Thursday, October 22, 2015
Strength and Flexibility
"There are two gifts in life: strength and flexibility. Everyone is given one and then spends their life learning or being challenged by the other." The instructor's soft words during savasana rang particularly true in that moment. I'd just fallen out of tree pose again and again trying to get my leg to bend up enough to be where it was supposed to be, resting foot-up on my thigh.
I know myself to be strong - body, mind, and spirit. What has served me well in life so far, serves me well in yoga. Staying in the 105 degree room for ninety minutes, while challenging, is never an obstacle. Pushing through discomfort is automatic, and I have to pay attention to not push too hard, over the edge into pain. I don't quit.
It is definitely true in my case that flexibility was not included in the original package. Teaching helped me develop mental and emotional flexibility. It was either become flexible or be miserable, and misery is no place to live. I can look into my past and see that some of my hardest times came when I dug in and tried to power through situations that might have been eased with a softer, bendier approach. Marriage, one of life's greatest schools, has offered lessons in flexibility that came close to breaking me when I tried too hard to control the direction of things.
When I returned to Bikram yoga six weeks ago, I was shocked to discover how much physical flexibility I'd lost in the five years I was away from practice. Not that I had that much physical flexibility to begin with, but what little I had gained from that initial year of yoga was gone. Nothing wanted to bend - my neck, my back, my legs. There was not one single posture I could do the full expression of, no matter how hot the room, or how hard I stretched.
This was not something strength could help me with. Pushing harder just meant I lost my breath and my focus and I'd find myself looking around at everyone who seemed to be so much more successful (and thinner and younger and better-everything) than I was.
Fortunately, with age has come some measure of wisdom. I know I have choices, and that more often than not, the automatic choice will not get me closest to where I want to be. In this new adventure that is older age and retirement, I have the chance to do things differently. I have the chance to be differently.
I started yoga this time determined to focus on what I could do, and the benefits of that. On showing up regularly and being as fully present as possible when I did. I promised my body I'd be kind and gentle and grateful. It didn't believe me at first, for good reason, but with each class I can feel it begin to trust that I've told the truth this time.
The tenth posture in the series, standing separate leg head to knee pose, is one I've had to work at not dreading. Every single time I have had to quiet my mind and visualize the full expression while pointing my body gently toward that goal, knowing I won't even get close. It requires a tucked chin and choked breathing while rounding over and trying to touch your forehead to the knee of the leg stretched straight out before you.
The most important part of this posture is getting the forehead to the knee, so it's allowed to bend the leg up until that happens. The problem for me is that my forehead wouldn't touch my knee no matter how much I bent my leg. And I struggled so much with the choked breathing that I'd lose track of both my forehead and my knee.
Until one day last week. I followed the directions, one by one: arms overhead, hands in prayer, step over your mat four feet, pivot to the right, twist hips, twist, twist, twist, two hips in one line, tuck your chin, look at your navel, and with exhale breathing round over like a cat touching your head to your knee, bend your knee up if you have to but get your forehead on your knee, hands lightly touching the ground in front of you.
I followed the directions all the way through. To the full expression of the posture.
My knee was bent, but my forehead was definitely touching it. And then it touched when we did the posture going the other direction and it touched twice more when we repeated the posture. I wanted to do a happy dance, but we were already onto tree pose which required all my concentration, and which brought me back to myself as I fell out again and again.
My forehead touches my knee every time now, some days with more ease than others, but it's just there like it's been there all along. I still have to bend my knee, but I can feel a release that lets me know that might not always be the case.
Even though it's just one yoga pose, and one tiny accomplishment, what I'm left with is profound. That forehead on my knee offered clear proof that I don't have to work so hard. Not at yoga. Not at life. Persistence. Showing up. Being grateful for what's already there. Breathing. Focus on what's right in front of me. The rest, amazingly, takes care of itself.