Inversions: Working the Edge of Fear and Courage
When I was a child, I wouldn’t do a cartwheel. I didn’t like somersaults. I detested being upside down. It terrified me.
Karin O’Bannon taught me my first headstand. I was 38 years old and a few days into her teacher training. Truth to be told, if I had known there were headstands in yoga, I never would have shown up for that first yoga class 18 months earlier.
In my 16 years of teaching, some frightened students have asked me, what’s the point of it?
The same question might be applied to asana in general. If yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind what do yoga asanas have to do with yoga?
And in that regard, challenging inversions (as headstand is to most beginners) in particular might seem antithetical to yoga. Patañjali defines perfection in asana as effortlessness, and that is not intended to mean just on a physical level, but in terms of our mind as well.
But BKS Iyengar offers a refreshing view on the struggle most people feel when encountering inversions for the first time (and even later, when taking on increasingly challenging inversions). In his Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali he notes:
“Asana . . . offers a controlled battleground for the process of conflict and creation. The aim is to recreate the process of human evolution in our own internal environment….. The creative struggle is experienced in headstand: as we challenge ourselves to improve the position, fear of falling acts to inhibit us. If we are rash, we fall, if timorous, we make no progress. But if the interplay of the two forces is observed, analyzed and controlled, we can achieve perfection.” (Emphasis added)
I knew none of this the day I faced my first headstand. That day in 1997, Karin noted that some people were terrified of headstand. Shrinking inside, I told her that I was one of those who were terrified. She taught me the finger interlace, the placement of the head, the actions of Sirsasana. Then she helped me upside down, with a wall behind me for support.
After quite a few hyperventilating breaths, I realized that the world was not going to come to an end. After my breathing slowed, she assisted me down, and asked what I thought.
“That was great!” I answered without thinking, surprising even myself.
It was six months before I tried kicking into a headstand outside of class. And it was several years before I could hear a teacher announce “Sirsasana” without feeling dread. But over time, the pose developed into the mainstay of my practice.
Of late, headstand has become ground again for the creative process Iyengar described. Now I face, not fear of falling, but fear of injury. Now, again, it has become that battleground for my fears, as I seek to perform the pose without injury, and yet to progress as well.
No matter. As Mr. Iyengar said: “If the interplay of the two forces is observed, analyzed and controlled, we can achieve perfection.”
Working at the edge of fear and courage, I focus on the interplay of forces. And with this, increasingly grows the realization—I am not the fear, I am not the fluctuations of my mind. These forces are there, and that is okay, but they are not me. And this, to me, is the epitome of yoga.
Christie Hall began studying yoga in 1995 to cope with crippling back pain. Her home practice started with the book, Yoga: The Iyengar Way. She started teaching in 1997 after studying with Iyengar teacher Karin O’Bannon and she has studied as student and as teacher exclusively with Iyengar teachers, including BKS Iyengar in Colorado in 2005 and Geeta Iyengar in 2007. More of her writings can be found on her blog: www.pratipaksha.com. Her Web site is www.christieyoga.com.