Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Head down, hands clasped, top of the head on the floor between the hands. Lift the hips and walk the feet in towards the head. A little further, almost too far, and the legs just rise into the air, seemingly on their own. Straighten the back and breathe.
Recently, I passed an important benchmark in my life. In 2011, after years of sporadic practice, I decided to dedicate myself more intensely to yoga. As part of Lent, I decided I would practice every day for the entire period from Ash Wednesday until Easter. Rather than denying myself something, which I had been wont to do for years, I decided to add something. Enriching rather than reducing, if you will.
Easter came and went, and even over forty short days, I noticed substantial results. My mood was more even, I was better able to cope with work anxiety, I was more socially relaxed, and the day-to-day discipline opened my eyes to what might be possible. So I kept doing it.
A few days ago, I passed 365 days of doing some form of yoga every day. I got on the mat every day for an entire year. Now, some days were more productive than others. There were injuries and the occasional sick day where I was only able to do a few small stretches or a relaxation exercise. Overall, though, I managed to do it everyday, no matter what.
This has had a lot of implications, both for my perception of discipline and what can be accomplished with consistent, focused effort, and for my overall mental health. The thing I noticed this morning, however, was one particular pose that had given me a lot of problems for a long time.
If you know anything about yoga, you probably know about some of the more popular poses: Downward Dog, Cobra, Warrior. One of the most impressive poses, however, is Headstand. Head on the ground, feet in the air, straight back, pillar of strength. Whether it's the inversion, or a natural fear of falling, many people, including myself, seem to be particularly wary of this one. There was a long period where I wondered if I would be able to do it at all.
Through a year's worth of consistent practice, I've gone from complete terror to mighty struggle to enthusiasm with the Headstand pose. It's now become, in many ways, the central focus of my practice. And as with any struggle, it's taught me a few things, the most important of which is trust.
In the beginning of my trying to do Headstand, I would lift myself up by might and main, arms trembling, fear singing in my stomach, legs swaying back and forth as I worked desperately to stay upright. I was terrified of falling, and every time I came out of the pose (fell out, more like, crashing to earth like a cut tree in a logging stand) it was with desperate relief.
Gradually, doing it almost every day, I came to learn some things. Things that, had I been practicing with a teacher, I might have learned quicker (though, given my history with authority figures, perhaps not). I learned that upper body strength is not the best way to do a headstand. Sure, you can lift yourself up, proverbial bootstrap style, wrenching your body into compliance, and keep yourself there through sheer willpower, overcoming your fear every time with brutal, bullying force, but that really isn't the best way to do it.
I found, after many months, that the only way through was to be afraid.
There comes a moment, every time I do Headstand, where I feel the pit of my stomach cry out in terror. I've put my hands down, my fingers interlocked, my head between them. I lift up my hips and walk my legs toward my head, and inevitably there comes the moment. Too far, too much! You're going to fall! You can't balance like this, you're going to break your neck, fall on your back, bust your spine! STOP!
And that is the moment, the exact moment, when the legs simply lift into the air, almost on their own. It isn't effortful, or hard; it is exactly what I am supposed to be doing right then. I engage my core strength, which I have built up over many months of work, and it is not a problem. I am upside down - stable, calm, breathing deeply. Small adjustments are made, but there is no panic, no fear of falling. I am simply doing what needs to be done in the moment to maintain my equilibrium. I am safe, and exactly where I need to be.
I come down the same way, engaging my core muscles and letting my legs come gently to the floor. I rest awhile face down in a fetal position (called "Child's pose"), and then move on to the next pose.
I've come to realize that the best things in my life have come about as a result of that same process. There comes a moment, in every creative endeavor (and I'm talking here not just about writing, or music, but about any action that I've taken in my life where something new is brought into being - whether it's my relationship with my wife, a new friendship, a new job) where the moment feels unsustainable. It seems completely impossible, and the abyss yawns beneath me. Terror rises in my gut, and I know I am doomed.
Suddenly, the moment passes, and I am in a different state, moved, almost effortlessly it seems, into a new way of being, of seeing. There is a natural momentum that assists us, a strength to which we add our strength that is not additive, but exponential. I'm not saying you have to believe in something, in anything. That's up to you. I'm just saying that without a willingness to attempt, to go too far, to possibly fall, that power will not aid us, and our own power is insufficient.
You may think you have committed, but until you've gone too far, you haven't gone far enough.
Part of it is our own fitness, the learning process that has come from failing, finding out what not to do. Another part is simply the way the world works - gravity, angular momentum, balance, inertia. It is, perhaps, mechanical, and can be calculated and simulated on a graph. But when I'm in the middle of it, working in concert with it, it feels nothing short of miraculous. It feels alive, not like I am doing it, or it is being done to me, but like I am a part of something that is more than I am on my own.
My life is changing. I let myself go too far, and find that there is something in me, and in the world, that lifts me up.