Handstands-Center, The Pelvis and the Psoas

Handstands and Controlling 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”

Doing the Dance of Shiva Slow and Smooth

Slow Warp Warm Ups (Horizontals)
Slow Warp Warm Ups (Verticals)
Warp Math
Slow Warp 1 from 1-1
Slow Warp 1 MCL from 1-1

I’ve recently discovered that doing the Dance of Shiva slowly feels really good. It gives me time to feel what I am doing.

My inspiration for doing it slowly comes from a number of sources, one of the main ones being Tai Ji.

Tai Ji

I’ve been doing Tai Ji for a number of years now and what I now find is, that having learned to feel the movements while doing them slowly, it is easy to carry that “Feeling” into doing those same movements fast. In either case, instead of thinking about what I have to do I feel it. And I adjust what I am doing when I need to so that what I am doing feels good.

While learning to do a Gong Fu sword form which is supposed to be done fast, I’ve been practicing the movements slowly to get the feeling for them so that once I have the feeling I try to then carry that feeling into doing the movements gradually faster and faster. Any time I notice a movement where I don’t yet know the feeling, I simply practice that “segment” until I get the feeling and then I try to string the movements all together again.

The overall feeling can be like riding a wave, allowing the energy of one movement to carry me into the next movement, and so on until the whole routine is done.

This doesn’t come easy. I’ve had to practice. As an example, to learn the sword form, I first play the relavant section of the DVD, watching the same piece over and over again so that I understand what I am supposed to do and so that I can then try to mimic it when I go to the park to practice. Often times I’ll think I understand the movement but I’ve forgotten to look at some key element, perhaps the direction I should be facing in, which foot steps first and where, or even what I am doing with my sword hand and my free hand.
However, I’m now getting better at knowing what to look for. Once I’ve got the choreography mapped out, then I can start to feel the moves, making adjustments according to the way the moves feel each time I do them.

Eventually I get to a point where I can practice in such a way that it feels like my whole body is involved-in such a way that I can feel my whole body in each movement. That doesn’t necessarily mean every part of my body moves, but it does mean that each part of my body supports what I am doing whether that part is stationary or dynamic.

Relaxed and Smooth

Generally, in order to maximize my ability to feel my body I try to be as relaxed as possible given the position or movement that I am trying to do. If I deliberately engage any part of my body it is to provide support, positioning bones relative to each other and the forces acting on them, so that other parts can relax. Staying relaxed and smoothly connecting one movement to the next, I can then use the weight of my body or the weight of the sword, or momentum to carry me from one position to the next.

Smoothness is another important aspect of body learning to flow and flow itself.

Being relaxed is important, feeling the body is also important, but when we move, smoothness is how we transmit energy, how we allow the energy of what we are doing to carry us from one position to the next. Smooth is efficient, and it can also be beautiful. Smooth and Slow leads to Smooth and Fast.

Feeling What we are Doing

Applying this to the Dance of Shiva, if we practice doing it slowly and smoothly we can focus on feeling the movements and positions as we do them. As a result we become present. Doing something fast is another way of becoming present, especially if you have to focus on what comes next. However, if we learn slowly first, then we can carry the smoothness that we learn from doing slowly into doing it quickly. As a result we are less likely to suffer injury or be sore the next day.

In the videos my friends and I are doing the movements slowly. For my friends, the movements are still relatively new. However, because we are doing the movements slowly they have time to feel the movements even though they are still beginners.

As for myself, because I am focused on feeling what I am doing there is little or not sense of “when is this gonna be over with.” All I’m focused on is what movement is next so that I can do that movement smoothly.

Doing the movements slowly, over time we gradually realize the best path for each movement, the path that takes the least energy while still maintaining the shape or intent of what we are doing. And this path may be different from day to day, depending on our body and the environment, but if we now the feeling that we are looking for then we can find the place of smooth movement anyway.

Using slow practice to practice feeling our body, as we practice longer and longer sequences, we can keep the transitions between movements smooth. Better yet we can start to involve our head, neck, ribcage and spine into our movement. The better we can feel what we are doing with our arms the easier this is to do. The next step from there, apart from simply practicing doing it faster and faster, is to add the legs. But for now we can focus on feeling our arms, and in addition our breath.

The Breath

The breath is a movement that we can learn to feel. In the video’s my friends and I do a very simple breathing technique. While exhaling we allow our spines to bend forwards slightly and we allow our ribs to sink down. While inhaling we gradually straighten our spine, at the same time pulling our head and ribs up. Breathing slowly and smoothly in this fashion it is very easy to feel our ribs, head and even the parts of our spine.

The feeling feels nice.

Once this rhythm has stabilized we can then add arm movements, using both our inhales and our exhales to do one movement each.

The Positions

The four horizontal positions are shown below in the first row of pictures. They are the same for both hands. The are named 1, 2, 3 and 4. The four vertical positions are shown in the next picture and are called a, b, c and d. I’ve included them here so that you can recognize them in the videos, and so you can follow along if you wish.

For more details on the positions click here.

The Movements

There are seven basic movements from each position. They are called: Forwards, Backwards, Transquarter, Change Forwards, Change Backwards, Change, Change Transquarter. We can use these movements to connect each position to every other position.

In the videos the sequence is designed so that we we practice all of these moves from each position. So for example, from position 1, we do a Forwards move and then we return to 1 using a Backwards move so that we can then do another move. Then we do a Change Forwards followed by a Change Backwards.

For more details on the movements in general click here.

Sequence Tables

The movement sequences for the first video are in the first row below while those for the second video are in the second row. The left hand column for each table is the movement while the right hand column in each table is the position the arms are in after each move. Notice how after every two moves the hand returns to the starting position.

If doing these movements, I would suggest getting comfortable with the choreography first and then once you are comfortable, focus on feeling the position of your hand, elbow and shoulder while doing the moves. If that isn’t enough, focus on feeling your ribs and spine at the same time.

Try to make the movements feel as connected as possible while also having a clear idea of each position as you move to and from it.

Warps and Warp Tables

Warp 1 from 1-1
Warp 1 from 1-1 MCL

Once we’ve learned the basic movements and positions with one hand we can learn to use both arms at the same time. Slow Warps are one way of practicing positions and movements that use both arms at the same time.

A “Warp Sequence” consists of four movements that we repeat four times in order to return the arms to the position from which they started. In the two tables to the right, the left hand column of each table shows the warp sequence for Warp 1. Each of the other columns represents one repetition of the same warp sequence, going from left to right.

Notice that the bottom table is the mirror image of the sequence in the top table. The actual Warp Sequence for Warp 1 is
which is what we have in the Table 1. This is read from left to right and applied to the body from left to right. If we read or say the exact same movements (and their accompanying positions) but apply them to our body from right to left, then Table 2 is the result.

The advantage of using the same sequence is that we only have to remember one set of movements, then all we do is mirror the movements, from left to right, for a balanced practice.

In the first Slow Warp video my friends and I apply the formula from right to left. However, while watching and doing, you can mirror what we do so that you apply the coordinates from left to right. Then in the MCL (Mirror Cross Link) video, we do apply the coordinates from left to right. You then do the opposite, from right to left.

Warp Math

Now you may have noticed in third video my friends and I writing the tables out by hand. This is one way of practicing or understanding both a Warp and the movements that make it up. Plus we can then use our table as a cheat sheet.

You’ll notice that I write from right to left. That is because I’m writing out the Mirror Cross Link Table while my friends took turns writing out the Warp Table.

As a final note, in the video we are writing out the warp table for Warp 1 starting from position a-a. In the other videos, we are doing the warp and its Mirror Cross Link starting from position 1-1.

Videos-Large Size

Slow Warp Warm Ups (Horizontals)
Slow Warp Warm Ups (Verticals)
Warp Math
Slow Warp 1 from 1-1
Slow Warp 1 MCL from 1-1

The Dance of Shiva-Basic Positions and Movements

Practicing Movements from
Horizontal Position Starts
Practicing Movements from
Vertical Position Starts
Horizontal Positions (right)
and Vertical Positions (left)

Horizontal Positions

Four horizontal positions of the Dance of Shiva are shown in the first column on the right.
In each of these positions the palm is held facing horizontally upwards. In positions 1 and 3 the fingers point out to the sides while in positions 2 and 4 the fingers point inwards.

Vertical Positions

The four vertical positions are shown in the second column. These are called “a, b, c and d.”

In all of these positions the palm faces outwards so that the surface of the palm is vertical. In positions a and c the fingers point forwards. In positions b and d the fingers point backwards. The elbow is straight for positions a, b and d and bent for position b.

Same Plane Movements

If we focus solely on positions in the horizontal plane we can use three movements to connect those positions to each other. The same movements can be used to connect positions in the horizontal plane to each other or positions in the vertical plane to each other.
These three movements are called: Forwards, Backwards and Transquarter.

They are summarized below.

1 to 2, 2 to 3, 3 to 4 and 4 to 1
a to b, b to c, c to d, d to a

1 to 4, 4 to 3, 3 to 2 and 2 to 1
a to d, d to c, c to b, b to a

1 to 3, 2 to 4, 3 to 1 and 4 to 2.
a to c, b to d, c to a, from d to b

Change Plane Movements

So that we can connect positions in one plane to positions in the other plane we need four more moves. These moves are as follows:

Change Forwards:
1-b, b-3, 3-d, d-1,
a-2, 2-c, c-4, 4-a

Change Backwards:
1-d, d-3, 3-b, b-1,
a-4, 4-c, c-2, 2-a

1-a, 2-b, 3-c, 4-d,
a-1, b-2, c-3, d-4

Change Transquarter:
1-c, 2-d, 3-a, 4-b,
a-3, b-4, c-1, d-2

Movement Icons

We can use the following icons to summarize all movements:

Cyclic Moves and Jump Moves

Looking at these icons we might be inclined to class the Forwards, Backwards, Change Forwards and Change Backwards movements as “Cyclic” and the Transquarter, Change and ChangeTransquarter movements as “Jump” moves.

Videos Enlarged

Practicing Movements from
Horizontal Position Starts

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