Yoga is certainly about the breath. Yoga is about movement. It’s about dedication. It’s about focus. But is it about handstand?
Like many other young and eager-to-impress yogis, I’ve always been drawn to arm balances, handstands in particular. Fortunately, I’ve had many wiser friends and teachers there to tell me, “Kyle, yoga isn’t always about handstand” — words that used to sting slightly. Now, I’m convinced that those words are where any handstand practice should begin.
As with all asana, handstand is another means of practicing balance, ease, breath, and concentration — not the other way around. I began my handstand practice by throwing myself up, hoping that the balance, ease, breath, and concentration would come after. It took a lot of needless struggle and chronic injury to realize that my approach was wrong. Handstand comes easily when it’s built up progressively, practiced slowly and consistently, and approached mindfully.
As we know, yoga isn’t about striving to impress. It isn’t about getting ripped shoulders, or being the most impressive in your Sunday morning class. So if those are your reasons for arm balancing, then please know, “yoga isn’t always about handstand.” However, if you’re looking to deepen your practice with consistent and challenging meditative movement then it would be remiss to say that handstands are not a beautiful part of yoga. So, with that said, I wanted to provide a few tips that helped me get off the ground.
Wrist strength and flexibility is key: Firstly, always thoroughly warm up your wrists before starting a handstand practice. Regardless of how excited you are to get upside down, taking a minimum of 5 minutes for wrist mobility exercises at the start of each session will save you hours of pain and recovery time down the road.
Another common mistake you see in new handstanders is pouring weight into the base of the hand (as is also often seen in downward facing dog). Ideally, you want over half of your weight put into the bottom of the knuckles. Another 20% should then be put into the fingers (which will allow you to brake if you’ve gone too far). Unfortunately, shifting weight into the fingers and knuckles, for many (such as myself) is easier said than done because it requires a significant amount of flexibility in the wrists and shoulders (which is often inverse with a practitioner's amount of shoulder strength). If you’re having trouble pressing through the knuckles, try turning the hands outwards more. A typical hand placement in handstand has middle fingers pointing forward, so try pointing index fingers forward instead. If that's not enough, try rotating more. This will reduce the need for shoulder flexibility and allow you to take some weight off the wrists. However, also note that the more the hands are rotated, the harder balancing will be since the fingers (your brakes) will be moving away from a 90-degree angle where they can provide the most stopping power.
Practicing on uneven surfaces may also make shifting your weight difficult. Since even the hardwood floors in my apartment are uneven (old building), I like to use this beyond balance handstand board from Denver Circus Supply to practice on. It also works well for practicing outdoors or on super hard surfaces such as stone or concrete.
Protect the shoulders (the three handstand types): The difference between a gymnastics and yoga handstand is the extent to which the shoulders shrug up by the ears. In gymnastics, because practitioners are not holding static handstands for long periods of time, they will shrug the shoulders to the ears, engaging the trapezius muscles. This protects the shoulders (which are not naturally weight bearing), allowing for movements like back handsprings. In yoga, we’re often told to bring the shoulder blades down the back, which allows for more balanced static holds. Unfortunately, this puts a lot of unnecessary weight onto the shoulder joints.
The solution to this, may be the “circus handstand”, which is somewhere in-between the other two. Here we engage into the shoulder, then instead of pulling the shoulder blades down the back, we lengthen in the neck to create a little space. One way to imagine this is by observing the latissimus dorsi (lats). When we engage into the shoulders the lats move from the back to the sides of the body. If we shrug our shoulder blades down, they return to the back (reducing their protection of our shoulders). If we lengthen the neck while remaining engaged in the shoulders (and externally rotating the arms), then the lats stay on the sides of the body, while we also create some space between the shoulders and ears.
Engage the lower abs: Lastly, as we focus more on the wrists and shoulders, it’s easy to forget what’s happening with the core and lower body. Another common mistake in handstand is to release the lower abs causing us to arch in the low back. In handstand, we want to maintain a hollow body position (unless we’re explicitly moving into a hollow back posture), with a posterior pelvic tilt (think pushing the hips forward).This will keep our body weight stacked in a straight line. However, for new practitioners, it may also make it more difficult to kick up since weight isn’t being thrown over the body. Focusing on maintaining a hollow body therefore forces us to remain in control as we lift into handstands. There are many great hollow body drills online that can be done from any position to strengthen the core and lower abs.
So while yoga isn’t always about handstand, hopefully these tips can help for those times when it is.
Please feel free to share any “light bulb moments” you’ve had in your handstand journey in the comments below!
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