September 21, 2013, I broke down.
I broke my fingers, and I fell down.
Well, first, I got up!
I got up to a handstand at the wall for the first time in my life, all by myself.
But, that’s the thing. I was all by myself.
No one was there to witness this miracle. No one was there to prevent my fall.
No one was there for me. Not even myself.
It didn’t matter that I kicked up to the wall into a handstand, twice.
No one was there, so I had to prove it. I had to capture it on video on my computer.
I kept trying, and trying, and trying to do it again while my computer was on…
It was so invigorating! I was so close! I was so excited!
(I was also exhausted.) But I couldn’t give up now!
I did it twice, and I knew I could do it again! I knew I could!
“You got this!” I said to myself.
“C’mon! Just one more time!”
I had to have proof of this happening. I had to. I had to. I had to. Or else no one would know. It wouldn’t be real if no one else knew. It would have been just a dream.
All I wanted was a little validation, some approval, and a stamp of worthiness… “You are acceptable as a human being, now. You did it – you are perfect, Marissa! Now you can relax, finally.”
That’s not so much to ask, right? I just wanted to be recognized during my huge accomplishment. I wanted this milestone of fearlessness and bravery to be marked with praise and support. I wanted to be seen as worthy, for once.
I did a handstand! See??? See? I’m getting better! I’m good enough to be a yoga teacher. I’m advanced, now. I’m worthy. I’m worthy, right? Tell me I’m worthy.
No one was there to tell me this.
Not even myself.
So I tried one more time. I put my feet at the wall and my hands on the ground, making an L-shape. I lifted one leg off the wall. I lifted the other. HANDSTAND. Crash, crack, bump. Oops. I looked at my left hand and two fingers were noticeably misshapen and sideways. I moved them upright without pain (thanks, adrenaline). Then I got an ice pack from my freezer, lay down on the ground with my hand resting on the arm of my couch, and made a phone call. I was no longer alone, but it didn’t matter that I did a handstand anymore.
None of that mattered.
All that mattered was that I was broken. My heart, my fingers, my ego, my worth. Shattered.
That night I ached with shame and shooting pains. How could this happen? How could I have done this to myself? What is wrong with me? I thought I was practicing self-compassion and doing yoga to feel a sense of peace within myself. I thought I felt content with where I was and what my body could and could not do. I thought I had let go of any attachment to the poses. I thought I knew that it didn’t matter whether or not I “got” the pose. I was sure I was practicing with an open mind and playful heart. I felt so good about myself! Yeah, right.
For a little while I simply blamed yoga for all of this.
But it wasn’t yoga’s fault.
Yoga is a powerful tool, much like a very sharp knife. Surgeons use sharp knives to meticulously cut out cancerous tissue or to cut open a woman’s abdomen to deliver a precious new baby into the world. Sharp knives can save lives in radical, miraculous ways. A person could also use a sharp knife to threaten someone, hurt someone, or kill someone. Yoga, like a sharp knife, must be practiced with intention, mindfulness, and gentle patience to be used in healthy, empowering ways. If not, yoga can be dangerous. Yoga can be another way to inflict mental, emotional, and physical pain on oneself. This I experienced firsthand (pun sort of intended…).
Up until September 21, 2013, yoga was just another way for me to judge and criticize myself for not being enough. It was an insidious, toxic voice within me that took this inspiring and enriching practice and twisted it into something hazardous to my health. Instead of practicing contentment and meeting challenges with patience and grace, I secretly cringed when I saw myself fall out of a posture in yoga class. I crumbled with humiliation at my weak chaturangas and inflexible back. I grimaced at the sight of my body in comparison to others in almost every single pose. If I could do a pose with relative ease, I filled myself with pride and determination to do it as perfectly as possible. “Yes! Garudasana, I can do this one, okay go, go, go, don’t fall, please notice me teacher, come on! Look at me. I’m doing it! Aren’t I doing it well?! Notice me!” I was insatiable for recognition, approval, and validation. The quality of my yoga class depended upon whether or not the teacher complimented me or whether I held a pose to my satisfaction that day [of course, as a (recovering) perfectionist, my standards are always changing, so this is a tough goal to meet].
Instead of seeing difficult postures as opportunities for growth and learning, I saw them as indications of my inadequacy and unworthiness. I put my self-worth on the other side of chaturanga, handstand, backbends, inversions, and arm balances (all the “advanced” asanas). I will be happy with myself when I can do __________. I will love and accept myself when I look like _________. I will teach yoga when I am able to ___________. These thought patterns are poisonous.
I didn’t realize that I was essentially drinking poison in my yoga practice until I listened to that voice on September 21st, and I went too far.
That voice sounded like it wanted the best for me. It was just encouraging me to try harder, go to my edge, and never give up! It didn’t mean any harm… I just messed up because I suck and I can’t do anything right.
Well, not quite.
Somewhere along the line I thought to myself that attaining “perfection” (whatever the heck that means, I do not know!) was the way to being worthy of love and acceptance. The nature of yoga in America is that there is such a thing as perfection, and the people from Yoga Journal, Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest all have it. It looks like this…
Not only are we bombarded with these images from media, we see pictures like this from our own yoga teachers and friends. You cannot escape a handstand picture at the beach when you scroll through Instagram. It’s virtually impossible (unless you don’t follow anyone that practices yoga). With these photos, we can definitely experience a sense of celebration and rejoice for the beauty and majesty of the human body. And yet, these photos can also trigger feelings of comparison and deep shame. Why are we so focused on expressions of physicality when we could be sharing expressions of generosity and love, instead? Where do we draw the line of an inspiring yoga photo and one that is objectifying the body? Well, I digress…
Anyways, in my earnest striving to look like that and be “perfect,” the voice in my head thought it was helping me to feel loved and worthy. Turns out, it was all just a misunderstanding. I felt abandoned that day because I wasn’t looking out for my own well-being– I didn’t realize that I am already worthy, whole, and complete just as I am. I didn’t listen to my body and honor what it needed. I was aggressively forcing myself to do something that need not be done. But there was a quiet voice whispering to me that day (saying, “Take it easy, simply rest, trust in the process, be patient”), and now I’m learning to listen to it more and more.
“Pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”
– Khalil Gibran
The pain and shame of my broken fingers was so heavy that it cracked my heart wide open. With courage I peeked at the messy glob of mud that was inside (a jumble of old thought patterns and stories I told myself about needing to be perfect) and saw a shimmering light awaiting my discovery. Herein was my own lustrous soul shining upon my heart, illuminating a wellspring of wisdom and serenity within. Through the muck of my distorted thoughts about myself, the light of my soul shone bright, providing the nutrients for an exquisite lotus of insight to blossom in the mud.
In the several weeks of pain and surgery recovery and healing, I didn’t “do” yoga. I lived yoga. I focused on nourishing my soul and practicing the other seven limbs of yoga (Yama, Niyama, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi). I started a regular meditation practice, began attending dharma classes, and spending copious amounts of time in my favorite place on earth—nature (hence my Instagram gallery)
I opened my heart and surrendered to the process. I learned the power of trust and patience. I finally started to practice true self-compassion. I allowed myself to feel and grieve and be sad. By no longer resisting my experience of imperfection, I found a striking clarity within. My sadness was so pure and vivid; it enhanced the sensations of being alive. The raw, tender feeling of sorrow was a portal to heart-melting bliss and gratitude. I recognized the treasure of impermanence– the wondrous, glorious truth that everything is changing. With understanding that nothing lasts, I began to see the world in more vibrant colors with deep appreciation for the radiance of sunsets, the delightful surprise of wildflowers, the warming comfort of hugs, and the simplicity of tea and chocolate. Life was unfolding naturally and I was learning to be open, free, and peaceful along the way.
When January 1, 2014 came along, I felt at home with myself. I felt safe and content in my own skin. I was listening more and more to the voice that encouraged me with sweet loving kindness. With this newfound perspective about my inherent worth, I decided I would start the year off doing handstands on the beach with playfulness and carefree joy. And it was magical! I was free. I was free from my own imprisonment of perfection. I was lighthearted and free.
I didn’t kick up into a handstand at the wall until March 21, 2014, six months after the incident. Once I did, it was magical once again. Yoga had become a practice of patience and forgiveness. Yoga was healing instead of toxic, it was empowering instead of shaming, and it was imperfect instead of perfect. Yet, yoga is still a sharp knife and I had to be careful with it. Coming back to my yoga practice meant coming back to my fears, my stories of unworthiness, and comparison. I could feel the pull of desire to do advanced poses; but I realized that coming to my “edge” sometimes is going into child’s pose instead of headstand. For me, being an advanced practitioner means respecting my body’s limitations and letting go of the need to prove my capabilities. I had come such a long way. Except for handstand.
Once I kicked up to the wall and could do it pretty consistently, I wanted to do it all the time. I wanted to get better. I wanted to get stronger. I wanted pictures of myself doing it. I wanted to nail that damn handstand!
So, yep. I injured myself again this summer (doing handstands). It’s not so bad this time, only a sprained wrist. But, it’s September 21st again, and I will NOT let that voice inside my head allow me to hurt myself like last year.
I know I am worthy, just as I am, with or without a handstand or any yoga pose for that matter. Some of the wisest people on earth don’t ever do yoga poses (especially the so-called advanced ones), so why is my worth attached to how “good” I am at doing yoga? I want to be good at living yoga. B.K.S. Iyengar said, “Practice of asana without yama and niyama is mere acrobatics.” I want to practice yoga to cultivate love and compassion, not to perform tricks. Yoga is a way of being, and I want to embody this. Clearly wisdom and inspiration are not related to whether or not my feet touch my head or I can balance upside down. I don’t judge any other human being for not being able to do a handstand, so why do I judge myself? Good question.
So this is where I make my resolution for the rest of 2014…
I promise to not practice handstands for the rest of 2014.
I promise to choose self-acceptance and self-love over self-criticism and self-judgment.
I promise to embrace my body, just as it is, with gratitude for everything it does for me to keep me alive and connected with the sublime wonders of the universe.
I promise to practice patience and compassion with myself as I heal from within.
I promise to embody love – living with love, for love, to love, from an ever-flowing source of love.
I promise to not “do” yoga, but to live, breathe, and be full of yoga – full of light, love, peace, compassion, patience, generosity, forgiveness, wisdom, and ease.