Michael Copeland was hunched low like a lion waiting for the optimum moment to pounce on a gazelle. Then he pounced, swiftly and gracefully, and returned to the previous pose. At fifty-five, he moved through these physical postures with the same strength and ease as he moved through his life. Michael knows his only competition is himself, and he came to Namaste to up his game.
A captain of industry in real estate, he played golf and tennis with colleagues, ran marathons and triathlons, but could feel that he wasn’t physically as spry as he’d been in previous years. He knew that if he didn’t maintain his strength and flexibility along with his myriad of athletic interests, he wouldn’t be able to dominate his sports in a way that fed his competitive nature.
Michael’s only requirements were that we make it fun and that he could measure results. We began with twice-a-week sessions with a personal trainer but quickly learned that his weakness was not a lack of strength as much as a lack of flexibility, mobility, and embodiment. Yoga would be perfect for him, but he thought yoga was boring The trainer met Michael where he was and captivated him with animal-based movement.
These three-dimensional movements work the body in a circular, holistic fashion, and helped Michael get in touch with his body and build strength and mobility in a new and playful way—that took care of the fun part. Michael also wanted to measure his progress because he is results-driven. How, though, are wildebeest movements measured? We worked with him to write down how he felt in certain physical forms.
Rather than measuring how many reps he could do or how much weight he could bench-press, we asked him to assign a number to the tension he felt in his low back. The beauty of these metrics is that they come from the inside out, not from the outside in. Week after week, as he built deeper core strength and mobility, the tension level and associated number dropped.
This progress gave him the competitive edge he sought for his other sports and activities. When Michael first came to us, he thought he needed strength training. It was hard for him to let the trainer guide him as he is a brilliant man, used to know the answers. Yet he was smart enough to know that sometimes it’s important to take the seat of the student, and he trusted Namaste.
When he saw the improvements in his other endeavors—like more fluidity and balance in his golf game and less pain during running—he shifted to a place where he was fully willing to surrender control and immerse himself in the learning experience with his trainer. A lot of high achievers have a hard time ever being finished. They want to keep mastering new activities and developing themselves in different ways.
Michael is one of those people, using sports and fitness as a way to continue to achieve. Once trust was established with the trainer, he was able to reframe his goals and intentions and open himself up to a more interesting, enjoyable experience. He got the outcome he was looking for in terms of improving his performance and feeling better in his body.
More than that, though, he also learned to be comfortable in the not knowing; he discovered that being receptive and practicing the art of learning was equally if not more valuable to him than winning a great race. In other words, Michael embraced a beginner’s mind—a beautiful place where a lot of potential lies. Beginner’s mind is about seeing the world with fresh eyes and let ting go of preconceived ideas and rules.
A beginner’s mind is empty. High achievers are often too smart for their good and end up missing the opportunity that lies in not knowing. Educated, experienced, and at the top of their profession, high achievers may think they have all the answers, which limits the potential for continued evolution. Beginner’s mind invites curiosity and deep listening, which are key to innovation and solving complex problems.
Becoming aware of our cognitive biases and judgmental inner dialogue is an important part of the process and is cultivated most directly by a mindfulness practice that we will discuss later in this book. When we can hold the fear of not knowing at bay, life opens up and keeps us engaged (and ready to pounce).
Programmed Movement aka Working Out
Amy Cunningham was getting married in nine months. On paper, Amy looked great: At thirty-two, she’d graduated with honors from Harvard Law School, was an up-and-coming partner at one of the more prominent firms on the East Coast, played golf with her peers, went on a yearly ski week vacation, and spent summer weekends in the Hamptons.
In-person, however, Amy was overweight, out of shape, and dealing with the back pain that comes from sitting at a computer and poring over legal briefs all day. She wanted to look and feel beautiful physically and mentally for her wedding day, and cultivate a healthier version of herself for the next chapter of her life. Given Amy’s schedule, she began doing private yoga and interval training in the early mornings.
Her trainer, who is cross-trained as a yoga teacher and Pilates mat instructor, implemented a combination of cardio for lung and heart health, bodyweight exercises, TRX and BOSU ball fun, therapeutic Pilates mat work, and yoga geared toward back health and stress reduction. During and after her sessions, Amy was reminded of how she felt when she ran track in high school.
She would practice with the track team after school, then come home and do her homework, her mind sharp from the endorphins and adrenaline released by the physical activity. The same thing happened when she added movement to her morning routine: she got to the office with a crisp and focused headspace, full of energy to face the day’s tasks. The trainer integrated brief guided meditations at the end of Amy’s sessions, too.
She was coming up on a big life event that required reflection and intention setting. Meditation helped her develop an awareness of the significance of her upcoming wedding day and the changes that the event would bring to her life. She tuned in to what she was excited about and what she was petrified of, enabling her to be less reactionary when these feelings bubbled up.
We intended to help Amy look and feel great on her wedding day from the inside out, and set her up for continuity with these practices post-wedding. The next phase of her life would mean juggling work and family, and perhaps becoming a mother. While it was Amy’s wedding that spurred her to start thinking about her wellness, she was smart enough to know that she wanted to enter this chapter optimized.
I’ve known Amy and her mother for a long time, and they both told me that Amy’s investment in these sessions pre-wedding was the most essential part of the preparation for what was an extravagant and expensive wedding. She was transformed on many levels, and in a position to enter marriage with mindfulness, strength, and a feeling of confidence and balance.
She lost the extra pounds, and her back pain subsided. What’s more, because of her balanced approach, Amy felt like her best self, without pressure to be perfect. The words Amy herself used to describe her pre-wedding state in light of her self-care routine was “centered, open, and strong.”
Amy’s story is not uncommon, and it underscores a key point: it doesn’t matter what gets us moving as long as we get moving. A major life event is a fantastic inspiration. The hardest part is starting, but once we begin to feel the benefits of the practice of movement or self-care in general, it tends to propel itself forward naturally. We all have our reasons for exercise.
Some people are interested in weight loss, competition, strength, longevity, or general health, while others—like me—know that exercise will help my mind and mood and help me manage stress and focus on my priorities throughout the day. Once our new patterns are ingrained in our life, we don’t want to let them go. Keep in mind that our wellness needs will constantly evolve based on the stages of our life.
When we’re in college, our life is focused on studying and friends. When we begin to work or start a family, our priorities shift. And then again as we age or retire, our intentions evolve further. What we need when we are healthy is some times very different than what we need when we are battling an acute or chronic illness or going through a challenging time.
Programmed fitness is an essential part of wellness, but the reality is there are days when we may not have time for a full workout, such as when we are traveling or have a sick child at home. We can, however, weave practices throughout our day to respect the body and mind’s need for movement.
My husband coined the phrase “random acts of yoga,” for example, to refer to those moments when we drop into a forward bend while the coffee brews or we’re waiting for our luggage at the airport. I like to do shoulder rolls whenever I wait in line. We’ve all heard hacks such as “take the stairs, not the elevator” or “park farther away and walk.” Let’s look at how we can integrate meaningful movement throughout our day.
A client of mine works in a large financial institution with a beautiful and spacious office. Instead of sending an email or instant message to a colleague, she walks to the other side of the office to her colleague’s desk and asks her questions. Not only is it a way to build movement breaks into her day, but she also reports that it is part of the secret to her professional success.
She has small conversations all day long that enable her to connect with her colleagues in a deeper way than email or instant messaging doesn’t allow. Another extremely successful client who has built and sold several technology companies schedules “walk and talk” meetings with colleagues in the park whenever possible. He finds that this generates better ideas, builds relationships, and checks the movement box in a meaningful way.
When asked how he takes notes during those meetings, he answered that anything good or important will be remembered, and he leaves a ten-minute window when he returns to his desk to jot down key takeaways and next steps. He believes the practice and associated tools such as “the memory palace” that he uses to remember key ideas is a great exercise for his mind, and he is right.
The memory palace technique involves associating an idea to something very familiar such as a room in your home or your childhood bedroom, which enables you to place the ideas in locations you already have strong memories of. And of course, walking in and of itself improves our memory, so one might argue that it’s better to walk and think than to sit and think.
I suggest clients look at their energy levels and patterns throughout the day to identify moments when integrative or mini-movement practices would support their bodies and minds. For example, if we have trouble winding down at the end of the day to sleep, do a few forward bends, which are calming.
Even five to ten push-ups every morning before hopping into the shower can provide a moment of exercise when the day is too busy for a full hour-long session with a trainer. My favorite of all is the coffee brewing dance time, as this discussion on movement would not be complete without mentioning one of the most powerful, primal movement expressions available—dance.
Dance is therapeutic to body and mind, helping us integrate our emotional, physical, cognitive, and social experiences. Dance can cultivate joy and self-esteem, and release built-up tension in the mind and body. Whether we dance to our favorite tunes organically and intuitively for five minutes in our kitchen while the coffee is brewing, go out dancing with friends, or throw family dance parties with our children, those same feel-good endorphins that happen when we run also happen when we move our hips, arms, and feet and jump around the kitchen table.
Music combined with movement, even for just a few minutes, is one of the most powerful, primal, and ancient stress relievers available to human beings. So many of us spend an enormous amount of time sitting, and even that hour in the gym—if we get it—doesn’t provide enough of the movement our bodies and minds need throughout a given day. Studies have shown that students have better attention and learning with integrative movement breaks.
This applies to all of us, from young children to college-age kids to adults of all ages. That said, we may have the best intentions but then look at the clock and realize we haven’t moved our eyes from the screen for three and a half hours. Setting a timer that rings every sixty or ninety minutes is a great way to remember to stretch, breathe, take a walk to the water cooler or around the block, say an affirmation, or touch our toes.
Taking one deep inhale and exhale is the perfect place to begin for people who think taking a break is too difficult. Is that too much to ask of ourselves? The goal is to weave self-care throughout the day. Day to day, moment to moment, getting our heart rate up and our blood flowing will enable us to think better, work better, and engage more actively with our colleagues, friends, and family.
And as natural law teaches us, that which goes up must come down. Integrative movements to calm our nervous system and tune us into our bodies in a quieter way will enable us to listen, ground, and feel more peaceful. Disconnection and disembodiment happen because we’re hyper-connected to everything outside of us via the digital world, and we’re “on” 24/7.
Mental, emotional, and physical deterioration can creep up and manifest without us even realizing it. We’re sitting at our desks for ten years, barely moving, never breathing deeply, never stretching—and then we wonder why we’ve got back pain and don’t sleep well. Going to the gym three times a week doesn’t begin to counterbalance what’s happening the other 165 hours in the week.
Even seven hours of self-care a week barely puts a dent in the pattern that develops throughout a lifetime of sedentary, stressful work. As much as the larger chunks of time are important for progressing, building strength, creating mobility, and doing deeper work, the integrated movements throughout the day are what bolster us against modern-day lifestyles and the influence of the digital world.
Movement Changes Our Life
Noel Peterson still goes to his office at a prestigious Bay Area university where he has been a world-renowned medical researcher for forty years. He has achieved greatness in his career and takes pride in what he has accomplished. He’s in his late seventies and recently has fallen a few times. While he’s played doubles tennis sporadically throughout his life, he’s never gone to the gym or worked with a trainer.
Although a neurologist had ruled out any serious causes, the falls concerned Noel, and he thought he should do something to work on his balance and strength. He asked us for help, and we started by sending him a personal trainer. Noel was set in his ways and wasn’t willing to change his schedule too much. He got up early each day, had breakfast with his wife, read the newspaper, and then went to the office.
He agreed to get up a half-hour earlier three days a week to work with the trainer and to do short, trainer-prescribed ten-minute routines on the other days. His mini practices consisted of squats, push-ups with his knees on the ground, forward bends while holding onto the kitchen counter, leg lifts, and assisted (feet under the couch) crunch. His trainer encouraged him to do shoulder rolls, neck rolls, and ankle rolls during the day at his desk to help him stretch and become limber, as well as seated leg lifts.
His trainer also encouraged him to take a daily walk at lunchtime for cardiovascular strength, and to practice applying the balance and awareness work that was the initial intention of his decision to engage in training. Noel is a cerebral man, having spent a lifetime in his head. The trainer we sent is a salt-of-the-earth type of woman, completely embodied, street smart, and pragmatic.
Noel was intrigued by her energy and attitude. He approached life from his head, and she approached life from her heart and her gut. He enjoyed spending time with her. His decision to work with a trainer was a rational one. The doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with him and chalked his falls up to aging. His wife, who is younger than he is, pushed him to do something because she wanted to avoid a situation where he took a fall and ended up in the hospital.
She wanted an active companion and the best for him. Noel was a good student, diligent about doing the routine, and quickly began to feel stronger. After just a few months, he said he was moving better than he had since he was a young man. Noel’s colleagues noticed that he was more animated, open, and engaged in their work. He told them about the personal experiences he was having with fitness, and how he felt like a younger version of himself.
Feeling strong and connected in his body seemed to dramatically impact his sense of self-competence as he aged. Noel was excited about taking control over the next chapter of his life, although he hadn’t given it much thought until he began declining. Changing his routine enabled him to experience a side of himself that he didn’t know existed.
Throughout my years of working with people, I have seen firsthand that we have to have a strong ego (not to be confused with a big ego) to let go of our ego. Likewise, we need consistent patterns in our life to ground and anchor us, but if we become stuck creatures of habit, we miss out on a lot of potentials. While certain habits can be very positive, continuing to learn and grow as older adults are one of the keys to longevity.
Working with a great personal trainer is a powerful tool to continue to evolve over the years. Not only can a trained fitness professional help us avoid injury, but this type of a relationship with any degree of consistency, from a few times a week to once or twice a month, also keeps us on the fitness wagon and accountable to our goals and intentions.
Simply investing money and time in our physical well-being helps us prioritize it in our life. A personal trainer can also enable us to intelligently change our routine to keep our bodies and minds growing and expanding without getting stuck in a repetitive rut, which is ultimately uninspiring and, even in the case of a consistent and rigorous routine, not necessarily a recipe for optimization.
It’s never too late to take control of our health and well-being. Self-care is available in every chapter of our lives. Most of us want to build on positive, consistent habits rather than allow our habits to limit our ability to expand and grow. There’s value in routine, but there are liability and risk of stagnation, too. Variety and saving space for new things goes hand in hand with consistency.
Those statements can seem contradictory, but as with all aspects of self-care, the goal is balance. Consistent rhythms are positive, but our needs change. Routines are great, but we have to listen to our bodies. We must know when it’s time to shift gears to be in alignment with where we are in our life at that moment. If we wake up at 5 a.m. every day, maybe sometimes we need to sleep in.
Running five miles every day is a great habit, but sometimes we need a rest—and the physical changes that happen as a natural course of aging are real. The goal is to build the habit of programmed and integrated movement but stay open to correcting course. Recognize when a habit isn’t working anymore.
While programmed and integrated movement builds and sustains our muscles, yoga takes a more holistic approach to movement, incorporating breath, mindfulness, and heartfulness. Yoga is a deep practice and can mean different things to different people. In the next post, we consider the heart of my practice.