So you wanna learn a handstand…
So you wanna learn a handstand...
Everyone wants to be able to handstand it seems. And if/when you decide to start attending yoga classes it is very much the norm to see students in class and everywhere doing handstands in their vinyasa practice and sun salutations… even when the instructor has not cued them which leaves most people wondering what the hell is going on when they thought they were attending an "intro" or "all levels" yoga class. And because of this handstand phenomenon, it is almost assumed to the yoga novice that it is, one, easy, and two, expected within a regular yoga practice. These are both FALSE assumptions as handstand (or any inversion for that matter) is frigging hard!
I was talking to this student of mine the other day whose goal in yoga was to handstand, and I thought, that’s a great goal, okay, tell me more.. and he then proceeded to tell me he had been talking yoga classes for a couple of months and was frustrated that he was unable to do a handstand yet and I thought, well crap. I felt terrible for him, because when you look at social media, or you attend yoga classes nowadays, it sort of looks like everyone should be doing this.. and well, just no.
I have taught more than a few handstand progression classes, and it is frustrating as an instructor to see people attend classes assuming they should be able to learn a handstand in a two hour seminar, much less take a month of classes and be able to have it mastered. Nope! It takes months, years, maybe longer to learn handstand, and there is so much to learn first! So hey, this blog is just a starting point. Know that, and keep that in mind because as my buddy Shane says, "You can be able to do a handstand and still be a shitty person" so hear me when I say... handstand is NOT something needed to be good at yoga. Understand that first and foremost..!!
Alright. So I am going to outline here a few of the fundamentals and exercises necessary to build shoulder strength, core strength and balance needed to work towards handstand and handstand press. Okay, so let’s break this down. Although there are so many drills, exercises and combinations that can be practiced to get there, I am going to focus on a few of what I consider to be the essentials, aka, the fundamentals.
Sooooo.. core work is essential in handstand. The reason why is because physics alone will disallow coming up into handstand because most people either don’t kick up hard enough and come right back down, or they kick themselves plum over and crash land. Focusing instead on core strength and the hips takes the legs almost out of the equation. people assume it is the leg strength that is required to kick up and therefore kick too hard or not enough, but the focus should be on the hips coming over the shoulders. That’s right- take a good long look at your hips. They are the key my friend.
Going back to the core for a minute though, try this exercise to check out how much core awareness and strength you actually have:
Lay on your back, hands palm face down next to the sides and bring the legs directly overhead, straight up over the hips. Now draw the ribs together, tighten the core and attempt to keep the low back on the floor. Flex the feet and drop the legs about a third of the way down. As you lower the legs, you will notice the natural tendency the ribs have to puff out and place some of the pressure into the low back. Bring the legs up and try again.. This time focus on cinching those ribs together and lengthening the tailbone and lower two-thirds of the way down, keeping those feet flexed. Breathe, hold and repeat. After a few rounds try bringing the arms overhead (as they would be in handstand) and try again, maybe even making circles with the feet to try to strengthen the obliques and core even further.
Now there are a ton of exercises to strengthen the core for handstand, but this simple one is effective in showing how necessary it is to control the ribs and core to maintain awareness in alignment for a proper handstand. This is for a number of reason, but mostly… to avoid injury!! Yup, without core awareness, it is more likely that you might overextend the back or even perhaps dump weight into the low back, which ends up being a disaster if not immediately, certainly over time. So work on the core!!!!
If you have ever been to one of my yoga classes you will learn very quickly that I love plank. We do plank, plank and more plank within the warm up of my vinyasa classes because it is a simple way to gain shoulder strength as well as core strength in one move. I talk about shoulder strength in nearly every class because it is so important to develop the shoulders properly and use them to support body weight without dumping the weight into the front part of the shoulder which over time, absolutely leads to injury.
Two incredibly effective ways to build shoulder strength is through plank and also downward facing dog. These two exercises alone, done often enough can and will increase the shoulder strength more than you think they would, however, shoulder placement is absolutely essential!
To get into proper shoulder alignment, try this setup:
Get into tabletop position, aligning the shoulders over the wrists and the hips directly over the knees and tuck the back toes under. Press against the ground, finding some resistance, which will sit the hips back slightly. Splay the elbows out slightly and then draw them down and towards one another and then straighten the arms. This movement will plug the shoulders into the sockets and draw the shoulder blades down and towards one another protecting the muscles that make up the rotator cuff.
Keep holding this position and breathe… eventually keep pressing the hands into the ground, shoulders plugged in and float the knees a couple of inches off the mat. Draw the core in and breathe. By straightening the legs slowly and broadening the chest while hugging those arms towards one another and rotating the tricep muscles down you will maintain the proper shoulder alignment while coming into downward facing dog. Try holding Down dog for 5 breaths and build time from there.
In plank, the same shoulder set up is needed of plugging in the shoulders and broadening the chest, drawing the shoulder blades down and towards one another. Ideally the body should be in a straight line from the head to the heels without dropping the pelvis down or puffing the booty out, and if that is the case, simply drop the knees down until enough strength is built to practice plank on the toes. Floating each foot above the ground a couple of inches while in plank is a simple challenge to carry plank a little further as well!
Working towards handstand:
Using the wall for different sets of drills and strengthening exercises is the most effective way to learn how to handstand while still giving at least a small amount of mental and physical support to work up to inverting. One of the best places to start, which will also give you immediate feedback on how strong your shoulders really are, is to come into half handstand, or an L shape, with the hands on the ground and the feet against the wall in virtually a 90 degree angle.
The best way to get into this position is to start from downward facing dog backwards against the wall (with the heels against the wall). Walk the hands a few inches back and then press one foot against the wall to lift the hips over the shoulders and come into an L shape bracing both feet against the wall. Keep that core awareness of the ribs cinching in as well as the shoulder placement and hold this L position for as many even breaths as you can manage. From here, work up to keeping the alignment and core active and lift one leg overhead into handstand. Then lower and lift the other, alternating each leg slowly up.
Turning your handstand around, and bringing the legs out into a 90 degree angle (in mid-air) in front of you is the next step, using the core and building the shoulder strength needed to hold the pose. Furthermore, you can come straight up into handstand with legs directly overhead and use the head braced against the wall to bring the body into alignment and the feet away from resting against the wall. Eventually, you can bring the head away from the wall after you feel more comfortable.
Moving into the middle of the room:
So I am always telling people to work towards bringing the knees into the chest first instead of kicking up straight away into handstand because it is an amazing drill to help work the core, and it also teaches bringing the hips over the shoulders first, instead of focusing on kicking the legs up, as I talked about before- hips are the key!
Starting from downward facing dog, practice jumping forward but bringing the knees into the chest and hips over the shoulders. You may practice this a thousand times.. believe me, this is a very hard drill, and just doing a couple of these in a row can fatigue the shoulders and body, so go easy on yourself! Try holding a yoga block between the thighs as you practice this drill to keep core awareness in check, and as always, make sure to keep the shoulders plugged into the sockets!
When you are ready, you can practice some small kick ups, but remember all of the little things that it takes to make handstand work! Core, Shoulders, Alignment! From there practice going into handstand from tuck and coming back down into downward facing dog.
Practice, practice practice!! Keep working on the core, and for goodness sake use props! Blocks and straps are not handicaps, but rather, they allow for strength to build properly and they help keep the body aligned! A yoga strap measured from shoulderhead to shoulderhead and looped around the upper arms can be so helpful in giving a person a little extra support while working on some of these handstand drills, so use them!
Above all, remember always to go easy on yourself. Yoga is a practice, and there are no winners or losers.. just you and your mat. And if you think you can master a handstand in an afternoon or even a month, you may need therapy more than you need yoga, or this even this blog for that matter:)
Happy handstanding!! xx tiffani