The first time I surprised myself—I mean really, truly stunned myself—was on a cold, colorless morning in a mysore room over a 24-hour pizza joint on the outskirts of Boston’s Back Bay. Under the guidance of co-teachers Scot and Kate, I’d been practicing ashtanga yoga regularly for over a year, and working on dreaded drop-backs for over six months. In those six months, I’d started assisted drop-backs with Scot, and then continued them with Kate, and then been told by Kate to pull back and focus on urdhva dhanurasana until my body opened up more.
By the time of the morning in question, I’d figured out how to catch myself while dropping down, but could not, for the life of me, get back up. Instead, I rocked and pushed and fought to ignore the burning in my thighs before collapsing to my mat. Typically, at this point, Scot took pity on me and came over to help.
“I’m barely touching you,” he’d say, his fingertips on the small of my back. “Can you feel how little I’m doing?”
Truthfully, I could not.
Each time I attempted to get up to standing on my own, I felt only the enormous weight in the heels of my palms, the fire in my legs, my shortness of breath. By summoning every ounce of strength within me, I managed to push myself a couple inches off the floor before falling back down. Getting up to standing was an impossible task.
But that morning, instead of coming over to assist me, Scot had other ideas. After I gave it my usual failed attempt, he dropped a pile of blankets at my feet and told me to drop back on my own.
I did as I was told.
Once I was on the ground in urdhva dhanurasana, blood rushing to my head, fatigue building in my arms and legs, Scot told me to hurl myself as far forward as I could, so far forward that I’d end up on the pile of blankets before me.
Still in urdhva dhanurasana, I strained to see his face. “What?” I said. “What do you want me to do?
His expression was opaque. “You heard me.”
What choice did I have? I took a deep breath, rocked back on my hands, and pushed. When I opened my eyes, I was on those blankets on my hands and knees.
“Good,” said Scot in that imperturbable voice of his. “Again.”
With a few more tries I learned to control my momentum on the way up and to stop myself in an upright position, but my drop-backs were far from perfect. I took extra steps; I lifted my heels; now, six years later, I still splay my feet on the way up. But the lesson I learned that morning, I’ve carried with me ever since: Don’t be so quick to dismiss things as impossible; you may surprise yourself yet.
Part of this lesson involves a willingness to keep trying, day after day—something that seems to come pretty naturally for many of us ashtangis. For me, the more challenging task is staying open to the possibility of surprising myself, no matter how many times I may have attempted—and failed—to get in a pose.
Fortunately, over the years, I’ve had plenty of reminders. I surprised myself in laghu vajrasana, when, one day, after weeks of crashing on the top my head and not being able to come back up, I grounded the tops of my feet, pushed through my hands, and felt my torso lift. It happened again in kapotasana, when Kate ordered, “Take,” and my fingertips brushed my heels. And again in bakasana B when after months of falling short, my knees connected to that spot on my arms just above my elbows, and I somehow managed to hold on.
These days, I’m working on pincha mayurasana, as I have been for close to a year. Each morning, I remind myself to stay open to the possibility of surprising myself and nailing the pose. Part of this means listening—truly listening—when Devorah and Luis instruct me to modify my entrance, as they have numerous times over the past months. Sometimes the modification frustrates me; it feels like I’m being asked to take a step back and start over again. But once I’ve soothed my ego, I see that in order to surprise myself, I must be open to trying different ways of getting into a pose, even if it seems harder or more complicated.
The other part of staying open to surprises is, of course, belief. In my case, belief that one day I’ll plant my elbows, walk my feet in, and lift up, effortlessly, into pincha mayurasana. And that I can do it again and again.
Not too long ago, after I’d failed to jump into pincha for at least the fifteenth time, Chad knelt by my mat. “How are you feeling?” he asked. “Are you just frustrating yourself by doing it over and over again?”
These were rhetorical questions, and of course, I saw his point. In repeating the pose, I was simply expending energy while moving no closer to my goal—a pattern that, believe me, I’m still working to temper. But when I told Chad that I was far from frustrated, I was speaking the truth.
“It makes no sense,” I remember saying, “but no matter how many times I fail, each time I plant my elbows, I believe that this time will be different, that this time I’ll get it.”
There are plenty of things I need to work on in pincha mayurasana (and in my practice, in general): clearing my head, engaging my bandhas, pushing through my arms to prevent my shoulders from collapsing…the list goes on. I could nail the pose tomorrow; I could nail the pose next year; I could nail the pose for six days straight and then lose it the following week. But all these ups and downs won’t change what the practice has already taught me: I’ve done the impossible, and I’ll do it again.