‘Soften where you feel the stretch’


beach yoga crop
Photo by Sarah Bass

One of my current favorite yoga videos is 47 minutes and 32 seconds of slow, gentle stretching—no strength-building balance poses, no sweat-inducing vinyasas. Just deep, relaxing stretches.

That’s not to say it’s entirely easy. The loud groans you hear coming from my living room are the sound of muscles reluctantly giving up some of their tightness and soreness.

Or rather, they’re the sound of my mind reluctantly giving up some of its impulse to clench those muscles—a subconscious impulse, born of the subconscious feeling that I need to defend myself at all times. Somebody might criticize me. I will certainly criticize myself. So I tighten my jaw, my neck, my legs, as if that can ward off the psychological blows. In trying to protect my “soft animal” from mortal injury, I trap it in an iron cage, where it is impossible for it to love what it loves.

The yoga teacher says: “Soften where you feel the stretch.” That’s one of the best parts of the video.

“Soften where you feel the stretch.” Don’t force it, don’t strain; breathe into the tightness and let it soften. Let it go—a refrain that’s easy to recite but hard to do. Letting go sounds complete, absolute: you do it or you fail. Softening happens in stages, a little at a time.

It’s not just my muscles that need to soften. I feel the stretch just about everywhere in my life these days. It is a time of major transition and transformation: the death of a parent, intensive psychotherapy, both daughters finishing school and starting their careers, leaving my job for voluntary unemployment. Resolving to face the fears and self-doubt that I have dragged behind me through my entire adult life so far. Resolving, in this Mary Oliver Challenge that I set for myself, that in the second half of that adult life, I will free myself of the doubt and fear and will feel the way my beloved father felt about himself: good enough.

These changes come slowly. A 47-minute video does not eliminate soreness and tension from my body. A couple years’ sustained effort does not eliminate habits of self-judgment and self-punishment that have taken root over three decades.

Patience is not my strong point, at least not with myself. I want healing and transformation, and I want them now. It doesn’t work that way. I can’t “just let go.” But sometimes, I can soften where I feel the stretch.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked. You can read about it here.

3 thoughts on “‘Soften where you feel the stretch’

  1. Thanks from this first time yogi. My beginner’s stretches were true “stretches” and not very graceful so your advice is most timely Carole. Mary Oliver goes well with anything, no?


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