Removing Obstacles

I’m rereading a favorite book, one that I highly recommend, Meditations from the Mat by Rolf Gates.

On Day 21 he says, “We set out to better ourselves, only to find legions of reasons to break our commitment… We say it’s too difficult to make the hard choice today. And yet the obstacles in our path are the path.”

Let me say that again:

The obstacles in our path are the path.

Oh! How I rail against the obstacles! “If only X were gone, then Y would be possible”. 

How can I look at my life today and choose to see only the path that is and not the path I want to be there?

Obstacles will always be in the way. If experience has taught me anything, it’s that this is true. Life without obstacles is a fairy tale, but one that I tell myself over and over again.

This past spring, my son and I were hiking in Oregon. It was too early in the year for the park service to have cleared the trails from winter damage. As we hiked, we crossed obstacle after obstacle. 

Sometimes it was a simple matter of clambering over a fallen tree. Other times it meant stopping our progress to assess our next step. We had to put our heads together and plan the best way to circumvent areas where landslides had taken out the trail completely. We were hundreds of feet up the side of a mountain. The river in the gorge below us was rushing with ice melt. It was difficult to gage which direction gave us the best footing. We evaluated to the best of our ability, guessed and trusted our gut. 

Sometimes the way forward was obvious, but it was risky. Parts of the trail were still covered in ice and snow. These spots were slippery and there were no hand holds (these ice flows are basically frozen landslides, taking out everything in their path). We weren’t prepared for ice, so we had no spikes or even proper hiking poles. Slipping and falling meant careening down the steep mountain side, sometimes literally off a cliff hundreds of feet above the icy water below.

Each time we confronted one of these obstacles we had to choose - keep forging ahead or turn back.

We never once saw these obstacles as problems. Challenges, sure, but they were adventures testing our moxie and skill. They were fun!

The element of challenge is part of what I love about hiking. Flat easy trails are often boring. They can be beautiful, but monotonous. Which is really just another type of obstacle…

So, how do I begin to see my life through this lens?

Instead of seeing the obstacles in my path as frustrations I wished would disappear, I could see them as challenges to relish, part of the fun and unexpected excitement of life.

How do we see the obstacles as the path itself and not the things that are in our way?

Obstacles appear in every aspect of our lives. Although the above quote hits me in the gut as it relates to living my life day to day - the big stuff and the small stuff, I also find obstacles on my yoga mat. 

I deal with them very differently now than in the past. I used to come up against a pose that gave me trouble, either I couldn’t do it because it was beyond my current ability or it hurt my body. My response was to smash through it. I would do everything possible to force my body into that pose, whether it was really ready for it or not. 

That’s akin to taking a hammer to every boulder or a chain saw to every tree that Taylor and I encountered on our hike. It might get me farther forward down the path, but I’ve left destruction in my wake. 

In the book, Rolf is speaking about the yogic principle of ahimsa, or non harming. It’s not just about not harming others, but also about not harming ourselves. 

What do you gain by smashing and tearing and forcing? I’m not suggesting you gain nothing, but by pushing and shoving do you allow enough time (or have enough energy) to look for the best solution? The one that feels good in your gut? That resonates? The one that keeps you on the path but that does no harm?

These days when I encounter an “obstacle” on the mat I have a much gentler approach. I’m more likely to break the pose down and see where things are going awry. If I’m lacking strength, where? If I’m experiencing pain, where and why? I don’t always have quick answers, but taking the time to explore has taught me a lot about myself (both physical and emotional). 

When I approach the obstacles with curiosity, they don’t seem like boulders to be smashed or frustrations to be avoided. They are challenges to test my moxie and skill.

For example, this morning during my practice I went to the wall to work on wall slides to strengthen my shoulder (I’ll share a video of what these are) and found that I couldn’t do them! I couldn’t get my elbows and wrists against the wall without compromising the position of my thoracic spine. What the hell?! The old me would have thrust my chest forward, alignment be damned, and worked the wall slides anyway. But that defeats the whole purpose of getting my shoulder to work pain free.

Instead, I paused and thought about why my wrists wouldn’t meet the wall. What did I feel when I tried it? Where did I notice the tightness? When I slowed down I got it - front of my shoulder and pecs. What would happen if I stretched those? So I did. Then I thought, huh, what muscles have to activate to bring my arms to the wall? 

You get the idea. Instead of being pissed off that I couldn’t do what I set out to do and instead of smashing through or giving up, I took my time. I experimented. I found a solution that worked and did me no harm. It took me longer, granted, but after some unexpected work I did my wall slides.

My own personal challenge this year is paying attention to how I react to the obstacles that WILL come my way. I am attempting to see them through the same lens that I see fallen trees on a hike or quandaries on my mat. 

Can I approach them with curiosity? Can I wait to react until I’ve slowed down long enough to figure out how to stay on the path in a way that is simple and easy (if you didn’t catch my earlier blog post I revealed my “word of the year” - simple and easy. CLICK HERE to read)? 

Can I believe that “the obstacles in our path are the path?” 

I plan to try.

*** This seemed appropos as we hit mid January. Have your newly minted intentions, or resolutions, already become difficult? Or do they still have the fresh shine of energy and commitment? We all know that shine doesn’t last. Sometimes it doesn’t last any longer than a carwash in SW North Dakota (if you’ve never experienced life on the tundra then just know that ain’t a very long time!). 

Maybe this will give you a new lease on 2018. Shift your perspective a little bit. I’ll never promise you easy answers to hard questions, but I do promise to share all of my hard questions with you. If you have any insights then share them for all of our sakes!