Ribs In, Girl!

THE last time I wrote about handstands, I was obsessed with holding it for one second longer, or at least, thinking along those lines. The mental focus helped for someone whose practice seemed to mock the “stand” in the “handstand”: nothing about it was stationary, just a body pivoting from the wrists, going up against the wall, falling back down, up and down, with each back and forth dwindling in energy and elegance—not that there was any in the first place.

Six months have passed since, and as recent as two weeks ago, after months of patchy practice, I’ve become master of a two-second handstand, sometimes three when my mind tunes in to that little voice going, “Ribs in, girl!” If I wanted to be a little snarky, I could say, “But why only now? Haven’t you known about this rib thing all along?”

Yes, I have, and so well too that I can even do the whole rib spiel in the positive (hug the ribs in) and the negative (don’t let the ribs flare out). But learning works in mysterious ways: we can only see what we’re ready to see and what we want to see. What we need to see, alas, is always subject to the whims and fancies of the ego, and that other demon, fear.

So, in my moment of fear, some two weeks back, while practicing my hops—wimpy, lackluster ones—I felt a heady mix of anxiety and yes-you-can when I spied my teacher’s feet approaching my mat. Just as her right foot shoved my towel aside so that both her feet stood boldly beside my right hand, I gulped: “Here she is, she wants me to kick right up, right up without fear, free-standing, no wall.”

And why not? Her hands are going to catch my shaky, uncertain shins or calves, depending on how my Tower of Pisa leans. But that wasn’t her plan, I suspect, and it has never been. She wasn’t there to play catch, but to teach. To my surprise, I only felt faint finger taps on the back of the ankle, then the front, as I teetered between balance and confidence. All this after her fingers prodded and coaxed those heedless, clueless lower ribs to go in. Yes, ribs in!

Enter Monday two weeks on, the rib story would take on new meaning, not from another handstand practice, but a warm-up pose meant to fire up the belly. As we leaned back from a seated butterfly pose, transitioning to a series of fiery, burning crunches, my mind suddenly clicked when I heard her say, “Think of tilting the pelvis towards the lower ribs.” Now, didn’t she also say, on several other occasions, “Hollow out the belly” and “Imagine someone’s punching you”? Aren’t those movements a replica of ribs in?

Then my mind returned to those dullard days of 2009 when I lay on one of those reformer benches, muscularly inept then, inhaling, exhaling, trying to master those seemingly inane belly-breathing exercises with my Pilates instructor, Nina. I remember how she used to fashion her right hand like calipers—third finger pressed down just below my lower rib, and thumb, just above the hip bone, both fingers pinching inward at each exhale.

Same movement, same intention: bring the pelvis toward the lower rib, engage the muscles, whatever they are called—RA, TA, I forget. Back then, I saw the exercise as a means of correcting my swayback by forcing the tailbone to curl under. But now, I’m seeing a different, more compelling theme: energy control.  When the ribs go in, you’re keeping the energy in; when they flare out, it dissipates. Who knows how energy flies away—through the toes, the heels, a collapsed belly? Honestly, do I need to know, now that I’ve discovered my energy magnet, one I can turn on just by going, “Ribs in, girl!”

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