December 1, 2016

I Can do a Handstand but I’m Working on Child’s Pose.

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I’m an avid yogi.

And I’m pretty damn good at it.

Teachers and other practitioners tell me all the time that I have a beautiful practice.

Yup. It’s a nice little ego boost. I flow gracefully. I can do a scorpion and touch my toes to my head. I can do hanumanasana on both sides and I can do crazy arm balances. I can hold the balance poses, and yes, I can do a handstand. Not only can I do it, but I can jump up, press up, and hold it.

But right now—I’m working on child’s pose.

I’ve been on my yoga journey for nine years now. Once I started, I couldn’t get enough. I dove right into all of it. Using a book, I taught myself how to do a proper headstand in my tiny Tokyo apartment. There were a couple crash landings into walls and closet doors as I was greedy to achieve the goal; I was not so focused on the process of getting there. Once I stepped back and integrated the appropriate steps, my headstand was solid. Done. Check. Piece of cake.

I worked my way through the poses and the sequences, and within a couple of months I was hooked.

And I got that asana good.

To be fair, I did have an advantage coming in. I’ve always been naturally flexible. I grew up as a competitive gymnast and became a cheerleader—one who flipped and tumbled and was at the top of crazy pyramids—for the entirety of my college career. After college and a couple sprained ankles, I took a break from the acrobatics and frankly didn’t know where else I could find that outlet now that I was an adult in the real world.

I would go running and stay active and do my stretching, but I could never resist the urge to go upside down. Hellooo yoga. 

Being the good student that I am, I picked up that book again and read beyond the asana and learned that there was much more to yoga. So I committed to diving deeper, and doing it right, because that’s how a good student was supposed to do it.

I jumped in and signed up for a month long teacher training at an ashram in India—literally a full-on immersion experience with chanting, karma yoga, philosophy, kirtans, meditation, neti pots, and Ayurvedic food (which we ate silently so we could focus on chewing each bite 30 times before swallowing). We spent hours each day learning asana. We did it all. I got better. I studied hard. And I even graduated “first” in the group of 30-odd people. Because I’m a good student, and that’s what good students are supposed to do.

Over the years, I completed two more teacher trainings in different styles of yoga—I’m 600 hours certified. I have gone deeper into the practice, each time integrating new layers of the teachings and philosophies. My breathing has improved. Yoga was my way of managing stress and anxiety. But I was just dipping into the deeper experiences and getting right back out to my comfort zone, still primarily focused on the physical.

I accomplished my goals. I got that handstand. I got those crazy arm balances.

And then I got cancer.

For several months before diagnosis my practice had become more and more difficult. I couldn’t go upside down—even to do a forward fold—without a tremendous urge to cough. I eventually couldn’t lie on my back without a major coughing attack coming on. Savasana was impossible. It eventually caused literal pain. I went to hot yoga thinking the hot air and movement would be good for my winter blues. But I felt weaker and weaker. And I finally found out why: there was a growth in my chest the size of a grapefruit.

After the results of that scan came through, my life was a whirlwind and my focus was on survival. My left lung was close to collapsing, so yeah, yoga dropped way down on my list of priorities. I stretched and moved when I could, but my aggressive treatment zapped my energy on many days, and even on the good days, anything requiring any kind of physical exertion on my arms was completely out of the question: I had wires coming out of my upper right arm for over three and a half months—my PICC line. No more downward-facing dog. Bye-bye handstands.

As soon as my last treatment was over and wires were out, I jumped back into exercise—Barre to begin as my arm healed, then gentle yoga. Then three weeks later I was joyously dipping my toes in Caribbean waters (beach days were out of the question all summer due to the wires) and waking up and winding down with yoga practice on the beach on my first yoga retreat ever. And guess what? I did get my handstand back.

But more importantly, I finally got deeper in child’s pose.

In spite of my flexibility, I’ve always had tight hips. I also have lower back issues. My sit bones never rested on my heels in standard child’s pose with knees together. They rarely even touched. This is one pose teachers often come to my mat to assist in class, gently pressing down my lower back to give me the extra release my body was not yet capable of having on its own.

When my chest brushed my mat for the first time in a wide-legged child’s pose, it was a complete revelation to me. I hadn’t even known it was possible before the retreat. Rachel Brathen (aka Yoga Girl) was leading the retreat and she had us go deep.

We shared our deepest wounds and fears with complete strangers. We journaled. We processed. We cried. We let go. We allowed ourselves to step into our vulnerability. She had shared her own experience of letting go earlier this year, and having the same experience of finally having her chest rest on her mat. It wasn’t about her or my physical inability—it was about psychological and emotional release.

I carried my burdens and stress in my shoulders and upper back and I stored my fears, anxieties, traumas and insecurities in my chest and hips. The hips basically serve as the body’s junk drawer. This year I finally got serious about cleaning out this drawer. It’s a work in progress, but I’m finally clearing up some space. In the past I would open the drawer and assess what was in there, maybe do a little rearranging, but I never dove in to actually clear out the junk. Or, I only dealt with the first layer of junk, and oh boy my junk drawer ran deep. It’s scary. It’s a lot of work. But it’s the only way to move forward.

So after months without practice, I did get my handstand back on that retreat. And I was thrilled. And by the end I could do a split and touch my toes to my head again. It felt amazing. But the true breakthrough was the heart opening I experienced on a much deeper level. On the last day of the retreat, after the deepest sharing, my chest finally touched the ground in child’s pose. I felt pure joy.

Since the retreat I’ve kept my practice simple and gentle. I’m going back to basics. I occasionally jump up to handstand, but I’m far more focused on child’s pose and hip openers.

When my chest touched the ground in the wide-legged version and my bum rested on my heels in the closed-knee version yesterday, I felt a deeper satisfaction than I ever have with any other pose.

I have finally tasted true inner peace.


Author: Amanda Kelly

Image: Author’s own

Editor: Caitlin Oriel

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