Struggling to Press up to Handstand? Try This Variation
If you’re working on pressing up into a handstand, but feeling a little (or a lot) stuck, a puppy press can be a great first step. Pressing up can be a lot more challenging than hopping, jumping, or kicking up, all of which allow you to use momentum to get your hips over your shoulders. With pressing up, not so much. It’s “core, core, core, and more core,” though hamstring flexibility and individual body proportions can also play significant roles when it comes to how “easy” (or not so easy) it is to enter handstand in this way.
To press up to handstand (also known as “floating up”), you start in a standing forward bend with your spine long and hands planted shoulder-width apart about a foot in front of your feet (think of it as a very short down dog). Then you rise up onto the balls of the feet, and shift forward so that the hips come up over the shoulders and the feet “float” up away from the floor.
Well, that’s the idea anyway. But that whole “hips over shoulders, feet lifting away from the floor” thing is where a lot of us tend to get stuck. One way to make it easier to get the hips up over the shoulders is to start with your feet elevated on a sturdy chair, or standing on blocks, perhaps gradually lowering the support under your feet over time as the transition becomes easier. (For more on this approach, I highly recommend Karen Shelly’s article “Learn the Art of Pressing Up into Handstand,” which has tons of cool tips for working toward a two-footed press-up.)
A one-legged press-up, or “puppy” press, can be another useful step in your press-up journey—and honestly, I think it’s a pretty fun transition in its own right. I first learned this variation in a workshop with Laura Kasperzak at a time when I was feeling particularly discouraged with my (lack of a) handstand press-up. The puppy press was a major confidence-builder, and it helped me to move forward and experiment with something new and interesting (instead of just standing around feeling frustrated because my legs felt like they were made of lead every time I tried to press up!).
What makes puppy press so useful is that lifting one leg in the air, opening that hip, and bending that knee allow for a little more mobility when it comes to getting the hips up over the shoulders.
The puppy press does require a decent amount of “openness” in the hips, hamstrings, and shoulders, so you’ll want to make sure you’re adequately warmed up before giving it a go.
How to Puppy Press
To try puppy press, begin just as you would if you were going to kick/hop up into handstand. (Note: Even if you’re comfortable balancing in the center of the room in handstand, practicing this pose in front of a wall initially is a good idea, as “overshooting” is common when you begin puppy pressing!)
• Come into a short downward facing dog, with your hands shoulder-width apart and the creases of your wrists parallel to the front edge of your mat. Spread your fingers lightly, spacing them evenly apart. Resist your thumbs toward your fingers and your fingers toward your thumbs (as if clawing your mat), and ground down through the mounds below your index fingers and thumbs.
• Step one foot forward so that it’s a foot or so behind your hands, and lift your back leg up (as you would to come into standing splits), coming onto the ball of your standing foot and shifting your shoulders over your wrists. You won’t keep your hips square for this handstand. Instead, let your back hip open, lifting your leg as high as is comfortable, and bend your knee as you would for a scorpion dog, or “flip dog.” (But keep your hands planted—you’re not flipping!)
• From here, continue to shift forward: Bring more weight into your fingertips, push the floor away with your hands, and you may find that you can float your bottom foot away from the floor!
• As your bottom foot floats up, extend that leg out to the side, and then straighten your other leg, extending it out to the side as well, to come into a handstand with both legs out wide, as in upavistha konasana. Then draw the legs in toward center from there. (It’s also fine to just stick with a wide-legged handstand for now!)
• To come out, lower one foot at a time. Then repeat on the second side. (You’ll likely find that one side seems much easier than the other, but resist the temptation to only puppy press on your “easy” side!)
Tip: While shifting more weight into the fingertips can be useful when pressing up, once you come up into the handstand, shifting a little more weight into the heels of your hands will help keep your hips over your shoulders. (On the other hand, if you feel like you’ll overshoot once you get into handstand—i.e., like you’re going to flip over into wheel—try shifting a bit more weight into your fingertips!)
If your bottom foot doesn’t quite want to float off the floor today, simply hop that bottom foot off the floor. Here, too, push the floor away and shift your weight forward, which will help get your hips up over your shoulders and prepare you for your puppy press.
After practicing this for a while, you may find that your hop is less and less of a hop and that you’re shifting and pressing a whole lot more! Be sure to repeat on the second side.
Tip: Think of the hop as just a little hop, not a big “bottom knee into chest” hop, as you might normally use when hopping up into handstand. Even though I know variations are not cheating, when I practice this prep I sometimes find it helpful to think of myself as trying to press up, but “cheating” with an itty-bitty hop instead!
Puppy Press on Blocks
If you could use a little extra lift, try starting with one foot (the one you will float up) on a flat block (its lowest height, which will be most stable); or if you need a little more elevation, on two flat blocks (at their lowest heights, stacked on top of each other). Plant your hands about a foot in front your block(s), shoulder-width apart, and come into the puppy press as described above. When you come down, aim to land the ball of your foot back onto the block(s) where it started. Don’t forget to practice on both sides.
Tip: If you still need more height, you can stack a third block on top if your blocks are sturdy (I find this generally works best with cork or wooden blocks), or you can use a chair seat.
Have fun practicing. And if you find yourself growing a bit frustrated at times, remember that this thing is called a puppy press (by now it should be fairly obvious why…). There’s no need to take it too seriously. Just have fun, enjoy the challenge, and leave a comment to let me know how it goes!
Click here for a video demonstration.
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!