For years, I was a cortisol junkie. During some of the most difficult times, stress hormones helped me function in the world. They gave me the energy to assist my family, to plow forward through work projects, to ‘make it’ in New York City… but the effects of stress were wearing me down and my account was overdrawn.
I was always chasing the next fix, trying so hard not to burn out.
When Movement Becomes Medicine
In Yoga Tune Up®, we describe blind spots as areas in the body that are overused, underused, misused, abused or confused. But what is it called when your entire body is a blind spot?
In the fall of 2013, my “blind spot” was called Jonathan McKinna. A year had come and gone since my mom passed away, and my heart was still broken. I was also clinically depressed, but I didn’t know it yet. As one does when they’re feeling discombobulated, I signed up for a Spartan Race and the punishing 6-week boot camp to prepare for it.
Me, the guy who recoils from even the slightest whiff of competition, who threw the 4th grade spelling bee in the final round by leaving out the “i” in “memoir.” I think I just needed to commit to something, to know I had to be somewhere three times a week.
I was so sore after the first session I emailed my coach the next morning. “I can’t lift my arms above my shoulders! Is it safe to continue?” He said, “Keep moving. I promise your body will not feel the way you do today as it gets stronger.”
Up to this point, I’d relied solely on my mind to help me heal. I read countless books about grief on beaches, in subway cars, and in bed — when it hurt too much to do anything else. But what I experienced as I pushed, pulled, lifted, slammed, ran, rowed and jumped past outdated protective boundaries, is that I could lean on my body too.
Resilience is written in my DNA.
By the end of boot camp, my body was strong, but it also felt beaten up. It was as if in crossing the finish line of that Spartan Race at CitiField Stadium, I also crossed over into an awareness that my body craved something softer and quieter. My coach’s advice this time: “therapeutic balls.”
Relaxation Techniques to Come Back to Life
A few days later, I rolled into Ariel Kiley’s self-massage class. This myofascial massage and deep stretch class featured relaxation techniques for pain, tension and beyond. Over the next two years, I rolled onto almost every part of my body. I rolled along to Jill Miller CDs in the evenings on the kitchen floor at home. On weekends, I organized loved ones to roll together.
This was more than massage. It was a prayer: “I’m in pain. Please help me.” Beneath the surface of my skin, miracles started happening. Here is my favorite upper back and neck video from that time:
Rolling stimulated my body’s relaxation response in such a powerful way that by the end of a therapy ball session, I couldn’t resist “rest-and-digest” parasympathetic dominance. It slowly and silently rewrote my body’s operating system.
I had no choice but surrender.
I didn’t recognize the change in me until one day, during Savasana at the end of class, something was different. I felt sorry for the people who were leaving instead of wishing I was one of them. You’re missing the best part!
As yoga teacher and physical therapist Judith Hanson Lasater shares, “We’re not just resting our muscles in Savasana: we’re shifting our blood chemistry, our brain waves and the deepest parts of ourselves.”
In boot camp, I learned how to listen to the beat of my heart.
In Savasana, I learned how to listen to the wisdom of my heart.
It said: Be here. You need to slow down and rest. Savasana was the antidote to all of this up-regulation and chronic stress. It broke the cycle that could’ve killed me.
Be here. You don’t have to look away or numb. I hadn’t hit rock bottom, but I could see it lurking on the horizon. I quit drinking and realized an anti-depressant was necessary. My consistent practice of purposeful relaxation also made it obvious when the medication had served its purpose, and it was time for me to work with my doctor to gradually decrease my dosage to zero.
Be here. You have a purpose.
As Elizabeth Gilbert writes in Eat, Pray, Love, “The search for contentment is, therefore, not merely a self-preserving and self-benefiting act, but also a generous gift to the world. Clearing out all your misery gets you out of the way. You cease being an obstacle, not only to yourself but to anyone else. Only then are you free to serve and enjoy other people.”
And so each week for over year now, I bike to a friendly little yoga studio by the park to share my story.
I show others how to love themselves by rolling on rubber balls too, and how to listen, in the stillness of Savasana, for answers of their own. On the ride home, I feel my legs pedaling and my lungs breathing, and all of me is grateful.
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