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From Fear to Freedom

One woman's journey into Handstand, and how it turned her life upside down.

By Dayna Macy

Asana by Judith Hanson Lasater
Ardha Adho Mukha Svanasana (Half Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

Stretches the upper back and shoulders

Stand facing a wall, about 3 feet from it, and place your hands on the wall a little more than shoulder-width apart. Make sure your middle fingers are pointing straight up and the knuckles of your index fingers are pressing into the wall. Inhale, and as you exhale, push away from the wall and lower your spine until it is parallel to the floor. Push away from the wall again, and as you exhale, drop the upper back down a little more. As you do this, draw your navel up a bit to prevent your lumbar spine from dropping toward the floor too much. Find the point at which your shoulders are open and being stretched, and hold it for 3 to 5 breaths. Inhale as you stand up, then repeat the pose.

Uncontrolled high blood pressure
Glaucoma, diseases of the retina
Inflammatory conditions of the arms and shoulders, such as tendinitis, bursitis, rotator-cuff injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

Strengthens the muscles around the shoulder joints
Stretches the upper back and shoulders

Come to your hands and knees, placing your hands a little wider than your shoulders, with your index fingers pointing exactly forward. On an exhalation, invite your belly upward toward your spine. On the next natural exhalation, straighten your knees so you are supported by your straight arms and legs. Keep your weight over your hands. Now, inhale and make a "backbend" or extension movement with your spine. On the next exhalation, descend your heels toward the mat and move back into Downward Dog. Hold for 5 to 7 breaths. Make sure your heels are turning slightly out to stretch the inner calves and that your body is in a long line from palms to hips. Come down and repeat again, remembering to synchronize your breath with your movements.

Adho Mukha Svanasana to Plank Pose (Downward-Facing Dog to Plank Pose)

Upper-back mobilizer
Shoulder and bellystrengthener

From Downward-Facing Dog, exhale and move your belly inward, drop your chin to your chest, and roll forward into Plank Pose. Be sure to exhale when you move and to lift and round your upper back slightly as you go forward. This way of moving is designed to strengthen your abdomen (as well as mobilize your shoulders) in preparation for getting up into Handstand. A strong core facilitates kicking up into the pose. Hold Plank for 3 to 5 breaths. Then, with an exhalation, move the belly upward to support the spine and press back into Downward Dog. Rest and repeat. Use your abdomen to create this movement; do not use just the hip joints, which will make you bend like a hinge.

Dolphin Pose

Strengthens and mobilizes the shoulders and upper back
Strengthens the abdomen

Come to your hands and knees and place your elbows directly under your shoulder joints. Interlock your fingers to make a triangular shape. See that your palms are slightly open and your wrists are straight. With an exhalation, straighten your legs and lift up onto your feet, so that you are resting on your forearms and feet (see figure a). Exhale and move forward and back, bringing your chest down over your arms so your body is as parallel to the floor as possible (see figure b). Move on the exhalation during both the forward and backward movements. Remember to draw your belly inward before beginning each movement. Repeat 5 times, rest, and then reverse the interlock of your fingers and practice the pose 5 more times.

Urdhva Dandasana (Upward Staff Pose), at a Wall

Prepares you for Handstand because it requires a perfect balance of strength and flexibility in the shoulders.

Place your yoga mat next to the wall, with the shorter end touching the wall. Come to your hands and knees facing the center of the room. Gently place one foot and then the other up on the wall; your body should be in the shape of an L and your hips at 90 degrees of flexion, thighs parallel to the floor. Make sure that only the balls of your feet, and not your heels, rest on the wall and that your hands are directly under your shoulder joints. Keep your head up. Do not let yourself sag at the lower back. Invite your belly to pull in and up as you resist the floor. Focus on lifting yourself up instead of pushing inward toward the wall. Stay for 5 breaths and repeat 2 more times. If this pose seems too scary, practice it by placing one foot at a time on the wall and lifting the other one 12 inches or so from the floor.

Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand)

Creates strength in the shoulders, back, and abdomen
Elevates mood and builds confidence

Place your yoga mat near a wall, with the short end touching the wall. Place your hands on the floor, with your palms about 10 to 12 inches from the wall and step back into Downward-Facing Dog Pose. Bring one foot forward about 12 inches; bend your front knee. The back leg is your "swing" leg, and your front leg is your "push" leg. Move your shoulders over your hands, keep your elbows straight, and lift your head. Inhale, and as you exhale push strongly with your "push" leg and propel your "swing" leg up so it reaches the wall first. Keep your head up until your feet touch the wall. Press the floor and lift your whole body up. Hold for 3 to 5 breaths, then come down and try again. When you can get up every time, practice with the other leg going up first.

Playing Your Fears

In Handstand, as in life, it's OK to be afraid, but the fear doesn't have to paralyze you. Handstand, which I like to call "fearasana," gives you an opportunity to change fear into excitement and triumph. Start by making the pose safe for yourself and ask a teacher you trust for help. As you play with the pose, try to embody a few principles:

First, breathe deeply and steadily. When you get scared, you're likely to hold your breath and stiffen, which makes your body heavy and makes you lose your resourcefulness and intelligence. If you lose your breath, you're sunk—so learn to breathe effectively.

Second, ride the exhalation into the pose (begin to exhale half a second before the kick). Third, do lots of small kicks; be willing to kick up a good 200 times or more.

As you work, become aware of what I call the "self-mutilation dialogue." When you can't do something you think you should be able to, do you rip into yourself? The inner critic is not very discerning and is seldom honest; it just cuts you to shreds. When your mind starts its self-mutilation pattern, say no and come back to your breath. Reframe the way you think of the pose so that just being willing to work on it is a win. You kicked six times? That's a win!

Finally, have a sense of humor about Handstand—or anything else you're afraid of. Become amused (instead of depressed) when the mind jumps to delusional conclusions (I'm going to die!) and be fascinated and eager to carve out a new truth by doing new actions.

Handstand builds self-esteem and strength. It gives you a sense of how to move through life's challenges and spooky times. Your horizons broaden, and the possibilities become so exciting! What more could you ask from a pose?

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May 2008

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Reader Comments

Michael Hutchinson

This is a very brave and honest article about facing fears in a challenging inversion, with lots of useful points along the way. It's not just inversions that can spark off fears; I had to overcome some issues with Bhujangasana about 20 years ago.
Just one question, who is saying that Adho Mukha Svanasana is contraindicated during pregnancy? Our understanding here in the UK is quite the opposite!


This is very inspiring. Although I am young and have only been practicing for a few years, handstands have caused me so much grief. It has gotten to the point where I avoid going to classes with instructors that include handstand in the practice. I just hate the feeling of failing and being the only one who cannot do it in class. This article inspires me to banish the thoughts that tell me my body just wasn't made to do handstands and instead keep practicing to get it.


Though I'm 21,I'm quite strong and practice yoga for 3 years, handstand still terrifies me. Thank you for such inspiration, now I'm ready to try harder than ever.

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