Headstands, and inversions in general, are fun and adventurous poses that attract many yogis to the practice. Flipping upside-down rewards many benefits, from improved circulation and increased mental capacity, to simply uplifting and improving one’s mood. Raise your endorphins and feel like a kid again, all in one!
These poses are not only fun, but challenging, therefore providing a goal for a yogi to work towards. From my years of experience both teaching and practicing, I have noticed A-type personalities and goal chasers are particularly attracted to a more ‘advanced’ high intensity yoga practice, that includes arm balances and inversions. Important thing to note is that yoga isn’t a competitive sport. Yes, you can compete in anything, with yourself and others, and countless people step on their mat every day to compare themselves to others, to beat others, to ‘win’. But that is not what yoga is about.
When setting a goal in yoga, such as mastering a headstand, I invite you to first think of why this goal is important to you? Are you trying to take your practice to the next level, or add new poses to your repertoire, because you believe they will have positive effects on your body and mind? Or are you working on your headstand game because you see everyone else doing it?
Stepping on your mat with a proper outlook and positive affirmations is always more powerful and effective than just doing it because you feel like you’re not strong enough, that you need to push it further, burn more calories and so on. Yoga is a practice of feeling comfortable, happy and satisfied in the body, in order to feel same in the mind and heart.
In order to achieve goals and maintain a positive motive, t’s always good to know a bit of yoga theory. Inversion simply means a pose where head is lower than the heart. Hence, downward facing dog, or forward fold, are inversions as well. In yoga, there are various intensity levels to each pose. Headstands are some of the most common and popular balancing inversions, where only a small part of our body is touching the ground, such as head and palms or forearms.
When inverting, we are reversing the flow of circulation in our body, and generally the flow of energy. It is important to maintain our breath smooth and flowing, so to bring more oxygen into the bloodstream. Then, when inverting, oxygen filled blood rushes to the brain, awarding various benefits from better memory and focus, to rejuvenating the nervous system. They have been related to better sleep quality, stronger learning capacity, calmer mind, and have a positive health effect on all the organs located in the skull, like our brain and eyes. The same reverse flow of circulation has a very positive effect on our lower extremities. As a runner, I often suffer from plantar fasciitis, swollen feet, calf and quad pain, and regular inversions help alleviate common aches and increase the circulation.
From a more traditional yogic perspective, the crown of the head is where the crown or Sahasrara chakra is located. Chakras are energy centers on our body, often located on the same spot where nerve endings or plexuses are located on the physical body. They connect the physical, mental and emotional aspects of our being and are ‘in charge’ of various body parts and aspects of life. The crown chakra, which relates to our pineal gland, gets stimulated in inversions like headstand. The seventh chakra correlates to more subtle aspects of our being, our overall mental state, connection with oneself, the world, the universe and the ‘divine’. Dreams, memory, focus and mental stability all fall under the category of the seventh chakra.
These days, the world very much revolves around the lower chakras, our connection to the material. It celebrates money, luxury, possessions, sex, career and housing. The top chakras focus on those aspects of life that are more subtle, less visible, that truly enrich the quality of life. Understanding, empathy, spiritual worldviews are all governed by this element, and practice of inversions strengthen the same. Due to all the aforementioned benefits, headstand has been named as the King of all asanas or yoga poses.
There are two main types of headstands, Shirshasana I and II. In Sanskrit, shirsha means ‘head’ and asana means yoga posture (or literally, seat). In Headstand I, one interlocks their fingers and places the head between the palms on the ground, and balances primarily on the forearms. This variation puts less pressure on the head and neck and relies more on shoulder and arm strength (see video above, minute 19). In Headstand II, only the head and the palms are touching the ground. Although there is less body surface on the floor, one can cover more ground and therefore this variation is oftentimes easier for yogis to master and find balance away from the wall (see pictures below).
Because of less pressure on the neck and head, practice of Shirshasana I is recommended before attempting Shirshasana II.
Important points to consider:
- Although inversions are very beneficial, they are not for everyone, nor does every yogi have to practice them!
- If suffering from neck or shoulder pain, bulging and herniated discs in the cervical spine, maintain caution and skip the pose if it feels painful or uncomfortable
- Learn proper alignment, preferably with an instructor, before practicing on your own
- Breathe deeply and evenly, in order to find balance and feel comfortable
- Yoga can cause injuries, so take it easy and listen to your body
- Come out of the pose gently if suffering from any negative side-effects, like pain, pinching, discomfort, dizziness, etc.
- Inversions can invoke uncomfortable sensations, fears and trust issues. However, once those are overcome, the poses become incredibly freeing and uplifting!
Now that you know more about the benefits of practicing a headstand, it’s time to put the theory into practice!
There are a few ways to enter the pose, most common and easiest being from a wide legged forward fold. Second would be from a crow pose or it’s variation, placing the knees on the triceps first and balancing in this position before lifting up.
- Find the best head placement for you. Most of us have a relatively flat top of the head, which makes for a logical balancing point. However, working with a yoga teacher who is also a chiropractor, I have learned that this position might put more pressure on the neck and ‘remove’ the natural curve of the cervical spine. Hence, a position closer to the forehead, somewhere between the crown and the hairline, is easier on the neck.
- Palms should be slightly wider than shoulder width, with palms right under the elbows in order to form a 90 degree angle. This is probably the most important alignment cue that will help you find your balance. I’ve seen many yogis bring their palms closer to the head than they should be, and struggle with balancing away from the wall.
- Spread your fingers wide and grip the floor, removing pressure from the wrists.
- Engage the core! This is where the balance magic happens. It is important to find a neutral position of the spine as well, and stacking ankles, hips and shoulders for a straight line. Many flexible yogis suffer from a ‘banana’ or backbend position in their spine in inversions, but proper core engagement can easily remove that problem.
Warm up first! A few rounds of Sun Salutations, a few breathing exercises, and some shoulder warm ups would be perfect. If you are still learning about proper core engagement in inversions, try a 30 second plank while avoiding curvature in the lumbar spine, and actively pressing the floor away from you. This is the same engagement and alignment one should have when upside down as well.
From Prasaritta Paddotanasana:
Open your feet as wide as your wrists, when arms are extended to the side. Make the outside edges of your feet parallel to each other. Take a deep breath in, and on an exhale slowly fold forward. Take a few breaths here, relaxing the shoulders and the neck, preparing the body for the inversion. With time, work on your hamstring flexibility, so that your head can reach the ground in a wide forward fold. If that is not the case yet, simply begin to soften your knees, and alternatively open your legs wider in order to reach the ground.
Begin by placing your head on the ground, finding a comfortable yet sturdy surface like a yoga mat or a headstand rest, and finding the ideal placement.
From here, you have two basic options. In first one (see following images), you can place your knees on your elbows and slowly lift your feet off the ground. It’s like crow pose but with the head touching your mat. It’s a good starter pose, where you can test the head placement and get used to the pressure. Feel free to simply balance here the first few times. Eventually, work on your core engagement and lift your knees of your elbows, slowly extending them towards the sky.
Second option is maintaining the legs wide and lifting your heels of the ground, again testing your balance and head placement with toes still touching. With a strong core, lift your feel off the ground, and with legs wide extend them towards the sky, meeting over head.
Remember to transition slowly and with control, as you come out of the pose, to stay safe and avoid any yoga-related injuries.