February 17, 2011

Splish Splash: Falling Down Is A Huge Part of Practicing Yoga.

Every afternoon, at a Mexican resort I once visited, lifeguards unroll a long, narrow, rubber mat across the pool as part of game called “The Magic Carpet.” The first guest to make their way across the pool on the mat is the winner. From all the crashing and splashing you see going on, this clearly takes some doing! While the mat is buoyant, as soon as your weight settles onto it, the edges sink. In order to avoid going under yourself, you must continually shift your weight from one edge of the mat to the other, all while maintaining speedy forward progress. Most people get wet. But they really don’t seem to mind. In fact, many of them zip right back to the line to try again — confidently armed with the knowledge they gained from their earlier splash.

I’m having the kind of week where my life feels like a walk across that magic carpet. While most weeks my life is a balancing act, it’s not generally this extreme. Usually, it’s pretty easy to figure out how to get through a challenging day. Sometimes, in fact, balance seems to return automatically. If it doesn’t, it’s usually simple enough for me to rearrange things so it does. For instance, if my family is feeling the effects of me teaching an additional evening class, I may simply decide that the new class is too much for us to absorb. Or I may rediscover my slow cooker so I can teach and prepare a nutritious meal simultaneously. Either way, I can typically find my way back to balance without much of a hiccup.

This week, however, is a whole other story. It feels like each and every facet of my life is out of whack. I took on an exciting writing project helping a friend with his book, which means that I’m working more than I usually do, and the volunteer project I agreed to chair last year happens to be revving up at the same time. One of my kids (finally) “hit the wall” in juggling all of her extra-curricular activities just as another went into academic free-fall. My son’s chronic illness reared its head after months of remission within days of my husband getting some nerve-wracking news at work.

Did you hear the splash?

In the last several days, I’ve felt myself slide off that magic carpet many times. While I’m not coming up laughing like the people in that Mexican pool, I am coming up. The good news is that I am just as eager for another try as they are and, each time I do, I’m armed with a little wisdom gained from my earlier “splashes.” It’s my yoga practice that has taught me how important it is to learn to fall. Yoga has also taught me how critically important it is to get back up ready for another go.

When I first explored balancing postures on my yoga mat, I fell out of them time and time again. I still do. There is a lot for me to learn from falling. Each time I lose my balance is a chance to discover (or rediscover) what didn’t work. Sometimes it’s something physical that knocks me down. Maybe my core muscles relaxed or perhaps my standing leg locked. Sometimes it’s something mental. While a crippling bout of “I-can’t-do-that-itis” could be the culprit, more often it is an inner thrill of victory at having achieved the posture that sends me crashing back onto two feet.

As falling is as much a part of yoga for me as balancing, it’s probably not surprising that getting back up is integral to my practice as well. I have found, over time, that growling at myself in disappointment is not helpful. Nor is chastising myself or getting embarrassed. What seems to work best for me is pretty straightforward: I take a deep breath and begin again. The good news is that I begin again with a better understanding of what’s required to achieve the posture. It’s often a whole lot easier to stand on one foot the second time around.

As I practice balancing postures, I continue to be stunned at how much movement is involved in standing still on one foot. In tree pose (vrkasana), for instance, I can feel the foot I am standing on practically roll from side to side as the weight of my body sways back and forth. In eagle pose (garudasana), the muscles of my thigh contract and release over and over again as I fight the impulse to unwrap my legs and stand again on two feet. In the most challenging of balancing poses for me, half-moon (ardha chandrasana), the seemingly motionless act of looking up is still sometimes enough to knock me down.

In all of these yoga postures the lesson for me is the same. The more I fight the movements of my shifting body, the more I struggle to stay still and poised as my body constantly works to recalibrate in the pose, the sooner I fall. It is only when I embrace the wobbles, when I welcome the swaying sensations, that I remain standing. I have learned on my mat that freezing up is no way to balance. You have to embrace the movement, you have to breathe, you have to be willing to fall, and, most importantly, you have to be willing and able to get back up and start again.

So, as I pop up from yet another “splash” this week, I can imagine myself re-entering a balancing pose on my mat. I can take a deep breath and begin again. I can learn from my falls and practice getting back up on my feet. Because this darn “magic carpet” demands it, I must keep moving forward … perhaps a little faster than I normally choose to. But, as in simpler weeks, I can trust that life will gradually settle down. In the meantime, my job is to embrace the swaying movements of balance. 

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