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Perfect timing, Pema Chodron. Your Bill Moyers Faith and Reason interview took the words right out of my mouth. That is, if I were as eloquent.
The fifty minute episode was packed full of yogi wisdom, but what stayed with me most was the idea of groundlessness, of that feeling of instability that comes with change, among other things. The feeling of starting a new job, for instance, in a new space, surrounded by new people, with a new culture and a new set of norms. Groundlessness.
Pema Chodron says that staying with that unstable feeling is a springboard to growth and connection. I believe her. She's saying what Michael Springer says, in a away, and Brene Brown and Eckhart Tolle and so many other wise teachers: do the opposite of what you would normally do. When you feel unsteady, when the rug is pulled out from under you or the sands start shifting, stay there. Don't run. Don't protect the vulnerable spots; instead, open up more, risk more.
I'm already a little worried that I'll regret saying this--putting it out there like a prayer and asking for more!--but I'm grateful for opportunities to feel shaky and unsteady, for groundlessness. It's one of the ways fear does its deep teaching. My natural reaction to that wobbly feeling is to protect myself--usually by constructing some elaborate support out of language, to justify not taking whatever risk has knocked me off balance, or to blame a circumstance or person for my discomfort and let myself off the hook. But thanks to this yoga business and the commitment that came out of it--to open to fear and live fully--I'm forced to choose a different reaction. If nothing else, so I'll have something to write about.
The times I've been able to stay with the feeling of groundlessness instead of trying to save myself from it, I've been given the gift of a new perspective: I take a step past the limit I thought was there, and I'm sent happily spinning into space or clumsily falling on my face. Either way, even if I fall or maybe especially if I do, places that I'd worked so hard to protect are opened up, and from my new vantage point on the literal ground or from the metaphorical sky, I can see there was less to be afraid of than I thought and more to feel curious about. Life gets bigger, more space opens up.
In tonight's hot vinyasa, groundlessness was a literal state. Midway through the flow, I found myself in a wide-legged forward fold, standing sideways on my mat. Warmed up and wide open, I was bent over so far that the top of my head was touching the floor, a fact that I noticed only when I heard the lovely instructor Melissa say, If your head is touching the floor, you may want to find your way into a headstand.
Ha! With no wall behind or ahead of me, starting in a position I'd never lifted off from, in the dead center of a row of yogis who could peer at me through their strong, shapely legs, a head stand was not in the plan. That is, until Melissa's sweet face bent over beside me and repeated her suggestion. With eye contact. Sweetly calling me out. Form a tripod, she whispered, and shorten your stance.
Photo credits, from top: Me, Pinstamatic
It was clumsy and shaky and graceless, but my legs rose off the mat and into the air. I stayed there, muscles buzzing, soles of my feet aimed toward the ceiling, until it was time to release and return to the ground. Melissa stood behind me with her hands lightly on my hips, the soft pressure more a moral support than a structural one. Bring your knees back to your elbows, she said. You got this. And I did. I got that. It was a moment of spinning into space. Life became big enough for middle-of-the-row head stands and tripods built out of forward folds.
Safe and sound, with my feet back on solid ground, I couldn't stop smiling! Only moments before, though, with my legs still pointing at the sky, I wasn't so full of confidence. Nope. I was instead full to the brim with this train wreck of thought: Dear god I hope my feet don't smell; sweet jesus, Melissa's nose is three inches from my feet! What boots did I wear today? I could've swore I smelled feet in my forward fold...
The pose is always only part of the fear, it turns out; it's just one portion of groundlessness. Humiliation or one of its cousins--disapproval, disappointment, whatever, you know the drill--is another part. The off-putting smell of feet, the way it feels to walk into a meeting possibly unprepared, not having the right key for the right closet, asking too many questions, not asking enough questions, feeling tested, not passing the test or passing it and feeling like a phony--all of these uncomfortable teachers in their different disguises, offering their curriculum on groundlessness.
Thank goodness for them all. Thank goodness for the muscles that strain until they shake to hold a pose that hasn't become familiar yet, and thank goodness for all of the self-consciousness that comes with it.
Louisa May Alcott said, "I am not afraid of storms for I am learning to sail my ship." Right on, Louisa. Today, I am not afraid of groundlessness for I am learning to fly!