This morning, I wiped out on a patch of black ice. I was walking the dog before sunrise, mentally preparing for the early morning class I would be teaching a little bit later. As I was wondering whether I’d be able to open my students’ quads enough to get them into a modified Natarajasana (a one-legged standing backbend), my feet went out from under me and I landed on the left side of my back. After assessing whether I was injured (I wasn’t) and whether I had hit my head or my injured right shoulder (I hadn’t), I lay on the ground for a little, feeling a little silly and wondering if I could find my Yak Traks that I put away last spring.
If I’m lucky enough to live for another thirty years, a spill like today’s could be a life-threatening event. Our bones tend to become more fragile as we age, and broken hips often signal the beginning of the end for many elderly folks. My older students are well aware of this fact and every single one of them has a love/hate relationship with balancing poses. Although they know that balance is a learned skill and one that’s important to practice, they also find it challenging and are constantly apologizing for falling out of poses—unless they’ve bailed on balancing altogether and are sitting around watching everyone else balancing, falling or bailing.
I get it. Balancing poses are hard for everyone, even younger people. And it takes a lot of strength to support body weight on one leg instead of two, so there’s the additional physical demand on the working leg. We get sweaty. We get grouchy. We start to look for scapegoats (“my mat is too thick” “I drank too much coffee this morning” “I was fine till you walked by”). And that’s why it’s so important to balance, I say to my students. The physical, physiological, neurological, and mental skills that we learn and strengthen through balancing will serve us well in life. We learn our most valuable lessons from the things that come hard to us. I was never a particularly graceful child, and balancing was a skill I had to learn and practice and fail at over and over and over until I got to where I am today—able to balance and talk simultaneously about 80% of the time.
But all this goes out the window when we hit that black ice. All the precautions we’ve taken against broken hips (or cancer, or heart disease, or any other terrifying conditions du jour) probably won’t help us all that much when our legs fly out from under us and we land flat on our backs—or worse. We’ll never know when or if that black ice will show up. We only know that in that seemingly endless split second when our feet are moving forward and our butts are plummeting downward, all we can do is hope for the best. It won’t have mattered that we practiced yoga, ate organic, shunned GMOs, wore sunscreen, or drank green smoothies. At some point, that big dealer up in the sky pulls a king and an ace and you’re out of the game. Sure, we can help our odds and enhance our quality of life by wearing seatbelts and not smoking and cultivating loving relationships and everything else studies have shown, but even then…well, there’s that black ice.
So what’s the point, really? Why DO we practice balancing in the face of all of life’s uncertainty? Why not just give up, bail, and stand around watching everyone else do it?
Well, if anyone asked me, I’d say, “Why not? Why not push your limits and see what you can do in the short time you have here?” A lifetime isn’t all that long when you think about all opportunities the universe presents to us. If balancing helps enjoy your life more fully, if it cultivates a discipline or tapas in you, if it makes you feel like a gold medalist schussing down the slopes or skating around the rink, if it creates a sense of body awareness that affects the way you move through your day, then do it. And if it makes you miserable, then just let it go and find something else that enhances your life, that teaches you a skill that brings you not just utility but pleasure and purpose as well. You don’t have to make excuses for not doing what doesn’t serve you; just find what DOES serve you and give it your all. Go for what you want. Just don’t get hung up on the outcomes. There’s nothing we can do about the black ice that may be waiting for us around the bend. But in the meantime, why not rock your Natarajasana, cultivate an open heart and a steady presence, and greet your challenges as something you GET to do rather than something you HAVE to do.
And remember that although black ice may make it impossible to know when and how we’ll arrive at our final destination, it doesn’t have to take anything away from our enjoyment of the ride along the way.