Off the Fence
Today marks the one year anniversary of what I call the “getting off the fence” phase of my life. Though a number of personal, and likely planetary, factors aligned to create the conditions for a year in which I experienced firsthand and in so many ways all the phases of the cycle of life, it began exactly one year ago today, when I was literally pinned to a wall, upside down.
Inversions are, of course, a regular part of many asana practices. Not mine. Though I practiced them occasionally, I never felt like I “got” it—both the point and the benefit. And they scared me. Every time I went upside down it was like flipping on the negative self-talk switch and letting all my insecurities run rampant in my mind.
So when practicing with my teacher he announced that we’d be doing not only handstands, but handstands with backbends, I wasn’t stoked. In a larger class I’d usually just do it half-assed and then spend the rest of the time rolling around on the floor. But since we were four students, and all of us good friends, there wasn’t anywhere to hide.
After a few demonstrations with pointers about how to proceed, I gave it a go. I can’t remember if I got myself up or he assisted me (probably the later), but once I was up he helped me into the pose, guiding my hips towards the wall and my heart away from it. Then he supported me by pressing my thighs against the wall, cueing me to press my chest forward. Once there, the floodgates opened and the familiar chorus of doubt, fear, and shame began:
“I can’t do this. I’m going to fall. I’m going to break something. I’m not strong enough. What if he drops me? Why am I doing this? I don’t want to do this! I’m too weak. How am I going to get down? I’m going to fall….”
Usually, when practicing on my own, I would get to this last thought and come out of the pose. But this time, I couldn’t. I was being held. I wasn’t falling. When I realized that I was, in fact, quite secure, another voice, quieter yet clearer than the others called out from deep within: TRUST. In this moment, I recognized that I had a choice: trust that I am held or freak out and fall.
I chose trust.
And thus began a year of nearly daily inversion practice. I started with this posture (I have no idea what it’s called, google wasn’t any help). Getting up and into the pose took a few days, but getting out of it—off the fence—took weeks to figure out and months to master. I just couldn’t figure out how to move my bum away from the wall; it felt stuck.
And then I remembered something that another teacher said to me years before as I was contemplating leaving my job; she said that I had been living “on the fence,” in a perpetual state of non-commitment. Plagued by fears, I preferred to remain on my perch with a view of life rather than actually getting down in the dirt and living it. More impactful than the accuracy of her assessment was that, as she was noting my hesitation to dedicate myself to my heart’s calling, she was also dying.
Literally faced with the fact of mortality in the form of my beloved teacher, the choice to pursue my passion was clear. But, over time in the years following her death and my career change, I veered back toward the fence. Choosing familiarity over freedom, I found myself again stuck in routines and relationships that hindered the seed I sensed germinating in my soul. Again, the death of a magnificent woman, one who started as my student and became a dear friend, rekindled my resolve.
Two months later, there I was on March 1, 2018 with my world turned upside down and faced with what I now understand is the most fundamental of choices: whether to trust. To trust that you can hold yourself. To trust that when you can’t hold yourself, you will be held. To trust also that falling is part of it. In the months of mourning and inverting and getting off the fence, the soundtrack of doubt and fear got a lot of air time. But as I continued to practice, not only handstands but also letting go—I started to hear also my authentic voice. The one that called for trust in the midst of panic.
Like my arms which went from feeling wobbly to secure the more I got my feet up, the more I listen to this voice and speak with it, the stronger it becomes. What I’m hearing lately echoes the simple advice of Julie Yip-Williams in her memoir Unwinding the Miracle, which I listened to this past week while grieving the passing of yet another dear friend and former student. The book is a collection of blogs Julie wrote during the five years she lived with, and eventually died from, cancer. In the final chapter she implores her readers to “Live, friends! Just live.”
And that’s what getting off the fence means to me: living wholeheartedly. Diving in, facing fears, and taking chances; trying and failing and maybe someday, remaining upside down, bum off the wall, with my feet in the air. Trusting that I can hold myself up with my own two hands and, when my hands tire, that I will be held. And when it's time to fall, trusting that here, too, I will be held.
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