I didn’t learn how to ski until I was well into my 20s. I remember feeling like an ogre as I took the escalator to the top of the bunny slope, surrounded by children under the age of five. My teenage cousins pointed and laughed while simultaneously sending Snapchats to their friends. I didn’t disagree with them — it was a sight to see.
After two hours of instruction, a collision with a tree and several butt bruises later, I’d completed my first day of snow sports. My aunt commiserated with me. “It’s much easier to learn when you’re younger, and not afraid to fall,” she said. Clearly she’d seen my hesitation every time I picked up speed and leaned backward, grimacing and letting my butt take the fall. After a dislocated kneecap, two herniated discs and countless muscle tears, it felt like the smart thing to do. To say I had a fear of falling is an understatement.
A similar panic struck me as I headed to an inversion workshop recently. What if I fall? What if I get hurt? What if I herniate a disc, or even worse, break my neck? I’ve been practicing yoga for five years, but have resisted going upside down — unless supported by a wall — and trying other poses that take me out of my comfort zone. After all, pushing myself too far has led to many of my injuries, including one that kept me away from exercise for nearly two years.
The instructor started by asking people why they were there. Everyone who spoke up had the same answer: they were afraid to fall. I looked around the room and saw the same fear I had in my eyes while skiing. I was clearly in good company.
What the instructor said next has since stuck with me. She said that falling, and failing, is imperative to learning. She also taught us that falling isn’t so bad — if you do it the right way, that is.
As we practiced headstand, I noticed the fear of falling had lifted for many. The man next to repeatedly crashed to the ground, his smile growing with each impact. I heard strangers congratulating one another after toppling onto someone else’s mat. I heard laughter.
Still hesitant, I asked the teacher to come over and talk me through exactly what she’d instructed against: how not to fall. I instantly turned toward the wall, my place of comfort, and my safety net. She promptly turned me toward the center of the room and told the entire class to listen, and watch.
She explained that in an effort to master her own headstand, she always turned to the wall. While the wall is great for gaining confidence and learning good form, it’s a crutch. Because of her reliance on the wall, it took her years to feel comfortable without it. It wasn’t until she embraced fear and embraced falling that she truly learned.
Inspired as I was, I still didn’t want to try a headstand without support — especially while in front of an audience. But I tried anyway.
I placed my forearms in a triangle on the floor, my hands intertwined and gripping each other tightly. I closed my eyes to shut out the room, and in an effort to shut off my brain, and placed the top of my head between my hands. A few deeps breaths and gentle kicks later, I was in headstand.
I’m not sure if I was shocked by my own success or if blood was rushing too quickly to my head, but I felt instantly at peace. I even started chatting to the fellow students as if I weren’t balancing upside down on my head. There wasn’t a fleck of fear pulsing through my body.
After what felt like five minutes, I slowly lowered my legs and returned to my normal, upright position. My neck wasn’t broken, there were no signs of herniated discs and I was even smiling.
I left the workshop beaming. Yes, I’d somewhat successfully tackled three inversions — handstand, forearm stand and headstand. Yes, I’d balanced on my head in the center of the room. But more importantly, I’d fallen. And each fall had made me stronger, more in tune with my body and more liberated from fear.
It made me think about how many times I’ve fallen in life — physically, personally, professionally. In every instance, I’ve gotten up. And I’ve become stronger, wiser and more resilient. It also made me think about how many times I’ve let fear get in the way of new experiences, and potentially my own happiness.
Though I’m far from fearless, I’m no longer afraid to fall. Because sometimes falling is what leads to your greatest achievements — or at the very least, some impressive air time.