Friday, December 28, 2012


Left: Iyengar and the antique. Right: Yuval and the modern.
First, about the photo above. I emailed my friend Yuval Ayalon for permission to use the montage /assemblage he created. Yuval was a National-level competitive gymnast, and now performs as a generalist in the Le Reve Circus at Las Vegas' Wynn Casino.

Yuval responded, "Oh, you mean the duet photo?" 

It was a delightful response, and typical of Yuval. To him, to place the photos side by side both displays and honors different approaches to handstand practice.

Handstands do not make your shoulders stiff.

In fact, an active "modern" handstand both requires and builds active shoulder flexibility. The anterior and lateral delts as well as the trapezius (as well as pec minors and musculature around lat-tri insertion) must be flexible enough to achieve 180 degrees of flexion with no spinal extension.

I first heard the arch-y/banana handstand called "antique" by  equilibre master Lu Yi of the San Francisco Circus School. A student inquired about a curve-y, Yoga-style handstand.

"Yes yes, very pretty!" he said. "Like antique!"

What do I mean when I say "flexible"?

The concept of "flexibility" never exists separately from context, which is what I understand Pattabhi Jois to have meant when he used to say, "Body not stiff --- mind stiff!"

The sense of "flexible," as well as the "I" that owns the idea of "stiff," are only always relational and contextual.

The context for "flexible" in this case is movement --- so by "flexible enough," I mean "able to perform the requested range of motion."

What is the specific myth regarding handstands and stiff shoulders?

I believe that generally people refer specifically to difficulty with backbending.

So the criticism of handstands is not that they make your shoulders stiff (this lacks context), but rather they make your shoulders too stiff for backbends of a certain quality.

Andrey Moraru.
Based on my observations, typically gentlemen who have the upper body strength to more easily hold an "antique" handstand (see Iyengar in the photo) have developed that upper body strength and mass doing push-ups, handstand push-ups, dips, pull-ups, rope climbs, bench press, etc, etc.

So it's not so much that handstands make your shoulders stiff for backbends.

In fact, I suspect practicing a "modern" handstand will help your urdvha dhanurasana by improving active shoulder flexion while subtracting lumbar hyperextension.

I think it's more the case that men who could do handstands easily had stiff shoulders. What they lacked in shoulder flexibility they made up for with upper-body strength.

Association or even correlation are not causation.

Also, here are some movements that make shoulders "stiff," that is, will shorten range of motion of shoulder flexion by shortening the pec minors and the musculature around the lat-tri insertion: high-volume push-ups, pull-ups, rope climbs, muscle-ups ... bent-arm jump-backs and bent-arm jump-throughs ... static holds in chaturanga dandasana.

(Mostly repetitive, load-bearing, and shortened range-of-motion pulling and pressing exercises.)

Pavel is strong enough to do a straddle maltese...
These last movements --- bent-arm jump-backs and jump-throughs, and sustained chaturangas --- are a huge part of Primary Series, and of guided Primary Series classes.

What I'm suggesting is that perhaps Primary Series itself contributes to reduces shoulder flexion and therefore can reduce or limit facility in urdvha dhanurasana.

Primary Series is not designed for more than gentle back-bending (all the upward-facing dogs). For changes in backbending, as expressed by urdvha dhanurasana or kapotasana, Primary Series is much less than ideal preparation. It's better than nothing, yet let's not confuse a C-minus grade (barely passing) with an A. The Primary Series is not designed to meaningfully improve the spine and the typical limiting points, shoulders and hip flexors.

You have to ask, is Primary Series better at improving expression in those poses than, say, playing Nintendo Wii Golf, or Dance Dance Revolution, or taking a Pilates class?

... yet clearly shoulder (spinal) flexibility is not an issue.
To work within a tradition, however, means as Ashtangis we choose to follow and observe rules and limitations. We choose to focus on one thing, steadily, for a long time. By choosing a specific drishti, we choose to focus on certain practices at the expense of others.

We draw a fence around practices, techniques, and methodologies. Everything inside is Ashtanga; the practices beyond this fence are Not Ashtanga.

It's these boundaries that enrich and give meaning to our practice, because we agree to focus on this sequence, not that one, this posture, not that one.

Other practices, techniques, jargon, and sequences are not bad, or less --- they are just Not Ashtanga.

When I zoom in and focus on the borders between Ashtanga and Not Ashtanga, the fence tends to get a lot more fluid. But then clearly I am not a fundamentalist.

Personally, I practice the hell out of handstands. It is deeply rewarding for me.

However, at this time I practice them at a separate time and place from when I practice Ashtanga.

My back-bending has definitely gotten a lot less fluid and grace-filled (such as it ever was) over the last 6 months not from handstands per se but because I am practicing a lot more pressing and pulling. I'm also not practicing that many backbends because, well, for a long time my foot hurt like a motherbitch.

For now, I have cherry-picked some examples of tremendous handstand skill and strength coupled with ridiculous shoulder and spinal flexibility, just to show they are not mutually exclusive.

(Note: cherry-picked.)