When Flexibility Signifies Weakness

Since I began teaching yoga just about a year ago, I have heard comments from several students about my level of flexibility.

“Wow!”

“How do you do that?”

“I could never do that.”

My response is always the same: to be this flexible is both a blessing and a curse.

My physical flexibility is partly due to a consistent yoga practice, but much of what people have commented on are things that my body can do naturally. Open hips, open shoulders, backbends. This past weekend I even got a comment about how far I can flex my toes back towards my face.

While this level of flexibility may give me the ability to get into impressive or even intimidating – looking yoga poses, I cannot emphasis the downside of this enough: that being this flexible means very often missing the point of building strength.

Because my body can so easily splay out and be open, I can very easily miss the point of a stretch where the challenge lies. I was unaware that I was doing this so unconsciously until I deepened my understanding of my practice in yoga teacher training. After this experience, I finally understood that I was going so deep into poses simply because my body could do it easily. And in doing this, I had missed out on years of building strength.

And the real kicker that I have learned through this is that every point I’ve made about being too flexible physically translates perfectly into what it means to be too flexible emotionally, mentally and spiritually as well.

Yoga, or any other form of mindful movement, can be a gateway to understanding that our physical states often directly mirror what is going on with us internally. Even after years of practice and becoming a yoga teacher myself, I am still susceptible to falling into patterns of taking the easy route in poses. Once I become aware of myself just sinking into a pose because it’s easy, I realize I need to reflect on how I have been handling life otherwise.

I have a personality type that tends towards people-pleasing, not being a burden on others, and perfectionism. This means that I can tend to overextend, overreach, and be downright too flexible in an attempt to accommodate others, or to keep from rocking the boat.

Lately, I have felt weak in every sense of the word. My body has been hurting, my emotions have been drained, my spirit and mind have been tired. Recognizing that I have not felt strong physically was the first indicator that allowed me to really make sense of the weakness that I was feeling in other realms. And, on the bright side, remembering that I know how to build strength physically if I am present and intentional with my movements, I can likewise build strength in other places that it is needed.

Today, I feel physically strong for the first time in weeks, perhaps even months. I had to slow myself way down when exercising over the past few days to get here. Slow, slow, slow movements…intended to engage those basic muscles that we need to breathe well and to hold ourselves upright in a proud and confident posture. A posture that embodies the ability to face challenges from a grounded, sturdy place. A posture that knows how to balance flexibility and strength – a balance that I am constantly learning.

If you have a body that can open up easily, perhaps this is an invitation to reflect on how flexible you are in other areas of life, and if this has meant missing the point of building strength at any point. And if you have a body that doesn’t go quite as deep into squats or backbends, know that such flexibility can be both a blessing and a curse to those who possess it. No matter what kind of body you are in, I wish you the ability to balance between flexibility and strength.

Live a Little More.

If it were up to me, all sweet young high school graduates would be mandated to go out and live life for two years before attending college or pursuing a vocational choice. The state would fund this time for them to be able to pursue experiences of interest while still living within a reasonable and humble means.

Life cannot be understood without living it. Our perspectives cannot widen if we do not experience different situations, ideas, feelings, conflicts, problems, solutions. We must go into worlds that are unfamiliar and listen to people that we do not understand. We must try different things and rule out what isn’t right for us, being able to rest in knowing that we gave it the old college try.

Living un-institutionalized is the real challenge. Let’s let the young ones feel this early on. You learn to swim when you’re thrown into the water and you learn to implement some semblance of structure when you’re thrown into a void. Or you don’t, and that’s what you learn about yourself. You learn what YOU need to navigate this world, not what social pressures tell you is necessary to live a meaningful life.

Maybe it isn’t the 9 to 5. Maybe it isn’t marriage. Maybe it isn’t a degree. Maybe it isn’t a stable place to live. Maybe it isn’t 3 square meals. Maybe it isn’t sobriety. Maybe it isn’t get-togethers with friends. Maybe it isn’t a 401k.

Maybe it’s an empty apartment. Maybe it’s short-lived relationships. Maybe it’s choosing art over a hot meal. Maybe it’s solitude. Maybe it’s staying up all night and sleeping all day. Maybe it’s working at the gas station. Maybe it’s traveling the world. Maybe it’s never leaving home.

Everyone’s got nice advice to offer, but ultimately it will only be you who knows what feels right. It may not look like what you’d ever imagined as a kid. It may be a life that they say is wrong. Don’t listen to them. Befriend the deepest part of yourself and then live the life you need. Everyone is watching and it doesn’t matter. You are art to those who remain afraid to go where you have gone.

Alongside Fear.

I am unconvinced that utter fearlessness is the state that we should strive to achieve. We are fed the idea that if we are strong enough, we might one day completely conquer our fears in the style of a knight in shining armor. We might internalize the misconception that other people who do big things either don’t face the same fears or have mastered fearlessness and are thus much stronger than we who have not yet figured out how to do so. And for some, this makes us feel weak.

My father once told me a story about a woman who was diagnosed with cancer. This woman refused to use the language of “fighting” or “beating” the disease. Rather, she chose to see it as a part of her and as something to work with, not against. I motion that we frame fear the same way.

The language of overcoming fear can be tricky. To overcome is to defeat, and to defeat is to obliterate for good. But to frame fear as something to be completely left behind is to both deny a normal part of the human experience and also to make it our enemy. However, I simply don’t buy that fear is the enemy. Perhaps this is because I wish to live in a way that I have no enemies at all. But what’s more, I believe that framing fear as an enemy places us at odds with one another when the truth of the matter is that we have quite a lot to learn from fear if we sit with it for awhile.

Rather than running from fear, hating fear, trying to turn a corner and trick fear, we have the option of getting to know fear. Inviting it in and understanding it a little more. Practicing compassion with it. Fear has a bad rap, painted as an ugly instrument of punishment when in reality it is more innocent than we may think. It is not simply fear in its unadulterated state that hinders us from achieving what we want in life. We have to take more responsibility than that. It is our attachment to fear that creates these barriers.

When we can learn to sit with our fears without wanting to run from them, we create a little bit of space in which we can observe. Our fears can teach us transformative and beautiful lessons about ourselves if we give them a chance to explain. It is up to us to gain the inner strength and stability to sit with these fears. We cannot simply blame them for being unapproachable or scary.

Try, if just for a moment, to walk alongside fear rather than running in the other direction or confronting it with a hostile stance. Take a walk on the lake together. Buy it a coffee and have a conversation. The most intimate first date that you’ll ever go on. Be curious, ask questions, and if you know what’s good for you – really try to listen to the answers.

The Difference Between Now and Then

It’s a shame to live in a place and time where aging is resisted rather than embraced. If so much emphasis weren’t put on the shallow aspects of growing older, then we could spend our energy focusing on the immense beauty that comes with it. Perspective, understanding, clarity, wisdom. And perhaps the greatest gift of all: shedding the urge to please others by presenting yourself a certain way, and instead learning to flow from experience to experience as your true and genuine self.

I will gladly fall to my knees and kiss the earth in reverence for receiving this gift now, while I still have so much time to explore the caverns of who I really am.

There is no single event that can be pegged as the marker between the version of myself that wanted to hide and the version of myself that is unafraid to be seen. It has been a subtle and gradual transition, maybe even imperceptible had I not been paying attention. But thankfully I have. Through writing and drawing and hiking and dancing and sitting in silence with myself.

But now, as this very moment becomes one in which hindsight can be seen with twenty-twenty vision, I can draw crystal clear distinctions between then and now. One of the most important of them being that I now understand how to accept the full spectrum of emotion that makes up my human experience. I welcome all versions of myself, not just the sweet and pleasant ones. I honor my darkness. I have learned to welcome my anxiety, my sadness, my rumination, my depression, my worry, my fear. Because I am not valuable only when I am happy, motivated, pleasant, artistic, creative, balanced. I am worthy when I am the light as well as the darkness. When I am the day as well as the night. I no longer dismember myself by rejecting the unpretty parts. It has been best said in a poem by Rumi:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

I used to punish myself with censorship when I would go through the dark times. I would convince myself that I had nothing worthy to say during those times. But now, I am unafraid to speak even when I feel fear within me. Now, I allow myself to be heard no matter what I am feeling. I am learning to keep putting myself out there even when I feel self-conscious and small, because every bit of material that I have in which I reflect on this experience of life is worth something. If nothing else, I can look back on the darkness once I am out of it to shine a light. You never know what might be discovered in the hindsight of the past when led by the light of the present.

Mother Wound.

My whole life has revolved around this wound. Since the moment that I was born.

No, no…since the moment that she was born. Her whole life, her every experience of pain led to my very existence. Her mother’s wounds became hers, and hers became mine. Passed on like a precious heirloom. Each generation painstakingly gaining a drop of strength to do just a little better…just a little better for the next. Conscious of doing so or not.

Though I have healed through what I think were the hardest parts – the darkest parts – this process is a lifelong one. With each new phase of myself that I step into, I am once again faced with confronting this old wound with a new perspective. The wound never changes but my understanding does.

I wept on the bathroom floor last night. I thought it was because I’m in-between jobs, I thought it was because I’m stressed about money. But it turned out to be you on the other side once again, Mom. I still miss you.

I never truly knew her and this life is one big puzzle, piecing together the woman that she was and the woman that she hoped I would be. The latter is the one she wasn’t strong enough to become. I, however, have been fortunate. I have endured a little less trauma and gained a little more stability than she had, and these ingredients have constituted a recipe for that healing that she wanted. When I heal me, she heals too. I am living the life she wanted but couldn’t ever quite grasp, laying there on the other side of her addiction. Of admitting her weaknesses. Something she could never do. Something I can do so well. Too well at times.

The latest development, the lost piece of the puzzle that I found on the ground this time was that she was a woman who simply wanted to share her love. She wanted to create beautiful things and cuddle with her daughter and have breakfast in bed. She wanted to be loved by a good man. She wanted to dance, and she wanted to take walks in the woods. But she filled all the holes in her heart with wine so that she never had to sit with them in their emptiness. She was too fragile. And she could never admit to being an alcoholic, maybe even a bad mother at times, because she wanted so badly to be good.

I get it, Mom. You were still good despite it all. I see your pain now. You don’t have to worry about me anymore, I can take care of myself now. I have sewn up my wounds the way that you sewed my Halloween costumes each year. I forgive you, and I am working on becoming the woman that you wanted to be.

We will get there together one day.

Lost & Found

Last year was the start of a spiritual journey. When I was younger, I favored the head over the heart and in doing so, suppressed my sense of wonder for a long time. But it turned out that my spirit could not be contained or censored, no matter how I tried. With years gone by, I have shed ideas and expectations about who I thought I was or how I thought I was supposed to fit into this strange experience of being human. I moved from grasping hard onto preconceived notions to instead curiously holding what is actually true about myself.

So here I stand today, more sure of who I am than I ever thought possible. So connected to the delicate and precious life that exists all around me. And more confused about where I fit into the world than ever before.

When you realize that you have a deep longing to discover answers about your life and about Life itself, this urge eventually becomes so strong that it can lead you to cut all worldly ties with no intention of ever sewing those threads back together. Think: the solitary monk meditating in a cave for years on end. The successful, wealthy folk musician who walks off stage and away from it all. The woman who used to work a prestigious position at a corporate job but quit and sold all of her possessions to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone for three months. Think: seekers.

When I talk about spiritual endeavors, I don’t just mean the obvious ones. Yoga retreats, mindfulness courses, having a daily meditation practice. Indeed, these pursuits create space for one to be properly taught how to navigate our inner worlds. But my focus here lies on the meditation that is a persistent yet patient voice in one’s head telling them that there has got to be more to all of this than making money, spending money, and posting pictures of a pretty life. I am talking about the call to abandon everything that you thought you knew for certain, and the courage that it takes to honor this calling by stepping away from anything secular that does not serve your discovery.

If there’s anything that I have learned in this past year of honoring my calling, it is that it can be scary as hell. I spent years studying in school, networking, working in the field – all to realize that this path was not what I truly wanted, and that I needed to let go of what I thought my life was going to look like around getting a certain degree or job title or salary. There are times that I wish the yearning that I feel could be filled by money or status. It seems so much easier.

But the truth is that I cannot deny my desire to find the Truth. And to make my life work around that Truth, not the other way around.

After the Storm.

Life changes when you learn how to pay attention to the signs that set themselves before you. They present themselves when you’re finally ready to see them. They always know right when to come, right when you need the lesson. But the catch is whether or not you possess the clarity of mind to recognize these signs when they are hidden in plain view. A loud mind and a hazy spirit can walk right by these gems, glistening in the sunlight and waiting patiently for acknowledgement. Always waiting patiently.

We all know the sayings about the calm before the storm, but I want to emphasize the calm that lies on the other side of it. The calm after the storm is grateful simply to exist at all, if only for a fleeting moment. For it knows of its own impermanence and uses every second wisely to grace those in its presence with quiet and ease. It is the still, soft glow of a morning that follows a night of violent, senseless, angry rain.

You’ll have to forgive me; I quite enjoy using nature analogies to make sense of the human experience. The point I mean to make here is that we often gain the greatest sense of clarity within ourselves from enduring our inner storms. When we endure uncomfortable experiences, growth occurs. Healing occurs. The seed cannot become a tree if it does not fight its way out of a shell in order to extend its eager roots into the earth. (There we go again).

Returning to the notion of paying attention to the signs that arise in our lives – the one that has bloomed before me lately as I sit in this uncomfortable place of finally sharing my story through the written and spoken word is the theme of struggle. On several occasions recently, I have read statements about how struggle is the thread that connects us all. This thread weaves us together despite social standing, race, gender, age, religious affiliation, or any other label that we can subscribe to. This thread delicately holds together the human experience across a tapestry of space and time.

The sightings of these words have reminded me that I am exactly where I need to be, fidgeting before a keyboard or floating a pen above a blank sheet of paper. I have done quite a bit of self-reflective work on myself in order to understand the ways in which I have been shaped by the struggles I have endured. The challenges that I have overcome in this lifetime once felt haunting and alive, where now they are merely stories that sit upon the shelves of memory I may revisit whenever I choose. And they only possess as much power as I decide to give them.

I have arrived at a place in which I feel safe to tell these stories. I feel safe to revisit the darkest of memories. I feel safe to strip down until I am emotionally bare in order to help others feel safe to join me there. I was only able to arrive at this feeling of safety by sitting in those uncomfortable places.

Facing discomfort takes power away from a memory, a thought, or a feeling and places it back into your very hands. However, one must be cautioned: this exercise must be done responsibly. You cannot rush, and you cannot show up half-heartedly. You must show up entirely, for as long as you feel able to do so. Give it your all for a few moments, and then take a break for a month, or two, or twenty. Return when you feel ready once again. Whatever you do, just do not give up on this quest. Take as long as you need away, but do yourself the favor of always returning. Little known secret: your demons need love, too.

And in the meantime, while you’re taking your breaks and taking care of your Self and your world…pay attention to those signs hidden in plain view.