I'm really fortunate to have a boyish face and a sincere smile because I'm often caught staring at people. It's super embarrassing and hard to explain an unblinking gaze to a stranger. Saying ‘It's okay! I'm an acupuncturist!’ just makes things more confusing. Even with the potential for awkwardness, "people watching" still remains my favorite hobby and something that I do everywhere. Like most, I appreciate pretty girls, nice outfits, sunbathers, even hipsters. But my attention is usually focused on something more interesting: The language of movement.
We think of our voice, hands, and even our eyes as the means with which we communicate but our language extends beyond words and gestures. Our entire body is an expression of our energy. Whether it is the extension of our limbs, the length of our stride, or even angle of the neck, we are constantly broadcasting a picture of our interior landscape. Our conscious movements are often a reflection of our will and intent, while unconscious expressions, like our posture and breathing, largely manifests from our emotions. I saw these energies displayed today by a friend practicing Adho Mukha Vrksasana, or handstand.
My friend Stephanie, a very experienced yogi, stepped to top of her mat. Placing her hands flat, she set her arms straight, and put her shoulders on her back. Giving a strong kick and a swing of the leg, she effortlessly rose into the air. From set up to execution, her movements were elegant and flowed beautifully. As she neared the posture's apex, her momentum abruptly stalled. She carefully came back down and set up again, but her second effort was worse than the first; Her back arched and arms collapsed. She kept trying again and again but each effort was weaker than the one before. The other students watching offered suggestions, nothing particularly insightful, just regurgitated bits of instruction heard from other classes. In fact, her alignment was perfect. What occurred had little to do with technique.
A fulcrum is defined as the point at which a lever pivots; In handstands, this is at the shoulders. With the arms vertical and the body long, the hips need to travel along an arc to eventually rest above the shoulders. Stephanie never reached this point because the rotation about the fulcrum ceased. As her hips rose so did her uncertainty. As her uncertainty rose, so did her fear. The moment she became afraid the posture went from an easy flow to a controlled effort; A shoulder tightening, back rounding, and breath holding reaction. The greater the initial energy of her kick, the greater her unconscious response. The situation reached a point where her shoulders tensed just from anticipation. A literal standstill occurred.
The invitation in every posture is to venture into the unfamiliar. We learn from experience that the obscured aspects of our 'self' aren’t just physical but also energetic. The importance of handstands and other inversions is that they challenge the student by literally placing them into new perspectives (It's the yoga version of Shaolin monks fighting on top of poles). My friend Stephanie doesn't have tight shoulders but she apparently has apprehensions about being vulnerable or upside down. The "Take-home" isn't that she couldn't do the handstand, It's that an experienced yogi, and seemingly connected person, can involuntarily react from an unconscious place.
The students from today's class only saw a pretty girl fail at handstands. Their insights were superficial because their knowledge came only from technical instruction. They didn't understand the subtle language of her movements because they're probably disconnected from their own energies. Practicing in this way is like rowing a boat when you have a sail. Every handstand, or challenging asana, we do is an invitation to transform our approach from rhetoric lead to one that flows from breath. When the dialogue shifts from being dogma driven (thinking, logic) to breath motivated (awareness, energy), the consciousness automatically shifts from the head (brain/cognitive) to the heart (body/viscera). This simple shift in perspective will change the place of your awareness, radically transforming the way you interact with the world. If you don't believe me, try it. You'll be amazed at what you see.
Oh, when this happens, try not to stare.