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.