Over the summer, my four year old daughter expressed an interest in ballet classes. I had mixed feelings about it. I started ballet when I was four, and I danced until I was sixteen. I have a lot of gratitude for the experience in many ways. Firstly, dancing got me out of my head and into my body, which I desperately needed. It taught me about discipline, perseverance and dedication. I worked my ass off and I loved it, but it also taught me some other things. When I went en pointe, I can’t explain what happened to my feet. I’d come home and unwrap them, and soak my bleeding toes, only to go back and do it all again the next day, and the next, and the one after that until my feet were raw. Eventually they toughened up, but in the meantime, I learned to override my body’s response to pain. Sometimes I’d dance for hours, even if I felt light-headed and weak and my feet were screaming at me. Eventually, when I was on the cusp of puberty, I learned that my body was something to fear. The older dancers in the company would warn us that we didn’t want to develop, and they never ate. I mean, truly, I never saw anyone eat anything. I saw a lot of cups of coffee, and a lot of cigarette smoking, and I grew to understand that being extremely thin was important. I learned that food was something to fear as well. So when my daughter asked to try ballet classes, all of that came up for me, because it took me years to unlearn a lot of that stuff.
Nonetheless, I thought we could find a class or a teacher where those things wouldn’t be an issue; not at four years old, anyway. As it turned out, we found a lovely teacher. Extremely sweet and kind, and my daughter loved it, so it became part of our weekly routine. I knew already that my girl has a very open spine and hips, because she does yoga with me, and I also knew her hamstrings were a little tight. I’ve always taught her to listen to her body and breathe. A few weeks ago in her class, the kids were doing a standing forward fold, just some stretching before class, and she had her knees bent. Her teacher told her to straighten her legs, and my daughter said it hurt when she did that. Her teacher said, “It’s good if it hurts, it means something is happening.” My stomach clenched, and before I could say anything, I saw her try to straighten her legs, and then stop. Her teacher had moved away from her at this point, and they moved onto something else. After class, when we got in the car I told her I was very proud of her for listening to her body. I said it was not good if something hurt, that that was her body’s way of telling her to stop, and that she should always listen when that happened, that her body is always her best teacher.
It might seem like a small thing, but I don’t believe it is. I think lots of people are taught to override their bodies, to push beyond their comfort level. This whole, “no pain, no gain” mentality can be very damaging. Having an adversarial relationship with your body, feeling that you have to force it to submit, or beat it into a shape that’s okay with you or society at large, is really waging a war within yourself. Your body is a pretty miraculous thing. It’s full of wisdom. It’s been with you from the beginning. It’s the house for your heart. It’s where you’re going to live for your entire life. When we start to ignore the messages from our bodies, we also start to cut ourselves off from our own intuition.
If you don’t back off from a forward fold when your hamstrings scream at you, if you force yourself to do anything that really doesn’t feel right, you’re also training yourself to ignore other messages your body sends, like the hairs standing up on the back of your neck when you’re in danger. Like the way your shoulders tighten or your jaw clenches, or your eyebrows furrow when you feel stressed or threatened. People live like that, and don’t realize how insidious it is. They’re tired, their body is begging for rest, and they feed it caffeine and sugar. They’re sad, angry, lonely or anxious, and they eat, even though they aren’t hungry, and don’t eat when they are. They’re in a relationship that looks good on paper, the mind says it should work, and they override that feeling in their gut. The whole time, they’re feeding this voice of, “not good enough.”
I’m all for hard work. I love the discipline and ritual of getting on my mat and sweating and breathing and moving. I love the rhythm of it, and the freedom and the peace of it, but when I started practicing, I brought my ballet head onto my mat with me. If I fell out of a pose I’d flush in shame and embarrassment. I pushed myself even when my body needed a break. I don’t mind telling you I practiced that way for a long, long time. I’d been practicing and teaching for years when I got pregnant with my son. I had hours and hours of yoga philosophy under my belt. I understood compassion and loving-kindness. I could talk about that, about meditation and breathing and feeding a loving voice all day long, but it wasn’t until I was pregnant with my son that I truly started practicing those things for myself. I’d been doing Ashtanga yoga for years at this point, and I went to my mat one morning, the first time I’d practiced knowing I was pregnant, and I thought, “I have to be gentle, there’s someone in here counting on me.” Then I froze. It was like a curtain was pulled back, and the next thought I had was, “Wait. There’s always someone in here counting on me. Me.” I realized I had a lot of work to do.
That moment changed the way I practiced and it changed the way I taught. I can tell you that the more you work with your body, the more it opens. The more you force it or fight it, the more it resists. Have you ever had anyone scream at you to relax? It’s the same thing. When you work with your body, when you listen and respond with compassion, awareness and honesty, you begin to trust yourself. You open a line of communication, you strengthen that voice of intuition, and it’s there for you in every facet of your life. Discipline is wonderful and necessary in my opinion. If you want to be able to see things through, to put action behind your intentions, it’s a must. Taking your body for a spin and exploring your boundaries is awesome as long as it feels right. Feeding your body the food that will nourish it, getting enough rest, drinking enough water, all these become things you want to do to support your body which is housing your heart, your dreams, and your internal dialogue. Having a voice inside your head that tells you you suck is so painful. Believe me, I know. I had a voice like that in my head for years, but if you feed a loving voice when you’re on your mat, or in your spin class, or on your hike, or whatever it is that you do, that voice will strengthen. Having a voice inside your head that is kind and forgiving is a freaking life-changer. It’s such a relief.
My daughter loves her class and she wants to continue, and for now I’m okay with that. I told her teacher I don’t want my daughter doing things that hurt her, and if that was a problem, we wouldn’t come back. She assured me that was fine, even if inside she might think I’m one of those “crazy moms.” I don’t care. There’s something at stake much larger than my daughter’s hamstrings. It’s her sense of self. I’ll fight for hers if I have to, and I’ll fight for yours, too, if you practice with me. The truth is, eventually, you have to fight for your own, and I hope you do.
If the posts are helpful, you can find my books here