Tag Archives: practice

June is Savoring Month (as designated by my very own self) and every Wednesday this month, I’ll be checking in on how I’m doing as a recovering Rushin’ Refugee.

rushin refugee Volkswagen-Jetta-TDIWhen I started dating my husband Frank, I thought something was wrong with his car. It went so slowly, I thought the engine needed an overhaul or something.

“No,” he said, “The car’s fine. I just like to drive slowly. It’s relaxing.”

Yeah, well, whatever.

Whenever Frank rode with me, I noticed that he was usually gripping the seat in a decidedly unrelaxed way.

My driving habit is one of precision: I leave exACTly the 14 minutes I need to get across town to the gym or the 6 minutes to get downtown or the 2 hours and 15 minutes to get to my sister’s. I somehow figure that there will never be any traffic, never any construction, never a Frank-style driver in front of me. And of course, that never happens.

Given my habit, I am always just the teensiest bit late and just the teensiest bit anxious about getting to wherever I am going on time.

I am also annoyed. I may well be sincerely deluded about how long it is going to take me to get somewhere, but I know perfectly well whose fault it is that I am pushing and running behind. I am not annoyed with the traffic jam or the road work or the slow driver in front of me. I am annoyed with me for not leaving more time.

In my heart, I know Frank is right: driving slowly is relaxing.

Since recognizing that I am, in fact, a recovering Rushin’ Refugee, I’ve been playing with erring on the side of leaving more time to get where I’m going. Instead of doing that One More Thing before I go … I just go.

With a little more wiggle room, I am driving more slowly (especially through the work zone). I know I don’t even need to mention the enormous safety benefits to driving slowly. It’s a practice worth doing just for that.

Turns out, though, that the benefits of slowing down expand even beyond safety. Going slowly gives me time to notice things along the way: people on the sidewalk, flowers in yards, and the stretch of mountains and sky as I come over Pantops Mountain. Leaving more time gives me time to be kinder on the road: letting cars into the traffic flow, waving someone else to proceed through the intersection before me, and offering a genuine “thank you wave” when someone does the same for me.

Sometimes I get to my destination sooner than I expected, but again, this gives me more time to say hello and check in with people, including myself. Last week, I had enough time before class to plop down outside the studio and make a prayer flag for our Michael Franti project.

Breaking any habit takes time and I’ve messed up my intention to leave more time more than once. But it’s actually fun to experiment with leaving more time rather than driving myself to distraction.

keepcalm make it soJean-Luc Picard is a big boat. Even in stormy intergalactic seas, he moves through with power and ease. Me? I’m often a little boat: tossed and tumbled by small waves. But I’m starting to be a big(ger) boat. Two things that calm my shaken-snow-globe brain: breathing and sensing my body. A breath slows me down, gives me even just a sliver of time to adjust. Sensing my body brings my more evolved prefrontal cortex online, ready to help me reason, get creative, and communicate. Practice choosing a little stress (Camel Pose, say), then breathe and stay calm. Make it so.

practice on your mat stick pose classMost of us are acutely aware of our own struggles and we are preoccupied with our own problems. We sympathize with ourselves because we see our own difficulties so clearly. But Ian MacLaren noted wisely, “Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.” – Chicago Tribune, 1965

Practice on your own mat, my yoga teachers remind me.

Bring my gaze inward, and I deepen my connection with myself. Practicing on my own mat gives me the information to more skillfully make choices based on what is actually happening, rather than what my mind thinks is happening (or thinks should be happening).

It’s true in yoga and it’s true in my life: when I stop distracting myself with shallow stories about those around me, I can actually sense what is true right now for me – the only person I hold any sway over.

The instruction of practicing on your own mat might lead you to practicing alone, just you and your mat. No sweaty, grunting guy behind you, or perfectly bendy girl next to you. And it can be good: solitude and quiet can be meditative and healing. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, taking time alone without distraction is deeply restorative.

We need to practice on our own mats, and maybe alone … but at least sometimes, we need to practice with other mats around.

When my yoga teacher, Sara, instructed me to bring my attention onto my towel, she helped me get out of my head, off of everybody else’s mat, and into my body. What it also did was to remind me of my real connection to other people. Her instruction, counter-intuitively perhaps, helped me see that we are all have suffering and that we support each other by practicing together.

In the midst of a 90-minute yoga class in a 105 degree studio, it’s fairly likely that I’ll be faced with some internal resistance, if not outright struggle, at some point. When I’m caught in some tangle of discomfort, it’s easy to distract myself with stories about how mean the teacher is, or how easy this is for everybody else, or how a cool shower and a cold beer is all I ever really needed to be happy.

It takes real courage to practice on my own mat and show up for whatever may be happening, no matter how stressful. But when I do, when I make that brave choice to show up for my own practice and really notice everything that is happening in my body and mind, something else shifts. I begin to see beyond the superficial in myself … and in everybody around me.

When I quiet the distraction of stories about others and about myself, I can actually feel my direct experience. Instead of “Dang, I’m good. I got my head to my knee!” or “Heavens, that guy sweats himself a lake!” I can focus on what I’m feeling. When I admit that the heat is kicking my ass, that my knees in Fixed Firm are screaming bloody murder, and that I am feeling a little desperate to be finished, I can use it as a reminder that everybody has something that is kicking her ass, screaming bloody murder, and making him desperate. As I deepen my connection to my own experience, it can (perhaps paradoxically) deepen my connection with everybody else.

When I find myself twisted in my own trouble on the yoga mat (or out in traffic), it helps to open my eyes and look around at the other mats (or cars). Instead of fabricating a empty story about them, practicing with other mats around reminds me to cultivate an attitude of compassion, inclusion, and care for all of us.

practice on your own mat savasana feet“[Marichi’s twist] is one of the relatively few poses in yoga where your gaze ought to extend beyond your mat. You look into the distance. There are fewer poses like this than you think. Most of the time, you should keep your gaze close to you. Keep your gaze within the area of your mat. That will keep your concentration where it needs to be: inside.” ~ from Poser by Claire Dederer

An hour into a Bikram yoga class, I’m supposed to be mindfully minding my breath. I’m supposed to be perfectly still, eyes open, paying attention to my body, quieting my mind. Usually, I’m not. Usually, I am looking at the person next to me and wondering where she got that cute shirt.

The spine strengthening series comes an hour or so into a 90-minute Bikram class. Four poses: all variations on back-bending, all performed belly down. Cobra (bhujangasana) targets the low spine. Half Locus (salabhasana): the middle and upper spine. Full Locust (poorna-salabhasana) and Bow (dhanurasana): the entire spine, stem to stern. I’ve suggested renaming the series to the “spine bending ass kicking series.” So far, it hasn’t caught on.

Between the two sets of each pose is a short corpse pose (savasana). Resting on the belly, head turned to one side, eyes open. It’s during the belly-down savasanas that I mentally wander the room asking questions, making up stories … just generally distracting myself. (Evidently, the mind roams even more wildly when the eyes are closed — which is startling.)

Here are thoughts I have had during the savasanas in spine strengthening series:

“Interesting tattoo. I wonder what the story is. I don’t think I’d ever get a tattoo. It’s more permanent than marriage.”

“Wow. She looks really good in those shorts. I would not look good in those. At all. I bet she’s twenty-five. Good lord, I could be her mother. I wonder if my legs ever looked that good. Probably not. I had Early Onset Cellulite.” (And then I smile to myself because I am so very amusing.)

“He’s wiggling his fingers. Does he know that he’s wiggling his fingers? Maybe his hand hurts. He’s supposed to be still during savasana but he’s not. He’s wiggling his fingers.”

Instead of watching my breath, this dialog rolls around like a big ol’ bocce ball in the pickup truck of my mind.

One Saturday, Sara took us into the first belly-down savasana and said, “Relax your left ear onto the towel and let your eyes focus on that magic spot on your mat.”

“Magic spot”! Sounds good. So I did. I found a little loop of towel to look at and – zhoom! – just like that, I was in my own skin, sensing my body. I could suddenly feel my heart beating and my breath moving. Instead of insinuating myself onto my neighbor’s mat, I was present and connected to how my practice felt for me right now. By taking my gaze onto my mat, I got into my body.

Many times before, I’d heard teachers say, “Practice on your own mat.” I thought the instruction was intended to avoid comparing ourselves to others. (Which is cool and helpful since I have a similar running dialog in regards to how much I either suck or rock compared to who’s practicing next to me.) But this was the first time I understood that practicing on my own mat is the most direct way I can connect with what is actually happening for me in this moment.

I notice the same as I move through my day. I can spend a good deal of time looking around, mentally making up stories and offering ever-so-wise suggestions.

“He’d feel much better if he didn’t eat that way.”

“A more thoughtful person would clean up their dishes.”

“She romanticizes the way things were instead of living her life right now.”

Oy. While I’m rolling on like this, my thoughts feel so real and true. But they’re meaningless. They are just distractions from whatever I’m feeling that I would like to avoid.

Either in yoga or out in the day, when I notice that I’m having my bocce ball dialog of stories and judgment, I practice bringing myself back onto my own mat. I do my best to literally or figuratively find that magic spot on my own towel to focus on. Inevitably, as soon as I do, I notice sensations that my dialog had rolled right over: pain, fear, sadness, anger, loneliness.

Practicing on my own mat brings me back to myself and reminds me to pay attention to my own experience. It is the only one I have true access to and the only one I can really do anything about.

eggbeaterLive as if you were to die tomorrow.  Learn as if you were to live forever.”  ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Yesterday, I wrote about all the things I learned on my Radical Sabbatical – and then promptly didn’t do when my sabbatical was over!  One perspective on what might seem like illogical behavior can be found in the Four Stages of Competence.

I learned some things and had some insights, but I hadn’t practiced them enough to embody them, so I went back to my old habits (I moved from Stage 1, Unconscious Incompetence, to Stage 2, Conscious Incompetence).  Learning was important but it wasn’t enough to change me.  Change and mastery happen in a cycle:  Learn, Practice and Embody (and repeat!).

Ever borrow a friend’s car and feel like a complete spaz driving it?  You go to put the turn signal on and the windshield wipers start?  It feels like someone’s put an eggbeater in your brain. That feeling of being confused and bamfoozled?  That oogie feeling?  That, my friends, is the sensation of learning or Conscious Incompetence!  We know what we want to do but we aren’t able to do it.  It feels strange and gawky, but no worries, it is just part of the process!

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”  “Practice, practice, practice.” ~ old joke

After learning (Stage 1 to 2), the next part of the cycle is practice.  I’m practicing when the intense awkward feeling passes (mostly, anyway), and the focused work begins.  In practice, I do the newly learned skill over and over with concentration and attention.  At the beginning, I may fluctuate between learning (Stage 2) and practice (Stage 3) and then back again.

Many teachers and trainers believe that all we need to gain a skill or change our behavior (or thinking) is the information:  the learning that shows us why we should do it.  But most people do better with the information and experience to really learn it.  (Ever try to eat more green leafy veggies or go to bed early instead of watching Downton Abbey until all hours because you know that it will be better for you?  Ever have a little trouble with that?  Yeah.  Me, too.  For ideas about how to start a new habit, click here.)

Practice might seem like grunt work:  the discipline that comes after the spark of learning and before the grace of mastery.  Practice in its pure form, though, is both indispensable and energizing.  When I am practicing, I am absorbed in the process and noticing the details.  This kind of attention allows for on-going discovery and refinement.

With continued practice, I move from Stage 3, Conscious Competence, to Stage 4, Unconscious Competence, when I can do the skill without thought or effort.  This stage of complete embodiment or mastery then cycles back into Stage 1.  The very nature of Stage 4’s unconsciousness can lead to a tendency not to consider advances or other approaches which could improve my abilities and outcomes.  On some level, no matter what our level of expertise, there is always more to learn and new details to practice.  (Remember the Beginner’s Mind post?)

While this cycle may seem like an endless series of awkward learnings followed by never-ending practice, there is tremendously cool news!  The process of learning and then practicing changes your brain.

“What is the strongest force in the Universe?” “The force of habit.” ~ another old joke

Your brain wants to be efficient, so whenever it can, it creates shortcuts and habits to reduce the energy it takes to do things we do often.  Imagine the effort of typing or driving a car if you had to really focus on all the details of those skills?  It would be exhausting just to drive across town or write an email!

Learning something new, on the other hand, burns new neural pathways in your brain.  Learning makes connections where there weren’t connections before.  Which is, as previously mentioned, entirely and tremendously cool — especially since 15 years ago, neuroscientists believed that the adult brain was  not only finished growing but that neurons were being pruned in the brain.  For a long time, science told us that an adult brain couldn’t change!  But loads of current neuroscience shows that the cycle of competency actually allows our brains to transform and develop – no matter how old we are.

Practicing Nia is a process of learning, practicing and embodying.  By moving in a wide variety of ways, speeds, ranges of motion, and patterns, your body and brain are always learning.  If you are new to class, you are doing a lot of learning/Stage 2!  If you are doing movements that you’ve done before, you may be doing more practicing/Stage 3.  Eventually, we can embody the movements in Stage 4/Unconscious Competence…but in Nia, we don’t stay there very long!  It is The Body’s Way to be in this cycle of learning, practicing and embodying, constantly stimulating not just your bones, muscles and connective tissue, but your brain and nervous system!

I hope you’ll join me this week in finding something new to learn and practice.  Enjoy the oogie sensation and know that it is expanding the capacity of your brain – keeping you vibrant, young and alive.

intention 4When we left off in yesterday’s post, I was saying that when I came back from my sabbatical, I wanted to be clearer about setting intentions in class and for my life.  I wanted to focus on the why/the results I wanted to create as much as the what!  But boy howdy, I’ve been challenged to break my focus-focused habit!

Feel Intention in Movement

Which is a bummer, since intention unleashes a boatload of energy and moves me in the direction I want to go.  In the body, intention delivers immediate shifts in movement and sensation.  Play with me for a minute here:  right now, push your right palm forward and then pull it back.  Do it three or four times noticing the sensation.  Now, push your right palm forward with the intent of cultivating strength.  Do that a few times and see how it feels.  When I do this, I can feel my whole arm and core working in a completely different way once my intention is engaged.  Did that happen for you?  Imagine if we danced a whole class with that kind of directed attention!  Imagine if we lived a whole day like that…or a year!

Setting an Intention

Instead of setting a resolution, the first of the year is a great time to set intentions.  What is the fuel that will energize my year?  What is the destination that I want to plug into the GPS of Life?  Seriously, if I was going on a trip, it’s not likely that I would just say, let’s go “west-ish.”  I’d have a specific address that I was heading for.  That’s what an intention is:  the address where you want to go!

Where Do You Want to Go?

Start by determining what you want your intention to be about.  Think about an aspect of your life where you’d like to see a shift:  your relationships, or your work, your eating habits, or maybe your Nia practice.  Or you might have a specific task or habit you want to form or break.  Or maybe there is an overarching intent you’d like for the coming year or season, like more balance or more kindness or more fun.  Decide what result you’d like to move toward.

Get Clear

Next, clarify your intention. One of the best ways to get clear is to write it down.  It doesn’t have to be grandiose:  in fact, the simpler and clearer, the better.

As you pick up your pen (or keyboard), here are some intention-setting guides:  (1) make your intention something you really want, (2) make it positive and in the present, and (3) put yourself in it, front and center!  First, choose and intent that you really want – if you’re going to harness this energy toward something, best to do it around something that really flips your skirt (or britches)!  Second, write your intent in the present tense as if it has already happened (that is, “I am more balanced in my body and my life” instead of “I will build more balance in my life”).  State your intent in the positive (that is, “I have a wheat-free diet” instead of “I will stop eating wheat”).  And third, make it an “I” statement.  It’s not an abstract intention it is yours.  Put yourself in the center of it.

Share It

A second, excellent way to reinforce your intent is to share it with someone.  Tell a friend or a spouse or a classmate what your intention is and suddenly, it feels a little more real.  Writing it or speaking it doesn’t mean that you absolutely have to do it (you may always change your mind and your intention at any time), but it directs more energy toward what you want to create if you do more than say it inside your little noggin.

Susan’s Intent…Now Yours!

As 2012 winds up, I invite you to step into the new year with intent.  For myself, know that my ultimate goal in everything I do is to help myself and others be happier and healthier.  So with that destination plugged into my GPS of Life, I am recommitting to giving more attention and clearer expression to my intent.  So here are my intentions (one for my teaching and one for my life in 2013).  I’m writing it down and sharing it with you, my blog peeps:

I clearly set the intention at the beginning of every class.

I make space and time for creativity, exploration, play and love.

Your turn!  Direct your energy and attention by setting an intention for yourself.  Write your intention for 2013 and share it below!

And thank you for being part of the first year of Focus Pocus!  I look forward to continuing to explore the “magic” of inquiry and intent with you in 2013.

self-healing handHealer?  No.  I’m a Self-Healing Encourager!

Self-healing begins with awareness.

Self-healing practice:  pay attention to sensation, move or change, then notice if it feels better.  “Yes, that feels better!”?  That’s self-healing.  Even small improvements!

Do it now.  Scan your body for something uncomfortable.  Pay attention.  Sense it fully.  Stimulate with movement.  Ask, “Is this making me feel better?”  If it feels even a little better, that’s self-healing!  If not, experiment with another stimulation (logical or not).

Practice self-healing any time, anywhere.  Notice, move and see if it feels better.  Self-heal by being with and caring for yourself.

Comment below!  “Like”!

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