Alli Rainey: Yoga Mind, Climbing Mind
Exploring the “Whys” of Learning & Mastering Movements
“When there is no obsessive concern with outcome, with gain of any kind, we are able to become completely absorbed in what we’re doing – our actions and thoughts undivided by worry. All of our energy can be concentrated on the task at hand.” – (Stephen Cope, The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling)
I want to do a handstand.
Actually, not just a single handstand.
I want to be able to perform balanced, stable handstands at will – anytime, anyplace, for however long I want.
I’ve never been able to do this in my life.
But I will.
Or at least I’ll keep trying until I can or can’t. Either way.
As I inevitably move ever nearer to the end of my fourth decade on this planet as this being, I find that the probability of my being able to perform handstands whenever and wherever I want improves by the day.
Yet, I’ve placed no deadline on this desired outcome. I feel no need to stress about if or when this will happen or how long it will take. I don’t even practice handstands every day, and sometimes I don’t try for two, or three, or four days, or a week or even longer.
My being learns, adapts and adjusts whenever I try. It learns when I rest, too. That’s always the strange thing about learning new techniques, really – how you can get better when you rest between consistent efforts, too.
Bit by bit, then, I’m getting closer and closer to effortless handstands. I’ve held a few for a few seconds here and there. Some days are better than others. Some days, the balance is off. Either way, whenever I try, I feel gratitude for the moment. In other words, I’m psyched to just try. I’m simply appreciative of the wonderful lucky circumstance that has landed my consciousness in a body healthy and strong enough to allow such a maneuver to be attempted. The trust is there that this being as a whole will learn, grow stronger and eventually master this movement.
But then, I find myself asking, why does a person like me even bother with the idea of mastering a handstand (or anything, really) at all – especially if one is not “naturally good at it?” (Whatever that really means).
“As long as we are tyrannized by an ideal of perfection we will always be at war with ourselves.” – (Donna Farhi, Bringing Yoga to Life)
After all, doing a handstand is nothing special in the vast sea of humanity, of course. I know this. I’m sure there are people out there who could do a handstand with ease and graceful perfection the first time they ever even tried. And I’m equally sure that there are people out there who cannot or perhaps more precisely (?) will not ever do a handstand, nor would they even care to try.
In between those extremes, there’s the entire continuum of “the rest of us,” a wildly diverse range of human potentials and abilities, with all of our own individual strengths and weaknesses and life’s circumstances and predilections and genetics that ultimately mesh together to determine if and when and how long it will or would take for every single one of us to master the seeming simplicity of the handstand, should we ever want to dedicate the time and effort required for us to do so.
And really, it’s not like once I can comfortably and confidently do handstands whenever I want that at the moment of achieving this goal, my life is likely to suddenly change in any meaningful or deep way from that moment on, is it?
Rather, I fully expect that I’ll incorporate handstands into my practice whenever they seem appropriate after that first moment of holding one steadily, just as I now do with headstands and other asanas. I also think it’s likely that I’ll discover some other personally challenging asana that captures my attention, requiring me to learn a new nuance of balance and body comprehension and connection, and to spend as much time as I need to spend developing the mastery of that asana.
This could very well turn into a lifelong process.
Which begs the question again: Why even bother?
“The challenge of yoga is to go beyond our limits – within reason. We continually expand the frame of the mind by using the canvas of the body.” – (B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom)
I prefer to practice handstands (Adho Mukha Vrksasana) in solitude, in my own little yoga room, in silence. I trust my intuition to guide my entire yoga practice each day without judgment or expectation. Some days I feel stronger in some poses (asanas); some days, not so much. But I never feel frustrated or like beating my body into submission when I practice; I just try to be attentive to what my body needs on the day at hand, whether it’s a 90-minute vigorous flow or 15 minutes of restorative yoga. I only try handstands when I feel strong, and I enjoy the effort, every time, no matter if I’m off or on or somewhere in between. Along the way, I’ve realized that I don’t really care how long it takes for my body-mind-being to “get” how to do handstands, regardless of how easy or difficult it is for anyone else to accomplish.
It doesn’t matter, because every body is different, and every body proceeds at a different pace and starts from somewhere different. It’s best and most freeing to gently and persistently and compassionately work with the body you have, not wish you had another. The latter can lead us into a vicious and damaging pattern of routinely hurling disparaging criticisms at ourselves for what we cannot (yet) accomplish, no matter how hard we might want to, wish to, train for, or try.
When we can ask ourselves to be present with and patient with who and what we are now in our entire beings – not just our minds, not just our bodies, and not just our unfathomable souls, but all three together – and when we can work with what we have in the present to move forward and improve at a pace that’s sustainable and workable for the being that we are without criticizing or berating ourselves for our current shortfalls, and when we have a relatively healthy and whole body to work with, we are so lucky.
And while it’s so easy to be disappointed and frustrated with our progress, especially should we fall into the trap of comparing ourselves and our pace of progress (or relative lack thereof) with others, this way of approaching personal refinement is flawed and will never yield a sense of steadiness and sturdiness of being, of equanimity. It will always lead to a sense of lacking and disappointment and a gnawing hunger for more. The void created by past accomplishments always demands to be filled yet again, unless we can free ourselves from such an endless cycle of craving for quantifiable attainment as the ultimate objective, and instead settle for working with and appreciating ourselves as we are right now, no matter what the final outcome.
“And when we are truly ourselves we lose most of the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are.” – (Stephen Cope, The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling)
This gentler, yoga-inspired mindset and approach has gradually connected with and transformed my approach to climbing, much to much own honest surprise. It makes sense, really, as it’s pretty much impossible to spend a lot of time doing anything, or being in any particular environment/community, and to not have these impact your being on all levels. That may seem obvious, but nonetheless, it’s something we often don’t take to heart deeply enough. And a huge part of that impact comes from an individual’s reactions to and interactions with those activities and situations, too.
I savor the climbing days when I feeling strong and recovered, enjoying the humorous banter at the crag with happy people as we share the love of climbing movement while we each try to make progress on our personally set challenges. I feel more attentive to and grateful for the in-the-moment experience of how I feel as I climb; if I feel strong in my body and balanced and whole, it’s a good day, regardless of the outcome. No more route-sending deadlines (always personally imposed, anyhow), no more pressure, and most of all, no more pissed-off headbeating on hard moves when the body’s fatigued, and no more climbing to the point of total destruction. These flawed ways are fading into fuzzy blurs in my rearview mirror now, as I let go of the broken patterns of the past to find a new approach in the here and now, a gentler way, a more effective way.
Of course, there are stumbles along the path; I still do get tripped up now and again. It’s not all roses and rainbows and smiley faces and sunshine and cute little cuddly puppy dogs. That would be too trite and perfect and totally not real. I still want a stronger, fitter body and I want to climb harder and I probably always will, but underneath those desires, there’s a calmer sense of acceptance of my own being’s current state, pace and process now; there’s a lighter hand at work, a kinder and softer approach to cultivating the changes I’d like to see and work toward having manifested in my body, my climbing, my being. There’s more satisfaction with the present moment of injury-free effort, and more understanding that pushing the pace too hard too often will ultimately lead to burnout and injury, as it has in the past, too many times.
“Each movement must be an art. It is an art in which the Self is the only spectator. Keep your attention internal, not external, not worrying about what others see, but what the Self sees.” – (B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom)
Like doing perfect handstands at will, I’m realizing at long last that the actual act of sending a route that challenges me perhaps matters a little bit less in the end than I once thought it did. (Yes, of course I still like to clip chains without falling; don’t get me wrong!) But neither accomplishment, regardless of how difficult each might be for me and my being, has any meaningful point if I don’t or can’t enjoy and embrace the learning process required for mastery, a process that inevitably involves repeated failures.
It’s so much more productive to savor wandering along those uneven and so often circuitous paths that eventually lead us to our goals, instead of being irritated and anxious about the pace of the process and constantly fretting about the future. After all, the goals will (and should) always open up many more paths leading to many more potential goals, which will lead to even more possibilities and paths. Life is (or should be) more about loving lifelong learning, about living to learn and grow within ourselves while sharing our growth and learning with others, not about rushing to experience endings and forgetting all about the experience of the process.
This appreciation of and gratitude of being alive in the present moment can happen for anyone striving to embrace their particular process of personal-being refinement. By testing ourselves gently but persistently at our own being’s upper ability-level limits, we begin to expand those limits. Soon, we find ourselves walking just beyond yesterday’s edge, whether we’re working toward sending a particular climbing route, or becoming proficient at a certain asana, or striving to develop new skills, insights and knowledge through some other personal challenge we’ve undertaken.
Expanding our personal boundaries steadily but without deadlines, we inch closer to self-chosen goals. As we progress, we have a real potential to positively impact ourselves and those around us. This can happen if we allow our efforts along the journey to reach in and transform us, keeping our excitement about learning alive while deepening our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, no matter how old our years say we are. Such experiences can help us stay or become more open-minded, patient, constructive, thoughtful, analytical, strong, grounded, balanced and joyful in the moment, no matter what the outcome.
This approach leads to acceptance of ourselves in the present without stagnation, encouraging the pursuit of personal development without judgment. We learn to allow our own individual evolution as a climber, as a yogi, or as a (fill in the blank) to unfold as it will, doing our best to provide appropriate support and guidance for ourselves without imposing constraining and often stress-inducing expectations. In this way, the personal can influence the universal in a positive manner, as we remember to savor the present, embracing opportunities to learn free of self-consciousness, and consequently, to convey that sense of delight in living in the moment and being content to exist as who we are right now to those whose lives we touch along our journeys.
“When we recognize and accept that life is an ongoing process for learning, growing, and evolving, we are more inclined to self-acceptance. Being happy with what we have is also contagious, especially when manifested as a teacher.” ~ (Mark Stephens, Teaching Yoga: Essential Foundations and Techniques)