Category Archives: Philosophizing

How Being “Disciplined” Can Be Undisciplined

Photo courtesy of Jody Sanborn/Jay Em Photography

Photo courtesy of Jody Sanborn/Jay Em Photography

When I was a much younger climber, I truly believed that sticking to my rigid seven-days-a-week training schedule and diet meant that I was a supremely disciplined athlete. No matter how I felt on any given day when I awoke, my training and diet plan provided me with structure and control over my reality, and I had supreme faith that by adhering to this severe program, I would at some point in the future prevail, that I would be able to mold (or should I say, “beat?”) my body into the climber I dreamed of being.

All sorts of evidence to the contrary did not shake my unwavering attachment to this type of training protocol. Never mind that many of the stronger climbers I often climbed with did not do what I did in terms of pitches per day, cardio activities, training approach, or diet. Nope. I had that sort of smug superiority that I think is hard to admit fully to oneself exists, but I definitely had it: a sort of sense that even if all these people aren’t doing what I do, at some point my commitment to restricted eating and rigorous training and a regimented climbing schedule will yield phenomenal results.

And now?

Today is my third rest day in a row, and I slept for 10 hours last night. I still feel tired, and it’s a relief not to be climbing. My shoulders still ache today, so another rest day won’t be a bad thing at all. Why climb? Why not rest? Why not explore restorative yoga more deeply? I find myself drawn to this practice now more than ever…comprehending now finally that the tightness and tension in my shoulders and neck probably have something to do with not managing stress in a life that has the potential to be relatively stress-free; I still overreact to nonemergency situations at times (especially when I’m tired) and overwork myself, too. Calming my mind through deliberate but conscious stillness; this practice of restorative yoga encourages me to open and relax areas of the body so tight from climbing, but not with the forceful (hatha) way that I tend to approach so many things, particularly about my own self and body.

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

And yet, I want to train physically, too – I want to push through some more strength and conditioning exercises soon, but I still feel that I’ve been imbalanced in my approach to this. More activity on days off from climbing is too often not what my body needs. More rest on days off is what it could use, for sure. Restful, mindful, calming yoga practice, not athletic Vinyasa flow practice. Not more lifting or climbing right now. More rest. What a beautiful thing to realize and be okay with! I’m fitter and stronger right now than I’ve ever been. Still as always, I’m not entirely satisfied with where I am; I want to be stronger and fitter yet again. And yet there is a deeper satisfaction with where I am than I used to be able to grasp; is this the start of being content with self as is, in this present moment, while still working toward improving? Perhaps.

Like so many others, I (still) have a tendency to be drawn to that which my body-being needs less of. Like attracts like; we so often resist what we need the most and will argue until we’re blue in the face as to why we need what we love to do so much, and why we don’t need what we actually would most likely benefit more from. Such is the reason why I avoided steep climbing, weight training, pull-ups, and restful practices/enough rest days for so long. And yet, so predictably it’s almost comical, it turns out that all of the above help me more than my old routine – not just in terms of climbing, but in terms of more graceful, balanced living.

Routines can be helpful but also damaging; conditioning the body to an exact and predictable routine might settle the monkey-mind’s jabbering about “losing fitness” and such, but in actuality, too much routine leads inevitably to stagnation and plateauing, again, in any area of life, not just climbing. It makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint; bodies adapt. That’s what they do! They’re built to adapt and to use less and less energy to perform the same tasks as they adapt. Carry on with the exact same routine for long enough, and you may actually start to lose some fitness, strength, or other type of growth as your being becomes adjusted and capable and efficient, needing to expend less energy and effort to perform what once was a challenge. Stagnation and plateauing ensues, but the comfort of the routine remains, like a security blanket not to be pried from clenching hands, determined to hide under the comforting shroud, even as the comfort slips away more and more.

Climbing 10+ pitches of vertical technical climbing per climbing day, four to five days a week…running six days a week for at least three miles per run with at least two runs of six+ miles…having the same basic personal yoga routine done from age 10 through age 38…bouldering in the gym for 4 to 6 hours per session during the off season in the hopes of developing more power and strength…sleeping six to seven hours a night regularly…stressing out about mundane mistakes…dieting by counting calories and restricting food in the hopes of taking magical pounds away to improve climbing performance and body composition…not resting according to how the body feels but according to a set schedule…

The above are just some of the dysfunctional routines I have engaged in in the past, routines that maybe served me somewhat well on the grand scheme of living life, but definitely warranted a closer look and adjustment to start reaching toward a deeper level of contentment (santosha).

For me, true discipline has come from understanding that it’s only my mind that wants a rigid routine; it’s actually more likely a smarter and more effective approach to have a less linear and predictable approach to training and climbing, as the supremely adaptable body tends to plateau with enough time spent on any given exercise regimen or routine; the more the same it’s kept without variation within the consistency, the more likely a plateau (or even a backslide due to adaptation and more efficient performance of the routine as movements become refined and less energy/effort is expended to perform those movements) is to happen.

Don’t get me wrong here. I still like routines and tend to want structure and to want to cling to routines, for sure. But awareness of this helps me mess with them more readily; knowing that regularly messing with the routine schedule or training plan will probably help push my body in a new direction, whether I change how many days or how intensely I train or where I climb or what I climb. Resting more can be good; there’s not a set number of days per week that a person must climb or train in any given week in order to achieve their optimal potential. Weeks are merely constructs that help us structure and schedule time, but a week is arbitrary in terms of the body. In fact, I strongly believe that the best way to improve at anything is to strike that delicate balance between consistency and variation – making sure things are never too routine and predictable, but that the same pertinent themes are repeated often enough to encourage whatever areas need the most improvement to improve.

Again, I’m not just talking about climbing or training here – I’m talking about the process of making changes for anyone, whether the desired changes are mental, emotional, physical, or a combination of the three. Adaptation takes time and persistence; a flexible, sustainable, and intelligently thought-out approach can help expedite the process more than a rigid structure with no wiggle room and no allowance for changes to goals as you go. As you change, your body-being’s needs will change, too, no matter what you do and where you are in your life’s journey. What serves you well today may not benefit you in the same way tomorrow. What served you well yesterday may not be ideal for you today. True self-discipline does not revolve around blindly following a routine no matter how you feel. Rather, it involves developing an awareness of these often subtle changes and a comprehension of how to manipulate your training or climbing approach (and your life approach) according to what’s ideal for your body-being on any given day.

Studying oneself (swadhisthana) with an open mind can help provide the feedback needed to creatively and adeptly respond to one’s changing needs and growth in any and all areas, as can asking for outside input from others, particularly those who know you best and/or are more informed on whatever topic you’re looking for guidance on than you are. Resting, looking inward, and pausing, or stilling the fluctuations of the mind (chitta vritti nirodha), can help you tune into your own inner truth, enabling you to embrace a productive and fulfilling approach for yourself in the present while also shining a spark of light onto your future path that has yet to be illuminated. Step by step, it will light up, shining ever more brightly as you fall into living more fully and embracing your own truth.

Release Your Expectations and Embrace Your Inspiration

Photo courtesy of Jody Sanborn/Jay Em Photography

Photo courtesy of Jody Sanborn/Jay Em Photography

“Action based on inspiration and not bound by expectation is truly free.” (from The Path of the Yoga Sutras: A Practical Guide to the Core of Yoga, by Nicolai Bachman)

Staying present from moment to moment, being fully engaged in whatever activity you’re involved in, without anticipation about or stress over the potential reward or outcome…how often do you experience this type of timeless existence in your daily living?

Yoga asana practice can help focus the body-breath-being into one coherent whole, providing an opportunity to enjoy a worry-free, all-consuming experience of being wholly alive and unified mentally, physically and emotionally. Silencing the mental chatter, letting go of stress or concerns about the past or the future and staying present with where and who you are at this exact moment in time on the mat provides an outlet, a release, a freeing space and time in which you get to just be, without judgment from inside or from without. In yoga practice, you carve out a sacred personal space and time in which you do not allow media to bombard and barrage the senses, disconnecting from the otherwise often nearly constant slough of emails and texts and messages and social media that keep our minds hyped up and overstimulated.

Many other activities can provide this same opportunity for release, freedom from the stressors and stimuli of daily living, a chance to “get away from it all” without actually needing to escape to some far-flung island retreat. People find this type of release in running, climbing, dancing, singing, playing a musical instrument, and playing any sport – a wide variety of such outlets exist. These outlets enable you to take the time to honor yourself by making the space in your world to give yourself an experience of just being whole and present and fully okay with who you are in the moment, not bringing extraneous “stuff” into that moment with you.

It’s the “stuff” that can actually violate or diminish your experience – if you invite expectations (thoughts of future gain or reward or frets about a potentially negative outcome) into your current actions, you have already sacrificed some of your experience of presence in the now. Admittedly, it can be really hard to detach from craving certain outcomes or fretting about worrisome expectations. However, if you can let go of such restraints and express and be who you are in each moment – and be okay with it, whatever the outcome, knowing that you are there to experience exactly who you are right now, with all your capabilities and all your human fallibilities too – you will be able to embrace, accept and enjoy whatever each period of practice in your given activity yields, whether it’s a sudden newfound ability to do a headstand without assistance, or an inability to high point your climbing project, or anything in between. Just being there and being present with who you happen to be on any given day, letting your inspiration guide you rather than any future expectations, will be enough.

“…whatever happens as a result of our action is exactly what is meant to happen, even if it doesn’t match what we expect.” (from The Path of the Yoga Sutras: A Practical Guide to the Core of Yoga, by Nicolai Bachman)

Rethinking the Concepts of Right and Wrong for Climbing, Training, Yoga and Life

Photo courtesy of Jay Em Photography

Photo courtesy of Jay Em Photography

“Am I doing this pose wrong?”

“I did that move wrong.”

“That’s the wrong way to train.”

It happens in climbing and yoga, both, as well as in so many other human interactions – an overly harsh judgement of self and/or others as categorically wrong, often followed by a defensive, angry reaction and a shut-down to any advice, no matter how well-informed or well-intentioned the advice-giver might be. This closing off can lead to a person giving up on the activity at hand entirely and deeming themselves hopelessly “bad” at it, or conversely, on the person moving even more staunchly toward his or her initially held but perhaps less efficient/less effective means toward making significant progress in whatever area is in question. Both of these responses can lead to a less-than-desirable outcome, an outcome where a person sabotages their own deepest desire to improve at a particular activity.

I have long preferred to use the terms “more efficient” and “more effective” rather than “wrong” to describe how to perform particular climbing moves. After all, if you’ve completed the move, you’ve done it, so it can’t be completely “wrong.” It’s not so black and white. What is true is that there might be a more efficient way to do that particular move, and that increased efficiency will likely be a more effective way to climb through this move, decreasing your energy output and giving you more energy to climb the rest of the route. But what’s efficient and effective for one climber may not be the same as the next, since every body is different in terms of height, reach, composition, age, experience, strengths, and comparably not-as-strong areas, and so forth. It’s up to each person to be willing and open to explore new approaches to climbing beta, knowing all of the above plays into each outcome.

In a comparable fashion, more efficient/effective training for climbing has become my aim. What I seek in guiding my own and others’ training to improve at rock climbing is the quickest sustainable path to seeing a tangible increase in climbing ability level. Does this mean that other, possibly contradictory or conflicting training methods are absolutely wrong? In most cases, not categorically (though there are some exceptions to this, just like with yoga there are some ways to do certain asanas, or poses, in a potentially injurious fashion). But for the most part, any type of fitness training is better than no training; any type of sport-specific training is better than no sport-specific training; and any sport-specific training designed to address your own particular areas that hold you back is better than non-individualized sport-specific training. Training isn’t summarily “wrong” unless it makes you injured or worse at what you’re trying to improve at.

Similarly, I tend to believe that yoga poses and practices aren’t unconditionally “wrong” unless they cause injury – but refining poses and practices so that they  better address the areas they can help open, balance, and strengthen more is a worthy endeavor. As Donna Farhi says in “Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living,” “The only ideal practice is the one that works for you.” Pushing and forcing the body-mind to align in a way that it isn’t open, flexible or strong enough to align in yet is therefore not recommended. Staying with the body-mind where it is presently, and gently working to move step by step toward the next level of deepening the asana or practice in question makes much more sense – without ever labeling oneself harshly as “wrong” for not looking or feeling like an accomplished and experienced yogi in every pose or practice right out of the gate, or for not being able (yet) to follow along when a yoga teacher makes a suggestion for how to deepen or refine a pose or practice.

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

So why do so many of us have a knee-jerk reaction when a teacher gently suggests a new approach to a familiar pose? For the same or a similar reason why, I think, people get offended and argumentative sometimes about the validity of certain proven and widely accepted (in general sports training arenas) athletic training techniques and methods that might not be what they expected to do, wanted to do, or have long-held the belief that they should or should not do to improve at climbing. And for the same reason people sometimes resist trying new beta for a climbing move, even when they are struggling with their own beta repeatedly. When someone calls into question something that we hold to be true, such as “I’m this advanced in this yoga pose,” or “This is what I’ve always done to train for climbing, plus this other really talented climber agrees with me,” or “My beta is right for me,” we feel threatened.

On some level we might not even be aware of, we don’t want to be “wrong,” so we fight like hell to prove that we are right, often resisting the suggestions of the other person or people, however much more well-informed they may be or however helpful their intentions might be, because we don’t want to get out of our self-made comfort zones of rightness. But what if we could just dump the damning labels of wrongness and rightness entirely, clear our heads, and start with beginner’s minds, without the verbal chit-chat that arises when someone calls into question our well-worn pathways or methods of executing a pose/practice or training plan or climbing beta (or any other area)? How much more would we stand to improve if we stopped and truly listened to others, particularly to those who have spent years studying, researching, experimenting with, and testing the area(s) in question, and particularly if we ourselves have spent relatively little to no time researching or working with the area(s) in question?

In my yoga teacher training to earn my RYT-200, my teacher did not mince words about our asana practice as a whole group. It was a great cleansing of ego and opening of beginner’s mind to reexamine and refine the poses and sequences I think we all thought we “knew” upon arrival. Repeatedly we experienced a deep refinement, step by step, of familiar poses and sequences. I learned all sorts of details that I’d never even thought of or understood before about asana practice. Did I leave my 200-hour training feeling like an accomplished yoga expert, though? Nope – I felt like I’d only just scratched the surface. Honestly, I still do.

Since then, I’ve had people sadly inform me when I make a refinement suggestion that I’ve “taken all their progress away” in a yoga pose – which is the exact opposite of what a refinement suggestion is supposed to make a person feel. A suggestion by a teacher to change one’s approach to a pose is an offering to help the student find a deeper connection and benefit from the asana, not a harsh judgement of wrongness. In terms of climbing movement, the same as above is true – a suggestion to modify or change the way a person does a climbing move is an effort to help that person climb more efficiently and effectively, not a harsh judgement of wrongness. And in terms of climbing training, the same as above is true – a suggestion to improve the efficacy and efficiency of a person’s training program is not a personal attack on that person or the climber/trainer they’ve been working with previously; it is a genuine effort to help that person improve at climbing more efficiently and effectively.

Notice that none of the above are personal; they are not about attacking a person’s inner self or finding fault or wrongness with that person’s intentions or efforts. Rather, they are (or at least, should be!) offered by teachers and guides in an effort to assist another person to get more out of their chosen activities. And, as always, a person on the receiving end of this advice has a choice to make, and that choice is his or hers to make alone. I have definitely had refinements suggested for yoga asanas or practices that I’ve decided I don’t agree with for myself as a individual, along with the many refinements that I have incorporated into my own personal practice and teachings. Ditto for climbing moves and for climbing training methods. For me, it comes down to what makes the most logical sense in any given situation, taking into account the background of the information giver, the way it feels in my body/being, the results I see in my practice or training or performance, how it works (or doesn’t work) for others, and the support I can find from other reliable sources about the suggested piece of information.

This doesn’t mean we become automatons or minions of those who have studied more than ourselves or who possess deeper experience with whatever area we’re talking about – not at all. Asking questions about why such a modification or change might be desirable is always a good plan, and most responsible teachers, guides, friends and coaches will be happy to try to provide sound answers and supportive explanations and sources for the reasons behind why they choose to approach yoga, climbing, training, or whatever else you might be exploring the way that they do. It’s up to each of us as individuals to keep our minds open to new ideas and concepts while keeping our discernment and healthy discretion alive and aware as well. In this way, we can continue to learn, grow and change in positive directions and expand our potentials as human beings in whatever areas we wish to grow without losing our core sense of inner trust in our own abilities to weed out what doesn’t work for us and to celebrate and share what does.