Challenge Pose: Handstand


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I have memories as a little baby fledgling watching 3rd series Ashtanga practitioners float in and out of handstand as if it were as simple as standing on their feet. Simi Cruz in particular blew my mind as she would practice Viparita Chakrasana (Handstand to Backbend and back over-- tick-tocks) with the weight of a feather. I knew I wanted to experience that mobility and defiance of gravity someday--I just had to start with how on earth do I get my lower body over my upper?

I'm not gonna lie, it wasn't pretty.

I was one of the only 2 students in my teacher training group full of 40 who couldn't kick up to handstand at the wall. It was mortifying. Everyone kicked up and I was flailing around like a fish out of water knowing it's time was almost up. The genius Chuck Miller sauntered over and slid between me and the wall using the least amount of energy to pull me up into the pose. I exhaled a sigh of gratitude and came out of the pose flushed from more than just the pose. He smiled knowingly at me and said, "You are physically more than capable of doing this pose. It's simply when your mind is ready for it."

It struck me like a ton of bricks. I still think of his words today and echo them often with my students. All poses, regardless of the challenge, are accessible to us. We simply do the work, show up with an open mind free of expectation and do our practice. The physical body continues to grow and as the mind frees itself the pose arrives.

A few months later you couldn't peel me out of a handstand (at the wall) if you tried. It was my new favorite Saturday night activity. My social life crashed but my handstand blossomed. I hope it does for you as well, but do yourself a favor--take Saturday night off and go enjoy your life.

Step One: Firm the base!

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Grab a block the wide way, placing your palms flat along the edges creating a block sandwich. Extend the arms straight out in front of you. Push deeper into the pinky edge of the hands firing up the triceps. Rotate the entire pinky edge of the arm down and in, wrapping the triceps. Plug the shoulders into the sockets and begin to lift the arms up. As the arms extend, lengthen the outer shoulders up--it's the area of the side body along the ribs and arm pits. Release the inner shoulders down--the area at the base of your neck. Keep these two actions working together, draw your front ribs in to keep core connection, and lengthen through the inner elbows to create straight arms. Keep hugging the palms strong around the block until the arms go as high as they comfortably can keeping all actions engaged. Hold for 8 full breaths and release.

Step Two: Alter your perspective. . .

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Come into Downward Facing Dog with the heels pressing into where the floor and wall meet. You'll be tempted to walk your hands in to a smaller Dog--don't. Keep the full stance. Work the same rotation in your arms that you created in step one. Lift the right foot off of the ground and take the sole of the foot a solid several feet up the wall, so they line up with the hips. Push the sole firmly into the wall to aid the second foot in following suit. Keep the feet hip-width apart and push the feet into the wall until the legs become straight. Hips will shift over the shoulders, legs are now parallel with the ground. Work the Urdhva Hastasana arms and keep the gaze slightly past the finger tips. Hold here or practice taking one leg up at a time to get that much closer to handstand!

Step Three: Let your hands become your feet

Come into Downward Facing Dog with your hands shoulder-width apart about 8 inches away from the wall. Place the palms flat and stack the shoulders over the heels of the hands. Rotate the triceps in and broaden the upper back. Place the shoulders in the sockets as to not tighten the base of the neck. Keep the gaze slightly forward and walk the feet in a few steps. Lift the dominant leg keeping the hips as square as possible. Bend the bottom knee and practice small hops working on getting the hips over the shoulders and towards the wall. Don't worry if the legs don't go all the way up. . .this is the biggest part of the journey. Keep working the lift of the hips and I promise--the lift off will come!

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Once the hips get all the way over the shoulders and both feet get to the wall, let the heels rest there and flex the feet. Drive the heels up the wall to help lengthen the tailbone towards the heels. Draw the frontal ribs in as you continue to hug the triceps. Firm the forearms in and keep the gaze slightly forward. Take a good 8 breaths and then take one leg away from the wall to come back into s
tanding forward fold. Dangle and find your breath.

Step Four: Defy gravity

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Once you get the hang of kicking up and find the strength to stay for 8 breaths or longer, you might be ready to move away from the wall a bit. Take yourself several inches further back, but still close enough that the foot will touch the wall if needed. The key is to pretend like the wall isn't there anymore. Do the same set up as we did for handstand at the wall. This time reach the top leg with even more energy as if it were in standing splits. You're going to not only try to get the hips to stack over the shoulders, but start to match the energy of the top leg with the bottom. Once the hips stack, draw energy from the base of the belly to slowly suck the lower leg towards the meeting place of the top leg. If you feel yourself falling towards the wall take your gaze forward. Encourage the front ribs in and tailbone up--this will help you feel your abs so you can steer the pose better with time.

Kathryn Budig is a yoga teacher, writer, philanthropist, Huffington Post, Elephant Journal, MindBodyGreen + Yoga Journal blogger, foodie, and lover of her dog. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook or on her website.