Think Small

Tenacious Little FlowersAfter living most of my life in the Northeast corner of the U.S. where high humidity is frequently a dominant feature of local weather patterns, I now live in the dry, high desert climate of the Black Hills of South Dakota.  In addition to adjusting to cultural differences, it has also been interesting to observe and learn about the differences in local flora and fauna.  Not surprisingly, stuff that grows where it’s wet is often totally different from stuff that grows where it’s dry.

Having grown up in congested suburbs and cities, I must admit that I did not pay much attention to nature during my childhood.  My parents were not outdoorsy people.  Once I spent two weeks in a Girl Scout camp in upstate New York, but that was the extent of my exposure to living in the woods.  My mother appreciated the roses, dogwood tree and azaleas in our front yard, but she was not a gardener.  We didn’t even have pets.  In grade school I recall learning about butterflies and their emergence from cocoons.  One day I found a cocoon on a branch, took it home and put it in a jar expecting to watch the birth of baby butterflies. What hatched instead was about 100 praying mantises.  My mother freaked out and immediately ended my observation of nature in action.

It wasn’t until much later in life that I got introduced to trail running and, by extension, hiking and even a little bit of camping, albeit mostly with an RV.  At first trail running was really hard for me.  The roots and rocks, steep climbs and descents were alien and daunting.  But eventually I came to really appreciate being in the woods.  That exposure was enough to inspire me to become a lover of the outdoors, regardless of the season.  The wide open spaces and abundant public land of my current home has increased that appreciation even more. Having said that, though, my knowledge of living things that reside in natural habitats remains incredibly paltry.  The good news is I now have many friends with backgrounds in things like wildlife biology, ornithology and horticulture who have kindly been willing to share their knowledge with me.  Now when I hike I find myself actually making an effort to observe the plant and animal life around me.  Although I still rarely remember the names of things, I do notice many more things than I ever did before.

Recently I journeyed back to western Massachusetts for a hiking trip with friends.  It had been many years since I had been there and I had forgotten how lush the forest can be.  The area we were in had recently experienced abundant rains which brought out a profusion of leaves and flowers.  When I left South Dakota the greening and blooming were still in very early stages so the proliferation encountered in New England was almost like sensory overload.  The trees seemed enormous and the flowers riotous in the variety of colors and shapes.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable trip and a good reminder of the vastness of our country and the many regional differences.  But I was grateful to return to the wide opens spaces of my current home.  Still I commented on these differences to a friend recently and she said, “Here you need to think small.”  It’s true.  Even the deer and the squirrels are smaller here, but that doesn’t make them any less significant.  Also we have a surprisingly wide variety of wildflowers in the Black Hills, but some of them are tiny.  Little gems that only reveal themselves to the most patient and careful observer.  Some flowers, like the hearty wood lilly, appear only as singles rather than in groups.  They display a rare red bloom that seems to shine out in the middle of pine cones and ground cover.  Living here has helped me to become more discerning and attentive to detail.  No longer do I take abundance for granted.  Yet life is tenacious even in the most seemingly inhospitable places.  Here we see tiny trees and flowers clinging to the sides of rocks, returning to bloom every year despite wind, hail and temperatures that can reach into the double digits below zero.

All of these traits provide lessons that relate directly to my usual themes of mindful movement and practice.  First, there is the call to be present in the moment.  Paying attention to my immediate surroundings, rather than lamenting the past or worrying about the future, allows me to experience the joy of noticing what’s right here right now.  Without that mindfulness I might miss out on some elusive and beautiful treat.

Secondly, there is value to “thinking small”.  Little things can make a big difference.  For example, sometimes the tiniest of modifications can turn a yoga or Pilates move from something dreaded into something do-able.  Also small changes can result in big gains. Followers of this blog know that I’m a strong advocate for taking baby steps toward whatever goal you have in mind.  Rather than overwhelming yourself and risking injury or turn-off by trying to do everything at once, take small steps and increase slowly.  Start with 2 or 3 repetitions of a movement instead of 10.  Hold the yoga pose for 1 breath instead of 5.  Walk to the corner of your street or to your neighbor’s driveway and back rather than hiking for 3 miles on your first day out.

Long-time teachers in many disciplines often tout the benefits of adopting a “beginner’s mind” regardless of your level of experience in a particular discipline.  This is because beginners usually have no idea what’s going to happen when they are just starting out.  They have fewer expectations and are more willing to simply allow the process to unfold.  Whatever it is that you want to do, if you start slow and practice regularly there will almost certainly come a day when you suddenly realize you are doing more than you thought you could.  That’s a great motivator for continuing your practice.  The key is that release of expectations.  Don’t get hung up on the outcome.  Just pay attention to the process and observe what is happening in each moment.

Your own ability to move and breathe is as miraculous as the amazing variety of living things that surround us.  Treat your body with the same reverence and you will find its unique beauty.

Breaking Routine

on vacationThe blog is back from vacation and so am I.  Summer is a time when many of us experience breaks in our routines.  When you live in a tourist area like I do, people who don’t live here want to visit.  We also find ourselves called by family and friends to other parts of the country. When the weather is good, everyone seems to be on the move.  For school kids this change is welcome.  But the further away from school we get, the more attached to our routines we seem to become.

Changes to our standard behavior patterns can be an important and necessary opportunity to refresh and renew our creativity and enthusiasm.  Spending time with family and friends can make change feel good.  Sometimes we need a break in our routines.  Even the most committed resister of change can experience joy in doing something different or renewing relationships.  But changes to routine can have a down-side also.  Having visitors or being a visitor can require lots of change and we all have a hard time with change.  For example, dietary patterns might change.  How you eat, what you eat and when you eat may be totally different from your usual fare. It can seem like fun to throw caution to the wind and do something completely out of character, but there may be consequences which can sour that good time.   Yet trying to adhere to the strict rules we sometimes impose on ourselves can be equally problematic.

Sleeping and waking habits may also be altered.  Many people find it difficult to sleep in a unfamiliar environment.  Being a “white noise” proponent myself, I keep a fan going in my room all year long.  When I don’t have my fan, sleep can be elusive.  Lack of sleep is often combined with the desire to pack as much experience into short periods of time as possible.  So instead of a restful vacation or welcome break in our routine, we end up becoming exhausted.  How often have you heard the phrase, “I need a vacation from my vacation”?

Then there is our usual exercise routine.  Those of you who regularly read my blog know that I am a strong advocate of making exercise a habit.  It then becomes a natural part of your daily or weekly rhythm so that you don’t have to think about doing it – you just do it.  In fact, when you don’t do it, you can feel the lack.  This part of your daily behavior pattern will invariably get disrupted with visitors or travel.  If you are used to coming to classes, it can be difficult to carve out time to exercise on your own.  Sometimes you can try classes in the place you are visiting which can help but is not always a solution.  You may have the best of intentions but the first time they go awry you’ll be tempted to forget them completely.

So what can we do that will allow us to enjoy our time off without completely sweeping away the comfort of daily routine?  My first suggestion is to drop the words “always” and “never” from your vocabulary. “All or nothing” need not be your mantra.  There is a middle way between the extremes.  Try the words “sometimes” or “just for today” on for size.  It may not be necessary to throw everything you’re used to out the window.  It is possible, for example, to be mindful about food choices without depriving yourself or going overboard against your better judgment.  You can invite your guests or hosts to join you in some form of physical activity like an early morning walk or yoga class.  Try a new activity like tennis or golf.  You may not do very well, but it can be liberating to remember that you never have to do it again if it doesn’t work out.  If you have a solitary practice that is meaningful to you, perhaps you can shorten the time frame (10 minutes instead of 30, for example) or change the time of day (before bed instead of first thing in the morning).

Throughout this blog one common thread often repeated is that we make up our own rules and we can also change them.  So let go of all the rules you’ve built around your routines and be open to new experiences.  Being flexible is more than touching your toes in a forward bend. The flexibility we practice in yoga and Pilates should extend to all aspects of your lie.  Dismiss all your rules about appearances and expectations.  Stay in the moment.  Time spent worrying will be precious down-time lost.

Although the changes referred to here are mostly temporary, sometimes more long-term behavior modification is necessary – job change, for example, or an illness or injury.  There can be a sense of loss when these kinds of events occur.  But this can also be an opportunity to think about developing new routines. You were probably not born with the your current patterns (most of them, anyway).  They developed over time and can be redeveloped.  Prioritize.  Figure out which aspects of your usual routine are most important to you and why.  Then see if you can modify your usual behavior to accommodate changed circumstances.  Being open to new experiences can help to lessen the anxiety of change.

As vacationers, though, we will all eventually return to our usual routines.  This can be a great comfort.  Time away can also foster a new appreciation for the simple daily rhythm of our lives.  Sometimes, though, it can be difficult to again pick up some of the better habits that we’ve worked so hard to develop.  It can feel like starting all over.  Especially if some of those habits were difficult to adopt to begin with. Take heart, though.  You did it before, you can do it again.  Let that be your mantra when you’re tempted to blow off that exercise class or eat that second helping of cheesecake.

My most recent vacation was wonderful and I did incorporate some of the suggestions above so I know they work. But I love coming home. It was a treat to spend time with old friends doing things we enjoy doing together.  But it is with humility, gratitude and renewed appreciation that I now slip back into the comfort of my routines and rejoin the community that is so important to me.