I think it’s my soleus.

This is one of those stories where someone — lots of someones, actually — told me I couldn’t do something — in this case, a standing split balance pose — and then I went ahead and did it anyway. This is also one of those stories where I discover I have an attachment to being right and to smugness (my own, not other people’s). This is also a story about shoes.

Gray's Anatomy drawing of posterior of lower leg, including the soleus muscle.

I’ve been working with various expressions of standing split for maybe 7 or 8 years. First it was about getting my hamstrings to loosen up: they’re generally quite obliging about this sort of thing. Then it was about developing the core strength to open my heart center enough to start thinking about balancing (entering the pose with both hands on my standing ankle rather than on the ground). Now — and for the past 4 years or so — it’s been about playing with balancing. And, you know, not falling on my face. Because that would kind of hurt.

While trying the standing split with one hand on the ground, I’ve been offered a few reasons why I’ve had extended trouble moving into the balance:

  1. My core muscles aren’t strong enough to stabilize the rest of my body.
  2. My core muscles might be strong, but there’s too much weight to be supported over one ankle.
  3. My center of gravity is too variable. Since fat jiggles, my torso is not as still in the pose compared to the torso of someone with less fat.

At one point, a teacher at a studio I visited told me to “accept that it’s never going to happen.”**

I believed these for years. Not only that this pose might be more difficult for me than for someone of a smaller frame (which may well be true) and that it was unreasonable for me to try to attain it (something I know is downright false).

But really? I think the physical weakness has been my soleus this whole time.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been going about my day-to-day life in minimalist shoes (I’m not going to claim they’re magic for everyone, but they work well for my body), which try to approximate what life would be like in bare feet — and which consequently strengthen the muscles of the lower legs, feet, and ankles. In particular, I’ve noticed the muscles in the lower halves of my calves becoming noticeably stronger, meaning, I am now aware they actually do things.

Like help me balance on one ankle.

For years, I struggled with this balancing standing split, and I thought the problem was in one of the so-called “problem areas” of my body — my hips, my core, my boobs. I had been told this, with varying degrees of certainty, by people who are more generally knowledgeable about yoga and anatomy than I am.

If the explanations — the pose was unattainable because of my body size or fat — had turned out to be true, I would have worked to accept it. But this is not the truth.

The truth is that the more upper areas of my body — my thighs and my core — may have been strong enough for a while and are certainly strong enough now. I feel the change in my lower calves and ankles, the muscles that are now creating the stable base for the pose. While I’m still getting used to this new-found base, I find that I am repeatedly able to hold the pose for a minimum of six to eight breaths — enough to tell me this is not a fluke.

It is possible the “fat parts” of me have been strong enough the entire time. It is possible that the weaker parts were the parts that were made weak by conforming to gendered fashion expectations. It is possible that everything I’ve been told about what the weight of my body “can’t” do is a lie.

No, I don’t expect that’s true for everything I’ve been told, but I welcome the adventure of being proven wrong.

** I think there are relevant philosophical difference between accepting that it’s never going to happen and essentially being told to give up. And I believe learning to accept limitations is a meaningful spiritual practice. However, given the instructor’s tone and the way she treated her older students (i.e., ones with visible wrinkles) and me (the only fat student) throughout the class leads me to believe her intention was the latter.

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I'm here. I like stuff. Some other stuff, I like less.

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Posted in asana, balancing, core, satya

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