Arm Balance Conditioning Techniques in Preparation for Handstand
In modern yoga circles, arm balances are a regular part of classes and so many student aspire to nail the handstand (Ardho Mukha Vrksasana). However, a lot of the movements used in an everyday vinyasa yoga class may not actually condition you for safe advancement into these fun, challenging and inspiring asanas.
When practicing handstand, it’s super important that your body is prepped correctly to support you with strength and stability. Here’s an arm balance conditioning sequence that you can do at home or integrate into any of your classes to increase scapula mobility, stability and a rock-solid core to get you handstand ready!
Scapular Mobility in Side Plank
In this pose you want to be doing big circles with your scapula, while keeping the spine in neutral and maintaining balance through the posture. Keep the alignment strict with the wrist, knee and both feet on a tight rope line – it makes it humbling and challenging to balance. Rotate the scapula in all directions, under appropriate load to build mobility and strength. Progress to doing this with the top leg off the ground or in full Side Plank with the upper arm forward. It’s fun for students in class. If you’re a teacher, line students up to the long edge of their mat and have a laugh when we all over!
Table Top Swing Through
These are great for developing the posterior muscles that stabilise the scapula as well as building a strong core. Start in table top (stage one) and really engage the shoulder blade muscles to lift the chest, then swing your buttocks through without touching the ground and draw your forehead to your knees. As you progress you can really challenge the core and try to move into an L-sit (with the ankles off the ground).
Any gymnast or acrobat has done these until the core screams! This is the full position, but bend the knees and bring the arms by the side to reduce the load and perform the move at the appropriate level. Once in position, lock the whole body (as if it’s been filled with super glue) and move as one unit, gently rocking back and forth in small movements – keeping the core locked down. Rock for ten seconds to minute-long sets and you’ll feel your core start to fire up and be ready for the stability required to hold handstand.
Shoulder Flexion Mobility in Anahatasana
So many people try to do handstand and end up with banana back (a big bend in the spine). This may be due to a lack of core stability (if so, practice the dish more!). However, a lot of the time it is due to tight anterior muscles (around chest and shoulders) that won’t allow them to raise their arms above the head without back bending to do so. To hold a straight (and hence easier handstand because of bone-on-bone weight transference) we must be able to raise the arms (shoulder flexion) so the biceps are next to the ears without allowing the spine to move away from neutral. If you can’t do that, integrate Anahatasana or other shoulder openers to increase range as you build shoulder stability.
These are great fun to practice outside on the beach to see if you can get a bit of hang time before you bust it out in a busy class. Start with the key alignment of the shoulders:
- Hug thumbs to centre
- Push the floor away
- Wrap the triceps back
- Broaden the collarbones
Without getting too anatomically geeky, the above cues are designed to turn on all the muscles that stabilise the shoulder under load. When you kick up, use the upper leg to lean and propel you up rather than jumping with the bottom leg. Ensure you’re bracing your core like the dish pose and in this variation, keep the lower leg bending into the chest to ensure you don’t kick too far over.
Important Note: when the arms are above the head such as in handstand or even downward dog, the scapula upward rotates so that the humerus bones articulate better with the glenoid fossa (shoulder joint). In simple terms, the shoulder blade turns up so the head of the arm bone can press into the shoulder socket better (more stability = less chance of injury). The shoulder girdle should lift, not draw down the back when the arms are above the head. The scapula should be encouraged to upward rotate, not downward rotate, while the arms are above the head under load. This is something commonly practiced incorrectly in yoga circles. You should stabilise the shoulder blades by using muscles that draw the shoulder blade down the back, but the scapula should stay in an upward rotated position (not downward rotated). Even in a pose like Warrior 1 you can practice this upward rotation of the shoulder blades and lift of the shoulder girdle whilst not under load. A simple cue or teaching tip is to lengthen the outer border of your shoulder blade while drawing the inner border down your back, then lift the whole shoulder girdle but keep the back of the neck long.
The Handstand (Ardho Mukha Vrksasana)
Once you’ve mastered all of the above you‘ll be conditioned to do handstands so much easier. In the handstand, the use of the finger tips, wrist and forearm muscles is huge. Try to use the fingertips and the heel of the hand to stop the feet moving forward or backwards, to help you balance. Ensure you’re also doing the shoulder stabilising cues – dish pose with your core – and squeeze the glutes and adductors so the legs are solid. Once you’ve done this then the finger tips and wrists will be able to move your body back into alignment (over your shoulders and wrists) so you don’t fall.
Note: use a wall and always practice good form with a neutral spine. Try not to get into the habit of a banana back when holding the handstand. Open the shoulders, build scapula mobility and stability, work on forearm and hand strength and nail that dish!
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