Most evenings when I get home, my husband greets me with a warm hug and asks how I feel. At the end of the day, my answer is often the same…tired. The reality is that I spend much of my time feeling tired. But, despite being able to recognize this feeling, I very rarely listen to my body and feed it the sleep that it craves. Instead, I tend to ignore it for as long as I can. I may tidy up the house, prepare for the next day, watch television or push myself to work on a number of other necessary, but far from urgent tasks. Eventually, I fall asleep in my favorite spot: on the couch.
Had I listened to my body, I would have curled up in my warm bed, surrounded by pillows and blankets and next to the man I love. Instead by pushing my limits, as a result I frequently wind up alone on the couch. We joke that this is my favorite place to sleep, but in reality, I would much prefer to make it to bed each night.
Listening to my body is one of the most valuable, yet mentally challenging, lessons I have had to learn (and relearn) time and again. When I don’t pay attention to how I am feeling, my body is quite persistent. It will send me loud and clear messages without relent until I heed it’s call. And unfortunately, there have been many times where I have tried to ignore the aches and pains and failed.
When I first began practicing yoga, I believed that the best way to master a pose was to force my way into it. Sometimes without any prior stretching. I would start my practice with deep forward bends and arm balances before the teacher even stepped into the room. After time, I started to feel this lack of preparation in my hips and knees. For some this might not have any detrimental effects, but it probably wasn’t the wisest choice for me and my several hip and knee issues.
Like many of us have done, I persisted. I kept pushing until one day, my hip hurt so badly that I could barely walk. My ability to walk in an easy fashion was reduced to slow and laborious hobble. My body had spoken, loud and very clear, and I could no longer afford to ignore the message. I needed to slow down in order to further my practice.
The Body Knows
While there is still room for growth, the continued time on my mat has shown me the importance of tuning into my physical needs. Instead of pushing myself into the splits or sustaining a strenuous pose and causing pain, I consciously choose to take a step back and listen to my physical self. I have come to realize that some days my body craves certain styles of mobility while on other days it may need something completely different. And there will never be a day where my body will need full lotus pose.
Though it may take a bit more awareness, it is equally important to carry this lesson off of the mat and out into the world. After years of running, this past spring, I decided to take an extended break in order to allow my body to heal. The wear and tear on the joints in the lower half of my body was catching up with me, and wouldn’t you know… I actually decided to stop and listen. This was an easy decision to make in support of my body. However, it was quite difficult for my ego to handle. Like many of us, I wanted to test my limits. I wanted to do my best. And I did, until it was nearly impossible for me to fall asleep at night because, yet again, my hips and knees hurt so badly.
Once I called it quits, there was a period of time where I actually didn’t miss it. There were even moments where I considered never running again. However, after some time, some mental reconcile and some physical healing, I realized that I did actually wanted to run. Not for speed or to satisfy my ego, but because it made both my mind and body feel energized and alive.
I have been back at it for a few months now. At first, my mind, in partnership with my ego, attempted to persuade me that I could get back out and run as fast and as far as I used to run. But luckily my mind-and-body coalition happened to be a bit smarter than that. I tuned into my joints and muscles and eased back in slowly. Each run is different. Some days I make it further than I had planned and others I give myself permission to slow down and walk instead. As a result, I am able to enjoy my outdoor runs in the fresh air, and, as a bonus, I am able to walk comfortably the next day.
Finding the Edge
There are times when I observe my students on their yoga mats, and I can see them push their bodies past their limits. The breath moves quickly and shallowly. And at times, they risk injury to themselves. How do we know when to stop? How do we know when enough is enough?
We have to find our mindful edge. The place where if we did any more, we would get hurt and if we did any less, we would not reap benefits. It is easy to miss this space. Sometimes we run right up to the apex and topple over it. Other times, we get scared and we stop far short of it, missing out on the benefits of learning more about our bodies and how they respond to challenges. The edge is a tricky place to find, but the more that we cautiously and curiously explore our limits, the more we can discover about who we are from the inside out.
We are only gifted with one body in this lifetime. So it seems wise to care for it in the ways that we are able. Yoga has shown me how to stop, better listen and with a few exceptions align my body’s needs. Every time I step onto my mat, I become more familiar with my personal edge and what my body craves. Maybe soon I will even make it to bed every night!
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