There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.
I will never forget my first unsupported headstand (sirsasana). After months of practicing headstand against a wall, I was beginning to feel pretty confident in my understanding of what it takes to get (and stay) upside down. Looking back, my confidence is baffling. Though I had been gradually weaning myself from the wall for weeks, I’d not yet tried to enter the posture in the middle of the room. Still, I was rarely even touching the wall with the tip of my big toe, so I was feeling pretty good.
I was chatting with a friend during a break in a yoga workshop when she confessed her fear and frustration with headstand. Before my mind could catch up with my body, I found myself showing her how to get into the posture. Suddenly, for a glorious moment, I was up! And then, my mind caught up with my body, and immediately started thinking. “I can’t believe it! I’m up! I did … ” Before I could finish the thought, I was down. In a big, crashing way. Flat on my back. Right in the middle of a room filled with dozens of yoga students.
As I was entering my headstand that morning, I was fully absorbed in the act of doing a headstand. Because my headstand was impulsive, rather than planned, my mind was not in the driver’s seat where it is most comfortable. Instead, my body and my instincts were in charge. I was feeling and I was doing, but I was not thinking. That is, I was not thinking until I started to think. Once that started, all bets were off. By thinking about what I was doing, I stepped out of my experience. Instead of doing a headstand with every ounce of my focus, I shifted into thinking about doing a headstand. That is exactly when my headstand came to a crashing end.
Even if you’ve never stood on your head in the middle of a room, I bet you’ve experienced something like this. Have you ever been fully absorbed in a lecture, only to suddenly realize how closely you’re paying attention? The moment that you begin thinking about your attention is the precise moment that you stop paying attention to the lecture. Or perhaps you’ve managed to drop into that blissful state often referred to as “the zone” while running or sewing or making cookies? Anyone who has ever been in “the zone” knows that the fastest way out of it is to notice you’re in it. Right?
The mind is a slippery, crafty thing. It strongly prefers to be in charge. For instance, when I’m consciously trying to quiet my thoughts (a.k.a. turn off my thinking mind), my mind is often very eager to “help.” “Look! I’m not thinking,” I’ll think, immediately shattering my hard-won inner quiet. Or, “My breaths are so deep. Maybe I should count them,” adding in an unnecessary (and distracting) mental element to my experience.
Not to sound schizophrenic, but sometimes when this happens, I actually feel like I’m splitting in two. I go from having a rich, rewarding experience (whatever it is), to watching myself have the experience. Each time this happens, I’m bummed. It can feel as shocking as those old-time vaudeville performers look when yanked off stage by a cane or so subtle I hardly notice it happening. Either way, my experience is diluted. Watching is simply never as rewarding or fulfilling as doing.
When we practice yoga, we get to practice losing ourselves (or at least losing our thinking minds) in our experiences. We also get to practice noticing our mind’s sometimes stubborn response to our attempts to just be or just do. Over and over again, one breath at a time, we make the choice to stay in the moment with what we’re feeling and doing. If we’re normal human beings, over and over again we have to re-make our choice as our minds hop in with opinions, fears, thoughts, and suggestions. This is hard work!
I’m sure you’ll find it reassuring that losing focus on your mat doesn’t always mean doing a back-flop out of a headstand. Otherwise, it’d be really hard to talk yourself into trying again! That’s really good news, because if you’re anything like me, you’re going to need to try again a lot!
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