If you come to an open or ongoing class at Yoga on 7th, eventually you'll
find yourself learning either full or half arm balance - handstand.
It's a pose that both Mary and I like to practice, and teach.
Arm balance is one of the most direct routes to a strong upper body.
The same is true of its preparation - half handstand with the body at
a right angle, hands on the floor, feet on the wall. The June issue
of Yoga Journal includes a photograph of a beautifully aligned half
handstand in an article titled "Strong-Arm Tactics," and recommends
it for strengthening "almost all of the arm and shoulder muscles"
as well as building core strength, balance and courage.
Arm balance builds courage by asking us to do something far removed
from the normal physical demands of home and office. For most adults,
trying to kick our legs overhead puts us in touch with spine-tingling
fear. Arm balance gives us the opportunity to face it and safely move
It also teaches persistence. Everyone can do some kind of arm balance
practice. If the full pose isn't accessible, the preparation usually
is. And if it isn't, there's always downward dog.
Getting airborne in arm balance took me 10 years of building core strength,
arm strength, connections from the legs into the torso, and, in the
end, cultivating a particular frame of mind: faithfully kicking up every
day without any expectation of arriving in the pose.
Was it worth it? Unquestionably.
For anyone with an interest in the tarot, arm balance has an extra,
esoteric attraction. The Sanskrit for arm balance is adho mukha vrksasana,
or downward facing tree. If you were to bring one leg into tree pose
while doing handstand, your body would be in an faithful replication
of trump number 12, the Hanged Man, particularly in Aleister Crowley's
Thoth deck, in which the arms stretch overhead. The Hanged Man, suspended
from the tree of life, is said to symbolize spiritual growth through
surrender to a higher wisdom.
Mostly we like teaching and practicing arm balance for the light and
playful mood it brings to the mind, and the head-clearing rush of energy
it brings to the body. At a beach or in a park, watching children at
play, we're likely to feel stirrings of our own childhood, memories
of hours spent in the summer dusk perfecting cartwheels and summersaults.
What could be better than the knowledge that given a handy wall or a
willing partner, you too could act on impulse, and stand on your hands?
July 12, 2004