One of my many 2017 resolutions is to master a handstand. Apparently, it’s more popular than a headstand. Chris Magee, Head of Yoga at Another_Space, told me during a personal how to do a headstand workshop (another goal) that whenever he posts a picture of a handstand on Instagram it gets more likes than a headstand. How come? I asked. “It’s because we have a reference point for a handstand, most of us tried them as kids, plus they look more impressive in a photo,” he reasoned. Magee also explained that the handstand is a progression from the headstand, so if you have that under your belt, then you’re ready to transition from your head to your hands. Essentially with a headstand, you are balancing on your head and your arms or hands to create a triangle- or tripod-shaped base, and with a handstand, you’re just on two hands so strength and balance are key. As with the headstand guide, there are certain stretches, yoga holds and sequences that will strengthen your body in preparation for a handstand.
I called on two of my favourite yoga teachers Fern Ross, founder of Fern Ross Yoga, and Jessica Skye, who runs Fat Buddha Yoga, to share their tips. Keep scrolling to learn how to master the art of the grown-up handstand once and for all.
Warm Up Your Wrists
“Handstands put a lot of pressure on our wrists, so it’s important to ensure they are warm before beginning your practice,” says Ross.
- Starting in a tabletop position with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips, begin to circle the shoulders over your wrists, first clockwise then anticlockwise.
- Next, turn your fingertips out to the sides, and rock back and forth from side to side a few times.
- Now, turn your fingers to face your knees (palms still on the mat) to stretch out the back of your forearm, sending your hips back towards your heels to increase the stretch.
- Finally, flip your hands so the back of your hand is on the mat, fingers towards knees, palms facing upwards. This is a fairly intense stretch, so try one hand at a time initially.
Get Strong in Downward Dog
“You need a certain degree of upper body strength and general body awareness to be able to handstand, so start by finessing your foundations. Downward dog is a deceptively simple posture that strengthens and stabilises your entire body, especially the shoulder girdle and core, while also lengthening the hamstrings and calves,” says Ross.
- First, come into a tabletop position with your hands stacked under the shoulders, knees under hips and tops of your feet flat on the mat.
- Next, tuck your toes, press into your hands and lift your hips towards the sky. Once you’re in the posture, the real work begins: spread your fingers wide and really root down through each and every knuckle, especially the forefinger and thumb.
- Roll your biceps and elbow creases towards the front of the mat and energetically hug the elbows towards one another. Draw your shoulders down and away from your ears and ‘wrap’ them around your ribs: this encourages correct engagement of the serratus anterior (the big muscle along the side of the ribs that helps protect the shoulders). Lift your tailbone and hips towards the ceiling while pressing the heels towards the floor. Your body should be in a v-shape and everything should feel engaged and active. Hold for one minute, building up to five.
Progress to High Plank
High plank is a great way to strengthen your core and arms, which play a key role in a successful handstand. Fern Ross shares this guide:
- From downward dog, ripple your spine forwards until you arrive in a high plank position. Your shoulders should be stacked over your wrists, biceps and elbows facing forwards, shoulders and collarbones broad and drawing away from your ears, and your body in a straight line down to the heels.
- Draw your navel in towards the spine and broaden your lower back. Press through the heels so there is equal weight in your torso and legs (this makes it much easier!). Hold for 30 seconds building up to one minute, repeating three times.
Chaturanga is a key move in mastering a headstand, so if you nail this you’re well on your way to mastering both types of inversion.
“This pose is in pretty much every yoga class, but takes real strength and control to do properly,” notes Ross.
- From high plank, rock forward so your shoulders are over your wrists. Slowly begin to bend your elbows until the elbows and shoulders are in line, and your elbows are stacked over your wrists at 90 degrees. Do not let your shoulders dip below your elbows or you will put unnecessary strain on your shoulder girdle.
- Now press through the palms of your hands and draw your shoulders down the back of your body, hug your elbows in towards your ribs, lift your navel towards your spine and broaden your lower back, pressing through your heels. Hold for three breaths, building up to one minute.
“It’s a beast of a pose so be patient!” advises Ross. “To take it even further, try holding chaturanga then pressing back to downward dog, and repeat five to ten times.”
Practice at a Wall
If you’re nervous about going upside-down, then you can use the wall as a support. Try a couple of L-shape poses to get you used to the feeling of a handstand without any chance of falling.
- Stand to face the wall in Tadasana, and then bring your foot up the wall with your leg parallel to the ground (if your hamstrings are tight, your knee can stay a bit bent). Lift your arms up overhead, and, with your hands flat, press your palms towards the ceiling: See, you’re in an inverted split leg handstand.
- Now, bring your leg back down and turn around so you’re facing away from the wall. Bring both hands to either side of your feet, bending the knees as much as you need to to get your hands flat on the floor with the arms completely straight (do not bend the elbows or you will fall). Spread your fingers wide, press through your palms and then start to walk your feet up the wall until the body is at a 90-degree angle with the hands on the floor and the feet on the wall. Your hips and shoulders should be stacked over your hands.
“This is a great posture for building upper body and deep core strength, as well as an awareness and understanding of how to hold your body in space,” explains Ross. “Hold for up to one minute. Once you’re comfortable here, play around with lifting one leg up towards the ceiling, holding for five breaths and then switching.”
Try an L-Sit
“This is my favourite core exercise, as it creates a great awareness of the bandhas (that lifting of the pelvic floor and upwards lift of the navel towards the spine) that will benefit your entire practice,” explains Ross.
- Start seated on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you and two blocks on either side of the thighs, just in front of the hips (if you don’t have blocks, two big books with do).
- Press your hands into the blocks, and, using your bandhas, lift the hips up and back. Hold for 30 seconds. To progress, try lifting one leg at a time, and then both legs.
Move from Plank to Pike
“This is another favourite for firing up the core and also overcoming the fear that naturally occurs when the hips stack over the shoulders,” says Ross.
- Grab a towel and come into a high plank position with the towel under your feet. As you exhale, use your core muscles (and toes) to draw the towel as close to your hands as you can, until your hips are stacking over your shoulders and your legs are close to your chest.
- Inhale to return to plank, and repeat five to ten times.
Try One-Legged Hops
Jessica Skye gets everyone attempting one-legged hops in her Fat Buddha Yoga classes.
- In downward dog, straighten your arms so your shoulders are stacked above your elbows and hands. Now, raise one leg, point your toes and give it some little hops.
- With your palms firmly planted in the floor start to take some donkey kicks, pushing off the floor with the grounded foot and sweeping the raised leg up for lift.
- Keep pushing the floor away from your with your hands… and remember to breathe.
- Do five on each side for three sets, taking a short rest in between.
“Don’t kick with the straight leg, however tempting, as you will be using momentum rather than balance,” says Ross. “Once you start to get more control, a good tip is to try tapping the feet together at the top to help you feel that vertical handstand line. Once you begin to catch the balance, squeeze the legs and glutes together, draw the navel towards the spine, press through the hands and up through the feet and keep your gaze between your hands,” adds Ross.
“Whether you can catch some air and stay up for a while or are still working on it, this is a great move to work your body and increase your heart rate with plyometric movement, as well as switching on your upper body and core strength,” says Skye.
Learn How To Fall
“Learning to fall means you can take your handstand away from the wall,” says Ross.
- Starting in downward dog, walk your feet in and then take a half kick up (not full), then cartwheel out to the side.
“Once you learn how to fall safely, you’ll feel so much more confident kicking up away from the wall. You can also fall over into wheel if you have it in your practice already. Whatever you do, try to soften and relax into it: If you stiffen and tense the body, you are more likely to injure yourself,” she adds.
Be Patient but Persistent
“My handstand practice always progresses when the seasons change, as spring and summer provide a wealth of free (and soft!) outdoor practice spaces, so get outside and get playful” suggests Ross. “Try not to fixate on the end goal, as mastering a handstand can take many years of practice for some and lots of consistency and repetition, but if you retain a light attitude and simply enjoy the playfulness of the posture, you’ll get there. No posture challenges our mental and emotional focus quite like a handstand: Some days my handstand is there, others I can kick up a million times and barely catch the balance. What matters is commitment and consistency, and focusing less on the outcome and more the positive and wide-reaching this incredible practice has on all areas of our lives.”
To book into one of Fern Ross’s yoga sessions, head to fernrossyoga.co.uk or follow her on Instagram @fernrossyoga. You can find out about Jessica Skye’s classes on her website fatbuddhayoga.com, and follow Jessica on Instagram @iamjessicaskye.
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