In Yoga Thoughts

“My intention is to surrender to whatever I’m resisting.” – Sharon Hickey

Nancy Gilgoff, Sharon Hickey and me on 10/29/2017.

As a beach-lover trying to raise beach-lovers, water safety has always been an important part of my parenting. No feature of the water is more frightening to me as a mother than the undertow or rip current. I think this is so because the key to surviving an undertow experience is completely counterintuitive. I have never been 100% certain that my kids will remember not to struggle in a moment when every synapse in their nervous system is screaming at them to “FIGHT!”

Until it happened to me, I wasn’t 100 % certain I would remember what to do either. At first, I didn’t. I fought, in a panic, to get to the surface. But fighting all that water was totally futile. It was like swimming in poured cement. As I struggled, for some mysterious reason, an eerily calm part of my brain said, “Stop. Let the water take you.” And, equally mysteriously, I did what the voice said to do.

This was probably my first tangible experience sliding from resistance to surrender. And it’s one I have never forgotten.

By ceasing to fight or resist the pull of the current, I allowed the water to sweep me out a few more feet where the bottom dropped away and the water had more room to cycle. Within moments its grip on me suddenly weakened and I could swim to the surface. I gratefully gasped several breaths, choked back a few tears and swam parallel to the beach until I found water where I could comfortably make my way in to shore.

You might be asking yourself why I’m pondering undertows in November which isn’t a particularly beachy month. I was asking myself the same thing earlier this week when I realized that it was because of something my friend, Sharon, said as we walked in to day two of a yoga workshop. We were both very excited to work with this teacher, Nancy Gilgoff. In fact, we’d both been waiting for years for the stars to align so that we could attend one of her trainings.

As excited as I was to experience Nancy’s perspective on the yoga we share, it is always a little stressful to do this practice in a new or different way. No matter how open-minded I think I am, it is inevitable that there will be something in one of these workshops that I instinctively resist. After all, this is a practice I have done 6 days a week for well over 10 years. I know it inside and out. Though it never stops challenging me, it is as comfortable to me as my best friend. It sees me at my best and at my absolute worst and, either way, it accepts me completely.

So when someone (no matter how exalted) asks me to do my practice differently, there is a tiny part of me that resists. I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to confess that resistance to my friend, Sharon. It’s not something I’m super proud of. So I was quite relieved when she announced that her goal for the day was “to surrender to whatever I feel myself resisting.” I actually laughed in relief as I asked, “You, too?” So we decided together that we would use our resistance as a reminder to surrender to whatever was going on.

It worked like a charm. Surrendering allowed me to explore new ways of doing familiar postures with complete freedom. While with this teacher, I would do it her way. Rather than resist what didn’t work or what felt way too foreign, I would simply try it. Chances are doing so would teach me something even if I didn’t like it.

I had my first opportunity in the very first posture, which Nancy held for much, much longer than I typically do. My knee-jerk reaction was to resist. Just as in that long-ago undertow, resistance meant fighting like mad to survive those extra breaths. If I kept that up, I realized, I would be so exhausted I’d have nothing left in the proverbial tank for the rest of the practice. So I relaxed. As I did, my breathing slowed and her long, slow count which had been causing me to panic became almost meditative.

This attitude and action (note it is both) of surrender works even in my own practice at home. I have always had a tendency to overwork postures that I’m still learning. While it’s almost impossible for me to surrender when I don’t fully know what I’m doing, even the attempt to surrender softens my mind and my body. A softer mind eases me away from my thoughts of “This is never going to happen,” allowing for the possibility of success. The same is true for a softer body. When I’m not physically resisting each and every movement required by the yoga posture by gritting my teeth and clenching my muscles, I am much more likely to get a little further into the pose.

It does not surprise me in the slightest that I also found an opportunity to practice surrender in real life this week. It became clear in one of my college classes that I was not going to have time to get through both of the exercises in the lesson I had planned. The habitual resistor in me was inclined to clench my teeth and speed through it  in order to squeeze it all in. This would have short-changed my students in both of the activities.

Again, as happened when I was stuck in the undertow, a measured, calm voice spoke up from the recesses of my mind. “Surrender to the new time frame.” I listened and softened my grip on my plan. On the fly, I tweaked the first activity which left plenty of time for us to invest in the second. Not only did I leave feeling that I’d successfully conveyed the lesson for the day, but I felt energized from the relaxed, upbeat feeling created by the more relaxed pace of the class.

What about you? What metaphorical undertow has you in its grips? Can you see a way to surrender to it? Don’t be afraid. It can be surprisingly (and suddenly) freeing.

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