003. Yoga, Recovery, and The Story Our Bodies Are Telling
Twice a week I head into an old, charming house on music row to practice yoga. Maybe I’m less of a cliche when I wear my privileged pants, ahem Lululemon to actually practice yoga? I’ll give myself the benefit of the doubt with this one...
Nevertheless, even with my $98 spandex on, rarely do I want to show up and get so sweaty that I potentially have to take two showers in one day. But I shove my yoga mat under my arm, twirl my hair in the highest top knot I can manage, and head on in there. I trust there is something greater for me on the other side of sixty minutes of hot, fiery vinyasa flow.
Yoga has been a sacred discovery for me this past year. To be honest, I started doing it because sister needed a cheap workout option and this studio was offering 30 days of unlimited yoga for $30. Yes, please! Grad school, interning, a nanny gig, and planning a wedding had me in a bit of a bind with lots of anxiety and very little time. Working out is already hard enough for me and the thought of having to get myself to the gym AND convince myself to work out vigorously was a lose-lose…Cheap yoga it was!
I had tears rolling down my cheeks in the first class I took there. Let’s just say I was getting more than my money’s worth…
About halfway through class and we were doing padangusthasana; a forward fold with your index and middle finger holding your big toes with your elbows out wide. This posture does wonders for people whose hamstrings are not concrete. I was not one of those people. I’ve had lower back problems for the majority of my life so any type of bending over was a hellish endeavor.
Padangusthasana was no different. I was in pain. I was also in my first yoga class at a new studio and my ego was intent on keeping appearances up, so down and in pain, I stayed. I have this thing about needing people to think I have it all under control. It’s quite unhelpful.
The teacher saw right through my prideful intentions and spotted my flailing. She came over to me and playfully whispered in my ear, “What if you just stood up?”
Huh? That seemed too easy.
She read my body, something that was foreign to me, and invited me to listen and respond to what it was saying. My body was and is always talking to me, I just hadn’t learned the art of listening well.
So I stood up. I felt instant relief.
A simple suggestion invited me into a revolution.
My body caught on before my mind could that something very good just happened. My hands opened up wide and soon the tears began spilling out. Damn yoga, you even got my tears. I was impressed.
I also wasn’t in pain anymore.
I was the only one in the room doing something different. I was the only one not bent over.
It was okay. More importantly, I was okay.
I got to honor my body and the limits I had in standing up.
I got to practice kindness in a very real, very foreign way.
Honoring limits has not always been my strong suit. Fifteen years ago I had a pretty gruesome eating disorder. The pain of starvation gave me a high that turned into a full-blown addiction. I would dream about eating hamburgers at night because I went to bed so hungry. I would then wake up from my “nightmare” raging and terrified that I’d let myself fly off the handles so foolishly.
No pain, no gain, right?
Wrong B, very wrong.
I was in such a sick place. I didn’t know that my teetering with the edges of death was turning into less of a game and more of a frenzied, maddening spiral to stay safely in control. I’d lost touch with reality. I was drowning in my delusions that this pain would help me escape the inner groanings of life’s tragedies that I’d been a firsthand recipient of.
Coming back to life was brutal, almost as hellish as the pain of starvation. I hated seeing weight cover the bones I had worked so hard to expose. Shit, that last sentence is heartbreaking. I know it will make my Mom cry. It’s the truth though. I hated recovery, I wanted my game back. I had a long journey ahead of me to find my way back to the light, back to myself.
I’ll say this about that… (Oh wow, I’m turning into my father.) Recovery came in pieces. I never magically woke up one day “healed” much to my annoyance. It did come over the years, slowly and steadily. I eventually surrendered the game of starvation, but I kept the narrative of pain alive in my practices. My body stayed disconnected from my heart and most pains continued on being discounted and sloppily shoved aside.
I had little reference points for the difference in pain that came from staying in the fire or the pain that came from my body saying, “please stop, this hurt is dangerous.”
Two very different pains that led me to a similar place...Kindness.
Both were invitations. I had to be sensitive and present enough to what was happening inside my body to know which “fire” was inviting me to stay and which one was inviting me to back off.
To be present to what was happening, I had to return to my body, back into the skin and cells and muscles and tendons and neurons that I’d worked to escape from for so long. I had to begin a new work of integrating my body with my heart, mind, and soul. I had to learn to accept and honor the truth of my body’s limitations.
This journey was much less hellish than recovering from an eating disorder. This was the journey of kindness. The journey of standing up when everyone is folded over, of letting my tears fall in front of strangers, of receiving help and letting myself be seen.
My practice on the mat became deeply spiritual and intimate, a greater metaphor for the life I was living off the mat. I’d never experienced what it was like to connect with God in my body, how to stay in the holy fire as I learned to move more like water, less like dried mud. This was sacred work.
The story my body needed to tell was just as important as the story my heart needed to tell, I just had to become familiar with the language my body spoke in.
An excerpt below from Bessel van der Kolk in his book The Body Keeps the Score gives more context to the body-mind connection and the residual effects of trauma.
“Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”
I like being in my body most days. I feel more comfortable and at home. The mirrors I look into reflect goodness, beauty, and a full life in my body.
Full disclosure: some days are much, much harder than others and make me want to jump out of my skin. On those days, I try to remember to drink water and slow my mind down. Wearing jeans that feel too snug is low hanging fruit for my contempt, so I try to bypass that altogether and wear clothes that feel soft on my body. I’ll put my hand on my chest and feel it rise and fall with my breathe. I’ll speak words of kindness and remind myself that I am okay and my body is okay. I'll call my friends, tell them the truth, and ask them to pray for me to remember greater truth than what the present moment is providing me with.
The most healing practices for me are usually fairly simple.
You too can practice being kind to your body.
Maybe it means going to a yoga class, going to therapy, or throwing out the scale.
Maybe it means eating at table instead of in front of the tv so you can actually taste your food and notice your body’s hunger and fullness signals.
Maybe it means buying clothes that feel kind on your body.
For me, it started with a simple invitation to stand up. Thank God for that invitation. Thank God for the courage to listen and respond.
Questions for your whole heart::
When do you feel most connected or disconnected from your body? What are the stories there?
What do you like about your body? (Saying “Nothing” or “I don’t know” is a cop-out. I’m 100% positive you can find one thing, probably even two. ;) )
How might you practice kindness in and to your body this week?
Is their someone in your life that has a really beautiful and healthy relationship with their body that you look up to? What would it be like to encourage them and tell them how much you appreciate them?