Safe Risks

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.

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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.

Risks are part of living – there is no way to escape them. So how do we make choices about what to do and what to avoid? What’s safe? What’s not? I ride my bike on city street which some people think is crazy dangerous. Some people downhill ski which given my (lack of) experience and other factors, I would not do.

These choices are personal, of course, but I suggest that we see what’s at the root of deciding to do something or not. Am I avoiding something based on an unwarranted fear about some negative outcome? Or am I avoiding it based on my inner wisdom, experience and intuition? Am I choosing to do something based on peer pressure or on genuine enthusiasm?

Taking safe risks is a way of connecting to the sensation of dancing on the edge between challenge and healing. The more safe risks we take, the more intimate we become with the sensation of being fearless but not reckless. Here are 5 (+!) simple ways to take safe risks and get to know what it feels like to dance on that edge.

1. Sensational Safe Risks

Your sensations are portals of information and amazement. Explore expanding what you sense by taking some safe risks:
Taste something new – order something you’ve never had at your favorite restaurant, buy an unfamiliar fruit at the grocery store, say yes if someone offers you a taste of kombucha. (Of course, avoid known allergens or anything that’s gone bad. To taste those would be reckless.)
Smell something new – take a sniff through a selection of essential oils and smell what you smell! Do I *still* hate the smell of patchouli like I did in college? Yes. Yes, I do. And it’s worth checking out.
Touch something new – wear your sweater against your skin, rub your thumb along your dog’s paw, eat a salad with your fingers. If you find yourself hesitating to touch something, ask if it’s out of habit or fear (Ew! Dirt!), or genuine danger (Yikes! Hot stove!).
Listen to something new Pandora and Spotify are great resources for listening to new sounds. (Spotify gives me a playlist of new songs every week!) Check out something you’ve never heard before and commit to listening for at least a minute before moving on to something else.
See something new – Prowl around for unfamiliar art to let your eyes soak up. Watch a movie or show that is new to you. See if you can stay open even if it’s “not your style.”

2. Physical Safe Risks

Do something different with your body. Take a class that’s new to you. Hike a different trail. Run on a different route. Dance to different music (maybe from your Spotify playlist!). Let yourself have a new physical experience that has the sensation of both challenge and healing. Be fearless, not reckless.

3. Emotional Safe Risks

Show up differently in a relationship. If you tend to be the talker, play with staying quiet and listening. If you are the listener, speak up and say something, even if it’s “I need to think about that.”

4. Mental Safe Risks

Read a writer you don’t know. Listen to news from a source that isn’t your usual. Have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you – and don’t fight with them. (For more on this mind-opening approach, read this wonderful piece.)

5. Spiritual Safe Risks

Be alert to any gentle tuggings to do or not do something. Listen to your intuition even if it doesn’t seem rational or if it’s not what you usually do. Follow your spirit and see where it leads.

FUN NEWS: elephant journal picked up two of my essays last week! As an aspiring writer, I’m delighted to share my work with more people, so I would love it if you would go to the link and check them out by clicking here and here and if you think they would be of benefit, please share them! I am grateful for your help in spreading the word!

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What does “safe” really mean?

The year before last was a doozy in my little world. That year helped me see that safety is relative.

My beloved husband herniated a disc when he unloaded a bunch of shingles onto a roof and then carried a big fat piece of granite. There is risk in physical work.

Laid low by the herniated disc, my husband was only able to sleep on one side. He then developed excruciating bursitis in the shoulder he slept on. There is risk in sleeping.

An acquaintance who was my very age died in a mountain biking accident. There is risk in riding.

A father of a friend died on his way to the kitchen. The six-year-old daughter of another friend was killed in a car accident on the way to her Daddy’s house. There is risk in living.

Risk can make me want to avoid the “causes”: don’t carry heavy things, don’t sleep in one position, don’t ride mountain bikes. But this risk avoidance starts to break down: don’t go to the kitchen? don’t ride in cars? don’t live? It occurs to me that nothing is really safe.

We can’t avoid risk. Risk is implicit in living. In fact, it’s risky to attempt to live a risk-free life. Debbie Rosas, one of Nia’s co-founders, often says that the most dangerous thing you can do is sit (and the Sitting is the New Smoking movement agrees with her). While Debbie is referring, I think, to the physical implications of a sedentary life, I would go further to argue that avoiding risk is detrimental to the mind, emotions and spirit, too.

So how do we find the balance between safety and adventure, carefulness and exploration, caution and growth?

Helen Terry, my Nia mentor calls it taking safe risks. Lizzie Clark, my hot yoga guru says, “Be fearless, never reckless.”

This is the balance I want to strike in my work, my practice, my life.

A safe risk, a fearless but not reckless choice is both deeply personal and always changing. For some people, just showing up in one of my classes or going to a yoga class in a hot room is a huge risk. For others it may be wearing bright colors or making sound. What feels easy peasy to you, might feel terrifying to me.

Part of what I love about practicing together is that we can all find our own edge to dance on. Each of us can, moment to moment, find the place of aliveness and possibility without carelessness. By choosing safe risks, we are moving into our potential.

The challenge is that we live in community, in a society full of people with differing opinions about what is safe and what is reckless. Even in my classes, the conversation about the safety of the temperature in the room and the volume of the music can get heated in a hurry.

As in the studio, so in the larger world. Politicians talk about “keeping America safe” but honestly, what does that even mean? For a country of our size and diversity, safety seems like a hollow promise. Does “keeping America safe” mean mass deportations and military operations around the globe? Does it mean legalizing drugs or not? Does it mean using chemicals in order to grow enough food or does it mean growing organically so the food we eat doesn’t have chemicals in it?

Yesterday, I saw a customer in Whole Foods carrying a gun. Why in the world someone would need a pistol in the produce department is a bafflement to me. I can tell you for sure that I did not feel safe shopping with him. Did I really think he was going to use it? No. But the potential that he could rattled me more than I expected.

I didn’t bolt the store as some said they would have. I finished my shopping, said hello to a friend, waited to check out. I asked the cashier and manager about the firearms policy. I’ve written to the store to tell them I think it’s a truly dreadful idea to have guns in a grocery store. I plan to contact Whole Foods Headquarters to learn more.

Here’s the thing: I think many things we think are dangerous actually aren’t and many things we think are safe actually aren’t. If that’s true, then feelings of both danger and safety are at least nebulous and perhaps illusory. Even within our complex culture, all any of us can do is listen to our own inner wisdom about choosing what we risk doing and what we don’t.

I will continue to do hot yoga, wear my crazy pants and make sound in class. I will continue to drive and go into the kitchen and ride my bike. But perhaps I will change where I shop.

Le Que first trip 0913 005Two years ago, we bought a camper. If you had told me two-and-a-half years ago that we would buy a camper, I would have smiled politely while internally rolling my eyes at the crazy person. But we bought one called Le Que and now, contrary to all my expectations, I love it. Honestly, it’s like having a play house that we pull around with us to beautiful places where we go hiking and biking and it is more fun than I ever could have imagined.

Anyway. We love our camper and we love planning trips and we love going to parks (Virginia has some incredibly wonderful state and national parks, btw y’all). But the transition, from being home to going out in Le Que? That is almost always a bumpy ride.

The planning goes fine and the packing is always fine and even loading up the camper is perfectly fine, but when it comes to the moment when we shove off out of our driveway, something almost always happens. I either slam the truck door too hard or I forget to get the yellow wedge things from behind the tires or I leave the truck door open when I get the yellow things nearly asphyxiating Frank with diesel fumes. Whatever it is, we have a rough patch as we move from doing one thing (being home) to doing another (going out in the camper).

After a few times it dawns on me that I am bamfoozled by transition in a lot of situations. It is often difficult for me to switch from doing one thing to doing another thing. The places between movements and songs in my teaching are devilishly tricky. Moving from one pose to another in yoga wobbles me something fierce. Shifting from working alone in my office to being with other people feels clunky and stiff. Transitions, it appears, are awkward for me.

And now, Frank and I are embarking on a big and multi-staged transition out of one house, into a handful of temporary situations (for us, our belongings and our cat), and then into another, smaller house (albeit one with a super-fine man cave). I see these next few months looming in front of me like a long exit down a four-month bumpy driveway with Le Que towed behind us.

Given all this thought about transition, I did what anyone would do: I talked to my 14-year-old niece about flip turns. My niece, Olivia, is a competitive swimmer and has been for most of her life. She’s a speedy thing in the water, I’ll tell you what, and she goes careening down her lane and then – shazzam! – she flips around and is zooming in the complete opposite direction just as smooth as you please. I figured if anyone could tell me a thing or two about transitioning from one thing to another, it was Olivia.

So here is the first ever Focus Pocus interview between Olivia and me (with annotations by Auntie):

ME: What makes an excellent flip turn?

OLIVIA: An excellent flip turn has three parts: the approach, the wall, and the push. The approach must be faster than ever, and the flip to the wall must be precise and fast. The push should be like a squat off the wall.

The first thing that strikes me about this is the one-step-at-a-time of a flip turn. I find that when I’m approaching a transition, it all feels like a swirly mess. But if I break down what’s happening to, say: the sorting, the packing, the storage, it feels less confusing and disorienting and more like I’m just doing what’s in front of me.

The second thing  I notice is the boldness of a flip turn. In order to make it work, you’ve got to swim into it “faster than ever.” A tentative approach leads to a lack-luster turn. Once the decision has been made, approach with confidence.

ME: Sometimes you’re not just changing directions, but changing strokes, too, like when you’re swimming an IM [individual medley]. How is the turn different in an IM?

OLIVIA: In IM you do what is called an open turn, and you touch the wall with both or one hand depending on the stroke, and take a breath when you touch. Then you push off into the next stroke.

This transition thing is a complicated business and here I notice that in the midst of the one-step-at-a-time, Olivia mentions when to take a breath. So how do I do that when I’m changing from one thing to another? When do I take a second to nourish myself and get the energy I need to do what needs doing? Seems best to think ahead about when to breathe.

ME: It seems like flip turns would be scary. When you were learning them, were you ever scared at all?

OLIVIA: For me, no, but one thing is that no matter the depth, you can do the turn. You won’t hit your back on the bottom.

She’s a brave thing, my Olivia Jane. Unlike her, I feel all kinds of anxiety when I’m making a change. But I love the confidence of this: “no matter the depth, you can do the turn.”

To recap Olivia’s flip turn wisdom:
– take it one step at a time
– move into a transition with confidence
– know when you’ll take a breath
– and it’s okay. You can do this.

Wise counsel. Now maybe she can come down here and pack a few boxes.

opposite of good cat yogaThe opposite of good isn’t bad.  It’s real.  (Thanks to Claire Dederer’s, Poser: My Life in 26 Yoga Poses for this earthshattering notion.)

Good follows directions, lives up to expectations, and does it right. Good is tight and breathes shallowly.

Real takes courage.  Real is you.  Real doesn’t happen by accident. Real happens when we pay attention to sensation. From there we can make real decisions, ask real questions, take real stands.  Give real love.

Your real is unique.  Nobody else can do it.  So experiment with letting go of doing it right.  Instead do it real. Real’s where it’s at.

When I was a young adult, my dad invited me to visit him at his new office.  It was a slick spot, on a high floor (for Middletown, Connecticut, anyway) and it had a great view of the Connecticut River.  On the wide window sill, Dad had arranged a whole slew of turtle figurines.  In stone and wood, painted and plain, he had dozens of turtles hanging out with him, gazing at the river.

Being the (recent) college grad and English major that I was, symbol was not lost on me.  No it wasn’t.  So I pointed to the turtles and with a wink I said, “ ‘Slow and steady wins the race.’  Eh, Dad?”  He shook his head and smiled, “Nope.  ‘The turtle doesn’t get anywhere without sticking his neck out.’”

Oh.  Of course.  I should have known.  My dad is a lot of things:  smart, curious, resourceful, imaginative.  At heart, though, my dad is an entrepreneur.  He loves to see an opportunity or potential and take a risk to see if it will go.  He’s brave, my dad.  He’s stuck his neck out in lots of ways in his life:  some that haven’t gone too far and some that have taken him literally around the world.

I appreciate his bravery and sometimes wonder if I got ANY of it in my DNA.  I like to know what is going to happen.  I like to control things.  (I know, I know, as I’ve written about often and recently, that’s all an illusion.  But still, that’s what I would LIKE.)  Dad likes to jump onto The Uncertainty Bus (or in this case, The Uncertainty Turtle), and go for whatever ride it gives him.  Dad likes to be Turtle OUT!

At its essence, Turtle Out is about fear.  Can we, as the title of Susan Jeffers’ book suggests, “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway?”  When I think of the wrinkly, tender skin around a turtle’s neck, and how vulnerable it must feel to poke it out of the safe, protecting shell, it’s a wonder she gets anywhere at all.  And when I think of us, people, with our tender hearts and how dangerous it can feel to take a risk, it’s a wonder we get anywhere either.

In some ways, taking a Radical Sabbatical was a risk:  not a huge one, but given my tendencies, it felt pretty Turtle Out-y.  Given the incredible support I have from Frank, my Nia team, my family and friends and students, it was probably more accurately what we call in Nia a “safe risk.”  I wasn’t walking a tightrope between the twin towers and I wasn’t gambling my life savings.  And yet it did feel scary.

Just the other day, as I’m thinking about fear and risks (safe and otherwise), Dr. Rick Hanson posted something in his Just One Thing blog that spoke directly to the neurology behind these fearful feelings*, and how understanding the science can help us navigate them.  He explains that we are wired to pay more attention to scary things than to rewards and pleasure.  For our ancestors (and for the turtle), this is what kept us alive:  paying very, very careful attention to the things that could kill us was way more important than anything positive.  He writes,

“The alarm bell of your brain – the amygdala (you’ve got two of these little almond-shaped regions, one on either side of your head) – uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news: it’s primed to go negative. Once it sounds the alarm, negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory – in contrast to positive events and experiences, which usually need to be held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage.

“In effect, … the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

Which is helpful for explaining any number of things.  Why, for example, in a job review that was full of all the things I do well, I focused on (and yes, obsessed about) the one thing that “needed improvement.”  And why when parenting, it’s important to say five positive things to my child for every one negative thing.  And why when I look in the mirror, I only see that puffy place under my eyes and that poochie thing that happens at my waist, rather than taking in my whole healthy self.  (In a wonderful dharma talk from Dharma Seed, Mark Coleman also talks about this tendency to focus on the scary and bad.  Click here to download/listen to his delightful and insightful  talk called Waking up to the Senses.)

The thing is, there are few true threats out there.  Most of us are lucky enough to live in situations that are not prowling with real dangers to life or limb.  Dr. Hanson points out, however, that the brain doesn’t make the distinction between a tiger that wants to eat us, and a boss that wants to give us feedback.  From the brain’s point of view, it is all dangerous.  Our opportunity is to notice our fearful reaction and make a choice about how to respond.  This can be none-too-easy when that alarming amygdala kicks in, but as I’ve posited before, if we allow ourselves to sense our bodies or take a breath, the higher order of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, activates and we have more resources available to us.

In Nia, we do this with safe risks.  In a cool way, even experimenting with dancing outside our habit, or making more or different sound in class can help the brain get adjusted to risk-taking and get less alarmed and rattled at the prospect.  So in class this week, or as you dance through your life, take a safe risk.  Small is good.  Nobody else even has to know you’re doing it.  But do it.  Stick out your tender turtle neck and make a step toward where you want to go.

Turtle OUT, y’all!

Note:  I couldn’t find a link to Dr. Hanson’s Just One Thing piece I read, so I’ve reprinted it with links to his site and blog on the menu to the right of this post under Helpful Links]

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