Knowing When Your Body Needs a Day

I’ve written about this before (here, for example), but I think it’s a topic worth coming back to.  I know that I continue to struggle with it on a daily basis, and judging from things like this post from my wonderful Ironwoman friend Maria, I’m not alone.

Photo: ButterflySha

Sometimes, it’s just not easy to tell what it is your body needs.  I woke up this morning with the same stomach ache that I’ve had for almost three weeks (due to iron supplements – long story – I’ve been living on crackers and the occasional toast).  My left hip was killing me and I hadn’t slept well.  My right shoulder is also being screwy and started giving me pain as soon as I got out of bed and gravity hit.  And, for a little extra woohoo, my head hurts.  Yeah, I’m a pathetic mess.  But, here is the catch, I’m trying to go to yoga on Saturday mornings.  I used to be able to go on Friday mornings, but this semester I teach too early to do that.  Friday night is an option, but last night I had an event to attend until 11.  That leaves Saturday morning.  So, I got out the yoga clothes and went downstairs and made a cup of tea and some toast.  And then I sat down at my desk to check email and work on convincing myself to go to class.  That went on for about an hour.  And then I gave it up.  I admitted to myself that going to class was not the best choice, and that my body was in no shape to complete a full vinyasa class in any manner that would really bring me closer to peace and union.  But, I can’t lie, I was still (am still) not happy about it.  A bit later, when I napped for a short period, my dreams were full of what a horrible yogi I am.  Clearly, I still have some things to work out.

In some ways, I wonder why this respecting the needs of the body is so hard.  But, in other ways, I know.  We are taught, so early, to ignore the body.  We eat and sleep at prescribed times and not according to the body clock.  We feed the body food that has been processed so much that it is without nutrient instead of the foods it naturally needs.  We spray it with chemicals to prevent it from smelling even remotely like a human mammal body.  We push it to be a certain size because that is socially acceptable, regardless of where the body’s natural set point for size might be.  We shut the body up and shut it down in so many ways; it’s no wonder that we have trouble hearing it even when we want to.

Photo: Andrea Parrish - Geyer

My challenge is, and perhaps will always be, to practice ahimsa with my body.  To hear what my body has to say without judging it.  To take its needs and requests seriously.  To give my body a “day off” when it needs it.  And to let myself be if my body doesn’t always match up to what I want it to be and do.  As I sit here at my desk writing this post, noticing that my work schedule is going to prevent yoga on Monday and trying to avoid letting that put me back into a bad place about not going today, I know that this is likely to be a lifelong practice.  Perhaps this journey is my destination.

Rest for the Soul

It’s important to be heroic, ambitious, productive, efficient, creative, and progressive, but these qualities don’t necessarily nurture the soul. The soul has different concerns, of equal value: downtime for reflection, conversation, and reverie; beauty that is captivating and pleasuring; relatedness to the environs and to people; and any animal’s rhythm of rest and activity.

~ Thomas Moore

There are so many things that I want to share with my students when I begin to regularly teach yoga.  I want to focus on the ideas of unity, and the already-present Self.  I want to encourage pushing beyond the known boundaries and seeing things in a new way.  Heck, I want to help people get upside down.  But, I also want to assist people in being able to really take rest.  It sounds easy, but it’s something most of us aren’t that good at.

Sure, we sit and “do nothing.”  We waste time playing Words with Friends or surfing the web.  We flip TV channels or page through magazines.  But, even then, we are constantly doing something.  It’s rare to see someone sit quietly just thinking or observing.  In a yoga class, no matter how the instructor introduces the idea of child’s pose, people (including me) struggle against taking it, as if taking rest was a failure in some way.

But, we need that rest.  It is in rest that the body can make repairs and reset systems.  It is in rest that the mind has time to bring the emotions and experiences that we push to the back forward and work through them.  It’s good for us to take rest.

Why do we fight so hard against what we  need?  Some of our resistance to sleep may be that we are truly just so busy that we feel  like we can’t waste even a minute of the day.  It certainly seems that way at times.  But, most of us, if we carefully reflected on how we used our time, would find that we do “waste” a lot of time checking facebook, tweeting, reading (ok, that one might just be me), watching bad TV, etc.  Yet, we hesitate to truly rest.

Given that, it seems that there might be more of a societal impetus at work.  We believe that we must be busy all the time.  Life is so forward directed that we have a feeling that it is imperative to be constantly working toward the next thing or working on something (even if that something is a kick-ass game of scrabble on facebook).

So, yeah, I see part of my job as a yoga teacher to give students permission and opportunity to just sit with themselves.  To be in child’s pose or savasana and be ok with that.  To stand still after a vrksasana (thanks, Micki) and feel the energy be in the legs without needing to shake it away.  To write sentences that are actually fragments and not need to sit on the fingers to fight the urge to correct them.   This will be part of my goal!

If you’ve read this far, go take a rest.  Maybe you could take a blanket outside and just lay in the grass for 15 minutes.  Perhaps it would be good to go “lay across the bed” (that’s a Hoosier-ism for taking a nap when you don’t want to admit that you are napping).  Or, a little time in child’s pose might be just the ticket!  Give you mind, your body, and your soul the rest for which it calls out.

When Rest is More Difficult than Activity

Leaving yoga last weekend, my daughter, a relatively new practitioner, noted with pride that she had not taken a child’s pose “the whole practice.”  And she had not.  Hearing this, I was struck by multiple emotions simultaneously.  I felt proud of her commitment to this new activity and her willingness to dive right in to difficult poses.  I felt a little envious that her nice young joints and muscles had cooperated with her this way in her first real Vinyasa class.  And, I felt a little chagrined to realize that I had probably contributed to her belief that taking child’s pose during a practice was some sort of failure.  The moment passed and we went on with our day, but it came back to me with a vengeance today.

Sunday was devoted to celebrations and family time, so my yoga moment consisted of some mindful meditation.  Today, Monday, I realistically could have worked in a practice after I came home and made dinner for the family, but I didn’t.  I’m just plain tired and having some sciatica, and the house has been in a bit of an uproar – so, I didn’t.  And now I feel guilty and uneasy and as if I have “copped out” on my practice.  And, thinking about it, I know that I do not always (or even often) take a child’s pose in class that isn’t instructor led, and when I do, I feel a sense that I’m doing it wrong – even though my wonderful instructors always are sure to mention in each class that child’s pose is a good thing and a perfectly valid pose and not a failure in any way.

So, what’s the problem?  We (and by we, I guess I’m speaking for the entire U.S. and  a good portion of the industrialized world, so please pardon my complete presumptuousness) don’t do rest very well.  We are much much better at busy.  Busy busy busy.  Even when we are resting, we stay busy.  We watch TV, chat on the phone, text our friends, surf the internet, write emails, jot notes, scrapbook, crochet, shop.  We can’t make it through 10 minutes of waiting at the doctor’s office without picking up a magazine or checking our work emails.  We seem to have a constant underlying feeling that we shouldn’t be “wasting” time; we have to DO something with it.

But, how can we waste our own time?  It’s our time.  We cannot store it away for later; we are always “using” the time – regardless of what we do in any given moment.  And, fundamentally, my moments are only mine.  Yes, my actions are part of the interconnected stream that is the living world, but my individual moments of behavior and being in my body are mine.  There is not some larger goal that I have to meet in this lifetime – no minimum number of emails that must be sent, no particular amount of books that must be read, no afghans that have to be crocheted for the good of humanity.  Our time can be wasted only if we mindlessly and thoughtlessly engage in behavior that does not -in any way- serve us.  Sometimes it serves us to surf the web and text with our friends.  But, sometimes we do it almost as a reflex action as part of our urge to stay busy busy busy.  Does this serve us?

Look at your dog.  If you don’t have a dog, run down the block and look at your neighbor’s dog.  Go ahead, I’ll wait – I have time.

Ok, so what was that dog doing?  Chances are pretty good that he or she was resting.  Not texting or surfing the web (unless you have a VERY talented dog).  Not reading the stock report or looking in the mirror for his latest wrinkle – just resting.  And, don’t we all envy the dog (or the cat) sometimes for that ability to just sink into a rest in the blink of an eye?  Yet, though we envy it in them, we find it so hard to do for ourselves.

I don’t know how to fix this culturally – though I’m pretty sure that we aren’t headed in that direction (do you remember nap time in kindergarten? – they don’t have that any more – too much to do).  Maybe we need to teach children, and adults, Balasana and schedule it into our days until we get accustomed to recognizing what it feels like and how to stop resisting it.  As for me, I guess it’s just one day at a time, one rest at a time, one moment at a time.  And for you, just remember that even on Gilligan’s Island there was “the rest.” (ooohhhh)