Thursday, April 23, 2009

Fear Factor

From my previous posts, it's pretty evident that I have a fear of open water swims, inspite of the fact that I've done about 4 races now, and numerous practice sessions at Barton Springs pool. So, it was not without some trepidation that I signed up for Splash n Dash race at Quarry Lake a few days ago.

I had hoped this race would be different; that after swimming in three different lakes Quarry Lake would not be so intimidating. I called the gym to find out the depth of the lake (mistake #1), and my heart sank - 100ft at its deepest point. In the midst of nursing a minor heart seizure, I pinged Coach A and asked for words of wisdom. His pat reply was - what does it matter how deep the lake is? We'll be swimming near the surface anyway. Good point, Coach A.. if I had been thinking rationally.. I wasn't though..

Once I reached the lake about 30min before the race, I realized that in my preoccupation with the splash part of the race, I had forgotten about the dash - and had not brought my running shoes! (needless to point out ..mistake #2) Since I was more concerned about the swim, and not the race in general, I figured at the worst I would skip the run and just use the swim practice. My training buddy, Cha, came to the rescue and miraculously produced a spare pair of running shoes that were my size.

And then, as I stepped into the lake, a familiar feeling of terror slowly washed over me. The water was 60 degrees or less, and my muscles started tightening. The 750m lake course looked a lot farther than I had imagined. More than the distance, it was the depth that concerned me (even though, logically there was no reason to feel that way). As the pre-race announcements began, Coach A joined us. He started giving Cha and I tips about the course, but I could barely focus. The lake had become larger than life..

Change of scene to the Matrix.. Morpheus tells Neo to fly across two buildings as part of his training.

Morpheus: You've got to let it all go, Neo.. fear, doubt, disbelief.. Free your mind!

Neo: (from top of the building, looks at the ground below) ohhkkk... (deep breathing) ok, free my mind, no problem! no problem! I can do this..

As the wave start began, I hung back to the end of pack, as did Cha & Kris (who similarly panicked). By now, the panic had crippled my breathing and I could not put my head underwater. I breaststroked with my head above water for a good 200m. I could see Kris freaking out too, and by now, the safety canoes were escorting us. One of the lifeguards asked her if she wanted to turn back. I yelled out to Kris, "come on, we can do this! let's do it together!" She reluctantly agreed. I silently noted the irony of me encouraging someone else when I could not persuade my own mind to stay calm.

And thus saying, Neo falls flat on his face... Cypher: (shakes his head) Everybody falls the first time.

I completed the course but did not meet both my goals of staying calm and using freestyle. The feeling of imminent danger overcame me so powerfully that I was barely able to function, my swimming skills regressed that of a beginner who was swimming at the deep end for the very first time. I felt disheartened that inspite of improvement in my swim technique, my knowledge left me when I needed it the most. Inspite of encouragement from all my buddies, I mulled over the issue for a while. Yes, I completed the course, which I never doubted I could. But my goals were different. It was more the issue of why I lost my nerve that upset me.

Then I had an interesting insight last Thursday, while listening to Brahmachari Girishji, in the midst of a weekly spiritual class for young adults. He said that fear is a result of a deep attachment to our physical body, and that the root of all fear is the fear of death. We become engulfted in fear when we give importance to the mere thought of dying. The way to move away from fear is to focus all of your thoughts and attention on the task at hand, and not let your mind wander at a crucial time. He shared his experience of how he used to surf 30-feet waves in California (prior to him becoming a monk). He said, if you lose your focus for even just a second, you could be destroyed by these strong waves. So scaling the wave is not just a test of your physical, but your spiritual strength as well.

This then brought to me to question of how my mind got caught up in it - why wasn't I able to muster up the focus and attention when I needed it? Girishji replied, it was a question of practice & training. I reflected on the fact that while I had dedicated time to physical training, I had not devoted any time at all to mental preparation - my pillars for focus were meditation and yoga, and I hardly commit time for either. My busy lifestyle was not really nurturing my mind to become more focused, it was just occupying the mind with more and more distracting thoughts.

If I continue on this path, then no matter how great my skills, I will not be able use these skills if I don't master my mind. So, looks like I'm going to be making some changes to my schedule this week.. to create some time and space for much-needed mental/spiritual training. And I'm not just talking about giving sporadic motivational msgs to the mind (like how Neo had attempted). I'm referring to something deeper, and more transformative. A consistent, calming, daily practice strengthens the mind and allows it to stay in equilibrium when the waves of adversity crash upon it.

Next time, I'll be better prepared to ride the waves.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Overliving and other insights

It's been over 7 weeks now since I've started training - and it feels great! Some things that have worked well for me in keeping to my schedule:

1. Training with a buddy. This helps a lot, particularly on days that you don't feel like getting out of bed in the morning.. The fact that you've committed to working out with someone will motivate you to attend the class - if not for anything else, to keep your promise.

2. Morning workouts - ups and downs here.. on the upside, it's great to have your workout out of the way first thing in the morning. I've always admired my friends who have the discipline to workout regularly at 6am. I never thought I was an early riser. But with some practice, it's not as hard as it used to be for me to get up early in the morning. On the downside, you need to sleep much earlier at night to get enough rest or it will not be a sustainable schedule.

3. Going to the gym - as simple as this sounds, it's really quite motivating to have gym membership not only because of the variety of group classes and good facilities, but it also gives you an indoor option to train on days that the weather is bad. Bad weather is one less excuse to skip a workout, because you can always make it up with going to the gym!

4. Having a structured but flexible schedule helps. This year, I started my season with a weekly schedule because I was slowly easing into workout schedule after having health issues over the last year. I did not want to draw up a monthly schedule simply because I did not know if I could keep up with the pace of such planned workouts. Planning on a weekly basis gave me the flexibility to workout as I was able to do them. This helped increase rather than diminish my confidence, and got me back on my feet.

Though I'm still somewhat ambivalent about this.. I miss having set days to do particular workouts (Mon-swim, Tue - bike, Wed-swim, Thu-run etc) when I was in the training group, instead of planning a weekly schedule. In any event, it has worked out well so far because healing is my priority. That said, now that I'm in much better shape, I'm glad to have signed up for a swim clinic (twice a week, mon & wed) because this will bring the kind of regularity that I'm looking for.

On overliving...

I had attended a Tri-clinic by Rogue Training Systems, and it was a good opportunity for me to have a one-on-one discussion with an experienced tri-coach. She mentioned the idea of "overliving" - trying to do everything successfully - work, family life, intense training schedule, friends, travel, volunteer work etc. And that as we venture into our training, we should keep in mind our priorities and not lose sight of them. This simple yet poignant point reminded me of how we burn out because we often chase the illusion that we can have our cake and eat it too. And if we can't have it all, it means that we're not capable enough. This fear and discontent drives "overliving".

Ultimately, it's not about our abilities, but about our choices that will lead to a sense of contentment. Even if we did juggled everything, it can leave us with a sense of emptiness and burnout if we don't find fulfilment within ourselves. And in order to find fulfilment, we need to reflect and prioritize our commitments - to ourselves and our loved ones.

And to me, that means learning to let go of expectations and being kind to yourself and your body - that works so hard to help you achieve goals set by your mind.. In Bikram yoga, one of the most important postures is "shavasana" (corpse pose) - where you lay still and relax deeply. Through practice, this relaxation allows cells to repair themselves and the posture is intended to rejuvenate one's body, mind and spirit. Rejuvenation is JUST as important for the body as is working out.