(De)constructing the Handstand

I’ve been reluctant to write much about the handstand up to now, because quite frankly I realize my knowledge on it is insipient as to how much there is to know about it. The thing is, with such a complete skill, your life can go on feeling this way, but at least sometimes you may feel you have learnt something (even if it’s just mistakes) and, in my case, share it.

This moment has recently came to me having achieved a 30 second handstand with what I consider decent alignment. So today I want to share with you, up to now, what I feel are the fundamentals notions you should grasp when approaching handstand training.

To understand it all, let’s quote Jon Yuen: “A handstand consists of three interdependent elements; Alignment, entry and balance.” Let’s see these separately: 

  • Alignment: The best analogy to this is the way we stand. For the standing position to be one of rest, the skeleton should be kept upright with minimal muscular action. This is done by having the joints stacked, or one on top of each other, so that the muscles are used just to correct the movements outside of the vertical position and to return to it.

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If you stand tall and close your eyes, you will feel how your body compensates the shift of balance to the front by pressing the tip of the toes on the ground, then moving the hips back with the arms to the front and finally taking a step forward. On the contrary, if it senses that the balance is going to the back, it will push the heel of the foot into the ground, then move the hips to the front with the arms to the back and finally take a step backwards. When we stand with two feet the balance tends to be forwards and backwards, but if you stand on only one feet (as we usually do when walking) you will feel how balance is actually in 360º.

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Balance strategies. From the book Assessment and Treatment of Muscular Imbalances by Vladimir Janda

Correct posture (either standing or during a handstand) should allow three things: balance, energy economy and breathing. This focus on the function of posture or alignment is critical, because if you can get into the straightest handstand ever, but cannot balance it, are wasting huge amounts of energy trying to hold it or cannot breathe properly during it, that posture is basically not correct at the moment.

And this is for me the greatest mistake when learning the handstand: focusing too hard on straightness and too little on balance. The straight handstand is an ideal, something to work towards, but what makes or breaks a successful handstand is that, to stand on your hands!

  • Entry: This may be one of the most underrated aspects of the handstand. The entry will probably start with the kip up, but it can include anything from presses and acrobatic skills. A correct handstand really starts before most people think it does, when you are approaching to it, the way you position yourself and how you get into it.

The name of the game here is control and consistency: can you be on control from the moment you put your hands on the floor, on a consistent basis? In the case of the kip up, one of the most useful cues I got was from Mikael Kristiansen, about kicking up very lightly and letting the shoulder and spine do most of the work of pulling the hips over the shoulders.

The entry into a handstand should be replicable and practiced throughly to let it become second nature.

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  • Balance:

So, anyways, what is balance?

In short, it is keeping your center of gravity over your center of support. Nothing more, nothing less. In the case of the body, the center of gravity is a point below our umbilicus, which is called the lower dantian in martial arts or hara in some yogic traditions, normally related to the psoas in western anatomy, and the center of support is your hands. Want the direct image? Keep the umbilicus over the middle of your arms, do everything to stay there, and you’ll be balancing.

Moreover, the weight of your body should be felt in the middle of your hand (this may change depending on your level). By having this “neutral base” you now that, if you start to feel pressure at the fingers, you are overbalancing (meaning your back is going towards the floor) and, if you feel the pressure at the heel of your hand, this means underbalance (where your belly is going towards the floor). Being very aware of this shifts your attention to find that “balance point”, in which its just a matter of correcting any deviation to go back to that center line.

That is why you´’ll see crazy positions like flags where there is a lot of leg movement, but you’ll never see someone actually balancing without their umbilicus being over their hands. The center of gravity can change a little depending on the body shape, but keeping this basic principle in mind will take you a long road ahead.

As said before, if I had to choose the most common misconception about the handstand, it would be that it’s just a matter of becoming a stick and voilá! You’ll balance. This comes from a confussion between balance and stillness. Actually, the balance in a handstand is always active, meaning you are doing micro-corrections all the time to keep yourself in balance. The thing is that, over time, the balance corrections should move from broad movements at the legs, hips, shoulder and elbows, to just some touches at the fingers.

My last tip for the day would be to get stronger. If you just practice your straight handstand, there is very little room for error. On the contrary, practicing movements like press handstands, handstand push ups, mexican handstands and the like will give you a broader spectrum that you can explore while staying on your hands.

So, now that you have the info, what’s next? Practice, practice and more practice. Handbalancing is one of the most frustrating practices, but the rewards are worth every time. A note on attention: equilibre is so great because it requires you to be present, to be sensible to what’s happening now and addapt yourself to that feedback.  Practice with attention, and you’ll have the right base for going anywhere you want to go on your hands.

Some motivation for you:


Kinema Project products

Pliable body (Get flexible fast!)

The Dynamic Structure (Bulletproof your joints!)

 

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