Some people are quite fearless and comfortable with inversions. Sometimes too fearless, kicking up before they have enough strength to hold it… I’m not one of them. I love inversions once I get the hang of them, but it feels a really long process every single time. I’m talking months, stretching into years for some progressions. For instance, there was a really long gap between the day I first managed to do a headstand, and the point where I could reliably hold it for more than 10 seconds. Honestly, it was more than a year. I don’t think it has to be that way, since most of the progress was actually made in the last couple of months. So “faster” here is meant as a a relative term, but I think some of the exercises discussed here would benefit anyone.
As mentioned above, I expected that once I managed to do a headstand for the first time, it would take me weeks, maybe a couple of months at most to stabilise it. That was a bit naive considering how long it took me to stabilise crow, but I was optimistic. However, my whole headstand practice at the time was attempting it in class about twice a week. Unsurprisingly, it resulted in virtually no progress. I could do it only occasionally and just for a couple of seconds, and I didn’t feel in control. At this point, tuck headstand (i.e. legs bent into chest) was fine, it was the leg extension that I was having most trouble with. Although to be fair again, it took me many months to get tuck headstand right in the first place.
Since then, I’ve been exploring different styles of training in an effort to move things forward a bit faster, which I’ll discuss here.
Deliberate Frequent Practice
After several months of little progress in inversions, I decided to practice it more deliberately. I thought my main problem was frequency, so I decided to do some kind of inversion daily. The idea was to habituate my mind to going upside down by training often for short periods of time. Fear often (slowly) goes down with repetition.
Most often it was only one quick bound headstand, and sometimes a more involved practice, but I did do it almost every day for a few months. This helped me improve the rate of successfully getting into headstand, although it didn’t immediately translate into a class setting – that took a bit of time. But it didn’t really improve stability: how long I could stay in it, or how secure I felt. I also still couldn’t do variations (such as tripod headstand) without being next to a wall, or at least putting my knees on my upper arms before coming up. More advanced moves such as transitioning from crow into headstand seemed like a far away dream.
I’ve always struggled with irrational fear in inversions. There is a small part of my brain that throws a panic attack and makes me fall out all the time. The fear I feel when I go up feels impulsive and instinctive, it has nothing to do with reason. I also can’t kick up, because on some subconscious level I don’t want to. It’s strange, because I am not consciously afraid of anything, but no matter how I try to calm myself, it doesn’t seem to work.
For people whose main obstacle is fear, common advice is to trust your body. Of course that’s much easier to say than do. From observing other people it can quickly become quite clear that you don’t necessarily need huge amounts of strength to hold a handstand, it’s more about attitude and technique. I’ve heard people say that if you can hold yourself in plank pose for over a minute you can definitely hold yourself in handstand against a wall. So rationally, I think I should be able to do it. I’ve definitely tried visualising myself doing it – another bit of common advice that doesn’t seem to do much for me.
While I still haven’t found an effective shortcut, fear does slowly go away over time, as long as you practice regularly. I’ve included here some tips and suggestions for other things you can try, in case they work for you.
- Once you can get up for a couple of seconds and want to extend that duration to 5 or more, focus on breathing. Hold and breathe slowly and deeply when upside down, try to calm yourself and think. If you’re holding your breath or if it’s really short, that can signal to your brain that the situation is tense and scary. Slow and deep breathing can do the opposite.
- Another common tip is learning how to fall out properly, and practicing it a couple of times to show yourself that it’s not that bad. I’ve done this a bit, and it’s mildly reassuring.
- Having a person spotting me can be helpful, or just make it worse if it’s not someone I know well.
- Everything is easier against a wall, but that’s not the goal. It’s still useful as a starting point though, or for when you have bad/imbalanced days.
- You can also practice being upside down while hanging on rings or another apparatus. There is some overlap – you can practice leg movement and keeping your body in a straight line. But I don’t know if it directly translates, since hanging feels so much easier to me than supporting my weight on the floor and pushing (your mileage may vary).
The key to stable inversions is core strength. When people hear core we often think abs first, but in this case a big part of what’s bringing and holding you up is your back. One way to practice engaging that is getting into preparatory position for headstand or handstand (head/arms on the floor, the rest of the body in a downward-dog like position with legs straight and hips above shoulders), then dragging your feet back and forth (easier with socks or sliders underneath your feet).
The next main thing you want to do is to gain control of limbs when upside down. Start by engaging your legs, then flexing your toes. Progress into bending and extending knees, going down and up without touching the floor, deeper and deeper. If you’re doing this in tripod headstand, bring knees on elbows (or hovering just above) and then back up repeatedly. Possibly the hardest is to hold both legs into pike parallel to the floor. A little trick to make that work that is to move your hips back a bit rather than keeping them directly above your shoulders, which will effectively shorten the lever of your legs. Once that becomes available, try coming down and then up in pike.
Here’s a quick demo of one of my favourite exercises. It builds just the right kind of back strength and confidence in inversions. Try to keep your toes pointed, you can see my form flagging a bit on the 3rd rep:
Try all of these against a wall first to get used to the movement, but move to the middle of the room as soon as possible. The movements might initially feel quite shaky, but your body will get used to them, and learn how to stabilise.
Hopefully you noticed that above I suggest learning all these moves with both legs together first. Think of them as one unit that you move together. This will build more core strength, rather than relying on balance. But once you’ve got the basics down, try separating the legs, bringing one towards parallel to the floor and back up, or both to the side towards straddle.
It’s a fantastic feeling when you discover that magical balancing point where you actually feel weightless. This is one of those poses that once you can do it, actually feels easy (as opposed to certain poses which seemingly remain hard forever…) For this, you need a stable core (I mean you can do it before, but the risk of falling or hurting your back will be higher, and it won’t feel quite as natural), and flexible hamstrings will help. Set up your headstand and move your legs into a downward dog-like position, walking them in as close as possible. Then slowly raise one le up as high as you can. Once it gets past a certain point, you’ll feel a weight transfer and notice that your other leg can now effortlessly float off the floor. Then you can bend your legs, move them around, and do whatever you want as long as it feels safe. Here’s a quick example:
- I recommend starting with bound headstand (Salamba Sirsasana). Most of the weight should be in your arms, not your head.
- After you’re comfortable in bound, try tripod headstand. Even though it can sometimes feel easier than bound in the beginning, it places a greater strain on the neck. This makes it a less safe option for beginners.
- If you have a pair of parallettes, I’d suggest gymnastic shoulder-stand as the next option. If you don’t, you can try it with blocks or even on the floor, but it’ll be much harder. (I’m currently working on stabilising this)
- If you have enough flexibility in your back, chin stand (Ganda Bherundasana) might be the next stop, but it can be a bit risky. You can progress towards it by using blocks or other supports under shoulders. (I’m currently working on entering this, with occasional moderate success)
- and 6. I’ve yet to get to pincha mayurasana (also called feathered peacock pose or forearm/elbow balance) and handstand. Some people get handstand way sooner though, especially next to a wall. If you’re one of those, feel free to move it up the list. Once I’ve figured out which one is easier for me, I’ll update this post.