A google-image search for ‘handstand’ clearly shows the archetypical quality of this pose: the pure joy of standing on your hands. Apart from the possible benefits of being upside-down, arm balances seem to give something extra. When you can do them, they’re fun! But why is that?
Standing on your hands is a play with gravity. An expression of balance and strength. Swooping your legs over your head to jump up is of a childlike playfulness, and even if you don’t succeed, gives a rush. Being in a totally opposite position from day-to-day life requires you to be fully present. Handstand requires balance; not just in the literal sense of balancing away from the wall, but also the balance between control and letting go. Control over the strength of your legs, the stability in your arms and shoulders, and control over the core muscles (especially when you’re trying to jump up with both legs together). But also letting go of fear, letting your feet get over your head, and letting go of your normal perspective. It’s hard to know what up and what’s down, what’s forwards and backwards.
On a more philosophical note, overcoming the fear complex, as Geeta Iyengar often calls it, is a powerful tool in self-exploration. And jumping up to balance on your hands certainly requires fearlessness.
Handstands have a distinctive un-adult-like quality. Many of our students remember being fond of handstand as a child, but when they attempt to jump up years later, they are surprised by their own fear. Childlike innocence, as our respected teacher Charles Hond used to say, is lost in adulthood and replaced by fear. Fear of falling on your head, banging your head against the wall, fear of your arms not being strong enough to carry you, or fear of breaking your shoulders or hurting your back. All of those fears are not completely ridiculous, of course, but in reality doing a handstand is not a lot more crazy and dangerous than driving a car along a freeway at 130 km/h.
Some fears in life are justified, and some are harmful. Having the clarity of mind to know which one is which comes in handy, because unnecessary fears can eat up a lot of our energy. Patanjali, the author of the ancient Yoga Sutras, defines fivekleshas or afflictions that affect the mind and stand in the way of spiritual freedom. The fifth one he identifies is abhinivesha - the fear of death or clinging to life. He identifies this as the root of all fears. Patanjali also tells us that overcoming these kleshas can be done through tapas (disciplined effort), svadhyaya (self-analysis) and ishwara pranidhana (surrender).
Handstand, for many people, is a great example of how a yoga asana can challenge you to find your edge, observe and overcome your fear. Handstand is your fear laboratory, because the fears that come up in handstand are unlikely to be justified. Granted, you may hit the wall a little too hard in the beginning or even fall over, but there is relatively little ‘real’ danger – unlike in traffic, for example.
By continuous and disciplined effort you can learn how to jump up in handstand. Overcoming the fears that come up can take you to a place of self-confidence and strength. And if you do this consciously and observe yourself through this learning process, this experience can help you to overcome other fears you will encounter in your life. Eventually, getting upside-down is all about surrender, and trust that in the end you will get back on your feet.
Of course, for some people handstand comes easily – so they might find their edge in other poses. In the silence of long forward bends, for instance. Everybody knows the poses that bring up their edge. And that’s where it becomes interesting.
But this post is about handstands. So here’s a bit of inspiration, and I hope you try at least one handstand today! And tell us how it was.