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Now take a second and think about how many of those impossibilities actually came to fruition.
I can think of three from my last two years of high-school years alone. I made the varsity tennis team as the new kid in town, managed to earn a spot in the school’s audition-only acapella choir and was accepted into my first choice college, a huge reach! Those were big deals, indeed, and they taught me the power of hard work. But these impossibilities pale in comparison to those we face in adulthood.
I remember being in my 20s and thinking that ever having enough saved to buy a house was impossible. I remember being in my 30s and thinking that finding work that was fulfilling, meaningful and flexible was impossible. I remember not so very long ago thinking that sending a child off to college was impossible.
And I remember my first yoga class where absolutely everything we did seemed impossible. Forward fold and touch the floor? Impossible. Bend your elbows in high plank to lower into chatarunga? Impossible. Hold downward facing dog for 5 breaths? Impossible. And that was just in the first three minutes of class.
I also vividly remember the classes where each of these impossibilities became possible. I remember being surprised to find my fingers touching the floor. I remember squeaking with joy and shock in my first low push-up. I remember the thrill of still having “gas left in the tank” when my teacher cued me to bring my feet back to the top of the mat after holding downward facing dog. I remember feeling proud of the hard work I’d done. I remember feeling strong. Best of all, I remember feeling completely and totally optimistic about what else I might one day be able to do.
That’s a gigantic gift of this practice – the powerful belief in your own possibility. This belief gives you the persistence to keep showing up. This belief gives you the ability to keep trying when you can’t really see much progress. This belief allows you to see past your current failure and struggle to the slow and steady journey of growth and change that you’re on.
To look at this another way, yoga teaches us that the impossible has a great deal to teach us. Kino Macgregor, in her book, The Power of Ashtanga Yoga, says that the father of modern yoga, Sri T. Krishnamacharya, described yoga as the process where the impossible becomes possible and the possible – over a long period of time – becomes easy. She goes on to write that we should “stay in those ugly places where learning happens, and soon the impossible starts to show you how it may one day be possible.”
Let me explain. If I hadn’t kept taking those impossible forward folds even when my fingertips were nowhere near the floor, forward folding would never have become possible. Pressing my hands into my shins and lengthening my spine by pulling my sternum away from my hips, was an important lesson in the extension that keeps a forward fold safe and nurturing to the lower back. Placing my hands on my hips to feel my pelvis rotate in a forward fold taught me that this movement is designed to create range of motion in the hip joint rather than the back. Simply paying attention as I breathed in whatever form of the posture was available to me at the time taught me how to subtly shift the weight in my feet to explore all three muscles in my hamstrings. In short, working at the impossible eventually made the impossible possible.
And, wouldn’t you know it? Krishnamacharya was right! With more practice (i.e. more time in the ugly places, more hard work and more learning) the impossible didn’t just become possible. It actually became easy. The thing I am most grateful for is that this has not left me complacently resting on my laurels in a forward fold. Rather, it leaves me hard (and optimistically) at work on postures that are currently impossible. It also leaves me confidently hard at work in postures that are possible, but still quite challenging, with the certainty that one day, they will be easy.
All this practice with impossibility on my yoga mat translates brilliantly to life off my mat. The house we are happily ensconced in – that we love and that meets all our needs – once seemed out of reach. Having work that I love – that fills me up and allows me to make a small difference in the world – also once seemed out of reach. As did the mere notion of sending our oldest off to college. Yet all are realities in our lives. Two now feel comfortable and easy. The last, I have faith, will soon feel just as natural.
These life changes have the same effect on me as possibilities in my practice do. They keep me working hard, content to be learning in life’s ugly places and stretching into new challenges. They leave me optimistic rather than daunted as I stare up the steep slopes of my life’s current “impossibilities” – cheering on my baby as she embarks on high school, navigating the next several years of shifting and changing family dynamics, and eventually exploring marriage, friendships and life on the other side of parenthood.