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Handstand: Everything in Moderation

Handstand: Everything in Moderation

Ah yes… the elusive handstand. Instagram’s most prized yoga pose, adho mukha vrksasana, is also one of the more challenging postures to do. Unless you practice handstands a zillion times per day (you probably shouldn’t), it can take you years to learn this yoga pose.

Our culture is kind of obsessed with handstands, and we get it: handstands are fun! And they’re versatile. When you’re really tired in the morning, a few breaths in handstand will get your adrenaline pumping faster than a cup of Folger’s. Hard day at work? A few handstands at night will help you blow off the extra steam.

Sure, we all love a good handstand. But be careful not to obsess over doing one. Handstands teach us a difficult but important lesson called bramacharya: the Sanskrit equivalent of “everything in moderation.”

1. Protect your wrists and elbows

Our culture is upright, but in yoga, you spend a lot of time on your hands. And we’re not really used to—or designed for—being on our hands. The joints in your upper limbs (wrists, elbows, shoulders) are comparatively much smaller than their lower limb counterparts (ankles, knees, hips). As a result, your wrists are inherently less stabile but more mobile than your ankles.

What’s astonishing about most yoga classes is the amount of time you spend on your hands without proper warm-up. Most people will enjoy a well-sequenced yoga class without ever considering the muscles in the lower arms. It’s essential to warm up these muscles prior to class because they stabilize your wrist and elbow joints. Carpal tunnel, tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow are common syndromes developed in yoga because of overuse.

2. Use your legs

Your adductor muscles are essentially your inner thighs. In a handstand, your inner thighs will keep your legs when gravity wants to straddle your legs apart. What’s the secret to holding handstand? Everything in moderation. Focus on using all of your muscles in moderation.

Try this: place a block between your thighs in Downward Facing Dog. Walk your feet in a couple steps. Take little hops and focus on hugging your thighs into the block. Sure, hopping into handstand with a block between your thighs is way harder than without. But you may notice that you land on your mat more lightly. That’s because your inner thighs will help you access deep core muscles.

3. Just go for it

PFY teacher Alison McCue says the best handstand advice she ever heard was to just go for it. “You have to swing your top leg so high that you get scared,” says McCue. “When you start thinking ‘Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,’ that’s when you’re in handstand.”

Part of handstand is learning to sit with your fears. If you only hop a few inches off the floor for the rest of your life, you’ll never enter the full pose. By allowing yourself to dive deep into what scares you—in this case, falling over—you will learn to moderate your fears. Fear is good, but sometimes we can be a bit irrational.

4. Keep the scapulohumeral rythym

A common but antiquated yoga cue you’ll commonly hear in Warrior 1 or High Lunge is to “draw your shoulder blades down your back” or “keep your shoulders away from your ears.” It’s not entirely incorrect, but these sort of cues are underdeveloped. Your shoulder blade attaches to your arm bone via a joint (the glenohumeral joint). So if you’re arm is moving in one direction and your shoulder blade in the opposite, you’re actually stretching a joint. And yoga teachers everywhere can certainly agree on this: you don’t want to stretch your joints!

Instead, practice lifting your shoulder blades up with your arms in Urdhva Hastasana. Turn your palms to face upward and press your feet firmly into your mat. As you press down through your feet, press your palms firmly to the ceiling like you’re trying to raise the roof. You’ll notice that your shoulder blades actually want to lift with your arms. Maintain this, and you’ll engage your upper back muscles more effectively in Handstand, Downward Facing Dog, etc.

For the record, “drawing the shoulder blades down the back” is applicable in a pose like Warrior 2. When the arms are out to the side, there is a tendency to lift the shoulders near the ears. In doing so, students create excess tension in the upper back and neck. Thus, teachers respond by encouraging them to relax their shoulders down the back. But note: your arms are doing completely different actions in Warrior 2 (abduction/out-to-the-side) versus Warrior 1 (flexion/overhead).

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Michael Simpson

Michael Simpson

Michael’s teaching philosophy is rooted in science. As an anatomy and physiology major in college, Michael developed a keen understanding of the structure of the human body, and how exactly it is designed to move gracefully. He believes that the functional alignment of the body facilitates a truly meditative experience. Michael has been actively involved in the PFY community since 2013. He teaches several group classes at the Morristown, Chatham, Livingston, Clifton and Glen Rock studios and assists in the 200 hour teacher training programs.

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