June 3, 2011

The Homestretch Is The Hardest Part Of The Race.

Finishing Is Part Of Every Process In Life. Yoga Can Help Us Learn To Do It Well.

Are there any harder weeks in the school year than the ones that follow Memorial Day? I honestly can’t blame my kids for resisting their early-morning-get-ready-for-school wake up calls. After all, didn’t we just kick off the 2011 summer with a three day weekend? I, too, would prefer to laze around the pool than get back into my regularly scheduled life! Alas, lazy mornings and afternoons at the pool will have to wait. While we can see the finish line, we’re not there yet. We’ve rounded the last bend in the school year and entered the homestretch. Somehow, we need to pull it together and focus for three more weeks.

The homestretch can be the most important and dramatic leg of any race. During the homestretch, some racers who have been out in front the whole time suddenly lose steam and drop to the back of the pack. Other racers tap into a hidden reservoir of energy and kick into high gear, dashing from the middle of the pack to cross the finish line ahead of everyone else. Still others hold steady, staying true to their pace and finish the race just as they’d planned all along.

We run innumerable metaphorical races in life. For most of our lives, as children and then as parents, annually we face the end of the school year. Seasons can challenge us in the same way. Who hasn’t cringed at a late spring snow storm or one surprisingly brutal day of heat just when you thought fall was here to stay? Projects at work can have a similar arc of high energy beginnings, focused middles and exhausted endings. Many home improvement projects follow the same pattern — think about painting the master bedroom or re-landscaping the yard. Upheavals like new jobs and relocations create finish lines in our lives where we need to buckle down and finish things up even when our hearts and minds are headed in entirely new directions. Even vacations can tax our staying power as we are tempted to get on the computer and phone while still away in order to minimize the pile-up of work upon our return.

What kind of “racer” we are depends on many variables, some we can control — how hard we’ve been pushing ourselves all along, what we had for dinner the night before and what kind of shape we were in before the starting gun sounded.  And some are beyond our control — the heat, the humidity, our health that morning. The most important variable, however, comes from deep within us. Some of us have it naturally. Others work to develop it. With practice, however, it is available to us all. In a nutshell, it is our ability to stick-to-it. It’s our ability to, even when we’ve glimpsed the finish line, take a deep breath and keep on plugging. It’s a deep seated belief that quitters never win and winners never quit.

Though I don’t consider myself a quitter (my mom and dad didn’t raise me that way!), I sometimes struggle in the homestretch. It’s definitely harder for me to maintain my enthusiasm and energy as things are winding down than it is in the beginning. I began to recognize this less-than-admirable trait on my mat. Yoga offers us a great way to practice seeing something through to the very end. Have you ever been tempted to slip out of class early to get on with your day? Perhaps you were dreading the backbends or the inversions? Perhaps you had so much on your list for the day that savasana (corpse pose) seemed like a waste of time? On days like that it can take real will power not only to stay until the end, but to continue to invest each breath and each movement with all of your energy and focus.

My personal struggle crops up even more often when I’m practicing on my own. After all, when it’s just me and my mat, there is no teacher to let down and no classmates to interrupt if I decide to cut things short. Rarely do I consider skipping postures in the beginning of my practice when I’m full of energy and curiosity about how things will feel that day. Nine times out of ten, it’s the homestretch that gets me. Though I’m sometimes physically worn out, that’s not usually the issue. It’s more that my focus and dedication begin to flag when I am closing in on savasana. Sometimes an insidious little voice in my head will suggest that I collapse into savasana after urdhva danurasana (wheel) rather than moving through the closing inversions. Sometimes, a crafty part of my mind will suggest all kinds of ways and reasons to cut my seated series short. “After all,” say these tempting voices, “you’ve done most of the work. It was hard and you did a good job. Why not stop now?” It’s hard to argue with advice like that.

But argue I must. The postures that close my yoga practice are as valuable, if not more valuable, as the ones that open it. These are among the most therapeutic minutes I will have on my mat. My body is supple, making the deep backbends accessible. My heart is pumping, making the inversions that much more invigorating. My muscles are warm, allowing me to sink further into the final forward bends. My breath has settled into a peaceful, easy rhythm, allowing my mind to settle into quiet. While every posture I took along my way to the end is good for me, I cheat myself of some real gifts when I fall prey to the temptation to quit early.

We need to finish well not just for the sake of whatever it is we’ve invested our time and energy in. We learn on our mats to resist our desire to prematurely “move on” for our own sake. Finishing, after all,  is part of every process in life. We need to learn to cross our finish lines with as much panache as we had when we started the race. We want to develop the wherewithal to see things through — even when we’ve gotten a glimpse of the next great “whatever.” We want to be able to look back on everything we do with pride and the knowledge that we’ve given our all. This is the most powerful way that we can give back to the world around us. 

When we’ve finished well, our next beginning is even better. Which is precisely what my kids and I are reminding ourselves of this week as we refocus after our three-day glimpse of summer.

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