Getting Little, Feeling Small

EVEN falling needs to be learned. I had my first such lesson in Korean, all gibberish to me, on the ski slopes of Yongpyong way back in 1993. But language was no object.

All I had to do was to watch my sixty-something coach simulate a fall, a smooth sideways skid that landed his jockey figure on the left side, hip first, then torso. Within seconds, he’d propped himself up ever so stylishly to demonstrate the swoon again, this time on the right side, knees buckling like a marionette’s before ending with that same soft thud.

My second lesson in falling hasn’t quite come yet, but it will soon enough, soon as I wean myself off the wall for my handstand, which could be tomorrow perhaps, or the day after that, or maybe next week. But I thought I said the same vague thing to myself just last week at my upside down class, my fifth since September 29th, with a resident inversion teacher who’s been with us for a good year now.

It’s this same teacher who’d tell us all, a cosy little group of no more than twenty, to “get little” at that last holdout, just as we are about to tip over after a dizzying brief flirtation with balance.

Like this, she’d show us, leaning, tilting, teasing herself into a fall. Then, like one of those casino croupiers whose hands move with such illusive ease, her hand, left or right one, I don’t remember, pads off to another spot, and the “get little” moment seems to unfurl in slow motion—her knees hug in, she turns into a compact little ball, and then the balls of her feet come to the mat, soundlessly like a cheeky stealthy kid.

Yes, little all right. And above all, light.

But I haven’t taken the big step yet. And I’m certain I’m not the only newcomer here for the fear of falling grips most of us, although keeling over last week—from a headstand at that, not a handstand—I realized this: it’s not the falling that’s scary, it’s the thinking that makes it so. After all, when it does hit you, it all happens in a flash.

First, there’s that rude thump of a blackout as the back slaps the floor. Then the feet come down, soles feeling, toes probing. And before you know it, you see light again, clearer and brighter than before.

“Your water bottle,” one of my fellow students said when my eyes caught his just as I was crawling back up. “It’s fine,” I mumbled without realizing only an hour or so later what he meant: Don’t come crashing down again on your water bottle.

Sometimes, we can and we do get dull and dim. Just blame it on the momentary daze, or the bewitching hour of night—which should rightly be reserved for resting and unwinding, not hard asana practice, but I do break rules once in seven years.

Vows are different though, one shouldn’t ever fool around with them. And so when I came tumbling down that evening, I felt something shatter in my heart—the vow I had made almost a year ago after falling messily from slippery elbows at a hot Hatha class. I swore it would never happen again on account of my cranky spine.

But why then did I practice my handstand that night without the wall as companion? Especially since this pose hasn’t been in my radar for quite a while now, out of sheer deference to a neck that has also joined the cranky league. Between ego and derring-do, I couldn’t figure out who was singing louder. All I heard was: “Only wimps practice handstands by the wall.”

Other ambient noises would play up as well. Now, why would that other teacher leave us with that 80-20 head-to-elbow ratio advice, when here she is, getting me to press down on the elbows more and ease off on the crown? Do those numbers really matter? After all, she noted, some folks can go 100 percent on the head. Imagine, hands-free! Look Ma, no elbows! And why shouldn’t I practice 20-80, pray tell?

And then, everything came down, the song stopped, the noises disappeared. It was just me and the fall, the one no one had taught me how to deal with. This time, it wasn’t wet and slippery.

I didn’t get little, but I felt small. In fact, all night, I felt that way, even before that fall—in a Warrior I scanning the unsmiling, unfamiliar faces in the mirror; and that one peculiar vinyasa, which wasn’t my usual souped down chaturanga. 

Knees … knees … long pause … the chest wouldn’t go down, and the chin wasn’t even protesting.

The mat glared boldly at me, and I stared blankly back.

My mind was playing fix-it, working on a separate drill to lower the chest with my elbows directly over the wrists, not behind them. But I froze, and that pause would soon devour me, I knew, as my face warmed, then the ears. I felt a rising sense of sorrow and self-pity, a spinning wheel of both, but the tears didn’t come. I didn’t let them. I refused to fall, if you could call it that.

That equanimity would stay me and still me through the end of class, right up to those parting post-savasana words: “We should all take our practice seriously, but not ourselves.”

I guess I could have just cried. Somehow, somewhere, I had learned that before.

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