One-Pose Wonder: Handstand

by Margaret Burns Vap 15

Midwinter blahs got you down? Boost your spirits and your energy with a handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana). This pose may be quick – but it’s not necessarily easy. Learn how to get the most from this one-pose wonder that turns your world upside down, in a good way.

You can take handstand anywhere. All you need is a wall, or something like it. My favorite places I have done handstand were in Avebury, near Stonehenge in the UK (I would have done it at Stonehenge, but since you cannot touch the stones, I was worried about my foot even lightly tapping one), and using my horse’s shoulder as my wall.

A few years ago, I started working handstand into my gym routine. It helped me wake up and energize for my tough training sessions. Since then, I can’t count the number of people that have asked me about it. Everyone thinks they can’t do it, but the secret is committing to the long haul; it’s not going to be pretty the first few tries (or even weeks). When I first started practicing handstand, even though my upper body was reasonably strong, I was shaking and couldn’t hold it very long. Like any other yoga pose, the benefits are cumulative.

Another secret is technique, which I will take you through here. One more thing I lost count of is the number of holes that were kicked in the walls of my former Washington DC yoga studio, from students learning handstand. Like with any inversion pose, do not rush its full expression. You must put in a little time to master the mechanics, or you will get frustrated (and may end up with a hole kicked in your wall).

Handstand is one of the best upper body strengtheners, in my opinion. Heard that before, about chaturanga, perhaps? If you’re stuck and can’t seem to improve your chaturangas, this can help you break through. And since it takes a minute or less, it’s easy to fit in on a daily basis. Try it for two weeks and tell me what happens… I’d love to hear about how pleased you are with your new muscle definition, sense of balance, and energy.

Firming the outer arms in

This, actually, is the hardest part. You have to learn how to engage and stabilize the shoulder girdle before you go upside down in a handstand. If you don’t do so, you are taking all your weight in your hands and wrists – yikes! Do this warm-up before practicing the handstand preps that follow, when you are new to the pose.

Margaret Burns Vap - Step 1 & 2

  1.  Take a yoga block (or a medium sized book) and hold it over your head. Don’t engage your arm muscles at all – imagine they are spaghetti noodles. Hold this for a minute. Release the block and rest your arms for a minute or two.
  1. Next, take your arms overhead again, and push hard with your hands into the block and reach up with your fingertips. Straighten your arms, and think about the upper arm muscles firming in towards your ears. Hold here, pushing as hard as you can with your hands into the block, for one minute.

Which version was more difficult? My students are always surprised when we do this exercise. Those muscles you feel working in the second version are the same ones you want to engage for handstand. If you try a handstand with spaghetti noodle arms, it isn’t going to last long.

Handstand prep

Some people find this more challenging than handstand, probably because there is no momentum at all to help you lift up. It allows you to walk up the wall into the pose, and understand what it feels like.

Margaret Burns Vap - Handstand Prep

  1. Come into downward facing dog with your heels right against a wall. You will probably need to shorten your dog, since as you come into this your shoulders need to line up over your wrists. Bend your knees and start to walk your feet up the wall; as you do so, your shoulders will move forward. It will feel funny. You will also probably walk your feet too high – you want to make a 90 degree angle. It helps to have someone there to tell you if you’re too high or too low. Your hips will end up over your shoulders.Fine-tuning: activate your core by drawing your navel in; firm your outer arms in towards your ears, like you did with the block over your head.
  1. With your core and upper arms engaged, you can take this a step further; practice lifting one leg up while you keep the other foot firmly planted on the wall. Push into your hands and your foot on the wall, while you lift through the toes of your other leg. Hold for a few breaths, then switch legs.

If you are shaking and feel that step one is very challenging, stay there for a few breaths (don’t try and lift a leg!) and then come down slowly into child’s pose. Make this your handstand practice until you are ready to move on.

More handstand prep – Negotiating space upside down

The previous handstand prep helps you understand what it feels like to be upside down in this pose: what goes where, what muscles you need to engage. This prep work helps you understand how to negotiate space upside down and come into the pose the traditional way.

Some words of warning: you should not rely on momentum and kicking up to get you into the pose. This is how holes get kicked in walls. If you are controlling your lift off, there is very little momentum.

To do that, you must first be able to tell the difference between your launch leg and your lifted leg. It will be natural for one leg to lift; later, when you master that side, you can work on lifting up on the other (a true challenge!). Problems result when someone tries to flail both legs into the air at once – that’s an out of control handstand.

Margaret Burns Vap - More Handstand Prep

  1. Come into downward dog with your hands a little over a foot from the wall. Shorten your dog somewhat, and then lift one leg in the air into three-legged dog. Your bottom leg becomes the launch leg. The other leg must stay lifted. Bend the launch leg knee and lift the other leg as high as you can.
  2. Bring your awareness into your launch leg. Start by practicing small hop ups, while keeping the lifted leg up. These should feel very controlled. Start small, and then make your hops bigger.
  3. As your hops get bigger, your launch leg will come up higher and your lifted leg may lightly touch the wall. If you are in control, you will “catch air” and hover for a second or two in your hops. This comes from using your core.

You are trying to figure out where you are in relation to the wall, so practice the high hops and wall taps a lot. This helps you negotiate the space, and make the mind/body connection of how to come into the pose with control.

Handstand!

Margaret Burns Vap - HandstandYou’ve arrived. After mastering the previous prep work, you are ready to come into the full pose at the wall.

Tips:

  • Remember to keep your launch and lifted legs separate. Once your lifted leg comes to the wall, slowly bring the launch leg to meet it. Only your heels are touching the wall, lightly – don’t dig them in. The wall is a very small part of your support.
  • If you push your feet into the wall too hard, you will move into too much of a backbend. You are working to keep your body lined up as straight as possible.
  • Your drishti, or gazing point, moves from between your hands when you are launching to the center of the room. This puts your ears between your arms, and lines your head up with your spine.
  • The moment when your outer arms are shaking and you cannot firm them in is when you come down. You will slowly add to the number of breaths you stay here. Start with 3-5.
  • You worked hard to come into the pose with grace, so don’t fall out of it. Come down slowly with control, by lowering your lifted leg first and letting your launch leg follow (reversing your ascent). Your core controls the descent. Shift your gaze back between your hands.
  • As with any inversion, don’t stand up right after. Keep your head below your heart with your feet on the floor in downward dog or a forward fold for at least 5 breaths, to transition back to right-side up.

Happy handstanding! Namaste.

Photo Credit: Larry Stanley, Big-Sky-People.com

Big Sky Yoga RetreatYoga & Reconnecting with Nature in Yellowstone Country! Join Margaret at the at the B Bar Ranch in Tom Miner Basin, just north of Yellowstone National Park, for three days of yoga and reconnecting with yourself and nature. This September 5-8, 2013 (Thursday-Sunday) and October 3-6, 2013 (Thursday-Sunday). Visit BigSkyYogaRetreats.com for details »

Margaret Burns Vap is the founder of Big Sky Yoga Retreats, combining yoga and outdoor fitness in Montana Big Sky country. Her relationship with yoga began almost a decade ago as a way to balance her hectic New York City lifestyle and a corporate career with cosmetics giant L'Oreal... {more»}