Better than Video: Capturing the Moment With Your Own Mindfulness.

Or, Six Steps to Daily Mindfulness Plus a Cool Video!

If you haven’t yet seen the Lotte Time Lapse Video, it’s possible you may now be in the minority.The video is brief- just 2 minutes and 45 seconds, but it’s become incredibly popular in the last week, with over 2.8 million views.  It was put together by Dutch father and filmmaker Frans Hofmeester to chronicle his daughter’s first 12 years in brief video clips. It’s an amazing little capsule of a life.

So what is it about this latest viral video that so captures our attention? What keeps us coming back 2.8 million times? The comments below the story voice a common thread- I love this, I wish I had done this with my children, they change so fast…

The Lotte Time Lapse Video is a beautiful example of the universal human need to grasp things as they are now- to cling to our lives as closely as possible, to avoid inevitable change. We know that our condition is impermanent. Babies become girls who become women who become old ladies… And so we make scrapbooks, take photos, check in with FB, buy commemorative plates, so that we can freeze time in whatever way possible. It’s completely natural for a parent, or even a “pet parent” (in my case) to want to capture every moment as fully or completely as we can.

Pema Chodron, in her book “When Things Fall Apart,” uses a lovely metaphor for this attachment: “We are like children building a sand castle,” she says. “We embellish it with beautiful shells… the castle is ours, off-limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet, despite all our attachments, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.”

So: there’s nothing inherently wrong with photos, or time-lapse videos, or even (ahem) framed plaster-cast paw prints. The key is not clinging to each moment desperately (“Honey! Get the camera!”)- but to capture the moment by living in it fully, presently, and completely. This is possible through the practice of mindfulness.

What is mindfulness? You’ve probably experienced it before- a moment where you became intensely aware of what you were feeling, the color of the sky, or the touch of another person’s hand. Perhaps you even realized that you were experiencing something in a more intense, awake sort of way. Meditation teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn has a nice definition:

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way;

On purpose,
in the present moment, and
nonjudgmentally.”

In other words, being mindful is to purposefully bring your complete awareness to the what’s happening right now. It means not passing judgment, not running a commentary, just experiencing the experience. You won’t be able to sustain this mindful awareness for more than a brief moment- but you can touch into it as frequently as you remember to do so. See how this might lend itself to capturing a moment fully?

How do we get there? In many cases, we may find our introduction to mindfulness through a yoga practice. “Become aware of your breathing,” or “observe your reaction to the pose,” a teacher may say. In this way we learn to hear the chatter in our mind (as discussed in this post), but we also learn to return to this moment, to this breath. Of course, It’s easy to be mindful when your instructor is reminding you. How can you carry this practice off the mat?

Let’s get started with six steps to a basic mindfulness practice. 

  • Begin by setting a goal for yourself of 5 or 10 times per day to start- where you will be completely mindful and present in the moment.
  • Create touchstones for yourself- hang up a special image or a phrase (ideas: “be here now,” or “aware”) where you will see it and be reminded to become aware. Your bathroom mirror, the kitchen, your computer monitor, the visor in your car might all be good places for you. You could even use technology, setting reminders on your smartphone.
  • Use these touchstones as cues. When you see your image, or word, draw in a mindful breath. You may say to yourself, “I am breathing in.” Use your senses completely. What are you seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, feeling? Are there emotions or thoughts present? Let your mind’s touch be light. When you lose the awareness, let it go and move on. There’s no need to cling to that mindful attention- it will be there again when you are ready.
  • Throughout the day, as often as you can, bring mindfulness to your interactions with others. At work, when you’re talking to a co-worker, turn away from your computer or your desk. Look in their eyes and engage completely. While on the phone,  close your eyes and really listen to the other person’s voice.  When talking to a loved one, turn away from what you’re doing and give them your full attention. You’ll find the quality of your interaction increases dramatically.
  • Resist the temptation to multi-task. If you are eating, put away the computer, book, phone, and bring your awareness to each bite. If you’re washing the dishes, really just wash the dishes. Unless you need to really look at it, try making a habit of turning your phone over on your desk so that you are not tempted to look at it every time it vibrates or makes a noise. The Facebook message can wait.
  • Be compassionate with yourself as you practice. Remember the goal is not to judge, but simply to notice. If your mindfulness attempts are frustrating, or if you catch yourself finishing off a bag of chips while watching TV- just tune back in. Be aware in that moment, and notice your reactions. This is mindfulness too.

It takes consistent practice, but mindfulness can become a natural part of your daily life. So build your sandcastles, take some pictures. Maybe even a time-lapse video! More importantly: don’t forget to smell the salt air, and feel the sand under your fingers.  In this way, you may find a way to, as Pema says, “enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.”

Titanic Yoga: Your Ship Is Sinking

Titanic Wreck by Ken Marshall- http://www.titanicuniverse.com/

Today marked the 100 year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. This isn’t the kind of thing I would normally know about. However, due to a silly turn of events (forgot to charge phone last night; had to save battery and so chose not to listen to music on iPhone on way to class, therefore turned on radio) I happened to catch part of Bob Edwards’ (NPR Morning Edition) interview with the author of the book Unsinkable: The Full Story of the RMS Titanic by Daniel Allen Butler

The bit I heard was pretty interesting. But what really caught my attention was just a tiny snippet I heard just as I pulled in to the parking spot at the studio. The author commented that many of the passengers aboard the ship refused to believe that it would sink because they had been told so often that it was “unsinkable.”

While I’m sure these passengers quickly came to terms with the inevitable sinkability of the vessel, it struck me as an interesting snapshot of the human experience from 100 years ago. How often in my life have I chosen to believe what I was told- or what I wanted, intellectually, to believe, rather than what my own senses were telling me? The “ego mind”often has much to say that the “body mind” or “gut feeling” would contradict, if we would just listen. On the mat- if you’ve ever injured yourself by pushing a little too far in a pose, you know what I’m talking about. Off the mat? Ugh. Don’t get me started- if you’ve ever pursued a bad relationship even when your heart was telling you it was trouble, you know what I mean.

This week in my practice- on and off the mat- my intention is to listen to my instinct, to my gut, to what my senses are experiencing. With any luck, I can dodge an iceberg- or at least be aware of the collision.

How to Establish (and Maintain) a Home Yoga Practice: A Practical Guide

Your furry friends may be quite helpful in your practice at home.

This guide comes from my own efforts, some more successful than others, in putting together a home yoga practice. Like anything worth doing, it is a bit of work- but you’ll love the benefits. Enjoy!

1. Create your space. The first step in establishing a home practice is to work out the logistics- where can you comfortably practice? You may need to exercise some creativity and move furniture to make it happen. Ideally, it’ll be a place in your home that is quiet and free of distractions. If it’s a space that you can dedicate to the practice- even better. Add a little decor to make it special for you. A meaningful knick-knack, flowers, candles- whatever makes it your sacred space. However, if this is not a possibility for you, give yourself permission to make it special on the fly as you unroll your mat- remembering that this is your time to connect with your innermost self. (Also: bonus karma points, you can pat yourself on the back for not needing things like candles and flowers to make your practice space sacred. Nice job!)

Props ‘n’ stuff: Make sure you have a decent mat. You may not want to spend a lot of money right off the bat on a Manduka or Jade mat (both of which I do recommend, when you’re ready to make a long-term commitment) but please make sure that you don’t hate your mat- if you’re slipping, or it’s stinky, or it hurts- spend a little more on a better one. Props such as blocks, bolsters, and a strap are also great, but you can live without them for a while if needed. Have a clock or a timer handy. I’m also a fan of having a portable iPhone speaker/dock in your practice space so you can play music or listen to a podcast. But DO turn on Airplane mode- you don’t want to get a phone call or text in the middle of your practice.

2. Now that you’ve established your practice space, it’s time to Create a Structure. Part of the charm of going to a studio or a class at a gym is that this part of the work is already done for you- you just have to show up. You can do this for yourself, and set yourself up for success, with just a bit of initial planning. Look at your calendar- when can you expect yourself to practice, and for how long? Give yourself a reasonable schedule to start- maybe 1-2 times per week for 30 minutes. While you may want to establish a vigorous daily practice, setting your expectations too high at the beginning may lead to frustration, disappointment, or burnout. Commit the time to yourself as you would to your partner, your employer, or your children- write it in your planner, schedule it in your phone, and then show up. Once a week (I like Sundays, just because) you can re-evaluate the plan for the following week.

While you’re writing, make a list of the positive benefits of yoga, and why you want to make it a part of your life. Your list might include stress management, strength-building, greater health, increased flexibility, a closer connection to your inner self, or even just that you deserve to do something for YOU. It might feel a little silly to write these things down- but please do it anyway. Seeing these things in black and white can be a tremendous motivator. If it’s practical, place this list where you can see it frequently and be reminded of your commitment- your bathroom mirror, your fridge, whatever works for you.

When creating your structure, it’s also important to decide how you will practice. You may  want to listen to a podcast one day, and focus on hip openers another day (Don’t panic! There’s more on “what to do” below). Whatever you decide, make that part of your schedule and your commitment. If you show up to practice and don’t know what to do, it’s easy to walk away. Having a format to follow will give you a greater chance of success at sticking with it.

3. Figure Out What To Do. When I first started my own away-from-the-studio time, this was the hardest for me- I wanted so badly for my home practice to be a beautiful 90 minute class that challenged and invigorated and taught me new things about myself… and yet I had no idea how to make that happen. Luckily, we live in the Internet age. Give yourself permission to use technology to your advantage:

  • Podcasts: There are some awesome (free) podcasts available on iTunes- you may have to listen to a few before you find one that speaks to you, but the price is absolutely right. I can recommend Elsie’s Yoga Kula and Dave Farmar– they’re both pretty great at cueing, so you’re able to follow along without a visual.
  • Streaming video online sites: these work well if you have a laptop or iPad- a friend of mine uses Do Yoga With Me, which is free. There are some great podcasts/videos available from Yoga Journal at no charge as well. If you don’t mind paying, I’m a fan of YogaGlo– it’s reasonably priced and boasts some big names for high-quality instruction. There are many, many more sites, and most of them are pretty cheap to try out. I’ve found that I can learn something from even my least favorite class.
  • Books, flashcards, magazines- Yoga Journal and Yoga International both offer at-home sequences as part of their magazine, and that’s a great starting point. There are all kinds of books available- and if you’ve got a library card, even better!
  • DVDs- I started my own yoga practice with DVDs, and there are a lot of great titles out there to choose from. This is a little more of an investment, and if you are bored by repetition, may not be the way to go- but if you’re looking for a structured practice, it may work for you.
Over time, with consistency, you’ll begin to tune in to your inner teacher, discovering that you can practice without these tools. You may come to your mat and find that your body’s craving a certain pose, or sequence- or maybe just some deep breaths. This is a good thing, and something to enjoy- but until it happens, allow yourself to use whatever means necessary to help you.
One last note: when crunched for time, it may be tempting to skip Savasana or a resting pose- please make sure that you include at least 5 minutes at the end of your time in order to absorb the benefits of the practice. Cut something else if you have to, but this is really important. Really.

4. Be Kind to Yourself. A few notes on compassion:

  • So you wanted to practice for 90 minutes but you got up late and now you only have 30- don’t beat yourself up about it. Treat yourself as you would your best friend- give yourself credit for showing up at all. Maybe you got to your mat and your iPhone wasn’t charged so you couldn’t listen to the podcast and all you could think of doing was a few Sun Salutations and then you got kind of frustrated and laid down in Savasana for a while- that’s okay. That’s yoga too. You showed up. Nice job.
  • If, like some people I know… (okay, I’m talking about myself)… you tend to over-do: please, listen to your body. If you’ve done three challenging practices in a row over the past three days- your body needs time to recuperate. Take a day off or find a more restorative/Yin sequence.
  • If, like some other people I know… (yep, still talking about myself)… you are capable of talking yourself out of your scheduled practice for whatever reason- be kind to yourself by at least giving yourself the chance to practice. A wonderful friend of mine once introduced me to the 10-minute concept. If you think you’re too tired, or you just don’t want to do something, promise yourself you’ll try for at least 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, let yourself give up, if you still want to. Spoiler alert: you probably won’t.
  • Reward yourself: give yourself occasional pats on the back for sticking with your plan. After a milestone (a month, two months, whatever) treat yourself to something special. Maybe a new outfit (I’m looking at you, be present) or a new mat- or a trip to your favorite studio. It’s possible you don’t need motivation in this regard- bonus karma points for you again! But, for the rest of us, when starting a new habit, rewards can be a great motivator.

5. Invest in the (at-least-occasional) class with a certified teacher. Full disclosure: I am a yoga teacher, but I promise this is not completely self-serving. Yoga, like any physical discipline, can lead to injury if not practiced properly. This is not to say that you shouldn’t do it on your own at all- there is tremendous benefit in a consistent home practice. However, the experience of receiving personalized cues, adjustments, and assists is invaluable to guide you in practicing safely. Additionally, it saves time in un-learning unproductive habits. (I’m still struggling with a little headstand tic I created for myself several years ago).

Find a good studio with a teacher who will give mindful adjustments and detailed cues. The best teachers will also be happy to talk to you about any concerns or problems you may be experiencing in your home practice, so this is a great opportunity to get individualized advice.

Finally, from a social aspect- many students also find that it is invigorating to supplement their home practice with classroom time. Connecting with community is an important part of the yoga experience, and not easily replicated online.

If you’re looking for more reading on this topic, I recommend two great articles that you may find helpful: Kara-Leah Grant’s Elephant Journal piece on “10 Tips & Tricks for Establishing a Regular Home Yoga Practice”, and Judith Hanson Lasater’s “Bring Your Practice Home” on YogaJournal.com.

I’d love to hear from you about your own challenges or experiences with your home practice- please email me or leave a comment below.

Beyond the Mat: How You Do Anything Is How You Do Everything

Sure, it’s great to twist yourself into a pretzel and stand on your head, but once the novelty wears off (let’s face it- your friends don’t really care if you can do this pose or not), there are deeper benefits to enjoy.

Greater self-awareness is one of best unexpected “perks” of the physical yoga practice. It begins in a deceptively simple way- “Bring your attention to your breath,” the instructor might say, and then, gradually, as you are reminded, again and again, you learn to bring your attention back to the breath. Then, to the physical sensations you experience. Finally, over time, you become more aware of your emotions, and the inner dialogue that narrates your practice. “OMG I touched my nose to my knee! I am awesome. Crap, I always fall out of this pose, I will never be any good at it. That woman is thinner/stronger/better/more flexible/drinks more green smoothies than I do. I should be better at this. What is wrong with me?!”…  

Time for the True Confessions portion of the blog: When I began my practice, if I fell out of a balancing pose like Vrksasana, or Tree Pose– I was intensely critical of myself. I often make a joke of this in my classes- reminding students that their worth as a human being does not depend on their ability to balance on one foot- because to me, at that time, I really felt like it did. Yeah, I hear how crazy this sounds.  But I never recognized this negativity and self-hate was there until I began to tune in.

Tuning in to the inner experience, and listening to that silent dialogue, is the beginning of self-inquiry that serves you beyond your yoga mat. I recognized this with sparkling clarity several years ago while listening to a Baron Baptiste audio podcast. “How you do anything,” he said, “is you you do everything.” In other words, your behavior on your yoga mat is just a microcosmic example of your behavior in the rest of your life.

So painfully true! Once I heard my inner critic on my mat, I began to hear her hypercritical and unforgiving voice everywhere.  Work. Home. Commuting. She didn’t even like the way I washed my hair! Rude.

So the practice on your mat can be an amazing laboratory for self-inquiry. The trick is not to get caught in a cycle of judgment over the whole thing. There’s no need to be critical about the criticism. Another true example: Why are you always so hard on yourself? You should know better).

For this reason, I recommend that you don’t set out to change or quiet your own inter critic. Set yourself a manageable goal- just tune in. The initial work is just to notice your reactions. Over time, as you bring your awareness to the voice again and again, you may find that your reactions shift. I’d love to say that I am now completely cured of my self-criticism, but I have a long way to go. Still, to paraphrase a famous recovery program, recognition is the first step.

If how you do anything is how you do everything- what has your practice taught you?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

First Yoga Class? No Worries.

…Little help?

This post was born out of the many questions I am asked about a first visit to a class or studio. It’s information I wish I’d had! 

What Should I Wear? This is easy. You can wear anything you’d wear to the gym. Shorts, sweats, etc. Make sure your shirt is fitted enough that it won’t fly up over your head if you bend over- or at least be prepared to tuck it in. Shorts should be somewhat fitted (for similar reasons), but should allow some range of motion. To be kind to your fellow students, avoid any strong perfumes or scents. Shoes: you’ll be taking them off (yep, yoga is done barefoot) when you get to class, so make sure your feet are clean. Finally, you might consider dressing in layers to accommodate any temperature changes you experience. I tend to get cool at the end of practice and it’s nice to have a long-sleeve shirt then.

Do I Need To Bring Stuff? If you have a mat, you’re welcome to bring it. Otherwise, most studios (or gyms) should have mats available to borrow or rent (usually a really small fee). Some classes will utilize blankets, blocks and straps, but this isn’t something to freak out about. If the equipment is required, the teacher will have it for you there and tell you how to use it. Bring water, of course, and I always recommend a towel.

What Should I Do So I Don’t Feel Stupid? Trick question!- you have no reason to feel stupid. Everyone in your yoga class was new at one point. In most classes I’ve been to, people will bend over backwards (unintentional pun!) to make you feel welcome. But here are a few tidbits for your first visit to ease any discomfort.

  • Arrive 15 minutes early to fill out any paperwork and check out the place. Most studios will have a place to put your shoes and personal items.
  • Find a spot in the back of the class for your first time- more experienced students in front of you can be very helpful if you get lost in cues.
  • Tell the instructor about any injuries or limitations you have. This is really important- don’t be shy. The teacher needs to know so that they can offer modifications that will make the class pleasant for you.
  • Don’t eat too much right before class. There’s likely to be lots of twisting and bending and… well, just don’t do it. You can eat a light snack an hour beforehand, such as a piece of fruit, some yogurt, or a small granola-bar-type-thing.
  • Turn off your cell phone and stow it in your bag. Seriously, don’t leave it on “vibrate.” Don’t keep it by your mat. Your first time in a yoga class is a great time to practice unplugging. And I promise that when the room is super quiet and everyone’s relaxing, your phone will be the one buzzing insistently in the corner and that’s going to be a real yoga downer.
  • Once you’re inside the practice space, observe silence, if that is the rule of the studio (and it usually is). Students come to class for quiet and relaxation. Unroll your mat and take a quiet seat. Lie down if you like, and just breathe. This will get easier with time.

What Should I Expect From The Class? This is a little harder to answer. Depending on the type of yoga you’ve chosen, this can vary. Classes can range from extremely vigorous cardio-types to very gentle/relaxing. You’ll probably have an idea from the class description. However, many classes will include a beginning period of guided breathing or easy stretching; some standing postures; some seated postures, and a cool-down period that may include some guided relaxation or meditation.

What Did The Teacher Just Say? Crazy Sanskrit Stuff. No need to be bilingual, but here are a few terms you may encounter.

  • “Namaste.” Class will often begin and end with this salutation. It means, “The divine light in me recognizes the divine light in you.” The teacher will usually say it to the class and then the class says it together back to the teacher. As you say it, you can bring your hands together in “prayer” position and bow slightly. If this weirds you out, just don’t do it, nobody will care. And if they do, I would find a different class.
  • “Om.” This is often chanted together at the beginning or end of class. Although there is lots more to it, at its most basic it a primordial sound, the sound of the universe. If you’re not into it, don’t do it. See notes above for “Namaste.”
  • “Drishti.”- a gazing point- where your eyes should look in postures.
  • “Vinyasa”- translated often as “movement with breath.” This may refer to a style of yoga or to a transitional series of movements that are done as part of a class.
  • “Pranayama.” Guided breathing.

What If I’m Uncomfortable? If in any posture you experience pain, stop what you’re doing and back out of it slowly the way that you came in. Don’t be afraid to signal to the instructor for assistance. Return to the previous posture or take child’s pose. If you’re uncomfortable with the chanting “Om” or any other mantra, don’t do it. You can also talk to the instructor afterward about either of these types of discomfort- they may have an explanation or a modification to help you be more comfortable next time. Please remember that a good teacher wants to know how they can help you. Really.

Relax and Enjoy Yourself. Yoga has many physical and mental benefits. Bring your curious mind and be open to the experience.