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Strength

This week, we’ll play with the inspiration of two quotes. First, Albert Einstein. What if real intelligence isn’t about what you know or think or do, but rather your ability to shift and change?

Then, from Seth Godin’s book/work of art, It’s Your Turn. Think of a situation – in your body, your life, your community – that is changing and the tension that results. Think of somewhere where there is tension – in a muscle, in a relationship, a company – and the change that inevitably, eventually, results.

Hidden within these quotes is not just the sensation of adaptability but of strength and flexibility.
Are you willing to change?

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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.

Earth.
Water.
Fire.
Air.

The basic elements of life are inextricably interconnected and intertwined. We may look at a boulder and think “Earth” but the stone was born of Water and Fire and Air, too.

Since they are of this planet, our bodies are made of the same stuff — all the ingredients blended inseparably together. The brilliance of this design is that in any moment, we can choose to emphasize whatever element is most needed.

Like a sound system mixing board, we can turn up the volume on whatever track needs to be highlighted. Use sensation and awareness to guide yourself toward healing and well-being.

Earth

Feeling over-excited or anxious? Have you been up in your head solving a problem or analyzing a situation? Feeling spacey or zoned out? Grounding with Earth energy can get your feet back on the ground

  • Drop in. Stand up, lift up onto the balls of your feet and firmly drop your heels down to the floor several times. Relax your hands and jaw and shoulders.
  • Get on the ground. Lie on the floor (or extra bonus points for lying on the actual Earth) and relax into the support (without going to sleep). You can roll and stretch but whatever part is in contact with the floor, let it soften.
  • Focus on the exhale. Extend your exhale as long as you can to relax and integrate the energy.

Water

Feeling hot or irritated? Been in an argument or had someone pushing your buttons all morning? Feeling jagged and sharp? Smoothing out the edges with Water energy can help calm your prickly pointy parts.

  • Move smooth. Roll your neck and shoulders, stand up and circle your hips, rotate your ankles and wrists. Imagine your body flowing especially in places where you tend to hold tension.
  • Get in touch with water. Take a shower or wash your hands. Drink a big glass of water or a cup of tea. Listen to a recording of ocean waves, rain, or (my favorite) water running over rocks.
  • Breathe evenly. Inhale and exhale for the same count (say, 4 in and 4 out) with no pause between them.

Fire

Sleepy or bored or distracted? Feeling lethargic or low energy? Sparking the Fire element can wake you up and get your attention.

  • Shake. Do some jumping jacks or simply shake your hands, feet, shoulders or head. Literally shake yourself up.
  • Fire up the iPod. Listen to your favorite up-tempo energizing music. Two of my favorites are Sandstorm by Darude and Raging Fire by Phillip Phillips. Dancing is optional, unless the song is super good and you can’t help it.
  • Bellows breath. Sit tall and forcefully exhale and inhale using bhastrika breath or bellows breath. Find instructions here.

Air

Feeling tightness in your muscles or your mind? Find yourself in a contracted position on a plane or around an issue? Been slumped in front of the computer or TV for a while? Opening up space with the Air element can release tension and offer a broader perspective.

  • Stretch. Lengthen your body along the bones. Let your whole body find length from feet to spine, from legs to fingers. If you’re on a train or at a meeting, stretch what you can – maybe your hands or sit up taller or imagine yourself in a big open space reaching long in all directions.
  • Look at the sky. On your way to the car, take a moment to look up and see how much space (even on an overcast day) there is all around you.
  • Breathe in. Expand your internal spaciousness by breathing deeply in. Let your ribs expand to the front, sides and back.

* The mind is a powerful tool. If you can’t move due to injury or circumstance, move what you can (e.g., shake out just your right hand if your left hand isn’t available) or imagine yourself moving. Just using your imagination will have almost the same effect!

elements square 041616One of the first routines I learned when I began teaching Nia was a classic created by Nia co-founder Debbie Rosas called Chakras. Its focus was the elements of earth, water, fire and air and as a student, I loved the contrasting grounded, fluid, intense, and light movements. But as I worked on getting ready to teach it, something was missing.

I asked my mentor, Chris Friedman, to let me teach her the first song. After a minute, she stopped me and asked, “When you do that deep stance, which element are you dancing?”
“Earth,” I said.
She paused and said, “I can’t feel it when I watch you.”

Oddly, neither could I. I’d been focusing mainly on my feet and legs when I did this “Earthy” movement but Earth, Chris pointed out, is in my whole body.

Throughout the routine, I did my best to embody each element. Earth isn’t just in my bones and base, Water isn’t just in my joints and blood, Fire isn’t just in my nerves and muscles and Air isn’t just in my lungs and hands. Each element is systemic in the body.

We and the planet are made of the same stuff. As I embody the elements, I am embodying the interconnection within and around me.

earth 041616Earth

The Earth element is in our very bones, muscles, and connective tissue. Our physical form that allows us to literally stand on the Earth is of the Earth element.

Stability and strength are the movement sensations most directly connected with Earth. Like the globe itself, stability radiates energy out in all directions from center. And like the force of gravity that holds us to the ground, strength pulls energy in toward the bones.

Feel your radiating rootedness and your powerful physical form and you are feeling the Earth in you.

Of course, our bones and muscles and connective tissue can’t function without…

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Water

The human body is more liquid than anything else. Synovial fluid lubricates joints and saliva lubricates our tongues. Blood, our fluid tissue, touches every other tissue in the body. In her 2008, New York Times article, The Wonders of Blood, Natalie Angier wrote:

It is through blood that our disparate parts communicate, through blood that our organs cooperate. Without a circulatory system, there would be no internal civilization, no means of ensuring orderly devotion to the common cause that is us.

Much of us liquid and is constantly moving. The flow of mobility is the movement sensation connected with Water. The life giving, cleansing power fluid movement mirrors the liquid element that swims within us and around us.

Feel movement with no beginning and no end and you are feeling the Water in you.

Of course, the flow of blood and movement stops cold without…

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Fire

The nervous system fires to ignite both unconscious and conscious movements. Without the electric spark of nerves, the body wouldn’t know what to do. Whether from the flash of thought and imagination, or the ignition of automatic processes, fire is in our fibers.

The movement sensation of agility with its quick starts and stops is most closely associated with fire. The sizzling heat of precise agility is how we can light our own element of Fire.

Feel the bright lightening quickness in your bones and you are feeling the Fire in you.

Of course, the Fire goes out without the nourishment of…

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Air

Just like the air around us, the air within us offers relaxing nourishment and powerful energy. Air is the spaciousness that we feel when we breathe deeply, stretch long, and connect to the vastness of spirit. Air and space can be found in every bone, fluid and tissue … and between every thought.

Flexibility is the movement sensation of energy moving out along the bones. Like a long exhalation, creating the length and space of flexibility connects the body most directly to Air.

Feel the spacious length in your body, your movement and your breath and you are feeling the Air in you.

Of course, Air has nothing to animate, nothing to nourish without Earth, Water, and Fire.

Earth Day is this week* so it’s a perfect time to recognize the interconnectedness of the elements on our planet and in our bodies. Dance with elemental movement and feel your connection to every part of you, the planet and the universe!

 


* Earth Day 2016 is Friday, April 22 and Mary Linn and I are teaching a special class that evening at acac downtown, 545-7pm. The class is free to members and they can bring a guest for free!

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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.

In my post, What is Strong?, I suggest that embodied strength is a combination of cultivating and valuing a variety of skills, balance and easeful transition, and kind treatment of the most vulnerable. Below are 12 quotes to inspire you to expand your idea of strength.

1. Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go. ~ Hermann Hesse

2. Only the weak are cruel. Gentleness can only be expected from the strong. ~ Leo Buscaglia
2a. There is nothing so strong as gentleness, and nothing so gentle as strength. ~ Leo Muir

3. True strength is delicate. ~ Louise Berliawsky Nevelson

4. The quality of strength lined with tenderness is an unbeatable combination…. ~ Maya Angelou

5. If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would have thus been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature. ~ Charles Darwin

6. Patience and time do more than strength or passion. ~ Jean De La Fontaine

7. The very strength that protects the heart from injury is the strength that prevents the heart from enlarging to its intended greatness within. ~ Kahlil Gibran

8. By nature we have no defect that could not become a strength, no strength that could not become a defect. ~ Goethe

9. He knows not his own strength that hath not met adversity. ~ Ben Jonson

10. Although men are accused of not knowing their own weakness, yet perhaps few know their own strength. It is in men as in soils, where sometimes there is a vein of gold which the owner knows not of. ~ Jonathan Swift

11. Where there is no struggle, there is no strength. ~ Oprah Winfrey

12. We can learn the art of fierce compassion – redefining strength, deconstructing isolation and renewing a sense of community, practicing letting go of rigid us-vs.-them thinking – while cultivating power and clarity in response to difficult situations. ~ Sharon Salzberg

What are your favorite quotes about strength? Share them in the comments below or at the Focus Pocus Facebook page.

 

what is strong

What does it mean to be strong?

From the perspective of a movement teacher working in a (truly excellent) mainstream American fitness club, I have seen wildly differing opinions about what strong is and strategies on how to get it.

Am I strong if I can bench press my body weight but can’t run a mile? Am I strong if I can do 108 Sun Salutations but can’t hold in plank position? Am I strong if I can run an 8-minute mile but can’t touch my toes?

And what about strength of mind, emotion and spirit? What does it mean to be a strong teacher, friend, or parent? In the past couple of months, I’ve heard a gaggle of people at red, white and blue podiums talk about what it means to be a strong leader. Based on that, as a country we seem to mistake bullying and posturing for strength.

So what does it mean to be strong?

I’m not talking about the definition which covers an array of bases including “aggressive; willful.” Of course, yes, that’s how we use the word, but if someone is aggressive, are they strong?

I’m also not talking about strength in a narrow category. Not just “I have strong hands” but “my body is strong.” Not just “I am strong at making spreadsheets” but “I have a strong intellect.” Not just “I am strong for my kids” but “My spirit is strong.”

I’m interested in what it means to embody strength. This kind of embodied, systemic strength needs three qualities: variety, balance and kindness to the most vulnerable.

Variety

Strength is embodied when it is expressed in a wide variety of ways. If I can do pushups all day but move mechanically and without grace or fluidity, am I strong? If I can run sprints but can’t do a forward fold, how strong am I really? The body thrives by moving in multiple styles. Training and conditioning that variety doesn’t mean I necessarily excel at all things equally but rather I have access to and familiarity with a wide range of ways of being in my body.

The same is true in anything I do. If I want to be a strong friend, I have to be able to listen as well as share. A strong writer is able to have the discipline to research and be precise with attributions and also have the spaciousness and imagination to let creativity flow. If I want to be a strong leader, I must be able to listen to and synthesize many perspectives and have the courage to offer wise direction.

Balance

An essential part of embodied strength is the ability to know what movement is appropriate in the moment and to be able to transition easefully. A truly strong body is one that can move from fast to slow, tight to loose, up to down with grace and ease.

Just like in life. A strong parent knows when to shift from setting clear consequences to softening and listening. An artist strong in her craft is able to be inspired by the work of others and seamlessly move in her own direction. A strong leader can make a personal one-on-one connection in one moment and in the next effectively communicate to a group.

When I’m good at something or have found that it works in some situations, it’s natural for me to use it more often or even exclusively. My carpenter husband often says that if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If a leader’s only approach is put-downs and insults, everyone starts to look like a target. And if drumming up anger and playing on fear is the only note played, it’s a monotonous song.

Kindness to the Vulnerable

My body, like the proverbial chain, is only as strong as its weakest part. If I push and train but ignore that my knee hurts and needs healing, my strength is severely limited. If I ignore the most vulnerable parts of myself, my whole physical system is compromised. And it’s not just my actions toward my weaker places, but my thoughts and words, too. Feel the difference between saying,

I have this stupid bad back so I can’t do everything I want to.

and

I am healing my lumbar spine and make choices based on what feels best for it.

First date advice suggests paying closer attention to how your dinner companion treats the waiter than how she treats you. The former is far more telling to the strength of her character. The teacher who approaches the newest, most apprehensive student with kindness, flexibility and welcome is teaching from strength. A community that ignores the inconvenient needs of their disabled members weakens the whole. It is a weak leader who proclaims the powerless to be the problem.


Embodied strength is different than specific strength. It doesn’t imply perfection or mastery of everything. Embodied strength, rather, cultivates and values a variety of skills and is able to transition wisely and with balance from one to another. Embodied strength approaches the weakest and most vulnerable with compassion and kindness.

Anything else is the illusion of true strength.

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Do everything at half-speed today. Eat slowly, walk slowly, pay attention to sights, smells, sounds. Affectionate attention is a blessing. ~ Geneen Roth

Live for a while in our turbo-charged, multi-tasking, drive-through, microwaved, instant-access, act-now-offer-ends-soon world and it will seem that full-on, super-fast is the only speed worth talking about. We love instant gratification and super efficiency and getting’ ‘er done. It’s no wonder: fast is fun and dramatic and exhilarating.

But actually, slow is the speed where the good stuff is happening. Slow like honey.

A friend told me of the first time she went to a Nascar race. She hadn’t wanted to go. She thought it would be boring. But it wasn’t. She loved it. The speed, Susan, she said. The speed was hypnotic, intoxicating, I couldn’t get enough.

Speed is like that. It’s a rush and a high…and speed is deceptive. Debby Rosas, one of the co-founders of The Nia Technique says, Speed is the illusion of mastery.

And it’s true: do something fast and you’re likely to skip over the nuances, leave out the details, pay more attention to how fast you’re doing it rather than what you’re actually doing.

Tai Chi is one of the Nine Movement forms that sets the energetic foundation of Nia. Years ago, my t’ai chi teacher, Hiromi Johnson explained that historically, martial artists learned fighting movements slowly — training their muscles, their minds and their nervous systems with precision — before they could deliver those movements with speed.

Slow like honey is a powerful practice in your body, mind, emotions, and spirit.

Body. Walk across the room at a normal speed and then walk again and half speed. Notice what part of your foot touches the ground first. Notice the tiny movements happening in your ankles and lower legs. Notice the push off your back foot. Slowing it down gives time to pay attention and respond to what’s happening.

Mind. I’m in the process of building a web site and it is a mind-bender and a half. Most of the time, I don’t know what I’m doing and not the first thing about how to solve the long string of problems that come up. When things are really confusing and I don’t know what to do next, the best thing I can do is stop, slow down, take a breath, even walk (slowly) away from the computer (as much as I want to throw the godforsaken thing out the window). My mind somehow gets off the manic crazy gerbil wheel and always gives me a next step on the path.

Emotions. When I feel the heat of anger or the twist of frustration, slowing myself down is one of the most skillful things I can do. Stop. Take a breath. Check out what’s happening in my body. Respond instead of react. Emotional wisdom never comes in lashing out. Slowing down is also a great practice for positive, joyful situations. When you’re feeling happy or excited, slow down your breath, soften your eyes and truly let in what is happening. Slow down the handshake. Slow down the hug. And by all means, slow down the kiss.

Spirit. Inspiration can come in a rush but the process of creating benefits from making space, slowing down and letting the next inspiration flow in. I notice this when I’m writing and drawing, in particular. I may think I know where a piece is going but when I stop, and slow down the process, often better ideas and directions pop in.

Build the strength of slow. True mastery is in slowing down.

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kind without caving BandW cookieOur culture loves black and white.
Just watch a mainstream movie.
Or listen to a politician.
Or a lawyer.
It’s all either/or, good guys/bad guys, with us or against us.

Black and white can feel easier…but it’s not the way things are. Movement and life are not binary code. They are gray and messy and both/and.

What feels right is both: soft and strong. Kindness without caving.

Have a conversation with someone who is both clear and kind, both strong and compassionate. Even if you disagree, it feels good to be with both.

Seek that sensation in movement, action, and words.

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