Here’s a post answering some of the questions you’ve asked about handstand.
Where do I gaze?
Draw an imaginary line between your pointer fingers and envision at dot right at the middle. This gaze point is neutral enough to not strain your neck but forward enough to keep your body aligned over your hands, something that takes practice.
This is by no means the only place you could gaze. It’s just one that has worked for me. Eventually, you can practice dropping your head and even gazing toward your navel as in hollowback.
Try this if there is stress in your neck
Stand upright and lift your hands above your head in nice vertical alignment a la handstand. Fix your eyes on your gaze point (as above), but also do the following two things:
- Shift your whole head and the back of your neck posteriorly (this combats the forward head carriage many of us have — otherwise known as “text neck”). You’ll get immediate length and relief in the neck and this may be enough to realign you.
- Tuck your chin slightly with the intention of elongating the back of your neck. It’s more a subtle energetic shift than a measurable adjustment. You’ll feel the base of your skull lengthening away from your trunk, and you’ll have the added benefit of being in control of another of your anti-gravity valves, the chin lock.
I love talking about this and teaching this because — holy moly — wrist care is needed if you’re on your hands a lot. When I was first doing a lot of handstand, I started to feel what I can only describe as thick, tight rubber bands squeezing my wrists all day long. It was weird and uncomfortable, but it was a necessary part of my poor little wrists trying to pack on muscle as they learned how to support the weight of my whole body. The only relief I got was from s t r e t c h i n g those puppies, and wrists stretches are still a part of my everyday practice.
I do various intuitive stretches for my wrists and fingers throughout the day, but by far the most effective wrist stretch I do is one I return to again and again. From table top position, point your fingers toward your knees and lean your weight back as far as feels reasonable. (If that’s impossible, point your fingers outward to the sides of the mat instead and rock side to side). The base of your wrists may lift from the ground a little bit, and that’s okay. Just try to find what feels like a fruitful place to sustain an opening without pain. Stay for 30 seconds.
More on hand alignment
You’ll get varying answers to the question, “Where should I put weight on my hands in handstand?” Bottom line is, you need to distribute the work everywhere (except in the softest, middlemost portion of your palm which you can actually train as another anti-gravity bandha — but that’s for a future post). Your teacher might cue you into a specific place, like:
“More weight into the base of your forefinger,” or
“More weight into your fingertips.”
Trust all of this advice because he or she has probably noticed where the weight is missing. Keep in mind that the base of the palm, and therefore the wrist, tends to take the brunt of the work if you are not careful. Most of us need to put more weight in the fingers and all across the bottom-most knuckles, and it honestly just takes time spent to build the appropriate strength (and habit) for this alignment.
Try this to train the hands
The incredible Katy Bowman calls this ‘movement nutrition’: Do handstand on the grass. Handstand on gravel. Do handstand on a slope running uphill, sideways, downhill. On your carpet. The kitchen floor. On your mattress. In the freezing cold. In the hot hot heat. Doing the same old handstand on the same old mat in the same old environment is a lot like only ever running on a treadmill. Sure, you’re training some of the basic muscles to do the basic things. But if you really want your muscles working together efficiently and harmoniously, start mixing it up!
One more wrist trick
One of the greatest boons to my handstand practice was overdoing it on my wrists and being forced to lay off them entirely. Here’s what I did instead: All weight-bearing on fingertips. First tabletop to knees-chest-chin. Then in plank for longer and longer periods (that was touggghhh at first). Eventually in crow and in other arm balances and ultimately in handstand.
Once the wrists recovered, I found I was distributing weight throughout my whole hand differently, and it was healthier. I have not strained my wrists since.
What does mula bandha have to do with it?
Mula bandha, the root lock, is the beginning of your deep abdominal engagement. Described as a lifting of the pelvic floor (AKA pelvic diaphragm), it spans the whole area between the anus and the scrotum or vulva, called the perineum. It’s not just the Kegels — it’s behind and in front of them too. If you practice lifting mula bandha, you will begin to notice that the highest reach of the root lock actually meets the lowest region of uddiyana bandha, or the belly lock, at the deep abdominal wall (AKA transversus abdominis, or TVA).
Practice lifting the root lock until you feel the deepest, bottom-most layer of your abdomen. Can you feel that? Some say it’s actually impossible to properly engage the deep belly muscle without first engaging mula bandha.
Why do I need it in handstand?
Mula bandha is the very ignition of your anti-gravity capacity. It keeps you firmly in your center and properly in control of your core musculature which arguably extends everywhere. Try a lift into Crow, for ex, without mula bandha engaged. And then try it with. You’ll notice that it creates a big-time lightness and lift.
Do I need to squeeze my glutes, thighs and feet?
Squeezing may not be the exact action, but it’s something close — maybe engaging is the right word. You certainly want to distribute your awareness through the whole body and that includes the glutes, thighs and feet. This is particularly important when you’re upside down since these are often the body parts we forget about when we’re naturally focusing on the placement of our hands and action of the shoulders. So, squeezing might be an excessive use of your energy but awareness and intention into the lower limbs and at the butt are non-negotiables if you’re looking for control in your handstand.
If your teacher is telling you you’ve got to focus on one more than another, they may have noticed where your attention is missing or where attention tends to be missing in most of their students. No matter how you slice it, handstand requires a focus on all of these things.
Practice engaging each body part in isolation at the wall — kick up to handstand and engage the glutes for instance to keep a nice long line from your torso to your legs. Then kick up again and see if you can keep the glutes in mind as you add your awareness to another body part, like the feet. If it’s tough to hold both in awareness at the same time, try it lying down, then at the wall again. Eventually, it doesn’t have to be so heady. As with anything else, it comes naturally with practice. This is why a yoga teacher might say something seemingly esoteric like, “Integrate your limbs into the core.” They’re not just spouting hippy-dippy nonsense. After a while that whole-body + mind integration becomes second nature.
What if my elbows hyperextend?
Two things you can do.
- This is the less elegant of the two: Point your pointers slightly in toward each other. The effect is that you’ve got to work really intentionally to extend the elbow joint and to achieve external rotation in your arms. The overall effect is increased engagement through the serratus and into the triceps, and less weight-dumping into the elbow joint.
- For an even more thorough and precise way to combat this, refer to this article from the Daily Bandha. No sense in reinventing the wheel.
What’s all this got to do with yoga?
A schoolmarm’s final words.
In yoga’s grand scheme, achieving a handstand means bollocks if we’re not doing the deeper work. An attachment to achieving any pose can easily become an obstacle to your liberation. BUT… if you’re having fun, being nice, and keeping it all in perspective, then by all means, handstand away. You know I’ll be joining you.