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What I think about when I’m standing on my head

I recently took up the habit of daily 4-minute headstands. I’ve done headstands for decades now, but I never tried keeping to a daily regimen, nor did I ever before pay attention to duration.

Lately, for a purely physical reason, it occurred to me that I should do headstands often (every day), and that I should keep track of the time so that I would do them for longer. And so I came to decide that I would keep the pose for a minimum of four minutes.


Something interesting started happening:

I got bored, quickly.

Therefore, I had to do something to stay interested, or at least to stay …mindful.

My physical exercise, in other words, turned into a mental exercise before I even realized it.

If you’re standing on your head, there’s not that much you can do (except go into a lotus pose with your legs or something – but you can’t even scratch your nose or check email, so it’s pretty limiting).

And so, purely as an exercise in countering boredom and in keeping my mind from going all over the place, mindlessly, I began counting along with the timer.

Four minutes is 240 seconds, and I started by counting forward. For the first couple of weeks, I let the first minute slip by, and started counting at …oh, the three-minute mark. I was counting to 180, in other words. Sometimes I started daydreaming and lost track, finding myself lost at …wait, was I at 110 or had I already hit 115?

When I noticed that I wasn’t able to stay focused, I began to “force” myself to pay attention, and I also began ratcheting the starting mark up, in line with the start of the timer. Soon I was starting at four minutes (beginning to count at zero, going up to 240), with the goal of hitting each second with a silent count of yet another number.

But again, my mind would wander – or else be perturbed by an apparent “synchronicity” I couldn’t calculate (reason away) quickly enough. For example, the first few times I noticed that I mentally “said” one-hundred-forty and also saw the number 140 appear on the timer, I was flustered. It broke my concentration: why did I “say” 140 at the same time as the timer “said” 140?

The first few times it just threw me (was I counting “wrong”? would the number 140 match up tomorrow?), and the next few times I lost track of counting as I reasoned the answer: “Oh, right! When I say 140, I’ve been counting for 2minutes 20seconds, and there’s 1minute and 40seconds left, which is 100 seconds, and 140 plus 100 is 240 seconds, which is 4 minutes…” And so on, mind racing, clock ticking, losing track, not being mindful or present.

Then I noticed something rather interesting: the power of images.

If I pictured the numbers as I counted them, I didn’t lose track. Thus, I’d “say” the numbers silently – 128, 129, 130, 131, and so on – while at the same time “seeing” them. This kept me on track – even if I “wandered” and went off on a mindless tangent, the images of the numbers ticking on brought me back quickly. The words? Not so much.

Today I decided to count backward from 240, down to zero. Again, I noticed that without a visualization of the numbers, it was easy to lose track – to wander off and think about something else. With a picture of each number in mind, it was easy easier to concentrate be mindful.

However, counting backward I was much slower (by at least 30 seconds!) than the timer. I guess that even with the trick of picturing the numbers, I was slower than actual clock time when I had to count backward from 240 to 0.

But I’m convinced that with a bit more mindful practice, I’ll get the hang of counting backward in time to the timer – as long as I keep a clear picture of the numbers in mind. Otherwise, all bets are off and my mind gallivants in all directions.

I guess I’m a visual thinker after all, an interesting (to me) insight I hadn’t expected from what I thought would be the purely physical exercise of standing on my head.


  1. That’s why the first lines of the Yoga Sutras talk about the purpose of yoga being the stilling of the mind. 🙂 In my yoga classes, the physical was just a means… but it’s hard to remember that as we all got competitive about our poses.

    I can no longer do headstands, unless I hang from the ropes or use a stand made for it. I miss headstand the old-fashioned way.

    Comment by maria — September 17, 2011 #

  2. My sister is attending pre-natal yoga classes (practicing limited poses), and she’s having a great time.Now, I’m really interested in yoga. So this is what goes through your head…fascinating. Oh, how I wish I’ll be able to do that too.

    Comment by Ara — September 18, 2011 #

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