By Stephanie Given, Zuna Yoga 200 hour yoga teacher training graduate
During meditation this evening, I finally came to understand the concept of strength, an adjective that’s idolized in American culture and that I frequently use but never to describe myself.
I have lived my entire life with the image that to be strong, you must be a brick wall—let nothing or no one tear you down. I’ve never found that concept to have a foundation within myself. Family, friends, heck, even strangers have used the word “strong” to describe me for as long as I can recall. When they do, I visualize the word floating through the air around me, deflected by the impenetrable truth of my thick skin.
I can understand why the outside world would view me as strong. I’ve lifted heavy weights, I conquered a marathon, I traveled around the world for both work and pleasure, and I held my family above water when life as we knew it was collapsing around us and washing away. But I did not gain strength from that. I washed away, too, and I completely lost myself out at sea.
The obligation to play the role of “strong” for others began when I was barely a teenager. I can still taste the orange creamsicle I was enjoying at the Pub 99 restaurant when my parents told my older sister and me that they were getting a divorce. I was too young and naive to grasp the entirety of how things would change, how this would have the same spiderweb effect as breaking a slab of concrete. The dissolution of their marriage was prolonged by relentless court dates, tears, manipulation, hurtful words, and gut-wrenching periods of silence. Even when I was numb, though, I thought it was crucial to be a crutch for my mother and sister, to keep my sister feeling secure and loved. I never understood how to take the time or effort to do that for myself. Throughout my teenage years and twenties, this identity of protector of others took charge in all my relationships, no matter the circumstances or the toll it took on me.
When my mother’s doctor told her she was obese, in response, she signed herself and me up for a marathon the following year. I knew the training and the race would take a toll on my body, that physically I could not handle it, but I continued to pursue it because I thought I needed to support her. I thought that to be strong meant pushing through all barriers no matter how impossible they seem. There was no option to slow down and recover after the marathon. I was unable to walk up and down stairs, yet I still pushed through and worked my waitressing shifts. I was unable to make it out of bed without crying in pain, but I continued to make it to functions for family and friends with a smile on my face. I allowed my body to deteriorate and the injuries to progress. Because that shows strength.
Tonight I am finally beginning to understand how my notion of strength is flawed.
Meditation opened a portal of fiery rage, streaming deep from every joint, muscle, and organ. My heart, my knees, my veins, my spirit shouted, “WHY!? HOW?! Why have you ignored me all these years?! How have you not heard me before?!” No answer surfaced. Only shame.
I wanted to scream, to yell, and to cry. All at once.
Until I heard a small voice say “sorry.”
Sorry for not listening.
Sorry for not slowing down.
Sorry for being unyielding and stubborn.
Sorry for ignoring my spirit.
In that moment, I came to understand that to heal, it is vital to take the time to understand and attend to my own needs. To promise to never discard my spirit or body as unimportant. To promise that I will never take advantage again. To promise that I will never leave my spirit again.
Strength finally came to me when I apologized to myself. For pushing too hard, for disrespecting myself, for being unforgiving, and for acting plain old mean. I would not treat a loved one this way. I will not do this to myself again.
From the base of my spine, there emanated a bright white light of love for my whole self, respect for my body and soul, where courage could now grow. I could see the light burning from the muladhara, where my strength was growing roots. I could finally see strength within myself. And I had never felt more complete.
At any moment I can put on the suit of strong sister, friend, coworker, and role model, but it does not define who I am. Courage and strength stem from having the acceptance and patience to listen and honor my body and what it needs. Beyond the costumes of identities I produce, my higher being is waiting and sending cues. If I can take the time to understand and respect when to say no, when to rest and slow down, when to admit that I am not doing well, when I am in need of a hug, I am one step closer to my true self, which is a superior sort of strength.