04/ 25/ 16
I remember my very first yoga class. My friend Lauren dragged me, along with a few of our other sorority sisters, to a magical place called Blackbird Yoga in Ithaca, New York. We closed that class with ten wheel poses. As I write this five years later, I realize that ten urdhva dhanurasanas in a row is a pretty intense sequence even for an experienced yogi, let alone someone brand new. I must’ve been crazy, or at least a little loopy from back-bending — either way, I was hooked.
Yoga at Blackbird became a staple of my weekly routine. I’d find time to practice even when things got busy with studying and rehearsals and friends, drifting in and out of sleep in final savasana. I’d enter that warm, purple room, tortured by boy problems that seemed to consume my entire being — and left feeling comforted by my teachers’ yogic wisdom, and a little more whole. I was fascinated by the shapes my body could and couldn’t make, and most of all, I became addicted to how good I felt after each class, inside and out.
As I’ve grown as a person, my yoga practice has evolved with me. Rather than simply finding time to practice, I realize how crucial it is to make the time, especially when I’m busy with work and passion projects and friends. Instead of helping me find peace with relationship drama, my practice today allows me to find balance when my unrelenting drive transforms into stress. I’m still fascinated by the shapes my body can and can’t make.
#49 on my bucket list is to have a fearless yoga inversion practice, which is something I was terrified of a few years back. I’d marvel at yogis effortly kicking up into handstand before a vinyasa, or seamlessly rising into tripod from prasarita. These seemed like unattainable acrobatic acts, only accessible to super strong practitioners.
But, slowly but surely, I ventured into the world of inversions at my own pace. First, prep poses to strengthen my shoulders and core. Then, headstand against the wall. After that, assisted headstand in the flow with an instructor spotting me. Baby steps. Unfamiliar sensations and new perspectives aren’t as jarring with a gradual transition.
Going to a yoga retreat in Bali was my headstand turning point. Our teacher assisted me into the pose almost every morning and once I got home, I was determined to nail it on my own.
In the comfort of my own room, I explored every aspect of headstand. I pinpointed the proper balancing spot on my head to create a stable foundation, and explored the alignment of hips over shoulders. I played with getting into the pose from a pike position versus getting into the pose from a teddy bear headstand. I remembered to flex my toes, lock my core in tight, press my shoulders down my back, and breathe.
On day three of my headstand mission, it all just clicked. I floated up effortlessly into the pose that I’ve been working towards for so long. And what a sweet, sweet victory it was.
Finally achieving headstand has taught me valuable lessons, both on and off the mat. First, I’d say that inversions are 90% body knowledge and 10% body strength. It’s crucial to understand proper alignment of the pose, and how each part of your unique body works to achieve balance. (Note that I said “your unique body,” because a yoga instructor will teach to the entire class, while you may need different cues. You’re the only one that can actually feel your alignment, so practicing outside of class is a must — looking back, it was the reason why I finally got that headstand.)
And surprisingly, inversions are not at all about being ripped — people of all shapes, sizes, and ages can get into advanced poses. Have you seen the 97-year-old yoga teacher, Tao Porchon-Lynch, or the inspiring Valeri Sagun, also known as Big Gal Yoga? It’s really just about figuring out how to work with your own body.
I’ve also learned that it’s important to take the pressure off the pose. Sure, the final pose can act as a motivational goal, but in truth, it’s more about what you learn along the way. Knowledge about how your body works, appreciation for what it can do, and the accomplishment you feel once you finally nail your inversion — that’s all created because of the process itself. Our falls and our attempts make our successes that much more fulfilling.
Lastly, my inversion practice has changed the way I think about fear. I was scared of getting upside down until I realized that it can be a completely safe and comfortable practice. Once I learned how to prepare for headstand, how my body should work in the pose itself, and how to fall out of the pose safely, my fear of inversions subsided — and it didn’t stop there. That fear turned into excitement, a newfound sense of playfulness, and a fresh perspective on approaching challenges.
We often fear the unknown — so go explore uncharted territories, seek knowledge about new things, and watch your fear fade into something far more powerful.