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Comfort Zones are Overrated.

“Comfort zones are most often expanded through discomfort.” – Peter McWilliams

Growth is rarely comfortable

A friend was telling me about an issue that had cropped up in her already busy week. She looked at me and growled, “Another flippin’ opportunity for growth.” We both burst out laughing.

She’s so very right. As we dash through our lives, it is pretty rare that we pause to look around for ways that we can grow and change. After all, growth isn’t usually a comfortable process. Those growing pains that many of us felt in childhood don’t go away as we grow up. They just hurt more inside than outside. Given the choice, most of us (me included) are simply not going to volunteer to add a little discomfort to our already maxed out daily lives.

Comfort is overrated

But comfort can be overrated. In fact, I was talking with Paula Rothermel, a personal fitness trainer, who said something fascinating. “The more we stay in our comfort zone, the more we risk deteriorating.” If we don’t gradually add to the weights we’re lifting or the distances that we’re walking, what we’re doing to take care of ourselves gradually lose its impact. The more comfortable our exercise is, the less challenging it is, the less we benefit from doing it.

The creator of Ashtanga yoga (Sri K. Pattabhi Jois) seemed to know that comfort is a very human slippery slope. When he created the practice, he made it almost infinitely expandable. As soon as you become comfortable in a posture or series of postures, you’re given another one to work on. Even after almost 20 years of practice, I am constantly surprised that I still have to get a little stronger or open up a little more or face down yet another fear. Each time I step on my yoga mat, I find yet another growth opportunity.

Ashtanga yoga takes this invitation to welcome a state of low-grade discomfort (a.k.a constant growth) beyond the physical. As soon as we get comfortable managing our bodies in the postures, we are asked to start managing our breath. Making sure that each of our movements is synchronized with either an inhalation or an exhalation. As if that weren’t enough, as soon as that becomes easy, we are offered a drishti or gaze point to maintain in each posture.

Our capacity for growth is endless

On and on it goes. Yoga invites us to embrace layer after layer of difficulty so that, no matter how many years we practice, we are always challenged. All of this practice teaches us that when we constantly, consistently and gently push at the edges of our abilities, over time we do always rise to the occasion. Our capacity for growth is endless.

While Paula was talking to me about the physical effects of chronically taking it easy as we exercise, when I apply her point to what I’ve learned on my yoga mat, I see that she makes a broader point. And a powerful one at that. If we don’t consistently push and stretch at the edges of our comfort zone, we’re not going to grow. In fact, we risk becoming inflexible and stagnant.

Beware of comfort zones in all aspects of your life

We humans settle into comfort zones all over our lives. We hit our stride at work and stay there because it’s easy, until one morning we wake up to discover we’re uninspired and a little bored. We study a little and become proficient in whatever captured our interest and we call ourselves “expert,” until one afternoon someone asks us a probing question (or series of questions) that we don’t know the answer to. Hopefully that moment of not knowing will help us realize that what we understand is only the tip of the iceberg. We still (and for always) have growth and learning to do.

Even more subtle are the comfort zones we slip into with regards to our faith, cultural customs, political points of view, opinions and beliefs. Without even realizing it, we might be blithely resting easy in the assumption that our beliefs are shared by many, most or all of us. This can go on for quite some time. But life in this wonderful melting pot of a world has a beautiful way of bringing us face to face with someone or something different than ourselves.

Choose to stretch beyond your comfort zones

We have a choice in these encounters. We can shut our eyes, ears and minds and stay comfortable. Or we can face the uncomfortable reality that we don’t understand everything, that our answer may not be the only right answer or that our way is absolutely not the only way. When we do this, when we stretch at the edges of what we think we know at our deepest levels, we re-open ourselves to the life-giving processes of growing and learning.

Is it OK to groan and mutter and even growl at “another flippin’ growth opportunity?” Heck, yes. They can hurt! But once you’re done grumbling, do yourself the favor of stretching beyond your comfort zone. If you don’t, I can pretty much guarantee that – until you do – life will keep giving you “opportunities” to feel uncomfortable.

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