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Valerie SchultzFebruary 23, 2024
Photo by Anupam Mahapatra on 

Now that we’re retired from our day jobs, my husband and I have time to pursue other activities. And we do. But since he is an outgoing people-person and I am a classic introvert, I often pass on activities I know he wishes we would do together. Perhaps as an apology for that, I decided to join him when he embarked on a 30-day yoga challenge to kick off the new year.

The challenge comes into our home courtesy of an instructor I’ll call Jan. Available via YouTube for free, it is paid for, like many online offerings, with advertising. Since Day 1, my husband and I have been meeting in our living room on our mats and in comfortable clothes every day at 3 p.m. Each day’s practice lasts 20-25 minutes, which can feel very long or very short, depending on what Jan talks us into trying to do on our mats.

By Day 3, the exercise was humbling for me, a former dancer who used to be almost as flexible as Jan. (Note: Used to be.) I felt nostalgic for the young woman I once was, who used to fold herself in half without a thought for what it would be like to lose that gift, whose muscles were toned and fluid at the same time, who moved with a grace born of a thousand hours at the barre. She is no more. Instead, my senior-citizen body labored mightily to reach a certain spot, to hold a simple pose, all the while being protective of my new titanium hip. (Translation: It’s been a while.)

The weird thing is that I noticed I did not feel the frustration I would normally have felt at my self-perceived deficiencies. That was because of Jan. Her sweet acceptance of my limited state, even though she couldn’t actually see me and doesn’t know me, granted me a measure of self-acceptance that felt unfamiliar to me. I am always my worst critic. This level of acceptance was new.

The muscle memory of all that stretching began to feel welcome. By Day 6, I looked forward to our time together on the mat. An onlooker would have seen two older folks peering at a laptop, lumbering about on their mats, pretzeling themselves into unlikely shapes, concentrating on breathing deeply and audibly, sometimes losing their balance, sometimes laughing aloud. But each day my husband and I eased ourselves into an agreed-upon no-judgment zone, asking our best of our bodies and no more, being content with whatever stretch or pose we could manage, treating ourselves with kindness. Jan’s calming voice and clear instruction created a balanced and forgiving atmosphere.

In the stillness at the end of our session on Day 8, a line from Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” flitted into my mind, about letting “the soft animal of your body/ love what it loves.” Having just finished writing a book about growing older, I’d been focused on the trials of aging. My soft body has been through a lot of wear and tear, pregnancy, childbirth, menopause, surgeries, loss, grief, debility and diminishment. I had forgotten about loving it and letting it love. Now a whoosh of gratitude flooded me, that this durable old body could still move at all, could still learn, could still love, could still be lovable. (Long-forgotten parts of me ache. But also, long-forgotten parts of me sing.)

Then, on Day 12, this happened: a glimmer of peace at the edge of my brain. Pressing my palms together, I felt a presence. I could see my whole self as God sees me. Strangely and unexpectedly, I felt God’s love. I have learned about God’s love all my life, but now I feel it in my guts, in my limbs, in my follicles. A parent’s love. An incarnational love. (Am I being dramatic? Yes. I basked in this love.) I felt light. I felt renewed. For a fleeting moment, I felt pure peace.

Then I exhaled.

Mystical? Maybe. I’m fine with it. If there is one thing we Catholics know how to be comfortable with, it is mystery.

I understand that yoga can be a controversial practice. About 10 years ago, I wrote a column about a school district in southern California where Christian parents were up in arms about their kids doing twice-a-week yoga exercises in P.E. class. The parents accused the school of Hindu indoctrination, opted their kids out of the program and threatened legal action. In reality, the teachers reported a little more focus in the classroom and a little less disruption on the playground.

To be fair, the ancient discipline of yoga does anchor its roots in Hinduism. It can be part of one’s religious practice, aiming to integrate mind, body and spirit and bring one closer to one’s beliefs. But for many of us older people, it is a slow and steady use of long-neglected muscles in a way that helps us pay attention to our bodies and our minds, to the way they can work together for our health and well-being. Halfway through our month of yoga, on Day 15, I don’t know anything about Jan’s religious faith. I have not learned anything about Hinduism in these past weeks. I don’t even know what school of yoga Jan follows. I am still a practicing Catholic, practice being the fruit of all faith, even though I have focused on my breathing and relaxed my grateful body into my mat. I may have said “Namaste” instead of “Amen,” but the sense of silent prayerfulness in my soul is the same.

On Day 18 or maybe 19, as I was folded (sort of) into a pose, breathing deeply into every corner of my abdomen, I felt surrounded by the idea of breath as life. I thought of God breathing life into Adam’s nostrils, of the resurrected Jesus passing through a closed door and breathing on his disciples, of the Holy Spirit, descending as a rush of wind on the frightened followers in the upper room. I even thought of the last breath going out of a dear friend who had died from cancer that week and of her new way of breathing with God. I wished her well.

I write this on Day 27 of our challenge. The end is in sight. We’ve been disciplined about showing up every day, but my husband and I are traveling to different places next month. He will visit his mom for her birthday; I will visit family, including our granddaughter who will soon be joined by a new baby sister. We’ll be 1,275 miles apart. We won’t be meeting downstairs at 3 p.m. for a while. We will miss Jan’s gentle direction and encouragement and humor. We may get in a few stretches on our own. But I will carry our moments of shared peace in my heart, so thankful to have done this small thing together. I will picture the times over the last month that I’ve glanced at my husband, standing so amazingly upright on one leg and exhaling through his mouth, and I will love the soft animal of his body even more. I will hold onto this holy reconnection to God’s unconditional love. God’s grace knows no denomination.

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