‘What if I fall? Oh but my darling, what if you fly?’ – Erin Hanson
I’ve just returned home after a week of surfing and yoga in Sri Lanka. The whole experience was blissful; energising early morning yoga to stretch out our surf-tired bodies, twice daily surf sessions, an evening yin yoga session, deep massage, glorious sunny days and deliciously nourishing local food. And all of this was shared with a beautiful group of people from around the world. I felt alive. My body and soul were deeply nourished. And I am still glowing.
I first started to learn to surf a few years ago but it wasn’t until last summer, with regular trips to Cornwall that something finally clicked. I had hoped that I’d pick it up relatively quickly. Thanks to my yoga practice my balance is pretty good, my arms and my core are strong and my hips are fairly flexible. But after hours of practicing in the water I can conclude that learning to ‘pop up’ is really not as easy as it looks and I really struggled to get the hang of it.
I think what was holding me back was fear. Feeling the power of the waves underneath me propelling the surfboard forwards made me hesitant to push myself up with the conviction needed to establish my position in time to catch the wave. That feeling of instability and lack of control was restricting me. And so there came the process of acknowledging and embracing the fear that came from stepping outside of my comfort zone, learning to accept the lack of control, and then gaining the self-confidence to say ‘I’ve got this’. I learnt that it’s about harnessing the power of the waves rather than fighting it or being afraid of it. It’s the same in yoga, when we’re practicing a challenging posture, isn’t it? We learn to harness muscle energy. And there’s always the fear that we might fall, but we’ll never experience the joy of perfecting a pose unless we allow ourselves to try, wobble and fall a few times and then get back up to our feet and keep practicing.
Dr. M. Scott Peck writes in his book The Road Less Travelled about how hobbies are self-nurturing activities and how we are able to improve ourselves as human beings through the growth that comes from embracing fear. ‘When we extend ourselves, our self enters new and unfamiliar territory, so to speak. Our self becomes a new and different self. We do things we are not accustomed to do. We change. The experience of change, of unaccustomed activity, of being on unfamiliar ground, of doing things differently is frightening. It always was and always will be. People handle their fear of change in different ways, but the fear is inescapable if they are in fact to change. Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the making of action in spite of fear, the moving out against the resistance engendered by fear into the unknown and into the future. On some level spiritual growth, and therefore love, always requires courage and involves risk.’
Another hurdle is the mental challenge that comes from being a beginner. As we get older we don’t tend to put ourselves in the position where we have to face being incompetent at things. Our ego gets in the way. Then follows self-judgment and frustration. In our super-speedy results-driven world where answers are available at the touch of a button and instant gratification is taken for granted, persevering when things don’t come easily is perhaps more of a challenge. We’re often looking for a quick fix or an easy way out, focused on the glory of the end result rather than appreciating the process to get there. It’s a humbling process when we’re learning something new, especially when we’re amongst a group of people who are progressing at different speeds; the temptation is to compare ourselves to others. But one of the many things that my yoga practice has taught me is to stop comparing myself to others and focus on my own development. And so we just have to accept that we all have different strengths and weaknesses and each of our paths of evolution will be beautifully different. We need to give ourselves permission to be a beginner and embrace all that comes with the process of learning, in the knowledge that the whole experience will bring self-development, and ultimately a sense of fulfilment.
So I spent most weekends of last summer and autumn in the water practicing. I kept reminding myself that I knew I’d get there, it would just take time. And as a result of this process, I’ve been lucky enough to spend many glorious weekends on stunning Cornish beaches. There have been invigorating early morning sessions where my partner and I have had the water to ourselves, alone with the mist hovering over the sea in the soft early morning light. There have been beautiful clear blue sunny days where the light bounced and shimmered off of the water. And we’ve been in the water at dusk, watching the orangey red glow of the sky as the sun started to sink and disappear on the horizon. And for these experiences I am truly grateful; I remind myself that some people won’t ever get to experience such privileges.
Then, finally one weekend in Cornwall I started to stand up on the board! After some more practice, my next challenge was to start catching green (unbroken) waves, which was what I started to work on in Sri Lanka. But guess what, it doesn’t end there, does it? I still have so much more to learn and experience. I have so many more waves to try to catch. And so the journey continues. So, how does this relate to yoga? With yoga, every one of us has a different intention or focus for our practice. Some might be in search of the perfect handstand, others to stand on one leg or touch their toes. For some it might just be to release tension in the body or to simply to find the space to breathe and relax. Some will be uber bendy, whilst some will be super strong. But here’s the thing; like with surfing, there there’s no quick fix or fast track way of becoming accomplished. It's an ongoing practice where we are continuously evolving and growing, and that will never end. There will be hurdles to overcome, fear and frustration to get a grip of, and there will always be stronger or more bendy people on the mat next to us. They key is to embrace the fear and the frustration, turn it into positive energy and keep practicing.
It’s great to have a focus or an aim for our practice but we cannot get caught up in that end goal without the acceptance that there’s a beautiful process of constant development ahead of us. No matter the ambition, what we quickly realise is that every day when we step onto our mat our body and mind might be just a little bit different – just as the waves are - and so the practice evolves and we grow from the experience. What’s easy on some days can be tricky on others. The secret is not to get hung up on it. And even when you think you’ve ‘conquered’ your nemesis pose, you will discover another path to explore.
And that’s how we grow. That’s how we fly. And the possibilities are endless. Exciting, isn’t it?