At what point in life does falling down no longer qualify as fun? I'm not talking about an injurious fall, but a dance with gravity resulting in an intimate (potentially joy inducing) connection with the ground. I consider falling down an illuminating lesson in physics, biomechanics and nervous system response patterns that can be terrifying or fun or a thrilling combination of both.
On my recent yoga retreat in Hawaii we had the opportunity to take a surf lesson. I'd never surfed before and had been afraid to try. “You'll be pounded by waves, cut on rocks, get water up your nose, eat mouthfuls of sand, be dinner for who knows what.” Said my mind. I had envisioned miserable, exhausting hours of discomfort at best, death at worst.
According to the Yoga Sutra, one of the five Kleshas (afflictions of the mind) is Abhinivesha, most often translated as “clinging to life” or “fear of death.” This affliction dilutes mental focus and compromises one's ability to discern the real from the unreal – an obstacle on the path towards liberation. It's not that I actually thought I was going to die out there in the water, but deep down we all have an innate survival mechanism that signals a flashing red light when danger is near. The tough part is discriminating between legitimate danger and an overactive mind.
So how do we learn the difference? We bravely press on and test our borders. I have a virtual fence surrounding me and all that I consider safe in my life: Family, close friends, my cats, the corner bodega, Sheep Meadow in Central Park, downward facing dog pose, brown rice, sweet potatoes, you get the idea... all things fine and familiar. What lies outside my safety fence is the unfamiliar: Trapeze school, mountain climbing, making pie crust, Antarctica, dropping back from handstand into urdhva dhanurasana, rhinoceros... the weird, wild and wonderful world of the unknown. On a regular basis we are confronted with a choice; Remain comfortably within the safety fence which before we know it becomes a cage, or open door number two and invite a new unfamiliar guest to the party.
Back to the surfing. My unfamiliar guest was met on land. Walking the perimeter of my virtual fence to have a peek at the other side, I learned a few basic moves on the shore. Hey, this is a lot like low cobra, down dog and warrior two! Surprisingly familiar. So far so good. We carried our boards to the water. As I paddled out in the clear, warm Hawaiian surf my fence expanded. What I imagined to be harsh and dangerous, at closer inspection turned out to be calm and comforting. The big scary waves were smooth and exhilarating under the float of my board.
Beginners luck. I caught my first wave, rode it all the way to the beach, and fell flat on my ass. It was the best. I fell down a lot that day and laughed a lot in the process. Walked away with a small cut on my foot (closed up immediately from the salt water) and a few sore muscles the next day.
I don't expect to live outside my fence, that would be too scary. But little by little I build my fence bigger. Eventually I hope to expand my fence so big that nothing can scare me.