Handstanding, A Step By Step Guide
Handstand has been a frequent part of my Yoga practice for the last 8 years. It is always invigorating and sparkles up my blood in a way that other poses just don't seem to manage. In Forrest Yoga, inversions are used frequently in classes to develop strength and to find new ways of working the breath and your fear edge. Since beginning Forrest Yoga, I have learned many pathways towards handstand that built on the work I had done myself. In this post, I will share some of the stages and progressions and advise on what to do to prepare the way for handstands and forearm stands. Some of the stages can take weeks to built up the strength, awareness, and confidence to progress on from, so take your time. You are in no rush!
When preparing for handstands, start with the hands. Stretching and warming up the wrists is vital for feeling the hands on the floor. I like to work with wrist support gloves when I am doing a heavy handstanding session
If you are short on time, this wrist stretch can work really well for you. From either a seated position or kneeling position, place the hands on the floor with the fingers pointing towards you palms down. Whilst actively spreading the hands, reach the roots of the fingers towards the floor and progress towards the wrists.
Second stage is to take the hands out to the side with the thumbs pointing up. Curl the thumbs down first and then wrap the remaining 4 fingers around the thumb. Squeeze about 60% of your maximum grip and pour as if pouring a glass of water.
Third stage of wrist stretches is to curl the knuckles down while making a fist. Take a couple of breaths here to get the stretch in the wrist extensors.
This would be a great time to add in some abdominal exercises. Without ab work you won't be able to feel and find your core in the air and the stability is lost. For more advanced gravity surfs, core strength will help you move from one position to another. Check out the Youtube playlist for some Forrest Yoga abdominal work to get yourself started.
Turbo Puppy - From an all-fours position, set the hands about 8 inches in front of the shoulders so that your elbows are roughly underneath the shoulders when bent. Hands are shoulder-distance apart. In turbo puppy, the aim is to create greater mental representation of the chest muscles, pec minor, external rotators and serratus anterior muscles. These muscles are what will give you the stability through the shoulders in a handstand. Without a foundation here, handstands become a fluke based event rather than something you can explore with grace and strength. In the pose, squeeze the elbows towards one another, neck relaxed and slightly lift up the space between your shoulder blades. If you are struggling to connect to the sensation in the upper body, put a block between the elbows and squeeze that for added resistance. Resistance will help you build the neuroplasticity faster in muscles that you may not have used like this before.
Turbo Dog - After a few breaths in Turbo Puppy, tuck the toes under and work towards straightening the legs. Feel for lifting the ribcage away from the floor whilst wrapping the elbows towards one another. For a greater feeling of space in the upper body, reach the humerus, the upper arm bones, towards the ground, away from the shoulders. Be here for about 8 breaths onwards.
Downdog on the Wall (Set up and pose) - Downdog on the wall is the quintessential pose for learning handstand. In this position, you can establish the strength in the arms, the feeling in the core while navigating with a relaxed neck. When you progress towards handstand, the slightly lifted head will allow for stability in the upper back during the balance, When using the wall, this is not necessary so enjoy a moment to relax your neck.
From Downdog, move your heels close to the wall. You should come into a comfortable downdog with your heels touching the wall before lifting up. Step one foot up onto the wall and then the other, stepping no higher than your own hips. Press the heels into the wall and lift your hips towards the ceiling feeling for lengthening your spine towards the ceiling. Your aim is to be here for about 8 breaths. To explore switching on the legs more, lift one leg up towards the ceiling, keeping the leg vibrant. Wrist injured people can work Dolphin on the Wall which is pictured below with the same setup.
The next step is to play with kicking up into handstand. Using a bolster can support the shoulders and keep the weight from shifting into the hands too badly. Set up by placing the bolster against the wall and resting the shoulders on the top end of the bolster, hands on the floor, shoulder-distance apart. Jump up and set the hips onto the wall. Squeeze the inner thighs together and play with coming down with control.
Kicking up to catch - From about one foot away from the wall, set up the hands so they are shoulder-distance apart. Lift up one leg, getting ready to swing up into the handstand. The lifting leg will bend in the air so that the foot can set on the wall.
Once the foot is set on the wall, bring the other leg up and then straighten both legs up the wall. This will build confidence in kicking up into handstand from this split jump. I recommend balancing out by learning to kick up with both legs.
Kick up and catch 2 (the scarier one) - Once you develop the confidence in the previous kick, the next stage is to move further away from the wall. Move 2 feet and up to 3 feet away from the wall. This will demand more of your flexibility to catch the handstand but will encourage you to feel the balance point more and more.
Downdog on the Wall to Handstand - While Downdog on the wall is technically already a handstand, this last exercise will move you towards handstand. Kicking up against the wall is helpful for developing the technique you will eventually use the centre of the room but dependency on the wall to catch can sometimes be a hindrance.
For this stage, come into Downdog on the wall and lift one leg up. Stretch the leg up as much as you can and lift the head slightly for support. Begin to press away from the wall to the tiptoes of the other leg. The aim is to get the foot that is on the wall so light that the toes are barely touching the wall and you are achieving balance all on your own. This version can be performed in forearm balance as well.
In summary, handstand and forearm balance can make up a very exciting part of your practice and one that gets your blood moving. They change your perspective straight away, get you breathing and connecting to your power instantly. In a Forrest Yoga class, there are lots of opportunities to get upside down and other tools that we have developed to stabilise the shoulders, increase the mental representation in the muscles that support the shoulders and great ways to engage the core. I recommend beforehand standing that you Warm up, including wrists, shoulders, core and hamstrings in this. Take breaks by working short rounds and Try alternating wall work with a couple of standing poses like in a B Series flow. You can also learn a great deal by working with a partner or teacher. If you are able to make it to one of my Inversion or Arm Balance workshops, I can teach you lots of tools with that in mind. Safe flying!