I am not, by nature, a flexible person. Asked to touch my toes, I can dangle my knuckles towards the ground and groan hideously towards the floor; the sound I make, if you're curious, lands somewhere between a barfing noise and a car being jacked up by the side of the road. The backs of my thighs are so tight that they feel like wood to the touch. There are whole classes worth of yoga poses that make me cramp just thinking about them.
I covet limberness. I want to be able to arch my leg up and behind my head, like a dancer or a cheerleader. I want to be able to casually backbend into a wheel pose, the way the little-girl gymnast I remember from my childhood could. I want to be bendy, flexible, stretched.
I equate an active muscle with an exercised muscle, so when
I'm working out, I usually work my
muscles as hard as they can go. This is great
when I'm flinging myself across the room in a demented pirouette, or
when I'm hoisting weights above my head. It's then that the tautness
keeps me safe, keeps me from careening off into a mirror or dropping the
barbell on my foot. But when it comes time to get down on the ground
and smooth things out, it's impossible for me to let go of the active
muscle and work into the passive one. And that's not great. I've
overtaxed my muscles a number of times, like after a recent round of
squats, which left me hobbling around the apartment for two days.
I cursed every time I had to lurch down the stairs.
It's not a stretch (ha!) to apply this desire for flexibility to my mental life, as well. I can be pretty rigid in my thinking—very black/white, sometimes obsessive, frequently overactive. Even when I'm exhausted, I'll lie awake and think of all the Big Life Things I'm trying to get a handle on. I'll fret about accidentally kicking my boyfriend while he sleeps. I worry that sweating under the duvet means I have cancer (or, jeez maybe it's early menopause?). I'll stress about forgetting to take my early-morning temperature. Big interview the next day? Forget it. My mind will be in full-fledged meltdown mode, playing and replaying disaster scenarios running the gamut from "vomiting on my interviewer's shoes" to "choking on a multivitamin while eating breakfast and having to give myself the Heimlich on the back of a chair, making myself late for the interview and unhireable for the rest of time." Mostly it's garden-variety stuff: when will I get married/have babies/kick my professional life into high gear/fall asleep? Where is that light coming from? What if the girl from [REC] is under my bed right now?
Even when I'm feeling good and strong, the inability to let go can be a hindrance. I'll never forget a yoga class I went to last year: at the end of the session, the teacher instructed us to relax—just lie on our backs and melt into the floor—and be still. There I was, eyes closed, breathing softly, and when she came around and pressed my still-hunched shoulders down from my ears and into my yoga mat. I burned with embarrassment. All these loosey-goosey yogis and then me, the clockwork doll who can't bend her elbows.
Here's something I noticed today in Nia: when I stopped working my muscles and just relaxed, I could move deeper into the stretch. And I noticed it because it doesn't come naturally to me; paradoxically, relaxing my body is hard work. I had to pay attention to sense the shift between active and passive. Once I let go, I felt a wave of endorphins wash over me, and I relaxed even more. It was amazing, this biofeedback loop of deciding to pay attention to what stretching really feels like, and then stretching some more.
I think I'll sleep like a baby tonight. And, like any other strength, the ability to stretch will come more easily. I'll put my palms on the floor one of these days.