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Habit

A NOTE about the Focus Pocus art: I am in the middle of a book project called Octabusy: How To Let Go in a Sea of Doing. I’m excited about it and want to focus my art-making energy on it in the next couple of months. So instead of making more complex art pieces for the Focus Pocus blog, I will make little cartoons like this one that features characters from the book. This week, Octabusy herself plus a couple of hatchet fish and a crab are promoting our focus of Mix It Up.

Body mechanist, Katy Bowman is an avid promoter of natural movement and more movement in general in our lives. She is a prolific writer (I loved her book Whole Body Barefoot and am in the middle of Move Your DNA now and she offers practical and eye-opening information about the impact of our sedentary or often “active-sedentary” culture impacts our bodies.

Her work showed me that even though I am a freaking MOVEMENT TEACHER, I was “active-sendentary” which means that I would move for a bout or two during the day and be mainly sedentary and seated for hours and hours at a time. This realization has utterly changed the way I think about movement and the way I live my life. Here is a great piece about how to get more movement in through the course of even an office-working day. Do read it. It might change your life, too.

When I read this in Move Your DNA, I got out of bed, got my journal and wrote it down:

“A repetitive environment breeds mindlessness. The human is constantly expending a lot of energy up front to learn, only to put the skill in an automatically run file – no energy (or thought) required. You want to kick some serious health-butt? You’ve got to mix it up.” ~ Katy Bowman, Move Your DNA, p 140

YES. THIS is what I’ve been teaching and learning about for years and I love how she articulates it. Mixing it up is essential to the health of our bodies our minds. And not just that, I think it’s a way to make EVERYTHING* healthier.

If I had a really long bumper, this is the sticker I would put on it:
MAKE ANYTHING HEALTHIER: MIX IT UP (within healthy, intentional boundaries)!

Want to make your body healthier? Mix it up: move in different ways, at different speeds, on different surfaces. Go smooth and sharp, big and small, squeezing in and reaching out. And do it with healthy, intentional boundaries: know yourself and your body and make choices from there. I’m not going to start mountain biking or downhill skiing anytime soon. That’s me. You know your boundaries. Respect them.

Want to make your diet healthier? Mix it up: eat a wide variety of whole foods. Eat A Rainbow, yo. Experiment with a new veggie on your salad (ever have jicama? Or bok choy? Or Easter Egg radishes?) and make a new recipe every week (here’s one source of inspiration that I love and there are countless more). I could go on and on (and on and on) about the powerful health benefits of eating whole foods, mostly (dare I say exclusively) plants and avoiding sugar and processed foods. (If you ever WANT me to go on and on about it, just ask.) But whatever you do, give your body a wide range of nourishment. And do it with healthy, intentional boundaries: know yourself and your body and make choices from there. I will never ever eat ribs or bacon or doughnuts. That’s me. You know your boundaries. Respect them.

Want to make your relationships healthier? Mix it up: do different activities together, have new conversations, ask interesting questions. Especially if you’ve been in a relationship for a long time and even if it’s working really well, mix it up and bring life into how you are together. Be willing to step outside your roles and expectations and refresh your connection. And do it with healthy, intentional boundaries: know yourself and your relationship and make choices from there. I won’t have a romantic relationship outside my marriage and there are some questions I will not ask even my closest friends. That’s me. You know your boundaries. Respect them.

Mixing it up, as Katy Bowman points out, goes against our brain’s tendency to want to put anything new into “an automatically run file.” It can also be scary to go outside our habits and maybe even break social norms. At the very least, it can feel awkward. But be brave, friends. Mix it up and make it healthier.

* The one exception that I thought of to the “Mix it Up” motto is sleep. It’s well-documented that consistent bed and waking times lead to healthier sleep. So I don’t recommend intentionally mixing those up. BUT I do recommend sleeping in different positions, with different pillow arrangements and on different surfaces to give the intrinsic muscles of your body different experiences. So it’s an exception, but only partly. Can you think of other exceptions?

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Years ago, I saw a cartoon that has stuck with me (and darn it, I cannot find it now for the life of me even with The Google). It is a father and son sitting in a field looking at the night sky. The boy asks, “Dad, what’s the most powerful force in the universe?” and the father replies, “The force of habit.”

The very fact that you are reading this post indicates that you are interested in mindfulness. At some level, you want to stop sleepwalking through your time and be conscious of how you are living. You may practice in class with me or another teacher and you may have your own practice to support your longing for awareness.

Whatever your practice is, use it as an opportunity to wake up. Use that awakening as an opportunity to practice more.

As much as I want my practice to be my habit, it’s amazing how quickly I lose its thread. After an hour of yoga, I’ll be all Zen and peaceful and Om-shakalaka but nine minutes after walking out of class, I’ll be impatient and irritated in traffic. I’ll absorb the wisdom of a lovingkindness meditation but all it takes is one headline and I turn into a hater. I’ll take a mindful walk by the river, but as soon as I get back in the house, I’m not paying attention to anything but my river of thought.

Use your practice as an opportunity to wake up. Use that awakening as an opportunity to practice more.

Little by little, waking up begins to spill out beyond the formal practice times and spaces. I can choose to practice and choose to be awake and that awakeness leads to more like it. Once I experience aliveness and presence, the more I endeavor to expand that into other areas of my life. I can be present and awake while I’m making dinner or folding laundry, having a conversation with a friend or discussing finances with my partner. The more I can wake up in those situations, the more I am inspired to practice so I can stay present when I feel upset or angry or afraid. The more I practice the more I want to wake up and the more I wake up the more I want to practice.

“The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you
Don’t go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth
across the doorsill where the two worlds touch,
The door is round and open
Don’t go back to sleep!” ~ Rumi

Regular practice slowly begins to shift long-held patterns. Regular practice softens our lizard brain edges and connects us to our humanity. Regular practice allows us to expand what we do in the studio, on the mat, on the cushion into how we show up in our work, our homes and in our relationships. And ultimately, isn’t that what it’s all about?

Use your practice as an opportunity to wake up. Use that awakening as an opportunity to practice more.


“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?

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.)

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