“Now assume the cat position. Go down on all fours and then arch your back up like a cat getting electrocuted.”

I’m glad he’s demonstrating, because at my age I keep forgetting what a cat looks like when it’s getting electrocuted.

He arches his back into the air just like an electrocuted cat and I follow suit. Then he starts bending back slowly keeping his front hands planted squarely in front of him while the rest of his body travels in the opposite direction. Me? I try to do the same, but generally my body only goes in one direction at a time, and is soon feeling like its being stretched over a medieval torture rack. Sinews, ligaments, tendons, and the kitchen sink are all crying out to me to stop this “stretching technique.” But like the electrocuted cat, I’m not really thinking much right now. I’m just arching.

I miss the benign “How did that make you feel,” which is replaced by an almost menacing, “How does that feel now, champ?

Why do they call this physical “therapy”? Therapy is best done while lying on a comfortable couch blaming all your problems on other people. But physical therapy is different; it’s not over until you are hurting. I miss the benign “How did that make you feel,” which is replaced by an almost menacing, “How does that feel now, champ?” And if your answer is anything less than a whimper, they keep on stretching you out.

I soon find myself on my back with one leg extended upward but slowly being bent back into itself in the strong capable hands of my therapist. The pain is extreme, with just a few movements of reprieve when I switch from contracting to relaxing, only to be followed by a few more inches of “progress.” When I begin tasting shoe, I tap out. I think I’m limber enough. I can’t say for sure because I can’t get up, but the world does feel distinctly limber from my perch on the therapy table…

But I did come away with a gem from my physical therapist, one of the nicest people I know (he has to be in order to get away with giving people such intense pain) and a super talent in his field. As we were twisting and manipulating various limbs on the floor he said, “When you can be comfortable while still in an uncomfortable position, you know you are in good shape.”

The highest success is not in simply finding comfort, but rather in finding it in the most uncomfortable of positions. Because to get to that level, you have to stretch every one of your muscles to its limit. Being in good shape is only possible when we are working on ourselves strenuously, pushing ourselves through uncomfortable realities to get to where we want to go.

Stretched to the Max

In a biography of Rav Eliezer Menachem Man Shach, of blessed memory, (1899-2001, Lithuania – Israel), one of the greatest Torah giants of the 20th century, there is a description of the great deprivation Rav Shach endured in order to stay in the famed Slabodka yeshiva as a young teenager. Owning only one set of clothing, barely eating anything, and unable to afford lodging other than the benches in the back of the yeshiva, Rav Shach thrived. He looked back at those years with great fondness, at the full immersion he had in his Talmudic study and spiritual pursuit, both of which were entirely unhampered by any material concerns or distractions. He may have been stretched to the max, he may have been in a very uncomfortable position, but he found his comfort zone and flourished.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, (1707-1746, Italy- Acco) in his seminal mussar masterpiece The Path of the Just (Mesilas Yesharim), states that the desire and tendency to find comfort zones in our lives where we can just sit back and relax is one of the greatest obstacles to personal growth. It is the biggest detractor from alacrity, which is the enthusiasm and drive we need to tap into our potential. He recommends that a person live by the maxim, “For man was created for toil” (Job 5:7) and says that when we look at life through that prism, we can embrace the work we need to do to get to where we have to go. When we are used to stretching and pulling, every further inch is not agony, but anticipated growth.

When we are used to stretching and pulling, every further inch is not agony, but anticipated growth.

It is interesting to note the strange blessing Jacob our forefather gave to his son Yissachar just before he died. Despite blessing all his children, it is the only blessing in which the word “good” is found: “Yissachar is a strong boned donkey, it rests between the boundaries. He saw tranquility that it was good and the land that it was pleasant, yet he bent his shoulder to bear and he became an indentured laborer (Genesis 49:14,15). The only one of Jacob’s children that is blessed with tranquility and goodness is the one who understands that in order to get that goodness he needs to bend his shoulder to bear the load; he needs to stretch himself till he’s uncomfortable.

If any of us were to look back at what we consider to be the best time in our lives, I doubt it would be a time we just lounged around playing video games or reading a good novel. Chances are it would be a time we were stretching ourselves to the max. It would be the times we found a way to be comfortable despite being in an uncomfortable position.

So everyone, let’s assume the cat position. It may not be comfortable, but it sure is electrifying!