“For fast acting relief, try slowing down.” Lily Tomlin
Our yoga instructor asks us to come to a standing position “one vertebra at a time.” I am not that well acquainted with my vertebrae. How many are there? Do I take them in sequence? What if they aren’t interested in going alone?
Yoga familiarizes me with the inner workings of my musculoskeletal system. “You’ll feel this in your glutes.” “Here is a hamstring stretch.” “Lift your toes and let them down one at a time.” You are kidding me! My toes resemble a co-dependent family—none of them want to step out alone.
One by one I tune into these body parts and come to know them as separate pieces of an amazing whole. My body works best when all the parts do their job and not get lazy by depending on their anchor muscle or a neighboring ligament.
My back’s vertebrae are reliant on tendons and discs. The tendons hold muscle and bone together so that I can move the bones of the vertebrae whether it is to twist, to walk or to stand up––one vertebra at a time. The discs are round cushions that separate the vertebra and act like shock absorbers. I need them both.
I need shock absorbers and connectors in other parts of my life.
Yoga is one of those shock absorbers—a soft space that separates activities and stresses. In class I soften my eyes, relax into the mat, stretch muscles that attend to the many tasks of my day without getting much notice. I practice balance––standing on one foot at a time, observing how each side feels. I quiet the distractions of my mind.
In the rest of my life, I find myself running things together with little separation. My phone is always close by if I am restless, bored or want to avoid that rare empty moment. The world is at my fingertips—along with its anxiety. Multi-tasking feels like it’s more productive. It gets harder and harder to pause an activity to catch my breath.
Astrophysicists tells us the universe is moving at a faster and faster pace. I believe it. Change is thrust upon us. I see it everywhere. Regularly my electronics are updated with new software, all on their own. The children who touch my life grow and change at an amazing speed. A previously unknown virus is catapulting around the world and imprisoning millions of people in their homes and communities. There is almost no space between breaking news events. I want to stand on my soap box and shout, “SLOW DOWN!”
I cannot slow down the universe, but I can slow down me. The quickness of life around me doesn’t mean I have to join it. I can choose.
Too often I begin my day by checking my phone, following up on texts, responding to email. How can I begin one vertebra at a time? Slowly. Attentively. Gently. I love it when I start the day simply with a cup of coffee, savoring its aroma and warmth as well as the surrounding quiet. From there it is easy to move into a few minutes of gratitude and a plan for how I might greet the day with joy.
Why not invite a few pauses into the rest of my day? Expand a lunch break to check in with a co-worker. Take five minutes with my eyes closed to focus on my breath as I transition from one activity to the next. Pause between work and the remainder of the day, a wise investment in my serenity.
When I pause to notice the natural world around me, I am reminded of the vastness of creation. “He who can no longer pause to wonder, and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed,” said Albert Einstein. I pause one vertebra at a time.
John Gottman, a psychological researcher specializing in marital stability, says that one of the worst things we do in our relationships is react. It’s fire, ready, aim. When I stop, pause, notice, I can change how I do things. I take a breath, think about what I’ll say and then respond. When my anxiety builds, I want to quicken the pace, get out of my discomfort now and do something. That’s when I react rather than respond. It is not helpful to my relationships, often leading to more, rather than less, stress.
Where do those tendons come in? The ones that connect muscle to bone in my spine and thereby allow me to move with agility. Those are the connections I make throughout the day. It is the people I see at yoga for a few minutes as I come and go. I don’t know them well, but I know that one just returned from vacation, another sold her house and moved to a condo down the road, a third is a member of my church with two young children in training to sit still.
Another tendon is the friend I walk with for an hour each week. We come to know one another’s stories one walk at a time. There are the people in my 12-step group who I know only by first name. They pull me out of isolation into a supportive bond of caring, one meeting at a time.
Our social relationships are the tendons that tie us to our community, our workplace, our neighborhoods. While it is a gift to have good friends, the people we see in our routine comings and goings are also important. They remind us that this is where we belong.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.” We all do better together.
My body, mind and spirit all need spaces and connections. The tendons of my life tie me into a community. The soft pads that separate help me move with some fluidity. One day at a time. One connection at a time. One vertebra at a time. I guess it is not as hard as I thought.
Mary Lou Logsdon is a Spiritual Director and Retreat Leader in the Twin Cities. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.