No crying in yoga

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This is a stressful time of year in my job. Everyone on my team has an annual sales goal they need to cross, and those numbers ultimately roll up to me and my own sales goal.

It’s a time of year that’s FULL of awkward conversations, early mornings, long days and a mounting degree of pressure given the upcoming holidays and the threat of losing your contracts to Christmas and New Year’s vacations.

On Tuesday, the family and I are heading down to Nicaragua for a few days to spend Christmas with our loved ones. I am excited to see my parents and my siblings, and looking forward to getting away from the cold for a bit, but the travel adds a little bit of extra stress to the season.

Given all this, I’ve been surprisingly calm in the face of the storm. I’m relatively close to my goal, although there are still a few things out there that may well derail me. Still, I haven’t felt too anxious about it all, and I was beginning to think there might be something wrong with me. Continue reading

Yoga gone…. right?

I went to a new yoga studio yesterday and I didn’t want the class to end. After it was over, all I wanted to do was talk to my cousin – who had invited me to come to his regular studio with him – about how it had gone.

That’s the sign of a good class right there.

I loved the space, and while the difficulty was well within my reach, I still got a lot out of the hour and fifteen minutes we were there. Looking around me (not judging, I promise) I saw a handful of people that reminded me of what I must have been like when I first started going to mixed level classes a little over a year ago. Cringing, hunching over, refusing to use blocks or straps when blocks AND straps were clearly necessary.

My regular instructor Rebecca gets frustrated at me for always aiming for the most difficult variation of the pose, even if I don’t have easier variations down pat yet.

Feet splayed out, head not centered between my biceps, 40 lb monkey on my abs... This is a pretty DON'T as far as Wheel Pose goes.

Feet splayed out, head not centered between my biceps, 40 lb monkey on my abs… This is a pretty big DON’T as far as Wheel Pose goes.

And can I be honest? Looking at recent pictures of myself, I can see why! The one on the right in Wheel, for example, helped me see just much I was improperly compensating with my body just to get myself up there. The kid on my stomach is another story.

Those of you who don’t practice yoga will probably scratch your heads at this one. Those of you who do will recognize what I mean when I say I was one of those people who HAVE to touch their toes – no matter how much back-rounding it took to get there. I’ve slowly been weaning myself off the habit, but occasionally I still find myself “cheating” to get into some bind.

At the beginning of each class, most instructors ask you to set an intention. My intention recently has been to recognize when I’m pushing myself constructively and when I’m just trying to show off for everyone else in the room.

Yoga’s taught me I’m a lot more Alpha than I care to admit. But I’m working on it.

And I managed to stay true to my intention yesterday… for the most part. I also managed to nail a good Wheel or two.

Ok fine, maybe just one decent one, but I’m improving! 🙂

Not perfect... but better!

Not perfect… but better!

Why I Rarely Say Namaste

This post was written for the #yogamatters blogging contest, sponsored by the MPH@GW blog. To participate in the contest, write a post about why yoga matters to you and follow the instructions here.

When you have a mind like mine – constantly filled with worst case scenarios that won’t abate despite significant effort and numerous rounds of logic – it’s very easy for the embers of worry to turn into a full-blown fire if you inadvertently fan them.

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I like my yoga irreverent.

In another life, I found myself having to claw my way back from a panic disorder with the help of a very successful but counterintuitive – and intensive – course of therapy.

The premise of the therapy was simple: don’t fight anxiety and panic with logical tools like rational thought, situational avoidance and in-depth analysis. Instead, use simple tricks to short-circuit your mind into releasing its vice-like grip on your worries and accepting the unpleasant feeling of panic.

By the time I discovered yoga a couple of years ago, I’d already been living panic-free for a while. I’ve found that anxiety, though, is a little bit like addiction. Once and addict, always an addict, even when you’ve managed to find a way to keep your addiction under control.

And six years after having lived the experience and come out of it unscathed, I was due for a tune-up. Of the therapeutic kind.

I hadn’t made the time yet to find a therapist I liked in my new home of Washington, DC, but when I realized that practicing yoga tricked my brain into thinking about nothing but practicing yoga for at least an hour and fifteen minutes at a time, it dawned on me this might be exactly the kind of tune-up I needed.

If you observed a yoga class and told me that the physical movements that make up the practice are aimed at building strength, improving balance or increasing flexibility – or a combination of these – you’d be right, of course.

When you practice yoga, though, you begin to realize that it’s not just physical strength, balance and flexibility you’re acquiring.

Focusing on one pose at a time helps you achieve mental balance. It clears out the clutter and the preconceived notions and helps you see the here and now as they really are.

Building up the courage to attempt challenging poses you don’t think yourself capable of creates more than just physical strength. It allows you to take risks outside the studio regardless of whether you think you’ll like the results.

And accepting the fact that your tight muscles won’t let you get into a pose right now no matter how hard you try to force it helps you practice a different kind of flexibility. Over time you come to embrace the fact that you can’t always get the outcome you want, and that you can indeed make progress despite your imperfections.

All three skills are fundamental for keeping anxiety sufferers like me from getting sucked into a life of fear, avoidance, co-dependence and emotional stagnation. All three are fundamental to living a happy and balanced life in general, regardless of which variety of mental imbalance happens to ail you.

August 2014 - Big Dog, Little Dog

Excuse me, sir?

Since I started practicing on a regular basis – and seeing the results for myself – I’ve become a big proponent of using yoga as small-scale practice for working through the mental barriers that hold people back. I don’t know what it is about accepting the way you’re built and achieving flow during class that helps you create the mental synapses to do it outside of class, as well.

It has helped me so much with own sanity that I feel compelled to reach out and offer it up as a gift for people who are also struggling to keep theirs.

The problem, though, is that even a somewhat innocuous new activity like yoga can be intimidating for some, and it can be especially intimidating for people with the kind of mental health problems I suffer from. And while the benefits of yoga are almost too numerous to count, there is an aura around yoga culture that can make practicing feel closed off and inaccessible to folks who have never been exposed to it.

There is a very positive set of principles and rituals that accompany the practice of yoga. And there are people who genuinely try to live their lives by those principles. Every “om” and every “namaste” comes from the heart, and you can tell.

But it’s easy for people who have never really practiced to be put off by a stereotype. And it’s really difficult to convince my friends and family that they’d benefit from a regular practice when they feel the stereotype doesn’t fit.

That’s part of the reason I started this blog. I’d like to do my part by giving people a voyeuristic view into someone with a corporate career, an inflexible body and a firm belief that yoga is for everyone – regardless of their lifestyle.

Yoga changed my outlook and had a positive impact on my mental health, but it didn’t change my personality. I don’t have to fit a mold. I don’t chant, I don’t meditate and I rarely ever say “namaste.”

There is, of course, nothing wrong with doing ANY of these things. And I genuinely believe in the “namaste” message – ‘the light in me honors the light in you.’

But in the spirit of that message – and given my mission to offer yoga up as a tool to people who could use it to achieve peace of mind – I try not to throw around what could potentially be a divisive code word for “I’m a yogi and you’re not.”

In other words, since yoga really matters, let’s band together to try to make it less intimidating, so instead of reading about the benefits everyone can experience them first hand.

Shall we?

Namaste! (Just kidding!)