By AnnMerle Feldman
Five years ago, I retired. But not really.
I was 62 years old. I had been a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago for 32 years. I knew I was ready for a change.
Isn’t Hindsight Brilliant?
You see, around the time I turned 50 something inside me had shifted. Of course, I didn’t realize it then.
At that point, I had been teaching, writing, administering programs, and directing doctoral dissertations for about 26 years. I was brought up to be productive: to work, secure my livelihood, contribute to my community, develop a professional life I could be proud of, set a good example for my children, make sure my children had their bar and bat-mitzvahs, and these characteristics seemed to me to spell success.
I Didn’t Feel Much of Anything, Except Pain
I didn’t feel that anything was wrong. In fact, I didn’t feel much of anything. That was the problem. My push toward success numbed me. It prevented me from questioning my path. I focused each day’s energies on the immediate tasks at hand, which, of course, left me in an exhausted heap of spent professor at the end of each day.
What I did feel, though, was pain. I wondered why I woke up so many days with splitting headaches. I wondered why instead of getting a cold, I managed – nearly every other month –to contract bronchitis. I wondered why my right shoulder seemed so stiff and why I felt a strange immobility in my right hand.
Most of all, I lived in fear of the sudden, unexpected shocks that plagued the left side of my face. This little-known, chronic disease, called Tri-Geminal Neuralgia, was diagnosed when son was very young, and I had just gotten pregnant with my daughter. Shortly after the diagnosis, I made the very hard decision to get divorced. Did I connect the stress I was under in my marriage and my job with this disease? No, not for one minute.
A Lunchtime Miracle
Looking back, I can see that I lived with chronic stress for years and that chronic stress created a petri dish for injury and disease, but I had no idea that anything was amiss.
One day, at lunch time, my dear assistant, Tom Moss, suggested I come with him to a yoga class at the university’s student center. At that class, I felt something new. I breathed. I moved slowly. I noticed myself breathing and moving slowly.
And then, yoga became my go-to recovery tool. I went to class every chance I got. I went to workshops. I became a yoga teacher. I did yoga at home with my kids.
I was learning to swerve.
Learning to Swerve
When I read Michelle Obama’s recent memoir, Becoming Michelle Obama, I expected to get the inside scoop on her life as the first African-American first lady, not a walloping helping of insight about my own life.
As she shared in an interview with Oprah, Michelle Obama grew up a box checker:
“Get good grades: check. Apply to the best schools, get into Princeton: check. The list goes on: Get into law school, get through law school, get a job, get a Saab.”
Michelle Obama began to ask herself how she wanted to feel and who she wanted to become. I realized I needed to ask myself the same questions.
Could I Fix the Pain?
Initially, the slow-moving, long-held yoga poses I practiced helped me immeasurably. My breath and my body worked together. I was spending less time in chairs hunched over the computer. But even after five years of a regular yoga practice, my shoulder froze: I could not move it and felt excruciating nerve pain down the length of my arm.
And, the Tri-Geminal Neuralgia returned with a vengeance, teaching me that while I had swerved some, I needed to swerve more to bring my body and my mind into a more fully healed space.
Carrying my familiar ‘box-checking’ personality with me, I thought I could simply fix the body parts that had gone off kilter. With the brilliance of hindsight, I now realize that I was approaching my needs in the wrong way.
Could My Swerve Lead me to a Jewish Spirituality?
I had begun to wonder, too, about the spiritual messages I was getting in my yoga class. While I enjoyed the new perspective they brought, I did have second thoughts. I said to myself, “Okay, this is interesting, but I’m Jewish.” I felt an appreciation for this work, but also a deep disconnect that said, “This is not quite what you need.”
While it’s true that I had never experienced the sort of deep introspection that the yoga spirituality offered me, I hoped that perhaps it was possible.
This was my new ‘swervy’ self-talking to me in a new way. Was there a Jewish spirituality that I had yet to connect with? Yes, it turns out, to my great joy, there was. But first there are a few more twists and turns in my journey.
Everything is Connected
Just as I was thinking that my spiritual quest needed some redirection, my yoga teacher, Steve Emmerman, brought in some blue balls that were about the size of a tennis ball but much firmer. He showed us what he had learned using these balls. He asked us first, to bend forward and notice where stiffness or pain stopped us. Then we rolled the balls under our feet, following some specific movements, and then we retested, bending forward again.
Most of us were totally surprised at the new length and comfort we had in our bodies. My intuition told me that there was something in this for me and I was off and running, following up on what I could learn about these strange blue balls.
The bottoms of my feet, I would soon learn, were connected to my everything – not just my hamstrings and my hips, but my spirit and my soul as well.
Swerving Toward Spirituality
My foot-centered experience with those blue balls led me to the The Kripalu Center for YogaTuneUp® and The Roll Model Method® trainings with Jill Miller to gain a new perspective on movement and healing.
Sitting in my first training, I looked around the room and was so pleased to see many women my age. I had finally left behind my attachment to achieving certain yoga poses and was now, with other women, learning to solve the mysteries of health and wellness through a new perspective on movement and self-massage with those funny blue balls and more in a variety of sizes as well.
I suspected that Jill Miller was Jewish because she laughingly kept referring to the gluteous maximus as the “tush.”
When we went around the room introducing ourselves, she asked what kind of yoga I taught and I responded, “Oy Vey Yoga!”
Jill, a comic at heart, immediately quipped, “Then you should be teaching my mother!”
“Okay!” I answered enthusiastically.
While I studied with Jill Miller, it became clear to me from the movements we practiced, from how she spoke to us, and from how she talked about her own journey, that she was learning how to heal not just a broken body, but a broken soul and that the two were not separate.
The pinnacle of all these trainings were Jill Miller’s “Breath and Bliss” seminars. While my yoga classes had always included breath work, Jill Miller’s self-healing studies had taken her light years beyond anything I had encountered before.
Jill realized that healing herself depended on being able to let go of stress and feed her body the nourishing sense of groundedness and calm that comes from breath, but even more, from tuning and regulating the vagus nerve, which controls the doorway to the parasympathetic, or calming ability of the nervous system.
Everything is Connected and That Means Spiritually, Too!
Finally, I was able to connect the dots between my body and my spirituality. Jill Miller had taken me to the door. And it was so, so simple. All I had to do is open it and walk through.
A simple, but profound truth I had come to own, was that I have a body, but I am a soul. What does that mean?
My body is a home for my soul, like the Mishkan, which was a portable, spiritual sanctuary in the middle of the desert where the ancient Jews, after receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, could go to atone for sins or express gratitude. It was the place where Moses and the people were closest to God.
This was such a simple realization, but it turned all of my priorities upside down.
I See Things Differently Through the Lens of My Soul
So many years ago, every pain and even my chronic illness was an insult to my body that needed to be fixed, eradicated, or reversed.
How did that perspective work for me? Not at all.
I was angry when my body declined to perform as I expected it to. My ego drove the show and my decades old controlling mind demanded answers.
Now that I have allowed a bit of faith into my life, I wake up and say a short prayer that expresses gratitude and the rest of the day flows from that moment.
Just like that first yoga class, I notice my body and my breath throughout the day.
But now, understanding that my body is a Mishkan, a home for my soul, I care for it differently. I speak to it and ask questions. I don’t demand answers. Knowing that there is a soul connection in everything I do with my body and my mind, I notice this relationship as well.
I befriend my body. I view aches and pains as a language, messages from my soul, that want me to stop checking boxes and look inside.
Instead of fixing on pain, I look for joy. And when I slip back into my comfortable, achievement junky patterns, I see what is happening and I ask myself, “Isn’t there another way?”
On rare moments, I can feel myself as a Mishkan, traveling through the desert, with a precious cargo inside. I can touch that divine spark that lives inside and ask how do I want to feel and who do I want to become?
Thank you for reading this far!
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Love and Gratitude,