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Habit


“Oh. Your jaw.”
I’d been dancing with enthusiasm and energy when my wise friend caught sight of me. She gently touched her own jaw with her fingertips.
“Your jaw.”
As soon as she said it, I could feel it: my jaw was stiff and locked. I felt the tension in my face, neck and shoulders. It’s a long-held habit that somewhere in my awareness is connected with not saying what I want to say.
I shook my head a little, opened my mouth and stretched it wide.
Then my dance really took off.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Walking up the path behind my husband, I see his familiar walk, the way he holds his head, the stride of his long legs. And his hands. I see his hands curved into the shape of the hammers and drills and circular saws that he’s used for years. Holding tools that he’d put down long ago.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Where do you hold tension? Do you know? For many of us, the patterns are so old that we don’t even notice them. Is it in your eyes? Your shoulders? Your feet? Your belly?

Chronically held tension in the body isn’t a bad thing. It is a teacher, an instruction of where we are stuck and where needs attention. Chronically held tension is a direct link to our growing edges.

Notice where tension gathers in you. Get curious about it. Instead of immediately shaking it out, inquire into what it has to tell you. What is it doing for you? How is it attempting to help you? What does it need? And what would happen if you released it?

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When I teach Nia, here is my habit: I start with the focus. I think about it, read about it, draw and write about it. I post what I come up with here on this blog. Then I create playlists for the week based on that focus, choosing choreography and lyrics and energy that lend themselves to where we’re putting our attention. Then I listen to the music, review or create choreography, and BOOM, I’m ready to teach for the week.

I like it. It works for me. And it is definitely, without question my habit.

Several years ago, I read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I found it to be utterly fascinating and I still think about it all the time. I totally recommend the book and you could also read/listen to this NPR interview to get a taste of the science behind how we do what we do. One of the things Duhigg talks about is how much of what we do is habit. Research shows that 40-45% of the choices we make aren’t choices, they are habits. There are excellent reasons for why our brains do this (like efficiency and freeing up space to do more creative things) but it’s worth understanding how habits work so we can make choices about them.

Habits aren’t just fascinating to me but to some of my favorite writers:

James Clear recently wrote about replacing bad habits with better ones (and before that, wrote about how habits work…based on Charles Duhigg’s book!)

Leo Babauta, blogger at Zen Habits writes extensively about habits (obvio from his blog title) so there’s lots to explore on his site but I like his Habit Change Cheatsheet as a starting point.

Seth Godin writes a genius blog with short, wonderful posts. You can see some good ones about habits here, here and here.

In my experience, habit-breaking isn’t just beneficial for the results it can offer (like quitting smoking or meditating regularly or eating more dark leafies). I believe that there are intrinsic benefits to breaking any habitual pattern. Years ago, my friend Marga Odahowski, author of The Way of the Hammock,told me that she would start habits intentionally (chewing gum was the one I remember) in order to then break it. And I think there is something to this.

It is an act of mindful awareness to notice what we are doing and how we are doing it. Do you always step onto the first stair with your dominant foot? Do you always put take your right shoe off first? Do you always dance the same way during freedance? There isn’t anything inherently wrong with doing any of those things and (unlike smoking or eating Hardee’s every day) they aren’t likely to hurt you much. But what if the very choice, the very act of doing something new or doing something old differently has tremendous benefits? Would you be willing to play with the possibility of changing things up?

We’re going to explore neuroplasticity in a future focus (you can read a little about it here and there is lots more to find on the Interwebs) but my short answer is YES. Understanding the way habits work is the first step toward not only building the habits you want to have but also to making your brain stronger and healthier.

So, here’s what I’m doing: I’m breaking my class-preparation habit this week. I’m picking music based on my whim. Then for each class, I will let a focus show up somehow in the time just before class: it might be something someone says to me, something that I see on the drive in, or something that pops into my head as I set up the stereo. It is what it is and we’ll see what it is. For each class, I’ll do a sketch or some piece of art for the focus that arrives. We’ll see what it is and it is what it is.

The idea is that breaking the habit of how I do what I do makes it more than whatever it is.

Focus Gallery

Mon, April 30, 2018, 1045am

Trust. The health of any relationship comes down to the trust that each side has for each other. Think of the relationship you have with a friend, a business, your body, a beloved. What do you trust? What don’t you trust? What is the sensation of trust?

Tue, May 1, 2018, 840am

Chest: the home of the heart. I woke up this morning with a tender, achy heart. A tendency when I feel this way can be to stabilize my chest to protect my hurting heart. Instead, this morning we focused on mobilizing the chest to keep the heart soft and sensation alive rather than numbed. Breathe into the feeling.

Wed, May 2, 2018, 11am

First Chakra. On a physical level, we focused on releasing the low spine/sacrum and engaging the low abdominals. On an energetic level, we focused on the first chakra which resides at the sacrum. The first chakra is the center of security, stability, and your right to take up space in the world. By releasing the low back and engaging the low abdominals, we offer ourselves support from the inside while also resting in the support below us. Any time you accept help or fully relax and let go you are energizing your first chakra.

Thu, May 3, 2018, 840am

Squeeze & Release. Energize and relax your body in the most basic and powerful way. Your heart and lungs and muscles all work in this way. Feel it for yourself.

“The goal of life … is not happiness, peace, or fulfillment, but aliveness.”
~ Hubert Dreyfus (perhaps indirectly via Sean D. Kelly)

Months ago, my husband Frank told me about a philosophical piece he’d read that suggested that the goal of life is aliveness. I remember talking about it and agreeing. Aliveness is where it’s at.

When I read the piece by Sean D. Kelly called Waking Up to the Gift of Aliveness in the New York Times Opinion section, I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of it.

Kelly starts by setting it up:

Think of the way that life really can become lifeless. You know what it’s like: rise, commute, work, lunch, work some more, maybe have a beer or go to the gym, watch TV. For a while the routine is nurturing and stabilizing; it is comfortable in its predictability. But soon the days seem to stretch out in an infinite line behind and before you. And eventually you are withering away inside them. They are not just devoid of meaning but ruthless in their insistence that they are that way. The life you are living announces it is no longer alive.

Yes. I totally get this.

And he goes on to suggest,

There are at least two natural, but equally flawed, responses to this announcement: constantly seek out newness or look for a stable, deeper meaning to your existing routine.

Still with you. I have experienced both of these and neither feel alive after a time.

Where he lost me was getting clear about what aliveness actually IS. His summation is:

When you really feel alive, your past, your present and your future somehow make sense together as the unity they have always promised to be.

MAYbe I get this. I remember when I met Frank 20 years (?!) ago, that I had a moment of breath-taking clarity. I knew after knowing him only a few days that I had been spending my whole life getting ready to meet him. That was a moment when my past, present and future integrated and fell into place like a puzzle in the clever hands of my sister.

But I know I’ve felt alive in other situations that didn’t have that past-present-future feel. So that can’t be the only definition. Pondering aliveness reminded me of two quotes on the subject that I love. The first was introduced to me by my brilliant friend Kate who is a constant source of play, creativity and aliveness.

“Play is the continuous evidence of creativity, which means aliveness.” – D.W. Winnicott

The energy of play, the focus and flow and spontaneity all feel supremely alive.

The second I found on the Internet (not sexy, I know, but whattayagonnado?).

“Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity. It stimulates. The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive.” ― Jhumpa Lahiri

I feel a looseness, a curiosity, a sense of possibility in aliveness that cannot be had if I’m striving for perfection.

If we can agree that it isn’t fame or money or success or even happiness that is the goal of life but a feeling of aliveness, then what is aliveness to you?

Welcome to the NO-AUTOPILOT ZONE.
Instead, let’s make something interesting happen.

I’m not talking about doing anything dangerous or reckless, careless or thoughtless.
I’m talking about choosing something interesting instead of what you usually do…even if what you usually do works really well.

Making it interesting could mean playing with the way you move in class: stretch further, draw yourself in closer, make sound, shake things you don’t usually shake. Changing your movement patterns trains, conditions and heals your body and it also changes your brain. Making it interesting opens up possibilities that we never even saw before.

But making it interesting isn’t just about movement:
– make a project interesting by bringing someone else in on it (if you usually go it alone) or doing it by yourself (if you usually have help)
– make a chore interesting by doing it a different way or in a different order or whilst listening to Dizzy Gillespie
– make a conversation interesting by asking an unusual question
– make an argument interesting by saying something (or NOT saying something) completely outside your norm (keep it kind, y’all)
– make your thoughts interesting by imagining a scene that you love
– make your emotions interesting by getting curious about what the physical sensation is of each one
– make ANYTHING interesting by going into it by asking yourself, How can I make this interesting?

This week, I’ll be posting art every day along this theme. In the piece above, I’ve started with what I usually do: me and my favorite Bic pens in bright colors. Keep coming back to this space and check out my experiments in making something interesting happen!

Monday, Nov 13 ~

I got out my watercolors, something I occasionally dabble in and have very little confidence with, and played with using them “dry” (the letters in red) and “wet” (the letters in yellow and blue). The wet colors came out kind of muddle but then I wondered what would happen if I used water with my Bic markers. At the top, I painted water over something I drew. At the bottom, I drew on wet paper.

Tuesday, Nov 14 ~

Yesterday’s experiment made me wonder about using washes of water over Bic pen drawing. Here’s what happened:

Wednesday, Nov 15 ~ 

Now for something totally different. I got out a bunch of tissue paper and some Elmer’s glue and went a little Modge Podge-y I even added some 3-D pom-poms which made the scannning a little oddish but that’s all part of the process.

The last piece I made borrows from all that came before: Bic markers made into vivid washes with water, tissue paper stripes.

And this from Pete Kashatus who doesn’t like to color inside the lines!

 

And check out this genius poem by Jay Perry!

Here’s another playful one from Pete Kashatus!

If you want to play along, here is a blank version of the art. Print it out and make something interesting happen. Share what you create (email it to me at sjmnia@gmail.com with how you’d like me to list your name — or not — and any comments you want to share on what you did to make it interesting), and I’ll post it here! (If art isn’t your thing, print it out anyway and post it somewhere to remind you that making it interesting can happen in a zillion ways.)

I love this quote and was confused since I kept finding it attributed to both Jay Z and Shawn Carter (turns out the latter is Jay Z’s given name).

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.


Sometimes, I think I’m doing something and really I’m not.
Or I think I’m not doing something but I actually am.

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.

Dang it.

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 sjmnia@gmail.com

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