This is how Dave starts most of my prescribed therapy exercises, with that slow, deep abdominal contraction and an exhortation to breathe. I used to mock the video fitness instructors with their cheery, "Don't forget to breathe!" reminders. Now I understand. Because that stable core is much easier to maintain with held breath, it's easy for me to forget to breathe. In fact, the biggest challenge of the first two weeks of PT was learning to hold that navel-to-spine contraction and not to hold my breath.
As in physical therapy, so in life, at least for me. It's vital for me to start the day with Bible reading and prayer. And coffee. This habit is not a religious act intended to earn points with God. That quiet time with the Lord is my long, slow exhale for the day, an attempt to find a stable core of trust in Him and not myself or my circumstances and to make sure I'm breathing praise and not anxiety. Some days that comes more easily than others. Lately it's been a challenge.
Adele Ahlberg Calhoun offers this advice, which I discovered this morning while looking for something else:
Counter gut reactions that arise from feeling threatened or insecure by breathing slowly and deeply. Breathe in Christ's presence. Breathe out anxiety and fear. Breathe deeply several times before you speak and respond (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, 81).Her suggestions demand the engagement of the imagination, which for me is what gets me into anxiety trouble. If she's right, learning to "breathe" better depends not on turning my imaginings off but in turning them toward Christ and away from my fears.
Physical therapy has likewise surprised me in the degree of mental concentration demanded. I was expecting a return to high school physical education class (my lowest grade in all my schooling), but my mind works as hard as my body. The last time I thought so hard was translating verses of Greek and parsing all the verb forms. Making that switch to consciously use my brain to control my muscles (in Dave's words) has made all the difference. Perhaps, in God's grace, the same sort of shift will occur in my thought life as I practice using my imagination to control my feelings and not allowing feelings to drive imaginings.
That long, slow exhale to start is not enough, however, in PT or in life. Dave also reminds me regularly to pause at each transition point in the exercises, to check and reset that navel contraction, to make sure I'm breathing and fix it if I'm not. Each transition is an opportunity for correction.
Years ago in Philip Yancey's Reaching for the Invisible God, I remember reading about the monastic practice of statio, which amounts to the same thing. If memory serves, the practice entails a pause at each transition in the day to lift the heart to God in praise and trust and invitation for guidance. Each transition becomes an opportunity to reset the heart's gaze, to breathe, to ask, "What's next?" Each transition becomes an opportunity for worship.
Therapy is strengthening me and decreasing back and hip pain, but it requires substantial, daily investment of time. The other tasks in the week don't change, though, so I am more aware than usual of that pausing to ask, "What's next?" It won't all get done, but what do You want next, Lord? What do You want done today? By me?
Check that core again: is it stable, grounded firmly on Christ my rock? Am I breathing? Transition. Correction. Worship.
The best part of every exercise is the end: a long, slow exhale to match the beginning, with a slow release of that abdominal contraction. Before the work the resulting position didn't feel like rest; it felt like normalcy. After the work, a few millimeters of yoga mat feel like a pillow-top mattress.
At the end of these long days, that mattress feels like a hug, as body and thoughts lie down for the night. I have learned what I can and can't read to help my thoughts "exhale" and "release." There are a few prayers, alone and with Allen, which also help me move towards rest. The most helpful thought, though, comes from Victor Hugo by way of Sara Frankl and Brandee at Smooth Stones:
Have courage for the great sorrows of life, and patience for the small ones. And when you have finished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake.Alternately, in the words of the psalmist:
He who watches over you will not slumber;indeed, he who watches over Israelwill neither slumber nor sleep (Psalm 121:3b-4, NIV1984).I can rest at the end of a day of hard work and unfinished tasks because God who watches over me does not. Don't forget to breathe, my soul, my crumbly friends. Be at rest and at peace. God is awake. Thanks be to God.
This week I'm thanking God for more of His good gifts:
~God is awake
~this beautiful, encouraging post from Amy on trusting the slow work of God
~these marvelous words and images from Courtney at Growing Is Beautiful on how God holds all the broken pieces of life together
~"Him too beautiful and glorious not to be noticed, holding all the pieces of a life together in the most unexpected of ways" (from Courtney's post above)
~Dave the PT and the doctor both saying, "I think your prognosis is good."
~time with my mom for my four (including PT) medical appointments
~realizing that increased fatigue and body aches could be from a cold virus and not necessarily lupus activity
~city crew returning to complete street repair
~good things come in a dozen: roses, baked goods, and years with my love
~celebrating quietly together with a 36-hour vacation at home, no cell phones or computers except to consult a menu and order supper
~safe, caring place to board Ebony
~new walking shoes
~your cameraderie in the journey of the Christian life
~finishing The Hardest Thing to Do and listening to its lessons
~smiling, preparing a birthday package for the mail for a loved one
~glad she has family near to celebrate her
~sending notes on pretty stationery
~Tea Girl soap on its way from Canada (Thank you, Amy, for the product information!)
~Eb's happy dance when I picked him up from the kennel today. He is crazy about me. (Operative word: crazy.)
(from the gratitude journal, #1322-1340)
Sharing with Ann, Laura, and Jen...