Off Your Mat

Bringing yoga off your mat into your life, one pose at a time.


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The Opportunity Pose: A Less Stressed Holiday Season

Sometimes an opportunity is obvious, sometimes it can be cloaked by perception. Often opportunities can pass right by because they look like a problem. When fear comes into the picture it seems opportunities dry up all together.opportunity1

During my first few attempts at yoga I was afraid of looking foolish. The fear I harbored inhibited my confidence. I was thinking about all the things I hadn’t learned to do yet. I was looking at it backwards. I considered my newbie status to be a detriment, when I should have focused on the limitless opportunity of learning that stretched out before me.87577938

Luckily, I loosened up and figured it out. I relaxed into a practice were I can be realistic about my abilities, push my boundaries, try new things and understand that mistakes are not failures. As always, this lesson in my yoga practice allowed me to reflect on how I approach similar circumstances in everyday life.

I think the approaching holiday season is a great opportunity to take this yoga lesson out into the world.

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There is a lot of anxiety that accompanies the approach of the holidays. People become stressed on so many levels. There are the logistics of gathering with family and friends, the extra expenses that come with gifts and travel, the extra responsibilities of cooking and entertaining and the less talked about family tensions that often come to a head at this time of year. It can be challenging.

But isn’t every challenge an opportunity?

Here are 6 practical tips to using yoga philosophies to create a less stressed holiday season.*

1. Acknowledge how you are feeling. The holiday season is built up to be an extra happy and festive time. For many people it is and that is terrific. However, if you find yourself feeling blue or down you should not force yourself to be happy just because it is the holidays. Do not bottle it up. Being human, it is normal to have a whole range of emotions. It is not normal to suppress emotions and pretend to be cheerful when you are not. Do not judge yourself and find a safe place to express yourself.

2. Be realistic. The holidays don’t have to be perfect or just like last year. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones.

3. Practice acceptance. Work to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all of your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they’re feeling the effects of holiday stress, too.

4. Take a breather. Find some time for yourself, even if it is just 15 minutes. A little bit of time alone can recharge you enough to take on the next “to do list.” Here are some relaxing activities you can do on your own:

Take a seated position. Ideally, your knees should be slightly lower than your hips and your eyes should be closed. Sit up straight and inhale for a count of eight. Pause when your lungs are full and then exhale for a count of eight, emptying your lungs completely. Repeat at least 3 times.

  • Take a walk
  • Listen to soothing music
  • Read
  • Nap

5. Practice gratitude. Yes, this time of year brings added stress but it is also a time to count our blessings. Often our stress is created by expectations we hold that are not necessarily based in reality. Let go of that stuff, enjoy the people you want to enjoy, take in the beauty of the season and let it all unfold.

6. Give back. This time of year is the perfect opportunity to practice altruism. That doesn’t necessarily mean writing a check. This is an opportunity to start a family tradition of donating time around the holidays.

I hope you love your holiday season. But if you don’t, I hope you take the opportunity to make changes so that you can create something that you do love.

 

*For a more in-depth list visit The Mayo Clinic.


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The Truthful Pose

A lie has many variations the truth noneIt is so important to stay honest in yoga practice. When yogis and yoginis are not honest with themselves about their abilities they can risk injury or disappointment. When we practice, there is an inherent responsibility to be truthful with oneself.

This responsibility extends way beyond our practice into our lives. Unfortunately, in everyday life, people can be dishonest.

There are “white lies” that are often born from the intent to protect a person. There are blatant lies told to manipulate or to cover up a shameful truth. Either way, when a lie is told, it shows disrespect for another’s ability to handle or accept the truth. It also shows that the person telling the lie is too fearful to face the consequences of the truth. Every time a lie is told there is real damage done to trust and love.

So what does it mean when we lie to ourselves?see no evilAs humans, we have an amazing ability to adapt, survive and persevere through an untold range of challenges. Our minds have ancient coping and survival skills that protect our ability to function and carry out tasks on a daily basis.  If our prehistoric ancestors where so crippled with fear by their precarious position in the food chain, they would never have had the heart to pursue fresh drinking water and new food sources. Everyday they walked out into a potentially deadly landscape and did what they had to do to survive. Despite the horrible truth that they were potential prey.

Now, in our cocoon of modern amenities and considerable daily safety, our minds still have an uncanny ability to dismiss ugly truths. This is not always a bad thing. This little trick of our human mind has allowed some amazing things to happen. It has allowed people to beat insurmountable odds and flourish in desolate conditions. Think: Harriet Tubman, Hellen Keller, Ghandi, or Elie Wiesel. If they had focused on the hopelessness of their circumstances, they might have never have achieved such accomplishments.quote-even-if-you-are-a-minority-of-one-the-truth-is-the-truth-mahatma-gandhi-68003However, there is another kind of self deception that leaves the best part of ourselves hidden in fear. As people who need to get up everyday and walk into the world, often we can refuse to look things in the face and know them for what they are. Fear of change can keep us blind to many sad but true circumstances. That denial of the truth lays waste to the natural love we have for ourselves and trust in our own abilities.

The upside to this is that the truth never changes. It is always there, always available to visit, no matter how far one has wandered away. Despite our ability to lie to ourselves, despite the wreckage that can be created by the human ability to live with deception, there is always the resilience of the human heart. We can learn the truth, deal with it, heal and once again, find the strength to love and trust.


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The Unexpected Pose

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There are times during studio practice that the instructor will stray from the usual series and try something new.

Early in my practice this is how I was introduced to side bound crow (bakāsana variation).

I felt a twinge of irritation when we were instructed to take this crow variation. I just wanted the class I expected. I wanted to stay on track and not get distracted by this unfamiliar pose. Dutifully, I followed the instructor’s step by step instructions. The pose felt awkward, my muscles trembled, I could not find my sweet spot. For a split second I held the pose, then I plopped on my mat with a thump, embarrassed. I will not pretend that I came away from that moment feeling accomplished.

The next time an opportunity to take that pose came up I wasn’t thrilled, but I was more willing to attempt it. Soon it became part of my practice.

If I had let that twinge of irritation guide my decision-making, I would have never started down the road to learning the pose. My first steps were difficult and a little bit humiliating. I chose to shed those negative interpretations of being new at something. That allowed me to grow.

Life can hand us challenges that we never dreamed we would face. You might be offended that life has presented you with something outside of your plans. The prospect of surmounting a particular task might leave you feeling exhausted, angry or heartbroken. Worst of all, a change of plans can be frightening.

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As terrifying as it may be, if you don’t take on the challenge, if you hide from it, if you ignore it, if you explain it away with rationalizations, you will never thrive.

In these moments, you have to see past your plans and understand there might be something better in the offing that can only be reached through the unexpected.


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The Vacation Pose: Dearest Reader

postcard 1Dearest Reader,

First, I need to thank you for showing up. I so enjoy your weekly visits. You arrive, causing my stats bar graph to rise to a satisfying level and I am reminded that I am not alone. You cannot image the value I place on your attention.

I also need to tell you how I enjoy preparing for your company. I derive such pleasure adorning my blank digital home with characters of all shapes and sizes for your reflection or amusement.

Unfortunately, this week I must offer you my deepest apologies. It seems I have found myself unprepared for our digital rendezvous.

You see, I have wandered away from my computer, dug my toes in the sand, turned my face to the sun and drifted off.

While you are here, feel free to wander about. Sample an interesting recipe, peruse my book list or help yourself to the selection of 19 previous posts listed on the lower right hand side of the page.

Looking forward to seeing you next week!

Very truly yours,

Sara


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You Can Lead A Husband to Yoga but You Can Not Make Him Practice: The 7-Year Pose

I believe everyone should have an opportunity to practice yoga. I dream of bringing a regular yoga practice into our public school system. This is a long-term goal of mine filled with some obvious and some surprising obstacles. I am not discouraged because yoga is a constant in a world of variables.

In the short term, I encourage the people in my life to practice. Because I know it will help to keep them healthy both physically and mentally. I do not persuade saying you should, you should. It is more of a how about? or would you like?

Surprisingly, it was the person closest to me that was the most challenging recruit.

When I met my husband I was practicing yoga 5 to 6 times a week.  While we were dating I often suggested he take a class.  He declined, saying he really didn’t think it was his thing. After we got married I continued to suggest he try it. He continued to decline.

I would rattle off all the benefits of the practice from improved brain function to better lung capacity. It interested him, but my husband has conservative roots. The stereotype of bearded yogis in flowing outfits sitting very still was an image he couldn’t shake. After perusing a yoga magazine of mine, he was further concerned about what might be expected of him.

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You will not be required to wear this outfit or take this pose.

Regardless of his misconceptions, I was convinced he would love yoga. One of his sports in school had been wrestling. I knew it required the same flexibility and stamina needed in power yoga.  I was sure he would love the strenuous work out of the Baptiste practice. I just had to figure out a way to introduce him to it.

wrestle 3

Wrestlers warming up. Look familiar?

While I was earning my yoga teaching certificate I practiced instruction on anyone I could get my hands on: Fellow high school teachers, willing friends. I even talked the high school basketball coach into letting me run the team through asanas before their practice.

I was so excited when my husband offered up our daughter’s nap time for me to practice with him. I thought this would be the turning point and he would become hooked. What really happened was a disappointment.

The dynamic of the two of us in our basement rec room did not accurately mimic a real class. I had my nose in my notes, stopping and repeating parts of my instruction that I wanted to improve, our dog wandered about, often laying down on my husband’s mat. I had not orchestrated the ideal introduction to this cherished, ancient practice.

I know a lost opportunity when I see one and I stopped pushing for him to go to the studio with me.

I was content to have yoga be my thing. It didn’t have to be his too.

It was Mother Nature that changed everything.

The winter of 2014 brought some of the worst weather the East Coast had seen in a long time. We were pummeled by snow storm after snow storm, followed by icy winds and impassable roads. It was relentless. We spent more time than ever indoors. The cold seeped into our bones. A couple months into our temporary tundra I found my husband arching his back over the arm of the couch. Hanging upside down, he said, “I really need to stretch.”

snow-2010

I suggested yoga again for the first time in over a year. He seemed unsure about the studio, but he was willing to try an online class.  I found one that was filmed in a real studio to give him an idea of what it would be like. Feeling like this bubble of interest could easily pop, I was careful not to get too involved as he found his way through his first practice. As I expected, he loved it.

For two weeks we had a standing 6pm yoga date. We would bustle in from our icy commutes and set up our mats in front of the T.V. where we streamed different online classes. I watched as his form improved without much help from me. He was a natural. I was ridiculously proud of him.

One freezing Sunday morning I took him to his first hot yoga class at my favorite studio. The class was packed and full of good energy. He immediately took to the intensity of the workout and the heat of the studio.

It was almost 7 years between the first time I suggested he try yoga and the first time he stepped into a yoga studio. Now, he gets himself to class without any suggestions from me.

That is the great thing about yoga, it is a constant, continuous rhythm of inhalations and exhalations that is always there when anyone is ready to jump in.


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Father’s Day: The Remembering Pose

When I started this blog I committed to writing a post once a week. It has never slipped my mind.

Until this week. I totally forgot to write.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t think of something to write. It was that I didn’t even remember to write.

When I did think of it, I had the same feeling as remembering an appointment a half hour after it was supposed to happen. I was shocked by my own absent-mindedness.

It was Father’s Day weekend and I had forgotten that I wanted to write about my dad.

dad and sara

I was lucky to have a great dad.  I was unlucky to have lost him at 18.

It has been a long time since I have seen him.  The decades since his sudden death have smoothed some of the edges of my grief.  Thinking about him no longer creates an instant constriction of my heart and throat, now it is more of an eye watering ache.

I might have forgotten the task of writing, but thinking of dad never slips my mind.

I have a hand full of jewel-like memories that never fade.

Swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, my kid arms wrapped around his neck while we rode waves into the beach. Playing on his office floor, listening to him “talk business” on the phone. Visiting the Museum of Natural History in New York City with him and running in the whale room. Sitting on his shoulders watching the Philadelphia Mummer’s Parade. Sailing around Townsends Inlet in his tiny sail boat, The Blue Baron. Listening to him answer the house phone and chat with my friends as if they had called for him.

And then, there was his ridiculous sense of humor.

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He went to great lengths when it was time to be silly.

dad coach

 

I was lucky to have a great dad.

That is one thing I will never forget.

 


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The Mother Pose

Around the age of 30, I apologized to my mother for my behavior between the ages of 13 to 19.  I felt it was the right thing to do.

At the time of my apology, I was single and had no children.  My empathy was not because I was going through the trials and tribulations of parenting.  It was perspective that prompted my act of contrition.  There were over ten years stretching between me and my distant adolescence. From my adult vantage point, I was appropriately ashamed.

Upon hearing my apology, just as appropriately, Mom laughed.  She accepted it though, with an all in a day’s work kind of response.  These days we still laugh about it.  But it was an important moment for us.

Mom & me

Mom & me

This year, I will be celebrating my 4th Mother’s Day as a mom.  Right now, my kid thinks I’m the bee’s knees.  She is so taken with me that there are times she will stop her constant busyness to hold my face in her sticky hands and tell me she loves me.  Over pizza the other day, looking at me across the pizzeria’s chipped linoleum table, she said, “Oh mommy, I love your eyes.”  Best pizza date ever.

I realize this will change. I do not look forward to it. There will be a day when she figures out I’m not so cool.  The prospect is chilling.

This particular fear gets me thinking about balancing poses.  There are days when your balance is off.  Even if it is not visible to others, balancing can become a truly daunting task when your mind is not right.

In a balance, our instructors might say, “Find your drishti” or “Soften your gaze” or “Breathe.” These are all great cues. But if you are wobbling away, drishti or no drishti, there are times when gravity or your own unsteadiness wins out and you just have to let go of the pose.

Looking back at those moments, I realize I get so caught up in my own thoughts about balancing, the act of balancing is impossible.  It goes something like this:

Here comes Tree. Ok, no big deal you’ve done this for years. Nothing to prove. Ok a little wobbly. Wait where is my drishti?  I like that spot. Or maybe I should look a little higher. Oops. Ok. ok. Little wobbly but graceful.  Trees blow in the wind. Am I throwing off the people behind me? Melting my shoulders down my back. What is that guy doing? a toe hold?  I can’t do that today. Should I try that? My foot hits the mat.

There are other days when I will literally float into a balance.  I honestly can’t recall what I might be thinking at those moments.  Its more of a feeling.  I am consciously taking all the cues.  Gazing softly at my drishti, breathing, relaxed, foot rooted, everything as it should be.  Bird of Paradise, here I come.

The difference between the two is in the first I am thinking about the moment, in the second I am in the moment.

So what does balancing have to do with my daughter’s impermanent adulation?

In yoga class, a drishti is an unmoving point of your choice that you focus on to assist your pose.  However, the full meaning of drishti isn’t limited to its use in yoga class. In Sanskrit, drishti can also mean a vision, a point of view, or intelligence and wisdom. Yoga Journal does a nice job of exploring the concept here.

Point of view. Wisdom. The only thing that allowed me to have the insight to apologize to mom for my teenage misdeeds and general jerkiness was my perspective.  My point of view gave me wisdom.

Today my daughter has made me the focus of her small scale idol worship.  (During the typing of this post she stopped me multiple times to look into my eyes, kiss my face and tell me she loved my ponytail.)  In a few years her perspective will change along with her opinions about my appearance. I could let the worry of all those changes headed my way trump this outpouring of child love. I could busy myself with what to expect instead of what is happening.

I choose, in this moment, to gaze softly upon this ever moving 3 year old vision that loves me, whether I’m wobbly or still.

 

I would love to hear about your favorite “mom” moment, whether it is about your mom or about being a mom. Please share in the comments.

 

Mother's Day 2013

Happy Mother’s Day!