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    Thursday, November 12, 2009

    You Can Change Your Mind--How yoga taught me to find joy in failure

    When I first started this blog, I thought I'd be posting up posture techniques for adventurous types to apply to their asana practice, but I keep writing about the mind techniques. I will get around to some poses and tips eventually, but my yoga practice has evolved over the years from focusing on the physical to focusing on the mental. So much of life is mental, esp. our approach to sports and the outdoors.

    Yoga is more than about postures--there are many other tools to help us overcome suffering in our lives. The second branch of yoga is the Niyamas, or "rules of personal behavior." The fourth niyama is Svadhyana, or self-study, and Deepak Chopra describes it as this in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga: "When svadhyana is lively in your awareness, joy arises from within rather than being dependent upon outer accomplishments or acquisitions."

    When I began my life as a whitewater junkie back in 1997, I was full of self doubt, negativity, and fear. But I loved being out on the water, so I was determined to overcome those obstacles. I entered a whitewater race the other day that showed me just how far I have come in overcoming these obstacles, and the practice of svadhyana is the reason.

    When I first got into whitewater, I was lured into the aspect of how good it made me feel about myself. I had had so many years of low self esteem and now this new sport was giving me tons and tons of self esteem as I became better and better. But the more involved I became in the sport, the more my self esteem became enmeshed in how good I performed. I would become devastated at one little failure and then slip into a deep dark depression that made me want to revert to my former self destructive life. One of the number one no-no's of sports psychology is to have your self esteem dependent upon your performance. I knew this, yet I couldn't help how I was feeling.

    I had a number of key things happen over these years--I attended my yoga teacher training and became a yoga teacher, found my one true love, and suffered a debilitating back injury. My yoga study delved me deeper and deeper into the why of my being. My (now) husband who is a brilliant amateur sports psychologist taught me how to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. And my back injury laid me out on my back for almost a full year unable to kayak or to "do" yoga. After the crying fits of "why me?" and "who am I without kayaking and teaching yoga," I decided to delve even more into the non-physical aspects of yoga.

    I laid on the floor and visualized for months--it was all I could do. And guess what? I found out that I could be happy just lying there! There was so much to explore in my mind, I became fascinated. Ever since, my yoga practice has centered around mind training. I learned to fully turn my life around by just changing the way that I think. What an amazing and basic concept that had eluded me for so long!

    So, what does all of this have to do with the kayak race? Coming up to the race, I was extremely busy, and did not have the option to get out and train as much as I needed. Then a week prior, I got a cold, which sabotaged the week that I had saved to get out and train my lines on the creek. I know what you'd like to hear is that I visualized my lines and then competed and won--that is because our society reveres numbers and winners. But something even more profound than that happened--I completely wrecked and instead of self pity, I found happiness. Finding happiness in winning is easy, but finding happiness in complete and utter failure is amazing.
    How? Because I have trained myself to only see the positive in this situation. Yes, I tried the visualizations and it worked in all but one place. Race day came, and I was not that nervous--I felt completely solid inside knowing that I could handle whatever happens. As I sat in the start eddy, I was delirious from sickness and I knew this was not a good idea, but I was compelled to be there racing in my favorite race. Like Arjuna in the battlefield in the Bhagavad Gita, I needed to perform to the best of my ability without being attached to the results. I peeled out and absolutely aced every rapid with amazing speed and style until I got to the one move that I was just going to trust myself to make because I couldn't remember it enough to visualize--in kayaking when you cannot visualize a line on the river, but you run it anyway, it is called oblivion charc (from The Squirt Book by Jim Snyder), and this is not a good thing. I flipped over in the worst part of the rapid. I was completely out of breath because the cold I had was in my lungs and I just didn't have the juice in me to deal with the crash. I barely eeked out a roll above the "Notch," the real real crux, flipped again, and my technique went out the window and caused me to fail to roll up again. Completely exhausted, I swam out of my kayak in front of 1000 people and cameras.

    It all worked out--I got all of my gear back from the river and only got a couple of scratches. And I can honestly say that I am happy (although more ill) even though I crashed and burned. In years past, I would not have even tried to race without practicing or being sick--and then I would have beat myself up for not trying. Also, in years past, I would have been devastated by the swim and all of those people watching and I would have been relentless on myself for "failing." But now as I write this, instead I feel more confident than I ever have about myself as a kayaker and as a person, because I am focused on the many successes I had that day rather than on the one failure. I am so grateful for this sport that has given me a zest for life, but I am even more grateful to not be imprisoned by results. In my own mind, I have won. I beat self doubt, negativity, and fear just by changing my thinking. I have come full circle with my sport. First I used it to feel good about myself, and now I am free from that entrapment. The practice of yoga is what freed me and allows me the full benefit of the sport. And now I feel so enthused to get out on the river and kayak more--more enthused than ever! Could it be because there are no expectations? I feel so free! I am now even closer to freedom as Tich Nhat Hanh describes it, "Freedom is, above all else, freedom from our own notions and concepts."

    *If you are into an adventure sport, pushing yourself outside of comfort is imperative to progress. But you have to remember to apply equanimity--balance your enthusiasm with restraint. By this I mean that decide to push yourself in smart places. For instance, I would not have gone out and kayaked in a remote river gorge that day while I was sick. The Green is a class V river, yes, but I know it extremely well and that was my 3rd race. Use the "self study" (Svadhyana, the Fourth Niyama) tool of yoga to know when its appropriate to push yourself and when to be conservative.

    The purpose of yoga is unite you with You. This can only happen by overcoming the suffering of the body and the mind. Life is so short and there is so much suffering that will happen due to terrible circumstances, don't waste your time creating even more suffering over petty things like how you perform in one event or what people think about you. To free yourself to live in joy is the true gift of enlightenment, of yoga.

    Action photo by Chris Bell of
    After race photo by Brad Roberts