2020 – stay for the exhale

I started with this thought stream last Saturday on Instagram, and even after posting the first part of it, I kept thinking about it and adding to it in my mind afterwards.

We had a baby shower / gratitude reception for our beloved power yoga teacher after her last class this morning. She’s been teaching this class for ten years, and will continue to teach after her baby is born, but no longer at this Y or this particular class. I started her class shortly after my foot surgeries – after my physical therapist expressed disbelief that I couldn’t touch my toes. (I had been mostly bed bound for weeks, but still. I was the opposite of bendy.) I had never taken a yoga class, but this was a good time slot, and I shyly joined it in the back corner. Heather is the most incredible instructor – her classes are extremely challenging but still accessible, she is warm and engaging and knowledgeable, and she has fostered a sense of community in this room between people spanning almost seventy years in age. She is the reason I can run for miles and miles and miles and lift more and more weights each week with no pain. This class has been a key component of my personal Saturday morning recharge ritual, and this loss might sting for awhile. At the close of class she burst into tears and then we all cried, for the future missing – the practice, and also the ritual of greeting one another each Saturday in this space.

In the first few years of my practice, Heather taught two classes that I attended. The Saturday morning class that just wrapped up, but also a Thursday evening session that she taught up until a couple of years ago. That class was a little smaller, but included many of the regulars from our Saturday class. We met in a dark room with just a few lamps on in the corners, and we almost always worked up against the wall, using that surface to deepen stretches or to provide a little structure to the more difficult inversion work we were doing. Each week I could see changes – in my strength and flexibility, my balance and my nerve. It took a fair amount of confidence and power to stand upside down on a mat – tentatively at first, with the wall as backup, but then eventually away from the wall – for a few seconds, and then even longer.

I did not grow up confident in my body – it was bony and knobby in awkward angles, soft in other ways – not necessarily objectionable to me, but certainly not powerful in any way. I was timid about pain, and never felt much desire to push myself past my comfort zone. I hardly played sports, and never wanted to be the center of attention in any sort of class or dance or team.

Then something started to shift – I attribute some of that to the birth of F, and feeling as if I was able to look physical pain and exertion square in the face without backing down. Soon after that I found myself needing something more challenging than the occasional walk for fitness and fresh air, and so I started running. It was hard, I wasn’t very good at it, and I labored for each breath and wore myself out easily. The structural problems with my feet became more of a liability, and I once again had to face the idea of intense physical pain with major surgery and the necessary commitment to the hard work of recovery.

But I did it, and a switch was flipped. For in that period of waiting to move again, I had to reconcile myself with being still, more still than I had ever had to be in my whole life. And I was realizing that for someone who thought they never did much, I did everything. All the time. Until I couldn’t.

So when I could move again, I did. I did it with care, but never with timidity. I threw myself into it, looking for incremental progress at every turn. I wanted to run again, to have a strong legs that didn’t tire so easily. I wanted to lift weights, and build strength in my shoulders and my back and my core. But first I knew I had to start somewhere else – I knew that I needed to get to know the muscles of my body first, to pay attention to the way they moved and held still, how they connected to one another, how they stretched and returned, again and again. What I didn’t know, but quickly learned, was how closely my breath was tied to this movement. The exercises we did to deepen our breath and move with our breath and surrender all thoughts to our breath was the link that brought it all together. As that practice deepened, my running improved. As those movements progressed, my strength grew. With surrender came focus, and with focus came confidence, and with confidence came power and resilience and joy.

If you’ve ever practiced yoga, then you know it involves moving through a series of poses that flow together. You can increase the “power” of these poses by building upon them or holding them for longer. The movements are linked to your breath – inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. A good instructor will continually remind you and guide your breath. In moments when holding a pose, sometimes muscles start to twitch or burn, the brain starts to panic a bit, and the desire for release begins to grow. Breathing into those moments took practice.

In particularly challenging moments, when you are holding and shaking and breathing through the poses, it’s very easy to skip ahead in your mind. Wanting to feel that release, and already knowing where you are going, it’s really tempting to take that last inhale and then start to move ahead a short beat ahead of everyone else. That easing of muscles that have been under tension feels so good, and it feels relatively harmless to skip a quick beat. Heather had this frequent saying during class, and I really paid attention to it on Saturday in her final one. Sensing that desire for release, Heather would always remind us not to move too quickly – “stay for the exhale”, she’d say – before moving onto the next prompt.

She pushed us really hard in that last class, and I felt my mind searching for reasons why my body was tired that particular morning – travel, work, holidays, no sleep, little fuel. I had more than enough reasons to release early, to pull back from the edge, to do a little less, but that was my mind talking, and not my breath. I could fast forward to that next pose, or the party setup I was helping with after class, or the packing waiting for me when I returned home, or the driving out of state later that afternoon, but her words were there to remind me that I was just to be in that inhale, until there was no more space left to take in breath, before the exhale – all the way, unrushed, complete.

I do not have a word for this coming new year, but a phrase instead. Call it an intention if you’d like, or a resolution. Call it a new year’s revolution if you are F (and we don’t correct her).

Stay for the exhale.

Jumping in is important, but jumping ahead of myself is just gulping for air for no reason. I am really good at the inhale – opening, expanding, taking it all in, then a few more sips here, and again there, maybe even a pause and a hold at the very tip top. Ideas come fast and furious, and I love to act on them. This, mine, me.

The real challenge for me is sitting still through the exhale. Letting the work out slowly, being okay with the shakes, less prideful about the burns. Resting the brain from plotting the next intake and expansion before this cycle is fully complete. Leaving space for others in the retraction – or reflection, or renewal. Or maybe just nothing, occasionally.

Maybe just that.

Here’s to a new year of practice.

2 Responses to 2020 – stay for the exhale

  1. As soon as I’m over this virus (which is impeding all forms of breathing), I am going to see if they offer yoga for women.of.a.certain.age.
    A thoughtful post. Thank you.
    Blessings in the new year.
    Your biggest fan in Illinois,

    • My favorite part of this particular instructor’s classes was the age range. I have no experience at yoga studios outside of the YMCA (although I’m about to), but I love how diverse and inclusive our Y is. I think if I had walked into a class full of limber 20 year olds I would have walked right back out. (Actually, I joined one such class on the rooftop of the hotel in Savannah – the average age of the others was about 19, and they all had on at least $200 of lululemon, but I did it because I missed it so much while traveling.) hehe

      Feel better soon. Let’s lunch again soon.

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