Seeking Balance

The yoga literature discusses the interplay between steadiness (sthira) and ease (sukham).  When we practice the physical postures (asana), we seek to experience both.

Often we assume that people begin to do yoga because they are stiff (steady) and want to become flexible (easy).  In fact, there are many different body types.  Flexibility and strength are to some extent determined by constitution.  I, for one,  am a loose-limbed person and always have been, no matter whether I am exercising or not.  This is at least as much a liability as it is an asset; my joints and muscles are weak and vulnerable to injury.  When I practice asana, many times I am striving more to find steadiness than maximum range of motion.  Dramatic displays of stretching are enjoyable, but risky.  What I need to do when I practice asana is spend more time on poses that demand strength and endurance (even though they are difficult and I sort of hate them), as these qualities are what I lack, and what will protect me from injury and ensure that my body continues to function well for the long haul.

I have a friend who is trained as an addiction recovery counselor, and she once told me something fascinating:  evidently, people who become drug addicts gravitate toward the drugs that make them more of what they (constitutionally) are.  That is to say, a naturally nervous, excitable person will become a speed freak.  A couch potato type will become a heroin addict.  Rather than seeking her opposite (seeking balance?) the drug addict seeks more of her extreme.  Hm.

In herbal medicine, different plants are classified according to their medicinal effects.  Obvious examples are stimulants and sedatives.  There are also carminatives (relieve gas), expectorants (expel mucous), emmenagogues (increase menstrual flow), and many more.  One special class of herbs is called adaptogens.  These are pinch-hitters, stepping in to do whatever is needed in the moment.  If the body is exhausted, they will revive; if over-excited, they will calm.

I don’t believe it is classified as an adaptogen, but this is what I always loved about nicotine– a drug I have indulged in more frequently and more recently than I would like to admit (not to worry, yoga purists:  I am not currently a filthy smoker).  It always seemed like a cigarette could magically provide whatever effect I might need–lifting me when I was tired or down, mellowing me when I was tense, or anything in between.

I think yoga acts as an adaptogen.

Where we are weak, it can make us strong.  Where we are stiff, it will loosen us up.  When we are stressed, it will calm us, and when we are tired, it will energize us.  If it is to do this, however, we must take a different approach than the drug addict does.  Instead of moving farther in the direction of our natural extreme tendencies, we must head in the opposite direction.  This often means doing exactly that which isn’t easy, or what we don’t feel like doing.

And it is not a quick fix.  Maintaining a yoga practice takes considerably more time and effort than, say, lighting a cigarette or popping open a bottle of wine.  But, rather than leading us farther down the path of extremes, it can lead us away from our inherent imbalances and toward wholeness and true well-being.

To the question of how do we live in these human bodies, with their aches and pains, their desires and limitations, their frailties and also their unexplored capabilities, yoga practice offers an answer.  Not the answer, perhaps.  But an answer.

Learning How to Fall


In martial arts there is a concept called ukemiwhich literally means “receiving”, but is often loosely translated as “the art of falling.”  When I wrote my post last week, I didn’t even remember this, although I must have learned it years ago when I briefly studied aikido.  I remember how hard it was for me, with the ingrained muscle memory of a former gymnast, to learn those asymmetric aikido rolls.

Of course, it makes a lot more sense than a gymnastics roll, diverting impact at an oblique across the spine rather than clattering down each vertebra in a straight line.  As martial arts are express forms of energy work, and a lot more kinetic than the yoga that I practice, it is informative to note how they approach working with gravity.  It is not to be feared, not a linear force from Point A (up high) to Point B (down low), but rather a fluid trajectory that can almost pass through the body rather than slamming it to the ground, if you let it flow in the right way.

Stiff and unbending is the principle of death.
Gentle and yielding is the principle of life.
Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome
.  (Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching)

Inspired by Amos Rendao, of APEX Movement, Boulder, who created this video, I am working with gravity this week, as well as against it.

Tune into the video to watch me fall!

First You Fall, Then You Fly

In the window at Lululemon

In the window at Lululemon

Thanks to all who participated in the OM Yoga in a Box Giveaway, and congratulations to the winner–Vera!  May it enhance your home practice.

I took a workshop last weekend called “Flightasana–I Believe I Can Fly”.  It was on inversions and arm balances.

These families of poses ain’t for sissies. Not because they are physically challenging, though they are, to be sure.  But even more, they challenge our sense of what we can and can’t do.

They can be scary, and they do demand strength. I used to think it was arm strength (not my forte), but now I think it is more strength from the core.  “Core”–that much-overused word–loosely refers to abdominal strength, but really denotes all those muscles that support the spine (hint:  it’s 3-D!).  These muscles are definitely important in inversions and arm balances.  But here I use it to mean something even deeper than that, even more central and essential.  Something that isn’t even entirely physical.  A voice from far down inside that says, “I can do this.”

Because, as Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”   In other words, if you think you can’t, you’re finished.  Thinking you can is a prerequisite (even if you turn out to have been wrong).

These poses are about working with fear and doubt as much as they are about strength and balance.  They ask you to look at your fears head on, and say, “Thanks for your input, but I’m doing this anyway.”  Even if it seems crazy.  Even if it seems you have no business trying to do what you are doing.  Even if you have never managed to do it before.  Even if you might fall.

I actually fall pretty often in yoga class, but not out of inversions.  When going upside down I am careful–too careful, I began to think, to really be exploring the poses completely.  So I asked a teacher once if there is a proper way to fall out of a headstand.  He seemed to think it a weird question, but it was an important one to me; I wanted to feel less fear and more freedom, and it seemed knowing how to fall was key.

If I am confident I can fall with minimal chances of hurting myself, then it’s a lot easier to leave the ground.  Maybe it should have been obvious how.  It wasn’t.  Maybe wanting to know is hedging.  Maybe it’s just good sense and an instinct for self-preservation . . . Whatever the case may be, knowing how to fall, I can honor that instinct, and then take off.

What’s the worst that can happen?  I’ll be on the floor.  Same place I’d be if I’d stayed curled up in a little ball, too afraid to go up.  It will be different, though, because I will have flown, maybe just for an instant.  The more I am willing to risk, the stronger those muscles of courage and faith will get.

The question “What if I fall?” can keep you paralyzed forever.  Take it as a given, and learn how to fall.  Then you can fly!

P.S.  Stay tuned to the blog for some video footage of falling–coming soon!