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When you’ve had enough, just say “Zen”

Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 4:37 PM

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Yoga for Dummies: Gretchen Cuda de-stresses at her desk with prune-face lion pose

Health reporter Gretchen Cuda describes her attempts to loosen the grip on her inner control freak as part of the Lifestyle 180 program

I’m a reporter.  So it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that I have one of those type-A personalities.  I like to be in control, and I can be very, very impatient. 

When I drive, I am usually speeding.  I’m looking four or five blocks ahead, strategically planning how I am going to get past grandma in the oversize Lincoln Town Car driving 20 in a 35, around the public works truck in the next lane who is in no hurry (I mean what on earth do they have to do, fix potholes?) and in front of the woman in the SUV engrossed in a conversation on her cell phone so I can beat the city bus and make it through the next light before it turns red. 

If you are in line ahead of me at the grocery store and are paying with a wad of coupons, I am smiling through gritted teeth, silently applauding your frugality while simultaneously berating myself for not noticing you are the coupon carrying type and picking the other line. 

When people are talking, I am usually trying my best to listen, but I can’t help it – I’m also usually planning my dinner, mentally checking off my to-do list, or fretting about the things I promised to do but haven’t done yet.  A lot of times I’m just wishing you would cut to the chase so we can both move along.

I don’t think I’m alone in my compulsion.  I consider myself one of those chronically over-scheduled, women who simply doesn’t know how to say, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to be able to do that right now.” Instead I mentally rearrange my day, ignoring things like the time it takes to eat, sleep, use the bathroom, or drive from one location to another, ultimately concluding that thanks to my superhuman powers of efficiency, the requested task can and will be done.  Sure, I can write that blog entry in an hour. Who needs to pee anyway?

But the truth is, I do need to pee, and eat, and sleep, and sometimes it takes me several hours of staring at the computer screen before I really get inspired.  And because I deny my need to do those things, someone ultimately ends up disappointed.  The disappointed are any number of people; my family, who eat dinner without me, my boss who gets my assignment late, or the frustrated driver next to me who is cursing me out for being in such a rush.  Or of course – me.  Not only for failing to meet my own unrealistic expectations, but because I have denied my own needs, given myself over to unhealthy stress, and allowed any potential for real self-satisfaction and joy to completely evaporate. 

The immediate consequences of my behavior are just the start.  Pretty much any doctor will tell you, chronic stress is not good for your body.  That adrenaline rush that fuels our fight-or-flight response – the one that makes your heart race, your pupils enlarge, and diverts all your blood to your muscles also raises your blood pressure, slows your digestion and when it becomes chronic, can suppress your immune system, and increase your risk for cancer, heart disease, diabetes and a number of other undesirable conditions .  Researchers now believe that stress even alters your brain.  Clearly I am not doing myself any favors by leading a stress-driven life.

So every Tuesday and Thursday I try my best to loosen my grip on my inner control-freak, with a little yoga, meditation, and contemplation.

Some goofy yoga poses help.  For example, sit in a chair, pick your feet up off the floor, lean back a little and flail your arms and legs around like a crazy person.  Judi, our yoga instructor, calls this the “don’t bother me pose.” It looks a lot like you are throwing a silent grown-up temper tantrum. I don’t think this is a real yoga pose (in the traditional sense), though it does seem to relax me.  I have yet to try it on my boss.

Another silly one is affectionately known as “prune-faced lion pose.” It involves scrunching up your face like a prune, followed by suddenly opening your eyes, mouth and hands wide and shouting “Blahhh.” Do that in the mirror a few times and try to take yourself seriously.  In fact I think I should take a picture of myself with that face and hang it from the rear view mirror of my car.  Or maybe above my computer????  Incidentally I have tried these both out on a five-year old and the result was two persistent cases of the giggles.  I hear laughing is good for stress too.

What I think is most compelling for me, is that I have realized that being stressed is a condition I have come to find comfortable.  Not because it is good for me, but simply because it is familiar. I have allowed it to become what I think is part of my identity, rather than an unhealthy condition that I am creating, and consequently, that I have the power to change.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I would venture to guess that most people have some deeply ingrained pattern of behavior that is harmful – either in a relationship with food, exercise, alcohol, work, or another person--something we know is not good for us, but that is so familiar that it is, in a twisted sort of way, comforting.  Really changing your life 180 degrees, is a lot harder than giving up sugar and red meat.  It means reexamining your values and writing a mission statement for your life.  Then asking yourself, if every choice you make is in line with that mission statement. It means getting out of the damaging comfort zone, and off the “couch” of life.

I have been asked by a couple of people what makes this different from any other fad-based restrictive diet and exercise program —and I think the answer is in the fact that even though you learn a lot about diet and exercise, this really isn’t a diet and exercise program.  It’s an opportunity to reexamine the past choices that have led me to where I am, and then get the guidance and support I need to change course.  To recognize the happy, relaxed, strong, vital, self-reliant individual inside me, and nurture her.

Why? Because closing my eyes and taking a few deep breaths may go a long way toward reducing the chances I’ll have an aneurysm while the person in line in front of me at Starbucks changes their order three times and then pays in pennies, but I’d like to do more than just survive.  Eventually, I’d like to actually enjoy the wait.

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Health, Lifestyle 180

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