The most You Tubed, Facebooked, Instagramed asana of them all. There are hundreds of variations—Scorpion, Handstand Lotus, Twisted Root, One-Handed!
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.
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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Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: elephant archives