With “Pippin” playing at the National Theatre, don’t be surprised to see more acrobatics around town. The touring musical features a cast of performers that constantly defy gravity. The goal for Gypsy Snider, the show’s circus creator? Make the audience want to run away with them.
Fortunately, Washingtonians don’t need to go far to work on one of the most basic tricks seen onstage: handstands. In “Pippin,” they’re mostly done by a pair of buff shirtless guys. But in gyms across the city, the move is becoming increasingly popular among regular folks just interested in fitness.
It’s a natural progression when you’re interested in body-weight exercise, say Mauricio Valle and Chris Bifareti, who lead handstand workshops around the D.C. region through their company bMorFit1. They were rock climbers looking to cross-train when they began experimenting with inversions a few years ago. Now they’re handstand addicts.
“A lot of people look at us and say, you must have done gymnastics. We didn’t. We learned this in our 30s,” says Valle, who spends hours every day upside down. And they promise that almost anyone else can learn to hold a handstand too — at least for a second.
The hurdle for many folks is instruction. Just being told to put your hands down and do it isn’t adequate, says Snider, who’s often disappointed by what she sees in yoga classes: “It blows my mind how little guidance there is.” A common approach is to stand facing a wall, then kick up so your feet can smack it. While you might get upside down that way, it leads to “banana back,” an arched posture that’s really tough to balance.
“You need to be a straight line,” Snider says, and that requires developing flexibility and proper alignment.
That’s why yoga poses such as sun salutations and down dog can be useful preparation for handstand, says Marie Belle, an Ashtanga and Rocket instructor who splits her time between D.C. and Puerto Rico.
At her inversion workshops (see below), she emphasizes the importance of fixing the little things. Putting extra pressure on the sides of your palms, for instance, is “like carrying your weight on your pinkie toes.” When students bend their elbows, she reminds them of how much harder it is to hold chaturanga than plank. Besides, Belle adds, bent elbows bring your head closer to the ground: “And that’s usually what they’re scared of — face planting.”
Mental barriers can be the biggest challenge. But the right kind of assistance makes people feel safer. Bifareti and Valle regularly use walls in their workshops — just instead of kicking up against the surface, they have students face away from it, put their hands down and then walk their feet up it.
Working with a partner can be just as invaluable, adds Valle, who recommends this strategy: One person gets into a runner’s lunge and kicks up. The spotter then grabs the legs, and helps put them in the right position.
Once you experience a handstand, you’ll be hooked, Bifareti says. And once you learn to do it on your own, there are endless progressions to play with — all of which do a body good.
Just look at the buff guys in “Pippin.”
Yoga instructor Marie Belle leads her two-hour “Inversions Playshop” workshop Saturday at 11:15 a.m. at Yoga District (1910 14th St. NW). It’s $24 to attend — and it’s recommended that participants have some familiarity with forearm stand or handstands.
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