MORE REASONS FOR SELF-COMPASSION

 

Photo: Angelac72/Pixabay.com

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates And Yoga

Does kindness matter?  This simple question is central to a recent article in Diabetes Spectrum highlighting research revealing the health benefits of self-compassion.  According to the article “Self-compassion is defined as the practice of treating oneself with kindness, care, and concern in the face of negative events.”  The article goes on to state that “self-criticism, a common consequence of self-care failure . . . can be seen as the opposite of self-compassion”.  Although this article focuses on the effects of self-compassion and its absence on diabetes patients in particular, it is clear that these health concerns can be more broadly generalized.  The article cites “A series of experimental studies suggest[ing] that quantifiable physiological and neurological processes underlie the experience of self-compassion.”  Furthermore, “consistent evidence suggests that self-compassion is related to physical and psychological health”.  As an example, “in a study [see citation below]* in patients with obesity and pain problems, self-compassion predicted lower negative affect, higher positive affect, more adaptive pain coping, higher pain self-efficacy, and lower pain catastrophizing.”

Not surprisingly, the opposite has also been shown to be true.  For example, ” the opposites of self-compassion, including self-criticism, self-hate, self-judgment, and negative perfectionism, have been linked to greater psychological distress, including depression.”  The article is full of additional confirmations, citations and examples of the positive health effects, both physical and psychological, of self-compassion and the related negative consequences of its deficiency.

An article in the Washington Post that refers to this research also cites a book by Kristin Neff titled “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself”.  In it, the author speaks of the three elements of self-compassion:

  • Self-kindness – the ability to be understanding with yourself rather than judgmental or harshly critical;
  • Common humanity – the recognition that none of us is perfect and all of us make mistakes, thus viewing ourselves as part of the human experience;
  • Mindfulness – the ability to pay attention to the present moment, neither dwelling on the past nor excessively worrying about the future.

If you’ve been following this blog, you may recognize these themes.  In fact, a very recent post discusses the benefits of self-care which are obviously closely related to self-compassion.  The articles referred to here also talk about the ways in which we sabotage ourselves.  For example, some of us may believe that being kind to ourselves needs to be secondary to taking care of others.  Think about that:  how can you give others something you are unwilling to give to yourself?  Furthermore, the consequences of denying ourselves the compassion that we wish to share with others can be pretty dire.   From the Washington Post article: “The opposite of self-compassion is emotional reactivity, isolation, self-judgment and unhealthy perfectionism, all of which have been linked to depression, stress and reduced quality of life.”

These ideas are echoed in an article in Health Psychology Open.  It states that “Substantial evidence supports the idea that self-compassion
can reduce perceived stress”.   Research findings show that  “people who have higher levels of self-compassion tend to handle stress better — they have less of a physical stress response when they are stuck in traffic, have an argument with their spouse or don’t get that job offer — and they spend less time reactivating stressful events by dwelling on them.”  Since chronic stress has direct effects on all aspects of our health, this is no small thing.  Additional research is also cited in this article indicating that people with higher levels of self-compassion are more likely to start and adhere to healthy behaviors which further enhances the benefits.  In other words, self-compassion promotes better health which contributes to better feelings about oneself which enables more self-compassion.  Conversely, negative self-care leads to poorer health which takes one’s self-image in a downhill spiral in the opposite direction.

So next time you’re tempted to run yourself down for any reason, it might be worth remembering that berating yourself may be more than just a temporary mood darkener.  It just might have more serious negative health ramifications that could be avoided with a little kindness.  Isn’t that simple step worth the effort?  Try noticing those negative thoughts.  Maybe you can remind yourself that “to err is human, to forgive, divine”.  Our world would be a safer and healthier place if we all practiced a little more kindness.  You can start that practice with yourself.  If you want to treat other people well and you want other people to treat you well, you can set an example by treating yourself well, too.  Your health care practitioners will applaud!

 

* Wren A, Somers T, Wright M, Goetz M, Leary M, Fras A. Self-compassion in patients with persistent musculoskeletal pain: relationship of self-compassion to adjustment to persistent pain. J Pain Symptom Manage 2012;43:759–770

Accepting The Things We Cannot Change

 

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates And Yoga

Last week we all had spring flashes and this week it’s welcome back to winter.  As usual, our weather here in the Black Hills is an adventure.  Wherever you are when you are reading this, my guess is you could say the same for your area.  Weather is a great example of how circumstances beyond our control affect our lives.  We can worry about it or get angry with it or defy it.  But in the end there isn’t a thing we can do to change or even influence it.  We can play with our clocks and give ourselves the illusion of control, but no matter what the clock says daylight will arrive and retreat on it’s own time.

Are there other areas of our lives over which we have no control?  Of course.  We dislike admitting it, but, for the most part going out into each day is an act of faith.  We might have a daily routine or what we imagine is a well-laid plan for the day, but in reality we will be lucky if things go the way we planned.  Yup – lucky.  Everyone wants to think that it is their own genius responsible for things going their way, but ultimately there is always at least a little luck involved.  Of course, we can prepare ourselves to take the best advantage of chips falling our way.  But ultimately no one – not even the most careful and detailed planner – can predict the future.

So how can we move forward when everything is really uncertain?  We could approach each day with trepidation and fear, worrying about every possible detail in hopes that worrying will somehow make a difference in the outcome.  Unfortunately, that never works.  Can you think of a single time when worrying about some unwanted concern actually prevented it from happening?  Maybe it happens, maybe it doesn’t, but either way the worrying you did in advance didn’t change anything.  All it did was stress you out.  And if what you worried about doesn’t actually occur (which is most often the case) then you stressed out needlessly.  And what about events occurring that weren’t even on your radar screen?  You didn’t even have a chance to worry yet here you are, having to deal with it anyway.  It might surprise you to see yourself somehow managing the challenge, whatever it is.  All of us can look back through our lives and find examples where that was true.  We’ve all had the experience of living through something we never would have thought we could handle.  Yet somehow we did.

Of course, I do my share of worrying, too.  And this is not to say that events shouldn’t make us angry or sad.  It also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t bother planning. But a plan is like a path through the woods.  You don’t always know where it’s going to take you. Have you ever had the experience of following a route on a map but ending up someplace completely different from what you expected?  Outcomes can be unpredictable, but that doesn’t mean that the journey wasn’t worth taking.

Life is so full of uncertainties and none of us really knows what it’s all about. In the end, though, it all comes down to learning to go with the flow.  Which for me is a practice.  Not something I’ll ever be perfect at, but something to keep striving for and working at.  Accepting the good, the bad and the ugly of whatever life hands you and doing the best you can with what you’ve got to work with at any given time.  We can’t change the past or predict the future. And as much as we’d like to imagine we can control the behavior of others, that, too, is impossible.  Most of us can barely control ourselves.  Think of all the times you’ve said something you didn’t mean to say or done something you didn’t mean to do.

As Joni Mitchell writes in the song “Woodstock”:  “I don’t know who l am, But you know life is for learning”.  Treating life as an adventure is not always easy, but it might help to remember that nothing ever stays the same.  Everything is always changing.  Remember the weather.  As Mark Twain (or whoever it was) said, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.  It will change.”  Have a “Plan B” whenever possible, but no matter what happens, being kind to yourself and all those around you is always a good plan.  Focus on the things you can control like your attitude, your own behavior, your actions and reactions.  Attend to the journey and let the outcomes be what they are.

POWER IN COMMUNITY

Photo:Pixabay.com

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates And Yoga

January has come and gone.  According to just about every article on the subject, most New Year’s resolutions have now reached the graveyard of good intentions.  Fortunately, any time is appropriate to get back on that bandwagon and try again.  As we all know, every day is a new day and a new opportunity.  There are many tips for setting goals and maintaining resolve, but the one I’d like to focus on here is the value of community.  A group of like-minded and supportive practitioners can help keep you motivated, especially when barriers start appearing in your path.

The great Vietnamese philosopher Thich Nhat Hahn wrote “A good [community] is crucial for practice.” He continues “A good teacher is important, but sisters and brothers in the practice are the main ingredient for success.”  Of course, he may be referring to a different type of practice here, but I would venture that even he would not object to expanding the meaning more broadly to include many types of practice.  Especially those practices with the ultimate goal of self-improvement.

If one of your self-improvement goals is to add more movement to your life, a group can be a huge help to keep you on that path.  A recent article in the Washington Post  cites two new studies that demonstrate the value of even “light activity” as being “helpful for outcomes like daily functioning, mental well-being, good quality of life and so on.”  Improved methods are now being used to conduct such studies.  In the past they have mostly been based on self-reporting which is notoriously inaccurate.  But with new technology such as Fitbits and similar activity tracking devices, more objective data can be collected.  The result of these 2 studies show that the benefits of movement, even light movement, are far more impressive than previously thought.  In fact, these studies found that “the most active subjects had a 50 to 70 percent decline in mortality during a defined follow-up period compared with the least active, most sedentary participants. Previous self-report research had pegged this benefit at about 20 to 35 percent.” This is comparable to the health benefits gained by non-smokers vs. smokers.  So it is particularly significant.

Interestingly, these studies tracked individuals (male and female) in their late 60’s and 70’s.  The researchers believe that the results will correlate to younger people also.  But the results add further evidence to support the notion that it is never too late to start moving.  Furthermore, any movement beats being sedentary.  The studies show that “all physical activity counts toward improving health status. You don’t have to play basketball for an hour or run three miles to accrue benefits. You simply have to move . . .”

One great way to do that is to join a group.  That’s what exercise classes provide – a group that is working together to keep moving.  Classes also provide a specific time and place for this activity.  You can set that time aside in your schedule and like any other appointment.  Not only will this help you remember, but it can also help you keep other appointments from interfering.

The word “yoga” is translated as “union” from Sanskrit.  This can mean many things.  It can mean union of mind and body.  Or union of movement and breath.  For this purpose I would suggested that “union” can also refer to a group that practices together.  This is true not just of yoga, but of any group that practices movement together.

Recently one of the members of our Pilates group was sick.  We missed her while she was gone and worried about her sending healing energy for her quick return.  When she got better we were elated to have her back and welcomed her accordingly.  As part of a group your well-being becomes important to others as well as yourself.  Of course, your friends and family will also benefit from your good health, but wouldn’t it be great to have a supportive group to share your efforts with.  You can and should continue to move on your own, but a group can encourage that also.  The more you move, the better you will feel which will encourage more movement.  So if you’re still hoping to at least try to fulfill your pledge to yourself, let a group help you.  We all need each other.  Take advantage of the benefits of community.

Internalizing Kindness

Photo: Sarajuggernaut/Pixabay.com

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga
December 4, 2017

In this season of giving, we are all thinking about what we can do for others. This is certainly noble and important. But we’ve also all heard the expression, “charity begins at home”. In particular, I’d like to focus on what Buddhists call “right speech”.

Traditionally, this concept refers to how we use language to avoid hurting others. According to the Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation, right speech is defined as “refraining from lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and meaningless speech”.  An abbreviated version of this definition can also be as simple as “speaking truthfully and helpfully”.   In a recent article in Tricycle magazine titled “If the Buddha Were Called to Jury Duty” by Mark Epstein, the author writes, “Conventionally, right speech refers to how we speak to others, but I also believe it can help us pay attention to how we speak to ourselves.”  This got me to thinking about self-talk and how we treat ourselves.

It is safe to say that all of us without exception have some kind of internal dialogue going throughout each day.  For most of us it is, in fact, a pretty constant companion from the moment we wake until we fall back to sleep.  The most common reason people give for their perceived inability to meditate is that they can’t quiet their constantly chattering minds.  Those of you who have a meditation practice know that this is not really what it’s all about, but I’m going to leave that aside for now and focus instead on the internal dialogue itself.

Throughout this blog I have often pointed to the fact that we are our own harshest critics.  In fact, most of us would never treat other people the way we routinely treat ourselves.  We hold ourselves to impossibly high standards and then mercilessly berate ourselves when we fail to reach them.  The fact that they were unrealistic to begin with rarely enters the conversation.  We compare ourselves to others who we are certain are doing better and tell ourselves we are failures because we can’t measure up.  Or we will find some external source to blame.  In other words, we could have been perfect if it weren’t for ______ (fill in the culprit du jour).   Most of us are doing the best we can with what we have to work with in any given moment.  And none of us – without exception – is perfect.  But instead of acknowledging that fact and moving on, we will often poke and prod at the wound of our inability like a toothache and just keep reinforcing that negative perception.  The “should haves, could haves, would haves, ifs, ands. and buts” are rerun ad-nauseum in our mind’s eye until we feel incapable of doing anything right.

It is interesting to me that it seems almost like human nature to focus on the negative.  During my years of teaching and training, whenever evaluation requests are distributed to participants, 99% could come in saying “this was the best course I ever had in my life”.  But then 1 person says, “This was horrible.  A total waste of my time.”  Instead of focussing on the positive majority, trainers will inevitably worry about the 1 or 2 instances of negative feedback.  As the expression goes:   negative experiences cling like velcro while the positive ones repel like teflon.

Turning negative thinking into positive is a practice.   There are many articles that tout this concept.  For example positive self-talk is used by athletes to improve performance. According to Psychology Today:  “Positive self-talk is not self-deception.  .  . Rather, [it] is about recognizing the truth, in situations and in yourself.  .  .  One of the fundamental truths is that you will make mistakes.  To expect perfection in yourself or anyone else is unrealistic.”  The Mayo Clinic suggests that positive self-talk can help relieve stress.  This article presents some ideas to help you practice.  For example, if you are thinking “I can’t do this because I’ve never done it before”, you can change that to “this is an opportunity to learn something new”.  Or “this is too complicated” can change to “I’ll try it a different way.”  Or “I don’t have the resources” can become “maybe I can get creative – necessity is the mother of invention.”  Of course, there are more, but you get the picture.

So to bring this back to the season we’re in and to my favorite topic – mindful movement, if you find yourself lamenting lack of time, funds, patience, skill or any other perceived shortcoming, recognize this as an opportunity to practice turning the negative self-talk around.  Remind yourself that all of the generosity you want to express during the holidays needs to begin with your own self-compassion.  You can’t give what you haven’t got.  If you don’t take care of yourself first, you will be no good to anyone else.  Be kind to yourself and everyone around you will benefit.

Keeping What’s Right From Going Wrong

Photo: StockSnap/Pixabay

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga
October 30, 2017

Our bodies are made up of so many parts and systems that it’s almost impossible to think about all of them at once.  There are numerous muscles, bones and nerves, but also fluids like blood, lymphatic and spinal.  Then there are the energetic systems that enable all of those parts and systems to interact with each other.  At the cellular level, there is an entire universe within each of us.   If you think about the precision with which everything needs to interact in order to move us, it’s no surprise that sometimes things go wrong.  In fact, it’s often more of a wonder that things go right!

Among the goals of both yoga and Pilates is to help us get to know our bodies and really start to pay attention to how the different elements of mind and body work together for optimal movement.  “Optimal” is a subjective terms and may mean different things for different bodies, but the more we learn about ourselves, the more we can move toward optimization.

This week I read a great little book  called “The RBG Workout”.  What is “RBG” you ask?  It’s the initials for our Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an inspiration to all of us at any age.  Tag line for the book is “How she stays strong and you can too!”  Of course, I’m sure she is also blessed with good genes, but she has certainly had physical challenges including two bouts with cancer.  The book was written by Bryant Johnson, who has been her personal trainer of almost 20 years.  Throughout the book he talks about how tough and strong she is, but also how she progressed during those years.  The workout described in the book seems pretty challenging, but Mr. Johnson takes pains to remind readers that it took time and persistence to get her to the point where she can now do the whole workout.

One of the quotes in the book that I especially like is this:  “. . . exercise is a great equalizer.  A push-up, a squat , a lunge, or a plank doesn’t care who you support or . . . about your race, religion, color, gender or national origin.  You may have a powerful job . . . but your body will still have veto power over you.  . . . If you don’t use it, you will lose it.”  One more reminder that we are mutually dependent on all of those systems described above.   We need them, but they need us, too.  Taking care of our bodies is no guarantee that things won’t go wrong, but it will certainly improve the odds.  And if things go wrong, you’ll be better able to deal with the problems if you’ve made that effort to stay strong, flexible and mobile.

The message here is that it’s never too late to start moving and no matter where you start, you can improve.  It might take some time – maybe longer than you thought it would – and there may be moves that will continue to elude you, but if you stick with it you will make progress.   As I’ve often said throughout these blog posts, the hard part is starting.  Once you start you’re already making progress.  After that, the only obstacle standing in your way is you.  In her foreword to the book, Justice Ginsburg talks about the demands of her job.  Yet she prioritizes her workout.  When the time comes, she sets everything aside and maintains her commitment to her body and, ultimately, her health.

As Mr. Johnson says, if Justice Ginsburg can do it so can you!  Maybe not in the same way that she does, but if you can move and breathe there is still a level of exercise that each of us can manage.   The terms “balance”, “strength” and “flexibility” have multiple meanings.  Balance is not just about standing on one foot, but also about maintaining a balance in your life.  If one aspect of your life starts to overwhelm all the others, stress will result and your body will react.  Exerting strength will help you maintain the discipline you need to take care of yourself.  And flexibility will help you to go with the flow when life takes a turn you hadn’t planned on.  All of these qualities are part of what you will build when you commit to movement.

So next time you’re tempted to blow off your workout because you think something else is more important, remember that all the systems in your body are depending on you to keep them running.  All the important things in your life need you to be functioning at your best.  You’re no good to anyone if you can’t function.  Help yourself to be the best that you can be!

Challenging Competitiveness

Photo: Peg Ryan – Mile High Pilates and Yoga

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga
October 15, 2017

Custer, SD – This summer I volunteered at a couple of local running races.  Having run marathons myself, I appreciated the efforts made by volunteers when I was running and now try to help when I can.  Watching the runners I admired their fortitude.  As a former ultrarunner, I have a particular affinity for long races and often try to staff a post at which the runners passing through are either near the end of their race or at least more than half way.  Abilities vary but all have one thing in common – the desire to compete.   Some are competing to be the first to finish.  Others choose their competition based on pace.  Many races have awards in age-group categories in addition to overall winners providing another level of competition.  In ultrarunning, the distance itself is a worthy adversary and challenging terrain can further add to the intensity.  Some people compete with themselves, trying to better a previous mark or reach a goal they’ve established.

Competition can be a great motivator.  It is part of our lives from earliest memory.  The games we play as children are based on competition.  We learn at a the start of our lives that there are winners and losers.  Winning is celebrated and rewarded.  There is competition for toys in the sandbox and swings on the playground.  Everyone wants to be first and best.  This can be a good thing when it encourages one to strive for greater heights.  But many of us also remember the experience in gym class of being the last to be picked on a team or struggling to complete tasks that others found easy.  This might prompt us to begin labelling ourselves as capable or incompetent.  The internal dialogue of not being good enough begins when we’re young and may continue throughout our lives.  Instead of being a motivator, competition becomes an inhibitor.

We live in a society where competition is pervasive.  Even when we don’t realize it we measure ourselves against others.  It is a double-edged sword.  Seeing someone else do something really well might be a source of inspiration or it might convince you that it’s not worth trying because you’ll never be as good as them.  The effects of competition can be insidious.  It is present whenever we compare ourselves to others or worry about what someone else thinks of us.  We all want to be viewed as winners and it hurts when we think we’ve been bested by another.

As with everything, though, there are many ways of viewing competition.  It’s all about perception.  The terms “winning” and “losing” are arbitrary labels meaning different things to different people.  Furthermore, like everything else in our lives, they are temporary.  Can any of you name a sports star of the past who kept winning forever?  Sure they had wins that will always be in the “win” column.  But eventually they had to cede the top slot to someone else.  That may not mean that competition stops for them.  But it probably means  that the competitive standards change

It won’t come as news to anyone reading this that our abilities change as we get older.  This can work both ways, though.  Your skills might decline in some ways.  For example, during my volunteer stints I heard some older racers lamenting the fact that they weren’t as fast as they used to be.  This may seem like a no-brainer, but just because it’s obvious doesn’t make it any easier to accept.  Still no one can go back; we all have to keep moving forward.  How to move forward is a matter of choice.  One choice is to change the competitive parameters.  Instead of competing with your former self and lamenting your inability to do so, perhaps you can move the target.  Back away from former goals and set new ones that more realistically reflect your current status.  Just finishing can be considered a “win”.  Being good at something is in the eye of the beholder.  Be your own cheerleader!  You determine what it means to win.

Those of you who follow this blog know that accepting change is a recurring theme.  Attitudes toward competition fall into this same category.  For me it is helpful to remember that doing something is better than doing nothing.  This is even reflected in my practice of yoga and Pilates.  There are moves and poses I used to do that no longer work for me for one reason or another.  It is worth more to me to continue enjoying the movement I can do rather than force myself into certain positions just because others are doing them.  Injury might mean stopping altogether, so being mindful about how I move and what I choose to do makes sense to me.  Still this doesn’t mean I no longer try new things or challenge myself.  But it does mean that I avoid being influenced by what others are doing or thinking.  The competitive parameters I set for myself now are subject to change on a daily basis and that’s fine with me.  Nothing is fixed.  Everything is fluid.  Some days are better than others.  But there is something to celebrate in every day.  And that in itself is a “win”.

Coping With Change

 

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga
October 1, 2017

Changing of the seasons marks a time of transition.  Although the calendar tells us that Fall has arrived, we still experience remnants of the season just passed while not yet quite fully ensconced into the new season.  This uncertainty can create mixed emotions.  For example,  we might experience confusion (as in “How should I dress today?  Can I plan an outdoor activity?”) or sadness (e.g., “I love summer! I’m sorry to see it go.”) and maybe a bit of anxiety (“What will winter bring? Am I properly prepared? I don’t feel ready.”)  Or all of the above and more.

In addition to changes in the weather and the scenery, each new season marks the passage of time.  We get so involved in our daily lives that we rarely recognize that we are changing along with the seasons.  That is, until something happens to remind us of that.  It might be something dramatic like a fall or an accident, or something more subtle like last year’s winter clothes not quite fitting anymore.  Sometimes it’s an illness or other physical change that affects us in ways we’ve not previously experienced.  Whatever it is, even when it’s right in front of us, we can still manage to get lost in denial.  We want things to be like they were.  Yet change is all around us.  At this time of year all we have to do is look out the window to see its manifestations.  Yet still we can’t believe that change is occurring within as well as outside.

Actually it shouldn’t surprise us that it’s difficult to see and accept change in ourselves.  After all, we’ve never before been as old as we are now – whatever age that is.  Even though we’ve witnessed aging in people around us, we can rationalize that it happens to others but not to us.  It’s also easy to believe that what happens to others won’t happen to us because we’re different.  And – yes – it’s true!  Each of us IS different and we all age in different ways.  That’s why I get a kick out of every interview with a centenarian.  The interviewer asks “What is the secret of your longevity?” as if the answer will provide some magic path that everyone can follow to get to the same place.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  As I’ve often said, we are all an experiment of one.  That applies here, too.  Just because one person can drink whiskey and smoke cigars daily and still live to be 100 doesn’t mean everyone can.  Everyone wants a magic bullet and a one-size-fits-all solution to every problem.  Unfortunately, nothing seems to work that way.  It would be nice if our medical system would acknowledge that fact, but that’s another subject.

Since change is constant and inevitable, we each need to find our own individual way to cope with that change.  Those of us who are accustomed to regular activity often find this particularly difficult, but it’s difficult for anyone used to doing things a certain way.  Realizing that what used to be easy is now more difficult or even impossible can be a bitter pill to swallow.  But looking back at some mythical “better” time or wishing things hadn’t happened the way they did won’t change the way things are.  As difficult as it may seem, the best way to accommodate any new reality is to adapt.  This doesn’t mean giving up.  It simply means finding a way to accept the changes.  That’s not to say that this is easy.  But if you want to have any peace of mind, it is necessary.

So with the changing of the seasons, perhaps it’s a good time to take stock of how you’re handling the changes in your life.  And change is happening whether you realize it or not.  Further complicating matters, every change differs from any change that occurred before.  So perhaps an intervention that worked before no longer has the same effect.  You might have to try a different approach. This, too,  is reflected in the seasons. Fall comes every year, just like daylight comes every day.  Yet each Fall, like each day, is different from the one before.  And what you did last Fall or even yesterday might not work today, even when you’re addressing the same problem.  If you look back through the seasons of your life you will be hard pressed to find two seasons, or two days, that were exactly the same as the one before.  Think about it.  Memory is faulty but if you reflect honestly, you’ll see that’s true.

Ignoring change won’t make it stop and going back in time is not possible.  Moving forward with our lives from this point in time is the only option.  No matter how bleak things look, there is always something positive in this moment.  After all daylight came and you’re still breathing.  That’s something positive!  Maximize what’s positive right now and remember that change is constant.  Whatever you’re experiencing today will change tomorrow.

Breath of Life

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga
September 10, 2017

By now we all know of the tragedies and struggles emerging in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.  There will no doubt be more as the days and weeks go by and people try to move forward with their lives.  Soon, too, we will be able add tales from those enduring Hurricane Irma and the storms and other events that will inevitably follow.  Our hearts go out to all the people encountering so much loss.  Many of us are trying to help in any way we can.  With these events happening over such a wide swath of our country, everyone seems to know someone who is personally effected.  These are events beyond our control.  Technological advances have helped give some warning, but ultimately these events often behave in ways that are unpredictable and difficult to foresee.  No one is at fault.  It’s just the way things are.

While Houston struggles to emerge from the watery deluge, the opposite problem has been creating disaster conditions in several northern states.  These states have been experiencing extreme drought.  In addition, years of various fire suppression policies have resulted in an abundance of fuel susceptible to any stray incendiary source. As a consequence of this volatile mix, fires are burning out of control in many areas from central Canada south to Montana and beyond.  The smoke has been drifting southward for most of the summer and is now being acutely felt in my area, the Black Hills of western South Dakota.

As I looked out my window last week, I could see the haze settling among the trees.  Each morning the sun has risen as a blood red disk in the sky, its light being filtered through layers of smoke.  Last Sunday was so bad that it was difficult to be outside.  The Rapid City Journal reported that “wildfire smoke exceeded unhealthy levels” over Labor Day weekend. The smoke stings your eyes and the back of your throat.  Locally we, too, have had small fires all summer and, in fact, there was one burning a few miles south of my town a few weeks ago that caused some home evacuations.  Still we in the Black Hills have gratefully been spared any major fires this summer and we remain quite a distance from the worst of the current burn areas.  Yet here we are, having to rely on our internal filtering systems to be able to absorb the air that we humans depend on.  Those of us with weaker systems or respiratory ailments have an even harder time getting what they need from the air.  And those living closer to the fires themselves are in real danger from the many problems the heat and smoke can cause.

All of this serves to highlight both the fragility and amazing resilience of we human beings.  These conditions also remind us of the importance of the true necessities of life.  We may be able to live without our houses and our cars, but we can’t live under water and we can’t live without air. This is true for ALL human beings.  It doesn’t matter what color you are, what language you speak, where your parents come from or any of the other ways in which we each think we are different from each other.  The basic necessities of life are great equalizers.   They are also things we derive directly from the earth and the sun.  We may think we can be independent and self-sufficient, but are all dependent on the gifts of the planet.  And we are all subject to the whims and uncertainties of the atmosphere that surrounds us.

As humans, we have specific requirements for survival.  We all need nourishment.  Although water is essential to our survival, no human can live under water for long without accommodations.  Which further reminds us that we all need to breathe.  We take these things for granted, allowing ourselves to get caught up in our small concerns and petty grievances.  Some of us even have the hubris to believe that they are somehow more deserving of the basics of life than others.  True, we each have our own unique qualities, but there are so many ways in which we are all in the same boat (pun intended!) just trying to survive and make the most of our short, mysterious and perplexing lives.

Being directly in the path of the smoke, I could not help but reflect in particular on the importance of each breath.  Breathing is so instinctive that we usually don’t even think about it until something interferes with it.  Yet inhaling breath is the first experience we have when we come into this world and exhaling is the final experience we have when we leave it.  Every breath in between is hugely valuable and worthy of celebration.  Yoga and Pilates teach us to focus on the breath and its relationship to movement in particular, but also to our health and well-being in general.  In fact, Joseph Pilates theorized that because most of us, to our detriment, breathe too shallowly.  We neglect to exhale fully leaving as much as 30% of our intake of air sitting at the bottom of our lungs.  Take a moment to think about that. This could mean that you’ve had some of the same stale air inside you for years.  No wonder we have lung diseases!  In fact, it’s a wonder we don’t see more of them.

On a more positive note, here’s another concept of breath that I’ve heard in different ways from several sources including yogic breathing specialist Leslie Kaminoff and native plant specialist Michael Stuart Ani.  Earth’s atmosphere has been circulating wind and water all over the planet since its inception. These elements carry with them minute traces of everything that exists on Earth.  This means that the breath of all living things has also been circulating for all of existence.  We are, therefore, connected to our ancestors – and to each other – through our breath.  This concept can be extended to reveal that each of us contains all of us and every human life that has ever existed.  Wow!  What a concept!

In yoga classes we often incorporate various breathing practices as part of the experience.  These serve as a reminder that although many of our bodily functions are not easily controlled (e.g., heart beat, cellular functions, nerve impulses, etc.) breathing is one essential bodily function that we can control to some extent.  For example, we can change the length of our inhales and exhales.  Some people can even train their bodies to go for extended periods of time without breathing.  But there is always a limit.  Humans like to test their limits to see how far they can be pushed, but there is always still a limit.  We might last a few days or weeks without food or water, but we won’t last very long without breath.

So next time you are in a yoga class and find yourself resisting the breathing practices, or forgetting to breathe in a Pilates class, try to remember and treasure the value of each breath.  This is also something you can try if you’re feeling stressed.  Bring your attention to your breathing.  It is said that focusing on your exhales can be calming.  Just letting yourself recognize each breath can help bring your mind back from whatever brink it is perched on. Breath is life and without breath there is no life.  Breathe gratefully

Changing Fast and Slow

Image: Silke Lemcke/Pixabay.com
By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

We know that everything is always changing.  Why is it then that some things seems to change too quickly while other things change way too slowly.  All it takes is a visit from friends or family members who don’t live near you.  It doesn’t matter how many Facebook posts you’ve seen through the years.  Seeing people in person always provides a jolt.  Children show enormous changes over what feels like a relatively short period of time.  Over the same time period the adults around them also change, but those changes seem more slowly paced.  The changes in young people appear dramatic to the observer while changes in adults might be less obvious, more subtle.  Yet we adults still know how much we are changing.  We may not notice it on a daily basis, but eventually change becomes evident.  You can try to stave it off with hair dye and physical fitness, but inevitably we move a bit slower.  Healing takes longer.  Certain actions require more effort or preparation.

Some of us choose to fight with change.  Huge industries have been built around masking change.  There is hair dye and make up and cosmetic surgery.  Once this was primarily the province of women, but increasingly cosmetic counters are appealing to men also.  Our culture values youth.  And not just in terms of years, but also the way we look and behave.  Every day we are presented with images representing ideals.  Although we have learned that those images are rarely real, we can still feel that somehow we have to live up to those standards.

Then there’s the flip side:  recognizing change can feel like a losing battle so we resign ourselves and give up.  We think, “I can’t do ___ anymore (fill in the blank with whatever activity you’ve written off) so I’m just going to stop trying”.  Of course, eliminating or altering certain activities as we age can be a necessity due to our changing bodies.  A wise person learns to back off when expectations of one’s abilities stops matching the reality.  But even then change doesn’t have to mean all or nothing.  Life is rarely that simple.  There are often tweaks and modifications that allow us to continue finding things we can do that still give us pleasure.

In another version of the same problem, a person might recognize and accept change in themselves but then feel frustrated when others around them can’t or won’t do the same.  That person might think, “I keep telling them how much better things would be if they made this or that change, but still they won’t do it.” Unfortunately, none of us has any control over anyone else’s behavior.  Even our children.  Just as we are each different from our parents, are children are also separate individuals.  Of course, we all learn from each other, but each of us has our own way of interpreting and internalizing the inputs we receive. None of us ever really knows what goes on in another person’s mind.  For example, I might be thinking one thing when I say something to you, but you might hear what I say in a completely different way from my intention.  This is why as a teacher I am always looking for different ways of giving the same instruction.  Some people will learn from one method while others need another way to understand.  In my most recent post I talked about perception and how it varies for each of us. This is a prime example.  It does make relationships complicated.  But it’s also a reminder that human behavior is not always easily labeled.

Sometimes what feels like stagnation is really just super slow change.  Things don’t always happen on a time line we would like.  Progress on any front may seem painfully slow.  But frustration with the pace or nature of change usually occurs when making comparisons.  That might mean comparing things to some ideal that may or may not be achievable or comparing the present to a past that no longer exists and is never coming back.  Alternatively, sometimes it can feel like things are moving so fast that your head spins trying to keep up with it all.  You feel like you just want to hold on to something familiar rather than face the uncertainty of change.

No matter what we want, though, change is going to happen in its own time with or without us.  Our lives are brief and finite.  For us as humans time just keeps moving forward.  How much better it would be to simply accept what is and work from there.  Whatever stage your physical body is in at the present moment, it will be different tomorrow.  Not good or bad, better or worse.  Just different.  You might not feel yourself changing in this moment, but you are.  Go with the flow.  Be who you are.  As the song says, ” we are stardust; we are golden”.  Wherever you are right now it is where you are.  Tomorrow may be different.  But today is what it is.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the spectacular reminder this week of how small we really are.  Of course, I am referring to the eclipse. Regardless of our petty concerns, the stars and planets just keep moving.  On my walk today I listened to a podcast from Radiolab about the Voyager probe which has now gone beyond the edge of our solar system and is still moving.  Several years back, before it’s camera was turned off, Carl Sagan convinced NASA to turn the camera around for one final look back at our solar system from it’s vantage point more than 4 billion miles from our earth.  In that photo the earth is a tiny, barely visible blue dot.  Kind of puts everything back into perspective.

A Little Goes a Long Way

Photo: Pixabay.com

Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga
July 31, 2017

Last week I received an e-mail from a dear friend thanking me for continuing to remind everyone that there is always value in making an effort no matter how small it might seem.  If you participate in available activities at whatever level you can, you will almost always be glad you did, even when that effort is sporadic. This has been a recurring theme throughout these blog posts.  But consistency of effort has also been a theme.  And here we are in the middle of summer when consistency in any aspect of our lives seems elusive. If we’re not busy travelling, we’re hosting visitors. When I first moved to this tourist town I remember being told, “if you live in the Black Hills, everyone wants to come and visit you”.  Many of my friends make their living during the summer months which doesn’t allow much time for anything else. As the saying goes, we all need to make hay while the sun shines. Sprinkle into this mix that kids (including children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and friends) are out of school and you have a recipe that’s guaranteed to throw your usual routines off-kilter.  So how do we reconcile the need for consistency in our practices in the face of so much disruption?

My first suggestion is to do what you can.  If you find some space in between commitments take advantage of it. Bring your visitors to a class or if you are the visitor, ask where you can find a class.  It can fun to try something different.  And if you don’t like it, you never have to do it again!  Takes all the pressure off so you can just have fun.  Still all the traveling and hosting can be exhausting.  But according to an article in the Harvard Health blog, exercise beats caffeine when you’re feeling tired. One more reason to squeeze it in whenever you can.

Maybe you can’t fit in a class, but you can probably manage a walk. Even 15 or 20 minutes is enough to revive your energy levels and bring some color to your cheeks. If you’re out of town and don’t know where to go, head for some trees. There has been a huge amount of research lately touting the benefits of connecting with nature.  A recent book called “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative” by Florence Williams cites numerous examples from this research.  Summer is the perfect time to take advantage of these benefits.  Greenery abounds.  Even in inner cities.  Ms. Williams says that even if you can walk down a city street where trees are growing you will feel the difference in your mood.  Another article in the Harvard Health blog echoes this sentiment and takes it a step further. The article refers to an analysis published by the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences which shows that time spent in “green” places is linked to longer life in women.  “Specifically, there was a 13% lower rate for cancer mortality, 35% lower respiratory disease-related mortality, and 41% lower rate for kidney disease mortality in the women living in the areas with the highest levels of green vegetation.” Green things are growing all around us no matter where you live.  Smile as you walk by them.  It just might extend your life!

Another suggestion: remember that anything you do is better than nothing. One thing we know is that summer will end.  Even if the weather doesn’t change much, the kids will go back to school, travelers become less frequent for a while and routines can resume.  Anything you’ve done during the hiatus will be helpful when you get back to your regular activities.  Coming back and regaining your former strength, stamina and flexibility will be that much easier if you’ve been able to practice at all, even intermittently.

Which brings me to my third suggestion:  be patient and gentle with yourself.  Doing a little here and there can be frustrating. You might recognize that you’ve lost some of the gains you made during regular practice.  Getting them back might seem daunting and be a bit slower and more difficult than you hoped.  Take heart.  You got where you were once, you can get there again.  Of course, if you’re recovering from a physical setback modification may also be in order.  But no matter where you are, set your expectations aside and focus on the process.  Try setting goals related to process rather than specific achievements.  In other words, rather than saying, “I will be able to touch my toes in six weeks” try making your goal something like “I will practice regularly for the next six weeks”. The term “regular” can have any definition you like (e.g. daily, every other day, bi-weekly, weekly, whatever).  Just make it something you can maintain on a consistent basis.  Try to be consistent for as long as you can. Another thing you can be sure of is that life will throw curves into your best intentions. When that happens, go back to the suggestions above and return to consistency when you can.

Finally, relax and enjoy the novelty of change.  Accept what is and go with the flow. Life is finite.  Time is precious. If you can’t do everything you want to do, don’t beat yourself up. Just do what you can.  Focus on the positive.  Do what you can with what you have now and you will always be right.