Because Keeping it Up Isn’t the Same as Getting it Up
Those handstand tips are great and all, but how do I get up there in the first place?
Perhaps you have found yourself in a yoga class in which the teacher announced that it was time for handstand, and you noticed students around the room popping up onto their hands at the wall or in the middle of the room without a moment’s hesitation, and yet you felt like the lower half of your body was a dead weight that you couldn’t imagine hoisting up into the air to stack neatly above the upper half of your body. Your teacher may have rattled off some helpful tips for those who were already upside down (“keep your arms strong”, “find a steady gaze”, “slowly take one foot and then the other off the wall to find your balance”), while you remained right-side-up-bound, wondering to yourself, “where do I even start?”
Well, don’t despair. In fact, truly refrain from despairing – emotionally throwing up your arms in frustration is the first feeling that we want to drop when we make the decision to tackle the seemingly elusive pose known as adho mukha vrksasana, or handstand. While it’s helpful to show up on our yoga mat and set a conscious intention to work toward this pose during our practice, we don’t want to feel attached to the final outcome. Instead, the self-revealing work lies in staying present to the process of getting there. In the context of yoga, there’s a core principle we often talk about called santosha, which is usually translated to mean contentment. Instead of ambitiously striving for poses on the yoga mat (or anxiously grasping for external goals in your daily life), can you find a true sense of acceptance for exactly what is, and allow the progression of your yoga practice (and the direction of your life in general) to unfold in a natural, unhurried way?
Okay, now that you’ve decided to embody an attitude of contentment and patience regarding your yoga practice, let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of this handstand business. And as a side note, unless you know that you’re someone with relatively open hamstrings, it would be a good idea to warm your hamstrings up a bit before beginning these steps. Try a few cycles of moving from down dog to plank and back again (this will begin to open the hamstrings as well as initiate a connection to your core), and then, once back in down dog, walk your hands back to your feet until you arrive in uttanasana (standing forward fold), and spend a few deep breaths here.
2) Come into downward facing dog with your hands about a foot from the wall. Make sure that your fingers are spread evenly apart and that you can feel every single knuckle, and especially your index finger knuckles, rooting down into the earth. Every intelligent yoga pose starts with a grounded foundation (i.e. part of your body that touches the floor), and handstand is no exception! Hug your forearms toward one another without moving your hands and feel the muscles of your arms isometrically fire up.
3) Walk your feet about halfway toward your hands. Identify which of your legs is your dominant leg – for most people, this will be the same leg as your dominant hand. (Eventually you’ll want to work toward kicking up into the pose with your non-dominant leg as well, in order to cultivate balance and neutrality in your body, but that’s a disorienting and awkward edge that we’ll get to meet at a future point in time!) Lift your dominant leg up into the air, keeping your hips square to the floor, and send a long line of energy through that entire leg and all the way out the ball of the foot, ideally spreading your toes. If you have tighter hamstrings, don’t hesitate to bend the knee of your standing leg here.
4) Rise up high onto the ball of your foot that’s on the floor, and then shift your shoulders forward so that they line up right over your wrists (maybe even a tad bit forward of your wrists). Set your drishti (your gaze point) right out in front of your hands, admiring your fanned-out fingers and their nice, grounded knuckles while you’re at it.
5) IMPORTANT! To kick up into handstand (and to eventually hold the pose away from the wall), you must understand how to connect to your core. It shouldn’t be too difficult if you’re familiar with the common yoga sequence of cat/cow (sometimes called cat/dog) that is often done on hands-and-knees at the beginning of a practice. The “cat” half of this sequence has your spine rounded and your tail tucked under, while the “dog” half has your spine arched and your tail lifting toward the sky. In order to connect to your core while kicking up to handstand, you simply need to find more cat and less cow in your pelvis. So while you’re here, about to kick up toward handstand with your hands on the ground and one leg in the air, think “less arch” in your low back and “more tuck” of your pelvis and feel the way your abdominals light right up.
6) It’s now time to start hopping your way up toward that handstand. A hugely helpful tip here is to visualize your hips rather than your legs getting up into the air. The hips are closer to your core than the legs, and when you move from closer to your centerline, the peripherals (i.e. legs) will naturally follow. Make “hips over shoulders” your mantra and then give your pose a little hop! Now re-commit to the cat tilt of your pelvis and forward gaze of your eyes and try it a few times more – maybe a bit higher each time if you’re comfortable with that. For some of us, these aligned and core-connected hops might be our edge to work with over the course of several practices. For others, we might discover step 7 within our very first few hops…
7) Continue working with your hops, focusing on lightness and core connection, until you feel your hips arrive over your shoulders and your legs lengthen to the sky over your hips. Meet any fear that might arise by simply keeping your arms firmly hugging the mid-line and not bending your elbows to any degree. (If keeping your arms straight here is a challenge for you, try looping a shoulder-width yoga strap around your upper arms to keep them firmed in.) Your heels will be leaning on the wall and you will officially have found yourself in handstand at the wall – whoa!! Observe your inner state – your feelings, energy, breath, body – and feel present to the pose and the moment. Then, start listening to those tips that your teacher gives to the group of already-upside-down yogis in your class so that you can meet your new edge and begin the work of refining your handstand!
Jenni Rawlings discovered yoga as a Religious Studies undergraduate student at UC Santa Barbara in 1997. She has practiced yoga nearly every day since then, and her passion for yoga led her to open Drishti, the first stand-alone yoga store in the U.S., in Santa Barbara, California in 2002. She is so thankful to be running Drishti and teaching several yoga classes a week at Yoga Soup, her favorite yoga studio in Santa Barbara. Follow her on Facebook!