I’ve seen the inspirational videos and books, and probably so have you, talking about marriage and how in the very best of them, you wake up every day and continue to choose each other. You decide to be married every day. The same as a recovering alcoholic decides to stay sober every day, every moment. But you know what I never realized is an ongoing series of choices? Letting go.
I thought about this as I sat in my very first yoga class. The fact that I was even there was pretty impressive since I am 1) the least flexible person ever – seriously, I’m like a piece of lumber and 2) a bit of a contrarian when it comes to fads, and that’s what yoga seemed like to me: something Madonna and Lenny Kravitz and pescatarian New Agers do. Why do I need to touch my toes? I can see ‘em. They’re fine. However, stress, a hectic lifestyle, and scoliosis combined with the cumulative effects of a car crash I’d had 20 years earlier had conspired to twist me up like a tangle of tree roots.
My husband grew tired of seeing me in pain and of having to dig his elbow as hard as he could into the muscles of my back and shoulder in a vain effort to loosen the solid knot I carried there. “How can this possibly feel good?” he’d exclaim. “If you did this to me, I would cry like a little girl!” At his insistence, and with much prodding from friends, I went to see my doctor.
The doc wanted to know: how long had I been having this pain? Oh, about 2 years. Her eyes widened and then narrowed.
“Uh, it’s just that when it comes to illness or pain, I always tend to think I’m faking,” I explained. Having a muscle spasm so severe that on bad days my left shoulder rode a couple of inches higher than the right and my range of motion was limited could have been a figment of my imagination. I’m really avoidant, I have phone anxiety, and when my depression is flaring up I have difficulty taking any action at all, let alone action on my own behalf. Blah, blah, blah. Long story short: I wasn’t faking. X-rays confirmed: something funky was up with my back.
The doctor recommended physical therapy. Chiropractic treatment might also help. I went home with a prescription for pain meds and muscle relaxers, and that night, after popping one of each, I had my first night of pain-free sleep in two years.
I woke up feeling so uncharacteristically refreshed that it freaked me out. The absence of discomfort threw my body into crisis mode. Apparently, I’m the kind of person who has a mini-panic attack because I’m not in pain. As is my wont, I immediately started worrying about the meds. Not everyone makes the leap from “minor pain relief” to “pill popping addict”, but hey, my brain is special. I messaged my sister who is a pharmaceutical technician and she kindly soothed me with information about the purpose of the medications assured me that they were not addictive. She stressed that the meds were only meant to give me “pain coverage” in the short term.
She thought physical therapy was a great idea but that I should also try yoga. I snorted in disdain, but we were texting and there is no emoji for that. Years ago, she had taken me to a Bikram yoga class in a toasty 1000 degree studio. My only memory of that class is of sweating profusely and having to lie down on a mat that stuck to my skin. I decided that yoga was definitely not my thing.
My sister assured me that there were all kinds of yoga.
“I AM UNBENDY!” I insisted.
“You’ll be fine,” she said. “Try Hatha yoga. It’s really gentle. Promise.” She also sent me eleventy hundred links to yoga studios in my area.
It turned out that my local community center offered a Hatha yoga class designed for beginners. My rock-like shoulder kept inching higher, and physical therapy wouldn’t start for a while. I’d had a taste now of what it felt like to wake up and be able to move normally and without pain, and mama wanted more of that sweet, sweet mobility. I registered for class that day.
I sat on the mat in the style my daughter would call “criss-cross applesauce.” Our teacher, a thin, silver-haired woman, gently urged us to breathe deeply, lowering our shoulders (yeah, easier said than done) and pulling our navels into our spine. I rebelliously told myself that if anyone started talking about auras or anything woo-woo, I was outta there. Still, the breathing felt good. We moved into some slow stretches, and I realized that with each move, I tensed up, expecting it to be something I couldn’t do. When I realized that wasn’t going to have to do an ElastiGirl impression, and that every move could be modified, I started to relax.
As every one else bent to touch the floor and I did my customary, awkward half curl to the knees, which is as far as I’ve ever been able to reach, I snuck a glance around the room. Nobody cared (anxiety cats like myself assume everyone cares, all the time, and that they are judging). In fact, most people had their eyes closed. Cool.
Our teacher took us, in the kindest, gentlest way, through several more moves. She threw out incomprehensible names for them – a series of liquid syllables with rounded vowels. I retained none of that. Instead, I concentrated on body and breath and elongating my s-shaped spine as instructed. It was both better and harder than I thought it would be. Each pose felt like a really good cat-in-the-sunshine stretch, but the longer we held it, the more I could feel my muscles straining and the sweat breaking out on my face. Deliberate stretching is hard. You have to really think about all that lengthening and expanding.
The very best part was at the end of class. We lay down on the mats like kindergartners at naptime. She turned down the lights and had us breathe right down to our bellies. Then she told us to relax each part of our body and explained that this kind of relaxation was different than sleep. Better, even. You had to be awake for this kind of focused relaxation. “If you feel yourself tensing up again, you have to re-relax. You must keep on consciously relaxing.” And right then, I got it. Letting go is a constant choice.
There, in the dark, I started to unclench. I let go of all the things that were gnarling me up. The noise and bustle of the day. The hamster-wheel of tasks and To Dos that would remain whether I obsessed over them or not. The idea that I could control circumstances and/or the actions of other people. The grief and stress and disappointment I tended to haul around without ever stopping to acknowledge them. Little by little, that wonky shoulder—the one that always hurt, the one that held my heavy bag and all the other things I didn’t want to put down—crept downward, surrendering to the soft tug of gravity. I thought about each body part: feet, ankles, calves, and so forth, willing each one into pliancy. Each time I moved on, I could feel the muscle wanting to return to its familiar state of tension. Breathe in. Breathe out. Re-relax. Keep letting go.
When class was over, I felt limp and light-headed, the way you do when you’ve been in a hot tub for too long. It takes effort to stay in a state of looseness. You have to choose it every moment.