SAVERIN: The upside of upside down

In June, I flew 6,000 miles home. I walked past the gates and newspaper vendors of LaGuardia Airport until I found my mother in the baggage claim, with arms outstretched. We hugged and waited for my backpack to pass us by on the conveyer belt. It didn’t take long for the stimuli in the room to became dizzying, though: the intercom announcements, the reuniting families, the spin of the conveyer belt, the newly turned on and buzzing phone, the parental questions about all I had done for the past couple months and all I was about to do in the next few days. I looked around the carousels of luggage and searched for one thing: a place to do a headstand.

I still search for those places, wherever I am. I sneak out of the reading room in Sterling. I take momentary leaves from dinner parties. I excuse myself from dates, slip outside of classrooms and explore random hallways of train stations. I look for a smooth patch of ground. I have used my secret spot in Bass, spongy grass outside a friend’s home, an untrafficked corner of a restaurant. I kneel, cradle the back of my skull with interlaced fingers and push the top of my head into the earth. My tailbone lifts; my knees unfold toward the sky. I press my heels up, push my legs together and pull my ribs in. I exhale. Upside down, I return to one simple focus: Don’t topple over.

My first yoga teacher taught me this trick when I was a kid. She said that if I ever felt overwhelmed, I could just lift a leg. Every part of my being would become so focused on not falling while in a balancing pose, she told me, that anything else — hyperactivity, distractedness, exhaustion, anticipation, fear, overstimulation, excitement, anxiety — would fade from my thoughts. Since then, many balancing poses have become my refuge. Headstands, more than the other ones, pull the entirety of my focus out of my surroundings and into my feet. If I look at something for too long, I can’t see it anymore. Until I see it upside down.

I used to look in wonder when some folks could just pop up into one at the end of a yoga class. There were many weeks on my way to upside down that involved practicing in a field. All afternoon, I would fall over myself to the amusement of passers-by. The pose didn’t make sense; I kicked up and my legs flipped backward, spiraled in various directions or dropped quickly to the ground.

My legs may still get shaky when sticking straight up in the air, but I have since learned how to narrow my world to one singular focus: Don’t topple over.

I’m usually bad with that kind of thing. I swerve when I walk, scrape my knees when I run and slap nearby strangers when I dance. One mentor once described my mode of operation as “reckless striving.”

This striving usually means striding away from the things that overwhelm me: to the trails of East Rock where the branches blot out the city behind them, to a yoga studio where gauzy curtains filter away the orange streetlights outside, to any shoreline I can find, even murky New Haven harbors, where my ears fill up with water and my eyes can squeeze shut.

When I stand upside down, I feel no need to be anywhere besides where I am. I forget about limits all together and remember that everything I need is in my bones; I just have to pay attention to them. I have to become aware of even the small ones, align and stack them, and breathe.

In many situations, aligning your bones such that your head is on the ground and feet are in the air is a weird thing to do, but in my experience, most things worth doing are weird.

Finding calm doesn’t always have to entail going upside down, though. Even when I just stand up, truly stand, with my shoulder blades pressing onto my back, my feet pushing into the earth, my chin lifting, it feels like I’m balancing.

In both situations, and many more, it just takes asking the question — what do I need at this very moment? — and answering it, even when that might mean standing on my head in the baggage claim of an airport. The worst thing that could happen is I topple onto the floor, then get back up again.

Diana Saverin is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact her at diana.saverin@yale.edu .

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