A Writer’s Body

This has been a busy workweek for me. Since I’m committed to posting here each Thursday, I decided to go with the flow of that theme and discuss some of my tactics for getting through large blocks of sedentary time. I work as a communications assistant for a university research center, and I also write and edit regularly on freelance projects; I spend a lot of time in front of a keyboard. I’m constantly catching myself hunched forward, shoulders tensed, inexplicably twisted into some odd, anxious configuration, as if craning my neck will help me evaluate a paragraph more thoroughly. While my coworkers are very friendly and open-minded, I don’t feel quite at liberty to get into downward dog beside my desk in the way that I do at home.

Aside from the well-publicized, longterm dangers of a sedentary life, sitting for long periods of time is just plain uncomfortable in the here and now. In the years that I’ve been practicing yoga, I’ve grown more aware over time of the inactivity paradox–it can be very tiring, and even life-draining not to move. Along with reduced metabolism and circulation, long periods of sedentary time also lead to shallow, inconsistent breathing patterns, among other problems.

Since it is unlikely that communications or web design will become an active profession (Wii Office Suite?), I’ve resolved to implement whatever strategies I can to both honor my health and remain productive at work. On freelance projects, I try to give myself 15 minute breaks every 1-2 hours, for a walk, some stretching, or at least a brief, full-body shake. I also have the luxury of breaking up my time more generously, if the project is small or slow-paced. This week, though, I accepted a massive editing job with a rush deadline, and my desk habits at home had to resemble the code of conduct I adopt at work. At the research center, I usually employ lots of freeform neck stretches, shoulder rolls, and forward folds in the secret of the bathroom (I hold off on touching the floor here and go with a rag doll variation). Most frequently, I check my posture approximately every 30 minutes, and also use this time to take 3-5 deep, meaningful breaths. Psychologically, these mini check-ins serve to remind me that I am a living thing–an extraordinary fact often forgotten in the crush of emails, formatting, and so on.

I also like to follow this short video occasionally, by one of my favorite online teachers, Adriene Mishler. This sequence can be completed at your desk chair, and doesn’t require sound, either! When you have a little more freedom to practice, she has a great library of videos on her YouTube channel. The videos span everything from Yoga for When You’re In a Bad Mood to Birthday Yoga, plus a lovely 30 Days of Yoga series to jumpstart a yoga love affair. If you haven’t practiced with her before, I highly recommend it, for both beginners looking to get started, and for more advanced yogis looking to spice up their home practice with something different. Whenever I don’t have time for a studio class, and simultaneously feel unmotivated to invent my own sequence, Adriene is a great resource. She feels so much like a funny, sweet friend, that it’s hard to find an excuse not to squeeze in 15-30 minutes of yoga once you’ve found her. If you decide to give this one a whirl at your desk, enjoy!

Poses, or Shapes?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been a little anxious about the start of teacher training. The panic has formed a predictable pattern. “I’m not ______ enough!” my mind wails. As my arms burn in chaturanga, my tripod handstand falls like a heap of rocks to the floor, or my pelvis seems a mile above the mat in pigeon pose, I feel unprepared. I chide myself for not pushing more in my home practice, or reserving more free time for public classes. I imagine myself in child’s pose, peering underneath my armpit at the contortionists who will inevitably comprise the entirety of my classmates, fiercely beautiful people who will compassionately ignore my rectangle of mediocrity on the perimeter of the room. This is an awful thought. I counter it with one of my favorite Indra Devi quotes: “Yoga is a way to freedom. By its constant practice, we can free ourselves from fear, anguish, and loneliness.” The word freedom sets me straight. Freedom does not include worrying about whether shaking in a crescent lunge makes you look weak, or if your peers think your yoga pants have too much cat hair on them (they slept in my gym bag, I swear!). I try to scrub the negativity from my predictions and go back to the only thing that matters–to keep practicing.

I’m reminded that even for master yoga teachers, bodies are in flux more than they are constant. Progress in flexibility and strength is often cyclical, rather than linear. These realities are supported in yoga by knowledge of the poses. A sustainable, lifelong yoga practice relies on knowledge of the articulation in the poses–beyond the shapes they make. Following the intention of a posture, instead of pushing too hard into a shape, can save a yogi from injury, burnout, and possibly even envy of other practitioners. This is true both as a beginner, and especially when developing more advanced poses. I constantly have to check my ego as I venture into challenging poses, and follow the internal messages of the posture rather than trying to mimic a shape. Going too deeply into a pose that I’m not prepared for can be damaging to the joints, such as forcing a pigeon pose without a block or blanket and sacrificing my knee, or ignoring a wrist sensitivity and going into upward-facing dog when I’d be better off in cobra to start. I’ve found that the best way for me to determine how deeply to attempt a pose is to check how the rest of my form is affected, typically assessing what I’m doing with my knees, shoulders, abdominal wall, and pelvis. For me, full lizard pose can be difficult, and I have found, at various times, my back knee dropping or my front knee extended too far over the ankle, my back rounded against the discomfort, my belly sagging, or my shoulders scrunched up to my ears with a tense neck. Instead of pursuing the shape, I accept my body’s messages and assist myself with a block under my forearms, or push up to the modification on my hands. I’ll get to the floor eventually, and I won’t have hurt myself along the way.

As I prepare for teacher training, I remind myself that consistency is more important than mastery, and most importantly, that mastery is not a fixed state. The humility to quietly continue on with a practice is required from all levels. This is especially true as we age, experience setbacks and changes, and even grow in flexibility; paying attention to the energy of the poses allows us to tailor our flow to who we are today, with an effort towards who we’d like to become.

Summer Reading

I’ve always loved summer reading lists. In school, I think they appealed to me because I had more time to absorb the books, and read at my own pace. The luxury of reading outdoors, sprawled over a blanket on the grass, propped against the cool bark of a tree, or reclined on a chaise at the town pool, more than compensated for the imposition of how to use my time. Looking back, I can see that those books affected me, too–the slower, more savored reading time gave each summer a particular tone, according to what I had picked up.Image-1

This past June, I enrolled in yoga teacher training. The course begins mid-September, and the program includes two prerequisite readings–A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose and Inside the Yoga Sutras: A Comprehensive Sourcebook for the Study & Practice of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. While I certainly have less time to sink my teeth into books than I did as a teenager on a break from school, I have greatly enjoyed returning to the practice of a summer reading list, so much so that I’ve included a few other books on my nightstand and in my Audible queue.

In A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle details his vision for a “transformation of consciousness” that develops meaning through compassion and transcendence through the rejection of small-minded value systems. He highlights through many historical and spiritual examples that the foundation of global change is personal growth–an uplifting and powerful reminder to remember the significance of our own actions. I also recently read Better than Before, a fascinating and hilarious look at the science of our everyday habits, from happiness expert Gretchen Rubin. One of her Secrets of Adulthood, as explained in the book, is the maxim, “We can’t make people change, but when we change, others change.” For me, this provided a very grounded perspective on some of Tolle’s work. Changing ourselves is not always linear, nor does it often directly alter the course of others in the way we would like; yet, over time, our increased joy, patience, health, self-awareness, and so on, affects other people–and the butterfly effect of positive change takes hold. Additionally, in the area of personal transformation, I listened to Caroline Myss’ audiobook, Self Esteem: Your Fundamental Power. Since I spend at least 30 minutes in the car each weekday, I love to use audiobooks to create a benefit from this time. Myss’ wisdom on cultivating a robust sense of self hinges on her experiences as a renowned medical intuitive. Her enlightening lecture explains how when we honor ourselves, we are naturally empowered by the energetic field of the divine that flows through all beings, and we gain the ability to listen to our intuition with courage and grace.

Since reading all three books mentioned so far, I have regarded my beliefs and habits much more curiously–questioning, with as much objectivity as I can muster: How does this action/thought serve me? How does this action/thought affect others, or my subsequent behavior towards others? Is this action/thought in alignment with my highest principles? How will I feel about this action/thought tomorrow/in one month/in one year/in ten years? The process can be arduous, and I sometimes don’t like the answers I receive, but I am ultimately always grateful to hear the truth, even from myself.

Reading Inside the Yoga Sutras has also been incredibly rewarding, and I’m still working to finish the book at the close of August. I would highly recommend it to any yogi looking to enrich his or her practice. Even just a few pages a night can be very dense, and charge your next physical practice with awareness and meaning. Since the Sutras are a realm of study unto themselves, I plan to write future blog posts dedicated to exploring them, rather than doing them an injustice with an all-too-brief summary here!

Any books that have bolstered your yoga practice? Recommend them in a comment!