(Hand)stand Up to Fear

Confession time. I am a yoga teacher and a teacher trainer and I am scared to &%ing death of balancing in handstand. It doesn’t matter if I’m near a wall or in the center of the room, I’m lucky if I can hold for more than a second before coming right back down. So, for many years I did what any wise practitioner would do: avoided them completely.

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I worked all the other inversions and arm balances in hopes that one day by some kind of inversion-osmosis, I would magicallymaster the pose. This of course did not happen. The frequently spoken words of my teacher Maty Ezraty echoed in my brain, “If you can do chaturanga, you can do handstand.” Yet an inability to do a posture is not necessarily a lack of strength or skill, the roots of resistance may originate much deeper.

First, let us peel away the skin, muscles, ligaments, and bones to arrive at the nervous system. Asanas like inversions or deep backbends can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the body’s innate stress response.  When we are under duress (say, if we are at risk of falling) the body goes into fear-based fight-or-flight mode. Heart rate and breathing increase, and blood shunts from the belly to the limbs creating those “butterflies” in the stomach. While it is built into us, this seemingly automatic process can actually be overridden through yoga and meditation.

I had a misconception that people who invert easily, like gymnasts and acrobats, felt no fear. That they were superheroes whose special power is immunity to danger. This is not true. Interesting research on athletes in high-risk sports, show that, like all of us, they experience fear, especially after being injured. But they learn to work with it by facing it head on. Think of the iconic Nike mantra “Just do it”. Fear is not something one goes around. You must go into it.

Athletes understand that the source of fear is often related to limiting beliefs, such as self-doubt. With disciplined practice, they learn to recognize their thoughts and trust their physical ability. Athletes train the brain and nervous system as much as the body.

This is great news for spiritual practitioners. Yogis are mental athletes. The mat and meditation cushion are arenas to identify and break through perceived limitations. With practice and courage, yogis move away from fear-based reactivity toward deeply present focus.

I try to balance in handstand at least once every day now. Sometimes I catch it. Most days I fall. Whether I ever master the pose no longer matters. It is not about balancing in the center of the room. It is about learning to remain balanced in my center.

Work on handstand with me in this short tutorial I filmed for MyYogaWorks.com


Headshot Closer upSarah Ezrin, E-RYT-500, is an energetic and humorous yoga teacher, writer, and YogaWorks teacher trainer based in Los Angeles. With a profound love of travel, Sarah runs around the globe leading trainings, workshops and retreats. For Sarah, yoga is not about the tricks or the postures; it is about finding one’s center amidst the challenges and chaos of the world. She believes that life is short and that it should be spent laughing, with the people and animals we love, and doing the things we most enjoy, like yoga! For more information on Sarah, visit her website or connect with her on Facebook.

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