Part 1: In which Gabby makes Ash do push-ups
“Don’t cheat, I see everything.”
I was squeezing everything. I looked at myself—upside down in the studio mirror, the person staring back at me was red-faced and noticeably twitching. Oh my god, that person also looked like she was crying.
Calm down, you absolute moron. I tried to blink the tears away, the tears which were mercifully at least indistinguishable from the sweat rushing from my toes all the way to my sticky fingertips.
I was tired, I was embarrassed and I was 100% sure I had made the wrong decision in coming here. I mean, what was I doing in a handstand class?
This was all coupled with the increasingly obvious truth that I had made very bad handstand clothing choices — my voluminous tee that I had attempted to stuff into my running leggings had managed to wriggle free almost immediately and fallen to expose my trusty sports bra that was working, and failing, to stop my boobs escaping — defeated by gravity. This is how people die upside down, I thought: ineffectual sporting attire. A few haggard breaths later and I crumpled gracelessly to the ground.
I had arrived that rainy Bristol evening to local teacher Gabrielle Parker’s popular and infamously humbling handstand class. An hour before I’d been supervising Homework Club, handing out pencils, tackling algebra equations and policing the photocopier (“don’t even think about printing that in colour”) but in the jog from school to studio I had transformed — tired yet confident teacher was now delicate and bricking it student.
Actually I had arrived late, and my first interaction with Gabby ‘Gabbatron’ Parker was her asking me politely, yet firmly, to do push-ups as recompense. I stared at her. She stared back — as if to say “glaring at me is all well and good but it won’t make you better at handstands. You know what will make you better at handstands? Push-ups.” I decided absolutely in that moment that her, me and most certainly handstands were not going to get on.
It was now 6 months later and I was only just beginning to forgive her.
“Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is.”
― Louis de Bernières, Captain Corelli's Mandolin
“So seriously, tell me, what is the big deal with handstands in yoga?” Gabby still hadn’t looked up from her phone where she was flicking quizzically through sunset-filtered photographs as if they were profiles on a Tinder account. Would I want to date this handstand? Swipe right for yes, left for no.
I shrugged, suddenly intently interested in my latte as I swirled it with a spoon. Yeah, that’s alright for you to say, I thought enviously. You can do a handstand. Only people who can actually do handstands are allowed to say they’re not a ‘big deal’.
We’d met in Bristol’s rapidly gentrifying hipster hub of Stokes Croft. Our new favourite café was squeezed between a pop-up bakery and a place to buy artist prints and hand-painted cushion covers. It was our favourite because it sold avocados, eggs and coffee — all of our favourite things — in all possible permutations. The café’s clientele consisted predominantly of squads of students and the self-employed, the ranks of which Gabby and I joined gleefully. Occasionally, only very occasionally, a customer would try and charge a non-Apple product under one of the large rustic tables and they would be stared at, the onlooker confused as to why they would make their life so much harder than it actually had to be.
“No, really,” ignoring the eye-rolling, Gabby waved her (Apple) phone at me: an Instagram picture of an upside down Beach Yoga Girl flashed before my face. “It’s like if you have a good handstand, it makes you some kind of Yoga god. I mean, is it really that impressive?”
Well yes, I thought, yes it is.
Gabby tapped the screen pointedly. “You know what is impressive—look at those insane hamstrings, so freakin’ flexi!”
I felt cornered. Myself and my yoga compadres were getting called out and I did not have an answer. Gabby was right of course — posters for handstand workshops cover the walls of studios, quietly yet earnestly multiplying and pushing the ‘yinner’ offerings out to the fringes, like big fat papery acro-cuckoos.
For some, these acrobatics represent a shallow temptation to students stuck in the lower limbs of the yoga hierarchy, drawing them with promises of extreme strength, flexibility and fame. For others, a handstand is a celebration of freedom, a tantalising physical goal that deserves its place at the yoga table due mainly to the disciplined practice it takes to achieve.
It is however a truth that within this fast-growing yoga biz ‘the handstand’ is held up as something of a pot of gold, an elusive reward at the end of the yoga asana rainbow. Those who have achieved it are revered as epic heroes, returning from a long and treacherous voyage and are showered with appreciative nods, Instagram likes, sponsorship deals and guest spots at festivals.
“Did you see his handstand? He’s so hot”
– Lululemon, Sh*t That Yogis Say
For me, handstands represented a tangible, potentially achievable prize that guiltily teased at my Type A desire to accomplish; the part of me that my yoga had quietly sidelined. A handstand was something outside of my regular practice that I could steadily work away on, strive and train for. Or at least it would have been, if I had actually trained for it.
So I didn’t train handstands, but I did daydream about them. I would imagine myself jauntily rocking out a nifty balance in the middle of a festival field surrounded suddenly by a hushed and awed audience.
‘Oh, what? You saw that? I’ve only been training 10 hours a week for a year to do that. No biggie’.
I grabbed her phone, still displaying the hamstringily-gifted girl and read the post attached. According to the text beneath the photo, the pose itself is unimportant — it’s in the journey, that’s where the real learning happens. I read it aloud.
Gabby arched a quizzical eyebrow. She did not look convinced.
I looked again. Rachel Brathan and her tanned handstand had fifteen thousand Instagram likes. No denying it, yoga — a practice once so focused on the stillness of the seated posture — had entered into an inversion affair that was showing no signs of simmering down. We, amateur acrobats and social media surfers alike, were infatuated.
It was a heated affair for sure, but would it last? When the pretty blossoms fell away would yoga and acrobatics still have their roots intertwined, hugging lovingly to each other, or was it a fleeting flirtation — yoga having found itself temporarily seduced by the glamour of the upside down?
“Is it just that it’s cool?” I nodded, handstands are cool.
“Or is it the strength?” Uh huh, the strength too.
“Is it that there aren’t that many people who can do it in yoga?”
She wanted to know why, I wanted to know how. Two more years and a few thousand lattes later, we wrote a book.
The Handstanding Yogi: The Hows, Whys & WTFs is available now! £17.50 including postage and packaging to anywhere in the UK.