“So when you learn to press up into handstand, it’s not about the handstand. It’s about staying the course. The handstand is just the microcosm for that steadiness you need your life.”
– Kino MacGregor (Full article here)
There is a preconceived notion that yoga will make everything better. Yoga is supposed to cure physical ailments. Yoga is supposed to make us happier. Nothing can go wrong when you turn to yoga.
While the idea of yoga can promise to bring you everything good under the sun, it won’t. Not instantly, anyway. It could take one yoga class, or even weeks, months, and years before we can feel the healing effects of yoga (and FYI, it took me months). From a physical standpoint, yoga will cause injury if we are not mindful of how we are “contorting” our bodies. From an emotional perspective, yoga can turn out to be a disappointment if we are suffering from depression or anxiety and expect to be “cured” after one class. These expectations are very dimly lit.
I once had similar expectations of my practice. I drew a mental timeline and assigned myself some deadlines as to when I should be expected to achieve certain poses. Needless to say, I blew every deadline. I also went through a small bout of anxiety and when it slowly started taking over my life, I thought hey, let me just go to yoga and I will feel better just like old times. I was wrong. I felt like yoga betrayed me. In a whirlwind of confusion, I basically let the door hit me on my way out.
So how do we crack these expectations?
On a physical level: Rest.
Back when I would practice handstands relentlessly for days at a time, I would suffer strain in my hip flexors from kicking up into and landing from handstand, pain in the muscles surrounding my ribcage (intercostal muscles I think they’re called), soreness behind my shoulder blades (I think these are the rhomboid muscles), and occasional wrist pain. My main concern was the shooting pain in the ribcage (I couldn’t tell if it was acid reflux, costochondritis, or even worse, a stroke). I was referred to a cardiologist for the chest pain and he concluded that the pain was only muscular (thank goodness). If I could put pressure on a localized area of my chest and the pain increased, then it was muscular. Ultimately, I was just trying to do too much too fast.
Instead of simply taking a day off to rest, I would keep practicing. There was no balance. To ease the pain, I would seek out massage therapy every 2-3 weeks (thank goodness for benefits). I remember one particular moment when my massage therapist asked me what she wanted me to focus on. I had explained that my neck was tight and described the sensations I would feel when I moved my arm in all directions. She asked me if I played any sports and I just said that I did a lot of yoga. What she said next jolted me: that’s weird, yoga’s not supposed to make you feel that way. A bunch of thoughts started running through my mind:
“Maybe she’s only familiar with restorative yoga?”
“Maybe she thought I said something different?”
“Maybe I’m wrong about what yoga is?”
“Am I doing yoga wrong?”
“Am I not supposed to feel pain?”
Because this incident happened early on in my practice, it left me really confused. I fixated on that last thought when I went home (because I’ll be honest, all I do is sleep through my massages anyway!) and started researching pain during yoga, which led me to articles about proper alignment. I came to the conclusion that I can’t achieve correct alignment right away, my body has to be trained to do certain things and until then, you’ll have to hurt a little. Growing pains.
So then there came a part of my handstand practice where it became stagnant. It was annoying. I became so frustrated that I just stopped doing yoga. The stagnancy turned me off. This was in the month of April and I remember because I was going away on vacation and it was super busy at work and I was tired and didn’t have time to do yoga anyway, so it all worked out. April was my month to rest. When I slowly started back up again, I felt weak and stiff and it felt like my muscles reverted back their old ways. But soon enough, my practice picked up and I tried handstand and… I held it!!! Here’s proof! The feeling was incredible, just like when I did my first headstand. The key was to find balance in the fingers!
The real lesson here went beyond the posture. Why do I say that? Because to this day, a year and a half later, holding a handstand still feels like luck. I can’t hold one on demand and I know it’s still going to take a lot of practice. Holding a handstand doesn’t make me any more or less of a person, or a better yogi, but it does make me very, very happy.
Time is on its own clock and time will do what time will damn well please. Don’t rush. The real lesson here was patience. And to take rest. To give your mind a break from the expectations. And to give your physical body time to heal.