Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

Posted by on in Family

Is there such a thing as being too thoughtful? I know this may initially come off as a groan-worthy question along the lines of, 'Can I be too good a person?' But the way I see it, thoughtfulness is less an indication of moral superiority than a worldview that, in some cases, can become a self-sabotaging personality attribute.

I grew up with constant reminders to consider the feelings of others. My mom is an immensely kind and giving person, and one who is frequently described as being thoughtful. Whether it's her offers of help to pick up some new yoga clothes for me while she's at the store ('They're on sale!'), her insistence on helping out those in our family who are too proud to ask for help (that's you, Grandma), or just caring enough to both ask how things are going and to listen to the answer (however long and rambling), my mom embodies thoughtfulness. My mom is that person who thanks you for your thank-you card, remembers to display the vase you made for her when you were eight years old, and offers you the last cookie even if she didn't get a single one.

I'm grateful that my mom gave me the gift of thoughtfulness, although on occasion it can seem more like a curse.

Merriam-Webster defines thoughtfulness as "given to heedful anticipation of the needs and wants of others." In order to anticipate the needs of others, you must be highly attuned to the state of those around you at all times. While this is incredibly helpful in my role as a business owner and a mother, it can be also be hindrance.

Every personality attribute has a flip side and if left unchecked, thoughtfulness quickly evolves into the habit of putting yourself last in all cases, to your detriment. You know how on the airplane they suggest you put on your own mask first? This is where you get to explore both the good side and the dark side of thoughtfulness (yes, we have been watching Star Wars at our house this past week). Being too attuned to the needs of others makes it seem selfish to figuratively put your own mask on first; by not putting others first you may worry about causing them harm. But, of course, succumbing to the dark side of thoughtfulness means that because you neglected your own needs, those around you will necessarily suffer, too.

The level of self-consciousness that results from constantly imagining what others think of you and your actions is exhausting. If I was out with my kids and they were being loud (just supposing), I'd worry that people might think I was inconsiderate and lacking authority over my children. So I'd find myself scolding the kids loudly when they acted up in public to let people know that I was charge and aware of the disturbances they were causing.

Eventually I realized that my hyper-awareness of other people's perceptions had overtaken me and was controlling my behavior. I had overdone something positive and turned it into a negative. I'd neglected to put on my own mask and was instead gasping and lurching to put a mask on every person in sight. My thoughtfulness had turned to the dark side.
As I'm wont to do, I've been working it out on the mat. In cases where I really shouldn't be concerned with what others think, I'm practicing not anticipating their thoughts. It has become a variation on the practices of pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses and santosha, contentment. When I'm in a yoga class and the teacher suggests popping up into bakasana, crane/crow pose, but I know I shouldn't because of a lingering bout of tendonitis, my first impulse is: "What will they think if the studio director can't do this basic arm balance?"

But instead of explaining my reasons or worrying about how I will be perceived, I practice withdrawal from my projections of what others will think and contentment with what I can safely do in this moment. It's helped me to become more fully present in my actions without apologizing for them. And though it's been a struggle to trust that I don't need to explain myself or my motivations to the world in every moment, it's a relief when I finally get out of my head and simply act.

The more I practice this on the mat, the easier it gets off the mat. When the kids are loud in public, I now try to talk with them in a way that addresses the root issue instead of my worries of how I will be perceived by annoyed passersby. It takes the pressure off and helps me to be more present with them and their needs, rather than having it be all about me.

My own children, sweet little things that they are, are already thoughtful to the core in all the right ways. I smile when they ask "So, how was your day?" at the dinner table, knowing the have the foundation. My job is to help them cultivate thoughtfulness in a healthy way, to make sure that as they get older they not only ask how my day was, but also do what they need to do to make their own day, their own life, great.

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

The fancy technology available today and increased speed of communication allows me to work on several projects simultaneously in a way that was just not possible when we opened the studio 7 years ago. 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. Efficiency has its place, but too much of a good thing is still too much.

Overwhelmed at the number of items on my to-do list that needed to be completed in short amount of time, I recently took my efficiency to an extreme, multitasking at an almost manic pace. As I bounced back and forth between text messages, email, a document I was editing, and social media updates, I felt downright scattered. With my mind racing, knees bouncing, and heartbeat elevated, it seemed that in my quest for greater productivity my whole being was now spinning, buzzing. As a result I was unable to settle in long enough to concentrate on accomplishing even a single task.

Too many of us have had this experience in the workplace, though studies have shown that multi-tasking is actually not 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.

What happens when your addiction to efficiency and multitasking spills over onto the yoga mat?

Yesterday morning I had only 20 minutes to sneak in a practice before the craziness of the day started, so I decided I'd use the principles of efficiency to make the most of my time on the mat. I didn't want to sacrifice anything and I was determined to produce the same good feeling I got after a nice long practice. So instead of exploring a few asanas deeply, I crammed in a bunch of standing poses, some sun salutes, backbends, twists, and so on. I bounced from one pose to another, trying to force my yoga practice to get with the efficiency program. Guess what? It turns out that efficiency and yoga are not friends.

As I blasted through the sequence, I lost the awareness of my breath and that glorious feeling of space that comes when I'm practicing Yoga and not just breezing through yoga poses. Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. On the other hand, efficiency and multi-tasking are, by definition, fluctuations of the mind - a cycle of constant mental interruption in an effort to move at a faster pace.

As above, so below. As in the mind, so on the mat. 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 for meditation and 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. As you 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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This morning after my daughter jumped into bed with me, all warm breath and messy hair and piercing blue eyes, each word out of her mouth felt like magic, each laugh we shared threatened to push me over the edge with the sheer joy of it. She was just so sweet, so real, such an embodiment of pure love as she nestled her little hands into the warmth of my neck.

Kids can be like that, their ability to be totally present can be more than a little mind-blowing, reminding you what it feels like to not just go through a human being's motions, but to really be one.

And yet that's only half the story, as any experienced (and non-delusional) parent knows.

There are the other moments, the ones that don't dazzle but rather dehumanize you: the fights you must referee among siblings, the myriad of bodily fluids to be managed, the whining and slowness at inopportune moments, the general dislike of parental suggestions for food, clothing, or any other choices that need to be made.

After my daughter and I emerged from the paradise of our early morning magic, the warm fuzzies were replaced by real life hiccups and things began to fall apart. Keys were lost, milk was spilled, punches were thrown (none by me, in case you wondered), and I ached with the frustration, the indignity of being a parent of young children who must figure out a way to hold it all together when there is still a lunch to pack and a plumber to meet and crying seems to be the only reasonable solution to all of the chaos.

Fortunately, I've experienced similar ebbs and flows on my yoga mat and after years of judging myself during the low times, I've come to understand it as a spectrum of experience.

Just as in parenting, sometimes yoga practice is glorious - I'll push up into full wheel pose and my whole body feels like it's breathing, like it's shining light from every pore. Then other days I'm a lump of clay that will not be moved, I'm an achy child's pose, I'm ungraceful and even grotesque in my attempt to move through a single sun salutation.

But in the end, it's all yoga. The dumpy days and the lovely ones provide the same opportunity for the experience of humanity. On the mat or with the family, it's not really how the pose looks or who says what that counts. It's the way you react and how you move through it.

This morning, once I stopped wishing the kids would hold hands and sing kumbaya instead of arguing over pokemon cards, once I acknowledged that the little girl who was now making me crazy was the same one I was in love with this morning, once I gave in to the fact that we would (again) be late for school rather than yelling at my son to get his shoes on, the day got a whole lot better. I got out of the way, I embraced the lumpiness, and felt as much at ease as I would have had it been a smooth morning.

Oh, the humanity.

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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.
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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Posted by on in Family

Mean Mommy was back for a quick visit to our house over the past few days. Fortunately, this morning it became clear that her residency was coming to a close. Before she skipped town, the Thinking Yogi decided to sit down with Mean Mommy to find out what makes her tick.

Thinking Yogi: Mean Mommy, I'd love to pick your brain, to find out what exactly it is that puts the mean in the mommy. Can I ask you a few questions?

Mean Mommy: Yeah. But I'm busy, so make it quick.

TY: It had been a while since your last stay with us, but when you breezed in last weekend it was like you never left. What was the reason for your latest visit? Was it the fact that the kids were fighting and whining incessantly?

MM: Kids are brats. They fight and whine as a matter of course. The timing of my visit had nothing to do with them.

TY: What then?

MM: After all these years you still don't get it? Let me spell it out for you: If you're not getting enough sleep, I'll be there. If you're too busy at work, I'll be there. If you're feeling stressed, if you don't make time to eat well, move your body, and sprinkle in enough rest, I'll be there.

TY: But weren't the kids being especially difficult this past week? I mean, it can't all be about me, can it?

MM: You don't believe me? Try this little experiment next time I come to visit: change just one thing about your self-care routine (go to bed 30 minutes earlier, squeeze in a quick yoga session or get out for a run, spend some time sans kids), and see how much easier it is to tolerate the kids, stress at work, and other everyday irritations. I probably won't be around to see the results of your little experiment, but just know that wherever I am I'll be saying 'I told you so.'

TY: I'll definitely have to try that.

MM: Don't sass me!

TY: Talk me through what you were thinking in our final showdown yesterday when the kids were screaming, you were screaming, and I was trying to wrap my head around how to get us all out of the cycle of anger.

MM: My goal in that showdown was to make sure no one else got a word in without me coming down like the hammer. I want to promote an environment in which there's no reasoning, just reacting (and overreacting). I knew that everything the kids would say would be a challenge or a complaint, so before they were even done talking I was ready to dole out a snappy comeback and a punishment.

TY: I always thought the expression "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy" was a vindictive take on mothers, that it was like saying "If I can't be happy, I'm taking all of you bratty kids down with me." But I now realize that it's just a pure statement of fact. Mean Mommy, this past week when you were the one running our household, your every interaction provoked conflict. The kids fought more while you were here, they tried to manipulate each other with threats and ultimatums, they mimicked your bitter tone of voice, they assumed the worst of each other (and therefore got it). You're like a cult leader. I had to really work to pull them back out of the meanness after you left. Why is that?

MM: There's a certain addictive thrill that comes with meanness, and it is highly contagious. Once the volcano of meanness starts spewing, it's hard to plug it up. Each time you yell at the kid who poked her brother or forgot to say please or whined about watching another tv show, you feel like it will vindicate you, like your kids will be recognized for the brats they are, and you will be acknowledged as the saint you are, and your meanness will be justified once and for all. But meanness.....well, it just begets more meanness. And vindication never comes.

TY: Are you crying, Mean Mommy? Do you need a hug?

MM: Shut your mouth and go to your room. This interview is over. I'm out of here.

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