When most of us embark on a new activity that involves practicing on a regular basis, we typically hear a voice inside us saying “I don’t wanna." Even though we've been excitedly thinking about making this change in our lives, actually doing the work towards learning something or changing our habits is not a walk in the park. At the beginning the practice is boring, and it’s tempting to decide instead to have a snack, do our laundry, reorganize our files, or watch the news. How long do most people have to struggle with feeling this discomfort while turning in a new direction? Sports psychologist Gregory Chertok wrote in this week's San Francisco Chronicle that, "for a behavior to become an ingrained action…it takes four to six weeks of ‘consistent’ action,'” that is, regular practice.
Don't be discouraged if in the past you've been derailed by the tedious process of "engraining" a new behavior and given up! Our brains and muscles are hardwired with a surplus of potential to learn countless skills, and we keep much of this resource for life. You can tap into it any time and acquire a dazzling new piece of yourself, plus a surprising bonus for having stuck with it: a new-found pleasure in doing the very task that was such a drag at first.
My father, who died three years ago this month, knew of these riches. He wrote about them in his book about learning called "Mastery," and towards the end of his life he personally demonstrated that you don’t have to be young to benefit from practice. To illustrate how someone can use practice to sharpen a skill and find joy, even during his last days, I want to reprint this story about my father that I wrote for this blog shortly before he died:
In the summer of 2003 my father George Burr Leonard had most of his stomach and esophagus removed. He lay in the intensive care unit for three weeks falling in and out post-surgical psychosis as we hopelessly tried to reason with him. We were overjoyed when he came to. We were also relieved to learn that the doctors had gotten out all of the cancer. My father was declared okay to go on with his life.
And what a life he had to go back to. My father is a pioneer in the emerging field of human potentialities, the investigation into just how far we humans can go towards maximizing our inborn potential for growth in mind, body and spirit. He is the founder of three life-enhancing techniques that have touched tens of thousands of people the world, is past-president of Esalen Institute and The Association for Humanistic Psychology, is the author of twelve books on the human potential (my two favorites are “Mastery” and “The Silent Pulse”), is a fifth-degree black belt in aikido, an accomplished jazz pianist, and the writer and lyricist of musical comedies. In person, my father is funny, sweet, enthusiastic and playful. His favorite words are “joy” and “generous.” He, as they say, lights up a room.
Dad never planned to retire, no less to get sick, or even old. After his recovery he leapt right back into his life. The problem was, he had trouble eating. At first we family members figured he wasn’t trying hard enough. We advised him to eat fattening foods, eat more often, drink Ensure, see specialists and healers, take pills and remedies, and he did them all. Nevertheless, in the face of all the wizardry the medical and healing worlds could offer him, he became thinner and weaker.
In 2008 when my father hit his 5-year survival mark, a supposed measure of post-cancer recovery, he was no longer joyful. His disease had seriously affected his body and mind. He couldn’t drive and became house bound except for increasingly frequent visits to the emergency room. He stopped writing and playing the piano. His friends didn’t visit him as much. He became despondent and at times could not be consoled.
Then four months ago, one of Dad's many doctors prescribed something he had never tried. “He took out his prescription pad,” my father told me, “scribbled something on it, and handed it to me. It said,
'Practice the piano 15 minutes a day, seven days a week.'"
And that’s exactly what my father has done.
I visited my father today. He is still stooped, but his eyes are lit up with his old good humor. He eagerly told me about his piano playing and to my amazement of his enjoyment of being retired. “It’s fun,” he said. “I can stand back, look at the world, and laugh at it.”
What amused me about the prescription that finally healed my father’s spirits is that it was for his own medicine. Most of his books give emphasis to the power of daily practice as the foundation for positive change. In “The Life We Are Given” he writes:
"Any significant long-term change requires long-term practice, whether that change has to do with learning to play the violin or learning to be a more open, loving person."
As a reader and fan of his books, I took this idea when I was in the process of developing the Bar Method and used it to guide both students and teachers. I discovered that, just as my father prescribed, regular practice – whether it be simply attending class three times a week or, just as important, really practicing the exercises while doing them – changes us inside and out more than we initially believed possible.
“All you need is 20 seconds of insane courage, and I promise you something great will come of it," Benjamin (played by Matt Damon) says to his son in the movie "We Bought A Zoo." A first class at the Bar Method is one of those acts that can take a bit of insane courage, and just as Damon's character promises, great things -- in this case getting a more beautiful, healthy body -- can come of it.
It's understandable that that walking into your first Bar Method class takes at least some courage. It has a reputation for being challenging, and friends are often so darned devoted to it that they can make you wonder. These friends are well-meaning, but their enthusiasm for the Bar Method can backfire and churn up inner cascades of self-doubting questions among the uninitiated: "Am I going to get addicted? Will everyone be, and look, better than me? Will I feel singled out when the teacher calls my name? Will I even get through the class!?”
If you're wondering how you'd do in your first class, I want to reassure you that the overwhelming majority of new students of all ages and fitness levels have a positive experience. Bar Method teachers are skilled at making their new students feel safe and welcome, letting them know what they're going to feel, explaining the benefits and mechanics of the exercises, and getting them into a focused workout "zone" that makes the hour go by fast. But don't just take my word for it! Hear about the first day experiences of three students who almost never got there, and were glad they did.
Rachael, Summit, New Jersey
For a long time Rachael walked by the Bar Method studio in Summit without going in. A single mom in her mid-40s, Rachael “dismissed it as an option for me,” she says, “because the word ‘bar’ implied ballerina and that was something I certainly wasn’t.” One Thanksgiving, her daughter came home from college, and the two of them decided to give the class a try. “I changed three times before I left the house,” Rachael recalls, “not sure what to wear. I was sure I would be the only person there who would not be able to lift her leg to her ear. I was so nervous when I turned the corner into the studio, but everyone was so lovely and welcoming. As I made my way through the class, I was amazed at the extensive options given within each exercise…options for those who were advanced and options for novices like me. The instructor offered specific encouragement and suggestions to each student using their names! It was clear that each student was so involved in their own progress that no one had time (including me!) to notice anyone else.”
Mary Ann, Redmond, Washington
For two years, Mary Ann’s California-based daughter called her to talk about the positive effects the Bar Method was having on her body. Then a Bar Method studio opened in Mary Ann's area. She was placed on the mailing list but didn’t attend for another year. Finally Mary Ann signed on “and I might add without too much enthusiasm,” she admits, “because I was suffering from a lower back injury. However, once I began taking classes under the watchful eyes of Bev and Maika (the studio’s owners), I was nurtured with kind comments, disciplined corrections and happy faces. I got the message; this is working for me.”
Grace, Bernardsville, New Jersey
A busy mother of three young boys, Grace would not be dragged to a first class for a long time in spite of the persistent efforts of her best friend Margaret. “I can be a little sarcastic and a physical underachiever,” Grace says by way of explanation. At last Margaret prevailed. “As I entered the class,’ Grace remembers, ‘I was really impressed by the instructor’s desire to not just learn the names of students, but to engage and take a serious interest in each individual’s progress and development. Honestly, on that first day, I was a “D” student, but that did not matter. What struck me is how much and how often these instructors encouraged me and others and made constructive adjustments in order for proper form to be achieved. Also, every exercise is explained along with its function and benefits. It is fascinating to submit to this level of instruction. Not only did it stimulate my muscles, but a switch was flipped in my brain, too. This Bar Method became my Mt. Everest and I was hooked.”
Thank you, everyone, for you support this past year.
Happy New Year!
TEN NON-EXERCISE NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS FOR EXERCISERS
I don’t care what the skeptics say. I love making New Year’s resolutions. Coming up with a yearly list of life-enhancing projects gives me a fresh look at what I want out of my life going forward. Plus it reminds me that opportunity is always lying on my doorstep waiting if only I would walk over and take it.
Making my resolutions this year made me want to think of some for people who exercise. I decided that all my suggested resolutions would be non-exercise-related. If you’re reading this blog, you probably already exercise and so would not need a resolution to do it. Instead the resolutions would leverage the focus, discipline and fighting spirit you already have developed from sticking with exercise and carry those assets over into other spheres of life. After all, people who exercise know that change is possible. They’ve done it with their bodies, so they’re primed to make it happen elsewhere. With this idea in mind, I came up with the following ten projects that you might think of taking on in the New Year the same way you tackled exercise in past years.
THREE FOR YOUR BODY:
- For one day eat only foods with no added sugar. Whether you weigh more or less than you want or are just right, a day free of sugar will get you of the roller coaster of sugar rushes and crashes. You’ll gain extra mental stamina, energy and concentration, plus you’ll sleep more deeply.
- Ask friends, members of your family and your exercise teacher to give you feedback on your posture. The way we stand gets deeply engrained in all of us from early childhood. For this reason our perception of our stance may not reflect the way you truly look. Get a reality check in 2011, and if your posture is found wanting, consider making serious effort to improve it.
- On one occasion when you’re walking, sitting or standing for some time, try to keep your abs pulled in for 20 consecutive minutes. You already have strong abs from your workouts. Now train them to perform for you all day. This effort will challenge your concentration.
THREE FOR YOUR MIND:
- Banish one bad habit for 24 hours. Whether it’s biting your nails, swearing to yourself at other drivers when you’re driving, watching too much TV – anything – try to do without it for a day.
- Set your cellphone stopwatch to 20 minutes; sit in a chair, close your eyes and meditate until you hear the ringtone. Meditating, at least in my experience, is like Bar Method thigh-work for your brain. One session of meditating can clear out the debris in your mind and begin to firm up your cerebral muscles.
- Decide on one activity or skill you’d like to do better or learn to do. Mull over the idea of pursuing it. This is a purely mental resolution, so you can choose anything that excites your imagination. File it away in your mind where you can call it up later.
THREE FOR YOUR HEART:
- Let someone you have a relationship with win an argument even if you believe you’re right. Your generosity of heart will probably be repaid to you with dividends.
- Call up from your mind the skill or activity you picked out for resolution #6 and look on the internet for a class or a coach on that subject. Try one session. If you like the teacher, consider carving out the time to attend regularly.
- Learn the names of all the café baristas who make your drinks. If you don’t go to cafés, take it upon yourself to learn the names either of the clerks at your bank, the cashiers at your supermarket, or the servers at restaurants you attend. Research has found that people have an amazing capacity to learn names if they work at it. We Bar Method teachers know this is true since we’ve all developed the ability to learn as many as 30 students’ names during the 15 minutes before and after a class begins. If you make a project of collecting names, you’ll find as I did that people are always pleased to know that you remembered them.
And last but not least...
- One resolution carried out is definitely worth ten that have fallen by the wayside. To that end, my last suggestion is to pick out one of the nine above – or one you’ve created – and repeat.
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!