Make Friends With Handstand
It isn’t often that you wind up face to face with a yoga friend on the subway. It’s even more rare when they want to talk about handstands.
“Do you ever teach handstanding workshops?” my friend asked me. Here we were, standing in a crowded subway more than a decade ago, using the steel bars overhead to stabilize ourselves. The rareness and randomness of our conversation struck me.
“You know, I probably should,” I said. “Most handstanding workshops are really intimidating.”
“Yeah,” she said, “the last time I did a handstanding workshop, the teacher told us to walk our legs up the wall and then push off the wall with our feet. People were falling, and at one point I hit my eye on a block!” That last detail seemed almost incomprehensible and we discussed it for a while laughing. I had never had such an extreme experience but the overall environment sounded familiar.
My experience with handstanding workshops was that they often started out fun but entailed a lot of rushing and misdirected energy, with a class full of people flinging themselves, often quickly and without control, at or off walls. To be fair, it can be hard to resist the fervor of 40 other people excited about handstands often unconsciously mirroring one another.
While I have learned a lot and have had a lot of fun attending these workshops, I feel that students often leave them with the takeaway that handstanding isn’t for them. Certain people and body types will often learn to handstand more easily, which may cause everyone else to get ahead of themselves by imitating these quicker learners and then begin to doubt their own ability, thus sacrificing the opportunity to learn. But even though handstands may be easier for some than others, most of us can learn and even enjoy the process!
I started teaching handstanding workshops called “Handstands for Everybody” thanks to those laughs on the subway ride years ago. When students of all ages and abilities started showing up for them, I felt like I was on the right track. I want everybody to feel the confidence, energy, and insight that comes with a handstanding practice.
The benefits of handstands can be profound and are accessible to much more of the population than you might think.
Handstanding is one of the most exciting and cost-effective exercises to be found, needing neither much equipment nor a specific location. Handstands also span the generations: They delight and inspire children and adults alike. Handstanding’s physical benefits can include: relieving the body from its oft-common sitting position; taking pressure off the spine; strengthening the arms, hands, and wrists; improving power, control, and focus; clearing the lymphatic system; strengthening bones; and increasing blood flow.
From a mental and emotional perspective, handstands can bring the student into the present, enhance mood, and provide joy. The great news is that you don’t have to master a handstand to get all of these benefits—you just need to begin the journey!
Handstanding falls into the category of inversions—yoga poses that turn us upside down—which all share many of the benefits listed above. In comparison with inversions like plow pose, headstand, or shoulderstand, handstands can be a safer option for beginners to try and for beginning teachers to teach. You don’t need complex prop setups to support the neck as you do in shoulderstand, for example, and in my experience most students can learn to gradually and mindfully enter a handstand over time as long as the teacher has an understanding of what different body types and students need. (You’ll find a discussion of suggestions to accommodate different body proportions near the end of this article.)
Insight into Ourselves
Handstands can also offer us a deeper dive into ourselves. They can teach us how we relate to our own drive, willpower, and goals, and how we relate to our dreams. Because, for most of us, handstanding cannot be cultivated immediately, it allows us to observe ourselves as we work toward a difficult goal. Are we frightened to begin, overconfident, aggressive? Whenever we are not kind to ourselves or compete with others we actually set ourselves back.
In my experience there is an arc that many students (including myself) follow when practicing handstands: an intentional hesitancy at the start, which builds a sense of fire and enthusiasm as liftoff and some growth is experienced. Then, during the same practice session, with a sense of hope and momentum, attachment sinks in. As they get tired, students will, with increasing distraction and sometimes frustration, begin to try to recreate past moments—an impossible task when you’re tired, never mind the fact that you can never recreate the past. This can facilitate a loop of risk-taking or practicing without awareness that often takes hold of a group in a handstanding workshop. We must be aware of this arc. We go from enthusiasm to a desire to control the moment. Sounds a lot like life, doesn’t it? Many of us do this and it can be very hard to stop!
It’s good life practice to bear witness with kindness to this very human experience on our mat. When teaching handstands, I invite students to notice this tendency and to stop as soon as they perceive it, taking rest and returning when they’ve achieved a sense of balance and patience again. We should never be lifting up in a state of exhaustion, hastiness, or frustration. There is nothing else quite like handstands to teach us the true art of cultivating enough fire to be enthused and inspired but not so much as to become attached.
Now here are some practical tips to help get you started.
Recommendations for Practice
Note: These guidelines assume that the student is practicing facing a wall.
There are many ways to learn to handstand, but my favorite is to first learn to hop up on one foot, with control, facing a wall—first from a half downward dog and then with your feet closer to your hands as it becomes easier. Try to slow down your momentum until the hop becomes a slow graceful lift—the control you learn here is your balance.
Take your hands shoulder width apart and, if you want, loop a strap above your elbows just tight enough so you feel a little resistance; this will support your arms and prevent them from getting exhausted.
Come into downward dog and then walk your feet forward until they’re halfway to your hands for half downward dog.
Lift your tailbone, firm your arms, and walk your feet as far forward as you can while maintaining a sense of balance in your hands.
Fix your gaze on a spot slightly in front of your hands. This will help you balance, and your lifted head will serve as ballast for your handstand.
Spread your fingers apart evenly and experience their ability to stabilize and evenly bear weight while your feet are still on the ground. Your hand should not be flat but have an arch like the one in your foot: Preserve the lift in the center of your palm and also the place where the center of your wrist meets your palm.
Extend up through your tailbone as you lift one leg straight up behind you.Experience how powerful your body feels when it is fully elongated.
In general, keep your lifted leg straight as well as neutral (not rotating externally, as this can throw you off when hopping up) and bend your bottom knee a lot.
To hop up, come onto the ball of your bottom foot, keeping the bend in your knee, and gently press straight up off it!
Here's a clip of me demonstrating how to hop up into a handstand from my class "Handstands for Beginners." You can watch the whole class here.
Work here for a while, getting comfortable with hopping and getting a bit of a liftoff, before moving on.
Lift up strongly through the foot of your extended leg as you hop up. Let your heel guide your leg and whole body vertically toward the ceiling, allowing rather than forcing it.
Slowly lift your bent leg to meet your other leg only once you feel a sense of control in the vertical position—at the beginning your extended leg will rest against the wall or hover close to it. Moving off of the wall may take weeks or months! Don’t fret! Make a game of it and go as slowly as necessary, without worrying about whether your feet touch the wall or hover away from it. Eventually, you will find your balance and be able to extend your second leg alongside your first and hover comfortably without wall contact—it doesn’t matter for how long.
Now try the other leg.
Enjoy the process of transformation and increase your ability to balance longer little by little!
Once You Are Up
Use your core
Avoid a “flat abdomen” in a handstand—no tucking your tailbone and flattening the natural curve of your spine. Do engage your core (your internal and external obliques) in order to prevent your body from “banana-ing,” which can throw off your balance. Draw your bottom ribs in as though you were in tadasana (mountain pose); use your lower core, including your psoas major and rectus abdominis and spinal erectors, to lift your legs and tailbone toward the sky.
Firm your legs
Flex your feet and firm your legs; lift your heels directly skyward. Try squeezing your legs together and lifting up from the center line; also experiment with letting your legs be a comfortable distance apart likewise reaching up through your heels. See what you can learn from those different positions. After you have pressed up through your heels, try pointing your toes.
Return to the ground as slowly as possible, lifting your tailbone while keeping one leg high and slowly lowering the other. Press into your finger pads and base of knuckles while maintaining the arch of the palm of the hand and lift of the wrist to stabilize you—your weight will shift!—and use your core to slow your descent for as long as possible. Generally, coming down exactly the same way you came up is the best way to learn and maintain balance.
Try handstanding in different environments
Practice everywhere! Try different settings, such as sand, earth, flat and slightly slanted ground.
Practoce with kindness
Most importantly, be compassionate with yourself and aware of what’s going on with you emotionally and mentally as you practice. If you observe that you are becoming frustrated, controlling, competitive, or a bit hyper, allow yourself to rest and let go until you feel calm or playfully curious again.
At the end of your practice
Remember to take rest and savor/release the impact of your handstands. What residue did you create today? Joy and exuberance or control and frustration? Let go, rest, and begin the next time fresh.
When not to practice
Avoid handstands if bearing weight through your arms and hands or inverting is contraindicated for you or if you have any problems with your eyes or untreated high blood pressure. If you aren’t sure, check with your doctor before practicing.
Unless you already have a strong handstand practice, it is generally recommended to avoid handstanding during pregnancy.
Know Your Body Type
Students with broad shoulders: You will probably have the easiest time with this pose (although this pose is rarely "easy") because your center of gravity is closest to the ground; if you have shorter arms and broad shoulders this can be particularly advantageous. Avoid muscling up and learn to lift up gracefully, activating core strength and alignment; follow the rest of the instructions provided above.
Students with shorter arms and shoulders that are either even with or smaller than their hips: Learning to handstand may take you longer than broad-shouldered students with shorter limbs whose wider base of support closer to the ground creates more stability. Stay focused on slow and graceful lifts and on all aspects of your balance!
Round bodies and those with shorter arms and narrow shoulders: Try using one or two straps around your upper arms. Because lifting up is a greater strength-building exercise for you, give yourself an advantage by standing on a ledge that’s slightly higher than your hands whenever possible—a surface that is safe to jump off and land on. Ask your teacher to accommodate you in advance. At one studio where I used to teach I was fortunate enough to have access to a one-foot-high, three-foot-deep bench. Often I will employ stages or ledges so that students can get a concrete experience of lifting safely in class. You can then find ways to innovate spaces at home. To do this safely, make sure that whatever is serving as the support is stable and first practice gaining strength and confidence lifting one leg at a time in the new space.
As you can see, there’s no reason to wait to begin practicing a pose that has so many benefits, including injecting so much joy, energy, and confidence into your day!
About the teacher
Smitten with yoga at age 15 and teaching since age 22, Andrea has 18 years of teaching experience and... Read more