If you hear anyone singing the praises of having a yoga practice, it is likely that learning to “listen to your body” is among the wonders of which they will sing. But what if the most obvious, discernible message we pick up from our bodies is generally to skip yoga and curl up on the couch ? I wake up every morning with a fatigue that prior to Lyme, I had only known after having a flight layover problem and staying up for 48 hours with jet-lag. What is my body telling me in the morning? It’s not to get on my yoga mat, it’s to sit down with with a mocha the size of my head. The end.
But yoga will help move the Lyme bacteria die-off from my treatment out of my joints and digestive system where it could otherwise linger in my body throughout the day. This allows me to feel anywhere from somewhat to spectacularly better than I did before my practice. It’s not just in the morning. If I “listen to my body” when I’m tired after work, the clear message will be to get cozy and lose myself in the internet. Go for a walk? Meditate? “No!” the most audible cry from my body will be, “No, no, no, no! No meditating, just the internet!” I have spent several hours reading blahdeblah Facebook articles while trying to talk myself into a 20-30 minute meditation practice. I’m not proud.
I noticed a pattern in my yoga practice at one point: I hate being about to do yoga… and I can be “about to” do yoga anywhere from a few minutes to a few months. I remember, in my early 20s, watching studio passes expire while I’d anxiously not quite make it to a different class everyday. It was excruciating. Often I have “listened to my body” only to believe it when it tells me that there is an insurmountable emotional roadblock between me and my yoga practice that day or that maybe I don’t actually like yoga and don’t get anything out of it after-all.
Once when I was overwhelmed with work and relationships and struggling with this “about to” do yoga headspace, I ranted to a room mate, “you know, I only hate yoga before I do it and for about the first 3 minutes and then I love it! I love it for the rest of the practice and for the rest of the day.” My room mate offered her encouragement, “Why don’t you start a practice and I’ll time you. If you still hate it after 3 minutes, then stop.” This sounded so reasonable that I grumpily got on my yoga mat. The prospect of moving through the uncomfortable but familiar stress weighing on my body was so damn daunting. I began a sun salutation but it was less of a salutation and more of a begrudging greeting. The antsiness continued for what seemed like a long time. I was sure it had been at least 15 minutes. On the third sun salutation, something shifted and my breath deepened. I felt some of the habitual holding I carried in the muscles through my chest begin to loosen and I sighed with relief. “Okay,” I said out loud, “maybe I love it.” My room mate hit her stopwatch from her perch at the kitchen table. She cracked up. I was exactly at the 3 minutes and 0 second mark.
You may have noticed that the tumultuous quality I brought to this interaction is not entirely characteristic of the adult years that I had already accumulated. Those of you who have, or work with, toddlers might find it strikes a familiar chord. In my many years of providing care for young children, there are few tricks as easy to see through as those performed by the Cranky Toddler Who Needs a Nap. They will kick, they will protest, they will scream “I’m not tired!” But we know that they are only kicking and screaming because they are, in fact, so desperate for rest. We know that mere minutes after letting themselves unwind even a tiny bit, they will pass right out.
While yoga does indeed help me to “listen to my body,” I have found that I need to listen to my body the way I would listen to just such a cranky toddler who needs a nap. I need to not take the surface messages and protests at face value. This is different from learning to listen to what kind of practice will help to restore my energy after a bad flare versus what kind of practice will help to support my immune system during the crash itself. That takes time and work to attune to the subtle changes different practices support in my body. But if I am listening to my body regarding whether or not to get on my mat in the first place, I need to stay as strong as I do when I encourage a child mid-meltdown to “just try” closing their eyes for a minute.
A brilliant art therapist and nanny friend of mine, Heather Childs, who works with toddlers everyday recently told me her guideline for herself, “If I can narrate my feeling in a toddler voice, I probably need to eat and/or sleep.” This guideline is my new favourite gauge. If my reasons and protest for not beginning my yoga and meditation can be expressed as a temper tantrum, they are in need of my adult intervention.
Wherever you are in your practice or healing path, I wish you a deepening capacity to listen to and respect your body–with the steadfastness of a parent encouraging their toddler at nap-time.