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During the final year of his life, my 86-year-old father deepened his relationship with time. He’d practiced yoga daily since he was 80 but was increasingly confined to a wheelchair, unable to do simple things like walk outside to pick up his New York Times. “He’s slowing down,” people said. They meant it as a sad commentary, but I felt differently.
Dad lived unhurriedly, absorbed in the details of the moment: monitoring the daily arguments and flight patterns of sparrows outside his window, unwrapping a chocolate truffle, watching clouds trek across the sky, or scanning, with a magnifying glass, baby pictures of his daughter and his grandson for similarities.
His mindfulness and contentment starkly contrasted with the frenetic pace of my life. I careened from clients to classes to meetings to Dad’s and then home, where I’d work past midnight. If the gas guy wanted to chat as I was filling my tank or I found myself in a slow checkout lane at the grocery, my goodwill was siphoned away by worry about falling behind. Dad seemed present and happy, while I—a yoga teacher and psychologist whose focus is helping others live more mindfully—was chasing time.
Just about everyone I know, it seems, shares a similar sense of time deprivation. “I’m in a time crunch,” says a colleague in an email. Recently, someone emailed me about my 10-month Elemental Mind-Body Yoga Teacher Training Program: Could he start right away? Could he complete the training in less than 10 months? “When I have nothing to accomplish, I’m fine,” says a friend, a yogi in the process of writing a book, “but when I have goals, time is my enemy.”
Of course, most of us, most of the time, have goals; having a job, going to school, raising children, all require us to get things done according to certain schedules. There’s nothing wrong with the drive to produce: It echoes the life force of creation. But we live in a culture that prizes productivity and speed. Before we know it, we’re embroiled in a perpetual battle with time, missing out on our connections to our deeper self and to others.
Is there a way to live that frees us from the cycle of longing for more time, misusing the time we do have, and then blaming a lack of time for our discontent?
The answer is yes. In my private practice and yoga teacher trainings, I’ve worked with countless people on improving their relationship with time. Happily, doing so doesn’t require withdrawing from the world or radically scaling back on things you want to do. Nor do you need to focus on time-saving tips for scheduling yourself with ever-greater efficiency. Instead, you bring greater awareness to the way you experience time by building small steps into your daily routine that help you savor your life.
To experience time differently, you need to cultivate and practice a new relationship with it, just as you’d nurture a yoga or meditation practice. At first, you may feel as though you’re swimming against the current of cultural cues that push you to do more and move faster. It may not be easy to change, but the rewards are great. This approach, rooted in the philosophy described in the Yoga Sutra—particularly the concepts of self-study, honesty, and nongrasping—can bring you into a deeper harmony with time, allowing you to engage more fully with every moment.
Waking and Entering
Your first step is svadhyaya, or self-study, one of the ethical principles of yoga. Svadhyaya asks you to look inward and get to know yourself better. It teaches you to feel the difference between your own natural rhythms and the cadence of the world around you. It can teach you what’s practical and healthy to focus on, and what you may need to delegate or drop.
In much the same way that those who struggle with food issues may be unaware of what and how they’re eating, you may not have examined the behaviors and assumptions that shape your relationship with time. Taking a time inventory gives you a window into the values that underlie your time-spending habits.
Begin your self-study by asking yourself questions like these: Besides eating and sleeping, how do I allocate my time in a typical 24-hour period? Do the activities on which I spend most of my time nourish me, or do they feel obligatory? Do I put others’ needs first, only to suffer a resentment hangover? When I long for more time, what do I imagine doing with it?
As you mull over the answers, you’ll begin to identify the activities that are intrinsically important to you as well as the pace that’s most compatible with your own organic rhythms.
Researchers studying the neurobiology of social relationships speak of emotional contagion, meaning your brain is hardwired to pick up on, and mirror, the emotions of others. You can catch someone else’s good or bad mood in less time than it takes to have a conscious thought—which makes emotions even more contagious than a cold or flu.
In much the same way, people often adjust their sense of time to those around them in a sort of temporal contagion. When you’re with people who move at warp speed, you can find yourself operating at a pace that’s too fast for you.
True to Life
Once you’ve taken a closer look at where your time goes and begun to know your innate priorities and pace, you’re ready to explore the yogic principle of satya, or truth. Satya is a natural offshoot of self-study; when you know what your truths are, you’re more likely to acknowledge when you’re moving through the world in ways that don’t fully honor those truths.
There’s a saying in Buddhism: Delusions are inexhaustible. If we are constantly running from one thing to the next in a way that makes us feel depleted, then sooner or later we need to acknowledge that the ideas we have about what we can accomplish are out of sync with the reality of our lives.
It may sound as if this acknowledgment would be painful; actually, it can be freeing to get more clarity about what’s possible and what’s not. Coupled with the self-study that can give you a better idea of what’s most important to you, this process can bring your inner and outer lives into greater harmony.
Most of us live in linear, chronological time, with its clocks and deadlines and pressures. A steady diet of this kind of time starves the most vital, alive, and essential parts of us. But there’s another, richer kind of time: extraordinary time. It’s a state of intense focus, of being in the moment; it is what musicians and athletes describe as being in the zone. Similarly, people have described near-death experiences as a slowing of time, accompanied by a deepening of internal awareness and connection. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you move, but whether you’re present enough to find the state of optimal experience that embodies extraordinary time.
Once you taste how rejuvenating extraordinary time can be, you’re more willing to let go of your hold on linear time. And that’s where the yogic principle of aparigraha, nongrasping, comes into the picture. Aparigraha teaches you to let go of the need to produce more, achieve more, acquire more. It motivates you to relax your iron-fisted grasp on material or measurable accomplishment.
From Memorial Day through Columbus Day, I swim at a local pond twice a week. It’s 25 minutes away, so the whole trip takes about two hours. Often, on the way, I’m stuck in linear time, worried about the pile of work awaiting me when I get back. But once I’m in the water, the worry disappears. Each time I turn my head to breathe, I’m filled with the scent of tall pines lining the pond, the sight of wildflowers, the spectacle of fish knifing through the water below. I am transported, suddenly, into extraordinary time.
Invariably, this sacrifice of clock time yields unexpected returns: It permeates everything I do afterward with a sense of fluidity, creativity, and ease, and actually enhances my productivity. Yet on the days when I feel I can’t afford the clock time and don’t swim, whatever I do takes much longer. It’s the productivity paradox: The more you muscle toward accomplishing your goals, the more likely you are to become depleted, derailing the very things you’re trying to get done. When you can stop grasping, even if only for a little while, you can access that state of flow, remain in the present, and enjoy and harvest the time that is available to you.
When you’ve looked within and taken your time inventory, been truthful with yourself about your ideal pace and focus, embraced the art of nongrasping, and experienced extraordinary time, you’re ready to bring what I call “timefulness practices” into your life.
The heart of these practices is yoking your awareness to the moment; each and every moment holds the potential for a transformative experience of time. In my work as a psychologist and yoga therapist, I’ve seen that transitional times (when you’re between jobs, partners, stages of life, or even yoga poses) are full of possibility. Because you’re not rooted in your old awareness and habits, yet not fully anchored in the new, your potential for timefulness—openness to the present moment—is at its highest.
Slowing down and giving these transition times your attention can boost your immunity to temporal contagion while enriching your experience of time. Smaller transitions in your day, such as arriving home from work, are also threshold points that can help you experience time more deeply. In fact, every moment is a transition of sorts; we just tend to move through them so fast that we’re unable to see them for what they are.
You may not be able to do each of the following practices every day, but starting with one and doing it consistently will help. Each of these small changes brings space into your daily routine, providing a respite from linear time.
Savor the transition between sleep and wakefulness. That’s when dreams and intuitive impulses are more available to you. Set an intention to bring more awareness into your day and to be open to each moment.
Take a moment to really say goodbye to loved ones. Look them in the eye and let yourself feel how much you care for them and how fortunate you are to have them in your life. Relax and breathe when you stop at red lights or take a short “mindfulness detour” through a park or scenic area. Decide to savor even the most menial tasks of your day or to eat lunch unhurriedly.
Take an aparigraha break. Rushing from one task to another without savoring a sense of completion only contributes to the illusion that nothing is ever enough. When you’ve finished something, pause to feel the sense of completion and the energy of nongrasping. As you inhale, welcome more energy into your body; as you exhale, let go of what you’ve completed.
Spend 15 minutes in a restorative yoga pose to reconnect with yourself. It’s a good way to bring more timefulness into your evening. If you feel restless, try forward-bending restorative poses like Supported Child’s Pose or Supported Reclining Twist, to calm your nervous system. If you’re depleted, restorative backbends like Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose) are ideal. (To learn more about these and other poses, check out the therapeutic poses section of elementalyoga.com.)
Scan your day for any challenges you experienced and let go of them. A colleague of mine who is a meditation teacher spends a few moments taking an inventory of his day. If he’s had a conflict with someone, he sends them compassionate thoughts and makes a mental note to acknowledge the person the next day. Spend two minutes in 2:1 breathing (exhaling for twice as long as you inhale), which calms the brain and readies you for sleep.
Time Is on Our Side
Experiencing only linear time unravels the thread of awareness that connects your exterior self with your innermost self. But balancing linear time with an appreciation for extraordinary, transformative time gives life meaning. That’s because extraordinary time has a way of coaxing your spirit out of hiding. It helps you listen to what sounds, at first, like the merest whisper of intuition, impulses, or dreams but, over time, reveals itself as the clear, resonant voice of your soul.
On the day my father died, my brother and sister and I held him and breathed with him in the intensive care unit at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. His best friends stood close to his bedside, and a cousin played his favorite cello concerto. The ICU nurse said he didn’t know how much time Dad had left; it could be minutes or maybe hours.
I’m still not sure of the clock time, but for however long it was, Dad yoked us all to the moment, teaching us once again about the importance of being fully present. He was giving us one last taste of something he knew well: extraordinary time and the deep soul connection that dwells within it.
Bo Forbes, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist, yoga teacher, and integrative yoga therapist in Boston.