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Dharma Kitchen


Dishes You Can Cook, Poses You Can't Do


The intrepid Susan Amato, one of my yoga teachers, executing a handstand with an intentionally wonky alignment. It takes power and control to be able to master this.

The intrepid Susan Amato, one of my yoga teachers, executing a handstand with an intentionally wonky alignment. It takes power and control to be able to master this.

Preface: I wrote this about a week and a half ago, on Friday October 24, and debated as to whether or not I should post it because it's so intensely personal. My previous post related to cooking what you know, quickly and efficiently—having old-standbys that you don't need to overthink, that you can just whip up or bang out. It doesn't matter whether that means a slow-roasted pork, a 3-course meal for 8 or just something simple, like breakfast for dinner. The idea is to have those go-tos.

My yoga practice is a constant, full of go-to poses whose sensations are usually familiar and outcomes are typically predictable. I have a pretty advanced practice, and this is something I often forget about. I take it for granted that I can push my body to some interesting places, that my core is so strong that I don't have any lower back pain anymore. I realized the other day I was balancing in forearm stand without hitting the wall first. Most of the time, I am surprised by what I can do, but our bodies are usually so well-prepped we are ready for whatever our teachers have offered to us, and it often comes with some degree of ease. Today? Well, that was a different story.

I thought I had come to a decent place with handstands, which I can do with some assistance. I have trouble getting my hips in position, but if someone is gently holding them they know what to do, and boom, I go up. Or if we use a different approach, with a leg press, I go right up. I can balance pretty well, with some spotting. I've been at this pose for years. It is often one of my triggers, and I know I have to stop calling it that, but it's true. I can't fathom that it will be a go-to pose someday; it's like the dish you can't quite get right no matter how many times you make it. However, each attempt brings you a little closer, gives you more information.

Today forced me to reconsider that perhaps I wasn't as far along with my handstand detachment experiment as I had thought. Or at the very least, it pressed a new wrinkle into my thinking. For a few months, I've been actively treating its prep and every experience of it as play, rather than this juggernaut that reduces me to a shadow of my former low self-esteem self. It triggers this internal monologue that spirals out of control: "You can't do this, you never had gymnastics. You're not strong enough. This is just another way in which you're not like everyone else, that you're weird, that you can't do the things they can with ease. You'll never get there. Your progress is too slow. You don't practice enough on your own." And so on and so forth.

It then turns into: "You are weird, just like how you can't eat gluten or drink alcohol without it wrecking you, but everyone else can. Just like how you know things will happen before they do, and that's kind of strange, too. And like how you know when someone's going to surface. And when someone is lying, even if it's through nonverbal cues or via email or text messaging.

On this day, it went even further, and devolved into not having my mom for support and advice. And how others have some semblance of grandparents. And the changes in my body since carrying 50+ pounds of twins, and how even six years later, I can't seem to get rid of what is commonly termed a baby belly (thanks, C-section and stress?) that I never used to have. Then that leads to worrying about excess estrogen creating cancer cells, and so forth.

Then there's a weird shift of awareness, and the inner chatter moves: "You have been practicing yoga seriously for several years, you should know better than this. You shouldn't let yourself have this mental spiral. You shouldn't let this pose get you. You should be better at letting it roll off your back. You should be detached from its outcomes and expectations." It's a warped, judgey kind of tough love, huh? All those shoulds have no place in a yoga practice, nor in daily life, really.

I cannot remember the last time I felt like that—all that focus on lack, all that focus on failure rather than staying present. The gross exaggerations. Oh, man. I short circuited, blinded by the sheer anguish of feeling like I'm just not good enough.

It wasn't a normal kick-up handstand we practiced, either. What our teacher had us do was basically a one-handed handstand, with assistance, against a corner wall. And later, we approached urdva dhanurasana (that's full wheel) with our knees close to the wall, so you could put one foot up on it, and then use that as leverage to lift the other one up into a split, and finally, into handstand. And then flip out of it carefully. I was the only person in the class who couldn't even get up into handstand this second way, from full wheel; I had trouble even putting my foot on the wall. I felt like I should have been able to do it, because everyone else was. I was afraid that if I lifted my foot off the wall, I would collapse.

I tried to let the voice go, but once we stopped, it snuck back in like an insistent child. I am usually pretty good about arresting this monologue in my head, and today I let it go for a little while at the end of class in our final pose. I let a few tears roll, mostly from the right eye; that's anger. But it stopped, and so did I. Five years ago, this would have taken up residence in my mind, heart and body for several days, or I would have squashed it down entirely, depending. Yoga has enabled me to feel things with a level of detachment from anxiety and expectation--you are not your feelings and those feelings are temporary. They also do not mean that you are going to spiral into depression.

I then framed it this way, as I was emerging from my fog at the end of class. There are things I can do really easily. I cook most nights of the week without a recipe. I know about fruits and veggies and food and nutrition and supplements and homeopathy and herbs for healing. These are things I know. I know how to edit. I know what's wrong with writing and what works. I don't say this in a braggy way. It's just honest and matter of fact. I was starting to feel that yoga was in that category, because I have been practicing devotedly for several years, and off and on before that for much longer. Normally, I don't compare myself to others; we all have our struggles. And I don't typically care what other people think of me, but I think as I grow and change and start to feel a little strange around people sometimes because of all of this yoga and its attendant spiritual work, it becomes harder to just be "normal" when I feel so different. (Normal is a shifting, flowy thing; that's really the lesson.) Today reminded me I have a way to go. It felt like a smack-down, and I kind of got pissed at that too; I didn't want a smack-down from my practice today. But we get the lessons we are supposed to get, when we are supposed to get them. That I know. And I know I need to be kind to myself.

As I tried to let this shift in perspective become the narrative that would take hold and teach me something, I thought about the frittata. I whipped it up last night with no problem. Maybe someday, a handstand will be something I toss off with no problem, too.