Practice Makes Practice


5 Things I Learned Falling out of Handstands

Handstands have become the modern day poster pose for yoga practice. If you're on social media, you see handstands EVERYWHERE! Handstands have their own hash tags and dedicated Instagram challenges. There’s hundreds, nay thousands of blog posts and YouTube videos dedicated to getting you into this gravity-defying yoga pose. But where’s the yoga? How does a pose that is more traditionally linked to playground shenanigans and gymnastics take us deeper in our yoga practice?

Getting into a handstand has been and continues to be a long, slow journey for me, one that’s required a great deal of patience and a lot of falling down. As an anecdote to the posts on building core strength and steps to getting upside down, I’d like to offer some things I’ve learned on my road to handstand.  Perhaps, these can serve as an aid toward renewed mindfulness and intention about this and other physically challenging yoga postures.

1)   Find your teacher     

I’ve been surprised to discover some folks posting difficult yoga postures online, proclaiming that they are “self-taught” yogis. There’s much importance to an individualized home practice; however, I believe it is crucial to find a yoga teacher or teachers that you respect and trust. Try to practice with them on a somewhat regular basis. I get that studio yoga and private lessons can be expensive, but yoga practice requires a watchful eye on occasion to encourage good alignment and to reconnect you to the roots and purpose of yoga practice. Teachers help to encourage and build a good foundation for physical practice that can prevent injuries to the body and remove the obstacle of our own ego.

I personally would have likely given up on handstands long ago if it wasn’t for several teachers who have helped to pave my yoga road. To my teacher and handstand inspiration, Phil Fulton for reminding me that the things that scare us can be the most rewarding and telling me I was strong enough. To my teacher Peggy Orr, whose watchful eye prevents me from slacking off and resting in postures with a lazy foundation. To my teachers Maile Sivert and Caroline Kelley for teaching me that in yoga practice, you don't get to skip steps. You have to keep coming back to your foundation, focus attention on your alignment, and check your ego. Find a teacher! If you can’t afford studio yoga classes, try out your community center, local gym, or seek out a friend with a solid yoga practice.

2)   Be Yourself

Don’t try to be someone you saw online. Don’t compare yourself to them. Each of these moments was captured in a blink of the eye usually on a perfectly lit sandy beach. It doesn’t show the years of practice. It doesn’t show the number of falls. It’s just one moment. Your yoga journey is individual, unique, and yours. Revel in that blessing. Be yourself and appreciate your own body, breath, and work.

3)   Give Up

What? Crazy right?! Many of these online posts will have you trying to handstand “every damn day.” Perseverance has its merits, but it’s not actually necessary for you to do something everyday to build the physical strength required for the pose. So many times I’ve had people tell me they tried and tried and tried toward something, they took a break and then “Bam!” they experienced a moment of magic. Physiologically and psychologically there’s a lot of merit to taking a break.

First of all, if you’re working out hard and you take a little time off, a week or so, your body will actually get stronger during rest. This is why athletes taper before events and why elite fitness professionals train in cycles. Bodybuilders don’t train their shoulders day in and day out, why should yogis? Even Ashtangis have a dedicated day off every week. You don’t need to practice handstand everyday to build the strength through your wrists, shoulders, and core required to maintaining balance upside down. In fact, training everyday might lead to some pretty annoying injuries.

TAKE A BREAK! Rest and care for your shoulders and wrists. Practice a different inversion or make your practice restorative once a week. Yoga asana practice is intended to build intelligence about what our body needs, try to listen to its cues.

Psychologically, over thinking handstand tends to keep people from going upside down. This was a big hurdle for me for a long time. Taking a break can loosen the grip on the end result and can help to prevent that moment of hesitation that prevents us from flying. Giving up can help to take out the obstacle of the mind.

4)   Handstands are cool, but child’s pose is better

Handstands are super fun! I’ve gotten to a place where I really enjoy practicing them. That freedom in floating, the joy of being upside down, it’s a great rush of endorphins and blood to the brain. But you know what poses never let me down, child’s pose, a nice mellow forward fold, a simple supine twist. I once heard a quote of Krishnamacharya’s retold to me via Jason Crandell that “99% of the benefits of yoga are in the easiest 1% of postures.” The other 99% of poses, they’re just frosting, some sweet stuff to keep us interested and challenged. Do not neglect the most beneficial of poses to spend all your time eating frosting. Chances are you’ll end up feeling unhealthy.

 5)   Practice makes practice, not progress, not perfect, just practice.

“Practice and all is coming.” This quote from Shri. K. Patthabi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga yoga, is used a lot! I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s often mis-used quite a lot as well. Practice may get you into that advanced yoga pose you’ve always dreamed of doing, but it really doesn’t matter. Being able to do a handstand does not make you an advanced yogi. Being able to do a handstand does not make you a better person. Being able to do a handstand does not bring peace of mind.

Practice for the sake of practice. I understand this quote to mean that practice brings its own peace. It’s not about progress, or perfection; it’s about presence. Yoga practice requires non-attachment to the end result. It’s just sitting and basking in the beauty and freedom of the present moment. Handstands can teach us little lessons. It’s hard to be somewhere else in your mind when you’re upside down and handstands certainly get us comfortable with falling over. It can make us aware of a great stream of internal strength that was previously hidden to us. Enjoy your practice as it is, for all the little things it reveals to you about yourself. Recognize that sincere practice will get you where you need to go. Have faith that where you need to go may not be what you expect.  The practice is all you really need.