Monday, August 22, 2011

Pause. . . Reset. . . Breathe. . .

"Now give me a slow exhale and tighten that navel to spine. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight... OK, got it? Are you breathing? Make sure you're breathing.  When you've got that good, stable core and you're breathing normally, then you can drop that knee to the outside. But make sure you're ready."

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...


  1. Learning to breathe Him in and out all day, allowing Him to have even your very breath. Glorious! I am so very thankful the therapy is helping. :)

  2. I loved this, it really spoke to me. I have been struggling with sciatica for a few months and getting very discouraged, your post was very encouraging.

  3. My husband and I have talked a lot about the importance of breath this past week in the context of how God breathed life into us and our breathing is in imitation of him. Wonderful to read your stabilizing, Christ-centered thoughts here!
    Also, I'm so excited you have the soap on the way. What's funny is I'm facebook friends with Tara (are you on fb?), and she posted that soap was on the way to MO and TX. Bet it's for us:) I'm trying some of the others for fun.
    So thankful for all you're learning in physical therapy—physically and spiritually! Thanks for sharing. And thanks, too, for your kind words on my post. I'd write individual replies to your gratitude, but I've already written a book here. Just know they made me smile. Sounds like a happy anniversary to you and your husband:)
    Continued prayers for you, friend.

  4. The fact that He's always awake is one of my most favorite things about Him ( See?! We're soul sisters!

    Hang in there, Chica! You're doing great!

  5. @ErinNew friend, if you have a blog where I may comment, I'm not finding it, so I'll reply here and trust you'll see it if need be.

    My heart goes out to you, both for the sciatica and for the discouragement. I'm so grateful the Lord helped you through what He is using to help me. May He strengthen your heart to do whatever you need to do today.

    (By the way, I have not regretted the decision to seek professional medical help for my back/hip pain, also focused in the sciatic area.)

  6. Today in yoga, I concentrated on breathing in faith and trust through this tumultuous time and breathing out my doubts and fears. It's amazing how a spiritual and physical act can be so intertwined.

  7. There is so much good stuff here every time I have a chance to read your posts. Love the idea of a "stable core of trust in Him" and also that "each transition is an opportunity for correction." I will be pondering these things for a while. When you were speaking of your imaginings and their role in anxiety, Philippians 4:8 came to mind. We can't just put the bad stuff out of our mind without putting something good in it's place. We have to "fill up" our thoughts with the things of Christ or we've no hope of keeping the fears out.

    And thank you so much for linking to last week's post...I am incredibly humbled to be counted as grace in your life.

    Grace to you as you continue on in the hard work of healing.

  8. I have learned so much from this beautiful post!I now have a word for the way I try to live my days--statio. How cool is that? And this centering--this breathing in HIM...such a beautiful image. I am picking up the crumbs from your table today :). And I am so grateful.

  9. Hey, Chica, you totally didn't have to do that. I was just thrilled that we were thinking similar thoughts. Like, it made me feel as though I might be getting somewhere if I were thinking Christina-like things. xo


Thank you for sharing your day with me! Your presence here is a gift. *You* are a gift. Right now I am unable to reply to every comment, but please know I read and pray for each and every commenter. Grace and peace to you in Christ.