The power of letting go

“Oh boy, your legs are as tight as a marathoner’s!” My alexander technique practitioner was working on manually loosening my legs, which were dangling down with gravity as I straddled a wooden vault she referred to as “the horse.” The surprise in her voice, and the fact that I hadn’t gone for a run in over two years, made it clear that this tightness is not normal. For as long as I can remember, neither leg has ever been able to lift past 90 degrees of the other when lying down on my back. I’ve always blamed my skinny legs, and subsequently tight hamstrings and leg muscles, on my Mom. It’s been said that my Dad married her for her legs and mean pasta dishes, but while skinny legs may help win you a man, they prove a disadvantage for practical uses.

(My parents enjoying a picnic during their honeymoon road trip, Italian style.)

At 27 I am battling patella tendonitis that prevents me from running, steep hikes, or any other activity that requires strong knees. Despite yoga and strengthening exercises, the familiar aches have not gone away, and after a frustrating 2 years, I had decided to try Alexander Technique. Unlike previous physical therapists I worked with, my AT practitioner’s focus was on relaxing and loosening the legs as opposed to strengthening them. The main exercise that she stressed I do at home is called “constructive rest,” where you lie on your back with your legs raised up on a chair. That’s it….you just lie there for 20 mins. She said this exercise was important to allow my knees to relax and heal.

Relax. Interestingly enough, this was the one exercise out of the several she gave me to do at home that I had the hardest time completing consistently. And each week she would emphasize its importance again and again, as if psychically knowing that I wasn’t doing it. Why wasn’t I doing it?? I wasn’t consciously avoiding it. It didn’t hurt, nor was it at all difficult. But it required 20 mins of stillness, 20 mins of doing nothing, 20 mins void of multitasking or completing something. And carving out those 20 mins proved harder than I realized, since there was always something “more pressing” that needed to get done instead. I would always relegate it to the last thing to do before bedtime, but by the time I was ready to go to sleep, I was so exhausted that I climbed into bed instead.

More interestingly, when I did actually do the exercise, I’d feel my whole body relax (including my stomach area which so often gives me strife), and after 10 mins or so of just lying there, the usual bloating or stomach discomfort I had would dissipate. While this is designed as a physical body alignment exercise, for me it basically became a meditation (or you can formally make it into one as you have nothing else to do!). Oftentimes I would just sit there and breathe, and consciously put my focus on my stomach area, and then my knees, and just think about healing them. Each time I went through with the exercise I would be surprised how much more tranquil and rested I’d feel afterwards, from my head down to my toes.

And I would again be reminded, like so many other times during my healing journey, that the root of my physical woes was ultimately tension. I laugh at all the time and money spent on various healing modalities for my stomach and legs, when at the end of the day the main cause of all of it is my stubborn refusal to relax. “Stress” seems a cop-out cause for any issue, as it is an illusive thing that is as simplistic as it is hard to manage. And for some reason, it is preferable to have a complex explanation for our issues than simple ones. Instead of sitting with myself quietly, tuning in and breathing deeply into my body, acknowledging how I feel and providing a safe and attentive space for listening, I much prefer rushing around to appointments for virtually every healing modality under the sun, no matter the cost. Not that they haven’t all been wonderful learning experiences, but in the end the core issue is always the same one. Regardless of how many doctors I see, the tension will not go away unless acknowledged up front – and I need to be the one doing the acknowledging.

(Have the courage to face the light. Photo taken in a park tunnel in Berkeley.)

So how does one deal with tension? What does it mean? I see tension as a holding on, a grabbing, a refusal to let go. It is ultimately stagnant, stubborn energy that works itself up in knots in your body. Like any issue, acknowledgment is the first step to healing. And sometimes listening is enough. An inspirational writer and coach, Kim Childs, talks beautifully about the power of listening here. When you listen, and are simply receptive to what is without judgement or racing thoughts, you are able to fully see things as they are. No distractions. And in that state of observation, free of attachment, judgment or expectation, the need for “holding on” evaporates. This space of presence is an excellent place to recognize what specifically we are holding on to that is causing the tension in our legs and stomachs – what fears, relationships, expectations, judgments, or traumas we have been desperately clinging to (likely subconsciously), that will continue to drag us down unless dealt with and “digested” fully. While tuning-in may seem an easy process, it is actually a difficult one that requires courage. It takes courage to dive into discomfort with oneself, to be honest with how we feel and what makes us vulnerable. It takes courage to face these vulnerabilities full-on and perhaps allow tears to flow as we finally acknowledge them and release their hold on us.

Of all the healing modalities I’ve tried, those that allow you to face yourself honestly and release stagnant energy (tension), whether it be through crying, dancing, singing or screaming, are the most productive. Ultimately, it’s about recognizing tight holds of attachment to things that no longer serve us (and are causing dis-ease in our bodies as a result) and detaching from them.  This is why cleaning out a closet or home can feel so good. We are constantly getting bombarded with information and experiences every moment. Just as a kitchen sink fills up with dishes, we need to digest and cleanse our systems of the thoughts, feelings and judgments that get processed along with our experiences.

At the next sign of unidentifiable physical discomfort, I urge you to take a few minutes and tune-in, and see if it’s simply a form of tension that needs to be let go.

Detachment from labels

I’ve always considered myself a “music lover.” Not a music expert, per se, but someone who is passionate about music and takes it rather seriously. It is really hard for me to sit through a song (or god forbid playlist) I dislike. (Maybe this makes me a music snob?) This can make riding as a passenger in a car uncomfortable at times.

One of my reasons for moving to San Francisco was to have good live music available within a walk from my apartment. Over this last year I’ve made an effort to be on top of live shows that were happening – how could I call myself a music lover if I’m not regularly going to live shows? – and once I discovered music festivals, attending as many of these as possible also became a goal. By living my definition of what “music lover” meant (which included going to shows and music festivals), I was actively expressing who I was.

The world seems to run on labels and categories, as it seems to be the only way to make the least bit of sense of all craziness that encompasses it. I mean, isn’t that what language is after all, a socially recognized system for labeling things? Each word is simply a label, a commonly recognized set of sounds that corresponds to a thing (or action, descriptor, whatever). But what makes this tricky is that our definition of words and labels cannot help but be influenced by our prior experiences with those things we are referencing.

Now, this is not a problem for simple communication like “the door is locked”. Little room for interpretation there. But ask any two people in SF what the word “hipster” means and they each may have different connotations of the word. I can’t help but feel that our linguistic system of communication is simply archaic. If we can’t even agree on the exact definition of a noun, how are we to effectively communicate abstract concepts like feelings, dreams, or even who we are? How about creating an identity for ourselves, a definition to which we can ascribe and use as guide posts for how we live our lives? How can one even attempt to translate these ideas through the switchboard of language?

In the sound healing program I completed, our teacher would have us “make the sound” of our day at the beginning of each class. No need to search for words or navigate the linguistic code. Simply tune inwards to find the vocal sounds that best resonate with whatever you are feeling or wishing to express.  It takes almost the full hour of my therapy session to just catch my therapist up with how I’ve been doing since our last session. Putting all that in a 2-minute soundtrack, that is completely unique and authentic, is so much more efficient! (It should be noted that the concept behind sound healing is that all things – thoughts, feelings, objects, etc. – are simply energy, made up of vibrational waves, that have their own resonant frequency. So, by tuning into and sharing the “sound” of what it is we want to express, we are communicating the very essence of that thing.)

This is all to say that until this past weekend, I was still ascribing to the “music lover” definition I had mentioned earlier, which included festival-going. This was not a difficult conclusion to come to, as my four experiences with music festivals (each at the High Sierra and Harmony Festivals) were amazing. Based on those experiences, I concluded that I loved music festivals, and attributed that to the fact that I loved music. And I was very excited to finally make it to Outside Lands this year. I had not been quick enough to purchase tickets before they sold out last year, which had made me very bitter. I planned ahead this time and cleared my calendar for the day and time those puppies were going on sale, and made sure to get myself a 3-day pass. Nothing was gonna stop me now.

The terribly long walk from the Golden Gate park festival entrance to the actual concert entry gate was annoying, but I dismissed it as one of the necessary costs of attending a large festival. The fact that they made me pour out the tap water from my water bottle upon entry annoyed me more. Especially when I realized that they were charging for water refills, and the stations were very few and far between. Enter in the hopelessly large crowds that stood between me and the water refill stations, as well as my growing thirst as I navigated them, and my annoyance level was quickly rising.

But all was well with the world because soon I’d be seeing Beck. I’ve been listening to Beck since middle school and had yet to see him in concert. Odelay was in constant replay in my car as I drove to high school senior year, and I continue to be amazed by the variance of his music. Each album has a different sound, and he seems to collaborate with a different artist each month. Because of this I was willing to be pushed and jostled a bit by the crowd that filled in around me at the main stage 20 minutes before showtime. Those 20 minutes were uncomfortable, yes, and the people in the bear hats behind us who were talking obnoxiously loud were irritating. But they were also drunk. And this was a music festival after all. How did this not annoy me at High Sierra? Oh right, because the people there respected personal space and they were more chill and high than drunk and obnoxious. But no matter, I was a music lover and willing to put up with this to see Beck.

Beck fired up with Devil’s Haircut, and I was so excited and immediately started dancing. But something was not right. Aside from the two ladies in front of me, no one else around me was dancing!  All these people who felt compelled to push themselves toward the front and nearly run me over in the process seemed unengaged and bored. What was going on? Aside from the popular “two turn tables and a microphone” song, the climate of my immediate surroundings remained unchanged for the entire set. I could not help but feel irritated. I realized then that for me, music festivals were only as good as the crowd that attended them. The energy of a performance goes both ways between the artists and the crowd. And I like it when the crowd around me is as enthusiastic about the performance as I am – especially if they are taking up valuable personal space. My critical voice that sometimes rears its judgmental head could not help but conclude that a lot of those people were there more for the scene, and to have something cool to post on facebook, than for the music itself.

(Beck. Do you see anyone dancing?)

By the end of the night, the freezing weather, overpriced food and ridiculously long waits for the port-o-pots completely deflated what was left of my tolerance. The following morning, I sold my ticket for the remaining two days.

Though I had not consciously registered it, I had somehow connected going to Outside Lands as validation of my hardcore music-lover status. Over the last few months I was surprised to learn that many of my friends were not going, and I assumed that they simply did not care about music as much as I did. Because why else would you turn down a music festival? But as I stood freezing, looking at the 25 yard-long line for $8 hot chocolate, I understood. And I also realized my mistake. I, nor anyone else, has anything to prove when it comes to identity definition. No need to meet some fabricated definition of a label, even if you yourself fabricate it. I still love music (and therefore remain a music lover) and the fact that I will no longer go to Outside Lands does not change that. What has changed is my understanding of what “music lover” means, and my relationship with that label.

Each day, each moment, we are evolving beings with new thoughts, emotions, and experiences that shape who we are. How can you put a label on that?