We say goodbye, we say hello: out with winter activities, in with spring

Let’s take a walk

Into the world

Where if our shoes get white

With snow, is it snow, Marina,

Is it snow or light?

Let’s take a walk

excerpt from the poem To Marina, by Kenneth Koch.

Finally, after an unbelievably fierce winter here in the northeast, change is in the air—daylight savings time has returned, giving us more time after work to be outside. And temperatures are edging up, most welcome in Boston where we got pounded with 105 inches of snow this year.  A month ago, streets in Boston looked like this:

parkton-snow

But now they look like this:

parkton-nosnow

Not exactly pretty, but at least the driving is a bit easier.

One notable benefit of all this snow has been the instant access to great winter sports, even in urban areas. I’ve blogged about urban cross country skiing and also trying out new variations on skiing. In Ottawa, the Rideau Canal Skateway had a record-breaking 59-day season, which lots of people took advantage of.

rideau canal

rideau-night

My friend Teri, on a work trip to Ottawa, took the night picture, and even partook of some after-work curling—another northern winter activity (although here you can find out about the curling season, which in fact extends to May).

curling-work

But all good things come to an end. The snow is melting, the late-day sun is beckoning, and it’s time to think about putting away skis, skates, snowshoes, fat bikes and cold-weather running wear. Time to bring out the road and mountain bikes, running shoes, and other springtime equipment. Samantha has gotten the jump on many of us already, restarting bike commuting.

You would think this would be deliriously wonderful news; it’s been a frigid and difficult winter, and I’ve not been on a bike in months. And I love to ride. But change can be hard—even positive change. It requires consciously shifting from one set of habits, one set of gear, one set of exercise partners and locations and muscle groups, to a whole different set. This happens for me on at least 3 levels:

Level one: logistical

Finding places to put the winter stuff while remembering where I stored the warmer weather stuff and deciding when to retrieve it is always a production. The cross-country skis, which lived in the back of the car all winter, are now in their transitional space (the hallway) awaiting being put away in the basement; repeat for lots of other gear and clothing. I also need to take my road bike for a tune-up before the season really gets going, etc. For those of us who are active and profligate about gear, keeping everything in its appropriate place in the seasonal rotation is a job.

Level two: physical

Changing sports or activities means also reminding oneself about the existence of muscle groups that may have been ignored for a while. This winter I skied and played squash, both of which use my legs, but in ways very different than cycling uses them. Lots of websites offer practical advice for ways to transition into spring cycling or spring running.  The message seems to be this: start slow and focus on the basics. This is no news, but sometimes tough to stick with, especially on that first spring day when you are bursting with enthusiasm.

Level three: metaphysical

Change is unsettling.  We’re used to our habits and the pleasures, associations, and even burdens that come with them.  This winter offered up a host of burdens– endless shoveling, treacherous driving, super-long commutes to work, and high heat bills.  But it also provided some opportunities and experiences that I’ll miss.

I now know the neighbors on my street much better through shared shoveling  and snow-driving woes.  To get one car unstuck on my street took representatives from Turkey, Japan, France, South Carolina, and New England; since then we’ve all waved and smiled when we see each other.

I also know some of my colleagues much better through carpooling to work.  The MBTA commuter rail in Boston experienced massive failure, and we had to scramble to find rides for people to be able to teach their classes.  I drove folks to and from school (usually a 50-minute one-way ride, turned into more than 1.5 hours) 3 days a week for several weeks.  It was time-consuming, but we spent time talking and joking and complaining and enjoying each others’ company.

When public transportation was running, I used it (there was no parking anywhere– trust me).  It was sometimes uncertain and often lengthy, but walking around town and taking two buses to get home felt like an accomplishment– moving through the city under my own power (there was lots of walking in sturdy boots this winter) and catching the bus reminded me of younger student days.

As for sports, with several of my women’s league squash matches were canceled due to storms and no biking possible, I had to improvise, often on skis, with friends.  So we skied all over the place– in my neighborhood, at nearby parks, urban woods, conservation lands, groomed ski places– wherever there was snow cover.  I renewed acquaintances with people I ran into who skate ski and bike race.  All of this felt novel, improvised, exhilarating, a little scary sometimes (it tested and stretched my skills) and really fun.

But for now that phase of active life is done.  I hope to hang onto some of the new habits– doing more regular carpooling and tooling around town on public transportation are good plans.  For sports, it’s time to turn to spring activities, which I love.  But it seemed fitting to note the passing of this extraordinary winter, in all its inconvenient and thrilling splendor.  I’ll miss you.  Except for the shoveling.

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Why I Love Aikido (Guest Post)

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I was standing watching the children’s class, waiting for my adult aikido class to begin, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was my aikido sensei (teacher).

“I saw your name in the paper.”

I winced. The organization that I work for had recently had some bad press. I handle PR for the company, and had been quoted in one of the news stories.

“It’s just like on the mat,” Sensei said, and made a sweeping motion with his hands, as if stepping out of the way of an attack and throwing off an invisible assailant.

I held my breath as my mind processed this idea. I had fallen in love with aikido the very first class I’d attended, but it wasn’t until Sensei suggested that aikido was more than just a fun physical activity with a practical purpose (self-defence) that I began to understand its deeper value.

I’ve never been interested in sports, and until I started aikido in March of this year, my physical activity had consisted of exclusively solitary pursuits – walking, hiking, yoga, bodyweight exercises. Sam had been encouraging me to come out to aikido for years, but there was always something else going on in my life, and the beginner classes on Tuesday evenings or Saturday mornings never seemed to fit into my schedule.

Then suddenly I’d run out of excuses, and realized that I really did want to try aikido. I already had a sense that I would like the people – I had engaged some of the volunteer black belts from the school to come give a presentation on self-defence at my workplace a few years earlier, and they looked like they were having a lot of fun “hurting” each other. It remains one of my company’s highest-rated staff development presentations.

Other than that, however, I had no clue what I was going to experience. I went to my first class in yoga pants and a t-shirt like the club’s website suggested, and asked one of the brown belts what I should do. Thankfully Sam showed up before class started, and shepherded me around for most of the hour.

Five months later, I’ve graduated to a yellow belt (one step above absolute beginner), and I’m regularly attending four classes per week. Aikido is one of the very best things in my life, and I’m a blissfully obsessed with, addicted to, and entranced by this Japanese martial art. A big piece of that obsession is trying to figure out the lesson Sensei was trying to teach me all those weeks ago – how could I use aikido in every moment of my life, not just on the mat?

Six things I love about aikido:

    1. The philosophy behind it. Aikido was founded in the 20th century by Morihei Ueshiba, a Japanese martial artist who, legend has it, became disenchanted with the aggressive aspect of martial arts, and developed a means of self-defence that practitioners could use to protect themselves, while also protecting their attacker from injury. In aikido we don’t learn how to attack (kick, punch, strike) – only how to evade or diffuse an attack. In my early 20s I studied hapkido, a Korean martial art, and back then one of the things that made me most uncomfortable was having to spar – to attack somebody else, to try and beat them. Aikido, on the other hand, reminds me of some of my more spiritual interests, like yoga and zen meditation. It seeks to cause no harm, and to leave a situation better than it started. That really appeals to me, as does the idea that my physical training in aikido can give me insight into mental and emotional conflict, including self-inflicted harmful thoughts.

 

    1. The beauty of the movements. Aikido is pretty graceless the way that I do it as a beginner, but watching the black belts practice is breathtaking. I’ve also watched a number of aikido videos online, and I find aikido stunning, although it’s not like the “movie martial arts” that most of us are used to seeing. That said, Aikido can still be pretty wild – people do get thrown around, rolling and tumbling all over the place. The calm, measured movements of a long-time practitioner in the centre of the maelstrom are like a dance.

 

    1. The people. I don’t have any other aikido school to compare to mine, so I don’t know if this is universal to aikido, but the people are wonderful – generous with their time and their bodies as training partners, full of good humour and camaraderie. A far cry from the social isolation of my solitary fitness pursuits up until now. I’d been looking for a “tribe” to belong to before I joined aikido, and this happily fits the bill for me. They’re also a pleasantly diverse bunch – from teenagers to practitioners in their 60s and beyond, men and women, a variety of sizes and nationalities and socio-economic backgrounds. I knew I was finally starting to “belong” when some injuries (more on that below) kept me on the sidelines for several weeks, and everyone kept asking me with concern when I was going to be back on the mats to play with them again.

 

    1. The physical-ness of it. Much like wrestling, I imagine, aikido is a pretty physically intimate sport. You have to be comfortable not only touching your training partners, but getting right into their personal space – chest to chest sometimes, hands wrapping around heads and pulling them close, palms or shoulders pushing chins. It reminds me of the rough-and-tumble physical chaos of raising small children. I love this part of aikido, and it’s the part I miss the most when I have to sit on the sidelines with an injury. It’s also a full-body sport – from head to toe, there’s not one part of me that doesn’t get a workout during a class. Think lots of falling down and getting back up. Over and over again. And a lot of rolling. I love breakfalls.

 

    1. The way I feel during and after class. I’m not that physically fit – I rarely do anything else that gets my heart-rate up – so aikido classes are sometimes a physical challenge for me. The intensity gets endorphins flooding my body, however, and I always feel amazing during and immediately after class. If I have to sit out due to injury, I make a point of going to classes just to enjoy the atmosphere. My job is stressful, and aikido classes are a vital release valve when everything else in my life seems to be falling apart.

 

  1. The fact that it will take me a long time to master it. At 47, I’ve tried a lot of new things over the course of my life, and I’ve grown to love the disorienting feeling of “beginner’s mind,” when everything is new and strange and confusing. Five months (and a lot of extracurricular reading and practice) in, aikido is not so shiny-new as it was, but thankfully it’s an art that can take a long time to master, and will keep me engaged for years to come. Having said that, aikido also feels really comfortable to me; based on feedback from some of the senior belts, I think I’m picking it up fairly quickly, and that feels good too.

Six things I’m not so keen about:

    1. It’s hard on the body. I’m not going to lie – aikido is not kind to a middle-aged, out-of-shape body. After my first few classes I was seriously sore – I mean, to the point of hardly being able to walk when I got out of bed in the morning, even after a long soak in a hot bath the night before. And the senior belts are pretty unapologetic about the fact that sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts at practising safely, you’re going to accidentally get hurt. A lot of time is spent teaching beginners how to fall and roll safely, because the throws and pins that we’re learning are potentially dangerous. So my biggest question for Sam and her friends when I was considering joining the school was, does it get better? The answer was yes… although I’m still waiting for it to get better… 🙂

 

    1. It hurts my knees. I had knee problems for years before starting aikido, and after just a few classes I had worse knee problems – to the point where I’ve sat on the sidelines for two extended periods of time in my five months of aikido. I wept, not from the ongoing pain, but from the anguish of possibly having to give up an activity I loved so much. Thankfully my doctor finally referred me to a physiotherapist (shout-out to John Smallwood, who’s funny and awesome and, did I mention, funny and awesome?), and the diagnosis is a relatively reassuring gait problem (weak hips, over-pronating ankles) that can be resolved with strengthening and stretching exercises, not anything more dire. I’m still in recovery mode, however, and my knees still hurt after class. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m in this for the long term. I don’t need to rush my healing.What’s the issue with aikido and knees? We practise barefoot on mats, which is deadly for over-pronators, because it strains knee alignment. Also, there are a lot of quick, irregular, side-to-side and turning movements with the legs, similar to sports like volleyball or basketball, along with occasional deep knee bends that can put stress on unstable knees. Plus there’s a lot of kneeling, and falling onto your knees. Some people (including me) wear knee pads and/or knee braces for every class. I’ve spent a lot of time outside of class breaking down the techniques and working on the alignment of my hips, knees and ankles, retraining my body to do aikido movements in healthier ways.

 

    1. It hurts my wrists. I got carpal tunnel syndrome in my early twenties after planting trees in Northern Ontario for two summers while I was a university student. It’s long since ceased to be a problem for me… until big burly guys started grabbing my wrists in aikido class, and hanging on for dear life so that I could learn how to break free from their grasp. At first I just toughed it out, but I quickly learned – in aikido, you need to let your partner know when you’re hurting. Nobody wants to hurt you. You don’t need to be hurt.

 

    1. I hit my head on the floor more often than I’d like. Have I mentioned there’s a lot of falling on purpose in aikido? There’s a lot of falling on purpose. And they teach you how to do it well, in order to avoid injury. Part of doing it well involves tucking your chin when you fall backwards, so that your head doesn’t hit the ground. I’m getting better at backwards breakfalls, but when I was starting I hit my head on the ground a lot, and every now and then I still fall awkwardly and give myself a little knock. Sam has posted enough frightening articles about sports concussions and brain damage on Facebook for me to be more than a little leery of the cumulative effects of head injuries.

 

    1. Bruised ribs. Are you sensing a theme here? Before my most recent physical rest from aikido, I landed awkwardly when I was practising backwards rolls on the mats before class one day, and bruised a rib. I foolishly toughed it out for several more classes, and every breakfall practice left me doubled-over in pain, unable to take a deep breath. Thankfully I stopped participating in class for a few weeks to let my knees heal, and the rib healed as well.

 

  1. I can’t wear my glasses on the mat. Well, I could wear them – many people do. But I’m very near-sighted, and very protective of the (expensive) appliance that allows me to see. I don’t want my glasses thrown off or damaged during a throw or a roll. So before I ever attended my first class, I went to my optometrist and got contact lenses, which I hadn’t worn for twenty years. I wear the contacts only for aikido, and I can’t read anything when I’m wearing them, but they let me practise without the worry of breaking my glasses.

As awful as the above may sound, I do love aikido. I don’t want to give it up. I’ve been reading about several famous black belts’ experiences with aikido, and many of them talk about taking one class and being hooked. That’s what it was like for me – aikido was beautiful and mysterious, and I wanted to keep learning it. My sensei talks about being drawn to aikido and not quite knowing why you’re drawn to it. As woo-woo as that sounds, it’s true for me. I keep practising on the mat so that I can take aikido’s lessons off the mat, into my everyday life.

Six things Sam likes about and struggles with in aikido

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

More about Mindfulness

mindfulness-StonesMindfulness is a practice people usually associate with meditation.  One of my favourite mindfulness teachers and practioners, Bodhipaksa, has an article in which he defines mindfulness like this: “the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience.”

What’s so reassuring and comforting about this idea, for me, is the “gentle effort.”  It’s not as if we apply no effort at all.  But we don’t go into urgent and tense effort either.  It’s just a gentle, consistent effort to stay aware of what’s happening right now.  Maybe even bringing a sense of acceptance to it, whatever the present moment may bring.

Jon Kabat Zinn, another teacher, adds another element to mindfulness. He says, ““Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

The added idea of paying attention “on purpose” takes it beyond simple awareness.  As Bodhipaksa explains in his article,

In order to be mindful I have to be purposefully aware of myself, not just vaguely and habitually aware. Knowing that you are eating is not the same as eating mindfully.

Let’s take that example of eating and look at it a bit further. When we are purposefully aware of eating, we are consciously being aware of the process of eating. We’re deliberately noticing the sensations and our responses to those sensations. We’re noticing the mind wandering, and when it does wander we purposefully bring our attention back.

When we’re eating unmindfully we may in theory be aware of what we’re doing, but we’re probably thinking about a hundred and one other things at the same time, and we may also be watching TV, talking, or reading — or even all three! So a very small part of our awareness is absorbed with eating, and we may be only barely aware of the physical sensations and even less aware of our thoughts and emotions.

Because we’re only dimly aware of our thoughts, they wander in an unrestricted way. There’s no conscious attempt to bring our attention back to our eating. There’s no purposefulness.

It’s not just “on purpose,” it’s also non-judgmental. So if we purposefully (and with gentle effort) focus in a non-judgmental way on our present moment experience, we are practicing mindfulness.

I’ve blogged before about the way activities like swimming and running feel meditative to me. See my post Om…fitness practice as meditation. I’m not unique in this respect. Lots of people talk about their activities in this way.

We can experience lots of benefits by taking mindfulness into our sport practice.  I have three approaches to running. The first way is to try to be as mindless as possible. I play music, daydream, and try to forget what I’m doing in the hope that the time will pass as quickly as possible. The second way is a variation on this same theme — running with people.  As we run and chat, it quite literally takes my mind off of what we’re actually doing.  The third way is mindfully. When I do this, I pay attention to my footfalls, their sound and feel, the position of my foot as a it strikes the ground, my posture and alignment and how that feels, the air on my cheeks, the sound of my breath, the colour of the sky.

In this state I become hyper aware and present.  It’s by far the most profound of the three approaches, but not always easy for me to sustain. It’s not that any of these is necessarily more enjoyable than any other. It really depends on my mood. But sometimes, the mindful run is exactly what I need.

Swimming is another thing that in my world anyway lends itself to this mindfulness. Our coach nudges us in a mindful direction when we do drills that focus on one tiny part of the stroke. She’ll tell us to pay attention for 50m to the roll of our shoulders or our hips, or ask us to count our strokes, or to focus on the natural alignment of our head in the water.

If you think that mindfulness is just a neat practice, think again. It has a positive impact on our attitude and even on our brain structure.  On attitude, this post on running mindfully says:

This “secondary elaborative processing” that psychologists refer to is the negative self-talk and classic downward spiral that I often see in ultramarathon events when pain and/or fatigue and nausea start to take a strong hold, or a runner is falling behind the goals they’d set. We’ve had a lot of social conditioning to “tough it out” and to “steel” ourselves in these settings. The mindfulness approach, however, is counter-intuitive to this conditioning – it encourages acceptance and surrender.

Total Immersion Swimming founder Terry McLaughlin, in his article “Mindful Swimming Transforms the Brain,” reports on a study at Mass General Hospital. It

documents  that 8 weeks practice of mindfulness meditation produces lasting changes in brain structure.

Participants spent about 30 minutes a day practicing mindfulness exercises, and had their brains studied before-and after by MRI.

Researchers found increased ‘grey-matter’ density in the hippocampus, a center of learning and memory, and in areas associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Participants reported reductions in anxiety and stress.

The significance of this study is that — like others before — it documents that changes produced by meditation are deep and lasting, not transitory. I.E. Mindfulness practice changes brain traits, not just brain states.

Lessons for swimmers:

1) Focal Points, Stroke Counts and Tempo Trainer beeps are, in fact, mantras — the essential tools of meditation.

2) Moving Meditation, by merging thought and action, is even more powerful at effecting lasting change in brain structure. This is because (i) aerobic activity increases the supply of oxygen and glycogen, which fuels muscle and brain cells; (ii) physical activity increases secretion of a protein that is the building block of ‘grey matter’; and (iii) as I posted on Dec 3 while passive meditation creates  Theta state brainwaves(4-7 cycles/second), moving meditation puts the brain in the “superlearning” Alpha state (8-12 cycles/second).

3) Every time you push off a wall, do so with a targeted thought or intention — a task that will require your full attention. (Once more, the reason I plan every practice and set to produce Arduous Experience and Cognitive Difficulty.)

Simple exertion — no matter how long or hard — may be good for physical fitness but neglects brain fitness.

Mindful Swimming optimizes both brain and body.

Mindfulness in our fitness activities doesn’t need to be an all or nothing thing. It can be something that we practice sometimes, as a way of switching things up.  For some, it can really have a positive impact on their approach to sport and even to life.

To read more about mindfulness, fitness, and health, here are some suggestions:

Running Mindfully

Mindful Swimming Transforms the Brain

Mindful Swimming

Mental Skill of Mindful Training

Yoga, Meditation, and Mindfulness: “Trends” that could change everything

The Principles of Mindful Eating

Bucket lists bug me

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Pug in bucket

The term “bucket list” first entered my lexicon with the 2007 movie of the same name. You’ve probably seen it. Confession: I haven’t. IMDB tells me that it’s about two men who are terminally ill and who escape a cancer ward to fulfill their dreams before they die.

Urban dictionary defines “bucket list” this way: “A list of things to do before you die. Comes from the term “kicked the bucket.” I need to remember to add skydiving to my bucket list.”

And my newsfeed is regularly full of bucket list related stuff. “20 places on earth to see before you die.” I think the book section at Costco has an entire shelf devoted to the genre of bucket list books.

My personal favourite is the deliberately over the top bucket list from Elite Daily aimed at young, rich men. It includes foursomes (threesomes are so “everyman”), heli-skiing, celebrity affairs, and even space flight: “Take a moment to understand how lucky you are, because you live in the glorious 21st century. Astronauts are not the only individuals that can now travel to space. Our modern age has finally allowed anyone to explore the deep space. So, take a trip on the Virgin Galactic tour and envision our world from another perspective completely outside of Earth’s stratosphere. The experience will truly blow your mind away and will place you on a short list of people who have had the pleasure of enjoying this voyage.”

I’m mostly immune to the “50 exotic places on earth you must see before you die” lists. Global warming and carbon costs, on the one hand. Children’s tuition bills and home renovations, on the other. How are these different from lists of things you would do if you were stinking rich?

I know. I get the idea. Take death seriously. Remember that we’re all going to die. This isn’t a dress rehearsal. Just one kick at the can. YOLO. Of course. I used to teach a course on Philosophy and Death and I’ve co-edited a book about it too. I even have several memento mori in my office. There’s a piece of office art, my smiling reaper, below. For me taking death seriously means living authentically, spending time now with the people I love and friends I care about, avoiding big regrets based on fear and what others think of me. Bucket lists don’t work for me because they seem to down play the value of everyday life favour of exotic distant locations and experiences.

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What’s the connection to fitness? Well, I keep finding myself clicking on links for bike ride bucket lists like this one since I’m drawn to new cycling experiences.  But now they’re starting to drive me up the wall too since they’re inevitably variants on the “exotic travel” genre.  Oh, Tuscany! How beautiful! Yes, I gather it’s great riding in Tuscany.

But most of us can’t afford to holiday in Europe.

I’ve even ridden in some pretty exotic locations myself: Arizona, Quebec, Newfoundland, the Otago Rail Trail on the South Island of New Zealand and I want to do them all again! But for me that’s largely been a matter of taking advantage of the beautiful places where I happen find myself. As a professional philosopher I’m loathe to talk of my “philosophy of life” but if I have one it includes learning to love that life you have and appreciating what’s nearby rather than yearning for experiences beyond your reach. I approached liking London, Ontario in just the way. In fact, it’s part of why I started cycling. We have great roads and lots of country towns to ride through. Opportunistic living.

I worry too that there’s something almost conceptually incoherent about bucket lists. They’re too much about escape, about individual experiences, about things that can be bought.

There’s an interesting article in the Guardian that questions that usefulness of bucket lists and asks whether or not they’re a good idea.

“It can be useful to have defined goals, of course, but the lists seem to encourage a strange blend of highly individualised behaviour and conformity, a situation in which everyone is hurtling, alone, towards similar goals. The psychotherapist Philippa Perry suggests, laughingly, that they might actually have been started “as a brilliant PR stunt by somebody who was selling swimming with dolphins”. There’s a consumerist, acquisitive vibe to many of the lists, with the experience they replicate being the writing of a shopping list, says Perry. Instead of building on what you already have, “to make a good life,” she continues, “it’s really an attempt to fill an existential void”.”

But they help us deal with death, right? The psychologist Linda Blair, again in the Guardian,, doesn’t think so.

“It’s a way of denying the idea of death, not coping with it at all … People usually do this to ensure that there are things to look forward to, which means there are things that are still going to happen … My experience warns me that it’s probably done in order to prevent thinking about death.” Perry sees it as a way of dealing “with how to pass the time. I think it’s a way of trying to generate some excitement.”What we should be doing in our bucket lists,” Perry says, “is learning how to be open with our own vulnerabilities so that we can form connections with other human beings … I think, for me, what’s wrong with the bucket list is that it’s individualistic – the idea of the isolated self goes very deep in Western society – and I think it’s a red herring … It’s a distraction from the business of being human. We don’t all like swimming with dolphins but we are all made to connect to each other. That’s the really fun thing to do before you die.”

This reminds me of some of the feminist criticisms of the philosophical literature on death. See my paper Feminist Philosophers Turn Their Thoughts to Death for the full version. Short version: We make a mistake if we think of our lives as careers, as a long list of achievements and experiences to tick off along the way. Death can come at any time. As Leonard Cohen says, narrating the NFB documentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, death comes without warning. Love his voice. He’s the perfect narrator for that. Bucket lists assume a kind of control over death that most of us simply don’t have.

If that’s too gloomy a thought for you, here’s a bucket list I do like: 26 Things to Do on a Bike Before You Die.

I like the vibe because it’s not individualistic: Share cycling with others! Lots of the items are very doable: Ride a century! My favourite: Race!

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Yoga Sadhana: Deepening Our Practice, Getting Quiet, and Fostering a Sense of Community

Summer-Forest-Dark-Green-Vegetation Every summer at the Iyengar yoga studio I’ve been a student at since 2000, the senior teacher runs a sadhana. The word translates into English as “practice.” It usually thought to be a spiritual practice with a goal. In his book, Light on Life, BKS Iyengar calls sadhana “the way of accomplishing something.”

At our studio, the sadhana is a daily practice for one week. Students come from 6-7:30 a.m. every day for seven days in a row. It is always around this time of year, making it easy to get up early because it is already light outside.

The sadhana is one of my favourite events at the studio for several reasons.

  • I love how it focuses me on going to bed early and getting up early. It’s important to get enough rest during sadhana or the early morning practice is difficult to appreciate.
  • There is an experience of deepening practice during sadhana. A lot of this has to do with the time of day, but also with the way the classes are structured. Our instructor treats sadhana week as one long class.  Each day builds upon lessons from the day before, so there is a real opportunity for epiphanies of understanding.  There is also an increase in intensity during the first part of the week, with days 1 and 2 easing us into it, days 3-5 being quite intense and energetic (I can attest to that from this morning’s challenging practice!), and things easing off again on days 6 and 7.
  • During sadhana, we maintain silence in the yoga studio (other than our teacher’s instructions).  If you have never been to an Iyengar class before, there is a lot of moving of equipment (blocks, chairs, blankets, mats, straps, slanted planks, to name just a few of the props we use regularly), changing of the set-up, gathering around the instructor for demonstrations, and group work. All of this can lend itself to chatter.  The silence that we maintain during sadhana, including before class when we enter the room and after class as we put things away, promotes a focused and inward practice.
  • I love the sense of yoga community that the sadhana fosters. As with any challenge (and believe me, seven days in a row of Iyengar yoga at 6 a.m. is a challenge), a kind of bonding happens during sadhana that doesn’t happen at any other time of the yoga calendar.  We see the same people every day for one week, first thing in the morning when everyone is still feeling quiet and the day hasn’t yet gotten away from them.  Spontaneous breakfast outings happen after class.  Every other year, our instructor has a garden party to mark the end of sadana.
  • It’s a nice change of pace from my regular class, which meets weekly on Tuesday mornings at 6:30. I know everyone in that class and feel comfortable with them. During sadhana week, we get to practice with students from different classes and at different levels.  Over the years, I have come to know quite a few people just because of sadhana. Again, it expands my feelings of the community at the studio.
  • We usually take some time during sadhana to learn about yoga beyond the physical practice. This year, each morning we watch a part of a film (entitled Leap of Faith) about Iyengar and his understanding of the kosas or what are also known asthe sheaths of being.”   I doubt I’m going to have a deep grasp of the kosas after watching the film, but it’s interesting to learn about the broader system of thought behind yoga and it’s fascinating to see actual footage and hear audio of BKS Iyengar himself.  The control he has over his body and the strength he displays when he does yoga is inspiring and riveting to watch. He’s full of wisdom and has extraordinary insight and understanding about yoga and the mind-body connection.
  • Something happens to me during sadhana week every year that spills beyond my yoga practice.  I feel quieter.  I become more aware of everything and the world looks richer and crisper — greens are greener, the sky is bluer, the moon is brighter. Really. I can’t explain why but I like it.

For more on sadhana as practice, here’s a video of Dr. Geeta Iyengar, daughter of BKS Iyengar. She is an accomplished yogi herself, and probably the world’s leading expert on yoga and women’s health.

I’ve got a couple of other posts on Iyengar yoga, if you’re interested in reading more:

There’s Yoga and There’s Yoga

Yoga’s Red Tent

On Doing Less

[image credit: http://poetrycorner.freedomblogging.com/2012/06/28/all-things-green-alive-from-a-poets-eye-in-june/]

Om…Fitness Practice as Meditation

jordand_patch-meditationThe first philosophical problem I ever encountered was the mind-body problem. The question: what is the relationship between mind and body? How do they interact with each other when the body is physical and the mind is mental? I returned to this problem many times as a philosophy
student, both in my undergraduate studies and graduate studies.

But it wasn’t until I started to practice meditation that the mind-body connection became meaningful to me as more than just a philosophical puzzle. A meditative approach to my physical activities has had a transformational affect on my experience of them and my performance at them.

I learned to meditate as a graduate student. I picked up a book called The Joy Within: A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation (by Joan Goldstein and Manuela Soares). I wanted to find a way to settle my spinning mind.

At the beginning, two minutes of sitting in silence with my eyesclosed (I wouldn’t yet call it “meditating”) seemed like an eternity. But using the exercises in the book, I eventually developed the capacity to sit for 20-30 minutes. For many years, practicing the techniques outlined in that book, I sat in meditation for 20-30 minutes every day.

Without me trying, the stillness and focus I achieved in meditation started to spill over into other areas of my life. If I was stuck in traffic, for example, it no longer bothered me. Waiting in line for the bank machine became an opportunity to rest instead of an occasion to get irritated. In general, I found myself to be in less of a hurry.

One day, while working out with weights in the gym, I found myself in what can only be described as a “heightened state of consciousness.” I picked up each weight with a sense of quiet, focused purpose. If I was doing bicep curls, I focused my attention on form, on the feeling of the muscle in my upper arm working, on my breathing, in pace with my movements. I felt totally present, as if the world had shrunk down to include only me and the weights I had in my hands. In short, that day (and from then on), approached my weight training with the mind of meditation.

By the end of the workout, I felt completely serene and at peace, much as I did whenever I meditated.

There are many forms of meditation, some associated with religious or spiritual traditions, some not. The most effective meditation course I’ve encountered is on mindfulness meditation. It was developed specifically for Westerners and isolates the practice of meditation from any spiritual or religious context. You learn simply to be present and in silence for extended periods of time (from about 15-20 minutes and longer).

A few years ago, I took such a course — Mindfulness Meditation for Stress Reduction — with Dr. Kate Partridge (London, Ontario). One of the first techniques we learned was the body scan. This is a guided meditation where the guide (either in person or recorded) talks you through a body scan, focusing attention on specific body parts one at a time. In class, Kate always had us engage in mindful movement (yoga lite) before we lay down for the body scan. This physical activity prior to the meditation brought our awareness to the feelings in our bodies.

By the middle of the eight-week course, the body scan exercise became my favorite. It’s the one I think is most useful for athletes. The reason is that it seriously heightened my ability to direct my awareness to very specific parts of my body (e.g. the big toe on my left foot). Doing the body scan brought me back to that experience I had in the gym that day and for many days afterwards. Having gotten away from weight training for some years, I’d forgotten that sense of focus that careful attention to the body can bring. At the end of a complete body scan sequence, I feel completely relaxed and at peace.

Having worked with meditation for so many years, I have taken it into my fitness practice in many different ways. Apart from the experience with the weights — something that I cannot capture when working out with a trainer or a partner, as I am doing these days — I have used swimming, walking, running, and yoga as meditation practices. The capacity to focus on the body that I learned in the mindfulness class is one way of bringing meditation into these activities.

Another common meditation technique is to focus on the breath. This too brings wonderful awareness to physical activity. When I am swimming or running, the combination of focusing on my breath and the rhythm of my stroke or footfalls takes me into a meditative, almost thought-free state where I lose all track of time.

Since I’ve started to practice the technique of chi-running, I have used the body scan to check my form. Keeping my awareness on form in that way also has a meditation affect, bringing the awareness of body into sharp focus in the mind. Approaching running or yoga or swimming or weight training (or anything physically demanding) from the perspective of meditation has the added bonus of making it easier to endure the hard parts (I even use it when I’m undergoing a root canal at the dentist, or getting a new tattoo). One of the gifts of meditation is that it teaches us to stay with difficult feelings instead of fleeing from them. Much like changing my experience of being stuck in traffic or caught in a long line-up, meditation changes my experience of my training when I choose to use it.

I do not always choose to use it. For example, lately I have been experimenting with music while running. It too helps me endure the hard bits, but in a totally different way.

Meditation focuses attention and draws me strongly into the experience, almost as an observer or a witness; in contrast to that, music is more like a distraction. I similarly distract myself when I choose to read on the cross-trainer. No such distraction presents itself when I do laps in the pool. Or when I turn off the music while I’m running (which, for at least part of every run, I do).

Note that, for me, it doesn’t take the place of periods devoted solely to sitting in silent meditation.

For all my experience of the mind-body connection through meditation and physical movement, I have not come any closer to solving the philosophical mind-body problem. But I do know that, for those who are engaged in athletic pursuits, getting the mind focused through meditation can be wonderfully transformational.

Right now I’m enjoying an excellent book, Running with the Mind of Meditation by Sakyong Mipham. And I’m just about ready to turn off that music while I’m running!

[Image credit: JordanD]