During last year’s Wanderlust Festival in Squaw Valley I took my first class with vinyasa pioneer Shiva Rea.
The class was flowing freely in her liquid style when my awareness was drawn to steady, uprising legs in my periphery. Scattered amongst the 400 yogis were those floating into handstand during their transition from Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward dog) to Uttanasana (standing forward fold). Though I had watched plenty of yogis perform this powerful and graceful movement previously, in that moment I was profoundly struck. For the first time I could see handstand for myself.
It was blurry and far off in the distance but through the asana practice my body and mind was beginning to open and a warm whisper rushed into my heart. It was desire calling. In that moment, I shifted. Internally I dedicated myself to deeply feeling the experience of handstand.
Later that weekend, after another class, I impulsively blurted out my private commitment when I turned to my dear friend and teacher, Annie Adamson, and declared, “I want handstand. In the middle of the room.” Annie smiled in recognition of my will and told me to start with longer holds at the wall to build the deep, intrinsic muscles of and below the erector spinae. She began to work with me on strengthening my upper back (rhomboids), so I wouldn’t need to rely on my arm strength only. When we returned home from Wanderlust to Portland, I dove full throttle into my inspiration.
Exploring handstand, I practiced. A lot. One leg kick ups, jumping knees into chest—hover. Long holds and “L” pose with feet against the wall. I worked on my hand strength and building the muscles in my toes and feet in order to bring life to the end of my appendages. I fell over a shit ton of times. For some reason, a fear of falling, the most common obstacle in handstand practice wasn’t a big problem for me. My youthful cartwheels and “round-offs” had given me the confidence to lose my balance and fall “safely.” I dove in. Hands first.
Yogasana is but a single a facet of the internal practice of yoga. Western yoga culture very much needs to increase its focus on contemplative practices like meditation and pranayama (breath work). Nonetheless, asana, is itself, a potent tool for inner and outer transformation. The challenges of asana will bring us into contact with patterns of negative self-talk and expose our self-imposed physical and mental limitations. It will often enable us to become intimately familiar our overall health.
But there is a catch. You have to freaking practice! None of this once a week, twice a week stuff. Any stone on the path of yoga, whether it is asana, meditation, chanting, mantra, breath work, etc, requires our full devotion. My favorite of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is number 1.14 in which he describes the qualities of “practice.”
sa tu dirgha kala nairantarya sat karada sevetodridha bhumih
This sutra roughly says that there are three things that make a practice firmly rooted, stable, and effective:
• dirgha kala: a long time
• nairantarya: without interruption
• satkara: devotion – Nikki Chau.
I love this sutra because it tells us that we aren’t getting off easy. If you want to expand yourself from the inside, saddle up for the long haul. Do not let this serve as intimidation. Patanjali is simply stating what you already know. Real inner growth requires all of you.
Good thing anything in life worth doing is the same way. Yoga is a call to transform our self, to confront our habits and stories and grow in the art of living. Many of us begin in the physical body. My journey into the waters of handstand has re-created my understanding of who I am and what is possible. I am inspired to commit more fully to yoga as I hope to continue dissolving the tension in my mind, body, and heart.
May this serve as encouragement and motivation for you to start wherever you are. Handstand, downward dog, or simply go to your first class. At this year’s Wanderlust in Squaw Valley you may see a pair of legs in your periphery. I will be floating up and I want your heart to jump. I challenge you to grow. Lets do it together.