This article was originally written by Emmet Louis on his personal website, emmetlouis.com.
So you hear this concept from all circles that handstands are a form of meditation, and to a large degree I suppose that a handstand training session can fulfil the 4 postures of meditation of the Buddha nicely. We have lying on the floor for our alignment drills, then sitting down flicking from image to image on instagram or TikTok, standing on our hands (obviously) and walking over to get our phone to check the video we just shot. Very nice really. But what if we were to take the technical points of meditation traditions and apply them to our beloved handstand? Then we really do have a vehicle of awareness.
Meditation in all its forms is not really about the form, mantra, seated standing, Buddhist, Daoist, Prayer etc itself. It’s an attempt to get to a certain state of mind, and there are a lot of very precise methods to achieve this. What I present now is how to shift your handstand training into an alembic that this state of mind might make itself clear.
We think of trying to become aware of this state like tuning a radio to a certain frequency. We drift in and out of this frequency many times a minute throughout our lives . This is what meditation masters mean when they say you are already enlightened / perfected / one with God, whatever your preferred terminology is. We just do not have the preconditions in our lives to easily notice and then maintain it. We can imagine an old radio with a tuning dial and we are trying to finely tune to one frequency very clearly and what the various practices do is add more and more decimal points to the dial so we can tune it finer and finer and eventually lock onto the state and not just skip over it.
What I present now is a series of steps that need to be trained, once you have some competency in one step, then you add the next one. Very simple but also very hard. They can be practised solo to get them right. All of them done together will give you the best chance of becoming aware of the state we are seeking.
Precondition: You have to be able to hold a straight handstand. Longer is better, obviously, but mainly there just needs to be minimal doubt in your mind that when you enter you will establish balance.
Step Minus One:
Until you have practised all the steps for some time do not try and compare this practice to anything else you have done. Engaging in the act of comparing, judging and commenting will box the practice into certain mental dungeons and possibly limit the emergence of the state we are looking for. Just treat this as a technical exercise with certain skills to be mastered and layered. Simple.
Your phone / TV / music has no place in these sessions. It can be useful in your normal training but here it has to go away for the duration of the session. So no social media, no filming, no music, just you and the floor.
In the Daoist philosophy they have the idea of man situated between sky and earth, Material and immaterial, so we need to emphasise the verticality of our line. This will mean we want to generate an internal stretch from the palms to the toes, This doesn’t mean elevating the shoulders but stretching the intent of the shape to fill as much space vertically as possible. This has to be coupled with the least amount of tension in the body possible. Tension will kill the ability to do the next stages. You’ll know this is right when there is a stretching / connected feeling all over.
Eventually we want to be able to hold an intent of the body stretching to the clouds or further and to the centre of the Earth. This is something outside the scope of this article and generally requires a separate training.
You must not fight for balance during the handstand. If you lose it you lose it no big deal. You are relying on the verticality of step one to hold you still. I would even say you must not balance the handstand consciously but must just stay in the balance and let the corrections happen, Get out of the way of the body and let the natural balance you have strived to train emerge. Ride the balance wave
The goal here is to find a moment of perfect immobility. For this to happen the eyes must not move for the whole hold. You lock the eyes on a spot on the floor and do not let them shift around. Do not blink don’t look from side to side. Body as vertical and as still as possible, eyes not moving and locked on. Simple to say, very hard to do in practice.
In Miyato Musashi’s book of five rings he talks about the balance of kan and li, fire and water, for the two visual systems of peripheral and focused. We can generalise these to focused attention and peripheral attention. Despite what the multi-taskers will say we only have the ability to focus on one thing at once so in the above we have established a single visual focal point. Now we need to set a peripheral awareness.
For this we need to shift our awareness to encompass the whole body in its totality. If you find you are locking onto a specific part of the body, then it is shifting your focused attention off the visual point and into focused interoception. Reset the visual and try to expand the sensations of the body in a spherical manner.
Breath silently, There should be no sound of air coming in and out of the mouth or nose. The breathing should be smooth and relatively deep but without being forced. Breathing itself will cause shifts in balance that are part of the waves of balance in the handstand.
All these steps need to be practiced solo and then trying to combine them. It’s better to spend some time working on one and then adding it together. My Teacher Serge Augier compares this to making a salad:
A salad is a very simple dish, some chopped vegetables combined in a bowl. What makes a great salad is have the best ingredients, so work on the ingredients first and then the layers.
Now onto the final step, The State:
You will notice I haven’t tried to define this state as I won’t as if you set all the preconditions above then you will have the best chance of noticing it and when you do it will be clear and not need an explanation. Pretty cool eh?
Tuning the radio, We now have our radio built, we just need to hold all the parts together and start playing with the dial. In the breathing we have 4 phases, inhale, retain, exhale, retain. Depending on your breathing cycle these will be different for each of us and you are not going to try and alter it one iota. We now start the hunt for the state, there is one moment in the retentions that is the perfect centre of the breath. The Point where inhale shifts to exhale, if you hold the breath to try find it you will either be holding the end of the inhale or the start of the exhale, so there has to be a level of non involvement with holding the balance of the focus points and letting the still point in the breathing cycle infuse to our balance. Hard to describe but very clear when you experience it.
This part is like trying watch a bird while hidden in a bush. The bush is made up of all the steps above the better our steps the move coverage we have and the more hidden we are. If we lose a step while seeing the bird we shake the bush and scare the bird and have to hide again and wait for it to return.
The process we are using is a form of distillation, to use the term in its alchemical sense. By repeatedly entering and exiting the state, we will be able to further refine our state and get a clearer gate to entry. Once you are able to find the state, then you can get rid of the training wheels and just enter it at will. The only limit will be your level of concentration, but that is a different skill.
Between the rounds of the balance I suggest you just sit down. Doesn’t have to be a special meditation posture or anything just sit and try to not comment, critique or judge your previous handstand or plan the next set. Wait for you to feel ready to go and then do the next set.
This practice has to have a balance between correcting and working on the details and then just doing. I would suggest that when you start, aim to do maybe twenty mins split into ten mins working on the steps, and then ten mins just doing and letting the training emerge. Once you get better at the steps and are able to repeatedly use them, then you can expand the doing section of the practice.