Main event: Adho muka vrksasana / handstand!

Wheeeeee!!!! We continue to go upside down this week with “upward facing tree” pose – that is the literal translation of adho muka vrksana, but we’ll just call it “handstand.”

Prepare for this pose with last week’s practice – working on headless headstand will help you open the hamstrings, extend the spine, activate the core, open and align the shoulder girdle, and figure out how to get your hips above your shoulders while finding balance upside down. All of these actions are important for handstand as well.

We begin with a block between the shoulder blades to release and open tense muscles in this area. Photos don’t really do this pose justice, and it is best practiced with a teacher the first few times. Nonetheless, here is the verbal description for those of you who have practiced with me in the past: place the block the long way on the mat, lie down on it with the bottom edge around the bra line, and the top edge just catching the bottom of your skull. Be sure that your neck is not pressing into the block – the block provides a slight traction on the neck to lengthen it. Give yourself a big hug with your arms, and then open into “cactus arms,” being sure to keep the elbows higher from the ground than the backs of the wrists. Check in with your lower back, which may try to arch in compensation for tight muscles around the mid-spine area. Remain here for several breaths, until you feel some release. To get off the block, press one elbow into the floor, then roll to the side, remove the block, lie back down and savor the relief! 🙂

Next is three-legged downward facing dog. From downward facing dog pose, step the feet together, then transfer the weight onto only one leg, while lifting the other leg straight up. Be mindful of keeping the hips aligned at first, and bending the knee of the uplifted leg only once you have found a solid and grounded three-legged dog pose. When you do bend the knee, lift it up high and twist one hip above the other, but be sure to keep your shoulders even and the weight even in both hands – that is the most challenging part. This is a twist of the spine, so be sure to practice it that way.

Weight remains even in both hands, even when you lift one leg up and above the back into a twist.

Move into forearm plank and then half-dog, with fingers interlaced and elbows no more than shoulder width apart (very important!).

Point and flex your toes, sliding forward and back in the same plane, while keeping your bellybutton glued to your spine.
Begin with knees slightly bent, moving the belly towards the thighs, but keeping the lowest ribs drawn towards each other. You can remain here, or straighten the legs, but not at the cost of losing the extension in your spine and stretch in the shoulders.

Practice headless headstand next.

Next, face away from the wall, place your hands down as for down dog, then walk your legs up the wall behind you until they are above the hips, knees bent. Begin to walk the legs down to hip level and straighten the legs until you form an upside down L shape. Note that this is a very demanding pose, so be sure to work your way up to it in several sessions, if need be.

Arms remain well “plugged into” the shoulder girdle, core very strong, inner thighs together and lifting up to ceiling.

Finally, if you feel ready for the main event, face the wall, then place your hands about a foot away from the wall in downward facing dog position. Lift one leg up, keeping it straight with the toe pointing at the ground, while the standing leg may bend a little to allow you to spring up. Push with the bent standing leg, pull the inner thigh of the uplifted leg up and hold yourself upside down with a very strong core. The arms remain straight, with the intention of external rotation. Hips move over the shoulders, and it’s totally OK to hit the wall with your leg until you begin to find balance!

Look at the ground between your hands, and push the ground away strongly with your hands. Bellybutton remains pressed to the spine and balls of feet (“Barbie toes!”) press up to the ceiling.

Finish with some gentle supine twists and viparita karani/legs up the wall pose.

Happy going upside down! 🙂



Main event: Sirsasana / Headstand (and “headless” headstand)

As we continue our journey of inversions, we arrive at the “king” of poses, sirsasana/headstand. Headstand is given this regal name because of the myriad of benefits that it confers: courage, increased focus, hormonal balance, relieving stress on the heart by reversing blood flow, improving digestion, strengthening shoulders and arms. It’s easier to master this pose than one would think, but preparation and technique is key – otherwise, misalignment of the neck and/or a fall can result in injury.

Fortunately, we also have the option of a “headless headstand,” a variation in which the weight of the body is held up by the arms only, rather than the head and arms, as happens in classic headstand. Thus, even those of you who have cervical vertebrae or disc injuries can safely practice this inversion (credit goes to Doug Keller, a teacher of therapeutic yoga in Virginia, from whom I learned this variation.) Read on to learn how to practice this fun pose.

Begin by stretching the backs of the legs with uttanasana/forward fold, adho muka svanasana/downward facing dog pose, or prasarita padottanasana/wide legged forward fold (pictured below).

Prasarita padottanasana variation with head moving towards floor. Hands are between feet and front spine is long – the bend comes at the crease of the leg/hip interface, not at the waist. Weight is shifting slightly toward balls of feet. Think “duck” to lift seat-bones here.

Next, wake up your core with forearm plank, pointing and flexing your feet to move the body forward and back over the elbows.

Be mindful of not lifting the hips, but rather sliding the body forward/back in one plane as you point and flex your feet.

Half-dog pose is an excellent way to extend the mid-spine region, which is a necessity when moving into headstand. In this variation, interlace the fingers, instead of using the block between the hands as we have in the past, but be sure to keep your elbows no further than shoulder width apart – if in doubt, it’s better for the elbows to be closer than further apart.

Begin with knees slightly bent, moving the belly towards the thighs, but keeping the lowest ribs drawn towards each other. You can remain here, or straighten the legs, but not at the cost of losing the extension in your spine and stretch in the shoulders.

Now, we are ready for the headless headstand! Move to a wall, and set three blocks on top of each other as pictured below.

Be sure to leave an inch or so of space between the wall and the bottom block to allow you to wrap the tips of your fingers around the block.

Wrap the ends of your fingers around the bottom block, placing the elbows (the thin end of the) block width apart – this is more narrowly than we usually place them. Press the edges of the wrists down strongly to activate the shoulder girdle, then lift your knees off the ground and walk towards the blocks until your back presses securely into the blocks. Your head is about 1/2 – 1 inch off the ground.

With the back firmly against the blocks, and forearms plus wrists anchored, raise one leg and kick up into the headless headstand. Note that not kicking up and just practicing raising one leg at a time is a perfectly good place to end your practice until you are confident enough to kick up on your own.

Keep the raised leg straight, give a little push with the standing leg (you may bend the knee a little) and let the uplifted leg “pull” your hips up and over your shoulders. It’s ok to hit the wall, even if it’s a little hard the first few times!

Once in the pose, you should be bearing all of your weight on the arms and none on the head, as I demonstrate by tucking my head towards my chest in the right side photo below. If you feel yourself collapsing into your head, come down immediately, one straight leg at a time.

Finish the practice with balasana/child’s pose until the blood readjusts in your body, then savasana/corpse pose to allow the benefits of the inversion to flow through your now-relaxed body.

Happy inverting! 🙂