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  • Jan Flynn

Listen to Your Body

Before it starts screaming at you

Photo by julien Tromeur on Unsplash

Our bodies speak to us in sensations

So say a number of the yoga teachers I’ve had the pleasure to study with over the years. It’s an illuminating addition to the admonition we hear all the time to “listen to your body,” and it makes sense.

Our bodies, like good draft horses, do their best to follow our commands so much of the time that we take them for granted. They ask only for adequate feeding, maintenance, and rest. When something interferes with the body’s obedience, whether through illness or injury or the unreasonableness of our demands, it lacks words to convey its distress so must rely on physical sensations, which can be quiet or blaring.

If sensation is the body’s language, right now mine is using language that would shock a sailor. And it’s not being shy about it, either.

To be fair, it was trying to warn me ahead of time

The body’s problem, at least my body’s problem, is that the language of sensation tends to be far more subtle than the messages the brain takes in from popular culture, online fitness gurus, or a smartwatch. In my case, my lower back had been sending me polite hints for a couple of weeks that it was feeling not quite the thing.

Did I listen? Only sort of. Having had a number of misadventures with my sacrum over the decades, I’ve learned to respect the region of my L4 and L5 discs. But I’ve also found that too much coddling risks my core getting lazy, which is no good in the long run. Besides, like any self-respecting, overly zealous, fitness-nut American, I am loath to ease up on my workouts.

I noticed a wee flare in my lumbar region when lifting weights or performing vinyasas, but I took it as a sign to tighten my core and keep going. I got away with my usual regimen for days, and then through a series of long flights, followed by a beach vacation that involved a lot of idleness punctuated by random fits of snorkeling, swimming, hiking, and yoga performed under the tropical sun. Food and beverage consumption fell under holiday rules meanwhile.

You’ve heard of the see-food diet? You see food, you eat it. And maybe you wash it down with a mai tai.

Then more long flights homewards, followed by jet lag and a tight-jawed effort to take myself in hand and get back to my usual routine.

The body has to get pretty loud to outshout the ego

At that point, my body and I were engaged in a dialogue. It began calmly.

BODY: I’m still feeling a little stiff, just sayin’ . . .

ME: I know! That’s why we’re doing Zumba this morning, and then yoga! You’ll feel so much better!

BODY: Maybe . . .

That went on for a few mornings. The volume of the remonstrations from my body dialed up a notch.

ME: C’mon, two more reps with the weights. Shaking muscles is a good sign; it means you’re getting stronger!

BODY: Shaking muscles, I can accept. But this is starting to hurt.

ME: Well, the ego says that pain is just weakness leaving the body.

BODY: Tell the ego to lift the damn weights, then.

Despite its grumbling, the body complied with my demands. Until that is, I made one tiny, ill-advised move: on my hands and knees, I leaned forward and reached to move a 20-lb dumbell out of my way.

BODY: OUCH!! $%#@&!!!

ME: *gasping*

BODY: Now you’ve done it. That was your lower back giving out. Let’s see the ego get your @$$ back up off the floor now!

ME: *still gasping* I’m sorry, I’m really, really sorry, I’m soooo sorry . . .

BODY: Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard that before.

ME: Would it be okay if I tried to roll over and push us up from there? If I’m very, very careful?

BODY: Guess you’ll just have to try it and see. Since you’re so smart.

The body, truly insulted, stops playing nice

And once that happens, the power dynamic shifts dramatically. The body, having resorted to the nuclear option (sudden, breath-taking stabs of pain) is now in command. I ply it with ice packs, followed after a few days by heat packs, interspersed with rest and verrrrry gentle stretching and therapeutic yoga.

Our conversations have changed in nature.

ME: How does that motion feel? Is that okay with you?

BODY: Maybe. But get me another pillow first.

ME: Right away!

BODY: And a cup of tea. And a heating pad.

ME: On it!

BODY: I’m tired of sitting. I want to lie down. No, that doesn’t feel right either . . .

ME: Maybe you’d like to go for a little walk?

BODY: Maybe. Maybe not.

ME: Um. Which would you like?

BODY: You’ll just have to try and see, won’t you? You’re supposed to be the one with the mind.

ME: I see. Okay, we’ll try a little walk, just for a bit. It might help your circulation. How does that sound?

BODY: I’ll go along with it, but if you step off a curb suddenly or push me too far, you’re not sleeping again tonight.

ME: I hear you!

This isn’t the first time this has happened

My body and I have been here before. Our first such encounter happened early in my fourth decade, when I threw my back into fits by hoisting a fussing toddler. It was a shock then, but during later incidents I learned to push my body enough to keep it in decent shape without going over its healthy edge.

That way, my body and I maintain our tenuously peaceful partnership. But sometimes, something happens to upset the balance. I fall off a bike, or a horse, or twist an ankle on a hidden root on the trail.

And sometimes I simply fail to listen. As the years pile up, that’s an indulgence I can less and less afford. My body has my full attention now, and I promise to listen carefully.

Even when it’s not swearing at me.

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