This January, don’t resolve — repose

 

It’s interesting that January 1st brings on a frenzy of promises to eat better, exercise more, stop smoking and similar action-oriented resolutions when I always feel like all I want to do is hibernate like a bear. So I was happy to find out when I went to my yoga studio last week that the pose of the month is Savasana.

Savasana (shah-VAHS-anna), also called Corpse Pose, usually is done at the end of every yoga practice, and it looks deceptively easy. After all, what could be that hard about lying flat on one’s back with arms and legs stretched out away from the body, and closing the eyes for 10 minutes or so? But I say “deceptive” because Savasana can be the most difficult yoga pose of all — first, because it’s hard for many of us to truly relax, and second because Savasana is about relaxing “with attention”. Yoga Journal says that in Savasana we attempt to “quiet the physical body and pacify the sense organs”, so we need to pay particular attention to relaxing the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. It asks us to surrender to the point where the boundaries of the body begin to dissolve, where we can symbolically “die” to old ways of thinking and doing. savasana_in_yoga_gembira_community

Savasana is the bridge that allows you to take the benefits of class into your everyday life. This is why yoga teachers tell people who have to leave class early that they should plan to stop the regular practice with enough time left to take a few minutes in the pose before going. As Jon Kabat Zinn says, “Not forcing anything, we just do our best to line up with the warp and woof of body and mind, floor, and world, staying in touch.” Savasana brings together all the disparate pieces of the yoga class and gives you time for processing them and absorbing their benefits.

Sleep, which we tend to crave during the cold winter months, is like Savasana in that it is important for integrating the separate pieces of our days. We can be more effective the next day if we’ve spent time in sleep, regrouping and consolidating everything that we learned and experienced during the day. In addition, sleep sometimes helps us problem-solve because the useless information that came in during the day is forgotten, and only the crux remains. While there is still much to learn about the purposes of sleep, some researchers theorize that it helps the brain be “plastic”, to dial down synaptic activity for a while and use less energy. We are literally resting the brain, perhaps more so than resting the body.

Animals hibernate in the winter as a way of saving energy too, because food resources are scarce. Most of us don’t have that problem, but there’s still a case to be made for looking at January as a month of repose. It’s the coldest month of the year in the northern hemisphere and has some of the shortest days, so why not sleep a little more and yes, get down on the mat in Savasana? Use the darkness to gather energy, reflect on where you’re going and prepare for the longer days ahead. The word “January” comes from the Latin word meaning “door”. Consider opening the door to the new year slowly rather than abruptly. Take the time to first figure out what’s on the other side.

Indira Gandhi said that, “You must learn to be still in the midst of activity and to be vibrantly alive in repose.” That’s not only the challenge of Savasana, but also the way we manifest it in our everyday lives.

 

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How to revamp your resolutions

So we’re eleven days in to 2016, and the tension might be starting to mount. Will it be the fresh start or the old ways that win out? Just how stressed are you about your new year’s resolutions? Are you wondering why a promise to yourself might be harder to keep than one you make to someone else?

If you’re having trouble, take heart. You’re not alone and there’s still a way to salvage your resolutions for 2016. But change is hard, and stress is a given as we fight against those entrenched habits of mind and body that just want to maintain the status quo. Dealing with the stress of change has to be the underpinning of the other resolutions.

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To help you out, I’ve adapted my top ten stress management tips to relate them to your new year’s resolutions and goals. I’ll share the first five here, and the others next week:

Know what you value — We all have core values, which may include things like health, family, religion or money; and then satellite values that we feel less strongly about. How are those values playing out in the resolutions you’ve made? If your core value is good health, for instance, and appearance is more of a satellite value, then maybe your weight loss resolutions need to be tweaked. Rather than setting a specific weight loss goal so that you can fit into a certain size, a health goal of consuming less sugar might be more aligned with your values.

Nurture your relationships — The support of the people around us can play a major role in the success or failure of our resolutions. How strong are your relationships with the people in your social network? Are there things that need repair in some of your friendships? Have you been supportive of other people’s goals? Think about how turning your attention to someone near you might provide emotional support to you both.

Practice gratitude — When we hit a roadblock, or cheat on a diet, or fall off the wagon, it’s easy to start berating ourselves and feel like we’ve failed. Use those moments to practice gratitude instead. Be thankful that you had five good days of healthy eating before something tempted you. Express gratitude for the sunny day that will allow you to get out and exercise, even if you didn’t yesterday. Say thank you to the employer who is paying for your smoking-cessation program.

Be present — Slowing down and paying more attention in each moment can make us more aware of the choices that precede our actions. When we’re trying to make “better” choices or break “bad” habits, mindfulness makes the choices more conscious, less rote. For instance, when you’re eating, just eat — don’t work, drive or watch TV at the same time. Sit down and look at the food, smell the food, notice the colors, before the first bite goes in your mouth. When we choose food deliberately, eat slowly, and savor each bite, we can feel more satisfied with less, because we have been fully engaged in the process of eating.

Don’t forget to breathe — Breathing mindfully can focus attention in a way that may clarify your resolutions for you. Thich Nhat Hanh has a breath exercise he suggests for bringing the mind back to the body. While slowly breathing in and out, you say “Breathing in, I’m aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I’m aware of my whole body.” If you’ve been living too much in your head, and neglecting your health, this can be a way of turning your attention back where it’s needed, while letting go of any tension that might have built up.

Wayne Dyer says that our intentions create our reality. It’s my hope that these five ways of bringing more intention to your resolutions will help make them your reality.

What needs changing?

No one ate many sweets at my New Year’s Day party. Yoga class was packed yesterday. Gyms are full. In other words, a normal January.

Statistics are dismal, though, when it comes to people maintaining their new exercise routines, keeping pounds off, adopting new habits. By the end of the month, most of us will be back to our old, comfortable ways.

That may be because we’re not seeing the forest for the trees. Having a view of the big picture can help us figure out which tree is going to fall today, or which aspect of health lends itself most to changing. Much as you might not want to hear it, maybe exercising more isn’t the thing that’s going to make the biggest difference for you right now.

Michelle Singletary, who writes a personal finance column for the Washington Post, gets it. She wrote a column last week about how better financial health is inextricably connected to physical health, social support and gratitude. She makes the point that health care costs can eat up retirement savings — so isn’t it a good idea to stay as healthy as possible before you reach that point? Are your relationships with family and friends weak or broken? Those are the people you might need if you fall on hard times, so Singletary says it makes sense to keep the ties strong.

In other words, all the dimensions of health — physical, social, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, occupational — help hold the structure of self together, and are equally important if we are going to reach an optimal state of well-being. So while you might want to lose a few pounds in the new year, is your physical health really the dimension where you are most in need of change?

I think of the dimensions of health like a Trivial Pursuit game piece. Each different colored piece of the pie has to be filled in before you can win the game. The same is true for overall wellness. So if you’re already strong with the piece that signifies physical wellness (even if you would like to lose that extra 5 pounds), but you’re struggling to obtain the piece for spiritual wellness, doesn’t it make more sense to focus your efforts in that area?

stick figureIn my stress management class, I sometimes use an activity from a text by Olpin and Hesson to assess balance in the different dimensions. Students get index cards and are asked to draw pictures of their bodies. The head represents the intellectual dimension; the trunk is the spiritual dimension; the arms are social and emotional, respectively; the legs are physical and occupational. If they feel balanced and healthy in a dimension, that body part is drawn so that it is in proportion to the rest of the body. If they feel that they overdo in some dimension, that body part will be outsize. And if there is an aspect of health that is lacking, the body part will look small compared to the rest.

If you do this exercise, are you wobbling from the imbalance? Is one leg shorter than the other? Is your head too big from overthinking everything? Let that be your guide to better new year’s resolutions. Sometimes making a change that no one else can immediately see is the missing piece. As Plutarch said, “What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.”

Open the door for change

New Year’s resolutions are known more for their grand ambition than their rate of success. Most of the time, we make resolutions to change ourselves: lose weight, get fit, quit smoking, make a career change, learn a language, and so on. But research shows that many people scale back their goals almost immediately, fewer than 50% are still working toward them after 6 months, and fewer than 10% after a year.  I’m not much of a believer in those kinds of odds.

But I’ve been thinking that this year, I might resolve, not to change, but to accept change more gracefully, especially those changes that are thrust upon me. What kinds of changes am I talking about?

  • Changes in the best-laid plans
  • Changes in my neighborhood such as new roads, traffic lights and buildings
  • Changes in my body that come with age
  • Changes in my work life
  • Changes in the people I know and love
  • Changes when a loved moves away, or … moves back

I can choose how I react to the events, big and small, that upset the balance of everyday life. Do I kick and scream, or do I invite them in? Most of the time, these events are out of my control, so why waste valuable energy fighting them?

Soren Gordhamer says this concept of inviting can be applied to challenging situations. He writes, “…we can think, Why are they doing this? …. Or we can look inward, pay attention to our mind and body, and inquire, What creative response wants to arise in this situation?” Inviting “makes more room for clarity and ease of mind”, even in the presence of “strong emotions”.

One of those strong emotions is often fear, because the unknown can be powerfully scary. Dostoyevski said that change is “What people fear most.”  But instead of asking, “Why is this happening [to me],” ask “How can I benefit from this change, or at least make the best of it?” Calling upon past experience, learning everything possible about a new situation,  and having faith in your ability to handle it can ease the transition.

Much like the practice of mindful meditation, this way of approaching change is an ongoing process. When we meditate, we are encouraged not to judge thoughts that arise, but to notice them, and then turn our attention back to the breath. Even if other thoughts come up hundreds of times, we always go back to the breath. In the same way, most of us will never reach the point of accepting change with grace 100% of the time – but that doesn’t mean we stop trying.

So I resolve in 2012, to continue to:

welcome the opportunities that come with change,

look for the silver lining in adversity,

meet challenges with courage and creativity,

allow other people the space to change,

appreciate my ability to learn and adapt,

and be happy just as I am.

Happy new year!