Small Changes

rain-becomes-rainbowChange is all around us all the time.  Whether we like it or not, everything is in a constant state of change.  All you have to do is look at a photo of yourself when you were a toddler and then look in the mirror.  Clearly you have not stayed the same.  Then look around you.  Look at the town you grew up in.  Even young people will undoubtedly see changes in their surroundings. I have lived in my current location for just under 9 years.  Not a very long period of time.  Yet during that time I have seen numerous changes in my town and surrounding towns.  People and businesses have come and gone. New homes have been built where fields or forests once thrived.  Smart phones are now ubiquitous. It doesn’t take very long for change to be noticeable.  Pay attention and you will see changes around you every day.  And despite resistance, going back to the way things used to be is not only unlikely but probably unwise.  Hindsight is 20-20 but our memories are selective and faulty.  Nothing was really ever as great as we think we remember it to be.

Yet despite the overwhelming evidence that nothing stays the same, we often cling to the hope that somehow we can hold on to the way things are right now.  Especially if right now seems like a particularly soothing or, at least, non-threatening place.

Change over time can be subtle, like the changes involved in the aging process.  For young children, change occurs at a rapid rate.  The difference between a 6-month old child and a 1-year old child is dramatic.  But through the years, change seems to slow to the point where we may not even pay attention until something forces us out of our complacency. Similarly, a seedling might grow really quickly once it pokes through the soil.  But large trees grow more slowly.  Seasonal changes are observable, but incremental growth patterns may be less obvious.

It is common to recognize the passage of time at certain milestones – the beginning of a new decade, a child or grandchild’s graduation or marriage.  Yet even as these things happen we often don’t see ourselves as changing.  After all, the “internal me” is the same “internal me” that has been there all my life. Sure, I’ve accumulated knowledge and experience over time that has enhanced the way “internal me” views the world, but in my own head I seem the same as I was 20 years ago.  So why is it that my body sometimes refuses to acknowledge the sameness of “internal me”?  It is not uncommon to continue to try doing things the way we’ve always done them because inside we feel the same as we always did. Unfortunately, though, forcing the status quo as our bodies are changing can be frustrating and even dangerous.

Then there are times when change is forced on us.  There might be an accident, illness, loss or other circumstance that forces us to confront the reality of change.  This type of sudden change can be very difficult to accept and absorb. Sometimes it’s appropriate and even necessary to simply put our lives on hold temporarily until a way forward becomes clear.  Certainly recovery from a trauma – physical and/or emotional – may require this approach.  Stop.  Breathe.  Assess the situation as it really is (not as we might like it to be) and then take the next step.  Blaming oneself or some external person or circumstance is rarely helpful.  Also wishing that things were different than what they are won’t make it so.  Looking back into some rosy ideal of the past also just keeps you trapped in thinking like a victim instead of the strong, confident and capable individual that you are.

But just how does one move forward when every new step leads to unknown territory?  The world can seem like a scary place when the comfortable rug of familiarity is pulled out from under your feet.  Curling up into a little ball and opting not to move may seem like an option, but it is unlikely to be a viable solution.  At least not for long, anyway.  So what is the best way to overcome the pain of those first steps into a new world?  One suggestion is to keep those steps small. This is true of any change to your life – whether it is a change you decide to make or one that was not your choice.

Any change in your life – even positive change – involves some type of loss.  In the simplest of terms, it is loss of the way things were.  Perhaps it is the loss of a comfortable routine.  Bringing this discussion to my favorite topic – physical movement – suppose you’ve been told by a medical professional that you need to move more.  Maybe you used to be an avid exerciser, but you’ve gotten away from it through the years.  Or perhaps you’ve suffered from an illness or accident that has caused you to limit or alter your mobility for a period of time.  In this blog I have often spoken of the difficulty of getting back into movement after a hiatus.  Continuous movement is the optimal option, but what happens when something gets in the way?

One idea is to take baby steps.  Once a decision to make a change is made, many of us want to have it all instantly.  That’s the way of life we are fed.  Immediate solutions.  Why wait, the ads scream?  Get what you want NOW!

But there are some potential problems with that kind of thinking.  If you’ve been away from moving for a while, it may be painful to start again.  Your muscles may have lost some of their strength and resilience.  It will take some time to build them back up again. Rather than eliminating your pain, re-building your strength may bring some additional pain initially. This can be discouraging.  If not moving seems to keep the pain at bay while moving brings it on again, why would you want to subject yourself to that?  The answer goes back to the theme of this blog – change.  It has been famously said that if you want things to change, you can’t keep doing the same thing.  Staying still might seem like it will keep you pain-free, but it won’t change anything.  And the longer you stay still, the harder it is to make that change.  By contrast the pain that comes when you move may not subside right away, but if you continue with small incremental steps, your body will get stronger.  Just like the subtle changes described above, you may not recognize the changes in your body, but eventually you may realize that today you were able to do more than you could yesterday.  That’s change in a positive direction.  You may find that you have to move differently from what you’ve been used to.  But if you continue with the practice of small changes, you will probably find a way that will work in your new reality whatever that may be.

Making changes in this way still takes a decision and a commitment.   This is true for any change you need to make in your life whether it is a job change, a geographical move or adapting to a loss.  Taking the first scary step toward a new reality is the hard part.  Once you know that first step is possible, taking the next one might create a bit less anxiety. The world didn’t end when you took the first step, so it probably will still be there after the second step. There is also another advantage to small steps.  You can evaluate as you go along.  Maybe your goals will change as you get stronger.  If you’ve waded into your new reality slowly and avoided diving into the deep end right away, adjusting your course might seem more possible.  Since change is all around us, it is also possible to create some of those changes for yourself. You may not be able to change everything, but your attitude is always within your control.

Finally, it may help to remember all of the obstacles you’ve overcome in your life.  No matter who you are or what you’ve done I am certain you can look back through your life and recognize instances when you adapted to change despite misgivings or odds that seemed stacked against you.  We’ve all had those experiences.  Maybe you made a false start and had to re-think and try again.  If you did it once, you can do it again.  Chances are you have already done it many times. We all have our own individual inner strengths.  Find yours.  It will help you to make the best choices as you move through change.

Breaking Routine

on vacationThe blog is back from vacation and so am I.  Summer is a time when many of us experience breaks in our routines.  When you live in a tourist area like I do, people who don’t live here want to visit.  We also find ourselves called by family and friends to other parts of the country. When the weather is good, everyone seems to be on the move.  For school kids this change is welcome.  But the further away from school we get, the more attached to our routines we seem to become.

Changes to our standard behavior patterns can be an important and necessary opportunity to refresh and renew our creativity and enthusiasm.  Spending time with family and friends can make change feel good.  Sometimes we need a break in our routines.  Even the most committed resister of change can experience joy in doing something different or renewing relationships.  But changes to routine can have a down-side also.  Having visitors or being a visitor can require lots of change and we all have a hard time with change.  For example, dietary patterns might change.  How you eat, what you eat and when you eat may be totally different from your usual fare. It can seem like fun to throw caution to the wind and do something completely out of character, but there may be consequences which can sour that good time.   Yet trying to adhere to the strict rules we sometimes impose on ourselves can be equally problematic.

Sleeping and waking habits may also be altered.  Many people find it difficult to sleep in a unfamiliar environment.  Being a “white noise” proponent myself, I keep a fan going in my room all year long.  When I don’t have my fan, sleep can be elusive.  Lack of sleep is often combined with the desire to pack as much experience into short periods of time as possible.  So instead of a restful vacation or welcome break in our routine, we end up becoming exhausted.  How often have you heard the phrase, “I need a vacation from my vacation”?

Then there is our usual exercise routine.  Those of you who regularly read my blog know that I am a strong advocate of making exercise a habit.  It then becomes a natural part of your daily or weekly rhythm so that you don’t have to think about doing it – you just do it.  In fact, when you don’t do it, you can feel the lack.  This part of your daily behavior pattern will invariably get disrupted with visitors or travel.  If you are used to coming to classes, it can be difficult to carve out time to exercise on your own.  Sometimes you can try classes in the place you are visiting which can help but is not always a solution.  You may have the best of intentions but the first time they go awry you’ll be tempted to forget them completely.

So what can we do that will allow us to enjoy our time off without completely sweeping away the comfort of daily routine?  My first suggestion is to drop the words “always” and “never” from your vocabulary. “All or nothing” need not be your mantra.  There is a middle way between the extremes.  Try the words “sometimes” or “just for today” on for size.  It may not be necessary to throw everything you’re used to out the window.  It is possible, for example, to be mindful about food choices without depriving yourself or going overboard against your better judgment.  You can invite your guests or hosts to join you in some form of physical activity like an early morning walk or yoga class.  Try a new activity like tennis or golf.  You may not do very well, but it can be liberating to remember that you never have to do it again if it doesn’t work out.  If you have a solitary practice that is meaningful to you, perhaps you can shorten the time frame (10 minutes instead of 30, for example) or change the time of day (before bed instead of first thing in the morning).

Throughout this blog one common thread often repeated is that we make up our own rules and we can also change them.  So let go of all the rules you’ve built around your routines and be open to new experiences.  Being flexible is more than touching your toes in a forward bend. The flexibility we practice in yoga and Pilates should extend to all aspects of your lie.  Dismiss all your rules about appearances and expectations.  Stay in the moment.  Time spent worrying will be precious down-time lost.

Although the changes referred to here are mostly temporary, sometimes more long-term behavior modification is necessary – job change, for example, or an illness or injury.  There can be a sense of loss when these kinds of events occur.  But this can also be an opportunity to think about developing new routines. You were probably not born with the your current patterns (most of them, anyway).  They developed over time and can be redeveloped.  Prioritize.  Figure out which aspects of your usual routine are most important to you and why.  Then see if you can modify your usual behavior to accommodate changed circumstances.  Being open to new experiences can help to lessen the anxiety of change.

As vacationers, though, we will all eventually return to our usual routines.  This can be a great comfort.  Time away can also foster a new appreciation for the simple daily rhythm of our lives.  Sometimes, though, it can be difficult to again pick up some of the better habits that we’ve worked so hard to develop.  It can feel like starting all over.  Especially if some of those habits were difficult to adopt to begin with. Take heart, though.  You did it before, you can do it again.  Let that be your mantra when you’re tempted to blow off that exercise class or eat that second helping of cheesecake.

My most recent vacation was wonderful and I did incorporate some of the suggestions above so I know they work. But I love coming home. It was a treat to spend time with old friends doing things we enjoy doing together.  But it is with humility, gratitude and renewed appreciation that I now slip back into the comfort of my routines and rejoin the community that is so important to me.