Practice Diary: Memoirs of a Handstand

Attempting handstand against a tiki hut.
Attempting handstand against a tiki hut. (July 2011)

Handstand is one of those poses that continues to challenge me and has been evolving for nearly 15 years. I remember my first attempt at Cyndi Lee’s Om Yoga in New York City. I was a teenager, a university student, and excited about everything new that yoga was offering me. I remember being at the wall, giggling with my friend at our shared clumsiness. I never made it up and a few moments later he somehow managed to fall sideways and on top of me. We didn’t think too much of it.

I was never much of a cartwheeler or adventurous mover as a child, despite a few months at the tumblebees gymnastics studio. So, this feeling of playfulness and the beginning of an inversion was re-setting something playful in me that got stalled many years before.

As I took more classes and the handstand failed to progress, it became less playful and more of something I wanted to achieve. Something I would obtain in any way shape or form. I’ve told the story before of an over-muscled attempt in a gym class about ten years ago where I broke a mirrored wall. I was a bit ashamed but kept trying and coveting the beautiful lifts I saw around me.

Then I hurt myself. Focused just on getting up, I did get up but pushed so much force through an unstable structure that I jammed my wrist and couldn’t practice in a group class for nearly a year. That set me back a bit, but taught me a lot about restraint and lead me to more contemplative practices.

As I healed, I built up more strength in alignment-based classes and eventually returned to face my nemesis at the wall. Sometimes I could get up, but usually winded and frustrated myself in the process. I became a bit too hesitant, a bit too frightened. Whatever, it’s just a handstand. A rather commanding teacher saw me struggling.  I told her “I usually get one good attempt a day, and that’s it.” She laughed, said “Is that what you’ve convinced yourself?”and walked away.  Busted. Is this how I face a challenge – just adopt a defeatist attitude?

So what was up? I had enough sense not to over do it, I had the strength, I was learning the alignment, but a calm and playful approach to the fear was definitely lacking. It was no longer about the pose, but the process around the pose that was challenging me physically and mentally. For a while, I had been afraid of failing, for a longer while afraid of falling and injury, and now the fear had just morphed into a blob of laziness.

It’s important to note that some fears of handstand should be respected -if you have injuries or conditions that would make it unsuitable – but that’s not me.

But why should I care? It’s just a pose! In this emotional garbage that gets pulled up around the pose I had major motivations to either avoid it or confront it with guns blazing.

I started going to classes where I had to confront my fear and complacency but try to do so without either running away or running towards the pose. Unassisted handstands in the middle of the room -alright! I practiced cautiously, but came up, and fell down. Came up and fell down. When I knew I was at my limit, I would stop. OK, making a bit of progress.

I remember when it all started to come together about two and a half years ago on the beach. I was practicing and my dad was amused and taking photos of me. In a very typical Florida way, I found a tiki hut I could use as my makeshift wall for inversion practice. I had gotten the knack of the kick-up by then but usually clung to the wall for dear life.

But that day, with the wind blowing, the surf crashing, and my Dad watching and encouraging I was able to float away from the wall for the first time. I was in my home, filled with love, experiencing this rush of energy. There was some sort of alchemy of calm energy, love, focus and strength that managed to get me upside down.

Of course my Dad missed that in the picture, but it remains in my memory.

My handstand continues to change and develop or fall back, but I know these three things about this pose and whatever poses challenge me or you:

  1. The Process is the pose, not the final shape it takes.
  2. The Process is complex, but understanding comes in time through slow, incremental developments
  3. The Process must be savoured and deeply felt, as it contains the stuff of life.

That’s why we do the challenge poses. There is no rush to achieve, and there is never failure – only learning through the process.