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Headstand and all that

Headstand, Sirisasana, King of the Asanas

The very first time I went to a Sivananda yoga class, I was hooked. There was something so different and refreshing about this class. I loved the way they almost chanted ‘inhale, exhale”. There were so many reminders to breathe. There was lots of time to simply relax and let go in the class. And there were very strong asanas. Plus pranayama. Plus surya namaskar.

Not everything was easy. The headstand or sirshasana loomed up in front of me quite early on in the class like an insurmountable mountain. They called it the king of asanas. When I saw the others, putting their head down on the mat and then just coming up in the headstand as effortlessly as they stood on their feet, my chin dropped to the mat (instead of the top of my head dropping to the mat). When I realized that everyone is meant to try the headstand, as opposed to staring at others who were in it, I could not believe it. How could everyone do the headstand? More to the point, how could I do it?

The teacher, dressed in yellow and white, was walking around the room, encouraging the students who were hesitating and showing them the steps that lead to the headstand. You had to keep trying the first five steps that get you to the half headstand.

Luckily since it was my first class I was allowed to watch and not do. But soon after, in subsequent classes I was one of the students who were in the first-five-steps stage of the headstand. Every time we relaxed in child’s pose before trying to get into the headstand, the teacher would ask us to mentally visualise ourselves in the headstand. I would try my best to conjure up this image but the impending effort of actually trying to do it and then failing miserably would interfere with my visualisation.

The steps: Measure out my elbows. Put them down on the mat. Make a tripod by interlocking my fingers. Put the crown of my head down on the mat, then tuck my toes in, lift my knees up and walk my feet towards my face so that my upside-down back straightens. And now I have to lift one knee into my chest. Easy-peasy till here. Now lift the other knee into the chest. Oh no…how on earth..I try to jump slightly and next thing I know I’ve fallen unceremoniously, making an embarrassingly loud thump.

So this was my headstand for days and days and weeks and weeks. And months and months. Every now and then a teacher saw me struggle and came to help me up and supported my legs, telling me how to hold the asana. To breathe and relax. To trust and try to balance.

But I could only come up fully in the headstand if a teacher was helping me to come up and stay up. Without this support I would fall. We were always told that it’s okay to fall. It’s good to allow the fall and then to try again. Generally the falls from headstand were quite harmless…only bruising the ego perhaps, rarely the body.

Still, for a long time this was the part of the class which made me feel left out and inadequate. I didn’t think I would ever get the headstand. I thought I was too tall, too broad, too big, too unbalanced and just generally not the headstand type. One day a teacher said to me while helping me up, “you can do the headstand.” He said it in a way that I could believe. With real conviction. I felt a flood of gratitude wash over me.

Over the next weeks and months I kept trying. My arms grew stronger, my abdomen just slightly less flabby and more firm. Moreover I now could believe in my headstand. And visualise it. Even as I worked hard at my headstand in the class, I was also learning that it may be great to get it, but not having the perfect headstand was also okay. My body and mind still got all the same benefits while I did the pre-headstand child’s pose and then steps one to five. I learnt to care less about what was going on on the mats next to me. I learnt to accept where I was in my practice. I learnt to also embrace who I am.

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