I toiled for the better part of a year to conquer the handstand. Long into my yoga practice, I committed to landing Adho Mukha Vrksasana, admittedly partly seduced by photos of yogis suspended against the force of gravity by powerful arms and backs.
Let’s face it, rare is the modern yogi who practices yoga without a shred of egotism. My determination to nail a handstand became my biggest obstacle to conquering the regal pose.
The Yoga Sutras teach that emotional and mental afflictions, or kleshas, are some of the toughest challenges we face on our yoga journey. No matter how liberated we think we are, most of us harbor ignorance, egotism, desire, aversion and fear, and it doesn’t take much for them to surface.
On my journey to land handstand, I stumbled on one of these afflictions – asmita, or ego. (Truth be told, I stumbled upon several of these afflictions). I became attached to the idea that once I nailed the pose, I would be a bona fide yogi. Plenty of yoga practitioners can flow into the Warrior poses, but those who kick up – better yet, press up – to a handstand belong to a higher-ranking order of yogis, I thought.
My early attempts to get upside down went something like this: “I’m landing this puppy if it’s the last thing I do.” Hands on the ground, fingertips inches from the wall, I would “bunny hop” only to have my legs flail clumsily in the air before landing back on my mat with a thud. Other times, the momentum of faulty and desperate bunny hops would catapult my body over my arms. Overcome with fear, I would collapse to the ground like a toy log cabin having lost its foundational stronghold.
And so it went for months. Fear and egotism dueled it out as my legs went nowhere, my frustration mounted, and my attachment to landing handstand eclipsed my yoga practice. While other yogis in my class kicked up easily into handstand, I surrendered to my ego, feeling “less-than” in my comparisons to them.
I turned to the Sutras, and their reminder that we have the power to end our own suffering. A steadfast practice of tapas, svadhyaya and isvara-pranidhana can dissolve the emotional obstacles that keep us from realizing our full potential. I began to practice these wholeheartedly – approaching my practice with zeal and humility, studying, observing, relinquishing my need to compare myself to others and to subject my poses to a self-imposed grading system.
I also awoke to the power and subtlety of the psoas muscles. Now handstand called on me to tap them and trust them. I learned that if I coupled their power with that of the gluteus maximus, I could create the opposing force I needed to stabilize my hips – whether balancing on my hands or standing on my feet – to balance my trunk.
My ego was never far from the mat. But I stayed with the breath, trusting. And then one morning, it happened. The kick was more of a lob. I rooted my hands into the mat much the same way I root my feet in Mountain Pose, resisting the pull of gravity with breath and focus.
I turned my attention to the power of my arms, shoulders, and back. Much like in Tadasana, handstand requires thoughtful action in the gluteus, hamstrings and quadriceps.
I was upside down, my eyes focused on a wall that a moment before stood behind me. I was overcome with a sense of lightness as I recruited the muscles in my body to do their part in balancing the skeletal alignment needed in that moment, that breath.
Don’t get me wrong, for many yogis handstand will forever be one of the most difficult poses to conquer. But much time spent practicing and learning proper alignment will take you a long way. Continue to surrender your ego, commit to having fun with it, and you have everything you need. Trust in that.
What’s your experience with handstand? Has your ego ever gotten in the way of being successful in a pose?