Lessons in Yoga 11: Handstands - turn your beliefs on their head

I can't do cartwheels.

Never could.

Throwing myself at the ground has never been very appealing to me, even as a bouncy little girl.

Handstands were also something I could never do. I would happily pretend to be the cheerleader while the other girls at school practised this seemingly death-defying feat.

My reaction to practising handstands in yoga was..."Oh no way...I don't do that...I never have and probably never will". I reasoned that my long arms would not support my weight and that I most likely had a rare undiagnosed allergy to going upside down.

So when handstands were served up on the menu in yoga, I would sensibly sit them out and try unsuccessfully to ignore the disappointment in myself.

That disappointment in myself became unbearable when as a yoga teacher I watched my students kicking up into handstands. I appealed to the class to "not worry about going into a full handstand, it's not that important"...

Time for a confession...I like to be best in the class. Ok I said it.

I take great pride in my students’ improvements and ability to 'get into' challenging poses, but I find my place as teacher toppled slightly when a student can do something I can't. That's horrible, isn't it?

What's even worse is when I once distracted my class so they wouldn't notice someone kicking up into a 'free' handstand (that's when you’re upside down but not against the wall … really hard!) I haven't gone as far as pushing anyone over in a class. That just really wouldn't be very Zen, now would it?

So here are my two unpleasant, un-yogic but very human qualities: disappointment and jealousy.

I'm well aware of them and have every intention of unpicking them and learning more about myself.

I've done well at tackling the disappointment, which I will tell you more about. But as for the jealousy, I'm might have to get back to you on that one.

So a few years ago after realising I'm closer to 40 than 30 I decided I wanted to throw myself at the ground and get over my fear of my arms collapsing and my head crashing.

This fear, like most fears ,is very real and very logical. But, like most fears, it kept me stuck in a belief pattern that "Jess can't do handstands" when in fact as I now know "Jess can do handstands".

How many times do we do this to ourselves? Tell ourselves something that we believe to be true, but which isn't?

"I'm not flexible, no one in my family is."

"I would love to go walking in the Himalayas, but I will never have enough money/time/energy."

"Happiness and contentment is not something I will ever really know."

Belief patterns are the same as postural muscle patterns. If we hold our bodies a certain way for long enough, they will stay like that.

For our muscles to be healthy, we need to stretch and move them regularly or they will cease up and we will become immobile.

So isn't it important to do the same thing with our minds?

To move, stretch and challenge our thoughts and beliefs so they stay flexible, adaptable and mobile.

The older we get, the more important this becomes. We all know 'mature' people who are set in their ways, inflexible and immobile, both physically and mentally.

So I say "To Hell with that!"

I hate the thought of seizing up mentally and being stuck in my ways. So I'm practising handstands to test my belief and challenge my opinions of myself. It’s not easy, and the reason? Fear.

This fear is not just of the obvious logical physical challenge, but could it also be fear of succeeding?

What if we can climb a mountain? What if we can write a book? What if we can feel content and at peace with ourselves?

Then, where does that leave us? If we are not the totality of our set beliefs, our family's and our community’s beliefs, then who are we?

What if we can be as brilliant and great as we want to be?

Well that's a bit scary, isn't it?

Being cushioned and supported in the safe surroundings of our set beliefs is a whole lot easier than stepping out onto the cliff edge and diving into the unknown.

But risk and dare we must, or lo and behold, we will find ourselves hunched over and complaining about life and all its problems.

So I'm challenging you to a handstand.

(If you can already do a handstand, especially a free one, then, way to go!)

To check your upper body strength for a handstand, you are going to start in downward dog with your heels about a foot away from the wall. Bring one foot up onto the wall and push into it until your other foot lifts. Bring both feet up onto the wall see if you can stay here for about 5 breaths. This will give you the feeling of being upside down in a handstand and will build up your upper body strength.

But to really feel how your upper body works in a handstand you need to have your hips directly above your head.

Lessons in Yoga 11: Handstands - turn your beliefs on their head

For the next stage, measure the length of your legs by sitting on the floor with your legs straight and your feet flat against the wall. Notice where your hips sit and turn around and place your hands on the mat where your hips were. Doing this means that when you step halfway up the wall and straighten your legs your hips will be directly above your head.

You might feel like you are going to tip over your arms, but you won't, I promise.

Lessons in Yoga 11: Handstands - turn your beliefs on their head

Practise holding your body in this right angle, with your arms and legs straight for about 5 breaths. This will really challenge your strength and confidence. 

Listen to your body and your mind. If something is hurting, or you are scared, then stop at this stage and go back to the previous one and spend more time building up your strength there.

Lessons in Yoga 11: Handstands - turn your beliefs on their head

You might just 'think' you can't do this, or want to stop because it’s challenging. So see if you can detect if it's your body that can’t handle it, or if it’s your mind that can’t?

Keep coming back to this challenging bit, building up your strength and examining your physical and emotional reactions.

When you can hold this challenging right angle (which might take a good few weeks of practising) you are ready to try kicking up to a full handstand against the wall.

Lessons in Yoga 11: Handstands - turn your beliefs on their head

In the last stage, you start with you hands on the ground a few inches from the wall. Walk your feet in as close to your hands as possible, and lift one leg as high as you can. Now push firmly down into your hands and with a very strong confident push, kick your second foot up.

The kick of your second foot is what launches both feet up onto the wall, so this move has to be backed by 100% commitment on your part. If you're worried about knocking a picture off the wall or falling, your handstand just won't happen. Some days when I try this and I'm not totally committed, I end up just doing lots of bunny hops and exhausting myself.

If both your feet do make it to the wall, give yourself a pat on the back...joking!

Once you get into a handstand you need to reach up into your toes firmly and draw your tummy in strongly to stop your back from collapsing.

With practice this does get easier, less scary and challenging. But I still have to give myself a little 'Champ talk' before I do a handstand. 'Go Jess, you know you can do it. 110%, that’s what I want to see.'

Then, staring fear in the face, I kick up and as both my feet touch the wall I get such a buzz of achievement and confidence that it’s all totally worth it, and I think ‘Of course I can do this. What was I worrying about anyway?"

Jessica Hatchett teaches yoga in West Cork.

Her next event is a yoga day on Sunday 24th November in Skibbereeen.

For more information about this and her teaching go to www.yogawestcork.com

Photography by www.luluash.co.uk

*Jessica's next yoga day is on Sunday 24th November 'being comfortable in your own skin'.


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