A good friend recently asked me about handstands.
|Simon Borg-Olivier - lifting to handstand|
Handstands aren't something I tend to engage in much these days. Personally, lolasana and my shoulderstand and headstand variations feel quite sufficient ( I should probably practice forearm stand more often). That said, Jessica Walden's videos of slow, seemingly effortless floating up into handstand on the breath as well as equally slowly lowering into postures fills me with awe. I can see the point of exploring them.
On Simon's online courses, his excellent Fundamentals course as well as the superb Yoga Therapy course I'm currently following, he mentions (and includes video of) handstands and how to approach them through diaphragmatic breathing, "a firm but calm", seemingly effortless lift into handstand. I've tried it and it's true, even with my lack of arm balances and loss of arm and shoulder strength of late I was able to pretty much float up.
Yogasynergy Fundamentals course
Yogasynergy Yoga Therapy course (note in the context of the Yoga Therapy course, Simon is discussing breathing into the abdomen, the handstand demonstration is more an illustration
Video 70: Case study – Lower back and sacroiliac joint pain 3.
In this section, Simon explains how to release a stiff and painful lower back by breathing into the abdomen, and how to stimulate the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system
to help the healing process.
Quote from the video
Simon: "Did I ask you to lift up to handstand?
Attendee: "(with the biggest grin) It just happened naturally.... because I was pushing down..."
Simon: "Put the hands on the floor, bring the shoulders forward, push the sitting bones down, lift the top of the hips up, bend less at the hips, lift the ribs up, bend more at the spine, push the belly button down, push down on my hands (simon has his hands beneath her belly), push down on my hands, push down on my hands from there (L5), push the sitting bones down, top of the hips up, push the belly button down, now breathe in.....(and up she goes)".
Here then is as much as Simon's presentation of his approach as I can find freely available, outside his course, on Youtube and his blog, I hope it helps.
This is a similar demonstration to the one I've described above from the Yoga therapy course
See this post on pre-requisites for headstand
"To be adequately prepared for the Headstand (Sirsasana) you have to have first mastered the ‘Shoulderstand posture’ (Salamba sarvangâsana). To be adequately prepared for the ‘Shoulderstand posture’ (Salamba sarvangâsana) and variations of the ‘Plough posture’ (Halâsana) the following postures should have been mastered first:
‘Legs up the wall posture’ (Salamba urdhva prasarita padâsana)
‘Unsupported arms-up bridge posture’ (Niralamba urdhva hasta setu bandhâsana)
‘Back-spinal-lengthening forward-bending posture’ (Pascimotanâsana)
‘Toes-to-floor unsupported half sit-up two-knees-to-chest posture’ (Padangustha niralamba uttana supta pavan muktâsana)
‘Front-spinal-lengthening backward-bending posture’ (Purvotanâsana)
Also to be safe to be able to do headstand I believe it is important to recognise that in many more traditional sequences, such as the ashtanga vinyasa sequences taught by Sri K Pattabhi Jois (Guruji), headstand was taught last, and one thing that Guruji was very big on was that you should not attempt any posture in his sequence till the ones before that posture were mastered. Hence to really be safe in headstand (sirsasana) you should first have mastered shoulder stand (sarvangasaana), and to be safe in shoulder stand you need to have mastered full forward bends and backbending postures too. In fact to be really fair one needs to acknowledge that the first postures in a sequence like the ashtanga vinyasa practices taught by Sri K Pattabhi Jois are those in the Salute to the Sun (surya namaskar) and the third posture is the preparation to a handstand (lolasana) that comes just before the smooth transition to the ‘push up’ posture (chataranga dandasaana). Lolasana is fact such an important posture that it should in fact be practiced twice for every vinyasa (‘up-dog’ to ‘down-dog movement) in the traditional series of ashtanga vinyasa yoga. Hence, I believe it is therefore fair to say that a really important pre-requisite of being able to do a safe headstand is lolasana, and if for some reason the wrists are not able to do this arm balancing posture then at least you should be able to have the abdominal (core) control to do similar supine postures such as a half-situp (similar to ardha navasana in BKS Iyengar’s ‘Light on Yoga’)"
Hand, harm, shoulder stability
Simple Tips to help to Arm Balancing Postures and Push-up positions: from this post
(note that every position that takes weight on the arms has specific details that may not be mentioned here)
- have the palms flat on the floor but grip with your finger tips
- press more on the inside (thumb-side) of the palms for better force transfer from the forearms to the wrists
- squeeze the heel of the palm inwards (as if trying to turn the palm out) in order to stabilise the elbow
- tighten the underarm muscles by pressing the arm pits in the direction they are pointing
- generally bring the shoulders over the over the finger tips (for most arm balances)
- spread the shoulder blades and lengthen the skin between the shoulder blades in the upper back
- push the sitting bones and lower trunk toward the same direction the navel is pointing until the front of the abdomen becomes firm without sucking the navel to the spine
- breathe into the firm abdomen to give you relaxed inner power that can be maintained for a long time without stress
- don’t do anything that feels painful or is potentially dangerous for you
How to lift to handstand
See this post
from the notes
"The same principle is used in things like handstands. So if I bring my arms up in the air initially and lengthen the spine, slightly extending the spine as well, and then bring my hands to the floor, as I moving towards the floor I am pushing the hips forward throughout. I lean onto the hands and lift the head up. Lifting the upper back and pushing the sitting bones towards the hands firms the front of the abdomen. Simply breathing into my abdomen (firmed by posture), or rather breathing with my diaphragm into the abdomen causes an increase in the intra-abdominal and intra-thoracic pressure which straight away puts strength into my arms. Here I simply breathe into the abdomen as my legs are lifting and the instant strength comes to the body. It doesn’t feel like a strain to lift the body. Whereas you can lift up to a handstand with just brute force.
A lot of weightlifters will do lifting exercises using what’s called a Valsalva manoeuvre. Where you make an in-breath then hold the breath and then tense all the muscles of exhalation. In so doing you also increase intra-abdominal and intra-thoracic pressure and intra-cranial pressure as well. This gives you more strength in the arms but the problem is that a weightlifters blood pressure has been shown to go up from a normal level of 120/70 to extreme levels of 380/360. And so there’s a risk then that if you use the Valsalva manoeuvre for strength exercises such as lifting weights or handstands that you risk bursting a blood vessel in your head, or your heart, have a heart attack or a stroke and just increase a lot of stress at the same time. So the trick is to remain very calm and breathe with your diaphragm into an abdomen firmed by posture (as opposed to tension)."
see this post
from the notes
"USING YOUR BREATH WITH STHIRA SUKHAM ASANAM (TO BE FIRM BUT CALM)
Of course you can get away with doing this if you harden the abdomen with the muscles of exhalation. So if I breathe in here [See demonstration of breathing into the abdomen], and then exhale gently and relaxed as I’ve done there [See demonstration of relaxed exhalation] with the abdomen soft the lungs are not fully empty. Also, to exhale fully you are required to tighten the muscles of exhalation. These are circular muscles that go all around the bottom of the trunk. So you see my fingers in my abdomen now, if I tighten my exhalation muscles, the trunk moves inwards away from my fingers. So it’s like I’ve wrapped a belt around my lower waist. This gives a certain amount of abdominal firmness and protects my back if I’m doing a lifting exercise or a straining or stretching exercise.
But the problem is because I’ve used the muscles of exhalation to tighten my abdomen that straight away reciprocally relaxes or inhibits the main muscles of inhalation which is the diaphragm. So it means then with the diaphragm inhibited there is an inhibition of the organs that the diaphragm helps to control and stimulate, including the reproductive system, the immune system, and the digestive system.
Also with these belt muscles contracted and pulling the whole spine inwards it blocks the energy and information from the trunk to the legs. So then to pump the blood to the legs the heart has to work a lot harder, the lungs have to work a lot harder. So, the movements that I am trying to do should not have to tighten all of these things if I want to stay calm. In the Hatha Yoga tradition of India there is only one description of physical exercise. It’s only one sentence. It says “Sthiram Sukham Asanam”. It means physical exercise should be with firmness but with calmness. It’s learning how to do stressful things in a relaxing way. So to protect the back I need to be firm. But to keep calm diaphragmatic breathing and stimulation of the para-sympathetic nervous system is important. The funny thing is that once you learn this you will not only be protected but it will give you tremendous strength. So if someone is just tightening the abdomen like this [See demonstration of pulling the abdomen inwards] they cannot breathe from their diaphragm. So, then what tends to happen is that their chest expands. When the chest expands it makes the body weaker. If the abdomen expands it also makes the body weaker. So when you see adept practitioners of eastern forms of exercise including the Chinese Martial Arts or the Indian Hatha Yoga – there’s also Indian Martial Arts and Chinese Yoga as well, but they all relate – you never see adept practitioners expand their abdomen or their chest. You can use the analogy of the balloon which a child blows up as opposed to the tyre of a car, when you blow a balloon up it gets bigger but the walls actually get thinner and less strong. Whereas when you add more air to a car tyre the walls don’t get any larger but actually the more air coming into the tyre allows it to become much stronger. So you can actually put a ten tonne truck on a hard walled tyre filled with air but something which expands like a balloon will just burst if you put more air into it. So the chest and the abdomen are the same. An in-breath which expands the chest will only make the spine weaker. An in-breath which expands the abdomen will only make you weaker. So in the Martial Arts, in Hatha Yoga it’s always said that you should breathe diaphragmatically but with firmness. So if I breathe diaphragmatically standing normally the abdomen puffs out. But if all I do is push the sitting bones forward the front of the abdomen automatically goes firm and the sides are relaxed. Then if I breathe into the abdomen it doesn’t move but because it’s a diaphragmatic breath I stay calm".
I was asked about the "push down the sit bones", how do you do that when upside down. I think it's easier to make sense of it when the right way up, see this post
“Now I do four movements to help lengthen the spine using the hips and the arms. With the fingers interlocked I push the sitting bones down and forward and the armpits up and forward and traction the spine. Raising the heels helps firm around the knees and squeezing in the thighs helps firm knees and spine. Now I flex (forward bend) the spine first tilting the spine forward, flexing from the middle and pushing the shoulders down and forward. Now the front of my abdomen becomes firm and the sides are relaxed. Front firmness causes reciprocal relaxation of the back of the spine. Breathing into the abdomen using the diaphragm, an inhalation muscle, causes reciprocal relaxation of the exhalation muscles. So the back of my spine is relaxing while the front is firming.”
"This is a simple explanation. Ideally in reality you should move the spine one vertebra at a time starting from the base of the spine up".
UPDATE from Simon
It may be a surprise to some that the common household ‘triangle posture’ has surprisingly so much in common with how to lift up slowly into a handstand, starting by leaning into the palms with your elbows straight, your shoulders over your fingers, with your heels raised and your toe tips initially on the floor.
Some tips to begin both postures:
* Push the sitting bones down
* Move the top of the hips backward to lengthen your lower back
* Move your lower front ribs inwards and lengthen the upper back
* Inhale into the abdomen
For detailed instructions see my friend Anthony Grim Hall’s brilliant blog on handstand here. In it he refers a lot to how Bianca Machliss and I teach many postures to become firm and strong but remain calm and energised.
Below: back when I used to indulge.
Below: back when I used to indulge.
Iyengar includes a handstand in his demonstration in the Krishnamacharya footage video Mysore 1938 suggesting Krishnamacharya taught them.
Ramaswami also includes a handstand in his group of arm balances in his Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga based on his studies with Krishnamacharya.
In a recent Chuck Miller interview he suggests that Pattabhi Jois encouraged them for a time before later discouraging them.
A couple of old posts on handstands
Handstand in the old text Yogāsana-Jaina
Updated draft: Handstands, backbends and Saganaki in Rethymno - Pattabhi Jois led handstands and Derek Irelands handstand after every 2nd series asana.
Did Krishnamacharya teach arm balances? plus arm balances by BKS Iyengar, Krishnamacharya's wife, Pattabhi Jois and Jessica Walden