I used to be a singer, a habit which has served me well as a parent (and not just for singing pretty songs). Four nights a week when I was in college, my women’s acapella group would rehearse for two hours, and we’d usually perform at least one other night. It was a lot of singing and it came from a place of extraordinary joy. Plus, my abs were things of beauty: firm, sculpted, and in perfect support of my breath, voice, posture.
Shortly after that, I started taking yoga for the first time. I listened enthusiastically to the suggestions on breathing: “Let the air fill you up!” I can do that! “The fullness of your breath grounds you, connecting you to the world around you.” Yes! But then: “Let your belly be soft.” WHAT? Obviously, I said to myself, these yogi people know nothing about breathing.
Now, nearly twenty years later, I find that I have lived, mostly, in a constant state of suspension between these two ideals: tension (albeit supportive) and softness (albeit chosen, and therefore disciplined). I suspect this has something to do with the human condition: that we are given certain circumstances and we need both to accept them (softness) and to make something of them (tension).
This is the essence of Saul Alinsky’s principle, that we have to live in the world as it is and work toward the world as it should be. It is also the essence of productivity: understand where you are that you might move forward (and the kind of non-acceptance that manifests as self-flagellation doesn’t help). It’s the essence of teaching: start where the students are and go on from there. And of course it’s the essence of parenting, of love, and creativity: compassion, for ourselves, our kids, our world, must undergird every disciplined effort to build and teach and grow.
We can all agree that breath (and for “breath,” from here on out, read “love,” “openness,” “curiosity,” or “spirit”) fills us up, that it simultaneously grounds us and lets us fly. The musculature and intentionality that produce such breathing are real and profound: such breathing is our natural state (as in sleep), but in the world of our realities, pretty much everything gets in the way and messes it up. So between nightmares and day jobs, childcare and health care, commuting and computing, we end up – most days – tangled beyond recognition. For most of us, it takes a walk in the woods (which we don’t take) or a round of meditation (which we don’t get) to rediscover our core. When we do, we can begin to parse our lives with a little more clarity. Without clarity and rest, we tend to experience stress (which might be considered tension with an attitude problem).
But here’s the thing: tension itself is not bad. Tension is a kind of discipline or structure, and its manifest in both. There are many ways to good posture, or effective work habits, or appropriate human interaction, and tension is a part of them. I am reminded of the persistent knee and hip pain I experienced in graduate school that stopped my running habit, and of the excruciating SI joint issues that developed in my first pregnancy and didn’t resolve long after the second. I had worked out and stretched diligently through the first but learned in the second that rest was the only solution, so by the time I sought expert help I was not the strongest person you know. I was, however one of the more flexible. And that turned out to be the problem. I didn’t have enough tension!
Hahahaha, she laughs, only slightly hysterical – two babies under three years old and mounting fiscal pressure that made it important to get more work and find more daycare…but it’s true. That kind of emotional tension was keeping me from the strength-training that my body needed in order to create the muscular tension that would hold my bones in the right places. Roughly. Part of the pain was from too much tension; part of it was from too little. Sound familiar?
It’s the same logic with our lives: an absence of tension doesn’t mean smooth sailing: it means we aren’t learning or pushing or changing or MAKING change. Of course it’s delightful when in the midst of complications something goes smoothly (I still remember, as do all women who have delivered a baby vaginally while conscious, that moment of exquisite, whooshing relief when at long last that tiny body fully squeezes out of your own). The trick to managing tension in the rest of our lives, I’m finding, is that damned balancing act. We need some tension, but not too much; we need resilience and self-care for when we are overwhelmed by too much tension anyway; we need the right kinds of tension, at the right times and places, to keep us alert and accountable; we need counterbalancing forms of relaxation to remind us of our natural state and to help us recalibrate. This is to say, we need the sturdy muscles of our singer’s core to give us voice, to help us run. And we need to know how to release that posture to assume a gentler one for the yoga mat. We need to relieve that tension through twisting core stretches and maintain it with vigorous exercise. But what we can’t do, it seems, is sidestep the question entirely. Which I’ll admit makes me a little grumpy. Because I like the idea of smooth sailing. I’ll let you know how that works out for me.