How did I get here, this abject place of sweat and fear?
I'll back up for a second with a brag, which then turns to a humble brag, then humility, then humiliation. When I turn 35 next month, I will have been practicing yoga for 20 years. Not always well, not always diligently, sometimes promiscuously in my flitting around from school to school or teacher to teacher, but still. 20 years.
Never never in that time have I been able to do a handstand away from the wall. I have gotten very strong, grunting out my chautarangas with the best of them And I have increased my felxibility; in good periods I can hanumanasana (do the splits) with my arms raised in celebration of that wild monkey Hanuman (he is known for his courage). But no handstand.
I know handstand is not the be all end all and that in yoga we are all beginners. I know. I know. But whenever it's time to practice handstand, teachers tell me, you're so close, you're going to get this in no time, look at you. They have been telling me this for at least a decade now, but I don't progress. I'm scared.
And so it was that I found myself sweating through my spandex, whispering to my latest, very encouraging teacher my shameful secret. "You've got this," she said. "I know," I replied, "but I have a lot of fear."
I've been thinking about women's fear and women's shame a lot lately. In part because I have a baby daughter, in part because I have been thinking about the young women I teach at the local university, and in part because I have finally completed my first academic book and am thinking about how I may want to be a bit bolder and braver in my next projects.
The thing about my physical yoga practice is that when I think about both what I can and cannot do and the way I see people doing and not doing handstands in the yoga room, is that i can't help but see the way my particular hangups about handstands map onto the way men and women go through the world off their mats as well.
If you've ever observed a yoga class when it comes time for handstand, you'll see immediately what I mean. Indeed, during my yoga teacher training, my teacher warned about this, saying something along the lines of: "you have to watch out for the dudes. sometimes you have to put them in the corners so they don't hurt anyone else."
It's really true. Come handstand time, if you look around the room, there's a handful of gentlemen flinging their legs in the air, flopping around, and being a general menace. Then you have the timid ladies like me, gingerly hopping around until it's time to be done. And then there are the ladies who have really earned it and are muscling through press up hand stands--they are working hard. This is the thing, though, those floppy dudes don't seem to care that they haven't put in the time the muscle ladies have; they're just blithely flinging their bodies up there. Not me though. Hop. Hop.
I am proud that I am strong and that I'm flexible, but when I think about how these traits, in the absence of courage, apply to the rest of my life, then things feel a little less good. Flexible starts to seem like accommodating, and the strength is my tendency to plug away on things. Being a hard worker and adaptable, well, that's fine and good. But there's also a sense that, as with the handstand, the glory will come if I just keep being diligent . But I'm starting to think that doesn't happen without the leap, without a certain kind of fearlessness that has not been part of my upbringing as a woman. Those floppy floppy gentlemen don't wait for permission, their exit strategy is frankly not so good, they don't worry that they haven't earned a chance to try via years of muscling through.
I don't really have solutions at the moment; as I told my teacher, I have a lot of fear. But I'm proposing some experiments for myself, and for anyone else who wants to try:
1. Bravery practice. As a "good girl" I am a pretty successful rule follower. So, if I make something a task, a practice to uphold, it's liable to get done. I wonder, is it possible to add a courage item to my weekly to do list? In my writing life, this has meant being a bit bolder about where I send my work, taking on topics that are new and prickly. Not waiting for someone to tell me it's allowed. In yoga, I'm still working...
2. Catastrophizing! As an inveterate worrier I spend a lot of time imagining bad conversations and outcomes that might take place. Recently, a terrible thing DID in fact happen to me (more on that some other time) and I survived it. I think spending a little time really digging deep on the topic of what's the worst that could happen and allowing myself to take those fears seriously seems useful, as does strategizing about what I would do when that worst thing comes to pass. For me it's this: I embody the cockroach, I am the twinkie (coo-coo-cachoo!); I know that my unglamorous tendency to keep plugging means that I still show up to my mat, that I sit in front the keyboard even after the disaster.
So, fear. Got it. Gonna have it. Working through it. Hop. Hop.