Reading, writing and rhythm

I am a voracious reader. My nightstand is typically piled with books, and I have about 3-4 going at any one time.

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There’s at least one fiction book, which is my treat reading before bedtime, and the way I wind down before sleep. I am not so into e-books. I have a Nook, but forget to charge it. I have a love for real pages that I can turn, a visceral and physical experience of a book that I am too old-fashioned to replace.

When I write, I integrate the things I read, the practices I attempt, and the swirling thoughts I notice while meditating or navigating my days. It helps me slow things down enough to consider how it all fits together.

My philosophy teacher used to recommend that we write to remember. When studying, write out concepts and ideas we want to understand or explore.

In biology or chemistry labs, we wrote to capture our protocols, and our results. Writing is a part of science, part of study, part art-form and part formal work.

Reading and writing do not come easily to everyone, and I am grateful that I have always enjoyed both since a young age. Fifteen years ago, toward the end of graduate school I was diagnosed with adult a.d.d. Now it makes sense to me that I can either hyper-focus or be challenged to finish a page without distraction.

I do not have the “h” part of the usual diagnosis (and women often do not manifest that part, or they train themselves out of it to be quiet, compliant little girls from a young age). But clearly the difference in my ability to focus was palpable after treatment and medication.

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Before the diagnosis I had suffered from 2-3 periods of depression in my life, precipitated by burnout and anxiety. I had always struggled to pay attention during my “boring” classes, and often escaped into my imagination. Teachers knew I was smart, but they often said I was not working up to my potential. I finished salutatorian of my high school class, so clearly a lot of students may not have been working up to their potential…

What I find these days is that life is more about establishing the right rhythm for my days and weeks, rather than pursuing the elusive “balance” many strive for.

Filling days with to-do lists and activities may help us feel productive and in control of our lives. But resting, pausing and re-evaluating need to be a part of our lives too. An a.d.d.-oid brain is typically in motion constantly. I describe my thought processes as cascades, and they are very fluid and dynamic.

Normal people can typically compartmentalize their thoughts, like putting them in boxes, categorizing and organizing them. The a.d.d. brain tends not to work that way, instead flowing from thought to thought, in associative “play”. We create new categories, with different boundaries. Our brains  leap outside boxes like playful puppies or kittens.

For years I spent time hiding my a.d.d., at the advice of well-meaning professionals that explained to me that employers would not necessarily understand, and may penalize me for it professionally. In every job I needed to “prove myself” with consistency for quite some time before advancing, very hard for the a.d.d.-oid mind that gets bored once it knows the routine. The first time I was able to hire administrative support to help with the details while I could focus on big picture work, I finally started realizing my potential.

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My current position as an operational manager for an international team requires me to be quick thinking and to balance many factors in making decisions. I get to help my employees with career development (which I love) and coach them to develop their skills, especially when it comes to influence management in a large corporation with a matrix reporting structure.

I turned a weakness into a “superpower” of sorts, at least the way I am choosing to author my life and my story. I do not see it as a disability. I see it as a way of seeing around corners, flexibly solving problems, and bringing creativity to many teams.

As long as I find the right rhythm in my days, get time for rest, play and taking very good care of myself physically, I thrive. When I neglect myself, or slack off on good self-care routines, like getting enough sleep, healthy food, affection, love, and exercise, I suffer.

What I want to say to those suffering from depression, anxiety, a.d.d. or any other type of diagnosis: it does not have to define you or your life. You will need to learn to manage it, that is true. But it will give you unique insight, skills and resilience when you learn to manage it. You will benefit from more compassion for those who struggle. And if you learn to love yourself, and the unique way that your brain and body work, you can fully use your gifts.

 

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Find your rhythm, find what makes sense for you. Find others that support your strengths and help you cultivate them. You deserve that. And it is possible.

Have a great week, friends.

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

Smoke and mirrors

This morning I woke up very early again (3:30) on the heels of a dream, but at least it was after 7 hours of sleep rather than just 4 the night before. I tried counting breaths, I tried a little meditating, praying and attempting to let go of my thoughts. The dream faded quickly and I did not write it down. But there were work people in it, and it did not feel like a happy dream.

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I tried paying attention to my thoughts (one meditation technique). Counting breaths got me up to 70, then 20, then I could not make it to 10 without my thoughts distracting me. One of the thoughts I kept having was that I no longer believe in what I do at work. I am supporting a system which is very dysfunctional. I feel like I am rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic sometimes, juggling unreasonable demands.

What also occurred to me is that I no longer trust my director. This does not feel good. But it is what emerges for me, a feeling of betrayal. He broke our group’s trust by taking on two more projects when he told us last November: no more new projects without new resources. I realize he defined this differently from me. I think of people (“headcounts” in corporate speak) as my resources. Yes, there is budget money. But when it comes to human resources, actual people to do the work that’s been committed, we are far below critical mass.

I wrote a long email to my boss and the other manager on our team about this last Friday. I scheduled a meeting for this past Monday to discuss. Since I was asked to work on a project for funding model innovation with a Senior Director of another division, I had to gather the data and face the reality. It is not good. We have 15 active projects and there are only 5 people in the “field clinical research” role in Latin America to execute, spread among 4 countries. True, about half of those projects are in maintenance mode, and are not very work-intensive. But we are fooling ourselves if we think we can continue like this much longer.

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Photo credit link – this is how I felt last year at this time.

A history of over-committing our resources means we are far behind many of the targets that were originally set when the work was committed. And yes, having to lose 3 real headcounts over the past 2 years has had a devastating effect that I could not really manage (from 8 down to 5). We were poised on the razor’s edge even before that in terms of work load. When upper leadership decided to dis-invest, it kind of broke something in me.

Last year at this time I hinted strongly to 2 direct reports that would no longer have positions on the team and needed to find other jobs. HR did not encourage this, but I am loyal to people, not a corporation. One of them found a better job, was relocated to the U.S. from Brazil. The other one found another job in her country’s office as well, so I just had to do one layoff, and it was a temporary one before she began her new position.

Now is not the time to be taking on more projects. That was what we promised the team back in June (and again in November) when we met to survey the damage. No more projects without more resources. My director broke that promise. I no longer believe in what I’m selling. And now I am fairly certain that staying much longer in my current role will actually hurt my career long-term. Aligning with a boss that cannot keep his promises and has lost the trust of his team feels pretty wretched right now.

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I have not yet figured out the next move for me. But no wonder I am losing sleep over this. It’s time I was honest with myself about this whole mess. I have been defending a losing proposition for a couple of years now. My team trusts me as well, and they will have to trust that when I leave, I still care about them as people.

A couple weeks ago I scheduled a trip to Argentina and to Brazil. It feels like a farewell tour for me. I know I will leave, and there is one particular colleague in Buenos Aires that I want to talk with 1:1. She has a lot of difficulty saying no to her boss when she is over-committed. He is a world-renowned electro-physiologist. I get it, but she will have to learn this skill. She returns from maternity leave next week. In my own heart and soul, I could not leave this role before her return. I feel a need to say goodbye, and to wish her well, to let her know I still care, which is why I need to leave.

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I need to surrender to the fact that people with higher “grade levels” than I in this division have made decisions that I believe are not good for the health of the organization long-term. Which means their decisions conflict with my values. Physically, my body refuses to cooperate with the smoke and mirrors act that we are forced to enact to survive here.

What a relief it is to imagine putting down my sword and no longer fighting this battle. I don’t even CARE what I do next. That’s how good it feels to be honest about where we are now. I need to stop fantasizing about an “exit package” and start plotting my exit immediately.

Rumbling with our stories

I just love Brené Brown’s work on how to use what she calls “Rising Strong as a Spiritual Practice.” She is a Texas born and bred professor, researcher and storyteller who studies shame, wholeheartedness and how we use story and narrative to shape our lives. Her Ted Talk on the power of vulnerability has been viewed over 33 million times. It is one reason I decided to start this blog.

Her definition of spirituality as a belief that humans as inherently interconnected, and in a loving force greater than ourselves is something I truly align with personally. Brown’s work is starting to make its way to families, government and leadership in large organizations. Her approach has wisdom that has been profound for me.

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She uses a term coined by Anne Lamott which is a personal favorite, the “shitty first draft.” Her process of identifying the stories we get “caught” in, and realizing they are stories we make up in our own heads to explain things, but that they are not reality, has helped me enormously. I wrote on this theme last week, but I want to explore it from a different angle here, since I finished re-listening to her audio program again recently.

The idea is that we need to recognize when we are in a difficult emotion (the reckoning). Instead of eating it or damping it down with alcohol or buffering it by numbing out on facebook, we get curious. We examine those feelings, own our story, and “rumble” with it. This step means we get honest about the stories we are making up, challenge them to determine what is true, what’s self-protection and what needs to change.

The final step is the revolution, in which we write a new ending to our story based on the key learning from our rumble. We then use this new, braver story to change how we engage with the world and to ultimately transform the way we live love, parent and lead. (summary from page 37 of Rising Strong).

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Some of us who have been to therapy recognize this is something that counselors do while we are figuring out what is causing pain for us in our lives. When suffering from depression or anxiety, it is critical skill to understand that it is our thoughts that cause us emotional pain, not our circumstances. Sure, if we are experiencing grief or loss or a traumatic event, then there will be pain. This is human, and though we are terrible about allowing grief as a culture, it is absolutely necessary for healing.

The tricky part is that we often add to our pain by layering shame and self-hatred on top of those life experiences. “I should be happy” we tell ourselves. “I should feel grateful” all of the self-help books tell us. But “shoulds” are not helpful. Feelings are what they are. They are not good or bad, they are part of being human.

Feelings often provide some helpful clues to us on what and who we want to move towards or move away from in our lives. Brené Brown makes the point that we often believe we are people that THINK and sometimes feel. But the actuality is that people always FEEL and sometimes think. Perhaps this is a remnant from the Descartes’ idea that “I think therefore I am,”  but it is inaccurate.

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Neuro-biologically we are wired for emotion. We are wired for story. Our brain actually gives us a dopamine hit when we create a story that explains whatever disparate facts are in front of us. It makes no difference whether the story is true, it just takes comfort from making sense of the world. The stories we tell shape our lives. And when we tell them enough times, they evolve into theories about how the world works. Any theory we belief for long enough becomes a belief.

The awesome thing about humans is that we can choose to believe new things. When we encounter a belief that is causing us pain, we can unpack it, question it, and possibly change it. We often find we believe things we may have been taught when young, or observed in our family systems.

What if we write our stories as though we are the heroes and not the victims? What if we are able to forgive ourselves for the mistakes we made, and the mistakes others made? When we can free ourselves in this way, we free our energy to stop living in our past and to take brave steps into the future.

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If you want a free link to this roughly 3-hour audible presentation on this topic, where Brown explains her work, and also answers questions from the audience please email me at cristy@meximinnesotana.com. I am happy to share this with anyone who may want to do similar personal work.

Transcend or Ground?

A lot of people think of “transcendence” when it comes to meditation practice. I used to think of that as well, and it’s the reason I never succeeded in my many early tries to adopt this as a habit of mine.

In both my yoga and my meditation practices, what I realize now is that I need to return to the body, to “ground” myself in the present moment, again and again. I seldom really find that I stop thinking, only that I now notice when my mind has drifted from the task of noticing breath or body sensations.

I am sure there are some enlightened gurus out there who can transcend the body and mind and commune with the oneness or something. But let’s be real, most of us (and I think this applies especially to women) are pretty out-of-touch with what our bodies want and need. Our culture and society tell us either we are inadequate or that bodies are dirty and “carnal” entities. In fact, I have come to understand my body as a beautiful and exquisite instrument.

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It is Western and mostly Judeo-Christian thinking that separates our spiritual “center” from our bodies. Ironically, we use the body as a symbol in some Christian rituals, like communion. The body and the blood of Christ are taken as a symbol of union with the savior. Turned another way, perhaps that is a way of “grounding” in the body as a ritual of unity and integration with the Almighty.

Sadly, when we think of the body as dirty and “base” it can lead to neglect and disgust for this beautiful instrument in which we were born. Certainly it is imperfect, and there are things we may wish to change. But to honor the body we have, at this very moment, is to offer thanks for our being. This is the body we live in, and it does its very best to keep us healthy in the face of numerous challenges.

Perhaps someday when I have done complete work on accepting, rooting and grounding in my body as it is, I will reach some state of spiritual transcendence. But right now, I prefer to come back and ground myself in the body and the breath. That is what anchors me, and helps me make better decisions in my life.

I watch my “puppy mind” with affection, understanding and curiosity, knowing that it likes to run around and play. And then I come back again. I rest in the present moment and cultivate this awareness of the body that was somehow lost along the way as I absorbed the cultural messages around me. That feels like genuine progress for me.

Go easy on yourself

This time of year can be difficult, especially for anyone dealing with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) that may originate from the lack of light and lack of fresh air.

Symptoms I experience are typically insomnia, sometimes anxiety or changes in my mood or appetite. Many of us have increased cravings for carbohydrates, and we may feel sluggish or have difficulty concentrating.

For many years, I have used exercise, dietary strategies such as a vitamin D supplement in the morning, magnesium at night. I try to get enough vegetables for their anti-oxidant properties and fiber, but in Minnesota nothing is fresh this time of year, so it can be difficult.

Getting enough healthy fats in my diet more recently has been a wonderful benefit to my health overall. I have learned more and more on how balancing our brain chemistry with healthy fats is really important. Right now I am reading “The Chemistry of Calm” by Dr. Henry Emmons, and there is some wonderful advice there on how to overcome anxiety. Dr. Emmons presents the information from both Western and Eastern traditions and I strongly encourage you to check it out if you want more scientific background on drug-free ways to overcome anxiety.

I still struggle with insomnia periodically, usually when the seasons change and/or when I am under more stress. I know how important sleep can be for good healthy, so I try valiantly to get more, and sometimes it still eludes me.

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Over the years, I have learned some strategies which help. It is a learning process, and I have to accept that it takes some time to change old habits. I am undoing a pattern that was established (and possibly reinforced) for 25-30 years. I may not unlearn it overnight. But due to the remarkable neuroplasticity of our brain, we are capable of training ourselves out of old patterns.

The biggest factor to remember is to have compassion for ourselves, and not to label ourselves as “anxious” or to consider ourselves flawed in any way. Instead of saying, “I am an anxious person” try instead: “right now I am struggling with anxiety and I am learning how to manage it.” Thus, the condition is temporary and not a part of our identity.

It is important not to identify too strongly with any label, as this may convince us we a permanent, unalterable condition. The truth is that we have far more capacity for change than any of us realize. And this learning how to manage our struggles is where wisdom is born. Nothing is wrong with us. This is the human condition.

About half of our life may be happy or joyful (or maybe slightly more). But about half of or life will be negative emotions. This contrast is what makes life so rich and interesting. If we can go easy on ourselves, realize that sadness and feeling down sometimes are a part of life, then we can truly appreciate the joyful moments.

Compassion for ourselves and for other people is really the engine that helps us live a good life. We sometimes have that inner critic that resists compassion, questioning if we deserve it, speculating that we do not. If we come from religious backgrounds where original sin was a big part of the emphasis, this may be harder for us.

It may take some time and practice to cultivate compassion for ourselves. But it is possible. And with this self-compassion comes the ability to have compassion for others as well. In this time of holiday festivities and dark, cold, weather, that can go a very long way.

If you are struggling with SAD, anxiety or depression, please get help from a trained mental health professional, and/or seek support from the people you love. It is not a time to “go it alone” when you are dealing with this stuff. Sometimes families are not as understanding, so try to find someone who can help you get the support you need.

 

Holiday hell

Holidays can be stressful for people, and for some, they can be a sad time if they have had a loss or any painful memories. Family dynamics can be challenging, and many of us love our families but struggle with the amount of expectations for this season.

Facebook and the Hallmark channel give us the idea that people are living finely-polished perfect little lives. But the reality is that those experiences are carefully curated (on FB) and designed to market things to you.

I enjoy certain parts of the holiday, the food, some time to visit with family and having extra time off from work to sleep in (if that is possible, which is hard for a morning person like me). But since cutting way back on sugar and flour, realizing these tend to mess up my sleep and make me feel like crap, it can be hard to turn down treats that are offered.

To be honest, I do not really enjoy the gift-giving that comes with Christmas (in my tradition) anymore. I find it stressful and prefer the Thanksgiving holiday because it is more about gratitude than getting more stuff than you need. I’m old enough now that I typically buy things for myself that I want, so when people ask for “gift lists” I guess I am spoiled enough that I just don’t NEED things.

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Here in Minnesota, a combination of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) due to dark winters, and a lack of time outside during the cold, can be especially challenging. I have coped with this difficulty in different ways and I will list 5 of my personal favorite tips here:

  1. Get as much rest as possible.
  2. Use a morning light-box to get some full spectrum light for 10-20 minutes each morning.
  3. Take a vitamin D supplement daily to replace a nutrient nearly all of us in these northern locations need in order to have a healthy immune system and happier mood. (I take 2000 mg per day from October to May, 1000 mg June to September, per my nurse practitioner’s recommendation. Please check with a doctor if you have any conditions in which Vitamin D would not be favorable).
  4. Manage your expectations – holidays are not all joy and happiness. For a lot of people they are hard work, expensive and involve a lot more gatherings than we introverts really enjoy. We love our families, sure. But it gets to be a little much, so please have some patience with us.
  5. Be kind to yourself. And be kind to others. Everyone is fighting their own personal battles and we do not know what others are facing, since they are not always willing to share and broadcast their pain on social networks.

Here is a link to an article on Medicinet has some more facts and information about Holiday Depression, Anxiety and Stress. Psychology today also has an interesting article with more resources that I found helpful.

Realize that if someone you love is a little down that it does not really help to tell them to “cheer up” or “look on the bright side.” They are probably trying, and letting them know that the holidays can be hard for anyone, that you still want to spend time with them even if they are not full of holiday cheer.

Be kind. Be kind. Be kind. That would be my best advice for dealing with any “holiday hell” you may experience. Have compassion for yourself and others. Realize you and they are doing their best. Have gratitude for clean water, good food and maybe a cozy time to reflect on the year ahead.

Feliz Navidad

 

 

 

See, Hear, Feel

This morning, on All Souls Day, I did a short, guided meditation with Shinzen Young and it is one that I will use again. It is day 270 of my commitment to practice meditation every day, even if for just a few short minutes. I find that even a 5 minute meditation helps give me the equanimity and calm to approach whatever storms exist in any particular day.

About a year and a half ago I read Dan Harris’ autobiographical book, 10% Happier: How I Tamed The Voice In My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works. I had overheard a conversation of a colleague who was explaining to another how this book had changed his life, and the subtitle was intriguing enough for me to fire up my Amazon account and click to order. (This is a habit of mine, I must confess, they make it so darn EASY, and the one-click ordering, don’t get me started…).

Dan Harris has since started an App and a podcast to go with his original idea released in the book. I am not advocating for that. In fact, I had already started using the Insight Timer to track my meditation, and I found it annoying that the 10% Happier app has some free features, but is mostly a paid subscription type service. In any case, the tagline really appealed to me: meditation for fidgety skeptics. That is me to a tee, he sure has his audience down.

One of the podcasts (episode #64) is a guided meditation from Shinzen Young, and now that I have experienced this type of meditation, I will do more research. For now, what I observed is the fact that, by paying attention to our visual, auditory and sensory/somatic observations during meditation, and accepting these as part of nature, I release the self-criticism that often arises for me. There is no need to criticize our minds for wandering, as they inevitably do, while meditating, or just while going through our daily lives. This is what minds do, and the practice of mindfulness as taught by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is just the exercise of bringing the mind back after it has wandered. Just by noticing what the mind does, we are practicing mindfulness meditation. It is that awareness, that “watcher” self that is able to bring us back.

It is a radical act of love and self-acceptance to See, Hear, Feel and then lightly “name” these sensations during meditation practice. My other favorite practice up until now has been the loving kindness meditation that I believe really helps me have compassion for all living beings. But now that I have learned this new practice, I plan to incorporate it more frequently to see what arises for me.

We are approaching the anniversary of a very difficult day for me, the election of 2016. It was a time of excitement (prior to the election) and then a very big shock for me, and I realize for many. Meditation has been a resource that has helped me focus less on the differences between people in either camp (or neither camp) and more on what binds us together, our shared humanity. It has rescued me from what I perceived as a cruel joke of the universe, a t.v. reality star becoming president(!) Everything that happens in this life is temporary, an event in time, and it all fades and passes. Knowing that can help us cope when we are feeling miserable and stuck. That holds enormous comfort for me.

Sunset - Oct 25

 

 

Yoga vs. sleep

Today I decided that getting an extra 30-45 minutes of sleep would outweigh my desire to attend a 5:45 a.m. yoga class that I typically enjoy. It is a lovely opportunity to meditate, get fully in tune with my body and my mind, and sweat out my worries. I approach the day with more a more even-tempered and loving perspective and it seems like I am kinder in the world, and therefore it is kinder to me.

But in my last year and a half of focusing more intensity on my my overall WellBeing, a large component of that has been working on getting adequate sleep every day. I used to struggle mightily with insomnia, and I tended to neglect sleep and rest in favor of early morning runs or other physical activity. When I started studying the clinical research on these issues and encountered books like Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes by Tom Rath, I realized that sleep was non-negotiable for me. Another recent book by Arianna Huffington called The Sleep Revolution compiles both the history and the current research on the value and benefits of sleep.

Sleep

Clearly I am not the only one evangelizing on this topic. But I want to share my personal experience, both as someone who was a “sleep skeptic” and someone who still occasionally struggles with insomnia. One of the first benefits I noticed when I began tracking and measuring my sleep a little more closely was that I could see a correlation between the quality of my days, and my quantity/quality of sleep. As a clinical researcher, data always help me commit to habit changes that are beneficial. If I do not see the evidence that it helps, I just question its validity.

So I conducted an n=1 experiment. For those unfamiliar with clinical research “n” is the number of subjects you include in a study. Many people would be skeptical of a trial in which n=1. But I say: if that “1” is you, it is highly significant. Not to say that you can “design” a trial that is truly rigorous, because it cannot be a Randomized Controlled Trial as exists in the scientific literature. So there are confounding factors. For example, as I got more sleep, I began craving less sugar and carbs. Since sugar tends to disrupt our sleep (especially if consumed right before bed) it led to a virtuous cycle of both sleeping better and consuming less sugar.

I have struggled with attention deficit throughout my life, and it is managed somewhat with medicine and somewhat with regular exercise, which is why I posed the “either or” in the title of this post. I knew that getting vigorous exercise helps my brain with the focus issues, and there is plenty of clinical research to support this notion. But what I did not realize, was that the trade-off of sleep in favor of exercise, may have been causing inflammation in my body and brain. Try Googling those search terms and you will find a host of studies on how brain inflammation is connected to virtually all types of mental illness, such as depression and anxiety as well as more serious conditions like autism, dementia and schizophrenia.

My Dad always used to tell me to get my sleep, that I would risk heart attacks and other serious consequences by not sleeping. This was because in the early days of my adolescent (and throughout my adolescence and adult life) I was always an “early bird” and enjoyed mornings. But I would often stay up late reading a book or studying or doing other things that I enjoyed. Dad knew, without consulting the research, that I could be doing some damage by becoming sleep deprived. I also think this led to unhealthy eating patterns (high in carbohydrates, and lacking healthy fat) which I noticed especially during college and continuing into adulthood as well.

Bodies which do not have enough rest crave energy and restoration. While they cannot get this through food, they often turn to this “cheap substitute.” But when we feed ourselves the right nourishment in the form of adequate rest, our systems tend to reset. So while I love my yoga, and generally practice at least 3-4 times a week to feel my best, I have decided never to trade sleep for yoga. If my body is tired, and needs more rest, I will grant it the rest it needs before going to yoga. Developing this level of trust with my own body, and giving it what it truly needs to be healthy has allowed my body and brain to be more productive and more fulfilled.

Ironically, even though I spend more time sleeping these days (averaging 7-8 hours/night) I actually find time for yoga more easily. My priorities have aligned to make sure that I get regular yoga practice into my schedule, and I honor that commitment to myself. Also: yoga after work seems to lead to better sleep quality that night. Another virtuous circle.

So, dear reader, I suggest that the next time you are tempted to skip the workout because you are tired, maybe skip the workout and get another 60-90 minutes of sleep. If you really want to get that workout in, go to bed an hour earlier the night before. Set an alarm in the evening which reminds you when it is time to wind down for the night. Do this regularly and you will not regret it.

Namaste. Sleep well.