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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Tip of the Week: Break Out of Your Comfort Zone

Breaking out of your comfort zone can be a scary thing to do whether it's meeting someone new or trying Toe Stand for the first time. But pushing yourself to try new things can have so many benefits as the following article by Alan Henry on lifehacker explains.

The Science of Your "Comfort Zone," and Why It's So Hard to Leave It

You've seen inspirational quotes that encourage you to get out and do something strange—something you wouldn't normally do—but getting out of your routine just takes so much work. There's actually a lot of science that explains why it's so hard to break out of your comfort zone, and why it's good for you when you do it. With a little understanding and a few adjustments, you can break away from your routine and do great things.

It's important to push the boundaries of your comfort zone, and when you do it's kind of a big deal. But what is the "comfort zone" exactly? Why is it that we tend to get comfortable with the familiar and our routines, but when we're introduced to new and interesting things, the glimmer fades so quickly? Finally, what benefit do we derive from breaking out of our comfort zone, and how do we do it? Answering those questions is a tall order, but it's not too hard to do. Let's get started.

Simply, your comfort zone is a behvioral space where your activities and behaviors fit a routine and pattern that minimizes stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security. You benefit in obvious ways: regular happiness, low anxiety, and reduced stress.

The idea of the comfort zone goes back to a classic experiment in psychology. Back in 1908, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. In order to maximize performance, however, we need a state of relative anxiety—a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This space is called "Optimal Anxiety," and it's just outside our comfort zone. Too much anxiety and we're too stressed to be productive, and our performance drops off sharply.

The idea of optimal anxiety isn't anything new. Anyone who's ever pushed themselves to get to the next level or accomplish something knows that when you really challenge yourself, you can turn up amazing results. More than a few studies support the point. However, pushing too hard can actually cause a negative result, and reinforce the idea that challenging yourself is a bad idea. It's our natural tendency to return to an anxiety neutral, comfortable state. You can understand why it's so hard to kick your brain out of your comfort zone.

Even so, your comfort zone is neither a good or bad thing. It's a natural state that most people trend towards. Leaving it means increased risk and anxiety, which can have positive and negative results (which we'll get to in a moment), but don't demonize your comfort zone as something holding you back. We all need that head-space where we're least anxious and stressed so we can process the benefits we get when we leave it.

What You Get When You Break Free and Try New Things

  • You'll be more productive. Comfort kills productivity because without the sense of unease that comes from having deadlines and expectations, we tend to phone it in and do the minimum required to get by. We lose the drive and ambition to do more and learn new things. We also fall into the "work trap", where we feign "busy" as a way to stay in our comfort zones and avoid doing new things. Pushing your personal boundaries can help you hit your stride sooner, get more done, and find smarter ways to work.

  • You'll have an easier time dealing with new and unexpected changes. In this article at The New York Times, BrenĂ© Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, explains that one of the worst things we can do is pretend fear and uncertainty don't exist. By taking risks in a controlled fashion and challenging yourself to things you normally wouldn't do, you can experience some of that uncertainty in a controlled, manageable environment. Learning to live outside your comfort zone when you choose to can prep you for life changes that force you out of it.

  • You'll find it easier to push your boundaries in the future. Once you start stepping out of your comfort zone, it gets easier over time. This same NYT article explains that as you step out of your comfort zone, you'll become accustomed to that state of optimal anxiety. "Productive discomfort," as they call it, becomes more normal to you, and you're willing to push farther before your performance falls off. This idea is well illustrated in this infographic at Future Science Leaders. At the bottom, you'll see that as you challenge yourself, your comfort zone adjusts so what was difficult and anxiety-inducing becomes easier as you repeat it.

  • You'll find it easier to brainstorm and harness your creativity. This is a soft benefit, but it's fairly common knowledge (and it's easily reproducible) that seeking new experiences, learning new skills, and opening the door to new ideas inspire us and educate us in a way that little else does. Trying new things can make us reflect on our old ideas and where they clash with our new knowledge, and inspire us to learn more and challenge confirmation bias, our tendency to only seek out information we already agree with. Even in the short term, a positively uncomfortable experience can help us brainstorm, see old problems in a new light, and tackle the challenges we face with new energy.

The benefits you get after stepping outside of your comfort zone can linger. There's the overall self-improvement you get through the skills you're learning, the new foods you're trying, the new country you're visiting, and the new job you're interviewing for. There's also the soft mental benefits you get from broadening your horizons.

How to Break Out of Your Comfort Zone

Outside your comfort zone can be a good place to be, as long as you don't tip the scales too far. It's important to remember there's a difference between the kind of controlled anxiety we're talking about and the very real anxiety that many people struggle with every day. Everyone's comfort zone is different, and what may expand your horizons may paralyze someone else. Remember, optimal anxiety can bring out your best, but too much is a bad thing.

Here are some ways to break out (and by proxy, expand) your comfort zone without going too far:
  • Do everyday things differently. Take a different route to work. Try a new restaurant without checking Yelp first. Go vegetarian for a week, or a month. Try a new operating system. Recalibrate your reality. Whether the change you make is large or small, make a change in the way you do things on a day-to-day basis. Look for the perspective that comes from any change, even if it's negative. Don't be put off if things don't work out the way you planned.

  • Take your time making decisions. Sometimes slowing down is all it takes to make you uncomfortable—especially if speed and quick thinking are prized in your work or personal life. Slow down, observe what's going on, take your time to interpret what you see, and then intervene. Sometimes just defending your right to make an educated decision can push you out of your comfort zone. Think, don't just react.

  • Trust yourself and make snap decisions. We're contradicting ourselves, but there's a good reason. Just as there are people who thrive on snap decisions, others are more comfortable weighing all of the possible options several times, over and over again. Sometimes making a snap call is in order, just to get things moving. Doing so can help you kick start your personal projects and teach you to trust your judgement. It'll also show you there's fallout to quick decisions as well as slow ones.

  • Do it in small steps. It takes a lot of courage to break out of your comfort zone. You get the same benefits whether you go in with both feet as you do if you start slow, so don't be afraid to start slow. If you're socially anxious, don't assume you have to muster the courage to ask your crush on a date right away, just say hello to them and see where you can go from there. Identify your fears, and then face them step by step.

  • There are lots of other ways to stretch your personal boundaries. You could learn a new language or skill. Learning a new language has multiple benefits, many of which extend to learning any new skill. Connect with people that inspire you, or volunteer with an organization that does great work. Travel, whether you go around the block or across the globe. If you've lived your whole life seeing the world from your front door, you're missing out. Visiting new and different places is perhaps one of the best ways to really broaden your perspectives, and it doesn't have to be expensive or difficult to do. The experiences you have may be mind-blowing or regrettable, but that doesn't matter. The point is that you're doing it, and you're pushing yourself past the mental blocks that tell you to do nothing.
Trying new things is difficult. If it weren't, breaking out of your comfort zone would be easy and we'd do it all the time. It's just as important to understand how habits form and how we can break them as it is to press yourself out of your comfort zone by doing specific things.

Why It's Important to Return To Your Comfort Zone from Time to Time

You can't live outside of your comfort zone all the time. You need to come back from time to time to process your experiences. The last thing you want is for the new and interesting to quickly become commonplace and boring. This phenomenon, called hedonistic adaptation, is the natural tendency to be impressed by new things only to have the incredible become ordinary after a short time. It's why we can have access to the greatest repository of human knowledge ever created (the internet) at our fingertips (on our smartphones) and still get so bored that all we think of is how quickly we can get newer, faster access. In one way it drives us forward, but in another it keeps us from appreciating the subtle and the everyday.

You can fight this by trying new, smaller things. Ordering something new at a restaurant where you get the same thing every visit can be eye-opening the same way visiting a new country can be, and both push you out of your comfortable spaces. Diversify the challenges you embrace so you don't just push your boundaries in the same direction. If you've been learning Latin-based languages and you find yourself bored, switch gears to a language with a completely different set of characters. If you've taken up running, instead of just trying to run longer and farther, try challenging yourself to run on different terrain. You still get the challenge, but you broaden your horizons in a different way.

Take It Slow, and Make Stretching Your Boundaries a Habit Of Its Own

The point of stepping out of your comfort zone is to embrace new experiences and to get to that state of optimal anxiety in a controlled, managed way, not to stress yourself out. Take time to reflect on your experiences so you can reap the benefits and apply them to your day to day activities. Then do something else interesting and new. Make it a habit if you can. Try something new every week, or every month. Our own Adam Dachis has committed himself to doing something weird and new every week, just to test his boundaries.

Similarly, don't limit yourself to big, huge experiences. Maybe meditation pushes you out of your comfort zone just as much as bungee jumping. Try the former if you've already done the latter. The goal isn't to become an adrenaline junkie—you just want to learn to learn what you're really capable of. That's another reason why it's important to return to a comfortable state sometimes and just relax. Just don't forget to bring back as much as you can carry from those inspired, creative, productive, and slightly uncomfortable moments when you do.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Tip of the Week: Set Up for Triangle Pose

The seemingly minute details of setting up for Triangle Pose (Trikonasana) will assist greatly with your alignment.  Setting up properly will help with the integrity of the posture and ultimately make it easier and more comfortable for you.  Once that "muscle memory" is there it will be easier from then on, so it really is worth the work at the beginning.

Here are some key points to remember in the set up:

  • Stand with your feet together, raise your arms overhead, bringing your palms together. Then take a big step to your right and lower your arms halfway, to about shoulder height.

  • Your stance should be wide, at least 4-5 feet. Your heels should be in one straight line as if you could draw a straight pencil line behind them.

  • Push your hips forward (opens the hips) and lean your upper body back (opens the chest).

  • The muscles of your arms are strong and engaged. Your palms are facing down with your fingers pressed together to engage your triceps. Your shoulders are down away from your ears and your back is strong with your shoulders squeezing together.

  • Keeping your body facing forward, turn your right foot out 90 degrees to the side. Since your heels should already be lined up in one straight line, don't pivot on the ball of your foot. Pivot on your heel only so that your heels remain in one straight line.

  • Keep your spine in the center as you bend your right knee. Don't angle your spine or let your upper body lean towards your bent knee. Your spine, your upper body is still vertically centered at this point even though your leg is bending.

  • Your right knee is bending until the back of your right thigh is parallel to the floor, with the shin and thigh forming a right angle. Push your hips forward and bring your right knee back.

Now you are ready to move into the posture.

  • Think of your hips as the pivot point. They do not move. It is very common, especially as a beginner, to lift your hips up as you try to touch your toes. Without moving your hips, move both arms at the same time, bending at the waist but keeping the torso stable and the spine straight. 

  • Turn the palms forward and reach down with the right arm, while equally and simultaneously reaching up with the left, placing the elbow in front of the right knee and touching the tips of your fingertips to the floor between the big toe and the second toe of your right foot. If your fingers can't touch your toes, stretch your right shoulder down. There should be no pressure on your fingertips; you're just barely touching the floor.

To get the alignment in Trikonasana, imagine that you’re doing the exercise between two walls, one at your front and one at your back, that are closing in toward each other. If your hips are too far back, you tend to lean forward and get thrown off balance. If you push your hips too far forward, your upper body goes too far back and you backbend instead of extending the spine.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Tip of the Week: Yoga and the Autonomic Nervous System

Yoga and the Autonomic Nervous System

We have all heard that if we are stressed we should try yoga. Us type A personalities (yes I am a type A personality and used to be way worse before yoga!) may not be able to understand how 90 min in a hot room can help our stress level.  In fact, one might argue 90 min not working or being productive probably would stress them out even more right?—wrong!  Yoga does help with stress.   Stress is connected to the Autonomic Nervous System.  Yoga helps with stress by making our Autonomic Nervous System more efficient.

Let’s go back to the basics first:

Our autonomic nervous system really developed back when we evolved from apes into the species we are now, Homo Erectus.  Back then we had 3 concerns: eat, sleep, and don’t get eaten.  Therefore our bodies were programmed with hormones to help us seek food when hungry, sleep when tired, and gather all our energy when faced with a stressful situation such as encountering a bear.


We still face situations that stimulate our Sympathetic Nervous System (the fight or flight system), they just aren’t in animal form.  Today our stresses come in the form of work deadlines, traffic jams, and juggling kids soccer practices.  In fact, our lives have become so full, “stresses” often occupy our minds leaving us perpetually in fight or flight response.  What makes this even worse is fight or flight will triggers fight or flight.  It is a positive feedback loop and without conditioning your parasympathetic system to take over, your body begins to be in a constant state of stress.

What does Fight or Flight look like?

  • Elevated Heart Rate
  • Increased Blood Pressure
  • Adrenaline Increases
  • Breathing Rate Increase
  • Muscles Tense (Think shoulders up by your ears)
Remember, fight or flight is actually a positive feedback loop. That means the symptoms of fight or flight lead to more fight or flight response.  What does that mean?  See below:
Our lives throw so much stress our way, that our brains never activate the “relax” or parasympathetic nervous system.  This is where yoga comes in.  Yoga trains our bodies to use the sympathetic system when needed, and retrains our parasympathetic system to take over when we aren’t actually in fight or flight.

How does Yoga Retrain the Autonomic Nervous System?

Yoga creates a battle field between your sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic system.  On one hand, you are exercising: increasing your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate activating your sympathetic system.  On the other hand there are actions and heat built into yoga that activate your parasympathetic system and help normalize your Autonomic Nervous System Function:
  • Bikram yoga begins and ends with a breathing exercise. Breathing activates the parasympathetic system so you start and end activating your “relax” system.
  • There are stretches built into Bikram yoga in between “cardio” poses.  Stretching also activates the parasympathetic system.
  • Heat has also been proven to help regulate the Autonomic Nervous System making it more efficient.  -Vopr Kurortol Fizioter Lech Fiz Kult 2000
After making it through a Bikram yoga class where your Autonomic Nervous System Battles between Sympathetic and Parasympathetic for 90 min we begin to condition ourselves to handle sympathetic responses better and shut them off quickly by activating our parasympathetic system. This conditioning, makes sympathetic responses in the real world more manageable.  We begin to condition ourselves to breath when we hit that traffic jam so we don’t carry our stress into our work day.  If we do have a deadline at work we don’t cycle through sympathetic response, we focus and move on.  We still hit stressful moments, but yogis train their bodies to realize these everyday “stresses”  aren’t as stressful as a bear attack so they are able to tell their bodies to relax when stress is encountered.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Tip of the Week: First Part of Awkward Pose

Tips to Consider for the first part of Awkward Pose:

1. Especially with newer students, the shoulders tend to lift and shrug upwards in the pose. Make sure your shoulders are DOWN away from your ears with your arms stretching forward.

2. Oftentimes students will lift their chin up when the teacher says to do backward bending. So rather than lifting your chin up, keep your chin level and think "Upper body up". You want to use your back muscles instead of your neck muscles.

3. Keep your stomach sucked in with the abs engaged the entire time!

4. Sit down until your hips touch the invisible chair. Most beginners don’t sit down low enough because they feel funny sticking their buttocks out behind them. It will feel very strange the first time you sit down all the way but it will help to increase flexibility in your hips. Sit too low, and you cannot lift your chest up and bring your upper body back, so that your total spine is backward bending. You basically want your upper legs to be parallel with the floor.

5. To go deeper in the posture you aren’t trying to sit lower. You are trying to lean back and fall down backwards.

Click "here" for more information on the first part of Awkward Pose.