Ricky Gervais wrote a good post about this a while back. You can read it here.
Kelly is my yoga teacher. She’s all about waking up and breaking habit.
Andy Hunt is a programmer and author. You can find out more about him here.
Lately, I’ve been exploring new music* with the particular intention to expand the variety of what I listen to and use in my classes. I’ve been working on a playlist for weeks: combining a variety of styles and rhythms, tempos and lyrical themes. Satisfied, I sit back, look at what I created…and see that it was a playlist of entirely white artists.
In conversations, I can get excited. I want to share something so I interrupt people. It’s an annoying habit that does nothing to create connection or build relationships. Just ask my husband. So, I pay attention and breathe when I have an urge to jump in and say something. But when I ask Frank how he likes it now I’m not talking over him, he raises his eyebrows, “You mean you were doing something differently?”
Double dang it.
I notice this in Nia and yoga, too. I’ll be moving around the studio, feeling like I’m really breaking into some new moves only to realize that I’m doing the same exact thing I always do with my feet. I think my hips are nice and square in Twisted Triangle (Parivrtta Trikonasana). But when I put my hand on my low back, I can feel that it’s all cattywampus. I catch myself in the mirror, or someone catches me in a photo and there it is: I’m doing what I usually do the way I usually do it.
It’s normal to find a groove and stick to it. Habit is, as an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon said, the most powerful force in the universe. Habits develop to save energy and allow us to focus on threats and problems that haven’t been solved yet. But if I walk on the same parts of the carpet all the time, those parts get worn down to the nub while others go untouched. It is healthy to break out of habitual patterns and find new pathways in the body and brain.
Habit-breaking is not only healthful for the nervous system, but it give us options when circumstances shift and we are unable to do things in our habitual way. If you never, ever use your non-dominant hand to open doors or brush your hair or eat, what will happen when you injure your dominant arm? (Answer: You will stay in one room with messy hair and be hungry.)
Much of any body~mind practice focuses on us noticing our habits and making different choices. In Nia, many principles focus on creating movement variety and breaking out of our habitual patterns. We use the Principle 2, Part 2, The 9 Movement Forms (and a bevy of other Principles) to create new skills and possibilities in the body.
However, not one of those principles will effect a single pingle thing unless we witness how we do what we do. We have to actually know what we’re doing if we’re going to choose something different. Without that awareness, we are swimming in an unconscious sea of habit. Even after years of practice, I find myself continually going back to doing-it-the-way-I-do-it – and the only way I can make that statement is that I know how I do what I do. It’s only from there that I have a choice.
Whether you dance Nia or garden or chase after toddlers, spend some time and attention on noticing how you do it. Without judgment or criticism, be a witness to your own patterns:
Oh, I tend to step back onto the ball of my foot and lift my elbows when I free dance.
Ah, when I pick up my daughter, I always put her on my right hip.
Hmm, no matter what the time of day, whenever I get home, I have a snack.
Look at that, I interrupt people.
The first step in creating real, actual change is to witness how I do what I do. There is no skipping that step. From there, the possibilities are endless.
* I’m always interested in knowing what you’re listening to and especially what you are dancing to in the car/kitchen/shower. I’d love it if you’d share your current favorites in the comments below, on the Focus Pocus Facebook page, or email me at email@example.com
All I needed was a simple site where I could tell people about my teaching and events, showcase my writing and art and maybe, if I wanted to get fancy, take payments for my work. The site-building platform ad said “the simplest way to create a beautiful website.” Simple and beautiful was what I wanted. The ad said I could have a site up in 15 minutes. I’m not a dimwit. I am well aware that I’m a not-tech-savvy middle-aged artist. I figured it would take me 45 minutes. Maybe 50.
It took me weeks. Weeks and weeks. I watched dozens of tutorial videos starring hip groovy people younger than my step kids. I looked at pages and pages of templates. I had an intimate relationship with the help desk. (Those poor people must have seen my facile messages come in and arm wrestled for who had to respond to me. They were always kind and cheerful, bless them.)
I didn’t want to build a web site. I would have preferred to hire someone to build it for me. But my business is small and not only did I not want to spend the money on a designer, I wanted to have the flexibility to make changes and additions on my own.
It took me weeks and weeks to build my site. I swore a lot. And more than once I really really wanted to throw my computer out the window. But I didn’t. And now I have a simple site where I tell people about my teaching and events, showcase my writing and art, and it even takes payments.
Here’s how I like to do Extended Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana): I like to put my elbow on my bent leg and extend my top arm over my head. Annoyingly, my teacher Kelly often has us do the pose differently. Sometimes, she’ll have us “cactus” the top arm so the shoulder blade draws toward the spine, opening the chest. Sometimes, she has us lift the bottom arm so it’s parallel with the top one to build core and side-body strength. I hate it when she does that.
Here’s what she says when I make grumpy faces at her: “Move into skill by moving away from preference.”
In his fascinating book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg says that 40-45% of what we do every day is habit. Many of those things feel like decisions, but they are actually deeply ingrained unconscious patterns.
Habits are the brain’s way of being more efficient and saving energy. But if we want to keep our brains and bodies strong and robust, we have to be willing to recognize and break habits. Or as Kelly says, we have to be willing to move into skill by moving away from preference.
Psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, researcher, author, essayist and poet, Dr. Norman Doidge explains in his book, The Brain that Changes Itself that
…just doing the dances you learned years ago won’t help your brain’s motor cortex stay in shape. To keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus. That is what will allow you to both lay down new memories and have a system that can easily access and preserve the older ones. (p. 88)
This is why mindful, attentive movement is more beneficial to the whole body-mind system than mindlessly watching TV or texting while on the treadmill. It’s not just the muscles of the body we want to keep strong and healthy but the “muscles” of the mind/body system.
Feldenkrais, one of the foundational movement forms of The Nia Technique focuses on moving out of habit and preference and into a wider range of possibility. By paying attention to the details of how we do what we do, we can recognize parts of the self that are not moving, efforting unnecessarily, or are out of awareness. As the brain recognizes additional possibilities, the new information is organized and distributed through the whole body leading to overall improvement of ease in the nervous system. Practicing mindful movement like yoga, Feldenkrais and Nia helps us live more fully, comfortably, and effectively by expanding the repertoire of possible ideas, options, and movements.
Paradoxically, moving away from preference (and perhaps through some uncomfortable computer-throwing moments) not only moves us into skill but into greater health and ease. Move into skill by moving away from preference.
“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?” ― Rachel Carson
I open my eyes, all I see is trees. Overlays of green leaves, columns of gray bark and lemon light. When we travel in our camper, we sleep windows-open-shades-up so when we wake, we see trees –and each others’ sleepy faces.
While traveling, I often think of Rachel Carson’s profound words. Since I’m going to new places, ones to which I am unlikely to return, both things are true: I am often seeing things for the first…and last time.
When we’re in a new place and I know this is the first and last time, I look with more than my eyes: I breathe in the smells, feel the sensations, listen deeply, taste the essence, and with my eyes, I look for all the details I can find.
Look out a window. Imagine this was the first time you’d ever taken in this view or that it was the last. How would that change the way you saw it?
Look at someone you care about, imagine this was the first time you’d ever seen their face or that it was the last. How would that change the way you look at them?
Look at your own hand. Imagine this was the first time you’d ever seen your hand or that you were leaving your body and this was the last. How would that change how you saw your hand, your body?
Never before. Never again. This is a courageous, whole-hearted way of looking at the world that requires the curious, open eyes of the very young and the tender, wise eyes of the very old.
Rachel Carson’s quote is related to the Zen concept of Beginner’s Mind (a previous Focus Pocus post is here and the original lecture from which the concept of Beginner’s Mind comes here). Writer James Clear wrote a nice piece about the concept last week in relationship to learning and mastering something. In it, he warns that expertise and experience can be hindrance that lulls the mind into a trance of “knowing.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve seen that, I’ve done that, I already know that.”
But have you really?
The problem is that when you are an expert you actually need to pay more attention, not less. Why? Because when you are already familiar with 98 percent of the information on a topic, you need to listen very carefully to pick up on the remaining 2 percent.
The same is true for familiarity. When you’ve been somewhere often or done something a lot or lived with someone for decades, you actually need to pay more attention, not less.
So it turns out that going to new places and seeing new things is the easy part. In those situations, it’s natural to open up and really let them in. The real practice begins when we are in the familiar, where we must pay more attention to the things that make up our lives.
For while it may be obvious when you see something for the first time, we rarely know when we are seeing it for the last.
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.
Play is for kids.
It’s true: play is essential to the learning and development of young humans but research shows that humans at all ages need play to thrive. But while adults might play an instrument or play a sport or go see a play or even be in a play, we don’t tend to think of play as an adult activity.
In fact, notice if you feel resistance to play as something that is silly, immature or a waste of time. If that’s the case, entertain the notion that playing is just tinkering with something that you already do. What if play can be helpful when you get stuck in habit, in an unhelpful pattern, or when you’re searching for a solution?
Here are 5 ways to play that you might not have considered before and that just might shift something that needs shifting:
1. Play with something you do every day
Take a simple thing you do every day — brushing your teeth, washing dishes, or driving to work – and see what happens when you play with doing the repetitive process with variations. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand or while standing in the dining room or with a different kind of toothpaste. Wash the dishes while whistling, do them more slowly or wash them as you dirty them instead of waiting for the sink to be full. Drive a different route to work, without the radio on (if you usually have it on) or with it on (if you don’t), see how many out of state plates you see. Take a habitual, repetitive action and play with it.
2. Play with something you think every day
Notice repetitive thoughts — that thing you always think when you see yourself in the mirror, or about the drivers who are in the wrong lane or when it’s time to do that thing you don’t love to do. Notice what you think every day and play with thinking something different:
“I’ve made that mistake before. Here’s space to get in front of me.”
“This is going to go easefully.”
Take a habitual and repetitive thought and play with it.
3. Play with someone you see every day
Relationships can become habitual and repetitive especially if we see them regularly. Play with greeting people differently or instead of asking how they are, compliment them or say how good it is to see them. Over the evening meal, ask a different question:
“What was surprising today?”
“What was funny today?”
“What did you learn today?”
Take a habitual and repetitive relationship and play with it.
4. Play with something you’re learning
If you’re starting something new or learning a new skill, allow some play into the process. Whatever you’re learning, repeat it and practice it with variations. If you’re learning something physical, like a dance step or a soccer skill or how to mince garlic, do it slowly then do it with one eye closed, then while humming L’il Liza Jane. Memorizing a speech or French verb conjugations? Whisper them, say them while walking the dog or make them into a little song.
Take a new skill and play with it.
5. Play with something you’re stuck on
Maybe you are having trouble solving a problem or making a decision. Maybe a creative project is stalled and you’re not sure what to do next. If you’re stuck, what the hey, you might as well play with it. Write about it in a journal – stream of consciousness style or write the question with your dominant hand and the answer with your non-dominant hand. Ask your twenty-years-older-than-you-are-now self what to do next. Take one small step in any direction and see how it feels.
Take a problem and play with it.
When my husband, Frank, and I moved into a smaller house this summer, we designed the living space to optimize efficiency and ease. And when I say “we,” I mean Frank.
A wide hallway had enough space for recycling and laundry and a kombucha-making station. One small, efficiently organized bathroom is provides both storage and a double shower. Frank’s office is actually elegantly built into a closet.
In my office, instead of the oversized desk that I had, Frank built a small built-in one with cubbies for storage. He also made a little “standing desk shelf” so my computer can be easily shifted when I want to stand and work. And when I want to sit, I do it on an inflated physioball instead of a chair.
I love my ball-chair (except for that one time the cat miscalculated her jump into my lap and punctured it). I love the movement and comfort and awareness of sitting on a ball. And holy obliques, my core loves it, too. By sitting on an unstable ball, my core muscles are constantly firing to keep me from rolling off. Sometimes when I’m watching (yet another) TED Talk*, I’ll pick up my feet and let my core have an all-out stabilization party.
I’ve noticed the same sensation of core awakening as I learn Pulse, a new routine created by Kelle Rae Oien, one of the Nia Faculty Trainers. Kelle’s focus for the routine is the movement variety through the three “Arts” – Martial, Dance and Healing – but what *I* noticed immediately was that when I do this routine, my core wakes up and gets busy.
Pulse provides movements of balance and control, undulation and extension, explosiveness and (duh) pulsing to engage and stimulate the layers of muscle and connective tissue through the center of the body.
The core is the body’s source of power and grace and it requires more than crunches to function at its potential. Interested in waking up your core body? Find a variety of ways of moving to stimulate stabilization and mobility: contracting and crunching movements are great but also play with extending and reaching away from center, breathing deep and making sound, moving with precision and agility, fluidity and flow. Nia is a great way to do all these things, but so is yoga and dancing and, yep, sitting on a physioball with a cat in your lap.
* Here are some of my current TED Talk favorites
And those don’t even include the ones from TEDx Charlottesville 2015: