Over the 25 years that I've practiced yoga, I've struggled with a great many things. I've struggled to harness my breath, and I've struggled to bring my mind back to the room when my thoughts have wandered. I've struggled mightily with my own ego. These are good challenges, the real work of every yoga practice. I have eventually felt a kind of victory or maybe the word is mastery over these challenges--if not permanently, then for gratifying moments.
But there's one aspect of yoga that never ceased to be a struggle for me--until I wised up and decided to cease with the struggle altogether. That's inversions.
I've never felt great about headstand and have almost always experienced pain in my neck after performing the pose. I struggled with this for many years. My critical mind kept after me: 'Why can't I do this? I should be able to do this.' After years of trying, the best I could do was a sort of lopsided headstand against the wall, as pictured above. Maybe you've had a similar experience.
For a long time, I thought maybe my inability to get to the impressive level of headstand done with seeming ease by my peers was psychological, as that was suggested to me by more than one teacher, like I had some kind of "block" or "fear" about it. This is quite an accusation, and I now know that no yoga teacher should ever suggest that to a student. It's likely just wrong, and even if it's right, who are you to make that diagnosis of someone else's yoga practice? Seriously, are you a yoga teacher or a therapist?
It creates a kind of chicken-and-egg problem, too. A student feels reluctance about headstand, probably for good reasons, and is told she has a "block" or "fear" about the pose, which could actually create a block or fear that wasn't really there before!
Later I realized how wrong that assessment had been, and how it might have only served to give me yet another point of self-criticism that I didn't need. An odd thing happened when my husband and I took acroyoga classes together. I found out I had no trouble with inversions when supported on the floor by my base. As a flyer, I took to the upside-down poses with ease, even delight. Nope, not a single feeling of being "blocked" or "afraid" of inversions.
Still, the critical mind likes to criticize, so I thought maybe my block or fear went away in acroyoga because I had the "support" of a base--in the photo above, my husband. Yeah, I found a way to beat myself up about it, like I can't do headstands "on my own," like I'm a weak person who needs "help."
Raise your hand if you talk to yourself like this, too. OK, now let's pledge not to do this anymore.
It wasn't until my teacher training this year that I figured out why I had always struggled with headstands on a mat. As it turns out, the real reason isn't psychological; it's anatomical! My humerus (upper arm) bones are relatively short compared to the span between my upper torso and the top of my head. What this means is that I simply cannot get my forearms under my head enough in a headstand to use them as support. You can see this in the first photo above: My upper arms don't extend far enough to give me clearance. The result is that a) my scapula have to come away in a destabilized position in order for me to get my arms flat to the floor and b) even with this unstable attempt to reach my forearms above my head, my neck still bears my full body weight.
Now some yogis can handle headstand even with short upper arm bones because they have muscle strength in their necks that allows them to take on their full body weight. But I'm not one of those people. Due to scoliosis and multiple car accidents, I really should not ask my cervical spine to bear my full body's weight.
It's liberating for me to gain this anatomical understanding of a limitation my body has known of intuitively for years. All credit to Paul Grilley and his amazing yoga anatomy DVD for this wisdom, not to mention my teacher Pam Schulte, who calls this kind of anatomical difference "the snowflake principle," meaning no two bodies are ever the same.
I'm not the only one rebelling from the headstand/handstand pressure we yogis feel.
Here's Instagram's @hippiehealthfreak reacting against the expectation in the yoga world that teachers and students alike should be able to pop into these poses regardless of anatomical limitations. Forcing ourselves into these poses can do real damage. Here, it's wrist injury from handstand, which could come from anatomical differences in the rotation at the elbow, wrist, and shoulder joints as well as the compression angle of the elbow.
Note this doesn't mean inversions are off-limits to me--or anyone else with similar anatomical limitations--forever. Remember, I have no problem with them in acroyoga. When my shoulders are supported, as on my base's knees in the acro photo above, and my neck is simply hanging free, I feel great.
Perhaps this is a good time to talk about another weird misperception in the world of yoga, and that's the one that causes an aversion to props. A lot of yogis won't use them, often because they've gone to a class where the teacher pooh-pooh'd them as a "crutch" or "training wheels," I guess. But that's not a logical way to look at props. They can literally make up the difference in an anatomical limitation, enabling you to do a pose that is otherwise off limits. In the acroyoga photo above, aren't my husband's legs, in effect, a prop?
What happens if we substitute a physical structure for the human prop in this instance? Well, you get something like the below. I haven't tried any of these products yet, but I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommendations. Would you use any of these? Have you? Which would you suggest I try?
1. Desire Life Yoga Headstand Bench
2. Sisyama Fitness Yoga Chair and Inversion Bench
3. The Original FeetUp Trainer
Tell me your thoughts in the comments below!