My mentor and teacher Kino MacGregor is a yogini extraordinaire. Her handstands are like whoa! Actually, I think all of her asanas (poses) are ah-maaaaa-zing, but those handstands! OMG those handstands! SO fabulous! It came as a huge surprise to me when Kino confessed handstands are her weak point, literally. She’s naturally more flexible than she is strong, and she loses strength easily and has to work hard to build it back up. The fact that Kino has Mere Mortal Syndrome is both a huge relief and also tremendously inspiring. She has perfect inversions, because she trains to have perfect inversions. The take away: you can nail any asana with diligence and consistency. I’m still working on building up strength so that I can easily do my handstands and forearm balances even after doing a million vinyassas during my practice, but I’ve learned a lot after training with Kino both one on one and also in various yoga intensives. I wanted to share some of her knowledge. Another great way to get handstand training is to try out her CodyApp. You can read my review here.
1. Practice a little every day:
This might seem like a no brainier, but evaluate how much time you actually spend working on handstands. When I calculated time spent practicing verses time spent wishing I could nail my handstand and pincha mayurasana (forearm balance), I realized I didn’t dedicate much time to my strength training. Set aside 5 minutes each day to practice handstands and forearm balances. Do it during commercials while you watch TV or first thing in the morning…try to find a consistent time that triggers you to remember to practice each day.
2. Strength + Alignment= Inversion
Put the emphasis on building strength and proper alignment, not getting inverted. I have new respect for those Olympic gymnasts, lemme me tell you! They make handstands look like a breeze. One of the things that really held me back in my training was I focused so much on kicking up in the air and trying to hold my pose from there. It takes a freakish amount of strength to hold inversions. It will take the muscles of the Incredible Hulk to stay inverted if you’re not properly aligned. And, if you’re a woman and, ahem, a little more on the busty side like myself, you’ll have to really work harder to stay in-line. IT CAN BE DONE, YOGIS!
3. Keep Your Vertical Axis. Always.
Your vertical axis is what you’re attempting to get back to each time you stand in mountain pose. If someone drew a line down you, it would be straight up and down, back nicely in line, shoulder and hips stacked, hips slightly tucked in. When you invert, you’re just down mountain pose—upside down of course. A big reason we fall over in handstands/pincha: we’re like leaning towers of Pisa. Not gonna work, ya’ll. Not gonna work. TIP→Stand in mountain pose at the top of you mat. ACTIVATE CORE. Pull belly button up and back towards your spine. Tuck tailbone slightly in so you Stack hips over feet. Ensure your back or bottom is not swaying out or overly tucked in; align shoulders over hips, then raise arms up and align next to ears. If you feel yourself hunching your shoulders up towards your ears, gently roll them down towards your back while keeping arms inline. From the side, your body should be one straight line. This is handstand, you just haven’t inverted it yet.
5. Poses for Strength
Another things that sacks us in our inversions is we lose good alignment because we’re weak as baby lambs. When upside down, we start collapsing like a dying star, only it’s from our shoulders. They drift up towards our ears and we can’t maintain our pose.
1. Dolphins pose: hold here for at least 5 long, slow breaths. Always work on your breathing, even and especially when strength training.
*Amp it up: from dolphin pose, push up to downward facing dog, then drop back down to Dolphin pose. You’ll die a little…in the best way possible.
2. Stand against a wall, touch your toes and walk your hands out to a very narrow downward facing dog. Lift one leg to the wall and push up into a handstand, keeping your leg on the wall in an L shape. One leg will be in the air in handstand form, the other on the wall. Make sure shoulders are aligned under you.Hold this for at least 5 breaths and drop down, switch sides.
3. Chaturanga: this monster asana is the worst. It.Is.So.Difficult…to do correctly that is. (Read how here) Practice dropping from plank to chaturanga, holding 5 breaths and pushing back up again. Repeat for at least 3 cycles.
4. Handstand against the wall: Place your hands as close to a wall as possible and kick up. Don’t try to balance, because right now we’re building strength and enforcing proper alignment. Stack shoulders over hands, hips over shoulders, and feet over hips. Your arms/shoulders should have enough flexibility that the are by your ears.Hold for as long as you can, at least 10 seconds to start, and repeat 2 more times. Add a little time each day.
5. Handstand dips: Placing hands against the wall, kick up and balance in proper alignment against the wall. Dip down like you’re doing a push up. Do this 3-5 times for a set of 3. TORTURE, ammirite?! It’s brutal, so that should tell you how effective it is. If you’re afraid of face planting (a reasonable fear what with hanging upside down and such) put a pillow under your face while building strength. But if you fall out of your handstand, it’ll end up being an awkward but safe cartwheel, so don’t freak out too much!
Handstands are a true testimony of strength and alignment. They require a TON of strength training, so be patient. Kino told me she devotes some time almost every day to her handstand training. If Kino has to, then I guess we have no excuses! But here’s THE most important thing to remember: a handstand isn’t yoga, it’s just fun. If you get it, great. If you don’t, no worries. Nothing magical will happen, no unicorn will come galloping up and bring you a shiny gold crown (I resent that this didn’t happen to me.) So do what you love, do what makes you happy, and find a pose like handstands or forearm balances to do so you have a growth chart to see how far you can come with daily training. Everything else is gravy. Much love and lots of yoga!