In many ways, I feel like I never really stopped working on my Playful Self-Discipline project. I have stopped writing about it as much, but I still work hard to apply the principles to the way I show up in the world. How can I approach self-discipline in a playful way, with lightness and compassion in one hand and firmness and consistency in the other?
One recent Playful Self-Discipline focus has been yoga. I guess it’s not all that recent, since I’ve been doing yoga on and off for at least 10-12 years. For maybe 10 of those years I was the type of yoga student who showed up for a class every single week but never practised at home. Last fall I signed up for a subscription to YogaGlo and started practising at home 3-4 times a week and suddenly – “Hey! I’m actually getting better at this!”
So, by the winter I’m practising almost every day, and starting to actually work at getting myself into asanas that I’ve never tried before. Poses that I had attempted in my previous classes but never really got due to fear and intimidation – inversions and arm balances specifically. And I found myself at an in-person yoga workshop, asking the instructor if she’d be willing to teach me how to do a headstand. And she says yes, and I find myself somehow upside down, breathing hard and almost completely disoriented and intensely focused at the same time.
“How is it?” she asked
“Strange!” I replied
“Yeah,” she said, “it’s like it takes a minute to realize that yeah, I can be safe here.”
And that phrase, “I can be safe here,” went right into my brain like a dandelion seed and started to sprout. Now I see it as a question. Balancing upside down – can I be safe here? Struggling with overwhelming feelings – can I be safe here? Staring down my irrational responses – can I be safe here? Worries about inadequacies, failures, criticisms, imperfection – can I be safe here?
It’s such a difficult question to answer because sometimes we’re not safe. Sometimes we do come crashing down and hurt ourselves. Sometimes we get hurt by the actions of others. It’s not about simply accepting any and all situations that come our way as healthy and safe.
Sometimes we need to take action to be safe. That headstand was safe for me in that moment because I had put in the work to develop the shoulder and core strength required to hold my bodyweight against the pull of gravity, and I had a knowledgeable guide to spot me. Safety from criticism, imperfection and failure requires the work of self-empathy and compassion. Want to guess which would I rather do, chaturanga after chaturanga or acceptance and compassion for my failures? It’s all hard work. Kinda painful. But it builds strength and resilience, especially if I can approach it with some warmth and lightness.
Sometimes safety requires a counter-intuitive letting go of defences. I had avoided learning how to do a headstand or a somersault all through elementary and secondary school because of a bad experience I had at 4 years old, when I hit my head on the ground while attempting to do a somersault at preschool. As an older kid I wrote it off as one of those weird things about me – I just hate being upside down. In order to actually be safe in a headstand I had to let go of that fear and that version of myself that hated being upside down. I’m not 4 years old anymore, and I might turn out to be an adult who likes doing headstand, but only if I have the discipline to actually get upside down despite the fear.
I’m still thinking about how this question applies to parenting. I am pretty sure that the process of development, in both kids and adults, is about learning to be safe in increasingly unfamiliar and challenging situations. Our job as parents is to be the supportive guide, the person spotting our kids while they test their abilities. The comforting and nourishing home base to return to after extending out into the world. The teacher who helps them practice so they actually can be safe, and the lifeguard who makes them get out of the pool during a lightning storm. It’s our job to ask that question alongside them – is this level of challenge appropriate? Can you be safe here?