When Things Get Turned Upside Down: Yoga Inversions
You’re never more alive than when things get turned upside down.
Whether misjudging a headstand and crashing to the floor, fired from our job just when we thought we were up for a promotion or dumped after posting “in a relationship” on our social media status for all to see, nothing gets our attention like being confronted by the unexpected. Suddenly, we find ourselves in a surprising new landscape for which we weren’t prepared. We’re staring down change and wrestling with the fear that we might fall again.
The truth is we’re guaranteed to fall again…and again. Like crashing waves, challenges will crest and crumble whether we’re talking about our headstands or our lives. Personally I’ve fallen many times, certainly out of my headstand, but ultimately into a new headspace.
Inversions in Yoga
To me, inversions are a fantastic living laboratory where we can embrace and move beyond things like fear, expectation, and impatience. All at once upside down needs to become right side up, and we have to surrender our tight grip on what we think we can control. We feel tangible postural balance merge with something deeper.
Inversions are an amazing reminder that how we do one thing is how we do everything. They reveal to us that often things are not going to go as we’d planned, but they just might turn out even better that way.
Making the Leap
Starting a new job or relationship is like the leap of faith it takes to turn upside down in a handstand. Though initially our jump may resemble a first handstand in an unfortunate bra, revealing things we had not hoped for…we learn as we go. Frankly, sometimes the catalysts for our evolution are pretty tits-out, upside down. But, if we move through our raw initiation and prove to ourselves a little at a time that we can do it, before you know it, whatever we were attempting becomes an important part of our personal fabric.
When we try too desperately to control the things we can’t, we become tightly wound in lopsided ways that stunt our growth and leave us miserable.
If we litter our inversions or our lives with expectation, we pin ourselves underneath frustration and impatience, which, in turn, erode the courage and humility it takes to try again.
Outcomes Are Not Guaranteed
The bottom line is we can’t control a guaranteed outcome. Even Kino MacGregor and Doug Swenson have days when they can’t balance in their handstand (albeit annoyingly infrequently). And for all of us, life can feel out of control and out of balance sometimes when it comes to work, deadlines, responsibilities, Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Almonds, time wasted down the rabbit hole of Facebook…you name it.
The Yoga Sutras
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, abhyasa (perseverant practice) and vairagya (surrendering without expectation of a particular outcome) demand that we resist the trappings of instant gratification our modern society seems to promote. And Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga yoga, stated,
Do your practice and all is coming.
He didn’t say, “Do your practice and kurmasana (flipping your feet behind your head) is coming instantly.” Nor did he promise results like millions of dollars and six-pack abs. We have to allow incremental progress to eclipse our need to accomplish the finished product. As Ralph Waldo Emerson so famously put it,
Life is a journey not a destination.
What We Can Control
There is one thing we can control, however, and that’s the accountability and integrity with which we show up — on our mat, at our job, for ourselves and for one another. Abhyasa and vairagya ask us to see balance and progress not as a single handstand, but as a part of a larger personal pilgrimage (sadhana). When we look at things through a wider lens, we can see every wobble, challenge and fall as an opportunity to learn and grow. Each time we glean a little bit more wisdom to bring to our next inversion or adventure. And as we do, we start to see that we’re never more alive than when things get turned upside down.
4 Ways to Make Savasana Sweeter
At the end of yoga class, it’s often joked that Savasana is the most difficult pose of all. It didn’t take me long to realize that there may be some truth to this joke. Many beginners struggle with Savasana, either falling asleep or hanging on to their thoughts, forbidding clarity and relaxation to sink in.
One of the reasons I developed a commitment to yoga was the paltry $5 difference between signing up for only yoga classes and tacking on a full gym membership. I seldom went upstairs to the gym. Movement on the machines felt unnatural and I was intimidated by the bulky dudes in tight shirts. Meanwhile, I found the yoga classes soothing. I sweated out so many toxins and worked on my flexibility, but there was something that regularly happened in class that annoyed the sweet prana right out of me.
When it was time for the exquisitely long 15 minutes of well-deserved Savasana, some unknowns upstairs would start their heavy weightlifting routine. Loud thuds and trembling shock waves distracted my focus and raised feelings of anger and rage. I thought about going upstairs to complain, but I wasn’t inclined to start an argument with buff dudes who could kick my skinny ass.
I didn’t realize until my teacher training that this aggravation was allowing me to practice aparigraha, or non-attachment, by letting go of thoughts and emotions, either positive or negative. After about four months, those thuds sounded like a light knock on the door of my perception; I had learned to withdraw from my senses and my active mind.
Here are four ways to improve the Savasana experience, both in your personal practice and when you’re teaching class.
Learn and Practice Yoga Nidra
Yoga Nidra is a technique that guides students through various parts of their bodies. It works by increasing the awareness of sensations in the muscular, connective and nerve tissues by breathing into them to send a signal of relaxation.
If done right, one can feel the energy flow up and down through the chakras. Eventually, it’s possible to dissolve sensations from the body altogether. It’s like having a voice-guided eraser that slowly fades your body into the ether.
There are many Yoga Nidra meditation recordings out there, and some teachers like to guide their students through a session during Savasana. However, due to time limits at studios, it’s best to incorporate in a home practice to allow yourself the extra time.
Mystical Music or Silence
Traditionally, yoga was done without music, much less meditation. It wasn’t until yoga came to the West that teachers started to notice the addition of music adds more flow and rhythm to a class. In the end, it really comes down to the preference of the individual.
Being a “Cosmic DJ” is no easy feat. We often let our personal musical preferences filter into our sacred tracks, be it mantras, Kirtan, white sounds or Enya. I’ve had some teachers play great songs through class and then choose an awful track for Savasana that was distracting or too intense.
My recommendation is to experiment and find tracks that take you to another dimension. If you live in a quiet town or deep in the woods, these locations allow for moments of silence; work with that and get a little Tibetan bowl timer in case you drift too deeply.
One of the most powerful resources available to us is our imagination. I’ve found that using my imagination for visualizations has led me to profound and prolonged sessions of peace, quiet and rest. Here are three visualizations that help the mind let go.
The Big Blue Sky
Bring your awareness to the color blue, as if you were lying down on the earth looking up at the sky. Feel the warmth of the sun on your body and start to breathe in the fresh air. Any thought that passes through your mind, give it the shape of a big, fluffy cloud. If a thought is more negative, make the cloud more stormy and grey.
As you inhale, summon the power of the wind element, and as you exhale, watch how the clouds slowly drift away. Continue attaching thoughts to cloud shapes and breathe them away until nothing remains except blue bliss.
This visualization is a personal favorite inspired by Pema Chodron’s quote, “You are the sky, everything else is just the weather.”
The Ocean of Consciousness
Imagine you are sitting on a deserted beach in front of the crashing waves. Imagine that each wave is a thought or feeling. Let the wave slowly rise and fall as it crashes and dissolves in the sand.
As the breath deepens, so do the waves. Ask yourself, Where are these waves coming from? Their source is the depths of your mind. Imagine standing on the shores of your own consciousness, witnessing the waves arriving and dissolving. Realize you are not just the waves, but the whole ocean.
(This visualization works great with some ambient wave sounds.)
The Theater and the Ghost Light
Imagine that the mind is a stage, and your awareness is auditioning thoughts to see how well they perform. Some are funny, others are dramatic, and there’s the occasional poetic script read.
Imagine that your cue to let each thought go is a deep breath. As you start to slow your breath, you notice the stage lights are slowly fading out. The stage turns dark except for a white light that’s keeping the ghosts from the past and future away.
This light is your anchor to the present moment. It’s the light that shines within you and illuminates other beings with love, compassion and kindness. With every inhale, let these positive feelings sink in and watch how the light glimmers brighter and brighter.
Last but not least, aromatherapy is an effective way to calm the mind and relax the body. A diffuser works like a charm to spread the scent through a whole room, but there’s nothing more powerful than rubbing a little dab of oil right on the third eye, the base of the neck and the temples. Some favorite essential oils for Savasana are lavender, bergamot, ylang ylang, rose, jasmine, melissa and geranium.