It came up again in yoga class this morning. There it was, the thought that I couldn’t do the next pose, which was Warrior III. After all, I was old enough to pass on this pose. The fear that my knee wouldn’t hold out, that the clicking I hear and feel when bending it these days means I should stop trying and what the hell did I think I was doing anyway? I knew I had arthritis in one of my knees, so what did I expect? My age popped into my head in the form of a voice much louder than those thoughts, yelled the number 63 at me, placed its hands on its hips and then stated quite clearly and indignantly “Really.”
I am very fortunate to study with a very skilled, kind, experienced, flexible and understanding Yoga teacher. She doesn’t let us slide, and she pushes us to grow; yet she does so in some very ingenious and stealthy ways. She reminds us about the adjustments needed to work with physical challenges, about using props to support us in the poses and the importance of alignment that is fundamental to Iyengar Yoga. It is not a beginner’s class and I’m not a beginner. She could see my distress today as everything tends to show on my face and she gently reminded us that we could stop at different points in accessing the pose. Perhaps using the blocks was as far as we might want to go. Or, we could go further into the pose with no props. I opted for the blocks, but I was disappointed in myself. I still surprise myself by the level of attachment I have to doing something “right.” It is difficult for me to recognize myself if I don’t move fully, If I don’t do something all the way. I realize now that this reveals an imbalance in my approach to life, which in turn is reflected back to me through my practice.
The freedom of dancing and moving has always been home for me. I first began taking Yoga classes in my mid twenties when I still lived in New York. I went to Integral Yoga Center on 72nd Street in Manhattan after work and on weekends. At the time I lived and worked in Manhattan. I loved the physical and spiritual union that the practice opened up for me. As a long time dancer and dance student, this was another way to incorporate movement in my life and there was an even deeper experience that brought me much joy.
I returned to Yoga here and there during graduate school after moving to the West Coast, but I was deeply involved in my course work and also working two jobs to support myself. I immersed myself in movement practices that combined martial arts, dance and psychology during that time. I also began to study T’ai Chi, which deepened my experience of movement and grounded me in a way I had not known before. T’ai Chi practice taught me what it was like to let life unfold for me and not push myself through life. Towards the end of my degree program, I was able to return to Congolese dance and this brought me great joy. I had missed the drums and the movement they inspired.
In my early 40’s I was introduced to Afro-Cuban dance, music and culture. Eventually I was asked to perform by two of my teachers. One of my teachers asked me to substitute teach for her when she had each of her two children. I was honored. I was at home in an even deeper way through the spiritual rhythms and songs and the secular dance styles. I recognized a part of my ancestry in an embodied way and this was a joyful reunion.
In my late 40’s and early 50’s I was involved in several accidents and my mobility was limited for varying amounts of time in the aftermath. This was only the second time in my life that I was unable to access my usually flexible range of motion and it was a challenging lesson for me. I worked hard at physical therapy, worked with a chiropractor and continued to study and practice T’ai Chi.
Nine years ago, I returned to Yoga through a Restorative class and home practice. I continued to take class and practice at home and my strength gradually returned so that I could begin to take more active classes. Parallel to this road has been my entrance into my sixth decade and with it, a reckoning with physical limitation and a focus on sustaining and strengthening what I can and letting go of what I am called to. This is yet another rite of passage through which I have entered into the interstitial spaces between surrender, giving up on myself then feeling bad about it, and navigating the lure of ambition that would have me push myself beyond my limits. I have to admit to looking around the room every now and then and envying a younger body, a flat stomach or even a young, pregnant woman.
My teacher’s gentleness with me when I can’t be gentle with myself is what helps me to find my way back to myself again. I’ve talked to her about my internal challenges brought about by my expectations of myself and feelings of defeat that are all tied up with ideas about aging, some of which are mine and some of which are imposed on me through the youth obsessed culture that I live in. And there is always another way to enter a pose that doesn’t compromise the health of my knees and allows me to practice my balance, which is generally pretty poor. At my teacher’s suggestion, I’ve been working on my feet, with toes that tend to grip the floor or the soles of my shoes habitually. This helps me to not take everything in my knees. I alternate slowly rolling a tennis ball under each foot, back to front, side to side over the entire sole. This is done in order to help my toes to let go of the gripping and to help my feet to come out of their habit of contracting muscles and relax. I tried this at work one day recently and I involuntarily started to yawn. This gave my co-workers and me a good laugh at the sound of one yawn after another.
Today Warrior III called me to meet myself through my limitations. The limitations were balance, and my attitude toward the trouble I had getting into and maintaining the pose without props. I surrendered and used the blocks. Then, when a different entry to the pose was introduced to the class, I tried it and was able to access and hold the pose for a few fleeting minutes. When I had to come down from the pose and back to standing, I was disappointed in myself for not being able to hold it longer and then I became disappointed at my less than charitable attitude toward myself.
I hope I will make peace with myself and with Warrior III one day. I have no idea how that will happen or what it will look like. There will always be another pose that will present me with my human, limited, beautiful self, instead of the lofty self I think I should be, the façade with perfect balance whose body never ages and I hope one day to have a non wavering acceptance of myself no matter what. Perhaps that’s why a few months ago I chose these lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” to place on my desk “Ring the bells you still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” At least once a day my eyes wander to these words and I remind myself that I am doing the best I can at ringing the bells and taking one step forward in kindness.