"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

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.


tricia said...

Awe. As I find myself mentoring younger teachers, who are in a different stage of life (and motherhood) I realize how very similarly I feel to what you describe. Life is just easier now. Not easy. Easier. I am happy to know that there is yet another place, beyond where I am, that is also easier. Hugs. I MISS you. Finally healthy. Maybe healthy enough for yoga! =D

Barbara Torris said...

This is so beautiful. I don't know why but it simply defined "hope" in all it's beauty.


Starting Over, Accepting Changes - Maybe said...

Body and mind need exercise constantly, so I think about doing physical exercise often and figure that covers both.

Linda Reeder said...

Strength and flexibility. It took me a while in my young life to realize I had the gift of strength. I was not gifted with flexibility, either in body or temperament. Like you I have had to dig for flexibility in order to survive teaching.
I have never done yoga. I know the balance and flex requirements would do me in. My "forehead to knee" challenge is getting my heel to touch my butt with my right leg where my chronically inflamed knee doesn't want to bend. It's one of my stretching exercises. I could do it until two days ago when I pulled a muscle trying too hard.
I still have lessons to learn.
As usual, this is a great post. So much food for thought.

Linda Myers said...

What a gift!

yaya said...

After getting both knees replaced last year I have to remind myself not to try and limit activities. I've been walking on a regular basis and getting my speed and strength back, but yoga and I never did have a good relationship! But that's OK because I think everyone has an activity that suits them and I can see you have yours. I smiled when you were describing touching your forehead to your knee because this past week at work I was trying not to touch my forehead to the wall on several occasions! Ha! I think I worked through it and I'm anticipating a better work week next week!

DJan said...

You have captured the feeling that I had when doing Bikram. It was a challenge to simply be there, and to make progress through the postures was such a sense of accomplishment. You wrote this so well I felt I was there next to you doing that pose. Thank you for this. I am still looking for the yoga class that is waiting for me. :-)

Gammary said...

A dope slap to the forehead is my usual "snap out of it" posture. Your forehead to knee idea seems similarity uncomfortable but is performed as more of a hymn than a self spanking. Life is as easy or as hard as we make it it seems, but the struggle builds stamina, restores energy, and feeds all those "happy dances" that bring so much joy and compassion to the planet. Thanks for this writing, another beautiful yoga metaphor. I can feel my own breath as I read your words, a nice meditation.

Retired English Teacher said...

Celebrate every victory. Yoga is such a great practice because it teaches us not to push through things. I am still trying to learn that practice. As you say, flexibility and strength are two great gifts in life.

Sandi said...

Aw, Deb, I love this - the idea that showing up, being grateful, focusing on what is right in front of us, breathing - you have clearly nailed what retirement feels like. It's so much easier to be flexible (in thinking) when you aren't bombarded by so many outside demands. It seems that returning to yoga was exactly what you needed - and I celebrate that journey with you.

I could feel your delight when you finally achieved "chin to knee" and the desire to break out in a "happy dance" - hopefully, you indulged in a bit of that when you finished, on your way to the car!

Linda Hoye said...

Love the truth that persistence and gratitude is what's required. Sometimes pushing and forcing something has the opposite of the intended outcome and letting go takes us where we were meant to be all along! Great post.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

It has been too long since I tried a new or difficult yoga pose, and this piece makes me want to get back to it. I kind of love the fact that we don't decide when we'll have a breakthrough, we only get to accept small steps as they happen.

Midlife Roadtripper said...

Okay, I just tried that pose. My nose was at least two inches from my knee. I'm very impressed with your flexibility. I've often thought that yoga is something I need to pursue. The few times I have, I found it very difficult. Perhaps a good reason to pursue it.

This post has such insight into it. I was writing in my journal this morning how I still seek rhythm and your discussion here of strength and flexibility coined it much better than my pen on my paper today. I can't seem to get those two together -- ever. Yesterday I walked 14,000 steps, but drank wine, too. Counter attack.

The focusing on what is in front of you seems a much better disciplined choice. All 24 hours of the day. Hmmmm.

Deborah Barker said...

How profound Deb (as always). Yoga and I have not made friends as yet - maybe it is time :-) X

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

My retirement is different in one area and it's Buddy. I have this precious adult waiting daily for me and so often my own health and ego get in the way. We try to get some classes that work for us both but we never follow through for long. Instead we fly to resorts to mingle and sit by or in the sea for skin relief for Buddy's psorasis. Luckily we can find bargains and do this. It helps for a bit.
He too is aging and we try to laugh about it but we also talk about our hopes if we have an afterlife. Our souls will try to connect. We need to feel that to keep moving toward the final day. HOPE!