A good question to begin the New Year: What can happen when you change the way you think? Here’s what happened for me …
I hate gym teachers. I think they’re evil. And that goes all the way back to Miss Peterson and the President’s Physical Fitness Program. President Kennedy’s Physical Fitness Program.
Miss Peterson, with her beady eyes and Bermuda shorts. Her ridiculously athletic build. And President Kennedy … his own physical difficulties a well-kept secret, that guy was on a mission to shape up his fellow-Americans, especially the young ones. The children are so much easier to push around.
Thanks to President Kennedy’s fitness initiative, there we were on the shiny, maple floor of the Rugen School gym, doing sit-ups and push-ups and the fifty-yard dash. Or in my case, the fifty-yard dawdle. My performance was pitiful. The worst part of all? That big, fat, hairy rope dangling from the ceiling of the gym. Climb a rope? Me? Sure thing. No matter how much I struggled, I just could not get my feet off the floor.
Miss Peterson mocked me. Clearly, I was not a candidate for that Presidential Physical Fitness badge with the eagle on it.
Well that was a long time ago, but some things don’t change that much. My humiliating failure to shimmy up the damn rope set the tone for lifelong sloth and a deep loathing of exercise. Which lasted for years. Decades, in fact.
And then, way too late, well into middle age (if you stretch the definition of middle) I discovered yoga: the first physical activity I ever really liked. I didn’t like it because I was particularly proficient –I was no more adept at the yoga asanas than I was at the President’s Physical Fitness Program. Which is not all that surprising: Boat Pose looks suspiciously like a sit-up, and what is Plank but a stationary push-up?
But there is something different about yoga. It’s communal, not competitive. Each of us on our own mat, engaging in our own practice. If I can’t do a perfect Pigeon, it’s nobody’s business but mine. It’s not like dropping the ball and ruining the game for the entire team.
And what’s not to like about an activity that ends with an official rest period? Sivasana, “Corpse Pose” involves lying on your back on the mat, eyes closed, allowing the whole body (and if you’re lucky the mind too) to let go. After the effort of the asanas, which can be quite intense, the letting go is delicious.
So, I started out clumsily, watching my fellow-yogis with awe at their flexibility and strength and grace. But gradually, I grew more flexible. And stronger. And even (almost) graceful. It was incremental improvement: bending just a little further, stretching a little longer, deepening each pose a fraction of an inch at a time. And it was very satisfying.
I ran into a roadblock though, when it came to the headstand. After many failed attempts, I knew that I was too old to do a headstand, or too fat. I didn’t have enough upper body strength. I didn’t have enough core strength. I just wasn’t cut out to do a headstand.
I admired the students who could turn upside down, seemingly without much effort. And I tried – hard – to imitate them. On hands and knees on the mat … then hands clasped on the floor, the forearms making two sides of an equilateral triangle … head goes down, resting in that little nest formed by the hands … feet walk up … back straightens … and legs lift up into the air.
Unless they’re my legs. Time after time, I’d get as far as the set-up. Arms and hands in position, crown of the head on the floor. And that’s where it all fell apart. No matter how much I struggled, I just could not get my feet off the floor.
And it wasn’t for lack of effort, no matter what Bob said. Bob was an Iyengar teacher, and he was mean. He actually yelled at me, “You have to try. You have to try.” He was just like Miss Peterson, except his shorts were shorter. My experiment with Iyengar-style yoga didn’t last long.
It was a whole different experience with Steve the Marine. And the Marine label is not a metaphor for a steely kind of guy. Steve is literally the only yoga teacher I’ve encountered who is also a Marine. Steve gives his class cues like “lower your legs slowly to the deck.” And he’s not mean, but he definitely pushes students. He pushed me. Sometimes by actually putting his hands on my sweaty shoulders and giving me an almost-gentle shove. And sometimes by offering “encouragement” in his drill-instructor sort of way.
One Thursday night, Steve was obviously over my headstand struggle. He brushed off my too-old-too-fat-not-enough-upper-body-strength-not-enough-core-strength routine. “Look,” he said, “the only thing standing between you and a headstand is – your head. You’re not too old, you’re not too fat, you have plenty of upper body strength and you have plenty of core strength. You just think you can’t do a headstand.”
Well. This was an interesting way to look at it. It’s clear that I can’t control my feet. But I ought to be able to do something about my head, right? So that night, when I got home, I sat down and closed my eyes and imagined myself upside down. Pictured it in rich detail, as if I were standing across the room watching myself practice a headstand. In my mind’s eye, I saw myself clasping my hands on my purple mat, putting the crown of my head down in that little nest, walking my feet up from behind me, straightening my back, and lifting my legs up into the air.
Then I imagined what it would feel like to do a headstand. I concentrated on the sensation of my hands and arms on the mat – the slight stickiness, the subtle waffle pattern. My fingers woven together, except for the pinkies, leaving them uncrossed so they don’t get squished. I felt my head nestled into my hands, concentrated on my bare feet walking up behind me and the effort in my core as my legs went up in the air. Enjoyed the feeling of triumph as I imagined myself straight, vertical, and upside down.
I did the same thing again Friday night. And Saturday night. And Sunday night.
On Monday night, I went to Steve’s yoga class. I put my forearms down on the mat, clasped my hands except for the pinkies, put the crown of my head down with my fingers around the back of my head, walked my feet up, straightened my back, and lifted my legs up into the air. Yes. I did a headstand. It was not the most graceful headstand – but I was upside down, right there in the middle of the room, because Steve says practicing headstands against the wall is a crutch.
He may not be right about the crutch thing. But Steve was definitely right about me. I wasn’t too old or too fat to do a headstand. I had enough upper body strength. I had enough core strength. The only thing standing between me and a headstand was – my head.
So now I do a headstand every chance I get. Yoga teachers say, “Inversion pose – your choice.” And immediately, I put my forearms on the floor, make that nest with my fingers … well, you know the rest. And get this – it is graceful. And powerful. Yoga teachers, and even my fellow students, actually comment on my headstand practice quite regularly. “You’re so strong,” they say. Or, “Your headstand is beautiful.” Or, “I wish I could do a headstand like yours.”
Now the truth is, I know what they really mean. They’re just too polite to come right out and say, “I can’t believe somebody who looks like you can do a headstand like that!” I don’t care.
It delights me that I can do a headstand. It thrills me that I managed to get my head out of my way. I’ve been known to do a headstand in the office – just because I can. And because I have discovered that an excellent way to change your point of view … is to look at the whole world upside down.