The Beginner’s Guide To Handstands

Experience the joys of turning your world upside down.

December 8, 2017
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An hour into my first advanced yoga class, the teacher announced that it was time for handstands. I dutifully started to drag my mat to the wall…but no one followed. These seasoned practitioners didn’t need it. Up they flew—weight on their hands, feet in the air. Balanced! It was like magic. I was amazed and inspired. And a little terrified and befuddled. How would I ever get there?

Handstand—or Adho Mukha Vrksasana—is an advanced yoga pose. But this doesn’t mean you need to be an advanced practitioner to build up the physical strength to turn yourself upside down. There are many building blocks that you can start working on today that will allow you to experience the benefits of this super fun pose.

Be aware that because this is an advanced pose, we recommend working with a teacher before attempting it at home.

Why go upside down?

As the master yogi, B.K.S. Iyengar, writes in Light on Yoga, “[Handstand] develops the body harmoniously. It strengthens the shoulders, arms and wrists and expands the chest fully.”

In other words, it’s a whole-body affair. As Iyengar wrote, not only does it strengthen so many parts of the body at once, it asks them to work in concert with one another.

This pose also allows us to improve our balance. By placing the weight of our bodies on our hands (eek!), we lift the burden of staying balanced from our legs and assign it to our arms for a while. In order to stay balanced we must make small, infinitesimal adjustments. The incremental work is wonderful for the body’s awareness.

And from a more philosophical point of view, there’s something powerful about seeing the world from a new angle—flipping your reality. Sometimes when we’re stuck or feel weighed down, it’s a nice way to recalibrate our perspective. Also—surprise, surprise—it’s so much fun! Who doesn’t want to feel like a kid again?

That said, handstands aren’t easy, and many people have all sorts of barriers up when it comes to attempting them. These may be physical challenges or mental ones.

The biggest physical obstacle is arm strength. The arms and shoulders must be strong enough to support the weight of the body. The biggest mental obstacle is often fear—of falling, of putting the head down, of kicking up and letting go, of what will happen. All these challenges can be worked through by taking the pose step by step.

Prepare, prepare, prepare.

Handstands aren’t all about arm and shoulder strength, but it is certainly a big factor. Remember all those preparatory poses that come early on in a yoga class? Those will all serve you when building up the strength to turn yourself upside down. Here are a few vital poses to practice:

Downward Dog

This pose is formational for so many asanas, but especially for handstands. Although the weight is distributed pretty evenly between arms and legs, your arms are taking on more than they are accustomed to, and you’re learning the proper hand-wrist-arm alignment you need. There’s also a misconception that your legs don’t need to do much work in handstand—not true! All the work you’re making your legs do here will help once you turn upside down.

Downward Dog With Your Arms on the Wall

Stand at a 90 degree angle with your feet on the floor and palms on the wall. Your body should be in an L shape. This gives you a chance to practice the arm and shoulder rotation and support without any weight bearing on your arms.

Plank

This is another arm strengthener. It also works your abs, which are vital for handstand. Start on your hands and knees, with your hands right under your shoulders. Reach one leg back and curl the toes under. Add the other leg. Your legs can be glued together or slightly separated. Reach your heels back to strengthen the legs. Lift up energetically through the wrists.

Chatturanga

This one can be practiced with your knees on the floor, or not. Hands are right under your shoulders, legs and abs are engaged. You bend your elbows back, close in to your ribs—not out to the side as you would in a regular pushup.

Jumping From Downward Dog to the Front of Your Mat

This one helps with building up the push-off power you’ll need to get your legs up in the air.

Building Blocks

Before you hurl your legs up in the air, it’s important to remember that handstand is a challenging, advanced pose that should be attempted and practiced (for many months!) with the help of a teacher. We do not recommend flipping yourself upside down alone in your living room! But you can begin by attempting these two variations. Before beginning, make sure you’ve cleared your area of any furniture.

Variation One

  1. Position yourself on your hands and knees with your toes curled under and your heels against the wall. Your arms should be shoulder width apart, and your middle finger should be pointing straight to the top of the mat. Press down on your inner thumb and forefinger. Look between your hands.
  2. Push up into downward dog—it will probably be a shorter dog than you’re used to, so feel free to bend your knees.
  3. If you’re feeling strong here, lift your right leg up onto the wall at a 90-degree angle, and press your foot into the wall. Your body will be in an L-shaped semi-handstand.
  4. With added power in your arms, bring your left leg up to join the right, and press both feet strongly into the wall. If it’s too challenging with your legs straight, keep your knees slightly bent. Draw in your abdominals and breathe for 3 to 5 seconds.
  5. Bring one foot down, then the other. Rest in child’s pose.

Variation Two

  1. Position yourself on your hands and knees, only this time put your hands about half a foot from the wall, fingers facing the wall.
  2. Push up into downward dog.
  3. Look at the space between your hands. Lift your right leg up in the air a foot or two. It should be straight with your foot flexed—an engaged, active leg.
  4. Bend your supportive leg and hop up off the ground a few times.
  5. Practice this on the other side.
  6. Rest in child’s pose.

Bonus Round!

  1. Reposition yourself in downward dog. Lift one leg up, bend your bottom knee. This time, make the hops bigger until the upper leg touches the wall. The other leg should quickly follow.
  2. Once your heels are on the wall, flex your feet and engage your legs. They should be just as strongly engaged as if you were standing on them. Draw in your abs.
  3. To come down, draw in your abs and land as softly as you can on a bent knee.
  4. Rest in child’s pose.

Please note: We do not recommend using a friend to support you unless you are in a class setting, or your friend is a yoga teacher.

Advanced Variation

Once you’ve been practicing the pose for some time, it’s really fun to try this completely free of the wall so you can balance on your own. Again, you want to make sure that you’re not near any furniture or other people. This is why it’s always best to practice this pose in particular at a yoga studio where there’s plenty of room.

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