Friday, December 28, 2007

Analysis Paralysis

I am an avid maker of New Year’s resolutions. I love to sit down and figure out the very heart of the reasons I haven’t quite lived up to my potential, every year. When I look back on each year, I’m usually surprised at how much change has happened, and all of the various things I’ve managed to deal with and put energy into, but no matter what, there’s a sense of “I’ll do better next year.”

Lately though, my point of view is changing. I’m more content with having done enough each year, and what used to be a very self critical process is more optimistic and hopeful. Mainly, I’ve come to see the whole analytical process as an elaborate avoidance tactic. This effort to figure out the perfect solution to the struggles inherent in existing is paralyzing, at least to me. Introverts have a tendency to think things over for a long time before responding. I recognize the value in thoughtful, considered responses, but too often I see myself running out of energy before I come to action. I have notebooks full of great ideas – unused.

My new challenge is to see when I’m avoiding something by overanalyzing or trying to make it perfect, and then to let go.

I see others stuck in the same trap – folks who don’t begin exercising because they want to know the perfect exercise first. The perfect workout is the one you’ll actually do.

Nutritional advice, especially health claims on highly processed foods, calls up a similar tendency: “These cookies say they contain calcium and zero grams of trans fats. That sounds healthy. I’ll take 2 boxes.” Like a magician misdirecting the audience’s attention, highlighting the minutia distracts from the big picture. In the big picture, if you want a healthy choice, get the hell out of the cookie aisle and head to produce!

My favorite nutritional advice that cuts through over-analysis paralysis and this cheap illusion of analysis comes from Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan:

-Eat less, eat mostly plants. Move more.
-Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food
-If a product has health claims on it, it’s probably not healthy.

My favorite healthy eating practice is to just try to put together the most colorful plate of whole foods I can. It feels much more like a joyful self expression than a disciplined and oppressive health regime.

It seems to come down to living in reality, to the best of our ability. Our information is incomplete, our perceptions are distorted, but we can be sensible, and that doesn’t have to be complicated.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


During the past few weeks I've been participating in a "Building Your Own Theology" class at First Universalist Church of Denver. I've been asking myself all sorts of questions about what I hold most dear, and how to live according to those values and beliefs. It is a rich process of exploration.

Each week, a participant shares a personal experience of realization or revelation or insight, known as an "Aha! moment." Here is the narrative I shared:

I was very nervous the first time I drove to Boulder, Colorado to take a yoga class from Richard Freeman at the Yoga Workshop. Taking class from him would be like taking a voice lesson from Pavarotti. He's the best. I didn't feel worthy or advanced enough to take this class, but I decided to anyway. I was intimidated, and I was also concerned that in an effort to proove myself, I would push myself too hard.

The class was "Mysore Style," which is different from most led yoga classes in the US. Each practitioner in a Mysore class does a certain series or their own therapeutic practice at their own pace, and the instructor circulates around the room, helping people individually. I was used to this style of practice, but I feel particularly vulnerable doing Mysore style practice with a new teacher who does not know my level of practice. Assistance from the teachers often involves pushing the student deeper into a position that is already challenging.

About 45 minutes into my practice, I came to my most vulnerable pose of all: Prasarita Padottanasana C. The feet are at least 3 1/2 feet apart, depending on your height, the arms are clasped behind the back, and straightened. Then, you bend forward at the waist and your arms descend towards the floor. People in yoga books and magazines can all touch their hands to the floor above their heads.

Teachers adjust this pose a lot, perhaps because the arms are such a convenient handle to pull the practitioner deeper into the pose. The shoulders, rotated to their limit, are very vulnerable here.

So, I begin Prasarita Padottanasana C, hoping, in the crowded room, to go unnoticed. I decide to go fully into the pose, bringing my shoulders to the endpoint of their flexibility. Then, I see Richard Freeman's feet approaching. I feel a gentle but specific pressure on my sacrum which seems to open up my forward bend a bit. I decide to surrender. I don't think Richard Freeman will dislocate my shoulders. I will trust.

But, he didn't push my arms towards the floor, as I had expected. I felt him gently rock my arms from side to side, and then my shoulders seemed to melt. I sunk deeper into the pose, painlessly. Then the teacher pressed lightly on my hands and I realized they were on the floor. I had no idea they had opened so far -- the position is disorienting. I rose up from the pose wide eyed and amazed. Not that I had touched the floor, but that the end point of my shoulder flexibility that felt so real and solid a moment before had been my own voluntary creation.

I left after practice, not feeling unworthy of going to the studio, and not feeling like I had proven myself there -- that didn't matter to me. I was simply excited and eager to find out what other limitations I was creating for myself. Which of my other certainties are actually illusions? What will the world look like as I let go of more and more of these mental, emotional and physical limitations?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Finding a constructive viewpoint

CNN has posted a map of the US depicting the increase in the proportion of people who are obese in the US. Especially since it only spans from about 1985 to present, I was shocked at the rates of increase:

Obesity has become a major issue in recent years, and it is very complicated and contentious. Poverty is a major factor in obesity, as is the continually swelling portion sizes in restaurants, and the predominance of very convenient foods which are high in refined carbohydrate, high in saturated and trans fat, high in salt, low in nutrients and laced with high fructose corn syrup.

This issue is especially delicate because it is so personal. Fatness is brutally stigmatized in our culture, and recognizing the major public health problem that widespread obesity presents could worsen these prejudices.

It’s clear to me that the deck is stacked against people struggling with overweight in our culture. But that’s the “culture” created by corporations that want to sell you more and keep you confused about what is good for you. But, as human beings, we each affect our social environments as well, and create our own “micro-culture” within our homes, among our friends and co-workers, and on our blogs!

The New York Times recently published an article about a study showing that people tend to gain and loose weight in concert with other members of their social network:

The focus of the article is gaining, of course, but isn’t it empowering to think about the other side of the coin. When each of us decides to make more nourishing choices, we have the potential to positively influence our whole social network. Marvelous! Healthy habits as a service to our loved ones!

I don’t mean to sound like a Pollyanna – I am deeply concerned with this issue, and so many politically powerful forces seem to be working against the public good when it comes to a healthy lifestyle. Political power and marketing strongly influence our environment, determine what choices are most convenient, and remind us to use certain products, but political power does not determine absolutely the choices that we make. Some people may even find motivation to live an active, nourishing lifestyle as a radical act of refusal to swallow these corporate values. Others may find some motivation in the idea that their choices do have an impact on their social network, and taking good care of themselves is not a selfish act.

It is an important practice to look at how scientific research is presented by the media, too. “Blame your friends if you’re putting on weight” is the “hook” presented in the title of the Times article. I can see how that would sell more copies than “Your healthy choices can help your friends, too!” If we can manage to avoid being sucked in to the dramatic spins the media lens draws out in this information, we may actually learn something useful from these stories, instead of simply finding more things to be afraid of and angry about.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Broadening my horizon

For most of my life, my posture has been pretty poor. I've long blamed it on being taller than my classmates as I grew up, and NOT wanting to stick out for any reason. I saw a wonderful chiropractor in Portland, Oregon for a while. Each time I came to see him, I would try especially hard to stand up straight, but to seem like it was natural -- like I wasn't putting special effort into it. I'm cool. But every time I went in he would ask, "have you forgotten how to stand?"

I tested this in the mirror at the time, and he was absolutely right. If I stood in a way that felt straight and then looked at my back sideways in a mirror, it was almost shocking. My back was totally rounded -- like my arms were attached to the front of my torso, not the side. When I adjusted myself so that my mirror image looked closer to the human side of the primate family, it felt ridiculous, like the extreme arched stance of an Olympic gymnast posing at the end of her routine. It looked normal, but it would feel so strange to walk around like that!

The other day, I was walking to the building where I worked and noticed that the clouds were particularly beautiful that morning. I lifted my head higher than normal, and I realized how large and beautiful the sky is. I noticed that I usually walk with my head lowered so that my field of vision consists of buildings and sidewalk, and when I raised my head to include about half sky, I felt like I was on a different planet. I felt like I was on a planet, not just on a street, and I was walking upright, not stooped!

It was as if the cinematographer of my point of view, who was once a sit-com director on a sound stage, had been replaced by a true artist.

This is my new practice when I walk outside, and it has a lovely calming effect on my outlook. Feeling comfortable in my body while it's upright is a great side effect