Why I Hate my Garmin Watch

I was riding the bus in San Francisco when a woman made the mistake of asking me about yoga. “I like your yoga pants,” she said. “Do you do yoga?”

“I do indeed,” I answered.

“Man, I should start doing yoga,” she said. “I hear it’s a really good way to lose weight,” she said. “Is it a good way of losing weight?”brown bus seat

I laughed. “I mean, it can be? But probably not for the reasons you’d think.”

“Oh really? Why’s that?”

“Well,” I began, “it makes you listen to your body and more aware of when you’re actually hungry. And in my experience, it makes you want to treat your body better and feed it healthy things.”

“But you sweat a lot, right? I hear that sweating a lot makes you lose weight.”

“It certainly can, but that’s water-weight,” I started again.

“All I know is my girlfriend started doing yoga, started doing those hot yoga classes, and she lost 30 pounds.” She got up. “Well this is my stop,” she announced. “Thanks – I gotta stop eating these Oreos,” gesturing to her shopping bag, “and try yoga!” And with that, she was gone.

A month later, I got a new watch. It was to replace my old GPS watch that I had lost, and this time, it was extra fancy. Not only does this watch track distance and pace, it tracked heart rate, steps, stairs, calories, and (apparently) one’s level of stress. It also receives texts and Instagram notifications – you know, in case you’re phone isn’t within an arm’s length. Perhaps its most obnoxious feature is that, whenever I sit still for more than 15 minutes, it vibrates and flashes a message: “Move!” This is especially absurd when I’m seated in meditation.

When I ordered the watch, I knew we would have a complicated relationship. I did not want to become obsessed with its metrics, or reliant on it to tell me things I already knew, lest I stop actually listening to my body. I do not care how many calories I burn in a day, nor do I care how many steps I take or staircases I climb. I’m intrigued by heart rate, but mainly when I’m running (to see how high it goes) or doing yoga (to see how low it goes). But I figured, once I measured my heart rate once or twice during such activities, I’d stop caring; having a general idea would be good enough. And even though I knew all this – that I didn’t care or even want to care about virtually everything it measured – I started to feel myself getting sucked in. 

I wore the watch while running, biking, kettlebelling, and during a few yoga classes (as well as when I was not doing any of those things), just to see what my heart rate was and to see how many calories I burned. It confirmed what I already running on bridgeknew: deep breathing = lowered heart rate = fewer calories burned. Hard work and heavy breathing = higher heart rate = more calories burned. Unlike physical activities meant to encourage a body to work hard and burn calories, yoga is about using one’s body more efficiently. When we use our bodies efficiently, we expend less energy and therefore burn fewer calories – fewer than if we did the same task with greater effort. By this logic, yoga is one of the worst ways to lose weight – that is, as long as we think that burning calories is the secret to weight loss.

But why, oh why are we so obsessed with weight loss anyway?! Are humans innately happier when they are skinny than when they are fat? Do fewer pounds mean fewer health problems? Does slenderness yield higher self-esteem or self-compassion? As a person who has always been, by all accounts “thin,” I can safely say: absolutely fucking not. 

Here’s the problem: When we see a slender person, we assume they must be doing something right: they must eat healthfully, exercise, and generally treat their body well. When we see a heavier person, we assume the opposite: they must be doing something  wrong; they’ve “struggled with their weight” and lost. These assumptions are predicated on the belief that fat = unhealthy and skinny = healthy; this belief is simply not true.

Health is not merely physical – this is so painfully obvious that I feel ridiculous even typing it. Health includes the things we do with our physical bodies and what we feed them, of course, but it also includes our emotional well-being, and how we relate to ourselves and others. And yet somehow we forget these things when we see people as physical beings. Perhaps that’s the curse of a visually-oriented culture: we see first, listen later.

The problem with “smart watches,” like the one I recently bought, is that they distill us down to our vital signs. Instead of learning to pay attention to how and what we feel, we learn to pay attention to the metrics: our number of steps, our measurable pulse, our calm mindcalories expended. Instead of making decisions based on our observations of ourselves, we begin to make them based on what we are told from a removed, robotic source, and are rewarded with messages like “Goal met!” when we run faster or take more steps. There is no similar reward for sitting still, observing, and feeling.

To anyone who is wondering: Will yoga help me lose weight? I offer the annoying answer: Stop it. Get rid of that question altogether and ask yourself: What am I actually trying to do? If your answer is “to feel more at home in my body,” then my answer is “YES!” If your answer is “to feel healthier and overall more well,” then my answer is “a thousand times YES!!” If your answer is “to look better in a bikini,” my answer is “Who the fuck cares!! Just try it already!!

And to anyone who wears one of those watches (yes, I’m talking to myself): Remember that you are not your vitals. Your watch is a robot; it does not have sensory awareness or spiritual enlightenment or wisdom or anything else that a human has the capacity to have (except maybe a really good memory). Trust that your ability to listen is greater than your watch’s.

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Yoga for Scoliosis: Sat, Oct 21

It took me a long time to want to teach yoga for scoliosis. As a teenager and young adult, I did not like the idea of attending a class that reminded me I was different or abnormal. As a teacher, I did not (and do not) want my students to think people with scoliosis should not attend a “regular” yoga class. And while I’ve taken and taught a variety of yoga styles, from power vinyasa to restorative to yin, vinyasa is where I feel most at home. The thought of leaving vinyasa, or of shifting my focus to gentle or therapeutic, has historically been less appealing than going back to middle school and putting on my back brace. I do not want to be that teacher with rods in her spine; I want to be an excellent teacher.

My first experience with yoga was an Iyengar series with Francois Raoult at Open Sky Yoga. I was 15, knew almost nothing about yoga, and my goal was simple: to straighten my spine. I cannot remember if Francois also had this goal, or if he even thought this was yoga for scoliosisrealistic, but I do know that since then, several teachers have shared with me their belief that yoga can cure scoliosis, if done consistently and correctly. One teacher even expressed his regrets that I had gotten surgery before coming to see him, as he was certain he could have helped me avoid it. But whatever my goals were, whatever Francois’ belief was, and however skilled a teacher (and he was extremely skilled), yoga did not cure my scoliosis. My spine continued to curve and twist at a frightening rate, and I ultimately came to a place of acceptance: I could not do this alone. I would surrender to medical interventions.

After surgery, I took an eight-year hiatus from yoga. When I returned to it in my early 20s, my goals were not so clearly defined. My spine was already fused, so there was no sense trying to “correct” anything. Instead, I was focused on feeling more at home in my body, more at ease with the state of my life. I wanted, once again, to come to a place of acceptance.

For years, I gravitated toward teachers who would (gently) kick my ass, who would remind me that if I could breathe deeply while holding a 4-minute plank, then maybe I could breathe more deeply when I encountered my next challenging situation in life. Yoga helped me to feel strong, capable, and thoroughly alive. This feeling is what I wanted everyone to experience, and the reason I started teaching.  

I have never wanted to use scoliosis or rods as an excuse for not being capable. I do not want people to feel sorry for me, or to tell me I’m “brave.” I do want them to know that I understand what it’s like to be extremely frustrated with my body. There are times in child's poseclass when a teacher cues backbend after backbend, twist after twist, and all I want to do is curl up in a child’s pose and cry. There are times when I’m teaching, wanting to incorporate an interesting spinal movement or position, unable to demonstrate what I’m cuing, unable to tell if my cues are helpful. And then there are times when I just want to stretch my back or ride in a sedan without hitting my fucking head on the ceiling or sit on a couch comfortably, and become so sad at the thought that my spine will never bend again. But were it not for scoliosis, I would not have the understanding and appreciation that I do. And were it not for these frustrations, I would not have the patience that I do. It is these qualities, not the rods, that make me the teacher I am.

Yoga for scoliosis is not about being deficient or less able. It is not about avoiding challenging postures or styles of yoga. It is about gaining a greater understanding of our bodies, so that we may approach challenge with gentleness and grace. It is about learning to feel strong, capable, and thoroughly alive.

Join me for Yoga for Scoliosis this Saturday, Oct 21, from 1:30-4:00pm at Yoga Pearl to explore what scoliosis means for your yoga practice and for you. All levels of students and teachers welcome.

 

A Woman in America

I don’t need to tell you that last week, Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair. I don’t need to tell you that on that cover, she looks, by society’s standards, really good: her hair is long and flowing, her features are delicate, and her boobs, no less than assertive. I also probably don’t need to tell you that her appearance has been a hotly disputed topic of conversation. Caitlyn Jenner Vanity FairWhile many are eager to say things like, “She looks amazing!” and “This is a hot woman!” there are plenty of others who are equally eager to note the implications of Caitlyn’s feminine looks, as well as society’s response to them. In John Stewart’s commentary last Tuesday, he addressed Caitlyn directly (and facetiously): “Caitlyn, when you were a man, we could talk about your athleticism, your business acumen, but now you’re a woman, and your looks are really the only thing we care about.” And since then, there has been a storm of articles reiterating and bemoaning this sentiment, and ultimately asking the question, What does it mean to be a woman?

Elinor Burkett’s NY Times Op-Ed, What Makes a Woman? offers an aggressively “feminist” (or perhaps I should say: female-ist) perspective on Caitlyn’s transition, and focuses on the idea that transgender women like Caitlyn “haven’t traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails.” She claims that trans individuals “disregard… the fact that being a woman means having accrued certain experiences, endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture that reacted to you as one.” Okay, Ms. Burkett, but perhaps it would be more productive to replace the word “woman” with the word “person,” and remember that we are all, in fact, individuals who have been shaped by our experiences. Caitlyn’s experience as a trans-gender woman is not the same as your experience as a cis-gender woman, just a my experience as a cis-gender woman is not the same as yours.

And I get it. It’s hard to hear someone speak on behalf of woman-kind, whether explicitly or implicitly. “As a woman,” or “because I’m/ she’s a woman” or “for women” are oversimplified and essentially meaningless phrases. But sometimes we simplify to make things, well, simpler. No woman can claim to know or understand any other woman’s experience – or any other person’s experience for that matter. But she can relate, and she can empathize.

In creating Natural Beauty Month, I am acutely and uncomfortably aware that some of the language I have used is exclusionary. I am also aware that I have equated “natural beauty” with “no makeup,” and focused on advertising the event to women – or at least, I did for the first two years. While I have been careful not to bill it as an event “for women,” I have spent far more energy advertising it to women than to men. Why? Because I know a lot more women who wear makeup than men who wear makeup – I Am Woman redand when I created the event, not wearing makeup was the primary challenge. This year, I felt moved to expand the challenge, focusing less on exposing one’s natural face and more on exposing one’s natural self. My hope is that Natural Beauty Month encourages people of all genders and sexes to see themselves as they are, and to become more comfortable sharing those selves with the world. For me, a cis-gender woman who has tacitly adhered to the feminine norms of wearing makeup and shaving my legs and armpits for most of my life, this means remembering that I don’t need to do any of these things to be a woman. For Caitlyn Jenner, a woman who has previously adhered to the masculine norms of not wearing makeup, not shaving, and not painting her nails, this might mean remembering that she can do these things if she wants to. And ultimately, it’s not up to me, and it’s not up to Caitlyn to change society’s perceptions. Natural Beauty Month will only work if society accepts what we propose: we do not need to cover ourselves up; we are who we are, and who we are is a beautiful thing.

Natural Beauty Month: Season Three

Two years ago, I challenged myself to go the entire month of June without wearing makeup. I remember the first time I was about to leave my house without my usual eyeliner and mascara, I nearly cried. Why would I do this to myself? I wondered. Why would I choose to make myself feel so uncomfortable and exposed?? But I had already blogged about it, told all my friends about it, and encouraged all the women in my life to join me in the challenge – so I couldn’t back out.

By the end of the month, I had grown used to my naked face. No longer did my reflection seem foreign, and no more did I fear the world seeing my face as it was, naturally. I still thought I looked “better” with makeup, but I had finally accepted the fact that I didn’t need it.

Last June, I challenged myself again. At first, it was almost disappointingly easy. Soon, the challenge became less about my appearance and more about my life: Were my choices reflecting my desires? Were my actions consistent with my beliefs? Was Ibeauty isnt makeup letting the world see me as I was, even when I wasn’t at my “best”? When the challenge is simply don’t wear makeup, the course of action is clear-cut, even if it’s difficult. But when the challenge is be yourself and let the world see it, things are trickier. Before we can be ourselves, we have to know ourselves – a challenge all on its own, and a dynamic one at that. When I graduated from high school, I thought I knew myself, and for all intents and purposes, I did. When I went to college, however, I realized that I would have to get to know myself all over again. The same thing happened when I graduated from college, again when I quit my first full-time job, and again when I moved to Portland last summer. I knew who I was, for the most part, but I would again have to learn who I was becoming.

In my (almost) 30 years on earth, I’ve met myself many times. I’ve made some really good first impressions, and some really shitty ones too. I’ve seen myself do and say things that make me want to curl up under a rock and die; I’ve also done things that I’m immensely proud of. And what I’ve come to accept recently is that this cycle will continue. I will never outgrow embarrassing myself, and I will never be too old (or too young) to do something amazing. Living well and living happily takes time and practice; it also takes failure and sadness. But above all, I think, it takes acceptance and love.

This year, I again present to you the challenge of Natural Beauty Month. This might simply mean not wearing makeup, or it beauty is not the facemight mean wearing less. I might mean reminding your friend that he or she looks (and more importantly, is) awesome. It might mean not using hair products, or not dousing yourself in cologne. Or maybe it means speaking up, even and especially when you’re afraid. Maybe it means telling someone you love them first. Whatever it means to you, let it actually be a challenge – then face it. Because you, my friend, are one bad-ass ninja-warrior of love and happiness, and the world needs more of you.

When The Speaker Shuts Up

I haven’t written since I ran the Boston marathon.
And I haven’t written since my cousin got married.
I haven’t written since I took a five-day yoga training
or since I decided to make my teaching simpler.
I haven’t written since I got into a new improv troupe.
I haven’t written since I decided to teach English.
I haven’t written since my friend killed himself. He would have been 30 last week.
I haven’t written since my sister and brother-in-law put their house on the market and started applying for jobs in a new city (my city!).
I haven’t written since I got into a relationship I thought would last a long time.
I haven’t written since I ended that relationship.
I haven’t written since I fell off my bike.
I haven’t written since I heard a podcast on explaining death to children
or since I decided to teach yoga for trauma
or since I cried about my dad for the first time in too long.
I haven’t written since I started teaching yoga to a 12-year-old with scoliosis.
I haven’t written since I read about a new scoliosis surgery that doesn’t use rods or fusion
or since I cried about my back for the first time in too long.

I haven’t written in four months
despite there being so much to say.

I want to say I can’t wait for my next marathon.
I want to say congratulations, Will, for marrying one awesome lady.
I want to say I think marriage is weird.
I want to say thank you, Jason, for reminding me how simple yoga is, and for making me so pumped to keep teaching.
I want to say thank you, improv, for reminding me to laugh. And listen.
I want to say I’ll pay more attention.
I want to say Happy Birthday, Chris. I miss you.
I want to say I’m sorry.
I want to say I miss you, Papa.
I miss you a lot.
And I want to say I think of you, Papa, and of you, Mama, whenever I see my 12-year-old student, and we talk about crooked backs and braces and surgery.
I want to say, fuck you, rods and screws and bones that don’t allow my back to bend.
And I want to say thank you, rods and screws and bones for holding me together
even when I’m angry.
I want to say I love you.

I want to say that I’ve learned something – a lot of things – since I last wrote.
I want to say that I have something to show for it.
But instead of a thing to show
instead of a moral
or a lesson
or a thing to say
I’m left just feeling
with very little to say
and very little to do.

What I really want
is to listen.
What I really want
is to watch.
And what I really want
is to be.

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Love Yourself, Then Laugh About It

When I first told my yoga students that I did improv comedy, they were surprised – sort of. “Wait, what?!” said one, then immediately followed it up with, “Actually, never mind. I can see it.” The next week, that same student came up to me before class and said, “Abby! I’m coming to your show tonight!” And while I am usually glad when my friends come to see my shows, my first thought this time was: Oh dear. She’s going to see a whole different side of me – what if I do something offensive on stage?! What if her image of me as a peaceful and loving yoga teacher crumbles and she never returns to my class again?? But of course what I said was: “Oh yay!!” Then I spent the rest of the afternoon wondering why I felt self-conscious about my two worlds merging.

improv kissing TimAs an improvisational comedian, I have had to develop my philosophy of comedy. My philosophy thus far has been simple: make fun of everything, including and especially myself. At the same time I have been cultivating my philosophy of comedy, however, I have also been honing a seemingly opposite philosophy of mindfulness (what some might call a “spiritual philosophy”): love everything, including and especially myself.

For years, I have seen the similarities between improv and yoga, but struggled to explain it. They are both about listening, and about being present. Both are about releasing expectations, accepting offers, and seeing possibilities, rather than obstacles. In Tina Fey’s chapter, Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Bellyfat, she observes: “As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. ‘No, we can’t do that.’ ‘No, that’s not in the budget.’ ‘No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.’” She asks the reader, “What kind of way is that to live?” To Fey, accepting offers and saying yes is not just a way to perform: it is a way to be. I have a similar reaction as a yoga teacher. I am baffled when I meet people who belittle their skills, habits, and beliefs, or think they are fixed. I get very upset when people say things like: “I’ll never be able to touch my toes,” “I could never run a marathon,” or “I can’t do yoga – I have a bad back.” I want to shake them (lovingly) and shout (kindly), “Just freaking try it!!!!”

There is another important commonality between improv and yoga: both are terrifying. And while the terror is more obvious with improv (there’s a whole audience watching you if you fail), it doesn’t take long to reach that terrifying place in yoga. Over the Improv NYE 12last seven years, I’ve quit two full-time jobs, gone through three major breakups, moved across the country, and tried to make a living teaching yoga, performing improv, and writing. All of these things are and were terrifying, and for all of these things, I blame yoga. And improv. Through yoga, I have grown to understand, appreciate, and love my whole self: physical, mental, and emotional. Through improv, I have learned to listen, laugh, and fail gracefully (as well as publicly). And while I believe I have always known myself, deep down, yoga and improv have encouraged me to exhume my deepest, darkest, and, incidentally, brightest self.

Yoga shakes us up (lovingly), and shouts (kindly): “This is you! Here you are!” While this shaking and shouting may initially throw us off course and create more chaos than we lived with before, it ultimately allows us to reassess the course we’re on, clearing out space to make sense of the mess that was previously stacked Yes-andin a neat pile, behind several doors and walls. Improv does a similar thing: it requires us to observe what is happening right now, and to respond in a way that makes sense. Scenes move forward when characters listen to each other, build upon each other, and give what they have to offer. The best scenes are those where we commit to our characters, where we are not afraid of the dark. It is frightening, invigorating, uncomfortable, and hilarious all at once. If this sounds like a metaphor for life, it is. When we see ourselves clearly, we can love ourselves fully. When we love ourselves fully, we can see others clearly and contribute positively. The darkness that once scared us becomes yet another thing to explore. And thank goodness for our scene partners! They are here to reminds us that whatever we do and whoever we are, we are worth saying yes to.

A Crack in the Sidewalk, or 15 Days Later

“With an intention, there is no failure.” – Me

Good thing I said that, because otherwise, I’d be writing today to say that I’ve failed.

It started last Thursday, when I was pressed for time and decided to run to my yoga class. It was a brilliant idea, I thought, for it would only take slightly longer to run there than it would to bike; I’d turn my prescribed run into transportation, thus saving myself time and keeping up with my marathon training. No sooner had I finished patting myself on the back for this uber-efficient and athletic solution did the sidewalk remind me just how fallible I was.

A mile into the run, I tripped on a crackcracked-sidewalkand fell, leaving my knees bruised and bloodied, and my dignity fractured. As the graceful citizens of Portland continued to walk and cycle past, I lay on the cruel concrete, crying pathetically and wondering what on earth I should do. I didn’t have time to go home and get my bike, the bus wouldn’t get me there in time, and I couldn’t find my car2go card. If I were to make it on time to teach, I had no choice but to keep running.

Four painful miles later, I arrived at the studio, knee puffy and sore. I taught, gingerly, and figured it would heal up in no time. The next morning, when it was still creaky and fat, I began to get nervous. I taught my usual Friday classes, hoping I wasn’t doing more damage, then made the bold decision not to practice yoga that day. In any other month, this would have been no big deal, but this time it meant I would not succeed in my 31 day challenge. To add insult to injury, I forgot to write. I wish I could blame it on a wrist sprain or a bad case of tennis elbow, but no: I just plain forgot.

When Saturday came and the knee was still sore and puffy, my anxiety swelled. I had already skipped one day of yoga, and it was looked like I would have to skip another. Saturday was also the day I was scheduled to do my long run, but that, too, seemed like it wouldn’t happen. Not only was I failing in my yoga quest, and not only had I skipped a day of writing, but my marathon training was unraveling as quickly as a loose-knit scarf at a cat convention. This is why I don’t do ___-day challenges, I cursed, because shit like this happens, and then everything falls apart!

Or maybe that is exactly why I should do such things.

Last summer, I told one of my yoga classes about a fabulous book I was reading: Mindset, by Carol Dweck. The segment I dont unravelreferenced had to do with our perception of, and reaction to, “failure.” Essentially, we often over-react, and turn minor mistakes, hiccups, or snags into spectacular ones. We eat one forbidden cookie, then say, Ah, fuck it! and eat five more; we get a poor night’s sleep, then guzzle enough coffee to give even the steeliest lumberjack an ulcer. But to do this, she says, is akin to getting one flat tire, cursing our luck, then slashing the other three ourselves. Why not just fix the one tire, she asks, and move on?

I still have four and a half months until the marathon, and there are still 15 days left in December. Also, as most yoga teachers know, one doesn’t need to do sun salutations and balancing poses to practice yoga. I can so simple seated poses; better yet, I can simply meditate (and maybe even ice my knee at the same time?!). Since Friday, I’ve been writing every day (again), trying to meditate for at least a few minutes each night before bed (hey, it’s better than nothing), and above all, appreciating my health. At least my spill on the sidewalk wasn’t any worse, and at least I can respect my body enough to take some time off when I need it. Meditation and stillness have always been more difficult for me than yoga asana and movement – so in a strange way, maybe this is the perfect kind of “__-day challenge.” I can’t say I like being laid up, or that I’m glad I fell, but it certainly has given me a lot to write and think about. So Cheers! to finding inspiration in the uncomfortable.