There has been a lot of talk of late about the practice of headstand and shoulderstand here in the west. The reason for this discussion seemed to initiate with a yoga studio here in Canada that began to ask students NOT to practice either of these asanas within their studio, either in class or outside of class. Most of that discussion, I believe can be summarized in the following article:
The article raises some important points about receiving careful instruction in how to practice these asanas carefully and correctly, and reasons for which a person may not wish to, or safely practice them. In my opinion there is something missing, however. (Generally, I do find something missing in most discussions!) Aside from finding the article overly academic, which often is a liability for a true understanding of yoga, I was left wondering, “Has the author ever been to India?” “Has he ever had an Indian teacher?”
This may sound like a funny thing to say. I am not suggesting that you must visit India in order to understand yoga, however such a visit, and experience of Indian culture adds much to understanding the framework of yoga. I learned yoga in India and took teacher training there. However the greatest gift that India has given me will sound very strange indeed. It can be roughly summarized as, “What makes me so special?” That is, my life is about as important as the next guy, and that is not so very much! And this has helped me tremendously in my practice, and in life. It has helped me to face cancer in my lifetime, which is in some ways like facing your own mortality. Understanding that life doesn’t owe me anything has helped a great deal to let go of fear and clinging to life, and therefore live more completely.
And this is EXACTLY what the headstand is all about. I am not suggesting that if you fall from the headstand that you will face loss of life, or even injury. But that to practice the headstand you will have to face your fears. These fears always manifest at some level in the body energetically. The humbling act of placing your head down on the mat and lifting up to rest on it does much to cultivate confidence and a more concentrated, peaceful mind.
And this is why I will always teach the headstand in class. Yes, teaching ‘from scratch’, slowly and mindfully, in a course situation, and not in a drop-in basis. If a student does not want to practice or has an injury or condition that makes it unwise or unsafe, it can be skipped, or we will find other alternatives. I would be doing a great disservice to the students and to the practice however if I didn’t encourage it and emphasize it. This is one of the most transformational practices that we have in yoga. I want experience of that for myself, and for my students.
The practice of headstand highlights more than any other, how the practice of yoga asanas is ultimately a mental one. It is never only about stretching. Neither is it about pushing too much, grasping or straining. But it is about examining what our patterns of mind are and working to change them. The asanas themselves are patterns which open us up to new possibilities in our minds and in our lives.
In my experience the attitude towards the practice is remarkably different in the west than it is in India. I have found Indian teachers to generally be more positive, more encouraging and more likely to engender confidence in the students to challenge themselves. And I wonder how much of that can be attributed to a different cultural outlook. My own teacher frequently says, “Nothing breaks!”, to which everyone laughs, but we do try and, in his presence challenges are made to feel easy.
I also feel that posting a sign asking students to refrain from practicing headstand and shoulderstand adds to the climate of fear that yoga seeks to liberate us from. It makes these asanas somehow dangerous and unsafe. Making these sorts of choices as teachers, where will the practice end up after 50 years or so? What will we have lost?
With these thoughts in mind, I recently visited the Sivananda Ashram in Quebec. There I ran into Ivan Stanley, a fellow yoga teacher who recently set a world record on the International Day of Yoga, June 21, 2015 in Dubai for a 61-minute headstand. I had seen it online. He had practiced the headstand to mark the day, and also as a tribute to his teachers and to the Prime Minister of India for creating International Yoga Day and the Rulers of UAE for declaring 2015 as a year of innovation. Here it is:
I mentioned to Ivan this ongoing discussion about the practice of headstand and shoulderstand here in Canada and elsewhere and pulled up some articles for him to see online. He said, “Janaki, you must write about it”, and so I have. He later sent me an email titled, “Long Live the King”, which is exactly what I had planned to title this post. Well, it is an obvious title!