A few weeks ago, I went to a heated vinyasa class.
It’d been months since I’d been, and I could feel it. My arms quivered, my hamstrings were leaden.
A short plank made me want to take a nap.
My inner critic seized the opportunity. You’re so out of shape, it whispered. And middle-aged, it added, unkindly. I looked around, focusing my eyes on the bevy of young, bendy creatures in the room, which only made me feel worse. As I reached for my toes—unsuccessfully—I judged myself, focusing only on what I couldn’t do.
How could you have let yourself backslide like this? The critic hissed.
Then, I fought back.
This isn’t why I’m here, I reminded myself. I don’t do yoga simply to master my body, although I admit it’s nice when I can slip into a pose for the first time and surprise myself with my body’s capabilities. I do yoga for my spirit as much as my body. Because I need to hear the whoosh of my own breath, because the hug of the heat and the challenge of the asanas pulls me into the present moment. Because I always feel more alive afterwards, more balanced, more connected.
After class, I thought a lot about the idea of backsliding.
As a slowly recovering perfectionist, backsliding goes against all my instincts. I’ve always been addicted to the idea of getting better at things—becoming more organized. Becoming a more present human being. A more patient mother, a more understanding spouse, a more attentive daughter. And of course, the deep-seated, long-fought addiction to improve my own body.
While it’s fine, and perhaps admirable, to strive to become better, I’m not sure it’s sustainable. Don’t we, if we live long enough, inevitably come up against the limitations of our own bodies? Of our ambitions, of the quest for mastery?
What if the type of backsliding I experienced in yoga class is actually practice for old age? For letting go? For easing into the foggy unknown of death?
Of course, there are certain types of backsliding that are unhealthy. Dropping back into an addiction after a period of abstinence, for example. Falling into old, harmful patterns with loved ones. But even these are opportunities to ease up on ourselves, to gaze at ourselves with love and compassion, just as we would a child who has fallen.
Western culture is so focused on the prime of life—being young and healthy and gorgeous, reaching the pinnacle of our careers—that the very natural phases of decline and death are shoved to the periphery. Pushed to the shadowy corners, aging, failing health and dying become terrifying.
Maybe going to a yoga class and feeling the atrophy of my own flexibility is a way of slowly sidling up to decline.
And maybe temporary illnesses, like the nuisance of a cold or flu, are also practice. At slowing down, at making peace with being at less than full capacity. If so, then recovery is just a temporary reprieve, a chance to feel gratitude for the health that we can so easily take for granted.
Backsliding is a chance for self-compassion and presence. For softening and reminding ourselves that our imperfections are okay. That my clunky, knee-bent down dog is okay. That this body, with all its strengths and limitations, is okay, and the whole point is to just show up with this body that will sometimes be strong and healthy, and sometimes be frail and tender.
This body that I am learning to cherish, this body that will someday die.
Maybe next time I find myself worrying about backsliding—when I can’t reach my ankles or pluck the right word out of the air, when I yell at one of my kids or I can’t button my pants—I’ll stop and wonder if there’s wisdom there.
If beginning to make friends—or at least peace—with decline might be an opportunity instead of a curse.
Relephant favorites from Lynn:
Author: Lynn Shattuck
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: Wikimedia Commons