How to start a Handstand practice

By Samara Manges

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Start your journey to handstand.

A yoga teacher once told me me that our legs evolved to bring us out into the world and our arms evolved to bring the world into us. Agreed, but I’ve never been one to follow the rules so I think our arms can and should, also, bring us out into the world. One great way to do this? Adho Mukha Vrksasana (downward facing tree) also known as handstand.

Handstand is a favorite of the instagram yogis, it makes for a beautiful shot and you can do it anytime and anywhere. Legs can be split, back can be arched and anytime your feet are above your head, your badass level instantly raises by 5 points. Handstand is a misleading name because although the goal is to stand, it takes a while to get there. A baby doesn’t pop out and begin to stand and walk around right away. It takes about two years for a developing child to learn to balance on their feet. Even though you might have a bigger vocabulary and a somewhat more rational thought process, don’t expect to learn a handstand any faster than a child learns to walk. It will take a while, but once you get there, it will completely change your practice.

Two years can feel like a long time and it might not take you this long at all. But the benefits of the pose makes it worth the wait. Handstand has all the benefits of other inversions. It helps to drain lymphatic fluid from the legs, sends oxygenated blood to the head, reduces stress and promotes healthy skin. But because it completely raises the feet directly above the head it can extend the body in a way that is inaccessible in other inversions.

Handstand lets us explore what’s it’s like to flip our perspective and use the fingers as roots, arms as a trunk and our legs and toes as branches and leaves reaching up towards the sky.

When I have writer’s block or feel stuck, I’ll go up into handstand for a few breaths. When I release the pose, life feels just a little bit easier.

Little disclaimer here: if you have problems with hyper/hypo tension take your time and be careful. Any inversion should be taken carefully and make sure you take a childs pose before returning to a standing position.

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Start in Downward Facing Dog

I started working on my Handstand from Downward Facing Dog. In your Downward Facing Dog bend the knees, lift the gaze towards the hands and jump the feet off the floor, returning slowly and quietly.  These are your shakti kicks and they are a great way to start to find the necessary position of the hips above the hands. Play around with using the legs as your power source and  just getting the feet off the floor. Go ahead and add these kicks into your practice any time you transition from Downward Facing Dog to Uttanasana (forward fold). The real progression towards Handstand comes when you begin to use the shoulders and core as your power source. This strength takes time to develop but it is completely essential to getting and staying up in handstand.

Standing Split

Another great exercise for Handstand can happen from Standing Split. Take the same idea of the shakti kicks but now use the leg that’s extended towards the sky to give you more leverage. Bend the standing leg and use this as your power source. Think about stacking the hips directly on top of the shoulders and use your power source to lift the foot off the floor.  Playing around here you will suddenly and unexpectedly find the fulcrum where the hips fall directly over the shoulders. Once you find that feeling of balance, which will be brief at first, you can develop more core and shoulder strength to remain in the balance longer. Make sure you practice using both legs as the power source (switching the standing leg) to gain symmetry in the body.

Using a wall

Now let’s talk about the wall. So many people go right to the wall to learn how to balance in Handstand. This can be a great tool but I like to let students use the wall only after they are comfortable with the shakti kicks from Downward Facing Dog and Standing Splits. The problem with the wall is that it gives you a false sense of security. You might not always be practicing Handstand in a space where there is a wall (hint: outside). Sometimes even in a class there is not enough wall space for everyone to leave the mat and use the wall.

If you think I sound like a crazy person and really want to use the wall to start your handstand work, that is totally understandable. I recommend that you make sure you’re inverting into the asana in multiple ways. Instead of kicking up into Handstand so that your back ends up against the wall, turn the body 180 degrees and walk the feet up against the wall. Using the wall to brace most of the weight, you can play around really exploring the inversion.

It’s okay to fall

The last, and arguably the most important, practice for handstand is learning the correct way to fall. Many people never let their hips fully rise over their head because they are afraid of falling. If you never let yourself fall you will be learning handstand forever.  Place blankets around your mat, breath deeply and remember that if you move slowly, with control and intention you will be safe. The amount of life lessons hidden in a yoga practice are unlimited, now go out and let your hands carry you out into the world.