Growing up, I had a close friend who was good at handstands. Like, really good at handstands. Though neither of us knew much about yoga, fueled by after-school snacks of Cool Ranch Doritos and Dunkaroos (hey, it was the '90s), we would often entertain ourselves with various asana-esque endeavors—practicing splits and backbends in the backyard or fixing our legs in padmasana and racing across the living room on our knees (a game we'd dubbed “lotus races”). But despite our mutual affinity for back walkovers and patellar mortification, when it came to handstands, my friend was light years ahead of me. As in, one day she learned how to do them and, try as I might, I couldn’t seem to balance on my hands like her. I would watch her effortlessly float up and then walk on her hands for what seemed like an eternity. But when I’d try to do the same, I’d flip over before I could even begin to find my balance. Though I was a pretty athletic and more than fairly ambitious kid, unless someone was holding my feet wheelbarrow-style, handstands seemed outside the realm of possibility for me.
Eventually I admitted defeat and didn’t attempt another handstand until college, when I started attending yoga class regularly and learned that the wall was an option. Then I quickly began to look forward to the middle of class when I could happily crash into said wall and stand on my hands for a few sweet seconds. Over time, the crashing lessened and my hang-time increased, but the wall was still my BFF, and I yearned to hop up in the center of the room, balancing on my own two hands (though, in my mind, the plausibility of this goal wavered from “not in this lifetime” to “maybe someday”—and that was on a good day).
The wall wasn’t going to magically disappear. Instead, it was up to me to scootch my mat away from it. But first I needed to do a little preparation.
I mean, let’s face it, handstanding in the middle of the room is scary. And honestly, there’s nothing particularly magical about handstanding away from the wall. Actually, there’s nothing particularly magical about handstanding at all, unless, you know, it’s important to you. And though I’m still not entirely certain why, it was pretty important to me. But here’s what it took me nearly a decade of practice to realize: If I wanted to handstand in the middle of the room, I actually had to practice handstanding in the middle of the room. The wall wasn’t going to magically disappear. Instead, it was up to me to scootch my mat away from it. But first, I needed to do a little preparation (because almost-30-year-old me was not nearly as game for repeatedly flipping over as 13-year-old me had been).
Below are the preps and practices that helped me to feel safe and confident taking my handstand off the wall. These are meant to be included within the context of, or following, a complete asana practice.
Prerequisites and Safety
Handstand is best learned in the presence of a skilled teacher. Confidently kicking up to handstand at the wall is a prerequisite for practicing away from the wall. Always err on the side of safety, especially when practicing at home. If you are unsure of your ability to safely practice a particular variation, consult with your asana teacher before attempting.
That said, if you're ready to begin, make sure that your practice space is clear of furniture or other obstacles. Also, when practicing at home, staying near a wall is very highly recommended and encouraged.
Preps for Handstand Away From the Wall
This is important. While it might initially SEEM like handstand is all about arm strength, in truth there’s far more to it. Core strength plays a major role in your ability to balance in handstand safely and consistently. Keeping that in mind, the fact is, it’s a lot easier to get acquainted with your deep core-stabilizing muscles while you’re NOT upside down. If you first develop core awareness in the safety and comfort of a supine pose, it will be easier to access in handstand.
Start lying on your back in shavasana, with your heels about as wide apart as they would be in mountain pose (around 4 to 6 inches apart). Bring your hands to your two pelvic points (frontal hip bones, aka anterior superior iliac spines), and on an exhale engage the muscle between them, drawing your pelvic points toward each other. You might not feel any actual movement at first, and that’s fine—though a small amount of movement here really is possible (promise!). You might also find it helpful to gently use your hands to narrow your pelvic points. Try to keep that engagement in your deep low belly on your inhales and use each exhale to enhance, or reestablish, the engagement. Let this action—the narrowing of your pelvic points—initiate the internal rotation of your thighs as you flex your feet and turn your toes to point up toward the ceiling. Now you’re in supta tadasana (mountain pose, lying on your back).
Keep your heels on the floor, but imagine that you’re going to pick them up off of the floor. This preparation will encourage the activation of your transversus abdominis. Keep narrowing your pelvic points and also engage between your pubic bone and navel, which engages your more superficial rectus abdominis. These actions—activating your feet and legs, narrowing your pelvic points, and lifting up your lower belly—will serve you well once you’re upside down.
Next, bring your right hand behind your head and rest your left hand on the floor alongside you. Lower your chin toward your chest slightly and curl your head and shoulder blades off of the floor so that you can see your lower belly. Keep the engagement in your lower belly and lift your left heel an inch or so away from the floor. Notice if your hips start to roll to the left when you do this. If so, draw the left side of your belly toward the right side of your belly and try to level your pelvis. If this is difficult, you might find it helps to press your left hand down into the floor and resist it to the left. Release on an exhale and repeat on the other side. Notice if one side wants to roll open more than the other. You may find this information useful when you prepare for handstand hops later on.
Do 2 to 3 rounds each side.
It’s a fabulous idea to regularly include “shoulder openers” (upper back and chest stretches) in your practice (for example, garudasana, or eagle arms, and the prasarita padottonasana C, or wide-legged forward fold variation, below) to set the stage for a safe and accessible handstand.
Prasaritta padottonasana C variation
Stand with your feet about as wide as your mat (two feet apart or so) and parallel. Center your weight over the arches of your feet and align the back of your head with the back of your pelvis. Either interlace your hands behind your back or hold a strap between your hands. Keep your elbows bent and your wrists straight.
Broaden your collarbones, lift your sternum, and start to reach your hands away from your pelvis (keeping your elbows at least slightly bent). If your lower ribs jut forward, draw them back. Keep that as you reach your hands back away from your pelvis. Keep your elbows at least slightly bent. This will help you to stay broad across your chest.
On an exhale, hinge forward. Notice if your weight shifts back onto your heels. If so, shift a little more forward so you’re centered over your arches. Keep broadening through your collarbones and move your chest forward like you would in cobra pose. Relax your face and jaw.
Your forearms make for a more substantial base than your hands. Plus, you’re closer to the floor, which can make this pose feel a little safer.
Headless headstand variation
This first variation of the forearm stand provides you with a great way to get a sense of what it's like to balance away from the wall while still maintaining external support.
To set up, you’ll need wall space and three blocks. Set up the bottom block at its highest height, about an inch or so away from the wall, with the narrowest and longest side facing the wall. Then stack the other two blocks on top vertically so that together all three blocks create a kind of top-heavy "T." The top two blocks should be touching the wall and extending beyond the bottom block a little bit (see photo for details). Come onto your forearms and knees and interlace your hands around the bottom block.
Make sure that the top blocks remain in contact with the wall. Stack your shoulders directly over your elbows. Press your forearms into the floor as though you're pushing the ground away. Tuck your toes and press up into dolphin pose. Keep your shoulders over your elbows and your head off of the floor. Walk your feet toward the wall, just until your upper back is lightly touching the blocks. Continue to press down into your forearms.
Then, lift a leg and see if you can kick up into a forearm balance (see “handstand preps” below for tips to kick up). Start with both of your heels touching the wall, legs together, toes active. If the back of your head is in contact with the bottom block, gently press it into the block (you may feel more activation in your core as you do this). The crown of your head should hover above the floor. See if you can lift both of your heels off the wall together instead of one at a time. Pushing the floor away and reaching up through your inner heels will help you to move both feet off of the wall at the same time.
You may be surprised to discover that the block setup behind you makes it easier to balance in the pose. Lower down one leg at a time to release.
Over time you may find you’re comfortable practicing headless headstand without the blocks and perhaps away from the wall as well.
Pincha mayurasana (feathered peacock pose) is similar to headless headstand, but your forearms are parallel and there’s also a bit more of a backbend involved. For the version below, you’ll need one yoga block.
Hold on to the block on either side—fingers around the sides and thumbs on top (see photo). Come onto forearms and knees with your shoulders stacked directly over your elbows. Hug the block, tuck your toes, and then press up into dolphin pose. Keep your shoulders stacked over your elbows and walk your feet forward as far as you can without collapsing into your shoulders. Hug the block and push the floor away with your forearms. Keep those actions as you lift a leg (like you would for standing splits) and kick up into forearm stand.
Once in the pose, continue to hug the block and push the floor away. Stretch up through your inner heels. Keep the back of your neck long as you gaze forward toward your hands. Just as in the previous pose, if you're practicing in front of a wall, see if you can lift both of your heels off the wall together instead of one at a time.
The Handstand Setup: Standing Splits
To set up, start in a short downward-facing dog pose. Line up your wrist creases parallel to the front of your mat. Spread your fingers evenly apart. Resist your thumbs toward your fingers and your fingers toward your thumbs (like a clawing action), and ground down through the mounds below your index fingers and thumbs. Step one foot halfway forward and float your back leg up, as if moving into standing splits. Keep your hands on the floor and lift onto the ball of your standing foot. Make sure your shoulders are stacked directly over your wrists. Gaze toward your thumbs.
From this standing-splits-like prep, stabilize your core by drawing the back-leg side of your belly toward the front-leg side of your belly (narrowing your pelvic points, or frontal hip bones, like you're cinching a drawstring). Keeping your core stable like this, you can allow your back leg to externally rotate a bit.
The prep: From the standing split setup, exhale, bend your standing leg and tap your back big toe on the floor. Inhale, straighten your standing leg and lift your back leg up. This is the same prep as for hopping into handstand. Exhale, bend and tap. Inhale, lift. 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.
From the prep, inhale, lift your back leg. Exhale, bend and tap. On the pause after the exhale, hop up, bending your front knee into your chest and keeping your back leg straight.
Inhale, lift; exhale, tap. Hold out the exhale and hop off of your standing foot, bending your front knee into your chest and keeping your back leg straight.
If you make it up into handstand, actively spread your toes. Hug your forearms toward each other and push the floor away. See if you can extend both legs straight and stretch up through your inner heels. Gently gaze toward your thumbs.
Moving Away From the Wall
Unless you’re practicing with a friend or teacher to assist you, I recommend starting with the wall and gradually moving away from it as you build confidence.To start, your hands can be about one hands-breadth away from the wall. Aim to hop up into handstand without touching the wall at all. If the wall feels too close, move a little bit farther away (but still close enough that your feet will land on the wall if you overshoot) and see what happens.
This is also a great way to work with handstands in the middle of the room if you’re practicing in a space where it’s not safe to cartwheel out of the pose when you lose your balance (see "how not to flip over" below for more on this).
Recruit a Friend
Practicing handstands with a friend for support can be a great way to build confidence as you wean yourself away from the wall. Set up for handstand hops in a short down dog. Your friend takes a warrior I stance facing you, with her back foot between and in front of your hands and her front foot alongside you (see photo)*. Her longer stance will be more stable and secure for her (and therefore also for you) than if her feet were together. From there, she extends an arm (the same side arm as her back foot) straight out to the side, palm facing toward you. Your friend is now your wall! Her job is not to pull you forward, just to give you something to kick up against—and also to keep you from falling forward so that if you don’t find your balance, you simply end up right back to where you started.
*As an assistor, I typically find it most stable to make my foot on my dominant side my back foot, so that the arm I’m extending is my dominant arm (i.e., I'm right-handed, so my right foot will stabilize me in the back while I'm extending my right arm).
Tips for Balancing
Use your toes
You’ve kicked up! You’re hovering! You’re not quite sure if you can hold it...but then you remember! You spread your toes and balance is restored! Give it a shot. If you catch yourself wavering, you might discover that a little toe-spreading makes a big difference.
Use your hands
As you explore your balance, play with shifting your weight as needed. Once you’re up, if you find that your body is moving too far forward (overshooting), try shifting a bit more weight into the fronts of your hands (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. (For a more in-depth look at working with your hands and arms, check out Roger Cole’s article “Handstand: Balance Is Bliss.")
Push the floor away
Once you’re up there, this key action will keep you from collapsing into your shoulders.
If you’re practicing with a friend, ask her to place a hand on your heels and then push up into her hand. (If your friend is shorter than you, she may find that standing on a couple of yoga blocks is necessary!) For added stability, your friend can make a first with her other hand and place it between your thighs so that you have something to hug into as you press up.
Tips for Jumping into Handstand
Using this handstand jump to transition from downward-facing dog touttanasana (standing forward fold) can be fun, but be really careful busting this transition out in class. Basically, don’t do it—unless you can balance without flipping over or cartwheeling out of the pose pretty much 100% of the time. (Crashing into the person in front of or next to you is generally considered poor yoga etiquette!) As with the other variations, it’s a good idea to practice this transition just a little bit away from the wall at first. That way if you overshoot (using too much momentum is definitely common in the beginning), the balls of your feet just tap the wall and you end up right back in your down dog. You can gradually scootch farther from the wall as you build confidence.
The set-up: Start in a short down dog. (About a hands-breadth away from the wall to start.) Breathe into your back and side ribs so that you’re really supported in the back of the body. Then narrow your pelvic points, engaging your deep abdominals. Balance that by engaging between your pubic bone and navel.
Jumping up: From here, walk your feet together. Inhale, lift your heels. Exhale, bend your knees. Look at the space between your hands—the space that you’re aiming to hover directly above. On the pause after the exhale, lead with your hips as you jump up.
Common mistake to avoid: A lot of the time what restricts us when trying to jump up into handstand is hugging the knees into the chest, which causes us to get “stuck” mid-flight and makes it near impossible to get the hips over the shoulders. Instead of hugging your knees into your chest, lead with your hips.
With practice, you might find that you can balance here. (Spreading your toes and exploring the weight distribution in your hands helps!) Continue to narrow your pelvic points, zip your low belly, and push the floor away. You might even discover that you can straighten your legs.
How to Not Flip Over
One thing that kept me from middle-of-the-room handstands for a good long while was my aforementioned fear of overshooting and flipping over. Gradually moving my handstand away from the wall was really helpful in this regard. I would practice close enough to the wall that (if I didn’t overdo it on the momentum) I could kick up and hover without actually touching the wall. And if I did overshoot, my feet would simply touch the wall, allowing me to avoid flipping forward into an impromptu urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose).
Once I began to migrate toward the actual center of the room, this practice of finding my balance near the wall definitely helped lessen the falling. But even so, having a safe “emergency exit strategy” was still necessary for embarking upon a sans-wall practice.
Even if you have a super-kick-ass urdhva dhanurasana, regularly “falling” out of handstand and into wheel can be pretty exhausting—and not super-awesome for your lower back and wrists, especially when it takes you by surprise. If you sense a fall is inevitable, “cartwheeling” (kicking off to one side) is a much kinder and gentler option than flipping over. You can build cartwheeling confidence (and some bonus core strength) with the following wall-inclusive practice (make sure that you are in a room with plenty of wall and floor space for this one):
Come to hands and knees facing away from the wall, toes tucked under, and balls of the feet on the wall or baseboard. Press up into down dog. Then place one foot, then the other, on the wall at hip height. You may recognize this as L-pose, a common handstand prep. From here, continue to walk your feet up the wall and your hands toward the wall, just to the point where you feel stable and confident in your balance. Keep both feet on the wall for this one. If you tend toward jutting your ribs forward and overarching your low back in handstand (aka “banana back”), you might find this variation especially helpful because it’s harder to collapse into your lower back when the wall is right behind your belly. From here, practice “cartwheeling” out of the pose by lowering one leg down to the side, then allowing the other leg to follow, and landing with both feet flat on the floor.
The Journey Continues!
Have fun, and remember that there’s always more to learn. Like, right now, I’m working on pressing up into handstand. And to be honest it feels pretty impossible. But it's encouraging to remember how handstand in the middle of the room (or even handstanding at all) also felt pretty impossible at one time. Most of all, it reminds me that regardless of any end result, there’s a whole bunch of super-interesting stuff to learn about myself along the way. While finally reaching an asana goal can feel pretty great in the moment, by itself a particular transition or expression of a pose is not nearly as valuable as the process of moving toward it.