AsanaMaris Degener

The YogaMaris Inversions & Arm Balancing Guide.

AsanaMaris Degener
The YogaMaris Inversions & Arm Balancing Guide.
 maris-4

maris-4

Intro

I recently asked my community what I could do to best serve them. I got lots of wonderful requests, including guided meditations, online classes, and journaling prompts (all of which I plan to roll out over the next few months). But one request popped up again and again:

Can you please help me figure out this whole getting-upside-down-and-balancing-on-my-hands-thing?

It's no surprise that inversions and arm balances are such a requested topic. As a teacher, there's always a tangible energetic response in my students when I teach these poses: fear, excitement, or a mixture of both. As a student, I know where this comes from. You want to improve and strengthen your yoga practice, you want to be in awe of your body's capabilities, and, frankly they look really cool when you do them. 

But there's plenty of fear lumped in with that excitement. There's fear of injury, fear of looking silly, and fear of being inadequate because you can't do them, or they're very difficult for you.

Well, I'm going to offer you your first lesson in practicing inversions and arm balancing:

You are not here to be perfect, you can do hard things, and it's all about the journey.

Arm balancing asanas were designed long, long ago as a way to practice humility. Why? They help you get used to falling on your face, and life is filled with instances where we end up face-planting. Learning how to handle that with grace, and how to get back up and try again, is the true importance of arm balancing and inversions: not getting a picture-perfect handstand.

So without further ado, here's my advice for adding these more advanced asanas into your practice, while avoiding injury, gaining strength, and improving flexibility. I'll warn you now, there is no secret trick in here that will instantly get you up into handstand, but that's only because it simply doesn't exist. What you'll find in this guide is a solid progression that requires effort, hard work, and a good sense of humor. So let's get to it.

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maris-22

What You'll Find in This Guide

- Pose Breakdowns

-Video and Photo Examples

-Strength, Breath, and Flexibility Exercises

-Journal Prompts

-A 7-Day Flexibility Sequencing Guide

-A Final Note on Play

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maris-33.jpg

The basics.

There's three things you'll need to even think about getting up on your hands:

Breath

Bandhas

Patience

Let's begin with breath: the absolute foundation of all yoga. Without breath, there is no yoga. Only movement. By dropping into our breath, we're not only able to slow the mind and become present to our practice, we're able to engage different parts of our body with greater control and stability (which is incredibly important when our goal is to balance). To start, try these three basic breath exercises.

Breath Exercise #1: Basics.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TyohSOFi3fE]

Breath Exercise #2: Ujayi Pranayam.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dDJOQbUtnc]

Breath Exercise #3: Alternate Nostril Breathing.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mhthp7XZtzM]

These kinds of breath exercises can be integrated into your practice no matter where you are in your yoga journey. I know when I first started practicing yoga, I completely underestimated the power of breath, and basically shoved it aside as some hippie-dippie-shit that was more of a show than anything. But over time, I've found that the mental clarity and calming effect of breath control gives our body a smooth and stable foundation upon which we can challenge our balance and strength.  Science  is on my side, too: studies have shown that it not only powerfully affects our mind, it improves our heart, digestive, and immune health as well.

So basically, there's no excuse to skip this part of the process.

Onto bandhas: Bandhas are the energetic locks in our body that we can engage using our breath and the muscles in our body. The literal translation of bandha from Sanskrit is "to lock, hold, or tighten," which we can interpret here as simply meaning to engage different parts of our body in order to gain greater control and stability. There are many different bandhas, but we're going to focus on three for the purposes of this guide.

Bandha #1: Mula Bandha.

This bandha is the one I find easiest to explain in a classroom setting (and it always elicits some immature giggles from the audience). To engage mula bandha, you're going to engage the same muscles involved in urination. Imagine you're in the middle of urinating (lovely, I know), and try to stop the flow, so to speak. Those muscles that naturally pull up and in are the ones we're trying to engage whenever we're going upside down or balancing on our hands. Mula literally translates to root, so engaging this bandha is arguably your #1 priority when beginning to explore deepening your practice. (and honestly, something you should be doing throughout any asana practice to properly engage your core).

Try this exercise: Engage mula bandha for 5 seconds, relax, and repeat 3-5 more times. Get used to this sensation, so that when you're upside down or sideways, it will feel more instinctual to engage it.

Bandha #2: Hasta Bandha.

Hasta is Sanksrit for "hand," and it's a bandha we're going to particularly engage in forearm stands and handstands.  It's easy to neglect the hands while we're practicing asana, when we're focusing on larger parts of the body like the legs or arms, but they truly are one of the most foundational parts of your practice.

What we don't want to see are poorly engaged hasta bandhas: floppy fish hands that are barely clinging onto your mat, like so.

 IMG_7292.JPG

IMG_7292.JPG

Without any engagement, our hands will slip and slide all over the mat and leave us unable to focus on the more nuanced aspects of inversions. If you find that downward facing dog is tricky for you, or it feels like absolute torture to try and hold it without sliding all over the place, try placing more focus on your hands. They should be spreading wide like starfish, pressing actively into the mat, and energetically engaged:

 IMG_7293.JPG

IMG_7293.JPG

Try this exercise: Try holding a downward facing dog, and experiment with different hand positioning and engagement. Feel how loosely-gripped hand affects your downward dog, and then switch to feeling what a fully-engaged hand does. Consciously explore the difference and make note of how it feels in your body.

Bandha #3: Uddiyana Bandha.

This one is the belly-dancer one (you'll see what I mean), but it literally translates to "flying or rising up," something we're definitely trying to achieve. Here's a video explaining how to engage this lock:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1ONDPQHn3o]

Finally, the last thing you're going to need for this practice is patience- and lots of it. As I said before, there is no magic pill or pose that will solve this puzzle for you. You'll need to dedicate some time and effort to developing these asanas, but that's not a negative thing! You can choose to find joy and pride along the way, but it's just that: a choice. Make an effort to consciously enjoy this path, as it's one that you can pursue for decades without learning all there is to learn....and that's the beauty of it!

Try this journaling prompt: What are times in your life when you've enjoyed the journey as much as or more than the destination? What it an art project? A road trip? Cooking an elaborate meal? Reflect on times when you've been able to enjoy the process as much as the reward, and set some goals for achieving this during your inversions and arm balancing journey.

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Maris-JBY

Developing Flexibility.

Although many assume that strength is the most important aspect of inversions and arm balances, flexibility is what allows us to gain entry safely and effectively into the poses. Without a solid foundation in flexibility, we're risking injury, or simply preventing ourselves from getting into the positioning necessary to enter the shape.

I recommend practice a combination of dynamic and static stretches to maximize your benefits and get the fastest results in the safest way. Dynamic stretches involve movement, and static stretches involve long holds. It's best to perform dynamic stretches first, to warm up and engage the muscles, before moving into static stretches. It's important to note that long holds of static stretches on a cold body are no longer stretching your muscle fibers, but instead stretching your ligaments- this may or may not be something you personally desire, but it should definitely be something you research and consciously decide to do before engaging in it.

In yoga, we can translate dynamic stretching to the flow in a Vinyasa class, and static stretching to be the long holds of yin postures. An easy way to begin dynamically stretching if you're new to yoga, or just short on time, is practicing the Sun Salutations. Here's a document for you to download with 7 days of flexibility-oriented flows with the Sun Salutations described in detail. You can print this out and take it with you to your mat!

[googleapps domain="docs" dir="document/d/1C2WZVIKD6sFjh2voGFag2-P39Y8O093T59khmynE9Vc/pub" query="embedded=true" /]

Link to download: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1C2WZVIKD6sFjh2voGFag2-P39Y8O093T59khmynE9Vc/pub

Try this: Does the idea of committing to a seven day program intimidate you? Journal on why. Is it a fear of incompletion? Is it a fear of adding another commitment to your day? Reflect on how you can approach this program with positivity instead of pressure to complete it in a "perfect" way.

Here's some Vinyasa Flow classes I've recorded that will get your blood pumping and begin to limber up the muscles:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQPWPQrnFMc?list=PLlg5V5vvm73YPs5okYDBjuYEH6uOpyoum&w=560&h=315]

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8bTXdJ2H6Y&w=560&h=315]

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/279062948" params="auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="450" iframe="true" /]

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/293051588" params="auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="450" iframe="true" /]

*Note that the audio classes include yin postures at the end of the class, so you can get a comprehensive warm-up by following the duration of the podcast. The videos are 30 minutes and do not include yin!

For static stretching, here are some postures that will help you prepare for arm balances and inversions. They'll focus on key areas for these asanas: shoulders, hips, the back,  and hamstrings!

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IMG_1117

Standing Pigeon Pose

Opens: Outer hips.

To enter: Begin in standing. Pull the right leg up into your chest. Bend the left leg as though you're sitting into chair pose. Cross the right ankle over the left knee so that the right foot hangs off of the edge. Hold hands at heart center and breathe for 5-10 breaths. Sit low enough that you feel the stretch in the hips. Repeat on the other side.

Modifications: If the balance is difficult for you to maintain, either place a palm on a wall, table, or chair for support, or taking reclining pigeon instead (lie on your back, bending your knees and planting your feet in the earth, picking one leg up and recreating the same figure four shape as standing pigeon).

 IMG_1667

IMG_1667

Wide-Legged Forward Fold

Opens: Hip flexors, inner thighs.

To enter: Open the legs wider than hip's distance. Bow forward to your degree, either bringing your fingertips to the ground or walking your hands to the outsides of your feet. Hold 5-10 breaths.

Modifications: Place blocks under your hands to bring the earth closer to you.

Cat-Cows

Opens: Back.

To enter: Begin on your hands and knees. On an inhale, press the earth away and round your spine like a Halloween cat while tucking your chin in towards your chest. Hold for three breaths. On an exhale, drop your belly towards the floor and lift your gaze up to the sky. Hold for three breaths. Repeat, holding each posture for several breaths.

Modifications: Place a blanket under the knees to protect sore joints.

 IMG_5962.JPG

IMG_5962.JPG

Wheel Pose

Opens: Back.

To enter: Begin lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet planted on the earth. Enter low bridge first by lifting just your hips off of the ground and leaving your shoulders on your mat. Hold for 5-10 breaths before lowering. Repeat twice. Then, enter full wheel by placing your palms on the mat by your ears and pressing your hips up. Straighten your arms to fully enter the pose.

Modifications: If this pose strains your low back or feels painful in any way, practice low bridge, possibly with a block under your hips for supported bridge.

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MarisJBY-new-3.jpg

One-Legged Seated Forward Fold

*pictured with optional hero's pose modification (the leg bent behind me).

Opens: Hamstrings and inner thighs.

To enter: Begin seated with both legs in front of you. Bend the right leg and bring the right foot to the inside of your left thigh, as close to the groin as comfortable. Reach your arms up towards the sky, then bow forward over the legs maintaining a long spine. Focus on lengthening forward towards the feet, pulling the collar bones forward and letting your belly melt down towards your thighs. Hold 5 to 10 breaths, then switch sides.

Modifications: Place a bolster or a block under your belly to allow yourself to melt and relax.

 IMG_7070.JPG

IMG_7070.JPG

Camel Pose

Opens: Throat and back.

To enter: Begin on your knees. Place your palms at your lower back and press your heart up to the sky. As your body warms up to the pose, experiment with walking your palms further down the backs of your thighs, possibly reaching for the feet or ankles. Keep pressing your hips forward and your heart up, only allowing the head to fall back to a comfortable degree.

Modifications: Place a blanket under tender knees, and allow the palms to remain at the lower back.

 IMG_6927.JPG

IMG_6927.JPG

Malasana (Yogic Squat)

Opens: Hips.

To enter: Walk your feet out wider than hip's distance, pointing your toes out towards the edges of your mat. Lower down the hips, bending at the knees, and keeping a strong and upright spine. Bring your palms together at your heart, and use the triceps to open up the hips further.

Modifications: Place a block under your seat, or a rolled-up blanket under the feet.

 IMG_7086.JPG

IMG_7086.JPG

Pigeon Pose

Opens: The hips.

To enter: Bring the right shin as close to parallel to the front of the mat as comfortable for you and your knee. Lift the chest up into proud pigeon first, then bow forward over the front leg to a degree that feels accessible and not painful in the hips. Hold 5-10 breaths and repeat on the other side.

Modifications: Reclined pigeon (see above), or place a blanket or block under the hips to bring the earth closer to you.

Try this: Before practicing inversions or arm balances, try doing a quick yoga flow (or a few Sun As and Sun Bs) and 3-4 yin postures for 5-10 breaths each. Notice the difference in your efforts when your body is properly warmed up!

 IMG_6958.JPG

IMG_6958.JPG

Developing Strength

While flexibility is an important pre-requisite to your inversions and arm-balancing practice, there's no denying that strength is key to developing these postures. Below are some strengthening exercises and asanas that will help you gain the strength you need to safely and effective progress your practice.

Journal prompt: What does "strength" mean to you? What is the difference between physical and mental strength, and how are they connected? How can becoming stronger physically change your mood, confidence, or mindset?

Basic Strength Builders:

These postures can be integrated into your practice even if you have little to no experience with arm balances or inversions.

 IMG_7279.JPG

IMG_7279.JPG

Downward Facing Dog

Strengthens: Shoulders, back.

Good for: Handstands.

To enter: Begin in high plank. Lift your hips up and back and allow your heels to melt towards the floor. Press your belly and chest back towards your thighs and activate hasta bandha in your hands. Magnetize your bellybutton back into your spine.

Hold 10-15 breaths, repeat 3 times.

 IMG_4535.JPG

IMG_4535.JPG

High Plank

Strengthens: Core, shoulders.

Good for: All arm balances and inversions.

To enter: Begin in table top position with you palms under your shoulders and your knees under your wrists. Press the earth away and lift your knees away from the earth. Walk your palms forward until you have achieved a long, straight spine, creating a line of energy from the crown of your head to your heels. Actively press the earth away, keeping the hips in line with your shoulders. Lift and engage the thighs while broadening the collarbones forward.

To modify, drop the knees down to the earth, rocking the shoulders past the wrists until the belly engages. For tender wrists, drop down onto the forearms to come into forearm plank.

Hold for 30-90 seconds, repeat 3 times.

 IMG_7053.JPG

IMG_7053.JPG

Dolphin Pose

Strengthens: Shoulders, back, core.

Good for: Headstands and forearm stands.

To enter: Begin in forearm plank. Walk your toes in as close to your face as possible without pain in the hamstrings or shoulders, allowing your hips to get higher as you do so. Work towards stacking your hips over your shoulders while shifting your gaze forward. Magnetize your bellybutton back into your spine.

Hold 10-15 breaths, repeat 3 times.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kemYvvNVic0]

One-Legged Dolphin Pose

Strengthens: Shoulders, back, core.

Good for: Headstands and forearm stands.

To enter: Begin in Dolphin Pose. Alternate lifting one leg as high as it will go and holding for 3-5 breaths. You're practicing getting your hips over your shoulders here. Lift up as high as you can on the toe still touching the ground to get further core engagement.

Hold 3-5 breaths each side, repeat 3 times per side.

 yogamarissf-76

yogamarissf-76

Chaturanga Dandasana

Strengthens: Triceps, shoulders, core.

Good for: Bakasana (Crow), Parsva Bakasana (Side Crow), Kundinyasana, Fallen Angel.

To enter: Begin in high plank (knees up or down, depending on your strength and experience level). Rock forward, bringing your shoulders past your wrists. Bend your elbows back behind you, lowering to approximately a 90 degree angle. Engage the thighs, magnetize your bellybutton back into your spine.

Hold in the lowered position for 30 seconds (or as long as possible). Repeat 3-5 times.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LwWJFV1ZVQ]

Partner Core Exercise

(lovingly called "Switch Butt")

Strengthens: Core.

Good For: All arm balances and inversions.

To Enter: Begin with both partners lying side-by-side with their heads facing opposite directions. Bend at the knees and plant your feet into the earth as though setting up for bridge pose. Reach through the "window" of your legs to hold hands, then straighten your legs up to the sky. Lower your feet down with legs as straight as possible to about hip-height. Lift the legs back up with control while lifting your hips up. Engaging the core, switch positioning of the hips so that your partners come down where their's used to be and vice versa. Continue, switching positions every time.

Switch 10 times, repeat for 3 sets.

 Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 9.20.32 AM.png

Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 9.20.32 AM.png

Boat Pose, Navasana

Strengthens: Core.

Good for: All arm balances and inversions.

To enter: Sit with your legs in front of you, grounding down through the sitting bones. Bend your knees and place your feet on the ground. Bring your hands behind your thighs and lift one leg up, and then the other. Reach both arms in front of you and lift your collarbones up towards the sky. Be mindful of rounding the back.

To modify, bend the knees and flex your toes back towards your face, as though you're checking out your pedicure. Keep your hands behind your thighs for added support. If extra support is needed, keep your knees bent and bring your toes down to the floor.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPpQc8M_B-Q]

Boat to Low Boat

Strengthens: Core.

Good for: All arm balances and inversions.

To enter: Begin in boat pose, Navasana. Lower down, straightening the legs in front of you until the shoulder blades and heels are hovering above the ground as closely as you can while maintaining stability in the shape (low boat). Use the core to lift back up to boat pose.

Repeat five times for three sets.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2CbUCwYedI]

Leg Drops

Strengthens: Core.

Good for: All arm balances and inversions.

To enter: Begin laying flat on your back. Straighten your legs up to the sky, flexing your toes back towards your face. Place your palms on the earth by your sides, and lift your shoulder blades away from the earth until you feel an engagement right under your bellybutton, placing no strain on the neck.

Keeping the legs straight and the core engaged, drop the right leg down to hip height and hold. Bring the left leg down to hover next to it. Keeping the left leg lowered, lift the right leg back up to the sky. Once this movement is completed, bring the left leg up next to it. Pause for a breath, then lower the left leg down and repeat on the second side.

Continue with a slow and focused pace for 60 seconds. Repeat 3 times.

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IMG_3381

Hovering Holds

Strengthens: Core, triceps.

Good for: All arm balances and inversions.

To enter: Begin seated with your legs straight out in front of you. Sit up nice and tall with a strong spine. Place your palms on either sides of your hips and press firmly into the earth until your hips and legs lift up from the earth.

To modify, place blocks on any setting under your palms. You can also do these holds with lotus legs.

Hold as long as you can for 3-5 sets.

More Advanced Strength Builders:

The following exercises and asanas are for those who already have some experience with arm balances and inversions, and are looking to challenge or strengthen them. These are recommended for practitioners who have a solid foundation of strength in Bakasana (crow pose) and headstand.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbN2TrkEC3A]

Boat to Low Boat to Bakasana Rolls

Strengthens: Core, shoulders.

Good for: Bakasana.

To enter: Begin in boat pose, Navasana. Lower down, straightening the legs in front of you until the shoulder blades and heels are hovering above the ground as closely as you can while maintaining stability in the shape (low boat). Bring the hands behind the thighs, and rock back to gain momentum before rocking forward onto your hands. Immediately enter Bakasana. Hold for 3-5 breaths before lowering back into boat pose and repeating.

Repeat five times for three sets.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xqFKnBvsmM]

Eka Pada (One-Legged) Alligator Pushups

Strengthens: Shoulders, core, legs.

Good for: All arm balances and inversions.

To practice: Begin in high plank. Lift one leg to hip-level. Bend the back knee to create a "spring," then launch forward into chaturanga (making sure to bend at the elbows as you complete the shape, so as not to injure the lower back). Launch forward a little further each time, so as to move a certain distance with each projection.

"Jump" across a distance that challenges you before turning around and going back using the opposite leg. Repeat 3-5 times.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d91aHvSu1Ns]

Tricep Lifts

For this exercise, you will need a bosu ball.

Strengthens: Shoulders, core, triceps.

Good for: All arm balances and inversions.

To practice: Begin in forearm plank on the bosu ball with your palms together (like Namaste). Press the pinky sides of your palms down into the ball, lifting your elbows up and off of it. With control, lower the elbows back down to the ball and allow the palms to lift back up.

Repeat for 30 seconds for 3-5 sets.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tg2Q06ywZw4]

Plank Press-Ups

This exercise can be done with or without the bosu ball.

Strengthens: Shoulders, core, triceps.

Good for: All arm balances and inversions.

To practice: Begin in high plank. Lower the right elbow down, and then the left (coming into forearm plank). From forearm plank, press the right palm back into the ground to press up into high plank once again, straightening the left arm as you come back up. Alternate beginning with the left or right arm.

Repeat for 30-60 seconds for 3-5 sets.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9721Su3nKHE]

Crow Block Pick-Ups

For this exercise, you will need a yoga block.

Strengthens: Shoulders, core, hip flexors.

Good for: Bakasana.

To practice: Place the block behind you on the tallest setting. Come into crow pose, Bakasana. Grasp the block between your feet and squeeze onto it while you lift it up towards your hips. Lower the block back down and repeat.

Repeat 5 times for 3-5 sets.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKBhA1mZ3j8&w=560&h=315]

Headstand Leg-Lifts

Strengthens: Core.

Good for: Headstand, headstand pikes.

To practice: In traditional headstand, lower the toes down to the earth together. Engaging the core, lift them back up. Repeat.

Repeat 5 times for 3-5 sets, resting in child's pose in between sets.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iptkQVK3jAk]

Block Jump-Throughs

For this exercise, you will need two yoga blocks.

Strengthens: Shoulders, core, triceps.

Good for: All arm balances and inversions.

To practice: Place two blocks on the highest setting underneath your palms and come into a high plank. Lower down into chaturanga dandasana, then press back up. Looking forward, jump between the blocks shooting your legs forward so they are straight out in front of you, with your heels on the ground. Lower into a tricep dip, and then press back up. Jump back to plank and repeat.

Repeat 8 times for 3-5 sets.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4kTry9LeLk]

Crow Toe-Taps

Strengthens: Shoulders, core, hip flexors.

Good for: Bakasana.

To practice: Come intocrow pose, Bakasana. Lower one toe down, and then lift it back up. Switch and repeat.

Repeat 10 times for 3-5 sets.

Try this:  Commit to incorporating three of these strength builders to your regular yoga practice every time you hit the mat for a month. Notice how the strength you build in these shapes changes the experience of other poses in your practice.

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maris-19

Inversions

Yes- it's the moment you've been waiting for, the time when we really get into the nitty and gritty of getting upside down. Although inversions include any poses where your head is below your heart (such as Downward Facing Dog or Shoulder Stand), for this guide we will be focusing on Handstand, Headstand, and Forearm Stand.

Journal Prompt: Getting upside down means getting a new perspective. What in your life could be looked at differently or with a different mindset? Reflect on a time when your perspective of a situation changed the way you understood it or engaged with it.

 Maris-21.jpg

Maris-21.jpg

Headstand

This is typically the first inversion students approach, because the head offers a fairly large and stabilizing center of gravity. For this reason, many find it to be the "easiest," however, that doesn't mean it doesn't require technique or caution when practicing it. In this posture, the weight of the body is almost entirely on the head and neck, which shouldn't scare you, but should make you mindful while learning and practicing this shape.

The first thing you should learn about headstands is effective head positioning. To maintain integrity in the neck, we want to place our weight onto the most supportive part of the skull. Here's a video explaining how to find your "sweet spot."

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxcYJzJIdmE]

Again, it's very important to your cervical spinal health that you get comfortable finding this sweet spot when setting up for your headstands. Practice finding and placing this spot on the earth a few times before moving on.

Now, there's two kind of headstands. There's tripod headstand, and there's traditional headstand. In tripod headstand, we are literally creating a tripod by placing our palms on the earth, like so:

 Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 11.29.43 AM.png

Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 11.29.43 AM.png

Here's a video explaining the set up for tripod headstand:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1w62J75A_9M]

In the video, you'll notice I briefly demonstrate lifting one leg up and then the other, just practicing getting used to the sensation of getting your hips over your shoulders. Eventually, you'll enter the actual shape of tripod headstand by lifting one leg up, and then rocking onto the grounded foot's toes until you find enough core engagement to lift that leg up, too.

However, this is actually a fairly tricky movement, especially when we avoid "kicking" our way up (which leads to instability and the potential of rocking forward or back). I've found that it's actually easier to enter tripod headstand from a wide-legged forward fold, as demonstrated in this video:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nb1_9mIZQxs&w=560&h=315]

As you can see, beginning in a wide-legged forward fold, you'll bring the crown of your head down to the earth, planting your palms down in a similar positioning to the one we found before, and then rock up onto your tippy toes before using your core to lift the legs up to the sky.

In traditional headstand, you're creating a "cup" with your hands that supports the base of the skull and neck, like so:

 IMG_7202.JPG

IMG_7202.JPG

I recommend beginning with traditional headstand, as it tends to feel more supportive than tripod headstand for the neck. You'll enter this shape largely the same way as tripod head stand (bringing the head down before lifting up with the legs). The only difference here will be that your forearms are down on the earth with the hands cupping the head.

The biggest key to creating a supportive base in traditional headstand is finding the right distance between your elbows. You can do this by straightening both arms out in front of you, then holding onto opposite elbows. The distance between your arms in the distance you'll want to maintain when bringing your forearms down to the earth.

Practicing Headstand for Beginners:

  1. Sit facing a wall with you legs out in front of you, with your feet planted on the wall.

  2. Bring your palms down next to your sides with a tall spine. Make a mental note of where your hands are (this is where you'll want your head to be in your headstand).

  3. Moving away from the wall, get onto your hands in knees. You should be facing the wall, with your hands approximately where they were before when you marked the proper positioning in step 2.

  4. Measure your elbows to find the proper distance, then bring your forearms and head to the ground. You should have your head touching the earth at your "sweet spot" with your elbows approximately by your ears. Cup your hands behind your head.

  5. Straighten your legs and rise up on your tip toes, similarly to dolphin pose, only with your head on the ground. Walk your toes in as close to your face as you can, with the goal of getting your hips over your shoulders.

  6. Straighten one leg up to the sky. Trying to kick as little as possible, start to "hop" the opposite leg up as well, eventually catching the wall with one or both legs.

  7. Once you've connected to the wall, experiment with moving away from it. Perform "toe taps" by bringing one leg away from the wall, bringing it back, and then switching sides.

Practicing with a Partner:

Ask a friend to help you by placing their fist between your legs, giving you something to squeeze and engage the core. They can also place gentle pressure on your feet for a similar effect, only with pressing instead of squeezing.

Take this pose further:

Try taking this pose to the next level by added a lotus leg variation.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTdmAmjoQiY]

Forearm Stand

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IMG_3224

Forearm stand is a fairly natural progression from headstand, although it can be months, or even years, into your yoga practice before you feel comfortable approaching it. The setup to forearm stand is very similar to traditional headstand, with the only difference really being that your head is no longer on the ground, and all your weight is distributed across the forearms (which are at the distance we found when setting up for headstand by holding onto opposite elbows- so these poses are very comparable foundationally).

To enter forearm stand, we're really just going to combine two of our strengthening exercises with one extra step that will get our legs up and over head. Start with your dolphin pose, walking your toes in towards your face until your hips are over your shoulders, like so:

 IMG_7053

IMG_7053

From here, we're going to mimic the movement we practiced in our one-legged dolphin poses, only this time we're not going to switch after lifting a leg. Instead, we're going to keep one leg lifted (whichever one you feel can be lifted higher, it's different for everyone) and rock onto the toes of the foot still on the ground. Then you can lightly hop the other leg up, or engage the core and lift it up. Here's a video example of entering the pose:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iEaNuUFyhs&w=560&h=315]

And here's another angle:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9ZIU2cYY4s]

In these videos I'm demonstrating "hopping" up, as opposed to a more controlled lift/pike with the leg. This is generally how beginners are going to enter the pose.

The trickiest part of forearm stand is finding the spot at the top where everything is aligned: your hips are over your shoulders, your ankles are over your hips. We're trying to avoid "banana-ing" with the spine, and instead creating a smooth line straight up and down, which will give us optimal core strength and integrity.

You can practice forearm stand with a wall just like you did with headstand- using it for support, and working your way away from it as you develop strength and comfort with the shape. It's important to not become reliant on the wall, or to use it as an excuse to "banana" the spine.

Take this pose deeper: You can take this shape into a backbend, known as Scorpion pose, once you get comfortable with it. Once you're in forearm stand with your legs straight up in the air, squeeze your knees together and bend your knees, slowing allowing the back to bend until your toes start to tickle the top of your head. This is a tricky pose balance-wise, but very rewarding once accomplished! Make sure you adequately warm up the back before attempting this shape.

Here's my progress with Scorpion over about six months:

Handstand

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IMG_6919

The holy-grail of inversions: this pose eluded me for years, and I'm still working on improving it every day! Handstanding is a special segment of yoga that requires very specific and dedicated training over a long period of time. It takes a lot of hard work, humility, and falling down to stick your first handstand, but it's all worth it for the feeling of glowing accomplishment that comes after.

Journal prompt: How well do you deal with trying new and difficult things? Do you get easily discouraged, or are you filled with unwavering determination? Reflect on the mantra "I can do hard things," and how it might apply to your handstanding journey.

Before we get into the nitty and gritty of handstanding, I have a homework assignment for you: go do some cartwheels! My teacher Malia Hill teaches cartwheeling as a pre-requisite to handstands for a few reasons. For one, it gets you used to being upside down while being on your hands. For another, it helps to train you to safely falling out of a handstand (which will help you gain confidence when practicing). And finally, it gets you back into a space of childlike joy and exploration: yoga is fun, and none of this is serious. Reconnect to that lightness that will help you enjoy the journey.

So seriously. Go do some cartwheels on your lawn. I'll wait.

...

Good. Now that you've had some fun and hopefully gotten used to laughing at yourself, let's have a discussion about safely falling out of handstand. When falling out of handstand, we don't want to fall forward (onto our chest) or backward (onto our back). Instead, we want to fall to the side (like in a cartwheel!).

Here's a video of me falling out of a handstand:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fkz5tWJ5Hzo]

Again, notice that I'm practically doing a cartwheel here: my legs fall to the side and I allow myself to roll into it instead of panicking and flailing all over the place. That (not panicking) is a practice in and of itself, and something that will come with time. The more time you spend getting upside down, the more comfortable you'll be and the less likely you'll be to panic when you feel like you're about to fall out.

Now that we've got the key safety aspects down, let's move onto the wall. The wall is going to be instrumental in you gaining comfort and strength in your handstand, but it shouldn't become something you develop a reliance on. View the wall as a tool or implement for gaining strength, but not something that excuses sloppy or weak form (like banana-ing).

Here's a video of me using the wall to practice a handstand:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HK7k1xClh3s]

In the beginning of the video, notice how I'm "hot potato-ing" my feet away from the wall. I'm not simply placing both feet on the wall and holding myself there, I'm engaging my core and trying to use the wall as minimally as possible in order to gain the maximum benefit from the exercise.

Try this: Hot potato your feet from the wall for 30-60 seconds for 3 sets every time you practice handstands.

Here's a video of another way I use the wall when training handstands:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1Vr6_a0xSw]

Notice how in this video I'm facing the wall. In the beginning of the video you can see how I wiggle my way into this position (planting my hands on the ground with my back to the wall and my fingertips towards the front of my mat, placing one foot on the wall and then walking my way back).

In this video, I'm focusing on getting my hips over my shoulders and actively pressing the earth away. Any time that we're upside down using the wall, it's important to focus on our arms: they should never go limp and lazy just because we have the wall there to help us stay upright. Focus on taking the bending out of your elbows and pushing the earth away as though you were holding up a ceiling (if you get lazy, the roof will collapse down on you!)

Checklist For When You're Upside Down:

  • Are my arms active and engaged?

  • Am I engaging my bandhas?

  • Is my bellybutton pulling back into my spine?

  • Is my spine banana-ing?

  • Am I breathing?

While the wall is a great place to start with handstanding, getting away from it is important when we're trying to avoid developing a reliance on it. Here's one of my favorite exercises that doesn't use the wall, but does help strengthen the shoulders and core to prepare us for a more controlled handstand experience:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHJJ5XA6uqc&w=560&h=315]

I took this video the very first time I tried this exercise, and oh my was it difficult. Luckily, I've found the most difficult exercises are the ones we need most and the ones that lead to the greatest breakthroughs both mentally and physically.

Journal Prompt: What's a time in your life where something extremely challenging or difficult led to growth?

As you can see, this exercise requires a yoga ball. The bigger the ball, the easier this exercise will be, as it will offer a greater surface area for your feet to balance on, as well as more height to help you stack your hips over your shoulders.

To enter the exercise, begin in a plank with your feet on top of the ball. Engage hasta and mula bandha to press into the tops of your feet (where your shoe laces would be) and roll the ball in towards your face until your hips stack over your shoulders and you're on your tippy toes on the ball. From there, lift one leg up and then the other, practicing this switch just like in your one-legged dolphin poses.

Eventually, you'll be able to take the movement patterns and muscle memory you've gained through this exercise off of the ball and onto any slightly heightened surface, like a bench, yoga block, or ledge:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBfCcdlIP-Q]

A few things to notice in this video:

  1. I'm not kicking up into handstand, I'm pressing into the earth and lifting my leg up. This process is made easier by having my feet elevate above my hands (rather than pressing up with my hands on feet on a level surface), but it still trains the core and shoulders in a far different way than you could ever achieve with the wall.

  2. My legs are split. This gives me greater balance than if my legs were straight up-and-down, and allows me to focus more on getting used to being upside down and pressing up into the air. The goal is to eventually work up to straightening my legs up to the sky.

However, pressing up like this (even with an elevated surface to help) can be pretty difficult, and learning how to kick up effectively will still be highly beneficial to your handstanding practice. Here's a video to break down, slowed down a little so we can dissect it a little more easily:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBomUZyp7kk]

Notice how I have a really strong foundation here through my hands (hasta bandha) and an engaged core (mula bandha). I'm kicking up with straight legs, and focusing on stacking my hips over my shoulders. I'm also not collapsing down, or even cartwheeling here. I'm trying to engage my core and lower back down with as much control as I had kicking up- just like how you might build strength in your pull-ups using negatives.

Let's review the tools you now have to develop your handstands:

  1. Cartwheels (for practicing safely falling out).

  2. The wall (for practicing getting comfortable being upside down and on your hands).

  3. The yoga ball (for practicing engaging the core and getting hips over shoulders).

  4. Elevated surfaces (for practicing pressing up and lifting through the core).

  5. Kicking up (for practicing engaging bandhas and controlling the lowering portion of the handstand).

You can now integrate these five tools into your practice to help develop your handstands. The key here is going to be consistency, time, and patience: there is no magic pill or potion that can take these elements out of the equation. Commit to a certain amount of time you can hold yourself accountable for: maybe it's three Vinyasa practices a week that incorporate these exercises, or maybe it's five minutes a day of handstand practice. Whatever you choose, the most important part is committing!

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maris-45-1.jpg

Arm Balances

Arm balances were one of the things that made me fall in love with yoga. The first times I practiced arm balances, they felt completely impossible, frustrating, and out of reach. And yet, the more my teachers guided me and the more they pushed me to move through that initial resistance, the more joy I found in them. The first time I held crow pose for only a breath or two, it was all worth it- the falling on my face, the hours of practice, and the tired wrists.

Journaling Prompt: Arm balances were designed to teach us humility and to help us move through fear. How can learning new and challenging arm balances help you embrace difficult practices in your "real life" off of the mat?

The main arm balances we'll be focusing on for this guide are Bakasana (crow pose), Eka Pada Koundinyanasana I & II, Astavakrasana, (Eight-Angled Pose), Tittibasana (Firefly Pose), and Maksikanagasana (Grasshopper Pose).

 img_3222

img_3222

Bakasana, Crow Pose

This pose is a great arm balance for beginners, as it lays some great groundwork for the rest of the arm balances. But to begin, we'll need to do some math and science (hang tight people, it'll be painless and quick).

Here's a basic law of physics: For something to go up, something has to go down.

In Bakasana (and with most other arm balances) understanding this concept is a major key to success. Take a look at the dynamics of Bakasana:

 IMG_3222.JPG

IMG_3222.JPG

Notice how the line has a positive slope from the head to the tailbone. By allowing the head to come lower (closer to the ground), we're allowing the hips and feet to come up higher. While arm balances do require strength and balance, much of these poses relies on simply understanding this physical dynamic and using it to our advantage.

Unfortunately, the process of bringing the head towards the ground can be scary for beginners who fear face-planting. This fear can be eased by placing a block or a blanket under the head, as you'll see in the video below. Alternatively, you can choose to aid the process of getting your hips higher by beginning with your toes on a block, like so:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Werc7tJRqIs]

Both of these are great ways to help yourself get comfortable with the positioning of your body. Other things to be aware of are your arms and how they are shaped: especially for beginners, we want the elbows bent (like in chaturanga) to create a "shelf" for our knees to rest on. Over time, as you develop more core strength, you may be able to straighten your arms and progress into Crane Pose.

Let's go over entering Bakasana:

  1. Begin in a standing forward fold.

  2. Plant your palms into the earth (allow them to fall as far further from your knees as necessary to get them flat on the ground).

  3. Rise up on your tip-toes to elevate the hips.

  4. Bend your elbows like chaturanga and bend at the knees.

  5. Pull your knees as high up into your armpits as they'll go.

  6. Begin to rock your weight forward- if you feel like you're falling onto your face, you're doing it right!

  7. Squeeze your heels together and begin to lift them up into your hips.

Remember to check in with hasta bandha and mula bandha! Bandhas help keep us engaged and feeling light, and will make this pose feel exponentially easier.

Once you get comfortable with crow, you can try some of the Bakasana exercises from the "More Advanced Strength Exercise" section of this guide, and try some transitions such as Bakasana to headstand or Bakasana to handstand (just try not to kick your partner in the face like I did ;) ):

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79NbXULcpII]

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrQBM-4j2XA&w=560&h=315]

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maris-21

Eka Pada Koundinyanasana I & II

This is another fairly accessible pose. II and II have only slightly different leg positioning, but the same generally dynamic we discussed in Bakasana:

 maris-21.jpg

maris-21.jpg

Once again, the head is coming closer to the ground to allow the legs to rise.

Let's begin with Eka Pada Koundinyanasana II (which I have observed to be generally more accesible). Here's a video of the entrance to Eka Pada Koundinyanasana II, which we'll break down:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJmQ6q9aaK0&w=560&h=315]

Eka Pada Koundinyanasana II Breakdown:

  1. Beginning in Downward Dog, lift the right leg up to the sky.

  2. Bring the right knee to the outside of the right tricep, as high up on the arm as you can get it (closer to the shoulder).

  3. Bend both elbows like chaturanga (the left elbow can come into your side to provide added support).

  4. Rock the weight forward into the hands, allowing the back leg to lift off of the ground.

  5. Repeat on the second side.

To take Eka Pada Koundinyanasana I, simply cross the lifted leg to the opposite elbow (i.e., right knee to left elbow) and straighten the leg out before repeating the same steps 3-5 of Eka Pada Koundinyanasana II. Again, focus on engaging the bandhas and breathing!

 maris-4.jpg

maris-4.jpg

Astavakrasana, Eight-Angled Pose

This pose has a slightly different weight distribution than the poses we've covered thus far. The shifting of the head down and the legs up is much more subtle. We can roughly see it as such:

 maris-4.jpg

maris-4.jpg

Again, far more subtle.

Here's a video displaying the entrance to Astavakrasana:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIbGkJ20u_o]

Astavakrasana Breakdown:

  1. Warm up your hips and hamstrings first. Poses like double pigeon, nose-to-knee pose, and baddha konasana will make entrance to this shape far easier.

  2. Engage your core/bandhas. This pose is ALL in your core strength. A quick tip to engage is to imagining you're trying to stop urinating (cute, I know, but it's one of the most effective cues I've ever heard).

  3. Press the earth away with your palms to help you lift away from the earth. Strong shoulders help in just about every arm balance or inversion.

  4. Squeeze your thighs together! I have a teacher who says to imagine you're crushing a watermelon between your thighs. 🍉

  5. Smile! Arm balances are about learning humility and having fun.

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Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

Tittibasana, Firefly Pose

Tittibasana is one of the few arm balances to rely more on strength than it does on the physical dynamic of weight distribution we've been relying on in the poses thus far. However, the hips still come closer to the earth to allow the toes and legs to come up, like so:

 IMG_0181.JPG

IMG_0181.JPG

This pose requires very open hamstrings and hips, a lot of core, and a lot of willingness to look really silly. I recommend practicing this pose after a nice and sweaty Vinyasa flow, or at least after adequately stretching using some of the poses outlined earlier in the guide.

Here's a video displaying the entrance to Tittibasana:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmiZQ6cCN8o]

Tittibasana Breakdown:

  1. Begin in with a wide-legged forward fold, with feet slightly further than shoulder's distance apart.

  2. Bow forward bringing your fingertips or palms to the ground.

  3. Begin to walk your shoulders behind your knees, bringing your hands behind your ankles.

  4. "Cup" your hand around the backs of your ankles, firmly planting the palms on the ground (your hands will kind of look like crab hands).

  5. Rock your weight back onto the heels of your hands, engaging mula bandha.

  6. As your hips go lower, lift your toes up away from the earth.

  7. Breathing, focus on straightening the legs and lifting the toes higher.

 IMG_2312

IMG_2312

Maksikanagasana, Grasshopper Pose

Grasshopper is one of those poses that looks more complicated than it really is. To be honest, for a long time, I never really attempted this pose because I simply didn’t know where to begin. I hadn’t ever had someone break it down in a class or workshop for me, so I didn’t know the set up or execution.

The biggest key here is to warm up properly, so below is a sequence I created way back in July 2015! Luckily, the "rules" of yoga don't change too often, so this is and oldie but a goodie.

Here's a step-by-step breakdown:

RECLINED PIGEON

Lay on your back with your feet planted on the floor. Cross the ankle of one foot over the knee of the other. Slide interlaced hands underneath thigh to gently guide legs into your chest, keeping head and neck reclined. Actively flex the toes to protect the knee and use your bent elbow to press the leg of your crossed foot away from you.

STANDING HIP OPENER

Start in tadasana mountain pose, and pull one knee into your belly. Open the hip out to the side. Repeat the opening and closing motion to release the hip.

PEACE SIGN FINGER BIG TOE EXTENSION

Optional step: slide your peace sign fingers to your big toe after pulling your knee into your belly. Extend the leg straight out in front before opening the hip to the side.

FIGURE FOUR CHAIR POSE

Like you're setting up for reclined pigeon, cross one ankle over your standing leg's knee, and sit deeply. Rock the weight back in your heels and breathe.

FIGURE FOUR FORWARD FOLD

From your figure four chair, reach your palms to the ground while keeping the bending in your legs.

FIGURE FOUR TWISTS

From your forward fold, walk your hands to one side of your body. Hold for a few breaths before crawling through center to the other side. Repeat as necessary.

JUMP RIGHT IN!

img_2312.png

Here it is in video format:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtpmeLPGc-w]

This is one of the trickier arm balances, so don't be discouraged if this one takes you some time to really get the hang of.  Remember: patience, time, and consistency above all else!

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Processed with VSCO with g3 preset

A Final Note on Play

You did it! You made it all the way to the end of the guide. By now you should be well-equipped with breathing, strengthening, and flexibility exercises, knowledge of pose dynamics, and ways to progress your arm balances and inversions. Hopefully you're feeling energized and excited about seeing where your practice will guide you next, and not feeling any kind of pressure to get a "perfect" handstand right away. But if you are, know that it's absolutely normal to feel this way, especially if you have perfectionistic tendencies as many of us (myself included) do. I want to leave you with a final piece of advice that has helped me find lightness in my practice:

Yoga is a form of play.

I know it sometimes feels very serious, and when we're stuck in our heads on our mat we can find ourselves convinced that the only important thing in our lives is to nail that forearm stand, but yoga isn't nearly that uptight. Yoga is about exploring, embracing, and bringing some joy into our lives. When we take a step back, it's a bit easier to see: we're just big kids rolling around on the ground making funny shapes with our bodies. Our self-worth is in no way connected to how straight our arms are in crow pose, or how long we can hold our handstand for.

Play, however silly and un-serious it may be, is still incredibly important.

Dr. Stuart Brown is the founder of the National Institute for Play in my home state of California. After the University of Texas Tower mass murder in 1966, Brown became curious as to what could make a seemingly average person like Charles Whitman commit such a heinous crime, and began carefully researching the murderer's life. There were a number of factors that contributed to the deterioration of Whitman's mental state: an abusive father, a family history of mental illness, constant exposure to weaponry. But one thing that truly stood out about Whitman came from his childhood.

He was never allowed to play.

Brown went on to study 26 other murderers, and found this to be a common thread amongst all of them. For one reason or another, they were not allowed to do things simply for fun. They were taught that playing was unnecessary, pointless, or even harmful. Since then, other researchers and doctors such as Dr. Jeffrey Mogil, the E.P. Taylor Professor of Pain Studies and the Canada Research Chair in the Genetics of Pain at McGill University, have found that play plays a remarkable role in our development as human beings and members of society.

Play helps us develop empathy for others, helps us relieve stress, communicate our emotions, and feel, well, happier.

All this is to say, don't feel bad about having fun. Don't feel bad about playing around on your mat. Don't feel bad about taking some time out of your day to do something that may not be the most pressing, urgent, or "serious" matter in the whole, wide world. You deserve to have fun, and the world needs you to have fun- because we are seriously lacking in empathetic, communicative, happy people in the world.

So what are you waiting for? Go get upside down.

The world will thank you for it.

 yogamarissf-87

yogamarissf-87