A handstand can be the perfect solace for days when your transition from downward facing dog to a forward fold isn’t feeling very fluid, when your sun salutations aren’t offering you their usual sense of release, or when you just need a change of perspective.
Adho Mukha Vrksasana, or handstand, is one of those “peak” postures in yoga practice. It’s a picture-perfect pose of strength, poise and stability – but it’s also one of the most challenging asanas to reach.
Not only does the physical body require incredible strength and control to complete a handstand, but one must also conquer the fear of inverting before attempting to turn upside down. There are many tricks and tips you can practice to achieve a great handstand, but the best kept secrets lie in aligning your anatomy.
Creating optimal alignment of the body while you’re upside down will enable you to find greater stability and a sense of ease in your posture. Practice these five secrets for a more stabilised and graceful handstand.
As with all arm balancing postures, the handstand flips your foundation from your feet to your palms. So just as you set a firm and steady foundation in the legs during Tadasana (mountain pose), you also need to set a firm and steady foundation in the hands for this inversion.
Start with your palms shoulder-width apart, and evenly spread your fingers wide. Press down equally into all four corners of your palms, connecting each corner of your hand with the floor. Grip at the mat with your fingertips to create little puffs of air underneath each knuckle. Envision that your hand is a suction cup attaching to the floor.
Your foundation plays a key role in maintaining the balance of your handstand. If you feel yourself leaning too far forward (as if you’re going to fall onto your back), you need to press weight into the fingertips. Conversely, if you feel yourself leaning too far back (as if you’re going to fall onto your legs), you need to lean your weight toward the heel of your palms. Being able to comfortably juggle your weight forward and back will create a solid foundation for you to balance on.
As you stand, walk or run, your body naturally stabilises the hip joint. This allows for mobility, but is also an incredibly secure function. However, as we typically don’t stand on our hands, the shoulder joint is designed for significantly more mobility than the hip. So, to compensate for this extra movement when you’re weight bearing on the arms, you need to stabilise the joint. As this joint is very complicated, stabilising it requires a few actions.
With your foundation set in the palms, actively press your hands down into the floor as if you’re trying to press it away from you, resisting gravity. Keep this action, and hug the head of your arm bones in toward the shoulder sockets, and horizontally toward the midline of your body. Isometrically draw your hands toward each other, and then begin to protract your scapula by drawing the shoulder blades apart from each other, creating a rounding through your upper back (a less exaggerated “cat pose” spine or a “hollow body” position).
The most crucial element of any handstand is the core. This muscle group supports the weight of your trunk and stabilises your entire spine as you turn upside down. The action of reaching your hands over your head (the arm positioning of handstand) naturally causes your ribcage to expand and flare forward in space. This displacement of the ribcage automatically creates a swaying of your lower back (aka “banana back”), a common misalignment in handstand that completely throws off your center of gravity when inverting.
The key here is to integrate the entire system of your core by drawing the ribcage back into alignment with your shoulders and pelvis (ideally drawing the ribcage in the same line as the armpit). Lengthen your tailbone and envision drawing your bellybutton in toward your spine (activating your superficial rectus abdominis), while also creating a cinching in around your waistline (as if tightening a corset) to activate your deeper transversus abdominis. Use this activation throughout your abdominals to hug the lower ribs in toward your back body, again reinforcing the rounding of your upper back.
Once you’ve mastered all the previous steps, the final icing on the cake is to draw every part of your body in toward the midline. This action will help keep you stabilised upside down. Squeeze your arms and your legs toward each other as you press down into the floor, and reach up through your toes. The more tension you create in your body, the more rigid and sturdy your handstand will become, ultimately helping you find greater stability upside down.
Remember, your entire yoga practice is just that – practice. A handstand is not a posture that will happen overnight. This asana takes courage and perseverance to master. Be gentle with yourself as you overcome each hurdle along the journey.
Practice, practice, practice. And don’t be too afraid to fall. It is through falling, after all, that we learn to rise.
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