Proper Alignment

Right now my squat is in rehab. I’m working to break a tendency to shift my torso alignment when the bar is heavy. In order to do a low bar back squat, the bar must sit just below the spine of the scapulae, and the torso must be oriented in such a way that the chest points down to the ground.  This allows the bar to move in the straightest line possible, making the lift more efficient.  You might hear the cue “chest down” to remind the trainee of proper alignment.  My torso angle is totally fine when the bar is light, but when I’m under a heavy bar, my form has started to get wonky (yes, again).  I start out chest down, and then at the bottom of the squat, often my head pops up and brings my torso along with it, instead of driving up with my hips.  We’ve been working it through, trying to identify and address the factors that cause me to break form.  Bottom line though, is that I needed to deload and fix form, reorient myself properly, and retrain the position and movement pattern so that I can be more effective and efficient with heavy weights.

This is not dissimilar to what happens from time to time in our spiritual life.  Likely we know that we should be oriented in such a way that we keep our eyes on God, but sometimes we get distracted by the demands of life, focused on the wrong things, maybe thinking that we can rely on our own strength to get us through.  Recently at a church youth retreat, one of the speakers, Tiffany Lee Thompson, presented a similar idea to the kids in the metaphor of a cup.  She explained to them that often we spend time and energy looking outward to other people to make us feel good about ourselves, to make us feel worthwhile and complete, to fill us up. This is as foolish as a cup turned sideways, she said; it is an approach that will always leave us empty.  Instead she told the kids to right their cup, to turn it upward and to be open to God, because only God can fill our cup.  Not only will God fill our cup, she said, but He will fill it abundantly; He will cause our cup to overflow so that those around us will also be refreshed by the love of God flowing through us.

So those times when life feels askew, when we feel disoriented or lost, those are times when we need to recheck our alignment.  If we keep ourselves properly positioned, we will find that we are able to move efficiently and effectively, with power and conviction, lifting the heavy weight and doing the work set out before us.

The Blessing of Rest

Sometimes in conversation, you see a version of yourself reflected back to you.  The other night I saw in some friends the same struggle to understand the importance of rest in my current pure strength program that I wrestled with at the beginning.  We were talking about our training for that day and describing our usual programs.  Both of my friends described circuit style work, moving quickly from one exercise to another without a conscious focus on rest between sets; the rest seemed more the accidental by-product of the amount of time it took to move from one station to the next.  I described my lift that day, a heavy lift that actually involved moving for reps and sets more weight on some lifts than I had previously ever moved.  Rest was essential in order for me to get each rep; my rest between sets on the really heavy lifts was a minimum of five minutes.  My friends looked at me with something akin to horror and said, “Yeah… See… I could never do that.  I need to keep moving.”

I know exactly how they feel, because that’s the same mindset I had when I started training pure strength, and it’s something I struggle with too.  “I know!”  I told them.  “When I first started training this way, I had a hard time waiting.  I have to set the timer on my phone to make sure I don’t try working again too soon.”  I told them the story of one of the first Saturdays I trained that both Diego and Emily were there.  Emily had been stressing the importance of rest between sets with me over several weeks and apparently had mentioned it to Diego.  He noticed that I was sitting down on an empty bench waiting for my next set, as opposed to pacing around, and he pointed this out to Emily as though describing a victory.  Emily laughed and said, “Yup, I’ve trained her to sit.  It’s obedience school around here.”

Being still and just sitting is difficult for me, and as my conversation with my friends indicates, this is a challenge for many of us.  I think this resistance to being still is not isolated to our experiences in the gym.  I go through a lot of my day in a state of fairly constant motion.  I believe a lot of us are like this; this is the pace at which our culture encourages us to move.  The state of constant motion in which we live was the starting point of one of Pastor Earl’s sermons, aptly delivered at the start of the school year as our more spacious summer schedules started to get jammed up and on a Sunday when two of the readings addressed the idea of Sabbath.  The Gospel lesson was one in which Jesus was criticized for having worked on the Sabbath, and the reading from Isaiah contained God’s announcement that honoring the Sabbath leads to blessings.  Pastor Earl helped us break down what “honoring the Sabbath” meant historically; Sabbath was originally a gift of rest for the Hebrew people following their enslavement in Egypt when they were forced to work 24/7.  He explained that many of the rules of keeping the Sabbath that might seem silly or extreme to us originated out of a desire to protect that blessing of rest, and that to a certain degree they are necessary:  “In reality, these rules are not silly. Why, just look at how we’ve filled our days and weeks to the brim so that pausing, resting, and focusing on our relationship with God gets shoved aside. We are modern slaves to our work, our way of life, our pursuit of financial comfort, and our accomplishments used to define ourselves.”

Maybe our desire to have more, be more, and do more requires each of us to establish some of our own rules of Sabbath in order to honor it.  Pastor Earl explained that Martin Luther detailed the two main purposes of Sabbath in his Large Catechism as being “first for our health and second for making sure that we gather and worship God.”  Pastor Earl invited us to find the method that worked for us.  In the gym, many of us use the timers on our phones to ensure that we don’t attempt our next set before our minds and bodies are ready; some read articles on the internet; sometimes we talk; one girl reads Harry Potter.  The method we use to protect that rest is less important than the fact that we do.  Find your own way, but take up the invitation:  “Carve out a little time each day to sanctify, to make the day holy for you. Carve out a day every week to sanctify, to make the day holy for you. We don’t have to get legalistic about it … that eventually leads to more work and stress. But make that part of that day and that day of that week something where you pause and remember God.”  Find the blessing of rest that is both needed and promised.

Faith, Focus, and Movement

Most people recognize that it is through our hard-fought struggles that we learn the greatest lessons; the easy lessons of success often have much less impact and are more quickly forgotten.  With encouragement from Louise and Emily, I learned a couple of significant lessons from my recent back pain.  Louise encouraged me to pay attention to the way my own body processed the pain, to focus inwardly to find my own specific answers to what brought relief or further discomfort, before putting my faith in the generalized answers I might find by googling something like WebMD.  Emily introduced me to the concept that movement is medicine, a necessary part of the healing process that allowed me to reframe the painful mind-body conversation that my injury had begun.

It was while I was in the process of writing about these lessons, that I heard two separate sermons on a difficult passage in Luke where Jesus says he brings division, not peace, to this world.  (Luke 12:49-56).  Not an easy passage, and not one that many people like to focus on.  Both pastors, Pastor Glenn Schoenberger from Our Savior Lutheran Church and Pastor Earl Janssen of Our Shepherd Lutheran Church, recognized that this is not the way we usually like to think of the message of Christianity.  As Pastor Glenn says, we prefer the Jesus of Christmas, the Prince of Peace; “the Jesus who invites us to come to him and he will give us rest, because his yoke is easy and his burden light.”  We are far less interested in the Jesus who promises to turn family members against each other.  Yikes.

Instead of giving us what we want, Jesus offers us some “edgy” stuff, as Pastor Glenn said.  Pastor Glenn acknowledged that the early history of Christianity was one of near constant confrontation with authority and established structures, and that to follow Jesus at that time required “all of the passion and commitment and courage [His followers] could muster” because it was likely that they would “be divided from loved ones who [didn’t] understand or believe in [their] choice.”  While this was the situation during the early days of Christianity, “the practice of our faith holds far less danger and challenge for us in American society today than in Jesus’ time.”  While he recognized that this isn’t the case everywhere, Pastor Glenn suggested that perhaps we lose something of the original intent when we become comfortable in a certain place in our faith where nothing is risked and nothing is challenged.

For another take on this reading (along with a warning that paraphrasing Jesus is dangerous), Pastor Earl summed the passage up like this:  Jesus says to those who were following him, “Really? What did you expect when you started to follow me? Did you really anticipate that I’d make your life easier? I’m proclaiming justice, I’m proclaiming selflessness, I’m showing you what being a child of God means. The powers of this world don’t accept that without a fight.”  From either sermon, it’s clear that this text offers us something challenging, something potentially painful, something we might rather avoid.

conversation-bubbles-2Like the lessons I learned from my painful back, Pastor Earl suggested that the way to engage with this challenging and divisive passage is to turn our focus inward and then to move.  First we need to find our answer to the question, “How does my faith inform my decisions?”  This is not always an easy question to answer, and we can’t expect our answers to square up neatly with those around us.  These differences in response might seem odd, since we “would think that the teachings of Jesus would lead us all toward a single definitive decision”, but instead often we find potentially painful division.  But just as I learned from my back, that pain is not necessarily something we should shy away from; it is something we should move through: “… the reality is that faith informs each of us differently. That’s why … conversations are so important. Faith isn’t some kind of static thing. It is living, breathing, dynamic and so deeply influenced by the witnesses who have surrounded us.”  So we first look inward, and then we put our answer into motion by engaging others in conversation: “How does my faith inform my decisions? Ask yourself the question often. Share your process with others. You will learn about yourself, deepen your faith, and serve as a witness to life in the faith for others.”  And just as movement helped me reframe a painful mind-body conversation during my back episode, having respectful and open conversations about faith allows us to gain a greater range of motion in our relationships and an expanded ability to engage in life effectively, maybe especially when those conversations are “edgy” or challenging.

Faith that Failure Doesn’t Matter

If you’ve ever done any weightlifting, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “Failure is your friend!”  The first time I encountered that phrase several years ago in the context of the group strength class I was teaching, I didn’t have a lot of weight training experience from which to make sense of it.  My frame of reference in regards to failure was purely that of a non-lifter, someone who was raised to complete tasks as perfectly as possible, to double check for accuracy always, and to avoid extreme risks to ensure a better chance of success and safety; basically to function within a certain small comfort zone.  In weightlifting, failure is often the goal; this is where muscle growth happens.  When you train hypertrophy style, you want to work so hard that your muscles are no longer able to lift what you’re asking them to move.  When you train strength, getting that last rep of your working set at really heavy weight is almost always in question.  Oddly, in a sense, reaching the point of failure sort of equates to success.

When I first started training the big lifts, Craig helped me.  He coached me on form and he helped me determine my one rep max, the maximum weight I could move in any of my lifts, determined by the point just before which I failed.  I started working on my own at about 80% of my 1RM, but by the time my working sets got heavy I realized that I was not in the right environment to fail.  I was working without a spotter, the squat rack I was using did not have “infinity safety spotter arms” on which I could drop the bar if I couldn’t get back up, and the floor underneath me was not rubberized (not optimal if you’re going to drop the bar off your back). The day my working set of squats was just 5# below my previous max weight and my fourth rep felt like it was in question, I didn’t even attempt my fifth rep because I knew I didn’t have a safety system in place for a fail.

Squatting without safety bar arms
Squatting without safety bar arms
The long, black pieces are the safety bar arms for the squat rack.

This is pretty much the way things work outside of the weightroom too, and this was the subject of one of Pastor Earl’s recent sermons.  Often we believe that success is paramount and that failure matters in an “end of the world” kind of way; we attempt to achieve and expect perfection from ourselves.  We live within a certain small comfort zone, and while the size of that comfort zone might be different for different people, we often function within the parameters of our perceived areas of success.  Pastor Earl challenged us, “What would you do, what would you attempt, what would you dare in your life if you believed that failure didn’t matter? That’s the heart of faith.”

That’s a worthwhile question, so he gave us gave us time to wrestle with it, to talk to our neighbor about it, and then he gave us some of his own examples.  He also reminded us that answering this question with our lives was totally doable, because we have a safety system:

“I ask the question, because failure doesn’t matter. You are a precious child of God. You are a blessing in your family, in your work place, in your activities, and in the lives of all you meet. You are called to encounter the children of God wherever you are and offer the blessing of who God has made you to be. God has your back. We have your back. Failure doesn’t change that one little bit. You’ve been given the kingdom. You are a stranger and foreigner here because you have the freedom to live as a blessed, forgiven, child of God … a citizen of the kingdom of God where the rules are different.  All of this is called faith.”

We can risk failure because ultimately failure as defined by the usual rules doesn’t matter.  Failure does not define us as such; we have already been identified as blessed children of God, loved and forgiven.  With this in mind, failure instead becomes our opportunity for growth, a chance to develop strength, a demonstration of faith.  Imagine how much bigger our comfort zones would be if we consistently remembered that God has our backs; he is our spotter, our “infinity safety spotter arms”.

Breath as Prayer

Louise is a big proponent of the healing and restorative power of breath. When we are stressed out, a deep breath helps restore a sense of calm. When we are injured, a deep breath helps relieve muscle spasm and pain. Technically what happens is that stress and injury activate the body’s sympathetic response system, the fight or flight response.  There are evolutionary reasons why this was an advantage; increased adrenaline, increased blood sugar levels, higher heart rate all prepared us to battle or escape a physical threat. But today in a high-pressure culture, we spend a lot of time prepared to fight or run from perceived threats and stresses. This can lead to a whole host of health problems. A deep and full breath activates the parasympathetic response system and allows our bodies to get back in right relationship with our minds and our surroundings.

Prayer serves a similar purpose. While many of us approach prayer as a way of presenting a “to do list” to God, a request list of blessings and healing for ourselves and our friends and of punishments for enemies, Pastor Earl explains that the real purpose of prayer is quite different. Prayer is meant to change us, to help us re-establish a right relationship with God and his creation. At various points in confirmation classes and sermons, Pastor Earl has gone through the six segments of the Lord’s prayer detailing how each section helps us to re-establish a proper relationship with God.

Pastor Earl has preached on prayer in the past, and years later one of his sermons still stays with me. I heard the sermon at a time in my life when my kids were all very young, and I was overwhelmed. I was constantly running on a sleep deficit and always stressed out. I have never thought of myself as someone who is good at prayer. And while I was struggling through what some might have termed postpartum depression, I was annoyed that I couldn’t even find the energy to pray about it. That was when Pastor Earl delivered a sermon detailing the many ways that prayer can look for people. The example that struck me to the core was one of a new mother letting out a sigh of exhaustion. If sighing out of exasperation and a sense of inadequacy counted as prayer, I figured I was doing pretty well.

The language is different, but the concept is the same. Prayer/breath helps to re-establish right relationships and has the power to change and heal.

The Great I Am

When I wrote my first draft of the “I am” post and sent it to Louise for feedback, she commented that her use of this statement varies from person to person. Initially I had interpreted the “I am” statement as a bold declaration of an imagined future self, and I didn’t feel confident enough to make a statement like that. The friend who had originally relayed the story of the “I am” statement tends to be a bit impatient and this may have contributed to how I was hearing it.  Louise, on the other hand, often aims for something more immediate, for something rooted in the present.  Her goal was for individuals to allow themselves permission to perceive themselves as something different or unexpected, whether that be in the past, present or future, but she also is keenly aware of the value of the present, because that is all we really have. In working through the idea the first time, I settled on different wording, “I am training to be …”, which for me shifted my focus from a future goal to something a little more present, the process. Now that I think about it again though, I realize that even still, focusing on the process is not the same as staying in the present.

We live in a culture that values becoming (working towards goals) over being (finding contentedness within the moment). So I think it’s really not surprising that focusing on the present is something I find challenging, and I also think I’m not alone in this. The difference between goal, process, and present, sometimes can be vast, and other times it can be subtle. It’s easy to miss the value of our present self when we focus intently on the goal or even the process; it’s even easier to do when the present self is the one we have come to a trainer to help us change.

As I was thinking this all through again, it occurred to me that in Christian terms God is often referred to as the Great I Am. He reveals himself to Moses as “I Am who I Am” (Exodus 3:13-14).  I Am – that’s present tense. God is not the Great I Am Working on Being or the Great I Will Become. The power of God is in the present moment, in being able to see ourselves right now in the way that God does, with compassion and love despite our imperfection and brokenness and understanding that this is enough.starfish

Pastor Earl has been working to simplify the message of the Gospel in a recent sermon series. In a world where so many voices have loudly misrepresented the message of Christianity, perhaps from honest confusion, perhaps out of fear, he feels this is necessary. He says that the radical message of the Gospel distilled to its essence is that “I am enough”. He has used a variety of methods to help drive this message home. One Sunday he had us all repeat after him: “I am enough”.  Another Sunday he used question and answer format to help us identify which popular statements were Gospel (“God loves you in spite of who you are and what you do.”) and which were not Gospel (“God loves us most when we do what is right.”).  It was kinda cool listening to him bust Gospel myths like Artemis had busted myths about women and strength training.

We need people like Pastor Earl to remind us of the Gospel, to remind us that, despite our desire to be different or our attempts to change, we are loved and we are enough just as we are. That truth gets muddled when we translate it into the chaos of our daily lives, into the incompleteness of our to do lists, into our attempts to achieve our goals. We forget about the power that is accessible to us when we are willing to see ourselves differently, to love who we are in the present moment, despite the brokenness we might feel. And we need good friends and coaches like Louise to remind us of this too, because any attempt to make a meaningful change to our health and fitness that is rooted in a place of self-acceptance is bound to have more lasting impact than one initiated out of feelings of inadequacy and shame.

A Prayer and An Imperfect Trust

My experience with strength training has been one of empowerment and a desire to connect and encourage like-minded people.  If that’s the part of my story that you relate to and you’ve connected with other people like you, then I’m psyched.  However, there is another layer to this story, and that is a different connection to my faith life.  I know not everyone wants to talk about faith; somehow faith has become divisive in our country and in our time.  That’s why I’ve made this part of the story a separate tab.  If you’re also interested in this aspect of the story you can take it.  If not, you can leave it.  Up to you.  It will be here later if you change your mind.

That initial conversation that I had with myself on the spin bike, the one that got me started in this direction, the one where I walked away possessing a little of my husband’s faith in me, wasn’t a conversation.  It was a prayer.  I was slogged down with all those feelings I described of being “not enough”, but the new questions I asked were based on a lesson I had recently taught my 5th & 6th grade Sunday School class.  The questions were phrased like this: “God, what gifts and talents have you given me?  What have you made special in me that I’m supposed to be using better?”

Initially, the answers I came up with did not seem particularly compelling.  In fact, they seemed somewhat lame: I love to workout and that’s when I’m happiest; I’m am bothered by injustice and poverty and exploitation and war; I’m a decent writer.  Big whoop.  The only one of those items I’d consistently acted on was the exercise piece, and if you’ve read around on this blog, you know it wasn’t always like that was coming from a good place in my mind.  In fact, what I had done in comparison to what I hadn’t done made me feel selfish.  I had exercised because I liked it; I did it for me.  Maybe, I thought, there was a way I could use exercise to help other people.  Maybe I could get my personal trainers certification and run boot camps or classes as fundraisers to support organizations that did a better job of addressing the big issues like injustice.  The idea seemed impractical, illogical, weird.

But then, louder than the self-criticism, uncertainty, and second guessing, I heard a different thought – bold and confident. “Faith is acting even when you can’t see the outcome.”  The voice was so authoritative and commanding, definitely not my usual way of thinking.  It caught my attention.  The result was that I walked out of the spin room that day, fairly confident that my next step was to pursue certification as a personal trainer, a step that seemed relatively manageable and frankly pretty fun, but beyond that … not much.

Some people love uncertainty and adventure.  They dive straight into the deep end in a bikini.  Me?  Maybe not so much.  I like to test the water, and be a little more sure of what to expect.  I like to know where I’m going.  Somehow, that day though, it didn’t matter that the final destination was uncertain.  Somehow that day, my husband’s faith in me allowed me to put a little more trust in God.  A baby step, … but that’s ok.  Pastor Earl tells us that initially God asks us just to take those small, tentative steps: “The way out of the darkness that fills our lives is not to have the perfect love, the absolute confidence, the great and powerful faith. It starts with hesitation but trusting enough to follow the instruction to care for those who are easiest.” Start with what’s easy, what we’re good at, by using the gifts God has given us.  Just a baby step, an “imperfect trust”.  The next steps will follow.