Everyone has yoga poses they love and poses they hate. The ones you love tend to be either those that come easily and naturally to you, or the ones you’ve worked on so long and well that they feel great and you want to stay in them forever. I love side angle pose, pigeon, and lately even half moon pose, which is challenging for me but really a pleasure to do as I get better at it. On the other side, I’ve never been a huge fan of utkatasana (chair pose), and virasana just hurts me.

And of course, everyone loves savasana. That’s corpse pose, when you lie on your back and relax at the end of your practice.

But then there’s your Pose. The one you have a love-hate relationship with. It feels like your nemesis but you also desperately want to be its best friend. It’s the pose that resonates most with you emotionally. For me, that’s adho mukha vrkasana — handstand.

When I started doing Anusara, almost three years ago, I was in a bad way. Let’s call it rock bottom. I’d finally gotten to the “I can’t take it another minute” place with my perception that I was failing miserably at parenting. I’d expended so much energy just to keep my head above water, which meant not looking at how horrible I felt. I had indulged in such ridiculous escapism that it ended up destroying several friendships, ones it turned out perhaps weren’t the best for me but at the time felt important. I felt exhausted, alone, defeated. Like there was a long, hard climb ahead of me. I didn’t yet know what a lifeline Anusara was going to be.

What I did know was that the first time I was in a class where we did handstand, my stomach dropped. I didn’t want to do it. I immediately thought, “I can’t do that.” I was feeling so off-balance, so ungrounded, that being upside down sounded horrible.

So I just sort of hoped for the best, and even with an assist from someone who knew what she was doing, I ended up with my feet hitting the wall, my arms buckling and my head whacking the ground. I’d known that was how it would go, because I had no idea what I was doing and blindly threw myself into it. I didn’t want to do it, and I didn’t believe I could do it, so my reaction was to just jump into the void.

Clearly this isn’t only about handstands. It’s about whatever you feel unsure or afraid of and how you approach it. It’s about thinking “I can’t control this, I’m going to fail” and instead trying to say, “I can take some control in this scary situation. I can be aware of the placement of my body and mind and emotions. I can take note of how comfortable or uncomfortable it feels. I can prepare myself before I attempt to go upside down. I have the power and potential to prepare myself, to take control and to feel my way through this.”

At the time I didn’t have it in me to do any of that. As much as I’d always been a person who liked to feel in control, like I knew what was going on, when I felt uncomfortable or unsure I often tossed myself headlong into things. It was a perfect recipe for wiping out and landing on my head. Apparently — strangely — the idea of taking control, of acknowledging that I can do so even if I feel unsure about whether it’s possible, was scarier to me than throwing caution to the wind and risking injury. Was I more willing to get hurt than to acknowledge my own strength? Or maybe I just didn’t believe that I had that strength?

As I have since learned, here is the proper way to get into a handstand. You start in downward dog, then rise to your toes and walk your feet closer to your hands, simultaneously moving your shoulders forward so they are over your hands. Then you melt your heart. You really engage your entire body. Someone spots you on the first leg you put up, and you push into their hand and consciously decide when to raise the other leg. You bring them up slowly, with control. You push down into the ground with your hands while you flex your feet and press your shins in. When you’re done, you bring your legs down slowly, with control.

Over the past few years I’ve learned a lot about myself, and a lot about Anusara and the way to align my body in each pose. And of course I’m stronger physically. But it’s no coincidence that as I’ve become stronger emotionally, my handstand has improved as well.

It came slowly, with much frustration along the way and much fear about putting my shoulders over my hands (wouldn’t I just fall forward?). Sometimes I’d cry after yet another failed attempt, or tears would well in my eyes during savasana while I thought about how I just couldn’t do it, how I’d never be able to do it.

Now I can do it, with that assist, with no problem. It doesn’t feel so alien and horrible. It feels powerful. I once held it for 30 seconds. I’m still working on kicking up by myself, and though it still scares me a bit, I’m a little obsessed with the idea. Sometimes when I’m lying in bed before sleep I imagine all the steps in my head, especially the moment that I think of as the tipping point, where your legs are either going to keep going up or come back down. I’ve reached it in class a few times, but I haven’t yet been able to move through it.

Still, I feel so much more capable. Physical strength and knowledge of how to properly do a pose helps. But it’s ultimately a matter of belief and intent. I can make choices about how I approach things, how I relate to other people. I don’t have to just jump and brace for the hurt.


3 Comments on “Handstands”

  1. Kim says:

    Love this! In class once, Emma quoted someone who said that whenever they hear someone say “I can’t do this”, what they are really saying is, “I can’t believe I’m about to do this”…I often tell this to women in labor now!


  2. Ellen says:

    My friend at the gym today was trying to talk me into yoga. I am not the yoga “type,” but this was very convincing!


  3. […] handstand, or adho mukha vrksasana (please humor me, I’ve got to learn all these names), is my […]


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