inversion aversion

In January, while I was in New York City visiting my sister, I took a yoga class. Near the end of class, the teacher asked us to do headstand. I folded my mat into fourths and set it against the wall. Then I knelt down, put my forearms on the ground and clasped my hands. When I put the crown of my head on the ground, fear started rising inside of me. I took a deep breath and then let out a long exhale. My anxiety over doing inversions is long-standing. I am not one of those people who did headstands or handstands as a child. I did not like the feeling of blood rushing into my head.  

In my yoga classes, I stayed away from headstand for a long time, refusing whenever my teacher asked me to try salamba sirasana. Eventually, I got tired of hearing myself say no, so in one early morning class, I accepted my teacher’s offer to help me get into headstand. She stood to my right as I knelt on the ground. After I put the crown of my head on the mat, I raised my hips into the air. Earlier, my teacher demonstrated how beginners could kick one leg into the air while hopping with the other leg to get into headstand. I tried to do the same thing, but my attempt looked more like a bizarre scissor kick than an elegant upswing of the legs. Unfazed by my jerky movements, my teacher grabbed my hips and helped lift my legs into the air. After she placed my heels against the wall, she stood back to check my alignment. Immediately, she noticed that I had scoliosis. My condition is a mild case, but when I am inverted, it is clear that my spine curves to the right. She made some adjustments to improve my alignment and then asked me how I felt. Unfortunately, I was too disoriented and confused to respond to her question coherently. Soon afterward, she helped me back down and asked me to stay in child’s pose for several moments.

For the next couple of months, when I attempted headstand, my disorientation was so overwhelming that I could barely focus on the ground in front of me. When my teacher asked me to make adjustments, I couldn’t do anything beyond wiggling my toes. After class one day, I told her about my disorientation. She encouraged me to continue practicing headstand and observing how I felt in the pose. 

Disorientation was all I could feel for some time, but it did eventually fade. Finally I was able to register other feelings in my body. I began to notice that all my weight felt like it was crashing down on my head and neck. When I mentioned it to my teacher, she suggested that I widen my shoulders, press my forearms into the mat and try to reach my legs and feet toward the ceiling. Her recommendations helped me feel more at ease, but soon I felt a strain in my lower back. She suggested that I bring my navel gently toward my spine to relieve the pressure in my lumbar region. In following her instructions, I realized that I was bringing my torso back into alignment with the rest of my body. I had not been supporting it with my abdominal and back muscles, so it was natural that my torso would slide forward, bending at the most flexible point—my lower back. In moving my navel back into my body, I had engaged my abdominal muscles. However when I was in this position, I felt like I might collapse backward, so I had to figure out how to engage my back muscles. I discovered that when I thought about lengthening and strengthening my spine, I could activate these dormant muscles. With my back and abdominal muscles supporting my torso, I found that I could hold headstand with more ease and less strain.

After headstand became a regular part of my practice, I started to notice that I was slouching in poses like warrior two. To my surprise, I found that I was also slouching in mountain pose. In tadasana, I have conscientiously worked on improving my posture by trying to widen the collarbones, open the chest and reach the crown of my head toward the ceiling. Unfortunately, I was still hunched over. I realized that this predicament was similar to headstand. My back and abdominal muscles were not supporting my torso, so I tried to make some of the same adjustments I learned in headstand while I was in tadasana. When I made these changes, I had the invigorating feeling of someone who is standing up a little bit taller.  

After my initial anxiety spasm in the New York yoga class, I was able to get into headstand. It is unlikely that headstand will ever be an easy pose for me, but I have come to value the experience. Since I started practicing salamba sirasana, I have realized that uncomfortable situations are inevitable. When they do occur, feelings of fear and aversion will arise. I don’t know if they will ever go away, but if I can find a way to experience more than just those feelings; I have the chance to learn more about my practice and myself.

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