Headstand: It’s Just a Matter of Perspective

Headstand. Sirsasana. The King of Asana.

This magnificent pose has a rightful place as king and its benefits are innumerable: it calms the nervous system, nourishes the brain cells, stimulates the heart and circulation, balances hormones, improves digestion, and strengthens the spirit.

Headstand against a wall

Headstand against a wall

For many years I considered this pose too advanced for me. I never even attempted it. Even as my practice grew, I always considered it something that would happen in the future.

Then I enrolled in yoga teacher training. I got a list of the asana we were going to cover and there it was: Sirsasana. Gulp.

I picked out a few poses that I knew were going to be a challenge for me and spent the year prior to training working them in to my daily practice. For headstand, that meant months of building up strength and flexibility in my shoulders. I spent a lot of time in plank with dolphin arms. When that became more comfortable, then I began to walk my toes in so I was in more of a downward dog shape, still on dolphin arms. I got to where I could walk my toes in pretty far.

But that’s where I plateaued. I still could not imagine where I would find the strength to hoist my legs up over my head. It didn’t help that I was going through a divorce and having menopausal night sweats that left me feeling depleted. I didn’t exactly feel like I had an inner reservoir of strength. I tried to simply accept where I was with the pose, and that maybe I’d be hanging out there for a few more years.

Then I enrolled in an inversions workshop, scheduled to take place the day before our Headstand class. I thought, “Why not? Maybe I’ll learn some tips to help me get to the next level.” I let go of the need to be able to do the full Headstand.

The time came. I knealt down in front of the wall and interlaced my fingers, put my head on the floor, pulled my shoulderblades together, and started walking my feet in, just like always. And then–it happened. I saw my own feet lift off the floor and disappear from view. It was like an unseen hand lifted me up and there I was–in the full pose (with the wall as a prop). I felt euphoric, awestruck by own abilities.

Something clicked that day. I was able to make some progress by getting out of my own way, by learning to accept where I was. When I found real contentment in a modification of the pose, then I was able to surrender the ego long enough to move forward.

For the next few months I was addicted to Headstand. I felt like I had to do it every day just to keep proving to myself that I could. My ego had not totally surrendered! The posture became a restorative staple, busting one out against a tree after a long walk, during massage breaks, or instead of a nap.

I’ve been actively practicing this posture for about two years. I’m still practicing this pose against a wall for support. Now I’m working on taking my feet away for longer and longer stretches. Rather than doing a few Headstands in a row, now I’m working on staying in for longer periods of time. Headstand has become one of my daily practice “essentials”.

You can do this pose, too. Here’s how:

Warm up with some sun salutations or downward dog first.

1. Fold a yoga blanket or mat and lay it against a wall. Kneel in front of the blanket and place your forearms on it, sphinx-style. The elbows should be  no wider than the shoulders. Form a triangle with your arms by interlacing your fingers. The fingers should be about 4 inches from the wall.

2. Start pressing down through the elbows and bring the hips in closer to the shoulders. Press the wrists down.

3. Place the crown of the head between the wrists, with the back of the head cradled by the hands. The very top of the head is in contact with the floor and the neck is aligned.

4. Tuck the toes under and straighten the knees so you’re in an inverted V shape. Walk your feet toward your head, bringing the weight on to the top of the head.

5. When the feet can’t walk in any further, lift them off the floor and bring the heels toward the buttocks. ground down through the elbows and wrists.

6. Begin to straighten the legs and lift up through the shoulders. Tuck the shoulderblades on the back. There should be lots of space between the shoulders and ears. Lengthen the waist, drawing the belly in.

7. Stay for 5 breaths in the beginning, building up over many  months to 10 minutes of more. Come down by reversing the steps, and rest in Child’s Pose for a few breaths afterward.


The Barking Guru

It’s 3am and your neighbor’s dog is barking incessantly. Again. You know the dog has separation anxiety, but your compassion is nowhere to be found. You shout, “Shut uuuuuuuup!” and pull a pillow over your head. Is this a spiritual opportunity? You bet!

Puppy 1

He Could Be Your Spiritual Teacher

You don’t necessarily need to travel to the Himalayas or join an ashram to find a spiritual teacher. They are really all around us.

One of the earliest examples of this that I experienced was with a landlord. We just rubbed each other the wrong way. If I put my garbage can on the north side of the house, he’d move it to the south side. If I planted petunias, he’d say I should have put in geraniums. He become the source of much stress in my life. Or so I thought.

Around that time I started practicing loving-kindness meditation, or metta meditation. After establishing a sense of loving-kindness toward those that you love, some metta instructions will suggest you call to mind someone with whom you are having a difficulty. Well, I didn’t have to search far. Old Mr. Landlord was always right there in my consciousness. The next step is to include that person in your expanding loving awareness, and to extend to them the same loving-kindness that you would give your family and friends.

At first it was really difficult. How could I love this guy when I didn’t even like him? But over time I began to see him less as a personality and more as a soul. I could see that he, too, was on the human journey, just like me. I began to soften my attitude. On the outside, he was the same person with the same habits, but I felt less bothered by his actions. I realized that I had a choice about my emotions, and that no one could make me suffer.

When my neighbor first moved in and his dog barked for literally hours non-stop, I could feel my body reacting to the stress. Inside my head was a rant: “This is driving me crazy. Shut up shut up shut up. God, when will he stop? Please stop! I’m so irritated,” etc. etc. etc. But when I realized I really had no control over the dog, I started to turn it around. I sat and did mindfulness meditation, concentrating on the breath, gently feeling my belly rise and fall while the barking continued. The outer circumstances didn’t change, but my attitude did. I simply shifted my focus. The soundtrack in my head changed: “I’m breathing. In and out. A dog is barking. Breathing, breathing, breathing. Noticing I’m more relaxed. A dog is barking.”

Another neighbor came over one day to say he had a donation of some carrots at his school and they couldn’t keep them over the weekend. Would I like some for the rabbits? Sure, I said, envisioning a couple of carrots. He came back with about 50 pounds of carrots, the bag handles breaking as he handed them to me. This was on a day when I was struggling with feelings of lack, wondering how to make ends meet. And then there it was, one of those little nudges from the Universe saying, “Wake up! Abundance is all around you.” I had more carrots than I, my neighbor, and the buns could possibly eat. I set aside a few for Molly and Gilligan and took the rest to the Humane Society for the rabbits there.

So you see, spiritual teachers come in many different forms. You may find them at the supermarket or post office, in your co-workers and neighbors. They are probably in the person you rush to judge, or the ones you find most different from you. When we can take a moment to recognize the soul in everyone and everything, then we get the ego out of the way and remember our inherent wholeness. It is in these moments that real spiritual growth is possible.

Meditating with Your Pets

photoIf you have both a regular meditation practice and pets, you’ve probably noticed how pets gravitate toward your practice area or to you while you’re engaged in meditation.

My house rabbits have free run, and I allow them in my meditation room, although when I am formally practicing I try to let the pitter-patter of their feet come into and out of my awareness.

But outside of my formal sittings I’ve discovered a way to informally practice with the buns. “Let’s sit together,” is what I often say to my rabbits when I want to sit on the floor and pet them, and simply enjoy their presence. We don’t watch TV or do anything else. We just sit together, two (or three) beings simply sitting in loving awareness.

I’ve come to see this sitting together as part of my spiritual practice. Sitting with the bunnies is an invitation to practice mindfulness, to practice being in the present moment, to be ‘in love’.

Sitting quietly with my pets allows me to contemplate beauty, ponder the diversity of creation, love unconditionally, and experience gratitude, all qualities I want to cultivate in my life.

Sometimes I observe our breathing, noticing our different rhythms yet connected through a dance of moments, of in-breaths and out-breaths. With time the breath seems to synchronize as we both settle deeper into meditative states. If I’ve been petting or massage them I can stop moving my hands and rest in simple touch. Just breathing, just being.

One of the great things about meditating with your pets is that they become constant reminders of that mindful state. Whenever a rabbit goes hopping by, it’s a moment for me to pause and appreciate joy and love.

If you don’t have pets of your own, go out into Nature and simply observe animals. Sit on a park bench and allow your awareness to include the movements and sounds of birds. Lie on the grass and peer into the insect world underfoot. Consider the interconnectedness of all beings, the essence of One.

Whether we’re practicing formally or informally, we exude a loving, peaceful energy when we meditate, an energy that our pets are drawn to and that can heal this world.

She is Blind and Now I See

My sweet little rabbit, Molly, has been losing her vision due to cataracts. I first noticed it a few months ago in her left eye. One day I gazed into her beautiful deep brown eyes; the next morning it was like a shade had been pulled down over the left side.

If rabbits experience depression (and I think they do), Molly fell into one. She spent more time under the couch and wouldn’t come out to the yard to play. I felt depressed, too. I realized how attached I was to Molly’s form, to being able to gaze into her eyes and feel I was connecting with her soulfully. I didn’t want to see her suffer or struggle. I didn’t want things to change (again).

Molly, beautiful no matter what

Molly, beautiful no matter what

With time Molly began to adapt, mapping out the house by running along the edges of things with her whiskers. She seemed to function just fine, and together we settled into some form of acceptance.

Then yesterday, while preparing to take her on a pet therapy visit, I noticed that Molly’s right eye was starting to turn white, another cataract forming. My heart sank. I asked the human question of despair: why?? I resisted change, again. In resisting, I suffered.

While making our rounds at the adult day care center, Molly’s friends cooed and cuddled her, telling her how beautiful she is and how much they love her. Some people noticed the cataract and just nodded, understanding. No one said, “I don’t love you anymore.”

When I take the time to simply ‘be’ in the presence of another, form becomes irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if it’s a blind rabbit or a person with Alzheimer’s disease. Spirit transcends the physical and holds us in the infinite presence of love.

Molly just carries on. I treasure our snuggle time, when I can float in the good feelings of connecting soul to soul. It doesn’t matter whether she can see me or not. And, I realize, I can trust in the presence of spirit, whether *I* can see it or not. I notice Molly runs into things a lot, but she hasn’t lost her zest for life or carrots. She just deals with life moment by moment, a great lesson for this struggling human.

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