Your legs will hold you, and other lessons from yoga

Yoga has been so rewarding psychologically, as well as physically. No doubt you are imagining a middle-aged mom putting on expensive Lycra gear to meditate on the wisdom of “live laugh love.”

It’s not quite that! It’s more that the things that yoga demands of my body are instructive, and I can’t help extrapolating them into larger ideas about life. (Laughing and loving are on their own, however.)

Here are some of the more useful ideas that yoga has been helping me internalize, even during the last few weeks when I’ve been too sick to do anything more physically challenging than open a cough drop wrapper: 

It’s okay to take up space. This addresses two struggles: Being okay with taking up space, and being okay with finding value in an idea so clichéd as “it’s okay to take up space.” Every single female friend I have needs to learn both these things. This is where shavasana comes in handy. My goal is to lie there until the dog feels uncomfortable, and at least temporarily not to care about the crud on the rug, the grime on the ceiling, or the floaters in my eyeballs. It’s hard. But it’s made it easier to sit in adoration and do nothing. 

Your life is more interrelated than you realize. Very often, we’ll be holding a pose and the instructor will suggest turning your toes up, twisting your quads outward, or just looking up. And darned if it doesn’t turn on some entirely other, apparently unconnected part of your body. You can almost see the anatomy chart with the affected area traced out in red, all connected. And this happens in life, in general, more often than you may expect, if you have enough mental stillness to recognize the connection. Change one little thing — how you respond to some habitual irritant, whether or not you challenge thoughts that come into your head, what you do first thing in the morning — and it may light up whole, apparently unrelated areas of your life. It’s our own life and our own bodies, and our own mind/body connections, and yet so much of what goes on is mysterious to us. It’s worth it to do some experiments and see what seemingly small adjustments you can make. You may have more control than you realize. 

Transitions don’t have to be graceful. A lot of yoga is about getting from one position into another, and the instructor makes it look easy, but I do not, because it is not easy for me. But why should it be? Transitions are the hardest state to be in. They are inherently unstable. It’s too much to ask of yourself that you should be changing from one thing to the other and also look good doing it. Just focus on getting there without getting hurt, and you’re doing well.

Shaking is normal and functional. The instructor I follow often says “you may feel shaking and quaking,” either when we’re in a difficult balance pose, or when we’ve held a pose for a long time and it’s starting to be a strain. Then she says, “This is good news. It means your muscles are doing their job.” It’s always a relief to hear this. The shaking and quaking is your muscles rapidly compensating for you almost falling over. It’s not actually a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of functionality. It’s your body catching you, over and over and over again. Sometimes that’s how staying up happens: By almost falling over, over and over and over again. 

Relatedly: Balance comes from strength. I used to associate things like compromise, composure, and moderation with weakness and a lack of passion. Sometimes that’s the case; but sometimes it’s much more about strength, and about having built up a whole set of little, interdependent muscles which work together to maintain balance. Sometimes part of that strength includes knowing that other people see you as unfeeling, but continuing on in what you think is best, because it’s how you can maintain balance in your life. That also comes from strength.

Sometimes you push, sometimes you pull, sometimes you just let gravity do the work. When we’re in a pose or in a stretch or release position, the instructor will give us various directions for how to get the results we want, based on what we’ve been doing, what kind of shape we’re in, and how it feels. She acknowledges that, for some people, simply sitting in a certain position is an achievement, and should be honored. But for some people, or on some days, you can add more pressure, and there are various ways of doing this. It’s not about getting into a certain position; it’s about what’s actually happening in your specific body. This in itself is a useful lesson, especially as I recover from covid, and things that were easy last month are very hard again. And I appreciate the reminder that, sometimes, if you want to feel a stretch, you don’t have to exert effort or pressure. Sometimes you don’t have to do anything but wait, and circumstances will stretch you. (Catholics sometimes talk about working on accepting difficult circumstances they can’t change, rather than taking on new penances for Lent, but it’s a principle that can be applied anytime.) 

Flexibility comes in stages. I’m not very naturally flexible, in any way: physically, mentally, or otherwise. But I’m often more flexible than I realize, as long as I take it slowly — and I don’t just mean “over the course of months, with practice.” For instance, if I bow over my legs and breathe with that for a few breaths, then maybe I can creep forward a few inches, then breathe, then gain a little more ground, and so on. I’m more flexible than I think, as long as I don’t try to get there instantly. If there’s somewhere you need to get (or somewhere you need someone else to get!), you likely need to let yourself do it in increments, gradually, patiently, a few breaths at a time, with rest in between.

You can try again next time. The first time I tried crow position (standing on your head, with your knees balanced on the back of your arms), I couldn’t do it at all, and I was so upset and discouraged. But it kept turning up, and I kept trying it, and . . . I’m still pretty terrible at crow, but I’m much better at being okay with not being great at crow, which is a much more useful skill than standing on my head. There are very few things that we truly only get one shot at. There are many, many things that we can get better at if we accept that it will take time and practice and patience and a sense of humor to learn. 

Strength comes from endurance, persistence, and resistance, not violence. I used to think cardio was everything, and if I wanted to be strong and fit, I had to throw myself around and end up sweaty and exhausted, or it wouldn’t count. That never worked, but I kept trying. Well, I think I have built stronger muscles in six months of yoga than at any other time of my life. And I do sweat, but it’s been mostly a matter of carrying my own body weight, maintaining poses for longer than I want to, and pushing back against the ground and the wall in my own living room. Make of it what you will. 

Your legs will hold you. Frequently, when we’re in a difficult pose and want to get out of it, the instructor will reassure us that our legs will hold us. Raise your hand if you’ve had a rough year, and a rough other year before that. Yeah. More than once, I’ve had this phrase come into my head: Your legs will hold you. It acknowledges two things: That what I’m doing right now is hard; and that I am already strong. I can look down and see that, indeed, I have not fallen down. Sometimes just seeing that is enough to keep me going a little bit longer. 

I have tried several different yoga instructors, including the fabled Adriene, and I vastly prefer Julia Marie Lopez. I talk more about her approach here. I did her 30 Day Yoga For Weight Loss course twice, which is on Amazon Prime, then her Couch to Confident 14 Day Yoga Challenge, also on Prime, which hones some yoga skills, and smattering of a few other courses, and then, after  sampling several other free yoga instructors, I started paying the monthly fee to subscribe to Wellness Plus by Psychetruth so I could do her 30 Day Power Up! For Strength and Confidence. These are mostly longer classes, some almost an hour, and I was doing great until I got covid, boo. I’m slowly, shakily starting up again and taking lots of breaks. She’s a very good teacher. 

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6 thoughts on “Your legs will hold you, and other lessons from yoga”

  1. This. Personally prefer Pilates after a bad yoga experience but I learned many of the same lessons in Pilates.

    When I was training in Pilates, the wisdom from finding limbs or even specific muscles in a particular positions shaking is a trauma or stress release, physical or emotional. Might be an old injury, a big physical/emotional event or just accumulated stress of every day life. My Pilates instructor after a mountain bike crash onto my hip lead me through a gentle pelvic/hip release. My left leg shook violently until it stopped and the muscle fibres changed texture. After my first baby (emergency c-section) we tried it again expecting to find my upper leg muscles shaking to release. They didn’t because a baby didn’t pass through. My abdominal muscles in certain positions did though. Second baby was an uncomplicated VBAC. Did the same release and boy did my legs shake. I felt stronger and had better control after that and my pelvis actually shifted into proper alignment.

    That kind of movement, yoga or Pilates is so beneficial for everyone at every life stage.

  2. Thank you, Simcha! I read your previous post on Julia Marie’s yoga and decided to try it out. I loved her 30-day weight loss challenge and then started the “Couch to Confident” series. Unfortunately, as an Amazon Prime member in Canada I cannot get past day 5 or 6. I tried some of her other videos but eventually returned to her 30-day challenge. I guess that once I can do crow pose I should try the other series which I can view in Canada.

    A Catholic friend suggested yoga with “Soul Care” which I have not yet tried. Having never done any yoga or any other fitness course, I thought I should master Julia’s teaching before branching out!

    Thanks again for pointing me in this direction — healthier body, soul, and mind!

  3. This is great, Simcha; thank you for putting into words some of the things I’ve internalized from yoga. I’m glad you tried Adriene & found that Julia works better for you; I tried Julia and decided to stick with Adriene — different patter works better for different people! I’ve also tried Yoga with Kassandra recently and liked her a lot; she has some great stretching videos and less patter than Adriene (I also like Adriene’s non-30 day videos better than the themed ones — less talk there too).

  4. I’ve started doing twenty minute workout videos on YouTube in my living room every morning. Some of the same stuff resonates.

  5. Simcha, I’ve enjoyed reading your blog for years now! You are one of the funniest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I don’t think we’ve ever met in person, but I’m a UD grad and live in the Irving area (near where your sister used to live actually) so I’ve always thought of us as irl adjace:) Anyhow, I just wanted to give a shout out to Pietra Fitness, a stretching and strengthening program with all of the fabulous benefits you so eloquently explained you experience with yoga, but with the addition of Christian meditation. I too enjoyed many of the benefits you mention when I started doing yoga several years ago, however, when I found Pietra fitness, I never looked back. It’s food for my body and my soul and has transformed my life. Would encourage you to check it out.

  6. Yoga is wonderful. I’ve been taking classes fitfully since law school, back in 1985. I’ve gone for long periods, once a whole ten years, without a class, and it’s not quite like riding a bicycle but it’s close. I very much love your descriptions here because that’s exactly what yoga does for me, even if I couldn’t have expressed it so well before I read your piece here. (You have achieved every essayist’s real dream; saying something that perfectly expressed a reader’s thoughts in a way she only realized by reading your writing. Take a bow, kid!)

    For anyone who thinks yoga is some weird New Age-y pagan thing that will invite evil spirits, know that the modern version of it was invented based on 19th Century German ‘korpuskultur’ exercises and is roughly as religious as PE class. The originators certainly used some aspects of traditional Hindu meditation, but they deliberately faked the age of the practice as part of the campaign for Indian independence. Yoga was one part of a campaign to get respect for traditional Indian culture in response to British ideas about the inferiority of the peoples they were governing. (Fascinating history, by the way. I can recommend books!)

    Anyway, enjoy your exercises! I’ll think about you on Wednesday during my class, when I’m crashed in shivasana.

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