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  • Lijing Cobb

Lean on me

When I was going through my 500 hour yoga teacher training, one of my instructors taught a chair yoga class that changed my perspective on chair yoga forever. I had taught in several large gyms before and had seen grandmas and grandpops, some of them needing a little assistance from a kindly cane or walker, shuffle into the classroom for chair yoga. I had also taken a training on yoga for seniors as part of the 500 hour requirement, and at the time, I remained uninspired by all the gentle accommodations one gives to a more mature body.


You see, like so many of us "in the prime of our lives," I would not touch anything that could have risked you associating me with words such as "weak," "old," "lame," or "not amazing." I chuckle now, but that really was a deep and dark fear not so long ago. I must have thought I would stay young forever, and I could out-plank and out-burpee any of you if I wanted to. As a result of such formidable thinking, I had cast chair yoga and what it stands for into the general pile of things labeled as "not for me," and was pretty insistent about it, although I didn't put it into so many words and broadcast it to everyone around me. Clearly by not associating any of what I did fitness-wise with chair yoga, I was being "strong," "young," "not lame," and "amazing."


But you see, this instructor who taught level 4 in my yoga journey and made me cry 4 days out of 4 and admire her strength and wisdom for the rest of my life: she taught me a chair yoga class.


She said that it is not that you need the chair, but that you have it if you need it. Even if you can do it perfectly without the chair, just try it with the chair and see how that feels.


With my whole heart I followed her instructions, and I felt it. Not that I need it, but that I have it. Not that I can't, but I don't have to. I have options. I have support. I am not alone.


The chair is family, friends, love, kindness, support. The chair is a phone call to check in, chicken soup when I'm sick, a rose on a dark and gloomy day, a blanket on a chilly morning.


I had a reputation (probably still do) as a fitness teacher. People came to my classes expecting hard. I taught my clients expecting them to expect hard. For years and years I shunned "not hard," which was for other people and not me. Without putting them into words I believed harder was better. I was mouthing the words, "choose what's best for you," as a conscientious instructor would do, but I always chose the harder options for myself, unless I was indisposed in some ways (and I would make it perfectly, abundantly, and repeatedly clear to my participants that they knew, unequivocally, that I was not myself).


After that chair yoga class, however, I began to see that for all those years of "hard," I had been telling myself over and over again, "other people have options, but not me. I have only one option, and that's the hard one. I have no other options. I do, or I die."


And that kind of disrespect for my other options, casting them into the realm of nothingness, made me a loner. I talked incessantly in my classes, because nobody talked back to me: everyone was busy dying because of the hardness I put upon them. But I found few words to say to people outside of class. I didn't need people, just like I didn't need the chair. I can do it all alone, all by myself, don't touch me.


I think I was too afraid of the possibility that I would ever "need" anyone, that I could not survive on my own. I thought strength was synonymous with independence. I thought self-reliance was exclusive of associating with people in any meaningful way.


I thought many things as I charged forth on a quest to be strong in my body and in my mind. As my body got stronger, my mind did as well. But it was not when I defeated everyone in a plank or burpee contest (I would never tell you that I could outlast you, but I could...) that my mind made the leap. It was during a chair yoga class taught by my strong and wise mentor that the qualitative leap happened, and that was pretty amazing.


Self-reliance is great. But knowing that there are people who got my back when I fail is even greater, because then I could fail without fear. I once heard a question that provokes all kinds of interesting possibilities: "What would you do if you knew you could not fail?" Now I revise it into this question for myself to think about from time to time, "What can I do since I know I can fail, and I will fail, but I can pick myself up again with the support from people who love me?"


Going upside down is not my forte. A couple of years ago I realized that I could not do a handstand, so I started training myself to do it against a wall. My daughter started the same training with me at the same time, and pretty soon she was trying it out in the middle of the room, without a wall, thanks to her more flexible body and more importantly, lack of fear that she would hurt herself. With that liberation she took the training everywhere she went, and therefore was able to train a lot more frequently and consistently than me. All this is to justify me when I say that I don't handstand as well as she does because of the unfair advantage she has over me. Now she's walking around in her handstand, and I'm still glued to the wall.


Admitting defeat is not easy for me, but that's not the point. The point is that being small, in a loving family with parents to the rescue, my daughter was able to naturally let go of fear, try, fall, try again, fall, try again... until she succeeded. She embodies the question I have modified to ask myself time and again. Ah, a young girl confident in the unfailing support of her family has a much bigger chance at success than a hardened grownup previous loner just learning to lean on the support of others.


So back to going upside down. I can go upside down in the middle of a room in a headstand now. Or I can do it close to a wall. Which one do I prefer? The one that offers me the assurance that if and when I fall, I won't hurt myself. The one that allows me to relax instead of being nervous. The one that gives me the courage to do better, rather than stopping at what I'm comfortable with for now.


And I'm stronger because I chose the idea of the chair.


At the wall, I would suck in my butt, and reach my toes to the sky with more fervor. Away from the wall, I'm using the butt-sucking and toe-reaching energy to deal with fear instead.


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