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Building Blocks of Handstand

IMG_0895When I teach handstands I refer to 4 building blocks. The good news is that even if you’re not ready for full-on handstand, you can work on the fundamentals or these building blocks, so the foundation is there when you are ready to try.

Let’s address these in reverse order:

Block #4: Exit Strategy

One of the biggest objections, concerns, obstacles to finding handstand in your yoga practice is the uncertainty, scariness and discomfort of being inverted. The good news is that if you have an exit strategy, a safety net, some of that fear and uncertainty can dissipate. For handstands, the exit strategy is a cartwheel.

So, channel your 7-year-old self, find a nice grassy or carpeted patch and go for it. Stand sideways in a star shape (arms and legs extended and wide). Bend into your front knee, put your hands down, one then the other, lift your hips over your shoulders (use as much momentum as needed) and bring your feet down, one then the other. Knees bent or straight, it doesn’t matter. Just have some fun finding the inversion, getting hips over your shoulders and landing your feet safely on the ground.

Block #3: Legs & Feet

In any yoga pose, when we are bearing weight on mobile joints, we want to have as much control as possible. This is especially true in handstand. Many times, when we first attempt handstand, our legs freak out, flail about and don’t really help the cause.

Imagine your legs and how active they are in anjanaeyasana (crescent lunge) or virabhadrasana III (warrior III). One line of energy from your hip through the ball of your foot. This is the same length and activity which brings control to handstand. Both legs are straight and active with the inner thighs spinning to the mid line of the body.

The energy of the legs is not enough, the feet need to contribute. Extending energy through the ball of your foot contributes levity to the pose. The upward pull of energy from hip through the foot adds lift and lightness to the pose. To find this energetic foot position, point your toes, then keeping your foot long and in line with your leg, pull your toes back towards your knees. Your feet will look like you are in a high heel shoe or a “Barbie” foot.

Block #2: Integrated Core

Having a strong back and core creates stability in handstand. No floppy backs or splaying ribs are allowed. Engaging the back and front of the core, integrating the body as you do in vasistasana (plank) is essential. It takes more than just a few sit-ups. This is the core strength that helps you maintain a healthy posture. It involves the wrap of the back muscles as much as the front abdominal wall.

There are lots of core exercises that will promote a strong and integrated core. Plank and it’s variations are some of my favorites. In forearm plank focus on reaching the heart forward as you lift the belly to the spine and fire up the the back and the sides of the body.

Block #1: Stable Base

The good news is all of those down dogs and caturangas are about to pay off. The first building block, the one required to be most stable is the base which is made up of the hands, arms and shoulder girdle. Keeping the structure of straight arms, shoulders draw away from the ears, biceps spinning towards the ears and hands actively spread provides the foundation. Resist the temptation (especially my guys out there) to muscle the pose. Use this foundation to stack the building blocks, not to force the lift. Trust in the strength and the structure that you are building in down dog and caturanga.

Building Your Tower

Once you have the pieces it’s time to put it all together. Try a few “shakti kicks” to play with a controlled hop. Starting in down dog, take the gaze forward, soften the knees and hop, kicking your heels to your tail. Keep the shoulders engaged, arms straight and back fortified. Try it a couple of times and see if you can “catch some air” or find a little float.

You can also try to “kick up” from a short three legged dog. Start in a short down dog, lift one leg up, soften the standing leg and take a controlled hop. You don’t even have to bring the standing leg off the floor very far or bring it to meet the top leg. Just play with finding the inversion.

You can practice either of these controlled jumps at the wall or (gasp!) dare I say in the middle of the room. Practicing at the wall is fine and great, but don’t get too comfortable there. Be sure to challenge yourself out of your comfort zone. Have fun and worst case, just go back to cartwheels, those are really fun too.

Enjoy the Journey!


(This blog was originally posted on yoginiinprogress.blogspot.com.)

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