When I was a child, I wouldn’t do a cartwheel. I didn’t like somersaults. I detested being upside down. It terrified me.
Karin O’Bannon taught me my first head balance. I was 38 years old and a few days into her teacher training. Truth to be told, if I had known there were headstands in yoga, I never would have walked into a yoga class.
Some frightened students ask me, what’s the point of it? The same question might be applied to asana in general. What do the poses have to do with yoga? And if yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind, head balance in particular might seem antithetical to yoga.
BKS Iyengar offers a concise explanation in hisLight on the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: “Asana, for example, offers a controlled battleground for the process of conflict and creation. The aim is to recreate the process of human evolution in our own internal environment. . . . The creative struggle is experienced in headstand: as we challenge ourselves to improve the position, fear of falling acts to inhibit us. If we are rash, we fall, if timorous, we make no progress. But if the interplay of the two forces is observed, analysed and controlled, we can achieve perfection.”
Keep in mind that Patañjali defines perfection in asana as effortlessness, not in terms of its physical attributes.
I knew none of this the day I faced my first head balance.
That day in 1997, Karin noted that some people were terrified of headstand. Shrinking inside, I told her that I was one of those who were terrified. She taught me the finger interlace, the placement of the head, the actions of sirsasana. Then she helped me upside down, with a wall behind me for support. After quite a few hyperventilating breaths, I realized that the world was not going to come to an end. After my breathing slowed, she assisted me down, and asked what I thought. I answered without thinking: “That was great!”
It was six months before I tried it outside of class. It was several years before I could hear a teacher announce “sirsasana” without feeling dread. Then, for years, the pose was the mainstay of my practice.
Of late, head balance has become ground again for the creative process Iyengar described. Now I face, not fear of falling, but fear of injury. Now, again, it has become that battleground for my fears, as I seek to perform the pose without injury, and yet to progress as well.
No matter. When I’m in the pose, the fluctuations of thought do cease, I focus completely on the interplay of forces. This is the epitome of yoga.