What do you get when you mix a bunch of entitled yuppies with a yoga retreat at a mountain resort?
Well, I’m not entirely certain. My preconceived notions of the types of “hippie-dippy” holier-than-thou spiritual gangsters was not at all what greeted me when I looked around the room at the welcome event on Thursday evening. There were people of all ages and fitness levels, ranging from yoga teachers to a couple who were trying yoga for the first time that weekend. Being the person that I am, I loitered awkwardly for a few minutes, unsure of what to expect for the weekend, then struck up a conversation with a girl who looked kind of familiar…
“Jen..?” I asked with a bit of uncertainty.
“Jessica.” She replied.
“Oops, sorry. Aren’t you the one who posted on the Facebook page?”
Earlier that day, she had threw it out there that she was on the retreat, hoping to go skating or skiing, and maybe people would want to meet up? I saw the post, and thought I’d do my due diligence before I replied – so I creeped her Facebook profile. Huh, looks normal. So I’d replied, trying to play it cool, and said something to the effect of, ‘Sure, we might go skating.’ with no commitment or attempt to lock down any plans. Making new friends is tricky business and I didn’t want to come across as too desperate.
It turned out, she was the one who had posted, and we quickly began chatting. As it stood, she had the nerve to just go on this retreat by herself, without knowing anyone. That kind of boldness is definitely a trait I admire in others, and it’s been a trait of my own that’s gotten me some incredible experiences in life. We quickly made plans to meet up during the breaks on the retreat. New friends – check.
We sat on the floor. The instructor welcomed us with a brief introduction, some logistic information, and a short meditation. The room would become our temple, he said. The energy in the room and our perception of it would change the way we interacted with it. The rest of the lodge would adopt that same glow. I was glad I wore stretchy pants as we sat on the floor. My mind wandered as we meditated. I wondered about the upcoming classes. 5 classes in 3 days. That seems like a lot. I wonder how it will go? Will I be able to handle it? Will I have to miss any of them? I’d hate to miss any classes after coming all the way out here, but I’m really not in that great of shape right now. I’ll just have to see how it goes I guess. And with that, the session closed and we were on our way to bed to rest up for the 8:30 AM class the next morning.
Though the thermostat in our room appeared to be failing (it stayed 26-28 degrees in the room all weekend, and not by our choice), the blackout curtains were the best I’d ever seen. When my friend’s alarm went off at 7:30 AM, it woke me from the deepest REM sleep and required a few moments for me to get oriented. Where am I? Who is that? Oh, it’s Salina, nevermind. I will admit though my next thoughts had much more to do with excitement for coffee than yoga.
The class was being held a short walk away from where our cabin at the JPL was. Boy, it was crisp. The cool morning air slapped us gently awake as we carried our mats and water bottles to our ‘temple’.
The class was perfect. We began again with a short meditation, allowing us to draw attention to our breathing. Breath, body, mind, moving in perfect alignment. Then, the dreaded moment:
“And now please make your way onto your knees and into sirsasana, or headstand.”
Ughhhhhh not this again! This pose had been the bane of my existence since I’d arrived at my studio a year and a half ago. I remembered looking around, bright eyed, at how 90% of the students in the fairly busy studio effortlessly turned their bodies upside down and balanced as though this was how they enjoyed their morning coffee.
Then… There was me. Toddling up into dolphin pose, the prep posture. Long story short – it’s much less elegant, much less graceful, and involved a lot of huffing and puffing on my part as my upper back and shoulders strained. I knew I could ‘use the wall if I needed to’, according to the instructors of many of the classes I went to, but I knew in my heart that I would never make it up there. I’d come CRASHING to the ground, disrupting the peace and serenity of the balanced disciples, and cause some kind of a domino effect whereby people would tip over left right and center – and they would stare at me angrily, and shake their fists at me for being such a noob to the practice.
“Do you want to come up?” My morning instructor would ask me. I’d shake my head vigorously and continue straining in the prep posture.
One day, I went to a class with a friend of mine (who is far more athletic than I am). He wasn’t quite a regular to yoga, and yet, when sirsasana was announced, he kicked his way up and put his feet against the wall.
I saw this out of the corner of my eye, and gasped. Though I don’t have much of a backbone, I sure do have a competitive streak – and it far outweighs any fearlessness I had. So I set my jaw, pushed my mat close to the wall, and quickly, WHAM! Kicked my legs over my head and onto the wall. I hovered there, thinking to myself, I can’t believe he’s doing it! and, Wait, I can’t believe I’m doing it! It was an enormous amount of discomfort, being upside down, but I’d learned at that moment that it was fear keeping me on the ground – not ability.
After that, I began to kick my legs onto the wall as a regular occurrence. The instructors would offer help here and there, cuing us to perhaps take one foot off the wall, and then the other. I wouldn’t. I would keep my heels firmly against the wall, focused simply on the feeling of the inversion.
At the beginning of the retreat, I had prepared myself to continue my wall headstands, and found a nice spot at the back of the room where I put my mat. Everything was going to be perfect… Until, that is, they’d decided to move all the mats forward in a bit of a semicircle around the instructor’s mat. To build a sense of community, they thought. More like, to screw up my wall headstand game! I thought, as my mat was moved from the back of the room and the wall to the inner part of the circle.
So, when the instructor announced it was time for sirasasana… I knew I had no choice. I would need to do it without the wall.
I set myself up, and began to raise one leg, and then the other, unsure of where exactly my legs would need to stop. There’s a combined action of both propelling your body and also restraining it once you find the balance. Easy, right? The instructor came over once he saw my awkward, half kicks. In the way that only a seasoned yoga teacher can really do, he told me to kick off, and then caught my ankles and half dragged me upright into the proper posture.
I immediately realized what a mistake I’d made. I’m upside down, I can’t get down, this really nice instructor is trying to help me, and he doesn’t realize that I’m never going to be able to do this, he should be helping someone else with more potential… The thoughts swirled until I realized that I could feel a bit of a sense of balance. “Okay, come down now,” He said, as he let go of my ankles and I tried to gently, gracefully come down to the floor–BOOM. Meh. Graceful enough.
Though I was excited at trying headstand off the wall, I had no illusions this would be difficult. The next day, I thought to myself as we headed to the class, I’m tired today- probably not a good day to try headstand. Meh, yeah, I’ll skip it.
“…time for sirasasana…” I started to go into my prep posture and then saw out of my peripherals a pair of feet appear by my mat. Oh no…
“Round two of headstand!” The instructor said. I smiled, and on the inside, groaned. So much for sitting today out!
I did the same movements as I’d learned, and the instructor again caught my legs. This time, he let go once he could tell I caught my balance. I hovered there in the air, feeling that same sense of balance come over me; pushing into my forearms and elbows. Terrifying and exhilarating. When my feet came down and gently landed on the mat, I felt a sense of triumph – even though I knew I may not have done it without a bit of encouragement.
Day 3… I had woken up, excited to get to class. I waited all morning to hear that cue that I had so dreaded before. Sirasasana. It was finally time to embarrass myself completely.
I didn’t see any feet pop up beside my mat. This was my day to try. I waited for the girl on the mat in front of me to set herself up in her own headstand, then carefully measured the distance between where I would plant myself, and where I would absolutely obliterate someone if I didn’t manage to stop my feet when I kicked up and into the air. Judging that she would be safe where I was, I set up my forearms and elbows, interlocked my fingers, pushed the crown of my head into my hands, and slowly, gently pushed off the ground, feeling the moment where my legs were centered above me…
…And feeling them continue overhead in a flurry of momentum that I hadn’t quite counted on, sending me reeling backwards in a kind of ungraceful somersault, as I came crashing down to the ground.
I snickered with a bit of embarrassment at myself, and looked up to see the girl in front of me in her headstand, smiling. Probably smiling because I had managed to avoid giving her a broken nose.
The instructor, seeing that I was a danger to myself and everyone around me, decided to come over. I was pretty much good after that one somersault, but he must have missed out, so he told me to try it again. Sigh. Here we go. Again, I pushed off from the ground, pushed into my elbows and forearms, and-
Crash! Thump. Bang. Again, a perfect somersault, as graceful as a baby giraffe learning how to walk on ice. I made no attempt to be embarrassed this time. I know from personal experience how funny it is to watch someone fall, so I snickered at myself and whispered, “This is how we learn, right?!” to the instructor.
I came up one last time, but with more help this time. I could tell I wasn’t catching my balance the way I had yesterday, and so could the instructor. He continued to help me stay upright and then released my feet so they could land on the mat with a slight thump. I was a bit disappointed I hadn’t managed to do it on my own, but happy that I was able to at least try it out.
Going into headstand made me realize the kind of year 2017 is going to be. I’ve spent so much time being doubtful of my abilities, and negating myself before I’ve even tried. There are times when putting yourself out there can make you look like a total fool. Honestly, the advent calendar was like that. It could have gone really bad for me – but it didn’t. I somersaulted a little bit and landed gracefully on my feet. When you try something new like that, there’s going to be times when you’re landed – grounded – when you can feel that sense of balance throughout your whole being… And, there’s going to be times when you are crashing to the ground in front of everyone, wondering why on earth you’re trying this and why you haven’t just walked away.
So, 5 yoga classes later, I feel that I am renewed and ready to really kick off the mat and go ‘headfirst’ into 2017. I truly do love my studio and the sense of community it brings to me, which was enhanced by the friendships I made on the weekend, so I really do hope you’ll consider joining me sometime so we can share that together.
Regardless, I hope you manage to accomplish whatever your ‘headstand’ is for 2017. And if you need a pair of feet to stand by you on your mat – I’m always willing to walk mine over and give you the push you need.