fitness

Head Games with Peloton Bike Statistics: the challenge of calibrating my nervous system  

I have a love-hate relationship with my Peloton bike.

Love: Easy access, anytime, any length, intense workouts with great music—not just on the bike. I also do their Pilates and light weights strength classes.

Hate: I am always so discouraged on the Peloton. It’s the statistics. The Peloton bike offers metrics up the wazoo and I can’t get them out of my head or my body. The bike tracks cadence (leg speed) and resistance (how hard it is to push against the pedal). Resistance can be dialed up or down by the rider. And, as the instructors always say in the intro to their rides, those two numbers (cadence and resistance) come together in a moment-to-moment output number (measured in watts) and at the end of the ride I have a single total output number, against which to gauge my previous efforts. Instructors cue a range for each of those numbers during the ride—for example, cadence 90-100 and resistance 35-45. I can barely ever maintain even the minimum resistance and cadence. So, that’s disheartening.

Then there are the comparative stats—the leaderboard, on which I can choose to track two different rankings—where I measure up against others who are “here now” riding simultaneously, or I can track my performance up against all others who have ever done the ride. More disheartenment. I am always in the bottom 5-10% of all riders who have ever done the ride. Every time.

This “reality” does not match my self-identity as an athlete. Yes, I recognize that I’m 56 years old and not as strong as I used to be. And, I am still quite strong. When I’m outside running or biking, I observe that I am not in the bottom 5-10% of others engaged in the same activity. Yet the Peloton metrics feed my personal narrative of insufficiency and I doubt my own strength. This doesn’t make me want to work harder, to push through, to climb the leaderboard, it makes me wonder why I bother.

I had heard from friends with Peloton bikes that calibration was a thing. As in, some bikes are calibrated hard and some are calibrated easy. Information I heard intellectually, but didn’t actually relate to myself. My nervous system decided that my bike was speaking truth to me about my strength.

My eyes opened this past Labor Day weekend. That’s when I rode a friend’s Peloton bike, my first experience of a calibration gap. My friend told me in advance that her bike is calibrated easy. This was even confirmed by a second friend who has ridden both bikes. Friend 2 assured me that my bike is calibrated hard. I was still doubtful. Until I rode Friend 1’s bike.

I did a 45-minute climb ride with Christine. My previous PR for the same genre of ride, with the same instructor, was 218 total output. My new PR?  438.

In case you’re wondering if I’d revolutionized by workout regime in the interim and accessed new untapped wells of strength, the answer is—no. All other factors are pretty much the same. If anything, I’m going through a stressful time in my life. I’m more tired than usual. I feel less perky in my workouts. Yes, those assessments are completely subjective. I don’t measure myself anywhere on workouts, except on the Peloton. I stopped measuring when I realized that the downside was more discouraging than the upside was encouraging. I’d put pressure on myself. The joy of a success was fleeting, compared to the pits of the you’re-not-so-strong-today-are-you? days. I can confirm that my calibration with running partners had not changed, which tells me that I am not breaking new strength barriers.

The wild increase in my PR was all just calibration. I knew that. I really (really) knew that. And yet, as I was riding, I felt revitalized. Stronger. More willing to push harder. While the higher PR was all due to calibration, I’m guessing that there was some small portion of that increase that was the result of the extra motivation of hitting the bigger numbers, not always falling off the bottom of the proposed ranges.

My mind knows that nothing is different, except the numbers, which are untrustworthy in both directions. And my nervous system takes its motivational cues from whatever baseless stats it’s served.

What a head game! Compare and despair! You are your only benchmark! And so on. We’ve all heard these truisms a million times. When will that message hit my nervous system?

fitness

Acoustic Bikes: New Language Changes How I Think About E-Bikes

I am an avid user of social bike systems wherever I go. These are bikes available for shared public use for a small fee. In New York, it’s Citibike; in Montreal, Bixi; in Paris, Velib. And I’ve used systems in Helsinki, Boise, Berlin, Toronto, London (in the UK) and I’m forgetting where else. In many of the systems there’s a choice between non-electric bikes and electric-assist bikes. The latter involves a slightly higher fee. I choose non-electric the vast majority of the time. Despite that choice, lately I’ve noticed that my mind chafes at the usual way in which people refer to the two different types of bike—one as “normal” and the other as “electric.”

As I’ve become sensitized to all the judgemental implications of the word “normal,” I am uncomfortable with that designation, even for the bike. I see in myself how when I use that word to describe my choice, I am slighting the electric. (Yes, there are many good reasons to choose e-bikes and my fellow bloggers have talked about their choices, including: Elan here, Sam B here and Bettina here. They make great points about the virtues and benefits.)

Despite which, when I choose an electric bike, I am often saying something like this to myself: “I’m so tired. I don’t have enough energy for a normal bike.” Or, “I’m late. I’ll make this compromise to be on time.” Both of these could be as anodyne as discerning what I need, or even just want. Yet, if I’m honest with myself, most of the time the comments are tinged with judgement and self-criticism.

Then, the other day, while riding an electric bike (by which I mean electric-assist), when I started to hear that critical voice in my head, suddenly a new supportive voice piped up, “Not normal, acoustic.” The voice emphasized her point with a forceful strum of a chord on her acoustic guitar. Oh yes, the voices in my head are often kitted out with props.

Acoustic.

Oh.

I considered the implications of this linguistic possibility.

Acoustic bikes are the ones that rely completely on my physical power, on my body and where it’s at that day. I know that wherever I go, whatever hill I climb, it’s all Mina-powered. Acoustic days are ones on which I’m tuning into to my own strength. On the other hand, just like an electric guitar requires an amplifier, electric-assist bikes amplify my strength and fluidity. Some days, Mina-amped is a wonderful option. I can still be outside, instead of on a subway, and I don’t have to wear myself down to a nub. I can be on time, without being harried. Plus (important plus)—the joy of the extra speed, freedom and ease. Let’s blow out the speakers with great music. Choosing with discernment. No judgment.

My synapses made some connections with another kind of amplifier—psychedelics. I work as a Learning Facilitator with The Synthesis Institute in their Psychedelic Practitioner Core Training, a program for people interested in facilitating psychedelic-assisted therapy and/or ceremony. Scientists often call psychedelics “non-specific amplifiers,” meaning that the effect is to amplify the pre-existing mindset and setting, which includes the intention a person brings to the experience. Research suggests that even a so-called bad trip can be used to a person’s benefit, if they are open to receiving the message, which may ignite our inner healer, pointing toward new possibility. In my own first facilitated experience, I was subjected to a super amplification of negativity from every one of my inner critics. An unpleasant trip. Yet, I heard the message, “Mina, it’s time to change your relationship with the inner critics.” Changing my relationship with all those voices in my head is a work in progress. Including, most recently, changing my relationship with the inner critic who wants to judge me about my choice of bike on any given day.

What kind of bike I ride is just that—a choice between two worthy options. Sure, I mostly like an acoustic ride. And, there are days I want to plug in the amplifier and ride like the Queen of Rock and Roll. Sometimes I need to tune into Mina-amped—to let me know what to work on in myself, or just to get around town.  

fitness

Do I Belong On My Mountain Bike?

I love mountain biking. I feel strong, capable and even graceful. I often have the sensation that I’m dancing with my bike and the terrain. Alert. Fluid. Light. Mountain biking, more than any other sport I do, is metaphor made real. This is where all that talk about having the skill and trust to let go into flow becomes real for me. Of course, the sport is incredibly effortful, both physically and in terms of mental focus. And, it simultaneously demands a level of relaxation to be able to glide through the obstacles. Even when I get home from a ride where I’ve had to get off my bike and walk through the toughest sections, I feel pretty good about myself. Proud even.

Then, recently, I was provoked to wonder if I was fooling myself into thinking that I was capable rider and, in reality, I sucked and had no right to be on a mountain bike, never mind write blog posts about it (such as here and here).

What happened was this. I connected with a friend of a friend out here in California (where I am for at least a month every summer). She suggested we mountain bike together. Oh no. Now someone was going to witness my dance on the bike and I was suddenly self-conscious that I would look unskilled or ridiculous. Worst of all, I would learn how deluded I was about my talent.

I know. Compare and despair. A lesson I need to learn and re-learn over and over.

The moment of reckoning coincided with a personal exploration I’ve embarked on to notice where and when I don’t feel like I belong and bring more compassion to the parts of me who feel outsider (and not in a good way). A part of me that I think of as my Self-Belonging Part has shown up recently. She’s the part of me who is bold and comfortable in herself. She believes that she belongs anywhere she wants to belong, so long as she arrives with humility, respect, openness and love. She is getting more air time in my internal thoughts than she used to, but that’s not saying much.

She was quiet as I started out on the ride with my new mountain bike acquaintance. Instead, I felt anxious and off-balance. We started out with me ahead, because I knew the trails. It became apparent that she was stronger physically and her technical skills were a notch up from mine. When we got to the longest stretch of the trail that had no forks or decision points, I asked if she wanted to ride ahead. She hesitated. We had already been having a conversation about the different voices in our heads; so, I took a risk and told her that there was a voice in my head who was super worried that I was embarrassing myself with my woeful lack of talent. As soon as I’d spoken the words, my Self-Belonging Part piped up. You love riding mountain trails. That’s all that matters. You belong on your bike. Just having named my fear to this almost-stranger enabled the more compassionate part of myself to manifest.

The rest of the ride was playful and challenging. In the end, we were more than compatible enough to both enjoy our time together. I dropped the compare and did not despair. I stopped worrying about whether I belonged on the bike. Of course, I did. I reveled in the conversation. As much as I love riding alone, having company was a big treat. I hope we’ll ride together when I’m here again.

As I write this (on Friday), my summer sojourn here in California ends tomorrow. This morning I got up extra early to squeeze in one last ride I hadn’t yet had the courage to do. It’s not overly long (it takes just under 2 hours from my house), but the trail is technical and quite steep at some points. I’d never actually done the ride alone and was more than a little daunted by being out there without a partner to help me out if I crashed. As I took off, I told myself I could decide to cut the ride short and leave out the hard part, if I wasn’t feeling good when I got to that decision junction. And then the ride flowed. It was exciting. At one point I landed hard going over a 2.5 foot drop off a rock and one foot unclipped, but I managed to keep the bike rolling and re-attach myself to my bike. The name of that bit of trail is Drunken Deer and I felt tipsy after the episode. That happened early in the ride and gave me the courage to continue. I didn’t see another person on the trails. It was glorious. Zen. Intense. My Self-Belonging Part felt satiated and empowered.

Top of Sober Deer, the highest point on the loop I rode. And yes, one part of the trail was Drunken Deer and this part is Sober Deer. The Sober section is even more challenging than the Drunken section, for me.

My continuing commitment to explore the boundaries and possibilities of my belonging was well nourished. As it also was by this spoken version of Pádraig Ó Tuama’s poem, “How To Belong Be Alone,” which I came across recently. My Self-Belonging Part thinks he wrote it for me (even though he has no idea I exist). You might feel the same way about his words.

fitness

Running with Books as a Spiritual Practice

I arrived out here in the California mountains last week and the very next morning I went for a trail run. As I was getting ready, I was debating whether I should listen to the book I was in the middle of reading with my ears. After all, said a judge-y voice, I was in the mountains, shouldn’t I just be paying attention to nature? Why was I looking for distraction, when I could listen to the wind in the trees and the dust beneath my feet? Did my reverence for the terrain fall short? Then another, gentler voice, chimed in. Just listen to your book. Who made up these rules anyway? Who says you can’t honour nature while engaged with literature?

View from the top of Castle Peak in California. One of my absolutely favourite funs!

I listen to books when I run. I love the feeling of a voice cozied into my ear, telling me a story or illuminating a topic I’m curious about.

I listened to my book. I ran a favourite trail, while Clint Smith (the author) recounted his journey to Senegal to visit a slave house, in his book, How the Word Gets Passed: Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. In the book, he visits a variety of places directly connected to slavery, including Angola prison and the Monticello Plantation (owned by Thomas Jefferson). As I was running and listening, I suddenly thought—this land I’m on may not be directly implicated in these stories I’m listening to, but I cannot disentangle my privilege at having access to this gorgeous swath of nature, from the fact that this whole country was built on slavery. Never mind that here in Truckee, California, there is also the story of the oppression of the Chinese population, brought here to build the railroad under brutal conditions.

I realized that, for me, running with a book is a way of connecting with other people, just as surely as running enables me to connect with nature. I fortify each of these connections, by bringing them together in what suddenly felt like a spiritual practice. Often when I’m listening to a book, like Clint Smith’s, I am overcome by emotion. Because I am running, I can allow my emotions to flow freely. I can allow the book to touch me more deeply, because I’m alone and even if I pass other people, the experience is so brief, that I don’t need to worry about my tears or my joy being disconcerting. My intellect is interacting with my felt sensations to create a new reading experience. I can interact with the book in a more embodied way.  

There’s another aspect I like about running with books. I feel freed from the burden of highlighting passages and learning the content properly. Instead, I am able to absorb the book at a more cellular, experiential level, which enables me to make connections between what I’m hearing and other ideas that are marinating in my system.

Here’s a few of my recent running books:

Bittersweet, by Susan Cain, about the ways in which light and dark in our hearts are inextricably intertwined.

The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, by David Abram, that questions our habitual sense of perception.

The Way of Effortless Mindfulness: A Revolutionary Guide for Living an Awakened Life, by Loch Kelly, which is what it’s title describes.

Unbound: A Woman’s Guide to Power, by Kasia Urbaniak, which combines Urbaniak’s experiences as a dominatrix and Taoist nun.

Some have said that they don’t run as fast if they are listening to anything other than music. I don’t know if that’s the case for me. Some stories get me charged up and some probably slow me down. In the end, what matters to me is getting outside and moving my body. My goal is to run, simply to run. As an aside–reading may also be a goal, as Sam talked about in her recent post.

Last thing—I love running and I love books. So, putting the two together feels decadent and delicious, as if I have more time in the world to do the things I love.

movies

First, Believe in Yourself: a movie review of Run Woman Run

Beck, a woman of indeterminate age (possibly between 28-35), in a slouchy bathrobe with a pizza motif, drives to the mailbox at the end of her not-long driveway, a cigarette hanging from her mouth. The scene is set for this story of a single mother who has lost her way following the death of her own mother a few years earlier. She lives in her father’s basement. Shares a bed and late-night cookies with her son (also of indeterminate age between 10-14). And fights with her younger sister, who has just earned her certificate to teach their mother’s native tongue, Kanyen’kéha (the Mohawk language) and is moving out of the family home to fuel her independence. Meanwhile, Beck fuels herself on donuts and 5-sugar-5-cream coffees. Even after she suffers a diabetic coma, Beck has trouble finding reasons to take care of herself. Until she’s visited by the ghost of her distant ancestor, the legendary marathon runner Tom Longboat, the first Indigenous runner to win the Boston Marathon in 1907 (60 years later, Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to run Boston). Longboat becomes Beck’s running coach. And running, of course, is a metaphor for Beck’s belief in herself, and not just herself, but also her heritage.  

Movie poster for Run Woman Run, showing Beck eating donuts in her pizza bathrobe, with a wall calendar behind her featuring Tom Longboat.

Run Woman Run braids together the threads of Beck’s unwillingness to face the reality of her health; Longboat’s dry humour and encouragement, as he guides her toward her running heritage; and her rediscovery of the gift of her mother’s language. I was about to write, “slowly, Beck learns to believe in herself again.” But actually, things happen in movie time. The film flirts with cliché, as Beck determines to train for her first marathon in one month. There is the anticipated montage of training scenes, rain or shine. The loneliness. The despair. The hope. There’s a cute scene of Beck getting tangled up in her first running bra. That still happens to me sometimes, when the straps get too fancy. There’s the how-will-she-ever scene where Beck is driven to the finish line of her first 10k in a golf cart. And there’s the inevitable disbelief of her family.

Beck perseveres. A short month later she runs 26.2 miles alone (well, with the ghost of Longboat and the felt pen drawings and names of kin she’s covered her arms and chest with to remind her of who she is running for–more on that in a moment), on a course she’s mapped out herself, starting and ending at her father’s house. At the finish line, aka the mailbox she once drove to in her pizza bathrobe, she is greeted by her family with love and hugs. The romance hinted at halfway through the movie fizzles, as it should. Beck must believe in herself first.

While I didn’t love the film, I appreciated the quiet victory, the characters (each one of whom was just trying their best) and the gentle touch with the trauma at the core of the film.

And, there was one element that frustrated me. It is this: what finally motivates Beck to start running is when her son moves out to live with his father again  Her son can’t bear the fear of waking up again beside his mother in a diabetic coma. Before each training run, Beck writes Eric on her heart and shoulder and arm to remind her of why she’s running  As a woman without children, I wonder, what does a woman without children do? How does she find the will to live after tragedy?

As I mentioned, on “marathon day”, Beck draws felt tip pen tattoos all over her arms, to represent each person she is running for. It’s Longboat who has to remind her that she also needs to run for herself.

Indeed. Why do women always have to be pushing themselves for others and never for themselves? Are they, as individuals in their own right, not worth it? I don’t mean that we should not desire to serve others and the world. I believe that we are here to offer our contribution. And yet, I want, too, that women value themselves. I wanted Beck to run because she was worth saving, not just because she was someone’s mother and her son needed her. I have a dream that women have worth far beyond their parental status (just as men have always had). I’ve written about my own choice not to have children here.

Despite this sticky element, I still enjoyed the film. The Facebook page describes the film this way: Run Woman Run is the Indigenous comedy that hits your funny bone the way a donut hits your blood sugar. I didn’t experience the film as quite that much of a jolt. I’d describe it more as an apple—a sustained healthful energy. I learned that Kanyen’kéha has no word for “empty,” which continues to fascinate me. Contemplating a worldview without emptiness is mind expanding.

If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a list of how to stream. Support women in film! And if you watch or you’ve already watched. I’d love to know your thoughts.

fitness

Moving Through Big Emotions

I feel seasick a lot of the time at the moment. I’m working through a perfect storm of grief in my life. Between relationship woes, no longer living with my beloved cat, illness and death among family and friends and moving from my long (long) time home in New York City to Montreal (a city I love, but under these challenging circumstances …), it is an effort every day to remember who I am. Never mind why I am and if my life has any meaning or purpose. Fortunately, I have a good amount of challenging and enjoyable work to keep me busy. I have family and friends. And, there’s movement.

I almost wrote, “I’ve learned” or “I’ve discovered”, but that wouldn’t be right. I have known for some time that coming home to my body through movement is one of the ways I locate myself in space and time. Movement offers sign posts to help me map the territory of my being-ness. Movement reconnects to me to my aliveness, especially in times when even my enjoyment of food and sleep are interrupted. Yes, I might move less or exert less. And, I am deeply grateful to be able to continue moving, in the midst of the waves of upheaval.

In Montreal, I’m re-connecting with the wooded trails on Mont Royal and the slow climb up the paved road over on a 40lb BIXI (the social bike system in Montreal). I’m making myself a Thursday morning fixture in the pocket park across from my apartment, where I jump rope and do a sequence of “regular” lunges and other Bulgarian and Romanian versions (I don’t know why the movements are ascribed these nationalities). I’ve gone back to mat yoga, after many years of aerial yoga and am re-acquainting myself with that challenge.

There are brief moments when I can almost forget my troubles and just breathe into the pleasure of my heart beating and my lungs expanding. A respite from the seasickness. Becalmed and invigorated.

Also, there is a special side benefit that occasionally comes with my BIXI workouts. This morning, as I huffed up the road, I passed a Montreal public works truck in the vista parking lot. A woman jumped out of the truck and started calling out to everyone (in French)—“She’s on a BIXI. Amazing.” And then she pretended to bow down to me. I waved and laughed. That was a nice shot of encouragement. I’ve had similar events happen on my BIXI workouts before.

Of course, other times, I’m moving and crying at the same time. (Like when I started my ride this morning—before the nice bit of cheering—I was missing my cat.) Crying and moving is its own gift. I’ve accompanied others on their run-cries, too, when they were traversing difficult periods. I have a precious memory of a run during the last weeks of my father’s life—it was a misty, grey morning (probably in March). I was strung out with the sadness of impending loss. The wet air was unseasonably warm and my long sleeve shirt felt like it was tightening around my lungs. So, I took it off. I never run shirtless, in just a sports bra. I don’t have anything against it … for other people. In fact, I admire women who express that freedom. I am both self-conscious and sun-conscious (after all, my father died of melanoma). That day in 2015, there was no sun to burn my skin and I didn’t care who saw me. I just wanted to feel my body blend with the air, to cleanse my spirit, to let my sweat meet the morning mist on my skin. For me, there’s solace, even healing, in moving (literally moving) through the emotion.  

Now, if only there could be warmer weather, that would be a treat!

femalestrength · feminism · skiing

Give Girls the Opportunity to Fail

Out cross country skiing the other morning, I came upon this mother-daughter scene at the intersection leading to one of my favourite trails, a winding climb:

Frustrated daughter, who looked about nine-years-old, laying in the snow across the classic ski track (that’s the two parallel grooves), scuffing one ski into the track. Exasperated mother on skis, standing a couple feet away on the corduroy groomed trail.

As I made the right turn onto my favoured trail, the mother shot me a look of complicity, saying, “…” I don’t know what. I couldn’t hear her, because I wasn’t expecting her to speak to me and my ears were focused on the podcast in my ears. On another day, I might have just smiled, as if I’d heard and carried on with my ski. Instead, I felt myself in the girl’s insistent scuffing. The intensity with which she was destroying the track resonated with my own inner girl’s desire to be and do more. I stopped.

Me: “Pardon me? I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.”

Mother: “I just don’t understand why she’s upset. She can’t ski up this trail. It’s too steep. I can barely ski it.”

Me (interior monologue): “The trail’s not that steep. Oh Mina, stop being so judgy. Also, the trail is actually pretty steep right at the top.”

Me: “Couldn’t she do the herringbone?”

Mother: “No. She can’t do it. It’s only her third day skiing.”

Hearing this, the daughter’s ski scuffing gets more vigorous and defiant.

Me (interior monologue): “What’s the harm in letting her try?”

Me (to the daughter): “Great skis. Look, they’re the same design as mine.”

I extended one leg and put one ski next to the daughter’s much shorter one, highlighting our matching black and red Atomics. The daughter glanced at me briefly with curiosity and then continued scuffing. With that, I smiled in what I hope was a consoling way at the mother and carried on with my ski.

For the rest of my time on the snow, the feminist brigade inside my head talked over each other in increasingly louder voices.

Why can’t the daughter at least try? What the worst that will happen if she tries and fails? That she will be discouraged? That she will never want to ski again? Never want to go outside again? Well, that seems unlikely. And why do I feel certain that this scene would not be playing out this way if the daughter was a son? Or if the mother were a father? A father would tell his son that he could climb the hill. Yes, true, sometimes that goes too far in the other direction. I don’t think the whole boot camp desensitization approach is the right way either. But isn’t there a supportive, middle ground? Somewhere between get-the-fuck-up-the-hill-on-the-double and oh-no-this-is-too-hard-to-even-try.  Are we so fragile as girls that we can’t even be allowed to attempt something seemingly insurmountable? Why can’t she be allowed to try and be frustrated and defeated and supported in that struggle? How will she grow her resilience?    

I so wanted to encourage that little girl to take on the hill. I wanted to contradict her mother, take the girl’s hand and let her know that she had all the courage she needed to take on this hill and that I’d be right behind her. And if she didn’t make it, so what, she’d have tried and that’s what counted and next time she’d probably make it. 

Mina at the top of Drifter, her favourite high trail at Tahoe Donner Cross Country (and where she was inspired to ski after the encounter with the mother-daughter)

There were other voices in my head, who told me that I had no right to even weigh in on the topic, because I’m not a mother, so what do I know about daughters; plus the just plain civil voice who pointed out it was not my place to say anything.

Yes. And.

I still know a little something about girls. I was once a girl who encountered frustrations. And I am a woman who has learned a lot of new things, some of which I’ve failed at and some of which seemed insurmountable when I took them on, and at which I did okay. I don’t have specific memories of my parents preventing me from or encouraging me to take on difficult tasks. There was a general ethos of try-and-try-again throughout my childhood. My parents also sent to me to an all-girls summer camp, run by a fierce woman who both cared about our safety and encouraged us to try hard things. I balk at lots of things, but I want to make my own decision about when I choose not to try or to stop trying. When I look around, I see how, even now, boys have bigger self-confidence than girls. Boys are quicker to claim that they are good at something (even when they aren’t really). I really (really) want this for girls, too.

I dream of a world where all genders are offered equal opportunity to fall down (literally and metaphorically) and be supported as they get back on their feet. So, I dare to write this piece, as a non-mother, to ask mothers: “Please give your daughters a shot at the hill, even if it feels too steep, even for you.”   

femalestrength · sex · skiing

Sex and Breath Can Fuel Our Sports

Some mornings I wake up with a buzz of desire fluttering around my nerve endings. When our enthusiasm matches up and time allows, my partner and I indulge our pleasure. Inevitably though, there are mornings when that is just not possible. Until very recently, my response would be to shelve the buzz in corner, so that I could focus on the practical to-do list for the day.

Or, less productively, I’d be grumpy.

Until three weeks ago. That’s when I started taking an online course on the history and practices of tantric sexuality from the Centre Summum. I’ve been intrigued by tantra practices for more than a decade, but could never work up the courage to actually sign up for anything.

A brief and necessarily incomplete description is that tantra is a spiritual practice (across many traditions) of gathering and harmonizing our feminine and masculine energy. So, yes, tantra is about so much more than sex. And, it’s about sex.

Thanks to the pandemic, the class about sex is online. Thank you zoom for the ability to enroll in classes that would be logistically complicated or psychologically daunting, if they were in person. How much easier is it to show up from home? No one can really see when I blush, nor are there those awkward moments before and after class where we talk about … our sex lives?      

We get homework. The first and second week (the third class is tonight, after this piece posts) one of our assignments was to notice those buzzy moments that I mentioned earlier (the class is in French and I love the French word for the buzz—frissons). Instead of setting the frissons aside, as I used to do, we learned to pause and simply savor the sensation of our life force energy. That’s what tantrism calls our sexual energy—our life force, the root flame of our vitality. Well, that was fun homework. Enlivening.

neon sign reading “and breathe” against leafy background, .by Valeriia Bugaiova on Unsplash

Another delightful assignment is practicing Kumbhaka breathing to cultivate our vital energy. Breath practices are key in tantra. As explained in the class, Kumbhaka breath is to cultivate our life force energy. It goes like this:

Ideally (but not necessarily!) done in seated meditation position. Take a deep breath in, moving the breath down from your heart into your pelvic floor. Hold the in-breath for a moment and then breathe out, moving the breath through your root chakra at the base of your spine. Allow the out-breath to continue up your spine, flow over the crown of your head and back down to rejoin the in-breath at your heart. Hold your breath at empty until you feel the urge to breathe. Repeat the breath pattern. Repeat again. You may set yourself a breath count or an amount of time, or you may just do it until your vitality is buzzing.

An online search yields a variety of slightly different descriptions, with prescriptive advice on when and how long to do the breathing. Our teacher, Stéphane, has a permissive spirit, much more about flow than structure. My personal approach is to try out different ways of doing the breath and feel into what works for me. In that spirit, I have a visualization that manifested with the practice. The in-breath is to anchor my life force (my power). The out-breath straightens my spine and as the breath flows over my head and past my face, I imagine putting on a warrior’s helmet. That’s my courage. Finally, as the breath reaches my heart, I tap into love. I’ve been doing Kumbhaka during my meditation, where it feels energizing and helps me focus (not on sex, but on what I need to focus on for the day).

Where I’ve really noticed a difference is when I do the breathing in bed, as I’m waking up on those buzzy mornings when I have to get up and start the day, no time for dalliance. When I go for my workout, which is cross-country skiing these days, I feel extra strong. The first time I felt this abundant energy during my ski, I just chalked it up to feeling happy.  After all, spending a few extra moments to breathe into the frissons is happiness-inducing. The second and third times I felt the kick of vitality on my skis, I thought—hey, there’s a pattern. First, I searched around online to see if there was anything specific about my experience. While there is lots about tantric yoga and about other breathing practices and sports performance, there wasn’t anything specific about the particular connection I am experiencing. So, I asked Stéphane, if I was imagining the connection or if the Special K-effect (as I think of it, a reference to the breakfast cereal, not the drug) was a known result? He wrote me back (oh, right; because I did not have the courage to ask the question in class, live on zoom, I waited to ask in writing!): “Yes, whenever we channel our sexual energy there will be a tendency to increase all of our internal energies. It (*our sexual energy) is the source of all our strength.”

Yes! I’ll have what she’s having. Oh wait, I’m the she who is already having. That sentence may have been nonsense, but you get the picture. I’m grooving to this class, even on my skis.

Interestingly, at the risk of over-sharing, but hey, I’m already in pretty deep here: when I actually have sex in the morning, that does not make me feel stronger for my workout. The more likely result is that I am more at ease with however the workout goes. That’s an equally great outcome, since I can get caught up in performance-busting narratives in my head.

And, in case it isn’t super obvious, these practices are intended for all people with sexual energy, whether or not you are in a relationship or solo and whatever gender creates the sparks.

There’s more personal, anecdotal research to be done on this front. I plan to be very diligent about my homework. And if you’ve been wanting a new kick of energy to supplement your morning coffee, check out the Special K-effect for yourself. You can’t fake the deliciousness.

meditation · mindfulness

Does Meditation Even Work?

I considered different titles for this piece: If I Didn’t Meditate, Would I Be a Monster? Why Even Meditate If I Still Stress Out? I Give Up on Meditation.

But I don’t give up, even as I wonder, why not?  

As many of you know, I’ve been on a meditation streak for some time now. And, an exciting moment happened recently. I did NOT notice the day I passed three years straight in my streak. I meditated. Like it was any other day. Then, ten days later, I suddenly thought, “Wait a minute, did I pass my three-year anniversary of this streak??”

The reason I missed it is this: The first time I saw my mother after the start of the pandemic was in late August. I hadn’t seen her for 19 months. The last day of our visit was my 1000th day of meditation. Since then, I am reminded each day of how long it has been since I last saw my mother. I send out a wish that that day count will not get anywhere near the 500+ of our last interval.

Is it okay if I take a moment here of celebration for three years straight of meditating every-every day?

And, I had one of the worst finish-starts to a year in memory. I got news on December 21st that a yearlong training program I’m in was going to continue with an in-person weekend the first week of January. The email explained all the reasons for pushing back against strict pandemic regulations in Quebec, which only got stricter as the next couple of weeks evolved. And the email said that the majority of the email recipients had been consulted. Not me. I was not in that majority. Plus, I was special needs, given that I was crossing an international border to attend, and all the added risks that entails. I was not worthy of consultation. My opinion did not matter. I slipped into the vortex, a downward spiral of increasing stress.

Stormy sea, by Roan Lavery on Unsplash

Yes, indeed, I fueled that spiral all by myself as I contemplated all the pandemic risks. I deployed all my tools to self-arrest, including meditation. While I could alleviate some of the stress, there was a core nugget that kept moving into darker and darker corners of my psyche. My always-borderline-fragile sense of belonging had been threatened and nothing grounded me or lifted me or offered me ease.

I sat on my meditation cushion and observed my erratic heartbeat fail to settle. I sat on my meditation cushion and watched my staccato breath struggle for smooth passage. I sat on my meditation cushion and felt enraged and heavy and sad.

I kept sitting. Day after day.

No remission of stress. In fact, I managed to work myself up enough that it spilled out all over my partner and set fire to the closing-opening of the years. Then came the news on Monday morning, January 3, that the in-person weekend would be delayed a month. I should-have-could-have been relieved. Instead, I was angry at myself all over again. How could I have allowed myself to stress out about something that simply resolved itself (more or less and with zero elegance)?

More sitting.

Which brings me back to the other possible titles for this piece. If I hadn’t been meditating during these past weeks, would I have been out-of-control monstrous? Would I have lit my angry fire earlier and kept it burning on a higher setting? Is the goal of meditation to never stress out? Or is it to notice that I am stressing out, instead of spending my energy in denial and/or blaming someone else for my stress? Why don’t I give up?

Because. I value the information I glean from the particular discipline of daily observation. I can’t make all my stress go away. I can’t make myself into an angel of patience, which I’m not. I can notice more. That noticing, in and of itself, offers me relief. The sliver of ease may be barely visible to the naked eye, but my nervous system is grateful for the scintilla of extra space. This is not good marketing language for a meditation-is-the-answer-to-everything sales pitch. Meditation is not the answer to everything. It is one tool in what is ideally an ever evolving and updating kit.  

Last year Kim (of this blog) and I challenged each other to write a poem every two weeks (there’s a post coming later today about that). As I was looking through them, I came across this haiku that captures why I continue to meditate:

And if I lived true/ open curiosity / no judgment or fear?

The promise of meditation is that you will notice more. That’s it. That’s enough.     

challenge · motivation · new year's resolutions · WOTY

It’s WOTY-Challenge Time!

In this last month of the year, two thoughts bubble up: What’s my word of the year (WOTY) and what’s my challenge? Many of my fellow bloggers here are thinking about their words. Nicole, for example, says she is looking for a word that expresses the opposite of existential dread. I look forward to what she comes up with. We will have more WOTY posts, to be sure.

Last year my word was enough. For the early part of the year, I reminded myself with some regularity what my word was. I needed the specific boost. Just now, when I sat down to write this, I realized I’d forgotten what my word was. Yet, when I looked back and found my word, it was like a carillon. Oh yes, now I remember my word and I didn’t need the reminder after a certain point in the year, because I had installed an enough-ness fuel gauge in my bodymind dashboard and was taking conscious note of the fuel level on a more regular basis. That realization, in and of itself, topped up the fuel in my enough-ness tank. My word did its job. Pause for mini-celebratory dance.  

In a recent Peloton class one of my favourite instructors, Christine D’Ercole, said that we should give ourselves user names that, when we say them out loud, have the same effect as an encouraging hand on our back. That’s the effect I’m looking for in my WOTY. A word that encourages me. A carrot word. Not a stick word. 

Colourful assortment of letter tiles
Surendran MP on Unsplash

This year’s word builds on enough. I’m not going to give it to you straight out. There’s some stage décor to put in place first. It turns out that enough is a pretty damn bold word. Enough gives me the courage to plunge into learning new modalities (including two separate yearlong trainings, one in Non-Violent Communication and one in Internal Family Systems). Enough inoculates me against being overwhelmed by the voices in my head and in society, who say that I’m past due on expanding into new disciplines. Enough grants me the audacity to incorporate these new techniques into my work now with the simultaneous confidence of a seasoned practitioner and the caution of a novitiate. I am integrating my existing skills base with the fresh skills I am learning and honing to offer more holistic coaching and workshops.

At first, my word for next year wanted to be something like mastery. But two reasons held me back from that choice. First, the word is outmoded and even ugly, in a world that is waking up to all the hidden and subtle ways we perpetuate inequities. Mastery comes with a heavy burden of colonialism and racism.

This first reason would have been more than enough to keep the word out of contention. But there’s more. The word feels static. As if we can master something and then that’s it. One and done. Thank you very much. You may now come to me with questions. I’ve moved on to answers. No. That’s not how I feel about the skills I already have facility with, nor how I feel about the new tools I’m adding. There’s dynamism in the process. Learning is cyclical, not linear, building and looping back on itself to collect new gleanings.

I wanted a word to express my desire to keep learning, integrating, experimenting and refining. In that spirit, my word itself is freshly coined, by me.

Skillflow.

That’s my word. Say it out loud. Feel it on your tongue. Listen to it come out of your mouth. Do you feel how open the word is? Versus, for example, the word skillful, which closes in on itself with that final letter L.

Skillflow: (noun) the continuous, regenerative cycle of learning and applying our skills; the flow of fresh skills mixing with honed skills in a reciprocal renewal of energy.

I am already enough AND I’m going to learn so much this year. I’ve got my word.

So … I wrote all those words above yesterday and I felt plugged in and buzzing with possibility. Excited for the year to come. Up to the task. Empowered. Then I woke up this morning with a possibility hangover. That’s when the part of me who is fearful of failure gets very loud. I was down in the dumps. Questioning everything from my right to even propose a WOTY to my very existence. Apparently, my word is threatening to some part of me that fears that a hand on my back will push me right over a cliff into a humiliating failure; that I’ll choke on my carrot word. Sigh. Thank you, fearful voice. Breathe. Notice that I am learning new skills around befriending that scared voice. Allow her words to flow through me, instead of getting stuck inside like a brick in an impenetrable wall of the-truth-of-who-I-am.      

My word for 2022 is skillflow.

How about that challenge I mentioned? Challenges are my version of resolutions (but not). A friend calls them my annual devotional tasks. They are ways of being I want to try on for size, with no commitment to extend after the year is over.

Last year my challenge was twofold—to continue not to shop for anything from Amazon.com except books and movies (an extension of my 2020 challenge) and to commit to a poetry exchange with my friend (and fellow blogger here), Kim. We agreed to send each other new poems we’d written every second Sunday. We have two poem cycles left and the whole process has been fresh and bracing, plus liberating and connecting. Excellent. Last year, I wanted a challenge that wasn’t all about self-discipline and denial, which has characterized quite a number of my challenges (like not shopping for clothes for a year). This year I want a challenge … well … I have no clue what to do this year.

I’d love to hear your WOTYs and any ideas for a challenge.