This Is Why Yogis SHOULD Handstand
When I was in an inversion workshop, the instructor started by telling us that handstands were more about changing your perspective than an acrobatic feat to be achieved. I rolled my eyes and thought yeah yeah ... just show me how to nail the perfect handstand!
I think her exact words were,
When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.
Basically: when life gets hard, when you don’t understand, or when you’ve generally spent too much time throwing your hands into the air in exhausted surrender… get upside down.
Though I might have rolled my eyes at the time, she was right. Handstands are so much more than a difficult asana pose. The benefits far surpass anything gained from merely getting into the posture or showing off your skills on Instagram.
Handstands are an incredibly powerful way to see the world through new eyes. They are emblematic of the transformation that comes after a revival in perspective. They are all about seeing things in a new way that is lifegiving and laced with the energy of renewal. Turning your whole world upside down gives you the space to re-imagine your purpose, your values, your life.
Though handstands were not one of the original 15 hatha yoga postures, they are an integral part of a sturdy asana practice for a reason. This pose engages the whole body and works synergistically to deliver benefits to both body and mind. It is not clear exactly when headstands and handstands made their way into our modern yoga practice. However, it is widely accepted that handstands have not been around since the “dawn of yoga time,” (5,000 years ago!).
The Sanskrit scholar and hatha yoga teacher Norman Sjoman wrote a book called The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace. This book was an unearthing of an earlier text, originating from the 1800s called Sritattvanidhi. The Sritattvanidhi holds extremely elaborate descriptions and illustrations of poses compared to other pre-twentieth century texts. It includes instructions for 122 yoga poses that are practiced regularly in Hatha and Ashtanga practices today, including backbends, lotus variations, foot-behind-the-head poses, and you guessed it, handstands!
Some believe that handstands are a twentieth-century integration as yoga has become increasingly focused on strength and mastery of alignment, but this text suggests that handstands have been a part of a dynamic yoga practice for over a century.
When you strip it down, there are two major blocks keeping yogis from getting into handstands consistently.
First, they do not take the time to build up the necessary arm and shoulder strength and the second major block is they do not trust their body enough to get their hips over their head.
I think we can all agree that handstands bring up a universal fear: being upside down is scary. It is easy to feel out of control and topple over backwards.
Most of us spend our whole lives trying to remain in control. We do anything to avoid situations where we have to voluntarily relinquish this iron grip. Handstands require an outstanding amount of courage and trust, not only in our own body’s ability to remain centered, but that the ground will be there to catch us when we fall.
So, if it is so scary, why even try it?
To put it simply, handstands have several potential health benefits.
Five Physical Benefits Of Doing Daily Handstands
On a physical level, rooting through your hands to support yourself while upside down reverses gravity's effects on the body. Gravity can be pretty harsh, so giving your body a break from it can instantly make you feel better. Here are five other physical benefits to doing daily handstands:
1. They Build Upper Body Strength
Maybe building muscle isn’t high on your list of priorities, but developing upper body strength is something we can all work on more. Staying upside down for any period will build strength in your shoulders, arms, and upper back. If you’re practising handstands often, you'll see your strength increasing.
2. They Increase Balance
Being upside down is disorienting at first, but you'll see that you develop balancing skills over time. You're better able to hold yourself up with full control over your muscles as you make small adjustments to remain erect.
3. They Strengthen Your Core
Staying upside down causes you to stabilize your muscles - specifically your core. This stabilization practice strengthens your core and provides benefits for the rest of your body when you're upright. You also strengthen your hip flexors, obliques, hamstrings, lower back, and inner thigh muscles.
4. They Improve Breathing, Bone Health, and Circulation
Being upside down will relieve the pressure on your feet and legs and stretch your diaphragm. This will cause more blood to flow to your lungs, improving your breathing and overall circulation. And since handstands are weight-bearing, they strengthen your bones which can help to prevent osteoporosis. They also strengthen your spine, shoulders, arms, and wrists.
5. They Enhance Your Mood
This last one isn't a physical health benefit, but it will improve your life. Handstands can make you feel happier and more energetic due to the increased blood flow to the brain, and has the secondary effect of making you feel calm. This is especially true at stressful times. The stress hormone, cortisol, is reduced when you handstand. Handstands have also been linked to relief of stress and mild depression.
The Spiritual Benefits Of Doing Handstands
As humans, we generally like comfort and stability which two things that handstands take away from us - at least initially. We don't realize how much we 'play it safe' in our lives until we're challenged to take a risk and step out of our comfort zone. Something as simple as a a handstand is sufficient to challenge and dislodge some of our less-productive self-beliefs.
Handstands realign and energize us on many levels. As we draw in our focus, we can achieve the physical and spiritual balance necessary for successful handstands. The Sanskrit word for handstand is Urdvhavrsasana or upside-down tree. As our body stacks itself in alignment, we use our hands to root down into the earth. The roots enable a tree to have a strong trunk, branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit. In the same way, our rooting in this position can facilitate expansion in our lives.
This pose is associated with the crown chakra, which profoundly affects mental clarity and spiritual awareness. Energy flows from our hands up through our bodies. This builds strength and confidence and connects us to our 'higher' selves, our planet, and the greater universe. Perspective changing, indeed!
There are two energies that oppose one another - Prana and Apana. These energies, while opposing, also work together to bring us to balance. Our bones are apanic (downward moving energy), but our breath is pranic (upward moving energy). When we're in a handstand position, we're upside down with our head and upper body pressing downward to stabilize us. Our breath and energy, however, move upward to balance us and focus our intention. It all must come into alignment for us to feel balanced while upside down. We may be looking downward, but internally, we are looking upward with energy and intention.
And contrary to what social media has led you to believe, you do not have to nail your handstand every time to take advantage of these benefits!
Before you try, there are 7 things I want you to know:
- Handstands are uncomfortable and fear-inducing.
- Handstands are difficult to master.
- It’s okay to be in a ‘practice’ state for weeks, months, or even years.
- It’s normal to fluctuate between ‘nailing it’ and falling over backwards.
- Balance is fluid, so is your yogic journey.
- Falling will not hurt as bad as you think.
- Anyone can nail the perfect handstand with a little determination, some concentrated practice, and a lot of grace.
So maybe you give it a try, and maybe you just get into wheel pose, taking time for conscious breathe while you’re upside down. This is what yoga is all about. Placing your heart over your head. Allowing yourself to see life in a new way, to be renewed by the unity of breath and movement. To commit to the ancient yogic goal of awakening. To commit to presence.