What are the parts of a handstand?
Doesn’t everyone want to be able to do a handstand in the middle of the room? I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who do. How many people are willing to do the work involved in actually making it happen? How many are willing to spend the time to create the patterns in their practice that support making this happen and then do it consistently? I truly believe that it is this part that prevents people from being able to do the handstands they so desire.
I’m not going to promise you a handstand by the end of this article. However, it is a great opportunity to see how patterns of movement and positioning in the practice feed into a yoga posture such as handstands. You may just get a glimpse of where you need to put your efforts and intention. I discuss the entire arm balancing pattern in detail in my book Functional Anatomy of Yoga starting on p. 317.
Like all postures, handstand requires a certain amount of strength, flexibility and especially technique. Without all three coming together in their various degrees how can we expect to find ourselves in the middle of the room standing on our hands with control?
One could break the posture down in any number of ways, but I can only rely on my own experience, how I learned to do it (John Scott at right is the one that taught me), and what it has taught me about other aspects of my yoga practice. I have also watched many frustrated people spend so long on a wall or in the middle of the room flopping over into backbends when all they really want is to stay up with control.
Establishing a Foundation
First and foremost we need a solid and stable foundation. The ultimate foundation for doing a handstand is, well, the hands. It’s not the hands that are normally the problem. If we’re fair, we aren’t really designed to stand on our hands, but we can if we really want to. The real problem or difficulty is when you follow the chain of joints upward and get to the shoulder girdle.
Since our hands are playing the role of our feet in this posture we should make a quick anatomical comparison. We can see that the shoulder girdle is not nearly as stable as the pelvis and hip that we normally stack above our foot foundation. The shoulder girdle with all of its mobility and adaptability needs to be strong and stable. There are a number of muscles that attach onto the scapula and can help stabilize it. In my mind however, the single most important one is the serratus anterior muscle which lies mostly hidden under the scapula. This muscle helps to keep the edge of the scapula closest to the spine pressed down against the rib cage. This is it’s stabilizing role.
Just as significant, are the actions that this muscle makes the scapula do when it contracts. The two actions are protraction and upward rotation, as it turns out these are exactly the actions we do and need to do when performing a handstand. Protraction pulls the scapula around the front of the torso and upward rotation takes the humerus movement above eye level and over our head.
By virtue of these actions and stabilization being combined, this muscle is crucial in preventing the chest from collapsing through the scapula. It’s also the muscle responsible for preventing the scapula from sticking up off of the back. As a result this muscle needs to be strong to help create the foundation for this and all arm balances.
Seeing the Pattern
If you take a close look at pictures of arm balancing postures, you’ll notice the pattern that is most common between the hands and the shoulders. This basic pattern is that the shoulders sit in front of the wrist. It may perhaps be an ideal to have the shoulders above the wrist and the hips in line with that, but in my experience, very few people have the ability to do this.
Instead we want to take our shoulders just in front of our wrists and sometimes further to line up with the middle of our fingers, it depends on the individual. You’ll notice in my bakasana image below, my shoulders are even further out. The first thing that normally comes up for students when I get them to do this is fear that they will collapse onto their face. This is a very natural fear, and if the shoulders aren’t strong enough, it could happen. It also shows us that we are probably missing out on a fundamental anatomical pattern that has created the strength and support that we need to hold our shoulders in this position.
The second pattern is created at the pelvis which needs to be stacked above the stable and strong foundation. Part of it is positioning and part of it is about controlling the pelvis. Personally I see a related pattern between how we work our headstand and how we work our handstand. There is a pelvic movement that is similar and necessary in each of these postures if you want to do them with control. More on this in a moment.
As for positioning, the pelvis needs to fit in the line moving upward from the hands and shoulders. If I were to draw a line in most people, the hands would be behind the shoulders and the pelvis would be almost in line with the hands, creating a bit of a zig zag between the three points. Look at the recent image of me at the bottom.
Understand the Pattern
Where is it that we create the hand and shoulder pattern? Let’s look for it. We know we’re looking for a place where the hands are on the floor. They are weight bearing and the shoulders are just in front of them. Of course, anytime we do an arm balancing posture this element is there. Put yourself into a simple bakasana position and you’ll see it. Are there other places we see this before ever doing a bakasana?
If you do any type of vinyasa practice, it means you probably do sun salutations. If you do them, the moment before you jump back to a plank position you have the potential to be setting yourself up in the very position between the hands and the shoulders that we’re talking about. So many students don’t lean into their hands, much less put their shoulders in front of their wrists. Often the shoulders are kept back and when they jump, they move their shoulders even further back in space, rather than keeping them forward with weight in the hands. It’s almost as if they are avoiding the weight in their hands. If you were to both, place weight into your hands and keep your shoulders forward, you would essentially be doing a handstand as you jumped back. This is the most significant anatomical or neuromuscular pattern of handstand. It is the seed that the handstand can grow from.
The question is, how many of you are willing to take the time to work this and train the tissues to support your shoulders so that handstanding almost happens on its own? Certainly any other yoga postures that we do that help create strength in the shoulders are beneficial. Even high plank and then lowering to chaturanga have their place in creating strength in both the shoulders and in the Serratus anterior to help stabilize the scapula. But, it’s when we can most closely approximate the ultimate pattern that we can do the best neuromuscular training, like jumping back.
To understand the pelvic pattern we can look to headstand and the ways in which we get into it. If we begin our headstand with bent knees, squeezed in toward our chest we have two options for getting our feet up above us. We can either initiate the movement from our feet and spring open the whole lower half of our body or we can uncurl our body first, with the spine becoming straight, leading to the pelvis tilting and then creating a slight backbend (neutral spine). From there the knees can come up with the feet, as they are moving from a well established pelvis which has already been set over the foundation of the shoulders and head beneath it.
made on my iphone
Avoid Negative Patterns
The most common negative pattern I see is people jumping up on walls, both for handstands and headstands. I must admit, if you have no strength in your arms then handstanding on a wall may help with creating the necessary strength. The potential problem with it is that it first teaches you to bypass your hand and shoulder foundation. By throwing the legs up at any cost you actually avoid using the muscles that are needed to give you that stable foundation you’ll need later. I also have to include that it avoids the abdominal and or core strength needed to help stabilize and move the pelvis in the way we described above, leading to a complete lack of control over the center of gravity at the sacrum when one eventually does try in the middle of the room.
In addition most people I see doing this keep their shoulders behind their wrists and create an over arched back and shoulders. This isn’t going to train the shoulders to work in the way they ultimately need to. It teaches the pelvis to be in the wrong place relative to the hands and shoulders. Last but definitely not least, how are you going to stop the momentum created from jumping when there is no wall to catch you? You won’t have trained any of your tissues to be able to do that.
- If you want to use the wall, use it to understand where the shoulders need to be relative to the hands. See the image at right bottom.
- Focus on controlling your pelvis in a pose like headstand
- Use all of the opportunities in your practice to establish the right contractions of tissues.
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David summarizes research which suggests that activity by the parasympathetic nervous system, specifically the vagal nerve, is involved when we see the beneficial heart rate variability increase that occurs at low breathing rates like the type of breathing rates that would occur in yogic breathing practices.