Patti Martin is a Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher
who teaches in workplaces, studios, and public classes
in San Francisco and the Peninsula.
My yoga career and my introduction to handstand began in 2006. I was attending a mixed-level weekly Iyengar yoga class (that means that beginners and more advanced students practice together.) Within the first three months the teacher taught handstand. I watched him do it and then made an honest effort to repeat the actions and swing my legs up to the wall. Instead I got one foot about one foot off the floor, gave a little hop, and landed with a small thud back to the floor. Hmmm . . . He came over and offered to help me up. He grabbed a leg and began to lift it, and I cried out, “No, put me down. I am afraid.” He asked what I was afraid of. I said, “Falling on my head.” He said, “Why would you fall on your head?” I said, “My arms are not strong enough. My arms will buckle and I will fall on my head.” He said “Okay, then we will belt your arms together over the elbows so that your arms cannot bend.” Damn! I could not argue with that. I still was afraid, but I decided to give it a try. With his help, up I went to the wall. It felt quite good! It was exhilarating being upside down bearing my body weight on my arms. He asked if he could walk away and I said yes. Other students were kicking up and coming back down repeatedly, but I knew that since I couldn’t kick up, I better stay there. My first stay was really quite long because I was also afraid to come down. When I did come down I sounded like a ton of bricks dropping to the floor.
Over the next five years I continued to go to classes that sometimes included handstands, and I would very seriously study the directions that a variety of teachers gave. I would say to myself, “Maybe I’ll get up today.” But I never did get up; in fact, I wasn’t even close. Many times teachers would leave me trying repeatedly to kick up until they saw that I was getting exhausted, and then they would come over and hoist me up. Just like my first time I would stay up a long time so that I would not have to kick up again. And I continued to sound like a ton of bricks hitting the floor as I came down.
During this 5-year period I also developed “handstand induced urinary urgency syndrome”. As soon as the teacher announced that we were to do handstand I would feel a great urgency to leave the practice room and use the restroom. With any luck the pose would be over by the time I got back, or if not, at least I would have less time to futilely trying to kick up.
Then a couple of years later one of my teachers taught me to walk up the wall of a narrow hallway so that my feet were well over my head, and then swing my leg to the wall I was facing. I practiced this way for several years. I would enter handstand this way, and then walk down the wall, move to another open wall, and try to kick-up. There seemed to be no transferable skills. I was no closer to kicking up on my own.
It was also shown to me that you could lean a bolster against the wall and use the bolster for support of your head and back to kick up. I tried this for a couple of years with no success. I never got up this way.
About four years ago a teacher of mine taught how to begin the process of coming off the wall in handstand and balancing independently. She had us kick-up (in my case she hoisted me up) and then she instructed to put our heads to the wall as we brought our legs away. I could do that, and I really loved having my head to the wall. It even helped me come down more lightly. She made it clear, “Never, kick-up with your head to the wall!” I heard her, but the potential was so tantalizing.
So I went home to the privacy of my own space, stuck my head and shoulders to the wall and kicked up independently. I was so happy! I promised myself I would do it everyday so I would not lose the skill, and I pretty much did so. However, I could not do it publicly in an Iyengar yoga class, because it was WRONG! I had to hide and be in the handstand closet. This was the beginning of my sneaky period. I would time my entry until the teacher was as far away as possible, ideally with head turned away, place my head and shoulders to the wall, and use my head as the fulcrum to swing my legs up. I think my main teacher knew I was doing this, but was probably relieved that she did not have to hoist me to the wall. A few times I was caught at this, and was made to return to practice kicking up with my head away from the wall, and I was really hardly any closer than I had been at the beginning.
There were weeks and months where I would work every day on kicking up without my head to the wall, and if I was making progress it was invisible to me, because until your foot hits the wall, it is hard to tell how close or far away you are. My record one rainy winter morning was that I kicked up ineffectually for 45 minutes without success, which by the way made me very cranky all day.
As I struggled on I saw hundreds of other people kicking up for the first time and making it to the wall. Why them and why not me? They were not younger, or thinner, or more fit. They had not practiced more. They just did it. While I was apprenticing as a yoga teacher working under my mentor one of my jobs was to help people up into handstand. It was my job to hoist them to the wall. I must say I am very good at it because I know just the help that people need. I am sure the students all thought I could do it, but I couldn’t.
Then last year my dear friend Susan Allen who has also struggled with handstand, taught me the technique that I use in the video, and suddenly handstand was accessible and fun for me. My 2016 New Year’s resolution was no more cheat-y handstands—no more using my head as a pivot point. Instead, Susan showed me how to use a stack of shoulderstand foams wrapped in mats to give enough height for my feet that my hips were held high enough that I could kick up and reach the wall. (About two years before I stood on a low end table and kicked up to the wall; not only did I not make it to the wall but I also nearly broke my leg as I fell down out of control and slammed my foot down into the end table breaking the table and almost my leg!)
I started with 4 foams as shown in the video on January 1st and slowly from January through June of 2016 I worked my way down from 4 foams to 3, to 2, to 1 and then I stalled, and still could not kick off the floor to the wall. And you should know, that it was not a steady descent down the foams. I had good days and bad days. I regressed for weeks and then progressed again. But in any case a few months ago I was stalled at one foam.
It was still true that in class I needed to be helped up because I would no longer put my head to the wall. However, now I was “close” and also I was landing with control thanks to my foam works. I was out taking a walk one day when I saw that someone had left a refrigerator shipping box on the sidewalk and inside the box, was a large flat rectangular piece of foam about 1/3 the height of the shoulderstand foams. What a treasure! I brought it home, wrapped it in a mat, and kicked up. Yes, it was the missing link! I was at the 1/3 foam for about 7 weeks and then one morning at about 6:30 a.m. I tried kicking up from the floor, and I DID IT! I DID IT! I KICKED UP OFF THE FLOOR LIKE A REGULAR YOGINI! HURRAH! Even though it was 6:30 a.m. I texted Susan right away and she texted me back asap. We celebrated! Thanks to the Susan Allen foam technique I had after 10 years kicked up into handstand.
So to celebrate my 60th birthday with Susan’s permission I am posting this video to share Susan’s technique. There is one handstand for each decade I have been privileged to experience. For those of you who are reading this who aspire to handstand I offer you this method, but more importantly I want to testify that with steady, devoted, focused practice it is amazing what you can accomplish. Especially if you have a dear friend like Susan Allen in your corner.
I also want to thank my husband who has listened to my handstand travails for ten long years, almost on a daily basis. Also, I want to thank my teachers who patiently taught me the mechanics of the pose, over and over and over. And hoisted me up to the wall year after year without complaint. I love you all for supporting me on this journey.
What is next? Well, lucky for me there are infinite ways to improve my handstand. (I won’t bore my non-yoga friends with the details.) And also I need to learn to lead with the other leg. I started again using 4 foams because though I can now regularly kick up from the floor using my right leg, my left leg has “not gotten the memo”. And after that? Well, there is balancing in the middle of the room. I might have to save that for my 70th birthday!