“Although we are intelligent, sensitive beings, we often think of ourselves as objects that need to be fixed.”
It comes from an article in Pilates Style by well-known Pilates teacher, Wendy LeBlanc-Arbuckle, who has been an inspiration to me for many years. The article is on the esoteric side, dealing with an “insider” controversy in Pilates. But you don’t have to understand that controversy to resonate with some of her quotes. Here are a few more:
“What ‘conversation’ are you having with your body? Are you ‘partnering with’ or ‘fighting’ gravity? Are you treating yourself as a biointelligent organism who knows how to self-regulate, adapt and self-heal, or a biomechanical machine that needs to be repaired and serviced?”
“we need to remove the mask of the ‘ideal’ body to reveal our ‘real’ body.”
“How can movement be nourishing and enlivening, rather than ‘I should do it this way’ (body schema) or ‘how I should look’ (body image)? This calls for real body awareness, for discovering our true self.”
“What can begin to inform our movement awareness is knowing that we are constantly in a state of flux throughout life, ‘shaping ourselves,’ physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. From this potent place, we have an opportunity to embody ‘core’ as a coordinated relationship with gravity, ourselves, one another and our environment. We develop a way of being in life that is grounded, curious and empathetic—way beyond movement as a ‘thing to do.’ “
There is so much packed in to each of these quotes that I will just let you, dear reader, interpret as you will. But one thing I would especially like to highlight is the reference to the “state of flux throughout life”. A recurring theme throughout this blog is that all of life, including we humans, are constantly changing. Despite the frequency with which I hear the phrase “I hate change”, it cannot be avoided. It’s happening all the time – like it or not!
Furthermore, everything is always moving forward in time. We can’t go back. We might have some misguided thoughts that somehow things were better at some mythical time in the past. But memory is faulty. And even if that were true, it doesn’t matter. What is real is the here and now. And that includes our bodies. Even if we don’t notice changes, they are happening within us and all around us. So we can “‘partner with gravity’ (release tension) or ‘fight gravity’ (create tension)”. Substitute the word “change” for “gravity” and you can see that there is a broader meaning here.
It seems to me that there is enough tension in the world and in our everyday lives without adding to that by fighting with our bodies. No matter what your current status, your body is a miraculous manifestation. You can choose to focus on your limitations, or you can recognize all of the things you are capable of. If you are reading this, that’s just one of them! The ability to move and breathe in any capacity is worth celebrating. And also worth maintaining. It is now well-known in the medical community that movement is an essential component to good health. Move what you can move while you can move it. It’s never too late to start and once you start you can always improve. Things will change over time, but if you stay in “conversation” with your body, you will learn to adapt. Here is one final quote:
“[W]hen we learn to listen to and be guided by our body wisdom, in relationship with gravity and spatial orientation, body schema begins to support our body image. We learn to embody our true selves. . . . we discover the inherent wisdom and intelligence within every cell of our body . . . we connect with the natural healing energy of the earth, and realign with our primal nature and relationship with the natural world”.
Move with that in mind and you just might be able to make peace with who you are and what you can do.
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.
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.
At some point we all find ourselves in a place that forces us to change our perspectives and view life through a new lens. Sometimes this transformation is sudden, as in the case of an accident, illness or loss of something or someone important to us. In other examples the change is more gradual, such as the process of aging or accepting chronic conditions that may never completely disappear. We find ourselves faced with “the new normal”. Despite the fact that everything in life is always changing, most of us are wary or even downright afraid of what is unknown. This causes us to cling to the familiar even if we are not completely happy with it. We’ve all heard the expression, “the devil you know . . .” which is often used as a rationale for avoiding change.
We each have different ways of handling change. Some of us resist the reality of change by resorting to denial. We might think, “This isn’t really happening. I will just keep on moving through life in the same way that I always have.” Others get angry and look for someone or something external to blame, as in “if it wasn’t for _____ (fill in the blank) everything would still be the same as it used to be.” That may or may not be true, but unfortunately, it doesn’t change the reality of the situation. Others despair, focusing on the loss rather than anything positive that remains and sometimes find themselves dissolving into depression. Some consider themselves victims and wonder “why me?” Still others will accept the new normal and try to make the best of it.
It has long been a question among social scientists as to why some people can move through changes with relative equanimity, while others resist sometimes to the point of sacrificing their own health and well-being. Most agree that the quality that sets the victims apart from the survivors is resilience. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. . . It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.” Furthermore, “Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.” So this is not some innate quality that is part of our DNA, it is something that we can all develop. It just takes practice.
No one escapes hardship in life. We may think there are people who have it all together. But deeper inspection often reveals hidden truths. Many years ago when I was dealing with a particular set of changes in my life I met a woman who captured my admiration. I thought, “If I could only be like her all my problems would be solved.” Later I learned that beneath the appearance of perfection there was a deeply troubled soul who had a host of characteristics I was so grateful I didn’t have. It was a simple but major lesson for me – nobody’s perfect. Whatever someone else has that you think you want often accompanies many things that you’re better off without.
Getting back to resilience, I used to teach a class to prospective entrepreneurs about how to build a viable business. It turns out resilience is also a key to successful entrepreneurship. One might think that having lots of money is an important factor. And, yes, having sufficient resources to survive good and bad times is necessary, especially during the start-up phase which often lasts several years. Also important is a complete understanding of market conditions. But being able make it through tough times and respond to changes as they become evident without clinging to some ideal image of the way things “should” be is right up there at the top of the list. Followers of this blog might recognize this characteristic as something we cultivate in yoga and Pilates – namely, flexibility – being able to go with the flow without breaking.
So what does all this have to do with coming back? That title could refer to many things, but, as you might have guessed, I am referring in particular to coming back from illness, injury or other forms of loss. By loss I mean those related to changes in our ability to do the same things we’ve always done in the way we used to do them. It also might mean loss of the illusion that we will ever be able to be like that other person who looks a certain way or who can do certain things that are unavailable to us in this moment. In particular, each physical set-back I have reminds me of my limitations. Regardless of how I feel or how I view myself, I am not the same person physically that I was 20 years ago. This is not bad or good. It just is what it is. Knowing that, I can choose to lament the fact that I will probably never again run a marathon, or I can find joy in the fact that I can still hike in our beautiful outdoors on legs that not only work but are mostly pain-free. So certain human frailties may be revealed, but also amazing strength. I’ve had set-backs, but I’m still here and still moving. How incredible is that! Some days may be slower than others but that’s OK. It is wonderfully liberating not to have to live up to anyone else’s standards. Also I can still practice yoga and Pilates, both of which have contributed greatly to my physical capacity. These are all disciplines that can be modified to meet my needs. Some days I can do poses that are difficult on other days. There is no rule that says I have to power through the difficult moves when they are not working for me. I can modify or even skip them altogether and try again tomorrow.
Change may be constant, but sometimes it can’t be forced. When you can’t change a situation, you can always change your attitude. Here is a link to another article on “How to Build Resilience”. The suggestion is given to “Reframe Your Interpretation”. This is another way of saying find a different point of view. Remember the old song that advised “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative”? You could almost use that for a mantra. No matter how bad things seem, there is always something positive that is still available if you look for it. Even if it’s something really small, it’s worth focusing on until something better becomes visible. This isn’t necessarily easy and it won’t change reality, but it might help you get through it. You may be losing something precious, but I would venture a guess that meaningful things in your life still exist. Just like physical activity, this requires practice. It may take many reminders throughout the day, but as neuroscientists are increasingly learning, we can create new pathways in our brains at any age.
So even if you think you have always been a certain way and can’t possibly change, train yourself to think as my favorite astrologer/philosopher Caroline Casey advises and add the words “until now!”. You can change. You just need to practice. Accept what is and focus on what you can do right now. If it gets better, great! If not, it’s still worthy of celebration.
Recently I heard a story about a meditation teacher addressing a class. He asked his students to demonstrate how they feel space. Immediately every student raised their hands into the air. The teacher laughed. He said, “You don’t need to put your hands in the air. You are already feeling space.” Think about it. Space is all around us. And not just outside our bodies, but inside our bodies also.
Your body’s ability to sense its position in space is part of what we call “proprioception”. The term also refers to recognizing the relative position of each limb in relationship to other parts of the body as well as the environment. Proprioception is important in all movements of the body since it enables us to know where our limbs are in space without having to look. When I teach chair exercise classes and ask participants to move their feet, everyone looks down. This always makes me smile. For most of us, our feet will move whether or not we are watching them. But somehow we feel the need to help them along by looking. I often ask my yoga students to close their eyes when standing in Mountain Pose and bring their feet to a parallel position. Then I’ll ask them to open their eyes and see how they did. Surprisingly most do pretty well! This demonstrates the ability to sense the position of one’s feet in space and each foot in relation to the other.
Of course, this is not true for everyone. People with certain neurological conditions may have difficulty with proprioception. It is also one of those senses that tends to diminish with age. Several years ago I read a book called “My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte-Taylor, a brain researcher who had a stroke. While she was actually experiencing the stroke she was somehow able to marshal her knowledge of how the brain works and recognize what was happening to her. The book describes her experience both during the stroke and in recovery. As the stroke was happening, one of the indicators for her was that she became unable to distinguish where her body ended and other objects began. Every time I trip over something I think of this. Even though I see the object and should be able to get around it, somehow I lose my ability to recognize where my body ends and the other object begins. Thus we collide. As my husband would say, “No – you’re just clumsy”. Point taken. But I still prefer the other explanation.
Any of you who have ever had nerve damage to a limb will know that one of the goals of physical therapy is to restore functional mobility. In an article discussing proprioception in physical therapy, author Brett Sears, P.T., describes how different nerve endings in your limbs relay information to your brain about the relative position of your limbs and the direction and speed of movement. This process enables us to move in space without actually watching the movement. Think of yourself walking. Generally, you can move your arms and legs in space without looking at them and also usually manage to keep them from bumping into each other. When this communication between brain and limb is disturbed, it needs to be retrained if possible. Most of us understand the need for practicing balance, but proprioception is equally important. The two senses work together to help us move efficiently.
So how can we work on improving proprioception? One way is to create balance challenges. Try standing on one foot. You may notice that your standing foot starts to wobble. If you pay attention you may recognize that the part of your foot that is wobbling changes minutely from moment to moment. This is your body adjusting to subtle shifts in your center of gravity. For example, perhaps you are also moving your arms or maybe without even realizing it your body is tilting forward or back. As these changes in positioning occur, your proprioception abilities are called upon to help you stabilize. You will probably not be surprised to learn that both yoga and Pilates help to train your senses to respond to the constant changes occurring as you move through space in normal everyday activities. These and other mind-body disciplines help practitioners to develop awareness of their bodies in space and the space in their bodies.
Moving through space requires more than just internal control. We need to be aware of gravity and other forces that impact movement like momentum, uneven surfaces, and elevation changes as well as obstacles in our path. Pilates in particular focuses on strengthening from your core or center. Exercises help you to stabilize the center and move from there. The concept of “oppositional lengthening” is emphasized so that movements from the center are balanced in all directions. This does require attention and practice. But as you learn your own body’s individual idiosyncrasies you begin to train your body to become better at making those subtle adjustments enabling you to move more easily through space.
Learning to move from our center can help in other ways as well. We all know what it’s like to feel “off-center”. This is usually a sign that we are stressed and losing balance in our lives in general. Thoughts become scattered and unfocused. Even routine activities can seem overwhelming. Our mental muscles and nerves begin to lose their ability to adapt to changing experiences, internal and external. This can easily translate into physical discomfort as well. Fortunately, mind-body practices like yoga and Pilates can also help with these feelings. Breathing practices can help bring us back to our center, reminding us of what is really important in our lives. Coming back to our centers and retraining our brains to adapt to shifting energies both internal and external can help us restore balance and ease as we move through space and through life.
Everyone seems to be stressed out these days. Of course, there are many valid reasons for this. Each of us experiences potential sources of stress every day. Perhaps it’s the weather or traffic that’s making us tense. Or maybe it’s a health concern, either one’s own or that of someone close to us. We might feel overloaded at work or be faced with looming deadlines that seem impossible to meet. There might be people in our lives that are difficult to deal with. Loving your job, or those difficult people, doesn’t make you immune to the stress they might cause you. Sometimes just facing the reality that there are situations or changes occurring that are beyond our control is enough to make life stressful. And if all of that is not enough, there is the climate, the planet, politics, war, intolerance, fear, etc. Yikes! It’s a wonder that we all aren’t curled up and babbling in a fetal position.
Some stress is beneficial. In discussing stress management, the Mayo Clinic reminds us that the “brain comes hard-wired with an alarm system for your protection. When your brain perceives a threat, it signals your body to release a burst of hormones to fuel your capacity for a response.” Once the threat is gone, though, we’re supposed to return to a “normal relaxed state”. However, our 24/7 lives don’t always permit this. We can be our own worst enemies, not allowing ourselves downtime when we most need it. Sometimes we don’t even realize how much stress has gripped us. It becomes increasingly difficult to know when or even how to dial it down. When stress becomes chronic it can have serious negative effects on one’s health. According to a recent Harvard Health newsletter chronic stress “contributes to everything from high blood pressure and heart disease to anxiety, digestive disorders, and slow wound healing.”
The good new is that “managing stress helps control many chronic conditions or reduce your risk for developing them.” And here’s even more good news: exercise in general, and mind-body practices like yoga and Pilates in particular, are among the top recommendations for reducing stress. Among the reasons for this is that both of these disciplines encourage coordinating breath with movement. Breathing techniques have long been known to encourage a relaxation response which can actually produce “changes in genes that influence health”. This can encourage reductions in blood pressure, blood sugar levels, digestion problems and even inflammation which has been shown to be associated with numerous health conditions.
Yoga and Pilates also encourage tuning into your body to learn how it behaves. We spend so much time listening to the endless noise in our heads that we can forget that we even have a body. Worse yet, our bodies can themselves become a source of frustration when they don’t look or feel the way we would like them to. This also creates stress. Discovering how your body works as it moves is actually fascinating if you let yourself look at it that way. You will also begin to recognize when you are holding tension in your muscles. The first step toward relaxing both mind and body is recognizing tension. Many of us don’t even realize how tense we are until we start to feel what it’s like to let that tension go. Holding tension in the body makes stressful situations that much more difficult to deal with. Learning to release tension takes practice. Regularly practicing mind-body disciplines like yoga and Pilates is a good place to start.
There are many ways to manage stress. No single intervention can be the total answer for everyone. Each of us needs to find what works for them. And different situations may require different responses. All of this takes practice. But instead of finding this discouraging, it might help to see it as an interesting challenge. The benefit of any practice is that it allows you to keep trying. If one attempt doesn’t seem to work you can try again or try something else. Remember the goal: better mental and physical health. Keeping that in mind can make even the most difficult practice worthwhile.
CUSTER, SD – One advantage to getting older – at least for me – is that experiences accumulate. Through the years, just like all of you who are reading this, I’ve encountered many challenges. Recently it has occurred to me that there is at least one positive result of living through difficult circumstances. Each of them helps me to become less judgmental of others and of myself. The word “never”, as in “I would never respond that way”, is gradually disappearing from my vocabulary as I loosen my grip on fixed ideas coming from years of conditioning. Increasingly the truth of constant change becomes more evident as well as how little in life is really under our control.
Even though we have similarities as human beings, we are all also uniquely different. Each of us has our own individual characteristics as well as our own gifts. There is really no “one size fits all”. That also means there is sometimes no universal notion of right and wrong or good and bad.
Still we all want to do the “right” thing, even when we’re not really sure what that is. And we are often quick to berate ourselves (or others) when we think we (or they) have gotten it “wrong”. We often hold ourselves to impossible standards. Some of this comes from all the things we’ve been told by others throughout our lives. Experiences of praise or punishment, consequences of actions we’ve taken or witnessed – all of these things contribute to the person we are today and the ideas we’ve formed. We may no longer even know where those ideas originated, but they are part of us nonetheless.
Changing these ideas, or just finding ways to be open to new ones, can be really difficult. Maybe, though, instead of being daunted by that prospect and giving up before even trying, we can learn to recognize this challenge as an opportunity for practice. An article in Yoga Journal by meditation teacher Sally Kempton titled “Make Peace with Perfectionism and Make Mistakes” provides an example of one idea for this type of practice – retraining your inner critic. The article cites Patanjali‘s advice to “Practice the Opposite” from Sutra 11.33. The Yoga Sutras are a collection of verses describing yogic philosophy. This practice suggests that you talk back to your inner critic. So, for example, when you find yourself saying “I shouldn’t be doing this because I can’t do it right” counter this with “I can do lots of things right and my way of doing this is just as good as anyone else’s.” Similarly, if you start to think “I can’t possibly survive this crisis” remind yourself that you’ve survived numerous crises in the past and you can survive this one also. I’m sure you can all think of many other ways to try this out. You might even find it interesting to come up with a counterstatement for every negative thought about yourself (or someone else!) that comes to mind. Here’s another example: “I keep forgetting to do this practice so I might as well give up”. You can counter that with “I’ve remembered before and I can remember again.” Each new moment is a new opportunity to try again. Just recognizing that you forgot is a huge step in the right direction. Give yourself a big pat on the back for that.
Recently when I mentioned to a woman that I am a yoga teacher, she said “I can’t do yoga because I can’t relax”. All of you, myself included, can probably relate to that statement. We all felt that way at some point when we were new to yoga. Some of us may still feel that way. In fact, sometimes yoga itself can be stressful if we put too many expectations on ourselves. Also I know many “Type A’s” who don’t like yoga because it’s “too slow”. My response is “it’s a practice thing”. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. However, I also know that I didn’t always feel that way. Finding it difficult to relax could be one more reason to keep trying. But it could also be another example of how we are each different from each other. We all need to find our own way to what will best serve us.
As I get older I’ve noticed that I’ve become more open-minded and less likely to automatically dismiss or condemn another point of view. That also has made me less likely to try to impose my opinions on anyone else. My classes are a judgment-free zone. Come as you are and do what works for you. And if it doesn’t work for you, that’s OK, too. Maybe the timing is not right or perhaps there is a different type of practice waiting for you down the road. Just try to keep an open mind and remember that everything is always changing. What you feel today may be different from what you feel tomorrow.
CUSTER, SD – Winter can feel overwhelming at times. For example, weather can interfere with the best laid plans. Maybe you made a New Year’s resolution to walk more. You start off really well and suddenly the temperatures dive, the sidewalks shine with ice and the trails in the woods are clogged with snow. Even winter sports enthusiasts can be disappointed when there is just enough snow and ice to be a hazard, but not enough to support the fun stuff. If you decide to go elsewhere to ski or swim, you can find yourself stymied by airline delays or cancellations. Then there is the busyness that comes in January after the long stretch of holiday breaks that characterize November and December. So much to catch up on – so little time! Despite solstice the days are still short. Time seems compressed and suddenly everyone seems to want a piece of yours. There just never seems to be enough to go around.
Combine all this with Seasonal Affected Disorder and (dare I say it . . .) post-election anxiety and we have the ingredients for a deep dive into depression. Take heart, though. Just when you think hope is pointless and the light at the end of the tunnel appears dim or even non-existent, along comes the Burning Beetle Blues Festival in Custer SD. What a great example of turning negatives into positives.
For the past couple of decades, the forests in western states from Canada to the southwest U.S. have been ravaged by an onslaught of voracious bark beetles. The plague has had an enormous impact on the Black Hills in general, and Custer in particular. About 5 years ago, some Custer residents decided to turn the hand-wringing and lamentation into action. Thus began the Bark Beetle Blues festival. The first year of the event saw residents drowning their sorrows in music and art. Sculptures and picture frames were created with the “blue wood” of the dead trees remaining after the beetles had their fill. The talented musicians of the Black Hills wrote songs and performed them for a delighted audience. School children danced and sang. The festival became a much needed and appreciated antidote for cabin fever in the middle of January when most South Dakotans are house-bound and already longing for Spring. The following year launched what has become a tradition of burning a huge effigy of a beetle. Since then the festival has grown to include a variety show and fireworks display. Last year a crew from National Geographic turned up to film the event. (Unfortunately, I could not find an on-line link to the article, but you can probably find a paper copy in a local library.) Some years have featured bitter cold January weather, but that has not stopped a huge crowd from turning out for these events.
Witnessing this year’s event made me think of the ritual of the fire puja. Fire is one of the five basic elements including earth, water, air and ether (empty space) that provide the energies of our known universe. Using the ritual of fire helps us to let go of things that are no longer useful to make room for new ideas and intentions. Of course we always want to honor the power of fire and treat it appropriately, but with safety taken into consideration, we can all create our own fire ritual. If you’re feeling stuck, it can be very satisfying to think about the obstacles in your path, write them on paper and cast them in the fire. Taking some time to recognize the factors in your way can be the first step to finding ways around them.
Many of us can find examples in our own lives where unexpected positives have emerged from even the most dire or sorrowful situations. This is certainly true for me. Many of the plans I made in my life have not panned out, but other things have happened that I never could have imagined. This has become a good reminder when I become disappointed over something not going my way. And – yes – I need to remind myself. It is a daily practice to remember to take each day as it comes and accept things as they are, proceeding from there instead of wishing things were different and letting negativity cloud my day.
In recent weeks I’ve seen friends of mine turn their fear into activism. They have been joined by others who share their concerns. Perhaps they’ve been surprised to learn that so many others felt the same way they did. It is a confidence-builder to find out you’re not alone. Taking that first dangerous step into the unknown can feel so solitary and isolating. But once that leap is made, the results can be surprising. In the fire ritual, mourning can be a necessary process leading up to the decision to let go. But at some point it is necessary to let the mourning pass and rejoin the world. It’s not always easy and it can be a rocky process, but all it really takes is putting one foot in front of the other and being open to the opportunities around you. That, too, is an opportunity for practice.
So, to borrow from Shakespeare, if now is the winter of your discontent, try moving out of your own way. Throw those obstacles into the fire and take a chance on something new. Renew your resolve to do whatever you decided to accomplish in 2017. And remember – if your New Year’s resolutions are already getting lost in the undertow or if weather has gotten in the way of your movement plans, there is no better time than now to find a new activity. An exercise class is a great way to start. Movement will lift your mood and boost your energy. Also just like my activist friends, you may be surprised to find friendly like-minded souls who will happily help you along on your journey without judgment of any kind. We are all looking forward to having you to join us. Our welcome mat is always out!
Custer, SD – A friend and I were talking as we walked this morning about some of the ongoing controversies within the health and wellness communities. One example: how do cholesterol levels really impact our health and what are optimum levels? For many years this seemed to be settled science. High cholesterol was linked to “bad” fat in the diet. Everyone jumped on a reduced fat or fat-free diet. Then research began to show that heredity and genetics also play a part. Dietary cholesterol intake might not be such a significant factor after all. Further research began to distinguish between types of cholesterol and also types of fat. The subtleties of determining optimum levels in diverse individuals began to present additional complications in diagnosis and treatment. There was a time when some doctors were advocating putting cholesterol-lowering medications in the water supply. Fortunately, subsequent research has begun to question whether or not previously established optimum cholesterol levels are really applicable to all people. So even when we think modern methods have settled certain questions, inevitably more questions tend to surface.
To complicate matters even more, increasing interest in holistic approaches to health care recommend taking the whole person into consideration instead of just isolated symptoms or systems. This means recognizing that our internal mechanisms are not only interconnected but also impacted by our minds and emotions. Add to this the fact that each of us has our own individual responses to various medical interventions, none of which is always true for every person, regardless of the statistical results of clinical trials. As human beings we have much in common, but we each have unique characteristics that make generalizations difficult if not downright dangerous at times. My feeling is that we are all an experiment of one. Getting to know our own bodies is just one step in the direction of learning what is right for each of us as individuals, regardless of what the latest study seems to show.
For many years there has been an ongoing discussion in the fitness industry. It goes something like this: is it healthier to be a thin couch potato or an overweight exerciser? There are, of course, advocates and plausible arguments on both sides. But in my opinion, all of this points to the many questions that still exist in our knowledge of how human beings work. We are just beginning to learn about nutrition, what a body actually requires and the best way to provide it. This is no small task since each of us has different needs. This subject is still not well-taught in our medical schools and or even well understood by researchers. We get sound bites of research, most of which is flawed, that the media jumps on as the next magic solution. People hop on the bandwagon only to find that what worked for their neighbor simply doesn’t work for them. Then the next study comes down the pike which contradicts the one before it. “Coffee is good for your heart!” shout the headlines only to be followed a few months later by, “Don’t drink coffee, it’s bad for you” or “Drink 3 cups of coffee, but not 4”. It seems that each time some question finds what looks like an answer, a whole new set of questions arises.
Having said all of that, there is one thing that all of us have been hearing for many years and that a mounting body of evidence from many different sources continues to support. We all need to move more for better health. Many years of sedentary lifestyles have affected our health in negative ways. This is just one factor in modern life that affects our health, but this is one we can choose to change. But how to move, when to move, how often, how fast – all of these still remain questions that each of us as individuals need to answer for ourselves.
So what happens when you finally take that big step forward and make that change? You’ve made the decision, committed yourself and incorporated a regular movement practice into your life. How do you know if you’re making progress toward better health? Maybe despite attention your diet and consistent exercise you just don’t seem to be seeing results. You were expecting to feel stronger, have better balance, ease some of your pain, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. This can be discouraging. You may even begin to doubt your own capacity for feeling better. Thoughts like “I’m no good at this” or “I will never get any better” may begin to creep into your consciousness further sabotaging your efforts.
In the fitness industry we often speak of “exercise plateaus”. Many people make noticeable gains in the early days of an exercise program. Of course, this is not true for everyone. In some cases the very act of beginning a movement practice is so stressful that it can take time for the practitioner to begin to feel better. In all cases the body gradually adapts to the changing demands on its systems. Sometimes this results in what looks like a levelling off of change. But the changes that are continuing – and it is my opinion that they are, in fact, continuing – to take place may simply have moved into a more subtle realm. This is the time when it becomes more important than ever to focus on continuing your practice and going deeper into the subtle aspects of mind-body connection to find the changes. Here are some questions you might want to consider: How do you feel? If your goal when you began your practice was pain relief, perhaps your pain is still there. But are you better able to live with it since beginning your practice? Can you move more easily? Are you better able to do at least some of the things that were beyond your ability when you started? Do you have more stamina? Try focussing on the improvement instead of the lingering limitations.
If your goal was weight loss, but you can’t seem to get there from here, ask yourself: Do my clothes fit better? Do I have more color in my cheeks? How are my energy levels? Do I fatigue less easily? Am I sleeping better? Am I standing taller? Posture improvement is an important result of many mind-body movement systems including yoga and Pilates. Another consequence of our sedentary lifestyle is erosion of good posture and resulting back, neck and shoulder problems. In a recent article in Yoga Journal, Dr. Ray Long speaks of the immediate difference in his patients’ moods when he gives them a simple exercise that allows them to sit upright in a chair. They change from describing themselves as being “tired” or “sad” to being “alert” and “bright”. Which brings up another question: Has your mood improved? Remember, your emotions, mind and body are all interconnected. Has working your body helped you to better respond to situations in your life? Are you better able to relax and find stress-free moments? Maybe you don’t get irritated as easily by little things. Perhaps you are more in touch with the present moment rather than regretting the past or fearing the future. There is every reason to believe that your movement practice has contributed to these changes as well.
Going back to the concept that we are each an experiment of one, each of us will respond differently to whatever interventions we adopt to address our health needs. As you begin to examine the more subtle changes in your mind and body, you will no doubt think of other ways to note your progress. What works for the person next to you in class may not work for you and vice versa. We each have to find our own way. But it helps if you gear your measurements to your own needs rather than the needs of others or anything you read about in the popular press. Develop your own yardsticks of progress and if one ceases to work, find another. There is no one perfect measurement. After all what is progress? Make your own definition. But if it means positive change then I am confident that you will find it if you take the time to look.
The important thing is to stick with your practice no matter what. Don’t give up. Change it if you need to reignite your enthusiasm or cut back if your body demands it. But don’t stop moving. Whatever your definition of progress, it will certainly stop if you do. And it is much more difficult to re-start after stopping than it is to just keep moving at whatever level you can. Even if you think you aren’t getting anywhere, you are exactly where you need to be. Be kind to yourself, practice patience, be grateful for your ability to move and breathe and honor your body’s desire to maintain that ability.