In any physical endeavor, there will be a point at which linear progress is no longer possible.
When I ran marathons, I came to a point where I understood that I had already run the fastest I was ever going to run, at least at that distance. I also came to a point where I understood that I had already bested myself at every other distance in which I was interested in attempting. Progress was no longer possible, at least not with the level of work I was willing to put in (50 mile weeks seemed like plenty good enough, and running less didn’t seem like an option at the time, although looking back now, I wonder if I might have been able to beat my fastest time if I had tried “easier” instead of trying “harder”…hmmmm).
So it is with the shape of my body. I will never be tall. I will never be lanky. I will always be muscular and sturdy (reflecting my lineage of Russian peasant stock!). Even at my absolute skinniest, I have always been a mesomorph. I suppose that I could test the theory by simply dieting down to 90 pounds and seeing if I was tall and lanky yet. OK, well, at least short and lanky, assuming that is possible. But why would I do that? I like my weight. If I were any smaller, I would not be able to buy adult clothing.
When I began practicing yoga, I never really thought about the logical ending point for linear progress. I assumed, simply, that I would keep getting stronger, keep getting more flexible. Until what? I don’t know. Until I was able to spontaneously levitate? I don’t know. As I said, I never really thought about it. I just kept at it.
When I discovered the wacky-cool poses of the Ashtanga Primary Series, I knew that I wanted to “conquer” them. And I knew that the only way I was going to do that was to go to a Mysore-style yoga shala and get individualized assistance on each pose that posed a challenge. My goal was to complete the Primary Series, unassisted.
I checked that one off the list of Things To Do Before I Die about two years ago. Not too long afterward, some new poses were taught to me. These poses are part of the Intermediate Series.
(As an aside, I would like to add that the names “Primary” and “Intermediate” are serious misnomers, given that the Primary Series includes at least six poses which are anything but elementary in nature, which the name “Primary” would seem to imply, and given that one of the most difficult backbends of which the body is capable is included smack in the middle of “Intermediate” Series.)
These new poses were fairly easy for me to learn, and much easier than many of the poses in Primary Series, several of which took me 12 to 15 months to learn. And then I got to Kapotasana, the ninth pose in the Intermediate Series (Stand on your shins, bend backwards and touch your feet with your hands: Ninth Circle of Hell, anyone?) Suddenly, I was completely incapable of progress. Sure, I could get into the pose if someone assisted me into it. And by assisted, I mean practically ripping my arms out of their sockets. Or having two assistants, one at my legs and one at my arms, simultaneously pulling my legs in the opposite direction from my torso and arms. But all of that was so traumatic for me that I began requesting that my teacher to NOT help me into the pose anymore. And I began not showing up in class at all. And after more than a year of backing off, I still shudder to think about the ripping feeling in my triceps.
At home, in my self-practice, I began to stop before Kapotasana. I would practice right up to it, and then stop right there. Or kind of go into the pose, but limply, with no effort.
Not long ago, I realized that, to paraphrase Woody Allen in Annie Hall, what I’ve got here is a “dead shark”. For me, my yoga practice has always seemed to be a “shark” – needing to move forward. And when it stops moving forward, that’s death. A marathon runner would call it “hitting the wall”, except that most marathon runners can muster up the energy to “push through” the wall (if that were not true, the Willis Avenue Bridge would be known by runners as “the saddest place in Manhattan”).
As anyone who has been reading me can guess, this is a very very bitter pill for me to swallow. It is sad and painful and disturbing and disheartening to know that I have gone as far as I am ever going to go in backbends. Ever. Finito. OK, so fine. I’ve also gone as far as I am ever going to go in lawyering, in baby-making, in French cooking. So then why is hitting THIS wall so painful for me? Why is it making me cranky and bitter and sad?
The answer occurred to me yesterday as I wound up my self-practice, alone in the peaceful yoga room I installed in my house this summer, with lilac walls and French doors looking out onto the garden. In my stretched-out, sweated-out, blissed-out, post-yoga head zone, the answer smacked me in the face so hard that it literally brought tears to my eyes:
Fear of death.
Fear of death!
I had a teacher a long time ago, really a teacher’s assistant, but still a teacher to me, who would say “Fear of death” matter of factly, whenever I would express my fear of getting assisted into one particularly scary pose (Prasarita Padotanasana C, the forward bend with legs straddled and hands clasped behind the back, where the height of the pose occurs when the hands end up on the floor behind the head). And I got it. But somehow I forgot it in the four plus years since I last saw him.
Having hit the point where I can make no further physical progress in backbends, I come face-to-face with my mortality. Like, this is as good as it’s ever going to get, it’s all downhill from here, and after that, I die.
Strange really, given that I came to yoga as an affirmation of life after facing a life-threatening illness, the treatment of which was essentially cell-murder, good cells, bad cells, indiscriminately. Perhaps I feel betrayed by a system that seemed so life affirming, but is now insistently (nay, cruelly!) reminding me of my limitations as a mortal, reminding me that you start out young and innocent and full of hope, and then at a certain point you realize that you have achieved everything that you are ever going to achieve.
I suppose that I can find a new physical endeavor that will challenge me and fill me with the false sense of hope of endless self-improvement (read: immortality). Or I suppose I can face my limitations (read: aging) with grace.
If only there were an injectable for this.