When I started doing yoga about eight years ago, I admit that I liked it because it was easy for me. At least, that’s how it seemed at the time. I’m super bendy, like Gumby, so while other yogis ease slowly into half-reclined hero’s pose and breathe through the effort, I toss myself casually into the fully-reclined pose and wonder what the big deal is. People are often impressed by my flexibility, and I’ve had multiple instructors ask me if I’m a dancer, the answer to which is no, but that question always goes straight to my head like a glass of bubbly and makes me just as giddy.
I’ve begun to realize, however, that my natural stretchiness has actually been impeding my progress as I try to deepen my yoga practice. When muscles are over-stretched and under-strengthened it puts pressure on the ligaments, and in fact, I injured myself a few years ago by stretching too far, too fast. (I popped a hamstring, and the pop was so loud I thought I had broken a bone. It was terribly painful and took months to heal.) Slowly I’ve been learning that yoga is more about strength, balance, and proper alignment than about how far you can stretch. (See Flexibility Can Be a Liability on holisticsquid.com.)
My boyfriend has started coming to yoga with me sometimes, totally of his own volition. The other day we were in class, sitting with our legs spread wide. “Now, for some of you, this is as far as you can go,” the instructor said, looking directly at Paul. “For others, you may want to start walking your hands out in front of you and moving your nose towards the ground.”
I know yoga’s not a competitive sport, but sometimes it’s hard for me to remember that. I looked at a woman across the studio with her nose to the ground and felt a momentary squirm of jealousy. I used to be able to do that, and maybe I still could, but this was the position in which I popped my hamstring, so I’m much more cautious now.
“OK. Let’s move our mats to the wall for inversions,” the instructor announced.
Inversions. The bane of my yoga practice. The frustrating thing is that I can do a handstand. I taught myself how to do one when I was seven. I can’t stay balanced for very long, but it’s easy to get into a handstand as long as I can do it my way.
What I can’t do is a yoga handstand. Or a yoga headstand or a yoga forearm stand. Because those require control, balance, and strength. All qualities my Gumby-like body is lacking.
Paul and I set up our mats along the wall and put our heads in our hands. We stuck our butts in the air, walked our legs towards our heads, and tried to gently lift up into headstands. A moment later we both collapsed down on our mats, red-face and giggling. “Don’t worry, ” I whispered to Paul, who was looking around at the forty-year-old women in headstands all around the studio. “I can’t do one either.”
For the past few years, perhaps since my hamstring injury, I’ve been focusing more on building muscle and improving alignment and less on showing off my stretchiness. I’ve had to get humble and let go of my flexibility, at least a bit, in order to improve my strength. Now I’m retraining myself. I’m getting rid of bad habits and relearning poses. I’ve had to accept the fact that just because a regular handstand is easy for me, it doesn’t mean a yoga handstand will be, or should be. Sometimes it seems like I’ll never be able to do a yogic inversion, but the important thing is that I’m trying.
I often find that lessons I learn on the yoga mat can be applied to other aspects of my life. Like writing. I started out with an initial aptitude. I was always praised for my creative writing in elementary and high school, and I won a prestigious short story award when I was just out of college. But perhaps this reliance on my natural ability has impeded my progress as I try to take my writing to the next level.
Lately I’ve had to accept that just because writing and revising short stories is relatively easy for me, it doesn’t mean writing a novel will be. My writing has always been heavy on language, character and style, while lacking in plot and structure – qualities you usually need for a novel. I’ve dashed out a few novels, but like my quick-and-dirty handstands, they haven’t been very good. I need to learn to write with more strength, balance, and control. I’ve had grow more humble and let go of some of my deep-seated notions about my own writing in order to improve. I’m in the process of retraining myself: getting rid of bad habits and re-writing large chunks of my latest novel. Sometimes it all seems impossible, but the important thing is that I’m trying.
* * *
“You’re so close,” Paul told me the other day while I was practicing headstand position in our bedroom.
“I know. I think I’m scared. I can feel that I’m close, but then I get nervous and I stop.”
“Try it again,” he said.
I put my head back in my hands and stuck my butt in the air. I could feel my core contracting, pulling me upwards. I lifted one leg, and then, gently, the other. And suddenly I was upside down, balancing in the air. “Oh my gosh, I’m doing it!” I couldn’t believe it. I felt like a tiny window had opened deep inside me. A secret had been revealed.
I guess if you practice anything long enough, eventually you figure it out. And sometimes the scariest part is right before you succeed. Writing and publishing a novel seems seems impossible sometimes. But it’s not. So I’ll continue to practice, and one day, when I’ve built up my strength, it’ll happen.