5 Rights Don’t Make a Wrong: What Noted Ashtanga Teachers Have to Say about Handstands.

Via Peg Mulqueen
on Feb 12, 2013
get elephant's newsletter



Handstands can make some people crazy.

W(h)ining about handstands?
We love ‘em… We hate ‘em… We think they represent everything that’s wrong about yoga—and all we crave at the same time. It’s like talking politics in DC where one person’s answer is another’s crux to the problem.

Yet in Ashtanga, it’s a whole lot more complicated. In fact, they are not even officially a part of first, second or even third series—perhaps why handstanding can seem as forbidden as the apple in the garden—plenty of temptation, yet the threat of being kicked out of Eden should you dare take a bite.
But is that true? I’m way too young in this practice to know for sure, so I reached out to a few teachers I respect: David Robson, David Garrigues, David Keil, Angela Jamison and Tim Feldmann—and asked for their few Lincolns worth.* As it turns out, they

w(h)ining about handstands?
w(h)ining about handstands?

each offered what will make way more sense than cents:

I’ve seen students press up into handstand in various places while others warn against. What’s the deal?

David Keil: There definitely used to be more handstands in the practice. (A well-known teacher) learned them between Navasana. Now, no handstands allowed anywhere.

David Garrigues: I have a funny story about that. I was a freestyle skateboarder, I grew up and doing all manner of handstands rolling across the hard pavement on the board, inversions were one of my specialties. And so when I started practicing yoga I was a bit of handstand nut. And then I met Guruji in ‘93 in LA, I studied led primary series with him at yoga works. I was brand new to Ashtanga, he was my first Ashtanga teacher. (Another student) was in the class and he would go up into handstand between nearly every seated posture as part of the vinyasa. I didn’t know any better and it looked fun so I started doing it too—Ha! Until Guruji came up behind me during one of my moves and pushed my legs down when I tried to go into a handstand … I got the message loud and clear and stopped doing it even though (the other student) kept right on doing it.

That’s hilarious! I admit that I’ve heard similar stories of Sharath doing the same. What’s the big deal?

David Robson: I think (it) must be about correct vinyasa: It’s very difficult to lift into a full handstand—and drop into Chaturanga Dandasana—in the Suryanamaskaras all on an exhale. Same with the full lift into handstands between Navasanas. People take extra breaths to do the handstands. Of course, we all take extra breaths sometimes and none of us are always doing correct vinyasas. However stepping out of the vinyasa in order to do a flashy move is totally different.

DG: I think Guruji’s lack of emphasis on (handstands) had to do with him valuing flow and vinyasa positioning and thus he would rather see someone continue to move through the sequence rather than go to the wall and try to kick up into a handstand or other such variants. Also the people, mostly men, who don’t have to interrupt the flow of their vinyasa positioning in order to perform a handstand probably don’t need to work on it anyway.

Which definitely doesn’t include me! But I love them and would really love to one day be strong enough to do well, so how? Does this count?

DG: I love handstands, but prefer an economy of effort in the vinyasa transitions and suggest that people spend the energy that they have for strengthening on achieving beauty in Chaturanga Dandasana, and on jumping back and through with care, precision, and alignment.

DR: There are an awful lot of other opportunities to do the same (if not more) work of lifting, either by floating into pike or trying to lift up in the jump backs and jump throughs.

DK: The bigger question is “what can we learn from them?” They are just another asana, so in a sense, a tool that we can use to bring our practice into balance. Officially, they don’t exist…Why do we do it?

does this count?
does this count?

Hey! I’m the one who’s supposed to be asking the questions ‘round here! But since you did—why, indeed?

DG: Working on handstand is more important for people who are flexible in the shoulders and upper body but who also might need to develop upper body strength. Handstand is less important for people with tight shoulders who would spend the energy better working on back bending and improving their upper body mobility.

So I hear you all. Handstand is not official—but everyone has at least acknowledged, it does exist. So my question now is—when?

DG: The most likely and natural place to work on them (other than during the day in your backyard, on the grass—cowboy boots not included—at the park, on a long flight, or at the wall in your office as a break from sitting at the computer) is after or during back bending.

Tim Feldmann: Handstands are taught as part of a longer back bending routine towards the end of intermediate series: handstand, drop over backwards onto your feet to urdhva dhanurasana, jump back to balance on your hands, continue to stand on your feet… then again. We call it ‘tic-tocs’ or in sanskrit ‘viparita chakrasana.’ As we begin learning this routine we might just start with the handstands and add more to it step by step (that would depend on your teachers opinion).

Is there any thing else, as a teacher, you consider when officially or unofficially introducing handstands to a student?

TF: (Handstands) can make your shoulders and upper back a bit tight, which we would not want until back bending is perfected, deep and steady.

I’ll say this tongue-in-cheek, as I’m a full-on, kool-aid-drinking , card-carrying Ashtangi, but… sounds like there’s some intelligence built around all this sequencing not to mention, the guidance of a teacher.

DR: For us Ashtangis, the vinyasa sequence is our mantra. Our practice is in its faithful reproduction day after day. If we identify as traditional practitioners, then we accept that it’s not up to us to change the practice, but to surrender to the teaching as it’s been given to us.

Angela Jamison—I know you are one wise owl so don’t you have anything to add?

AJ: As someone who has practiced advanced four days a week for nearly seven years, I also have a quite limited degree of insight on the workings of the shoulder girdle, deep backbending, and how these affect the sense of self and one’s energy.

But there is no way that I would be okay with my understanding of the method being used in a controversial manner. None of these teachings make any sense outside the context of long-term relationship with 1) a teacher and 2) specific (always somewhat arbitrary) approaches to the physical practice.

I am careful in this regard because my philosophy teacher Narasimhan has instructed me to step back from paying attention to or getting involved in the negativity that happens on the Internet. This seems like a really sincere instruction on his part, so I do my best to honor it.

More important that handstand instructions.

More important, indeed!

much ado about nothing?

*Though the quotes are real, this conversation with all five teachers did not happen concurrently. (I should only be so lucky to have all these great minds in one room.) Their generosity as teachers and heartfelt devotion is beyond measurement—and I am deeply thankful for the time and thought each offered.

And I assure you, no walls were damaged in the making of this blog.

For more information about handstands or other asana practices, please find a teacher. Please.


Like elephant Ashtanga on Facebook.

Ed: Kate Bartolotta


About Peg Mulqueen

With a gentle warmth and contagious sense of humor, Peggy shares her passion of life and love with all those she meets. She was a counselor for many years before stumbling upon one of the oldest forms of healing therapies: yoga. Since then, she has been helping others lead lives of change and renewal, exploration and—all from a yoga mat. When not on her mat, Peggy (her husband and two children close at hand) can be found on a surf board in Maui—learning to fall off gracefully and get back up, or suspended 500 feet in the air on a zip line over a Costa Rican jungle—conquering her fear of heights, or searching for the perfect cast, fly fishing in the wilder places of Montana. You can follow her adventures in yoga on her blog here.


8 Responses to “5 Rights Don’t Make a Wrong: What Noted Ashtanga Teachers Have to Say about Handstands.”

  1. Kushal Malhotra says:

    Hi – Thank you for this article. I think one of the teachers (David Garrigues) commented on who hand stands are good for and who they are not as good for. For me, I've noticed some places in yoga class where my ego takes over. I can't touch my toes and my hips are very tight. But I love the part of class where we can do a head stand or a show off a scorpion. I can't do a hand stand, but I think I can get there with practice. I guess I want t keep improving my strengths rather than my weaknesses. Maybe practicing handstands aren't as important for me as practicing a simple forward bend?

  2. West Anson says:

    Adho Mukha Vrksasana is way over-rated and done in so many Studio Classes as a way of padding egos. I would also say the majority of them are done incorrectly with the Teacher/Students looking like bananas rather then inverted trees. When will it stop? Probably never as long as the current crop of Teachers/Students think they are the be-all-end-all of a Yoga Practice.

    For those who are limber yet weak in the upper body, holding Plank is a better Asana for building a stronger upper body. Try doing Down Dog/Plank combinations with "Breath of Fire" for 5 minutes, it is far more impressive than flipping up into a "banana" handstand.

  3. Handstand Lover says:

    Oh for God's sake…. if you want to do a handstand, Do A Hand Stand! It feels great, it gets the blood flowing and it's just fun. Sometimes I think these yogis need reminding that moving for the joy of moving is not a bad thing… I like Ana Forrest and Vanda Scaravelli's take on this one.

  4. Asherah says:

    Thank you and right on for inducing some sanity into this conversation.

    I was a hardcore ashtangi for 6-7 years, making my way to advanced under a senior teacher. One day, Ashtanga was no longer the best medicine- and I switched to Forrest Yoga.

    i have a deep an abiding love for both practices. And yes, while we all need teachers, ultimately it is about the guru within. Which doesn't mean do whatever you want. However, it does mean, if handstand is authentically benefical– do handstand. It takes discrimination to get there. And – there's a lot to be said for having pleasure in practice, too.

  5. Mark Freeth says:

    This is the first comment in this article / thread that makes any sense whatsover! Right on, 'Handstand Lover' whoever you are! I'm one too!

  6. Mark Freeth says:

    Good point, Asherah – I too was a trad AVY practitioner & teacher for a very long time until I ditched the 'ashtanga', (too many rules & regulations) but stuck with the 'vinyasa', formulating my own take on yoga – The Freestyle Yoga Project. Handstands are a promoter of strength, balance and control. Oh, and they're funky and groovy….

  7. Eka says:

    Ashtangis, by and large, seem to be very 'tight' and not just in the shoulders. I used to be one until I realised Ashtanga Vinyasa had little to do with Yoga.

  8. Ron says:

    Why would you just limit your view to just Ashtanga teachers for the article? I respect their view, but their view is not the only one.