Elbows straight, shoulders open, ribs in, tail tucked … there are so many little things to keep thinking about to create a straight, aligned handstand! That’s why I’m in love with this illustration that visualizes and consolidates the efforts of a straight handstand; each arrow represents an action or energy line that leads to proper alignment. I first encountered an illustration of the body with arrows like this when I was a young dancer at a BalletMet summer program, to illustrate ballet posture. The same arrows work beautifully for handstands. Still overwhelmed? Below are seven ways to break this illustration down and focus on just one aspect of the directives at a time. (Click on each photo to see it bigger!)
Often the front of our body is the easiest to pay attention to; it’s what we see in the mirror, what we see in others’ bodies when we talk with one another. And because the energy lines along the front of the body inherently connect to the ones along the back, thinking only of the front of the body will also affect the back, will affect the entire body’s alignment. Every handstand cue we’re used to hearing can be seen in the arrows along the body’s front: straighten elbows, open shoulders, pull ribs in, open hips, straighten legs, point toes.
Increasing our awareness to incorporate the back of our body helps us gain proprioception, a better understanding of our body in space. And sometimes a back-of-body-directed cue will help a particular student more than its front-of-body counterpart. Press the elbow creases toward each other. Stack the shoulders directly over the hand. Lengthen the lower back, puff it out, hollow, take the arch out of it. Tuck the tail. Squeeze the butt. Lengthen the backs of the knees. Pull the heel down toward the leg, squeeze the Achilles, point the toes.[hr_invisible]
A handstand is about length, and the junctures where the arrows point away from each other show us where to strive for a longer, straighter line: elbow creases, armpits, lower back, fronts of hips, backs of knees, tops of feet. These are places where a straight line is preferable to a closed angle to create an aligned handstand — so a handstander must strive to open or lengthen these natural curves and angles until they approach 180-degree lines. Departing arrows can be visualized as length or straightness (as at the back of the knee), or as body parts actively moving or rotating away from each other (for example, the upper arm and the rib cage rotating backward away from each other opens the shoulders).[hr_invisible]
A handstand is about tightness –and additionally, muscles can only pull, they can’t anatomically push. so in that respect it makes sense to look at where our muscles are pulling in tight, pulling our joints into the preferred handstand alignment. Junctures where the arrows point toward each other show us where to pull in and increase tension to actively shorten or close one side of the body, and are each linked to the muscle(s) that do so: back of elbow (triceps), back of shoulder (front deltoid), front of torso (abs), butt/top of legs (glutes/hamstrings), knees (quads), backs of ankles and feet (calves/sole of foot).[hr_invisible]
Each body part can be imagined to have energy moving around it in a circle; and, in fact, pulling one side in pushes the other side out. Pulling our front ribs in means puffing our back ribs out — or, to think of it a different way, pulling ribs in really means tilting or rotating the rib cage backward (which in turn opens the shoulders). As each circle moves in an opposite direction from the one above or below it, the lower front ribs and hip bones come toward each other while the lower back lengthens and straightens; the pelvis rotates posteriorly (tail tucking) while the femur rotates the opposite direction, opening/extending the hip joint to avoid piked hips. All up and down the line of the body, this circular energy rotates each body part into a vertically stacked handstand alignment.[hr_invisible]
This force starts at the floor and oscillates up through the body, alternating front and back and always pulling in through the midline, pulling the handstand long and straight. Lift up toward the ceiling through the front of the wrist and forearm, the back of the upper arm, the chest and front rib cage, the lower back through the tailbone, the front of the thigh, the back of the calf, the top of the pointed foot; this action or imagery lifts and stacks the handstand into a long vertical line.[hr_invisible]
An undulating line of downward energy mirrors the upward line, anchoring the handstand into the floor. Ground through the soles of the feet, shins, hamstrings, front of hips, back rib cage/thoracic spine, triceps, and back of forearm. The idea of these energy lines might be too esoteric or subtle to think about while you’re also trying to balance your body upside down — but as with all the other ideas here, I find it beautiful just to understand the concept and to see how all the actions of aligning a handstand naturally create these opposing energies, lifting and grounding the handstand, bringing it one step closer to being suspended infinitely in time and space.