Handstand is often put up on a pedestal. It is seen by many as the penultimate yoga pose, a goal to be attained with your yoga practice. Others view it as a fancy party trick that is overrated. I agree that it can be a pretty fancy pose, one upon which too much emphasis can be placed. Whether or not you can get into handstand doesn’t make you a better person. It doesn’t even determine whether you’re “good” at yoga, since that’s not really a thing. It’s just a pose, people. A physical expression of the body.
All of that being said, handstands can be fun! They are a challenging part of the practice that can be very rewarding and empowering. I mean come on, balancing your entire body weight on your hands?! Woah! I’ve been practicing yoga since late 2007, teaching since 2011. I’m far from an “expert” on yoga, let alone handstands. But in the past few years of playing around with it in my own practice and in my classes, I’ve picked up some pretty useful tips.
1. FEAR NOT!
Fear can often play a major role with arm balances and inversions. Once we start getting older, we lose that carefree-ness when it comes to tumbling, inverting, falling that we had as kids. The wall can be a great tool while learning. You can use it to prevent falling over while working on strengthening exercises and kicking up. However, try not to get attached to the wall. There’s not always going to be a wall handy, like when you’re in the middle of the room during class. The first time I kicked up into handstand with no wall behind me was on a wide open beach. No one was around me (aka there was no one for me to kick, and no one to laugh at me if I fell). And I wasn’t afraid of falling since I was on the beach. I literally thought, “Beach! Handstand! Why not?” I had no expectations, no pressure on myself to land it. And I did! The next few months I really worked on learning to fall out of it safely (landing in wheel pose or cartwheeling out of it), that way I have no fear of kicking up because I know I’ll be ok, even if I fall.
It’s easy to focus on getting your feet up in the air. But the key is getting your hips up. Hips over shoulders over wrists, all in one vertical line. If the feet are in the air, but the hips aren’t in line, it’s going to be pretty impossible to hold handstand. Once you’re stable up there is when you can freely play with leg variations, transitions into lunges and arm balances, or even lift a hand (craziness, I know!). Some great prep exercises for this are plank pose, L-pose against the wall, and then tuck jumps. That way you’re not kicking up with feet flailing in the air, but working on strengthening the shoulders and core, and getting used to what it feels like to get the hips in line with the shoulders.
Handstand splits is actually EASIER than handstand with the legs straight up! By splitting the legs, it’s easier to balance. That being said, it’s also a little easier to dump into your low back. For a while I got complacent with splits, relying on that to get me up into a handstand. Keep working to engage the core, (hugging the belly button inward) and elongating the lumbar spine (tucking the tailbone). If it starts to look like a banana (this can happen with the feet against the wall too), tuck that tailbone to the sky and suck the belly and low ribs in!
4. KICKING UP…
Kicking up is great; it’s how I’m getting up into handstand right now (not literally, as I’m currently typing…). I’d love to be able to press up (hands down and just lift feet up- #harderthanitlooks), and am working on it, but it’s definitely not a part of my practice yet. It’s easy to kick up with too much momentum, which is what sends your feet way over your head either to the wall or causing you to flip out into wheel or a cartwheel. Or makes it easy to banana the low back. When prepping to kick up (you’re up on tiptoes and shoulders are over wrists), press into the hands firmly so you’re not collapsing into the shoulders. Fingertips are engaged, pressing into the ground, almost clawing the mat. Shoulder blades are squeezing together, heart is melting, low ribs and core hugging in. The legs are strong; it’ll be impossible to hold handstand with “spaghetti” legs just hanging in the air. When you kick, imagine the momentum shooting out through your hands into the mat. That will help stabilize and ground you, while also helping prevent the momentum from flipping you over.
5. HAVE FUN!
Inversion clinics are some of the most fun yoga classes I’ve taken. They’re a great way to learn the basics, get a chance to ask questions, and break postures down, which you don’t usually get in a traditional vinyasa flow class. Or, for more advanced practitioners, maybe learn a new variation or anatomical cue to help you deepen the posture. Arm balances and inversions are FUN! They’re a great reminder to not take yourself and your practice too seriously. It’s ok to fall; it’s ok to laugh; it’s ok to not be perfect. When I see a wide open field or beach or park, I feel like a kid again handstanding and tumbling all over the place! They’re empowering and help you tap into your (inner and physical) strength, big time!