I was in a very hot yoga practice, and we were more than halfway through. The day had only half begun, I was only half-caffeinated, and we were in Eagle Pose.
For some reason, I’ve been having trouble keeping my balance in Eagle. I try to find a point in front of me to clear my mind, so I don’t even have to think about balancing, but that only makes me think about it all the more, and over I go.
This day in Eagle, my mind is already moving quickly ahead. Usually, we do Eagle on both sides, right and then left, and then right and left again. Sometimes, after the second time around, we move into bound Warrior III and then into Standing Split.
And then I know what’s coming next. In fact, my mind is already there while I am wrapping myself up in Eagle. At that point, for those of us who want to, we get to pop into handstand or, at least, to try.
Before practice, I usually attempt a few handstands. I’ve been working on these forever, and now I’m working on them without the wall. And I can never tell when they’re going to show up.
At best, they’ve been sporadic guests. They arrived this past summer, but then left for the fall. They were home for the holidays, but then left again. I’ve been doing my best to get them to move back in for good.
And they hate the heat. It’s especially tough to find them in the middle of a hot practice.
Usually, I have to see things to put them to memory, and I’ve used a lot of visualization to find handstand. In general, I think this is how I learn and process most things. I’ve been doodling since I was little, from pictures in my mind to pictures on the paper.
Sometimes in handstand, I picture myself being pulled in and up, as I was in a recent workshop. I had been upside down when I saw two feet step under my nose before two hands wrapped themselves around my lower belly and pressed.
This assist automatically lifted and straightened me beyond where I was. And, when I came down and saw it was the instructor, I told him not only was I surprised not to recognize his feet that I’d been watching for the better part of an hour but, even more so, I was surprised that I had any room left for more lift or straightening.
It also helps to picture my friend who wrote to me while on vacation about the freedom she felt when practicing handstands on a yoga deck. She said all that space outside a crowded studio freed her mind to allow her body to easily achieve handstand.
And since then, on my way upside down, I visualize lots of space all around and even above, and I imagine my feet reaching upwards beyond the ceiling towards the sky and into the clouds, and this seems to help my whole body follow.
I also picture my shoulder girdle, which I used to think was between my shoulders and across my back but actually now realize surrounds each shoulder. Going up, I picture my shoulders encased in something strong, so they can stack above my wrists and provide a sturdy base for my torso.
So, really, there’s an entire artist’s rendering going on in my mind when I go upside down and sometimes even long before I invert.
This day, the paintbrushes start flying in Eagle. And when it comes time to try a few handstands, my palette is already prepared.
I hop up on my good side. My right leg in the air, I push off lightly with my left and picture my hips stacking, waiting for the feeling that lets me know I have it, that lets me know it’s okay for my left leg to meet my right.
And, finally, I make the connection, upside down.
But that lightness, that stillness, that space where I pull in my belly for my feet to reach the clouds, eludes me, and I feel my feet start drawing outside the lines, moving further over my hips to the wrong side of the room.
And in this quiet and hot room, where the only sound is the breath, I distinguish myself without warning, calling out the instructor’s name followed by a plea:
But I never felt his catch because somehow, I catch myself. Somehow, and I don’t know how, I get myself straightened out.
It seems my panic cleared my mind so my body could do its work.
The instructor later told me I did it by grabbing the floor with my fingertips and pulling in my core. I had no idea. I couldn’t picture it!
All I know is that the preparation that started in Eagle that day had blocked my view, making it difficult to see the whole picture. And, in the end, I was somehow able to save myself on instinct.
This instructor impresses on the class to let go of our stories when we arrive on the mat. We’re not supposed to predetermine the practice. We’re just supposed to be, and we do this through the breath.
But this day, it takes my panic to make me present, which isn’t exactly the game plan. Even so, learning that I can save myself when I think I need someone to catch me isn’t too bad a takeaway.
Still, I am leaving the light on for those handstands.
It’s like they’re not mine, I told this same instructor days earlier. It’s like each time, I’m wondering if they’re going to show up.
Maybe my mental artwork is more on display than I think, because he just looked at me with a smile and, without words, pointed to his head, making the perfect picture for the next time I go upside down.