I began my handstand practice at age 47. I have sustained this practice for close to two and a half years now. On the eve of my impending half century anniversary, I am stronger today than I was in my 20s and 30s, and I attribute this to my dedicated daily arm-balance and handstand practice.
Though I had been a yoga practitioner since my mid 30s, my early yoga discipline looked very different from what it is today. My early groundings in Iyengar was a gentler type of yoga and whilst we did inversions, my arm-balancing practice was fairly limited and handstand, even more so. Though we did arm-balances here and there, they were always done as static poses.
Even at the peak of my practice during this period, I would never attempt a headstand or forearm stand away from the wall. It was a very safe environment, if you like. In my late 40s I discovered Ashtanga and this propelled my yoga practice into a tangential but much needed direction from a balance perspective (this is not a play on words but I mean balance here in terms of harmony).
For those not familiar, Ashtanga is known to be a difficult and challenging physical type of yoga practice. The discipline is comprised of six series, each of which has a set order of poses which can take up to two hours to complete each time. Some yoga practitioners never see past the First Series and even those who advance to the Intermediate (second) series sometimes are not able to accomplish all the poses in the First Series. The First Series integrates advanced arm-balances, twists and backbends (advanced in the sense that these would most likely not be taught in a general level 1 yoga class though the First Series in Ashtanga is considered the “entry level” practice).
But where Ashtanga really distinguishes itself; the feature that really tests the mettle of its practitioner is in the transitions. The transitions are the links that enable the practitioner to move joyously and seamlessly from one posture to the next, thus enabling a continual and unbroken chain of movement; a kind of a meditative dance. These transitions are dynamic arm balances where one jumps forward through the legs into a seated position and reverses back into a high plank from seated through another arm-balance. It’s this moving arm-balance that truly challenges a practitioner’s balance and strength, physically, emotionally and mentally.
And there are over 30 seated poses in the First Series so multiply that by two and that is roughly how many dynamic jump through and jump back arm-balances you would be navigating in one single practice. So it is this moving, dynamic arm-balance along with its relentless repetitions which allowed me to develop strength, both physcially and mentally. This system gave me a blueprint through which I was able to explore, ask questions of myself, experiment and understand how my body and its individual components needed to interact in order to produce an outcome. Strong enough that within 2 years after turning 49, with no additional weight training or in the absence of a gymnastics, athletic or dance background, I was able to accomplish the press handstand, still one of the benchmarks of core strength in the movement discipline. You are never too old to start this journey. Take it from me, if I can at 47, then you can. There is a way that anyone at any age and strength level is able to incorporate this into their practice. You simply have to consider altering your mindset. I talk more about this below.
My journey into handstands was in part predicated by my teaching journey. The mastery of arm-balances and handstands is still one of the highly regarded components of a teacher’s bag of tools. But there are so many good reasons why everyone should try arm-balancing in their practice.
Let me approach this from a slightly different angle. In Surfing the Edge of Chaos: The Laws of Nature and the Laws of Business, Richard Pascale borrows from the laws of nature and reflects how this can be a learning parallel within the world of business. He argues that there are a number of fundamental principles that both the worlds of nature and business share.
One of these principles relates to equilibrium. In very stark terms, equilibrium is death. When a living system is in equilibrium, it is less likely to respond well to change. The concept of an organisation as a living organism rather than an inert machine, that is able to respond to a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world has gained popularity in business circles in recent times. The growing popularity of intentional iteration has also coincided with this directional change in leadership thinking. The theory of iteration is a borrowed mathematical and computer programming idea. In math, iteration, an important problem solving tool, is the repeated application of a function or process in which the output of each step is used as the input for the next iteration. In other words, the framework within which the formula is set is the expectation of failure. The hypotheses is built upon the notion that failure will produce a set of results which will provide the basis for the next set of results and so on until the correct solution is found. Not only is failure okay, failure is the mechanism through which a result shall be found.
These two ideas for me have a profound connection with the practice of arm-balancing and many shades of application for life in general. Whenever I announce that we’re going to work on arm-balancing in my class, this is often met with a groan and expressions of concern from the students. “I can’t do it” – that’s the overwhelming mindset. Yes but I don’t expect you to do it. My response is always the same – arm-balances or handstands for that matter are never really about the final pose. It’s an opportunity to explore where your body and mind can go with a little organised disruption. Whilst it may take you months, maybe years to achieve an arm-balance pose, what is truly important is the foundation of physical strength and mental fortitude that you are building through this journey. The prize is the series of failures, what you learn about yourself from them and how that creates a platform for the next level of learning – the process of failure and experimentation, the process of iteration. This is not meant as some kind of hippy feel good bit of encouragement. Failure and repetition is the method by which progress will occur.
So I would like my students to change their mindset when approaching arm-balances. See these instructions on how to do a pose as a basic formula, as in math, where you bring your own set of variables (your physical attributes, your intelligence, focus and curiosity ) each day and from each result, learn something and use it as a building block for the next practice. Expect failure and use failure as the tool to help you chip away at the answer. What the answer is may not be the answer your originally set out to find but don’t lose faith in the question or the formula. This mindset is what will help you build fortitude and a curiosity that will serve you in other aspects of your life.
The other idea – that of equilibrium being death is very close to body conditioning wisdom. When you stick with the same, safe routine each time, your body and your mind will stop growing. Arm-balancing adds an element of uncertainty and uncertainty keeps you on your toes. When you surf the edge, you start to discover things about yourself, things you never imagined might be possible.
Stick to the same, safe routine, and you will stagnate, whether physically, mentally or emotionally. One thing is for sure, no two arm-balances or handstands are ever the same. It really doesn’t matter how much I practice it but each time I enter a handstand, there is an undercurrent of uncertainty and risk which demands my complete focus and devotion. I accept that I might fall – this exercise in itself is already a rewiring of the brain – an invitation and acquiescence that failure is possibly a not too distant part of the contract. This planned disruption, this organised disruption, it has tremendous value and application in many other parts of our life. The changing, organic nature of arm-balances teaches us the value of patience, adaptation and acceptance in an altering landscape. I have certainly experienced this in my handstand practice. Just because you press into a handstand on Monday, that is no guarantee you will succeed on Friday. When I fail on Friday, I try again on Monday. Don’t lose faith in the question or the formula, just because the answers aren’t always there. Some days it comes easily, other days it might be one messy attempt after another. This is very much like the things that come and go in life. When you have it, appreciate and be grateful it’s there because tomorrow it may not be there.
For a more technical treatment of arm-balances visit my earlier post written exactly 12 months ago when this was the topic of our practice theme back in November 2017! All this month, we are exploring arm-balances in our yoga classes. Check out my timetable and book a class here