Learn the Art of Pressing up into Handstand

April 21, 2016    BY Karen Shelley

If you enjoy the upside down side of life and already find steadiness in your adho mukha vriksasana (handstand), then a press-up handstand might be the next step in advancing your asana practice. This seamless transition from uttanasana (standing forward bend) into handstand allows the body to feel the natural high of an inversion while maintaining an almost paradoxical sense of grounding (considering your feet are in the air!). Focusing on precision and alignment in this transition can help you experience a lightness that informs not only your inversions but also the way you approach transitions throughout your practice. We’ll work in stages so you can begin to feel the "floating" sensation in your own body, regardless of where you are in the handstand process. Since this is an advanced transition, stop at whichever stage below feels like “enough” in your practice.

Focusing on precision and alignment in this transition can help you experience a lightness that informs not only your inversions but also the way you approach transitions throughout your practice.

Let’s Glide

First, let’s get used to gliding. Think of this as a variation of a sun salutation—not only to build heat, but also to begin feeling a floating-like sensation in your body (during the transition between uttanasana and plank in this sequence) that’s similar to the floating/lifting action of pressing up from uttanasana into handstand. For this exercise, you’ll need a folded yoga blanket (or a towel) that's not too bulky, and a floor with a slick surface (in other words, a wood floor or tiled floor, as opposed to a rug or a yoga mat).

Step onto the folded blanket, and stand toward the front edge of it in tadasana (mountain pose). Tap into ujjayi pranayama to help you sync your breath with your movements. On an inhale, reach your arms overhead and come into urdhva hastasana (upward hands pose), with palms facing one another. As you exhale, fold into uttanasana (standing forward bend), bringing your palms flat to the floor in front of the blanket, shoulder-distance apart. (It’s fine to bend your knees here in order to get your palms flat.) On your inhale, shift your shoulders forward of your wrists the way you would for a chaturanga prep, while keeping your arms straight. With your feet still on the blanket, lift onto your tippy-toes and come into plank pose by gliding your feet (and the blanket) straight back along the floor. On your next exhale, come back to uttanasana by drawing your navel toward your spine as you lift your hips and let your feet glide forward toward your wrists. Broaden your collarbones to stabilize your chest and shoulders, and say hello to your abdominals here as they engage to help lift your hips over your head. Finally, inhale back to urdhva hastasana, and exhale your arms by your sides for tadasana.

To enhance this sequence and begin prepping your wrists for handstand, interlace your fingers into baddhanguliyasana (bound fingers pose) and keep this bind as you lift the hands overhead for your first inhale each time you move through this sequence.

Let’s Jump

A press-up handstand requires us to first pass through an L-shaped handstand. Practicing a symmetrical “donkey-kick” entry into handstand will begin to create muscle memory for your press-ups. Before you begin your donkey-kick practice, envision where you’re going. The destination here is hips over head—not feet over head.

From downward facing dog, shorten your stance enough so you can bend your knees, still maintaining a downdog stance, and press the tops of your thighs to your rib cage.  Practice your donkey kicks by keeping your gaze slightly forward of your hands, lifting high onto the balls of your feet and taking jumps in place as you try to kick your heels toward your butt. Return to a bent-knee downdog each time you land. If you’re newer to this, keep your knees bent the whole time—so when you “catch a little air,” your thighs and ribs remain in contact, heels kicking toward your butt. 

If you’re a pro at donkey kicks, when you jump, begin to straighten your legs, thinking of L-shaped handstand as your destination. Whether your knees are bent or straight when you're in the air, let your hips lead the way. Think about what you’re asking your body to do: to catch an L-shaped handstand, the weight of your hips must balance over your head. Your hips and your head work like a pendulum here, with your hips remaining elevated overhead thanks to a backbend at the thoracic spine (upper/middle back). So keep your gaze forward and your tailbone moving in the same direction as your gaze. Maintaining an arch along your back will help keep your pendulum balanced. The airtime you’re catching in this prep is what you’ll want to mimic in your press-up handstand: gaze forward, hips over head, tailbone directed as though it’s kicking a ball over your head. 

Let’s Hover

Part of the beauty of a press-up handstand is the hovering sensation you feel during the transition from your forward bend into your liftoff. For this exercise, you’ll need a couch or a chair. If you’re using a chair that could easily tip over (for instance, a folding chair or a chair from your dining room), push it against a wall so that it’s sturdy. 

Come into downward facing dog with your feet on the seat of the couch or chair and your hands on the floor. Make sure your palms are flat, hands shoulder-distance apart, and arms super-straight. Walk your feet to the front edge of the couch or chair, and walk your hands back toward the couch/chair so that you are shortening your downdog. As you do this, you will feel your hips moving over your shoulders. Your hands are your base, so use them! Spread evenly through your fingertips, using them like tiny stabilizers. Press the base-knuckles of all your fingers into the ground, and try to find a bandha (a “lock” or a lift of the center of your palm) so there’s a tiny bit of negative space between the center of your palm and the floor. (If you have an uddiyana bandha practice, use this to your advantage and begin to engage that here. Come high onto the balls of your feet, feeling your hips elevate another few inches.

From here, you’ve got two choices for your "liftoff": bent knees or straight legs. Either way, once your feet leave the couch or chair, straighten your legs. Remember all the work you did during jumps? Let’s relive this, but without the jumping. Instead of using momentum, focus your mind’s eye on lifting your navel toward your spine (the same way you did during the gliding exercise on the blanket, when you moved from plank back to uttanasana) so that your feet simultaneously lift off the chair/couch seat. If you’re working with bent knees, keep contact between your thighs and your ribs so you find a tiny amount of hovering. Even if your legs are slightly bent, resist jumping and, instead, work to lift and hover. If you’re working with straight legs, then an L-shaped handstand is where you’re headed. Remember to gaze forward and keep directing your tailbone over your head as though it’s painting a rainbow over your head from your seat to the floor. (Yes, yes, you deserve way more than a rainbow.)

Remember, we're not jumping here; therefore, since there's no use of momentum, there should be no danger of flipping over. If you feel unsteady, the safe way for you to "fall" out of this pose is to lower your feet back down to the seat of the chair or couch. 

If you feel the need to jump in order to catch airtime here, then this step will be a good stopping point for you. Continue to work here until you begin to catch your L-shaped handstand with a sense of hovering. If you’re finding the press-up pretty easy from this starting point, then step off the chair setup and instead, stack two yoga blocks on their lowest height on your mat and come to downdog with your feet on the double-block tower instead of your feet on the chair. Whether your legs are bent or straight, continue to draw your thighs toward your ribs, arch your back, and direct your tailbone over your head. 

Let’s Press Up

The last exercise with your feet on the chair (or two stacked blocks) gave you the advantage of a starting point at which your hips were way over your head. Let’s bring the advantage down a notch by placing just one yoga block onto your mat on its lowest height, about 18 inches from the front of your mat. 

Using the same concept we used with the chair, stand on the yoga block and come to the balls of your feet. From here, fold forward and place your palms flat on the ground, shoulder-distance apart, so that you feel like you're in a very short downdog. Once you feel in your body where this setup will land your hands, put a slight bend into your knees and roll up to stand. Let’s combine the first exercise we did (the blanket glide-backs) with the last exercise we did (the chair press-ups). Think of this like a sun salutation with extra-hot rays and the brightest light imaginable. 

Stand on the block and, on an inhale, lift to the balls of your feet and raise your arms overhead. As you exhale, forward bend and place your palms flat (knees can bend a bit here). As you inhale, shift your shoulders forward of your wrists to prepare for one of two things that will happen on your exhale: (1) a press-up handstand into chaturanga, pressing up just as you did during the chair exercise; and then, with your chest reaching forward, begin to bend your elbows toward chaturanga, as you simultaneously lower your feet down to the back of your mat; or (2) a float-back chaturanga without a jump, by ever so slightly hovering your feet off the block, reaching your chest forward, bending your elbows straight back, and reaching your feet back for chaturanga—similar to the way you glided them back when you had the assist of the blanket for the glide-backs. (The block will still be on your mat, so depending on the length of your arms, you may find your chest or ribs tapping it a bit in chaturanga.) 

The next time you breathe in, come to urdhva mukha svanasana (upward facing dog)—and as you breathe out, come to downward facing dog and rest here. (You may choose to rest your third-eye center against the edge of the block.) After you've rested, shorten your dog a few inches by taking a few small steps forward. Bring your big toes to touch, and lift your heels high off the ground. Remember the symmetrical donkey kicks you practiced earlier, and draw your thighs toward your ribs. Gaze forward toward your block so that you know where you're jumping. Knees can be either bent (practicing a seed-shaped jump forward) or straight (for an L-shaped jump forward). As you inhale, bend your knees, and as you exhale, jump forward and land with your feet on the block. Inhale into a half lift, and as you exhale, forward fold. On your next breath in, lift your arms overhead into urdhva hastasana, exhaling in tadasana.

In case that rainbow isn’t shooting from your tailbone and painting an arc of beautiful colors over your head, let me explain. By standing on the block as your starting point, when you come into your forward fold, your hips are already pretty high over your head. Shifting your shoulders forward of your wrists is the prep for both your press-up handstand and your chaturanga. Practicing gliding back into chaturanga (instead of jumping back) will begin to train your body to use your physical alignment and your abdominal muscles for this transition, instead of using the momentum of your jumps. 

You can see from these sequences that sun salutations provide a great canvas for practicing your press-up handstands, regardless of what stage you’re at. Each of the techniques here—glide, jump, hover, and press-up—are steps along the path to feeling your press-up handstand. Keep your gaze forward, shift your shoulders past your wrists, and use your hands (and fingers!) as stabilizers. Even before your feet leave the ground (or couch/chair or block), try to position your hips over your head (tippy-toes can help!), and think of your tailbone leading the way. Resist the urge to jump and, instead, draw your navel toward your spine to rely on alignment, control, and physics instead of momentum. And when it is time in your practice, you will fly.

#sequences Photography: Andrea Killam

Karen Shelley
Karen Shelley is a Brooklyn-based yoga instructor who leads group classes throughout New York City and creates epic, global yoga retreats. She weaves energy, fluidity, play, and tons of hands-on assists into her teaching. Prior to teaching yoga, she earned a master’s degree in English and worked in advertising, publishing, and nonprofit management. Today, with business in the background and yoga in the foreground, Karen delivers breath-centered instruction to her students, but she continues... Read more>>

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