Headstand (sirsasana) is something of a master pose. To turn oneself upside down and maintain neutral alignment as if one were still right way up on one’s feet is quite an accomplishment. This pose is not to be entered lightly. There are contraindications for this pose including for those who suffer from hypertension or hypotension (due to the altered blood pressure experienced in an inverted position), glaucoma or those who have had recent eye surgery (again, due to the altered fluid pressure, especially in the skull and behind the eyes), those who have neck pain or shoulder injuries or instability, women who are pregnant, those with heart disease, and those who are greatly overweight. The future of the world and your own self-esteem are not contingent upon you doing headstand. If you are doubtful, err on the side of caution.
In this magazine I shall detail the procedure for classical headstand. If you feel confident to proceed, here is how:
Classical Headstand Set-Up:
- For classical headstand, begin kneeling on your mat with clear “roll out space” in front of you. Let me say this with tremendous clarity: Do not set up for or attempt headstand where you may fall onto another person. If you fall from headstand you will not be able to slow your fall or redirect your fall. If someone on the mat in front of yours is in waterfall pose or something similar they are extremely vulnerable if you get your pose wrong and they are in your fall out zone. Be aware, considerate and respectful of others and set up your headstand in such a way that those around you are not at risk from you!
- Loosely clasp your hands and set your hands and forearms at the floor. Position your elbows just shoulder width apart. Wider than that, and your base will be less stable and there will be greater chance of your falling backwards when you try to extend up into the full pose.
- A means of checking the width of your elbows is to unclasp your hands and seek to cup your left upper arm with your right hand and your right upper arm with your left hand. If you can then the spacing is about right. If your arms are too wide apart and you cannot cup them, consider narrowing your elbows until you can cup them with your hands to create a more secure base for your pose.
- The ideal is to have an equilateral triangle as your base with the three points formed by your two elbows and the crown of your head:
- Bring the crown of your head to the floor and the back of your head into your loosely cupped hands. Stabilise and support the back of your head with your hands (Fig. 1).
- Lengthen and firm the back of your neck. Do not allow your neck to crumple or round. Neck stability is critical in headstand. Notice how Hamish’s neck is straight in Fig. 1 and 2.
- It is important that you be on the crown of your head. To find the crown, take the tip of one thumb to the tip of your nose, then span your hand as wide as you can and, still holding your thumb at the tip of your nose, reach the tip of your little finger as far towards the top of your head as you can. Where the tip of your little finger reaches is approximately the crown of your head. For most people, the default in setting up headstand is to bring your head to the floor with the point of contact too far towards your forehead and brow.
- Once your head is at the floor and properly positioned, lift your knees from the floor, straighten your legs and tip your tailbone up towards the sky (Fig. 2). Walk your feet towards your head to the extent you can manage and shift weight away from your feet into your head and forearms (Fig. 3).
- You will notice how Hamish’s hips have moved from Fig. 2 to be directly over his head in Fig. 3.
Fig. 1 Fig. 2 Fig. 3
At this point there are three recommended methods you might follow. I shall give them in order from most to least accessible:
- This is the curl-up entry. Draw your legs together and squeeze your inner thighs to one another. Lift the pit of your abdomen in strongly. Hug your thighs towards your ribs and tuck your heels up towards your buttocks (Fig. 4). Just getting to that point is good and that may be your headstand for a while.
- The next step is not easy and requires a lot of application in your low back. Still with your legs bent at the knee, engage the muscles of your low back and raise your knees towards the sky until they align straight up and down over your hips (Fig. 5). Hamish does not get into a vertical position here. It may be that his hips move one way to balance the weight of his lower legs moving the other.
- The last bit is easy, relatively speaking. Engage the fronts of your thighs and extend your lower legs straight up to the sky (Fig. 6). Headstand!
- Observe where the weight rests in your head and forearms. The pose is headstand and the gravitational centre of your pose ought to be through the crown of your head. Your forearms are there to act like training wheels on a bicycle – to provide additional stability and support. If you want to be freaked out, go online and look up “Dharma Mittra headstand” and you will see images of this man performing headstand balancing just on the crown of his head. Do not try what he is doing! But do create a sense of balance at the crown of your head.
- If you find your weight is heavy in your forearms it is likely that your headstand will be on a lean rather than vertical. Reach your feet powerfully towards the sky, draw your low abdomen in and make micro-movements to shift your weight very carefully away from your arms into your head.
Fig. 4 Fig. 5 Fig. 6
- In this option the student takes their legs up one at a time. This is the split-leg entry.
- As with the previous variation, draw both knees into your chest and tuck your heels up towards your buttocks (Fig. 7).
- Extend one leg straight up towards the ceiling (Fig. 8). Once that leg is vertical and balanced, extend the other leg straight up alongside it (Fig. 9).
- If you are tight in your hip flexor you may find this variation more difficult than Option 1.
Fig.7 Fig. 8 Fig. 9
- This variation, being asymmetrical when you have just one leg up, also creates the potential for some lateral instability as well as the instability front to back that most students experience to some degree in headstand.
- This is the pike method. When I first attempted headstand in a yoga class in 2010 this method was not on my radar. I made inexpert attempts at Option 1 which got me into the pose but not with any grace. The yoga practice of intervening years has opened up Option 3 to me. Temper your expectations with respect to this variation – it may not be available to you as yet. Lots of power yoga with core stability actions will set you on the correct path.
- Establish the set-up position with your head and forearms at the floor, your hips high and your feet as close to your arms as you can manage. At this point firm your thigh muscles to the bone and hold your legs firm and straight (Fig. 10). Pull your low abdomen in and create great firmness at your core.
- Shift your hips slightly away from your feet as a counterbalance. Engage your low back strongly and raise your two legs together, firm and straight, towards the sky (Fig. 11, 12 and 13). As your legs approach the vertical, realign your hips back to a point where your hips are aligned vertically over the crown of your head.
- Once I developed the ability to do Option 3 I found it to be the simplest and most easeful version. It is more difficult to establish, however, because the other two options are more compact as you bend your knees and keep your legs close in to your body. Option 3, with your legs extended straight out from your body at points in the transition from the floor to the sky (e.g. at the point shown in Fig 11), requires a greater degree of strength.
Fig. 10 Fig. 11 Fig. 12 Fig. 13
In the case of each option, come down from the pose by reversing the steps by which you got into the pose.
Can you use the wall to help learn headstand?
- Yes, you may set up headstand with the all behind you as a safety measure while you are learning headstand. The benefit of the wall is that it removes the risk of you falling out of headstand onto your back which is the scariest way to fall out. There is no real problem in dropping your feet down to the mat where they started in the set-up for headstand. When your legs go the other way and you fall on your back, that is more alarming.
- I recommend that you set your hands and head about 30 to 45 cm from the wall if using the wall. If you are right up against the wall you do not have room to take your feet behind the line of the crown of your head which is necessary in Option 1, nor your hips in the same direction, which is necessary in Option 3. Further, if you are right up against the wall, the tendency is to lean into the wall and not create your own inner stability and strength. Finally, if you give yourself a little space from the wall, you create the chance of creating a free-standing headstand which you can then translate into a headstand in the centre of the room, away from the wall.
What if I do fall backwards?
- If you try headstand away from the wall and you do happen to lose balance and fall backwards you may not have time to do anything but rely on your survival instincts to protect you.
- However, if you can be present enough to do so, relax rather than tensing. Turn your fall in a backward roll. Engage your abdomen and round your back to roll out as naturally as possible.
Other props and supports:
- You may use a folded towel, blanket or a thin cushion beneath your head if you experience discomfort on the crown of your head.
- If you do this, beware that this will change the relationship between the level of your head and the level of your forearms. You may need to add padding beneath your forearms as well to compensate.
- Padding under either your head or under your arms may be necessary if the natural proportions of your body are such that you cannot create a level platform at your base giving access to a vertical posture.
- Some people seek to avoid a slump at their shoulders by using blocks stacked on their ends beneath their shoulders. That may be of some assistance. However, if you approach headstand with the view of establishing a neutral alignment then you will resist any collapse of your shoulders towards your ears in headstand and will, instead, draw your shoulders away from your ears towards your hips in the pose.
Inverted poses capture my attention and demand my full concentration. In so doing, they calm and centre my mind. Turn yourself upside down to gain an experience of clarity and inner peace. We all need that in our lives.