Inversions have always been my favorite yoga poses to practice—and right at the top of my list is Handstand. I’m inspired by the strength, flexibility, and presence this inversion requires. 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. Still, handstands aren’t about brute strength; they require finesse. There are no shortcuts to getting into this posture. Only time, perseverance, patience, and a strong Handstand progression will help you achieve this pose.
I’ve designed this Handstand progression flow to help you on your journey. It focuses on thigh, glute, and shoulder strength, in addition to hamstring and shoulder flexibility—all which must pave the road to Handstand. And with any luck, it will help make Handstand one of your favorite poses, too.
Warm up for your Handstand progression
Tabletop wrist stretches
Before doing any handstand work, warm up your wrists with some Tabletop wrist stretches. From Tabletop with strong straight arms, gently alternate between making clockwise and counterclockwise circles with your body for 20 seconds. Next, point all 10 fingers towards your knees and repeat. Finally, flip your hands over (tops of hands down) and repeat.
A Handstand progression flow
High Lunge to Modified Pyramid flow
Flexible hamstrings will help you kick into a yoga Handstand with very little momentum. Here’s how to build them: From a High Lunge with your arms extended overhead, inhale deeply. As you exhale, straighten your front leg and fold down over your thigh into a modified pyramid. Hold this stretch for 3 breaths. Keep your back heel lifted to target your hamstring. Inhale, re-bend your front knee, and flow back into High Lunge. Try 5 rounds total moving with the breath. Take a vinyasa between sides.
Single Leg Chair Pose
This pose is great for building the glute and thigh strength you’ll need to balance in Handstand. From Utkatasana (Chair Pose), balance on your right foot. Keeping your right knee bent deeply, extend your left foot straight out in front of you. Flex your left toes strongly toward you for added strength in the lifted leg. Take 8 breaths here. Take a vinyasa between sides.
The body awareness learned in Kakasana (Crow) seamlessly translates to Handstand—that’s what you’re focusing on in this part of the progression. Start in Chair Pose. Open your knees to a diamond shape and place your hands on the mat directly underneath your shoulders. Begin to wrap your inner knees around your triceps. On an exhale, simultaneously shift your weight into your palms and look forward as you bend your elbows towards 90 degrees. Keep squeezing your knees together to keep flying! Take 5–8 breaths here, then move through a vinyasa.
Bound Warrior III
This standing balance will help open your shoulders and upper back, and also build flexibility in your standing hamstring. From High Lunge, interlace your hands at your tailbone. As you inhale, lift your chest while stretching your bound hands toward your back foot. Shift your chest forward and exhale as you lift off your back foot to find balance in Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III). Take 8 breaths, then take a vinyasa before repeating on the other side.
Bound Side Plank
I love Side Plank for highlighting strength differences between the right and left shoulder. This knowledge is invaluable when you need to “diagnose” any Handstand issues. From High Plank, shift your right hand so that it is directly under your face. Inhale as you roll onto the pinky toe edge of your right foot and lift your left hand toward the sky. To incorporate the bind (not shown), grab the big toe of your left foot with two peace fingers and extend your leg. Take 8 breaths and then take a vinyasa. Repeat on the opposite side.
Humble Warrior I
This pose teaches you to use your core to find balance and also offers a beautiful shoulder stretch. From Warrior I, interlace your hands at your tailbone. Take a big inhale and bow to the inside of your front thigh. Look for your back foot and lift your hands away from your tailbone. Take 8 deep breaths here, then flow through a vinyasa before repeating on the opposite side.
Scapular push-ups are an amazing way to build functional strength for handstand. During this drill, it’s very important that only your shoulder blades move in order to truly target your shoulder muscles. Start in High Plank. Inhale and draw your shoulder blades together. As you exhale, separate your shoulder blades as much as possible. Try 3 sets of 8 push-ups.
Boat Pose Variation: Low Boat, Hollow Body
A powerful core is critical for strength poses like Handstand. Start in a high Paripurna Navasana (Boat Pose) and take 5 slow breaths. Lower to Half Boat and take 5 more breaths. From Low Boat, extend your arms strongly overhead for Hollow Body. Take 5 breaths as you look at your toes. Lift back to High Boat on an inhale, cross your ankles and exhale back down onto the mat. Then take a vinyasa.
A stiff upper back and tight shoulder can halt your Handstand game before it starts. Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel) is the perfect pose to solve both issues. Start on your back with your feet flat on the mat. Keeping your feet hips-distance apart, bring your heels in close to your rear end. Bring your palms flat on the mat on either side of your head with all 10 fingers pointing at your feet. Press into your heels and lift into your backbend. Look down between your hands and take 10 deep breaths.
Just like with Crow, the body awareness you develop in Headstand will help your Handstand. From forearm Tabletop, interlace your hands together on the mat. Place your head on the mat between your wrists and gently cradle your head with your wrists. Tuck your toes and walk your feet in towards your face. Press down strongly with your forearms and lift your knees into your chest one at a time. If you feel safe, extend your legs up one at a time. Take 10 breaths. Then rest in Balasana (Child’s Pose) for several breaths.
Initiate your Handstand practice by tucking against the wall. Facing the wall, place your hands on the mat 3–5 inches away from the wall. Kick up to the wall and begin to bring your knees into a tuck position. Look down between your hands and keep the tailbone tucked. Try using only your toes on the wall to balance. Challenge yourself to balance here for one minute.
About the Author
Nicole Calhoun is the founder of ELXR Yoga in Fayetteville, Arkansas. A former Division 1 scholarship hurdler at Texas Tech University, she holds a doctorate in molecular biology and is a mom of three. She began her yoga practice in 2009.
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