Kicking the Wall

I’m told that summer has arrived to much of the northern hemisphere. Here there have been a smattering of warm days and fleeting glimpses of the sun from behind the omnipresent blanket of clouds. On these rare gifts of sunny days I traipse down to the beach (slathered in sunscreen) to get my handstand on. Apparently so does the rest of the bay area—the traipsing, not the handstanding, but I can usually eke out a bit of shore on which to turn upside down.

I get sheepishly excited when I first arrive. I forget everything about how to actually do a handstand and become, however briefly, ten again. I fling myself up and careen over without even a moment of balance. I’m so excited just to get to the handstand that I forget how to get to the handstand. Repeat this process three or four times—Fling. Thud. Fling. Thud. Sometimes with so much zeal that I end up in urdhva dhanurasana, but usually I’m more cautious than that. Suffice it to say those first few happy attempts though well meaning are not very productive.

So, like everything else in life, it seems that handstand is much more about the journey than its conclusion. After finally realizing that the handstand is not coming I back off; she doesn’t like it if you come on too strong. I finally decide that I will just kick up and if I get up great, if not, great. I take the time to make sure everything is as it should be: shoulders are over wrists, right (quirky!) arm is rolling inward and not splaying outward as it tends to. Tailbone is more or less neutral. Back leg is straight also slightly rolling inward to keep the hips level. Kicking leg (for me that’s my left dominant leg) is under my belly, bent, coiling to kick gently.

I kick up. And the magic comes here. No, I don’t immediately rise into a flawless handstand and stay there until sunset. I kick up too softly and don’t quite make it up. But the magic is in the feedback I get from that kick up. I practice on a slope at the shore so the amount of power needed to rise is less than the flat surface of the floor at home, but I have to figure out how much is needed. The second kick up brings me slightly closer. And on the third kick I find balance. My body recognizes the feeling of balance. I can feel the point of it, like a knife blade, and bring my kicking leg up to meet my other leg, toes reaching up to touch the sun. I stay for a few breaths even as the tide comes in and washes over my hands soaking my jacket sleeves (yes, jacket at the beach: 62°).

I never used to put much importance on kicking up. I tended to just want to get up and then wonder why I didn’t magically understand how to get into handstand. And by “getting up” I’m referring mostly to the crutch of the wall. In the beginning of the handstand journey the wall is a great safety net, but the wall really isn’t your friend. I haven’t learned anything from the wall (strange as that may sound). Usually when first learning we kick up, thud against the wall and just sag there for a bit until our arms get tired and we come down. The next phase involves a laborious game of footsie where we take one leg away from the safety of the wall and tap-tap-tap with the other foot trying to find balance. In my experience the wall really doesn’t teach you how to sense that knife edge and (I think) that’s where the journey starts to get interesting.

I propose you give up handstand. Step away from the wall. Find a park, or a beach (or in a money is no option type of world, a gymnasium with spongey mats to cushion your graceless landings—god I miss those—mats, I still do the landings) Find someplace where you can fall without cracking your tailbone, taking out your neighbor, or the mirrored closet doors. And just kick. Take time with the journey. Notice everything Feel everything. Sense when your arms splay, when your legs bend, and address these issues one by one. And keep kicking. Slowly. Gently. Practice, but play. Laugh when you fall over. And the moment when you kick up and find that sweet spot where everything lines up perfectly and you finally know somewhere deep inside of you what it feels like—let it go. Because you have to come down. But you’ll be able to find it and lose it again and again and again.

(Then switch your non-dominant “goofy” leg and repeat the whole process and flail madly.)


I think about yoga a lot in bed at night. I go over in my head whatever class I’ve done and whatever poses I’m working on and try and figure out what I’m doing wrong. Most of the “wrongness” comes from my myriad alignment issues.

Last night I was going over handstands in my head. Call it my midlife crisis, but I’m determined to be able to balance in a handstand by my thirty-fifth birthday in August. I wanted to be able to press up into one, but I think that may be overly optimistic. I’ll cross that bridge if it presents itself.

Wanting to be able to balance in handstand isn’t a new thing for me. In fact I find it particularly galling having been a gymnast that I can’t find my balance on my hands. Of course now that I’ve been focusing on handstand for a little bit I of course blame gymnastics for my inability to balance.

My handstand quest has brought with it a series of tiny revelations that each tips me a little closer to balance. Initiially I was convinced my banana back was at fault. And to some extent it probably was (and in my tired grasping moments still is). I have a wickedly flexible weak lumbar spine that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. So I set about to learn how to lengthen my low back and use my stomach muscles (they’re in there somewhere). Still, no balance.

Then I realized that I passively put my hands on the ground and don’t actually press into it. You have to press in a handstand. Who knew?

And from pressing into the ground I realized that I take my shoulders out of joint…

…mostly just my right shoulder which I’m not entirely sure is mine. It doesn’t seem to fit in the socket correctly…

Still, no balance. Glimpses of it. Occassionally while hopping up I would surprise myself by not falling over, and immediately fall over.

Then a couple days ago I reread a paper I wrote about a yoga class I attended and the teacher’s insistent adjustment of my ribcage. Then I started thinking about all of the other teachers who have made that same adjustment to me and had another revelation. My sneaky poofy ribcage was at fault.

Somewhere along the line my body mistranslated lifting the ribs up with poofing the chest out. I blame gymnastics again. Think of a gymnast at the end of a tumbling pass flinging her arms up, poofing her chest out and arching her low back and then you have my stance. Not quite so dramatic, but there in the shape. While that posture was triumphant when I was eleven and had landed a roundoff backhandspring backflip, it doesn’t work very well in a handstand or any other yoga pose really. And trust me I sneak it in everywhere.

So I started working my handstand and pulling my ribcage in and engaging my belly. Voila. Balance. At first I thought it was a fluke. But nope. I keep finding it again and again. Not in every handstand, but its never far off. And it’s magical
when everything aligns and there I am upside down on my hands hanging out without tapping the wall with my feet.

So last night as I was laying in bed I started thinking about my sneaky poofy ribcage. Just because I can sometimes align it in handstand by no means the “problem” is conquered. I’ve been poofing my chest for years without knowing that I was doing it, or that there was anything wrong with it (technically there isn’t really, it’s just energetically inefficient). I started thinking of a metaphor for the ribs that helps me to find neutral. Even though it’s anatomically more or less incorrect it helps me to think of the ribcage as a bell and the spine as the clapper of the bell. (yeah yeah it’s attached. moving on)

When you poof your chest out visualize your bell being tipped and the spine clanging against the back side of it (best to think of a really noisy awful bell). But it’s not only the spine that’s misaligned. I haven’t figured how to work the stomach muscles into the metaphor, but in this position they’re stretched out since they attach to the front of the bell. You can’t use them when they’re all stretched out.

Now if you tip the bell the other way, the clapper clangs against the front side of the bell. The stomach muscles contract too much and your spine to round which is useful if you’re trying to do ardha navasana or bakasana.

But what you want to find for handstand is neutral. The clapper needs to be centered within the bell so that the belly muscles can do their job.

This is the crap that floats around in my head when I’m trying to go to sleep. It’s no wonder I can’t. But my handstands are coming.

Showing Up

Ding dong the holidays are over! The sun is shining. (I swear it seems like it has rained non-stop for a month.) The birds are singing (ok, I don’t hear them, but metaphorically it seems like they are.) I’m not a big fan of resolutions for the New Year. I know that in two weeks or less into the year I’ll get bored or annoyed at whatever hellish task I’ve set myself up to fail at.

The commercials tell me to go on a diet. They taunt me with their $3,000 tread climbers (I want one!). And their 30 minutes three times a week claims to make me absofrickinglutely perfect. They tell me that if I just buy some hydroxytone or whatever I can melt away all of my imperfections. What better time than now?

This year I’ve decided I’m not going to go on a diet or start another crazy exercise plan. This year I’ve decided I want to show up on my yoga mat. For me and my glorious tendency toward inconsistency I’ve decided that the hardest part of doing yoga is showing up on the mat. Once I’m there it’s all good.

I’ve tried this before and gotten bored. I’ve amassed quite a collection of yoga DVDs over the years. Half of them it seems are only about twenty minutes long. Twenty minutes is usually not long enough to practice. And if I have to put in a second DVD it’s all over. So I quickly lose interest with my DVDs. I should attend the classes at the yoga studio down the street from me that I can literally walk to. But I have an excuse for that. They’re all way early. I am not a morning yogini. I did go to the evening class a couple times. It just didn’t click with me.

One would think that after having practiced for…nine years now…I would be able to just do a home practice on my own. I could. I’ve tried. Half the time I just walk away from the mat in the middle of whatever I’m doing ten minutes after having started. I like having a teacher—a cruise director as one of my teachers quipped. Someday I figure I’ll strike out on my own and be able to do my own practice without walking away from the mat. I’m not there yet.

So, a few days before New Year’s I found YogaGlo. I was a little concerned about the site because the name just brought to mind a hord of really flexible women contorting themselves while wearing pink spandex. I dunno why. It just went all flash dance and eighties in my mind’s eye. So what the hell is YogaGlo? It’s like youtube filled entirely with great yoga teachers (Jason Crandell—yeah, I should really venture back to the city and his classes, Kathryn Budig, and many more to acquaint myself with). The classes range from short and sweet to full on 90 minutes. Some of them apparently are actual classes with students and everything, though the ones I’ve watched (participated in!) have been either one on one with the instructor doing the class while instructing or with a model for the instructor to adjust.

I signed up, put my credit card number in and haven’t looked back. It’s like yoga heaven. Want to work on hips? You can search for that. Feeling plucky and want to soar in visvamitrasana (I probably spelled that wrong) they’ve got that too. Need an evening class to wind down? Yup. They even have meditation classes, but I am probably the worst meditator in the history of ever. I kind of get panicky when I close my eyes and sit still. 20 minutes is just too much of a commitment for me right now.

And the site works on my iPad! Joyful joy! I don’t have to unplug my laptop from the printer and the external drives and the monitor and lug it around to my practice hallway. (I practice in the entryway of my apt. It’s the only wood floor in the place.) I can roll out the mat prop the ipad up with a yoga block and pick a class.

So, my rambling point in this endorsement of my favoritest [sic] website ever is that I’ve decided that YogaGlo can help me show up on my mat. What I do after that is immaterial. It gets me there. I’m four for four in the New Year (I was going strong for about a week before that). I’m going for 30 straight days of yoga. After that we’ll see. I’d love to go for 365 days of yoga, and maybe I’ll try to make that commitment, but for now 30 seems good. And if I happen to get toned or shed a pound or two along the way, that’s just a bonus. I just want to show up.

Failure to Stand

I am thirty-two years old and I don’t know how to stand up.

No, really.

I’m not injured or invalid. To most eyes I appear to stand up, but it’s all a sham. My body has been deceiving me since my first wobbly ascent onto two legs. Why didn’t anyone tell me I was doing it all wrong? And why did we not have a class on standing up in school? I’m outraged by this lack of attention to our very foundation.

Sure my grandma used to chastise me for not standing up straight. I think this is the role of grandmothers across the world. Over the years I have stopped slouching, but slouching is only a minute visible aspect of this troubling phenomenon.

The problem begins at the root, in our feet, in our very bones. I have yet to hear anyone’s grandmother tell them to lift their arches (all three) or to root down evenly through the base of their big toe and their little toe.

Standing is a given. It’s something done without thought. Posture is a summation of little habits that make up who you are. If you are left-side dominant you might unconsciously stand with more weight in the left leg causing the right side of you pelvis to lift up slightly causing the right side of your spine to compress a little throwing everything off just a fraction until suddenly one day standing hurts. Then sitting hurts (because you cross your legs and exacerbate the imbalances). Then lying down hurts. And suddenly without any (seeming) provocation existence is pain.

I’m taking liberties of course, but the snowball effect is real. Why didn’t anyone mention this? Why in all of our years of “physical education” did no one start with our foundation? Granted I think it would be really difficult to get the point across to a herd of rowdy eight year olds, but necessary all the same.

In all of my gymnastics training I never heard that I didn’t stand properly. Of course as long as my toes were pointed and my back was arched it was all good. But, in my almost seven years of yoga practice the idea that I stand incorrectly has only recently been brought to my attention and it’s shaken me—literally.

Two weeks ago I attended a workshop on standing poses where I had the epiphany (or maybe had it thrust at me) that I didn’t know how to stand. Before that time I thought I stood rather well. I stood tall (as tall as is possible for someone who is 5’1″) with my shoulder blades down my back. I thought I engaged my thighs to support me. Perhaps that was the problem: I thought I was standing correctly. In truth I wasn’t using my muscles to do much at all. I let my knees thrust back too far, which tipped my pelvis forward and exaggerated the curve in my lumbar spine. Knowing is half of the battle—thank you G.I. Joe, but fixing it almost feels like a losing battle.

Ok, so to stand mindfully and with attention you press down equally between the ball of the big and little toe and the heel. Check. You lift up the arches in your feet by lifting the inner and outer ankles (I’m still not convinced I have muscles there). Semi-check. And to reign in that hyper-extending knee joint bend the knees slightly and then re-straighten by firmly engaging the quadricep muscles rather than just letting the knees fall where they may. (This starts to feel weird because my legs no longer feel straight to me, and really they aren’t. Bent is the new straight.) Check. All right, now we’re up to the pelvis that likes to spill forward. Tuck that tailbone between your legs. Even more. The teacher will come over and tuck it more anyway. All right, so tucked, taking the arch out of the back. Dear god, this requires stomach muscles! Check. And now the torso is free and buoyant and can reach up out of the waist with ease. Check. Pull those floating ribs back down. Now is not the time to poof them out (we’ll revisit that bad habit when it comes time for backbends). Roll the shoulder blades down the back without jamming. Check. Now the head can rest lightly atop the spine and ascend.

Take a deep breath to admire the marvel of engineering that is the human body and begin your practice having learned this fundamental action of standing evenly on both feet.

Then prepare for the moment of horror when realization dawns that the bad standing habits pervade your entire practice. The hyperextension emerges in everything from adho mukha svanasana to trikonasana to dandasana. The untucked pelvis (that you thought you had been tucking) lurks in adho mukha svanasana and virabhadrasana I and II. These habits perfuse everything you do and no one thought to mention them.

“Oh, by the way, you don’t even know how to stand up.” I would have laughed. But it’s so woefully true. And I have the rest of a lifetime to learn to stand with integrity since no one thought to mention it sooner.