HANDSTANDS are one of those trophy poses. They leave you brighter, bolder, lighter, stronger; and for those too modest to admit it, they make you feel like a real yogi—a word that doesn’t feel quite right on us Lululemon-clad practitioners, but those hunger-defying, cave-bound ascetics, whose only apparel are loincloths, white as their cotton-candy beards and the streaks of silver on their balding, gleaming pates.
The feel-so-good a handstand gives is due largely to its degree of difficulty. Hit all the high and right notes, and you can’t help feeling high. For someone who’s just come into his own in the topsy-turvy world of upside down, the feat could well be—transposed into diving terms—something of a 3.0, the degree of difficulty assigned to a dive, the highest being 3.5. But why ever not?
After all, handstands have a way of training delicate wrists into hardy ankles, and palms, no more than half of one’s shoe size, into the unlikeliest feet—sturdy and solid ones at that, mustering the strength of the elbows-as-knees. Fingers, aided by gravity and egged by the phobia of falling, become instinctively sticky, clawlike even—qualities not quite native to the toes.
Then, there’s that whole business of firing up the belly, the mysterious muscular depths within, to stabilize the spine, not to mention that complementary maneuver of tilting the tailbone north, rendering that Yoga 101 phrase, root the tailbone down, all but irrelevant.
It’s a subtle adjustment one must heed, especially if you have L4-and-L5 issues in the lower back, because those lazy, easier-to-execute backward-bending banana curves in the torso can dump more stress at an already troubled area; or worse, create a brand new home for a ruptured disc at a universally vulnerable spot—sad tidings no injury-free person should ever have to welcome.
But, pray tell, how does one tilt the tailbone, let alone feel it? Not when you’re upside down, you realize very quickly.
In an upended world of adho mukha vrksasana—a downward-facing tree, a tree pose uprooted and inverted—your nerves and senses rev into a state of overdrive that they suffer some strange malfunction, so that even your breath conspires against you, turning strangely shallow, suffocated, and annoyingly spotty, exacerbated by a blood-rush to the head that makes the ears all tender and afire, and the face fatter and fuller to the point of bursting.
As if this weren’t enough, you still have—hundreds of single-legged and bunny hops later—a million other things to process, a veritable list of dos and don’ts, delivered in an organized chatter of voice cues.
If you willed yourself to listen carefully, you’re likely to glean certain lines that feel like natural pairs, each harping on the same thing. One could go hug the ribs in just as the other counsels don’t let the ribs flare out, before breaking into the next new verse: make the neck long versus don’t bunch up your shoulders.
In short, handstands aren’t easy. And so, getting your feet and hips stacking directly over the shoulders and wrists may be one thing; staying there, still and steady, is quite another.
If you’ve got most of the mechanics down pat—add the conscious effort of squeezing the inner thighs in and the subtler movements of rotating the upper arms outward and the lower arms inward—that in itself is a trophy. Never mind if the pose stays with you for only a teasing moment, heels (or heel) kissing the wall, before your feet find the floor.
This is where one must summon all the powers of the mind as a fine athlete would, focusing on the mental game as much as the physical one.
“If you find yourself falling the moment you’re up,” says Marysia, my upside down teacher, “think of staying just one second longer.”
Of all the mind-harnessing pep talk, like fake it till you make it or Muhammad Ali’s pretend you’re the best even if you’re not, Marysia’s has a purity of purpose, devoid of any pretense.
What’s one second, after all, especially within the context of those clock-ticks trudging interminably at the 1989 French Open, when the 17-year-old Michael Chang not only battled cramps and dehydration from the end of the fourth set, he also toppled Ivan Lendl, the world’s No. 1 in a 3-hour-41-minute match.
True, the Chang story may seem all too distant, all too airy-fairy for our very right-side up minds. But then again, one second is as quick as a peck on the cheek or the lips. If you’re thinking, as I have, of stealing just one more kiss, or that one more second as you bid your darling goodbye at the train station, do the same with your handstand.
And when you’ve done it one second longer, don’t be surprised the second one would come just like that—no effort at all, just like a kiss.