by Octavia Morgan
Uncertainty, fear, and discomfort. While these words aren’t used to sell yoga to the masses, they are feelings that all of us will encounter if we study yoga long enough. Sooner or later, we each discover a pose that evokes a feeling of dread when the teacher announces it; for me, this pose has always been Salamba Sirsasana, or Headstand.
The first time I tried Headstand more than ten years ago, I felt an intense pain on the right side of my neck. While I like to push myself in my yoga practice and I don’t mind strong sensations, neck pain was very scary for me. I was afraid of Headstand and I avoided it whenever I could. When I had to do the pose in class, I could only hold it for 30 to 60 seconds at the wall before pain intruded and I came down. After a visit to a chiropractor and some x-rays, I learned that I have scoliosis, or abnormal curves, in several places in my spine and that some of the vertebrae in my neck are pushed to the right. This information only reinforced my aversion to headstand.
In my fifth year of practice, I began studying with Manouso Manos, one of the most senior teachers in the Iyengar tradition. Manouso insisted that I do headstand in every one of his classes when I wasn’t menstruating, explaining that it’s one of the most important and beneficial poses. He gave me a variation at the wall where my upper back was supported by wooden bricks. When I leaned on the topmost brick in the correct way, the pain in my neck was greatly diminished and sometimes gone. He told me that this would be my headstand for the next one to two years and I practiced it diligently, gradually strengthening the muscles in my upper back, arms and neck.
One day I tried headstand at the wall without the block support and was delighted to find that I could hold it for a couple of minutes. I began learning to balance, setting up about a foot away from the wall and eventually became comfortable and even bored with this version of the pose. When I mentioned this to Manouso during class one day, he told me it was time to move out into the middle of the room. Terrified of falling over backwards, I went up into a rickety headstand complete with white knuckles, a clenched jaw, and every muscle in my neck and upper back gripped. After a minute or so, my teacher walked by and with no warning, shoved my legs (while supporting my spine) so that I went over into a backbend. “Go up again,” he instructed me as I lay on the floor, gasping with fear and indignation. He took me over backwards four times that night and I emerged from class exhilarated, humbled, and much less concerned about falling.
Over the next couple of years, Manouso directed me through numerous variations of headstand, each one teaching me something different about the pose. I learned how to create a stable foundation, how to work correctly in my torso and legs, and how to feel when my upper back muscles were working asymmetrically and pulling my neck to the side. There were many times when I strained a muscle or when my neck felt stiff or sore afterwards, so I also had to learn what poses to do to improve my neck when I’d messed it up. Manouso suggested that I build up my time in the pose by ten seconds increments, and I gradually increased my staying power.
However, I still hated headstand, not only for the pain I often felt while in it, but also for the feelings of inadequacy it brought up for me. Why could that beginner stay up for five minutes with apparent ease when after years of practice I still fought to stay up for three minutes and twenty seconds? When I moved into the advanced class, these feelings intensified. There were countless times when I came down after five or six minutes and watched everyone else in the class do headstand variations. As they all twisted their torsos and did the splits, I fought with feelings of intense embarrassment, self-doubt, and envy.
Once again, my teacher helped me to advance in my practice. Sometimes Manouso was unrelenting in his insistence that I stay up in Sirsasana. On days when I was at my limit, he was gentle and showed me variations that gave relief. He was (and still is) unwavering in his belief that I could improve in the pose, and he was compassionate even when he was tough. I was deeply inspired by his stories of how he had grappled with neck problems and prevailed, especially when I watched him lift smoothly up into Sirsasana. His approach towards me helped me learn how I should coach myself in my own practice, and little by little, my headstand changed.
With Manouso’s guidance I have developed the strength, flexibility and knowledge to hold Sirsasana for extended periods of time. I can do variations, and sometimes I can even do all of them in one session. Even so, I often feel like I only find the true pose for a few seconds at a time. On my best days, I experience a feeling of weightlessness, as if my body is floating, and my mind is utterly still. The discomfort in my neck and back vanishes and time expands. Then my body shifts ever so slightly, the moment is over, and I am back to adjusting and tuning the pose again.
I recently saw a video of a talk Mr. Iyengar gave last December on his 87th birthday. Disappointments, he said, are a test to see if we are true seekers, steadfast in our paths as practitioners of yoga. He asked his students what would happen if instead of running away from pain, we endured it in order to study it, to understand what is causing it and what might decrease it. I strive to remember these words when my neck hurts or when I come down before the rest of the class and my despair flares up yet again.
Now I appreciate headstand (at least most of the time). It makes me much more motivated to practice, since I know that if I don’t practice it daily, I feel unstable and more afraid in the pose. Once I began practicing it daily (along with Salamba Sarvangasana, or Shoulderstand), I experienced many of the benefits I’d been promised – mental stability and acuity, alertness and vitality, fewer mood swings, clearer skin, and more. I can truly say that doing these inversions daily has changed my life. But the real reason I appreciate Sirsasana is that it’s a great teacher for me. My body instantly tells me when I don’t have it right. In my best moments, the discomfort and pain that I feel are my guides to a state of deep concentration. Sirsasana doesn’t lie to me, or even soften the truth to spare my feelings. It is a mirror that reflects the truth steadily, day after day.