Strength Doesn't Always Feel Strong
Strength doesn't always feel strong, does it?
My not quite four year old daughter had to do something very scary recently. She was afraid and crying, but she did it anyway. I told her how proud I was that she was so brave. She said, “I wasn't brave because I cried.” My heart broke a little! I did my best to reassure her that crying doesn't mean you aren't strong. I told her that we rarely feel strong, even when we are being strong. She accepted what I said because she’s only three and hasn’t yet experienced our culture’s misconceptions about bravery and strength (particularly as it pertains to women, but that’s perhaps another post…). But we adults have. We may intellectually understand that we can feel afraid and weak while simultaneously being brave and strong, but we don’t often give ourselves that pass when we’re going through it. At least I certainly don’t.
That needs to change.
My husband and I recently decided to divorce. We have two young children. This may prove to be the most challenging experience of my life. I feel like crying every time I open my mouth. I cannot imagine how I am going to weather all the changes coming our way. Taking it one day at a time feels like too much. I feel like this will swallow me whole. I have never felt weaker.
But I am not hopeless because I know that I am strong, even though I don't feel that way. Giving birth to two babies at home without medication showed me that I have a deep, God given source of earth-rattling power inside my body. But, when I was in the midst of it, I felt weak and afraid. I begged and pleaded for it to end. I had a few contractions that I was sure I would not survive. The raw power of childbirth is violent, unrelenting, and terrifying. I couldn't see the end and I didn't believe I had what it took to get through. But I did survive. And not only did I survive, I brought forth another human life! I had the power all along. From that much misery and pain came the most beautiful experience of my life. Afterward, I had more faith in my power than I knew possible. It was life changing and I’m eternally grateful for the intensity of the experience.
My yoga practice has been much the same. It’s taught me that I don’t have to understand my thoughts. I don’t have to be able to control them. I don’t have to feel strong. I just have to keep breathing steadily. That’s all. That is my lifeline. Ashtanga yoga is an intense practice. It asks a lot of its practitioners. This practice doesn’t really subscribe to the “do whatever feels good” philosophy you find in other styles of yoga. Ashtanga says life is hard, so practice must also be hard. At least sometimes. Its goal is to teach you how to keep a calm mind through any level of adversity. Kapotasana, for instance, is a very wise teacher in that regard. But being strong in yoga has nothing to do with how well you execute a posture. It doesn't matter how heroic, or unheroic, you feel doing it. It only matters that you don’t stop breathing. By that measure, I feel that I can succeed at anything by simply breathing myself into the next moment.
No matter the chaos in my mind and body, I can bend over backward and grab my ankles if I just keep breathing. I can balance on my hands if I just keep breathing. I can make it through the breakup of my family if I just keep breathing. In through the nose, out through the nose, at a steady pace, no matter what is going on around me or inside me. Then, one moment, I’ll look up and the storm will be gone. Real life problems take longer than the five breaths of Ashtanga yoga, but they, too, will pass. The breath is the bridge to the other side.
Because of yoga and childbirth, I know that it doesn't matter how weak I feel right now. It doesn't make a damn bit of difference if I’m consumed with worry and sadness. My strength lies beneath that and is unfazed by the tumultuous feelings up above. I can feel weak and be strong at the same time. The two are unrelated. Deep inside my heart lies a infinite amount of strength, perseverance, and love. I am strong, and my breath will guide me through.
I guess it’s no wonder I teach prenatal yoga…