When it comes to my love of practicing handstands, William Shakespeare’s quote from Twelfth Night resonates with me: “Journeys end in lovers meeting...” While you may not have an immediate desire for learning how to do a handstand, once you have the feeling of handstand in your body, the love for it grows.
We start at the beginning of what will be a long journey. Kicking up to a handstand can be difficult, or even frustrating—particularly if you view it as the only path to getting your body upside down, balancing on your hands. Arriving in adho mukha vrksasana (formally “downward facing tree pose,” more commonly referred to as “handstand”) is not nearly as important as the journey you take to get there. I’ve found that teaching students how to step up to the pose often makes it more accessible for them than kicking up. During a kick-up, most of your body is in motion as you head upside down, making it difficult to feel where your body is in space. Stepping up to handstand, however, allows you to feel your body adapt to the inversion at each step in the process, while building crucial elements needed to sustain a sturdy and well-aligned handstand. Learning to first step up into a handstand will make easier the other means of accessing handstand (like kicking up, pike-jumping up, and pressing up).
Step 1: Elevating Downward Facing Dog
Stepping up to handstand begins from downward facing dog. On all fours, set your hands shoulder-width apart, with knees slightly behind your hips. Concentrate on how your hands meet the mat by pressing more into the knuckle mounds and fingertips than into the heels of your hands. Tuck your toes and lift your hips up and back into downward facing dog, maintaining your awareness in your hands.
Once you can hold downward facing dog for at least three minutes, you have enough strength and shoulder stability to bring your downward facing dog to the next level. Lower down and rest before moving on to the next step.
Bring your mat and four blocks to a wall. Set two of the blocks aside for now, and set up the other two blocks on their lowest height with one of the short edges of each block touching the wall. The distance between the blocks is the same distance you use between your feet for downward facing dog, about hip-bone distance apart. Come to downward facing dog with the balls of your feet on the blocks and your heels at or up the wall. You will feel a slight shift of body weight in this variation, with the arms bearing more weight than the legs. Stay here for at least one minute, then lower out of downward facing dog.
Stack the second set of blocks on top of your original blocks. Return to downward facing dog, with your feet on the now-higher blocks. Notice the difference in the amount of weight your shoulders and arms hold as you come up onto the higher blocks. You will very subtly begin inverting into handstand.
If elevating your downward facing dog is challenging, stick with this step until it feels comfortable to hold for at least two minutes.
Step 2: Stepping Onto a Chair
The next progression of stepping up to a handstand is stepping up onto a chair. Have a sturdy chair nearby.
With your mat still at the wall, sit with your back against the wall and your legs straight. The point where your heels land on your mat is one leg’s length away from the wall. Place the chair approximately one leg’s length from the wall (or very slightly further), with the seat facing the wall and the back of the chair facing the center of the room. Turn to face the wall and place your hands shoulder-width apart a little bit away from the wall (approximately five inches away is a good starting point).
One of the key elements of handstand is the ability to lift your hips over your shoulders—whether you are kicking up, stepping up, or pressing up.
Notice that your hips don’t quite come over your shoulders, but they are much higher than they were when you had your feet on the blocks. One of the key elements of handstand is the ability to lift your hips over your shoulders—whether you are kicking up, stepping up, or pressing up. Use this stage of stepping up to the chair to increase your strength for holding handstand, as well as your hamstring flexibility and core strength. Stay here for at least 30 seconds to feel the hips moving over the shoulders, and continue to revisit this pose to gain strength, increasing the time held.
Step 3: “L” Handstand
Even though it’s often taught as a prep, the “L” handstand can be one of the most difficult handstand variations, and for some it is even more challenging than the traditional handstand. Because your body is literally in an “L” shape, your core and hip flexors work continuously to hold up your legs and hips. In a traditional handstand, the legs are over the hips, placing less demand on the core and hip flexors.
Measure your leg’s distance away from the wall, perhaps marking that distance with a strap for a visual reminder. Facing away from the wall, come into a tabletop position with the heels of your hands on the bottom edge of the strap (if you’re using one), remembering that this is just a guideline to start, and you may need to adjust your hands later to accommodate your unique body proportions. Then, tuck your toes under, press your hips back, and step your feet back toward the wall, as you would to come into downward facing dog. Then, walk your feet up the wall until your heels are at hip height, your hips are over your shoulders, and your legs parallel to your mat. Press your feet against the wall, and press straight down into your hands to lengthen your torso and lift your hips higher. A common error is to walk your feet too far up the wall, making it difficult to stack your hips over your shoulders. Keeping the shoulders stacked over the wrists is important as well, as it encourages better weight-bearing alignment and helps to keep the muscles of the upper back and shoulders working, rather than the upper back rounding toward the wall. If your shoulders are not stacked over your wrists, lower down to your starting position and adjust your alignment, walking your hands further forward or back as needed. It may be helpful to video record yourself or have someone advise you as to where you might adjust—in order to find exactly where those landmarks (hips over shoulders and shoulders over wrists) are for you.
Besides building strength, this exercise helps you to become acutely aware of where your hips are in space, developing your proprioception and your comfort with being upside down. These skills are also ideal if you choose to kick up later on, as you will know exactly what your body needs to feel like when bringing your hips over your shoulders as you kick. Start with a 30-second hold and work your way up to 90 seconds to two minutes.
Step 4: In Between “L” and Full Handstand
Once you are comfortable holding the “L” arm balance at the wall, let’s take another step forward by lifting one leg into the air. Come back into your “L” handstand, and press your left foot firmly against the wall as you take the right foot away from the wall (just as you would for a full handstand). Work toward drawing your inner right thigh toward the midline of your body, and reaching the ball of your right foot straight up toward the ceiling, essentially placing yourself in “half” of a handstand!
An important part of holding and maintaining a handstand is the relationship between pressing your hands down into the floor, holding tight to the midline, and reaching up through the feet—all of which can be practiced in this in-between pose.
The Final Step
Once you can hold the in-between handstand with confidence, you are ready to take your handstand to the next level. One way to walk to your handstand is to set up in the “L” handstand, lift one leg up slightly past the vertical line you’ve been working, and hover your other foot away from the wall. Hold your legs in this split, and then slowly lift the lower leg to meet its match.
If you're practicing this variation on your own, make sure that you feel confident balancing in your handstand and that you have an "exit strategy" you feel comfortable with—like cartwheeling out of the pose. Otherwise, proceed to the next variation.
If you prefer balancing against the wall, you can use the chair setup. Slide the chair seat slightly closer to the wall, about an inch or two closer than your leg distance from the wall. After you step up onto the chair, walk the feet closer to the front edge of the chair so that your hips come over your shoulders. Lift up one leg slightly past vertical, and then the other. If your heels tap against the wall, stay active in your pose. Remain active through your feet, scrub your heels up the wall, press down through your palms, and lift out of your shoulders. These are the actions that will help you to (eventually) lift your heels off of the wall.
Come down from your handstand well before you need to come down. Rest in child’s pose.
Stepping up helps you to build confidence in your handstand because of the incremental strength, flexibility, stability, and proprioception gradually attained through the process.
It is important to note that stepping to handstand should be practiced in stages. The poses above are not meant to be practiced consecutively as a sequence (especially if you’re newer to handstand, that could be quite exhausting!). Instead, each time you do your handstand practice, stick with the step you’re on until you feel ready to go on to the next step. As artist Vincent Van Gogh said, “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” Handstand is a pose you build over time—with control and with patience.