Why you need to declare independence

We observed Independence Day all over America yesterday, celebrating our freedom as a country. Yet, as individuals, we still put ourselves in chains a lot of the time. We imprison ourselves with judgment, and with the dreaded “should, ought and must.”

As often happens, I started thinking about this in a yoga class. One day last week, a teacher said, “Allow your eyes to close,” which is typical language in yoga class. But the use of the word “allow” got me thinking. Then I heard a teacher say, “Give yourself permission to….” Hmm – I was starting to see a pattern. It didn’t seem like the words were meant just to let us know that we had a choice; it seemed more like the words were an acknowledgment that we don’t often let ourselves relax, or choose to do less than we are capable of.Woman Closing Eye

At another point, the teacher asked us to do tree pose, which involves resting one foot against the opposite leg while balancing on the other foot. Usually people will use a hand to assist them in getting the foot high up on the inner thigh of the other leg; but this time the teacher asked us not to use our hands, even if that meant that we wouldn’t be able to get the foot as high. It was interesting to me to watch as some in the class couldn’t seem to bring themselves to “settle” for the foot just resting against the ankle or calf — they had to use their hands to bring the foot as high as possible. They just couldn’t allow themselves to do less than their max.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes that the two parts of Buddhist meditation are stopping, and looking deeply. It’s the stopping that’s the hurdle, because once we can do that, the looking deeply will naturally follow. But as he says, “If you’re like most of us, since you’ve been born, you’ve been running. Now it’s a strong habit that many generations of your ancestors also had before you and transmitted to you — the habit of running, being tense, and being carried away by many things, so that your mind is not totally, deeply, peacefully in the present moment.”

The constant running can lead to “wrong perceptions,” including the self-judgment that results in constant striving.  For some of us, the constant striving comes from the mistaken belief that we have to be the best at everything we do — the best in our professional lives, the best parent, the best athlete, the best host, and yes, the best in yoga class. But why? If there is one, or maybe two or three, area of life where we really give 110% to be our best, why can’t we just let ourselves be…okay at some of the other things?

In their book, “Five Good Minutes,” Jeff Brantley and Wendy Millstine have a practice called, “Retire the judges in your mind.” It’s all about letting go of the self-judgment and self-criticism. They suggest that while you are sitting quietly, and with that intention, that you notice the judgmental thoughts and say, “Thank you, you may or  may not be true, but thank you anyway.”Brisbane_85

If you stop striving for a moment, and let that foot rest a little lower on the leg in tree pose, maybe you’ll notice something about tree that you couldn’t see when you were using so much effort. Maybe stopping and looking deeply for a moment allows you to grow your tree differently the next time you do it. Thich Nhat Hanh compares the release of tension that comes from letting go with soaking mung beans: “You don’t need to force the water to enter the mung bean. You let the mung bean be in the water, and slowly, slowly it goes in….The same is true for you.”

Here’s a radical thought — sometimes maybe we should do less in order to do more. So declare your independence from the tyranny of “I must,” “I should” and “I have to.” Allow your eyes to close, give yourself permission to stop, take whatever it is you need.

 

Take it outside

There is joy in motion. It’s that simple. That feeling hit me today when I saw a photo in the paper of people doing Zumba outdoors. Their expressions are exuberant, their energy is contagious.

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Outdoor exercise has a more free feeling than working out in a gym. Without the confines of walls and machines, something loosens inside. We take more chances, express ourselves more openly, lose some of our inhibitions. There’s also more of a sense of community, because we are physically in the community. And in some cases, the workouts are literally free – free yoga at the farmers’ market, free Zumba on the plaza and free Pilates in the parks.

Besides the individual benefits of outdoor, community exercise, public group workouts can demystify the practices for people who are unfamiliar with them. “Zumba”, “yoga”, “Pilates” – what do those words mean to someone who has never set foot in a gym or yoga studio? They sound like mysterious, esoteric practices that might be difficult and extreme. But when you see other people who look like you doing the moves, you begin to believe that you can do them too.

Americans are full of contradictions. We’re living longer than we did 20 years ago, but with more chronic conditions. Some of us are exercising more, but it’s not enough to keep the rates of obesity from rising. We’re not dying in accidents as much, but many more of us have diabetes. Complicated problems that require complex solutions, right? But while scientists are busy looking for treatments and technologies, we have the power to change our own trajectory. Rediscovering the joy in motion and the freedom of the outdoors can be part of that change.

My mother used to lock us out of the house sometimes when I was a kid. That wasn’t as bad as it sounds. In good weather, we were expected to play outside with other kids in the neighborhood; and if one of us came back in with dirty hands and feet, she wanted to know about it. Playing outside got me out of my head and out of my books for a while. It was during those summertime lockouts that I learned to take risks, like riding downhill on my bike without hands, and to play sports with the boys, and to see just how high we could get the playground swings to go.IMG

What childhood activity brought you that freewheeling joy? Summer might be an ideal time to find the feeling again, either as a way to get a fitness routine going, or to get out of a fitness rut. Look around you – those people dancing in the streets and posing like warriors in the farmers’ market are smiling for a reason.