Handstands—Should You Really Be Practicing Them? ~ Genny Wilkinson-Priest

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handstand yoga

Handstands.

The most You Tubed, Facebooked, Instagramed asana of them all. There are hundreds of variations—Scorpion, Handstand Lotus, Twisted Root, One-Handed!

Why are we so endlessly fascinated with them?

They look impressive. And they bring out the inner kid in us all. Yes, they’re fun. But what’s the point of them? Should we even be doing them?

Handstands can serve to build upper body as well as core strength. They can boost mood as the increased blood flow to the brain has an exhilarating effect. There are those who benefit from them, and a select few who are far along enough in their practice where they need bigger physical challenges to create an environment in which they must work on keeping the breath even and smooth.

But there is a downside—a big one.

Handstands are an ego trap. (I can handstand, therefore I am!) I’ve seen some students grow obsessed with them, measuring the “success” of that day’s practice with how long they could rock a solid handstand. Those who lack the upper body strength to invert on their hands look on forlorn, mistakenly equating handstands with advanced yoga.

For some, practice has become all about the handstand when really all the inversion is is a big fat distraction. You’re not rooted in the present working toward Pratyahara (sense withdrawal) when in Salabhasana. Instead you’re thinking ahead—will you be able to hold a handstand toward the end of your practice?

Once there, you spend an inordinate amount of time on them, exhausting yourself in the process, and taking up too much of the teacher’s time as they spot you going up again and again.

The Bhagavad Gita’s lessons in detachment get lost as the mind falls prey to the glory of handstand.

In the Ashtanga tradition, it seems like handstands have become the new Chakra Bandhasana. A certain (hushed) kudos once came to those who could catch their heels in a backbend. Now it’s whether or not you are working on Viparita Chakrasana, or as they are more colloquially known—Tic Tacs: the handstand sequence where you lift up into a handstand, drop the feet backward to the floor, and then kick the feet back to where you started.

Ashtanga is meant to be a spiritual practice, but we’re only human and thus prone to succumbing to the mental trap of measuring ourselves in our yoga practice. Let’s admit it. We all want the next pose. And the one after that.

And of course, the handstand.

The fact is, some of us shouldn’t be doing them. If a student is already strong and has tight shoulders, then building additional strength with handstands is counterproductive. Marchiyasana D, Kapotasana and Kurmasana will all suffer. Sharath Jois noted this in a recent conference in Mysore, adding that we all have different types of bodies—some are natural back benders, some are flexible. Some are strong—ie: Some should do handstands, some should not.

So even if a person has finished Second Series, or even Third Series, handstands might be a completely inappropriate practice for them. And it takes a skilled and experienced teacher to decide who gets—and who doesn’t get—to do handstands.

A teacher also needs enough mental strength to say no to a student who asks for them, knowing they might shop around for another teacher—any teacher—who will let them handstand.

Yoga is about getting beyond the ego. A very few select few could use the handstand to do just that.

But all too often, the ability to handstand becomes nothing more than just showing off.

 

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Genny Wilkinson-Priest

Genny Wilkinson-Priest has been practicing yoga since 2000, and started teaching it when the births of four boys in six years side-swiped her career as a journalist for the likes of Reuters and Time Magazine. She teaches Ashtanga and Vinyasa Flow, and recently started the charity “CalmaKid” which brings yoga to children in underprivileged London schools.

Comments

22 Responses to “Handstands—Should You Really Be Practicing Them? ~ Genny Wilkinson-Priest”

  1. Erica says:

    Great article! I've been obsessed with handstands lately, and these are words I needed to hear right now. Thank you.

  2. Roger Newton says:

    Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga as developed in Mysore used to incorporate 5 x handstand lift: navasana, through tollasana to lift into handstand, them back through to boat pose & so on x 5. This is still taught by some! The foundation of a vinyasa type yoga practice is of course the breath but downward-dog the foundation pose. From this your shoulders will open & core strengthen (udiyana bhanda is truly acccessed etc.).
    Handstand is the ultimate pose in the sense of attuning to the core. It is not for everyone but only in the sense that "everyone" is not at the same place (practice-wise …).
    To access Handstand a focus on ahrdo-mukha-svanasana is key. When the body /mind are ready the handstand will appear comfortably with the breath – effortlessly.
    Then the work on further strengthening & truly acceding the core begins!

  3. Craig says:

    A reply I gave a friend…

    Agree mate, but in yoga when we speak of ego it’s not just the superficial understanding of ‘he has an ego’. When you practice yoga posture as it was designed, cognition is brought to a single point, helping withdrawing the mind from the senses and the fluctuations that come through those gates (aversion, attachment, desire etc). The yoga/Buddhist teach that all these things are illusions, that chest us into building our idea of self (me), when in fact the idea of ‘self’ is nothing more than thoroughgoing change. Not a permanent thing(this is me).

    This is the ego – the mind that is self aware – I.e a mind that lives through an idea of itself, rather than experiencing totality of each moment.

    So in that respects, yoga is a re-conditioning practice, or better still a thawing of the ice that surrounds our consciousness. It’s difficult enough to still the mind just sitting in meditation or the more ‘simple’ postures. So whilst I agree that handstands are awesome and I love them, I also understand that in respects to yoga, many people do not have the mental foundation in which to approach them in a wY that’s not counterproductive to the point of yoga practice.

  4. Kat says:

    You’re so right on! Thanks for reiterating the differences in physical strength and abilities in people. One is not more “advanced” or better just because they handstand. I personally love it when students “get” that concept. That to me is an advanced student!!

  5. Mark Freeth says:

    Oh dear oh dear. Here we go with yet another prescriptive diatribe on the 'do's and don'ts' of yoga, littered with some lovely sanskrit references and presumptions as to the reason why we should be doing yoga in the first place – as if this authenticates the argument. I'd contend that for every yoga practitioner, you'll find a different reason for doing yoga. I myself am a long-standing practitioner (19 years) and full-time teacher (14 years). I'm a card- carrying atheist and not ONE iota of yoga's esoteric spirituality means jack to me. Don't get me wrong – I've studied it (how could I have an opinion otherwise?), but I chose many years ago to jettison it in favour of using yoga simply to keep me strong, fit, flexible, healthy and sharp of mind. And guess what? Handstands play a BIG part in my practice – and my students practice – without a hint of ego in sight. Just a playful, experimental, joyful exuberance that shouts, "Man! That feels great!" Please don't assume we practice yoga the way you do, or that we're trying to show off when we practice handstands. How 'bout you practice yoga in the way you want to and I'll practice how I want to? Simple, really….

    • Michael Hanley says:

      I couldn't agree more, Mark. There is no right or wrong way in yoga, only the way. Each person has to figure out their limits for themselves – mentally, physically, spiritually, etc.

    • John says:

      Absolutely, I'd go further… the real ego trap is in looking enviously at people doing handstands and assuming they must be less spiritual than yourself somehow.

  6. Joe Sparks says:

    In my perspective, it is too much compression/hyper-extension on the neck when looking down at the ground. Look out not down to allow the head to hang so the neck muscles and cervical spine can lengthen with traction by using gravity.

  7. Margaret says:

    This is a great article about reassessing our goals regarding yoga. I'm sure it'll strike a nerve with someone people…

  8. Elizabeth says:

    I hear what you are saying and appreciate the recognition given to differing body types and their needs. It is important to acknowledge that there is occassionally presumptuous judgment when watching another person's practice. When working through inversions and balances I have been accused of showing off when thoughts of others or what their thoughts might were completely absent from my mind. Rather it was myself and my body, yoga has opened up a space to explore balance, possibility and fear within my physical shell.This is for me and no one else. Please don't assume other's are "showing off" or ego driven, when they enjoy this life. I understand the concerns expressed, but am hoping to invite more curiosity into our minds as we think of others and their motivations.

  9. Genny, thank you for writing this! I completely agree with your and Sharath's point that sometimes people should not be doing handstands, and sometimes they should… like if a certain asana helps you overcome your ego, or mental attachment, or fear, and your body is ready for it. As an ashtangi, that resonates with me deeply. It concerns me that most celebri-yogis and wanna-be celebri-yogis are constantly posting pictures and videos of themselves online doing handstands, "hollow backs"?, and lots of other insanely advanced postures. To me that's cool, but it's really gymnastics, not yoga. Unfortunately, it's being interpreted in the mainstream as yoga, and students are easily misguided into thinking that they must achieve the ultimate handstand to "be a good yogi". I think that we as practitioners and teachers have a responsibility to stop the glorification of arm balances or inversions, and bring the same awe and inspiration to all postures, as well as pranayama and meditation practices.

  10. karen katz says:

    thank you-I am a nurse and I don't look around while practicing yoga in a class for two reasons-I focus on MY practice and my practice alone, and I would see so many dangerous things that I would be stopping every five minutes to correct someone….that's why there's a fully trained teacher there, right?

    please everybody-be careful and mindful and don't feel as if you need to strain into some asana to be a "real" yogi. you could damage your precious spine, or some other important part of your body, and then you will be so sorry.

    I have a friend who was obsessed with arm balances-she is very fit and a able, and she did a lot of vinyasa, lots of arm balances, side crow, etc…and guess what-she injured her shoulder, and now she is on a yoga hiatus….much to her distress.

  11. Genny Wilkinson P says:

    Thank you all for your feedback. There has been agreement, some constructive criticism (thank you!), and unfortunately a fair bit of trolling in other forums. Might I reiterate this article was written in the context of a traditional Ashtanga practice as taught currently at the KPJAYI. Many people have taken it as a reflection of other traditions, for which I cannot speak.

    Please note that I took care in the article to list the positives of a handstand practice just as much as I did the negatives of it. For some people, practicing handstands is absolutely appropriate. But for others, it is most definitely not.

    Yoga. It's more than a handstand.

  12. debradeangelo says:

    It seems like much of classroom yoga is about "showing off" – not just handstands. We all know who the rock star in the room is. And so does the rock star.

  13. happy upside down says:

    agree that handstands are not for everyone. But handstands are not strictly associated with yoga, and are part of dance, fitness, gymnastics, etc. I am a certified personal trainer and a yoga instructor, and find handstands to be safer than working with gym equipment when building upper body strength and core strength. When you attempt a handstand, your body will only allow you to do what it can until it gets stronger and develops balance in the pose. When you work with weights, you can push, press or pull much more than you should and get seriously injured. I find handstands to be a fun challenge for most because, as the author pointed out, they bring out the kid in you.

    I dont agree with the statement, "But all too often, the ability to handstand becomes nothing more than just showing off." As humans, we are driven by achievement, and I dont find instructors to be any different. Working towards a handstand and accomplishing a handstand feels good and gives a person a sense of achievement. Hanstands, no matter what level you are at, are a personal challenge that an individual makes for themselves and should be respected as such; not judged as negative or showing off, as the author would have you believe. If an instructor doesn't want to include handstands in their class, then they shouldn't. I wouldn't include them in my class, and then complain about having to spot students. As yoga instructors, spotting is part of what we do. I'm all about fun and helping students grow and succeed, and understand that with all exercise, including yoga, there is always risk of injury. Instructors are there to guide students and keep them safe, not to judge if someone is showing off or not. Sigmund Freud described the ego as the part of personality that mediates between the demands of the id, superego, and reality. I'm not about to try and figure out who in my yoga class, while doing handstands is "mediating between the demands of their id, superego and reality." I'll leave that to Freud.

    As far as mindfulness, I don't recall ever thinking about anything else while in my handstand. I'm always concentrating on what I'm doing, trying not to crash out of my pose and loving every wild feeling that flows through my body. Once I'm out of my handstand, now that's another story. I'm not perfect, and I'm sure many-a-times, the thoughts of chocolate found their way back into my synapses shortly after. Have fun and enjoy life, because in my opinion, life was meant to be lived upside down! <3

  14. Margaret-Ann Hamilton says:

    Thank you for this article. I would like to add another warning. I no longer practice yoga. I miss it terribly, but I suffered a massive sub-arachnoid haemorrhage (brain) following headstand practice in yoga. I’m extremely lucky to be alive. I had a pre-existing, but undiagnosed aneurysm, and the pressure from the headstand forced it to rupture. I have now had another aneurysm diagnosed (same place, opposite side – as tends to happen with brain problems). Despite my neurosurgeon’s assurance that I can return to yoga as long as I don’t perform any of the inverted poses, I’m way too scared. Approximately 5% of the population have undiagnosed brain aneurysms, so if you have any doubts at all, please don’t go there. my aneurysm was misdiagnosed as migraine for about twenty years before the rupture. if you are a migraine sufferer, please don’t do this unless you have had a full brain scan. I hope, one day, to have the courage to return to yoga. (right side up!) I miss it terribly. Thanks again.

  15. W Kenney says:

    It would be interesting to know the authors ability where hand balancing is concerned. It’s my experience that yoga folks (especially teachers and others for whom yoga is key to their identity) who have a relatively less developed physical practice might bristle when faced with the more advanced practitioner. Then the narrative quickly becomes one of questioning “spirituality”. A persons spiritual path is central, I think, but impossible for the observer to know. What’s appealing to the critic in these cases is that “spirituality” is also nebulous. So when the physical disparities are readily obvious they can soothe themselves with notions of their relatively refined spirituality.

    It’s all a bit “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”

    • Genny Wilkinson P says:

      Hello – Thanks for your question. I don't think my physical abilities are of particular interest or importance to the story I wrote, but you are not the first person to raise the question so it behooves me to answer it.

      I practice Third Series Ashtanga Yoga, which is a fairly rigorous practice of challenging arm balances, deep backbends and legs-behind-the-head postures. I can hold handstands, and can do tic-tacs without assistance. However, they aren't an integral part of my practice. Sometimes i do them; sometimes I don't.

      So in short, yes I have an "advanced" physical practice.

      This story was written after interviewing some senior Asthanga teachers, as well as several long-time practitioners. It is an amalgamation of their views, and as such not mine alone.

      I hope this answers your question, and again — thank you for taking the time to read the article and asking the question.

      Regards,

      Genny Wilkinson Priest

      • John says:

        Good to get that context. Some of the comments in the article (eg the idea that people with tight shoulders shouldn't be doing handstand) would tend to indicate a lack of familiarity with quality handstand training (a good handstand line requires open shoulders and good handstand training opens and loosens the shoulders very well). It would be interesting to see what you consider 'hold a handstand' to be; one of the things that make handstands so fun (and so "yogic" and so frustrating) is that a good line is (mentally and physically) a very different place from 'hold a handstand'.

        My own experience is very, very different, but it's led me to the opinion that to understand handstands (and their place in yoga) it's necessary to go to a good hand balancing coach, and they will not be a yoga teacher.

        • W Kenney says:

          'hold a handstand'

          Yes, there's something in that language that doesn't fit. It's not clear to me what tic tacs are outside of tiny mint candies (super tasty) or why someone would need assistance with them. Would a pro cyclist mention the he doesn't use training wheels? Anyway, we all get what we're looking for from the practice. Consciously or not.

          None of this is meant to be a rundown of the author who seems to be a fit and able woman (and there's nothing better than that of course).

          FWIW, "advanced" practice can take different forms. A person of ill health who takes up yoga and betters themselves has transcended and need never do a handstand. It's a mindset. Another who was fit and strong to begin with and has been kicking up to hanstand against the wall for years might be a different story.

  16. Chuck_Culp says:

    people should consider their own physical limitations whenever attempting yoga asansa. Everyone is unique. Yoga was traditionally taught one on one, not in classes. As Pantanjali wrote in the sutras about asanas, three words: "firm, steady, seat (pose)" If a handstand is firm, steady and comfortable for you, then go ahead and do them. Do not allow another s' ego to override your own inner wisdom. If we ignore the true reasons to practice yoga (liberation) then we are merely doing gymnastics.

  17. Charlotte says:

    While the value of such discussions is indisputable, I feel like they miss the broader point. Individual poses are not in and of themselves 'yoga'. They are a means to an end, not the end in themselves, not to mention only one aspect of yoga. The most important point is the intention and mindfulness an individual brings to a pose, no matter what the pose. Yoga is a journey towards Self, and is not (as I see it) about doing a solid handstand (for example) simply because we saw someone else doing it and it looked cool, not having full comprehension about the amount of work physical, emotionally and probably spiritually that practitioner has done to be able to do so. (And, for the record, I think they're entitled to some ego satisfaction for their enduring commitment and achievement, and furthermore, if handstand is just about ego for them, so be it – in the end there's nothing inherently 'wrong' with that. Despite popular misconceptions, none of us are getting rid of our ego and nor should we if we want to be effective and engaged in the material world as an embodied soul. We can only criticise ego from ego.)

    Anyway, the main 'problem' (if there even is one) is nothing to do with handstand per se, ego, or instructors who prefer a handstand-based practice. It's those who practice yoga at whatever level, who are out of touch with themselves and have a distorted or deluded perception of their limits or sense of what feels 'right' in their unique body at a given moment. For an instructor, even a highly skilled and experienced one, to be able to pick up that slack for all pupils in their class is an impossible task and is to assume a responsibility that can not be upheld. Ultimately, we must teach and encourage personal accountability and truthfulness with self. Yogasana never injures – we choose, albeit usually unconsciously, to injure ourselves. As the author and others here mention, for those for whom it is appropriate, handstanding is childlike and fun, it encourages us to get out of our comfort zone and to look at life from a different perspective (among multiple other benefits) but if we choose to push beyond our own limits because our yoga instructor tells us to – explicitly or implicitly – then there is only one person responsible for that choice and its consequences (hint: it ain't the instructor). Maybe our injuries and ill-advised decisions are just all part of the yoga journey and sometimes it takes injuring ourselves to get the wake-up call and lesson we need. Thanks for the article. Peace. x

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