Establishing a handstand practice – workshop Dec 13 2014

This was a great topic for closing out the year, and laying some foundations for continuing our workshop series in the new year.
Nina was keen to emphasize that the workshop was not about establishing or advancing our handstands, but about establishing a sustainable handstand practice: what do we need to do in order to practice handstands? As with all of Nina’s workshops and teaching, we need to establish solid foundations.

What are the foundations for a handstand? The hands and wrists, of course!

So we began by exploring a range of wrist stretches, and then moved into forearm strengthening exercises. Nina emphasizes again and again that the essence of the handstand is getting a firm grip on the ground. In this sense, handstand is like the bird poses (bakasana, kakasana, mayurasana) – and as with all of the bird poses [ok, maybe pigeon is in a different category :-/ ], one must develop strong claws.

This is one of those things that seem obvious every time you hear it, but cannot be really understood until it’s experienced. Gripping the ground with the fingertips moves the work from the heel of the hand into the forearms, changing everything about the pose – but most importantly shifting it from a simple compression through the shoulders, arms and wrists into an active lifting extension from the claws through the forearms into the chest and core.

The core – the other foundation of the handstand practice (funny how all of these basics remain so, ummm, fundamental to everything that we do).
So we moved into a variety of core strengthening exercises: half-boat, boat (navasana), quarter-boat, canoe – some twisting boats, some crunches and some straight leg lifts; before some abdominal twists.

As we started some partner work, lifting into handstands, some participants noted that the core work doesn’t only have the longer term developmental function of strengthening the core; it also has the more immediate function of “charging the core”. This is rather counter-intuitive – it seems to make sense that working the core exhausts the core, so you have less core to use when you need it; but in fact, working the core in these preparatory exercises actually charges the core so that it’s ready to kick in when you need it to lift into a handstand, and then to extend up and away from the ground.

Somewhere between the wrist stretching and the core work we also did some shoulder opening exercises. After all that prep, we did partner work when it came time to start going up into handstand.

Nina has a continual concern that we should develop a practice that is not dependent on walls, and partner work is an effective way to work around our desire for the security of a wall to kick up to. Not only did this help us to experience a more interactive practice, it also provided us with feedback from each other – especially about the front body contractions that are so easily forgotten in our rush to get up there any which way.

We also explored different ways of fulcrum point experience and the interaction between uddiyana and jalandhara bandhas. This is another of those lessons that runs counter to our intuitions: we learned to strongly contract through the upper front body, curling in, even, to achieve a stronger upward lift.

Unfortunately, with the holidays and everything else, I’ve left writing up this workshop too long to recall all of the details, even though I promised Emma that I would recount many of the exercises for her (and you!). So sorry – but that gives us the perfect opportunity to make this a more interactive discussion; perhaps some of you can contribute a few words about particular poses, stretches or insights that you found particularly helpful [or, if you think it’s helpful, to share some thoughts on any thing that you thought wasn’t particularly helpful].

Let me finish by saying that, as with all of these workshops and intensives, the highest point was the opportunity to meet and work with new people, and to explore shared interests in greater depth. It was only with the final lingerers that it occurred to invite participants to joins us for a drink afterwards, so we only got to continue to rave with a couple of delightful guests. Let’s pre-empt that, and extend the invite in advance!

The next workshop is tomorrow (to short a notice, I know) – Pranayama and Arm Balances. Then, on 7 February, Extensions – come along and explore why Nina thinks it would be better if we refer to the Wheel (urdhva dhanurasana), Camel (ustrasana), Bow (dhanurasana), Scorpion (vrsikasana) etc as “spinal extensions” rather than backbends.

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For more photos, visit here

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