January 2018 Recap: Handstand

Here we are in February, having worked on handstand, adho mukha vrksasana for a month now. Due to upper back and shoulder pain, I'm going to be moving on from this series starting in a few days. 

To prep for handstand, three primary areas need to be prepped: lower belly (think navel to pubic bone), shoulders, and the wrists. Secondary to that are the forearms. Taking several cues from my mentor Danni, I'll break it down. 

Core work

One of the best ways to activate the low belly (aka transverse and rectus abdominus) is to put a block in between your inner thighs, as close to your groin as you can get it while laying on your back. With the narrowest setting facing you, give the block a squeeze while exhaling with a "shhh" sound. This style of exhale breathing comes from Pilates, but works because it helps to contract and compress the entire abdominal wall. 

Block in between the inner thighs laying supine is a great way to activate the transverse and rectus abdominus.

Several exercise recommendations:
- Navasana (boat) to ardha paripurna navasana (low boat) with a block in between the thighs, x10 reps. Hands can stay at heart's center with chest lifted or hands right behind the hips to take pressure off the low back. 
- Legs up with wall with a block in between the thighs. Lift the chest so the shoulders are hovering, with hands to frame the ears (fingers not interlaced). Slowly lower your legs while keeping your toes flex, pointed, or fointed and continuously squeeze the block. Keep your chest lowered if you experience any low back pain, or take a slight bend in your knees.
- Core + shoulder activation: hold the block in between your palms, with the heel of your hand and knuckle pads in contact with the block (no fingertips). Bring the block up and over your head with your arms fully extended behind you. Bring one leg up the wall while the other leg is hovering just off the mat--this will mimic the L-shape you will get into with L-kicks. Keep your legs activated with a flex, point, or foint of the toes, and on your exhale (don't forget the "shhh" breath!), squeeze the block and lift up through your chest so the block comes towards your raised foot. Hold at the top for 5 counts, and repeat on the same side ending with a round of pulses. Switch sides.

Hands: Wrists (and forearms)

With the weight bearing going on in your hands, it's important to take care of the wrists and prime them to increase flexibility and stability. Like I went over in my Arm Balances post, I'll go through the same actions here. 

If you’re on all fours, stretch the front, the back and sides of your wrists, moving in a circular motion.

You can warm up your wrists in preparation either on all fours, seated, or standing. For this tip, we’ll be seated or standing. Make like Spiderman and shoot your imaginary web if you’re seated or standing, and grab your fingers with your opposite hand, gently bringing your fingertips back towards your forearm. Take a gentle bend in your elbow as well. Flip your palm as if someone were taking your hand for a dance, and do the same thing. 

 Grip your mat like you were holding a basketball. Your fingers will act as your brakes.

Grip your mat like you were holding a basketball. Your fingers will act as your brakes.

When you bear weight on your hands, you'll wants to maximize the surface area of your hands. Widen your fingers as much as possible, and have a basketball grip. What I mean is that your fingers shouldn't be completely flat on the mat. It's minute, but a gentle gripping of the mat will ensure you can have a strong hold of your mat since your weight distribution will be up and over your shoulders--something you don't experience on a daily basis. 

To activate the forearms, hold your arms up over your head. Open your palms, then make a fist. Open them back again, make a fist. Repeat as fast as you can for at least 30 seconds or until you feel like your arms will fall off, and you'll be prepared to do L-kicks!

 Adho mukha vrksasana, upward facing tree. See it?

Adho mukha vrksasana, upward facing tree. See it?

Let me know how these tips worked for you! Danni also has a great Youtube video up on his channel, and I encourage you to check it out here. Reach out with any questions, and enjoy your practice!

Shoulders

 Baby backbend with an chest stretch and slight opening of the shoulders.

Baby backbend with an chest stretch and slight opening of the shoulders.

As I mentioned, the shoulders need to be open to support your pelvis coming up and over them. Block work is great--remember to hold the block at the sides with NO fingertips and squeeze it with the heel of your hand and knuckle pads only. Try this with bent elbows or your arms raised to shoulder height, and be aware if your shoulders start to hike up towards your ears. 

Continuously squeezing the block, start to lift the block up directly over your head. From here, pause. Take a moment to see if your ribs started to flare out the sides of your body, and if you started to take a slight backbend. Engage your core by bringing your navel up and in towards your spine--think of it as zipping up a jacket two sizes too small from the base of your pelvis up through your collarbones. After correcting this, continue to bring the block up and over behind your head until you start to backbend more or until your shoulders tell you to stop. You should feel like your arms wants to fall off now!

If a block is not available, you can open up the shoulders by doing this same thing with a strap, except there will be nothing to push into. Not to worry, the opening is very similar. 

L-Kicks, or Swing and Hops

First things first: The pelvis needs to be level. One things I see that my students love doing is to lift their leg up from downward dog so much that one of their hips is facing up towards the ceiling instead of towards the ground. Take note of where your pelvis is in space the next time you lift one of your legs up in preparation for a standing asana. 

- Dial your hip down in line with the other
- Flex your toes towards your face
- See that your kneecap is pointed towards the mat

 L-kickin' it

L-kickin' it

Now, we're ready for our first L-kick. I like to start out in a forward fold (big toes touching), with my hands about 4-5 inches away from my toes. Other teachers cue to start in a shortened downward dog, which also works. Shift the shoulders a smidge past your wrists, and pick a leg to lift up towards the ceiling. Level out your hips, then take a deep bend in your opposite leg until you come to the ball mound of your foot. You can stay here and get more comfortable with bearing weight on your hands. Otherwise, using your lifted leg as a lever, launch off through your bent leg and maintain your L-shape, squeezing your inner thighs on the way up to keep your core engaged. After time, you will find hang time and can start to bring one knee in towards your chest. From knee in towards chest, your leg will eventually straighten to meet your lever leg and ta-da! Handstand.

On Arm Balances

When I first started practicing yoga, I would see other people in class doing crazy shit like balancing on their arms, supporting their weight on their hands. I never thought that would be something I would ever get into, but as I found my body get physically stronger, I ignored the fear factor and went for it. After slipping, falling, face-planting hundreds of times later, here I am making interesting shapes with my body and fascinated by my own physical strength. Below are some key ideas I wrote for Danni Pomplun's arm balancing workshops.

Balancing on your arms is a cool way to test your strength and push fear into the ground, literally. I’ve got some tips for you to remember during your practice.

Wrists
When you want to balance on your arms, especially when you are using your hands, take care of your wrists. This is super important, especially if you’d like to balance for years to come. If you’re on all fours, stretch the front, the back and sides of your wrists, moving in a circular motion.

You can warm up your wrists in preparation either on all fours, seated, or standing. For this tip, we’ll be seated or standing. Make like Spiderman and shoot your imaginary web if you’re seated or standing, and grab your fingers with your opposite hand, gently bringing your fingertips back towards your forearm. Take a gentle bend in your elbow as well. Flip your palm as if someone were taking your hand for a dance, and do the same thing.

Related to Parsva bakasana: dwi pada koundinyasana

Core strength and engagement
Arm balances like bakasana (crow) or parsva bakasana (revolved crow) require you to lift one of the heaviest parts of your body off the ground, your pelvis. To achieve this, your low belly needs to be engaged.

When we talk about core in yoga, we are worried only about the area from your navel down to your pubic bone. Everything else on the abdominals is just nice to look at, but doesn’t provide the power you need to lift your pelvis. In your standing asanas, think about keeping your navel up and in towards your spine, as if you were wearing a corset cinching everything towards your midline. In supine core work, keep your low back cemented to the mat and add a block in between your inner thighs as close to your groin as possible. Whenever you lift your chest off your mat, lead from your heart and collarbones. Think about squeezing the block with everything you have to turn on the transverse and rectus abdominal muscles. While you have a S-curve in your spine, protect your low back by again, keeping your sacrum (flat area on the back of your pelvis, below the lumbar region) glued to the mat. Whenever your legs lift up and over your hips, be aware if your low back starts to lift off your mat. If you are able to slide your palm under and you feel space, take a bend in your knees instead of keeping your legs fully extended. This should help with any low back pain as well. 

Shift your weight mindfully and know where to look
It can be daunting to shift all of your weight over, knowing that you may fall flat on your face. The fear factor with arm balances is completely normal, even to a seasoned practitioner. Instead of shifting your weight in one direction all at once, try shifting your weight in stages. For instance, in bakasana, try to lift one foot off the mat, set it down, and lift the other. You’ll get a sense for how your weight shifts in your hands instead of lifting both feet at once and will have more control over falling your weight back.

When your weight is shifted, know that the distribution in your hands will change.

 Flying pigeon/squirrel, eka pada galavasana

Flying pigeon/squirrel, eka pada galavasana

Your fingertips will act as your breaks (so imagine your fingers preemptively resting on the breaks of your bike--works similarly), and you will find that you will have a better time balancing gripping the mat as if your would like a basketball. Widen your fingers as much as you can, and pretend to claw your mat. You will set yourself up to allow your body to distribute your weight more evenly through your hands (instead of solely the palm of your hand), and your hand breaks are literally around to brace you. If you look at both pictures here in the arm balances that I'm in, you'll see how my hands are not completely flat. There's a subtle gripping action with my finger joints minutely lifted.

Knowing where to look is also important. If we’re using bakasana as the example posture, if you were to bring your gaze back towards your toes, where do you think your weight will move? You might find your weight shifted all the way over past your fingertips so that you have no choice but to tuck and roll. Instead of looking back, look forward about 6 inches in front of your fingertips. The body will move in the direction as the gaze goes, so keep that in mind.

Don’t be scared!
According to yogic philosophy, Abhinivesa or "fear," is one of the kleshas—obstacles that prevent us from realizing inner peace. Being wise and safe with your body doesn’t mean allowing fear to keep you from trying arm balances. It just means being mindful of your body as you test your limits. Of course, balancing postures on your arms are scary. This is part of the reason they are so exhilarating: by practicing them, you become fearless.

Have fun and let me know how it goes!

December 2017 Recap: Visvamitrasana

In December I was inspired to work towards Vishvamitrasana. This posture has a lot happening at once: it's an arm balance, a huge side body stretch, shoulder opener, torso twist, hamstring opener, and hip flexor stretch all-in-one. After all is said and done, I wasn't able to make it into full Visvamitrasana (named after the sage Visvamitra), but ardha Visvamitrasana which I'm still pretty happy with. 

Compass/Sundial, Parivritta surya yantrasana

Compass/sundial, Parivritta surya yantrasana. Holy hamstrings!

To start off over this month long series, I, alongside my students, worked towards Compass. Compass is a seated posture in which all of the above I previously mentioned are still at play. Being seated, you have a little more leverage to twist so you can broaden through your chest and get your shoulder under your arm, while still extending through your leg. 

In a seated posture, choose a side first. For the purposes of explaining this posture, I'll go with the right. Bend into your left knee, with your sole as close to your groin. With your right hand, place it in front of your inner right thigh. Firmly press into your mat, or the floor with your right hand as your take your left hand to grab for the baby toe edge of your right foot. If this is already challenging, you can use a strap as an extension of your left hand to loop around the ball mound of your right foot. From here, kick your right foot into your left hand as you bring your chest up and under your left tricep. You will be twisting from your torso as you feel a side body stretch along your left ribcage. Bring your gaze from under your left tricep towards the ceiling and press your right tricep into your right inner thigh. Voila!

 

Reclined flying warrior, supta visvamitrasana

After working on compass for a bit, I moved on to reclined flying warrior, supta visvamitrasana. This posture still demands a lot of your hamstrings and hips, but takes the standing balance component from visvamitrasana out of it. Think of it as compass pose, but flipped on its side with the bottom leg extended. 

I'll start off with the right side again. Lay down on your right side as if you were hanging out at the park or beach, with your right forearm flat on the ground. Extend your right leg straight under you and keep your leg engaged by flexing your toes towards your face. Your left arm will be laying on top of you, so place your left palm flat on the floor and firmly press all fingertips into the ground. As we did with compass, bend your left knee towards your chest so you can reach for the baby toe edge of your left foot. Kick into your right hand and stay there, or continue to extend through your left leg as you use that as leverage to bring your shoulder before your left thigh. Your left hand will act as a safety bumper so you don't fall over. 

Half flying warrior, ardha visvamitrasana

To progress further, visvamitrasana adds all components together (remember, arm balance, a huge side body stretch, shoulder opener, torso twist, hamstring opener, and hip flexor stretch...holy sh!t). 

Again, for the purposes of explaining, I'll do the right side. Start out in a low lunge (right foot forward) with your back knee lifted and back foot flat in about two to three inches closer than you normally would. Shimmy your right shoulder under your right thigh, and press your right hand into the floor outside of your right foot so much that your right heel starts to lift. Once you feel stable, reach up and over with your left hand to grab for the baby toe edge of your right foot (again, feel free to utilize a strap). Start to kick your right foot into your left hand as your extend through your right leg. Test your balance and hip/hamstring openness by staying with your left leg lifted, or lower down to your left knee as you see me doing. From here, see if you can keep your chest lifted with your heart up towards the sky and twist from your torso to bring your left tricep behind your head. If it's okay with your neck, bring your gaze up and continue to press your right tricep into your right inner thigh. 

Final thoughts

Visvamitrasana is not easy, nor are the prep postures, so don't feel like you aren't the best yogi if you cannot get into them. One of my goals for 2018 is to increase flexibility and openness in my hamstrings and hips, so I'm right there with you. Let me know how your practice goes and I'm here if you have any questions or need guidance on your practice!