Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Yoga > The Final Step For A Headstand

The headstand or the shirshasana is quite the epitome of a good yoga practice. It is not called the "King of Asanas" for nothing. The innumerable benefits aside, the ability to stand upside down looks very impressive too.

But I resisted doing the headstand for the longest. In fact, I went for my Teacher's Training Course (TTC) at the Sivananda Ashram in Neyyar Dam, Kerala, without ever attempting it. This was ironical because the headstand is the first asana after a few warm up rounds of surya namaskar in a Sivananda class. Even so, I was glad that there was no pressure on me by any of my teachers to perform this asana. The TTC is quite intense as it is. With a hectic, packed routine in an austere setting with classes back-to-back, it is rather demanding. Probably that is why the teachers allow the students to progress at their own level of comfort.

While I thoroughly enjoyed my morning and evening asana sessions, I thought I knew what was holding me back from the headstand. I have always been non-sporty. I felt that I lacked hand-eye co-ordination as well as the strength required for almost any sport. Yoga was something that I could do because I have been blessed with a flexible body. But I had heard that "you need a strong core to hold a steady headstand".  Knowing that the core was my weakest point, I was sure that it just wasn't my cup of tea. In fact, I even found the preparatory pose - the dolphin - extremely difficult. Anything that required strength seemed impossible for me to perform.

One day, at the end of the evening asana session, a fellow student who I had not spoken with in the 3 weeks that we had already been there, came up to me. "I have seen you during the asana class, you do all the asanas except the headstand," he said. I nodded vaguely, not wanting to discuss my weak points with someone who I didn't know. "Seeing how you perform your other asanas I'm sure you can do the headstand," he continued without any hesitation owing to my lack of interest in his observation. That was that. He went about his business thereafter and I got busy with mine.

The next morning, after the surya namaskar came the time to do the headstand. I typically would get into the child's pose at this time, and while everyone else flew up into the headstand, I would usually continue staying in the child's pose, with my forehead touching the floor.

On this day, though, I thought of just attempting the first step of getting into the headstand - my forehead on the floor, the hands clasped around my head, and my elbows right next to my knees. The foundation is very important for getting any asana right. As I rose my tail, I got into the inverted V with the forearms, forehead and the feet firmly on the floor. I felt a balance of lightness and strength through my body.

This gave me the confidence to move to the next step: walking my feet towards my torso, straightening my back in line with my neck and shoulders and rolling gently towards the top of my forehead. At this point, my heels had risen off the floor and I was on tip-toes.

Then came the challenging part: I had to raise my feet off the floor one at a time and fold my knees near my torso in a suspended child's pose. I was surprised when I could actually do it. I was balancing on my head already! All I had to do was raise my knees towards the ceiling, with my legs folded back and eventually unfold my legs to straighten them up.

Seeing me finally attempting the headstand, my teacher came up to me and supported me while I went up into the headstand gracefully and steadily. Although I did come down with a jerk, which is not advisable, I had at least done my first ever headstand.

So what was the final step for me getting into the shirshasana?

My core didn't become stronger overnight. But probably my mind did. Someone else believing that I could do it made me believe that I could. I could have believed in myself without some random person having the faith in me or my ability. Trusting that I could do it was all that was required all along.

And this is my favourite example of the mind-body unity that yoga displays so beautifully. In many cases, physical inflexibility actually arises in the mind or mental strength manifests into physical strength. It is lessons and observations like these that make it possible to carry your yoga practice off the mat and into daily life.