Learning to Handstand … from someone who’s still learning too
First I want to say that handstand is a Hard pose, capital H Hard. And we are not exactly friends, handstand and I. I am not the kind of yogi who could pop into an inversion the first time I tried it. I’m the kind that has had to work hard for every arm balance I’ve mastered. Once you can do them they usually look pretty easy – which is why I stick to taking pictures of the ones I’ve mastered. But it’s no help to anyone just to see a staged photo of me kicking up into a handstand that I can only hold for a second. My hope is that it’ll be more helpful to share with you what I’m doing as I’m working towards handstand.
Honestly I came up with a ton of excuses as to why I couldn’t write about handstand. Should I really be giving advice on how to work on a pose when I can’t even do the pose? There are so many other yoga teachers out there who can do handstand shouldn’t I let them give the advice? Why would anyone want to learn handstand from a teacher who can’t do handstand?
And that was all my ego talking.
Really it boiled down to me being embarrassed to admit that I can’t do a handstand. I was afraid of what others would think.
But eff that fear. I’d rather be honest and have people around me despite what I can’t do than pretend my life is perfect. Pretending is exhausting. So today I’m sharing with you where I am and what I’m working on to get closer to handstand.
It’s almost a cliche now but in yoga we often talk about the importance of the journey over the destination. As in the pose is not the goal, it’s what you learn along the way that’s more important.
The strength you build training.
The awareness of where your body is in space and how it can move.
The courage it takes to keep trying even after you fall down (and you will fall down).
That’s what you get out of working towards handstand – even if you never completely “stick” the pose.
Here are the tips I’ve learned through my own journey towards handstand…
Let’s work from the ground up.
Hands – about shoulders width distance apart with fingers spread nice and wide. Emphasize gripping with your fingertips as opposed to digging into the heels of your hands. Almost like you’re trying to squish the mat into your palms. Some people even say to lift the knuckles a little bit, I haven’t found that any more or less helpful than keeping the palms planted.
Arms / Shoulders – arms nice and strong with shoulders externally rotated (check out this post on Down Dog for a more detailed explanation) basically roll your triceps to face the opposite direction of your fingertips as opposed to letting them roll in towards your ears. A good tool if your shoulders roll in is to use a looped strap around your upper arms, it’ll keep them hugging towards one another.
Ribs/Core – are a little tricky to explain, bear with me. You need to hug your lower ribs into your body. When you have your arms above your head (which they are in handstand except you’re upside down so they’re kind of below your head, either way…) your ribs tend to flare out. Instead of letting them pop forward knit them down and in. And while you’re at it pull your bellybutton in towards your spine. It feels a little bit like cat pose.
Usually you might assume the picture on the right is the better one, I’ve got a nice long spine which we so often prioritize. But before I kick up I need to engage my front body to avoid the dreaded “banana back”. That’s why a little bit of rounding will help me out.
Legs / Hips – Hips square like Warrior I versus Warrior II (here’s a post about that). This is mostly in regards to when you’re jumping up. When you lift one leg, that hip follows, it rolls up and out. The action you’ll want here is tucking the lifted leg hip down and lifting the other hip up. I’ll get into this more when I talk about actually jumping up. Legs active with purpose. Oftentimes when people work jumping up into the pose they get so excited about getting their legs as high up as possible they end up flailing about a little. Prioritize keeping the top leg super straight, even if it means you can’t kick it as high to start out.
To wall or not to wall …
Stick with me here. The wall is a super helpful tool to learn how to kick up with control BUT at a certain point after you start to feel pretty comfortable practicing with the wall it will become a crutch. It will actually teach you to kick up too far. Think about it, in a handstand the middle of your hands are your base and no matter how close you get your hands to the wall your feet will always be a little too far past your balance point. When you practice in the middle of the room it forces you to find that magic place of balance.
My suggestion is to only use the wall to build strength.
I mentioned in the Move Your DNA post that I’m trying to build upper body strength by holding handstand against the wall for a minute at a time. I’m not using it to “practice” handstand persay, I’m using the time to get my arms used to holding my whole body weight.
Keep in mind that falling is part of the practice. It keeps us humble. Before you even start kicking up try doing a couple cartwheels in the middle of the room. Yup cartwheels. Cause that’s what you’re naturally going to do when you kick too far up in a handstand. Might as well get it out of the way.
In the middle of a room (that ideally doesn’t have anything to knock over) come into Down Dog. Step your right foot in about halfway and lift your left leg so you’re in a sort of standing split. Make sure you keep your hands firmly planted and shift your shoulders over your wrists. You might need to bend your standing knee or walk the right foot back a little bit. The priority is hands on the mat cause they’re about to take more of your weight. If they’re buckling, or weight is leaning one way or another you’re not going to have the support you need.
Now go through the checklist:
Hands – spread
Shoulders – roll out
Ribs/Belly – in
Hips – square
Legs – strong
I literally say this in my head every time before I kick up.
Now keep your left leg super straight, that’s the one that’s in the air. Bring some bounce into your right leg until you feel ready to hop. As you hop, the left leg is reaching up up up with the right leg sending the hips forward over your shoulders. You’re thinking about moving your center of gravity (pelvis/hips) over your base (your hands). You’ve got two options with your legs – you can either keep the right leg straight as well, aiming for an L shape, or you can bend the right knee and try to kick yourself in the butt.
See how in both my ribs are popping forward and I’ve got an arch in my back? That’s where the pulling ribs in is super helpful – clearly something I’m still working on :p
When you’re starting out you’re really just trying to get used to the feeling of having your body weight in your hands. You don’t even need to kick up. In standing split you can work shifting forward to where you feel the foot on the ground getting a little lighter.
This is the place that doesn’t look pretty in photos but is actually more important than kicking up against a wall. Learning the control, and the strength is so valuable but I’ll admit kind of boring.
And that’s the truth.
Working on handstand is sometimes boring. Plank holds are not very exciting. But they’re what’s going to build the upper body strength. There’s tons of drills to help build the strength and control to get up into handstand but I apparently don’t have the determination to do something like that every day. That’s what would make the biggest difference, working on it every day. Which is why I’m trying to hold my handstand at a wall for 1 minute. Now I would really start to see progress if I added some plank holds or chaturanga reps. But I don’t see that happening.
As much as I am working towards handstand it’s pretty casual. Cause it’s not a priority. Yeah it’d be cool to do but will it change my life … not really. I’m not as concerned with the fancy poses my body can do, I’m more concerned with how I’m living in my body in my life.
That’s the yoga.
So yes, work towards your handstand, but do it because you’re building valuable life skills & strength along the way, not because sticking a handstand means anything about you as a yogi or as a person.
I’d love to hear what you think! What pose are you currently working on? What pose is your arch-nemesis? Let me know below!