Tag Archives: Yoga

Becoming a non-drinker in a drinking world

Imagine that you’re a successful, middle-aged career person who has contracted late-onset diabetes.

Your new dietary regimen requires you to quit eating cake, formerly your favorite way to unwind after a long day at the office (with more frequent indulgences on weekends and vacations). You work hard to give up cake. You examine your character and compulsions, and you seek support from other diabetics to rid yourself of this once-satisfying habit that you recognize now as a fatal disease.

And yet, everywhere you turn — whether at Target or Cub Foods, at company parties or celebrations — cake is available. Cake is glorified. At work, cake is pressed on you as a key to networking, getting ahead and building relationships.

Welcome to the world of the high-functioning alcoholic — or problem drinker, if you prefer. Except that cake is a vodka gimlet and a glass or three of Chardonnay. Cake is the monthly “happy hour” your employer sponsors for exempt staff, the event you skip because you don’t want to feel removed or resentful. Cake is the predictable reward and the requisite joke (“man, do I need a big piece of cake”) after a project is completed, a deadline has been met.

Every adult eats cake. It is assumed. It is a given.

Shaken and stirred

For those of us who have chosen to quit drinking at middle age — due to addiction, long-term health or other reasons — the linkage of alcohol with work success and socializing can be daunting on the bad days, and merely tiresome on the best.

How do I explain my irregular attendance at the aptly named “Afterglow,” a convivial gathering at various local watering holes after the daylong meetings of Leadership Saint Paul? Billed as “a unique opportunity to connect with other leaders,” LSP is a competitive and prestigious program sponsored  by the Saint Paul Chamber of Commerce whose value can be traced as much to informal relationships as to the formal curriculum.

Informal business relationships often are constructed around alcohol’s power as a social lubricant. I get it. I remember how freeing it used to feel to drink with colleagues after work, to laugh and share our stories. Drinking was a lot of fun until it ceased to be fun, until it became a solitary escape from the pressures and perfectionism I placed upon myself.

Now, after six hard-won years of sobriety, I have less tolerance for the artificial connections and amped-up conversations that alcohol inspires. I don’t want to be the square, sipping a club soda or Diet Coke while others soften their edges with beer and wine. Neither do I want to seem standoffish or disapproving. So, with rare exception, I stay away from alcohol-infused business functions — or I make a token appearance and slip out.

Sometimes I contemplate a return to that bubble of instant warmth where walls melt and insecurities wash away. But the temptation is a siren song. I can’t go back there. I can’t have my cake and eat it, too.

Shaken and stirred

That chemical dependency runs in my family, and that I reached a point in middle age where my drinking scared me — those facts are my story, my reality and my problem. “I understood that it was not the world’s job to understand my disease,” one of the venerable recovery books says. “Rather it was my job to . . . not drink, no matter what.”

Few ordinary abstainers or normal drinkers realize, however, how much practice and commitment sobriety really takes.

This journey began for me at age 43 and consumed a lot of mental energy throughout my 40s. Finally, at 52, I conceded. I gave up and began the halting process of starting to define myself as a nondrinker.

It’s easy enough to stay away from bars (though I miss going out to hear music), and I enter liquor stores only when I want to buy a special gift. What’s harder to avoid are reminders of drinking in a society where alcohol is both romanticized and ubiquitous.

  • On Facebook: “Opened a bottle of wine and a can of Pringles,” writes a former colleague about her Memorial Day weekend at the lake. “If I am not careful they will both be gone in one sitting. Loving the day at the cabin!”
  • At my yoga studio: Two of my teachers at CorePower Yoga are recovering alcoholics. All of my instructors tout the physical and emotional benefits of yoga. Yet, no one sees the contradiction in the “Yoga & Wine” events that the studio markets to women, especially, as a way to pamper themselves and get away from it all. I thought yoga was about the discipline of being present.
  • In the media: The Star Tribune recently featured a collaboration between a yoga studio and a craft brewery with a headline claiming that “studies” confirm “exercise and drinking go together.” The journalist quoted no fitness experts and cited no academic evidence. Instead, she interviewed the young participants whose bodies still can take abuse and dressed it up as medical research. “Research suggests,” she wrote (emphasis mine), “that both activities can give people a feel-good buzz that gets stronger when they do them in succession.” Like hitting your head with a hammer after sex?

A better path

I recognized the weight of navigating a booze-soaked culture when I encountered an alcohol-free bar at the recent Great River Gathering in downtown St. Paul and breathed a sigh of joy and pure relief. “To promote a more inclusive environment this year, we’ve established a dry bar,” the program read. “No alcohol will be available at this location. Soda, coffee, and water will be available for purchase.”

Sold! How hard was that? Did my ability to get a club soda without staring at glistening bottles of wine impede the rights of drinkers lined up at the three other bars?

I’m not pushing for Prohibition. I don’t need you not to drink. In fact, I still serve beer and wine to guests in my home. I am simply asking you to acknowledge that not drinking, for me, takes effort — that a work-sanctioned “happy hour” is work.

So, join me in a soft drink, as my friend and colleague did at a financial-planning event for women, generously claiming that she was counting calories. Understand why I leave the party early or sometimes don’t show up at all.

Please don’t pity me. I’m not suffering. “I want to see life at its own speed,” NBA great Bill Russell once said about his refusal to use drugs. It’s an accurate explanation for my late-in-life sobriety; and life has never had so much clarity, or felt so good.

Note: Journalist and author Andy Steiner published a follow-up story in MinnPost about this blog post on June 15, 2016.

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#30DaysofExercise . . . and Live to Tell

Like half of all Americans, I live less than five miles from where I work.

So, no excuses during National Bike to Work Week — except for Thursday, when I have to dress up for a volunteer recognition lunch and attend a fancier work function in the evening.MayisBikeMonth

Exercise-challenge programs such as National Bike to Work Day on May 15 or Run 2,015 in 2015 (whoops, too late now!) are effective motivators — except when they’re inconvenient. I learned that the hard way during the 30 Days of Biking challenge in April.

On the face of it, my mere seven days of biking during the cold, rainy month were a failure compared with the hard-cores who rode their bicycles to bakeries and tweeted throughout the month or posted grinning, thumbs-up photos on Instagram.

What I did instead is what I do every day, every month, every year: I exercised. The particular daily movement that I chose — biking, running, fitness yoga, walking — depended on the weather, on my schedule or on my mood.

The #30daysofbiking challenge did inspire me to log the experience. I kept a daily record of my exercise, and that’s proven to be fruitful now that warm weather is here and I really want to up my cycling miles and train to run another half-marathon.

My daily logs are both instructive and inspiring. I note the excuses, but I see also that I managed to move every day. The journal entries reinforce my midlife exercise mantra: Something is better than nothing. Any exercise counts.

30 Days #2

EXCUSES ARE EASY to come by. It’s harder to sidestep #30DaysofExercise, however, than daily cycling because it allows you to be more a generalist than a specialist.

On April days when it was too windy and cold to bike, I could easily walk the 1.2 miles to work. Likewise, on a day after my running partner had pushed me to run farther than I would have on my own, I could stretch my aching quadriceps and hamstrings in a yoga class.

But the exercise log’s purpose was to record, specifically, whether I had biked. And it revealed more than anything why I failed to get my seat on the saddle for 23 of the month’s 30 days.

  • April 1: Blew it on the first day of the bike challenge! Warm but really windy and then had horrendous rainstorm this evening. Oh, well.
  • April 9: Pouring rain today, 40 degrees. Going to Core Power at noon.
  • April 17: Went for a run with Lou Anne. No energy for more exercise today.
  • April 21: It snowed today. Enough said.

30 Days #4

WITH MY LONG LEGS and short trunk, I seem built to ride a bike. It’s an effortless exercise.

And so it’s easy for me to combine biking with errands, which feels more healthful — and less stressful — than other forms of multitasking.

Movement has more meaning, my cycling log has taught me, when there’s purpose behind it.

  • April 12: Rode to Rainbow Chinese and back to meet friends. As we get more serious about becoming a one-vehicle family, it will become essential to bike.
  • April 16: Still not feeling well so working from home. But I felt well enough to bike to work for meetings. Nobody seemed to mind that I was wearing spandex bike shorts, with bad hair and carrying a helmet.
  • April 26: Rode around the neighborhood and then went to Mom’s. I like combining biking with appointments. It’s a twofer, the equivalent of walking to work.

30 Days #3

CYCLING MAKES ME SMILE in a way that running never has. I love the sweep of scenery, the sense of being one with the natural world.

“You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy a bike,” I read on a cyclist’s T-shirt one sunny Sunday when I was biking home on Midtown Greenway.

Discovering the joy in the simple act of riding was an impetus behind the founding of 30 Days of Biking by Twin Citian Patrick Stephenson, whose idea has gone viral and international. He describes the practice of daily cycling as “transformative.”

  •  April 4: Wore my runner’s mask to bike this morning. Legs and fingers froze. No wind, gliding through the streets. Hills felt good after sculpt class yesterday.
  • April 14: Woke up with sore throat and sniffles. Hunkered down and got tasks done at my desk. Rode the six-mile loop along the River Road after work: 60 degrees, sunny, little wind. I felt better afterward.
  • April 28: Thirty-minute ride at 7 p.m. through the neighborhood. Not enough but it was something. Like any exercise or art or behavior at which I want to get better, biking has to be a practice.

Thank God, February’s Over: Bring on Spring!

The longest shortest month of the year, February makes me wish time away — something  most of us cease doing at middle age.

We’ve had 26 sub-zero mornings in Minnesota so far this winter. February is among the slowest months for local businesses; people would rather be keeping company with their screens.

Native Minnesotans are supposed to take the icy sidewalks and bitterly cold temperatures in stride. But I’ve eaten too much. Gotten off my running routine. And been too distracted and stir-crazy even to finish reading a book.Penguins on ice

Enough. Spring starts in March, and I am holding myself to better habits, starting today:

1) Keep moving. I felt reborn the other day when I ran four miles along Mississippi River Boulevard with a friend I hadn’t seen in months. Yes, it was cold, but I know how to dress for winter running: layer your clothing, go lighter below the waist, wear a black Ninja hood to encase your head and neck.

The sun was shining. The conversation was lively. And I adopted her trick of thinking positive when the going got tough. Rather than “damn, this hill is steep” we’d exclaim to each other: “Look at the view!”

2) Gain perspective. The death of New York Times journalist David Carr on February 12 threw me, as it did many of his former colleagues. I knew Carr, barely, back in the roaring ’80s, when we both worked at MSP Communications. He chastised me once for wearing a campaign button in the newsroom. He swept through a party at my upper duplex in northeast Minneapolis, pronouncing that I had a “nice pad.”

I envied his self-confidence and single-minded ambition. I recognized his talent, even as I viewed it from a distance. I was never brave enough to travel in his pack.

Like others, I was shocked and saddened to read of his collapse. But I also personalized the news in a way that feels ungenerous, both to him and to myself. I didn’t think about the wife and daughters he left behind or his unfinished work in the world.

When I read about Carr’s globe-trotting career, the mark he made on his profession, and his canny ability both to overcome and capitalize on his addiction, I felt small by comparison. Just as I did back then. Only a year younger than he was when he died, I assessed my career and wondered what I have accomplished.

Weeks later — given time, perspective and a review of his candid, pragmatic interviews with Terry Gross on Fresh Air — I recognize that Carr would want his hometown coworkers to be not intimidated but inspired.

3) Build community. A couple of colleagues asked me in January to teach a weekly yoga practice over the noon hour, even though I hadn’t taught for more than a year. We meet in a drafty gym, with no music. We bring our own blocks and other props. We have a varying range of abilities.

And it’s become a high point of my week. They overlook my rusty teaching. I watch then bring courage and humility to the mat. We’re taking risks, and that helps us appreciate one another in a way that simply working together does not.

4) Just do it. I’m grateful for the discipline developed over decades in the workplace. You suit up and show up, even when you’d rather be somewhere else. “My whole life is have to,” Steve Martin declares in Parenthood, a spot-on film I saw the day I learned I was pregnant with my older son.Parenthood

I don’t want to walk my dogs in the minus-zero wind-chill every morning. I don’t always want to visit my mother in the memory-care facility, or shop for groceries, or sort the boxes taking up space in our one-car garage. But I do it, because I have to. And because action is always preferable to riding the merry-go-round inside my head.

5) Write it down. On my best days, I see that obligation gives my life purpose. People count on me. I have a good job and a strong network of friends. I’ve built a family to care for and about.

On the harder days — which was most of sub-zero February — I start the day with a cup of coffee and a journal. Thirty minutes later, the world looks right again.

Then I haul out the long, black down coat and the boots that hold me upright on the ice — and I get on with it, whatever it is, because having places to go and people to see brings me one step closer to spring and beats the alternative of wallowing in the winter blues.