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.


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.


Dealing with Life’s Hassles

A baby isn’t necessarily a hassle but it can be a challenge when you are trying to get things done or do some of the things that we enjoy. Leo Babauta wrote an entry about dealing with disruption here.
My own feelings are that if time is limited because of disruptions then we may have to choose one thing that we really want to get done.
As an example, for a while I was learning Chinese, doing calligraphy, writing a book and teaching yoga all while having a house, partner and child to pay for.
Plus I wanted to continue to do Tai Ji and also learn Jiu Jitsu and maybe occasionally hang out with friends while also looking after the baby on occasion so that my partner can do the same.
(We haven’t quite got to the stage where we can afford day care but we’re working towards it.)
For myself I decided to temporarily drop the Chinese and focus on writing my book. Actually, I finished one book and am now working on two others that complement each other. Both are on subjects that I know alot about and in one case the book is already written I’ve just got to revise it and add photos.
You may not be writing a book. Maybe one of the activities you choose to focus on is getting ready for the marathon, or going to the gym, or working on the business. So that you can get things done the easiest thing possible is to break the big things you have to get done into smaller meaningful tasks. Writing a book I focus on chapters or pages or sections on a time. Sections that overall have some purpose. Then it is easy for me to recognize when I am done. And those times when I don’t get done, when I have to stop because of a disruption or because of limited time finished, because I am aware of what I am trying to do it is easy to pick up where I left off and continue with what I am doing.
It may be harder to train for a marathon this way. You simply need those long runs. So what do you do. Use the opportunity of not running to take a rest. Or you can use it to visualize yourself running. Feel your body as you run and imagine the feeling you would like to have. Feel the weight of your bones as you carry them forwards a step at a time. Feel the way your ribcage and belly move as you breathe. Notice where your eyes are looking as you run. Make the experience as real as possible even if only for a few minutes at a time.
What if you are working on losing weight. Then divide your workout into smaller units. Work out for fifteen minutes at a time. Find 5 yoga poses or tai ji postures you can do in fifteen minutes or less. Then find another group of postures. Ideally these postures complement each other so that you finish them feeling balanced and better than before you started. Breaking big tasks into smaller ones it is easy to get things done.
Also another practice is un-tightening your mind. Instead of resenting every moment lost, accept it and do what you are doing. It may actually be only in our minds that we haven’t got time. If we focus on doing what we are doing, changing diapers, feeding the baby, discussing things with our partner, then if we focus on that act then we are using time to the best of our ability and then when it comes time to do what we want to do we are already in the right headspace for doing it.