Handstand Variations and Preps to Spice up Your Sun Salutes

July 10, 2017    BY Kat Heagberg

After two and a half years of living and teaching at a yoga retreat center, where classes tended to be pretty mellow, I moved to the West Coast (of the United States). There, a more vigorous style of vinyasa seemed to reign supreme. Though it was different from what I’d been used to, I found that I really enjoyed the more physically challenging asana sessions. And I particularly enjoyed the arm balances and inversions that teachers incorporated into their classes—even though the sequencing sometimes surprised me.

For instance, one time a teacher offered the class an option to “step, float, or handstand” to uttanasana (standing forward bend) during a sun salutation. Honestly, I assumed he was joking. Yeah, right, I thought. You can’t just bust out into a handstand in the middle of sun salutations. It took me a few more classes to figure out that this was, actually, a legit option.

Although handstanding in the middle of a flow seemed a little intimidating, it also looked like a lot of fun. (And once I got the hang of it, it was!) In fact, along with taking a slight detour into handstand before landing in a forward bend at the top of your mat, there are also a few other interesting ways to integrate handstands into a flow.

As with any challenging transition, incorporating handstands into a vinyasa sequence (such as a sun salutation) takes time, patience, and plenty of preparation. Below you’ll find some preps, tips, and handstandy transitions you might try.

Many of these preps and practices can also be helpful for yogis who are working toward holding a handstand in the middle of the room. And many of the preps can be used to just add a little spice to your flows, even if you’re not looking to add a full-on handstand to them right now.

Before You Get Started

As you build confidence and figure out your balance, I recommend practicing in front of a wall at the start. Try placing your hands just a little farther from the wall than you would for a typical wall-supported handstand—close enough that your feet will simply tap the wall if you overshoot, but leaving enough room so you can balance without touching the wall, and (eventually) drop into chaturanga without fear of hitting the wall with your head.

Preps

Pushing the Floor Away in Plank
Simpler poses that involve weight-bearing through the arms—like plank—are excellent handstand preps, as they build strength and stability in the upper body and provide the opportunity to practice essential alignment and key actions that transfer directly to handstand.

 

For example: Your hand alignment in plank is the same as in handstand, and getting familiar with which parts of your hand are pressing into the floor and which are not, how much you’re “gripping” or “clawing” the mat with your fingers, and what happens when you shift forward or back and right or left is essential for both balancing in a handstand and slowing yourself down when you lower from handstand to chaturanga.

‌From all fours—knees under hips and hip-distance apart, wrists under shoulders and hands shoulder-distance apart (or slightly wider)—line up your wrist creases parallel to the front edge of your mat. Spread your fingers evenly apart, but comfortably so. Press down into the pads and roots of your fingers.

‌Next, stretch one leg and then the other back into plank. Gaze just slightly forward.

‌Press the backs of your thighs up toward the sky without sticking your butt up in the air.

‌Push the floor away with your hands—protracting your shoulder blades (i.e., spreading them apart) so that your upper back rounds a bit. At the same time, reach back through your inner heels. In handstand, pushing the floor away and reaching up through your heels will help you balance and keep you from collapsing into your shoulders.

‌If you’re using plank to build strength for handstands, aim to hold for one to two minutes. If you’re planning to move right into handstand preps after, stay for just a few breaths so you don’t get too tired!

Trianga Dandasana (three-limbed staff pose)
If one day you’d like to flow into and out of handstand in your sun salutations, this is an important step. Personally, I find that landing in a one-legged chaturanga (also known as trianga dandasana, or “three-limbed staff pose”) is a lot softer and quieter than a two-footed landing in chaturanga dandasana (four-limbed staff pose). One-legged chaturanga also tends to be a lot gentler on my lower back. And if your wish is to one day transition from handstand to chaturanga, practicing a soft landing in trianga makes for an excellent preparation. As a pose by itself, trianga can be a little more challenging though, which is why you’ll definitely want to hone it.

‌From plank, lift your right foot off the floor so that your right heel is about hip height, keeping your hips square to the floor and your right foot active, with toes pointing down.

‌Shift your weight forward just slightly so that your shoulders come a bit past your wrists.

‌Bend your elbows straight back, lowering down to chaturanga with one leg lifted. Keep your shoulders higher than your elbows and your chest broad. From here, you can either press back up to plank and repeat on the left side, or you can place the top of your right foot on the floor followed by the top of your left foot to transition into upward dog and then downward dog. Then return to plank and switch sides.

Hopping From Three-Legged Dog Into a Standing Pose
This is a simple transition that includes a hop (but not a handstand!). It will help you grow accustomed to getting some air, so you can eventually include handstand hops in your flow. You might find that it’s also pretty enjoyable in its own right.

1. From a downward facing dog that’s short enough to feel stable, step your feet together. On an inhale, lift your left leg up to come into a three-legged dog, rise up onto the ball of your right foot, and gaze toward your thumbs.

‌2. As you exhale, bend your right knee.

3/4. Push the floor away with the ball of your foot to you hop your right foot between your hands.

‌5. Lower your left foot to the floor to come into a lunge.

6. Rise up into high lunge, or transition to warrior I or any other standing pose you’d like.

‌Return to downward facing dog, and repeat on the other side.

Try incorporating this into a standing pose flow—perhaps as a twist on sun salutation B. Remember that, with this variation, the back leg is the leg you lift when coming into a three-legged dog (i.e., if you want to end up in a high lunge with your right foot forward, you’ll lift your left leg up in your downward dog).

Jump Switches
Jump switches are a wonderful handstand prep—you can start out staying pretty low to the ground, and gradually work your hips higher (perhaps even micro-pausing in handstand before you switch). They’re also fun to incorporate into a flow because they can be enjoyed by newer practitioners as well as more seasoned handstanders.

‌As in the previous prep, begin in a short downward facing dog and step your feet together.

‌1. On an inhale, lift your left leg to come into a three-legged dog, rise up onto the ball of your right foot, and gaze forward.

2. Exhale, bend your right knee.

3. Push the floor away with the ball of your right foot to hop up.

4-6. Switch your legs in the air.

7. Softly land on your left foot with the left knee bent.

Repeat, hopping off your left foot and switching your legs to softly land on your right foot.

Continue for a few more rounds.

Incorporating a Jump Switch Into a Flow
A jump switch can make for a lively, energizing transition from down dog to a standing pose such as warrior I. It’s a great next step once you feel confident with jump switches.

‌Begin in downward facing dog. As in the preps above, you might find it helpful to make your down dog a little shorter than usual and/or to step your feet together. Over time, you may find that you prefer the smoother transition of simply lifting a leg and moving right into a jump-switch transition from your regular full-length down dog. Customize your practice to make it work for you!

‌1. On an inhale, lift your left leg up to come into a three-legged dog (in this transition the lifted leg will be forward in your standing pose); rise up onto the ball of your right foot, and gaze forward.

‌2. As you exhale, bend your right knee.

3. Push the floor away with the ball of your right foot to hop up.

4-9. Switch your legs in the air, and softly land your left foot between your hands (your left foot will move forward as it lands).

10. Lower your right foot to the floor to come into a lunge, then transition to your standing pose.

Be sure to switch sides.

Tip: When first approaching this transition, it may feel more fluid if you do several jump switches as a prep, eventually landing your front foot forward between your hands.

Jump Switching to Three-Limbed Staff Pose
Once you feel confident with jump-switch transitions and three-limbed staff pose, you can start to combine them in a flow. This is the first step in transitioning from handstand to trianga dandasana, and it can open up all sorts of new possibilities for transitions!

‌This time, we’ll start in a slightly more traditional handstand prep. Begin in downward dog. Step your right foot forward, about halfway between where your left foot is and where your hands are (basically, where you would want it to be to comfortably hop up into a handstand). 

1. On an inhale, lift your left leg up behind you and rise up onto the ball of your right foot, shifting your shoulders over your wrists.

‌2. Exhale, bend your right knee.

3. Push the floor away with the ball of your right foot to hop up.

4-8. This time, as you switch your legs in the air, reach your left leg back and bend your elbows to softly land in trianga (left foot down, right leg lifted), keeping your chest broad.

Transition to upward dog, downward dog, and then repeat on the other side.

Aim to make your transition into trianga dandasana as slow and controlled as possible, so you can land safely and softly while remaining broad through your chest. To slow it down, try resisting back through your hands as you lower—as though they were glued to their spot on the mat, but you were nonetheless trying to slide them backward.

And remember: Your jump switch doesn’t have to be big! You do not need to get your hips up over your shoulders in order to do this transition.

To incorporate this transition into your flow, you can come into it from downward dog, as described above; or, after a standing pose, instead of planting your hands and stepping back to plank to start your vinyasa, you can simply plant your hands to move into your handstand prep, replacing the traditional plank to chaturanga to up dog to down dog transition with a jump switch to trianga to up dog to down dog transition.

Handstand Variations

Handstand to Three-Limbed Staff Pose
Now let’s look at transitioning from a classic handstand to trianga dandasana. This is a transition you might incorporate if you’d like to include handstand in sun salutation A or B.

1. Begin by coming into handstand in the way you prefer (hoppingjumping/piking, or pressing).

2. Once you’ve found your balance, move one leg (for now, let’s say your right leg) just a couple of inches toward the back of your mat (keeping your toes active and belly engaged, and pushing the floor away to lift up out of your shoulders).‌

3. Then, slowly start to bend your elbows.‌

4-5. Stay broad through your chest, reaching it forward as you resist back through your hands to slow down the transition as much as you can, using this control to lightly land your right leg back into trianga dandasana.‌

6. From there, move through upward facing dog, downward facing dog, and then return to handstand to repeat on the other side, this time landing on the left foot.

Tuck Jumps/Piking Forward
Another way to incorporate a handstand into your flow is to use it as a transition from down dog to uttanasana. Tuck jumps (also known as “donkey kicks”) are a great way to prep for this.

‌You can begin in a downward facing dog that’s as long or as short as you’d like. (Personally, I prefer a short downward dog, but experiment and see what feels best for you.) Then step your feet together.

‌On an inhale, rise up onto the balls of your feet.

‌As you exhale, bend your knees, press the balls of your feet into the ground, and jump up, kicking your butt with your heels and aiming to get your hips up over your shoulders.

‌Land softly in a bent-knee down dog and repeat several times (aiming for five to ten to start). Keep yourself as compact as possible during this jump, with legs glued together.

Once you’re able to catch a second of “hang time” in your tuck jumps, you can use them to transition to uttanasana—jumping up, kicking your butt, and then landing your feet at the front of your mat instead of back in down dog.

You can also try piking forward: From your short downward dog, instead of kicking your heels to your seat, keep your legs straight as you jump up (reaching your hips up over your shoulders, making an L shape), and then softly land your feet at the top of your mat in uttanasana.

There you have it. Whether you’ve been incorporating handstands into your vinyasa flows for a while, are just starting to explore these transitions, or are simply looking for a way to add an extra burst of energy to your sun salutes every now and then, I hope you enjoy exploring these transitions and incorporating them into your practice in ways that best serve your own needs, goals, and intentions.

Wardrobe: Crop Top and Viva Libre Leggings by K-DEER

#practice Photography: Andrea Killam

Kat Heagberg
Kat Heagberg is the editor of Yoga International and has been teaching yoga since 2005. She loves to write about ways to make challenging poses more accessible, the power of language in yoga culture, and to offer encouragement and advice to new yoga teachers. Though she initially trained in alignment-based styles of yoga (which continue to inform her practice and teaching), Kat likes teaching vinyasa flow best of all. Read her work and take her classes here on Yoga International!

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