“When I dare to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” –Audre Lorde
The above quote, from the poet and essayist Audre Lorde, is one that has lingered in my heart for half my life. It speaks such a great big truth about the lived experience of doing something daring, powerful or new: that such acts are often scary. And, that we should still endeavor to do them.
Rewinding my tape about twelve years, I remember one of the first times I ever felt afraid in a yoga class. It was the first class in which I was asked to do handstand. Considering my hands, my scrawny wrists, my elbow which was set at a permanently crooked angle from a break when I was four, I peered up at my teacher and thought, “surely she doesn’t mean for ME to do this.”
But oh, she did. And oh, I tried. I put my hands on the ground. I gave a half-hearted, pathetic little baby donkey kick. I came crashing down. It was, as the kids say, an epic fail.
I wish I could say that after a few weeks of practice, it got easier, built up gradually, happened eventually. But no. In fact, around the time that I began to attempt handstands, I also moved to a new city. In the first yoga class I went to there, the teacher looked at my crooked arm and said, “hmmm…I don’t think you should really even do downward facing dog. Maybe you should just go to restorative yoga?”
This fit squarely with the vision I had regarding what I was capable of: nothing involving being upside-down, supported only on my hands, thank you very much. I even got “spiritual” about it, convincing myself that the desire to do a handstand was just about propping up one’s ego–it would be sooooo much more enlightened to sit on my mat with a vaguely satisfied look while everyone else tried throwing themselves up a wall, right?
Well, right or wrong, the desire to do that dang pose persisted. Mercilessly. So I started getting serious. I asked about a hundred yoga teachers what I needed to do–bend my straight arm to match the crooked one? Put one hand at a different angle? Do billions of sit-ups so that I could learn more control? What? WHAT, for god’s sake?
When I finally got around to asking John Friend (who has remained my teacher ever since) he didn’t give me an alignment prescription right away. He said, “well, let me look at your arm.” I held it out for him, waiting for him to recoil, to say “oh my god, yeah, no—NO handstand for YOU!” Instead, he said, “yeah, cool. Okay. This is your doorway into the practice. You’re going to have to pay attention. You’ll do it.” And then he probably talked to me about the foundation of my hands and melting my heart…but by that point I was already somewhere else. I was at the freakin’ doorway! Peering around what I used to believe was a stop sign, I saw there was actually miles and miles of uncharted road there.
And it was true, I had to pay attention–and not to the things I was used to paying attention to (like the by-now well-worn story of “you are not capable of even trying this.”) Over the proceeding months, I had to pay attention to the idea that I wanted to feel powerful. Poweful enough to do something I thought I wasn’t capable of. And I had to attune to the fact that desire was actually more important than the fact that I felt afraid.
Listen, believe me when I say I know it’s hard to say out loud (or type, in this case) a statement like “I want to feel powerful.” We’re afraid that’s an ego thing. But look, when I hang out with my kids, or I hang out with my students, many of whom are also afraid of doing new, upside-down things–well, I want them to feel powerful, too. I want them to WANT that for themselves. Because when we feel powerful in a deep-down, no-joke, solid kind of way, well…we actually tend to be nicer people. Not only that, but we tend to be less likely to be swayed from our visions–and we can turn those visions into offerings that really make more of this world.
It’s something I’ve seen verified over and over, on the mat and off–that the moment we link our actions to something bigger, some desire to be of service, some vision of being great enough to offer value to the world…it’s often at that moment that we become powerful.
To conclude the story, I’ll tell you: eventually I did learn to do a handstand. I’ve learned to do 1,000 handstands, about half of which have gotten off the ground. I’ve learned, for brief moments in time, to balance in the middle of a room, standing on nothing but my hands, my scrawny wrists, and my janky arms, my brain shouting “ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod” like the biggest geek ever. And I’ll tell you, the ones that make me feel the strongest aren’t necessarily the ones that I held the longest or balanced in the best. They’re the ones in which, during the moments before lift-off, I invoked the name of my teachers, my children, my family, my friends, some cause or connection that reminds me why I would want to be powerful in the first place. With this, even the ugliest little belly-flop of a pose builds something in us.
In the next section of this blog, I’ll share a little sequence to practice moving closer to handstand. But the main thing is: pay attention. You’ve got a doorway, too. Stand at its threshold and walk your shaky walk. If you’re afraid, you’re in good company. If you act anyway, you elevate us all.
Thanks for reading,
Erin Hansbrough/Grassroots Yoga