Friday, December 28, 2018

I do yoga because I suck at yoga

 "Adult humans are really bad about sticking with something that is good for them, but that they aren't great at. Doing something difficult requires strength. Be strong. "
-- my yoga teacher this morning, dropping a truth bomb.


For a while now, I've been operating under the theory that we are happiest if we are really good, even great, at at least two things. It helps if one of those things is the way the person makes a living -- you know, a skill that leaves you able to afford food/housing/etc. at a level that makes you happy/comfortable or at least takes away some worries. I also think that, ideally, the second thing ought to be a hell of a lot of fun. (Obviously, if you're lucky enough to combine fun and making a living, you get some sort of Life Bonus Points).

I'm doing OK on both of those fronts. I've always been pretty accomplished at my attorney day gig. And I've become a pretty damn good drummer too. "10,000 hours," and all that.

But lately I've been thinking about another category: doing something that you suck at. Because if "relentless self-improvement" is the goal -- hint: it is; it really is -- just improving the things that you're already great at seems like cheating, or selling yourself short.


I've been going to the same yoga studio for the last three years, and they're closing. No big deal, right? Just find another, you say. There are tons of yoga places around. OK, sure. So I shopped a bit, looking for a mix of different types of classes, at convenient times, etc. And I found a studio that seems to fit the bill.

When I got out of the chilled-out/hippie comfort zone of my usual yoga place, I was then almost immediately reminded of one thing: good lord, I suck at yoga.

I'm 56 years old. Despite being in generally good shape -- healthy, decently strong, good aerobic capacity, etc. -- I have arthritis in both knees, both shoulders and at least my right elbow (and probably the left one too). That right elbow is also damaged enough from 37 years of drumming that it doesn't allow my right arm to fully straighten in a locked-out position. I was at the old yoga place -- a quiet studio with a mostly older clientele -- for so long that I sort of forgot how many rungs down the proverbial ladder of yoga skills I am. I can get left in the dust pretty quickly.

At the new place, a lot more than at the old one, the proverbial dust and I get a little time together quite often, while the rest of the class plows ahead at full speed. The clients here are all ages, and all skill levels, but mostly they are much more accomplished at yoga than I am. It's a humbling exercise to be practicing at this studio.


But yoga is not about competition, you might say (and you'd be right). Sometimes, being a bit of an overly-competitive jackass, I have to remind myself of that fact over and over. "YOGA IS NOT ABOUT COMPETITION," I mentally yell to my inner self as I wait for class to begin and the room fills with beautiful people who can accomplish twisty/bendy things with their bodies that appear to be flat-out sorcery.

I mostly focus inward and, depending on the class and the teacher, struggle somewhere between a little and a lot.

But, in the new studio, I'm already learning cool new things too: like that doing yoga when the room is already warm-ish and there is also a giant infrared lamp turned on does crazy positive things to both my state of mind and my flexibility. That ginormous glowing infrared lamp doesn't heat the room. Nope, in its own bit of sorcery, it heats the people in the room but not the room itself. My only prior experience, a couple years ago, with "hot yoga" was in a grossly humid studio that was so unpleasant that we were one small step from doing yoga in Satan's armpit (or close to this). The infrared experience is nothing like that. Or at least the humidity/armpit part is removed. You get really warm; you sweat; but you do not feel like you are in a rain forest. The heat comes from within because the lamp heats your insides. I told you: sorcery. Wonderful wonderful sorcery.

Just the other day, in an infrared class, instead of mentally mumbling, "Oh I don't think so," to myself when the teacher suggested transitioning one difficult pose into another tougher one, I just... did the harder pose. When sweat is pouring out of me, I am not thinking about anything else. I'm in the moment -- you know, that place we're always supposed to be?


But this post is about sucking at something, not about success, and let's not pretend -- despite small gains being made in the mental and flexibility arenas -- that I don't suck at yoga. I definitely suck at yoga.

But here's the thing: in a Zen trick of sorts, that's kind of the point, hmmm? Somewhere, even amidst the modest improvements, there is an ever-present thought that no matter how much yoga I practice, I am never going to be able to do whatever the hell that pose was that the teacher showed us at one point today. And that's OK.

Really, it's not just OK; it's why I keep moving forward.

It's fine to do things that you're good at, and it's even better to get really good at those things, but sometimes -- despite my reflexive recoil against such new-agey phrases -- it really is the journey and not the destination that's important. That concept right there is why I do yoga: because I suck at yoga, the "journey" will be an endless path forward, and forward is a good direction. Indeed it's the only direction worth going.

Monday, December 17, 2018

When the going gets tough....

"This was us all on the planet lamenting the loss of a man who was a master human being. And the density of that loss is of great weight: a mass of massive missingness."
--Howe Gelb (1994) in the Pioneertown Sun lamenting the death of friend and collaborator Pappy Allen.

"The massive missingness." That wordsmithery stuck with me all these years. Mired in New Jersey at the time -- in every way not romanticized by the Artist Formerly Known as Mr. Julianne Phillips -- I never read that particular issue, or any other, of the Cali-desert-based Pioneertown Sun. But I was a big fan of Gelb's band Giant Sand -- deeply obsessed with their then-current album, Glum -- and I must have read an interview with him, likely in Option Magazine (speaking of obsessions), where he employed that phrase. I read that line, dug it, remembered it, and put it into the tool kit, filed under: "Don't overuse."

More than once in the blahblahbloggery of these many years, I've made reference to my alleged superpower: mostly I look forward, not back. That approach is mostly positive, some sort of nod to the wisdom of Zen. I am generally not bogged down in the slop of the past. Hell, I can't even stay angry with anyone for very long. I'm just driving toward that shiny thing on the horizon, figuring that we've all been through some shit and that we'll all break through it. Or not -- and having watched the "or not" play itself out in the lives of others is a scary incentive for me to rarely look back much at all, and almost never at losses.

Or at present-tense losses to be.

I'm usually someone that bangs out a blog post pretty quickly. But not this one. I wrote a little and then it has sat, untouched, for a few weeks. When I first began this post, I wrote what you see above and also the following bit:

"In a few days, I'm out the door at a job as an attorney that I've had for 29 years.

I'm not leaving because I'm burnt out, or feel myself slipping, or winding down. (More here if you really care about the reasoning).

More than one person has noted to me that I don't seem very sentimental, and that others are a lot more sentimental about me leaving than I am.

I plead (mostly) guilty. And here is your explanation: forward means forward, and the fear of the massive missingness is strong. We all build up walls. They aren't all bad. Some are extremely useful. This particular 'always forward' mentality is generally a good one in that regard."

Well, non-sentimentality and forward thinking was the plan anyway.... I thought I could just plow through all those feelings in a Cyborg-like way.

But then my job threw me two different retirement parties, and I got to thinking -- always dangerous, I know -- and I got a little better realization of how some people were really positively affected by my work over the years, and how much we'd miss each other. Sure enough, the Guy Who Doesn't Really Do the Past got forced to take the past into account. The "massive missingness" was present more than I expected.

It took about a week post-job, but, damn, when the "feels" hit after all those goodbyes those feelings were truly something. Like all sources of stress in my life, this particular one visited most prominently at 3 am one night, and then the next night again. Despite being "retired" -- supposedly free from the bullshit demands of a job, at least temporarily (more on that in another post -- we can't cover everything in this one) -- I was a bit of a sleep-derived mess after just a couple nights like that.

If you've been around these parts for very long, you'll know just what I decided to do next:
re-start my meditation practice.

"WHY DID YOU EVER STOP?' some of you are yelling at me. Because, like most of us, I have -- I dunno -- shit to do, and, like some of us, I usually feel pretty good most of the time. So I get lazy. When I have lots on my plate and I am not feeling bad, I often slowly but surely lapse out of daily meditation.

Ironically, just two days before I left work at the old job forever, we had a continuing legal education (CLE) seminar on mindfulness for attorneys. It was run by a guy named Jon Krop, and his meditation pitch was simple -- very close to what I've previously said on these pages, actually (and, yes, then ignored myself) -- and direct: just do it, every day. A strong theme of Krop's talk was that repetition is more important than duration. In other words, ten minutes of meditation every day is far more valuable than a whole lot of meditation crammed into one day a week.

Krop is specifically a proponent of morning meditation, for a basic reason: it just fits better into the day. "Just do it first thing," he urged us, "Before anything else." I decided to give that strategy a shot. I'm a nighttime/before-bed meditator traditionally, but, as I've made clear, I'm also known for ditching meditation too easily sometimes. "Too tired to meditate" is an easy excuse just before bed. Maybe my morning routine could start with 10-15 minutes of meditation? Maybe I'll keep at it for a longer while that way? I jumped back in.

Unsurprisingly, the results have been spectacular. Yes, I've had all the usual thoughts that I never should have stopped meditating. But the stressful 3 a.m. wakeups also immediately vanished. I learned to address some of those "missingness" feelings more head-on than I'd been doing. Hell, I even made a few changes to my fitness routine to get me to the gym and to yoga more often than I'd been going in the last couple of months.

It's almost like when your head is stress-free (or at least lower-stress), you make better decisions more often. Almost exactly like that.

Granted, restarting meditation for me is like the proverbial bicycle ride; I never "forget" how to meditate. That's because I've been at it for years. A few months away? No big deal. I just settle in, and let that wave of calm wash over me and, yeah, I invariably wonder what my damn problem is that I quit too easily. But it's not a struggle to restart. If you've never been as deeply into a meditation routine, your mileage may vary in that regard.

But really, whether you are an experienced practitioner or not, Mr. Krop has the one critical part of meditation right: just do it, every day. Repetition is the key to success.

Maybe we should start another meditation challenge soon? I think so. More on that idea soon. In the meantime, I'll be staying the course, every morning.