Yin Life

Finn

Not long before covid-19 shelter in place began, I discovered that there is, in fact a form of yoga I actually like. I don’t pretend to be any kind of yoga theory expert, so I mainly have my own experiences of classes to go by. And I do know that the one thing in common all the yoga classes I have taken is that I am there, so I can’t discount that as a factor. The wherever you go, there you are factor.

Most yoga I have taken fits into one of two categories. There is pretzel yoga – generally based on Iyengar, in my experience – where you twist yourself into complicated shapes while balancing on one toe and hold each pose for approximately 37 minutes. And then there is competitive yoga, generally referred to in class schedules as hot yoga, or sometimes flow yoga, or power yoga, or at one memorable studio in D.C. “stroga” which sounds more like pasta but I gather is a portmanteau (do we still call them that, or does that go with troglodyte and zaftig on the list of words only my parents used in conversation?) of “strength” and “yoga.” That kind of yoga appears to be an endurance test my shoulders simply are not up to, and for me almost always involves a lot more swearing than I think can be normal for a spiritual or meditative practice.

I have taken a few other kinds of yoga that I don’t actively dislike: some classes labeled “beginner,” restorative, partner, goat. But none of them spoke to me or made me want to keep doing that kind of yoga. When the most positive feeling I have leaving a class is “well, that wasn’t as bad as I expected,” it doesn’t inspire me to keep going back.

For a couple months there last winter I found a yin yoga class that I really liked. The instructor is always thoughtful and well prepared. She mixes a little traditional Chinese medicine theory in with the poses. We hold poses longer than some classes (though not as long as pretzel yoga), but they are manageable poses and usually on the ground. I always come away from her class feeling stretched in a nice way, not in a “I’ve been on a torture rack for the past 50 minutes” way.

In one class this instructor said that ideally a yin yoga class would be in a cool, dark room, or a cave. Her comment got me thinking about yin as a concept, not just a name for a yoga class. For me yin yoga is every way the opposite of a hot yoga class, though I’ve never heard anyone use the term “yang yoga” to refer to hot yoga. I know in the West we often distill yin and yang down to male and female. I also know that is a gross oversimplification. The thing that struck me most in reading about the concept is that yang is the active principle whereas yin is the receptive.

In working with horses, I grew up in a “make him do it” environment, as if little eight year old me, probably 55 pounds soaking wet, was going to physically make even a fairly small pony who was ten times my size do anything. In case I was unclear about this, in my first horse show at the end of a week of summer horse camp, my horse left the show ring in mid class and went back to the barn, totally oblivious to the child on his back, tugging and kicking ineffectually. As I got older and bigger I rode bigger horses, so the horses and I have tended to stay near a ten to one weight differential. Making them do anything is an illusion, but that didn’t stop me from trying.

It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I first encountered trainers who approached horses in a different way, with the focus on the relationship between horse and human, rather than (as much) on the dominance of human over horse. I’ve learned a different way of approaching my horses, and both they and I like it much better. Even so, much like yoga, when I have taken a lesson from one of these instructors I have often left the lesson feeling more like “Well, that wasn’t so bad” and less like “How can I do more of that?”

One thing that comes up often in the lessons I’ve taken with this newer (to me) approach is the idea of giving to pressure. Whether it’s me riding, or the instructor working my horse, just about the first thing that happens is to see how the horse gives to pressure. I understand it in concept – if your horse is pushing against you or ignoring you or exploding when you apply pressure, even very light pressure, you are in a bit of trouble.  But lately I’ve been wondering what would happen if, with another human, I approached them with the intent of applying pressure on them in some way to see how they responded to it. Even if it was an employee, someone I am paying to do a particular job, I can’t think that would go very well. I know it doesn’t go well for me when the main thing I feel – in, say, a yoga class – is pressure. Like many horses I know, my response to it is often to shut down. I may appear to comply with the instructions I’m given, but I don’t enjoy it, I don’t find it relaxing, and I don’t want to do it more often.

I don’t ride much these days, but I have my horses living at home and I handle them daily. Sometimes I just go through the motions, because doing what I need to do with the horses is something I need to check off my task list for the day. If I approach the horses in this frame of mind, if any of the horses has any concerns about anything at all that day, our interaction is not going to be very positive.

Case in point: blanketing Finn. I blanket my horses below certain temperature and/or in certain types of precipitation. Never mind that I have been blanketing all of the horses for years and years, blanketing is always something of an issue for Finn. The worst it ever got was several years ago when I was trying to take his blanket off on a cold, dry day, and after I undid the leg straps and the belly straps, I moved to unhook the chest straps. In doing so I touched him on the neck and we gave each other a little shock of static electricity. Let me clarify: to me, it was little. To Finn, it was huge. He took off running, blanket flapping in the breeze. In not too many seconds the blanket flipped off his back entirely, leaving it hanging around his neck and front legs as he galloped in a blind panic. I figured (and hoped) the blanket would tear off – and it did, in a way. The binding around the neck and the chest straps held, so while he tore most of the blanket away and left it in the dust, he was still wearing a collar of blanket remains around his neck.

It took a long time that day for me to get close enough to him to get that blanket collar off. Just as Finn’s brain went into panic mode, mine went into “make him do it” mode, and instead of just leaving him alone (in retrospect, the “worst” thing that might have happened would possibly have been the best thing – if he put his head down to eat hay and the rest of the blanket fell off over his head of its own accord), I decided to stay out there and keep approaching him until I could get the blanket bits off. Probably because I did that, and in doing so kept his fear and adrenaline spiked, approaching him with a blanket – or a halter, or just at all – did not go smoothly for quite a while afterwards.

Last winter I went out to feed and blanket the horses one evening. As I picked up Finn’s blanket to put it on him, he spooked and jumped sideways away from his feed. I stayed where I was – I didn’t back up, move closer, speak, or raise or lower the blanket. I just stood. He took a hard look at me while facing me, and then he swung around so his left side was in front of me. He took in a big breath, squared up on all four feet, and then let out the breath and I could see and feel him settle his whole body and wait for me to put the blanket on. I did, and buckled all the straps, and then he calmly resumed eating.

As I was walking back to the house, I found I was thinking about yin. I thought about my friend, horsewoman, and writer Anna Blake saying that a huge percentage of riders are women but almost all instructors are men. I thought about the state of our country right now, and the percentage of elected officials (I just can’t call them “leaders”) who are men. But again, it’s not – or not only – a male/female distinction. The terms associated with yang include heat, light, strength, active, and giving form to all things. The terms associated with yin include cool, dark, soft, receptive, and giving spirit to all things. The yin yang symbol shows both parts of equal size. I think the work in front of me is to even those things up in myself, and in order to do that, just as if I were trying to even up an underdeveloped set of muscles with an overdeveloped set of muscles, I have to focus on strengthening the weaker ones and not on further working the strong ones. More dark, more cool, more soft, more receptive, more spirit. I’m pretty sure my horses will be grateful.

Finn2

Horsemanship through Triathlon, part 2

 

I left off last week at the intersection of SLOW DOWN and PLAN AHEAD. I did mention that “slow down” was reasonable since my main goal was to finish the event. As it turned out, a cyclist crashed while I was on the bike course, and we were held up in a big cluster while the medevac helicopter came to get him. Some of the folks near me were complaining about the hold-up and their race time, and all I could think was “If you are out here with me, you are in no danger of winning this thing.” (the cyclist was ok, and the first question he asked when he woke up in the hospital was “Where’s my bike?”) All that said, even when I am trying to go fast I find it helps me to slow down. A frenetic fast gets me nowhere. And slowing down, if only slowing my mind down, helps give me time to – you got it:

PLAN AHEAD

From a horsemanship standpoint, this also ties to a thing I have heard called the “scale of aids” – basically, a 1 is no pressure at all, and a 10 is more pressure than you would really ever want to use on your horse. The aids we give the horse fall somewhere on this scale, and you have to be at least one mental step ahead where you are physically in order to have time to apply the right aid at the right level. Or perhaps it would be better put to say you have to be aware enough of your surroundings to know not only what is happening now, but what is coming up next. Let me say first of all that I am not in any way comparing a horse to a bicycle here, but I did have a big revelation about the whole idea of a scale of 1-10 while learning to shift.  Bikes, or at least the road bike I was riding, have front and rear chain rings for changing gears (and a whole lot more gears than they used to have, might I add).  The 3 front rings change the gearing a lot, and the 10 rear ones change it less.

Cycling for 20 or 30 miles at a time in this hilly county where I live gave me lots of time to think and also lots of opportunity to shift.  At first this was a pretty klunky process (the shifting, but sometimes the thinking too), and I have to admit I often shifted just because I guessed it might be time to, or I was bored, or I wanted to see what would happen if I did.  One of these times I managed to completely lock up my derailleur by shifting too much at the wrong time in the middle of an uphill in traffic and had to quickly apply my “unclip both feet” lesson.  I’ve done the equivalent of this on horseback, and gotten a pretty nice view from above of my horse’s back before I hit the ground. Over time I have learned that if I pay attention to the terrain, and to how I feel, I can generally anticipate what kind of shift I will need to make and when I will need to make it. Or, with my horses, the kind of aid I need and when I need it – or perhaps more important, when I don’t need to do anything. This has gone hand in hand with learning more about…

CADENCE

In triathlon training I first heard about cadence while biking, but it turns out to apply to everything.  Keeping a steady cadence on a bike greatly helps decrease perceived exertion and generally makes the bike ride easier and more fun (assuming you keep a cadence your muscles and lungs can actually do – more on this later).  And in order to keep a steady cadence, you have to make the right size adjustment at the right time so that you don’t have big lurches downward in speed (which happens when you shift to a much harder gear than you meant to) and so you don’t wind up pedaling so fast that you feel like your legs might fly off (which happens when you shift to a much easier gear than you meant to).  Now sometimes a big change is the correct thing to keep your cadence steady, but you have to know what’s coming (plan ahead…) to know when that’s true.  Cadence also comes in when swimming (strokes per length in a pool eventually translates to a rhythm in open water) and when running (which is the one place where I seem to have a natural cadence that works).  And of course in riding.  The huge and inadvertent cadence changes while biking really clarified some things for me about the thing I always want to work on in my riding – smoothing out my transitions.  Which of course turns out to have everything to do with planning ahead and with making the appropriate scale request for the change. Knowing what you want and thinking about how to achieve it of course leads me to:

SET GOALS

This could also be called Plan Ahead part 3, but it’s more specific.  I’ve heard horsemen I respect say many times that rather than just getting on your horse and seeing what happens, you want to have a goal.  I’ve gotten so hung up on trying not to pressure my horses – or myself (“I just want to finish the course” applies to a lot of things for me) – that I often don’t want to set goals more than about an hour ahead of right now.  But I found that it helped me immeasurably to have one specific long term goal (complete an Olympic distance triathlon on May 18) and smaller but also fairly specific goals leading up to it.  These goals varied a lot.  “Do a workout in each of the 3 disciplines twice a week” was a fairly general goal.  “Increase my run cadence from 170 to 180” was more specific.  “Ride a practice ride on the bike course without braking on the downhills” was another type of goal. So some of them were technique things and some were more about getting accustomed to how something felt. “Figure out how to swim 1500 yards in the wetsuit without panicking” was actually my goal for one workout.  It took a lot of SLOW DOWN to reach that goal that day!  The other aspect of goal setting I learned while training for my first triathlon is to set goals in the positive – “finish the swim smiling” vs “don’t drown in the lake.”  Or, with my horses, “ride with softness and confidence” vs “don’t get bucked off.”

BLACK BELT MOVES

One of my best horsemanship teachers is an advanced martial artist and I’ve heard him talk about a yellow belt trying to (or wanting to) do black belt moves.  I’m not a martial artist of any kind but I thought I understood what he meant.  Something I came to a very different understanding of during triathlon training is that I am where I am, and while I can work towards learning more, or doing something better, it is also true that I am where I need to be.  I may hear someone else talk about something they did or felt and it may sound really cool to me – or maybe it just sounds really odd to me because I don’t even understand it – but the fact is, when I’m ready to do or feel that thing then I will be ready to do or feel that thing.  That probably doesn’t sound at all like what I mean. This brings me back to what I said about a cadence I can actually do. If I try to match some ideal cadence I’ve been told to do, and I physically can’t do it, I need to do something else.

Maybe it’s really about acceptance.  I may see a high level swimmer who can cross a pool in 11 strokes, and it takes me 24. As I improve my technique and my feel, I can get that down from 24 to 20.  And maybe eventually I can get it down to 11, or maybe I can’t.  Maybe I have to be 6 feet tall to do that, I don’t know.  But if I try to do it in 11 strokes, I will not only exhaust myself within minutes; I will disappoint myself with every attempt and I will never be able to see that I have improved from 24 to 22 strokes because all I will see is that it is not 11.  Which I suppose leads to the next thing:

STAY PRESENT

Being in the lake during the triathlon I was about as present as I have ever been.  I knew that I had to stay focused on each stroke and to keep telling myself to slow down because I had had so much trouble in my first swim practices in the wetsuit with focusing on the other swimmers and how fast I was (not) compared to them – this was where I would start fretting about being the last athlete on the course and all kinds of other things that had nothing to do with now.  What I found was that almost from the beginning as I focused on my stroke and how I felt in the water, what I felt was… GREAT.  I was having so much fun!  I felt like when I was a kid swimming in a lake, just playing in the water and loving every minute of it.  No worries about who else was doing what or what was coming next or anything.  Staying present helped get me to my next  point, which is:

HAVE FUN WHILE WORKING HARD

A week to the day after that first triathlon, I went to the first horse show I had been to in about 9 years.  It was a little local schooling show with maybe 25 riders, on an absolutely beautiful spring day on a gorgeous farm.  And NO ONE, not one single rider (or one single horse), looked like they were enjoying one single thing they were doing.  A week before, I had been with 1800 other people, some of whom are the top international competitors in their sport, and some who were total novices like me, and I did not encounter one person who didn’t smile or have something nice and/or helpful to say to someone else.  Now, I’m sure (I hope) I missed someone who was having a blast a the dressage show, and someone probably was miserable at the triathlon, but in either case it was hard to find.

It had already started to dawn on me that I too had gotten very far away from having fun with my riding, but this brought it home to me even more.  Or more accurately, it brought home to me that I had put up a big divide between having fun and working hard.  It became an either/or thing for me – sometimes I enjoy my horses, and sometimes I work my horses. But not both at the same time. It’s fair to say this can be a struggle for me in other areas. I don’t always remember that it’s not either/or, but when I catch myself I often remind myself of the smiling triathletes, or of one more little lesson I learned:

SIMPLE ANSWERS

When we showed up at the course to set up our “transition area” where we would get on our bikes after the swim, and get into our running shoes after the bike course, several of us first-timers were in a bit of a panic about how to fit our belongings in a very narrow area of a bike rack without impinging on people next to us. An experienced competitor overheard us fretting and he came over to say: “Your SHIT goes under your BIKE. You put your SHIT under your BIKE.” And there you have it. I’m not sure that last one has anything to do with horsemanship, but since it is one of my bigger areas of overthinking, I’m sure it does. Do the simplest thing and stop fretting. Not a bad lesson for life in general.

Team Crystal Tower Bear Bells

Horsemanship through Triathlon, part 1

Lil

Right around when I turned 40 I decided it would be a good idea to compete in a triathlon. Well, that’s not entirely how it went. A friend of our had been doing distance events – century bike rides, triathlons of various lengths – as fundraisers for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Through a combination of I no longer remember what – but I know it included his enthusiasm for the cause and for the events, some persuasive rhetoric about the bonds formed with the people he trained with, a friend of his whom we had met who was diagnosed with lymphoma, and, I can only assume, quite a bit of wine – Rose and I decided to sign up.

At the time I was still in the pre-facebook days of connecting with people I had shared interests with but didn’t actually know in person via Yahoo groups. There was a horsemanship group I had joined up with about five years earlier. That group, all of its different iterations, the people I met through it, and the people I met through those people – well, that’s a blog post or three all by itself. The general exploration we were all doing in our horsemanship was (and is) all about how horsemanship isn’t just a thing that applies to our riding, or our time with horses. It’s pretty well impossible to be any kind of a horseman and not take the principles and behaviors that serve you (and your horses) there into the rest of your life.

Given that, I should not have been surprised by how much of what I was working on in my horsemanship turned out to be applicable to triathlon, but I was.  And I was also surprised to find that some things that I thought I knew a little something about from horsemanship I gained a deeper understanding of from swimming, or biking, or running, or all three. I don’t ride horses much any more, and I haven’t done a triathlon for nine years, but I find myself reminiscing about both things right now when it’s about 187 degrees outside and I’m hiding in the house.

When I started triathlon training, the thing I noticed right away was how much I learned about learning.  It had been a while since I tried something new, and I am a person who likes to know what I’m doing before I sign up to learn about it. I was familiar with the component parts of a triathlon in a general way. I knew how to run and swim and bike – a little.  The longest race I’d ever run was a 5K.  I could swim enough to enjoy it and I knew more or less how to do three of the 4 main strokes (emphatically NOT the butterfly), but I was never a swim team kid and really never took lessons.  I had been on a bike maybe twice in the previous 20 years, and prior to that wasn’t much of a biker anyway.  The task at hand was a 1.5K (.93 mile) swim, 40K (24.8 mile) bike ride and 10K (6.2 mile) run, so I had some learning to do.

There were several categories of learning, or maybe better to say several topics I learned about, as I figured how how to get through those 30+ miles. I think I’ll group this by topic.

FEAR

One of the things that turned out to be a big factor in learning was fear. I rode horses a lot as a kid and would do absolutely anything absolutely anywhere, but then I got older and found that I don’t bounce the way I used to when I hit the ground.  I did not (and still do not) like to admit fear around horse-related activity.  When I started triathlon training I was still teaching the occasional riding lesson. When I had a student who spent the whole lesson looking like they want to cry or throw up but who told me they felt great, I wondered who they thought they were fooling – so of course I had to ask the same of myself.

Admitting I was terrified on a bicycle came a lot easier to me than admitting when I was scared around a horse. When it came to riding my bike down hill – well, ok, I have to admit – when it came to riding my bike at all, I was SCARED. The idea of swimming almost a mile when usually I maxed out at a quarter mile and then only when I stopped every 4 laps or so and rest was just as scary.  And I saw no way around it, so I just kept saying to anyone who would listen, “THIS IS REALLY SCARY”.  But I was determined to do this thing, so I had to figure out how to get past the fear.

Several lessons came out of just (just!) learning to deal with the fear. First, I would rather say the thing that is funny than the thing that shows vulnerability, but during that time it became increasingly important to me to spend more time practicing having my insides and outsides match, which meant admitting what I actually felt – out loud, to other people. Second, as long as I deny something, I keep myself from learning how to deal with it or move past it. Third, fear can actually be a good impetus for learning how to do something better and more safely. And finally, my patience with people – and horses – who are afraid increased exponentially as my desire for them to just get over it (you know, like I would…) decreased and my understanding of how fear impacts both mind and body increased.

BREATHING

And then there was the breathing. Breathing (without periods of holding my breath), breathing deeply and regularly, counting how many strides my horse took during my inhale and my exhale – I’d been working on this in my riding for several years. I had, of course, been thinking that my breathing had improved.  And it probably had.  Turns out breathing is even more important when you swim, and any weaknesses you have in this area are magnified quite a lot under water.

For the previous forty years – or however many since I first learned to swim – I had only breathed to the right when doing crawl.  Couldn’t (wouldn’t) even contemplate turning my head to the left.  Every once in a while I’d try, get a mouth (or lung) full of water and give up. When you are swimming in open water you never know which side the wind might be coming from or which direction you might have to go, so you best learn to breathe on both sides or you may find yourself doing a mile of dog paddle (not that there’s anything wrong with that) to avoid swallowing your body weight in funky river or ocean or lake water.

Learning to breathe on my left brought up a whole lot of other things that were one-sided about me.  My neck was stiffer on the left, and my left shoulder was stiffer than my right. My back muscles were uneven from years of doing things (mucking stalls included) only – or mostly – one sided.  The more I practiced breathing on both sides in the water, the more I practiced evening out my body, and the better balanced I found I became on a horse, or even just on the ground.  Which brings me to another benefit of the breathing lesson, which is that in order to learn to do it correctly while swimming I had to…

SLOW DOWN

From the beginning I was realistic enough to know that my number one goal was to complete the triathlon (goal 1.1 was not to be the very last person on the course).  Going too fast early on and burning myself out or hurting myself was a pretty sure way not to reach that goal.  And it also turned out that when learning to do something new (or an old thing a new way) it’s a lot easier – and more productive – to break it down and slow it down.

I learned this on the day I finally got brave enough to get on my bike in what they call “clipless pedals” – which means the kind you clip yourself into. I got on my bike in my driveway, clipped in, and started to pedal gently around the circle by the garage.  When I wanted to stop for a second I figured it would be quicker to just unclip one foot and put that foot on the ground with my other foot still on the pedal.  Excellent plan – except it required a level of coordination I did not yet have on the bike.  So in my attempt to do the fast and easy (ha!) thing, I unclipped my left pedal  to put my left foot down – and promptly fell to the right with my right foot still clipped in and the bike on top of me.

Two immediate changes I made in my life:  any time I think I might need to stop on my bike I immediately unclip both feet.  And any time I think “I might need to close that gate before I…” I go and close the gate.  Don’t ask me why I connected those two things in that moment on the asphalt under my bike, but I did.  This is where SLOW DOWN merges with PLAN AHEAD, which is where I will pick up next time.

Triathlon