HOW 20 MINUTES A DAY CAN CREATE MIRACLES/HOW TO STAY SANE IN THE RUN UP TO EXAMS
What lights your fire and what makes you feel overwhelmed? I am really brave about some things, and yet apparently simple things floor me.
I actually like things to be clean and tidy, but my mother always used to say that I could reduce a room to chaos within five minutes of entry, and that is certainly true of my cooking practices, sadly.
So something as simple as a chaotic kitchen could make me feel utterly incapable and for an astonishing number of years, I would feel an overwhelming urge to sit down and ‘rest’ before tackling the mess. Multiply that by all the rooms in the house, and something that many people would deal with without thinking, and before they started what they would call ‘work’, became a mountain in my mind and stopped me from doing all sorts of interesting things because I had to ‘sort the house’. Even as I write this, I can hardly believe I am saying it, but it’s true, unfortunately.
My point though, is that I found the solution, and it is one that works for a myriad of other things that might feel initially overwhelming, so it falls very neatly into the KISS principle: –
KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID.
20 minutes seems to be a magical number. I have noticed that two very trendy techniques – Mindfulness, and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) work on the assumption that participants will spend 20 minutes a day practising.
So I decided to apply this principle to house tidying and found it worked a treat. I put my alarm on and decided to see what I could get done in 20 minutes, feeling that was manageable. Amazingly, clearing a kitchen after dinner took only about 3-6 minutes on an ordinary evening.
The other way that daily 20 minutes works miracles, is that once you have started, and see how much you can accomplish in 20 minutes, you often feel inspired to do more. I keep putting the alarm on for another 20 minutes, and now I often practise my piano for up to an hour, where before I just wouldn’t even start.
APPLYING THIS PRINCIPLE TO STUDYING
Studying for exams, especially in ‘big swot’ topics like history and science, can seem overwhelming and I know there are times when my daughter doesn’t know where to start, so she doesn’t. There is a verse in the Bible (sorry but I grew up as a fundamentalist evangelical Christian and some things just stick) that says ‘A Prophet has no honour in his own country’, which in this case means that I haven’t really been able to persuade my daughter to apply this principle to her studies. If any of you try it out and find it works, please tell her!!
Anyway, next time you are feeling overwhelmed and don’t want to do anything, I challenge you to just allow yourself 20 minutes, and just study something – anything. Even if you don’t carry on and do more, I’m betting that if you keep practising that principle every time you feel like that, you will have done a shed load more than you would otherwise have done by the time it gets to exams.
Me, I decided there were three things that I needed to give 20 minutes to in order to stay sane – that’s still only one hour out of 24. These are my three –
MEDITATION: I can’t maintain the level of sensitivity I need to do the work I do without taking care of energy.
HOUSEWORK: Well I have said it already
PIANO PRACTISE: Because that is something I really want to learn but have spent years just not getting on with…
What I am observing is that when I don’t manage all three, I quickly notice how things are getting out of hand, but it prompts me to get back to my daily rhythm and stops me spiralling out of control. And believe me, I know what out of control feels like and it’s not something I enjoy or recommend!
So good luck with making some miracles and actually enjoying your learning and studying rather than feeling you have to be mega stressed.
If any of you dare, I would love to hear what things benefit from the 20 minute daily treatment for you.
Recently I have been made aware that I am acquiring a teenage readership.
So I thought I might as well give you all something to get your teeth into, and what more exciting than sex and spirituality, particularly as there is so much information on ‘what to do and how to do it’ and yet very little on either love, or the impact of having sex.
These days I understand life, not through a lens of morality, but of energy. I realise that this leads me into immediate potential difficulty, as I only have ‘A’ Level physics, and even my brief reading of the correlation of energy and matter (eg Einstein’s equation E=mc2)makes me realise that I am unable to explain many of my ideas in strictly scientific terms. The scientist part of me (I have a degree in Maths, for those of you who don’t know me), balks at being fluffy. However, as this is merely a blog and not a scientific treatise, and is intended to provoke thought and discussion, I will continue.
So I will own at the outset that these are observations based on my experience, both of life and working with people and meditations learned over a period of 25 years.
I have been spring cleaning, and came across my old meditation notebooks, which I have been re-reading. I came across one of my many mind maps from a winter meditation of 1997.
It stated that Sexuality and Spirituality needed to be the same – viz. an expression of finer energy, leading to blend and nourishment: that a split causes problems, that sexuality is often fantasy and emotional release.
So I have been thinking about that, and how I could explain it in a way that might make sense to 16 year olds. In my generation and slightly younger, when people start talking about energy in relation to people, others almost instantly label them as ‘sandals brigade new agers’, but that is probably meaningless to the generations of the noughties, as I think it is rather 80’s or 90’s.
Interestingly we live in a world today that takes energy for granted – wifi, bluetooth, Facetime. Snapchat etc are all part of daily life that we absolutely take for granted unless they are not available, when it becomes extremely annoying. Personally I still find it mindbogglingly extraordinary that I can hold a tiny piece of kit in my hand, press a button, and both see and hear my mother SIX THOUSAND MILES AWAY on the other side of the planet. Please just stop and think about it for a moment, and what that means in terms of the speed of transfer of all that energy which is organised into picture and sound.
I find that I need to go back to basic Physics when I am thinking about how we embody and transfer energy through ourselves, rather than through electronic devices. In our ‘O’ Level physics (GCSE to you), we did an experiment which involved magnetising a knitting needle. So if you stroke a knitting needle with a magnet enough times, the knitting needle itself becomes a magnet. If you put the needle on a piece of paper and pour iron filings around it, the iron filings will form themselves into a pattern around the needle.
I have included a link below on how to make a compass from a sewing needle for those of you brave enough to venture where there is no GPS.
The point is, that the molecules of this supposedly solid object actually rearrange themselves and align up in a particular way, creating a magnet that is capable of attracting and/or repelling other things.
We know that water can exist as a solid, liquid or gas depending on temperature. When the temperature is low enough, or the molecules are vibrating slowly, water exists as ice. As the temperature, or speed of vibration increases, the ice melts and forms a liquid, and as the temperature and speed increase, they turn to steam. Heat emitted from a radiator is not visible unless there is sunlight falling on dust particles near the radiator, at which point the heat is visible as a shimmer of the dust particles. But just because we can’t see energy, doesn’t mean that it is not present. I sometimes have a minor freak out at all the wifi energy passing through me!
Feelings and emotions carry energy. If someone says something particularly cruel or hurtful, we can experience it as a thump to the stomach area, and feel physically winded. Equally experiencing kindness and love can make us feel warm and soft, or excited and aroused.
I understand spirituality energetically. People use the term ‘Higher Energy’ sometimes to describe spirituality. This is because, as I understand it, we can channel energy that is either quite dense, such as anger, or we can channel love, which is a finer, fast moving energy. Love is a particularly powerful energy – diffuse but deeply penetrating. There have been scientific experiments done with buddhist monks, which have demonstrated that after 10,000 hours of meditation, there is a change in the structure of the brain (exciting topic of neuroplasticity) in much the same way as continual stroking of a needle with a magnet creates a change in the molecular structure of a needle. This is one of the reasons why the practice of mindfulness has become so popular, and is even being introduced into schools. Taking time to meditate or pray regularly, in my understanding, is a way of aligning our energy so that we are clear and can trust our bodies and intuition. In my teaching of Alexander Technique, I have noticed over 25 years, that the body does not lie. If someone tells me something that their body is strongly contradicting, I will usually give more credence to the body because we are sometimes past masters at fooling our own minds, but not our bodies.
Sex, and particularly penetrative sex, is a very powerful transfer of energy between people and my point is that it is not possible to have sex with someone without it having an impact, depending on the energy that is present in the two people at the time. Just as the air temperature will have an impact on us, so will sex. It is also true that depending on the individual’s sensitivity, the air temperature will have a greater or lesser impact. I think the same is true of sexual intercourse, but the impact will be present, to a greater or lesser degree.
Back to basic physics and resonance. Resonance occurs in two objects when the first object is vibrating at the natural frequency of the second object. In terms of sound, this is experienced in an increase in amplitude of the sound wave, and increased sound.(Link for further study of resonance below)
In sexual terms, it seems to me that when two people are able to blend their energies harmoniously, resonance occurs and the experience is a fulfilling, nourishing one. Sadly, the prevalence of porn on the internet as a way of understanding and learning about sex, means that any understanding of blend and harmony is often absent, and at best sex seems to be about emotional release, and at worst, all kinds of dominance, bullying and power.
True blending can only take place when two people are willing to be vulnerable to one another. One of the many reasons for sexual infidelity within relationships is that people find it too difficult to be vulnerable with the person with whom they are deeply emotionally involved. They then try to separate the arousal and excitement they experience in sex (particularly with a relatively unknown person) from the vulnerability that comes from sharing this most intimate of experiences with someone who knows them and all their weaknesses.
But in the same way as you would be unlikely to put yourself in the way of someone who was going to beat you physically, be wary of putting yourself in the way of someone who would energetically beat you up through the medium of sex. In the same way that convected heat can only be seen when sunlight and dust particles are present, the damage from the abuse of energy in sex is often (at least initially) invisible but nonetheless powerful. Learn to pay attention to your body and your energy – if you feel a ‘nagging anxiety’ or physical pain when contemplating sex, pause, listen to it and follow it. It has much wisdom, and particularly when you regularly pay attention to yourself in aligning and clearing your energy.
The law of energy conservation states that energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but only changed from one form to another and transferred from one object to another. So without going into morality, right/wrong, good/bad, when you decide to engage in sex, take some time to think about what energy you are giving or receiving, for there is no getting away from it and it will impact on you either positively or negatively……
This weekend I led a meditation on the word ‘Purpose’ as a way of beginning this New Year.
As a preparation for meditation, we allowed a symbol to come to mind that in some way represented Purpose. Over the many years that I worked with the teacher who taught me this meditation, she continually emphasized the importance of accepting the first symbol that came, whether or not it seemed wacky, or we understood its meaning or significance.
The last time I did this meditation, the image that came to me was of an acorn, for which I was most grateful. I first learnt this meditation when my University students were in their cradles, and I often feel that I have not learnt the lessons with which I was wrestling at the time. Oak trees are of course, extremely slow growing, but they are also very long lasting, and I was reminded to be patient with myself, and to value the process instead of looking for dramatic results.
This weekend the image that came was that of a Scarab Beetle. I was intrigued, knowing that the scarab beetle has some significance in Egyptian mythology, but not what, and also that beetles are not usually the most likeable of creatures! The ‘not knowing’ allowed me just to relax with the overall concept of Purpose, and not to get into my analytical mind, which has a habit of intruding on my meditations.
Afterwards I looked up Scarab Beetles. There are many types of scarabs, but perhaps the best known (and of interest to me) is the Dung Beetle.
‘Dung beetles have a keen sense of smell that allows them to hone in on their favourite food and use specialized mouth parts to draw out moisture and nutrients from the waste. Some species simply live in the dung, while others form perfectly spherical dung balls, which they roll with their hind legs, often over large distances, to a place where they can bury it. Females plant a single egg in a dung ball where it matures from larva to fully formed beetle, feeding off the waste. Because they move so much waste underground, dung beetles are considered essential to controlling disease and pests among livestock.’ National Geographic
I was pretty astonished at the symbolic references – for anyone interested, there is a fairly exhaustive article that begins in the Paleolithic era referencing shamans, and the ability of the beetles to both fly (address issues in the celestial world) and dive into the earth (acting as mediators between infernal powers and ordinary men.) Perhaps the best known is the Egyptian mythology which associates the scarab with the rising sun god Khepri – the association being of the god rolling the ball of the sun through the sky.
The symbol of the scarab was also used in burials – A large (3-10cm) “heart scarab” was suspended from the mummy’s neck with a gold wire or chain, not only as a token of resurrection, but as an advocate to help the deceased to present his defence before the tribunal. These scarabs were often made with green stone (basalt, schist, jade, etc.), for green was an auspicious colour.
The article ends in the 17th century, with references to German Jesuits and alchemists who associated the scarab with Christ, resuscitated from the dead; a promise of resurrection for all human beings!
Apart from anything else, this research demonstrates to me power of symbol, and the depth and breadth of meaning associated in one image.
But what stands out for me most of all, is that the scarab beetle takes shit, does something with it, and enables it to nourish and form new life. That sounds about what I do, and is a good enough purpose for me!
I began this Year at my favourite place in York – down by the river, near the Millenium Bridge.
I had spent the previous half hour taking part in a meditation shared by others around the country, reflecting on 2014, starting at the end and going back to the beginning. I have had a number of years that in many ways had been pretty challenging, and it was a joy to me to allow my mind to take me wherever it would, and to find for the most part, joy and gratitude.
Then each of us paused to see in the New Year as we wished, and followed that with another short meditation, finding our way into the New Year, and finding a word that connected us to the Year.
I had been thinking about this beforehand, and had been thinking about the word Balance (more on which in a later post), but two words came to me, and they were YES, and EMBRACE.
I have seen firsthand in my own life what it means to say YES, even when it seems frightening and there are many unknowns. It took me a couple of years of fear and vascillation before I I could say YES to moving to York, and now in just three years, I have a wonderful stockpile of memories and and experiences for which I am enormously grateful, and which would not be there without that initial YES.
What is it that you would like to say YES to in this coming year? Give yourself some time and space to write.
Write down whatever it is that you would like to say YES to, and then keep writing until all your fears and worries and logical reasonings as to why you should not/could not do that are all on paper, and you find that you have written to plan of how to get to that YES
Now go out and do it! Better still, at the end of the Year, write down what it was, and how you got there, and send it to me! I want to start a Treasure chest of Triumphs!
What immediately came to me, sitting on a plastic bag on a bench by the river at 00.05, 1/1/15 (floods over Christmas meant the benches were really muddy and I was well prepared!), was to EMBRACE those aspects of life which I normally spurned/criticised/feared, and see what I had been missing! Also, to EMBRACE myself – those aspects of myself which I daily spurn/criticise/fear.
Allow yourself to acknowledge those things which scare/annoy/frustrate you, and to wonder (preferably in writing) what it would be like to embrace them? And as Henrietta Klausner(author of Write it Down, Make it Happen) says, what might be the outcome of the outcome, and the outcome of that outcome….
Ask yourself the question “And because of that… then’ and keep asking, until you arrive at what, at depth, is important to you in Embracing whatever it is you are writing about. I am sure that in the process of this process, you will find the motivation to overcome your objection…
Wishing you a wonderful New Year, in which you Dare Greatly, say YES, and EMBRACE, and create a Treasure Chest of extraordinary memories for which to be thankful this time next Year!
USING ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE AND COACHING PRINCIPLES AS STRATEGIES FOR STRESS MANAGEMENT.
Alexander Technique principles are very simple, yet very profound when diligently applied.
The Principles in Everyday Language are these:
INCREASE AWARENESS (FORM A CLEAR INTENTION TO DO THIS!)
USE CONSCIOUS DIRECTION/INTENTION
PAY ATTENTION TO THE PROCESS
REPEAT UNTIL NEW HABIT IS FORMED.
INTENTION is my all time favourite word! Learn to develop a clear intention for your life, for your term, for your week, for your day. Then when you get discombobulated, you can remind yourself of your intention about anything in general or specific. You can notice whether what you are thinking or doing aligns with your intention, and the stronger you can hold your intention, the easier it becomes to align your actions. Truly powerful people, I believe, are those whose actions are most closely aligned with their intentions. Scarily, that applies in the negative sense as well as the positive, so take care in developing your intention!
In one sense, breathing is an enormously complex activity, in that once again, it often reflects anxieties, fears and difficulties – and research has shown that this also includes difficulties that your mother had in pregnancy! That explains why we don’t always find it easy to breathe freely and deeply. However, once again we can go back to the word INTENTION, and have the intention to breathe deeply and freely (even when we encounter our deep/old fears, which can sometimes be the cause for the feelings of faintness when we begin to release tension and breathe).
So have the intention to notice your breathing, and how, very often, when you are concentrating hard, or you are tense/anxious, you will find you are hardly breathing. It is impossible to breathe deeply when you holding extreme tension in your body, but equally, it is impossible to retain that tension when breathing deeply. So noticing shallow breath/held breath and deciding to breathe deeply (and freely) at each point of your noticing, helps break the cycle of tension and allows something different to happen, even if momentarily. Over time, this can make a huge difference in your level of pain or tension.
So the answer is to FEEL THE FEAR AND DO IT ANYWAY. Don’t repress your pain/fear/anger, but keep breathing, and breathe into that pain and through it. Amazing what this ‘simple’ thing can achieve!
AWARENESS – BODILY AND OTHERWISE
Learn to use your awareness as you would use peripheral vision. So make that an intention, and then see if you can allow yourself to be more aware of your body while doing other things. I believe that the body doesn’t lie, and it can become your best friend. When you are confused as to what you are thinking/feeling, your body will usually hold the answer. If you try and repress/suppress your feelings, your body will usually at some stage flag up what you are repressing by demonstrating to you your emotional pain in some physical way that makes you stop and pay attention.
CHOOSING YOUR THOUGHTS/ DEALING WITH OBSESSIVE THOUGHTS
We have +/- 40,000 thoughts a day and how many are under our control? Not very many is often the answer! This is the problem of the Pink Elephant – the more you tell yourself not to think of it, the bigger the image becomes in your mind! So we need to choose our thoughts, and once again we come back to the work INTENTION. If you have the intention to truly take care of yourself, then you will be more able to choose what to think, if you know that your obsessive thinking is not helping you.
PRACTICAL STRATEGIES FOR ACHIEVING THIS:
1. Bring your attention to your body by simply placing a hand/hands on your centre of gravity (few fingers below your navel). Remind yourself of your stability and strength and
3. Keep taking your attention outside yourself – I find it hugely helpful to notice nature – light, colour, water, wind, and particularly combining walking with noticing nature.
4. Create Boundaries. Notice whether talking about problems makes you feel better/feeds the obsession/makes you feel tense. Choose carefully to whom you speak/interact so that again, your INTENTION is to support yourself. Try and create time boundaries for dealing with/thinking about/talking about your problem, and if you are struggling with that, ask the other person to hold the time boundary for you. This way, you will still get to feel heard, which is very important, but will not be tempted to obsess.
5. Gratitude Diary – your Homework, should you choose to accept it.
Find at least 3 things each day, for which you are grateful.
The danger is that difficult issues can consume you, and of course there is so much else in your life about which you can choose to think and to which you can give your energy, which will nourish you, bring you joy and also support your INTENTION for a full and happy life. Our thoughts create a DIRECTION for our lives, and to some extent, create our life itself, so what we choose to focus on, and to think about, is HUGELY important. Have the INTENTION to bring to mind one or more of those things for which you are grateful, whenever you start feeling anxious/angry.
I fully realise that while all these things are pretty simple, that is not to say that they are easy.
Neuroscience research tells us it takes 3,000 repetitions(!) to break old neural pathways, so this will not be sorted in a day, and can seem tedious if you feel that you are getting somewhere with it, and then the old thoughts and habits kick in.
Again, INTENTION will help you stick with it
Neuroscientists also tell us that our thoughts create our reality – we are processing a staggering 400 billion actions per second in our brain, and every thought that we build actually changes the structure of the brain and impacts on the health of the body. (Dr Caroline Leaf, Neuroscientist).
So Science is now able to confirm the basis of the Alexander Technique, where we use conscious thoughts, intentions and directions to alter the way we respond to our everyday situations. And we can better understand that even if our situation does not change, we can alter our reality by our response to that situation, and choose health and well being over stress.
Most people do not really relate to the Language used by Alexander Technique, particularly as it was developed in the late 1800s! Hence my initial translation into everyday language.
But for those who do know the language, and who want to see how I arrived at my ‘version’, here it is!
In ‘Alexander Technique Language’ these would be expressed as follows:
REALISE YOU HAVE FAULTY SENSORY AWARENESS
USE CONSCIOUS CONTROL TO PROJECT NEW DIRECTIONS
PREVENT END GAINING AND PAY ATTENTION TO THE MEANS WHEREBY
REPEAT UNTIL OLD UNHELPFUL HABIT IS REPLACED BY NEW HABIT
In ‘Coaching Language’ these would be expressed as follows:
BECOME MORE AWARE SO THAT ‘CONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE’ BECOMES ‘CONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE’
PRACTICE NEW HABITS TO CHANGE ‘CONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE’ TO ‘CONSCIOUS COMPETENCE’
REPEAT UNTIL ‘CONSCIOUS COMPETENCE’ BECOMES ‘UNCONSCIOUS COMPETENCE’
A calm September morning full of the promise of a glorious early Autumn day..
I stopped at the park on the way to York Rowing Club to do some stretching and Qi Gong. As my breathing slowed and deepened, I drank in the glowing golds and russets of the first Autumn leaves and quietened my irrational fear of getting out on the river in a single scull for only the third time ever, but the first time in four months.
I had just started rowing at the beginning of summer (and getting back to tennis, swimming and Ceroc), when I was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma, and several operations put paid to any form of exercise for a while.
It’s September, and a challenging month for me. After a couple of years in York, I am beginning to build a reputation for my work, but my main source of income is still York University Music Department, and for the students, it is still summer vacation.
For everyone else, it is a new year and subscriptions are due and I am having a mental argument with myself about doing things that take time and cost money, rather than that earn it.
I chose self belief, and to follow the advice I had read recently:
“If you want to double your income, treble your learning”
As well as something I learned years ago:
“It’s not the things you do that you regret, it’s the things you don’t do” – actually that has also got me into all sorts of trouble, so not necessarily to be followed slavishly, but it seemed reasonable to apply it under these circumstances!
I have had an absolutely wonderful morning on the river. I have exercised by cycling and rowing, I have returned home feeling the elation of both exercise and the completion of a new and challenging task. I am sure that I will accomplish as much this afternoon as I would have done had I given myself the whole day for development, planning and administration of my business.
So here are my positive life thoughts from my morning:
1. Feel the Fear and do it Anyway.
I don’t know why I felt so anxious about rowing today. I have spent a reasonable amount of time in my life in various boats/kayaks/canoes/sailing dinghies and I love swimming (though not in the Ouse River, preferably). Something to do with expectation maybe, as I had done well in my first two times out on the river, but was not feeling confident of being able to reproduce that today.
I countered this by making sure I was in the best shape for success – stretching, meditative movement, breathing, and a practise session on the rowing machine.
Then I showed up, felt the fear and did it anyway, and of course, guess what? As soon as I was on the water, using my Alexander Principles (tips to follow), I felt fine! Exactly the same thing happened when I went back to skiing after six years, only that time I put it off for a day, and felt physically ill by the time I got myself onto the slopes – then had to deal with the frustration of wasting an afternoon’s skiing for no good reason…. sound familiar? If not, you’re lucky!
2. If you are feeling down, get out of the house and exercise/meet people for a boundaried amount of time in order to shift gear mentally and return to your tasks reinvigorated.
I appreciate this may not apply universally or all the time. But as I have to motivate my entire life and work myself, I found after moving here that it did me the power of good to get out and make sure I knew the world was carrying on around me, to breathe in the balm of nature and the river. And when occasionally I wonder if I am going to be able to keep making this all work by myself, I find it’s a sound strategy to employ.
3. Say yes to life.
It’s amazing how simple this is – and how powerful. So when there is a choice – just say yes and see what happens.
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” Goethe
ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE TIPS FOR THE NOVICE ROWER
1. As with many practical skills, the first key to success is your mind. Was going to use the term mindset, but it is flexibility of thought that translates into flexibility of action.
2.Keep flexibility of eyes. Fixed vision often translates directly into fixed musculature. Maintaining the use of peripheral vision (check out my other blogs if you don’t know what this is!) maintains fluidity that is essential for smooth sculling.
3. Maintaining a constant relationship of head neck and back (Primary control in Alexander Technique Jargon) contributes positively to a smooth rowing action. In other words, don’t stiffen your neck, and conversely don’t let your neck bend backwards as you throw your hands and move forward in the seat. (Apologies to any serious rowers if my rowing jargon is not yet up to speed!)
4. BREATHE! This may seem obvious, but in my many years of working with people, I find that most people who are anxious hold their breath, only allowing minimal respiration. Of course, once you are rowing well, and competitively, you will have to breathe, but when starting out, and being tentative, it is not such an obvious requirement.
I have found it true that if one is tense it is impossible to breathe freely, and the corollary, if one is breathing freely, it is impossible to tense!
Yesterday my daughter played her first ever basketball match and she played a blinder! I was able to channel all my competitiveness and enthusiasm for the game through her without having to move a muscle or expend a kilojoule!
As she pelted up and down the court, defending to the death, and finding space to shoot baskets on the attack, I swelled and swelled with maternal pride! The crowning moment came when she had been fouled and had to take a free shot. She looked consternated, balanced the ball awkwardly in one hand (not two, as any basketballer would tell you to do), did a sort of grunting heave ho……
And the ball sailed neatly straight into the basket!
While I was watching all this, my coaching brain was turning all the attributes I watched her display, into lessons I need to learn for myself!
1. BE PREPARED
She got up at 7am this morning in order to practise her flute before we went, and she made sure she had her kit clean and ready the night before.
‘FAILING TO PLAN IS PLANNING TO FAIL’
By thinking ahead, being clear about her goals, and fully prepared, she was able to fully enjoy the day.
2. BE FLEXIBLE
Basketball switches at lightning speed from defence to attack and back again. Both are equally important in winning a game. The first game I watched (not my daughter’s team), they managed to get the ball and attack, but however many times they got to the scoring end of the pitch, they just couldn’t seem to find the basket! Your team needs shooters to win a game. However, my daughter is a demon in defence, and even though she is new to the game, and hasn’t fully mastered dribbling at speed, or shooting on the move, she marked her man as though he were Peter Pan and she his shadow. Peter Pan happened to be one of the most dangerous players on the field, but once she glued herself to him, he was almost out of the game.
Know when to attack and create space to make an opening and seize the opportunities available to you, and when to defend your territory. Be flexible to switch between the two.
3.BE WILLING TO TRY, MAKE MISTAKES, AND POSSIBLY MAKE A FOOL OF YOURSELF
In practise sessions, I noticed that my daughter was not really willing to have a go at shooting, as she didn’t believe she was any good at it. Whenever she received the ball, her instinct was to get rid of it as fast as she could! But when it came to the match, her competitive instinct came to the fore, and she was willing to take the risk, and take the shot. She scored a significant number of baskets!
‘If you want to succeed, double your failure rate’. CEO, IBM
That’s right, double your failure rate! That really does mean failing twice as often as you have doing up to now. We learn by doing, by taking risks, showing up and trying. It applies to all of life, not just shooting baskets!
4.LEARN HOW TO MAXIMISE AND UTILISE THE SKILLS OF YOUR WHOLE TEAM.
My daughter and her friend were the novices on the team. I have noticed in practise, that the more experienced players often don’t pass to them, as they want to win – even though they are only practising with their own potential team mates! How can anyone learn unless they are given the ball to try something? And how does it help you win matches if you are only utilising half your team?
Some of the good players weren’t at the match, and so in the first game, my daughter and her friend, who are both tall, freed themselves to be near the basket, were passed balls by their team mates, and shot some useful baskets. So those who were good at dribbling, dribbled and those who were tall, but less good at dribbling, shot! Good use of resources.
In the last game, don’t know what had happened, but I heard one of the older students comment that they weren’t being passed the ball, and I noticed that they had gone from utilising the whole team to passing between the experienced players, but guess what? It was the only match they lost! And it only took a couple of players to have lost their oomph, for the defence to breakdown, and for them to go from leading to losing in three minutes!
‘You are only as strong as the weakest link.’
When working in a team, take time to build the skills of the whole team. Play and work smart – play to people’s strengths and look out for the skills and qualities of each team member.
5.AGGRESSION AND COMPETITIVENESS CAN BE USEFUL, BUT ONLY IF THEY ARE UNDER YOUR CONTROL, AND NOT CONTROLLING YOU!
Basketball is one of those sports where there is a fair amount of on-court gamesmanship. Assertiveness is definitely an advantage, but competitiveness and a spot of aggression can come in handy when someone is trying to steal the ball from you! But control is the key! It is the difference between a brilliant block and a foul – between saving a few points or giving them away on a plate. And if my memory serves me correctly, sometimes one just needs to stand still because if you are in the way but not moving, I don’t think it is possible to foul, but it is sometimes possible to prevent a shot being taken.
Self control is the key to harnessing competitiveness, assertiveness and even aggression to use them for achieving our goals. Lose control and we can lose the game!
6. KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN TO SEE OBSTACLES, OPPORTUNITIES & HELP AVAILABLE ALONG THE WAY
When you have made a brilliant steal and are making a break for the far end of the court, it is sometimes easy to be so focused that you don’t see the obstacles (the opposition) or the help (your team- mate standing under the basket) available. Sometimes sheer determination or the thrill of going for glory means we miss the help available AND the basket! Sometimes it’s better to be the person who made the brilliant pass that set up the basket, rather than the person who hogged the ball and missed the points!
When working or playing in the team, often the WIN-WIN situation is the one where we accept the skills and help of others in the team and go for the overall win, rather than going for solo glory and more probable downfall.
Changing habits can be simple, but unfortunately simple does not mean easy! However, by following these five steps, you WILL achieve change!
Form and maintain a clear of intention of the outcome you wish to achieve. This intention will provide the energy and direction required to proceed, and to overcome apparent obstacles.
In order to really ‘see’ the obstacles in our path, we must be willing to truly look, and this can sometimes be a challenge to the ego, which feels less threatened by ignorance!
Awaken, sharpen and refine your awareness of your habits. The tricky thing here is that habits are by their very nature subconscious. So you need an accurate ‘mirror’ or feedback system to highlight what is currently hidden. Engage your creativity, ingenuity, and all your senses to find ways of increasing the multi-sensory information you are giving yourself in order to improve this awareness.
If you were walking in the mountains with a map, but were lost, the map would be useless unless you could first locate y
our current position. The same is true of ourselves and our habits.
The cerebellum is largely responsible for coordinating the unconscious aspects of proprioception.
Because of the unconscious nature of habit, it is most useful at the outset to enlist the assistance of an objective third party(teacher) who can give both accurate feedback, and hopefully (if correctly trained) assist you to achieve the desired outcome.
In the absence of such a teacher, or in between teaching sessions, video can be a useful tool. Proprioceptive senses are challenged to engage in a process without immediate visual feedback, and then this is checked against the visual and auditory feedback provided by the (good quality) video.
A mirror is a poor third best, as it does not develop the proprioceptive sense.
If you are dealing with a mental or emotional habit, then it is helpful to understand the triggers to that habit. Again, ideally with trained assistance, or without if it is possible, you can use your ingenuity and creativity to recreate those triggers in a safe environment so that you can practise becoming aware of your responses. Body and breath are useful tools here, as it is often said that ‘The Body speaks the Mind’.
Many responses to an ‘emotional’ trigger will show up in your physicality, for example anxiety producing sweaty palms, shortening of breath and tightening of the the stomach muscles.
For those of you interested in the neuroscience of why?, the following link about the amygdala may be of interest.
We begin to understand that we are indivisible ‘selves’. So as our awareness expands, we often notice that our habits we would term ‘physical’ , for instance a tightening of the breath in singing, can have ‘emotional’ triggers or components, eg fear of failure.
In order to have accurate awareness we need to keep reconnecting to our INTENTION. WIthout accurate awareness, we can just practise different, unhelpful habits! Without connecting to our INTENTION, we can create further pressure, which then creates further tension, and undermines our best efforts for change!
In order to change a response to a stimulus, we need to make the unconscious, conscious. In order to do this, it is usually imperative to create a pause, be it ever so infinitesimal, in order to prevent the unconscious, habitual response from occurring.
Breath is often a very useful first port of call. I have found it to be true that it is impossible to breathe freely while maintaining tension, and conversely, to maintain tension while breathing freely. As much (though not all) of our inappropriate response to stimulus involves excessive tension, awareness of breath, and use of conscious breath, can be a very helpful way of creating this pause.
Having succeeded in becoming aware of our unhelpful habit or response to stimulus, and created the pause necessary to prevent responding in our habitual way, we use our conscious mind to give an instruction/invitation to the body and mind to respond in a new and chosen way. The efficacy of this new instruction will depend to some extent on the effect and depth of the old habit. Neuroscience teaches us that it takes 300 repetitions to create a new neural pathway (in other words, to allow a new habit to become unconscious), but 3000 repetitions to break an old habit!
Which leads us to the fifth step –
We need to repeat this entire process. We maintain our intention, engage our awareness, create a pause between the stimulus and response, and continue to give the conscious instruction to ourselves which creates the new habit.
FM Alexander (founder of the Alexander Technique – a powerful method for changing unhelpful habits) said that ‘If we stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing will do itself. Sounds simple and it is, but that doesn’t mean it is easy!
Very often, our desire to achieve a particular result can make us forget the steps necessary to achieve it. This creates a pressure which usually involves more tension, and undermines the process necessary to achieve the result!
POST SCRIPT FROM MY EXPERIENCE
We humans are complicated! While we may outwardly assert that we wish to change a particular habit, we may notice that when it comes down to it, we strenuously resist taking the steps which our logical minds know we require to make those changes. In such instances, we may need help to delve more deeply into why we are resisting. In my experience, it is almost inevitably a result of some fear that we have not yet recognised or acknowledged. It may take considerable patience and compassion for ourselves as well as courage, to uncover the fear which limits our ability to perform and to connect with others as we would wish. It is also still true I believe, that by applying these five steps to the different layers of the problem, we can find a way to change!
This article was inspired by a workshop given by Alex Ashworth at York University.
Alongside a flourishing career as a soloist, Alex is currently Professor of Singing at the Royal Academy of Music and visiting professor at various (unpronounceable) institutions in Iceland in addition to teaching singing in the Music Department at York University.
As I rock hopped along a river bank, looking for a short cut across to the hill on the far side, I was reminded of how hard I find it to trust my footing on uneven rocks, and how that tends to make me look at my feet, and move very gingerly, taking time to test my footing on each rock.
While that sounds a sensible approach, in practice, it doesn’t work very well! One of the most helpful aspects of moving across uneven and potentially wobbly surfaces, is forward motion. That forward motion counteracts the potential for overbalancing when stepping on a rock which is either slippery or insecure. However, it takes some courage to commit to that forward motion, and more importantly, takes the use of our peripheral vision.
Walter Carrington, a pupil of FM Alexander, and famous teacher of the Alexander Technique, used to say that where the eyes lead, the body follows. When the eyes fix and focus on a single object, the body tends to tense, and if that object is on the ground, the body tends to lose any upward or forward energy. It follows then, that if the ground proves insecure, the body is not well placed to deal with the vitally necessary adjustments.
With the use of peripheral vision, which takes in the broader landscape, the body remains flexible, upright, and alert, and well placed for dealing with unexpected crises. I often do an interesting experiment with clients regarding the use of peripheral vision. I stand behind them as close as possible with my arms out to the front on either side of their head. Asking them to look ahead, and not move their eyes, I slowly move my hands apart, asking them to let me know when they can no longer see my hands. Usually my hands are almost 180 degrees to their head before they are unable to see them! That means, that without moving our eyes AT ALL, we have the facility to see everything in the hemisphere in front of us! How many of us actually use that facility?
Applying it to rock hopping, or to walking in general, I find it fascinating that most people walking on uneven ground watch the ground immediately in front of their feet. I would invite you to experiment with walking looking ahead of you, and consciously engaging peripheral vision, this time in the vertical plane, so that you are allowing your eyes to take in what’s ahead, but also everywhere from your feet forward. The brain is easily able to process all this information, and I think you may be pleasantly surprised at how easily you are able to navigate difficult terrain, and to make any adjustments necessary to compensate for loose rocks and uneven ground!
I have memories of my time in Africa when a boyfriend and I had gone on his off-road motorbike up into the hills and had encountered basically a road of boulders. I was terrified, clinging onto him, and making him inch forward at snail’s pace. Eventually he lost control of the bike, being unable to hold its weight at such a slow pace, and we came a cropper (fortunately not serious!). Being very bright, he proceeded to explain to me the physics of why I really needed to let him get some speed, and reluctantly I agreed. Suffice to say we completed the rest of the journey without mishap!
From the coaching perspective, it is also useful to remember to keep looking ahead, while taking in your surroundings, and not to get bogged down in difficult circumstances. It is important to remain flexible, both in mind and body, and to realise that although something can seem frightening and unsafe, that moving forward with care and flexibility can get us through times and situations that at first sight can seem insurmountable.