[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”16″ align=”left”]If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” – Woody Allen[/mk_blockquote]
You had an idea. In classic form, perhaps this idea woke you from a sound sleep in the middle of the night, or flashed into your head while you scrubbed it in the shower. Somehow, you managed to jot it down for a perkier or drier moment. You gave it some thought. Maybe you prayed about it. Perhaps you smiled. You gave it some more thought and fleshed out details. Maybe you brainstormed with a friend or colleague. You smiled bigger.
You swung into action. Made the necessary calls. Did math and came up with a budget. Stared at your calendar and smiled again as a workable schedule materialized before your eyes. You took a moment to marvel that it was coming together so smoothly. Perhaps you got brave enough to purchase supplies or line up childcare or sign a lease or book tickets. Perhaps you got even braver and actually dared to share your plan with the world.
And then, just before the big day – be it launch day, or departure day, or opening day, or move in day, or first day – the wheels fell off the proverbial bus. Your plans crumbled under the weight of a completely unexpected, wholly unforeseeable, totally unanticipated event.
What did you do? I’m serious. We’ve all been there. What did you do?
Did you rage? Did you cry? Were you speechless or were you a ranting lunatic? Did you fight back and fiercely hold firm to your plans despite the fact that they were clearly defunct? Or did you throw up your hands and wallow in defeat?
In the face of crumbled plans – plans that were brilliant, plans that felt absolutely perfect and even plans that felt divinely inspired – I’ve experimented with all of these reactions and more. Frankly, only one has proved to be productive. I learned it on my yoga mat where, as in the rest of my life, I have a habit of showing up with a plan.
Sometimes I plan to have a vigorous, sweaty practice because I indulged at Baskin Robbins the night before. Sometimes I plan to have a quiet, peaceful practice because I didn’t get enough sleep. I have planned to master a tough posture before my next birthday. And I have planned to never (ever!) be able to do a posture.
The good news is that the plans I have for my yoga practice are rarely time-consuming to make. They don’t require an investment in supplies. Best of all, they don’t affect anyone but me. But they do affect me – mentally, physically, emotionally and sometimes even spiritually – which is critically important. Otherwise, I’d never have learned the secret to handling crumbled plans off my mat. The secret is to just go with whatever is happening.
If I’ve planned on a vigorous practice, but am barely able to keep my breath steady in Sun Salutations, the best response is to listen to my body and dial it back. Slow down. Breathe deeper. Work in some gentler postures. Take it easy. To insist on that vigorous practice despite my fatigue is to completely exhaust myself for the rest of the day. Worse yet, it puts me at risk of hurting myself – crushing any and all plans I may have for the days or weeks to come. Sadly, I speak from experience.
I have learned to set my plans aside as I unroll my mat. I have been shocked to find myself feeling strong and light as a feather on a day I expected to feel wiped out. I can’t count the number of times I’ve promised myself (and sometimes my friends) that I’d nail something by my birthday (or Christmas or summer or ….) and find myself still working hard months after the milestone had passed. And at least twice a posture I had no plans whatsoever to achieve (ever!) has materialized out of the clear blue.
In short, yoga has taught me that I can make all the plans I want. It’s good to have goals. It’s good to be working on something. It can even be good to set a deadline or two to keep your energy and drive up. But I’ve learned on my mat that these plans must be held very lightly. So lightly, in fact, that it is almost effortless to allow these plans to easily and quietly fade into the background in the face of reality. Reality – what is actually happening in that moment on that day – gets all my attention on my mat. Sometimes I don’t even realize another plan has crumbled until after my mat is rolled back up and put away.
And that is the secret – to shift your focus from your plans to reality. I’m not setting any deadlines or making firm plans to master this skill. Instead, every time another plan bites the dust off my mat – plans that have often consumed valuable time and resources – I take a moment to be grateful to my practice for this powerful lesson. While I am rarely able to release these plans – especially the particularly brilliant or inspired ones – with the peace and ease that I have learned to release my plans on my yoga mat, I will say that I am getting better and better at going with the flow.
Perhaps you’d like to try too?
When we first moved to New York City, we lived on the 43rd floor of an apartment building. We were up so high that it sometimes felt like our home was a nest perched snug and safe, high above the city. That safe feeling was shaken during our first big thunderstorm. As I looked out the windows at the storm clouds and bright bursts of lightning, I panicked. Our building was visibly swaying in the strong winds of the storm. The fact that the wind could move the building enough that I could see and feel it suddenly made our nest feel foolishly – even dangerously – placed.
My husband walked in the room to find me white-knuckled at the window sill. His reaction to the swaying building was the exact opposite of mine. Rather than feeling afraid that the building would collapse under the force of the wind, the fact that it was moving made him feel safe. It mean that the building was designed with flexibility to withstand the forces of storms. “If it couldn’t sway,” he said, “it would be too brittle and its foundations would actually break.”
I sighed with relief. Two years later, we moved to lower (and larger) accommodations and then, another two years later, we left the city entirely. Ensconced in homes closer to the ground, I forgot all about this architectural lesson until I stumbled across the above image of a woman in a deep backbend with the caption, “I bend so I don’t break.”
When you think about it, life can sometimes feel just as stormy as nature does. Withstanding the forces of change and upheaval of a move or a job change or an illness or a child leaving home can shake us at our very foundations. Just like our old super-tall apartment building, we have to weather the powerful gusts of life. And just like that apartment building, if we’re brittle and inflexible, we will break.
This is not necessarily intuitive. At least it wasn’t to me. I’m a creature of habit. Routine makes me feel stable and under control. And when life is bright and calm like a blue-sky, sunny day, these habits and routines support me. They provide a predictable rhythm to my days that I can improvise around when need be.
But when one of life’s “storms” kicks up, I instinctively hold onto my routines with a death grip when what really needs to happen is for me to let go (at least a little bit) and allow life to takes its own course. This doesn’t mean I have to throw up my hands and quit doing the things that support me. That would be like building a tall apartment building with no foundation at all. Rather, I may have to sleep in a little later than I typically do after a week of late nights helping my daughter with a paper. Or, when the seasons change and so do my children’s schedules, I may have to shift my yoga practice to a different time of day. Or, on particularly “gusty” day, I may even need to take a deep breath and skip my practice entirely.
In other words, I need to sway a bit. Because, if I don’t, I have found (the hard way, unfortunately) that the same routines that support me also have the capacity to break me. To jam my full yoga practice into a day when my kids need 100% of my attention, or when to do so is messing up a fun family activity, or when it means I have to function on four hours of sleep or … is … well, it’s bananas. Rather than stabilizing and energizing me, rigidly insisting on practicing leaves me frazzled, stressed, exhausted and feeling out of control. In a state like that, I’m in absolutely no shape to navigate the waters of the rest of my day.
When I get stubborn like this, I almost always end up breaking down in tears or allowing my temper to explode. On the other hand, when I let go just a little to accommodate the demands of the day, I am much better able to meet the challenges that I face. In other words, bending to the demands of an especially tough day makes me stronger.
Interestingly, it’s because my supportive routine is so deeply rooted that I have learned that I can let go of it without fear. I know at my very core that my practice isn’t going anywhere. I have no doubt that I’ll be back at it the next day or the next week or whenever life settles down a little bit. While I might be stiffer than usual or I might need a week or two to earn back my strength and endurance, this will not make practicing any less beneficial than it always is. It is my confidence that my practice is the foundation of my efforts to live my life better – to be more like the person I hope to be one day – that gives me the courage to let go of it and sway when life gets stormy.
Take a look at your foundations. Become very familiar with them. This will help create a deep sense of confidence in their ability to keep you strong, centered and upright in your life. You may also want to take a look at your instinctive response when one of life’s storms blows your way. If, like me, you tend to have a death grip, practice letting go just a little. Like anything in yoga, getting comfortable swaying during challenging times takes practice. The good news, as you’ve learned on your mat, is that, with practice, you will absolutely get better at it.
Now take a second and think about how many of those impossibilities actually came to fruition.
I can think of three from my last two years of high-school years alone. I made the varsity tennis team as the new kid in town, managed to earn a spot in the school’s audition-only acapella choir and was accepted into my first choice college, a huge reach! Those were big deals, indeed, and they taught me the power of hard work. But these impossibilities pale in comparison to those we face in adulthood.
I remember being in my 20s and thinking that ever having enough saved to buy a house was impossible. I remember being in my 30s and thinking that finding work that was fulfilling, meaningful and flexible was impossible. I remember not so very long ago thinking that sending a child off to college was impossible.
And I remember my first yoga class where absolutely everything we did seemed impossible. Forward fold and touch the floor? Impossible. Bend your elbows in high plank to lower into chatarunga? Impossible. Hold downward facing dog for 5 breaths? Impossible. And that was just in the first three minutes of class.
I also vividly remember the classes where each of these impossibilities became possible. I remember being surprised to find my fingers touching the floor. I remember squeaking with joy and shock in my first low push-up. I remember the thrill of still having “gas left in the tank” when my teacher cued me to bring my feet back to the top of the mat after holding downward facing dog. I remember feeling proud of the hard work I’d done. I remember feeling strong. Best of all, I remember feeling completely and totally optimistic about what else I might one day be able to do.
That’s a gigantic gift of this practice – the powerful belief in your own possibility. This belief gives you the persistence to keep showing up. This belief gives you the ability to keep trying when you can’t really see much progress. This belief allows you to see past your current failure and struggle to the slow and steady journey of growth and change that you’re on.
To look at this another way, yoga teaches us that the impossible has a great deal to teach us. Kino Macgregor, in her book, The Power of Ashtanga Yoga, says that the father of modern yoga, Sri T. Krishnamacharya, described yoga as the process where the impossible becomes possible and the possible – over a long period of time – becomes easy. She goes on to write that we should “stay in those ugly places where learning happens, and soon the impossible starts to show you how it may one day be possible.”
Let me explain. If I hadn’t kept taking those impossible forward folds even when my fingertips were nowhere near the floor, forward folding would never have become possible. Pressing my hands into my shins and lengthening my spine by pulling my sternum away from my hips, was an important lesson in the extension that keeps a forward fold safe and nurturing to the lower back. Placing my hands on my hips to feel my pelvis rotate in a forward fold taught me that this movement is designed to create range of motion in the hip joint rather than the back. Simply paying attention as I breathed in whatever form of the posture was available to me at the time taught me how to subtly shift the weight in my feet to explore all three muscles in my hamstrings. In short, working at the impossible eventually made the impossible possible.
And, wouldn’t you know it? Krishnamacharya was right! With more practice (i.e. more time in the ugly places, more hard work and more learning) the impossible didn’t just become possible. It actually became easy. The thing I am most grateful for is that this has not left me complacently resting on my laurels in a forward fold. Rather, it leaves me hard (and optimistically) at work on postures that are currently impossible. It also leaves me confidently hard at work in postures that are possible, but still quite challenging, with the certainty that one day, they will be easy.
All this practice with impossibility on my yoga mat translates brilliantly to life off my mat. The house we are happily ensconced in – that we love and that meets all our needs – once seemed out of reach. Having work that I love – that fills me up and allows me to make a small difference in the world – also once seemed out of reach. As did the mere notion of sending our oldest off to college. Yet all are realities in our lives. Two now feel comfortable and easy. The last, I have faith, will soon feel just as natural.
These life changes have the same effect on me as possibilities in my practice do. They keep me working hard, content to be learning in life’s ugly places and stretching into new challenges. They leave me optimistic rather than daunted as I stare up the steep slopes of my life’s current “impossibilities” – cheering on my baby as she embarks on high school, navigating the next several years of shifting and changing family dynamics, and eventually exploring marriage, friendships and life on the other side of parenthood.
Life in the digital era has many amazing perks. Finish your book late one night when you can’t sleep? Simply hit a button and download another onto your Kindle. Lost? Type the address you’re trying to find into your phone and a lovely lady with a British accent will lead you there. Bored while waiting for your doctor? Watch a few episodes of literally whatever show you want on the Netflix app on your smart phone. So swamped at work that it’s been weeks since you’ve had time to go out with friends? You can still feel connected just by checking into your favorite social media sites.
Having the world and everyone you know at your fingertips is, indeed, pretty amazing. But it also proliferates possibilities to trigger one of humanity’s Achilles heels — competition. I’m not talking about the healthy kind of competition that takes place on tennis courts, golf courses, tracks and (at least in my family) mini-golf greens everywhere. In addition to the endorphins, laughs and good old fashioned exercise that we get when playing, competition in sports is actually really good for us. It gives us a chance to practice winning and losing gracefully and graciously, skills we need in “real” life.
I’m talking about a different kind of competition. One that is as debilitating as the other is invigorating. One that weakens us at our foundations – making us feel inferior, lesser and needy. My mom has always called this kind of competition “keeping up with the Joneses.” It was bad enough when the Joneses lived down the street and all you knew about them was what you could see from the curb. Mr. Jones’ new car. Mrs. Jones’ fancy wardrobe. The delivery truck from the expensive furniture store in town that seemed to make habitual stops at their house. The pool they put into their back yard.
In the digital age, however, we’re privy to much more. What we glimpse of the Joneses from our laptops and smart phones brings us into their home and lives. We see magazine worthy photos of the Jones children as they beam at their mother across an exquisitely set breakfast table (filled, you can’t help but notice, with a wholesome smorgasbord of homemade delectables) on the first day of school. We see pictures from their third international family vacation of the year. We see loving photos of Mr. and Mrs. Jones at seemingly every social event in town.
She posts about clubs you haven’t even heard of, let alone been asked to join. He posts sports outings that make you question the fun you had playing mini-golf last night. He posts about how much fun they had with “Suzy and Bob, Julie and Joe, Trish and …” last night, making you wonder why you weren’t asked to join them. She regularly shares articles from newspapers and magazines that you haven’t had time to read since your early 30s. They both post so much about their superstar kids that you begin to wonder about the accomplishments of the kids asleep upstairs in your own home.
And it’s no longer just the Joneses that we’re watching as we drive by each morning or take the trash out each evening. It’s everyone! You even catch glimpses like this of your friend from school who now lives 3000 miles away. The pool of competition is humongous.
We have the same choice in the digital age as my mom had when it was just the Joneses she was keeping up with. We focus on all that we have – the wonderful people who share our lives, our daily moments of joy – great and small, the blessings that we have received and those we have earned, the experiences we are fortunate to have, our periodic successes and even the challenges we must rise to meet. And this is a choice, by the way. One we may have to make every single morning as we get out of bed until it becomes so deeply ingrained in us that it is part of who we are. To keep our eyes on the beauty of our own lives. To re-set our attitudes to gratitude – over and over again. This is (and always has been) the key to the contentment that is unsettled when we are keeping up with the Joneses.
The inward nature of yoga can help solidify our foundation of gratitude. After all, most of us begin our practices in group classes surrounded by long-time students or at least watching videos of bendy, graceful folks on sticky mats. This was certainly true of me. Oddly, for me, the skills and grace of the men and women around me was so far beyond me that the very notion of competing was eliminated. Instead of trying to keep up, I was liberated. I “kept my eyes on my own mat” (a phrase that I now use as regularly as my mom used “keeping up with the Joneses”), did my thing and — wonder of wonders – not only liked it, but began to get better at it.
Like many, I suspect, I showed up to that first class with some extra baggage. I was lugging around horrifying memories of adolescent dance classes where I always seemed to be out of step and out of line, ridiculously tight hamstrings and a post-baby body that didn’t look or feel remotely familiar to me. That said, when, over the course of weeks and months of going to class, I got to know the people in the room around me, none of them ever sensed my baggage. (Well, except for the hamstrings. Those were pretty obvious.) And, I was surprised to discover, it turned out that they were each lugging around some invisible-to-me “stuff” of their own.
Even today, all these years later, when I go to a new class or walk into a training or workshop, I sometimes feel the surprising weight of competition and of my old baggage. “What if I can’t keep up?” runs through my mind as it does all of ours every once in a while as we drive down our street, walk into our job or even click around on our phone. When this happens, thanks to years and years of practice (on and off the mat), I know what to do. I gratefully take a deep breath and focus on how lucky I am to be here. And, when the woman next to me slips her leg behind her head to “warm up,” I am happy for her, too. (At least I am when I’m really on my game.)