We all have an inner critic, that voice in our heads that is sometimes quite loud telling us we are not good enough, we are not in control and even that we are not lovable. In his new book, “Unmasking the Inner Critic: Lessons for Living an Unconstricted life,” author Andrew Lang shares steps for how we as people of faith can expand through these constrictions to a place of healing for ourselves and offer healing to those around us.
- Check out this page especially for "Get Your Spirit in Shape" listeners on Lang's website for resources and more information.
- Learn more about "My Grandmother's Hand," the book by Resmaa Menakem, the trauma specialist that Lang mentions during the podcast.
- Order your copy of "Unmasking the Inner Critic: Lessons for Living an Unconstricted Life."
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This episode posted on November 4, 2022.
Crystal Caviness, host: We all have an inner critic—that voice in our heads that is sometimes quite loud telling us we are not good enough; we are not in control and even that we are not lovable. In his new book, “Unmasking the Inner Critic: Lessons for Living an Unconstricted Life,” author Andrew Lang shares steps for how we as people of faith can expand through these constrictions to a place of healing for ourselves and offer healing to those around us.
Crystal: Welcome, Andrew, to "Get Your Spirit in Shape."
Andrew: I’m so happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
Crystal: Of course. Well, I’m excited that you’re here, too. We’re going to talk about your new book. Before we do that can you just tell us a little bit about yourself?
Andrew: Yeah. I’ve been an educator for the past couple of years, a high school teacher. And I work in the educational nonprofit space training teachers on project-based learning. I come from a long line of Methodists. My dad is a Methodist pastor, former district superintendent up here in the Seattle area. Got some grandparents in the Methodist world. So, it’s been a big part of my lineage. And the last 10 years now I’ve been leading workshops. And those workshops go from embodied spirituality to teaching contemplative practices and things like shadow work, which is one of my spiritual practices that really helps ground me. So, a long lineage in the Methodist Church and do a lot around what does it look like to have an embodied and healthy spirituality.
Crystal: That’s awesome. So, it’s safe to say you are a child of The United Methodist Church, isn’t it?
Andrew: One hundred percent fully. Grew up and have lots of memories being the one kid running around the church sanctuary or the gym… We had a church with a gym. Lots of memories growing up. Yeah.
Crystal: That’s awesome. Well, the book is titled "Unmasking the Inner Critic: Lessons for Living an Unconstricted Life." It’s going be out in just a few weeks (Editor's Note: The book released November 1, 2022). And, Andrew, I loved the book. As you said in the book, go slow. You might need to read it a couple of times. That’s absolutely going to be true for me. I’m going to need to go back and reread some sections because there’s just so…it’s just so rich. What led you to write this book?
Andrew: First, I’m so thankful…I’m so thankful you found it meaningful. I, ah…. What really led me to write this book is a combination of the workshops I’ve been leading for a bunch of years, but also my own inner work. I think I had a big question for myself come up, which went along the lines of this: what does healthy spirituality and spiritual formation look like? And I can share a story that I think really sent me down this path that led to the book. When I was 18, I’d grown up in one church for about 10 or 11 years, Methodist Church. And my family was gonna leave, move to another church. My dad’s a pastor; he’s getting appointed somewhere else. And so, we had this big going away Sunday service. And I’m crying. You’re witnessing the community that you have and you know that you’re not gonna see these people anymore. And so, I’m highly emotional. People around us are emotional. They’re sharing all these stories of 10 years being in ministry together. And at the very end people are coming up giving hugs. And I look across this sea of congregation folks, and there’s this tall man who comes striding towards me. And he’s a very tall man—probably 6’4, 6’5. And he’s coming towards me, long strides, and when he gets to me, he puts his hand on my shoulder. And I want to name that this is a person who’d been part of this church for 40 years, at this point. So very institutionalized within this specific church. And he put his hand on my shoulder and he said, “Men don’t cry.” And I just had this experience that went through my bones. And it was this experience of if this is what a lifetime of spiritual formation comes to, if going to a young boy and saying, ‘Don’t listen to your emotions,’ if shutting down a person’s experiences, if that’s the height of spiritual formation after 40 years, why bother? And that really let me on a path of okay, what can it look like? What can spiritual formation look like? What does it look like to embody a spirituality that’s more life affirming, body affirming, emotional affirming, and something I can both experience and lead others into. And that’s what really led to the book. That’s what led to my workshops. And I think over the course of the last 3-4 years what bubbled up in me was a desire to begin to share in a new…a new medium what I’d been sharing in the workshops. So, I think that’s what really led to the book. I have this deep desire to share what I’ve learned, not as an expert or a thought leader. I don’t know what that is. But as a person who’s walking the path as well.
Crystal: And you know, the man in your church who came up to you, he was a product of society and culture that had said that to him and said that to men across the decades, across the generations. So, what’s you’re confronting is generations old, multiple generations. So, how do we even start. Like, where do you even start, Andrew?
Andrew: It’s so big. It’s such a large issue. I’ll name where I start. This might not be the only place to start. Where I start is understanding that there is a connection between the inner life of an individual and the way they operate and move within the world. And so, there is an inherent connection between what’s happening inside of us, our inner stories, our inner narratives, the way we walk and bust the communal healing that is possible. So, the environment that led that man, Dale, to speak to me like that when i was 18, what needed to happen in the 50 years before that was both this combination of deep inner work around who is the kind of person that I want to become and what are the inner narratives that I want to work with? And the communal healing aspect, which is how can I place myself within a community that’s dedicated to that work as well. So, I think where I start is knowing that there is a combination of that inner work that no amount of self-help books is going to change the world. There has to be a combination of that and communal healing—being within a community that’s also dedicated to really intentional deep inner works and spiritual formation.
Crystal: And in your book you encourage the reader to name those circles, name those spheres of influence so that the work isn’t being done in a vacuum. You know, you’re inviting people that you trust into this work with you, which is that sense of community that you’re talking about. And I really love that it’s such an experiential book. You’re reading it, but then you’re inviting us to, you know, kind of think about it and then there’s also exercises that you can do like physical…you know, stand up and reach tall and all of that. It just kind of engages all of who we are.
Crystal: You know, all of our senses and all of our parts. I really enjoyed that part about it.
Andrew: It’s so vital. And I think this is a growing edge, I think, for the church certainly. And for all of culture. And the growing edge is that transformation cannot be intellectual alone. We can’t think ourselves out of our current situation in communities, in our own inner life, or as a society. We can’t do it. This is deeply embodied work. And so, throughout the book, yeah, I tell stories, I introduce teachings from different elders and mystics from across different spiritualities. And then, what was really important to me is include the body practices that will invite folks to learn to understand, okay, my…this constriction of not being in control (right?), this inner narrative that I’m not in control, where does that locate itself in my body? So, I’ll share. For me, it’s all in my shoulders. I’ve got one of the tightest, most, like, filled with knots set of shoulders and upper back of anyone. And so, part of my work was (and continues to be) whenever I find myself holding tense shoulders or constricting my muscles I have to ask myself, What are you trying to control right now? And more often than not there’s a pretty immediate answer. And so, I think that’s part of the importance and the value of seeing this as embodied work and not just intellectual. And I think there’s an aspect of this, and this is growing up in the church, small groups and bible studies often are spaces where you come together, which is awesome, in a small group, which is awesome, and you talk about what you’re seeing. You interpret and you process until that becomes embodied, until that includes body practices that bring you deeper than just chatting or talking about it. There’s a limitation of how much transformation can take place in that space.
Crystal: There’s this running theme through the book that concerns these opposing movements, constriction to expansion. And so, kind of for the sake of this conversation and how it’s used in the book, can you give us a definition of those?
Andrew: Yeah. So, when I say constriction, what I’m talking about is the inner narrative that we walk with. So, for my example I’ll say I’m not in control. That’s not just an inner narrative. It’s not just a belief about myself that has largely gone unquestioned and unchallenged within me. It’s not just a belief because it shows up in my body. It is literally constricting me. So, imagine someone whose being has so much weight on them…on their back, that they are starting to cave in on themselves, constrict inward. I believe that’s what inner narratives do to us. And I think we have a word for that. For folks who grow old who have never faced and worked with their inner narratives, we call them ‘curmudgeons.’ We have a word for the person who has never faced their own narratives and so they project them. And they do those narratives to others. And so, when I talk about constriction I’m talking about the inner narratives that warp us, that warp us in our bodies, that warp our emotional integrity or our capacity to feel our own emotions, that warp our ability to have healthy relationships. And then the movement towards expansion is, all right, how do I face those constrictions, notice where they came from, who are the people that help them form within me? What were the situations or the events, some of them traumatic, some of them just little tiny moments over a long period of time, which I think of also as trauma. But what are the things that led to that constriction being within me. And when we learn to face them and hold them softly, that’s when we’re able to begin to stand up straight again, to expand, to let our muscles expand outward, to unconstrict. So, it’s a simplified model, but I really…. I find a lot of value in it because it reminds me when I’m feeling my ‘I’m not in control.’ It reminds me, all right, stand up straight. It’s okay. It’s okay that you’re not in control. Why are you feeling that right now? Who is causing you to feel that? Or are you? Is this a narrative from 10 years ago? Is 10-year-old Andrew showing up right now and feeling this? And that’s okay, but how do we work with this to give ourselves permission to expand and be who we truly are.
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When you talk about the constrictions, there were 9 that you call out in the book. We won’t go through all of them. But it’s kind of a self-talk, this way we might define ourselves, such as, I am not good enough, I am worthless, I’m not free, you know, I’m not important, and I am not in control, the one you’ve alluded to a few times. And I am not in control really resonated with me as someone who likes to think that I ‘m in control. And the reframing…. What you wrote, the reframing of that was so powerful when you said the comment to make is, it is what it is. And then how can I be present with it in a loving way? And I probably reread that about a half a dozen times to just really try it on. You know. It is what it is. Even saying that I felt my shoulders relaxing, as you said this embodiment of that. It is what it is. But then the next step of that is what’s so powerful. How can I be with it in a loving way? Man, that feels transformative.
Andrew: I have found it to be. I have found that to be unbelievably important as a phrase to keep with me. And here’s an extension of it that I think is really powerful. Sometimes it’s hard enough to say that to ourselves. Right? When I am feeling anger come up within me it’s sometimes hard enough to say it is what it is; how can I be present with my anger in a loving way? ‘Cause essentially what you’re saying is how can I love myself in a very small way in this moment when I’m feeling heightened. That’s really difficult. The extension of that practice, it is what it is and how can I be present with it in a loving way is outward towards our society. When we see societal injustice, when we see deep harm being caused. I grew up in Seattle and I was pretty active in the activist world for a few years. And one of the things I saw again and again were activists getting burned out because what they were doing was they would see a societal injustice and they would go, go, go, go, go to fix, fix, fix. And what we know is that the arc of history is long, and you can work hard to solve an injustice but there’s going to be another one. And you can work hard to fix an injustice, but there’s a likelihood that it’s going to be too big to fix. And so, where that practice leads us into is how can we look at the societal injustices that we see and learn to start with it is what it is. I recognize it. This is what it is showing up as. This is what’s currently occurring. Nonjudgmental. Just seeing it. Getting really cleared eyed. This is the issue. And then, how can I be present with the folks who are being harmed? How can I be present with the pain? How can I be present with the people who are doing the harming in a loving way? And I think there is a shift there from the activist world as I saw it, which was antagonistic and win or lose versus the shift which is how can I be present with the people being harmed? How can I be present in a loving way, which, I think leads us to first step in and listen. What is needed of us? Where is our calling? What is ours to do in this moment? And that’s just…. That’s a big shift. It’s responsive rather than reactive. And if only we could do that more and more on the societal level, but also in our communities. When you see something, a harm being caused in your church, in your workplace, how can you immediately say, Okay, it is what it is. This is something that’s happening. How can I be present with this in a loving way? Because being present with something in a loving way is usually not ignoring it, and that it short circuits our fight or flight a little bit. I think that’s powerful.
Crystal: It is powerful. And one of the other parts of that, I think that kind of comes into together is this focusing on how we are alike rather than how we are different. And in doing some research for today I came across a blog post that you wrote a year or so ago where you said it felt vital that we as a people of faith honestly commit ourselves to honoring the inherent dignity found in each person, especially those we disagree with, no matter how difficult that may be. My goodness, what a message! What a hope! What a needed work for the world! For the church right now. And I don’t know. I mean, that’s another one of those things. Where does that work begin?
Andrew: I think if we’re honest with our…. I’m going to make a big general statement that I think if we are honest with ourselves, most of us spend a large period of our week dehumanizing—whether that is dehumanizing ourselves by putting ourselves down, treating ourselves as less than who we are, or dehumanizing others by saying I’m not like that person. That person shouldn’t do that because they don’t have the autonomy to make their own choices, which is an act of dehumanization. Saying, oh, that person’s walking my way; I’m gonna cross the street because I have narratives of danger around that person. I think if we’re honest those narratives of dehumanization are so deep within us…. There’s a trauma specialist that has been so vital for my life. His name’s Resmaa Menakem. And he talks about trauma as embodied within us, in our very bones. It’s so deep within us that we have to train our bodies to respond differently before we can learn to think differently. So, he specifically talks around white supremacy and racism. And I think that that continues i7n other spaces. When you find yourself dehumanizing others or when you find yourself antagonizing saying, I’m not this person. I am an other. The question becomes, What is so deep in your education, both your formal education but also your education of what you saw your parents do when you were one, or what did you watch on TV when you were 2. How can you begin to work with that within yourself to let those go and say, Actually I’m gonna feel the tension of my body right now in this moment of fight or flight. And I’m gonna keep walking on this side of the street because that narrative that I have around fear of this other person is not true. Or, I am going to face that narrative that I have about myself, that I’m not in control or I’m not lovable. I’m going to face that and I’m going to say, Okay, it is what it is. And I’m going to stick with it. I’m going to settle my desire to get the heck out, my desire—that fight or flight. I’m going to settle so that I can sit in that space. And I think that’s the key for me of how do we begin to see each other and sit with each other’s inherent dignity. Because if we can learn to sit with our own inherent dignity underneath all the masks we put on to survive, underneath all the layers and the narratives that we’ve crafted to cloak ourselves, if we can sit with our own inherent dignity it becomes very apparent that other people have inherent dignity as well. And so, from that settled space where you’re in touch with your…some people call it true self. Howard Thurman referred to the sound of the genuine. When you can touch within that subtle space within yourself it becomes natural to say, Well, and guess what? You have that, too. And so how can the true self in me see the true self in you? How can the God’s beloved within me see the God’s beloved within you? We might disagree and that’s okay because we can disagree without dehumanizing each other.
Crystal: I love that question. Just sitting with that and considering, you know, loving ourselves and finding God within ourselves and then looking for God in someone else. That…that… I can see where that changes the whole conversation. It changes the whole narrative there.
Crystal: Seeing this work of taking these masks off, as you say, and we all have them, what’s the connection between unmasking or expanding through our constrictions and deepening our faith?
Andrew: When I think about spirituality, when I think about faith, I think about…. I’m going to use the word quest. It’s not quite a quest. But I think about a yearning or a quest or a desire to see the world as what is real, what is true, to get to the root of what does it mean to be human, which is, if we take it seriously that we are children of God, if we take it seriously that we are God’s beloved, if we take it seriously that God is in us and part of us, then we are not just human beings, we are spiritual beings, learning to live a human experience. And so, I think the unmasking is the process of unlayering all these very human things. And we’ve gotta do it. All of us have gotta do it. That’s the other thing, is, the masks aren’t bad. They’re part of the process of being human. We’ve gotta learn to buy the fancy car because we want to boost our ego before we can learn that the fancy car didn’t actually do much for us. You know, that’s part of the human experience. In men’s work we call it tower building. You’ve gotta built your tower, build your ego so that you can learn to take it apart when you realize that it’s not serving the purpose you thought it would. And so, I think the…where it connects with spirituality and faith and spiritual formation is that at our core, we have this inherent dignity given to us by the very fact that we were created. And so unmasking is the process of unlayering all the things we put on top of that that disconnect us from that inherent dignity or what Thomas Merton called the true self. And that’s where I think the work is. Something I see so often in the churches that I work with is that small groups, which I think are the space where transformation is possible. I’ve done a lot of work around community organizing and asset-based community development says very clearly that the small group is the unit of transformation. It’s where you can get real with folks and be honest and be vulnerable, which is a counter-cultural habit tac…you know, tactic way of being. And so, I think the small group, what I see so often is that there is a boundary to how vulnerable people are willing to go. There is a boundary to how real people are willing to get in their unmasking process. And if we can learn to support people in safe and brave spaces to go beyond that boundary however far they’re willing to go because it’s going to be a slow lifetime process. But begin little by little to take off this mask even for one second, and then put it back on. Even then 2 seconds, then put it back on. Then slowly but surely, we are helping them to uncover that true self, that inherent dignity that God has infused within us. I think that’s deeply spiritual work for me. Once you are connected with that inherent dignity within you, you see the world more true as it is and how God intended…how the divine has been infused within all of this.
Crystal: You were talking about small groups and the little bit of aside, but I just believe nobody’s modeled that better than Jesus with his 12 disciples.
Crystal: And then fast forward and John Wesley came right back in there, you know, the Methodist movement just founded on the small groups. So, I love hearing you talk about and affirm how transformation can happen in those spaces.
Andrew: And you know, another thing I love about Wesley, Wesley…. What was powerful, what really has spoke to me about Wesley's life and I think is a model for the church, beyond the quadrilateral, which I think is the…when people think Wesley in the typical churches, at least my experience, is the quadrilateral is what you know. The other part of Wesley, I think, is powerful is that he had 2 parts to him that really illustrated what spiritual can lead you into. The first is that he had an experience of the divine. He didn’t have this intelle…. I mean, he also had the intellectual side, but he had an experience, an embodied experience, this strange warming of the heart. And I think many of us have those experiences. When you go out in nature and you’re walking and you feel the sun and you hear the little critters, and there’s a breeze. It’s not too hot. You’re not getting sweaty. But you feel your body just settle. And you just take a deep breath, and you say, Wow. I’m here right now. This is it. I think there is a warming of the heart that happens there. I think that’s a divine moment. And so, Wesley had this powerful moment and experienced the divine. And in that moment, he paired it with this prophetic energy of … and we are called to be out in the real world supporting people, helping people, engaging that communal healing aspect. So that that inner mystical experience combined with the outer prophetic, the contemplation and the action, the …. What Thomas Merton refers to as the cool or the spring within us of contemplation overflowing into streams of action. I think that’s a model for the church to engage even further and say it’s not just about the action. We’ve gotta get really serious about how are we sitting with our inner pools of contemplation, of prayer, of sitting with God and letting that bring us into the real work of communal healing and love.
Crystal: You mentioned nature. And I know that you have a trip planned in a few weeks. You’re going to walk the Camino Santiago in Spain. When this podcast comes out you will have already done that. But as we’re talking today, tell us a little bit about why that is something you want to do and why that’s important, especially in this work of unmasking.
Andrew: So, I leave in 6 days. It is soon. And as we speak, I’m looking across the room and I can see all of the things I need to pack. So, there’s anxiety that I need to learn to settle on that front. About a year…maybe 2 years ago, I decided that this is part of my inner growth and my inner expansion, in different ways…. I decided that I needed to make a choice and I needed to do something and then follow through. And I’d always been fascinated by pilgrimage. I had been fascinated by the pilgrimage to Mecca in Islam. I’ve been absolutely fascinated by the idea of changing your location—intentionally for an extended period of time. So, the idea of like going to a monastery for 30 days is very exciting to me. But I’d never done it. And so, about 2 years ago I went to my dad, and I said, “Dad, I’m going to Spain and I’m gonna walk the Camino. I don’t know how much of it I’m gonna walk. My current average is like 4 miles a day, if that. So, it's gonna be hard. But I need to do this. Do you want to come?” And my dad, his excitement…it’s like I saw in 12-year-old him pop up. And I’ve seen this 12-year-old him pop up again and again over the last 2 years…this energy of saying we’re gonna get out of the status quo. We’re gonna get out of the norm. And we’re gonna go and do a thing. And we don’t know what is there. It’s an unknown and we’re gonna do it anyway. And I think that’s for me one component. There’s lots of components with pilgrimage where I think there’s spiritual formation work. But one component for me is getting out of the ordinary for an extended period of time and simply going and experiencing. So, I’m going without my cellphone, without headphones. Basically, it’s me, my backpack, one change of clothes and some notebooks. We’ll see how that goes. I’m a little worried about blisters and I’m worried about…. I might do a silent sit for 20 minutes. I don’t know what it’s gonna feel like walking for essentially 22 days without podcasts. But I think that’s part of what I need, what I felt very much bubbling up within me is complete disconnect. Go into the world and meet who you’re going to meet, see what you’re gonna see, experience what you’re gonna experience and sit in the unknown. And be there and become acquainted with it in a very embodied way. So, I’m very excited. I’m anxious about the flight, but besides that I’m just excited to go and do something I’ve never done before and explore the world.
Crystal: And be present with it in a loving way.
Andrew: And be present with it in a loving way. My dad asked me last week as we were sitting down and we’re shaping out our itinerary. He said, “What’s your intention as you walk?” And my intention has changed from the beginning to now. Now it’s a lot about disconnecting and simply being there and changing my location. But when I first thought about it, one of my big intentions was I want to go and simply be. I don’t want to talk to anybody. I just want to walk. What’s the next step? And just focus on the next step. So, it’s merged a little bit, both of those. I do want that. I desire to just be there and experience what I’m going to experience and do it in a way that’s completely disconnected from what I experience in the day to day here in the Seattle area.
Crystal: That sounds fascinating. And I can’t wait ‘til you get back to hear about it. And I know it’s going to be transformative.
Andrew: I’ll have stories. There’s no way around that. I’ll have stories.
Crystal: I’m sure. And you can remember when you have blisters that Richard Rohr says, “Suffering is the path and the price of full transformation into the divine.”
Crystal: There’s some words for you to recall.
Andrew: It’s so terrible and yet so real and good. And I think that’s something else for me to always sit with is, you know, in Buddhism there’s the 2 darts or 2 arrows and the first is pain. So, the world with happen and so we’ll experience pain. I’m going to experience the blisters. And the 2nd dart or the 2nd arrow is suffering. And that’s what are you doing with your emotional and mental energy? What are you doing with your narratives around that pain that has happened? And so, my goal is while I walk to accept what I experience and to sit with it and to continue. Next step. Maybe take a break to put some moleskin on the blisters, but then carry on.
Crystal: Andrew, before we finish up today there’s a question we always ask our guests on "Get Your Spirit in Shape." And that’s how do you keep your own spirit in shape?
Andrew: Such a good question. I’ll share 2 practices that I do. The first practice, and I alluded to this earlier, is what I call shadow work. And it’s a big thing. So, I’ll just name one small part that I do. A shadow is kind of a tagline or short cut word for the parts of ourselves we don’t want to look at, and the parts of ourselves we certainly don’t want others to see. And so that and the book really go hand in hand. And one of my practices is that almost every day I ask myself, Where did one of my shadows show up today? Where did one of the things that I don’t want others to know show up in my inner actions, in my behaviors, in my stepping away, or in my desire to freeze or to fly away from a situation. Where did any of my inner stuff show up in that space? And the second practice is what we just were talking about, is walking in nature. That has been huge for me in the past 2, 3 years, especially during the pandemic. I had just left teaching that year and I was in a new city, in a new place, doing a new thing. And then the pandemic hits. And I found myself every day just walking miles. And that has stuck with me. The amount of beauty you can find walking and looking at a tree and realizing that that has inherent dignity as well, because that is also created. And sensing that connection piece between myself and nature. My friend always like to remind me that we are a part of nature. And so, experiencing that connectedness, not as myself and other, but genetic siblings, in a way. And I think that is just so spiritual and grounding and helping me to experience the world in a new way. So, those are my 2 practices, shadow work and sensing the divine interconnectedness of all things. Thanks for asking. It’s such a good question.
Crystal: Well, thank you for sharing that. And thank you for being with us today. I appreciate your book so much. I appreciate your courage to write that book and to encourage all of us to do this really important work so that we can feel more connected to God. So, thank you.
Andrew: Anyone who is looking to take their inner life further, I hope the book is helpful. And no matter what, I think a simple thing to take away from today is ‘it is what it is,’ and ‘how can I be present with it in a loving way?’ Take that practice. I hope it takes you somewhere.
Crystal: That was Andrew Lang, author of "Unmasking the Inner Critic: Lessons for Living an Unconstricted Life." To learn more about Andrew and his work, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode. In addition to the helpful links and a transcript of our conversation you’ll find my email address so you can communicate with me about "Get Your Spirit in Shape." Thank you so much for joining us for today’s episode of "Get Your Spirit in Shape." I look forward to the next time that we’re together. I’m Crystal Caviness.