“Get down. You’re going to fall.”
Mentally, I was somewhere far away, and hearing these words snapped me back into the present. I looked across my mother’s living room, to see my three year old niece crawling on a dining chair. The look on little Cora’s face with a slightly raised eyebrow said it all. She was pretty confident in her furniture traversing skills. Falling wasn’t a concept to her just yet. You could tell by how she ran through the living room, not around her toys, but through them. Yes, she would stumble over something and she would cry like most toddlers do, but she would get back up again and mow through whatever was in her way: toys, furniture, her baby sister.
I felt a bit envious of Cora’s ability to trust in her body. At an early age, I was afraid of mine. By the age of five, I had been to the hospital a few times: stitches, bike accidents, tick fever, a concussion. I remember being an overly-cautious kid. Before crossing the street I would look both ways five times. I would watch my two older brothers climb trees from the ground. I have this vivid memory of this rusty fireplace grate they used as a little step ladder to climb a big pine tree in our backyard. I can’t tell you how many times I watched them go up and I stared at it, frozen, hoping for the will to take a step on it and attempt to climb. I never could, and I never did. I had decided that climbing trees just wasn’t worth the risk. Somewhere along the line, I began to believe that risk-taking and movement was for other people, because I was incapable, wrong somehow. Injury seemed inevitable.
This week, I was teaching my vinyasa class at Phillips Exeter Academy, and I had a mini-inversion workshop. I had them practice using the wall to come into a handstand, kicking up, and even pressing up. I watched them giggle, fall, and even squeal; they were having so much fun. I even got a little teary-eyed watching them. There was such joy, excitement, and freedom in their bodies. Yes, they are teenagers, and you could make the argument that youth equals ability to take risk. But in that moment, I remembered that rusty metal grate. Like my niece Cora, these teenagers seemed to possess this kind of embodiment that I’ve never really known. An assumption, or maybe even a trust that the joy of being in your body whether it was jumping, running, climbing, or being upside down was worth the risk.
So, maybe it’s time to come clean as a yoga teacher. I don’t do most inversions. I teach them. I’ve watched enough videos to be able to cue them, and help other people do them. I used to tell myself that I wasn’t strong enough, but that wasn’t true. I used to tell people it was because of my wrists, which is true sometimes, but I can do a forearm stand. In fact, I did one this summer, assisted by a fellow teacher, and afterwards, I asked her, “Did that really happen?” I sat in the studio, my whole inner core, burning afterward, and all my mind could think was that it wasn’t real. Me, being upside down in a forearm stand flew in the face of over thirty years of, “I can’t. It’s not for me. Get down. You’re going to fall.”
I’ve tried practicing being upside down, but honestly, it’s a hot mess. I’m not talking about my form, or my ability. My body rebels. I shake, sometimes sob. On occasion these guttural, primal screams come out deep within me. I’ve had to practice not only welcoming fear, but accepting my own body’s reaction to fear. That acceptance has been the hardest part. As soon as that old fear bubbles up, my mind labels it as, “crazy” therefore it is invalid, it isn’t real, and we should go do something else. Anything else.
For that part of me that is worried my fear might make other people uncomfortable, I explained to my husband, “You might hear strange animal noises and cries for help in there, but it’s just me practicing yoga.” And I’ve been practicing. Just little L-stands to start. Feet on the wall, hands on the ground and breathing. I’m trying to practice the unpleasant things in bearable doses. It’s like there’s a lifetime of held fear and frozen memories locked deep within. The only thing I can do is courageously peel back each layer one by one, and listen to this young child version of myself scream at me for betraying her. It’s as if she’s saying, “I avoided climbing trees, monkey bars, quit gymnastics after the first day, and stayed stationary to keep us alive, and NOW you want to do THIS?” I hear her plead with me, “You’re going to fall.” And I breathe with her. When I do fall, I get back up again, and I whisper, “See? We’re okay.”
After my inversion (or, trying to get to inversions) practice, I have a short meditation. Where I visualize my young self standing at the foot of the tree, staring at the rusty grate, and choosing to climb it. Sometimes I visualize her gliding up with the finesse of a chimpanzee. Other times I see her fighting her way up only to fall down, skinned knees with pine bark under her fingernails, leaves in her hair because she is right about one thing: we will fall. I always make sure she dusts herself off and tries again. And maybe that’s where I’ve gone wrong for so many years, I wanted the smooth, safe ascension. It’s a fairy tale. I need to see her/me fall and survive. I need to practice dusting myself off despite skinned knees and sobbing. My freedom doesn’t lie in perfectly executed physical movements, landing in safety. Freedom lies in courage in face of fear, the acceptance of what is, and the audacity to rise again.