Preface: As a way to motivate you to nail your handstand, here is video of me demonstrating everything you can do with your handstand once you get it. Learning to balance on your hands will open up an entirely new world for you. If I can do it, YOU can do it. Enjoy the post and let it be the wind for your sails.
“If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” — Obi-Wan Kenobi
Admit it. You’re skeptical.
You’ve done the usual. Kick up at the wall, hope for the best, and pray one day that you’ll muster up the courage.
But it doesn’t work.
You question yourself, “What’s wrong with me?”
Then the meaningless drabble begins.
First, you feed yourself the excuses like “I don’t have enough time”, or “Gah…thank god I’m not a fitness freak and actually have a life”, and maybe even “I make more money than him, my life *is* better than that loser’s.”
In a effort to console that hideous, dark, jealous side of you.
Then you attack yourself.
“I’m worthless”, “I’ll never do it”, and “I’m clumsy.”
And the classic phrase we’ve all feed ourselves in the moment of feeling insecure, unworthy and hopeless:
“My [insert random anatomy here] is too [insert perceived body inadequacy here].”
It Doesn’t Have to be this Way
Have you ever been so excited about something?
So excited that you’ve lost your breath.
Leaned back-first against a wall.
And slid all the way down until you hit the floor?
Closed your eyes.
And let your face fall into your palms?
Not out of misery, but out of unbridled-sheer-joy?
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Seriously, watch this documentary.
Need motivation? Just watch it.
Who is Jiro?
Meet your other handstand teacher. He’s not teaching you to balance, he’s putting your mind in the right place so I can teach how you balance.
Jiro is a testament to what happens with an impenetrable will, unalterable work ethic, and ironclad consistency.
Is it Possible for One Yoga Pose to Change your Life?
As a yoga teacher, the question I get asked more than anything else:
“How do I do a handstand?”
Students tell me all the time, they feel so close yet so far.
And, have felt so close for so long, yet can’t seem to crack it.
I wish I could give you the magic potion and say, “Here, drink this.”
Or give you a little white powder and say, “Here, snort this.”
But I can’t.
There’s not one secret, potion, or powder that will teach you how to balance.
Shortcuts just don’t work.
Handstand causes pain for people, yoga practitioners and non-yoga practitioners.
I see intense desire.
Handstand is the ultimate act of defiance toward gravity.
I see pain, frustration, anger, sadness, impatience, and disbelief when learning handstand.
I felt these things myself. It sucks.
With handstand you’ll experience the gamut of human emotion.
Some days you will feel agonizingly close and others you’ll feel as if your progress was snatched right out from under you.
Let me let you in on a little secret.
There were times I thought I would never get it.
There were times I doubted myself.
This self-belief was toxic and I was poisoning myself with my own thoughts.
This is why I’m writing this guide, partially to motivate you and partially because handstand holds a special place in my heart.
I want you to experience the same.
I’ve helped plenty of people balance and I’m going to share my experiences with you.
Are you with me?
Just Crush It
I have a degree in electrical engineering and to describe it in one sentence would be to send power from point A to point B as efficiently as possible.
This is the same approach I take with handstand.
The problem with handstand is this hyper-fixation on the move itself.
You can kick up thousands of times and unfortunately, that won’t guarantee you’ll get it.
I’ll teach you handstand in the most streamlined way possible without destroying your body in the process.
Think of handstand like a pyramid, at the very top there’s balance and below it are layers and layers of poses and exercises that teach you critical physical and emotional lessons about yourself.
At the very bottom is the foundation. This foundation must be rock solid.
In order to conquer handstand you must understand where your foundation needs strengthening (or opening). The foundation of handstand is built off:
- Arm strength
- Core strength
- Hamstring flexibility
- Shoulder flexibility
In order to get started, look at these four points.
Now look at yourself.
Honestly, which one of these is your weakest?
With handstand, everyone has a different starting point.
It is not good enough to simply create a guide that states do A, B, C, and D in this order and you’ll get it.
The reason I’m having you choose one of these four areas now is building up and focusing on your weakest link first will result in the fastest initial progress.
This may seem overly basic to you, but…
Doing handstand isn’t the only way to improve your handstand.
Acknowledging and improving your foundation will make your entire yoga practice better.
Ditch this Mentality Fast
Although your specific goal is to learn handstand, don’t take the pose-oriented approach.
This is a short-sighted approach and will slow your progress to a screeching halt.
Play the long game.
Focus on how your body works.
Not what your body can do.
If you adopt this approach, you’ll learn faster.
And although you’re reading an ultimate guide on handstand, I’d assume your goal is to learn more than just a handstand.
Mental Preparation: Prepare the Brain for Liftoff
Being in the right spot mentally is a critical part of the process.
Let me repeat that because it’s so important:
Being in the right spot mentally, at all times, is critical to the process.
Again, watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Have self-belief and not self-doubt, through the entire process, no matter how slow or fast you think you are progressing.
Deep down, is progress really the most important thing to you?
Learning to balance on your hands is a battle between your physical self and your mental self.
If you ever catch yourself in a negative mindset while practicing handstand, just stop, you are doing yourself more harm than good.
Don’t practice without believing.
Let’s jump back to your foundation.
Now that you’ve addressed which area of your foundation is the weakest, make a concerted effort to spend extra time on that area.
Meet the Cast
Meet Cade: The athlete (The big, burly quarterback in college type)
Let’s start with the upshot, Cade has an extraordinarily high amount of arm strength so supporting his bodyweight on his arms shouldn’t be a problem.
However, because he played a sport that involved a ball he probably has some imbalances, whether that be in his shoulders or hips, he should id these areas and address them as soon as possible.
Note that you will never be truly balanced on both sides.
However, drastic imbalances can be corrected (my left arm).
These imbalances can ultimately cause your torso to rotate and there is no need to deal with this complexity until you reach balancing on one hand (yes, I have high ambitions for you).
Cade’s leg muscles are also tight.
Meet Davin: The endurance athlete (Marathons & IRONMAN in Hawaii type)
Davin’s leg muscles are all ridiculously tight.
Not just her hamstrings, which are the most noticeable, but her quadriceps and calves also.
This must be her main focus, to develop some functional flexibility in her legs.
First, she must focus on folding forward correctly.
When the hamstrings are extremely tight, it prevents the pelvis from hinging properly and puts unnecessary pressure on the lower back.
The reason to make a concerted effort on your leg flexibility is it will dramatically reduce the strain you feel in your lower back every time you kick up.
Meet Gwyneth: The semi-flexible female who has taken up running as a hobby (average female who has tried to stay “in-shape” all her life)
Gwyneth is in the majority when it comes to yoga, her stiff legs, unstable shoulders and bendy spine make for an interesting handstand experience.
This is a tricky situation because it makes supporting the weight of her body on the hands the largest initial hurdle.
And from having tighter hamstrings it makes straightening out the spine more of a challenge.
Her tendency after she develop’s the strength in her arms is to then kick up and flip over into a backbend (wheel).
That can be fixed.
Meet Eben: The flexible to the point of unstable person (the dancer, ex-gymnast, or child contortionist)
Eben’s situation is tricky but solvable.
His challenge will be the same as above, developing enough arm strength to confidently hold himself up.
Fear plays an enormous factor here because when his shoulders feel unstable he doesn’t have the confidence to hold himself up.
This is scary.
Streamline the Process by Grasping these Concepts
Avoid thinking of a handstand as balance or no balance and if you aren’t upside down immediately, you’ve failed.
Black and white thinking will send you to the graveyard.
“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” — John Wooden
Instead, think of every attempt as an opportunity to learn something new about how your body works.
Stacking: Accelerate Your Learning by Playing Jenga
Stacking is important.
In fact, it’s probably the most important concept to grasp not just for handstand, but for balance in general.
Stacking is related to proprioception. Recall proprioception is your ability to sense your body’s position in space.
The fundamental position for handstand is learning to stack your hips over your shoulder over your wrists.
Easier said than done.
Stacking the shoulders over the wrists is not so bad but simultaneous stacking the hips over the shoulders and the shoulders over the wrist will take some practice.
If you are at the point where you are jumping up with one leg or two legs you probably find your hips stop short of your shoulders and you either fall down or your lower back arches in order to compensate.
Not being able to stack the hips comes down to one of two things, either fear or general lack of body awareness.
You’ll overcome fear when you are confident with your level of strength (primarily in the arms) and have mastered the ability to fall safely.
No falling = No balance, unfortunately.
Hone in on your awareness with proprioception exercises.
The Half Moon Experiment
I’ll give you one example to try.
On the surface, you probably won’t see the immediate connection to handstand.
It’ll become more apparent the more you practice.
The following exercise will help you develop a sense of “feel” which is far more important than sight when upside down.
Take half moon (ardha chandrasana). Initially, do this pose away from the wall and focus on your hips for a second.
What do you feel?
Are your hips really stacked one on top of the other?
“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” — Mark Twain
Have you ever even noticed when doing this pose?
Or, have you thought they’re stacked but they actually aren’t?
The problem happens if your hips are not stacked but you believed they were stacked all along and have associated this un-stacked feeling with the feeling of stacked-ness.
This is an example of proprioception in all it’s glory and why you should work diligently to improve it.
Now go to the wall and do half moon against it.
This extra support from the wall will allow you to get the top hip truly over the bottom assuming you have the flexibility to do so.
Close your eyes and feel what that’s like to have your top hip directly over the bottom.
Associate that new feeling with “stacked” and go practice it away from the wall.
This brain and body mismatch that I illustrated here affects your handstand.
Your hips are your symbolic center of all balance and movement and developing an acute sense of where they are in space at all times is critical.
How to Bake the Perfect Chocolate Cake: The Ingredients of Handstand
Did I just make you hungry?
No, I’m not actually going to teach you how to bake a cake.
Ok, you’re a little disappointed now.
Let’s nail handstand first, then we’ll get into cake making. 🙂
There are three ingredients to making a handstand: strength, flexibility, and fear.
Let’s start with strength. Handstand requires strength in multiple places, the arms, the core, and the back (obviously there are others but these are the main ones).
Based on my own experience, if I had to rank them in order it would be arms, core, and back, just as I stated above.
Ok Brian why?
The simple reason is that you can have all the core strength in the world but if you don’t have the arm strength you won’t be able to support your weight.
However, the area of your body you want to develop the most strength in is your core.
Ingredient #1: Strength
How to Test Your Arm Strength
Face a wall and kick up to it.
If you can hold your handstand at the wall for 30 seconds or more, good news, you have more than enough arm strength to do a handstand.
Move away from the wall as soon as possible.
Pay close attention to your wrists.
Kicking up against the wall often times means you aren’t really using your core properly so the weight of your torso (and the rest of your body) collapses down into your wrists.
This is why I recommend getting away from it as soon as possible.
This is a big one. As I stated above, it’s in your best interest to develop as much core strength as you can.
Here is one quick and functional way to test your core strength. All About the L-Sit.
What is it?
The L-sit is an essential and effective training tool for handstand.
To do an L-sit put your hands on the ground next to your hips and lift yourself up with your legs extended out in front of you.
Your torso and legs make the letter ‘L’. Work on holding this as long as possible.
This is a very good first step toward mastering handstand.
As a benchmark, the amount of time you can hold your handstand is approximately equal to the amount of time you can hold your L-sit.
Work on it. It pays off.
An L-sit in itself can be quite challenging and it can take awhile to master this skill. It is completely worth it and sets an excellent foundation for your handstand.
Modify an L-Sit in 3 Easy Steps
1. Start by lifting just the hips and start by using blocks underneath your hands.
If you can’t lift your feet off the floor just yet, this will challenge your core plenty. The simple act of pushing your hands into the blocks and lifting your hips into the air will gradually day-by-day train your core for the full lift.
2. As you get comfortable with step 1, start trying to pull the hips back as much as you can.
This will cause your heels to slide along the floor. Note that as you get better and better at this one, the hips will also start to lift up.
As your strength develops, you’ll be able to pull yourself up to a standing forward fold.
Eventually, you’ll be able to take this position directly up to handstand (That’s right you will be!).
3. Implement This: Another version of the L-sit is the crossed-leg version, Lolasana.
In this version you cross your ankles (or higher up at the shinbones), draw your knees into your chest as much as possible and lift yourself.
Attempt these lifts as much as you can
Aim to spend a total of 60 seconds up in the air everyday.
You’ll develop strength quickly if you stick to it.
Ingredient #2: Flexibility
Having good baseline flexibility makes a huge difference in your handstand.
Flexibility is important because it allows you to stack yourself in a straight line, effortlessly. So don’t ignore it!
Why Lack of Flexibility Can Cause Problems for your Practice
Tight hamstrings cause your back to round when forward folding (because your pelvis doesn’t tilt correctly).
You can get away with learning a regular handstand with tight hamstrings; however, it makes the lifting to and from handstand nearly impossible.
When initially learning handstand you’ll be jumping into it and that allows you to bypass some flexibility in the legs.
If you plan on learning the press-handstand start developing your hamstring flexibility now.
Did you hear that?
Your ability to press is directly related to your ability to forward fold both standing and sitting and if your hamstrings are causing your lower back to round, it will never happen.
On Shoulder Mobility
Having mobility in the shoulders is important because it’s impossible to stack yourself without it.
Do a simple test and lift your arms straight overhead.
If you can’t pull your arms back in line with your ears, you need to develop your shoulder mobility.
If you try to do handstand without this baseline mobility its going to look slanted, even if you do get up, and you will be placing emphasis on the wrong areas of the body to hold you.
From the start, consciously move the weight of your body away from your shoulders.
Don’t ‘muscle’ your handstand.
If you have the tendency to hold yourself from your shoulders and ‘clench’ them, you aren’t using the core correctly and that’s a problem.
Here are 2 shoulder stretches you can do now to improve your mobility:
Prasarita Padottanasana C
Let’s go over the setup first, stand with your feet 3-4 ft. apart.
Your toes are facing forward and your feet are parallel to one another.
Interlace the hands behind your back and get the heels of your hands touching if possible.
Inhale and lift your chest, exhale fold forward and pull your arms overhead.
You should feel the front of your shoulders stretching and maybe your chest muscles.
As you fold lower and lower, focus on pushing through the edges of both feet simultaneously to keep your balance.
This is a great one for a couple of reasons; in fact, this is my go to stretch.
1. It forces you to activate your shoulder blades and back muscles.
Through doing this stretch you should be able to differentiate the feeling of having the shoulder blades squeeze together and having the shoulder blades spreading apart. This is key for handstand! So not only are you stretching your shoulders, but you are increasing the awareness in your back at the same time.
2. It’s a multi-faceted stretch.
The further your arms get toward the floor, the more your hamstrings will have to work to maintain your balance. If you think about it, this is just a fancy forward fold.
How I Wasted Time
Looking back at the way my own practice evolved, I seriously wish I spent more time on this aspect.
One of my biggest shortcomings, initially, was the fact that I ignored my shoulders. My shoulders were not only stiff, but imbalanced (pitching).
I was hell bent on getting handstand and tried to improvise for the stiffness in my body rather than address it. If you lack flexibility, you can save yourself months of wasted effort by tackling it from the start.
Again, let’s start with the setup.
Technically, the full version of the pose involves wrapping the legs and stacking the knees. It’s done in the second series of Ashtanga.
For now, let’s focus on the arm component.
If you don’t know this stretch, let me give you a brief description:
Choose one arm, reach it up into the air and pat your back so that your elbow faces up.
Then take your other arm and reach it out to the side.
Bend the elbow so that the top of your hand can slide up your back. Eventually, the arms will meet and you can clasp your hands behind your back.
So what to do if you can’t clasp the hands? And if you are working on your flexibility you probably can’t.
3 Gomukhasana modifications that will help you clasp your hands:
1. Use a strap or towel or something else that you can grab onto.
Instead of physically trying to clasp the hands, take your strap into your top hand and let the strap hang down your back. Then, reach your other hand behind the back and grab the strap.
Walk your hands as close together as you can and hold there.
2. Never mind clasping the hands: Start with an even simpler stretch.
This also makes a great warmup & was one of the few stretches I’d to do long before I started doing yoga (great warmup for the throwing arm).
Take your left arm and reach across your body so the arm is touching the chest and the left hand is reaching out to the right.
Now take your left arm and bend it.
Gently cradle your left arm in between the right forearm and bicep and push in.
Doing this will help the top arm develop the necessary range of motion to reach down the back further.
3. Try prayer position with yours hands.
The bottom arm can also be tricky.
For the sake of this description, assume the bottom arm is your left arm.
This is the trouble that you’ll encounter:
When you put the left arm up the back the fingers should be facing straight up, but they probably aren’t and are facing diagonally off to the right.
In order to fix this, work on putting your hand in prayer behind the back or simply press your fists together. Once you have both hands back there, draw both of your elbows back, this will facilitate the opening you need to get your left hand to face straight up.
A Short Story About what I do in the Shower
Some people sing.
I do yoga.
For me, the bottom hand was what held me back from clasping for a long time.
I started to work sliding the hand up my back in the shower. The warm water (and soap) helped it slide much easier and the first time I actually clasped my hands was after I finished shampooing my hair!
The effects of Gomukhasana compound once you get it because you can do it sporadically throughout the day and it gets easier every time.
You should see me, I do it shamelessly while in line at Starbucks!
Gomukhasana B differs from Gomukhasana A in what you are doing with your top hand.
Instead of reaching your arm up and behind the back, you reach the top arm straight out in front of you and rap it around your neck.
This clasp is slightly tricky also.
You can apply the same modification methods as you did in Gomukhasana A.
One thing useful about this B variation is it allows you to stretch the back of the shoulder (deltoid).
Once you get the clasp, work on drawing your front elbow down. You’ll find the more your elbows draw down the more it stretches the back of the shoulder.
How to Correctly use “Proven” Methods for Kicking Up
If you’re at the point where you are ready to start kicking up to handstand, great.
This is where the fun begins.
1. Kicking Up Against a Wall
“It is the nature of the wise to resist pleasures, but the foolish to be a slave to them.” — Epictetus
This is the first version of kicking up you should try.
What to do initially is face the wall and set yourself up about a foot away.
Now to clarify, it’s your hands that are on the floor a foot from the wall, not your body.
If this is your first time kicking, choose the leg you want to hop off of to get up into the air.
Set your kicking leg another foot behind the hands and lift your other leg up into the air.
Now before you recklessly start swinging yourself up, read this:
Work on jumping with as much control as possible from the start. Learning to jump with control will not only drastically reduce your chance of being injured but set a solid foundation for floating later on.
Okay, let’s get jumping.
As you jump, pay close attention to the weight-shifting element that goes on in your body.
See if you can feel that precise moment when the majority of your body weight shifts from your feet into your hands.
There’ll be this initial sense of ‘heaviness’ in the arms. It’s okay, that is your arms adapting to carrying the weight of your body on your arms, hands, and wrists.
I bashed my head though a brick wall repeatedly and it didn’t work
Start slow with kicking up.
Your wrists need a chance to develop.
A big mistake that I made was attempting it too many times in a day.
It would cause pain in my wrists and set me back. Your wrists need a chance to develop and its much better to work consistently at it everyday than overdo it and risk an injury to your wrists.
You’ve got the weight transfer thing going on now, allow yourself to kick higher and higher until you can rest against the wall.
Once you get yourself against the wall, don’t relax into the arms, instead, push away from the ground with your hands, push out of your wrists and attempt to lengthen yourself as much as possible.
As you push away from the ground minimize the bend in your lower back.
Develop the strength not just to hold yourself at the wall, but to push away form the floor at the same time, anywhere between 30 seconds and 60 seconds.
This is the key to success.
Also, the better and better you get at jumping up toward the wall the closer and closer you can start to move your hands toward it.
Initially, I said about a foot away from the wall. Gradually start to work the hands in closer, inch by inch.
The closer your hands get to the wall, the more and more it’s going to make your core engage.
2. The 3-Step Method: L-Stand Facing Away from the Wall
This version is technically a way to kick up to handstand, but also a way to help you discover balance in the middle of the room and to help you understand what it’s like to float.
First, sit in Dandasana (sitting with your legs straight out in front of you) with your back against the wall.
Now look at the position of your ankle bones, make a mental note for yourself, this is where you are going to put your hands.
Now do downward dog with your heels against the wall and your hands in the position you just made a mental note of above.
Focus on pushing away from the floor with your hands just like you would in a handstand.
Take whichever foot you feel more comfortable with, lift it up about two feet and push the ball of the foot against the wall.
When you are ready add the second leg.
You should be in an ‘L’ shape.
This is by far the most intense position.
In order to hold comfortably, focus on the stacking aspect, make sure your shoulders are over your wrists and the hips are stacked or slightly beyond (ideal) the shoulders.
This position can take awhile to get the hang of. Good news, if you can hold this position for 20-30 seconds, you have more than enough strength to hold a handstand in the middle of the room.
3. A Continuation of L-Stand: The T-Stand
Let’s continue from the L-Stand.
Actually, in many ways this version is easier.
To start this, take one leg from the L-stand position at the wall and lift it straight overhead. At this point, you should have one leg stacked directly over your body, we’ll call this the T-stand from now on.
From T-standing to Free Standing
Comfortable holding the T-Stand yet?
Here is what you do next.
Again, think about weight shifting.
Keep the ‘T’ shape and try to move onto the ball of the foot that’s against the wall. You accomplish this by shifting the entire structure of your ‘T’ forward.
Eventually, you’ll start to shift up onto the toes and then onto your big toe. That will give you a taste of what it’s like to balance in the middle of the room.
When you feel ready, take an inhale and just for a split second, rock your back foot away from the wall and on your exhale place it back.
This will give you confidence for balancing in the middle of the room.
After you get comfortable with one breathe away from the wall, move to two, then three.
But don’t rush.
When you shift your weight, you should feel like you are in full control.
It will feel natural to move from one breathe to two.
After you try it enough, you’ll start to feel less like a boomerang and you’ll start to hover out in the middle, that’s how you know you are ready to increase your breathes from the wall.
4. The Frog Hop
This jump is challenging.
Start this hop from downward dog.
Before you jump, imagine this:
Bend your knees and drop your hips down so much that you can get your chest to touch your thighs, then take a jump.
Start slow jump higher and higher as you get more comfortable with the mechanics of the hop. You will end up in a handstand with the knees tucked in.
Pay attention to these 3 things when you hop
1. Make sure you *really* are working on stacking.
Whenever you jump with two legs at the same time, stacking becomes even more important.
When you jump, notice if you are actually stacking your shoulders over your wrists.
Or the opposite, make sure you are not moving the shoulders too far beyond the wrists. That could interfere with the stacking of your hips.
2. Your hips.
The most common problem with the frog hop is that when most people attempt it, their hips get no where close to stacked over their shoulders.
This is a bad habit.
Don’t develop it.
When you jump, you’ll bend the back instead of moving the hips into the proper position.
Doing this doesn’t train your core to work properly and will lead to the ‘banana stand’ instead of a handstand that is straight up and down.
3. Putting the breaks on – Here’s a good time to get acclimated with the fingers.
Initially, this is a concept that’s hard to grasp.
Think for a moment about how you use your hands in everyday tasks.
Your fingers operate in conjunction with the palm.
Think about grabbing a hold of something, you curl your palm around an object and then wrap your fingers around it for extra grip and you vary the pressure of your fingers depending on the object.
This is exactly how you use your fingers in this jump.
Sometimes, you might jump too much, dig with the fingers into the ground a little harder.
Sometimes you might not jump enough, in this case push more with the palms and pull yourself up with your fingers.
More on weight distribution in a second.
The frog hop was a tough one for me to master.
One initial problem I had with this jump is that I felt like I was kicking more like a horse and jumping less like a frog.
This is a direct result of not jumping the hips up high enough.
It took awhile to really figure this out.
Instead of getting my hips up high enough, I was rounding my spine to compensate and as a result my feet would crash back down on the floor.
I realize that part of jumping the hips up over the shoulders isn’t purely just mechanical but is a fear thing also.
Weight Distribution in the Hands: What exactly should you be feeling in your hands?
Well, the best answer to this is what facilitates proper alignment in your torso.
This can vary slightly from person to person, but use this as a blueprint that you can expand upon.
A great place to start experimenting with your hands is in downward dog.
Down dog is actually quite similar to handstand especially in the arms.
Think of down dog as handstand training wheels.
The weight in your hands is distributed throughout the perimeter.
You should feel somewhere between 60-70% of the weight on the inner hand, namely the thumb and the index finger, and 30-40% on the outer hand, the middle finger, ring finger, and pinky.
At the same time, you should feel the center of your palm lifting up, not a lot, but subtly.
Your hands work like a suction cup.
When you can feel the center palm lifting it means your fingers are working more instinctively to regulate balance and distributing energy through the rest of the hand.
Things you should not feel in your Hands
1. Heaviness in the palm – You really want to avoid this one.
This happens when you aren’t focused on lifting the center of your palm up.
When the palms are completely flat on the floor, you will feel nearly 100% of your body weight in the heels of your hands. If this is the case, you aren’t utilizing your fingers properly.
2. Over exaggerating the gap between the thumb and the index finger.
Your fingers should be spread out naturally on the ground.
Spreading the fingers increases the surface area of your hand, which makes balance easier.
But, don’t go overboard with your index finger and especially the thumb!
Overspreading the thumb and index finger will compromise your ability to push into the ground optimally.
3. Don’t let the heel of your hand ever leave the floor.
This may seem obvious, but it’s worth pointing out.
If you have a hard time lifting the center of your palm and creating the suction cup feeling, you might end up accidently creating a new problem trying to fix the old, and that is an overemphasis on the fingers so much so that it causes the heel of your hand to lift off the ground.
Again, think suction cup. Allowing the heels of your hands to lift off the ground compromises stability.
Ingredient #3: Managing Fear
(I understand how large of a component fear is for most students, fear deserves it’s own post to do it justice, and it’s coming)
Different people experience fear for different reasons and that’s what makes it so tricky to pinpoint.
“He who is brave is free.” — Seneca
However, this is what I’ve witnessed myself:
Fear comes from attempting something that your body isn’t quite ready to do yet, not necessarily mechanically, but physically.
This is the reason I teach poses and transitions in as many steps as possible.
Accomplishing little simpler steps that help you work toward your bigger goal not only build the necessary physical strength, but self-confidence also.
Together, these two attributes create a powerful platform for success.
Here are the 2 most common reasons that cause fear when learning handstand:
1. The fear of falling- The biggest one and where all other fears come from.
Further, the fear of falling stems from not necessarily the fall itself but the potential for injury when falling.
There are really only two ways that you can fall out of a handstand, a little cartwheel off to the side or falling into wheel.
2. Shoulder Instability
If you are overly flexible, the fear of a shoulder popping out of its socket when jumping is large. Especially if you have jumped a few times and literally collapsed.
This is why I recommend initially prioritizing arm strength over core strength.
Because of where my personal practice is now, it might be hard for you to imagine that I fear anything.
I’ve learned to overcome it.
Like you, I suffered from the fear of falling when I was learning to balance.
The best advice I can give you is just keep working at it, and work at it intelligently and not recklessly.
Whenever I practiced recklessly and kicked wildly or didn’t think to much about what I was actually doing, I’d fall over quickly and harshly.
Focus on what you are feeling in the body when you attempt something.
Find the subtle things as much as you possibly can. The subtle things will lead to a greater level of body awareness (proprioception). Learning complex balances can actually be a highly cerebral activity.
The Alignment of Handstand
So far, I’ve given you some practical ways to help your handstand along.
I was hesitant to even put this section in here, but it serves a purpose.
“You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire” — Seneca
Stacking, is just a broader term for alignment.
And when you are learning handstand, it’s much simpler in your own head to think hips over the shoulders over the wrists and leave it at that.
But once you start to get it, and you are up in the air balancing for a couple of seconds, you can take it to the next level by mastering the finer details.
Hands and Wrists
As we’ve talked about earlier, the hand position and weight distribution is critical to your entire balance. It’s the base that holds up your entire structure.
Things to pay close attention to in your hands:
- You should feel the weight of your body distributed amongst the perimeter of the hand with approximately 60% on the inside and 40% on the outside.
- The palm of the hand should not be flattened completely against your mat or floor. You should feel an upward lifting action in the center of your palm. That creates the suction cup feeling in yours hands, which leads to a more solid balance.
- You must try to regulate the pressure that balance creates with your fingertips.
Try This Now
In downward dog, practice rotating varying pressure in your fingertips by first pushing down with your pinky, then your ring finger, then your middle finger, then your index finger, and lastly your thumb.
Then go the opposite way and make patterns.
With practice, you’ll develop a keen sense of which fingers you’ll need to engage more than others to keep you up.
One other thing with fingertip pressure that you can experiment with is swaying your downward dog from side to side.
When you physically mover your body, pay attention to which one of your five fingers naturally presses down more into the ground. This will give you some pretty valuable insight into how to deal with balance in a natural way.
- Don’t let your body weight sink exclusively into the heels of your hands.
Occasionally, I’ll hear people say this is what helps them balance.
This is a misconception.
When you are balancing, you are never truly still.
The truth is, you will always wobble on your hands, but the better you get at balancing the less and less the wobbling occurs.
Eventually, when you are balancing comfortably or close to it, you’ll see that all of the control you need to hold yourself up comes from your fingertips.
And if you get in the habit of drawing and pushing with the heel of the hand, the fingertips will never develop.
- Another note on the fingers, they should be spread naturally wide. Remember, spreading the fingers out creates a larger surface area in the hands, which makes your balance easier. But the key is naturally spread, don’t over spread your fingers, especially the thumb, simply because you can.
If you over spread them, you’ll lose the ability to press into them sufficiently.
- The creases of the wrists should be parallel with the front of your mat.
There are obviously other variations of handstand where you face the fingers in other directions, pop up onto your fingertips, turn the wrists in other directions. The reason I want you to learn with the wrists facing straight forward first is generally, turning the wrists out is a way to sidestep shoulder mobility.
Work to develop as much shoulder flexibility as you can.
Getting the alignment in the arms correct is one large way to mitigate fear, especially in the shoulders.
Although arm strength is always good, once you have a enough to hold your body weight, you need to shift your focus to aligning yourself correctly in space.
Nailing the Feeling and consistently putting the arms in proper alignment will make you feel even stronger.
- The forearms must be actively squeezing in toward one another. This encourages your arms to work together rather than one trying to overpower the other. This is also pretty much standard in everyone, one arm is stronger than the other.
Do your best to distribute the weight equally between the two arms otherwise this could cause some rotation in the shoulders and a lot of undue stress on one of your shoulders.
Sorry to burden you with Latin muscle names, but you have a muscle in your forearm called the Extensor Digitorum, which develops as your balance regulation with the fingers strengthen. Keep in mind, strength here will not only allow your fingers to regulate balance better, but it will allow for better alignment of the tendons in your wrists and hands which will lead to less wrist pains and a more solid balance.
- You must feel the bicep muscles rotating out very slightly, just enough to feel a widening sensation across the back.
Pay Attention to This: Do Not “Muscle” Handstand
- This is a big one. The shoulders must not be tense, at all. You do not want your shoulders to take over the balance in this pose. It can be very tempting to do that. This is called ‘muscling’ a pose and you want avoid that at all costs. It doesn’t look pretty (because your face will be turning red) and you can get hurt. Plus, muscling and rounding (also collapsing) your shoulders can prevent your core from engaging properly.
- The shoulder should be down so that your neck is as long as possible, or when your upside down, your shoulders should be lifting up to make the neck as long as possible.
There is a lot to keep track of in the torso between the front of your body and the back of the body. I want to stress, when learning handstand focus your attention on stacking, that is the number one priority. As you get better and better you can then shift your awareness to the finer points of the balance.
- The first thing you should pay attention to in the torso is the spine. As I’ve said multiple times in this guide, stacking should always take priority, aligning the hips over the shoulders over the wrists. You must work to get the spine as straight as possible.
Don’t Turn Yourself into a Banana
Especially as you are leaning how to balance. Differentiate between what it feels like to bend in the lumbar spine versus keeping it straight. At first glance, this might sound trivial, but it’s crucial. It’s the difference between engaging your core properly and not engaging your core properly.
- You must feel space being created in you lower spine constantly while you balance. If you start to feel compression, you core muscles have disengaged.
- In order to create and keep space in your lumbar spine while balancing, a couple of things need to happen:
- Back to the hands, you must actively pushing into the ground with your hands and never let your bodyweight collapse into the wrists.
- Don’t collapse into the shoulders, this one is key for keeping the core engaged, we’ll talk more about this in a second.
- The hips must be stacked over the shoulders.
- Once you are able to consistently jump and stack the hips over the shoulders, Try and lift the hips higher toward the ceiling. Essentially, you trying to create as much distance between the shoulders and the hips as possible.
Your back muscles play a vital role in stabilization when you are upside down and also support your core.
- Another reason why you don’t want your shoulders bearing the brunt of the balance is it not only discourages your core from working, but limits which muscles in the back can function optimally.
- You don’t want your trapezius (traps) muscles to hold you up. Generally, when you start muscling the pose the traps will engage and scrunch up around your ears, you don’t want this.
- You should feel a softening action in the shoulders and a genuine sense of widening across the rhomboid muscles and primarily the lat muscles. You should feel a spreading here almost like ‘wings’.
A side note, this is why many of the arm balances are named after birds, you are using your back muscles like a pair of wings. Same thing applies in handstand.
- As the back muscles widen, think of them as this grand support system for the arms, this blanket of support if you will. Imagine if you had a broken arm and a cast was placed around it and image the support that cast provides. That’s the role of your back in a handstand. Your ‘wings’ will essentially help to pull your arms straighter and straighter and aid the triceps in pushing into the ground.
The core is the powerhouse of this entire balance.
The more and more core strength you have, the easier and easier handstand will be and the less you have to rely on all the other muscles in your body.
Another reason why handstand is so tough for you (and other yogis) to learn is because your core is at its weakest when you are learning and places an extraordinarily large burden on all of the other muscles in your body. As your core gets stronger, you will not have to rely on those muscles as much.
What is actually engaging?
Without going into too much anatomical detail, you want to feel your transverse abdominis engaging.
Great, well where is my transverse abdominis?
Your transverse abdominis rests behind your rectus abdominis (I really hate typing like this and I also hate reading stuff like this).
Your rectus abdominis is what you know as your “six-pack”. Consider these superficial muscles.
On the other hand, your transverse abdominal muscles are the behind-the-scenes workers that never get any applause.
Image a power lifter that wears a weight belt to support his back and his pelvis.
This is what the transverse abdominis does, it’s basically a natural weight belt that you want to be wearing at all times, especially in a handstand!
How can I learn to engage it?
Soon, I’ll have an entire post on specific exercise to learn to engage the transverse abdominis.
- In one bullet point, you want your core to engage, and as simple as possible, the transverse abdominis.
Generally, you will learn to engage it by attempting to pull your belly button back toward your spine. It’s not as straight forward as this, but this will get you started. And yes I know, the core can technically mean a bunch of other things and include the hips and legs, but for the sake of this post, let’s keep it at transverse abdominis.
Legs & Feet
- You never want the legs to separate, at least in the traditional version of handstand.
- In fact, you should always have your inner thighs touching one another, squeezing together and rolling inward a little bit. Just this slight rolling in of the thighs will help your core muscles engage.
- One thing you can do to get a sense of what that squeezing action actually feels like is take a block and place it between your legs, and simply squeeze it. You can do it in dandasana, downward dog, or even while jumping to handstand if you are comfortable enough.
- Your quadriceps, they draw up towards the hips, this is also known as firming the thighs.
- At the same time, your hamstrings are lengthening as much as possible to keep the legs straight. This is another reason why developing hamstring flexibility is so important.
Common Questions and Troubleshooting
How much time does it really take to go from the wall to balancing in the middle of the room?
It differs from person to person.
Leaving fear aside, generally everyone starts with a different strength.
As I stated above, arm strength, core strength, shoulder flexibility, and hamstring flexibility are all big ones.
You probably will be strong in at least one of these areas. Avoid focusing exclusively on your strength and get working on your weaknesses as soon as possible.
Let me give an example, someone who is naturally strong will have tons of strength in the arms and most definitely tons of strength in the shoulders. It’s really easy for this person to develop a bad habit and practice handstand repeatedly by muscling it into the shoulders and making them even stronger.
This is what I like to call exploiting strength.
Just because you have strength in one specific area of the body does not mean that you should rely on it.
You’ll do much better addressing the weaknesses in the body first. Depending on what your various strengths and weaknesses are, they all take different amounts of time to address; this will affect the amount of time it takes to get your handstand away from the wall.
In my experience, strength generally takes longer to build than flexibility. Handstand is a real testament to consistently and dedication and could take awhile, regardless of your athletic ability.
In fact, I would highly encourage you to focus on your weaknesses first. If you lack flexibility, work vigorously at it. If you lack strength, do the same. Being able to not only identify what parts of your practice could use some help but how to address them as quickly as possible will put you on the fast track to success.
One thing I really developed a knack for and still very much enjoy today is working on the things in my practice that are the most difficult for me.
Back when I first started doing yoga and wanted to learn so many things so quickly, I tried to take advantage of my pure muscular strength and brute force my way into as many arm balances as possible.
It worked for a couple of the more basic arm balances and then started to fail.
I could never brute force my way into side crow, due to the twisting component of it, and that used to bother me.
It was at that point I decided to make a concerted effort at developing my flexibility. Boy did that pay off big time for me.
Remember, yoga is ultimately a personal health practice.
This should be your primary goal for practicing yoga anyway, not simply just checking off box after box as you learn pose after pose.
If you are relatively new to yoga, the first thing yoga should do for you physically (and mentally) is pull you into balance.
What do I mean by that?
Unless you are insanely blessed from the beginning with both strength and flexibility, you are only going to have one and are going to have to work at the other.
Don’t allow your yoga practice to make this imbalance bigger. You must strive to pull the two into balance.
When you pull your level of flexibility up in line with your strength or vise versa, you’ll be able to increase them both exponentially faster.
How do I get my fear to go away? I’m so scared of trying to balance away from the wall.
The best answer I can give to this one is practice consistently.
I fear what I don’t know and I’m sure I’m not the only one, so it’s natural to fear the balance of handstand.
Simply being consistent is the best thing you can do for yourself. You’ll fall a few times on your way to handstand.
Don’t let a fall be a setback for you.
Quite the contrary, use it as a grand learning experience.
Intimately study your falls and ask yourself the ‘why did I fall’ question and the ‘how can I prevent this’ question every time. Attempting to answer these questions for yourself will force you to a new level of deeper insight.
I really don’t believe I can actually balance, and the negative self-talk destroys my desire to work on handstand. How can I prevent this?
The first thing you must change is your attitude.
Your attitude and self-belief literary make or break your handstand.
I tell every one of my clients that I work with that the second you start feeding yourself self-defeating thoughts, stop practicing.
Practicing a balance as fine as a handstand requires complete belief in yourself and an optimistic attitude to match.
Every attempt you make at handstand, you must legitimately believe that you will balance.
Furthermore, every attempt you must do everything in your power to stay up.
Get in the habit of clawing into the ground every single time you jump and work to ‘break’ the fall.
Some students I watch look like they are literally preparing to fall before they even jump.
This doesn’t train your body or your brain to balance but exactly the opposite, it trains your body to fall over.
How do I prevent my wrists from always hurting every time that I practice handstand?
You can’t just start training for handstand for hours upon hours right from the start. Your muscles need time to adapt and more importantly your joints, specifically your wrists joints.
Most commonly, wrist pain comes from training to much to quickly.
In order to increase the amount of time you can practice handstand daily, you must increase your core strength first.
When your core isn’t working properly, you place an unnatural amount of weight on your wrists.
A couple of pointers to think about:
1. Active vs. Passive Balance
In your handstand, you never want to feel like you are collapsing into your hands. This is called passive balancing. This goes along with allowing the weight of the body to sink into the heels of your hands.
Rather, you always want to be pushing away from the ground as much as possible. This is called active balancing.
2. Watch Yourself at the Wall Carefully
This is another reason why I advocate moving away from the wall (kicking up facing the wall) as soon as you develop the arm strength.
Think of the wall as a substitute for all of your stabilizing muscles, they never really engage when you kick against it, and often times neither does the core.
It’s easy to get carried away kicking up against the wall and without using your core and stabilizing muscles you’ll place undue weight on the wrists. This can potentially be a major source of pain for you.
Your Second Pair of Ankles: 4 Ways to Stretch Your Wrists in 5 Minutes or Less
When it comes to handstand, your wrists are the most valuable joints in your body and you must treat them that way.
Without your wrists, a handstand would be impossible, so do everything you can to pamper them.
Treat them right, and they will become your second pair of ankles.
Understanding How Your Wrists Move
(These are done with your right hand)
Wrist Flexion– Think about wrist flexion this way, extend your fingers straight forward so that your palm is facing down. Now, imagine curling the palm down toward your forearm. This is wrist flexion.
Wrist Extension– This is exactly the opposite. Again, imagine your fingers facing straight forward. This time, lift the back of the hand toward your forearm. This is wrist extension. Your wrists are fully extended in handstand so you want to pay particularly close attention this one.
Radial Deviation– Okay, again face the fingers straight forward. This time, the hand stays in the same horizontal plane, all five of your fingers veer off to the left, this is radial deviation. Think of this as your finger facing outward.
Ulnar Deviation– This is exactly opposite of radial deviation, the fingers veer off to the right. Think of this as your fingers facing inward.
When you stretch the wrists you want to keep these four fundamental wrists movements in mind. Here are a couple of examples:
Wrist Stretch #1
Start in tabletop position, on all fours.
Flip the hands so that your fingers are facing backwards and the top of your hands are resting on the ground.
Now try and clench your fists.
This is a great warm up for the wrists and is one of my favorites. Simple, yet highly effective.
Wrist Stretch #2
Take one hand and extend it forward into a flexed position.
Take your opposite palm and place it on the fingers and pull them back toward your forearm.
Hold this for as long as you need and repeat as many times as necessary.
Wrist Stretch #3
Start in plank pose or on all fours.
Shift the shoulder forward so they move beyond the wrist.
In handstand, the shoulders are stacked directly above the wrists.
In this case, you want them to move past that stacked position.
You can turn the wrists in and out to work the radial and ulnar component of the stretch.
Also, you can lightly rotated your shoulders in circles to gently stretch the wrists.
Wrist Stretch #4
Padahastasana- I consider this stretch a bonus because it can also be a hamstring stretch at the same time.
For this one, start with you feet about hip distance apart.
Now, if you have the flexibility in your hamstrings, you can keep your legs straight as you do this or you can bend your knees.
Consider these variations:
- Slide your palms underneath your feet so your fingers are facing back and the backs of your hands are touching the ground. There are a couple of things you can do from this position. One, lightly pull up with the arms, this will give your wrist joints a nice stretch. Two, you can walk your toes up to your wrists and massage your wrists with your toes (this is one of my favorites).
- Do the same thing as the first variation except flip the hands. This time step on the back of your hands with the palms on the floor and the fingers still facing back. You can again pull up with your arms. This upward pulling action with the arms and the lengthening created in your wrist joint area from doing this is very similar to how your wrists should feel in a handstand. Play with the positioning of the fingers to hit the radial and ulnar component.
- Take your arms and bring them behind your legs and slide your hands with the palms facing down underneath your feet passing though the heels first. This stretch good for developing wrist flexion but also for the hamstrings. Repeat this with the palms facing up.
Tools I Used to Help my Handstand
Here are some essential tools that I used (and still use) to help with handstand. Every little bit counts!
For a complete list of resources, see this post.
What is this?
This is a device to help you develop flexibility in your inner thighs, hips, and back. This will help you to develop Samakonasana (Side splits).
Why did I find this useful?
I found this gadget useful for a number of reasons. One, it allowed me to go much deeper into my inner thighs than I could myself. Now, I’m not advocating purchasing this thing, ripping it out of the box, and then ripping your inner thighs trying to force yourself into the full Samakonasana on the first day. Don’t use it like that. Spend some time in it, anywhere between 5-10 minutes a day. Take your time and gradually let your inner thighs open up. Another thing that’s great about this specific leg stretcher is once you finish turning the wheel, you can pull it out and fold forward. This allows you to stretch and release your lower back a bit.
What is this?
This is a device to allow you to safely stretch your hamstrings. This is especially useful if your legs naturally like to bend in any type of hamstring stretch.
Why did I find this useful?
I used this device a ton when I was really focused on developing my front splits (Hanumanasana). You can use this while you are lying down on your back and doing a supine split. This device will gently hold your leg in place, prevent it from bending, and keep your hips from rotating. This device will allow you to keep the stretch into the center of the hamstring and prevent you from stretching the knee ligaments or pulling on the hamstring attachment.
What is this?
This is something you wear around your toes to help develop the yogi toe spread, but it also helps to restore your natural toe box and the proper engagement of the arches.
Why did I find this useful?
If you see videos or pictures of me doing handstand or any other arm balance, you see my feet are always engaged and my toes are always spread out and pulling apart. This isn’t just for show. Proper engagement of the feet in handstand allows you to lift away from the floor. In fact, engagement of the feet is the opposite of dumping body weight into the wrist joints.
What is it?
This is a self-massage device that you can use to work out little knots that accumulate from practicing.
Why did I find this useful?
This is by the best self-massage device that I’ve used to work out knots in my shoulders and traps. I carry this thing around with me pretty much all the time. I’ve tried a lot of these things and can say confidently this one is the best. This actually feels like a therapists hands digging in (kinda).
What is this?
A yoga mat and the only one you will ever need.
Why did I find this useful?
This is hands-down the best yoga mat I have ever used and there is nothing that even comes close to it. This mat is thicker and firmer than every other yoga mat I’ve ever used. And specifically for an active practice on your hands, the thickness and the firmness of the mat is going to protect your wrists. Not only that, it’s a great stretching mat.
For example, have you ever tried stretching your quadriceps in a low lunge on the floor but can’t because of the pain in the kneecap? This mat takes care of that. Buy one, seriously, don’t hesitate, I know it’s expensive but totally worth it. You’ll thank me later.
Make Me Proud of You — Some Parting Words of Inspiration
“Non est ad astra mollis e terris via” – “There is no easy way from the earth to the stars” — Seneca
Put all this to action.
Become the yogi of your wildest imagination, starting now.
Don’t let fear conquer your dreams.
Rather than filling your head with toxic, paralyzing and self-limiting garbage.
Envision success in your head long before it happens.
Shift the way you see yourself now.
Your beliefs about yourself trigger thoughts, your precious thoughts lead to action, action leads to results.
It all starts from the inside.
Taking one step forward is always better than standing still.
Quit doubting yourself and Quit. Standing. Still.
Identify the glass ceiling that’s holding you back, clench your fist, and punch a hole right thought it.
Now get my Handstand Roadmap (it’s the method I use on all my personal clients that guarantees success and streamlines the process) and start practicing.