The first arm balance I ever learned was bakasana.
Bakasana, or Crow Pose, is most people’s first arm balance, in fact. You’ve probably seen it in a million yoga pictures: only your hands touch the earth while your knees are pulled up into your armpits so you look like a balloon floating above the earth only tethered by the string of your arms. It looks far more impressive than it really is to the untrained eye, and that’s exactly why I was so excited about learning it.
I remember the day it happened. It was a 4:45 Vinyasa Flow class at Just Be Yoga. I was a sophomore in high school, and just like every other day, one of my parents had dutifully braved evening traffic and dropped me off at the studio so that I could practice. Just Be was still new, with a “big” class being five to ten people, a world away from the maxed-out 50 people classes that happen on the regular today. The teacher, Jenni Wendell, decided for one reason or another to break down the pose that evening.
She got us all set up with a block at the front of our mats lovingly cushioned with a folded blanket and walked us through the set up- a familiar script I’ve now used a hundred times to teach others the pose. Plant your hands flat into the earth, walk your feet back about six inches, bend your arms back like chaturanga and pull your knees into your upper arm…
I kept watching my feet as I did this, as though to will my toes to leave the earth they felt cemented to. Without fail, I would collapse forward onto my block every time.
“For something to go up, something has to go down.” Jenni said as she walked around the room, offering her assistance wherever it was most needed, “Let your head come down towards the floor so that your feet can come up. You’ll feel like you’re going to fall on your face.”
I am falling on my face. I though to myself as I begrudgingly set up my block for what felt like the millionth time. My wrists were sore, my shoulders were tired from the chaturangas I was still building strength in, and my confidence was shot from my countless failed attempts to take flight. I was still very new to the practice; I’d only found Just Be about three months before.
Once again, I started to rock my weight forward into my palms, letting my head come closer to the block that was meant to elevate the ground and ease our worries of breaking our noses. My eyes were trained on my feet, my neck almost rounding to bring my head underneath me for a better view.
“Don’t look at your feet,” Jenni advised, her wild, blonde bun bobbing as she spoke, “You’ll lose your balance. Look forward, towards your hands.”
I snapped my gaze forward, now fixing my eyes on the white curtains that softly fluttered in front of the glass-paneled garage doors at the front of the room. I picked one foot off the ground, pulling my heel in towards my hips, and then the other. For a few, glorious seconds, I was floating, only connected by my palms to the earth I’d been rooted to my entire life.
Just as quickly as I’d come into the pose, it was over. I fell- rather ungracefully, as is to be expected from myself- back onto my mat, a grin plastered on my face. No matter how briefly, I had done it. I had found my balance.
The lesson of Crow is only truly beginning to dawn on me today, three years later and 80 miles away from the first time it entered my life. Life is, I’m coming to see, one giant balancing act.
Let me depict this with a Venn Diagram:
I’m torn between three things: my academic success, my social life and passion work, and my physical and mental health. It’s fairly easy to focus on one or two things at a time. If I’m cracking down on my health when it’s truly necessary, like when I was first recovering from my eating disorder four years ago, or when I realized I’d let it slip during a particularly stressful period in school my senior year, I can devote myself to it like it’s a full-time job. I get to bed early, I’m fiercely protective of my alone time, I prioritize nourishing foods like both and fermented veggies. I’m all in.
But academics have always been important to me, so any spare time is then filled in with studying and school. If I want to wake up early to get movement in before school, and get to bed early to make sure I get enough rest, and have time to make food, grocery shop, and work in between, suddenly I’m not really socializing or prioritizing any passion projects I might have stewing in the back of my mind.
Okay, so I reorganize. My health is back in order, I’ve maybe gained back some weight I lost or nipped some skin issues in the bud, time to get a little more lax. I spend more time going out with friends, or staying up late to finish an article, or don’t set aside time to make bone broth or ginger tea. Suddenly, though, my health is suffering again due to lack of sleep and not enough good food.
Okay, time to reorganize again. I’m really enthralled with my passion projects and I’m having fun spending extra time out with friends, so I crack down on food and sleep, and start to skim by academically. I skim more than I analyze, I cram in a study session right before the test, I turn in what are probably not the best papers I’ve ever written. One day, though, I’m sitting in class and realize I don’t understand things quite as well as makes me comfortable.
And the cycle repeats.
Trying to pursue all things to their maximum feels absolutely impossible when everything innately works against one another. Having fun and being social- at least in high school and college- tends to mean less sleep, or less time to study. Studying and cracking down on academics can mean late nights or pulling time away from things that keep me physically (exercise, making good food) and mentally (yoga, meditation) healthy. Prioritizing my health can mean shutting down a study session when it’s creating stress that’s affecting my body and spirit negatively, or “introverting” to recover from long periods of pushing too hard.
And if you do somehow manage to do everything perfectly (or even try to get close), you’re going to go absolutely insane.
A problem I had for a long time was that I did try to do it all: and I fell apart. Seeking perfection in this way spreads you so thin you break. You tear right down the center, and you’re left with none of the things you were seeking.
Entering college, I knew that I would be thrown out of balance for awhile. I knew that I’d be taking more challenging classes, and I’d be drawn- almost compulsively- to throw myself into them the way I threw myself into high school. I knew that I’d want to feel my best and maintain the health I’ve worked so hard to gain, both in terms of mindset and my physical strength. I knew that I’d be faced with a sea of social and extracurricular possibilities that all demand my time.
I knew that, once again, I’d be pulled in opposing directions.
But just because I’m aware of this, doesn’t mean that I know how to find the balance yet. Even in the short time I’ve been here, I’ve already pushed to hard in each direction. I spent a day cooped up, doing reading that wasn’t assigned yet because the class introduction reignited the academic distress that lay dormant in me all summer. I turned down the invitation for a night hike to go to sleep because I worried about not getting enough sleep before an early wakeup call the next day. And in direct contrast, one day I accepted far too many invitations and had to spend the entire next day alone to recharge.
I want to do well in university and study hard, but I also want to explore and have new experiences. I want to stay healthy and keep the new habits I’ve developed over the past few years, but I don’t want to be obsessive. I want to be true to my introverted nature and not be afraid to do things differently, but I also want to challenge myself to grow and step outside my comfort zone.
But perhaps one of the biggest things I’m struggling to find balance with is teaching. I decided to take a break from it altogether when I moved to give myself time to get acclimated and keep my focus on my studies, but not even a week into school I found myself handing in a resume to teach at the school. This has me so torn. My passion, my calling, my love is teaching. I’ve never found anything that fills me up the way sharing the practice of yoga does. And yet, I’m also craving time away from it. Craving a time where I can focus on my own practice, my own life, my own experiences. Not creating someone else’s.
Maybe the answer is to take time off. Maybe the answer is to just sub, not to have a full schedule. Maybe the answer is somewhere in between or far away from any of that. I would never dream of leaving teaching forever, but perhaps there’s value in a sabbatical to allow myself to adjust and embrace the new elements of my life.
The fact is, I don’t know the answer, I don’t know the perfect balance for any aspect of my life right now. And maybe, just maybe, the answer doesn’t fit so perfectly in that Venn Diagram. The lines could be blurred, the efforts could spill over, the time could be divided in a different way. Life and its curiosities haven’t been boiled down to a science, no matter how badly the perfectionist inside of me wishes it was.
The message I’ve been hearing loud and clear from those around me is “It’s okay to take time for yourself.” But I’m also hearing, “It can be comforting to familiar projects and jobs during times where everything feels new.” Ultimately, it comes down to looking forward, trying new things and new ratios on until you find yourself in a future that feels right.
In bakasana, crow pose, you have to keep your gaze forward or you will lose your balance and fall flat on your face. If you keep looking back or looking at the ground where you might fall, you’re asking for failure. Maybe the key here is the same: keep looking forward. Keep embracing new. Keep taking it one breath at a time.