The Winter Olympics are approaching, and all the snow outside is getting me in the mood to watch figure skating. I used to love watching skaters like Scott Hamilton and Kristi Yamaguchi: masters at their craft and nice people off the ice. In 2016 Scott Hamilton was interviewed by People.com magazine about his experiences with cancer (see video interview here). In his book, The Great Eight (Thomas Nelson 2008), he said the first lesson he taught skaters was how to get up because on the ice, as in life, you will fall down. The name of the chapter was, “Fall Down, Get Up, and Smile Like Kristi Yamaguchi.” He shared a memory of seeing Kristi fall at the beginning of her program, but doubted that he actually witnessed it because she finished the routine with a smile on her face. He stated, “Didn’t she just fall down? I’m confused because she’s joyful.” He took it as a life lesson. Sure, the fall is no fun and you wish it hadn’t happened, but what are you going to do next? For Scott Hamilton, Kristi’s reaction was a reminder to “celebrate life.”
I had my own mini Smile-Like-Kristi-Yamaguchi moment this past week. I had been up late the night before troubleshooting issues on my new business website. I hadn’t solved the problem earlier in the day because my young son was sick at home and I was attending to his various needs: a new box of tissues, a fresh drink of water, a helping hand to the bathroom, a sweatshirt because he was too cold, assistance taking the sweatshirt off because he was too hot. I was happy to help, but simultaneously feeling the pressure of my deadline. The only time I had to sit and quietly think was after he went to bed, and my husband, home from work, could take a turn caring for him. This was one of many late nights for both of us because our son hadn’t been sleeping well for the past three nights.
The next morning, my son was even worse. Being up late the night before triggered a cascade of events. Because I was tired, I let myself sleep in a little bit which meant I didn’t get up early enough to fit in my morning routine of yoga and meditation. It’s not a big deal to miss it once in a while, but I had missed it quite a bit recently, and I was missing its centering effects on my mental well-being. Anxiety set in as I felt concerned for my son’s health and feared that taking time to care for him would result in me missing my website launch deadline in one week. Add in a substantial dose of sleep deprivation, and I was on the verge of tears. I’m very good at adding insult to injury by thinking some not-so-flattering thoughts about myself like, “What kind of health and wellness consultant am I going to be if I don’t get enough sleep, maintain an exercise routine, brilliantly manage my anxiety, and drink exactly one-half ounce of water per pound of body weight daily?” I’m being dramatic for effect, but suffice it to say I was feeling like a poor example of health and wellness.
At that moment, all I could do was sit on the edge of my son’s bed sipping a cup of hot tea feeling dejected. Then a cue went off in my brain like a preset reminder, “Take a deep breath.” So I did. “Do it again.” I did. “Do it a third time.” Okay. Then it happened. I started to feel a subtle shift in the intensity of the anxiety. It was just a smidge less. I began to notice the morning sunlight shining in the room and I felt present to the present. I was beating myself up for missing my yoga routine when actually I had just practiced it. Those that practice yoga would call this “taking it off the mat.” That’s when all the poses and breathing exercises get incorporated into the daily happenings of life and offer assistance when met with challenges. Had I not practiced my breathing exercises routinely before, my mind and body would not have habitually turned on the cue to breathe deeply at a time of stress. It was imbedded in my cells as a new part of my physiological fight or flight response to tension, pressure, worry, or strain. I realized THIS is the TRUE practice of yoga. This is the true PURPOSE of any health and wellness routine.
Then I was reminded of a saying I first heard from one of my teachers, Ravi Walsh. “Mastery isn’t about falling. We all fall. Mastery is about how fast we get back up.” It is noble of me to set up a practice where I go to bed early, wake up to do my yoga and meditation, consciously choose the foods I eat, and stay emotionally even-keeled, but it’s not like I’m never going to fall off the health and wellness wagon. Nor does it mean I need to throw out my approach and claim it “doesn’t work.” Of course it “works” but it can’t do the impossible. It can’t stop you from falling. What it CAN do is help you when you DO fall.
Let me be clear about what that Kristi-Yamaguchi-Smile represents to me. It isn’t always going to be realistic or appropriate to put on a smile when faced with health challenges. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing there have been times when even Kristi Yamaguchi sat on the ice after a fall and had a good cry. The emotions we feel are real and can’t immediately be converted into a place of joy. Sometimes there is a process first. Psychologist and meditation expert, Tara Brach, was quoted in the book, Tools of Titans (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2017) by Tim Ferris. She said, “There’s a mystic who says there’s only one really good question, which is, ‘What am I unwilling to feel?’” The Kristi-Yamaguchi-Smile is not an endorsement for stuffing your emotions away and putting on a Pollyanna disposition all the while underneath being a complete mess. So much energy is put into not feeling the tough stuff and pushing it away. When I fell last week, I was inclined to go down a very familiar road called I’m-Not-Good-Enough Lane. Look at how bad I am! See all the mistakes I made? Nothing is going right! I’m such a failure. I let myself feel it. But then the next step was a critically important one. While being present with the emotions I acknowledged that it was how I was feeling, but not WHO I AM. I feel like a failure, but who I am is not. Feeling the agony of defeat was the experience of the fall. Knowing the fall doesn’t define who I am was the Kristi-Yamaguchi-Smile moment. And stopping to take those three simple breaths REMINDED me of that. Each one was taking away one thin layer of anxiety and helping me see the joy that Kristi was experiencing after her fall. But even when the next fall happens, because it will, it is reassuring to know that when routines are paused in real time, they are still there “working” under the surface offering support. When you fall down, get up and smile like Kristi Yamaguchi because falling is what you experienced, but smiling is who you are.
I realize that my story of struggling to manage my son’s illness with work pressure is a simple example compared to some other people’s health challenges, but my point is this. Whether it’s a small illness like the flu or a large one like cancer, the process is the same. There have to be strategies in place to help you deal or life will completely overwhelm you. I have been practicing the strategies I teach for over 20 years and my whole motivation for starting was because I fell down from a life-threatening illness. Thank goodness for modern medicine saving my life or I wouldn’t be writing this blog! But that illness, along with several others that followed, created situations for me to practice many of the approaches I teach. These approaches involve not only the physical self, but the mental and emotional self as well. They are approaches that move way beyond smoothie recipes and sit-ups (no offense to smoothies or sit-ups). I’ve profoundly benefited from these strategies, and I believe they can help others too.
My son wanted to try and eat something so I got him some applesauce I made the day before. I quietly sat in his room with him while he ate. The sun was now bright white and beautiful against the ice blue sky. I reflected on how thankful I was to be in a warm house on a cold day, and I was glad I worked from home making it easier for my son to be home when he was sick. The challenges I faced hadn’t changed, but the focus of my lens had. The simple exercise of gratitude alone was a powerful antidote to what was emotionally overwhelming me just minutes before. It repositioned my perspective to include hope and belief in myself. I think I even managed a little mini Kristi-Yamaguchi-Smile. Immediately after this, without me having shared my thoughts with my son and despite feeling awful himself, he said, “I’m thankful we have apples to make applesauce!” Right on, bro! Thanks for proving my point.