A Fine Balance
By Mark Stephens
Part of the sublime nature of hatha yoga is the infinite potential it offers for deepening, refining, and evolving our practice as a process of self-transformation. At first, a new asana or pranayama technique might seem altogether daunting. But through abhyasa, or persevering practice, we stay fully committed to the path, and with vairagya, an attitude of non-attachment, we embody our higher intention instead of identifying with the outcome of the pose or the completion of a goal.We’ll examine these principles by working toward adho mukha vrikshasana (downward-facing tree pose, or handstand). An intermediate-level asana, handstand helps us build strength, confidence, and self-acceptance. It supports transformation precisely because it is challenging: it challenges us to stand on our hands instead of our feet, to find balance when our normal relationship to gravity is inverted, and to overcome a palpable and perfectly rational fear of falling. By persevering through these challenges we generate tapas, the self-purifying inner fire of transformation.
Wisdom of Gradual Progression
To integrate abhyasa and vairagya in hatha practice, we can work with the concept of vinyasa krama. Vinyasa means “to place in a special way” and krama, or “stage,” refers to the effective sequencing of actions. Vinyasa krama allows us to chart our course through a more sustainable and accessible practice by giving each successive asana a meaningful place in relation to what has come before and what will follow.
A vinyasa krama practice typically follows an arc-like structure, first sequencing toward the peak asana(s) by moving from simple to more complex postures that warm the body and give targeted attention to areas where you will work more deeply. Anticipatory asanas help open and stabilize the muscles and joints most involved in the peak pose. After exploring the peak, the sequence follows a path of integration toward shavasana, each successive asana releasing the tension that may have arisen in earlier stages.
As you apply these principles in the handstand sequence that follows, cultivate an abiding sense of vairagya: allow the asanas and the practice to come to you as you consciously explore opening to them. Use the breath and the intensity of physical sensation to guide your effort, and remember that it is not about how far you go but how you go. You may find your practice is best explored without getting to the fullest expression of the peak pose.
Anticipatory Warming and Awakening
To begin, warm the body with the surya namaskar (sun salutation) variation of your choice. Pause to explore in the asanas where there are elements that anticipate handstand or that prepare the body to ultimately make handstand more accessible, as follows:
In tadasana (mountain pose), cultivate pada bandha (energetic activation through the feet) as a tool for awakening awareness along the midline of the body, accessing mula bandha (root lock), and stimulating the flow of energy up through the core of the body.
Practice urdhva hastasana (upward hand pose) while maintaining pelvic neutrality, natural extension of the spine, and full flexion of the arms overhead. This pose has all the alignment principles that you will try to find in handstand, and is particularly helpful in feeling pelvic neutrality in relation to the spine, and neutral spinal extension while reaching the arms fully overhead.
In anjaneyasana (low lunge pose), gradually release more deeply to stretch the hip flexors, especially the iliopsoas.
Hold phalakasana (plank pose) for up to one minute to gain a sense of buoyancy through the hands, arms, and shoulder girdle. Phalakasana also awakens the transverse abdominal muscles that help stabilize the torso in handstand.
If practicing chaturanga dandasana (four-limbed staff pose), keep the legs and abdomen active while awareness is naturally drawn into the hands, arms, and shoulders. Keep the shoulder blades rooted on the back for increased stability and ease, and don’t bring the shoulders lower than the elbows to protect the shoulder joint. Keep the knuckles of the index fingers firmly rooted to maintain balanced grounding through the hands and wrists.
In adho mukha shvanasana (downward-facing dog pose), you will learn, develop, and refine most of the elements of handstand.
Downward-facing dog teaches us the principle of roots and extension: as you root down, you equally extend and stabilize. Balance the pressure across the hands by pressing down more firmly through the knuckles of the index fingers. Try to feel the “rebounce” effect of this rooting action in the natural lengthening through the wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints. If you have difficulty straightening your arms, play with turning your hands slightly out; if you tend to hyperextend your elbows, turn the hands slightly in.
Tight or weak shoulders create specific risks to the neck, back, elbows, wrists, and the shoulders themselves, in downward-facing dog and handstand. Moderate effort in downward-facing dog develops both strength and flexibility, opening the shoulders to greater flexion. Externally rotating the shoulders may cause the inner edges of the hands to lift; balance this effort by internally rotating the forearms, thereby establishing stability and ease in the hands, wrists, and shoulders.
With each exhalation, feel the light and natural engagement of your abdominal muscles. Try to maintain that subtle engagement while inhaling, without gripping in your belly. This light engagement in your core is a key source of stability in handstand.
Opening the Shoulders
One of the main challenges in handstand arises from tight shoulders. Imagine for a moment that you are able to raise your arms only halfway overhead, and that you are now in handstand—the rest of your body will not be able to line up over your arms. This is why many bodies are shaped like a banana when in handstand, making balance more elusive.
The easiest path to opening the shoulders to full flexion is through adho mukha shvanasana, as well as garudasana (eagle pose) and gomukhasana (cow face pose). Garudasana arm position stretches the rhomboids, a key set of muscles which can restrict movement of the shoulders when they’re tight. Gomukhasana arm position opens the chest and shoulder girdle.
You can also play with lying on a rolled blanket placed across your shoulder blades; interlace your fingers and stretch your arms overhead.
To move closer toward adho mukha vrikshasana, come to a wall. Start with your hands on the wall at hip height, with your hips aligned over your heels. Look forward to position the arms parallel, then gaze at your belly to draw your lower front ribs in. Rotate your pelvis forward to bring your sacrum more level with the floor, and bring your ears level with your arms. Pressing your hands into the wall, spiral the tops of your shoulder blades away from the spine while rooting the bottom tips of the shoulder blades into your back; balance this action by internally rotating the forearms and pressing through the knuckles of the index fingers. Activate your legs and try to press your hips away from your hands; then slowly extend one leg up behind you. Be more interested in keeping the hips level than in how high you raise the leg. Hold for several breaths before switching sides.
Next, reverse this position: place your hands where your feet were, place one foot on the wall where your hands were, and press into the foot to straighten the lifted leg; then place your other foot on the wall alongside. If you feel comfortable, extend one leg up to the sky, then switch sides. Try to hold for one minute, then release into uttanasana (standing forward bend pose).
If you have the strength to hold the second preparatory position for over a minute, you most likely have the strength to do full handstand for at least several breaths. Otherwise, stay with the preparatory practices until you feel sufficiently steady and relaxed with them.
The Peak Asana Getting Up
There are several ways to get up into handstand, each one progressively more challenging: using assistance (which may get you up prematurely), scissor kicking, or piking.
Come into downward-facing dog with your fingertips placed about five inches away from a wall (closer if you have really open shoulders and hip flexors). Keeping your arms straight and strong (without hyperextending the elbows), walk in until your shoulders are aligned over your wrists. Gazing between your thumbs, extend one leg up about two feet off the floor, keeping it straight, strong, and internally rotated. This is your swinging leg. Now start to play with springing off the other leg while simultaneously extending your swinging leg up overhead. With each exhalation you will feel the natural engagement of your abdominal muscles. Without gripping in your belly, try to maintain this light engagement in your core as you spring and swing up with the inhalation. The moment you’ve released your springing leg, make it straight and strong too, feeling that leg being pulled to the sky by the momentum of your hips and swinging leg. Keep springing and swinging until both legs meet at the wall.
When you’re comfortable scissor kicking up with either leg, graduate to piking. Start as before in downward-facing dog, but with the hands about six to eight inches away from the wall, and feet just about a foot closer in from downward-facing dog. Gazing down between the thumbs, play with simultaneously making both legs into springs, while shifting your weight forward and back over your shoulders. Keep your arms and shoulders stable, and envision rotating your pelvis up toward the wall as you spring off both feet as powerfully as you can. The moment you’ve sprung, make both legs straight and strong, elevating your hips over your shoulders and bringing your legs parallel to the floor, and eventually straight up overhead.
Aligning into Balance
Now it’s time to explore balancing. Upon arriving upside down in handstand, drop your head to gaze across the room, draw your lower front ribs slightly in, and try to find pelvic neutrality. Press firmly down through your hands while rooting the knuckles of your index fingers. Maintain external rotation of the upper arms and begin to press even more strongly down through your hands. If it is comfortable for your neck, shift your gaze down between your thumbs; while this makes alignment in the spine more challenging, it makes balancing easier.
Bring your awareness to your legs. Keeping the ankles together, internally rotate the thighs and energize out through the balls of the feet, while spreading the toes. As you root your hands and extend up through the entire length of your body, create a feeling of drawing energy to the midline, cultivating stability deep in the core. Use the actions of your feet and legs to more easily access and sustain mula bandha, accentuating a sense of awakened energy drawing along your spine.
Rather than drawing one leg and then the other away from the wall, keep strongly rooting and extending while visualizing your body coming into a straight line from the wrists through the shoulders, hips, and ankles. Get longer while stabilizing your shoulders, torso, and legs, continuously drawing energy to center. Keep the breath smooth and steady. As you get longer and more stable, your hips will gravitate over your wrists, your heels will leave the wall, and your body will gradually align into initial balance.
To refine your balance, play with slight movement of your lower ribs in and out, and slight rotation of your pelvis forward and back, until you feel like you are in better alignment. If you have strong and resilient wrists and you’re close to balance, play with alternately pressing more and then less firmly into your fingertips, feeling how this shifts your balance slightly forward and backward from center.
It is important to know not just how to get into a pose but how to get out. This means not just coming down from handstand, but integrating the experience through pratikriyasana, or opposite action, which dissolves whatever tension has arisen and restores energetic balance.
However far you make it toward handstand, when releasing, first come into uttanasana or balasana (child’s pose) for at least a few breaths.
Use basic wrist movements and shoulder openers to relieve tension in the wrists, shoulders, neck, and upper back. For release in the wrists, come up to sitting in virasana (hero pose) with your palms together in anjali mudra (reverence seal), then reverse your hands, fingers pointing down, and press the backs of your hands and fingers into each other.
Shake out your hands really well, place your fingertips on the floor and repeatedly snap them toward each other, with the fingertips lifting off the floor but not touching. Play around with other wrist stretches, such as moving your hands around in circles.
For a calming progression, rest in balasana, release the spine with simple twists, and settle into a forward bend such as pashchimottanasana (posterior stretch).
If instead you prefer to move with the awakened energy and warmth created through your handstand practice, consider exploring heart-opening backbends such as setu bandha sarvangasana (bridge)
and dhanurasana (bow pose).
Unless you have very happy wrists, avoid backbends such as urdhva dhanurasana (wheel) that hyperextend the wrists.
As you complete your overall practice session, settle into a profoundly restful shavasana, assimilating a deeper sense of abhyasa and vairagya. Let the persevering practice be one of doing nothing: allow the breath to flow freely and surrender into blissful awareness.
Roots and Extension
While proper biomechanical alignment is a primary source of stability and ease, we can accentuate these qualities in any asana by applying the principle of roots and extension. In rooting down, we naturally stimulate extension up through the body because for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. As we ground, so we radiate.
When we root down strongly, we not only create space up through the joints of the body but also activate the muscles running along these lines of energy. Standing in tadasana, if you consciously ground down through your legs and feet, the muscles of the legs and feet awaken. Two of these muscles, the tibialis posterior and the peroneus longus, have a stirrup-like lifting effect on the arches, bringing a balanced energetic activation to the feet—pada bandha—which helps stimulate mula bandha and the awakening of energy up through the core of the body.
The same applies through the arms and hands in handstand—running lines of energy from the shoulders through the hands, we simultaneously create grounding and space through the hands (hasta bandha), wrists, elbows, shoulders, and ultimately out through the feet. With these actions, we more naturally find stability, ease, and balance.
Mark Stephens, author of Teaching Yoga: Essential Foundations and Techniques (North Atlantic Books, 2010), has practiced yoga for over 20 years. He lives and teaches in Santa Cruz, California.