Handstands can make some people crazy.
We love ‘em … we hate ‘em … we think they represent everything that’s wrong about yoga – and all we crave at the same time. It’s like talking politics in DC where one person’s answer is another’s crux to the problem.
Yet in Ashtanga, it’s a whole lot more complicated. In fact, they are not even officially a part of first, second or even third series - perhaps why handstanding can seem as forbidden as the apple in the garden – plenty of temptation yet the threat of being kicked out of Eden should you dare take a bite.
But is that true? I’m way too young in this practice to know for sure, so I reached out to a few teachers I respect – David Robson, David Garrigues, David Keil, Angela Jamison and Tim Feldmann – and asked for their few Lincolns worth*. As it turns out, they each offered what will make way more sense than cents:
I’ve seen students press up into handstand in various places while others warn against. What’s the deal?
David Keil: There definitely used to be more handstands in the practice. (A well-known teacher) learned them between Navasana. Now, no handstands allowed anywhere.
David Garrigues: I have a funny story about that. I was a freestyle skateboarder, I grew up and doing all manner of handstands rolling across the hard pavement on the board, inversions were one of my specialties. And so when I started practicing yoga I was a bit of handstand nut. And then I met Guruji in ‘93 in LA, I studied led primary series with him at yoga works. I was brand new to Ashtanga, he was my first Ashtanga teacher. (Another student) was in the class and he would go up into handstand between nearly every seated posture as part of the vinyasa. I didn’t know any better and it looked fun so I started doing it too – HA! Until Guruji came up behind me during one of my moves and pushed my legs down when I tried to go into a handstand … I got the message loud and clear and stopped doing it even though (the other student) kept right on doing it.
That’s hilarious! I admit that I’ve heard similar stories of Sharath doing the same. What’s the big deal?
David Robson: I think (it) must be about correct vinyasa: It’s very difficult to lift into a full handstand – AND drop into Chaturanga Dandasana – in the Suryanamaskaras all on an exhale. Same with the full lift into handstands between Navasanas. People take extra breaths to do the handstands. Of course, we all take extra breaths sometimes and none of us are always doing correct vinyasas. However stepping out of the vinyasa in order to do a flashy move is totally different.
DG: I think Guruji’s lack of emphasis on (handstands) had to do with him valuing flow and vinyasa positioning and thus he would rather see someone continue to move through the sequence rather than go to the wall and try to kick up into a handstand or other such variants. Also the people, mostly men, who don’t have to interrupt the flow of their vinyasa positioning in order to perform a handstand probably don’t need to work on it anyway.
Which definitely doesn’t include me! But I love them and would really love to one day be strong enough to do well, so how?
DG: I love handstands but prefer an economy of effort in the vinyasa transitions and suggest that people spend the energy that they have for strengthening on achieving beauty in Chaturanga Dandasana, and on jumping back and through with care, precision, and alignment.
DR: There are an awful lot of other opportunities to do the same (if not more) work of lifting, either by floating into pike, or trying to lift up in the jump backs and jump throughs.
DK: The bigger question is what can we learn from them? They are just another asana, so in a sense, a tool that we can use to bring our practice into balance. Officially, they don’t exist … Why do we do it?
Hey! I’m the one who’s supposed to be asking the questions ‘round here! But since you did – why, indeed?
DG: Working on handstand is more important for people who are flexible in the shoulders and upper body but who also might need to develop upper body strength. Handstand is less important for people with tight shoulders who would spend the energy better working on back bending and improving their upper body mobility.
So I hear you all. Handstand is not official – but everyone has at least acknowledged, it DOES exist. So my question now is – when?
DG: The most likely and natural place to work on them (other than during the day in your backyard, on the grass
at the park, on a long flight, or at the wall in your office as a break from sitting at the computer) is after or during back bending.
Tim Feldmann: Handstands are taught as part of a longer back bending routine towards the end of intermediate series: handstand, drop over backwards onto your feet to urdhva dhanurasana, jump back to balance on your hands, continue to stand on your feet… then again. We call it ‘tic-tocs’ or in sanskrit ‘viparita chakrasana’. As we begin learning this routine we might just start with the handstands and add more to it step by step (that would depend on your teachers opinion).
Is there any thing else, as a teacher, you consider when officially or unofficially introducing handstands to a student?
TF: (Handstands) can make your shoulders and upper back a bit tight, which we would not want until back bending is perfected, deep and steady.
I’ll say this tongue-in-cheek, as I’m a full-on, kool-aid-drinking , card-carrying Ashtangi, but … sounds like there’s some intelligence built around all this sequencing not to mention, the guidance of a teacher.
DR: For us Ashtangis, the vinyasa sequence is our mantra. Our practice is in its faithful reproduction day after day. If we identify as traditional practitioners, then we accept that it’s not up to us to change the practice, but to surrender to the teaching as it’s been given to us.
Angela Jamison – I know you are one wise owl so don’t you have anything to add?
AJ: As someone who has practiced advanced 4 days a week for nearly 7 years, I also have a quite limited degree of insight on the workings of the shoulder girdle, deep backbending, and how these affect the sense of self and one’s energy.
But there is no way that I would be ok with my understanding of the method being used in a controversial manner. None of these teachings make any sense outside the context of long-term relationship with 1) a teacher and 2) specific (always somewhat arbitrary) approaches to the physical practice.
I am careful in this regard because my philosophy teacher Narasimhan has instructed me to step back from paying attention to or getting involved in the negativity that happens on the Internet. This seems like a really sincere instruction on his part, so I do my best to honor it. :)
More important that handstand instructions.
More important, indeed!
*Disclaimer: Though the quotes are real, this conversation with all five teachers did not happen concurrently. (I should only be so lucky to have all these great minds in one room.) Their generosity as teachers and heartfelt devotion is beyond measurement - and I am deeply thankful for the time and thought each offered.
And I assure you, no walls were damaged in the making of this blog.
For more information about handstands or other asana practices, please find a teacher. Please.