I was talking with my teacher last month about how frightening I find yoga. I can’t figure out why other people don’t also seem more scared by it. I was thinking big at the time, about the shifts in one’s sense of self and personal identity, about developing a different perception of reality, a new way of interacting with people and with the world. I feel all these shifts taking place within me and it can often seem vertiginous. My world lurches suddenly in a new direction. Does everyone feel like this or is it just me? My teacher gives nothing away. But his quiet response did come with a bit of advice, understated as usual, with the wisdom of it just beginning to reveal itself to me as I reflect on it and try to practise with it. He simply told me to keep checking in with myself, making sure I’m OK; if I am and nothing bad has actually happened, then I could continue moving.
I’m not sure how this might work with my grand existential concerns which just feel too large. But I am using his advice as I play my edge physically and emotionally in practice, as I deliberately work to meet some of my fears as they are manifested somatically. My body is reluctant. I view it as a frightened animal. I suppose it is, really! So I’m moving slowly, step by step — sometimes literally. Move a little, stop and inhale. A little further maybe, a little deeper perhaps? Stop and breathe again. Check in. How does it feel? What is my body telling me? Is it really screaming red alert that we’re entering a danger zone, or is it simply a sense of uncertainty, of disquiet? My inclination is to jump at shadows. Every new sensation in my body feels seismic and potentially dangerous. Is my body safe here? My survival instinct kicks in to make myself as small as possible and to hold my breath until the danger passes. But I know that’s not yoga and I want to learn a new way.
In this unknown territory I’d really like a guide or at least a map. How nice would it be to have someone holding my hand, leading me on gently with words of reassurance? Instead it’s just me in on my mat in an empty apartment, literally in a foreign country. I’m left to my own devices. I have my inner wisdom; if I listen carefully I do know how to respond appropriately. If I breathe fully and steadily, I’m less likely to go into reflex panic mode. If I work quietly and patiently, I find I am prepared well enough for whatever comes up.
On my worst days it feels like reconnoitring enemy territory and coming under heavy attack, often necessitating a swift and ignominious retreat back to safety. No guts, no glory. So I’ll drag myself up again from Child’s Pose, my safe place, and I move out once more, covering the same ground again, seeing if this time there will be some reassuring familiarity along the way.
And on my best days this feels like a glorious adventure, insanely exciting and full of promise. I am a conquering hero! With more time for practice at the moment, I can range back and forth as often as I need to, I can assess the danger zone from a distance, weigh up my strategies and make multiple small sorties or go for one big push. And every foray into new territory reveals new treasures. I am using this as an opportunity to explore different shapes, to be bolder. I am beginning to find my balance in Baddha Ardha Candrasana and in Eka Pada Galavasana, feeling how opposite energies would hold these poses in space. In Handstand I am discovering I need to lean in just a little further than is comfortable, to align shoulders over wrists for balance. I’m gently exploring my spine and seeing how I can coax a millimetre more extension in this posture or that, opening myself to all possibilities.
I am learning how to move towards my uncertainty and my fears. Head first. Sometimes all it takes is a deep breath and some quiet faith.
There’s a tiny magic moment when my stars align and I am free in space.
I am still scared, but I find that I am also still OK.