Taking Flight Through Inversions at BSY Dallas
By: Marie Williams, Contributing Writer & Advertising Representative Dallas Yoga Magazine
Photo: Peter Maldonado, Marie Williams, Carson Clay Calhoun
I first discovered inversions at an arm balancing workshop I attended three years ago early in my practice. The teacher who gave the workshop talked about handstands and how she learned to do them, which was by way of practicing and conditioning her core. I remember asking her to demonstrate a basic handstand. She talked me through the process, but my eyes only noticed her kick up on the wall and hold the position perfectly. At that moment, I was fascinated and knew I wanted to learn how to handstand. The fact of flying so freely mesmerized me.
Trial and error and visualization are the two best ways I learn how to do anything that I cannot already do. In this case, I need to be able to visualize how an inversion looks only after I have seen it done several times. After I made an Instagram account, I used it to scroll through people’s profiles and check out pictures of inversions done by other yogis, carefully studying where their hands were placed, the position of their bodies and how the posture looked. I made mental notes of everything my eyes took in.
I wanted to start practicing what I was seeing in these pictures, so I asked my instructor friends to provide a few private sessions in which I could use the tips they gave me to work on developing good form and technique. Serious work was put into strengthening my core and my arms, while working on establishing correct posture in the actual inversion. I also tried various techniques to figure out ones that worked and those that did not. I fell out of many inversions and even got hurt a few times! Each time I fell just motivated me even more to get up and try again!
Within the last two years, I have focused my attention on developing my own personal inversion practice. I have noticed that the more I practice, the more confidence I gain over time and the more versatile I am in my ability to acquire new inversions to add to my practice. If I am at a studio, right after I finish a yoga or fitness class, I will take my mat and go to the wall to practice for about 10-15 minutes. I will usually practice the Forearm Handstand, The Basic Handstand and the Supported Headstand. Creating my own handstand practice has been a key element for quick progress and sustained growth.
To be able to handstand, an individual should have both a strong core and enough upper body strength. When I first started trying to learn how to do handstands, I had neither. My core was not strong, and I quickly found this out because I would get halfway into the handstand but could not pull myself all the way up into the full expression. I also had very little “hang time,” so I would either get into the posture, only to have to come out of it, or fall out completely! I must admit that each time I fell out, I got scared and became doubtful of my ability to do a handstand successfully. Moreover, my falls made me want to keep trying!
Since I lacked the core strength I needed, it was suggested that I start doing Pilates classes to build my wheelhouse and strengthen both my upper and lower abdominal muscles. The class was an intense 45-minute rush of adrenaline for me, but after many classes, I saw a difference in the tone, shape and development of my core. At one point, I was taking two Pilates classes a week! With the inclusion of this fitness class, I immediately saw improvement in my handstand practice.
I noticed that my arms got tired rather quickly and would shake if I was wobbly going into the handstand. I did not have the strength to support my weight, so I knew I needed to get stronger. I started taking HIIT classes and focusing more on lifting weights, completing extra sets of push-ups and holding my planks longer. Over the course of a year, I started noticing that I could get into the handstands with ease hold them for a few seconds. Shorter holds indicated progress, which pushed me to continue working hard. I worked on my handstands consistently, so I feel that consistency is key to building confidence for a strong handstand practice.
There are so many technicalities towards learning how to handstand! Things such as distance between the hands, elbows and forearms, where to place the hands, how to kick up into an L-shape with one’s legs and of course, core engagement, all matter. I had help from two instructors with very different teaching styles. One of the instructors has a solid handstand practice and consistently worked on various inversions. She helped me learn how to safely practice the Forearm Handstand and the Tri-Pod Headstand by spotting me during private yoga sessions. The other instructor gave me tips and provided examples of what not to do so that I could focus on the proper method only. She cued handstand hops during her Power Flow classes to get her students ready to practice traditional handstands. Handstand hops help a yogi transition into taking actual flight once he/she feels comfortable enough to kick up.
Once I learn something new that I like, I start dedicating both myself and time to practicing so that I can improve. After steady private instruction, viewing Instagram videos and watching students work on their handstands, I began the journey to becoming more skilled at holding them. Following a Flow class, I would take my mat to a wall and work on many different handstand variations. My goal was to try to get a few seconds of hang time before either falling out or exiting the handstand. Falling is a part of the learning process, so I fell often! Eventually, those seconds turned into minutes of hang time and as I held each variation a little longer, I grew increasingly proud of the actual work I was putting in.
At home, there are walls in my house with great vertical angles that allow plenty of space and the perfect height for me to practice alone. I have my own mats, but I prefer a thicker one I bought from Lulu Lemmon two years ago, which is excellent because it is reversable and has extra padding. Practice on hardwood floors is tough on my feet, so a mat with good cushioning is helpful when landing or kicking up. I will practice each handstand I have learned, focusing on correct entry, exit, and hold time.
I am grateful for the instructors who gave of themselves and their time to help me learn how to handstand. However, when given the opportunity to learn from a “handstand expert” who travels the country and globe teaching inversion workshops, I simply could not pass it up! On May 13, 2018, I had the chance to attend my very first inversion workshop at BSY Dallas taught by Carson Clay Calhoun. I attended Session I, which was two hours from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. It did not disappoint and what I learned that day, I still use in my practice today!
Carson is a handstand-up comedian who travels throughout the country and around the world giving workshops that are both intense, yet fun. He uses his humor as a bit of a distraction from the natural fear one might have of handstanding, while encouraging the act of falling as a way of learning. Carson also incorporates unique breathing techniques blended in with light yoga in the form of Sun Salutations. His workshops create the ultimate handstand experience!
To begin the workshop, everyone introduced themselves as Carson briefly discussed what the warm-up entailed, which consisted of breathwork and movement using both our wrists and arms. Handstanding puts great pressure on the wrists, so it is important to have them loose before getting to work. We did a few wrist exercises followed up by arm circles to loosen up our shoulders. The remainder of the warm-up focused on various types of breathwork, where we sucked in our breath for 20 counts, integrated rounds of sun salutations synchronized with our breathing and finished up by chanting “om” three times. Intense breathwork such as this also involves having a strong core because a yogi is taking in so much air at one time.
Coupled with the sun salutations, Carson had us to work on a yoga technique called a chaturanga jumpback. This is a necessary step that is done in a traditional vinyasa flow right before transitioning to Upward Dog. We had the option of jumping back into a high or low push-up. Carson had allowed us to pair up, so I chose to partner with two other ladies who watched my chaturanga jumpback and critiqued it. What I realized is that I needed to make the adjustment of placing my wrists a little further apart, so they would be in line with my shoulders. I found this tip extremely helpful and have been trying to improve it in each Flow class I take during the vinyasa sequences.
After everyone finished practicing and working on adjustments to the chaturanga jumpback, Carson transitioned us to the handstand portion of the workshop. He demonstrated a couple of his favorite inversions and explained how this aspect of the workshop would be conducted. We were to choose two to three individuals to pair up with because Carson wanted each person to be recorded on video during groupwork as well as have a good visual to review later for improvement.
The first inversion Carson showed us was a Supported Headstand using a block. I had attempted this inversion many times in the past, but often had trouble piking up into it or only achieving a short hold time. I had never done it with a block, but after a couple of failed attempts, I finally got into the pose and was able to hold both it and the block for a couple of minutes, surprising myself! The Supported Headstand is one of my favorite inversions because a yogi is literally upside down, balancing on his/her head, while using his/her forearms and core to keep his/herself in a vertical line. I love to close my eyes in this inversion and let my mind wander a bit. This posture gives the term “flipped perspective” a whole new meaning!
The idea behind using a block in the Supported Headstand is to make sure the block is placed in between the hip and leg. The goal is to float, rather than kick up on to the wall. The stronger a yogi’s core is, the longer he/she can stay inverted and well balanced in this headstand. One adjustment I was told to make was that I needed to make sure my hips were in alignment with my shoulders. Working on this adjustment has made a significant difference in my improvement within the inversion, itself.
The Forearm Handstand or Pinchamayarasana as it is known in Sanskrit, is another one of my absolute favorite handstands! This is the inversion I started practicing first and the one that was most difficult to learn. I fell out of this handstand so much, but with practice over time and more core exercises, I have developed enough strength to float up into the inversion and hold it for a few seconds, sometimes a few minutes! I am also confident to hit this handstand away from a wall, so progress came with extra practice both at home and the studio.
The adjustment I was told to make was to pull my chest back and open my shoulders a bit more for stability within the handstand. During my Flow classes at BSY Dallas, I usually kick into this inversion with little effort. I am currently trying to increase my hang time.
The traditional handstand is by far, the most challenging inversion of the three. Carson showed us a unique way of practicing this handstand through a series of steps. First, we placed our butts against the wall and then proceeded to measure a starting point with our hands, as we walked our feet up against the wall. Gradually, courage comes to look down and be able to lift one leg in the air. The idea is to be able to use the wall for support to help balance.
I prefer to face the wall and float up, using my core to engage and help me get my feet off the ground. By using this method, I can work on improving the “split leg” where I make an “L” shape with my leg (or a 90-degree angle) engaging my core to help me finish the pose with both legs straight in the air. I can get some flight, but hang time is reduced to only a few seconds before I come out of the handstand. The adjustments I was told I needed to make in the workshop were to place my hands further apart, straighten my arms and keep my head down the entire time. Improvement has been slow, but I am a little bit more relaxed when a handstand is cued in a Flow class. I usually practice a few handstand hops to familiarize both my body and mind with the proper technique to glide up. After a few of these, I attempt a handstand or two.
I do not feel I would have been able to fully benefit from hands-on techniques had Carson not implemented groupwork. I was blessed to have a BSY instructor in my group, along with her husband, who offered encouragement and support. Sireesha Chirala assisted me with learning how to do a Supported Headstand using a block. During the process, she gave me technical feedback, but also kept me motivated to push up into the headstand and comfortably hold it for a bit. As I was practicing, Sireesha was getting everything on video so we could review it all together later. She did much of the same when I attempted the handstand. I must confess that I was scared to do it and needed a bit more coaxing from her, but I made a sincere effort to bravely get one foot off the wall before having to drop out of the handstand.
Using a block to learn how to do a headstand struck me as creative. I am a creative yogi who always wants to try new asanas, while getting creative with the ones I have in my practice. Creativity means “thinking outside the box,” so I felt Carson’s approach to teaching us a difficult inversion was exceptional, yet well received. The more creative I can make my personal practice, the more I am sure to enjoy it, whether practicing at home or the studio.
Sireesha Chirala is one of many yoga instructors at BSY Dallas. Participating in Carson’s workshop allowed me the chance to both meet and work with her for the first time. I found Sireesha to be a delightful individual, full of good knowledge who made me laugh and smile throughout my workshop experience. Her gentle spirit and kind words of encouragement make her a great teacher as well as someone any yogi would be blessed to know. I always enjoy seeing Sireesha at the studio during special events held there.
Sireesha began yoga to step out of her comfort zone and try something different. She is no stranger to BSY or the city of Austin. In fact, her first yoga class was taken at the original location, West Fifth. Sireesha says yoga is a sacred union between the mind, body and breath for her. She sees the art as an empowering and necessary life tool that helps all practitioners work through anxiety and grief as well as challenging her both physically and mentally. She had high praise for Carson’s inversion workshop and was glad she chose to attend.
“Carson was incredibly light-hearted and encouraging, and as the “handstand-up comedian,” one of the things I took away from his inversion workshop was to take myself and my inversion practice a little less seriously. The prep work he offered before we started going upside down was not comprised of the traditional asanas you would normally see in a studio class. We jumped around, shook our limbs, and played around with our breath in new ways.”
Sireesha also added that as a vinyasa yoga practitioner and teacher, she had fun practicing in such a manner. Her workshop experience reminded her that to develop an inversion practice, an individual must trust his/herself. This includes body strength, limbs and core. If the person falls, he/she must trust it is okay to get back up and try again.
Sireesha says she almost missed out on Carson’s workshop from fear of not being strong enough to participate. Afterwards, she was more confident in her abilities and practice. To this day, Sireesha continues to apply the things she has learned each time she shifts her perspective, both on and off the mat.
Sireesha feels yoga is a continuous journey and that she is constantly learning from her teachers, peers and students. She said, “My goal as a teacher is to help my students find balance, get in tune with their inner strength and help them understand the importance of practicing yoga for themselves.”
Through this intention, she offers variations on poses, lightness and compassion. All of this helps students find the best and safest expression of asanas for their bodies.
Sireesha completed her 200-hour training at Yoga Yoga in Austin, Texas and is currently pursuing her 500-hour teaching certificate. She also practices law for the City of Dallas.
All teachers at BSY Dallas cue their inversions differently. Some teachers will cue handstands or headstands throughout class in between selected postures, while others choose to give a designated sequence of postures and use the inversion as a “peak pose” that yogis work up to towards the end of class. Inversions are not usually demonstrated, but handstands hops are suggested as a precursor to floating up into a handstand. My personal favorite inversions are the Chin Stand (the very first inversion I learned) Forearm Handstand and most recently, the Tri-Pod Headstand from Bakasana or Crow Pose. I am still working on more graceful exits out of each of these inversions, but I am skilled enough now to safely kick up into and hold each one.
Danielle D’Alesio is one of my favorite yoga instructors at BSY Dallas. Her teaching style is unprecedented and her class unlike no other Flow class I have taken. Danielle has her students doing many challenging postures standing for the first half of class. In between cueing handstands, headstands or various arm balances, the second half of class is dedicated to stretching and core work, where yogis are mostly sitting or in resting poses. Lately, she has been cueing vinyasa flows with the use of a block and stretches using a strap. Danielle’s brilliance in putting together tough sequences make her Flow classes worth 60 minutes of sweating it out!
I met Danielle three months ago.
I had just taken another friend’s Flow class and decided to double up that day. My friend told me that Danielle taught good Flow classes and that she liked her style. At that point, I wanted to find out for myself. I paid for the class and hurried back to my mat. Upon entering the room, Danielle noticed my mat at the front right corner of the yoga practice room. She asked me about this and I told her I preferred to be at the front where I could use the mirrors to focus on my alignment and be better connected with the instructor. She told me she taught differently, but I told her I wanted to remain where I was for class. I have since never moved my mat from that spot!
Recently, Danielle and I decided to become best friends. Through our love for yoga and meditation, we have become closer to one another. We text every single day, multiple times throughout the day. It is not uncommon for us to call one another, especially when we are in transit driving around the city. She knows how much I enjoy taking her classes, but most importantly, that she will get to see me twice a week. Our tea dates allow us to catch up and unwind and we have agreed to start exploring other areas of Dallas together, based on our common interests. Above all, Danielle and I already share an understood level of unconditional love that holds our entire friendship together through a strong, yet deep bond.
Danielle took her first yoga class back in 2005 at the YMCA in her hometown of Orlando, Florida. She hated it because it was too slow. She describes it as a basic yoga class before yoga would become popular much later.
She started practicing yoga because she liked the physical challenge of being able to do arm balances and other asanas within each practice as well as the relaxation that followed. Danielle continues to practice yoga today because she experiences less stress, feels a deeper, spiritual connection to the Universe and has both increased self-confidence and self-love. She loves the community aspect involving other teachers and students.
In 2015, Danielle agreed to sign up for a year of unlimited yoga. Her goal was to go to class 200 times, but she exceeded this goal and went 208 times. Following this accomplishment, she was so immersed in practicing yoga that she fell in love even more. Danielle had such an amazing physical, mental and spiritual transformation that she knew she wanted to inspire others to positively live a healthy life in body, mind and spirit. That next year, she would complete her teacher training at Skanda Yoga located in Miami, Florida, earning a 200-hour RYT Certification.
Her teacher training experience involved learning about the proper alignment in poses, techniques to take her students deeper into various poses safely, the history of yoga and Indian mythology as well as how it intertwined throughout the practice. These components impacted Danielle’s practice in the following ways: increased her confidence going into poses, allowed her opportunities to make and sustain deeper connections with other yogis, delve deeper into her own spirituality and meditation practice, while forging the desire for constant self-growth. She has been practicing yoga for five and half years and teaching it for two and a half years.
Danielle’s personal yoga practice is quite different in that she spends a lot of time on muscle groups that feel tight and as a result, goes slower and deeper into poses. This is how she sets goals to work towards for various poses. In addition to goal setting, she also works on strengthening muscles with attention to the core and glutes, which are imperative for posture and functionality. Based on these details, Danielle clearly has targeted specifics within her self-practice.
During her time at Skanda Yoga as a teacher, inversions were practiced daily for 10-15 minutes. On her lunch breaks, she would practice her handstands four days a week. She feels consistency, technique and a strong core are the necessary keys to a solid inversion practice. Her favorite inversion is the traditional handstand because she never thought she would be able to do it. With consistent practice and dedication, Danielle was able to confidently kick into a handstand in the middle of the room without the wall. She says doing a handstand takes full body awareness and engagement.
Danielle chose to participate in Carson’s inversion workshop because she wanted to improve her inversion practice and learn new exercises and techniques. She did Session II, which was given from 4-6 p.m.
“I liked all the different drills on the wall and working with a partner who would video us, so we could see our form as well as spot us. I also learned to pay more attention to my alignment and keep my arms straight while focusing on control.”
Most yoga teachers would agree that meditation is an important part of their daily lives as well as a central aspect of their teaching styles.
Danielle is no exception.
She was inspired to begin her journey with meditation in December 2016 after she returned home from a spiritual retreat to India that lasted 10 days. Although she has only been meditating for a year and a half, she says her individual meditation practice changes daily. Danielle’s meditation practice includes pranayama, mantras, visualization of her goals and desires and placing focus and attention on each chakra. She generally meditates anywhere from five to twenty minutes once a day. By meditating daily, she can be centered, quiet her mind and be present for new ideas and solutions to flow through.
Danielle has been teaching at BSY Dallas since May. She heard about the studio from a fellow instructor and friend, but what she appreciates about this studio is both the individuality and self-expression shown by each teacher. Everyone is encouraged to teach their own style in their own way. Yogis can catch Danielle for a class three days a week: Wednesdays and Fridays at 2:30 p.m. for Powerful Flow classes and on Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. for a Beginner Flow class. Along with teaching, Danielle also has three clients she gives private lessons to, though she is looking to expand.
Before teaching yoga became a serious passion, Danielle worked in the field of mechanical engineering, specializing in aircraft seating, where she was responsible for certifying seats on today’s aircraft. She received her bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Miami in May 2010 and went on to earn a master’s as well from UCLA in June 2011.
Just recently, Danielle felt called to venture down a different pathway. Even though she has been in business for herself before, she made the decision to switch to aligning with where she wants to go in life. She feels that in today’s world, multiple sources of income are becoming more and more imperative. She has watched others succeed within this company, while creating an abundance of wealth, using it for good. There is great earning potential within the business, but the concept goes far beyond actual earned compensation. She is excited about creating an abundance of wealth and being able to use it for good and to help those in need. She has dreams of traveling, furthering her education in yoga and NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and hosting and attending retreats. Danielle ultimately desires to live a life of servitude and inspiration, so going into this business is taking her across the gap of where she currently is now, but also, where she desires to be in the future.
Danielle loves teaching yoga and is grateful for the journey she has traveled to become a skilled, yet disciplined yoga instructor. She describes her favorite aspect of being a yoga teacher in this way:
“I enjoy challenging people and watching them accomplish things that they did not think was possible for themselves.”
“When yogis accomplish something they did not think was possible, it creates a mental transformation within them. When they go off the mat and have a tough situation in life, they can use that experience of conquering a challenging pose to remind them of their own strength, power and ability to exceed past any doubt or limitations.”
My own journey learning how to handstand has been eye-opening. I have learned that discipline, consistency, sharp focus and the desire to grow will take me just about anywhere I wish to go, both on and off the mat. When I started learning inversions, I had these elements, but was not physically strong enough to do much with my body. Rather than giving up, I took my goals, strong work ethic and curiosity to the mat and allowed them to work in my favor. The result is a strong core and a well-toned body that allows me to enjoy kicking into so many different variations of handstands and headstands, just having fun. It is exciting to fly, and my handstand practice is only going to continue improving with time and creativity!
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