Learn Tripod Headstand

Last month we detailed classical headstand.  This month, we address another version of headstand, known as tripod headstand.  This item gives you all the alignment and guidance you need to learn tripod headstand.  In addition, we detail some challenging, advanced transitions out of tripod headstand.

As we did last month, we caution you again that headstand and the transitions discussed this month, are not to be attempted 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.

Tripod Headstand Set-Up:

  • For tripod 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!
  • Place the palms of your hands just wider than shoulder width apart.
  • Bring the crown of your head to the floor – not your forehead. Bring the crown of your head to the floor so that, when in headstand, you can channel your weight neutrally through your skull, neck and spine (Figure 1).
  • The ideal is to have an equilateral triangle as your base with the three points formed by your two hands and the crown of your head:

(Figure 1)

  • Lift your knees from the mat and step your feet forward to bring your hips as high over your head as you can (Figure 2).
  • Lengthen and firm the back of your neck. Do not allow your neck to crumple or round.  Neck stability is critical in headstand.
  • 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.
  • Stabilise your hands and arms firmly at the mat with your elbows bent to a 90° angle – just like in chaturanga dandasana/low plank. Do not let your elbows bow outwards.  Engage the backs of your upper arms and the muscles of your sides and back (especially the latissimus dorsii).  Draw your elbows to the width of your wrists and hold them there.

(Figure 2)

At this point there are three recommended methods you might follow.  I shall give them in order from most to least accessible:

Option 1:

  • This is the step-up method. Lift one knee onto the back of the upper arm on that side of your body – right knee to right arm.  Pull the pit of your belly in (uddiyana) strongly and create uplift at your hips.  Then repeat with the other leg.  Tuck your heels up to make your legs light and responsive (Figure 3).
  • Focus your awareness into one leg only and extend that leg up towards the sky. Move slowly and consciously.  If you rush the movement or try to kick your leg upward as opposed to lift and press upward, you are likely to lose balance.

(Figure 3)

  • Engage the front of the thigh of your lifted leg to straighten it as best you can. Press through the heel and mounds of your lifted foot towards the sky (Figure 4).
  • Now, press firmly through the palms of your hands into the floor, draw your abdomen in, strong and stable, and slowly raise your other leg up to the sky. Use the same deliberate motion that you did on the first side (Figure 5).
  • As on the first leg, hug your thigh muscles powerfully to the bone and press through the mounds of your feet to the sky.
  • Firm your inner thighs and draw your legs in towards one another. This is headstand (Figure 6).
  • It is likely that you will have some difficulty ascertaining where vertical is in your pose. If you are like me, and many students I have observed taking headstand, you will need to raise your legs higher and shift them further back than you imagine.  In so doing, maintain strong engagement in your core.  Do not disengage your abdomen and slump and sway your low back.


(Figure 4)

(Figure 5)

(Figure 6)

  • Move slowly. There is nothing to be gained by rushing your movements.  This simply leads to over-correcting and a loss of balance.  Sense the weight distribution in your head and your hands.  Subtle shifts in your base will inform you as to where your body is oriented.  If you feel weight lifting out of your hands, stabilize where you are and maintain a steady grounding not just in your head but your two hands.
  • You will notice that there is a stronger sensation of weight in your head in tripod headstand compared with classical headstand. The fact your forearms rest on the floor in classical headstand diffuses some of the pressure and distributes weight along your forearms in a way that tripod headstand does not provide for.  The difference is relatively small but noticeable.
  • Hold your gaze steadily and breathe calmly.
  • Come down from the pose before you are fatigued. To come down, reverse the process by which you went up – draw one leg down and bring the knee of that leg to your upper arm.  Then lower the opposite leg in the same way.  Then shift your weight and drop your feet to the floor.

Option 2:

  • This is the curl-up method. Create the same set up as Option 1 with your head and hands set at the floor and your hips as high relative to your head and shoulders as you can manage.
  • Draw both your knees in towards your chest and tuck your heels up towards your bottom so that you are just balanced on your head and hands with your legs suspended off the floor (Figure 7).

(Figure 7)

  • Tone your abdomen in strongly and lift your knees up to the height of your hips (Figure 8).
  • 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.  I do not get into a vertical position here.  It may be that my hips move one way to balance the weight of my lower legs moving the other (Figure 9).
  • The last bit is easy, relatively speaking. Engage the fronts of your thighs and extend your lower legs straight up to the sky (Figure 10).


(Figure 8)

(Figure 9)

(Figure 10)

  • Hold your gaze steady and breathe calmly until you are ready to come down. Again, come down by reversing the steps you took to get up into the pose.

Option 3:

  • This is the pike up entry. Create the same set up position as for options 1 and 2 with your head and hands set at the floor and your hips as high relative to your head and shoulders as you can manage.
  • Engage your abdomen strongly, contract your leg muscles firmly to straighten your legs and firm your legs in towards one another. Thigh strength is important here.  Contract the quadriceps on the front of your thighs to fully straighten your legs at the knee.  Engage your adductor muscles at your inner thighs to hold your legs together.

(Figure 11)

(Figure 12)

(Figure 13)

  • 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 (Figures 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.
  • Hold your gaze steady and breathe calmly until you are ready to come down. Again, come down by reversing the steps you took to get up into the pose.

Each of these options may also be taken from straddle legged forward fold.  Option 3, if taken from straddle legged forward fold, may be achieved either by taking your legs out and up to meet together at the sky or you may walk your feet together at the mat after creating the base in your head and hands and raise your legs together.

Can I 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 2, 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.  Tricky Transition 2 (detailed lower down in this item) gives another way out if you fall backwards by turning the fall into wheel pose.
  • Alternatively, twist and make your fall a sideways rather than a backwards fall and seek to land your feet first.

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 hands.
  • Padding under your head 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.

Tricky Transition 1:

  • The first tricky transition is to drop from tripod headstand into low plank!
  • I have already identified that the form of your arms in tripod headstand should be the same as that for low plank – hands just wider than shoulder width, elbows drawn into the width of your hands and square, right-angle at your elbows. This is clear from all the images in this item.
  • Equally clear should be the plank-like alignment of your body. I have advised against allowing your low back to sway or curve inwards excessively.
  • For this transition, the intention is that your drop your feet towards the floor and follow with the rest of your body such that you land in low plank pose. Easy as falling.
  • Set up your headstand at the front of your mat so that your feet will land on the cushioning of your mat and not on hard floor.
  • I do this by starting with a hinge at my hips. I lead with my legs and then my upper body joins in a moment later.
  • First I bend at my hips slightly to take my legs towards the back of my mat. The further I shift my legs in that direction the more gravity takes over and what began as an intentional lowering becomes and irresistible fall (Figure 14).
  • Be firm in the contraction of your legs, your core and your arms throughout this transition. You will hurt yourself if you land with any of those parts of your body disengaged!
  • As your legs drop towards the floor press powerfully through your hands into your mat and lift your head forward towards the front edge of your mat. In Figure 15 you will see I have begun to lift my head.


(Figure 14)


(Figure 15)

(Figure 16)

  • It is essential that you dorsiflex your feet – flex your feet towards your shins. Also draw your toes towards your shins as best you can.  You must land with your toes tucked such that you land on the underside not the topside of your toes and feet (Figure 16).
  • Not everyone’s feet are up to this. If your toes are quite rigid and do not flex and extend easily I suggest this transition is not for you.  If you have problems with dislocating your toes or if you have sensitive joints in your toes and feet or bunions I suggest this transition is not for you.
  • Once you have landed in low plank you may either lie down flat or add any other pose that works for you. You may wish to take upward facing dog and downward facing dog.  You may press back up to plank and then downward facing dog.

Tricky Transition 2:

  • The destination in this transition is wheel pose. Wheel is a prerequisite.  Do not suppose that this is a good way to get into wheel for the first time.
  • For this transition, set up your headstand towards the back of your mat. This ensures that your landing area is on your mat.
  • Bend at your knees and reach your feet towards the front edge of your mat (Figure 17).
  • Ease your hips towards the back edge of your mat and encourage your back to bend. Commit to the back bend throughout this transition (Figure 18).  If you are not in a deep back bend your hips and spine are likely to land heavily.  Bend your back as deeply as you can and land just on your feet.
  • The slower and more intentional you can be in this transition the better. As a yoga teacher in Saskatoon said to me in a different but not altogether unrelated transition, “You need to be more graceful”.  Control and grace are preferable to disengagement and collapse.
  • As you bend your back more, reach your feet towards the floor at the front edge of your mat. Again, for most students, a point comes where gravity takes over and you need to let your feet fall to the floor.  Some with very mobile spines may be able to land their feet with no sense of having fallen or collapsed.  That is not me.  I reach a certain point and then my legs fall.
  • As your feet lower towards the floor separate them to around hip width distance so that you will land with your feet as close as possible to an ideal for wheel pose. Do not let your feet or legs splay outwards wider than your hips.
  • It is important to move your legs in unison. Do not lower your legs at different rates.  If you are taking this transition, commit to landing both feet as close to simultaneously as possible.  Landing on one foot and then the other creates a risk of collapse, a risk of overloading one side of your body and the risk of an awkward twist being channeled through your spine when it is in a deep back bend.  All of this is potentially injurious.  Land your feet together.
  • At the moment your feet land, press powerfully through your hands and lift your head from the floor (Figure 19).
  • Make any adjustments to your foot position as are necessary to bring you into a strong, stable wheel pose (Figure 20).


(Figure 17)


(Figure 18)

(Figure 19)

(Figure 20)


Headstand creates a tremendous sense of accomplishment in you.  Take your practice ahead with headstand.  Take your sense of self and your value of yourself ahead with headstand.  If you need coaching in this wonderful pose and its variations, come to our workshop on Sunday, 21 May, 2:00 pm – 3:30 pm!