July 20, 2015

A Few Musings on My Horsemanship "Journey"

If I've heard once that horsemanship is a journey, I've heard it 132 times.

Until this year, what that phrase meant to me was that horsemanship was like one of those mythological quest journeys, full of wonder and new worlds, yes, but also fraught with hardships, set-backs, and some seriously ugly monsters.

You manage to sail through the narrow strait with scary-ass perils on either side--hooray!--only to be blown back through it again because some moron decided to open the bag that contained all the winds.

This was the nature of my horsemanship journey for the past 14 years. It involved a lot of people telling me, "It's about the journey--not the destination," and me trying really hard not to be dispirited by the fact that there were a lot more monsters in my future and that I would spend the rest of my life, apparently, sailing into the wind. Happily, I guess, digging deep is my most fundamental, my most unfaltering skill. And boy did I get to use it a lot.

But all of that changed when I met Mark Rashid. Suddenly I realized, Hey! Vacations are journeys too. Why not let horsemanship be *that* kind of journey?

There's the same flash of new understanding on vacations, the same exhiliration of adventuring in unknown lands, but the difference is that we don't have to constantly remind ourselves that it's "about the journey" -- of course it's about the journey! That's the whole freaking point! To enjoy the trip!

With Mark, this is obvious, because studying with Mark is exactly like being on vacation. I feel all the mental burdens that I've placed on myself lighten. I move easily into the present moment and delight in being there. I feel how simple things can be when I just let them be. I pay attention to how I feel, and I do a lot more of what feels good. Things become easier, simpler, truer, and more clear. I go to sleep thinking about the amazingly cool vistas that opened up before me that day, and I wake up keen to experience more.

And the monsters and the winds? Funny how those things pretty much disappear when you're on vacation . . .

July 7, 2015

Just Breathe

One thing I've become really aware of since studying with Mark in February is how much I hold my breath (which is to say, how much I'm either not breathing or breathing very shallowly in the top of my chest). Basically, most of us walk around in a semi-adrenaline state all the time because of this tendency. Here are the reasons I can think of that we tend to hold our breath:

--We are actually fearful or on adrenaline. Sometimes we really are in a scary situation that demands action, though at *least* 80% of the time, I'd say, these fears are imagined responses to all the scary stuff we see in the news and in the movies and to our general culture of fear that tells us every day all the many different ways we might die.

--We are waiting for something. The original "holding your breath" phrase derives from the tendency to hold our breath whenever we're waiting for something to happen. This can be on a large scale, as in, "I'll relax when the semester's over, I've finished this project, etc. etc." or it can be on a tiny scale. I learned that we actually hold our breath when we take a bite of food because we're waiting to taste it and chew it. Since then, I've caught myself holding my breath while I'm waiting to start the car, say, once I have the idea that I'm going to do it. This goes beyond just living in the future in our minds: we are literally waiting to live (i.e., breathe) in the future.

--We are concentrating on something. Try learning a new physical skill, for instance, without holding your breath.

--We are braced against something, either physically or mentally, or, more likely, both. If there is something that we don't like or don't want to happen, we tend to clench up against it, which naturally restricts our breathing. So we’re getting less oxygen *and* a bunch of tight muscles.

It's gonna take awhile to change this habit, but I think it will be a huge piece of both getting more grounded/centered and actually being able to perform better, not to mention live more calmly, happily, and healthily. I'm starting just with awareness and reminding myself to breathe in a way that expands my lower rib cage in all directions and also to breathe out fully. (Mark: "Some of us have some breath left in there that we've been carrying around since 1967. I mean, that was a good year, but . . . ") Anyone who wants to chip in further suggestions, feel free!

July 3, 2015

The Limits of Strength

"In muscle there's strength, but in softness there's power." — Mark Rashid

You learn through aikido that strength is based in muscle, which means that you are only as strong as your muscles. But power comes from energy and transcends your physical strength. If you are using power rather than strength, advantages of size and weight are nullified.

The key here is softness because energy can only move through you when you are soft. When you are using your muscles with tension (which is what most of us do most of the time), you are actually blocking your energy and so reducing your overall ability to be effective. (Not to mention doing things in a way that is hard on your body.)

Another advantage of using energy instead of strength is that it eliminates resistance in others. If you are tense/braced, then others brace in response. (And rightly so because that’s when you’re likely to hurt them.) But if you are soft, they soften.

The difference became very clear to me in the dojo. When my partner used physical strength only, it had a completely different feel than when he used softness. Both moves resulted in my arm being twisted behind my back and the rest of me lowered to the floor, and both were effective in disabling me. But one felt good and one felt like something was about to break me. If you're going to achieve your goal--in this case to protect yourself--either way, why not pick the route that feels good to others? Aren’t they more likely to take a better perspective on things if they’re feeling better?

And obviously when we’re talking about horses we are only working against ourselves when we use strength instead of energy. A horse is stronger than we can ever dream of being. We get away with what we do in part because of leverage, but that only works up to a point. Mainly we get away with it because horses are beings looking for connection rather than a fight. I think a nice way to repay them for this is to stop fighting on our end and instead offer them a connection that feels good.