Taming Transitions

Time is such a peculiar concept.  When you look at the universe, the stars, the planets, time doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot.  We measure all movements, distances and changes in terms of time, but it appears to be a human construct invented for the sole purpose of giving us a method for understanding and discussion.  Time matters to us as humans because of the finite span of our own lives.  We want to cram in as much as possible since, by cosmic standards, we really aren’t here for very long.  This makes us very conscious of time and, in fact, our lives seem to revolve around this theme.  We mark the passage of time with each sunrise and sunset.  Also with the seasons.  We watch things grow and know that time is passing with each change we witness.  Acknowledging the passage of time is a critical element in our understanding of changes in our world and our own bodies.

The recent movie “Arrival” is all about the weirdness of time.  In the film beings from another world land on earth.  A linguist is recruited to translate the sounds they make.  In many ways this film highlights the vagaries of chronology, but one thing that I found particularly interesting occurred during this linguist’s initial attempt to communicate with the strangers.  She wrote something on a tablet and was immediately rewarded with visual symbols presented by these creatures.  The symbols were basically circular inspiring the linguist to note that this “language” was not dependent on time as ours is.  Each symbol appeared to have no particular beginning, middle or end.  Later in the film there was evidence that there were some ways in which time mattered to these beings, but perhaps that was because as humans making this film, it is difficult for us to divorce ourselves from time and its implications.  After all the movie itself had to have a beginning, middle and end even if they were kind of intertwined.  Still it was interesting to think about the ways in which our methods of communication are time-dependent.

So here we are, marching along with the unavoidable passage of time which is really just a way of describing change and yet somehow, in so many ways, we remain completely resistant to change itself.  From the time we are born, or even conceived, our lives are marked by change. When we’re young we change really quickly.  Yet many of us can’t wait to get older.  We rail against the slowness of time and the changes it brings.  As the years (another human concept!) progress, many changes govern our lives and there never seems to be enough time.  Then as we get older, physical changes again loom large.  Now they seem to be happening too fast.  Time seems to pass more quickly.  In our middle years we are often more likely to note the changes in others around us while somehow clinging to our own status quo.  So it can be quite a jolt to suddenly realize that our own bodies are changing right along with those of our children, grandchildren and parents.

Inevitably we reach a point where we have to acknowledge that we, too, have changed.  A friend and I were discussing today how difficult that can be to accept.  Sometimes changes in our physical capabilities can also mean the loss of a familiar community.  Years ago I used to belong to a running club.  Club members would all run together regularly.  Of course, there were many different speeds among the group, but there was always someone I could run with.  As time passed it became more and more difficult for me to run with others.  I wanted to keep running, so I did. But I needed to run at my own pace.  It was hard for me to keep up with anyone else, but I also did not expect anyone to slow their stride to stay with me.  So my attachment to this group began to unravel like fabric when a single thread starts to go it’s own way. Eventually, that became OK as I got more comfortable being with myself and enjoying my own movement.  But for a while it represented a loss.  In fact, multiple losses – physical capacity and also community.

As I continue to age, more examples of these losses present themselves.  Fortunately, I have since learned that loss of ability doesn’t always have to mean loss of community.  Sometimes there are other ways to participate with a group even if you can’t do everything they do. Especially in movement classes.  One of the themes I’ve repeated throughout this blog is that there is no requirement in any movement class that everybody has to do everything exactly as anyone else does, including the instructor.  Most of us worry that we will look funny or somehow be singled out if we don’t follow along precisely as prescribed.  In general, this could not be farther from the truth.  For one thing, most participants in a class are too focused on themselves to worry about or even notice what anyone else is doing.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, classes should be a judgment-free zone.  If the one you’re attending isn’t, then find another one.  There are so many out there.  Don’t let one bad experience keep you from finding a place where you can be yourself.  Just show up and move to whatever internal drummer motivates.  Ultimately you’ll find a place where you can feel comfortable.  Online classes are great in a pinch, but community is still an important benefit of classes.

However, sometimes we have to move on.  Accept the reality of the moment and find new paths to travel and new communities to join. When I could no longer run, I found other activities like hiking and walking that I could do alone or with a group – my choice.  When certain yoga poses become too difficult, there’s no rule that says I need to keep doing them.  There are so many others available to me.   Many aspects of my life will and have changed, but what I’ve achieved in the past will always be part of me.  No amount of change or passage of time can erase those accomplishments.  And the person I am today is the sum of all of the many experiences I’ve had during the time that has passed since the day I was born. Learning to be satisfied with who I am today is just another part of my practice.  Each day requires a new reminder of that since every day brings new changes.  Change can signal fear or excitement for experiencing something new.  It’s all a matter of how you perceive it.  And that is a choice each of us can make for ourselves.


The Space Beyond Your Comfort Zone

We all know the benefits of stretching your physical body.  Although research has not definitively proven a link between stretching and injury prevention, some studies have shown that stretching can improve joint range of motion.  Anyone who has limited mobility in any joint for any reason will understand the importance of full range of motion.  Of course, movement in our bodies involves more than just muscle, but when we talk about stretching we are almost always referring to muscles and their ability to perform in the way we want them to.  Every movement requires more than one muscle.  In general, muscles are paired with both members of the pair playing an equally important role in joint mobility.  For example, when performing a bicep curl moving the elbow joint, the bicep muscle shortens while it’s partner, the triceps muscle, lengthens.  If either muscle is tight or weak, the range of motion in the elbow joint will be limited.  This is a pretty simplistic view since there may be other factors at work here, but the point I want to make is that strengthening needs to accompany stretching in order to improve range of motion.  So just as more than one muscle is needed for movement, more than one discipline is needed to optimize that movement.  Isn’t it great to know that both yoga and Pilates provide stretching and strengthening to help us with the functional demands on our bodies as we move through our everyday lives.

But just as muscle movement requires more than just stretching, so moving through our lives requires more than muscle movement.  When using the term “flexibility” in connection with muscle movement, we tend to think in terms of the limitations of our ability to stretch.  For example, if you can’t touch your toes you think you’re not very flexible.  If I had a dollar for every time I have heard someone say, “I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible” I could probably retire to the Bahamas by now. Thinking that way misses the point.  Yoga and Pilates are both practices, not goals to strive for.  We practice to improve, not to achieve some ideal shape.  Every body is different.  Optimum range for one person may not be the same as the next no matter how much he or she works at it.  Still even the most rigid person with the tensest of muscles can improve their range of motion with regular practice.  Sometimes just learning how to relax can allow a movement to expand in a way that could not have been envisioned before.

Sometimes it’s more than physical inflexibility that limits range of motion.  Fear can hold us back.  Especially following injury.  Once we’ve experienced pain in connection with a certain movement, it can be difficult to convince oneself that it’s worth trying to move again.  And, in fact, moving the same way may not be a good idea or even possible.  It may well be that a new technique for movement must be learned. This, too, can be traumatic.  It can make you long for the simpler way things used to be.  A friend and I were talking today about hindsight and how distorted our view of the past can become.  We envision a kinder, gentler time when things were so much better than they are now.  But often our memories are faulty.  And even when they aren’t, sometimes that old way is just not possible today or maybe ever again.  Enter the need for another kind of flexibility – the need to stretch and strengthen one’s mind.  Overcoming the fear requires not only the stretch of a leap of faith into the unknown, but also the strength to keep moving forward even when the path is unclear.  As I’ve journeyed through this latest recovery, there was a time in the beginning when I thought I would never get back the ability to move the way I had in the mythical pain-free days of yesteryear.  And, in fact, some movements have not come back fully, but with patience and a large dose of self-compassion, much has been restored.  And, for the most part, it all feels much better than it has for a long time.  So the stop and start, on again/off again, push and pull of maintaining a practice is now paying off.  Some days are better than others, but I’m so grateful for my renewed capacity in so many areas that I can accept whatever limitations remain for now and go with the flow.

Stretching the mind can be limited by more than just fear.  Another common obstacle is habit.  How often have you heard, “but we’ve always done it this way . . .”  That’s another statement that could provide for comfortable retirement if payment was made each time it was uttered. Changing habits is another form of mental stretching that also requires strength.  According to the laws of physics, every movement in the universe resists change unless or until it becomes subjected to an external force.  Another way of putting this in human terms is that we would all rather stay the same until we are forced to change by something previously unforeseen.  Injury, illness, accident – these are all external forces that necessitate change.  Even when faced with these instabilities, though, change still requires us to stretch and strengthen. Despite our loud howls of disapproval, the universe will move on with or without us.  It’s nothing personal.  It’s just the way things are. Learning to become more flexible mentally as well as physically just might help when it comes to accepting change whatever the cause.

When speaking of yoga and Pilates, I often refer to the mind-body connection that these practices help to promote.  For me this means that learning the principles and practice of stretching and strengthening the body also helps improve internal strength and flexibility.  It has been said that yoga builds strength from the inside out.  We never get to the end of a practice.  There is always something new to learn and try. Sometimes what we learn is how to accept our limitations.  But also we can learn that we all have more inner strength than we think we do. Through practice, we can learn to engage it in ways that we might not have thought possible.  Through the years I’ve observed in myself and others that if one keeps practicing yoga in any kind of consistent way it will take you somewhere that you didn’t envision before you started. For me, that’s a stretch in the right direction.