Handstands are the focus of the blog again this week. Last week, I gave you some of the warm-ups, drills, and tips that have helped me most in becoming better and more consistent with my handstands. This week, I’d like to talk some more about actually getting up into your handstand. There are basically two main methods: kicking up or pressing. There are myriad ways to approach either method, so let’s break some of those ways down.
Kicking Up Into Handstand
Kicking up is probably the method most people are familiar with, and the one they’re likely to try first. It’s easier and more accessible than pressing. Keep in mind, though, that “kick” is probably too strong of a word. Remember that you have to stop that momentum to balance in your handstand. Kicking too hard will send you past vertical quickly and you’ll be unlikely to catch your balance. Instead, I encourage you to think of it as somewhere just between and step up and a hop. You should be aiming to use the least force you can use and still be able to get your legs off of the floor.
I’m going to give you three different options for kicking into your handstand. Any of these can be used at the wall or freestanding. If you opt to use the wall, see last week’s post for tips on how to use the wall appropriately. I would really encourage you to break up with Paul the Wall, though. Commit to at least trying to kick up without the aid of the wall a few times each day.
The first method of kicking up into handstand is a handstand tuck. The aim here is just what it sounds like. You’re going to use both feet to kick off the ground and pull your knees into your chest as you send your bottom over your arms and shoulders.
To begin, place your hands on the floor in front of you, about twelve inches in front of your toes. Firm your arms and shoulders and push the palms of the hands into the floor, pressing down through each knuckle. Bend your knees, come up onto the balls of your feet, and lightly hop up and a little forward using both feet. As you hop up, pull your knees towards your chest and hug them in tightly. You’ll by in a sort of upside down squat here, with your hands on the ground and your legs in the air.
Lightning Bolt Handstand
Another option is what Kino MacGregor calls lightning bolt handstand. For this entry, you’ll start similarly to the tuck handstand by placing your hands on the floor about twelve inches from your toes. Press the hands into the floor and firm the arms and shoulders. Step one foot back and straighten out that leg. Using your bent leg, hop up and try to keep that knee hugging into your chest as you send the straightened leg up over your hips, shoulders, and hands. The bent knee can act as a counterbalance to help you stop that forward momentum and find your balance in handstand.
Be sure to practice this entry with both legs. One leg will feel more natural to you than the other when kicking up into handstand. That’s normal, but we always aim to balance ourselves in yoga. If you keep practicing with both sides, you might find that eventually you won’t really have a more dominant leg.
“L” Leg Handstand
This entry is very similar to the lightning bolt handstand. However, instead of hugging the bent leg into the chest, you will straighten it out when you kick up and keep it at an angle to the other leg. Again, you are positioning the legs to counterbalance one another and give you a way to stop your momentum from the kick.
Play around with each of these different entries. One or two might work better for you than the others. Once you find you balance using any of these entries, you can begin to slowly extend the legs all the way overhead, coming into your full handstand. It will take practice to catch your balance using any of these methods, and even more practice to bring it up into a full handstand. Be patient with yourself and remember that it’s a journey. Try a few times each day and don’t overdo it. Three to five tries is the maximum. After that, move on and come back to it the next day.
Pressing into handstand is more difficult in some ways than kicking up. It requires a great deal of core strength, as well as flexibility in the hamstrings. That said, the advantage to pressing is that there’s no momentum to stop, so it can be easier to find your balance. I personally much prefer to press into my handstand. I feel much more controlled and consistent.
The first press I learned was puppy press. This is a good press for a beginner because it helps take some of the weight off of the core muscles and makes it easier to get that lift.
You can make it even easier by pressing up from a block. One prerequisite here is that you will need to have the hamstring flexibility to stand on a block with your legs straight and place your hands flat on the ground a few inches in front of the block. If you aren’t there yet, that’s okay. Just put forward folds from the block into your practice and work on that flexibility.
Puppy Press from the Block
If you are able to easily reach the ground while standing on the block, then you can attempt puppy press from the block. It can be a little easier here if you have two blocks, but you can do this with one. Place the blocks about hip-width apart and stand on them, or stand with one foot on a block and the other on your tiptoe. Place your hands on the floor in front of of you, just three or four inches from the block. Breathe in and come up on your toe with one leg (if using once block, you’ll want to be on your toe on the block) while bending the other leg and pulling it up and around towards your armpit. Literally think of how a dog lifts its leg to pee on a tree. That’s what you are looking to mimic.
Keeping the knee of the standing leg straight and engaging the quads by lifting the kneecap up, exhale and start to slowly lift your leg off of the floor. This. Is. Hard. You may only get a few inches, or you may get nothing at all. You may also surprise yourself like I did and nearly fall over as it goes right up to a half-straddle. Whatever happens, be patient with yourself. Just like kicking into handstand, try a few times on both sides and then move on.
If you are able to press all the leg out to a half-straddle, try slowly straightening out your other leg and coming into a full straddle handstand. Feel out your balance here and breathe. Over time, you can eventually build up to being able to take another breath in and slowly bring your legs together into a full handstand. As always, take your time and be patient.
Transitioning to the Floor
Eventually as you work this press consistently on both sides, you’ll be able to move the block away. You may need a little help in between the block and the floor. I personally used a hardback cookbook that was about half the thickness of my block. I only needed to do that for a short time before I found myself able to puppy press up from the floor without any props.
Straddle press was the second press I learned. It took quite a bit of working puppy press consistently on both sides to help build up the strength for straddle press.
You’ll start with your legs just a little wider that hip width. I don’t take mine out to a really wide stance. Again, place the hands on the floor about four inches in front of your toes. On an inhale, rise up onto your tip toes and lift your kneecaps. Exhale and start to slowly lift the feet out to the side and up. You can keep your toes pointed or flex your feet. Just be sure to keep the kneecaps lifted and engage the feet in some fashion.
It can be helpful when you first start this press to take a pause for a breath or two in a straddle handstand position. Feel out your balance and make sure your hips are properly aligned. The inhale your legs the rest of the way up and together. Eventually, that can become one fluid motion.
Keeping Yourself in Balance
Once you get yourself into handstand, the next hurdle is staying there. Holding handstand for longer will come with time and practice, but I do have a few tips.
First, squeeze that butt. For the most part, we try not to do that in yoga. In handstand, it is essential. I’ve heard it said that you should visualize holding a pencil between your butt cheeks. It’s a vivid description, but I find it really helps. Squeezing your butt will help maintain alignment and let you hold your handstand for longer.
Second, try to visualize using your hands and forearms like you would your calves and feet. Close your eyes while standing and tune into your feet and legs. We don’t often notice because it’s second nature, but the muscles in our feet and legs are constantly adjusting to keep us standing. Muscles will tense and relax in response to the slightest changes in our balance. When in your handstand, try to mimic that muscle response and use your fingers, hands, and forearms to keep your balance. I know for myself I wanted to keep the focus on my legs at first, but I’ve found that focusing on my hands is really the key to holding my handstand.
I might be able to pretend I’m in a focused and equanimous state of mind in downward dog, but my handstand always tells me the truth. It’s just not possible for me if I’m not perfectly in tune with my breath, body, and mind. There is a lot to focus on, but never forget to move with your breath during your handstand practice. The breath cues helped me just as much as all of the rest.
Remember to be patient and gentle with yourself as you put handstand work into your practice. It won’t happen overnight, and it takes focus and dedication. As I’ve said before, try a few times each day and then move on. I hope these tips have been helpful to you. I wish you the best of luck on your handstand journey!
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