Tag Archives: Yoga

Sit Still! Can a ‘Staycation’ Become a Daily Practice?

I skipped my company Christmas party this year — not a smart move for a new employee who hopes to grow her job and widen her influence at work.

It wasn’t because I’d had a lousy week and my boss had barked at me (though both are true). I just needed a night at home, alone, after six straight days of having e-mails, texts and virtual meetings intrude on weekend plans and overtake every evening.

My iPhone is running my life. More accurately, my connectivity-fueled agenda is my life, and the signs of that imbalance — inability to concentrate, a craving for constant movement and excitement, and, recently, the not-so-subtle suggestions from coworkers and friends that I seem hyper and wired — have me worried.

Which leads to less sleep and more caffeine.

What’s an over-achiever to do? What else? Draw up a list on the iPhone. Make a plan.

Power down

Love it, hate it

Lately I have been drawn to media reports about the downside of an internet-amplified, over-scheduled life:

  • Ever check your iPhone before and after a Sunday matinee? Or read e-mail on the sidelines of a soccer game? Me, too. In fact, the tools designed to keep us current and organized have stolen our leisure, according to a special report in The Chronicle of Higher Education on the cost of living in a state of fast-moving distraction.

“Plugged in 24/7/365, we are constantly struggling to keep up but are always falling further behind,” the Chronicle declares. “The faster we go, the less time we seem to have. As our lives speed up, stress increases, and anxiety trickles down from managers to workers, and parents to children.”

Read a book or a newspaper in its original form, he says, without the temptation to click through to related sites or articles on your portable device. Daydream. Sit still. (And do what?)

  • “The time I’ve spent going nowhere is going to sustain me much more than the time I’ve spent running around,” says travel writer Pico Iyer. He schedules some amount of downtime every day to reflect on and process his various experiences.

In an August 2014 TED talk called “The Art of Stillness,” Iyer described how Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly found the space and creativity to write his latest book by eliminating smart phones and television from his home. Take an “Internet Sabbath” at least one day a week, Iyer says, “in order to develop the perspective and sense of direction when you go online again.”

What is scary about stillness?

I’ve been taking stay-at-home vacations since before the shorthand, staycation, was even coined. My husband and I couldn’t afford to travel when we were raising our two sons. Plus, I enjoyed hanging out at our small-town home after daily commutes to the city.

When colleagues asked, “Where are you going?” my standard reply would be: “Off the clock.” Lately, I’ve amended that to “off the iPhone.”

Since finally buying a smart phone in May 2012, I’ve learned that a staycation is no vacation if I stay plugged in to office e-mail and my social media accounts. Nor is time off a break if I’m scheduled dawn to dusk with workouts, lunches, errands and appointments.

A Type A person tends to see weekends or vacations not as opportunities to relax and recharge but as prime time to get things done. And that’s OK, she tells herself, because the busyness is tied to her family and friends. Problem is, the deeper I get into middle age, the more I find that “always on” is not sustainable.

I want to live more in silence, not with Minnesota Public Radio on as background news and noise, not with music blaring while I clean or cook, but silence. Without distraction, with myself. I want more mental freedom, more unstructured moments to get lost in a book or in my thoughts.

I want to live more often without a schedule and the tools that tie me to it.

“Be curious,” one of my yoga instructors used to say. So, what would happen if:

  • I swore off caffeine for 24 hours?
  • I invited a friend out spontaneously?
  • I did yoga at home, instead of in a structured class, and followed wherever my mind and body took me?
  • I turned off my iPhone for an entire weekend?
  • I committed to focused reading time for a natural wind-down in the evening?
  • I explored the observation my mother made of me long ago: “You’re always on the go. What are you running from, I wonder?”

I won’t find the answer till I learn how to be still.

How Shabbat Can Heal the Tyranny of Busyness

I attended my first Shabbat service on a recent Friday evening, surprising in its sense of joy and celebration. “We love to sing,” said the program for Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, Massachusetts, where my nephew, Eric Gage, on the cusp of 13, would become B’nei Mitzvah the next day.

I felt both eager and unprepared as I stepped into the reform temple, with its unfamiliar language and practices. My brother helped my sisters and me — raised Methodist, none of us regular church-goers — through the English translations of the Hebrew text. I struggled self-consciously with the left-to-right turning of the pages in the prayer book, before I finally sank into my pew and focused outward, upward.

“Our everyday lives are so busy,” the evening’s program read. “We invite you to relax and enjoy this time away from the quickened pace of the world outside these walls. Please enjoy the gift that is Shabbat by turning off your cell phone, Blackberry, iPhone or anything else that goes ‘buzz.’”

A sense of placekeep-calm-and-shabbat-shalom_SMALL

The word Shabbat literally means “ceasing” or “stopping,” a concept I am only beginning to grasp at middle age — and one made more difficult in a time when being digitally connected (always on, forever reachable) is expected, if not embraced.

“The Sabbath comes to us from the Jewish tradition. In the story of creation in Genesis, each of God’s six acts of creation is like an act in a play. And the climax is: God rests,” says a 2003 article from the UU World, the magazine (and now website and Twitter feed) of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

“It is the rests in the music that make the music,” says a friend of mine who became a UU minister in her 40s.

UUism is my adopted though ill-practiced faith, and I am turning to its teachings and seven principles more often as I discuss my concepts of God and religion with my 19-year-old son, a declared atheist. Absent a relationship with a UU congregation, however, I have lost my sense of the Sabbath, or Shabbat.

I have no place, no church, no sanctuary whose sanctity demands that I leave the buzzing iPhone at home and turn off the incessant buzzing in my brain. Sunday no longer is a special day, with its own quieter rhythms. I go to yoga early in the morning. My husband and I often take in a movie in the afternoon. Beyond that, it’s just another working day when I don’t have to don work clothes.

“Observing the Sabbath, observing a day of mindfulness, taking a real day off . . . call(s) for the intentional creation of sacred space and time,” says the same article in the UU World, a reprint of a sermon by the Reverend Amanda Aikman. “It takes a little discipline. It also calls us to overcome our fear of what we will find in the silence and the emptiness.”

‘Be more, do less’

In my ongoing quest for meaning at midlife — for a greater sense of purpose beyond my work and myself — I am turning to secular sources of inspiration that name the problem but seldom offer any lasting solution:

  • “Be more, do less,” a T-shirt at my yoga studio reads.
  • “We wear our busyness like a badge,” says Duluth, Minnesota–based yogi and teacher Deborah Adele in The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice. Describing Brachmacharya, the concept of non-excess, she notes how we Type A drivers tend to soothe ourselves with alcohol or food, shopping or sex, how we habitually overschedule our time. “My ego likes to feel important, and it doesn’t feel very important when I am resting,” Adele says.
  • “Weekends are awful for women who do too much,” says psychologist Anne Wilson Schaef in the handbook Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much. “We do not like the lack of schedule, and we feel lost without our work.”

I used to find sacred space and time on my daily dog walks in the natural lands around Northfield, Minnesota, where my husband and I raised our two sons. Now, in the city, surrounded by traffic and people, I struggle to recreate the sense of gratitude and connectedness that came upon me, unbidden, on those leisurely walks through uninhabited woods and prairies.

When I wrote the “Seeker’s Diary” column for the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune — visiting Baptist and Moravian and Buddhist and Jewish and Catholic and Lutheran houses of worship throughout the Twin Cities — I often envied the congregants’ sense of moral and spiritual certainty, even as I watched the traditions and customs from a distance.

More than anything, I envied them the luxury of being removed from the world. Isn’t that the very essence of carefree?

And so, because increasingly I crave the quiet, my choices are to return to a religious community or to practice and prioritize the Sabbath on my own.

“Walk slowly at night” and “unplug all your devices” are among the tips in a Time magazine cover story called “Finding God in the Dark,” about author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor. A water-stained copy of the issue has sat near my bathtub for six months. Time to start reading.

Learn more: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-29751577

The Oldest Woman in Yoga

Ask middle-aged women which physical changes have surprised them, and they’ll talk about joints: aching knees, fragile ankles, sore shoulders that restrict range of motion.

The less common complaints are about bathroom habits. “Jumping makes me pee!” says a 56-year-old yoga instructor and nutrition coach. Another woman, 62, says simply “constipation” when asked about the physical change she least expected.

Our skin starts to dry out as early as our late 20s. We begin to lose muscle mass in our 30s. By our 40s, we see parentheses flank our mouths and darker circles beneath our eyes. But for some of us who have been athletic all our lives, the hardest signs of aging are the physical limitations.

“The payback for pushing yourself too hard gets worse as you age,” says Web MD, a valuable online resource for both diagnosis and healing of athletic injuries.

Gayle Winegar, president and co-owner of the SweatShop in St. Paul, Minn. — a Pilates- and strength-based studio that attracts women of middle age and older — agrees that shoulders and knees become more vulnerable with age. And injuries take longer to heal. “You get one injury, and that has a downward spiral. It’s hard to get up to the frequency, intensity and duration you had before,” she explains.

Slow down, you move too fast

Ego invariably is at the core of my athletic injuries. Whether it was the right hamstring muscles I blew out by showing off during a step aerobics class I was teaching, or the advice I failed to heed in my late 40s that middle-aged runners are less prone to injury if they slow down and even take “walk breaks” on their runs, I have consistently yielded to that competitive drive to keep up, win, be the best or — most humbling, in hindsight — to appear younger than I am.

Now, at 57, I finally recognize that if I don’t act my age, I’ll be sidelined.

I practice yoga at Core Power, a high-octane urban chain that attracts primarily young professionals. I joined in February 2011, desperate for the 104-degree rooms and chance to sweat during a typically frigid Minnesota winter. I also wanted Western-style yoga classes that focused more on fitness and rigorous workouts than Eastern philosophy.

Proudly referring to myself as the Oldest Woman in Yoga, I jumped into the most demanding classes, determined to keep pace with the youthful peacocks whose “body art” danced as they flowed through the poses.

Months later, I sustained a shoulder injury from doing the difficult Chaturanga Dandasana (yoga push-up) pose too quickly and with insufficient back and abdominal strength. It cost me weeks in physical therapy and a three-month hiatus from Core Power.

Yoga push-up

Yoga push-up

Older and wiser

Ego is the antithesis of what a yoga practice is supposed to be about. But that pastoral ideal — to “stay on your mat,” to focus solely on your own breath, to resist comparing body types and flexibility — is difficult to practice at a Type A studio like Core Power. And for a Type A practitioner like me.

Then I figured out that injury could heal me, not only the other way around.

When I returned to Core Power, I went to slower-moving, balance-focused classes that don’t include multiple repetitions of Chaturanga. I learned the 26 poses of hot yoga and sought out teachers who are closer to my age. And, just as yoga calls us to take its spiritual tenets with us off the mat, out into the world, I began to look at myself and others differently.

The Oldest Woman in Yoga quit mentally competing and comparing. If the loose skin shows on my lower belly, stretched twice — mightily — by nearly 10-pound baby boys, so be it. To paraphrase Gloria Steinem: “This is what 57 looks like.”

I ask instructors how to modify for my tight hips and weak left shoulder. I warmly greet the young women who clean the studios and bathrooms, and strike up conversations with other middle-aged women.

And, in an effort to focus less on being thin than being strong, I tried a TRX class at the SweatShop.

“I would love to look good in an Academy Awards ball gown, but that no longer is the highest thing on my list,” says Winegar, who founded the SweatShop in 1981, at the cusp of what would become a booming fitness movement. “Now, I want to get up without an achy back or stiff hands or feet that don’t work or a shoulder that doesn’t move.

“Women need different things at all stages of life.”

Lesson learned: I am working to accept my age rather than denying it. If enough of us come to celebrate the inevitable, society may see the wisdom that comes with wrinkles.