Practicing Yoga

The first time I walked into a yoga studio, I looked around and did what the others were doing — got a mat, sat down cross-legged, and quietly waited for instruction. I hadn’t done any research, had no idea what I was getting into, and struggled to mimic the poses that were being demonstrated at the front of the class. I was a distance runner at the time, so I was in great shape for running, but I had little to no upper body strength, a poorly-developed core, and little to no flexibility — physical or mental. I ended the class feeling frustrated and nauseous and didn’t try yoga again for a long time.

When chronic pain and fatigue ended my running career, I joined a gym. My regular routine included thirty minutes on an elliptical trainer, light weight lifting, and then some restorative movement in the warm saltwater therapy pool. Once in a while, I joined a pilates class. I stayed in that rhythm for a year or so, and then my daughter gave me a month-long membership at a yoga studio. I decided to give yoga another try.

Since I had only had one previous experience with yoga, and that had ended badly, I asked my friend to go with me. I’m so glad I did. Without her, I was the only ‘mature’ woman in a room filled with college students. The instructor was a young man whose body reminded me of the bendable figures our oldest son used to take with him on long car trips — I’d never seen such a strong and limber human. To make matters worse, it was an advanced vinyasa flow class. If you know what that means, you know that I was in the wrong room at the wrong time. I tried to keep up, but I didn’t know the poses, or the vocabulary, and I still had neither the strength nor the flexibility for much more than child’s pose.

Child’s Pose


Sure, my inner soldier made a valiant attempt. I tried to move through a vinyasa, even though the word was brand new to me. I tried to be any kind of warrior — I would’ve settled for one, two, or three. I pretended to be a mountain, but what that class taught me was that I needed to take the posture of a child — physically, mentally, and emotionally — and start to become comfortable with learning a new way.

Lesson #1: You don’t learn a new way over night.

That class was a few years ago. Since then, I’ve been practicing yoga. I’ve been learning how to breathe. I’ve been building core strength. I’ve developed some vocabulary and even some flexibility.

I often say, “God is always preparing you for what’s next.” In school, we first learn letters and sounds so that we will be prepared to read words. Once we have some vocabulary, we can begin to read sentences. Sentences lead to paragraphs which lead to stories which lead to all the ways that print can open up the world for us.

Menial jobs like babysitting or lawn mowing provide opportunities to learn the basic practices of showing up on time and finishing a task. They build experience, or muscle, that enables us to take on more difficult jobs such as food service or sales. These jobs teach us about working in teams and being able to adapt under pressure — they teach us flexibility.

All of life is preparing us for what’s next. When, as children, we learn how to line up and take turns, we are learning the basics of how to function with others. When, in adolescence, someone says something unfriendly about us, we feel the pain that reminds us to treat others with kindness. When we experience our first heartbreak and someone listens to us as we cry, we learn how important it is to be compassionate. When we face the many challenges of juggling finances and deadlines and friends and work, our core strength is being established. All of life is practice — practice for what’s next.

In advance of my soldiering years, I had several experiences that built up my stamina and developed a fearlessness that allowed me to step into responsibility and to manage difficult situations. God had given me what I needed; He knew what was coming. When those years were over, He provided an opportunity for me to learn a new way, but first He had to teach me how to be still. He had to remind me to breathe.

When I first started practicing yoga, I thought it was weird that the first 5-10 minutes and the last 5-10 minutes of the practice focused on stillness and breath. How could I get stronger by being still? How could bringing my attention to my breath have any lasting impact on my physical body? In my mind, exercise was about exertion, pushing the body, and burning the calories. These messages — remnants of the soldiering years — had to be put aside. Although the way of yoga seemed strange to me, I moved into child’s pose and began to learn to listen to the sound of my own breath, to watch the rise and fall of my body, and to pay attention to how I feel physically.

This way is new to me. I have long walked/trudged/powered through life giving attention to my body only when it cried out in pain or shut down in illness. Then I have patched it up as quickly as possible and resumed my forward motion. And my body has suffered, but not just my body. I have also ignored my emotions. And my spirit. I have put myself on a course with the goal of finishing. Period.

But in this chapter, I find myself over and over again in the posture of a child, often helpless and crying, needing to learn a new way. And, as my pastor said this morning, new ways are “not something we arrive at, but something that we practice”.

So I’ll continue to practice — yoga, yes, but also returning to my spiritual practices of prayer, Scripture, worship, and community. These are the practices that have been re-shaping me, re-wiring me, re-pairing me, and pre-paring me for whatever comes next.

 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 1For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

2 Corinthians 4: 15-16
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Putting it in Practice, revisit

Editors Note: This is a re-post. As part of my TBT series, I am following each Monday post with a Thursday re-post. This post, first written in May of 2017, looks at the same concept of “practicing” disciplines that I explored earlier this week. 

I’m beginning to think that lessons are never fully learned, or as we say in the field, mastered, but rather that our lessons require continuing practice.

A child sits at a piano slowly fingering the do, re, mi, fa, so of a C-major scale.  Over and over she plays, repeatedly faltering at one particularly tough spot where the thumb has to cross under two fingers in order to hit all eight notes in the octave. Sure, sure, after hours upon hours of practice, the scale becomes easier, the rhythm more consistent and measured, but let that pianist take a month away from the keys, and almost assuredly, the stumbling will return. Learning is only safe with continual practice.

I’ve been blogging at this space for almost three years and I keep coming back to the same lessons — the ones that I need to rehearse over and over and over.  Perhaps the one that needs the most practice, the one for which my Instructor has utilized multi-modal approaches, is this idea that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

One problem I encounter in learning this lesson is the muscle memory of having practiced a different way for years. The old way was a rushing, plate-spinning frenzy of activity — checking items off lists and powering through. I’ve often described this practice as soldiering — task-driven, focused doing with minimal regard for relationship or self-care. I didn’t reflect or take time to decompress; I went on to the next mission as though my life depended on it. Ultimately, I was given a medical discharge — diagnosis? chronic battle-fatigue.

So, per orders, I’ve been undergoing job retraining for almost three solid years. It’s been cyclical. I rest and recover, then, feeling restless, I get busy. I try for moderation, but since my historical practice has been frenetic, I usually return to that pre-set. I end up sick, of course, so I back off and review the lesson — I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

The layers of instruction involved in my practice of this lesson are many. First, and most obvious, is the actual physical slowing of my body. I feel as though my major joints of propulsion — my hips, shoulders, feet — have been coated in a rigid rubber-like compound that limits movement. The compound has, it seems, been grafted into my bones in such a fashion that if I do find a way to make the rubber pliable enough to allow movement that is too fast, too insistent, or too prolonged, the grafting sights become irritated and inflamed like a newly healing surgical site. The pain slows me and reminds me that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

The second layer of instruction comes through my practice of yoga. Within the confines of a very small space — 24″ x 68″ — I focus on breathing, being very intentional about every move I make. Rushing is not allowed.  Multi-tasking is impossible. It takes all of my attention to hold warrior two — right knee at a forty-five degree angle, right heel in line with the arch of my left foot, arms extended as though drawing an arrow across a bow, gaze looking across the middle finger of my extended hand. Once there, I breathe; I rest; I am still.  This practice, which was absolutely foreign to me in my former life, makes me feel stronger than any butt-kicking and name-taking ever could. Yet, in this strength, I am not calling the shots; I am trusting the voice of the instructor and moving only where she tells me to move. She assures me that I can do this — I can live this way even when I step off the mat.

A third layer of instruction is my reading list, which comes from a variety of sources: one book from a member of my breakfast club Bible study, another from my child as a Mother’s Day gift, one more from a summer reading list for some of my students, and daily readings from my YouVersion Bible reading plan. Despite the varied sources, the message is resoundingly the same — I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

Last week I saw my rheumatologist who is offering a trial of the medication Cosentyx. I find myself hoping this drug will break up the rubberized coating, free my joints, increase my energy, and allow me to do a little more.

I was sitting with my breakfast club friends the other day, sharing this news about the potential drug trial, when one of them asked, “Kristin, how would you like us to pray?” Surprising frustration rose in me; I think because I realized that what I was hoping for is in direct opposition to what I have been trying to learn. I snarled, “I don’t even know, because if this drug works, I know that I will go right back to doing too much. I’m practically doing too much already, and I’m in the middle of a flare!” My poor friend, she hasn’t known me too long and probably isn’t accustomed to my surliness. She said, “Do you guys need the money that badly?”  I reflexively burst out, “Not at all!  I mean, sure, we could use more money, but that is not how we live our lives. We don’t make decisions based solely on money.” I was stunned at my clarity and embarrassed by my tone.

I am the most reluctant of learners — the little girl who needs to be nudged back to the piano bench, a finger poking her between the shoulder blades. Why do I have to practice, I whine. I understand all the notes in the scale;  I know where my fingers belong! However, if I ever want to get past these darn scales and on to playing some real music — enjoying the freedom and bliss of playing outside of the practice — then I have got to stick to the practice.  I have got to keep rehearsing the truth that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

Why? Because I can trust the voice of my Instructor. I can stay in a limited space, listen to His voice, and believe what He believes about me — that I can do this; I can live this much richer connected way. I want to learn this lesson so well, that even if this medication works, even if I am free of pain, and even if I regain my energy, I won’t go back to my soldiering life, but I will live in the freedom that I have been given to breathe, to slow down, to rest, and to be still.

PS. The Cosentyx did not work. In fact, it made me more restless and agitated and didn’t decrease my pain or increase my mobility. A year and a half later, I am not taking any pharmaceuticals for my chronic pain and fatigue. For me, it has been best to adjust my lifestyle — to keep returning to the practice of breathing, slowing, resting, and being still.

Be still and now that I am God

Psalm 46:10