13 Days: Gambler’s Guide to Handstand

I have been planning to write this post since March 2011, which I think is close to 5 years ago. It’s an essay about my embarrassingly long journey to finally being able to do handstand, and it’s title comes from the fact that somehow, I associated my handstand experience with the song, “The Gambler.” The TL;DR of this post is that after years of obsessively trying to do handstand (and I mean just kick up into handstand, against the wall) I finally was able to do it but ONLY after I whispered the words, “I have no idea what’s going to happen next.” 

As a person who likes to know what’s going to happen next, and even control what’s going to happen next if it’s at all possible, this felt like a really profound moment. But perhaps one of the reasons I never wrote the post is that I couldn’t successfully apply the lessons to my life, and whatever “moral” I conjured up to conclude the essay always felt insincere and wrong. 

I took a crack about a year and a half ago, but my old friend who is also my primary editor said something like, “it’s very personal” or “it’s very individual” and I decided not to publish it. But here’s what I said: 

When I first started doing yoga, I was weak and somewhat sickly. Supporting myself in many poses seemed impossible, especially handstand, which required my disproportionately small arms to support the entirety of my long, misaligned body. Apparently, handstand is this big, symbolic, important pose, which my yoga teacher made clear as she coached me in class.

“Rachel, handstand is about your internal power as a person. If you really want to be an actress, you need to be able to do this.”

I did want to be an actress at the time, and my flailing in handstand mirrored what I’d already heard, that my profound discomfort in my own body was going to going impede whatever talent I might have. I became obsessed with this inadequacy; it overshadowed everything I accomplished in yoga as I grew stronger and healthier. Eventually, I could actually balance in a handstand, but only if a teacher helped by lifting my legs on the ascent. I couldn’t kick up into the pose myself.

As I advanced in my yoga practice, my failure to kick up (even at the wall) became an obsession for me, and also a bit of confusion for my teachers. At first, the conclusion was that I was suffering from a case of Fear, which was apparently Totally Normal. During my yoga teacher training, one of my trainers explained that it wasn’t about getting through your fear, it was about moving into your fear. If you could embrace the fact that you weren’t going to be able to bypass fear, and were able to sit patiently with feeling of being in fear, she said, you could eventually achieve your goal.

This idea of moving into fear helped me get through a really uncertain and sad time in my life, but I still couldn’t do handstand, a deficiency that teachers picked on freely during class, especially since I was an employee of the yoga studio. One day, a teacher said, “Enough is enough. Rachel is going to demonstrate handstand. She’s just going to get over it and do it.”

Even in response to those strong words, I couldn’t kick up into handstand. In child’s pose after the failed demo, I cried.

As often happens with yoga, it all becomes a metaphor. Another teacher watched my attempted kicks and observed (again, to the whole class), “It’s like a man is proposing to you and you have no idea if you’re going to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

Since my teachers claimed my issue was “mental,” I become obsessed with ways I could trick myself into doing handstand. I would brace myself by thinking things like, “your mother will die if  you don’t kick up this time,” or tried reverse psychology and told myself, “you’re not going to it. I don’t believe in you.” I felt like if it was mental, I should be able to control the outcome with the right set of thoughts.

Finally, right before I moved to San Francisco, I went to see an old teacher and explained to her that I was working on handstand. 3/4 of the way through class, she, like many other teachers, forced me me to do a demonstration. But when I got to the center of the room, she surprised me.

She explained to the class, “Rachel says she really wants to do a handstand, but the thing is, she doesn’t. She’s actually not sure if she wants to do handstand, so there’s no point in her pretending she’s trying to kick up.” And then to me, “You don’t want to do handstand. You’re not going to do handstand. Instead, why don’t you just tell yourself that you’re practicing kicking. And every time you kick, just tell yourself you’re not trying to do handstand. You’re trying to kick up one millimeter further than you kicked the last time.”

It was simultaneously insulting and relieving. But I had no choice but to go with it. As remedial as it was, it held the potential of progress. I moved to San Francisco, and every time I practiced handstand, I just tried to kick up one more millimeter. But I couldn’t let go of the mind games. If I just stop caring, if I just pretend I don’t care, then it will happen. No, if I care a lot, if I throw my heart into it fully, if I tell myself I won’t be able to look at myself in the mirror if I don’t do it, then I’ll do it.

None of the tricks worked. I just kept on keeping on with tiny kicks, consoling myself by saying that I didn’t really want to do handstand – I only wanted to get one millimeter further. Finally, with one millimeter as my goal, I pretty much stopped trying to do handstand all together.

Then one Friday night my yoga teacher announced that we were going to spend the class focusing on the kidneys and the back body, which represent the unknown. Most of us cave our shoulders forward to protect ourselves from uncertainty and undefined space. Opening up the back body is important for upside-down poses. For me, expanding backwards was always extremely uncomfortable.

But, surprisingly, all the expanding-into-the-kidney work was going well. Not far into the class, I suddenly realized, “I’m going to be able to do handstand after this.” I tried not to get too excited as we worked through the class, and when I finally got to the wall, I debated how to mentally prepare.

On one hand, I could push myself with a “if you don’t do handstand I will never forgive you” type of threat. Or I could ease the pressure with a “I don’t give a shit if you do handstand in fact I’m not even going to try that hard because what’s the point of handstand anyway?”

While I was debating which form of self mind-fucking would work best for me, a thought popped into my head.

I have no idea what’s going to happen next.

None of us really enjoys uncertainty. None of us really like flinging ourselves into it with abandon. But in that moment, I somehow accessed the right balance of power and surrender that’s required for a smooth entrance into the unknown.

I repeated my mantra, “I have no idea what’s going to happen next.” Instead of thinking about kicking (one millimeter or otherwise), I just thought about rolling my back into the empty, unknown space. And with very little drama or effort, I rose up into my first handstand.

“Very nice!” said my teacher.

From upside down I exclaimed, “this is my first handstand!” She had the whole class sing happy birthday to me while I was still in the pose. I left class to go meet my boyfriend and wanted to believe that somehow what happened with my handstand was symbolic of something promising.

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t turn into something “promising!” When I wrote a draft of this a year ago, I tried to explain why it didn’t work out. Something to do with control , something to do with letting go of the reins that my brain was using to steer my heart?! (Gag me.) I deleted that part because I don’t think it was right. Today, while I was mentally preparing to publish this, I thought of different reasons why nothing “promising” happened.

The conclusion I came to was that I had conflated “not fearing the unknown” with “not having goals.” In fact, that’s the opposite of what happened with my handstand practice, but I’m afraid to write anything here because I’m sure I’ll change my mind later. I guess the only thing to say about the whole thought process is, “I am only kicking one millimeter at a time, and I have no idea what’s going to happen next.”


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