The other day, I rolled out my dusty purple yoga mat in my bedroom, and stood at one end, ready to launch into my usual fifteen minute yoga routine.
On a whim, I thought, why not set an intention for this practice?
This is unusual. Generally, I don’t bother with intentions or thoughtfulness. I often breathe prayers while I’m in postures, and not much else. But I was writing a piece on yoga, and was trying to be more intentional in general about my practice, so this was a place to start.
I considered for a moment, and thought, how about gratitude for my body?
I generally do feel grateful for my body. Somehow, despite my sister’s eating disorder and my fifteen years of ballet, I don’t hate my thighs, I don’t mind being naked, and I don’t struggle with body dysmorphia.
I didn’t think gratitude for my body was a difficult intention.
Blithely, I bent forward and wrapped my arms around my legs, and thought, thank you legs, for being strong and flexible. Thank you thank you.
To my shock, my eyes filled with tears.
Down into plank position I went. Thank you, thank you, dear body.
More tears. It was like I had found an aquifer in my chest.
Where was that grief coming from?
Ever since then, I have been piecing it together. The jitteriness that resulted from hearing over and over again that people I love had been sexually assaulted. The depression that has come when I’m at my weakest, and made me doubt my own internal rudder. My own weariness of struggling with anxiety every day.
I might like my thighs just fine. Even so, sometimes I feel my body betrays me.
All of us feel our bodies betray us, at some point. I have friends who have discovered cancer nestled in their throat, or lost a baby in the last trimester. I have friends who haven’t been able to lose the weight they longed to lose, or who suffer from chronic pain.
It can feel like betrayal when our bodies do not work as instructed. When good things—a child’s touch, good food, exercise, sex, swimsuits, or a pregnancy—repel us instead instead of pleasing us.
It is so easy to be resentful of good gifts when we cannot enjoy them how we want to, or how we think we ought to. It’s easy to frame our body’s frailties as betrayal.
What I’ve realized, though, is my body recognizes my resentment. It clutches it like a wilted flower. It curls into itself, and guards itself from my lack of compassion.
That night I set a grateful intention, my resentment surfaced. It caught me off guard to understand how curt I was with my fragile bones.
My dear friend Jerusha—who has written a few books about mental health and brain function—told me that the parts of the brain that control anxiety are the same ones that control gratitude. Physically the two feelings are mutually exclusive.
It’s like Philippians 4:6 wired in our synapses. If we feel grateful, we can’t feel anxious.
I am grateful for my thighs, but am I grateful for my ridiculously large personal space bubble? Am I grateful that I experienced depression? Am I grateful that it doesn’t take much for me to panic?
Here’s what I’ve realized about some of the times my body has “failed” me: it reacts, immediately, when I ignore my emotions. It does not let me forget that I am a human being, not a robot.
I need to get used to this. I am in a body that will, eventually, fail.
Can I begin forgiving it, even now, for its limits?
Bruce Kramer, an educator and blogger who died a few years ago from ALS, was on one of my favorite NPR shows, On Being. It was about my favorite podcast, ever.
He recounted a conversation he had after his diagnosis:
I had this very funky healer call me, a friend of a friend…I said, “Well, let me tell you about what’s going on.” And she said, “Oh, no, I don’t need you to. I just need you to be quiet right now.” Finally, she says, “You are so angry. You have to forgive your body or this is not going to go well.”
Krista Tippet, the host, then quoted Kramer’s book, saying that as he dealt with his diagnosis, he tried to figure out, “How do we grow into the demands of what is beyond us?”
I keep asking myself this question.
I ask: how I am going to grow into the demands of my body (which are, let’s be honest, very minimal right now)? How am I going to accept this precious body I’ve been given, with all of its tics and quirks? How am I going to start treating it with reverence and compassion, instead of annoyance? How am I going to embrace that its fits and starts are part of who I am?
How am I going to embrace this body I have, and the grief I struggle with? How am I going to grow into its demands, even when they are beyond me?