We began in pigeon. A graceful pose, if you were to look at most of the people in the yoga studio, a silent film of pain if you were to look at me.
With one leg bent beneath my torso, and the other leg stretched back behind me, I tipped from the waist to lay my arms upon the floor, supporting my head as a stripped down, funkified version of David Guetta’s Titanium played in the background. My inner thigh seemingly sang along with Sia’s gritty delivery of the lyrics. “Stone-hard machine gun, firing at the ones who run.” Truth. This pigeon pose felt precisely like fire on my run-weary legs.
These were the opening moments of my first Hip Hop Yoga class at the O Yoga Studio in downtown Syracuse.
In an attempt to widen my fitness horizons, I’ve decided to do at least two athletic things per month that are not related to Gold’s Gym (where I regularly coach), and not related to triathlon (my regular sport). I’m looking for environments and people that will challenge me physically, but also for experiences that I can’t predict or fully visualize in my mind.
All of this, in the name of mojo.
It’s not that I’m leaving triathlon or any of the workouts that I enjoy doing (and will continue to do on a regular basis); it’s more about making this off-season insightful in some way.
Usually, this is the time of the year I go back into step aerobics and serious strength training. I’ll continue to do those things, too, but I want to mix in some new experiences, some foreign movement. I had to do far too much soul-searching this summer to stay on track with my third Ironman, and I think it’s because my brain needs a reboot.
In my regular spin classes, I always challenge my participants to seek out one uncomfortable experience per week—to voluntarily put themselves into a situation that challenges the body and mind. It can be a workout, an event, a seminar, etc. Some athletes aren’t able to “willingly get uncomfortable” in a workout because their bodies automatically deter them from pushing through the aches and pains that come with that territory. It’s not because their bodies aren’t capable of pushing those limits, it’s because their minds won’t allow them to.
“How many of you had to do something today that you didn’t feel like doing, but you were able to get through it anyway?” I’ll ask my class. They don’t respond, but their facial expressions and nodding heads tell me they’ve had that experience.
“We all have the capacity to withstand things that we wouldn’t choose to continue doing if we didn’t have to,” I remind them. To convince them that I’m telling the truth, I’ll remind them of the last time they painted a room.
Hours go by as we tape the edges, prime the walls, cut in with the brush, roll out the first coat, let it dry, then roll out the second coat. Most of us try to power through that process in as few hours as we can. “Imagine that moment, when you’ve got just one coat left to go…you’re sitting on the bottom rung of a step ladder and eating the last few bites of a cold pizza slice. You’re looking at the wall, and you know you’ve got just another couple of hours to go before you’re finished painting that room.” I ask them. “Do you call it a day, or do you get up and push through the tired, cranky mood you’re in and just get it done?”
Most of us just want to get it done. We engage our mind in a way that puts the body in motion to execute a steady course of action that closes the gap between where we are and where we want to be.
Painting a room is no different than getting through a tough workout. It requires the same mental activation, we’re just not used to flipping that switch in certain situations.
That brings me back to the “one uncomfortable thing per week” challenge. The reason why this challenge is so important is because it exercises the mind to navigate through what we perceive as obstacles (being tired, being confused, being in a bad mood, etc.) and trains the body to deliver even under “less than ideal” circumstances.
Seasoned athletes will tell you that many a workout session and race day will occur under “less than ideal” circumstances, and that’s why it’s so important to train the mind and body to work together the way you want them to “on demand.” Getting uncomfortable is a huge part of this.
Yoga, for me, is one of these uncomfortable experiences. Many people turn to the mat to get into their own heads and find that connectedness with the immediate environment—pulling from the energy of the room around them and the world at large. I have always found that sensation in a twenty-mile run. For me, there’s no challenge in getting introspective or tapping into the heart center.
For me, the challenge is being so still. Holding a pose with strength and precision while my nose is six inches from the floor is a new kind of uncomfortable for me. I can ride a bike for seven straight hours without a single F-bomb (save for the times when I get a flat tire), but ask me to stay in chaturunga for three minutes and you might want to make sure your children are not on the scene.
Challenge and discomfort come in many forms and we’re all different when it comes to what we perceive as limits and how we work through them. The important thing is that we are actively seeking out those experiences in order to sharpen our minds to push our bodies toward bigger, loftier goals.
The new and improved athlete you want to be is closer than you think.
She may be just six inches from the floor.
* Photo courtesy of The Runner’s Plate