In my experience, there are two primary faces of fear. Fear number one keeps you safe from harm; fear number two keeps you from realizing your potential. Rather than sweep all fear aside, which lets you leap but can also leave you in a free fall without safeguards, what if we made direct eye contact with both faces of fear for a collaboration that could balance survival instincts with the vulnerability of exploring what’s possible?
We need fear number one, the one that protects us, so we don’t make irrational decisions that could really hurt us, like hugging a grizzly bear running toward us. We need to make peace with fear number two, the one that makes up stories in our heads, throws up barriers to growth, and blocks our path to possibility. Confronting and understanding fear number two can help us break through to new territory.
It took me several years to learn how to let fear collaborate within me, especially when it came to the inversion practice in yoga. After nearly two years of rehabilitation and strengthening to function daily and feel pain free with my compressed, degenerative disc (C5/C6), bone spurs, and spinal stenosis in my cervical spine, I was petrified of regression. I avoided inversions in the asana practice altogether, worried a single fall would send me into surgery that I had avoided so carefully (or something worse). As a result, I missed out on some of the grand benefits of inversions: changing my perspective, developing great trust in myself, and soaring toward new horizons in my life.
One of my earliest teachers taught me a “headless headstand,” stacking blocks to lift the body high enough so my head didn’t even touch the floor. This supported headstand gave me the much-needed spiritual uplift to invert without any painful compression in my neck. In fact, it actually gave me some relief, creating a form of traction for my neck while stretching my shoulders, which tended to be overly tight from protecting my neck.
Related: Can Mindfulness Really Reduce Pain?
Fear number one was satisfied, because I was safe. Fear number two got quieter as I got stronger and more confident. Working with blocks, both mental and physical, this headless headstand gave me space to be present with each building block and proper time to develop my back, arms, core, and legs for an eventual freestanding salamba sirsasana, supported headstand, with no pain and all sorts of courage. Collaborating with my fears, rather than letting them freeze me, set me free to fly in other ways in my life, too.
Set the Foundation and Keep Breathing
In this pose, the set up is everything, so make sure you do this: 1) In your mind, let go of your attachment to doing a headstand so you don’t judge your progress; 2) Take things one step at a time so you can be clear, safe, and strong in each step; 3) Make it a ritual to create a strong, solid, physical base for this pose, during which you can breathe, get calm, and focus—real yoga!
Here are some general guidelines to help you figure out which set up will keep your head above the mat and floating. Always stack the blocks flat and flush against the wall for optimal support, and make sure the blocks are not on the wall, tilted, or crooked in any way (some places will have molding, but it’s not usually thick enough to alter this set up). Keep breathing deeply throughout these next steps:
Set up the mat neatly and cleanly, right in the corner of the wall and floor so that there is no space between the mat and the wall, nor is the mat flipped up on the wall. For the bottom tier of blocks, place three blocks side by side on their lowest level, with the short end of the blocks touching the wall. Pull the middle block out, which helps measure space for your head, and set that block aside.
Stack two more blocks the same way on top of the bottom two blocks to make two stacks, three blocks high each. The short end of all three blocks in both stacks should touch the wall.
Kneel in front of the blocks and place your hands on the mat so your fingertips graze the lowest block and the full surface of your palms are on the mat.
Snuggle into the blocks so your shoulders are firmly on the blocks and your back is close to the wall.
Raise one leg high as you inhale, externally rotating so your toes turn out and your hip joint mobility allows for as much height as possible. This will help your top leg get closer to the wall. Don’t kick up. Instead, reach that leg high toward the ceiling. Keep reaching it up. Exhale, and float the bottom leg up into an upside-down lunge, bringing your knee close into your torso, which will help you connect to your core stabilizers and support the pose.
Inhale, and pause. Exhale, and calmly lift the lunged leg, reaching both heels toward the ceiling into supported headstand.
Keep breathing! Press your palms into the mat as you keep your legs engaged to prevent sinking downward into the blocks and build up your confidence reaching upward.
Note: depending on your height, you might find your palms don’t touch the mat at this point. If so, descend through the lunge, gently and slowly, and set up a flat blanket, flush with the lowest blocks to fill the space between your palms and the mat, and repeat steps three through five.
Every body structure is different, so you can experiment with building different block and blanket set ups to make sure your head floats, your palms are flat on the floor, and your shoulders and neck have space. Come down as carefully as you came up, through the lunge and breathing calmly.
Some other foundation options include:
Two blocks stacked flat.
Two blocks stacked, one low and one medium height, with the higher block close to the inside edge of the bottom block.
With blankets to elevate your shoulders, though lots of pressure on your shoulders might get better with more leg reach.
I would not recommend using blocks on the highest level, which is the most unstable height. You should feel comfortably supported while you breathe and work toward cultivating prana in your legs (upward energy) and apana (downward energy) in your hands and arms for a balance upside down.
Throughout this practice, fear number one will come back and give you moments of pause, all in the name of keeping you safe. Acknowledge when number one arises, and ask yourself if it’s real and rational, or more like fear number two showing up, giving you a moment of panic and mental spinning, which dampens your potential to explore the next moment of expansion. Breathe into and through that moment, then, decide what’s right for you.
Continue to collaborate with your fears, and reach for the stars… with your toes.
Photos by Hailey Wist