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“failure means you’re going somewhere you haven’t been before.”

For some of us, learning that it’s okay to fail is a life skill that pays off big. In a recent Fighting Monkey workshop with the incredible Elke Schroeder, she encouraged us to try to fail at least 40% of the time (and more, if we felt up for it). In the movement “task” we were working on, failing meant falling out of balance.

“Failure means you’re going somewhere you haven’t been before,” she said. I knew just what she meant.

I lived in a state of chronic hyper-vigilance for several years. I know all too well how it feels to be on-edge, jumpy, and feeling as though something terrible is about to happen. My sympathetic nervous system was in full throttle, ready to save me from whatever danger it perceived. A beeping horn in traffic would send my pulse racing, temperature hot, breath short and fast.

Because I had learned to equate the feeling of activation in the body (faster pulse, heat rising, etc.) with danger that needed to be avoided, I did everything that I could to avoid it. No scary movies, no excess caffeine, no loud noises.

It was during this time that my personal trainer set me up with a piece of balancing equipment (it was an Axius Core Trainer— they’re pretty amazing) and asked me to do some squats. The task itself was simple and logically, I could see that it was totally safe. The worst-case scenario was that the board wobbled and one edge hit the floor. At the same time, inside my body, I felt as though I was in mortal danger. I was nauseated, my skin was clammy, and I desperately wanted to get out of the situation.

Although I would not have (during that time) chosen to put myself into a situation that felt so deliberately stressful, it was exactly what I needed. In giving myself that time to feel the experience in my body, and then a few moments after completing the task to integrate and settle, I taught my nervous system that it is possible to experience activation, live through it successfully, and return to a more regulated state.

Our movement practice, when done in a safe and controlled environment, is the perfect place to begin to de-couple the threat response from a feeling of activation. In other words, we can learn to experience heightened arousal (pulse rising, breath speeding up, etc) as anticipation or excitement rather than fear.

How do we work with this? First, we need a safe space to practice. Whether that’s in the privacy of our own home, or with a trusted teacher or coach, we can find some curiosity around the experience. If failure is just visiting a place we haven’t been before, then we can see how it feels to be a tourist– check out the scenery.

Whether you simply put yourself into a challenging position (as in a balance pose that feels stressful) or allow yourself to fall, or fail, the key is to let yourself feel what happens. Experience the activation in the body. Does your temperature rise, do you feel your muscles tensing, are you breathing more quickly? Whether you fall or not, perform the exercise, and then give yourself permission to feel the relief as your mind and body regulate you back to a calmer state. Take a moment to let that feeling really install itself in your body. Repeat as needed.

Elke’s words reminded me that our movement practice is a great place to practice failure and strengthen our resilience. The more we repeat this experience, the more we re-pattern our brains with this new neuronal path. We become more confident and durable as we learn to live through these cycles of activation and regulation. We can aim to fail more often, taking bigger risks, not just in our movement practices, but in our lives and work

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