So, in my Tuesday night Gentle Yoga class (oh, hey, I’m taking yoga classes, that’s a new thing in 2016!), just after the Orlando nightclub shootings, our instructor asked us what we needed from class that night. We were all feeling frazzled and fragile and were pretty unanimous in our need for peace and grounding. With that information, class began.
We went though a series of breathing exercises and our usual Sun Salutations (though more gently and deliberately-paced this time, less “flowy”). I was feeling my Om and pleased with myself that, for once, I didn’t get lost in the Sun Salutations and end up off-pace from the rest of the class. I felt grounded and peaceful.
And then our instructor asked a question.
“Who here as done handstands before?”
I don’t recall a single hand raising.
Next thing I know, the class is lining up against the wall, preparing to do Downward-Facing Dog poses, with our butts facing the wall. “The strength that you use for your Downward Dog pose is really all the strength you’re going to need for the way we’ll do a handstand,” our instructor informed us.
Well okay then!
So here we were, down dogging at the wall, then comes the instruction to walk our feet up the wall until…TA-DA! HANDSTAND!*
My Afraid Brain: OMGWTFBBQSUPERCALAFRAGILISTICNOPENOPENOPE
I have a pretty good handle on Downward Dog (I would figure out in future weeks that I needed some minor tweaks in form, but the fundamentals were there). But I have NEVER had upper body strength and I have NEVER had core strength, certainly never enough of either to support my big body!
Still, I was making so much progress in my practice, I owed it to myself to at least make a go of it. So I got myself back into Downward Dog, then tried to push my left foot up the wall, only to feel it slide along the wall…NOPE. I tried pushing up the right foot instead…NOPENOPENOPE.
My Afraid Brain: FOOLISH WEAKLING! WHAT PART OF NOPE DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND? IF YOU DO THIS I GUARANTEE YOU WILL CRASH AND BREAK YOUR NECK OR TURN ME TO MUSH! AND THEN WHO WILL FEED YOUR CATS? HUH? WHO?
I knelt in front of the wall, nearly defeated. After a minute or so, I got up and walked across the studio, leaving the cold wood floor for the sanctuary of my mat. I knelt on my mat and took a few sips from my water bottle, fighting back tears of…lots of stuff. Fear, frustration, anger, betrayal that after I had specifically asked for peace and grounding, we were being led into something that unleashed complete chaos in my brain. And now I was about to be a total FAILURE at yoga** and how in the hell can someone FAIL at yoga? THAT IS SO NOT THE POINT OF YOGA THAT’S WHAT EVERYONE KEPT TELLING ME.
My Afraid Brain: HOW ABOUT CHILD’S POSE AND YOU CRY INTO YOUR MAT FOR THE REST OF THE CLASS? YOU CAN HANDLE THAT, SINCE YOU DON’T NEED ARM STRENGTH TO KEEL OVER AND CRY. **
I took another few sips of my water, and then scooted my mat back against the wall. I knelt with my back to the wall and then pushed myself into another Downward Dog. I held the pose for a few breaths.
One more long, deep breath. One more long exhale…
My Afraid Brain: DON’T. YOU. DARE…
And then I pushed my left foot up the wall, and my right foot followed. I did a fucking handstand!
AND I DIDN’T DIE
Me: SUCK IT, AFRAID BRAIN!
We finished the class in Savasana and chanted our final Oms before rolling up our mats and putting away our props. As I was packing up my mat and getting ready to leave, my instructor came over to me and asked me if I was all right.
“I’m okay,” I said. “It’s just…this went WAY out of my comfort zone, tonight. I have never had upper body strength or core strength to do a handstand.”
“But you do!” My instructor quickly responded.
“Well, I know that, NOW!”
We said our good-nights and I rode my bicycle home. I may have been feeling a bit invincible, since not even a stiff breeze off the bay was slowing my roll.
Home again, I stowed my mat and looked around my apartment. I found one tiny bit of wall space in my bedroom suitable for handstands, so I did another handstand.
Wall-supported handstands are now a staple of my practice, like Warrior II, Pigeon Pose, balance poses, and Downward Dog. I do a handstand almost every day. My goal is to hold them for 20 regular, even breaths every time. Some days, though, the handstand feels finished after 12 or 15 breaths, and there have been a couple of days that I have felt so wiped out that I gave myself a pass for the day, rather than risk injury. Yoga is, after all, about noticing what is going on with my body and honoring what my body needs (or needs not).
Like the rest of my practice, the lessons from my handstand stay with me off of the mat. When I am faced with a situation that seems difficult–even impossible–I remember that I do every day the thing that I was convinced I would never, ever be able to do.
Sure I may go up and come right back down from my handstand, or I might make a mistake or two during my day, or I might not pass an exam, or have some other undesired outcome on a project.
But the only way that I can fail is to not show up at all.
And when I do show up, I might just amaze myself by doing another Impossible Thing.
*Not to be confused with Tadasana, which is, basically, what I call Power Standing (a.k.a. Mountain Pose) and is done on your feet, not on your hands.
**This was all manufactured in my brain, not anything at all what my amazing instructor and beautiful classmates were saying.
***My Afraid Brain is a real asshole, sometimes.