Courage has many faces. The most visible face of courage, and the one that we tend to value most, is the kind found in front-page headlines or on the big screen. Heroes have it, warriors have it, survivors have it. It is a quality we all aspire to in varying degrees, yet those of us who work and live "normal" lives often feel there is little opportunity to exercise our personal courage.
However, we often discount the significance of the many little things that require trust, faith, and bravery. Learning to recognize these small opportunities is a valuable skill for times when a big crisis shakes us from our routine. When we practice hatha yoga, we initiate a process that is, by its very nature, progressive. We start with little things, and with practice we build our stamina, strength, and courage.
In the midst of this lie the seeds for transformation—opportunities to break ingrained patterns of reaction, physical and emotional.
Recognizing these patterns and determining whether you are practicing with good intentions is not easy. Ultimately, the quality of your practice can be measured by its effect on your response to the many stresses that occur in everyday life. If yoga helps you to respond more creatively and positively, then you are on the right track. Whether you are attending a beginner class or practicing at home, your first little steps in yoga take courage. And to continue to take those steps over the course of your life will require even more.
Lolasana (Pendant Pose) is a beginning arm balance that presents an experience requiring courage: the courage necessary to literally pull yourself up off the floor. The Sanskrit word lola can be translated as "fickle, frequently changing, trembling, quivering, or dangling to and fro like an earring." Interestingly, Lola is also another name for the goddess of fortune and wealth, Lakshmi, who represents the power of multiplicity.
As you begin this pose, you are likely to feel unsure; you may even tremble or quiver with fear. But like an earring hanging lightly from a delicate lobe, Lolasana, when mastered, will offer you a quality of lightheartedness, defying the "gravity" of your situation, so you sway gently with the nature of change.
To begin the pose, come down onto your hands and knees with your legs together and the tops of the feet flat. Placing your right shin over the left, cross your shins just above the ankles. Keep your knees close to each other and let your feet turn out. Slowly sit back on your heels and take weight onto your feet as you lift the right knee vertically up off the floor three to four inches. Initially, rest your hands on the knees as you settle into the preliminary part of the pose. Much like Simhasana (Lion Pose), this first stage of Lolasana helps develop flexibility in the lower legs and feet, improving knee and ankle function.
Stay in this position for three or four cycles of breath, keeping the sound of your inhalations and exhalations smooth and even. Although the sensations where the shin bones cross can be intense, have patience with your experience and visualize your shin bones softening, allowing the connective tissue of the lower legs to release.
The second part of the pose involves lifting yourself off the floor and hovering above your mat. When the wrists, arms, and/or the abdominal muscles are weak, getting "lift-off" can be a challenge, and for many, frustrating to the point of intimidation. By breaking down the process step by step, you can approach your "edge"—the point of balance necessary to achieve this pose—without panic or despair. With consistent attempts over time, you will develop the strength and poise needed for a complete lift.
From your seated position, place your hands on the floor beside your thighs, about halfway between the knee and ankle. With an exhalation, press down into your hands, fully extending your arms, and slowly lift your knees and buttocks up from the floor, keeping weight on the tops of the feet and the hands. Lift as high as you can. When you reach your maximum, very slowly lean forward until you feel the abdomen contracting. Stay here for two or three cycles of breath, holding the contraction in the belly, feeling the power in your fully extended arms.
This "training wheels" version of the pose may be practiced for weeks until your confidence increases. The ability to lift into the final pose will come from deepening the pull of the navel toward the spine and tucking the heels up into the buttocks. Avoid hopping and work slowly to develop this essential understanding.
The Swing of It
As the lift required to leave the floor is achieved, the final step in the pose is to lightly swing the legs to and fro like an earring. With concentrated effort, this final stage comes naturally. With the legs raised off the floor, suck the knees up higher and pull the feet back and forth through the arms. As the swing of your legs peaks, gravity will help initiate the movement back to center. As your knees drop, draw your buttocks back and pull your navel in strongly.
If your feet get stuck on your mat, move to a firm, smooth surface like a hardwood floor and place a folded blanket between your hands. By sliding the blanket back and forth with your feet, you can educate your abdomen and build strength.
Lolasana helps strengthen the wrists and hands, as well as the muscles of the back. It tones the abdomen and creates lightness in the legs. But most importantly, it builds the confidence, patience, and courage required for more challenging arm balances and for the turning of the unexpected crises in your life, both big and small, into wonderful opportunities for insight.
Peter Sterios is the director of Yoga Centre in San Luis Obispo, California, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.