How To Do A Handstand When You're Terrified Of Going Upside-Down

Photographed by Molly Cranna.
There's a four-minute YouTube video floating around the internet, enticingly titled, "I LEARNED TO BACKFLIP IN UNDER 6 HOURS!!!" It's a compilation of a daring young member of the YouTube group Bucket List Boys, hurling his body onto a mattress until eventually he does a backflip. His cavalier approach to this trick got me thinking about a skill that I've always wanted to master: the handstand.
When I'm in a yoga class and the instructor tells us to try (or "play with") a handstand, I usually take it as my cue to chill out in child's pose. I also went to college for dance, and modern dance instructors often slipped a handstand into choreography, yet I always managed to "miss" that step. Personally, I feel most comfortable when both of my feet are firmly planted on the ground. Despite how easy Jessamyn Stanley and Aly Raisman make it look, handstands are hard and sometimes scary.
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A handstand is a full-body pose that requires strength, flexibility, integration, and alignment of the entire body, says Julie Brazitis, a yoga instructor at Lyons Den Power Yoga, a Baptiste yoga studio in New York City. And handstands aren't just fun tricks for Instagram: "Holding a handstand also strengthens the core and legs because you must hug and contract everything into center to keep from toppling over," she says. Every single muscle in your body, from your fingertips to your heels, must activate in order to hold the pose.
At first, I wanted to take the Bucket List Boys' approach and master this handstand thing in a few hours one afternoon, one-on-one with Brazitis — but that didn't happen. Learning to safely go upside-down requires way more patience than I expected. "The patience required to build up to doing a handstand may be frustrating, but it’s important to trust the strength-building and awareness-building process needed to support this inversion," Brazitis says. In non-yoga terms, basically just don't rush it. I fell a few times, which Brazitis says is totally okay, but ultimately my goal was to hold a controlled handstand.
While I couldn't nail the pose in just a couple hours, I did learn a few helpful tips from Brazitis. I practiced at home in my living room, with "The World Turned Upside Down" as my soundtrack, and eventually was able to get up there. There are lots of different methods to get into a handstand, but ahead are the two techniques that really clicked for me. If, like me, you've never been able to do a handstand, these step-by-steps may help. But the most important step to remember when you're learning any sort of athletic skill? "Enjoy the process," Brazitis says.
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Downward Dog To Handstand

Step 1: Face a wall, and place your hands down a few inches away from it, shoulder-width distance apart. Straighten your legs into downward facing dog. Walk forward until your shoulders are stacked over your wrists, and adjust your hands so that your pointer fingers face 12 o'clock. It might feel like there's a surprising amount of pressure on your hands and wrists, but that's normal.

I always thought you were supposed to look at your feet, but Brazitis says you're actually supposed to set your eyes at a point on the ground in between your two pointer fingers. That simple tweak helped me focus on what my hands were doing, which was huge. Raise one heel to the ceiling keeping your leg straight, then rise to the ball of your standing foot. This part made me feel like I was going to topple over, but that means you're on your way up.
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Step 2: Press into your hands and gently ease off of your bottom foot, lifting your top heel to the ceiling and bringing your bottom heel to meet it. You can use the wall as a tool to find support and proper alignment in the pose. I was surprised just how far away I was from the wall, because it's hard to sense where your body is in space when you're upside-down. And again, it might feel like you're falling, but once you come in contact with the wall, it's a little less terrifying. Stack your joints, pull the pit of your belly in and up to your spine, draw the shoulders up and away from your ears, and squeeze your inner thighs and calves into centerline.
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Step 3: When in handstand, press down into the floor and think about lifting up toward the ceiling through the pit of your belly and your legs. Avoid sinking into the shoulders and wrists, because it will put too much pressure on your joints, which could weaken them. Once you’re up in a handstand, try pressing your feet off of the wall, and see if it’s possible to hold the handstand for a few breaths without assistance. Once I got to this point, I was shook — because I did it! But then I got scared and came down prematurely.

To avoid my rookie mistake, activate your fingers so that you're using the pads of your fingers to press into the ground. Flex your feet as if you're standing on the ceiling to help integrate your legs. When you’re done playing, use your core to lower one foot and then the other foot onto the ground. Finish with a child's pose.
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Half Handstand To Handstand

Step 1: Stand with your back to a wall and walk your hands out to a downward facing dog position. Ideally, you should do this against a wall that you don't mind smudging with your feet. I tried to wear socks to keep my wall clean, but don't do that, because you'll slip (lesson learned). Place your hands shoulder-width distance apart and place your heels an inch or two away from the wall. Press into the palms of your hands and walk both feet up the wall. Press the bottoms of both feet into the wall.

Walk your hands in toward the wall until your shoulders are stacked over your wrists. Your body should be in the shape of an "L." Thread your low ribs together, and draw both shoulders onto your back. As someone with not a ton of upper-body strength, this pose was really challenging for me. But this step mimics the sensation of being upside-down, so it was pretty thrilling, if I do say so myself.
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Step 2: Walk your hands in toward the wall as you walk your feet up it. You might be wondering, How though?! This was where my body decided I had to stop, because this movement requires a lot of strength, and definitely isn't as easy as Brazitis makes it look. You might find that you get stuck here, and that's okay. But eventually, your goal would be to be able to walk your hands in and feet up.

One tip I have about falling: Just do it however your body wants you to. I came crashing down many times, and probably scared my neighbor, but as long as you follow your instincts, and keep your knees bent, you will be fine. And if you do fall, be sure to throw in a few breaths in child's pose to calm down.
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Step 3: You will arrive in a handstand position with your hands a few inches from the wall and the tops of your feet pressing into the wall. Play with pressing your feet away from the wall to hold a free-standing handstand.

Brazitis says doing a handstand facing the wall can be helpful because it encourages you to "hug your core muscles." You need to hug the entire body into your centerline to prevent falling over away from the wall. To come out of the pose, walk your hands forward on the ground, walk your feet down the wall, and end in a child's pose.
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