I was trying to imagine a class at the gym where one might advertise a course in “stillness and small movements” that would attract people. Certainly I would not sign up for a class like this expecting to “get fit” or lose weight. That is not what we are told. Eat Less, Move More is the mantra in the current ethos. I understand this is meant to get those of us who sit in office chairs for 8 (or more) hours a day, to get up, walk around, and generally become more active. I believe this is a wonderful idea, and taking breaks away from my desk regularly keeps me more focused when I do sit down.
Neurologists who study the effects of exercise on the brain tell us how much daily amounts of aerobic exercise boost our memory and thinking skills. I am a big proponent of taking a daily walk, or if you cannot spare 20-30 minutes doing this, then get it in micro-amounts instead. Take the stairs if you are just going up 1-2 flights. Or park further from the store when you get groceries, and walk a little more. Granted, in Minnesota during the winter, this takes some special discipline and when it is icy, I tend to skip it too.
I have been a runner for many years, and I knew that my regular doses of vigorous exercise helped me immensely with focus, memory, and just general anxiety. Running (and walking) clear the “mental cobwebs” that tend to build up during a sedentary day, and feels great when you work up to some baseline fitness level.
However, rest and renewal, on physical, mental and spiritual dimensions is at least as important as regular exercise. By rest, I do not mean sedentary sitting on the couch, consuming television, internet, or other passive entertainment. I mean allowing yourself stillness of mind and body and spirit. Stillness? Silence? Are you kidding me? This is how a person (like me) with a.d.d. and some anxiety react when you suggest this cultural heresy.
Are we not *supposed* to spend all our lives doing, in action, in perpetual motion? Have we not been conditioned to do this from the time of being young? In my youth, Sunday was sacred, a Sabbath, and we were not supposed to work. Of course, people still needed to be fed and so that meant that *someone* was working, maybe not all day, but at least for two meals to set food on the table. Typically that was Mom, as it is is most families. And the children perhaps had to set the table, but this was for the ritual of a eating a meal together, so I suppose technically not “work.” Of course, every Sunday night I always did homework, because, as a procrastinator, even if I did work on it on Saturday (which was actually my true sabbath, in all honesty), I tended to procrastinate.
The feminist in me objects to the discounting of the work that women do for families. It is sacred work then, this caring that takes place on Sundays (and pretty much every day of the week in so many households). In fact, whenever we care for our loved ones, this is sacred work. And how often do we care for ourselves? How often to we nurture the divine spark that lies within us? This is also sacred.
A body at rest tends to stay at rest, a body in motion tends to stay in motion (with the same speed and the same direction) unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. This is Newton’s First Law of motion, sometimes known as the law of inertia. I want to suggest that we apply this notion to human consciousness as well, since it is part of our common cultural understanding. We realize we must apply energy to change the current state, whether to stop if we are moving or to start if we are still. I would offer that our habits are a sort of Newtonian inertia – we tend to keep repeating them unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
What I love about this “unbalanced force” terminology is that is describes how I see my need for yoga and self-care. I tend to keep doing all the things exactly the way I have done them until my body says “no, you must get more of this (rest)” now. But ignoring the natural cycles for rest and renewal is something we train ourselves to ignore in this culture. We must keep pushing, our ego-driven internal monologues tell us. The hungry ghosts of our past rise up and tell us not to be lazy, we must keep going. Perhaps the voices we internalized as children chide us for wasting time, for not making use of every moment.
I would offer that this is very short-term thinking, and outdated at best. The industrial era brought us factories with 2-3 shifts, and cities that never sleep. We are taught that being in perpetual motion is the way we are in an ideal world. And yet, in the natural world, every living being sleeps or rests in some way. This is not wrong. It is natural. It is not something we have to fight. It is something that enriches us when we embrace it.
My favorite set of yoga classes, taught one after another by Ruth Silva are a soma yoga class and then a yin yoga class. In soma, the movements are often very very small, almost frustratingly so if you are used to a vinyasa class, where the body tends to move constantly. It requires focus and discipline to pay attention to such small movements. Yin yoga can be even more difficult to the restless among us, the fidgety skeptics (thank you Dan Harris for the phrase). Years ago I first tried yin with Jan Johnson back when I lived in St. Paul (Highland neighborhood). I was astonished that we would hold these slightly uncomfortable poses for 5-7 minutes each!
Then when I moved to White Bear Lake, close to a Lifetime Fitness which also offered yin yoga, I rejoiced in joining a class or two each week. The first summer I was there, I told the front desk staff that if there were more yin classes, I would not put my membership on hold in the summer. Typically I did this because I ran outside 4-5 times a week in the summer, so paying for a gym membership felt like a waste to me. I really did not like vinyasa classes (at the time) which felt like “yogaerobics” to me. But in the summer of 2016, when I began to connect how much 3-4 weekly practices of yoga were changing not only my body, but also my over-active mind, I changed my tune.
As a runner, my upper body has always been a bit neglected particularly my arms, shoulders, back and core. Hatha yoga develops my strength and balance. Vinyasa classes usually left me feeling sore for 3-4 days afterward, until I realized that the sun salutation flows are voluntary. Yes, the teacher typically encourages them, but good teachers tell you that they are optional. Good teachers, like Kathy Barnes (another favorite), remind you that you must do what is right for your body today.
If you end up sitting in child’s pose for much of the practice, or laying flat on your mat in savasana because that is what your body needs today, listen. Do what it takes to be kind to yourself, to honor your body, to honor your need for internal re-connection and rest.
Stillness and small movements create increased awareness of the interconnected nature of your entire body, and the breath that flows within it. Stillness invites you to be with yourself, to reclaim your worthiness and to experience peace. To me, it has become a sacred practice, a way of bringing myself back when the outer demands of the world or the inner demands of my busy brain keep pulling me away from my inner knowing.
In reality our bodies are never truly still, even when we quiet the outer motion. Our cells still process oxygen, our mitochondria still produce energy, our lysosomes still clear waste from the cells. We simply allow, we surrender to our natures. We surrender to the beauty and wonder of being human. I cannot think of what is more sacred than this.