Monday, July 27, 2009

Downward-facing Tree

7 months ago I started working on handstand (adho mukha vrksasana - downward facing tree pose. Go figure.) Now, I have never been gymnastically inclined. I could never do a backflip, or a cartwheel (still can't!), or any elegant combination of those things. So given that, I think it would be fair to say that I brought little experience but lots of baggage with me when I began this pose.

Sometimes the hardest part of learning something new is un-learning all the things you learned before.

In my mind, I can feel this pose. I can sense the muscles in my body as I place my palms on the floor, pressing down through the fingertips, and then lift one leg up to the sky and hop ever-so-smoothly and rise up, my lower back curving, my muscles engaged, my feet lifting towards the sky! In my mind.

Back in the real world and firmly rooted in my body, however, it is a whole different experience. My courtship with handstand has been neither graceful nor smooth. It has been a hard, sweaty, teeth-gritting experience. It has been a grueling and inelegant process of throwing myself towards an unforgiving wall and heavily crashing back to earth. There has been sweat. There have been grunting and angry noises. There has been frustration, and oh yes, there have been tears.

There have been sacrifices, many of them on the part of my partner, who time after time has stood behind me and dodged my wildly flinging legs in an attempt to catch me in the pose. She learned handstand at the advanced age of about 7, and used to walk on her hands in the front yard. She, as rational a being as has ever walked on two hands, cannot understand the fear. It goes something like this:

her: "you can totally do this pose!"
me: "I know. but I can't!"
her: "why not?"
me: "I don't know! I don't trust the wall to catch me."
her: "but the wall has to catch you! it can't go anywhere!"
me: "yes. no! I'm afraid."
her: "but you know you can do it, and you know the wall is here!"
me: "yes. but I'm afraid."

At some point in Yoga, we have to confront our fear. It is part of the flow. It is deeply entwined with the journey we are on. It manifests to us in a thousand different variations, each deeply personal to the wide-eyed traveler. It is one of the most daunting things we can do as an adult. Sure, we cope with fear when it comes upon us in extreme situations. That is one thing. But intentionally seeking out your fear and confronting it - that is a whole different experience. At the end of the day, we are alone in our fear. Fear shatters our ego and the delusions we make about ourselves. It is up to us to try, fail, cope with failing, and try again. Until one day, yes, we lift up through the fear, and in spite of the fear, we rise.

So after 7 months, yes, I finally am able to kick up into handstand against a wall. But each time I do it (or, so often, don't) I still have to move through my fear. Each time is as intimidating as the first time I faced that wall. And each time I don't make it (and there are still so many!), I am still deeply confronted by the feeling of failure, and frustration. Even when we are successful, fear is not finished with us. It is a part of life, and it is here to stay.

So, what is a girl to do? Each time, I have to breathe, and keep on breathing and move on, moving either buoyed by my success or depressed my failure, but moving inexorably nonetheless. Leaving it to try another day. Coming back to my centre and remembering that I am not here to measure myself against what I can or cannot do, but what I tried to achieve. Reminding myself that you never know who you truly are until you know yourself in the face of a challenge. That is a tree facing downwards. That is Yoga.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Present vs. the countdown

Perhaps one of the most challenging mindfulness disciplines of Yoga is summed up by this reminder: "Be Present".

Three little words: Be. Here. Now. Three little words that represent one of the most difficult things a person can do!

I come to this topic because I am counting down until my TT retreat starts. In fact, the first title I typed into this blog post today was "T minus 8 days". And then the more I thought about that, the less Yogic that felt. Because in counting down to the future, you are not living in the present. And not only that, but when we project our expectations onto a future event, aren't we just setting ourselves up to experience that in a certain way, instead of honoring the experience itself?

This of course is familiar to anyone who has ever "set themselves up to be let down". When we allow ourselves to overindulge in our expectations, whether it be about an event, a job, a situation or even a person or a relationship, we open ourselves up to disappointment when the reality is far different from what we expected or hoped. I have known people who seem to live chronically from one dreamy expectation to bitter disappointment, and then onto the next dreamy expectation. One lasting impression that comes from an encounter with such a person is: "s/he must be exhausted!"

The real point here is not whether or not life lives up to our expectations. From a Yoga perspective, by constantly living in expectation of a future event, we are avoiding the present. Which, wait a minute, is exactly what I am doing! At present, I have a week of work left to go, a mountain of things that need doing, people who need direction, documents that sadly will not just write themselves. And yet, here I am dreamily musing about Yoga and looking forward to my teacher training... and writing blogs!

Well, guess I should take my own advice and get back to the present... and do my best to stay focused on the here and now!