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December 2019 - Yoga and Falling

Dear Yoga Friends,

The scar near my right elbow reminds me that in mid-August I fell 50 feet down the steep rocky slope of a mountain. Obviously and thankfully I survived, but the experience transformed me. My daughter and I had just completed the non-technical ascent of a 10,000 foot peak in the Sierras. On the way down we took an alternate route involving a glissade (controlled slide down snow), steeper than I anticipated, too steep in retrospect. After descending the steepest portion, I stopped to watch my daughter negotiate the pitch.

While moving to a spot to assist in case she needed that, I lost my balance. With my daughter watching in horror, I cartwheeled feet over hands down a steep rocky slope. I felt rocks with my hands, feet, and backpack-loaded back. Time stood still. I recall thinking "I'm falling and this is not good." In moments like this people often feel no fear. Fear comes later. That was the case for me. I tumbled, outstretched hands and arms protecting my head as weight cycled back to feet and legs. By some miracle I came to a stop on my feet, grasping a rock.

I took inventory: conscious, breathing, no sharp pains. I saw scrapes on limbs and some blood, but nothing looked too bad. My daughter called "Are you ok?". "Did you hit your head?" I answered "I think I'm ok!" I began making my way up the rocks to where she was perched near a flatter part of the snow bank. I said "Let's head down to our campsite." She said "Look at the blood coming out of your arm and dripping all over the snow. We need to stop to take care of this, and then maybe we should hike out and go to an ER." On my arm was a deep two-inch laceration that appeared to need stitches. I had many abrasions and smaller cuts on my body as well as bruised buttocks and hips, but the cut on my arm looked to be the worst. We bandaged it and proceeded down. I felt dull aches around my hips but could move ok.

As we descended an expansive terrain of snowfields, exquisite blue snowmelt ponds, and wildflower meadows, I felt a peculiar combination of grandeur-induced peace, and fear, because that could have been the end or a catastrophic injury for me, witnessed by my daughter. With the remaining daylight I cleansed the wound in a cold, clear pond fed by a small waterfall near our campsite, re-bandaged, covered myself with enough clothing to keep blood off my sleeping bag, and began to feel that all was well.

Five years ago, from the perspective of loss, I wrote about death and the fear of it (see Yoga and Death, July 2014). My recent experience compels me to revisit this topic and Sutra II.9 (translation from Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by B.K.S. Iyengar):

Self preservation or attachment to life is the subtlest of all afflictions. It is found even in wise men.

Having careened down a rocky slope, not particularly wise, I gained a fresh perspective and a renewed appreciation for life's miracle and opportunities. I owe my survival mostly to luck, and perhaps some form of god. But I came upon a video of a man who is able to find enough presence of mind and control of body to assume a few yoga poses during a skydiving free fall. Although I won't be trying that anytime soon, it leads me to believe that a lightness of body and focus of mind contributed at least partially to my survival, a happy outcome to which Sutra II.9 says I should not be too attached. Appropriate to contemplate as a new year approaches, because in a way, we are falling into the new year! Interested in your thoughts/reactions as always.

Namaste & Happy Holidays,



Chad Balch