Friday, April 2, 2010

Cross Training

"Art is individualism, and individualism is
a disturbing and disintegrating force.
There lies its immense value.
For what it seeks is to disturb monotony of type,
slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and
the reduction of man to the level of a machine." --- Oscar Wilde

As a Yoga instructor, I find that people from many different backgrounds come to take my classes. Because I make a point of teaching in a "western friendly" style, my classes seem to be more approachable to those students who are nervous about beginning something that's just too eastern for them. However, my philosophy, intent and structure are purely in traditional Yoga form. Because of where I teach, at my local YMCA, I've been able to reach a broader audience than I would if I taught in a more Yoga centered studio. At times, this is tougher on I don't work with many people who can support my own Yoga practice. But, it's given me the chance to help people, of all stages in life, discover Yoga. I have had several older students who had never done any formal exercise before taking my class. I have had men and women coming out of rehabilitation from injury or illness. I have had mothers whose yoga class is their only time for themselves during the week. I have taught master Yogi's who could be my instructor, rather than the other way around. Interestingly though, the most fascinating group of students has been those who come to Yoga for cross training.

My son's hockey team had me come and teach flexibility and breath work. It was intriguing to work with a group of 16 to 18 year old boys, all in the peak of physical conditioning, but who were unable, in most cases, to touch their toes. The Coach's goal for me to was to also assist these athletes in learning to control their breathing. I've also worked with Triathletes in their quest for increased body awareness and adaptability. This led to my leading classes for the local high school cross-country team, and their coach's intention for a well rounded, relaxed and lithe team. All of these experiences highlighted how important it is not to peg ourselves in any one particular pattern for too long. Monotony can easily lead to stagnation and the cessation of growth and development. While any of these athletes could run (or skate) circles around me, there were none who were able to match my adeptness in flexibility. I came away feeling blessed that I had something to offer people who are far more fit than I am. But, I also began to see that I was just as guilty of ignoring other areas of my own adaptability. I had grown comfortable and complacent in my yoga routine and wasn't expanding in my own realm of learning either. I began adding cardio and strength training to my workouts.

All of these experiences have shown me how crucial it is to cross train...not just for our bodies, but in my minds. We can become so pleased with our patterns that we rarely vary them. We might have one particular genre of book we prefer to read. We might discover that we get stuck in a rut with one favorite food or beverage. We might even get too comfortable in our relationships.We might buy the same clothes over and over and wake up to find we've had the same style since high school or have only appreciated one medium of art our whole lives. All of these 'pattern based' forms of similarity and continuance can sneak up on us. We may not even realize that we're being tedious and repetitive until something jars us out of complacency. This can be a gentle nudge, such as a friend loaning us a book that's not our typical read. Or, this shove can be more literal...when our doctor warns us to make some big changes to our lifestyle for our health's sake.

These breaks in routine, likeness and uniformity can be scary at first. It's tough to do something completely different! We feel confident in our method of behavior and in our tastes and skills. By switching that around, we risk looking foolish by lacking in expertise. For example, when I was 36 years old, I decided to learn to ski. Believe me, it was not a pretty sight. I was ready to quit more than a dozen times on the very first day. While the rest of my family was carving up the mountain at Sugarloaf, I was mastering the fine art of 'snowplowing' with toddlers who had pacifiers in their mouths....and those same babies passed me on the bunny hill. It was embarrassing, and I fell so many times that my left hip's bruising was swollen in a 6" diameter. I simply couldn't stop and my daughter had to ski in front of me, backwards, in order to act as a shield between myself and innocent bystanders. And yet, it was liberating! I was doing something new, something I had never mastered and something that I did want to explore. While I'll never be Picabo Street, and certainly won't be winning any Olympic medals, I can ski just well enough to travel on most 'green' trails. Learning to ski, even in a rudimentary way, opened my mind and heart to other possibilities that may tease just outside of my reach.

When we choose to cross train, we make the decision to step off the path we're currently traveling. In doing so, we may find that we gain confidence in other areas. Just by expanding our bubble of knowledge in one zone, we may see that we've learned something fresh to apply to other parts of our lives. It may make us more willing to take a chance and investigate outside what's familiar. This doesn't mean that venturing off into the unknown, whether it's learning to ski or taking a painting class, is going to be easy. Having grown up in a very 'end result' family, I had never truly understood the philosophy of "process before product". Such a concept was alien to me until recently. But, I've come to realize that, just by exploring a concept I've never attempted, I can learn more about myself...and bring that knowledge forward into whatever else I choose to do.

I will never be an artist in a juried art show, but I've discovered that I like to paint. I can't carry a tune, but I enjoy singing. The Boston Marathon will not be on "Bucket List" but I can run in my own way for a couple of miles. I may never be on the NY Times Bestseller List, but I adore writing. Cross training means more than swimming, when one is used to hiking. It means allowing our minds to open up to a skill or an idea that is totally new to us. In doing so, we'll discover that our lives will be enriched exponentially.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Eternal Sunshine

A cloudy day or a little sunshine have as great an influence on many constitutions as the most recent blessings or misfortunes. -- Joseph Addison

There are many benefits to living in Maine. Our proximity to wonderful beaches, fresh seafood and a plethora of outdoor activities, ranging from skiing to sailing, are among those items in the "plus" category. Our relatively sheltered way of life and small town atmosphere create a safe place to raise children. While we're traveling and asked where our home is, people will sigh and picture lighthouses, deep forests, lobsters, blueberry fields and Andre the Seal, upon hearing our answer.The billboard slogan that greets visitors heading north on I-95 reads "Maine: the way life should be".

Yet, despite being able to go to LL Bean in Freeport 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, there is a major drawback to living in Maine: the lack of sunshine for a large portion of the year. Although we don't have to contend with the same shortage of daylight hours that my Swedish friends have told me about, we do have a discouraging lack of sunshine for more than half the year. Given our proximity to the ocean, as well as the northern tip of the continental U.S., we are often shrouded in darkness....from clouds or because of the calendar. The lack of sunshine is okay at first; we learn to create roaring fires in the fireplace, to snuggle under blankets and generally hibernate with the indoor comforts of prolonged coziness. After a while, however, the novelty wears very thin. I find myself sinking into my own black hole of grumpiness and anxiety. I forget how happy I can be in the magical, lyrical days of shining Summer and Autumn ablaze. Especially because we lack a true Spring season (we move from Winter to Mud to the Fourth of July), the desolate and disheartening gray seems to linger interminably.

Despite being a native Californian, I've lived in the east far longer than I did in the west. Yet, a large part of who I am, of what I need to be truly happy, lies 3000 miles away; the sunny skies of the southwest. When the winter blues turn toxic, I know that, for my own benefit, I have to slip away from Maine's foggy shores to rediscover the cheerful person I am. It's as if the low cloud cover not only encompasses my home, but my very soul. I forget to count my blessings. I have amnesia regarding the state of my spirit. I lose my zest and become a winter sloth. By traveling, I'm able to allow the parts of my personality, that I'm proud of, to reemerge. It isn't so much that sunshine creates my level of happiness or state of mind. Rather, sunshine simply seems to call forth the enthusiasm, the friendliness, the brightness and the merriment that has gone dormant. My laughter, so elusive in the depths of both emotional and seasonal, winter, finds its way to the surface once again.

So, what inspires me about the west? My east coast friends cite reasons why I shouldn't like it...the crime rate, the smog and the traffic. The high cost of living. The surface level judgment. Yet, I miss my home state when I'm not there because of many simpler pleasures; going outside to pick an orange or an avocado off the tree. Being able to sit outside, with a good book, in February. Basking in the warmth most days of the year. The generally positive attitudes of people around me who are accustomed to paradise-like days. The fresh foods. The ability to go barefoot and put my toes in the sand. These funny little actions do an extraordinary amount of good in my drizzle covered soul.

I've come to realize that one of my life lessons is to cultivate eternal sunshine within me, regardless of my circumstances. I need to find a way to keep the gloomy, Eeyore days of February and March at bay in my heart. I must discover a path that allows me to bask in the warmth and glow, that the west brings out in me, wherever I am. I need to find the 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' and my laughter, even in the midst of darkness. Yoga can help me with this. By maintaining my practice and classes, I can cultivate positive 'light'. Additionally, even when it's cold and dreary, I need to find additional methods to brighten my day internally. The one way that appears to assist me the most is helping volunteering, by encouraging those who are suffering and by making a difference in my community, I feel the sunshine welling up within me. Even if I can't change the weather, I can certainly be the sunshine for someone else....and in doing so, perhaps I'll bring that light to my own heart, as well.