Thursday, February 28, 2013

Yoga - saying hello to my new body.

Before I get started on this post, I want to let you all know that tomorrow we have a special guest blog post.  My daughter, Grace, is not only a great writer, but she is an insightful, compassionate, faithful, dedicated disciple of Jesus.  She keeps a few blogs, and one in particular, Undivided Heart, focuses on her faith and the way she sees the world.  Recently she wrote a post on Proverbs 3:5 that challenged me and made me deeply grateful to be her mom. So, that's tomorrow.

Today, we're talking yoga.  Because after years of frowning at myself in mirrors and grumbling petulantly at my body, yoga is introducing me to myself in a way that I had never expected.

It is not uncommon for yoga to appear, to the untrained, as barely exercise at all.  It seems to be all about relaxation, being all bendy and stuff, like some sort of odd meditation for really flexible people.  In fact, yoga is hard work.  It is strength building, endurance training and balance - and not only the inner-peace type of balance, but "standing on one leg while patting yourself on the head from behind with your other leg" balance as well.

In fact, there is so much to yoga, and I am such a newbie, that I am going to stick to my own experiences and observations.  One of the most powerful things that I am experiencing because of yoga is a new awareness of my body.  Yoga involves moving the body into various positions, and holding the position for a period of time.  In an aerobics class, I might do 20 lunges on each side.  In yoga, I do two or three.  But every lunge is a finely crafted pose, and it involves the entire body.  The point is not just to work the muscles in the legs, but to become aware of what the rest of my body is doing.  Is my spine straight? Are my shoulders rolled back? Tailbone tucked in?  Hips and thighs turned forwards?  Are my arms parallel to the ground?  Is my head up, with my chin parallel to the ground?  Once all of that is accomplished, then we rest in the post.  Steady. Strong. Aware.

Every pose requires a detailed description of what the rest of the body is supposed to be doing during the pose.  It brings about an interesting awareness of the body.

The first time I did a yoga class, and was instructed to straighten my spine, the muscles that surround my spine went into rebellious spasms.  They were, like, "WHAT are you DOING?"  I answered, "I'm straightening you up." "Well, STOP IT!!"

The first time I lay on my back on my mat for a relaxation period after the work-out, I thought that I was fairly relaxed.  After all, I was tired.  Isn't that the same thing? Then our instructor gentle encouraged us to relax our backs into the mat, to allow our bodies to sink down.  And I became aware at how un-relaxed I actually was.  When I let my upper body sink into the mat, it literally sank down at least an inch.  My teeth were clenched.  My shoulders were tight. As I tried to relax, again, things started going into spasms.

You know that you're stressed when your body hurts more during the cool down/relaxation phase of the workout than it did during the actual workout.

Child's Pose
Many of the poses are really challenging.  I face plant on a regular basis.  The poses that each person finds difficult are individual to us, and usually depend on whether or not we are better at flexibility or at strength.  I am more flexible than strong.  Hence the face planting.  I also giggle a lot during yoga.  And when overwhelmed, I retreat like a turtle into a child's pose - mumbling from within my cocoon - "I just need a moment".

I may start doing that in life, as well.

I really appreciate the awareness and appreciation of my body that I am receiving from yoga.  In our culture, and I am no different, girls and women are not encouraged to be comfortable with their bodies.  The entire fashion/cosmetic/beauty product industry is specifically designed to create a dissatisfaction with our bodies that they then offer the solution a price. I've been frowning at myself in mirrors for longer than I care to remember.  Chronic illness and pain adds a whole new dimension to the "I hate my body" dynamic.  I confess that I have said, many times, how much I hate my body.  I know that Scripture says that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  But when this body is hurting me, when it limits me because of illness or pain, when it (apparently) causes rejection and mockery, when it is abused and helpless to fight back, it is hard to love what seems to be continually betraying me.

When I am in pain, I have an understandable tendency to focus on the pain as the strongest element of my body.  Yoga is teaching me to see all the other parts of my body that are working magnificently.  To be aware, of the increasing strength in my legs and arms, of my posture and the ease that I am now able to hold myself straight,  of the oddly relaxing pain of a deep stretch, and my ability to relax into it and be still and even comfortable while my muscles are gently growing in strength.  I move more easily, have less aches and pains, heal more quickly, and am able to withstand physical discomfort with more peace. I am less stressed.  I am slowly being introduced to my body, in a gentle, loving way.

For many years, I have struggled with the attitude of others who believed that illness equaled weakness.  I was mocked, accused of faking my pain, pushed to stop taking my medications (including my heart meds) and accused of being a pill junkie when I refused.  I was regaled with stories about people who didn't let their acute pain stop them, and wondered what that had to do with me and my chronic pain.

I have repeatedly had to choose to trust God's strength within me, to allow myself to grow in compassion and love through the pain.  I shut out the voices of those who questioned my faith, because if I believed, wouldn't I be healed?  Instead, I received God's pleasure in my choice to serve Him and love others in my pain, and felt Him strengthen me at each step of faith.

For me, yoga is the next step in getting to know who I am, physically.  To be strong in my body, and stronger in my faith.  To appreciate the wonder of a heart that kept on beating strongly during a heart attack, of a body that nurtured and gave birth to my miraculous daughter, to the body that keeps me moving forward, and upward.

And, really, yoga is just a lot of fun. For everyone...

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