Sunday, March 14, 2010

Just Levitate

A child

places her hand on the roof of a schoolbus,
& drives across a city of sand. She knows

the exact spot it will skid, at which point
the bridge will give, who will swim to safety
& who will be pulled under by sharks. She will learn

that if a man runs off the edge of a cliff
he will not fall

until he notices his mistake.

~ From "Cartoon Physics, part 1" by Nick Flynn

This poem about cartoon physics (full text here) has always stuck in my mind.  It's so evocative.  We can easily see ourselves as the cartoon roadrunner, just off the edge of the cliff, feet still pedaling, not yet realizing that he is suspended in mid-air.  Then in a puff of smoke, he plummets to the ground, landing in a mangled heap, but somehow unharmed.

But what would have happened if the roadrunner never looked down?

Sometimes "confidence" is just the trick of forgetting that you can't do something.

What's impossible, really?  It's just a word.  It reminds me of the punchline to The Phantom Tollbooth, a great book that I read as a kid.  The hero of the book, a kid named Milo, goes through all these crazy trials to complete a quest, and he finally succeeds.  Then the people who gave him this task in the first place say, "Well, now we can tell you something that we couldn't tell you before.  This task was impossible.  Completely impossible."  It was a good thing they didn't tell him so from the beginning, because he never would have made it out the front door!

This is one of the things that I like about the "just do it" mentality in Bikram yoga.  The instructor tells you what to do, and you do it.  You aren't given a million different options.  You don't stop to think, "Well, am I going to be able to do this?  Is this for me?"  When your teacher speaks, your body reacts on its own, and you find yourself actually doing the posture.  If you stopped to think about it first, then nobody would ever do standing head to knee pose!  When "impossible" is taken off the table, you find that you can do all kinds of things.

The power of the mind is really staggering.  I'm not talking about any new age "power of positive thinking" stuff, either.  I'm talking about the power of thinking, period.  Here's some interesting data.  I was flipping though Blink the other day, which is a great book by Malcom Gladwell about our subconscious, light-speed decision making processes.  There's one section in this book which describes how we unconsciously react to messages about ourselves.  In one (alarming) study, two groups of people who identified themselves as "black" were asked to take a sample 20-question GRE (graduate school admission) test.     Group A simply took the test.  Group B was first given a survey which asked them to identify their race ("black"), and then they took the test.  This was the only difference between the groups.  On average, the members of Group B got half as many correct answers as the members of Group A.  Holy crap.  And when questioned about their performance, not one of these test-takers identified the survey as a source of trouble.  They all just said things along the lines of, "I guess I'm just not cut out for this," or "I guess I'm just not smart enough."  As a matter of fact, they were smart enough.  But when they were reminded of their race, they subconsciously remembered all the negative stereotypes and stories that go along with being "black," and that cut their success rate in half.

This story has many implications which I will not delve into here!  But let's think about how this same principle applies to us, in our daily lives, in our yoga practices.  Based on this study, what do you think would happen if I taught a yoga class to two average groups of people, but I made one group take a survey beforehand asking about age and weight.  Just two little numbers.  Would you think that writing down, "I am 43 years old and I weight 170 lbs" would have an effect on someone's yoga practice?  I think based on scientific study, the answer is YES, it would absolutely make a difference!

The trick, then, is to forget all these "facts" we know about ourselves and all the stories that go along with them.  Forget that you want to lose weight.  Forget that you are getting older.  Forget that you struggled yesterday.  Forget all that bullshit.  Stop telling yourself false stories about who you are and what you are capable of.

Back to the subject of gravity.  In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by the late and great Douglas Adams, there's a chapter on flying lessons.  Apparently, the trick to flying is very simple.  All you have to do is fall, but get someone to jump out at you and be incredibly distracting at the moment when you are still flying through the air.  (This was an entire industry, by the way - people who were extremely disfigured or unusual looking made a lot of money by getting hired to distract would-be fliers.)  The secret was that, if you could get distracted enough at the crucial moment, you would forget to fall and find yourself floating in mid-air.

So forget about gravity.  Just levitate, already!

On a completely unrelated note, my Mom now has a blog of her own and she would like you to read it!  It is here: Cup Half Full.  It's not bad.  ;-)


Johan said...

My favourite Bikram quote from Barcelona (I think I've used it every day since):
"If you ever feel stressed out all you have to do is go into a quite corner, levitate and then do your pranayama breathing."
Thanks boss! I feel so much more enlightened. :-)

nf said...

i love that you worked in a "phantom tollbooth" reference. one my favorite childhood books ever.

Yolk E said...

Ohhhh, you quoted Gladwell. Freakin' love him, and Blink is probably my fave. (I even use his work in my classes!) Now I will look like a total poser if I ever quote him on my blog ;-)

And great post, btw!

lz said...

I really like your ideas in this post. "Sometimes "confidence" is just the trick of forgetting that you can't do something," particularly. I've never thought about it that way before and I really like it! Also, thanks for sharing the Gladwell tidbit; it is so surprising, and I totally agree that if we had to fill out some confirmation (weight or age or whatever) before our class, our class would be much different! So we just have to try to not go. Not think so much. My mind, your body, or so Bikram says, right? :)

KatieO said...

If you hadn't put in the Phantom Tollbooth, I sure would have. That is one of my all time favorite quotes. I like this, too:

"Come to the edge."
"We can't. We're afraid."
"Come to the edge."
"We can't. We will fall!"
"Come to the edge."
And they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.

~ Christopher Logue

Anonymous said...

I like this post. Have been struggling with bullshit lately, so this is a nice reminder.

People do the survey themselves before they come to class. They believe yoga is for the "young bendies" as I call them. (no offence intended). Many, if not all, new people tell me "I'm not very flexible" - thinking they already HAVE TO BE to come to class. I think it's good for the new folks to see all shapes and sizes and flexibility and strength not only in their class mates, but also in the teachers and around the studio. Anyone can do yoga. :) (of course you all know that)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing...a great reminder.