Building Flow

There are many ways to build flow within a system. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing these techniques with you. The first and most important is the centered breath.

Take a moment and center yourself. If seated, have your feet hip to shoulder width, with feet flat on the floor. You should have your heels directly under your knees at a ninety-degree angle. Slightly raise your diaphragm, setting your core. Take 5 breathes up through your pelvic floor.

Practice this at least fifty times a day at various times.

Spring Equinox Reflections

We're a few days past the spring equinox. Jerry and I launched this project on the autumn equinox last September, six months ago, making this a good time for a little reflection. We said in our initial pieces that our goal was to develop a training program that would help people reach their highest potential. How are our results so far?

In many ways, we're still just starting this process. Our initial hypothesis was that we could use Jerry's energy techniques to radically accelerate our improvement in sports, using golf as our playground. Unfortunately, because of my shoulder injury back in the fall, we haven't been able to test that hypothesis much. The injury really limited what we could do for a while, and by the time I was healed enough to take full swings again, winter was shortly to arrive. Winter is just now releasing its grip; we're finally on the cusp of being able to focus on the experimentation and practice that will be necessary to bring this project to fruition.

On the other hand, even under those constraints, we have seen some evidence of real progress. To name just the most recent example: a few weeks back when Jerry and I went to the pitching green and practiced what I called "allowing," we hit some of the best chips and pitches of our lives.

What I have learned by teaching skiing this winter will doubtless inform my approach to the project as we accelerate back into it in the weeks and months ahead. Between all the energy I put into improving my own skiing and teaching scores of students these past few months, a few principles about learning have come much more clearly into focus for me:

  1. There's no substitute for practice.
  2. Quality instruction is, at minimum, helpful, and is often indispensable.
  3. Centering is a skill, not a panacea.
  4. Patterns of negative verbal/linguistic self-description substantially hamper our ability to learn or improve a skill.

In weeks ahead, I'll be writing more about these principles, and, now that winter and the ski season are winding down, intend to bring a great deal of focused energy to the project Jerry and I set for ourselves six months ago. My goal remains to break 100 over an 18-hole round. My dream is to do it by the anniversary of starting this project. I look forward to getting to work.

Happy spring. Thanks for reading.

Spring has Sprung

Monday March 14th was a really tough day. Not just for me personally, but most of the clients I saw that day complained of the time change. Well into the week, people seemed to feel disjointed and out of sorts. Everyone seemed to appreciate the extra hour of daylight that came with the clocks springing forward, but something didn’t feel right.

As the week wore on, the energy slowly started to shift. By Friday, people seemed to have adjusted to the change and were more themselves. Personally, I could feel the energy slowly shift towards finding balance again, but things still weren’t quite right. I could give you many examples of how things were “off,” but I doubt they would mean much to anyone but me. Let’s just say that things were slightly off center.

Yesterday, March 20th, was the spring equinox. It was the earliest equinox in more than 120 years. I’m not going to explain why it was, but you can ask google, google knows. I looked it up there myself. To summarize, I t said something about a long time ago (approximately 1582) men, who seemed important at the time, manipulated the calendar to account for something that also seemed important at the time. Anyway, the result is that yesterday we had the earliest equinox in a very long time.

Exactly one week prior to this we adjusted the clocks forward one hour to account for day light savings time. Yet another instance where men, who seemed important at the time, manipulated the calendar to account for something that seemed important at the time. (Yes Google can explain the who and why of daylight savings time.)

Now, I’m not trying to degenerate the contributions and ideas of these historical figures. I am attempting to remind ourselves that time really doesn’t exist. That it is simply an agreed upon concept constructed by man. In fact, historically, there have been at least nine different recognized calendars. Some were fixed on the number of days, while others were based on the movement of the moon, sun, or both. Some, myself included, think that the structuring of time is man’s attempt to make himself the center of the universe. Time, is just one of the ways that we attempt to impose our collective will upon it.

The dissonance that most people felt after the time change on the 13th lasted until the equinox on the 20th. At work on the 21st, the collective energy was better overall and my clients reported feeling “normal” after a week of struggle. One client reported that she was “well rested” after doing the bare minimum the week before. She didn’t have a reason for needing the rest, it was just that she wasn’t “feeling it.” People struggled with the time change, not because of the hour “lost” but because through man’s manipulation of time, we were thrown out of rhythm with the universal energy flow.

The word equinox literally means “equal night.” So an equinox is the day that we are supposed to experience an equal amount of daylight and darkness. By changing the clocks, we remove ourselves from the balance of the universal energy represented by the equinox. It is important to remember that man is not the reason the universe exists. Man exists, because we are of the universe and the universal energy.

To live a life of balance and connectedness we have to harmonize with the flow of universal energy. The concepts and ideas that we present here use sport and performance as a way of enhancing our connectedness to the universal energy flow. Our hope is to not only help you perform better, but to live a more fulfilling and connected life. Happy Spring!

How to Be a Beginner, and How Not To

My wife has been expressing interest in learning to play tennis. She's been asking me to go out to the courts with her and teach her a few things. Last Saturday, we went and did so.

Before we went to hit, I asked her, "Have you done any racquet sports before?" She said, "I played a lot of squash in college. But I haven't played tennis since high school. And back then we were still using wooden racquets."

That's a long time ago now, and while playing squash is good for practicing hand-eye coordination, the tennis stroke is completely different. So we were starting not completely from scratch but close to it.

I'm not really qualified on teach more than the very basics of the tennis stroke, but I am able to see things like swing path and what the racquet face is doing. What we found most effective was me standing at the net with a bucket of balls and hitting them to her so she could practice groundstrokes. Unsurprisingly, she hit a lot of them into the net and a lot of them long. In response, I would either say something like, "You opened the racket face on that one" or I would try to demonstrate what I'd seen so she'd have a visual of what her body had done. I figured if I could help her understand the "why" of when her shots went awry, she might be able to use experimentation and her intuitive understanding of what a good swing looks like (from having watched high-level tennis) to improve without me saying too much. Because she's seen good tennis shots before, some part of her brain/body is trying to emulate what it has seen. My hypothesis was basically this: if you can help a student understand what she did to get the result she didn't want, she'll know where to focus her attention as she experiments.

At one point, after hitting the unpteenth ball into the net, she said, "I'm pretty bad at this." I responded almost automatically: "No, you aren't bad at this. You just haven't ever done it much, and you haven't done it at all for half a lifetime."

When I say that, I'm not being insincere and I'm not making a semantic distinction without greater significance. Having watched the improvements I've seen from my ski students this winter, I have come to believe that most people are capable of doing much more than they give themselves credit for, but they don't know how to let themselves be beginners. I am convinced that the difference between not doing something well and doing it well is partly good instruction and mostly a willingness to practice.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we try a new activity, compare ourselves to people who've practiced it much more than we have, and then declare ourselves to be bad at it? Bad is not a neutral word. In essence, we're declaring ourselves to be in some way deficient. We're shaming ourselves. And I'm not claiming that I'm somehow immune to doing the same thing. But I see it all the time and it's starting to make me sad. We use that judgment to narrow our worlds. We use it to keep ourselves from exploring, from experimenting, from fun. By saying, "Oh, I'm bad at that," we limit our lives.

The language of flow Part 2

Last week I finished my piece with the statement:

The harmony of thought, expression, and physical reality creates a sense of flow, which is critical for positive change to happen.

Expressed another way – Our ideas, words and actions have to be consistent to create positive change. When these things are aligned, there is a sense of harmony or flow within the body and the energy system opens, allowing positive change.

When these things contrast or contradict each other, the system closes or becomes stagnant, blocking the flow necessary to create positive change. I am amazed at how often we use language, either consciously or sub-consciously, to block our sense of flow and well-being.

For example, last week I discussed the use of the word “fine.” To me, the word is an acronym for Frantic, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional. When used on its own, any of those words will kill a conversation and the flow necessary to create change.

It seems to me that people, consciously or more likely subconsciously, like to use individual words like fine, okay, easy, and hard to limit the conversation and block flow. Flow requires the use of language. A conversation is necessary to open the flow of energy and create positive change.

Over the last couple of weeks Ben has been discussing the use of the words Easy and Hard. When you say either word aloud, neither one has any sense of energy or flow around it. But, if we change the context we can create a sense of flow that helps to shift our perception of what easy and hard might be.

So let’s say that I bring you 5 feet from water’s edge and demonstrate how to throw a rock into the water. I show you how I hold the rock, how I’m balanced in my stance and the motion I use to throw the rock into the water. Then I have you do it. I applaud your success and verbally confirm what you were already thinking, boy that was easy. Then I move us back to twenty feet away and repeat the process. Each time building the sense of flow within the accomplishment of throwing the rock into the water.

Soon, we’ll be at a distance that challenges our physical ability to throw a rock and hit the water. I throw my rock, and barely miss the water. This time, before you get to throw your rock, I confirm what you’re already thinking, that this is going to be more difficult. In fact, you might not even hit the water. But let’s see how close you can get to it. You throw your rock and I congratulate you on the distance, it was quite an accomplishment to get that close. Your rock had great trajectory coming out of your hand and really had a chance to make it. With a little work and effort, we could hit that water in no time.

Notice, it never got hard. It may have become more difficult to coordinate body movements, trajectory, and effort as the distance became greater, but we never let it get hard. We kept the energy positive and built a sense of flow as we both moved forward. Now, at some point we will reach a distance that is physically impossible for us to throw a rock into the water. That’s OK. When we have reached the farthest distance that we know we can throw a rock, there’s no reason to struggle throwing it further. We have maximized our potential.

The language of flow is one of thought, expression, and physical reality. When used properly, we can learn almost anything. By keeping things from becoming hard, we can open ourselves to maximizing our potential.

The Problem with “Hard”

At the end of last week's piece, I pointed out that even a talent as seemingly innate as walking actually requires a great deal of practice before we become proficient, which led to a question: What do we call things that are available to anyone with normal abilities--things like soccer or skiing or learning a language or learning to play an instrument--but require dedicated practice to be able to do? Are they easy or hard?

We tend to call things that require a lot of practice hard. But I propose we're doing ourselves a disservice in two different ways by choosing that term: first, by calling something hard we make it hard; and second, calling something hard allows us to stay safely in our comfort zone rather than entering into the discomfort required to undergo any process of change.

When we call something hard, we expect to struggle, so we struggle. When we struggle, we fight with our bodies and our experience. We tense up. We get frustrated. We run from what we're doing. In short, we set ourselves up to fail.

But if we eschew the word hard and simply say that these activities require well-directed, concentrated practice, then we don't need to struggle. We just need to be awake to the experience. We need to stay centered, and to breathe, and to accept that we won't immediately excel at the activity. All we really need to do is commit to the experience of quality practice, 95% of which is showing up, concentrating, and engaging in repetition.

By using the word hard to describe a skill that requires commitment to a practice, we give ourselves an excuse to not make the commitment. After all, who will blame us? No one blames anyone for choosing not to do something hard.

I am hardly the first person to note that we struggle with change. It scares us. We prefer to stay in our comfort zone. We know it there. We are familiar with it and, though we may be less fully realized than we'd like to be, in that comfortable place we know we can survive because we've done it for so long. A commitment to a practice, on the other hand, forces us to live with uncertainty, for the practice will, by definition, change us.

Any process of self-growth invariably threatens the ego because the ego seeks to see itself as fixed. So within the ego, the two problems with hard combine. The ego wants to be special. It wants the aggrandizement of doing something we call hard, while at the same time fighting against change.

Aggrandizement is rarely the outcome for anyone who engages honestly in a practice. Much more common is a double dose of humility. On the one hand, when we recognize that the difference between ability and not is the willingness to commit to a practice, we recognize that anyone can do it. We become, in the egoic sense, the opposite of special. On the other hand, when engaging in a practice of sufficient depth, we are forced to learn that there is no destination, no end point. No matter how deep into the practice we get, there is always more to learn. No matter how much mastery you may attain, you'll always be a student.

This realization is profoundly freeing. Not that we are henceforth and forever free from frustration and the like, but instead of either living in some distant future where our ego is stoked by our expertise in something we've accomplished or, worse, using the notion of hard to never take the risk of trying at all, we begin to move, finally, truly into the present.

The Language of Flow

The Language of Flow

After reading Ben’s piece from Friday entitled, Easy or Hard, I thought I would write a little about language. How we use it, and how it can help and/or hinder us as we try to create change in our lives.

Each day as I work with clients, I am constantly monitoring the words they choose to use and how those words affect their body, mood and workout in general. Often, we’ll use words that although benign in nature, using them causes a sense of stagnation and struggle. A perfect example of this is the word fine. People ask how you’re doing and the short answer is “fine.” In this case, “fine” means you really don’t want to know and I really don’t care to share.

But what the word “fine” really does, when injected into a conversation, is kill any sense of flow or feelings of well-being. Try this - as you sit reading this take a moment to center yourself. Take a couple of open and flowing breathes. Now, out loud, say “I’m fine.” Repeat it a couple of times. Notice the change in energy within your body. What do you feel? When I do this this I can feel my energy stop flowing and my system shut down.

This shut down is caused by the lack of harmony between what I am saying and what I am feeling. It really doesn’t matter if I’m feeling great or horrible, the word “fine” doesn’t flow with either one of them and therefore, the energy gets blocked and stops flowing.

For example, let’s say a client comes in and he’s not doing well. His knee hurts and walking is obviously uncomfortable. I ask him how he’s doing and he says “fine.” The conversation and the energy flow stops right there. His words and physical reality are out of sync. Because there is no balance between his statement and his pain, the energy cannot flow between them. He’s essentially stuck right there.

But let’s say that he’s not doing well and I ask him how’s he doing? He responds, that his knee hurts today. First, by voicing that his knee hurts, I can confirm the obvious visual indicators of his pain, he’s limping and grimacing with the statement that his knee hurts. This builds an energy balance and a sense of flow between what I see and my clients experience. From here, I can build on that energy by asking about what happened to his knee and what he’s done to treat it to this point.

By furthering the conversation, I continue to build the energy between his perception of what happened to his knee and what he really feels physically. This harmony between perception and reality allows for him to give me the necessary details to design a viable treatment plan. This interaction also creates a sense of flow between he and I, that builds the trust necessary for me to help him with this problem.

The harmony of thought, expression, and physical reality creates a sense of flow, which is critical for positive change to happen.

Easy or Hard?

The question arose because there's never any shortage of skiers on the mountain, and most of them are able to tackle at least intermediate terrain: is skiing easy or hard?

The more I thought about it, the less clear the answer became. On the one hand, most people can learn the rudiments of skiing in a day and achieve what we think of as basic intermediate proficiency within a week. On the other hand, it takes most people years of practice to really get good at it.

The more closely I looked at the question, the more I came to feel that there's a problem contained in the words themselves. Easy and hard are so abstract and imprecise that they confuse our understanding of the world.

Imagine you are standing on the shore of a lake, right at the water's edge, holding a small rock in your hand. You want to throw the rock into the water. The lake is big and you are standing right next to it: for anyone older than, say, two, it is essentially impossible to fail. I think we can safely call this easy.

Now imagine you are standing ten feet from a swimming pool with that rock's identical twin. Can you throw the rock into the swimming pool? Clearly, this is slightly harder, but most of us will succeed most or almost all of the time.

Now, imaginary rocks in hand, start imagining different sizes of and distances from your body of water. Interestingly, we use the same word, hard, to describe throwing the rock into a bucket 30 feet away and throwing the rock into a lake from 50 or 60 or 70 yards. The former is within our physical capacity--we can throw the rock that far--but we may lack the precision to succeed very often. On the other hand, there is a certain distance beyond which we simply lack the physical gifts to throw the rock, no matter how big the target. But notice, too, that a professional baseball outfielder might struggle with the precision of tossing the rock into a bucket, but would have a 100%-success rate throwing the rock into a lake from a distance that for the rest of us would be impossible.

There are things that are beyond our current abilities but which might be attainable with practice. And there are things that are simply beyond the physical capabilities of most but not all people. These are two very different things, but we call them both hard.

So here's another question: is learning to walk hard or easy? Don't answer too quickly. The toddler just learning to walk falls down an awful lot. It takes her many days of practice before she becomes adept at it. Therefore learning to walk is hard. But on the other hand, by the time she's a certain age, she'll be, like all of us, perfectly comfortable with walking. Indeed, no one needs lessons to learn to walk. Therefore learning to walk is easy.

So then, back to our original question: is skiing (or soccer, or golf, or learning to speak Spanish or play the piano) easy or hard?

The Power of Flow

For the last few weeks, I have focused on struggle--its nature and the tendency for people to choose struggle rather than flow. As I transition to the idea and concepts of flow, I thought I would share a session I had with a client last week.

Mike is a 16-year-old male with a limited history in weight lifting. He is a good high school tennis player who came to me to get stronger because he wanted to join the rugby club at his high school. We’ve been training together once a week over the last few months. He’s made excellent gains in strength and diligently applies the instructions he gets from me each week.

Last week during our session he was talking about how he has recently enjoyed a significant jump in the quality of his tennis game. He wasn’t sure why, because he’s been focused on his rugby training and hasn’t been taking tennis lessons over the last few months. I smiled and asked how he could tell he had made the significant leap.

He told me that earlier that week he had a private lesson with his tennis coach, the first in several months. At the end of a lesson they typically play a competitive set. There’s no instruction, just head-to-head competition. After his prior lesson, he had lost the set 6-0. He said that it wasn’t even that close. He was playing his hardest, while his coach was simply going through the motions.

Last week, the competitive set to finish the lesson went quite a bit differently. He lost the set 6-2, but his coach had to “really play.” There was no joking or goofing around; the coach had to actually play his best and was very pleased and congratulated Mike when they were done. Mike wasn’t sure what changed, but he credited the training he was doing with the rugby team. I asked him why he thought that, and he said “because he was moving easier with more confidence and agility.”

I smiled at his explanation and began to explain what was really going on. In teaching him weight training for rugby, I am using the training techniques that I have developed over the last 25 years. I have taught Mike how to center and make an open flowing breath essential to good form and technique. I have encouraged him to never struggle when lifting a weight. He has applied the concepts of mindfulness to his workouts and these habits are being ingrained into his system. So when he’s on the rugby field or the tennis court, being in a state of flow is becoming his default response.

Helping Mike to create positive habits while improving his overall fitness has been relatively easy. He’s a willing student who was open to the training. Because of his relative lack of experience, I didn’t have to overcome any preconceived notions of what the training should look or feel like. Essentially, he didn’t have any “bad” habits that we had to overcome. When you combine being present and in a state of flow with increased strength and endurance, good things are going to happen.

The really interesting thing here is that all of this has derived from a basic exercise program. I haven’t shared any of the TTW principles with Mike yet.