How to Stand Still

A few years ago, I was at a difficult personal crossroads…

I had just ended a tumultuous relationship and handed in a project that had been my focus for months. Back then, I lived and worked from a tiny solo apartment, and the days stretched silently before me. Unsure of my next steps, I needed something to help fill the hours while I put myself back together. This is how, like hundreds of thousands before me, I found myself at yoga teacher training.

On our first day of class, we sat cross-legged on the floor of a subterranean NYC yoga studio, a couple dozen seekers in spandex. One by one, we shared our reasons for being there — why we were drawn to the practice and what we hoped to get out of it. There were people in recovery from addiction or eating disorders, grappling with a partner’s illness, going through a divorce, grieving a loss, making a career change. And then a few who just really liked yoga.

While my motivations were mainly spiritual, I had a more measurable aim, as well.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a phobia of being upside down. A roller coaster that makes complete loops? No, thank you. When the other kids’ cartwheels looked like perfect wagon wheels, mine was closer to a sideways flop.

Adulthood was blessedly devoid of upside-down-ness, until it came to the end of a yoga class. This is the part that often includes inversions — headstands, handstands, and any position where your feet are over your head. Inevitably, everyone around me would lift off, while I would place my hands to the mat, kicking up just high enough for my inner alarm to sound and then careening back down again.

But now, I was after reinvention. If I could overcome my fear, I reasoned, I would be ushering in a totally new era. If I could very literally flip my perspective, maybe I would see the world in a whole new way.

Once everyone had a chance to get acquainted, the first order of business was to workshop a pose that would serve as the foundation for our entire practice — tadasana, or mountain pose. For the unacquainted, tadasana is perhaps the simplest of all the yoga poses. In a nutshell, you just stand there.

There is more nuance to it, of course. This is how it goes:

Begin by planting your feet firmly on the ground, with your big toes touching. Draw your spine long and straight — imagine you’re a puppet and someone is pulling an invisible string at the top of your head, lifting you toward the sky. Draw your quads up, so your legs feel strong and solid. Gently turn your palms to face forward, like you are ready to receive.

Once you’ve made your way into tadasana, close your eyes. Notice how you can feel your heart beating in the center of your body. Observe that no matter how still you are, your body subtly sways, reacting to both the energy within and the energy around it.

Tadasana teaches us that even in the midst of stillness, there is a lot going on. And that even in the midst of chaos, we have the capacity to be still. “You are not your emotions,” said our teacher. “Notice how ‘I feel‘ is different than ‘I am.'”

As the weeks progressed, no matter how intricate or complicated our lessons became, we always returned to tadasana. This pose, we learned, was like coming back home.

For one blissful week, everything we did remained upright. And then the day came. It was time to workshop handstands. We all stood facing the wall, where everyone sprang onto their hands and kicked their feet upward like very nimble donkeys. Except for me. I was more like an awkward wheelbarrow.

“A fear of being inverted is actually a fear of death,” said the instructor, guiding my feet toward the sky.

“Don’t worry, Caroline!” called one of my classmates. “It’s just a fear of death! That should be easy enough to get over.” (Because yes, even a yoga class has a clown.)

I’d like to tell you all about my killer handstand. I’d love to paint a perfect movie montage where I triumphantly leave the studio by walking out… on my hands. But alas, I did not. To this day, I remain the wheelbarrowiest wheelbarrow that ever was, and I am okay with that.

Because I’ll always have tadasana.

In the end, learning to stand on my own two feet was more transformative than learning to stand on my hands. Just as in class, it is a place I come back to over and over again, especially in times of chaos.

I have been reminded of this many times in recent weeks, as we are faced with so much uncertainty. Staying home has been rebranded as a time to reorganize the spice cabinet, learn a new language, read a book a week, and spiritually reinvent ourselves, all while turning the living room into a school and a home gym. That’s all well and good if it enriches you, but it’s also fine if it doesn’t. It’s okay to wrap yourself in a blanket and pretend to be a burrito for a while. It’s okay to just stand still.

What I learned in that basement room is that there is a little harbor inside of us. Sometimes, you don’t have to be the thing you thought you needed to be — brave, loud, big, small, filled with all the answers. You just have to be. That is enough.

P.S. Single woman seeks role model and 12 women on becoming the person you’re meant to be.

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow.)