Accepting The Things We Cannot Change

Last week we all had spring flashes and this week it’s welcome back to winter.  As usual, our weather here in the Black Hills is an adventure.  Wherever you are when you are reading this, my guess is you could say the same for your area.  Weather is a great example of how circumstances beyond our control affect our lives.  We can worry about it or get angry with it or defy it.  But in the end there isn’t a thing we can do to change or even influence it.  We can play with our clocks and give ourselves the illusion of control, but no matter what the clock says daylight will arrive and retreat on it’s own time.

Are there other areas of our lives over which we have no control?  Of course.  We dislike admitting it, but, for the most part going out into each day is an act of faith.  We might have a daily routine or what we imagine is a well-laid plan for the day, but in reality we will be lucky if things go the way we planned.  Yup – lucky.  Everyone wants to think that it is their own genius responsible for things going their way, but ultimately there is always at least a little luck involved.  Of course, we can prepare ourselves to take the best advantage of chips falling our way.  But ultimately no one – not even the most careful and detailed planner – can predict the future.

So how can we move forward when everything is really uncertain?  We could approach each day with trepidation and fear, worrying about every possible detail in hopes that worrying will somehow make a difference in the outcome.  Unfortunately, that never works.  Can you think of a single time when worrying about some unwanted concern actually prevented it from happening?  Maybe it happens, maybe it doesn’t, but either way the worrying you did in advance didn’t change anything.  All it did was stress you out.  And if what you worried about doesn’t actually occur (which is most often the case) then you stressed out needlessly.  And what about events occurring that weren’t even on your radar screen?  You didn’t even have a chance to worry yet here you are, having to deal with it anyway.  It might surprise you to see yourself somehow managing the challenge, whatever it is.  All of us can look back through our lives and find examples where that was true.  We’ve all had the experience of living through something we never would have thought we could handle.  Yet somehow we did.

Of course, I do my share of worrying, too.  And this is not to say that events shouldn’t make us angry or sad.  It also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t bother planning. But a plan is like a path through the woods.  You don’t always know where it’s going to take you. Have you ever had the experience of following a route on a map but ending up someplace completely different from what you expected?  Outcomes can be unpredictable, but that doesn’t mean that the journey wasn’t worth taking.

Life is so full of uncertainties and none of us really knows what it’s all about. In the end, though, it all comes down to learning to go with the flow.  Which for me is a practice.  Not something I’ll ever be perfect at, but something to keep striving for and working at.  Accepting the good, the bad and the ugly of whatever life hands you and doing the best you can with what you’ve got to work with at any given time.  We can’t change the past or predict the future. And as much as we’d like to imagine we can control the behavior of others, that, too, is impossible.  Most of us can barely control ourselves.  Think of all the times you’ve said something you didn’t mean to say or done something you didn’t mean to do.

As Joni Mitchell writes in the song “Woodstock”:  “I don’t know who l am, But you know life is for learning”.  Treating life as an adventure is not always easy, but it might help to remember that nothing ever stays the same.  Everything is always changing.  Remember the weather.  As Mark Twain (or whoever it was) said, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.  It will change.”  Have a “Plan B” whenever possible, but no matter what happens, being kind to yourself and all those around you is always a good plan.  Focus on the things you can control like your attitude, your own behavior, your actions and reactions.  Attend to the journey and let the outcomes be what they are.

Simple Strategies for Improving Movement

This week I was inspired by two resources that I want to share with all of you.  The first comes from Mindful Strength founder and instructor Kathryn Bruni-Young.  Her practice “combines mindful attention with strength, mobility and functional movement”.  I learned about her from movement specialist Jenni Rawlings, who I have been following for some time.  Those of you who know me recognize that I have long been interested in functional movement and how to improve our capacity for movement at all ages and skill levels.  In my opinion the outward shape of a yoga pose is not as important as the internal feel of that pose for the person holding it.  Can you sense your movement through space?  Do you know where your body’s parts are in relation to other parts and to the external world?  As a result of injury, trauma, or just plain lack of attention many of us have lost touch with our bodies.  Images in the media to which none of us can possibly measure up have given some of us a less than optimum opinion of our bodies.  This further contributes to detachment.  The goal of mind-body disciplines as I teach them is to put practitioners back in touch with their own bodies. Then, perhaps, we can see them for the miracles they are rather than focussing on perceived faults and failings.

On Kathryn Bruni-Young’s website, I was delighted to discover her podcast.  Many of you know I am a podcast devotee so I began listening immediately.  I am now working my way through her archives and have so far been extremely impressed.  The one I wanted to point out to you today features an interview with Nicholas St. Louis, a Physical Therapist and founder of The Foot Collective, which is on a self-described “mission to reclaim the human foot.”  I highly recommend this podcast and also suggest a visit to The Foot Collective website.  In his blog post “An Introduction to Feet and Footwear”, Nick describes our feet as “a magically well engineered body part and yet despite the massive role they play and how robust they are, most people neglect foot health.”  That is, until those feet start to hurt and become a problem.

Nick reminds us that although we take our ability to walk upright on 2 feet for granted, this trait is unique to humans.  The feet, he emphasizes, are “the only part of your body that touch the ground as you navigate the world and because of that they have a rich and extensive network of nerves . . . that relay vital information to your brain”.  In fact, each foot “contains 25% of the bones in our body, has 33 joints and over 100 muscles/tendons/ligaments.”  What could possibly go wrong?  No wonder we have foot problems!

Yet our feet are also incredibly resilient and designed to take lots of abuse.  But we abuse them at our own peril.  According to Nick, a major source of that abuse is the footwear to which we subject our feet.  He details how our footwear choices have allowed our muscles to weaken and even atrophy.  The modern shoe, he states, “numbs the sensory network in your feet and without the input from the ground, the muscles of your foot stop working like they were designed . . . [shoes become] a foot binding contraption that systematically shortens our heel cords” among other issues.  Furthermore, as a result of this “contraption” the absent or misleading information coming from the foot “gets translated upstream to your shins, knee, hip, low back and all the way to your neck.”  Nick even goes so far as to suggest that many of our knee, hip and back issues are really foot issues.  Of course, there are likely other contributing factors that accumulate along the way, but I believe there is great deal of merit to this argument.  It certainly makes sense to include this concept into any strategy for addressing other problems.

In the podcast, Nick also states that many of our problems with balance are also related to our limited ability to translate signals from our feet to our brain and, consequently, other parts of our body.  He suggests some simple practices to help address this problem.  Among them is simply gradually incorporating more barefoot walking.  Also heel-to-toe walking a straight line both forward and backward, without looking down, on a slightly raised surface like a 2 x 4.  This helps to retrain your proprioceptive ability to gauge your body’s place in space.  The height of the surface can gradually be increased as mastery develops.  He also suggests walking on a variety of surfaces, like grass and sand, even rocks.  As with any new or renewed effort, “gradual” means just that!  Start slow and increase equally slowly.  You’re not going to undo a lifetime of poor habits in a day or even a week or month.  But as with any practice, if you stick with it you’ll improve.

The second piece of information I wanted to pass on to you is an article from NPR this past week called “The Lost Art of Bending Over: How Other Cultures Spare Their Spines”. This article describes the “hip hinge”, the process of leaning forward from the hip crease instead of the waist.  Your hip crease is that place where your legs meet your torso.  When you bend from the waist, you round your spine.  For those of us with weak abdominal (or “core”) muscles, this creates stress on your spine which ultimately invites back pain.   As Jean Couch, from The Balance Center, states in the article, bending from the waist makes us “all look like really folded cashews.”  Do you really want to look like some kind of nut??

Of course, in Pilates we try to train practitioners to strengthen and engage their core muscles when creating a “C-curve”, but that does not negate the benefits of the hip hinge.  Core strength also helps with hip hinging.  I often hear prospective yogis lament the fact that they can’t touch their toes.  Touching one’s toes is certainly not the be-all and end-all of any yoga practice.  But one of the reasons why many people have so much trouble reaching for their feet is because of chronically tight hamstrings.  “Bending at the hip takes the pressure off the back muscles,” says Liza Shapiro, who studies primate locomotion at the University of Texas, Austin. “Instead, you engage your hamstring muscles.”  That simply means stretching your hamstrings.  People often think of reaching for their toes as a back stretch, but it is really a hamstring stretch.  As the article states, “when you hip hinge, your spine can stay in a neutral position, while the hips and upper legs support your body weight. When you bend at the waist, the back curves, putting stress on the spine.”

The article also advises that “whether or not hip hinging will prevent back pain or injuries, doctors don’t know yet” but it’s one more practice that is worth a try.  If nothing else it might help relieve those chronically tight hamstrings.  I have certainly seen the evidence in my classes that hinging at the hip improves the ability to reach toward one’s toes without back pain.  There is a great little video in the article that demonstrates using the hip-hinge technique to pick something up off the floor.  I highly recommend it.

None of our movement problems have easy solutions, but the more tools we can try in our practices the more we information we can gather.  If you’re reading this you probably already know that each part of our body is inextricably connected to every other part, brain included.  Learning how our bodies work is an endlessly fascinating journey.  Each of us needs to explore lots of ideas to find what works for us.