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Art In Action

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Art in Action is a weekly post: a short, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

After a lifetime of wrassling with my outer belly, generating all manner of suffering around what I thought it should look like and how it definitely did not measure up, I felt a wave of relief when my yoga teacher, Lizzie said, “The outer belly is going to do what it’s going to do. The inner belly is where it’s at. That’s where the fire is.”

Lizzie’s words help me release my attachment to the outer and get busy with what’s going on inside. Today’s Art in Action digs into the inner belly, inner body, and inner purpose.

Inner Belly

Over and over again in my physical practices, I am reminded about the radiating effects of cultivating a strong core. I mentioned some of what I’ve noticed lately in this week’s post but simply put a strong core will help you do everything better. Our culture tends to put a heavier emphasis on the outer core, and truly the two are deeply intertwined.

Of course, what with the World Wide Interwebs and fitness experts all over the place, you can find all kinds of core exercises:

• I offered some in an Art in Action post earlier this year a couple of my favorites for deep core are Plank Pose and Air Chair (it looks simple, but if you keep your hips and knees at 90 degrees, you will feel your core turn on — SHAZAM!).

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• Yogis use a root lock (Mula Bandha) to strengthen the pelvic floor and an upward abdominal lock (Uddiyana Bandha). I wrote about them some last year.

• Aikido and other martial arts practitioners put their awareness on the center point of the body, sometimes called the Hara or Tan Tien, to ground and balance. Try this exercise with a friend: stand with your feet shoulder width apart with soft knees, focus your attention on the tip of your nose and have your friend gently but steadily push your shoulders with their index and middle fingers. It probably won’t take much to push you off balance. Then do the exact same thing but focus your attention on your inner belly, two inches below your belly button and two inches inside your body. Your friend probably cannot budge you when you drop your attention to your center.

Give your deep, inner core attention, it has powerful benefits for your physical movement and more than that…

Inner Body

Similarly, it’s easy to get caught up in what the external body looks and feels like even though the inner body is where the real power is. Our culture tends to put a heavier emphasis on the outer body, and truly the two are deeply intertwined. Connecting to the inner body can quiet the mind, offer perspective, a reminder of what is really essential.

Right now, feel your outer hands: notice if they are warm or cold, what textures they are feeling and if there is weight or pressure on them in any way. Now sense below the surface to your inner hands: there you may feel a sense of flow or tingling or pulsing that is different from your heart beat. This is the sensation of life force, energy, what yogis call prana, what martial artists call chi, moving through you. Now experiment with feeling your inner body in other parts of you.

By dropping your attention into your inner body, you can get out of the flow of thought and reside more fully in the present moment. You can do this any time but it’s particularly helpful when you want to be fully present or when you feel upset, worried, or rattled in any way. And it’s best to practice when you are relaxed so you have access to it when you need it.

Inner Purpose

Again, similarly, we can get caught up in the externality of our lives – what we do and have and how it looks from the outside when our attention is really needed inside. Our culture tends to put a heavier emphasis on the outer purpose, but truly the two are deeply intertwined. For this part, I’ll let Eckhart Tolle explain:

So the most important thing to realize is this: Your life has an inner purpose and an outer purpose. … Your inner purpose is to awaken. It is as simple as that. You share that purpose with every other person on the planet – because it is the purpose of humanity. Your inner purpose is an essential part of the purpose of the whole, the universe and its emerging intelligence. Your outer purpose can change over time. It varies greatly from person to person. Finding and living in alignment with the inner purpose is the foundation for fulfilling your outer purpose. It is the basis for true success. Without that alignment, you can still achieve certain things through effort, struggle, determination, and sheer hard work or cunning. But there is no joy in such endeavor, and it invariably ends in some form of suffering. (from the wonderful book, A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, p. 258)

Go to the inner – belly, body, and purpose – as Lizzie says, it’s where the fire is.

 

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Art in Action is a weekly post: a short, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

Since I can remember, I’ve seen struggle and suffering as one single thing: seared together like the iron-on patches my mom put on my ToughSkins jeans, melted into one block like a Velveeta grilled cheese on white bread.

The first time I heard the Buddhist saying, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional,” it was as if it was spoken to me in Swahili. What does that even MEAN? Of COURSE, pain is suffering. Crazy Buddhists. Sheesh.

Mindful practice pries open some space between struggle and suffering and gives me a chance to make a choice. Doing something that is uncomfortable but with low stake – like spending time in a yoga posture or dancing all-out to Life During Wartime or sitting in stillness on the cushion — gives me ample opportunity to feel the struggle and then choose.

1. Feel the difference between struggle and suffering.

There is aliveness in struggle. Struggle is a place of learning, growth, of moving into potential. Struggle is where we build things and create things and make things happen. Especially when you are stepping into something difficult – Upward Facing Bow, perhaps, or building a Web site or having a conversation with your teenager — set an intention to notice the difference between struggle and suffering.

In the midst of what you’re doing, feel it fully and notice if there is a secondary layer of pain or discomfort in the form of thoughts telling you that it should be different than it is. Things like “You should be able to do this by now,” or “What is wrong with you (or the Web program) that this is going so crappily?” or simply “This shouldn’t be this difficult” are sure signs you are suffering. Notice the physical sensation of those voices in your head.

2. Feel the difference between making it easier and making it more easeful.

The Buddha called it The Second Arrow (there is a great, short explanation here and a more detailed one here). The pain of life will happen to everyone, that’s the first arrow. The mental entanglements (This isn’t fair! I hate this! Someone did this to me!) around the pain is the second arrow.

Making a situation easier might mean running from or postponing the difficult pose or task or conversation. Making it more easeful can mean staying in the midst of it but letting go of the mental entanglements.

While biking up a hill this morning and a big loud truck came up fast and close by me. It scared me a little (the first arrow) and my mind first went to the second arrow of anger, blame, irritation. When I noticed that, I took a breath, felt my legs working, and kept pedaling. That choice made the situation more easeful  – and pulled out the Second Arrow.

3. Listen to the story

We all have a different Second Arrow Chorus of voices in our heads so it can be useful to get curious about what they are saying. Your mind may paint you as the victim (“People always take advantage of me” or “Nothing good ever happens to me.”), or the unloved one (“I’m excluded or left out again” or “There is something wrong with me.”), or the martyr (“I have to do everything” or “No one helps me.”). Whatever your Chorus sings into your ear, know that your particular ear worm got lodged there a long time ago in a misguided attempt to protect you. Recognizing the (often untrue) stories as suffering can help release their hold and allow us just enough space to choose something different.

4. Know that you will choose suffering (consciously or not).

You are human. No matter how much you practice, it’s likely that you will suffer sometimes. (Even the Dalai Lama must have moments of cranky, right?) The key isn’t releasing suffering permanently and perfectly, but to recognize it when it’s happening (in yourself and others), offer some gentleness and kindness, and see if it’s possible to peel that grilled cheese open and separate the struggle from the suffering.

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When Frank and I were traveling this month, we made a practice of moving in some way every day. I noticed that when faced with an unfamiliar hike or ride (which was practically every day!), I often defaulted to an old habit of thinking I wouldn’t be strong enough and wouldn’t be able to do it.

I suspect this line of thinking started in middle school gym class. We’d be riding or walking along and I’d notice myself thinking, “I can’t do this” or “I’m not strong enough” or “I’m going to fall and break my tuchus.” I could feel myself withdrawing and contracting away from whatever we were doing physically, mentally and emotionally.

Which was a drag since I’d get sad or grumpy and we were in beautiful places together, forcryingoutloud.

Instead, I’d play with saying other things to myself like “I’m fit, I’m healthy and I can do this” or “Just focus on this step right now” or “I can rest if I need to.” It felt a little unfamiliar and awkward to be running these lines in my head like a mantra but dang if I couldn’t do more than I thought I could.

Which brings me to 4 ways of triumphing over the tragedy of middle school gym class and becoming a sacred athlete:

1. Changing it up is good.

The body thrives on variety. We found that hiking one day and biking the next felt good in that different muscles got attention in different ways. My calves got tight when I hiked and then stretched when we rode. But even if you run or walk every day, change up your route or your focus (e.g. experiment with going a little further or not as far, faster or slower, pay attention to how your feet touch the ground or how you hold your hands, shoulders or mouth). If you do Nia or yoga regularly, just changing where your attention goes can change how it lands in your body, so practice giving yourself a focus (e.g., connecting breath and movement, go more slowly, make more sound, etc.)

2. Moving a little is better than not moving at all.

As Colleen Patrick-Goudreau says, “Don’t do nothing because you can’t do everything.” When we were in the car for long stretches, I circled my wrists, did deep belly breathing, circled my shoulders, and stretched my neck (that one might have been more difficult if I’d been driving). When we stopped, I’d do hip circles (what the heck, I’m not going to see the people in that rest stop again), do some squats and stretch my hamstrings. When we got to a campground late, even a short walk around the campground loop was better than nothing. Now that I’m spending more time at my desk, I’m doing the same thing.

3. Having fun and feeling good is an essential part of healthy movement.

When I’m riding my bike down a hill or I come to a vista at the top of a hike, I get a feeling of exhilaration and joy that is an essential part of being a sacred athlete*. Find a movement that you can do that you love, rather than one that you think is good for you or that you should do. There may be things that you used to do that no longer bring you joy and there may be things that you would never have considered doing at another time in your life that appeal to you now. Whatever bubbles some joy juice into your bloodstream, go do that.


4. My body has wisdom that my mind knows nothing about.

Especially if you’ve ignored your body (perhaps by not moving it or by overriding the sensation it has given you), it can take some time and practice to know the difference between listening to your body and letting your mind talk you out of (or into) something. But when I listen to the subtle nuances as well as the more intense sensation AND feel how I feel AFTER I do something, I can start to hone in on when I need to rest and when I need to GO!

Movement is your birthright no matter what your physical condition, experience or age. Become a Sacred Athlete by starting exactly where you are now and moving with awareness, intention and joy.

* Potentially annoying vacation story: One day we drove for what seemed like hours on a dusty bumpy road, then got to a ride but found it was dusty and bumpy and rocky and not well marked. After an hour of that I was grumpy and cranky and frustrated. Then we got a road with not too many cars and long swooping hills. The first hill I road down smooth and fast, I could actually feel the grumpy crankies clear out of my head.

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Art in Action is a weekly post: a simple, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

“The best way to prepare for the next pose is to fully be in this one.”
~ Kelly Stine, Yoga and Life Instructor

Live in the present moment. Be here now.

These are not new ideas.

Spiritual teachers have been inviting us into the present for eons. From before Buddha to Ram Das to Eckhart Tolle and to the body itself, the great teachers are calling us to Now.

The mind can get caught up in the slippery nature of now but not the body. The body thrives in now’s spacious, flowing and constant change. When the mind wants to wander to past and future, here are 5 ways to reconnect to now.

Now ~

1. Feel your body. The most direct way to be present is to feel the physical sensation that is happening in this moment. And you can do this in any place, time and situation. Just feel whatever sensations you are aware of: your feet on the floor, your butt in the chair, your heart beating, your breath flowing. If the moment is challenging and sensation feels indistinct, just wiggle your toes!

2. Use your senses. All of the senses bring you into the now, too. Stop and listen to whatever sounds are arising. Smell and taste, especially, when eating and drinking but at other times, too. What does the conference room smell like? Or your car? Or, of course, the flowers! Swallow and taste your own mouth. Look with curiosity especially at familiar objects and scenes.

3. Sense for details. The mind can get tricky with sensation. As soon as it feels something, it can attach a story (Oh, man, I must have overdone it in the garden and that’s why my back hurts) or a fear (I’ve hurt my ankle, and now I won’t be able to dance at the wedding!) or a plan (I should put ice on this and call the doctor and cancel my classes). Instead of all that, simply feel what is actually happening: does it feel tight or tingly? achy or hot? pulsing or numb? See how much detail you can sense.

Past ~

4. Memory Now. Of course, memory is essential and we all think about things that have happened in the past. When you find yourself thinking about something from the past, rather than spinning the story, feel what that memory feels like now. Does your stomach get tight? Does heart beat faster? Do your eyes well up? Ground memory in now.

Future ~

5. Future Now. Similarly, we all have to spend time planning and looking forward into the future. Instead of letting the mind get carried away with all the great things that will happen after you get that job or all the terrible things that happen if you don’t, feel what that dream/plan/fear feels like right now. Again, your mind may get tricky with calculations and research (which may well be important and necessary) but let Now weigh in, too. Before making a decision, feel what it feels like now.

My version of my yoga teacher’s quote is “the best way to prepare for the future or process the past is to be fully present now.”

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Art in Action is a weekly post: a simple, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

When I came across this quote from Rachel Carson, its truth took my breath away:

One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?

Nothing in the world is solid or unchanging so of course, so everything is always new. And part of that ever-flowing river of change is that endings are unclear. We rarely know when our last time will be so this one, right here, might be it.

The practice of putting Carson’s words into action is simple. The challenge is to remember. The challenge is to wake ourselves up and open our eyes. It can be done at any time, of course, particularly when you feel bored, tuned out, stuck, or disillusioned. But the best time to open your eyes is now.

Never Before

1. Curiosity of a Child ~

Imagine you are looking at the world like a 5-year-old or that you are showing the world to a child. How does that change the speed of and the intention behind your looking? Be willing to learn even about things you think you know well.

2. Inquiry of an Alien ~

Imagine you have landed on Earth in a human body from another planet. What would the world and everything in it look like from that perspective? I practiced this today when feeling water on my skin, listening to the crinkle of a plastic bag, and tasting the bitterness of coffee. What I kept thinking was, “Whoa.”

Never Again

3. Poignancy of Terminally Ill ~

Imagine you’ve been given a prognosis of only a day more to live. What would it feel like to be doing things, seeing people, feeling things for the last time? This can be emotional so be gentle with yourself if it feels intense. Start small with less personal things like feeling gratitude for a favorite tea cup or a comfortable chair: take in their beauty and gifts and what they’ve generously offered you. As you’re ready, you can expand to activities that are important to you, communities and individuals who you care about, and even your own body.

4. Tenderness of Old Age ~

Spend time with an elderly person or imagine yourself decades older than you are now. What wisdom or insight can that elder offer around gratitude and attachment? I recall the last words of Mary Oliver’s poem In Blackwater Woods :

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes
to let it go,
to let it go.

 

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Art in Action is a weekly post: a simple, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

If there is one thing I notice when I hike around water features, it’s this: water always wins. It may look like rock is solid and permanent but let water wash over it for a few million years and *BAM* you’ve got Grand Canyon (or Grand Canyon of the South: The Breaks on the border of Virginia and Kentucky!)

Fluid, water-like movement promotes mobility and strength, grace and power. Here are 4 ways to bring more fluidity into everything you do:

1. Movement ~~~~~~

As you move in your workout, on your yoga mat, or through your day, play with focusing on fluid, seamless, flowing movement. Whether you’re moving fast or slow or even with agility and precision, see if you can create an underlying intention of fluidity: one movement moving into the next. See how this affects your breath, your heartrate, your concentration and the sensation of even mundane movement.

2. Thought ~~~~~~

In her book, The Way of the Hammock, Marga Odahowski recommends taking time to let your mind wander and flow. This is different than meditation and certainly different than laser-focused concentration. The way of the hammock is to let thoughts flow in and wander around and then flow out again. I don’t have a hammock, but I have a swing that is conducive for thought-flowing. I also find soothing, repetitive movements like showering or shelling peas or folding laundry are great thought-flowing times.

3. Emotion ~~~~~~

Emotions are often equated with the element of water in that they are always flowing and changing. It can be easy to disconnect from emotion, though, and feel numb or neutral. Those are great times to pause and check in with the fluid flow of emotion that’s always happening. This can also be done at times of intense emotion: to check in and see what is truly arising (Am I angry or embarrassed? Am I happy or excited?). But I particularly like to check into the subtle feelings in those in between times when it might seem like I feel nothing.

4. Spirit ~~~~~~

Follow your intuition and you are catching the flow of spirit. Choose to be aware of gentle tugs to do (or not do) something and see where it leads you. My mind (and my plans) can be strong and pull me away from the tingling sense of another possibility. It can take practice to listen to the bubble of spirit, but so often that’s the source of the true gifts and gems.

Like this post? You might enjoy these related Art in Action posts on movement variety, habit breaking & water:

Play
Taking safe risks
Slowing down
The Elements

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Art in Action is a weekly post: a simple, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

What if our whole understanding of the world was off? What if we put a lot of attention on the separate parts, in particular powerful individuals and companies and countries but we were missing the bigger picture? What if we are throwing away the connective tissue?

As in the body, our lives are not just about the separate parts and people floating in isolation. Our lives are about connection. Just as we can make different choices in our bodies by bringing awareness to the web of connective tissue that supports us, we can also make different choices in our days by bringing awareness to the web of connections that holds us up.

There are countless ways of exploring connection in the world. Here are 6 to play with (and I’d love to hear others!):

  1. Self to Sensation

How do you know you need to go to the bathroom? You can feel it, right? How do you know it’s time to eat? You can feel it … but sometimes I eat because it’s time to eat or I don’t stop eating even though I’m no longer hungry. We are conditioned to ignore or override physical sensation. Today, experiment with pausing to see what you feel several times and listening for the details of sensation. Instead of dissociating, what would happen if you connected to the sensations you feel?

2. Self to Mind

The other day, my husband made an off-hand comment that sent me into a tailspin. I was tangled up in a story of thoughts about what he’d said and that thought-tangle was physically painful. Somewhere in the mess of it, I realized that it was my story that felt so terrible. When I got curious about the thought pattern I was trapped in, I connected differently to what he said. You are not your thoughts and your thoughts aren’t necessarily true. Connect to them with curiosity.

3. Self to Emotions

Emotions are called feelings for a reason. Everybody’s had a gut response, or been heart-broken, or felt the stomach clench of upsetting news. Emotions create sensations and noticing those sensations is a direct way of creating emotional connection with yourself. For example, I know that when my throat feels tight that I’m not saying something that I need to say. Connect to your emotional self by connecting to the feeling of feelings.

4. Self to Another

Connecting to others may seem like the most obvious of life’s connective tissue, but how much are you actually connecting? It’s easy to be distracted by the busy-ness and stress of life (not to mention all the binging and bonging screens and devices!) and not give your full attention to someone you’re with. I often find myself in a conversation and instead of listening deeply, I’m thinking about what I will say next, how what they are saying relates to me or how I can help. Experiment with softening your ears and only listening to another person. Relax the reaction to jump in with a story or idea or help. Perhaps paradoxically, saying less can be connecting more.

5. Self to Nature

Put your hands in the dirt or your feet in the sand. Listen to the gurgle of a stream or breathe in the fragrance of honeysuckle. Connecting with nature can be simultaneously relaxing and energizing. A friend’s favorite insomnia cure is walking barefoot in the grass. Another relieves anxiety by swimming underwater. Watching the sky is a great perspective-opener for me. Connecting with nature is really connecting with a part of ourselves. What would happen if you let yourself connect deeply with the natural world around you…even if that’s appreciating your salad at lunch?

6. Self to Spirit

Ever get an insight or idea that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time? Ever get a spacious, indefinable feeling that something larger than you is at work? Spirit doesn’t mean religious (although for some people, the two are closely related). Connecting to spirit is about connecting to that which is greater than yourself and that can happen anywhere, anytime, doing anything with anybody. What would happen if you intentionally connected with spirit?


Our electronic, social-networked, interwebs world may seem connected. But clicking “like” isn’t connection. Words and pictures and videos can touch us and resonate but there is a difference between reading about a hug and actually getting one. (Writer, Melissa Sarno, wrote beautifully about this recently.)

How do you strengthen the web of connection in your life? Jump in and share in the comments below or send me an email (sjmnia@gmail.com) or have an in-person conversation with someone about connection! After all, connection is what life is all about.

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