May 11, 2012

Transitions. Transitions.

Navigating Transitions Is A Learned Skill Rather Than One We’re Born With.

Anyone who has ever spent time with a toddler knows that navigating transitions is a learned skill rather than one we’re born with. When my otherwise even-keeled son was little, transitions were almost the only thing that could drive him into a full-fledged tantrum. I cannot begin to count the number of times I had to carry him out of our neighbor’s house thrashing and screaming. Turning off the television after “Dragontales” ended left him sobbing. Leaving the local toy store with its wooden train track and gazillions of trains was a nightmare every single time.

Flash forward a decade or so and transitions are still tough for him. Getting him to turn off a video game is nearly impossible. “I just want to beat this level, Mom!” Getting his nose out of a book and his body into the car can still require the “10-minute warning” we devised back when he was pitching fits every time we left anywhere. Even getting him to move on from the research phase into the writing phase for a school paper can take repeated pokes and prods. The boy just likes to be where he is and do what he’s doing ‘til he’s done, thank you very much!

And, you know what? The kid isn’t alone. Transitions are tricky for a lot of us.

It’s not just shifting from a pleasant activity (reading a good book) to something less pleasant (changing the sheets) that is difficult. I can have just as hard a time leaving on vacation as I do coming home. The ramp-up to departure can leave me seething with so much stress that it can take me a ridiculously long time to settle into the reality that I’ve actually left my stresses behind. Similarly, coming home can be brutal. My friends and I have dubbed the day after any escape “re-entry.” It is a precarious time fraught with short-tempers and wild mood swings – not to mention dizzying piles of laundry.

In the first year of practicing yoga, I recall being flabbergasted to find that I was actually suffering from “re-entry” when returning home from my weekly Monday morning class. I’d float out of the studio feeling centered, settled, energized and ready to take on the world. I’d enter my house and go to pieces at the first peep of bickering or defiance from my kids. My yoga bubble wouldn’t just burst. It would explode leaving everyone in the vicinity (especially me) dripping in yuck. Clearly, this was something I needed to figure out.

I found a way to practice navigating transitions on my mat. Any sequence of yoga postures is filled with transitions. In fact, you could say that the flowing kind of yoga that I practice (Ashtanga yoga) is one long transition from the opening Sun Salutations to savasana. During the course of my practice, it is guaranteed that I will have to move out a posture that feels fabulous and into one that doesn’t. I will also get to leave behind a painful, challenging posture and move into one that comes easily to me. In other words, I get to practice both kinds of transitions.

Both require mindfulness. When I move out of a favorite posture, I have found that I need to watch my attitude. While it’s perfectly fine to relish the breaths I get to take in a posture that feels good, I have to be careful to leave readily, willingly and with an open mind. Otherwise, I’ve already shortchanged the upcoming posture. If I slip into resistance or throw myself a little pity party, I’m distracted as I enter the next pose. If the next stretch is a tough one for me, my distracted state simply makes it harder. Even the most challenging posture feels better when I come into it with an open mind and 100% of my focus.

It’s just as important that I stay mindful as I shift from a tough pose to an easy one. The urge to “rubber band” out of a tough, deep stretch when you realize it’s over is hard to resist. Especially when you know that one of your favorite postures is next. However, yoga teaches us to move out of a pose mindfully and with the breath. Doing so allows your body to unwind or unfold gradually. This actually helps create the muscle memory that will eventually help you to go deeper into the stretch. When you charge willy-nilly into a pose that comes easily to you, you are also robbing yourself. A mindful transition teaches us to appreciate every step along the way.

Practicing yoga has also taught me to view the transitions between postures as distinct parts of my practice. In Ashtanga yoga, we move from posture to posture through a repeated short series of movements called a vinyasa. When I was new to the practice, these movements felt “extra.” They felt like something I had to do in order to get to the “good stuff” of the next posture. As my practice has evolved, my understanding of these movements has shifted. They no longer feel “in between.” They feel important and worthy of my full focus in and of themselves. They yield warmth, strength and flexibility to my body. They also refocus my mind, helping it move gracefully from one posture to the next. By moving through each vinyasa mindfully, I am fully present as I move into each subsequent posture in the series.

In short, my yoga practice has affirmed that transitions are hard. To successfully navigate them requires our full focus. I’ve also learned that to gracefully manage a transition, we must enter that transition willingly. We mustn’t hold tight to the vacation or the video game or the super-fun play-date. Instead, we must lift our gaze to what is next, take a deep breath and forge onward.

Sometimes we’ll move into something hard, sometimes something easy. Sometimes what’s ahead will be delightful, or restful or rejuvenating. Sometimes we’re moving into a time of sadness or worry or challenge. Our job is to breathe, move and to give ourselves over to whatever life brings out way. After all, there isn’t a dizzying pile of laundry out there that will not (eventually) be clean – especially if you skip the tantrum!

Onward ho!
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Amy Nobles Dolan  |  Contribution: 9,100