3 Tips for Finding Your Balance in Handstand

October 20, 2016    BY Kat Heagberg

So you’ve mastered handstand at the wall and are ready to take it to the middle of the room. But every time you hop up, it feels like you can only hold the pose for a nanosecond. What gives? How can you learn to stick your balance in the center of the room—and maybe even find enough steadiness and control that you come out of the pose when you decide to come out of the pose, and not because gravity says “game over”?

Here are some confidence-building prep and setup tips, along with three simple tricks for learning to hold your handstand (sans wall!) without immediately toppling over.

Before You Begin

Before you take your adho mukha vrksasana (downward facing tree pose, otherwise known as handstand) to the middle of the room, make sure you have an “exit” strategy that allows you to feel safe and confident (like cartwheeling out of the pose). If you want the security of the wall to catch you if needed, but would still like to learn how to balance with both feet away from the wall, try practicing with the short edge of your mat just a bit farther from the wall than you normally would—close enough for your feet to land on the wall if you overshoot or start to fall forward, but far enough to give you room to play with balance.

Two Strategies for Getting into the Pose

If you’re looking to move your handstand away from the wall, odds are you’re already familiar with kicking up into the pose. Even so, starting with a solid, well-aligned foundation and kicking up with confidence can strongly increase your chances of balancing in handstand. So let’s go over the basics.

Here are two popular ways to kick up into handstand. The one that works best for you will depend largely on your individual body and preferences. You may even find that your preferred entry changes over time. For example, after years of trying the “closed hip/straight leg” kick-up with little success, I learned first to balance in handstand using the “open hip/bent knee” variation, but later discovered that I felt more stability and control when using the “closed hips/bent knee” version. Give them both a try and see which one you like best.

Strategy 1: Open Hips, One Knee Bent
Begin in a short downward facing dog. Line up your wrist creases parallel to the front of your mat. Spread your fingers lightly, spacing them evenly apart. Resist your thumbs toward your fingers and your fingers toward your thumbs (as if clawing your mat), and ground down through the mounds below your index fingers and thumbs.

Step one foot forward, so there’s about 12 inches of space between your foot and your hands. Float your back leg up as in standing splits, keeping your hands on the floor as you lift onto the ball of your front-leg foot and shift forward (so that your shoulders are stacked directly over your wrists, or even slightly forward of your wrists). You may find that you need to scoot your standing-leg foot slightly forward or back, which is fine, but make sure that doesn’t cause your shoulders to shift behind your wrists. Keep your gaze slightly in front of your thumbs.

In this "standing-splits-like" prep, your hips will not be perfectly square to the floor. It’s okay to let your back leg externally rotate (turn out) a little and to lift it up a little higher than you would if your hips were square.

This is the prep for hopping into handstand: On an exhale, bend your standing-leg knee and tap your back toes on the floor. As you inhale, straighten your standing leg and lift your back leg up. Exhale, bend and tap; inhale, lift. You might find it helpful to try this a few times before hopping up. As you work with the prep, be sure to keep your shoulders over your wrists, stay on the ball of your front foot, and keep your back leg straight.  

After practicing a few rounds of the prep, try hopping into handstand. This pattern of syncing breath and movement is the one I find extra helpful for catching some air time in this variation: Inhale as you lift your back leg; exhale as you bend and tap. Then briefly sustain the exhale and hop up, bending your front knee into your chest and keeping your back leg straight. Do that a few more times: Inhale, lift; exhale, tap; sustain the exhale and hop off of your standing-leg foot, bending your front knee into your chest and keeping your back leg straight.

Strategy 2: Closed Hips, Both Legs Straight
As with the previous variation, begin in a short downward facing dog, and step one foot forward so there’s about 12 inches of space between that foot and your hands. Lift your back leg up, shift onto the ball of your front foot, and bring your shoulders directly over or slightly forward of your wrist creases. For this variation, you’ll keep your hips relatively square, with both of your hip points facing down toward the floor.

Instead of tapping your back toes down this time, you’ll keep your back (lifted) leg where it is as you hop up. Think of your standing leg as your “hopping leg.” Inhale, and on an exhale, bend your standing-leg knee slightly, then straighten the leg again to propel your lower body up, leading with your hips as you hop the foot off the floor and come into a handstand with your legs in something of an “L” shape. I find it helpful to envision drawing the head of my bottom-leg thigh bone up into the hip socket as I hop up. Maybe you will too. If not, don’t worry about it. The important thing is that you keep your back leg lifted, hop up off your standing-leg foot, and lead with your hips on the way up.

(Be sure to practice these preps on both sides!)

So How Do You Balance Once You Get There?

Tip One: Don’t Bring Your Legs Together Right Away
When I first began practicing handstand away from the wall, my (quite literal) downfall occurred most frequently when I’d try to bring my legs together too soon—”too soon” meaning before I’d found my balance with my knee bent or my legs apart (after all, it’s typically much harder to find your balance with legs together and feet pointing straight up toward the ceiling). Particularly with legs apart, you have a little more room to play with weight distribution and find your center.  

In fact, I often find that when coming into the pose using strategy two, it helps to split my legs apart a little wider than an “L” shape, bringing my top leg more forward (more level with the other leg) until I find my balance—almost a sort of lazy, upside-down hanumanasana. It doesn’t have to be an extreme split, however. (In fact, if you lower your front leg too much, you might flip over into an urdhva dhanurasana! Flipping over into upward facing bow pose is not wrong per se, but it’s taxing on your lower back if done repeatedly—and probably won’t feel so good even once if you’re not warmed up for it.) The point is not to achieve a picture-perfect handstand split but to find your balance. Explore and see what leg position feels most steady for you.

Once you feel stable, begin drawing your legs toward each other, closing your upside-down split and bringing your feet to point up toward the ceiling. 

Depending on what feels best your feet can be flexed or “flointed” (where your feet themselves are pointed, but your toes are flexed back). As you balance here (maybe just for an instant—but hey, perhaps it’s an instant longer than last time!), push the floor away from you and reach up through your heels.

If you’d like to practice this in front of a wall, set up the pose so that the heels of your hands are a little closer than a leg’s length away from the wall. The idea is to ensure that you can still touch the wall with your foot, if necessary. If that distance seems a bit scary, scoot in closer. The important thing is that you’re close enough to feel safe as you give this variation a try. You can always move farther away later if you want to try for a bigger split. But again, the point is not to find a perfect upside-down split, but to explore your balance and then begin drawing your legs together.

If you’re most fond of coming into the pose via strategy one, you can employ a similar approach to finding your balance by keeping your knee bent until you feel stable. First find your balance in that position, and then slowly straighten your bent leg up to meet your straight leg.

Tip Two: Spread Your Toes
I’m not suggesting an extreme “spread your toes as much as you can until your calves cramp up” kind of thing. But when it comes to feeling stable in handstand, a little active toe-spreading can go a long way. I’ve heard many teachers say that this helps activate the muscles of the legs and core. Based on experience, I’d say this is a fair assumption! I also find that when I’m upside down and my feet are in the air, spreading my toes reminds me of where my feet are in space, and that I get to decide where they go (or stay). You can try out the “toe-spreading trick” when working in the bent knee/split leg handstand variations above, when your legs are straight and together, or in any other handstand stage or variation you can imagine. The next time you feel yourself wavering, try tapping into a little toe power and see if it makes a difference.

Tip Three: Use Your Hands
Do you feel like you constantly overshoot your handstands? That if it weren’t for the wall, you’d just flip right over? Or maybe you do find yourself flipping over on a regular basis. It may seem like a fun trick at first (surprise front walkover—tada!) but after awhile might not feel so great. Alternatively, maybe you feel that as soon you kick up into your handstand, gravity pushes you right back toward down dog.

Just as you might play with shifting your weight forward and backward on your feet to find your center in tadasana and other standing poses, you can experiment with shifting your weight as needed to find your balance in handstand.

Once you’re up, if you find your body moving too far forward (overshooting), try shifting a bit more weight into the fronts of your hands (the bases and pads of the fingers). And if you find that you’re not quite forward enough (like you’re about to move back toward your down dog), try shifting a little more weight into the heels of your hands.

You can also apply this when hopping up into the pose! If you’re struggling to hop all the way up into a handstand in the first place (let alone balance there!), this little trick can be a godsend. For example, if you have a tendency to overshoot on your handstands, try shifting a bit more weight into your fingertips on the way up; if you then find you don’t have quite enough momentum and are being pushed back toward downward dog, shift more weight into the heels of your hands, which may give you the extra oomph to get your hips up over your shoulders. Then adjust accordingly, applying all of the previous tips.

Remember that your asana practice is different every day. What feels frustrating today might feel fabulous tomorrow (and vice versa). And as fun as it can be to “nail” a challenging pose, the process of getting there—that is, the breathing, exploring, and getting to know your own body and mind a bit better—is what creates the distinction between practicing yoga and just going upside down.

#poses Photography: Andrea Killam

Kat Heagberg
Kat Heagberg is the editor of Yoga International. She's been teaching yoga since 2005 and has completed the Himalayan Institute's 500-hour teacher training along with numerous 200-hour teacher trainings, including those in the styles of Alignment-Based Vinyasa, Alignment-Based Hatha, and Anusara Yoga. She also completed prenatal teacher training with Sue Elkind and doula training at Birthingway College of Midwifery in Portland, Oregon. Kat especially enjoys geeking-out on anatomy, philosophy,... Read more>>

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