When I first started practicing yoga I was not naturally strong. In fact I was so weak so that I could not do the push-up position known as chaturanga dandasana even with the worst alignment you could imagine. I could either stay in a plank posture with straight arms or go crashing directly into the ground in a belly flop. The first time I tried a headstand the teacher supported me for a few breaths and then suggested that it was better for me not to try. Handstand seemed like a Cirque du Soleil movement that would be for another incarnation. I was never a gynmast or a dancer and I never had any physical training before yoga.
Although I was inspired by the more challenging movements like handstand I started slowly and first learned the basics like good alignment in chaturanga dandasana and how to balance in a headstand. There is no sense throwing your body into a handstand if basic strength and stability in the shoulder-girdle is lacking. After about five years of dedicated Ashtanga Yoga practice my body was stronger than I ever imagined it would be. The journey into strength has been at the core of every posture within the practice of yoga for me. In order for me to move through the powerful transformation that has defined my yoga experience I had to learn not just physical strength but deep inner resolution as well.
The movement that I’m sharing with you in this clip is not actually in the traditional Ashtanga Yoga series. But it is one that will help you build strength, alignment and technique that you can apply in many places throughout your practice. If you’re working on lifting up in a wide-legged handstand here are a few tips that will help you. First, try the movement from a posture where you already feel comfortable like headstand. If you are able to move through the movement with easy technique and proper alignment then the muscle memory is in place for a more complex movement. If that was hard then there is still more work to be done before attempting the full handstand lift-up. If the headstand movement was easy you can try the same movement from forearm stand or pinchamayurasana. If it was easy for you to lift up from a wide-legged position into pinchamayurasana then you’re ready to try the full movement from handstand. Prepare by strengthening your shoulder-girdle and then pressing into the solid foundation of your arms. Be sure that your deltoids, latissimus dorsi and serratus anterior are engaged. Grip the floor slightly with your finger tips and draw your lower ribs in to activate the transverse abdominals. Be careful not to arc your back. Instead lift up from the front side by sucking the belly in and engaging the pelvic floor. Then as you inhale simply send the weight of your pelvis over the solid foundation of your arms and allow that subtle transference of body mass to initiate the lifting up movement. Once you feel a floating sensation and your feet come off the ground continue to press into your arms and send the pelvis forward until your body is hovering in balance. Remain calm, relax your breath and pull your body back into the center line to come to a complete balance in handstand. Exit the same way by rolling your pelvis forward over the solid foundation of your arms, sucking in the belly, drawing the lower ribs in and engaging the shoulder-girdle for stability. Melt into the ground when you land if possible. Keep your mind single-pointed and remember not to try so hard that you loose your sense of self-compassion.
Each posture that demands more physical strength also demands more spiritual, mental and emotional strength. In order to fully realize the benefits of the Ashtanga Yoga method you must be willing to go through the whole process of transformation. Weakness as a state of mind is just as limiting as weakness as a physical state within the body. I had them both. Whenever things got difficult in the physical practice I just wanted to quit, but my teachers always pushed me further. They believed in me when I wanted to give up on the journey and it was their faith and dedication that helped me find my own strength. I had the great fortune to study with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in India and learn the Ashtanga Yoga method directly from him and his grandson R. Sharath Jois. Throughout the process they constantly challenged me to be stronger in a way that always encouraged me to accept myself and yet go deeper.
My teacher R. Sharath Jois, the director of the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India, recently said in a Conference that yoga students need “the Four D’s” in order to practice correctly. They are devotion, dedication, discipline and determination. Yogis have a disciplined life to help strengthen the mind. He said that a yogi’s mind gets stronger within by practicing every day and developing the quality of strength and steadiness of mind, known in Sanskrit as Sthira. Once the mind is strong then the yogi thinks about yoga and other spiritual pursuits rather than perpetuating old negative thoughts. Asana is the foundation for all spiritual practice and it paves the way for deeper realization to take root within your being.
Also seen here: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/01/handstand-technique-video–the-four-ds-of-yoga