Building foundations for handstand

A handstand (Adho mukha vrksasana – in sanskrit) is the act of supporting the body in a stable, inverted vertical position by balancing on the hands. The body is held straight with hands spaced approximately shoulder-width apart, arms and legs fully extended. There are many ways and techniques to perform and practice this pose but in this specific contest we will focus on the yoga transition from downward-facing dog pose. We will practice the handstand next to a wall for safety and support. It can requires many years before to be able to hold yourself in the inversion and without the support of the wall, therefore it is important to prepare the body building the necessary conditions with a regular physical practice.

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Benefits


  • Increase strength in the whole upper body.
  • Increase balance.
  • Improve memory and concentration.
  • Increase body awareness.
  • Activate the parasympathetic nervous system improving the blood circulation and the digestion, especially if you are suffering from constipation.
  • Expands your chest for a more healthy way of breathing strengthening your lungs helps relieve colds, cough, sinusitis, sore throat and asthma. Handstand deepens and calms your breathing because of the increased pressure on your diaphragm. A study in Krakow, Poland, concluded that can cause the breath to slow down, the blood absorbs more oxygen, which benefits your brain and inner organs as it nourishes cells and tissues.
  • Reversing the effects of gravity can improve positively your mood, since blood and oxygen flow to the brain, it has both an energizing and calming effect. The upside down position can alleviate insomnia and by reducing the production of the “stress hormone”, cortisol, can help in the short-term but could also relieve minor depression and anxiety in a regular basis practice.
  • Helps to stimulate the entire endocrine system. The inversion stimulates the pituitary gland in the head, which helps the set point for a healthy weight. The inversion brings blood to the thyroid glands to help regulate the production of T3 and T4, which also affects metabolism.
  • It helps building confidence and trust in your inner potential and strength.

Risk and precautions


It’s important to practice handstand being mindful of good alignment. Always warm up before and work with a certified instructor. Build strength in your upper body with intermediate preparatory exercises. Practice the poses next to a wall, with the help of your teacher or an experienced practitioner to learn with more security how to stabilize the balance. After you come out of the pose, take a child pose with your two fists stacked between your forehead and the floor. Check with your doctor before if you have a heart condition, high blood pressure, eye problems, carpal tunnel or any injury in your head, shoulders, arms, wrist or back, or if you are pregnant.

Actions – step by step


  • First, get into the downward-facing dog pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) with your fingertips a few inches away from a wall and your hands shoulder-width apart. Keep your palms open and grounded on the mat, fingers spread out wide.
  • While exhaling normally, pose the gaze toward the floor in between your hands. Soften your knees and start lifting and lengthening one leg up and toward the back (few centimeter way from the floor). This will prepare you to bounce upwards.
  • While inhaling, bounce gently on one leg and start raising up the other leg toward the wall. The momentum will automatically help the other leg to rise up and reach the wall as well. In such a way, the whole weight of the body is now solely on the hands and your hips may arch over the shoulders while doing this. At this point your body shape will probably look like a banana or a boomerang.
  • While keeping the arms straight and looking down toward the mat (in between your hands) see if you can bring one leg in alignment with the rest of the body as in the mountain pose (Tadasana). The foot can point up of stay flat.
  • If you feel steady, at this point, try to bring also the other leg in alignment next to the other. Press your legs together.
  • It is possible to release the neck bringing it as well in alignment (normally looking down helps to keep the balance).

Preparatory poses


  1. Mountain Pose (Tadasana) and variation with arms up toward the ceiling with flexed wrist.

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     2. Half downward-facing dog pose (Ardha Adho Mukha Svanasana)

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3. Downward-facing dog pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

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A dynamic variation of this pose can be practiced by waving the spine and explore any type of possible movement available. Practicing fluidity of the body. An additional option is the transition into three-legged dog, also possible to be practiced dynamically bouncing one one leg or bringing one knee to the chest/right/left elbow and back to the starting point.

4. Plank pose (Kumbhakasana)

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A dynamic transition flow waving from downward-facing dog into plank is very beneficial to increase strength and flexibility of the whole upper body and spine. Another possible dynamic variation of plank is possible by pulsing the knees down to the mat on the inhale and back up into extension on the exhale. The variation side-plank, balancing only on one arm, is also a good training for increasing strength in arms, core and balance. In case of difficulties, an intermediate step could be to simply lift one by one the hands/legs off the mat (even just 5 cm). Many other variations can be provide to meet each student where they truly are.

5.  Half plank pose (Phalakasana)

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A dynamic variation can be practiced transitioning from the regular plank into the forearms; pulsing the knees down; lifting one by one legs up or walking the feet toward the front arriving progressively into Dolphin pose.

6. Dolphin pose (Ardha Pincha Mayurasana)

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A dynamic variation can be practiced by pulsing the knees or bouncing on one leg as explained previously in three-legged dog.

7. Half Headstand Pose (Ardha Adho Mukha Vrksasana)

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A more accessible variation can be practiced in stages, positioning both feet on a lower support. Progressively trying to reach the 90° angle with the whole body.

At this point, after having reached a good stability, try to lift a leg up, one by one and see if you can find the balance. A teacher or a partner can stand in front of you to support you in case of fear of falling to the other side of the wall.

8. Upside down Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III)

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Sustain for five breath, slowly bring the foot back at the wall and see if you can bring the other leg up for other five breath.

Please take a break in between if you’re wrist are getting painful and repeat with the other side after few minutes.

A more accessible variation can be practiced in stages, positioning both feet on a lower support. Progressively trying to reach the 90° angle with the whole body.

At this point, after having reached a good stability, try to lift a leg up, one by one and see if you can find the balance. A teacher or a partner can stand in front of you to support you in case of fear of falling to the other side of the wall.

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9. Handstand pose at the wall (Adho Mukha Vrksasana)

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Sustain for five breath, see if you can keep the distance between hears and shoulders, avoiding to collapse. If you want to go back down to the floor, move away from the wall one of your legs, bring it all the way down, sustaining with your core. If you feel steady and strong, try to bring one leg in alignment with the rest of the body and sustain for other five breath.

Many other yoga asana can help building the foundations for handstand, here below a couple of more examples:

  1. Warrior III pose (Virabhadrasana III)
  2. Crane and/or Crow pose (Bakasana)
  3. Headstand pose (Sirsasana)

Anatomy and biomechanics


Skeletal joint actions

  • Spine: Cervical extension, slight thoracic and lumbar extension.
  • Upper limbs: Wrist dorsiflexion, forearm pronation, elbow extension, shoulder flexion, shoulder girdle elevation, scapula upper rotation and abduction.
  • Lower limbs: Slight hip extension and adduction (pelvic tilt), knee extension, ankle dorsiflexion or extention.

JOINT ACTION

MUSCLE INVOLVED

Wrist dorsiflexion

Flexor carpi radialis, Palmaris longus, Flexor carpi ulnaris, Flexor digitorum superficialis, Flexor digitorum profundus, Flexor pollicis longus.

Forearm pronation

Pronators

Elbow extension

Triceps brachii and Brachioradialis

Shoulder flexion

Pectoralis major,Coracobrachialis, anterior Deltoid, Biceps and Triceps Brachii, Teres Major and Subscapularis

Shoulder girdle abduction

Rhomboids, Trapezius, Levator Scapulae.

Scapula upper rotation and abduction

Middle and lower Serratus anterior, upper and lower Trapezius, Serratus anterior, Pectoralis minor.

Cervical extension

Rectus Capitis posterior major and minor, Obliquus capitis superior, Spinalis capitis.

Slight thoracic and lumbar extension

Iliocostalis torachis, Longissimis torachis, Iliocostalis lumborum, Spinali torachis, erector spinae (or sacrospinalis)

Slight hip extension and adduction

Gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. Rectus abdominis (predominantly), Internal and External oblique abdominalis, Transversus abdominis.

Knee extension

Rectus femoris, Vastus medialis, Vastus lateralis, Vastus intermedius.

Ankle dorsiflexion or extension

calf muscles: Gastrocnemius, Soleus, and the Achilles tendon. Gastrocnemius, Flexor digitorum longus, Flexor hallucis longus, Peroneus (fibularis) longus and brevis, Plantaris, Soleus, and Tibialis posterior.

Scapular stability/rigidity & rotational strength

To maintain and develop a healthy shoulder articolation we must strengthen the scapular stabilizers and rotator cuff muscles, incorporating exercises that involve pulling (for ex. rows and pull ups) in order to balance the push action. However, we also need to address the rotator cuff and in this case we want these scapular stabilizer muscles active in their role, by keeping the shoulder blade down and retracted providing stability. The goal is to “teach” the shoulder to keep the scapular stabilizers active in the early phases of shoulder elevation, so we don’t end up sacrificing stability for endurance.

Bibliography


Yoga Journal:

https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/7-steps-defy-gravity-master-handstand-pose

https://www.yogajournal.com/poses/handstand

http://www.yogajournal.it/verticale-appoggio-sulle-mani-adho-mukha-vrksasana/

The Handstand: A Four Stage Training Model:

https://www.stk-sport.co.uk/gymnastics-science-handstand-4-stage-training-model.html

Pose Notebook: How to Practice and Teach Handstand:

http://www.jasonyoga.com/2015/08/28/pose-notebook-how-to-practice-and-teach-handstand/

The myth of core training in handbalancing:

http://flyinghighacrobatics.com/the-myth-of-core-training/

Handstand and Shoulder Stability:

http://flyinghighacrobatics.com/handstand-and-shoulder-stability/

Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews.


Pictures’ credits: Fabio Torrico

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