Handstand Demos-Failing to Stay Up

Handstand demos-Failing to Stay Up

In this collection of video clips I jump up to handstand (or try to) from downward dog, or pull myself up starting with my feet between my hands.

In most of the clips I don’t succeed.

The point of these exercises in failure is to show you why I didn’t get up.

The key points to watch out for is the relationship of my shoulders to my wrists and the relationship of my pelvis to my wrists. In most cases, when I balance my shoulders are in front of my wrists (look at the angle of my arms.)

Handstands-Center, The Pelvis and the Psoas

Handstands and Controlling Center


Center

Previously I was talking about the middle position, a position of the body, that gives us the most possibility given what we are doing at the time.


The Psoas

Another way that we can practice being centered is to focus on feeling and controlling our pelvis. One of the ways that we can control our pelvis is via a muscle called the psoas. Actually this muscle can be used to control more than just the pelvis. It can be used to control the spine and its relationship to the thighs and legs.

If we view the ribcage and pelvis as extensions of the spine, extra large levers that we can use to change the shape of the spine or maintain its shape, then using the psoas we can change the relationship between the ribcage-pelvis and legs.


Controlling Center

Because the belly of the psoas extends to the space that is within the pelvis we an often “feel” and control the pelvis and psoas as one unit.

Since our center of gravity is usually located within our pelvis (it depends on what posture we are assuming at the time) this can be quite handy. What it means is that if we control our pelvis, and our psoas, then we control our center of gravity.

If we can position our center of gravity over our foundation then we can balance. This is true whether we are standing on our hands, on our feet, on our head or even on our forearms. When our center is over our foundation, and assuming there are no other forces in play other than that of gravity, then we are balanced.

Using our psoas to help control our pelvis and center can make it easier to balance.


Using Our Center to Lead

When we are standing on our feet, we can use our legs to move our pelvis and in turn we can use our pelvis to drive the movement of our upper body. When we are on our hands we can use our arms, shoulders and ribcage to move our pelvis and then we can use our pelvis to move our legs.

When we are on our hands, so that we can give our pelvis a stable foundation, we need to use our hands, shoulders, and abs. So that we can control the relationship between our pelvis and our legs, as well as the relationship between our spine and our legs, we need to use the psoas.


Activating the Side Gluteals

To make using the psoas easier we can use our side glutes. These are the muscles at the sides of the pelvis that move the thigh bones outwards. They are the glute medius and minimus and also another muscles, the tensor fascae latae which pulls the thighs outwards as well as causing the legs to internally rotate slightly. These muscles can also be used to both flex and extend the thigh. Using these “functions” together they can also help to stabilize the thigh.

For our purpose we can activate them by trying to pull the thighs outwards. We thus help to stabilize the thighs relative to the pelvis and we also give the psoas some resistance against which it can then pull the thighs inwards.


Activating the Psoas

Once we’ve activated our side glutes one of the ways that we can make it easier to activate the psoas, is to focus on feeling our kidneys and in addition make them feel full. This involves tilting the pelvis back far enough that the lower back is straight. But rather than just making the lumbar spine straight, adjust the position of the pelvis so that the back of the waist feels full. Keep this feeling while jumping.

In addition keep the side glutes active while jumping and as you jump focus on “closing” the thighs to the stomach or chest.

It can feel like you are resisting this action even as you are doing it.

You may also notice a sense of your awareness being inside your belly as you do this. For myself it literally feels like I am pulling my pelvis forwards and up from the inside.


Final Notes

If you watch the videos and pay attention to the orientation of my spine you’ll notice that the times I get up and stay up the longest-even getting up into handstand, are the times when my spine is nearly vertical. My shoulders are over my hips.

When practicing, first get your shoulders ahead of your hands. From there, then get your hips/pelvis over your shoulders. Then you upper body will be in front of your hands and they then balance your legs which are behind your hands.

If from here you move up into full handstand, then as you lift your legs, brings your shoulders back slowly so that they are over your hands.


Videos-Large View

Handstands and Controlling Center

Handstands-The Middle Position

Practicing the “Middle Position”

In martial arts, the middle position is a place where we have the most options available to us. Depending on our environment, our opponent or our partner and even ourselves, our middle position may vary.


Being Able to Respond to Change

Generally whenever we respond to a change we have to leave the middle position. If after having responded to a change we return to the middle, we are then ready to handle any new changes as they occur. Being in the middle position makes it easier to respond to a change no matter where it comes from or what form it takes. Being in the middle gives us options, possibilities. If we continually return to the middle after having ventured away from it, we can be ready to handle new change.


Being Able to Create Change

If we are creating change without having to worry about external factors then finding the middle position, and returning to it, we can continue to create change and we can be fully flexible in the change that we create. To create the change that we desire we need to be in a position that is stable, balanced.

Even if we are moving to a position that is unstable, starting from a position that is stable will allow us to move to the new position more easily.

The middle position is the stable center that we can start from.


Having Options

In handstands, the middle position or middle handstand is a position from which we can do the most things. If we jump up into a handstand and keep our legs at the same level as the pelvis with knees either straight, bent or just slightly bent, and we can balance, then from this position we can easily pull our legs up into full handstand. We can also drop down with control into chataranga dandasana (A push up position with the elbows bent.) We can lower our feet to the floor between our hands as if jumping forwards from down dog. We can even swing our legs through our hands so that we end up sitting.

Practicing the middle position we make it easier for ourselves to do handstand, we also make it easier to do Ashtanga style sun salutations, Vinyasas, and Arm Balances as well. As an example of the latter, from the middle position we could lower down into Bakasana.

Going into the middle position we give ourselves the option of moving into anyone of these poses should we choose. Or we can simply hold it.


Moving into the Middle and Out of it

In the video I jump into middle position and from there alternate putting my feet down or pulling them up. This is an exercise I can use in my classes to teach the benefits and flexibility of this position.

In the video, I don’t quite actually make the middle position on my first jump… bad teacher! On the last jump I swing my legs through my hands… only my feet get stuck along the way! Oh well.

I could have crossed my ankles to have given myself the clearance but didn’t. If I ever do get the jump through then I would like to do it with my legs straight and ankles uncrossed and so not crossing my ankles is the way I am working towards that.

As a final note, If we can move into this position and hold it we are more likely to be able to maintain balance or a floating like quality even as we move out of it. Also, in the video I jump into it from down dog. We can also pull up into it from the forward bend position.


Video Enlarged

Practicing the “Middle Position”

The Shoulder Blades-Retracting and Spreading for Stability and Mobility of the Upper Arm

Basic Body Elements are parts of the body that we can practice moving and feeling so that we can use them as part of larger movements or positions. Moving one part of the body relative to another part we change the relationship between those parts and so when moving or positioning our body we can also think in terms of relationships.

By learning to control the relationships within our body individually, we can more easily call them up as required and as part of a larger program.

In this article we focus on the shoulder blades and how they relate to the ribcage.


The Shoulder Blades

The shoulder blades connect to the upper arm to form the shoulder joint. In turn, the shoulder blades connect to the ribcage via the collarbones. While the shoulder blades don’t directly connect to the ribcage via a single joint, the two are connected via muscle tissue which can be used to both position the shoulder blades and stabilize them relative to the ribcage.

Depending on what we are doing with the arms we can position the shoulder blades in such a way that we balance the need for mobility and stability so that we can do what we are trying to do with minimum effort and maximum effectiveness.


Stabilizing the Shoulders

Generally, if we stabilize the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage so that the two are unified, then we give our upper arms a stable platform from which to act.

If we don’t stabilize the shoulder blades then in any action where we are using the arms our shoulder muscles may tighten both to provide stability while at the same time moving the arm. As a result our shoulders can tire more quickly when our shoulder blades aren’t stable.

If we stabilize the shoulder blades using the muscles that connect them to the ribcage then the shoulder muscles, those muscles that connect the shoulder blade to the upper arm, can be used solely to move the arm. As a result they may last longer.


Spreading and Retracting the Shoulder Blades

Scapula Wide

Scapula Retracted

Serratus Anterior, Trapezius, Rhomboids

Serratus Anterior, Trapezius, Rhomboids

Two very basic actions of the shoulder blades are “Spreading” and “Retracting.”

Spreading the shoulder blades means moving them away from the spine. In this movement they slide around the sides of the ribcage towards the front of the body.

This action uses the serratus anterior muscles which attach the inner edges of the shoulder blades to the sides of the ribcage. This is the muscle that looks like a set of fingers reaching around the sides of the chest just below the large chest muscle (pectoralis major.)

Retracting the shoulder blades means moving them towards the spine. I use the spine as a reference so that even if we are only moving one shoulder blade, this reference is still valid.

If the shoulder blades are moving downwards and inwards towards the spine then we are more than likely using the lower fibers of the trapezius, a downwards pointing triangular muscles that attaches between the inner edges of the shoulder blades and the spine.

If the shoulder blades are moving inwards and upwards then the rhomboids are probably being active. These muscles angle upwards from the inner edges of the shoulder blades to the spine.

If we want to stabilize the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage then usually we need to activate one of these muscles to create this stability.


Feeling and Controlling the Inner Edge of the Shoulder Blades

Because all three of these muscles, the serratus anterior, the trapezius, the rhomboids, all attach to the inner edges of the shoulder blade, then if we learn to feel the inner edge of the shoulder blade and practice being aware of it while moving the shoulder blades then we are more likely to activate which ever of these muscles is required.

If we don’t focus on moving the inner edge of the shoulder blades then when we move the shoulder blade we may actually be using some of the shoulder or arm muscles to move the shoulder blades. Remember, the purpose of “fixing” the shoulder blades to the ribcage is to stabilize the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage.


Positioning the Shoulder Blades with Arms In Front of the Body

Plank with Shoulder Blades Slightly Together

Plank with Shoulder Blades Apart

If the arms are in front of the body or are pushing forwards then we can use the serratus anterior to spread the shoulder blades apart.

In a push up position with the elbows straight we could allow our ribcage to sink down in which case the shoulder blades move together. If we engage the serratus anterior, they pull the shoulder blades away from the spine and the same action causes the ribcage to pull up. The feeling is like the back of the ribcage is opening.

Keeping the serratus active in this situation, the stabilize the ribcage relative to the shoulder blades. As a result the shoulder muscles have a firm foundation from which to act on the arms.

If we are standing with our arms in front of us we can use this same action to press the arms forwards and to resist them being pushed back. Here again the shoulders have a firm foundation from which to support the arms.

Generally, with the arms in front of the body, the more we spread the shoulder blades the more mobility our arms have in front of our body. As a result, as well as creating stability, spreading the shoulder blades by using the serrattus anterior also gives the arms room to move.


Arms Up Over the Head

If we are positioning the arms up over the head, the shoulder blades naturally rotate outwards meaning the outer edges move up while the inner edges stay put or move down. Prior to lifting the arms we can spread the shoulder blades so that the serratus anterior activate. We can keep this spread feeling by then reaching the arms forwards. From there we can lift the arms up. As we lift the arms the upper fibers of the trapezius may activate to rotate the shoulder blades outwards.

By first activating the serratus anterior, which pull outwards and downwards, we give the upper trapezius some resistance since these fibers pull upwards and inwards.

Balancing the action of these two muscles we can more finely position the shoulder blades on the ribcage, stabilizing them relative to the ribcage.

Generally, I prefer to lift the shoulders when reaching them above my head since it gives a nice stretch, but at the same time I also keep the shoulder blades spread and the neck long.

Keeping the neck long gives the trapezius room to contract. It also opens up the front of the ribcage. All of these factors together help to provide a foundation for the shoulder blades which then in turn provide a foundation for the upper arms.

If there is weight on the arms such as in handstand or down dog, then by using both the trapezius and the serratus anterior, the upper body can be pushed away from the floor. With the shoulder blades spreading apart and moving towards the ears, the shoulder joint is in a position where it is easier for the shoulder muscles to activate and control the upper arms relative to the shoulder blades.

Bone and muscle can then work together to support the body.


Arms Out to the Sides

Side Plank Preparation, Bottom Shoulder Relaxed

Side Plan Preparation, Bottom Shoulder Engaged

Side Plank (With Bottom Forearm on Floor)

With the arms out to the sides we can again spread the shoulder blades for maximum reach. If we actively spread the shoulder blades then the serratus anterior can be used to resist the weight of the arms because they are pulling the shoulder blades outwards. This can be handy in a pose like side plank where our weight is on one arm at a time.

Prior to lifting into side plank we can “use our shoulder” to press our arm into the floor.

This action moves the ribcage away from the floor.

By pressing the shoulder blade away from the spine, we press the arm down into the floor. Since the floor is immobile, the arm doesn’t move and the same action causes the ribcage to move up, away from the floor.

We are using the serratus to move the ribcage relative to the shoulder.

As a side note, to help balance in this pose, make the outer edge of the bottom foot strong and press it into the floor.

An easier alternative is to do this pose with both knees bent and the bottom shin on the floor.


Reaching the Arms Back

Easy Table Top, Shoulders Relaxed

Easy Table Top, Shoulder Blades Together

Easy Table Top, Pelvis Lifted

Generally, when reaching the arms back, we can move the shoulder blades towards each other. If we are stretching the arms like in “Prasaritta Padotanasana C,” then we can first lengthen the neck, which can open the top of the ribcage. From there we can slide the shoulder blades towards each other. This gives us room to clasp our hands behind our back. We can then work at pulling our arms back and up behind our body.

In a posture like reverse plank (purvotanasana) with our arms behind our body supporting our body with our chest upwards, or “Easy Table top,” the same pose but with the legs crossed, then moving the shoulder blades towards each other helps to lift the ribcage, moving the shoulders back relative to the ribcage so that the chest appears to open.

This action isn’t the same as bending the ribcage backwards. However we can combine it with that action for opening both the front of the ribcage and the front of the shoulders.

Doing this in a position like reverse plank, if we focus on moving the inner edges of the shoulder blades towards each other then the lower trapezius activate to help stabilize the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage. The arms then have a firm foundation from which to support the body.

When going into the pose, we can first move the shoulder blades together. Then we can bend the spine backwards. Then we can lift the pelvis.

And while it can be a good idea to learn a pose like this in stages, once we have the feel of each stage we can then work at doing all of these actions at the same time.


Experiencing the Shoulder Blades

Spreading the Shoulder Blades and Reaching the Arms Up
A simple way to practice experiencing the position of the shoulder blades is to slowly spread them and then retract them in time with the breath.

We can slowly point the elbows backwards as we spread the shoulder blades so that both the back and the front of the shoulders feel open as we inhale. We can relax while inhaling.

Once we have the feeling of this action, we can also lift the arms forwards while inhaling, having first spread the shoulder blades. We can lower the arms while exhaling.

The point of this exercise is to keep the spreading feeling in the shoulder blades while lifting the arms. (We can lengthen the neck just prior to spreading the shoulder blades and relax it while exhaling.)

Adding on to this exercise we can reach the arms forwards and then up, again while keeping the spread feeling in the shoulder blades.

The idea of these exercises is to experience what it is like when the shoulder blades are spread so that you can find this feeling and position no matter how you move into an “Arms Forwards” or “Arms Up” position.

Reaching the Arms to the Sides
We can do a similar exercise but while moving the arms out to the sides as we do in “Warrior 2.” For this exercise, first spread the shoulder blades and then reach the arms outwards while keeping the shoulder blades spread.

Retracting the Shoulder Blades
We can also do an exercise to practice feeling the shoulder blades when they retract. For this exercise, we can move the shoulder blades inwards and upwards while inhaling. We can relax while exhaling.

Remember to focus on moving the inner edges of the shoulder blades inwards so that the rhomboids are activated!

Once comfortable with this action we can then reach the arms back as we slide the shoulder blades towards each other.

We can try this with either an inwards rotation of the arms on an outward rotation. I would suggest practicing both to maximize your experience of your arms and shoulder blades.

The purpose of these exercises isn’t to say that you must move or position your shoulder blades in this way but so that you can learn to feel them and control them and experience them. When you can do that you can then choose how to position your shoulder blades yourself based on what you are trying to do and how your body feels. You can then find the most effective position yourself.

Handstands-Pulling Up From a Forward Bend

Rocking Back and Forwards
Pulling the Pelvis Forwards to Get the Legs Up

If you’ve ever watched Olympic diving, you’ll often see divers pulling up into a handstand prior to diving. They start from a forward bend, and then as if by magic, sweep their legs up, in most cases while keeping them straight. And then they dive. This article isn’t about diving, but about getting our legs up while balancing on our hands. To make this more accessible, we’ll talk about doing this with the knees bent. However, once you understand the basics it should be easy for you to apply to doing it with the legs straight.

This series of exercises is best done in sync with the breath. At each stage focus on feeling your body and your breath and on moving slowly an smoothly. The idea of moving slowly and smoothly is so that you can experience your body by feeling it.


Rocking Forwards and Back

In a standing position, bend forwards and place your hands on the floor, bending your knees as much as you have to. Place your hands shoulder width apart just in front of your feet. Lift your hips high. Slowly rock forwards until you can feel your weight on your hands and then rock back. You will still have some weight on your feet but try and position your body so that you feel most of your weight pressing down through your hands.


Pressing Down through the hands

If possible, reposition your hands so that they are besides your feet. Now use your shoulders to press down through your hands. Use the same feeling as rocking forwards and back. Gently press down through your hands and then release.

If you can’t place your hands next to your feet, then continue rocking backwards and forwards but while doing so, notice your shoulders, use your shoulders to press down through your hands as you rock forwards and release smoothly while rocking back.


Positioning the Shoulders

So that is is easier to balance, a part of what we can do is shift our shoulders forwards. You may already have been doing this, but now you can become conscious of it. As you press into your hands, move your shoulders slightly ahead of your wrists while inhaling. Activate them at the same time. Move back while exhaling.

If you can move your hips forwards at the same time this is even better. See if you can get your hips over your shoulders and your shoulders slightly in-front of your hands. You’ll more than likely have to come up on tippy toes.

You may also find it helpful to lift your pelvis high as you move forwards.


Engaging the Abs

The next step from there is lifting the pelvis. Instead of using the legs though, we use our shoulders, ribcage and waist… Basically we use our abs to unify our ribcage and pelvis so that we can they use our shoulders to lift out pelvis and ribcage together.

So continuing with the previous exercise, with hands slightly forwards or besides the feet, and while moving shoulders and hips forwards, engage the abs so that it feels like you are using your arms to push your pelvis up. At this stage you may find that your feet come off of the floor.


Lifting Up

Rather than trying to jump up, see if you can get your shoulders and pelvis far enough forwards that your feet come off of the floor by themselves.

From there, to get your legs up higher, instead of focusing on lifting your legs, focus on pulling your pelvis forwards so that it is over your shoulders and your spine is vertical. Get your shoulders ahead of your hands to that you upper body is balanced by the weight of your legs. Your upper body is then in front of your hands while your legs are behind them.

Once you get you legs up to the same height as your pelvis, you can continue to lift them but now you move your shoulders and pelvis slowly back, so that they are over your hands, to stay balanced.

So that you can more finely judge how far forwards or back to move your shoulders and hips, feel your hands. Use them to feel where your center is. If you feel your weight moving towards the front of your hands then move your shoulders and hips back. If you feel your weight moving towards the back of your hands then move your shoulders and hips forwards to balance.

Remember to keep your abs engaged. Even better, use your side abs (the obliques.)

The better you can feel your weight via your hands and the better you can control the relationship of your shoulders and hips to your hands the easier you will be able to balance.


Videos Enlarged

Rocking Back and Forwards
Pulling the Pelvis Forwards to Get the Legs Up

Jumping Back to Chatarunga-A Variation on Handstand

Jumping back 6

Jumping back 1

Jumping back 9

Jumping back 2

Jumping back 13

Jumping back 3

Jumping back 26

Jumping back 4

If we pull up into a half handstand from a forward bend we can then reach our upper body forwards as we bend our elbows so that as our legs go back we keep our center over our hands. We can then gently land in Chatarunga Dandasana because we are balanced.


Keep Pelvis Over Hands

If you look at the pictures you can see that my pelvis stays over my hands until the very last instance when I then move it back. When jumping the longer we can keep our pelvis over our hands the longer we can stay balanced and the softer we can land.


Use Hands to Feel Center of Gravity

So that we know that our center is over our hands we can use our hands to feel where our center is. Whether jumping forwards (from down dog) or backwards (to chatarunga), to float, we have to feel where our balance point is and keep it over our hands.

Key elements in doing this are using the hands to feel where our center is as well as using them to help control our relationship with the earth. We can also use our shoulders to help position our center relative to our hands. As for our center, we can consider our pelvis and legs as one unit which we then have to balance on top of our shoulders and hands. If we move our pelvis relative to our hands then our center of gravity moves with it.

While in this video I do lift up with the legs bent, the same principles apply if lifting the legs with the knees straight. We can use our hands to feel where our center is. We can then use our shoulders to position our upper body and we can move the pelvis to orient the upper body so that we are balanced.


Position Pelvis So that Spine is Vertical

When pulling up, once we have our shoulders ahead of our hands, we can focus on pulling our pelvis forwards so that it is over our hands. If we go even further we can get it over our shoulders (not shown.) In this position we may find it easier to find our balance and keep it. From there we can then easily stay balanced as we bend the elbows and then reach the legs back while reaching the chest forwards.

Although I don’t do this in the video, pulling the pelvis over the shoulders once the feet are up gives a longer hang time. It isn’t necessary but it is an option.


Jumping Back from Bakasana

As a way of practicing this feeling, you can try jumping back from Bakasana into Chataranga. This isn’t shown in the video but the feeling is similar. While in Bakasana you can lift your knees off of your arms, reach your chest forwards and your legs back at the same time.

Keep your center over your hands while doing this so that you stay balanced for as long as possible.


Video Enlarged

Handstands-Jumping Up and Pulling Up

Half handstand: notice the angle of my arms and the position of shoulders and pelvis relative to my wrists

Half handstand: notice the angle of my arms and the position of shoulders and pelvis relative to wri

Handstand-Notice relationship of shoulders, pelvis and legs to hands.

Handstand-Notice relationship of shoulders, pelvis and legs to hands.

Half handstand: notice the angle of my arms and the position of shoulders and pelvis relative to wri

Half handstand from down dog: notice the relationship of my upper body to my hands

Jumping up into handstand from downwards dog, as we jump we can try to first get our shoulders slightly ahead of our wrists. With our shoulders ahead of our wrists we can then focus on getting our pelvis forwards and up so that it is over our shoulders. With our pelvis over our shoulders so that our torso is vertical, we can adjust the position of our shoulders so that our upper body is balanced over our hands.


Options and Understanding

The reason for positioning the shoulders in this way is to make it easier to get our center of gravity over our hands with our spine straight.

If however, we jump with our spine bent backwards we might then be able to get our center of gravity over our hands while keeping the shoulders over the hands. In either (any) case, we have to get our center of gravity over our hands in order to balance.


Half Handstand-the Middle Position

So that this is easier to practice we can focus on jumping up to a “half-handstand” where the knees are bent. Once we can do this consistently and easily we can then focus on moving up into full handstand. We can also swing the legs down or forwards into sitting from this position and we can reach the legs back and chest forwards while lowering down into Chaturanga Dandasana.


Using the Eyes and Hands to Sense

While jumping we can use our eyes to see how our shoulders and hands relate. We can then see when we get our shoulders where we want them to be, over and then slightly in front of our hands. At the same time we can use our hands to feel when our center of gravity is over our hands by feeling the way our weight presses down through them.

Pulling up into handstand from a standing forward bend, we can position our center of gravity over our hands before we lift up. That way we are already balanced. We can move our shoulders forwards so that our pelvis is over our hands. We can push through our arms prior to lifting our feet so that our arms bear some of our weight. We can then engage our abs so that our ribcage and pelvis are unified. We can then use our shoulders to help push our pelvis upwards-to take the weight of our body.

Pushing down with our hands and keeping our shoulders forwards, we can lift our hips and get our feet off of the ground. We can then bend our knees to lift our feet higher.

We may also then choose to lift our knees. From there, keeping our center over our foundation we can then move up into handstand.


Learning from Failure

In the first part of this video you see me pull up and then hold with my knees bent. From there I then straighten my legs upwards. I subsequently fall for no apparent reason.

At any rate, we can still use this to learn from. For example, when I pause with my knees bent, my shoulders are in front of my hands. Notice the angle of my arms! Also, my spine is vertical. In this position at least I am balanced. My center of gravity is over my hands!

Just prior to falling my legs are straight and my shoulders, hips and legs are all aligned over my hands… Which begs the question, why did I fall. I felt a small perturbation and got scared. Plus I forgot to check my relationship to those bits of pipe sticking out of the ground before I jumped. I didn’t want to fall and land backwards on anything.


Angling the Arms

In the second part of the video I jump up into half handstand from down dog and I hold it. You can again see the angle of my arms and how that helps be to get my upper body balanced over my hands.
(I then try to get my legs up but without success.)


Video Enlarged

Big Ideas and Small Ideas-Elements of a Handstand

handstandI am in the process of developing a training program for people who want to do handstands. I thought this would be useful both for people who practice yoga by themselves, and also for people who teach yoga who want to understand the elements of a handstand so that they can teach it to various levels of students. In the context of Basic Principles and Understanding, I wanted to write this article as an aid to understanding how to break down a complex idea down into simple to understand or do smaller ideas.

Elements of Doing

We can break down the process of doing a handstand into three main elements or stages:

  • jumping up
  • staying up
  • coming down

These elements can then be broken down into smaller elements. In the Jumping up category I can include ideas like:

  • going up and down using feet on a wall (to get first timers used to being upside down)
  • jumping up and down with feet on a wall (to get beginners used to the idea of jumping)
  • jumping up using the down leg
  • jumping up using the swinging leg
  • jumping up with one leg at a time (down leg and swinging leg working together)
  • jumping up from downward dog with one leg
  • jumping up from downward dog with both legs
  • jumping up from downward using the hips as opposed to the knees
  • jumping/pulling up from a forward bend
  • jumping up using the shoulders and hips in a reciprocating action (????)

These are all different techniques or ways that I’ve taught hand stand at one time or another.

The staying up category would include

  • using our connection with the earth to feel where our center is so that we can sense when it is moving away from the center of our foundation
  • recovery techniques for when you feel yourself tipping forwards or backwards and ways of practicing those techniques
  • staying up for longer and longer
  • variations of handstands.

Coming down from handstand would be the easiest section to teach. I would make a joke about how for most of us this is the easiest part, but I have had students who come out with absolutely no control and so this section would be to teach such people how to apply the same awareness they use going into the pose to coming out. Actually, coming out could be a good way to teach people to go in since coming out with control requires control and that control could then be used to help people jump in.

Elements of the Body

We can also break down the body into a number of elements that are key in any of the above three stages. The purpose of breaking down the body into these elements is so that we can practice feeling, controlling and understanding them. The ideal is to get to the point that we can sense each part and respond to what we sense based on what we are trying to do without having to think. To get to that point we can design and use exercises that help us to sense and control these elements individually as well as together in the context of a handstand (or any other action we are trying to do.)

  • the hands, using them to feel and control center
  • the elbows (it might seem obvious to keep them straight but for those that can’t then it can be useful to practice drills so that students can practice feeling when their elbows are straight
  • the shoulders since they control the relationship between the upper body and the arms.
  • our hips and pelvis, since this is approximately where our center of gravity is
  • the legs, a key element in jumping up, and once up they can be used to express the handstand. Reach them up!

I would include practices, exercises and/or drills for learning to both feel and control these parts in a handstand and out of a handstand.

Getting Comfortable and Failing Safely

For people who have never been upside down, a key element is to get them used to being upside in small, controllable and comfortable stages. Hence using the wall can be a key training tool.

For those who want to venture away from the wall, an important tool is giving them the ability to fail safely, some way of falling that doesn’t cause injury. Generally in handstand the easiest way to do that is to shift the hands in such a way that they can fall with their feet in front of them as opposed to behind them. For people not used to moving their hands while upside down, that is something else that can be practice against a wall.
Another key point in both cases is to get into the habit of making sure that our practice area is safe for us to fail within.

Yet another practice, and this takes some balls, is to tuck and forward roll at of a handstand.

Transitions

One of the reasons for doing a handstand is that we might want to use it as a transition from one pose to another or as a pose in a string of poses. As an example, we might to bend backwards into a back arch, then come up into a handstand, and then from there back to standing. And so once we’ve learned or at least gotten comfortable being on our hands, we can then practice entering it from a posture like wheel pose. We can start of with our feet elevated on a table or low bench, or we can use a wall to walk down and up.

All of these ideas are tied together by the big idea of learning to stand and balance on our hands. All of these methods require practice, but because they are all simple to understand, the practicing part can be relatively simple and straight forward.

Also important is that each of these elements is meaningful in the context of doing a handstand but also in the context of learning to feel and control our body. They are readily definable which means that they can be sensed, understood and we can learn the necessary control to do each of them.

The net result after practice is the ability to do a handstand or at least to know what we need to do to do it. An added benefit is that we understand our body well enough that we can apply that understanding to other things that we use our body for.

Teaching, Adjusting and Firm Foundations

Since this program would be geared towards teachers as well as self-practitioners, we could look at the big idea of teaching handstands to a class. A key element would be spotting which in itself is a variation of the same techniques that are used in handstand. As an example, doing a handstand, or any posture for that matter, our connection with the earth is our foundation. In the case of handstand our foundation is provided by our hands, arms and shoulders. These need to be sensitive, stable and responsive in order for the handstand to be done. With our foundation taken care of, in order to stay balanced all we then need to do is keep our center over it.

If we are aware of this as a teacher who is adjusting someone else then we can first make sure that we are in a position so that no matter what happens we have a firm foundation and that we can keep our own center over that foundation. If we aren’t then we adjust how we relate to the person we are adjusting so that we can stay balanced. At the same time, we make sure that in whatever way we adjust the person we are working on, they are able to maintain their foundation and keep their center over it.

In this way we apply our own sensitivity to sensing our students and our relationship with them just as we are teaching them to be sensitive to their body and their relationship with the earth. In both cases we then have the ability to balance, to do what we are trying to do whether it is teach a handstand or do it.

handstands