How you can develop your abilities through purposeful practice

There are some philosophies that can be transformational if you live by them. The belief that I can become good at anything if I put in the time is such a belief for me.  My yoga practice has been a place where I have been able to see this put into practice. When I was younger, I was very clumsy not particularly talented in any fitness activity.

One of the great things about yoga is that it is non competitive but also that it doesn’t really matter how flexible or strong you become. That’s really liberating. The idea is to practice and to stay present, to be here and now. Incidentally if you do this every day for some years not only does your body change but your mind changes too. People will say, “You are so flexible, coordinated, calm, happy, focused… (insert your own word)”, and you will find yourself thinking “It’s just practice.” Some people believe me, others roll their eyes, but it’s true – practice has transformed my body. That’s not to say practice is easy – it requires dedication but it is possible for anybody.

This concept of practice and its transformational effect fascinate me because it means that I am only limited by time – I can learn any skill and if I don’t seem very good at it first it doesn’t bother me. I feel some people are limited by their belief in talent being an innate skill. People tell me they are not like that, they are not very good at learning languages, building strength or staying focused. We all have skills and we all have areas where we want to improve but the main thing that makes a difference is purposeful practice. So inevitably there will be things you are good at and things that you aren’t but you get to choose what they are. When I taught myself Thai – I wasn’t good at learning languages but I was motivated and living in Thailand and so I had lots of opportunity to practice.

Bounce book cover
Over Christmas I read the book Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice‘Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice’. It’s a great book, which explores this concept in detail.  The author, Matthew Sayed, was a professional table tennis player and believes that it is practice rather than talent that set him apart. He makes a great case and uses lots of research throughout the book. The only area that I felt wasn’t fully explored was that of opportunity. This plays a big part in whether someone has the time and drive to put in the practice in the first place. This opportunity can be dependent on finance, but not always.This concept is also explored in another, similarly great book, Outliers: The Story of Success

In it he describes how purposeful practice is necessary for someone to become an expert in something. The nature of the practice is important, it is not enough to merely do an activity. You have to do it in focused way, always challenging the limits of what you think you can do. The amount of purposeful practice is thought to be about 10,000 hours, which usually takes around ten years of dedication.

This concept of purposeful practice where you are always challenging the limits of what is possible for you reminds me of the traditional Mysore method of Ashtanga yoga. In this method you are given more poses when you are able to do the ones you are practicing, so there is always something to challenge you. If you want to get stronger you have to challenge yourself to do things that you can not currently do, if you just use the strength you already have you will maintain your strength but it won’t increase. By challenging your mental and physical limits daily – change is inevitable.

My daily yoga practice has taught me a great deal about the power of practice but the reason that this matters is because I can then take this into any area of my life that I want to improve. If I want to learn to be more efficient, to learn a language, to play an instrument or to write better, I know that I can. The only limitation is with all the wonderful things there are out there to practice and become better at there are only 24 hours a day.  So choose wisely.

Do you believe in the power of practice? What skills would you like to develop in 2014?

Fat Chance : The Bitter Truth About Sugar by Robert Lustig – Book Review

Robert Lustig writes that it’s sugar, not fat, that is the major cause of obesity. Lustig is a paediatric doctor who specialises in treating overweight children in San Francisco.

 

Yoga can help you maintain a healthy weight and help overweight people to lose weight. There is some research to support this. I think that one of the ways that yoga does this is by making you more aware of your body and health and helping you to make healthier choices. I have noticed that if I eat sugary foods, at times like Christmas it makes me feel hungry even when I am not. I did not fully understand why this happened but was curious. This book more than answered the questions I had.

 

Fat Chance: The bitter truth about sugar explores the role of the hormone insulin, in weight gain. Insulin causes energy to be stored in fat cells. Robert Lustig is talking mostly about the molecule fructose. Fructose is one of the two molecules found in sucrose, the other is glucose. Robert Lustig argues that a calorie is not a calorie. He explains a calorie from fructose is much harder for the body to breakdown, especially if there is not enough fibre in the diet. He reviews a number of diets which have been successful in promoting health and maintaining healthy weight. He concludes that what these diets have in common is that they are high in fibre and low in sugar.

 

a glass of orange juiceSurprisingly to me, he also talks about fruit juice. We usually think of  fruit juice as being healthy. Robert Lustig that it supplies the body with a big dose of fructose. Fruit is also high in fructose. Whole fruit contains fibre which slows down the metabolism of fructose. This makes fruit a healthy choice. He says that one of the major problems is that people drink too much sugar, be it in fruit juice or soda.

 

So what does he think we should I eat?

Lustig recommends we eat real food. There is no need to go on a fad diets, just eat wholefoods.  He says that that this is a dose dependent problem.  A little sugar is fine and if you are a healthy weight and very active it may even be beneficial.  The problem is that for many people processed foods and sugary drinks have become the norm.

Is sugar addictive?

sugar falling out of a glassLustig likens sugar to other drugs.  He presents a strong argument for how it messes people’s hormones up so much that they eat more of it and more food in general.  His explanations are great for explaining the difficult cycle that many people struggling with their weight find themselves in.  He also offers some advice that will help most people get on track.

 

What are his tips for food shopping?

fruit and vegetable in supermraket1. Don’t go shopping hungry.  Doh! Been there 😉

2. Shop in the periphery of the supermarket, buy real food.

3.  It shouldn’t need a nutritional label.  Eat processed foods in moderation.

4. Real food spoils.  This is good. If bacteria can digest it so can you.

5. Watch out for hidden sugar. Lots of foods you don’t expect contain sugar.

 

It is hard if not impossible to completely give up sugar.  As with many things moderation and common sense are key. Personally I like to occasionally give myself a complete break from it, just to make sure I am not becoming a sugar addict 😉

Would I recommend the book?

I really enjoyed this book because it was backed up with lots of research and scientific explanation. I think it is an important book and I am glad he wrote it.  I think it just depends how much you want to learn about nutrition.  I think it may be too in-depth for some people’s interest.

You can also check out Robert Lustig youtube videos if you want to learn more.

 

Are you addicted to sugar? Have you ever given it up?

 

May I Be Happy by Cyndi Lee – We Are Not Our Weight

I was given a copy of ‘May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga and Changing my Mind’ by Cyndi Lee in exchange for an honest review. The book is about the author, a yoga teacher in New York, and her path towards her self acceptance. I decided to write the review because I thought the book dealt with an important issue that of body awareness and issues arising from that. Cyndi’s biography is very honest and she talks in depth about her struggles to accept her own body image. I love the way that she freely admits her own failings.  Yoga teachers are sometimes expected to be radiant beams of ultra health and inner peace and whilst yoga is amazing, we are human beings too and Cyndi deals with this in a candid way. Cyndi writes informal style  which makes you feel you are somehow engaging in conversation with her.

 

There are some good gems and conversations with friends and teachers along the way. I like biographical writing as I always learn something about humanity and how we are similar as well as how we are different. As a yoga teacher the issue of body image does come into conversation with my students and I have learned a lot from listening to how people feel about it. Some people, of both genders, experience issues surrounding their body image. I have to admit I have never given it as much thought as Cyndi has and my heart goes out to her. I also felt that much of the book explored her struggles and not enough of the solutions and as such I wonder if it may not ultimately be a good choice for somebody who is experiencing similar issues. 

 

Yoga is great for your health and wellbeing and physical styles of yoga such as Ashtanga Yoga can also help with weight loss. You have to combine this with a healthy lifestyle and diet in order for it to be effective. For some people weight loss is a good step towards a healthier body and is a great thing. I feel the health and fitness industry occasionally exploits this a bit and I am frustrated to see the numerous fad diets and fitness regimes which people seem to torture themselves with. I feel that these extreme behaviours seem to often become a cycle whereby someone puts on weight then tortures themselves with an exercise regime and diet which they hate and so do not maintain and then they repeat the cycle. My advice, if you need to lose weight,  would be to find an activity you like doing and make gradual changes to both your eating and exercise regime.

 

Unfortunately, the situation sometimes runs deeper than this. The author Cyndi Lee honestly illustrates how some people who are in healthy active bodies can still struggle with their body image.  There are also people who are overweight who are concerned with their image of themselves.  Who you are as a being is not defined by your weight. There are many people, just like you, who are waking up to this possibility and are learning to enjoy their bodies, and themselves as beings, for all the amazing things they can do.  It is my hope that through yoga you can take steps towards self acceptance and begin to make peace with yourself one breath at a time.

 

What has helped you on your journey to self acceptance?

No Impact Man – Film Review – Is Individual Change Enough

Marc and I have just finished watching a documentary film set in New York about a family who decide to live a year making as little impact on the environment as they can.  They live in New York city and give up electricity, cars, buses, elevators, clothes buying and eat local seasonal food.  The documentary follows their family through the highs and lows of their experiment. The film was  released in 2009 and I only recently found out about it. Have any of you seen it?

The project was criticised for

  • Being a promotional stunt for his book, no impact man, which of course it was.
  • Some environmentalists felt that the extreme nature of the experiment was giving them a bad name.
  • It goes against the consumerist mindset of the modern world and I think people possibly felt their lifestyle was being judged.

I loved it because

  • It made me think about my own choices and the impact they have.
  • It made me think about what impact one person can have.
  • It challenged belief systems and I think it’s always good to question.

Ethics is something I have been giving a lot of thought to recently.  I have always been a firm believer that you need to be the change you want to see in the world.  This belief is really useful to me because it stops me getting overwhelmed by the problems of the world and moves me into a state of action.  I am aware that with all the efforts that I make there are always so many ways I can improve.  I also feel that I don’t have the right to tell others what to do, every action has all sorts of positive and negative consequences. Who am I to tell others what to do? One person can only do so much, efforts spent in one area is time and effort that could be spent elsewhere.

 

One of things that I love about yoga is that it gradually makes people to be more aware of what they do.  With that awareness comes personal choice rather than just flowing with the whim of others.  We live in  a society where consumerism is everywhere we are bombarded with it. Advertisements tell us if we have blah blah we will be so happy, so sexy, so successful.  The gap between the rich and the poor in this world is staggering:

The richest one fifth of the world

  • consumes 45 per cent of all fish and meat, whereas the poorest fifth consume 5 per cent
  • consume 58 per cent of total energy, the poorest fifth have less than 4 percent
  • own 87 per cent of the world’s vehicles, the poorest fifth own less than one percent.
  • consume 84 per cent of the world’s paper, the poorest fifth 1.1 per cent

The statistics are from Food and Agriculture Organisation of United Nations, Bread for the World, 2007.  I found them in the wonderful book Yoga for a World Out of Balance by Michael Stone.  This book is brilliant and I will write about it in more depth once I have finished reading it.  Despite these staggering polarisation in terms of how we consume we are all interconnected if I pollute the air you have to breathe it, whether you polluted it or not.

 

When I read statistics like that it makes me wonder not only if my own actions are enough but if my belief that all I have to do is be the change I want to see is enough.  When I first stopped drinking a few years ago, I realised that other people found it really challenging.  I don’t mind if other people want to drink at all as long as that’s what they want to do and they’re not harming anyone, who am I to judge?  Yet people get uncomfortable because it makes them challenge their own beliefs.

As a vegan, I experience the same thing, many people seem to want to argue with me about my choices. I have never tried to force my beliefs about veganism on anyone.  I don’t want to be the annoying person that rants at people while they are eating.  I feel that lacks compassion for my fellow man.   I don’t have that right and as passionate as I am about it I believe we each have a right to make our own informed choices.

I have been wondering recently if individual change is enough and if it isn’t what should I be doing about it.  I think it is not about telling other people how to live their lives or acting superior for all the great things we are doing.  In many ways I am very fortunate to live in culture where I have so much choice that I can learn about where my things come from and what impact they have, that I am not starving,  I have so may choices, I can read and learn at the touch of a button, I have so may things to be grateful for. There is also so much that I am not doing, I often leave lights on, I don’t always eat organic or seasonal, I sometimes forget my bags for life and there are many things that I have no even considered.  There is so much more I can do, I know I am not perfect.  I think what I am realising is that it is not about telling people what to do, I don’t have that right, however maybe there is a need to open a discussion to share what we can do and how we manage to make our own impact or tread a little lighter on the planet so that everyone can benefit.

Do you believe in the power that one individual can have to make a change?  Has yoga made you more aware of the impact of your actions on others or the world?  Do you feel empowered to be the change you want to see in our world?

 

Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chodron a Book Review

The week before my holiday I was very busy.  I had to make lots of decisions which involved making a leap into a future that I couldn’t possibly imagine. Amidst all this business, I saw a quote from Pema Chodron on Facebook, on a page I follow updated by one of her students.

As human beings we share a tendency to scramble for certainty whenever we realize that everything around us is in flux. In difficult times the stress of trying to find solid ground- something predictable and safe to stand on- seems to intensify. But in truth, the very nature of our existence is forever in flux. Everything keeps changing, whether we’re aware of it or not.

What a predicament! We seem doomed to suffer simply because we have a deep-seated fear of how things really are. Our attempts to find lasting pleasure, lasting security, are at odds with the fact that we’re part of a dynamic system in which everything and everyone is in process.” Pema Chodron
(Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change)

 

I laughed in recognition, when I read this, what a wonderful reminder and how true.  It seems like such a human trait to want certainty and reliability when in truth no-one knows what will happen next. I shared this on Ashtanga Yoga Liverpool’s Facebook Page, I am sure many of you saw it.  I then looked up the book and decided I should read it on my holiday.

 

I have read a few other books by Pema as well as listening to her teaching .  She is a wonderful teacher.  As I am sure you noticed from the above passage she has an amazing way with words.  I also love how honest she is able to be in her teaching, she admits to her own shortcomings and humanness with great humour so we can all learn from it.

 

Helen looking at extinct Volcano in Lanzorote

Montana Roja, Lanzarote

I read Living Beautifully: With Uncertainty and Change whilst on holiday in Lanzarote with my partner.  I am so glad that I did because it a wonderfully inspiring and insightful book and it has helped me to stay more present.  I was able to let go of all the business back at home and enjoyed all we ever have – the here and now.  Sure I drift from time to time and that’s okay, Pema’s words, my meditation and yoga practice help me to come back here.

 

Pema is a Buddhist nun and her books and teachings are based on Buddhist teachings.  She was a student of Chogyam Chungpa who wrote Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism BookCutting Through Spiritual Materialism, which is absolute classic for anyone interested in a spiritual path.  I find her teachings are very compatible and useful for me on my yoga journey and I am sure you would find this too.  She has written a lot about how to deal with pain and suffering from the perspective of someone on a spiritual journey.

 

Living Beautifully with  Uncertainty and Change Book

In Living Beautifully: With Uncertainty and Change she shares her wisdom about 3 Buddhist vows.  She explains how traditionally these vows would be taken formally with a teacher.  In this book she introduces them in a more general way, as three commitments, so that anyone of any religion or no religion could benefit from these teachings. I guess some people could criticize this approach, saying that it waters down the tradition but as I touched upon in my blog post  Why Do You Practice Yoga and Does it Matter? I think that if something benefits you in any way then that’s great and particularly when someone someone as wise and insightful as Pema is sharing.  The traditional approach is still there for those who want to take it and maybe more people will be inspired too after reading her book.

 

In summary the first commitment is about not doing harm to others and ourselves.  The second is about keeping our hearts and minds open to the suffering of the world, developing our compassion.  The third is about accepting the world as it is.  Although these commitments seem much like common sense they are very challenging for any aspirant to keep.  Pema gives excellent guidance for dealing with these challenges.  I think people sometimes struggle with change because they expect not to fail and yet this is often how we learn and develop the strength for our future. Sometimes we can’t cope with our own or others’ pain and that’s okay. Sometimes we mess up – I know I do and the important thing is to learn from this and recommit to change or to do what we can do today. In this holiday season when many of us have time to reflect on how we want to move forward with our lives, Pema’s new book offers some great ways to embrace life without agenda, to accept it just as it is.  You may have eaten too much at Christmas, you may be tired cold, poor or ill, but this is your world to embrace, don’t wait for everything to seem perfect.  If we cling to happiness and run from suffering in the search of a perfect world, we may find ourselves living our whole life in our minds.  I don’t think that this means you shouldn’t have goals, you are the captain of your ship, not the ocean.  Enjoy the journey, embracing your life just as it is.

 

Have you read anything inspiring recently?  Have you read any of Pema Chordan’s Books?

 

The Real Moment

As some of you know, a couple of months ago I stubbed my toe badly on a Hoover and had to take some time off work.  As I travelled back from my Mum’s house in North Wales, I began letting people know that I would not be able to teach on Monday.  I was a bit disappointed because I love my job but I could barely walk so that was the way it was.

Once I had sent some texts out to those of you in my text group, and made an announcement on Ashtanga Yoga Liverpool’s Facebook page, I resumed reading a book by Brad Warner, Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock Monster Movies & the Truth About Reality

This is the first book I have read by Brad but I have been curious about him for a while.  Brad is a Zen teacher who is also into punk rock, he works at least during the time scale of his Hardcore Zen book in the monster movie industry in Japan.   He writes  about Zen in a direct, simple and humerous way.  He can be fairly opinionated which is unusual in spiritual teachers but I like his direct approach.  His blog can be found in the right side bar of this blog or here.

I was reading his book on the train, in pain and maybe a little frustrated I came across this line

“Suffering occurs when your idea about how things ought to be don’t match how they  really are.”  Brad Warner

Hmm, what a great one liner.  How true.  As I sat on the train I reflected that my suffering mostly came from my brains interpretation of the pain.  When I stopped and observed the pain for what it was, sensation and lost the stories in my head my situation wasn’t so bad.  I was on the train home after a lovely weekend with family.  I had the day off, I could have some me time.

Since that moment on the train, whenever I have caught myself sad, frustrated etc,  I have worked instead on acknowledging what the moment I am in is actually like, rather than what I think it should be like.  We could spend our whole lives waiting for that perfect moment in our heads or we could be in this one.  The above example is not a particularly challenging life event but if we work with minor problems I believe it will get easier to apply this wisdom to bigger ones.  Yoga and or meditation helps us to more present in these moments so that we notice them and stand a better chance of actually being HERE.

Have you read anything interesting recently?