There I was, moving through my Sun Salutations in the gym’s mirrored yoga studio. If you looked at me, you would have thought that I was deep in my practice. But all I could think about were my arms. Within a period of five or ten minutes, they went from strong and reasonably toned to taking over my body and the room. My body grew thicker and broader every time I peeked at my reflection. I tried to breathe the negative self-talk away and was able to make it through the practice but walked away pissed off with a strong urge to eat chocolate. Just about the only thing I was grateful for is that yoga studios generally do not have mirrors on the walls (whereas gyms generally do), so confronting my delts, triceps and shoulders is something I can avoid most of the time.
Yoga teachers, myself included, tend to prattle on about gratitude–gratitude for the practice of yoga, for one’s blessings in the world, and yes, gratitude for one’s body. I’m not sure how much of this comes from the heart or if we are saying this because we think we’re supposed to. For me, it’s a mixture of both. I do feel grateful for many parts of my life in general. In my head, I know that most people on this planet would envy me my family, lifestyle, and relative good health. That’s why it’s doubly frustrating to see my glass as half-full some of the time, because I start thinking how grateful I should be. Gratitude is an important concept that needs to be taught; I just wish I could walk my talk more of the time.
The irony of this particular arm hating practice is that right now, my left arm is out of commission. I’ve been working with a stubborn elbow injury for a few weeks. It’s not getting better, so yesterday, I bit the bullet and went in for a shot of cortisone. Today, it’s hard to lift pies out of the oven (heck, it was hard to roll over in bed last night) because my arm is so sore. Moving through any type of flow in which my arms have to support my weight is unthinkable. I know the discomfort is temporary and it’s for the greater good–a little pain is a small price to pay for a healed elbow–but that’s not to say I am enjoying it today. My arms of Wednesday, albeit less jacked than they would be in my ideal world, were functional. My arms of Saturday? Not so much.
Sometimes the very thing that pisses us off–about ourselves, our lives, our friends, the world–can manifest itself as a blessing if we just shift our parameters. My arm is an extension of myself that enables me to move about my world and do some pretty remarkable stuff. I could qualify my self-hating by writing that I don’t have the bat wing underhang or that I’m starting to see some separation between my delts, pecs and triceps. But this begs the question, doesn’t it? Would losing the functionality of my body be any more or less distressing if my body looked the way I wanted it to? I don’t think so. It’s like they sing in so many second-rate country songs: You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, a tough way to learn to be grateful, but sometimes, it’s the only thing that works.
I’ve heard terminal cancer patients talk about how their diagnosis became a gift of sorts, how it forced them to take inventory of their lives and throw away all the meaningless shit, focusing on the beauty and good instead. My father will often comment that the last year of my mother’s life, when she was dying, was the best year of their marriage. They concentrated on enjoying what time they had left and didn’t take anything for granted. And so this week, in anticipation of Thanksgiving, I’m not asking my students to practice gratitude. Instead, I’m asking them to consider re-framing. Pick something you are decidedly NOT grateful for and then get curious about whether, or how, you can shift your parameters in order to see this curse as a blessing in disguise. I think it’s possible.
My arms may never look like Madonna’s. But as long as I can hold a plank, sweep my floor, or hug my loved ones, they will probably serve me just fine.