I shared the news of my out-of-the-blue handstand with my yoga teacher the following week. The moment the words flew out of my mouth, I knew I should have kept mum.
“Great!” she beamed. “Let’s see you do it today.”
Nothing can kill handstand like performance anxiety. Midway through class, she had us bring our mats to the wall, to kick up into the pose. As I flailed and floundered, my frustration mounted. She came over and stood at the top of my mat, her back against the wall, as if she were going to spot me.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m just hanging out,” she said and began twiddling her thumbs, whistling a cheery tune.
“I’d like to try this myself.” That’s an old refrain of mine, refusing help when offered. She didn’t budge. Maybe it was time for me to stop singing it. I kicked up. She grabbed my hips and held me in place. I was perfectly comfortable, so it wasn’t fear of being upside down that was getting in the way, and I was strong enough to support my weight. It was something else. I knelt on the mat and massaged my wrists.
“Now I’m going to try it on my own, but you can’t watch me, otherwise it won’t work.” I sounded like a superstitious child. Grinning, she trotted off to assist others.
For the next few minutes, my legs swung up but kept missing the wall. They thudded to earth, and my heart pounded in frustration.
“SHIT!” I collapsed onto my knees and wiped sweat from my face. I turned to the fellow next to me, trim and pale with cropped coppery hair. He had served in Iraq and sported a Buddha-like demeanor. For months, I had watched him practice handstand, methodically and without drama. “Why can’t I do this?”
He smiled. “You have the wrong attitude.”
It was true. I prostrated in child’s pose to slow my heart rate and create an internal shift. I needed to stop beating myself up, stop cursing when I failed to live up to some ideal, in this case, getting into handstand every single time. This was not just about going upside down and feeling like a cool yogi; I frequently was not kind to myself off the mat, either. Awkwardly, as if communicating in a foreign language to an easily offended native speaker, I thanked myself for making an effort. I whispered that it didn’t matter if I succeeded. The knot in my chest loosened.
Again, I planted my hands. I kicked up. My body flipped upside down, my feet soundlessly touched the wall. The effortlessness astonished me. Maybe handstand is the true child’s pose, accessible only to those with a youngster’s presence and playfulness. All I needed was to be kind to the girl inside and empty my mind, simple but not easy. As I’ve learned again and again since then, handstand offers immediate feedback on my internal state. Too much ego? Too little faith? Lost in negative self-talk? Sorry, no entrance to the joyful Republic of Handstandistan. I’m still turned away more often than not. I’ve learned to appreciate the times I’m admitted.
“I did it!” I shouted, wiggling my toes in the air.
“Yahoo!” hooted the teacher. By this time, everyone else had finished and was sitting in the middle of the studio. They turned to look at me. When I released the pose, the class applauded. Having arrived to that ever elusive “present moment”, I was free of painful self-consciousness. I grinned and curtsied. I wondered what else was possible.