Initial Steps in Understanding Pain

As a culture we seem to be somewhat conflicted in our views of pain. Many of us believe that pain is a part of exercise, an indication that we are working hard.  We confuse the discomfort of pushing ourselves in a workout with actual pain.  When we feel real pain in our training, many of us ignore it and push on.  We wear T-shirts with catchy slogans like “no pain no gain”, as though being in a state of pain is praiseworthy. And even while many of us almost glorify pain in the context of exercise, we mask the signs of physical pain in other areas of our lives with ibuprofen, and we hide emotional pain from ourselves in busyness and addictive behaviors, possibly viewing pain as weakness.

When we actually do take the time to investigate our pain, we often do so through our intellect rather than through our bodies. We research, Google, and read what others have to tell us about our pain rather than listen to what we are actually experiencing.  We are more inclined to trust what someone else tells us about our condition than we are to actually experience our own pain to learn what our own bodies have to say about what makes us feel better or worse.  We focus our attention outward rather than on what’s happening within us.

I am no different.  When I hurt my back recently my first reaction was to email my experts, Louise and Emily, asking them to decipher my pain for me from three states away. I wanted answers: What did they think I had done?  Pulled muscle?  Slipped disc?  Which specific muscles were involved? How should I fix it?  Louise tried to explain to me that really I would need to answer my own questions and that I would not find those answers through my intellect: “You can not think your way out of your back pain,” she told me.  Instead she suggested that I would be able to find the answers I really needed, what made it better and what made it worse, by listening to my body not my mind.  That I would be able to find the initial answers I sought through breath and feel and movement. Once I had those initial answers, I could go from there with better understanding.

This first step of understanding through our own bodily experience, rather than through intellect or through an expert opinion, is one that I was trying to by-pass, in my impatience to be better.  And as Louise and I discussed later, it is fairly typical of the way most of us function.  We often first look externally for a diagnosis, for generalized expert advice about how to deal with our specific situation.  This is often less helpful than learning how our particular bodies respond to our particular situation; as Louise says, it is like “putting duct tape over your crying child’s mouth without any conversation about what the matter is and what can be done to take care of it, both in the immediate moment and for the sake of preventing it in the future.”

It seems like many of us try to by-pass this initial step, not wanting to take the time to learn what our bodies might have to teach us.  While I’m definitely not advocating for people to walk around in constant physical pain, certainly not sudden or acute pain, without seeking treatment, what I am suggesting is that pain is neither a sign of weakness nor something that we need to fear any more than it is the hallmark of an effective training session.  It is really just our body’s way of asking us to pay attention, to turn our sights inward, to be aware.  Perhaps if we take some time to find our own answers first, to pay attention to what makes our pain more or less intense, to trust our own bodies, than we will be better able to advocate for ourselves and provide useful feedback if we do need to seek medical attention.  Perhaps if we try to understand first through feel and then through intellect we can be more active participants in our recovery.

Strength to Walk Out of Darkness: Meredith’s Story

If you live in Anne Arundel county, MD, there is a sad chance that you know someone with a story similar to Meredith’s.  If you live in Severna Park, there’s a greater chance that this story is one with which you are already familiar, one that you read in the paper or heard from a neighbor.  On Tuesday 24 January 2012, Meredith McCandless’s husband, Jim, father of her three children and popular high school baseball coach, took his own life.  He had been battling depression for over a year.  Meredith’s job as a mental health consultant for Anne Arundel County made her more aware of the signs of his struggle than many of us would have been, but by their nature, depressive thoughts are deceitful, tricking those affected by them as well as their loved ones, and so Jim’s slightly unusual behaviors on that particular day didn’t seem to be red flags until they were viewed in retrospect.

In the midst of this tragedy, Meredith has been incredibly strong, both for her children and because of them.  In the days after Jim’s completed suicide, Meredith’s family and friends helped her cope: “My children saved my life!”  At that point, Meredith’s youngest child was 5 months old.  “I had to get out of bed, even when I didn’t want to.  I’ve had a lot of very lonely self-pity filled days and nights, and I fight off the bitterness daily.”  Somehow having children whose basic needs had to be met served as some of the glue that kept the pieces together on the days when everything seemed most broken.

The structure of regular workouts at the gym has also helped.  Meredith usually fits in 3-4 training sessions per week.  Additionally talking, sharing her story, and being an open book about all of this has also turned out to be essential in her healing process.  This was a choice that Meredith did not necessarily make herself: “…my devastation was front page news.  I couldn’t have hidden, even if I was that type of person.”  Her openness has been vital to those around her who are struggling with similar situations; currently she is in the process of assisting a college friend through the recent loss of her husband by suicide.  Meredith has future goals of starting a suicide support group and a spouse support organization with a child related component.  While there are some groups of this nature listed in our area, Meredith has found that they were no longer up and running.

imageAnother staple in Meredith’s life now and one of the ways she regularly helps to promote conversation about suicide is through her annual participation in the “Out of Darkness” walk, organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  According to AFSP, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for adults between the ages of 15 and 64 years in the United States, and it claims more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined.  AFSP’s mission statement targets five key goals: to fund scientific research, offer educational programs for professionals, educate the public about mood disorders and suicide prevention, promote policies and legislation that impact suicide and prevention, and provide programs and resources for survivors of suicide loss and people at risk, and involve them in the work of the Foundation.  This year’s walk is on Saturday 24 September.

Meredith’s purpose in being open about her situation is to support others and also to help change the mindset around suicide and mental health.  Meredith believes that the reason for the mental health stigma that exists in our culture is “ignorance about mental health as a whole.  We must start thinking of it as ‘brain’ health as opposed to mental health.  The brain is an organ, just like our heart or lungs.  We care for these organs without the stigma of embarrassment.  Why not the brain too?!  Suicide is the fallout of ignoring adequate treatment of that organ.  The more we talk about it, the less ignorant we are, which leads to less stigma and embarrassment.”

You can support Meredith’s walk this year by making a donation to her fundraising page and by helping to spread the word; be a part of the conversation that helps to end the ignorance and stigma around brain health.

Cheat Day

As we waited for our lunch order to arrive on the first day of our beach vacation, I watched a woman walk past in a t-shirt that read “Cheat Day”.  I wondered what that phrase meant to her.  I wondered if she would classify my order, bacon cheeseburger and a glass of wine, as a “cheat”.  The concept of a “cheat day” is prevalent in our culture, but something about it feels wrong to me.  Whatever the original intent of the notion of “cheat day”, at its heart, this concept reinforces what for many is an unhealthy relationship with food.Cheat-Day-Funny-Diet

Ideally, we would be making our daily food choices strictly from the real, whole foods that have been in existence for centuries.  One of Michael Pollan’s “Food Rules” which I often consider is, “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”  Surely our great-grandmothers would have eaten sugary or greasy foods, foods that would be considered by many as “cheat day” foods.  The difference is in the availability and attitude toward those foods.

The foods that we often consider to be “cheat” foods are the ones that usually take extra time to prepare; they would be available to our predecessors only on special occasions.  If you’ve ever made homemade ice cream before, even with an electric churner, you know that this process takes several hours.  A hundred years ago and even today, people generally don’t have that kind of spare time, and so as a matter of necessity, many foods that we now view as special treats in a once a day kind of way would have been special treats in a once a season or once a year kind of way.  If you don’t have a great-grandmother to talk to about this difference, Laura Ingalls Wilder provides some great descriptions of these types of foods and the traditions of celebration and community that surround them in her “Little House” books.laura Ingalls Wilder  Even the foods that inhabit this space are different.  For our great grandmothers, foods that were out of season or not local were considered special.  Asparagus brought in an iced box car from California to Connecticut was an indulgence.  One of the exceptional treats Laura Ingalls Wilder describes most vividly from her home in Minnesota (at least in the TV version) is a Florida orange.

Today we outsource a lot of our food production, and as a culture we do that quite well.  Instead those special occasion foods, the production of which often brought families and communities together, get mass produced in factories, often with artificial, chemical ingredients that our bodies don’t even recognize.  These items exist in such great supply that even if we choose real foods over them 100 times to 1, we’d barely made it through the day.  Their abundance erodes their status as celebratory treats, and the community aspect often gets lost entirely.  Instead these foods are relegated to temptations we try to avoid or sometimes secretly, guiltily, indulge in.  This emotional and moral dimension that gets ascribed to food contributes to the unease I feel about the concept of “cheat day”.  While our predecessors could savor specialty foods, knowing that it might be months of remembering before they could enjoy them again, we have replaced this kind of joy with guilt.  We try to avoid foods we view as temptations, as our downfall, and when we do eat them we view ourselves as “cheaters”.  We use food as a way to judge our own and others choices.  Food has become a moral barometer, a way to identify some as wholesome and others as something less.

It is a struggle for most of us to find a reasonable balance between occasional treat foods and the real foods our bodies need in this culture of abundantly available “cheat day foods”.  This is a struggle our great grandmothers didn’t necessarily face.   We would be better served to recognize that, despite outward appearances, we all struggle in some way to find a balance between the food our bodies require to thrive and the food that allows marketers to thrive.  Understanding, not judgement, will get us closer to a healthy relationship with food, ourselves, and those around us.

The Image of Fitness

One of the things I find exciting about strength training, is the lesson that strength comes in many different shaped packages.  While media seems to promote a very narrow, subjective image of “beauty” with a sprinkling of projects featuring people of varied body types tossed in almost as an afterthought, “strong” is measured more objectively, by the weight on the bar.  In advocating for the importance of strength training, Coach Dan John states in his book Intervention, “My good friend and mentor, Brett Jones, once told me this: Absolute strength is the glass. Everything else is the liquid inside the glass. The bigger the glass, the more of “everything else” you can do.”  So the stronger we are, the more we can do, but no one ever said anything about the shape of the glass!

When I show up to lift at Fivex3, I see women of all shapes and sizes moving heavy weights.  Some of these strong women have been judged by others as being “unfit” because they don’t look like the lean models in fashion and fitness magazines.  Shamefully, some of the people doing the judging have been trainers at other gyms, people who ought to know better.  Several conversations have focused around one particular trainer who actually refuses to work with people who don’t already fit his narrow, visual standards.  The great thing in these conversations though is that none of these women buy into that line of thinking. They get frustrated by that point of view, but rather than internalizing it as many women might, they realize the error in that trainer’s thinking.

This gets down to how that particular trainer and we as a culture use, or really misuse, the term “fit”.  Being “fit” is task-specific; it is a measure of our ability to do a certain task.  So for example, at the moment I am training pure strength, not cardiovascular endurance, so my “fitness” in a spin class has been diminished.  Similarly Tim, who trains for physique and at 3.5% body fat appears as “fit” as any fitness model, struggled with his PT timed run on his most recent military weekend, because like me, he’s training strength, not endurance or speed.

Using our misinformed measure of “fitness”, one might have watched the recent Rio Olympics and determined that the lean marathoners were more “fit” than the ultra-heavy weight lifters.  But ask one of those runners to lift 277.8 pounds in a snatch and 352.7 pounds in a clean and jerk like bronze medalist Sarah Robles did, and you will find the limits to their “fitness”.  Or conversely, ask Sarah Robles to run a marathon, and you will find the limits of hers.  The measure of “fitness” is based on performance and is quite specific, by no means can “fitness” be judged by appearance.

My point here is simple.  It is one we all learned as children: we really can’t judge a book by its cover, so maybe we should stop pretending.  In narrowing our definition of “fit” to specific tasks, ironically we will expand the opportunities to recognize “fitness” in a greater variety of shapes and types of people.

Marry the Goal. Be Fickle about the Outcome.

When I first started exploring the world of pure strength training, Craig would tell me I had to make a choice, that I couldn’t keep lifting the way I was in group fitness while also lifting heavy, and that additionally I would have to cut back on the amount of cardio and conditioning I was doing.  I had reluctantly identified my goal as training strength and began daydreaming about potentially competing in a powerlifting competition.  I say reluctantly because there are plenty of times that this idea seems to me to be crazy and stupid.

After training with Emily one day, I asked her how realistic my goals were given my age and any of the myriad of physical considerations I, like many others, had accumulated over the years.  She did not dissuade me, but confirmed that specific goals, like lifting a set amount of weight or participating in competitions, need to be flexible.  Things happen that are outside of our control: injuries, family obligations, life.  Our commitment to specific goals should be real, but it can’t be so absolute that we are unable to readjust when the unexpected happens.  “If I can deadlift over 300#, great!  I would love that,”  Emily said.  “But if I can’t do that, there’s always something else I can work on in here.”  In my mind, I chalked that advice up to identifying a goal, but not being married to it.

I picked up this same thread of conversation the next week when I was working with Diego, Emily’s husband.  He was laying out my program going forward, and I was balking at minimizing cardio and conditioning to focus on building strength, which at that moment was my deficit.  He took the opportunity to challenge me on my commitment to my stated goals, powerlifting and strongwoman competitions.  “If those are really your goals,” he said, “and I’m not sure they are because you are sounding fickle, then you focus on strength now and come back to the other pieces later.”

Ouch, right?  Blunt honesty is one of the sometimes startling but always appreciated traits I have found to run through the majority of the strength coaches I have met.  No sugar coating messages about poor form if you want someone to stay safe, and that approach has real and practical applications for the rest of life too.  Diego’s challenge allowed me to realize that I had been confusing goal with outcome.  My real goal is to get strong.  What I do with that goal, powerlifting competitions or double bodyweight deadlift, is the outcome.  Achieving a goal of strength can look and feel a lot of different ways.  The goal of building strength is centered internally and is relative to me, to my current situation.  The outcome, competitions or desired weights on lifts, is focused more externally; it is more dependent on factors I can not control.  I can work on the goal of getting a little better each day, on building more strength, but where that goal takes me, the outcome, may or may not take the specific shape I envision.

Lisa Lewis headshot
Dr. Lisa Lewis

I have heard a similar distinction made in the “I’m Not Afraid to Lift” workshop when Dr. Lisa Lewis discussed mindset.  One of the participants asked a question about how to balance her many specific fitness goals and the fact that her body was starting to feel the stress of pushing herself.  Dr. Lewis helped this woman identify her actual “global goal” which was to be strong and healthy, and to realize that her “specific goals” (like KB swing challenges or desired weights for lifts) were not the same, that the specific goals could come and go and that they should never eclipse the global goal.  Different wording, same idea.

Identify a desired outcome.  Work towards it, but don’t be married to it.  Recognize that it’s ok for our ideas of specific outcomes to change, and appreciate that we need to maintain an ability to adapt when life interferes.  This is where it’s fine to be somewhat fickle.  Commit instead to the process of achieving that outcome.  By dedicating ourselves to the process we are better able to stay in the present, to focus on what we can do today and on what we can improve now.  Be married to the global goal and to the chosen training method, with an awareness that there may be obstacles along the way and that the outcome may be unexpected.  Perhaps more than faith in our ability to achieve an outcome, we need to trust and enjoy the process.

Faith that Failure Doesn’t Matter

If you’ve ever done any weightlifting, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “Failure is your friend!”  The first time I encountered that phrase several years ago in the context of the group strength class I was teaching, I didn’t have a lot of weight training experience from which to make sense of it.  My frame of reference in regards to failure was purely that of a non-lifter, someone who was raised to complete tasks as perfectly as possible, to double check for accuracy always, and to avoid extreme risks to ensure a better chance of success and safety; basically to function within a certain small comfort zone.  In weightlifting, failure is often the goal; this is where muscle growth happens.  When you train hypertrophy style, you want to work so hard that your muscles are no longer able to lift what you’re asking them to move.  When you train strength, getting that last rep of your working set at really heavy weight is almost always in question.  Oddly, in a sense, reaching the point of failure sort of equates to success.

When I first started training the big lifts, Craig helped me.  He coached me on form and he helped me determine my one rep max, the maximum weight I could move in any of my lifts, determined by the point just before which I failed.  I started working on my own at about 80% of my 1RM, but by the time my working sets got heavy I realized that I was not in the right environment to fail.  I was working without a spotter, the squat rack I was using did not have “infinity safety spotter arms” on which I could drop the bar if I couldn’t get back up, and the floor underneath me was not rubberized (not optimal if you’re going to drop the bar off your back). The day my working set of squats was just 5# below my previous max weight and my fourth rep felt like it was in question, I didn’t even attempt my fifth rep because I knew I didn’t have a safety system in place for a fail.

Squatting without safety bar arms
Squatting without safety bar arms
The long, black pieces are the safety bar arms for the squat rack.

This is pretty much the way things work outside of the weightroom too, and this was the subject of one of Pastor Earl’s recent sermons.  Often we believe that success is paramount and that failure matters in an “end of the world” kind of way; we attempt to achieve and expect perfection from ourselves.  We live within a certain small comfort zone, and while the size of that comfort zone might be different for different people, we often function within the parameters of our perceived areas of success.  Pastor Earl challenged us, “What would you do, what would you attempt, what would you dare in your life if you believed that failure didn’t matter? That’s the heart of faith.”

That’s a worthwhile question, so he gave us gave us time to wrestle with it, to talk to our neighbor about it, and then he gave us some of his own examples.  He also reminded us that answering this question with our lives was totally doable, because we have a safety system:

“I ask the question, because failure doesn’t matter. You are a precious child of God. You are a blessing in your family, in your work place, in your activities, and in the lives of all you meet. You are called to encounter the children of God wherever you are and offer the blessing of who God has made you to be. God has your back. We have your back. Failure doesn’t change that one little bit. You’ve been given the kingdom. You are a stranger and foreigner here because you have the freedom to live as a blessed, forgiven, child of God … a citizen of the kingdom of God where the rules are different.  All of this is called faith.”

We can risk failure because ultimately failure as defined by the usual rules doesn’t matter.  Failure does not define us as such; we have already been identified as blessed children of God, loved and forgiven.  With this in mind, failure instead becomes our opportunity for growth, a chance to develop strength, a demonstration of faith.  Imagine how much bigger our comfort zones would be if we consistently remembered that God has our backs; he is our spotter, our “infinity safety spotter arms”.

“Are You Open to Suggestion?”

For the most part, we all want to do things right, to do a good job, and to be recognized for it.  Success feels better than failure, and often an even better feeling is when others acknowledge our accomplishments.  Of course, what feels good is not always what makes us better.  The territory just this side of success, the place occupied by incomplete and failed attempts, is usually the most fertile ground for growth and improvement.  Good coaches and mentors know how to work this soil.

One of the things that is most striking to me about the coaches at Fivex3 is the degree to which they are silent, especially when we’re working.  Once a trainee gets past the initial instructional phase in which they are taught lift form as detailed by the Starting Strength program, a stage at which consistent and constant feedback is provided, the coaches then move to a mainly observational role.  I came to Emily from a setting in which several trainer friends were generously helping me learn lifts.  There are many slight variations in set-up, form, and cuing for lifts, (check any two articles on T-nation about the same lift), so it’s not surprising that my friends’ language and feedback did not always match each others’.  Add to that the fact that most of them were helping me out in their spare time, so my opportunities to learn from them and to process their instructions were sporadic at best.  I felt like I was conflating their cues and confusing myself in the process.  That’s when I started working with Emily, and once she taught me the language and specifics of form the way they are instructed at Fivex3, she moved to a more silent style of coaching, and while I was initially looking for a constant stream of feedback as I moved through my lifts, I’ve come to really appreciate the quiet.

If the coaches at Fivex3 are silent during your working set, that means you’re doing it right.  For the most part, you only hear from them while you’re working when you need to make a correction.  When my head is too focused on the press that I forget the rest of my body, I hear “Legs”, and I’ll remember to dig in, to utilize the strength in my entire system.  When my squat feels unexpectedly heavy in the middle of a set, I hear “Hips”, and I’ll realize my torso angle has shifted slightly and that I need to readjust and drive up with my ass.  When my lift feels pretty good and the weight moves efficiently, I hear nothing.

When I’m finished my working set, the coaches will discuss each rep to my heart’s content, answering questions about what looked good and where I need to make changes.  They do this with each trainee, helping us figure out what wasn’t quite right, why we struggled or didn’t make our last rep, because in deconstructing our struggles and failures, we learn how to be more successful.  learning-from-failure-posters

I’ve noticed that outside of the weight room, we are not always as receptive to suggestions for improvement; often we react defensively, hearing other people’s comments as an attack and dismissing others as being nosey or ill-informed.  Sometimes that’s true.  Sometimes people aren’t actually meaning to offer constructive criticism; sometimes they just want to criticize.  For this reason, my father-in-law always prefaces his comments with a question: “Are you open to suggestion?”  If the answer is no, even if it’s a struggle, he keeps it buttoned up.  I’m sure we’ve all been on both sides of that exchange; sometimes we are the one unwillingly being made to listen, sometimes we play the “expert” who seems to know best.  In either case, often there is a level of insecurity and ego involved; in the first instance on our part, and in the second on the part of the one attempting to appear the expert at our expense.  Insecurity and ego are interconnected.

I have learned that this blend of insecurity and arrogance has to get checked at the door, before entering the weight room.  It’s not just a matter of missing out on opportunities for improvement; insecurity and arrogance can get you injured.  My coaches are concerned with both my safety and my gains.  They are training me to hear their cues in my own mind, to find the affirmation I’m looking for internally, not from the voices coming at me from the outside.  They are training me to have confidence in my own work and to maintain a willingness to accept corrections for improvement.  That kind of training is essential to finding success, and it does not just apply in the weight room.

“Woohoo” Moments

Oprah talks about “ah-ha” moments, times when a switch in our minds unexpectedly flips and we see things in a different light.  For me when these experiences occur in the gym, when we are suddenly surprised by our bodies’ unexpected abilities, these “ah-ha” moments become something more like “woohoo” moments.  Our understanding of our bodies as strong or weak is shaped by the ways in which we regularly use them.  Thanks to modern technology many of us spend the majority of our days fairly sedentary, seated at the computer, on the sofa, or in the car.  Largely due to time constraints, many of us take the elevator when there are stairs, drive when we could have walked, and park in the closest spot.  By the end of the work day, we notice that our bodies are stiff and sore from lack of use, possibly unbalanced and unstable from awkward movement patterns and relative immobility.  This awareness then factors into our understanding of our bodies, and often rather than view these sensations as our bodies’ requests for movement, we understand our bodies to be weak or failing.  These thoughts, often misperceptions, then shape our opinions of ourselves and define the ways we nourish or abuse our bodies in other contexts.  They become the limits of our reality.

The exhilaration of the “woohoo” moment comes when someone has a completely unexpected experience of breaking through a self-imposed barrier.  It’s not quite the same as working towards and achieving a set goal, although this can be equally exciting.  These “woohoo” moments are more of a surprise, more like being blind-sided by something wonderful.   And surprisingly and wonderfully, this has been the week of the “woohoo”.

As a result of my own strength training, one of my recent projects has been to take my coach up on a challenge she posted a few years back, one that demonstrates the essential usefulness of being functionally strong – being strong enough to lift and carry an “unconscious” person from the floor to safety.  I found a friend willing to volunteer, Tim, who has 11 inches and about 45 pounds on me.  It seemed like a good idea initially over email, but as I stood next to Tim talking through the project, breaking each move down into familiar lifts, I began to wonder if starting with one of my kids would have been a better idea.  He was looking tall enough to be completely unwieldy.  He suggested I first try a human carry, both of us starting from standing.  Probably the result of the culture in which we live (it’s almost always the guy in the movies tossing some chick over his shoulder and bringing her to safety), but the human carry was a skill I had never learned.  For anyone who has ever done this kind of carry, the idea that I would not be able to carry Tim probably seems silly, but that’s sort of my point.  I had no idea.  I was living in a different reality on the other side of what might seem obvious to others, in a reality that was limited by my ideas of my capabilities.  So I gotta say that when I did lift Tim up over my shoulder easily on the first try and realizetim carryd that he felt significantly lighter than I expected, it kinda shook my world up, in a big “woohoo” kind of way.  It might sound trivial, but for me, as a relatively small woman, having that visceral understanding that I could play a hero and not just a victim was profound.

This week I also had the privilege of being witness to “woohoo” moments for several of my clients, instances when they were able to prove themselves wrong, when they had a profound realization that their bodies were stronger than their minds allowed them to believe.  Either from underuse or from illness, two clients in particular had developed limited notions of their bodies’ abilities.  Often there are very real reasons for the initial kernel of these ideas, but equally as often our minds then take that kernel and grow it into something entirely ungrounded.  This is a trick my mind frequently plays on me.  For my clients, in each instance, they were surprised to find abilities they thought they had lost; they were able to tap back into forgotten strength, to move effectively, and to work hard, despite their initial doubts.  Sometimes it’s not so much what happens in our bodies that is significant, but instead what happens within our thought processes.  For someone on the outside of these experiences, the exercises my clients did would not have seemed at all special, but it was the mental shift taking hold in them as a result of their movements that made the ordinary extraordinary.  Moments like these are powerful, sometimes bringing my clients (and me) to tears; moments when they realize the unplumbed abilities of their bodies, moments when they begin to understand it was their perception of themselves that was the limiting factor, not the bodies they half-believed had failed them.

To varying degrees, we all have self-restricting thoughts.  It’s worth it, from time to time, to investigate some of those ideas, to sound them out for accuracy, to test them and determine if they are outdated notions.  In testing them, I’m not talking about anything radical; certainly I’m not talking about pushing ourselves beyond safe or reasonable limits.  I’m really just advocating for something as seemingly ordinary as adding a little more movement back into our lives, something outside of our usual, possibly just outside of our comfort zones.  By allowing our bodies to do what they were designed to do (move) instead of keeping them confined to a desk or the shortest route from A to B, we give ourselves the opportunity to re-establish a sometimes forgotten relationship with our bodies and from there to potentially challenge our ideas of our own abilities.  Perhaps that first, seemingly ordinary step will set you on the path to something extraordinary, to your own “woohoo” moment.

 

Breath as Prayer

Louise is a big proponent of the healing and restorative power of breath. When we are stressed out, a deep breath helps restore a sense of calm. When we are injured, a deep breath helps relieve muscle spasm and pain. Technically what happens is that stress and injury activate the body’s sympathetic response system, the fight or flight response.  There are evolutionary reasons why this was an advantage; increased adrenaline, increased blood sugar levels, higher heart rate all prepared us to battle or escape a physical threat. But today in a high-pressure culture, we spend a lot of time prepared to fight or run from perceived threats and stresses. This can lead to a whole host of health problems. A deep and full breath activates the parasympathetic response system and allows our bodies to get back in right relationship with our minds and our surroundings.

Prayer serves a similar purpose. While many of us approach prayer as a way of presenting a “to do list” to God, a request list of blessings and healing for ourselves and our friends and of punishments for enemies, Pastor Earl explains that the real purpose of prayer is quite different. Prayer is meant to change us, to help us re-establish a right relationship with God and his creation. At various points in confirmation classes and sermons, Pastor Earl has gone through the six segments of the Lord’s prayer detailing how each section helps us to re-establish a proper relationship with God.

Pastor Earl has preached on prayer in the past, and years later one of his sermons still stays with me. I heard the sermon at a time in my life when my kids were all very young, and I was overwhelmed. I was constantly running on a sleep deficit and always stressed out. I have never thought of myself as someone who is good at prayer. And while I was struggling through what some might have termed postpartum depression, I was annoyed that I couldn’t even find the energy to pray about it. That was when Pastor Earl delivered a sermon detailing the many ways that prayer can look for people. The example that struck me to the core was one of a new mother letting out a sigh of exhaustion. If sighing out of exasperation and a sense of inadequacy counted as prayer, I figured I was doing pretty well.

The language is different, but the concept is the same. Prayer/breath helps to re-establish right relationships and has the power to change and heal.

Strength in her Stride: Suzi’s Story

Some type of exercise has been a part of Suzi Wood’s life since she joined the local swim team at the age of seven. She began running in middle school and carried a love of running with her into her adult life.  She enjoyed aerobics enough to become an instructor for nine years and also has had training in martial arts.  One of the reasons exercise has been such a cornerstone in Suzi’s life has a lot to do with the fact that she truly enjoys moving. If you have ever been in a group fitness class with Suzi you know what I mean. Her enthusiasm is palpable. She wears a smile on her face and a sparkle in her eye as she challenges herself each day to be a little bit better.  Suzi likes to push herself, and she loves physical challenge.

In the spirit of challenging herself, Suzi laughingly told herself that she would run a marathon by the time she was 50.  She completed her first marathon, the Philly marathon in 2014 at the age of 52.  She trained diligently with running partners who were experienced marathoners, and while she was physically very well prepared for the race, the event itself taught her the importance of mental training as well:

“I was scared! I didn’t know how I was going to feel. … I felt good going into the race but there are always questions in your mind: Am I going to start out too fast because I’m excited! Am I going to hit the wall? How is my body going to feel and can I get through the pain? Around mile 23 I felt like I wanted to cry! It was really weird. I couldn’t tell if I was crying because I was hurting or happy? I still felt pretty good but my legs hurt! At this point in the race you are running along the Schuylkill River on a two lane road, so you see the runners that are ahead of you nearing the finish. I was just very emotional. I had to calm down, I told myself I was wasting too much energy. A mile later I knew I had it and I had the energy to sprint across the finish line. It was an awesome high that I will never forget. I was proud of what I’d accomplished. So much of the race and the training was in my head. I did a lot of talking to myself…saying things like…slow down, you’ve got this, drink, look around enjoy the view, relax…”

Suzi Boston medal          Suzi boston

Suzi’s finish time allowed her to qualify for the Boston Marathon, so she registered for and ran the Boston Marathon in 2015.  This time she added strength training as another form of cardio to her preparation.  Moving light weights faster and body weight training, especially through kick boxing classes, was the approach Suzi took in her cardio-strength training.  “The energy you get from a good class where everyone is really ‘into it’ is amazing!” Suzi says, “It’s fun! You feed off each other!”  As a result, she developed a lot more upper body strength and speed and also strengthened her core. As an added benefit, she has more energy overall!

Nearly a year and a half later, this varied approach to training paid off as Suzi completed the Boston strong.  If you know the Boston marathon, you understand how hilly the course is; additionally the temperature for the Boston was much hotter due to the time of year.  Suzi found that her improved upper body strength allowed her to pump her arms better to attack the hills and her recovery time after the race was much shorter; her legs felt recovered by the next day.

Suzi’s best advice:  “Mix it up! Challenge yourself, push yourself, laugh and make it fun!!”  Suzi’s next goal: pull-ups!

Suzi bootcamp     Suzi work