be in store for you if you slow things down on the mat.

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Posted by on in Health

I used to punish myself with exercise. For most of my 20s, exercise was little more than a way of dealing with the negative feelings I had about my body. It was my way of coping with having eaten too much or having eaten the 'wrong' things. When I felt too fleshy, too indulgent, I'd try to 'work it off,' to shed those bad feelings.

I've never been much of a gym person, so going out for a run was my punishment of choice. But it took a lot just to get out the door. I dreaded my runs and would find any excuse to delay. I usually felt pretty good when I was done, but mostly because I had appeased my feelings of self-loathing. I had paid the price for my wrongdoings (at least for that day).

Just as a child who is accustomed to punishment will continue to act out in order to get the expected result, after my workout I'd feel like I had earned a reward, so I'd allow myself a big bowl of ice cream. But as I ate, feelings of guilt and obligation arose because I was anticipating the next day's punishment. And since I'd already been 'bad' with the first bowl, I helped myself to a second (with chocolate syrup this time), thus feeding the cycle. The next day I'd have to run harder and longer to feel okay, then I'd rebel again the day after by polishing off the rest of the container of ice cream. And so on.

Having grown up as an athlete and dancer I couldn't understand why fun exercise was so hard to come by as an adult. In high school I went to volleyball or softball practice every day after school, running, jumping, playing, playing. In college, dance classes were an integral part of my day and a way to express my creativity. My body liked movement, so why was it so hard as an adult to find a way to 'work out' that felt good?
 
I soon realized that the big difference from the days of teams and dance classes was that back then I pursued purposeful movement rather than a goal-based activity of logging a certain number of miles to get a sufficient workout. When my kids play they roll around on the floor, crawl under or over me as I practice yoga, jump over cracks in the sidewalk, and always find ways to express themselves with their movement. As an adult, my exercise routine had become punitive rather than joyful and purposeful, and I was determined to change that.

I decided to take the leap and stop 'working out.' It was a little rough at first. It was hard to find a way to get enough movement to satisfy my body's needs, and I worried that I would gain weight. But I stuck with it because it just felt awesome to go for a nice walk, to swim, to get on the mat for the joy of it instead of pumping out a ton of mindless vinyasas.

The funny thing is, when I stopped punishing myself and focusing on negative body image, I felt less of a need to eat compulsively or overeat on unhealthy things. Emotionally I was more satisfied, and I knew that I could enjoy a delicious brownie and a big glass of creamy whole milk without feeling the need to 'work it off' later. I was practicing balance and joy, and it felt great.

Now that I've stopped 'working out,' I've realized that I don't want to compartmentalize exercise. Movement is part of who I am, not just something I can do at a gym. Going for a walk is not about burning calories, but rather about getting me from home to the grocery store, about moving and breathing and being part of my community. My yoga practice is part of who I am, not something I have to force myself into doing because I've been 'bad' and had too much dessert. Movement just feels good, so I do it. To me that's what exercise should be - it should answer a physical, mental, and emotional question, a need we all have to be mobile beings.

I believe that even when yoga is practiced vigorously, it's not a 'workout.' Rather you're 'working in,' going deeper into yourself on all levels. When I step back from being compulsive about exercise and eating, when I choose to move my body in ways that bring me joy, I feel healthier and happier. And I'm actually in better physical shape now than when I was beating myself up with exercise.

Yes, it's the New Year. Yes, this is traditionally the time to make health and fitness commitments. But if exercise becomes a chore and a punishment, it's something that you will inevitably fall off from. When you instead recognize your body's innate need to move and you find the ways that feel best to you instead of just dragging yourself to the gym, movement can be as joyful as you remember it as a kid. And that brownie you enjoy without fear of retribution will be even sweeter.

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