So you’ve kicked up to handstands a thousand times but, for some reason, you can only hold it for five to ten seconds at a time. Instead of holding a handstand find yourself burning out on kicking up alone. The natural next step in your handstand evolution is extending the amount of time that you stay vertical, by learning how to correct those subtle balances issues. Knowing what techniques and parts of the body to employ will greatly increase the integrity of your handstand. Time to change gears and start working on calibration instead of strengthening.
Foundation – Hands and Fingers
First and foremost, understand the job that your hands have. These can often be equated to the feet. Standing upright, with your feet shoulders’ distance apart, and relaxed, analyze the way you carry your weight in your feet. Are your heels planted into the earth or are you leaning into your toes? Experiment with rocking forward and backward without moving your feet (if you can help it). Notice when leaning forward you can only go so far before you lose your balance. Sometimes, you may be able to keep your balance by pressing your toes into the floor so that your heels come off the earth. Perhaps, when you lean back you’ll notice that ALL of your weight leaves your toes (maybe your toes even lift off the floor)! Once this happens you lose control and have to take a step to keep yourself from falling. These principles can be applied to your hands.
Leaning your weight into your fingers maximizes control of your balance. You can keep yourself from falling overhead by pressing firmly into the earth with your fingers, but when your weight is in the heels of your hands you will lose control and fall back to your feet. Work on getting your weight into your fingers before you kick your feet up (more explicitly, plant your hands before you kick. I know it’s harder, just trust me on this one). This way, you center your weight before you even get your feet off the floor.
Lastly, increase your energy output in your fingers by using spider finger technique. With your hands planted firmly on the ground, act as though you are grabbing the floor. Your knuckles will pop up and the fingertips should turn white. This will increase your finger engagement awareness and increase the amount of energy you are able to put into your fingertips. It will also give you control over imbalance adjustments. Active fingers are paramount to hand balancing.
Weight Baring – Shoulders
Unfortunately, the shoulders don’t have the same rigid frame that allows the hips to carry an unprecedented amount of weight for long extended periods of time. You’ll have to make up for what you don’t have in bone structure in muscle engagement. Yes, it is hard. Yes, it does require strength. And yes, it will come with time.
First, focus on pressing into the floor so much that your shoulders elevate into your ears. You can work on this by kicking up to a wall and shrugging your shoulders up and down. You’ll know your doing right when you find two or three inches or movement between shrugs and relaxing (or if you’re able to feel your feet slide up and down the wall). And don’t bend those arms!
Scapular protraction is a must. And difficult to grasp. With your hands and knees on the floor, you can practice this. Pinch your scapula together like someone gave you a hundred dollar bill on a really windy day and the only way to hold onto it is by reading this run-on sentence and pinching your shoulder blades are hard as you can. Now let go of the hundred dollar bill (because it never existed), press the earth away and round out your back by pulling your shoulders in and down. From this position, you can also work on turning the eyes of your elbows forward to employ external rotation (this will help you comprehend the protraction while vertical). Sturdy shoulders will stabilize your handstands and keep you on your hands for longer.
Float and Stabilize – Core & Tailbone
Properly engaging the core can remove 30 to 50 pounds from your shoulders and hands (seriously…it’s magic). This is different than crunches and begets a shape different than the American “rock hard” abs. This form of engagement is so uncommon that it may take you a couple attempts before you discover what to do with your belly.
First, adjust your breath. Sitting or standing, breath exclusively through your chest and restrict your belly from expanding especially on the exhales. Now, pretend that someone is about to poke your belly button. Obviously, this isn’t something that you want to happen, so you suck your navel in and you keep it sucked in (especially on the exhale). This is sometimes called thoracic, or uddiyana bandha breathing. Practice this in 5 breath intervals and be careful to intentionally hug the navel in more than simply flexing.
Secondly, adjust the tailbone. Stand with your back to a wall and step your feet out until your lower back touches the wall. From here, engage your thoracic breathing. Suck your navel in and breathe into your ribs all while keeping your lower back pressed against the wall. Keeping this engagement, shuffle your feet closer to the wall and stop before your lower back comes from the wall. No matter how close your heels come to the wall, be certain to keep your lower back against the wall and tuck your tailbone towards the ground. This exercise can be intensified by extending your hands over your head. Keep this shape in mind while you’re upside down.
The core will stabilize your handstands and redirect all of your balancing correction to your hands.
Shapes – Hips and Legs
Shape can greatly impact how long you hold a handstand. Many of us are more likely to go straight for the vertical line. This is far more difficult than the “pretty” shapes. Straddle, Stag, double stag, pike, tuck, and scorpion are all far easier to hold than the former. But learning shapes other than the line is a double-edged sword. By practicing the other shapes you may suspend your ability to master the vertical line; however, it does present an opportunity to experience balancing on your hands.
Straddle is the easiest of these shapes. Without the length of your legs hanging overhead to throw you off balance, the shape gives you a lower center of balance and more control. You can keep your legs active by pointing or flexing your feet. Even though this is not the line, still keep all other aspects of handstand stabilization in mind. Lean your weight into your fingers, protract your shoulders, and (most importantly) pull your navel into your spine. Straddle often encourages practitioners to backbend. Resist the temptation. Unlike many of the other shapes, this one is a good study in correction. Knowing how to change your form midair can be a useful tool.
Stag and/or double stag is also doable. By bending one knee, or both you can reduce the amount of weight that you have to correct. Unfortunately, this shape often loosens the lower abdomen and causes practitioners to give into back bending. Stag will make balancing easier but certainly will preclude you from finding a straight line sooner.
Endurance – Breath
Don’t stop breathing. It is all too easy to forget. Breathing is the source of your energy and without it, you could easily hurt yourself.
Practice breathing in your inversions against a wall. With your fingertips facing the wall kick up so that your back is to the wall (you can also practice all the other alignment tricks here too). Before you even get off of your feet, take a moment to think about your breath. When you kick up, are you going to inhale or exhale? Experiment both ways; the direction of the breath does not matter so much as the marriage of the movement to the breath (I’d suggest and inhale). Once you find one that works, stick to it. When you kick, take a deep breath that lasts from the floor all the way up into your shape. With time, your breath will make this movement fluid and seamless.
Breathing as you move into your handstand will encourage you to breathe during them, but there is no guarantee. Breathing during inversions is a constant battle. Your breath, which is usually semi-voluntary, somehow becomes a 100% voluntary action. It’s up to you to consciously bring your breath into your practice.
Adho Mukha Vrksasana
We often forget that handstand is a yogic practice because it’s such a fiery pose and you don’t see it in coming up in your Thursday night yoga class. Remember, just as all other poses, handstands are meant to be practiced in repetition, conscious intention, and meditation. And remember that hand standing is a tool of amplification. Doing this too often can result in an inflated ego. This isn’t something that you will stumble upon and just comprehend one day. This is something, like all poses that you will always be practicing and improving forever. Be patient, there is time.
Leave a comment below and let me know if this helped you.