Undoubtedly one of the most anxiety-inducing moments in a yoga class is when the instructor calls out an inversion. For some students, it's the perfect time to do a number of things, all of which have nothing to do with the pose: run to the bathroom, look at the clock, go to child’s pose, play with their toes. These habits are somewhat understandable, given that our bipedal nature has inclined us towards favoring our feet, not our hands, forearms or head for such a demanding display of stability.
The physical act of turning things upside down is not as interesting to me as the emotional conflicts that arise from it. In my classes last week, the first thing I told students was that the week’s practice was focused on inversions. Then I asked what kind of mental response that invoked. We were, after all, a solid half-hour away from going into our first handstand, and yet there was a palpable feeling of shoulders tightening and minds gripping around the studio. For students who love inversions, this was an hour to look forward to. For many others, the door was a more saleable option.
Why is that? What in our evolutionary history has made us fear something that is not right in front of us? I mentioned that the practice did not mean they had to go upside down, just that we would be learning the steps necessary to understand how to do it properly. Still, stage fright occurs even when a stage is not in sight. As I like to remind students (and myself), if your initial reaction to a situation is “no,” then what else would you expect to happen? I tell them I’ll accept “maybe,” though “why not?” is more the vibe we’re trying to create.
This takes some neurological repatterning. As Chris Mooney recently wrote in Mother Jones:
Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end—winning our “case”—and is shot through with biases. They include “confirmation bias,” in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and “disconfirmation bias,” in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.
While Mooney’s story is built around why people are apt to deny climate change, or actually feel compelled to listen to the ridiculous charges of Birthers (which was finally and absolutely ended by Barack Obama), we can also understand this when creating dialogues inside of our own heads. It seems odd to write that, and I congratulate you if you’ve never had an argument with yourself (who exactly are you talking to?). That most people laugh when I mention this confirms that I’m not the only crazy one, so I’ll assume that you’ve had these conversations, probably often.
It is not shocking that we carry beliefs of inadequacy and anxiety with us, even when the frightening thing is not in front of us. As Sam Harris discussed in his thoroughly researched work, The Moral Landscape, the part of our brain that deals with belief also involves semantic memory. If we were told that this or that religious figure is the only good one, we believe it because that’s what resonates in our memory. If we’ve told ourselves that our bodies are not capable of doing this or that posture, that belief plays itself out in reality. Magically, our bladders are full at the exact moment the teacher calls for us to put our forearms down and lift our legs into the air.
The good thing about neurological patterning, or brain mapping, is that we can change those circuits. It takes time, patience and discipline—all the things that yoga is good at helping you develop. But in this comes the second half of this story, one that I noticed over and over during our week of inversions: the ego falling victim to its own habits.
This came about in headstand. I’m generally not dogmatic about yoga postures; I study a lot of styles to gain a lot of information. How we approach one pose one week might be altered the following. Having a large yoga vocabulary makes you more flexible, and helps you overcome the rigidity of certainty. Plus, how one yogi goes into a pose might not be physically possible for another, so we have to stay open to the possibilities.
One thing I am demanding about is neck safety. I never understood the direction—popular in Bikram, for one—to throw your head back entirely in Camel pose. I understand that backbendy people are comfortable doing this; it takes a lot of strength to hold your neck straight. But for a lot of students, cutting off your cervical spine in this manner is just not healthy. Students who whip back their heads like a broken hinge inevitably come up for air much quicker than those who keep length in that portion of their spine. Try to speak, or breathe properly, while trying to gaze at the back corner of the room. I get that people can do this. I’m just not sure why they’d want to.
Thus it goes for headstand. From an evolutionary standpoint, there are certain things that the human body has done wrong. Our appendixes are pretty much useless, but can kill us if bursted. Quickly. We have a tailbone with no tail, which to me is a crime. How much cooler would life be if we had a long sheath of muscle hanging above our backside? Then again, considering how often I used to pull the big rat’s tail at Chuck E Cheese birthday parties, even after the chaperones warned us not to, I’d probably upset my friends way too often.
The other evolutionary “mistake” is our necks. They are nowhere near strong enough to hold the 15 or so pounds that comprise our heads. Unhinging them, unless you’ve made the cut for Cirque du Soleil, is probably not the best thing. Neither is jumping into a headstand, which I’ve seen again, and again, and again. No matter how hard I try to explain to students why it’s not a good idea, it just does not stop. Habits are a hard thing to break. They can also break you.
During our week of inversions I offered safe ways of engaging our abdominal muscles to pull our legs up. I offered at least four variations each student could try in order to develop the strength to enter the posture properly. For those not strong enough to do it now, I demonstrated exercises to practice instead, which taught them a constructive way of getting upside down. During every class, though, I had one or a few jump right up. (And down. And up. And down.) There’s safety in what you know, however foolish it might be.
Yet that was the point: develop your weaknesses and make them strengths. Shortcuts are shortsighted and often result in suffering and pain. It only takes one wrong slip and your yoga career can be cut short. Quickly. This form of practice requires those things that seem inherently foreign to us: patience, humility, the ability to try new things. For many yogis, getting on the mat was once new and frightening. That mat is no different than everything around us. Learning things one way is a great opportunity to learn them in many more ways. Cultivating the diligence and restraint to learn something properly is even better. That’s what turning things upside down is all about.