“Well this good I’ve found, I spent all this time tryna find my way here.” ~ This Feeling, Alabama Shakes
It’s almost dark, and I’m looking at the world from upside down.
I am dripping in a backbend in a room that’s heated to almost 100 degrees. Upside down in my arc, I look out the back windows and see people gliding by, taking footsteps on the sky. A little girl stops to wave. She wants to say hi.
This is the peak of the practice. We’ve finished all of the standing poses, and we’ve warmed up our backs on the mats. We’ve rounded our spines in Camel and Locust and Bow, and we’ve already done our first Bridge. And now the count is on for Wheel.
“Place your hands by your ears,” the instructor says, “and come on up into Wheel!”
I set my hands and feet, and then I rise up, lifting my hips and straightening my arms as best that I can.
If someone had ever told me that one day I’d be here in this heat, counting down in a backbend, I would never have believed it! Before yoga, I had always hated the heat, and I had always feared for my back. And, besides that, at this time of day there had never been much to count down, except the hours until bedtime.
“Five. Four. Three. Two. One!” The instructor finishes the count. “Stay up or come down!”
I lower my hips for a one-breath rest. Some people are made for bending like this, but I don’t think I’m one of them. Then, again, by the end, something happens to me in them, and that’s what makes me want to go back up again. This next one’s for a count of ten.
I lift myself into the best letter “C” that’s possible for me, and then I sway back and forth, pressing between my hands and my feet. From my arc, I look out the back windows and see the leaves on the trees, swaying back and forth, just like me. The little girl is gone, and in her place are several others who rush by, but they’re too busy to look inside.
I don’t quite make it up for the full count, and, near the end, I lower myself back down into Bridge. Bridge still counts in the count, because my hips are still high, even though my head and shoulders are not.
“Lower down for a breath and then come back up again!”
We’re called into yet another backbend, and I press myself back up, only this one’s tough. This time, from my arc, I don’t even care to look through the back windows. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter who’s in the sky or whether anyone is saying hi. I might be up, but what I feel is stuck!
Why can’t I straighten my arms? And why does my back still balk when I bend? My body cries and sweats its tears, and I wonder what in the world is wrong. Surely, I have to fix something, but I’m not sure what.
“Soften your face,” the instructor says. “And while you’re at it, try softening that voice inside of you, too.”
Apparently, my thoughts have reached the instructor’s ears! Or maybe I’m in the company of others with similar thoughts, and they’ve echoed loud enough for her to hear?
“Sometimes what needs softening,” she says, “is the way that we speak to ourselves.”
All day today I had not spoken to myself in the kindest of ways. One thought had tumbled over the other until my own view had turned as upside down as the one outside the back windows. And because of this I almost hadn’t made it to yoga! But at the very last moment I had changed my mind. I’d shown up for the chance to turn my view around.
We’re ready to lift into our last backbend, and this time the instructor asks us to lift up with some compassion.
“Bring compassion to this pose,” she says. “And while you’re at it, try bringing some compassion to yourself, too.”
Self-compassion for me is like a backbend. It’s not something that’s exactly been my forte, either. For me, self-compassion has been a learned skill, and, just like my backbend, it’s been a skill that’s taken a lot of work and encouragement. And so I’m extra glad for tonight’s reminders in Wheel.
I lift into the ending backbend, the one in which I usually feel something happen. And, sure enough, as soon as I’m up, I feel an electric energy charge through my body. Its current travels up my arms and over my shoulders, through my legs and across my hips, around my belly and into my chest.
I am suddenly an open circuit. And I’m able to expand my arc and feel the energy radiate out of my heart. And when the energy exits like this, all the thoughts of the day tumble out, too. There’s just no room for any of them in my backbend. They get swept away by the current, and leave in their wake a wide open space.
This is yoga.
The word, yoga, means “union”. The practice connects our spiritual selves with our mental selves to reveal our truest selves. And when it works, as it does for me in tonight’s Wheel, the payoff is big! The space it makes is wide enough for me to see the goodness of the universe that resides in me. And it’s a forgiving view, too, because the universe is a loving place, and it always wants me to soften my face.
I lower back down and look around. People are doing all sorts of things. Some are dropping into backbends from standing positions, while others are still lifted for the full count. Still others have dropped into Bridge, and a few others, like me, have already lowered onto their backs.
The practice is almost over. We still have some abdominal work to do, as well as a few final stretches, but first we have to harness all that backbend energy. And so for now we lie back on the mat in Supta Baddha Konasana. In this pose, we take the shape of a figure eight, so that our new energy can’t escape. We place one hand on our hearts, and the other on our stomachs, and then we splay out our knees with the soles of our feet touching.
My open circuit closes, and the backbend energy remains within me. Its current is quiet now, as it travels gently up my arms and over my shoulders, through my legs and across my hips, around my belly and into my chest.
I’ve captured a piece of the universe. Its goodness is safe inside me now, as part of my truest self. And it’ll be there for the promise of softer days, when I speak more kindly to myself.