Turn Your World Upside Down

By Alli McKee

Handstands have been quite the unexpected teacher for me recently. A few years ago I began my growing interest and determination with calisthenics. I had been able to do pistol squats, pull ups, one arm push ups and other body weight movements for a while, but I wanted to take body weight training to the next level. I find dance, gymnastics, capoeira and other free moving skills to be oh-so fascinating.

In addition to the above, it wasn’t long before I became enamored with the playground (bar athlete) workouts and wanted to find myself able to accomplish muscle ups, a human flag, front levers, etc. Not to mention, there are very few females I see doing these movements!

Up until recently, I had built a solid foundation of strength and conditioning, but I wasn't sure where to learn the next steps or how to breakdown the technique of these coveted bodyweight moves, much less transfer my strength. In an effort to seek various teachers, I also thought yoga could be another dimension to begin gaining a different perspective of movement and body awareness. The rest is pretty much history, as my love for inversions began.

Both literally and figuratively speaking, we can learn so much when our world gets turned upside down.

The following are 10 life lessons I've learned simply from practicing handstands:

Have patience.

We must crawl before we can walk. All new things have a learning curve and progress in anything is made with consistency over time. We must start small, be okay with starting small and build appropriately.

Be curious.

Try new things. Explore. You never know what you may find. For years, I admired the scorpion posture. One day in a yoga class, I was in downward facing dog and our teacher instructed us  into dolphin. It was right then, I had an ah-ha moment that was the precursor posture to the forearm stand and from there, the scorpion. So many awesome things are found simply by exploring the unknown.

upsidedown-karen-handstand-327x400Gain body awareness.

As a fitness professional, I already had a lot of body awareness but nothing equivalent to balancing upside down. Handstands opened my eyes to a whole new feeling in my body from my gaze to the alignment of my hips, my core engagement and most noticeable, the weight distribution in my hands and fingertips.

Repetition is the best practice.

Practice, Practice, Practice! The best practice is repetition. I read in a book titled The Four Agreements that “repetition makes the master” – this is so true. A little each day, wherever you have 5-10 minutes to spare.

Yoga Professional, Erica Collins says “This is key. The more you can get your body inverted and supported on your hands, whether it be against a wall or a couple jumps on your mat, the more accustomed your body will become to balancing upside down. It’s not just bones and muscles that are inverted, but our organs are also being flipped upside down, and that’s why handstands can be overwhelmingly sensational at first.”

upsidedown-alli-handstand-collage-350x351Have fun!

It’s fun to play! I am often so technical in my form and my lifts, especially when under a heavy load. Handstands allow me to tumble, jump, roll and move freely. It's fun to be free, carefree and move like a kid. Not to mention, the fun is in the moment of excitement when you begin to catch hang time in your handstands. Just as you feel the rush of a new PR on a deadlift, you feel the excitement of landing your first handstands.

Let go of fear.

This is a biggie. Fear of anything often holds us back. It's okay to fall and the fear of falling is often worse than the fall itself. “Falling can point us to where our balance or strength is lacking and also show us where we lack trust in our ability,” says Erica.

upsidedown-JenComas-handstand-327x400Trust yourself.

This piggybacks on number five. In order to let go of fear, it’s important to trust yourself and trust the process. Believe in yourself and take that leap.

Fall seven times, get up eight.

You will fall and that’s okay. Brush it off and try again. Keep trying. Results follow effort.

Never say never.

Do not count yourself out. Ever. Do not doubt your ability to do something or achieve something if it’s important to you. For a few years, I had a lot of low back pain. At times, I could barely go into extension without pain. Part of the reason I admired the scorpion posture so much was because it seemed impossible for me to achieve it. I never believed my back would bend that way, needless to say, pain free. I was wrong.

upsidedown-alli-327x327Practice, progress, play.

This is my latest mantra. Practice, Progress, Play. In anything that we do, whether it be a sport, a technique, a hobby, a job --> Practice, Progress, Play. Put your time in, get better and then perform. Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun!

I've been at it for a while, but I’m still working on my handstand game. I’ve gone from kicking up and falling down, to kicking up and landing. Then jumping up and into the handstands. My latest learning/ambition is working on a pike position handstand but my core is not quite there yet. Time, practice and more time and practice. This is just the beginning of a fun journey into calisthenics, new movements and learning!

upsidedown-alli2-327x327Since I’ve painted the experience of the handstand to be so life-changing, here are a few tips if you’d like to begin:

Start by practicing with a wall:

  1. Hands shoulder-width apart and fingertips placed a few inches from the wall (the closer, the more vertical you will be versus being inverted at an angle)
  2. Gaze between your hands
  3. Kick up and catch your feet on the wall
  4. Practice rooting in from the ground up: begin to notice the weight distribution in your fingertips, push through your shoulders to create full extension, keep your core engaged. Get familiar in how those things begin to feel. Keep your legs A L I V E! Stay engaged in your thighs, feet and toes throughout the entirety of your inversion.

    Erica’s Pro Tip: “Students often allow their legs to become dead weight, which means they have to rely on momentum and more shoulder strength. Continue to kick through both legs as you lift and once you’re up.”

  5. If you're lacking in shoulder endurance (shoulders get tired fast) simply spend a few practices holding in the supported (against the wall), inverted position to build stability, control, awareness and endurance over time.
  6. If you're ready to progress, start to move your feet away from the wall. See how long you can hold your handstand unsupported. If you lose your hold, you either fall back to the wall or bring your legs back to the ground.
  7. When you feel ready, start practicing your handstands away from the wall. You'll kick up and fall over plenty, just be mindful to fall with some control in an effort to protect your neck and back. Have fun and learn as you go.

“Handstands not only ground me in my hands but in the present moment. When I’m upside down I must breathe NOW, I must activate shoulders, core, thighs and toes NOW, I cannot escape into the future or hide in the past. I’m always challenged and humbled when inverted on my hands. When I’ve had a hard day, I like to turn my world upside down for a few moments, gain a new perspective, then come back to my feet and put a new foot forward. There’s not much a handstand cannot cure nor teach.”

—Erica Collins

I want to give a BIG thanks to Erica for contributing her time, tips and thoughts towards this article. I hope you've found it helpful on your way to having fun and mastering the handstand!

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About the author:  Alli McKee

Alli is a certified strength and conditioning specialist. She's contributed to and modeled for a number of major publications including Oxygen magazine and the New Rules of Lifting: Supercharged. You can find out more about Alli on her personal blog at www.allimckee.com.

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