Is Grad School Harder than a Headstand?

How practicing my headstand turned into a metaphor for my PhD
MAY 2020
Stephanie
S.
Chemistry

Editor Note: This post was originally written before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US.

The first semester of graduate school is pretty hard. You’re surrounded by new people from all over the world, you’re taking challenging classes, and in many departments, you’re also required to teach and do research right off the bat. My first semester of graduate school was overwhelming; I felt absolutely consumed by my responsibilities as a graduate student. Being the eager beaver that I am, I decided to add one more item to my already overflowing schedule: yoga class.

For a lot of people, yoga is a relaxing retreat from day to day activities, a way to loosen up your muscles and calm your mind. Not for me. Historically, I have hated yoga. Holding a pose in an all-too quiet room, surrounded by beautiful flexible people wearing their top-notch athleisure made me feel like a scrub. Watching people seamlessly transition from pose to pose while I could barely touch my toes left me feeling defeated, not rejuvenated. 

Everyone who would listen to me complain about how stressed I was told me the same thing: take a yoga class. For a while, I resisted. I would say that yoga didn’t work for me, or that I was too busy to add another thing to my schedule. That changed when my new research advisor suggested that I go to yoga class—as a first year in a lab that I worked hard to get into, I couldn’t just say no! My research advisor insisted that I should give yoga a try, especially considering that our department offers four free classes a week. The following week, I sheepishly dragged myself to my first yoga class in over a year, dreading the hour to come.

I could not have been more wrong in my reluctance. My first yoga class with Marina, the class instructor, was one of the most fun, challenging experiences I had that semester. Marina and the rest of the class had no qualms about me being new to yoga, gently guiding me into poses both easy and hard. And I truly mean hard—Marina helped me do both a handstand and a headstand, two poses that I’d always been too scared to try or train on my own at the gym! After my first class, I was hooked.

My favorite thing about Marina’s class was her attitude. Marina didn’t care if we could do a pose correctly. What she cared about was that we were putting in effort to do something new and challenging. She would constantly remind us that with time and practice, we’d be able to do any of the more challenging poses without a spotter or even try modifications on our own. She wasn’t afraid to challenge new yoga students to try difficult poses, an attitude that motivated me to try harder and move outside of my comfort zone.

I’m now a regular in Marina’s yoga classes, and the more I practice my headstand, the more I realize that this exercise is a perfect metaphor for a PhD. The first time you try a headstand, it feels almost impossible to hold it on your own. Honestly, without a spotter, I probably wouldn’t have been able to even get into the pose. Similarly, without a support system from my cohort, research advisors, and friends from home, I don’t think I would have had the courage to start my PhD.

After your first headstand, the move starts to get a little bit easier. It still hurts your head a little, and you can’t really do it without balancing your feet against the wall, but you can practice it on your own. This is just like joining a research group and figuring out your independent work—after the first few months of graduate school, you’ve had enough practice that you’re ready to venture off on your own, but you still need support and time to acclimate to new challenges.

Finally, after lots of time and practice, the headstand starts to feel easy. You can get into the headstand without the wall, hold it, maybe even have a conversation upside down (I’m not quite at this point yet). And just like that, your PhD is wrapping up, and you’ve developed confidence as a researcher. You know when you’re capable of doing things on your own and when you still need support from friends and colleagues.

I haven’t mastered the headstand, nor have I mastered the PhD—after all, I’m just a first year grad student! But in practicing my headstand day after day, I have also been practicing a skill that I would need throughout graduate school: resilience, tenacity, and hard work. PhDs are hard to get through, but they’re supposed to be hard. The headstand has taught me that just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing or that I’m not capable of doing it. If anything, yoga has taught me that growth takes time, practice, and patience with myself. This change in mindset has made the daily struggles of my PhD more bearable, and dare I say it, even enjoyable, because I know that I’ll come out stronger on the other end.

Since my first class, I’ve been going to Marina’s yoga class once or twice a week, and doing yoga videos in my room when I feel like I need an extra stretch. I’ve also been practicing my headstands and handstands, with one of my major goals being able to do both poses without support from a wall.

I’m grateful to yoga, in part for my newfound stretchiness, but mostly for the impact it has had on my attitude towards grad school. Before, I saw grad school as a giant stressor in my life. Now, I see grad school as another challenge to conquer, just like my headstand.