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Brooklyn Fencer Seeks Olympic Gold

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Nzingha Prescod, a United States Olympian, practicing at the Fencers Club in Manhattan last month.

Nzingha Prescod, a United States Olympian, practicing at the Fencers Club in Manhattan last month.Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times

Last month, practice was winding down at the Fencers Club in Manhattan when a group of young students paused to watch a Brooklyn-born Olympian relentlessly attack a padded wall. The athlete, Nzingha Prescod, carried on unfazed, her feet shuffling like a tap dancer’s, her eyes darting behind the mesh of her mask. Ms. Prescod is getting used to the increased scrutiny. This summer, she hopes to become the first African-American fencer to win Olympic gold.

“Obviously I want to medal,” Ms. Prescod said, “but what gets me really excited is the idea of little black girls turning on the TV to see someone like them fencing.”

When Ms. Prescod, 23, first began fencing, historically the province of the white and the aristocratic, she had few models in the sport from similar backgrounds. She and her older sister were raised by a single mother in the upstairs apartment of a two-family home in the Flatlands neighborhood of Brooklyn. Her mother, Marva Prescod, tried to keep the girls out of trouble by packing their schedules from a young age: piano, ballet, gymnastics, karate, swimming.

Her mother dismissed fencing as prohibitively expensive before reading about the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a nonprofit that brings fencing and tutoring to young people from underserved communities. The foundation was established in 1991 byPeter Westbrook, who made history himself in 1984 as the first black fencer to win an Olympic medal.

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Nzingha Prescod, a member of the US Olympic fencing team practices at the Fencers Club on West 28th Street.

Nzingha Prescod, a member of the US Olympic fencing team practices at the Fencers Club on West 28th Street.Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times

When Ms. Prescod was 9, she began taking free lessons through the foundation. A year later, she won a national championship for her age group. “Nzingha is exactly the same today as she was at age 9,” her coach, Buckie Leach, said. “Just a fantastic athlete with a lot of smarts and a high fencing I.Q.”

To watch Ms. Prescod compete is to witness a world-class tactician in full force. On the fencing strip, she is like Bobby Fischer behind a chess set, considering each movement two, three, four steps ahead of the next. Though Ms. Prescod is notorious for straying from fencing orthodoxy, she is reliably at her strongest, Mr. Leach said, when attacking from a defensive position, often baiting her opponents into a strike that she deflects and counters.

Her prowess recalls that of the woman who inspired her name, the 17th-century Angolan warrior Queen Nzinga. When the Portuguese tried to expand the slave trade into Central Africa, Queen Nzinga is said to have led the front lines of the resistance.

“I love that history,” said Ms. Prescod, grinning after a recent training session. “It says I’m black and I’m powerful and I’m fighting for my people.”

Indeed, Ms. Prescod will be fighting for her country when she heads to Rio de Janeiro next month. Her ascension in the ranks of the sport has already proven groundbreaking. She made history in 2013 as the first American woman to earn a gold medal for foil at the 2013 Grand Prix, and again in 2015 as the first African-American woman to win an individual medal at the Senior World Championships.

Ms. Prescod finished in 22nd place at her first Olympic Games in 2012 after falling to the five-time World Championship medalist Aida Mohamed. But she was still green then — a recent Stuyvesant High School graduate who had just had her braces removed. Now she has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University and has been training with unyielding tenacity. Indeed, her greatest problem is overworking, said Mr. Leach, who worries about injuries. “I always tell her to cool it, but later I’ll find out she’s been practicing behind my back.”

Mr. Prescod laughed off the barb, but all that lunging has caused a cartilage defect in her right hip that will require a procedure after Rio. Given the physical demands of the sport, she knows that her days competing may not last long past this summer. But regardless of her career’s longevity, Ms. Prescod has extracted some lessons that inform her life outside of fencing.

“Fencing has given me access to this whole other world,” she said. “It’s sad, but if you’re going into a job interview, they don’t want you talking like a girl from Brooklyn — they want you talking like a girl from a fencing club.”

Having conquered the fencing club, Ms. Prescod is eager to share something else with her eponymous warrior-queen: a regal piece of jewelry — something bronze, silver or maybe even gold.

After Bitter Decades, a Wounded Vietnam Veteran Handcycles Back to Hope

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Battling P.T.S.D., One Mile at a Time

William Alvarez has struggled with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder since losing his legs during the war in Vietnam. His recent interest in hand cycling has helped him cope.

By ROBIN LINDSAY and NOAH REMNICK on Publish Date July 1, 2016. Photo by Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times.

You would be forgiven if, one of these afternoons in Central Park, you failed to notice a cyclist named William Alvarez. He’s easily lost amid the whirl of riders and runners, and of course there is the matter of his considerable velocity, 12.5 miles per hour on average.

When he stops, though, for a drink of water or a red light, a few of his trademarks come into focus. First is the fact that Mr. Alvarez is not riding a bike, but a three-wheeled recumbent handcycle. Next you might notice the trio of flags flapping behind him in the wind: one for the United States, one for the United States Army and one for prisoners of war. And then there is the oversize sack strapped to the rear of his cycle, where he stashes a pair of beige-colored carbon fiber legs.

Though Mr. Alvarez rides with the commitment of a lifelong devotee, this routine once seemed unimaginable. As a soldier during the war in Vietnam, Mr. Alvarez, now 71, lost both his legs in a land mine explosion, an episode that set off decades of severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Last year, however, Mr. Alvarez resolved to break the cycle of solitude and torment that had consumed him for half a century. Handcycling, he says, has provided him with a newfound resilience and autonomy. These days he rides at least five times a week, typically 20 to 30 miles a trip, as he trains to compete in the New York City Marathon this fall.

“When I’m riding, it’s like I’m finally free,” he said. “I can forget about all of my problems and just feel the breeze on my face. Nothing else matters.”

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As a young man, Mr. Alvarez had hoped that the United States Army would afford him the sense of purpose and belonging that had eluded him in childhood.

As a young man, Mr. Alvarez had hoped that the United States Army would afford him the sense of purpose and belonging that had eluded him in childhood.Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

As a young man, Mr. Alvarez hoped that the Army would afford him the sense of purpose and belonging that had eluded him in childhood. After his parents divorced when he was 6, he lived in a series of foster homes in the South Bronx, often separated from his three older siblings. “There wasn’t a lot of care, so I just learned to make it on my own,” Mr. Alvarez said.

In 1969, spurred by his anti-Communist convictions and by foster parents who had fought in the Korean War, Mr. Alvarez journeyed to 39 Whitehall Street in Manhattan for his induction. “I felt a sense of responsibility,” he said. “Lots of people went to Canada, but that never crossed my mind.”

In Vietnam, Mr. Alvarez watched countless soldiers lose their lives or their limbs. Early one morning in 1972 he was on patrol with the 101st Airborne Division. As the soldiers passed through the jungle, Mr. Alvarez tripped a land mine.

When he came to hours later, at a MASH unit, a chaplain was hovering above, administering the last rites. Mr. Alvarez somehow survived, but he emerged from the hospital 13 months later to a different world. Support for the war and its veterans had dwindled in the United States, and former soldiers were even under attack. Mr. Alvarez, who used a wheelchair, was disparaged and called a killer. It took him decades, he said, to get the services he needed.

Mr. Alvarez tried to rebuild his life. He married a woman he had known before the war, and they took off across the country, seeking adventure. But the trauma of war haunted him, he said; as he withdrew into depression, his marriage fell apart. One day in California, while riding a Vespa scooter from Santa Cruz to San Jose, he deliberately veered off the side of the road into a ravine. He would try suicide two more times.

“My mind was just going to war with itself,” he said. “Every day was another battle and I couldn’t find joy in anything.”

Mr. Alvarez eventually managed to subdue his suicidal thoughts, but his post-traumatic stress disorder left him reclusive and unable to keep a steady job, he said. For years, fellow veterans urged him to try cycling, insisting on the sport’s therapeutic virtues.

Last May, Mr. Alvarez finally relented at an event in Central Park co-hosted by Achilles International, an organization that runs athletic programs for people with disabilities, and theV.A. Adaptive Sports Program, which is run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. He climbed onto the seat of a cycle and set off.

“I said to myself, O.K., this is it,” Mr. Alvarez recalled. “It was fun. Imagine that. I hadn’t felt that emotion in a long time.”

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Handcycling, Mr. Alvarez says, has provided him with a newfound resilience and autonomy.

Handcycling, Mr. Alvarez says, has provided him with a newfound resilience and autonomy.Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Several studies have shown that exercise can help those with PTSD. The endorphins released during intense physical activity, the focus on coordination and the skills gained often serve as an antidote to the depression, sleeplessness, anger and suicidal tendencies associated with the condition.

“We’ve been getting amazing feedback from the veterans,” said Jonathan Glasberg, 49, the coordinator of the Adaptive Sports Program. “There’s the physical component, of course, but people are also just happier.”

More than 200 veterans are currently taking part in the Adaptive Sports Program in New York, which offers golfing in Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx, fencing in Chelsea and sailing on the Hudson River. Participation has more than doubled in the last two years alone, Mr. Glasberg said.

In the months since Mr. Alvarez started training, his body has begun to change, he said. He has shed 15 pounds, his hands have calluses and newly formed muscles swell from his shoulders. The most dramatic metamorphosis, though, has taken place in his psyche.

“My whole body chemistry changed,” he said. “Everything started working the way it’s supposed to. I’m more sociable than I was before, not as depressed, and I’ve got a new sense of energy.”

Mr. Alvarez has not banished all of his demons. He still endures streaks of depression, and just the other week he suffered a vivid flashback, he said. Now, though, when he feels the memories closing in, he reaches out to friends or goes out for a ride on his own.

Last month, Mr. Glasberg was pleasantly surprised when he called Mr. Alvarez to check in. “He told me, ‘Sorry I can’t chat, I’m meeting some friends under the Brooklyn Bridge,’” Mr. Glasberg recalled. “I was thinking: Is this really the same guy?”

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Alvarez headed from his apartment on East 22nd Street to a nearby storage unit, where he exchanged his wheelchair for his handcycle, a sleek black model that he tends to with great care. From the storage facility, he often circles the entirety of Manhattan, but on this day he planned to meet up with a group of riders in Central Park. He greeted all warmly but soon peeled away to take the course at a faster pace.

As he steered his way up the sloping hills toward the northern end of the park, Mr. Alvarez began to pant from exhaustion, but he continued to churn away at a steady clip, refusing to succumb to gravity’s tug. Beyond the crest, he knew, he’d be gliding with ease.

After a Fire, Jump-Starting a Bushwick Dojo

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Hommy Peña had just returned to his home in Glendale, Queens, late one night in March when he received a panicked call.

“You need to get here right away,” Mr. Peña, 43, recalled being told by the superintendent of the building that housed his small business. “Everything is on fire.”

For five years, Mr. Peña had operated Kanku-Dai Zanshin Dojo, a karate school, on DeKalb Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was a modest space that shared the first floor of a wooden rowhouse with a storefront church, but he toiled to make it a community center. Every afternoon, Kanku-Dai was overrun with dozens of neighborhood children, nearly all from working-class Latino families.

Mr. Peña arrived that night to a horrific scene: Electrical combustion that had begun in the rear of the church built to a six-alarm blaze, tearing through five buildings on the block. It took over three hours for more than 200 firefighters to get it under control.

Mr. Peña watched as the flames swallowed his business. “I thought I was in a nightmare,” he said. “Karate is my life, and the dojo was the heart of it.”

Mr. Peña first learned karate as a child to fend off schoolyard bullies. For hours each day, he trained on the sidewalks of his native Santiago, in the Dominican Republic. Martial arts instilled in Mr. Peña a sense of conviction, he said, enabling him to ward off his tormentors and earn some titles.

He continued practicing through adolescence, but when his father died, he largely set karate aside. At a loss for what to do next, Mr. Peña moved to New York.

In the city he found a job at a health insurance company and started a family. Karate became a savored indulgence, squeezed in between work and child rearing. That changed when a friend asked Mr. Peña to oversee an after-school karate program at a church in Bushwick.

“I saw these Hispanic kids all bruised up from practicing on the marble floor and it broke my heart,” he said. “They wanted something better, just like I once did.”

Within months, the number of children studying with Mr. Peña expanded to about 80 from 10, so he moved the program to a more comfortable space on DeKalb Avenue. There, he developed a reputation as a neighborhood mentor, doling out wisdom along with foot sweeps and roundhouse blocks.

“Karate is about discipline and focus,” Mr. Peña said. “These kids have to know self-defense for their own security and confidence.”

The dojo became a refuge for local children and a godsend for their working parents, many of whom could not afford child care. Mr. Peña provided free robes and tried to keep prices down, sometimes entirely waiving fees for families unable to make the $70 monthly payment.

“My kids used to waste hours after school playing video games because I didn’t want them outside alone,” said Laura Jimenez, a cashier who has been bringing her children, Yoskar and Natalie, to Kanku-Dai for two years. “Here, they’ve learned so much about listening and respect.”

When the dojo caught fire, Ms. Jimenez and her children watched on the news in tears. They hardly understood the extent of the destruction: Mr. Peña had no fire insurance, and inside the dojo was expensive training equipment along with $7,000 in cash, all incinerated.

Before the flames even subsided, discussions in the community had begun about how to help. Green Fitness Studio, on nearby Varet Street, offered the group space for about six weeks, while Mr. Peña scoured the area for vacancies. He found one on Central Avenue — a 2,500-square-foot property that allowed for expanded class sizes. The rental deposit nearly wiped out his savings, Mr. Peña said, but he paid it with the help of an online fund-raising campaign.

Most of the equipment came from donations: mats from a dojo in Yonkers; décor from a sensei in Weehawken, N.J.; punching bags from a local supplier; American and Japanese flags from a printing company. Students and their parents gave the walls a fresh coat of paint. In May, Kanku-Dai was open for business once again.

On a recent afternoon, the dojo was teeming with young martial artists preparing for a belt test. In the closest thing to unison that schoolchildren can muster, the class of 30 mirrored Mr. Peña’s gestures, calling out each move in Japanese.

“Before the dojo, lots of these kids were running around after school with no guidance,” said Xiomara Contreras, watching her son, Emilio, 5. “Hommy gives them a role model.”

Before he started attending classes, Emilio was shy and lacked confidence, Ms. Contreras said, but that seems to have changed.

“One day,” Emilio said, glancing at Mr. Peña, “I’m going to be a black belt.”

EMAIL: fitcity@nytimes.com

The Kanku-Dai Zanshin Dojo is at 124 Central Avenue, in Bushwick, Brooklyn. For more information: 718-559-9349; kankudaidojo.org.

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Who You Calling Cheerleader?

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One recent Saturday on Staten Island, Brooke Winkler surveyed the pack of teenage girls before her with an expression of barely suppressed fury. Just 20 minutes before the start of its game against Morrisania Educational Campus, from the Bronx, the Susan E. Wagner High School stunt team was fumbling its way through practice. The girls’ landings teetered, their timing lagged and one flier couldn’t seem to maintain her balance. And then there was the matter of congeniality.

“I need you all to smile!” barked Ms. Winkler, 27, a team coach and a math teacher at Wagner. “You look like you want to die out there!”

The girls had every reason to smile. The Wagner Falcons of Staten Island are the reigning city champions of stunt, an increasingly popular variant of cheerleading that focuses on its technical and athletic components. Introduced by the Public Schools Athletic League in 2014, stunt is less rah-rah and more basket tosses.

With a 9-1 record this season, the Falcons are tied for second place heading into the playoffs in early June, where seven other teams will compete for the title. Yet even as the Falcons perfect their form with daily two-hour practices and a pair of games each weekend, their most trying contest revolves around legitimacy.

“When we walk through the hallways, people always tease us that stunt isn’t a real sport,” said Crystal Knapp, 16, a sophomore on the team. “But look at us — we’re athletes. We work hard.”

High school wiseguys are hardly their only detractors. In spring 2014, the N.C.A.A. Committee on Women’s Athletics denied stunt a bid for consideration as an “emerging sport.” Around the same time, competitive cheer, not to be confused with stunt, was deemed an “official high school sport” by the State Board of Regents.

Although stunt has yet to receive the same status, a committee met last month to evaluate its potential for the 2017-18 season, said Todd Nelson, assistant director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. And when the stunt program began in New York City two years ago, it gained more traction.

The program has grown to approximately 470 participants playing on 33 teams, from 120 participants in 2014, said Donald Douglas, the Public Schools Athletic League’s executive director.

Stunt competitions unfold with no less seriousness than high school basketball games. Teams perform identical predetermined routines, “so you can see who’s more perfect,” Ms. Winkler said. The arrangement is meant to enable more objective scoring, but it carries the daunting consequence of exposing any minute flaw.

Wagner was forced to confront a blemish of its own in the opening routine of its game against Morrisania, when one girl stumbled out of the wobbling arms of a teammate. It proved to be Wagner’s only blunder. For the rest of the game, their tosses were precise, their tumbling synchronized and their pyramids as exquisitely constructed as any in the sands of Giza. Even as their eyes betrayed their nerves, the girls kept grins plastered across their faces.

The playlist for the contest was a collection of mostly retro techno music selected for its adherence to the sport’s eight-count rhythm and, it would seem, the ability to induce mass frenzy. At one point, a remix of “Rock and Roll All Nite” transitioned into a remix of “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” which transitioned into a remix of “You Shook Me All Night Long.” A more contemporary song that brusquely commands listeners to “Shut Up and Dance” played no fewer than two dozen times.

“I’ve learned to block out the music,” said Martyna Kulikowski, the team’s captain, “but that doesn’t mean I like it.”

With women’s sports on the rise, cheerleading has grown crowded with a variety of iterations all vying for accreditation, among them game day, spirit and stunt. Advocates hope Title IX privileges are in the future. Though the athletic league technically considers stunt a coed sport, only a few teams include boys. The Wagner team is entirely female.

“In cheer, you’re rooting for someone else, usually boys,” Ms. Kulikowski said. “In stunt, everyone else cheers for us.”

Sprawled across the stands between games, the Falcons allowed themselves a few moments to unwind, snacking on doughnuts and chatting. “Being a teenage girl is stressful, and stunt is a sort of escape for a lot of them,” Ms. Winkler said.

Wagner’s second competition of the day proceeded smoothly, as the Falcons defeated Stuyvesant High School, from Manhattan, without losing a single routine. Still, some of the team’s most ardent supporters struggled to watch the action.

“This is the hardest part of my week,” said Natasha Dunn, whose daughter Kayla is a junior on the Falcons.

Even as she kept her iPhone camera steadily trained on her daughter, Ms. Dunn winced at the sight of Kayla being tossed in the air like a mound of pizza dough. Her concerns were understandable. Nearly two-thirds of all catastrophic injuries in female youth sports occur in cheerleading, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Wagner has avoided any major disasters, but the team has not been immune to stunt’s dangers. Last season, one girl’s teeth went through her upper lip after she was elbowed in the face. Another girl broke her pinkie finger. Both were back at practice the next day.

“It’s not just bows and pompoms, these girls are tough,” Ms. Winkler said. “Stunt breaks so many gender stereotypes, and I love that.”

EMAIL: fitcity@nytimes.com

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Yoga for the Showoff. Namaste.

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Practicing handstands at Pure Yoga. “You will never be more focused than when you are upside down,” said Kiley Holliday, an instructor.

Practicing handstands at Pure Yoga. “You will never be more focused than when you are upside down,” said Kiley Holliday, an instructor.Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Chip Foley has competed in 50 triathlons, but now he’s turning his focus upside down. “My ultimate goal is to be able to do a handstand and hold it for 30 seconds,” he said.

To achieve the feat, he is pursuing a rigorous training regimen: attending daily classes at Lyons Den Power Yoga, a studio in TriBeCa that specializes in hot yoga; studying handstand videos on YouTube; and doing core-strengthening exercises at home four or five times a week. “I’m obsessed with it,” said Mr. Foley, 38, who spends his right-side-up time as the owner of a Manhattan-based technology consulting firm.

Why the fixation? Social media could be the culprit. Sarah Turk, a lead analyst with IBISWorld, a market research firm, said yoga poses lent themselves to showing off. And Instagram has the numbers to support that statement: The hashtag “yogaeverydamnday” has racked up over five million posts; #handstand and #handstands, over 400,000.

“There’s a level of badassness to it,” said Metta Murdaya, 41, who has been working on her handstand for the past two years. Ms. Murdaya, co-founder of JUARA Skincare, said her inversion practice made her feel more confident, fearless and focused, which she channels into her work as an entrepreneur.

“Literally, you succeed because you refuse to fail,” she said.

The rise of the inversion comes with the rise of the yoga and Pilates industry in the United States, which brought in an estimated $9.1 billion in 2015, according to an IBISWorld report prepared by Ms. Turk. A Yoga in America study recently found that the number of yoga students increased to 36 million in 2016 from 20.4 million in 2012.

Owners of trendy studios that have cropped up to meet New Yorkers’ demands for new ways to practice yoga, like Lyons Den, Pure Yoga and Y7 Studio, said that they had noticed an uptick in requests for inversion workshops and time devoted to handstands and headstands in class. Y7, which holds yoga classes set to pop and hip-hop music in rooms heated by infrared light, has already held four sold-out, two-hour inversion workshops this year, said Sarah Larson Levey, a founder of the studio.

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“There’s a level of badassness to it,” said Metta Murdaya, 41, who has been working on her handstand for the past two years.

“There’s a level of badassness to it,” said Metta Murdaya, 41, who has been working on her handstand for the past two years.Credit Juara Skincare

Kiley Holliday, who teaches at Pure Yoga and Equinox in Manhattan, says handstands are popular among her students because of the feeling of accomplishment they experience when they are finally able to do them.

Inversions help students be present in the moment, a perennial objective among yogis, she added. “You will never be more focused than when you are upside down,” Ms. Holliday said. “It is impossible to think of anything else than what you are doing.”

The danger, of course, is taking a tumble, which for many is a rite of passage. “We all fall,” said Lauren Abramowitz, 39, founder of Park Avenue Skin Solutions, who has posted pictures of herself online in an advanced-level scorpion pose (a handstand with a backbend). “It’s not a matter of if, it’s how do you get back up.”

Dr. Gregory Galano, an orthopedic surgeon affiliated with Lenox Hill Hospital, said he often saw patients with yoga-related injuries. “Doing repetitive or long-lasting handstands can lead to everything from low-grade wrist sprains and tendinitis to more serious labral tears in the shoulder,” he said.

He recommends that people slowly work up to more challenging poses. “You want to do things in a controlled and safe manner,” Dr. Galano said.

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Instagram users show off their poses.

Instagram users show off their poses.Credit From left: Melissa Perlzweig, Lauren Abramowitz and Elina Lin

To that end, the trainer Kira Stokes prepares students for handstands with a variety of core-strengthening moves in her Stoked 360 class at BFX Studio, the studio brand of New York Sports Clubs, owned by Town Sports International. One of her favorite exercises, a pike on a stability ball that involves bringing the hips over the shoulders, also helps improve shoulder stability and balance.

“Its more than a good party trick,” Ms. Stokes said of achieving a handstand. “It takes strength, balance, coordination and body awareness — all in one move.” She likes to do them, she said, because the practice “boosts my energy and is great for the circulatory system.”

For those who are starting out, just propping your legs against a wall and breathing deeply can give you some of the same energy-boosting benefits, said Sally Melanie Lourenco, a yoga and meditation teacher. “A lot of people aren’t comfortable flipping their world upside down.”

EMAIL: fitcity@nytimes.com

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