Illustration: The Magazine of Yoga, with art from Barbara Denwoh Yoga, Curvy Yoga, and RecoveringYogi
If you know better than to do something crazy, are you too smart for your own good?
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
From our kitchen window I am watching a young man across the street, who seems, from this distance, to be about fourteen. I can tell by the way he stands or turns his body to what he’s doing he’s not finished growing, but from the way he moves around he seems pleased with his beginning.
He is working on a short flight of stairs with his skateboard. Catching some air. Three stairs, plenty of runway and landing strip, nobody around to complain or get in the way.
The move he is working on involves a sort of casual precision about setting up the skateboard several body lengths from the top of the stairs, then sauntering further away, to the Starting Line.
Stage One: Getting used to the idea
Aka, Faith. After eyeing things, the young man takes a few fast strides, hits the skate board at speed with his right foot, while continuing for two more strong pushes with his left. Arrival at the top of the stairs is the completion of Stage One.
He has this part all figured out.
Stage Two: Sky
Stage two is complex. Perhaps, gentle reader, you’re thinking to yourself that being at speed on a skateboard with nothing under it but a few photographs you’ve been mulling over is – well, maybe you’re thinking complex is a euphemism.
Then again, think of all the yoga porn you’ve studied.
In fact the complex part really does begin when the young man bounces his knees in the take off. The board has a slight camber like the bottom of a pair of skis. A bounce into this flex causes a virtual suction. It increases the attractiveness between the bottoms of his Vans or DCs or Etnies (I can’t see his kicks from here) and the skatedeck, allowing him to carry the board up and kickflip it as both he and the board gain that micro-second of altitude.
The idea is to spin the board horizontally beneath him, keeping the board’s momentum sync’d with his own as he releases its contact with his feet.
End of Stage Two.
Yeah, I know, it’s a funny place for a measure of work to be “over.” Oddly, this is one of the things we screw up as adults. We often persevere in our attitudes and behavior as though the stage we’re in of anything we’re doing or attempting to attain in life is the stage in which we’re going to see something recognizable. A landmark. Encouragement. A thumb’s up.
Pulling off what we’re trying to do, no matter what it is, requires faith (see Stage One). We should be moving on with the job, instead of waiting for some kind of affirmation.
Stage three: Cement
If you’re a skater who gets a full spin on it, the skateboard comes back into position under your feet just before you join the sidewalk again, at sea level.
Exactly once, while I am watching, our young man solves this problem. There is a very good reason that he doesn’t solve it twice.
That reason is the impossible-to-know-about-ahead-of-time additional skill, an unavoidable requirement in the new territory that arises in the same breath as the solution to landing on the board.
As adults, we think of this as a sucker punch. It can really get me rattled, in my own case, with fear. You know, WTF-type fear.
True, it is a little like a pyramid scheme. If we don’t continue to learn, we can’t apply what we’ve learned so far. Life has an insatiable appetite for iteration. Nothing else will do.
Not repetition, but iteration: experiments with change.
Sac up: manage ya package and get on with it. Dude.
Almost everything we learn to do involves this level of complexity, innovation and daring. We learn by iteration.
Walking. Speaking. Relationships, for example. Dealing with aging parents. Raising kids. Balancing our need and desire for stability with our need and desire for accomplishment.
Iteration brings increasing levels of polish and competency and it does that by revealing the new problem that exists in the fabric and at the edges of the one you are focused on. Once he learns to get it turned so he can land on it, the skater has to learn to stay on the board, i.e. -
doing it right will land him in a much harder situation than failing at it will.
He has to figure out how to blend his downward and forward motion with the board which has hit the ground ahead of him, and at the same time, keep his balance. There’s obviously a certain amount of nerve in even attempting this. Like the rest of us, though, the problem for our young man isn’t the initial reserve of foolhardiness, or say what you will, courage.
It’s the immediate bankruptcy when he gets the spin right the first time, and his feet land on the deck.
Sync it, again
As I’m watching, and after many attempts, the board spins perfectly. He hits the board perfectly.
It shoots out from under him, also perfectly, an expression of the physics involved, such as the compression of his landing, the angle of his body and the new variance in speeds between himself and the board, and the lack of responsiveness in his body – the contraction of reasonable panic.
He hits the cement, hard, falling down.
After that, he goes back to spinning the board incorrectly. This way, as he fails, he stumbles. The board stops because it doesn’t land on its wheels, and he lands ahead of it, in a nimble dance step that keeps him on his feet. With a little improvisation, which I get to observe, it even looks like beautiful hard work.
That’s when I start thinking about yoga.
I don’t mean risky postures, I mean heavy breathing
I got to thinking about just how good I can be at laboring: finding the spot where working hard looks good while practically guaranteeing whatever happens won’t be more than I want to think I can handle. When I’m afraid, I go about failing at the wrong things – the things that won’t matter either way, and that I pretty much know how to do wrong, safely.
For me, yoga is about learning to pay attention to what is really happening, to the choices I’m making, and just what it is I’m asking of myself: stable self conflict with a good show of trying hard? Or steady nerves and the ability to tolerate the consequences of full self expression?
Our bodies can maintain our obstructions or attain clarity. We can stay busy trying, and stay excusably, even beautifully, occupied failing at what it is plausible to fail at. Or we can move on with the job.
We can choose to work on the part that’s scary and unnerving because it demands something unfamiliar, honing a new skill even though we know it will take us deeper into uncharted territory.
It can be hard to find the nerve to fail at the right things instead of in the places where it’s already familiar, where failing keeps us from being uncomfortable.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.