I am someone who enjoys a good challenge, and by “enjoy” I mean practically destroy myself in the process of trying to achieve success. Exhibit A: my brief but unbelievably intense obsession with press handstands.
If you’re not familiar with the term, a “press handstand” just means that rather than kicking up to get yourself vertical, you lift your lower body off the ground like magic using mainly core and arm strength. When I first discovered this practice, I quite literally thought I was witnessing some sort of dark sorcery. I could not fathom that it was possible for a human body to just float on up like that. Thus, my obsession began.
I had been practicing kicking up into a handstand for a long while, mainly aiming for any kind of air time. It was a long and boring journey that I did not enjoy. I saw progress so slowly and it felt like an endless loop of one step forward and two steps back. Enter: Instagram. Yes, that app that I love to hate and hate to love brought me to the discovery of not only tips on getting into handstand by kicking up, but also by doing this seemingly impossible thing called “pressing.” I was intrigued to say the very least. I immediately began trying anything and everything to master this practice. Somehow, it ended up coming far easier to me than that frustrating method of kicking up ever did. To this day I do not ever kick up to enter a handstand, and I commend those of you who are able to do so without wanting to scream.
First I started working on what is known (at least in the Instagram world) as a puppy press. With my hands on the floor I would put a yoga block beneath me, step on it with one foot, then tuck my other leg up close to me by bending my knee. Then I’d try over and over to get that foot off of the block without hopping–just using strength from my arms. Let me state clearly here that I did not know what I was doing whatsoever, and later found much more progress when I understood that my core should have been the main component (or at the very least a contributing factor!), and I also had to seriously work on my tight hamstrings. I was able to grasp this fairly quickly which was very exciting and eye opening, but unfortunately also my downfall. That one small taste of victory led me to become ravenous for advancement. I learned straddle press next, and did not stop that freight train until I was able to press into a handstand from FIREFLY POSE. Yes. Tittibhasana press. Never mind that I had managed to figure out pressing from crow pose which was difficult enough, or that after months of trying I could finally do a pike press like I had previously only dreamed about, but now I was upping the ante (maybe a little worthless since I was betting against myself?) to press from a pose that I wasn’t even fully confident in to begin with.
What. Was. I. Doing.
At some point I started coming to my senses and realizing that while handstands were definitely an important part of my Yoga asana practice (the joy alone that they bring me is worthwhile), they had become overpowering and lost their original value. In the beginning I had practiced so mindfully and immersed myself in the calming mental inventory of what was happening in each part of my body while I was inverted, but by the end I was trying new variations just to get ahead of the game and stay relevant on Instagram. I saw my practice with new eyes once the fog cleared and understood that I needed to distance myself from both Instagram and handstands.
The further away I got from the situation (insert shameless plug for previous blog post on creating space here) the better I could discern what could stay and what definitely had to go. I incorporated handstands back into my personal practice very slowly and mindfully, focused my Yoga teaching on basics and inclusion (exploring modifications is my bread and vegan butter), and ultimately deleted my Yoga Instagram account.
I am still extremely passionate about handstands, so much so that sometimes I have to check myself when I start feeling a twinge of obsession brewing. I am consistently humbled by the sheer difficulty of not only getting upside down, but finding enough balance to stay that way for more than a fleeting moment. Like my original assumption, the sensation of my feet leaving the floor and floating all the way up feels downright magical. Disclaimer: sometimes my feet feel like they weigh a thousand pounds, and they refuse to leave the floor at all…but sometimes they may as well be feathers with how easily I’m able to get up. So some days I feel like doing the Elaine dance in celebration, and others I feel like picking up my couch with Hulk strength and screaming, “THIS IS BULLSHIT!” Others I don’t feel like doing either, and I just sit down to binge watch Grey’s Anatomy instead. No matter what, they remain an important aspect of my practice.
photo by: Ryan Gwinn
One day, if and when I’m ready, I hope to teach a workshop specifically on pressing, if only to share what I wish I had known. I made many mistakes, which is natural, but some were dangerous. Over extending your physical or mental limits just to feel included in some imaginary elite crowd, or to gain likes and followers will leave you drained and possibly injured. Please don’t do it! You are better than that, I promise you.
So there is my somewhat cautionary tale about press handstands and how they played a part in helping me find some humility, and elevated my practice of svadhyaya (self-study). Hopefully you now feel inspired to either explore handstands yourself, or go see what’s so binge-worthy about the tumultuous love affair between Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd.