Handstands and Beginner’s Yoga

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Yoga Handstand Kick UpPhoto Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lululemonathletica/4521764256/

I have trained in a lot of disciplines over the years…

What originally got me hooked was Tae Kwon Do, a martial art that focuses heavily on kicking and lower limb flexibility. It wasn’t until several years later, after falling into parkour and gymnastics training, that I finally started dabbling in Yoga.

In a word, that is unfortunate. I wish that I had found Yoga much earlier in life.

Yoga is an awesome art that definitely helps your physical well-being by promoting flexibility, stability and body control…but Yoga has really shown me that movement provides mental clarity…

…but like any other physical discipline, Yoga can be frustrating.

The more advanced skills in acrobatic yogas, like Ashtanga or Acroyoga, can be particularly difficult. Getting frustrated (or enraged) by yoga kind of defeats the point…doesn’t it?

That’s probably why I get a lot of emails like this from yogis who are taking the 28-Day Handstand Challenge:

“I would like to conquer the handstand in my yoga practice! I need assistance with a freestanding handstand. I can sometimes kick up against the wall but don’t really know how to get balance.”Elaine

“While I’ve done handstand assisted, or against the wall in yoga class before, I’d like to feel more confident doing them at home, and hopefully one day be able to do a freestanding handstand. There are not many options for taking yoga classes in my area, and so I’ve had to practice by myself at home. ” - Kara

“It never occurred to me to try a handstand until I started taking yoga classes a couple of years ago. We’ve done handstands against a wall a few times in class for short periods of time. I haven’t attempted the freestanding handstand yet because I don’t want to risk injury.”Robert

After digging a bit deeper, I found out that these are people who want to learn the handstand specifically to achieve advanced yoga poses such as the handstand, handstand press, headstand and elbow balance.

The good news is that yogis usually learn the handstand quickly – and I have personally helped yogis in this position before…for example, there is Lyle…

“It wasn’t until Chris Salvato’s experience, methodologies, and willingness to help me [overcome issues] that I was finally successful.” – Lyle, Acroyoga student

Now, I won’t pretend that I know everything about Yoga. While I love Yoga and have practiced it myself, I am not the most experienced yogi…but there is one thing I do know a ton about – and thats getting adults to balance on their hands.

In the end, a yogi trying to get their first handstand is just like every other adult – which means you need to address two keystones of adult handstand training: Consistent Practice and Fear Conquering.

This article will help you make significant progress towards the freestanding handstand for Yoga.

Practicing Handstand Consistently

Handstand in a Suit

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tsdesign/8614939084/

Based on the hundreds of yogis I have worked with who have taken the 28-Day Handstand Challenge (and personal experience), most yoga instructors don’t focus very heavily on the freestanding handstand during yoga classes.

They usually opt for one of several other inversions that are easier for an instructor to manage in a classroom, like the Plow Pose, or the headstand…and even then, the inversion training is usually limited to once a week, if at all.

What most people don’t realize about the handstand, though, is that it is a skill much more than it is a strength maneuver. (Don’t worry, yogis aren’t the only ones who make this mistake…CrossFitters do too.)

The handstand is a skill because you MUST train in subtle movements and techniques that only improve through repetition.

Training skills is usually not very taxing and your improvement is directly related to how much you train (unlike a feat of strength, which is usually taxing and requires rest and recovery).  Training handstands is actually more similar to learning to play the piano than it is to lifting weights or getting your first pushup.

So practicing just once a week isn’t ideal. Even three times a week isn’t ideal. Because of the nature of skill training, practicing at least a little bit, every day (say, 5 minutes per day) will produce the best results.

You need to take it in your own hands to practice handstands daily, even if that means practicing outside of your normal yoga workouts.

For starters, daily training will leverage habit psychology to build a positive addiction.  Daily routines become a part of your normal schedule.  They become something that must be done daily.

Once you have a 5-minute habit established, it effortlessly grows into more frequent practice…which translates into faster learning.

What starts as a single daily 5-minute training session blows up into two sessions a day, then three, then four…then maybe even hours of training every day.  We all know of at least one young musician, who is inseparable from his instrument.  It always starts with a small, consistent regimen, and grows from there.

The more time you put into the skill, the better you will be.  Period.

(Now, I know that there are some instructors that do drill handstands regularly, especially in the more acrobatic forms of yoga.  If you have an instructor like this, then consider yourself lucky! Latch onto that awesome instructor and take advantage of their knowledge and expertise!!

Most of the people who come to me, though, don’t have an instructor with that level of competence.  If you are anything like every yogi who has taken the 28-Day Handstand Challenge, then you are probably even struggling to find an Ashtanga or Acroyoga gym in your area!)

Conquering Handstand Fears

Even if you get into consistent handstand practice, you will likely face another huge problem — the fear of falling.

When it comes to handstands, a lot of instructors and “gurus” sweep fears under the rug.  To my knowledge, I am the only handstand trainer that integrates fear conquering psychology into handstand programming.

I find this shocking, because over 90% of people I have interviewed from the 28-Day Handstand Challenge tell me that fear of falling is what has held them back from handstand training…for years.

So you can’t ignore fear…

Fear is the reason you won’t step away from this article and try kicking up into a handstand.
Fear is the reason you haven’t tried kicking up into a handstand before.
Fear is the reason you won’t make progress.

If you want to perform a handstand, you need to acknowledge this fear and overcome it. There is no other way.

Getting Over Fear

The good news is that getting over this fear is actually a lot simpler than you think.  After all, I helped Lyle overcome vertigo in less than two months, resulting in one of the best beginner’s handstands I have ever seen.

You just need to systematically and gradually introduce yourself to the handstand; to being upside down; to relying on your hands to support you.

More specifically, you need to leverage a psychology technique known as systematic desensitization.  This technique is used around the world for behavior modification.  It requires consistent and regular exposure to your fears (which is another reason you need consistent practice!)

I know what you’re saying, though: “How do I translate this into something actionable?  How do I use systematic desensitization?

First, you need to break the fear down into it’s simplest parts — and after 6000+ 28-Day Handstand Challengers, I have been able to boil down most handstand fears into two key components: fear of being upside down and fear of falling over.

Without a solid strategy, many people let these fears hold them back for years without making progress.

1. Fear of Being Upside Down

Afraid that your arms will give out?  Don’t want to face plant?  Or do you just panic when inverted?!

You are suffering from a general fear of being upside down — but there is hope.

Overcoming this fear is simple and completely risk free – you just need to start in a normal plank, with your feet on the ground.  Then, you put your feet on the wall, and walk your hands a little closer.  Then a little closer.  Then closer still.  Eventually you will find yourself 12 inches from the wall and, *ta-da* you are holding a wall handstand with almost no risk of falling over.

This approach is so powerful because it also takes advantage of normal progressive overloading.  You are gradually loading your hands and shoulders with more of your bodyweight…so you get stronger and reduce fear!  Sounds like a win/win to me.

2. Fear of Falling Over

Scared to kick up and falling flat on your back?  Think you will kick up too powerfully and slingshot your back right into the ground?  Maybe you are scared of actually holding the handstand, then freaking out, losing control, and crashing into a messy heap, sprawled out and crying on the floor…?

But think, would this fear exist if you fell onto a fluffy mat?  Or a soft pit of foam?  What if there was no possibility of being in pain after falling over?  What if there literally was no risk?  What if you had a safety net?

The answer is simple, we need to remove the possibility of you falling over yourself…and no, I don’t mean surrounding yourself with old mattresses and Fluff….

Fluff

Mmmmm…Fluff

You need to learn to save yourself from a failed handstand.  You need to learn to bail safely.  Once you do that, the fear disappears completely.

I know this sounds too good to be true.  I know it sounds too simple.  But it is true; it is simple.

I have seen hundreds of people conquer both of these fears in less than 28 days.  Even those with vertigo-like symptoms;  even those who never trained the handstand before.

You just need to consistently practice.

Learn to Handstand for Yoga

Handstand Party

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dingatx/4601864798/

You know that you need to focus on two things: overcoming your fears and building a daily handstand habit.

You know the tools to overcome fear: consistent exposure and learning to bail.

So put it all together….the result is a straightforward progression that you can start immediately.

1. Wall Planks

Start by going into a plank pose with your feet on the floor near the wall.  As a yogi, you should be in comfortable territory here!

If you can hold this for 60-seconds (5-8 long breaths), then move your hands a little closer to the wall by walking your hands backwards, and your feet up the wall.  Work on holding the resulting position for 60-seconds.

Repeat this over time, until your hands get to be about 12 inches from the wall (you can measure this by leaving a ruler on the ground just before you start to walk up!)

By approaching the first step in this way, you start in a safe position, and gradually increase your exposure to the fear, while building strength.  This constant exposure reduces the fear.

Also, by starting with a familiar pose, you can feel successful immediately, and every time you get closer, you feel successful still.  This positive reinforcement creates the habit.

2. Wall Handstands

As you get closer to the wall, your plank starts to transform.  As your hips get higher over your head, it turns into a wall handstand instead of a wall plank!

If this took some work for you, then it will hit you like a slap in the face.  Once day, you will turn around and say, “Hey!  I am doing a handstand against the wall!  And I’m not scared!”

But the best part of this challenge is that it’s so similar to the real handstand…and you won’t have any fear.  How could you?  It’s nearly impossible to fall over in this position.

And, even better, this position prepares you to learn the bail, which is the next important part of the process.

3. Pirouette Bailing

While you are on the wall, you can learn the best bailing technique around – the pirouette bail.  I cover this move in 30+ pages in my book, but I also produced a free resource to help you get started on learning to bail without spending a dime.

The bail, like the handstand, is a skill.  You can practice bailing frequently, without fear, since you can set up a safe environment to learn bailing against the wall.

4. Freestanding Control/Kickups

Finally, you can start taking the steps that are necessary to learn freestanding handstand balance.  By the time you get to this stage, you can practice kicking up without fear at any time, anywhere.

The elimination of fear will have completely liberated you to actually start working on the handstand, and then its just a matter of practicing as much as possible…but no less than 5-minutes a day, every day.

In my experience, yogis typically achieve their first successful pirouette bail within 1-4 weeks.  That’s only one week to one month and you will make significant progress.  You can quickly remove a fear that you have been carrying around for years…

Once that fear is eliminated, and you master standard kick ups, you will be able to start working on yoga-specific handstand poses, like jumping from downward facing dog into handstand or extremely advanced skills, like the Handstand Scorpion.

Applying the Process

If you are already taking The 28-Day Handstand Challenge, then you’re ahead of the curve. Keep on training using the challenge, and you will see how it walks you through these steps to get your first handstand (and now you have a better understanding for why the handstand challenge is so powerful for yogis).

But, if you aren’t taking the challenge…you can take the steps I outline above and just wing it.

…or you can take advantage of a free resource (The 28-Day Handstand Challenge) that walks you through the first and most important steps of getting your first freestanding handstand.

If you decide to take The 28-Day Handstand Challenge, you will get a free eBook that outlines getting to your first 60-second wall handstand, including a 5-minute routine that you can do virtually anywhere.  You also get a spreadsheet that helps keep you committed to building the handstand habit.

GET STARTED

Sign up for for the 28-Day Handstand Challenge Toolkit.

A Break from “Normal”

Hands Down

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shenamt/8512390996/

If you have looked into training handstands for yoga in the past, then this may appear to be a wildly different approach.  For example, many yogis start with headstands, stay on the wall for months, or just “wing it” with the kickup….

…but you should see now that these progressions may not be so effective.

Headstands don’t address the fear of falling over, nor do they build the necessary strength in the arms and shoulders.  If you can headstand, it has almost no impact on handstand balance.  These are too entirely different skills, so learning to headstand is a waste of time if the ultimate goal is handstanding.

Staying on the wall for months is a waste of time.   Yes, you do need to spend some time on the wall, but you shouldn’t stay there any longer than necessary.  Once you can bail, you need to start moving away from the wall.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, this can be done in a few weeks, not months or years.

“Wing it” with the kickup? Are you kidding me? Anyone who has you attempting kick ups on your first day of training just doesn’t get it.  The fear of falling over is huge…and the risk of injury is even bigger. You shouldn’t be kicking up until you know how to bail safely. There is simply no reason to take that risk, when you can systematically eliminate that risk in just a few weeks.

No matter the progression, though, the biggest difference between a handstand program that works and one that doesn’t is consistency.

Most people I have worked with only take their yoga classes once or twice a week.  Even if you have an awesome instructor who is showing you exactly what you needed to do every session, you wouldn’t be practicing enough to get the handstand in a reasonable timeframe.

In fact, after working with so many new adult handbalancers, I can confidently say that training less than five times per week is a sub-optimal.  Less than three times a week is usually a waste of time.

If you aren’t going to train the handstand frequently, then you are better off spending that time on something else.

Get Started.  Right Now.

Stopwatch

You are already familiar with the Plank Pose.  You have an empty wall in your house, office or gym (or, you can clear one out).

Go there now and do a quick 5-minute sessions of wall planks by walking up the wall and seeing how far you can get without fear. You should embrace the motivation right now, while you are inspired and motivated.

I’ll give you 5 minutes.  Go do it.  It’s just 5 minutes.  Pretend it’s a bathroom break, or something.

Did you do it?  How did it feel?

Now, take the 28-Day Handstand Challenge and you will get the free Handstand Toolkit (including an against-the-wall progression and commitment spreadsheet).  Follow that progression, and practice every day.  You will make huge progress!

Now just go out there and train!

GET STARTED

Sign up for for the 28-Day Handstand Challenge Toolkit.

2 Responses to “Handstands and Beginner’s Yoga”

  1. Samantha August 21, 2013 at 2:05 am #

    I wish I had seen this a long time ago. I’m a circus aerialist and yogi. I love heights, I love thrills, I love to push myself! I have wanted to do a handstand for so long, but I never knew where to start. Trying to kick up to the wall paralyzed me with fear and usually ended in a super awkward, wildly flailing bail if I did manage to get up. It was so weird to me too, because I am otherwise pretty comfortable working upside down from much higher heights. I would approach my yoga instructor after class for some advice, and she just told me to keep practicing with the wall, eyeing my upper body and adding, “you obviously have the strength”.

    I wish someone had told me that my fear was real and normal. I wish someone would have told me that it wasn’t a strength skill, that it wasn’t something I was going to just “get” one day.

    What finally did it for me was signing up for a beginning tumbling class at my circus school. It’s cliche, but the only way to do it was to do it! And I’ve been doing them again and again, in the hands (literally) of a trained gymnastics instructor. I think the great myth is that the handstand is not a difficult skill for the average person. Perhaps because so few people learn handbalancing as adults and not as a carryover from childhood gymnastics, we rarely see anyone “during” their progression.

    My handstands still suck. But I get a little more perpendicular every day. Just did my 5 minutes :)

    • Chris Salvato August 21, 2013 at 3:31 am #

      Hi Samantha! You’re definitely not alone…I have received emails from literally thousands of people who have taken the handstand challenge who tell me the #1 thing holding them back is fear. Its astounding how often fear gets overlooked. I’m not sure if you still struggle with the fear, but if you do, consistent practice will definitely get you over the hump (along with learning to bail!). If you need any help, feel free to ask a question here, or send me an email. :)

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