Upper Body Strengthening vs Handstands

I previously mentioned that I’ve been working on handstands for a few years now. Really, it’s inversions in general. I started out wanting to do handstands and then decided I wanted to do a crow to handstand press. I even went so far as to come up with a whole sequence in my head that I would work up to one day of some more advanced moves. This was all before I started to really understand yoga.

I think its fairly common in the US to misunderstand yoga despite it’s prevalence. A lot of us get into it for the physical exercise. I’ve known a lot of men over the years who thought it was just good stretching and wanted to try it as a “warm up” to their “real” exercise and then barely be able to move by the end of practice. I’ve known people who just wanted to try it out as a form of exercise and I’ve known people who hate the very idea of yoga because of it’s spiritual base. I’ll admit that the spiritual side annoyed me at first. It felt contradictory to my beliefs.

Then one day it just happened. I think I was defending yoga in conversation and I realized that it’s really whatever you need it to be. It’s dynamic and ever changing while somehow always the same. Advanced poses come out and I have a whole pinboard of them that I’d love to do one day but there are also entire practices that revolve around the same static poses every time. Yoga can be a steady drum beat or a new adventure every time, therefore it will feed you body and soul when you find your practice.

That said, I love working on handstands, but it’s important to distinguish that from basic upper body strength. Even if a handstand is never a goal and never a part of your practice a certain amount of upper body strength and conditioning is healthy and lends to continued health and mobility. A handstand requires a lot of specific work with that goal in mind, whereas basic upper body strength can be built and maintained steadily with the same routine, or even the same poses that are normally in your practice.

To maintain basic upper body strength through my yoga practice, I keep a few poses and sequences in my regular practice.

This mini-sequence is what I use to transition between sides when I’m doing the warriors that are a part of my regular practice and during any of the focuses that also require changing sides. You might notice, it’s also a part of Sun A, which I usually use to warm up. It goes downward facing dog to plank to chatarunga to upward facing dog and then back into downward facing dog.

If I feel like I need a little more upper body work, it’s as simple as holding each of these poses for 3 to 5 breathes every time while using them to transition sides. Honestly, the example I use for whether I have a decent amount of basic

Likewise, this sequences is from the prone phase of my regular practice. Beginning in downward facing dog then to plank to side plank to transition to wild thing to wild thing itself to pigeon and then back to downward facing dog and then use the transition above to change sides and do it on the other side. Both of these are used in every practice that I do, focused or not.

I know I posted a bunch of focuses and that’s because I do believe that we need to focus on things to improve in them and I’m the kind of person that needs growth and progress. But sometimes I really just need to do a nice steady practice that I don’t have to put a lot of thought into and let’s me chill out and find my inner peace. Sometimes the world is moving too fast and I need to remember this:

You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.

old zen saying

On those days, I don’t have it in me to focus on this or that thing. I usually start off not even feeling like there’s time to get in a “good” yoga practice. On about the third Sun A, I remember that there is no such thing as a bad practice (except getting hurt, that’s always bad) and that just getting in the standard sequences that I have in every practice will be enough. And that’s around the time I really just start letting my body tell me what it needs. On a day when I’m getting a little extra upper body work in, there are a few other poses that I end up working in too.

Cat/Cow is always good in the warm up stage, as is child’s pose whenever your body asks for it.

Child’s Pose

The stages of Cobra are good for a bit of back strength on those days, especially when doing the first stage with the hands off the ground. Personally, I’d do a child’s pose before and after that set. Locust pose is also good for this, but it does also work the legs.

In contrast, when I was first building up for handstands, there are a few other things I did for strength. I had tried, rather unsuccessfully, to just get up there by doing downward dog close to the wall and trying to kick my legs up to it. I did eventually learn to use momentum to get up and over by doing half a cartwheel into a wall and holding it as long as possible but that doesn’t exactly do anything for control.

I need strength, not momentum, so I had to figure something else out. What I ended up doing was getting into a wall-supported plank and walking up the wall like this:

Then walk back down it. Do a normal upper body focused routine and throw three of these in. Once these are fairly manageable, try holding the wall-supported handstand for a few breaths between walking up it.

When doing these inside of a regular upper body workout was manageable, I moved on to kick ups again. To do those, stand one leg’s distance from the wall, measured like this:

Place hands where the standing foot is and then get into a normal downward dog. Try kicking your legs up and over your head onto the wall. To do this, bring one foot in to give a little extra push, like this:

Here I’d be trying to touch the wall with right foot and pushing off the floor with the left. This still uses momentum more than strength to get over but I haven’t gotten to where I can press up. I’ll let you know when I figure that one out. Anyway, this brings us up into a handstand split.

It’s not beautiful, but I’m working on it. From taking the pictures, I can see so many things wrong with my form there too. It’s part of why pictures can be so helpful in yoga. I gotta get my backside up straighter but that’s also a part of the balance I just don’t have yet. Hence, it’s a practice.

Anyway, I hold up here for a few breaths each time and I kick up on each leg three to five times depending on how bad it’s kicking my butt for the day. If it’s a good day, I’ll also try to switch legs in the air and hold for another few breaths before coming down and trying the other side.

For a while, I was feeling fairly proficient at this part of it and trying to get better kick ups. One thing that was rather effective at the upper body strength and did seem to help while I could keep it in my practice was to replace the upward facing dog in my transitions with a kick up on each side. So my normal transition looks like this:

But doing that, it would look more like this:

That’s what I do to build up for handstands. I can’t always keep them in my practice but that’s what I’ve done to work on it. Like with all things, yoga has an ebb and flow and while I wish I could say I did at least 20 minutes every day, I don’t. I have months where I do an hour almost every day and then months when I don’t do any and then I have to build strength back up from scratch. Hopefully one day life will stabilize and I can build a consistent routine of exercise that I can keep forever, but I don’t find that realistic. For now, I do what I can when I can and hope that it will be enough.

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