What Is My Body Telling Me?
A blithe thirty-six, I was staying with a forty-something friend in Nicosia nine years ago. “You know,” she said. “Staying in shape gets harder after forty!” I rabbitted on about tae kwan do, work in the field, the physical activity that kept my muscles hard, my legs trim, and my figure – despite having borne two children – little bigger than it had been in high school.
Half way through my forties, I know that she is right.
I stopped tae kwan do five years ago. I never made black belt, never represented Cyprus in Seoul, despite my having been selected: a third pregnancy put paid to that. I stopped because a full contact sport guarantees injuries, and each one was taking longer to heal; strappy sandals don’t look good on feet black with bruises; and, as the only woman – and a competitive one – in a class full of young men doing their National Service, I knew I had to quit gracefully or I’d be carried out – even though the lads went easy on me. Also, my reaction to the invasion of Iraq was to explore a more pacifist approach to life, and my Western brain could not reconcile that sea change with the practising of martial arts.
I tried yoga, and loved it. For two years I attended mid-level classes in Astanga and Iyengar styles, my flexibility and strength ensuring that I could do all the basic asanas and begin some of the more advanced.
But we moved. And the yoga studio became a thirty-minute drive away. Evening classes were out due to childcare constraints, and doing a morning class meant losing a morning’s field work.
I tried home practice, but distractions muscled in. With Best Beloved’s home gym, same story: I would start a work-out, then the washing machine would ping, the phone would ring, a deadline would loom, weeds needed clearing, seeds needed planting… I found endless excuses.
And food? I have always eaten whatever I wanted. Best Beloved used to order dessert so that I could have two. My metabolism made short work of two thousand calories a day, but when the physical exercise stopped, my favourite jeans became harder to zip. Soon I was looking for a size thirty instead of twenty-eight. “You’re rounder!” said my mother-in-law, and “Your wife’s put on weight,” a friend of Best Beloved’s said. “But it suits her.”
I disagreed. I dislike the feeling of my thighs rubbing when I walk, the bulge of flesh hanging over my waistband. Orange-peel thighs? I sighed when I saw them and thought: “I can’t wear short shorts any more. I’ll start exercising again next week, next month… when I get back from England…”
“Your legs are going, Manamou,” Best Beloved informed me one evening. “Your stopping tae kwan do really shows!” (“He actually said that to you?” gasped a friend.) Oh, yeah… More than once. And “Try the weights. I know how hard it is to get into a routine, but it’s vital.”
I tried tae kwan do again, but gently. The Master encouraged me to join my older kids’ class, although I said that I didn’t want to fight any more – just to do the movements and the forms. But I immediately had trouble with my knees. So I stopped, thinking the problem an old ligament one, to be cured by rest.
The discomfort didn’t go. It got worse: not pain, but a weak feeling. I couldn’t quite trust my left knee not to give way, and kneeling was out of the question.
I went to the physiotherapist. “Trousers off,” he said. “Stand straight.” I stood as I have stood for thirty-five years, ever since one of my sisters pointed at my feet and said: “Look!”
“No, relax,” Nicos, the physio said. And my ankles collapsed.
“My goodness!” he said. “How long have you been compensating for your ankles like that?” When I said thirty-five years, he shook his head. “Back pain? Neck pain?”
“Pain descending stairs?”
“Then I can treat you,” he told me. “Your problem is showing now because you have been so active that your legs were always strong enough to compensate. Now you have no muscle tone. You have cartilage, ligament, and meniscus damage. Arthritis has already set in, and you will have to wear orthopaedic supports in your shoes for the rest of your life. You also have scoliosis, by the way, and one leg is shorter than the other.
“Fortunately, you came to me in time to escape surgery. We can correct it, I can treat you, and we can work on strengthening your legs again.”
So I go to be measured for my arch supports today, but this episode makes me think. Our bodies, our shapes, our injuries, our illnesses are indicators. Something needs to change in my life. “Exercise” is too simplistic a solution. “Eat less,” likewise.
I have to change the way that I do things. To bring listening back into my life. So that I can hear warnings before a situation becomes irretrievable.
Kay’s temporary absence has, in one way, been a blessing. It has forced me to spend more time with my children, especially the Little Ones, the minutia of whose daily lives I often miss. For these past few days I have been sitting with them at lunch and listening to their adventures at school (usually Kay feeds them as I have to go and pick up the Big Ones), while the Big Ones have had to wait an extra quarter of an hour. I have been driving The Littles to and from their lessons, admiring the art work that I often don’t get to see, or hearing about the exploits that Kay usually hears because she’s the one there.
Sometimes I find the pace frustrating. A six-year-old and a nine-year-old don’t express themselves with the fluency of an older child. My mind often tunes out their fumbling and hesitations, turns to its own obsessions, races at its own speed. (“What else do I have to get done today? What has to be planted? Do I have to pick an order today? What deadlines do I have?”) I am used to rushing past the details that consume their days. But I must not ignore them, as I ignored other details: my sister’s exclamation, my tightening jeans, my husband’s comments, the twinges in my joints.
The Yoga Journal magazines (my subscription has lapsed, but I kept every issue) on my shelf and the Wisdom newsletters that arrive in my Inbox remind me to listen; to set up a ‘me’ space, a ‘me’ time; to breathe, and listen to my breath; to think, and listen to my thoughts; to reach for the knowledge that is as near as my fingertips; to be forgiving, yet gently relentless; to relax and accept. I cannot fix everything, but I can learn from everything.