October's Gift - Flexibility
This quote, which has also been attributed to John Lennon, offers optimism in our present-day situation. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said to myself or a friend that some days it feels like the end of the world is just around the corner. News about deaths from virus, shootings, wildfires and hurricanes is exhausting and scary. All this with the backdrop of stories about racism and injustice and conflict and divisiveness daily make me feel like it’s the end of the world. If we decide to believe that everything will be okay in the end, then we really are not at the end of the world because things are definitely not okay; however, we may well be at the end of the world as we have known it. Despite the losses we are feeling, I believe there are gains to be made as we move from the world we knew, through the world we are in right now, and into the world that is waiting for us. This month’s gift, flexibility, seems like a good thing to try to develop further in ourselves as we cope as best we can and move forward with all the grace and hope we can find.
We can think of flexibility both in relation to our bodies and in relation to our thoughts and feelings. Maybe you are already very physically and/or mentally flexible, or maybe you know someone whose physical and mental flexibility you admire. It’s interesting to consider what might enhance physical and mental flexibility and to wonder if there are common factors in those two different ways of being flexible. Enhanced flexibility could be a real asset in helping transition with more ease to a different kind of world, which may actually turn out to be better than we are expecting.
“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may be just the beginning of a great adventure.” ― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
Finding More Physical Flexibility
A regular practice of yoga can help increase and maintain physical flexibility. According to an article in Yoga Journal from September 26, 2018, Dr. Thomas Green described flexibility in this way: “In Western, physiological terms, “flexibility” is just the ability to move muscles and joints through their complete range. It’s an ability we’re born with, but that most of us lose. “Our lives are restricted and sedentary,” explains Green, “so our bodies get lazy, muscles atrophy, and our joints settle into a limited range.” This article also notes even if we are active, our body simply gets stiffer as we age because ageing causes us to lose moisture in our tissues. According to Green, “Stretching slows this process of dehydration by stimulating the production of tissue lubricants,” or as one of my favorite yoga teachers often said, “Motion is lotion.” A regular yoga practice can help us get stronger and more flexible. A gentle yoga practice can bring us opportunities to reflect and find more awareness of how increased flexibility feels in the body.
Cultivating More Mental Flexibility
While yoga helps us increase physical flexibility, a regular yoga practice can also improve our mental flexibility. Yoga asks us to join together mind, body and spirit and this connection can create space for expanding our thinking and perhaps open new ways of looking at ourselves, the world and our place in it. An important part of yoga for me has always been finding ways to take the benefits of practice off the yoga mat or chair and into my daily life both physically and psychologically. I recently discovered a new way of thinking about this in an article about “mental yoga” to deal with anxiety. (Peterson, Tanya, “Practice Mental Yoga for Anxiety: Psychological Flexibility,” healthyplace.com, 12/12/19). The author, suggested several physical yoga techniques that can be used as “mental yoga” techniques to deal with anxiety. While the specific techniques Peterson describes from physical yoga seem incredibly useful for anxiety reduction, they also seem useful for increasing mental flexibility. These are techniques I regularly use in physical yoga to help students take their yoga out of class into everyday life. One can use these techniques in physical yoga practice and then consciously apply them as “mental yoga” off the mat and the chair. Building on Peterson’s techniques for “mental yoga” for anxiety, I’ve described below some examples of ways in which physical yoga techniques might help one enhance mental flexibility in dealing with situations in daily life.
Finding Flexibility in Physical Yoga and Mental Yoga
- On and off the mat: In both physical and mental
yoga, it is all about the breath. Let
the breath bring in new energy you need and let go of what you don’t need. Stopping for breath can give you time and space to think more calmly and to experience the pose and/or the situation more
deeply and more broadly. This new energy can provide strength and open up new physical and mental pathways to consider.
- On and off the mat: In both physical and mental
- Practice present moment awareness.
- On the mat: In yoga practice, teachers often suggest you close your eyes and “notice, just notice.” This helps you get more centered in the present.
- Off the mat in mental yoga: Closing your eyes and just noticing in difficult situations can allow you to notice things you might not otherwise notice and can open your mind to new options.
- Expand your perspective.
- On the mat: try imagining you are looking at your pose from behind yourself or from the ceiling or from inside out. Notice how that looks and feels different.
- Off the mat in mental yoga: In a difficult interpersonal situation, try to expand the frame of the mental picture of you and the other person. Imagine you could see what else might be going on with that person that you are not aware of. Try to expand your understanding of the situation and the options you both have.
- On the mat: To center yourself in your breath at the beginning of class, it can help to match the length of your inhale with the length of your exhale by counting. Or working on a balance pose, bring a count to help you say steady and focused.
- Off the mat: In a difficult situation, take a moment. Count to 10. Say a mantra. Count the tiles on the floor or the flowers on the wall. These moments might allow your mind to drift toward new ways of understanding the situation and allow new options to emerge.
- Explore openness.
- On the mat: Instead of doing a physical yoga pose exactly as you’ve always done it, try out new possibilities. Change the position of your legs in seated pose. Interlace your fingers in your non-usual ways.
- Off the mat in mental yoga: In a difficult situation, think of what might happen if you did something the exact opposite way of what you might usually do. Imagine how that might go and expand your options.
- Balance your effort and your ease:
- On the mat: Move into tree pose. Notice where you are expending effort in your legs and find ease in your arms and upper body as they move upward. Notice if you can find less effort or more ease anywhere in your body.
- Off the mat in mental yoga: Notice where your focus is as you work on a problem you need to solve. See if you can move yourself back and forth between focused attention on details and more unfocused attention to the big picture. See what happens with options you identify as you make this move back and forth.
- Observe without judgment:
- On the mat: Pay attention to what is going in your body. Notice where your body is in space and notice how it is feeling. Find your edge and move toward it and away from it, without judging. Notice how different sides of your body feel different from each other. Or notice how a pose feels different today than yesterday.
- Off the mat in mental yoga: Notice how you are making a decision. Without judging your own process, wonder if you might make a slight change in your process and consider what difference that might make.
- Let Go
- On the mat: In physical yoga, letting go can happen at the start of class, during a pose or in final relaxation. This instruction to “let go” means to release holding and tension in the physical body. Attention to breath is often used to help with letting go.
- Off the mat in mental yoga: Letting go and trusting the process can mentally let us stop trying to control everything and trust things will all turn out okay at the end. This poem by Thomas Smith describes this possibility. If we really believe everything is going to be okay in the end, sometimes it is important to trust the process and go with the flow as calmly and confidently as possible. The poem below illustrates this idea of thinking flexibly enough that you can trust the process.
Trust by Thomas R. Smith
It’s like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes
So you take your car to the new mechanic.
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.
The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers—
all show up at their intended destinations.
The theft that could have happened doesn’t.
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.
And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
even though you can’t read the address.
This Month’s Pose: Eagle (Garudasana)
This month’s pose, Eagle Pose (Garudasana), offers us an opportunity to strengthen and stretch our bodies. It also improves concentration and balance and encourages us to explore our flexibility. If you have uncontrolled high blood pressure or low blood pressure and certain heart conditions you should proceed with much caution with standing eagle. If you have recent or chronic knee, hip or leg injury or pain, you may want to consider exploring a seated eagle pose. Before proceeding to practice eagle, you should do sufficient warm ups of your arms, legs and shoulders. As with all yoga poses, you should use care and know what your body can and cannot do without accommodations.
Here is the guidance for seated eagle pose:
Eagle on the right leg. Find yourself in seated mountain, feet hip distance apart and flat on the floor, muscles of the legs and abs engaged, shoulders down, palms resting on your lap, chin parallel to the floor, eyes looking ahead, crown of head rising to the sky. Extend your arms out to the sides, parallel to the floor, palms facing down. Pick up your right foot and move it more to the center of your body, aligning it with your navel and resting it on the floor. Decide on the position for your lower body. Either: (1) pick up your left foot and rest the sole of the left foot gently on the side of the right foot; or (2) cross your left ankle over your right ankle; or (3) cross your left knee over your right knee. Sit up tall with a deep inhale, and leaving your arms out, bring your arms toward each other in front of your body, crossing them at the elbow with your right arm on top. Once your arms are directly in front of you, reach both arms in opposite directions as far as you can. Bend your elbows and touch opposite shoulders, as though you were giving yourself a gentle hug. At this point, notice what works best for your arms and shoulders and choose one of the following positions: (1) with your elbows at center of your body, continue with the gentle hug or (2) place the backs of your hands together, or (3) wrap your arms so that your palms come together. Finding your perfect arm position and taking care of your shoulders, hinge forward slightly at the waist, gently squeeze your arms and knees together, drawing your energy into the midline. Hold here for 3-4 deep breaths, noticing your foot pressing into the floor for foundation and your torso rising up lightly. When you are ready to come out of the pose, unwind your arms and return the foot of your crossed leg to rest on the floor beside your other foot. Return yourself to seated mountain and prepare to do eagle on the other side.
Eagle on the left leg. Check your alignment in seated mountain, sitting away from the back of the chair, feet hip distance apart and flat on the floor, muscles of the legs and abs engaged, shoulders down, palms resting on your lap, chin parallel to the floor, eyes looking ahead, crown of head rising to the sky. Extend your arms out to the sides, parallel to the floor, palms facing down. Pick up your left foot and move it more to the center of your body, aligning it with your navel and resting it on the floor. Decide on the position for your lower body. Either: (1) pick up your right foot and rest the sole of the right foot gently on the side of the left foot; or (2) cross your right ankle over your left ankle; or (3) cross your right knee over your left knee. Sit up tall with a deep inhale, and leaving your arms out to the side, parallel to the earth, bring your arms toward each other in front of your body, crossing them at the elbow with your left arm on top. Once your arms are directly in front of you, reach both arms in opposite directions as far as you can. Bend your elbows and touch opposite shoulders, as though you were giving yourself a gentle hug. At this point, notice what works best for your arms and shoulders and choose one of the following positions: (1) with your elbows at center of your body, continue with the gentle hug; or (2) place the backs of your hands together, or (3) wrap your arms so that your palms come together. Finding your perfect arm position and taking care of your shoulders, hinge forward slightly at the waist and gently squeeze your arms and legs together, drawing your energy into the midline. Hold here for 3-4 deep breaths, noticing your foot pressing into the floor for foundation and your torso rising up lightly though the crown of your head. When you are ready to come out of the pose, unwind your arms and return the foot of your crossed leg to rest on the floor beside your other foot, returning yourself to seated mountain.