One of the best things about yoga practice is the way it brings up emotions and lets us examine them, the events that evoked them, and the thinking behind them.
But there are times when emotions well up so strongly that we’re knocked off our feet, and don’t get to hear what we’re telling ourselves.
That’s what happened to me a week ago Wednesday, in Louie’s class.
I was low on sleep, tired from teaching my first two Tuesday night classes of the fall, and achy, with a sore plantar fascia: excellent conditions for a meltdown.
Close to the end of a class I’d found challenging, we did headstand at the wall, knuckles and heels both touching.
I do not like headstand at the wall. I’d far rather balance in the middle of the room. And I hadn’t done a five-minute holding at the wall in a long time.
Then Louie added a variation in which one leg descends – slowly, with control – toward the floor, while the other leg lifts.
And there I was, in Yoga Hell. No matter how much I pressed my forearms down, worked my shoulders, compacted and lifted my legs, the weight was too much, and my neck felt strained. The pose was a blank wall, with no doorway in. I came down early.
Physically, I rested with my head down, releasing my neck.
Emotionally, I tumbled around in breaking waves of hopelessness (I’ll never be any better), shame (I ought to be able to do this), and depression (what’s the point? why don’t I just give up?)
When that sort of onslaught arrives, there’s not much to do about it but rest, have a nice cup of tea and wait for it to pass, which it did. In fact, by Thursday morning, life looked so much better that I tried headstand, and the one-legged variation, at the wall again, at home.
It was just as hard. But this time, knowing what was waiting for me, I could hear the words behind the emotions: “You’re weak, you’ve always been weak, you’ll always be weak.”
Huh? Even I could see the flaw in this logic.
I may not be able to do this particular headstand today, but I can press up off the floor and hold a full back bend for a minute, and still have power left over for a leisurely descent. So while I might not be as strong as I would like to be, and I can’t do every pose I’d like to do, I’m not weak.
Clearly I needed something to say to myself that would be more helpful.
After all, it’s inevitable that I’ll be asked to do something beyond my strength again, in a class, a workshop or a practice. Hard poses come up. That’s kind of how it works.
So what would that helpful comment be?
I posed the question and let it go.
What arrived was a memory from when I was somewhere between three and seven years old. My brother, three years older, is holding my wrist and hitting my face with my hand. He says: “What’s wrong with you? Why are you hitting yourself? Stop hitting yourself.”
I am a ball of impotent fury, hating him, hating myself for not being able to make him stop. When he finally does let me go, my wrist stings from where he held it and my face burns. I can’t get his imprint off my body, and it enrages me.
Well, no wonder I felt depressed and helpless. And the shame is every child’s question: “How terrible must I be for someone to want to hurt me like that?”
From today’s perspective, I can see that it wasn’t so personal. The “why are you slapping yourself?” routine is one that big brothers all over the world delight in. If in our case it had an especially mean undercurrent, well, my brother was an angry little boy, and I’d guess that his “teasing” was a way to vent the pain he was feeling in the hope of making it go away.
I spent some time empathizing with that overpowered little girl. I reminded myself that now is not then, and no matter how close my three-year-old self sometimes feels, the situation is different, and I am different.
Besides, the poses are not trying to beat me up.
Yesterday, back in class again, we had a choice of headstand at the wall or headstand in the middle of the room. I took it to the wall.
After 90 minutes of following Louie’s careful prompts, this headstand felt cleaner than either of the previous two. I could hold the pose in better alignment, and while it was hard work, it wasn’t Hell.
When I came down, it was gratitude that tumbled me off my feet: to be here, in a sunlit room, in the late morning, and to be capable of the attempt.
So the next time I encounter a pose that’s well past my strength, I’ll tell myself this: “How lucky you are, how fortunate, to be able to challenge your body this way. Keep this up and you’re going to be stronger.”
Have you noticed what you tell yourself when a pose is going badly? Do share. I’d love to hear it.
Photo courtesy of Scott Swigart, via Flickr.
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