Did you ever read the last chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses? It’s Molly Bloom’s chapter, and it features a generous helping of that word: Yes.
We’re often taught that we need to learn to say no. But it’s just as important to your mental health, I think, to know when to say yes.
I was in yoga this morning. My teacher Emma’s 10:45 intermediate class is really fun. It’s small, and most of the people who come are pretty experienced yogis, so she challenges us.
Today we sat down and right before we closed our eyes she said we were going to practice handstand against the wall, with a chair, and we were going to backbend so our feet touched the chair.
I fear that I gave her an incredulous look before I closed my eyes. But once I did, I thought, Okay. We’re going to do that.
A few years ago the mere thought of having to do an inversion (the dreaded handstand, which I’ve since made friends with) or a backbend would fill me with dread. It would harden me up instantly. I’d start saying to myself, No. I can’t. I’m not strong enough. I’m scared. No.
Today, even while in the back of my mind I thought, Won’t that hurt my back? What if I fall? I also said to myself, Okay. I’ll see how it goes. I’ll do what I can do.
While we sat there opening and softening (which is what you do at the beginning of each and every yoga class), Emma talked about how being vulnerable means taking a risk. Is it scary to think of getting into a handstand and then sending your feet down the wall toward a backbend? Hell yes. It means dipping into the unknown. The question is, do you want to? Are you willing to try? Do you feel capable of trying? Do you know how far is far enough for you, where it still feels safe, and do you know where to stop?
My answer now is: Yes.
I’ve never particularly had a problem with being vulnerable. I actually adore backbends, which scare a lot of people because the intense opening through your chest can let a lot of emotion bubble to the surface. And once I figured out that they are about bending through your upper back, not your lower, and gained strength in my upper body, I became a lot less scared of full backbends.
My issue was always with reining in that openness — with finding the boundaries, slowing down, engaging before opening. (Yes, in life, not just yoga.) I’ve since learned a lot about engaging and grounding, about opening up from a safer place. I used to throw myself into a handstand attempt and hope for the best. Now I know how to properly get there, and to ask for help when I need it, and to move slowly, step by step, and see where the opening feels good.
So we did a lot of backstand prep. We did a thigh stretch, and I felt myself deeper in it than I used to be — I’ve made progress there (yoga is the very best way I’ve ever found to see and feel your progress). We did a handstand against the wall with bent knees and open heart, which I’ve done lots of times before and feel fine about. We did ustrasana, my very favorite pose, with our pubic bones pressed against blocks at the wall. We held it a long time. It felt great.
Then it came time to try. Emma helped me up. I bent my knees and pressed my feet against the wall. My arms felt good, strong, firm — not at all like they would buckle, as I’d feared. In fact, as I started to think about my legs, about letting one move down toward the chair back, I completely forgot about my arms. They didn’t need my attention.
They were a big, strong yes.
I was afraid the pose would strain my back. But as I let the toes of one foot move down toward the chair, I realized that my back felt fine. In fact, it felt good. I touched the back of the chair with my foot and breathed. Then I moved that foot up the wall and tried with the other.
Got it. Yes.
Both feet down? Not this time. That was my boundary for today. But I felt exhilarated.
You’ve heard the phrase “knowledge is power.” I’ve been thinking about this. Information is a useful thing. Especially information about yourself and how you handle things, react to things. Knowing yourself makes life easier and nicer. It helps you engage more deeply with the world, to want to engage more deeply. It helps you avoid pitfalls and obstacles, or at least accept them and move through them more gracefully. Even things you don’t really want to know, the stuff you avoid knowing, is necessary to look at, finally.
Most of what you know, you find out through experience. When you do something again and again, when you have a routine, you start to notice patterns. You start to notice whether or not these patterns are working, whether they make you feel good or bad. Just being aware of the pattern and how it feels might help you start to change it.
Sometimes you realize something out of the blue, and it seems so obvious, you don’t know why you didn’t see it before. Or someone tells you, and you can’t believe you needed someone to tell you. Or you didn’t realize it until you heard it in just those words. Or you finally admit something to yourself and see that it feels better to know it than to pretend you didn’t know.
Sometimes you need to do the work of finding out. You need to go to the doctor, or to therapy, or to AA. It’s not always fun, but ultimately it’s a relief to understand. And to have some guidance about what to do next.
Because once you know things, you can’t just sit around and know them. You need to use them, to apply them. That, I believe, is living fully.
Here a few things I know about myself:
— I am not a morning person.
— I’m funny.
— I’m a little boy-crazy, even at 41 (see Simon Le Bon, Robert Downey Jr., et. al.).
— I get snappish when I’m frustrated or distracted.
— I get quiet when I’m tired.
— I get skinny when I’m sad.
— I love being with people, but I’m also a homebody.
— I like to feel on top of things, and to have things in order.
— I’m a recovering perfectionist.
— I couldn’t live without books and music.
— I’m stronger than I used to think I was.
— I subscribe to The Four Agreements.
— I think there’s some higher, divine order to the universe. I don’t really need to know more than that.
Here are a few things I know about myself and yoga:
— I am not afraid of backbends and never have been, even though opening your chest and heart brings all sorts of emotions to the surface.
— Lately, I actually love them, because I finally figured out how to really get my shoulder blades down my back.
— My left thigh bone doesn’t fit perfectly into the hip socket. The right one absolutely does. Things that feel great on my right sometimes hurt on the left. It’s frustrating, but I can work with it.
— I have a bit of scoliosis in my lumbar spine. It curves out to the left a bit. This makes me tip that way sometimes. I can work with that.
— My Achilles tendons get tight, and pressing down through my outer foot helps in poses like triangle.
— I tend to tuck my chin into my chest, and I have to remember (or be reminded) to lift it. This makes breathing easier and nicer.
— I can’t yet kick up into a handstand, but one day I will.
— I really don’t enjoy utkatasana (chair pose) or warrior 1 (seriously, what is with the placement of the back foot?). I adore ustrasana (camel), and I also really love and appreciate ardha chandrasana (half moon).
— The Universal Principles of Alignment are key, no matter what we’re calling them these days or who made them up. In yoga and in life.
Here are a few things I know about myself and running:
— I don’t do well in humidity. I prefer 35 degrees to 75 degrees.
— I like to run in the morning, but not too early in the morning (in the summer, this is going to have to change).
— I love running outside and detest the treadmill.
— I can run in a snowstorm or a rainstorm.
— I need to drink a lot of water before and after, because otherwise I get dehydrated, and I also get a horrible headache.
— If my knees or ankles start to hurt, it helps to pull in to the midline (yoga trick).
— I can go six miles, which means I can probably go 12 miles. Or maybe even 13.1.
Today on my run I decided that when I’m going downhill, I really feel like a runner. (And I’m from the Midwest, so every slight rise is a hill.) Uphill, not so much. Of course, I know the reason for this: gravity. Downhill, I can go faster, my form is better, and I just feel good, strong, capable. Uphill, I struggle, slow down, breathing is tougher. I feel like I’m puttering along, and I certainly don’t feel masterful.
However, I do know that the hill won’t last forever, and that I can do it. I will make it to the top.
And then I’ll get to coast down again.
In yoga, the front of the body is associated with the individual, and the back of the body is associated with the universal. When we curl into ourselves, we tend to hunch our shoulders forward, cross our arms and bow our head, protecting the heart. When we’re able to open up, we melt our heart forward, pull our shoulders back, and lean back, unafraid.
It’s a tall order. It can be a hugely emotional undertaking. It takes strength, courage, and trust.
My shoulder blades move more easily and smoothly down my back; I’m more conscious of keeping the sides of my body long. I can melt my heart down toward the floor or out toward the front of the room. I’ve never really been afraid of the leaning back part (how I adore ustrasana!), but it feels a lot better when you’ve got everything else aligned properly.
And I suspect — no, I know — that staying in my back body is the key to being able to kick up into a handstand (the Holy Grail of my practice). What happens, I’ve realized, is that when I get scared, I pull into myself, into my front body, and all the lengthening of my sides and melting of my heart and muscular energy I’ve cultivated in my arms comes with me. If I could just keep all that, I could get up. I need to trust in the fact that I can keep all that, and that it will keep me safe.
But I see now that all the back body work I’ve been doing lately — the way I’ve been feeling it differently — is work on the way to that goal. Today we did some binds and they felt better to me than ever before: so much more open, because I’m lengthening, and my shoulders and blades are in the right place. So much freer. (I love the contradictions in yoga — you get yourself into a bound pose and experience freedom. How crazy is that?)
I’m finding that I can lean back into poses more deeply now. I can keep my foundation strong, put my shoulders in the right place, and go. It’s very exciting, perhaps because the letting go part has always been difficult for me. I’m choosing to take this as a sign that I’m feeling confident enough in my center that I’m willing to trust myself and the universe more and lean into it.
I’ve got support — my family, my friends, my kula, the universe. It’s good.
Everyone has yoga poses they love and poses they hate. The ones you love tend to be either those that come easily and naturally to you, or the ones you’ve worked on so long and well that they feel great and you want to stay in them forever. I love side angle pose, pigeon, and lately even half moon pose, which is challenging for me but really a pleasure to do as I get better at it. On the other side, I’ve never been a huge fan of utkatasana (chair pose), and virasana just hurts me.
And of course, everyone loves savasana. That’s corpse pose, when you lie on your back and relax at the end of your practice.
But then there’s your Pose. The one you have a love-hate relationship with. It feels like your nemesis but you also desperately want to be its best friend. It’s the pose that resonates most with you emotionally. For me, that’s adho mukha vrkasana — handstand.
When I started doing Anusara, almost three years ago, I was in a bad way. Let’s call it rock bottom. I’d finally gotten to the “I can’t take it another minute” place with my perception that I was failing miserably at parenting. I’d expended so much energy just to keep my head above water, which meant not looking at how horrible I felt. I had indulged in such ridiculous escapism that it ended up destroying several friendships, ones it turned out perhaps weren’t the best for me but at the time felt important. I felt exhausted, alone, defeated. Like there was a long, hard climb ahead of me. I didn’t yet know what a lifeline Anusara was going to be.
What I did know was that the first time I was in a class where we did handstand, my stomach dropped. I didn’t want to do it. I immediately thought, “I can’t do that.” I was feeling so off-balance, so ungrounded, that being upside down sounded horrible.
So I just sort of hoped for the best, and even with an assist from someone who knew what she was doing, I ended up with my feet hitting the wall, my arms buckling and my head whacking the ground. I’d known that was how it would go, because I had no idea what I was doing and blindly threw myself into it. I didn’t want to do it, and I didn’t believe I could do it, so my reaction was to just jump into the void.
Clearly this isn’t only about handstands. It’s about whatever you feel unsure or afraid of and how you approach it. It’s about thinking “I can’t control this, I’m going to fail” and instead trying to say, “I can take some control in this scary situation. I can be aware of the placement of my body and mind and emotions. I can take note of how comfortable or uncomfortable it feels. I can prepare myself before I attempt to go upside down. I have the power and potential to prepare myself, to take control and to feel my way through this.”
At the time I didn’t have it in me to do any of that. As much as I’d always been a person who liked to feel in control, like I knew what was going on, when I felt uncomfortable or unsure I often tossed myself headlong into things. It was a perfect recipe for wiping out and landing on my head. Apparently — strangely — the idea of taking control, of acknowledging that I can do so even if I feel unsure about whether it’s possible, was scarier to me than throwing caution to the wind and risking injury. Was I more willing to get hurt than to acknowledge my own strength? Or maybe I just didn’t believe that I had that strength?
As I have since learned, here is the proper way to get into a handstand. You start in downward dog, then rise to your toes and walk your feet closer to your hands, simultaneously moving your shoulders forward so they are over your hands. Then you melt your heart. You really engage your entire body. Someone spots you on the first leg you put up, and you push into their hand and consciously decide when to raise the other leg. You bring them up slowly, with control. You push down into the ground with your hands while you flex your feet and press your shins in. When you’re done, you bring your legs down slowly, with control.
Over the past few years I’ve learned a lot about myself, and a lot about Anusara and the way to align my body in each pose. And of course I’m stronger physically. But it’s no coincidence that as I’ve become stronger emotionally, my handstand has improved as well.
It came slowly, with much frustration along the way and much fear about putting my shoulders over my hands (wouldn’t I just fall forward?). Sometimes I’d cry after yet another failed attempt, or tears would well in my eyes during savasana while I thought about how I just couldn’t do it, how I’d never be able to do it.
Now I can do it, with that assist, with no problem. It doesn’t feel so alien and horrible. It feels powerful. I once held it for 30 seconds. I’m still working on kicking up by myself, and though it still scares me a bit, I’m a little obsessed with the idea. Sometimes when I’m lying in bed before sleep I imagine all the steps in my head, especially the moment that I think of as the tipping point, where your legs are either going to keep going up or come back down. I’ve reached it in class a few times, but I haven’t yet been able to move through it.
Still, I feel so much more capable. Physical strength and knowledge of how to properly do a pose helps. But it’s ultimately a matter of belief and intent. I can make choices about how I approach things, how I relate to other people. I don’t have to just jump and brace for the hurt.