The Power of Community


Creating Community

The power of community is both humbling and inspiring.  Each of us has our own special individual gifts to offer the world.  But when we join those gifts together an energy is created by the group that can be much greater than the capacity of the individual parts.

This past weekend I had the great pleasure of participating in the inaugural edition of the South Dakota Yoga Conference.  We live in a rural state with a low population scattered over a large geographic area.  Yet the human resources available here are world class. Presenters with expertise in a wide variety of mind-body disciplines came from all over the state to gather with a group of enthusiastic attendees from multiple states.  There were an amazing 33 sessions available over two full days.  The variety of topics and expertise of the presenters made it difficult to chose among them.  In the end all choices were good.  A total win-win for everyone!  In the past I’ve attended national conferences with “name-brand” yoga teachers.  This quality event was every bit as impressive as any of those – maybe even better since it was right in my own back yard.  No planes or passports required.  Dates for next year’s conference have already been set (last weekend in July 2017) so mark your calendars!

If you are reading this blog from outside South Dakota, take heart.  Of course, you are welcome to come here and attend also.  But if that is not possible for you, my point about community is that it can be found anywhere.  Sometimes where you least expect it.  This conference was conceived by three friends who saw the need and took the chance that others would recognize that need.  They are 3 fabulous and energetic ladies (Scottie Bruch, Jillian Anawaty and Cheri Isaacson) but I’m sure they won’t mind me saying that they have no particular special powers.  What they do have is a passion for spreading yoga and all related health promoting and life enhancing practices.  My point is that any of us is capable to putting together a community.  It requires a passion for learning and sharing and a willingness to take that first dangerous step into the unknown.  When these women began this quest, they did not know what the outcome would be.  But they believed in the concept and in the power of community.  Wonder or wonders the community responded!  A call for presenters was put out and the rest is history.

There was a preliminary session at the conference which was open to all current or aspiring yoga teachers and anyone else interested in participating in this gathering.  This became an opportunity for us to share challenges, successes and ideas with others engaged in both similar and different pursuits.  Here in the Black Hills we are fortunate to have a wonderfully supportive and close-knit yoga community yet we have never had an opportunity like this before.  The seed has now been planted so the possibility exists for something else of value to grow from this experience.

Even though many of us are in different work and/or life situations, it was interesting to see how much we could each benefit from the experience of others. This is actually not such a surprising result.  In fact, it is yet another benefit of community.  We learn that others are going through or have gone through similar situations to our own.  It’s easy to feel isolated in today’s world where so many of the institutions we used to rely on are no longer working.  Our society often places a value on being independent. We perpetuate the myth that we should all be capable of solving our own problems. Yet human beings are by nature social creatures who are drawn to groups.  As the song says, “no man is an island”.  The fact is we all rely on others in many ways whether or not we realize it. When you become isolated, you might feel like your thoughts or problems are unique and insurmountable.  It can be so comforting to learn that you are not alone. By becoming part of a group you may be surprised to find that there are others who are or have been where you are and can show you by example that change is possible.

There are opportunities for community everywhere.  Anyone feeling lost or alone can look for them.  Or create one yourself based on your own passions and interests. It may surprise you to find that there are others out there who share your interests.  Whatever you have learned will be different from what they have learned so the sharing can begin.  All that’s required is an open mind and a willingness to take a chance. If you’re afraid to join an existing group, give it a try.  If it doesn’t work out the first time, try again.  Maybe try a different group.  When you start a group or become a member of an existing group you will derive many benefits.  But it is helpful to remember that the goals of the group are not just about you.  A group provides a larger vision of what can be accomplished when people join together.  Although what each individual contributes is valuable, what can be achieved as a whole is what’s important.  So offer your expertise and be willing to give freely but let others provide theirs as well.  We all gain when we all contribute.  No matter what your intention, though, don’t give up. Keep trying. You never know when the right circumstances will arise.

Time for yourself has its value and everyone needs to be alone sometimes.  But community can be a magical and powerful force capable of transforming lives.  Keep your mind and heart open and release your expectations.  Just let it unfold organically without trying to force it.  The result may be totally different from what you thought might happen but you may just get what you need.

Stretching – A Beneficial Exercise

Photo: Pixabay

Over the many years I’ve been involved in the fitness industry I’ve seen different theories and recommendations regarding stretching. Certain questions like “Should I stretch before or after exercise?” or “Should stretching be static (not moving) or dynamic (incorporating motion)?” have at times been a source of controversy.  Often practitioners swear by their particular choices whether or not research supports them. Being a firm believer that what works for one may not work for everyone, I would never argue with anyone who benefits from whatever regimen works for them even if it isn’t something I would necessarily recommend.  We are all an experiment of one and we each need to find our own best practice.  But each of us still needs to keep an open mind since everything, including our bodies, is constantly changing.

Fortunately, recent years have seen considerably more interest among researchers in conducting well-designed studies examining which exercise and movement strategies work best for certain populations.  With chronic illness on the rise, it is no accident that the medical community is seeking new solutions for patients whose medication options may be limited or even ineffective. Health care costs are also increasing so any intervention which is low cost and effective is worth investigating.

One such study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association for Internal Medicine found that stretching and yoga were both helpful in easing low-back pain among chronic sufferers.  This has been a particularly problematic condition since many of the current recommended treatments have not been highly effective.  Researchers noted that, “Self-management strategies, like exercise, are particularly appealing because they are relatively safe, inexpensive, and accessible and may have beneficial effects on health beyond those for back pain.” Although the results in this study showed comparable benefits from both yoga and general stretching classes, yoga showed a slight edge.  Researchers thought this might be “because [yoga] includes a mental component that could enhance the benefits of its physical components”.  This makes sense to me because an important aspect of yoga practice is learning to pay attention to how your body works and, perhaps more importantly, coordinating breath with movement.  Breathing techniques are a key aspect of yoga instruction that are not often emphasized in typical stretching or even physical therapy techniques.  Participants in a third group in this study were given a book on the causes of back pain and advice on treatment.  Both the yoga and stretching groups improved significantly more than this self-directed group. This result led me to wonder if the benefits of group participation and instructor-led classes also contributed to the positive outcome. Researchers did not highlight this possibility, but these are two pretty powerful ingredients.  Perhaps future studies will dig into that possibility.

It is thought that one aspect of aging is a slow process of dehydration that can manifest as arthritis and impediments to certain metabolic processes.  One of the goals of yoga and other types of stretching is to hydrate the tissues by increasing the blood flow in the target areas. These practices also help to relieve tension in overworked muscles, joints and connective tissue.  According to the Mayo Clinic the top 5 benefits of stretching include:

  • “Increased flexibility and joint range of motion:
    Flexible muscles can improve your daily performance. Tasks such as lifting packages, bending to tie your shoes or hurrying to catch a bus become easier and less tiring. Flexibility tends to diminish as you get older, but you can regain and maintain it.
  • Improved circulation:
    Stretching increases blood flow to your muscles. Blood flowing to your muscles brings nourishment and gets rid of waste byproducts in the muscle tissue. Improved circulation can help shorten your recovery time if you’ve had any muscle injuries.
  • Better posture:
    Frequent stretching can help keep your muscles from getting tight, allowing you to maintain proper posture.  Good posture can minimize discomfort and keep aches and pains at a minimum.
  • Stress relief:
    Stretching relaxes tight, tense muscles that often accompany stress.
  • Enhanced coordination:
    Maintaining the full range-of-motion through your joints keeps you in better balance. Coordination and balance will help keep you mobile and less prone to injury from falls, especially as you get older.”

Recent recommendations suggest that it is no longer advisable to stretch before exercise. This is something I have long advocated. It is preferable for muscles to be warm before stretching.  There is less danger of injury from over-stretching.  Five or 10 minutes of easy movements that begin to raise your heart rate, like walking before running or simply moving arms and legs rhythmically, can effectively prepare your body for some gentle stretching.  Having said that, I also realize that there are many people who experience pain upon waking up in the morning.  This can be caused by lack of movement during the night causing stiffness.  In that case, some gentle stretches can be beneficial even before getting out of bed.  The key here is GENTLE.  Take it slow and breathe.  Some examples of simple stretches that can be done while still in bed include:

  • Reaching arms overhead for a full body stretch;
  • Bending one knee at a time and drawing the knee towards your chest, let the other leg rest on the bed; repeat a few times; Note: if this is too difficult you can simply bend your knee and slide your heel towards the end of the bed and then back towards your hips a few times and then switch legs
  • Keeping one knee bent above your hip, use your hand to gently take that knee back and forth from one side to the other and then hold over the straight leg;
  • Roll to one side and press up to seated on the edge of the bed.  Lift shoulders up to your ears and then down a few times
  • Bring your elbows in front of you at shoulder height and open your arms to the side and then bring them back to the front few times;
  • Stretch one leg out in front of you, keep the other knee bent with foot on the floor, then lean forward slightly; change legs;
  • Flex and point your toes; make small ankle circles;
  • Once standing, reach arms overhead and press up.

There are many variations you can add to this routine like leaning from one side to the other (hold on to something stable), gentle twists from side to side, etc.  Just remember to take it SLOW.  In our world, where hurrying seems to be valued it is often difficult for us to just slow down.  The benefits of stretching are often best experienced when stretches are held for at least 30 seconds. Sometimes moving slowly in and out of a stretch before holding can help prepare your body to release tension. While holding the stretch try scanning your body to see where you might be holding tension.  Then try using deep breaths to help release that tension wherever it exists anywhere in your body.  This will help you to relax, increase your sense of well being and may even reduce muscle fatigue giving you more stamina.  Part of the practice is learning to enjoy this experience.  And, as frequently noted in this blog, it is a practice.  The more you engage with consistency, the more you will benefit.  If you need help or advice, try attending a gentle yoga class or consulting a physical therapist.  Incorporating yoga or any type of stretching into your daily routine will increase your flexibility in many ways.  Give it a try and then keep at it.