My students are often surprised when they ask for chest openers and I turn them up-side-down. No, I don’t grab them 🙂 I help them find Table Pose which is preparatory for Adho Mukha Vrkasana. Adho Mukha (Upward Facing, like from the Dog) and Vrkasana, which many people will recognize from the upright balancing pose known as Tree. Adho Mukha Vrkasana is more like Adho Mukha Urdva Hastasana, though – Down Facing Up Hands, but maybe the up & down contrasted too much. We’ve all played at this as children wildly kicking up into hand stand, even walking on our hands if we had gifts of coordination! Of course in yoga, while initial trials might feel a bit like wildly flailing, we have a plan for our ascent and move with breath.
So, yoga student walks into a studio and asks for heart opener. Teacher says stand on your hands. Sounds like the set up for a punchline, right? Well maybe there is a zen-koan like quality to the energetic oppositions of yoga, but it’s no joke. The rebound from pressing the feet against the wall in Hand Stand Prep balances the hips over the shoulders, encouraging the shoulders open and wide and the heart open, sternum curled and lifted.
Wanna see how we do it? After appropriately warming up (so toward the end of a given session), I ask them to put their mat against the wall & take a very short Adho Mukha Svanasana, or DownDog, with their heels up the wall.
Part of their surprise is that this position itself has a tendency to compress the shoulders. But the opening comes as they crawl their feet up the wall til their hips are over their hands and their legs are parallel to the floor.
The opening comes, I should say, if we take a short enough base (the distance from hands to wall should equal the length of the legs from foot to top of hips).
Much like the Ha & Tha of “Hatha” yoga, the magic, the center & the balance of this pose come from opposition in unity. The rebound of the feet pressing evenly into the wall assists in offering the heart forward (toward the wall) supported by the shoulders. Students often try to move their hands further from the wall because it feels as if they are about to push themselves over. Honor your body’s guidance, but also trust in your set up, your center and consider asking a friend to tell you when your hands are under shoulders are under your hips. You should feel a bit of dynamic spring: channel this into your heart, allowing it to lift and open.
Now, the shoulders themselves have to be both strong and possess some flexibility to support this position. If shoulder strength and alignment are what we want to investigate and enhance, we do Dolphin Hand Stand. This begins as dolphin dog with a short base, heels up the wall. Dolphin Dog is essentially the same as DownDog, but the elbows are on the floor & the hands clasped in front. This grants a great deal of stability to the shoulder girdles and allows freedom to move from a secure base.
Once up, experiment with the position of your sternum relative to your shoulder girdles: you’ll be amazed at the range of motion available to you. Find your place of stability and openness.
Always use care with yourself. I’ve said it before here: pushing harder doesn’t burn off more karma, it actually drives your habits deeper into your personality. So take care, stop when you feel it is appropriate, and always use care inverting. Make a clear space and consult with your doctor if you have high blood pressure, are on blood thinners, have a history of stroke (TIA or CVA), frequent headaches or any neck injury.
And finally, consider asking your nearest or dearest local yoga teacher to help you refine your practice or spot you in this pose. It’s fun to have company on the playground!