This morning, as I led my class (Poga - my version of Power Yoga) into our first bit of forearm plank moves, after the usual form reminders - feel your legs, abs, back work to hold you straight, if you find your hips starting to lower or pop up, take a breather by bringing your knees down - I also pointed out that planks are not a permanent condition, they too must end.
A few days ago, a group of friends and I were chatting via text about the addiction epidemic. Six of us are on this group chat. We are all moms, and we are all in recovery from alcohol among other things - that is how we met. You know that saying, how it is through the cracks, that light is able to enter? Our group is proof of that, as in the 10 months that we have been friends, brought together in our common struggles, we have cultivated an amazing friendship and support group - and we have never met in person! (I did meet one of the women a couple of months ago, but nobody else has met yet; we are spread out all over the U.S.). Anyway, one of the moms shared how her high schooler had just told her about the rampant use of drugs among his peers. As parents, knowing how likely our children are to encounter certain temptations, and even if they resist them, chances are strong that their peers and friends will succumb, is terrifying. In the U.S., someone dies every four minutes due to addiction. Not one of those people woke up one morning and said, “Today I will pop a pill/chug a drink/smoke a joint and start the increasingly slippery slope into addiction.” I think most people who end up with an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and other drugs, food, gambling, sex and love, technology, work, etc - were either oblivious of the addiction potential, or were absolutely certain it would never become a problem. That shit happens to other people. Not me.
I have this theory about one factor that may lead to the slippery slope, which for many ends up in a complete tailspin (though not for all). My theory is that we are addicted to changing what we decide are unpleasant states, and we are constantly moving away from discomfort, encouraged by all the people and businesses who stand to profit from this quest.
Let’s go back to today’s plank session in my class. Try it at home: get into a push-up position, with your hands under your shoulders, your back and butt in a flat line, not popping up and not sagging to the floor. Stiff as a board. Now, take it down onto your forearms. This relieves the pressure on your shoulders, transferring the effort to your abs. Your legs, abs, back and shoulders are all working - that’s why it’s a great core strengthener. Push your heels away from you and you get a great Achilles/calf stretch. Try holding it for a minute (or three). If you’re with others, you will feel tempted to laugh, talk (complain), or ask them to talk. If you’re alone, you will feel tempted to check Facebook or Pinterest. In other words, rather than focus on the physical (I’m shaking) or mental (I don’t know how much longer I can do this), we want to be distracted from the discomfort. And then, when I say, “Release,” it’s music to our ears.
My conversation with my friends about kids and substance misuse really got me thinking about our general intolerance for discomfort. If we have a headache, a stomachache, we feel tired, or unfocused, our immediate thought is, I need to solve this immediately. Some of us will pop a pill. I know some of us will try something less toxic, but most of us will gulp down a Tylenol or Pepto Bismol, take a sleep aid, guzzle caffeine. If we are unhappy with the way we look or feel in terms of our weight, we will jump on the quick fix (cleanse) bandwagon, to get rid of our discomfort in 7, 14, 30 days. Or, we will jump into an exercise program that would have been fine for us when we were 28 years old, but now at 43, is an injury waiting to happen - but hey, the social media photos promise muscles and smiles in less time than it takes us to read another self-help book. Anything is better than how I feel now - inadequate, unworthy, less than...
Back to the plank. When we stay with it, focusing on our breath, noticing the effort in our muscles, bones, our mental fortitude, and surrender into it, that is where the magic happens. We get stronger, physically, but if we are paying attention, we start to learn a couple of lessons that serve us off the mat. When we do not run away from discomfort, and instead, notice it, with curiosity - what’s going on in my body? In my mind? What sorts of labels am I attaching to the experience, to the emotions and sensations? - that is the point we enter a more mindful way of being. When we stay in that moment and open ourselves up to what is happening, rather than doing our best to end the state of discomfort, we are getting stronger. And this very practice is something we can take off the mat and into our lives. Are we stuck in traffic? Waiting in line? Overwhelmed by a To Do List? Bewildered about what to make for dinner? At a loss on how to solve a problem? Feeling stuck in a rut? Often, this is the point at which we reach for our smartphone (to check out mentally, not to call a friend for a meaningful connection), a cocktail, a pill or other packaged chemical (food).
That blissful release that we feel when we move from plank to flat on our bellies, with our arms alongside our body, our head turned, surrendering into our mat - gosh, such a good feeling! Why don’t we do this pose more often, in our daily lives? And, yet, it wouldn’t feel as great if we hadn't first pushed ourselves to that edge, in plank. If we went from, say, sitting on the couch, checking Instagram, to lying on the ground, we would not feel the delicious sense of accomplishment and physical tingling that comes from withstanding discomfort and then resting right afterwards. Just like, off the mat, if I have a stressful day, and at the end of it, “reward” or “relieve” myself with wine, I can tell you from experience and after about 16 months of sobriety, that staying with the discomfort and doing the work to learn more about myself, my habitual thinking and behavior, and making some healthy changes in my life, I feel far better now than I ever did during or after the “mommy juice.” But I can also tell you, before I made my decision that alcohol is not an option (a decision I then made every 24 hours), I would not have fathomed the freedom I feel, being released from the entrapments of being a drinker.
I think it’s natural to want to spend as much time in “good” states, that feel comfortable to us. It’s definitely for most people, the default - to instinctively move toward pleasure and away from pain. I remember when I was getting ready to deliver my second baby, my friend told me that her OB-GYN (not mine, phew) said he thought women who didn’t want an epidural were nuts - why would you want to endure pain when you don’t have to? I guess that’s the main reason opiate addiction is such an epidemic right now, since pain became a way to rate medical care, so doling out pills to erase pain was a smart business move. When my kids complain of a headache or a stomach ache, first we think about what may be causing it, then we try solutions such as water and yoga poses. Hopefully, my kids are not learning to end their pain as quickly as possible, but rather, thinking about the root cause, and some more natural solutions. And, yes, talking about this alternative form of discomfort management is part of the prevention plan.
One of my friends posted this quote from one of the best books I have read lately, which I think beautifully sums up what Glennon Doyle Melton calls our “brutiful” life:
“We want life to be as dazzling and painless as possible. Life, on the other hand, has a way of humbling us, and heartbreak is built into its agreement with the world. We’re young, until we’re not. We’re healthy, until we’re not. We’re with those we love, until we’re not. Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.”
- Susan David in Emotional Agility
Perhaps we can all be a little more mindful of how we move through, toward, and away from the states of being that ultimately add up to life. It’s not the Easy button way of living, but it’s certainly the road less traveled. As I tell my kids, if everyone else is doing something, it’s probably stupid.
So, practically, what does this look like? Here are some examples:
- I am at the supermarket checkout line and there are two people in front of me.
State: impatience, boredom
Habitual behavior: pull out phone, escape the present
Alternative: look around, engage the person in front or behind, glance at magazines, focus on breathing
- I have planned a workout but it’s too early/too cold/too wet/I don’t feel like it.
State: unmotivated to do the harder thing
Habitual behavior: procrastinate until the workout window has shut
Alternative: commit to ten minutes of exercise
- I want to make healthy dinners every night but I’m too tired.
State: physically and mentally too tired to be creative and productive
Habitual behavior: order out, make something yellow or brown out of a package
Alternative: throw together a kitchen sink salad (any veggies you can find in the fridge or on counter) with a side of grilled cheese
- I had a hard day at work/home and I am cooked.
State: physically and mentally at wit’s end, on edge, anxious
Habitual behavior: numb out on alcohol or other drug
Alternative: acknowledge how hard I work, how I sometimes feel like I am on a treadmill to nowhere, and soothe my body and soul with a hot bath, a five minute meditation, a weekly yoga class, writing in my journal.
- I am in the company of someone or in a situation that makes me feel anxious.
State: anxiety, anger, general discomfort
Habitual behavior: escape via alcohol or technology
Alternative: set boundaries with the person or avoid the situation if possible, and focus on a prayer or mantra (the Serenity Prayer is great)
- I feel physical pain and discomfort.
State: physical suffering, fear
Habitual behavior: numb pain with medication
Alternative: address root cause of pain. Drink water if dehydration may be a cause (eg headaches), learn stress management techniques (often stress causes physical pain), engage in daily movement (exercise), examine possible nutritional approaches, visit a medical professional whom you trust will investigate the root cause.
- I feel mentally and emotionally stuck.
State: depression, anxiety (note: if you suspect this is more than a situational state, or if you are suicidal, please consult a mental health professional)
Habitual behavior: escape via alcohol or other drugs, technology, food, etc. Perseverate, isolate.
Alternative: ask for help. Call a friend, reach out to someone online, go to a support meeting or group. “Move a muscle, change a thought.” Sit with the feelings and pay attention to them, with curiosity and compassion. Accept them.
Our kids are growing up in a time where if they don’t like what they see, they swipe left. When we are numbing, escaping, choosing the path of least (short-term) discomfort, we are essentially swiping our life left. I will be the first to say, that I hate boredom, I hate toiling over tedious tasks. One of the many valuable lessons I have learned through triathlon and marathon and yoga training, is that the reward, the blissful release, is most intense when we sit with the discomfort, and choose not to DNF (Did Not Finish), but rather, sat on the trainer in the dungeon for six hours straight, or meditated for 45-60 minutes every day for eight weeks, no matter what, or finish the race even if we are basically hobbling and every step is a decision not to quit. I guess it's what we call grit. Dealing. Suck it up, Buttercup.... The most worthwhile stuff is the hardest stuff. And we model this to our kids, friends, peers, every day with our choices. It doesn’t have to be a marathon or going vegan or quitting alcohol. It can be something as simple as choosing to leave our phone in our purse, on Do Not Disturb mode, until the kids are in bed. Hmmmm. A marathon sounds easier than that to me. Definitely.
Wellness coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.