I was half upside-down (the most disorienting position to be in, I find) when it occurred to me that I can’t remember when I last gave a shit about whatever belly may or may not be flabbing over my waistband. Fully upside-down (say, hanging from the monkey bars or doing a handstand), everybody’s belly looks nice. Fully upright and engaged in a strong posture, ditto. But this half business, when you’re breathing like a bellows–a mindful one, but a bellows nonetheless–even unflabby bellies do things that make photo editors reach for their magic wands.
It’s a pose that demands a lot of the upper back, which is precisely the part of my body that most frequently doubles as a stress repository, so the work needed to flex and support and engage in all the right places was, shall we say, bracing.
If you’re not a yoga practitioner, let me attempt to describe the scene: Imagine kneeling, facing very close to a wall. You place your elbows right in the angle where wall and floor meet, and your forearms rest on the wall, your fingers pointing at the ceiling. Between your hands you hold a rectangular block. You straighten your legs, bringing your body into an inverted V shape. The block becomes a touchstone, resting in the place between your shoulder blades where all those weak-but-getting-stronger muscles lie, focusing your attention on activating their power. It’s no joke, and you’re not even in the “real” pose yet!
The pose ultimately calls for your gaze to be toward the floor, but at the moment you are looking between your feet at the students across the room, who are looking right back. The distorted, red, upside-down faces are all–despite the hard work, despite the good kind of discomfort that comes when your body is testing its limits, despite being an hour into a pretty grueling class–smiling like crazy.
Belly flab? What belly flab? I’m busy remembering to breathe through this exquisite torture.
Here’s why yoga is important to me: it refocuses and refines my attention in a way that creates nothing but good. I’ve long been the sort of person who becomes first frustrated and then (pretty quickly, I’m afraid) angry when I can’t do something perfectly. The yoga mat is the first place where that mindset started to crumble and fall away. It’s the first place I began to uncouple the difficulty of a thing from my own sense of self-worth. Exploring the far boundaries of what is hard to do can be an astonishingly joyful undertaking, but you have to be willing to play with those boundaries without reaching for your instruments of self-flagellation (and don’t we all have a veritable arsenal of those by this point in our lives?).
I have no idea when that idea finally took hold inside me. But, one day, I fell over instead of balancing, and I smiled, just like all those upside-down faces were smiling last night.
We all made it up into pincha mayurasana, with varying levels of assistance. I held it with only my partner’s fist between my knees, a helpful reminder to hug the midline. Because here’s a fun thing: to get up, you don’t think up. You don’t send the energy up; you don’t focus on up. To get up, you send your energy, your effort, your breath, your smile, your all to the middle, which engages deeper musculature. The pose originates from your core, physiologically and energetically speaking, and is far more stable and powerful and dynamic than it would be if you used brute force to fling your legs skyward.
Sounds like a metaphor, no?
That’s another valuable lesson that yoga has taught me: what you think needs to happen isn’t always so. Frequently, the key that opens up a pose for me is an adjustment in the way I’m engaging (or not engaging) my pelvis or my feet or the deep muscles of my abdomen. These changes usually make the whole shebang even harder, yes, but they bring a richness and a correctness and an energy to the exercise that I find incredibly nourishing.
It’s this subtle work that made me fall in love with yoga, Anusara in particular. I may one day get into the crazy pretzel poses; I may not. The point isn’t so much what I can do, but how I do it.
The point is this: in a preparatory half-pose that doesn’t even have a name, with protesting hamstrings and shoulder girdle, with wild hair and a flushed face and, yes, a little bit of belly flapping, I couldn’t stop grinning.