Surviving Winter – It Takes a Village

Ah, winter in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  This is an area characterized by challenging and unpredictable weather all year.  A few days ago our temperatures went from -21 degrees to +40 in the span of about 24 hours.  We often say that we can experience all 4 seasons in a single day, sometimes in a matter of hours.  A visitor once asked me “what is typical weather for this time of year?” and I could only reply “there is no ‘typical'”.  The best advice on any given day is to dress in layers and be prepared for anything.  During my years in New England I kept a running log that included what I wore each day to accommodate weather conditions.  Using this guide I was able to decide how to dress within 5 degree increments of temperature change in either direction.  After arriving in South Dakota, that guide soon went out the window.  There are so many variables affecting outdoor comfort here that it is almost impossible to know what to wear.  Even though I subscribe to the theory that there is no bad weather – only poor clothing choices, it’s worth repeating that my best advice is still to dress in layers and be prepared for anything.  Since I try to get outdoors as much as possible all year long, I also advocate carrying a backpack big enough to allow for the addition and subtraction of clothing as conditions change.

Having said all of that, there are hazards to outdoor activities in the winter.  After a stint of super cold and snowy weather it is not uncommon to experience a welcome break in the action featuring sunny days and temperatures that can even reach the 50’s.  As attractive as these periods of respite are, they bring with them a pattern of thaw and freeze that can create dangerous ice.  This past week pretty much everyone I talked to has had some kind of fall on the ice, myself included.  Each new storm spreads a new layer of snow on top of the previous layer of ice.  The new snow sometimes provides extra traction, but it also masks what’s hidden beneath it.  A layer of black ice underneath a shallow layer of snow brought me down.  Fortunately I was not significantly injured, but it was enough of a scare to drive me indoors to the dreaded treadmill.  It takes a lot to get me on the treadmill , but as I get older the possibility of serious injury from falling looms large.  As much as I love being outdoors, it’s not worth the risk.  A few mild and sunny days in a row can be sufficient to clear one of my favorite winter walking areas.  It’s worth the wait.

The good news is I don’t have to use the treadmill every day.  There are other indoor options.  It’s times like these that I am especially grateful for my yoga and Pilates practices.  Both disciplines supplement and support my walking so that I can stay strong and mobile throughout the long winter.  There are many other reasons to bring mind/body practices into your life at any time of year, but winter can be a particularly good time.  Despite the fact that we’ve passed the solstice (yay!) the days are still short.  Little by little we are seeing changes in the extent of daylight in the afternoons, but mornings are still really dark.  An article from Harvard Health Publications titled “Let the Sun Shine Mind Your Mental Health This Winter” points out that winter can throw off the circadian rhythms of our natural internal clocks.  This can affect moods and even overall mental health.  We’ve all heard of “Seasonal Affective Disorder” which, as defined by the Mayo Clinic, is a type of depressions that occurs with the changing of the seasons.  The Harvard Health article emphasizes the importance of physical exercise as an antidote for this problem.  Just 30 minutes of daily exercise not only helps relieve stress but also “may help your body release endorphins, your natural ‘happy hormones'” which can help elevate your mood naturally, without drugs.  The article further advocates yoga as a meditative practice that can help quiet the mind and mitigate symptoms of depression.

Another article in Harvard Health Publications titled “How Simply Moving Benefits Your Mental Health” provides additional support for exercise as a mental health booster.  The article states that regular exercise “can reduce anxiety by making your brain’s “fight or flight” system less reactive”.  In fact, according to this article exercise can “be as effective as medication and psychotherapies“.  Exercise boosts mood “by increasing a brain protein called BDNF that helps nerve fibers grow.”  The article specifically identifies yoga and other practices “in which you pay close attention to your bodily sensations, position in space, and . . . breathing as you move. . .  can reduce the severity of symptoms in post-traumatic stress disorder. Changing your posture, breathing, and rhythm can all change your brain, thereby reducing stress, depression, and anxiety, and lead to a feeling of well-being.”  The article goes on to say although you can practice these disciplines on your own, “a recent study found that when you try to move in synchrony with someone else, it also improves your self-esteem.”  I love this result!  Not only are mind/body movement disciplines shown to improve mental health, but moving with others makes the practice even better.  There are many reasons to take classes but here is another one we can add to that list.  Since “synchronizing” can imply mimicking, I don’t necessarily advocate doing this in a class, especially if you are new to the practice. However, especially in Pilates we do think about the rhythm of our movements so perhaps we could consider the class like an orchestra with each of us moving in concert with one another – not necessarily mirroring others but still making individual contributions to the presentation as a whole.  What a great concept!

If you still need more reasons to find a way to keep moving even when conditions outdoors may be discouraging, let me cite one more article in Harvard Health Publications.  This one, titled “Challenge Your Mind and Body to Sharpen Your Thinking Skills” by Heidi Godman, an intriguing title all by itself, highlights the advantages of both movement and social engagement. The article cites Dr. Kathryn Papp, a neuropsychologist and instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, who says “Until the mid-1990s, we thought that people were born with however many brain cells they would die with. We now know that the growth of new cells — a process called neurogenesis — occurs throughout life, even in older age.” And the good news is “researchers have found that physical exercise leads to the release of cellular growth factors that are important for neurogenesis.” Furthermore, the “combination of growth factors and new brain cells that comes from healthy living, challenging the brain, and staying socially connected in a meaningful way may actually help protect the brain or keep it more resilient against changes that cause dementia”.  Classes in yoga and Pilates accomplish all three of those goals – challenging the brain through connecting the mind to physical movement, social connections with other class participants and, as Dr. Papp puts it, “the grand poobah of them all: exercising.”  Seems to me that this is one more reason to give classes a try.  Although there are no guarantees, it certainly can’t hurt.

If you’re new to regular movement practices, my advice remains to take it slow, go at your own pace, don’t worry about what you look like and just keep at it.  Remember that the goal is practice, not perfection.  But keeping all of the advantages mentioned above up front in your mind might help keep you motivated when you’re tempted to quit.  And if you continue to practice you just might find that you begin to notice the difference in both your mental and physical well-being.  What is that worth to you?  Seems to me it’s priceless!

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.