Choosing Assistance

 

Image: Damian Gadal

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga
March 12, 2017

There are times in all of our lives when we need a little help from our friends.  Yet some of us have a hard time acknowledging that.

Last week I was talking with a friend who was commenting on the struggle she was encountering with some home repair projects she was trying to complete on her own.  Any of you who have attempted something similar, especially after the loss of someone you relied on to do these things, will recognize the dilemmas these tasks present.  It can seem like an overwhelming chore looming over you like a black cloud. You find yourself succumbing to the procrastination mantra:  I’ll do this when ________.  Fill in the blank with any mythic event in the nebulous future that will somehow enable you to handle this on your own.  As we talked, we both wondered why it was so hard to accept that sometimes you just can’t do everything all by yourself.  And, in fact, there are times when it is better not to even try.

Our culture has ingrained in us this mythical idea that self-sufficiency is the ultimate noble goal.  We need to be strong and face all of our challenges by ourselves.  This concept seems to be in our national DNA.  In fact, our society carries it to such an extreme that we get upset with people who we perceive as “not carrying their own weight”.  You can see this in the current debates raging around us, particularly when it comes to social services.  Policies are built with rules that will prevent the “undeserving” from obtaining services.  This means that arbitrary moral judgments need to be made about who is or is not deserving.  Sometimes following those rules is so daunting that even the “deserving” can’t get access to services.  Thus everybody complains and nobody benefits.  Somewhere along the line we have lost the sense of community and common good.  Or worse, our sense of community has become so distorted that only certain people are allowed to join.  If they don’t meet the requirements they become outsiders, not worthy of our generosity or even compassion.

This scenario may seem extreme, but I think you all know what I mean.  Still I can hardly profess to having the answers to all of the world’s problems.  One thing I do know, though, is that we can all do a better job of accepting our own limitations.  Sure we’ve all heard stories of people overcoming impossible obstacles to achieve some amazing goal.  Those stories can be inspirational.  But too often we forget that these are the exceptions, not the rule.  When we find ourselves unable to accomplish similar feats we can easily become discouraged, focusing on perceived inadequacies rather than recognizing that we, too, each have our own amazing skills.  Instead we withdraw into our safe little cocoons afraid to let anyone know that we might not measure up to the impossible standards we set for ourselves.  And – yes – we impose these standards on ourselves.  You can try to blame outside circumstances, but ultimately we make our own rules for acceptable behavior.

Let’s all engage in a little thought experiment.  Look back in your own life and try to find at least one achievement or experience you have had in which you accomplished something that you didn’t think you could do.  My guess is you’ll find something.  Probably more than one thing. We have all faced struggles and challenges.  Chances are, too, that each of these has been a learning experience. This is something that the “vulnerability expert” Brene Brown talks about in her speeches and writings.  Her message is that even though we think that putting on a brave face is what is expected of us regardless of how we feel, it actually takes more courage to acknowledge that not being perfect isn’t a measure of self-worth.  In an interview with Krista Tippett on the program “On Being” Ms. Brown said, “the most beautiful things I look back on in my life are coming out from underneath things I didn’t know I could get out from underneath. . . the moments that made me were moments of struggle.”

So needing help on occasion doesn’t mean inadequacy or even failure.  What it means is that each of us has certain gifts, but no one is always good at everything.  We can fall into the trap of thinking that other people have it all figured out, but somehow we missed the boat.  We are obsessed with perfection.  Interestingly, though, perfection itself is in the eye of the beholder.  There is no hard and fast definition of perfection that works for everyone.  I like the Urban Dictionary’s definition: “an impossibility, something unattainable, something that cannot be reached..ever.”  Even the Cambridge English Dictionary defines perfection as “the state of being complete and correct in every way”.  Does anyone know of any person or thing that meets that consistently meets that definition?  Of course not!  And yet somehow we expect it of ourselves.

Here’s another thought experiment:  think of all the times when you have helped someone else.  Usually, you feel good about helping and give your assistance freely.  You feel glad that you were asked for your help.  Why not spread those good feelings around?  When you ask for help you are giving someone else the opportunity to experience those good feelings.  So instead of feeling needy, you can actually feel altruistic.

All of this can, of course, relate to my favorite topic – exercise.  Sadly, I still hear people say that they don’t want to come to a class because they are sure everyone is going to point and stare and laugh because of their inability to be perfect.  There are, of course, many flaws in this viewpoint not the least of which is that everyone starts somewhere and even people with innate abilities were not born experts.  All attempts, no matter how rudimentary, are opportunities for learning.  So give the people around you credit for their willingness to support and help you along your journey, wherever you are on that path.  Accept their help at whatever level it is offered. You might be surprised to learn that none of them is perfect either.

Focus on De-Stressing

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga
March 6, 2017

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.

Curbing Judgment – By Peg Ryan – Mile High Pilates and Yoga

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Curbing Judgment
By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga
February 13, 2017

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.

Delete “Should” By Peg Ryan “Mile High Pilates and Yoga”

 

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Delete “Should”

Mile High Pilates and Yoga
By Peg Ryan

Custer, SD – A friend recently expressed her frustration with the requirements we establish for ourselves.  “The word “should” needs to be eliminated from our vocabulary,” she exclaimed.  Amen to that.  I would also add the word “expectation” to any list of tyrannical and misleading words.  You can all probably think of others.  And – yes – I think the word “tyrannical” applies since we hold these words over our heads like mallets ready to bludgeon us whenever we perceive a shortcoming in ourselves or others.   Sharon Salzberg has some enlightening thoughts on this subject on the On Being website which she has expressed in an article called “The Tyranny of Aspiration”.  In it she talks about a friend inviting her to Washington, DC to see the cherry blossoms.  As she observed the beauty of her surroundings, her friend remarked that the trees were past peak.  Suddenly her enjoyment changed to let-down as expectations clashed with reality.  One more reminder that making plans can be useful as long as the outcome is left out of the plan.  Let outcomes be whatever they become.  There’s probably nothing you can or could have done to change the outcome anyway so accept what it is and let go of labels and categories.  It is what it is and that’s the best it can be right now.

At this time of year when celebrations abound, the specter of “should” can feel particularly threatening.  Did I do everything I was supposed to do? What could I have done better?  As I sit here watching the snow fall outside my window, I wonder about all of those people who had travel in their plans.  Some may be patting themselves on the back for leaving early, but others may be disappointed that their plans were disrupted.  Still others may have decided that all the warnings didn’t apply to them and their determination to do what they said they would do will somehow bestow some kind of badge of honor upon them.  I hope none of you reading this are in this latter category.  But many of us have been there at one time or another.  During my commuting years I remember all of the times when getting to work or some other commitment seemed so important that I was determined to get there regardless of horrendous weather.  There were times when a 20 mile drive could take as long as 3 hours.  But all the “shoulds” and expectations would not allow me to acknowledge that my presence at whatever place I was headed to was not really that important.

Fortunately, I’m older and at least (hopefully) a little wiser now.  Or at least more experienced.  But I can still fall into the “should” trap just like everyone else.  Another friend recently talked about the need to stop comparing abilities today with those of yesterday.  She said “I need to stop reminding myself of all the things I used to be able to do”.  That was then, this is now. The things we’ve accomplished in our past may have been fabulous.  But the fact that our abilities have changed is not a cause for disappointment or sadness, but rather a time to recognize and enjoy what we can do today.  Like everything else in the world, our bodies have changed.  This is a fact no matter how old you are.  And here’s another reality to consider: every day we age a little bit more and everything continues to change.  I saw a quote recently, “Without change there would be no butterflies.”  Not sure who said it, but it’s a good thought.  Accepting and adapting to where you are today is one more opportunity for practice.  There’s that word again – practice.  Everyday presents another practice challenge.  Practice itself is not about achievement.  It’s about trying again each time we fall back into the expectation trap, recognizing that it’s not the end of the world.  Just another experience to add to the many that make us who we are.

Another concept that inspired me this week was described by Elizabeth Gilbert in an interview on “On Being”.  She spoke of choosing curiosity over fear, primarily in the context of expressing creativity.  But I would take it a step further.  Many of us let fear prevail because of cultural conditioning.  We are the sum of our experiences, good and bad, positive and negative, and everything in between.  This brings me to the other word I would like to banish:  “expectations”.  We expect things of ourselves and others because of repeated messages we receive and internalize.  Instead of allowing ourselves to be curious about unknown people or ideas, we often let fear prevail keeping us from learning something new and perhaps unexpected.  At this time of year when we are especially focused on giving and receiving, it might help to think of the knowledge we receive by overcoming fear as a gift.  In an article called “Acceptance as Giving” the author Madisyn Taylor speaks of “allowing ourselves the gift of seeing through another person’s eyes”.  She goes on to say that although giving and receiving are part of the same cycle, we often try to be too controlling on one side or the other.  By letting go of expectations we open ourselves up to experiences that may be unlike anything we could have imagined.

This all may seem very esoteric and beyond our real life experience, but let me bring these concepts back to the main topic of this blog – exercise.  When you come into a class or begin whatever movement modality you practice, start with the conscious intention of letting go of “shoulds” and all other expectations.  Although practice does require a daily choice and commitment to follow through, it does not require you to look or feel any particular way.  Each day and each effort is different.  If on any given day you can’t seem to perform with the same energy that you had yesterday, so be it.  Tomorrow will be different.  Just do what you can.  Maybe you’ll stop a bit sooner than you might have on a different day.  Or maybe the idea that less is more will be your new reality and you need to learn to accept it.  Either way do the best you can with what you have to work with today and it will always be exactly what it is supposed to be.  By giving yourself the same compassion that you would give to someone else you might even receive a bit more patience and tolerance for yourself.

Independence Days

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Photo: Thomas Hawk

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

Custer, SD – Recently I gave a birthday card to a friend which featured an elderly woman wearing stereotypical motorcycle gear including black leather jacket and hat complete with metal studs.  The message on the cover was something like “We’re young enough to be rebels” followed by the punch line inside: “but old enough not to give a crap!”  We had a good chuckle over this sentiment, but it got me to thinking.  How many of us really get to a point where we stop caring what other people think? Of course, there are some of us who have never cared.  Personally I admire those free spirits.  But most of us have public perception so deeply ingrained in our psyches that it is difficult to avoid dancing through our lives to someone else’s tune.  Even if we manage to avoid the trap of wondering “how will this look to others?”, we often create arbitrary standards for ourselves by which we gauge our actions or appearance.  We berate ourselves when we fall short and feel pleased when we meet the measurement only to be disappointed when we find it difficult to sustain.  We’re all guilty of this at one time or another, myself very much included.

Another friend recently described an incident in which she found herself running through a crowd trying to catch up with a group she was with that had moved on without her.  “I was so embarrassed!” she said as she recounted the story. “What if I had tripped and stumbled or fallen?”  Thankfully, she didn’t.  And she did manage to reunite with her group.  But I could not help but wonder why this should be embarrassing.  The fact that she could run at all was, to me, something to celebrate rather than something to hide.  And even if she had slipped, someone in the crowd would certainly have helped her.  In my opinion, the fear of “looking silly” limited her freedom.  Instead of enjoying that run, she probably just wanted to get it over with hoping that no one would notice.  Our society places a high value on the concept of freedom and yet as individuals we consistently limit our own.

Sometimes the fear of being judged by others can, unfortunately, be justified.  It never ceases to amaze me how easily people are willing to condemn perfect strangers based on nothing more than third party hearsay.  Judgments can be pronounced without any personal knowledge of the individual being judged or the circumstances that person finds themselves in.  Our modern society seems to be particularly segmented these days with people forming like-minded groups and listening only to those that agree with them.  Regrettably, this is not a new phenomenon.  It has been going on for as long as humans have engaged in social structures.  In fact, it may well be the reason we all have built-in judgment meters. Centuries of rules and standards of behavior have been established to mark the differences among tribes. These standards have given people observable methods for determining who is like me (safe) and who is different from me (dangerous). It has been programmed into our DNA to abide by the rules others have laid out.

But I digress. This article is not about the rules societies need to survive and thrive. Instead I’m referring here to those quirky internal rules we think we need to follow that are more related to perception than they are to survival. In fact, rather than contributing to our well-being, these rules can instead be a source of resentment and self-destruction. Still there is an upside.  Since we created these rules, we have the power to change them.

Here is something to keep in mind when you’re worrying about how others will view you:  most people are so focussed on themselves that they won’t even notice what you’re doing.  Which brings me back to my favorite topic:  exercise. These ideas, though, can apply to anything done in groups or in public.  In general, whatever it is that concerns you, the person next to you is probably worrying about the same thing. Or maybe something completely different, but whatever they are thinking it is probably not about you. The stress you create for yourself by stewing about what you look like is keeping you from paying attention to the movement itself, how it feels and the positive benefits it is providing for you.  It also keeps you from experiencing the freedom of customizing the rules and moving in a way that is uniquely your own.

In the days when I was running I knew that my biomechanics and body type would probably never allow me to become a really fast runner.  Once when I asked a shoe salesman if he could recommend a style suitable for my foot type and running style he said, “There really isn’t anything.  Most people with those characteristics find it too painful to run.” As discouraging as that sounded, it did not keep me from running.  I ran for the love of running, not because I ever expected to be any good at it.  I learned to do the best I could with what I had to work with regardless of how it looked.  When injury and other circumstances meant that I could no longer sustain running, I changed my goals and found other ways to continue moving that have been just as satisfying.  Goals are an important motivating force, but all goals need to be flexible.  Everything is always changing.  Goals and the rules we establish to get to them should always be adaptable to changing circumstances.

One more thing to remember – we are all individuals with our own gifts, characteristics and idiosyncrasies but ultimately we are also interconnected.  Despite our fear of “the other”, we all have more in common than we might recognize. Everyone wants to survive; everyone wants to be loved.  We all need the basic elements of survival – food, shelter, etc. – and we all want to provide for ourselves, our families and loved ones.  Similarly everyone has experienced their own trials, mistakes, regrets or other foibles.  No one is exempt, no matter how perfect they appear or how good their lives look to us from the outside.  So do your own thing and stop worrying. If you stumble, have some compassion for yourself. Pick yourself up and keep moving. The person next to you has had their own stumbles and knows what it feels like.

Am I Making Progress ?

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Am I Making Progress ?

Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

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.

Is Yoga Exercise ?

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Is Yoga Exercise ?

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

Custer, SD – A friend arrived early to one of my yoga classes this week and told me that she had just come from a Weight Watchers class where the group discussed nutrition and exercise.  This caused my friend to reflect on her yoga practice.  She had been taking yoga fairly regularly for a about 6 months now.  A bit skeptical at first, she had come to realize how differently she felt now from when she began.  Yet she marvelled: “If people were to look into the room”, she said,” they wouldn’t think we were doing anything beneficial”.  Think about it.  Sometimes we just sit on our heels or with our legs crossed, often with our eyes closed, simply breathing.  Or we might be on our hands and knees rolling the spine in a movement called cat and cow.  Sometimes we lie on our tummies and just lift our legs or arms in what might look like an easy move. Then there is Mountain Pose which can look like just standing in place. Finally, of course, there is Savasana, the yoga pose that is practiced at the end (and sometimes elsewhere) in every yoga class. This can easily look like nap time.

So why are these seemingly simple movements so powerful and, in fact, sometimes quite challenging? It is important to remember that one of the main reasons we practice yoga, and I would add Pilates in here, too, is to connect the mind with the body.  Surprisingly, many of us have lost touch with our bodies.  Perhaps we have experienced some kind of physical trauma, or suffered from an injury or illness that has left us with a difficult recovery and maybe even permanent changes to our bodies.  Sometimes we have struggled with our weight, trying all types of programs and practices to achieve some kind of ideal that media projects to us.  In all of these cases and more, the body becomes the enemy.  It just won’t respond the way you want it to.  Why would you ever want to get in touch with a body like yours?

Yoga and Pilates can help you change that thinking.  For one thing, all of these reasons why your body no longer works the way you want it to are just stories you tell yourself.  Sometime others have contributed to those stories in ways that are less than honorable, but the end result is still a story.  You or someone else made the story up, but you’ve allowed yourself to believe it all these years.  Believing it doesn’t mean it’s true.  Since you’ve bought into the story, you can also change it.  Yes, physical trauma and other changes in your body, including aging, are real.  But if the story you are telling yourself is that the changes are bad and interfering with your ability to do the things you want to do, that’s the story you can change.  “Good” and “bad” are simply value judgments.  They have no meaning unless you give them meaning.  In some cases you may not be able to do the exact moves that you used to do in the same way you used to do them, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a different way you can at least do some of them.

This is why bringing your mind back to your body is so important.  Your body is not the enemy.  It is a miraculous apparatus that breathes and has a myriad of systems working in concert to keep you alive.  Your body wants you to live.  And it wants to move.  Sometimes not everything will move well, but the body is also an amazing healing machine.  Healing can take much longer than we want it to.  In fact, it can take so long that we think it won’t ever happen. And there may be barriers that won’t allow the body to heal the way we want it to.  Our lives may not be long enough to accommodate all the healing we think we need.

But every living thing clings to life.  And every day is a new day in which change can happen.  We all know examples of incredible instances of survival.  If your body had given up on you, you wouldn’t be here.  So don’t give up on your body.  Get to know it.  Feel its limitations without discouragement and find its abilities for celebration.  You might be surprised to find that you are capable of much more than you think you are.  There are no promises in life, so no particular outcome is guaranteed.  If you let go of expectations for outcomes and just concentrate on what you can do right now, you might find that no matter how little that seems, you will begin to feel better. Just standing in Mountain Pose or sitting upright in a chair, feeling your feet connecting to the earth, adjusting your alignment and breathing can improve your posture. That’s huge!  I constantly marvel at the people who come to my classes and say things like “I can’t get down on the floor because I can’t get back up again.”  Time after time I’ve seen the look of amazement on their faces when they find themselves standing.  They had been concentrating so much on following the moves and helping their bodies in and out of changing positions they didn’t even realize they had moved from the floor to standing.  What’s an hour of peace from your constantly chattering mind worth?  In my book it’s priceless!

So when your sitting in “Easy Pose” or lying on your back, recognize that this is a time to check in with your body.  Where do you have sensations?  Can you allow your breathing to help you relax any tension you’re feeling?  Is your neck tense or your jaw or your shoulders? If you’re experiencing pain, does releasing tension help you to feel less pain?  Maybe not this time, but practice is what it’s all about.  Each pose may not look like much but there is a purpose.  Certain muscles are being strengthened.  Others are being permitted to relax.  Most of us have pain due to a lifetime of creating imbalances.  Our lifestyles – sitting, driving, bending and lifting improperly, moving without paying attention, being in a hurry, and on and on – all contributed to those imbalances.  Yoga and Pilates light the way to getting back in touch with how your body is actually built to move. This is different for each of us.  Human beings come in all shapes and sizes.  All are right.  None are wrong.  They are just different.  Get in touch with your own body and it will accept that attention and return it with a little greater ease of movement and maybe, even, peace of mind.

Maintaining Motivation

 

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Maintaining Motivation – Photo:Pixabay

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga
October 10. 2016

Custer, SD – A recent article in the Yoga Basics newsletter cited “Five Things to do Every Day for You”.  First on the list – as it should be in my opinion – is “Move Your Body”.  The prescription is no more specific than that.  It doesn’t need to be.  Any kind of movement, any length of time, or any intensity will fill the bill.  You can walk outside or around your house, take a class or just get up from your desk, chair or bed and stretch for 5 minutes or so.  At first a myriad of excuses may arise:  I’m too tired; it’s too cold outside; I’m in a hurry; I’ll get sweaty and mess up my hair; I need to do x, y or z first (which, of course, is more important); and so on.  You know the drill.  Everything takes precedence over the things you need to do for yourself.

When this happens it can be useful to take an honest look at why it is so difficult to maintain the motivation necessary to prioritize your own needs.  You know that if you ignore your excuses and move anyway, you always feel better.  In fact, whatever movement you choose usually feels so good that the 5 minutes or so you were going to allow yourself quickly turns into 10 or even 30 minutes.  The class you were going to walk out on if it felt too hard suddenly isn’t that bad.  In fact, you may even find yourself making moves you thought were beyond your skill level.  Why is that so difficult to remember?

There are many obstacles that can arise when we set goals and try to accomplish something.  Some of them are genuine circumstances beyond our control that arise without prior notice.  But some obstacles are ones we create.  In fact, there are times when it is hard to tell which is which.  After all, there really aren’t that many things we can control yet somehow we still manage to live our lives.  Still it’s easy to blame our own lack of inner resolve on some external circumstance.  Mostly, though, it’s really a matter of prioritizing. When in doubt it helps to stay motivated.  If you find yourself consistently confronting obstacles in the way of your plans to exercise, maybe lack of motivation is the real problem.

So what can we do to regain motivation?  First thing you can do is remind yourself why you want to move in the first place.  Maybe you want to overcome some chronic pain.  Or perhaps you’re trying to lose weight.  Is there a trip you are planning or an event that would be more fun if you were in better shape?  How about a walk for charity that you would like to complete?  Can you remember how good you used to feel when you moved regularly?  You can get there again.  You can’t turn back the clock, but you can feel better than you do right now.  A repeated mantra in this blog is that the more you move, the more you want to move, and the easier it becomes to keep moving.  It doesn’t happen overnight, although you might feel better right away once you get started.  But the key is practice and consistency.  Don’t give up.  Let others help you.  If you take a class, the other participants will support you.  Find a friend to walk with.  Or walk your dog.  Or walk someone else’s dog.  There are always dogs in need of walking.  Make it easy and fun!

When we’re young, time seems endless and unlimited.  But as we age we begin to recognize the importance of using our time wisely.  In this case “wisely” means using time in ways that will contribute to your overall well-being.  When you feel good, everyone around you benefits.  So you needn’t worry about the others in your life.  Just focus on yourself.  If you want to bring more movement into your life but can’t manage to make it happen, you will feel bad about yourself.  Whatever condition you’re trying to overcome won’t get any better.  This is not a contribution to your overall well-being.  Remind yourself that the time you take to move your body is a small amount that won’t be missed later in the day.  But that small investment will eventually yield a big reward.  That’s certainly a carrot you can dangle when you need motivation.  It’s never too late.  If you can move and breathe you can improve.

Accepting Your Limits

 

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Accepting Your Limits – Photo/Herb Ryan/Custer Free Press

By Peg Ryan
October 3, 2016

Mile High Pilates and Yoga

Custer, SD – Today I made the trek to the mountain carving celebrating the Native American hero, Crazy Horse.  It was a glorious day with full sunshine, bright blue sky and all the fall colors accenting the landscape.  This is a bi-annual Volksmarch held at the Crazy Horse Memorial.  It is an opportunity to hike through the extensive monument grounds and eventually reach the carving itself. The hike attracts a wide variety of participants – young and old, experienced and occasional hikers, families, solo walkers and all different shapes, sizes and fitness levels. Having completed this hike many times I have heard all kinds of stories.  One year I spoke with a gentleman who said he has done the hike annually for many years, but this is the only walk he does all year.  Despite steep and rocky up and downhill sections, I have seen folks pushing baby strollers (discouraged in all descriptions of the event) and hauling protesting toddlers.  Fortunately this hike is pretty forgiving. It is well supported with four aid stations featuring water and munchies, strategically placed port-a-potties and several road access points where a walker in trouble could easily change his/her mind and bail.  Many of the other places I have hiked are not quite so inexperience friendly.

It is a wonder to me how many people discount natural conditions in favor of their own inflated sense of ability.  In comparison to the unpredictability of nature, each of us is a tiny member of a large, diverse planet.  Yet we seem to have a view of ourselves that can eclipse our actual relationship to natural surroundings.  Some of the younger hikers who regularly engage in other physical activities can probably manage the challenges of terrain and even unexpected changes in the weather and still come out OK.  But the number of times I have seen people start a 6 mile hike up a mountain after 3:00 in the afternoon with no water or other supplies, improper footwear (e.g., flip flops) and small children in tow never ceases to amaze me.  Sometimes people hear the distance for the event (in this case about 6 miles total) and think something like “Six miles is not that long;  I can do that” forgetting that it may have been weeks, months or even years since they walked 6 miles before and ignoring the challenges of climbing a mountain under today’s circumstances whatever they may be.  Another complication in this instance is that the hike begins at an altitude over 5,000 feet and continues to about 6,500 feet above sea level.  People come from all over to hike this course.  Many are not accustomed to the altitude.  Even experienced and well-equipped hikers can get in trouble when altitude increases or the weather turns bad.

Similarly, when I was running ultramarathons I was amazed by the number of people I spoke to who said they jumped into the race without any preparation and then wondered why they were having such a hard time.  Once a man told me that his only training for a 50-mile foot race was some pool running.  Needless to say he was struggling to complete the race.  Hopefully he managed to avoid any permanent damage, although I’m sure he was hurting for at least the next few days if not longer.

All of this is not to say that one should never challenge oneself.  In fact, setting challenging goals can motivating.   Maybe you have a bucket list of activities you would like to accomplish such as climbing a Colorado 14’er or other mountain, or hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, or bungee jumping, or white-water rafting.  Completing an item on your list can be a source of great satisfaction and accomplishment.  But ideally it should be the culmination of a plan.

There is an interesting article called “Making Friends with Stress” by John Berardi, PhD that distinguishes between “good” and “bad” stress. Some forms of stress can help you build strength.  For example, when you increase the stress on your system by adding distance, speed or endurance as part of your training plan your muscles begin to adapt to the new load and enable you to manage more stress with greater ease.  A problem arises when the load is increased too quickly and insufficient recovery time is incorporated.  Many people are surprised to learn that strength gains are accomplished during the rest period – not the work period.  This is why it is always wise to allow time in between particularly intense workouts.  For example, it is usually recommended to lift weights every other day instead of every day so that your muscles have time to recover and adapt to any changes in the work load.  If you jump into a strenuous race, hike or competition without preparing your body, you’re letting your ego rule the roost instead of acknowledging all of the internal systems in your body that need to be working properly for optimum performance.  And preparation you did last year or ten years ago simply won’t serve you today.  Rest is a good thing.  No matter what form of stress you are subjecting yourself to, you need to allow time to rest.  Your body will not perform properly if you don’t.

So go ahead and challenge yourself, but acknowledge reality.  It is never too late to improve your conditioning, but you might have to modify your goals.  For example, instead of deciding to summit Mt. Everest at age 65 when you have done no climbing above 6,000 feet might be a bit too ambitious.  Setting your sights a bit lower (maybe Harney/Black Elk Peak might do for openers) doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It simply means you are in the moment, accepting who and what you are today rather than wishing you were in some other time, place or body. Then train for the event.  Condition your body so that it will accept the stress.  If you decide that you still want to tackle Mt. Everest, recognize that even if you have to stop you have still achieved success.  Acknowledging your limitations is a sign of maturity not weakness. You didn’t give up – you tried your best.  No matter what it is you want to do, that is what success is all about.  Ask for help when you need it and recognize when your body has had enough.  Severe injury might take you out of the game altogether.  Be kind to your body and it will give you another chance.

When you’re ready, though, go for it!  If you’ve done the training, let go of your fear and trust your training.  Last year my dear cousin who has been plagued for years with rheumatoid arthritis made it all the way to the top of the Crazy Horse carving.  It was a major accomplishment.  But she was ready for it and, although it was difficult at times, she could trust her body to do what she had prepared it to do.

One more thing:  restorative yoga is always appropriate when your body and mind need rest.  Gentle movements are great recovery tools. Nourish your body and mind.  And don’t forget to have fun!

Prioritizing Time

 

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By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

Custer, SD – It happened again this week.  There were several tasks I had committed myself to and as I strove to complete them the afternoon wore on. Before I realized how much time had elapsed the shadows were beginning to lengthen.  My plan had been to go for a walk that afternoon, but the day was quickly getting away from me.  The days are shortening now, but fortunately the mild temperatures are mostly holding and daylight still extends at least until 6:30 or 7:00.  So despite the late hour, there was still time to get at least half an hour or 45 minutes worth of walking before the light expired.  But I was in the grip of inertia.  In case you’ve forgotten your high school physics, the basic law says that a body at rest tends to stay at rest and a body in motion tends to stay in motion.  We’ve talked many times about how hard it is to get moving again after we’ve stopped.  This applies to the short-term also.

My tasks had kept me sitting in front of the computer and now all I could think of was all of the things I had not finished and still needed to do.  But I forced myself to get out of the chair and put on my walking shoes.  “I can finish all this later,” I thought and repeated it like a mantra until I began to believe it.  As usual, within 10 minutes of putting one foot in front of the other I was so glad that I had gotten outside that all of those undone tasks quickly faded into the background.  My whole body responded to the movement, the air, the sunlight, the colors and smells of the great outdoors.  When I finished my walk I was so glad I had taken the time.  And, amazingly, I was still able to get everything done that I wanted to complete that day.  Anything left undone was really not so important after all.

Sometimes we feel the lure of perceived demands and deny ourselves the nourishment we need for our own mental and physical health.  You may have heard it said, “when I’m on my death-bed the last thing I will regret is not spending more time cleaning my house” or at the office or doing any number of mundane things that we convince ourselves are necessary.  Certainly completing these jobs can give us a sense of satisfaction.  In the case of employment-related tasks sometimes our income may seem to depend on their timely completion.  But how often does an extra 10, 20 or even 30 minutes really make a difference? Even when you imagine that other people are depending on you, surprisingly in most cases all those other people will find a way to manage on their own during your absence. If you get up from your desk and walk around the room, or go up and down the nearest staircase, or outside in the parking lot, or simply spend 15 minutes stretching, will you even remember next week, or next month or next year that you took that time off?  In the long run it really won’t matter.  Most of us expect a level of perfection from ourselves that is usually not required.   Unless you’re a surgeon.  But even then, you still need to take time off and recharge your own internal batteries or your skills will decline and that precision will fade away.  I certainly wouldn’t want that overworked surgeon operating on me!

Think about how you treat yourself if you miss a deadline or fall short of your own exacting standards.  Now think about how you would treat a friend if they did the same thing.  Chances are you would make allowances for the friend.  You might say, “Don’t worry about it.  You did the best you could.”  Would you give yourself the same leeway?  In general, we are much harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else in our lives.  Try letting yourself off the hook.  After all, you will most likely have another opportunity to do that same task at another time and maybe you’ll do it differently next time.

In the long run the time you take to boost your physical and mental will serve you well.  In all aspects of your life.  Not taking that time may be far more dangerous than any consequences that might arise when you take that time.  And here’s a surprising fact:  even if you don’t complete all the tasks you set for yourself, the world will still turn, daylight will still arrive on time and the people who care about you will still care about you.  I suppose there are always cases for argument.  But instead of wasting your precious time making those arguments, how about going for that walk instead.  Or build time for a class into your schedule.  Most of you know I teach classes so I consider myself committed to that time.  But just like everyone else I need my own renewal time in order to be the best I can for those who come to my classes.  I consider my “alone time” to be sacred space.  I try not to let anything encroach on that space.  Surprisingly it is really not that hard to schedule around the time you take for yourself.  It just takes a commitment.

Moving your body is a great way to nurture yourself and renew your energy.  No matter what it is you need to do, you will be able to do it better if you take care of yourself first.  Then, instead of berating yourself for your shortcomings, you can pat yourself on the back for making a positive difference in your own life.  What could be more important than that!