Today’s extraordinary lesson was about coincidence, unspoken connections, the unexpected and letting go.
And all of that before 7 AM.
Since January, I have been attending a weekly 6 AM core-strengthening yoga class. It’s been revelatory. It’s helped my running; it’s helped my state of mind. I have been unlearning all of the bad habits from my pre-cancer yoga practice, and discovering new-found strength and durability in my post-cancer body.
This morning, for the first time, I over-slept. Rain pounded outside our bedroom window; the muffled sounds of my clock radio were, at 5 AM, too cruel to be believed. The next thing I knew, I popped up in bed while the clock screamed 5:46 (I do set my clock about 12 minutes fast, for reasons I can’t entirely explain, but still, I had only 20 minutes to get ready and out the door, when I usually like to allow myself at least 40-45 minutes.)
I threw on my clothes and rushed to turn on the coffee pot. I struggled with my new contact lenses for five minutes before giving up. I texted Coach Joe (who I usually pick up on my way to class) and apologized for running late; compulsively punctual, he eventually headed out on his own. It was 5:45 AM and the day was off to a royally bad start.
I scarfed down a banana and chugged coffee as I drove in the rain the lonely mile to the yoga studio. All this rushing, I told myself, and it isn’t even our usual teacher. The sub, I told myself (caught up with those grade-school stereotypes), will probably be kind of lame. Subs are, by definition, kind of lame. I should have stayed in bed.
I ran across the small parking lot, soaked in a matter of seconds, and into the soft, low light of the studio. I made it just under the wire, not even technically late, but feeling a bit harried about the hour which lay ahead. I hadn’t even had time for my beloved morning bowel movement. (You read a cancer blog, you are going to hear about poop. Deal with it.) Doubt and insecurity hung over me like a shroud. Still, I greeted the sub, Erik, with a smile and a firm handshake. Might as well give it a go.
Class began slowly, uneventfully, my mind fixated on trivial things like the fact that Erik started things off without music, and the tone and speed of his verbal instructions. For the first few moments, I was busy beating back my own fatigue and distractibility, just going through the motions.
Soon enough, the flow picked up, and I found myself moving through vinyasas with even greater speed than I am used to, eventually stumbling on my weak wrists in side plank, and generally feeling a bit over-matched. Perhaps it was my punishment for assuming that Erik, who was quickly emerging as a bad-ass yogi, would be “lame.”
As always with yoga, I eventually shut off my mind and began to trust my body a bit more. By the time Erik had us working on crow pose (a posture I am determined to master), calm and confidence began to overtake my self-consciousness and ego.
Then it came: the inversion. Since I first encountered yoga years ago, most inversions have always been well out of my reach. I can rock a shoulder stand no problem, but as far as I can tell that’s pretty basic stuff that doesn’t require much in the way of upper-body strength or sheer ballsiness.
This morning, though, Erik invited us to try a headstand. HA! I immediately thought. My mind raced back to my pre-cancer yoga days, when I could no sooner imagine floating my feet over my head with my head and forearms planted on the floor, than I could fly to the moon. Even as recently as last month, when my new beloved teacher walked us through the steps, it was a painful battle just to bounce my feet off the floor in a donkey kick.
But yoga is all about finding (and then pushing) your limits, so I went to the wall and lined up my forearms, and planted my head on the ground. Almost as a joke, it seemed, I climbed up onto my toes. I started bouncing slightly, one foot and then the other. Erik walked around the room, giving instructions here and there to the other students. Then he stopped at my side.
“Just try lifting your hips a bit more,” I heard him say as he touched my side.
I mindlessly followed his instruction, and then suddenly, with Erik gently guiding, felt my legs lifting up into the air, over my head, and onto the wall.
I was doing a headstand. And I had no idea how I’d gotten there.
“Beautiful,” Erik said, as he continued his circuit of the room. I found myself smiling, breathing slowly and deeply. I never wanted to come down. It was completely exhilarating.
After I minute or two, I piped up. “Um, Erik? I’ve never done this before. Can you help me get down?”
He walked over and told me to gently lower one leg, then the other. I found myself sitting on my knees, facing the wall, completely ecstatic, gripped with an urge to laugh and cry at the same time.
All morning, the triumph of my first-ever headstand buoyed me. I felt invincible. I told the world about my achievement on Facebook and Twitter. And then I heard from Ms. Coach Joe, who practices acupuncture at the studio, and knows Erik.
Responding to my comment about my surgery-scarred belly being exposed during my headstand, she told me, “Erik wouldn’t think twice – he’s a survivor himself! His oncologist suggested he try yoga.”
At that point, the magic was complete. Not only had I conquered a physical goal that I had assumed would remain forever unattainable, but I had been led there by a fellow warrior. I do not doubt for a moment that somehow, in some unconscious way, the battle-tested part of me connected with the fighter in Erik, and the power of that unspoken connection is what lifted my feet into the air, over my head and onto the wall.
The blessings of my illness continue to unfold, miraculously and utterly without warning.