Everything you can

It’s been 2 years since I’ve practiced yoga at Down Dog in Bethesda, and I was worried about it this morning.  That place is serious and I’ve never taken a class there that was less than beyond challenging.  My lower back was on the top of my list; my hamstrings, at the bottom.

“Dig deeper,” teacher Rachel Dolan said just when I was considering going into child’s pose. For good.

“It’s not forever, just for now.”

If you don’t live in Florida or Mexico or Jamaica or California or Arizona, these are the dog days of winter. I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for 5 years, and I don’t think we went to a movie theater for 6 months. Every time we thought about going, one of us would say, let’s wait for a dreary day.

We’ve had worse winters in the Northeast but regardless of how dreary it is, it’s still dreary.

Day after day.

And so it gets harder and harder to wake up on a cold, dark morning and head outside for a run or to the gym for a workout. And it’s just as difficult after work when it’s also cold and dark.

Or in the middle of the day when it’s cold and dark and even when the sun’s out because it’s just so cold.

The day before I was leaving for Jamaica in early December for my first marathon, I was having lunch with Neile, and it was a miserable, rainy day.

“Did you run this morning?” Neile asked me.

“I did,” I admitted.

“Outside?”

I tried to explain to Neile that I half prefer exercising when the weather is less than ideal – when it’s raining, or snowing, or just really cold.

“I've got all these things to deal with when it rains,” I started to say.  “I’ve got to watch out for wet leaves, and fallen branches, which keeps me focused, and I think it helps me get tough.”

As I was listening to my own words, I was thinking I might be sounding ridiculous even if I knew getting tough, or building endurance, was a personal goal.

“Anyway I hate the treadmill,” I said, “so I try to run outside.”

Today was supposed to be a run day – a long run, according to my training plan and my return to run progression, which I’m taking seriously and trying to follow thoughtfully (ok obsessively).  And I was looking forward to doing this on the last day of a 3-day weekend.

For the next few weeks, the progression has me putting in substantial mileage, sometimes 3 days in a row, which is logistically difficult because of work. Last week I split a 7-mile run by doing 4 miles on the treadmill before work and 3 miles after.  But then I was ending up washing my hair 2 times a day, which is not great for my hair.

One morning I headed to the gym earlier than usual and pushed (forced) myself to get in 7 miles, the most I’ve ever done on a treadmill.

I played music, listened to half a podcast, started to watch The Affair (SIE1).  In some ways it was a relief to just show up with a bottle of water and running shoes and get in a long run without checking off everything I might need on a trail run. But still I was pretty ADD. And actually probably not that pretty because by the end I was so sweaty I had taken off half my clothes.

It was 18 degrees but sunny and not too windy. It's downhill from Chevy Chase to Georgetown so at least there's that. I set my alarm an hour before I wanted to wake up so I could use a heating pad to warm my hamstrings (that was Coach Ann Alyanak's suggestion), and I sat on it while I had coffee and breakfast. I didn't feel cold during the run except my glutes, which never warmed up. I experimented with using the hand dryer on my glutes at Fletcher's Cove but felt silly and gave up. I'll need to research this one.

It was 18 degrees but sunny and not too windy. It's downhill from Chevy Chase to Georgetown so at least there's that. I set my alarm an hour before I wanted to wake up so I could use a heating pad to warm my hamstrings (that was Coach Ann Alyanak's suggestion), and I sat on it while I had coffee and breakfast. I didn't feel cold during the run except my glutes, which never warmed up. I experimented with using the hand dryer on my glutes at Fletcher's Cove but felt silly and gave up. I'll need to research this one.

Partially because I’m still sore from my early morning 9-mile run on Saturday but also because it is even too blustery and icy for me to convince myself it’s safe to run outside, I decided to try an hour-and-15-minute yoga class in a 95-degree yoga studio infused with patchouli that I knew from experience would be both mentally and physically difficult.

I’m always amazed when I look around the room in that studio and notice how fit everyone is. I used to wonder if the morning yoga class was just a preamble to their daily workout or run. Because it’s been so long since I’ve been to Down Dog I couldn’t resist reflecting on how my demeanor has changed. It’s a fast-paced power flow and although I know it’s ok to go at your own pace you never want to. 

Today I didn’t need to.

“Surf your edge,” is what Rachel, also a performer, dancer, and choreographer, said just as I was discovering mine.

Surf your edge.

Two years ago if someone told me to surf my edge I’d be conflicted about whether she was talking about Rossignols or actual surfboards. In either case I’d be like whatever because the idea would have simply flew right past me.

So this morning it occurred to me that allowing myself to be uncomfortable - not forever, just for now - is starting to pay off outside running.  Because I was able to keep up during this morning’s class, I could focus on what I was supposed to be focusing on – my breath, my form, my balance – instead of when the class was gonna end. I’m not saying I wasn’t ready for it to end, because I was, it’s just that I was also able to stay in the moment one challenge at a time.

Not forever, just for now, one by one.

In my conversations with Neile and other friends who exercise regularly we often talk about whether we’re seeing real benefits to the time we put in on the trail or at the gym. We're not purists, and we're very aware of the many cosmetic surgery and dermatologic options as our metabolisms slow down or otherwise change. Of course there’s how we look and feel that matter but that’s not the most important aspect of exercise that’s worth considering.

I told Neile that before I started making exercise a routine I used to wake up in the mornings with an awareness of my bones, my frame. Now when I wake up and, in the words of strength coach James Kilgallon, do a self-assessment, I’m rested and energized. I can still feel spots that need work but typically it only takes 10 minutes of moving before I feel pretty great. 

Which for me is great, yet what Kilgallon is focusing on is developing “power habits,” the ones that can have a cascading affect on other areas of your life.  He puts exercise as the no. 1 power habit because exercise is a catalyst for change and growth.

Aside from getting me to look and feel better exercise has helped me develop endurance and build resilience. Which is, at any age, like money in the bank.

And I don't need to mention how important it is to exercise vigorously in terms of achieving and maintaining overall health. There’s practically a new scientific study published every day that reports this. 

I do feel and look better and everything in my closet fits, yet for me, the pay off of exercise as a power habit is about being the opposite of fragile. "Fragile" is not a word that anyone would have used to describe me when I was younger, but becoming mentally and physically fragile is a hazard for both men and women as the years tick by.

Toughing it out by running in the rain or the snow or by twisting a bit more in a hot yoga studio is acknowledging that I am tough, that I am resilient.

That if I need to, when I need to, I can hang in there.

Surf my edge.

Dig deeper.

Not forever. Just for now.

See you next time!