Journey To Wellness
I’ll never forget the half-amused, half-horrified look on her face.
It was four and a half years ago, the beginning of my wellness journey so to speak. Having practiced yoga daily for a year, I signed up for a teacher training course. My piano studio was flourishing and I suddenly found myself teaching nearly 50 students 2x/week. Plus, I had also joined the local teacher board. It was time to really prioritize my well-being.
For many years I taught six days a week. My year in yoga teacher training was no different, which means Fridays were spent teaching piano from 1 to 5, then rushing to yoga training from 5:30-9. Yoga training then took up the bit of Saturdays left after my morning piano classes and all of Sundays. Instead of recognizing this as way too much to handle, I thought of yoga teacher training as a productive way to learn new skills and be surrounded by encouraging, thoughtful women in a safe space. Basically like a break. But a productive one. I was wrong. About a lot of things.
In retrospect, I’m not sure how I ever managed such a teaching load. On Mondays, my day would begin at 2:30 and go until 8. With no breaks. It was my hardest day, and I decided to see what my inspiring yoga teacher could offer in terms of making this day less stressful. During a group Q&A, I raised my hand, “Hagar, what’s a good way to relax if you’re busy? I have a really long day on Mondays and it would be great to have some tools to de-stress.” She considered the question thoughtfully. “Well during your breaks you could do legs at the wall, reverse your blood flow...” “Oh no,” I clarified, “There are no breaks, so it’s basically teaching for 5 and a half hours straight. I’m sort of thinking something I could do before or after.” This is when she gave me the half-amused, half-horrified look I’ll never forget.
Later that night I began realizing the error of my ways. I really had taken on too much, and something had to be done. But I couldn’t exactly change my whole schedule. What would the parents in my studio say? No, I was committed to this path and had to face the future with courage. Plus, I loved teaching and the bright souls that entered the house every day -- I certainly wasn’t going to do anything to disrupt that incredibly positive part of my life!
So while I taught and took on more responsibilities with professional circles, I began to pursue my wellness with the same vigor. I bought a juicer and even managed to make batch juices for the week a few times (I learned that they only last 2 days in reality). Whole Foods and the Farmer’s Market were weekly stops. I read blogs on wellness and organized vegan delivery food service to the house. I continued my yoga practice. And I worked. And taught. And managed. And worked.
Three years later it became clear that the amount I was working was simply unsustainable. Despite having a job I loved, a loving partner, a cozy bungalow, and two dogs, I wasn't happy. Something wasn't adding up. I was finding myself unable to remember the last book I had read. Even my hammock, which I had ironically set up to relax on, had become a place where immediate worries were waiting to fill my mind. I felt I had to multi-task at every step; even walking the dogs was ridiculous if I wasn’t ALSO listening to an educational podcast.
This also led to some guilt. Was I setting a good example for my students? I’ve always argued that as a teacher you’re held accountable not only to yourself, but also to every single student and family who trusts you as part of their child’s upbringing. How could I set an example when I wasn’t always performing at or feeling my best?
During a trip to Europe in the summer of 2016, my husband and I decided to take a crazy chance and move out of Los Angeles. We had both always wanted to live in Europe, so why not? We didn’t have kids, and had decided to have our wedding there anyway. He was already working remotely, as well as with many European clients; he also spoke fluent German. But in my heart it was about much more than embracing a new journey; it was a response to what I now know was a self-inflicted work overload. I had reached a breaking point; I was running on fumes, an almost-robotic getting through the grind. More pressingly, there seemed to be no end. People relied on me, and I took that seriously.
On June 26, 2017, Steve and I got on a plane with our two dogs and moved to a small city in Austria.
I recently had lunch with my former piano teacher from Vienna (where I lived for a semester 8 years ago), who aptly noted, “You seem to be recovering from your time in California.” I smiled. It was true. I needed to take a huge, eight month long exhale. Since June, I’ve really dug deep regarding my own wellness. Feeling healthy, strong and alive (AKA “well”) is now my most top priority. It’s also what allows me to give the most to others, namely my husband, my dogs, my family, my students and my colleagues. This prioritization, for me, also meant letting go of a lot of obligations to others.
This piece is called journey to wellness but it’s a path without an ending. There’s no end point, no matter what any instagram profile makes you feel like. Nobody has it all figured out. We’re all on our journeys, often both beautiful and frustrating to the point of tears. It’s life. And part of life is struggling and being sad, which is a part of my teaching philosophy as well: Learning an instrument teaches us how to cope with stress, suffering and self-criticism. It also teaches us how to celebrate the moments when our hard work pays off, and enjoy the profound beauty of discovery, both in ourselves and in our work’s details; an inner line of a Schubert sonata, a chord, a melody. Learning an instrument allows us to see what we can achieve when we work steadily over time, and reminds us that we do grow as our own emotional and time managers.
Below I’m sharing five general tips that have helped me along my wellness journey over the past 8 months in the hopes that they may be useful to anyone feeling overwhelmed by their current workload or needing to assess their lives.
1. Assess your life and how happy you are with it.
Really think about this. What are you happy with? What are you unhappy with? MAKE A LIST. (Bullet-journaling is a game-changer.) How could you change your schedule to do the things you wanted?
I lived in fear of changing my schedule for years. I didn’t want to let anyone down. I needed to be a super teacher, a super girlfriend, a super dog-mom, a super colleague. People tend to see that I put my “all” into every project; but at what expense? I also began to believe that I was indispensable to every project I was involved in and that everything would fall apart if I left. Guess what? It didn’t. People are competent and move on, hopefully with a nice memory of the time you had together. If you’re not happy with your schedule, change it. If you don’t like working with certain people, stop doing it. They will forget about it and you will thank yourself ten times over.
2. Make Small Changes.
Going vegan overnight, getting to the gym every day for an hour and prioritizing time with loved ones sounds great. Actually, most of us probably had this in our minds or written down this list on New Year’s. But let’s remember that all change happens by a tiny thousand steps. Remember that Mozart was not born a pianist. Every process can be broken down into a billion tiny steps and millions of microscopic steps in the right direction really do lead to massive, sweeping change like becoming Mozart, eating healthier, enjoying a healthier lifestyle and spending more time with loved ones. So make small additions (always think of ADDING, not subtracting), stick to them, and add onto that. One recent addition we made was to begin each day with a green smoothie. We make this one. While a small alteration, it’s had massive change to how we start our mornings, feeling fresh, healthy and fabulous heading into the day. (Not all mornings are like this, but most are.)
3. Healthy Eating & Daily Movement
These are two of my favorite topics after years of research and experimentation. For the purposes of this article, and because these are ultimately very personal choices, I’ll keep the following comments brief and general.
A: Healthy Eating.
Switching to a plant-based diet changed my relationship with the ecosystem, with food, and with my body. It’s also far less scary of a phrase than “going vegan.” By the way, I still haven’t given up Backhendl (a local speciality that’s really just fried chicken) and will have pizza on nights that Steve and I can’t bear the thought of cooking, or take-out chinese food (my forever guilty indulgence, especially dumplings). However, by eating mostly a plant-based diet, I am able to stay healthy, feel fit, and know that the great majority of things I put into my body nourish it, not pollute it. Feeling nourished helps me work and teach more efficiently and not waste time on wondering why I’m not feeling at my best.
B: Daily Movement.
I used to put myself in work-out situations that were true psychological torture. My reasoning was simple: Unless I was really miserable, I couldn’t be getting a good workout. Perhaps the greatest example of this is when I tried Bikram yoga. If this has worked for you, great -- definitely wasn’t for me. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this type of exercise, it is essentially group cardio in an incredibly hot and sweaty room. During my one and only experience, I glanced around the room and thought, “Wow, this is a what a medieval torture chamber must’ve looked like with humans moments away from their deaths.” My classmates looked frantic, miserable, sweating like I’ve never seen before. One couple clutched each other by the wall as if in a final embrace while the instructor yelled, “John, if you don’t LOCK THAT KNEE WE’RE NOT MOVING ON.” (By the way, never, ever lock your joints – playing an instrument or otherwise.) It was awful to witness and experience.
Since then, I’ve realized that exercise does not need to be and shouldn’t be torture. In fact, it can be incredibly fun. I’ve tried many different workouts, but what I always come back to is SOME movement in a day. It’s often yoga/pilates, but other days it’s just a long walk with my dogs (now I don’t take my phone, so there’s no multi-tasking), a swim or short hike. The important thing is that you can actually enjoy most of these activities. Working out does not need to be torture. When you’ve found what works for you, stick with it and make it a routine. Afterward, energized by all of the endorphins, you’ll feel fresh and ready to take on any challenges that await!
4. Make time for social engagements.
Being around your friends and family is incredibly important. During my stint as a workaholic, I really avoided social interaction. Coffee dates were really just work meetings. Post-teaching dinners were more like therapy sessions (my husband being the therapist) where I would lament any shortcomings I had experienced, either in myself or others. It wasn’t good (sorry, Steve!!). At a certain point, this pity party wasn’t cute. Since then, we’ve both learned to prioritize carving out time for purely social gatherings, either individually or together. So make time to go play pool. Play frisbee. Have a picnic. Go to a movie. Or call your best friend who lives across the country. It’s so easy to take friendships for granted and forget that keeping your relationships healthy takes effort.
5. Make time just for yourself.
Last night my husband had a rehearsal. During his absence, I lit all the candles, cooked my favorite 3 ingredient dinner that I would never serve to guests or even my husband, and experienced domestic bliss. I turned off my phone and let the dogs cuddle with me on the couch as I read. There is nothing better in the world. Part of the problem is that we’re surrounded all day by media and news and colleagues and endless lists of things to do. And if we’re really super lucky, we’re also constantly surrounded by a partner, animals, children, family and/or friends. But, at least for me, it all gets to be a little bit too much. So enjoy your time alone and carve out time for it. Go get an expensive pedicure (when you pay more for things, you tend to enjoy them more). Put on your favorite K-beauty facemask and take a bubble bath. Practice or listen to your favorite music just for the love of it. Or, my favorite: take yourself on a date night at your preferred “dark and overpriced” restaurant. Order a glass of red wine and your desired entree and just enjoy it all. During this time, you’ll be reminded of everything that you’re doing right. Somehow, you’ll think of a solution for something that wasn’t going so great. You’ll take time to reflect on where you are in your journey and honor this perfect place. Because you’re alive and able to think and that’s actually worth a whole lot, don’t you think? If you've got kids and are thinking this is a crazy idea, ask your partner or friend to help you out; you'll appreciate returning the favor down the road.
The Past 8 Months
Over the past 8 months, I’ve learned that wellness is largely about letting go and saying no to things that don’t serve you. In essence, doing less, not more. I’ve also experienced that surrounding yourself with only positive people and carving out time to relax actually helps you get more accomplished. Though I left the board and my studio in LA, I’ve managed to get a lot done here, (namely Musikal Husky's Rhythm Keeper, starting two businesses, building a studio and planning our wedding/GETTING MARRIED!). Looking back, the difference is that I have done these things not at the expense of my well-being, but as a result of it. That said, I'm far from perfect and have my share of little *moments* (usually revolving around my less-than-perfect German language progress)... However, I remember that it's all a process. Like learning an instrument, nothing happens overnight.
For me, my true journey to wellness started when I realized that it was really about giving myself a break, and not buying the best juicer or aggressively getting to yoga classes.
In his latest book, Lykke, Meik Wiking philosophizes about seeking happiness and creative positive experiences for ourselves and our communities. "What will bring us forward is a spirit of trust and cooperation and the realization that we are each other's keepers."
Wiking also talks about the trickiness of managing our own expectations. Once one goal has been realized, suddenly there are more lofty ones already forming in the mind. The conclusion: Perhaps it's not about the pursuit of happiness, but about enjoying the pursuit. I agree. And, by the way, it’s the same thing when you learn (or teach your 4-year-old) an instrument. It’s not about reaching perfection or even having a set goal. It’s really about enjoying and honoring the process as though that really matters because it DOES. And on that note, I’m off to buy a facemask and enjoy the rest of this lovely (almost Spring!) afternoon.