In the post 5 reasons I love yoga I draw attention to the ways yoga generates a sense of empowerment.
The process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.
While this is true, everyone faces obstacles in their practice of yoga, which over time incite feelings of despondency and dejection. Although progression in yoga is often determined by personal anatomy, more often than not, it is the mind that presents the greatest challenge. Our body should never be pushed to extremes, and practice of yoga should always be dictated by what feels good. However, we must always be aware of sneaking ‘doubt’ and how best to overcome it.
Among general illness, tiredness and lethargy, ‘doubt’ is ‘the greatest obstacle to progressing in yoga’ (Desikachar, 1995). Respecting the limits of our anatomy is one thing, but all too often we use it to mask the fears of the mind. Desikachar, in his book The Heart of Yoga, describes this ‘doubt’ as a ‘regular and persistent feeling of uncertainty’, which prompts us to question how, or even if, it is worth trying to progress. This feeling is encountered not only in yoga, but in everyday life, and prevents us from realising our hopes and reaching our best.
Followers on Instagram may have seen my recent attempts at headstands. I try to show that yoga is not all about polished action shots and vibrant editing. Every morning, normally in pyjamas, I make little steps on my journey to sirsasana. When I first began to practice yoga, I assured myself I could never do a full, unassisted headstand. Yoga teachers make it look very easy when place their head on the floor and roll effortlessly up into an upside down balance. I experienced this ‘doubt’; convinced I had no strength in my arms and my neck would never bare the weight I resigned myself to standing in dolphin pose and dropped the pursuit.
Sometimes tasks, like standing on your head, seem impossible. Until we break them down into manageable pieces, the end seems unattainable. It was only when I questioned the foundations of my reasons that I saw how thin they were as excuses. Creating an action plan to reduce the effects of these ‘anatomical restrictions’ revealed them as thin veils for the fear in my mind. Little and often I am building the foundations for a headstand. Every day of the lent period I am committed to doing some sort of strengthening exercise for my arms, not matter how small. (Here’s a great page on dolphin pose and inversion prep from yogajournal.com). I practice against a wall and concentrate on developing a solid set-up, which I’ve adapted from Stephens’ book Teaching Yoga.
- Next to a wall, ground your two basic roots. The forearms and the crown of the head. Place the knees and elbows on the floor, both at shoulder widths apart. Interlace the fingers, leaving the pinkies flat to the floor and brace the back of the head against the thumbs.
- Straighten the legs, lifting the knees off the floor. At this stage press into the floor with the forearms to raise the head slightly off the floor. If the forearms, neck and shoulders are strong enough to hold this position then continue.
- Walk the feet in on tiptoes, aiming to place the hips directly above the head. It is important to continue lifting out of the shoulders during this movement; if the shoulders sag, the neck instantly experiences more pressure.
- Keep the spine long and draw the shoulders back while drawing one leg into the chest. Work with the breath, holding the position for five and repeating with the other leg. Over time the other leg will become weightless enough to follow and the legs will be held in a a tucked position by the core muscles. From here the legs can be extended upwards.
I am still struggling with the final steps. I can tuck the legs in with a little momentum but often end up overshooting and crashing into the wall. Teachers tell everyone to handle the movement in their core and resist throwing themselves against the wall but sometimes I can’t help myself… I’ll get there one day! The key to a headstand is finding your biting point; the moment at which your abdominal muscles are engaged to stop you falling into the wall, but your foundations are grounded enough that you are comfortably balanced.
Progressing in my practice of a headstand has shown me that yoga is only ultimately empowering by causing us to feel disempowered and encouraging us to break through obstacles. By making these small steps towards a larger goal we gradually make space for success by eschewing our negative thoughts. Breaking down mammoth tasks into manageable chunks is a sensible way to progress. That and appreciating that the mind often plays a bigger part than physical capability in our downfalls.