…but I never push. (As it turns out, attempting to push, force, control, insist, or fix people just doesn’t work – and it wastes a lot of energy).
However, I have noticed that almost all of my clients that have sustained any semblance of longer-term recovery, balanced living and wellness have one thing in common: a mindfulness practice. They do something, consistently, that involves A) being in their bodies and B) being in the present moment. Yoga just happens to be one of the easiest and most accessible ways to accomplish this, but is – by no means –the only option.
So why does it work?
Okay, first we have to go back. Way back. As lovely as it is to run around in our designer heels and fancy cars, we have to remember that our ancestors were cave people. We developed, biologically, from these very primitive and less sophisticated ancestors. Parts of our brain are primitive, and as sophisticated as our thinking can be, we still have our limbic system, firing away, in a similar fashion to our ancient relatives.
Imagine that you are a cave person and your survival depends on your ability to A) eat and B) not get eaten by a saber-tooth tiger. Imagine that you are out in the sunshine on a beautiful day, with the sun shining on your face, and feeling the soft breeze blowing in your cave person hair – and then BAM!!!!!!!! You hear a rustling in the bush. Immediately, you are prepared for danger because that sound may be a predator. You’re ready to run, or to fight – sending your parasympthatic nervous system into fight or flight response. Adrenaline pumps, and stress hormones are shot into your bloodstream so that you can survive.
Okay, so what?? We’re not cave people any more, so how does this apply to me and my life today?
Science has shown that our brains continue to demonstrate this negativity bias. In a split second, even when there is an infinite amount of positive stimuli to attend to, our brains with naturally, automatically, and because of evolution, zero in on the perceived threat, the “negative” experience, the rustling in the bushes.
And at one time, this saved our lives.
As the psychologist, Donald Hebb, put it: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Our thoughts, feelings, memories and behaviors leave behind lasting impressions on the brain – a lot like the grooves created by a stream flowing down a hill. These grooves are pathways, of sorts, that create the lens in which we perceive reality – both ourselves and the world. So very simply, our brain grooves set us up with a lens to perceive our reality in one of two ways: views that make us suffer, or views that lead us to happiness. Your experience matters.
As the intersection of science and Eastern philosophies continues to develop, the exciting news is this: there is a scientifically supported rationale for being nice to yourself. If your experience matters, this creates a substantiated argument that creating and experiencing more wholesome, calm, joyful, pleasant, and satisfying experiences will change your brain.
This is where yoga comes in. While there are many ways to access the elusive and healing “present moment”, we typically don’t learn them. We are top-heavy learners, relying on our rational minds, our intellect, and our reasoning to develop. We sit in desks and eat at scheduled times instead of moving our bodies and learning to trust our hunger cues. We learn to trust “what we are told” instead of our own intuitive sensations, essentially leaving the present moment behind over and over again to examine the past or to predict the future.
As Tara Brach points out, “the only place that is ever REALLY safe is this present moment.” And as for as our neurobiology is concerned, that is true. Whatever type of yoga class you sign up for, there is one unifying characteristic – breath. All yoga is (or at least should be) an exercise in finding the breath, yoking the breath to movement, and –alas- using the breath as a vehicle to come back to the present moment. That’s why yoga works. Eventually, the brain starts to change, and the cumulative effect of our nervous system registering the safety of this moment right now takes effect. I could sing praise for all the physical benefits of a regular yoga practice: joint health, muscle recovery, flexibility, and appetite regulation – but for me, the mental and emotional benefits have been profound.
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You have probably read something like this and other similar obnoxious advertisements at your local gym. And it annoys me every time. Can you imagine telling a child that they have to run 5 laps around the back yard to earn dinner? NO! Of course not. So why do we do that to ourselves? We often think in terms of:
30 min of biking for 2 pieces of chocolate
You can’t blame yourself for this type of thinking. It’s taught to you in just about every women’s magazine out there. But what would happen if we flipped our thinking?
2 pieces of chocolate for 30 min of biking
While I’m being a bit playful here, I’m serious about the principle. We have to start thinking about fueling our bodies for our busy days and physical activity rather than burning off our food and the associated guilt from eating. From a psychological and emotional perspective it is totally unproductive because it fuels the notion that eating is bad and is a sin that must be “atoned for.”
Why don’t you try turning your food/exercise equation on its head and let me know how it goes!
At the moment I have a book project I’m developing (in my brain for now). It’s geared towards helping people repair their relationship with exercise. If I was to write such a book, what would you want covered?
*In order for my exercise "to count" I have to do it 6 days a week, for at least an hour
*In order for my exercise "to count" I have to feel worn out after
*In order for my exercise "to count" I can't eat anything "bad" after
Ok, do any of the above statements sound vaguely familiar? When you see it written down, doesn't it looks somewhat abusive? Many people create totally unrealistic expectations of what their exercise should look like. And when they don't live up to those expectations, it's thrown out the window all together!
The Center for Disease Control has posted exercise guidelines for healthy adults. It states that in order to reap the health benefits from exercise, try to aim for 30 min of moderate exercise most days (not all) of the week. THIS INCLUDES: walking, riding a bike, doing water aerobics, mowing the lawn...perhaps hula hooping?
NEWS FLASH! You do not have to rake your body over the coals to benefit from physical activity. So lets let go of unrealistic, black and white goals around exercise. Your best bet to "making it count" for the long run is to find exercise that you not only enjoy but can sustain.
**Note: I tell all of my clients that a pre-requisite to any physical activity is consistent, adequate nutrition.
What are you feel-good exercise tips?
Recently at the pool I admired a guy swimmer’s newly peroxided hair. The guys around him said, “Yeah, we call him the Blond Baller now.” “Argh!” I screamed. For weeks I had been trying to come up with a female swim power phrase, the equivalent for “macho.” Our language doesn’t have many, or any, female swim power words.
The Blond Baller is a superfast sprinter, so I assumed the “Baller” part of his nickname referred to his fast (swim) stroke. I posted my female swim power language dilemma on the US Masters swim forum and got some interesting suggestions, many of them, ironically, from men—Piscine Goddess, Aqua Aphrodite, and Buff Babes—but none met my criteria of using body language words to convey power. I had my own pitiful list: Ball Busters (later on that one), Water Sweepers (thinking of housekeepers), Power Surgers, Tough-Breasted. Bleah.
Meanwhile, another thread on the masters swim forum was talking about Janet Evans’s possible return to Olympic swimming. A few guy masters swimmers close to her age began worrying that she would be able to beat them. One guy posted, “I used to think I was safe from being ‘chicked’ by masters women roughly near my age in distance races.” Another guy then suggested the term “outchicked” as a way to describe a powerful female swimmer, but this suggested a relational kind of power (aka “Ball Buster”) rather than pure female power.
I found some good nicknames for Olympic female swimmers: Faith Leech, a 1956 Australian Olympic freestyler, was known as the “Flying Fish” because of her streamlined length and “elegant” technique. Mary T. Meagher was known as “Madame Butterfly,” and AP quotes described Janet Evans as “a Force of Nature,” “a whirling dervish of a swimmer,” “perpetual motion.” There was one female-only suggestion from the masters swim forum that I sort of liked: “bitchin,’” as in “bitchin’ sprinter” (though it still has a slightly negative ring).
In the back of my mind, though, I kept thinking “Big Girls.” At a lot of swim meets, the really powerful female swimmers are big. Big shoulders, big arms, big backs, big quads, big muscles overall. They aren’t the majority, but they aren’t the minority either. I think of swimming as a sport where it’s OK to be “sized.” Big Women doesn’t do it for me—it’s gotta be Big Girls, to tie in to the link from childhood on that girls are supposed to be small. Petite. Svelte. Even if very strong, you can’t look it, else you risk being called manly or compared to former East German steroid-enhanced female Olympic swimmers.
I’ll take Evans’s “Force of Nature” any day, but I also want to say to every girl and woman who swims (or does any type of physical activity for that matter): Be Big. Take up a lot of space. Be a Big Force of Nature, a Big Whirling Dervish, a Big Powerful Bitchin’ Swimmer who doesn’t care about “outchicking” guys, but just wants to move with power and strength.
Be a Big Girl and be proud of it.