The myth that handstands aren’t yoga or traditional

The reason I have written this article is because I want to debunk some of the theories going around that Handstands are not Yoga or Traditional. 

 

I’ve put links to all sources at the bottom and all images are linked so you can check some of this info out. I had so much fun doing this and it was as much for my own learning that I wanted to discover the cultural history of handstands.

Handstands aren’t the be all an end all, but for some of us they are real focal point of our practice; and there is nothing wrong with that. I want to bring an element of guilt free handstanding into your day.

So I’m going to start by telling you that my splits aren’t all that. I’m always on that journey and never quite there. But I would never say to anyone that this isn’t yoga because I can’t do it. Yet, all I hear all day long is that handstands aren’t yoga and are not spiritual.

This is why I disagree:

 

Firstly, what is Yoga? It is at the most basic level, the connection of body and mind. Your yoga practice is about you, yourself and no one else. If you want to do a handstand, then no one should be looking in and telling you not to. On the same note, yoga is about non-judgement, so if you are going around telling people they shouldn’t handstand, well that’s not really any of your business. Nor should you be forced to handstand if you don’t wish to.

Yoga Texts

The argument that Handstands were not part of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras or The 15 poses in The Hatha Yoga Pradipika…

Patanjali  (200BC) discusses “Asana” to be a posture that one can hold for a period of time, staying relaxed, but not a posture that causes pain. He doesn’t state any poses. For me; this is Handstand.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (13thC.) lists “Mayurasana” Peacock as a traditional pose. Have you tried this pose? It is incredibly hard AND it’s an arm balance! But I would never say it’s not yoga because it’s hard. Yet it is said to be one of the original poses. There is even evidence of Mayurasana going back to the Vimanarcanakalpa (10th – 11th C) which is said to be the first manuscript to describe a non-seated asana. 

The earliest written text that I have found suggests that Handstand is number 46 of the 108 postures in the unpublished manuscript called“Yogāsana – Jaina” from 1786 – Hațhābhyāsapaddhati, 18th C.

I would love to know if there are any earlier texts or pieces of art that document handstands in yoga earlier than this, so let me know if you have insight.

Evolution of Movement

What I have discovered is that in the last 2000 years, yoga has been heavily influenced by all kinds of things; dance, martial arts, acrobatics. This isn’t a bad thing at all; it’s evolution and integration. We are looking at how other cultures have used breath and movement to heal the body & mind and we are creating fusions between them. Modern Yoga has been largely influenced by Chinese roots and it is discussed in this book how China influenced Chakras, Tantra and Kundalini ~ ‘History of Yoga and Tantra’ . Before this time dating back to the Vedas (2000 BC) Yoga consisted of 3 main elements; Mantra, Prana and Dhyana or Speech, Prana & Mind.

For me the argument that asana didn’t exist in ancient India or we used to only have 15 traditional poses is like saying well we used to only have 60,000 words in Old English but today we have 170,000. So i’m only going to use Old English; the world has moved on and our needs are different.

Shift in Consciousness

Movement and mindfulness weren’t solely being explored in India. There was a global shift of consciousness at the same time around 2-3000 BC and  all around the world people were experiencing this in different ways. There are also artefacts suggesting that there were types of yoga in Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt and Mayan civilisations.

History of Hanstands

Handstands and acrobats have been part of rituals and celebrations for millennia. Not just in modern yoga, i’ve found evidence all over the world in Persia, Ancient Greece, Rome, China, Mexico…. the list goes on.

Hand Balancing is an ancient art form and religious offering. There are many examples of female acrobats depicted in Greek mythology dated at 340-330 BC. Minoan (Crete) acrobats on the backs of bulls have been dated at 2000 BC. Acrobatics including hand stands, were also part of Chinese culture in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC- AD220). Performing handstands was an important component of Chinese acrobatics during the Han Dynasty and remains so even today.

 

More recently (350AD) handstands have been an imperative part of the Shaolin Monk regimes. The Shaolin temple was said to have been founded when Prince Bodhidharma, a Buddhist Monk from India, came to Tibet. Now Shaolin monks are world famous for their mental strength and what seems like superhuman strength.

Before the Shaolin art was founded, Monks would practice meditation, which left them mentally very strong but they were physically week. Prince Bodhidharma introduced physical movement known as Yijin jing to the monks in China to help condition their bodies. Yijin jing was very similar to yoga. 

Over time, it has evolved into more than just stretches and is a martial art in its own right. For these monks it’s all about honing the power within and mind over matter. Shaolin Monks go into a deep state of meditation to endure different physical states in the body

Liberation

For me, handstand has always been a way to liberate myself and this is seen in the Capoeira practice.

Capoeira was created by the African people who were captured by the Portuguese and brought to Brazil to be slaves in the 1500s. The slaves were put to work in the field to harvest sugarcane. These slaves created the earliest form of Capoeira to increase their chances of liberty and independence.

The feeling of being upside on your hands feels so exciting and opens up a new world of perspective and freedom. 

Acrobats vs Yoga

Dance & acrobatics were always linked to religion and celebration in the ancient world. It is only recently that we have separated the two. Both are still used in many parts of the world in ritualistic ways to connect those taking part to a spiritual world. The difference between acrobatics and yoga is that acrobats is generally seen for entertainment purposes with spectators and yoga is for self observation. How ever, I still think that any movement and art is a personal choice to that individual and it is not our judgement whether it is spiritually enlightening or not.

Creating a spiritual handstand practice

If you want to make sure your handstand practice aligns with yogic principles, go back to your 8 limbs (8 limbs of yoga – Yoga Journal) Observe and reflect after each session. Go within and find that meditative state of withdrawal of the senses and concentration. This website goes deeper into how to spiritually connect with your Handstand – Spiritually and Physical Flight’ .

Final Word

For me, handstand would not have been available to me in a life outside of yoga. It wasn’t something I’d ever done or even thought about. My now my handstand and conditioning my body have been an integral part of my yoga practice for the last 7 years. It brings me true peace and gives me something to focus my daily practice. At the same time, if you don’t want to do it… just don’t.

If you love a handstand, there are many different ways to handstand and you can treat it as part of your spiritual practice or not; it’s up to you. The one thing I always ask myself is “is this bringing me towards my bliss” (Samadhi) and “is this teaching me something” (Svadhyaya). If this is the case, then let no one tell you your handstand is not Yoga.

Sources

8 Limbs of Yoga – https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/the-eight-limbs

Ancient Egyptian Dance and Movement – https://www.ancient.eu/article/1075/music–dance-in-ancient-egypt/

Ancient Greek Handstand Statue 4 – 300 BC – http://sadigh.weebly.com/featured-artifacts/sadigh-gallerys-ancient-greek-terracotta-statue-of-an-acrobat-43140

Ancient Greeks and Romans – Yoga https://yogainternational.com/article/view/did-the-ancient-greeks-and-romans-practice-yoga

Bell-Krater with Two Female Acrobats, Italy, Campania, circa 330 B.C.-310 B.C.) https://collections.lacma.org/node/230128

Greek Terracotta Acrobat, c. 4th Century BC – https://archaicwonder.tumblr.com/post/120760394381/greek-terracotta-acrobat-c-4th-century-bc-nude

Hand Balancing in Ancient Art form – https://www.renegadejuggling.com/play-handstand-blocks

Handstands in Ancient Egypt – https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=hODv3qA3FZ4C&pg=PA62&lpg=PA62&dq=handstands+in+ancient+egypt&source=bl&ots=2npZib1HQp&sig=ACfU3U28edxgEFSHj48n49UdBMfgnX9qyg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjZwePIqJnqAhXoQUEAHXvBCuEQ6AEwGnoECAQQAQ#v=onepage&q=handstands&f=false

Han Dynasty Handstands – http://en.chinaculture.org/library/2008-01/23/content_37714.htm

History of Yoga and Tanra – https://www.thenamastecounsel.com/roots-yoga-india-china/

Indian Art – Hanstand 1820 –  Dallapiccola 2010 / South Indian Paintings – https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/A_2007-3005-4

Indus Valley – https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/toi-edit-page/how-ancient-is-yoga-seals-recovered-from-indus-valley-civilisation-sites-tell-a-fascinating-story/

Kemet Yoga Ancient Egypt- https://www.sonima.com/yoga/inversions/

Mayan yoga: Chakras and Energy in Ancient Middle America – http://www.doremishock.com/manuscripts/Mayanyoga.pdf

Prince Bodhidharma and Shaolin Monks – https://www.usashaolintemple.com/chanbuddhism-history/

Roman Handstand – 1 – 200 AD – https://archaicwonder.tumblr.com/post/158244266884/roman-hand-standing-acrobat-1st-2nd-century-ad-a

spirituality of ancient acrobats – https://www.hammocksandruins.com/mysteries-articles/acrobats

Spiritually and Physical Flight – https://www.sonima.com/yoga/inversions/

The Bull Leap Ancient Crete – https://www.historytoday.com/miscellanies/inside-ancient-bull-cult

Vedic Yoga – https://www.vedanet.com/vedic-yoga-the-oldest-form-of-yoga/

 Vimanarcanakalpa is the first manuscript to describe a non-seated asana – https://archive.org/details/Vimanarcanakalpa1926/page/n15/mode/2up

Yogasana Unpublished Manuscript – http://www.ym-kdham.in/article.asp?issn=0044-0507;year=2014;volume=46;issue=1;spage=43;epage=55;aulast=Satapathy

 

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