≡ Menu

Give me strength: a tale of three headstands

Those are some biceps.

One of the best things about yoga practice is the way it brings up emotions and lets us examine them, the events that evoked them, and the thinking behind them.

But there are times when emotions well up so strongly that we’re knocked off our feet, and don’t get to hear what we’re telling ourselves.

That’s what happened to me a week ago Wednesday, in Louie’s class.

I was low on sleep, tired from teaching my first two Tuesday night classes of the fall, and achy, with a sore plantar fascia: excellent conditions for a meltdown.

Close to the end of a class I’d found challenging, we did headstand at the wall, knuckles and heels both touching.

I do not like headstand at the wall. I’d far rather balance in the middle of the room. And I hadn’t done a five-minute holding at the wall in a long time.

Then Louie added a variation in which one leg descends – slowly, with control – toward the floor, while the other leg lifts.

And there I was, in Yoga Hell. No matter how much I pressed my forearms down, worked my shoulders, compacted and lifted my legs, the weight was too much, and my neck felt strained. The pose was a blank wall, with no doorway in. I came down early.

Physically, I rested with my head down, releasing my neck.

Emotionally, I tumbled around in breaking waves of hopelessness (I’ll never be any better), shame (I ought to be able to do this), and depression (what’s the point? why don’t I just give up?)

When that sort of onslaught arrives, there’s not much to do about it but rest, have a nice cup of tea and wait for it to pass, which it did. In fact, by Thursday morning, life looked so much better that I tried headstand, and the one-legged variation, at the wall again, at home.

It was just as hard. But this time, knowing what was waiting for me, I could hear the words behind the emotions: “You’re weak, you’ve always been weak, you’ll always be weak.”

Huh? Even I could see the flaw in this logic.

I may not be able to do this particular headstand today, but I can press up off the floor and hold a full back bend for a minute, and still have power left over for a leisurely descent. So while I might not be as strong as I would like to be, and I can’t do every pose I’d like to do, I’m not weak.

Clearly I needed something to say to myself that would be more helpful.

After all, it’s inevitable that I’ll be asked to do something beyond my strength again, in a class, a workshop or a practice. Hard poses come up. That’s kind of how it works.

So what would that helpful comment be?

I posed the question and let it go.

What arrived was a memory from when I was somewhere between three and seven years old.  My brother, three years older, is holding my wrist and hitting my face with my hand. He says: “What’s wrong with you? Why are you hitting yourself? Stop hitting yourself.”

I am a ball of impotent fury, hating him, hating myself for not being able to make him stop. When he finally does let me go, my wrist stings from where he held it and my face burns. I can’t get his imprint off my body, and it enrages me.

Well, no wonder I felt depressed and helpless. And the shame is every child’s question: “How terrible must I be for someone to want to hurt me like that?”

From today’s perspective, I can see that it wasn’t so personal. The “why are you slapping yourself?” routine is one that big brothers all over the world delight in. If in our case it had an especially mean undercurrent, well, my brother was an angry little boy, and I’d guess that his “teasing” was a way to vent the pain he was feeling in the hope of making it go away.

I spent some time empathizing with that overpowered little girl. I reminded myself that now is not then, and no matter how close my three-year-old self sometimes feels, the situation is different, and I am different.

Besides, the poses are not trying to beat me up.

Yesterday, back in class again, we had a choice of headstand at the wall or headstand in the middle of the room. I took it to the wall.

After 90 minutes of following Louie’s careful prompts, this headstand felt cleaner than either of the previous two. I could hold the pose in better alignment, and while it was hard work, it wasn’t Hell.

When I came down, it was gratitude that tumbled me off my feet: to be here, in a sunlit room, in the late morning, and to be capable of the attempt.

So the next time I encounter a pose that’s well past my strength, I’ll tell myself this: “How lucky you are, how fortunate, to be able to challenge your body this way. Keep this up and you’re going to be stronger.”

Have you noticed what you tell yourself when a pose is going badly? Do share. I’d love to hear it.

Photo courtesy of Scott Swigart, via Flickr.


If this was your kind of post, you might also like:

Five-Minute Yoga Challenge: Build Your Strength in Half Arm Balance

Why Yoga Builds Your Inner Strength

Lord It’s Hard to Be Humble















Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Eve September 22, 2012, 5:25 am

    You spoke for me, Eve, with your finger so well on the pulse of your torrent of emotions in this class.
    It’s rather crazy to view profound feelings erupting as a gift but they can be cleansing old wounds, and yoga is often a catalyst for occasioning them.
    I enjoy your contributions hugely.

    • Eve September 22, 2012, 10:20 am

      Hi Eve,
      Good to hear from you. I agree, profound feelings erupting are a gift – although I’ll admit to preferring the profound feelings of joy and contentment that sometimes arise to the heavier emotions. Still, I think it’s part of our responsibility as human beings and as yogis to examine what comes up, and yes, cleanse old wounds by holding them in compassionate awareness, and then letting them go.
      I have to admit I envy you, slipping into spring as we’re slipping into fall. . . .

      • Eve Grzybowski September 22, 2012, 8:21 pm

        You wouldn’t want to be here for all the weeds coming up! Autumn will give you a little respite from all that :)

        • Eve September 28, 2012, 8:50 am

          Oh, I don’t know. I’d spend any amount of time weeding, or just give up and admire their spirit, as long as I can have long sunshiny days. My ideal life is summer all the time.

  • Nancy September 21, 2012, 1:05 pm

    Eve — I could not believe it when I read your latest post because I went thru something very similar this week. Reading about your experiences and insights has heartened and steadied me. I am so grateful.
    I felt overwhelmed by the sense that no matter how hard I press, or try, or practice (and yes, I am trying to practice more regularly), I will never improve.
    And it was exactly those emotions you describe, “hopelessness”, “shame” and “depression”. Those are pretty powerful emotions for what I thought was supposed to be a pretty simple form of exercise. These are feelings I haven’t had to deal with since graduate school. There we expect the dramas of ego, judgement and competition. What were they doing here in my head, in my yoga class?
    And so my frustration & misery were further compounded by confusion that yoga of all things could be such a trigger. Hey, what happened to my vision of yoga as all smile-y/ flow-y /relax-y /happ-y /stretch-y. Those lithe 20-year-old girls on 4th avenue in their lululemon pants?
    Anyway I wanted to write to you and to thank you so very very much for your last post. It’s made a huge difference to me and my outlook.

    • Eve September 21, 2012, 2:08 pm

      Oh Nancy,
      Sometimes things are just in the air, aren’t they?
      I think our particular practice of Iyengar yoga is never a simple form of exercise – at least when you go deep and open yourself to the work. For all that it’s not exactly pleasant, I value it in part because it’s so effective at leading me to be conscious of what I feel, good or bad.
      I’m glad that what I wrote was helpful to you – I was pretty sure I wasn’t the only one who feels that way from time to time.

  • Fay September 20, 2012, 6:12 pm

    thanks for a very heartfelt post. I’ve felt like this many times and headstand is the one that does it for me. The joy, though, when occasionally it all comes together is worth the agony. I am grateful for the process.
    Thanks again, Eve.

    • Eve September 21, 2012, 2:02 pm

      Hi Fay,
      Thanks for the comment. From my experience it’s possible to feel shut out of just about any pose – although I’m guessing that for many of us, headstand is a prime candidate, what with the disorientation of being upside-down.
      What I’m coming to learn is that how I feel about it – upset at my “failure” or happy just to be there – is more than just a way of making myself feel better. It also keeps me ready to try again, and more open to learn whatever it is I need to know. I agree, gratitude for the process is a key part of it.