Lately I’ve been dipping in and out of a book I loved the first time around: Rest, Refocus, Recharge by Toronto-based performance physiologist Greg Wells, PhD. A former athlete, Wells studies the science behind rest and recovery in exercise, and in life. His subtitle is A Guide for Optimizing your Life; and the book covers many topics such as sleep, nutrition, managing stress and increasing physical activity that are particularly relevant to our pandemic times. But the chapters that really caught my attention on this reading were those on how to use rest and reflection to pin down our goals, in order to achieve our potential more fully.
Thinking about how we think
Wells explores constructive ways to activate metacognition and strategic thinking to improve results in work, fitness, and everyday life. Metacognition is the awareness of one’s own thought processes. If you can foster an awareness of how you think and enable a relaxed state where you can think more clearly, he suggests that you may have a greater chance of identifying what is truly important to you in life and how you might make the changes to achieve it.
Wells urges the reader to set up a simple self-reflection protocol to enhance how we identify and reach for our goals. ‘If you can pause for a moment, change your mental state, and open your mind to greater awareness by reflecting on your experiences and strategizing how to move forward, you can alter the course of your life, perform at a higher level, and improve your mental and physical health all at the same time.’
Identifying, then moving towards change
I first read Wells’ book when the pandemic began and I had to close my studio. At the time, the idea of teaching Pilates online seemed as farfetched to me as jumping out of an airplane—as in, even if you give me a parachute, it’s not going to happen.
With my studio shuttered, and me stuck at home, I had a lot of extra time to sit around and ask some of his questions: What, why, and how am I going to get this done? What exactly is involved in this task? Why is it happening—what is the larger plan or purpose? How will I proceed—what steps should I take?
The first step is to think about your situation in a relaxed way and not necessarily take action. This is not at all my instinctive way of handling problems. Leap first, ask questions later is my go-to approach, to anything from little messes to big troubles. Wells’ advice helped me get started by first taking time to identify problems and ask questions, before rushing to solve things.
Pivoting from threat to challenge
Wells recommends a problem-solving approach to life’s challenges, ‘to pivot from threat to challenge.’ How do we do that? By building a practice of consideration before reaction: using awareness, time, rest and reflection to gain perspective over what is really important in our lives.
Thinking and identifying is a good start, but a new outlook on a problem should ideally lead to action. When in-person classes were no longer possible in the context of the pandemic, I know a number of fellow instructors about my age who ended up retiring, some more willingly than others. After careful consideration I realized this was not what I wanted. Only after taking quite a bit of time to explore what I did and didn’t want, was I ready to turn to practicalities such as creating a new class design, thinking about online challenges for me and my students, and researching microphones, cameras, lights, etc.
I sat down and wrote out a sort of script of what I might say online, keeping cues simple and on-point. I purchased lights and experimented with sound quality. A critical challenge was getting all of my students ‘on board’—which involved many one-on-one phone calls to encourage them to make the move online. Then I filled my car with inflated balls, resistance bands and small weights from my studio and began to deliver them to the students who did not have equipment at home.
Some practical strategies to begin the process
By identifying problems and asking questions, we can more easily break out of negative thought patterns and find a game plan to move forward. Here are three strategies I personally find useful for changing my mental state, to help me identify my goals and then put them into motion.
Suggestion #1: Journaling, yes journaling
In the fall 2021 Oprah’s Quarterly there was a big section on how journaling can change your life in the following ways: ‘Keep your memory and thinking sharp; Sleep better; Boost your mood; Reduce your blood pressure, stress, and anxiety; Improve your immune system.’ Journaling is writing down your thoughts, emotions, dreams; anything from gratitude lists to streams of consciousness. If you feel daunted about the time and effort of starting this new activity, think of it as like keeping a ship’s log. Start with daily succinct notes about where you are (including the date and year), what you see, the weather (inside oneself and out), encounters and activities. You can use fancy journals, or rough sheets of paper, pens, pencils, or coloured inks.
I started journaling as a teenager and have never stopped. Over the years my entries expanded into both a creative space and a therapeutic outlet. Journaling is the ultimate me-time. It offers quiet time and peace. And it costs nothing. But what I really find it helpful for is to identify faulty thinking and repetitive, stuck-in-a-rut reactions to oneself as well as the world around you. Wells again: ‘When we reflect on our problems and challenges in a deliberate way—journaling, for example—we can often put them into context and create maps to extricate ourselves from difficult circumstances or, even better, craft a new direction forward.’
Re-reading journals is also a worthwhile pastime. ‘I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train,’ Oscar Wilde famously quipped, in his play The Importance of Being Earnest. Seriously, I confess that I cherish my shelffuls of journals and re-read them every couple of years or so. Re-reading what I write is an effective way to start to analyse recurring patterns in the way I think, process, and act.
Suggestion #2: Activate the body, and the mind-body connection
I think by now we all accept the research: physical activity is good for us. Exercise has a positive impact on mental and physical health. But one way of enhancing an exercise session is to add in the mind-body connection.
Pilates is known as mind-body exercise or mindful movement. It is mentally as well as physically challenging. In a mind-body approach to exercise we don’t ignore what the body is experiencing; rather, the opposite. The goal is to connect more deeply to movement and muscular activation to enhance the workout and prevent injuries. We use the brain to focus on what the body is doing; we use the brain to re-educate the body. Silence and focus (and turning off TV and other distractions) are a great help to find the connection between mind and body.
Being aware of the mind-body connection when we workout can also encourage us to be more present, more in the moment, and more present in our bodies. You can train mind-body consciousness by scanning your body often to notice where you are holding extra tension or pain. Mindful movement can be practised not just in our workout sessions but during everyday activities such as walking, driving, cooking, even doing chores.
Suggestion #3: Meditate, if you can do it
Meditation is supposed to be a journey toward serenity. But for many of us, it is extremely hard simply to still the body and ‘be’.
Meditation teaches us to empty our minds of not only deadlines and shopping lists, but also judgments, conflicts, stresses and fears, and to experience the present moment. The goal is not to control or judge our thought patterns but to notice distractions and emotions, without engaging with them. Instead, we learn to be with our emotions whether they are filled with happiness, sadness, anxiety and/or anger. Emptying our minds is not easy. They tend to wander continuously, but the aim is to try to pull back gently from distractions and focus, without judgement.
If you can’t meditate on your own, or are new to it, you might experiment with an app or recording. I use Headspace, an excellent app that offers meditations from two minutes to much longer. Sometimes two minutes is all that I can manage, yet I still feel the benefits. As long as I practise every day.
I can attest to the fact that doing exercise, even just a small workout, especially one that involves stretching, before trying to meditate is also very helpful. So is belly breathing—focusing on the sensation of the air going in and out of the abdomen.
I also believe that there are other mindful practices that should count as forms of mediation, such as knitting, needlework, listening to music, sitting alone in a gallery, as well as mindful walking or other ‘moving meditations’.
Next week’s blog will focus on resting and recharging within an exercise class.