Retreating into Softness by April Herndon

Over the last few years, my yoga practice has become much slower and more methodical because that’s what my body has needed as I continue to grapple with the ongoing effects of Lyme. On some days, I can still do any pose I like; on others, many poses simply aren’t available to me. Last weekend, I went to a yoga and meditation retreat knowing part of me still grieved what I often think of as my more “athletic” and “intense” practice that I’ve left behind.

I went to the retreat because I wanted to challenge myself to take the instructions I give to my students every Sunday evening but that I still find hard to take into my own practice: listen to your body; support it; let it be soft; honor the things it can do on the mat for this hour of this day, knowing that the body is different each time, and knowing that all bodies deserve honor, respect, and joy.

I wanted to reconnect with my body. I wanted to learn to approach it with care and softness and to appreciate it for what it is now rather than what it was or what I imagine it used to be.
Each day of the retreat brought a new lesson to me about the power of supporting and appreciating my body as it is. In one restorative pose, I used a prop for support because I realized I couldn’t stay in the pose without it; it was empowering to take that assistance—to momentarily cast away any hesitancy to care for my own body for fear that someone might think I was weak. I let myself just stay in the pose with the support, and when any feeling of hesitancy or fear arose, I let myself feel it and then exhale it away. As I did, my body became softer, and at the same time I felt stronger in my resolve to support and honor my body’s needs and capabilities.

Later in the weekend, during a meditation, deep sadness for the body and abilities I once had arose again. At that moment, I finally allowed myself to grieve the body I lived with and through before Lyme. Our culture doesn’t talk nearly enough about how changes to our bodies and abilities affect us. After living in a body that works and/or looks a certain way for so many years, a different body is an adjustment and can feel like a loss; it certainly did for me. I let myself weep soft and silent tears for the body I once lived with; I sat with the grief and let myself remember the poses I once loved but now aren’t a part of my regular practice and how my body felt before arthritis settled in my knees.

And as I sat, a deer came to the window of the retreat center and looked inside. Behind him, the sky was lit with stars, and the tips of his small antlers rose to meet a constellation. When the wind kicked up and the white birches behind him swayed, he turned to go back to the woods. As I watched him go, I found myself weeping tears of gratitude to be alive and to be sitting there to witness such a sight—grateful for the body that let me do that. At that moment, I began to truly reconnect with my body.

Each day of the retreat, I found an intensity in the stillness of restorative poses, meditation, and Yoga Nidra that we seldom talk about but which is no less powerful and no less deserving of our respect as that more “athletic” practice I had left behind. In fact, I found myself rethinking what it means to have an “intense” practice and recognizing the power and joy of staying long enough in a pose or an emotion to connect with my body, my feelings, and my precious breath. Intensity isn’t necessarily about the physical feat but more about what we bring to our practice, and I was finding my own kind of intensity as I reconnected with my body. Finally, I let myself explore where I am with an open mind instead of constantly focusing on where I once was. Although it may not have looked like much was going on as I stayed in stillness, my practice was no less intense than any other I’ve done in my life.

My hope is to bring what I experienced and learned at my retreat not only back to my own ongoing practice but back to my students. There is no doubt that there are many physical benefits to the supported and long-held stretches that restorative poses offer and the deep relaxed yogic sleeping of Yoga Nidra, but these practices and classes offer more than that. While restorative classes and Yoga Nidra don’t always look like other yoga classes because we are so often on our mats and supported by props, these are practices that build a different kind of strength in our muscles, emotions, and spirits. They help build the kind of strength that lets us be soft in and with our bodies, to relax the tense muscles we so often use to protect ourselves, and to be kind to ourselves. These classes offer their own kind of beautiful intensity.

When we simply stay with our breath and our bodies and let ourselves explore rather than running away or imagining our bodies to be different, there can be joy, lightness, and a deep comfort. We learn patience and acceptance for ourselves and our bodies when we just breathe and stay, and we take that outside the corners of our yoga mats and into our lives.
I know that yoga has transformed my life many times, and the stillness of restorative work and Yoga Nidra have taught me so much about myself recently. I was transformed again at the retreat when I realized all the wonderful things my body still allows me to do. I found so much more than yoga and meditation on that mat, and I hope the same for my students.