This Friday evening, I have the privilege of teaching a workshop about inversions (headstands, handstands, shoulder stands) to students interested in pursuing a yoga teacher training. I love these poses, and they have numerous physical and emotional benefits, from lifting your mood to lowering your blood pressure. When I first began taking classes, headstand and other more challenging poses inspired me to begin practicing every day at home.
Nevertheless, when I think about the most important thing I want to say about inversions, and about how to gain skill as a yoga practitioner, it’s this: it really doesn’t matter if you ever do an inversion. Successfully achieving an arm balance worthy of the cover of Yoga Journal, or bending yourself into lotus position — or touching your toes, for that matter — won’t automatically make you more enlightened, more compassionate, or more serene.
Typically we think of yoga as an activity, but in fact by definition it is a state of mind. Yoga is the state of meeting the conditions that are arising in an unconditioned way. Yoga is what we are in those moments that pull us out of our ordinary chain of thinking and reacting, and leave us speechless, stunned. Sometimes it’s a dramatic event that can do this — great sorrow or great joy — but it also happens many times in an ordinary day. Honestly, I think that’s why we send each other funny cat videos, and why we share the stories of strangers on social media. The things that make tears spring to our eyes or laughter burst from our mouths; the things that move us or surprise us; these things bring us to that moment of suspension that in one tradition is called yoga.
Yoga postures can work in the same way. While we’re trying to find our balance, or trying to find our feet from a whole new angle, our mind can suddenly get very quiet and focused. Going upside down can literally flip your perspective very quickly. You may have noticed, though, that one adorable cat video gives rise to billions. So, too, asana proliferates. There is always another variation, another challenge to pursue. So we have to be careful that we’re not confusing the thing that gave rise to yoga with yoga itself. That we don’t confuse the pursuit of postures with the mind state that actually needs nothing.
Sometimes yoga postures don’t make us inwardly blissful and outwardly glowing. Sometimes they wake up anxiety, or self criticism, or joint pain, or muscle aches. And here is the practice. The state of yoga (call it peace of mind, self-awareness, surrender, sanity, wisdom…) arises spontaneously for all of us. And it passes away. If we try to recreate all the right conditions that gave rise to yoga the last time, we’ll be caught. But if we can bring that experience to bear on our less peaceful moments — if we can find some of that mind space and physical ease, or if at least we can remember that our doubts and worries can now and then instantly vanish — we might be able to meet the uncomfortable conditions with more freedom and less grip. That is what we practice.
We practice in the yoga postures so that we an do it in our lives — relax our body in a tense moment, be open to a new perspective when we’re feeling threatened. I’m really glad I can do inversions. My self-esteem, upper body strength, and general enthusiasm for life have been greatly increased. But even more, I’m grateful those poses encouraged me to keep practicing.
Come join me for an inversions workshop and YogaWorks teacher training info session at Bindi Yoga in Lynwood, Friday, August 22, 6-8 PM. Visit Bindi Yoga to register or for more info.