Use a Chair to Progress Toward a Handstand Press!

So, you’ve mastered hopping up into handstand and holding it in the middle of the room. Now you’ve set your sights on pressing up into a handstand. You place your hands on the floor, shift your weight into your hands, your feet lift off the floor, and…you’ve done it.

Wait a minute. Did that actually happen for you? Because the first time I tried to press up into handstand, I pretty much had no idea what I was doing and definitely did not meet with success. I placed my hands on the floor and shifted my weight into my hands and arms, but instead of my legs lifting up, I just got stuck. Really stuck, as in absolutely nothing happened. It was like my feet were cemented to the ground. And I had been a gymnast and was used to doing handstands. But I never learned to press up into handstand during my gymnastics stint (I must not have progressed very far in the curriculum). In fact, until I began practicing yoga, I didn’t realize that there were other ways to maneuver into handstand besides hopping up.

As my handstands evolved, though, I became interested in holding a handstand without walking about (a common habit for former gymnasts). Learning to press up seemed like it could be helpful. That’s because the momentum from swinging my leg up for a hop into handstand was the thing that caused a shift in my balance, requiring me to step my hands forward to “catch” myself and avoid flipping over. I figured that if I learned to press up, the hand-walking would be less likely to happen (thanks to the lack of momentum). In a press-up, you are rooting down through the base of your hands and working key actions in the body in a slow and skilled manner in order to float your feet away from the floor.

Using the three-point “method” above—hands down, shift forward, try to lift up the feet—I attempted to straddle press for over a year, and got nowhere (a straddle press is when you press up and spread your legs wide apart to come into the handstand; it's generally considered easier than pressing up with both legs together). I was embarrassed about this “failure,” and even took a bit of a break from handstands altogether out of pure frustration.

Breakthrough With a Ball!

Months later, a chiropractor advised me to do core-strengthening exercises for some pelvic instability I was dealing with, explaining that strengthening my core muscles would help stabilize my pelvis. Unfortunately, the generic exercises I was prescribed didn’t quite do the trick, so I had to think outside the box. I bought a physio-ball, played around, and found some core exercises that did wonders. One involved starting in a plank-like position with my hands on the floor and my thighs on the ball, then engaging my core to lift my hips up into a pike position, rolling the ball down from my thighs toward my shins.

This reminded my body of my earlier efforts to press up into a handstand—except that something was different this time. Instead of saying, “No way!” my body and mind were now saying, “Hey, maybe I can do this after all.”

From my experience lifting up into headstand, I knew that I had to get my hips slightly past my shoulders. I continued to practice lifting up into a pike position on the ball, aiming to lift my hips a little higher each time. In the beginning, my pike didn’t quite get me into handstand position. But eventually I developed the strength and stamina to pike up to the point where I could feel my hips stacking over my shoulders. I knew then if I could lift up just a bit more, onto my big toes, my hips would move past my shoulders and then maybe I could lift my legs into the air. While the physio-ball didn’t feel stable enough to allow me to press up off of it, I felt the rush of positivity run through me: Yes, I can do this. It‘s possible! This was a tremendous breakthrough in my pressing practice.

From there, I explored straddle pressing from a more stable surface, which happens also to be my favorite yoga prop: a chair. What ultimately helped to create the shift from helpless to hopeful in the practice of handstand pressing was being able to solidly support my feet high enough off the ground. The floor was too low, blocks (which I had tried previously) were neither high nor sturdy enough, and the physio-ball was wobbly, but the seat of a metal folding chair was perfect, and using it produced the skillful approach to pressing up into handstand that I detail below.

Prerequisites for Pressing

If you are still working on handstands, work on them until you feel 100 percent confident with them. Before you try the handstand-straddle-press variation here, you should be able to confidently hold a handstand in the middle of the room and know how to exit gracefully.

Propping It Up

You will need one or two mats, one folding chair, and one blanket. Place the short edge of your mat against the wall. Place the blanket over the back of the chair so that the space between the chair rim and the wall is filled by the blanket, and place the chair against the wall with the seat facing away from the wall.

All four legs of the chair should be on the mat to secure it; the blanket over the back of the chair prevents the chair from tilting backward toward the wall (ensuring that you have a stable base from which to press off). If the chair seat is slippery, you can place a second mat, folded, across it. Note: Make sure you’re aware of whether the mat hangs over the chair; you do not want to place your feet on the mat, assuming there is something solid underneath!

Warming up for Straddle-Press Handstand

A straddle-press handstand involves coming into handstand from a forward fold, with your feet a little wider than hip-width apart, using both physics and strength to lift your feet away from the ground (rather than the momentum of a hop or jump).

To prepare, make sure you have warmed up your body sufficiently. Along with sun salutations and standing poses, I like to warm up with ten repetitions of tadasana (mountain pose) to utkatasana (chair pose) while hugging a block between my thighs. Not only does this build heat, it reinforces the idea of drawing my legs together in the handstand, and of keeping my thighs and pelvic floor engaged so that my legs aren’t limp when I go upside down.

I also recommend preparing with abdominal-targeted poses like forearm plank and navasana (boat pose), along with any of your favorite abdominal exercises that may fall outside of the yoga realm. Mobilize your finger, wrist, shoulder, and hip joints with wrist and arm circles, with tabletop pose pressing into the fingers, and by pressing your palms together with resistance in a seated or standing position. And do some forward bends and hamstring stretches—like prasarita padottanasana (standing wide-legged forward fold) and supta padangusthasana (reclining hand to big toe pose)—and shoulder openers like puppy pose.

Whatever you do, do not read this article and then think you can hit the deck running. Do a home practice, or take a class and then practice pressing afterward. Another caveat: Pressing up requires a great deal of physical and mental strength. This necessitates finding a balance between being warm and ready to practice, and being so depleted from warming up that pressing up is beyond your means. And one more thing: Avoid overstressing your wrists while warming up, because you’re going to need them to work for you big time when you press up.

Onward and upward to straddle pressing from a chair!

Step 1: Plank Walks

To warm up my body further and prepare to practice pressing up, I like to do three to five plank walks before I press. From tabletop at the front of your mat (facing away from the chair and wall), step one foot back; place the ball of that foot on the middle of the chair seat, followed by the ball of your other foot, so that you’re now in an elevated plank.

Move your feet away from each other until they are equidistant from the center of the chair, about three to four inches apart.

Walk your hands back toward the chair without moving your feet back; your hips will lift up, and you’ll come up high onto the balls of your feet, lifting up onto your toes. Keep walking your hands back toward the chair until your hips come slightly past your shoulders.

Then walk your hands forward to return to the elevated plank. Repeat three to five times. Pace yourself. You may spend a few weeks or months just working here.

Step 2: Hold the Inverted V Shape

Work up to holding the inverted V shape. Come out of it before you need to, working your way up to five deep, powerful, yet comfortable breaths.

As you hold, push down into your hands so as to create a rebound effect: As you press down, your hips lift up higher and your entire side bodies become longer. Then, simultaneously draw your entire abdominal region in and up from the pubic bone to the lower ribs so that there is almost a hollowing effect as you rise up higher onto your toes, eventually coming onto just your big toes. 

Come down, rest, and then either practice again or move on to the next step.

This is another step you may be working on for a few weeks or months to build up your strength and endurance for your handstand press practice.

Step 3: Lift One Leg, Then (Maybe) the Other

This step is a bit similar to a puppy-press handstand. (You can also try a puppy press from the chair if you wish!)

From the inverted V shape, and high on the tips of your big toes, open your left leg out to the side and push down into your right hand to counterbalance. Stay alert, look down between your thumbs, and draw your pubic bone up.

By now, most of your weight is in your hands and your hips are high, so you may be able to take your right leg out to the side as well.

You can pause and hold your handstand here before lowering down into a wide-legged forward fold on the floor (keeping your legs spread apart in the straddle position as you lower so that you do not hit the chair with your feet). Or, while in the handstand, you can bring your legs together overhead. From there, you could straddle your legs again to land, or if you can, simply lower one foot at a time back onto the chair seat.

Step 4: Lift Both Legs Together

Once you’re comfortable straddling one leg at a time, try both. Start again from the inverted V shape on tippy toes. As your toes become incredibly light, press your feet out to the sides while firmly pressing down into your hands, keeping your hips lifted. Maybe you can lift your toes off the chair, straddle your legs apart, and perhaps even get some hang time!

You might lift your toes for only a moment. That’s great. It gives you the right feeling and direction. Keep practicing that while drawing in your entire abdominal wall—not just the area around your belly button. If you are able to lift both feet off the chair simultaneously, reach out through your big-toe mounds as your hips rotate from a posterior (backward) tilt to a slightly anterior (forward) tilt in order to open your legs wide.

You can then bring them together in a straight up-and-down handstand.

Always come down before you need to come down. If you can do so with control, you can bring your feet back to the chair, or lower into a straddle with your feet on the floor.

As I practiced each step over and over again, it helped me to truly embody the intricate and subtle movements I was unable to grasp when I tried pressing up from the floor. Using the chair shifted my perspective drastically, and later, when I tried pressing up with my feet again on blocks, I felt solid and comfortable. In fact, I had acquired so much strength and understanding that one day I shocked myself by being able to puppy press with relative ease.

There is no doubt that pressing up is a long and arduous journey. But working through the steps leads to genuine and steady progress. There aren’t any shortcuts. You will experience physical and mental fatigue. But each time you practice is never exactly the same as the time before—or after—which keeps the thrill of practicing and progressing alive.

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Allison Ray Jeraci

Allison Ray Jeraci

Allison Ray Jeraci (Schleck) is a 500-hour E-RYT, PRYT who teaches alignment based vinyasa classes, prenatal yoga and yoga nidra in New York and Connecticut. Allison released her first Yoga Nidra... Read more>>