When my youngest child went off to college last year, I asked myself, “Who am I without kids?” Yoga saved me—by helping me breathe in and out, in and out, in and out, while I explored that question.

When I lost my job last month, I asked myself, “Who am I without a job?” And I hoped yoga would save me again. Or at least keep me breathing until I figured it out.

When Life Hurts, That’s When the Real Yoga Begins

The glorious trouble with yoga is, the more you do it, the more you come face to face with yourself. At first you’re flush with the quiet, the peace, the joy that the stillness of Savasana brings you. As you go deeper into your practice, you still experience that bliss during Savasana at the end of every class—but you may have to work harder to get there.

Last week, after a five-hour marathon interview for a job I’d love but may or may not get, I really needed to do some yoga. So the next morning I went to yoga class, intent on release and relaxation. But in true yogic tradition, it didn’t prove quite that simple.

Upside Down Once More

The best yoga teachers choreograph each class as a series of asanas building to a peak posture. My yoga guru, Emma Spencer of DragonFly Yoga Studio, is such a teacher. Just my luck—or should I say karma?—in this particular class Emma was preparing us for Adho Mukha Vrksasana, aka handstand.

I hate being upside down—literally, figuratively, metaphorically, or otherwise. I live by the motto, “there’s a place for everything and everything in its place.” Starting with my head, which I believe belongs right side up. I’m just saying….

Both headstand and handstand challenge this belief—and scare me silly. To graduate from my yoga teacher training, I had to learn to do Sirshasana, the headstand. It took a private headstand class from my other yoga guru, Michelle Fleming of Sanctuary Studios, to help me face my fear, breathe through my panic, and stand on my head. I learned to do it, but I still hated it. And it still scared me.

As for handstand, well, I wasn’t even going there.

But there I was in Emma’s class, my palms pressed against the mat as I willed my legs to make the leap from down dog to handstand. Intellectually I knew that I was strong enough to hold myself up, even when my world is upside down. But each time I swung my limbs up, I’d panic just as they approached the zenith, and I’d drop them back down to earth (where I thought they belonged).

Savasana was sweet as always—and tempered by the enormous relief I felt that the handstand class was over. The same relief I’d feel once I found another job.

The next day I went to class in a particularly good mood, knowing that Emma never repeats her sequences two days in a row, and that we would not be doing handstand again.

I was right: We did headstands instead. Keep breathing, I told myself, as I again prepared for the unsettling prospect of turning myself the wrong way around.

I breathed. I wrapped my fingers together into a basket, placed my forearms on the mat, lowered my crown into that basket, raised my hips, and walked my feet up the mat towards my head. Slowly I raised my legs, and waited for the panic to set in. As it always had before. I was prepared to breathe my way through it.

But the panic never came. I lifted my legs to a full headstand, and stayed there, upside down, for at least a dozen long inhalations and exhalations. Surprised and elated by the absence of fear, I lost count.

Fear of Falling or Fear of Flying?

Getting laid off turned my world—and my self-identity—upside down. But sometimes, being upside down is just where you need to be. Yoga has helped me see that, and taught me to breathe through the falling and the flying, the peaks and the valleys, the highs and lows that mark all of our lives.

Fear aside, I’ll get another job, and I’ll learn to do a handstand. Sooner or later.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep on breathing. May you do the same.

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