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.

More Benefits of Mind-Body Connection

Just a short post this week to draw your attention to a couple of articles reinforcing the benefits of movement in general, and mind-body practices in particular.  Many of you probably know that as scientists learn more about brain function and how genes work, researchers have also learned that brain pathways and gene expression continue to change throughout our lifetimes.  It was once thought that brain function automatically declines as we get older.  Recent research has shown this is simply not true.  In addition, researchers are learning that the changes in gene expression brought about by mind-body practices may actually have the ability to reverse the effects of chronic stress.

A recent article in Yoga Journal , cites a study published in Frontiers of Immunology that sought to examine whether our genes actually change after engaging in mind-body practices.  The conclusion?  Engaging in these practices can actually create molecular changes that have long term effects on your health.  As quoted in the article, “ ‘Mind-body techniques like yoga or meditation are the most effective ways of reducing stress that are known to science,’ lead author Ivana Buric, a doctoral student and research assistant at Coventry University in England”.

Another article from National Public Radio (NPR) discussed a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Internal Medicine.  This showed that exercise in general works better at providing relief from and even preventing chronic lower back pain than a variety of commonly prescribed interventions such as back belts and shoe insoles.  According to the article “It didn’t really matter what kind of exercise — core strengthening, aerobic exercise, or flexibility and stretching.”  Dr. Tim Carey, an internist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who wrote an accompanying commentary to the study, said that “health care providers don’t prescribe exercise nearly enough, given its effectiveness.”

So if you’re still on the fence about whether or not yoga, Pilates and other practices that connect mind and movement will help you, the evidence shows that its worth a try.  Any movement is better than no movement.  If you’re not ready for yoga or can’t find a class that works for you, try walking.  It’s simple, effective and you can do it anywhere, any time.  Just remember that if you are brand new at any movement practice, start simple and take it slow.  The point of these types of practices is to help you learn more about how your own mind and body work.  Every body is different.  So even when you’re in a class, there is no rule that requires everyone to do the same thing.  Take the time to tune into your own inner workings.  Learn what works for you.  You may be surprised to learn that you can do more than you think you can. And if you stick with it, you’ll get even better.  If you can approach any new effort with curiosity you’ll be much better off than if you let your ego take over.  Include a little self-compassion and even humor and you’ve got all the ingredients to improve your health.  Give it a try!