Fear of falling

In Berkeley in the late 1990s, I learned to balance in Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand) step by step. At first I didn’t even try to balance, but just kicked up to a wall, one leg at a time. Once up, I’d try moving my feet away from the wall. Wobbly at first, I eventually could balance on command. So I’d set up farther from the wall, using it only if needed. By then I could go up with both legs.

For a couple of years, I did Sirsasana a shin’s distance from a wall. Even if my balance was quite steady, I preferred having a safety net. If I lost my balance, I could “toe” the wall.

I can’t recall when a fully freestanding headstand became doable. In class, when teachers saw me balancing inches from a wall, they encouraged me to venture farther away. Eventually, for dropovers into Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana I had to forsake the wall. The more I balanced in Sirsasana, the more routine it became.

I assumed that my incremental progression—from “at wall” to “near wall” to “away from wall”—was the norm. So I was perplexed when I moved to Vancouver and heard an Iyengar yoga rule that students must do headstand either with knuckles touching wall or freestanding—nothing in between. Why was it wrong to be a shin’s distance from a wall?

What happens if you fall?

I was told that if you fall near a wall, you’d hit your back and possibly injure your neck. I was skeptical. Based on my observations, when people fall backward out of Sirsasana, they lead with their legs—so their feet would touch the wall first. Remember my safety net of toeing the wall?

Unless you’re trained in gymnastics, martial arts, or other sports that teach falling techniques, the “tuck and roll” is generally not an innate reaction. How many adults are comfortable even doing a basic somersault under controlled circumstances, much less in a surprise fall?

For me, rolling out of headstand required practice and a bit of daring. Just over a decade ago, on assignment in Honolulu for Lonely Planet, I visited a couple of yoga studios. At Iyengar Yoga Honolulu, I took a class with Ray Madigan. During headstand in the middle of the room, Ray corrected my form. I commented that I hold back in the pose to protect myself from falling backward.

To conquer fear of falling, he demonstrated how to “tuck and roll” out of the pose. From Sirsasana, he let go of his hand clasp, bent his legs toward his abdomen, tucked his chin, and rolled onto his back. The floor was hard and unforgiving, but he sprung up and invited us to try it.

Well, I was relieved to discover that I could fall onto my back and live to tell. Back in Berkeley, I practiced this fall on padded mats at the gym. It was a confidence builder, but ultimately contrived. In reality, if I lost my balance near a wall, my feet always touched first. To date I have never fallen in the middle of a room, but I have witnessed falls. And the typical result is a feet-first, unplanned dropover.

I always questioned this all-or-nothing rule, which also hinders early attempts to enter headstand with both legs. Initially it’s difficult to go up without counterbalancing: the pelvis juts behind the head and upper torso. If flush against a wall, there’s no space for such offsetting.

Blanket rules

Apparently the current RIMYI mandate is to do Sirsasana slightly away from a wall (if a wall is needed)—and to require two-legged entry (for freestanding headstand). Directives from Pune often change over time, so I was not surprised. The Iyengars seem to shake up rules to address various aspects of the asana or various habits of the students.

Do the new rules make sense?

I have my opinions, and I hope that all Iyengar yoga practitioners have their own. We must scrutinize rules, especially blanket rules that are strict and all encompassing. Come to your own terms with the teachings.

Images: Trees, performance art done in Greece by Brazilian artist Clarice Lima, October 14-19, 2013, photographed by Eleftheria Kalpenidou; see also Shannon Cochrane on Trees

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5 thoughts on “Fear of falling

  1. Love your blog!

    Like you, I learned to do Salamba Sirsana 1 incrementally. It wasn’t something I did by myself. My teacher in Winnipeg encouraged me to try balancing a shin distance away from the wall once I could balance at the wall. One class, a teacher encouraged me to try it in the middle of the room (she spotted me) and I was able to do it without falling. That being said, I have fallen in Sirsana 1 and it has always been feet first. However, I can see that being shin distance away from the wall could be problematic with Sirsana 2 because I have somersaulted out of that one.

  2. Thanks for your post and wonderful pictures. I haven’t ever thought of these as “rules.” They aren’t written down or codified. They are, as you say, changed according to the needs of the practice. The assessment process is very clear that you can do it any way, as long as you have a reason. There are reasons to do it at the wall, a little away from the wall, and fully away from the wall. All are good, though some are better than others for specific reasons. I believe that the Iyengar Yoga practice is nuanced and introspective – each path is good, but you have to know why its good and how to use it.
    Question: I am not sure what you mean by going up with “both legs.” because both legs go up. Do you mean one leg at a time? It is often taught to go up one leg at a time at the wall. If you are away from the wall – in the middle of the room – you can go up both legs at a time, together, with those legs bent like in Light on Yoga. Going up one leg at a time in the middle of the room isn’t the best strategy because it can make your arms uneven and strain a side of the neck when the hip drops. But beginners at the wall may need this one straight leg at a time option in order to even be able to get up. Just some thoughts…

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Heather. I agree that different ways of teaching aren’t “rules,” hence their variability based on circumstances. I also agree that wise teachers (and assessors) will recognize effective teaching, regardless of this or that detail. But some get caught up with what they consider to be the current orthodoxy – and teach only that way – even if a few years later they’re compelled to try something different!

      IMO even fundamental ideas, such as BKS Iyengar’s instructions in Light on Yoga, deserve our careful attention and analysis. Isn’t that the highest tribute to Mr Iyengar, to study independently with a sharp, creative, open mind?

      By “both legs” I did mean legs together, rising simultaneously – not one at a time. Yes, beginners typically can go up only with one leg at a time. But what about someone who can’t go up with both legs at the same time (for whatever reason) – but who can smoothly enter with one leg and hold the pose with rock-solid balance? Shouldn’t they do the pose freestanding?

      Glad to have met in person in SF. Next time I will visit your studio, Adeline Yoga, http://www.adelineyoga.com, in my former hometown, Berkeley!

  3. Thank you for sharing your experience. I started doing Salamba Sirsasana 10+ years ago, and I am still at best shin distance away from the wall. I see newer practitioners graduate to the centre of the room, and I am still there struggling and wobbling, like I’m the only craven there. Not that I should stop trying, but it’s really nice to know that I’m not the only one who is afraid to fall. Thanks again.

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