Tag Archives: happiness

The Fitness of Helping Others

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.









At one point in my past, a person told me with great disdain, “You only want to help other people because it makes you feel good about yourself.”

Think about that for a second.

What, if anything, is so inherently wrong about feeling good about yourself?

Lots of people struggle with negative feelings about themselves, much of the time. Judging oneself harshly is a common issue – finding oneself lacking and being filled with self-loathing. Many people tend to be way crueler in their own self-assessments than they would in assessing anyone else.

Getting outside of yourself by assisting others in need can help you put negative feelings and judgments about yourself in perspective. You see that you can do good works and that you have something valuable to give.

And guess what – it’s actually okay to feel good about yourself when you do this!

There are proven health benefits you’ll get from serving others, as a 2013 study reported in BMC Public Health concluded, including the following:

  • Reduced incidence of depression
  • Improved sense of overall wellbeing
  • Lowered risk of death later in life

Note that these are not direct physical fitness benefits. However, I believe that we tend to separate the mind from the body too much in our culture. Mind and body are inextricably linked, and a healthy, happy mind obviously has an impact on your quality of life and your overall fitness.

Enough about all of this “selfishness” – the personal, individual benefits YOU get from giving. Now, take a moment to think about the people (or animals, or environment) whose lives you’ll touch and help improve from your willingness to donate whatever you have to give – time, money, skills, expertise, labor, whatever – and imagine how much they can potentially benefit from your generosity.

One caveat about giving to others: Make sure you are giving freely with no expectations of a specific outcome or of getting personal recognition or gains. You are giving simply to give, free and clear.

Also, it helps if the way you choose to give resonates with you personally. For example, if you hate working with children, volunteering to work with children probably shouldn’t be you service effort of choice.

Doing something that you actually enjoy or at least don’t mind doing will put you in a more giving frame of mind, and if you come into an activity with positive energy, those around you will more likely than not pick up on it. Ditto for negative energy.

By helping others, by volunteering, by giving back in whatever way works for you, both you and others benefit. Everyone wins, and everyone involved reaps rewards. What could possibly be wrong with that equation?

Volunteer for the health and fitness benefits you will gain. Feel good about yourself when you do.

Go ahead, be selfish.

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.

Reflections on Climbing After More Than 20 Years: Why I (Still) Love Climbing

Photo by Jody Sanborn

Photo by Jody Sanborn, Jay Em Photography

“A life practice, then, is anything that we do over an extended period of time that consistently and reliably deepens the connection to our experience and expression of aliveness. … All such activities, if practiced mindfully and with passionate devotion, can be called a form of Yoga.” (from “Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living,” by Donna Farhi)

Climbing possesses an incredible potential to keep pushing a person to have new and novel experiences of being oneself and of being human, whether that person has been climbing for two days or 20+ years. It provides ceaseless opportunities for complete engagement in each moment, of total presence in the here and now. This is what so captivated me the very first day I climbed: this nonverbal state of total-being absorption plus the creativity involved in solving the puzzle made climbing appealing and engrossing to me immediately.

Now, more than 20 years after I first tied in and stepped off the ground, climbing still consistently encourages me to learn and grow in new directions, to expand my comfort zone. It’s a lifelong practice of self-study and self-examination on so many levels. The combination and coordination of physical gains, technical/tactical gains and mental/emotional gains continue to be immensely satisfying, just as the wonder of animating a body-being that transforms due to my efforts to change it never ceases to amaze and inspire me.

Every time I unravel a new piece of beta or do a move I couldn’t do before – whether it’s fairly singular and route-specific, or multiuse and employable across a number of routes – I feel that sense of excitement and discovery about what I can do with this body I get to animate. I’ll never get to animate a different body in this lifetime, but I can endeavor to push this one to its peak potential with an open mind and heart to all that is possible. In fact, nothing is or has ever been more fun than proving to myself time and time again that I can do things that I was absolutely sure at one point or another that I couldn’t do, things that once felt impossible or perhaps just seemed impossible to me to even try. Climbing gives me this experience repeatedly, reaffirming that many obstacles that seem impossible to surmount are indeed possible given the time and effort. Tackling routes that are difficult for me makes the “impossible” possible, as I work to gradually take that route or maybe even just some of the moves from that route from totally impossible into the realm of possibility. This experience never gets old for me.

Because I like to reach so near the edges of my being’s current ability level, climbing also presents an ongoing and self-created challenge in how much adversity I can take while remaining positively engaged. But when I’m not regularly trying hard, I’m not satisfied. And yet climbing, too, has taught me the worthy lesson of knowing when to say when, and when to let go. When dreams and goals change there’s no point or value to clinging to the past-me and forcing the present-me to try to achieve what past-me wanted, unless it still seems enjoyable and relevant. Climbing is supposed to be enjoyable, and if it stops being enjoyable and starts to feel like a burdensome chore, then I have lost the point. I admit, this still happens sometimes – it’s easy to lose perspective and to start to get too serious, before I reel myself back in and remind myself that it doesn’t matter – the only thing that matters is if I’m not having fun, if I’m no longer enjoying the journey. Not enjoying climbing is an affront to the spirit of the sporting process, and yet it can also be a valuable part of the process of learning and maturing and deepening the self, too. We play to have fun and because it is fun, and yet, when we play with a passion, that playing can sometimes lose its lighthearted spirit and the sense of freedom that comes with maintaining this approach.

Regaining perspective for me when I find myself veering off-center involves a conscious letting-go process of surrendering to the place I am now. I do all I can to improve my climbing ability, and if that’s not enough, so be it. I cannot – or rather, I should not – be dissatisfied if I give it my all every day I have to give, be it in training or in climbing or even in understanding that resting is the smartest choice I can make on any given day. It helps to remember that brains are almost always ahead of bodies in terms of where they think one “should be” in the improvement process…and yet those same brains can be frustratingly slow to adapt to coordinating and assimilating the raw bodily gains a person makes through training, being temporarily stuck in patterns of the past and what’s worked in the past without yet realizing what the newly strengthened or otherwise improved body might now be capable of in the present.

If I am dissatisfied after a climbing day, I try to regroup and regain this perspective as quickly as possible, without getting down on myself for having those feelings of dissatisfaction or frustration at the slow pace of the process. I am human, after all, and such feelings will inevitably arise at times. (“I want results, and I want them NOW!”) Not allowing these feelings to dominate my psyche, I free them up to pass by without negative self-judgment that they arose in the first place. This enables me to return to a more positive perspective more rapidly these days. Letting go of the expectation of outcomes happening on any given deadline and just working in the present on doing what I can to push my ability is all I can do, and striving to embrace that process with an open mind, however long it takes, is a key to staying absorbed and enjoying it.

This is not to say that all of the training I do is enjoyable in the exact moment I do it – though even the most tortuous training exercises I do definitely leave me feeling satisfied and pleased as soon as I’m done with them, even if in the moment they just hurt. I do love training…but more because I love the results in my climbing than because I’m masochistic. I don’t enjoy the pain or the recovery time required. But I do love the process of putting in the building blocks through training that are necessary for me to build a stronger, more able version of the physical body I inhabit, and then rewiring this whole being to utilize that body more efficiently and effectively as it adapts to and comes to comprehend what those gains have made accessible and possible.

Learning and growing and being willing to change my training, my approach, my beta, and my preferred style of climbing as I mold my being to adapt and grow stronger and more adept keeps the climbing experience fresh and young to me, even as I inevitably grow older. This is all on the whole pure fun and joy for me – nothing less, nothing more. Whatever happens, happens, and it really doesn’t matter, as long as it’s enjoyable. What does matter is my ever-deepening ability to value each climbing moment as much as possible, wherever I may find myself on any given climbing day, whether it’s clipping the chains after a sublime send, or simply laughing at the circus-like nature of my sport (sport climbing) – in which the result of “failure” involves dangling on the end of a rope suspended in midair, trying to decide if it’s worth it to me do some extravagant maneuvers, such as wild kipping rope pull-ups (“boinking”) or “walking the rope,” to get back on the route, or whether I should just lower down and try again later.

Of course it’s nice to send a route or to make progress, but it’s much less nice overall if this becomes the definition of what makes a climbing day (or just climbing in general or life in general) fun or worthwhile, because then a person might just find themselves stuck in a self-made emotional prison where one’s inner state of being consistently depends on external results. It’s a recipe for an often unpleasant and unceasing emotional roller coaster ride. One of the secrets to living a fulfilling and happy life is learning to truly relish and savor the small marvels that make up one’s everyday living, rather than storing up expectations for the next uplifting great event (for climbers, often a send is that event) that needs to happen to pump oneself up and feel good, before gradually sliding down the deflationary slope back into the boring old humdrum routine of normalcy and starting to seek out and crave that next high point. In that humdrum routine of normalcy lies the potential for true appreciation of life in the present moment, right there within reach whenever we open our minds to such a possibility.

How cool is it to be privileged enough to rock climb at all, to live in a time and a place where I have the freedom and opportunity to regularly pursue such an awesome activity? These days, I strive to be content no matter what the outcome of any climbing day brings – low point or high, send or no send – just to be happy and grateful to be out climbing and to be present on the rock from moment to moment, learning whatever the day has to teach me and being okay with whatever potential my body-being has on any given day. Since I don’t get to inhabit this body forever or to climb forever, it’s a waste of my precious time to not cherish each moment that I spend on (or falling off of!) the rock.