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Finding the Flow

When I started writing this blog in March, I set a goal for myself: to write two posts per month, or about one every other week. That seemed a reasonable goal, even with my self-imposed busy schedule, but I only stayed on track for about two laps before ending up in the gravel pit.

Writing, much like driving, is a craft that requires focus and discipline, in which the right frame of mind is vital for getting into "the zone" so that language flows easily and the output is both creative and informational. In the past two months I started all four of the posts I intended to publish on schedule, but ended up foundering part way through, unable to find my flow and write the article I could proudly post.

Today I realized that finding my flow was not only the problem, but also a unifying thread within the topics of all four of those articles: reflecting back on my first race season - lacking the flow; yoga - making physical movement flow; getting outside of your box - helps improve the flow; confidence - comes from knowing the flow. So it occured to me that one article could really cover all those topics, and with better clarity and unity than I could find in thinking about each topic separately. Plus it makes up for lost time. Groovy.

The biggest struggle I had in my first season of racing was consistency - I wasn't able to consistently get in the zone to drive clean, drive hard, and drive fast. Again, much of the reason was my frame of mind. I lacked confidence, and rightly so because I knew that my skills in driving and especially in racing were (and are!) still developing. I was having a difficult time getting a realistic picture of how my skills measured up to those around me. Unfortunately this manifested as frustration in many of my mid-season races, and eventually led to a costly mistake when I pulled the "money shift" at the start of race #8, resulting in both a DNF and a repair bill (that's me below, minutes before the money-shift race and still smiling!).

Would you believe it if I told you I was relieved to be out of that race? Oddly, mechanical failure (OK, driver error in this case) is one of the worst results conceivable in racing, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me at that point. It forced me to come to terms with the fact that there were two big additional changes I needed to make in my lifestyle in order to mitigate the mounting frustration at the race track, which would hopefully help me to be a more confident and successful racer (and to sleep better at night). I say "additional" because I don't think I clearly understood until that money-shift moment that racing was already a big lifestyle choice.

The first decision to make was simply to calm down (no problem, right?), and work towards banishing that tiny, hot-headed Irish/Mexican she-devil that was camped out on my left shoulder. The second was to start putting more effort towards getting back into killer physical shape.

For me, the obvious way to achieve both goals was to return to my yoga practice. (Honestly, I didn't have much of one to begin with, but I always loved what little I'd done in the past.) Before even attending my first class at the nearby studio, I knew just by looking at the schedule that this was a good idea. Hatha Flow, Yin Flow, Vinyasa Flow - the names spoke to me from the colorful webpage in a strong and soothing voice, reinforcing the benefits I hoped to gain from the practice.

Now, I realize I'm not the first person to write about the parallels between yoga and performance driving, and I probably won't be the last, but fortunately I'm also getting over the need to be so terribly original all the time. And while it may seem that these two activities are at complete opposite ends of the adrenaline spectrum, I'm amazed by how they each affect my life and how they affect each other.

Very few activities make me sweat the way that yoga and racing do. When exercising I don't typically have the sweat-pouring-off-my-face type of work out experience (even in spin class!), but in practicing yoga I've been through a good 5 or 6 different yoga mats trying to find one that can stand up to my sweaty palms in down dog. TMI maybe, and I apologize for those with weaker sensibilities, but this is the truth of the matter so it's what you get. And while I find this messy aspect of my practice frustrating, I've also come to find it incredibly cleansing. As in driving, the physical discomfort is yet another by-product of the activity that I just have to learn to ignore, shifting my focus to what's really important: minding my form, maintaining smoothness of movement/motion, and a steady, calm patience with myself and for whatever new surprise waits around the next corner.

It's that discipline and the conscious distancing of my active mind in the practice that translates so clearly to driving and racing. In both, I know that the effort of focusing on my slow, deep breathing will remove myself enough from the efforts of the physical activity that my capable subconscious mind can step forward to drive the actual movements. This, in other words, is a way of finding my flow - a trigger to help my conscious mind get out of its own way long enough to allow the subconscious mind to connect my left and right brain actions and perform at its most efficient level, for without this the physical effort is also disjointed.

The other great relationship between yoga and driving is that there is always room for improvement and growth in both sports, even for the most accomplished, successful, and famous racers and yoginis, and the approach to improvement and growth is very similar for each. First, in order to improve you have to accept that you are not perfect and that you don't know everything, and, sometimes, that you just aren't as awesome as you think you are. You also have to accept that something you were able to do very well the day before might be a terrible struggle the next day, and learning the patience to overcome those challenges will improve your ability to deal with the unexpected, consequently improving your consistency. Finally, repetition, repetition, repetition, but only with the awareness of the quality of the repetition and the knowledge of when to dial it back if the quaility isn't there, because as one or more of my music teachers used to say, "only perfect practice makes perfect!"

And most importantly, you have to remember to take joy in the practice at your mat or on the track, because in the end that is what will continue to fuel the passion and push you to keep improving, and that is what will be remembered long after you roll up your mat or park your car. In yoga, every practice ends with a few moments of silent reflection and relaxation, allowing your tired muscles to rest and your mind to be at peace with the challenges you faced and the outcomes you achieved that day. Since returning to yoga, and without really meaning to, my post-pracitce reflection unerringly focuses on trying to remember the feeling of calm confidence I had while sitting at grid before the race at which I turned in my best finish of the season: a third in class finish, and fourth overall, after qualifying second in class/third overall. It was the best I felt and the best I drove all season long, and I return to it again and again because I know that if I can make a habit of recalling that clarity of mind and the knowledge that "I've got this", then I might just be able to tap into that zone more consistently.

And speaking of being humble (or humbled), I'm a great advocate of trying things you've never done before - like going to a movie by yourself, going to that bar or restaurant you've always wanted to try (even if you have to go by yourself), taking a yoga class, a rock climbing class, a pottery class, a few music lessons, or even trying out a few classical ballet classes (I did three...that was interesting). Or, maybe going to rally school.

There's no denying that motorsports in general are extremely demanding, and rally driving takes something you think you already know how to do and throws that all out the window, turning you on your head and then dumping a whole new carload of skills on your prone hindquarters. Did you know that World Rally Championship is the second most popular spectator sport in the world?! If it was easy, everyone would do it; instead they stand out there and wait to try not to get clobbered (apparently helping to flip cars back over or push them out of a field/ditch/river is half the fun of attending a rally). And that's why it's a great thing to try, whether you're already participating in motorsports or whether the fastest thing you drive is the internet connection at your desk.

Starting from scratch with anything is a wonderful reminder that we don't always know everything, and having that moment of humility is a thing we should all remember to do more often. Especially since getting better at something you're awful at to start with is a huge confidence boost that will trickle down to all areas of your life. In April, I went for the second time to Team O'Neil Rally School and Car Control Center high up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Not only is driving a street car on the dirt one of the most difficult things I've ever done (even more so than my first weekend on a road course track), but it's also the most ridiculously FUN thing in the world. (!!!!)

The first thing they make you do when you get in the car on day one is peg the gas with your right foot and modulate the brake gently with your left foot, not to slow the car, but to TURN the car. It's a bit like asking you to brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand while running up and down the stairs and writing a text message as you try not to trip over two small dogs (oh, wait, I think I did that this morning...). Anyway, it's uncomfortable and not a little stressful, but it makes you immediately think about balance and weight transfer at a level that you'd never even considered before. On tarmac, shifting the weight gracefully forward helps the car turn so you can go a little faster; in the dirt, it's the ONLY way to get the car to turn, at any speed. After this, you spend the next few days learning other magical concepts like turning the car left in order to turn sharp right (the "pendulum turn" or "Scandanavian flick") - yet another way to use weight transfer to get the car turning on a slippery surface...and so that you don't have to slow down as much, of course (and impress the fans). Finally, you get to go out on mostly unfamiliar roads (which are severly crowned and lined by thick forest on either side) and try to do these things while someone reads things like, "right-3 long, 130, left-2 stay in." And the amazing thing is that you do it. You know what he means and what it means for you and you are looking ahead and making decisions and it's completely exhilarating.

And even if you look back at your in-car videos and realize that you still pretty much sucked at rally driving by the end of the week, at least the next time you get in your own car and something unexpected happens you might just know what to do to keep the car under control and avoid an accident. might be able to use your now excellent traction-sensing skills to pass that guy in your next race. :)

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