“No way, no how,” I thought to myself, glaring mutinously at my yoga instructor. No way was I going to balance upside-down on my head and arms bearing all my body weight with my legs kicked up against the wall “to build upper body strength.” Whatever happened to good old push-ups? After several false starts I sank down on my yoga mat in frustration.
I’d been here before. My mind spins back to fifth grade gym class, and I am staring up at the ropes hanging from the high basement ceiling, watching my more agile classmates casually step up, grab a rope in each hand and easily flip their legs over their head. I needed two people to help me. How embarrassing. And then in a moment I am perched, toes over the edge of the float at summer camp, arms over my head, willing myself to dive head-first. I was the only person in camp that year who didn’t pass her swimming test because I could not bring myself to do a stupid dive. Something about plunging head-first into the murky depths … Just. Couldn’t. Do it. And then I am standing on the ski slope with people schussing past, their skis scraping against the hard-packed icy snow as they gracefully round the moguls. My companions yell up from below “come on, Martha!” and I wonder how it would be if I just slid down on my butt. And there was the bicycle. The dreaded bicycle. I was the last person in my neighborhood to be able to ride the thing. All of this was decades ago, and then, in an instant, right there in the room with me.
As I’ve gotten older and had the power to Just Say No, I’ve managed to get these dreaded events out of my life and carefully avoid physically scary challenges (who needs them?). And yet here I was again, in a yoga class of all places, right back in body-mind-fear. In her poem “Cages” the poet Jane Kenyon writes about “the long struggle to be at home in the body, this difficult friendship.”(1) As far as I’m concerned that’s on a good day. And yet ours is — or at least it is supposed to be — an embodied faith. So I try to eat right and see the doctor for regular check-ups and watch my blood pressure and get enough sleep. I give thanks every day for good health. But the way physical challenges generate feelings of inadequacy like nothing else can from the recesses of my psyche — what’s up with that? How can I befriend that body? I know there is wisdom in the body that is often hidden from the mind. What is it trying to tell me? I troll mentally through the list — forgiveness? acceptance? detachment? Love that chubby little 12-year old and tell her it’s ok?
I wonder … a few years ago as part of a leadership training course I had to do a high ropes course. The Outward Bound thing. We inch across wires strung 25 five feet in the air between trees. We are belayed by ropes and harnesses and undoubtedly safer than being in a car, but still. Yet — there were two of us up there together, holding onto each other, bracing and balancing and encouraging each other, and four people holding onto the belaying ropes below. Stephanie Paulsell, in her book Honoring the Body, writes “Through the vulnerability of our bodies, God has given us into the care of one another. What tender responsibility. What joy, what pain. Thanks be to God.”(2)
I glance over at the other woman in the yoga class, who has also “failed” the headstand thing. We grin at each other. There’s more work to do, clearly. For now, perhaps a hot soak in an epsom salt bath with a few drops of lavender oil to ease the body and the mind. Yes!
(1) Jane Kenyon, From Room to Room (Farmington, ME: Alicejamesbooks, 1978), 35.
(2) in The Practices of Faith Series, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), 180.