Under, over and breathless: Reflections on my fear of swimming and my students’ fear of headstands

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I went to my last community swimming class this evening. Before the class started, I was asked to fill out an evaluation form and, almost to highlight how much of a minority I am to not know how to swim at this age, every question had the word child or children in it. Did you feel your child was safe? Did this children’s swim class meet your expectations? I crossed out “child” in the first question and put a smiley face next to it to indicate no hard feelings that this form seemed intent on reminding me that I have had more than three decades to figure this out.

The little kids who have shared the shallow end of the pool with me for the past eight weeks of this session —  the 3-plus “starfish” crowd — were promised certificates. We adults who have been timid about even entering the water were not promised any similar certificates. I understand. It sounds much cuter (and cooler, quite frankly) to graduate from being a minnow, guppy or a starfish than it does to graduate from the adult beginner class.

Plus, we didn’t even graduate. The other student and I (there were only two of us in this class — we started out with three but one person decided the class was not for them) were discussing whether we should try the intermediate class when the fall sessions start up. Our instructor very sweetly said that we might want to consider taking the beginner class again, so that we could work on refining our strokes.

“Refining” is a stretch. I first need to work on inhaling the right thing — air, not water — as I swim.

I am so happy I faced this fear of mine and took this class, though. I learned that I could tread water for 30 seconds, swim one length of the pool and float on my back without doing a backstroke — I mean, it is conceivable to just float and be more or less still! Crazy. I remember being so pumped about this novel discovery until my  partner in crime insisted that — um, it’s sort of known that people just naturally float. I disagree. I think my friend, who is also a non-swimmer, said it best in a tweet tonight calling this concept of people floating #shadyscience.

I teach four yoga classes of my own a week. Over the past three weeks, I’ve been subbing a ton more, which has resulted in the opportunity to work with several students — in small group sessions and in private session — who are afraid of going upside down. Their upside down is my under water. I get that fear. That intense feeling that you want to get to this place — being upside-down — because you know it will feel pretty damn good once you’re there. It’s just the whole getting there part. I want to be able to effortlessly swim a few laps so that I can exercise and relax — so that I can feel at home in water. I love water. My dream is to live near water. It’s just that I am afraid to be in water when it’s any deeper than 3 feet.

For students with fear, we take it slow. I suggest that they set up their arms — the foundation of the posture — and take several deep breaths before even going further. It’s the same thing with me — I’ve learned that I need to take a few deep breaths before trying to float on my back, because I other start to panic, then flail, then start to sink.

I suggest that students focus their gaze on a point either close to them on the mat or farther away that’s stationary so that their eyes don’t start to dart when they get imbalanced. When the gaze goes, it can hasten the falling-down process. It’s the same thing with me: early on, my swim instructor suggested that I get goggles. It made a world of difference. I’m so nearsighted that I can barely see clean lines of people across a room — they are just blurry — so when I looked down into the water and saw nothing but this vast pool of water waiting to pull me under, it would contribute to all the signals that told my brain that I should do whatever was necessary to get out of that situation as soon as possible.

So to everyone out there struggling with going upside-down — I am right there with you every time I get into the pool. Like you, I’m working on it, one attempt at a time. Baby steps.

Related post:

>>Like a matsya out of water: A yogi tries to learn how to swim

(Photo credit: “Pool” by zanzibar, via Flickr Creative Commons.)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

‘Hurry, take a photo of me in this pose!’: The view of a yoga journey from the one not on the mat

If a yogi lives in your home — doesn’t matter if it’s because you’re roommates, family, dating or married —  congratulations and condolences. Congratulations because you’re living with someone who practices a way of life (yoga is designed as a whole system, or eight limbs) aimed at mitigating human suffering and liberating us from attachments. Yoga improves physical health while centering and calming a person.

The condolences part comes because — face it — a yogi’s significant other, roommate or even close friend or colleague tends to get sucked into the world of asanas, mantras and what I’ll describe as “mat talk.”

In the spirit of poking a little good-natured fun at how serious we yogis can take ourselves, let’s break down the learning curve experienced by the person who’s not on the mat. And, in an ode to the cheekily irreverent tone of YogaDork, I will make an exception to my aversion to irresponsibly spreading fresh celebrity gossip by hereby sharing links to reports about charming funnyman Alec Baldwin reportedly dating yoga instructor Hilaria Thomas. Do you think it’s possible that Baldwin could benefit from this YogaRose.net post? I just exhaled a deep ujjayi breath just thinking about the possibility.

So, whether you’re the star of NBC’s “30 Rock” or not, check out my list of five signs you’ve been made an involuntary honorary yogi proponent (in the case of friends or roommate)/partner (in the case of a relationship) — or IHYP for short — even though you didn’t get the official memo announcing this change:

5. Your relaxation gleaned from soaking in the sun while chilling on the beach is interrupted when Yogi Partner (YP) suddenly shoves a camera into your hand and says, “Can you take my photo? I’m going to try a handstand!” 

For whatever reason, yogis cannot resist doing yoga postures on the beach. Something about the combination of the sand, sun and waves triggers a hormonal response in YPs that compels them to try out poses at the beach — particular arm balances and inversions, such as handstands and headstands.

4. You find yourself defending your basic photography skills (in the case of smart phones) or the shutter speed and aperture (in the case of nicer cameras) after you unsuccessfully tried to snap a shot of YP in an upside-down orientation or while balanced precariously on bents arms. 

Inevitably, YPs will try a pose they can’t master on land — postures such as adho mukha vrksasana (handstand) or bakasana (crane) — thinking that trying the yoga posture on a far less even and stable surface will magically help them achieve the posture. The problem is, since they can’t do this pose on land, even if they do luck into the posture, they inevitably fall out after about a second.

Once they fall out, however, they turn to the IHYP with a look of heightened expectation. “Well? Did you get it?” As the IHYP, if you say, “No, I couldn’t catch it in time,” you will likely be sent a look of disappointment and frustration, which inevitably causes you to blame yours skills (or the camera settings) rather than the YP’s ability to maintain this posture for more than two seconds.

The good news is, YPs appear to have unending patience with trying the posture over and over again until the IHYP finally figures out how to get it right (all the while, a YP may be secretly patting his or her own back for extending such yogic patience to the IHYP).

3. You find yourself defending your skills as a yoga consultant.

Let’s say you finally snap that photo. A YP will be elated and ask you to scroll through the digital images so he or she can see the shot. On occasion, a YP will stare into the screen, furrow the space between the eyebrows (the third-eye space, in mat talk) and say, “Oh. Why didn’t you tell me my right hip wasn’t in line with the left?”

At this point, as the IHVP, you will realize that you are terribly lucky in that you managed to get a shot at all. So you cannot, for reasons of diplomacy and maintenance of domestic peace, say, “Well, you could only get into it once and for two seconds — how was I supposed to have time to tell you?”

Instead, even as an IHYP in training, your survival instincts would be intact enough that you would know to reach for a good talking point. Popular ones include, “Oh, I didn’t even notice that until you pointed it out!” and “I thought you wanted to show imperfection, since you keep saying, ‘Yoga is a practice, not a perfect.'”

If your YP smiles at your comment and even hugs you, telling you that you’re the most awesome ever, feel the energy of your throat chakra (space of communication, in mat talk) suddenly becoming warm and illuminated. This is a big achievement; such a big achievement that if the journey of an IHYP could be mapped onto an Angry Birds game, you would now have the little black bomb birds at your disposal.

2. You find yourself saying, ‘*(name of Sanskrit word you don’t understand) — that’s great, honey!’ a lot.

Very early on, an IHYP realizes a new pattern. After work, YP heads straight to yoga class. After class, YP pulls into the driveway at home, opens the front door, barely mutters hello, and says, “Guess what posture I got into tonight?!” and then blurts out, before the IHYP in the room can muster a guess, “*(insert sirsasana/bakasana/pincha mayurasana/kurmasana!”

You know you’re becoming a professional-grade IHYP when you seamlessly parrot the Sanskrit name even though you have no idea how it’s really supposed to be pronounced or what it means, and say, “That’s great, honey! I know you’ve been working on that for a long time!”

IHYPs out there, here’s my tip — free of charge — that will get you extra bonus points with your YP. Before they look at you and (at first apologetically, but eventually, after a few months of taking yoga classes, as a command) ask you to witness the recreation of the posture, beat them to the punch. Say with gusto, “I’d love to see it!”

1. You seek advice from friends and colleagues about how to decline your YP’s invitation to sign up together for a yoga retreat.

This sign applies to romantic and non-romantic relationships. Inevitably, at some point, the YP in your life will send you a text from work asking, “How about a yoga retreat in August? Wouldn’t it be fun? Soooo relaxing! We need it!”

It would be natural that your first reaction is a visceral one — perhaps an image of the archetypal boyfriend who looks bored out of his mind while his girlfriend tries on one cute sale item after another at Express.

Understandably, you would then start to panic, wondering what you can say to stop this inevitable yoga train from leaving the station.

You may shoot a Facebook message to a fellow IHYP asking for advice. You may Google “reasons not to go on yoga retreat” and become an instant expert on documented horror stories, price ranges for yoga retreats, compatibility (or lack thereof) of yoga teachers and yoga styles, or travel restrictions, in the case of international travel.

Eventually, you realize the best course of action is to play the selfless significant other. “I doubt they’ll take me if I don’t practice yoga,” you text back. “Don’t want to be the reason u can’t go.” You, as the not-yet-master-level IHYP, think you’ve just heard the yoga engine turn off until you see the near-immediate reply, “No worries! U don’t need to practice yoga to come!”

And when, in a few short weeks, you find yourself on a mat practicing yoga during the yoga retreat that doesn’t require you to do yoga to attend, you will realize that you have just graduated from being an IHYP to simply an involuntary yogi (IY). You will be surprised to also realize that while yoga feels really, really hard, and while you don’t dig the whole mantra or chanting thing, you actually feel kind of exhilarated after the practice.

And that, dear IHYP-turned-IY, is when you can continue the vicious cycle and find an unsuspecting IHYP (a colleague, a friend, a sibling) to in turn corrupt. Congratulations! And condolences to them.

Me in a handstand on a beach in Carlsbad, Calif., in 2010. This photo was snapped not because I can do handstands well -- I was up for all of two seconds -- but because my sister Alisa has both great camera skills and a great camera.

(Photo credit: Alisa’s Happy World)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.