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Strength Lessons in Yoga from a Circus Trainer

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My biggest lesson in yoga and perhaps in life has been strength. I was not naturally strong when I started but after 14 years of practice I started to feel stronger. I thought I could do a handstand with good balance and good alignment. I'm at the end of the Fourth Series of Ashtanga yoga and a few postures ahead is a one arm handstand. Rather than just try it on my own I decided to ask the only people I have ever seen truly master this truly awesome movement: a circus trained hand balance performer.

After two weeks of coordinating times and dates my trainer, Ricardo, arrived to my house at 1:45 p.m. Just looking at how he held his body and posture made me feel like I was backstage at the cirque du Soliel. His deltoids were the size of my thighs and his body seemed solid and at the time insanely limber. As a yoga teacher I get a sense of people's physical capacity just from standing near them. Clearly Ricardo was a master of the body and physical form. Without much fanfare we walked into my yoga room and he asked me what I wanted to work on. When I said a one arm handstand he smirked and said, "I can see just from looking at you that you're not strong enough." I thought, here we go again. As I looked at my a teacher's photo on my home altar I could hear his words, "Kino, you have to be stronger" in my head. At that moment I decided to treat Ricardo like my yoga guru, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and I just surrendered.

Next Ricardo said, "Show me your handstand." While I did what I thought was a pretty good handstand he systematically picked apart my alignment and lack of strength. My wrists were weak, my shoulders collapsed, my elbows bending, my body disconnected, my abdominals sagging and my ego breaking. I am familiar with being broken down to build back up again from my yoga practice but this was fast and furious and left me breathless, as though 14 years of work amounted to a pile of mush. My circus trainer, lacking the compassionate voice of a yoga teacher, just said get up and started me on a series of brutally intense strength building, alignment focused exercises to train my body. I was upside down in a half handstand counting seconds out loud, pressing up into handstand unsuccessfully with straight elbows, extending my shoulders and trying my absolute best. When my shoulders collapsed, Ricardo tapped my shoulders saying, "no, no, no, why are you quitting". When I was lowering down from handstand and hit the floor with a bump, he said, "do it again, this time don't collapse." When my elbows bent he yelled at me, "you have to let go of your old pattern, it does you no good, do exactly what I tell you to repattern what works." When my muscles nearly gave out and I said with all sincerity that I was trying my best, he said simply, "don't try, do." When I failed to execute his instructs properly and said I was sorry he said, "sorry does nothing for me." The whole while I thought, this is yoga. This is exactly the life lesson that I am working on now.

Yoga is about finding your limit and using it as a mirror. I quit, I collapse, I give up and through the practice I have seen my pattern. I do it emotionally when things get difficult. When the world just seems too much bear I crawl into a cave inside myself and break apart. I have spent days, months and sometimes years digging myself out of my own emotional black hole. The lesson I am learning now is to never quit, never give up, no matter what happens or how intense the situation is. The strength I need is the strength to find meaning in suffering, the strength to become the hero of my own life story and the strength to see hope out of the ashes of disillusionment. I need the strength and determination to never waver no matter how arduous the journey may be. It is the power of Ashtanga Yoga and it is also my own true power.

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