A year or two ago I took a yoga class where we were practicing handstand and the teacher was extremely keen for us to practice it in the middle of the room. Usually I kick up into handstand to the wall and balance from there. If I want to work on kicking up into balance, I set up further away from the wall so I won’t go to it immediately, but close enough that I know I can use it if I need to. When the teacher saw me working this way, she challenged me to try it in the middle of the room. “Spread out a bunch of bolsters to catch your fall and figure it out,” was her suggestion.
I’m usually pretty confident in my yoga practice and am happy to try things out, but this made me think twice. I can balance in handstand, but not reliably, and fear of falling is an issue for me. I’m 6’1”, weigh 185lbs, am in my fifties, and I make my living teaching yoga and Alexander Technique, so falling and injuring myself would be a real problem. I stuck to my guns and continued to explore my handstand balance practice close to the wall.
Pushing The Edge
Edges are important. We need physical and mental challenges to keep our bodies healthy and our minds sharp, but pushing the edge to an extreme more often than not creates problems aside from the potential for injury. Pushing edges creates heightened awareness and situational anxiety that activate patterns of resistance in the body. When doing something challenging, we often focus exclusively on the goal we’re trying to achieve, requiring us to operate out of habit and muscle memory, when habit and muscle memory don’t always have encoded in them the best use of ourselves. You might get to your goal beyond the edge, but what did you do to yourself on the way there?
Enriching the Middle
There’s much to be said for paying attention to the middle of our experience, staying connected to the present moment, and devoting attention to the things we do so often, or that come so easily, that we gloss over them. By enriching the middle, creating deeper understanding for the processes we take for granted and refining our skills, we can:
- Become more efficient in your use of effort
- Increase strength, mobility, and flexibility
- Discover how to put less harmful stress on soft tissue and joints
- Stimulate neuroplasticity, keeping the brain vibrant and youthful
- Promote flow states where we can be fully immersed in, energized and fulfilled by anything we set our minds to
One of the key benefits of enriching the middle is that it expands our range of comfort in our chosen endeavor and pushes further out what we would think of as an edge. Developing the things that you find easy or accessible in this way can take you further than you might expect.
This is a key tenet of the way I practice and teach, and is one of the reasons why I enjoy teaching basic classes as much as I enjoy teaching advanced classes. Every time you cycle back to a basic skill, or an easy pose, you have the opportunity to experience it afresh with all the joy and interest you did the first time.
Find and Enrich Your Own Middle
So what sort of things might you consider as a middle to be enriched? Here are some ideas:
- Mastering smooth transitions into and out of a pose
- Working with spinal articulation to create balanced strength and mobility along the entire length of your spine
- Developing greater strength and flexibility around the entire range of motion of your hip joints
- Developing the coordination and the pathways of connection between your arms arms and spine so that your spine can support your arms when raised, and your arms can support your spine when weight bearing
- Exerting yourself consistently and regularly just enough that the negative side effects become minimal and you look forward to your next session without resistance
These ideas are all in the realm of physical activity and fitness. Here are some other ideas:
If you practice a craft—say sewing, knitting, cooking, woodwork, and the like—go back to basics. Pick a single aspect of your craft that you do without thinking, something that you usually do as a step toward something else. It might be threading a needle, or knitting a swatch, or making a preliminary sketch. Take some time to think about the way you perform that skill and observe what happens when you break it down and pay mindful attention to yourself as you do it.
The same approach could be applied to anything in your life: doing the dishes, brushing your teeth, putting on your shoes, typing at your computer.
Some Simple Questions to ask yourself
Here are some simple questions you can ask yourself as you attend to your chosen activity:
- What happens to your attention as you perform it? Do you block out everything else? Do you zone out and let muscle memory take over?
- What happens when you approach the activity with more awareness: of yourself, of the space around you, of the activity?
- How much effort do you use to perform the activity? Is it too much effort, or perhaps too little?
- Are there parts of you that get involved with the activity that have no business doing so?
- What happens if you explore letting go of all the things you might be doing that are unnecessary?
- How does what you’re thinking or feeling change the experience? If you’re feeling rushed? If you’re impatient to get to the next thing? If you feel like you’re not going to do a good job?
- What happens if you let go of those unhelpful thoughts?
What Activity will you choose?
Pick an activity and spend three minutes every day for a week exploring it this way and see how it changes, and see how the practice changes you.
I you try the practice, let me know how it went, either via email or before/after one of my classes this week!