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The first time I attempted a Hollow-Back Handstand, I got stuck in it.
I had recently started posting to social media and found myself wanting to nail a dramatic pose for Instagram. With little thought as to what the posture actually demanded, I flung myself into it, taking myself as deep as possible so it looked more impressive. (I’m covering my eyes as I type this.)
Within seconds, my arms went tingly and numb. I found it impossible to press myself out of the posture. Because I had dropped my hips so low, I couldn’t wiggle them back up to ease myself away from the wall. I called out loudly for help in the hope that someone—anyone—would lift me out of the pose that I wasn’t prepared to practice. Fortunately, another teacher was nearby and saved me from myself.
What challenging poses can teach us about ourselves
I don’t advocate a yoga practice that idolizes Instagrammable asana. I do believe that there’s room in our yoga practice to play and to challenge ourselves. Sometimes stepping away from rigidity around our practice—or anything in life—allows us to return with a new mindset.
But the moment we let ourselves get distracted by how a pose looks, we start to play a dangerous game. The difficulty isn’t always found in learning how to come into—or out of—a difficult posture, but in checking our egos at the door as we do so. The true challenge of our yoga practice is to not lose sight of our intention, to not get so distracted by the appearance of a pose that we forget to be aware of the feel of it.
What’s interesting to me about learning challenging shapes is how we also learn surprising things about ourselves. What is self-study (svadhyaya) without self-exploration? To me, that’s when the true practice of yoga kicks in, which is what Sutra 1.1 Atha Yoga-Anuśhāsanam expresses: now begins the practice of yoga.
What is Hollow-Back Handstand?
Hollow back is a positioning of your body that can be added to certain postures, including Handstand. It takes your back into a more intense extension and accentuates your lumbar curve more than some traditional poses do.
Hollow-Back Handstand brings all the same lessons of any inversion in terms of challenging ourselves, focusing our attention, and overcoming our fears. Yet if practicing hollow back isn’t approached with care, it can quickly lead to discomfort. We have a lot of nerves in our shoulders. When we place more strain on our upper body than it can handle, these nerves can become trapped or agitated. (That numb, tingly feeling I experienced? It was an internal SOS. I wasn’t prepared to practice the pose yet.)
With time and repetition, when you practice the shape of the pose in less-challenging poses, you’ll begin to feel like you can safely support your body in the pose. That’s when you can find even more playfulness with different leg variations and longer holds. You may begin to incorporate hollow back into other poses.
How to prep for Hollow-Back Handstand
It was only after quite a lot of practice that I was able to come into Hollow-Back Handstand with ease. Eventually, I ended up creating the playful shape on the cover of the Summer 2022 issue of Yoga Journal.
Before you try to recreate Hollow-Back Handstand—or any challenging pose—you want to consider that it it may be more challenging than it appears. Allow me to share a few words of caution.
1. Don’t skip prep poses
Part of the art of yoga is learning to pause and consider a more challenging pose as a culmination of different foundational asanas. An easy way to do this is to identify similar shapes that resemble the final pose. The similarities can be in regard to body position or shape, mobility, strength, or flexibility. Sometimes working within a more subtle and simple framework is what it takes to make a complicated pose finally click in your body and in your brain.
Hollow back is a backbend, which means it’s a deep chest and shoulder opener, so start by working with poses that also address that. Some of the ways I like to warm up for this pose include:
- Forearm Cat and Cow: This more challenging version of the classic yoga warmup emphasizes the shoulders and upper back. It is really hard to cheat on this one. Try not to collapse into your shoulders or dump into your low back, which aren’t as much of an issue in traditional Cat-Cow.
- Uttana Shishoshana (Puppy Pose): Sometimes referred to as Anahatasana (Melting Heart), this asana very much mimics the shape we are trying to create in a Hollow-Back Handstand without having to take yourself upside down. To mimic the feeling you’ll experience in hollow back, you can practice Puppy Pose standing. Stand about a foot from the wall. Reach up and forward to place your palms on the wall. Your hands should be about shoulder distance apart. Gently start to melt your heart in the direction of the wall. Avoid letting your elbows bend outward or internally rotating your shoulders. If you can easily get your chest to the wall, step back a few inches. Breathe.
- Matsyasana (Fish Pose): Hollow back handstand, like Fish Pose, is a backbend in which our hips are in flexion. This means relying less on our lumbar spine flexibility and more on our upper back. For those of you who love bending from the low back, you are going to find this one a little more challenging! Rather than straining your low back, work on opening from your shoulders, as we do in Fish Pose. (I used to pride myself on my deep backbends, but the truth is: my shoulders can be quite tight and stubborn. I would put all of the stress of bending into my lower back and let me tell you, I got away with it in my twenties, but it doesn’t age well!)
- Dandasana (Staff Pose): Before going into a hollow back, are you able to sit comfortably with a tall spine in Dandasana? It takes more hamstring and hip flexor opening than you might think. If your tailbone likes to come into an anterior tilt in hollow back, start your work here in Staff Pose. Sit with your back against a wall or your sit bones on the edge of a folded blanket. Over time, work away from the wall or off the blanket.
- Handstand: Handstand, which is the foundation of Hollow-Back Handstand, requires shoulder strength, hamstring flexibility, wrist strength and mobility, core strength, and body intelligence so that you can work smarter not harder (aka stacking your body in all the right places). Practice being able to hold your Handstand for at least 30 seconds at the wall before attempting the hollow-back version. Hollow back takes more time and precision to get in and out of. The last thing you want is to tire out before you’ve exited the pose and find yourself stuck. Practicing ways to come out of Handstand also helps you prepare mentally for coming in and out of Hollow-Back Handstand. (Sometimes we get so caught up in the handstand itself, we panic when it is time to come out! Ever learn how to ride a bike before learning how to use the brakes? It’s kind of like that.)
- Wrist strengthening and stretching: Pick your favorite wrist exercises and be sure to do them prior to coming all the way into the handstand. I love to stretch my wrists in Tabletop by moving my body in circles and flipping the direction of my hands so my fingers point toward my knees. You can strengthen your wrists by reaching your arms in front of you and squeezing your hands into tight fists, then straightening your fingers and spreading them wide. Then pick up the pace! Think jazz hands. You should feel the burn pretty soon after beginning. Remember to breathe.
- Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose): Wheel Pose is a great shoulder opener to prep for this pose, even though it involves hip extension. Practice Wheel with a wall about a foot away from your hands so you are facing the wall when you lift. Try to reach your chest between your arms and toward the wall. (Note that in Hollow-Back Handstand, you’ll be facing away from the wall.) Try your best not to dump into your lower back and instead work on straightening your arms, hugging your elbows in, and grounding through the big toe ball mounds of both feet to combat external rotation of the legs, which stresses the lumbar spine.
- Breathwork: I cannot stress enough how important breathwork is to inversions. When we go upside down, it can be one of the first things we forget about. Make sure you can take deep diaphragmatic breaths in all of your prep work before trying it in this final pose. Your breath is one of the most informative tools for turning the dial between effort and ease in our practice. If you are not breathing deeply—whether you just forgot, or worse, you can’t—then you have need to dial it way back. When you can breathe in this inversions with the same ease as you do in seated meditation, you may be ready to practice hollow-back handstand.
2. Get out of the “picture perfect” mindset
Sharing our practice should be about sharing all of it, not just our superhuman sides. People can relate to our dedication (and to our falling out of a pose!) more easily than the shiny results. So to come into this shape, we first must step down from any self-made pedestals. An overemphasis on the perfection of the shape can give your students or followers an overestimated sense of ease with which one can come into this pose and can seem to disregard safety. There is no place for that in yoga.
3. It’s better to be safe than sorry
If you experience numbing or discomfort in your shoulders or wrists, come out of the pose. Play instead in some less intense postures and practice the prep poses mentioned earlier.
4. Know when to ask for help
You don’t have to attempt this or any challenging pose on your own. (You do not have to attempt it at all, actually!) When you try it for the first several times, make certain you have an experienced teacher at your side to guide and help you. They can see things that you can’t. Also, it can be surprisingly difficult to think when you are upside down! And you have someone else to assist if you get stuck!
5. Take your time
I stand by the idea that there are no shortcuts when learning hollow back—or any challenging shape. There can be room for playful detours. These shapes take practice, dedication, discipline, and focus—like almost anything in life. Yoga isn’t a race. If you practice smartly, you may be doing this same pose 10, 20, 30, or more years down the road. The only race that takes place in yoga is a race toward injury.
How to practice Hollow-Back Handstand safely
Here are the steps that I follow and teach to my students when coming into Hollow-Back Handstand:
1. Start by placing your hands down about a foot away from the wall, fingers pointing toward the wall. Spread your fingers wide and use the pads beneath your knuckles to grip the floor. Make sure you start with your gaze straight down, directly between your hands.
Tip: When you first practice this pose, I recommend starting with your hands closer to the wall, and moving them further away over time with practice and strength training.
2. Slowly come into your Handstand but do not move your gaze. Let your feet come all the way to the wall and rest against it.
3. Slowly lower your hips and lean them and the backs of your leg against the wall. (If this feels too intense, come out and try again but with your hands closer to the wall.) As you lower your hips, start to reach your chest away from the wall and in between your arms. Slowly start to shift your gaze in between your arms—take your time as this can be disorienting the first few times.
4. Keep pressing through your arms and engaging your legs and breathe slowly. Work toward holding the pose for as long as it feels (relatively) comfortable.
Eventually, you can try the cover pose version where you start even further away from the wall, bend at your knees and drop your hips to hover in the space between you and the wall. This version has less support and asks you to really work the counterbalance by reaching your chest through your arms even more. And with time, as you feel stronger in this pose, you can start playing with new leg variations, such as bending your knees.
5. To come out of the pose, bring your gaze down to the ground, directly between your hands. Plant both feet on the wall and begin walking them up the wall to lift your hips and come out of the hollow-back shape. Continue to actively press your hands into the ground while doing so to avoid collapsing in your shoulders.
From here, you can come out of your Handstand however you usually do. Some people kick out of it by pressing their feet into the wall. Another option is to practice cartwheeling out of your Handstand, which is something to consider only if you have enough clearance on either side of you. To do this, you will want to practice coming into an unsupported Handstand by either lifting your feet off the wall and stacking them over your hips or, if you prefer the structural support of the wall, by walking your hands closer to the wall to stack your joints. If you are cartwheeling to the right, gaze toward your left hand and start to rotate your hips left as you split your legs and land one foot at a time—first right, then left. You should land to the right of where your hands were.
Tip: Before trying this cover pose version, I would suggest practicing coming out of a handstand with your arms that far away from the wall with confidence. (The last thing you want is to feel stuck!) Remember: feeling confident in the entry and exit is a prerequisite to coming into the shape itself.
About our contributor
Jenny Clise has been teaching yoga since 2012. Her classes are inspired by many schools of yoga, but her favorite style of yoga to teach is alignment-based flows. She is an avid traveler and leads retreats around the world. She is also the author of the yoga e-book BLOCKASANAS. To learn more about Jenny, her classes, or upcoming events, check out JennyClise.com or follow her on Instagram @jennyclise.