Bottom heavy inversions

A while ago I wrote a post called “Is my Bum too big to do yoga?” and I remember it got more reads than my other posts at the time. I think this issue is of perennial interest to people doing yoga… or should I say women doing yoga?… or just women fullstop??

I have been practicing yoga for 4 and a half years now. For the first 2 and a half I was too scared to do any inversions save shoulderstand, because that was the only inversion done in the class I went to at the time. This changed when I started to go to a new *dynamic* studio where everyone handstands everywhere all the time. You can’t move for legs flying everywhere! On my very first class I was treated to the spectacle of a yogini warming up with pincha mayurasana. I say warming up but maybe she was just showing off. Anyway.

I have always struggled with handstand and headstand (“pincha” is off the cards for a long time I think, stiff shoulders) It took many many months to be able to even think about how it may be possible to even attempt to try to get into a headstand. Turns out I had stiff shoulders. A year later I still have to hang out in my shoulder openers to get into a headstand and I’m building up slowly, not straightening my legs until I can hold my knees into my chest for a good while. I practice several times a week doing this and my whole practice has to revolve around readying my body for headstand on these days. I cannot just *pop* into it in a class, and at the end of the Primary Series my shoulders are so stiff from all the chaturangas that it is a laughable concept.

The thing is, I’m fairly sure that it’s not such a difficult thing for other people. I am told that it’s about core strength… but I’m fairly sure I’m stronger in my core than other people who can just magic up effortlessly into the pose… or maybe it’s about fear… but I’m scared at home and I still do it. It seems to take a lot more effort for me to lift into headstands and I think I can begin to understand why…

It’s my bum!

Or more specifically, my whole lower body. I am short: 5 foot 3, and about 5 feet of that is leg. I exaggerate but my proportions are a bit out of whack. I have very long, very substantial legs. I have wide hips, big thighs and… how do I say this politely… an ample bottom. To balance in inversions one must get ones’ shoulders over ones’ pelvis… but the pelvis is a big structure so this takes some effort. Surely it doesn’t take much of a leap to think that maybe it takes more of an effort for me? My upper body is tiny, my lower body is big… my body doesn’t like being that way up. Also any supine abdominal exercises involving leg lowers or the like have always been very very difficult for me. This also makes sense.

I can work with this, and I already am. I think that far from being discouraged at this realisation I feel reassured that I’m doing the right thing in building up my abdominal strength and not rushing into straightening my legs in headstand yet. I’ve started practicing half handstands at the wall but I have accepted that I may never be able to handstand the way the former gymnasts do in my class.

On the plus side right way up balances are substantially easier for me, judging by the amount of wobbling I see in classes. I have a big ballast you see.

Strengthening my centre

Since the beginning of the year I have been doing lots of abdominal strengthening work. That area of my body, I’ve discovered, is a bit of a weak spot for me but I realised it wasn’t going to get any stronger by moaning about it so I started a (mostly) daily routine of boat poses, lolasana, and whatever other fitness/yoga hybrid abdominal poses I can think of.

The aim for me is not to get stronger abdominals for their own sake, but so that other poses can come easier. There are so many I want to work on: headstands, handstands, jump throughs, arm balances. These are all demanding poses, requiring strength as well as practice. So I figured why run before I can walk? I need a strong centre to face these challenging poses.

I’m also at a bit of a turning point in my life. After 4 years of recovering from depression, 2 years of seriously painting and a year of trying to get my painting taken seriously I finally have an exhibition in April and my depression has finally lessened to the point of disappearing most days. And I applied for a residency I didn’t even expect to pass the first stage, now I’m told I have a “good chance”.

I’m scared. Do I want this?

The real turning point in my depression recovery came in November last year when I started Jon Kabat Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living programme. I have carried on my daily mindfulness meditation ever since as well as successfully cultivating the mindful state in my daily life. It’s working! So I now have a coping mechanism for when things get scary and stressful. I can sit with my stress and my fears and I can understand them and know I have what it takes to get through them. And I do sit with my fears, every day. They come and go and I am still here. I doubt that I will make that terrible descent into depression like I did 6 years ago, ever again.

So I realised a connection between the work I’m doing on my physical body in yoga and my emotional/mental self. There’s no point in working towards some amazing fancy poses if I’m not strong enough to hold them comfortably. And there’s no point in aiming towards these high dreams and goals if I can’t cope with the inevitable disappointments and stresses that’ll come with them. So I meditate and I do my boat poses.

Headstand success!

I got it! I finally understand! I can balance! Etc etc etc. After 18 months of fairly intensive practice (at least a few times a week if not twice a day) I can now balance in a headstand. I say balance, the wall is still my constant companion if I want to straighten my legs but I can come up and down from the balance on my own.

The actual eureka moment came a few weeks ago. I realised that I could begin to lift my legs and find the balance after a run but at no other time. I couldn’t work out why this is the case for a while, was it fearlessness after a run? Open hips? Sweat? Turns out it was none of those things: it was my shoulders. I stretch my shoulders after a run and so my shoulders have a greater flexibility thus enabling me to balance on the crown of my head unimpeded by gunky stiff shoulders.

So ever since then I’ve been regularly hanging out in this fantastic external shoulder rotation stretch I got from my Jill Miller Shoulder Shape-Up dvd. You hold a block lengthways between your hands and bend your elbows. Then you put your elbows on a surface round about hip level or higher and drop your head between your arms, in a dolphin like pose. It’s like a dolphin pose without the strength and it’s fantastic. Or dolphin’s fine if I’m feeling hardcore. Then I’m up and balancing on my head and imagining my two legs are one and it’s perfectly normal and natural to balance on your head and not at all scary. Who am I kidding? It still scares me witless!

So there you go, nothing exciting, just tight shoulders. Now this is where the fun begins… actually, you know, holding it.

All this shoulder stretching has had a side effect. Last night I suddenly found myself in this pose Eka Pada Rajakapotasana II being able to rotate my shoulder all the way round to bring my head to my foot (sort of). I was surprised as anyone!

Week 7: Moving Towards Balance with Rodney Yee

Goodness! I’m writing about something that happened way way back in September. Nevermind,I’ve got a good memory, or at least I hope I have…

Week 7 was headstands. I’ve always been a bit take-it-or-leave-it with inversions. Maybe that’s because I can’t do any! Except for shoulderstand, my token inversion. So at this point I was doing fairly uncomfortable shoulderstands (somewhere along the way I forgot that you have to roll onto the tops of your shoulders one at a time from plough, and then lift up into shoulderstand), my headstands were non-existent although I was still struggling along. I wasn’t expecting to love this week.

Happily, I was wrong. It found me at a time when I had no time and I found myself only doing Rodney’s set sequences, no extra standing poses, no leaping around. I just did what he told me to and I loved that simplicity. Ah if only I someone tell me what to do with the rest of my life…

Rodney believes that standing poses are the best way to warm up for headstand and backbends are the best way to recover. Since I love both standing poses and backbends, who was I to argue? Headstand was the only problem: I couldn’t do it. So I improvised! I set a timer, got myself up against the wall and tried for the length of the timer to balance as best I could. It worked well, I found myself being more familiar with the pose and becoming friends with it. Listening to it wasn’t pretty: lots of banging as my feet flopped against the wall again and again and then a final THUMP as my feet fell to the floor after I finally lost my balance completely.

I re-befriended shoulderstand too, since I discovered my mistake. I was doing an upper back-stand! Now I’ve regained my shoulderstand lovely floaty mojo and it’s toe-numbingly nice. This week introduced the long shoulderstand holds I missed in the week 5 of inversions. I vowed to practice them more.

A couple of poses I did not befriend: elbow balance is impossible (tight shoulders) and handstand (I’m not a natural gymnast and I’m terrified) but altogether this week was great. I finally began to understand the reason why everyone goes on and on and on about the effects of inversions. They’re calming! They’re rejuvenating! I’m a believer now.

Thanks Rodney!

Week 1: Moving Toward Balance with Rodney Yee

So week 1 of the first course I’ve planned to undertake is done. I have to admit that I was naughty and I didn’t read the introduction of the book (I will do, I promise!) and also I did my own practice after the poses in the book. The idea of not doing pigeon pose for 8 weeks is just not worth thinking about.

In this book you do 1 day of long practice with all the new asanas, 4 days of shortened practices with emphasis on one or two of the new poses, 1 day of breath awareness and meditation and a day of rest. Another way I was naughty: I skipped the day of rest and went straight on to week 2. I practice yoga everyday, I don’t do rest days!

I’ve been meaning to try this book for a long while. Rodney Yee is a bit of a controversial character in the yoga world from what I’ve gathered (not being in the ‘yoga world’) but he was the first person I ever learnt yoga from and to me he’s always represented a calm, friendly being at a time when I was surrounded by demons and depression. I am determined for this reputation will stay intact.

Anyway the first week of the course is standing poses. Very basic but it’s very good to go back to the basics and see them anew every now and again. Especially if I plan on teaching one day. I did learn some things: I need to do half moon pose (ardha chandrasana) more because I can feel the freedom, the expansiveness and the calmness waiting for me… when I can just feel instead of just feeling like I’m going to topple over. I also realised by skipping the sun salutations how much I rely on the warmth to do the beginning standing poses. Triangle, which is usually a welcome friend, was an awkward little thing. I felt stiff like I hadn’t felt for years!

In the book you count in seconds and I’m so used to counting breaths. Listening for the clock was jarring and distracting me from the sensations in my body. When this is up I’m going back to the breath. Another bad point: Rodney’s reliance on uttanasana (standing forward bend) was irritating. I have to admit I got bored and thought “can I bend back yet?” It’s all about observing though right?

Some good points: I loved meditating in virasana (heros pose). As my hips are more inclined to internally rotate rather than externally rotate this pose as always come easy to me. Sukhasana (so-called easy pose) has always been hard for me for this reason, that and my completely inflexible ankles. So sitting in virasana was a joy! It made me wonder why I always have to make things so hard for myself. It was also fantastic to be told to do restorative poses. It’s sad to say but I need an excuse to do them. Usually it’s a fever or a debilitating depressive mood or something equally devastating. Why? From now on I will get those legs up the wall more often.

So all in all it’s been ok, a bit too basic for me right now. Hopefully the coming weeks will bring more insight.

Headstand update: I have decided to concentrate more on the tripod headstand (sirsasana 2) to regain lost ability in it. I’ve also decided to do a couple of mini-practices of headstand during the day to help me get comfortable with it. It’s still a struggle and it’s still impossible but that makes it all the more worthwhile.

Headstand update

I’ve been working fairly intensively on my headstand. For me intensively means I do it at least once every practice when I feel slightly up for it, let’s not go mad here. Also the idea of doing lots of one asanas at the expense of other asanas is just not on! I have to do equal amounts of all the different types of poses. Frequently I’ll lie in savasana and realise that I haven’t done a twist, or an adequate amount of forward bends and it worries me. Is this normal?

Anyway my point is I’ve been working on the headstand. Last week I briefly swore off it forever and ever. I was having a bad day and I decided that I’ll never do it and I’ll never try again either in a pool of tears on my yoga mat. All I needed was the lower lip pout and a stamp of my foot to make my tantrum complete. This swearing off headstand lasted all of 24 hours because I’m a bit of a methodical asana practitioner, my strange mode of thinking seems to be my asana practice is only as strong as its weakest asana. Don’t ask me, I don’t know, I don’t control my thoughts I just say them. Maybe I’ll explore this idea in another post. So headstand is the weakest link at the moment for me, as in I can’t do it!

I’ve learnt more about getting into it recently. There was a very useful post about handstand on yoganatomy which explains the importance of the pelvis in headstand. So once you’re balancing in the little curled up fetal position that is the beginning of a headstand you can either straighten your legs or you can straighten your spine by tilting your pelvis. I’ve been mainly thinking in terms of legs so the past couple of times after reading this article I tried concentrating on my pelvis and spine. It’s magical! The legs just follow, it just unfurls beautifully like a fern frond greeting the sun.

Unfortunately my thinking when practicing headstand is quite short term. I think: hips over spine, legs into chest, hips over spine, legs over chest and if the miraculous balance is achieved I don’t know what to do! I haven’t planned that far! Do I try to establish balancing in this position to familiarise myself with it thus making it easier to recreate next time? Or do I try to straighten my legs/unfurl my spine? Usually I try a bit of both which is fairly successful but then I panic because I could fall over! I could die! I could bang my head and break my neck and I could die! Somewhere along the line I forget the wall is inches away. And no one has died from doing a headstand. Perhaps at this point I should remember that my mum always told me I’d ‘break my neck’ if I so much as dangled upside down over the end of my bed. Thanks mum!

Even worse that me panicking the first time I manage to balance, after I’ve balanced once I cannot do it again! It’s like there’s a quota of balances per practice. Done one? That’s your lot I’m afraid, try next time. My fingertips are sweaty (I’m the most un-sweaty person ever, my fingertips not my palms sweat) I’m jittery and ready for more but I flail and I kick and I gasp until I think “that’s it, I’m done for today.” I seem to lose the presence of mind that allows me to align myself right after one go. My mind goes away, to where? Who knows.

This fear, is it going to get better? I hope so. I did feel something similar in wheel pose for the first year or so I practiced it. Even though I never hurt myself I worried I would and I liked the pose but I panicked everytime it came to do it. I would hate being forced to hold it or repeat it. I’d do it but I didn’t feel comfortable for months. This kinda makes me feel better about the headstand but also it makes me think… a year?!?!

Patience please!

I can’t do Headstand

I had another post planned about ‘progress’ in yoga and depression recovery but things have got in the way- low moods, low energy and low enthusiasm. Never mind! Carry on, carry on.

I am a yogini and as of June 5th 2011 I cannot do a headstand. I have been practising yoga for 3 years and I cannot do a headstand. Oh the shame!

Maybe I’m being a bit hard on myself. The headstand in question is the ‘bound’ headstand (salamba sirsasana) I can’t tuck my legs up into my chest and balance never mind start to straighten my legs. I can get into a sort of headstand by setting up next to a wall and putting one food then the other onto the wall a la this method. I’ve been trying to acclimatise myself to the feeling of balancing in this strange way by going into the headstand in reverse. That is getting up the way in the link and then balancing with both legs bent against the wall before trying to tuck them into my chest and balancing that way. So far all I’ve managed is a slightly controlled fall.

All this has become a bit of a thorn in my side. When I first set out on my yoga journey I saw the inversions section and went ‘pffft I’ll stick to the sensible ones thank you very much’ and that is basically what I did for the first year. In my second year I was a bit more open to the idea of headstands and what have you when I had a private yoga therapy course. I was told I’d be taught shoulderstand and headstand to ‘cure my depression’ but alas my teacher forgot to teach me headstand so I was left a bit relieved but a bit disappointed. I let it hang for a little while longer, the class I was going to didn’t do headstand and neither did any of the dvds I was following. It just wasn’t important.

I’m not sure what changed but I developed a desire to learn headstand. Maybe it was buying Erich Schiffman’s fantastic book ‘Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness’ with the awesome black and white photo of headstand on the front cover or maybe it was just realising that I might be missing something by not trying this poster-asana of yoga. I tried on my own for about 6 months, both salamba sirsasana I and I tried salamba sirsasana II, although with the latter asana I was working more in a ‘tripod balance’ than a headstand. I was admittedly half-hearted but I still didn’t get it. I couldn’t balance! I would just tip up and then tip down again. Then I’d get frustrated and flail and kick until I got worried I’d damage myself in some way. I started going to a class that used headstand and watched with sinking heart as everyone except me quickly flipped themselves upside down, legs soaring to the ceiling. I became my younger self, watching as everyone else had the fun.

I’ve had a couple of private sessions to help me with this. Personally I think it’s technique more than any kind of psychological or strength barrier. After all I’m pretty much able to straighten my legs in tripod headstand, even if sometimes I panic and move my hands (why???) Turns out I’m keeping my legs too straight which means I can’t tip my pelvis forward and so my centre of gravity isn’t shifted so I can’t balance. It all makes sense now! This revelation came a couple of weeks ago and I’d love to say I was one of the leg-soarers in the next class. Alas I am not yet but the joy’s in the process, not the results.

As a side note: why is it that all the people in my class can do headstand but they moan and struggle in wheel, or the standing big toe series? Were these people born on their heads? The mystery!

Getting over my Fear of Falling

Had an exhausting Spring Bank Holiday tidying and cleaning. The momentous undertaking that is sorting through all my possessions is definitely worthy for a post in itself. I found myself mainly dusting my art books, and then deciding to give half of them away. Gone are the days when I keep things ‘just in case’. ‘Just in case’ they come in handy, ‘just in case’ they inspire my art in some way, ‘just in case’ I suddenly decide to completely change my style of painting and my personality… etc. The other category is ‘ought to’, as in I really ought to read that art book on symbolism or self-portraits because… why? Enough!

I still have energy enough to post though, my topic today is about my fear of falling (as you might have guessed). I’ve had a low grade fear of falling all my life. I will never jump off walls, or steps, or into swimming pools, or over a skipping rope and I never have done. I have always been terrified of having to do an emergency exit from a plane: how do you jump and land on your bum?? I cannot imagine overriding my senses to do that. Also, most strangely of all, I will never run down stairs because I am scared I’ll trip. I’ll run up stairs but never ever down.

This is not something that rules my life but it is something I am constantly aware of. It slows me down at the very least, walking down stairs all the time! Personally I would call this an exaggerated rational fear rather than an irrational fear. After all, falling over is horrible! I hate it. It is so disorientating and makes me feel so fragile and vulnerable. Even tripping over my feet is enough to bring me into a cold sweat sometimes.

I was the least sporty child imaginable growing up. I was the one who would watch when the other kids would do handstands or forward rolls, or cartwheels or, as the more gymnastic kids did (or as I liked to think of them: the show-offs), headstands. I was too scared, and not very able. Besides, I liked watching, all that going upside down and hurting yourself was too dangerous. I was safer where I was, bored, but safer.

Which is why it is strange that right now I find myself wanting to do headstands, handstands and all the rest of it. I was nervous starting out. Unbelievably 2 years ago I’d never even done a shoulderstand. I was doing a yoga therapy session and the teacher (my first teacher) taught me the shouderstand along with the gold nugget of wisdom that if I woke up sad I could go into shoulderstand for 5 minutes and that would cure me for the day. Alas it is not true. The first few shoulderstands I was terrified! I wobbled all over the place and I feared for my neck. The teacher told me she’d teach me headstand. I told her I was scared of falling and to this she told me that I had to conquer my fear of falling because that was my problem. This was why I was depressed, because I was scared. Hm. I took this with a cynical pinch of salt. I have always been scared of falling, I had only been depressed at that point for about 3 years.

In yoga you fall a lot, especially while learning arm balances. This doesn’t put me off anymore. I suppose part of it is just familiarity and the knowledge I’m not going to hurt myself badly. Also I think it’s the novelty of learning something new about myself, of changing life-long thought patterns. I’m not that scared little girl anymore watching everyone else having fun: I’m having the fun! And arm balances are so much fun (I’ll come back to you about the headstands and handstands, still learning to love these) I’m on the way to becoming fearless.

And you know how I know this? Last week after coming out of my yoga class I RAN down the 2 flights of stairs when I was leaving. I didn’t think of tripping once. That’s progress!