How do you find your way through various practices over time? Which practices fade away, and which ones remain? Of those that remain, which one leads?
These are questions that meet me at the start of this New Year.
Last year was a journey through practice and questioning what it was, and how it changes over time.
Nearly all of the interviews for my qualitative research study are completed yet much work remains - the pending transcriptions, individual thematic analyses, the group thematic analyses, making sense of their words and finding out if there are common threads between them and if it is possible to define "motivation profiles" when it comes to the meaning and embodiment of practice.
Last year was also a journey through the consequences of working and sitting at my desk for long hours.
By October, my eyes were well and truly strained and my hip flexors rigid with the effects of what felt like a forced posture. I am someone who enjoys and values movement yet here I was, feeling chained to my desk. A prisoner to the work life I had been a part of creating. It took its toll on me and on my research. The last thing I wanted to do after a 60-70 hour week was sit down again to stare at a screen and write up the precious words my research participants had shared with me, let alone continue my research blog which will feed into my later write-up.
This was inevitably an obstacle in moving forwards with the study and there didn't seem to be a way out. The one day off a week I had was spent recovering and connecting with loved ones. My time didn't feel like my own anymore and neither did my life.
Was it the prolonged sitting or staring at a screen that caused this reaction in me, or was it that which led to the sitting and screen time - and what would "that" be anyway?
My experience has taught me that we are always practicing something; whether we are practicing consciously or not is another story. Last year I "practiced" getting very good at sitting and staring, a frozen posture of sorts, and that displayed itself cognitively and emotionally in my everyday states, particularly on rising each morning when I dread another day at the desk. Ironically my way of coping was to sit on the sofa with a coffee until I could drag myself into the forced posture that had become a way of life.
I did manage to move later in the day. I developed my running to 10k distances outdoors across hills - quite a feat given running was always a weak link for me in the past. I returned to swimming for several months once I was fully vaccinated. I returned to yoga practice at home after years of feeling resistant. I returned to martial arts practice outdoors, training kata in a park after a short run, and striking and grappling skills on our home patio with Bob and the mats. And I took up SUP in nearby lakes, thanks to my partner who saw how much I missed water and living by the sea.
I also (like some of my research participants) took care of my eating. About half-way through the year, I started ordering weekly deliveries of organic fruit and vegetable boxes. This proved to be a game changer in upping my fibre and nutrient intake, and connecting me to the land and a dormant value of sustainability. I moved to England a few years ago (my country of birth) after 40 years in the Middle East and have felt like a fish out of water ever since. It had a significant impact on my movement patterns, moving me away from regular martial arts training to where I am today.
Our environments matter when it comes to practice, particularly if our practice needs stillness and space. I used to live in a large house by the beach; now I live in a small house in the midst of a countryside valley at the junction of three main roads that meet at the heart of the valley, right on my doorstep. I used to hear birds in the garden, now it is non-stop traffic which I can hear even sitting at my desk.
Our characters matter too when it comes to practice.
Despite my tendency to work long hours (not a new phenomenon), I am also persevering and resourceful in other ways. I may freeze in overwhelm at times (try running a small company online during a pandemic!) but there is always something that kicks in eventually to remind me to do what I can, a bit like a safety warning in-built in my system. Last year it was moving later in the day, training outdoors (embrace the noisy traffic, don't run from it!), and eating organic food. But it just wasn't enough to help me feel like myself and I continued to feel like "me" was missing in much of life.
I was in survival mode, battling the fear that accompanies overwhelm and the inevitable fight-flight-freeze response that this triggers. As a psychology teacher and researcher, not to mention a self-defence instructor, I understand the ins and outs of fear and negative emotional states. I know that movement can shift these states. The amount and type of movement in which I engaged last year was all about stress relief. It was just enough to shake off enough stress to keep me going but not enough stress (i.e. fear) to restore me to my natural balance. The movement (and organic food) helped me to cope but it didn't help me to transform the work dynamics and thrive.
One of my research hypotheses is that certain characters, myself included, love movement. The ability to move in our daily lives is integral to who we are and who we are is made up of cognitive, affective, and somatic layers of being and doing.
It is hard to explain this to someone who isn't wired this way. For some people, it is enough to just get their exercise in, be it a trip to the gym or a daily walk. For myself, this just isn't enough. Movement has to be a way of life. I'm not sure if I was born that way or if how I was raised instilled those patterns in me. Perhaps it was both. There is a timing and dosing to this movement that matters significantly over time, not to mention environmental and social dynamics (I will leave the social aspects for another post).
There is also an identification process and value system that comes with this way of being and doing. We recognise and connect with ourselves in movement as a way of life, and that matters to us. When that movement is taken away, so too is that recognition of and connection with self. As they diminish, our sense of direction can falter.
That is where I found myself last December, in a disoriented state. Yes, I had hung on to some movement practices but it just wasn't enough to counter the effects of prolonged sitting and staring. The amount of time spent moving each day was too short and the intensity levels I was hitting were too low. My body felt tight, restricted, and weaker than it had done in years. So too did my spirit. What I stood for had fallen down. What I valued felt trampled on. My thought processes were stuck and I ended the year angry.
The fear "freeze" had melted and boiled into anger, which became a trigger for action. My need for movement as a way of life mattered too much to me to ignore it any longer.
Certain emotions can catapult us into positive action and anger is one of those. One action I've taken at the start of this year is to put movement first in my day. Rising before the sun for fitness, martial arts, and yoga practice. Shifting the order of my day so that this comes first, then a shorter burst of research activity before I start my work day. Then making sure I have more opportunities to share with loved ones. Already this has uplifted my spirits, altered my physiology, tempered my anger, and opened up my state of mind - in other words, boosted my motivation overall.
Another action taken is the cutting back of work hours to five days a week. This will have consequences in the short-term but in the long-term, I expect anything negative that results from this change will turn into something more positive. As I prioritise taking care of my need to move and get away from sitting and staring at a screen, and need to spend more time with loved ones, I hope I'll be a better role model for the team and our students by practicing one of the things we teach - authenticity.
These reflections leave me with another set of questions. Isn't the motivation to practice over time simply an expression of what we value and find meaningful? And if so, isn't practice the translation of that meaning and those value/s into action through purposeful movement? Something to ponder on before my practice log next month!
Claire Higgins is a Positive Psychology Practitioner & Researcher and Self-Defence Instructor. She holds a Masters degree in Exercise & Sport Psychology and directs Inner Athletics.