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.

Rest – The Other Fitness Requirement

 

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates And Yoga

The majority of these blog posts are focussed on the benefits of movement and the many problems associated with lack thereof.  This weekend as the powers that be attempt (futilely, I might add)  to control the universe by getting us all to adjust our clocks, it has occurred to me that sleep and rest are often overlooked aspects of fitness that can be just as important as exercise.  Recently I listened to an interview with Dr. Kirk Parsley, former Navy SEAL and current sleep guru, about how chronic sleep deprivation is leading Americans to all kinds of illness.  Dr. Parsley speaks about the pervasive myths in our culture that sleep is for the weak.  He emphasizes what he calls the “four pillars of health: Sleep, Nutrition, Exercise, Stress control”.  If any one of the four is ignored or minimized our health will suffer.  Despite this, we continue to celebrate people who claim to sleep 4 hours per night and still achieve what appears to be success.

In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers insufficient sleep to be a public health problem.   In addition to nodding off while driving, “persons experiencing sleep insufficiency are also more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, and obesity, as well as from cancer, increased mortality, and reduced quality of life and productivity.”  Yikes!  For those of us – myself included – who take pains to eat right and exercise regularly, it can be a huge wake-up call to realize that short-changing sleep might be just as detrimental to health as eating lots of donuts.

A related connection that comes to mind is the additional need for simple rest.  Those of us who exercise regularly may not realize that muscle gains are made during rest periods, not work periods.  That’s why strength trainers advise their practitioners to work different muscles each day instead of doing the same routine daily.   We are also told to limit particularly stressful workouts to once or twice per week.  Some stress is good as it trains the body to handle the load.  But muscles need time to adapt to the changes.  Many of us make the mistake of overtaxing our muscles without allowing them sufficient time to recover.  Even when advised to start slowly and increase gradually, we think this advice doesn’t apply to us.  I’m the first to admit to being guilty on that count.  It has taken many years and lots of mistakes to learn that it isn’t worth pushing the envelope too strongly.   Injury or illness is a high price to pay.  Still it takes practice and constant reminders to keep that message up front.

Some time ago I read the book “My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor.  Dr. Taylor is a brain research scientist who suffered a stroke.  Due to her knowledge of how the brain works, she was able to retain a memory of what was transpiring as she experienced the stroke.  The book is about what she learned during that time and her subsequent recovery.  There are many lessons learned from this book, but among them was her emphasis on how important sleep was to her recovery.  Throughout the book she emphasizes the healing powers of sleep.  During my health challenges over the past few years I’ve recalled her words and agree that sleep and rest are as important to healing as any medication.

It’s not easy to keep that thought up front, though.  I’m also well aware that many people have all kinds of trouble sleeping well.  A huge pharmaceutical industry has arisen to address the problem.  There are all sorts of reasons for this, but the bottom line is that getting more sleep is not as simple as it sounds.  Our 24/7 culture is no help either.  Recently I heard the term “time-bullied” referring to how most of us feel like the there is never enough time to do all the things we feel the need to do.  But we sacrifice sleep at our peril.  Like the other 3 “pillars of health”, we need to find a balance, a way to give each of the pillars its due.  Maybe it means a bit more moderation in all things.  Hmmm. . . Where have we heard that concept before?  Simple advice yet so hard to achieve.

Still anyone who has experienced any kind of health challenge knows that life is short.  No matter how well we try to care for ourselves, its length is uncertain.  The tendency to want to maximize our time on earth can be overwhelming.  But there are benefits to being the best we can be for as long as we can manage that.  Quality of life is just as important as length, if not more so. This weekend we were given an extra hour.  Of course, it will be taken away from us in the Spring, but we can deal with that when we get there.  For now, I hope you all used that extra hour to get a little more sleep.  I know I did.  And I still feel like I need a nap.  So I think I’ll stop here and take one!

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!

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.

Improving Independence

Cave Painting of Lascaux

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

This past week we celebrated Independence Day, a milestone in American history.  On that day we recall our fledgling nation’s successful effort to separate itself from British rule and establish our own local government.  Since that time the concept of independence has become a significant pillar of American culture.  As a society we place a high value on individual independence.  We love the idea of the self-made person who succeeds by using his/her own wits and ingenuity.  A lofty ideal for sure, but a myth nonetheless.

Of course, we can often improve ourselves and sometimes even our circumstances through hard work and determination.  That’s true.  But everyone who does succeed at anything owes that success to external factors as much as internal drive.  Start with the accident of birth.  If you were born here in the U.S. or have had the good fortune to obtain citizenship or permanent resident status, you can thank that one fact alone for many of the opportunities you’ve been able to take advantage of in your life.   You can’t credit your birth to any ability of your own. It just happened that way and you are the unwitting beneficiary.  Maybe you were born into a privileged family, maybe not.  Or you might have had access to great schools and teachers.  Or not.  The amenities in your area – roads and transportation options, clean water, accessible food sources, etc. – may have served to add or detract from your quality of life, but either way they certainly contributed.  Sometimes the ability to change surroundings is available and sometimes not.  So in many ways, we are not as independent as we think.

Even those who are “off the grid” will probably find that they are still dependent on some external sources.  For example, if you grow your own food, you still may need certain weather conditions.  The availability of clean water is always a factor even if you use indoor gardening options.  As human beings we are neither infallible nor immortal.  We need food and water no matter what.  And we are subject to all kinds of illnesses and other physical problems.  At this point you might be wondering if I’ve been reading too many dystopian novels.  In fact, my intention is not to paint a bleak picture of human frailty, but simply to remind us all that we need each other.  We are all interconnected. Like or not.  And when that fact is accepted, the potential exists for all of us to get along with each other much better that we do.

A recent article in Yoga Journal reminds us that we are “supported in countless ways through each moment of your life”.  The article is about gratitude, but it is also about independence and interdependence.  The 17th-century author and pamphleteer, Roger L’Estrange, is quoted as saying that we often “mistake the gratuitous blessings of heaven for the fruits of our own industry.”  Thus not only do we need each other, but we are dependent on everything on the planet and even the universe to support us.  Without all of it, we could not exist.

Having said all of that, one of the most common refrains I hear among older people is that they (or should I say “we”) want to maintain their independence for as long as possible.  Becoming completely dependent upon others for daily needs is something many of us dread.  We want to keep driving our cars, walking on the trails, choosing our own food, living in our own homes, seeing other people when we want to or being alone when we prefer.  We don’t want to be a “burden” on our families, or on society.  And yet most of us will at some point lose at least some of our ability to take care of ourselves.

Still medical research suggests that this doesn’t always just happen simply due to aging.  Sometimes it is a result of inactivity.  As I’ve often said, the less you move, the harder it is to get moving again.  Another of my mantras is that we all need to move while we can move because one never knows when their ability to move will be altered.  Illness or accident can immobilize any of us at any time.  When people tell me they are afraid of flying, for example, I often respond that they could get hit by a car tomorrow.  Or trip getting out of bed.  Anything can happen.  These are just more ways in which that illusion of control over our own lives can go awry.  Sometimes a post-traumatic stress reaction can set in.  Once you experience pain from any source, it is easy to become fearful that the same pain will return.

So it all comes back to letting the lure of potential benefits overcome the siren song of fear.  In “Exercise:  A Guide From the National Institute on Aging” the authors state that “just about every older adult can safely do some form of physical activity” and, in fact, “studies suggest that not exercising is risky behavior.”  If motivation is a drawback, dangle that carrot of independence right in front of your nose every time you try to erect barriers.  Too hot or too cold outside?  Set a timer and walk around your house for 20 minutes.  Better yet, walk up and down some stairs.  You don’t have to go fast.  Just move continuously at whatever pace is available to you.  Or take a class!  Most classes are indoors and some are even air conditioned.  Afraid to go by yourself?  Call a friend or relative to go with you.  Remember that a class can be a source of support and strength.  These are two of the many qualities that help us to maintain independence while still recognizing our interconnectedness.  Leave your fear of looking funny at the door.  There was a wonderful article in this week’s “On Being” blog called “Perfection Will Do You In“, by columnist Parker Palmer.   In it, there is a poem by a 94-year-old Benedictine monk named Kilian McDonnell which is a must read.  Here is my favorite part:

“the Venus de Milo
has no arms,
the Liberty Bell is
cracked.”

Bottom line:  nobody is perfect and we all need each other.  And remember – the independence you may save or extend could be your own.

Taming Transitions

 

 

June 26, 2017
By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

Time is such a peculiar concept.  When you look at the universe, the stars, the planets, time doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot.  We measure all movements, distances and changes in terms of time, but it appears to be a human construct invented for the sole purpose of giving us a method for understanding and discussion.  Time matters to us as humans because of the finite span of our own lives.  We want to cram in as much as possible since, by cosmic standards, we really aren’t here for very long.  This makes us very conscious of time and, in fact, our lives seem to revolve around this theme.  We mark the passage of time with each sunrise and sunset.  Also with the seasons.  We watch things grow and know that time is passing with each change we witness.  Acknowledging the passage of time is a critical element in our understanding of changes in our world and our own bodies.

The recent movie “Arrival” is all about the weirdness of time.  In the film beings from another world land on earth.  A linguist is recruited to translate the sounds they make.  In many ways this film highlights the vagaries of chronology, but one thing that I found particularly interesting occurred during this linguist’s initial attempt to communicate with the strangers.  She wrote something on a tablet and was immediately rewarded with visual symbols presented by these creatures.  The symbols were basically circular inspiring the linguist to note that this “language” was not dependent on time as ours is.  Each symbol appeared to have no particular beginning, middle or end.  Later in the film there was evidence that there were some ways in which time mattered to these beings, but perhaps that was because as humans making this film, it is difficult for us to divorce ourselves from time and its implications.  After all the movie itself had to have a beginning, middle and end even if they were kind of intertwined.  Still it was interesting to think about the ways in which our methods of communication are time-dependent.

So here we are, marching along with the unavoidable passage of time which is really just a way of describing change and yet somehow, in so many ways, we remain completely resistant to change itself.  From the time we are born, or even conceived, our lives are marked by change. When we’re young we change really quickly.  Yet many of us can’t wait to get older.  We rail against the slowness of time and the changes it brings.  As the years (another human concept!) progress, many changes govern our lives and there never seems to be enough time.  Then as we get older, physical changes again loom large.  Now they seem to be happening too fast.  Time seems to pass more quickly.  In our middle years we are often more likely to note the changes in others around us while somehow clinging to our own status quo.  So it can be quite a jolt to suddenly realize that our own bodies are changing right along with those of our children, grandchildren and parents.

Inevitably we reach a point where we have to acknowledge that we, too, have changed.  A friend and I were discussing today how difficult that can be to accept.  Sometimes changes in our physical capabilities can also mean the loss of a familiar community.  Years ago I used to belong to a running club.  Club members would all run together regularly.  Of course, there were many different speeds among the group, but there was always someone I could run with.  As time passed it became more and more difficult for me to run with others.  I wanted to keep running, so I did. But I needed to run at my own pace.  It was hard for me to keep up with anyone else, but I also did not expect anyone to slow their stride to stay with me.  So my attachment to this group began to unravel like fabric when a single thread starts to go it’s own way. Eventually, that became OK as I got more comfortable being with myself and enjoying my own movement.  But for a while it represented a loss.  In fact, multiple losses – physical capacity and also community.

As I continue to age, more examples of these losses present themselves.  Fortunately, I have since learned that loss of ability doesn’t always have to mean loss of community.  Sometimes there are other ways to participate with a group even if you can’t do everything they do. Especially in movement classes.  One of the themes I’ve repeated throughout this blog is that there is no requirement in any movement class that everybody has to do everything exactly as anyone else does, including the instructor.  Most of us worry that we will look funny or somehow be singled out if we don’t follow along precisely as prescribed.  In general, this could not be farther from the truth.  For one thing, most participants in a class are too focused on themselves to worry about or even notice what anyone else is doing.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, classes should be a judgment-free zone.  If the one you’re attending isn’t, then find another one.  There are so many out there.  Don’t let one bad experience keep you from finding a place where you can be yourself.  Just show up and move to whatever internal drummer motivates.  Ultimately you’ll find a place where you can feel comfortable.  Online classes are great in a pinch, but community is still an important benefit of classes.

However, sometimes we have to move on.  Accept the reality of the moment and find new paths to travel and new communities to join. When I could no longer run, I found other activities like hiking and walking that I could do alone or with a group – my choice.  When certain yoga poses become too difficult, there’s no rule that says I need to keep doing them.  There are so many others available to me.   Many aspects of my life will and have changed, but what I’ve achieved in the past will always be part of me.  No amount of change or passage of time can erase those accomplishments.  And the person I am today is the sum of all of the many experiences I’ve had during the time that has passed since the day I was born. Learning to be satisfied with who I am today is just another part of my practice.  Each day requires a new reminder of that since every day brings new changes.  Change can signal fear or excitement for experiencing something new.  It’s all a matter of how you perceive it.  And that is a choice each of us can make for ourselves.

Coming Back

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

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.

Finding Your Place In Space

Finding Your Place In Space – Image: Stephanie Meshke

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

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.