The yoga practice is a glorious dance of the physical possibilities in the human body. An advanced practice can take your breath away as easily as it can expand your ujjayi. It can twist and turn in directions that make an artist quiver with creative jealousy and inspire even the heaviest of sloths to entertain a change of mind.
That being said — it can also be intimidating as hell.
I learned, trained, teach and practice in Santa Monica, California. It is the mecca of yoga these days and the cream of the crop when it comes to beautiful practices. It’s hard to find a level 2-3 class that doesn’t have at least one yogi soaring through the air in-between asanas or adding what appears to be a level-X variation to every pose. It can often be inspiring and mind-blowing but it can also be, in a word, daunting.
When life gets busy, it’s easy to get out of balance – emotionally, physically and mentally – from trying to maintain equilibrium between the activities that fulfill us and the demands of life. Very rarely are we able to maintain the ‘great Tree Pose of balance,’ as our lives are in a constant state of change.
A yoga teacher’s suggestion to invert has the power to illicit a range of emotions from students: bewilderment, fear, anxiety, aversion, rejection, excitement, butterflies — you fill in the blank.
Purposely turning ourselves upside-down is contrary to our physical nature, and yet the benefits of upending ourselves are many. Just as yoga gently encourages us to move away from any unconscious habitual patterns, the invitation to invert is simply another way to shake things up, step out of a rut.
In 2006, Rodney and I had the privilege of taking a few classes with Mr. Iyengar. When it came time for Headstand, I informed the yoga master that I didn’t do them — I have a seizure disorder that I always felt was aggravated by Headstands. He told me, in no uncertain terms, to stand on my head now! And I did. I stayed up, and only came down when he said it was time.
By then, the rest of the class had moved on to Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero Pose), and, trying to be a good student, I came down from Headstand and sat right up to join the rest of the class. That’s the point at which he slapped my back and said, “That is your problem, not Headstand: You transition too quickly and mindlessly. I am sure that you do this in your life as well. You never let anything settle in.” Wow, what an acute teaching for a chronic issue!
I don’t like being upside down and backwards. This makes Handstand a challenge for me. I don’t trust that my fellow students can hold me steady while I substitute my hands for feet. It’s a reflection of my own limited thinking, not an accurate assessment of their competence.
Still, I try. I go to class and work gradually. First, I achieved Headstand, which I couldn’t do a year ago. It’s a stepping-stone to the loftier goal of Handstand.
Yoga is always putting new challenges in our paths. Just when we think we have achieved a difficult asana, we discover that it was the modified version. It taught me to give up hope.
“Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.” ~George Iles
When you run a yoga studio, you hear it all. From the annoyingly trivial (“So and so was in my spot!”) to the enormously overwhelming (“I’ve been diagnosed with cancer.”). Some of the stories I’ve heard over the years are so powerful and transcendent, they’ve reached into my life and left an indelible imprint of hope. This is one of those stories:
Her limbs twisted by muscular dystrophy, she wandered in and unrolled her yoga mat. I was concerned — mine is a rigorous class, and I wanted to protect her without making a spectacle. It’s a line every teacher walks with any new student, but her circumstances had me feeling more conflicted about how hands on or off I should be than usual.
Pain, numbness, tingling? Do any of these describe the feelings you have when you come out of an asana? Please heed these warnings! Not all yoga poses are safe for all people. Just follow expert yoga teacher Patricia Sullivan’s story in the October 2010 issue of Yoga Journal. She painfully details a journey of denial in which her headstand caused (yes, caused) crippling nerve pain that eventually culminated in her falling asleep at the wheel and driving off the road into a lagoon.
INVERSIONS are coveted among yogis. Yoga is one of the few systems of health that suggest you regularly turn yourself upside down for extended periods of time. The health claims are astonishing: it reverses aging, increases blood flow to the brain, regulates pituitary and pineal glands, relieves constipation, tranquilizes and mellows the nervous system, and the list goes on. Responses vary from person to person, but a regular practice of turning upside down to one degree or another is soothing and balancing, and it can be a necessary step for many to stop their chattering minds prior to meditation.