inner strength through outer strength

9 out of 10 movies these days seem to focus on a dystopian future, overrun by zombies or decimated by some yet to be discovered pathogen.

Where are the movies focused on a future that is happier, brighter, more prosperous than today. Yes, conflict is necessary to move a story forward but does the conflict need to be founded on a broad-brush portrayal of our future as a bleak place with no hope?

How much of this is a reflection of our view of the future? Or is it actually a reflection of how we view our present circumstances? So that the only way we see value in how we are living today is by contrasting it with this horrible imagined future.

I truly believe that we are moving toward a happier, brighter, more prosperous future. There are more opportunities for individuals to pursue and express their creative freedom, we know more than we ever have about creating and maintaining healthy, strong & mobile bodies and we have made huge strides in understanding and accepting other cultures, religions, lifestyles and beliefs.

Obviously, nothing is perfect. Wars are still started for religious reasons. Far too many people are diagnosed with the diseases of the modern world (cancer, heart disease, Alzheimers, etc.). And bullies (online and in person) still create too much pain and suffering for the vulnerable.

But, in comparison to previous decades, we are far better off. Focus forward. Know that we are improving. Imagine that future of harmony and growth and prosperity. The more of us that do, the closer it gets.
It’s an important turn of phrase. I could just as easily say getting stronger but there is more to being stronger than just receiving the strength.

You must grow into it to truly own it.

Lifting heavier and heavier weights will get you strong but will you grow strong by training that way? Is there more to strength than just its raw form.

If I’ve learned nothing else (and I’ve learned a lot, a lot, a lot) from being injured during most of 2015, iI’ve learned that getting strong is an incomplete process.

Coach Gassman talks about the “productive application of force."

We like to talk about being able to achieve positions that allow you to put your strength to work.

This time last year I was super-strong by the numbers. But with a hip injury, my strength was useless. I was strong, not strong.

I became frustrated because I focused on the stronger rather than the growing. The pain (as is its tendency) made me shortsighted. I was so obsessed with what I couldn’t do that I failed to see the lessons in front of me — the growing.

Just like a muscle we are training to be stronger, we must undergo stress. In that moment during which the stress is highest, the muscle is at its weakest. But that is necessary for it to grow stronger. So, we must undergo stress to grow stronger.

Being strong (or pretending to be) all the time does not lead to growth. Embracing those moments of frailty and weakness leads to growth. Understanding that everyone has them and only the truly strong expose them and thus work through them, is the path to growing strong.

This has been a hard but extremely valuable lesson for me.

I grew up with a great deal of what I call “Midwestern Stoicism." That meant no complaining, keep your feelings to yourself, avoid confrontation and work hard.

It was such a cop out: trying to act tough and strong and resilient. I didn’t know it at the time but it was all based on fear. Every bit of it.

There was fear of exposure, fear of loss, fear of embarrassment. It made us small but, in our little shell, safe. That type of fear runs deep.

It still is the hardest thing in the world for me to open up — to expose my true self. But I do it. And each time it gets easier.

This blog is part of it. Showing and sharing my inner thoughts in a public forum is difficult but it becomes easier and more important to me the more I do it.

I know there are those out there that have the same type of background, the same type of fears. I know that seeing someone just like them stand exposed to the world can be inspiring. I want to show that being brave, being strong is being vulnerable. Only by acknowledging our weakness do we grow stronger.

So many people complain about not having energy and yet energy is a infinitely renewable resource if we know how to harness it.

Everything and every thing is made of energy. This is not some New Age type of silliness either. It’s straight up physics. We perceive objects as solid but at the subatomic level it’s all just potential…all just energy.

Tap into that idea when you are dragging.

Energy can be focused or it can be scattered. It can’t be diminished.
A basic premise in martial arts that informs most of the self-defense techniques that I learned was the principle of acknowledging restrictions and letting go.

For example, our natural instinct is to focus on where we are being restricted. So if an attacker grabs my right arm, the whole of my being focuses on his hand and my right arm. If I stay there, I have severely limited my ability to defend myself. If I acknowledge that my right arm is restricted and quickly move on to strikes with my left arm or kicks or knees or head butts, I have opened a wide range of possibilities for self-defense.

It seems like such an obvious thing while sitting at the computer writing about it but in the midst of an attack when emotions and adrenaline take over, we default to our reflexes and often cannot break the cognitive cycle that focuses our entire being on that single site of attack.

A client recently asked me, now that I have worked through my injury and have learned so much from the experience, if I could go back and say something to myself at the most painful time what would I say. At the moment I wasn’t really sure. My answer was a mix of keeping faith in my body’s ability to heal, to be patient, to listen to the pain.

Having had time to reflect even more on the question, I would draw on this principle from martial arts. Do not focus on the site of restriction. Focus on all the other areas where you are not restricted.

Like a sudden attack, pain will pull you into into’s world completely. But focusing on the site of pain does not lead to a resolution. We are complicated and complex beings. Working through pain and healing our bodies takes our full arsenal.
"We are falling, falling, with nothing to hold onto and nothing to slow us down. The good news is there is no ground to land on."
- Chogyam Trungpa

We spend so much of our time looking for solid ground that doesn’t exist.

Falling is our natural state. But somehow we grow to fear the fall. We seek a stop, a resting place, a toe hold where we can take control and stop the fall.

When what we should do is get comfortable with the fall. Understand that there will be no sudden crash, no devastating and lasting impact but only the freedom of letting go and the rush of life’s passion.
Martial arts has been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember even though I only started to train when I was a fully, legit grown-ass woman.

Growing up in the seventies, Bruce Lee’s life and death had inspired a generation and martial arts schools were popping up everywhere. I never tried it as a kid. I was shy and I actually don’t think I ever asked. I never let myself believe it was for me. (More on that in another post.)

When I finally went to a martial arts class, I walked through the doors with conviction because it was fully my decision. I was in control. I wasn’t being pressured by a parent. I didn’t have to have someone else drive me there. I got there all on my own.

And I found something that I could make all my own: a movement practice that taught me how to use my physical presence while developing my mental, psychological and emotional strength.

My sensei spoke about the three H’s of martial arts. The first H is hurting which is what most people think of. Of course, being able to defend yourself and your loved ones by whatever means necessary potentially may involve hurting an attacker. That was the focus of much of our training and what is predominantly portrayed in modern Western media.

The second H is healing. Many traditional martial arts, especially the Asian arts, had a system for healing a warrior who had been wounded in battle or who had otherwise succumbed to illness. In times before television and Facebook, evenings were spent telling battle stories and healing one another through food, herbs and joint and tissue manipulation. Practitioners would at times use the blunt parts of their weapons to release knots in tired muscles — the first instances of myofascial release.

I have also come to view the movements themselves as healing. Body control, balance, flexibility, agility in this context can do wonders for the modern person. We have such a limited movement pattern these days — sit down, stand up, stoop over when we have to…that’s about it. We go to the gym and strap ourselves into machines. Even if we use barbells or kettle bells or do bodyweight movements, we limit ourselves. The healing portion of martial arts, for me, was removing those limits. Literally moving my body through ranges large and small and expressing myself.

This leads to the third H: harmonizing. By embracing the movement we embrace ourselves as physical creatures which allows us to embrace ourselves as spiritual beings. You see, when we deny one part of us, we suppress the other part. We are meant to be whole and harmonized body, mind and soul. We are human animals.
Why this way?
Why now?
Why me?
Why here?

These are questions you should be asking often. Maybe not with every action you take but with many of them, especially the big ones and especially the ones that have become automatic.

If you don’t have a solid answer: ask “why not?"

There doesn’t always have to be a result. Sometimes action is enough. Sometimes only being is enough.

Quantifying what we do can be helpful in certain circumstances: business, banking, cooking and our training.

Quantifying what we do can be harmful in certain circumstances: marriage, friendship, art and our practice.

If you are doing something to prove yourself (worthy, loved, smart, strong, etc.), then stop and ask where the proof really comes from.

Strive to be better but know that the journey never ends. There is no marker at “enough." There is no point where you are done growing, evolving, deepening.

I recently came across this quote that resonated with me:

"The fatal thing about chasing beauty is that it's a grueling journey outside of yourself, and therefore can never be successful or satisfying because the target will always be a shape-shifting phantom and a mystery. There really is no external form of beauty for you to be at all costs. It is the internal and the invisible that is of value. True beauty is elusive and hidden somewhere in the fabric of your complex being, and everybody possesses it in his or her own way." -Sabine Reichel

It applies to any pursuit. As the Buddha said, “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without."

Make your own path. Mark your way. Only keep going.
…unless you're Han Solo. Because that’s the best scene ever and one of the very few instances where those two words are an appropriate reply.

As a coach, when I hear someone say “I know," I’m hearing someone shutting down and shutting me out.

Think about it. I’m trying to help you with a movement so I come over and give you a cue. Let’s say you need to move your feet a little wider when you squat. So that’s what I say. And you reply...

“I know."

So, either you really did already know and decided to not adopt a more stable, safer position or you didn’t really know but you want me to leave you alone and move along and help someone else in class. Either way…WTF?

Here are my three ideas to cure the “I know" bug:

  1. have an open mind
  2. put improvement ahead of ego
  3. see #1

But a good coach doesn’t accept the first answer and always tries to find the underlying issue with any misaligned movement, even when the movement is initiated from the vocal cords and through the lips.

The first question I now ask myself is: am I truly approaching this athlete from a helping state of mind and not out of frustration or (gasp) from my own ego-driven need to sound smart?

The next question is: is there an unspoken “but" after the “know"? As in, “I know but my left knee feels kind of unstable when I do that." Some of my athletes are so eager to do well that they are reticent to mention an issue until it becomes a chronic problem. “I know" is now my cue to delve in deeper.

The other question I ask is: does the athlete already think they are doing what I am cueing or do they understand it intellectually but can’t translate that into their mechanics? In either case, a simple “let me see it, again" would lead to a better understanding.

And, in the end, that’s what my job is all about: a better understanding…of movement…of people…and, especially, of that one person standing in front of me at that very moment.

Maybe they are saying “I know" to shut me out but, as a coach, I’m not allowed to accept that.

In an ideal world, coach and athlete approach the training with an open mind and an open heart and seek only improvement whatever form that might take.

But this is far from a perfect world. This I know.