Mile High Pilates and Yoga

Strength, Flexibility and Balance for Every Body

When Illness Happens to Healthy People

As you many of you know, throughout the years I have been a strong advocate of yoga and Pilates for maintaining health and wellness.  Now I find myself once again facing the prospect of dealing with cancer.  My first experience some 12 years ago was relatively mild compared to this one.  So some of you may be thinking “how could a health practitioner and advocate like Peg become so sick??” Or  worse, “why should I bother if illness may come to me whether or not I practice yoga or Pilates or even exercise regularly?”

Here are my responses:  First, illness or accident or anything unexpected can happen to any of us at any time.  If you are reading this and are over the age of, say, 20, it is probably safe to say that not one among us has escaped trauma during our lives.  All trauma is relative.  What may seem trivial to one can mean serious suffering to another.  The way we perceive experience is the way we internalize it.  We have all had difficult experiences.  The older we get, the more these experiences accumulate.  This is life.  These are part of what makes us who we are.

One recurring theme you may recognize in my writing is the constancy of change.  Everything is always changing.  The best predictions are guesses.  No one knows what the future holds – good or bad.  That’s assuming we still want to use those labels:  “good” meaning things we think we want to happen and “bad” meaning things we don’t want to happen.  All of which is, of course, very subjective.  None of this is to say that cancer is a “good” thing.  But it is what it is.  It has no agenda other than survival – just like healthy cells.  It’s not right or wrong or good or bad.  It just is.

During these past 3 weeks as I recover from surgery, I’ve been struck by the number of people who have told me how “good” I look.  This brings me to the second question, “why should I bother . . .etc.”.  The answer is simple:  if you want to survive life’s traumas you need strength, flexibility and balance.  Does that ring a bell?  It should!  These are the main benefits of yoga, Pilates and exercise in general.  And there are so many more.  In response to hearing how good I look I’ve been saying that I am a walking advertisement for the disciplines I advocate and try to maintain.   Something else you’ve all frequently heard me say – it’s never too late to start.  No matter where you are, you can gain in strength, flexibility and balance.  Just like any other experience, these qualities are relative also.  What’s strong for you may be different for someone else, but it is still strength.  All you have to do is start and then keep practicing.  Yet another sentiment I frequently express is how practicing yoga and Pilates will help you with all aspects of your life.  Perhaps my experience will help you to see how true that rea is.

None of us can escape trauma.  But we can learn to roll with the punches.  Or at least we can try.  It’s never easy, but fighting with reality doesn’t make it any easier.  Acceptance doesn’t have to mean giving in or in any way being happy about the state of things as they are.  All it means is that we acknowledge what we cannot change and move on from there.  We may not be very good at this and we certainly will never be perfect, but we can practice.  And each day – maybe each moment – offers a new opportunity to practice.

I am exceedingly grateful to the wonderfully supportive community of which I am privileged to be a part.  You all make my efforts at practice that much more significant and rewarding.  Thanks to all.

“Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and to endure what cannot be cured.”

BKS Iyengar

“A hundred flowers blossom in spring, the moon shines in autumn, there is a fresh breeze in summer, and there is snow in winter. If your mind isn’t occupied with trivial matters, every time is a good time.”

Wumen Huikai, “Zen Basics”


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Doing Your Best vs. Doing Your Most

A recent Yoga Journal article on backbends (The Compassionate Backbend by Kate Tremblay) talked about the distinction between practicing yoga for the purpose of achieving picture perfect poses vs. practicing for the purpose of attaining freedom of movement.  We’re all familiar with the former, but maybe we should instead be focusing on the latter.

“If you practice backbends intent upon eradicating aspects of yourself that you see as somehow ‘not measuring up,’ such as weak muscles, stiff joints, or protective insulation, you succeed only in beating yourself up. There’s no freedom on that path . .

If the discipline of yoga is to bring greater freedom, you must practice . . . in a way that accepts and accommodates your resistance—even values and honors it—while still letting you receive the intended benefits. The point of this practice is not to become someone else but to become more fully yourself.”

You can substitute any pose or other aspect of practice for “backbends” in that concept.  No matter what discipline you choose to practice there is always a stumbling block – something you wish you could do better but can’t because of some perceived shortcoming.  Perhaps this desire even causes you to envy someone else who is able to do whatever it is the way you wish you could do it.  But, like the quote above makes clear, this is the same as wishing you were someone you’re not rather that celebrating who you are.

Those of you who have attended my classes know that I often try to describe what I hope you will feel when you’re practicing certain poses.  Yoga and Pilates are both disciplines that aim to help you connect mind and body, movement and sensation, awakening body awareness.  If you can feel the movement, you’re achieving the benefit.  Your pose may look different from someone else’s pose, but that doesn’t make it any less beneficial.  And it is the right pose for you.  This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t challenge yourself.  But it does mean that you need to be mindful about how and when you challenge yourself.

The article talks about some of the simple stretches we do in class that feel so good.  You know the ones.  These may seem “especially pleasurable [since] you rarely try to reach beyond your body’s natural comfort level. You’re not trying to achieve anything in particular, just instinctively going for the relief and exhilaration”.  The good news is that you can do that in any pose – that is, go for “relief and exhilaration”.  But it helps to remember

“to accept only what is appropriate. You make a conscious choice not to take all you could, not to move into the fullest [pose] your body can manage, because you see value in holding back; you value the health and integrity of your body more than the [perceived] glory of a deeper pose.

This kind of restraint is so uncommon in our culture that it can feel quite unnatural. To embrace restraint, you might need to acknowledge how strongly it conflicts with the messages we regularly receive about what it means to be accomplished and successful. . . If you move into [your practice] without acknowledging [this] potential [conflict], doing your best can translate into doing your most. Not only can this lead to injury, but it can also sabotage the benefits of the practice altogether. If you want to give your [practice] your best effort . . .you have to remind yourself that success comes with taking only what you need from a pose—only what your body can appropriately use and no more.”

As I’ve said many times, what’s appropriate for your body can vary from day to day.  So doing your best on any given day may be different from what it was the day before, or what it will be the day after.  But if you keep practicing and do your best each day, you will get the benefits.  And I say that with confidence.

An article from Yoga Basics (Yoga During Times of Change by Megan DeMatteo) takes this concept a step further by suggesting that Child’s Pose is actually an “advanced [pose] . . .because it requires that we let go into the necessary gift of self care, something not easy for many of us.”  So next time you feel the need to stop during practice and give yourself a break, you can relax in Child’s Pose by reminding yourself that you are making an important contribution to your practice by executing this “advanced pose”.

A final thought from the song “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen (featured in a recent blog post by Parker Palmer):

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Let the light shine in on your practice!  It is, after all your practice.  You don’t need to impress anyone.  When you begin to believe that, you will find the freedom that you are looking for.

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Drowning the Demons of Doubt

Some years ago I taught a business planning class to prospective entrepreneurs.  As they progressed in the process, the students would inevitably get discouraged.  The prospect for success would seem impossibly slow and daunting.  At those moments when the demons of doubt clouded all hope and enthusiasm, I would try to remind the disheartened to remember what led them to this path in the first place.  “Dangle that carrot!” was the mantra.  Whatever it was that brought you here, keep it right up front.  It’s still there; it just gets buried periodically and needs to be dusted off and re-illuminated.

This applies to exercise also.  Sometimes the workouts just seem too tough.  You feel like you will never master the moves.  Sleeping in instead of going to class seems really attractive.  Even sensible.  You can come up with a zillion good reasons why exercise just isn’t right for you.  It’s moments like these when you need to “dangle that carrot!”  Remember why you decided to take up exercise in the first place.  What were your goals?  In case you’ve forgotten them here are a few possibilities from Paige Wagner one of the blogs I read regularly.  She wrote about a client she had

“. . . who wore a bracelet with the word “cellulite” written on it. When she felt like stopping, she looked at that bracelet for a reminder that every step brought her closer to her goal of losing weight.

If you’re lacking motivation to finish your workout, use a visual reminder, like she did, or just mentally list your own goals:

  • I want to get stronger
  • I want to lose weight
  • I want to have more energy
  • I want to feel good about myself
  • I want to look good for my wedding/high school reunion/future

You can even turn it into a mantra, repeating silently “I’m getting stronger” or “I’m losing weight” with each step forward.  It may sound a little cheesy but, when you’re in the moment, the right thought can be the difference between quitting and succeeding.

If that list doesn’t resonate with you, here are a few more possibilities:

  • I want to move with less pain
  • I want to do things with my grandchildren
  • I want to improve my balance
  • I want to be healthier

Etc., etc.  I’m sure you can easily add your own goals to this list.  Progress may still feel painfully slow, though.  So instead of focusing on what you think you lack, try instead to see what you’ve accomplished.  Think about what you’ve already learned.  If you have attended even one class, you learned something.  Start there and build on that.  Anything you can do, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem, can be a practice.  So practice it.  Repeat it.  Do the part that you know and before you know it you will be able to add on to that.  According to Alycea Ungaro, another blogger I follow, “with repetition comes freedom. [You don’t] need bells and whistles or fancy tricks – just the freedom that comes with knowing a [few moves] well enough to look for new elements, details and inspiration from each move.”

So rather than demanding specific performance standards from yourself, as Alycea suggests try being “open to what happens when you move through your routines”.  You may be surprised to find that you begin to experience them with greater and greater confidence.  No matter where you are on the path towards your goals you can always go back to what you know and move from there.

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“Good” Workout Vs. “Bad” Workouts

This week I read a post in the Wildmind Newsletter about meditation, but I think the concepts can also apply to our practice of Pilates, yoga or any movement discipline we undertake.  So I’m taking the liberty of paraphrasing:  What is a “good” workout vs. a “bad” workout?  We waste a great deal of time making these judgments and worrying accordingly. The judgment is ultimately not about the workout, but really about ourselves and how we perceive our own efforts and abilities.  Maybe we think a “good” workout is one during which every exercise is performed to whatever specifications we demand of ourselves that day.  So it’s a workout that goes according to some preconceived notion or prescribed plan. But how many things in our lives actually go according to plan?  Or perhaps a better way of looking at it is how often does a well-layed out plan go awry? And what do we do when that happens?  When a workout doesn’t work out, we create stories about how we are not good at ______ (fill in the blank) or this practice isn’t the right one for us, or something similar. But this story is our own invention, so maybe we need to invent a different one:

With a bit more experience (assuming we don’t give up in the face of all those judgments) we may start to think that it’s the effort we put in that defines what is “good” or “bad”. We take into account that the conditions we’re working with change; sometimes they make [our practice] easier and sometimes harder. Imagine you go running. Some days you’re running on flat ground with the wind at your back. Sometimes you’re running uphill against a stiff breeze. The first of these runs is going to feel more pleasant (it’s a “good run”). But which of these runs is going to help you develop more fitness and stamina? The second one, right? So maybe it’s the [workouts] we struggle in that are really the “good” ones . . .

Think about how good you feel when you’ve completed something that you perceive as difficult.  It may take some time and effort to make that happen, but with a little determination you can find a way to your goal that works for you. Try being kind to yourself and have a little patience.  It is rare that anything worth having comes without at least some struggle.  But when you have that “aha!” moment of accomplishment, it is the best feeling!  Dangle that carrot.  You can reach it.

Expanding on the concept of patience with yourself and your goals, here’s something from Yoga Journal’s Daily Insight:

Yoga was originally developed to lead the practitioner to freedom from suffering and to realization of his or her Divine Nature. . .. It can be helpful, though, and even necessary, to set lesser goals along the way. . . These goals can help you to move in the right direction and provide you with valuable mileposts.

On the road to attaining your goals—in yoga and elsewhere in your life—you will inevitably encounter obstacles. Patanjali [recognized author of the Yoga Sutras, considered the guide book to the philosophy of classical yoga) refers to these as vikshepas and enumerates nine of them: illness, listlessness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, cravings, delusion, inability to progress, and instability in maintaining progress. Depending on your nature and the goals you have set, you will run into some of these more readily than others; but sooner or later you will come up against them all. How you meet these obstacles will affect how well you surmount them and what your state of mind will be in the process.

One does not need to understand the Yoga Sutras to recognize these obstacles. We all experience one or more of them on a daily basis.  That’s life!  It’s full of obstacles.  But you don’t have to give in.  Try being as patient with yourself as you would be with a child or a friend or family member that you care about.  We are often so much more willing to give others the benefit of the doubt than we are to allow ourselves the same leeway.

So next time you are tempted to skip your workout because you are worried about how you might perform, my suggestion is to just show up.   To echo a further sentiment in the Wildmind post, I would assert that

any workout “you turn up for is a ‘good’ [workout]. Sure, there are some days it’s easier than others and there are some days you have to put in more effort. But I’d suggest that you regard the [workout] you do as being infinitely better than the [workout] you don’t do.”

If your performance doesn’t meet your expectations that day, chalk it up to experience.  Whether or not you realize it, your body learned something.  Allow your mind to learn something, too.

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More on Exercise and Aging

This week I read an article asking the question “Do We Expect Too Much of Our Bodies as We Age?”  You might read that title and think it gives you a license to get complacent.  “Yup”, you might think, “I’m too old to do ____________ (fill in the blank) anymore.”   But the article presents a different picture.  It is for all of us over-achievers who keep comparing ourselves to each other and to our former selves.  The article discusses our hope that we can reverse (cure?) the aging process by exercising.  This naturally creates frustration with the limitations we continue to encounter as we age.

The fact is, we are all aging.  Every day we get a little older, like or not.  Despite the fantasies of science fiction writers, time only moves in one direction as far as we know.  And with that direction, change happens.  None of us like change. Yet change is inevitable and constant.  One of the few constants in our world – like death and taxes.

So we know we’re getting older and we know we can’t do some of the things we used to do.  Or at least we can’t do them in the same way we used to do them.  So what are our choices?  We can sit and lament the things we wish could still do and beat ourselves up for our own incompetence.  Or we can celebrate the things we can still do.  Some of that inevitable change can be positive.  No matter how much you’ve lost, you can still make gains.  Maybe you won’t get back to where you were when you were 20, but you can improve.  All it takes is a little effort.  The more consistent that effort is, the more gains you will make.

According to the National Institute on Aging, it’s never too late to start and the benefits are numerous and ongoing.  Here are a few:

Being physically active can help you continue to do the things you enjoy and stay independent as you age.  . . In addition, regular exercise and physical activity can reduce the risk of developing some diseases and disabilities that develop as people grow older.  In some cases, exercise is an effective treatment for many chronic conditions. For example, studies show that people with arthritis, heart disease, or diabetes benefit from regular exercise.  Exercise also helps people with high blood pressure, balance problems, or difficulty walking.

In fact, “in most cases, you have more to lose by not doing anything.” (from “Exercise & Physical Activity – Your Everyday Guide from the National Institute on Aging”).  Consistency is the key, though.  Start slow and give yourself time to adapt.  Your muscles make gains from the rest between exercise sessions.  That’s why we sometimes get sore when challenging our muscles.  But that’s how your body gets stronger – by recognizing the need to address the new challenge.  To sustain those gains we need to create that muscle memory.  The best way to do that is like any other memory we want to promote – that is, by providing reminders.  In this case, reminders come in the form of continuing to engage in these activities.  That’s why we call it practice.  The more you do it, the better you get at it.  But getting better doesn’t mean becoming 20 again.  Start where you’re at and move from there.  Fighting with reality will only make you miserable.

Returning to the National Institute on Aging, it’s never too late to start.  Even if you have difficulty, you can still benefit from exercise and movement.  The four types of physical activities recommended include those emphasizing endurance, strength, balance and flexibility.  The good news is both Pilates and yoga incorporate all of the above.  Both disciplines can also be easily modified to accomodate physical limitations.  Also, both will help with whatever other physical activities your life requires – like climbing stairs or gardening or putting the groceries away.

So don’t wait . . . just get moving!  You can do it!  But be kind to yourself.  Compassion begins with yourself.  Idea Fitness Journal recently printed an article on “How to Help Middle-Aged Women Improve Body Satisfaction“.  One reader (Karen Geninatti of Geninatti Gym and Fitness in Carlinville, Illinois) responded to this article by describing her “no negative comments about yourself” rule in her classes.  She also tells participants “never to say anything to themselves or about themselves that they would not say to their son or daughter”.  Amen to that.

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Get Happy – Join a Group!

Recently, I’ve been following a series called “100 Days of Lovingkindness” from Wildmind’s Meditation Newsletter .  Every day for the duration of the series an e-mail is sent out with a description of ideas and practices that the reader can try and, hopefully, incorporate into their lives.  Here is an excerpt from Day 66 – Appreciation is Contagious:

When. . .you become happier, . . . your friends become measurably happier because you’re happy. (This has been scientifically verified).

And your friends’ friends become measurably happier.

And your friends’ friends’ friends become measurably happier.

Happiness spreads outward into the world through your social network like a virus — although a rather beneficial one.

This may all seem rather incredible, but . . .the evidence for this [from a British Medical Journal article wonderfully titled "Dynamic Spread of Happiness"] . . . is based on a huge study carried out by Harvard Medical School and the University of California, San Diego.

Professor of Medical Genetics James H. Fowler and social scientist Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, have been studying social networks for years, using data from the ongoing Framingham Heart Study, which has been tracking the health, behaviors, and attitudes of tens of thousands of people since 1948.

The study measures many aspects of health, including happiness. Participants have been asked how likely they are to agree with questions like “I feel hopeful about the future” and “I feel happy.” And the study also tracks social networks, allowing the researchers to see how attitudes and behaviors spread.

Fowler and Christakis have found that if you have overweight friends, you’re more likely to be overweight yourself. If you have friends who don’t smoke, you’ll find it easier to give up smoking. If your friends are unhappy, you’re more likely to be unhappy yourself. And, crucially, if you’re happy your friends are more likely to be happy, and if your friends are happy you’re more likely to be happy.

In fact, if you’re happy you increase the chances of an immediate social contact becoming happy by 15%. And this effect ripples out into your friend’s friend’s relationships.

So it pays to surround yourself with healthy, happy people.  One way you can do that is by coming to a class!  (Yup – you knew I’d find a way to bring you back to that.)  Classes are full of people striving to improve their health and general outlook on life.  Be a part of that effort!  It’s contagious!  According to this study, just by showing up and being part of the group you have at least a 15% chance of becoming happier and healthier yourself.  And if your own well-being is not enough incentive, your association with healthy people may enable you to spread that health to everyone around you.  The more of us who participate, the more this spreads.  Just think what we can all accomplish!

The study also implies that if you’re not feeling particularly happy or healthy, you’re likely to pass those feelings on as well. So maybe these ideas will help you to just try rubbing elbows with a group that’s trying to improve their lives.  It can’t hurt and it just might help you feel better.  You don’t have to perform in any prescribed or specified way.  Just be there and be a part of the group.  If you keep it up, pretty soon all those you associate with might start feeling better, too.  What a concept!

Hope to see you all in a class soon!


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Research Round-Up

Just in case you need one more reason to sit less and move more, yet another study has just been published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health which found that:

People who spent more time sitting were more likely to become disabled when compared with people with similar health and exercise habits who sat less. Each daily hour spent sitting increased the odds of problems with activities of daily living by 46 percent.

But here’s the good news – it’s never too late to get moving!  And anybody can do it.  The following comes from an article on the NPR website discussing the study’s findings:

The key to maintaining your muscles’ ability to do basic, low-intensity tasks is keeping them working, says Marc Hamilton, an inactivity physiologist at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La.

If you want to maintain mobility through life, Hamilton says, get your muscles focused on just that.

“Get nonfatiguing activity in as much as possible,” he says.

That can be as simple as walking around the office, or parking your car at the far end of the parking lot or even just standing up while talking on the phone.

Bottom line – just get up and move!  You don’t need to run a marathon, just get moving.  Any movement at all is better than none.  As you’ve all heard me say many times, getting started is the hard part.  Once you get up and go, the rest is easy.

And if that’s still not enough to motivate you – wait!  There’s more .  .  .

These two recent research reports from the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity may give you some incentive to specifically try Pilates. One study was conducted to “evaluate the effect of a program of modified Pilates for active individuals with chronic non-specific low back pain”.  This study found that

Pilates used as a specific core stability exercise incorporating functional movements can improve non-specific chronic low back pain in an active population compared to no intervention. Additionally, Pilates can improve general health, pain level, sports functioning, flexibility, and proprioception [awareness of the position of one's body - important for maintaining balance while moving] in individuals with chronic low back pain.

Another study “investigated the effect of Pilates exercise on physical fall risk factors 12 months after an initial 5 week Pilates intervention”.  This study got the following results:

Balance improvements after a short Pilates intervention were maintained one year later in all participants, with increased benefits from ongoing participation.

So give it a try!  You might even find out you like it.  Don’t let fear hold you back.  I can promise you this:   no one who comes to my classes will bite you – or judge you.  Remember, the consequences of not moving are pretty scary, too.  Just come and do what you can.  You will be welcomed by all!

Of course there are many other research findings that support continued activity regardless of age or perceived limitations.  So take that first step.  Even if your first effort feels confusing or uncomfortable, you will improve if you stick with it.  Just making the effort will give you a sense of accomplishment.  But you’ll never improve if you don’t try.  So make the commitment and give it a whirl.  You’ll be glad you did!

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Never Too Late

As most of you know, I recently decided to train for a new (for me) Pilates certification using the Reformer.  For those of you who don’t know, the Reformer is a piece of equipment originally designed by Joseph Pilates, the founder of the Pilates method, to assist with some exercises.  In recent years the Reformer has also become a tool that Physical Therapists can use as part of the rehabilitation process following surgery and/or injury.  Although I’ve been teaching mat Pilates for years, I became interested in the Reformer as my students (and me!) continue to age and develop special needs.

Deciding to undertake a new certification required some serious thought and preparation on my part.  For one thing, training is expensive – especially when it requires travel.  My resources are limited.  Training also takes time.  There is study time, practice time, travel time and loss of income while engaging in these activities.  These considerations meant weighing all of the possible outcomes.  Would the sacrifices necessary be worth the end result?  Of course, there is no way of being certain.

Those of you who follow my blog know that a recurring theme is daring to take risks even when the outcome is uncertain.  Actually, there isn’t much in life that is certain except for change.  Everything changes all of the time.  We all hate change, but it is constant – no matter what we do to protect ourselves from it.  Probably all of you have heard some version of the quote, “Insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results”.   As much as we dislike change, if we want something to be different we can’t keep repeating the same behavior.

Change is a scary thing.  In my last post, I repeated something that struck me when I first heard it – change means loss.  We have to give up something in order to make something else happen.  To make the decision I was faced with, I knew I would have to give some things up without knowing what would be on the other side.  I would have to step off the precipice of the known and set foot on the uncertain surface of the unknown.  Was I ready to make that leap at this late stage in my life?  Would my feet sink into quicksand?

After much soul-searching and discussion with my husband, I decided to take that chance.  Helping people move has been more than a job for me.  It is a vocation.  Almost a calling.  My mantra for the last 20 years or so has been “move while you can move, because you never know when you won’t be able to move anymore”.  Although there is no way to know how this will all work out, I realized I would just have to make the decision, take the leap, and put one foot in front of the other.  Part of that decision means accepting the outcome whatever it is.  So that’s what I’ve doing.  For me this is an opportunity to fulfill a dream I’ve had for more than 20 years – to be able to work full-time at helping people move.

In November I began the first step toward fulfilling this goal.  Shortly after that I made another leap of faith and quit my part-time job at a local restaurant so I could devote myself to my training and my business.  Now here’s the amazing part – it’s all working out!  I’m taking it day by day.  No expectations.  But so far, it’s all working out.  I am so grateful to everyone who is supporting my efforts.

This week I received a very special form of support which is really why I wanted to write this post.  As an older, “non-traditional” student, I was encouraged to apply for a scholarship offered by the P.E.O. Sisterhood, an organization that supports educational opportunities for women.  A local branch of this organization sponsored my application.  Notification came this week that I was awarded a partial scholarship to obtain my certification.  There are no words to express how honored and moved I am by the support of this group.

What I really want to express in this post is that it is never too late to take that leap into the unknown and try something new.  A whole new world has opened up for me and no matter what happens, I have already learned so much – not just about Pilates, but about myself.  I am truly grateful to have this opportunity.

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Overcoming the Need to be Perfect

As we launch into the New Year, some of you may find that you are already faltering in your resolve to leave 2013 behind and find the new you in 2014.  There is no doubt that change can be difficult.  In part this is because any change involves loss.  Change implies letting go of something in order to embrace something different.  That means the loss of something even if that something is just an attitude.  In fact, sometimes an attitude can be the most difficult thing to let go of.  Especially if it is something that you believed in.

Trying something new often awakens a fear that we might not do it right.  Even if the new activity is designed to help us relax, like yoga or meditation, we worry.  Suppose we’re not doing it right?   Won’t I look bad in a class setting?  I will stand out and everyone will sneer at me.  This fear can cause us to set up road blocks like “I need to be in better shape first” or “when something outside myself changes, then I’ll be able to start”.  You know the drill.  We’ve all done this.  The problem is when you depend on something outside of yourself to change before you can change, then you are at the mercy of situations you cannot control.  Of course, there isn’t much in our lives that we can control (contrary to popular belief), but one thing we can control is our attitude.  Until you make a decision that you really do want to change, it is unlikely that it will happen.  Regardless of what happens in the world outside yourself.

If your desire to change is conflicting with your belief that you need to be perfect, perhaps you might find some solace in a recent Yoga Journal article by Sally Kempton entitled “Making Peace with Perfection”.  After describing herself as a “recovering perfectionist”, she provides some insights into the meaning of the term itself.  Here are some excerpts:

“In Sanskrit, one of the words for perfection is purna, usually translated as fullness or wholeness.  .  . . Contrast that to our ordinary idea of perfection. In our everyday speech, the word perfect means flawless.  . . . When we can’t make things perfect, then there must be something wrong with us or the world.

The irony is that our ideal of perfection—which arises from the ego’s need to explain and control—inevitably keeps us from the experience of perfection. Like any construct, it clamps the lid on the bursting, chaotic, joyous mess of reality, substituting a rigid, artificial notion of what is appropriate or beautiful.  Conditioned as we are by our upbringing and culture, most of us can’t help living under the tyranny of perfection. Yet perfection itself is not the tyrant. It’s our notions about perfection that tyrannize us. When we’re outside the experience of perfection, we long for perfection while idolizing a standard that separates us from it. When we’re inside it, the question “How can I keep this great feeling?” instantly removes us from the feeling we’re trying to hold onto.”

Although Ms. Kempton admits that not all perfectionism is destructive, for example, there are musicians, scientists and athletes striving for excellence, this is not the case for most of us.  When creating road-blocks to change, our notion of perfectionism is often “driven less by the pursuit of excellence than by the fear of what might happen if [we] fail. [We] measure . . . performance by the approval and validation [we] get from external [sources].”

But take heart – there is hope!  Ms. Kempton goes on to describe a path for even the most determined perfectionist:

“Perfectionism is a deeply ingrained way of being. And since it affects our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions, getting rid of negative perfectionism requires work on all these levels. It helps to have a quiver of strategies, so you can experiment and work with the one that works for you in the moment. Negative perfectionists nearly always hold themselves to unreachable standards. Then, when they fail to meet them, they beat themselves up. So remember, the first line of defense against perfectionism is to learn how to give yourself permission to be who you are and where you are. That level of permission, ironically enough, is often the best platform for change.”

Here are a few of the suggestions in the “quiver of strategies” she provides:

1)      Retrain Your Inner Critic – Find a positive counterstatement for every negative statement the inner critic makes. It may take a little time, but in the end you’ll retrain him.

2)     Allow Yourself Not to Be the Best

3)     Give Yourself Permission to Do the Minimum

You are all encouraged to read the rest of the suggestions in the article itself.  But I will add something that is incorporated in all of the ideas presented – recognize that you are enough just as you are and that everything you need to succeed is already within you.

It may not be easy to remind yourself of this, but as obstacles arise in your plan to implement change, rather than just accepting them as inevitable, perhaps you can undermine them and find a way to follow your intentions.  Just think how good you’ll feel when you actually begin to see – and be – the change you want to happen.


Finding Opportunities to Practice

It’s that time of year again. The time when we participate in gatherings that may or may not inspire joy.  Sometimes we do it just because we feel obligated.  Or maybe it’s something we’ve always done so tradition (or, perhaps, inertia) is the motivator.  Often these gatherings turn out to be better than we anticipated.  Almost never does something turn out the way we expect it to.  But sometimes dealing with certain relatives or other attendees at various functions can be a source of exasperation.  We may be subjected to opinions we don’t share or rituals that annoy us.  When confronted with situations like this it may help to remember that these are prime opportunities for practice.

First, we can practice gratitude.  In an article in Tricycle magazine, Judy Lief, a Buddhist teacher, wrote about the “mind-training” teachings of Atisha, an Indian who lived in ancient times and proposed 59 slogans for preparing the mind for service to others, compassion and loving kindness.  In connection with slogan 13:  “Be grateful to everyone”, Ms. Lief writes:

“Instead of appreciating what we have, we keep focusing on what we do not have. We are filled with grudges and resentments and have strong opinions about what we deserve and what is our due. We may be taught to say “please” and “thank you,” but what have we been taught about appreciation?

In our commodified world, we see things as material for our consumption. We don’t ask, we just take. And in the blindness of our wealth and privilege, we don’t see how much we have to be grateful for. We take all that we have for granted and we live in a very ungrateful world.

This slogan assumes that we at least have basic gratitude for the good things that befall us. It then challenges us to extend that feeling of gratitude to include not just gratitude for what is positive, but gratitude for the negative also.

According to this slogan, we should be especially grateful for having to deal with annoying people and difficult situations, because without them we would have nothing to work with. Without them, how could we practice patience, exertion, mindfulness, loving-kindness or compassion? It is by dealing with such challenges that we grow and develop. So we should be very grateful to have them.”

It’s worth adding that we live in a pretty unforgiving and intolerant world as well.  A little extra tolerance goes a long way at any time of year, but particularly now when we are celebrating peace on earth and good will towards all.

Here’s another idea from Tricycle, this by  Susan Moon, the editor of Turning Wheel, the journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship:

“If you have friends or relatives with whom you disagree about such things as the war in Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can be painful. Practice deep listening: Listen without arguing, and try to hear what the other is really saying, remembering that . . .  all beings wish to be happy and avoid suffering. . . . If we human beings are going to stick around on this earth, we need to learn to get along not just with the people who share our views, but also, and more to the point, with the people who get our goat. And remember—we get their goat, too.”

We will probably never convince these people that we are right, just like they will probably never convince us that they are right either.  And after all, who among us really knows what is “right” or what is “wrong”.  The only thing we really know is that every choice has consequences.  For me, the key point here is that “all beings wish to be happy and avoid suffering”.  We all have our own irrational fears.  Once upon a time everyone was a baby.  Each of us came into the world without expectations or knowledge.  We may have genetic conditions that influence who we become, but much of our lives is a product of the environment in which we find ourselves.  Our arrival on the planet is an accident of birth for which we have no responsibility and over which we had no choice.  I reflect on this frequently.  We all make choices, but we also have to play the hand we’re dealt.  It might help to remember that when responding to difficult people.

But all of this is solemn stuff at a time when we are supposed to feel joy.  Of course, we shouldn’t need a special time of year for joy.  Every day is an opportunity for gratitude.  So maybe just for today, count your blessings and forget about your perceived shortcomings.  We’ve now passed the Winter Solstice so every day will have just a little bit more daylight.  Here is one more quote from another Tricycle article to inspire us to celebrate the light, this one from Zen Master Sheng Yen:

“When a candle is lit in a dark room, it illuminates the room to some extent, but its power is limited. But if you use the same candle to light another candle, the total brightness increases. If you continue to do this, you can fill the room with brilliant illumination. The idea of transferring merit to others is like this. If we keep our own light selfishly hidden, it will only provide a limited amount of illumination.”

Let us all shine our lights!  Happy Holidays to all!

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