Two yoginis discuss their voyage to Adho Mukha Vrksasana.
Bonnie Golden and Sharon Frost, a conversation.
There is plenty of advice available about the physical preparation about getting into handstand, let's talk about the self-talk issues, the mind and handstand.
Can you explain the mind journey?
Sharon: The mental part is complicated, especially since not all of the relevant content is available to the conscious mind. My teacher, Jonathan Fitzgordon, has referred to handstand as the most aggressive/violent pose in yoga. The change in orientation is so sudden and complete. There's no real transition time. I often seem to have a total mental/physical disconnect when it comes to that inversion transition. Everything is fine until it's time to make that switch from feet-on-floor. And some of this has got to be primitive nervous system fight-or-flight.
Bonnie: Yes, I agree it is truly a fast moving pose. Other inversions allow us to have forearm (pincha mayarasana) or head and forearm (sirsasana) contact with the floor, and somehow the upside down piece isn't so mentally daunting. If you set aside the physical readiness aspects of handstand (arm and core strength, etc.), the mind journey is absolutely my greatest challenge. For several years my teacher, Chris Coniaris has said to me “it's all there Bonnie!”. Meaning physically, all of the pieces of the pose are in place and ready to be integrated. I know that intellectually and it gives me some confidence, but then…!
What mind “games” have stifled your pose?
Bonnie: …Then when it comes to execute the pose, some old samskaras are often highlighted. In my case they are fear based. Partly from a couple of specific incidents of an unsafe assist, head bumping on the wall, falling, etc. My mind games have included negative messages such as “you can get there, but you'll pay a price! It takes time, but those messages are definitely fading.
Sharon: Feeling your failure before you start doesn't help either. I think that's what I often do. Definitely there is a self-sabotage that's going on - some part of me is saying “no way are we going to get there” - the “what the hell do you think you're doing” response. Quiet panic. Is that a mind game? Or is that a mind serious.On the other hand, I'm a bit of a contrarian and positive self-talk isn't very effective for me. I have to be careful to maintain my credibility with myself.:D It's a balance (sorry).
What have you done mentally, to help yourself, encourage yourself with this pose?
Sharon: I have a photo my husband took of me in handstand on a balcony in Barcelona during the time I was just beginning to get handstand. In those days I would give myself 10 kick-ups and if I wasn't upside down, so okay, I wasn't upside down. That Barcelona handstand (in the midst of a lot of kicking) was my first on foreign soil and it was delicious. I have another photo of the ecstatic me just after that moment. I keep some scanner prints of those photos near my mat.
I guess staying in touch with the joy of being in that position and the joy of just having done it is something that's important to stay in touch with.And a physical manifestation of a mental intention always helps: a “hoowah” on the exhale can be very beneficial.
Bonnie: I employ internal coach-y self-talk. Reminding myself of my strength, hearing the encouraging words of my teacher whether or not he is physically present, and mental images of admirable yoginis from my classes and their smooth moves. Recently, my most effective teaching strategy has been videotaping myself. I sometimes tell myself that I'm making a tape for my students and I need to show them how it's done! I have a dated video collection of my progress that I regularly review to inspire, see my errors, and view evidence that I still have it in me to achieve this pose. Yes, the visuals are very powerful for both of us Sharon!
How old were you when you realized that the yoga handstand pose was available to you?
Bonnie: I was 50 when I realized that it wasn't out of the question for me to practice this pose. I did headstands and cartwheels as a child and was fairly athletic, but I didn't do handstands.
Sharon: I was 59. I was giving myself until 61 (as I recall) and I turned out to be precocious. As a kid I could never do headstand, handstand or even cartwheels. And I've always had a fear of high places.
How many years of trying before you succeeded?
Sharon: About 3 years of trying every day.
Bonnie: I haven't been as consistent with my home handstand practice. It's been on and off. In March of '09 I restarted the quest in earnest and made handstand my svadyaya project. I've made a great deal of progress since then; but the pose will always be in the journey stage.What physical practices and what media or articles have helped you in your journey?
Bonnie: I recall that doing the L-shaped practice at the wall, and then the next step of raising one leg at a time was very exhilarating the first time I gingerly elevated that leg. The Yoga Journal DVD with Natasha Rizopolous was great as I began my practice. I've viewed various videos on YouTube. Also the Yoga Journal article about the writers handstand journey was quite inspiring. The author worked with different teachers and in particular Judith Lasater's (whom I've trained with) words hit home about practicing everyday if you really want this pose. In addition, the encouragement of Yogalila friends and my Tucson teacher Chris, as well as work with Tias Little in Santa Fe during my teacher training have all been significant in the journey.
As a counselor and teacher of adults, I'm applying behavior modification techniques with myself. I started with a bolster against the wall, then a pillow, next a smaller pillow, a flat pillow; and finally a piece of cardboard all to help my head feel safe going up. And now I kick up sans pillow pretty regularly, and even did so twice in class. That's the ultimate goal, to kick up without any props, everytime.
Sharon: Although most of the work I've done on handstand has been on my home mat, the most important instruction I've gotten has been from my teachers: Jonathan Fitzgordon and Marissa Nielsen-Pincus and, before them, Jackie Prete. (Marissa has such a lovely floaty handstand. Sometimes I pretend to be her. And sometimes it works!) I do like Betsey Downings new handstand practice, available for download at hanumanasana.
What do you think happens to you when you lose handstand now? And how do you work toward getting it back? Is that a different process from getting up into the pose for the first time?
Sharon: This is the cycle I'm on: I have it, start to lose it, start to get it back, etc. etc. I almost never lose it completely but that's happened as well. When my handstand starts failing I look for other ways of doing the pose and ways of taking the pressure off. It doesn't work to give handstand a break. I've tried that and that approach allows the fear and lack of confidence to build.
A note of puzzlement: We've been spending
July/August in Buenos Aires and my handstands here, this year, have
been among the lightest and most effortless of my life. I have no idea
why. These things are very mysterious after all.
You are right on the money about the risk of giving handstand a break
and thus losing steam. The thing is, life happens. My children
are home from school, I'm working and writing quite a bit as well as
traveling. Those are the facts of life! But it is also a
fact that when I start up again it's not back to square one anymore.
That is quite encouraging.
In fact the other night, I achieved my second in-class handstand (I call it “public handstand”) without a physical assist, although Chris was verbally supportive, which means a lot.How do you know each other-how have you helped each other?
Sharon: We've known each other online through some yoga forums for quite a while and we've been lucky enough to have a couple of face-to-face get-togethers. I think we've built up some trust over that time and that's allowed our conversation to turn on explorations of our fear, frustration and various blocks. I know some people don't like to investigate this area, feeling perhaps that it may just enable the fear, frustrations, blocks to take root even more. I think we've learned to have the conversation without magical thinking and/or self-indulgence. There's some power in that.
Bonnie: I agree, trust has been positively key in sharing our handstand journeys. It really helps me to know you're out there, working the handstand path I'm working.
Sharon: And a sad note for me: by the time I return from Buenos Aires, in September, my home yoga studio will have closed its doors - I'll never do another handstand there. My handstand will have to move on -- again.