Handstand is one of the most frequently requested poses in my classes, and also one of the most hated. Many times when I announce handstand as the next pose, people groan and sigh. Sometimes people even leave. Handstand is hard. It requires you to take a risk. And quite often it takes you out of the flow of your practice. Most people either love it or hate it.
I believe that the benefits of handstand make it more than worthwhile, even if you are in the hater camp. Handstand strengthens the core and upper body. It develops self-esteem and inner strength. Best of all, it turns your world upside down so that you can see life from a fresh perspective.
Adho Mukha Vrksasana (downward facing tree, in case you are interested in the translation) is the first inversion taught in Anusara yoga. It is considered to be the safest non-restorative inversion because the neck is not involved. Headstand and shoulderstand are considered by many to be easier inversions than handstand. However, because of the risk of compromising the cervical spine (the neck), I recommend becoming comfortable with handstand first. By building awareness, comfort inverting, and strength in the upper body, handstands prepare us to safely perform other inversions.
Handstand brings up a lot of fear for some people. If this is the case for you, I recommend going slowly and working with a trusted partner.
The first version of handstand that I usually teach is called “L” handstand. This version actually requires more upper body strength than the full version, however since it is climbed into rather than kicked into, there is less “fear factor”.
Come onto hands and knees with your feet at the wall and wrists directly under your shoulders. Spread your fingers wide apart and soften your chest between your arms. Curl your toes under and come into downward facing dog. This version of downward facing dog should feel quite a bit shorter than the downward dog you usually do. Have a friend place their hands right on your shoulderblades and press your shoulder blades firmly towards the wall.
Now, step one foot up to hip-height and then the other foot. In order to straighten your legs, you will need to press your hips towards your friend and your chest towards the wall. Ask your friend to confirm that your feet are as high as your hips and no higher. You will feel like you are too close to the wall, but that means you are just right. Lift your hips as high into the air as you can. Most people need to focus mostly on pressing their chest towards the wall with the help of their partner, however if you have extremely flexible shoulders and you find your chest going far behind your wrists, you may need to back off in order to make your torso vertical. In this case, focus on pressing into the hands to lift the hips. You can remain in L handstand as long as is comfortable for you. To come out, bend the knees and take one foot down and then the other. Rest in childs pose and enjoy the effects of the inversion.
Practice L often and build the amount of time you are able to stay in it. When you feel ready to move on, begin in downward facing dog with your hands about 6-8 inches from the wall. Lift one leg into down dog splits and practice kicking. Keep your hips square to the ground when kicking, rather than allowing the top leg to swing wildly to the side. This will increase the efficiency and control of your kick. Just the practice of kicking is beneficial, whether or not you are able to get all the way into the pose. If you are unable to kick up on your own ask a teacher or experienced practicioner to help you get up. Once you are up, squeeze your legs together and extend upwards from your hands to your feet.
Remember that you get most of the same benefits from practicing the handstand prep (L), so there is no need to rush to the final pose. Inverting is not recommended during pregnancy, menstruation, and with certain physical conditions, so please consult your physician as well as a qualified teacher if you have any questions about your ability to perform either variation of handstand. If you have fear about kicking up, consider whether or not it is a challenge that calls to you. If so, work with a teacher for the first few times so that you can gain confidence in your ability to perform this pose. Taking risks and facing your fears are beneficial practices, but they should not be undertaken lightly. Once you do however, you stand to gain strength, confidence, and a new perspective.