I spent time this weekend playing in my parents’ garden with my little niece. She’s four and a half, full of energy and apparently fearless. She loved rolling down the slope where my brother and I used to do the same thing several decades ago. She revelled in doing a run-up to perform multiple forward rolls, she giggled in confusion when I tried to get her to copy my Urdhva Dhanurasana, and she excitedly executed bunny-hops as she watched me playing with my Handstand balance.
When we were tired we laid down on the grass together and talked about the animals they have at nursery, about her best friend, and about how long it takes to grow out a fringe (that’s ‘bangs’ to my American friends). She showed me her painted toenails, the new mole she’s found on her arm, and how the Velcro fastening on her sandals works.
Although we’re not blood-related, I see something of my younger self in her. Perhaps it’s just a generic little girl thing, I don’t know. But there’s something I find really compelling about her vivacity, how curious she is, how she moves on quickly from mistakes and minor embarrassments because something new soon catches her attention, the way repetition delights rather than frustrates her, and how unselfconscious she is, taking simple delight in the way her body moves.
I think I used to be like that. I’d like to be like that again.
And all the while we were watched by my family — two generations of dads (hers and mine) and a mum (mine). They displayed various emotions as they watched us playing together, mostly some level of anxiety or fear that we’d hurt ourselves, or some disapproval that I couldn’t quite fathom. That it was too soon after lunch for handstands, that I was too old or she too young for such tricks, that we were showing off in unladylike fashion, that we’d get grass stains on our clothes…?
These reactions also took my back to my own childhood days, of getting the message that I was doing something wrong, always too much or too little, or the wrong thing at the wrong time, either showing off my abilities to an unacceptable degree or so embarrassingly incompetent I should never try again. And so much fear of impending calamity. “I told you so” hovering on the lips, ready to admonish in case of any mishap or minor hurt.
I’ve been dragging these experiences around me most of my life, pretty much unconsciously until recently. Then I had a eureka moment with my teacher, when he deliberately allowed me to fail at something, to make my best efforts under his eye but most likely to muff it. And he set it up so that it didn’t matter; we noted it and moved on and I barely glanced backwards — until more than a week later when the significance hit me: I’d never been allowed to fail before.
And since then I’ve been trying all sorts of asanas and transitions that I’d held back from before, sometimes consciously and deliberately, but sometimes simply because caution was woven into my upbringing. These past weeks I’ve wobbled and fallen out of things, asked questions and consulted books, sweated and puffed through multiple repetitions trying to figure something out. I’m taking some bumps and bruises, but I’m also giggling a lot. And I’ve started doing this a little in class, not just in home practice where I’m usually happier to get exploratory. Now I’m also allowing my teacher to see the fails, knowing that this is OK. He doesn’t need me to be perfect. Perhaps even he delights in my wobbling explorations. Perhaps — gasp! — he could even help me figure stuff out! 🙂
I have long used a phrase in my teaching, which I think one of my students first articulated during a workshop: “there is no fail in yoga”. I find myself saying this quite often in class, as I encourage my students to experiment and explore and not get too caught up in the results today. Now I’m remembering to follow my own teaching!