Yang Rising

Yang Rising

My body knew when we were about three-quarters through class: butterflies would arrive punctually in my stomach in anticipation of moving to the wall for handstand as soon as my teacher—a tall, graceful former dancer—returned to the front of the room to demonstrate.  His six-foot-plus skeleton would tumble forward onto his hands while his legs alighted into a split in the air like it was nothing. He’d hold this his flawless posture for several seconds before coming back to earth and casually instructing, “now, your turn.” I’d pull my mat to the wall, plant my hands like I was told, and kick with all my might, trying with every cell to hand stand with the grace of my teacher (and, maybe even more so, to win his attention). After four or five tries I’d give up, blaming my inability to stand on my hands, to challenge gravity and upend my human architecture, on a lack of upper body strength, a lack of courage, a fundamental lack.

It wasn’t until many years later that I finally nailed a handstand, long after I stopped practicing with that teacher and caring about doing inversions at all. It was either a Tuesday or Thursday night when I came to the wall, as usual, expecting to spend a few minutes trying to kick up, flailing and failing. When my legs left the ground and stayed there, I let out a little shriek. Loud enough for the other students to look over, wondering if there was some problem (shrieks often accompanied crash-landings). To them, there was not a problem, but rather a victory. To me, there was a problem—I’d done the thing I decided I’d never be able to. My mind had been overridden, and now everything about my practice had changed. How did my body learn this thing without my mind directing it, practicing it, wanting it? What other possibilities might I accidentally kick up into? 

After that first handstand, I came down and high-fived my teacher. The room settled down (there’s always a little buzz after inversions, people flustered from trying or excited by succeeding), and while the rest of the practice—seated poses, twists, savasana—and the night at home—dinner, editing, sleep—was the same, I wasn’t. I was no longer someone who couldn’t do handstands. I’d ascended to a new level of yogi-hood. I rode the high all week and couldn’t wait for the part of class I once dreaded. When it was time to go to the wall, I was ready for my new self to do its thing. I planted my hands, walked my feet in to shift my hips over my shoulders, powered up my launching leg, and kicked . . . and kicked, and kicked. It didn’t work. The pose didn’t come. Was the previous week a fluke? The lacks came back in full force, and I spent all of the cool down and savasana wondering how I could have possibly lost this accomplishment so quickly—and reinforcing the ingrained belief that maybe I couldn’t change after all, that this upright position bound to the earth, ideally small and quiet and unnoticed, was the only option for me. 

***

Inversions—this month’s theme for my practice and teaching—are notoriously challenging for yoga students, physically and mentally. It’s not uncommon for half the room to suddenly need to use the restroom or fix their hair when it’s time to go upside down; in Zoom land, cameras go off or squares become empty, making the teacher wonder if the person had just moved to a nearby wall out of view or decided to take a coffee break. The trepidation around this group of poses is totally understandable. It’s unnatural for us to invert, putting undue load on our proportionately weaker arms,  mobile shoulders, and fragile cervical spines. Being upside down makes the body and brain freak out, feeling the challenge of gravity in a new way and receiving new sensory inputs. In this position, something is definitely, undoubtedly wrong. So why do we practice these poses? What’s the benefit—other than impressing the yoga teacher you have a crush on?  

The obvious, and quite literal, benefits of inversions are how they change things up, encouraging your body (and mind and spirit) to meet a challenge and grow as a result. Even if we have a regular inversion practice, the large majority of our lives are spent either upright (two-thirds) or horizontal (one-third, for sleep), which means that our fluids are mostly moving, and our muscles and bones resisting the force gravity, in the same direction. Reversing that flow is a powerful wake-up call for the entire body, encouraging novel collaborations, engagements, and alignments to meet the upside-down world. Whenever we choose to practice change, we’re improving our ability to meet obstacles we can’t choose (like not slipping on ice or jumping out of the way of a car). In other words, our reaction times to stressors in reality are sharper and faster thanks to small doses of voluntary stress. 

Inversions also prevent stagnation, which is basically the enemy of health and longevity. From the Ayurvedic perspective, stagnation often looks like an excess of kapha dosha (though any dosha can be involved)—wherein a physical blockage prevents the flow of energy, fluids, etc. for proper nutrition, circulation, and elimination. Stagnation is uncomfortable in the short term and a cause of disease in the long term, since the blockage can accumulate and begin to ferment and perpetuate inadequate nutrition throughout the system. Going upside down—in yoga inversion or any equivalent—can support lymphatic and circulatory drainage, joint health, cognition, and more, literally bringing new water, oxygen, and nutrition to areas that might have been starving or parched. No wonder inversions make you feel so alive! 

Inversions do the same thing for our emotional, psychological, and energetic bodies: they bring fresh perspective to a situation that might have stagnated. As I experienced while learning to handstand (and in many other instances in life), our minds can get stuck in a story about ourselves that prevents change from happening even if deep down we want it to. When we see a situation from a new angle, we discover a new approach to the solution, or a new solution entirely. Think of the way the light falls differently on a piece of art, or the flow of traffic in a room shifts when you move the furniture; or how someone’s face totally changes when they part their hair differently. 

***

While inviting in new perspectives is a worthy inquiry in and of itself, I want to focus this month’s inversions even more specifically on what they can teach us about goals. Being able to do an inversion is often a goal unto itself for yoga students. They’re hard poses, and impressive poses, and we’re conditioned to value the kind of stimulation that follows from the rush of oxygen to the head and whole-body invigoration after spending a few seconds upside down. (I’ve spent lots of invigorating time in savasana, too—just sayin’.) They also require more physical exertion to master—the yang energy that we’re taught is the sign of a worthy effort, and which makes us then feel deserving of rest afterward. 

And yet, as I experienced, being able to do a handstand (or headstand, or forearm stand) does not really change much in the grand scheme of things. I couldn’t use my handstand capabilities as a reason for deserving a promotion at work (though landing the pose did help to soften the constant stab of my work frustrations at the time). Doing the pose once didn’t mean I “won” at yoga and could stop. I still had to try—hard—when I came to the wall, and even when I tried my hardest it wasn’t always a guarantee—some days it just doesn’t happen. In this way, inversions offer us a new perspective on what it means to achieve a goal, and why we even have goals if their achievement is impermanent. 

Goals are one of the fundamental expressions of yang energy in our (non)dual universe. Yang is what gets us out of bed in the morning, what motivates us, what excites us, what drives us forward. Yang is necessary for any system; if it was all yin, life would stagnate and eventually die, since there’d be nothing compelling us to seek nutrition or transform that nutrition into energy for growth. Yet yang needs yin to “hold it down,” as they say in Traditional Chinese Medicine; all yang, and life would burn up or evaporate. It would seem that the fruit of our efforts is that necessary yin to hold down the yang—the reward that makes us eventually stop exerting. This orientation is backwards, however, because it directs all of our energy outward and none inward. Relying on a reward as the yin of our goals creates a hungry ghost situation, because the yang never had anything real to motivate it. The yin we need to hold down the yang isn’t a prize at the end of the race, but rather the life force that wishes to express itself. We have goals not to become some different, improved, elevated version of ourselves, but to expand our possibilities for experience of what we already are. 

When we approach goals from this lens, inversions further help us to realize that there’s more than one way to achieve them. Rather than give up when we meet an obstacle, we just go upside down trusting that another route will be revealed, one that our habits had hidden. In my handstand journey, I was more focused on moving the flying leg toward the wall than the fact that that leg was attached to my (much heavier) pelvis. Once I started moving from my pelvis first, the pose came more easily. 

Or, we might give ourselves more space to realize when a goal is not aligned with what we really want or need in the present moment. Maybe we set this goal at a different stage of life, or adopted it from someone or something outside of ourselves. Maybe we’ve been exerting a lot of effort toward something we’re not meant for—a misuse of our energy that the Bhagavad Gita says is even worse than failing in the earnest pursuit of our own dharma.   

Inversions are defined as any posture where the head is below the heart, which I think offers a powerful explanation of these energetic lessons. When we set goals with only our head, it’s easy for the path toward them to be wonky or unsatisfying. Such goals might not have any internal yin to them—nothing to hold them down with strength of conviction, or strength of muscles. We might even arrive there and be crushed by the disappointment of things being mostly the same, because we’re blind to the inherent abundance of who we already are and always were. 

Leading with the heart, however, prevents us from being pulled onto someone else’s path or expending energy in a purely linear direction without any replenishment or grounding. The heart moves in a spiral, which means expansion and contraction are all part of the journey—sometimes even simultaneously. One day you stand on your hands, one day you don’t. Neither is a lie or a fluke because the capacity was always there and always will be. 

***

It’s never a bad time to assess our relationship with goals, but late spring is an especially effective time to do so. We’ve built up enough kapha to support this extreme exertion of energy, so the poses won’t be physically depleting. Moreover, realigning with the heart now can prevent us from burning out after a summer of pursuing the wrong goals, or the right goals in the wrong way. It’s the last hurrah of effort and growth before we ripen into fruit and flowers.  Once we arrive in summer, we want to feel at ease enough to enjoy those fruits, but not be defeated by their temporariness—another lesson from the Bhagavad Gita, which reminds us that we are not entitled to the fruits of our efforts. 

There is a loophole, though, to this principle of non-attachment. It goes back to moving from the heart rather than the brain. In the quiet of the heart space, we might encounter the thing that’s even scarier than being upside down, falling down, or hurting our bodies or our egos: that we already have what we need and want most, to love and be loved. Society’s message that love is the fruit of our efforts is what’s wrongly pursued and upside down. When we unlearn this, inverting is as easy as standing on your feet. A quiet comes over the body and mind because we realize that our center of gravity doesn’t change right-side-up or upside-down. And that our individual centers of gravity are actually all the same. The unique goals our brains concoct are all just paths leading us back home to love.


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