I once wrote a piece called “Ladders to Where?” about an experience hiking in Australia. The hike involved climbing a ladder up a rock outcropping overlooking a breathtaking expanse of forest. It also involved gusting winds that made the climb very frightening. I compared the courage it took to climb that ladder to my earliest memories of learning to balance in ardha chandrasana, half moon pose. Indeed, the skills that I learned in that pose helped me to get up the ladder to enjoy the amazing view and divine experience at the top.
I was remembering that episode recently when I fell down. Actually, I fell down dozens of times – purposefully! I attended a workshop on falling out of inversions and arm balances with Nolan Lee, a Chicago yoga teacher, martial arts enthusiast and chiropractic physician.
Nolan started the session by asking us if we were afraid of falling, and then why. We were afraid of getting hurt, but we also had fears of being embarrassed, of calling attention to ourselves, and even of being hurt long term in ways that would negatively impact our lives, our jobs, our families, and so on. Our minds can dig in, exaggerate, defend and rationalize our aversions in ways that make our thinking appear to be conscious, chosen, and wise. Really, we are just scared and usually without need. He suggested that once we got used to falling, skillful in our falling, skillful in rolling out of a fall, then the greater risk was in not challenging ourselves to do new things. So we practiced falling with skill. We started practicing while we were sitting down. This looked a little silly. We felt a little silly. We began to have fun and laugh. Our bodies loosened up, and so did our minds.
Next, we fell from a low squat, and then from standing. Over the two hour period, we fell sideways, forwards, backwards, from our crow poses, from handstands, from headstands, and from fledgling entries into these. True we got a little bruised and, for a couple days, I felt a bit jostled. But there was no blood shed, concussions, broken bones, nothing strained. Even our egos stayed intact. We started to feel pretty pleased with ourselves and left on a definite high note.
It’s true I am a little bolder now about going upside down and do start my inversions farther from the wall but I think the workshop offered greater insight than that.
Our fear about falling from an upside down hand balance becomes habitualized and manifests as a fear of falling from a squat eight inches off the floor. Our terror of falling off a cliff becomes fear about climbing a ladder in a state park. Our worry both of being stalked and rejected prevents us from casual conversation with strangers. Our dread of embarrassing ourselves (note, even TO OURSELVES) as we learn and practice a new skill prevents us from trying new things. Our disinclination to experience anything not familiar and pleasing gets in the way of finding new pleasures. Our fear of being adrift impedes our willingness to reach out. Our fear of loss becomes a fear to love. Abhinivesa is the last of the yogic klesas, the five hindrances or obstacles to enlightened living. It is translated both as the fear of death and at the same time the fear of life, for these are intertwined.
Foolhardiness is not celebrated here, nor is fearlessness given real credence. We are wired to avoid danger and stick closely to routine and safety so that we can survive and procreate. Our evolution did not favor happiness, but our evolved consciousness entails the potential for liberation. Our journey involves hazards and hurts, some of them avoidable and some of them not. Courage is cultivating awareness and steadiness in the midst of fearful situations so we can respond skillfully, dodge the danger, roll out of the fall with enough velocity and forward trajectory to land safely, ready for the next moment.