From Fear to Freedom


By Dayna Macy  |  

I’m in yoga class, and I know what’s coming next. Frankly, I’m not thrilled. “Handstand,” my teacher says.

I dutifully trot to the wall with the other students and place my now-sweaty palms on my mat. As I move into Downward Dog and get ready to kick up, I feel my heart start to race. I kick. I don’t make it up. I try again—and then three more times—and I still don’t make it up.

Here’s the naked truth: I’m afraid of kicking up into Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand). I’m afraid of falling. I’m afraid that my arms will buckle underneath the weight of my curvy body. And while my rational mind knows that the wall really is there, I’m afraid that once I’m airborne, the wall will take on a life of its own and move back a few inches.

I’d like to say that I’m afraid of Handstand because I’m a beginner, but I’ve been practicing yoga for 14 years. I’ve tried kicking up hundreds of times, with more or less the same results. And though I truly believe that it’s all about the journey and not the destination, it is still embarrassing not being able to do Handstand. I even feel angry with myself and disillusioned with my practice because I don’t do the pose.

And I know I’m not alone. I’ve seen plenty of people, like me, who’ve practiced for years and still can’t get up. So when my friend, who is editor of this magazine, issued me a challenge to write a piece about my fear of going upside down, I said yes. Even though a part of me (OK, a big part) was terrified, I wanted to challenge my notion of what was possible—and perhaps learn more about myself in the process.

(Un)True Stories?

After accepting the assignment, I reflected on what had been holding me back all these years. I came to this realization: Trying to kick into Handstand leads me straight into the heart of fear and shame and negative body image, which I’ve hung on to since childhood. When I was young, I was amazed when other kids flipped up onto their hands. I watched the crazed joy on their faces as their bodies sliced through the air with abandon. I was never that kid—I never felt that kind of unfettered freedom and trust.

When I found yoga, as an adult, I connected with my body’s inherent strength and grace for the first time. Now, at 46 and cruising into midlife, I’m profoundly grateful to my body for many things—like surviving months of bed rest and the complicated delivery of my beautiful twin boys. But I’m also embarrassed by my sagging flesh and stretch marks, and the extra 25 pounds I put on during pregnancy. None of those things fit my picture of what a competent, together woman looks like. I look more like the Venus of Willendorf than a Degas dancer, and taking flight does not come naturally to me.

This picture of myself has unconsciously infused my practice. While I’ve achieved reasonable levels of competence in some poses, inversions elicit an internal monologue that goes something like this: I look ridiculous. I’m not strong enough. I feel clumsy. I can’t do this! Handstand, I tell myself, has become a breeding ground for the negative stories. Hopefully, confronting the pose will give me a chance to examine and perhaps even shift my self-imposed limitations. Can this earthbound mama learn to fly? It’s time to find out.

Handstand Dos and Don’ts

If inverting is so difficult, why do it? Aadil Palkhivala, founder of Purna Yoga, in Bellevue, Washington, tells me that next to backbends, inversions are the most powerful poses. “Physically, inversions increase blood volume to the heart, thereby exercising the heart.” In addition, Handstand develops strength in the upper back. “Because we are bipeds, our arms get weaker as we get older, and our hips get jammed. All inversions reverse this process,” says Palkhivala. Beyond the physical benefits, there’s an energetic payoff with Handstand. It’s like breaking the sound barrier, he tells me. “Just before you break through, there’s loud noise, trembling, and fierce vibrations. But once through,” he says, “everything becomes quiet, and you are free.” His words inspire me. Can I get through all the noise and find a sense of ease?

Back to Basics

My inversion immersion begins with Judith Hanson Lasater, a renowned yoga teacher who began her studies of Iyengar Yoga in the 1970s. During our time together, Lasater (who created the sequence on page 2) helps me build the physical foundation for a healthy Handstand. After giving me a once-over to get a sense of my unique physical issues, she reviews structural alignment with me, and we work on poses to build strength and flexibility where I need it. She believes that having a complete understanding of the physical components of the pose builds confidence, which helps to gradually reduce fear. She gives me a sequence that she insists I practice every day. “The highest form of discipline is consistency,” she tells me.

Some folks (well, most often men) need to work on creating more openness in the body to get into Handstand; others (you guessed it—most often women) need to build more strength. I’m one of the “lucky” ones who needs to do both. The first thing Lasater notices about me is the tightness in my mid and upper back and my chest muscles, which can be an issue when kicking into Handstand because having openness in those areas is necessary to achieve length and proper alignment in the pose.

To create more opening in my upper body, she has me lie over a small foam roller, with my head resting on a fully upright block. As I bring my arms out to the side, I feel a huge stretch in my upper body and arms, which runs down the back of my spine. I feel as though I’m on the rack.

Next, she shows me Dolphin Pose, telling me to move my shoulder blades down my back (away from my ears) in order to achieve length in the upper back and neck. Then we move on to the strength builders—Dolphin Plank and Upward Staff Pose at the wall. She teaches me how to draw my lower belly muscles back toward my spine and up to engage Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock). This lock will prevent me from collapsing into my lower back, which is crucial to avoid when kicking up.

After 30 minutes of prep poses, we work on imprinting correct alignment in the body—that is, becoming familiar with Handstand’s setup, alignment, and kicking motion. Lasater tells me that most students focus on getting their legs to the wall, when it’s actually more helpful to think about moving the pelvis to the wall. When you harness your momentum and move the pelvis up and back, the arc of movement is smaller, and the pose becomes easier and more economical.

I move to the wall and place my hands on the mat. I stack my wrists, elbows, and shoulders. Lasater tells me to keep them perfectly straight, to prevent my arms from buckling. I lift my head slightly and gaze at my thumbs: If I focus my eyes, I focus my pose—which will create greater steadiness.

I walk my legs closer to the wall, pull up from my abdomen, and on my exhalation, I kick. I get nowhere near the wall. Lasater sees the look of disappointment on my face and says in a kind voice, “This is practice, Dayna, not a performance.” After a brief rest, I repeat the process. This time, I’m a bit closer to the wall. On my third try, closer still. There’s hope in the universe after all!

I will meet with Lasater again in two weeks. In the meantime, I practice doing my Down Dogs and my Dolphin, stacking my joints, and kicking. It’s a lot of work, and despite my wish that my legs would just fly to the wall, they don’t. And yet, things inside begin to shift. I feel myself getting stronger, and I notice that my perseverance confers a level of self-respect previously unknown to me. I realize that although I have practiced the pose on and off for many years, I’ve never done it with such diligence. I feel slightly disappointed with myself—not because I can’t kick up, but because of all the energy I’ve spent believing that I am someone who will never do the pose. I believe, for the first time, that my story might not be so true.

The Fear Factor

Before I see Lasater again, I have an opportunity to study with Ana Forrest. I tell her what I’m working on, and she agrees to help—but only if I come to her Gravity Surfing class.

To say I’m nervous is an understatement. Forrest is known for the ferocity of her practice, and this class, on arm balances, promises to be relentless. But having met Forrest before, I know she is as kind as she is fierce, a combination that I sense can lead me into my Heart of Darkness and help me face my fears head-on.

“Are you ready to be entertained by yourself?” Forrest asks her students. “You remember what the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland said?” she asks, her long black braid whipping around her like a horse’s tail. And here, she speaks in a high-pitched, fanciful falsetto, “I always like to do six impossible things before breakfast.” I can’t help but laugh, and as I do, my body relaxes.

For the first 30 minutes, we warm up our abdominals and our arms—from our fingers all the way to our shoulders and upper back. Forrest shows us a powerful arm stretch in which you hold your arms out to your sides in a T-shape, curl your fingers into fists, point them downward, and do wrist rolls—three times in each direction. As I stretch, I feel how tight my forearms are.

We sit on our mats in Agnistambhasana (Fire Log or Ankle-to-Knee Pose). Forrest demonstrates Brahmari Breath (Bee Breath), a Pranayama technique of breathing and humming that sends energy up and down the chakras. Weakness, she tells us, is not in the muscles. Rather, it’s in the lack of learning how to move energy through the body.

Finally, we do Horse Stance (a kind of standing high squat with our legs apart) and practice Uddiyana Bandha to wake up the abdomen. By the time we’re done warming up, I’m ready to lie down.

But Forrest doesn’t let my or anyone else’s energy flag; she forges ahead, motivating us. “Gravity pulls us down,” she says. “It’s time to create a different relationship with it. Explore it, surf it. Be willing to have fun.” She smiles, looks around the room, and says, “Handstand.” She walks over to me, and I put my hands on the mat. “Uh-uh,” she says, shaking her head. “Handstand. From standing up.”

From standing up? Is she insane? I look at her with horror. This is something gymnasts do, or maybe fearless kids. But I’m not that kid! I feel a visceral fear, a tightening in my throat, and I realize I’m holding my breath. My hands, back, and neck break into a sweat and I want to scream, “Get me out of here!” Sensing my internal freak-out, Forrest says in a soft voice, “I won’t drop you. I promise.”

Then I remember something Lasater told me the day before. “Yoga practice is not only about what is beautiful and transcendent. It is also about working with what we are afraid of and what we avoid. It is the advanced practitioner who looks at her fear and says, ‘Bring it on.’”

So I do. I kick into Handstand. From standing up. And with Forrest’s help, I get upside down. I immediately burst out laughing. I feel as though I’m 6, not 46, and the world of inversions suddenly seems like a giant sandbox to play in. Forrest bends down, looks into my eyes, and says, “Look at me.” I try, but meeting her gaze is difficult. “Look at me,” she says again, so I do. And then she says in a very soft voice, “Never say another unkind word to yourself again.” How does she know to say this? How does she know that I’ve spent years with an internal dialogue that rips my body to shreds? Her words are a magnificent gift. I feel my old stories start to crack open and disintegrate. “I’m not strong enough! My arms can’t hold me! I’m too afraid!” None of those voices emerge now, because none of them are real. Handstand suddenly seems beside the point, and the truth of enjoying the journey becomes clear.

Freedom From Fear

Two weeks later, I’m back in the studio with Lasater, who has propped a bolster lengthwise next to the wall. My head feels supported, so I’m not nervous; I’m happy to try kicking up. She tells me to press the very upper part of my forehead to it, making sure my arms are straight. I kick. I do not get up. “Make a commitment, Dayna,” she says, telling me I still have one foot on the gas and one on the brake. She’s right, damn it. I cheer myself on and kick again. I’m closer, and she tells me she knows I’m getting it because as I lift up, I actually slow down—which shows that I’m engaging the abdomen. I kick up a third time. Closer still, but not quite at the wall.

When my face shows some disappointment, Lasater tells me not to worry and that I am succeeding because I’m no longer afraid to try. As I get ready to kick again, she reminds me, “The deeper practice is working with our fears, and what we wish we could avoid.”

I’m feeling a little deflated after my session with Lasater. I’ve worked hard—strengthening, opening, facing my silent, self-deprecating dialogue—and I know I’ve come far, but I’m not quite there. On a whim, I decide to take a private lesson with yet another teacher, Scott Blossom, who happens to be my Bay Area neighbor. I arrive at his house, ready as I’ll ever be.

Flying Lessons

Blossom observes me in Down Dog and gives me an instruction I haven’t heard before. He loops a strap around my upper arms for stability and tells me to focus on my forearms as I kick up, using the area just below the inner elbow joint as a point of focus. As I begin doing this, he advises me to relax my trapezius muscles. These are the large muscles that run down the sides of the neck into the shoulders and down the spine to the middle back. When the trapezius muscles seize up, it’s harder to engage the latissimus dorsi and the serratus anterior. These are two broad muscles that stabilize the upper arm and shoulder. You need them to engage as you kick into Handstand.

He has me practice engaging my forearms many times, while relaxing the traps. He also turns my hands slightly out to help the traps release. He instructs me to root my hands and arm bones to the earth, saying “Your power comes from the earth and [your] bones, not your muscles.”

As I follow these instructions, I notice that there’s an energetic shift in my arms. Instead of their usual heaviness, they feel light and strong at the same time. The energy I am drawing up from the earth makes me feel extremely stable.

As I move to the wall, Blossom tells me to drop all my stories about what I think and feel about the pose. “What came before doesn’t matter,” he says. “Your ego is not queen of the show. You don’t have to do anything heroic. Observe, don’t judge. Simply witness.”

I place my hands on the mat, connecting to the earth’s energy. I focus my attention on my forearms. I relax my traps. I breathe. I empty my mind. I bear witness. I kick. My feet hit the wall. I am up!

And then, just as suddenly, I am down. “I did it?” I ask incredulously.

“You did it,” he says, smiling. “Now let’s do it again.”

Asana by Judith Hanson Lasater
Ardha Adho Mukha Svanasana (Half Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

Benefits:

Stretches the upper back and shoulders

Stand facing a wall, about 3 feet from it, and place your hands on the wall a little more than shoulder-width apart. Make sure your middle fingers are pointing straight up and the knuckles of your index fingers are pressing into the wall. Inhale, and as you exhale, push away from the wall and lower your spine until it is parallel to the floor. Push away from the wall again, and as you exhale, drop the upper back down a little more. As you do this, draw your navel up a bit to prevent your lumbar spine from dropping toward the floor too much. Find the point at which your shoulders are open and being stretched, and hold it for 3 to 5 breaths. Inhale as you stand up, then repeat the pose.

Contraindications:

Uncontrolled high blood pressure

Vertigo

Glaucoma, diseases of the retina

Inflammatory conditions of the arms and shoulders, such as tendinitis, bursitis, rotator-cuff injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome

Pregnancy

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

Benefits:

Strengthens the muscles around the shoulder joints

Stretches the upper back and shoulders

Come to your hands and knees, placing your hands a little wider than your shoulders, with your index fingers pointing exactly forward. On an exhalation, invite your belly upward toward your spine. On the next natural exhalation, straighten your knees so you are supported by your straight arms and legs. Keep your weight over your hands. Now, inhale and make a “backbend” or extension movement with your spine. On the next exhalation, descend your heels toward the mat and move back into Downward Dog. Hold for 5 to 7 breaths. Make sure your heels are turning slightly out to stretch the inner calves and that your body is in a long line from palms to hips. Come down and repeat again, remembering to synchronize your breath with your movements.

Adho Mukha Svanasana to Plank Pose (Downward-Facing Dog to Plank Pose)

Benefits:

Upper-back mobilizer

Shoulder and bellystrengthener

From Downward-Facing Dog, exhale and move your belly inward, drop your chin to your chest, and roll forward into Plank Pose. Be sure to exhale when you move and to lift and round your upper back slightly as you go forward. This way of moving is designed to strengthen your abdomen (as well as mobilize your shoulders) in preparation for getting up into Handstand. A strong core facilitates kicking up into the pose. Hold Plank for 3 to 5 breaths. Then, with an exhalation, move the belly upward to support the spine and press back into Downward Dog. Rest and repeat. Use your abdomen to create this movement; do not use just the hip joints, which will make you bend like a hinge.

Dolphin Pose

Benefits:

Strengthens and mobilizes the shoulders and upper back

Strengthens the abdomen

Come to your hands and knees and place your elbows directly under your shoulder joints. Interlock your fingers to make a triangular shape. See that your palms are slightly open and your wrists are straight. With an exhalation, straighten your legs and lift up onto your feet, so that you are resting on your forearms and feet (see figure a). Exhale and move forward and back, bringing your chest down over your arms so your body is as parallel to the floor as possible (see figure b). Move on the exhalation during both the forward and backward movements. Remember to draw your belly inward before beginning each movement. Repeat 5 times, rest, and then reverse the interlock of your fingers and practice the pose 5 more times.

Urdhva Dandasana (Upward Staff Pose), at a Wall

Benefits:

Prepares you for Handstand because it requires a perfect balance of strength and flexibility in the shoulders.

Place your yoga mat next to the wall, with the shorter end touching the wall. Come to your hands and knees facing the center of the room. Gently place one foot and then the other up on the wall; your body should be in the shape of an L and your hips at 90 degrees of flexion, thighs parallel to the floor. Make sure that only the balls of your feet, and not your heels, rest on the wall and that your hands are directly under your shoulder joints. Keep your head up. Do not let yourself sag at the lower back. Invite your belly to pull in and up as you resist the floor. Focus on lifting yourself up instead of pushing inward toward the wall. Stay for 5 breaths and repeat 2 more times. If this pose seems too scary, practice it by placing one foot at a time on the wall and lifting the other one 12 inches or so from the floor.

Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand)

Benefits:

Creates strength in the shoulders, back, and abdomen

Elevates mood and builds confidence

Place your yoga mat near a wall, with the short end touching the wall. Place your hands on the floor, with your palms about 10 to 12 inches from the wall and step back into Downward-Facing Dog Pose. Bring one foot forward about 12 inches; bend your front knee. The back leg is your “swing” leg, and your front leg is your “push” leg. Move your shoulders over your hands, keep your elbows straight, and lift your head. Inhale, and as you exhale push strongly with your “push” leg and propel your “swing” leg up so it reaches the wall first. Keep your head up until your feet touch the wall. Press the floor and lift your whole body up. Hold for 3 to 5 breaths, then come down and try again. When you can get up every time, practice with the other leg going up first.

Playing Your Fears

In Handstand, as in life, it’s OK to be afraid, but the fear doesn’t have to paralyze you. Handstand, which I like to call “fearasana,” gives you an opportunity to change fear into excitement and triumph. Start by making the pose safe for yourself and ask a teacher you trust for help. As you play with the pose, try to embody a few principles:

First, breathe deeply and steadily. When you get scared, you’re likely to hold your breath and stiffen, which makes your body heavy and makes you lose your resourcefulness and intelligence. If you lose your breath, you’re sunk—so learn to breathe effectively.

Second, ride the exhalation into the pose (begin to exhale half a second before the kick). Third, do lots of small kicks; be willing to kick up a good 200 times or more.

As you work, become aware of what I call the “self-mutilation dialogue.” When you can’t do something you think you should be able to, do you rip into yourself? The inner critic is not very discerning and is seldom honest; it just cuts you to shreds. When your mind starts its self-mutilation pattern, say no and come back to your breath. Reframe the way you think of the pose so that just being willing to work on it is a win. You kicked six times? That’s a win!

Finally, have a sense of humor about Handstand—or anything else you’re afraid of. Become amused (instead of depressed) when the mind jumps to delusional conclusions (I’m going to die!) and be fascinated and eager to carve out a new truth by doing new actions.

Handstand builds self-esteem and strength. It gives you a sense of how to move through life’s challenges and spooky times. Your horizons broaden, and the possibilities become so exciting! What more could you ask from a pose?