One Yoga Student’s Journey And Acceptance Of Falling

Recently, I took a class in Tarrytown that blended yoga, modern dance, and tai chi. I felt disoriented in the beginning of class, my eyes darting around the room as I moved my body into unfamiliar poses and adjusted to a new sequence. (I’ve been practicing yoga for about 10 years, but I had never taken a blended class like this one before.)

The teacher, Michelle, a petite Chinese woman with a toned, sculpted body, emitted an almost authoritative fierceness, a goddess-like quality so bright it was palpable. Her precise, majestic ability to bend and flex into Cirque du Soleil-like poses intimidated me, and her expressions were, at times, hard. But as we began attempting more difficult poses, I saw lightness and humor in her eyes.

Each of us in the small class of six or seven fell as we attempted difficult arm balances, and laughed and looked on in awe as she demonstrated, folding her legs behind her head, her body moving into poses that most practitioners will never be able to do.

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She showed us how to fall in a safe way, encouraging me in forearm stand in the middle of the room (a pose that’s tough for me even at the wall because of my tight shoulders and the lack of support). Seeing her gently fall out of it allowed me to release my fear; I came into the stand, and sure enough, after a few moments, I fell—and it was fun. 

Michelle congratulated me for falling gracefully, for learning how to. She spotted me afterward in the transition from crow to handstand, something I never would have attempted on my own. All the while, she encouraged us with her eyes, as if to say, ‘It’s not all that serious, but if you commit, if you are dedicated, over time, you can do this, too.’ 

It was exhilarating. I felt both challenged and supported, and, by the end of class, the initial uncertainty I felt gave way to a sense of lightness, because Michelle had made space in class for play. In the spirit of the mythological Indian warrior goddess, Durga, she projected a serious, even strict, nature, yet guided with compassion and humor. 

This, it strikes me, is the crux of yoga: In each pose, we find a balance of strength and pliancy, grounding and expansion, challenge and ease, to find the integrity in our practice and to keep our bodies safe. As Patanjali, the “father of yoga,” put it, “We need…steel’s flexibility—not like crude iron, which is very strong and hard but breaks.”

Although I was very flexible as a child—I think I came out of the womb sitting in virasana, hero’s pose—I became tight and rigid as a young adult. I lived in a fear state. Over time, my practice has been slowly, steadily helping me shift this energy. 

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It is often suggested in yoga classes to let go of fear or tension or unease, or to quiet the mind, but I’m not sure it is entirely possible to let go of our automatic responses. What we can do is breathe into fear and discomfort, remember to feel our feet and our bodies when we feel anxious or unsteady, and, ultimately, make friends with our fear.

When we allow our dark emotions to be, when we accept them, we make space in our minds and in our lives for child-like play and spontaneity, as Michelle did in class that day. When there is space in our lives not congested with fear and worry and uncertainty, we can move with more fluidity and grace on and off the mat. 

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