Handstand (adho mukha vrksasana) is an adventurous and exhilarating pose that requires commitment, focus, and courage. I was introduced to handstands at the age of five, through gymnastics. I remember practicing for hours—placing my hands on the ground, kicking up, falling over, and starting over until I was finally able to bear all of my weight on my hands.
I sustained my handstand practice over the years. But as I grew older I realized that there was still much work to be done. I could almost walk better on my hands than on my feet, but I could never hold still in the pose. So I decided to begin working at the wall and relearning how to align my handstand, step by step, to find the stability I needed for stillness. With time, I got much better at staying planted, but that journey toward a well-aligned and stable handstand has taken 25 years. Some days it’s still a challenge to hold this pose, and on other days it feels more natural to be on my hands than on my feet.
It requires hard work and adequate preparation to build the upper body strength needed to hold our own body weight. Take your time learning and growing. While your eagerness to do handstand will likely serve as a catalyst for your physical practice, it’s only by working toward it progressively—without attempting to “achieve” it too early—that you will secure a steady and stable practice.
Some days it’s still a challenge to hold this pose, and on other days it feels more natural to be on my hands than on my feet.
If you’ve not yet attempted handstands and aren’t quite sure how to clear that hurdle in your yoga practice, here are five ways to prepare.
1. Find Your Alignment on Your Back
Handstand is essentially mountain pose, but upside down—bearing weight through the hands instead of the feet.
The basic alignment for this inversion is wrists under shoulders, hips over shoulders, and feet centered over hips. Your upper arms are externally rotated, and your hands (the finger pads and the base of each knuckle) press firmly and evenly into the mat. You’re contracting your deep core muscles (transverse abdominis) to your midline (an imaginary line that runs through the center of the body) by cinching an imaginary drawstring between your two frontal hip bones. And you’re hugging your legs together and remaining active through your feet.
Refining these alignment principles before you go upside down will make going upside down much easier!
Find some open wall space and lie on your back with your arms extended overhead (shoulder-width apart and resting on the floor), pressing your hands into the wall.
Close your eyes, engage your core (cinching that drawstring!), and imagine that you are upside down, bearing weight on your hands. Spin your inner upper arms in toward your face while simultaneously pressing the base of your index fingers and thumbs into the wall and straightening your arms.
Squeeze your legs together. Reach through your heels and press into your hands as much as possible to get a full-body stretch.
2. Open Your Shoulders
One reason for the difficulty some people experience in handstand is a limited range of motion in their shoulder joints. You need shoulder flexibility in order to raise your arms overhead without losing your core activation—which in turn leads to overarching your lower back.
Some poses to assist with opening your shoulders include cow face pose arms, eagle pose arms, and standing in urdhva hastasana (mountain pose with your arms reaching up) with a strap looped just above where you would normally wear your watch. Resist the forearms apart, trying to “break” the strap (though you won’t actually be breaking it).
3. Work on Shoulder Stability
While weight bearing on your hands, it is crucial to keep the shoulder joints stable by protracting your shoulder blades (drawing them away from each other) while firming them onto your upper back. This action helps to externally rotate the upper arm bones and center them firmly into their sockets.
As you work toward handstand, refine your shoulder stability in non-weight-bearing asanas in order to become comfortable with these actions of alignment before adding to them a weight-bearing load.
4. Hone Your Handstand Skills With Strength Drills
Handstand requires tons of upper body and core strength to hold yourself up without losing your alignment.
To build strength, practice poses such as forearm plank, low cobra, and spinal balance (opposite arm/leg extension from hands and knees) for 15-second intervals, and gradually work up to longer holds (a minute or even two).
You can test your strength by holding downward facing dog for three minutes while remaining mindful of your alignment—particularly to avoid dumping into your lower back (“banana back”).
Holding a well-aligned plank for 90 seconds (concentrating on maintaining your shoulders over wrists as you will need to do in handstand, and firming your upper arms in toward each other) can also optimize core strength, which will in turn stabilize and protect your lower back. Ideally, you should be able to manage these drills with some ease before attempting handstand.
If you can hold both downward facing dog and plank for the recommended times, then you’re ready for the next step.
5. Gradually Get Comfortable With Being Upside Down
Maybe you feel strong and supple enough to attempt handstand, but still struggle with the fear of being upside down. How can you become more confident and courageous? Doing an L at the wall is a great place to start.
Sit with your back against a wall with legs stretched out as in staff pose, marking where your heels are with a strap placed horizontally across your mat. This is an approximate distance of where to put the heels of your hands (as you work your way into the pose you may need to lower down to adjust your hand placement).
Place your hands on the strap and walk your feet back toward the wall into downward facing dog with your heels on the wall and the balls of your feet on the floor.
Step one foot at a time onto the wall at hip height (note that a common tendency is to step up higher than this). Align your hips over your shoulders, coming down from the position if you need to adjust the position of your hands.
Press firmly into both of your hands and both of your feet as you lift your hips up toward the ceiling. Begin with a 30-second hold and work up to 90 seconds to two minutes.
When the elements of curiosity, alignment, flexibility, strength, and comfort come together, it’s reasonable to conclude that you will be ready to venture into the world of handstands.
Practicing handstands is demanding work, and like Rome, a handstand cannot be built in a day. Take your time developing your confidence, stamina, and overall body awareness. And, finally, enjoy the process.