There’s no question that handstand is my favorite yoga pose, and pressing up to handstand is my favorite way to get there. This wasn’t always the case, though. During the first decade of my yoga practice, the very thought of handstanding away from the wall was terrifying, and I was certain that I would never be able to do it. But after that initial ten years of using the wall as a tool (along with plenty of strength drills and preps), all of a sudden a middle-of-the-room handstand wasn’t so impossible anymore! However, while I could hop and jump into handstand, pressing up was still beyond my reach.
Every time I tried to float my toes away from the floor they would…not…budge. But if my asana practice had taught me anything, it was patience. And accepting that I didn’t need to “nail” a pose right away (or ever, for that matter) in order to enjoy the process of working toward it. So I kept at it, regularly incorporating a few minutes of press drills into my practice.
Then, one day I was demonstrating to some friends how despite my consistent practice I could still not press up. “See?” I explained, standing in a forward fold, pressing my hands into the ground, shifting my shoulders past my wrists, and rising up onto my tippy toes, “My toes just won’t lift!” But then they did! And I was so excited that I immediately flipped over, crashing awkwardly onto my living room couch. (And yes, I’m sure there’s a lesson there somewhere, but that’s another article for another day.) The press that had seemed as insurmountable as a freestanding handstand once did was all of a sudden doable (and it didn’t take ten years this time—it took only five!). And as it turned out, my old pal “the wall” played an essential role in the process.
The Benefits of Using a Wall
Just as a wall is a great tool for handstanding in general, it can be an invaluable ally for working toward—or finessing—a handstand press. In fact, when I mentioned to some of my Yoga International colleagues that I was writing a series of articles on handstand press drills (the first of which you can read here), the number one piece of feedback I received was, “Can you PLEASE include a variation that can be done at the wall?”—a request that makes a ton of sense, because for one, learning a new way to handstand can be intimidating, and the wall can provide welcome support as you hone the key actions required. And even if you can already do a handstand press, the wall is a fabulous tool for making your press smoother and more seamless.
Below are two wall drills that have been beneficial to my own pressing practice. What makes both of them so effective is that they require you to shift weight into your fingertips, which, at least for me, was the key to pressing. They also reinforce other important actions, such as pushing the floor away, recruiting the deep core muscles, and getting the hips up over the shoulders.
The first drill is completely supported (one foot is always on the wall) and is a great way to build strength for a press-up. The main prerequisite is being able to do a strong L-handstand at the wall.
In the second drill you will take both feet off of the wall, so make sure you are comfortable with a middle-of-the-room handstand (and have a safe “exit strategy”) before embarking on it.
As with any handstand practice, be sure to adequately warm up your wrists, shoulders, and hamstrings before you begin.
Variation 1: Toe Taps at the Wall
Not only does this wall-supported press prep teach you to shift your weight forward into your fingertips and to push the floor away with your hands—as you’ll need to if you want to float your toes off the floor for a handstand press—it, like any L-handstand variation, provides a heckuva upper body workout. Just as yoga teachers often say that L-handstand at the wall requires more upper-body strength than a middle-of-the-room handstand, I’m inclined to think that these toe taps require more upper-body strength than a press-up handstand!
Start by coming into a regular old L-handstand at the wall: Begin on hands and knees, facing away from the wall with the heels of your hands about a leg-length away from the wall, your hands shoulder-width apart or slightly wider, and your toes tucked under. Lift your knees and hips, as if coming into downward dog, and place your feet on the wall at about hip-height, straightening your legs so that your heels are connected to the wall and you’re making an L-shape. You want your hips to be right over your shoulders and your shoulders above your wrists. If necessary, lower down and walk your hands closer to or farther from the wall.
Once you’re in your L, gaze slightly forward, between your thumbs, or wherever is most comfortable for your neck. Take an inhale to prepare. On an exhale, bend your right knee (your right heel will come away from the wall and the ball of your foot will stay on the wall) and, keeping your left leg straight, bring your left toes to tap your left wrist. Inhale, push the floor away with your hands as you straighten your right leg (your right heel will reconnect with the wall), and lift your left leg back to hip-height, without touching the wall with your left foot.
Do three to five reps total on this side, perhaps noticing that you have to shift more weight into your fingertips in order to tap your toes to your wrist, and that you really have to push the floor away in order to lift your left leg back up to hip-height.
Depending on how you feel, either lower down and take a break or plant your left foot on the wall and do the right side.
Tip: If lifting your leg back up on the inhale feels really hard, try switching up your breath: Either inhale to tap your wrist and exhale to lift your leg back up or exhale to tap your wrist, hold as you inhale, and raise your leg on the following exhale. You might find that the exhalation—and the core engagement it facilitates—gives you the extra “oomph” you need to lift your leg back up.
When I do this drill, I like to think of drawing my two frontal hip bones (ASIS) toward each other, particularly on the exhalation, as though I’m cinching a drawstring. If bandhas are a useful tool in your practice, you could focus on activating or reinforcing a subtle mula bandha and uddiyana bandha here.
Want to Up the Challenge?
If your hamstrings allow, try keeping your right leg straight as you tap your left toes to your left wrist (and vice versa)! I do have to note that, in my experience, this variation is really hard, and honestly, I’m not able to do it most days—even the days when a handstand press itself comes easily.
Variation 2: Float Off and On the Wall
I used to get frustrated when I’d hear yoga teachers use the word “float” (as in “float forward to the top of your mat…”). Don’t you just mean “jump”? I’d think. So why not just say “jump”? But this drill really helped me to get a felt sense of the difference between a “jump” and a “float.”
Keep in mind that as you try this drill, your floats may initially feel a lot like jumps, primarily relying on momentum with not a lot of (or any) hang time, and that’s okay! Keep at it, focus on the actions described below, and see if, over time, you don’t feel a little lighter on your feet.
You’ll begin as in the previous drill but a little closer to the wall. Try setting up with the heels of your hands about an arm’s distance away to start. Bring the balls of your feet up the wall to about hip-height, which means you’ll be in a kind of squat, with your knees way bent and your heels off the wall. Gaze between your thumbs or wherever is most comfortable.
Once you’re in your “wall squat,” begin to shift more weight into your fingertips—so much so that the heels of your hands feel light on the floor, maybe even so much that you can float your toes off the wall and bring them to tap the backs of your wrists before bringing them back to the wall again. Aim for three reps total, breathing in a way that’s comfortable for you. (I like to exhale as I tap my wrists and inhale as I float my feet back to the wall.)
Keep in mind that this drill can feel really awkward or just plain impossible in the beginning (it certainly did for me!), and instead of floating your feet back to the wall after tapping your wrists, they might land on the floor behind your hands instead. That’s okay! Walk your feet back up the wall and try a couple more reps like that, remembering that this drill is all about the learning process.
If you keep at it, shifting weight into your fingertips and engaging your deep core muscles, your feet may eventually land on the wall after tapping your wrists. And with more practice still, the floats might begin to feel a little less “jumpy” and a little more “floaty.”
Taking It Into a Handstand Press
Once you feel confident with the wall floats, you can use them to come into a straddle-leg handstand press: After your toes tap your wrists, instead of bringing your feet back to the wall, really push the floor away with your hands and stretch your legs away from each other into a straddle position and then perhaps bring them together in a straight up-and-down handstand. From there, you can lower back down by reversing your straddle, or you can (lightly!) bring your feet back to the wall into a “squat,” or you can even cartwheel out of your handstand if you need to.
If learning or refining a handstand press is a goal of yours, try incorporating one or both of these drills into your practice a few times a week. Each one takes just a few minutes. I’m a firm believer that learning to press up doesn’t require hours of work every day (who has time for that?)—and it’s more useful to practice regularly than for hours all at once. Remember that a little effort can go a long way. And with patience, practice, curiosity, and a bit of help from the wall, you might one day discover that what once seemed impossible becomes possible after all.
Photography: Andrea Killam