Yesterday in yoga class, Claudette turned our attention to the band of midsection at the small of our backs (often called kidney loop) which people tend to squinch when feeling stressed. Under pressure, this area becomes screwed down and hardened; when asked to breathe into it, I was surprised how much tension I was holding, even at rest. One way of easing the strain is to look down the front of one’s body and “puff out” this section; it’s a way of assuring ourselves that we are not under attack or, as Claudette put it, “There is not a tiger chasing me.”
When she said this, we tittered —our day-to-day pressures seemed like nothing in comparison with the mortal dangers of our primordial tiger-fleeing ancestors— yet the idea of easing this sense of constant, radical pressure has stuck with me all weekend. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own reaction to stress.
In December, work was so hectic that my right eye began to twitch one Monday and didn’t stop until Friday — when my team and I completed yet another major deadline. In late January on the Thursday of a particularly brutal week, the worst in months, I felt a tightness strap across my chest, radiating just above my heart. Thankfully, it turned out to be a strained muscle. My massage therapist asked if I had been having tension headaches, too, as the scalene and trapezius were pulled tight from my back around to the front of my breast bone where I had been feeling tightness. My entire upper body was clenched over, like I was preparing for the impact of a head-on collision.
The thing is, my stress is not so different from that of others. We’re all being pushed to the brink these days. If I had a dime for every friend and co-worker who has joked about trading their job for that of a barista, I could retire. What seems different for me though, both personally and at this moment in my life, is my inability to go further. Usually, I can take added fire to the flame, in fact, a younger version of me preferred pressure because conquering it made me feel like a rock star, but lately, I feel like a live wire stripped of its casing. My work is never finished per se, there is just more and more; it’s like Lucy’s conveyor belt of chocolates, only they are not sweet confections but live grenades with the pins pulled.
So, am I fleeing a tiger in hot pursuit—or is it just me? No one else but me is squinching my insides like a damp dish rag. No one but me takes everything I do with a bottomless chasm of solemn commitment and grasping perfection. No one but me can decide how to approach life, whatever it brings; since I’m able to weather other stressors like bad traffic just fine, who else can I look to but myself in managing my work stress?
In addition to puffing out my mid-section and repeating the mantra, There is not a tiger chasing me, two small but beautiful bits of freedom came together this weekend. Aside from pondering stress, inversions are something else that I’ve been considering, particularly since we were working on them with Claudette in the fall. Handstands, for one, have always scared me, though I was able to do them with a spotter (albeit shakily) in the past. I never had confidence in my form, though. After my shoulder injury two summers ago, I haven’t had the strength or confidence to kick up, even with help.
One day after class, when I was feeling a little low for chickening out of inversions, I got to thinking about the state of my core. We had been targeting those muscles in order to prepare for the inversions, which gave me plenty of new exercises to add to my daily regime. What was missing was not only strength, which builds with practice, but the muscle memory of what to do with it. Though I had probably heard it fifty times before, when Claudette spoke about the link between our core and our legs –and the fact that getting up and over (basically pulling off a pike pose) was the hardest part of kicking up– something clicked for me. I was afraid of offering myself up into the unknown.
I wholeheartedly believe in the link between one’s physical core muscles and one’s mental state of being — the confidence, equipoise and centered kindness that is possible when we’re strong and nurtured in body and spirit. Without this, life is painful chaos, full of mishaps, bad luck and tragedy, no matter what the physical actuality of our circumstances. When we’re not at peace inside, we’re not at peace outside. And so, I began to wonder: might there be a link between the strength necessary to complete an inversion and my inner fortitude? Could I reduce the inflammation of my resting state, by convincing myself that there was, in fact, not a tiger chasing me?
I began to work on inversions at home. I decided to start with headstands since they seemed less scary. At home, there is a spot in my bedroom with two walls relatively close; I figured that I could start by walking up the wall into the headstand so that I could get comfortable over time with the feeling my body inverted. Plus, I could work on building my back and core strength so that when it was time to kick up, I would feel better knowing where I was headed. (Disclaimer: this took a while.)
But, see, there is this thing about faith. It’s the reason I hesitate when faced with downhill ski slopes (okay, I’ve skied three times, but still) or kicking up into inversions. It’s also the reason that the pressure at work is finally getting to me after all these years: the pain conjured from the fear of falling and failing has become big and powerful. After decades of battle, my approach is to survey the field for everything that might go wrong — an effective strategy in pre-planning and mitigating risk, but one that restricts creativity and freedom. This is why work has come to feel like work. My eye twitching and chest pulled tight, I’m questioning if this is how I want to continue approaching life. Considering the totality of all consequences and squinching my insides against them before they arrive is taking a physical toll on my body, yet what should be even more concerning is the effect on my mind.
After this Saturday’s class, with my midsection puffed-out, plump and full of ease (There is not a tiger chasing me), I walked into my bedroom and closed the door. I curled my right hand into a fist and wrapped my left around it, placing my forearms on the floor, then stretched up and back into dolphin pose. I walked my feet in, feeling my pelvis curl up into a pike and the column of shoulder blades, back muscles and core turn on. There is not a tiger chasing me, I thought, and realized that my top leg was going to work like a lever and the bottom kicking leg was going to give me power. I had to trust that the wall would be there to hold me and that my core would keep me from toppling over.
The lure of inversions, other than that they look cool, is that all the blood rushes to one’s head and a feeling of happy drunkenness ensures after the pose is over. The world feels like a good place, perhaps because you’ve changed the way that you look at it, if only for a few seconds.
My second little freedom of 2015 was pulling off a 17-mile bike ride up some very steep inclines from my apartment to Matthews Beach Park (also known as my fourth bikie since I started riding again after 20 years.) My first freedom was kicking up into headstands on my own, which I attempted again after the ride. My legs were tired, but I wanted to assure myself that my learning hadn’t disappeared. I stayed up for several seconds, long enough to feel my muscles remember, and thudded back to Earth. Satisfied, I flung myself on the couch to rest, making the mistake of glancing at work email in between tasks; upon reading one message in particular, I felt my insides wring tight. At that moment (Is there a tiger chasing me?) I knew I was at risk of losing the hard-won, physically exhaustive harmony of a two-and-a-half-hour bike ride.
Then, I made a choice: I remembered all the things that my body helped my mind to understand this weekend, and I began to write. Like everything, there’s muscle memory associated with letting go; practice and faith go hand-in-hand. For now, I’ve found my mantra, which I can apply when I feel the world begin to slip upside down. With practice, maybe someday, I’ll invite that big kitty inside for a saucer of milk.