Priorities

At a weekend workshop at our studio a few years ago, the teacher asked everyone who felt as if they should be doing more in any aspect of their life to raise their hand. This could be doing more yoga, spending more time with family, reading, working, doing yard work, more of anything at all. There were forty people at the workshop and every hand in the room went up. The workshop leader was illustrating how we each feel we should or could be doing more than we are doing now.

When I bought HAYC eleven years ago, I was teaching yoga classes here in Herndon and also in Columbia, Maryland. I also had a part-time computer programming job in Columbia. Adding management of the studio to an already busy schedule completely overwhelmed me. One morning I woke up and wrote down everything I expected to do that day and that week.  I discovered I needed thirty-two hour days or a few extra days in the week if I planned to sleep six hours each night.  Clearly this was not going to work, though I felt better knowing I had a reason to feel stressed.

Recognizing the irony of a stressed-out yoga teacher, I decided to set priorities and become comfortable with allowing the non-priorities to slide.  For a year and a half, until I left my jobs in Columbia, my meals were very simple, shopping was only for essentials, and my house was pretty messy. If something was not necessary for one of my jobs or interacting in polite society, it did not get done unless I found a spare hour. The benefit was that I could usually do all that was required and I learned not to get upset about all that I could not do.

For most of us, it is impossible to accomplish all that we think we should, could, or want. Even if we happen to accomplish everything, we can probably find more to fill our time.  I was talking with a friend who retired awhile ago and he said that he does not know how he ever worked; his schedule is so full that he is having trouble fitting in all of his activities.  My life is much simpler now that I can just focus on the yoga center, but there are days I feel just as busy as I did years ago.

If we recognize that there will never be enough hours in the day, the question changes from: “How will I do everything?” to “What is worthy of my time?”  I learned from my busy year that quality of life is important and making time for activities I enjoy must be part of my schedule. There are a few essentials like eating and sleeping that we have to do to survive, but beyond those, we each have our own opinions about what is indispensible.  How we choose to spend our time greatly affects both how we feel and our overall well-being.

Practice

The first class I took at The Health Advantage Yoga Center was Yoga 1. I had been doing yoga for five years as a way to balance my body and mind after long daily hours in front of a computer, but the style of yoga taught at HAYC was different than those I had taken before and I felt I needed to start again at the beginning to learn the alignment and terminology.

One of the first poses we did was the leg stretch where you lie on your back, place a belt around the sole of your foot, and lift your leg up to stretch the muscles at the back of your leg. I knew I should just focus on myself, but I glanced around the room and saw that everyone in class could bring their leg up to ninety degrees. My leg barely reached forty-five degrees. I was discouraged; I was the only person in the class who had done yoga before and everyone in the room was clearly more flexible than I.

Though I had heard repeatedly that yoga is not a competition, this leg stretch pricked my pride. I was determined to get my leg up to ninety degrees too. Since my job at that time required long hours every day including weekends, it was difficult to find time to stretch. I did not want to risk hurting myself by doing strong, advanced stretches, so I decided to do a simple standing forward bend every night for fifty breaths before I brushed my teeth. It was one stretch a day for one to three minutes, nothing more. Surprisingly, I began to see progress in a few weeks: my hands went from knee level to shin level. In four months, my fingertips brushed my feet. This was the first time in my life I had touched my toes while standing.

This was also the first time I practiced anything voluntarily as an adult. I had taken classes ranging from calligraphy to electronics to yoga since leaving school and I had learned from all of them, but I never did much besides attend the classes and complete the homework assignments. I never practiced what I learned in these classes to become more proficient in the subjects.

As children we do a tremendous amount of practicing to learn skills. We spend hours tracing and copying letters while learning to write and do hundreds of math problems to learn basic arithmetic. When learning a musical instrument, we practice scales and the same pieces of music over and over again. In sports there are drills to prepare us for games.

When we become adults, the inclination to practice to learn or become more proficient in a skill seems to fade. There is no one telling us we must practice, it is hard to find time, there are distractions, or it just is not fun. Yet we know there are rewards for practice and experience. We respect experts and people who are accomplished in their fields. Usually they have spent years studying their crafts, doing the same things over and over again, seeing different permutations. Though repetitiveness can be dull at times, with each repetition there are often small differences and lessons to be learned.

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the modern founder of the Ashtanga system of yoga, often said “Practice and all is coming”. Is there a subject you would like to learn or a field in which you would like to feel more accomplished? Is it worth spending a little time to practice?

Distractions

I began teaching yoga classes at a local fitness club in 1997. I had not spent much time in a gym since high school and the fitness club’s equipment and amenities were far better than I had anticipated. There were rows of gleaming weights, treadmills, exercise bikes and lots of machines. What surprised me was how audibly and visually overwhelmed I felt. On top of the bright lights, clanking weights and whirring treadmills, there was loud music echoing off the walls and rows of televisions hanging from the ceiling. It was a relief to go to the relatively quieter and calmer room where the yoga classes were held.

Since then I have become increasingly aware of how much noise and visual activity we have around us. My car dealership has a huge television in the waiting room. Airports have monitors hanging from the ceilings usually showing CNN. I may be getting older and more sensitive or just cranky, but the music in many of the clothing stores seems to be getting louder. I left one recently because I could feel the floor vibrating beneath my feet and my clothes shook in time with the bass.

This constant and often intrusive stimulation is different than a little background music that sets a mood and can be ignored or using music with a strong beat to accompany an exercise routine. These are sounds and images we do not choose and are hard to block out; they make it difficult to think our own thoughts and to concentrate.

Finding times and places to enjoy peace and quiet seems to be increasingly elusive. We have all seen pictures of people sitting on porches just watching the world go by. In some ways this seems rather quaint in our busy society today. With cell phones, Blackberries and a host of small mobile gadgets, we can be and are often expected to be accessible anywhere at anytime.

Interestingly, when some people are given a few minutes of peace and quiet, they do not know what to do with themselves. Every yoga class at our studio ends with final relaxation which is about five to ten minutes where everyone lies down and relaxes. I often see people in the first few classes fidgeting impatiently and some have admitted they feel uncomfortable being idle. It is so simple to go through an entire day without a moment of silence or time to reflect that unoccupied time can be unsettling. After a few weeks of adjustment, most people look forward to the end of the class where they can just let go.

In the last few years, I have had many requests for more inwardly focused classes. In fact one person suggested more silent classes specifically because there is so much noise in our lives. Her email resulted in the Silent Practice short course. The Learn to Meditate short course and the Movement, Breath, and Meditation classes soon followed. All of these classes allow people to turn away from outside distractions so they have a calm, quiet time for themselves.

Thinking back on the past week, did you have any time to be alone with your thoughts? Is it possible for you to enjoy a little uninterrupted time without distractions? Are you willing to try?

Challenges

In August 2000 I was rear-ended while stopped in traffic on the beltway. I was hit so hard that the grill of the pickup truck left an impression on the back of my minivan. Besides the expected whiplash, I had other serious, though not crippling, musculoskeletal injuries. For several years after the accident, I was constantly aware of how I moved, sat, and positioned myself for sleep. Bad posture and wrong movements exacerbated the discomfort.

At the time of the accident, I was taking a yoga class or two a week plus the occasional workshop and was teaching eleven classes. Yoga was a huge part of my life and I refused to allow the accident to take it away from me. In the past three or four years, the discomfort has subsided and I credit most of the improvement to a regular yoga practice.

When we are injured, the common and normal reaction is to protect ourselves from further pain. It is very easy to stop moving in the ways that hurt and stay with movements that cause no discomfort. Though the short term effect is a decrease in pain, the long term effect is the opposite. Muscles that are not used become weak and less flexible. We compensate by recruiting other body parts, moving them in ways they are not designed to move, which over time causes those muscles and joints to become achy and sore.

Yoga postures challenge us to move outside of our normal patterns. They also require us to balance strength and flexibility by strengthening areas that are too mobile and creating flexibility in areas that are stiff and tight. After the accident, I could immediately feel when I was doing a yoga pose incorrectly because I had instantaneous feedback. Either the area where I was injured became uncomfortable or whatever I was using to compensate for my injuries would feel overstretched or fatigued. At first I could only do the beginning level poses, but over the years, I regained most of my flexibility and strength and in some areas exceeded where I had been before as my body became better aligned. Although I will always have to be careful in some poses, I am doing far better than the medical community predicted. In talking with other yoga practitioners, I am not alone in experiencing these benefits of a regular yoga practice.

Whenever we suffer an injury, physically or emotionally, we want to protect ourselves from additional harm. It is natural to create all types of shields and compensations and to avoid situations where we could be hurt again. Though we may have no control over an injury’s occurrence, we do have a choice in how we react. We can allow the injury to define us, becoming part of the way we picture and describe ourselves, which at the beginning is understandable as we find a new normal. However, over time, we can either keep our protective shells or stretch beyond them. Though staying protected is easy and comfortable, it limits us in the long run. To stretch beyond our comfort zone is difficult but the long term rewards are worth the challenge.

Transformation

When I was little, my family had the same dinner every Sunday evening: steak, baked potatoes, peas, salad, and then ice cream with strawberries for dessert. It was such a constant in my life that I never thought to question it. Sunday was Steak Night.

One Sunday when I was five or six years old, my best friend asked what I was going to have for supper. I did not understand his question because I had never considered it was possible for anyone to have anything besides my family’s regular Sunday meal. We got into a fight when he said his family was having chicken and I refused to believe him.

I have not forgotten this argument because until my friend’s dinner question, it had never occurred to me that other families were not the same as mine. I was stunned and it shook my view of the world. I had assumed that everyone was like me and in those few minutes the world became a much more uncertain place. If you cannot be sure about Sunday dinner, what can you trust?

Looking back on it now, I am slightly surprised this upset me as much as it did. I knew that everybody was not the same. My friend was in a different class at school, he had older sisters and I did not, and we ate different lunches. Yet when one of the constants in my life was threatened, I was ready to fight for it rather than concede that it was not a constant after all.

Everything changes; we move to different houses, find new jobs, and grow older. Day becomes night, the earth spins around the sun and, over centuries, rocks erode and mountains form. Ironically, change is one of our few constants.

How we handle a change often depends upon how attached we are to whatever it is that is changing. If we alter something relatively inconsequential, like our dish soap or brand of paper towel, we quickly forget about it because there is no emotional impact. When there is a significant change, like moving to a different part of the county, the associated emotions can be quite mixed. We may enjoy our new surroundings, but also miss the friends we left behind. It may take us some time to adjust.

When a basic belief or an understanding of how the world works is questioned or threatened, often our response is to hang on to that belief with everything that we have. It is much easier to continue in the way in which we have become accustomed than to accommodate changes to our views of the world.

Sometimes, when the evidence against a long held belief is too great, we have no choice but to change; it is impossible to do otherwise. We remember these moments because they transform us and we see the world in a new way. The catalyst may be something as simple as a steak dinner, but the results last a lifetime.

Habits

Years ago I traveled to the mountains of Utah to take classes with a popular yoga teacher. The classes started early in the morning when it was cool, and I found I felt better when I got to the yoga room early and stretched for a few minutes before the workshop began. One morning I arrived just as a woman was lighting the candles in the room. Something about the way she was holding the match seemed a little odd, but I could not figure out exactly what it was.

However we move, our bodies tend to be extremely accommodating. We can sit poorly in front of computers for hours not realizing until we log off that our wrists and fingers are cramped and our shoulders are sore. We can slouch in front of the television all evening completely unaware that our lower backs ache until we stand up. If our minds are absorbed in whatever we are doing while we hold ourselves or move in a way that is unhealthy, we rarely notice until we become less focused on the activity or we start to experience pain.

If we move in the same way for a period of time, our bodies adapt to our patterns and these patterns become habits. We often do not recognize these habits; it just becomes easier or more comfortable to move in one way than another.

Sometimes our physical habits are of no consequence, but some postural habits can affect our wellbeing. Two common examples are standing with most of our weight on one foot or sitting with our legs crossed the same way every time. Both create imbalances in our hips and legs that we compensate for with our spines and upper bodies. If we stand or sit improperly for decades, some muscles become chronically tight and others chronically stretched which commonly causes those muscles to become achy and sore.

In the Utah workshop at a group dinner later in the week, the woman who lit the morning candles proudly announced that it was the fifteenth anniversary of the day she had quit smoking. As I watched her light the candles the follow morning, I could clearly see that instead of holding the long match between her index finger and thumb, she was holding it between her index and middle fingers the way many people hold cigarettes.

How we hold a match does not really matter, but it illustrates how easily and unconsciously habits are formed. In the physical form of yoga, Hatha Yoga, we move our bodies in ways most of us would not move otherwise. Though we have all seen pictures of yoga poses that require remarkable flexibility and strength, the basic yoga poses are accessible to almost anyone. When these basic poses are practiced with alignment, they strengthen and stretch our muscles. Over time bring them into better balance. For some, aches and pains diminish and quality of life improves. Also, since Hatha Yoga causes us to focus on our bodies, we often begin to notice our habits and imbalances which we might otherwise not be aware of when our attention is focused on our everyday activities. With this awareness, we may start to change the habits that are not healthy, feeling better now and avoiding future discomfort.

Experience

In the past few years I have become interested in cooking. I have always enjoyed baking cookies and cakes, but now I am starting to play with combinations of grains, vegetables and spices, as well as mixtures of colors and textures.

I have a number of cookbooks and regularly search for recipes on the Internet. Most of the new recipes are accompanied by pictures. With the picture and list of ingredients, I can usually imagine what the dish will look and taste like, but there have been some notable exceptions. Although my ability to envision dishes is improving, my imagination can never match smelling, tasting, and feeling the texture of a meal.

In addition, I learn something with every meal I cook. When experimenting with new techniques, blends of spices, and combinations of ingredients, I find methods and tastes that I like, and some that I will never repeat. While I occasionally watch cooking shows for enjoyment, I usually have to practice what I have seen to gain the full benefit.

As the owner of the yoga studio, I am typically asked a few times a year by people who have never done yoga whether they can observe a class. I always direct them to try a free sample class instead. The sample classes are representative of the regular classes, but very basic. The teacher explains what yoga is about and leads the students through a class.

All classes begin with centering where one focuses the mind on the flow and rhythm of the breath. As thoughts of the day fade, the mind and body calm. Next, the class moves into a series of basic poses. Moving and stretching in the various postures often creates a feeling of openness, strength, and wellbeing. The class ends with final relaxation where the instructor guides the class in softening and releasing each part of the body. As one relaxes, the limbs begin to feel heavy and the mind quiets. Focusing and calming your mind, then feeling your body move and finally settle is entirely different than watching a roomful of people and imagining what it would be like. Observation falls far short of the experience.

Even after twenty years of practicing yoga, whenever I take a class or workshop, including those at beginning levels, or when I practice at home, I learn. Sometimes it is a new way of doing a pose or a better understanding of my body. Occasionally there is a flash of understanding, a “light bulb moment”, where something I have read or heard about before suddenly makes sense. These realizations would never occur if I was not actively doing the practice. It has to be lived.

Yoga is considered an experiential discipline, and one cannot get the full experience by simply watching or reading about it. Similarly, looking at pictures of food may make your mouth water, but it is much more pleasurable to eat the meal. Life is richer for the experiences we have. Although it is often easier to sit back and watch, we miss so much when we do. Instead of being an observer of life, participate, experience and enjoy.