With a toddler running around and a bun in the oven, I knew finding a way to get some exercise—real exercise—was going to be a challenge. Sure, I chased that toddler around all day and had the exhaustion to prove it, but what I didn’t have was any benefit of an elevated heart rate in the aerobic zone, properly strengthened or stretched muscles, or the stress release of any intentional exercise routine. I knew I needed it, so when Blockbuster (yes, this was a while ago) had a table full of discount fitness DVDs, I snapped up one that purported to be a gentle yoga program for expecting mothers. Gentle. Expecting. Checked the boxes for me.
I put my curly-haired wonder down for a nap, surrounded by her stuffed animals. Once she drifted off to sleep, I thought I’d pop that DVD in and give this yoga thing a shot.
I see a serene, studio environment, three subjects on the screen. Instructor, and two pupils, each demonstrating a variation on the pose.
Zero previous experience. Zero understanding of the real benefits (or the real point) of yoga. I just knew it didn’t look like a lot of jumping around, and more than anything seemed accessible. Seemed easy.
My belly was twenty-five weeks round, big enough I couldn’t easily get into any of the poses, and after five minutes of trying to do the easiest/modified version, frustration boiled up, and I quit. I sat on the couch, holding out hope that watching other people do yoga offered the same benefits as doing it myself. Maybe. Just maybe.
Something about not being able to do even the most basic poses touched deep insecurities. I was ashamed of my inability to get it together to intelligently move my body in healthy ways. That afternoon marked the last time the prenatal yoga DVD was ever played until I passed it off to someone else a few years ago.
Five years after my first private yoga failure, I walked into a group class at the YMCA. I was on a fitness kick, having fulfilled my fitness goal of walking or running at least ten miles a week for a whole calendar year. We had joined the local YMCA, partly so I could check in my five kids and have a mental break and a place to pound out my miles on a nice indoor treadmill (with a tv screen). I had walked by the yoga class at least a dozen times during other visits. Maybe a change of pace could be nice, I thought, and maybe now that I’m not 25 weeks pregnant, I might find yoga appealing, approachable, possible.
I timidly walked through the doors to the studio, scanning the room for clues about how to get started. Shoes or no shoes? Everyone else left theirs at the door, so I slipped mine off too. Mat? Several others grabbed community mats from a hanging spot on the wall, so I found one for myself and laid it in an open spot.
I nervously smiled at the women to my left and right as the instructor started up the class. I tried matching her body positions and listening to her verbal cues. I could never quite hit the angles or positions, and by the time I was on my back for a pose I couldn’t manage at all, gobs of tears were streaming down my face, pooling uncomfortably in my ears. I gave up trying to match the instructor at all, and let myself cry for the remainder of the class, my confidence shot. I promised myself that I’d just stick with treadmill walking from now on.
Serious anxiety entered my life this past year. It had always been a reasonable, contained, underlying reality for me. I’m the cautious sort and managed to avoid many a disaster simply by refusing to engage anything outside of my comfort zone. It’s a great tactic for managing risk, but a terrible one for a thriving life. Still, it wasn’t until this year that I saw anxiety in a new light—a gaping wound, raw and tender, dangerous, and uncontainable.
Much of my anxiety has been a result of health events in the past year, and my chronic habit of ignoring my physical needs. It’s not that I’ve never done anything to care for myself; I’ve tried lots of things. Every few years, I get on some kind of fitness kick, some renewed commitment to a particular way of eating. None of them have stuck because all relied on willpower to forge ahead in areas that haven’t yet been healed. With a gaping wound, I tried to get up and get moving—run, go, do, make it happen. What I really needed was triage, wound-dressing, rest, and a new vision for what it means to care for my body.
I’ve held traumas in my body, stress in my body, and even my memories have a home in my muscles in a way I’ve never given much thought to. My body has done amazing things—pregnancy and birth of seven beautiful children. Even that has come with some “side effects,” and now the lack of strength and diminished function are specifically and seriously impacting my life in a negative way. I’ve had no peace this past year, between a complicated pregnancy and postpartum season and my first all-out spar with mental health and wellbeing. I’ve been at the very end of myself, empty as empty can be, unable to bootstrap my way out of despair and into my comfortable pursuit of productivity. Peace has been absent because productivity is no longer on the table. I’m here, wondering from day to day whether I will be able to function at all, or if I’m going to use all the energy I’ve got for the humble tasks my family needs me for.
A dear friend of mine has been going through the process of becoming a certified yoga instructor. I’ve seen her at a park playground, seated on a blanket in some sort of stretchy-dancer-like pose, breathing deep while her kids play nearby. At our weekly homeschool co-op, I’ve caught glimpses of her taking a minute to sit during lunch, legs criss-crossed, and eyes closed to breathe and stretch her neck slowly in a few directions. I know she prioritizes movement, breathing, and living in connection to her body moment by moment. I’ve longed to know how to do that myself, but haven’t been able to make the leap.
Imagine my total surprise when, weeks later, she sends me a text and offers to come to my home to lead me through some of the basics—part of her efforts as a new instructor to gain experience and also bless my socks off. I accept her offer, with the caveat that body things uncork weird emotional things in me, but I’m glad to learn and try. Unfazed, she says she’ll bring a mat for me since I don’t have one, and she’ll be here Monday.
When she arrives, I am in the middle of a several-day stretch of heightened anxiety. I nearly cancel with her, because I don’t want to be a stick-in-the-mud friend, but the truth is, I’m pretty desperate for any way out of the internal mess I’m in, even if it’s yoga. She leads me through a half-hour of gentle and very basic moves, giving tips about breathing, how to transition, how to start simple, and extend a particular stretch. I don’t cry at all until we’re wrapping up—a definite improvement on my last experience. She offers to come again if I want to continue checking this out. I know I want to, but I’m not ready to say so just yet. Committing to more yoga seems like a big deal, considering my history.
A few days go by, and an anxious afternoon creeps up my neck. I feel myself starting to waffle under the weight of unseen things, and know that if I don’t do something, I will inch my way toward bedtime and another nighttime anxiety attack. My children are settling into beds, and the twinkle lights strung around the room are the only lights on. I decide I just might need to send this anxiety away through a quarter-hour of the basic yoga moves I learned from my friend. I don’t have a mat, but I do have an open space of carpet. It’s good enough for me.
I uncomfortably sit criss-crossed and try to let my glutes and hamstrings stretch awhile. I close my eyes and rest my hands on my knees. I breathe slow, deep breaths and count as I exhale. When I get to five, I tip my chin down and breathe, stretching the muscles in my neck and between my shoulders. When I get to five again, I turn my head to the side and stretch the opposite arm out, feeling the increased stretch in the side-neck muscles and the top of my shoulder. When I get to five again, I switch.
I carefully move to the tabletop position that sets me up for cat/cow, and I breathe. My five-year-old daughter, whose bed is right next to me, is watching intently. I don’t want her to know how desperate I feel to outrun this anxiety. I ignore her and arch upward like a cow, then curl into cat pose. I don’t know if I’m doing it right, but I’m breathing. I am defiantly rejecting the anxiety pawing at me, breathing in peace, breathing out stress. I repeat patterns of five because that makes sense to me at the moment. I do a few more poses my friend taught me, ending on my back with a full body checklist, releasing tension in every joint and muscle from head to toe.
When I crawl into bed, the dark night surrounding me, my head on my pillow, I realize anxiety is not with me. I feel peace. I am ready to sleep (until the baby wakes to nurse), and I think to myself, I need to do this again tomorrow night.
The next morning, I hit up Amazon and look at yoga mats. I find one for $12.99 and put it in the cart with all the other last-minute Christmas items I’ve earmarked.
I think this is how life-change begins. A humble admission that I want to learn. A generous offer from a friend to meet me where I am. A few small steps to get started breathing. Stretching. Setting down the need to race my way to the next big goal.
I’m starting this year with a new lens…not what I hope to accomplish this year, although there will be some things. I choose to start this year inviting peace. Inviting God to continue the work He has begun in me. Continue the healing He has set in motion. Continue the process of trading out my need to advance, impress, or achieve for the truth that I am right where I need to be loved as I am, without needing to earn or prove my significance.
This year I will breathe. I will stretch. I will honor my limitations. I will set my posture as one ready to learn vs. one ready to crush (goals). I will invite peace into my home and peace into my soul. I will trade chronic tiredness and bone-deep exhaustion for rest and restorative activities. I will nourish my body and my dearest relationships. I will invite peace into my depleted and discouraged places. I will open my hands and receive the gifts God brings in the stillness and silence.
And I will do it on my new, light-grey yoga mat.
Emily Sue Allen is the founder of Kindred Mom, and she hosts/produces the Kindred Mom podcast. She is a contemplative, creative soul who celebrates the beauty of a humble, handmade life and deeply values the power of encouragement. She lives with her husband and seven kids in the Pacific Northwest, and personally blogs at emilysueallen.com. Find Emily on Instagram.