Humans have been doing handstands for thousands of years, probably ever since they figured out they could hold themselves up on their arms. Traditions have developed in many regions, for various reasons: demonstrations of physical prowess, entertainment (think of court jesters) and health benefits.
Handstands are a key component of modern-day gymnastics, developed from military training in Ancient Greece. Chinese acrobatics dates back 2,500 years and is considered a national art form. In Hindu cultures, the handstand (called Adho Mukha Vrksasana in Sanskrit) has been incorporated into the practice of yoga.
Handstands can be done in numerous ways: against a wall or freestanding; with head in line with the body or lifted so the practitioner can see his hands; with various leg positions such as a split with one or both legs bent, or a diamond shape with feet together; with the hands directly under the shoulders, placed together on a beam, or spread wide apart to show strength. They can also be done in a levering position called planche (shoulders leaning forward over the hands) or reverse planche (shoulders hyperextended behind the head).
In gymnastics, handstands are used on all apparatus for men and women. In acrobatics, they form a basis for balancing movements. In yoga, handstands are part of advanced inversion series.
Handstands can be used to develop upper-body strength and balance. In yoga, inverting the body is said to undo the effects of gravity, improve lymph circulation and generally improve health and vitality.
Turning the body upside-down almost always carries risk. Strength development is essential, as is mental readiness, to avoid falling and possible injury to the neck, head or back. Wrists are also vulnerable. Proper instruction should be sought.