Can't Force It

“You didn’t come here to rest, you came here to WORK!” she barks into a headset microphone from across the room.

Is she talking to me? A bead of sweat falls from my forehead as I try not to grunt. I propel my body forward on the machine and feel a cramp forming in my leg. The woman to my left is also struggling to keep up, which makes me feel better about myself. I reach down for my water bottle and take a sip.

“We only take water breaks in between exercises!” the instructor calls out in my direction.

Okay, she’s definitely talking to me. I do not bother hiding my eye roll.

For the rest of class, I do the bare minimum in a not-so-subtle act of defiance. Who does this chick think she is anyway, telling me I can’t take a drink of water? This is not the military. This is a fitness class … that I paid for.

I'm sure she was trying to motivate me. She probably thought reprimanding me in front of the entire class would drive me to work harder. Little does she know: I’ve birthed two children, and I have nothing to prove. I did not show up to this class to push myself into a state of dehydration; I showed up to move my body, tone my arms, and burn some calories before a pasta dinner. 

When the class ends, I wipe down my machine in silence, gather my stuff, and bolt. I stew the whole way home with a scowl on my face.

I hate exercise. I'm never coming back here.


The following weekend I am in a different class. A better class. 

“Listen to your body,” the yoga teacher hums. “You, and only you, know what it needs tonight.

We move through a vinyasa flow to the sound of soft music and rain pelting the sidewalk. I feel strong and in control of my own body. I take a drink of water whenever I feel like it. The instructor calls out a series of commands and we obey: warrior I, warrior II, extended side angle, triangle, half moon, downward dog, rinse, repeat. A bead of sweat trickles down my forehead as I curve into updog. We move together in unison and the instructor offers modifications whenever possible.

“You can drop your knees here, if you need to.”

Tonight, I don’t need to.

Someone else in the class drops to child’s pose, and she affirms the decision right away, “Good. Listen to your body.”

I am listening to my body tonight. My body wants to work. When we move from goddess to crow, I place my legs on my arms and float in the air like a spider. It’s not an easy pose, and I start to feel wobbly.

“Lift your head,” she softly calls out in my direction.

I realize I’m looking back through my legs, which is making me top-heavy. I raise my head and immediately feel more balanced. I smile at her in gratitude even though she can’t see my face. I move through the rest of class with great effort and intention, aware of how much I want to push myself. 

“Chair pose … now twist to the left!” she calls out.

My legs are shaking, but I don’t give up. I feel strong, and able, like I can do anything. I know if I need to fall to the floor in child’s pose, I can. It’s counterintuitive, perhaps, but having permission to go at my own pace actually inspires me to try harder. I prefer freedom over force. I love having room to explore, to get to the destination in my own time, in my own way.

Maybe we all do?

I often forget this in motherhood. I think about how many times I’ve tried to force my way, my expectations, my plan, my goal. I think of how many times I’ve tried to force my toddler to nap or tried to force my kids to behave well in public. I think of all the times I’ve yelled, the times I’ve been stubborn and impatient, willing my desires onto my children through crazy eyes and clenched teeth.

But the truth holds as much today as it did the day I brought them home as newborns from the hospital: I cannot force my kids to do much of anything. Sure, I can discipline and follow "proven" methods and set boundaries with the best of ‘em, but that will only get me -- and them -- so far.

I can look for tired cues and stick to a foolproof schedule, but I cannot force my baby to sleep. I can make my toddler sit at the kitchen table all night long, but I cannot force him to eat the food on his plate. I won’t even bother telling you the lengths I’ve gone to in the bathroom, so you’ll have to take my word for it when I say: I sure as heck cannot force my kids to poop. Only God knows how hard I’ve tried (on all accounts) over the course of the past five years.

It can be scary to admit these children under our watch are born with their own sets of freedoms and wills. At the same time, I’m finding that it relieves some of the pressure on me as a mother. I can work day in and day out to shape their hearts and steward their souls, but at some point, they have to do a little bit of the work themselves. It’s my job to discipline, to pray, to give them the best map to explore and gently steer them in the right direction, but it’s their job to put one foot in front of the other. I suppose I could technically push them, but that’s not the kind of mother I want to be.   

I can’t force my kids to sleep through the night or eat broccoli today anymore than I can force them to be kind and say no to drugs when they get to high school. This is all practice — learning how to equip, not demand; how to prepare, not repress. 

And I guess the question is: am I going to run my household like a boot camp or a yoga studio? Am I going to yell at my children every chance I get, scaring them into obedience? Or am I going to look at these tiny masterpieces in front of me and watch them bend and stretch and breathe on their own while I occasionally advise them to lift their heads? Am I going to monitor their water intake like a drill sergeant? Or am I going to remind them they can drop to their knees if they need to fall?

I've done both. And I can tell you which one is almost always more effective. 

“Now twist to the right!” 

My legs are still shaking, but I hold the pose. Just when I think I can’t take it anymore, I hear the teacher call out forward fold. Gravity pulls my head to my knees.

One more flow and we all collapse to the ground in Savasana. My sweaty body melts into the mat with a long, satisfying exhale. Our collective breathing slows. The gratitude in the room is as palpable as the hot air pumping through the vents. We’re grateful for this day, for this moment, for the way our bodies just worked like hell to finish that class. We showed up today. We worked hard today. Not because anyone forced us to — but because there was enough freedom and grace in that room for each of us to listen to our own bodies. 

We close the class with a single Ommm and part ways into the rain.

I smile the whole way home. I can't wait to come back.