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A friend’s daughter went on a pilgrimage in Spain. The magnitude of this walk cannot be minimized. The traditional route is 500 miles long! For those of you who, like me, have trouble visualizing distances, that would be like me walking from Philadelphia where I live to Durham, NC where I went to school (a drive that takes 8 hours on a good day) and then continuing on another hundred miles almost to Charlotte. In short, it’s a very long walk.
As he told me a little about her journey, my heart skipped a beat. The thought of a young woman dedicating weeks to literally walk deeper into her faith is simply inspiring. Perhaps with a few stars in my eyes, I asked if she loved the experience. His response has been rattling around in my head ever since.
“I don’t think you really love a pilgrimage as much as get through it. For my daughter, it was about learning to take care of her blisters along the way rather than toughing it out until they become a serious issue.”
There is so much wisdom in his words. I suspect, at one time or another, we’ve all tried to tough out a little problem only to wind up with a big one.
This actually seems to be a bit of an epidemic in my house. My daughter ignored a nagging pain in her back for so long that she wound up spending most of her sophomore year crew season in physical therapy rather than in the boat with her team. My husband didn’t pay attention to a vague pain that he felt in the gym only to wake up one morning with a frightening numbness down one arm. I spent months noticing an inexplicable weakness in one shoulder during my yoga practice. Rather than having it checked out, I toughed it out – literally muscling my way through my practice. In doing so, I created an imbalance that finally rendered my sun salutations impossible. It took further months of acupuncture, body work and modified practice for it to heal.
The desire to “tough it out” is a natural one. None of us want to be a complainer. None of us wants to seem like a wimp. We want to be seen as strong, brave, issue-free. But, let’s get real, we all have problems. We all get a wrinkle in our sock sometimes.
The question my friend’s story raises in me is when did it become weak or embarrassing to pause to take care of ourselves? When did self-care go from being wise to being wimpy?
Practicing yoga is a way to care for ourselves inside and out. We tend to think first about the body when we talk about a yoga practice, and yoga is very good for the body. It makes us stronger. It keeps our joints moving more freely. It can help us stay lean and fit. But, as you saw in my little story above, giving priority to the physical gifts of yoga can trip us up.
Yoga teaches us a great deal beyond how to stand on one foot or touch our toes. It creates awareness. It develops focus. It demands acceptance and surrender to what is. It is stubborn and exacting in its ability to teach us to stop trying to control our reality. When we start to really receive and embrace these lessons, its physical gifts seem incidental. Yet, even when we know that (or at least even when I know that), we can lose our way. We can grip down so hard on our need to do the physical practice that, instead of caring for ourselves, we wind up hurting ourselves.
Let’s return to my example. The awareness that I developed on my yoga mat did a great job revealing that something was amiss in my body. But it was vague and a little confusing. Rather than exploring it or even seeking help, I decided my practice was more important than its gifts. I was so hell-bent on doing my daily practice that I lost sight of the fact that it is meant to heal me, to restore balance and to create a comfort in my body that allows me to live life with an open heart and a smile on my face.
But yoga was having none of that nonsense. In the end, my physical practice fell apart because of my misplaced priorities. Taking care of myself – the whole point of the practice – finally became urgent when I could no longer move around on my mat. As I began the journey back to wellness, I also began the journey of understanding (again and anew) the real depth of this practice.
I suspect my discovery was much like the one my friend’s daughter had as she walked her pilgrimage. If she didn’t have the wisdom and strength to stop and spend a few minutes caring for her feet while her blisters were small, she could jeopardize her long walk into her faith. Slowing down for a little while is sometimes a necessary part of the journey. Maybe she, like I did, learned this the hard way by prioritizing one day’s distance over the experience of the pilgrimage as a whole.
I pray that she, like I do, now knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that taking care of herself is not wimpy or weak. It leaves us ready and able for the long haul.