Donkey kicks are common as you learn this challenging but ultimately graceful pose.
Watching someone do a practiced Handstand pike is like witnessing magic on the mat. The grace and ease that the body expresses in such an act of strength is mesmerizing. And for me, that made the learning process all the more hilarious and frustrating because I more closely resembled an awkward baby donkey than I did a graceful sorcerer.
I was the queen of donkey kicks as I learned; no core control or awareness, all eager and untrained legs and a stubborn will to succeed. It makes me laugh as I remember that time and I hope you will too as you learn and explore. It will start off uncomfortable, feel exhausting, and you'll often end in a disgruntled pile on the floor. Just know that every single effort adds up and pays off. You're earning your wings and gathering a pinch of magic and knowledge every time you take that leap.
Begin lying on your back with your arms and legs stretched out. Inhale in this position then, as you exhale, reach your arms straight up into the air as you bend your knees and bring them as tight to your armpits as you can. Inhale, reach your arms overhead and extend you legs straight hovering above the ground. Exhale, repeat the bend of you knees and lift of your arms. Keep your ribs hugging toward your midline on the inhale with active legs and arms. Pull yourself into a tiny little package as you exhale. Repeat 5-20 times depending on your strength.
Fear can be a huge factor when learning this pose, so we need to build confidence in baby steps. Grab a yoga strap and come to a wall. Make the lasso on the strap shoulder head to shoulder head then slip it on directly above your elbows (this prevents the elbows from buckling when they bear weight). Come into Downward-Facing Dog with your fingertips 6 inches away from a wall. Join your feet together and gaze forward slightly past your fingertips. Keeping your arms straight and upper back broad, think of the cannon ball shape that you make before you jump into a pool. Think in three steps: hips up over your shoulders, knees tight to the chest, and heels drawn in toward your butt. The goal is to eventually jump your shoulders over you wrists and hips over your shoulders but that can take plenty of dedication and time. For now, you'll practice hopping to create the shape and build strength and confidence. Keeping your gaze forward, take 3 hops (or until you get tired) then rest in forward fold or Child's Pose.
Now we're going to work on abdominal and hip flexor control as well as balance. Still at the wall, kick up into Handstand. Keep your gaze forward near your fingertips without any strain in your neck. I recommend keeping the strap on your arms, but either way keep your arms straight with the upper outer edges of your arms firming in. Keeping your left leg straight against the wall, bend your right knee and see if you can pull the right foot off the wall and draw it into your chest. This will likely make you fall out of the Handstand, so keep your right leg active to help prevent the over-transfer of weight. If that goes well, switch sides with the right leg straight and left knee bent, knee and thigh tight to your chest and heel toward your bottom.
Once you can manage one leg at a time, try to draw the second leg into a bent position so that both knees are bent, feet are touching each other and the wall with your knees hip-width apart. Hold here or gaze forward a bit more, dig your fingertips into the ground and practice tiny taps against the wall to come into balance. If you find your balancing point, hold for 5 breaths.
The final pose can be practiced at a wall or you can move out into the room. The pike can be entered from Downward-Facing Dog or from a standing forward fold, but we'll practice the first one here to give you more momentum.
Starting in Down Dog, firm you upper outer arms in and broaden your upper back. Keep your arms straight as you corset your ribs in. Step your feet together and keep your eyes on the road (slightly forward of your fingertips). Inhale as you come high onto the balls of your feet and bend your knees. Exhale, leave the ground with both feet at the same time leaping your shoulders over your wrists and hips over you shoulders. The sooner you draw you knees into your chest the easier it will be to get your hips stacked. Let the last move be heels to your butt to avoid the donkey kick which will throw out your lower back. Keep practicing this jump until you hit your balance. Then, stay in your tiny little package with the gaze forward. From here, you can pull up into Handstand, go back to Down Dog, or lightly place you feet in-between your hands.
The options are limitless, but it takes time! People spend years working on pike, so respect your body as you explore this pose. Listen when it needs to rest and remember to have fun as you learn.
See also The Beauty of Being a Beginner
Kathryn Budig is jet-setting yoga teacher who teaches online at Yogaglo. She is the Contributing Yoga Expert for Women’s Health Magazine, Yogi-Foodie for MindBodyGreen, creator of Gaiam’s Aim True Yoga DVD, co-founder of Poses for Paws and is currently writing Rodale’s The Big Book of Yoga which releases on October 30th. Follow her on Twitter; Facebook; or on her website. Come practice with Kathryn on retreat in February in either Queenstown, New Zealand or Maui, Hawaii.