Thursday, October 30, 2008

Strength and Flexibility

Yoga has been taught in the East for thousands of years. Initially, the physical practice began as an outgrowth, for the body, of the work being done to strengthen the mind. As Yoga moved west, and has gained in popularity exponentially , the physical practice of Yoga has gained millions of “regular people” followers, myself included. I came to Yoga after years of step aerobics, dance aerobics, Jane Fonda aerobics, aerobics with weights, aerobics with giant bouncing balls. If there was plate twirling monkey aerobics, I probably would have tried that too ! However, Yoga taught me that not every form of exercise has to have a ‘gimmick’.

I usually teach four classes per week, and the focus of each of these programs is the balance between flexibility and strength. I encourage my students to build up their core muscles in their abdomen and backs. This will help improve their posture and their overall strength and fitness. Plus, they will, as I have, simply begin to feel healthier, with a stronger core. Additionally, I encourage strength in the upper body, which is notoriously weak for most women. Many of us have strong legs, but our upper body tends to dwindle over the years. In my own case, I have no memory of ever having a strong upper half. I remember hanging helplessly in the “Presidential Physical Fitness test” from the monkey bars in 6th grade, with a sadistic PE teacher embarrasingly shouting “You can’t even do ONE pull up ?”, as he scribbled a big red F in my little square box on his sheet. If I believed in the 9 circles of Hell, as written in Dante’s Inferno, I’d have to reserve the 8th circle (reserved for those sowers of discord and betrayers of children) for PE teachers from the 1970’s. Perhaps it’s in reaction to my own experience being mocked, but I’ve worked very diligently at helping others gain upper body strength. Lower body strength is also gained in Yoga, in bringing about balance between the two halves of our form.
One of the best known Yoga poses is “Downward Facing Dog”. In this wonderful pose, one is able to strengthen and stretch both the upper and lower parts of the body. Hamstrings, Achilles tendons and Trapezius muscles are opened up. Triceps, Biceps, Deltoids and low back muscles are strengthened. Once a student gets over her initial reaction of “Really ? You want me to shine my tush in the air ?”, she realizes the benefits of this pose.

Strength without flexibility isn’t much good for anyone, however. Think of the body builders who have huge muscles, but no range of mobility. Can they touch their toes, or reach their arms to touch clasp hands behind their backs ? Unlikely….as many focus on strength and strength alone. Flexibility is key. When your muscles are strong and flexible, you have much less risk of injury, and your overall fitness will be greater. It’s the metaphor of the Oak tree and the Willow: The Oak tree stands firm and stout, but when the wind comes, it has no flexibility and can crack in half. The Willow tree may not have as solid a core trunk, but as the wind comes, it is more adaptable to blowing along with the direction of the wind, rather than breaking.

Yoga’s roots, however, are not in the body, but of the mind. Even after all this discussion about the physical benefits of Yoga, the true and deep meaning comes to our very nature, inside our hearts and spirits. It’s of vital importance that we develop strong minds. We need to know ourselves, as well to develop our morality, our sense of values and our own innate being. We need to completely ‘fit’ in our convictions and our determination to “live out the life we have chosen” (according to Thoreau). But, strength and conviction without flexibility means that our beliefs can be broken in the “wind”. This isn’t to say that we need to allow our moral compass to be blown in any direction. People without a ‘center’ tend to flit whichever way those around them lead. Rather, flexibility implies a willingness to listen, to be accepting of other people’s opinions and to be able to work through differences into compromise. This is not a weakness. Instead, it’s using our own strength wisely, and with flexibility to appreciate diversity.

If we can cultivate both strength and flexibility in both body and mind, we’ll be much better equipped to deal with anything that comes our way. And, we’ll feel better about it too.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Lion and The Mouse

No act of kindness, no matter how small is ever wasted. - Aesop

Do you remember the fable of the lion and the mouse ? To paraphrase loosely, in Aesop’s tale, the mouse comes to the lion, who is roaring in great pain from the thorn in his paw, and removes the thorn. Later on, the lion saves the mouse’s life. It’s a parable for teaching us to practice “random acts of kindness” wherever we can, never knowing how, or when, these acts will catch back up to us and bless us in some way. It’s a wonderful idea to think about: a small gesture of kindness boomeranging around to create an even larger kindness to ourselves. Eastern traditions call this one arm of “karma”. Christians refer to the Bible verse from Hebrews, “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” This means that one must be diligent in the kindness you present to the outside world….and in doing so, you will be rewarded for your generosity, either spiritually or practically.

While these concepts are wonderful to think about, sometimes, they’re awfully hard to practice. After all, we don’t live in a fairy tale world. We have work to do, laundry to wash, dogs to walk, errands to run, bills to pay, children to ferry to activities and school, and all the messes to clean up. We are exhausted. Even going to a yoga class feels like work at times ! I had a wonderful Yoga teacher that lamented how all of his students were coming into class complaining, “Oh, I was sure I’d be late. Let’s get this over with…”, thinking of yoga as one more item to check off on the to do list. There are days when just being polite seems more than we can handle. How can we possibly cultivate kindness when we are rushed, harried, grumpy and worried ?

There is no magic that will transform us overnight from stressed out to blissful. We can pray, we can meditate, we can practice yoga or other forms of exercise than benefit our bodies and minds. We can get good sleep at night, and eat well. But, none of these things will take away our schedules. They’ll help us get a handle on how best to deal with the chaos, but they won’t transform our daily existence from neurotic soccer mom to enlightened being. I believe this is why so many people get frustrated and give up. I have had my moments of thinking, “I just can’t do this one more day. My kids are fighting all the time, I have bills I can’t pay, my husband is working long hours, one dog just threw up on the good rug and other one ate the sofa.” Not to mention that I’ve felt fat, ugly, stupid and ill equipped to deal with the realities of life.

So, what made me feel as if I could pull out that thorn ? In my very humble opinion, it’s with baby steps. I tackle one task off my list, instead of looking at the whole list. Instead of snarking at my children to quit fighting, I compliment them during the times they are kind. I tell my husband how much I value his working so hard to give us a good life. I walk the dogs and praise them for good behavior (and have the couch recovered). I address these issues inside my home first. I find that, when I am kind at home, little by little, the kindness is returned. The dogs benefit from the extra attention and are less likely to consume large pieces of furniture. The children see each other with new eyes. My husband feels honored and appreciated. I may not have pulled the thorn out of the lion’s paw, and I am quite certain I will never reach perfection, but my little acts of kindness at home seem to carry weight that does transcend our house.

Have I entertained angels unknowingly ? I don’t know…but I can hope. And, always have my best lasagne ready to go into the oven.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Exercise for body, mind, heart and spirit.

Exercise your body: go for a walk or a run, practice Yoga, take a Cycle Fit class, go for a hike, go for a swim. Get your blood moving, and your heart pounding. Endorphins are powerful !

Exercise your mind: read an article from a viewpoint that opposes your own, learn about a topic with which you are unfamiliar, engage in debate and conversation with people who have greater knowledge, listen and process something new.

Exercise your heart: be kind to others who challenge your patience, offer to help out a friend who is struggling, be compassionate to those who are facing illness or loss, volunteer to do a kind act anonymously.

Exercise your spirit: read an inspiration book, listen to someone who has lived through challenges and triumphed, listen to music that uplifts you or brings you to happy memories, laugh at the silly antics of your pets or your children, roll down a hillside into leaves, find an avenue to engage the side of you that feels pure, unadulterated joy.

Enjoy your life…it’s the only one you will have to live. Make someone smile, and smile in return. You will be rewarded in innumerable ways.