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Playing the part of an alpaca, I schlepped to my car after work in the city. Out from behind a row of parallel-parked cars emerged a person dressed in all black, twice my size. He ripped leaves off an elm and cursed.

“Prove yourself to me!” he spat, crossing the middle of the street toward me. I had reached the hood of my car, keys in hand. There was no way I could make it into the driver’s side door, especially not with all my bags.

I stopped. Stood. Waited. The side street was quiet, otherwise.

“Where’s my bike?” she demanded, because by this time I saw it was a she, her long brown hair and wild eyes, her chest heaving underneath the folds of her black shirt.

“I don’t have your bike,” and I realized it was me calmly talking. I was taller than her, but she was two feet away from doing… what?

“Ughgnnph!” she grumbled, turning on her heels and stomping past me, alongside my car, and onto the sidewalk.

“Was your bike stolen?” I asked gently. Oh God, why did I say that? Why am I still glued here and not getting in my car?

“Yeah,” and it sounded like you just found out your favorite flavor of ice cream sold out a scoop ahead of you in the shop.

“I’m sorry to hear that.” And then I scrambled inside my car while she stomped the pavement out of sight. I locked the doors. I noticed, as one often does post-shock, that my heart had a beat, as if it had stopped and was catching up for lost time.

I don’t know if she ever had a bike, or if she was mentally ill, or if she was just really, really angry. But that night she opened my heart back up to fear.

No time to react

I want to believe that there are enough of us in the world who occupy space by not running away from our problems. Maybe our role is to stand calmly still and let our souls speak without prompting. That’s when we find out who we are: when we have no time to react.

This is what makes yoga so lovely and yet so deceptively challenging. Delaying your reaction, or not reacting at all, to your thoughts is our life’s great quest. (It’s Willow’s, too. She has been barking non-stop because of a painter in our house as I write this.)

On our mats, every pose is a container for reaction. And it’s not just the poses — it’s how and what poses are taught. We form opinions about them the first time we come to our mats. We avoid, or try, those we think we’re capable of doing. All my feet and hands on the ground? Sure. Just my head? No, thank you.

We pursue our lives with a terminal reaction to fear.

What makes you so fearful that just the mere thought sets you off? Place it right in your heart and let the beat bust through. Over many heartbeats you get to do this, and it’s a little like picking up after your kids or pets — a constant placement and plucking and returning to order.

During these moments of self-compassion you learn to stand your ground and stop running away.

Your whole life, people will approach you with intentions unknown. But it is how you approach yourself that steels you for the moment when things could get ugly.

When you rest in your reaction (you know the one), and you wonder what you could have done or said differently (for the hundredth time), maybe the best thing you can do is say to yourself, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Try it: Knee-to-Nose Pose

If ninjas did yoga, I think they’d practice this pose. There’s something primal and instinctual about Knee-to-Nose Pose, although it’s often reaction-inducing, especially in your abdominals, arms and brain. As in, “This is a yoga pose? Yuck!”

There’s a sweet trick to befriending this pose: Don’t think about crunching in, or even trying to touch your knee to your nose; think about lifting up from the back of the heart. When you round up and press the ground away through strong arms, you create a hollow space for your knee to nestle toward your chest.

  1. Press your palms into the mat, extending through your thumb and pinky finger. Feel the back of the chest lift as the shoulder blades widen. Send a deep inhale and exhale into the mid-back and relax your neck, keeping the gaze down.
  2. Exhale and firm again into your palms as you bring the right knee toward your chest and drop the head toward the floor, chin tucked. Actively flex the right foot and extend the toes away from you. Inhale smoothly, then exhale and send the leg back.
  3. On your next exhale, hug the left knee in. As you cycle your knees forward on your exhales, keep the opposite leg reaching back and inner thigh lifted but glutes low to remain in Plank.
  4. Do the pose three times on each side, then gently drop the knees to the mat and rest in Child’s Pose.