Defying Gravity

I’ll tell you want I wanted to write about today.  I wanted to write a simple, almost inspirational account of how I decided to take a private yoga lesson to overcome my fear of some of the postures — namely headstand and handstand and a few other variations that involve going upside-down.

The whole thing was going to be simple and semi-inspirational because, of course, I would take the lesson over the weekend and make tremendous progress.  I would see that I could overcome my fears with a little daring and hard work.  I’d glimpse triumph in the distance.

Nice idea, but it didn’t work out like that.  Instead, I tried a headstand with the teacher’s assistance.  It hurt my head.  I recalled what my friend Janis said about all the middle-aged injuries she’d read about owing to headstands.  Injuries that involved your neck, your head, your back — none of the more optional parts of your body you can do without.  I came softly crashing down onto the floor, again with the teacher’s help.

“Were you scared that time?” she asked.

“Completely panicked,” I said.

“It goes away eventually,” she said, looking doubtful.

So we tried a headstand with my head in between two chairs, which has the advantage of not squashing your head under the weight of your body.  I did wonder about the odds of decapitation, though, if the chairs slipped.  I stayed upside-down, then gracelessly made my way back to earth, with my feet thundering onto the floor.

“Why don’t we talk about more lessons another time?” I said to the teacher.

I went home with a sore neck and damaged self-esteem.  I hate it when I can’t get the narrative I want out of my life — the common, soul-stirring narrative of accomplishment and overcoming adversity.

When I was younger, and more of a prisoner of how things should be, it was more of a problem.  “Every day, do something you’re scared of” — I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt who said that.  God, just what I needed: something else I didn’t want to do on my lengthy to-do list.

The years pass, though, and you begin to realize you’re not going to climb one of the Himalayas or jump out of an airplane or walk a tightrope or go on a safari.  You realize, too (if you’re the hypersensitive, skittish type like me) that this is just fine, because you find normal life — without the mountains, the parachutes, the balancing act, the wild animals that want to eat you — is stimlulating and risky enough already.  Maybe a little too stimulating and risky, which is why Valium was invented.

At times like this, over and over, I start to mull over the Serenity Prayer — about changing what you can change, accepting what you can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.  Maybe, when you’re younger, you’re more intent on the first part of that prayer, sure you must change yourself, that change is always desirable, that every flaw and shortcoming you have can be addressed and cured.

Even more years pass and your emphasis changes.  Maybe, it occurs to you, your essence lies in your shortcomings, as well as in your strengths.  Maybe, in combination, they define you — deeply flawed, but whole and real.

Oh, to hell with headstands.  I’m going to keep my feet on the ground.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

6 comments… add one
  • I think you have come up with a really good plan.

  • My dear Ruth:
    Well, where do I begin. I could tell you about when I started private Yoga lessons, eight or nine years ago, so locked up with Lyme disease that I couldn’t even touch the floor between my legs when sitting on a folding chair. He was an Ashtanga teacher and so – stupid me – I thought I was learning Ashtanga, when in reality he was teaching me restorative Yoga. Six months later, enormously better (Yoga saved my life!), I decided to take a Yoga vacation and searched the Internet for an Ashtanga retreat. I found one in Thailand and went flying off, excited to be seeing a new place and learning more about Yoga. When the first class began, it was immediately apparent I had no idea what they were doing. While it was totally embarassing for me, I was fortunate in that the teacher was kind and told me just to do whatever I could do, withouot worrying what everyone else was doing.

    He taught me that Yoga is not a competition. It is a process. Today, I actually do Ashtanga Yoga. I still can’t do all the poses  – until just recently I had never even tried a headstand. But several months ago I got it in my head that I needed to learn this pose and told my teacher I wanted to pursue this goal (I still do privates once a week, after all these years). Well, let me tell you, it took me two months just to get fully upside down. My teacher DID NOT try to make me go upside down the very first time. First, she tutored me on the proper placement of the hands and where to place my head for best support (this was especially importnant, and very frightening for me, since my neck has damage from the Lyme and is not very strong). Then we spent a couple of weeks doing other types of inversions to get ready for headstand. Finally, she helped me up. Now I can get up myself, but only against a wall. My new goal is to get up and stay up without the “crutch” of the wall.

    Have you considered not being so hard on yourself? Or maybe a different teacher??

  • ruthpennebaker

    Barbara — This isn’t being too hard on myself, I don’t think.  In fact, it’s just the opposite: backing away from something I don’t really want to do, but think I should be able to do.  And not beating myself up in the process.

    I agree about yoga, though.  It’s been wonderful for me, too.

  • Cindy A

    Someone sent me an edited version of the Serenity Prayer more than a decade ago, and it makes me smile every time I read it.
    God grant me the serenity to
    accept the things I cannot change,
    the courage to change the things I can,
    and the wisdom to hide the bodies
    of those people I had to kill
    because they pissed me off.

  • ruthpennebaker

    Love it, Cindy.

  • Winston

    Go for the ultimate headstand.  Just leave word with your estate executors to set your tombstone in the inverted position.

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