Written by Serena Brommel On
This summer, I had the privilege to attend Failure Lab, an event where successful people share their stories of their greatest failures with the hopes of empowering others and de-stigmatizing failure. It was a powerful, thought-provoking evening that made me contemplate my own failures and what I've learned from them.
When I started writing this post, I was going to make a list of funny fails, many of which happened in the course of teaching yoga. Like the time I lit my notes on fire while guiding a candlelight meditation (no damage done, except to my ego). Or the time I was guiding students to become very aware of the sounds within this room at the exact moment that someone began loudly urinating in the bathroom at the back of the studio. One class I got really into it, building dramatically to our opening OM: The yogis recognized a deep light of awareness within that they called the Atman. You might experience this as the wisest part, the one who watches and knows what's true for you. We will now chant the ancient mantra representing this deep wisdom, the sound of OM. Inhale. And then I started leading the chant with a lot of enthusiasm and vigor (not to mention VOLUME) and my voice completely cracked like a 13-year-old boy. OOOACKKKKKKKKCOUGHCOUGHKKKKKKMMMMM. Hopefully this is not really what my deepest wisdom sounds like.
But owning up to those cute, funny fails would be just a cop-out. That's not the real stuff. No serious consequences. No real vulnerability.
What about the real messy stuff? What about the yoga teacher who should know wayyyyy better than to: Neglect her own well-being. Bring her life out of balance. Abandon the self-care measures that she wishes for her students. Ignore the return of the pain and panic attacks that had been long gone.
Well, that's my greatest failure. I was sitting in Failure Lab this summer listening to others' stories in the midst of my greatest failure. And I'd like to share how I got there, what I learned from it, and how yoga helped me pick myself back up.
There is nothing I'm more passionate about than helping others be kinder to themselves: mind, body, spirit. I believe each of us has a deep wisdom that can be a true guide. I became a yoga teacher to facilitate the time and space to connect with and explore that wisdom. However, I soon remembered that I still have bills to pay and so (as is common), I took on a lot of jobs. Some yoga related, some not. It's exciting to see yoga gain popularity, and thrilling to be asked to teach more and expand this reach. And I'm absolutely intent on continually engaging in rigorous training so that my students have the very best I can offer. And so that's where this started. An excited yoga teacher a few years in, starting to get some momentum, seizing every awesome opportunity. Oh, and I have a personal life too, did I mention that? Lots of stuff happens in it, especially this year.
So, earlier this year, I set myself a strict schedule. I ran my mind like a drill sergeant, even as I was planning programming to help other people do the exact opposite. That doesn't apply to me right now. It's for them, not for me. I thought I could sacrifice myself. I. Know. Better.
You see where this is going. My practice fell stale. I went through the motions, mind racing. That inner voice that I'd always counted on fell silent. Without it, I was lost. So I reverted to old habits: I pushed harder.
The body doesn't lie, and my body doesn't take any crap. In the face of this constant pressure and lack of balance, it keeps the score. Soon, some of my old ghosts insidiously creeped back: my chronic pain, panic attacks, and, worst of all, a complicated endocrine disorder I had well-controlled got worse...way, way worse.
This would be a logical time to step back and learn from it all, right? Not yet. This is what makes it a failure. I knew better. I was aware it was too much and I continued on anyway. My setbacks made me more frantic and more certain that I needed to do all the things. The more I felt like I was failing, the more I refused to accept reality and the more I scrambled and forced. The more I lost connection with my wisdom, the more the drill sergeant took over. Soon, this part was just straight up running the show. Every day. Every night. Every weekend. All the time. You can fight with reality, but as Richard Miller says, reality always wins.
And so the inevitable collapse. I can't take it today. Soon, I was under the watchful gaze of my best friend. She studied me for a minute before speaking. She didn't sugar-coat it. I know you, and I know that this is very, very dangerous, she said gravely. Her intensity surprised me. The internal sergeant sat down and was quiet. And that's when I realized it. The gig was up. I had somehow unlearned the greatest lesson of my life: balance comes first. And that was just not OK.
I failed. But failing isn't the end. It's a normal part of life that literally everyone on the planet experiences. The question is, what do we do next? Here's what I learned:
1. Ask for help. You know how it makes you feel good to help others? Well, guess what, other people feel that way too! We forget this a lot of the time. Reach out. If you're struggling, the people close to you want to know. They want to help. You would do that for them. Let them do it for you.
2. Practice. But don't just go through the motions. What I need from my practice changes constantly. This is why I utilize a range of styles in my practice. If your current regimen is making you more harsh and agitated, mix it up a little. The first thing I did when I knew I needed to take it down a notch? Called my good friend, the amazing Erin Cowan, who teaches truly outstanding yoga and is now incorporating somatics yoga into her practice. A couple sessions with her and I could hear that inner voice once again.
3. Schedule self-care first. I learned to make a list of things that are essential for my well-being. My list takes up more daily time than I find ideal (or maybe it's the drill sergeant who doesn't find it ideal). Nevertheless, it is not a luxury, it's essential time. That's reality.
4. Trust that all is unfolding, just as it should. I have to credit one of my favorite teachers, Daren Friesen, for that one. He often includes this sentiment in his grounding meditation and I still hear these words in his steady voice. Maybe all is going exactly as planned. Maybe you're not meant to get that job. Maybe that guy isn't the right one. Maybe this year's "disaster" is a blessing in disguise, nudging you to something even greater. According to yoga philosophy, you are being trained for bigger things and everything is running right on schedule. Trust.
5. Practice pratyahara (drawing the senses inward). Wrap your head. It's really as simple as that. You want a clean, breathable bandage that you can wrap around your head comfortably. I like the Indian-made bandages from the Iyengar tradition, but I hear ACE wraps work just as well. After you wrap, sit or lie comfortably and focus on lengthening and smoothing your breath. The slight pressure on your eyes helps to activate the parasympathetic (rest and digest) part of your nervous system. It's amazing how immediately restorative this practice is, and it gets special points for helping with those stress headaches. Plus, you can't look at your phone. Bonus.
6. Just breathe. Make your exhales longer than your inhales. Allow your breath to be smooth. You'll cue the nervous system that it's time to simmer down, regroup, and replenish.
So there you have it, yogis. I failed and lived to tell the tale. And just that realization doesn't make it all magically better. Finding balance and finding it again takes work and a lot of trial and error. More failure might come. Life challenges us and when we accept those challenges, sometimes we fail. It's OK. We all do and we're in this together.
"We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy." Pema Chodron
I won't lie to you, my friends. It's been a challenging 2015. And I won't be opaque. Like many women in the world, I am struggling with the painful effects of infertility and the loss that comes with it. As is par for the course in this arena, there have already been a few heartbreaks along the way. In the process of confronting this, I've had to visit with some ghosts from the past and goblins from the world of reproductive endocrinology, not to mention endure the long expanses of waiting ( so much waiting ) for our family to be together finally. Here comes the yoga. This is one of those experiences that tests if I mean what I say. Do I believe it's all unfolding as it should? Do I have the faith to let go of the way it all turns out? Can I connect with who I truly am: not this body, not these worried thoughts... but the wisdom within? What will I do when things fall apart?
I created this list for how the practice can support you for those times when you need to put one foot in front of the other and take it day by day. It comes from how the practice has been supporting me. My rule for myself is no matter how I feel, no matter how much time I think I don't have, no matter how strong the lure of the couch, I will spend 10 minutes per day with a practice that deeply nourishes me. I will light a candle and sit by my altar and probably do one of the things on this list.
In November when I last saw my teacher Gary Kraftsow he told me to take all the extra energy I spend overdoing it on any one occasion and put it into being consistent. I'm passing it on to you with the hopes that it worms its way into your mind as it has mine, taunting you in the best way to practice.
Without further ado, A List for When Things Fall Apart
You have the time nourish yourself for 10 minutes per day. Your body and mind deserve a chance to rest in this moment. It will make a difference to your mind, body, and spirit.
If you have 10 minutes...
- Breathe. Consciously. It does not have to be fancy. It can simply be soft, deep breathing hearing So on the inhale and Hum on the exhale (translation: I am that). If you want to get fancier, practice pranayama. Depending on the technique you use, you can help to build strength and power, release tension, or stabilize your nervous system. I'd recommend my teacher's book on the subject over any other.
- Contemplate this quote: "We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy." Pema Chodron. Then get yourself one of her books and read a chapter each time you practice. I'd highly recommend The Places That Scare You and Getting Unstuck.
- Practice legs up the wall pose, or viparita karani. It's my go-to for instant stress relief. Some instructions, photos, and other simple postures to consider here.
- Practice aromatherapy. My favorite stress reliever lately has been Tara Incense, a favorite of the monks of Tibet.
- Practice guided mindfulness meditation. I've found a great app for that called Headspace. This app features meditation instruction for beginners and experienced meditators alike. You can download it here, and it's free to start.
- Dance. Here's my latest jam for rocking it out in my living room. Shake your bones. Act wild and crazy. See if you don't feel better afterward.
- Sing. Here is a healing way to incorporate mantra and singing: kirtan. This is a practice of call-and-response singing. Krishna Das is a great place to start. Try his album Pilgrim Heart. I especially love "Om Nama Shivaya."
- Do some big picture dreaming. I love to journal to plan for the future and remember that I'm making my way toward my big goals. I've been having fun with the "Create Your Shining Year" journal this year. Taking stock of how far you've come can really help to give you the courage to keep going.
- Contemplate the Yoga Sutras. Did you know that the yoga sutras are an ancient guidebook to how to be happier and more free? True story. Some translations are super-dense, but I love this one by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait Ph.D.
- Make a list of everything you are grateful for. It will make you 70 percent happier. It's science, baby.
If you have more time...
Come to a yoga class! I've got one almost every day of the week, and we'll incorporate many of the above with the support of other yogis just like you.
We've got this, yogis. One breath at a time.
Note: The sentiments below do not come to me often authentically. They happen in little glimpses during or after my meditation practice (which is often an exercise in having my demons sit down for tea). I can only access this feeling for a few seconds, but I believe it is what freedom feels like. I want to capture it here, but know that fingers pointing at the moon are not the moon.
To every heartbreak, empty room, every impossible situation. To every person who has let me down. To what tried to break me. To the times when no one could understand and the times when I could not describe. To every night I felt alone. To the feeling of being at the very end. To the inyourface pain. To the times I quit and failed and stumbled and canceled plans and screwed up. To when I lost my temper and took the easy way out. To the times I took it out on my body and to the hateful thoughts I unleashed on myself. To the crap I ate and drank and watched and thought and believed.
I thought of you as "bad" and hated you. I wished you away and I tried to exile you. I blamed you for my unhappiness. I didn't know I needed absolutely every single one of you. I couldn't see it then, but I needed you to be as blaringly loud and disruptive and impossible as you were. The truth is you shook me awake when I would have just been content to sleep. I see that now; it's so clear. (Why is it not always this clear?) You have made me strong. You have made me who I am. You have been my training.
The awareness that came with meditation made me observe myself when I'd rather look away. It made it harder at first. Like that part in the movie when it's gory and gross and you want to cover your eyes. And with practice, I'd hear the voice of my teacher in my mind not only on the cushion but in the fire: Hold your seat. No matter what happens, hold your seat.
And it changed everything.