Life Lessons

It has been weeks since we’ve been riding, since my riding buddy and I both had plans for the last several weekends. In the interim, however, I’ve been working on getting fit in earnest.

There are a some lessons in life that, when realized, are blatant, obvious, and so clear that I think they become underestimated, lost in plain sight. These are things that we must learn over and over and over again and then kick ourselves for all the time spent living poorly without their practice. One such lesson, which I will have to get tattooed on my forehead it is so vital to living, is that I have to be active. Ideally, I’d be engaged in a sport or a hobby, or–even better–a job that keeps me physically active. Softball and horseback riding are two such pursuits, but they are not enough. In the absence of a nonstop fun-filled sporty lifestyle, I need to make exercise a priority. And perhaps the lesson I’ve learned lately is that it needs to be one of the main priorities. It can’t be something that is done half-heartedly, as a dispirited attempt to mitigate the bodily strain caused by the sedentary life of an office worker. It needs to be something I that I really challenge myself with.

The first week or so of getting back to the gym is always hellish. It is a chore and everything feels awful. But there’s a hump to be gotten over and once I have, I actually start to feel awful if I don’t work out. Once I start really feeling the results–as I did this week during my riding lesson–I get even more motivation to keep going.

But then something always happens to interrupt the momentum. Usually for me, it’s the shortening of the days and the dropping of the temperature. Despite the clear evidence that exercising is the best thing to mitigate the worst of my Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms, those very symptoms are what usually keep me from exercising. Fatigue, depression, a physical sensation of heaviness in the limbs all eventually combine to convince me that I’m not capable of doing much of anything, let alone going to the gym.

I’m hoping that this time around, I can finally make exercising a part of my lifestyle, instead of just a habit that I form briefly between periods of inactivity. I feel like I am working out smarter than ever before, using weights to build up all the muscle I’ve lost over the years and then doing a bunch of cardio to burn off the fat. And there is a focus this time around that I’ve never really had before. The gym, with its TVs on every machine, is set up to distract people from what they are doing. The message is, “This is horrible, but you have to do it…so you can watch TV at the same time to make it more palatable.” I can’t watch the TVs. In addition to my seeming allergy to TV these days, it takes away my focus from what I am there for–to make myself stronger. If the mind wanders, I can’t think about getting the most out of what I’m doing. It’s easy to fall into a rut of just absentmindedly lifting the same amount of weight or running the same distance and speed. It takes a lot of mental energy in addition to physical energy to keep adding weight, to keep pressing that button to raise the speed on the treadmill. And that’s what keeps me engaged. Playing games with myself, negotiating with myself about my limits–“Can you do another whole minute at this speed?”

All of this paid off this week in my riding lesson. The muscle tightness that has been preventing me from being effective on the horse is not there anymore. Instead of taking almost the entire lesson to warm up, I was warm after a few minutes of flatwork, as I should be. I was able to get my heels down, able to support my horse with my leg, and able to hold my upper body steady. I realized as I was riding that I wasn’t having to try to force it. There’s enough strength in my body again to give it suppleness. And that suppleness allows me to do something that makes me even more effective than simply muscling my way through it–it allows me to relax.

I’ve been reading The Art of Seeing by Aldous Huxley and I thought about it while cantering on Jasper this week. Huxley wrote the book in 1939 after a time of near total blindness and then a years-long period of severely impaired vision, after which he was introduced to the methods of W. H. Bates. Bates wrote about a re-education in the way we approach seeing that for Huxley, as well as many others, completely transformed and improved vision malfunction. According to Huxley, one of the main problems in any art–whether it be seeing, learning an instrument, or horseback riding–is the amount of tension and anxiety brought by the performer. He speaks of something called “dynamic relaxation,” the counterpart of “passive relaxation,” or a state of complete repose and rest. Dynamic relaxation is “that state of the body and mind which is associated with normal and natural functioning.”

When my muscles are weak and I’m straining to just keep up the most basic equitation, it makes me get in my own way. Worrying about why I can’t do what I need to do and feeling the ego loss associated with not performing to the level I know how to perform at make the tension and anxiety worse. Huxley says,

“Malfunctioning and strain tend to appear whenever the conscious ‘I’ interferes with instinctively acquired habits of proper use, either by trying too hard to do well, or be feeling unduly anxious about possible mistakes. In the building up of any psycho-physical skill the conscious ‘I’ must give orders, but not too many orders–must supervise the forming of habits of proper functioning, but without fuss and in a modest, self-denying way.”

It’s all a balancing act. Being focused and invested enough to perform well, but not so much that I become anxious about not. Of course, that’s the other lesson I keep having to learn: balance. It seems like every day, in every single part of my life, it’s what I keep coming back to: find balance. Security and freedom. Pushing myself to improve without browbeating myself with perfectionism. Including my emotions in my decisions without letting them overrun my thoughts. Practicality and passion.

I wrote earlier about needing an outlet in which to throw myself wholeheartedly, about needing change and finding work that fulfills me. About wanting to feel like a strong, engaged, alive person who is able to do amazing things. Most of my focus when trying to enact that change has been on external circumstances; trying to get myself to a situation in which it will be easier to do what I want to do. But recently, I feel like I’ve been doing a ton of work internally as well; throwing myself into finding the balance in all these areas to be the person I want to be, so that I can do the things I want to do. It’s a daily struggle, but just like the working out, it feels like it’s paying off. It feels like maybe soon I’ll get over the hump and then finding balance will not be something I have to force myself to do with distractions, but something I can delight in, do naturally with strength, flexibility, suppleness and without tension or anxiety.

Yoga of Riding

In the past couple of months I’ve started going to yoga the day after my riding lessons. Riding is hard on the body (especially in conjunction with my almost completely sedentary lifestyle) and yoga has really helped with putting my body back together and strengthening my back muscles. Usually I ride on Saturdays and then go to a Sunday afternoon yoga class; it’s also a nice start to the week. This week I ended up riding Sunday morning and therefore will do both on the same day. It got me thinking about how there are a lot of similarities between the two disciplines.

When you ride with equitation in mind, there is a great deal of body awareness needed to not only keep yourself in correct position, but to effectively communicate with your horse. For example, I have a tendency to twist my right wrist about 90 degrees at this one part of the ring that is slightly downhill. This spot is a challenge for a few reasons: 1) it is near the entrance/exit to the ring, which the horses have a heightened awareness of since it is the path back to their warm, hay-filled stalls and 2) because of the slight downhill grade, it presents difficulty in the horse’s footing, balance, and stride. The ideal is to keep your horse at an even pace and stride throughout the ring; on a completely flat surface this is easier. But going downhill, the horse’s weight is shifted unevenly between front and back hooves. Being that this hill is on a turn, they also have a tendency to drop their left shoulders and cut the corner, throwing their left-right balance off as well. As a rider, going downhill can pull you forward. It’s important to keep your back straight, chest open and head up while sitting slightly back on your sit bones. If you keep your balance this way, you can help your horse keep his front-back balance. In addition, slight pressure with the inside leg and a small amount of tension on the outside rein will prevent him from cutting the corner, keeping him left-right balanced and making a nice round bend around the turn. This is where my wrist twist comes in. I was unaware that I was doing it, so focused on all the other elements of the turn. My instructor pointed it out to me. She often makes position suggestions based on first looking at how the horse is moving and then searching for the problem in the rider’s position. She saw that my horse’s gait was not flowing smoothly. We were generally balanced but kind of choppy and awkward going down the hill. Once she pointed out my incorrect wrist position and reminded me to achieve tension on the reins through a give and take from my elbows instead, everything changed in an instant. My horse’s head came up, his weight shifted, and his stride smoothed out. And that made everything else I was focused so hard on much easier too.

That feels so much like what happens in a yoga class. When moving into a new pose, I’m thinking hard about trying to juggle all the pieces of my body into place. Sometimes the instructor reminds the class to bring awareness to a part of the body that might be neglected in thinking about the more obvious parts. It’s amazing when you make one little adjustment, one tiny change and everything just clicks. Your body seems to flow and you stop thinking so hard. You breathe and relax into the position and that, for me, is kind of what it’s all about whether I’m doing yoga, or horseback riding, or anything else I do. That’s the moment where I feel free and powerful and right.

In Aldous Huxley’s last novel, Island, he talks about bringing awareness to every aspect of life. There are talking mynah birds all over the island trained to speak the words “Attention” and “Here and now, boys” as a reminder to sustain this awareness.  He writes:

“Be fully aware of what you’re doing, and work becomes the yoga of work, play becomes the yoga of play, everyday living becomes the yoga of everyday living.”

As I continue to learn to bring awareness to myself and my horse, I feel like I’m engaging in the yoga of riding.