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Handstand: The Complete Guide

Are you ready to get upside down? Adho Mukha Vrksasana boost your energy—and confidence.


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Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand or Downward-Facing Tree Pose) is an energetic inversion that requires strength and concentration. Nicole Calhoun, founder of EXLR Yoga Lounge explains that inversions are her favorite yoga poses to practice—and handstands are her most preferred. “I’m inspired by the strength, flexibility, and presence this inversion requires,” says Calhoun. “After all, you can’t think about your to-do list while balancing in a handstand! You’re forced to experience your body and breath in their truest forms in each passing moment. In other words, you can’t hide from your true self in an inversion.”

It’s important to acknowledge that handstands require finesse. “There are no shortcuts to getting into this posture,” says Calhoun. “Only time, perseverance,  patience, and a strong Handstand progression will help you achieve this pose.”

Aadil Palkhivala, founder of Purna Yoga in Washington, explains inversions are some of the most powerful yoga poses. “Physically, inversions increase blood volume to the heart, thereby exercising the heart.”

Beyond the physical benefits, there’s an energetic payoff with Handstand. “Just before you break through, there’s loud noise, trembling, and fierce vibrations,” Palkhivala says. “But once through, everything becomes quiet, and you are free.”

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Handstand basics

Sanskrit: Adho Mukha Vrksasana (ah-doh moo-kah vriks-SHAHS-anna)

adho = down
mukha = face
vrksa = tree

Other names: Downward-Facing Tree Pose, Upward-Facing Tree Pose

Pose type: Inversion

Targets: Full body

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Benefits

Handstand improves postural and body awareness, improves circulation, and boosts energy.

Other Handstand perks:

  • Strengthens your core, back, chest, arms, shoulders, thighs, and glutes
  • Builds confidence
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Step-by-step instructions

  1. Begin in Downward-Facing Dog.
  2. Bring your wrist creases parallel to the front edge of the mat. Turn your upper arms forward toward the wall in front.  Press down evenly through your hands.
  3. On an inhalation, lift your heels. On an exhalation, step your right foot 1/3 to 1/2 of the way to your hands and shift your shoulders forward and directly over your wrists. Bend your right knee slightly and keep your left leg straight.
  4. At the end of your next exhalation, push off your forward foot to lift your left leg into Standing Splits, keeping your shoulders over your wrists. Lift your left inner thigh. Press down into your hands and straighten your arms.
  5. Fix your gaze on a point between and slightly ahead of your index fingers.
  6. Bend your right knee deeply and take a small hop off your right foot. As you transition weight to your hands, lift up through your left inner thigh. Repeat until you bring your right leg alongside your left leg. Do not focus on swinging your right leg overhead. Instead, focus on bringing your hips over your shoulders.
  7. When you are able to bring your right leg alongside your left, bring your legs together. Draw your low belly in and reach your tailbone toward your heels. Reach your heels away from your shoulders.
  8. Remain here for 5–8 breaths. To exit the pose, slowly release one leg at a time to the floor and pause in Standing Forward Bend.
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Explore the pose

In Handstand, make sure to distribute your weight evenly through your fingers and palm. Avoid cupping your hands, which causes compression in your outer wrists. Keep your upper arms firm and your elbows straight to prevent buckling and instability.

Reach up strongly through your feet, legs, and tailbone while engaging your core so that you do not dump into your low back. Draw your belly in and up as you resist the floor and seek balance. Push down into your hands and actively reach up through your feet and legs. As you hug your legs into the midline, move your tailbone toward your heels. Focus on lifting yourself up instead of pushing inward toward the wall.

Practice at a wall until you are completely comfortable being upside down (see variations below). When you begin to practice without a wall, start by bringing your second leg no higher than parallel to the floor—it will act as an anchor and prevent you from falling over into a backbend.

Be mindful!

  • Modify or avoid this pose if you have osteoporosis, bulging or herniated discs, acute back pain or issues, or any condition that poses a higher risk if you fall.
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Handstand variations

Photo: Eleanor Williamson

Handstand against a wall 1

Start in Downward-Facing Dog Pose with your toes on the ground and heels against the wall. Slowly walk your feet up the wall until they are parallel to the mat. Stay for several breaths, then lower back down. Come into Child’s Pose or a restful pose for a few breaths.

Photo: Eleanor Williamson

Handstand against a wall 2

Start in Downward-Facing Dog with your toes on the ground and your heels against the wall. Slowly walk your feet up the wall into the variation above. Lift one leg and actively reach your toes toward the ceiling. Keep the other leg pressed into the wall. Stay for several breaths, then lower back down. Come into Child’s Pose or a restful pose for a few breaths.

Photo: Eleanor Williamson Photo: Eleanor Williamson

Handstand against a wall 3

Start in Downward-Facing Dog with your hands toward the wall. Lift one leg up to come toward Handstand and allow the other leg to follow.

It may take a few tries to get into Handstand. When you get there, press your hands actively into the floor and reach your feet toward the ceiling.

Come down by releasing your feet, one at a time, to the mat and come back into Downward-Facing Dog. Release down into Child’s Pose or any restful position with your head down for about 1 minute. Then, slowly get up, being cautious to transition slowly. Take your time if you get dizzy.

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Preparatory and counter poses

If you are new to Handstand, you can not over-prepare for the challenging pose. Take your time and practice poses that ask you to engage your full body—legs, core, and shoulders. Also, practice your drishti, or your ability to focus your gaze and your attention on a single point, which will help you find stability while upside-down.

Preparatory poses

Marjaryasana (Cat Pose)

Tadasana (Mountain Pose)

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

Forearm Plank

Vasisthasana (Side Plank)

Navasana (Boat Pose)

Garudasana (Eagle Pose)

Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana (Standing Splits)

Counter poses

Balasana (Child’s Pose)

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Your body in Handstand | Anatomy

We spend most of our lives walking, standing, etc. The hip joints are structured for weight-bearing in these types of activities. The shoulders, on the other hand, are highly mobile and designed for interacting with the environment through our hands. Practicing poses like Adho Mukha Vrksasana reverses this design by turning the mobile shoulder joint into the joint that must be stable for weight-bearing, explains Ray Long, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and yoga teacher. This strengthens the muscular stabilizers of the shoulder.

Stability and balance in this pose, which is an inversion as well as an arm balance, originate from the pelvis. In standing poses, we connect the feet with the pelvic core and then refine the pose via movement of the upper body. Here, we connect the hands to the shoulder girdle and stabilize the pose from the pelvic core. Wobbling movement at the pelvis creates instability in the pose. This instability is transmitted to the upper extremities, where it is magnified, making it more work to hold the pose. This means that stable arm balances require that the pelvic core muscles, such as the psoas and gluteals, are developed and prepared for yoga practice.

In the drawings below, pink muscles are stretching and blue muscles are contracting. The shade of the color represents the force of the stretch and the force of contraction. Darker = stronger.

Handstand: Adho Mukha Vrksasana
Illustration: Chris Macivor

Engage the gluteus maximus to lift the leg in the air and create extension in the hip. Remember that the hip and pelvis move in rhythm and are connected to the lumbar spine. Activate the quadratus lumborum of the lower back. Notice how this draws the pelvis upward. When the hip is in a neutral position, this muscle stabilizes the head of the femur in the hip socket.

Activate the quadratus lumborum and erector spinae to extend the entire back into the pose. Ultimately, you want the vertebrae to align one on top of the other.

Spread your fingers evenly and pronate (turn in) your forearms. This brings the weight into the mounds at the base of the index fingers. Then externally rotate the shoulders by activating the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles and shift the weight evenly across the hands. Note how pronating the forearms and externally rotating the shoulders creates a “coiling” force through the elbows. This stabilizes the arms. Once in the pose, draw your shoulders away from your ears to free the neck.

Squeeze the legs together to activate the adductor group of muscles on your inner thighs and stabilize your pelvis. Bring the soles of your feet parallel to the floor by dorsiflexing your ankles. This activates the tibialis anterior muscles on the front of your lower legs.

You want the femurs to be in a neutral position with the kneecaps facing forward. Straighten the knees by contracting the quadriceps. (A cue for this is to “lift your kneecaps toward your pelvis.”) Use the tensor fascia lata to counteract the external rotation and assist the quadriceps in straightening the knees. (A cue for this is to imagine pressing the outer edges of your feet against an immovable object.) This activates the abductor muscles—the tensor fascia lata and gluteus medius—which are also internal rotators of the hips.

Balance extension of the back with gentle activation of the abdominals. Note the attachment of the rectus abdominus on the front of the pelvis. Engaging this muscle creates a pull that counters the forward tilt of the pelvis, increasing stability.

Excerpted with permission from The Key Poses of Yoga and Anatomy for Arm Balances and Inversions by Ray Long.

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Put Handstand into practice

Think You Can’t Handstand? This Sequence Will Prove Otherwise

A Mini-Sequence Around Non-Attachment

Why Inversions Should Be a Part of Your Yoga Practice


About our contributors

Teacher and model Natasha Rizopoulos is a senior teacher at Down Under Yoga in Boston, where she offers classes and leads 200- and 300-hour teacher trainings. A dedicated Ashtanga practitioner for many years, she became equally as captivated by the precision of the Iyengar system. These two traditions inform her teaching and her dynamic, anatomy-based vinyasa system Align Your Flow. For more information, visit natasharizopoulos.com.

Ray Long is an orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga, a popular series of yoga anatomy books, and the Daily Bandha, which provides tips and techniques for teaching and practicing safe alignment. Ray graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School and pursued post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, the University of Montreal, and the Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over 20 years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters, and teaches anatomy workshops at yoga studios around the country.