The Gift of Health

The Gift Of Health

We are now firmly entrenched in the shopping season.  Unfortunately, our culture persists in loading one season of the year with this heavy emphasis on stuff.  Ubiquitous advertisements bombard and beckon.  No matter how resistant we might try to be, it’s all around us and unavoidable.  As an additional consideration, there are people whose livelihoods depend on this season.  We all know someone in this category making it that much more difficult to completely disengage.  Given that this is our reality and that there are really many lovely and positive aspects of the season, it makes sense to be as mindful as possible about our giving and receiving.

Most of us really don’t need any more stuff.  Also we all tend to be pretty generous all year long.  An article from Yoga Journal by Sally Kempton on practicing generosity says “generosity is natural: We can no more help giving than we can live without the support of everything we receive.”  The article goes on to say “The universe is, in fact, a web of giving and receiving” where ” the sun shines and the rain falls” and “the earth supports us without ever demanding thanks”.  We may think of ourselves as being independent and self-reliant but we are all dependent on the many elements that keep us alive – air, water, nourishment from the earth and all the other natural elements that contribute to our survival.  In addition, there are also many people beyond our immediate view who contribute to our needs on a daily basis.

Still we often take all of these things for granted overlooking our own responsibility for honoring those gifts.  This doesn’t just mean being conscious of how we treat the environment or the clerk in the grocery store, but it also means taking care of ourselves. We can’t be generous when we are needy ourselves, which includes illness in the mind or body. Honoring your body is just as important as honoring the earth or the person next to you. Since this is true for all of us, maybe it might be helpful to think about health when puzzling over what to give to others during this season.

An article on the web site gives some ideas along these lines.  An important suggestion in the article is giving the gift of time.  Instead of giving a gym membership that might never be used, how about offering to accompany the recipient on a weekly walk. Or pledge to drive them to a yoga or Pilates class that you also attend. This could end up being a gift for both of you. Time spent with that person could help you to learn more about them.  And your support might help them overcome whatever resistance they’ve built up to avoid doing something that might improve their health.  If the person lives far away, perhaps you can give a commitment to a regular telephone check-in. Sometimes just knowing that someone will be asking about one’s progress is enough to motivate a person to stick to their resolve. The article offers other ideas for providing time instead of stuff which could inspire someone begin a healthy habit.  Once you’re thinking along these lines, I’m sure all of you can come up with ideas your own.

Then there are those of us who actually enjoy shopping.  (Admittedly I’m one of them!)  For those in that category, there is nothing more motivating than new equipment or a new outfit to put some fun into your exercise. There are balls of all sizes and price ranges that can be used for massage as well as exercise.  If you need help learning how to use them there are DVD’s on every subject and if that’s too much consumerism there is always YouTube, home of instructions for everything. A new yoga mat might encourage the recipient to try that yoga class. These days even footwear is expensive. Often I see people trying to walk or run in shoes that are many years old. Everyone can benefit from a new pair of shoes. It can even improve the experience and encourage more walking.  If sizes are a problem, give a gift certificate.  A recent Harvard Health Letter confirms that it is never too late to start exercising.  So even if your recipient thinks they are too old to begin a movement program, you can print this article out and put it in the card with your gift.  It can’t hurt and it might help.

Of course, the holidays are not just about giving. They are also a time of receiving.  Most of us are much more adept at giving than we are at receiving. Sometimes we need to be careful not to dishonor a giver by dismissing their gift. Whenever you’re on the receiving end of any gift – including compliments or expressions of appreciation – it is an opportunity to practice thoughtful receiving.  As mentioned above, we are all receiving many gifts every day.  When there is an opportunity to express gratitude on a personal level, that in itself is a gift.

Throughout the season it’s important to remember that you count, too.  You can’t give what you don’t have.  In order to be thoughtful in giving and receiving you need be fully present.  That requires paying attention to your own well-being. The first suggestion in the Chopra article is to give to yourself first.  Be conscientious about your own needs during this very busy season. This is a gift that not only benefits you but will be appreciated by all those around you.  A win-win situation all around.  There is no better gift than that.

Avoiding Comparisons

Avoiding Comparisons

In recent months it has been gratifying to notice that the models featured on Yoga Journal‘s cover and the articles within are no longer exclusively pencil thin.  More sizes and shapes are being shown.  There was even a short article in the November 2016 issue that featured North Carolina-based teacher and Instagram star Jessamyn Stanley which noted that she is “changing the perception of what a yogi looks like.”  Although the magazine itself may be responding to pressure from readers to acknowledge the “real people” who do yoga, their advertisers have not gotten the same message.  The vast majority of people shown in the magazine are still overwhelmingly white, young, female and able to look like they are handling difficult poses with ease.  So they don’t yet get any real points for diversity.

Of course, the magazine wants to demonstrate the most ideal version of the poses on display.  There is something to be said for this approach since anyone using one of these images to experience a pose without the benefit of a live teacher could run the risk of becoming injured if the pose is not executed properly.  Also it’s probably safe to say that the magazine is generally geared toward people who at least have some experience with yoga.  But sometimes this can be a disservice to ordinary practitioners or prospective practitioners who view these images and think they are doing the poses wrong or, worse, that they could not possibly do a pose the way it is shown so why practice yoga at all?  Yoga must be the exclusive province of young, thin girls who look great in tights.  How many times have we as teachers tried to encourage a new participant who is discouraged before they even try?  “I can’t do yoga,” this person laments, “I’m too old and I’m not flexible”.

Please understand that I don’t mean to single out Yoga Journal. In fact, they are hardly the worst offenders.  It is clear that most magazines are equally if not more guilty of displaying images that few can emulate, with or without the product being hyped.  And in defense of Yoga Journal’s approach, they usually provide modifications in their descriptions of poses.  Also there are many articles which describe the philosophy of yoga which extends beyond physical movement, providing a guide for taking the concepts of yoga off the mat and using it to improve your life.  Many of these implore the reader to celebrate what they can do and recognize even small improvements rather than lamenting perceived limitations.  As an example, one article talks about honoring “ourselves for our small accomplishments—even for the simple fact that we have shown up on our mats—rather than berating ourselves for the things we can’t do.”  Another talks about focusing on the potential you have in your practice to learn about yourself.  These are common and important themes that take us beyond touched up photographs to the real world of our everyday lives.

Still we live in a culture that invites comparison and envy.  A concept of youth and beauty is celebrated as ideal that has a tendency to make anyone who doesn’t measure up feel inadequate.  In everyday life this can manifest as resistance to even trying.  What if I can’t actually do what everyone else can do?  Suppose I look really silly?  Will everyone think less of me? Worrying about how we appear to others can keep us from doing what’s best for ourselves.  No matter how many times I tell new attendees in my classes to avoid watching the other participants, everyone still worries about how they look to other people in the class.  The good news is that most of the other participants are so focussed on themselves that they have no interest in watching anyone else.  Because yoga and Pilates are both practices that encourage connecting the mind with the body, anyone who is truly making that effort won’t be able to notice anyone else.   There are simply too many things to pay attention to if one really wants to complete a pose or exercise.

Neither yoga nor Pilates is about comparison or competition or trying to look like some perceived ideal.  They are about making friends with your own body and recognizing it’s miraculous abilities.  Every effort you make toward this goal is an important accomplishment.  It is helpful to remember that everything is temporary.  Things you (or the person next to you in class) can do today will be different tomorrow or the next day or next week or next year.  It is best not to get too attached to any particular way of doing things since it will probably change.  There are days when I can stand on one foot indefinitely and other days when I have to brace myself with even the slightest effort at balancing.  Nothing is permanent.  Some days you may be especially tired or feel particularly sore.  There is still usually some type of movement you can do, so try to experience what’s possible today without worrying about yesterday, tomorrow or anyone else’s expectations.  We’re usually wrong about other people’s perceptions anyway, so worrying about that is just a waste of precious time.  Every moment you devote to comparing yourself to someone else is a moment that’s passing you by, never to be seen again.  Accepting and believing in who and what you are on this day at this moment is all that really matters.

An article on the Chopra Center’s website titled “How to Just Be You During Yoga Practice”  provides some additional ideas for staying in the moment including approaching your practice with an open mind and being curious rather than fearful.  Do the best you can with what you have at the time that you are doing it and it will always be the right thing.