Mar 07, 2013 0 Share

Standing Tall

Photo of woman doing handstand on beach at sunset.

It was a bitterly cold February evening, and our hot yoga class was drawing to a close. We, the students, were tired but happy, spent yet satisfied. Our sweaty hands were slippery on our mats, but we continued even so. The practice was challenging, but we were eager to follow our teacher Ashley’s prompts. The yoga studio is a space of simplicity and obedience, a place where we move and breathe as one. I love the quietude, and the way in which yoga allows me to “turn off” my mind. In the studio, I bask in the absence of stress, worry, and future-oriented thoughts. There is only this pose, and then the next. There is only now. 

Recalling this, I consider how yoga can provide a similar respite for adults on the spectrum. Practicing yoga can quiet down internal “noise” and mitigate experiences of sensory overload. Certain poses soothe the nervous system, giving the body and mind permission to rest. And the benefits don’t end on the mat. As Stuart J. Lawrence wrote in Stretching Treatment Options:  Yoga and Autism, “... once they [autistic adults] learn yoga and embrace it, they can often internalize it as a coping tool without further supervision.” This has proved true for me as well; thanks to yoga, I’ve become better at staying present to my brother Willie. It’s an ongoing challenge, of course, but I can feel the progress. 

And so, as we practiced our handstands that night, I was peacefully, entirely present. But then, Ashley did something I didn’t expect. She asked if anyone would like to try kicking up into handstand away from the wall, with her as a support. I’ve been doing handstands for some time, but always with my mat close to the wall, so I hesitated. But when Ashley glanced sideways at me, her eyes seemed to say, “How about it, Caroline?” 

“OK, sure, I’ll try,” I found myself saying. While the fear-based part of my mind said, albeit more softly than usual, What on earth are you getting yourself into?!, the serene part of me said, Go with it. How cool would it be to actually do this? 

All eyes were on me, but oddly enough, I wasn’t distracted by the attention. I was still in the “zone,” still focused. And so, with Ashley standing in front of me, I took a deep breath, placed my hands down, and kicked my feet up. She held them for a moment, then let go, save for a hand between my feet to give me something to press onto. I couldn’t believe it; I was holding handstand all by myself! 

As I lowered myself to the mat, I was aglow with excitement. I was also analyzing the situation, thinking: What factors allowed me to succeed? What made the magic happen here, tonight? I could think of several things: I’d been feeling energetic that day, I’d been practicing the pose on a regular basis, I’d let myself get into a “flow.” But the biggest factor, the one I kept coming back to? I trusted my teacher. Ashley had helped me into other challenging poses in the past, and I believed that she could do the same with this particular handstand. 

After all, aren’t we all more likely to try something new if we can depend on a person asking us to give it a shot? Aren’t we all empowered to do more when we have trusted hands to frame our risks? Those of us who support individuals on the spectrum know how true this is. If they don’t trust their teachers, they won’t make much progress when it comes to mastering new skills. If they don’t work with someone who believes in them—someone who sees and celebrates their potential—then they may never develop these gifts. 

We can’t control others, and we can’t make their choices for them. But we can create environments that encourage growth. We can help individuals on the spectrum to build social, vocational, and life skills. And then, when the time is right, we can dare them to stand tall, a supporting hand there to steady them.