Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Gospel According to Pilates

from the movie "Michael," directed by Nora Ephron
Recently, I listened to our pastor Trent Elder’s sermon, with the text Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, titled “My burden is light.” I was struck by what he said about verse 30, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Trent said:

Jesus is saying that when you are attached with him [sharing the yoke] and doing his work with him, that the yoke is surprisingly light. In fact, that Greek word here also translates to pleasant. The yoke isn’t just light, it actually feels good to bear. 

The yoke feels good. I had not thought of that before. I imagined Jesus was saying he would lighten our load by helping to carry it, the way someone helps you to carry a heavy box. With one of you on each side, the burden is light. But more than that, he’s saying, when you share the load with Jesus, it’s pleasant, you like carrying the load, you like doing the work.

A couple years ago I started taking Pilates lessons. They are one-on-one with an instructor named Kim who works out of her home. Those of you who know me well will know that I am very “un-sportsy.” I hated PE all through school. I always quoted someone who said PE was like an hour of Lord of the Flies in the middle of the school day. I was pathetic at anything physical. The annual “Presidential Fitness Award” that we practiced and strived for was one humiliation after another. In Wikipedia it lists a 50-yard dash, 600-yard run, standing broad jump, Pull-ups (boys), Flexed-arm hang (girls), Sit-ups, and a Shuttle run. I also remember having to throw a baseball a certain distance. I huffed and puffed in last on the runs (no “dash” about those 50 yards for me), jumped mere inches, barely got my chin above the bar before falling, and my baseball throw wasn’t even worth trying to catch from the field. I was able, ironically, to pass one test -- I could do 50 sit-ups. I say ironically because I have always had a pot belly and never understood how the one thing I could do was use those obviously flabby muscles to sit up 50 times.

Back then, kids “picked teams,” a cruel practice for people like me. The team captains would take turns picking one child at a time to be on their team. When they got to me -- the last one standing -- they argued over who had to take me: “You take her!” “No, you take her.” Volleyball was the bane of my existence. I would pray for the ball not to come my way. I could not wait to grow up because, then, no one could force me to play volleyball.

So, you can probably understand why I continued my unhappy experiences with physical activity as an adult. The payments for gym memberships went on for weeks after my attendance at the gym stopped. I’d sign up for an exercise or yoga class and show up for maybe 2 or 3 maximum. But, as we all do, I know that I should have some kind of regular exercise, and especially now that I have been diagnosed with diabetes.

I decided to look for a personal yoga class. I figured if it was one-on-one it would be less embarrassing. When I googled for classes in my neighborhood, one of the search results was a neighborhood pilates class a woman gives out of her home. I recognized it because my daughter was taking these classes. Her home is just a few blocks away and I decided to give it a try. I had no idea what Pilates was. I thought maybe it was like kickboxing or something.

It turns out these classes have changed my entire relationship with my body. One time Kim, the instructor, was showing me how to rotate my pelvis by standing above me pushing my pelvic bones saying, “Feel it?” I said, “Yes, I feel it, but my brain can’t talk to those muscles.”  I sometimes spend the whole class barely speaking, determinedly focusing on getting my brain to tell a particular muscle what to do. Every so often Kim gets out an anatomy book to show me the bones and muscles we’re working on. It helps me to visualize them. I think of myself as a “words person,” someone who learns through reading and words. But with Pilates, I realize that the words are making pictures in my mind, and it’s in visualizing the picture that the learning happens. Once when we were working on moving my shoulder blades I remembered a movie where John Travolta is an angel named Michael. He’s kind of a scruffy angel with these big wings coming out of his back that he often hides under a trench coat. I imagined my shoulder blades had those big wings attached to them and I was moving them up and down. Those kinds of sometimes silly mind-pictures help me connect my brain and body.

A few weeks ago Kim had me try doing a modified push-up. I lay on my stomach, bent my elbows with my palms flat on the mat on either side, and tried to push just the top half of my body up, leaving my legs flat on the floor. I strained and pushed, Kim gave me tips, saying to just bend my butt backward, don’t try to do it all with my arms, and so on. I couldn’t come up even an inch. It was so frustrating I nearly cried. Kim took pity on me and said we would try again another time. That week, though, I kept trying on my own. Finally, I was able to get up once! I couldn’t believe it. Then each week or so I added another one until now I can do 5. Once I lift the top of my body, I rock backward into a kind of yoga child pose. When I do that, I feel warmth all up and down my spine. It feels good! It’s still hard. Every time I put my arms into position and contemplate lifting, I still wonder, “Will I be able to do it?” But it feels good! I like it. I look forward to the warm feeling the motion gives me.

I told Kim about this and that I had suddenly wondered, maybe this is why some people actually like to exercise. I always figured people who like to exercise like it the way a mountain climber likes to get to the top of the mountain. It is agony getting there but you feel good because you accomplished something -- you got through the agony and achieved your goal. That is very much not motivating for me. But, with Pilates, the act is not agony, it’s pleasant, I like it. It’s hard but there’s no pain.

And that is why I was struck by Trent’s explanation of verse 30. Sharing the yoke with Jesus is not just something that you are glad you did because the result was good. Sharing the yoke with Jesus is pleasant, you like it.

What does it mean in practical terms for me to share the yoke with Jesus? Trent goes on to say:

...we rise up out of living life just for ourselves, and start to move into caring for others, caring for the downtrodden in society, the forgotten, the sick, the poor, the widow. It may sound like a lot of work, but we will surprisingly find that in doing that work, we are better off than we were before, The yoke of the work is pleasant. 

I will continue to explore the details of that work, caring for others. I am glad to know that, just like those Pilates push-ups, even if the work is hard, I will like it, it will be pleasant, I will enjoy working together with Jesus.

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