This past week I’ve tried some new things to keep my body moving, since I’m now too big and unwieldy to keep up with my yoga classes. One of those things, much to my initial resentment, is the recumbent bike at the gym. Usually I like to stay away from cardio machines, because one thing I’ve learned about myself over the last few years is that for me to want to stick with a workout routine, I need to be able to see it as part of my life and not just something to check off a list; zoning out on the elliptical or pedaling to nowhere on the recumbent bike are a little too I Am Going To Complete My Workout Now for my liking, and I much prefer my workouts as a whole to have some sort of purpose beyond a calorie burn.
But that is neither here nor there: my options are super limited right now, so suck it up I must. It’s not that bad. I got to listen to my old running playlist yesterday, at any rate.
But again: that is neither here nor there. On Friday while pedaling along and people-watching, I listened to a prenatal yoga podcast done by my yoga instructor, and one of the things she said struck me. I can’t remember her exact phrasing, but she mentioned that one focus of prenatal yoga is not to teach the body to master any one pose or to overcome any sensation or discomfort brought on by the practice, but instead to teach us to go with that sensation and discomfort — to learn how to breathe with it, and to not freak out when it’s hard. She went on to explain that this training is supposed to assist us in birth, when we will then have the appropriate skills (and the instinct to use them) to cope with labor.
This kind of thinking seems to me to go against our basic human instinct. I know that even now, despite all the yoga I’ve done in the last six months, my initial response to pain is to tense up, hold my breath, tighten my jaw. However, she’s right — relaxing and riding out the pain is a much better way to cope. And this, of course, made me think of the pain of grief.
One thing that I realized over the summer when my grief was at its most devastating and acute was that relying on my own feeble strength to “get by” was not only completely pointless, but counterproductive. I hated hearing unhelpful advice to “stay strong”. Strong? Stay strong? Are you kidding me? What on earth is that going to accomplish? Is gritting my teeth and gripping the arms of my chair really hard going to make it any easier? No. It isn’t. My prayer throughout this long grief process has been for Christ to carry me through it, because I know that my own limited strength isn’t up to the task.
I don’t think resisting pain should be our primary objective when facing difficult circumstances, Christians and otherwise. Yes, we are called to persevere (Romans 5:3-5 comes to mind) —
… We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts …
but perseverance is not the same thing as trying to fight against and deny pain. Just like a controlling focus on mastering difficult poses and overcoming sensation and discomfort are counterproductive in prenatal yoga, I think those things can just as counterproductive in the rest of our lives, too. Swimming against the current, so to speak, is just exhausting, and acknowledging and accepting the grief is not weakness.
One of the most helpful and comforting things anyone said to me during my mother’s decline was when Melissa told me she would “be my Aaron” and hold my arms up over the battle when I couldn’t do it anymore. Just the acknowledgement that there would even come a time when I wouldn’t be able to hold my arms up on my own anymore was a huge comfort, because it’s true. There is nothing you can do to stop the pain of grief, and tensing up, holding your breath, and tightening your jaw will not make it any easier. There are limits to our strength, and relying on it to cope with grief sets us on a foundation made of sand. Instead, what I have found helpful (in a practical sense) is exactly what my yoga teacher said: relax and ride it out, and keep breathing. Trust that your house is set on a rock.
There is no easy when it comes to grief, but it does make it more bearable to not have to feel like the moment I exhale, the world will shatter — and in fact, the more I relax my body and breathe through it, the less stressful the pain becomes. I am hoping to bring this philosophy with me not just into my labor, but throughout the rest of my life as well.