In yoga, arm balances are some of the coolest poses. Wrap your right leg over your right shoulder, wrap the left at the ankle, and stand on two hands, letting your legs straighten as you lean forward, up and off of the floor. (Crooked.) Or put your right leg over your right shoulder, your left leg over your left shoulder, and lift off the floor with your palms. (Firefly.) Bring your knees together, twist so that your right knee rests behind your left elbow, lean forward onto the palms and bring your feet off the floor. (Side crow.)
Obviously, these poses are some of the most intimidating ones in yoga. Whenever my teacher shows us a new arm balance in my Saturday morning class, most students gasp— “How?” How? These poses don’t seem likely or possible. While Mountain pose makes sense (standing tall, releasing all tension, holding hands at heart center), or Child’s pose is a natural movement our bodies make (hips resting on heels, arms stretched out in front, head resting on the mat), arm balances don’t look like something our bodies should ever be able to do.
And yet we can do them. All it takes is practice, patience, determination, effort.
Always, the way I practice yoga is a lot like the way I approach my life.
At the beginning of the arm balance workshop I took about a month ago, my yoga teacher said, “If you don’t fall, you’re not trying hard enough.” This was a good lesson for me. It was pretty much the same as saying, “If you don’t fail, you’re not trying hard enough.” I always try not to fall, or fail. I have an aversion to making mistakes. Most of the time, I believe I can think myself to the right solution, think myself down the right path, so that I can go through life without making any errors at all.
Of course this is impossible. All I’m doing is setting myself up for misery and suffering. Falls and failures occur all the time. Otherwise, we never gain wisdom; we never get anywhere. When I’ve watched my baby daughter learn to roll over, or sit up, or now, in her ninth month, begin to crawl, she accepts the fact that she’s probably going to fall. She’s probably going to mess up. And then, eventually, she gets it. And she moves forward as though there was never any struggle.
I have a weird mantra for this stage of my life—the stage of divorce, independence, single parenthood, new beginnings. It’s “Make mistakes.”
In other words, fall. Get up and do it over again. See what happens.
I’ve learned in recent years that I can try to do everything perfectly, that I can try to think my way to what I believe is the “right” solution, and yet I don’t get the intended results. So my goal for now is not to think my to the next stage, but to feel my way. Explore the way a baby, or a toddler, or a child does. See what I can do only by embracing the possibility that I will fall, and that falling won’t kill me. (Unless I find myself, in my impoverished state, trying to patch a hole in my roof. But even that is unlikely. There are enough good men around to do the job.)
Arm balances, like challenging times in my life, require a lot of gut and grit, a belief in myself and my abilities. Thinking about them won’t get me off the ground. In fact, thinking about them is only keeping me on the floor, wrinkling my forehead, wondering how.
Toward the end of my workshop that day, I began practicing handstand, the way I used to do as a kid on the grass in summer. Of course, I ended up falling. I kicked my legs up into the air, held for a moment, and then felt them petering past my head, ready to collapse behind me onto the floor. I blurted, “Shit.” I tucked my chin, and my feet hit the ground, my shoulder-blades rubbing into the opposite side of my mat. I didn’t land too hard.
My teacher said, “Good fall.”
And it was. It was a good fall. It made me want to get up and try it all over again.
Jana Llewellyn has written essays, short fiction, reviews and cultural commentary for a range of online and print publications. Before starting The First Day, she taught writing and literature to teenagers and adults and worked as a writer and editor at the Quaker magazine, Friends Journal. She is also a yoga instructor.
Image: “minerals added for taste” by Evil Erin via Flickr.