I recently heard R. Sharath Jois say to his assistants in Mysore, India, to let certain students work on challenging arm balances or backbends for awhile before going over to help them. His actual words were “let him suffer” or “let her fall.” These two experiences tie directly into the discussion of pain and suffering within the context of our yoga practice, and as such they also offer the most potential for growth and development in the student. When you learn a new posture you often need the teacher present to go to places inside of the body and mind that bring up fear and pain. After awhile, you will need to strengthen your nervous system and face these places with your own inner resolution. Sometimes, asking for the teacher to help you every day is a kind of escape that prevents you from experiencing exactly what you would need to experience in order to learn the tough lessons contained within some of the most difficult postures in the Ashtanga Yoga method. If you always either go to the wall or ask a teacher to spot you, then you will never develop the kind of self-confidence that it takes to master the posture on your own. You have to learn to…let yourself fall... Learning how to fall is about understanding what suffering is, how to face it, accept it and ultimately make it your friend. This is at the core of yoga’s deepest teaching (Kino MacGregor, Let Her Fall).In my last blog, I talked about fear in backbending. Last weekend in morning mysore practice, I dropped back and stood back up by myself for the first time ever. Kino was standing there in case I needed help, and I rather shamelessly pleaded with her to spot me, as I'm used to my regular teacher really holding onto me so I know he's there. But Kino does things differently, and I have to trust her and surrender to whatever it is she is trying to show me. Honestly, I wanted to run away. I wanted to tell her to hold my hips so I could feel she was there and feel safe and not be so fucking terrified that I'd fall. But she stood there, a few feet away, smiling and sweet and a little scary like a stern but tough loving parent all at the same time, and said, "It's ok, I'm here. Just your fear in the way. Body, no problem. Now go." She was throwing me in the deep end. I felt like I was about to sink straight to the bottom. And despite wanting to run and hide, I dropped back anyways. And I actually did it. And then I came back up. Kino was there smiling at me, "Good. See, you did all by yourself, both ways."
Insofar as I imagined this day would come at some distant point in the future, I imagined I would be ecstatic with joy of the accomplishment. Like jump for joy happy. Like feeling as if I could do anything I set my heart and mind to. Instead, I finished the closing sequence, laid down in savasana, covered my face with my hand towel, and cried. Sad tears, not happy tears. After practice, I got in my jeep and cried some more as I drove home. So much sadness. When I got home, I drew a super hot salt bath and cried even more. Bawled, actually. Big whole body sobbing. I let it all go into the salt water, got it all out, and then crawled into bed and took a nap until it was time to go to the afternoon workshop. It felt like some kind of spontaneous combustion happening on an emotional level, like I'd set aflame old things that no longer serve me. It's the burning through of old emotions, the emotional detritus that accumulates over a lifetime, or even over many lifetimes, and roots itself into the body and heart and mind.
During my post-practice, post-cry nap, I had a dream. I was tending a vegetable garden, with big, almost ripe veggies I knew I would be enjoying for dinner in a day or two. Plump, juicy, sweet, and brightly colored veggies. Down in the dirt, I see a little thorny weed sprouting up, just barely three inches tall. I pinch it just below the surface and pull, but it barely moves. I dig a little further in and start to tug. It feels like it is starting to move a little but is clear it has roots down deep. I pull and dig some more, my fingers are covered in thick, dark, sticky mud. As I dig and pull, I discover a massive, gnarled root, so imbedded in the earth it takes all my strength and focus to get it out. I don't want to pull too hard too soon because I know I could make the root break and leave part for it to grow up again. With what seemed like a lot of time, a lot patience, and a heroic effort, I pull the entire root system out in tact and examine it. The little tiny thorny sprout was growing from a massive, hardened, and mostly dead root clump. I throw it in the fire pit in the center of the yard and watch it burn. It hisses and smokes and burns brightly, quickly to ash. Then I wake up.
I know I've carried a lot of sadness throughout my life. Not just my own, we inherit our parents' (and countless generations passed) sadnesses, too. I have some deeply rooted traumas from my childhood and early adult life. I grew up in a physically and emotionally abusive family to parents wholly incapable of loving me in the ways I want and need and desire. Thank god I had a natural capacity for love and empathy, and a proclivity for independent and creative thinking combined with a fierce stubborn streak that served me well enough to keep my head above water during some dark times. I've dug through and healed much of those traumas over the years, and yet it's an ongoing process and one that continually reveals new and more profound lessons and layers of healing. The old traumas no longer guide or control my relationships. If anything, now, they help me hold myself and my relationships to the highest levels of integrity. And yet, it now feels important to talk about it even more openly as part of burning through those remaining dark spaces. There are more layers there needing the light, even deeper roots sunk into that thick black earth that need burning, like that big mass of mostly dead root from my dream that needed to be thrown on the fire.
The things that have been coming up in my practice in general, and backbending in particular, feel very much like they're tugging on and uprooting those traumas, whatever remains of them. All the fear, issues of trust, vulnerability, sadness, anger, pain. There are also profound moments of joy, love, hope, strength, and glimpses into the depth of my own courage and the opening up of new possibilities. It's like when we discover a nuance in our asana practice, and then suddenly there is a whole new space that opens up in postures that once were impossible or uncomfortably constricted. To find courage and hope where there seemed to be absolutely none at all, that's where the work begins. It is only by confronting the struggle and burning through samskaras that we open up new landscapes within ourselves.
"Think of the yogi as a brave warrior going on a long and epic journey to the center of the soul. Just as in every heroic epic there are fearsome, painful and worrying battles that test the limits of the hero’s ability, so too in yoga are there challenging, difficult and nearly impossible postures that test the limits of your body and mind. But if you are the hero who is committed to the whole journey, then you also have the heart to see the experience all the way through to the end and win your final freedom."
Check out Kino's website & youtube channel.