A Little Goes a Long Way

Last week I received an e-mail from a dear friend thanking me for continuing to remind everyone that there is always value in making an effort no matter how small it might seem.  If you participate in available activities at whatever level you can, you will almost always be glad you did, even when that effort is sporadic. This has been a recurring theme throughout these blog posts.  But consistency of effort has also been a theme.  And here we are in the middle of summer when consistency in any aspect of our lives seems elusive. If we’re not busy travelling, we’re hosting visitors. When I first moved to this tourist town I remember being told, “if you live in the Black Hills, everyone wants to come and visit you”.  Many of my friends make their living during the summer months which doesn’t allow much time for anything else. As the saying goes, we all need to make hay while the sun shines. Sprinkle into this mix that kids (including children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and friends) are out of school and you have a recipe that’s guaranteed to throw your usual routines off-kilter.  So how do we reconcile the need for consistency in our practices in the face of so much disruption?

My first suggestion is to do what you can.  If you find some space in between commitments take advantage of it. Bring your visitors to a class or if you are the visitor, ask where you can find a class.  It can fun to try something different.  And if you don’t like it, you never have to do it again!  Takes all the pressure off so you can just have fun.  Still all the traveling and hosting can be exhausting.  But according to an article in the Harvard Health blog, exercise beats caffeine when you’re feeling tired. One more reason to squeeze it in whenever you can.

Maybe you can’t fit in a class, but you can probably manage a walk. Even 15 or 20 minutes is enough to revive your energy levels and bring some color to your cheeks. If you’re out of town and don’t know where to go, head for some trees. There has been a huge amount of research lately touting the benefits of connecting with nature.  A recent book called “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative” by Florence Williams cites numerous examples from this research.  Summer is the perfect time to take advantage of these benefits.  Greenery abounds.  Even in inner cities.  Ms. Williams says that even if you can walk down a city street where trees are growing you will feel the difference in your mood.  Another article in the Harvard Health blog echoes this sentiment and takes it a step further. The article refers to an analysis published by the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences which shows that time spent in “green” places is linked to longer life in women.  “Specifically, there was a 13% lower rate for cancer mortality, 35% lower respiratory disease-related mortality, and 41% lower rate for kidney disease mortality in the women living in the areas with the highest levels of green vegetation.” Green things are growing all around us no matter where you live.  Smile as you walk by them.  It just might extend your life!

Another suggestion: remember that anything you do is better than nothing. One thing we know is that summer will end.  Even if the weather doesn’t change much, the kids will go back to school, travelers become less frequent for a while and routines can resume.  Anything you’ve done during the hiatus will be helpful when you get back to your regular activities.  Coming back and regaining your former strength, stamina and flexibility will be that much easier if you’ve been able to practice at all, even intermittently.

Which brings me to my third suggestion:  be patient and gentle with yourself.  Doing a little here and there can be frustrating. You might recognize that you’ve lost some of the gains you made during regular practice.  Getting them back might seem daunting and be a bit slower and more difficult than you hoped.  Take heart.  You got where you were once, you can get there again.  Of course, if you’re recovering from a physical setback modification may also be in order.  But no matter where you are, set your expectations aside and focus on the process.  Try setting goals related to process rather than specific achievements.  In other words, rather than saying, “I will be able to touch my toes in six weeks” try making your goal something like “I will practice regularly for the next six weeks”. The term “regular” can have any definition you like (e.g. daily, every other day, bi-weekly, weekly, whatever).  Just make it something you can maintain on a consistent basis.  Try to be consistent for as long as you can. Another thing you can be sure of is that life will throw curves into your best intentions. When that happens, go back to the suggestions above and return to consistency when you can.

Finally, relax and enjoy the novelty of change.  Accept what is and go with the flow. Life is finite.  Time is precious. If you can’t do everything you want to do, don’t beat yourself up. Just do what you can.  Focus on the positive.  Do what you can with what you have now and you will always be right.

Advertisements

Improving Independence

This past week we celebrated Independence Day, a milestone in American history.  On that day we recall our fledgling nation’s successful effort to separate itself from British rule and establish our own local government.  Since that time the concept of independence has become a significant pillar of American culture.  As a society we place a high value on individual independence.  We love the idea of the self-made person who succeeds by using his/her own wits and ingenuity.  A lofty ideal for sure, but a myth nonetheless.

Of course, we can often improve ourselves and sometimes even our circumstances through hard work and determination.  That’s true.  But everyone who does succeed at anything owes that success to external factors as much as internal drive.  Start with the accident of birth.  If you were born here in the U.S. or have had the good fortune to obtain citizenship or permanent resident status, you can thank that one fact alone for many of the opportunities you’ve been able to take advantage of in your life.   You can’t credit your birth to any ability of your own. It just happened that way and you are the unwitting beneficiary.  Maybe you were born into a privileged family, maybe not.  Or you might have had access to great schools and teachers.  Or not.  The amenities in your area – roads and transportation options, clean water, accessible food sources, etc. – may have served to add or detract from your quality of life, but either way they certainly contributed.  Sometimes the ability to change surroundings is available and sometimes not.  So in many ways, we are not as independent as we think.

Even those who are “off the grid” will probably find that they are still dependent on some external sources.  For example, if you grow your own food, you still may need certain weather conditions.  The availability of clean water is always a factor even if you use indoor gardening options.  As human beings we are neither infallible nor immortal.  We need food and water no matter what.  And we are subject to all kinds of illnesses and other physical problems.  At this point you might be wondering if I’ve been reading too many dystopian novels.  In fact, my intention is not to paint a bleak picture of human frailty, but simply to remind us all that we need each other.  We are all interconnected. Like or not.  And when that fact is accepted, the potential exists for all of us to get along with each other much better that we do.

A recent article in Yoga Journal reminds us that we are “supported in countless ways through each moment of your life”.  The article is about gratitude, but it is also about independence and interdependence.  The 17th-century author and pamphleteer, Roger L’Estrange, is quoted as saying that we often “mistake the gratuitous blessings of heaven for the fruits of our own industry.”  Thus not only do we need each other, but we are dependent on everything on the planet and even the universe to support us.  Without all of it, we could not exist.

Having said all of that, one of the most common refrains I hear among older people is that they (or should I say “we”) want to maintain their independence for as long as possible.  Becoming completely dependent upon others for daily needs is something many of us dread.  We want to keep driving our cars, walking on the trails, choosing our own food, living in our own homes, seeing other people when we want to or being alone when we prefer.  We don’t want to be a “burden” on our families, or on society.  And yet most of us will at some point lose at least some of our ability to take care of ourselves.

Still medical research suggests that this doesn’t always just happen simply due to aging.  Sometimes it is a result of inactivity.  As I’ve often said, the less you move, the harder it is to get moving again.  Another of my mantras is that we all need to move while we can move because one never knows when their ability to move will be altered.  Illness or accident can immobilize any of us at any time.  When people tell me they are afraid of flying, for example, I often respond that they could get hit by a car tomorrow.  Or trip getting out of bed.  Anything can happen.  These are just more ways in which that illusion of control over our own lives can go awry.  Sometimes a post-traumatic stress reaction can set in.  Once you experience pain from any source, it is easy to become fearful that the same pain will return.

So it all comes back to letting the lure of potential benefits overcome the siren song of fear.  In “Exercise:  A Guide From the National Institute on Aging” the authors state that “just about every older adult can safely do some form of physical activity” and, in fact, “studies suggest that not exercising is risky behavior.”  If motivation is a drawback, dangle that carrot of independence right in front of your nose every time you try to erect barriers.  Too hot or too cold outside?  Set a timer and walk around your house for 20 minutes.  Better yet, walk up and down some stairs.  You don’t have to go fast.  Just move continuously at whatever pace is available to you.  Or take a class!  Most classes are indoors and some are even air conditioned.  Afraid to go by yourself?  Call a friend or relative to go with you.  Remember that a class can be a source of support and strength.  These are two of the many qualities that help us to maintain independence while still recognizing our interconnectedness.  Leave your fear of looking funny at the door.  There was a wonderful article in this week’s “On Being” blog called “Perfection Will Do You In“, by columnist Parker Palmer.   In it, there is a poem by a 94-year-old Benedictine monk named Kilian McDonnell which is a must read.  Here is my favorite part:

the Venus de Milo
has no arms,
the Liberty Bell is
cracked.

Bottom line:  nobody is perfect and we all need each other.  And remember – the independence you may save or extend could be your own.