The Complete Guide to Headstands (updated)
This blog will take a look at the "king of asanas", the headstand. You will read tips and see images and videos of your favourite teachers along with explanations from world renowned asana practitioners.
B.K.S Iyengar (left) in one of the last photos taken of him before his death. Photo credit: Aditya Kapoor from DK books for the Iyengar Institute.
The headstand in my opinion is the most important of all yoga asanas. I have written before about yoga helping you to recognise and then embrace the authentic version of yourself. One that is not held back by negative emotions such as anxiety and self doubt. The aim of yoga as B.K.S Iyengar once said (2008), is to integrate the various layers of our body so that the inner divinity shines out as if through clear glass. Yoga is freedom from self doubt. Freedom to explore what you are capable of, both physically and emotionally. B.K.S Iyengar reminds us that we do not need to seek freedom from some distant land, for it exists within our own body.
So if yoga is freedom, what one single yoga asana more than any other helps us explore this freedom? In my opinion, the headstand.
There are some, who for medical reasons will not attempt headstands. And that is fair. But for others, the initial obstacle is not physical, but emotional. Anxiety, stress, fear, the level of competition, all these negative emotions are the reason you are afraid of attempting your headstand. But slowly, with patience and unrelenting faith in yourself, you will let these negative emotions go. You will be on the journey of self-realisation, a completely transformative journey that doesn't just change the way we think and feel about ourselves, it also transforms those around us. Your vibrancy becomes contagious to those around you.
If necessary you can use the wall initially to help you turn upside down but as soon as you have some confidence, move away from the wall. This may require will and determination but you must remove the fear of falling. Because your self-preservation instinct keeps telling you that "unless you have a wall you are not safe,"(2017) subconsciously you keep building them. You are only struggling with the walls of resistance that YOU have built around yourself. Once you are away from the wall and in your headstand, think of what you have left behind. Fear, stress, anxiety, etc. Now think of what other areas of your life are being affected by these same negative emotions. Use your new-found confidence in headstand to combat fears in other areas of your life.
We start with a simple yet very enlightening tip from the master. No, not me, B.K.S Iyengar again. He says to observe your Tadasana (mountain pose). "Any defects in your Tadasana (mountain pose) will show in your Sirsasana (headstand)".
Next time you are in your mountain pose, close your eyes and observe your body. Observe your balance. Is your right leg resting more than the left? Is your right shoulder higher than the left? Observe and then correct your alignment. As I wrote in a previous blog, use buddhi (your intelligence) to correct your posture and create an even and balanced standing position. Then take this feeling into your headstand.
B.K.S Iyengar reminds us that a headstand without thought and intelligence is just gymnastics. The yogi must apply his mind to his body. Only then does the yogi find peace and clarity in the pose. Without thought, the headstand becomes a burden and the yogi either neglects the pose from their practise (through frustration) or they keep failing. Do not fail. Keep trying. The "king of asanas" as Iyengar calls it, can feel like a struggle physically and mentally, but it is all worth the struggle in the end.
"You cannot hope to experience inner peace or freedom without understanding the workings of your mind and of human consciousness in general" - Light on Life 2008
Before you attempt the pose, interlock your fingers all the way to the webbing. I prefer to leave my thumbs open to provide extra support for my head 👇.
I then hold on to the back of my head and rest the crown of my head on the ground. I wiggle as much as is required, to ensure my head is secure. Looking at the image above, I press my forearms evenly into the ground so the weight distribution across my arms is 50% on my left arm and 50% on my right. This is the foundation I will build my headstand on.
If you look at the width of the elbows in the image above, they are narrow and inline with the shoulders. Having the elbows wider appears easier as the base is much wider, but this technique hunches my shoulders and causes compensatory problems. So elbows, shoulder width apart (there or thereabouts).
Again, the weight is on the crown of my head 👆 and I just play around with this until I am confident with the foundation of the pose. At this point I want to walk my feet in as close towards me as I can (or hamstring flexibility allows).
The next step is key. Finding my centre of gravity ⚖.
The key to headstand lies in searching for your centre of gravity. I have seen people do a complete headstand too early on. Most of the time this is pure luck. Ask the practitioner to try again and they often fail. Once you learn and understand your centre of gravity, the pose becomes easier to repeat.
To visually explain, in the video below, I am practising a half-headstand. In this position, all I am looking for is my centre of gravity. I move my hips forward and back until I feel balanced.
If I feel like my knees are going to drop towards the ground, my knees are too far forward. If I feel my lower back is arching, my knees are too high. I play around with this position until I feel like I can hold this position comfortably for a period of time. Once I have found my centre of gravity, it becomes easier to extend the legs away into a full headstand.
In the image below you can see two errors I make and then attempt to correct. In the image marked 1, my lower back is over-arched. You won't see this yourself when you are in the pose, but you can feel this. If the lower back feels tight, chances are you are over-arching the lower back. Fix this by tilting your pelvis (or lowering the knees). In image 2, I lower my knees too far forward. Here I lose the natural arch of my lower back, again losing my centre of gravity.
Your centre of gravity is somewhere between these two images.
As you can see from the video and the images, the pose should really be called a 'forearm' stand rather than headstand. When in the pose, the weight is felt evenly on my forearms. My head just rests. If you feel too much weight on your head, come out of the pose. Take a few deep breaths and try again.
Another teaching point that has helped me is awareness of my core. Or my 'corset' as I often say in class. The core muscles act as a corset and wrap around the waist keeping my back straight. People often overarch their spines due to a lack of core or corset awareness.
To engage my corset I want to tighten the deep abdominals (and surrounding muscles) and literally feel them stabilise and protect my spine. My corset is tight enough so I feel the support, but not so tight that it affects my breathing. This is an especially important technique for anyone who has suffered or continues to suffer from lower back pain. I have found this invaluable in providing support for my chronic lower back pain.
Once I feel balanced 👆 and I feel like I can keep my back straight (by engaging my corset), I will extend the legs away at the hips until I complete my headstand.
The above is simply my take on how to approach the headstand. If you have been shown differently, maybe something I have shown you will help you move towards your eventual headstand. Don't feel confused if you are always shown different ways to try this pose. Take in what is helpful and disregard what isn't. Then practice in a way that agrees with your logical mind.
The Flip Side
As with most things, you will find many articles and hear many 'experts' talk about headstand and the concerns they have with them. Is your neck safe? Will it do more harm than good? Everyone has an opinion. Ultimately, it lies with you the practitioner. When it is 'headstand time' in class you can opt-out. This is entirely your choice and will be respected by most yoga teachers. It's your body after all. It's very interesting to hear people talk about headstand safety. The concerns all appear to be based on the practitioner doing it safely or not. Obviously, anything that your body does incorrectly will cause harm. Is the answer to avoid it altogether or try to do it properly? The answer to that lies with you.
There is a really interesting book called 'Happiness Doesn't Come from Headstands'. The argument in the book is that trying and failing can both be a path to happiness. The character in the book Leela loves to do yoga. She can do all sorts of poses, but there is one pose she can't master. Every time Leela tries to do a headstand…KERPLUNK! She falls. This book explores the themes of acceptance, resilience, and self-compassion and offers the message that just because we may experience a failure does not mean that we are a failure. 'Happiness Doesn’t Come from Headstands' is a story about a girl who tries her best, but still falls down. Through the process, she learns that happiness is not determined by external achievement. Through accepting our limitations and celebrating our efforts, even in the face of failure, peace can be found. The message is that the effort is where the courage lies.
I personally feel sorry for those who don't try headstands. There is a feeling of joy and bliss once you are upside down that you cant replicate in any other pose. The journey from where you are to where you will end up is full of ups and downs and challenges your character and will more than any other pose. Those who don't practise headstand are missing out on more than they realise. Without trying headstand in your practice, you are merely skimming the surface of your asana practice.
Leela falls, but she keeps trying.
We now look at the father of modern day yoga, Mr B.K.S Iyengar and how he taught the headstand. When in any doubt over the various ways to practise asanas, I always ask students to try and refer back to one main source. This way we can be consistent with our exploration. Seeing as most of the yoga asanas we practise have been refined and perfected for us by Iyengar, it makes sense to always refer to him as the source.
B.K.S Iyengar - The Path to Holistic Health
Salamba Sirsasana. In sanskrit, salamba means "supported" and sirsa translates to "head".
"The headstand is one of the most important yogic asanas. The inversion in the final pose brings a rejuvenating supply of blood to the brain cells. Regular practice of this asana widens your spiritual horizons. It enhances clarity of thought, increases your concentration span, and sharpens memory".
1) Place the crown of your head on the floor so that the back of your head touches your cupped palms. Check that only the crown is resting on the floor, not your forehead, or the back of your head.
In the final pose of this stage, your weight must rest exactly on the centre, not the back or front, otherwise, the pressure will fall on your neck or eyes, causing your spine to bend. Make sure that your little fingers touch the back of the head, but are not underneath it.
2) Push up on the balls of your feet and straighten your knees. Keep your heels raised off the floor. To ensure that your torso is perpendicular to the floor, walk your feet to your head until the back of your body forms a vertical line from your head to the back of your waist.
3) Exhale and bring your knees towards your chest. Then, press your toes down on the floor and push your legs upward, off the floor. This action resembles a hop and gives you the thrust to raise your legs. Bring your heels close to your buttocks.
4) Press your elbows into the floor and lift your shoulders up (pulling the shoulders away from your ears). Exhale and gently swing your knees upward in a smooth arc, until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
In this position, the entire upper body, from the head to the waist and hips, should be perpendicular to the floor. Do not move the elbows until you come out of the final pose.
5) Continue to move the knees upward, slowly bringing them to point to the ceiling. Keep the heels close to the buttocks. Focus on your balance and do not allow your torso to move.
6) Once your knees are pointing to the ceiling, hold the pose for a few breaths. Make sure that the spine is straight. Tighten the buttocks.
Pause and get used to the feel of the position.
7) Straighten your knees to bring the lower legs in line with the thighs, so that your body forms a vertical line.
Tighten both knees and keep your thighs, knees and toes together.
"You must practise this asana from the spine, not your brain. Balance is the key, NOT strength. You must develop the skill to balance effortlessly. Some people fear that if they practise inverted poses, their blood pressure will rise, or their blood vessels will burst. These are complete misconceptions" (Iyengar, 2014).
Excerpted from Light on Life, B.K.S Iyengar.
"Often people say that I have a temper because I will shout at people in class when I see that they are putting themselves at risk or conversely not doing their best. For this reason people have said that I am a severe teacher. I am strict, but I am not harsh. I use my anger to free a student from his pattern. One student kept talking about his fear in Sirsasana (headstand), and I finally shouted, “Forget about fear. You may only fall on the floor, not beyond. In the future there is fear. In the present there is no fear.” He was startled, but he got the point. A commander in the army who is heading into battle can not always speak softly to his soldiers. Sometimes he must shout at them to motivate them quickly, and sometimes he must speak gently to give them courage."
Hints & Tips
David Kiel, Author of Functional Anatomy of Yoga (2014).
"As with other inversions, without the foundation of strength, these postures will be difficult. I have seen many students who have struggled with headstands for long periods of time. In both these postures, pressing the elbows firmly into the floor activates the right muscles."
Laura Madeley - Yoga Teacher / https://www.instagram.com/_laurayoga/
"Press into the forearms increasing the space between the shoulders and the floor to avoid excess pressure on the neck. Draw the legs together and up towards the ceiling to create a feeling of lightness and lengthen through the spine."
To avoid ‘banana backing’ imagine pressing into the middle back (around the bra strap line for women) creating the sensation of slightly rounding the spine, whilst engaging the abdominals. Don’t be in a hurry to straighten the legs. Keep working first on controlling the ascent and holding the position with knees tucked into the chest.”
Cecilia Townley is an avid yoga practitioner and last year completed her Teaching Training programme here at the studio. She models for us in the images above. Her advice is to treat the headstand as if it was an arm balance; "Make sure to engage the muscles in your arms and shoulders, but without tensing, so that you prevent the weight from pressing down into the crown of your head. A headstand is really an arm balance in which the crown of the head just touches down. This posture can be very daunting at first, but a little practice every day will enable you to master it. Don't be afraid to fall in this pose."
A.G. Mohan - An Indian yoga teacher, author, and co-founder of Svastha Yoga & Ayurveda. Mohan was a longtime disciple of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (2010).
"On the subject of headstand, Krishnamacharya (the teacher of B.K.S Iyengar) used to say, “Remember, headstand is not just an asana. It is classified as a mudra.” Krishnamacharya had taught me to do a headstand first with controlled breathing and later with the advanced practice of the bandhas. If this is done correctly, one will feel a particular sensation within the body that can serve as the foundation for certain methods of meditation. Because of its role in these practices, the headstand is not merely an asana; it is placed in a special category labelled mudra in Sanskrit. This was another reason why Krishnamacharya insisted that breathing be long and deep in the headstand. He felt that the rate of breathing should slow down to as few as two breaths per minute, for a duration of at least twenty-four breaths".
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Kathryn Budig. 2014. How to Get Over Your Fear of Inversions. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.womenshealthmag.com/fitness/yoga-inversions. [Accessed 29 August 2017].
Iyengar, B.K.S., 2014. Yoga - The Path to Holistic Health. 1st ed. UK: DK; UK ed. edition (16 Jan. 2014)
Iyengar, B.K.S, 2008. Light on Life: The Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace and Ultimate Freedom. 1st ed. London: Rodale.
Kiel, David, 2014. Functional Anatomy of Yoga: A Guide for Practitioners and Teachers. 1st ed. U.S: Lotus Publishing (31 July 2014).
Levitt, Tamara, 2017. <em>Happiness Doesn't Come from Headstands</em>. 1st ed. U.S: Wisdom Publications,U.S. (24 Mar. 2017)
Mohan, A.G, 2010. Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings. 1st ed. U.K: Shambhala Publications Inc; 1 edition (1 Aug. 2010).
Vasudev, Sadhguru, 2017. <em>Inner Engineering: A Yogi's Guide to Joy</em>. 1st ed. 0143428845: 0143428845.
Vivekananda, Swami, 1957. Education 5th edition by Swami Vivekananda. 5th ed. U.K: B010WHDLGK