The elusive handstand, or Adho Mukha Vrksasana in Sanskrit. It’s one of those poses we see plastered all over Instagram and social media every day – a beautiful tanned yogi on a mountain posting their latest program to get you there in 5 days.
The truth, however, is a very different story. For many of us, the idea of a handstand is great until we remember we have to go upside down and the fear of falling slowly creeps in. In class, I witness many students who feel so far from reaching the pose that they have given up, whilst others see it as this mountain they must achieve to be a ‘proper’ yogi.
Yet, some of the best yoga teachers I know can’t handstand. So where do these beliefs come from and why is there such a polarising drive or fear behind this pose?
The Journey to Handstand
As a yoga teacher, ex-elite gymnast, gymnastics coach and bona fide HANDSTAND LOVER, I want to break down some of the stigmas of the handstand so more people can play with them and work on this challenging, but liberating, pose without the fear or need to prove anything.
I won’t promise you that you will handstand after reading this blog, but hopefully, I can give you some tools to build strength, give you some tips for practising and removing that fear and also to keep your wrists healthy and what to do when you get there! The rest will be up to you to practice and it won’t be quick.
Kino MacGregor, a famous yoga teacher, has acknowledged that it took her 5 years to learn to handstand. It will happen, but you need to enjoy the journey, you need to love the 1 seconds of air time you will get with each attempt and stick with it.
Breaking Down Handstand Pose (From the Ground Up)
- Strong, wide hands – Hands should be shoulder-width apart and spread the fingers comfortably wide while keeping a bend in the fingers. The bend in the fingers will allow you to make micro-adjustments when you’re up to hold you there in balance.
- Strong wrists – Our wrists are not designed to take our full body weight for long. When you practice handstands you will feel it in the wrists, so build up your practice slowly, and regularly stretch and strengthen the wrists using exercises (more on this later!).
- Strong shoulders – This is your key to stability here and the main focus area to train and get you up and holding strong. Whenever practising or working on strength exercises on your hands, press into the floor to turn on the muscles in the shoulder girdle and protect this area.
- Open shoulders – To find ease in your handstand you need to be comfortably able to have the hands, shoulders, and body in a straight line when inverted. This means you need a certain amount of flexibility through the armpit area of the shoulder joint. If your handstand looks like a banana this is often due to you compensating for tight shoulders to get your hips up. If this is you get opening those shoulders!
- Strong core – This will not only make it easier to get into the pose but will also make it easier to control your legs and body in the air to help hold you in place.
- Balance – Use your Drishti or gaze on a fixed point between the hands to aid balance – and then keep practising! You will know when you’re balancing in the pose as you will feel at ease with no strain. This is the point you are looking to maintain through the pose.
- Bravery! – Release that inner child and have fun with it! If you’re worried about falling, simply surround yourself with a few pillows.
POSES & EXERCISES FOR STRENGTH & OPENNESS IN HANDSTAND
Before you start kicking up all over the place, we need to build strong foundations. Here are some exercises to work on the foundations to get you open and strong ready for handstands.
1) HANDS AND WRISTS STRENGTH
Hand position: Be aware of your hands throughout your practice. You will often hear teachers in class cue to press the four corners of the hands down into the mat. In particular, students tend to lift the space between the thumb and forefinger, but over time this can put pressure on the wrists. Make sure your whole hand is grounded and spread the fingers wide when you have weight in the hands to get used to this feeling in the body.
Wrist strengthening exercises:
- Piano fingers: On all fours, keep the shoulders and core active but don’t move them at all. Using just the strength of the fingers lift the palm of the hands off the earth onto your fingertips. Drop back down and repeat 20 times
- Flicks: Holding the arms straight out in front of you at shoulder height, make fists with your hands and then flick the fingers open as fast as you can. Keep repeating this for 30-60 seconds – you will feel the burn in the forearms!
- Pulls: Repeat the same as above (flicks) but in reverse, and have the hands raised above the head and draw the fingers into the palms as fast as possible. Repeat for 30-60 seconds.
2) SHOULDER STRENGTH
Shoulder press ups: On all fours, keep the hips over the knees and shoulders over the hands. Keep the core switched on. As you exhale, soften the shoulders so they draw together on your back. Now switch the shoulders on, pressing the floor away. The only thing moving should be your shoulder blades. Repeat 20 times. If this is easy for you, try repeating with your knees lifted off the earth.
Downward dog leg lifts: Hold downward dog, focusing on the spread of the hands and length through the spine. Keeping the hips square to the earth slowly raise one leg to the sky and hold. Slowly lower and repeat on the other leg. Focus on moving slowly and keeping everything long and strong, and repeat 10 times on each side. If you want more, as you lower the leg press into high plank before returning to downward dog.
High plank with domed shoulders: Hold high plank, but dome the top of the back up to the ceiling by pressing firmly into the floor letting the shoulders blades move away from each other and hold. This switches on the muscles that stabilise and strengthen the shoulder.
Crow pose (Bakasana): Place the hands shoulder width apart, bring the knees to the back of the arms, press the floor away as you bend the arms to create a shelf with the arms. Your gaze and chest move forward as you start to float the feet, bringing the toes to touch by your bottom.
3) SHOULDER FLEXIBILITY
Puppy pose: Kneeling bring your hips over your knees. Keeping them there bring the chest down to the floor extending the arms forwards and hold. To deepen, use blocks under the arms to raise them higher or try bending at the elbows to draw the hands to prayer at the back of the head.
Forward Fold with clasped hands: Feet shoulder width apart, send the hips up to the sky as you fold over the thighs. Interlace the fingers and let the hands hang heavy over the head to open the front of the shoulders.
4) CORE STRENGTH
Dish hold or rocks: Laying on your back, draw the belly in and then float the feet and head and shoulder off the earth. Hold here or rock back and forth for 30 seconds and release. Do not use the arms to swing or support the legs. Keep the arms floating.
Rolls: Sometimes known as the sausage roll! Roll along the floor from dish to arch without using your arms to push you. Roll back the other way and repeat.
Crane Press ups: Start on your knees, toes pointed underneath you. Place your hands down, shoulder width apart. Slowly press into the hands to lift the hips above the shoulders rising onto the tip toes. Slowly lower back to your knees and repeat.
Toe drags: This is best practised on a shiny floor with socks on! From high plank, press into the hands as you lift the hips and drag the feet along the floor towards the hands. Once there slowly slide the feet back to high plank.
GETTING SOME AIR IN HANDSTAND
Here are a few handstand variations to work through until you’re feeling ready for the full thing:
- Bunny Hops: Place the hands shoulder width apart in front of you in a squat position. Looking forward between the hands, jump the hips up above the hands and then drop back to a squat and repeat.
- Down dog floats: From downward facing dog, press into the hands, float one leg up to the sky and then take small hops to try to kick to handstand. If you are scared of falling over, keep the bottom leg that’s jumping when it releases from the floor squeezed into the chest. This always gives you a counter balance to come back out the way you jumped in.
- L-Handstand (foot on a wall): Standing with your back against the wall measure your leg length away and then place the hands onto the floor shoulder width apart with your fingers facing away from the wall. Press the sole of your foot into the wall and then slowly lift the other leg over your hips and hold.
- Handstand (back to wall): When you feel strong in the arms you can practice kicking up to handstand with your back against the wall. Slowly work to try to avoid touching the wall at all, and hold.
- Handstand (face to wall): (Only attempt when you are confident) For the brave bananas, struggling to find the hips over the shoulders it can be good to practice your handstands facing the wall. To get in, press the hands into the earth, slowly walk the feet up the wall and walk the hands in towards the wall. Practice holding the shape with just the toes touching and then without anything on the wall. This way round can be intimidating and so you need to be confident about getting out, but it’s a great way to practice getting rid of that banana bend when you’re up!
MY FINAL 3 TIPS
- Don’t be afraid to move your hands! Often when people start to fall in a handstand, they completely forget that they can move their hands. Moving your hands if you are falling can help you to get your feet down more easily, so don’t feel stuck to the ground.
- PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. This is the only way to get there!
- Have fun and enjoy the journey!
If you have any questions about handstands, please let us know in the comments below. I’d also LOVE to see you in my Journey to Handstand Workshop!
Robyn Barritt –Yogaia Yoga Teacher
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