Remember when you were a child and handstands and cartwheels were regular fare?
Unfortunately as we age the majority of us develop a fear about being inverted.
Your yoga practice is a fantastic way to ease yourself out of your comfort zone and challenge this fear head on.
While handstand can be extremely intimidating, with the right tips and tools you can start working on fine-tuning your balance and building the strength and flexibility needed to master this king of postures!
Contrary to our intuition, the alignment in handstand is rather simple -- at least in theory.
Here it is: Handstand can be thought of as mountain pose, but inverted!
Well, with the obvious difference that your hands are over your head supporting the weight of your body. However, as far as where we want our feet, hips and shoulders to line up, Mountain Pose is a great starting point.
Mountain Pose Alignment
- Begin standing with feet hips distance apart, either parallel to each other or toes touching, heels slightly parted.
- Ensure your pelvis is in a neutral position: not dipping forward creating an exaggerated curve in the lower back, or tucked under creating tension in the buttocks and along the front of the hip.
- Stack your shoulders directly over the hips, allowing the arms to hang down along the sides of your body.
- Allow the shoulders to drop away from the ears, hugging the shoulder blades in to the midline.
- Don’t stick out your chest: tuck your sternum in.
- Allow the head to rest in a neutral position, neither tilted up or down.
Now we want to start activating the muscles:
- Start to create a subtle inward rotation of the thigh muscles, this will create a lifted sensation in the knee as the muscles work to support the joint.
- Gently pull the navel in and up towards the spine, activating your pelvic floor and your inner power center.
- While maintaining a solid connection with the shoulder joint, reach the fingers towards the ground to activate the arms.
Many people do struggle with the alignment in mountain pose, it can be tricky to keep track of all the subtle adjustments and, once in it, the pose reveals itself to be a lot more physically demanding than on first glance.
So, before you even attempt to go upside down begin by perfecting your mountain.
We need to call on a lot of muscle groups to help us maintain our alignment in handstand, including our wrists, arms, shoulders and - most importantly - our core.
Here are 5 exercises to start including in your yoga practice to help with handstand:
1. Wrist strengthening
When you start playing around with poses that require you to bear weight on your wrists, it’s recommended to spend some quality time getting to know them better.
It’s equally important to increase flexibility in the wrists: if you cannot comfortably lay your palms flat on the ground then you are not going to be able to use your hands as an adequate foundation in your handstand.
In this video, Kino guides you through some of my favorite wrist stengthening and stretching exercises:
2. Downward Facing Dog
We do so many downdogs during a yoga practice that it is easy to get sloppy with your alignment and activation.
When performed properly, this pose really helps with learning how to properly activate your arms and shoulders to enable them to serve as a firm foundation in inversions.
Lesley Fightmaster provides a thorough breakdown of the do’s and don’ts of downdog, demonstrating exactly how activating your shoulders and arms changes the mechanics of the posture:
Much as handstand is mountain pose upside down, plank is a horizontal mountain pose. Practicing staying in plank for increasingly longer periods helps to build strength in your arms and core.
Plank is basically the top of a push-up: arms extended, and the body held in one smooth line all the way to the toes. You really need to activate your abdominal muscles to keep the lower back from dipping, or the buttocks from popping up.
If you’re unable to hold your body in a straight line with your knees off the floor, lower them! You don’t want to cause unnecessary strain in your back, and working at the right level will enable you to better target the muscles you want to be working in this pose.
To really work on boosting your upper body strength, start to practicing lowering down from plank into chaturanga: in essence, a tricep pushup.
The main rule you want to remember here is to keep your elbows hugging in to the sides of your body.
Begin by practicing lowering slowly, and with control, on a count of 5; and, maybe, as you get stronger add in pushing back up to plank.
5. Crow Pose
I love teaching arm balances as part of any inversion prep: these poses require us to use our hands as a foundation, activate our core for stability and to find our center of balance.
In essence, inversions are arm balances, requiring us to call on much the same resources as our headstand and handstand. They can also be pretty intimidating for a beginner, requiring us to trust in our body’s ability to hold the pose, and thus serve as a great stepping stone to full inversions.
Crow Pose is a particular favorite of mine because it really is accessible to everyone.
Coming from a squat, keep your elbows hugging into the midline - much as in your chaturanga - creating a 90 degree angle. Place the knees anywhere on your tricep, find a point of focus on the mat in front of you and begin playing with shifting your weight forward into your hands.
Perhaps one foot comes off the ground, maybe both. If you manage to find your balance hold the pose for five breaths.
Handstand is in no way a beginner pose: It requires a lot of balance, flexibility, body awareness and strength to get into this pose and stay it in it.
However, there are certain pre-handstand postures that even beginners can play with safely, and which help gently introduce the body to the mechanics of the full pose.
Half Handstand (L Stand)
This pose allows you to get used to the feeling of being inverted while at the same time feeling securely supported.
The main goal is to play around with stacking your shoulders over your wrists, and your hips over your shoulders. Since the wall is bearing some of your weight in this pose it’s also a great way to build strength in the arms and shoulders to prepare for full handstand.
Using The Wall
Once you’re comfortable in your L Handstand, you can turn around to face the wall instead to kick-up in a handstand. While still a bit scary, you can be assured that the wall will catch you if you fall!
If you’re kicking and kicking and not getting close to coming up, check in with the alignment of your shoulders and hips: remember our goal is to stack everything on top of each other.
If your shoulders are behind you wrists, you aren’t going to be able to balance on your hands properly.
Similarly, when you step your non-jumping leg forward you want to get very close - as close as possible - to your hands so that when you jump your hips don’t have far to travel to stack over your shoulders.
This is one of my favorite handstand prep exercises, and I include them in most of my personal yoga practices. They’re both great for getting used to bringing your hips over your shoulders as well as a fun way to get your heart pumping mid-flow.
- Begin in Chair Pose; exhale deeply.
- Inhaling, plant your hands shoulder distance apart and lean forward to “hop,” bringing the hips in line with the shoulders.
- Exhale to land back gently on your feet.
I like to repeat these 5-10 times, but if you’re new to this start with groups of 3 jumps and rest in between.
Here Kino demonstrates a slightly different method of jumping up, coming from downdog rather than chair pose. Try out both methods and see which one feels right to you.
Keep at it
As with everything in life, practice makes perfect. Stay positive and applaud yourself for your progress, no matter how small! Finally able to hold plank for 1-minute off your knees? Fantastic! Were you able to catch some air in your pre-handstand jump? Great!
Always remember that yoga is a journey, and we learn a lot more along the road than when we finally reach our destination.
Every time you set foot on your mat and challenge yourself you are working towards a better you: whether you succeed in getting upside down or not.