Saturday, December 27, 2008

Learning To Fall

I rarely have epiphanies during yoga, usually because I am thinking of all the things I have to get done as soon as yoga is over. But today, I had a great one, and I think it had to do with the fact that we had a teacher that I had never had before. He taught a really great class, but it was totally different than what I'm used to. Because it was all new to me, I had to really concentrate on what was going on, so the usual to do list wasn't running through my head, and I was able to really focus. One of the poses we did during class was a balance like the one in the photo, but with our arms extended to the sides like an airplane. It was challenging, but I was amazed how easy it was for me to get into because I didn't know what to expect, and I didn't over think it. Of course, since this pose does require a lot of balance, I did fall out of it a couple of times, but I noticed something interesting when I did; I liked the way I fell. I didn't make a loud thump on the floor (which I sometimes do), but I fell out of it, my toe tapped the floor lightly, and then I lifted it right back up and got into the pose again.
This seemingly small experience reminded me of something I heard on NPR a while back by a writer named Jon Caroll:

Last week, my granddaughter started kindergarten, and, as is conventional, I wished her success. I was lying. What I actually wish for her is failure. I believe in the power of failure.
Success is boring. Success is proving that you can do something that you already know you can do, or doing something correctly the first time, which can often be a problematical victory. First-time success is usually a fluke. First-time failure, by contrast, is expected; it is the natural order of things.
Failure is how we learn. I have been told of an African phrase describing a good cook as "she who has broken many pots." If you've spent enough time in the kitchen to have broken a lot of pots, probably you know a fair amount about cooking. I once had a late dinner with a group of chefs, and they spent time comparing knife wounds and burn scars. They knew how much credibility their failures gave them.
I earn my living by writing a daily newspaper column. Each week I am aware that one column is going to be the worst column of the week. I don't set out to write it; I try my best every day. Still, every week, one column is inferior to the others, sometimes spectacularly so.
I have learned to cherish that column. A successful column usually means that I am treading on familiar ground, going with the tricks that work, preaching to the choir or dressing up popular sentiments in fancy words. Often in my inferior columns, I am trying to pull off something I've never done before, something I'm not even sure can be done.
My younger daughter is a trapeze artist. She spent three years putting together an act. She did it successfully for years with the Cirque du Soleil. There was no reason for her to change the act -- but she did anyway. She said she was no longer learning anything new and she was bored; and if she was bored, there was no point in subjecting her body to all that stress. So she changed the act. She risked failure and profound public embarrassment in order to feed her soul. And if she can do that 15 feet in the air, we all should be able to do it.
My granddaughter is a perfectionist, probably too much of one. She will feel her failures, and I will want to comfort her. But I will also, I hope, remind her of what she learned, and how she can do whatever it is better next time. I probably won't tell her that failure is a good thing, because that's not a lesson you can learn when you're five. I hope I can tell her, though, that it's not the end of the world. Indeed, with luck, it is the beginning.

Through remembering this short essay and this little acknowledgement of my grace while falling, I was reminded that one of the most important things I've learned from yoga is how to fall and not be afraid of it, and to even act gracefully when poses fall apart or don't happen at all. I'm really trying to remember this in my day to day life, that things fall apart, but really, I can act with grace or like a big, lumbering idiot. The choice is mine, and from now on, I'm going for grace.