Morning Exercises: Stillness

Many of my friends practice yoga.

I never did. It’s just not my thing.

Years ago, I used to run, and play volleyball and basketball. I was younger then. Now I prefer fast-walking, or taking an aerobics or spin class at the gym. My default mode when I exercise, like when I teach, is high energy.

In the last year and a half, however, I’ve grown to appreciate the value of holding a yoga pose for several minutes and focusing only on breathing.

Every morning, I spend nearly twenty minutes being still.

This change in my behavior was not the result of a personal realization about yoga, rather a total surrender to treatment prescribed by a physical therapist. I’d re-injured a muscle in my shoulder, and I knew it was pressing on a nerve because I was suffering numbness and tingling in my forearm and fingers, just as I had twenty years earlier. I also knew that this time—unlike when I was younger and could count on my body to heal quickly without my doing much—I would need to participate actively in the healing process.

The physical therapist recommends a number of stretches and coaches me in holding the poses for at least one minute, or four slow breaths. She chooses exercises designed to stretch and strengthen the shoulders, upper back, neck and wrists. My favorite is the cactus pose, which involves holding my arms at 90 degree angles against a door frame and lunging forward gently, first with the right foot and then the left. My arms feel prickly like cactus branches.

Upon researching the saguaro cactus, I learn they begin to grow their arm-like branches between 50 and 75 years of age. After a year of cactus poses, along with additional exercises to strengthen my legs, arms and fingers, I’m practicing yoga regularly, and I feel a difference if I happen to miss a day. Like the saguaro, I’m growing in new ways now that I’m over 50. On a trip to the Arizona-Mexico border, I see saguaros up close and discover a renewed devotion to this pose.

Since returning from Nogales, I often hold this pose for longer than required. With closed eyes, I picture the tall, sturdy saguaros I saw there and imagine myself merging with these trees. Though my injury has long since healed, I continue to practice holding still and breathing slowly, deeply, and in silence every morning. I feel ready to face the world with energy and enthusiasm, able to draw on the strength stored in my body, as the cactus draws on the water stored in its roots.