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My First Handstand at 51

I had always lived in my head, a book in my hand, and my heart, on my sleeve, but rarely in my body. In my teens and twenties, I discovered yoga at UCLA but lacked the discipline to stick to a practice. If I made it twice monthly to the large auditorium at UCLA where a beautiful blonde lotus of a teacher taught, I considered that I was doing well. But some kind of impression was made. The teacher had some kind of special energy; she was indeed like a flower, blossoming into one asana after the next, her radiant smile filling the room with white light. I felt superb after each session, limber and lithe; opened. I loved the practice. Eventually, however, I stopped going, earmarking the experience as something I would do later on in life.

Meantime, a certain swami, Muktananda by name, moved next door to my beachhouse in Santa Monica. My small room faced his ashram and I used to watch him and even wave to him sometimes as he stood beaming on the balcony far above me. I would sometimes share the blue bus into Westwood with devotees of his who reported to me wonderful experiences of shakti. I decided to check it out, wandering over one day to have a peacock feather floated over my face. Nothing out of the ordinary happened, so I headed for the ashram's bakery for a goodie, a daily stop for me. The ashram made the best desserts in town.

I didn't disbelieve the Shakti maidens I met, frequenting my busline, or strolling about the beach, but I was not really interested either. I was very involved at the time with my studies at UCLA, an esoteric buffet of literature in which I was thoroughly enmeshed, the poetry of Stephan Mallarme and Wallace Stevens, the prose of Virginia Woolf.

The years went by, early motherhood came and went. I considered a season of yoga during my pregnancies but never found the moment to do it. There was a table of books to be read and a job to go to.

Then a string of personal tragedies hit centering around the loss of a pregnancy. I became depressed. I was now in my early 40s. That period was remarkably similar to the wild rebellion of my also depressed adolescence. I would refer to that period in my 40s as my second adolescence, only instead of rebelling against my parents, I rebelled against my husband.

To perk myself up, my friend Jeanette suggested I accompany her on a trip to India. Needless to say, India jolted me out of my depression like no drug or doctor could have, sweeping me away into her waves of color, her ocean of vibrations, her shimmerings of gold and silver. I was completely knocked out of my shell of grief. I felt transported in this vast, romantic land where magic still took place on a regular basis or at least events beyond my Western comprehension. In India, I was East of the sun and West of the moon, and my imagination was afire, picturing my own poem, my own fairytale.

The contrasts, the vivid alternations, were startling as we drove around visiting both palaces and slums, witnessing the glittering riches of the wealthy and the brilliant rags of the truly poor whose real suffering was mind boggling. Face to face with such suffering, I seemed to transcend out of my ego for good. These encounters with the people and landscapes of India changed me and I do not believe I have ever gone back to the person I was or how I used to feel.

During the trip, I became impressed with how Jeanette kept up her yoga, practicing her postures in our hotel rooms. The idea of doing yoga, especially as I was in the birthplace of yoga, entered my imagination again. By this time, I was in my mid forties. I started to take a yoga class here and there. After about a year of on-again off-again yoga, I wandered down the street to where a new yoga studio was opening and fell into the hands of Jim and Ruthie Bernhaert. Here were hands that insisted and assisted that I adjust my clumsy asanas into proper alignment, and hands that showed me how to fold my fingers against my heart into anjali (I like to say angelic) mudras.

Soon I couldn't stop. My fingers spread like rays of the sun, my feet flexed, my spine straightened. Energy flowed. Yoga took my older body that could have gone downhill and made it go uphill, made it young again. Simple as that. What better antidote to midlife and menopause. I never even felt menopause in the flurry of headstands and backbends I was doing on a regular basis. I wasn't hardcore; I only did yoga every two days. But I was regular. Soon I was accomplishing postures that I hadn't even been able to do as a child. The last to come was the handstand. I had been cautioned by yoga teachers that headstands could damage the neck so I was eager to take my head off the floor. But for some reason I couldn't kick my legs up like I did in headstand.

I started to do a few stretches in my hallway. One day I discovered that I could kickstart an upward posture by moving a leg up across the opposite wall. Add to that a slight push with the help of the wall and voila I was in handstand. I discovered this trick by practicing on my own in much the same way as I had discovered how to give myself an orgasm many moons before. It was a personal approach and a great feeling.

Since I started yoga four years ago, I have moved through several teachers and a few types of yoga. For instance, I initially practiced Anusara Vinyasa through the Bernaerts, but have recently discovered the beauties and benefits of Restorative yoga. Incidentally, Anusara Yoga derives from the Sidhe yoga tradition brought to America by Muktananda, the swami I used to wave to so many years ago. Perhaps that peacock feather waved across my forehead like a magic wand (indeed, “sidhe” means “faery” in Celtic) did have some kind of effect that 20 years later led me to this gift of a yoga practice that has empowered mind and body, and transformed my heart.