By Frank Jesse
The handstand, or Adho Mukha Vrksasana (downward-facing tree pose), can be quite a scary and challenging pose for an inexperienced student. But this pose is also exhilarating and has many health benefits if approached and learned with thorough preparation and attention. Among the many benefits are improved circulation, respiration, concentration, and mental clarity. Through weight-bearing, it helps to strengthen the bones of the wrists, fingers, elbows, arms, and shoulders
I remember the day that one of our regulars from the local area, Colin, first managed a handstand, the whole class clapped. Colin runs a sheep farm and started yoga because he had become so stiff over the years that he couldn’t bend down to tie his shoelaces. Getting into a handstand was a big moment, and justified celebration.
Handstands are invigorating. We really have to activate ourselves to get into this pose and people always feel energized. It’s like when you go for a walk in the fresh air and return feeling revitalized. To get into a handstand, we really have to engage, physically, mentally and even emotionally, to tackle our fears. While a handstand is an energizing pose, one must take care – especially when first learning the pose. This one is best to ovoid if you’re overly tired.
If you have high blood pressure, glaucoma or any other serious eye disease, handstands and other inversions should generally be avoided.
For those with wrist and shoulder injuries or restrictions, it is a matter of talking it through with your teacher and taking extra care.
I suggest people don’t go up into handstand without the support of an experienced teacher. And do not get a friend to help you to kick up, as it’s quite easy to accidentally injure them.
Those with tight, stiff shoulders may need to go further down the yoga path before they attempt a handstand. You need to have a good understanding of Tadasana (mountain pose), Urdhva Hastasana (mountain pose with the arms raised over the head). If you have trouble lifting and maintaining good alignment with your arms overhead while standing, how are you going to use your arms to lift your body in a handstand?
Dog pose is also a prerequisite for handstand, and we will often do dog pose with feet raised on blocks or feet onto a chair to start to learn to take weight through the arms.The preparatory work in dog pose is also important for the wrists, arms, and shoulders. Many people can’t press their index finger down because of stiff wrists and fingers. We also need to be able to straighten the arms and open the shoulders in a dog pose before attempting a handstand.
I will also get people to do Urdhva Hastasana, Baddhanguliyasana (upward-bound fingers pose), and Gomukhasana (cow-face pose) to stretch and prepare their shoulders.
Another good preparatory pose is a half handstand, in which the feet are placed on the wall at hip height. Half handstand helps with the fear, too. For some people with stiffer shoulders and tight hamstrings, half handstand is quite difficult and they find their feet slipping down the wall. They can put their feet on blocks or a chair and work more like a dog pose.
At times I will put a strap around the arms just above the elbow, which takes some of the effort out holding the pose and helps to align the upper arms and forearms. For stiffer wrists, it can be helpful to have a small support under the palm of the hands.
Finally, I really make sure everyone is focused. If you are not focused, it could be unsafe to practice this pose.
The first big challenge is kicking up. Again, it’s a matter of preparing the legs properly. Both Utthitta Hasta Padangusthasana 1 (extended hand to big toe pose) and Supta Padangusthasana 1 (reclining big toe pose) are helpful to bring the awareness and flexibility needed to kick up into handstand one leg at the time. At first, it’s a good idea to go up with the help of your teacher and kick up to a wall that you can use to help balance in the pose. While it may be easier to favor one leg while kicking up, in the long-term, for balance, learn to kick up with either leg.
It’s a common mistake to not have first aligned the shoulders properly over the wrists before attempting to go up. This not only makes going up harder but causes the lower back to arch too much.
Also, kicking up with the leading leg bent makes it more difficult to lift up and generally involves more effort.
Once you have mastered kicking up one leg at a time the next step is to learn to kick up with both legs together.
Working in handstand
Once people are standing on their hands, they can lift up and extend the body so the pose becomes light.
But if they start to sag or sink, they are not ready for the handstand and they have to go back to preparation. If they try to stay and start to sag or drop, the diaphragm pushes forward and more pressure is taken through the shoulders, elbows, and wrists.
For those who are ready, it is time to push up, by pressing down through the hands, lifting the forearms, upper, shoulders, ribs, waist, and extending through the legs to the inner edges of the feet.
Although there is a lot to remember and much preparation involved, I encourage everyone to work towards mastering the handstand. As well as the physical and mental benefits, it just feels great when you finally add this one to your practice.
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