Are Handstands Good For You? A Yoga Teacher’s Perspective

Are Handstands Bad For Your Brain?

The Benefits Of A Handstand:

A handstand position allows you to maintain balance while maintaining strength and flexibility in all parts of your body. If done correctly, it provides many health benefits such as improved cardiovascular fitness, increased blood flow to the heart, enhanced circulation throughout the body and much more.

Handstands have been used by yogis for centuries. They were first described in ancient texts such as the Rig Veda (written around 1500 BC) and the Atharva Veda (around 1000 BC). These texts mention that they were practiced by great sages like Indra, Vishnu and Brahma.

The practice was later popularized through the writings of Swami Sivananda (1888 – 1979), who wrote several books on yoga, including “Yoga Sutras” (1925).

In the book “Yoga Sutras”, Swami Sivananda writes:

“The most beneficial effects of handstands are those which result from their exercise in both mental and physical discipline.”

He goes on to say that these benefits include better concentration, relaxation, a sense of well being and a feeling of exhilaration. He also mentions that the hands become free from any kind of pain or discomfort during this pose.

The sages of old were on to something. There is a reason why handstands are practiced by everyone, from professional athletes to your grandma!

It’s All In The Technique:

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There are many different techniques that can be used to perform a handstand. In the book “Light On Yoga”, B.K.S Iyengar (considered to be the father of modern yoga) suggests three basic handstand techniques:

Up-Plank Handstand

This technique is for people who have a strong upper body, but lack flexibility in their shoulders and upper back. In this technique, the person can rest their feet on a wall in front of them and slowly lift themselves up into a handstand. This allows the person to slowly gain the balance and strength needed to hold themselves up on their hands.

Forearm Handstand

The forearm handstand technique is for people who have more flexible shoulders and back, but lack strength in their arms and core. In this technique, a person holds themselves up by leaning their weight on the sides of their forearms rather than their palms. This puts less pressure on the wrist and can allow for more leverage when lifting into a handstand.

Forearm/Plank Hybrid

This technique is for people who are intermediate between the other two techniques. In this technique, a person holds themselves up with their forearms, but relies more on their legs and feet to help support them. They can either lift into this position or start in it and straighten their legs to slowly remove their dependence on their arms.

The next important part of executing a handstand is balancing and shifting your weight to different parts of your body. B.K.S Iyengar wrote an entire book dedicated to this subject called “Light On Yoga”.

In this book, he explains techniques such as shifting your weight forward and backward, side to side, twisting and more. These allow for a wider range of movement and makes the pose that much easier to perform.

Why Handstands Are So Important:

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Now that you have a good grasp on how to perform a handstand, it’s time to find out why it is so important to master this skill.

Handstands are an amazing exercise that train your body and mind to work in perfect unison. They strengthen your arms, shoulders, chest, core, back and legs. They also help to lubricate your joints and improve the flexibility and strength of your wrists, forearms, elbows, shoulders and ankles.

There are so many benefits to doing handstands, it’s crazy that they aren’t part of everyone’s daily routine.

The physical benefits of handstands aren’t the only perks either. Handstands can also have a very positive effect on your mental state of mind. They allow you to take a break from reality and enter a more relaxed state.

This can help you to take your mind off of any daily worries or concerns that you may have.

The physical and mental benefits of handstands are so great that they should be an important part of everyone’s daily exercise routine.

Now that you know how to do a handstand and understand why it is so important, let’s find out how you can get your first handstand.

Breaking It Down

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Handstands can take a lot of time and patience to learn. It takes dedication, focus and lots and lots of practice. This is why it is recommended that you don’t try to rush into performing a full freestanding handstand.

You should instead break the movement down into its component parts in order to master each one before putting them all together.

Before you start, make sure you have lots of open space to practice in so that you have plenty of room to maneuver and make mistakes without fear of hitting something or someone. It is also recommended that you practice handstands against a wall so that you don’t have to worry about falling over and hurting yourself.

The first thing you want to work on is your bridge. As mentioned earlier, this is the position from which you will practice moving into your handstand. It is very important that this is as strong as possible so that you don’t suffer any pain or injuries along the way.

Lie down on the floor and bend your knees, keeping your heels against the bottom of your buttocks while touching your toes to the floor on either side of your body. Your arms should be straight and positioned alongside your body, with your hands gently touching the floor.

To build up strength in your arms, back and core, tense your whole body and lift your shoulders up off the floor just a few inches. Hold this position for a moment and then relax. This is known as an isometric hold and will help to build up the necessary strength to perform a handstand without using any extra equipment to help you.

Once you feel confident and ready, try to press into a bridge position by bending your knees and lifting your buttocks off the floor. As mentioned before, your heels should remain in contact with the floor at the bottom of the movement.

At the top of the movement your body should form a straight line from your knees to your head, with your arms straight and in contact with the floor on either side of your body. Your shoulders, hips and ankles should all be in contact with the floor and you should stay in this position for a moment to get used to the position and to strengthen the necessary muscles.

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Now that you know how to perform a bridge, you can move onto the next step: lifting your knees off of the floor and into a handstand position.

Lie down on the floor once again with your legs extended and your toes pointed towards the ceiling. Lift your hips up off of the floor so that your knees are bent and your feet are almost in contact with the floor.

Your upper body should be parallel to the floor, with your shoulders and chest off of the ground. From here you want to try and lift your knees off of the floor, keeping your feet straight so that only the ball and heel of your foot are in contact with the ground.

At this stage you won’t be able to hold yourself up, so your knees will buckle and you’ll quickly drop back down. This is normal so don’t get discouraged.

Practice this technique as much as you can until you feel confident that you can hold yourself in the handstand position without having to use your knees for support. The more you practice, the sooner you’ll be able to get your body into the right position.

With enough practice, you’ll be able to lift up into the handstand position unassisted and only fall over when you tell your body to. Once this happens, you’re ready to progress on to the next step.

Try and find a room or area with smooth flooring so that if you do happen to fall, you won’t hurt yourself too much. A padded area is best but not necessary.

Choose a wall that you can practice handstands against. If there are no stairs in the area you can practice in, try and find the closest set so that you can use them to help you lift up into your handstand.

Now that you’re in front of your wall or stairs, stand with your back to it so that your legs are spread shoulder width apart and your toes are just past the edge of the stair or the wall.

With your toes providing a stable point of reference, lift your heels up off of the ground and move your body in a semicircle so that your head is now against the wall and your heels are outside of your shoulders.

Contract your abs as much as you can once you reach this position in order to ensure that your back stays straight and vertical over your feet. Now slowly lean into the wall at the waist until it’s supporting most of your body weight.

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Move your feet apart into the handstand position, straighten your arms and lift up into a handstand.

Your first attempts at lifting up to the handstand might see you falling back down in a heap, but don’t get discouraged. You’ll get it right eventually. If you really need to, take smaller steps and make the process slower so that you can learn each stage of the process before adding the next one.

You won’t be able to hold the handstand for long, but once you get the basic mechanics down you’ll quickly improve.

Once you’ve lifted up and are holding the handstand unassisted, you’ll need to work on lowering yourself down slowly and back into a standing position against the wall. This is more of an endurance activity than a strength one so take it nice and easy at first and build up slowly from there.

Practice makes perfect so don’t become frustrated if you feel that you’re not getting anywhere, just keep working at it and you’ll get the hang of it eventually.

Once you’re happy that you can lift up into and hold a handstand unassisted, it’s time to work on getting your feet over your head.

The technique for lifting up into a handstand is exactly the same as before, and from then on everything else is exactly the same as well.

To get your feet over your head you’re going to need to lean forward, bending at the hips and keeping your abs pulled in and shoulder blades together. Slowly start lowering yourself down towards the ground and, at the same time, lifting your legs up and over your head.

Don’t try to rush the movement or you’re sure to fall. Take smaller steps and make sure that everything is aligned before moving on to the next step in the process.

If you’ve got the strength to lift up into a handstand but not quite the strength to hold it or lower yourself back down, don’t try to do too much too soon. Take each task slowly, working on your strength levels before tackling the next part of the handstand.

If you’re struggling with any part of this exercise then take a rest break and have a try at it again later. The last thing you want to do is to get frustrated and injure yourself. Handstands are an amazing exercise but, if not performed correctly, can lead to shoulder and elbow injuries.

Once you’re comfortable lifting up into a handstand from the floor and can hold it for around ten seconds, then you can get yourself over the bars. The next step is, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, lifting yourself up and over the top of a bar so that your whole body is positioned above it, perpendicular to the floor.

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This is harder than it seems so don’t get frustrated if it takes you a few days or even weeks before you can do this. The best way to accomplish this task is to use a corner mount set up.

Find two sturdy chairs, something that you can easily lift yourself up with. Put the two chairs together to form a corner and place the bar on top of them so that it runs across the corner at a diagonal.

This set up is much sturdier and more secure than the table mount so take as long as you need to get used to putting your weight on top of the bar before attempting to lift your legs up and over.

From here on in, it’s all about building up your strength and endurance until you can lift your whole body above the bar. It will take a lot of hard work but do not give up!

If you’re feeling super confident you can attempt the human flag. This is where you hold your whole body off of a bar using just your arms, though I would really only recommend this to people with a strong background in gymnastics or acrobatics.

The best way to learn this one is to seek out an experienced trainer at your gym or hire a personal trainer to work one on one with you.

Whatever you do, though, do not attempt this alone. It would be very easy to get yourself hurt if you don’t know what you’re doing.

The best way to get better at handstands, or anything really, is to set goals and work towards them. It can be hard to motivate yourself sometimes, especially if you’re feeling tired or lazy but, once you get into the habit of setting yourself daily goals and rewards for when you reach said goals, things get a lot easier.

You should set yourself both long term and short term goals. Short-term goals are things that you want to achieve in the next week or even month while long-term goals are things that you hope to achieve in the next six months to a year.

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It can be easy to get discouraged when your short-term goals take longer than anticipated to achieve but, as long as you keep on top of things and don’t get too down on yourself, then you’ll be fine.

Rewards are another great way to keep yourself on track and feeling motivated. Decide what you want as a reward for each goal that you reach. Maybe it’s a nice dinner out with your partner or a new gadget.

Whatever it is, make sure it’s something that you really want because the reward itself will help to motivate you to keep on track.

The most important thing is to keep yourself motivated and to stay on track with your goals. You can do this by setting yourself short and long-term rewards, setting daily goals, and most importantly, staying positive and avoiding laziness and complacency.

If you need any more advice or have any questions then please don’t hesitate to ask. I hope you’ve found this Q&A helpful and I wish you the best of luck in your hand balancing endeavors!

Hello again, it’s been a while. I just wanted to let you know that I finally managed to master the handstand. It took me a lot longer than I thought it would but I did it.

Funny thing is, now that I can do it, it feels pretty natural most of the time.

I guess I just needed to get past the mental barrier that I’d built up in my own head about it. Anyway, I thought you might like to know.

Take care and best of luck in your endeavors!

-Julia

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FAQ: Handstands And Muscle Imbalances

Question:

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on hand balancing and it seems like I keep coming across information about arm, finger, and shoulder muscle imbalances.

Are they a common problem for people learning handstands and how do I avoid/fix them?

-Worried About My Wrists

Answer:

Hi, Worried About My Wrists!

Muscle imbalances can definitely be a problem for hand balancers and even for people who have no intention of ever doing a handstand. Repetitive actions and unusual movements put certain stresses on our muscles that, over time, cause them to adapt and change in order to better handle those stresses. While this is great for athletes and people who workout because it helps us get stronger and improve our performance, it’s not so great for us on a day to day basis.

All of this “unusual” stress that our muscles and limbs experience on a daily basis can cause some tightness, soreness, or weakness in certain areas that can have an effect on our quality of life even if we don’t ever plan to be a hand balancer!

Fortunately, there are ways of avoiding or at least minimizing the muscle imbalances that may come from learning handstands. The best thing you can do is make sure that you work all the muscles in your arms, shoulders, and wrists evenly. This means making a conscious effort to use and stretch those muscles on a daily basis even if you’re not going to be practicing handstands.

The muscles in the front of your arm (elbow to fingers) are called the “pronators” and the muscles in the back of your arm are called the “supinators”. For a lot of people (especially those that do a lot of computer work), the muscles in the front of the arm are a lot tighter and stronger than their counter parts in the back. This causes a muscle imbalance and as a result your tendons and ligaments in the front of your arms are under more stress than normal.

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This can lead to things like tendonitis, carpel tunnel syndrome, or other conditions.

One easy test to determine if you have this particular imbalance is the following:

1. Make a fist and hold it out in front of you.

2. While holding your fist out, try to push it towards your body.

3. If it moves towards your body easily, then your front (pronator) muscles are stronger than the back (supinator) muscles.

Another common imbalance is with the muscles in the wrists. There are several wrist muscles but the two main ones we’re concerned with are the ones that control the motion of the wrist from one side to the other (called radial and ulnar deviation).

If you make a fist and hold it in front of you then naturally the fingers are going to point towards the floor. Now, without changing the position of your arm or shoulder, try to make your fingers point towards the sky. You’ll find that you can’t do it very well unless you move your elbow around or move your shoulder around.

If you have a difficult time with this test then it means that the muscles on the opposite side (radial and ulnar deviation) are not as strong as the muscles on the same side (flexors and extensors).

This is an important point in relation to hand balancing because it means that if you have a muscle imbalance between the flexors and extensors then certain poses or positions are going to be tougher for you to hold than others. If you tend to put more weight on your wrists when you’re balancing then this would be considered a weakness.

So how do you go about fixing this?

Well, I’m certainly no expert on the subject but there are a few ways. One way would be to do various wrist exercises to strengthen the muscles on the opposite side of your body. There are many wrist exercises you can do and they’re all listed in most books about fitness or in the fitness section of most book stores.

Another way would be to do “Wrist Rolls”. To do these, simply grab a reasonably thick pen or a similarly shaped object and sit at the edge of your chair. Start by placing the object in your palm and wrapping all your fingers around it as if you are holding it.

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Now, make a tight fist around it and slowly start to roll the object towards your wrist while keeping your arm completely still. When you reach the wrist, stop and hold for a few seconds, relax and then roll it back the other way. Do this for at least a minute or until you start to feel it in your muscles.

Doing these regularly can help to increase muscular endurance in the forearm as well as help relieve stress and tension from prolonged wrist usage.

Another exercise that I would highly recommend is one called “finger stretching”. For this you can either buy specially made finger stretching devices at a book store or online, or you can simply tape two sticks together and place a rubber band around them.

Either way, the basic idea is to place the device on your finger tips then stretch it out over the back of your hand and then release. This should cause your fingers to bend back a bit towards your wrists. Hold them there for a few seconds and then release, repeating until you’ve done all your fingers.

I would recommend doing these at least once a day. You’ll find that they help to relieve the tension that builds up in your fingers and you’ll most likely notice a difference in how far you can stretch your fingers in a short period of time.

Another important thing to remember is that strengthening work should always be accompanied by stretching movements. Many people tend to just sit there and try to force their muscles to become stronger with no regard for flexibility. This is a bad plan because over time your muscles will adapt to the stresses placed upon them AND their current length.

Meaning, if you only do strengthening exercises for your wrist without any focus on your finger’s range of motion, then your wrist may become stronger while at the same time the tendons and muscles in your fingers will remain at their typical length resulting in the inability for you to move your fingers past a certain point even if you were to stop all training on your wrists.

You don’t want this to happen because the way you’re going to be using your hands is by having very strong fingers that are flexible enough to reach all parts of the guitar. So you need to focus on both strength AND flexibility.

This can be achieved by simply stretching your fingers before and after each strengthening session. All you need to do is grab a hold of your fingers and move them past their normal range of motion. It also helps to lightly bounce as you’re doing this in order to get a slight stretch that’s a little deeper.

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I highly recommend that you do this before and after each session.

One thing you want to try to avoid is over-stretching yourself. Because if you do, then you may end up with the opposite problem of having under-developed muscles that are too loose and not strong enough for proper playing.

Sources & references used in this article:

Headstands, Writing, and the Rhetoric of Radical Self-Acceptance by G DeLuca – … of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on …, 2005 – trace.tennessee.edu

Anatomy of hatha yoga: A manual for students, teachers, and practitioners by D Coulter – 2004 – books.google.com

How yoga can wreck your body by WJ Broad – The New York Times, 2012 – southbostonyoga.net