Power in Community

January has come and gone.  According to just about every article on the subject, most New Year’s resolutions have now reached the graveyard of good intentions.  Fortunately, any time is appropriate to get back on that bandwagon and try again.  As we all know, every day is a new day and a new opportunity.  There are many tips for setting goals and maintaining resolve, but the one I’d like to focus on here is the value of community.  A group of like-minded and supportive practitioners can help keep you motivated, especially when barriers start appearing in your path.

The great Vietnamese philosopher Thich Nhat Hahn wrote “A good [community] is crucial for practice.” He continues “A good teacher is important, but sisters and brothers in the practice are the main ingredient for success.”  Of course, he may be referring to a different type of practice here, but I would venture that even he would not object to expanding the meaning more broadly to include many types of practice.  Especially those practices with the ultimate goal of self-improvement.

If one of your self-improvement goals is to add more movement to your life, a group can be a huge help to keep you on that path.  A recent article in the Washington Post  cites two new studies that demonstrate the value of even “light activity” as being “helpful for outcomes like daily functioning, mental well-being, good quality of life and so on.”  Improved methods are now being used to conduct such studies.  In the past they have mostly been based on self-reporting which is notoriously inaccurate.  But with new technology such as Fitbits and similar activity tracking devices, more objective data can be collected.  The result of these 2 studies show that the benefits of movement, even light movement, are far more impressive than previously thought.  In fact, these studies found that “the most active subjects had a 50 to 70 percent decline in mortality during a defined follow-up period compared with the least active, most sedentary participants. Previous self-report research had pegged this benefit at about 20 to 35 percent.” This is comparable to the health benefits gained by non-smokers vs. smokers.  So it is particularly significant.

Interestingly, these studies tracked individuals (male and female) in their late 60’s and 70’s.  The researchers believe that the results will correlate to younger people also.  But the results add further evidence to support the notion that it is never too late to start moving.  Furthermore, any movement beats being sedentary.  The studies show that “all physical activity counts toward improving health status. You don’t have to play basketball for an hour or run three miles to accrue benefits. You simply have to move . . .”

One great way to do that is to join a group.  That’s what exercise classes provide – a group that is working together to keep moving.  Classes also provide a specific time and place for this activity.  You can set that time aside in your schedule and like any other appointment.  Not only will this help you remember, but it can also help you keep other appointments from interfering.

The word “yoga” is translated as “union” from Sanskrit.  This can mean many things.  It can mean union of mind and body.  Or union of movement and breath.  For this purpose I would suggested that “union” can also refer to a group that practices together.  This is true not just of yoga, but of any group that practices movement together.

Recently one of the members of our Pilates group was sick.  We missed her while she was gone and worried about her sending healing energy for her quick return.  When she got better we were elated to have her back and welcomed her accordingly.  As part of a group your well-being becomes important to others as well as yourself.  Of course, your friends and family will also benefit from your good health, but wouldn’t it be great to have a supportive group to share your efforts with.  You can and should continue to move on your own, but a group can encourage that also.  The more you move, the better you will feel which will encourage more movement.  So if you’re still hoping to at least try to fulfill your pledge to yourself, let a group help you.  We all need each other.  Take advantage of the benefits of community.

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When Illness Happens to Healthy People

As you many of you know, throughout the years I have been a strong advocate of yoga and Pilates for maintaining health and wellness.  Now I find myself once again facing the prospect of dealing with cancer.  My first experience some 12 years ago was relatively mild compared to this one.  So some of you may be thinking “how could a health practitioner and advocate like Peg become so sick??” Or  worse, “why should I bother if illness may come to me whether or not I practice yoga or Pilates or even exercise regularly?”

Here are my responses:  First, illness or accident or anything unexpected can happen to any of us at any time.  If you are reading this and are over the age of, say, 20, it is probably safe to say that not one among us has escaped trauma during our lives.  All trauma is relative.  What may seem trivial to one can mean serious suffering to another.  The way we perceive experience is the way we internalize it.  We have all had difficult experiences.  The older we get, the more these experiences accumulate.  This is life.  These are part of what makes us who we are.

One recurring theme you may recognize in my writing is the constancy of change.  Everything is always changing.  The best predictions are guesses.  No one knows what the future holds – good or bad.  That’s assuming we still want to use those labels:  “good” meaning things we think we want to happen and “bad” meaning things we don’t want to happen.  All of which is, of course, very subjective.  None of this is to say that cancer is a “good” thing.  But it is what it is.  It has no agenda other than survival – just like healthy cells.  It’s not right or wrong or good or bad.  It just is.

During these past 3 weeks as I recover from surgery, I’ve been struck by the number of people who have told me how “good” I look.  This brings me to the second question, “why should I bother . . .etc.”.  The answer is simple:  if you want to survive life’s traumas you need strength, flexibility and balance.  Does that ring a bell?  It should!  These are the main benefits of yoga, Pilates and exercise in general.  And there are so many more.  In response to hearing how good I look I’ve been saying that I am a walking advertisement for the disciplines I advocate and try to maintain.   Something else you’ve all frequently heard me say – it’s never too late to start.  No matter where you are, you can gain in strength, flexibility and balance.  Just like any other experience, these qualities are relative also.  What’s strong for you may be different for someone else, but it is still strength.  All you have to do is start and then keep practicing.  Yet another sentiment I frequently express is how practicing yoga and Pilates will help you with all aspects of your life.  Perhaps my experience will help you to see how true that rea is.

None of us can escape trauma.  But we can learn to roll with the punches.  Or at least we can try.  It’s never easy, but fighting with reality doesn’t make it any easier.  Acceptance doesn’t have to mean giving in or in any way being happy about the state of things as they are.  All it means is that we acknowledge what we cannot change and move on from there.  We may not be very good at this and we certainly will never be perfect, but we can practice.  And each day – maybe each moment – offers a new opportunity to practice.

I am exceedingly grateful to the wonderfully supportive community of which I am privileged to be a part.  You all make my efforts at practice that much more significant and rewarding.  Thanks to all.

“Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and to endure what cannot be cured.”

BKS Iyengar

“A hundred flowers blossom in spring, the moon shines in autumn, there is a fresh breeze in summer, and there is snow in winter. If your mind isn’t occupied with trivial matters, every time is a good time.”

Wumen Huikai, “Zen Basics”