The Habit of a Lifetime

"We can throw away the habit of a lifetime in a few minutes if we use our brains"
            - F.M. Alexander

I'm climbing to the top of a very narrow 25-foot ladder. The truth is, I lost count after about 18 rungs up. From the safety of the ground it didn't seem so high up, but I am still climbing and the cold metal rungs are hurting the soles of my bare feet. With each step I am a little more concerned about the growing distance between me and the ground, and my breath gets shallower. I am wondering why I ever let my friend talk me into trapeze lessons, and why in the name of all that is holy this seemed like a good idea.

When I get to the top of the ladder I pause, then step over the two-foot gap to reach the platform where my instructor is waiting. I wait for him to hook two safety ropes to my belt, then I turn, take a wide stance with my toes curled over the edge of the platform, hold onto a pole with my left hand, and lean forward to grab the trapeze in my right. I lean way forward, totally off my balance, against my better judgment and gut instinct. He grabs the back of my belt to support me as I let go and take the trapeze in both hands, and then lean forward at an angle that I could never maintain on my own.

Before I continue there are a few facts about me worth considering.

First of all, to say I am afraid of heights is an incredible understatement. I am completely terrified of heights. Elevators and airplanes freak me out. I go up in tall buildings, look out the window, and get weak in my knees. The Wonder Wheel at Coney Island leaves me absolutely paralyzed, with tears in my eyes and in full-on panic.

Second, being upside down is just as terrifying. I was dropped on my head years ago by a dance partner, had a really bad concussion, and my issues with inversion were born.

And third, when learning new skills I habitually never go first. I am a slightly timid and quite self-conscious individual, and a solid number two or three in line when attempting new things. But the instructor selected me and I went completely against my habit, agreeing to go first in an activity that combines two of my biggest fears.

So here I am, going first in the class, expected to jump from a height that all my instincts tell me is completely nuts, then turn upside down, let go of the bar with my hands and hang from my knees as I swing back and forth before I right myself, grab the bar again, unhook my knees and hang from my hands, and finally let go of the bar and drop to my butt on the mat.

On his "ready" cue I bend my knees.

On his "hep" cue I am to jump right off the platform like I am jumping into a pool. I do not do this. Instead I unbend my knees and jerk upright, like I am trying to jump up but my feet are bolted to the platform.

He says "ready" again and I bend, then on his "hep" I do the same spastic jerky leg straightening thing again.

This happens 3 more times and I feel my embarrassment and frustration rising. "How can I forget how to jump? What is wrong with you?" I ask myself in typical self-flagellating style. At that moment, I decide that these thoughts are not useful to me, I suspend them, and I remember how simple that jump was for me 10 minutes earlier, when we jumped 5 inches off the mat on the floor.

Finally, I get the timing of it and I am off. I jump right off the platform and swing in a huge arc forward. All I hear is the creaking of the apparatus, the wind in my ears and the cheers of my friend and three other classmates. Then over these sounds comes the instructor's command: "knees up." I pull my knees to my chest and hook them over the bar. Then I hear "hands off" and with a shaky whimper I let go and arch my back in a "C," head up and arms reaching towards the ceiling. Although my habitual fears are coming up, there is a sort of timelessness that occurs. To my surprise I am kind of loving this and it is all happening so quickly but somehow I have found the space to recognize my fears, to suspend them, and to actually enjoy myself and my balls-out courageousness. I can't believe I am actually doing this; I am a total bad-ass! Sure, it is extremely challenging, my arms are already getting sore and the bar is killing my calves, but it's like I'm some amazing mix of Indiana Jones, a cotton-top tamarind monkey, and a member of Cirque du Soleil all rolled into one.

I realize that although my eyes are surprisingly open I haven't been seeing anything. I allow my sight to some back to me and I am marveling at the world from this new angle. The total time for my first ever aerial knee hang is approximately 30 seconds, but there is such a spaciousness in that moment; I am amazed at my ability to reason with myself and my choices in response to stimuli that would normally send me into fear and panic.

I hear the commands "hands up" and then "knees off." I hang by my arms and then on his "hep" I drop 5 or 6 feet to my butt on the mat. My friend is clapping, grinning wildly and hugging me. The 3 other complete strangers in the class are cheering and congratulating me, saying how well I did. I am eyes wide and smiling, shaking and slightly delirious.

Then comes a rush of much more familiar habits: I think, "Oh my gosh, I hope I don't have to do that again...that was insane!" Then I apologize to my instructors for not moving completely synchronized with their calls, for not getting both knees up perfectly, and for not doing a perfect jump the first time right off the platform. I have managed in about one minute to completely dissect the experience and define it as negative. This wicked perfectionism is a lifelong habit and it is really taking the foreground. I completely overlooked a few major accomplishments and failed to properly congratulate myself for achieving a few moments of total freedom and clarity of thought in the air, while confronting a big combination of my biggest fears, without reacting in my habitual way. I suspended my fears the moment I finally jumped and committed to being fully present in the moment, free of judgments, expectations, or memories of past experiences.

The other point that strikes me is the quickness with which I am able to diminish my accomplishments and focus on the things that didn't go perfectly. This is my "habit of a lifetime." What I continue to learn in my study and teaching of Alexander Technique is that often the habits we maintain in our thinking are much more challenging to suspend than habits in our movement and posture. There is really no separation between the two, but I have a much more challenging time releasing this perfectionism than I do letting go of a specific body part. Of course the Technique can be quite useful in recognizing and breaking habits in the use of ourselves, but this usefulness extends way beyond the "physical" habits students often want to address. It is habits of thought and a person's belief system that we are really addressing in lessons. The good posture or free movement are really just byproducts of addressing the thoughts that accompany our movements.

Eleanor Roosevelt said "Do one thing each day that scares you," and also "You must do the things you think you cannot do." My experience on the trapeze took me out of my habitual comfort zone on so many levels, and now I understand these reasoning behind these quotes a little more. Flying on that trapeze was pretty darn exhilarating, and something I never thought I would be able to do. For me the greater accomplishment was recognizing that I have a choice in my reactions. I chose in that moment to go against a few of my "habits of a lifetime" and I came out alive, understanding myself a little more deeply and viewing the world from an entirely different perspective.