How to take a time-in

My breath slowed as I rolled out my mat and sat down to await the start of yoga class. I looked around at the mostly-young group of people there for the 5 pm class. Had they left work early? Do they have flexible hours? Do they work part-time? Were they going back to work later?

As I silently congratulated all of us on taking time out of the day to do something good for ourselves, I realized that it wasn’t really a “time out” – it was very much a “time in”. It might even have been the most time I’d really spent “in” and engaged all day.

What is “time in”? It’s not just time spent looking inward, though that could be a part of it. It’s time being fully present, and in the moment. It’s time when our brains get a rest from the over stimulating environment that we’re exposed to most of the day. It’s time when we pay attention to our senses, stop multitasking, and regain focus and concentration.

Spending time in meditation, for instance, leads to a restful, yet awake, state where we have more alpha wave activity in the brain. This brings greater mental clarity, fosters creativity and enhances memory. Research shows that regular meditators can stay on task longer and are less distracted even when they are in a multitasking situation.

Less formal meditative experiences happen in yoga, where the sequence of postures commands focused attention, or in exercise such as running, when the sounds of the breath or footfalls become a focal point. Such activities have a beneficial effect on the brain, making us alert to what’s happening in the moment, and sometimes opening a window to better directions or opportunities.

I’m continually surprised by the way that an idea will just pop into my head when I’m in a yoga class or out for a run. Even when I’ve been blocked creatively about something for days, allowing some mental space from it and taking “time in” almost always helps. That must be why companies such as Google, Nike, Ben & Jerry’s and Zappo’s have on-site meditation classes or nap rooms for their employees. Resting the brain can have surprisingly productive results (like new ice cream flavors!)

Being able to bring intense focus and concentration to a project is a necessary element of what is called a “flow” experience in positive psychology. Flow is “a joyful state” that we experience when “we are actively involved in trying to reach a goal, or an activity that is challenging but well suited to our skills”. During “flow”, we lose track of time and self-consciousness. People who are “high-flow” generally demonstrate better performance, commitment to goals, and greater long-term happiness. Without the motivation or ability to focus, however, high-flow activities seem too hard. We choose the easier low-flow activities (like watching TV) that might provide immediate gratification but don’t really lead to long-term satisfaction. That’s why it is so important to well-being that we strengthen the capacity to focus through “time in” pursuits.

Instead of saying we don’t have time to meditate or exercise, we should be saying there’s no time to waste before starting. Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, says that “Our daily decisions and habits have a huge impact upon both our levels of happiness and success.” Maybe today’s decision to spend “time in” will be the start of a recurring pattern for you – one with a far-reaching effect on your fulfillment in life.

Running with friends

Yesterday I ran a 10k race, the longest I’ve run since my last 10k in November. I would not have done it without my running partner, Naomi.  I would say we keep each other motivated, but it’s more like we keep each other from being slackers. Neither of us loves running enough to do it consistently on our own. But knowing that we’re each depending on the other keeps us going.

Years of studies consistently show that social support is a significant factor in keeping people exercising, especially women. One recent study indicates that it is the esteem social support that is most significant – the positive feedback, encouragement and compliments we receive from others. On the other hand, companionship social support – having another person exercise with you – can actually keep people from exercising more strenuously.

I guess in some ways, that’s what’s happening with my friend and me. We keep each other running, but we don’t often push each other to work harder. We talk a lot while we run; a favorite question when the running gets difficult for one of us is, “Do you have a good story?” We don’t work together or live near each other, so hearing about each other’s lives is a great diversion. This doesn’t lend itself to doing speed work, but it has made us better friends over the years.

I could, and sometimes do, run with my husband. He’s good about keeping us on pace and running longer distances. But he sets a high standard for himself and that can sometimes carry over to me. Running with my friend, by comparison, is pretty much judgment-free. If one of us wants to walk, we walk. If one of us wants to run 3 miles instead of 4, that’s what we do. And if one of us suggests a 10k, the other one usually agrees.

The question, I guess, is what’s enough? While I know that challenging myself physically can prepare me for other challenges in life, I’m not the kind of person who needs to run a marathon to accomplish that. I have plenty of other opportunities in my life to prove myself, and to get that runner’s “high” feeling. Running is just one of the ways that I stay healthy. So even though it was a bit disheartening to see the fastest runners returning toward us when we were still two miles from the finish, I don’t feel too bad about our 10-1/2 minute miles yesterday. We ran 6.2 miles for the first time this year, and we felt pretty good at the end of it.

Olympian Wilma Rudolph, once the fastest woman in the world, said that she “… loved the feeling of freedom in running, the fresh air, the feeling that the only person I’m competing with is me.” My wish for every run is to find that kind of freedom and to feel the lightness that can come from running unencumbered in the fresh air. I may not be setting records, but I’m still running, and I’m glad I’m not alone.