Adho Mukha Vrksasana (handstand) requires grace, commitment, strength, and playfulness. This pose has become a common goal within the Yoga Union community. At home and in the studio, students are navigating the new sensations of standing upside down, finding joy in working with the pose. Their persistent practice is now bearing fruit: walk into the studio for an Anusara Inspired 2 or a Prana Vinyasa class and, if your timing is right, you may see more than half the room up on their hands!
For those who aspire to stick handstand in the middle of the room, this sight can be misleading. In my early years of yoga I would look around and think, “Most of these people don’t look like tremendous athletes. Why can they do it and I can’t?” After several years of consistent practice, my answer is that a successful asana practice can come from following the three A’s of Anusara Yoga.
1. Attitude – This is by far the most important part of the practice. As John Friend says, “Attitude comes first.” In practicing a positive mental approach, yoga transcends and includes the physical realm, and the poses become an inside-out practice, a practice of self-expression. Much of what holds us back in the poses is unnecessary mental baggage. Only when we’re conscious of our mental chatter and our attitudinal alignment can any heavy self-talk be alchemized into the lightness of laughter. When we learn to laugh at our self-diminishing narrator, we lighten the burden of our mind and then we can float up into handstand. Without lightening this burden, we feel too heavy to support the weight. Before you attempt handstand, always check in with your attitude to see if it will serve you. More often than not, your awareness alone will transform a diminishing mindset into one that opens the possibilities of your pose.
2. Alignment – There is a skillful technology of aligning the outer body that makes the poses accessible. After checking in with your attitude, bring your awareness to your physical form. The following is an offering from the Universal Principles of Alignment of Anusara Yoga.
To go into handstand, first come into downward facing dog with your hands five inches from a wall. Be sure that your fingers are spread wide and the creases of your wrist are both parallel to the wall. Take a deep breath and lengthen your side body by sliding your shoulders toward your ears. Ground through your index finger mounds and draw your forearms toward one another; then contract the shoulder blades on your back by softening your heart. Keep the kidneys full, up away from the earth. Keep breathing your waistline back. Keep your arms strong and your heart soft as you step one foot halfway toward your hands. Extend the other leg to the sky. The skyward leg is the straight leg. Keep it straight as you kick up to the wall. Remember, the arms must also stay straight here as well.
Once you’re upside down, bring both heels to the wall and squeeze your legs together. Lengthen your tailbone toward the ceiling, so that your stomach tucks slightly. Keeping your arms strong, exhale and soften your heart again to contract your shoulder blades into the back of your heart. Keep your gaze forward rather than dropping your head and looking back toward the center of the room. Hold for as long as you can maintain the alignment, and then come down to rest. Lowering one leg while keeping the other high, gently descend. After resting, repeat: each handstand in a practice-set will become more familiar due to muscle-memory.
3. Action – The pose is always playfully expansive. Extend your pose once it has been aligned inwardly and outwardly. Keep your legs hugging, arms squeezing in, and shoulder blades muscularly contracting on the back. From this place of muscular contraction, focused at your heart, expand energetically in all directions. Press your arms more deeply into the earth. Stretch up and out through your legs into your toes toward the sky. Actively spread your toes.
Handstand is a wonderful pose for partner-work. I don’t know anybody who has achieved proficiency without help from friends. Surely it is possible, but only with far more time and effort. In any case, the real question is not “Can I do it by myself?” but “Why not work together at this?” Many people at Yoga Union, working on handstand together, are improving their poses while enjoying the teaching and the learning and the friendship of working with peers. Working together reinforces our commitment. Together we are stronger and more supported, our practice more interconnected and more playful. By sharing our practice and integrating it into a community we also help others in their endeavor, so we all grow together, as individuals and as a community.