There are certain things in martial arts that translate into yoga, one of these things is the headstand. I do not know why, but being able to stand on one’s head is pertinent to the practice of martial arts. There is no rhyme or reason to the fact. Discipline, perhaps, or maybe it’s the exhibition of being willing to do whatever one’s Shifu commands of the body, up to and including literally standing on one’s head.
I do not think kindly on the martial art community at large. I have spent many years in the arena and have found the masculinity and raw testosterone emissions are spiked to sickening levels. There is a pervasive machismo accompanied with the unspoken disdain for women. Perception being everything, I am willing to concede to the fact that I have not been exposed to the most enlightened martial arts masters.
I learned the headstand at the beginning of my kung fu training. It was a novelty. I did not succeed the first time in class. I went home to practice against a wall. I did not succeed then, either. I remember my mother audibly holding her breath as her adult daughter attempted to support every ounce of her weight upon the neck. My cat came over to sniff my hair, and the dog deigned it necessary to wag her tail in my face. Success was not to be mine this night.
I am not one to give up, especially against those kinds of odds. I saw other people doing this headstand. There was a technique I did not grasp, the fault is somewhere with my positioning. It seemed easy enough….make a little nest for the crown in the clasped hands, find the flat of the head, curl the body and then extend. I did not understand my inability to find lift off.
The nature of success being transient and awkward at times allows us all to attempt failure before one is able to stand on their head. It is a typical night with no one home, meaning no one to see me actually do it, that my head nestles quite comfortably in my hands and my body curls into a ball much as I suppose it once did in the womb. Then the rest happens all at once. My legs go up and I balance, quite beautifully, upon my head. My body doesn’t jerk around, my legs do not flail in the air. It is simple and lovely, and so was my coming out of this headstand. It did not matter there wasn’t anyone around to see it, for every time thereafter I was able to achieve the same result.
Later, I am training in Mobile with a Shaolin kung fu teacher. In class, we are practicing the headstand. I am excited we are about to work on something at which I consider myself to be quite efficient. My body balls up, my head is tucked in and just as I am about to go up I hear, “Naw!” Ah, the tender instruction of my martial arts teacher.
He doesn’t say anything else. He is wearing his orange uniform, which looks traditional and elegant against his Asian complexion. He does not smile, though I attempt to form a pleasing expression against the lump forming in my throat.
He spreads his legs about three feet apart and bends completely over. His head touches the floor between his feet and he posts his hands on either side of his head. His straight legs float up and he is completely erect in a majestic headstand.
I think, “Well damn.”
I didn’t attempt it. There was something just too exotic about this new version of the headstand, really. It looked like something in which I could do serious damage to myself. He did not offer instruction, he just did it. I was confused with the mechanics of it all, and the entire experience left me feeling disappointed with my practice. It didn’t matter all the hours I put into kicks, sparring, sit-ups, push-ups, jump kicks, nothing. It all revolved around that damned blasted headstand.
Fast-forward three years. It has been a while since I travelled the road of martial arts. I am in yoga class. My yoga teacher is a beautiful Asian woman with a warm smile and a voice like a low ringing bell – not so high that it is shrill, and not so deep it is intimidating. When she teaches her voice is even more soothing, and she infuses her tone with a certain confidence in her students.
Yoga class can sometimes be a place in which students are lacking confidence. “Put your foot here and your arm here and bend this way and…” Sometimes the best yoga teachers cannot tell me about a posture, they have to come over and show me. It’s the really good one’s that know when this time comes, and are willing to cooperate. But unlike my previous martial art teacher, they will talk a student through the seemingly impossible from the get go.
And so I am in class with my teacher. The students are facing one wall with our feet spread about three feet apart on our mats. We bend over at the waist, hands on the floor about a foot and a half apart. And now she says, and I’m adlibbing as I cannot recall the exact instruction, because knowing what I am about to be asked to do freaks me out, “Rest the top of your head on the floor between your hands and your feet. Allow your hands to hold the weight of your body, and with that, your legs will want to float up. If you’re comfortable with that, do it now, and you’re in tri-pod headstand.”
Maybe it was the melody with which she spoke, maybe my bio-rhythms were just really good that day, but my legs floated up, and in spite of the bubbling elation in my tummy, I managed to stay up there for a few glorious seconds.
Until that moment, I had not thought of that martial artist in Mobile for years.
When my feet touched the ground, I thought of him.
I was not awash in contempt for him, as I might have been five years ago if some sweet tempered woman had had the decency to show me something I desperately wanted to learn. Even that sentence sounds crazy, for why would a headstand be important enough to anyone for them to “desperately want to learn” it? The act of doing it or not was indicative of a larger problem. There was instruction in that kung fu school without nurturance. In my yoga practice, I am fortunate to learn in a nurturing environment.
This nurturing allows me to heal more quickly when I fail at other endeavors, because I know I can meet success, too. When I was much younger, one rejection letter from a short story submission could send me into fits of rage or a two day long bout of depression which included vodka and self-loathing. A harsh word from a trainer or “objective” analysis of my body fat could put me on the Adkins diet for two weeks. A run I had to shorten from side pains would wring a run two times longer the following day.
Not so much anymore. I can illustrate the further.
I received this email prior to beginning this missive:
Thank you so much for submitting to the American Short Fiction contest. Since the contest closed, the editorial staff have been poring over the contest entries. We had a large number of very worthy entries this year. Your entry was read and considered carefully.
Unfortunately, your submission was not selected for final judging. We wish you the best of luck in placing “The Reconciliation of Fruit” elsewhere.
Thank you for trying us.
The Editors of American Short Fiction
Ah, the rejection. Lovely how they offer assurance in the same breath as they say, “best of luck elsewhere”. But there was a blog to be written, which has simmered in my brain for a few weeks now.
My greatest mistake with that tri-pod headstand was in not attempting it. Eventually, someone came along and helped me, and as simple a thing as it was, it was something in which I found confidence. And though this impersonal rejection email could hurt my confidence, I can’t allow it. Today a rejection – tomorrow perhaps an unsupported handstand. It’s all about not giving up.