Archive for the ‘Running’ Category

Comfort zones are most often expanded through discomfort. ~Peter McWilliams

For my 37th birthday last December, I took myself to my first Physique 57 class. For those not familiar with Physique, it is a type of ballet barre method with studios in New York City, LA, and the Hamptons. Physique also produces DVDs with hundreds of thousands of devotees. The class moves rapidly from arms, shoulders, and back to thighs, seat, and abdominals so that after 57 minutes, not only have you worked out your entire body, but you’re not quite sure what just hit you.

The Physique formula is efficient and effective – fatigue each set of muscles and then stretch them. And when I say fatigue, I mean FATIGUE. The instructors uniformly encourage you to “go toward the burn,” a concept that initially brought some complex emotions for me.

I don’t know about you, but I have a little voice in my head that steers me toward comfortable experiences and away from uncomfortable ones. For example, Ben and Jerry’s while watching Sex and the City reruns – comfortable, good, yes; running – uncomfortable, bad, pass the Chunky Monkey. But a few years ago, running actually changed my relationship to discomfort. Since then, I have made personal study of exploring my ability to tolerate discomfort and see what benefit might lurk in that space.

I remember my first Physique 57 class, during which I very nearly vomited. As we worked our thigh muscles through a series of lunges and squats, I didn’t believe it was possible to do what was being asked of me. The burning sensations were too powerful to tolerate and I had to back off, take a break and then rejoin the group when I regained control of my legs.

The pleasure-seeker in me might have campaigned for leaving the building and never turning back, but something had piqued my interest. In addition to the motivating music, the fit and encouraging instructors, and the 20 or so other people challenging themselves, the idea of leaning into the discomfort appealed to me.

Since December I’ve taken about 2 or 3 Physique classes per week and in that time I have practiced going toward the burn much like I practice staying with the breath in meditation. Without lamenting perceived failures or anticipating future challenges, I can experiment with just how much discomfort I can stand.

When I take a Physique class now, my muscles still burn but, rather than stopping to get the relief I intuitively crave, I become curious about that discomfort. I linger there, and even lean into it. By doing so I notice it is not constant. There are in fact moment-to-moment variations in the quality of the discomfort: one moment, red hot streaks down the quadriceps muscles; the next moment, a powerful surge of ability; the next moment, a pulsating warmth that encircles my thighs, and so on.

The sensations are different every time, but by resting in that space, I learn more about my body, it’s limits and abilities. And I have gotten stronger, physically and mentally.

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I was a born power walker. With long legs and an East Coast sense of urgency, walking fast came naturally. It was my exercise of choice, preferred mode of transportation, and an early foray into meditation.

The year I moved to Boston, I must have logged 1000 miles walking around what I came to know as the Charles River treadmill. The wind in my hair, the chop of the water, the intersection of Boston and Cambridge, and the energy of the other people – walking was exhilarating. Yet something was missing. I longed to run.

I ran in high school but never well. On the track team, there were two options: long, slow distance or short, fast sprints. I had neither the lithe physique that lends itself to mile after mile nor the thick muscular set that could set the school record for the 100-yard dash. The category in which I would have excelled – slow, short distance – did not exist.

Since my inglorious high school track days, I gave running a try once or twice but it never stuck. I always started off way too fast and burned out before I’d gotten far. This was discouraging and physically painful and inevitably cut short any long-term change.

My memory of running was one of discomfort and inadequacy. I couldn’t run fast or far so I wondered ‘why bother?’ Yet, as runners passed me on my daily walks, I yearned to follow them…to break free of what had become a predictable stride and risk falling, failing, or simply looking stupid.

About 2 years ago (during my second year of not drinking), I decided to give running another chance. At first, I could barely run a mile, and that was on a treadmill, notoriously easier than pounding the pavement.

It was the middle of July and Boston was sweltering (in retrospect, starting to run at that time of year seems analogous to quitting drinking right before the December holidays, but you have to start somewhere, right?). When I tried running around my beloved Charles River loop, I was dripping with sweat and wheezing like an asthmatic before reaching the Arthur Fiedler head, not more than half a mile out. Once I couldn’t run any further, I stopped to walk and catch my breath. After a few minutes, I began to run again and tried to make it to the next milestone.

This went on for months. Run, walk, run, walk, run, walk. In time, I could run to more distant milestones before needing to stop and walk – the boathouse, then the softball fields, then the Museum of Science.

Sometimes I got cocky or elated and ran so fast so I had to stop after just a few minutes. Other times my legs felt so wooden and heavy, I walked more than I ran. Occasionally, running felt effortless, poignant, and meaningful.

Running this time around was different than previous attempts. Whereas in the past I was acutely aware of being the slowest, this time I focused on the fact that I was running at all. I developed a curiosity about the experience, what emotions it brought up and how I felt before, during, and after a run. I realized that slowing down allowed me to go further, continuously, and to gradually work up to a faster pace and longer distance. By focusing inward, I began to view each step as a choice.

This is how running prepared me for meditation. Choosing to do something that is inherently uncomfortable and at the same time challenging and rewarding is intriguing. Practicing such discipline, even when it isn’t convenient, particularly good, or fun requires staying in the moment.

Much like I choose to put one foot in front of the other while running, in meditation I choose to focus on one breath and then another. The pleasure of hitting my stride and feeling like I could go forever is very similar to how I feel when meditating (at least sometimes).

I’m still a very (read: VERY) slow runner. For every 300 runners who pass me along the Charles, I might pass 1 person, but he’s usually tying his shoelaces…or he’s a statue. The first mile is almost always uncomfortable. But once it’s behind me, something shifts and some space opens up. My breathing settles down, my legs remember what they’re supposed to do, and I loosen up physically and mentally.

The running journey, like the meditation journey, continues to be a choice – one step (and breath) at a time.

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