In which I proselytize about yoga and life.

“You use the wall for strength. You don’t use it for balance.”

Last Saturday morning, I made my way to the Upper East Side for a yoga workshop with the incomparable Kerri Verna. I last took a workshop with her in February (if you recall), and wouldn’t have passed up an opportunity to practice with her again. Admittedly this workshop was not quite as evocative, physically nor emotionally, as the February one, but I think some of that was my own fault: I set my expectations very high, now that my inversions are nine months more practiced and advanced, and like all good lessons learned from the mat, my expectations were shattered, as the majority of workshop attendees were super new to any inversions, so we spent more time on fundamentals than the mid-room inversion practice I’d been hoping for. When we did finally start reviewing handstands, Kerri said the above line to the room, and I felt my face go beet red, because that’s exactly what I’ve been doing at home to practice handstands.

I walked away from the class slightly disappointed: it ran way over and I had to leave early to catch a train, leading me to miss savasana and the chance to spend time with her one-on-one, and my ego was a little frustrated that we hadn’t worked on the more advanced postures, despite taking valuable lessons in fundamentals away from the session. On the long train ride back to Connecticut, I decided to pull out the tiny notebook I keep in my purse for emergency inspiration and began writing. I journaled a stream-of-consciousness more than anything, trying to keep my handwriting steady as the train rocked left, right, but when I stepped back after 30 minutes of furious scribbling, the words from Kerri above are what stood out the most.

As the thought rolled around in my head, I started to relate it to a lot that’s been happening lately in life, and not just my own but in the lives around me as well. I see it in everyone that’s gotten married or will get married this year, and I see it in the sad moments, like walking into my childhood home on Saturday, only to run upstairs and burst into tears, because for the first time in eight years, the half-golden, half-Rottweiler welcome committee wasn’t there to guide me in the house before tackling me in slobbery kisses. There are these waves of life, new beginnings with endings, sad stories with a happy ending, which can all come back to something as simple as a handstand against a wall: the wall is for strength, not balance. What you choose to fall back on in life is for strength, but not for balance. The people in our lives that support us are for strength so we can pull ourselves out, but balance is something only we can achieve.

Balance is such an interesting and fragile concept, like balancing a needle on a thread, as someone important once told me. There’s the physical aspect of balancing, but on a higher level, balance is something we’re all desperately seeking in our lives. There’s the ever-difficult quest for a work-life balance and learning how to juggle responsibilities at home and to yourself, with the constant pull for happy hours and 4am nights in the city. As I thought this weekend about balance, and the walls I’ve been using to keep me upright, I thought about how the biggest balancing act I’ve had to manage in the past six months is between the strength I’ve gained from being on my own for two years, and the balance I’m chasing between the many selves, from the 23 year old party girl, to the brokenhearted 25 year old, to the 27 year old almost-yogi I can feel still present in the LB typing this entry now.

Probably the biggest thing I took away from the class on Saturday was the ability to reassess my life right now, and decide to take a step back from handstand practice. I may have the strength to hold myself up, but in the past two weeks things have felt so off balance, it’s no wonder I’d been leaning on the wall to keep me grounded. I walked away from a workshop feeling disappointed I couldn’t push myself into a pose, but in that disappointment I’ve found a calm peace of mind. We forget sometimes that the mind and body are intrinsically connected in ways we’ll never understand. Sometimes it takes a few weeks of getting back to the fundamentals before we can push ourselves away from our support systems, and find a balance on our own two feet – or in my case, hands.

Half a Badass

For a period of about 10 weeks, between early August and late October, I spent a lot of time wondering what motivates us to do things we know are going to be painful. We push ourselves at the gym to run that extra mile, or hold that stretch for another five seconds, in spite of aching muscles, stilted breath and a soundtrack of “TAKE A BREAK” on repeat in our heads. We keep eating that particular spicy food, fried rice at Spice Market or a burrito bowl from Chipotle, despite watering eyes and the constant burning from the tip of our tongues to the back of our throats. We hold on to that tiny bit of hope, thinking maybe this time the phone buzzes, it’ll be the “long time no talk” message we swore we weren’t waiting to see. It’s like every time my partner-in-crime R convinces me it’s going to be a good idea to go back to Village Tavern – I know it’s going to end with me eating pizza at 3 a.m. with beer spilled down my dress, but there’s a part of me that knows despite the imminent pain the next morning, everything is going to be awesome.

About four weeks into the aforementioned 10 of contemplation, I had this weird feeling that the reason I spent those weeks pondering on pain wasn’t going to happen. Every time I talked about it with friends, every time I thought about it, every email exchange and every week that went by, I had this uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that it wasn’t going to happen as planned. I knew it was going to happen eventually, but October 22 just didn’t feel right, and I couldn’t explain why. I shared this sentiment about five weeks into the 10 with my lovely friend M and my fashionista C, who laughed and told me I was just anxious, and it was going to be fine. So I kept thinking about pain, and how to prepare for pain when intuition is saying that it’s not going to happen as planned, but everything is going to be okay. When it came within 24 hours of the scheduled start time, I tried to breathe a sigh of relief, thinking it must have been nerves that had my mind running around with this idea that this major life event wasn’t going to happen. And then my phone rang, and just like that, everything changed.

So innocent on paper...

So innocent on paper… (Done by Mikhail Andersson at White Rabbit Tattoo, NYC)

Pain is a funny thing. No one wants to be in pain, whether physical or emotional, and there are some kinds of pain that make you wonder if it will ever go away. But with most pain also come strength. It’s pushing yourself into that last mile in a long run, dealing with the extra ten minutes of pain so you can spend the rest of the weekend elated you beat a personal record. It’s realizing after a while that you’ve stopped looking for that same number and the “long time no talk” message, and how nice it feels to know you’re moving on. On that fateful October day, I was in a different type of pain than expected, an emotional vulnerability that comes with dreaming of something for so long and having someone tell you to keep waiting. But I told myself the strength from an extra month of preparation would be worth it in the end, and at the end of the day, a month in the grand scheme of forever is barely a speck of dust on the radar. I felt stronger, having waited and anticipated longer, and by the night of November 24, fielding “good luck tomorrow!!” texts left and right and nearly working myself into a panic attack from high levels of excited and nervous energy, I felt like I could handle anything.

"This is going to be great" - me, five minute prior to start.

“This is going to be great” – me, five minutes prior to start.

On November 25, I walked into the same shop I’d entered back in March to meet with the same artist, M by my side and nervous excitement in my head. I saw the stencil on the page, even more beautiful than I’d expected, and I saw the stencil on my body, even larger than I’d expected, and I braced myself for pain that I really thought I could handle. After all, I’ve spent the past year dealing with everything from post-Spartan ankle injuries to a twice-broken heart. And this was a pain I’d experienced before – four times, in fact! “I can handle it,” I thought, as I laid on my side, arm over my head and M’s hand in mine for reassurance. I took a few deep breaths, settled in to the stiff position of my body, stuck in my headphones and gave the thumbs-up to the artist. And then, the whir of the tattoo machine started and I entered into a world of pain I have NEVER experienced.

The next four hours felt like post-Spartan, post-breakup, all job-related and all love-related pain combining to form a miniscule blip on the pain threshold. There were moments I didn’t think I could make it through, but I kept sitting, eyes closed, hand clenching M’s so tightly I’m surprised it didn’t fall off, because I knew it wouldn’t last forever, and it would be worth it. We took two ten-minute breaks, two hours in and then three hours in, and in each break my body would shake uncontrollably, coursing with too much adrenaline from the needles raking over thin skin and from all my excitement; it felt like going down the big drop in the roller coaster over and over until you can’t feel your body anymore. It was the best worst pain I had ever experienced, and walking up to the mirror after those four hours, I had never been so relieved, excited and fucking nervous all at the same time. I turned towards the mirror for the moment of truth, and in an instant, none of the pain mattered.

"This is beyond" - me, five minutes after. Tattoo by Mikhail Andersson at White Rabbit Tattoo

“This is beyond” – me, five minutes after. Tattoo by Mikhail Andersson at White Rabbit Tattoo

That’s the thing about pain, really. It makes you stronger when you least expect it to. It makes you understand your threshold, physically, emotionally, to handle anything. If I can sit through four hours of needles scratching the thin skin around my ribcage over and over again, who’s to say I can’t push myself into tittibhasana in yoga practice, or can’t stay an extra hour after work, regardless of how tired I am, to make sure everything is perfect? I feel like I can do anything after this, like I know my limits are so much farther than I’ve ever pushed them in the past. Our tattoo artist joked around when my anchor G was getting her rib piece back in July that to get a piece on the ribs makes you Half a Badass, which is promoted to full badass if you get a piece on your spine. I may never get to that level, so nervous am I just to go back and finish this piece next month, but I think for all of the pain I’ve experienced in recent days, half a badass is all good to me.

Anyone in the NYC area looking for ink, I seriously can’t say enough wonderful things about my artist and shop. You can find the artist on Instagram (@micleandersson) and his website (www.tattookarma.com), and the shop is White Rabbit Tattoo (www.whiterabbittattoostudio.com).