“Go ahead and press up into your headstand.”
Ugh, not those words again. Please, anything but that.
It was 1999 and, yes, I was in a yoga class. Folded forward in Prasarita Padottanasana, the crown of my head firmly planted on my mat. My spine was lengthened and my hands were aligned in the perfect tripod position. I knew my core was strong and I could balance at the wall upside-down with no problem. But, there was no way I was going to attempt a headstand in the center of the room. Hell no!
What if I fell? What if I came crashing down and everyone in class turned and looked at me? Maybe I was not meant to be upside-down, defying gravity and balancing on my head. I am a human after all.
What if I hurt myself? I knew I had mastered all the preparation poses for headstand; that, technically, I was ready for Sirsasana, King of all poses. But, I was still not about to lift my legs into the air and attempt this feat in the center of the room.
I chose to take a restorative instead. Maybe people will think I am on my cycle and can’t go upside down. Oh, my fragile ego. Was I really worried about what other people thought in a yoga class?
The truth? Yes, I was.
I was practicing with some serious yogis and they had headstand nailed. The teacher encouraged people to go to the wall if they did not already have headstand in their practice. Students that “mastered” poses were praised. And, these yogis with their advanced practices all hung out together in some kind of advanced yogi clique. It was like being back in middle school all over again. And, this time around, I was not about to look like a fool.
So, that was fine. I went to the wall, time after time. I kicked up, found the wall, and then found my balance. I breathed and received the benefits of this amazing pose. Sort of.
Technically, I was in headstand according to all definitions, even though I was at the wall. Yet, for me, something was missing.
Fast forward 15 odd years…
I am teaching a class, demonstrating headstand in the center of the room. After I go through all of the instructions, students begin their headstand practice and I walk around to help. I see a student press up into headstand. I feel goose bumps rise all over my body. This girl has been studying yoga for two months. Holy Headstand. I watch her focus and breathe and be in this royal pose for some time and then ease her way down.
It was her very first headstand.
When she came down, the other students were palpably excited for her. There may have even been a high five from the person next to her. She had a big smile on her face and then settled into child’s pose.
In the last year, since I moved to the east coast and started teaching at a small new studio, I have witnessed so many people experience their first headstand. I had no idea it would be such a special, almost sacred, thing to be part of.
There is one student in particular that comes to mind. A woman who is very intelligent about her practice and always listens intently to her body to take good care of herself. She lifted up into her first headstand in my class and I had actual tears come to my eyes. It was a special moment for her and her practice.
It was a special moment for me, as her teacher, to witness her listening to her body’s wisdom and trusting herself enough to know when to go for her headstand.
After that class, I went home and thought about why it felt so meaningful for me to see this particular student do her first headstand. My personal journey with headstand had been a truthful metaphor for my life. For years (yes years!), I did not try headstand in the center of the room. Part of me would think, “Who cares. It is just a pose. My practice is so much more than the physical asana.” Once again, yoga gave me a tangible practice to process aspects of my life on which I was working.
When I think back to that time period, there were several things happening in my life where I was choosing to not take a risk or move to the next level- because of fear. Because of my fear of failure and not being perfect. I was choosing a job that didn’t make my heart happy. I was tolerating a boss that bordered on abusive. I was putting off applying to grad school. And, I was creating major distractions all over the place to keep myself from realizing the reality of my situation.
But, here’s the thing about this universe we are living in: it doesn’t let us stay stuck for too long. There is a finite amount of time where we can ignore truth.
For me, the universe starts to give me subtle messages and taps on the shoulder when my actions are not aligned with my heart’s desire. When I am not moving towards something that contributes to the greater good, those messages then become not-so-subtle. And if I still don’t listen, they become a swift-kick-me-in-the-arse.
Which brings me back to my headstand. In every area I was prepared and ready for Sirsasana. Every area, except emotionally. And, the feelings that arise during our physical practice cannot be ignored. They are a very important part of practice and of the yoga process. When I would go to the wall and practice going upside-down, I realized I was turning my back on an important part of myself. I was not trusting me or the yoga. I was letting my ego run the show. I was using the excuse of caution to avoid growth. And, it was a perfect mirror of what was happening in my life at the time.
Then, there was a day, no different than any other day, where I decided to choose trust instead of fear. I decided to choose love instead of ego. In the middle of a class, when we got to headstand, I decided to go for it.
I tried and I fell with a loud thud. I was fine, I knew how to tuck my chin and roll. I saw a few students look over at me and I just smiled. I smiled and tried again. And again.
“It takes time for the beginner to become oriented to his surroundings while he is balancing on his head…The directions and instructions will appear confusing and he will find it an effort to think clearly or act logically. This is due to the fear of a fall. The best way to overcome fear is to face with equanimity the situation of which one is afraid. Then one gets the correct perspective, and one is not frightened any more. To topple over while we are learning the headstand is not as terrible as we imagine. If one overbalances, one should remember to loosen the interlocked fingers, relax, go limp and flex the knees. Then one will just roll over and smile…After one has learned to balance at the wall, one should try headstand in the middle of the room. There will be few spills and one must learn the art of falling. Learning to do Sirsasana in the middle of the room gives great confidence.”
~ B.K.S. Iyengar
Eventually, I found my breath in the pose and stopped falling.
I soaked up the benefits; blood flow to the brain, pituitary and pineal glands, clarity of thinking, strengthening of the lungs, calming of the nervous system, toning the abs, legs, shoulders and neck, massaging and cleansing of the internal organs and the lifting of depressed moods.
And, as life’s harmony has it, I was also finding my breath in my life off the mat. I quit my crazy job and I got a job doing what I loved that, a year later, led to me creating a successful business that was a pure expression of my life’s passion.
So, as I apply the lessons learned in headstand to new poses and life experiences, I remind myself—to topple over is not as terrible as we imagine. We learn the art of falling. We smile.
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