Just Enough Discomfort and a Retreat to Spain

I was having a moment of deep appreciation for my yoga practice the other day when during shvasana, I realized that yoga is one of the few familiar and comfortable places in my life right now. I know it sounds cheesy but being on my mat felt like coming home. That might seem crazy because I’m spending a year living in Spain, working very little and generally living the dream right? Well, not from my nervous systems perspective. My days are filled with language classes (have I mentioned that my Spanish is horrendous?), flamenco classes (12-beat cycle anyone?) rock-climbing (which after 15 years, still consistently scares the shit out of me) and regular interactions with people whom I can’t understand, with no shortage of awkward and frustrating moments.

Paradoxically, in many of those moments, I am also experiencing outrageous beauty - whether it’s the huge circular stained glass window on an 11th century convent that I walk by on my way to class, the perfect taste and design of a tapa that I struggle to order, or the golden cottonwoods lining the banks of the Jucar river that I view from the top of the climb. It is this beauty and the constant tracking of my breath, that helps me let go of the stress of doing something new (and the negative self-talk about inadequacy that comes with it) and return to a state of calm. Tranquilo as the Spanish call it.

I’m reminded of how we learn best. We need just enough challenge and just enough discomfort. In other words, when we are faced with too much challenge, our frustration levels spike and we shut down or get overly emotional (fight/flight/freeze). If there is not enough challenge we get bored and our minds wander.

The key is to find the sweet spot. That can be tough for me. When I get scared, I tend to shut down like a petulant teenager and mumble things like, “I don’t even like climbing” or “I’m never doing this again” (add a foot stomp for added effect). Or I over-do and over-push, ignoring the voice that tells me it’s scared and could I please just take a minute to breath. Sometimes I ignore that voice until my nervous system forces me to access my teenage self again. Shout out to everyone who joined me on the Costa Rica retreat last year for helping me understand that cycle:) So here I am in Spain trying to find the sweet spot. And there are no shortages of activities and experiences to support that exploration.

The good news is that as long as I can keep my nervous system in check, I am growing my brain (I like that phrase so much more than improving). According to the OHSU Brain Institute, adult brain development is shaped by outside stimuli. Their tips for improving brain function and building new neuropathways include:

  • Experience new things (travel, hike a new path, go to the symphony)

  • Maintain old skills and develop new ones (learn a new language or musical instrument, take up a new sport)

  • Socialize with old friends and make new ones

  • Exercise

  • Sleep (sleep well for about 8 hours)

  • Drink plenty of water

  • Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables

Notice how the first half depends on a relatively relaxed nervous system. It is incredibly difficult to learn new things when you don’t feel safe. ENTER YOGA AND MEDITATION - two amazing ways to turn off your sympathetic response, turn on your parasympathetic response and RETURN HOME.

If you would like a little support with that, you can head to my practice page and join me online for a yoga class or a guided meditation

If you would like to see me in person, Wanna and I are guiding a retreat in Spain next July!

It will be a culture/nature/yoga retreat in the Grazalema Natural Park in the south of Spain. The natural world is stunning, the culture and history are rich and the retreat center is brilliant. This is definitely an opportunity to check off all of your “brain growing” boxes. Click the link for more details or contact me with questions. The Costa Rica retreats filled up quickly the last two years so be in touch soon. You might consider giving yourself the perfect holiday gift!

Rachel Posner