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handstand myths

25 Handstand Myths

Handstand myths raise because of how elusively simple the practice is: hands down, legs up, and how complex it can become, with every muscle having to perform a “special” task. In the effort to achieve a handstand a lot of theories have surfaced and circulated in the training rooms.

The different theories may raise either due to a different background (ie. Gymnastics, Capoeira) or due to insufficient understanding of the subject.

It is safe to say that: the more absolute the claim the more likely it is to be invalid. The flip side of that coin is that: all handstand myths have some validity under certain circumstances. In this article, I am listing 25 claims I have heard either from past teachers or from students of mine. I will group them into 3 categories. Those that:

🔴 will slow you down if you follow*

🟠 make an important point but have to be put into context

🟢 are true but a bit exaggerated

 

*Whoever came up with these and I see handstand training completely different.

 

🔴 Handstand Science Fiction

1 Your body’s intuition is your best guide

A handstand is an unnatural thing to do. Our hands are not developed to stand on them. Intuition can be a bad advisor even on things we are meant to do, such as running correctly. I have met some people genetically gifted with better intuition for hardstanding than others, but even in these cases, proprioception needed work.

Should you not listen to your body when hardstanding then?

In handstands, you have to control your body in an unnatural position. Listen to what your body asks you to do but you will find that often you will have to do the exact opposite if you want to stay upside down.

2 You should breathe regularly in a handstand

You will breathe “semi-regularly” in a handstand when you are experienced enough to hold it “effortlessly”. When you are learning how to handstand you should expect your breath to be challenged, similar to most inversions.

Would you expect to breathe regularly if you were to hold your bodyweight overhead on your hands? No. Why you should breathe regularly when you have to do that + balance on your hands (which are smaller than your feet)?

3 It’s best to not overthink it & just do it

This idea usually comes up when practitioners get disheartened or teachers are not able to identify what the fault is. When performing a handstand (especially in the learning phase) one needs to be fully present mentally. Throwing themselves in the air is unlikely to have any benefits because even if they have a successful attempt the lack of awareness will make it hard for it to be replicated.

On the other hand, there comes a time that one needs to commit to an attempt. Staying calm and centered (with the breath being your best friend) will allow you to think of what you need to do while executing it.

4 The entire palm should press on the floor

In a handstand you want to:

a. Balance on a surface as big as possible (which is why spreading your fingers a bit is a good idea)

b. Make this surface as responsive as possible (so you can make the necessary adjustments).

If you press your entire palm on the floor, your fingertips will have very little contact with the floor. The fingertips are:

a. More responsive towards adjusting your balance than the middle of the palm

b. Provide more leverage than the knuckles as they are on the edge of your hand.

By pressing the entire palm on the floor your ability to adjust your balance is reduced significantly. Do you think this is a good idea?

5 Handstanding against the wall & the middle of the room are one & the same

While I doubt anyone ever made such a claim, a few people “buy” into that idea, avoiding training in the middle of the room. Even if you don’t touch the wall, if you handstand near the wall, treating it as a safety net, you have potentially some work to do prior to moving to the middle of the room.

Where you handstand matters… If you don’t believe me try handstanding at the top of the stairs.

6 Try different approaches until you find what works

Each handstand line and each entrance to the handstand require different skills. Trying every time a different approach is equivalent to trying to communicate in a different new foreign language every time you meet a stranger. Even if the languages you attempt to speak are related it will slow the learning process a lot.

In the mind of a beginner: kicking into, cartwheeling into, or jumping into a handstand may look similar. The reality is that each is very different from the other. The proof is that there are individuals that can achieve one but not the rest. I suggest you stick to one approach at a time.

7 It takes years to learn

How fast you will learn depends on many parameters, including how good the instructions you will receive are but also your genetics, background, and commitment,… There are individuals that went from no handstand to one arm in a year. While that is not the average expected time if you limit your expectations chances are you will slow the process.

8 You should not handstand during menstruation

Some women feel weak during these days and are probably better off taking some time off training. At the same time, there are others that may only have to modify their training slightly for a day or two. If you feel well, train, there is no need to take time off.

9 You need to start young

Starting young helps for sure. Is that a requirement though? I start learning at the age of 31. I have students that started much older. After all, we cannot turn back time ⏱.

🟠 Handstand Fairy Tales

10 An alignment-based approach to handstands is the best

The word alignment is thrown around a lot and means different things to different people. Is correct alignment important? Of course. Does it help though, to know the names of the 4 rotator cuff muscles when hardstanding? No. Does it help to have strong rotator cuff muscles? Yes.

It’s of little use knowing what makes up good alignment if you cannot do it. At the same time, too much emphasis on alignment may distract you from balancing, which I think was your goal…

11 It’s not a handstand unless there is perfect stillness

Balance is achieved as a result of many micro corrections. When you first stood upright as a toddler were you perfectly still? Clearly, you didn’t have enough muscle tissue at the time to support your frame but nonetheless, I hope you get my point.

How you want to define a successful handstand is up to you, but to expect your 1st, 30th or 100th 10sec handstand to be in stillness is delusional.

So, stillness doesn’t matter in handstands?

It does. The more still you are the more energy efficient your hold will be. Adjustments cost a lot of energy. Stillness in a handstand comes naturally over time though, as the balancing adjustments become smaller and smaller. When you can hold a 1-minute handstand, chances are your first 15 seconds to be still. If you can hold a sub 20 seconds handstand, … you do the math❗️

12 It’s all in the core

This idea is very popular among those with a gymnastics background and it holds some merit if your goal is to handstand on a trampoline, rings, parallettes 2 meters above the ground, or to use a handstand as a transition to tumble or summersault.

A regular handstand however on the floor will demand a bit more core strength than a headstand (which requires very little core strength). Instead of core strength, what handstands really demand are proprioception and the ability to control one’s midsection and lower extremities.

Is core strength bad for handstands then?

Of course not. Midsection strength is an asset useful in most physical skills. If however, you put all your energy into strengthening your core, you are unlikely to achieve balance in your hands faster.

13 Practice will make perfect

There are practitioners that have been trying to learn how to handstand for 2, 5, and 10 years and they haven’t managed.

Practice makes permanent, not perfect, and bad habits take time to unlearn.

There is no doubt that one needs to put in the hours but it’s equally important:

  • The drills are appropriate to the practitioner’s level
  • The intensity and frequency of training are adequate
  • There is a feedback mechanism for corrections

14 Handstand walks is an advanced skill

Handstand walking requires temporary balance. If you cannot hold your balance for 3 seconds then walking is advanced. If you can hold the balance for a few seconds then you can either work on holding the balance for longer or walk. Each has each own challenges.

15 You need to point your toes

Having active legs will help the body behave as one piece. Pointing the toes will help keep the legs active. While most of the work takes place in the upper body, the observer’s attention mostly focuses on the legs, which is why the feet have a big impact on the aesthetics.

The above are arguments in favor of pointing your toes. It doesn’t mean though that pointed toes is an integral element of handstands.

16 You need to headstand prior to handstanding

Headstand is many times easier than handstand and there is some carryover in terms of proprioception. For that reason, it is not a bad idea to learn how to headstand first. But it’s not a pre-requisite.

You will learn what you are inspired to practice the most. If that’s handstands, practice handstands.

17 You need to forearmstand prior to handstanding

Forearmstand is a different animal than handstand due to the elbows been bent. The flexibility demands in the shoulders are higher in forearm stands as the triceps are more stretched (triceps attach to the elbow and the shoulder joint).

It will not hurt if you know how to forearm stand but it is not a pre-requisite for hardstanding.

18 Handstands are all about strength

Handstands are a skill that demands some strength, a fair amount of flexibility (in the wrists, shoulders, even the hips, and hamstrings), and lots of coordination.

Many subjectively strong people cannot handstand and many subjective weak people can.

19 Everyone can achieve a perfectly straight line

Everyone can practice the principles of a straight line handstand but this doesn’t mean that the line will be necessarily perfectly straight or that he will have an advantage compared to holding a non-straight line.

A strict straight handstand line is:

a. A great learning process,

b. A useful reference point, worth having,

c. Something that once achieved will result in a “tighter” body throughout all handstanding efforts.

However:

a. For anatomical reasons not everyone will be perfectly straight. Think of an African woman with a big bum hardstanding,

b. A straight line is not the most efficient, energy-wise line always to work from.

20 You should not handstand while pregnant

Many women were hardstanding throughout gestation and delivered healthy babies. In most cases, these women knew how to handstand prior to getting pregnant. As the 1st trimester imposes more risks you may want to take a break then but if you feel good while handstanding so does the fetus.

🟢 Handstand Exaggerated #Facts

The only absolute about handstands is that there are no absolutes.

21 You need to keep your body tight to handstand

A tight body will allow you to control your entire structure as one piece. On the other hand, the tightness will:

  • Cost a lot in energy and
  • Make you less responsive to corrections in your balance

While a certain level of tightness is needed, I have noticed that what’s more appropriate is to maintain a balance between tightness (so that the body is behaving as one piece) and relaxation (so you can make corrections in your position). Some individuals will tend to be too relaxed and others too stiff.

22 You need to learn to fall out so you feel safe

One of the first drills gymnasts learn is to roll out of a handstand, while yoga & capoeira practitioners (especially the bendy ones) want to backbend out of a handstand.

The more comfortable you are with coming out, the more likely you will be to bale out.

I have students who learned to handstand without practicing any falling-out drills. While such drills serve a purpose, if you become “too good” at them you may stop fighting to stay up.

23 You need strong shoulders to start practicing

Strong shoulders, especially in 180 degrees of flexion, are a massive benefit when hanstanding. It is important however to have the strength at the end range of motion (I repeat: in flexion). If you are missing the flexibility all the strength in the world will not help.

With practice, your flexibility and strength will improve, so don’t be disheartened if you are currently not confident in your shoulders.

24 Those with sensitive wrists cannot handstand

Those with sensitive wrists have to condition their wrists, potentially use parallettes or inclined blocks, and warm-up prior to training. That’s not to say you cannot learn how to handstand. After all most new handstanders will need to go through an adaptation phase during which their wrists will feel a bit soar.

25 First achieve a straight line, then other handstand lines

This is a popular teaching approach with some benefits but not the only approach. A straight line is very challenging to achieve as the center of mass is as high as it gets. As it is a very important line nonetheless, and sooner or later it is worth learning.

A lot of beginners start by trying to achieve a two-arm handstand in a straight line, while most people working on a one-arm handstand learn first in straddle. By learning how to handstand first in an easier line you may accelerate the learning process.

Pain Free Headstand

Can a headstand be pain-free?

A headstand (also known as Shirshasana) is an inversion where the practitioner is balancing on their head. A common question to those new to the idea is: Is that supposed to hurt? No, a headstand can be pain-free!

Why would a pose practiced over millennia, by people of different body types and biological ages be meant to hurt? Unless the technique is compromised of course! In this article, I will cover all the mistakes I’ve seen during a headstand practice that can cause pain and offer some advice on what to do to stay pain-free.

Disclaimer 1: While I consider the analysis below to be valid for everyone, reading the information doesn’t guarantee that you will be making the suggested corrections when practicing on your own. To that extent, it is highly advisable to get feedback from an external eye, preferably someone that understands the biomechanics and ideally an instructor. Also, those with a neck injury may benefit from some prior strengthening work in their trapezius, latissimus dorsi, and deltoids.

 

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5 areas a headstand can cause pain

Pain in the neck

Neck pain is by far the most common complaint among those starting out with headstanding. The root cause of the problem is the shoulder joint setup. The position of the shoulders determines how much pressure will be on the neck. If I was to elevate my scapula I would increase the pressure on my neck even while standing. In all versions of the headstand, the scapula should be depressed.

Scapula depression keeps the neck pain-free

Scapula elevation can cause neck painYou can find a brief review of all scapula movements here.

While headstands should be performed with the scapula depressed the scapula should be elevated in forearmstands and handstands. If you are interested in learning how to forearmstand you can read this article on Triyoga’s Blog.

 

How to deal with neck pain in headstand?

If you are experiencing neck pain you should keep your scapula (shoulder blades), depressed and slightly protracted.

By ensuring your shoulders stay away from your ears at all times the scapula will be depressed.

 

You should always maintain scapula depression for neck pain-free headstandScapula elevation in headstand can cause neck pain

In your effort to keep your scapula depressed it will help to pay close attention to the position of the hands as well.  One of the easiest ways of learning to headstand on a tripod is by keeping your hands, at shoulder distance. However, those with weak shoulders or tight traps may find this hand position, unstable or suffocating. If that’s the case for you I suggest you widen the distance between your hands while maintaining the elbows as close as possible to each other. You can also use a yoga strap to help you achieve that.

 

In a headstand you should try to keep your elbows in.

When starting out with headstands you should avoid keeping the elbows out.

Initially for some practitioners maintaining continuous scapula depression is not possible partly due to weakness in the rotator cuff and latissimus dorsi and partly due to a lack of adequate neuro-connections with this part of the body. For that reason, the 5 step process I follow when teaching headstands, initially involves one or both legs on the floor. You should come out of the position, as soon as you feel pain as it is a sign that you lost the correct shoulder joint setup.

Pain on top of the head

Some individuals have a flat skull at the top, while others have a peak. It is common at the beginning for practitioners to feel some discomfort, especially if they belong to the latter category. Folding the mat or placing a towel underneath the head should alleviate some of the discomfort.

If you are feeling pain on top of your head in a tripod headstand it is probably due to how sensitive your skin is in this area and/or the shape of your head. In a supported headstand, the pressure on the head is often minimized as the forearms can take a lot of the body’s weight, provided they are pushing down.

How to deal with pain on the top of the head?

You can limit the pain on your head in a headstand by folding the mat.Chances are that you will be accustomed to the pressure after 3-5 sessions but in the meantime, you can double the mat or put an extra blanket underneath the head. Keep in mind that:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a headstand, all your body’s weight should be on the top of the head – NOT your hands. It’s called headstand and not headhandstand for a reason.

In an effort to avoid the minor initial discomfort, some practitioners may:

❌ transfer most of the body’s weight to their hands. This is often accompanied by a planching line.

❌ place their forehead on the floor (instead of the top of the head).

❌ position their hands underneath their head.

This alignment often becomes a habit and might be a limiting factor later on when working towards intermediate headstand lines or transitions in and out of headstand. Instead of making any of the above adjustments place some cushion underneath your head.

In a headstand the top of the head should be in contact with the floor, not the forehead. In a headstand the hands should not be underneath the head. In a headstand the hands should bear little weight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Headache

Approximately 10% of those headstanding will experience headaches at some point during their practice. Usually, headaches occur in the learning phase and are due to either irregular breathing or excessive (and unnecessary) tension in the upper back muscles. Headaches are more common when practicing in heat due to dehydration.

How to deal with headaches in a headstand?

It is very common to breathe irregularly during the first few attempts of headstanding, so don’t beat yourself up. The extra load in the upper back muscles and diaphragm is likely to challenge your breath. You breathing in yoga will determine the amount of tension you are experiencing during the practice.

In a headstand, you should establish a slow breathing pattern, either by taking sips of air through your nose 👃🏼 or through ujjayi breathing.

The ideal breathing in a headstand, as well as a forearm stand and handstand, is diaphragmatic lateral breathing. That comes by default once regular practice is established – but not in the initial stages of learning. If you record 🎥 yourself in a headstand and your belly is moving you know you are not breathing laterally.

If the headaches are because of tension in the trapezius muscles, you should depress your scapula more. This will allow for a temporary release of the trapezius.

Lower back pain

An arch in headstand can cause lower back pain.Lower back pain in a headstand is due to poor posture in the lower part of the spine or weak lower back muscles. The use of a wall often promotes poor posture which is why it should be avoided at all costs.

When we are upside down the pressure on the joints of the upper body increases, as they need to carry the weight of the lower body. Depending on your weight distribution, the increased pressure can be small (if your hips and legs are light) or significant (if your hips and legs are heavy). For this reason, those with a tendency to maintain an exaggerated lordosis in the lumbar spine and those with weak quadratus lumborum are more likely to experience lower back pain. 

How to deal with lower back pain in a headstand?

Correcting one’s posture upside down is not easy when starting out, as the proprioception is often limited.

To improve your proprioception of your midsection upside-down practice tuck.

Three main reasons behind that are:

✔️ in a tuck keeping the naval-in is easier. The naval in is necessary for the inner unit of the abdominals to stay active.

✔️ there is less weight in the lower back

✔️ the center of mass is low and at least for that reason, the balance is easier.

Tuck headstand is one of the 3 key headstand lines.Those unable to hold a tuck can practice a stag leg version.

However, even practitioners with no excess lordosis may experience lower back pain. In both scenarios I suggest one performs:

• drills that improve awareness and

• conditioning sequences for quadratus lumborum, glutes, abdominals and obliques.

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Everyone’s patterns are different so I provide each of my students with a different sequence. If you would like one to start with, I suggest you give this one a go. 

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Disclaimer 2: While our body’s anatomy plays a role in how easily we will learn to headstand it is only one of many parameters. To no extent should it be a reason to give up on learning. One of the benefits of inversions is that they give us the opportunity to discover our bodies. Whatever patterns we have are amplified when upside down. Use that opportunity to develop your practice and relationship with your body.

Can you injure yourself doing a headstand?

Without a doubt, headstands can lead to injury if performed incorrectly. The fastest way to develop poor alignment, bad habits, and inability to recruit the correct muscles in a headstand increasing your chances for an injury is by practicing against the wall.

When one or both feet touch the wall, the base of support becomes bigger.

The base in a headstand is determined by the points in contact with the floor

The base in a headstand increases with one foot on the wall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The balance (in all inversions) exists when the center of mass is above our base of support. When the headstand is performed against the wall, the center of mass, instead of being over the head, will end up in front of our head (without us losing balance because of the wider base we have created). This is likely to cause an excess arch (lordosis) in the lower back and sequentially develop a pattern even when the wall is no longer needed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The use of the wall in headstands, in my experience, is bad karma, so I advise you to use it only in homeopathic dosages.

Pain in the wrists

If you are experiencing wrist pain, you should first assess your wrist’s dorsiflexion ability.

How to deal with wrist pain in a headstand?

If you currently don’t have a 90-degree wrist dorsiflexion pain-free, I suggest you perform daily stretches for the forearms.

Ideally, you will be also strengthening the hand and forearms muscles.

While in a tripod headstand, make sure your hands are not too far from your head as this will increase the degrees of dorsiflexion & thus the pain. To reduce the pressure you can also turn your fingers out.

 

 

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What to do when experiencing pain in a headstand?

Stop and assess what is causing the problem. In the process of doing that, it’s worth recording yourself too. What we are doing and what we think we are doing while upside-down is often two different stories. Once you identify the problem try to fix it by following the suggestions above. Working with an experienced teacher can save you time and the risk of injury.