Put your arms down!

I found yoga after I began to have trouble with tolerating cardiovascular exercise during my sophomore year at BYU.  I enrolled in an intramural class, probably at my sister’s recommendation.  I didn’t know it at the time but I had several tumors growing in my body that were producing adrenal hormones.  One tumor was positioned behind my pancreas, in between my aorta and vena cava.  Knowing what I do now, I suspect that when my heart started pumping vigorously, the mechanical stimulation from the movement of these vessels triggered a dump of adrenal hormones into my system from the tumor.  This resulted in cold sweats, a severe headache and sometimes feeling faint.

So yoga was a way for me to exercise without ticking off my tumors.  And that’s really how I’ve looked at it all these years—exercise.  I found it incredibly helpful for back pain.  I was blessed with an ample bosom when I was young (nursing a baby and gravity have fixed that).  I suspected this contributed to constant pain and tension between my shoulder blades.  I also took a header off the top of the cheerleading pyramid as a high school senior.  I believe this was related to the aforementioned tumor as well. The fall resulted in a concussion and a bulging cervical disc (i.e. neck pain).  The gentle stretching and strengthening of yoga gave me relief that years of physical therapy and chiropractic work didn’t generate.  

I had lots of reasons to practice yoga and I have been doing it with varying levels of consistency since my class at BYU.  

Several weeks ago, I was talking to my therapist about cancer.  She asked me if I ever resented my body through this process.  I had to pause.  I don’t think I’m someone who is resentful of my body.  I guess I haven’t had to be.  After that first year of surgery and then a couple of years of acid reflux and irritable bowels, my body has been pretty okay.  It really has been able to do everything I’ve asked of it.  

A couple of weeks ago I felt drawn back to yoga and have re-entered the practice in a very different way this time.  The exercise benefit is secondary to me now.  I am there for the spiritual benefit.  I already wrote about my first experience in The Journey of the Warrior.  That class opened me up to the power of an intention.  I am familiar with the idea of setting an intention, but I think I rarely did it before because it felt like something I was going to be bad at.  Inevitably my mind would wander and then when I noticed this I would feel shame about it.  So maybe all this personal work I’ve been doing has helped my yoga practice!

The next few classes I attended resulted in me crying silently on my mat during savasana or before the class even started.  I found myself able to immerse into the practice more deeply than ever before.  

One day, as I sat cross-legged with my hands in prayer position, I set my intention to listen.  I remember thinking, I’ve already heard from my mind and my spirit today, now it’s time to hear from my body. (It seems I have become open to all of these woo-woo types of things now…still struggling with essential oils and dietary supplements…one step at a time, people!)

As we began the vinyasa practice the instructor guided us into warrior II.  This pose requires you to stand with arms outstretched in front of and behind you.  It’s a pose I’ve done thousands of times.  For some reason, on this day, those little tiny muscles on the front of my shoulders were on fire.  They screamed at me as I held the pose.  

I observed my brain say the following: You are young, you have well-developed shoulders!  There is no reason why you should need to put your arms down!  You can hold this pose!   I heard those tiny muscles scream back, Put your arms down!  This went back and forth a few times over the course of about twenty seconds.  Then I remembered my intention and I responded (of course I am in conversation with my brain and my shoulders—isn’t everybody?!?).  I told them, Today is about listening and I’m going to put my arms down.  And then I did.  

What is interesting is what followed.  As I stood in warrior II with my arms resting by my sides, I was overcome with respect and humility toward my body.  MY BODY!  Which is such an amazing tool for all the things I love.  My body! that has tolerated cancer for 14 years.  My body! that was inhabited by my son for nine months.  My body! That can paddle a surfboard, ride a bike, lift heavy weight, and walk long distances.  My body! That holds my son close, that can smell his hair and pat his thighs.  My body! That hears and tastes and sees and smells and touches. 

But that word—tool—clued me into the work I need to do in relation to my body.  Yes, my body is a tool but it’s more than that.  It has a voice—clearly, it was speaking to me that day.  It’s pretty used to me not listening but, I wonder, what would change in my life if I listened to her more.  It feels like an opening into another phase of growth.  When does your body speak? Namaste.

4 thoughts on “Put your arms down!

  1. maggierapid says:

    Oh, yes, yes, yes. The spiritual gifts of the body are amazing, I think. I am in awe of my energy sometimes. I think, “I’m 68 years old! I have friends in wheel chairs and walkers, and here I am springing from task to task, swimming like a champ, and loving how my body feels and moves.” I have a friend who says, “Movement is life.” Yes. My 98-year-old father told me last night that at the retirement home where he lives, he notices that when people stop coming to the meals that very soon after they are dead. It’s not because they are not eating, because they can have their food delivered to their apartments, but it’s because they stop making the effort to walk to the dining room. I’ll bet there’s a social aspect to that as well, but he sees it as USE IT OR LOSE IT! I am so grateful for my body. How it’s connected to my spirit is a mystery, but I know the two work in tandem and influence each other. And it reminds me of a little snippet of research I read about how the brain can take a physical cue like an intentional SMILE, and then interpret that as, I must be happy. Typically, we think we think it’s the other way around. I am just in awe of the way my body works. I am so grateful for it and all it can do. I will listen more carefully to it as a result of your post. Wonderful post, as always. Amazing image of you crying on your mat. You really describe things masterfully. THANK YOU.

    • Michelle Whipple says:

      Maggie, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Your observations about movement and life make a lot of sense to me. This is what I’m really loving about becoming an observer of myself–there’s so much to be learned if we just pay attention! Mary Oliver wrote this: “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Thank you for reading and watching and thinking about all of this along side of me.!

  2. maggierapid says:

    Thank you! I love Mary Oliver’s instructions!!! She lived that so well, too. Here’s one of my favorite quotes of hers: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” I’ve pondered that often as I sometimes whiz through my life–My one wild and precious life!!!

Shine some light my way. Tell me your thoughts!